The Missing and the Cross

Spring used to be my favorite season.

I loved it when winter would begin to fade away. Trees would blossom. Bulbs push up from the ground. The feeling of the warm sun on bare arms.

While the Spring is still really beautiful, it is no longer my favorite.

Sure, part of the reason for that is now living in the deep South the beginning of Spring is marked by a thick dusting of yellow pollen that blankets the entire outdoors, and gnats that fly into your eyeballs. Then after that, it’s basically Summer until late October.

Mostly though, it’s because I lost my Dad in the Spring.

March 22nd.

Every year now, as the Lenten season approaches and people all around me are giving things up in anticipation of Easter, I remember what I had to give up now six years ago. And then I think of all the other things that I have had to subsequently give up because of what was taken.

In some ways, it feels as if I’ve found myself in some sort of twisted forced upon Lent.

These weeks leading up to March 22nd, and subsequently Easter are heavy. The Missing, as I have named my grief, has grown in size and substance. It touches so many parts of my life that it’s hard to function some days. I just want to go live in that numb space where I don’t have to feel, think, or remember much of anything.

Then, there’s another part of me that never wants to stop remembering. I want to feel all the feelings and indulge The Missing as I become absorbed in myself and my feelings.

My Facebook memories walk me through a sort of stations of the cross and I re-live my pleas for prayer leading up to March 22, 2013. I am reminded of details that I want to forget, but don’t have the courage to delete. While I want to delete them, I also sort of want to obsess over them.  Grief has me constantly contradicting myself. I want to go numb, but I want to feel. I want to forget, but I want to remember.

My brain is in a constant state of making connections to my Dad.

The blossoms and bulbs that are making their yearly debut have me thinking of a wooden cross from my childhood. This cross my Dad constructed out of 2 x 4s and covered in chicken wire. Each year on Easter morning, we as a small, but mighty church congregation would fill that cross entirely with fresh flowers.

It was a sign of hope. That death never has the last word.

After the service was over, Dad would haul that cross outside to the front of the church building so that people driving by would see this flower adorned cross. A symbol of life. A colorful display of beauty and redemption.

The flowered cross became an Easter tradition.

I can’t think of this flower laden cross without remembering the flowers that filled my parents’ living room following my Dad’s funeral. Arrangements sent from friends and family along with their condolences.

The Missing was all consuming and violent that day. The stargazer lilies that I’d had in my own wedding bouquets, now gave off a sickening scent that brought waves of nausea along with the relentless waves of grief.

Running through my mind was the single question that Dad had posed to my young future husband asking for my hand in marriage: “Is that what Jesus is calling you to do?”

For my Dad, all things were put through that cruciform filter. It all came back to the cross.

Dad died on a Friday. The Friday that followed was Good Friday.

We filed into church as a family, as we had done so many times growing up to listen to our Dad preach the message of Easter.

Sitting there in that church in the wake of the trauma of the taking, the deep gut wrenching missing settled in.

And there was so much to miss. There was so much that he was going to miss. He was no longer in his spot at the pulpit, or on the end of our row.

I thought the death itself would be the hardest part. I see now how wrong I was.

The hardest part is carrying on with The Missing.

So, in weeks like this, The Missing saturates the lens through which I see life.

Nothing about his death makes sense, except for maybe the time of year that it happened.

The Easter message, and cruciform filter is common and ever present right now— Church signs, decorations, songs, sermons.

As was his life, his death is forever linked with the cross. As if it were his lasting way to keep the Easter sermon going. To keep reminding us in whom we should place our hope.

So, these days as I cope with the memory of my father on his death bed. I dive into The Missing to try to remember the way he smelled, or the way his voice sounded. I lament all that he is missing, and all that we have had to give up as a family.

I tuck his firstborn grandson into bed, who has begun wearing a tiny wooden cross necklace tucked under his shirt. It rests against his chest.

My Abba Father cuts through The Missing with one breath,

The message lives.

He is alive.

The cross blooms.

Dad with cross

Advertisements

The Coat I Wear

I want them to remember me laughing.

My children.

When their mind replays the soundtrack of their childhood, I hope there rings the sound of my easy, unforced, laughter.

When they look back through the blur of memories that was their upbringing and picture my face, I hope that my coffee stained teeth are on full display and that the laugh lines around my eyes are etched deep.

Therefore, I MUST be free.

I am not sure why the word freedom has been bouncing around my brain lately. Perhaps it’s because the recent news is full of children in cages, and children trapped in caves, and my life right now is… children. To picture them in captivity of any kind is unbearable.

In the broadest sense of the word, I am the freest of the free.

Overall, I live my life in safety and privilege. A certain level of freedom, I was simply born into.

But at times I am bound by my own forgetfulness. I forget the unshakable, permanent, deep and complete inner freedom that is mine.

The freedom that swept around and through me in a rush of baptismal waters.

A pastor of mine once compared baptism to putting on your father’s coat as a child. It is much too big. It is something you need to grow into for it to fit.

I am very much still growing into my baptism.

I often live in captivity.

My laugh gets stifled by the grip of selfish discontentment. Of life stress. Worry.

I strap these cement blocks to my feet and try to swim.

Then I wonder why I’m sinking. Pulled under by the weight of expectations, societal pressures, other people’s opinions, busyness, jumbled priorities, sheer exhaustion…

I stretch my hand up to the surface and try to kick to where I can finally breathe.

I crave air. I crave freedom.

There are days when my wanderlust nature resents these three adorable ball ‘n chains I call my children. They scream for pancakes and I scream, “I want to see the Eiffel tower!!”

I forget to be thankful for that which others may ache for.

I become frustrated with the hamster wheel. With the kitchen countertop that is NEVER free of clutter. With my imperfect, human, children and all that comes with that. Some days my work seems futile.

“It goes fast,” many people have said to me.

True enough. There is a part of me that lives in a constant state of grief. I grieve every lost tooth, and corrected lisp. Soon enough they will be grown. They will eventually leave me.

And then when they look back on their childhood,

I hope they remember me laughing.

Not a shallow, manufactured laugh, but an effortless genuine laugh birthed of joy that comes with the deep knowledge that

I. Am. Free.

I don’t want them to first remember my furrowed brow. My blank stare at my phone. Not my hunched shoulders, or the effect that the “simple” act of getting all of us loaded up in the car can have on me.

I don’t want them to remember the times that I am too critical. Of them. Of others. Of myself.

The reality is, I hold the key to my own freedom. It was placed in my scar-free palm. On it is etched what Brennan Manning calls the “Ragamuffin’s Rumor,”

that all is grace.

Grace is all encompassing. It defies logic. It sweeps in, consumes.

It liberates.

Grace is woven through the fibers of my baptismal coat.

While I hope someday my children utter the phrase, “my mama never would have let me get away with that.” And that they remember the meals I cooked, the holidays I orchestrated, the vacation memories we made…

I mostly hope they carry with them the memory of me holding them close within my coat of grace and breathing freedom down their necks.

I hope they know my laugh as the song of one who knows and walks in deep freedom. I hope it gets stuck in their heads on replay.

I hope someday they put on their own long, too big, baptismal coat and walk into this unjust, trapped world.

And I hope I see the train of their coats drag out long behind them, grazing the ground they walk with a peculiar grace, drawing people by the sound of their unaffected laughter; Leading the way to freedom.

 

Up from Frozen Ground

It is the beginning of Summer, yet I can feel the cold front approaching. I draw inward, moving slower. I focus solely on the beautiful, tiny tasks in front of me. They get the best and the worst of what I have to give.

Words swirling in the fog of a sleep-deprived brain, remain un-typed on a computer screen that was turned on, but never sat with.

It is no longer my passions or callings that keep me up at night.

Instead it is a newborn, pink bundle with rose petal cheeks and erratic bowel activity.

I take my dreams, gifts, callings and plant them deep into freezing earth with a promise of, “in time…”

There they will go dormant.

In moving to the South, I was sad to notice the absence of lilacs. What were once my favorite flower of Spring in the Midwest, can’t exist in the land of magnolias, crepe myrtles, and azaleas.

Apparently, lilacs require over two thousand hours of temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit to be healthy. A Georgia winter won’t come close to that.

There are times that things MUST go dormant in order to bloom.

They must wait for Spring.

“Lord, multiply our sleep.”

These words my Dad often prayed as he tucked me in at bedtime. My young ears were used to hearing this familiar prayer.  Perhaps praying this faithfully was one of the reasons that during his healthy years, my Dad had the energy of ten people. I find myself praying the same words over my own kids now, as well as pleading it on my own behalf.

“Multiply my sleep.”

Sleep. Quiet. Dormant.

Some things need to go dormant in order to grow and multiply.

Under frozen ground they wait.

I am learning not to resent dormancy.

My gifts and talents that lie unused. Waiting for Spring.

My dreams. Callings.

They are only gathering strength as they steep in experience, resilience, and patience.

As some of myself sinks into dormancy, other parts of me rise to the surface.

Now is the time to invest in three of my greatest dreams. I get to help them discover what gifts and talents have yet to wake up inside of each of them. Funny, so much of what is emerging from each of them emulates that which I have buried deep.

As I walk in this maternal calling, I am taught lesson upon lesson of selflessness, bravery, and prayer.  There are stretch marks on more than just my belly. My soul contains the stripes of someone who has been pushed to her limits.

My roots reach down into cold earth.

In the quiet of the nursery, I keep my post as I rock in sleepy darkness.

I have hopes for my future. Gifts I want to use. Things I want to do. Words I want to write. Callings I have heard but have yet to walk into…

Mark my words, I am not losing myself.

I am submerged in life.

Steeping in inspiration.

Do not mistake that which has gone dormant for death.

Don’t be fooled by that which appears to be sleeping.

It is multiplying.

The thaw is coming, and with it will come a flood.

In my weakness, I am gathering strength.

In my exhaustion I am revived.

The most beautiful blooms must come from a frozen place.

No, I will not resent the dormant.

For I am at rest.

Time Hover

I allowed Jude to order a particular toy he had been wanting off of the internet. The shipping was “fast and free” and the estimated day of delivery was Friday. All week he could hardly sleep, and all he could talk about was what was coming on Friday. The anticipation was palpable and constant.

Well Friday came, and the package did not.

I watched as the disappointment seeped in to his sensitive heart and poured out of his eyes.

It finally arrived the next day. His joy and loud celebration continues to resound in my memory.

We have started the countdown on the calendar to the day that Daddy will be home. What was once unknown, now has a number!

Many times in military life, the ability to really count down is not there. Departure and return dates are fluid and vague. This security measure cloaks the season in even more insecurity for those of us that are at the mercy of Uncle Sam.

To have a number circled and a smiley face drawn on the calendar is a momentous gift in and of itself, but to also know that soon my other half and best friend will be coming back to me?

God has shown me great mercy.

And yet never does the clock move more slowly than for a woman who is in her last month of pregnancy. Time seems to emulate how long it takes for me to put on pants; or walk from one end of the grocery story to the other. My life has slowed to a crawl… er, waddle.

“God’s perfect timing” is something people seem to love to bring up with me lately. To be honest, sometimes that pushes the internal red button that makes me want to throw stuff and yell, “I KNOW!!” Because hormones.

I’ve seen His perfect timing. I have. I have lived it.

But I am so incurably human.

As I write this, tiny feet push my ribs out of their cage, and I am impatient.

In these unavoidable seasons of limbo, the clock seems to either not move forward at all or it constantly hops time zones. This disorients me and sends me craving the seasons of life where a minute is a consistent 60 seconds instead of an unsteady arrhythmia of unpredictable events.

In my impatience, I am reminded that as much as C.J.’s return home will bring with it a sense of relief and safety, he is not my Savior. The one who knows me completely. He holds time in His universe- sized palm.

“Just give it to the Lord.” — Another phrase Christians love to throw out there as a punctuation mark.

A dear voice from my past once told me to picture my “burden” as a large, cumbersome, gelatinous mass (I picture something akin to Jabba the Hutt). As I hoist this fluid thing up on God’s altar and attempt to leave it there, it slowly oozes down the sides so I have to keep pushing it back up there.

I keep that picture in my mind as I continue to learn trust. It turns out that trust isn’t easily contained or held onto. It is more liquid than solid, and slips out of grasp easily.

In the meantime, I am doing my best to live in the moment and not resent time’s crawl as I await my package.

Because it’s in the sluggish, at times tedious minute, that I have room to notice new freckles on tiny noses.

I can sit on my porch swing with empty arms and rock slow and steady.

Slowness gives space for marvel.

Marvel gives way to worship.

And worship renders time obsolete.

Fear

I remember as a child how long the route to my parents’ room was in the middle of the night. Darkness seemed to expand the hallway to three times its usual size. I imagine it’s the same way for my kids when they break into a dead sprint with my door as their goal. I sleep with one ear listening for the sound of a doorknob, pitter-patter, quickly I find I am the big spoon with tiny cold feet jammed between my calves and a sharp reminder to keep up on the toenail trimming.

There are many reasons they come to me at night, but the most common culprit that pulls them out of bed to flee to the safety of my arms is

Fear.

Shadows. Unfamiliar noises. They each went through a phase where they were afraid of their ceiling fan because “it has eyes.” They are currently going through a fear of bees, making getting them outside to enjoy these beautiful Spring days an exercise in hostage negotiation (in which I am the hostage).

Sometimes their imaginations take over as they lie in their beds, launching them into hysterics. This can usually be remedied by a quick flashlight search of their rooms and turning on the hallway light.

The hardest are the vivid nightmares that seemingly come from nowhere. For these I hold the little spoon tight and pray until the trembling subsides.

Can we talk about fear?

To be called fearless would be the highest compliment I could receive and yet I know that I could never genuinely accept it because the truth is I am far from fearless.

I am afraid of so many things.

Fear is a shape shifter and takes many forms. Sometimes I don’t even realize that tugging the strings of my emotion marionettes of anxiety, stress, control, anger, insomnia— is that gleeful puppeteer: fear.

My imagination can spin out of control as I play out scenario after scenario of what possibly could potentially be my future should certain things happen. Anxiety rises up to my neck. I reach my hands up and out grasping for something solid. Real. Predictable. Planned.

I find myself attempting to author my own life, slipping into micromanagement just to feel like I can be in control of… something. Anything.

Because, fear.

I remember a former coworker of mine. She has since gained the heavenly crown I always envisioned on her regal head. Her memory continues to mentor me.

I hear her voice so clearly in my mind.

“I fear nothing and no one, but God Himself.”

And I knew that to be true for her, without a doubt. Her chin was set in the perfect balance between pride and humility.

Fear of God is not debilitating, controlling, or paralyzing. To fear solely God brings freedom.

When I am particularly fearful (which has happened a few times lately), I seek to emulate that perfect chin. I declare,

“I fear no one but God!” I proclaim it into being.

Sometimes I blurt it out it and shuffle forward while covering my eyes with my hands.

I sprint through the darkness to my Father’s door.

Then I get to be the little spoon surrounded by that perfect love. The perfect love that casts out all fear.

The perfect love that lights up my swollen feet as I put one foot in front of the other.

I plod onward, and watch as he opens his hands and makes my path smooth. Shadows of irrational fears are lit up with His presence. Fears that I have given the strength of giants through my imagination, shrink and cower.

And the things that are real? That are in fact my adversaries–

I find I am no longer that afraid, because have you seen my God with his sword?

He is fearsome.

Beautiful Mess

I have come to learn over the last three years of living here in the South that Southern ladies love to call one another messes. On numerous occasions I have been told that I am a mess. Even more often is my daughter, Lyla called a mess.

“She is a mess!”

I quickly learned that this isn’t necessarily insult. In fact, most often it is said with great affection. While I balk at adopting the ever-present “ya’ll,” I find myself calling myself or my daughter a mess with the shake of my head and a smile on my face.

Yes, we are a mess.

One of the things I love most about Lyla is her “mess.” She is an unstoppable pink and purple tumbleweed of loud, high-pitched talking and bouncing curls. She leaves behind her a trail of laughter and glitter. Her emotions are unpredictable and untamed and always seem to bubble up at bedtime where she recently wept and wailed,

“I don’t think I’m ready to be a big sister! I still make too many bad choices!”

Bless her heart.

A beautiful mess.

The other night, and I have to write all this down or I will forget, my son Jude beckoned me to come into his room, clearly troubled by something.

He proceeded to let me know that he had traded a Pokemon card in the hallway at school even though he knew that was against the rules.

“I’m so sorry mom. Give me any consequence you want to give me. Just take them away!” He thrust a handful of his precious trading cards into my lap.

Sweet boy. So hard on himself. Beautiful mess of second grade conviction.

I met him with grace and that gave him wings. For the next while he floated around the house “preaching” the freedom he felt with telling the truth.

I thought the matter was resolved and done but a few minutes later he called me into the mess of the master bedroom. There, I found he and Lyla had cleared a space on the floor amongst the piles of random “to dos” and were sitting. Why is it that the master bedroom is always the last place to be cleaned?

“Mom, I want to pray.”

The Spirit within me told me to be silent and clear a spot of my own to sit.

There, on the debris field that is my bedroom floor, we had church.

Where two or more are gathered…

The mess becomes holy ground.

So many times, I feel like I fall short. I fall short as a parent, wife, friend, daughter, sister.

I am a mess. Bless my heart.

It is so easy for me to hide behind my mess. I’ve sought out and justified my sins, I have worn a mask of “fine.” I play “Christian” so very well. I have my lines memorized and perfectly timed.

I’ve allowed myself to become defined by my children, my husband, my parents, my grief.

I see where I have done well in the past, pat myself on the back, and brazenly step into the future fueled by a self-given Kudos with the hopes that history will repeat itself out of reflex or inheritance instead of practice.

I can numb the days away.

I can run so hard and loud that I drown out the voice that affectionately whispers to me,

“you are a mess.”

I guess where hope begins is that I know the one who is never repelled by even the messiest.

I want to be one who stops running, or numbing, or faking, to acknowledge the wreckage that surrounds me. The mess that is uniquely mine, and the mess that is collectively ours because we are in this blemished church, and this fallen world. To hold it up as a battered banner of redemptive promises.

Because it is there, on the floor of my mess that He never fails to show up. The one who navigates every piece of rubble and every pile with familiar footing. The One who sees me in my mess and meets me with gentle affection.

The one who allowed Himself to be beaten into a mess so that I don’t have to be buried in mine.

So, when I hear that click of the tongue and someone sweetly drawls, “you are a mess.” I will smile and own it.

Rhythm

You know when you’re in church and someone decides that a particular worship song needs some congregational clapping? They start clapping, but they’re clapping on the wrong beat. Then other people hesitantly begin to join in, so now there are several pairs of hands clapping off beat. Then, someone who can actually find the correct beat, starts clapping really loud. Well this confuses the entire congregation so they all one by one start dropping out and just close their eyes and maybe lift a hand or two to stop the awkward.

That’s what it’s like for me when C.J. leaves.

Our rhythm has been interrupted and what’s left is a fumbling for the steady.

For at least the first couple of weeks I catch a glimpse of his truck parked in the drive way as I fix dinner around 5:00 and I feel a fleeting “yay” that he’s home from work. Or, I will find one of his shirts in the laundry and do a double take before I remember that it was I that had worn it to bed the night before, or it was a shirt Lyla had taken to cuddle with.

Soon enough those reflexes will taper off and we will settle into our new, albeit temporary, steady rhythm.

I prefer a consistent routine. It gives me a sense of security, and I know the kids do better when they know what to expect in a day.

I am the metronome of the household. The menial household tasks keep me a constant pulse of: pick up, sweep, wash, fold. The sound of emptying the silverware from the dishwasher becomes my cymbal, and the constant laundry becomes the deep bass kick.

But change is in the air. Every tiny karate chop under my ribs is a reminder that soon a new pair of hands will join in our song.

The reality is, my physical strength is limited. I am reminded daily of this, by a body I barely recognize.

And on particularly weary days, I cannot keep up the rhythm and I have to stop. I have to lay on my left side on the couch watching my sweet snare section building block cities.

This was my position the other day when my Jude came over to me, looked me in the eyes and quietly asked,

“You doing okay?” with the sincerity of a person well beyond his years. He’s not used to seeing his mama still.

I am reminded that not only am I the metronome of the daily routine, but I am also the one from whom they will take their emotional, and spiritual cues. Their shoulders are too small to carry me.

In my weakness and human frailty, I must be at peace. Not pretend “fake it til you make it” peace, because children can smell a fake from a mile away. Genuine, transcending all understanding peace. Peace that can only come from a source that never runs dry.

I pray for peace in this world, so my husband’s job will be uneventful and relatively safe. I pray for peace in my home even though I feel buried in a multitude of incomplete household chores.

From my spot on my left side on the couch I pray and wait, and I marvel in the miniature world of blocks. Then, I feel that flood of promised peace that fills every weary crevasse. I smile at the wonder on my son’s face while I hold his hand next to my belly button so he can feel another type of rhythm:

A faint steady beat coming from tiny hiccups.