beauty

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From a grassy field roadside, I gather up the picture of a broken barn with history clear tumbling from it’s splintered walls, the jagged boards dark, like the trunks of trees.  These planks, hewn from deadwood dragged, shaped over sawdust piles, sanded, treated, painted; nailed sharp, clean, with a satisfied whack—these planks caught the sweat of the arms that lifted them.  These once looked all new, once seemed strong and solid, fresh and functional, like we do when we’re young.  But now, the barn has settled and spread, becoming a watchful art, an eccentric mosaic, peace and wild flowers, hay heaped sweet, the deep knowledge of life lived full.

I stare at the barn as we pass, gathering in its elegance, thinking about how it now returns to what it once was, not the sleek, polished, conjured thing it came to be early, but the organic truth at the core—the raw dark wood smelling of earth.  I can’t look away.  Grass grows green in the wall cracks, as though while the structure sinks, the ground rises up to meet it. I can see the grass has gone to seed, and it twists, bending in the breeze.  This is the way for all of us—conjured and pristine and fashioned, then lived down to the easy glimpse of soul, something more beautiful if we can embrace our years and everything that comes with them.

A mile or so ago, we rambled past an old plastic monstrosity, rusty, with cavernous fixture hanging, shattered glass and mud-crusted tires, faded letters on the side where someone carried the branding away.  I can’t help but think of it now.  On the side, flat planks covered over the breathing, light-giving places, spray-painted black with just three words: mad mad mad.  Sometimes we wear our anger like those planks, and what we close out for protection might have been our only chance for light and breath and life.  So when we pass the barn, I realize it’s not old and worn that makes the carved-out spaces ugly.  It’s fabricated.  It’s the sleek shell that cannot settle, the hard surface with no open place for growth, destruction without the opportunity to absorb the changing-wind.  Plastic only empties.  Pretense cannot be reshaped.  It crumbles and litters, and the earth does not rise up to receive that which it cannot recognize or embrace as its own.  Bitterness only hardens us to fullness and strips away our elegance.

The presence of the barn at roadside creates a stark contrast that captivates me.  I want to hold it in my palm, a treasure.  A single path winds away from the barn, wide-possible and beaten-smooth so long the grass allows it.  Life pops up and flies over the path, the field—flies, maybe, an occasional moth, a bird.  I reach with my mind, not quite capturing the untamed things that I glimpse only in an instant.  I wish I could stop and take a picture.

I wonder how many voices this barn has held, what the walls could tell of foot fall and laughter, of hiding, of stolen moments, of dung and animal breath and sweet, dank life.  All of it matters—all of it gives this place its soul, the easy and the awe, the wonder and the sudden, empty pain, the abundance and the scarcity.  Rain has soaked these broken timbers, mingling with sweat and blood and shadow.  Even sun-drenched, the walls look fresh soaked, rich like fertile soil.  Wind has softened her angles and opened up her spaces, turning worn, empty holes into wild sculpture and freedom.  She tears away her shiny cloak and becomes the truth, the raw, stunning God-made truth of salty tears and unchained joy, the truth of sighing and back-aching heavy, of warmth and gathered light.  She, this old, weathered barn, sits peaceful strong in a wind-blown field, unafraid.  She laughs at the days to come.  She has learned the secret of being content.  She can do all things, because she knows her Strength.  She knows the real source of her beauty.  So I gather up that exquisite old barn, carrying her with me down the road as I travel.  She is like so many beautiful women who mentor me with wrinkled, silver-haired, life-worn love, wrapping arms about me, shoring me up, showing me what beautiful is.  They do not pretend perfection.  They sit peaceful strong while the lightening cracks and the puddles widen and breathe the truth about living.  And they are magnificent.

 

gather up the good

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Sometimes life strips us clean of words, and we sit together, quiet.  And maybe it’s that way so we’ll stop to listen.

We walk through the rain and into the funeral chapel, gathering damp hugs on our way through the door.  We sit first, and then we stand, winding in long lines past photographs and video, awards, and hats still dingy with soil and sweat, dropped on top of a polished piano as though this cherished man just left them there and walked into another room.

A week of words twisting, words sharp, words missaid and misunderstood, and I’m carved out, hollow of things to say.  I wear the quiet like a blanket, like a shield.  Sometimes I wish I could get through without touching other lives, without brushing up against your shattered places, without cutting into you with mine.  Sometimes, it’s awfully tempting to protect myself.  But, that’s never really been the way with Him.  And oh, I love Him.

It’s quiet until we get to the family.  Quiet, but not silent.  I feel sore and bruised, tender enough to hear, open enough to see, because oddly I feel hidden, like an angel-led traveler to another place, another time, another life.  He does promise to hide us—our lives (Col. 3:3), our tattered souls from trouble (Psalm 27:5), our weary bodies  from wicked enemies (Psalm 17:8).  But He’s pretty clear that when I want to hide, it’s Him I should run to (Proverbs 18:10, Psalm 143:9), not all the other things behind which I tend to cower.  God does all the hiding of me, sheltering me carefully, when I need it.

From where I stand in line, I watch people touch each other—a gentle hand laid on top of another, a clap against broad back, a time-lost embrace.  On a couch against the wall, some women dab their eyes with tissues, jerking new ones from the crinkly packet to pass over and beyond each other.  They say nothing, only carefully placing their warm bodies close.  They sit behind her—the suffering wife now widowed, close enough to reach, close enough that she can feel them.  I watch them reach for her and squeeze her hand.  Yes, it’s quiet until we get to the family, and all it takes is I’m so sorry, and the son, his eyes start filling.  He clears his throat and steps away from his grief.

And I listen.  I hear sorry and sorry and sorry and anything at all I can do and we’re here. We’re here for you.  I hear so quickly and can’t believe and missed.  Really, really missed. I hear love.  I hear laughter and stories about remember when, and it’s all history and relationships and the journey shared that matters now.  Now, when it seems as though this man left his hat on the piano and disappeared from the room.  Surely all these people weren’t happy with him all the time, surely they sometimes bruised each other badly, surely sometimes he made them angry.  But now, it’s only the good collected and kept, gathered up in clasped hands and wrapped arms for safe keeping.  Why does it sometimes take loss to make us gather up the good in each other and hold on to it?  Word says love keeps no record of wrongs, and love isn’t self-seeking, and and love does not dishonor others (1 Cor. 13:5).  It’s so like the enemy to convince us to justify the way we collect up our pain and build walls of unforgiveness and judgement around the living, the breathing, the stumbling.  Because it doesn’t take a sacrifice to love someone who’s gone.  Don’t speak ill of the dead, we say, but what about Don’t speak ill of the living (Matthew 5:22)?

I hug some more of this precious man’s family, people I don’t know, and some I’ve known so long we’ve had plenty of time to forget some of the details about each other.  It must be twenty years since I’ve seen one of the women, and I can tell she doesn’t remember my name, but she knows my face, and that’s enough.  She hugs me hard and nods and talks about how quickly her kids have grown—and mine—and I can see the thought dancing behind her eyes Come on, why can’t I remember her name? And I can also see that she’s trying hard not to let me know, that this grieving and loss she feels are more than enough for now.  She doesn’t want to bruise me with her forgetfulness.  But I am clear carved of words and knowledge too, and what I see and hear is that we share motherhood and the feeling that time comes and they grow tall and we look in the mirror at older versions of ourselves and we find unity over what we have in common.  And so, Paul pleads with Euodia and Syntyche, their names like different chords of the same song, to be of the same mind in the Lord (Phil.4:2), because when we stand awkward and carved and unsure in front of each other we always have that to agree on.  We can replace our self-protection with His sacrifice, with His refusal to defend Himself, with the way He laid down His life for us.  That kind of unity changes the tone of forgiveness.

When at last I reach this dear man’s wife, standing lonely of him at the end of the room, she’s all stripped of words.  She shakes her head and clutches my arms and looks around because she’s lost a part of herself, and she says, “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”  We are not so puffed up of knowing when life has humbled and crumpled us, and the truth is that we all carry something hobbling.  She can only place her hand flat on the casket and look at me solid and say, “This, this was the love of my life.”  I see that the love of him is the only thing she still knows, the needing him, the wanting to be right beside him.  And I see that this is some dim shade of what it means to love with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; to trust with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; to be devoted.

In the Old Testament, when something was devoted it was destroyed, that it might not be secondarily used or kept for another purpose.  And Word says I’m to be wholeheartedly devoted to God, and also devoted to you, to honor you above myself (Romans 12:10).  Every kind of holy devotion still means the sacrifice of self–the destruction of me and me-living and me-focus and me-protecting—that my life might not be used secondarily for another purpose.  And that means that I’ll stand stripped of words and knowledge, shaking my head and tender-lost, and I’ll say to you, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.”

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong.

I don’t know what you should do.

I don’t know what I should do.

I don’t know more or better or absolutely.

I don’t know how to see well when I’m crying, or how to hear well when fear clamors, or how to keep from falling down when I’m weak.

I don’t know.

I don’t know anything of my own.  I can do nothing by myself (John 15:5; John 5:19).

And then, I’ll look at you solid, and I’ll say, “But He, He is the love of my life.”

And on the basis of knowing only that, I’ll open my arms up to love you, and maybe we’ll share the pain we carry and learn to gather up the good in each other.

she

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She could not have known about the day, its prickly criticism and thick heat, its challenge and pursed lips and ungracious attitude.  She could not have absorbed its unkind words.  She could not have known how it all felt gray, in spite of the sun, or how many times I wondered why am I doing this and felt God’s hands gently righting my crazy-knocked gaze.  She could not have known how much five minutes of her love, her grace, her gratitude would lift my arms when I felt unable to hold them aloft any longer.  She could not have known that her presence in my life would turn the tide of battle.

So, the only explanation is that she listens deep.  She, not the one but the many of my sisters; she who moves wild with the changing wind, who allows God to lift her hands and move her fingers and work her voice into joy and peace and mercy.  Word says He sounds like rushing water, and so she feels to me, like cool refreshment at the roots where I have settled to grow.

My phone dings, and it is she, a Facebook message that comes when I am swallowing pain like a thick knot in my throat, when the evil whisper rises to a crescendo:  Give up.  Come on, you don’t need this.

I check the notifications quickly, a habit I learned when my children developed potential emergencies, and she makes me smile—just a woman’s silhoutte still instead of a photo, in a round like a floating window.  I am so thankful for how important you are, she has typed, and, I love you!

She is a friend.

Moments later, she sends a text, The spirit of discouragement is widespread…pray for encouragers to lift up those who are burdened.  She reminds me to pray, to climb up in my Father’s lap for safety.  And as I read her text, I feel the way her prayer has already wrapped me, drawing me in, a protection.

She is a soul-sister.

Praying with you! I type back.  I had a FB message from one of those encouragers when I got home!

You understand, she is the one and also the other.

I gather the mail in my hands, lifting it from the counter where Riley has left it for me, neatly stacked.  And on the top, a puffy envelope sits all wrinkled from the trip it took to get to me.  And inside, she has sent a note with a she-knows-me gift, just a simple message using a word all made of love, a family word no one else understands.  Just simply enjoy, and love.

She is a precious, cherished aunt.

I stand holding her note, feeling embraced.  That word—enjoy—captures me with its powerful prefix en, which means to confine in or place on, and additionally, to cover on every side completely.  She reaches out and wraps me up in joy like a blanket, like a robe, like a shield.  That’s her word, I think, because it describes what she does for me always, what she has done all week.  Two minutes, five, three, and she sends me a photograph of my mom doing something or a luna moth or a butterfly, maybe with a phrase, but always that I might enjoy, that she might wrap joy around me—completely and covering every side—like her arms, enfolding.

I walk upstairs to fold some clothes, breaking away for a moment from a tangle of homework and snacks and projects and routines and supper.  I sit on the bench in the hall, just a moment, because I have to tell her:

You sent your note when I needed it most.

And you, you have embraced me all week.

You are a gift.

I lift towels from the basket and press my fingers into the warmth of them, folding them into satisfying lines, smooth, uninterrupted surfaces.  My back is to the door, and I am praying, asking God to silence the thoughts I shouldn’t have, to fill me with Light that obliterates shadows.  I don’t feel her behind me until she slides her arms around my waist and squeezes tight, pressing her nose into my spine, inhaling as though I smell sweet. I’m sorry you’ve had a hard day, she says.  I love you.  All the hurtful people, all the terribly hard things, are rotten pumpkin seeds.  I drop the towel and in my hands and turn to hug her, and our laughter falls and twists and curves around us.

“Rotten pumpkin seeds?”

“Well, if I had said just pumpkin seeds, you’d have thought about roasting them.”

This makes me laugh harder, until the healing reaches through me and into my heart.  I give thanks for honesty, that she is old enough to carry the truth:  It’s been a hard day.  She doesn’t ask me for details, doesn’t tempt me to say more than I should.  She just hugs me more often.

She is a daughter, stunning and open.

And then, she is my mother.

She is a gentle text that comes just after, a message that says, Love you, even knowing that I might not find my way back to the phone to respond.  She makes me smile as I gather my phone and rush downstairs to answer a question—someone’s calling me from below—and to stir supper simmering.

You’ve met her.  Not my mom or my daughter or my aunt or my friends, necessarily, but her She is every age and every size and every shape.  She is feeling and thoughtful and warm.  She is gifted and creative and funny.  She builds and touches and covers me up, safe.  She takes whatever minutes she can find just to lift my weary arms and hold them up a little longer, just to remind me that I’m important.  She isn’t one–not just one person or one friend or one way; she is all of us together, caring for each other, speaking life right into the days that feel like death.  She is the reminder of a sure and final victory, of a better inheritance than all this temporary.  She is Love—not the limited, conditional, if-you-please-me kind; not the lesser that means “I like you a lot, but not enough that you’ll ever hurt me;” not the one day here and another gone; not the only if I like you; not the when it’s easy or convenient; but the real thing, the Love that covers over a multitude of sins.  Yes, she covers sin with grace, with joy on every side, with forgiveness and mercy, with strength and warmth and whatever she has that day, and always at great risk to herself.  She is the Love that keeps no record of wrongs, the Love that doesn’t envy or boast.  She is every shape and contour of Grace, the stunning vibrancy of gifts given while yet unmerited.  She is the reflection of the God who loves me, shining strong so that I can see, even when my eyes are too weak.  She is the powerful gentleness of His hands, holding me.

She is immeasurably beautiful.

At the end of a hard, prickly day, when I swallow pain like a knot in my throat, she reaches for me.  She, with her many arms, with her voice like rushing water.  And so together, as one day fades into another, we move on; we grow; she and I, with our roots full soaked and tangled up somewhere deep.

Thank you, faithful Father, for the difference she makes.

how she grows

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In the car at night and I can’t see her face, just the blur of headlights and the jostle of cars weaving in and out of lanes, just the green-lit signs labeling exits.  From behind me, she speaks, and the tentative way she shapes her words tells me that she chooses this time for the cover of darkness and the fact that I can’t look into her eyes.  This way, when she tells me she thinks I was wrong, she doesn’t have to watch my face.

“Mom, you know after everyone left my party, when we were talking about my friend, about her being disrespectful?  You know?”

“Yes.”  She’s measuring me, carefully testing my tone and the speed with which I speak.  She’s listening for open, interested, hearing; and also cautiously for angry, resentful, defensive.  So I wait, focusing on the traffic in front of me, the shoe-shaped silver car in my immediate view.  The tailgate is covered with coastal stickers.

“Well, I didn’t like that.  I mean, I don’t think…….Well, it felt like we were talking bad about someone else.  You know, in that way we don’t want to do.”

“Okay…” I inhale, remembering the morning in question, the morning after the birthday slumber party.  Kevin left early for a long workout, left me tangled in sheets and half hidden under my pillows for a rare extra hour of sleep—maybe, could it be possible?—before the kids woke and needed breakfast.  I heard nothing until my mom woke me with her soft hand on my cheek, the silver hair slipping out of her ponytail.  She and Dad had been with us that weekend, visiting for Zoe’s birthday.

“I’m sorry to have to wake you, but Adam just threw up.  Apparently he had a problem with his pod last night.  He has ketones, and we’ve been giving him water, but he just threw up.  And the girls are all up.  One of them had a nose bleed and the one helping her used all the tissues in the bathroom and still couldn’t get it to stop.  We cleaned up the floor…It was all over her arms…and you know Zoe wanted us to make waffles for breakfast.  I didn’t want to have to wake you, but when Adam threw up, I thought I’d better.”

I put my hands over my face.  I remember that, turning my head up toward my mom, covering my eyes with my hands.  It had been one of those weeks when everything converges at once—Adam’s first day of school coming and all the gathering of medical accessories, the binder I’d made him to structure blood sugar testing away from home, his Open House; Zoe’s birthday and all the special she should have in celebration, the gift shopping and decorating and inviting; the other-focused things we want for always, the lifting and encouraging and offering strength to those running short of it.

“Well, you know I don’t think any differently about your friend,” I say to the brake lights, the glint of silver in front of me, wishing I could stop and look at my daughter, already respecting her courage.  “It was just a mistake.  We all make mistakes.”

In my mind, I see the morning, how I went downstairs and Mom and I made waffles for the girls, because that had been Zoe’s request; how this particular friend showed up just as we were putting plates on the table, how much I instantly liked her.  She has sparks in her eyes, this friend, and her smile turns in an unexpected way.  From the beginning, she doesn’t mind talking to me.  Meanwhile, Adam lays on pillows in the living room, looking gray.  My dad gives him small sips of water from a cup with a straw every few minutes, and from the kitchen Mom and I listen for the sound of Adam’s voice, for signs that he’s better, while we juggle hungry questions.

Yes, this morning had indeed been ripe for misunderstanding.

“I didn’t mean to say that you shouldn’t be friends.  You know that, right? I say, continuing, looking in the rear view mirror but only finding twin beams.  “I was being honest about it, though. I do think she was disrespectful.”

“She was.  I was upset about it too.”  Zoe’s words come quickly, in a rush.  “But Mom, she’s not normally that way.  I don’t know why…I think she just wasn’t thinking, that she didn’t realize.”

It’s so bright, that grace, that compassion, that looking mercifully at a human heart, that Christ-seeing.

Zoe speaks from the Spirit, and Word floods my heart, first this: And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.  So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view (2 Corinthians 5:15,16); then this: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Romans 15:7); then this: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20); and then this: Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses (Numbers 12: 8)? In just this way God presses His fingers right into me.  The Spirit moves through me, a wind that leaves nothing the same in its wake, opening my ears to hear.

I see them, Zoe’s friends, gathered around our table, and it is an unusual mix—a few girls I’ve known so long that I speak to them as though they are mine too, and a few completely new to me.  This new friend of Zoe’s with the sparks in her eyes bristles when I tell another of the girls now getting up from the table—one so familiar as to know how to take my mother-tone—not to tell me she’s hungry again thirty minutes after wasting half of a waffle at breakfast.  This new friend lifts the hair off of her shoulders with her hands, gathering the long, spiraling lengths of it together behind her and murmurs, “I’m hungry ALL the time.” But this doesn’t settle with me until later, looking back.  At the time, I barely register the clue to her discomfort.

Later, when Adam finally moves off the floor and starts spinning again, when the color at last returns to his pale cheeks and I know for sure we won’t be going to the hospital today, I ask this new friend of Zoe’s not to beat Zoe’s mylar dolphin-balloon  into a wilt with her hands.  Somehow I’ve finally processed Zoe’s fleeting glances at the balloon as it rises and falls in the air.  I finally hear Zoe say, “Hey, can we play with something else?” And I finally realize that her friend ignores her, that she continues hitting the balloon, pulling it up and down, making it “swim.”

I feel as though I say it kindly—“Please don’t do that.  It’ll make the balloon deflate a whole lot sooner.”

At first, Zoe’s friend ignores me too, until I reach for the balloon strings and gather them away.

“I had a round one like this and it didn’t deflate for like three months.”

“Right.  Well, this one will not last that long if you keep hitting it like this.  You girls find something else to do, okay?”

Her eyes flash, this friend who had been so lovely in the beginning.

“Can’t you just buy another one?”

“I could.  But why would I want to waste this one?”

She slows her speech, enunciating the first word carefully, as though I am slow to understand.  “Beecccauuusseee, we want to play with it?” Thus, her poor choice unfolds.

I admit it:  wastefulness and disrespect kindle my anger quickly.  I press my mouth into a line, and when I speak again, the words are iron.  “Well, Zoe doesn’t want to play with it.  Find something else to do.”  I walk away, taking the balloon with me, and everything simmers.  But when everyone leaves, when I hand the last tote bag and pillow through the door, I openly discuss my distaste for this friend’s behavior.  And thus, my poor choice unfolds.

It’s astounding how quickly our conversations can deteriorate, how easily we move from discussing facts to making assumptions and judgments, often as we try to support and justify each other.  It is a short conversation, but one that we would never have had had I managed not to offer a commentary to anyone except the One who knows hearts.  And four days later, my daughter still relives our words, trying to figure out how to tell me that things took a bad turn on our end too.

“…We don’t know anything about her,” Zoe says, reassured by my listening, “and we shouldn’t decide what she’s like or why she said that stuff or how she is just based on that one mistake.  We all make mistakes.

I grip the steering wheel, because I still want to defend myself.  I still want to talk about Zoe’s friend’s disrespect and how it shouldn’t have been instead of listening carefully to my own conviction.  But the Spirit rushes through, writing Word all over me, and I see that my daughter is correct, that she has the heart I want her to have: the heart of grace, mercy, compassion, love, and forgiveness.

“You’re right,” I say to her.  Just that.  “You’re absolutely right.  I should not have said anything more about it.”

Sometimes, I justify critical speeches as the honest rendering of my feelings, and I behave as though the mistakes of others are more unforgivable than my own.  But the truth is that I’ve been shown immeasurable grace, and God has forgiven me far more than I could ever forgive anyone else.  It’s the worldly point of view, the self-centered one, to see other people in light of how I perceive that they have mistreated me instead of seeing them as treasured souls for whom He also died.  His love is impartial.  Every other soul is just as cherished as my own.  And I’m not to live for myself anymore but to live for Him, to be like Him.  A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  Jesus never dismissed difficult people nor stopped loving them, even when they nailed Him to a cross.  Oh how keenly I feel the plank in my own eye, and I want to remember that feeling.  I want the clear and humble view of that plank now to stop my mouth from pointing out the tiny bits of sawdust in the eyes of another (Matthew 7:3).  She loves much who has been forgiven much (Luke 7:47), and I have been forgiven so much.

I want to be a Christ-follower who loves enough to obey, who asks Him to change what I see, what I think, what I say.  And in the dark of night as we drive home, I give thanks that my daughter is also my soul-sister, that she seeks to be like Him too, and that she has the courage to expect me to live what I teach her, what I believe.  The greatest love is courageous unto accountability.

My, how she grows.

~*~

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

Oh set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3).

sing like never before

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Adam stands beside me and his voice climbs, higher and higher toward the sky, pushing, pressing, growing.

Sing like never before, oh my soul.

Like everyone else, Adam has different voices for different kinds of experience.  This voice with which he sings is his voice for joy, for love, for comfort.  It’s the same voice with which he talks to his dad when they share a joke and the words tumble out with his laughter.  Adam moves—forward, back, forward, back—with motion to match not the rhythm of worship but the pace of his own experience of it, and the motion is full and fast and all-encompassing.  Worship is the only thing besides being beside the sea that offers my son this kind of freedom.

I am often so attentive to skin and bone, to the sensation of the chair against my legs, the fabric of my dress laying in smooth lines over muscle, fat, vein.  I think of later, of the heaviness of feelings, of so many cluttering, dusty things still hugging my wrists, my ankles; hanging from my shoulder, stuffed in my bag or weighting my arms. But Adam’s voice—pure and imploring and bending with emotion—carries me off the floor and away from the chairs, apart from body and tired and hungry and needing, past limitation of any kind.

And yet, I ache deeply over this child of mine, finding him so limited.  I ache because I am earthbound.  I am sore over his silences, forever bruised somewhere deep, always tender-sensitive to the ways his struggle over words holds him separate.

Monday afternoon, Kevin and Adam walk in, salty and sun-touched from a trip to the beach for Surfer’s Healing.  “Oh, but that salt air,” Kevin says, laying a hand against my back, “it’s like breathing-Freedom,” I say, finishing his sentence, meeting his eyes.  I reach up and wrap my arms around Kevin’s neck to hug him, and he smells like sunscreen, all coconut and warmth.

“He had a great time,” Kevin says, filling in the sketchy lines for me—how he and Adam opened the doors when they arrived and just breathed; how the two of them rode the trolley alone in the open air; how Adam’s group had been the last of the day, and things were nearly winding down.  The surfer helping Adam had first shown Adam how to kneel on the front of the long surf board, then he had paddled out into the ocean. Together,  they waited, Adam on his knees, the surfer, whose name was Jason, laying against the board.  When the right swell gathered, the surfer stood and lifted Adam to his feet, and then they rode in on the crest.   “They caught several good ones,” Kevin says, and I can almost hear Adam giggling.  I’ve seen that grin before, that unleashed soul.  I know how my son’s laughter sounds traveling in on ocean breezes, rolling toward me with the waves.

I turn to Adam, who has been walking in circles in and out of the kitchen, spinning backward every few feet, absorbed in a thousand sensations I hardly notice unless I make it my intention to consider them.

“Did you have fun today?” I ask him.

“Yes,” he says briefly, softly, spinning away from me.

These are the moments when Autism hurts, when I desperately wish I could touch him and repair the broken things that keep him from being able to tell me what it was like to be there, how he feels.  I want him to be able to stand still and tell me what Kevin does in his stead, how his new surfer friend taught him how to make the shaka sign with his hand, the hand sign we often translate “hang loose,” but which is used in Hawaiian culture to indicate many things ranging from simple greeting to friendship, compassion, and understanding.  I want him to stop and show me, to make the sign for me in the air, to wait for me to do it as well.  I want him to say, “Mom, it was AMAZING!  I surfed!  See, look, you go like this–” But instead, he smiles–a smile that reaches all the way into his bright blue eyes–and he turns his head just slightly, seeing the thoughts, and flapping his hands a beat, he simply says, “yes,” and then returns to spinning around the kitchen.  His words stay where they are, trapped, just out of his reach and ours.

Kevin feels this too, catching up my thoughts with his words, speaking them into solid shape.  “I took him to get a snack on our way home, and he had the hardest time telling me what he wanted to drink.  He was so excited about getting a drink, and I asked him what he wanted, and he waved his finger in the air in front of the bottles, but he couldn’t seem to get the words out, even written right there.  He could manage, ‘My favorite drink is,’ but he just kept saying that.  ‘My favorite drink is,’ ‘my favorite drink is.’ He couldn’t seem to fill in the blank.”  Kevin says this shaking his head, remembering the moment, feeling it.  “It’s funny sometimes, what he can manage to say and what he can’t.  You can see that he knows, that he’s trying, but he just can’t manage to say it.

For an instant, we just look at each other, Kevin and me, sharing the ache, breathing together in a carved space where we are sheltered together by God.  This is the ache that sometimes gathers about my wrists and ankles, slowly encircling my neck, bearing down on my shoulders like a weight.  I carry it with me all the time, like a grief that never leaves, and I depend on God to help me see things rightly.  There is a hope unbound by the limitations of this world, a power and a love that have overcome these temporary troubles.  And now, standing beside me in worship, Adam testifies to that hope with an unbound voice, with a freedom of expression that shatters the shadows, a freedom most of us have only just tasted.

Beside me, he sings, “…Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes…For all of your goodness, I will keep on singing, 10, 000 reasons for my heart to find…bless the Lord, oh my soul, worship His holy name.  Sing like never before, oh my soul…” His voice cracks with feeling.  He can’t sing loud enough.

When I look at Adam, this beautiful son of mine, he wipes tears from his eyes with his palms, then the sides of his hands, then his fingers. And it makes me smile, remembering.  For a long, long time, God is So Good was his favorite song.  He cried every time.

..Bless the Lord, oh my soul, oh my soul, worship His Holy name…

“Mom.  Dad and Adam are both crying,” Zoe says, stumbling in from the aisle, rearranging us, positioning herself where she most likes to be: by my side.  She searches my face, and her eyes turn desperate.  I am crying too.

It’s the song we are singing, the song she’s missed while late in the hall with her friends or taking care of some physical need; this song that pierces, that tears down every sensation, every thought that otherwise clutters our attention.  Worship has unbound our hearts, our souls.  Singing Truth with my son has cleaned my eyes to see the goodness of God—10,000 reasons for my heart to find.  Our tears in worship are only the seeping of Living Water, welling up from within unto eternal life (John 7:37,38).  And sometimes in worship, the Spirit shocks me with sudden seeing, with knowing that clears away the shade.

Sing like never before, oh my soul.

I nod, giving Zoe a bleary smile, letting a thin tear go uncaught.

“What happened?” She asks, still desperate, burying her forehead into the side of my neck.

“Later,” I whisper, returning to the worship, to this soul-free space, this glorious glimpse of inheritance:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.  In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials (1 Peter 1:3-6).

So many of us never find freedom in worship.  We’re so afraid and so selfish and so cluttered, and that limits us.  It traps the words.  It stops up the praise before it reaches our lips and keeps our hands clasped in our laps.  We complain about insignificant details and matters of preference, never quite transcending the chairs we sit in.  And it’s these limitations that concern God (Isaiah 1:13), these things that strip our worship of its meaning.  I know sometimes God aches over us, His children, longing to touch us and remove all the broken things that keep us from fully expressing Love.

I look at my son, the way he lifts his head, the way the muscles tighten in his neck as he sings, and I see that despite the limits through which we all see him, he is most blessed.  And He knows it.

Oh my soul, sing.  Sing like never before.

that they may be one

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In the middle of the week, the Board of Directors at Adam’s new school sends out this beautiful message, and I cry, just letting it settle:

We want to express our deepest, most heartfelt gratitude to our families. Just when the weight we were carrying on our shoulders became too much to bear, dozens of you swooped in to launch our movement forward. The monumental efforts of all the parent committees as well as the monetary support from you and your individual families and friends have turned our dream into a reality. Summer 2014 will go down in history as the time our school transformed from a house made of straw to a castle made of stone. We are so relieved and excited to know that you are team-players and that we’ll be able to work through the inevitable kinks of a brand new school together. We know you’ll help us solve problems and overcome obstacles, you have already proven that! Our shared vision of a school where our children are valued and respected is worth the hard work, patience, and the blood, sweat, and tears you’ve already shared with us. Thank you for jumping head first with us into this big, scary task of opening such a unique school. We couldn’t have done it without you. In just a few days your children will walk into their new school… a school built just for them by all of us. Congratulations and thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

After a run, I prop my foot against the edge of a brick step, pressing into a stretch.  The air feels thick, and the heat of the day gathers in my face, and sweat runs down my cheeks, my neck, my arms.  I feel the salty wet dripping off of my wrists as I clutch the bottom post with my fingers for balance.  I watch as a tiny round darkens on the concrete walk, as I melt into the ground.  I imagine that these drips of me also contain the foundational elements of my stress—unbelief, self-absorption, complaint, resentment.  In fact, I ask God to draw those things away from my heart, to make it a more temperate place.

Underneath my balanced foot, I suddenly notice a curving line of ants.  Only a moment before, my focus had been too wide to see their scrolling march, but now it comes into view like invisible Ink held to a Flame.  With my eyes, I trace the path of them from one flower bed across the walk, up one step, and down into the other bed.  On the one side, they have found some source of food, because as they travel, they carry microscopic bits of something white, some more, some less.  Another line swirls back, returning empty for another load.  I stand watching them as I stretch, unable to discover the source of their food after they disappear at the base of a rose bush, traveling on across the mulch.  I find their singular effort fascinating.  It matters little how large the feast may be.  They will manage, in time, to dismantle the entire thing and take it back to their nest.  Aside from sighing over the fact that their multitudinous numbers dwell so close to our house, I am captivated by their collective strength and individual weakness.  Something echoes somewhere in my heart, where God has been reshaping parts of me, where He teaches me–bit by dim bit—to better understand.  It stuns me how creation testifies.

In eleven days, my son will walk into a new school, an innovative place where they fold all the core academic curriculum into the soil of a garden, the structure of a store.  His middle and high school will thrive on project-based learning, on pursued and shared strengths, on, well, unity behind a single purpose.  Over these last few months, I’ve seen that community is not merely a utopian ideal but is a true possibility if we can agree together on a purpose.  Sadly, it’s that last part that often comes to be the sticking point, the barrier, the broken bits of misshapen stone we throw at each other because we can’t quite manage to use them to build a fortress where we can live together.  We so often allow our self-centeredness to trump unity and divide us into condemning, arrogant camps.  Over the last months, God has written a number of meditations across my soul, many beginning with words like suppose and imagine, things like, Suppose we could become unified in loving each other well, in building, in healing, in laying our own hands as cover over the ripped and tender places in the lives of others?

When I sat in the first meeting I ever attended about Adam’s school, so much still stood undecided.  Unknown stretched wide.  But through that uncomfortable terrain bubbled a contagious stream of belief in possibility and potential, of love for children with developmental challenges, of driven, even self-sacrificing, purpose.  I could not understand, at least initially, how I could know so little of the details—the exactly how it will be—and yet feel so engaged, so excited.  Every time we met in those early days, I left carrying home bits of information to my family, with no idea how and at the same time a burning certainty of the possibility.  I did what I do in situations like these.  I prayed.  I asked and asked and asked.  Is this…could this possibly…do you want?

I knew that if we enrolled Adam in this school, if by some chance his name actually came up in the lottery (we never get drawn for anything), this would mean more than dropping him off and wishing everyone well.  I know I would be involved in raising a school, that I would need to invest whatever equipping, whatever blessing, God has given, especially as we would all be just striking out together on the foundation of two years worth of hard effort on the part of the first few who began offering themselves all the way to personal risk.

I could write so much about how reluctant I was in the beginning to actually hear this yes, live by faith answer to my prayers, how I struggled over the possible risks and inevitable sacrifices involved, how I continued to ask even long after I knew the clear answer and felt it solid and undeniable.  I could take you there and peel back the new growth and show you the place in the path where I stood still.  This decision wasn’t a light one for us.  But He said go.

And so then, we began.  We walked right into the water at flood stage.  And that’s when the real miracles happened.  That is, after all, always when.  In the moment of faith, in the being certain of what you cannot see.

We often underestimate the power of our unity behind a single purpose, how a group of single-minded people can push down a wall or bring down a hijacked plane or affect a change the likes of which we might never even conceive of alone.  Often in our most important collections, we fail to display the oneness which echoes through some of Christ’s last prayers on this earth, his prayers for us, wherein He asked, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you (John 17:21).”

At the first informational meeting for the parents of students chosen in the lottery for admission, I sat next to a lady in glasses with smooth hair—it seemed that not a chestnut-colored strand fell out of place.  She had almond eyes the color of amber, and she gave voice to the things that left me speechless.  She kept saying, Wow.  Wow. I can’t believe I’m here, turning and smiling at me with an ease so many of us have instantly found with each other because of shared experience.

They passed out committee forms, urgently calling for our help—Now that you’re here, we need youand I thought, Here we go, because I knew.  My pen hovered over the line, but I signed, and the water splashed beneath my feet.  And later, when we assembled in a familiar sort of room full of therapy tools pushed out of the way of our chairs, I sucked in my breath at the way our various gifts and histories—magazine publishing, writing, media marketing, editing—fanned into a well-rounded set of tools.

At the first family picnic for our school, I turned around to find some of the older students teaching Adam to play baseball.  More significantly even, I found Adam learning, watching them, listening, trying.  I watched him smile, and I watched these older boys just accepting him, because they understand.  And I whispered, “Wow.  Wow.  I can’t believe we’re here.”

We jumped in, a crowd of challenged families, and our giving felt–still feels– like free flow at high tide.  We offer what we have, what we know.  We offer little bits of how with open hands and open minds.  Bit by bit, our community began to take shape.  And then we learned that we would have to raise $100,000 in one month to open on time.  It was a formidable challenge given to a community together holding hundreds of other challenges in our hands while we worked.  Most of us did not run away.  What we felt together—what we feel—is the same flame of possiblity, the flicker of shared strength, even in the moments when we don’t know just how or even if.  Many of you know what happened.  You heard us asking for your help, for your resources, for your mutual investment in our children, and you responded with your generosity and your belief.  And we can’t quite find enough words to tell you how strikingly beautiful it was to see you walk right up and stand with us, offering what you have, what you know, little bits of the how.  You joined our scrolling march, our ant lines, our determined and unified procession.  Bit by bit, together we dismantled a barrier.

What you don’t know is that behind the scenes we also grew together into something special.  We became ever more unified, each bringing something unique.  Over the sure foundation offered us, we became the planks, the bolts, the insulation.  No one—not for pride or control or glory—asked me not to do what I can, not to offer what I will.  No one criticized my offering or told me how to offer it. No one failed to offer respect on any ground.  At least in my corner of construction, I heard only building, only gratitude, only grace.  And we are not all the same.  We are an eclectic assembling of raw materials—different in ages, specific challenges, personality, preferences, faith, and manner.  But at the core of who we are is one very important truth: Different is not less.  Perhaps it’s this that allows us to receive each other as we are, not wishing for something other.  We value quirky as vibrancy, not annoyance or embarrassment, and this is part of our shared purpose, to create a community in which our children will be appreciated and nurtured and challenged and valued not in spite of their differences but because of them.

I read a news article recently wherein a biologist and “ant enthusiast from birth” suggested that “humans are too smart for the functioning of the whole society.”  He said that because ants are individually ignorant, they create a smart society.  But what God has written on my heart these last months is that humans generally fail at community not because we are too smart but because we are too selfish.  For the strength of our society, we must choose to see our unity as something worth protecting.  We must discover what brings us together, what besides ourselves can and should be the focus of our living.  What is it that’s worth the sacrifice of self?  Because the new, the redeemed, the re-shaped rises, living, out of our collective offering.

 

I want to see

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Beside the pool in the late morning, he suddenly kneels, leaning out over the water.  Majestic clouds move across an unfathomable sky, changing the clear light as it travels down and washes over his bent body, the rustling trees, the white plastic chairs in orderly, framing lines.   From my chair, I pause, gathering him up with my eyes, the way he sits so still and quiet, the way he breathes, content just to see.  A light breeze lifts the hair up off of his forehead.

Adam sits patient and undisturbed for what feels like long, stretched out time, hardly turning his head.  He will not look away. The way he watches makes me watch too. I follow the line of his sight into and through and over the water with its movement and texture, sliding over easy ripples in the surface where the breeze plays.  The water lives.  It breathes.  And the way the Water bends and carries and holds the Light creates a tranquil art.  All creation testifies, even here at our neighborhood pool in the middle of our everyday.  We are surrounded by daily, by ordinary, by familiar, but Adam stops to see what is entirely rare—the way the light looks, the way the water moves, only just now, under this sky, in this breeze.

Adam glances at his watch, then back at the water, then back at his watch with a sharp, intelligent gaze.  His eyes are the color of the sky, as though they have absorbed it entirely.  I wonder if he’s thinking about how much the water changes shape in a certain span of time—seconds, minutes.  Eventually, Adam reaches down and slowly draws his hand through the water in a gentle sweeping curve, shifting his weight back again to absorb the full sensory impact of this disturbance. For moment upon moment, he is only still, and then he bends down to see more closely, bending himself the way Light bends in Water, suddenly living in a new angle, slowing us until our breathing takes on a different quality.  For a moment, we look.  We notice.

In truth, it’s just a small, carved out breath, a smooth inhale to the count of ten, but it settles on me like a calming hand right flat over my soul.  And then Adam’s friend calls his name, and he turns away from the water and turns back toward laughter and squealing play.  They jump in the pool from the side.  At the table next to me, my friend asks me a question.  We sit sheltered under the umbrella, friends gathered in a few stolen hours, but I am thankful for just a moment when Adam’s sight drew me into yet another sheltering space—nourishing breath upon breath. In that tiny space, I felt myself inhale.

God uses my children to teach me to see, because where disability traps language, walling it in, God opens windows wide, for sight.  Where my jaded senses numb and callous and stop up my thanksgiving, their sensitivity builds new spaces for touching and holding all the beauty that travels through.  Autism makes my children ready receivers.  In this way, the rest of us are really far more limited.  Our ability to “prioritize” sensation only means that we miss things they absorb, stunning things, like the movement of Light through Water.  We can live whole days trapped in our hurry and our poisonous self-absorption.  We can live blind, because seeing is not often our priority.

I’m reminded of something Ann Voskamp wrote about living hungry for beauty:

The only place we have to come before we die is the place of seeing God.

This is what I’m famished for: more of the God-glory.

I whisper with the blind beggar, ‘Lord, I want to see ‘(Luke 18:41).

That’s my morning pulse: ‘See, see.’

…I want to see beauty.  In the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep (One Thousand Gifts, 108,109).

I sigh, tucking away this thought: I want to see.  I want to see beauty in the daily, in the sink, in the folds of clean laundry and the meal on the plate.  I want not merely to expect real sight of these human eyes but to look intentionally for more, still more of the God-glory.  I want to live as Light bent through Living Water.  I am hungry for this intentional view, for this looking and living beyond, for these small inhales of real life-breath, even here, even now.  I want to see Him—every glimpse; every broad, majestic sweep; every easy ripple of His extravagant grace.

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them (Matthew 13:15).

for building

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He builds conversations out of her gratitude.  Right now, while I write.  I stop typing to listen, to respond, to touch him on the cheek.

He stands just a few inches shorter than me, all bright blue eyes and sun-drenched skin, so golden brown he looks warm to the touch.  When he speaks with intention, his voice sounds deep.  He carries Riley’s gratitude journals in his hands, hands still small enough to be delicate, hands still the hands of a boy despite the way his bones lengthen and broaden and change almost while I look at him.  The pages of the books turn up at the edges, so well-worn that they feel soft, like old, tattered letters.   He has searched them so many times the covers have fallen off, and yet, she still writes in the one, still intends to fill every blank space with her rainbow pens, writing down the things for which we give thanks.  She calls them her thank-you’s, these careful, numbered lists she builds.  She doesn’t even know she’s writing keys to open locks, that she’s writing bridges over which her brother speaks and connects and lives.

No one will find this in any communication how-to book.  It’s not a therapy or a tried-and-true technique, but it’s the way Adam has chosen.  Like the rest of us, Adam is industrious and resourceful.  His time isn’t wasted or frivilous or always silly.  During the day while the girls are at school, he works on things, trying to improve.  He makes up his own projects.  Whenever I’m not pulling him through learning some functional household duty, he practices relationship.

“Mommy, may I have some carrots please?” He asks, running a calloused finger along the soft page, tracing the cuves of Riley’s handwriting.

If I don’t immediately answer, if some thought or occupation has captured my attention, he will repeat himself until I respond.

“Mommy.  May I have some carrots please?”  He tilts his head, capturing my gaze with the light in his eyes.

Riley has written carrots.  She’s thankful for carrots.

I turn to him, evaluating his commitment, measuring his expression.  He never requests vegetables, but he’ll eat them.

“Mommy.  May I have some carrots please?”

“Sure, Adam.  You can have some carrots.  Do you like big carrots or little carrots?”  We have both.

“Big carr—no,no,no—little carrots,” he says, the tiniest smile curling the corners of his mouth.

“I like the little ones too.  Do you think they’re sweet? Or not?”

“Carrots are sweet.”

“Yes, sometimes.”

“Mommy, may I have some carrots please?”

“Yes.  You may have some carrots.”  Clearly he wants a simple answer to the question.

So he turns on his heel and walks away, still carrying the worn book in one hand, protectively laying the other flat against the pages.  I shift my attention back to the computer screen, sliding into a carved out space for writing.  And in a moment, he returns, cradling a pile of carrots on a paper towel, with his PDM hanging from his wrist.

“How many carbs do I have,” he asks, balancing the PDM on his knee, one finger poised over the buttons.

“Zero.  You don’t have to bolus for carrots,” I tell him, watching as he zips up the case.

He sits next to me, spreading out his thanksgiving feast on my desk.  Earlier this morning, he cored and ate an apple.  He followed that with a banana, all because she had written them, had offered them as thanks.  I have to stop and smile at the way he sits with one long, brown leg drawn up in a chair he has pulled out from the table and carried here beside me.  He crunches the carrots and his lips twist as though the experience is a bit of a surprise to him.

“Do you like the carrots?”

“Yes,” he says, although his face expresses something less than pleasant.

He finishes these carrots while I write, considering the shape of each one before he bites into it.  I can see that he tests the texture, weighs the mass, watches the way his fingers must be arranged to hold each piece.  Sometimes he experiments with the placement of his thumb.  It occurs to me that he actually builds more than conversations around her thankfulness.  He builds experience out of her lists.

He stands and makes a circuit around the room, twirling backward every few steps with the book held aloft in his hand.  Then he stops next to me, running his finger down.

“Mommy, can I have some strawberries?”  Ahh, we’ve moved on to fruits.

This one makes me chuckle.  Adam finds most fruits, including strawberries, repulsive for their texture—the bumpy skin, the soft flesh, the excessive amount of juice.  He doesn’t like a lot of wetness in his food, so much so that the first time I served him soup he tried to dry it with a paper towel.

“Sure, Adam.  You can have some strawberries.” It surprises me when he returns with two strawberries from the refrigerator.  I take him to the kitchen, show him how to wash them, how to pull off the green leaves.  He takes tentative bites, tiny bits, but he eats the berries.  And so we move through the afternoon.  He tastes foods he would normally never eat.  I teach him how to make himself a cup of chocolate milk.  We discuss when it will be Memorial Day, Christmas, and Thanksgiving.  He presses his finger over New York, Spain, and Equador on the globe.  We talk about trips and vacations.  He reaches into glass jars and touches sea glass and sea shells.  These treasures rattle as he handles them, as he lets them fall through his fingers.  And all this testing and tasting and learning and speaking he builds out of Riley’s gratitude, out of her lists of thank you’s, out of her daily, intentional, empty space-filling eucharisteo.  He lives and breathes her thankfulness, smiling in the middle, practicing and tasting the words on his tongue.  And so Riley’s gratitude builds a beautiful place in which her brother can connect and participate and learn, and it touches me deeply.

I can’t help but think that maybe this is why God has made our practiced testimony of thanks an admonishment and a command, instead of merely a suggestion.  Maybe this is why He has offered us such clear instruction about what to say, because our testimony has the power to build, to create, to offer life: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29); give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18); Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done (1 Chronicles 16:8).  God has even drawn lines around the paths of our thoughts: whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil. 4:8), because the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Luke 6:45).  And the testimony of our lives can shape into or rip up.

It brings tears, the way my son’s life has been built up by my daughter’s endless thanksgiving, the way her gratitude offers him words, taste, and relationship.  And I see, I feel, the way our eucharisteo throws clear and radiant Light on the presence of God’s blood-bought Kingdom, on the evidence of his redeeming power and grace right here and now, on enduring joy and hope which are neither pithy nor frivilous because they are, in fact, the solid, intentional sacrifice of self.  Our practiced, intentional, daily thanksgiving reveals the presence of Christ.  God shapes our grateful testimony into safe spaces for building and healing, into the carved out holy spaces that meet needs and offer grace.  And so, our intentional testimony is an aggressive action, a choice, a fight.  Eucharisteo doesn’t blindly ignore suffering and hardship, but rather actively chooses to proclaim God’s presence in the midst of these realities.  It is the choice to build.

All this He presses into me, writing it into my soul through the day, as I watch my son move through a world made of thank you’s. The Spirit inspires me to wonder what would become of our living if we committed together to building Kingdom walls out of gratitude; if our offered testimony constructed paths out of praise; if we chose to construct whole lives out of witnessing and proclaiming Glory out loud, on paper, on our computer screens; if His accomplishments were the words written on our hearts and on the doorframes of our houses (Deuteronomy 6:8,9)?  It’s a challenge I’m willing to take, a transformation over which I am willing to be yielded—to actively choose the testimony that builds—because I have witnessed it first hand, how the expressed gratitude of one soul can build a safe and stunning place in which another soul can heal and grow.

be who you are

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Sometimes we finish the day in rags and mud, and the things we carry cover us like a tomb.  And it’s testimony to the Light in her that even though she’s afraid to be embarrassed, she says I can write about this, our walking through together.

In my arms, she trembles.  “I just want to be normal,” she says into my shirt, her voice now raw with pain.  Her muffled anger still sounds fierce.  “I want to be able to eat without pricking my finger.”

We stand in the kitchen together, right where we walked in the door, and the edge of the counter top presses a line into the base of my back.  My purse, which is bigger than I would choose if I carried only my own things, sits right behind her, where I dropped the heavy of it first thing, before I had a chance to think beyond our conversation.  Her feelings pour out unhindered, soaking my chest, reddening the whites of her eyes.  “I don’t want this,” she says, pressing her forehead hard against me, “I don’t want this right now.  I just want to be a kid. I don’t want to be weird.  I’m afraid everyone thinks I’m weird.”

“I know,” I whisper into the top of her hair, inhaling the sweet smell of mint.  She starts middle school next week, and into the social storm she wades, wearing diabetes like a tattered tartan.  Adam has been blessed differently in two ways with regard to all of this:  he was diagnosed at two, well before he developed memories of life without the disease; and while autism widens the range of taunts, it also grants him some oblivion with regard to social stress.  But my Zoe, so perceptive and self-aware, remembers well what it was like before, and she feels embarrassed.  On our way home, I have been telling her about how things will work, about what the nurse wants her to do, about the twists and turns involved in her new routine.  And for her, these details are dust and rain, an ugly film crusting over her smooth skin.  We walk in the door, and I turn to see the tears sliding along her jaw.

I wrap my arms around her, ignoring the ache of the day that twists the muscles in my shoulders and upper back.  I have questions, for later.  I have things to say.  Parenting is so much more than meals and laundry and dust; it’s more than the day we have spent shuttling back and forth between doctor’s appointments, assembling in crooked lines to wait, pressing to be ready.  Children learn the earth by instinct, but it is ours to teach them the lasting things, ours to show them that walking is so much more than taking steps, that seeing is so much more than surfaces, that hearing is not merely the capturing of sound. Even so, I collect my words for later.  It is enough, just now, to let her know I hear.  And I do hear, so well that my own tears fall, just the few she won’t see, barely wetting the top of her head.  I am thankful to listen, thankful she talks to me, and at the same time so exhausted and shadowed myself that I wish we might have saved this for another time.

This day has been a day for not enough and by mistake, but until this moment I haven’t noticed the collection of filth I’ve gathered all day, the bits of human criticism and comparison and condemnation sticking to me, ugly.  It’s not possible to travel these temporary roads without picking up the dirt.  But standing in the kitchen with her tears soaking my shirt, sheltering her trembling shoulders, I suddenly feel the weight of what covers me.  I recognize it as the heavy pain cramping my shoulders.  And then I hear the nasty taunt of something, the wicked well doesn’t this just fit the day, settling.  Were my arms not tightly wrapped, I might lift them and evaluate the ripped up places running from elbow to fingertips.  But to do that, except to lay the wounding down, would be to offer it some value as a testimony.  And these light and momentary troubles are achieving an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Corinthians 4:17).  It’s the glory, the achieving of it, that deserves the testimony.  I have asked God to teach me how to speak.  So, I wrap my arms into a tight shelter for my daughter, and I give thanks for her trust in me.

I smooth Zoe’s hair back with my hands, and I listen.

“I wish I didn’t have to have someone ‘supervising’ me all the time at school.  ‘Remember to check your blood,’ ‘Remember to eat a snack,’ ‘Remember!’  I don’t want to have a snack.  And I don’t want to have a ‘notebook.’ I don’t want to be late for class.  I don’t want to go see the nurse.  I don’t want to KNOW about any of this.  I don’t want it!  I wish you could get well from diabetes like you get well from a cold.  I wish, even just for a while, I could NOT be diabetic.  Mom?”

She pulls away from me and studies my face, and I rub the red splotches on her cheeks with my thumbs, content just to hear.  I press my lips together in a thin, acknowledging smile.  “I know.  I’m sorry.  I don’t know what it’s like, but I know it’s hard.”  The truth is that I want to fix it.  I want to take the burden away from her and carry it myself.  But I can’t.  The best I can do to love her well is to teach her how to walk through, to have eyes that see, to have ears that hear.

It’s as though those words—I know it’s hard—untie the last of the threads she has carefully knotted through her small arms and around her soul, and the last of these muddy rags fall away in a heap at my feet.  I wonder how long she has been binding herself with these sighs, these weights laying flat against the Light, these grave clothes stuffed into her hands by an unseen enemy.  My daughter has a tendency to do this over time, to let painful thoughts layer and build until they begin to smother her.  But I say those words—I know it’s hard—and she crumbles, relieved.  She buries her head one more time in my chest and lets the shadows dissolve.

When she settles down, I look into her eyes and tell her the beauty I see.  I tell her the story of a stunning, radiant girl born of Light who really lives, of a girl who cares when other people feel embarrassed and afraid and uncomfortably different, because she knows how hard it is to feel that way.  “The things He doesn’t take away from us, He changes.  He makes them new and uses them in ways we could never even imagine,” I whisper, right into the crown of her head, veiling her sacred with scripture, like a Bride.   And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).  We have to lay these things at His feet and ask Him to teach us to see.  We can’t wear shadows over the robe He’s given or let this journey cake us in mud.  That would only cheapen what His sacrifice has achieved.  Ours are blood-bought, royal robes.  We live redeemed, not defeated.”  I say this into her soft hair, into the sweet, clean smell of mint, but the conviction is as much for me at the end of this heavy, shadowed day, as it is for her.  And when she looks at me with those deep eyes, blue like the stormy sea, I offer her a mirror in which to see the light and fire and life of her, the Truth that burns clean through the cracks in us, obliterating all the things meant by the enemy to be our shroud.  “What God has given can never be taken away.  So be who you are, Zoe.  Be His.”

eucharisteo

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Afternoon, and the beach becomes another elegant art, a mosaic of striking contrasts.  I love the seascape for the way she changes, for the intensity of her perspectives.  Across the water I see rain, a blue black bruise on the horizon blurring the line God made between the deep sea and the boundless sky.  I listen for the warning rumble of thunder. beach7.16The tide too high for swimming, we have spent the last hour gathering treasures in our hands.  In my palm, I hold three pieces of glazed sea glass—one that shines crisp green, like new grass; shark’s teeth—thirty-five, maybe forty, wet and fiercely different; and a broken bit of iridescent shell that seeks the light, reflecting gold, coral, lavendar, and blue like a memory of the sunrise. For these, I give thanks, simple things that matter only to me, a small collection meant for remembering. beach hand 7.16 Often I glance up from my wandering to collect other gifts—my childen each given over to a different shade of reverie; the sea like glistening, smoky, glass, except where the shorebreak waves rise, sculpted; the brilliant places where silver light breaks through ominous cloud; the moments when these clouds move and the sun falls warm again on my skin. bridge Zoe beach 7.16Waves crash close, and Adam studies the way the water reshapes the shore, the way the sand moves beneath his feet.  I hear Zoe softly talking to phantoms, conjuring her own adventures, carving pathways in the sand with her fingers and heels.  In turns she plays at strength and flexibility, making bridges out of her body and then trying to stand.  Riley sits on a boogie board, content to watch the sky and the sea moving and changing right in front of her.  She’s always been this way, patient enough just to see and quietly experience things as they are, peaceful enough not to wish for more or different.  This, this is enough for her, and if she gathers no more, she’ll find no complaint in the day. Riley beach 2 A break in reverie, like the sun suddenly hot, and Zoe stands at my side, offering me half of an ugly, gray oyster shell.  “Something to hold your shells,” she says, just half of a clause, and the cupped, gnarled thickness of it in my open hand, and she runs back down the beach before I can even comment.  I watch the water spray up and out beneath the smack of her heels against the smooth, wet sand.  I would never have selected this particular momento, but it’s suddenly beautiful in a way that it only could be because she gave it to me, because some thought for me brought her to my side, bright and passionate and warm.  And now, I would never discard it. shell unfilled 7.16 It makes me think of so many things God has redeemed for me, things I would never have chosen, things in His wisdom He chose not to remove from our hands.  I ponder these in my heart, too many to write down at once, too glinting and rich to be captured by a solitary glimpse.  I take out just one and hold it up, one to show with the eagerness of a well-loved child:  See, see what I’ve been given? Autism is beautiful to me, where in spaces it is ugly and awkward to unaccustomed eyes.  I know a girl—a young woman, really, now—who loves with a pure heart, who shines like a star, who works harder than most and never utters a single complaint.  She breathes peace, even when too much sensory information makes her heart race and sweat runs down her forehead in rivers and she doesn’t understand why.  She rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn, and she is comfortable with herself and with all our awkward angles.  She accepts and embraces and cherishes, and her innocent ageless wisdom shines through the shadows of my own middle-aged insecurities, like silver light breaking through and glistening on the ocean.  I know a boy, knobby and lean, with blue-eyes like the bright, boundless sky, who weeps when he worships.  He knows nothing of pretense.  He is never afraid to be himself.  And even though connecting is a dark challenge, he wants to be whereever I am (even now, in the room where I write, he composes otherworldly music on the keyboard while I type) and searches hard for words.  He has taught me that communication is a precious gift, and that it is so much more than sentences.  He has taught me that relationships are built on walking through together, not on deep and numerous conversations.  He has taught me that intelligence and creativity and resourcefulness can never be fully estimated by standard measures.  And God has used the two together to teach me to be thankful right now, to pray without ceasing, and to live by faith.  God has turned all our gnarled and damaged and difficult into a lesson that when things are hard, it’s not time to walk away. The high tide with it’s rough waves and salty gulps draws away the broken bits, revealing the most stunning treasures beneath, and that ugly shell becomes a dish in my hand, an unlikely treasure chest.  My children are so much more than that one broken thing, a discarded bit of the ugly in life that God has repurposed as a vessel for delivering rare and beautiful gifts, gifts I would otherwise never have known, treasures more lovely for the shape the disability gives them.  I tuck the iridescent gem of it safe and wander on, stopping often to look at the sky. And on the horizon, I see rain like a bruise.  All around us, life hangs heavy and ominous.  I listen closely for the sudden, electric smack of thunder, the ripping that will shatter the afternoon, even as it washes our living and nourishes new growth.  I feel the storm.  I see it, the brooding blue-black monster of it passing thickly over the sun.  I would never presume to make light of its intensity, of its potential for pain.  But the sea looks like polished silver, even so.  We collect more gifts than we can hold.  Grace spills over into our tender palms, and I whisper a prayer of thanks, laying my treasures safely in the cup of a gnarled shell that reminds me of the stormy sky.  I too have been made beautiful by love, though only God would have chosen to make a vessel of me, a dish for holding the most sacred treasure of all.  I am redeemed.  I am that empty half shell, tossed and sun-faded, filled with Glory, the treasure that reflects what God has done, the rising of His Son.

treasure shell 2

And so our yielded, weary, stormy lives testify to Truth.  With our eyes, we watch the storm gather, and with His, we see the unhindered beauty of the Light.  We wander along the shore of living, gathering grace in the most unlikely spaces, at the most unlikely times, and because He reaches and touches our quivering lips with burning coals from the altar itself (Isaiah 6:5-8), we count these gifts—our remembrances–right out loud.  We give thanks.

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