Sunday, April 27, 2014

Love in the Little Things

Love is written in both sweeping gestures and humble details. We read it in atoning blood and flowering rose, in declarations of lifelong commitment and daily kisses. We need the weight of the former, and repetition of the latter to fill us up and make us strong. In love, the little things matter--

like "happy food,"

holding hands at the dinner table,

slow walks on hard days,


a freshly plowed field ready to grow nourishing food,


a pile of beloved comfort items offered to a sick mamma,

the sacrifice of a relaxed Easter morning to worship with the church-starved shut-in,

the simple gift of a handkerchief.

As with the steady drip drop of water onto solid rock, these little things leave a lasting impression where love collects into pools. Like the story of that handkerchief.

I remember the day I received it. On September 27, 2011, my Nona had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, which served me a double blow. The realization that the rock and matriarch of our family who never caught a cold had cancer was an impossible shock; the trauma of losing my Grandmommy to breast cancer eight years prior had awoken from slumber. I was six weeks away from giving birth to Sara, and mentally shaming myself for lamenting over Braxton Hicks contractions and sciatic pain when there was cancer in the world. And my dear friend, Ellie Blackburn, had just given birth to her fourth child.

That mild autumn night, I took advantage of Brandon's free evening. I left Micah in his capable hands, and drove the thirty something miles from Farmerville to Lincoln General Hospital in Ruston, Louisiana to meet my friend's tiny new addition. I meant to distract myself from my own troubles by entering into someone else's joy. But that is not what happened. Instead, my friend abandoned her joy to enter into my troubles--much like Someone Else I know.

When we found ourselves alone, she asked me how I was doing, and without meaning to I selfishly poured out my burdened heart at the side of her hospital bed. Weary though she was, she listened intently and passed me a soft, white handkerchief which I thoroughly saturated. A handkerchief is not typically a thing one borrows, but when she told me it had belonged to her grandmother, I offered to return it after a good washing. Ellie told me to keep it.

I used it once or twice after that, but it has mostly lain forgotten in my purse for two and a half years--until I needed it last month when I said goodbye to a dear friend who was stolen away by cancer. Crying into that handkerchief by Jenny's graveside, I was simultaneously far stronger and more broken than I ever could have imagined when I cried at Ellie's bedside--a recipe which yielded many more tears. I needed that little white cloth. It was such a comfort to me even in its smallness. The reminder of Ellie, who now lives hundreds of miles away, earned a smile from me that day. When it was time to set my face right after the service so I could embrace Jenny's family and say my goodbyes, I stuffed it into my coat pocket and forgot about it--

Until I had need of it again a few days later. I didn't need it for me. The kind of crying I was doing following Jenny's death required hand towels. A dainty handkerchief can only hold so much snot. I needed it for someone else--another dear friend who also lives hundreds of miles away. Madonna, a friend from college, was in town for a rare visit. We had a nice--if brief--time together at Jubilee Farm after not having seen one another for over a year. There was a private soul-baring, tear-inducing moment in the car as I drove her to where she was staying. Madonna apologized for getting emotional, which made me grin because it's something I would do--something I did that night in Ellie's hospital room. I told her not to apologize. I was honored that she would and could cry in my presence. I told her I wanted to be a safe place for her. I hope to be a safe place for all my friends. For strangers even. 

And then she asked for a tissue. Drat. I don't carry tissue because I'm allergic to it. I could only offer her fast food napkins my dad had stuffed into my glove compartment several months ago during one of our road trips to Baton Rouge. My handkerchief remained soiled in my coat pocket at home.

As Madonna wiped her eyes with the roughest, least durable paper in existence, I told her the story of my handkerchief--the friend who gave it to me and how it had brought comfort to my sore heart one night in a happy hospital room and one sad, sunny day by my Jenny's grave and how sorry I was I couldn't offer it to her. I made a promise--"The next time this happens, I'll be ready. I'm going to order some handkerchiefs for this very thing."

And I did. I "won" a set of ten pretty hankies on Ebay two days later.

It took some careful work getting the fragrance and stiffness out of them without having a reaction, but I managed. When I was done, I enclosed my favorite of the lot--the one with the embroidered pink flowers pictured here--in a package I mailed to Madonna. Late though it was in getting to her, I hope it brings her some comfort and reminds her that I'm thinking of her and praying for her. I carry the other nine hankies in a plastic bag in my purse, ready to give them away to anyone who has tears to dry and a heart to be heard. 

Opportunities for grand gestures are rare. You get married once, and then you prove your love every day in dying little deaths to give life to another. You birth a child, and then you spend the next umpteen years forgetting yourself as you intentionally observe, notice, and appreciate all the little things that make up the ever-growing human carrying around your DNA. Jesus Christ gave His life for us once, but never stops saving the soul who wants Him. He draws near. He enters in. He keeps count of every toss in our bed, every sigh of our soul, every tear that falls from our eyes--caused by everything from cancer to pregnancy discomforts--and stores them in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). He has accomplished the big things--covenants and coming and death and resurrection--but He never stops wooing us with the small. He is the most observant Lover. There isn't a detail He could miss.

I remember once marveling to my cousin and family photographer, Morgan Tucker, that God seemed to care about and provide for all the details of our family photography sessions. She laughed and sagely responded, "God cares about pictures because we care about pictures."  

It's true, you know. Jesus cares about the little things because we do. He created us to appreciate them, after all. It is in these little things that we learn to ground ourselves in the rich soil of His love so that when big storms come we stay firmly planted. 

This Man inspires me and sets my heart aflame. I want to love like He loves. I want to smell like Him and feel like Him. I want people to think of Him when they are with me. So I will prepare nourishing meals, fold and put away his underwear, read her favorite book for the hundredth time, look into his eyes when he asks his questions, pray for those I cannot otherwise serve, and keep hankies on hand to catch the unexpected tears of strangers and friends. I will ask God to give me joy in the doing so the love hits its mark.

There are no grand gestures here, and I will never love as perfectly as I would like. I will fail, repent, repeat, but I will never stop aiming. For His sake. And the "I love yous" I sing will be soft, humble songs. They won't earn me any applause, which is good. In this the hearers know it's all for them and not at all for me. The goal of real love isn't to impress, but to leave an impression. It is to help a soul feel its value and a spirit catch a foretaste of the infinite love of our Lord. 

The world is more beautiful when we love in the little things like chocolate pudding and handkerchiefs and open ears and hearts. May we love as we are so gloriously loved.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Upside to Being Laid Low

Things fell apart almost immediately after I posted my most recent health update. I am usually a fan of irony--this time not so much. After posting an encouraging report of my progress, I proceeded to have three back to back food-related reactions, which put me into crisis mode. The morning following the third reaction, I opened my eyes to see Brandon looking me over. "Morning, Sexy," he greeted me with a mischievous gleam in his eye, "you look like you've got the mumps!" And indeed, I felt like I had the mumps.

Everything was painfully swollen, especially the lymph nodes in my face and neck. I could not talk or move without wincing. I could tell my digestive tract was ready to revolt given the smallest opportunity. As post-reaction fasting has never served me well, I opted for a diet of white rice, freshly prepared veggie juice, vegetable purees and a tummy-soothing mixture of slippery elm and marshmallow root powder. I was the most fatigued I have been in a long time. My body could do little else but sleep.

Throughout the week, I improved little by little and was almost back to eating my regular diet when I was hit with another wave of reactions. I inhaled food particles in someone else's home, made skin contact with a preservative wax covering a vegetable I was preparing for dinner, and had a mystery reaction to what may or may not have been Sara's baby wipes. The reaction to the vegetable wax was particularly nasty. I had difficulty speaking, walking, or gathering my thoughts for almost 24 hours. I have not recovered my energy or mental clarity since. 

Over the last two and half weeks, I have spent a lot of time in bed. Rest is nice, but it is not my preferred lifestyle. I like full, productive days. It is a difficult thing to get a good taste of hope only to choke on it. It's hard to feel like things are finally going where I want them to go only to find the path has circled back on me. I dislike full-body pain, the choice between hunger and discomfort caused by eating, and the feeling of being so tired I can't hold my head upright on my neck. I despise the loneliness of a bed, the emptiness of not being able to take care of my children, husband and home. I hate giving up any more of my life to this disease--even quarter inches. Left alone in necessary solitude, I must face my frustrations, doubts, fears and grief. There is no escape.

But even there--

His grace is sufficient for me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

I have a High Priest who sympathizes with my weaknesses. (Hebrews 4:15)

As the sufferings of Christ abound in me, so my consolation also abounds through Christ. The cosmic scales are always even. (2 Corinthians 1:5)

I am hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed--always carrying about in my body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in my body. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

His mercies hold me up. His comforts delight my soul. (Psalm 94:18-19)

He considers my trouble. He knows my soul in adversities. (Psalm 31:7)

He is a shield around me, my glory and the One who lifts up my head. (Psalm 3:5)

Ultimately, it is in these moments of distress I know my Savior best. It is when I am laid low that I enter the veil of Christ's sufferings. If I know pain, He has known it far better. I may face loss, but never more than He. He has insight into grief I will never have for while I have lost a covenant friend, He lost His Friend and Father who had been with Him always, since before time was a concept. He has drunk dry the cup of disappointment, need, and all the wrath of God I deserve. It is when I am laid low enough to taste it with Him, I am invited in--into the inner sanctuary which the happy never see.

It is there I receive something better than happiness. I am able to "rejoice to the extent that [I] partake of Christ's sufferings" (1 Peter 4:13). I am made "exceedingly glad with [His] presence" (Psalm 21:6). Time and time again, my sick bed becomes a magical place where suffering is transformed into joy.

This season of Lent has been difficult. I did not feel God leading me to formally participate, so I didn't. Nonetheless, I have lost without meaning to. I lost my comfort foods when I began my new diet. I lost one of my closest friends. I lost my momentum in the pursuit of health. All of this loss has driven me to study the sufferings of Christ with greater attention to detail. And I have noticed something new.

In His final hours, He never spoke a word on His own behalf. In every gospel account it is written, "He answered nothing" in His own defense. But He speaks for those He loves. He serves them and prays for them until He is taken in the garden (John 13-17). When the soldiers ambush Him, He pleads for His beloved--"If you seek Me, let these go their way" (John 18:8). When from the cross He sees His mother weeping for Him, He provides for her another son to love (John 19:26). He prayed for His persecutors as they bruised and mocked Him (Luke 23:34). In His darkest hour, He looked out.

When I suffer, my instinct is to curl in on myself, but the example I found in my Savior inspired me. In my moment of trouble, there was such a sudden outpouring of need all around me that I could not help but be distracted from my own. My loneliness gave me time to pray. My discomfort made me instinctive about what to pray. My grief granted me empathy. I was not separate from my sufferings friends; I was one of them. I was able to pass along the strength God was lending me. God even gave me opportunities to serve others in a practical way, which is something I am rarely able to do. It was such a delight!

Before I knew it, I had forgotten myself. Forgetting oneself is absolute bliss. Really. I wish I never had to think of myself again. In prayer, God has altered my vision, and in doing so He has altered me. May I never forget that suffering is a privilege and an honor. I am ready for some relief, but I'm not sorry over what has transpired. 

Sick and struggling friends--I have not forgotten you this week. I'm still praying. It's just the fatigue is eating me for breakfast every morning, and all I can do is pray. I believe you need my prayers more than you need my words anyway. Know that when I feel my own exhaustion, pain, hardships, sickness, loneliness, anxieties and grief, I am thinking of yours as well and bringing them all before the Lord who loves us, who gave Himself for us, who is with us and for us through it all. Because of the cross. Because of the resurrection.

Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Happy Easter.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cracks in the Castle Walls: An Evening Prayer

There are cracks in the castle walls tonight. I am weary of bone and soul, brick and mortar. Draw the bridge and lock the gate! Toss away the key! Grant entry to no one!

But I cannot keep You out--You who will not let me alone. Those wizened eyes pierce through the canopy of dusk-laden clouds into my darkened passages and mourning chambers.

Ah, You want more than to see my filth; You want me to put it on display. So be it. Light the candles! Here it is--festering and newly opened wounds, diseases of body and of mind, all my inadequacies and failures and sin piled in a jumbled heap. 'Tis a vile mess, I know. And it's all too heavy to carry about and hide away, so I leave it here.

You offer a trade--my wounds for binding and the balm of Gilead; my disease for health in all my being; my inadequacy for all sufficiency, my failures for your success, sin for glory. You clean it up and carry it off. In my brokenness and disrepair, You offer more than to patch me up.You invite me to become other--like You.

Thank you for my crumbly bits which send me looking for Real Strength. Thank you for must and mold that I might welcome Fresh Breath and Sunlight. Your offer is both frightening and thrilling, but I will accept, Great Giver. Not because of your open hands but because you are beautiful and perfect in your otherness. I will have You before merciful exchange.

For You I will open the gate though the enemy and his bloodhounds run at your heels. Come in, My King. Grace this citadel with your glorious face. May your fragrance waft through these halls. Both castle and key are yours forevermore.