Sunday, October 18, 2015

The legacy of an overcomer

Many of you know that my mom's battle with congestive heart failure began years ago. In fact, she had open heart surgery requiring 5 bypasses seventeen years ago on my daughter, Alyssa's,  birthday which is also Valentine's Day. At the time she was very unhappy to be told the bipasses were only guaranteed to last 5-10 years. Eventually she changed her outlook and began to to take on an "I'll show them" attitude...which she did. A few years ago she was informed that she had a heart valve that needed to be replaced. It was again a tough road as she was not strong enough  to undergo another open heart surgery. Eventually, after many tests, procedures, and trips to Philly, she was approved for a new procedure to be completed at University of Penn. That was 2 years ago this past February, unbelievably, on Valentine's Day once again. Mom redefined "heart day" for us! Unfortunately her new valve wasn't able to seal correctly and the years since have been an up and down of heart failure symptoms. 
In the week before my mom's passing the passage from Philippians 4:11-13 found its way to me multiple times and I found myself thinking on it reads:

"11... for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."

My mom was born in 1930, meaning she grew up during the Great Depression. And while her frugal ways of saving and reusing baggies, aluminum foil, and plastic-ware may suggest otherwise, she has told me that she was a lucky one during that time for having grown up on a chicken farm she never went without food on the table. When her family took things to market in the city they saw people who knew what it was to be in want. I know without a doubt there was a different kind of struggle that went on during her childhood....but she was very reluctant to discuss having a mother who was sick or the loss of each of her brothers.  Rather she told us stories of car trips with favorite aunts and uncles and how very precious her grandparents were to her. This past summer she shared multiple times the joy she felt running and jumping to climb the hay mow in the barn and that she even started to dream about it at night.  She, like Paul from Philippians, knew what it was to be content in any situation...Mom often said that "she made up her mind" to have hope and a positive outlook. It was a decision she chose. It was not unusual for mom to respond to questions with "I am satisfied" and if pressed for more of an opinion I can just hear her answer, "no, really, I'm content...whatever is decided I am fine"".
The actual definition of content is: satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else. And she grasped it.

In 1950 mom married a painter decorator who became a business owner, but she  continued to make gardening and food prep a priority. She enjoyed the work of a garden. Each spring began her quest of who would she convince to rototill her garden and where could she find good fertilizer. To me she became oddly joyful at the prospect of some rich manure being dumped on her garden...she seemed to think she hit the lottery! I remember long hours spent at our truck patch over where the back entrance to the Souderton high school now sits. She loved to feed her family fresh food and get her basement shelves and freezer stocked. She accommodated  my dad's hunting hobby with recipes for venison, rabbit and squirrel pie, which I despised just as much as oyster stew. And for the record, ketchup does NOT make everything taste better. Her love of homemaking makes sense though, when you consider how it allowed her to take food she saw as basically free and rich with fresh vitamins and provide for her family and friends as an act of love. My mom completely mourned the loss of gardening over the past few summers and eventually settled on tomato and squash planted outside her door...despite my complaints that I thought it looked tacky. The last few years she  felt regretful that we cooked for her and she came "empty handed". Sometimes she still tried her hand at baking and ate half a cupcake just to insist someone come and fetch the rest.  As recent as two weeks ago mom suggested we figure a way for her to get apples from "up on Washington avenue" with plans to make pink applesauce.
(Mom, I will still try to get those apples so we have pink sauce at the holidays while we reminisce about you.)

 My moms life changed dramatically when my dad passed away 6 years ago on September 12th, same day as her son and her grand daughter's  birthdays...and now the date of her memorial service. As I hinted, the only thing mom ever spoke of with sadness was death. Despite her pride of earning, through a mail course, a nurse's diploma in her younger days, she didn't like seeing people sick or suffer and she deeply grieved losing those she cared for. She didn't like music or flowers that reminded her of funerals. She didn't like to talk about things of that nature. After dad died she missed things like going out for Saturday evening at a diner, road trips to Lancaster, and bus tours, but she fell into a new routine, thanks to her family, friends, and church. And again, thanks to her ability to be content at home reading her favorite devotional, cookbooks, baking, and watching her beloved Dr. Becker and other doctor programs. And while she felt the loss of my dad, and mentioned that to me just recently as we took a drive, she thoroughly delighted in hearing about the grandchildren. Growing up, our parents believed that expressing pride in us would encourage us to become prideful, a sin, so we went without hearing much about  that. However, I am quite sure that they were proud of their 9 grandchildren. Mom loved to talk about their schooling, their work, their activities, their relationships. While it frustrated us that she was so opposed to having help come to assist her, thankfully, if a grand daughter offered to clean or cook or weed her eyes lit up!  

I didn't finish reading the passage from Philippians 4, specifically verse 13. Verse 13 is often used more on a regular basis than the previous two verses. it reads:
"I can do all things through Christ. He gives me the strength." 

So often we isolate this verse and we apply it to only encourage us to do the impossible....that we can do it all and have it all. In this age of the popular prosperity gospel of health and wealth, we need to recognize that the verse is in response to the unpopular fact that we WILL have times of need and want, followers of Christ or not. I like the fact that this verse is written in direct support of “I can be content in any situation.”  When we talk about our mom- her growing up, raising a family, and health struggles-we often refer to her as an OVERCOMER. And while I believe mom was proud of you grandchildren for your school work, music abilities, teaching, church work, cooking, nurturing, and love for each other, I believe something else blessed her more. She watched you as you yourselves have been in times of need....she's prayed for your times of anxiety, Stihls disease, Klein Levine syndrome, cerebral palsy, crazy allergies, learning disabilities, and each and every rough patch. After years of her OWN ups and downs, I believe mom concluded that contentment is not based on your possessions, but on who possesses your heart, namely Jesus. I KNOW she was concerned and delighted for each of you to also choose Jesus to possess your heart and life, and that through Him and his salvation, you too are also overcomers. The best way to honor our mom, your mom mom, is to expect times of plenty and times of want, knowing you will Overcome through Christ who gives you the strength, and rest in his contentment. That, I believe, is her legacy for us. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Under a broom tree, on the Jersey shore, in the Rwandan desert

I just enjoyed an overnight at the beach. Seemed like bad timing with all the stress and loss over the month, but it had been planned long ago and I was determined to keep the outing. The twins had a day off of school on Wednesday followed by our oldest having a rare day off from her internship Friday due to the Popes visit to Philly. We are blessed by friendship with a family who shared their home at the beach which I made  "home base" while I taxied the kiddos back and forth. I did attempt to stay "down the shore" in the middle so a friend could join me to take a deep breath but it didn't come together. We will need to find another opportunity to smash things. You see, ever since the news that her daughter in law had passed away I've just desired to smash something...anything! And as the month brought more and more stress and grief to us the desire just stuck around. My plan was for she and I to take on the shoreline at Long Beach Island and just stomp on any shell looking even partially whole. Just imagine the satisfying crunch that could make. Shoes on, of course. We would've crushed until our hearts felt more whole in comparison to all those broken pieces. That was the plan.

Wednesday went well and our friends thrilled the twins with a fabulous final boat ride on the first day of autumn. We arrived back home tired but satisfied. Thursday I paced around waiting for word that I could meet my daughter at a train station enroute to the New Jersey turnpike. Once the text came I delighted in meeting her amidst all the hubbub of city commuters and headed off. Good thing we had that beautiful drive, dinner, and sunset because Friday dawned downright windy..."tear a kite from its strings" windy.

Like I mentioned, this day was planned months in advance and we were determined that this day on the beach was to become a reality. Gathering up our blanket, books, and towels we trudged down to the seaside, mildly disagreeing on the spot to set up camp. We settled on a middle ground, she trying to avoid the extra chill from the ocean waves and I trying to minimize the sting from the wind blown sand. In the end it didn't matter. We tried huddling on our blanket while the winds whipped and pelted the fine sand into every exposed piece of skin.

I tried to distract myself with my husband's books I had snuck into my bag only to cause the seems of every page to become encrusted with sand and to watch the page of notes he used as his bookmark go flying down the coast at lightening speed. So much for being sneaky.  (Please God, don't let those notes be anything he hoped to look at again!) After repositioning a millionth time, I finally remembered that repeating the same process produces the same result and decided to jump up and take a walk down the beach instead.

It was more like a trudging march, somewhat because of the wind and the rest because of my attitude. I took off sing-yelling because there was no one else crazy enough to call it a beach day and hear me. And, even if there had been, the wind and waves swallowed up all sounds. After a while I finally spent enough energy to grow quiet. And that is when I saw it. A beautiful little sand dollar. I've always loved finding shells, evident by all the glass jars I have filled with them. I have been especially delighted by sand dollars after I first discovered the treasures down south. Maybe it's because of their "legend" with the symbols of Jesus or maybe because they are treasures filled with more hidden treasures inside-five tiny "doves" should you decide to break one open.  But this was the Jersey shore. Yet here it was. And another...and another. It reminded me of the days when our children were just little and someone from our group of friends would plan an activity to keep the kids happy, invariably a candy scramble. After someone scattered the bags of candy on the lawn and handed out paper lunch bags they would run around scooping up treats until the grass was picked clean. It felt like God had come   through the shoreline and tossed handfuls of sand dollars just to delight and entertain me...and it worked. And that is when I heard it...

1 Kings 19:11-13

"...Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

After a month of "freaking out" on the inside following two deaths, beginning to clean out my mom's home, fighting insurance over wheelchairs, seeking help from state reps and congressmen, fighting to get to settlement to adapt and modify a one story home,  having a car totaled, a school aid hurt badly in an accident, and a daughter sick in Rwanda I finally took a step away from the noise and heard that still small voice. As I wished for a brown lunch bag to hold my handful of sand dollars I wondered at God sending me this joy just for my pleasure, that His creation is so intricate, and He is the maker of all. I studied the little shells again, trying not to crush them, marveling that they were so incredibly fragile and yet lay here next to the raging Jersey shoreline with winds whipping up sand. Fragile and resilient. Just like us. And I thanked Him for bringing me this joy. I could've been content looking for shells and finding some of the snail-like shaped ones and the glittering coin shaped thingys (why yes, those ARE their scientific names) but He sent me sand dollars when I expected nothing except clam shells to stomp on. As I made my way back to my blanket trying not to spill my cache I had another thought: while I had been concentrating so thoroughly on finding those sand dollar treasures I no longer felt the sting of the sand on my skin.  The wind hadn't stopped, but my focus had changed. I knew what God was saying... I need to keep seeking Him despite the storms.  

I'd like to say I returned home fresh and rejuvenated, but that just isn't where I am on this journey. When I needed to duct tape a wheelchair Sunday morning while AAA repaired my flat tire I felt the stinging sand in my soul. But God is good...all the time. We still made it to church in time for the second service and I chose to sit in a different spot to pout about my morning.

How unexpected, and yet not, when our pastor had us turn to 1 Kings 19 for our passage...the same book and chapter of the verses God had given me on the beach. I didn't know the context of the verses about God sometimes speaking in a roaring wind and sometimes a still small voice, but as our pastor announced his theme as "not letting our circumstances define God's love for us, but rather letting God's love define our circumstances" I knew I was about to find out. God didn't disappoint! 

When my daughter's iMessages from Rwanda came though today describing her worsening symptoms and resulting treatment for Malaria I still had some melt down moments. Honestly, I threw a bag of frozen edamame across the room to see if it made me feel better. Not really, so I ate it for lunch. The entire bag. Hey, it's ok. Our pastor showed us Sunday that in 1 Kings 19:3-4 Elijah pouted, hoped to die, and complained,

"He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said."

So God responded by sending an angel to take care of his human needs:

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 

See! And besides, edamame is packed with fiber, protein and vitamins. I should be set for today! I was a little distressed, however, that just three days after joyfully scooping up a bowlful of treats in my private little sand dollar "scramble" I could become so easily thrown by the winds again. But that is how I am...fragile and resilient. Distracted and refocused. Discouraged and encouraged. 

Do you know what my favorite part of those candy scrambles from years ago had been? It was when the kids would come back with their bags and offer up a favorite candy to share with us. It struck me so funny since we were the purchasers of the candy and had we really wanted a special candy we could've kept it. After all, they had belonged to us before we signaled the beginning of the search. But the candy became that much sweeter when offered back to us, especially when the offering was the best chocolate or rare caramel cream and not just a peppermint. 

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling a bit trampled in the search these days. I want to be grateful and freely give back my best. I want to keep my focus on Him, His goodness...even in the storms, especially the storms, knowing that focusing on Him can minimize the sting and give me a fresh perspective. I want to let God's love define my circumstances.  

                                                   There's a lovely little legend

that I would like to tell,
of the birth and death of Jesus,
found in this lowly shell.

If you examine closely,
you'll see that you find here,
four nail holes and a fifth one,
made by a Roman's spear.

On one side the Easter lily, 
its center is the star, 
that appeared unto the shepherds
and led them from afar.

The Christmas Poinsettia 
etched on the other side,
reminds us of His birthday,
our happy Christmastide.

Now break the center open,
and here you will release,
the five white doves awaiting,
to spread Good Will and Peace.

This simple little symbol,
Christ left for you and me,
to help us spread His Gospel,
through all Eternity.

Author Unknown