how to choose life today (wait, you already did)

IMG_2748

…I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life
Deuteronomy 30:19

You already did it today.

When you rolled over and kissed your husband good morning. Or when you threw on that old bathrobe and trooped down the hall to feed the baby. Or when you scrambled eggs for the kids before they caught the bus. Or when you bought your co-worker a coffee on the drive to work. Or when you held the door for the person behind you as you walked into class from the freezing cold.

You chose life.

It didn’t feel like it, did it? The small stuff never does. But right there in that tired moment, that ordinary instant, that moving-on-to-the-next-thing rush, you chose life. You chose Christ.

Every day the choice is set before us a thousand times. Life or death. Good or evil.

Not only in the dramatic decisions or the public protests or the election year ultimatums, but in the thousand tiny choices set before us to do good each day. To choose love. To serve others.

And it matters that you choose life…

Click to read the rest of today’s devotion at Blessed Is She.

what the presentation means for parents

We have to let go.

We knew that, right? People told us from the beginning. The years fly by so fast and before you know it, they’ll be grown and enjoy this time before it’s gone.

We smiled and looked down at the baby in our arms. We knew they were right but we couldn’t imagine not holding this child.

We knew they would grow up one day, theoretically. They would push us away, they would slam the bedroom door, they would refuse to talk to us. They would probably tell us they hated us one day. (We knew because we did all those things to our parents, too.)

But we still couldn’t imagine what it would really feel like. To let them go.

IMG_6159

So we practice letting go a thousand times.

We let go of their chubby hand for a split second while they take their first toddling step towards the couch.

We slip away for a date night while grandma waves goodbye from the front door.

We walk back alone to the car when the teacher promises they will be fine.

Each time our instinct is to reach out and pull them back to us. Each time our heart and mind are divided between need and want, us and them, now and later. Each time there is no script for when or how. Only the bittersweet truth of time and growth.

And the nagging knowledge that they are not ours to keep forever.

They were never ours alone.

. . .

Today’s Feast of the Presentation is this same practice for the Holy Family.

Here are Mary and Joseph: brand-new, bewildered parents. Here are Anna and Simeon: expectant elders. Here is Jesus: newborn and newly named.

They are all letting go. Mary and Joseph hand over their child into the hands of strangers. These prophets hand over their expectations of what their savior would look like.

And God lets go, too. Lets the Son of Love be brought to the temple, hinting at the heartbreak that will happen one day when Jesus comes back to Jerusalem.

Simeon whispers this terrifying truth to Mary, tries to warn her that you yourself a sword will pierce. But his mother can’t grasp what this will mean for her child. For herself. None of us could.

We can only practice letting go in small ways.

We can only trust that we’ll be given strength for what’s to come. 

. . .

Last year on the Feast of Presentation, I wrote about letting go of another baby, sending my book off to be published and wondering where it would go. For those of you whose hands have now held it, I am humbled. Thank you for reading. 

And to the stranger who wrote these words, you took my breath away. You are the one I wrote it for. There is so much light trying to get in. What a gift when we help each other clear away the grime.

and mary kept all these things

dawn

Originally ran last year at FaithND on today’s Feast of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God:

The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.

(Luke 2:16-21)

She must have heard so many cruel words, slurs muttered under breath as she passed, pregnant before marriage. Maybe she was strong enough to let the lies roll off her back. Or maybe each insult wounded deeper than the last, her cheeks burning from shame and a mystery she could not explain.

But here, finally, were words of wonder and hope—from the mouths of people just like her. Here were shepherds who stopped their daily work to bring her stories of angels singing glory. Here were strangers who asked to see her baby and marveled at what his birth might mean.

Of course she treasured their words, turning them over and over in her heart, wondering what they might mean. While she learned to care for her child, as squalling and sleepless and hungry as any newborn, she gathered strength from their promise.

The world kept buzzing with the busyness of life with a new baby—the long nights and the blurry days and the naming and the rituals and the settling in as a new family once all the visitors finally went home. But contemplative as she was, she kept wondering.

What did their words mean? Who was this child? How would her life unfold?

Perhaps this prayer practice was what sustained her as a mother: to treasure and to ponder. To remember, as parents try to do amidst the endless work of raising children, why she started on this path in the first place: to serve the God she loved, to give of herself that life might be born and be forever changed.

And as she pondered, she became transformed by the gift she held: a treasure of words that would glimmer hope for centuries, an angel’s song that echoed long after the shepherds left.

What words do we treasure? What gifts do we ponder? What practice will sustain us as a new year dawns?

spiritual practices with newborns: healing

Mommy, I just want to hug you around your scars!

His sky blue eyes flash. His brows furrow. The cheerful animals plastered across his summer pajamas – a grinning monkey and laughing elephant atop a fire engine – smile up at me in stark contrast to the glare on his face.

For weeks he’s been told not to fling his arms around my waist. He can’t plop down into my lap when we read stories. I can’t carry him down the stairs. And he’s just plain sick of it. Tired of dealing with the aftermath of my surgery. I am, too.

But the scars are still healing. We have to keep waiting.

hospital

I thought I had postpartum healing figured out the third time around. Lots of rest. Lots of help. Hot baths. Healthy meals. Slow walking. No lifting.

And it turned out that my recovery from birth was even easier this time than in the past. Four days after Joseph arrived, I honestly felt like my old self. No pain, no soreness, no need for Tylenol. Of course I took it easy for a few more weeks, having learned the hard way how quickly a new mom can overdo it and end up paying the price. But I felt amazing, and I was grateful.

We kept remarking on it, astonished, in the few moments of adult conversation we’d steal after all the kids were tucked into bed at night. “I don’t want to jinx it,” he said, “but you seem to be feeling great.”

I agreed. I joked about waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Thud.

. . .

Healing became the theme of our summer, by no wish of our own.

First was recovering from the aches of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, of course. I expected that.

But then there was this awful appendicitis that landed me back in the hospital six weeks after giving birth.

And then we suffered a shocking death in our family.

And now people we love are waiting for test results and prepping for surgery.

In short, we’re surrounded by a lot of pain. Personal and communal, physical and emotional.

It will take a long time to heal.

. . .

Do pleas for healing get flung up towards heaven more than any other prayer?

All my life it seems I’ve been praying for someone to get better. Brother. Grandparents. Relatives. Friends. Teachers. Neighbors. Co-workers. Acquaintances. Strangers.

Many of those people stayed sick. Or got worse. Or died.

What exactly do I believe about healing anyway? Is it the reward of the lucky few? The result of the right treatment? The randomness of sheer luck?

And what does God have to do with it? Everything? Or nothing? I’m still not sure.

There are a few things I know. You need the right people to help you heal. People with expertise or experience or compassion or love. (Sometimes even all four.)

You need plenty of time. At least as much as experts advise. Sometimes much longer.

And things will never be exactly as they were before. Like the childhood scars that tried to teach us this truth. Pale pink ridges over once-smooth knees.

. . .

At first it seemed strange to see healing as a spiritual practice. After all, I had no choice in the matter: the baby and the appendix both had to come out. My body had to deal with the aftermath of each.

But when surgery shoved me back to bed after I thought recovery days were behind me, I started thinking about the cycle of suffering and healing. Is it an illusion whenever we think ourselves to be whole, as if healed were a past participle, tidy and complete?

I look around me and I see one family mourning a brother, another mourning a mother, another dealing with an awful divorce, another dealing with a terminal illness.

Around each of those wounds are circles rippling outward: relatives and friends and co-workers and neighbors who are affected by each of these losses. And the world writ large is groaning with pain, too. Russia and Iraq and Palestine and Israel. Too much.

Maybe the post-partum period is a microcosm of how suffering and healing shape all our lives. Some mothers have easy deliveries, some have traumatic births. Some of us have blissful babymoons, some have wretched recoveries. We do nothing to merit these experiences, but we must live through them as they come. We must try to heal as best we can.

To help our broken hearts to stay open, not bitter.

. . .

Three thin lines trace across my skin. Scars from the surgery. Still rosy red, still new enough to remind me daily of the difference between before and after.

This summer will be folded into my story just like soft new scars. This was the summer that Joseph was born and Uncle Jim was killed. (And my appendix failed in the middle of it all.)

But isn’t this the way our stories always wind? The physical and the emotional woven together. The personal and the communal weathered together. The beauty born of pain and the anger born of grief.

Eventually our skin will stretch to cover and accept the scar. We will be changed.

This is surely where God is found in healing. In our carrying of each other’s stories. And in our trusting that something good might be born of pain.

My child, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.

Do not let them escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Proverbs 4:20-22

. . .

Where in your life are you healing? How have you been changed?

spiritual practices with newborns: holding

Be still and know that I am God.

Your hands have held things that terrified you. Your first set of car keys. A boy’s sweaty palm. The college admission letter. Cold cans of beer. A brand-new passport.

All gripped by fingers that trembled, knowing the weight of what might come next, the thrill as well as the terror.

God was there somewhere, in what you held.

Be still and know that I am.

Your hips have carried things that taught you. Armfuls of books down high school hallways, then grad school library stacks. Piles of file folders from one job, then another. A niece, then a nephew, then three more.

All slung on one hip, shifted to the side as you walked, aware that what you now held was changing the way you moved, subtly but for good.

God was there somewhere, in what you cradled.

Be still and know.

Your arms have embraced things that overwhelmed you. Sobbing friends after break-ups. Exhausted relatives after funerals. A brand-new family of in-laws. Your first child. Your second son.

All wrapped round with arms that wondered if they could stretch wider, if they were strong enough not to shake even as they tired.

God was there somewhere, in what you accepted.

Be still.

armfulBut maybe nothing else you’ve held has mattered as much as what you hold now, all day and all night, upstairs and down, inside and out, while you soothe and sing and stave off sleep, while you make breakfast and eat lunch and cook dinner.

One small baby, who squeaks and squawks into your neck, who aches your shoulders and slows your steps to heart’s pace.

This is not to say that bearing children trumps all other experiences. Or that parenting’s importance makes other callings pale in comparison. Or that everything up to now has been mere practice. You know none of this is true.

But the weight of what you carry now is no longer your own life. It is possibility within your hands. It is a brand-new person unfolding. With all the beauty and terror and wonder that offers. You know this is true.

Be.

Everything is changing because of what you are learning to hold.

Watch the world shift as you pick him up. As you cradle him to your heart. As you hum in his small curl of an ear.

Watch your life stretch, then settle to embrace what you’ve been asked to hold.

Watch yourself becoming someone new because of what you carry.

Watch God find you there. Again and always.

Be still and know that I am God.
(Psalm 46:10)

spiritual practices with newborns: accepting help

I thought I knew something about accepting help when a newborn arrives.

But then last Sunday’s I wonder why my stomach hurts… turned into maybe we should go to urgent care? to that appendix needs to come out stat and the surgeon is waiting for you in the operating room.

Nothing like an emergency appendectomy to land a postpartum mom right back where her summer started. Recovering, recuperating, resting in bed.

For five days straight I didn’t change a diaper. Didn’t run a single load of laundry. Didn’t read a single book to my big kids, cook a single meal for our family, or even brave the painful walk downstairs.

I needed help to do everything.

And I had to learn the practice of acceptance all over again.

. . .

helpingWhen I first wrote this post two weeks ago, accepting help meant reflecting on my gratitude for all the generous care people shared with us after Joseph arrived.

Since the moment of his birth, we’ve been blessed with help. Friends and neighbors brought dinners to share and offers to babysit. My sainted mom came to stay with us for three weeks, cooking and cleaning and baby-whispering and big-kid-entertaining as only a grandma can do. And my in-laws snuck the boys away for afternoons or mornings so I could catch up on sleep or simply tend to the baby.

But it took a serious setback – a week where everything fell apart, not just mama’s health – for me to remember my utter reliance on others.

What a tough lesson it is to remember.

. . .

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set.
(Exodus 17: 11-12)

What I love about this story isn’t the magical power of Moses to win battles.

It’s the sweaty, aching, all-day-long reminder that to do the work we’re called to do, we need others to hold us up.

Sometimes literally.

. . .

When I was still in the hospital, groggy from pain meds and aching all over, I tried to nurse the baby again, for the first time. But with incisions all over my stomach, I couldn’t even cradle him across my lap.

So my husband had to cup the baby’s head in one hand and wrangle his wriggling feet in the other hand, to keep him from kicking my tender scars.

All I could do was sit there. With tears streaming down my face. And let him help me, ironically, do the thing that only a mother can do.

(And to think that I thought accepting help was about getting over my guilt of hiring child care while I’m on maternity leave.)

. . .

The truth is that I always need help to do this work well.

Take the case of the summer babysitter. Our family’s routine runs on a rhythm that has always involved help with child care, and now is no exception. When the sitter is here, I can clean, cook, write, run errands, nap or simply tend to a needy newborn. All of which is good and necessary for our family.

I’m learning to be a mom of three, and this cheerful college sophomore is helping me do that, two mornings a week. Thank God for her help.

But interdependence is never the easiest lesson for us to learn, is it? We independent Americans. We people-pleasers. We do-it-all multi-taskers.

And isn’t it ironic that for women who have just given birth, we run ourselves ragged trying to care for the baby and clean the house and write the thank-yous and entertain the relatives and show off the baby? (Hasn’t every first-time mom learned this one the hard way?)

In a time when you give so much – when you have given everything, in fact, yourself, your sleep, your blood, your milk, your sweat, your time, your energy – the hardest part can be accepting that you cannot give it all. That you depend on help from others.

And that this might be exactly the way God created things to be.

. . .

This time around the newborn bend, I have to accept help as a spiritual practice. Even when I had an easy recovery from birth, I still needed my midwives, an amazing lactation consultant, our rock-star pediatrician, and our peppy babysitter to make life with baby possible.

And now that I’m back to healing mode – forced to put my feet up and climb stairs slowly and ask someone else to lug around that bulky car seat – I’m relearning how to embrace humility. To surrender to the truth that I can’t do it all. Because it was never all mine to do.

God whispers, nudges, nods and reminds me – through the triage nurse and the ER doctor and the next-door neighbor and the smiling grandma – that we get through this world by the help of others.

Again and again, my hands grow weary with this work I’m called to do. Thank God there are so many others to help hold them, steady at my side until the sun sets.

Such a gift, to have armfuls of help, even when we hurt.

If I only have the grace to accept it.

. . .

For a new twist: the next time someone offers you help, don’t apologize or protest that you don’t need it. But simply accept, with deep gratitude.

How does it feel to accept when you cannot give back in return?

spiritual practices with newborns: comforting

As a mother comforts her child,

so I will comfort you…

Isaiah 66:13

The poor babe is sick. Gift of a cold from his big brothers, generously passed along a week after they finished hacking and sniffling and crying for us all night long.

Neither of them were ever sick so small, and it breaks my mama heart to see his tiny newborn face turn beet-red as he struggles to breathe when he coughs. And when baby is only a month old, there are no cold meds to clear his congestion, no Tylenol to help him sleep. We can only watch and wait for the cold to run its course.

Life with a sick baby increases the yuck factor exponentially, too. He snarfs sticky trails on my shoulder, spits up sour milk puddles into my lap, sneezes a germy spray all over my face.

But all I want to do is comfort him. Every cell in my body screams out, hard-wired to cuddle and cradle him. To try and help what I cannot heal.

. . .

When we pick up a crying baby, we revert to the rhythms which comforted us as children, too. The most ancient rhythms – snuggle and rock, cuddle and coo. The body leads and the lullaby follows: knees soften, hips sway, arms cradle, hands rub, lips hum, eyes close.

There isn’t much to comforting a baby. There is only everything. The filling of the moment with the emptying of the self.

Has it been 10 minutes or 2 hours since we started rocking in this chair, or pacing the path of the upstairs hallway?

And who are we becoming in the process?

. . .

The thing about having a baby and older kids is that you realize how the same soothing rhythms stay with us. Sam wipes out on his older cousin’s bike, and he comes flying around the corner, wailing for a hug. Thomas’ nose runs like a leaky faucet, and he cries out in a most pathetic plea – I just want you to hold me!

I cradle them with the same sway that rocks their baby brother whenever he wakes. The same rub of the heaving back. The same murmurs whispered low. The same lingering kiss on the sweaty forehead. All the instincts that quiet the newborn give comfort to the big kids, too.

Perhaps deep down we are all always this small soft child. Crying out to be seen, soothed, loved.

comfort1

Shouldn’t soothing be the simplest subject? Something about it is so instinctual that even our 4 year-old starting shushing in his baby brother’s ear the first time he held him.

But all week I’ve been struggling to write this. Not only to steal away enough time to fill the page, time away from rocking and holding and cuddling and nursing.

But also because it seems like a saccharine subject at first glance. The spirituality of soothing? It’s convenient to conjure up a God who comforts. Isn’t that the stuff of the opiate of the masses – creating the God we crave?

Yet I believe comforting is not simply some handy attribute of the divine. It’s an imperative at the heart of faith. The catch with Christianity is that we are called – even compelled by our very nature, created in God’s image – to comfort in turn. And there’s the rub indeed.

Because it’s hard work to comfort. It aches the back and tires the arms and rasps the throat and wearies the head. Comfort is not just about the calm, but the storm.

Sometimes when I’ve held an inconsolable newborn, on one of those crying jags that pound in your eardrums and pulse in your blood, I’ve wondered how God could possibly stay with us – all of us – through our own shrieks and screams and sobs. The only answer I can find is that this practice of love is about deep faithfulness – not some token pat on the back, not mere temporary relief.

Behold, I am with you always. As a mother comforts her child.

. . .

And it’s so sweet to soothe these small ones, too. So undeniably full of love and loveliness – to have the sleeping head finally loll onto your shoulder, to hear the smooth steady breath that once was ragged, to watch the peaceful eyes stay closed when you gently lay the baby back down.

Both sides of soothing – the challenge and the comfort – whisper something about who God is and who we are invited to be in turn. Consolers. Lovers. Peace-makers.

The ones who stop and stoop and scoop up to soothe. The ones who murmur quiet words over the wails and whimpers. The ones who keep watch over the sick, the weak, the wounded.

Come to me, all you who are weary. Christ like a father who crouches down and opens arms wide to embrace the sobbing child, the smallest who comes seeking only one thing, the desperate need in the painful moment.

So I will comfort you. God like a mother clasping her child to her chest, wrapped in the most intimate embrace, beating heart to heart.

This is love with skin on.

. . .

For a new twist: next time you’re comforting your children, remember who has comforted you through past hurts. Have you been blessed to know someone who comforts as God comforts?

Where do you need comfort in your life? What comfort are you called to give?

(And if you missed the rest of the series on spiritual practices with newborns, check out feeding and cleaning…)