The Mystery of Thistle

Once in a while growing up, I would have the inimitable privilege of getting my hands on a pack of 64 Crayola crayons. I never referred to them as “crayons,” though–in the South, we just called them “colors.” I especially appreciated having options such as gold and silver, burnt umber and cornflower blue. Although cornflower always confused me, because I spent time in gardens as a child, and I associated yellow and green with corn–not a muted shade of blue. All those colors at one’s fingertips–it made me feel rich in a way.

Cornflower wasn’t the only shade to confuse me. There was another one–thistle–that I never understood. I always liked the color, but I didn’t understand how it got its name. When I thought of thistle, I assumed it was a prickly, thorny weed. I associated it with dandelions. And yet nothing about a dandelion boasted that lavender-pink hue.

thistle
Milk thistle on a hiking trail in Fort Collins, CO.

Then I came to Colorado. To the best of my knowledge, milk thistle (like the one in the picture above) doesn’t grow in south Mississippi, where I was born and raised. So I’d never seen it until about 8 years ago, when Garfield was a baby and Woodrow, a toddler, and our family took a hike near Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins. That summer, 2009, we spent in Colorado. On the hike, while carrying Garfield in a Baby Bjorn on my chest, I spotted these plants that I’d never seen before. After looking them up, I learned that they indeed are thistles.

sunflowers and thistles
Sunflowers and thistles on the trail.

The mystery of this color’s name was solved! I now knew how one of my favorite crayons in the box of 64–remember how it came with a built-in crayon sharpener?–had gotten its name.

many thistles

Thistle is considered a weed; it may compete with crops where it grows and can disrupt pasture grazing. But it also serves bees as they gather nectar to produce honey. Thistles are also a source of nectar for several species of butterflies.  And, thistles are beautiful. Living in Colorado again this summer affords me the joy of encountering thistles all over again.

Sometimes there’s mystery in beauty, and sometimes there’s beauty in the unexpected. And even a weed can draw me into God’s beauty and cause me to marvel.

 

Embracing with Faith our Summer Re-location

One thing I appreciate about living in Colorado:  There are no lizards. I can leave the front door of our apartment open when the weather is mild and never worry that I’ll find lizards running around the floors (or inside our shoes) later in the day. This spring–back in Orlando–I found a little lizard in our kitchen sink. I can’t count how many times I’ve almost tripped trying to avoid stepping on a lizard in our driveway or on the sidewalk. But I’ve never seen a lizard in Colorado. Also:  No fire ants. NO FIRE ANTS! Those are parts of Florida I don’t mind leaving behind for the summer.

Colorado offers beauty, adventure, outdoor fun galore. It’s also not home. It’s not the place where I do life. I do like to travel–as in, pack bags, go someplace for a visit, and then come home. {I actually like living overseas more than I enjoy travel, but there again, one puts down some roots and establishes a life if making a home in that place, wherever that place may be.} But this is more than–different than–travel. It’s packing up our house for a summer renter. It’s packing our family’s belongings to be away for over 2 months. It’s asking questions:  Do I pack the crock pot, or buy one at Goodwill when we get out there? How many dish towels should I pack? Will our tenant take care of our plants for the summer? 

frames

It’s also recognizing that we’ll be away from our church for 11 Sundays. ELEVEN. Another question:  How can we connect with people there–especially when we know hardly anybody there–if we’re not THERE? 

And it’s work. So. Much. Work. Imagine giving your entire house a spring clean to prep it for a person who’s going to pay (a modest amount) to live there, while simultaneously packing lots of boxes to be shipped out to Colorado for your family (along with suitcases and school supplies, since our home school year didn’t end until mid-June) AND continuing with normal life chores. Baking cupcakes for the Cub Scout den party and prepping for our end-of-year home-school evaluations, for instance. You know how busy the month of May can be for families, what with all the end-of-school-year functions? Yeah, like that. Plus readying my home for the house sitter AND getting all four of us packed to travel cross-country and plant ourselves in a new place for the summer–long enough to be more than a trip, but too short to consider that we’ve moved to a new home.

cupcakes with sprinkles

But here we are. End-of-year festivities and responsibilities have been fulfilled. We live in a 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom apartment this summer–instead of our 3-bedroom, 2-bath house in Orlando. Less housework is required, and the weather is delightful. I mean, there is NO humidity. The city of Fort Collins is a cool, interesting place to be. Our boys are making friends with other Cru kids, and the pool is just steps from our door (although the water has been far too cold for me so far). There’s a community gas grill that Mike has used multiple times already, enjoying a working grill since we actually moved our broken gas grill to our new home in 2015 and still haven’t fixed it. He’s missed grilling and is making up for that by grilling everything from corn on the cob and tomatoes to chicken and pork chops.

We’ve hiked, biked, fished, played, taken advantage of the plethora of summer yard sales out here. I got a small tape measure for a nickel–just 5 cents–that I’m using as I sew more quilt tops while we’re here.

There’s much to appreciate in this place where I’ve spent the summers of 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and now 2017. And even with my horrible sense of direction, I’ve lived here enough months collectively that I remember how to get many places without using GPS.

But there’s still struggle, transition–the boys have their own, and I have my own, and I must help them navigate theirs. Conducting school out here, even at a slower pace, has been really difficult. I don’t have a specific summer job to do with our ministry out here, as my husband does. I still edit ministry stories on a minimal basis, the role I fill normally with Cru. But I don’t have a niche to fill out here; my real purpose in being out here is so our family can be together for the summer while Mike serves in his summer role. That’s more struggle.

And yet, since we’re planted here for the summer, I want to bloom here for the summer. In early May, I wrote in my journal, Lord, thank you for whatever our summer holds. My desire, my hope, is to embrace by faith whatever God has for us–and for me–this summer. I want to have the heart to receive with grace what He gives.

picnic tea set

What He’s given so far (besides that crazy cheap tape measure):  On the way out to Colorado, I spoke at my sister’s church about the Luo Pad program (led by Cru’s humanitarian ministry, GAiN), a cause close to my heart. The women who attended responded with great interest in sewing Luo Pads as an ongoing project. What a treat that I got to do some public speaking–which I love but rarely get to do–and that I got to share about a ministry opportunity that meets tangible needs as an expression of God’s love. I’ve also had a chance to help a mom with a Cru conference job here who’s needed an extra hand.

luo pad chalk board

There’s more summer to come, and I’m hopeful that God will continue to give me grace to take hold of all that He ushers into my time here in Colorado. I want to remember that EVERY DAY counts. This is not a season of simply marking time until we arrive back in Orlando in early August; these are days of living by faith, living out my faith. Embracing it with faith.

 

 

 

My Favorite Book of 2017 {So Far}

When I was 21, I applied to be part of a summer mission to Zagreb, Croatia. Along with a handful of other college students and staff with Cru, I would be part of a group interacting over issues of faith and hope with Croatian college students.

It was 1995; Croatia had declared their independence in 1991 near the outset of a war fought largely along ethnic lines. What had once been the nation of Yugoslavia had been carved up into several autonomous countries in the years of 1991 and 1992; by 2006, seven independent nations comprised the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Accounts of this war (the Croatian War of Independence) indicate that it ended in 1995–the same year I planned to travel there. In May of 1995, our ministry team’s plans abruptly pivoted. A bomb had exploded in Zagreb, the city where we were to go.

drying flowers

Instead of journeying to Croatia’s capital city, our small team joined a large team in a resort town in Hungary–holding English language camps for high school and college students as we also spoke to them about knowing God in a personal relationship.

But later, I did get the opportunity to see Zagreb. In the summer of 1997–during my year serving in Romania–one of my teammates and I took a train there for a long weekend. Our Romanian teammate had gone to help with English language camps conducted by her church. Our team leader had already returned to the States, preparing for his next assignment. So we went, just the 2 of us–one woman, one man–which was technically, probably against the rules. We had considered taking a train to Sofia, Bulgaria–the nation south of Romania–but that ride would have taken 25 hours one way.

rails-train-path-straight

That detour that directed our team in 1995 to Hungary also, ultimately, sent me to Romania. Since we couldn’t pursue ministry in Zagreb that summer, my university’s Cru partnership switched from Croatia to Romania (along with the Cru ministries at several other colleges in the Southeast).

So, in an indirect, mysterious kind of way, Croatia itself has played a significant part in my life. Our short visit there–when I wore the new brown leather clogs I’d bought at a market in Romania–barely broke ground in delving into the city of Zagreb. But it left me with vivid memories:  my first experience staying at a youth hostel, where I shared a room with multiple women I didn’t know; meeting an Australian young woman about my age named Alison who was one of those roommates (Alison with one L instead of my 2). We had a long talk over tea one afternoon about spirituality and being a “good person.” I remember the Bad Blue Boys celebrating in the streets after Zagreb’s win in a soccer game one night while we were there, their cheers and singing wafting through the open window of our hostel room. Phil, my teammate, gave me a pair of his socks to help prevent more blisters from those new clogs and was gracious enough not to ask for them back.

I never felt any fear about visiting Zagreb two years after the bomb that prevented our team from spending our summer there, where we’d have sought to meet students and learn about their lives and their history while we shared about the peace that we experience in Jesus. But one short weekend was nowhere near enough time to begin to understand Croatian history, customs, life.

small houses colorful doors

Unlike that quick trip, the novel I finished reading this week, Girl at War by Sara Novic,  afforded me a long look at the history of this recent war in Croatia–and how it shattered families and lives. The names of the towns that made their way into the story–Split, a city on the coast of the Adriatic; Dubrovnik; and of course Zagreb–as well as other countries, such as Slovenia and even Romania, all struck familiar chords with me. My friend Anne served in Slovenia–another former Yugoslavian country–while I served in Romania. And Serbia bordered Romania on the west, not far from Timisoara–the city where I lived. Reading this book, the story of Ana and her loss, her fighting, her survival, gave substance and shape and reality to my comprehension of the country where I’d assumed I’d spend the summer when I was 21 years old.

Genocide, ethnic cleansing, power and money:  all facets of this war that started right around the time I turned 17. I’ve never lived through anything like that, not even anything that comes close, but I feel I brushed up against it in 1995, and then again in 1997. Then in 1999, I listened to a voicemail message in my apartment late one night asking me to consider joining another year-long ministry team in Pristina, Kosovo–a “partially recognized” state within the nation of Serbia. I declined, because I’d just started my time working with students at Mississippi State.

star lamp post

In 1991, I had probably never heard of Croatia. Over the years, it’s strangely held sway over me. Maybe I’ll visit Zagreb again one day, maybe for longer than a weekend. But maybe not. But Girl at War gave me the glimpses of Croatia and their war of independence that I’d so long needed to gaze upon.

So that’s what makes Girl at War my favorite book of 2017 so far. What about you? Which books have taken you back to your own life-defining moments?

On Feeling Invisible

When I lived in Romania for a year after college–as a missionary to students–I spent a week of vacation visiting other missionary friends in a different country. We’d met at the outset of our year-long stint overseas and had been together at Christmas time, too. During the time in which the students in our ministry took exams, we got to take a break from our routines, and I visited friends in Eastern Europe.

I rode to Hungary with an American missionary couple I knew, where they were attending a training, and I met up with some missionary friends there. After a few days there, I traveled to Slovakia with friends (who’d also been visiting Hungary) who were located in Slovakia for the year.

While there, I joined the women on that team at a gathering that included several other American women who were serving there long-term. One of these women hosted this weekly fellowship time at her house. I sat and listened and enjoyed the time, along with the handful of other women in attendance.

Near the end of the time, the hostess asked the women, one by one, to share a bit about how they were doing and how they might like others to pray for them. She didn’t call on me to speak; I noticed this but didn’t give it much thought. Then she assigned prayers, each woman there praying for another woman in the group. We concluded the group time with those prayers, each woman praying aloud for another:  for her life, her struggles, whatever she may have shared. Nobody prayed for me at that time, which wasn’t a big surprise since I hadn’t shared about myself. I was a guest there, not ministering in that country and not a part of their teams, long- or short-term. So I tried to reconcile that, although I was beginning to feel left out. Then, when the hostess wrapped up the prayers, she looked at me and said, “Sorry we didn’t have time to pray for you,” in a breezy tone.

berries on stump

So I matched my tone to hers–because it seemed clear that this was what was expected of me:  not to be disappointed because there simply wasn’t time to include me when all the other women (who served in that country) needed to receive prayers–and I tossed out, “Oh, just pray for our team; pray for Romania.” And yet, it didn’t seem we had run short of time. Once the formal group time ended, women broke up into small clusters, chatting. I remember hearing somebody mention a dress that needed to be altered.

I felt hurt, particularly because I thirsted for this kind of female connection, and yet the message I’d received was that I shouldn’t feel hurt.

A couple months later, back in Romania, I was preparing for a slumber party at my apartment for the college girls in our ministry. It was near Easter, and we were going to dye eggs. So when I answered the phone that night–before the girls began to arrive–I was full of energy and hope about the upcoming gathering. The call deflated me a bit, though. The woman who served in a leadership role (over the long-term staff women in the Eastern Europe region) had come to Romania, and–I had assumed–was going to meet up with me while she was there. My friends in other countries in this area had told me that they’d met with her and were thankful for her input and encouragement. So I eagerly looked forward to my time to connect with this woman who’d served overseas for many years.

poppies in field

But she told me on this phone call, though, as I was getting ready to make pizza with the Romanian college women already on their way to my apartment, that she wasn’t going to be coming to my city. She didn’t give much explanation, and I didn’t ask for it, although I felt sad that I wouldn’t get to spend time with her. I experienced so much loneliness that year; I felt I needed this time with a woman who could pour into me, even for one conversation. So, running high on adrenaline and excitement about the slumber party, I told her It’s fine! It’s OK! She apologized for the inconvenience; then we said good-bye.

Again, I thought–based on the person’s response to me–that I wasn’t supposed to be disappointed, or if I felt that, I certainly wasn’t supposed to communicate that. Almost half a year later–as I ended my time in Romania–I sat down for an exit interview with this woman in leadership. At the end of the conversation about my year of overseas ministry, I tentatively broached the topic of her initially-planned visit to me that never materialized. Mostly, I just wanted to know why she’d met with all the other women serving in the one-year program like I was but didn’t get to see me. She explained that her priority was ministering to the women serving long-term. It just so happened that she could have time with the one-year folks because all those other teams were serving in the same cities where long-term staff women served–it had been convenient to meet with the women who (like me) were serving short-term. Only in my city, there were no long-term staff, male or female, with our ministry. It was just the four of us:  2 American men, one Romanian woman, and myself. Therefore, her getting to my city wasn’t a priority. And although this made sense given the scope of her job, I felt hurt–because I’d felt that I didn’t register as a priority.

As we talked that mild September day just weeks before I returned home, she expressed sorrow that she hadn’t come to visit me after all. She said even after she hung up the phone that night that she began regretting that decision. I felt free to cry then, because I finally felt I was given permission to express disappointment. I think she and I actually cried together. She had an inkling of what a hard year it’d been for me.

wall mount

Sometimes Christians hurt people outside the faith, and sometimes we Christians hurt each other; sometimes we mean it, and sometimes–as I firmly and fully believe in these 2 situations–we do it accidentally, with no intention to wound.

Last week, since we’re approaching the 20-year anniversary of that year in Romania, one of the people who’d come over for the summer during my year posted some pictures on social media. The photos included descriptions and details and captions, and conversations erupted around the memories that the pictures evoked. People mentioned the year-long missionaries on the team that had hosted and cared for the summer group without mentioning me (and I wasn’t in any of the photos). Later one of the men on my year-long team tagged me in a comment, and then a couple pictures were added that included me. Again, I firmly and fully believe I was only inadvertently left out initially–nobody was trying to exclude me. And yet…I felt forgotten at first, and the loneliness of that year seemed so very fresh.

But I got in on the reminiscing, too, and it was fun to remember. I really enjoy (for the most part) reflecting on such a formative year in my growth.

But I hate feeling invisible. I hated feeling I didn’t show up as worthy of notice in that women’s prayer group; I hated feeling I didn’t rank high enough to merit a visit from a woman in leadership whose company I sorely needed. I hated I wasn’t remembered as a valuable part of the team from the very beginning of these 20-year reflections on social media. Feeling overlooked and unnoticed just hurts.

pig figurines

Even when those problems get resolved and healthy communication brings healing, the questions of Am I seen? Am I noticed? linger in our souls. It requires more than being included in the group prayer or the group conversations to satisfy that soul-hunger of wanting–needing–to feel seen and noticed.

Here are the truths that fill those empty spaces in me:  My Father in heaven delights in me, rejoices over me with singing, and quiets me with His love. (Zephaniah 3:17). I am God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). That verse among all others is currently filling me with tremendous joy:  If God has good works prepared in advance for me to do, my contributions–what I have to offer–must truly matter. And Genesis 16:13-14, where Hagar–cast out and alone–encounters God in the desert and calls Him El Roi, the God who sees.

If God Himself sees me, I cannot be invisible. Hebrews 4:13:  “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight…”

 

How Tina Spurred Me On

Near the end of April, my family and I went on our last Cub Scout camp-out of the school year. We explored some fascinating caves and splashed around in a creek. Then when we got home, I received a message that an old friend had died after having been in a car wreck a few days prior.

I had seen news about the accident on Facebook, posted by her husband, and it seemed that her condition was improving. Or at least I had thought so. I was stunned to read the message that Tina had passed.

Tina and I were closest in elementary school; we were in the same class in fourth grade. The summer after seventh grade, I remember going to her birthday party, where we danced in the humid Mississippi heat on her parents’ carport to The Outfield as they sang about Josie being on a vacation far away. In high school, we were in marching band together for a couple of years and competed in a scholarship competition together.

red bellied woodpecker

One of the last times I saw Tina–tall, statuesque; voted Most Beautiful or Campus Beauty more times than I can remember–was at our ten-year class reunion back in Mississippi. I met her older daughter then, who was a toddler at the time. Since then, we’d conversed only through Facebook.

Years ago, Tina sent me a message over social media about a letter to the editor I’d written to our hometown newspaper–to which I still subscribe, even though I haven’t lived in Lucedale since 1998. In the letter, I’d written about the need to seek ways to memorialize or celebrate events other than balloon releases, citing environmental concerns and the fact that these balloons often end up in oceans, often eaten by sea creatures. Tina had read that letter and written to encourage me about submitting more pieces to the newspaper on the topic of environmentally responsible living.

I was so boosted by Tina’s message–by how she believed in me–that I decided to take her advice. I didn’t write back to the newspaper but did write and submit an article (based on the same idea in the letter to the editor I’d written) to a magazine for girls called SHINE brightlyThe magazine published my story–which I called “Up, Up, and Away”–in their November 2009 issue; I still have the 2 free copies they sent me.

basket of magazines
Basket of magazines, reviews, anthologies, and one book in which my writing has appeared. You can see a SHINE brightly issue peeking out near the back.

If Tina hadn’t cheered me on to write about this topic, if she hadn’t believed I had something worthwhile to say and took the time to express that, I probably never would have submitted that piece to SHINE brightly. That’s just one of the ways Tina’s life intersected with the lives of others. Just one example of how she touched others.

Life is short, and it can turn on a dime, and we don’t know the number of days allotted to us to live out here on this earth. But I do know this:  I want to do for others what Tina did for me–take the time and make the effort to spur others on to love and good deeds.

 

Life Begins At…

Earlier this week, I used a bag of pumpkin that I’d baked, pureed, and then frozen in our deep freeze to make a loaf of orange-pumpkin bread. It’s not a yeast bread, which makes it a “quick bread.” I needed to use up the pumpkin, because I’d mistakenly thawed it instead of the creamed corn that I had assumed it was. And once it was thawed, I couldn’t re-freeze it.

I baked this bread in a stoneware pan I had ordered back in the fall of 2000, when I was 26. A friend from my church at that time hosted a Pampered Chef party and invited me, along with lots of other women from our church. I rarely bought non-necessities for myself, and I love to bake (then and now), so I purchased the loaf pan that night.

Near the end of the evening, when the presentation had finished and I had begun writing a check for my order, I listened to the conversation flowing around me. One of the women mentioned working out at the on-campus gym at the university in our town–where I mentored college students in my role with Cru. I also worked out at this state-of-the-art gym and loved the classes there. So I was paying attention to the chatter even as I wrote out my check.

But then the woman describing her experience at the gym made a comment about the thin young college women who typically populated that workout facility. This woman, a mother of several children, then remarked loudly, “Those girls have never used their uteruses.” {I think the plural of that is actually ‘uteri,’ but anyway…} 

Our corner of the room grew very quiet and still. I looked up from my checkbook to see some rather awkward expressions. I was fairly confident I was the only woman in the room who was neither married nor had had children. I suppose that made me one of those girls who’d never used her uterus. And most, if not all, the others in that room knew that about me. It made for an odd moment for all of us, even though I knew the comment had nothing to do with me personally.

me at rangitoto sign
In New Zealand, pre-children.

At the time of the Pampered Chef party, I was a single woman in my mid-twenties living in a small town. I often felt hard pressed to find “my place” at church, in community. There was no “singles group” or Sunday school class for young adults who were neither college students nor part of a couple. And if there had been, I’d probably have been the only person attending. So I sidled out of the college student class I attended and began teaching Sunday school to 4- and 5-year-olds at our church. This turned out to be a fantastic experience.

But it would be another 6 years before I would use my uterus, if that means having a baby. During that same season of life, when I lived and worked with college students in that small Mississippi town, a freshman who’d recently experienced a bad break-up with her boyfriend came over to my apartment for dinner. Before she left that night, she asked me, “Are you OK with being alone?” I thought she was referring to my not having a roommate. So I answered that I had wanted to have my own apartment for a while and appreciated living by myself. She explained that she actually meant “alone,” as in “not married and not attached.” I was genuinely surprised she had asked.

sweet smelling flower at hog island

Growing up, I believed, at some point, I would get married and have children. And I wanted that–although my life has certainly not turned out as I had expected or hoped or asked God to bring about in some ways. And I got both:  marriage and children. But that doesn’t happen for everybody, and that does not mean that you’re “less than” if you haven’t used your uterus. 

I was living a full life before I had a husband or sons, and some of my richest, most life-shaping adventures took place before I even met Mike. Life didn’t begin when I became part of a couple or when I became a mother. Nor did it end when I left the single life behind (or the childless life behind, although Mike I never find ourselves at Barnes and Noble at closing time on the weekends anymore).

My worth isn’t wrapped up in whether I’d be chosen as a wife or whether I could birth and nurture a new little life. My value is not determined by what I can do or accomplish, but by Whose I am. One of the verses from Scripture that speaks to me so strongly currently is Ephesians 2:10:  “For you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works, which God prepared in advance for you to do.” I’m God’s workmanship–a poem He is writing–not because I can muster up some good works but simply because I’m His. Because He has awakened me to faith in His Son and made me His child. Now, I have the privilege of doing good works because I get to partner with my Father in His redemptive plans for this world.

And that truth has never been dependent on whether I’ve used my uterus.

 

 

 

Another Easter Birthday

In the early hours of Easter Sunday 2006 (April 16th that year), I gave birth to my older son–the one I call Woodrow on my blog. He actually arrived 6 days past his due date, which happened to be my grandmother’s birthday. But I felt more than a little overwhelmed at becoming a mother and didn’t mind waiting a few more days for his debut. Plus, Mike and I felt elated to welcome a new little life on the day we as Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus.

A few days after our holiday baby was born, a lady in a Bible study I attended sent me an email message listing all the upcoming years in which Woodrow would again celebrate his birthday on Easter–since the date itself changes from year to year. Every 11 years, his April 16th birthday would coincide with Resurrection Sunday. At the time, his 11th birthday felt eons away.

cupcakes from Wilsons birthday
Cupcakes for Woodrow’s 8th birthday.

Well, those eons passed quickly, because Woodrow turned 11 on Easter Sunday this year, just a few weeks ago. We threw Woodrow a party on Saturday, April 15th…a full-to-the-brim day that began before dawn, when we arose early and then ran a 5K together (the boys and I). Then I gave all 3 of my menfolk haircuts, and then we hosted the party, complete with water balloons and water games. So on the 16th, our day was a bit more low key:  church service and then brunch with our church family, but there was more on my mind as well.

Last fall, for Garfield’s birthday, I baked him a red velvet cake from scratch. Only he wanted it to be blue instead of red–so I set out to give him that. I didn’t, however, have enough blue food coloring and ended up with a color more akin to olive green (the cocoa powder overwhelmed what little blue dye I did have). Since my boys love camouflage, I tried to convince Garfield the cake color was actually sort of kind of almost camo. But I topped it with a homemade ermine icing–also called boiled milk icing–and we all enjoyed the cake. Garfield was satisfied, despite the fact that I didn’t buy candles–and thought we’d already had some but apparently didn’t. Instead, I lit several matches, placed them atop the cake, and let him blow those out. Mom fail, I guess?

This year, Woodrow didn’t even want birthday cake–he requested ice cream sandwiches, so I bought two candles in the shape of a number 1, poked them into the ice cream sammie, and we sang “Happy Birthday.” At least I had the candles this time, right?

honey smiley face
Woodrow finds wonder in almost everything. Here, a smiley face made with honey.

Cake and ice cream aside, there are many, many parents who remember and reflect on April 16 in a very different fashion than my family or I do. Because on Woodrow’s first birthday–April 16, 2007–parents of almost 3 dozen individuals lost their children in the Virginia Tech shootings. I recall that day with great clarity. Woodrow hadn’t begun to walk yet but was taking steps as he passed from one piece of furniture to the next. We went grocery shopping that weekday morning, just he and I, and I bought him a big, helium-filled balloon. I have a picture from later that day of Woodrow holding onto the coffee table in our living room and reaching for the balloon as it bounced across the floor.

But even as we rejoiced at seeing our chubby-cheeked, bald little baby turn one, I ached for the parents who would never get to celebrate with their children again. Who would never throw birthday parties or buy balloons or go to the grocery store together again. There were several students killed that day at Virginia Tech who’d been involved in the Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) movement on that campus. Later, I read a book about the life of one of those students, Lauren.

bowl of shells

Now that Woodrow is 11 and has officially crossed over from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, he’s begun to go on camp-outs without us. When he does, I pray off and on all weekend for him. I know that I can’t spare him of every hurt or protect him from every disappointment, and I pray for myself, too–that I will trust God with what He allows to hurt my child. I will safeguard my children; I will set healthy boundaries. And I will also seek to trust our Father with what I can’t control. I don’t know how that ultimately plays out; neither did the parents of those killed at Virginia Tech ten years ago.

I do not in any way believe that God causes this type of evil, this kind of tragedy. But I do believe that there are times when God could stop some kind of suffering but chooses not to do so. I don’t understand all that and have no good answers for the “why?”, but if I’m humble enough to acknowledge that I am not all-knowing or all-powerful and certainly not perfectly loving, I must acknowledge also that I don’t see the whole picture. That I’m called to trust God more than I can see or feel. That He will ultimately bring all things to their rightful end.

If asked where God is when the ones who love Him suffer, I would say–He’s right there with us. When I was bullied at age 16, He was with me. When I was sexually assaulted at 21, He was with me. Although there have been times I’ve doubted this (and times in the future when I’m sure I will wrestle with this, too), moments when I’ve cried out, “God, do you SEE me?” Yet I’m learning to say, like Hagar in the book of Genesis, “You are the God who sees me.”

He is with His people when we suffer, and He suffered FOR us. That’s what Easter embodies–the Son of God willingly giving up his life, in agony and torture and execution, to reunite us with the Father who loves us and made us for Himself. That Father who, like the parents of those shot and killed at Virginia Tech, also mourned the death of His own Son at the hands of sinful humanity. Indeed, it was MY sin that held him there…

Revelation 21:4-5… “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

*A helpful book dealing with the question of why God allows suffering is The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis. Another is Trusting God:  Even When Life Hurts, by Jerry Bridges.