Weeding the Garden of Grace and Love

It’s called a Grace Garden — inspired by one of my favorite writers, Ann Voskamp of A Holy Experience.  She writes a lovely description and tutorial here.  Basically it’s a miniature Easter scene created out of dirt, plants, rocks, etc.  It’s a great visual reminder of the promise of Easter.

Being a not-very-crafty person, I thought this project was something I could handle with the kids. It involved no sewing, gluing, or papier-mache.  And while I am by no means a competent gardener, I do love getting dirt under my fingernails, so I was totally on board with this idea.  So yesterday the kids and I scavenged an old pot we found in the garage and filled it with dirt, grass, and flowers we dug up from the yard.  We used a small flowerpot turned on its side for the empty tomb and covered it with some dirt and clover.  Ben tied two sticks together to form the cross, and Eliza carefully placed the rocks just so around the “pond” (a small bowl filled with water).  We wrote the words “grace” and “love” on a couple of rocks.

That’s when some thistles started to pop up in the Grace Garden.

Immediately there was outrage over where to put the “grace” and “love” rocks.  It escalated a little something like this:

“I want to put grace next to the pond!”

“But that’s where I want to put love!  You can put grace by the tomb.”

“No!  There’s not enough room!  Move your love over there.”

“Oh yeah?  Then grace can go in the grass.”

“Mom!!!! She won’t let me put my rock where I want!”

“Well, he’s being mean!”

Exasperated, I tried to point out the irony of their grace/love/Easter garden controversy, but by this point I was getting a headache and honestly wasn’t feeling so hot.  Plus I really just wanted to get this thing finished so I could check it off my “make something meaningful with the kids” list.  Stellar attitude on my part, I know.

After reclaiming some semblance of control and a brief discussion on the absurdity of this argument, we did manage to make room for both grace and love between the tomb and the pond.

I thought about this fighting over the placement of grace and love.  Something in my heart twitched.

I want grace and love where I decide.  I want it for me.  And sometimes I’m lousy at giving it back.

Bono’s words ring in my ears: “Would  you deny from others what you demand from yourself?” (from Crumbs From Your Table by U2)

I want grace there.

I want grace when I don’t feel well and I’m too tired to make dinner. I want grace when I put my foot in my mouth.  I want grace when I forget to call my friends back.  I want grace when I raise my voice at my children.  I want grace when I have $30 in library fines.

But I have a hard time giving grace to you, friend, don’t I?

I want love here.  I don’t want love there.  

I want to be loved and I want to love others in return….but sometimes Love interrupts my schedule.  It means putting something off that I want to do in order to spend time with someone who needs to talk, to pray, or to be driven to the grocery store.  I want to be loved when I’m in a good mood as well as when I feel like a failure.

Sometimes it’s hard for some of us to receive love, and therefore harder to give it away freely.  Pride has many disguises, and I’ve learned how to wear many of its masks to cover up this ugly monster.  But underneath it’s still the same.  Love costs us something. To feed Love is to starve Pride.

Which is exactly what happened on Good Friday.

Philippians 2:3-8:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Father, have mercy on me.

Friends, as I receive grace and love from my heavenly Father, so will I try to let it flow out to you.  Please forgive me for the times when I allow pride to cut off its flow.

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These boots are made for walkin’. And stompin’. And trudgin’. And dancin’.

No, this is not a post about current foot fashions.  God knows I am not an authority on fashion, but I must  introduce you to my favorite pair of shoes. I love cute ballerina flats as much as the next girl, but they pale in comparison to these beauties.  Meet my trusty hiking boots. They might not be pretty, but they are tough and dependable — always ready for an adventure.   I bought these boots 10 years ago at an EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports) sale in New England.  As a 23 year old newlywed transplanted to Massachusetts, I think I was more excited by all the hiking and camping gear we bought that weekend than by the boxes of new china waiting to be unpacked.  All-weather sleeping bag?  Check.  Heavy-duty-ready-for-New-England-winter-parka?  Check.  Sturdy hiking boots?  Check.

Little did I know when I first took these Garmont boots out of their brand new box what adventures awaited.

These boots have sloshed through streams, balanced on fallen log bridges, gone looking for rattlesnakes (don’t ask), and hiked countless trails.

They have gone in search of wood to warm a remote Canadian cabin.  Their soles have skipped over the rocky Maine coast and hiked up lighthouse steps.

These boots could tell a thousand stories.

They have accompanied a loyal dog through long walks in the woods.  Recently they also pressed the shovel into the earth to make room for his tired body.

They spurred me on through the Green Mountains of Vermont one Thanksgiving weekend when I felt the first waves of nausea  announcing the early beginning of new life.

Years later they discovered a hidden daffodil field and caught the tears that fell there.

They have gone apple-picking with a toddler in hand and a baby on the back.  They have climbed over rock walls, stood on fenceposts, stomped down weeds, and danced in the mud.

Currently my boots are covered in plaster dust from renovating our first home.

The thing I love about these boots is this:  they know what they were built for.  They don’t try to be something they’re not. I can’t disguise these hiking boots as a pair of pumps to slip on with a little black dress — that’s not what they’re for.  Boots like these are not afraid of the the rocky terrain, the icy streams, or the whatever is beyond that next hill.  I’m not worried about scratches or scuffs.  Rather, I look at them fondly, knowing that each mark is a memory.  Tallying each one up and taking an inventory of my adventures causes me to pause in gratitude for each place, each person, and each lesson that was connected to these events.

These boots are nowhere near the end of their useful life.  Aside from changing the laces a few times, these things show no sign of wearing down.  Which is good–because I’m going to need them again.  And again.

My boots are always ready for action.

When I lace them up I feel the explorer rise up inside me.  I think about strong women who pushed beyond their physical limits through mountains, plains, and rivers.  Suddenly I feel like Sacagawea, Harriet Tubman, and Laura Ingalls all at once.

Sometimes I wear my boots as I go about the mundane — grocery shopping, yard work, and taking sick kids to the doctor.  They remind me that adventures and challenges do not only wait for me in the woods.  They are everywhere.  Cars get crushed.  Houses need repaired. People get sick.  Relationships need watering.  Dark clouds quietly creep into minds and chaos wreaks havoc on the lives of those I love.

This week in particular has been a challenge for many who are dear to me.  Some of my friends and I are wearing our boots all week as a sign of solidarity. I know it’s not going to magically make our situations better, but it’s a good reminder that we are equipped to weather whatever storms may come.

But I must pause to remind myself of something here:  It is not my strength that carries me on.  As hearty as I think I may be and as sturdy as my boots are, I am not strong enough to walk these valleys or climb these mountains on my own.  I am keenly aware of my limitations.  I wish I had more endurance.  I also have a horrible sense of direction.  God forbid any of you should depend on me to get you somewhere without a GPS.

Yes, God does call us to push on and carry our crosses.  But he also bids us to come and rest and lay our burdens down.  As I lace up my boots today, I pray for strength and courage for us to hike the trail before us.  I pray for wisdom to know when to push on and when to rest.  I also pray for discernment, because I know that we are in enemy territory, and Evil has set many traps along the path.  We must be on our guard, or we could easily become ensnared and cause those around us to stumble.  We need to listen to those who can see farther down the path than us.  If we heed their warnings (“Watch out for this thorn bush!”) and take their encouragement to heart (“There’s a stream up here where we can sit down and eat lunch!”), the journey will be even sweeter.

I woke up this morning to images of hiking through the woods, and Robert Frost’s words practically jumped out of my mouth:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep

(From “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)

We have many miles to go.  But we are not walking them alone.

Flippin’ Resolutions….

I’ve never been great at keeping New Year’s resolutions.  Like many people, I start off with a list of noble intentions.  I’ll eat healthier,  be more organized, run four times a week, read the Bible more, write more letters, and volunteer more.   About half the time these resolutions result in some kind of positive action that usually lasts for a few weeks, then fizzles into guilty oblivion.  One year I tallied up 43 resolutions.  Needless to say, I failed miserably in keeping even one.

Don’t get me wrong–I think it’s beneficial to step back and take a look at the things we’d like to do differently in a new season of life. Replacing bad habits with good ones is a worthy pursuit.  Re-evaluating priorities and carving out time for the people and activities that are most important to us is necessary in balancing life.  But if you’re anything like me, you can too easily create an unrealistic picture of what you want your life to look like, and then run yourself ragged in trying to keep up with it. For me personally, I struggle with this notion of always resolving to do more.  

Try harder.  

Be more disciplined.  

Stop doing this.  

Do more of that.

It doesn’t take long for me to feel defeated when I fail to live up to my self-imposed (and usually self-righteous) expectations.  Paul’s words narrate this inner battle of my heart:

…For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing…..So I find this law at work:  When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!  (Romans 7: 18-25)

It’s not that I don’t want to do the right thing — it’s that I am powerless in my own strength to do it.  Grace rescues me from this battle, but I am still learning to fall into grace’s net.  So I’m trying something new this year.  Rather than creating a list of desired behaviors and accomplishments I would like to achieve this year, I am flipping New Year’s resolutions upside-down.

If I could sum up my desire for this year in one word, it would be this:

Surrender.

Instead of resolving to do, I will choose to surrender.

Rather than trying to fit the square shape of my own skills and ideas into a round hole of opportunity, I choose to become clay, to be surrendered to the Potter’s hands. I want Him to mold me into the shape He desires in order to fill in the places He chooses.

I choose to surrender my time and my comfort when it is least convenient for me — like when my child needs some extra time to talk heart-to-heart in the midst of my own agenda.

I yield my heart to the warmth of my Savior’s love, even when it is frosted over with bitterness and disappointment.

I will give a sacrifice of praise even when my heart burns with sadness.

I surrender each choice I make–what I consume, what I give, how I spend each hour, how I care for my body, the words that I speak, and the attitude of my heart.

I will not do these things perfectly, but in a continual posture of surrender, my prayer is that there would be less of me and more of Him.

“Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'” (Luke 9:23)

Mary

The following is an actual conversation that happened several weeks ago.

Ben:  I love you, Mom.  You’re the second best mom in the world.

Me:  Umm….thanks.  I love you, too.  The second best?

Ben:  Yep.  The second best.

(awkward silence while I let this sink in)

Me:  Ok….So…just out of curiosity….um…..who do you think is the best mom? (I’m racking my brain, here.  A friend’s mom?  His Sunday School teacher?  Claire Huxtable?)

Ben:  (matter-of-factly) WELL…..JESUS’ mom was probably the BEST.

Me:   Oh. Yeah.  (duh)

I love that kid.

I mean, how do you argue with that?  He’s seven, and he calls it like he sees it.  While my ego would love to think that I might (unrealistically) get the Mother of the Year award, I am eternally grateful that my son has keener insights. I think any mom would be happy to play second fiddle to Mary.

A poor teen mom faced with the scorn and isolation of an unplanned pregnancy, Mary carried the weight of her holy responsibility with the kind of faith and obedience that I pray for a drop of.

Not much is known of Jesus’ childhood, but I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to be the earthly parent of the Savior of the world.  I know how easily I can lose my cool with my children when either (a.) they misbehave, (b.) I overreact, or (c.) both.

But what if your child doesn’t misbehave?

What if he doesn’t even sin?

Like, at ALL?

In fact, what if He is the only One who has the authority to forgive you?

Guess who the only one asking for forgiveness will be?

Don’t get me wrong – I have had to ask my children to forgive me more times than I’d like to remember when I have clearly been in the wrong.  But can you imagine what it would be like to tie the shoe (or fasten the sandals, in Mary’s case) or wipe the nose of the One who knows all the secrets of your heart?

How would it feel to walk the One to school who knows every hope and fear that you harbor deep within you, and who loves you even more fiercely than you love Him?

What would go through your mind while you listened to your son read the words He was born to fulfill?

Can you imagine how your heart would quiver to sing lullabies to the boy who will ultimately be the One to pay the price for your own sin?

To know that every foul word, every act of violence and greed, every depraved thought, every debilitating sickness, and the stench of death would soak into my son’s very being would be more than I could bear.

I can’t get my head around it.

But as the shepherds rejoiced at Jesus’ birth and spread the good news to all those around, “…Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

Laying her fears aside, she was willing to be a vessel to hold and care for the most precious Gift ever given.

 

He was created of a mother whom He created. He was carried by hands that He formed. He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, He the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute.

St. Augustine

Awakening Grace

She lays her head in my lap, blond hair spilling over my knee.  Her eyelids flutter and I count the freckles that dot her nose and cheeks. We sit on the red couch, still in our pajamas, quiet and still, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  A small, warm hand finds mine.

“Mommy, can I have my oatmeal now?”

“I’m sorry, honey.  Your tummy needs to get better first. Would you like some saltines instead?”

“No…I just want to be here with you.”

It is Thanksgiving Day.  This morning my five year old daughter didn’t get to finish her oatmeal for breakfast.  After a few warnings of “My tummy hurts,” she let it all go.  Poor thing.  So much for the oatmeal, let alone sweet potatoes and pecan pie.  It was decided that I would stay home with her today while my husband and son traveled the hour north to Dayton to be with his side of the family. I helped Steve load up the food we had prepared and gave him instructions on how to finish baking the sweet potato spoonbread.  As they pulled out of the driveway I returned to the living room just in time to pull back my daughter’s hair as she made another dash for the trash can.

As I write this, the rest of my family is probably passing the cranberry sauce, listening to the laughter of nieces and nephews, and recounting graces and “remember when….” stories.  Later there will be football and walks in the woods.  I do miss being there.  I am thankful for family that has traveled hundreds of miles to be near, and whom I will get to see soon–but I will have to wait.

This isn’t how I had planned on spending Thanksgiving. Yet I am grateful that I can be right here, where I am needed right now, with thermometers and medicine bottles cluttering the table.  I nibble on some toast in solidarity with the sick one and pull her close, knowing that this, too, is all part of grace.

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). 

As I tuck her into bed I pray that healing rest will wash over her body.  I give thanks for the gift of this precious girl, and for the many blessings that fill life to overflowing:  family, friends, food, a place to live, education, faith communities….the list goes on.  These are the gifts that are tangible and solid — things I can too easily take for granted, like the warmth and light of the sun.  They are the first things I think of when someone tells me to “count my blessings….”

Cherished as these gifts are, I can’t stop here.  “Giving thanks in all circumstances” means I have to go down into the caverns of my heart to find the hidden treasures that lie sleeping in thorn-covered tombs.  These are the blessings that I have only been able to uncover in the darkness. They are harder to grasp, sometimes feeling as though they may slip through my fingers.  I have to remind myself that they are always there, though I often only recognize them when my calloused heart heaves with pain.  These are the gifts that are often hidden in sickness, disappointments, mistakes, and failure: joy amidst sorrow, guidance in times of chaos, restored relationships, complete and total forgiveness,  and favor when I least deserve it.  I pray for strength to awaken these gifts and bring them into the light.

 

Healing.  Trust.  Forgiveness.

Grace.

Everything is grace.  Each one of my circumstances is wrapped in grace, if only I open my eyes to see it.  When I see a sick child, an elderly neighbor walking her dog, or a homeless man with tracks up his arm, I need to see His grace pouring down over it all.  I need to see grace swooping in to knock out my pride.

Today I am grateful for this: the snow-white  forgiveness of my ugliest blood-soaked sin.  The faith of my husband.  The trust of my children.  The healing wave of love that pounds pure against my deepest wounds.  I catch a glimpse of grace and I crumble in thanksgiving.

From Sand to Rock

“Mom! I forgot what sand feels like!” my son exclaims as he gleefully plunges his hands into a mound of cold sand. We are on a beach on Lake Erie. The temperature is hovering around 50 degrees, and B, dressed in  sweatpants and a fleece pullover, eagerly begins to dig a trench that will soon rival the Panama Canal.   I sigh and wonder aloud how it’s possible that a 7 year-old could possibly forget the feeling of sand  between his fingers.

It has been almost a year and half since we moved our family to Ohio from the south coast of Massachusetts,  where beach trips were a weekly (sometimes daily) event. The only sand he’s experienced lately has been in sandboxes either at a friend’s house or on the playground. But the experience is different. Playground sand is clean and sifted and is contained in a small square or pit. Beach sand is raw fun, a vast playground bordered only by waves and beach grass. It is peppered with shells, rocks, and seaweed — telling a story with each treasure found buried beneath.

I watch my children and their little cousin dig and pile, creating pits, lakes, bridges, and cities. But  through all of their planning and constructing, one thing becomes apparent: sand is fickle. It doesn’t stay  where they put it. Add a bucket of water, and an entire sand city is brought to ruins. The children design another layout for a city that incorporates a newly formed lake. But this plan, too, is washed away  by the torrent of change.

I think about the passage of the foolish man building his house on the sand and the wise man building his house on the rock. I identify too easily with the foolish man sometimes. I am often swayed by whatever thoughts or ideas sweep into my mind at any given point. They ebb and flow, at times chasing the rational away and send me down a rabbit-hole of fear and doubt.  The sand shifts beneath my feet and I feel myself fall.

Often I imagine my life like a “choose your own ending” type of book.  “Hmm..” I think. “I wonder what would happen if:

a.   One of my children becomes gravely ill or disabled?

b.  Something happens to my husband and I’m left alone with my children?

c. Steve or I get a new job that moves us to a different location?

d. God calls us to move to a foreign country and I can’t communicate with anyone in my language?

What if….?”

Don’t get me wrong. I happen to like change.  Call it a fear of commitment, control issues, or just plain boredom, but I’m usually trying to figure out my next move. This is where I get into trouble. When I think of all the possibilities for my children, my husband, and myself,  I often suffer from “analysis paralysis.” I try to see every possible angle of every possible situation, good or bad. I try desperately to figure out the big picture, even though I know God only shows me one step at a time.  I  am afraid to say, “Yes. This is where I am. This is what I’m doing right now.”

Because, I mean, what if I’m *gasp*  wrong?

But I am slowly learning. I am not powerful enough to derail God’s plan for my life, or the life of my family. What does it mean to “build my house on the rock?” It means trusting that God has put me where He wants me. It means giving up control. It means giving all He asks and taking all He promises. Sometimes God calls us to move. Often He calls us to wait. I find it much more difficult to wait. Sometimes it’s harder to stay the course and finish than it is to start something new. Jobs. Families. Marriages. Friendships. Living  arrangements. They all need to be built on the Rock. When He wants something to change, I am trusting that  He’ll let me know. I pray that I have ears to hear and a heart to obey.

“From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” (Psalm 61:2)

Deep calls to deep

 

Things have felt a little upside-down here lately. Tensions are high, meltdowns are becoming a regular part of the day, and we have collectively become  a rather grouchy bunch.  Our children have developed a keen sense of selective hearing in addition to a very obstinate streak that seems to be growing each day.  Simple requests somehow morph into all-out battles.  Sometimes it takes all of our energy to deflect a looming mutiny.   We try to stick to routines.  I am always conscious of being generous with encouragement and consistent in correction. Yet I totally blow it most of the time.  My patience wears thin and I find myself losing my temper more and more.  I hate the voice I hear when I lash out at my children or my husband.  I feel defeated.

I could tick off a variety of factors that could be contributing to this mess:  lack of sleep, too much Halloween candy, change in schedules, business trips for Steve, late night/early morning studying for me….I could go on.  These are all external factors, and while they can affect how we think and act, I worry that as a family we are pulled and pushed around too much by these things. We allow them to control us.  I find myself hopping from one smoldering fire to another, trying to put them all out.  I run ragged and exhausted.  Why do I try to hack through life’s jungle on my own instead of trusting God to clear the path before me?

I am yearning for the peace that transcends all understanding.  I have known this deep peace countless times in my life, but it seems to escape me in these moments when all hell seems to be breaking loose.

A piece by Arthur Tappan Pierson, an urban Presbyterian pastor in the late 1800’s, spoke deeply to me.  He wrote:

There is a part of the sea known as “the cushion of the sea.”  It lies beneath the surface that is agitated by storms and churned by the wind.  It is so deep that it is a part of the sea that is never stirred.  When the ocean floor in these deep places is dredged of the remains of plant or animal life, it reveals evidence of having remained completely undisturbed for hundreds if not thousands of years.

The peace of God is an eternal calm like the cushion of the sea.  It lies so deeply within the human heart that no external difficulty or disturbance can reach it.  And anyone who enters the presence of God becomes a partaker of that undisturbed and undisturbable calm.

(taken from Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman)

Undisturbed.

This peace can only be attained through ages of silent stillness.  And I think this kind of stillness can only come through complete surrender.  Do I trust God enough to allow myself to sink into His love?  No matter what storms are raging on the surface, can I surrender to Him and allow Him to carry me down into that beautiful, deep place?  I know He has so many mysterious treasures there.

This is the peace that I want to reign in my heart.  This is what I want to live and breathe.  Father, I surrender.

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” (Psalm 42:7)