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.

tend me

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“Would you like an elephant plant?” She asks, holding up a tiny plant in a square pot–terra cotta orange, but plastic—a baby that moments later I cannot find.

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I’m not sure it’s actually called an elephant plant, but it might be.  She’s not the best for remembering the names of things, and she lifts this baby thing, with it’s tangle of flat, long-slender leaves like sunstriped, windswept beach hair, from somewhere behind a couple of larger pots of Elephant’s Ears I know she’s grown from a larger plant, some broad-leafed, thriving life now indistinguishable as the mother.  This plant looks more like me, after just a few hours in the salty wind.

She asks, and it’s one of the first things she says to me in the new of the day,  just as I sit in the ocean breeze, listening to wind chimes and watching the birds; while I sit staring at the sky and its soft morning light, the streaks of pink and coral.  I get up early just to breathe in the quiet and sip coffee and tell God how much I want to just walk right to Him, maybe along those shades of otherworldly streets, maybe right out on top of the waves.  I tell Him and the salt air rushes, and the Spirit whispers, “Come,” just as He did when Peter asked (Matthew 14:28,29); just as He always does when we so desperately want to be at His side.  The wind blows my hair away from my cheeks, a breath strong enough maybe to hold me, to fill me too, and I close my eyes.  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8).  I love this salty wind, the first element that greets me the closer I come to the ocean, because it reminds me that I am free and I can go to Him from any space and at any time because my eternal birth—my resurrected life—is of the Spirit.  The only thing that keeps me away from Him is the distraction I allow.  So I loose my hair and let the wind sweep through it, dry and warm and gentle, coming and going from unseen places, leaving only the evidence of it’s path.

My mom walks out on the porch and tastes the morning air and lifts the baby plant up so I can see its tangled leaves like a knot, like the tangle of my thoughts, and she says, “Would you like an elephant plant?”  She still wears her pajamas, soft and faded.  Her white hair slips out from the knot on the back of her head, framing her Native American skin, her high cheek bones, her deep brown eyes, and I give thanks just to see her standing there in the morning light.  I wonder if she knows that just seeing her is a gift to me, as filling as the breeze.

I smile and nod, scanning the lines of life she’s made, the green stems and bright leaves framing the edges of the porch.  She likes plants that easily multiply.  I count four Christmas Cactuses, four Elephant’s Ears, maybe five of these she calls elephant plants, all sprouting randomly in plastic pots, an art form unique to her.  It’s funny how we live so much of life seeing each other only in the context of self.  I know who you are in relation to me, but do I really know who you are, how God has rooted you specifically, the unique impression of His fingers in the shape of you, breathing apart from me?  I have asked Him to help me see in the context of Him.   And it’s only lately that I’ve come to see my mother as sower.

“When these sprout new leaves, if you’ll just plant the sprouts, they’ll grow into a whole new plant,” she says, setting down the baby.  She picks up a few others that have matured a bit more, showing me, telling me about when and how she rooted them.  She doesn’t always see the beautiful ways she expresses herself, the clear art of her in something so easy and quiet like rooting these sprouts and tending them unintrusively.  I watch her pause briefly by these plants, so quickly it barely seems to be an intention, testing the soil with her fingers.  She gestures sometimes as we pass by, following my glance, saying something lightly, and that’s the only way I know that she tends her planting.  And yet, the evidence of her attention is clear.

The mother cactus, from which my mother has birthed uncountable gifts (a plant for each of her sisters, a plant for me, knotty winter-blooming hope for friend after friend, once even a new sprout for every one of my children’s teachers past and present), languishes, sprawling and elegant in a pot now too heavy to lift.  “That’s the mother,” Mom sometimes says, when I stand looking at the generous wealth of the original plant, the red-tipped edges of this beautiful lady still promising new growth.  And then my mother reminds me that this plant was itself a gift, a planting made by a friend when her own cactus sprouted.  “It’s easy to do,” Mom says.  “You just pull off a new sprout and put it in the soil.”  But I know that this multiplying of Life is more than the just, more than the initial planting.  I know it’s also her fingers pushed into the soil, the time she stops unseen to water, the way she watches the light.  I know Mom comes along and moves the plants out of harm’s way when the painters come or when children run free across the plank floors.  I never see her do these things, but the evidence of her presence, her life-giving, her tending, is counted in the multiplying of growth, the countless gifts shared, the new borne.

And so it is with one who is born of the Spirit.

His Spirit is like the wind, moving unseen, tending.  He plants the shoots of us deep, rooting us all new, the redeemed children of a generous King.  He makes gifts of our lives, of our equipping, plunging His fingers into the heart of us, testing our need and offering us Himself as light, as water, as blood, as nourishment.  We do not know where He has come from or where He goes, but the evidence of His tending is clear in the multiplying of growth.  He knows when and how He rooted us, and the longer He tends us the more intimately He traces the history of our living, the sprawling of our influence, the new life that He has carefully sprouted from our following.  And the longer we live in Him, the more we look like the King who gave us life, the Spirit who tends, the Father who protects and provides for us.

“Anyway,” she says, smiling, noticing my computer in front of me, shifting her gaze back toward the kitchen and breakfast, “you can have one of these, if you want it.”

And of course, I will not go home with out my elephant plant, because it reminds me of her and beach hair and the salty wind; because it reminds me of the Spirit.  I only hope the long, beautiful leaves will grow as well in my hands, in the shelter I offer them.  I know that these plants live and grow and multiply well because they live here, in the ocean breezes, under her notice, with her fingers touching them.  And so also, I live and grow and multiply well, I become a gift, a mother from which new lives are born, only because I breathe Him as air.  I am spiritually alive only because He has made it possible for me to dwell in Him, only because when I tell Him that I choose to be by His side, that I want Him so desperately, His blood-bought answer eternally will be, “Come.”

*~*~*

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15: 1-5).

together, we make a chain

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When we step onto the beach, the sea swells high and shimmers golden green in the sunlight.  A storm matures unseen somewhere off the coast, out over the great deep.  I know this, and still I cannot imagine how the water pools so high just here at the edge of the shore, why it gathers and undulates as though held on the edge of everything like a momentus breath, like some ethereal anticipation.  I taste the salty intensity, the passion of it, on my lips.  I feel the power of it tingling on my fingertips.  The waves crest angry, blinding white, crashing like thunder, sifted through God’s fingers, spilling over the edge of His hand.  The froth of them spreads over shallows and sand like a veil, like a delicate lace gown.

In moments like these, lovers of the sea grow still.  We stop and watch her, savoring her elegance, respecting her sheer strength.  We gather the sand in our fingers and let it fall out of our palms, noticing the glint of light at angles iridescent on broken bits of shell.  We walk over the glittering landscape, watching.  We gaze up, up, silently losing ourselves in the rich blue sky.  I sit in a chair and push my heels into the beach.  I don’t have to warn my children anymore to take the sea seriously.  They are old friends of the mighty lady, and they stand in a line at the edge as the lacy froth gathers around their ankles.  They stare at the waves, watching them curl and break, waiting for the tide to slide back, for the ocean to exhale.  Their boogie boards sit in a pile beside me while they wait.  From time to time, Adam presses his fingers over his ears to soften the sound, which is so loud it washes away every other.  There are no birds, no children, no swaying fronds—only waves, stunning and mighty and sculpted.

Beside us, two little boys drift slowly closer to the sea, bored with sand castles and ball tossing.  They look to be about six years old, maybe seven, still small and fine boned, not yet leggy and knobby like my son.  They twist, like reeds, chasing each other closer, closer, closer to the pounding surf.  I hear a male voice—just a word and then a part of a word, just a tone that sounds at first cautious, then chastening, then warning.  His voice is lost in the sound of the waves.  The boys do not seem to hear the man, whom I guess to be their father, and they do not yet know respect for the sea.  This I see clearly, as they chase each other closer, as they flirt with her at the flat, rushing edges; as they taunt each other with slipping and swallowing salty gulps.  In minutes, she could gather them up and throw them against the sand, all limbs and confusion.  I watch Riley and Zoe, still just girls, glancing quickly toward these boys.  They look back at me, questions shining in their eyes, on the edge of rescue.  It’s the wrong time for frivolity.

And then the warning voice becomes a man, probably a little younger than me, stout and balding and hairy limbed.  His elbows bounce and his plaid swim trunks billow as he runs out to his boys at the edge of the sea.  I can see his mouth moving as he shouts to them over the thunderous sound.  He points toward the ground.  Right here.  Right.here.  No further.  He stands beside them, guarding the beach, watching over their lives, their tender bodies.  For a moment, they absorb His presence and grow still and somber.  They turn with him toward the waves and watch carefully.  But they are young and easily distracted, maybe without the memory of terror.  I watch them and think of something a dear friend sent me about a man who photographs shore break waves—beautiful, stunning pictures.  He dives into the largest waves on earth to take pictures, and still, he says that he fears the moment when wave after waves comes, one right on top of another, and he loses control and can’t breathe or find his way out.  I watch these little boys stand next to their dad and unravel, even with him standing beside.  They forget him that quickly, losing track of his pointing, his finger jabbing down, down, down, down toward the unseen sand beneath the swirling froth as he emphasizes the words.  Right.here.  No. further.  They twist and spin and fall into each other, distracted.  They drift closer, closer to place where the sea draws back and curls and crashes.  But their father is beside them still, and wise to them.  He places his strength between, gathering their hands in his own.  He is the link between them, positioning them carefully safe.  Even as the swell flattens high in front of them and the sea spray wets their faces, he lifts their thin bodies taller.  He does not remove them entirely, but holds them stumbling, trembling in the surf, perhaps not to rob them of their fun, perhaps also to teach them a safe lesson in respect for the sea and her elegant power.

I watch and gasp, my breath taken by something profound, an etheral exhale, a soul-deep recognition of God.  He–He– is the fatherly link between you and me, the steady strength wrapped around our hands, positioning us carefully when we are too naive of danger, too immature to heed the sound of his warning voice—a word, a part of a word, caught by our spiritual ears as we flirt so close to deafening distraction.  In moments aware of Him, we stand still and somber, clearly seeing the possibility for our destruction, noting our small stature, our lack of control.  We take heed and focus, but we, by comparison only with Christ, are so young and so easily distracted.  We lose our way so quickly.  We look, we see, but only for a short time, and then we unravel, twisting and spinning and falling into each other again.  I’m so thankful that He never leaves, that He knows us so well, that He remains beside when we lose track of His words, His urgency, His finger pointing down at the froth now swirling around our waists.  I give thanks that together we make a chain, you and God and me, that He lifts our tender, trembling bodies higher over the temporal quagmire, the fierce and threatening wake of the spiritual storm brewing deep, unseen to us.  A cord of three strands is not easily broken (Eccles. 4:12).  I’m so glad—aren’t you?—that He teaches us together this lesson in respect; this appreciation for His faithful and loving guidance, for His fiercely protective father-love.  Oh, you and me, how fragile and unknowing we are, how equally unprepared for the reality that our human eyes, our human minds, cannot, nor ever will, truly and fully comprehend.  What joy that fundamentally we know one very important thing, one sacrificially blood-bought truth, the one thing that makes these firmly held boys relax, looking up, up, up into father’s face with a smile:  As long as He’s with us, we’re safe.

*~*~*

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory (Exodus 33: 14-18).”

 

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matthew 1:23).

 

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14: 15-17).

 

 

we can’t get close enough to the ground

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This auditorium has different lines than the one in which we usually worship.  Pews make up the rows instead of the moveable interlocking chairs with which we’re so familiar, and something makes the room feel broad.  The moment we push quietly in, there’s the impression of red velvet, though the seating arrangment feels spacious and casual, as though we have all gathered on blankets for a picnic.  It occurs to me that this fits, this blend of formality and living room comfort.  We are children of the most High God, but we’re adopted and redeemed, vulnerable, fallible, drawn together by our awkward angles, by the cracks He reshapes into something all new.  Worship is always both fiercely holy and warmly familial.  We gather around the King’s table for a feast, and it’s Thanksgiving dinner every time.  Or, it should be.  Or, it would be, if we could be but emptied of ourselves and our unknowing, of our dedication to temporary, selfish things.

We are late.  We are almost always late.  Try as we might to pick the right time to leave, unexpected things impede our progress—blood sugars, insulin reservoirs, obsessions, compulsions, routines, anxiety, seizures, lethargy; things we breathe like air.  I explain, but no one really knows unless they hold these things in their own hands.  I told Adam three times where we were going, how long it would be.  I wrote it on his schedule.  But he has this thing about a snack at a certain time, and his socks have to be exactly right on his feet, and he doesn’t like unfamiliar places.  He argues with me all the way through putting on his shoes, grabbing a tote bag and a thousand must have items he doesn’t really need but can’t just leave at home.  But then, we all struggle over leaving our stuff behind to worship. “Set the timer for…” He says to me, tapping one finger on his watch.  “Unity service until…”

When I don’t answer, because I think the answer will come out as a growl, because I worry that the words will jerk and rip, Adam starts making up his own answers.  “5 more minutes.  Set the timer for 5 minutes.  Unity service until,” and he says the hour, the minutes.  He says now.  He says it this way because he doesn’t know another way to tell me that he doesn’t want to go.  He bends toward me, urgently tapping his watch, trying to stay in front of me, trying to hold my eyes with his own while I move through the house.  This is important to him.

These rushing minutes feel like a blur as we walk into the auditorium, into the already singing.  It feels like Zoe pointedly announced her blood sugar in the last moments before we left, “Mom, I’m 45,” just as I flipped the light on on the porch, while Adam tapped his watch.  It feels like I said, “Well, you know what to do,” sending her in the kitchen for a fast sugar of some kind—orange juice or raisins.  It feels like Riley had been hard at work writing addresses on cards to go in the mail, noting mailing and delivery dates, highlighting the most immediate ones.  It feels like I had to interrupt her, like her eyes flashed stress, but I’m not finished, I need to finish, I want to get these out on time.  It feels that way, but the exact details slip away as we enter the room and the blend of so many voices, the rich river of Truth, washes over my head, my face, my hands.  Sometimes I walk in a room and I feel this testimony: the Spirit is here. And when I allow myself to feel this testimony, the temporary details lose their grip.

We file into a pew beside someone we know—me, Zoe, Adam, Riley, Kevin, and take up their song as our own.  He touches my arm, this brother, our friend, and then returns to his singing.

Adam’s eyes skirt the room.  He glances quickly out and then tucks his gaze back in again, pulling his chin down so as not to see anymore.  This is another auditorium, another building, and many of the people inside are strangers to him.  Once a year, the local congregations of our fellowship gather for a unity service.  We blend into each other, dozens of shades and shapes and personalities, all bound by the same hope.  The song leader at the front of the room has black framed glasses, a plaid shirt, a bald head.  His skin is pale.  Even his hands seem shiny.  He’s lean and tall, and unfamiliar.  Everything about him feels crisp and polished, but his voice is warm and he smiles when he sings, and he sometimes turns his head at unusual angles.  He keeps time with his hand swinging in the air in front of him, and behind him a screen flickers as we move through the phrases of the song, displaying words and images that inspire worship—a cross on a hill, a line of people with emptied hands lifted.

I watch Adam’s face as he absorbs the song leader, the singing, the people.  His bottom lip trembles, the corners pulling into a frown, and he shifts back and forth on his feet.  He’s still struggling over the details.  He leans over Zoe’s back and I lean toward him, and into my ear, he whispers, “Unity service, until…”

“7:30,” I whisper back, running my hand along the strong line of his jaw as I move away from him.

I know why this feels so hard to him.  It’s a lot at once when none of the details escape him, when he has no ability to prioritize any of the sensory information.  And worship has always shattered him because he has none of the careful fascades behind which the rest of us stay hidden.  He feels God tenderly.  He always has.  He used to weep after every service, and I would hold him where he crumpled on my lap or stand where he buried his head in my shoulder, and ask, “Why are you sad?” He could only say, “Because I’m crying,” and I didn’t know if this was because he didn’t understand his own feelings or just didn’t know how to explain.  We had circular conversations.  I’d reply, “Well, why are you crying,” and he’d say, “because I’m sad,” and none of it would stop his tears.  And then one day, he managed to say something else, just a desperate wail, just a calling out that escaped like a breath, but clear.  Jesus.  And then more tears.

Once, on our way out the door, he said, “Singing hurts.  Singing is finished,” and it reminded me of something I once heard articulated by an eloquently verbal adult woman with autism as she explained why people with autism have trouble looking into another person’s eyes.  She said, “There’s just so much information there, so much feeling, and it’s terrifying.  It’s too much.  We’re not equipped to handle it.”  I wonder if it’s this overwhelming of his soul with feeling, the pure, yielded experience of bigness and too much and deep love of God that he alternately loves and fears?  And isn’t that how it should feel to feast on Thanksgiving dinner at the King’s table?

Adam tries hard to flatten his lips, to keep them from drooping at the edges.  He touches his own chin.  He rubs his eyes.  He shifts, back and forth, swallowing.  Zoe sees all this and moves down to sit by her dad so that I can be next to Adam.

I pull him close to me, squeezing his shoulder with my hand.  “It’s okay,” I whisper into his ear.

He swallows, and the crinkle between his eyebrows deepens, and he lifts my fingers off of his shoulder with his hand, as though he can’t quite manage my touch.  He tries to sing, but he has to stop every few moments to swallow, to control his face, to keep the emotion from seeping out.  Alternately, I turn to worship and look over to measure his feelings.  I feel so tender toward my son that I can hardly think of him without swallowing back my own tears.  I know him.  I feel him.

And then, it’s time to pray.  Another man moves to the front to the auditorium, but I don’t see him because my eyes are on Adam.  We stand in rows, and everyone closes eyes and bows heads just slightly in the familiar way.  But my son cannot get close enough to the floor.  He bends at the waist, leaning until his arms rest on the back of the pew in front of us.  He clasps his hands together until his knuckles are white.  He squeezes his eyes shut.  The expression on his face is so vulnerable, so open that it rips right into me.  For him, this is not just some ritual.  I think if he did not believe he was supposed to stand with the rest of us, he might just kneel or lay flat on the floor.

Sometimes when I pray uncluttered, when I really open up my soul to the conversation, God feels so immense, so heavy, so terrifyingly tremendous that I press myself against the floor.  I can’t get low enough.  I can’t open my eyes.  I can’t even remember then what I meant to say.  The only thing I can manage in those moments is surrender.  Empty before Him, I can only plead, Fill me.  Use me.  Change me.  But that kind of prayer is rare for me, because most of the time I can’t empty myself of self that way.

Still, when I see my son press himself lower, when I watch his face, I know this is what he feels, this unfathomable depth, this intimidating presence.

I’ve noticed lately that he almost always does this when we pray together in worship.  He alters his posture low.  If we’re sitting, he will bend almost in half, as though his legs are just in the way of the floor.  And everytime I feel him do it, I am gripped and overcome that such a sweet, tender soul should humble himself in such a way before God.  And we think we know more of God than he does because we can use words to speak of Him.

There are those who think Adam doesn’t really understand, that he doesn’t know why we worship.  I see it in their blank expressions when I share these things, in the limited way they evaluate a boy who has trouble communicating.  I’m not sure I would believe it either if I didn’t know Adam and love the same God, if I didn’t worship with my son, if I didn’t work so hard to understand, to hear.  It is our limitation–not his–if we believe that because he can’t reach far enough into his mind to retrieve words, he really doesn’t know much of God. My son can’t tell the story of the resurrection.  He can’t explain with carefully shaped phrases that he lives because God breathes right into him.  But he weeps when he worships and speaks The Name through his tears,  and when he prays, he can’t get close enough to the ground.  I say he knows far more of God than I do.

This man up front praying flows, his words tumbling, propelled by the current of Spirit.  His voice sounds light, gentle.  The words dissolve the moment he speaks them, borne away.

I swallow hard and close my eyes and yield.

When the leader says, “Amen,” let it be so, Adam straightens next to me, suddenly stilled, his face placid.  The song leader returns to his place, and the Truth washes over my head, my face, my hands.  And beside me, Adam sings, now free of the anxiety that made him shift on his feet.  Down the row, I see Riley reach out in front of her, her hands flat and empty, as though she moves to gather something up in her arms, to grasp it in those blank palms.  That’s when I realize my own hands are open too, and that my children are teaching me what it means to worship with an emptied, uncluttered soul.  And I can’t get close enough to the ground.

press on {when you’re ready to grow}

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So maybe today–maybe in this—it’s time to press on, even though it’s hard, and it hurts, and you want to give up.

“But I’m dying,” she says to me, gasping, sweat gathering like a halo along her hairline.  She’s waiting for me to say she can quit, but I am not so easily convinced.

“You’re not dying.”

“But it’s hard for me to breathe…I…just…can’t…catch…my breath, see?”  I can’t help but smile, even with her dying, beside me, because she reminds me of myself at her age, parsing running into feet, stop signs, mailboxes.  I remember my dad pointing ahead of us, urging.  “Come on, just run to there.”

“You’re talking, so you can breathe,” I say, smiling wryly at her.  Her cheeks are red and wet, and she keeps threatening to cry, sighing into a whimper, her breath catching in her throat.  “Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.  It just takes some time to get the hang of the breathing.”  Learning to breathe must always come first, just drawing in the sweet Life force, letting it fill, trusting the nourishment of cell and tissue.

The further we go, the slower she runs, until I’m wondering how a person can have such a conservative stride.  I look through the trees at the lake, gathering up the sight of sparkling light on the water.  I’m a collector of eternal things.

Meanwhile, Riley has to slow her steps to stay beside us.  Her cheeks are just as red, but she runs silently, smiling carefully when I catch her eye.  I have to watch her to make sure she’s okay, because she never complains, never believes in can’t.  She has a broader view than most of us about what’s possible.  Even when she appears to be struggling, she remains steadfast and determined, always denying any limitation to her progress.  “It’s okay to run ahead of us a little if you want to, Ri.”  I can tell that trying to match her sister’s pace only complicates her run.

So she moves ahead, and I watch her sunlit ponytail swing.

Zoe groans.  “Mom, can we take a water break?  My head hurts.”

“Zoe, it’s two miles.  Let’s run to the next marker and then we’ll take a water break,” I gesture ahead of us toward the red mile marker staked in the ground beside the path, mottled by light squeezing through the leaves overhead.

She grabs her side, curling the fingers of her other hand into a fist.  “I can’t do this,” she says.

“Yes. You can.”

I can’t. I thought this would be fun, but it just…hurts.  Why do you like to do this?”  Her mouth curls into a sneer.  She feels misled, and also a little irritated that Riley and I don’t seem to be suffering as much as she. But we are a bit more seasoned as runners.

This was to be Zoe’s first 5K and her first training cycle.  She’s never done any running, except in play.  I didn’t expect it to be easy for her.  And no, I didn’t prepare her for the way burning pain precedes muscle growth, nor did I tell her that she would have trouble breathing at first, that her most difficult task would be learning patience with discomfort.  I didn’t tell her because I knew that her immature perspective prevents her from valuing anything that isn’t fun or painless or working out as she expects.  I knew that the finish line inspired her desire to do this, not the race itself.  I hoped maybe she had grown just enough to be ready to persist.

But alas, she has not.  Not yet.

The further we go, the more jagged her steps become.  She surprises me by being extremely expressive of her complaint.  She grunts and wails and alternately gasps.  She gets anxious, and I have to speak softly to her and remind her how to breathe so that she doesn’t hyperventilate.  She stops running and walks ten steps.  “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

I’m well familiar with that particular voice.  Most runners have a mantra to use to fight back when not threatens.  I tell my legs to be quiet and silently remember scripture, His divine power has given us everything we need…everything we need…everything.we.need…The Lord will fight for you, you need only be still.  The Lord will fight for you.  I collect gifts by the dozens to distract me from unwanted thoughts of lack.  I have used these strategies to train for and run two marathons, three half marathons, and at least a dozen other races.  But in fact, I breathe similarly through the crazy, sometimes painful living of most days, running the race set before me.  All of life is training, after all.  And thought must be reshaped and sculpted lean just like muscle, sometimes painfully torn and rewritten. Thought must be well-nourished, well-fueled, intentionally directed and persistently trained.

I exhale, appraising my daughter carefully.  “You can.  You have to stop thinking that way and determine that you will.  You have to see the finish before you get there.  Breathe.  Look at the trees.  Relax.”

She stops in the middle of the path, glaring at me.  “I.don’t.want.to.do.this.if.it.hurts,” she says to my back, because I run on, hoping she will gather herself and continue.  I circle back and drop into a walk beside her.  That is the immature view:  If it’s hard, I won’t.  But she’s still such a shoot.  There’s time.

“Okay,” I say, taking a sip from my water, looking ahead of us at Riley’s back, a magenta dot bobbing into the curve in the path.  “But we’re going to have to walk a little faster or we will lose sight of your sister.”

When she sees that I have accepted her refusal, she relaxes her hands and walks a little faster.  For a few minutes, we walk companionably without speaking.  I gather up the color of algae growing on the trees, the delicate petals of a few flowers beside the path.

“But I don’t want you to be upset.  You’re not upset with me?” She asks, turning to look at me.

“No.  It’s okay.  I don’t want to force you to do this.  I want you to do it because you want to.  Maybe one day you will, maybe not.  It’s okay either way.”

“Well, I might want to try it for the next race you do.  I just didn’t know it was going to hurt. I don’t like doing it if it hurts.”

“I know.  I felt the same way when I was your age.  Papa had to really push me to get me to run at all, and he only did it because I wanted to participate in a race at school.  I get it.  It’s okay.  But you know, growing is often a painful process.  New things…new strength, new ability, new knowledge, new life…come at a price.  They take work.  And not giving up.”

It’s interesting to me, the way we learn long suffering, how it slides into every part of our lives slowly, saturating each one until we learn the story of sacrifice.  Birthing is itself a pressing through.  We imagine the fleshy soft new life in our arms, the gurgling, the tiny fists wrapped around our fingers even as pain spasms tissue-deep and spins out of our mouths in uncharted, otherwordly sounds.  We learn to remain in the smaller things first and gradually God lengthens our endurance until it encompasses far more than transitory mile markers.  At first we learn faithfulness to those we love, to those who build us, and then, before our Father will be satisfied, we learn to remain with those whose broken pieces split our fingers.  We learn to love our enemies even when they hurt us.  We learn to offer others what they don’t deserve, what we have never deserved: long suffering, steadfast, sacrificial love; compassion; grace.  And eventually, we learn this truth that never lessens the gripping agony but only serves to make us more determined not to give up:  that the most painful lessons, the hardest training, produces the most satisfying difference.

The lesson is everywhere, really—-the slow molting that sheds old skin for new, the disassembly of caterpillars that makes butterflies, the burning of forests to bring new shoots, the death of seeds to birth new blooms, the sacrificial death of a Savior to redeem a world.  Seasons of pain and terrifying change give way to what is new and fruitful.  Perserverance must finish its work (James 1: 2-4).

Zoe looks ahead at the path, the bridge, the leaves of the trees moving in the wind.  I can see her wrestling with the girl she now is and the woman she wants to become.  The expression on her face is sharp, unyielding, the seed of strength. She turns to me, grimacing, a smoldering spark.

“But it doesn’t have to be now, does it? It doesn’t have to be this?”

“No.  It doesn’t have to be now.  It doesn’t have to be this.  Another time will come.”

God accomplishes these things well in His own time.  He’s not contented with stasis.  Love won’t let Him leave us tiny and unfruitful.  If we deny one opportunity for growth, another will come until at last we take an entirely new shape, until we learn how to press on.

when my children come to me

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In the middle of the afternoon, when the sun burns so hot we can almost see the scorching heat and the grass curls brown and crackles beneath our bare feet, we eat peaches that taste of sunshine.  The sticky juice runs down our chins.  We spoon up blueberries dripping with sweet milk and push out of our chairs to walk down the back steps and stare up at the rich blue sky.  For a moment we say nothing.  We are each one temporarily lost, riding clouds that look like ocean waves.

“Mom, I’m ready to go to the beach,” Zoe finally says, with a raw voice I understand.

I put my arm around her shoulders and smile into her eyes like the sky, and I say, “I know.  Soon.  But first, just a few more weeks of school…and: homework.”

Just like that, one word splits the moment, and we walk back up the steps, resolved.  I know the longing they feel, like a calling from the sea, the whip of salt air through their hair.  I have heard my children, and that’s why I wash peaches in the thick heat and drizzle blueberries with sweet milk, and sit the elegant bowls in front of them.  It’s why we stop and walk outside barefoot in the prickly summer grass just to look at the sky.  It’s the reason I carve moments for them out of tiny gifts of grace.

It begins with a hasty countdown scrawled on our dry erase board, just where I can see.  13 more days. And then, 12.  Zoe writes it first, in her unbound, loose hand.  She decorates the letters with stars.  I read it and smile, and make note of her waiting.  Then Riley starts maintaining the count, which is really more her forte, diligently changing the numbers, rewriting them a bit more tightly.  Riley accepts what is.  She doesn’t wish, unless it’s for someone else, but she starts to speak in terms that etch scrolling lines around her hope. “Mom, it will be her birthday while I’m at the beach.”  I treasure up the words, the way they light a spark in her eyes.  And as she drops these lines more frequently in our conversations, I squeeze her shoulders and whisper, “almost…it’s almost time.”  The echoing of the two in unison makes me feel more urgent for their freedom.

And then in another day or so, Adam comes to me, appearing wild-eyed and hazy from some reverie involving music and numbers and feeling that raises a wrinkle just over the bridge of his nose, and says, “July.”

“What about July?  What happens in July?”

Trip.”

I put down whatever I’m holding and narrow my eyes.  I already know what he means to say.  “I am going on…”

“I am going on a trip.”  A smile breaks free, lifting the heavy weight of the afternoon and our work.  He makes me smile too.

“Where are you going?” I ask, savoring the sound of his voice, the fact that this longing motivates him to speak to me voluntarily.

“I am going on a trip,” he says again, and again the contagious smile lights his face.  His body surges with enthusiasm I can feel.

“I know.  But where?  Where are you going?”

The room cannot contain that smile.  “Grandma and PaPa’s house.”

“Yes.  And what will you do at Grandma and PaPa’s house?”

“I will go to the beach.” He says the whole thing, and the words I and go come out low like the trough of a wave, the others like the crest.

He says this in the afternoon, and in the morning, before school, he asks me, “May I have some come home, please,” and I have to remind him to say I want to stay home instead. So I ponder a third voice begging for freedom.  And in the afternoon, I put fat peaches in their hands and sprinkle blueberries with a tiny dusting of sugar that glints just a bit in the heat.  I beckon them to leave papers on the table and come see the blue sky.  I am touched by their unified speeches, by their unique way of telling me together—but each in a rare voice—that they feel tired and long for time unraveled and skin that feels of the sun itself.

When my children come to me, I hear the things they say and the things they don’t.  I feel the heart that beats beneath the words, the yearning, the wish.  And my desire is to say yes and it’s time, even when it isn’t.  Not yet.  As the days build and time comes, and they speak more frequently of the same hope, my heart aches still more to meet their need.  I bend toward them and imagine ways to give them glimpses of what they long to know. And somehow, the mutual calling out, the shared yearning, bonds them to each other all new.  They reach out and touch each other on the shoulders.  Zoe finishes her homework.  Her pencil snaps against the table, and she grabs Adam’s hand and pulls him out the door, and they race to the trampoline, collapsing giggly and sweaty on the hot, black round.  And I love them still more for the way they love each other.

So, in the evening, when we gather to pray, I suddenly know that this is how it is with God too, when His children come to Him.  He hears us as we begin, our voices falling like rare chords, like drizzling rain in isolated patches.  He hears what we say and also what we don’t.  He feels our hearts, sifts through them, looks right deeply past our careful facades and hears the yearning, the wish, the hope. And the more urgently we speak in unison of our desperate need, the more He longs to say yes and it’s time, and the more He imagines ways to give us glimpses of the things of which we deeply long to know.  He bends toward us and places fresh, fat grace gifts in our hands.  The juice drips sticky from our chins, tasting of His glory, the heat we ache to feel in our souls. He bids us pause in our labor and beckons us out to see what He’s done and what comes. And somehow, our mutual reaching, the blending of our hearts in prayer, bonds us more solidly to each other.  We learn to love each other all new, tied by our shared longing, sealed together by our Father and His hope, by the echo of our speeches.  Rising up from prayer, we touch each other on the shoulders.  We embrace.  We offer each other our strength, our joy, our clasped hands to run along together.  And in these sweet, carved moments, He loves us still more for the way we love each other.

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