05 November 2014

Of My Dark Night of the Soul

Lately I have been enduring what a friend and associate minister at our church referred to as "the dark night of the soul" in a recent sermon. At the time I did not recognize how aptly the term referred to me. But in later weeks, as I sobbed into my pillow over the apparent meaningless of life, I came to recognize the truth. While simultaneously suffering new joint pain that seemed to come with a vengeance the minute I turned 30, I half-joked to my husband one morning, after a particularly straining night, having awoken with a new God-given perspective, "I feel like I was wrestling with God - and I have the hip to prove it."

But, of course, the symptom wasn't my hip - it was a genuine soul-wrestling with the question, "Is this all there is?" Is this evil world where babies die too early and husbands leave this life without saying good-bye or even a farewell kiss. Where people destroy others, intentionally and unintentionally, and the endless pressure of social etiquette and friendly smiles hide hurting hearts. Is this where we're really stuck until God chooses to take us home? And why? What is the point of all this? If true joy is found in Heaven why are we stuck here? Because I'm looking at the future from a summit of a decent life and feeling the pain is going to hit much closer to home before I'll ever be ready. And I'd rather not. Thanks, but no thanks. Just take me home and let's leave this world behind.

And for the first time, I felt the truth of Paul's words. "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Death, from this perspective, seemed nothing but gain - something to hope for. Now, don't misunderstand me - I was never on the precipice of calling the game early, but I didn't fear that final buzzer, either.

In my wrestlings and angst, I felt the answer from God that if I'm still here, it's because He has me here for His purpose. I came to Paul's conclusion, "But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account," In this instance, I knew I was here for my family more than anything. "Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith" (Philippians 1:24-25). I was at peace with that answer at the time.

But for months I continued to wrestle with a deep aching. A depression of sorts, that left me feeling there had to be something deeper. I sought doctors and counseling, knowing there must be a fix for this emptiness I couldn't shake. My counselor asked me what I hoped to accomplish through our sessions, "I just want to feel joy in the moment." It was that joy I was lacking. My mother reminded me, "Joy is only found in Christ." And I knew that. And I actually felt closer to him than ever before, but the joy was still gone.

I knew this was something more than the stress of having a house filled with children who still can't wipe their own bottoms or just the transition to a new home or the sorrow over friends and family enduring tragedy. This was a deep spiritual ache. And no amount of scheduling my life, making lists of happy moments or attempts at self-focus was going to appease the longing. I needed more than just an honest look into me.

Fast forward to yesterday.

Or, first, back up. As a part of the women's Bible study I attend, we have been working through a book titled "66 Love Letters" by Dr. Larry Crabb. A book written from the perspective of a man having a conversation with God as He travels through each book of the Bible, attempting to draw out the actual purpose of each individual letter God placed in His Word.

With a heart freshly torn open I have found myself feeling the true emotional roller coaster of the relationship between God and His broken people. Every turning from him hurt my heart, every filled promise lifted it back up again. The calls to turn from idols dug deep and pulled out my own.

I have truly felt every word in these letters God has written to us and packaged together in this book of His Word. This story of His patience, anger, and redemption have hit me in ways I had never known in all my years of Sunday School, VBS and short-term missions.

Now we fast forward . . . All the way to Letter Twenty-One: Ecclesiastes.

Please, no.

I actually dreaded opening up the book. Ecclesiastes, I knew, was that depressing book written by Solomon at the end of his life. I was already broken and messed up enough - I wasn't sure I could handle the tone of such a heavy book. I knew the hopelessness in his detailing the futility of life and I did not need to feel that to my core as I had felt the rest of the messages in this Word.

But I'm a rules-follower. A homework-doer. Someone who can't walk away from an assignment. And this was my assignment for the week. So I turned the page.

The author speaks, "For several months now, God, I've wondered if I'm clinically depressed. . . . I'm feeling emptier than ever before. And confused. More cynical too. Nothing really brings me deep joy. All day long I find myself asking, 'So what?' or 'Why bother' I do what I have to do to get by . . . but I'd prefer to do nothing. But that prospect bores me too" (p 100).

I sat up straighter, clinging to this cliff-hanger. This is me. How could he know? And what does he have to say to that?

"God" responds, "Hear Me well: Until you fall into the dignity of despair where these words about Me mean nothing to you and where service for Me seems futile; Until the wisdom that comes easily fails to stir you with hope; . . . Until time with friends doesn't energize you as it once did; . . . Until you have nowhere to turn for the satisfaction of your soul's desire, not to the Bible, not to prayer, not to music, not to friends, not to church; Until all this happens, you will never dance to heaven's music as I designed you to dance. You will not hear My song of love as clearly and beautifully as I sing it. You will not know that every moment of your life is a perfectly tuned note in the eternal harmony" (p 101-102).

And as I read these words - this conversation about the heart of Ecclesiastes - I saw my heart. Everything I had been feeling for months but had been inadequate to express. I wanted to pick up my book and give it a big hug. It understands me, I thought. And, more importantly, maybe I'm not just crazy.

Maybe this is a place God has brought me so I can recognize there truly is no life apart from Him. Even when life is going well, it will not satisfy my soul. And though I knew that on a head level, I had not felt the empty despair of a life that wants nothing, nothing but to cling to Christ for all of eternity. I had wanted Him before - but I had wanted Him with everything else. And now there is no deeper longing of My heart than to know Christ and to be with Christ.

And this is the place He had to bring me before He could lift me into His joy.

I know these words would not have reverberated with everyone who read them - but from where I am at in my journey, I now find a hope in the despair of Ecclesiastes. And I cherish the conclusion of Solomon,

"All has been heard; the end of the matter is: Fear God [revere and worship Him, knowing that He is] and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man [the full, original purpose of his creation, the object of God’s providence, the root of character, the foundation of all happiness, the adjustment to all inharmonious circumstances and conditions under the sun] and the whole [duty] for every man." (Ecclesiastes 12:13 AMP).

Fear God. Keep His commandments. Accept His salvation. All the rest is just a prelude for what is to come. Savor it.

03 November 2014

Of Our Scientist

Remember when I told you Emmett was our sponge? Our questioner, our scientist, the one voted most likely to push this homeschooling momma to learn a lot more about everything just to satisfy his insane desire for knowing exactly how the world works.

Questions that have me honestly answering, "You know, I actually don't even understand how that works - I just know it does." Questions like "How does the other phone know you're calling it?" which leads to "How do phones have their own numbers?" Follow-ups as simple as, "Why?" are not good enough for this guy. He literally thinks through my answers and comes up with legitimate inquiries based on that new knowledge.

So then we had Daylight Savings Time.

Blow this kid's mind.

The poor guy, as the days have been getting shorter through the fall, has begun having mild breakdowns when the sun begins to set. "It's already bed-time and we haven't even had dinner!" Now, on the one hand, I totally want to work this "sundown = bedtime" misconception - especially now, post Daylight Savings Time: "Oh look, Daddy just got home from work, but, bummer! It's bedtime! See you guys later!"

But I do tend to have issues with lying to my kids. Darn conscience.

Thus, I've been trying to explain that the sun just starts setting earlier during the fall. Thus, Saturday, as we were at the grocery store, pre-dinner, while the sun was setting and he was crying, again, about not having eaten (eating is REALLY important to our kids), I went so far as to explain that the next day, it would even be dark when we went to evening church/children's choir.

Lo and behold, as we're gathering children into the car to head to choir, the remainder light of the day was glimmering through the twilight. "Momma, did you tell me it would be dark before we go to church? How did you know it would be dark?"

"Well, it's something called Daylight Savings Time - we had to change the time on the clocks, so now it gets dark earlier."

"How do you change the time?! That's silly!" "Well, we just change what time the clock says." "But how do you change what the clock says?" "We just do." (aka the Lazy Mom's way of saying, I can't explain it right now - we were in the car, so it wasn't exactly an option to pull out the clock and show him how it works.)


"Momma?" "Yes?" "How do the clocks control the world?"

Bam. Well, now that's a good solid question from a four-year-old.

So, then I have to go into dynamics about how the world itself does its thing without changing - the only thing that changes is what time the clock says, which affects when things like children's choir starts.

But really, I'm just grasping at straws, trying to describe this crazy world in a language a little boy can understand.

And somehow he's soaking it all in, despite my worst efforts.

All I know is google was invented for such a time as this.

28 October 2014

Of the Ways They Interrupt

Every morning (or as best fits into the day's schedule) we read an excerpt from The Jesus Storybook Bible, after Momma has finished her eggs and while the kids continue to munch on their cereal. We've cycled through the story of God's people a few times by now, and each time we finish, we just come right back to The Beginning.

Today was the most serious of the readings. The Crucifixion.

As I read about how He carried his cross and the soldiers mocked him, trying my best, with my voice, to portray the gravity of the moment, each of my children clamored for my attention. Emmett, sitting closest, placed his hand gently on my arm. Joseph shot his arm in the air, Micaiah's hand also stood raised.

I finished the page and turned the book to show the pictures as I addressed them each in turn.

"Yes, Emmett?" I acknowledged his gentle waiting hand.

"Um, in the song, they call it a 'tree' - or, I mean, in the story at church. And, um, also . . . Not now, but on the next page, I mean the next chapter it's coming, they're going to put Him in the Tomb."

"That's right, Emmett. What did you need Micaiah?"

"Um, I think we should go Me, Emmett and Joseph to pray for breakfast, lunch and dinner." That's right, before the story started, the kids had been arguing over who would pray for the meal, just as always.

"Micaiah, it is up to Mommy and Daddy to decide who will pray and when. You will not make a chart or set a schedule. We will decide for whatever reasons we choose."

She pouts and I turn to Joseph, still waiting with his arm up.

"Yes, Joseph?"

"Um, Jesus - monkeys like bananas!"

"Yes, yes they do."

Those are my children in a nutshell. Emmett, the sponge - always listening, soaking things in, making connections and asking questions. Micaiah, the planner - with a solution to every problem and a plan to make things right (what else from the girl who arrived on her due date - right on schedule). Joseph, well, Joseph.

Man, I love these kids.

06 October 2014

Of the Blissfulness of Ignorance

It has been over a half a year since a momma on the other side of this state last held her sweet boy in her arms. And though I call her family, I still feel on the outside of this grief looking in, borrowing something I feel I don't have the right to call mine. And I watch her grieve and I hurt for her and I pray for her. And this past week, as she continues through this unending journey, she wrote these words - the words I can understand deeply,

"I hate "Angela Before." I hate that she let Maverick slip through her fingers, and that she didn't absorb every bit of his 108 days. I hate what she did to my only memories of my son. She paid no attention to the details and now those memories are foggy. I hate her, and I am jealous of what she had, and what she took for granted.
I don't miss her. But I do miss what she had. I, the new me, "Angela Now", would have done so much better with Maverick's short life.
If only she could have known before the reality and the frailty of life that I know now."

And though I see where she is coming from, I feel a need to respond, from the other side. I don't know that my words will ease any amount of pain, but I have wrestled this lesson myself and thought maybe we could all use the reminder. He gives us only the knowledge we need, because we couldn't handle the rest. So, I wrote her a letter, which is really an open letter to us all . . .

Dear “Angela Now,"

You have been through more than any person deserves and I know I can’t even understand the depth of your pain because I am over here on this side, as an “Angela Before,” trying my best to learn the lessons your laid-open bare, bleeding heart has been vulnerable enough to share.

And I need you to know.

“Angela Before” was neither stupid nor na├»ve. She was unaware. But for a reason.

Because as much as the old adage tries to tell us it’s possible, we simply cannot live every day as though it were our last. Living our lives with that kind of intensity for an indeterminate amount of time will simply burn us out.

Yes, if “Angela Before” had known she only had three and a half months, she surely would have done things differently. That kind of intense focus on memorizing every detail of a too-short life could probably be sustained for, literally, a season.

But take it from this ”Angela Before” – the one trying so hard to live the lessons gleaned from “Angela Now” – it’s not possible without the knowing. The knowing of how long these precious lives will last. And the not knowing, yet constant anticipating can, and will, drive an “Angela Before” crazy. Not knowing whose life will end first – mine or theirs? Which one relationship in my life needs this kind of constant focus before the flame is snuffed too early? Or is it possible to soak in every moment of every one of these beautiful little lives before me? To commit every second to memory – memories I can cling to if they’re taken before I planned or thought?

And this “Angela Before” finds herself in a curled-up, fetal, crying mess on her bed feeling it’s not enough. The unknown time will never be enough to capture all of this. And can I live every moment to its fullest while still creating some semblance of a home and a life for myself and my children. And when I have burned myself out in attempting to soak it all in and not miss one moment – what does “Angela Before” do. Because taking a moment for herself means missing a moment of them. And what can be done?

So, take it easy on “Angela Before.” She had a lot to focus on. She had a budding toddler establishing herself in the new role of big sister, but also growing in her own right. She had a home to manage – because drawers run out of clothes quicker than we imagine. And she had a husband that needed her to notice him, too.

So she loved her little boy with all she had and she did a fantastic job with the limited resource of time she had.

She wasn’t stupid.

She didn’t know – and that’s not the same.

God was protecting her fragile heart while giving her time - not to hoard like a maniac knowing it will never be enough, but to slowly savor in the sweet bliss of ignorance.

Don’t hate her.

Love that she is the one who held your sweet boy in those precious midnight hours. She calmed his tears. She gave him his first kisses and his last. Appreciate the fact that she was able to enjoy his soft snuggles without worry for the future, but in the beauty of living in the present. Thank her for taking care of him the best she knew how. Give her a sweet hug and let her rest now. Her job is done. 
It’s your turn now, to carry on where she left off.

And God is more than able to carry both a messed-up crazy “Angela Before” and a worn out, grieving “Angela Now” as we navigate the unknowns of this continual journey.

With love and prayers,
Just another “Angela Before”

08 September 2014

Of Why I Had Children

In yet another moment of motherly frustration this weekend, I thought to myself, sarcastically, "Why did I have kids, again?" It's a question my husband and I ask each other often, as we tease one another over the silly and genuinely difficult things our kids do on any given day.

It wasn't until that moment, however, that I heard God speak to me about how accurately that question reflects our culture's view of children. Because implicit in such an inquiry is the idea that we had these kids for us. For our benefit, our joy and as our accomplishments. Yet, so often, they bring us just the opposite - hardship, anger and a sense of failure.

So, it's a legitimate question, really. Why did we have kids? Why does anyone have kids?

If I took a truthful look back at that moment early in our marriage when we excitedly decided we were throwing caution to the wind and taking that next big step, I would tell you I had no better reason than that's what it felt like we should do. Because I didn't plan out this life beyond going to college, so I was kind of winging it. Here we were, young, in love, past that difficult, difficult battle called the first year of marriage. We had bought a house because, well, we thought that's what adults do. The next obvious step looked like kids.

And, yeah, the idea of a little baby to snuggle sounded kind of fun, too.

So, with reckless abandon, we jumped into the decision to make us a little person and were blessed with an instantaneous pregnancy. And I had no idea what I was getting into.

Because here's what no one really told me. Kids aren't just something you do or "the next step." And if you want something adorable to snuggle who is easy to train and will love you unconditionally, get a dog.

That is NOT why we have children.

But if you want to have a significant part in growing up the generation that will come after us, to lead our nation, create the next big innovations, raise the standards of our culture and continue to grow the generations after them, then by all means - go to it.

And that's what our society seems to misunderstand when they see mothers and their babies.

Children are NOT accessories.

They're not something we get because we think it'll be fun. They're not to be discarded when they're too difficult to handle. We don't surround ourselves with just the right number, as if there IS a right number. Because, truth be told, I can't handle four children - I can barely handle one some days.

But God doesn't give us what He thinks we can handle - only what He knows He can handle.

And when I rely on Him and recognize my children as real, live, imperfect people, living under the sinful consequences of the fall, I can see those little frustrations, not as personal setbacks to my own happiness, but as jumping off points to create character, in both myself and in them.

I can see them as individuals with personalities who are only mine to borrow, as I take on the task of guiding them where God leads. They will grow and, with God's help, develop into independent people with their own thoughts and ideas that may not always match mine.

But that's ok.

Because that's not why I had children.

09 August 2014

Of Changed Plans

I wake up earlier than I want on a Saturday morning (but that's nothing new, is it?). The plans for today aren't what I had looked forward to. I had anticipated a lazy day, where we had no plans, because sometimes no plan at all is just the plan you need to re-charge and reconnect as a family - particularly when the last time you had that no-plan, a mere week ago, Mommy spent the morning raging at kids who didn't deserve it, slamming cabinets until their frames fell apart, and finally leaving the mess for her husband to deal with, because something inside her just couldn't take it all - all of this thing called life.

Yet, on this same Saturday morning, another woman awakes - if she slept at all, because who can sleep when the warmth beside her is gone? When there were sounds through the night and your protector is missing - and won't ever return? She awakes, if she even caught those forty winks, through the night-sounds and the nightmares, to find she is still in the nightmare.

How had she planned, just a week ago, to spend this day? Was there a birthday party to attend? A gathering of friends, family? Was he finally going to get to that project she'd been bothering him to finish? Or just mow the yard so it could be clean cut for another week? Had she planned to snuggle in just a little longer next to that man of hers, pretending they couldn't hear the kids down the hall, for just a few minutes? Or do their boys toddle in to crawl into bed, asking where's Daddy? At work? No, not at work, because he never made it to work on Tuesday morning, when he slipped quietly out of the house in the early morning hours to go earn a paycheck and take care of his family.

I grieve for her. I grieve for the third time in less than a year and a half for a woman too young to be widowed. A woman now left alone with two little boys who don't understand why they can't wrestle with Daddy - one of whom may be too young to even remember his face a year from now. And then there's the one in her womb - the one they announced to the world only a few weeks ago - the one who will never meet this man called "Daddy."

And she'll have to do it all alone. Or at the very least without the one who is half of the life inside of her - who was all of her life on the outside. The ultrasounds, the first kicks, the first contractions, the first push, the first cry - all without him who helped her create this miracle (though, thankfully, she has Him Who is the creator of all miracles).

And I thought my life was too much?

So I awake on this Saturday morning, the same one where she will be saying final good-byes to a man with whom she had planned to spend her entire life, not realizing his would end at twenty-four, to serve her. A minuscule gesture of love to someone who is hurting more than I can imagine. In a world that is too much pain.

And it's not what I planned, but then, it's not what she planned, either.

01 August 2014

Of Losing Her Teeth (Literally)

Way back in January (which feels like yesterday), I took Micaiah for her regular dental check-up, where she received exciting news: she had her first loose tooth! Now, of course, as we all know, if it took a dentist to tell you your tooth was loose, it's probably not on the precipice of falling out just yet. But Micaiah, who has been waiting for this moment ever since she first watched The Berenstain Bears Visit the Dentist at the tender age of three, was ecstatic.

And for months we got to hear her tell everyone she met, "I have a looth tooth!" performing her best mimicry of Sister Bear's loose-tooth-lisp (try to say that without lisping). So, the day before Easter, on a Saturday morning visit to the donut shop, we smiled and nodded while she, once again, told us about her precious tooth. Until I got finished paying and joined my family at the table, where my husband said, "You need to see this"

Lo and behold, that tooth was loose! More than dentist-tapping-on-it loose, but tongue-wiggling-it-prominently loose. "That's going to come out in the next couple days," he declared.

He may have over-estimated.

That very afternoon, Micaiah came from her room after nap time to tell me a sad story, "I was playing with my tooth and fell out and now I can't find it!"

Wait. Back up. It what? "Wait, is your tooth in your mouth?!"

"No! I don't know where it is!"

Still processing. "It came out?"

"Yes, and then I lost it!"

You're telling me! She lost a tooth! Her first tooth! And she was more upset at the literal losing of the tooth than at the fact that she now had a distinct hole in her bite. No worries, though, Daddy came to the rescue and found that tooth in the thick pile of her new carpet (we had just moved in a few weeks before and the texture, thick enough to lose something in, was still new to her). And our baby girl got to leave her first tooth under her pillow. And the Tooth Fairy almost forgot for the first time to give her a dollar.

And of course, our precious planner, put that dollar right in her future-car fund. She has much more restraint than her mother.

Fast forward a couple of months. She had started it again, insisting the tooth right next to the half-filled hole, where her new chomper is pushing it's way into place, was loose. And sure enough, it was a little wiggly. And by two nights ago, as we prayed for her before bed time, her smile showed a distinctly crooked tooth - it was barely hanging on.

Thus, after breakfast yesterday morning, when she came to me with the same story, "I lost my tooth. I don't know where it is!" I was a little less surprised, but no less excited. We were able to narrow the time down to realize she probably lost it while she ate, but the little guy is still missing.

Thus, she wrote a note and left it dutifully under her pillow, hoping the Fairy would understand. Unfortunately, the Tooth Fairy's response must have fallen out from under the pillow while she slept, so the poor girl woke up thinking the Fairy had taken the note, been utterly disappointed in her and left nothing in return. I can only imagine the shame she bore for the hour or so until Momma found the new note and read it to her.

No worries, she found the dollar the Tooth Fairy dropped under her bed - and this one isn't going in the car money - it went straight into the money purse. This one is getting spent.

As for me, I'm ready for this little girl to stop taking the phrase "losing a tooth" quite so literally.

(Side Note: She's totally wearing the same skirt in those pictures. Considering she doesn't wear that skirt every day or anything, I find that humorous. Could just be me.)