Cross of Joy

I sat down with Andrew to work on homework last night and as he started to put his name on the top of the paper he said, “Mom can you just write the letter ‘d’ for me?  I’m terrible at making ‘d’s’.” I said, “No way.  The fact that you aren’t good at making them is the very reason you need to do it yourself.  Only practice will make you good at them.”  So he practiced it a few dozen times, with me showing him how to make it better, until he felt more confident in his ability.

Many times the Lord deals with us in this same way.  We ask for our crosses and burdens to be alleviated because we know God loves us and could easily take the burden from our shoulders.  We are told to pray unceasingly (1 Thes. 5:17), and in faith ask “Father, if you are willing take this cup from me.” Lk. 22:42.  Yet so often we are met with seeming silence.  Is it because God knows that our crosses are important for our growth and learning?    By our crosses we learn to rely on God more fully.  Ideally, when we walk with the Lord through a trial we gain confidence and trust and realize a new strength.  By our sufferings we are shaped and formed and refined on our way to perfection, like gold that’s tested in fire.

“Their sufferings were minor compared with the blessings they will receive. God has tested them, like gold in a furnace, and found them worthy to be with him.” Wis 3:5

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And yes perfection is the goal!  We are created for it so we can rest easy in the assurance that God has a very good reason when He allows His children to bear their burdens. They will ultimately be for our good.  We are being groomed and refined.  We are being made worthy to share in the inheritance.

Jesus himself had to endure the cross before He was resurrected.   As true Christ followers we cannot expect an easier road.  Nor should we want one!  True love of Christ requires our desire to share in His suffering.  It is this desire that allows us as lovers of Jesus to offer our own sufferings and crosses to Him.

Growing up, I often heard the phrase “Offer it up” when I uttered complaint.  Of course it meant nothing to me outside the bounds of my own relationship with Jesus and only as I grew closer to the Lord could I begin to understand the merit of that statement.

Loving Christ turns suffering from a Cross to a Joy.

Just as I would desire to suffer in place of my child if I could, so I desire to offer to Jesus my sufferings for the salvation of souls.  I endure them gladly rather than lament and bemoan them if they can be used for His purposes and to the end of accomplishing His holy and divine will. Furthermore Jesus calls us to Love not only our friends but our enemies in this way.  To Love perfectly is to lay down your life for another.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”  1 John 3:16

This is what Christ did for us.  From His perfect love he died for all, not just for those of us who love Him back.  He died for His enemies.  He suffered for people who hate Him.  WIth those who love Him, He established a covenant of Perfect Love, so that we could go forth and share that same Love, even with our enemies, because to love an enemy is to love Jesus.  It is never by the power of our own flesh that this is accomplished but by God’s Perfect Love given and received.

This is our call as true Christ followers.  Can we follow Him all the way to Calvary?  After all, only when we drink the cup Jesus drank will we be able to sit by His side in glory. (Mt. 10:37-38)

Suffering is a part of life that we simply must accept. What choice is there when suffering is everywhere?  But when we accept the perfect Love God has given us our Joy can come from bearing up under the weight of our sufferings.  We can and should take Joy in living this basic Christian witness.  Just as I wouldn’t have let Andrew struggle in frustration on his own, God would never ask us to endure something if He didn’t give us the equipment necessary to do it.  We are never alone or without His almighty hand of protection upon us. He helps us carry our burdens, making sure they are not too much for us to bear.  Ultimately we will be victorious and every struggle will be overcome.  What Joy we have in His promises!

What if Andrew hadn’t liked my response and chose a different reaction?  He could have had a little tantrum, thrown down his pencil, and said I just can’t write the letter ‘d’ and I don’t want to practice it.   He could have resisted and cried and turned it into a miserable homework experience.  Had he done that, his stubborn tantrum would have been the more difficult path to the same end – practicing until perfect.

An angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in...

An angel comforting Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luckily for us God makes perfect.  Our efforts will always be humble and imperfect, but our effort is like the mustard seed. God can grow it into the tallest tree. Our willingness to suffer for the glory of God, whatever life throws at us, is precious in His sight.  He doesn’t expect us to do it perfectly, only to lean on Him and trust in His providence and remain Joyful as a christian.  He is patiently by our side encouraging as we enter the fire and He understands what we will some day understand for ourselves; that the only way out is through.  Jesus knew this in the garden as well and it was the cause of His agony.  He knew He must go through His passion and desperately didn’t want to but it was the only way to secure the joy and perfection of the Kingdom for all mankind.  He prayed the ultimate prayer, “Not my will but yours be done.”   That is the prayer we should pray unceasingly.

When God does not take our crosses from our life we can know with certainty and with Joy that “His will be done”.

There can be no greater honor.

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Praise

Whenever I meet someone new and the conversation comes around to the fact that I have eight children, with one already in heaven, there’s an extremely good chance my new acquaintance will say, “I just don’t know how you do it”.  I get that an awful lot.  Usually in the moment I just say something generic like, “By the Grace of God” or “I really don’t know how I do it either, I just do”.

And for sure, taking care of a big family and household requires a large degree of just putting my nose to the grindstone and pounding it out.  Sometimes it’s more of a ‘divide and conquer’ approach.  Sometimes it’s a ‘hire a sitter and run away’ approach.

Really though, there is one constant, through the difficulties, the joys, the grief of loss, the stress, the momentous occasions, the pregnancies and the labors, proud moments and not-so-proud moments.  Through it all I praise the Lord.  I thank Him for anything and everything.  And no matter how awful the situation or the circumstance there is always a reason to Praise.  In the lowest of lows, it’s simple, elemental. I praise Him for creating me and loving me.   And believe me when I tell you there are times that I just don’t feel like praising anyone or anything!  In those moments I pray for the grace to give God praise and then just do it.  It’s sort of like putting a smile on your face when you are angry or upset and don’t feel like smiling.

A really beautiful thing happens when you do that.  The outward expression transforms the inner being.

And then there are times when I’m simply overflowing with thankfulness and I can’t help but let the Praise flow from my lips.  Sometimes I’m so full of that inner joy and happiness that can only come from God that I think there can’t possibly be more.  It is then that the Lord proves me wrong and gives me more.  Those moments leave me in awe and wonder of His immeasurable goodness.  To be full of Joy is a gift in itself, but to have that gift multiplied really transcends the human understanding.

When we praise God it transforms something within our being and not of our own power but by God’s power.  He doesn’t need to hear our thanks – He knows how great He is – but we need to give Him thanks and He knows the incredible gift this is for us and gives it without limit.

St. Paul commands in his first letter to Thessalonians (5:18) “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus

Birth of St. John the Baptist, depicting Zecha...

Birth of St. John the Baptist, depicting Zechariah writing, “His name is John”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Both the old and the new testament are chock full of instances of praising God.  I love the account in Luke of the birth of John the Baptist.  His father, Zechariah, was visited by the angel Gabriel and is told that his wife will bear a son in her old age, but Zechariah doubts and is made mute until it comes to pass. When the time finally arrived and he declared in writing the name of his son, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed and he began to speak, praising God” (1:64).  I can imagine he must have had a LOT to say after being struck silent for so long but the only thing on his mind and heart was praising God.

And then there’s King David.  I have this vision of the great and mighty and highly favored warrior leading his men home from victorious battle and singing and dancing and praising God the whole way.  Here was a man of power, revered by men, who’s entire being was focused on praising and worshiping his God. I’m struck by the humility he demonstrates by this act of praise.

Call to mind the scripture in Matthew (18:3) “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.   Jesus is speaking here of humility; Unless you become humble like children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  God places a pretty high value on our humility because in the absence of pride our will becomes secondary to His perfect and Holy will for our lives. We are able to see the truth and simplicity of our purpose beyond the everyday details that necessarily cloud our minds and hearts as adults.  We become less burdened by the world and more filled by the supernatural.

When we praise God like David did we step outside of our selfishness and pride and ambition and thereby submit to humility.  We momentarily shed our pain and sorrows and troubles to give Honor and glory and accolade to the Creator of every living thing.  Just as it’s impossible to smile and frown at the same time, it is impossible to remain unaffected internally when you put on this external armor of praise.

When our son died and the grief was overwhelming and consuming my best defense was to call on the holy name of Jesus and put on this armor of Praise.  It gave God an avenue to lift me out of the blackness of pain and sorrow and into the light of His grace.  And it worked and continues to work every single time.

Join me.  Close you eyes, raise your hands, and open your heart and your mouth…

Thank you Lord Jesus, I praise you and thank you and give you all honor and glory and praise.  I love you and adore you and I thank you for being Lord of my life and Lord of my heart, I thank you for being intimately involved in every detail of my life.  Thank you for your providence and your goodness. Thank you for Loving me and creating me and KNOWING me.  You are Lord of Lords and King of Kings, you are my Lord and King. You are my savior and friend. Thank you Lord. I give you all praise and thanksgiving. I glorify your holy name. Thank you for all your creation. I Praise you Jesus for every good and holy thing. I praise you for all that is righteous and good.  Thank you for your sacrifice of Love for me, thank you for the example you gave me.  Thank you for your Holy Spirit living within me.  I Love you Lord, I thank you and I praise you. I praise you Lord, I thank you Lord, I thank you Lord, I thank you Lord…..

Excuse me for a moment while I grieve

So flag day is around the corner.  June 14th is a biggie on my calendar.  In 2004 it became far more than a day to honor our country and banner of freedom; it became another date to honor and celebrate the life of a member of our family.  We welcomed a treasure, a gift and beautiful little soul, our 5th child and firstborn son, Michael.   We cared for him and loved him and doted on him and made plans for him and took a million pictures and passed them around like the proud parents we were.

Birthday celebrations in our house are usually disorganized and a little chaotic but we do our thing – decorate and have cake and presents.  They are nothing special by most standards but in our family they hold a special place in the fabric of our traditions.  We gather together (an increasingly rare phenomenon now that we’ve entered the busy teenager years) and joyfully celebrate the gift of the person we recognize and honor.  For me it is always a time to thank God for Blessing us so richly and abundantly, for gifting us with these little souls that are constantly defining the meaning of Love.  It is a time to celebrate the people they’ve been and are becoming through their accomplishments and goals.

This year Andrew will graduate from Kindergarten on Mikey’s birthday and surely it will be a momentous occasion and cause for celebration!   I know we will enjoy it (we’ve been through a few already!) and be proud of our son’s performance but beneath the surface we will be aware of the birthday celebration that we should be having later that day but won’t…  This particular birthday has become a time to mourn.

Instead of putting up festive decorations we will likely make our way to the cemetery to plant some flowers around the stone we had made with Michael’s sweet face etched on it.  We put a lot of thought and time and effort into that memorial stone but truthfully it’s little comfort.  It’s still just a stone.  And it rests on the grave that contains earthly remains of a beautiful and precious life gone too soon from this mother’s arms.   I find little comfort at the cemetery because everything I know and believe tells me that he’s not really there.  In fact a man gave his very life to assure me of that truth and that same God-man gave his very spirit to continuously erase the doubts and convict my heart of it.

And therein lies the comfort, the hope, the grace to smile, the Joy in the everyday.  In the midst of the cold and silent burial grounds arises the Promise of new LIFE – life everlasting.  Jesus came – and died – so that we would have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10)

A dear friend recently related a story to me in which she was offering words of comfort to a friend who’s child was heading off to college.  This friend of hers was distraught at the idea that her little boy was all grown up and leaving the nest possibly never to return.  My friend’s words of comfort and wisdom went something like this. “Every moment of your life raising him has been geared to this moment of sending him off to be on his own”.

These are the same words of comfort my Lord and Savior offers to me.  Every moment of the 4 years, 2 months, 4 days and 14 hours of being Michael’s mom had eternity as its ultimate goal.    Furthermore our parting is only temporary, we will be together again.  In the meantime he has a future and a hope and he’s securely ensconced in the arms of His savior, exactly where he belongs.    And so I do this dance of healing and grieving all the while embracing Hope and Joy.  I straddle the gulf that exists between navigating this world and the promise of smooth sailing in the next.

I can’t say I want Michael back or wish he were still here with us – how could I possibly when I know where he is?  What kind of Love would wish a child of my womb out of paradise?  But I miss my little Mikey for this time that we are separated.  I miss what we had for 4 short years and grieve for what we never will in this life.  But I also trust wholeheartedly in the providence and sovereignty of the God of the universe.   He promised me, and all mankind, that He would be our God if we would be His people.  I rely on that promise, even when it means trusting that the death of my son will ultimately be for my good.  Even when it means that every day for the rest of my life I live without a treasured piece of my very own self.  The truth of the promise and the Joy that it holds is beyond compare.

I’ve become a new creation in every sense, in every area of my life, in every way that I can think of.  Tomorrow or next week or next month, by the grace of God, I will be made new yet again.  In fact, every time that familiar ache surfaces and I flee to that most sacred of hearts for solace and consolation I am being re-created, formed and shaped like the clay in the potter’s hand.  I have no choice but to surrender to the maker and creator and it’s a pretty great choice.

So my life will march on in the glorious splendor of birthdays and graduations and everything in between, but please excuse me for a moment while I grieve.

It will be but for a moment. The rewards will be everlasting.

Bedtime or is it???

Putting my younger kids to bed sometimes takes the patience of a saint! And while I am certain that by the grace of God I will one day achieve that status, I haven’t yet done so.   Anyone with toddlers probably knows the drill; brushing teeth, reading one story or many, saying prayers, tucking in, going potty, getting a drink and all in a certain ritual order and probably more than once!  The other night I was particularly exhausted and tried to take shortcuts to hurry up the bedtime stuff so I could crash-land myself into bed.  But what’s that cliché about haste making waste?  The more I tried to hurry the process the more they tried to prolong it!  It was an exercise in pure frustration and after a while I threw up my hands and stormed off leaving them crying and upset and anything but nicely tucked in and settled.

While I will not be taking any mommy-of-the-year awards for this particular episode, God nevertheless used the opportunity to teach me.  In my human weakness I have limits.  God our father does not.  I will always lose my patience when I’m pushed far enough.  God our father will never lose patience with his children.  I will always falter and fail but God will turn my failings into fruit.  I won’t always set the best example but Jesus came and gave us the perfect example once for all.

Icon of Jesus Christ

Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In those moments that I felt guilt and failure God himself offered me a do-over.  It is in recognizing and accepting our weaknesses and faults that we give Glory to God by our humility.  I failed.  I will fail again.  With the help of His Grace,  I will try to do better.  This is the very Truth the Church has taught and offered sacramentally in the confessional since Jesus instituted it,  and we affirm it every time we say the act of contrition, “…I firmly resolve with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin”.

God in His infinite mercy and endless love doesn’t merely forgive us our transgressions, though that is a priceless gift in itself, rather he renews and restores and builds us up.  He transforms us through our weakness when we turn to His loving counsel.  He turns an exhausted and guilt-laden mother into a creature of Joy and Love and renewed energy and strength by His Love and Mercy. He is constant in His example of being merciful to others, as well as to ourselves.

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (MT 5:48)

I will always be an imperfect parent but He will always be guiding me perfectly.

Lord I thank you for your loving example and perfect guidance.  Amen

Reflections from the Garden

There are lots of reasons I love to garden.

#1 –  Earthworms are very cool (they may even warrant a future blog post!)
#2 – It definitely counts as some sort of workout since body parts always hurt the next day
#3 – All that Vitamin D does a body good AND I get a great tan.                                                                                              #4 – It’s a legit excuse to tell the kids we’re having cereal for dinner tonight. (The organic and healthy kind of course!)
#5 – The kids love picking and eating the stuff we grow which means they actually eat some veggies from time to time.
#6 – No one wants to help do all that work so it’s peace and quiet time
#7 – No one wants to help do all that work so it’s peace and quiet time
#8 – No one wants to help do all that work so…. (you get the idea!)

But most importantly it’s time in my day that I get to spend with the Lord.

All that being said however, I am by no means a gardener.  I just happen to have a piece of land in which I dig and plant and water and nurture and harvest but it does not mean that I actually know what I’m doing!   Who knew it would turn into such a place of refuge and solace and prayer?  Who knew it would fulfill an elemental need to be in touch with God’s Earth?  I really had no idea how much I would love the garden when I took on the task last spring.  I love it and God teaches me through it.

I was thinking about the idea of gardening in the days of old – as in before the days of hoses and sprinklers.  How did gardeners ensure that their crops would be adequately watered so as to produce fruit?  Especially the full-out farmers who relied on said crops for sustenance and livelihood?  I’m sure if I did a little research I would find various creative and ingenious ways that farmers have watered crops throughout the centuries but for the most part I think it’s safe to say that before the days of modern irrigation, farmers were forced to rely upon the providence of God for the growing of crops.    They prayed for and waited for rain.  And if the rain didn’t come they didn’t have crops. Right?

So in my own little garden I thought about the idea of not hooking up a watering system and simply relying on God for whatever needs my little plants might have.  I immediately rejected that idea for all the standard reasons we use in our modern society; “God helps those who help themselves” and “God gave us brains to invent ——– so He must want us to use ——–“.  As quickly as I first rejected it though I decided to give it some more thought.  After all I do profess that I trust God in all things.

It occurred to me that, as someone living in America in suburbia in 2012 with all our modern conveniences, I’m not sure it’s possible to trust God in all things the way the people in the Old testament had to really trust God in all things.  We simply don’t have to rely on Him.  We have hoses and sprinklers and faucets and elaborate underground systems that bring water instantly.

And while I’m certainly not suggesting that we give up our modern technology and conveniences,  I do think it merits reflection at the very least.  Do our plans include trusting God only when we’ve exhausted our other means?  When we fall short is God our plan B? or plan C? or any plan at all?

We have advanced tremendously since the fall of Adam and Eve and have become masterful at self-reliance in this dog-eat-dog society but are we better off in our relationship with God?

Adam and Eve Driven Out of Paradise, as in Gen...

Adam and Eve Driven Out of Paradise, as in Genesis 3:23-24, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are a people driven by success but are we driving ourselves right out of paradise?

I think I would rather fail with God at my side than achieve any success without Him. To have Him, to know Him, to love Him is truly the ultimate success.

Lord God bring us closer into a trusting relationship with you. Amen