Am I Focused on the Smudges or the Sunshine?

Last week tucked in between rain and unseasonably cold temperatures we had two very pleasant days of warmth and sunshine in my little nook of the world.

So often on these warm sunny days, I find myself watching my four children playing in the yard from the bay window in our kitchen. As I watch my children playing outside, sun streaking through the windows, feeling it’s warmth and enjoying the extra brightness that sunshine brings inside our home, I feel shalom for a moment. Wholeness, peace and beauty.

On this particular day, I found myself feeling shalom and enjoying beauty one minute and finding faults the next. I took my eyes off the beauty of that sunshine streaming though the bay windows in my kitchen for a moment and I began to see first handprints all over everything; windows, television, fireplace, then computer screen. And next the tiny specks of dust resting on the surfaces of my cherry furniture. My gaze turned from beauty and instantly I saw imperfections and smudges all over the place. Sunshine has quite a way or exposing beauty and smudges.

It is a tough battle for me not to grab my version of a glock 19, the windex bottle, and distract myself from that moment of rest, shalom and beauty by getting caught up in the busyness of shooting down smudges. Doing is the nature of my flesh. Rest has always been counter to who I am. It is the work of the Spirit maturing inside of me to hold still and fight to take my gaze back to the beauty and shalom of that sunshine.

I cannot see beauty when I am bustling about focused on destroying dust and shooting down smudges.

I can only see beauty when I still myself. (Psalm 46:10)

When I lay my arms (that trusty bottle of windex) down and see shalom despite the smudges.

And as I have thought about his moment over the past week I have been convicted that my entire life is lived this way. I am so quick to take my eyes off of bright, warm, all encompassing beauty and focus and fret over tiny imperfections. Once I find one tiny imperfection, I tend to see them all.

I live this way with my kids. My children could have one hundred good days at school and a handful of bad, but that handful of bad tills up every single imperfection I see in them in my heart. When I take my eye off of beauty with my kids, I easily forget whose they are. I see them for how they live, what they do right and where they fall short instead of seeing them as covenant children of the Risen King.

I live this way with my husband. I could come home from being away at a women’s retreat or spending the day subbing at school. Every time I am away he has folded the laundry, taken all four kids swimming or to the amusement park or something else extraordinary, but I find myself taking my gaze off that beauty and finding faults in tiny details of crumbs on the counters and toys strewn across the floor. I fail to see all of the beautiful ways he loved our children while I was away when I focus on the condition of my home.

I live this way with myself. When I turn my gaze from beauty, when I forget to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith (Hebrews 12:2). It is so easy for me to see my imperfections and let those imperfections take hold of my gaze. I so easily focus on the smudges in my own life and fail to see the sunshine. I fail when I focus on seeking the approval of others, what I did right or what I did wrong, drinking from the unsatisfying cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13) of performing the role of parenting well or my reputation in the community and the church.

And as I reflect on standing there in front of that bay window in my kitchen I believe I am feeling God’s nudge to fight to focus on the sunshine.  To lay down my arms of wanting to constantly work on buffing away smudges instead of basking in the beauty of my Savior. When I keep my gaze on Him, the smudges are still there but pale in comparison His beauty.

In my nook of the world I want to automatically focus on the sunshine and forget the smudges. When I start to feel my fretting heart beating a little bit more quickly when it comes to housework, parenting, marriage, ministry, I want to be quick to ask myself: Am I focusing on the smudges or the sunshine?

In my nook of the world I am fighting to remind myself to keep my gaze on Jesus. To focus on sunshine and feel shalom, wholeness, beauty and peace. To dwell in the shelter of the Most High God, feel His all encompassing beauty and rest in His presence. (Psalm 91). To be still, lay down the doing parts of my nature and walk in the path God has called me to. A path of freedom and rest. A path with eyes fixed on Him.

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She sits there in her room, tiny plastic pieces of treasures, books, pink feather pens surround her, a crooked tiara on her head and streaks of orange marker are drawn on her leg from her kneecap to her hot pink painted toenails.

She is forty pounds and forty some inches tall. She is three and she is the fiercest tiny human I have ever known.

I can’t remember whether we were discussing which pajamas she should wear for the night or who should put them on her. But I remember her being assertive with me. She was fierce when she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and said, No mommy. I will do it myself. Humpf.

After having three boys in three years when I discovered I was pregnant for the fourth time I was certain it would be another boy. Boys were what I knew. Surely God was not going to challenge me with the newness of raising a daughter. 

Oh but God has a funny way about things and He did in fact turn my world upside-down and gave us that daughter. We have loved more than we thought we could love and I personally have been challenged more than I thought I would be raising something supposedly filled with sugar and spice and everything nice.

We are so grateful. I am so grateful for her. Our little girl, the last of four children in four years and the only girl, she is precious to all of us.

But she is so fierce. Frustratingly fierce. Passionate. Wanting to go about things her own way. Princess dresses, painted-toes, Batman masks and Boba Fett blasters.

She regularly will grab her brothers and scratch them so close to their eyeballs, leaving Harry Potter-like scratch marks on their foreheads.

She pushes smaller children at play dates. Moments worthy of making me want to crawl into the playhouse and hide or maybe cry.

She was the first of my four children to try out a passion-filled shut up to my face while I was correcting her.

And a few weeks ago while we were visiting my grandmother and grandfather in New York my grandmother had asked one of her kind friends if she would watch our four kids for us while my husband and I attended a grown-ups only event. When we returned there was my girl asleep on the floor. She had protested with my grandmother’s friend all night long. My grandmother’s friend reported to me that the boys were great and she couldn’t understand much of what my girl said all night except when she looked her in her eyes and clear as day said to her, “YOU are NOT welcome here.” 

She just straight-up tells selfless, helpful friends of her great-grandmother they are not welcome. sigh.

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My sweet forty pound daughter. The girl with the big bows in her whispy brown hair and bangles all the way up her arm can be quite challenging. And yesterday as she was being assertive with me I felt the words creeping into my head. Terrible Twos. Even though she is not two anymore. Those words terrible and twos were lurking in the back of my head.

I had to remind myself.

Challenging, yes. 

Terrible, no. 

Fierce, tenacious, passionate. Yes.

Terrible, no.

Assertive, opinionated, strong-willed. Yes.

Terrible. No.

In the moments when the anger starts to bubble beneath the surface and my vat of patience is running low I find myself grabbing on the posh words of parenting which often flash in my face on the Facebook Newsfeed. Terrible Twos, threenager. This is how the world sees her.

And honestly. I have written about this before and finding myself needing to write about this again. These posh sayings are not helpful to me as a parent at all. Parenting is difficult enough. And when you are drowning the last thing you need is the world chanting bitter snarky sayings to you from the top deck. Oh you’re drowning, yeah that’s terrible. It will be a year of terrible, terrible drowning. And then the next year of it will be even worse, but good luck with that.

What I need when I feel the hard prongs of raising up children is someone to throw me a life preserver and hop in the water with me.

And when I breathe deeply, I remember God is with me in the difficult waters. Not shouting unhelpful sayings from the boat but right in the difficult waters.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown.

Isaiah 43:2

I can chose to breathe deeply, step out of my frustration, my impatience and on Sundays the crazy eyes produced by my aching pride when she is tenacious in front of a crowd in the front row at church.

I can pray for more peace. More patience. More self-control.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled.

John 14:27

I can breathe deeply and see the child standing in front of me, in the middle of the tiny plastic pieces treasures, books, and feather pens; with the crooked tiara and the orange marker drawn on her leg.

I can breathe and I can see her as God sees her. Precious. Uniquely knit together. Wonderfully made. A passionate girl in a crooked tiara trying to sort out this thing called life the same way I am.

And then I can be moved to compassion for her. I can remember that sometimes feeling great passion for things produces great emotion. And while I am a grown up and do not experience great passion about pajamas, my sweet girl has only been picking out and putting on her own clothes for a few months now and she does indeed experience great passion about pajamas.

And in my compassion I can correct her outside of my anger and impatience. I can help teach her proper words and tones for communicating independence because while I can be gracious and identify with big emotions and tenacity I will not tolerate sass or disrespect. Girl may be fierce but girl must be respectful to her momma.

And I can remember she is in the waters too. That God is with her. The rivers of passion and difficulty will not consume her either.

That in these challenging passionate days in the middle of tiny plastic pieces of treasures, books, pink feather pens, crooked tiaras and streaks of orange marker down her legs, the Lord is near and He is working on both of our hearts.

We are on a journey. It feels terrible but we will get through it. And God promises the waves of difficulty will not overcome either of us.

Unraveling Grief

This very week, nineteen years ago I was riding in the front seat of our silver Town & Country minivan with my father manning the wheel. I stared out the window as we drove down Sycamore Creek Drive, my eyes fixed on the greening grass that streaked alongside the concrete curb.

I was fourteen, six weeks shy of fifteen and my father was about to say something to me in the privacy of that car, a simple sentence which would change me forever. I knew the words were coming. Every adult around me had been locked and loaded with the words for weeks probably bearing the weight of them and waiting for just the right time to delicately let the words leave their lips hoping the words would come out like the gentle drop of a pin instead of like an earth shattering atomic bomb.

I felt the weight of the words before they were even said. I knew they were coming, I was preparing for the earth shattering atomic bomb. As I prepared for the news I rehearsed the best way I knew how. Just like anyone would prepare for an air assault, I toughened up my exterior and pulled up my bootstraps. I was going to face the worst but appear like a strong fortress, absent of emotion, cold, but protected.

As I stared out the window, I heard my father say, “Rach, mom is going to die.”

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The words enveloped me. I had prepared for this exact moment and I responded in the best way I knew how. I kept staring out the window and all I could reply was, “I know.” As I stared and attempted to let disengagement consume me I felt warm tears begin to cover my eyes, turning the strong streaking line out my window into a blurry green blob, even mixing up sometimes with the grayness of the curb.

Staring at the green gray blob became too much so I drew my gaze in and I caught my reflection in the window. I saw the tears in my eyes reflected back at me and immediately I remember being overcome with disappointment in myself for not holding it together enough. For not being strong enough. For not preparing well enough emotionally to handle the news. And then the shame flooded in. I knew if I could see my reflection, my father could see it too. I knew he knew I was crying. I didn’t want him to know I was weak nor did I want to appear too emotional.

I felt the responsibly to be strong and brave in the waves of uncertainty and the shattered earth beneath my feet.

So the best I knew how I tried to go back inside my fortress to hide from my pain. I built walls. I hid behind a heavy mask and protected myself with layers of armor.

The armor I hid behind looked different in different seasons. In high school my armor was a tough girl exterior. I don’t think I wore it well but I flirted with rebellion, disengagement, relationships with men, drinking and recreational drugs. Anything I could get my hands on to help me escape my pain, I tried it. But my fixes weren’t fixing. My band-aids weren’t able to hold together the still open wounds underneath the armor and the masks.

I became exhausted from hiding beneath the bad to the bone girl I was trying to be in high school so in college I tried on some new ways to hid my pain from the world. For a season, during my days at Eastern Kentucky University I tried on the armor of busyness. Twenty-two hours a semester, 4.0s, overly-involved, mentor, sorority girl, chair of the committee, changing the world kind of busyness.

I never wanted to be known as the girl with the hard story so I ran from my hard story. Buried it so deep it even became difficult for me to remember my actual mother. I spent so long trying to be strong and burying pain that I lost even the happy pieces of the times I shared with her.

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Brene Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly,

“When we don’t acknowledge how and where we are tender, we’re more at risk of being hurt.”

I had spent so many years hiding from where I was tender that I wasn’t even sure anymore how and where I was tender.

Brown also goes on to write from her own experience,

“Slowly I learned that this shield was too heavy to lug around, and that the only thing it really did was keep me from knowing myself and letting myself be known. The shield required that I stay small and quiet behind it so as not to draw attention to my imperfections and vulnerabilities. It was exhausting.”

From my own experiences in unraveling my grief over the loss of my mother I could not agree more. I spent so many years hiding behind strong personas, I forgot who I really was. I lost myself. And I felt isolated because I never let anyone know the real me. And I didn’t have my mother present to tell me how to snap out of it.

For so many years I hid and then I lost myself. I felt like a balloon, not tethered to anything at all, just floating around.

It has only been in the last five years that I have been able to slowly unravel my misconceptions about my grief. When you are fourteen you think you know everything about the world and about strength but truth is I knew so little about strength, I knew nothing about it at all.

I thought strength and vulnerability were like that greening grass and the hard concrete I saw streaking outside the window on that April morning. Two very different things which before I felt tender I believed would never blur.

But it turns out, today I believe strength and vulnerability are actually a lot like the blurry blob of grass and concrete I saw out my window when I was feeling tender. To see them both blurred together as one thing. That strength requires vulnerability and it takes a whole lot more strength to be vulnerable than it does to pretend that you can just keep marching on and hide beneath armor and masks.

Now I understand that to hide my pain is not strength at all. It is weak, cold and inhuman.

So I have loosened the bootstraps, tried to get rid of my solider boots all together and I am slowly unraveling unhealthy patterns.

I am trying to be more tender. To learn and remember where I am tender.

I am trying to remember my mom. To cry and sometimes shout to myself, “It sucks that my mom is not here.” Sucks is not apart of my regular vocabulary but it seems to fit there for now.

When I let myself remember the emptiness I feel when I think about her it helps me remember that this life is just not the way it is supposed to be and I long for heavenly places where there is no more crying and no more tears.

I try to talk about my mom with my kids because they ask about her.

I try to remember my mom with my brother and sister. Though my vulnerability with them causes tears. I can only share a little and try to remember the blurring vision my tears cause and what I believe that means. Grief is not black and white, or green and gray streaks or little neat steps. I can’t check off the boxes when it comes to my grief.

Grief is jagg-ed and criss cross with both hard edges and smooth shining surfaces. Grief requires a constant unraveling of our hearts.

I try to sit and wait with a hurting heart. I wait because if I try to bandage it on my own, I will never truly heal. I sit and wait on a Good God who sees me while I wait and promises He will bind up the wounds, I only need to wait and be still. (Psalm 147:3)

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In the jagg-ed and criss-cross places of grief, I have unraveled enough to know now that it’s okay to lean into uncertainty and earth shattering grounds, to be tender and broken, exposed and known because I don’t have to appear strong at all. That I can delight in the broken and tender places. It is there where I find God glorified. It is there where I see him holding all the threads of myself together. Taking away threads of misconception and binding me up with His promises to me and His truth.

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And I’m not all the way redeemed in my grief. I still have so much more unraveling to do. I may have only begun to chip away at the surface. But I have so much more hope. I know there is a real and good God at work in my heart because I never could have been called out from behind the armor on my own. Little by little God is working on me. Making me more aware of where I am tender and helping me see that to grieve is to simply be human.

Am I Doing Enough?

 

I know you know the days. The rising, eyes barely open at the first murmur of a child and one tiptoe in front of the other with them down the stairs as not to wake the others. You crack open your Bible over their morning show and digest a few verses before someone else needs you.

You simply pray, “Lord, help me be enough today.” Because those six words are all the time you have to pray.

Then it’s breakfast, teeth brushing, packing lunches and socks and shoes. Kisses and waves for your big kids and then off to cleaning up breakfast.

You almost make it up the stairs to brush your own teeth and comb your own hair before someone else is needing you again. So you rush through your routine to read a book to the one needing you. Then it’s onto blocks, more books and the more fastening up of costumes.

I know you know the days when the clock moves faster than the needs and you feel like you can’t. So you one foot in front of the other are onto making the lunches, sweeping the crumbs off the floors and wiping the jelly off the tables.

And you breathe. You pray again, “Lord, thank you for these moments.” Because again, six word prayers are just about all you’ve got.

You fold and you vacuum, you do what work you have set before you for the afternoon while littles are sleeping and those minutes seem to swoop faster around the clock than the others.

You squeeze in that cup of coffee before the bus comes up the road and you pray again. “Lord, help me be enough for today.”

From bus drop off to dinner is utter chaos and you are barely hanging on. Every creak in the house or drip of the roof sounds like the garage door. You long for your helper to be home. To share the reading, the wresting, the conflict resolutioning.

It’s all a gift but a blur until those tiny babes are fed, bathed, pajamaed and tucked in.

You are thankful for the moments but exhausted and wondering if the Lord helped you be enough today. Because honestly, somedays you just don’t feel like you are enough. You fret and you worry if you met every need and listened to every heart. You wonder if you are caring for those God has given to you well.

And during bear hugs, kitty hugs and good night prayers your son whispers, “Mommy, you are God’s masterpiece.”

And you haven’t showered, changed out of your pajamas, read enough of your Bible or prayed more than eighteen words for the entire day. You feel like you are barely hanging on. But you recognize that to someone, you are more than enough.

Somehow in some crazy way, even though we are barely hanging on we are enough. On the days we feel like we are at our best, at our worst or mostly on those days we feel just like one foot in front of the other.

In Christ. In some crazy way, one foot in front of the other. He makes us a masterpiece to someone, somewhere and at sometime.

He is really making us new and using our daily one foot in front of the other.

I know you know too.

Thank you for passing this on to someone who needs it.

For The Love

A few years ago I had my very first school Valentine’s Day experience as a parent. I took my then one-year-old, two-year-old and four-year-old boys to Target the week before V-Day and bought some valentines in the seasonal section. I believe that was the year we picked some kind of Transformer cards. I signed their names for them and sent their valentines to school in a ziploc as requested by the teacher.

It was easy, the boys had fun picking out a manly valentine and I felt really good about what we had accomplished.

Until days later.

I had been out of town the day of the parties and I remember coming home to neatly stacked papers from school and both of the boys’ Valentine’s Day bags sitting on the counter.

As I opened their bags, I was expecting tiny store bought cards just like ours but I soon realized I was actually looking at tiny works of art, hand-crafted by two and four year olds. It then occurred to me that preschool valentines weren’t exactly as I remembered them.

My store bought Transformer cards brought me shame as I pieced through the Pinterest inspired mountain of love and friendship in front of my eyes.

So the following year I gave into my shame. The haunting shame shaped how I felt about my parenting. I caved into hurtful phrases like “What kind of mother sends their children to school with store bought Valentines?”

This may seem laughable to you but at my very core this is truly what happened to me. I let something as simple as measuring up my preschooler’s valentine to someone else’s shape the way I saw myself as a mom.

I found my worth and value in a piece of paper passed out at school, instead of the deep ultimate satisfaction that can be found in my identity in Christ alone.

I let comparison steal my joy. And that stolen joy and the shame that went with it had me living to be someone who God just hadn’t made me to be.

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I felt pressure to do Valentine’s Day like everyone else instead of being secure in who God made me to be, a store bought valentine kinda mom.

Year two I stressed about valentines. I researched Pinterest a month before Valentine’s Day. I selected a homemade craft valentine which included one hot wheel car per classmate. I was even impressing myself with my new found craftiness and I felt the ugliness and pride of a stroked ego when I thought about how other families may be impressed with my accomplishments as well.

There was no joy in making valentines with my kids that year. I trudged through the process. I was stressed and I was irritable over the valentines being perfect. There were even tears and some yelling at the boys because it all had to be just right.

Even when their bags came home and their valentines really had been some of the cutest, I still felt shame. The high I had felt from my impressive valentine was over before it even began. There was no lasting joy or pleasure. I had pressed on towards the goal of bringing praise to myself instead of bringing glory to a great God.

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I became angry about how I let comparison steal my joy and how the valentines I made with my boys weren’t a reflection of sending out love and kindness to friends at all because our valentines were actually made as a byproduct of a month of stress with the intention to impress a crowd.

I took a step back and in the quietness of my heart I was convicted when I asked myself, “Who were those Valentines for?”

Even after ten years of walking with Christ it seems to me that I still find myself slipping in to old patterns. It is still so easy to find myself standing on the shaky, insecure ground of wanting to impress others and stroking my ugly ego instead of standing firm on the secure foundation of living for the glory of God alone.

I felt sick when I realized what I had done in year two.

Year three I found myself back in the seasonal section at Target with my kindergartener and my two preschoolers. I thought I had learned my lesson but just recently I found myself, here in year four, perusing Pinterest. I am thankful for my failure in year two because I now know for the love of bringing glory to God I have to ask, “Who are you doing this for?”

For the love of your reputation as a mom? Or for the love of doing something uniquely you and spreading love and kindness the store bought way with your kids.

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Truth is, I am the kind of mother who buys store bought valentines and sends them to school for my kids to pass out at their class parties. It doesn’t make me worse or better. But it makes me uniquely me. And being uniquely me is enough for my kids, they told me they actually prefer buying their valentines from the store.

As I fight the valentine battle this year in my own heart I am hoping to find beauty in being ordinary and remembering that I am enough as a mom with my store bought cards. God says I am enough just as I am and that is the truth I am clinging to this February season.

I am enough with my store bought cards.