hungry {and unashamed}

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Walking behind him, I can see clearly that his jeans only just reach his ankles.  The nurse talks over her shoulder—okay, follow me and then some small talk about the weather, the red file folder jutting out, an extension of her hand that messes up all the angles.  She fills the space with words so light that I can still keep up, even though I’m thinking, OH.my.  When did he get so tall?  I hadn’t noticed that he needed new jeans, mostly because he’s so slim that keeping the pants up has more readily captured my attention as of late.  I often reach for him and lay my fingers neatly in the valleys between his ribs.  He’s my son; I remember when I could gather the entire length of him into my arms; when his cheeks and arms and stubby legs filled my palms, round and baby-warm.

Adam is too old now to hold my hand when we walk down the hall.  He is taller than the nurse, but we are far enough apart that I can see the way her hair escapes her ponytail in unruly wisps.  She leads us to the lab, and Adam slips off his shoes before we reach the doorway, leaving them empty in middle of the glossy floor, frozen mid-stride.  He’s been doing these checkups since he was two.  I remember the days when he did not understand the words take off your shoes, when I would have to back him against the wall, kneeling down to move his fat feet back, back, no—here, so that his heels touched and they could measure his height.  Now, Adam does it on his own, dutifully holding his back up straight while the nurse slides the metal piece down gently against the top of his head.

He’s grown nearly a full inch in two months, the nurse says, jotting something quickly on a yellow sticky note pressed askew on the top of the file.  I’m not even sure why they carry the folder anymore, except that I have to sign an updated history every time, checking boxes against potentially alarming symptoms.  All of this data she will actually type into the computer, clicking for longer than the data seems, while she asks if we need any prescription refills, if we have any concerns.  Meanwhile, I will look and relook at papers stapled to a bulletin board on the wall next to me—a list of diabetes camps, an infographic about what A1C results mean; at the framed print—Dr Seuss’ Advice About Life, read thrice.

But actually, I am thinking about my son, gathering my own growth-notes in sweeping glances that glide over his cheek bones, the intense focus of his eyes, the length of his fingers as he pencil-circles a found word and then types it into the search box on Dictionary.com.  He mutters the pronunciation softly, too low for the nurse to notice, and then moves on, shifting his attention in short, quick jerks.  I can almost see the mathematical precision with which he sums this information, information that will not stay or that will sit just beyond the reach of use.  Whatever it is that jumbles the synapses in his mind has kept him wanting his whole life—wanting to know, wanting to speak, wanting to connect.  Adam is hungry all the time—hungry for knowledge, and these days, hungry for food.  This reflection makes me chuckle, and the nurse looks up from her clicking keys and smiles, wondering, as the top end of the thought escapes me aloud, unbidden.

I can’t seem to keep him full, and no wonder:  Almost a full inch in two months.  He gets his own snacks, and sometimes now I find him carb counting three granola bars and a couple of fig cookies all at once, the pile scattered around a steaming cup of coffee in the afternoon.  At a potluck last Sunday, he found me in the line to ask for help estimating the carbs for his lunch.

“How many carbs do I have?” He’d said lyrically, carefully lifting the “I” for emphasis.  He still mixes up his pronouns sometimes, so he concentrates on the shapes the sounds make, the lift of our voices, when we model them correctly for him.

“Well, I’ll have to see your plate,” I’d said, following him from the buffet to the table.  I had been caught in conversation and had not been with him in the line.  He had piled his plate as full as it possibly could be, a mountain of protein and pastas, cheeses and sauces.  I have never seen so much food on one plate.  He’s hungry, I thought, finding his unrestrained feasting both refreshing—he sees no need to hide what he needs–and also a little embarrassing.  Adam’s growing independence often reveals new lessons to teach, ways in which his failure to understand social rules makes other people uncomfortable.  After all, most of us hide our hunger neatly behind legitimate restraint.  That is, until that want becomes a beast we cannot control any longer, a monsterous thing we unsuccessfully try to satisfy multifariously.  Our idols are the gripped and wildly thrown solutions to our need, sugary substitutes for real nourishment stuffed into ravenous, gapping holes in our lives.

God has beckoned us to a feast, inviting us off the dusty streets (Matthew 22: 1-14), offering us Kingly robes in exchange for the rags of our own self-righteousness (Isaiah 64:6).  He offers Himself as the full meal, the bread that satisfies hunger, the living water that slakes our thirst.  Pile your plates high, He says.  Be unrestrained, unafraid, unembarrassed by your need for me.  And perhaps if we were a little more openly hungry for God and a little less consumed by keeping up appearances, we could find sustainance before our need becomes a beast.  In my mind, I see Him approaching me, the rags hanging from my elbows and the ridiculous way I can sometimes feign satisfaction while I’m soul-starved.

The way he’s growing, the nurse says, glancing my way as she types, I bet he eats and eats.

He never gets enough, I say, laughing.  And at potlucks…Well, I’m beginning to think I need to give him a list and some boundaries before we go.  I open up a little window, so that she can catch a glimpse of my thoughts, that moutainous plate.

But at least he knows what he lacks and seeks after the right solutions, I’m thinking.  I never get enough of God, but so often I reach for so many substitutes for what I really need.  I watch Adam, circling and searching for words—reaching for what he needs—and suddenly I’m reminded of a passage I read in the morning, just as the light brought in the day:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory, and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:3).

Sustaining all things by His powerful word.  I had underlined the words and re-written them in my journal.  Sustaining all things, it says.  So God reaches into me, pointing to something already written there. “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:3),” and then “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).”  It’s a misread, a sad mistake, to believe God has promised an end to physical need for the faithful.  He has promised, instead, to be the spiritual feast, offering Himself as the sacrificial meal.  And in fact, He has promised a ravenous and continuous hunger that can only be satisfied with Him, a longing that will become a monsterous, discontented and angry beast unless we openly consume Him, unrestrained and unconcerned with propriety.  In that way, our hunger is actually a gift, a gnawing reminder of our need for God and the grace-given invitation to feast.  In my journal, I wrote a single question:  Why, knowing this, do I so often, so quickly reach for sustainance in empty things?

I can’t help but think of this now, talking to the nurse about how growing makes Adam hungry.  I can always have absolutely as much of God as I want, and all my hungry feasting on Him means I will grow tall too.  And does God then smile, remembering me as a babe?

OH, let him eat, the nurse says, grinning.  He needs it.  “Look at him,” she says, gesturing toward him with an open hand.  “Every thing he eats right now goes into bone growth.  He needs that food for strength.”  She shrugs, laughing.  “Who cares what people think?”

*~*

…his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither (Psalm 1:2,3).

Meditation on the Bible is more than just intense thinking.  …Meditation is spiritually “tasting” the scripture—delighting in it, sensing the sweetness of the teaching, feeling the conviction of what it tells us about ourselves, and thanking God and praising God for what it shows us about him.  Meditation is also spiritually “digesting” the Scripture–applying it, thinking about how it affects you, describes you, guides you in the most practical way.  It is drawing strength from the Scripture…(Timothy Keller, Prayer, 150-151)

just breathe

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For a moment, just breathe.

Morning run under bluest skies, and the warmth of the sun splits apart the crisp, cool evidence of a night safely passed.  The trees, red and swollen, change the tone of the landscape, pregnant now with possibility.  Spring comes suddenly, like a first breath, a startled gasp exhaled as relief; a seal broken on an empty tomb, air rushing to fill the void.  The New Testament word for Spirit–pneuma–literally means moving air, or a breath, and God, He fills all our empty caverns with Himself, rushing right in. New life always begins with the first real breath.

I inhale slowly, tasting the breeze for hints of blooming, memorizing the gift, considering something a friend of mine once said about breathing:  We take it for granted until we can’t.  She would know.  She has a chronic illness that robbed her of her lungs, and she once told me that before her transplant, she felt starved for air.  You don’t know how precious it is to breathe until you can’t.  We gloss right over the simple profoundity of being emptied and re-filled, the instinctive way we let go of what we have and see it rotundly returned, the way the seasons pass and things die away only to bud and rebloom.  And sometimes, we’re just to busy to take notice.

So for a moment, maybe, just breathe.

Every empty space only waits for re-filling, and our arms have been sculpted for carefully gathering waiting treasures tucked away in grass blades, the bright orbs trimming the edges of our living.  Where ever we go, God has been before, planting grace.  He has promised never to leave us empty.  He waits, watching, drawing a finger out to nudge us toward the bright slip of color we’ve not yet discovered.  Look, just there, just carefully.  Now. Breathe.

I run through cherry blossoms scattered on the sidewalk, and I think of the number I will write in my journal back at home, the round O filled with my counting, another empty orb God has well-filled with grace.  Cherry blossoms, silk-delicate, tossed across the path.

He is forever filling up something empty.  God fills my arms with the warmth of my children, my mouth with indulgent food, my hands with deft ability, my home with music, joy, love, laughter.  And He fills me with Himself.  It’s what He does.  He rushes in, a bold breath, startling me newly alive, offering me abundance if I will take up the gifts He offers, ready, just there at my fingertips.  If I can surrender long enough to be satisfied.

It’s a funny thing about breathing, that it requires surrender. After that first breath, every last one only comes after we let go of the stale stuff we’re holding onto. Renewal is written right into living.

I’m not fast as a runner, but I try for negative splits. I push myself up a hill, and the faster I run, the harder I breathe. I smile, remembering the way, as a young runner, this quick exchange used to cause me such gulping anxiety. I can’t, I can’t suffocated both my faith and my view of the truth that I was breathing—empty then filled, empty then filled, and it was enough.  Sometimes, this desperate fear had been enough to make me stop still in the path, defeated.  But that’s what fear does, especially the fear that we will not find the sustainance we need. Hunger, need–it’s all just a cavernous place ready for God, a place He’s promised to fill.  Endurance has stretched my understanding of possibility, and I have learned that things are hardly ever as they seem.   These days, I run certain my mind will betray me before my lungs give out and still more certain that God will do as He has promised.  When I feel emptied, He has already begun to fill me again.

So rounding a turn, I lift my legs and whisper an echo miles-long:  just breathe.  

Gift, unwrapped

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This morning, I finally open the box.  The lid slides free with a sigh, the satisfying thwump of gift opened, gift held, gift counted.

Riley gave me a white hyacinth bulb for Christmas, seed of promise in a rooting vase the color of water.  I hold the bulb in my palm, cupping my hand around its teardrop shape, and I lift the vase up to the light.  The artfully cracked glass splits gentle morning rays, scattering them all over my kitchen.  Riley’s gifts have always expressed a bit of her soul, as I suppose does all of our giving, as I certainly know does God’s. Her gifts come thoughtful, vibrant, sometimes eccentric, sometimes deep, sometimes with a quirky grin.  When I open this one, I draw a finger across the photograph on the front of the box, the gentle curve of sculpted petals, thinking the gift altogether simple and exquisite, something uniquely special–a seed of beauty waiting to be revealed, a gift waiting within a gift waiting, a promise encased in a frail and temporary shell.

Christmas tells a seed story, a Promise encased in a frail and temporary shell.  And Easter unwraps the gift.

In the days after Christmas, I placed the box, still closed, beside my kitchen sink.  Over days of suds, I have imagined that delicate bloom.  I have relished the possibility of a single pure life.  Meanwhile, I feel in my hands the chapped, cracked reality of cleaning that never really ends.  Dishes always find their way right back to the sink.  And before the Lamb, the blood of thousands of inadequate sacrifices ran rank and dirt thick in the ancient streets.  One way or another, we human beings always find our way back to the altar, with the dust all clinging to our fingers.

I waited to root my white hyacinth, Riley’s pristine gift, until the Lenten days began to swell.  And now, it feels as though the time has come, ripe for the death of a seed, the resurrection of a life.  Fill the water until it’s close–but not touching—the bottom of the bulb.  There’s something about the reaching that makes these shriveled, brittle roots fill strong, plump.  Place the vase in a dark, cool place, like a basement or a cellar until the stem grows 3 inches tall.  A dark, cool place, pitch like a tomb, like a cocoon.  I sigh.  I knew this about bulbs, and yet, I had wanted to watch.  I lift the vase and bulb, the water swaying, and take them to the garage.  It’s the best I can do, and it seems to be the place in this house where things go to die.  Listen carefully, Word says: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal (John 12:24, MSG). Unless it is buried; unless you let go, reckless; life never becomes more than just a seed.  So it is with gifts, too.  If I let go, reckless, the gifts God freely gives multiply and reproduce.

It occurs to me that all our births and rebirths happen out of dark spaces.  Even my own body began as a tiny seed so planted.  And out of our deepest pain, our withered reaching for water and light, come vibrant growth and strong, solid roots for pressing on. Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4, NIV).  It’s no mistake that bulbs are shaped like teardrops. Perseverance is hard fought.  Roots take effort.  But in every darkness, a promise waits, rooting a greater glory. So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace (2 Cor. 4:16-18, MSG).

I sometimes wonder why the resurrection sometimes feels just beyond our reach, since its story is the water, the root, the vase, the bloom, the divine-spun thread holding everything living together. For in Him, we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28, NIV). Again and again, we all live and breathe resurrection. We touch it, we taste it, we gather its hope in our hands. We, ourselves, our very skin and bone, are resurrection-born. We thrash forth from our darknesses and breathe, rooted for new life, for fruit-bearing. We live raised. And without the resurrection, we of all people, are to be most pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19, NIV). So, if we grasp about for it sometimes, if we feel all weary-dead and reaching, perhaps it’s only to grow roots that will last.

…until the stem is 3 inches tall, the box says. Then, place it in a bright, warm place to bloom. So, I sigh, settling my Promise seed in a quiet space.  3 days it was, for the ones left waiting while our Lord was in the tomb. So, I wait. I leave the tear-shaped cocoon in the still dark until sheds its temporary, withered shell. I wait for the pure white bloom. And all my waiting on resurrection will be worthwhile. Because within the gift a far more glorious gift waits.

*~*

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.  But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body….So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15: 35-38, 42-44).

pray with me

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Zoe grabs my hand before I turn.

“Wait.”

We stand on the threshold looking out at the world.  Clouds wrap thick, dove-gray over the warmth of the sky, until all sight takes on a stormy cast.  Winter lingers, and I want to reach out and touch the knobby buds on the branches of the tree in front of me, to feel the ripeness of promise in my fingers.  This time of year, I start giving thanks for signs of resurrection.

Wait.  Pray with me.” Before we go back inside, she means, while yet we stand facing the knobby tree, the gray sky, the wet street.  We had watched Kevin and Adam round the corner, waving, blowing kisses with our hands and whispering blessings over their day.  In this house, we bless departures and anticipate arrivals, One above all others.

Zoe threads her fingers through my own and pulls me closer, reaching with her other arm to hook Riley about the waist, and I turn to see them, my daughters, leaning into each other.  Riley’s hair falls on Zoe’s shoulder in loose golden ribbons.  Already, they have closed their eyes, have tilted their peaceful faces down and into each other.  And it touches me, the way prayer makes tight cords of separate threads.

I close my eyes, turning toward my girls, squeezing Zoe’s hand, and she begins, “Lord, please just watch over my day at school.  Help me to be able to concentrate on my work and not to have headaches or earaches today.  Please, just be with me.”  That prayer makes me smile, mom-thankful, that she intones the most basic longing of the soul over her everyday, not just her moments of crisis. Just be with me.  She reminds me of something Moses once said to God: If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up (Exodus 33: 15).  I’ll go, as long as I know you go with me.  And He does.  He always has.  He always will be with us—in the fiery furnace, in the storm, even in the valley of the shadow of darkness.  And I will fear no evil, for you are with me (Psalm 23:4).  He is God with us, Immanuel (Matthew 1:23), who has promised never will I leave (Joshua 1:5), and so, the Spirit seals us as His (Ephesians 1:13) and indwells (Romans 8:11).  In the shelter of prayer, the Spirit reminds us that this is the basis of our need, the bottom line for our uncertainty.  And the action of prayer itself answers this heartfelt utterance, reminding us of Truth.  I can go as long as I know you’re with me.  

Then go, because I AM.

Bent into my daughter, I whisper my agreement–Yes–because all of His promises are yes in Christ (2 Cor.1:20)–yes right into her hair, and together we say Be with us and together we touch His face and together we grip promise in our needy, open fingers.  She prays over her day at school, calling the power of the Almighty God right into her day, turning over to Him illness that kept her home this week, the vulnerability she felt in the face of pain and physical weakness.  It’s seems like the tiniest thing, but it’s never small to fall into His arms.   It’s never a weakness to practice the Presence of God.

Wait.  Pray with me, she says.  It frames a relationship another way to fold into God together.  With me weaves cord (Eccl. 4:12)—Him with us, you with me—it shatters lonely fear.  She grabs my hand, and I wonder why we all don’t do this more, why we say pray for me and walk away lonely more often than we reach for each other and say pray with me, right now, before we go…so we can go. 

It touches me, the tenderness of Zoe’s voice as she speaks beyond the deceptive veil of human sight, with the gentle-powerful words of a daughter of God.  It is an echo, something gathered, a new chord in a history of relationship thrumming with this life-changing witness:  He is come.  He is with us.  Yes, Lord, be with us.  His heart beats the reconciliation of all things to Himself.  And this is all I want for my children, their lives woven straight into the fabric of truth.  Indeed, I have no greater joy (3 John 1:4). 

Amen–so be it, and we lift our heads again, our eyes open to the thick, wrapped sky.  No storm can cover over Truth; no Winter lingering can stop Promise rising.  Riley lifts a hand, just briefly, flicking her gaze well past the knobby tree.  Hi, God, she says.  Hi, Jesus.  He equips her as a greeter, and she greets Him too, our hearts still opened wide, and I do not miss the smile in it, even as the simple power of her acknowledgement captures me.   She has heard the whisper of a voice like rushing water, saying again,

Yes, I AM. I will be.  I am always with you.

*~*

My house will be called a house of prayer…Isaiah 56:7

You heavens above, rain down my righteousness;
    let the clouds shower it down.
Let the earth open wide,
    let salvation spring up…Isaiah 45:8

snow falls {and my grip falls}

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Snow falls, and the gathering white arrests our attention.  Somewhere between bacon sizzling and deftly wacking the eggs against the clear bowl with the tiny chip just there, my phone rings.  An automated message from the school system.  The voice comes through just a little too loud, and I lift my coffee cup (poured steamy the second time) for a sip.

I don’t do well with interruptions or uncertainties.

And just like that the day changes, and I feel the daily minutiae slip from my careful hands, right off the pages of my planner.  I stare at the neat row of lunches on the kitchen counter.  Riley sits at the bar just over them, sleep still settled like a veil over her light skin, and I can’t help but wish the call had come just twenty minutes earlier, when I might have silenced the alarm that woke her for another school day.  She rubs her nose with her hand, looking up from her tablet.  “Huh?  Mom?  What are they saying?”

“2 hour delay…because of snow.”

“Oh, yea,” she says, and her face brightens with relief.  A few more hours to be home, a few more hours away from the stress of school.

“I just wish they had called before you woke up,” I say, exchanging my gratitude for a criticism.  So often, that choice comes as easy as breathing.  “You could have slept in.”

“Oh,” she says, and her voice slides down, immediately repentant, as though this comment somehow highlights an inadequacy of her own.

“It’s not your fault, sweetie.  I just meant that you might have wanted to sleep a bit more.  It’s okay for you to be awake.”  She accepts what is,  without really even considering what might have been.  I walk to the window, drawing back one of the curtains to squint into the still dark.  Nothing.  I drop the curtain and return to the kitchen and breakfast.  2 hour delay? For what?  I lift my phone and hit the button to check the forecast.  Light snow.  Yesterday, I found it warm enough to squeeze in a run in the morning.  Whatever this weather may be, it can’t possibly stick.

And then again, Riley brightens.  “What will you do today?” She asks, and suddenly I start counting hours and measuring the new, much smaller spaces between the boxed appointments in my planner.  Now if the kids go to school at all, I will be juggling drop offs and trying to make it everywhere on time.  I feel stress collecting at the base of my neck, a dense throb that will turn into pain before the end of the day.

It’s subtle, the way something good becomes an idol.  I map out the next week the week before, drawing boxes in pencil around specific time commitments, curvy, free-flow bubbles around gifted bits of expected joy.  I make it a habit to look a month a head and consider what must be handled in advance.  I strive for balance and appropriately reflected priorities.  I consider organization and planning good stewardship, a strategy for effective service.  But if I rely on my planning for peace, if I use this illusion of control as my anchor,  I have made an idol of what should only be a tool.

Outside, light softly, silently comes, and with it the fat, white flakes, blanketing our day with beauty.  Adam wakes and wanders downstairs, stopping still in front of a window, content just to watch the snow fall.  He stands captivated by the gentle changes in the trees, the grass.  He reminds me, sometimes, to see.

But as it happens, today I am captured by my to do list and all the neat plans I had for accomplishment.  I know what this will mean:  deadlines don’t melt away with the weather.  The snow falls, and with it falls my grip.  Hours disappear and I feel adrift, because nothing happens on time and everything is interrupted and I bounce from task to task, unsure exactly what I’ve done or what remains.  I’ve lost my anchor and I can’t find land.  Yes, that’s it.  These snow days and days and days make me feel lost at sea.  And that’s when I realize that my organized plan has become the thing I depend on for peace.  I look up from my work, and my son stands anchored at the window, watching, his breath coming slow, like the snowfall, and Riley sits content at the bar, writing gratitude with rainbow pens.  And the Spirit moves, reminding me.

3.8 sermon

I walk to my computer where I’ve been making graphic art for a teaching coming, and it’s an image of two soul-hungry men lost at sea with these words etched The Reason He Came.  “I am the way,” He said (John 14:6), and it wasn’t so we’d have another reason to congratulate ourselves on self-righteousness.  It’s because He is the way, not careful planning or advanced degrees or amassed wealth or human ability or good health or winning pubic opinion.  The early church referred to each other as followers of The Way (Acts 24:14), for just this reason.  I have known this for so long, have felt it, have lived it.  Again and again He has shown me, that He is the answer to my questions of how, stretching the boundaries of my faith.  And still so subtly it happens that I replace the real anchor for an illusion.

Adam watching snow

I leave Adam’s plate on the table and stand beside him, watching the snow begin to collect.  Enough of this, and everything will just be white.  Snow always reminds me of Jesus.  Come now, let us settle the matter, says the LORD, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).  He is the pristine white robe worn by every new soul, and in just the way the weather upends my schedule, he upends a life, re-centering it on Himself.  Snow falls, and Word falls, and Adam I stand washed in early light.  Word says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like the shifting shadows (James 1:17),” softly nowand “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged (Deut. 31:8),” and, lightly drifting, “now to him who is able to do more than all we ask or imagine according to his power at work within us, to him be glory (Ephesians 3:20, 21).”  I want to turn up a hand and let it gather there. “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us (2 Cor. 4: 7),” and so lightly, “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5),” and covering us stunning, “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the LORD, not for human masters (Col.3:23).”  Right there in front of the window, He redefines my work.  He recasts my accomplishment.  He reminds me that nothing can be the way, or the why, or the how, apart from Him.  He is the anchor I will never lose, not in the deepest sea, or the greatest storm.

And when I hold fast to Him, my organized plan can be a tool but not my master.  Because no matter how things look to me, the truth is that He is able.

doing love

I am folding towels, warm against my hands, pressing them into neat lines, when Adam appears in the doorway, carefully balancing a mug in his hands.  His fingers grip the sculpted handle, which is blue like a strip of summer sky arching over a field of yellow flowers.  The mug is one of my favorites, and it surprises me to realize that he has gathered this fact and kept it.  His other hand rests flat, opened up long and slender beneath the bottom of the mug, there both to steady the cup and to catch any errant drips.  Adam watches the way the coffee swells close to the edge, a caramel-colored wave rising and falling as he walks.  He bites his lip, lightly, lifting his eyes up to me and back to the mug, silently offering his gift.

And I am stunned that he thought of me.  I say his name, more a gasp than a clear articulation, thanksgiving gushing after, and his lips curve in a faint smile. Doing is the weight of saying, and not the big grandiose things but the tiny, the daily, the sweet-in-the middle of the ordinary, the glisten of love on a crumbly day.  Saying love finds shape in doing love, just as saying faith finds significance in living faith.  We need the words, but with them, we need the substance of something held, something touched, something treasured.  Doing love means what it says.

At first, we parents of childen with autism draw out the words, the articulations that frame relationships.  I remember how I waited for the first time that my son would tell me on his own—not in response or repetition or because I prompted, but because he chose to say those words: I love you, Mom.  And when at last he did—little boy with his hands on my shoulders, I cried.  When your once-silent children speak, any words sound beautiful, but those words, those arms-around-me, reaching-into-me words; those how-I-know-you words signify a wealth of waiting.  Those words are a door.  Beyond it, we wonder if our children feel the words when spoken, if love means anything to them.  Or, is it merely another ritual, the saying of love?  Only now has Riley grown old enough to ask, often dozens of times in one day, about the meanings of words I thought she knew long ago, and Adam has yet to find his way to complicated questions.

We joke sometimes that Adam is like an old man trapped in a boy’s body, the way he holds affection for certain routines—eggs and bacon for breakfast, a cup of coffee at 4 in the afternoon.  Among parents of children with autism, rigidity—with it’s iron-written reign—is water-cooler talk.  But no one wants love that is merely routine.

Adam had asked me to make a pot of coffee before I walked upstairs, because that has become an uncompromising expectation, one motivating enough that he has learned how to make his own cup whenever he must.  May I please have Mom making some coffee, please, he said, in those low, rich, careful tones.  But most always, he has finished his own cup of coffee before I make it back downstairs—licking the last drops from the edge of the mug with his tongue, having learned a long time ago to serve himself.  Adam’s routines are mostly self-satisfying at this point, bringing him comfort.

But today, he thought of pleasing me.  In the middle of his routine, he selected my favorite mug, poured in sweet cream, filled coffee to the brim, and then traveled all the way up the stairs to find me, balancing the steamy cup.  He served me first—just me.  And I stood breathless, sipping the steam of love with shape, holding it warm in my hands.

And then it struck me, cutting deep, the way I can let saying love fall empty of doing, the way I can let loving God and loving people become a self-satisfying routine.  And nobody wants loving that is merely a routine.  God wants a love that thinks of Him, that stops in the middle of the routine and remembers what He wants, what He favors; a love that serves Him first, even if it means traveling far and balancing careful, even if it’s a risk that could swell and drip down, burning the yielded hands that carry the gift. And people, being made in His likeness, long for real love, too, the kind of love that takes creativity and has shape and feels weighty about the shoulders.  The kind of love that’s always new, and sometimes even a surprise.

So now this, as my son turns to go, this lip-bitten prayer lifted with my hands open flat: Oh Lord, teach me to do love like that.

*~*

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1John3:18).”

look what I found

In my cabinet sits a carefully labeled bowl, a sticky note in Riley’s tight hand perched on its rosy scalloped edge.  Riley’s Bowl of Game Choices, it says, or some such thing.  Below it, another bowl with another sticky note, something like Games We Have Already Played.  As she gets older, Riley imposes her own structure over things, and this is something her brother appreciates more than most.

I peek at them through the doorway, gathering up the way he stands on his tiptoes, so happy that it flows right out of his moving hands while she plucks a single bright yellow slip from the bowl of choices.  Those hands, they float and jerk and fly madly in anticipation.

“Racko,” she reads carefully.

“Check! We are having Racko,” he trills in his rich, full voice, as though making an announcement.  I love that voice.  I never get tired of hearing him speak.  When for so long they say nothing, every word becomes a treasure.  And when for so long they live apart right in the midst of together, every true connection is a find.  Maybe the moment seems small, but to me, it feels immense.

“Yes, Adam,” Riley answers, “we are playing Racko.”  She tilts her head, appraising him, and together they walk to the cabinet to pull out the game box.  This has become their favorite thing to do, the thing she picks when I tell her, This is time to do something you enjoy, because you need some time for those things too.  This is time for laughter, time without stress or fear.  She calls up through the ceiling, where her voice blends with the music Adam breathes like air, and he always runs down, machine-gun legs against the stairs.  They have become a comfort to each other, and this moves me to give thanks.  To have a companion, a friend, who understands the way you’re put together, that’s a grace.  My children have found safe harbor, moored together.

I stand in the doorway, my hand gripping the grooved frame, gathering up peace until it covers me.  This companionable ease is something Adam learned at school—a small, desperately needed place where there is no weird.  The children at Dynamic-–the first charter school of its kind in our state, a school for middle and high school students with disabilities–understand each other uniquely, so much so that the older, more articulate students have been known to advocate aloud for their younger peers, interpreting when language becomes a barrier.  In the last six months at Dynamic, Adam has shown more rapid social growth then I have ever seen in him before, and I know those gains have come because of the safe, comfortable influence of friends who understand how he ticks, who don’t see him as other, who appreciate all his idiosyncratic seams as the interesting elements of his personality.  And I smile, thinking, just look what God has done.

Now, watching my children together, the way Riley breathes without trembling, I pray silently for the longevity of this school, for her ability to join Adam there next year.  She could use some of the peace that has settled over her brother.  I have been told that there’s just no right fit for her in traditional high school, that as the crowds and the overwhelming sensory quagmire and the language-heavy grading and the quick pace of the curriculum pile more and more stress on her shoulders, my only option is to choose between her anxiety and her future.  I sigh, tightening my grip on the door frame.  Riley laughs, telling Adam it’s his turn, gesturing toward the box.  She made the A/B honor roll last quarter, and yet, they say that the only way to guard her against the anxiety she now feels over school is to choose not to let her pursue an academic diploma.  No.  There’s another option.  Dynamic.  Our exceptional children need more schools like this one.  We must insist on their potential.  See, I’ve gathered progress and possibility in these arms, and I’m not ready to let it fall.

Adam reaches up and flicks Riley’s ear with his fingers, his smile a wide, contented curve, and once again, I give thanks.  Thank you for giving my son a place to grow, for showing me this.  Adam hasn’t always been so ready to interact, even with Riley.

He used to argue about playing games with us, first a “no,” and then continual questions about when he could be finished or how many rounds of whatever we would insist that he play.  We endured many family nights ruined by his complaint, simply because we cared enough to insist that he work at engaging.  He loved us, loved being near us, but didn’t care to interact or just didn’t know how.

I remember the way Adam’s protests once drove Riley to tears, the way she would clasp her hands over her ears as though his words flew in like barbs and hung there, stinging.  “I don’t like it when you complain,” she would say, the words awash with pain.  So many times, the last energy we had floated away on her grief.  So now, watching them play—he with his arm sometimes casually thrown around her shoulders, his ruffled head bobbing near her cheek–it stops me still and fills my eyes and reminds me how to breathe.  Slow down now; See; Gather up what God has given.

Last week, Adam stayed home from school one day because he was ill, finally accepting my insistance that today he just couldn’t go—It’s time to go, he’d said.  Dad’s truck.  School.  And in the hours when I just had to cook or clean or fold, he found that bowl with the sticky note perched on its scalloped edge and played game after game alone. But it wasn’t the same. The papers snaked across the carpet, a bright yellow line, as though he couldn’t quite make them travel to the other bowl without her.  When I walked through the room, he lifted his eyes and said, “Where’s Riley?”

“At school.  You know Riley’s at school.”

“Be right back,” he said, turning his attention back to the game, the line of yellow slips.  “What’s your favorite time?”  Or, in other words, when will she be home?  He lamented being at home without her, he who used to be so lone.  This is an immeasurable gift, a new and glinting joy.

And so, I give thanks, gathering up the moment and carrying it away with me, leaving my space in the doorway, lest my children catch a glimpse of me and contrive to be something other than the beautiful they are right now.

*~*

How can it be that a school that serves such an important need, a place where our children are growing so much, could be under threat of closure?  Well, we’re doing a revolutionary thing, and no one in the establishment likes a revolution.  Read about this amazing place and a concept that works, and consider helping us stay open.  Will you lend us your voice, your prayers, your resources?  We know God can provide what’s needed, that He may even use some of you to do it, but even if He doesn’t, we will never be able to praise Him loudly enough.  We trust God, in this and all else.

afraid

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“I always eat slowly right before school.”  She says it quietly, when she knows I stand listening, when it’s just the two of us in the room.

Two days back to school, and every morning Riley comments that she’s cold and wraps her legs with a blanket.  She sometimes tries to stand so that I won’t notice she’s shaking.

She sits at the bar across from where I work, nibbling tiny bites from a piece of toast, chewing each one until it must be nearly nothing on her tongue.  She eats slowly, which means—I’ve come to understand—that anxiety has taken it’s stand against her, that she’s nauseous and afraid she’ll gag, that tremors run up and down her legs.  Sometimes, she says she has chills in her mouth.

Over the break, the symptoms of her fear smoothed away, gradually, like a receding wave leaving the shore all new.  Eventually, she stopped worrying that every bite might make her throat convulse.  But now we’re two days back, and she says, “I always eat slowly right before school,” and beneath each word, I hear panic dripping.  Anxiety like hers is a physiological reality for a majority of teens with autism and is almost guaranteed for epileptics approaching young adulthood.  Maturity births awareness—the knowledge that she doesn’t always understand what words mean, the fact that she loses time to invisible seizures, the truth that not many of her peers appreciate her as she is—or, to say it as she does, the way God made her.  Sensory stress, especially in crowded spaces like school, makes it difficult for her to blend in and go unnoticed.

I put down the damp dish towel I hold in my hands and walk around to kiss Riley’s cheek, to rest my forehead against hers.  And just when I make it to her side, Zoe appears on the other, as though Riley’s fear drew her downstairs.

“I know,” I say, grazing Riley’s cheek with my hand.  “Can we pray with you?”

She nods, swallowing hard, and I put my hand on her back.  Zoe reaches for us, and we are three stretching, Three bending, three melted into each other.

“Dear Lord, please,” I whisper, and Riley breathes, and with her exhale comes the sound of relief, a smile we can hear.  In the midst of her anxiety, she often reminds me about the power in clinging.  I watch her cover her mouth, running toward the bathroom in false alarm, and I hear her behind the closed door, pleading alone, “Lord, please.”  So now, we go together, three souls asking.  And as I speak to Him of Riley’s worries and the washing away, she exhales as though she feels Him touching her.

When we open our eyes, she has found her smile.  “Mom?  God is with me,” she says, speaking the same truth as on those false alarm days, when she finally comes out from behind the door and meets my eyes.

“Yes.  He is,” I say, and Zoe and I wrap her in our arms, and for a few minutes, we just stand knotted together, a cord of three not easily broken.  And in just that way, she teaches me what to do with my fear, my uncertainty, my overwhelming inadequacy.  She teaches me to pray, to trust, and to obliterate trembling with the truth.

*~*

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

what He does

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Afternoon, and I give thanks that I am sitting alone in the waiting room at the pediatric dental office, because this gratitude always comes fresh.  I never forget the difference between now and then, those days when I held my tears because of his, when it took three people just to clean his teeth.  They used to put us in the baby room with the plastic kitchen and the wilted stuffed animals, and I used to stretch my body over the length of him while he screamed.  And still, we needed an extra hygenist to hold the one free arm I just couldn’t keep pinned beneath the weight of me.  It was an impossible time.

I’ll never forget the look on Adam’s face—sheer terror blended with a full measure of disbelief, that I, his mother, would allow them to torture him, would help them do it. That look ripped through me; I carried it, heavy.  I remember the metal contraption they put in his mouth to keep it open, cranked wide against his will.  I remember the way his body felt beneath my own—the muted thrashing, like a scream stopped by my hand, like a protest against the unredeemable.  Please, how could you, how could you, how could you, his eyes flashed, and tears soaoked his cheeks and my clothes, and I wondered if he would ever be able to manage it.

We had to hospitalize and anesthetize our son to have his cavities filled, and at the same time, the dentist sealed his six-year molars and took x-rays.  She knew they’d never be able to accomplish any of that while Adam was awake and terrified.  Those days, we had a short list of foods Adam would eat, because he was afraid of the feel of certain textures on his tongue, as though the wealth of sensation brought him pain.  Dental visits amounted to violation.

But today, I sit alone in the waiting room, giving thanks.  Because God can redeem anything.

These days, when the hygenist comes out, Adam stands up with the girls and walks back on his own, and the only thing he wants to know is, How long?

He stops the hygenist in the doorway, looking at his watch, tilting his head the way he does when he’s trying to listen carefully, trying to sort out words from the wealth of information in the room.  “Until…“Adam says, leading her.  When she doesn’t answer right away, he looks at me.  “It’s time to go home,” he says.  But I ignore this, looking past him to the hygenist.

“I’m sorry, he wants to know how long it will take.”  I offer a time, a question, generously adding on a half hour more than I think it will take them to examine his teeth.

She looks at her watch.  “Well, they have x-rays today, so…”  She wobbles her head back and forth, considering.  X-rays.  Adam hasn’t had xrays since the hospital.  It’s uncomfortable, and no one can go in with him, and they don’t tell him how long to “stay like this.”  I have coached them on this, but I haven’t been able to convince them that they need to be specific.  I don’t have high hopes for x-rays.  Usually, the hygenist shrugs at the end, and says, “Well, we tried, but,” and we all agree to try again the next time.  Today, she agrees that my suggested finish time will likely work, and Adam nods, satisfied.  I chuckle, watching him disappear through the door, the bony shoulders, the long legs.  The hygenist doesn’t understand that she has committed to a contract.

From time to time, sitting in that chair in the waiting room, I hear Adam squeal, and I lift my eyes toward the door, away from my computer and my work. But it’s only the sound of mild disapproval that has replaced the terror of years ago.  He still struggles, sometimes audibly, most often trying to convince the hygenist that she is actually finished.  And they still have a note on his chart about the sticky flouride, because it used to make him gag.  But I’m sitting out here, and he’s back there, and he has enough words now not even to need the communication book we used to carry, the first thing that eased his fear, the first way they used to tell him what they were doing, what they needed from him.  Sometimes, when we’re all wrapped up with impossible, progress seems like such an empty promise.  I’d like to go back now and tell that emptied, carved out shell of me gathering bags in her sore arms that there’s always room for hope, because nothing is impossible for God.  I used to leave these appointments with my heart full of questions and heavy doubt—How will I ever keep doing this?

A click, and the hygenist appears, motioning for me to join her in the back.  “Adam’s twelve-year molars are in,” she tells me as we walk down the hall, “and we’ll need to seal those.  We can do those right now, if you want to.  We got xrays today, and–”

“You got xrays today?  You did get them,” I clarify, as we walk through the door and the dentist looks up from Zoe’s teeth and smiles, and Riley grins at me from where’s she sits in a chair by the window.  From one of the exam chairs, Adam cranes his neck to see me.  He wears black sunglasses, and I wonder if that’s just something for him, until I notice Zoe’s orange ones, a little too small.

“Yes,” the hygenist says, smiling.  “He did well.” Yes?  Yes?

And I think maybe I will fall down, washed over by a grateful wave.  This means he understood, I’m thinking.  This means he managed patience with his discomfort.  This means he “stayed like this,” and waited.  I cannot explain what God accomplishes.

“So, do you want us to go ahead and seal his molars?” She asks, and I hesitate, remembering.

But Adam lays patiently in that exam chair, touching the red vinyl with his fingers, flicking glances at his watch, and I see that we still have plenty of time.

“Sure,” I say, and the hygenist tells me, motioning with her hand, that I can just sit in the chair beside Riley and watch.  And just briefly, I see myself stretched out, covering over the length of him, singing soft songs into his ears while he screams.

The hygenist tells Adam that she will “paint” his teeth, and then she slides that ugly metal tool into his mouth to keep it open, resting it lightly against his cheek.  He hates that thing.  But this time it’s loose, only just sitting easy.

“Why did she put that in Adam’s mouth?” Riley asks bluntly, and I explain that sometimes Adam has a hard time remembering to keep his mouth open.

“Well, actually, I just put that in there because it’s hard to keep your mouth open as long as he will need to for the sealant,” she says to me.  “It’s just to help him.”

And almost in reply, Adam reaches up and removes it, handing it back to her.

“Trust me, mister,” she says to him, laughing, pressing her hand lightly over Adam’s shoulder as she replaces it.  “Leave your hands by your sides, please.”

Leave your hands by your sides, please.  I watch Adam, waiting, remembering the years gone by, the terror in his eyes, the screaming, the feel of him thrashing beneath me.  But today, today in the shadow of that old fear, he lifts his legs just a little and crams his own hands underneath, as though he can’t trust himself unless, and then he settles his head back against the chair to wait.  Did he really just do that? Everything goes blurry with my mom-tears, and I swallow hard because no one could possibly understand.  I am suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude, breath-robbed by possibility. I gasp at a full glimpse of redemption.

Never, never, never give up–It settles somewhere deep, resting, a treasure for another impossible time.  Whenever I feel weary with the so hard, I will take out the glinting gem—those long-fingered hands self-crammed beneath his legs–and examine it closely.  I will grip the wealth of it in my hands until they’re sweaty.  I will plant this precious stone in the heart of our living as a memorial, a glimpse of the Glory of a great King whose power obliterates can never be. 

It’s what He does.

*~*

“Let the redeemed of the Lord

tell their story–(Psalm 107:2)”

she’s strong

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I walk in, and she sits alone on the third row—she, only here to be with; she, who forgets how to breathe when being means there’s just too much to absorb.  She has the courage of a lion, and most don’t even know.  A movie flashes large on the screen at the front of the room, but I hardly notice the blur of its color, the garble of sound.

I notice the knot of girls side-by-side at the back of the room, girls Riley’s age, like new birds twittering on an electric line.  They wear their closeness like a shade, like a brand that makes them okay.  They flick hair and glances and glossy smiles, and in every way as it’s always been—they don’t seem to realize how much she’d love to be with them—she, and another few scattered around, rows away from them, each like an unprotected ewe without the strength of their numbers.

Riley finds no other wants besides this one: connection with girls her own age.

If only they knew, I stand there thinking, that she studies YouTube videos for hours trying to understand how to talk to them, trying to figure out what to say.  If only they knew that sometimes when she’s with them she eats herself sick because at least eating is something they can do together.  If only they knew that she thinks of them as her friends; that she wants to invite them to her celebrations; that she never says or thinks or feels an unkind thing toward any of them.  If only they knew that to her, they’re always beautiful just the way they are, never “too” anything, never out of place. And I don’t know, because maybe they do know and just don’t yet understand the value of that kind of friendship.

It’s not that these girls mean to be unkind, just that Riley can’t quite reach them.  She stretches and tries, and they’re nice enough, even often tolerant of her presence and her idiosyncracies.  It seems as though they recognize that they can and should be charitable to her, without ever understanding the gift she offers them.  She isn’t usually invited into their knots.

I motion, catching Riley’s glance from the doorway, and she smiles, standing immediately, moving toward me.  She stops next to me and turns to say goodbye to each one of those girls, calling them by name sometimes repeatedly until they acknowledge her.  And I wince inwardly, watching them throw grins, elbowing each other.  If she had not insisted, they would not have even noticed her leaving.

“Why were you sitting alone?” I ask her as we walk away, guarding myself against a natural inclination to speculate about how the arrangement came together.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she says, looking sideways the way she does when she feels me evaluating something but doesn’t know what to do with my notice.  She clutches her hands together awkwardly, catching my eyes again, and then laughs a little to set me at ease.  I’m okay, Mom, she says, without a word.

But still, I have to ask.  “Were you okay with it—being by yourself up there?”

She nods, looking forward.  “I guess so,” she says, and then finishes a bit more solidly.  “Yes, I was okay with it.”  She hadn’t thought about whether or not it was okay until I asked, and now she’s decided.  So why does this bother me so much, if it doesn’t even seem to bother her? Oh, but somewhere deep it does, or she wouldn’t work so hard to untangle their knots.  I know how hard she works at this; I see what few others can: how much she wants to be with them.  And I suppose that’s how it is with God too.  He alone sees what happens when no one’s looking and what lives in the corners of our hearts.  Surely he aches too, while he watches us growing.

I study the lines of Riley’s face carefully, as stray strands of her hair lift in the wind.  It’s not that she refuses to complain, but that she truly conceives no criticism—not of her situation, not of others, not of herself. She harbors no ugly shadows.  She lives with more concern for others, crying most often over someone else’s pain.  So when she feels disconnected, she struggles to find what she can do to connect more, without ever wishing anyone any different than they are, without an ill thought regarding anyone else’s motives or short comings.  And meanwhile I stand in the doorway with my “if onlys.”  If only is not a shining refrain.

Whenever Riley wants to go and be with, I have to pry my arms open to let her be away from me.  Because for all my faith, I still live and breathe as though Kevin and I are the only ones protecting her.  But here is the truth I now see with spiritual eyes, as the sun lights my daughter’s eyes on fire and she walks beside me:

A soul who belongs to God is clothed with His strength and dignity.  And she never walks alone, because she walks with God.

I’m blind not to see it.  She’s not some vulnerable ewe.  She’s strong. Because she’s His.

And still, He’s not finished with me.  As we leave for home together, He writes something else right into the ache in the heart of me: If I long for her to have friends, God longs for it even more, and He stands at the door as we gather in our groups and He hurts too, for all the ones we leave sitting alone because they don’t know how to make us feel better about ourselves; for the ones who don’t know how to speak or what to say; for the awkward ones still struggling for connection, the ones we tolerate without offering relationship; the ones we believe we honor with our charitable notice.  He says to me, It hurts me too, when there are souls left out.  Because in truth, I am often guilty of the kind of selfish ignorance that seeks only my own comfort without noticing the discomfort of others.

So I give thanks for the mother-ache I feel, settling my arm again around Riley’s shoulders, and the Spirit moves and I answer deep, asking God to give me eyes to see. Let me ache over what makes you ache.  And then again, with a throaty-whisper, I ask for the sheer strength of a pure heart.

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