Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said, “I am God’s pencil, a tiny bit of pencil with which He writes what He likes.”
We are all God’s pencils no matter how He chooses to use our gifts and our lives to carry out His will. There have been too many times in my life when I have found myself writing sad stories, grumbling narratives, anxious tales pulled from a heart that was hardening ever so slightly.
My prayers were few and when I did find the time, strength, will, and/or urge to utter them, they’d sound something like this:
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, help my unbelief.
Lord, help me to write beautiful, redemptive stories.
I’m doing better now – life has a way of coming into focus when you hear about someone you love abruptly being stamped with an all too soon expiration date – but not so long ago I remember feeling like the world was an ugly place. I have felt ugly, too, when I’ve considered how I’ve handled some of my uneasy emotions and life’s uncertainties. Or how I can be too self-absorbed or too much of a know-it-all. My greatest goal in life is to build relationships, to be a good wife, mother, friend, and even smiling stranger that might bring a drop of joy to the clerk at the post office or the unfamiliar person walking his dog on my street on some random evening.
There have been too many times when I’ve allowed my heart to grow anxious, twitchy. So many “what ifs” have churned in my mind. Sometimes people annoy me. I wish it weren’t so, but it’s true. People who don’t wave to me when I let them go in traffic. People who cut in line. People who raise their eyebrows when I have all of my kids tagging along with me. When I’m anxious or let little annoyances erode my inner peace, I can get snappy. The kids react by getting all grumpy on me. This makes me more anxious because their lackluster behavior feels like proof that I’m an epic failure as a mom.
Yet, to bring beauty and truth into this misshapen world, we need to imitate the heart of God – a peaceful, gentle, restful, and generous heart.
I hardly ever read blogs anymore, which is mostly a good thing, although I’m sure I miss some gleaming gems out there. I almost missed this one, and it may sound corny, but I feel like the Holy Spirit guided me to read this one. (NOTE: I read this months ago, thought about it, wanted to write about it, drafted this post, and only just recently edited it and now have finally gotten around to publishing it.) I have an extra email account where most of my newsletter subscriptions dump into. Usually, I read the myriad headings and quickly delete. I’ve unsubscribed to most of them, but I still receive Mom Heart and a few days ago I saw the teaser: Beauty, It’s in the Eye of the Beholder. Well, I frequently speak on the topic of beauty, so it seemed like it might be good research to click on this one. So I did. And I read just what I needed to read on this particular day when the size of my family felt like too much.
These words impressed themselves upon my heart:
When we live with our spouse and our children long enough, some days it might be pretty easy to forget that frankly, they are more than a “number.”
Of course we love them and long to do this life well but sometimes it seems too easy to live in a place of going through the motions only to realize that it may have been a few days since you actually looked that little in the eye and said, “What do you need most? “ and mean it.
Oh, It’s hard to do, when it’s melt down number two hundred and breakfast dishes are still staring you down. When schedules run you, and you haven’t really said a proper hello in days to the one you sleep next to. Maybe it’s self-preservation, maybe its selfishness, but these seasons can snatch the humanity right out from under us and we aren’t even sure if love is a verb or what beauty is.
Jesus said to feed His sheep, not count them, but sometimes when I find myself serving the umpteenth snack on any given day, I see the hungry child (and there’s one child in my family who is always hungry) as just a number, another mouth to feed. If I fail to be compassionate and to recognize the dignity in my own child, how can I possibly write a beautiful, redemptive story that touches and inspires beyond the walls of my home?
We need to bring Jesus to others even those we disagree with, those who hurt us or misunderstand us and our beliefs. But we need to love those at home, too. And love them well. I need to love them well with focused attention and a soft heart that yields to grace more than it yields to dire predictions about the state of the world, hopelessness, discouragement, insane to-do lists, the daunting piles of laundry, frustration, exhaustion, or sadness.
Several months ago we were trying to get out of the house. I had to take a potty break before we left and when I walked into the bathroom I found some ickiness. I won’t go into details. All I’ll say is cleaning up the stinky mess helped me to fully live up to my silly “expert in hazardous waste removal” title. All day had been messy. My children weren’t behaving very lovingly toward one another, and I was responding to their less than desirable behavior with less than desirable behavior myself. All day I was on the verge of weeping (or maybe screaming depending on the moment), and I kept thinking, “How can I expect the world to be more loving when I can’t even get myself or the kids to show love to one another?”
Within a few hours of the toxic cleanup, I found myself in a room of mothers who were all just trying to do their best – to love their husbands and children well and to lead a life of faith. I confessed how I was struggling and was immediately lifted up by encouraging words and kind, knowing looks.
Later I received email messages or texts from several of the moms who either gave me a quick pep talk or who simply said they understood all of my feelings.
I’ve been there. I’m walking with you, my dear sister in Christ. You are not alone.
None of us is alone. And we need to make sure others know that.
Earlier that same week my mom called me and I heard the sadness in her voice before she came out with the bad news. Through her tears she told me her big brother, a father of four, including three younger girls adopted from China, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and that his best prognosis, if the tumor was even operable, was a 20 percent survival rate. One day later we learned the tumor was not operable; the cancer had metastasized (marble-sized tumors showed up all over the imaging). The Friday after Thanksgiving he was in the hospital. He never went home. He died in early February. I’ve been pondering this post since then. Yes, there is lots of pondering going on in my heart these days.
One day you’re worried about paying your bills or the dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen sink and the next you wake up to discover your life has been whittled down to a statistic, and the odds aren’t really in your favor.
I talked on the phone with one of my dearest friends the night after I first heard about my uncle’s diagnosis and told her, “Love your family. Cuddle up with those kids of yours. Every day is a gift.” As I wrote about here, this was my uncle’s mantra. His email tagline shared those very same words.
Cliche, yes, but cliches come to life when you’re faced with the inevitably of our mortality, our ultimate badge of humanness.
A neighborhood friend, whom I run with and also share prayer requests with, showed up at my house with a loaf of baked bread that same day. (Thank you again, dear friend.) “It might not help your heart, but it will help your tummy,” she said.
She’s one of those people who lives “love thy neighbor.”
My babysitter was here helping out on the day I heard the news. She knew my husband was on call. She knew I was sad and aching for my mom, my uncle, and his family. So she stayed around even after she was off the clock.
So many people giving the gift of themselves, giving the gift of Christ, being Jesus’ voice and skin and heart.
A priest once heard scripture scholar Alice Camille speak and shared a story she had told of a man who was most likely suffering from a mental illness who entered her home church and began loudly slinging profanity during Mass. During the sign of peace a woman from her church approached the man and embraced him. Several other women followed suit and lovingly touched the man.
Then a child climbed onto his lap. At this point, the man began to weep. He no longer raved.
These people became Jesus’ hands and heart and were able to drive out this man’s demons with their physical touch – and with their love.
We don’t realize how much power we have. Jesus is within us, just waiting for us to touch others, love others, heal others. Let’s make a pact to be Jesus’ skin. Be His Body. Be His heart.
Do this, and we might just transform our own hearts, if not the world.
Oh, how I want to do this, but my faith is sometimes shaky, and hope seems elusive. Sometimes I see the fruit of “being Jesus’ skin,” but sometimes I only see the messes, the sibling squabbles, and how wounded I really am. I have to accept that I won’t always see immediate evidence that anything is changing at all. I’ll still hurt people with my foolish words and hurtful actions or just my inability to shut up long enough to allow another person to open her heart. People will still die, but 20 percent is 20 percent and there’s hope in that, if not for my own family then for others. There are big tragedies: bombings, collapsing buildings, broken families. But there’s so much goodness, too. There’s so much life around us. Even in my own little circle of life, there’s so much I get right.
I’ve been going through a very long spiritual dry spell. Some of my regular readers might have noticed that I don’t write as much about faith anymore. I just haven’t been able to conceptualize it. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe I need to stop trying so hard to define it, bottle it up, or over-analyze it. Nor can I devote days to figuring out the best way to live my life. Sometimes I just have to live this life and give it my best. This faith of mine can feel like wishful thinking, but then when I act upon these “whims,” I do find peace. So do others in my midst. It’s impossible to ignore. I know a former agnostic who is returning to the Church because that peace, that other-worldliness was impossible to ignore.
God is love. Therefore, even when I feel abandoned, even when I have to watch my mom or other loved ones suffer (again and again), or when my logic, rationalizing, and over-analyzing keeps me from Him, if I choose love, then I choose Him. God is love. Love is God.
That is all I need to know and embrace for now. Be Jesus’ skin even when He feels like a stranger to you or just a really nice idea. It can’t hurt. But it most definitely can help.
The kids and I met my mom for lunch the other day. My 5-year-old was still noshing on her macaroni and cheese (she’s a very mindful and subsequently ssslllloooowwww eater), but Thomas the Todzilla (my name for our super-cute but super-destructive toddler) was getting antsy, so I took him and my 4-year-old outside. They were busy admiring some rocks when my 4-year-old noticed the large body of water adjacent to the parking lot.
“Look at the beautiful lake, Mommy!” she said.
I glanced in the direction she was pointing, and all I saw was an ugly retaining pond.
Give me a pair of rose-colored glasses, please.
There’s a tendency to assume happy people have just had an easier go of things, but something my children as well as my own Pollyanna of a Mom have taught me over and over again is that a joyful life often hinges upon how you choose to see things. The glass is half-full. Life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. I could go crazy with the cliches.
There is pain in the world, but there are so many people handing out band-aids and doing good things to help those who hurt (think of how people rally together after a natural disaster or after something tragic like the Boston Marathon bombing). There is sickness, but there is healing, too, and even when there isn’t, it could be worse. That’s what my mom says when she wakes up in the middle of the night with debilitating, searing pain that just won’t go away. It could be so much worse. I live such a blessed life, she says. (Sometimes I really want her to scream, “Life sucks! It’s not fair!” But she doesn’t, at least never to me.)
There are beautiful lakes and ugly retaining ponds. What will I choose to see?
At 7:30 a.m. EST tomorrow, my mom will be under the knife. She has brain surgery scheduled for Monday to – we hope and pray – cure her trigeminal neuralgia. After exhausting her medication options and dealing with some pretty awful side effects (e.g., loss of vision, personality changes, extreme lethargy, etc.), she decided to go ahead and opt for a surgical intervention. There is no guarantee this procedure will take away the pain. Plus, she has it on both sides, and they are only operating on one side this time. There’s even a small chance it could cause the nerves to go even more haywire and cause more pain. But my mom is very hopeful. She makes Pollyanna look like a total glum queen.
Today my dad, brothers, my kids (Dave couldn’t be there because he was working all weekend), and an aunt and uncle and their kids all went to Mass together at my parents’ church. The priest there is a family friend and has been so good to my mom and all of us. He’s one of those people who makes you want to believe in God even if you don’t. There’s something other-worldly about him; he’s holy and simple.
Earlier in the week he had called my mom and asked her if she wanted to receive the Anointing of the Sick (she’s getting to be an old pro at this given her many recent medical procedures) and also have a healing ceremony at Mass. She thought he meant after Mass and was ever so grateful, but then he clarified that he wanted to do it during Mass after his homily. Mom was embarrassed, but she decided she could use the extra prayers.
I sat there – actually I stood most of the service, swaying with my cuddly Thomas tucked in the Ergo hoping he’d take his morning snooze in church (he didn’t, but he was very quiet and content) – and felt something bigger than me. Those words really can’t capture what I felt. I can’t think of any other way to say it though. There was something about this Mass, something real, something like Love itself coming down to touch me.
Father spoke during his homily about how there’s a difference between being cured and being healed. I looked over at my mom, her blonde hair pulled elegantly back in a twist, her arms wrapped around my Mary Elizabeth, the smile that wouldn’t leave her face even though we all know that it actually physically hurts her to smile these days, and I fervently prayed for a cure. I want this surgery to take away her pain. She doesn’t need to suffer anymore. Hasn’t she already been purified enough? I mean, she is a loyal Cubs’ fan after all (Father said the Cubs are past redemption and joked they were forever stuck in limbo).
But, seriously, she’s lost so many loved ones. She’s had chronic health problems that started when she was younger than I am. It’s one thing after another. I want my mama to be better. I beg for her to be cured so she can get back to volunteering, gardening, spending lots of time with her grandchildren, and going to the Cubs’ spring training. Not that her ailments have stopped her much. People forget she is in pain because she pushes herself. She had planned to go with me to the Behold Conference to help with Thomas. She still planes on being there. Mom just doesn’t quit. She hopes. She chooses happiness. She thinks of others. She cleans like a mad woman. She’s a little compulsive about cleaning actually. We saw one of those “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” commercials and joked that Mom would cry out, “I’ve fallen, and I can’t clean up!” Mom is always aware that there is someone far worse than she is, and she puts her trust in the Great Physician.
I’m praying the skilled surgeon will be careful with my mama. I’m still begging God to make this finally be her cure. But I also know that whatever comes of it, the healing has already begun.
When she served as a Eucharistic Minister at the same Mass today, people she didn’t even know were coming up to her and kissing her. She said she’s never felt so loved. This was medicine to her soul. Witnessing the outpouring of love was medicine to my soul, too.
Madeline asked why we were all crying. “Because it was touching,” I told my not-overly-sentimental child.
“It’s always touching when God touches you,” I replied.
She gave me a quizzical look. I couldn’t explain it. I couldn’t explain the bigness – or the love – I felt at Mass today. It’s not something you explain; it’s something you experience.
There have been many times in my life when I’ve questioned God and when I’ve even questioned His existence but on this day, I experienced something. I was healed when I hadn’t even known I was sick.