Difficult things

This morning, while I was walking my 3rd grade son to school, he asked me the question which I hear nearly every morning: “Why do we have to walk to school when we have a car to drive?” Like many questions, this one can’t only be taken at face value. I have given him plenty reasons for walking, such as the fresh air, the opportunity to chat, not wanting to add to the pollution from cars. He knows these answers, and normally he will begrudgingly agree with them, but he doesn’t like them because he just doesn’t want to walk. He will point to his sore knee or how much his coach worked him at practice the night before or how it’s too cold/too hot/too windy/too cloudy. His excuses have no effect on me, for I am Drill Sargent Mom and he’s my fourth elementary kid to walk to school.

 

I told him that when he’s a dad, he’ll have to make his kids do difficult things, too. He disagreed and informed me that he’ll always let them take the easy way. He said, “I won’t make them walk to school. I won’t make them put away their laundry or clean their rooms. And I will do their homework for them.” Though I adore these imaginary, future grandchildren, I’m afraid they will be really miserable to babysit.

 

I asked him, “If you want to get big muscles, do you lift a feather a bunch of times or a heavy weight?” Too smart to be entrapped and too cranky about walking to play along, he said, “I would pick the feather. I am already strong, so it doesn’t really matter what I use.”

 

When Moses wrote the Book of Deuteronomy, he knew that we parents have to continually explain things to our children, including why we sometimes take the more difficult path. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (NIV)

 

He said that the Lord was about to give them a beautiful Promised Land, full of crops they didn’t plant and cities they didn’t build and wells they didn’t dig. It was going to be great, but there was work involved and commitment. Moses went on to say that in the future your children will ask, “Why do we have all these laws and commandments?” They will do the thing children are supposed to do—ask questions. Then the adults should explain the reasons: how living in this land is better than being a slave in Egypt, how the journey was difficult but the promised reward was greater, how having a covenant with the One and Only God was a relationship worth pursuing.

 

Moses knew that having children ask questions is so important that he also mentioned it as he explains the details about the first Passover feast. More than 2,000 years ago, Jewish rabbis included such questions in the Haggadah, or the program for the Passover meal. The youngest child asks questions about the meal, such as, why do we eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs on this night? If you’ve ever chomped down on a mouthful of grated horseradish or prefer a fluffy yeast roll over a chunk of matzah, these are good questions.

 

So I’ll keep on answering my son’s questions and pushing him to do difficult things. He doesn’t understand the power of pushing ourselves and finding our weaknesses. But it’s not like I’ve got it all figured out either. I’m trying to get to the place where I can say what the Apostle Paul said about doing difficult things: “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (NLT)

Donut cloud

A few days before we took our twin daughters to different cities to move into their respective college dorm rooms, I found myself in a parking lot sitting in my van at our older son’s soccer practice attempting to concentrate enough to read a book. Though it was mid-August, it was especially breezy and almost pleasant.

I looked up and noticed a strange cloud in the evening sky. It looked like a ginormous, fluffy donut with the sun shining through the hole. I snapped a picture of it with my phone and tried to get back to my detective novel and the page I had already read ten times without comprehension or any idea of who the murderer was.

 

Seconds later, I glanced back up at the sky again and saw that the donut cloud had disappeared, blown away by the gusty wind.

The moment was gone, and I suddenly found myself crying. It didn’t help that I was also watching a dad heft two pink bikes which belonged to his young daughters into the back of his pickup truck. One of the girls was pouting because she didn’t want to leave, but the dad barely registered her disappointment. As he continued to load up, the girl grouchily made her way to the back seat of the truck, moving in that way that kids do when they want to show their resistance to a command while simultaneously obeying you. Her arms hung limply at her sides and her feet moved forward an inch at a time without bending her knees.

 

I knew that my tears weren’t really about clouds or even hot pink bicycles. I knew I was feeling the weight of my daughters’ approaching departure from home, just as I knew they were ready to go and on their way to great things. Over the weekend before they moved out, I’ll admit I was pretty teary-eyed. It got so bad that our 9-year old noticed. One day he warily approached me and said, “Hey, mom. That’s a nice shirt. Where did you get it?” I looked down and saw I was wearing the $5 gray Old Navy flag shirt which we each owned an identical version of. I could tell it was time to get myself together.

 

I needed some strategies to survive this new phase. I was already planning to avoid going in my girls’ shared bedroom. I wasn’t going to sit on their beds and stroke their bedspreads and smell the clothes they left behind. Uh-uh. No way. That’s a suicide mission. Instead, I started praying. I began a dialogue with God about what I was feeling and fearing. I told him I was blessed and beholden. I asked him to protect them and point them in the right direction. And I consistently received the same 4-word sentences: “Your world is expanding” and “God is big enough”.

Additionally, a couple of Scriptures have begun a rotation in my thoughts:

“Stop and consider the wonderful miracles of God! Do you know how God controls the storm and causes the lightning to flash from his clouds? Do you understand how he moves the clouds with wonderful perfection and skill?” (Job 37)

“I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32)

Nearly a week after the donut cloud, my girls were all moved into their new rooms—curtains and pictures were hung, throw pillows were fluffed and area rugs were unfurled. (I’m guessing this will be a really different process with my next kids…two boys) Now I can see why my heart is feeling this heaviness. What I’m realizing is that it’s not just that I’ll miss them—their help with their younger brothers, their stories after school and before bedtime, their general presence in the kitchen while I’m cooking or on the sofa while I’m watching TV—it’s an acknowledgement that things will never quite be the same. It’s like that fleeting moment with the donut cloud. The new cloud arrangement wasn’t bad, in fact it was doing just what clouds are supposed to do—move and change and re-form. I’m just happy I looked up from my book in time to see it.

Rivals

Like many sports-loving, competitive 9-year olds, my son Ezra loves to talk about rivals. While watching a football or basketball or soccer game on TV, he’ll point to the two teams and ask his daddy, “Are they big rivals?” He wants to know the stakes for that game, how important it is to the players and the fans.

 

And it doesn’t just apply to sports. He recently asked me about other rivalries. “Who’s Chick-Fil-A’s rival?” he asked. I guessed Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then he asked, “Who’s orange juice’s rival?” That one threw me. I thought a minute, then I answered that I thought it should be toothpaste because of what happens when a freshly brushed mouth takes a sip of orange juice. He rolled his eyes and said, “No, Mom, it’s apple juice.”

 

I asked him to explain his answer. He opened up the refrigerator and pointed to the spot where the orange juice and apple juice sat, side-by-side. “Daddy said rivals live close together,” he declared as he shut the refrigerator door and strutted away, proud of his profound analysis.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Watching Auburn play Alabama on a fall day is exciting. And when the game is over, fans from both sides go on with their weekends, (mostly) without hating each other. There are rivalries in business: Coke vs. Pepsi, Microsoft vs. Apple, McDonald’s vs. Burger King. These rivalries create a strong market where businesses are encouraged to compete for consumers’ cash with better products and prices.

 

But there are rivalries that shouldn’t exist, mostly created by a fear of being replaced or forgotten. A certain amount of sibling rivalry is to be expected, but when jealousy and mistreatment changes brothers and sisters from friends to enemies, it’s gone too far. Neighbors might compete for a “Best Yard” award, but beyond that they should be first and foremost neighbors—people on the same street and the same team.

 

The word rival shouldn’t be synonymous with enemy, a philosophy my 9-year old may have understood before I did. Ezra may be looking for rivalries because he loves the thrill of competition, but he isn’t looking for enmities, groups in an active state of hostility toward another. Though his competitive streak is often exhausting for me, I kind of love that he’s looking for orange juice vs. apple juice battles right now. Still, it breaks my heart to know his future won’t always be filled with well-meaning, carefree rivals. I know he’ll have his share of orange juice vs. toothpaste battles ahead, so I pray that we all get better at loving each other.

The 2020 Rosser Games

It feels like everything has been turned upside-down: We’re wearing masks and gloves to the grocery store. Adults are worried about their jobs and kids are missing their friends. Our elderly loved ones are more lonely than ever, as they’ve been isolated from family and others who might unintentionally make them very sick. And people are talking about toilet paper way more than they used to.

 

For my family, the loss of sports has been a big blow. It’s been so bad that I recently walked in the living room only to see the menfolk intensely watching a rerun of a competitive cup-stacking competition on TV. They’re especially sad that the Olympics have been postponed, so we decided to use the week of Spring Break to stage our own Olympic-type games—The Rosser Games. (Cue Olympic theme song.)

 

There were eight of us, so we decided to divide into 4 teams with an adult and child/teen on each team. Then we became the following countries: The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Isle of Man, Greece and Argentina. Though the teams were picked at random, it was clear from the outset that the Isle of Man team was stacked with the most athletic kid and the most athletic adult. (Note: I wasn’t on that team.)

 

Our first competition was a Backyard Obstacle Course. There was jumping and running and crawling and kicking and throwing. Next came Driveway Bowling. This consisted of 10 various plastic bottles we pulled from the recycling bin and placed at the bottom of our sloped driveway. Then, the bowler stood behind a chalked line further up the driveway and rolled a soccer ball, hoping it would curve and eventually careen into the bottles.

Over the following days, my husband (the Games Commissioner) planned more games. We played Frisbee Horseshoes (where we tried to get the frisbee as close to a stake in the ground as possible with extra points awarded for hitting the stake), Foosball, Stair Golf (a cup was taped to the carpet at the bottom of the stairs and the golfer stood on the landing and attempted to putt a golf ball into the cup), Bocce Ball, and Football Toss (my son wanted to do an egg toss but I wasn’t going to waste any eggs). Our final game was Bounce Off, a game from Mattel that we have had for years but never really played much before. You sit at a table and bounce ping-pong balls into a plastic grid, trying to replicate the pattern on a card. We were surprised by how intense the competition got! If we had had sports commentators, they would’ve waxed eloquently about celebrating the unbreakable human spirit and the tragedy of defeat.

It was no surprise that Isle of Man came out the victor at the end of the week. They were first in all but two events. In lieu of medals, their awards will be coming via Amazon in a few weeks—a 3’x5’ flag of their adopted country.

 

The Rosser Games were the embodiment of one of my oft-repeated mantras during this time of quarantine: “We just have to make the best of it.” This isn’t what we wanted for our Spring Break, but it’s better than competitive moping. Maybe those imaginary sports commentators were right, maybe there is something about the unbreakable human spirit to celebrate.

Have mercy!

Last week, I went into a store and left with a really interesting life lesson. The woman who worked there and I were discussing the importance of labeling our kids’ clothes so that they could be identified later in the Lost & Found bin. She mentioned that she had an embroidery machine at home and often used it for that exact purpose.

 

Then she told me a story about a time when she embroidered her teen daughter’s name in a large font on a prominent place on the hood of a jacket. She described the jacket’s various shades of pink and how much her daughter loved it. Another woman asked her about the jacket—where did she get it and how much did it cost—and then, a few days, the jacket went missing. “Eventually,” the woman at the store told me, “I saw her wearing that pink jacket. I could tell where she had picked out the stitches where my daughter’s name had been.”

 

I assumed the next part of the story was going to involve the authorities and an ugly argument, but I was wrong. “What did you do?” I asked her.

 

“As soon as she saw me, I could tell that she knew she was caught. So I went over to talk to her. I told her that I recognized the jacket and knew it was my daughter’s. Then I asked her if she would like me to embroider hername on the jacket. Knowing she thought I was just offering so that I could take the jacket back, I told her that she could come with me and stand right next to me while I sewed it.” This gracious woman embroidered another woman’s name—the name of the woman who had stolen from her—on the jacket she had bought especially for her pink-loving daughter without asking for anything in return.

 

At first listen, it may seem that this woman should’ve taught that thief a lesson. One might think: Now she’ll be stealing everyone’s stuff! Where’s the justice?! But there are moments when we are called to show mercy, and this angel listened to the call. I can only imagine what effect this had on the woman who had stolen the jacket. Was she so weighed down by guilt after this undeserved act of kindness that she could never wear the jacket again, or did she whistle happily as she walked away, congratulating herself on her good luck? No matter what the offender’s feelings were, the woman I met at the store that day was content with her response to the ill treatment she had received all those years ago.

 

This kind of mercy, especially when coupled with unexpected forgiveness, warms my heart and makes me all teary-eyed. These glimpses of what humans can do for each other when we’re not trying to tear each other down is refreshing. I like this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I have always found that mercy brings richer fruits than strict justice.” Maybe that’s the question to ask when we suffer wrongdoing at the hands of others: What fruits will my response bring?

 

In Micah 6:8 we read the best prescription for doing what is good and what’s required of us: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” That just about sums it up.

The last tooth

Ezra, age 5, already 6 baby teeth gone!

Our youngest son lost his last tooth today. There was little fanfare, just him showing me a giant-looking molar resting at the bottom of a plastic sandwich bag. It’s been loose for a few weeks, and he’s been asking everyone to stick their fingers in his mouth and test its wiggliness—a great idea in the middle of cold and flu season.

 

When he joined our family at age 5, he had already lost six teeth, so the Tooth Fairy wasn’t really a big deal for him. We were told by a friend also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that it is customary to throw a baby tooth out in an open field and make a wish. We tried that a few years ago for Tooth #7, but it was raining that day and he wanted to stay inside while he tossed the little baby incisor. I have no doubt that tooth is still somewhere in our garage.

 

Call it Truthful Parenting or Downright Laziness, but we’ve never done much with baby teeth magic, even for our older three kids. For our oldest twin daughters, I tried a couple of times to conjure up a tradition. We placed a Mason jar full of water by their beds and instructed them to drop their little tooth inside, watching it drift to the bottom. Then in the morning, the water was full of purple food coloring and light blue glitter and a coin sporting a baby-toting Sacajawea (aka “Golden Dollar”). But it wasn’t too long before I ran out of golden dollars or I forgot to remove the offered baby tooth, and the Tooth Fairy retired.

 

There’s something bittersweet about these “last time” moments. The first tooth is cute and tiny, and the last one looks like something an archeologist would dig up and place in an exhibit about Early Man. It’s the same with the first day of kindergarten. They will let you dress them in apple-themed dresses or shirts with a big, yellow school bus emblazoned across the front. Then the last first day of high school comes and you can’t even remember what they were wearing. You just prayed that they drove safely and remembered to slow down in the school zones.

 

As we put him to bed tonight, our youngest son smiled impishly as he told us he would put his tooth under his pillow and get some money. Now that he’s a street smart 9-year old, he’s just looking for a quick buck. He knows the score about the Tooth Fairy, but he’s not opposed to getting in line when his parents are handing out free money.

 

Of course, we’ll do it. We’ll play the game, because seeing him do the “Uh-huh…oh yeah…I got money” celebratory dance in the morning will be well worth the price. And parenting is so much about doing our best to start off great, realizing that we often miss the mark and then, hopefully, taking a second to notice when a last time is passing by in front of us.

From the mouths of babes

It’s my pleasure to work at a Mothers’ Day Out program at my church two days a week. Within the walls of our little preschool, I get to spend time with what I think is God’s greatest blessings—kids aged 1-5. There’s just nothing like a heartfelt conversation with a 3-year old. The way they look at the world and latch on to those observations in the most literal way is just fascinating to me. No pretense. No fake humility. No concerns about social media or weight gain or global warming or the impeachment trials. Just “When is lunch?” and “Do you like my new light-up sneakers?” and “Can you help me with this zipper because I really have to go to the bathroom?”

 

Recently, as I walked down the hallway, I heard two back-to-back remarks from teachers: One teacher asked, “Who’s mooing? Boys and girls, who is mooing?” as she tried to find the sneaky bovine impersonator. Passing the bathroom, I heard a different teacher say, “And that’s why we don’t EVER lick the bathroom floor.” This is how you know you’re in a preschool.

 

Even though he’s older than a preschooler, my second grade son can still blow me away with his childlike yet profound comments and pronouncements. The other day he told me, “When we get to heaven our fingernails will always be the right size.” Just out of the blue, he had this epiphany about the afterlife. A few weeks ago, when I was dropping him off at school on a gray, rainy morning, he said, “When it’s raining like this and I’m at school, it feels like the people in my class are the only people left in the world.” One day inside his imagination would be more interesting than any movie ever made!

 

Being the youngest of four with three much older siblings, he tries to pretend he’s bigger and older and more confident than his reality. He wants to chest thump all of us and slap our shoulders as if we are wearing football pads, pumping us up for a non-existent game. For a while he liked that chant often shouted at soccer games and used in a few Nike commercials: I believe that we will win! Always an original and still a little behind when it comes to language, he would say, “I will leave if we don’t win!” It still works but sounds more petty than peppy. Once, during one of these locker room pep talks (which actually mostly takes place in the kitchen), he started yelling, “ I AM STOPPABLE! I AM STOPPABLE!” My older son asked him, “Don’t you mean UNstoppable?” “Nah,” little brother answered, “I’m not that good.”

 

As we were watching the National Anthem sung before a football game on TV the other day, he said, “I would be too scared to sing in front of a thousand (kids and their powers of estimation!) people like that. She’s brave, brave like George Washington!”

 

With all of the wisdom I’ve received from the kids I get to be around, I feel like I should share a bit of it here: Be yourself, encourage others, a good imagination is a lifelong friend, light-up shoes are magical and be brave like George Washington. You’re welcome.

Famous

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my sisters and I were in Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Nashville, shopping with a couple who were friends of my parents. A woman approached us and asked the couple our ages and commented on our general cuteness. Although the woman might have seemed like any ordinary Nashville-area resident out running errands, I recognized her voice instantly. Even without her trademark straw hat topped with fake flowers and $1.98 price tag dangling to the side, I had watched enough episodes of Hee Haw to know it was Minnie Pearl.

 

I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be famous. To be recognized by people everywhere I went. To be mobbed by fans and photographers. To have the ability to give people a lasting memory and a treasured anecdote to impress friends and strangers just by being in the same room with them and acknowledging their existence in the universe. No wonder so many are drawn to the pursuit of fame, especially considering that at our very core, one of the most basic human desires is to be known.

 

Even though Jesus’ friends had the ultimate example of humility standing in front of them, they weren’t exempt from this clamor for fame. They even argued about it, speculating who would be the greatest in the kingdom and right on the heels of Jesus’ exclamation about his imminent death.

 

Jesus’ reply to their earthly ideas about fame was to bring a child to set in front of them. Then He said something that stopped their quarreling while also no doubt giving them a riddle to puzzle out during future fireside moments of quiet contemplation. “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.” -Luke 9:48 (NLT)

 

What did they think about this seemingly backwards path to greatness? How could accepting a lowly child give you access to the Prince of Peace and the Mighty King of the Universe? But Jesus was the master of these mind-blowing assertions about righteous living. He wanted them to understand the vanity of their kind of greatness. He wanted them to take a giant bite of the Humble Pie he had sliced up for them. It was as if He was saying, “Stop looking for ways to step on each other as you climb to the top. Instead, look down and notice these little children. Giving them your attention won’t make you world famous, but these actions will gain you fame in heaven.”

 

So strive to be famous—famously kind, famously generous, famously brave. Win awards for being the best listener, the most thoughtful, the truest friend. Hold the Box Office record for the highest-grossing number of encouraging words. Make the Fortune 500 list for the richest, most genuine friendships.

 

Paparazzi may not camp out in your front yard, waiting to take photos of you as you pick up your newspaper dressed in your bathrobe, but you will be on the real path to greatness.

Beware of Swamp Bears!

Very early on a Sunday morning on a remote Florida highway, my husband and I noticed a road sign we’d never seen close to the coast before. It was a yellow, diamond-shaped caution sign with the silhouette of a bear in the center.

 

I was already on edge—it was hours before daybreak and the black waters of St. George Sound splashed ominously at my right as I hugged the coastline. The last thing I wanted to add to my anxiety was the threat that a giant black bear might come lumbering out into the road. (Although I guess you could argue it’s the bear you’re not looking for that you should worry about!)

 

We had dropped off three of our four kids at a beach house with relatives so we could continue to drive further inland in the direction of the soccer fields where our older son would be playing in Jacksonville, just shy of the Atlantic. It seemed like the sun would never come up, and we fought the fatigue we felt from the 10-hour drive we had made the day before. Attack of the Swamp Bear loomed large in my exhausted imagination.

 

There are seasons of life when you know what dangers lie ahead—the terrible twos of parenting a toddler or the unwelcome weight gain of middle age. Though these probable and assumed complications can be difficult to manage, they are steps in a natural series of events. You see them coming and expecting them sometimes makes them easier to survive. But what about those curveballs zooming in at 100 miles an hour out of the clear blue? The serious illnesses or relationship trauma? The Swamp Bears who attack before courteously putting out a warning sign first?

 

These are the moments when I’m reminded how little I can control. I pretend that I’m driving the whole thing—making decisions, making plans, making my case for my decisions and plans. In reality, the warning signs are actually inconsequential to the final outcome. Just having the information ahead of time doesn’t exempt us from trouble and surprises.

 

These deep thoughts were my morning ponderings as I watched the eastern sky go from black to charcoal. Clouds began to materialize as the sun lit them from its perch just below the horizon. Slowly the sky lightened to a cobalt blue and I could see more clearly. I shifted in my seat behind the wheel of our minivan, feeling a little more alert and grateful for constants, like a good, old-fashioned sunrise, that I can always count on.

 

“Thank you,” I whispered. I silently prayed for wisdom and patience in all of the burdens I’ve been lugging around with me for the last few months. The heavy ones that are old and should’ve been forgotten long ago, and the new ones I’ve picked up in the form of worry and doubt. I asked the Lord to protect us from these dangers that I know, the ones I’m currently aware of. Then I asked Him to save me from the Swamp Bears that I’ll never see coming.

Bike-riding lessons

There are just some things that are hard to teach young children: how to hold a pencil correctly, how to tie their shoes, how to make their beds, adequate basic hygiene like teeth brushing that brushes all of the teeth and showering that cleans all of the parts. And then there’s teaching your kid how to ride a bike. It involves balance and concentration and patience from them and running alongside a bike from me, so the whole experience presents a variety of problems.

 

I’ve been working with our youngest to get him solo-ready for a couple of years. I’ll admit I haven’t always suggested it as often as I should have. Call it busy family or lazy mom or the usual predicament of the 4thkid, it just hasn’t been a priority. It hasn’t helped that he’s been reluctant to ride. Naturally athletic by nature, he’s used to being able to conquer physical activities pretty easily the first time, but this bike thing has been a different story.

 

So when we had that beautiful sunny Sunday last week, it occurred to me to pull out his bike and get him back in the saddle. After we filled up the low tires, he hopped on. Up and down the driveway we went—him pedaling erratically and swerving like a maniac and me jogging while grabbing a wadded-up bunch of the back of his shirt.

 

Not long into the lesson, he said, “Is it okay if I sing a song? It will help me focus.”

 

“Sure,” I panted.

 

“Keep on trying. Don’t give up,” he sang in a made-up tune. “Never give up. Just don’t give up.”

 

We continued until I felt he was correcting his balance issues—going a little to the left if he was too much to the right. Then I slowly let go of his shirt. He rode a few yards by himself until he veered off-road into some grass.

 

“I did it!” he cheered. He hopped off the bike and ran to me in joyful triumph. “I rode my bike!”

 

We hugged and walked back to his bike for him to mount and try again. “I just kept remembering something important that I hear a lot,” he told me, full of introspection and wisdom from his hard won victory.

 

“What was that?” I asked him, assuming he’d repeat some sage advice I’d given him.

 

“You never give up,” he said, proudly.

 

“That’s right,” I answered. “And where did you hear that?”

 

“Ricky says it to Lucy all of the time because she’s always trying to get in show business. And he’s right, she never gives up so she got her own TV show.”

 

I realized he was referring to I Love Lucy, not the careful parenting of his mom and dad. But if it helped him remember to keep trying, even when things seem impossible, then I’m okay with that, especially if it means I can stop running alongside his bike.

Ezra in action