Muddy praise

I watch as they bend heads together like flowers drooping in the autumn sun, finding it - their delight. Their voices cascade like a waterfall one after another.

Fingers point and minds find truth. It's just one afternoon of hard work, one afternoon of me poured into them in a long drought season of shifting roles and friends in deep need. We learn about aquifers. Bedrock saturated by one long rain.

All it is - a bucket of muddy water and a colander full of rocks and sand and sticks - and we are explorers of the earth's secrets, full of wonder at what's buried far beneath us and sustains us every day.

I see myself here, delighted face, pouring my muddy water onto the Father's deeper beauty, His deeper plan, and He filters it and shapes it, and what I've offered back comes through crystalline, gem-like, sparkling in the sun.

So I bend a knee at the Bedrock and offer my muddy voice in praise, for He is the water that quenches the very thirsty and the sustenance for those whose need is greater than the world's supply.

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 ESV)

Five Minute Friday

Wrestling the void

Sometimes it seems that I will be eternally stuck in Ecclesiastes.

The deepest and wisest thinker on earth seemed to be able to at last free himself from the tears over all the sorrows and fears of all the tomorrows and eat, drink and be merry. I am still in the working it out phase. But I understand when he declares all life meaningless. I so get that. I get it so much I run from it. I'd rather be a sobbing mess than a devil-may-care meaningless.

I have two mysterious dry patches on my cheeks where tears have too often pooled over the past week. I've dropped a quick 10 pounds. Yesterday in class I was on a panel of professors and had to tell about the most painful or scary medical error I'd committed. {That was fun.} Today I sat with my friend as we read through her pathology report. She asked me why some people just never seem to catch a break. I shook my head, and more tears. What answer have I? All I have an answer for is the hope I have, not an answer for catching breaks. 

I sit down on the cold walnut piano bench every night, no matter how late. I sing the songs, no matter how high, no matter how my voice breaks. It seems natural that it should break. Because I'm weeping words really, just set to music. My fingers are stringing together a prayer, a lament, a whisper, a groan, a feeling, a question in the crescendo and decrescendo of notes forming diminished chords and minor thirds. Father, I come, quiet my soul...Everything I once held dear, I count it all as lost...Lead me to your heart through my darkest hour...

And next comes November.

My soul is weak
My heart is numb
I cannot see
But still my hope is found in You
I’ll hold on tightly
You will never let me go
For Jesus, You will never fail
Jesus, You will never fail

Simply to the cross I cling
Letting go of all earthly things
Clinging to the cross
Mercy’s found a way for me
Hope is here as I am free
Jesus, You are all I ever need
and I am clinging to the cross

Even darkness is as light to You, my Lord
So light the way and lead me home
To that place where every tear is wiped away
For Jesus, You will never fail
Jesus, You will never fail

What a Savior, what a mystery,
You were crucified, but now You are alive...

Thrive @ Home Link-Up

Hand in hand

I sit with my newest cancer sister, overnight, catching winks when she does, our heads turned together and my hand over hers. I listen to her breath coming in and out, slowing finally as she drifts from pain to peace, and then I too can drift away to sleep. Why is it she can sleep simply because someone is holding her hand?

What is it about touch that is so magical? Can relax the child strung tight with wayward electrical activity tightening her muscles like electric shocks, straight from the core and out to the tips of her fingers and toes. Calm the fears you bury deep inside and bring the breath rushing deep into the bottoms of your lungs where air hasn't made a trespass in days, your ribs like the iron bands on your barrel, screwed tight with the anxious nagging thought.

Two passages stick out when I think about touch and how it affects us. God uses touch when His angel delivers His message to Daniel in chapter 10 of the book of Daniel:
I heard his voice. At the sound of it I fainted, fell flat on the ground, face in the dirt. A hand touched me and pulled me to my hands and knees. 'Daniel,' he said, 'man of quality, listen carefully to my message. And get up on your feet. Stand at attention. I've been sent to bring you news.' When he had said this, I stood up, but I was still shaking. Then this humanlike figure touched me again and gave me strength. He said, 'Don't be afraid, friend. Peace. Everything is going to be all right. Take courage. Be strong.' "Even as he spoke, courage surged up within me. I said, 'Go ahead, let my master speak. You've given me courage.' (verses 9-10 & 18 The Message)

And Jesus - why is it that, all through the Gospels, Jesus touches the people He heals? And the people who touch His robe are healed? Why use touch, I've always wondered, when you could just speak it and it would be so. Why not just speak it and the whole world for that decade is healed? Why not speak it and I'll be healed? How does this Savior, with all power and might, who is "deeply moved" by the plight of the people He heals, ignore the pain and suffering of the rest of the world?
Deeply moved, Jesus touched their eyes. They had their sight back that very instant, and joined the procession. (Matthew 20:34 The Message)
What about the gift of pain? How it makes the sweet so sweet, brings us to the core of our being, where we must confront our fears and grief, our shirking and our glad passing of our most difficult torches to the people we say we love. It makes us confront what is worst about us...and shrug off those weaknesses and search instead for the strength to triumph.
Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge we make promises only: pain we obey. ~Marcel Proust

Pain, too, brings out the worst and best in human action. The compassion I felt as a nurse only rose to the surface when confronted with the worst of human suffering. That compassion crystallized into a calling that has still not left me. Like Jesus, pain is what deeply moved me, pushing out selfish concerns and demanding my full attention, grace, love - willingness to touch and tend the ugly, stinky, liquefying flesh of a helpless human.
A surgeon does not slip from his mother's womb with compassion smeared upon him like the drippings of his birth. It is much later that it comes. No easy shaft of grace this, but the cumulative murmuring of the numberless wounds he has dressed, the incisions he has made, all the sores and ulcers and cavities he has touched in order to heal. In the beginning it is barely audible, a whisper, as from many mouths. Slowly it gathers, rising from the steaming flesh until, at last, it is a pure calling. ~Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery

How about the pain in me? The cancer, and the physical pain it brings; the treatment and tests, and the emotional pain of separation. Well, it is the teacher that demands attention. In areas where I lacked self-control and motivation to change, this crisis of illness - and my response to it, turning to God to find the strength necessary - has transformed me. I can't sincerely demand that it be healed, because I understand that I don't understand it - why God is using cancer, why He has allowed cancer, in our lives.

Yet, if He walked by me today, I would be the woman crushed to the bottom of the crowd, reaching a shaking hand to touch the hem of His robe, the whisper on my lips, "Father, heal me."
Just then a woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years slipped in from behind and lightly touched his robe. She was thinking to herself, "If I can just put a finger on his robe, I'll get well." Jesus turned—caught her at it. Then he reassured her: "Courage, daughter. You took a risk of faith, and now you're well." (Matthew 9:20 The Message)

When you're feeling hopeless, just look down

Take care, and be on your guard...for one's life does not consist in abundance... (Luke 12:15 exc.)

You live your life like it's broken, but it's really not so bad.
Believe me, I've seen worse.
Before you say, Don't judge me till you take that plank out of your eye,
Let me tell you this is all about my plank.
I wallow in post-cancer blues, arthritis returning like it does each October.
I curse cancer.

But I am still alive.

Beautifully so.

I'm not having surgery.

My pain isn't 10 out of a possible 10.

I don't scream in agony.

No one cut something the size of a football out of me yesterday.

I didn't have pieces of my bone shaved off or my flesh carved out or burnt or stapled shut.

I haven't had to beg for mercy from nurses, the air I breath and the God above.

I'm just a normal person, most of the time, even if I have my moments of pain
desperation even.

The truth is
we all live in abundance

we all live better than someone

we just need to keep looking down
to see the hand reaching up for hope

instead of looking up to covet
looking up and saying, Why can't I have what they have?
Why not me, God?
Why are they so blessed?

Somewhere down there
there's someone screaming out in pain
or crying out for hope
praying for rain
or a drop in the bucket of their empty bank account
a seed to fund joy in their swirling despair

just someone who notices
touches them
says, Sanbonani - I see you.

If this were always our practice

to look down instead of up

humble souls

however weary we walk

who might we lift up?

Photo credit

Dust to dust

Babies born, children tended like spring flowers in the field in front of our house, wild and free and unaware of their breathtaking beauty and freedom.

Upstairs a cancer sister lies dying in her yellow skin, lips in a peaceful smile over teeth still much too young and pearly white for whispering goodbyes. Two weeks ago she was teaching classes. Now she is teaching her children what dying well looks like.

Downstairs is the pre-operative holding area. They don't try to rename it anything to hide it's function. It's the cattle yard. It's where they keep you behind the stanchions until the men with knives are ready for you. I wait with my friend and I hold her hand tight and my lips tighter, a well of knowing like a dam held between two thin lips because she doesn't need to know. She asks me why I was afraid when I had surgery and I just answer, "For the same reasons you are." She smiles. We are new sisters on the cancer journey, her just starting out, "pitching her tent in the land of hope" (Acts 2:26). Perhaps, for her, surgery will be her cure.

Life is so beautiful. So mixed up. So incongruous.

That is what you see in my brown eyes when you look deep, my nine-year-old inquisitive soul-connector daughter. How can I tell you any of this?

Another nail in another coffin
Arms that held you return to dust
Yet in our grief we know death must be a liar
For no goodbye is ever good enough
How could it be everything sad is coming untrue?

Every father helpless and angry
Every mother with her heart on the shelf
Every daughter whose innocence was stolen
By every son who couldn't help himself

The winter can make us wonder
If spring was ever true
But every winter breaks upon
The Easter lily's bloom
Could it be everything sad is coming untrue?
Could you believe everything sad is coming untrue?

Broken hearts are being unbroken
Bitter words are being unspoken
The curse undone, the veil is parted
The garden gate will be left unguarded

Could it be everything sad is coming untrue?
Oh I believe everything sad is coming untrue
In the hands of the One 
Who is making all things new

When the storm leaves there's a silence
That says you don't have to fear anymore
The trees look greener, the sky's an ocean
The world is washed and starting over

The Bad Parent/Horrendous Child Ritual

My youngest daughter, she of the years given back to us, she who speaks in musical throaty sounds as much as she speaks in words, she has a way with animals. I sing a song to her, "There is a love hidden inside your borders just waiting to be free, so keep hoping, St. Francis, you'll be a free man yet, you'll see the sun shine again, over your city streets. Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength; they will not be put to shame." (Kristene DiMarco)

Sometimes I think she is a better mother than I. She is a born nurturer. She speaks the language of each creature she tames. The kittens of each litter. The birds she sings to and bewitches into landing on the stakes of their fort while she dances with her hands like wings behind her, the little bird cocking it's head and twittering back as if it is having a conversation with this four foot tall girl. She speaks to babies in grunts and moans and pre-verbal sounds and cocks of the head just so until they are laughing or sleeping, entranced by someone so old who still speaks baby.

She can put anything to sleep. Even the crabbiest kitten. Give her a rag to swaddle it in, and a song to sing, and a few minutes later, that kitten will be sleeping her arms, her swaying around the living room in the afternoon light proud as a peacock and happy as a clam.

Bedtimes at our house lately have devolved into 2 hours of battle to get the kids to lay in their beds. Let's face it: we parents take turns chiding, disciplining, punishing, yelling, cajoling, threatening, pleading, and sometimes swearing. The children (mostly the youngest two) take turns crying, whining, charming, stalling, and being mischievous or outright naughty.

After reading up on the issue, looking back at old journals to figure out what worked in the past, and brainstorming and praying a bit to try and figure out what we've changed lately that's made bedtime such an inconsistent and riotous affair in our household, it really turned out to be quite simple. Exhausted since I started my new job, and often working at the computer into the wee hours on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, bedtime rituals went flying out the window. Aaron, unaccustomed to putting the kids to bed, had to think on his feet, and just came up with, a) it's bedtime, b) children should get into their pajamas and get in bed, and c) they should stay there, by themselves, no matter what, for as long as it takes them to go to sleep. This came as quite a shock to the children, no doubt, who've been storied or sung to sleep nearly every night since they were little.

Last night, we put our bedtime ritual back in place. Although it did take over an hour and I nearly fell asleep with the kids in the process, it worked! Only problem: my husband, just as exhausted as I have been, was also asleep when I came downstairs, so we didn't get any evening bonding time. Hopefully we'll get that back over the next days or weeks. But at least we didn't do the Bad Parent/Horrendous Child routine for 2 hours at the end of the day as we have been for weeks! We both woke up more cheerful than we have in months - and feeling ready to start our work day with a more peaceful heart.

Do you ever drop the ball suddenly on routines or family rituals and only realize after the fact that you've screwed up? Ever done the Bad Parent/Horrendous Child bit at your house?

Life: Unmasked
Sharing with Joy this week, getting real!

On finding beauty everywhere: Why I turned Christian radio back on

I suppose I could take photographs for money if I wanted to. But I don't. There's two simple reasons. One, it only seems to work for me when there's true love involved - that relationship flowing back and forth between subject and photographer that makes the photography session a synergistic hour of magic, laughter, and a time when true beauty shines through and unequaled joy is shared. And two, because I refuse to discard the outtakes: you know, the photos that are out of focus, not quite perfect, or unphotoshopped to perfection.

I see beauty in the rough edges. I see real life in the raw. 

We sing hymns at church these days, the old kind, those written pre-1900. Sometimes you have to listen hard for the raw. The pentameter is perfect, everything rhymes, and the music is classical perfection. One of my favorites, written by Helen Lemmel, based on Hebrews 12:2, was inspired by a simple line from the writings of the impoverished and embattled missionary Lillias Trotter, whose writings on suffering have brought comfort to many on the hard path marked out by our Savior. Lillias wrote, “So then turn your eyes upon Him, look full into His face and you will find that he things of earth will acquire a strange new dimness.”

Helen recalled that the melody to her hymn, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, came into her head immediately upon reading these lines, and the lyrics were perfected within 2-3 days, with what she felt to be the obvious direction of the Holy Spirit. In the lyrics you hear a rawness of reflection on the brevity of our life here and a bittersweet comfort found when focused on the hope we have in Christ, although Helen doesn't record any particular suffering in her life history as a gift concert pianist, voice professor, composer, mother and wife.

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s a light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Christian radio offers up more rawness than I hear on Sunday in the meticulously practiced performances of a concert choir accompanied by a professional organist and pianist. There are the dissonant diminished chords of rock music, the harshness and brashness of unpolished solo voices, lyrics about the realness of 21st century Christian life. For some time after I left the Evangelical Church in 2010, all of this, so familiar to me that I had most of the songs memorized, grated on my soul like rubbing course salt in a fresh and bloody wound. I switched my radio pre-sets, and my kids listened to Kidz Bop instead of Jeremy Camp. I was on a search for Jesus in the lyrics of the lost on pop stations and in the rock anthems of my dad's hippie days.

But I still wake up, I still see your Gospel
Lord, I'm still not sure what I stand for
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don't know...
(Some Nights, Fun.)

The past two months have been tough. My schedule is busier than it's been in many years. There are days when I feel like I am failing at everything - mothering, my job(s), my friendships, my relationship with my husband, my duties at home, and any semblance of caring for myself. I have friends wading through some serious hard stuff. I can't seem to focus for 5 minutes, let alone let my mind still long enough to hear a whisper from God. I'm gritting my teeth through Bible reading, and prayer feels like a disciplined work-out rather than a conversation of souls.

That's why I finally turned my radio back to Christian radio. Yes, I still think most of it is pretty bad, musically speaking. The poetry is forced, every third melody sounds virtually the same, and I'm generally unconvinced about the worth of any of it. But it seeps into the cracks of this dry ground of my soul, and every now and then a word catches..."Ancient of Days"..."You were the first, You are the last"..."Here I found my home". For these few phrases, I'll let it be the chatter in the background when I'm in the car. The songs are mostly new, and the wounds are mostly healed. And He is speaking to me again through the musical "outtakes" that make up most of Christian radio.

What's your station tuned to?

Different dances

The skeleton bones of the half-torn-down white barn echoes the quietness on the farm I've loved for a decade now. That barn used to ring with boy's voices and paint-ball battles and my children's hollers as they ran end to end in bare feet through hay dust and drafty sunlight. This farm used to ring with a pure true joy that you couldn't mistake and you couldn't describe and now it's bittersweet love full of tang and twist, still intangible and hard to resist.

It's October and we've been trying for weeks to take some graduation portraits full of long afternoon sun. Portraits in dresses instead of shirt sleeves, portraits in fall colors instead of surrounded by the dying leaves. Yet here we are now on a windy day, kids mittened up tight against the wintery breeze. We bought a few hours in the white clear light of an overcast day down by the lake, just the youngest farm girl and I and a 50 mm lens, fighting the wind and her unruly bangs. We found some places where the leaves were yellow yet, some places where her beauty breathed straight through the camera stills.

Two teenage girls and a teenage boy, all of whom I watched birth from their mama's joy. I don't want them to know that today is what life is, all sadness and smiles mixed up together, inseparable.

My son's grown weary of currying the horse, so he curries the cats and then curries the dog. He'll remember these blond girls as his first girlfriends. He'll have cowboy dreams though he won't know where they come from.

The horse looks through me with his all-seeing eye. He knows that I might laugh or I just might cry. He knows I hold the camera up to shield my face. He felt the salty tears when I buried my face deep in the scent of his wintery coat, horseflesh warm and comforting on this cold wintry day.

It makes me feel old to watch them just smile. All of them, teens and kids, wrapped up in horseback rides, they lose all the tension and they forget this place isn't the same as it was just a year ago, it's skeleton bones of a marriage now. What happens to the joy of that mama when those babies birthed? Is it filed away, does it stay right where it is? Just a memory, a complicated twist? I know what I did with all those memories with faces of old boyfriends, I just burned them up and forgot they were there. But she's got these babies with him, these grown children now, they've got his lips and his dimples and his shoulders and ways. She's got a farm and these horses and so many shared days, how do you hold on to memories in the skeleton barn? Do you paint them on your bones and bind them in a song, trace them in your tears or brand them on your skin?

One last smell of the horse's winter coat, mismatched mittens on my youngest girl. I don't have the medicine to heal this ache. I just swallow it whole along with the joy and I know we'll make a different kind of dance in the fields of the farm with the skeleton barn.

Peel back the veil of time
And let us see You with our naked eyes
We just wanna love you

We want your blood to flow inside our body
We want your wind inside our lungs
We just wanna love you

Skeleton bones stand at the sound of eternity
On the lips of the found
And gravestones roll
To the rhythm of the sound of you
Skeleton bones stand at the sound of eternity
On the lips of the found
So separate those doors
And let the Son of resurrection in.

Oh let us adore the
Son of Glory drenched in love
Open up your gates before Him
Crown Him, stand Him up
~Skeleton Bones, John Mark McMillan

I believe in second chances

I spend all day Monday taking photos of the youngest York girl, and as I edit them, I think she could have been a model. She, her sister, her mother, they are lined up on my hearth that night, three so alike and so different. How fast time goes. How quickly they went from babes in arms to women.

It is my own baby's 6th birthday and her older sister wrapped her present in vintage wrap from great-Grandma's estate, Roman's 6:23 emblazoned across it's crinkled yellow: "The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ." As I race through three birthday parties and all the necessary preparation and clean-up, race toward the hours I can get to me "real" work, my soul is pierced. Jesus was not a flamboyant, racing God. He didn't even race to heal every person in the throngs that came to question, learn and seek healing when He came out of the wilderness. The children, their warmth, their constant figurative tugging at my heartstrings, their literal tugging at my clothing, my time, my brain - they bring me back to this center of Romans 6:23. Oh, how glad I am that this oft-bungled attempt at life is not my last. 

This new rhythm to life, work and home, schooling college students in the ways of the human body, soul and mind, schooling my children in all the things of the world. It gets hectic, I find it hard to prioritize. And always, there are other things pressing in, people to care for, beloved ones who are going through their own dark valleys, and we walk with them, though we have nothing to bring them but the comfort of a hug and kiss, a smile and an hour spent listening.

Three parties in one week. How we celebrate Amelia, the almost-lost one. It is a beautiful week of celebration. But we can't live in party-mode forever. I get the dreaded and mandatory flu shot on Thursday, knowing the weekend will be a blur of illness. Again I wonder if I should have known that my children would react to vaccines, since both my husband and I get so ill after them. Again I am glad I don't have to have an answer to every question. That Someone else shoulders life's biggest "what ifs" for me. 

When I get it wrong, there is always a second chance.

When I worry about the choice I made, I know there is eternity to spend with these children, to make up for whatever mistakes I make in time management here.

Ultimately, I lean on the fact that He shoulders the burdens that would crush me, and, even with that load on His shoulders, can hold me close and carry me through those moments when I am unable to move forward on my own two feet.

Five Minute Friday
Belatedly writing on Lisa-Jo's prompt, Race