Leaning into Loss at Christmas

Thomas O'Malley

We had an accident on the farm this morning.

I started the van a bit early in order to warm it up and brush the snow off. My husband had warned me that the roads were slippery and to take extra time.

The kids went running and laughing out into the snow, followed by their furry array of outdoor feline companions. I ushered everyone into the van, did buckles, and shifted into reverse.

I didn’t see Thomas O’Malley, our much-beloved kitten.

***

We all cried on the way to school except for Griffin, who just kept repeating, “it’s okay Sissies, it’s okay.”

We cancelled our plans for the gym and a stop at a friend’s house in lieu of Tommy and came home to figure out next steps. The girls ran in and started drawing “I love you Thomas” cards at the kitchen table. I took a box out of the recycling and gently put our little friend inside.

All I could hear was Ellie’s voice from earlier. “Mom, I don’t want things like this to happen at Christmas.”

Me either, sweet girl. Me either.

Because while I know that we are mourning a pet, others are mourning a parent, or a sibling, or a child.  Others are separated from those they love, physically or emotionally. Still others find themselves mired in worry, turning over anxieties like snowflakes in the wind.

We all carry deep wounds, some fresh, some faded.

And this is precisely why Christmas comes.

Trappings and traditions aside, Christmas was the ultimate act of giving on behalf of a Father who wanted to ease the suffering of his children.

God saw our pain. Our sadness. Our hurt. Our darkness.

And mystery of all mysteries, he knew that sending Jesus could offer us peace if we chose to know his heart. Peace that could sit quietly beside us in our grief. Peace that could settle over our shoulders after we wiped off our faces.

Loss cannot be prevented. That is the nature of our humanity.

But it doesn’t have to overtake us.

The hope that Jesus offers reaches into every part of our lives. It is the calming antidote to our anxiety, the presence in our despair, the steadfastness in our seasons of change.

And maybe He came in the form of an ordinary-looking baby born in a barn to remind us that He is holy enough to set His holiness aside and meet us where we are. In our looming bills and imperfect gifts and broken cookies and car repairs. In our eye bags and wrinkles and ill-fitting clothes. In our coughs and aches and hidden pains.

Humanity hurts.

But it doesn’t have to remain in hurt forever.

***

Soon we will have a memorial for our kitten. There will be a homemade cross and a pile of crayoned pictures scrawled on blank sheets of 8×12 office paper. We will say thank you to Jesus for sharing Thomas with us for a few months, and we will cry because we won’t ever see him putting his paws up on the window screen begging to be let in again. And then someone will want a snack. Someone will holler that the bathroom needs more toilet paper.

Life will go on, and we will go with it, secure because of a divine gift we didn’t ask for – because on our own, we never would have thought such a thing would be possible.

Hope.

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What I Needed this Thanksgiving

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Yesterday my eldest was out woodworking in the shop with Daddy. When she came in, cheeks pink with cold, she wore a sneaky grin and had something stuffed underneath her teal jacket. She informed me it was a Thanksgiving present. I wondered where the idea of Thanksgiving presents suddenly came from (maybe accidentally decorating for Christmas last week has us all a little confused) but no matter.

Ellis has been particularly focused on the idea of giving this fall, and I love seeing her heart translate into thinking about others. She’s picked out thoughtful birthday presents, colored pictures and cards to share, and given away toys and clothes. In short – she’s turning out to be much better than me at the important art of giving.

Meanwhile, I stood behind the kitchen counter, chunks of hair wildly escaping my haphazard top knot. It was 5:13 pm, the house was in disarray, and supper still seemed miles away. So when Ellis asked me for wrapping paper, I felt like crumpling in ball. Dramatic, I know. Wrapping paper for a present is a reasonable request. But it also meant going down to the basement, clearing off the table, getting out the paper and wrapping supplies, and then fielding what was sure to be a four-child endeavor in wrapping heaven-knows-what they found in the basement while wielding scissors and tangling tape and arguing over what color bow was going on each gift.

Admittedly, this is where my mind goes with most requests I get from my children. How much will this cost me? How many minutes? How much sanity? How much clean up time?

It’s a mindset of management, but not always of grace.

Meanwhile, we all lumbered down the tricky basement stairs of our old farmhouse and managed to wrap a few presents without poking out anyone’s eyes or accidentally lopping off chunks of hair.

This morning, my present was waiting for me. My daughter handed it to me with excitement and I couldn’t help but be thankful I said yes to yesterday’s wrapping extravaganza.

I pulled open the corners and peeled back the paper to reveal a wooden board with a smaller floor-shim sized board nailed to the center. On one corner of the board was a turkey saying “Hi”; on the other, a sweet to-from inscription. But it was the middle that caught my attention. It was hard to see, but Ellis quickly jumped in to explain that it was one of the turkey’s tail feathers. The turkey had pulled it out himself and given it to me.

I smiled and gave her a hug, complimenting her artistry and sweet cartoon-like sentiments. But I couldn’t stop staring at that picture of the feather.

Whether she meant to or not, my daughter had given me an important reminder of what it meant to give of myself. It was less about buying a solution, more about digging deep to provide. Less about counting the cost, more about giving gratefully from the heart.

It was a reminder I deeply needed.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. We have been given much, and we have much to be grateful for.

On Being Made New

It’s the last Saturday in August, the final weekend before school starts. Part of me wants to rush do all the FUN THINGS because it’s, well, the last week before school. But the grown-up part of me says, “shhhhh. We’ve done all the things. Let’s just finish the summer well.”

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I’m still figuring out what that means, exactly. We’ve already camped and picnicked and spent countless hours at the waterpark. We’ve had ice cream and popsicles to our heart’s content. We’ve gone on adventures with family and had long, lazy weekends with friends. I’ve been to Paris. Jason’s been to Colorado and the BWCAW. It’s been a beautiful summer.

Last week I found myself planning very little. Doctor appointments, perhaps. A play date, sure. But beyond that, I wanted us all to have the margin to just BE. To practice cartwheel after cartwheel on the trampoline. To run out and hold baby kittens anytime we want. To scatter Legos in wide, clattering swaths across the floor and write picture books with bold red crayons.

I want these last, foggy, unrushed mornings to be full of grace. I think this means immediately saying “yes” a lot, because normally, I say “when I’m finished…”. I’m still working this one out.

School supplies are packed in backpacks, and everyone has new shoes. The drawers are organized, the house is marginally clean and functional, and we’ve taken to leaving the windows open at night to filter in the cool evening air. This morning Lucy asked me when it was going to snow. It’s as though everyone understands change is eminent.

***

I understand this change most by what’s coming out of the garden.

It’s been a great year for growing things, and August is the peak of goodness in my yard. The tomatoes are heavy and firm. The dark green zucchini and cucumbers still come with regularity. The carrots are crunchy and sweet. Broccoli crowns are just starting to appear, and the sweet peppers turn from green to red and orange every other day. The herbs are a wild tangle of goodness that add brightness and flavor to everything, and the whole works screams Life! Life!

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The challenge, as it always is, is to use this bounty well. This year I tried my hand at both savory dill and sweet refrigerator pickles. The freezer is filling up with bags of tomato basil soup and shredded zucchini for sweet bread. I vacuum sealed seven pounds of edamame pods as a side for dumplings and stir fry.

Yesterday, we made our first batch of impromptu apple sauce with early honey crisp apples that we picked from a few of the trees in our mini-orchard whose branches needed lightening.

All of these things feel like a rhythm to me, something almost elemental. It feels good to slow down to the pace of ripening, washing and de-stemming tomatoes. The water is warm, streaming over my hands. The skin of the tomato glows red as the and grit and dust runs off. I hold it in my palm, watching it become something new, something ripe with potential.

Working with food in its raw state is to trust the power of transformation. It’s the understanding that roasting tomatoes and garlic and onions can result in the silky smoothness of our favorite soup. It’s having faith that the long dirty fingers of carrots that come out of the ground will become the tender sweet snack we have at 10:23 a.m. when everyone has declared a state of emergency until their stomachs are fed STAT.

It’s everyday magic, cultivating knowledge and wonder at the same time.

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***

On Monday I had the opportunity to go down to the Bethesda rehab hospital in St. Paul and visit some friends who are there working through the aftermath of a stroke. I brought my thick green canvas hymnbook and we sat in a semi-circle, singing truth and life into the cool sterility of the hospital room.

I also tucked a few songs from the previous Sunday’s church service into the hymnal at the encouragement of a few friends (a whole different story for another post). Little bits and phrases from all those songs have stuck with me this week, like post-it notes hanging around in my brain.

                “Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow.”

“With me in the dark, with me at the dawn.

                “Though He giveth or He taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh.”

“You are making all things new.”

It is difficult to understand how life can look so very different in just an instant. Or how we can be planning and waiting and living in fullness right alongside someone who’s story has been arrested by a drastic, silent pause.

But perhaps this partnership is necessary.

Maybe we all need to be reminded that our time here is never static; it is continually moving, growing, pausing, transforming. That no matter our place in the cycle of seasons and activity, we are constantly being made new in even the most unlikely circumstances, like when Gatsby said, “Life starts all over again when things get crisp in the fall.”

We are made new every time we see or do something that changes our perspective: when our eyes see new scenery, when we learn a new skill, when we hold one another close, building fresh layers of trust and love. It’s a beautiful process, this grace of newness. I am incredibly grateful for it.

Perhaps it’s an echo from our Creator, a living, breathing reminder that God himself is more than statue and edifice. He is continually at work on our behalf in this process, and has so much to teach us when we follow after his leading.

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. – Isaiah 43:19

The change of seasons always holds a certain allure to me, a promise of something different. But it’s also a poignant reminder that time does not stop, nor should it. Time is a necessary partner in the process of being made new. It is not our enemy; it’s the signage in our journey, reminding us what and where we’ve been.

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Understanding Relational Mission Work

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It is a strange sensation, returning home after a travel experience.

Yesterday I went through the motions, willing my body to adjust to its regular timezone and 7 hour jump. My children were gracious, having been away themselves, and we all took the day slowly. Meals were simple, naps were welcomed, and requests to read stories (aka sit together on the couch) were granted freely.

My main concern with traveling was being away from my family. My son and I have never been separated for that long, and it’s been a while since I was away from the girls for any length of time. Thankfully, with the help of a crew of true champions (Daddy, Grandparents), each one of them did great (a true testimony of many of you praying.)

But even as our home wrapped me in the wide comfort of American familiarity and the glory of a having bathroom I could a.) find easily and b.) not have to pay for returned, I felt somehow split between physical locations.

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Mission trips have a way of doing that. They marry new experience with eternal purpose. It’s an intoxicating combination.

Upon return, you realize you aren’t who you were when you left just a week or so ago. The mold of your life feels tight in some places and looser in others, as though God has taken hold and stretched the reach of your arms, the speed of your step, the capacity of your heart.

It’s not that home doesn’t fit. It’s that you’ve grown in your ability to interact with it. You have new ideas. Questions. A broader sense of courage for what you are capable of doing.

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Paris is a beautiful city in every sense: architecturally, aesthetically, gastronomically. And ever since my college days of working at Paris Flea Market in Edina (a shop where the owner imported French antiques and other goods), I have always wanted to go there.  But the work of Envision in that city is what reached into my heart. They function as a true family. They apprentice residents and interns. They shepherd short-term teams. They serve and encourage their local churches. They build community for new friends.

They are teaching love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as it pertains to their context in the city of Paris, allowing it to influence their humanity and daily interactions. Or in the words of one of the full-time international workers living there, they are introducing people to the family of God before introducing them to God himself.

It’s relief work in the familiar sense of recognizing a need and filling it – but instead of that need being food, shelter, or clothing, it runs on the emotional wavelength. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs outlines that after our basic needs (physiological, security) are met, we seek after our psychological needs: friendship, intimacy, family.

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This is the mission of connection. It is friendship. It is availability. It is asking hard questions and really, truly listening for the answers. It is recognizing difference and respecting it. It is humbly sharing what we own – stories of brokenness, hurt, exhaustion, shame, and fear, and how Jesus speaks into those places, restoring us to wholeness.

Most importantly, it’s an effort that is translatable anywhere we live. This level of the human condition needs tending at every level of society: within our families, within our friendships, in our social media networks, at the workplace, in sports teams, even at the checkout line at the grocery store.

In John 13, Jesus taught his friends a new concept, one that probably seemed a little strange the first time they heard it:

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

For all it’s overuse as a catchphrase, to love and be loved will always be a central need, as basic a fact as that the Eiffel tower is in France. And realizing that meeting that need in others is equally as important as any of my daily pursuits is a gift I will never forget receiving on this trip.

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Ready, set, GO!

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I stand in the travel section aisle of Walmart at 10:47 pm, weighing tiny bottles of green and white shampoo in my hands. I read the labels without really reading them, my mind already wandering to what the shower will look like at our apartment in Paris. Ever since our team meeting Friday night, I’ve felt a strange sense of alertness, as though my brain has switched energy levels from battery-saving mode to full power.

It’s not fear or worry; I’m just… ready.

Earlier in the day, I was talking with a friend about skydiving last summer, and how right before the jump, I had to shut off the part of my brain that wouldn’t stop feeding me anxious thoughts. Instead, I made myself focus on trivial matters at hand, like making sure my shoes were tied. After all, the big things were already taken care of: the plane, the parachute, the guide, the gear. All I had to do was jump.

Somehow, helping lead a mission trip of six students to Paris feels a little like skydiving. There are so many things to plan, to prepare for, and to overthink. Yet at this point, the morning of our leaving, all the work is done. The flights are booked. The schedule is made. Our partners at Envision are ready and waiting. All we have to do is go.

My mind is at an impasse with no new information to process. It travels down the same well-worn paths: how will my family do when I’m gone, will everything at home run smoothly, how will communication work since the only French phrase I’ve truly mastered is “Je sui un Americain stupide. Parlez vous Anglaise?

I have prayed over, under, around and through these concerns often the past six months, and asked others to do the same. I’ve also managed to pray less self-focused prayers, for things like strong listening skills, team bonding, opportunities to be of service, conversations to be Holy Spirit-led, and for grace to break us all wide open as we experience God’s presence and purpose for our lives in a completely new context.

We go on this mission trip with hands that are both expectant and uncertain. We know the basics: learn about the local Christian and Missionary Alliance church’s efforts in Paris, offer English conversation skills to their classes, encourage connections, share our own faith stories, help refugee efforts, be of service.

What actually happens between those black and white lines will change lives.

I end up scrapping the pre-packaged shampoo and buy a few empty bottles that I can fill at home. The rest of the cart slowly fills with family needs. Six pounds of apples. Ground beef. Trail mix. I walk from aisle to aisle, buying groceries I won’t eat, and tentatively let myself day dream about beignets and Parisian coffee and new friends.

It is strange, straddling this point between two very different life experiences. But a familiar and favorite verse keeps pinging in my brain:

The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Deuteronomy 31:8

No fear. No worry. Just readiness. Or in the fledgling words of my 2 year old son, ready, set, GOOOOOOOOO!

Here I am Lord. Send me.

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Want to stay in tune with our team’s adventures with Envision Paris? Follow our team blog over at ACV Student Ministries – Team Send for *hopefully* daily updates and pictures from the group. 

 

Summer Slush

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If I could pinpoint three things that the summers of my youth were made of, they’d be family picnics at Newton Hills, lazy afternoons spent reading medieval dragon lore, and Summer Slush.

My mom made slush by the gallon, and I can still see the re-purposed ice cream pail full of golden goodness sitting at the front of the freezer (mainly because it never had a chance to get pushed too far back.)

She’d stand at the counter, scraping with gusto because no one ever wanted to wait twenty minutes for it to soften enough to scoop easily. Then she’d fill the pastel-tinted Tupperware tumbler glasses three-quarters full, and top them off with sprite or ginger ale. On our lucky days, she’d also add a scoop of vanilla ice cream. That turned the whole works into something like a citrus flavored root beer float.

Fast forward to today: my kids started begging for popsicles in April this year. The allure of frozen treats is never too far from their memory. And during our trip to the family farm to visit Grandma and Grandpa last week, my mom pulled out the old Tupperware tumblers for a picnic and all my brain could think of was SLUSH.

So yesterday I took a quick peek at my cookbook, and grabbed the requisite ingredients from the grocery store. The result is now a much coveted plastic container in my own freezer that everyone is angling for after lunch.

I’m not about to say no, and I’m guessing you won’t either after you take your first bite.

 

Summer Slush

1 12 oz. can frozen orange juice

1 12 oz. can frozen lemonade (pink or yellow both work)

1 20 oz. can pineapple chunks

3 bananas

3 cups water

-Blend till smooth, pour into a large plastic container, and freeze. To make it easier to scoop, pull out after 6-12 hours and start scraping, breaking up the soft-freeze into granita-like chunks.

-Scrape a cup-sized portion into a glass, top with ginger ale, Sprite, La Croix, or whatever else strikes your fancy. Top with vanilla ice cream if you’re feeling particularly generous.

 

 

Unalienable Rights

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I stood on my tiptoes in the tall green grass, reaching for the ripest mulberries on the tree branch above. At my feet, my youngest begged “more, more” with an impish grin, his mouth and hands stained purple. The small tree was a hive of activity, branches bending every which way as eight children and three adults searched for the darkest, ripest berries.

After a while, we all piled back into the ranger. The older cousins sat in a tangle of limbs in the back and younger ones stayed up front. The wind whipped our hair around as we motored slowly down the gravel road, the taste of berries still fresh on our tongues.

I want to hold that moment, the hot windy air, the little legs and arms all pressed around my own, bouncing along next to both my parents as we watched the next generation of our family learn how to appreciate the goodness of the world surrounding them.

It is a privilege, the historied homestead and surrounding acres my family still lives and works on. I am the fifth generation of a family of immigrants who left the mining industry in Sweden for the promises of America.  They came here seeking a country that better offered them their unalienable rights.

Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of Happiness.

They purchased a plot of dark, fertile soil in South Dakota. They built a house that my parents still live in today. I am here because of their choices. My life was forged in their ability not only to pursue but to find freedom.

It’s a luxury not everyone has uncomplicated access to today.

This week has been full of stories about families faced with unspeakably difficult circumstances. Their hopes for finding refuge turned into nightmares as they found themselves suddenly caught in a web of moral and legal confusion.

One story titled Where’s Mommy particularly caught my attention. In it, a mother describes her family’s need to leave El Salvador because of gang threats to the lives of her husband and son. After an exhausting series of bus rides, they ended up connecting with a group of migrants also wanting to enter the US. It is unclear if she understood that their aim was to enter illegally. But suddenly she was there, staring at a wall that stood between her and her family’s chance at safety and freedom.

I don’t know where the closest port of entry was that night. I don’t know who promised her this way would be safe, or that her family would be okay. I don’t know the fast, shallow breathlessness of her fear.

But I know the fierceness of a parent protecting her child.

I know that stress impairs judgement.

I know that blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

I know that personal safety and security are valued by all of humanity, no matter what side of the wall they stand on.