Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Words from the heart of Marianne Jones

Friends, you are in for a beautiful treat. One of my dearest friends is a dragon slayer and full of grace and beauty. She wrote this wrenchingly touching piece that captured my heart. I asked if I could share it with all of you and she generously agreed. My hope is to feature more of her writing here in the coming weeks. The world needs this voice. Let me introduce you to the incomparable Marianne Jones. She is as gifted as she is tender and dear. She has my whole heart and you're going to love her too. Enjoy~

Honesty check: This week I’ve been wrestling. Wrestling with this word “favored” as in when the angel said to Mary “Greetings, one who is highly favored. Mary, Did You Know? Is a fan favorite this time of year. Love it – esp by anyone singing acapella - But Mary, DID you know? How COULD you know?” What were you expecting when the angel said your son would “be great and will be called the son of the Most High…..and his reign will never end. (Luke !:32-33)” Whoa! That sounds like favor. As in I was picked. As in I’m privileged to do something and see something and be a part of something very very very special. I can get behind that kind of favor. Her response was “be it to me as you have said” Not sure mine would have been – but I surely understand she was a very special girl. I’m in her corner. Go Mary. I get “favored” in that context. But this week I’m struggling to juxtapose “favored” with the hard things we’re asked to go through. (Not that we’re really asked) Mary….DID you know? How could you know that your privilege of raising the Son of God would come at such a heart wrenching cost? If you did, would you have said the same thing? (probably so – or you may not have made God’s short list) I know there were joys, but did you know you would have to watch your baby boy turn into a man who was rejected and spit upon and listen as pound by pound they hammered nails into his near naked skeleton? How did you manage the sorrow? Where is the favor in that context? That’s just really really hard. And so I wrestle.

And it’s about Mary, but not really. It’s about me and where I find myself these days. There is a part of my heart that feels extreme privilege somewhere within this cancer diagnosis. Really and truly. It has allowed me a light-hearted perspective about much in this life and a satisfying sobriety and confident assurance about the perfection of the next. Things that I used to think glitter have shown their illusive properties. I value and strive toward substantive things like never before. My life is rich. People around me love deeply. It feels so good to be cared for. There is a part of my heart that feels chosen to walk a road of privilege with God – going to places in my soul where He meets me in the most ridiculously satisfying ways. Favor. In that regard, weird as it sounds, I feel highly favored – as if I’ve been given a trust. But the day in and day out can be really really really hard. And not favor-ful at all. I wrestle like the Psalmist who says “how long O Lord?”

My body is weary. My body hurts. I find myself resentful of God’s interruption….especially during the holidays. Sometimes I see a soul my story touches or encourages and that feels good…but often my days pass by and there are no great lessons learned…no tidy ribbons to tie around blessings gained….just mundane naps and meds and needles and nausea and fears about the future. Just being honest. At least that is what it looks like from here. So I wrestle. And in the quiet of my heart I hear God whisper his name. He is God. He has a plan in motion to point the world to the love He has for them and expensively displayed on the cross. I know very little of the workings out of the plan except one day He asked (well not really asked) Mary to be a part of it. He called her favored though much of what she went through was far from my “I won the lottery” definition of favor. And somehow He is asking me to be a part of it my little corner of the my little way…and I struggle with frustration…because I don’t want to have this c-word. But He is God and this is ultimately His story and so the deeper part of me (though lately reluctantly) cries out “be unto me as you have said.”

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Joy is Always Possible

I posted this on Facebook last week but wanted to leave it here as well.  

Emerson’s school choir performed a selection of songs from their Christmas program at a retirement facility yesterday afternoon. When we walked inside the director asked us if the choir was performing in the Memory Care community or in the Assisted Living. I was unsure and was silently praying that we were not headed to Memory Care. I didn't think my heart could take being in a place like the one my mom lived. A place, though beautifully appointed, is where one’s memories are... entrusted to people who never knew them. And while I was lost in thought I heard her tell us that indeed we were headed to Memory Care and to please come with her. I straightened up and followed obediently with Emerson and the other eager children. And then I got the most surprising and delightful gift I never knew I wanted.
With a wide grin and outstretched hands she came toward me as though we were dear friends. Her black sweater was on inside out and runaway white hairs fanned across her shoulders and sleeves. Her hair, though slicked back in a wide headband, was neither washed or styled. Yet she exuded an undeniable beauty. She clasped my hands in hers and said excitedly, “The children, they’re all so precious. Every single one!” I agreed that indeed they are. I kept my eye on her throughout the program and saw that she beamed with jubilation and kept her hands clasped before her as though she could not contain her delight. After it was over I went up to her and she grabbed my hand again and said, “Every one of them –a gift.” I told her that she was a light and was so full of joy. She looked directly at me and said, “Well, of course.” This woman may have no idea who she once was or what her life was once about, but today she knows this: she is a person of joy. To her it appeared to be the obvious and only choice.
 And just like that, I received my first Christmas gift of the season, one that I feel sure my mom was a part of. This beautiful soul with Christmas in her heart lit the kindling within me and set ablaze my gratitude for this moment, this season, this life in which joy is always possible when I choose to embrace it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Proud Mary

I wrote this post two years ago about Ainsley's role in her preschool Christmas pageant. It remains one of my favorite narratives about trusting the playwright and walking bravely in the role we've been assigned.

Our Ainsley was selected to play the part of Mary in her little school's Christmas pageant this season. I wish I could say that as they searched the class over they could find none more blessed among women than her. Instead, I'm pretty sure she was cast for the role because the costume fit her the best. In any case, a proud Mary she was.

In truth she didn't really feel especially blessed to have been given this role. On the way out of school the day she'd been given the big casting news (albeit not as big as the first Mary's announcement) she was decidedly unenthused. With a sigh she said, "Well, I'd rather be the donkey because he gets to sit down during the pageant." Of course. Why pick the blessing of all generations when you can be a jackass? Is there really a contest? Mock though I do, I've felt the same way more times than I care to recall.

There have been times when the role I've been assigned in the story of my life was one I wouldn't have chosen first. And I'm sure that's because I knew it would require me to stand. To truly stand firm on the foundation of my faith in a sovereign God even when the road ahead looked terribly treacherous and scary. Botched plans and real heartache looked imminent and had I been given the choice, I would have much rather taken the role where I got to sit down. To sit it out. To leave hope on the floor and not risk the pain or embarrassment if things didn't go according to the plan or role I'd dreamed up for myself. But somewhere along the way I realized that it's not up to me to stand upright all the while---that there's Someone who will steady my shoulders and get me up and over the steepest hills and through deepest caverns and I'll be the better for it.

And when the scene changes, God raises my hand above my head for me, still gloved and wet from the fight, declaring me victorious. Fight well fought! Struggle overcome. And we both know that I fell more than once. That had I not leaned on Him I'd have sunk to a place I couldn't have escaped without His help. But together we got through. Moved ahead. Overcame. That's the good stuff. The stuff worth standing up for (no matter how tiring) and taking the role chin up. If I'm sitting the whole time (with the other donkeys), besides being decidedly smelly, there's just nothing happening down there. Nothing to be learned or gained. Nothing to make me better.

I'm not sure that Ainsley got such a life changing lesson out of her part in the play, but she did come out the wiser for it. Just last night she pulled out these little finger puppets and proceeded to enact this simple play:

Mary:(As the angel hops up next to her) Ahhh! Shrieks in horror.
Angel: Don't be afraid. I bring you special news!
Mary: What?
Angel: You will have a baby and will name him Jesus.
Mary: Can I name him Bob?
Angel: No, Jesus.
Mary: Bob! (in a shout)
Angel: Jesus! (also a shout)
Mary: Bob!
Enter the alligator puppet,
Mary: Ahhh! Shrieks in horror.
Angel: Mary, I told you not to be afraid.
Mary: I know, I know but don't you see there's an alligator right there?!

I realize that most modern translations of the Bible don't carry the account of the foreboding alligator entering the scene in Nazareth. Or of Mary and Gabriel arguing that the coming Messiah's name should be Bob, but it's a version I can appreciate all the same.

I really love this story. Mary believed. Sure, there was that moment that she did begin to freak out when an angel appeared to her teen-aged virgin self and told her she'd give birth to God, as one might expect, but she still trusted him very quickly. She bravely said she would do as the Lord desired no matter the great personal cost she would pay.

Then the alligators came. She found herself riding a donkey while nine months pregnant for weeks on end only to wind up in a stinky barn to give birth with nary a doula or epidural in sight. For the love. But it got worse. People wanted to hurt her son. To kill him, even. And she might have felt compelled to remind God that trust is a wee more challenging when a horrendous death was prepared for her beloved child. Of course I trust you but don't you see the alligator that's right there?!

How many times am I just like this? I say that I trust God. I mean that I trust God. Yet when the big alligator challenges come on the scene, I feel it's urgent that I check to see if God's aware that new characters have emerged and they look pretty awful. That things do look ominous and is He aware of that tail slapping the water like crazy and has He seen those fang teeth?

The thing is, of course, He already knows the alligator is there. And where He sits on heaven's throne the alligator is 1/100th the size of a grain of sand. (Probably smaller but math's never been my strong suit.) And He knows when it's going to leave me alone and how much stronger I'm going to be for having braved my time in the cold water with the predator swimming all around me. How much less afraid I'll be of smaller prey and schemes the next time around. How I'll be reminded of His protection, His care, His ability to swat my fears away like so much rippling water. How that alligator couldn't have even yawned its mouth open unless God allowed it. He's the dearest and most compassionate playwright and the role He has for each of us is so good. Maybe not always easy but always good.

Oh, how He loves us and cares for our every need without any reminders from us.

Ainsley, blessed among women then and now.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Well, What did you Expect?

Before we roll full-speed into December, I have to take a moment to give thanks for our sweet season of Thanksgiving. Oh, November, you were such a favorite. I love this time of year and the nearly universal focus on gratitude. Thanks to beautifully fashioned quotes on Pinterest, and gratitude journals, being thankful is trendy now, and that's a great thing! I wrote about Why I Don't Tell Facebook What I'm Thankful For, but I am all about being thankful for this life and this season.

At the same time, holidays are multi-layered for me, as I'm sure they are for many others. I have Hallmark movie inspired visions and expectations of how they will play out. A toasty brown turkey cooking in the oven while home baked pies cool on the counter. A beautifully decorated home full of people I love serenaded by a fantastic soundtrack. But the reality of the holidays often looks much different from the dream in my mind's eye, and you know what? Sometimes the real thing is way better.

A week before Thanksgiving, as I was tucking Ainsley into bed, she asked me when her cousins were arriving. What she didn't yet know was that there was no plan for them to come this year, they drove all the way from Orlando last year and this year they were headed to my dad's in Illinois. When I told her they weren't coming, her eyes brimmed with wet tears and she said, "I've had six Thanksgivings and my cousins have been with me for three of them." Pensive and darling child that she is, she went on to ask, "How can we have a giant feast and celebration when there are only four of us?" It made no sense in her little seven year old mind, and I admit to pondering the same thing more than once. I too couldn't imagine how a big festive holiday celebration could happen if there wasn't a big gathering of people to go with it. Such are the musings of a girl with loved ones and family scattered in multiple states across the country.

Emerson surely would also have preferred a house bustling with people too, but true to her character, she brought her best self for our holiday foursome. She decorated and planned as though we were set to host the masses. She and Ainsley wrote a script for a Thanksgiving play, a tradition they have enjoyed with their cousins since Ainsley was a babe. But this time, with just the two of them, Em gladly took on the challenge to write a story featuring just two characters: a pilgrim and a turkey. And indeed it was a darling tale of a bird who couldn't understand why she was being hunted by her pilgrim friend. At long last, the pilgrim decided to spare the turkey and invite her to join the other pilgrims for a Thanksgiving feast.
 And somehow the holiday stars aligned and all of the dishes I prepared come out in harmonious synchronicity. Sure, the rolls got a little over-browned burned to a crisp on the bottom (which I promptly sliced off), and the cranberry sauce boiled over into charred and smoking ruby crystals (but the rest was so yum), the truth is, even still, everything turned out beautifully. And not just the feast, but those who gathered around our table.

We sat where we sit each night for dinner with the same four people that make up our family, and yet it felt, different. It felt festive, special, celebratory. Ainsley had set the table so that everyone had a turkey place mat and place card.
Emerson had collected Thanksgiving trivia questions and quizzed us as we ate our feast, which was giant indeed! Ainsley passed a box of Thanksgiving gratitude prompts that made my heart melt into a puddle. They had done it. They had brought as much cheer and celebration into our home as a bustling crowd ever could have. Maybe more.

As we sat around the table my heart was overfilled with thanks. Goodness, these people light up my whole world and have brought such beauty to me. I sat there bowled-over with peace in my heart. Peace in seeing that we are a unit, a force, a team. Everyone of us brings something different to the group and together we are better, stronger, fuller. Our little tribe still loves the opportunities to host gatherings and join them as well, but I have learned that there is something beautifully sacred about celebrating with just the tight knit bundle that we are.

So for me the best part of the holiday was the lesson I learned about expectations. My friend Johnny used to define stress as unmet expectations. I have found this to be so very true. We're stressed because we didn't expect their to be so much traffic and now we're going to be late. We're stressed because we thought the package we ordered would have been delivered today and now we're left without the item we needed. Or, we're stressed and sad because we expected to celebrate holidays with a house full of extended family and friends, but here we are, just our little group. Well, it's time for me to put those expectations in check. Some of the most fun I've had is in taking winding detours because of unexpected traffic. Opportunities for me to receive grace from others has abounded when things I had planned for and expected didn't pan out. And maybe my favorite prize of from the gift of unmet expectations has come on holidays. 

The notions of how things are "supposed to be" don't leave much room for the magic that comes with the surprise of finding my children spinning beauty out of thin air. All of those dreams of the "big fun" I'll have with lots of other people don't leave room for the sacred essence that is this nestling in close with this family that I dreamed and prayed about for years before they came to me.

Sometimes things really do go better than we could have hoped, once we bravely lay down the ideas of how we think things should go.