Thanksgiving Memories

Today’s a different sort of holiday, with me still in surgery recovery mode and Harold and I both down with horrible colds. Our kids both had other plans this year so we’d made reservations for a nice dinner out, plans that got canceled due to our contagious nature. There’s not a cranberry or homemade yeast roll to be found in this house so we’ll make do with leftover turkey from Monday’s Friendsgiving feast and give thanks for a few potatoes to mash in memory of other more festive meals. This year, we are mostly giving thanks for the forced few days of rest ahead of us. C’est la vie!

This does leave me nostalgic for holidays past as I thought through decades of my life and the people with whom I’ve celebrated. When I was ten, we moved to Indiana where dad became a full-time minister and we lived in the 70s tri-level “preacher’s house” owned by the church. The avocado green shag carpet was… memorable… along with the large dining room set mom bought new that year. Solid wood and heavy as lead, the table seated eight and the buffet cabinet held her favorite collection of dishes – not the everyday Corelle we used in the kitchen, but the blue and white Americana set she earned through green stamps (I think). Mom loved to entertain and nowhere was this more evident than at Thanksgiving when every side dish had its own serving piece and every pie was made from scratch.

I remember this particular holiday because moving back to Indiana had brought us closer to both sets of grandparents. My mom and dad both grew up in a small town about an hour from Indianapolis, and most of their extended family still lived there. So at least on this one occasion, all four grandparents drove to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. Our Indiana menu included a roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, green bean casserole, and homemade noodles which took a couple days’ advance prep before the actual holiday. The noodles stood in for gravy at our house and were poured liberally over any item of choice. The dinner rolls were made from scratch, as was the cranberry sauce. Mom regularly tried new recipes for a cranberry side dish (Cranberry Orange Relish? Check. Cranberry Fluff? Check. Cranberry Jello Mold? Check.) but always included the whole-berry sauce on the side. There were always at least two if not three pies, and often an alternate dessert, some variation of a pumpkin bar or sheet cake. Two menu items were carried over from our five years of living in the south – pecan pie and sweet tea. It’s no wonder dad ended up with diabetes in his later years.

A decade later, mom would discover the benefits of Reames frozen egg noodles, frozen bread dough for rolls, and Pillsbury pie crust. She was a working woman, after all. She never wanted to relinquish much control in the kitchen though. While she solicited our help (okay – mostly mine #genderroles), she had exacting standards and didn’t relegate any of the “important” jobs to me or anyone else. That was okay by me because I could peel potatoes while watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, or stir together the ingredients for green bean casserole without taking any creative license. I do remember that for the McKamey family, holiday meals meant noon sharp (not dinner) and that meant VERY early morning turkey prep. When I would drive home from college and arrive at midnight or later on Thanksgiving “day,” I would often wake up at 5 a.m. to the sounds of mom pulling out the large roasting pan in order to begin the process. The size of our guest list impacted the size of the turkey, and so, of course, impacted the hour at which the process began.

After I had my own family, we hosted many times. My home economics degree notwithstanding, I don’t believe I ever made a homemade pie crust, and at least twice, I roasted the turkey with the bag of giblets left intact inside the cavity. But I inherited my mom’s love of entertaining and enjoyed planning the (similar) menu and decorating the table for company. At least once, we hosted my Mamaw (mom’s mom) and Uncle Eddie (mom’s brother). Eddie’s wife was traveling in New York with one of their sons who was in the Macy’s parade that year. I remember while we waited for lunch to be ready, Mamaw had a bowl of turkey noodle broth with some potato chips crumbled into it. Another year we hosted both my parents and Harold’s (a throwback reminder of the Indiana holiday shared above) and Harold’s mom introduced us to Sweet Potato Casserole (with pecans and brown sugar on top). It was a great improvement over the “yams with marshmallows” I’d seen in southern contexts and became one of our own menu traditions for a season.

I have some great memories of hosting after our kids were grown, too. One year at Thanksgiving, Michael was helping with breakfast prep in the kitchen and shared the news that he planned to propose to Autumn on her upcoming birthday. The first year after they were married, we hosted at our Irvington house, a 100-year-old four square with hardwood floors, pocket doors, and built-in cabinets in the formal dining room. I don’t remember much about the menu (because honestly, it was probably pretty much the same as always), but I do remember how much fun we had with a family photoshoot decorating our Christmas tree. A few years later, we also hosted at our campus apartment after moving to Tennessee for seminary, and we loved introducing them to Johnson City and our mountain views.

There were also some great memories of Thanksgiving hosted by others. We traveled to Harold’s brother’s house one year and offered to bring a “second” small turkey (Dan was smoking a turkey). When we got there, we waited a couple of hours to eat because the smoked turkey STILL wasn’t done, and so…YAY for that second turkey! So much for hoping for leftovers. One year, a last-minute change of plans saw us land at my parents’ house along with one of my nieces and we played carom and cards after feasting all day. Another year after Harold’s mom passed, his sister (a nutritionist) invited us and Liz and Ian joined us. We enjoyed a “Whole Foods” Thanksgiving feast at their home in the country after a brisk walk outside watching the horses graze in the not-yet frozen field.

Speaking of Liz and Ian, we also remember fondly the year Michael and Autumn hosted in Madison, WI, with one-month-old Isla our most recent addition to the family. That was three months after Liz and Ian started dating so it was our first time to meet the professional baker. He was welcomed immediately, not only because of his contributed loaf of homemade sourdough but also because of his love for dark meat (Autumn had roasted turkey legs that year.)

My most recent three years of Thanksgiving are certainly memorable. November of 2018 was the first month we’d been in our Omaha house and all the kids came to visit. The weather cooperated for a morning at the playground and we cooked and ate together the rest of the day. Having a baker in the family meant I could delegate the pies (both apple and bourbon pecan, if I remember correctly), and Autumn created some amazing side dishes as well. Four-year-old Sawyer and two-year-old Isla had their introduction to “day after Thanksgiving” Christmas decorating, and we had a wonderful time.

In 2019, Isla was deep into cancer treatments but thankfully was able to be home for the holidays, so we joined them in Wisconsin for a couple of days. One of my favorite memories from that weekend was actually my birthday. While Isla and Sawyer were in the basement with me reading a book, Michael comes down the stairs singing Happy Birthday with a candle stuck in the traditional… hummus plate? I mean, new traditions can start every year, right? That year was also our first without my dad who had passed the week before. After a short visit in Milwaukee, we drove to Indiana for his funeral on Saturday…the precursor of three we’d experience in the next difficult year.

Losing both Isla and my mom in 2020 made this holiday especially hard. Thanksgiving was back in Omaha, again with all our kids, but no Isla. New traditions we’d begun in 2018 were revisited with Sawyer and his new brother, one-year-old Ellis. The weekend was bittersweet, with memories and tears intermingled with laughter and delight at the grandboys enjoying the Christmas tree, decorated overnight as a surprise after Thanksgiving dinner and bedtime. We also enjoyed a new tradition, the Werner Park Christmas Lights drive-through display. When the songs from Frozen played, we shared some tears and sweet memories of Isla who sang “Let it Go” and “Into the Unknown” with enthusiasm and abandon. She would have loved that light display.

This brings me back to 2021 and our current state of affairs. While not our traditional Thanksgiving holiday, we remain grateful for the family traditions and friend relationships that have carried us through the last several years. I’m getting old enough to reflect along with George Bailey, “I really have had a wonderful life.” I hope that whatever’s on the menu and whoever surrounds your table, you are able to give thanks as well.

In Everything, Give Thanks

for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Thanksgiving is upon us along with all the #Gratitude challenges and reminders every day to tell friends what you’re thankful for. It’s a fantastic practice, one that hit me deepest 10 years ago when I read 1000 Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Giving thanks and keeping written reminders of what we’re thankful for is a transformational, spiritual practice; not just a healthy, self-care technique, but a deep and wise rhythm that puts us in the middle of God’s presence.

This morning’s list started as a health update but I’d rather share the #Grateful side of each part of the story as the main attraction. I hope this list calls to mind some of your own “everythings” that you’re thankful for, and draws you closer to the God who gives all good gifts. Also, there are 12 items, so I’m officially caught up to the daily post limit for this November.

  1. I’m thankful that we were able to use our Hamilton tickets on the 28th, and have an amazing dinner out, before having a gallbladder attack. Actually, the dinner might have been one thing that tipped my system over the edge (8 oz steak, amazing homemade ice cream and apple tart!) but today, I have no regrets. It was my last truly full meal, actually, since then. And now I’m glad I have a few more chances for “last meals.”
  2. I’m thankful that I paid attention to chest pains and went to the ER on Halloween night. Sure, we were in a movie theater, and I confess saying to my husband “It’s okay, let’s finish the movie.” (It was “Free Guy” with Ryan Reynolds – and yes, it was really good! I know some of you were wondering) …Nevertheless, for me to take heed and go to the hospital was a big deal. #winning
  3. I’m thankful that the hospital did due diligence and ran all the right “heart” tests, even though I seem fairly low risk. I’m also thankful the tests were inconclusive enough that I went home that night with a list of other symptoms to watch for.
  4. I’m thankful that in the ensuing 5 days, I paid attention to my body and physical needs in ways I hadn’t in months. Maybe years. I know I speak from a place of privilege, but I truly have so many choices about how I live, work, move, and eat. That week gave me an opportunity to make better choices and pay attention to how those choices made me feel and function.
  5. I’m thankful that last Friday, after a small lunch and a half mile walk, I realized that the chest pains were returning and got worse as the day went on. It was only an hour before I realized I needed to call my husband to leave work early and head back to the ER. #FridayDateNight (I’m also thankful for Harold’s empathetic and immediate response, in contrast to my own tendency to feel put out when getting called away from work, or interrupted from plans. #LessonLearned) More about Harold later.
  6. I’m thankful for deep diaphragm breathing techniques learned in choir and voice lessons, and even meditation and focused breath skills learned in yoga class. I used those skills, along with scripture memory, hymn lyrics, and prayer, through my 30 minute visit to the MRI machine. My goodness. That was something. (It’s worth noting that when I was in school, I had to learn algebra and always wondered if I’d use it as an adult. The answer is no. There is no algebra for the patient in an MRI scanner. But I’m sure glad I took choir and yoga, and went to church!)
  7. I’m thankful for the reminders of Isla at the hospital. Even though it’s a bit triggering to be admitted to a hospital room that looks uncannily like the ones she lived in for so long, I actually felt Isla’s strength and bravery holding my hand along the way. She went through WAY more procedures in her short life than I have in my long one.
  8. I’m thankful for breaking into tears on the surgery table waiting for anesthesia before my first procedure. I know, this one takes a bit of unpacking. First, if you know me well, I am a busy woman, I like to accomplish things, and I don’t like to be distracted by pesky emotions. But guess what? When we slow down (I was literally fastened in place with wires and IVs), when we have no control (nope, none), when we recognize that EVERYTHING is out of our hands, we are finally in a place where God can bring the emotions to the surface and say HEY! Pay attention to me!

    So I did.

    The GI doc had not made it to my room in advance to tell me about the procedure, so I’m already stressed, maybe because I’m hearing his updates from a supine position in the OR (again, no control). I had thought this Saturday procedure *might* have eliminated the need for gallbladder surgery later (I knew they were two separate things #thanksGoogle) However, the GI doc casually mentioned “You’re going to have to get your gall bladder out, too.” So I’m trying to ask logical questions like “HOW MANY SURGERIES ARE YOU DOING TODAY?” and calmly, rationally…freaking out.

    The questions are answered, the tears are flowing, and the anesthesiologist finally arrives to send me off to dreamland. In those moments between awake, aware, and asleep, I’m brought to my next point of gratitude.
  9. I’m thankful for the nurses. There were three in that room that saved my (emotional) life that day and showed me the face and hands of Jesus. One checked my IV and patted my arm, saying “we’ll be right here with you.” One gently wiped tears off my face and from behind the oxygen mask, since I was unable to reach for a tissue. Another squeezed my shoulder, leaned close, and looked right into my eyes saying “It’s going to be okay. You’re in good hands.” As I fell asleep, like a stubborn child who finally relaxed after fighting for a toy too long (or a grown up who fought for control too long), I remembered whose hands I was in and let go.
  10. I’m thankful for all the nurses and staff at CHI Lakeside Hospital in Omaha, NE. Seriously, medical professionals deserve a daily gratitude post from all of us. THEY WERE AMAZING. I hope Harold kept a list of names because when I get out from under my surgery fog, I’m writing thank you notes and taking them brownies. Every single person who came in and out of my room was professional, caring, knowledgeable, and kind. The one in the ER who reminded Harold “This doesn’t count as date night!” The one who got me a black cup of coffee at 3 in the morning for my caffeine headache because I was “clear liquids only” after almost 40 hours of NPO. The one who advocated for me to get the surgery (the second procedure) on Sunday instead of Monday. The one who scrubbed my back before surgery and managed to keep my dignity intact. The one who got a heating pad in the middle of the night and an ice pack in the middle of the day. Give thanks for the medical professionals!
  11. I’m thankful for my husband, Harold. Seriously, the guy is a rockstar caregiver. He asked good questions, wrote down notes, kept me entertained with memes and funny animal videos, brought me extra pillows and blankets from home, walked me around the hospital halls, and prayed with me before surgery. Since we’ve been home, he’s planned meals and cooked for both of us, made smoothies when I didn’t feel like eating, kept the bills paid, and worked from home so he was always available to me. All with a great attitude. Find yourself a man who takes the “sickness and health” part seriously. This one’s mine.
  12. Finally, I’m thankful for our family, friends, and community of support. Some of you kept the ministry work moving forward while I was not available. (Reminding me, of course, that each person on the team matters…but the team can and should function beyond the limits of each person. #theBodyofChrist) Some of you live close and helped with groceries or meals. Some of you reached out with texts, flowers, calls, and prayers. Some of you live far away but kept in touch with encouragement via Facebook. Every single post, prayer, and mention was a blessing to me. Thank you.

In everything, give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus
(1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Following God Anyway: choosing faith in the hard places

Sometimes faith looks more like courage than confidence.

I used to wonder if I had a story to tell – if my testimony was valid – because my life had been mostly smooth. No personal illnesses, healthy kids, faithful spouse, and jobs I loved. So when Isla was diagnosed with leukemia, I was fairly calm. It wasn’t that I doubted the severity of her illness. It was just that in those early days, I was confident she would be healed. This would be a defining moment in my faith journey. I would be able to tell others the story of how she had overcome, and many would come to know God’s power because of that testimony.

You see, when I was growing up, our faith tradition didn’t talk a lot about physical healing. We prayed for people who were sick, but we knew that sometimes they didn’t get well. Our life of faith was mostly an exercise in looking forward to heaven, not looking for God’s kingdom to come on earth. But in 2018 we joined a church family that did speak of healing – a lot. New friends knew people personally who had experienced miraculous, physical healing. So as we entered the uncertain world of cancer treatments, we also grew in our certainty that God was going to show up – big time! – for Isla and our family. But there were a couple of stories – moments really – where my assumptions were challenged in the midst of my confidence.

A few months after Isla’s diagnosis, we were able to get away for a Florida visit with friends. We were talking about the prayer reminders on their refrigerator which included Isla and another little girl, one who’d been struggling through heart failure for more than a year. I was following Maci’s story on social media and she wasn’t doing well. When my friend told their (then) 3-year-old that we were Isla’s grandparents, she replied matter-of-factly, “that’s the girl who’s dying.”

It was only a moment of confusion, of course, for a little girl who was trying to keep track of other kids her age who needed prayers for healing. Her mom’s brief embarrassment and my own reassurance were just a smokescreen for the panic that welled up inside, to hear such words spoken out loud in the middle of my confidence.

Surely not, God. Not our family. Not Isla.

In the aftermath of grief, we sometimes forget the “normalcy” of her year of hospital stays. Isla was surrounded by beeping machines, watchful nurses, and connected to wire monitors 24/7. But she was also a delightful (and feisty!) preschool girl who loved stories, songs, and make believe. She learned new things at an exponential rate like every 3-year-old, and kept us in stiches with her antics. For an entire year, she was “at home” both with her caregivers and hospital routines as well as with siblings and parents and the only home she ever knew.

January 1-4, 2020, was one of my hospital stays with Isla. I remember that not long after I arrived, she asked me about Great-grandpa (my dad). Michael and Sawyer had traveled to dad’s funeral the previous Thanksgiving weekend, and Michael later told Isla the news. We talked a little about how each of us were related, and she said she was sad that Great-grandpa had died.

“I miss him,” she said.

“Me too. I’m sorry he couldn’t come visit you in the hospital. He would have liked that.” We talked a little about silly songs and stories, and how much Great-grandpa had loved to laugh.

She paused for a second, thoughtful.
“Someday I will die too,” she said.

Time stops as her words hang heavy in the antiseptic air.

I respond with feigned reassurance that doctors and nurses are working to help her get better, and how usually people don’t die until they are much older. But my heart skips a beat when I say it.

Two days before Isla’s last breath, I was sitting at her bedside, listening to worship music, praying under my breath, listening to her labored breathing with the hum of the oxygen tank. Keeping watch in the holy moments, suspended between times of Isla’s presence and her passing; between “what was” and “what is to come.” Fredrick Buechner and Richard Rohr have both called this “liminal space.”

I picked up my phone to check messages and came across another friend’s reassurance of their faithfulness in prayer. It was one of hundreds of messages received, of course, not particularly unique. But at that moment, there was a palpable presence in the room; a sense that the prayers of the saints across the miles were physically manifest through God’s spirit in that space. Even through tears, I was grateful for the support of family and friends we’d known through our lives, both in college and cross country moves since.

While my faith journey is not finished or settled or complete, these past two years have certainly been a “defining moment.”  But not because I could tell others how Isla had overcome leukemia. And not because God’s power was made evident through healing. Instead, I have questions about God’s purpose, even when I sense God’s presence.

I still don’t understand why little girls get leukemia.
I still don’t understand why our family lost Isla.
I still don’t understand what God is doing about 89% of the time.

But I’m still following God anyway.

Blowin’ In the Wind

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
…Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?

I don’t remember much about Mother’s Day when I was a little girl. Surely, there were handmade cards and bouquets of dandelions in tiny vases. Maybe we went out to eat on occasion? Dad was a preacher so I can imagine we did find a restaurant on that particular day of the year, in contrast to mom’s normal Sunday crock-pot roast or other “prepare in advance” meals. Mom and Dad loved buffets so I would guess we splurged for Ponderosa or Golden Corral on occasion.

Once I became a mom, Harold and I learned quickly that we didn’t enjoy the restaurant option with toddlers, waiting for a table on the busiest day of the year. So, Harold often grilled for us that day, leaving me to play with the kids. As they got older, they tried a couple of times to surprise me with an early breakfast, but I was so often the first one up, they had a hard time catching me in bed with their pancakes and bacon. When I started working at the church, Mother’s Day was one of my favorite Sunday afternoons. After working all morning, I could go home to whatever lunch Harold and the kids cooked while I read books, napped, and took a walk before getting ice cream in the afternoon.

One of my favorite Mother’s Day memories was in 2016, the year I graduated from seminary. We lived in East Tennessee and our kids were in Chicago and Milwaukee, while my parents lived in northeast Indiana. That year all six of them made the trip to our home in Johnson City (the only time they all got to visit our house in the Tree Streets.) What a great time we had eating together, playing games, and reading stories to an almost-2-year-old Sawyer.

The graduation was on Saturday and afterwards we made s’mores out back on our flagstone patio with firepit. My mom had her very first s’more that weekend, at age 78. On Sunday we made a quick visit to the seminary campus party while Sawyer napped, then we all went to the park to play. We also fit in a semi-professional photo shoot which included some great scenes of our people (and that house we loved so much).

Mother’s Day 2020 was different in so many ways. After a moratorium on hospital visits since March due to COVID, and extreme caution with Isla’s lowered immunity, we asked the kids if we could come for a visit that weekend. It was one of Isla’s treasured holidays at home that year, between long weeks of treatment in the hospital. (Isla was able to be home for her last birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, AND Mother’s Day). Liz and Ian had recently moved to Milwaukee to help with the kids, and we were all together for three days.

That May we still expected that an upcoming transplant would bring Isla back to full health. Like a rescued perennial that got new life in the backyard, or the flowers beginning to bloom around their house, we were believing that “hope springs eternal.” I tried to focus on each present moment, searing them into my memory for days like today. Even so, for every smile, every photo, every dance in the living room, my heart twinged a bit wondering “what if this is our last holiday together?”

That Saturday, we took the kids to a nearby park for their first kite-flying adventure. My own lack of experience was not a problem; Daddy, Uncle Ian, and Pops all took turns making sure the tail was positioned and the string was taut. It was cool, but gloriously sunny, and with just enough wind to keep the kite in the air. I loved watching both Sawyer and Isla run up and downhill, stare into the clouds, laugh at their daddy, and gasp when the kite caught in a tree.

Keeping a kite aloft is tenuous endeavor. Some things can be controlled, like noticing the wind’s direction and its pull on the string, attaching the kite’s string for stability, and letting the line out in perfect proportions. Other parts of the process are completely outside your control, like the unpredictability of the wind itself.  So many contrasting emotions. The pure joy in a child’s eyes when the kite take flight. The tears and finality of the moment when a kite breaks off in the trees. The intense concentration when they learn when to hold on, and when to let go.

Not unlike the unpredictable winds of life itself, where I’ve found I have far less control than I once imagined.

the answer is blowin’ in the wind…

* Songwriter: Bob Dylan; Blowin` In the Wind © Special Rider Music, Universal Tunes

**One precursor to our modern “Mother’s Day” came from the abolitionist and suffragette Julia Ward Howe. In 1870 Howe wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” a call to action that asked mothers to unite in promoting world peace. I think she would have liked Dylan’s protest lyrics.

the last two weeks…

April 11th marks 8 months since Isla died.

Every reminder of Isla’s sweet face and contagious laughter sends me back to that last couple of weeks we shared. (I spent some time scrolling her mama’s Instagram page this week.) Many words may yet be written about the last few days of Isla’s short life. When I face the blank page, it’s almost as if I believe if I don’t write it, I can pretend it never happened.

I suppose there was a gift hidden in the fact that we knew it WAS her last few days. Once she came home from the hospital in July, and especially after the family’s quick trip to the ocean, we all knew what was coming. Every single interaction carried this weight of finality, our desire to remember our girl – each grin, every hug, every song and dance. I found myself paying better attention. I made a list of things she said and took lots of pictures.

We traveled to Milwaukee on Friday, July 24th and checked into an AirBnB so we’d be available as needed. When we got to the kids’ house, we were immediately entertained with a magic show created and performed by Sawyer and Isla. She hid me behind a blanket, tapped it with her magic wand and declared, “AS YOU CAN SEE, Nana has disappeared!” Sawyer would remind her how to pronounce the magic word (I’m pretty sure it was alohomora from Harry Potter) and the audience would cheer as I appeared again by lowering the blanket. She did not tire of that game, playing it on repeat till dinner arrived. So many sweet hugs and giggles in between each “disappearance.” We loved having a photo shoot with the family on Saturday, and afterward, Isla and I shared my silly “Shall We Dance?” song, which I made up when her daddy was little.

Our last dance…

We didn’t know at the time, or exactly how, but that weekend was our last two days of “normal” with her.

One of the most difficult challenges of those last two weeks was that in response to one of her meds (and/or the frustration of not understanding what was going on in her little body), Isla became very insistent that only one person at a time (sometimes for an entire day) was “her person.” There were six adults to choose from, and 3 or 4 of us were usually in the house at the same time. But Isla called the shots on who would be her partner for the day, and it was so hard for those not chosen. Imagine traveling across three states to see her and having her push you away. Imagine her mama and daddy pouring their life and soul into her for 3.5 years and seeing her push THEM away. It was excruciating.

The Lord is close to the broken hearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.
Psalm 34:18
Oh, how we longed for that rescue.

“My day” was Friday, July 31st. It started out with Daddy as caregiver while I was cleaning the kitchen. But mid-morning, Michael asked me to take a shift, so Isla and I started playing video games. Thank goodness for her skill – it took me forever to figure out! We helped SpongeBob make pancakes and serve them in his restaurant. We popped bubbles with Daniel Tiger and chose party decorations for “Neighbor Day.” (One of those decorations was an off-season Christmas tree and Isla announced, “I get to put the star on top!” She had, in fact, had that responsibility the previous December, after all.)

Later, Miss Laura (music therapist from Children’s Hospital) came by to play. Not to be content with merely singing and playing instruments, Isla took the hand drum, turned it sideways as a shield and said, “Let’s play good guys and bad guys. Me and Nana are the good guys, and you [Laura] are the bad guy.” She hid us both behind the drum and whispered conspiratorially to me “I’ll protect you, Nana!” We did, eventually, get around to singing a few choruses of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” “Old MacDonald,” and playing “Match the Beats” with the drum. After copying Miss Laura’s rhythm a few times, Isla flipped the script with “Follow my lead!” and enthusiastically dove in to calling the shots.

That was our Isla.

After her nap, she was ready for stories. Reading aloud is a joy of mine, and always, especially with Isla. One we used to share at the hospital was The Hello, Goodbye Window, a story with a girl just about her age. Isla had the whole book memorized and often finished my sentences or corrected anything I missed. We also made a recordable story book for her and instead of saying “Granddaughter” I recorded “Isla – you make the whole world grand!” Evidently she remembered that, since mama later caught a random video of her saying, with tremendous delight, “I make the whole world grand!!!” And she most certainly did.

On this particular day, she was so cuddly and affectionate. “Can I lean against you, Nana? I love you, Nana.” I obliged, of course, as we read about Curious George and Daniel Tiger. One story included a picnic at the park that was threatened by bees, which led to an impromptu game of pretend. She would pinch her finger and thumb together, buzz it around in front of her and then “sting” me. Then she would give it a kiss to make it feel better and ask me to do the same to her.

Later that evening the family had friends join us for dinner and we were playing outside with the kids. Isla was in the swing and started to act a little sleepy. I was pushing the swing, but she seemed to intuit that we were getting ready to head back to our place for the night.

“Are you still behind me, Nana?”

Yes, sweet girl, I’m still behind you.

“Can I give you a kiss on the cheek?”

Of course, you can.
(I came around to the front of the swing and crouched down to oblige)

“Now you give me one.”

You bet.
(I loved how Isla could direct a scene with clarity and authority!)

“I love you, Nana. I don’t want you to leave.”

I love you too, Isla.
(I don’t want you to leave either.)

Our last words.
Our special day.
One special day in the last two weeks of a terribly long year.

Mary, Did You Know?

Choosing to believe when you don’t understand…

Mark Lowry’s famous song has prompted plenty of pushback from theologians who recognize that both Gabriel’s message (Luke 1:26-38) and Mary’s own song (Luke 1:46-55) indicate she knew plenty about who her boy would become. She knew that he would be “great…the son of the Most High,” and that he would rule over David’s descendants in an eternal kingdom (v 31-33). She knew that he would be God’s son (v 35) and that his name would mean “God saves” (v31). And she knew (whether the angel told her, or the Holy Spirit prompted her) that this Jesus would lift up the humble, scatter the proud, fill the hungry, and send away the rich (v 51-53).

But the more I studied about Mary this month, the more I realized she didn’t know. I can’t imagine she knew what Simeon meant when he said, “a sword would pierce [her] soul, too” (Luke 2:35). I bet she didn’t know that while she escaped to Egypt with her husband and newborn son, many other mothers would be weeping over the death of their baby boys (Matt 2:13-18). I don’t think she knew her son would be ready to debate the teachers of the law by the age of 12 (Luke 2:41-50). When she told Jesus to “turn the water into wine,” (John 2), I don’t think she realized the ramifications his public ministry would have. And I will also speculate that she was counting on a Messiah that would save from Roman oppression, not one who would die a horrific death on a cross. I speculate on all these points, imagining her conversation with Luke many years after Jesus’ ascension.

Mary didn’t know what God was doing throughout much of Jesus’ earthly life. I think that’s why she’s described as “pondering” things in her heart (Luke 2:19, 51). As Luke interviews her, she’s not just remembering the little boy she raised – she’s thinking about the theological significance of how she saw the “Messiah-story” play out in Jesus’ life, through his ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. She didn’t always understand why her life – her son’s life – turned out differently than she planned. But even when she doesn’t know what God is doing, God is faithfully executing his plans. And even when we don’t understand our circumstances or storms, God is keeping his promises.

Promises God actually makes. Not promises we think God SHOULD make.

I’ve been hearing about God keeping promises all my life – from my parents, in Sunday school, in sermons, and reading the Bible for myself. But recently I’ve struggled to believe that when I didn’t understand what God was doing. Like this past summer, when our 3-year-old granddaughter lost her battle with leukemia. 

Back in March, I shared during a worship service about our experience. I think on a very subconscious level, I thought if I proclaimed my testimony, then God would honor my obedience with her healing. Even the story of Job ends with God restoring his health, his fortune, and family. I shared confidently that “we can’t control what tomorrow will bring. But we can choose to trust God’s presence in the middle of the pain, in the middle of the doubt, in the middle of the suffering.” So, I chose a posture of surrender toward God’s plans, before I knew the outcome. 

But secretly, I thought God was going to heal her. 

Then in July we heard words no parent or grandparent wants to hear – “there’s nothing else we can do.” Even then, I was still holding onto a thread of hope, believing every day God would show up and FIX this. Believing God would restore Isla’s health like he did for Job. Just two days before her death, I finally realized I was going to have to do my own letting go. Of control. Of fear. Of assumptions. Of expectations. I was going to have to choose to follow God, even when I didn’t understand what God was doing, before I knew the outcome, just like Mary. 

See, God’s blessing doesn’t exempt us from suffering, and God’s favor isn’t something we earn with good behavior. God never promises we won’t go through storms. What God actually promises is to be with us in the middle of them.  And we have to choose to stay in the boat no matter the weather, believing God’s promises regardless of the storm. 

God’s promises are not limited by time and space, by class or race, or gender.
Even when we don’t understand, God is keeping his promises.
I’m choosing to believe that.

This post is based on a sermon written and presented with Mark Ashton at Christ Community Church, Dec 20, 2020. Some of our inspiration for the Wise Women series came from the following resources:
ECS Ministry Resource Center, #SermonStarters series on Instagram
Garbe, Theresa. “Christ-Bearers.”
Frady, Julie R. “Behaving Like Mary: Reexamining Mary’s Encounter with Gabriel.”
McEachern, Katie. “Mary the Brave: Neither Meek nor Superhuman. Mowczko, Marg. “Christmas Cardology 2: Mary’s Scandal and Favor.”

Giving Thanks at the Table

a communion meditation shared at Christ Community Church on Oct 25, 2020

I’ve missed hosting meals during the pandemic, and I’m really looking forward to the Thanksgiving holiday. I love planning the menu, decorating the mantle, and setting the table in advance of my guests’ arrival. I invite the people I love the most, make the foods they love the most, and set a place for everyone who was invited.

Certainly, every Thanksgiving dinner celebration is different. There are regional differences in the menu, long standing traditions about table settings, and family preferences of watching football or running the Turkey trot. Whether your family is a Turkey and dressing family, a ham and sweet potatoes family, or even a popcorn and toast, Charlie Brown family, we want our focus to be on the people around the table and our gratitude for the host, and not on the food we share.

The same might be said of communion where traditions vary across the country. Depending on your denomination, you might remember passing silver trays of individual cups or walking to the front of a sanctuary to dip bread into a common cup. When we moved here from TN, our small group gave us this chalice and plate, a reminder of the ones we used there. In our COVID reality, we use individually wrapped cups and sit 6 feet apart. Those at home might use saltine crackers or cheese-its.

But no matter the tradition, we want our focus to be not on the food we share, but on the people around the table and our gratitude for the host. Our host is Jesus. Our union at this table is because of Jesus, the bread of Life, and not because of the type of bread we might choose.

Our communion celebration is based on a past event, when Jesus invited his disciples to eat a final Passover meal with him. A meal he invited even Judas to share. When we picture the people around our Thanksgiving table, we think of those who are dearest to us. But where Jesus is the host, we look around the table and see people who are different than us. People who may dress differently, speak differently, vote differently. When Jesus is the host, the people around the table matter to us, too.

All are invited. All are welcome.

Our communion celebration is also centered on gratitude. Each time the story is told in scripture, Jesus doesn’t offer the bread and the wine until “after he had given thanks.” You may have heard the word Eucharist used to describe communion which comes from the Greek for “giving thanks.” When we take communion together, we first give thanks to the one who is our host. To the one whose death and deliverance we remember.

Who are the people around your table? If you think of your Thanksgiving meal, maybe, like me, you’ll sadly think of empty chairs. Just 4 years ago, I had thanksgiving with my parents. Two years ago, our granddaughter Isla sat next to me. Those chairs will be empty this year, and while we still celebrate, our hearts will be as broken as the bread.

What we celebrate today is only a shadow of the beautiful gathering awaiting us when Jesus returns, when all his followers will feast at the wedding supper of the lamb. The God who invites us to that feast will look around at the empty seats with a broken heart. But today, the invitation stands. And all are welcome.

God is faithful – do you believe this?

What is your normal response when God seems late?
There are many Biblical reminders that even when God doesn’t make sense, God is faithful. Even when we have doubts, God is present.

The first reminder is in John 11, where Martha shares an extended discourse with Jesus about her brother’s death. Martha believes in Jesus’ power. She trusts in Jesus’ ability to affect change. She is not an outsider to the life of faith. And even before Jesus speaks, we see that Martha knows several things.

  1. She knows Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death.
  2. She knows that God will give Jesus whatever he asks.
  3. She knows that Lazarus will rise again at the last resurrection.

Yet Jesus still needs to remind her of his power over death, of his existence as both resurrection and life. I imagine Jesus leaning in toward Martha, just to make sure she understands what he’s saying, as he asks Do you believe this?

Martha needed to be reminded that even when God didn’t make sense, God was faithful; that even when God seemed late, God was present.

Another reminder is from Psalm 78. Far more than random personal prayers collected into a unified book, the Psalms were intentional, fixed forms that were used in worshipping communities and transmitted from generation to generation. In fact, the same Psalm notes “we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the lord, the wonders God has done.” With Psalm 78, the Psalmist records dozens of events in the history of Israel where God intervened and met their needs. So as the Israelites gathered to worship, even during the Babylonian captivity, they sang these Psalms to encourage each other. Verse by verse, the Israelites are reminded of God’s faithfulness, and I imagine God leaning toward his people after each reminder to ask Do you believe this?

God divided the sea and led them through – he split the rock and gave them water…But they speak out against God and ask “Can God really spread a table in the wilderness?”

So the Psalmist replies God rained down manna for them to eat, he gave them all the food they could eat. “Do you believe this?

The Israelites needed to be reminded that even when God didn’t make sense, God was faithful; that even when God seemed late, God was present.

Of course, sometimes I need to be reminded too, and no more frequently than this past year. When a child dies, and God fails to “show up on time for a miracle,” I need to be reminded of God’s faithful presence. I take comfort in knowing that even the disciples who followed Jesus the most closely struggled with this. Remember in Mark 6, when they see Jesus feed a crowd of 5000+ and then TWO CHAPTERS LATER (!) they ask “But where in this remote place can we get enough bread to feed 4000 people???”  The disciples needed a reminder that even when God didn’t make sense, God was faithful; that even when God seems late, God was present.

Finally, the disciples need another reminder in Acts 1. They’ve seen Jesus crucified and raised, and he’s about to ascend to heaven. So the disciples ask “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were still assuming Jesus would be a political savior who would set up an earthly kingdom. But Jesus reminds them “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”

You see, to those disciples, Jesus was late at getting his kingdom established. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual one. So our responsibility as Christians is to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth…

  1. By living into the power of the Holy Spirit and being God’s witnesses in our neighborhoods, in our region, and in our nation.
  2. By breaking down barriers and showing hospitality to strangers because all are welcome at God’s table.
  3. By treating all people as equal in rights and dignity because all are created in God’s image.
  4. By being willing to listen to those with whom we disagree, because dialogue builds community while silence breeds separation.

In this difficult election season, where friends have lashed out against friends, where fear has overtaken faith, and where walls are being erected in place of bridges, we need to cling to each other in solidarity and call out for justice in the face of oppression. We need to continue doing kingdom work whether or not the political system is broken, whether or not our neighborhoods are broken, whether or not our hearts are broken.

We need to be reminded that even when God doesn’t make sense, God is faithful.
We need to be reminded that even when God seems late, God is present.
Do you believe this?

This was originally shared as a communion meditation at Grandview Christian Church, fall 2016

Home is where the heart is…

Home should be where the heart is
Never were words so true
My heart’s far, far away
Home is too.

There’s a map of the United States in my kitchen, with pins marking cities where dear friends and family live. When you make college memories in both Michigan and Arkansas, and move across the country twice in a decade, you leave a trail of memories marked by time and place. Bits and pieces of my heart are left behind in the lives of others.  Imprints from others exist on my own life and heart. I’m a different person than I was when I left home at 18, or even when I left for seminary at 49. For this, I am truly thankful. As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can’t go home again” and even if I could, neither home nor I would be the same.

I’m not the first to recognize that sometimes friends are more like family, and sometimes family shapes us as much in their absence as they did with their presence. Who we are is due, in part, to those who invested in us years ago. But “who we are” is also shaped by those who preceded our generation without any intentional investment at all. Their existence shaped us indirectly by the choices they made, the places they lived, and the people they loved. I’ve sometimes been surprised at how easily I found my way “home” in new cities, new churches, new communities. It may be because I’ve offered my heart in new relationships wherever I’ve lived. I’ve always discovered new people and places to treasure – and “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). My map of memories is marked with heart-shaped pins in recognition and celebration of that.

There’s a place called home I can almost see
With a red front door and a roaring fire and a Christmas tree
Yes a place called home…full of love and family
And I’m there at the door watching you come home to me…

My mom died earlier this month after a long illness and the painful effects of separation during COVID while in an assisted living facility in Arizona. I doubt that she thought of that room, however sunny and spacious it was, as “home.” Each time she had to downsize some (3 times in 3 years) it broke her heart to let go of more possessions. She was longing for home – the home she’d curated for years. In her mind, home always included husband and kids (and later, grandkids). Home was family. Home was a kitchen filled with good smells and large quantities of baked goods. Home was being surrounded by family photos, dad’s puzzles, and furnishings she loved. On second thought, maybe she felt a little “at home,” since she did have some favorite furnishings and nearly all the family photos.

Except for a brief, outdoor visit on Mother’s Day, even my brother and sister in law in Phoenix weren’t allowed to visit very often. They would stop by and chat through the window screen. We would call or FaceTime from out of state, but towards the end Mom struggled to hold onto her phone, or understand what to click (or not). Sometimes when we talked, her mental clarity was fading, and she spoke of “going home from work” and “making cookies yesterday.” She thought she was back home in Indiana. I’m sure in these last few months, she was missing family. And in her mind, family was a jumble of those still living, and those who’d passed on. She was longing for home – a different one.

This world is not my home, I’m just a’ passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

The last year has been a painful season of loss for our family. With our granddaughter’s diagnosis in July 2019, we entered a world of hospitals, chemo, questions, and fear. A few months later, my dad passed unexpectedly after a short illness, weary of life and day to day caregiving. Isla and my mom entered hospice care, miles apart but within days of each other. And after Isla died August 11th, we said our goodbyes to mom only weeks later. The older I get, the more loss I experience, the less I feel “at home” here on earth. The more I long for home.

When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing
It would sure be nice to be back home where there’s love and affection…

We all long for home, even if “home” means something different to you than it does to me. If your parents provided you with “love overflowing” but it seems lacking today, you think longingly of that earlier time. If you were in a relationship that ended painfully, looking back on happier times may be easier than imagining what’s next or what’s new. But to be fair, all of life is a mix of blessings and curses, highlights and dark days. We may look back nostalgically to our memory of home, but we know there were good days and bad then, just like in our current reality. When we were in them, they weren’t necessarily the “good old days.” Our longings are elusive. We’re not really sure what we need. But God knows. God is the only one who can satisfy. You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you… Because your love is better than life… (Ps.63:1–4)

“Sometimes I feel lost,” said the boy.
“Me too,” said the mole, “but we love you, and love brings you home.
I think everyone is just trying to get home.”
“Home isn’t always a place, is it?” *

When all seems lost, when death wins, when chaos reigns, we long for home.
But longing for home will prove insufficient. Home is not a place, but a person.

Only Jesus is a steady rock on which to lean. A home for our longing hearts.
Always, only, Jesus

*from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse (Mackesy, 2019)

A Time for Everything: the Life Cycle of Cosmos and Butterflies

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die… (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Nothing about the death of a child makes sense.

In our limited, logical understanding of life and death, of time and mortality, we expect death to come for the elderly. And as we ourselves grow older, it is always and only those “even older” than us that we identify of as “elderly.” There is a paradox often mentioned that as we age, time seems to pass with even greater voracity and speed. What seems like only a moment ago was my high school graduation. What happened yesterday is often forgotten.

Parts of the last year seem to have taken very long indeed. So much waiting. Such a long winter. Certainly spring will come – but how long? Yet, parts of this last year vanished like a mist with Isla. When I was at the hospital with her in July, we laughed and sang and looked forward to healing and transplant and…life. Now, only 8 weeks later, time is flipped on its head and death leaves us waiting again for spring, for resurrection.

Spring in the Midwest is its own paradox, sending out hyacinths in February only to be blanketed by snow in March. Wednesday’s sunny breeze invites hope, but Friday’s bitter wind confirms a cold reality. But spring eventually came, right? It is possible I missed it this year. But even during COVID, we still had daffodils and 70 degree days and new shoots of green grass.

In the heat of an August afternoon, we forget.

“Teach us to number our days…” (Ps 90).

When I dream of spring, a couple of images come to mind. One is a butterfly, a perpetual reminder of rebirth, transformation, and resurrection. Isla loved reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Eric Carle did his homework on that one – caterpillars really do eat and eat and eat, multiplying their weight exponentially! How fascinating to see an egg hatch into caterpillar who makes a cocoon, before the stunning metamorphosis into a butterfly! What kind of creator goes to all that trouble for the beauty of a butterfly, whose life cycle ranges only from a week to a few months?

Another image is a flower…in so many shapes and colors that it’s not one picture, but dozens. From the earliest lily of the valley to April lilacs; from June roses to the sunflowers towering overhead in August, here is another species where God simply shows off.  Their fleeting beauty and lasting fragrance are visual reminders that creativity and beauty are part of our heritage as God’s image-bearers. Isla loved flowers too, including the tiny yellow ones she gave me in May, now pressed in my bible.

That same month, just after the kids found out Isla would need the trial drug before transplant, Autumn ordered beautiful matching necklaces with an imprint of a cosmos bloom for herself and Isla. Regarding her choice, she wrote, “Not only is cosmos the flower for her birth month, October, but it represents peace, wholeness and joy in life. Cosmos is a hearty flower than can thrive in a variety of soils and conditions much like Isla.” And Isla did thrive in a variety of conditions, her young personality evolving from shy toddler to courageous preschooler during her year in the hospital. She won the hearts of doctors and nurses, therapists, and friends with her fierce determination and joyful spirit, even in the midst of leukemia treatments.

I wish Cosmos were perennial.

Hope does not disappoint… (Rom 5)

Autumn’s post continues, “It is my hope that her body will find wholeness, our family can find peace, and the years ahead will be filled with joy…” Reading her post again today reminded of the scripture that says  “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom 5:3-5).

I’ve seen suffering produce endurance, character, and hope in our family this year.
But I choke on the phrase hope does not disappoint…

Hope disappointed us this time.
Isla’s body did not find wholeness. Peace is still illusive. Joy seems unimaginable.

And then, I remember the butterfly.

For those of us who believe in the power of metamorphosis, of resurrection, we trust that her body will find wholeness in transformation, in the wonder of a life to come.

We believe that which is sown in weakness is raised in power (1 Cor 15:43).

We believe that the peace of God surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7) even when the death of this child doesn’t make any logical sense.

We believe that the God of hope will fill [us] with all joy and peace (Rom 15:13).

Maybe not today. But there’s a time for everything…