Sharing the Gift Inside the Present

give the gift

I didn’t realize, those years ago when we opened our home, that we were giving the gift of family and home. . . .

The young man wheeled his vehicle into our driveway and bounded up the steps. I knew him at once.

It had been fifteen years, but I recognized that build and that face. Tucked into our son’s photo album is a picture of our kids with Terrance* on the first day of school – the time he lived with us for three weeks while his mother was in the process of moving to another state. I had often wondered what had become of Terrance.

He was just another lone wolf who camped at our place. There had been others, like the fourth grader who spent every Wednesday after school and went to church with us. We helped him complete his homework for the week because his mother’s world didn’t include her children’s homework, school, or church. There was another day I peered through our living room window to check on the kids when I noticed an additional kid.

My son explained, “I told him if he ever needs a place to stay, he can play here. So his mom dropped him off while she went to town.” I didn’t mind an extra child being there. What was foreign to me was a mother who didn’t bother to verify permission for his presence in our yard. I never did meet his mother, but he found a safe place to stay and ate at our table that day.

give the gift

In recent years, we’ve had other children show up at our door – brought by either a case worker or another foster parent who needed child care. These children have stayed for several weeks or over a year. Every time, it upsets my neatly ordered world.

Every time, I have to choose to give – to widen my circle and make room for another wagon instead of tightening my safe-place-circle to the exclusion of lonely waifs.

While foster care was a new territory for us, as a child I observed my mother doing her own foster/respite care for moms in New York City. My family participated in the Fresh Air Fund program. Each summer — over twenty-five of them — we hosted four to six girls of different nationalities for several weeks in our home. After my mother passed away in 2010, we received emails from several Fresh Air children expressing appreciation for the love and family life they experienced in my mother’s home as children. If my widowed mother had waited until her house was “good enough” to host these children, it never would have happened.

Rather, she chose to give because she had been given much.

An email from a neighbor’s child shared her memories of being invited to come see new puppies and eat supper with us. Fifty years had passed, yet she specifically mentioned the gift of love and kindness she experienced at my mother’s table.

give the gift of family

You know what I’ve discovered as I’ve listened to the stories of these foster children?

Visiting our homes is like being given a gift from another world: removing the bow, loosening the tape on the paper, and then lifting the lid of the box to enjoy the priceless gift inside. 

We allow others who have never had a safe place experience, savor, and delight in the beauty and safety of a Christian home. How many children in our communities have never experienced this blessing?!

In my Anabaptist culture, most of us have been blessed with two-parent homes and supportive, encouraging churches. We’ve been gifted honesty and respect for authority. Surely we would change some things about our childhoods if we could, but the fact remains that for many of us, our heritage is a blessing to which we are blind.  Rather than share this bounty with others, we mingle with our own people and hoard this gift for ourselves alone.

A few days after Terrance’s first visit back to his “childhood home,” as he calls our place, he told me, “I never knew that there were parents who did not beat their children – until I came to live with you. I didn’t know that families sat around the table and ate dinner together– until I lived with you.”

No wonder, I thought, he seemed so intrigued with setting the dinner table and begged for a “job” to do when our kids had jobs. Our home had been a haven for him when his mother moved to another state after her divorce while his fractured family was oblivious to his needs.

give the gift

In my Anabaptist haven, I never considered that our home was providing more than just food and shelter those weeks. We were providing a model for a completely unheard of way of life. We didn’t do anything significant. We just lived it in front of him, and he guzzled at the nourishment and fresh water of our home, all while we were unaware.

As Christian women, we have an opportunity to peel back the curtains of our homes and allow others to experience what is so common to us, but is foreign to many children. We have a message of hope and a message about eternity.

In our fear of tainting our own families, we keep the ribbon on the package; we refuse to unwrap the paper, let alone allow others to touch what is inside that tissue paper. We hoard it for our families and our people instead of opening our homes and our hearts so others can understand that there really is a good way to do family.

A few weeks ago, a young girl visited in kids’ class at church. Her home houses two incomplete families: mom and siblings, mom’s friend and his daughter. How I wish I could take this little girl and show her the hope that Jesus gives. I have not forgotten that there is a little girl living in my community who had never heard the song Jesus Loves Me – until that evening. This same little girl shared tearfully that her greatest fear in all of life is that her Daddy will get killed while he is in prison. We prayed that evening for our new friend and for her Daddy. I want to do more because I have been given so much.

I want to open the sweet gift of  “family” for her, allowing her to taste and sample the beauty of knowing Jesus. I want her to know that there is a better way to do family than what she is experiencing. Who is going to tell her? Who is willing to give?! Who is going to share that wonderful news with her? Who is going to live it out in front of her?!

sharing the gift

We have a gift for the world.

Sharing that gift takes investment and it takes time. And oh, does it ever cost! Are we too busy, too preoccupied, too selfish, to give what we have so others can learn a better way to do family?

Lonely, hungry folks don’t care about extravagant meals or immaculate homes. They need to see the hope of Jesus lived before their eyes. They need to experience what it means to have an intact family, for it’s something they’ve never known. Are we willing to share our homes with those who have never experienced one?

Jesus said, “Freely you have received; freely give.”  (Matthew 10:8).

We’ve received freely.  Now He waits for us to give.

Pinterest Sharing the Gift

 

This article was first published in Daughters of Promise magazine.

*yes, I changed his name

Family in Six-Part Harmony

For the moms out there who wonder some days if their kids will ever be good friends, it happens. This article was first published in 2007.  A lot has happened in those nine years.  My kids have grown up and are moving out on their own.  Family times together are much less frequent.  The pecking order changes from time to time, depending on who is home.  Yet this remains true: we are still friends as well as family.

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The house is quieter now, and things are finally getting put back to order. Ah, how I love the sense of serenity that is here following chaotic no-school days. After the kids have headed off to school and my hubby is at work, I tidy my haven and inhale the quiet.

The bedrooms upstairs are back in order (well, let’s just say you can walk through the rooms and covers are pulled up on the beds). We’re settling back into our daily routine, and the diastolic number of my blood pressure is going back down where it belongs. Ah, what cadence!

Yet, in the midst of the stillness, phrases and episodes permeate my thoughts. I wanted a Norman Rockwell home life and all participants in sync with the rhythm of family. I wanted a sonata of pleasant memories and positive experiences. I envisioned happy tunes and get-along-ability and “all hands on deck” when I called for assistance in the kitchen or with the laundry. I dreamed of grand crescendos of conflict resolution. I longed for days on end of perfect harmony and evenings with majestic symphony.

It doesn’t happen that way. Our kids argue over whose turn it isn’t to empty the dishwasher. They fight for the best seat on the sofa when we’re watching a video or having family devotions. They disagree over playing Monopoly or Dominos or playing anything at all. Some days it seems there is nothing but discord in our home.

I remember a trip to Williamsburg for a mini-vacation that began with sibling warfare when it came to choosing bedrooms. We, the parents, decided the girls would get to choose first. We had our reasons and we knew they were good ones.

When it came time to packing and loading for this trip, the girls had helped the most. In fact, they were practically the only ones who helped at all. Most importantly, in eight years of visiting this spot, the girls had not once had the room with the king-sized bed, master bath, and Jacuzzi.

Sarah Beth said she didn’t care (only because she didn’t want to hear about it for the rest of the week).  But Rebekah drew out her sword and dared anyone to defy her choice of the master bedroom with the king-size bed, TV, and Jacuzzi.

The brothers begged and coddled, trying to convince their sisters that they’d never use the bathroom and the girls could have it anytime they wanted. They didn’t want the Jacuzzi. They just wanted the larger room with their own TV so they could watch Virginia Tech play that weekend. Rebekah stood her ground and won. Indeed, she also won a new name from her brothers: Jacuzzi.

harmony-jacuzzi

Sarah Beth, sporting first-time glasses, wanted only to stay out of the fray and tried to diffuse the tension by not taking sides. She detested wearing glasses and her brothers knew she was wearing them for one reason: to be able to get contact lenses later. Because she wouldn’t defend them in having first choice of a bedroom, she was dubbed her own name: Catfish.

harmony-catfish

That evening the guys played Monopoly while the girls watched a video. Tension was still high because the guys had lost the battle of the bedrooms. Aaron was upset with one of his brothers who wouldn’t help him complete a set by selling St. Charles Place to him. Jerking his head back and placing his hands on his hips with specific emphasis, he spouted, “Well, fine, then!”

For the remainder of the game and for the rest of our vacation, anyone who didn’t “get his way” would respond in kind. Hands on hips and a toss of the head corresponded in sync to that one word: “Fine!”

For days on end, the brothers called their sisters by their new names: Catfish and Jacuzzi. Sarah Beth, who saw the situation as it was, handled it well most of the time, ignoring the obvious attempts of her brothers to rankle her.

Our girls are as different as the sun and the moon. After a few days of her name change, Rebekah responded with volcanic anger anytime someone called her Jacuzzi. The littlest guy grew weary of folks imitating his “Fine!” There was frustration and yes, some tears. The older brothers laughed at the tears and kept saying, “Fine!” until their father grew weary of the dissonance and decided enough was simply enough. He brought the clamor to an abrupt halt when he promised repercussions if the ruckus didn’t stop.

I have never been able to figure out what it is that makes a child want to continue teasing to the point of tears. I suspect that the culprit does not understand the pain he inflicts. My guys thought it was time for little brother (who had just turned eleven) to “grow up and be a man.” They thought the girls should be able to handle their nicknames because they were only joking. I suppose that teasing continues more because children, as well as adults, enjoy the power they experience as they inflict pain on someone else. Perhaps they think inflicting wounds on someone else will lessen their own pain.

Just as a cat continues to play with its prey, so some kids will torment and tease. There’s another name for that cat-and-mouse game, and it’s called sin nature. I can’t rid my kids of their sin nature, but I can help them rise above human nature and become an advocate for “being bigger” than that. I can encourage them to keep tuning so the notes they play as siblings will bring less discord and more harmony with each other.

I tried to coach my daughters to laugh at their brothers and play along with them. I encouraged the littlest guy to join in the laughter and use the same phrase on his brothers in fun. It worked when they followed the notes intended for harmony.

harmony-orchestra

“They’re only doing it because they know it makes you mad,” I told my kids. “They love to know they can control your emotions by making you angry. If you laugh at their foolishness, it will take the wind right out of their sails. If you laugh with them, they won’t be controlling you. Make it a challenge to see who can best whom,” I advised.

Now, in the quiet and calm of our house, I walk through the empty rooms, remembering. There is strewn luggage, a stash of laundry, and an assortment of books scattered over the floors of their rooms. I wonder how I managed to raise kids who will not pick up their clothes, and who don’t care if the shirts they wear are wrinkled from being buried under several layers of clothing.

I wonder what we did wrong to raise kids who still fuss and fight and make snide remarks to each other. I wonder why they don’t want to lend a hand in the kitchen or with the laundry—and why they complain if they do help. I wonder why it is easier to begin a war and continue the combat than end a conflict by laying down swords and improvising peace.

I wonder why, when the beauty of harmony can be so complete, anyone would want to continue playing off-key. I suppose it’s because the one causing the greatest discord is unable to hear other chords since he is intent on strumming his own rhythm. It seems easier to think someone else should match my chords than to make the effort to change my tune so we can all be in key. Why is it that we insist on singing our songs above everyone else’s?!

Then I remember the night we stayed up until one o’clock in the morning to play a complete set of Mexican Train Dominos. I recall that the next evening, we started the game earlier because everyone was eager to finish a complete set and bedtime needed to be earlier that night.

Or the evening Ben, Jason, and Tim played keyboard and guitar, singing together for hours. I remember the evening Sarah Beth made quesadillas-to-order for each person in the family, just because she wanted to please. Nor can I forget the day I came home from work and found that Rebekah had completed all the laundry (no small feat for a family of eight) by herself. I recall the day Aaron and Ben emptied the dishwasher together, talking about their favorite sports teams while putting half the things away in the wrong places.

I treasure the memory of the evening I found out someone wanted to drop in to see our new kitchen the next morning. Everyone pitched in, and in less than half an hour, our place was tidy and presentable.

I remember hearing “Jacuzzi” and “Catfish” and “Fine!” for days on end. I realize we’ve made memories, once again, just by taking the time to be together. Someday we’ll laugh at the memories of our clamor.

Those days when the gang was all together.

Our friendship as a family will have its share of discord and dissension. Even though we wear on each other’s nerves, for the most part, we like each other’s company. Those sour notes of Jacuzzi and Catfish will be a thing of the past.

Our harmony, though off-key at times, will improve with practice, and we’ll still be friends as well as family.

 

Pocket Treasures

pocket-with-pen

One by one I pull out the items I’ve collected through the day.

If these pockets of mine could speak, they’d sure have a lot to say.

I’ve found a little girl’s comb, a safety pin, and the picture someone drew, making me grin.

pocket-collage-comb

There’s a rubber band, a paper airplane, and the grocery receipt still wet from the rain.

pocket-collage-rubber-band

I’ve got a broken pencil, a spool of thread, and the needle I used to sew that button on in red.

pocket-collage-pencil

There’s a Band-Aid wrapper, a crayon that’s blue, a couple of Legos, and a lace from a shoe.

I’ve got some unused tissues, a cap for a pen, and a book of matches that belongs in the den.

There are a half-dozen pennies, a sticker that’s “cool,”

And a couple of markers from the project due for school.

pocket-collage-pen

Throughout the house as I’ve been cleaning and dusting,

I’ve picked up this stuff — sometimes smiling, sometimes fussing.

I look at my treasures lying there on the chair,

And I know I’m far richer than a body can tell.

For the treasures that  I’ve stashed there, before I’ve gone on my way,

Are reminders to me that life has been good today.

Sometimes there are crazy days when time slips by in a whirl,

And looking back, it truly seems that life is a big blur.

Yet emptying my pockets, I must confess,

Is a guarantee that I’ll see how much I am blessed.

That’s because I have another set of pockets.  These I treasure even more.

They’re filled with intangible memories that no one can take from me, for sure.

pocket-eyes-on-shoulder

There’s the gentle memory of brown eyes nestled close to me,

And a little hand patting my back when no one else can see.

I recall those blue eyes sparkling when the sight word test says “Great!”

And I smile because, for once, a kid got up early instead of late.

pocket-children-in-field

I treasure hearing laughter rippling in the afternoon sun,

And watching big brother helping sister’s chores in getting done.

There’s the sense of satisfaction when my kids don’t know I’ve seen,

And they choose to say, “I’m sorry,” before I need to intervene.

I clasp the memory of the secret whispered in my ear,

“I love you so much, Mama!” where no one else can hear.

pocket-holding-hands

I hold the quiet, gentle knowledge that commitment will be strong;

Though marriage sometimes isn’t easy, I know I’ll always belong.

And there’s the warmth and tender feeling lingering through me all day long,

From the hug and kiss he gave me before he put his work clothes on.

There’s the knowledge and experience that accumulates with years

Of a God who really loves me and can handle all my fears.

pocket-leaves

There’s delight in candles burning, the fragrance of the new-mown lawn,

Leaves a-turning, breezes blowing, and the crimson light at dawn.

When the day is drizzly gloomy, when the night seems frigid cold,

I find purpose in my pockets and the treasures that I hold.

When I’m tempted to look around me, to fret and to complain,

I find meaning in recalling, not what I’ve lost, but all that I have gained.

I clutch the promise of tomorrow:  treasures that can’t be bought or sold.

I just reach into my pockets and grasp my riches, worth more than gold.

pocket-brother-sister

This article was first published in October 1999 and later printed in the book Southside Glimmerswhich is available here.

 

Arrival is a Reason to Celebrate!

 

 

arrival

                            Mom rifling through her pocketbook –                                                            something none of her kids were ever allowed to do.

She called it her Arrival.

Today, it has been twenty-four years. She has missed so much – but not as much as we have missed her!

When Mom arrived in Heaven, she had a baker’s dozen grandchildren. Now there 29 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and a few more on the way.

mom grandkids 2

No one can ever be completely prepared for the inevitable end of life, but Mom helped prepare us as she prepared herself.

No matter what was happening, she looked for the fun in the event.  How many times we’d hear  her say, “Aren’t we having fun today?!”  or “Didn’t we have a good time today?!”

 Two weeks before her Arrival, she helped celebrate a granddaughter’s birthday.

When her grandchildren overheard conversations or when they were present and asked questions themselves, Mom’s response assured them that death was not something to fear. “Grandma will be waiting for you in Heaven,” she was heard to tell grandchildren on different occasions.

But then, in the middle of her anticipation of being done with cancer, she was left with things she still wanted to do. She crocheted furiously to complete a baby afghan and told us, “I don’t have time to die.”

arrival

                Mom listens to a grandson read a book he had written in his                                                       kindergarten class.

When she knew the inevitable was going to happen, she had fun planning her own memorial service. She asked us to sing at her funeral – and made us do a second recording when she didn’t hear one son’s tenor voice on the recording we did the day he couldn’t be there.

After she heard a minister speak of death as arriving in Heaven, she ordered us to remember that she wasn’t really dying. She was going to be arriving.

“So when I die,” she told us, “don’t call it my death. Call it my Arrival.”

And we did.

arrival

The grandchild who was to be born in April – would she live to see his birth?

“Will I be here for April?” she asked me in December.

I told her, “Sure, you’ll be here for April.” But she wasn’t.

She made use of her diagnosis to reach out to people who didn’t know Jesus.

“People listen to me now because they know I’m dying,” she smiled at me one day.

When her children rallied around and set up a schedule to take care of her at home in her last weeks, she quipped, “Now I know why I had all those babies, so they could take care of me when I die.” Those eight babies (and their spouses) did take care of her as she was dying.

There were questions. She thought them, and she asked them.

“Will I go through the valley alone?” “How does it feel to die?” and “Will we pray in Heaven?”

arrival

                                                                 Mom with one of her granddaughters

On the 29th of February, I told Mom that she couldn’t die that day. “For how,” I asked her, “are we to remember your Arrival?”

“Oh no, we wouldn’t want that happen now would we?” she chuckled as I gave her morning bath. “But we sure are having fun dying, aren’t we?”

Yes, Mom, we sure were having fun.

She knew where she was going, and she knew she would leave us behind. “Life goes on – remember?” she reminded us.

As her last days were near, she was not afraid.

When you know Jesus, you don’t need to be afraid.

“I know Jesus is going with me,” she said.  “I won’t be alone.”

She wasn’t alone. Jesus was with her.

“Don’t hold me back,” she begged one day.

“We won’t  hold you back,” we assured her. “When those angels come, you just go with them. ”

So on March 16, 1992, those angels came.

As music played in the background and as her family gathered around her bed,  her grimace of pain and her moaning stopped.

She opened her jaundiced eyes one last time.  And. She. Smiled.

That is when we knew that Mom had, indeed, arrived.

We knew Jesus was there to go with her, and we knew He had welcomed her Home.

Happy Anniversary on your Arrival in Heaven, Mom.

Pinterest Arrival

 

The story of Mom’s journey following her terminal diagnosis is in the book Aren’t We having Fun Dying?! and can be purchased here.