School Supplies

Just got the automated voicemail message from our public school principal… and apparently I have 14 forms I need to fill out and 37 school supply items I need to purchase so my daughter can continue her formal education.

BRB.

(JK.)

Debating whether to delete the message, throw on my comfies and watch a couple episodes of “The Crown.” (Queen Elizabeth doesn’t do these ignoble tasks; why should I?) The thought of filling out all those forms… and then braving the back-to-school aisle…

Please pass the Excedrin Migraine.

Every year, I endure the frenzied dash and mad grab for backpacks and their contents: pencil pouches, pocket folders, page protectors, spiral notebooks, index cards, glue sticks, scissors, rulers, graph paper, Post-It notes, and 12 types of writing utensils: No. 2 pencils, colored pencils, crayons, red/blue/black pens, highlighters, dry erase markers, fine-line and wide-tip Sharpies, gel pens, charcoal pencils, styluses… and scented markers. (Brilliant. Let’s provide both a distraction and a gateway to huffing at the same time.)

And I think… Do these kids really need all that stuff?

I’ve been buying school supplies for a quarter century now. So I consider myself a back-to-school veteran of sorts. I’ve done multiple tours: preschool, elementary, middle school, high school and college. And I’ve suffered flesh wounds in the Battle of Dollar General.

And you know what I’ve come to realize?

My daughter needs me to supply her with far more than index cards and safety scissors.

Along with a handful of highlighters, she needs me to highlight and celebrate all the ways she’s learning and growing. Not just academically and intellectually. But relationally and spiritually. In discernment, compassion, grit, grace.

Along with a ruler, she needs me to measure her against herself, not compare her to her classmates, teammates or siblings.

Along with pink erasers, she needs me to teach her to learn from her mistakes… but leave her failures where they belong: in the past.

Along with fine-line markers, she needs me to teach her the fine line between humility and insecurity… And the verrrrryyy fine line between confidence and arrogance.

Along with Post-Its, she needs me to guide and keep an eye on her social media posts… and help her avoid the pitfalls of constant comparison and FOMO. And the Insta-filtered-and-fueled onslaught of self-objectification… self-doubt… and self-pity. (#triplethreat)

Along with a PE uniform, she needs me to provide an example of physical fitness, emotional wellness and spiritual strength. (And given the escalation of gun violence across the country, I’m inclined to provide body armor too. But that’s another blog for another day.)

The supplies my daughter needs most can’t be rung up at a register at Target.

We can’t just give our kids all the “stuff” and sign them up for all the “things” (while we remain distracted/stressed/emotionally unavailable)… and think they’re gonna turn out ok.

They won’t.

(The latest mental health statistics prove it.)

Kids – even high school kids – need this critical trio of “supplies” from their folks:

A sense of security. Which requires a fair amount of structure… and a whole lot of comfort, counsel, and clear – reasonable – expectations.

A safety net. Something to hold onto – and help them up – when they stumble or fall. A deep faith. A close-knit family. A supportive team. A circle of real, true-blue, faithful friends… not fakers/takers/heartbreakers. A passion for art, music, theater, ____________. Or all of the above.

And (here’s the biggie)…

The gift of time.

Twenty years ago (when we were young, relatively clueless parents), our pastor bestowed this pearl of wisdom:

Kids spell love T-I-M-E.

Though many would deny this (especially 13 – 17-year-old boys, in my experience) it’s the gift they want most. Our precious time.

Face time. Yes, this does in fact mean face-to-face, phones down, no distractions. I’ve come to realize that my full and undivided attention is a gift I give far too infrequently. I… we… must do better. Our kids deserve it.

Game time. True confessions: I’m not the “fun” parent around here. I’m the taskmaster and the bad cop. But I’m learning to let loose a little more… and I’m realizing that being silly and playing games and goofing around is pretty much every kid’s love language.

Down time. Kids need a break sometimes. Often, actually. Just like us, they need to unwind/rest/breathe/be still. (And contrary to popular belief, boredom can be a blessing.)

Hang time. If they want to invite friends over, count yourself blessed… and say YES.

(Just do it.)

Crunch time. Life is tough. Kids are pretty resilient but they have to learn how to meet challenges, fight through adversity… and face consequences. Consequences are good teachers. Parents who do an end run on behalf of their kids aren’t doing them any favors. They’re only delaying the inevitable setback… or suffering. Every once in a while, we all need some hard truth and tough love – pruning – so we can grow and bloom and flourish.

Quiet time. Actual silence. No Spotify or Netflix or YouTube videos. No earbuds or airpods or wireless speakers. No noise whatsoever. Because quiet invites…

Peace.

And that’s something you can’t buy in the back-to-school aisle either.

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, fully-supplied school year!

Wendy

P.S. If you – like me – find yourself feeling under-stocked and ill-equipped to supply your kiddos with everything they need, I encourage you to go straight to the Distributor:

And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

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Yes I Am

White and privileged, that is.

And frankly I’m dismayed that some attempt to deny it. They fuss and carry on, claiming “white privilege” doesn’t exist.

“White privilege” is a lot like it sounds:

Being white and being privileged. I am what I am. And denying it is absurd. (And bordering on delusional.)

White.

Lily white. That’s me.

To quote Lady Gaga, “Baby, I was born this way.”

Fair-skinned with a smattering of freckles and a tendency to burn in direct sunlight.

Privileged.

Yep, that too. I grew up and got my degree in the comfort and security of upper-middle-class suburbia. Intact family. Good education. Quality healthcare. Resources galore.

The fact is, so many of us in this nation are privileged. In some cases (to some degree) because of whiteness; in other cases, perhaps not.

Let me be clear.

Being white and privileged doesn’t mean your life is perfect. It doesn’t mean you never had to strive/strain/struggle. It doesn’t mean you didn’t have to make tough decisions or be resilient/relentless to attain certain things. It doesn’t mean you haven’t had to work hard/smart/long to pay your bills or sacrifice mightily to get where you wanted to go. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve never been a victim of misjudgment, mistreatment, crime or calamity. It simply means ethnicity hasn’t been one of your hurdles.

“White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard; it means that your skin color isn’t one of the things making it harder.” (Not sure who said this, but… #realitycheck.)

My whiteness automatically places me in the majority in the U.S. And in many cases, it identifies me with the “people in charge” around here. Can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure my whiteness makes me less likely to be viewed with discomfort, fear, or suspicion, at least by the rest of the majority. (I daresay there’s less presumption when you walk around being white… than any other color. Safety in numbers.)

And while pride and prejudice aren’t strictly white “diseases,” they still run rampant in some circles.

Ugh.

No one is better than anyone else, period. (Let alone because of color.)

For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:11)

Sadly though, there’s a lingering air of superiority in a few of the wealthy, mostly-white neighborhoods I’ve visited. I know I’m not the only one that can smell that stale stink… Can we open the proverbial windows and let in some fresh air, for heaven’s sake?

Because a superiority complex is ugly… and ungodly.

As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

See?

And on the heels of superiority come its partners in crime and co-conspirators:

Suppression. Oppression. Hate.

(And when hate happens, things get ugly… quickly.)

As far as I can tell we’re all descended from the same original bloodline. So in essence, that means there’s only one race:

The human one.

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(And btw, can we please try to keep the “kind” in humankind?)

How about we start here? Take a few steps outside our comfort zone. Befriend someone outside our demographic. Listen, if my only friends were white, middle-aged, married, Midwestern, mom-types (the list could go on, narrowing my circle based on identity politics and personal preferences)… my life would be so sad and small. And frankly, the more I spend time with people who – at first glance – seem vastly different from me, the more I realize how much we have in common. (When I make a frittata, it doesn’t matter whether I use brown eggs or white ones. Breakfast is fantastic either way. Because what’s inside the shell is… the same.)

So, what if we just quit labelling our neighbors and start loving them?

For real.

Instead of pot-stirrers, let’s be peacemakers.

Listening to each others’ stories and learning from them. Welcoming our neighbors – black and white and every color in between – into our lives, homes, hearts.

Instead of “us” and “them” – let’s be… we.

Collectively, we’ve got to resist the temptation (however weak or strong) to  judge/label/belittle/demean someone simply because their complexion (or community) is a shade different than our own.

I think Benjamin Watson said it best: “Racism is not a skin problem. It’s a sin problem.”

Discrimination = sin. Disdain = sin. Divisiveness = sin.

Yes, we’re all sinners. You, me, every human being that’s ever been born. But you know what I want to be when I grow up?

Revolutionary.

A revolutionary for love.

*Full disclosure: In a previous draft, I used the word “colorblind.” My intent was to convey impartiality, fairness, justice… but instead, I unknowingly “erased” the uniqueness and value of all of our God-given beauty and diversity. My sincerest apologies to those whom I offended. (And many thanks to a dear friend who turned me on to the phrase “revolutionary for love.” I dig it. And I’m aiming for just that.)

I think that was Dr. King’s dream for all of us. To be love revolutionaries. To look at character instead of color. To see aspirations not appearances. To treat people with kindness and respect, regardless of skin tone or eye color or body type. Regardless of race, religion, gender, socioeconomic or immigration status, sexual orientation, genetic differentiation, diagnosis or disability.

Fair and impartial treatment. Common decency.

That’s what I understand social justice to mean.

Dr. King was a preacher and an activist. The Bible was his instruction manual. (Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength… and love your neighbor as yourself.) He believed it and taught it and lived it. He wasn’t flawless, but he was forgiven. He wasn’t perfect… but he was prophetic. He wasn’t fearless… but he was free.

Free at last. 

The night before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave a speech at a church in Memphis, and he talked about things that would/could/should change the world right before his – and our – eyes. He taught scripture. He preached fairness and forgiveness. He promoted radical humility:

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness, he said.

He spent a good deal of time that evening re-telling Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan – who risked life and limb to aid a stranger in need, when others (“religious men”) would not. He talked about sacrificial kindness and compassion and what might hinder it.

Busyness, bigotry, “blindness” to the victim’s plight.

Or perhaps…

Fear.

But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about… 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

That’s the question before you tonight.

And that’s the question before us still.

Are we willing to show sacrificial kindness and compassion to others – black, brown, fair or freckled? Or are we going to let our own fears or busyness or bigotry or “blindness” to others’ needs get in the way of love and mercy?

We were put here to help. Not simply help ourselves to whatever we can grab. But how willing are we to use whatever resources (and yes, privileges) we possess for the good of others? Even if it’s inconvenient. Or costly. Or difficult. Or downright dangerous.

Dr. King didn’t hesitate. He just did what God told him to do:

Justice.

Mercy.

Humility.

( ^ See Micah 6:8.)

Because he knew the eventual (eternal) outcome:

Glory.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the LORD!

The man who spoke those words the night before he was murdered knew that his dream and his mission could cost him his life. But he was undeterred and unafraid. This was a man willing to practice what he preached. And what Jesus lived (and died) to demonstrate…

Dangerous unselfishness.

Hello, my name is Wendy. I’m white and privileged and determined to live dangerously. (Honoring Dr. King… by following his King.)

Chasing the dream,

Wendy

P.S. Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s 90th birthday, and I have no doubt the celebration is heavenly. (Jesus prepared the place.) The Promised Land has plenty of room… and everyone’s welcome. Join us?

 

That’s a Wrap

Only 362 days ’til Christmas!

That’s right, friends. Christmas Past has passed. And Christmas Future is way out there. But the Christmas Present remains.

Steady. Strong. Faithful. Gentle. True. Always true.

Immanuel… God with us.

His presence is the present. And it never gets lost or broken or outdated or recalled. It doesn’t dissipate, won’t depreciate, and can’t be destroyed.

Of all the promises God has made to us, the guarantee of His ever-presence is the one I cling to most. Whether I can sense Him or not, He’s near. Never distant or disinterested. He has proven Himself to be intensely personal, endlessly forgiving and full of surprises. (The good kind: joy, adventure, humor… and one day, HEAVEN.)

You surround me – front and back. You put your hand on me. That kind of knowledge is too much for me; it’s so high above me that I can’t fathom it. 

Where could I go to get away from your spirit? Where could I go to escape your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there. If I went down to the grave, you would be there too! If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean – even there your hand would guide me; even there your strong hand would hold me tight! ~ Psalm 139:5-10 (CEB)

The gift of Christmas means we never, ever have to be alone.

Behold… and be held.

…But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you the most joyful news ever announced, and it is for everyone!  The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born tonight in Bethlehem!” ~ Luke 2:10-11 (TLB)

That wonder-filled, worldwide birthday extravaganza we just celebrated? It’s for Him. The Savior/Messiah/Lord. The babe in the manger.

We wrap our gifts because God wrapped His.

And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” ~ Luke 2:12-14 (NLT)

The gift – God’s one and only Son – swaddled and given to us.

His birth signaled the beginning of the end for all that’s wrong in our world: war and poverty, pride and prejudice, sin and sickness, hate and hopelessness. And death itself.

The gift of Jesus is the gift of a lifetime… and forever after.

It’s a gift that calls for an all-out, everybody’s-in(vited), wildly-celebrated, centuries-long, universally-propitious holiday!

Extra merry, if you please.

And presents too… under the tree, inside a stocking, tossed on the porch or stuffed in a mailbox. (I hope St. Nick gave naps and PTO to all those weary postal workers. Bless them.)

One of my son’s favorite presents this year was a heated blanket (a Chanukah gift from his Auntie Jo). As it turns out, that present is a brilliant metaphor for God’s gift of Jesus, who surrounds and protects us… and gives our lives weight and warmth.

Jesus is – in every sense of the word – our covering.

He who lives in the safe place of the Most High will be in the shadow of the All-powerful.  I will say to the Lord, “You are my safe and strong place, my God, in Whom I trust…” He will cover you with His wings. And under His wings you will be safe. He is faithful like a safe-covering and a strong wall. ~ Psalm 91:1-2, 4 (NLV)

Maybe that’s why we call Him Comforter.

That newborn baby – born to an unwed mother in a smelly stable – proved to be the mightiest and most storied King, Creator, Counselor (and yes, Comforter) of all.

A child has been born to us; God has given a son to us. He will be responsible for leading the people. His name will be Wonderful Counselor, Powerful God, Father Who Lives Forever, Prince of Peace. ~ Isaiah 9:6 (NCV)

He covers us and consoles us. His presence wraps around and warms us from within. Gentle, soothing, serene.

What a wonderful God we have—he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the source of every mercy, and the one who so wonderfully comforts and strengthens us in our hardships and trials. And why does he do this? So that when others are troubled, needing our sympathy and encouragement, we can pass on to them this same help and comfort God has given us. ~ 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (TLB)

The help and comfort He offers are lifesaving… and everlasting. Jesus didn’t come to pat us on the back, give us a pep talk and watch us march to our deaths. He came to rescue and resuscitate us… and redeem all we were bound to lose. He lived and died, all for us.

As C.S. Lewis observed:

“Jesus came not to make bad people good but to make dead people live.”

The gift of Jesus is life.

Invite Jesus to wrap you up in His mercy. A blanket of forgiveness and freedom. Freedom from fear, shame, loneliness, pain… and whatever else litters your past (mine too).

The gift of Jesus is love.

Invite Him to drape you in His tender loving care. The kind of love that means you never need to feel alone, afraid, ashamed or abandoned.

The gift of Jesus is joy.

Invite Him to tuck you into the sweet serenity and bountiful blessings of His presence. When Jesus is near, there’s no lack of rest or refreshment. No shortage of grace or peace.

The Christmas Presence is yours for the asking.

Unwrap… and enjoy.

Wendy

P.S. Wishing you a comfy, cozy, warm and wonder-filled New Year!

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.”