In Order to (Re)Form a More Perfect Union

I don’t know about you, but my heart can’t take much more. It’s battered and bruised… And bracing for worse.

It feels like 2020 could be the year of our undoing.

Collectively, we were already reeling from the deadly destruction/ ecomomic devastation/overwhelming despair of COVID…

104,000 dead.

Millions unemployed.

Suicide attempts.

Overdoses.

Isolation.

Burnout.

And then came three consecutive stories of black Americans killed… for no apparent reason.

Amaud Arbery… out for a run.

Breonna Taylor… in her own home.

George Floyd… pinned to the street, gasping for air.

Three human beings created in God’s image… beautiful and beloved, all.

I haven’t seen the video of George Floyd’s last minutes. I cannot bring myself to watch it. (Because just reading about it nearly gutted me.)

A Gospel-sharing, bridge-building, neighbor-loving “gentle giant,” George Floyd took his last breath on earth Monday. Now he’s safely home in heaven with Jesus… and his mama.

But his death begs the question:

How are we still here? In America? In 2020?!

Stuck in this cesspool of racism, injustice and needless violence?

I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to stay afloat. The flood of emotions is coming fast and furious. I’m grappling/praying/hurting/ fuming/crying/pleading/grieving. Deeply. Sometimes all in the space of five minutes.  But the deepest, darkest valley I keep finding myself in is… fear.

I’m afraid for the people I love whose skin just happens to be darker than mine.

Afraid they will encounter the wrong person at the wrong time… and wind up injured.

Or jailed.

Or dead.

And that’s why I can’t just sign a petition or post a meme and move on. I know I need to ask God’s Spirit to search me and uproot my own prejudices and pre-judgments. I need to confess my own predisposition to dismiss or devalue some of my neighbors. I need to pray against my tendency toward complacency-by-comfortableness.

I need to listen more, learn more, do more. Where I can, when I can, however I can. Because…

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. (Desmond Tutu)

A couple days ago, I re-read Reverend King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to some of his fellow clergymen. His words are haunting:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…

He goes on to write:

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

Oh LORD, help me be bold for you. Because…

Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne. ~ Psalm 89:14 (NET)

Help me be brave for my neighbor. Because…

No life is more “valuable” than another. (No life is more “disposable” either.) Our immeasurable worth is God-given and intrinsic (because we were made in His brilliant, beautiful image.)

Help me live and love like Jesus.

Genuinely.

Generously.

Help me do the right thing. Even when it makes me – or someone else – uncomfortable.

“Shout! A full-throated shout!
    Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives…
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
    and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
    law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
    and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
    ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
    Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

“Well, here’s why:

“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
    You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
    You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
    won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
    and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
    a fast day that I, God, would like?

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    to break the chains of injustice,
    get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
    free the oppressed,
    cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
    sharing your food with the hungry,
    inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
    putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
    being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
    and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
    The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
    You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

~ Isaiah 58:1-8, The Message

Let’s be justice-seekers and bridge-builders and hope-givers. Right where we are. However we can. 

Let’s be humble repenters… and revolutionaries for love. Lavish, lifesaving love.

Right in our own little corner of the world.

Maybe that won’t be the catalyst for sweeping change… but it will make a difference.

One day a man was walking along the beach, when he noticed a boy hurriedly picking up and gently throwing things into the ocean.

Approaching the boy he asked, “Young man, what are you doing?”

The boy replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

The man laughed and said, “Don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make any difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the surf. Then smiling at the man, he said …

“I made a difference to that one.”

2020 could be the year of our re-making.

Let’s get started.

Wendy

P.S. Condemning oppression and police brutality doesn’t make me anti-law enforcement. I am praying fervently for our police officers, firefighters and National Guard tonight too. Calling for an end to violent, destructive rioting doesn’t mean I don’t support the protestors or understand (that I don’t understand) their outrage and grief. I’m praying for peace… and change. Join me?

When Mother’s Day Isn’t Happy

To all the broken-hearted women who wish they could fall asleep Saturday evening and wake up on Monday morning… this one’s for you. The women for whom Mother’s Day delivers a twinge of sadness… or a dull ache. A shooting pain… or one that sears straight through your soul.

This one’s for the precious mommas who can’t hug their grown children… because they’re separated by miles and stay-at-home orders and the threat of a deadly virus.

So Mother’s Day will be spent in what feels like the worst way:

Alone.

All the flowers/FaceTime calls/Hallmark cards/candy in the world – while lovely and appreciated – simply can’t compare to the sweet gift of togetherness. (< That is the most coveted Mother’s Day present of all.)

But there are some women whose sorrow won’t lift even when the COVID restrictions do. There are some whose sadness is soul-deep.

These are the women who hurt at every mention of Mother’s Day… and it has nothing to do with Coronavirus or quarantine or keeping 6 feet apart. These are the women whose heart breaks afresh every “second Sunday in May,” not just this one.

Childless mothers.

Those who buried their beautiful children…

Or never had them. (Because their bodies just couldn’t cooperate.)

They suffer excruciating phantom pains:

Of lives they cannot share. Embraces they cannot feel. Memories they cannot make.

So many moms who’ve lost a child to stillbirth or miscarriage or cancer or stroke or suicide or accident or abortion or estrangement… (Sadly, this list goes on and on.) Women who silently bear their burden of bereavement. At graduations, weddings, baby showers. On birthdays, holidays, all the days.

That kind of grief is real/raw/relentless.

For women like them, this “holiday” to celebrate mothers holds next to nothing.

Except anguish.

(And unfortunately, there isn’t a cardiac surgeon in the world who can repair that kind of broken heart.)

More than anything, mothering means nurturing.

And I can almost feel your ache to nurture… to teach and care and comfort and counsel. To feed a little body… and soul. I see your heart that holds more than enough love for another human being (or three). I sense your willingness to do almost anything just to be able to be – and do – what you wish.

Mother.

You long for the title – and its responsibilities – because you were made in the image of God – the very Essence of flawless nurturing. He is the perfect (and undeniably the most patient) Parent ever. Not only is He our Heavenly Father… He invented and ordained the art of mothering.

Like an eagle that rouses her chicks and hovers over her young, so he spread his wings to take them up and carried them safely on his pinions. The Lord alone guided them… (Deuteronomy 32:11-12a)

So what to do when you’re aching to rouse and hover and carry and guide… and you can’t? (Or never could.)

Start with your feelings.

Notice them.

Feel them.

And maybe… if you’re feeling really brave… share them. (But only with someone worthy of your trust and willing to hear your whole – good/bad/ugly – story.)

Give yourself grace and mercy.

(And maybe some flowers and chocolate too.)

Listen, I’m not suggesting you pretend that Mother’s Day is your favorite day of the year. And I’m not trying to make it happy/breezy/sunny/carefree but possibly… hopefully…

Tolerable.

Tender.

True.

Pour out your heart to your Heavenly Parent. Soak up all the love gifted to you by the One who adores you… and has good plans for you. (Really.)

I say this because I know what I am planning for you,” says the Lord. “I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future.  Then you will call my name. You will come to me and pray to me, and I will listen to you. ~ Jeremiah 29:11-12 (NCV)

Choose this Mother’s Day to honor your own momma. (Or her memory if you – like me – are missing her something fierce.)

Blessing her will bless you.

(Promise.)

The commandment ‘Honor your father and mother’ is the first one with a promise attached: so that things will go well for you, and you will live for a long time in the land. ~ Ephesians 6:2-3 (CEB)

Be kind to yourself. (Please do this, for heaven’s sake.)

It’s not selfish; it’s necessary. Like water/sleep/food/air.

Nourish and tenderly care (for yourself)… Ephesians 6:29 (NRSV)

And know that there are lots of moms out there who see you… and feel deeply. For you and with you. Your story matters to a whole lot of people who care.

Love and sympathy from one of them,

Wendy

P.S. Today is my mother’s birthday. (She’s celebrating in heaven… but I’m having cake here and now.)

Happy 75th Birthday to the very best mother and friend a girl could ask for.

 

Through the Valley

By now, everyone’s heard the news.

Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven others (including another father and daughter… and mother) were killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday.

In slow motion, our disbelief surrendered to shock and horror. The news was confirmed; we felt sick… stricken… distraught. Kobe’s teammates, broadcasters, coaches, friends – most visibly shaken – described the tragedy as devastating and senseless.

And Monday was no less sobering:

Holocaust Remembrance Day.

(We cannot… must not… ever… forget what happens when hatred and fear join forces.)

Whether we realize it or not, every hour we live and breathe on this spinning blue ball…

…We walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

It’s true that our days are numbered. And we are all walking – one step, one heartbeat, one breath at a time – toward our end.

But we don’t have to walk alone.

At funerals, we hear this reminder from a Davidic Psalm:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

He restores my soul.

He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. 

(Psalm 23, ESV)

What about you? When your time is up, what then? Where will you dwell?

We’re born. We live (80 years maybe… or 41… or 13). We die.

Then what?

Death happens. It’s inevitable. But we don’t really think about it much, do we? Until somebody dies. Especially when somebody dies tragically or too soon.

Then we wonder.

Maybe you imagine you’ll reemerge from your cocoon (coffin) and morph into a monarch butterfly or water moccasin… or Wakandan princess. (Sounds plausible… or not.)

Perhaps you have this vague idea death is just a deep sleep. Like Princess Aurora… without the wake-up kiss.

Really? I mean, a good night’s sleep is lovely and all, but sleepy/semiconscious/coffin-napping forever and ever?

***yawn***

(If that’s the case, we’ve got no shot at staying woke after all, do we?)

Or maybe you think death is just like the last page in our storybooks.

The end.

That’s it. A last breath… a flat line… eternal nothingness.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say… I disagree. (Stay with me here – on this limb – for just a couple hundred words. Please.)

I think you and I were made for forever.

I think Kobe and Gigi and the other passengers and pilot of that helicopter were made for forever.

I think everyone, everywhere, is made for forever.

Why? Because God is great. And He loves us more than we can begin to imagine. Because He created us and cares for us and carries us.

Because He carried a cross for us… so that one day He can carry us home.

To heaven.

(Yes… forever.)

Don’t believe me? Here’s Kobe’s take… from an interview in 2006, three years after he was accused and charged with sexual assault. (The felony charges were dropped and a civil case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.) In his own words:

S.A. Smith/ESPN: What did you learn from that whole experience, just having to go through what you went through?

Kobe: God is great.

Smith: Is it that simple?

Kobe: God is great. Doesn’t get any simpler than that, bro.

Smith: Did you know that – I mean, everybody knows that – but the way you know it now… did you know it before that incident* took place?

Kobe: You can know it all you want but until you have to pick up that cross that you can’t carry… and He picks it up for you and carries you and that cross… then you know.

Kobe knew. (And now he really knows.)

Do you?

Regardless of what litters your past, you’re never beyond the reach of God’s love and mercy. Jesus’ blood will cover every sin in your story and every skeleton in your closet (and mine too). If you want forgiveness/freedom/forever home in heaven, all you have to do is ask.

LORD, have mercy… be my Shepherd… restore my soul… guide me along the right paths for your name’s sake.

It’s that simple.

And this profound:

If you ask, surely His goodness and love shall follow you all the days of your life (however many or few)… and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

(Pretty sure you’ll meet Kobe there too.)

Isn’t God great?

Wendy

P.S. You can watch the clip from Kobe’s 2006 interview with Stephen A. Smith here.

* There’s no denying Kobe was an incredible inspiration to countless athletes and fans… but he wasn’t perfect. His past wasn’t (always) pretty. The aforementioned “incident” caused untold damage to Kobe’s reputation and his marriage. Kobe couldn’t fix it. In his words, he “couldn’t carry that cross.” Some say it’s disrespectful to point out the sins of the deceased. Sacrilegious even. And maybe it is. But religion isn’t the point here. Relationship is. A relationship between a sinner and a Savior. A father and the Son. A really good basketball player… and a really great God.

Mercy Christmas

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December is here in all of its twinkling, sparkling, glittering glory.

And while everyone seems to be hustling, bustling, hurrying and scurrying, I want to wish you a silent night or two… moments of stillness, grace and peace. And tidings of comfort too if your heart’s been bruised… or broken.

I still require an extra helping of comfort myself… because someone I dearly loved died at Christmastime, and I’m not sure my heart has fully recovered. In a post last Christmas, I shared the very last Christmas letter this woman ever wrote. And I remembered her, wistfully:

If you’ll indulge me for a minute, I’d like to tell you about this remarkable woman. She had rare grace, a quiet strength, a strong faith, and a mischievous grin that she’d flash every so often, just to keep everyone guessing. We were so different, she and I. She was quieter, gentler, more thoughtful. But she was also tons of fun. She loved parties and plays and road trips and dancing. In a ballroom… or all through the house. She favored folk singers like James Taylor, John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, and quirky cocktails like a Pink Squirrel or a Harvey Wallbanger. Here’s the deal though – and she would tell you this herself, emphatically: she wasn’t perfect. She had issues. Insecurity issues. Daddy issues. Irritability issues (which she referred to as “hormonal fluctuations”). I’m beginning to understand what she meant by that.

The thing I liked best about her was how relational she was: she was an includer, an encourager, a helper, a pray-er, and she had good shoulders. I know this because I cried on them often. Every one of this woman’s friends later told me that she was their go-to girl. Because she made everyone feel like they were her best friend.

Including me.

Today marks 21 years since I said goodbye to my sweet momma. She got sick on a Sunday morning and died two days later. I remember draping myself across her feet in the ICU, pleading with God. And begging her too: Don’t go. Don’t leave me.

The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away.

(And sometimes it hurts like hell.)

My momma went on ahead to heaven. Good for her… but… I was undone. Distraught. Completely crushed. I had no earthly idea how I was going to keep breathing… let alone “do Christmas.” Or life, for that matter.

I’m not gonna lie. Some days it was a sapping/sobbing/isolating/devastating struggle. I felt like I had a new label: bereft. I would see young women in the mall, shopping with their mommas and their babies. And it warmed my heart. And then broke it into a thousand pieces.

My mother-in-law did what she could. She and my father-in-law would take the boys so Steve and I could go to dinner or a movie. She’d make us meals now and then. They hosted one of the boys’ birthday parties for us. (Pretty sure my mother-in-law bought out every Thomas the Tank Engine item in the party goods section at Target for that kiddie soiree.)

She tried valiantly, and in hindsight, I realize I probably didn’t give her enough credit. But the truth was what it was… and is what it is. She wasn’t my mom.

I didn’t want Linda… I wanted Louise.

Linda was high-strung and finicky (which is a nice way of saying she could be quite a pain in the derriere.) She was an artist and fashion designer prior to becoming a wife, mother, homemaker and hostess, which meant that every detail of every party or presentation had to be perfect. The clothing label, the dinner menu, the wrapping paper, the fabrics, the flowers, the flatware. Appearances mattered. A lot. A lot a lot.

And while I like a clean house, a good pedicure and strong support (from my mattress and my undergarments), I guess I felt like I couldn’t cut it. My parenting skills, my denominational preference, and my athletic abilities were sorely lacking, it seemed. (I was a lousy tennis player and a hazard on the golf course. Which meant I was really only good for lunch at the club.) Most of the time, my mother-in-law let her actions (and non-verbal cues) communicate that message. But sometimes she came right out and said it.

Like the time she took me and my firstborn son (who was 3 at the time) shopping at a “finer” department store. Zack made a beeline for the stuffed animals and plush toys in the children’s section, and of course, he threw a fit – right there in front of the retail associate and all the other shoppers – when I told him to put the overpriced banana-toting monkey back on the shelf. When his protests reached an 8.2 magnitude on the tantrum scale, I decided it would be best (so as not to trigger migraines or a security escort) to just buy the orangutan and go home for a nap. Both of us.

My mother-in-law disagreed. She decided it was the perfect time to teach me a lengthy lesson about parental discipline and delayed gratification. Also in front of the retail associate and all the other shoppers. It was a group lesson, if you will. This from the woman who seemed to have indulged her sons’ every whim while they were growing up and was currently spoiling her dog like Leona Helmsley. (Google her. You’ll get the idea.)

In addition to being somewhat authoritative, Mom was maddeningly late for everything. If the celebration started at 7, she’d sweep into the room around 8:45 and command everyone’s attention from the moment she arrived until everyone else left. She was even late to her own parties. (Not even kidding.) Dad would play greeter and host until my mother-in-law emerged from the master suite sporting her Chanel lipstick, her signature bob, a killer dress and a dazzling smile. She was so pretty. Dad would swoon, and everyone would air-kiss and pretend perfect.

Three years after my mom passed away, Steve’s dad died from leukemia. The one who had seemingly held us all together (and held Mom in check, to no small degree) was gone now, too.

Initially, my mother-in-law chose to stay in the home they had shared, but within a couple years her physician had diagnosed her with early onset dementia (in hindsight, likely Alzheimer’s), and we knew she wouldn’t be able to live alone much longer.

One night during dinner, we started discussing the fact that Mom would need to move. Soon. There had been some troubling indications that she was no longer safe alone, and her doctor had recently told her she shouldn’t be driving. We agreed that the new assisted-living facility opening in a nearby community would be an excellent choice. She’d have a newly-built two-bedroom suite, and the ascetics would most definitely appeal to her. The only problem was that the suite wouldn’t be ready for nearly six weeks. We talked about the possibility of hiring home caregivers to bridge the gap. But Steve felt strongly that mom should come and stay with us until her new place was ready.

Excuse me?!

It was one thing when Mom herself had informed me (five years prior) that she was handing off the baton to me, and now I’d be hosting the entire extended family at Christmas each year: “You’re 30 now, so I think it’s time you start hosting the holidays.” I didn’t want the baton. I wanted to throw it to the ground and stomp on it. But I didn’t. Instead I took a couple cooking lessons. And got a membership to Sam’s Club.

But this was entirely different.

I would have to live with her. 24/7. For a month. Possibly two. (Lord, have mercy.)

My head started to spin.

I glared at my dear husband. Who was just trying to do right by his momma… and our brother and sister-in-law – whose youngest son was in the NICU.  (Clearly, I was the only logical candidate for designated driver, laundress, cook and caregiver.)

My mother-in-law stayed with us for 40 days. It felt like 400. And just before we tore each other’s hair out, her suite at the Timbers of Shorewood was ready. Hallelujah.

Little did I know that her brief stay was only the beginning of a terribly lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s. And for those of you who’ve witnessed the effects of this ravaging disease, you know that it didn’t only assail her. We were all caught in the firestorm.

From start to finish, Mom’s illness afflicted her for nearly 15 years.

I wish I could tell you that I was a devoted daughter-in-law and attentive caretaker during those years. But I wasn’t. I treated Mom’s illness – correction –  I treated Mom… like a burden. One that I bore bitterly.

Yes, I took her to her doctor’s appointments and the market. I invited her to all our family gatherings and picked up her prescriptions and dry cleaning. I chauffeured her to department store after department store (fashion remained a high priority until her cognitive function had diminished to the point where she didn’t know what a zipper was). I even – begrudgingly – returned every single fall fashion item she had selected because the cut of the garment didn’t suit her or the dye lot was inconsistent or the nap of the fabric didn’t please or natural light brought out the yellow undertones which were terribly unflattering. I ran around “doing the right thing” for my mother-in-law… with the wrong perspective and a lousy attitude. I was not kind, nor tenderhearted. Ebenezer Scrooge was more gracious than me.

I bemoaned the fact that I was solely responsible for Mom’s needs and requests (reasonable or not), and under the guise of “keeping her in the loop” I notified my sister-in-law of every appointment, errand and inconvenience I endured. I also took every opportunity to grouse to my husband and kids about their mother/grandmother.

So becoming, I know.

The fact is… I had become completely bitter. And no matter how beautiful you are, bitter is ugly. It is its own progressive disease. And at some point I realized, if I didn’t treat it, I would succumb to it.

Around that time, two things happened. First, my pastor preached a sermon about forgiveness. He talked about the fact that every relationship requires it. Ours to God. Ours to our children. To our partners. To our parents. And our friends. At some point, we all falter and fail each other. And it goes both ways. (Well, except with God. All the faltering and failing happens on my side… All the fault in that relationship lands squarely on me.) My pastor talked about that fact that regardless of how horrific the offense against us, no matter how deep the hurt and heartache, we have to find our way to forgiveness. Or bitterness will consume us from the inside out. To illustrate his point, he said, “Choosing not to forgive someone is like drinking cyanide and waiting for the other person to die.”

His message hit me full-force… like a sucker-punch to the gut. I was the one drinking the poisonous, proverbial Kool-Aid.

Not only was I bitter toward my mother-in-law, I was stoking a simmering anger toward Steve. In my mind, he had conspired against me to forcibly shackle me into Alzheimer’s patient-support services. And I was indignant.

The second thing that happened then was that my mother-in-law started quietly saying the same thing to me every time I came to see her:

“Thank you for taking care of me.”

This fierce, finicky, feisty woman was becoming softer, sweeter, more sincere. And it unnerved me. How could I continue to carry my grievances against someone who was so genuinely grateful?

I wish I could tell you that I surrendered my resentment right then and there. But I didn’t. Which is funny, because in hindsight, I can see that I was a lot more like her than I would have ever cared to admit.

Stubborn. Strong-willed. Slow to relent… or repent.

After several years in the assisted-living residence, it came time to move Mom again. This time to a memory care center with skilled nursing support. She no longer needed me to “care” for her personal needs, which was a great relief. Instead, I came to keep her company once or twice a week. Often enough to keep myself from feeling guilty… and anyone else from thinking me neglectful.

If the weather was nice, we’d sit outside in the courtyard and watch the birds build nests and the fountain grasses sway in the breeze. Most of the time we’d just sit there quietly, keeping company with one another. If it was warm and sunny or cool and breezy, I’d make remarks about the weather. But no matter what the temperature or cloud cover, Mom would tell me it was a beautiful day. And then she’d tell me again. And again. And once more for good measure.

During wintertime, I’d join her for a sing-along or a bead-stringing session in the gathering room. Sometimes we’d sit in front of the television and watch a video of a blazing fire crackling in its virtual fireplace. She wasn’t much of a conversationalist at this point, so I became fairly good at monologues. I’d tell her stories about her grandkids or share memories from years past – some sentimental, some silly. She laughed easily, though I wasn’t always sure she understood why she was laughing. But somehow she seemed to know when she was supposed to. And that made me smile.

By now, Mom had forgotten our names, her whereabouts, and any concept of time or season. She roamed the halls late at night, wore three layers of clothing in July, and seemed surprised when we told her she had been married to a wonderful man named Bob who absolutely adored her.

She had lost all manner of social graces and basic skills. The woman who had possessed such poise and impeccable manners would now reach her hand into a bowl of chocolate pudding and lap it up from her fingers.

You’d think I would have become more tenderhearted by now. Instead, I was just desperately trying to keep her from soiling my spiritwear before I headed to one of my boys’ ball games. I endured my obligatory visits with her… and I hurried back to my car and my comfort zone, as quickly as seemed acceptable to any of the staff who might be keeping tabs. For all intents and purposes, I was simply keeping up appearances. Because apparently, appearances mattered a lot to me. A lot a lot. (Hmm…)

There’s a verse in the Bible that says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad and lead me along” your path.

Slowly but surely, as Mom’s illness progressed and our relationship changed, I opened my heart to God’s searching and knowing and testing. In those minutes of quiet and stillness, those hours of bird-watching and sitting fireside together, Mom and I kept company. And God was with us. We grew closer, and I grew kinder, gentler, a little wiser.

My eyes were opened to things I’d never really considered before: my mother-in-law’s traumatic childhood, her haunting flashbacks and debilitating fears, the heartbreaking loss of an infant son, and her family’s long history of mental illness. I began to feel something I hadn’t felt for her before.

Compassion.

I was stricken with it. I say stricken because it stung a little when I realized I had never shown her any.

I started thinking about my own propensity to hurt others. Often unintentionally, but sometimes, premeditated… and targeted… hitting below the belt or aiming for vital organs. A biting comment, a purposeful slight, a nasty tone, a bold-faced lie. Some juicy gossip or not-so-good old-fashioned back-stabbing. The more I peeled back the layers of my own “pretending perfect” the more cold and calculating I saw. The more controlling and manipulative.

Unbecoming, indeed.

I took a long, hard look at my ugly.

And I discovered something life-changing in that soul-searching… I realized that when I’m guilty, I want a pardon. Not even a slap on the wrist, I want boundless forgiveness. Mercy! But when somebody wrongs me, I want justice to its fullest extent. Book ’em Dano!  Make ’em pay. (What a double standard.)

Mom gave me that. The ability to see my own hypocrisy. It doesn’t sound like it, but it really was an incredible blessing. It gave me something I’d been lacking.

Perspective.

So I pondered and prayed. Alone and also sometimes with Mom. Though she couldn’t remember her own name, she would squeeze my hand and softly say “amen” at the end of our prayers together. And I found myself fighting back tender tears.

Not gonna lie, I still hurried out to my car (and doused my hands in sanitizer) after my visits, but the bitterness was beginning to lift. And my burden was getting lighter. I was finding my way to mercy… and grace… and peace.

Heavenly peace.

Christmas is about gifts. Not the presents under the tree. The real gifts. The lasting ones. The ones we truly cherish. Togetherness, tenderness, laughter, love.

In those years that Mom lingered, her body very much alive but her mind and memory fading away, Mom helped me unwrap another gift. An extraordinary one. The gift of forgiveness.

There’s a song by Don Henley called “The Heart of the Matter,” and it goes like this:

“I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak, and my thoughts seem to scatter, but I think it’s about forgiveness.”

Forgiveness.

Whether from God or someone else, I’m always glad to receive it. When someone graciously forgives me, I’m always a little stunned… and incredibly grateful.

And forgiveness is a gift I can offer too. I can give it freely – and here’s the amazing thing – it need not be preceded by an apology. (With some people, I’ve learned, I’ll never get one anyway.)

But the really extraordinary thing God and my mother-in-law taught me about forgiveness is this:

It’s a gift I give myself.

When I forgive, I push away the toxic cocktail of bitterness. And I receive the sweetwater of mercy. I drink it in. And splash it all around.

More forgiveness and mercy, more kindness and goodness, more perspective and patience and peace.

My mother-in-law passed away three and a half years ago… and oh, how I wish I had readily offered those gifts to her earlier and more generously/joyfully/lovingly. Before she died, though, I had begun to face my pride and my judgment of her. I had begun to let go of things I had held against her for so long.

At her funeral, my son Mitchell gave the eulogy. Through tears, he concluded his remembrance with this:

“I hold my grandmother in highest esteem… because she and my grandfather raised the two finest men I know, my dad and my uncle.”

His words struck a chord in my heart. Mitch was right.

Her shortcomings and struggles aside, Mom had raised the very best man I know. And that alone ought to merit a mountain of mercy.

We sang “Amazing Grace” at the graveside service and bid Mom farewell. But I know that because of the mercy of Christ, she’s still very much alive. Healthy and whole.

I imagine that she and my father-in-law had an exceedingly joyful reunion in heaven. And that perhaps she and my mom get glimpses of their sweet, silly, lively and lovely grandchildren now and then. And that maybe – just maybe – our Father God has communicated to her my heart’s cry this Christmas:

Mom, I’m sorry. For my stubborn pride. For being quick to judge and long to hold a grudge. I’m sorry my bitterness kept us from having the close, comforting relationship we both really needed. Thanks for sticking around long enough for me to learn the lessons of forgiveness. Took me awhile, I know, but I think I’m finally starting to get it. I love you, Mom. And I’ll see you again one day. Merry Christmas.

And merry Christmas to all of you, too. May the gifts we give this holiday season be drenched in love and mercy.

And may God bless us, every one.

~ Wendy

 

The Last Christmas Letter

My dear reader,

‘Tis the season… of twinkle lights and starry nights, snowflakes and stockings, candy canes and carols, parties, presents, poinsettias…

And a little tea and sympathy.

I say sympathy because Christmas for me is still a little bittersweet. Someone I dearly love died at Christmastime, and I’m not sure my heart has fully recovered.

If you’ll indulge me for a minute, I’d like to tell you about this remarkable woman. She had rare grace, a quiet strength, a strong faith, and a mischievous grin that she’d flash every so often, just to keep everyone guessing. We were so different, she and I. She was quieter, gentler, more thoughtful. But she was also tons of fun. She loved parties and plays and road trips and dancing. In a ballroom occasionally, but most frequently in the kitchen… and all through the house. She favored folk singers like James Taylor, John Denver, Simon & Garfunkel, and quirky cocktails like a Pink Squirrel or a Harvey Wallbanger.

Here’s the deal though – and she would tell you this herself, emphatically: she wasn’t perfect. She had issues. Insecurity issues. Daddy issues. Irritability issues (which she referred to as “hormonal fluctuations”). I’m beginning to understand what she meant by that.

The thing I liked best about her was how relational she was: she was an includer, an encourager, a helper, a pray-er, and she had good shoulders. I know this because I cried on them often. Every one of this woman’s friends later told me that she was their go-to girl. Because she made everyone feel like they were her best friend.

Including me.

Tomorrow will be twenty years since I said goodbye to my sweet momma. She got sick on a Sunday morning and died two days later. I remember draping myself across her feet in the ICU, pleading with God. And begging her too: Don’t go. Don’t leave me.

The LORD gives, and the LORD takes away.

(And sometimes it hurts like hell.)

My momma went on ahead to heaven. Good for her… but… I was undone. Distraught. Completely crushed. I had no earthly idea how I was going to keep breathing… let alone “do Christmas.”

Or life, for that matter.

I’m not gonna lie. Some days it was a sapping/ sobbing/ isolating/devastating struggle. I felt like I had a new label: bereft. I would see young women in the mall, shopping with their mommas and their babies. And it warmed my heart. And then broke it into a thousand pieces.

I remember that searing pain all too well.

But even in my pain – I was shocked to discover – there was peace. The pain was deep. But the peace was deeper still.

Because Jesus is…

Immanuel.

God with us.

He was so near in my pain. And He showed me more of Himself there. I drew closer. (Probably because I had nowhere else to turn.) And He tendered solace. In the floodwaters of grief I learned… Jesus doesn’t just give peace. He is peace.

You’ve probably heard the saying: No Jesus. No peace. Know Jesus. Know peace. 

It’s true. Because it’s Truth.

Encountering Truth requires a willingness to resist presumption and abandon disbelief. It requires humility (so rare these days) and hope. A yearning for something better, bigger, more brilliant than anything this world has to offer.

A desire to embrace a divine mystery.

A mystery revealed only to those who are willing to take a leap of faith… and believe Jesus. Believe that He is. And that He was. And that He is to come.

Believe that He is with you, for you, before you and behind you.

Believe that He was born and lived and died on this dusty earth. Died to meet the highest and most holy standard of justice, bearing the brutal burden of all the world’s sin and making the bloody payment it requires.

And then – in the most stunning victory of all – defeating death and exiting the grave on his own two nail-scarred feet.

He is risen!

That’s it. That’s all.

Simply believe.

Faith.

It’s a risk. And a reward. It’s a wild, daring, heart-pounding, running leap… into the strong arms of a Father who will never let you down.

Don’t ask me to build a bridge of irrefutable proof for you. I cannot. (Though I would argue that C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel and Tim Keller can all make a pretty good case.)

By God’s definition:

Faith is the substance of things hoped for… the evidence of things not seen.

Turns out, it’s stronger than any bridge ever built. Safer than any fortress. And it isn’t affected the slightest bit by suspicion, skepticism or outright denial. The brilliant scholar/writer/broadcaster/critic/convert C.S. Lewis once wrote:

“Thirst was made for water. Inquiry for truth.”

Keep inquiring. God will answer. (He promised.)

‘Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’

Even if you don’t inquire, eventually you may run into Him. (This is my prayer, anyway.)

“We can ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The earth is crowded with Him,” Lewis wrote.

God cannot not divulge His grace and glory.

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘Darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

I’m living proof of God’s grace. I’ve been drenched in His love… and seen glimpses of His glory. I’ve been enfolded in His inexplicable peace. I know the truth about Him.

My momma knew it too.

And now, as I celebrate her in my heart – and miss her madly – I’d like to share with you her “last words” to her friends and family. It’s a letter she wrote just days before she went home to heaven.

Her very last Christmas letter.

I want to tell you about a very special man in my life. I actually met him many years ago during a time of transition. Fred had been traveling every week from Monday through Friday for an entire year. I was at home with the kids week after week, exhausted and very lonely. Finally the time came for us to move to Louisville, and I was delighted. But not long after the move I realized that there was still something missing from my life, a void I couldn’t seem to fill. Then a dear friend introduced me to this man, unlike anyone I’d ever met. If I told you his name, you would recognize it immediately and I knew it too, but had never met him until then.

From that day on, I seemed to run into him everywhere. A lot of people were talking about him. Some seemed to be as much in awe of him as I was, while others seemed to hold a burning anger and hatred for him that I couldn’t understand. As time went on, I realized that I had fallen deeply and irreversibly in love with him. It wasn’t the same kind of love I had for my husband or family, and I can’t really explain it except to say I don’t know how I ever lived without him.

He has been there for me through joys and trails, heartache and laughter. He was my rock of stability during our move to Atlanta away from family and friends. He has brought me strength and healing this year after the loss of dear loved ones. He gives me indescribable peace, lifts me up when I’m down and turns torrents of crises into streams of calm waters. When I face uncertainty I ask myself, “What would he do?” And best of all, I know he will never leave me no matter what I say or do to disappoint him because his love for me is so strong. 

I continue to get to know him better through conversations and the beautiful letters he has written – they are powerful yet tender and they give me strength to face anything this life can throw at me. He is perfect in every way and, more than anything, I want you to know him and love him as I do.

In case you haven’t already figured it out, the “other man” in my life is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, and He loves you too. The best Christmas gift you can ever receive is to get to know Him in a personal way (Isaiah 55:6). It’s very simple, just acknowledge your need for Him (Isaiah 43:11, 25) and ask Him to come into your life. Are you tired of the struggle (Philippians 4:13)? Are you just going through the motions day after day (Psalm 127:1)? Do all the “things” of this world seem like empty boxes (1 Corinthians 2:9)? Give Jesus a chance to fill your life. And may God bless you this year in a new and powerful way.

Please let me know if you have received the greatest gift of all – eternal life.

With much love, 

Louise

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P.S. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”