Remembering Grandpa

It’s hard to break a six month writing silence.  So many stories unfold in a half a year.  There really isn’t anything else I can write of before acknowledging a monumental loss in our life.  I’ve written before about our beloved Grandpa.  We’ve been crazy blessed to spend most Sunday afternoons with him for the past couple years.  It has meant driving two cars to church weekly, so half our family could go sit with him at the lunch table in his memory care facility.  Our time couldn’t possibly have been spent in any better way.  One Sunday in September we went to see him and then by the following Saturday he was gone.  Deleting the recurring calendar event that said “Sunday lunch with Gpa” was harder than I could put to words.  When you love big, it means feeling the “bigness” of loss as well.

Here are the words I shared at his memorial in October back east in Virginia.  I flew with our oldest five children to be a part of honoring him in this way. There is nothing more fitting I could write today than to share those words here….

Good morning friends, I happen to be the eldest of the 9 grandchildren but just because I’ve been blessed under our grandpa’s love and leadership longer than my cousins and sisters doesn’t make me any more qualified to share today.  We all have our own list of memories tucked in our hearts.  The list of contributions of every sort our grandfather made in his lifetime would be impossible for any of us here today to sum up.  And as with most of life, it’s the intangible things that can’t be touched or measured that mattered more than any other.  

It was his “whatey” that he brought with him when he flew to Seattle or visited grandkids in Virginia.  I don’t even know how it started but as little girls as soon as we saw his face, we said “Gpa!” and he said “whatey!”.  We came to expect the “whatey” and we would ask him to make sure and bring it when he came.  The whatey always came with a smile and that’s what made it so grand.

It was their heart to share what they deemed “one of the most stunning places in the world” coupled with their radical generosity that took our whole extended Larson family to New Zealand 14 years ago this Christmas.  They had seen nearly the whole world over and told us we all had to experience together the beauty and breadth of a place they had so enjoyed.  If there’s anything more wonderful than being overcome by an incredible land, it’s sharing that wonder with the ones you love most.  It was the trip of a lifetime for all of us.

It was also his faithful presence, despite having to travel cross country to see any of us in the Sween family at least – he was always there, cheering us on at every big life moment, celebrating graduations and weddings and eventually the births of some 14 great-grandchildren.  He and Grandma were intentionally invested in the lives of their family in a way that communicated our value in their eyes and we were all better for it.

It was an unwavering commitment to building family relationships despite distance that brought us all together time and time again from Fort Casey, Washington to Estes Park, Colorado to the Outer Banks, North Carolina and many others in between.  This left us feeling connected and like we belonged to something special, even if we lived cross country from our cousins.

It was the fervor and passion and deepest pride he had when he talked about politics and education and great leaders and history and America.  He told stories of growing up in the Great Depression and having a tumbleweed for a Christmas tree with a stern face and I knew he still remembered just how unbearable some of those days had been.  

It was the constant encouragement that he offered to me every single time he saw me and my six children the past decade or so.  He was one of my greatest cheerleaders.  These last three years with him living nearby for the first time in my life, my children and I had the privilege of Sunday lunches.  After sharing our grandfather with Right to Work, with presidents and Senators, with our nation really, it was this last season of his that will always be of greatest treasure to me.  He faithfully, dare I say relentlessly, spurned me onward in the daily, sometimes quite monotonous work of educating our children at home, cultivating character and of serving those around us in ways we were able.  His consistent mantra to me as we parted every week was, “You keep up the good work”.  It was fitting to me that the night before he passed away when I went to say goodbye for the evening, he managed to say quietly “You do good work”.

It was Grandpa’s steady, rooted faith in Jesus that was perhaps his greatest contribution to the Larson clan and to an immeasurable many who don’t share our family name.  His extreme generosity to people and to organizations who were committed to furthering the message of Christ and his Gospel in the world has undoubtedly had impact in ways we will never grasp or fully know on this side of heaven.  

There really isn’t a role in the world quite like a grandparent.  And an adult  who fills that unique role with excellence is one in a million in the eyes of their grandchild.  Grandpa was indeed, one in a million and the void he leaves is certainly an impossible one to fill.  

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Both ends of love

The dichotomy of our life right now is not lost on me.  We are knee deep in goat babies and new life.  Then last night we sat with our beloved grandpa (great grandfather to our children).  For the third time this week.  At his hospital bedside after taking a big nose-dive in his health in a very short time.  Less than two weeks ago we were sitting in the warm sun at Dairy Queen eating french fries and ice cream cones.   Then one rough night and suddenly he’s laid up in the hospital for a week now.  Things can change fast when you are 93 years old.  We returned home at dusk and tucked ourselves (and goats) into warm beds with full hearts.

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Loving extravagantly comes at a high price.  Make no mistake.

The potential of losing what you hold most dear is the byproduct of big love.  Crazy love.  The kind of love that is brave enough to ask hard questions when it would be easier to say nothing.  The kind of love that puts all of life on hold because sometimes you don’t get second chances to love right, love in the moment, love completely.  The kind of love that keeps coming back and pressing in, against all reason, simply because a promise made is meant to be kept.

When you love much, the door is flung wide open to scores of abundance and richness that to some remain a lifelong mystery.  But the door is also open to hard goodbyes and loss.  Loving wildly means experiencing loss in most visceral ways.

Audrey read stories to Grandpa and my phone buzzed with texts updating on a soon-to-deliver goat mama at home with the rest of our crew.  Fresh beginnings of life and the inching towards end of life.  All mixed up in one beautiful, perfect day.  If our grandpa hadn’t moved cross country three years ago, we wouldn’t have this gift we have.  This we-love-you-so-much-it-hurts gift.  This constant awareness that our present with him is just that.  To be received, treasured.  Which is just what we’ve done, are doing.  In the best way we know how.

In the quiet sitting, holding hands….”Am I squeezing you to tight?” he asks.  My eyes well up and I tell him not at all, keenly aware that when one day his weathered hands aren’t here to squeeze mine, I will feel a hole in my heart.  The kind of hole that only love leaves.

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13 going on wonderful

Dear Rylee Jeanne,

How did this day sneak right up on me the way it did?  I still remember all those weeks sitting next to your incubator in the hospital after you were born and staring at your sweet tiny face for hours.  I remember waiting days to even hold you in my arms and I thought if I didn’t get to do it soon I might just not live another day.  So great was my longing to wrap you up in my arms.  Your presence and personality and poise have literally shaped this family. You are the most tremendous oldest sister this not-so-small family could ever have asked for.  Every one of your siblings is blessed that you came first. Your creative and energetic ways make you such an enjoyable playmate.  Your ability to direct people and quietly bring order out of chaos, it’s such a unique and wonderful gift.

You are 13 going on wonderful.  I recently crossed path with a former youth pastor of mine.  As I expressed emotion over entering this new era, of parenting teenagers, he had a good bit of sage advice for me.  But first he inquired “I need to know…is she the hellion you were at 13?”.  To which I easily replied, “Um, no…not even close!”.  Your life and love and character don’t hold a candle to how I behaved myself at 13.  While I do feel the changes on the horizon, I am keenly aware that you are amazing.  I have the same longing in my heart for you as I did the week you were born.  I know well enough to know you still need to be wrapped up, held up by the love that only a mama can give.  Even if there is some adolescent attitude that comes my way.

You quietly absorb and asses the happenings around you.  You are intuitive and aware of more than I’d even imagine.  This is a beautiful quality and as you get older you will continue to learn to do this in ways that allow your heart to still function and stay whole despite being highly tuned in to all that is going on.  Your mama is still learning.  Learning to love wildly and freely without expectation.  Learning to be brave.  In many ways I feel like we are learning together and I see something new forming and though I don’t know yet quite how to proceed or just what it looks like…it is a wonderful mystery we are headed into.  I told you this week I’d read this incredible verse in Collosians, that the mystery of the ages had now been revealed and that guess what the mystery was?  This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:27).  You are an image bearer of Christ.  You have something of Him to reflect to the world you live in.  And that right there is a most beautiful hope.

I do see one thing clear.  You need your dad.  Front and center.  He has a new role to fill in your life in this season.  You adore him.  Not that that is new, since it isn’t.  But something is different.  As I watched him hold your hand and ice skate with you this afternoon, a wave of feelings poured over me.  Gratitude that he is who he is.  That he is present and available for you.  That he loves Jesus above all else and aims to lead and love our family the best he can.  That I get to share him with you.  Grateful that you have the same gift I did as a young girl (and still enjoy today)…a dad who loves God, loves my mom and loves me well.

Let me let you in on a secret.  Your dad and I don’t know what we’re doing all the time.  We haven’t done this before, you are our first teenager and all we know is what we know.  And there’s a lot we don’t know.  A wise and respected older friend in our life told us once…during a period of very tumultuous marital struggle for us:  “Aside from a heritage of genuine faith, the best gift you can ever give your kids is parents who love each other well.”  She went on to explain the impact that has on the life of a child.  You’ve heard us yelling in the yard over the pigs and the mud and “why did we ever say yes to this…”.  You’ve seen me cry in the laundry room because I hadn’t been a receiver of grace when I was desperate for it.  You’ve seen me cut your dad down with disrespectful words and a too-quick-mouth.  You see us kissing in the kitchen or in the pantry and you watch the continual ebb and flow that marriage is.  You miss almost zero of what takes place here.  We aren’t modeling perfection for you.  We are however modeling real life and mess and grace.  And you won’t grow up and leave our home thinking life is always peachy and smells like roses.  You’ll know it stings and hurts and smells like manure sometimes (literally AND figuratively).  But God is present in our pain and in our mess and imperfection and He gives glimpses of glory all along the journey.  Your dad and I are committed to Jesus, to one another, to this family, to you and your siblings and to being Love-bearers to the people on our path in any way we are able.

Whatever these years ahead hold, we will be right here.  Living out our love one day at a time.  We are so proud of who you are and the way you live, think, speak and love.  These are great years ahead…don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  They may be a bit of a mystery to us yet, but we are in this together!

Always,

Mama

A super fun birthday afternoon ice skating with siblings and girl friends!
A super fun birthday afternoon ice skating with siblings and girl friends!
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Your littlest sis - an almost aspiring ice skater :)
Your littlest sis – an almost aspiring ice skater 🙂
Blurry - yes.  But had to include.  21 years ago this year your dad took me ice skating on our first date.  It was super precious to buzz around the skate rink with our six kids in tow.   (and yes, we still like holding hands - even if it makes you giggle!)
Blurry – yes. But had to be included. 21 years ago this year your dad took me ice skating on our first date. It was super precious to buzz around the skate rink with our six kids in tow. (and yes, we still like holding hands – even if it makes you giggle!)

The sacred curtain

There is a sort of unseen sacred curtain that exists in life’s defining moments.  Often people are unwilling or simply unable to pull back the curtain.  It is uncomfortable.  Entering in to someone else’s deepest heart pain requires something unique and visceral.  It cannot be contrived.  It is impossible to guess what will unfold, after being brave enough to go there.  It can be ugly.  It can hurt even more.  It can make you angry.  It may not feel “safe” and for sure it won’t feel comfortable.

Just about exactly six years ago, our life forever changed and we encountered devastating loss.  The kind you don’t plan for.  The kind that punches you in the stomach and leaves you face down on the floor.  The kind that paralyzes and forces life to a complete standstill.  Chris’ dad left on a hunting trip as he had countless times.  But he never came home.  A frozen mountain pond took his life on a bitterly cold Wednesday in January of that year.  Chris and a dozen searching ones would look and find him.  His beloved hunting dog still sitting point on the shore, waiting for his master to return.

Loss like this takes years to come back from.  If ever.  I’ve said it before I think, but its rather akin to learning to walk with a limp.  Only it’s your heart that limps instead.  The impact of living through this kind of thing reaches into every corner of your being and changes you forever.  For better or for worse. You decide.  You decide your comeback.  It is terrifying and beautiful it its’ own right.

Part of the fruit that I see, these years later, is a continually growing willingness to sit with others in places that are hard.  When you have been the one to be met and loved in the midst of tragedy, you eventually are able should you choose, to be the one who meets, who loves when others are not able to go there.  Last month I had a friend shoved into a life position she did not anticipate or ask for.  But there she was.  So I sat.  Listened.  Cried.  Loved.  Reached hands out across a table and held.  Just as seven years ago she had held me when my husband was asked to find a new job and the economy was in the toilet and we had a new baby and life felt absolutely too much to bear.  How amazing and stunning is that gift?  To get to love back, give back?  I had no words for it…just an awestruck grateful heart.

Then it was last Friday and I was buzzing around my kitchen.  I was putting food together for a busy weekend and thinking still again of the neighbors just down the hill from here who lost their toddler son the Friday before to the creek that rests between their home and ours.  I knew his funeral was that afternoon and I mourned with them even though I did not know their name.  There is a comradery that exists between mothers and I felt such pain in my heart for her.  As I measured and scooped and cooked, I found myself turning on an extra pot and making another big pot of soup.  This would be for her.  Unknown mother whose name I knew not, whose loss I could not fathom, whose house I drive past every time I go to town.

I would write her a letter…and this is what it would say:

Dear neighbors who live down the hill…I know we’ve never met you, but we wept with you on Friday when they found your son.  I have a daughter the same age as your boy. We cannot begin to fathom your pain.  I hope you are overwhelmed by the kindness and love of friends and family.  I hope you are held up by people who love you, both known and unknown.  I didn’t know what else I could possibly do but make you food.  So here is our favorite soup and our phone number.  If we can do anything for you, please call.

But the writing would be the easy part.  And the making of soup.  The not-easy-at-all part was the finding a brave enough heart to actually get in my car and knock on their door.  What if 15 strangers had already brought them soup and they wanted to be left alone?  What if they had friends and family stopping in all day, each day?  Then came a searing thought.  What if they don’t?  What if everyone is guessing that someone else is making soup and stopping in?  So I grabbed my keys and bag of food and packed up the two kids still at home waiting for us to head to church.  I drove past the house the first time.  Then circled back around and pulled in.  He met me at the door before I could knock.  I told him I lived up the hill, that I’d made them dinner and looked him in the eye and told him I was so sorry for such a great loss as this.  Hands trembling I handed him my love gift over and saw his wife sitting inside.  He said thank you and I said goodbye.  I got in the car shaking and wept all the way to church.

The curtain had been pulled aside and it was scary and holy and precious.  I had come face to face with unspeakable grief so sacred it was almost untouchable.  I could hardly speak.  Chris held me as I choked out the words in the church parking lot.

There is no guidebook for pain like this, no how-to for facing such tragic loss.  But the power of the presence of people and pure kindness offered in the midst of it can sometimes make all the difference in the world.  Being brave enough to enter in and dwell with someone who hurts deeply, is one of the great riches of life.

A far away love

I handed her the paper in the living room after dinner, “You need to read this” I simply said.  I’d been waiting for hours to give it to her, knowing full well what it would mean to her, how the words would make their mark, knowing I had no choice but to show it to her.  She glanced at it and knew right away.  She didn’t even finish reading it.

Rylee has been writing Fatuma, her sponsored Compassion child,  for seven years.  They almost share a birthday but they’ve shared many words, colored pictures and family photos over the last several years.  In the beginning I wrote the letters.  She dictated to me what to say and I wrote.  She would color or sign her name.  But these past few years, she writes herself and shares life and love with her precious “sister” in Kenya.

A year and a half ago she came to me and asked if she could forego birthday and Christmas gifts and save money towards her years long dream of going to visit Fatuma and meet her face to face.  And that’s exactly what she’s done.  She opened a bank account and together with her brother also started an egg selling business to save enough money for a ticket to Kenya.  She is close to the amount required for a ticket.  Next year was the year we planned to go.

So when the letter came, the one that said Fatuma’s parents had taken her out of the program and she could no longer be our sponsor child, it absolutely broke her sweet heart.  She started to cry and she did not stop for the rest of the evening.  I even made her favorite cookies.  She tried to smile and said a quiet “thank you”.  But then returned to her spot on the couch where she rested her head for the evening.  On her own initiative her little sister brought her out a birthday gift, one she’d bought with her own money, three weeks early, to give in hopes it would ease the sadness.

Who will make sure she is ok?  Can we still go see her next year?  The questions came through the tears.  Will she have enough to eat?   Why did they take her out of the program?  Is there any way we can find her?

Hard questions.  Ones I couldn’t answer.  It took me two days to think I was ready to call Compassion and ask them for any more info they might have.  Turns out I wasn’t ready at all.  Our hearts are so intertwined with this sweet girl far away.  I choked out questions and the young thing on the phone had no idea what to do with my tender heart.  She read from the file on the computer.  She answered the same questions twice.  She listened.

There was nothing that could be done.  The workers had gone to her house, she was well but her parents simply had made a decision.  We could write one final letter.  And that would be all.  Rylee’s trip in September of next year that she had painstakingly saved for, would not look like the in-person reunion she had dreamed of.   And she would have to wonder if her friend across the world was finding her way all right.

As we brushed shoulders in the kitchen and she crumbled in my arms again,  I got this beautiful, heart-twisting glimpse of what real love looks like.  And just like I wrote in my last post, it hurts.  It hurts to love hard.  There is cost beyond what you can possibly calculate to loving with abandon.

“God’s still good right?”  I whispered.  Yes.  All the time.  Always good.  Not the good I’d choose of course.  But always good.  “If we didn’t care about her so much, this wouldn’t be such a loss.  Don’t doubt for a minute that God has a plan for you, for your journey, for everything.  We just have to ask and wait.  He’ll show us.”

Love and loss go together.  Today at lunch as kids admired my pendant necklace, the one with one of Grampy’s ties encased in it, they asked about him.  It’s been five years this month.  Five years since my husband returned from the search and rescue mission to find his father in the mountains.  Audrey was a baby then.  She asked lots of questions and pondered how very hard it must have been for her daddy to find his father frozen by the lake.  I’ve held the necklace between my fingers dozens of times today.  Wishing he were here to do silly things with our kids, to be proud of who his son is, to love my cooking and pour me another glass of sparkling cider.

One year beautiful

It makes me choke just a bit when I answer people’s frequent question, how old is she?  Because I want to say she was just born, fresh and new and perfect but the truth is her birthday was two weeks ago and I can hardly wrap my mind around it.  Wasn’t it just yesterday we were walking in the warm sun with popsicles and flip flops awaiting her soon and imminent arrival, not sure if she was a he or a she…if she would tip the tide to four sons or even it up with three sons and three daughters?  Could I have known it would be the year it was?  That everything would feel hard and that we would never really fall into a groove that felt workable and that we would do so many “great” things that we were plum worn out and worn down?  How a little pink bundle would be this beacon of all that is lovely and wonderful to this tired mama on so many dark nights?

To my Liberty Grace on your first birthday,

Freedom and grace.  Two of the most critical, valued pieces of our faith, our family, our life.  Your name holds such weight for me.  It is a never ending reminder of truth that I need constant reminding of.  One year.  You are walking and waving everywhere.  You have perfected the princess, parade wave and you grin a mile wide for everyone you meet.  I never have the heart to tell them, be they a friend or a waiter at a resaturant, that you do this for everyone.  They think they are exceptionally special based on your warm waves and smile.  You have to be the happiest baby ever.  At least certainly the happiest one I’ve known.  Sometimes I hold your siblings back a bit, telling them it’s too much or give her space.   But the reality, your reality, is you are covered, sewn in from every side, with love.  So much love.  They each adore you in their own sort of way.  You draw something unique, something special out of each one of them.  The softness that I don’t often see in the big boys, a gentleness from Finn that is wildly uncharacteristic.  And a comradery, a sisterhood with the girls, that I know will only grow with age.

It’s been a long year for me.  Your brother Finn has required a sort of mental energy that no other child has.  The way he thinks and experiences life is momentous, fantastic really.  And I’ve no doubt he will change the world, his world, someday.  Another brother started the year with a major physical injury that made the school year extra hard and frustrating.  It took six months before he was fully restored.  It hurt my mama heart more than I can exxpress to not be able to help him, not be able to fix it and make life feel okay for him.  There were so many hard days, not days that I would trade or give up for anything, but hard nonetheless.

And then there was you.

Beaming bright beautiful you.  You have to know there were many nights, I would be awake nursing you that I wept over your precious little face.  Hopelessly in love with your little self.  Over the top thankful that you were there for me to hold.  You gave hope to me time and time again.  You are a simple, in-the-flesh continual gift that I feel like I receive day after day after day.  A gift I don’t take lightly and one I am keenly aware I could have missed had the baby I carried the months prior to your conception been carried to term.  There would not have been you, one of a kind wonderful you.

You can’t possibly imagine how treasured you are little girl.  You just can’t.

All my love,

Mama

**a few snapshots of your first year, favorite summer naps in the swing or with big brother, showing goats with sisters, rides in wheelbarrows and horse carts:

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girl cousins 2014

On walking and waking together

I was just a month past my teens and freshly turned twenty, sixteen long years ago.  He’d won my heart years before, when I wasn’t even old enough to drive a car.  Against all odds, we were still an inseparable pair and despite the long distance of college, he asked me to share the rest of life with him.  I asked him first if he’d asked my dad (he had!) and then I said yes.  A few weeks later we went on a walk with a friend and her camera and she snapped this photo:

The beginning of the journey

A year of planning and dreaming and anticipating what life together would look like.  Quiet walks and plenty of time to talk.  Coffee dates whenever we pleased and the occasional jump into the lake on a sun-setting summer night.  Both with two years of university remaining, we studied hard, worked hard and served hard on staff part time at church.  Money in short supply but not lacking in the burning-with-love-for-each-other- department.  Oh the waiting, it felt like we would never make it to that altar!

It was easy.  The saying yes.  The beginning of the journey.  That uncharacteristically warm summer May afternoon with 427 people sitting watching.  Its the staying in yes that isn’t the easy part.  No one tells you that.  Years without babies with hearts full of ministry life then the years with babies, one after another.  The quaint little college apartment with organized everything gave way to a cute and crowded condo by the lake which gave way to the darling rambler where we would welcome our fifth baby blessing on our bedroom floor on a cold February evening.

There were scars by then.  The kind you see, that tell of a body swollen beyond capacity time and again.  And the kind you don’t see, the ones that tell of losses and disappointments that rend the heart all sorts of broken.  There were all the months I spent sure that no other married ones who loved Jesus this much could possibly find life this hard.  Whatever of “happily ever after”?

Just when it seemed the heart was plum full and how could I possibly learn to love more, deeper, softer….there was always more.  Room for more.  Growing, changing, forgiving, learning, CHOOSING.  It was always that that was hardest for me.  That it wasn’t always going to feel lovely and beautiful.  It was going to be a falling apart mess sometimes and I would always have to choose.  Choose to be steadfast.  Choose to forgive.  Choose to stay present.  Choose to love extravagantly.  All in the midst of a culture that says marriage isn’t forever and I should do what makes me feel good, despite the cost.

I booked a babysitter days ago, chose the nicest restaurant in our country town for us to share dinner and anticipated what two hours off alone together would be like.  Life is full and loud and some face time is such a rare gift.  Just five hours before our to-be anniversary dinner I heard these infamous words “I think I’m going to throw up mom!”  And I dropped everything, ran to the kitchen and ushered her to the bathroom.  I cancelled the sitter and texted the sad news of our dashed dinner plans.  An hour later as Finn joked about “choking up” as he calls it, and playing with the bowls I had put out, he turned sheet white and lost his lunch all over the kitchen floor.  The hubby texted back and offered to pick up dinner and I mopped up nastiness one batch after another.

He brought take out and we sat on the back deck so we could eat sans vomit-smell.  Liberty kept us company and we mused about our state of affairs while eating out of a box with plastic forks.

We exchanged gifts, which was hysterical because we both shopped at Costco for each other, obviously because the boxes were identical.  We agreed on many accounts but especially this…the sharing of the journey, in all its imperfection and mess, the walking together instead of alone, the waking up in the same bed with the same person day after day after day…it is profoundly precious.  It is not overrated.  It is nothing less than amazing in all its “ordinary-ness”.

As I took bites of food on the deck in between rounds of running in to empty full puke-bowls, I could only smile.  This is it.  This is real life.  This is our life.  An unexpected end to our fifteenth wedding anniversary to be sure.  But then most of our life together has been unexpected and beyond what I’d dreamed of.  I could not ask for a better someone to share it all with.  Our walks may be slower and louder these days, but they are rich and brimming with love and laughter and all sorts of sweetness we are crazy thankful for.

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A little bit of give…

It was the worst kind of day to go downtown to the big city.  Sideways sheeting rain/sleet, the last minute frenzy of holiday shoppers and the ever so tentative relationship with my GPS.

Construction met us at our destination and kids hushed knowing this was the hard part.  Having learned the hard way that our big van is too tall for nearly all parking garages, we searched for street parking.  Four trips around the block and we finally spied a 30 minute loading spot.  Perfect.

Each one grabbed their bag of men’s socks to donate to the shelter.  Kyler’s co-op class had collected them and our family volunteered to deliver them.  70 pairs of men’s socks.  When you have to walk around all day and some nights, your socks get pretty worn out I’d explained to them on our drive.  We hustled across the street in the pouring rain, rang the bell and noted that all the windows were covered with metal bars.

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The director (Rick, who is in the video on the link above) met us at the doorway, welcomed us in and thanked the kids for the socks.  He offered to show us around.  We walked through their kitchen where they prepare and provide meals every night for the homeless of Seattle.  He showed us the dispatch office where they work every night to match people with shelter.  Freezers full of donated food and Christmas gifts ready to be wrapped, socks, scarves and the most basic things.  And I just wasted an entire evening stressing and fretting over finding the right gift for someone for Christmas.  It seems so very meaningless now.

We walk upstairs and are overwhelmed with the smell of cigarette smoke.  I watch kid faces and no one says a word.  They tell me later “I had to breathe through my mouth mama, my nose was burning!”.  I would tell them I was proud they hadn’t been rude and had listened with respect.  He shows us a room where they offer long term housing for seniors, most of whom are coming out of homelessness.  We meet a sweet old man in their common dining room.  Their idea of housing is one small room not even the size of my daughters’ bedroom.  Shared bathroom and kitchen.

I catch myself so many times, the magnitude of the need is so great, the weight feels so heavy.  And the reality of life, of Christmas, as someone without even a bed to sleep on?  Truly, I can’t really even imagine what that feels like.  So instead of crying this time, I treasure that we got to be the ones to bring the socks.  That we could have a tiny part in warming cold, worn feet.

No matter who you are or what your resources, there is something EVERYONE can do to change their part of the world for good.  My sister saw a need and created a fantastic monthly event at her church, deemed it “Diapers and Donuts” and they provide diapers for mom’s with little ones and provide something even more vital, community, love.

If we all did the small things we were able to in the circles of life we walk in, I honestly (perhaps idealistically) think the world would be a different place.

We left the shelter and headed to our next stop and as we drove by the upscale trendy shops in the heart of the city, one exclaimed from the back of the van….”Oh look, they must be loading food boxes for Children of the Nations!” It was actually a box dropping off the latest merchandise for Macy’s.  Slightly cynical, I explained no, it was in fact not meals for starving children but more “stuff” that people were convinced they needed and they would likely spend the next few months paying for.  In their young minds, it made more sense that it was boxes of meal packets.

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I remember how I skipped my beloved coffee spot on the way to pack meals on Tuesday night, not because I’m awesome – I’m anything but, an absolute sinner every day, swimming in a sea of grace.  But because I was calculating in my head that at $.25 per meal, my cup of coffee could buy 16 meals to fill the bellies of kids who have NOTHING.

Socks, coffee….small things yes.  But the sum of all the small stuff, all the little things we think no ones notices or don’t matter?  It does.  It makes a difference for someone.

When Christmas is sad

It’s impossible not to feel a pang of guilt getting to wake up this morning, snuggle my kids on the couch and spend the morning making Christmas treat bags for our neighbors when there are parents planning funerals for their kids who are the same ages as these pajama-clad ones around my living room.  Impossible.

A decade or so ago I remember being twenty-something and pondering with a fairly light, optimistic heart that indeed Christmas must be sad for many but it surely was only joy for me.  I would think kind thoughts, do kind things and pray for those who must know sadness this time of year.  But the people I loved that were synonymous with holiday tradition, happy moments and love were all still alive….my parents weren’t divorced so I didn’t know what “splitting Christmas” or “trading off” looked like….I’d never truly gone without a basic need met.

As the years passed though, beloved grandparents died, friends dear to me had to navigate the challenges of broken families and so many different places to go every December to appease everyone, and our growing family made it just till payday on our food stamps balance more than once.

Then just a few years ago only 4 weeks after Christmas, Chris’ dad died on a hunting trip.  Our whole-family-Christmas photos were fresh from the photography studio and I was sure we had at least another decade or two of our Christmas Eve traditions.  Eleven months later my oh-so-precious Grandma who’d flown in for the festivities had a stroke the day after Christmas and passed away just before New Year’s.

The heavy weight of loss, the burden of sadness that threatens to completely overwhelm has so many times seemed just too much.  I can only imagine it seems that way to mama’s in Connecticut who already had gifts wrapped to put under the tree for their sons or daughters.

Just too much.

The brightness of the season dims a little (or maybe a lot).  And though we celebrate fully and delight in the gift of Jesus, sometimes the night is a little too silent.  Sometimes there is a face we want so badly to behold, a lame joke told that we’d love the chance to laugh at, a velvet soft Grandma-hand that we long to squeeze, a giggle we would give anything to hear, a baby-belly that was supposed to be growing – and that these things are missing?  Deep sadness.  There’s just no way around it.

Last night the weight pressed so heavy and I took so many deep breaths, kids stung with words and I ate dinner alone in my room.  I tucked myself in under the covers as if that would ease the hurt, take away the sense of loss I felt so acutely.  But it didn’t.  Nothing does.

Nothing but a quiet whisper under the darkness, under the sadness.  A whisper of love.  His words that are life to me, ringing in my mind “The Lord is near to the broken  hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)  It’s all I can do to believe those words for the families across the nation attending memorial services instead of Christmas parties.  And to believe it for me in my own sense of loss.

There is no way to know if the people who live on my street or the ones who live on yours have their own stories of sadness, but I’m pretty sure most of us do.  And one way I’m learning to lift my heart up is to love, to do something thoughtful or fun no matter how much I don’t feel like it.  Today it was putting together Christmas treat bags with goodies we made and cards the kids drew themselves, for each house on our street.  Most we’ve met, some we know.  There is something lovely and beautiful about spreading kindness.  In the process of blessing, we are blessed.

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What if we weren’t meant to “have it all” (part 1)

When we lived (happily, most of the time) on a food stamp income, money matters were more simple in some ways because there was just food/shelter/car/somehow make it till the next paycheck.  We watched God provide for our needs in amazing ways and we never were without basic needs.  Those around us observed and saw the needs, simply helped meet them if they were able.  It was beautiful.

We have always made giving a priority whether we had little or a lot.  We’ve seen it modeled in people we love and respect (and not to mention in Acts as we read about the early church) and believe it’s part of life.

It isn’t us the giver, that are so awesome for giving.  I truly believe that we are simply intended to be the conduit for what doesn’t belong to us anyway. Which when you look at it that way, it shouldn’t be hard to pass it on to a place where the need is great. There is profound joy to be had in giving your time to someone in need, your hands to help with work, your cooking skills to someone who is ill, your clothes to someone who needs them, your food to fill someone else’s pantry.   If we didn’t choose to give, to share, WE would be missing out as well as the ones we are able to bless.

Last year as I pondered what extra activities to add on to our weekly schedule, I was so tempted to do the music classes that we’d done in previous years (on a full scholarship).  I knew I could make it work in the activity budget.  I emailed, I got all the info.  We could do it, so we should do it was my train of thought.  But as it came time to actually write the (large) check, for four kids to do these (stellar) classes, I had this overwhelming sense that just because we could do it actually didn’t mean we should.

I felt a little lame writing to say we wouldn’t be registering the kids after all.  But something in my heart told me that although the classes would be fun and delightful for our kids, that perhaps there was something far more meaningful that money was intended for.  So instead of music classes we added to our brood of Compassion children

To try and communicate how this investment is such a treasure to our family or how richly blessed we feel to get to write back and forth with these five sweet children in Kenya, Guatemala and India and get letters back from them that say things like “I send you and your children a kiss and a big hug”.  Sponsorship is a bigger deal to these children than I’m sure I can even imagine.  They are steps away from crisis and hunger.  Closer than I’ll probably be all my life.

There is no judgement intended here, only a heart that wanted to share a little piece of our story.  This perspective continues to permeate my thinking and is part of the way God is showing me, showing all of us, how the gospel can be lived out in our life in this land of plenty.