This is a ghost bike. If you’re looking, you will see them around cities marking the places where cyclists have died. Car crash fatalities have crosses, piles of flowers, pictures, and ribbons memorializing a life… More
I was only 19 when I became a bike messenger. I didn’t anything about what I was doing, or the other people who I worked with, but I the lifestyle and the conmunity was fascinating. They were all so radically different from each other, but were bonded together through the experience of doing such a weird, hard and exciting job. There was a haunting among them though, that I was too innocent to understand.
In defense of my naivete, I had little experience with the power of addiction. In my suburban middle class life, few people suffered from it publicly. Occasionally someone’s parents would freak and they would disappear from school. Rumors would be whispered, but the official story would usually be something about boarding school, or visiting an aunt’s house. Being a messenger exposed me to people who were desperately lost in their addiction, to abused by the world to care about my opinion of them.
Working as a messenger was different. Most companies hire you as an independent contractor, meaning you’re free to accept work or not, and can call out hungover without getting fired. Because you work on a voluntary basis, the job attracts as many drug addicts and alcoholics as id does thrill seekers and cyclists, although for many, these categories overlapped. Instead of hiding the truth or being embarrassed about their drug and alcohol use, many would flaunt it.
What I realized in time was that wherever addicts gather in community, tragedy follows. There was always somebody or something to worry about- a person in jail, an injury that might not heal, or someone living on the street because their girlfriend dumped them. Messengers die all the time, but not from getting hit by cars, or from drug overdose, as my parents assumed. Some die from being poor, having treatable conditions that they can’t afford to get proper care for. But more often they die from the side effects of addiction- usually chronic health conditions like cirrhosis, seizures, and cancer. Sometimes the cause is a tragic, intoxicated accident. The first funeral I remember was for a boy that lost his life in a drunk bar fight, he hit his head funny as he stumbled around, and died in the hospital a few days later. Since then, about a dozen people have passed away, at least one for every year I’ve been sober, making my own sobriety bittersweet.
Losing friends makes me angry. While we can always do a better job of educating youth for prevention, many addicts already know that drugs and alcohol are bad. Mist sober stories begin with that very sentence, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, but…” People usually know the consequences of their actions, but they do it anyway. Meanwhile those around them, who have been making an effort to act responsibly, are left bitterly carrying the burden. Addiction is a mental illness, but if you haven’t suffered from it, or watched a loved one try to break free, it’s hard to find compassion.
Between the lost productivity, the health care costs, and the criminal justice fees, we spend an estimated $520.5 billion dollars (That’s just drugs and alcohol. I won’t even go there about smoking.) But of course the real pain is more than the money wasted; it’s the destruction of our neighborhoods, the broken families, and the damage done to children.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and that includes addiction. It’s not a purposeful descent into madness to wreak havoc on the rest of us, even though it can feel that way to the survivors. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains,
“Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to.”
So even if we’re cutting them off financially or emotionally, they still need encouragement to find real help. Currently, out of the 20 million people suffering from addiction, less than 3 million will actually seek treatment, which is pathetic.
Substance abuse has always been a problem in our country, but lately trends show that it’s getting worse, and the consequences have become deadly. It’s not just my friends that are dying. Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, largely to the opioid epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing deaths by car accidents, guns and AIDS at its peak.
These statistics are horrifying, but they are only half the story. Like my friends, people die twice as often from the long term damage of substance abuse. According to the CDC, the rate of alcohol related deaths is about about 88,000 people per year, and this article in the Washington Post cites research showing that this rate is at a 35 year high.
The other reason it’s important to talk about substance abuse during Mental Health Month is that many people who are addicts have a dual diagnosis of another mental health issue, like depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. When we’re scratching our head in anger, wondering why someone made the choice to abuse a drug, even though they knew better, this is often why. It’s hard to determine an exact percentage of how many people are self medicating, but according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2014 (p. 32), at least 8 million people have co-occurring disorders. In my experience, many addicts don’t fully realize they’re self-medicating until they’re sober, and others are unable to stay sober because they don’t realize they’re only addressing half their problem.
It’s hard to know where and how a person can fight against it, because what feels like helping an addict is often enabling them, and what’s actually helping they will insist is ruining their life. These are enormous problems, with roots that spread twice as far as the branches and trying to solve them, for even one person, feels like trying to rid your yard of dandelions. It seems like this evil is winning, that we are not powerful enough to fight against it, but we are not that way.
Pray. “...We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”(Ephesians 6:12) This is addiction. It’s undiluted evil, and it’s a spiritual battle for an person to break free. I am stunned about how few people are publicly praying on behalf of addicts, especially when you consider that almost everyone knows and loves someone who is struggling. We can pray for addicts seeking treatment, that they will find the support they need to get clean, and we can pray for the families that are broken and suffering in silent isolation. The people surrounding them need our prayers, too. Churches need resources for outreach; therapists and counselors need wisdom to diagnose; people running treatment centers need strength and patience. Also, the police, the first responders, jails, local leaders, and elected officers who are overseeing community efforts to fight addiction are understaffed and underfunded.
Pray for this evil to be crushed, but also pray about how you can fight against it. As I mentioned in my last post, there are grandparents now raising their grandchildren who need babysitters. There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents. Rehab centers have waiting lists and need beds, money and volunteers. Mentors are needed to teach people in recovery life skills, like how to budget or write a resume. Support a newly sober person by offering them a job or a chance at friendship. Reach out to someone whose child or spouse is suffering. Sit with them at the hospital and teach them they don’t need to be ashamed. Many families have no idea where to look for help or answers, and they may need a shoulder to cry on, or someone to pray with them.
Educate. I’m amazed at the people who have been caught off guard by the power of addiction and the drugs on the market today. Heroin is a problem today is because people had no idea that oxycodone was almost the same thing in a perscription. And how many people would have avoided their addiction altogether if they had known they were suffering from a mental disorder? The more we know about substance abuse, the stronger our communities will be against its influence. The more we know about the warning signs of what addiction looks like, the less we will enable people to continue in it. If we were an educated community, we would offer more support to the parents and relatives who feel isolated. Substance abuse is all over the news if you look for it. Make an effort to research and read about what’s happening in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, and in your own state too. Don’t ignore this problem because you don’t see it happening to you.
Speak. Lawmakers don’t tend to fund research for addiction recovery because it’s not on the lips or the minds of their constituents, so the cause gets shorted compared to other medical research, even though addiction is a major killer. There are no big 10K races or silicone bracelets sold to raise money for research on subtance abuse. But if we speak out, if we make this a major issue, lawmakers will fund more treatment centers. Advancements will be made to understand and help people find effective treatment. Teenagers may be more aware of the risks involved. So share articles you find that are important on social media. Talk to people in your church and community about what can be done for outreach. Speak out and make other people aware of what’s going on around you.
In addition to being a voice for legislation and action, you will also be a voice to people who need help. One reason the number of people seeking recovery is so small is because of the stigma surrounding it. You can help to end that, by coming forward with your iwn recovery story or not judging those who have been through it. Sadly, stigma doesn’t end with addicts themselves, for the families that surround them are often ashamed to ask for help too. In Portsmouth, Ohio (a town plagued by overdose), it took almost eight years of living with epidemic heroin use before the parents were willing to confess what was happening in their homes and form a support group. Don’t let that be your town. If you’ve recovered or have supported someone who has, tell your story. Hiding it compounds the consequences. People who are struggling are listening whether you realize it or not, and they need encouragement, so speak out.
Faces & Voices of Recovery is an organization dedicated to lobbying on behalf of recovery and ending the stigma, because its not just an issue for vagrants and rock stars. Respected people everywhere- leaders, politicians, businessmen, athletes, etc. are in recovery too. To share your story on social media use #ourstorieshavepower or #recoverymatters or go to their website http://facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/get-involved/ to learn more about joining their movement.
Substance Abuse is a scourge, not just an epidemic. People are dying, kids are being raised by grandparents and towns across the country are crumbling under its pressure. How can we ignore that? Address it in your churches and with your friends, because evil grows in the presence of our apathy, anger, and resignation. Refuse to believe that the fight against addiction is hopeless, either for yourself, a loved one, or your community. This is your problem, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Everyone is involved somehow, because 1 in 10 people have a problem. So pray, educate, speak and step up to fight the scourge.
Substance abuse is an important issue to me personally, because of my own experiences and those of friends and family, but in my opinion, it should be for everyone. Because as we’ve seen with heroin and crack, a drug problem has the ability to devastate a community rapidly. Also because 1 in 10 Americans struggle with it, which means it’s probably a personal issue for you too.
May is National Foster Care Month and if you don’t care about the problem of substance abuse for any other reason, care about it because of this. Because while not all children are placed in foster care cases are due to an addicted parent, it is often the precipitating factor. The number of children in foster care has been rising over the past 5 years, mainly because of an increase in drug use. (Addiction Epidemic Creates Crisis in Foster Care).
According to a government survey, in 32% of foster cases, drug abuse was the listed reason for removal from the home. Neglect was the number one reason, and caretaker inability to cope and physical abuse were numbers 3 and 4 respectively, (AFCRS report, 2015) but that statistics is misleading because neglect, inability to cope, and physical abuse are often a result of a parent’s addiction. Some statistics estimate closer to 61% for infants (Parental Substance Abuse, p2).
Last winter the Wall Street Journal wrote a horrible but informative article, “The children of the Opioid Crisis.” We can imagine that people who are high won’t be able to properly care for their children, but knowing there are kids living in houses with buckets of vomit everywhere and feces smeared on the wall is unacceptable. It’s also important to remember that substance abuse is a much bigger problem than the current epidemic. This 2014 article, “Substance abuse a top reason children are removed from homes” focused on the influence of Meth on the Kansas foster care system. Before that there were the same horrible stories about crack, and before that it was heroin again. Through all the epidemics, alcohol has always been the substance most commonly abused, and though it is legal, it is equally capable of destroying a family as any hard drug. The fact is, if more people were sober, there wouldn’t be so many kids in foster care. We wouldn’t be worried about a shortage of foster parents, or a generation being raised by their grandparents, or the psychological fallout that these children are suffering from due to abuse and neglect.
If you think you’re community is immune to these problems, you’re wrong. Statistically, Virginia is one of the states that has been least affected by the increase in drug abuse, but even in the beauty of the Shenandoah things have become worse. According to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition the amount of children in Foster care due to parental substance abuse in the Winchester area soared from 5 cases in 2012 to 42 in 2015. (Northern Shenandoah Substance Abuse Statistics). One local foster care agency told me that parents who have been recently trained all have children placed with them already. That it only took a few weeks for her to be desperate for more parents to be trained.
During the month of May, please commit to praying for these children. Focus on the Family has compiled a prayer guide to help people understand the needs and problems of foster care and how to you can pray for them here: Foster Care Prayer Vigil
Pray for the children to feel love and to find homes that will accept them unconditionally. Also for the caregivers who are under stress, and for the birth parents sobriety. But also we can pray for the many people behind the scenes working with and helping these families: those providing respite care, the caseworkers, people recruiting and training foster parents, police officers responding to calls, churches who support these families, counselors, teachers, and the communities leaders and government officials overseeing it all.
But don’t just pray for the people already involved, pray for your part too. It could be as big as opening your home up to a child, or as thoughtful as helping with the cost of clothing, school supplies, or Christmas presents. Many Grandparents that have kinship care are overwhelmed, now trying to raise their grand kids when they were ready for retirement. Offer them help, bring them dinner or babysit for free. Foster children often struggle in school because of the trauma and instability, so if you can tutor, offer your services. Or if you have weekends free, volunteer with the state to provide respite care.
Speak up for this issue in your church and with your friends, because together we can do more to support the families that take kids in. Pray for it as a community, and for how you can support their parents recovery, so that the family can have hope of being reunited. Fight for these children, because these kids need it, and our communities need them.
When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” John 19:26 NKJV
The biggest struggle for me as a mom has been learning to handle my anger, which is hard to admit, but I know that many, many other moms have this struggle too. Most of the anger is unrighteous, my own impatience with their immaturity and behvaior, and for that I beg forgiveness.
But occasionally, when a child is rebelling knowingly and without remorse, the anger is closer to righteous, making it harder to deal with and understand. The root of it is heartbreak, angry that they’re rejecting the rules that I set for them in love. I’m angry that they don’t they’re not rebelling against me, but against God. That they’re hurting themselves- compromising their honesty, friendships, or some other essential part of their character.
The weird thing for me to realize this lent is how natural these feelings are. Really this is the story of the entire Old Testament, with God as the Father and the Israelites the child that learned every lesson the hard way.
Their story starts blissfully in the garden, His creation abounding with the joy of newborn innocence. In Adam and Eve’s ignorance they were incapable of sin. Their bond with God as close as a baby resting on a mother’s chest. Peaceful, harmonious, perfect. I bet they even had that delicious newborn smell radiating from their foreheads.
The bond suffered as they bit into the apple. With knowledge comes pride; He may be God, omnipotent and loving, but still they thought they knew better. Suddenly there were consequences and an independence they weren’t ready for. God could have been angrier. He had warned them that sin meant death, but He could have chosen to smite them on the spot, to start over, but He loved them. And what loving parent doesn’t choose mercy the first time their child knowingly rebels? He set the consequences, but He also promised them they would get through it. That someday He would reconcile it all and all that was lost would be restored.
But the bliss of newborn innocence was forever lost. As with all toddlers, lawlessness began to reign supreme in their collective conscience. I am thankful that in actual parenting, the flooding of the world and fire-bombing of cities is hardly metaphoric, that spankings or timeouts are enough to discipline an act of rebellion. In their sin His anger may have raged, but far above it all his love remained. A Rainbow was given in assurance; a sign of that he would never give up on them completely. And promises were made. Promises that were bigger than the number of stars in the sky.
Finally the day came, in the elementary age of their existence, when His chosen people were ready for law. Many knew it already in the depths of their heart, that obeying Him was right, and ignoring Him was wrong. But they were ready to have it written in stone. Ready for the independence of knowing the rules all at one time, without the constant explanation of why they needed to be followed. Some days they listened perfectly, and sang beautiful songs of praise. Walls fell down and battles were won. A beautiful king, a man after God’s own heart, led the people to a golden age of trust and obedience. A temple was built, unparalleled in grandeur and beauty. Wisdom was not only given, but also received. People came from foreign lands to bare witness to this beautiful relationship- the bounty of blessing between a creator and His chosen people.
If only all the days of this stage were that beautiful, for anyone who raises elementary children knows they will only be ruled for so long before they assert their own will back. It doesn’t matter that your knowledge exponentially exceeds their years, or that their disobedience causes destruction mostly to themselves. You love them so much, you can’t help but feel angry. As they grow, the crimes become more bigger, the consequences more serious. The lectures begin to last longer and the punishments grow more severe. But their hearts are increasingly their own, and they aren’t so easily swayed. You dole out the consequences and they cry. They listen and reconcile to your love, but it’s almost the very next day when they make the same mistakes again.
So it was with the Israelites, they broke the law as soon as it was written. With their increasing knowledge of the world, they clung more and more to other people’s ways, to Baal and to other idols. It worked for everyone else, why would it not work for them? They didn’t want to be set apart, to be special anymore. Even if it was the truth, even if it meant blessing and joy. They just wanted to be normal. To eat, drink and be merry like the other, ordinary nations of the world.
After so many prophets and repeated warnings with zero repentance, it was time to follow through with the consequences. No more would God protect them from their insolence, and the nation was exiled. Like grounding a teenager, He emptied their city of its treasure and took away their privilege. God was furious, as any parent would be. How could they be so ungrateful? After everything He had done for them, how could they be so careless with the grandeur of His blessing? How could they still not know who He was, and how much He loved them?? Because surely if they knew, they would not continue to behave this way.
It took 70 years, but after the time apart God was willing to rebuild the trust again, surely they learned their lesson this time. He wasn’t expecting them to be perfect, but he assumed they would be faithful. The nation, now in its young adulthood, was also ready. It was time to rebuild and say it was sorry. At first, things were glorious. They started rebuilding the temple, sweet psalms of praise on their lips again. But after a while it was clear this nation was not an innocent, penitential child anymore. They were different now, self-righteous, overly confident in their ability to follow the rules, unaware that it was no longer God, but themselves that they worshipped. They assumed they knew it all, so God stopped telling them otherwise. He was done showing them his anger, letting them feel the wrath of his displeasure about their choices. They had always been stiff-necked and no matter how many times he punished them for it, He knew part of them always would be. The only hope to reach them now was by unleashing the fullness of His love- by making good on the promise of redemption. He would crush their enslavement to sin to truly be reunited.
But the time was not yet right. He would love them from a distance while they aged, vigilant for the moment to offer them mercy and forgiveness. But, oh! How He loved them, more than any parent could. Though they continued to misrepresent and ignore Him, He loved them so.
He had loved them silently for 400 years when the time had finally come. He knew His truth would largely be rejected; that most people’s hearts would still be too hardened to understand. But he also knew every bit of the Israelite’s character. He knew all the hairs on its head, and he knew that among them were enough pure hearts to carry out his plan. He would need one crazy guy to announce it. Someone who wandered the wilderness eating bugs. It would take one humble virgin, betrothed to an heir of the great King David and 12 faithful disciples. Sadly, one of those disciples would have to be corrupted, but that was how the prophecy was written. He would need others to support the servants in their moment of desperation, maybe a woman, a harlot. Someone who would be redeemed from so much evil, and therefore be able to receive the moment of truth when the others had lost all hope. These would be the most lowly of people, sinners, uneducated, and from nasty parts of town. But God knew, through these people- this tiny, faithful remnant of his chosen nation- he could fulfill his promise to Abraham, to bless all the people of the earth.
Our good, good father foresaw every detail, and it went exactly to His plan. But the plan was brutal. In order to save one child he would have to sacrifice another, the one that was the Word. The one that was there in the beginning. ‘All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ (John 1:2-5)
* * *
It is hard to fathom as a parent. The story is so relatable up to this point. The anger that stems from rejection, the pain and frustration, the difficulty remaining patient with people who are incapable of accepting the truth. Parenting is a heart-breaking endeavor, and that’s terrifying. To think that the fruit of your womb, that you would sacrifice your own life for without a second thought, could possibly grow up and reject you. That they could embrace the normality of the world over the eternal joy you are trying to impart to them. We try not to live in this fear, but it always looms in the future, waiting for us. The time will come when they’re young adults too, and your feelings and consequences will no longer sway their heart. They will make their own decision to follow God or the world. There is wisdom, that if you train them in the way they should go they will not depart, but there are no guarantees. For if God can’t control the Israelites, then what hope do we have?
Before I had children, surrender was easy. Take my money, for I really didn’t have that much. Take my house, because there are other places to live. Take my stuff, it doesn’t make me that happy. But I’m eternally grateful that I’m not Sarah and Abraham, because ‘sacrifice your child’ is not a commandment I would be willing to follow. But God asks all of us to trust him with our children, that he will at some point reveal himself to them on their path. Even if that path leads them to some very dark and dangerous places.
How could God ask that of parents?
As Jesus hung on the cross, almost all of his followers had fallen away. But of course His mother was still there. A mother wouldn’t be scared by the sacrifice of her home, the loss of her dreams, the denial of the crowd, or the hatred of the world. I’m sure she sat there sobbing, how could God do this to her? How could He reward her obedience with so much pain? How could He call Himself merciful? When you kneel next to her at the cross, you seethe with these questions to. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be, her family and yours, they were supposed to have happy endings.
As Jesus hung from the cross, looking down at Mary, He knew the pain behind those tears.
Woman. Behold your son.
He knew. It’s a weird thing for a weeping father, in the form of a son, to be looking down on the son’s grieving mother. What can He say to her other than behold? Behold. I know your pain exactly. See me as I suffer through it with you.
If that was the end of the story, that would still be more heartbreak than any human parent could endure, but the pain of His story continues through all of humanity. Of people who feel His love, who see His works, acknowledge His presence and still continue to walk away. It continues with you and me, knowing His salvation, but choosing something less. It is no wonder that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner returns, than for the 99 who have never gone astray. Because after that much painful heartbreak who wouldn’t ditch all self respect to display their jubilation over a prodigal son.
Parents, God knows your anger, and He knows your heartbreak, too. But today He says it is Good. It’s a Good Friday because He loves us that much. Because He loves being your father still. Because every ounce of frustration and pain was worth it for you, and it was worth it for me.
“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. John 15:19
It’s not in our nature to endure hatred. Every particle of our soul burns for acceptance, for love. It was the very thing that led us to Jesus in the first place, the promise that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) The world offered us many things, and they were good, though sometimes fickle gifts: admiration, acceptance, respect, belonging, even family, but not that. Not the , unshakable love of a savior. But it’s in His nature to be hated.
“This happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law,” He says. “‘They hated Me without a cause.’” John 15:25
And when we realize that, everything in our being tries to flee. We’ll break the promises we just made, three times over. We’ll keep silent because we love the praise of man more than the praise of God. We’ll testify falsely because we can’t handle the fear.
It’s not always that we don’t believe or that we don’t love him that keeps us from following. It’s sometimes that we can’t bare to be hated. We’re terrified of what the mob will do to us, so we hang back in the safe spaces. We whisper about the injustice to other friends, but only to those who we know will agree. We hide our testimony, because we’re terrified they will make space for our cross too. When He catches our eye from a distance we’re suddenly humiliated by our weakness. We hang our heads and sob, but still, we don’t dare step out of the shadows.
He kept warning us, waking us to pray. He knew we would not be able to endure the condescending looks and snide comments. Or the scorn slammed in our face daily. He knew we couldn’t bare their anger, or the burning of our humiliation, all if we merely mention His name.
But he promised that night not to leave us orphaned in our pain.
“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. John 14:16-17 NKJV
Something that would save us from this shame. That would push us out from our hiding places and out of our sanctuaries, able to fight their hatred with the truth.
The Spirit of truth…
His word in our hearts like a burning fire
Shut up in our bones.
We would weary of holding it back,
And we would not. (Jeremiah 20:9 NKJV)
But for now, as the hour of temptation is at hand, we break the bread and drink the cup, remembering our weakness in the light of his sacrificial love. We huddle, sleepily in the garden, and realize how weak we are without Him, without the Holy Spirit he promises will help us.
For tonight, our only protection is the prayers he says on our behalf.
“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world,
But that You should keep them from the evil one.
They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.
As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.
And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.”
There’s a story in this picture that only I can see. It’s evident in the calmness of the sea and the clarity of the sky. It’s in the peace shown in the child’s steady gaze. This was a story that almost wasn’t, and one of which the child is almost wholly unaware. Many deny the power the power of how this story came to be, but I’ll never deny its truth.
The ocean in this picture could have been choppy. The home the boy lives in began in turbulence. Crashing waves of alcohol and drugs relentlessly churned up mud and silt, so that most often the atmosphere felt murky and brown.
The sky could have been full of storm clouds, for the boy’s parent’s sins were generational. Growing up in a home with such turbulence would have put him at high risk for the same behaviors: anger, depression, and a wealth of poor judgement. Even if he could somehow make it out of the house free from addiction, he would still always be followed by the cloud of emotional pain.
The look on his face could have been one of uncertainty and anger. He could have woke every day wondering, what kind of mom would meet in the morning? The one who makes pancakes, with exaggerated cheer, like everything was better than normal? Or the one who’s still a bit drunk, but mostly hungover? The one with a pillow over her head, letting him know he needs to pour his own cereal and peel his own banana. On those days he would fume and wonder, why was this his lot? What did he do to be born to such broken parents?
This was how the boys story was almost written. In the years before his existence, his mom was in the worst kind of denial. The kind that had given up on dreams, joy, and the possibility of God. His dad was covered in a cloud of depression, and would do anything he could to escape its existence, only it followed too closely to ever be free for long. Somehow, in their pain they found each other, and made their own home, a shelter from those who had hurt and disappointed them. Their own safe place, just the two of them, together. But a shelter is not secure when there’s a door open to drugs. One day meth walked in and quickly chipped away at the little hope they had left.
In a last attempt at peace, they went to her aunt’s house for Christmas. The mom missed her relatives, but more than that she missed the hope and joy their house was always full of. She wanted to be near those things, but she was worried they would see through her charade. There might be lectures about behavior and the choices she had made. They would maybe break out gospel tracts and embarrass her with the offer of salvation, but they did no such thing. In fact, nothing happened at all and if she hadn’t been seeking peace, it may have even seemed boring.
When they came home, the dad said it was the happiest he had ever been. She was shocked. Which part made him happy? The sitting around for hours playing board games? Or the women chatting endlessly about their kids and other people he didn’t know? It was so typical to her, the fact that it amazed him was probably the most depressing thing she ever heard.
“That was the happiest you’ve ever been?” she asked aloud, filled with doubt. After all the epic parties and surreal, all-night adventures, that was it?
“Yes.” He said. “That. And also that time I was young and went to church.”
Suddenly she was felt dismay. She knew what he was aksing, and was also desperate for joy, but didn’t he know that church was what she had been running from all along? Despite the rage, and the fighting and the drama, she loved him still. If that was what it would take to make them happy again, she would do it. It was the only one of the 12 sober steps she actually knew, and she knew that’s what they needed. She knew church well and for their sake, she could fake it. At the very least, she thought it might be better than the awfulness that they’d been stuck in lately. She even kind of missed having friends weren’t all slowly dying. She agreed, and they googled ‘church,’ and went to the first one on the list.
As they rode their bikes up the hill that first Sunday, she expected stability, a new community, some new hope, maybe. But she didn’t expect Jesus. She didn’t expect that she’d be sitting there, crying in the pew, letting go of pain. She didn’t to expect to meet any misfits like her, or people who loved Jesus more than anything, or anyone who would pray for her in the hallways or be willing to talk about God even after the sermon was over. Sitting there in a pew, paging through the bible, she was disappointed to realize that she had read it for years without ever really listening to what was said. Truth came blasting through. Every page she flipped to spoke directly to her soul. She could feel something entirely new being formed in her. She expected stability, but she didn’t expect Jesus.
The people sang about new mornings, life and mercy, but she had no idea that it would be literal. Suddenly everything was new. New friends, jobs, passions and tastes. There were baptisms, a wedding, a baby, a new home and then more 3 more babies. Before she could stop and fully marvel, they were a family of 6 living miles away on a literal rock atop a quiet mountain.
In His last week on earth, surrounded by people, Jesus yelled up at the sky. “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
Then the voice came from heaven saying, “I have both glorified it and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27-28)
Her trouble is that someday she’ll have to explain this story to the boy. It would be nicer to tell him that she was always as responsible as she is trying to train him to be. He adores and respects her now, but like all children, someday he will have to understand and forgive her weakness and imperfections. What will she say? That it would have been better to been spared seeing the bottom in all of its ugliness? But then she would not be able to talk about all the things she’d seen. The evil things working together for good. The tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword being powerless against the bond His love.
What scares me is that even after people heard the voice, and testified that it sounded like thunder, or that maybe an angel has spoken to him…Even after that they still denied. “… although he had done so many signs before them, they did not believe Him.” (John 12:37)
It’s the most disturbing part of Holy Week. That even after everything that’s happened- after all the the signs, all the miracles, and even a voice from heaven, they still can walk away. How could He be the Son of Man? He doesn’t fit the expectation, so they make excuses. He’s just a prophet. He’s a man possessed. Even after hearing her testimony, and knowing God’s hand in their story, will her children do the same? Will they think it was by her own might strength? That rock bottom will push people up regardless of the power pulling from above?
Some people may, but I will not deny. I witnessed a man lifted from the abyss of crystal meth to become a loving husband and dad. I witnessed a woman bound by alcohol walk away from her endless party without a second thought. For one purpose we survived, to testify. I will not look at this picture and deny the voice that came from heaven, and the authority with which it spoke.
After a decade of constant growth and change, the people who meet me no longer sense that booze once flowed freely through my veins, or that my husband would stay awake for weeks at a time. Now we look like ordinary people, with stable, ordinary stories. Raiding a child looking out at a calm ocean, ignorant of the fact that it used to be choppy. Standing under a blue sky, unaware of the storm that has been calmed. With peace, and a hope, and a future radiating from his face. The power of our testimony demands that His name be glorified. We cry out for Him to do so, and He shouts back to us that it has been, and that it will be again.
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:20
My boys are 2, 5, 7 and 9, which means the days here are filled with a lot of whining and bickering. Even when they’re playing well together, because of their ages and maturity, it’s a fact that at some point people will end up in time out. It’s one of the most difficult things for me to tolerate as a mother, I used to think Jesus was incredibly harsh when he said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”(Matthew 17:17), but when all four of them are fighting over something as common as a single Lego piece, I totally get it.
It’s weird how the concept of time as a child is both fleeting and eternal. If I ask them to share a toy for 5 minutes they’ll pout and cry because it’s too long. It’s as if in 5 minutes, the whole world will have ended and their chance to play with it will be gone forever. But they also feel like they’ll be kids forever; they can’t imagine a day when they’ll be grown and fully responsible for themselves. When the squabbling gets to the the point of parental intervention I try to explain to them how their perspective is too narrow; that in 10 years that Lego will be in the trash but their brother will still be here, so share…value the lasting relationship over the trash. They hear what I’m saying, and I think they even recognize it as truth, but their understanding of time won’t allow them to fully believe this wisdom.
When I look at the kids, I see that they’re actually lucky to be fighting over something as unimportant as toys; I wish my conflicts were as petty as pee on the toilet seat or laundry on the floor. As an adult, I’m more capable to fulfill my desires, and far more severe to people who would stand in my way. I can even make it look admirable, like if I’m fighting for something for my kids, or more time to pursue my dreams, or a fun vacation I worked hard for. Armed with a good argument, I dare you to get in my way.
The constant debate throughout the whole country proves that no one is immune. Between the political battles and the incessant media coverage, even the most peaceful people let somebody else piss them off last year. Many people had excellent points, and were fighting for good things- high moral standards, peace, prosperity, justice, etc. Don’t we all desire these things? What sane person wouldn’t fight to make that happen? But through all the angry carnage, only stronger division was accomplished.
Today in the gospel reading (John 12:20-26) Jesus makes one of his harshest statements of all, but apparently of the greatest importance since he repeats it several times and all four gospel authors made note of it. “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25) It’s verses like this that made a lot of people throughout history think Jesus was crazy. It’s no wonder that by the time He got to the cross He was all alone.
It has become so ingrained in our culture to love life, to seek the pleasure that it offers, that it’s become cliche- “live life to the fullest,” “seize the day,” “stop and smell the roses,” “live for the moment!” It’s not that we should stop doing these things necessarily, I still believe time on earth shouldn’t be wasted. But maybe if we really understood how this world is not our citizenship, if we understood that we have an obligation to servant-hood and a life eternal, maybe we could rise above the petty conflict.
Like my kids, I know heaven is what the future promises, but I don’t understand it, nor can I fully imagine the promise that it brings. When I deal with conflicts, I see them here and now, and if they don’t get solved I feel like I will surely die a miserable and unhappy death. Maybe even in the next 5 minutes. And yet, at the same time, I also feel like I will be here on this earth forever and therefore ensuring my place in it must be a top priority.
People tell you all the time how fast parenting goes, and it’s true. When I look back to the beginning, I’m stunned that I’ve been at this for almost a whole decade. But the actual day in and day out feels like an eternity. Like they’re never going to grow up and be responsible and move out. Even though I’ve moved a lot, I still always have the feeling like these friends, these relatives, and this place will always be my home. It’s this very human perspective of time that makes us cling so hard to the bits of joy when we find them and make us so ferocious toward anyone and anything that would try to rob us of it. It’s hard to remember that there is joy eternal when your neighbor’s dog is barking outside your bedroom window all night long. Or that someday the dog will die, and there will just be you, not getting along with the person you were commanded to love.
On this second day of Holy Week, remember your citizenship is in heaven, because too many people have lost their way to the cross by being caught in a petty argument over their citizenship here. We’re following something eternal, and in ten years, or twenty, or once you’ve truly died and are hanging out with Jesus, will you still be glad that you fought so hard to get your way? Maybe, in the light of what’s coming, it will be more important to be loving than to be right. Maybe today it will be okay to lose out on the piece of this earth you’ve been clinging to, because He promised, whoever hates these things gets to keep following.
Eight years ago my family left DC. Not because we wanted to necessarily, but because we’d outgrown it. I moved into the city as a girl, but now that I was woman, wife and mom I needed what the city couldn’t offer anymore. We had space in our apartment and it was quite affordable, but it was in a basement. And even though it was a decent part of town, there were rats. There were playgrounds we could walk to, but there was no yard to dig holes in, or safe places nearby to ride bikes. No porch or patio to sit out and enjoy long summer nights.
We wanted a home, and with our income, that meant moving about an hour out of town. When we found a house we felt pure elation to have a space all our own. No more waking up to the sound of stomping of boots overhead. No one else’s shouting wafting through the cracks in the walls. It didn’t matter that it was tiny, or on a busy road, or that the view was of a taco truck and a run down shopping center. It was ours, and it was home.
But four months after we had signed the lease, my husband lost his job. The contract that brought in the money to pay for his position ended without a new one to take its place. Suddenly everything was in jeopardy- our lease, our newly established credit, our untarnished rental history. Then there would be no more dreams of barbeques in the backyard, or flower gardens, or watching Fourth of July fireworks from the back porch.
I also happened to be about four months pregnant at the time, but I wasn’t too worried about the baby, or how we would buy food, or gas, or our general survival. I knew God would be faithful to help us find ways to provide for those things. I was worried about the house, and that if we lost the house and our good rental history, it would be too long of a time before we would be able to move our new family into its own place again.
I prayed endlessly about it, “Please God, don’t take our house. Don’t make us leave.” The bible study I was in at the time was reading through the book of Matthew, and through that study God led me to this answer. “ Then a certain scribe came to Him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:19-20) I didn’t like this answer, why did the scribe have to give up the idea of home to follow Jesus? I was tired of the gypsy life. By that time I had already had 15 different addresses in 8 different cities, and that’s not even including the four years of college where everyone moves every year anyways. I was tired of packing up; I wanted to stay.
I’m completely jealous of Jesus’ ability to speak so directly to the point. When I correct my kids, or try to use a parable, I am so wordy. Usually when I finish and ask them what they’ve learned, they look at me like they didn’t even realize I was speaking. Jesus is so precise with His words that He can pinpoint the problem and minister to the depths of the heart in a single sentence. In the exact moment I read that, I knew beyond doubt that no dream, no vision of perfection or happiness could ever compare to following Him. Even if it may seem impossible, how could I have the knowledge of his excellence and choose any other thing? It was hard to accept it, but that one single verse set me free from a huge amount of worry.
In the end we didn’t have to break our lease. Friends, family and strangers chipped in to help us cover the rent when we were short, and Adam was able to find a new job soon after. I was relieved the lesson turned out not to be literal, but I was also glad to have faced the possibility and become resolved to it. I can sing, “I surrender all” on Sunday morning, but it only has meaning if I can see the things that bring my dreams security and then know that I don’t need them.
It’s a lesson that has come back around for a second time this lent, as home ownership becomes closer than ever. As I think over the decision, I begin to imagine the barbeques, the gardens, and the memories to be made with the kids again. Or maybe even buying the dream place, an old farmhouse, with a few acres for chickens and goats, or whatever else we fancy. A place that we will never outgrow or have to leave again. Since that first house we have moved three more times, and I’m so tired of packing. The thought of owning our own place is more attractive than ever.
But over all of that I hear God whispering this verse again. And expanding on it through Paul, “ But what things were gain to me (my security, a home, my visions of perfection), these I have counted loss for Christ… indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection… forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:7-14)
Holy week is a journey to the cross, that starts out with big crowds and parades, but by the end even the most devout followers are denying association. It’s not that Jesus didn’t try to warn them, he said repeatedly the cost of following would be great. Nobody wants to give up the things that seem important, the house, the job, the vacation, the position of power and respect. There may be literal sacrifices as we journey toward the cross this week, and there may not. But if you’re willing to follow, be willing to consider what it might be like, and how life would go on without them. That if He asked you to sacrifice these things it would be for good purpose. Because along the way we will see that there is excellence, power, and a magnificent prize far beyond our understanding or imagination. And when you see it from that perspective, the nest or the den is really the last place you’ll want to be stuck.
I Love tradition. As a teenager I used to get into fights with my parents about things like buying a fake Christmas tree, or going out to eat for thanksgiving. I especially love church traditions, partly because I grew up with them, but mostly because they have deepened my understanding of God. Lent is one of these traditions; it starts on Ash Wednesday (March 1st) and continues through Holy week to Easter. What saddens me is the way Lent is misunderstood and forgotten in the church today. While some modern churches may still celebrate Advent, Lent isn’t very popular. It’s sort of like Advent’s less adorable cousin- similar in purpose, but moody and morbid. The beautiful candles and wreaths are replaced with grubby ashes and uncomfortable sacrifice. Instead of ending with a cute baby we end up with a cold, dark tomb.
So why do we need a season like this? It’s important because it prepares us for Easter- the holiday that defines us as Christians. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV). In fact, Easter is so important people regularly compare it to the Super Bowl. Just as the NFL and network spend lots of time and money to create an extravagant celebration to reach millions, so do Church leaders. The analogy weakens, however, if you take it any deeper. Most people who tune in for the Super Bowl aren’t even watching. Many aren’t even football fans at all, they just like the party that comes with it and the commercials. And although it’s the most watched sporting event on television, it doesn’t convert many of those casual observers into regular season football fans. I don’t think this is what we want to be saying about Easter.
If we have to use a sports analogy, Easter is more like the Cubs winning the World Series. After 108 long and horrible years, the Curse of the Billy Goat was finally broken. People watched that game with complete focus, because they knew baseball history was in the making. And in the end, who wasn’t rooting for Chicago?
But the elation we felt was not just from the Cubs winning the last game. It was a celebration of their endurance to win their division after 6 months of regular season games, about their focus and drive during the post season, and about the nail biting drama of the seven game championship. If you only saw the very last game you missed the depth of their final victory. You weren’t one of those people throwing things at the TV when they almost blew it in the 8th, or screaming loud enough to wake the kids when they finally won. That passion came from preparation: from having spent time following the team and knowing the players, their stats, and their history. This is why we need Lent, so we’re prepared to appreciate the victory.
To begin with, the regular season of baseball is far more like Christian life than football because it’s played all week long. Players toil day after day, going through streaks and slumps, working against a handful of pitchers who know their every weakness. Last year, the Cubs had a great regular season; with a stellar line-up and bull-pen, they were exciting to watch. Everyone on the team proved their worth, and they finished with the best record in baseball, 103-58. But even in their awesomeness, that means they still lost a third of their games. It’s impossible for a team to always play at 100 percent of their potential day in and day out for six months straight. That much work and stress takes a physical and an emotional toll on the players. It’s one of the things that makes baseball so relatable and lovable to its fans, because our lives are like that too.
According to the church calendar, the seasons between big holidays are called Ordinary Time, and it’s our regular season. We struggle through embarrassing slumps, and shine when we’re having a hot streak. Temptation is like a pitcher that throws at us relentlessly, and even when we’re doing our best we’ll still only beat it 3 times out of ten. While we may feel like we have a winning record, subtle sins creep in and weaken our relationship with God. We develop bad habits and hurt people we care about. We start turning to things besides God to numb our worry and pain. Our daily tendency to sin makes it impossible for us to consistently act out our devotion.
Last fall, all baseball fans feared the Cubs. Our attention focused on the teams that would make it to post-season, analyzing all of their stats, trying to guess who might be able to beat Chicago in their bid for the World Series. In the regular season, teams focus on their division standing; but in fall ball, every game matters. A single win or a loss could mean the chance for a wild card. Three or four bad games in a row will kill a team’s hope for the championship title. When the Cubs made it to the post-season, they had to be smart. The staff began strategizing on how they could keep their star players rested, healthy, and playing strong. They adjusted their pitching rotation to optimize everyone’s performance. They looked at their regular season losses to find weaknesses, and thought how they could avoid them. It’s important to note again that these things were happening daily.
This is Lent. It’s 40 days (plus Sundays, which are like the rest days) for self-analysis and repentance, and it lets God rid us of the ordinary sin that settles in our lives during the year. It’s not about giving up something to prove devotion, or about doubling up efforts to follow all the rules. The fasting of things dear to us means the only place we have left to turn for comfort is to him. But we’re so bad at giving these things up; even our weak will reminds us we need God’s mercy every hour. If we’re like the team, then God is like the manager, molding us into something stronger, getting us back into our best possible shape.
The actual season of Lent is not a biblical commandment, but a ritual based on biblical principles and examples of repentance, prayer and fasting. My favorite example is in Daniel, when the 70 prophesied years of Jewish exile was ending. Daniel wants God to redeem the Jews, but he knows the importance of confessing how awful they’ve been, and how they don’t deserve it. In Daniel 9:3-4 it says, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord God and confessed… ” The prayer that follows (9:4-19), admits the shame and the destruction the Jews brought on themselves because of their sin. He laments the choices they have made, and recognizes how desperately they need God’s salvation. Yet the prayer is still laced with worship, proclaiming that God’s awesome power is in his ability to love above all else. He ends the prayer with the attitude we should all have during lent, saying, “We do not present our supplications before you because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies.” (v.18)
By the end of October, the Cubs had won the pennant, and there was massive excitement because it was the first time they’d gone to the World Series since 1945. The odds were that they would easily win, so who could have expected the heartbreak fans felt midweek when defeat seemed inevitable? Only five teams before them, in a history of 112 World Series, had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit before. Defying all odds, the team continued to hang on in the series until it all came down to the seventh and final game. In that last chance, the Cubs scored in the first inning, and our hope began to surface. When we got through the seventh and they were still ahead there was excitement that this hope might actually survive. But in bottom of the eighth, when game was almost over, the Indians scored three runs. Suddenly the game was tied, and stayed that way through the ninth. The Cubs were now facing extra innings, and announcers were rattling off numerous statistics about how many times the team had lost in extra innings, and how many times over the last century they had buckled under pressure. Their bull-pen was spent, and morale was as low as could be.
Little did we know, God is a Cubs fan too, and the miraculous timing of a 20-minute rain delay saved the game. Jason Heyward saw the despair on his teammates’ faces, so he pulled the team together in the weight room behind the dugout. He told them, “We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best for a reason. Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.” (WORLD SERIES-It Happened) Then other players began to chime in and the theme was, “We won’t quit.” When the team retook the field in the tenth, people started hitting again. They averted disaster with brilliant base running. Ryan Zobrist batted in the winning run and Miguel Montero another after that. To everyone’s relief, the Cleveland bats had no response, and in an instant, 100 years of baseball fans were finally vindicated. All of Chicago ran out into the streets celebrating; their joy and excitement so contagious, they made Cub fans of us all.
While it was probably the best week of baseball ever, Holy Week is even more grand and grueling a journey. In this last week of Lent, scripture takes us with Jesus through Jerusalem- reliving His entry, last supper, death and resurrection. Each event is marked by a holy day on the calendar.
Palm Sunday starts the week with the triumphal parade into the Holy City. People cheer, and throw their coats and palm branches in the street for a King they think is so holy, not even his donkey’s feet should tread the dirt. There is finally hope in the dull roar of the Passover festival- after 7,000 years of promises, there’s finally a Messiah. But this King and the celebration of him infuriates the establishment. They grumble in the shadows, plotting how they can be rid of him.
On Maundy Thursday, the gracious Savior knows what’s coming and tries to warn his followers. He washes their feet, breaks bread and pours wine as a metaphor, but they just can’t fathom what He’s saying. After dinner they drift off to sleep in the garden while prays and His sweat becomes like blood. He offers up a desperate plea for mercy, but the cup is His to drink. When they come to arrest Him, He submits peacefully (much to his friends’ dismay) even though the soldiers are ready for war.
The high and mighty continue to flaunt their power over him on Good Friday, battering Hope, ridiculing it, and strapping it to a cross to die; a public warning displayed for anyone who might try to rekindle its flame.
On Holy Saturday we mourn while the King we thought would save us wades through the depth of hell on our behalf. The only people who haven’t walked away from Sunday’s parade entirely hide themselves away, confused and terrified.
Just when everyone thinks the story is completely over, at Easter Sunrise on the third day, a miracle occurs. It’s more extravagant than anyone dreamed- the man who had the power to raise the dead has actually raised himself. Finally, the cryptic prophecies begin to make sense to His weary followers, who emerge from their despair barely understanding the implications. The victory is so outrageous that when they try to repeat what happened, even their best friends don’t believe it.
The story is world altering. It changes the way we tell time. It reforms our laws and morals. We shouldn’t miss out on even one part of it. I hope that regardless of what your church chooses to do, you and your family will observe lent. Being able to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond is a long, rigorous, daily journey that takes discipline and resolve. But focusing our attention on it strengthens our love and faith in Him. People who just show up for the last game of the season don’t care much who wins or loses. If you are going to be as passionate about Easter as a Cubs fan was last fall, then be prepared, so you can fully appreciate the magnitude of the victory.
My children’s only complaint about our old house was the lack of snow. All winter we would read books like The Snowy Day and The Snowman, or sing about a white Christmas, and the children would pine for those experiences. They counted down the days until the winter solstice, and then were angry with me when they woke up to green grass. I felt sorry for them, being born in Virginia where winter is so unreliable. When I was their age we lived in Colorado and Wisconsin, and the amount of shoveling you would have to do was the deciding factor when choosing a house. I never dreamed there were places where you would have to refinance the house in order to take the whole family snow tubing, or sign your kids up for the hockey team. Being unable to provide the beloved weather related memories that I had as a child is the suckiest type of mom guilt.
Last year, the boys weren’t keen on the idea of moving to the mountains. It was far from their friends and our church. They loved the farmland we lived in the middle of, with all the tractors and cows and flat, empty dirt roads for bike riding. Compounding their grief, I also decided that moving was the perfect excuse to finally take all of their tacky, moldy plastic yard toys to the dump. So, to make up for their hurt feelings, I promised them snow. I reasoned with them that they wouldn’t miss their icky wagon or cracked slide because they would be so busy sledding and having snowball fights. It was irresponsible of me, since our winters are prone to menopausal style hot flashes. In this instance, however, I was lucky and either their prayers were answered or I was punished for my foolish promise. Last winter we had more snow than I have ever had in all my life. We went sledding so much the kids were almost sick of it…and then we had a blizzard that dumped three more feet.
Snow is the best AND the worst when you live with little kids on a mountain. I despise the 30 minutes it takes to help everyone find and put all their snow clothes on, and the other 30 minutes it takes to get them all off again. Their slushy boots leave tracks all over the house, despite my constant barking to take them off on the door mat. Their playtime always ends in shrill, panicked screams that echo throughout the neighborhood- all because one tiny snow crystal touched somebody’s wrist or ankle.
Despite all of that, the time we all get to play together in the snow is all the best parts of motherhood. Games, adventures, cooperation, and smiles, all occurring with all four children, simultaneously. It almost feels like an injustice, that my husband is off hard at work while I’m home sledding down the biggest hill ever, taking turns with my little ones so they don’t crash into a tree. Even the older boys, who don’t want my help as much anymore, will still invite me to help finish their igloo or create an Olympic bobsled track. I’m allowed to relive the innocence of catching snowflakes on the tongue, and the sweet, thawing relief of a cup of hot cocoa.
In the backdrop, the beauty of the mountain soothes the stress that has built up from playing the never ending game of “where is my boot/mitten/sock/hat/glove?” Without snow, the Shenandoah forests are menacing in the winter. The leaves disappear and all that’s left is a tangled mess of gray brambles and vines. Somewhere hiding (hopefully) deep within that mess are sleeping bears and snakes. The whole thing is regularly shrouded in a thick fog, (https://myapplemountainlife.wordpress.com/portfolio/misty-mountains/) dampening the air and our moods. But the snow masks the foreboding appearance by covering it in the color of purity and innocence. It reflects sunlight into the shadowy gloom, clearing the air and scaring away thoughts of danger.
Even though our elevation is only about 2000 feet higher than our friends, our house is usually about five degrees colder. This year we’ve had a freakishly warm winter, but my promise to the kids still keeps. Most of the snow we’ve had this year is ‘special snow’- when our house had snow but the lowlands did not. If you ever wondered why school was cancelled when all it did was rain, it’s probably because of neighborhoods like mine. It hasn’t been much, but enough to justify the purchases of boots and snow pants for everyone. We’ve been savoring it, mostly because it’s so warm and the experience is fleeting. I’m glad that even with the weather fluctuations, I ended up not being a total liar. The kids still complain that we haven’t had a white Christmas, but I don’t dare make promises on that one. Maybe we’ll just road trip to Grandpa’s house, instead.
Last week our family lit the second candle of Advent, which was the Candle of Peace. Depending on your church’s traditions it’s also called the Candle of Preparation, and the scriptures that week were all about the journey to Bethlehem or people preparing for Jesus’ arrival. When I think about preparing for something, I usually feel stress, so how did these two concepts get linked at Christmas?
I adore all of the traditions of Christmas, and I have some pretty high expectations for how much good cheer I should be exuding. I work hard to give lovely, meaningful gifts to everyone I can afford. I want to sing, and feel joyful, and share God’s love with my family and neighbors. But trying to maintain a cheerful glow through the pushy shoppers and counters of overworked sales clerks requires the peace that passes all understanding. That peace is of course a supernatural gift, and it is hard to receive it when you’re stressing out over a long to-do list… And travelling to see family…And still managing every other responsibility in your life.
I hear lots of people advising Christians to be still, to take time to feel the peace God has given them, to free themselves from the worldly stress that Christmas brings. I dont feel that this is wrong, its just seems so impossible. Christmas preparations are completed with limited time and money. As the day approaches and both things begin to run out, its inevitably stressful.
Strangely enough to me, the times when I have most successfully maintained attitudes of peace and joy were when I was 9 months pregnant. No one expected much of me. Other moms knew that I was too tired and my feet were too swollen to go shopping. The doctor forbid me to travel and I didn’t even send a Christmas card. Most people were just pleased that my pregnant brain fog cleared enough to remember to wish them a Merry Christmas instead of a Happy Halloween.
My physical situation forced me to be more still than I was comfortable with at Christmas time, but having less to do gave me more time to relate to the beauty of the birth story. I couldn’t listen to Silent Night without sobbing, because rocking even an ordinary infant in the still of night is a holy experience. I could feel promises of hope and a future stirring in my own belly, but what would it be like to be visited by angels? And to be promised a baby who is not only a savior, but also the son of God? There is always a celebration when a newborn arrives, but how could Mary even begin to process the heavenly host singing, kings from distant lands coming to visit, and strangers proclaiming her newborn was the long awaited Messiah? More than all these things I would wonder, how could God love her, love all of us humans, enough to send us His own son? Especially since we habitually deny His authority over us. Like Mary, I too, would sit up late at night, pondering these things in my heart.
Now that I’m done (God willing) having babies, it’s hard to continue the pondering. I remember the promises and the excitement, but I don’t feel them the same way. Was Mary like that too? Perhaps she struggled with worry and fear just like I do. I know she cried after Jesus had been lost for days, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously,”(Luke 2:48). The least peaceful noise in my life is listening to my children bicker, but Jesus had siblings, too. Considering his brothers showed up 30 years later telling people he was insane (Mark 3:21), I think Mary’s other children probably bickered too. I imagine Mary followed the tradition of many good mothers by forcing all of her children outside, just so she could have the peace of that Holy night for only a few minutes. Did she too remember those promises of peace, joy, hope and love, but struggle to still feel their power?
My husband and I are raising 4 boys, between the ages of 2 and 8. We’re training a needy puppy not chew on the furniture, and a toddler to pee in the potty at the same time. This Christmas I’m behind on just about everything, including sleep. Hearing there’s a promise to bring peace to my life seems almost as laughable as promising a virgin peasant she’s going to give birth to a king. But I think feeling like life is stressful and chaotic is truly more of a blessing than being pregnant at Christmas time. It makes me relate less to the beauty of the birth story, and the more to the purpose of it. I relate to the rest of the imperfect people that needed saving in Israel. Like Zaccheus, Matthew, Peter, Paul, and all the others who were living in the land of deep darkness. The ones on whom the light shined so brilliantly (Isaiah 9:2).
Real preparation is stressful and the world we live in is not a peaceful place! But the best gifts are ones that the recipient has a great need for, and cannot acquire for themself. The stress of life and of Christmas preparation makes us know how desperate we are for a savior. The ones most elated about Jesus’ arrival are the ones who know how hopeless they are without him. Jesus said, “…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Lk 5:31-32 NIV
God sent John the Baptist to prepare us. His father prophesied,
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Lu 1:76-79 NKJV
And years later, when the people asked John himself how they should prepare, he said,
“Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance…He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Lu 3:8, 11 NKJV
So as Christmas approaches and the chaos of finishing the preparations increases, I will listen to John. My inability to finish the to-do list and constantly spread joy will make me acnowledge my need for salvation. Snapping at my children while shopping and baking will impress upon me my great need for forgiveness. Receiving that tender mercy will relieve me from every burden, and like the wise men, I will “rejoice with exceedingly great joy.” (Matt 2:10)
And like Mary, sing, “For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name,” Luke 1:49
And like Elizabeth, Zacharia, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and everyone else throughout history who had that light shining on them, guiding them into the way of peace.
But I won’t forget John’s instructions, to bear fruit worthy of repentance no matter how stressful it is, because that is the true essence of spreading God’s love at Christmas. To not only prepares ourselves, but also our neighbors.
It is good to search for God’s presence, and be still during Christmas. Jesus already came and granted us access to the peace of his presence. But its also okay to embrace the stress of preparation, and to let it remind you how desperately dark and chaotic Israel was when Jesus arrived. Let it remind you how badly you need his peace and how utterly incapable you are of finding it for without him.
Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, “Come, Lord Jesus!”