But Even If He Does Not

I had a record scratch moment today, one of those pauses in time when my jaw drops, my head whips back for a double take, and the record playing in my mind comes to a needle-screeching halt along with everything around me.

Believe it or not, it happened while I was reading the Bible.

Can I let you in on a little secret? Those moments don’t happen often for me, certainly not as frequently as I’d like, most likely because I don’t read the Bible as often as I intend to. Maybe those moments don’t happen to you that often either. Maybe your Bible is a bit dusty or maybe you don’t even read the Bible. Would you hang here with me for a few minutes anyway?

So there I was poking around in Daniel, poking around half-heartedly because I’ve read Daniel a ton of times. I know the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, I know the story of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and his giant gold statue that he wanted everyone to bow down to, or else be thrown into a furnace of fire. I know this story, I can even recall the felt figures of the characters stuck on the black Sunday School felt board, while I listened and chewed mouthfuls of graham crackers and tried to figure out just who the hell this king was, thinking he could make everyone bow down to his statue.

In case you weren’t indoctrinated with graham crackers and felt board Bible stories, the basic story is this. King Nebuchadnezzar is power-hungry and wants everyone to worship his gods and bow down to this particular hulking gold image he’s had made. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse because they’re Jews who love God. They’re summoned before the king who succinctly orders them to bow down and worship the statue.

We pick up the story in Daniel 3:16.

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from your majesty’s hand. 18 But even if He does not, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Did you catch that? They recognize God’s ability to save them from flames, but the record scratch moment for me comes in the next verse. “But even if He does not, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

image courtesy of reversingverses.com
image courtesy of reversingverses.com

But even if He does not.

I’m overcome by this phrase. I’m not sure how I’ve missed the magnitude of it all these years.

As we enter the Christmas season, my FaceBook feed isn’t filled with holiday cheer. I wish it were different, but right now my feed is stitched with posts from broken mothers who lost their children too soon, posts from friends who are helplessly watching their parents slip into the fog of dementia, posts from friends undergoing massive amounts of chemo and radiation treatments so intense that it’s all they can do to cross off another treatment appointment on their calendars.

I don’t struggle with knowing God is able to deliver us. I know that down to my bones, that God is able to deliver kids from death, to deliver parents from dementia and friends from cancer.

I know He is able.

But sometimes He doesn’t.

And that’s the part that tangles me up in my sheets at night and leaves me awake in the quiet company of only the low hum resonating from the refrigerator.

Sometimes He doesn’t deliver us.

And no crappy platitudes of “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” can stop the bleeding out from the knifing pain that sometimes He just doesn’t.

I don’t know why. People who pretend to know why God does or doesn’t sweep in for the rescue, well, those people make me want to say strings of bad words.

I will never know why God does or doesn’t step in. In the absence of that knowledge, I’m left with only one choice.

When I’m being scorched by life, I can determine my response. I ache to be like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to stand with fire licking at my toes and still be able to say that I know God is able to save me, that I believe He will save me, but even if He does not, my heart will remain steadfast.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s response infuriates the king, who demands that the furnace be cranked up seven times higher than usual and that the three men be bound before they’re burned to smithereens.

Once they’re tied up and thrown into the furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar has a record scratch moment of his own. He looks into the furnace and sees a fourth figure that looks like God in the fire with the three men. And the four of them are walking around in the fire, completely impervious to the flames. The king calls Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the furnace and, get this, not a hair is singed. They don’t even smell like fire. The king changes his tune and recognizes that God is God and that it was God who saved the three men.

And while that part is great, the thing that always thrills my heart about this story is that these guys remained with each other their whole lives, including the worst moment. They stood together before the fire, in the fire, and back out of it again.

This season some of us will sit down to dinner and fight back tears looking at an empty chair. Some of us will lay with parents and grandparents and sing sweet lullabies into threads of their memories. Some of us will breathe in and out every day during treatment and breathing alone will be hard enough.

As we stand on the edges of furnaces that feel more than seven times too hot, could we stand together? Could I stand with you and you stand with me? I won’t have any sage words to say or words you might find in a Hallmark card.

I hope to God my words will sound more like these. God is able to deliver. I believe He will. But even if He does not, let us keep standing with truth in our hearts. And if you don’t mind I’ll stand here with you because I know that God is walking in this fire, too.

The Perfect Gift

image courtesy of flickr

Today as I walked across the playground to my car, carrying a big box of treasures my little ones and their families had bestowed on me, I stared up at the pale sky and grinned at small miracles, like the joy of outside recess for the first time in weeks.

As I crossed the playground past wallball courts, one of my little boys, who stays for after school care, came tearing across the blacktop, running full speed and only stopping when his arms were tightly wrapped around my legs, like it had been years since we’d seen each other, instead of the short side of half an hour.

I adore this kid.  He’s helpful and kind, smart and hilarious.  He excels in making armpit noises.  He’s everything a kid should be.

Earlier in the week, he’d strutted into class and during the “Good News” portion of our Class Morning Meeting he’d showed off his new, fast shoes.

He lamented, “But, Mrs. McCauley, it’s been raining forever and I’m never going to get to show you my fast shoes during P.E.  All I want to do is run and play.”  He rested his head on my shoulder.

“Buddy, I’m with you.  All I want is for you to be able to run and play.  Believe me,” I said with utter sincerity.  Sweet teacher friends, you know the desperation that arises after days on end of rain and no recess.  It’s a visceral need akin to thirst or hunger.

As I balanced my box and he hugged my legs, he looked up at me and grinned, the windowed smile that is the hallmark of first grade.  This kid has freckles for days, smattered across his nose and cheeks.

“Have a merry Christmas,” I leaned into him.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. McCauley.  I’m going to miss you.”

For many of my little ones, the last day before Christmas break is a difficult day.  Being away from school, from friends, from teachers and librarians and aides and cooks and custodians who love them so much is hard.   This little one has a family who loves him, a warm house, food on the table, but still it’s hard.  Two weeks is an eternity to a kid.

“I’m going to miss you, too, but I’ll see you after vacation.  And then we’ll tell each other all about the things we did,”  I assure him.

I felt him nodding his head against my leg.  He peeled away from me and walked a few steps before turning back toward me.  He swallowed hard.

“I love you, Mrs. McCauley.”

He waited for me to say it back.  I always do.  I tell my kids all of the time, but still never enough, that I love them.

“I love you, too, buddy,”  I smiled.

He gave a last wave and ran toward the swings.  I watched his fast shoes splash through the puddles.

At home, I unpacked all of my gifts, filling two notepad pages with names and items for one of these lazy vacation mornings when I’ll sit in my pajamas with a cup of tea and pen thank you notes.

As I sat under the light of my Christmas tree, I smiled because I knew I’d received a gift too big to be listed in a notebook, a gift so perfect that I’ll be grateful for it long after I’ve penned my thanks for all the other kindnesses I received today.

 

Dreaming of Africa

It’s been an incredibly sad and somewhat scary week to be a teacher.  I haven’t been sleeping very much this week, three to four hours a night at the most.

Last night I slept soundly and dreamed that I returned to Uganda.  Uganda has been on my heart so much lately.  In truth Uganda and my children there have been on my heart since I stepped foot on the plane back to California last July.

I miss my beautiful Ugandan sons with such acuteness that often it’s a physical ache in my heart.

In my dream I was on an airplane descending through the clouds.  When the clouds cleared, I looked out my window and Uganda was spread out beneath me.  But the landscape wasn’t trees and dirt, it was a painting alive with color.  Blues and oranges and greens purples and pinks all teeming with life.

I recognized the artist of the painted land out my airplane window right away.  Somehow Tricia Kibler, the amazing artist who comes and teaches my little ones (including her son) art lessons every month, had managed to paint the whole of Africa.  I love that things like that seem completely ordinary in dreams.

The splendor of the painted landscape took my breath away and in my dream I began to cry.

My alarm clock woke me and I was surprised to find myself wiping real tears from my eyes.  I stood at my bedroom window watching the snow fall, the white world a transfixing juxtaposition to the vibrant Africa of my dream.

I sent Tricia a message telling her about my dream.

Last night I had a...

Little did I know that just minutes before I’d messaged her, she’d begun to dream up a painting of Africa for me.

This afternoon she brought me a Christmas present and when I unwrapped the painting, I cried for Africa for the second time in the day, this time not just for the beauty of my dream, but for the very real ways God sends assurance that I will return.  As Christmas draws near, I’m especially grateful to love a God who speaks to my broken places in such tangible ways.

Dreaming of Africa by Tricia Kibler
Dreaming of Africa by Tricia Kibler

My Grandmother’s Skirt

A tiny crack splintered through my heart when I hung my grandmother’s skirt up in my closet this Christmas.  It’s a red and green plaid skirt that sits perfectly on my hips and floats at my knees, a traveling pants sort of miracle being that I’m 6′ tall and my grandmother was 5′ on a tall day.

The skirt is one of two items I took from her closet when she passed away.  The other was a bland oatmeal sweater that smelled like her.  I kept that sweater on for days after she died, breathing in her smell even as I laid in bed nights, listening to the sounds that felt all wrong in her house.

But the skirt went unworn.  Last year I couldn’t put it on without crying and so it hung at the back of my closet, its red and green merriment lost in a dark corner.  This year I was able to wear the skirt with only the slightest quiver in my bottom lip when I looked in the mirror.

I paired my grandmother’s skirt with a green cowl neck blouse, a black jacket zigzagged with zippers, black tights and tall black boots with the skinniest of heels.  For good measure I added my favorite leather studded bracelet.  I remember my grandmother wearing the skirt, so proper in her heels and nylons and a red sweater on top.  She would have laughed and shaken her head at her modest skirt paired with my hints of edginess.  A thousand times I wanted to send her a photo.  I wanted our pictures to stand next to each other, each of us wearing this magical skirt, her red lipsticked mouth smiling out at my own pale grin.

Every single time I took her skirt out for a spin, I was showered with compliments.  I’m not fashionable or trendy in any sense of those words.  I’m gangly and awkward and when I can find pants that don’t look like I’m readying for a flood, well, that’s a fashion win in my book.

When I stepped out in my grandmother’s skirt, it was a whole new experience.

“I love that skirt.”

That is a fantastic skirt!”

You look radiant in that skirt.  It really brings out the color in your cheeks.”

Needless to say, I felt great in that skirt, so great that I carefully put it in my clothing rotation as often as possible.  The skirt is so unabashedly red and green that the only possible month to wear it is December and so I decided to make the most of my month with my grandmother’s skirt.

I took it to see ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.  I wore it to three Christmas parties.  I wore it to the Christmas sing-a-long on the last day of school.  And finally I donned  it for our Christmas morning church service.

As we read the Communion passage, I held the plastic Communion cup, complete with wafer sealed on top, and swirled the grape juice so that it coated the sides of the cup red.  I thought about how Christ’s sacrifice covers my sins and I thought about how if I peeled back the wrapper on that cup and poured it on my skirt, the red wool would soak it up and nobody would even notice.  For the record, I didn’t pour it out.  I savored the wafer on my tongue and washed it down with the bittersweet juice, running red down my throat.

After church and after all the gifts were opened at my mom’s house, a knot caught in my throat when I hung my grandmother’s skirt up that Christmas afternoon.  I ran my hand over the wool and slipped the skirt back into the recesses of my closet.  I squeezed into Spandex for a Christmas bike ride.  Under a blindingly blue sky and with the taste of Communion still on my lips, I thought of all the gifts I’ve received this past year, both tangible and not.

And I smiled because somehow in spite of her passing my grandmother still manages to give incredible gifts.

In her skirt I felt vibrant.

I felt confident.

I felt beautiful.

And the most magical gift of my grandmother’s skirt is that when I took it off, all those feelings remained.

Enough

Christmas morning and bicycles will always be tied together in my mind.  I vividly recall stumbling out to the living room in footsie pajamas and seeing a shiny pink bicycle, complete with flowered banana seat, waiting for me by the Christmas tree.  Three years later I found a beautiful, blue Bianchi ten speed with my name on it standing by the tree.  And many, many years after that my husband bought me Frank the Tank for Christmas.

To this day I love going for a spin in my neighborhood just after Christmas to see all the wobbly wheeled kids strapped in helmets navigating the sidewalks on sparkly new bicycles.  This post is in anticipation of all the new bicycles that will hit the pavement for the first time Christmas morning.

There’s something magical about Christmas.  Maybe it’s the carols floating through the air or the scent of cinnamon permeating, well, everything.  Whatever it is, even this glitter-hating, heart full of unwashed socks Grinch of a girl softens up just a bit.

Image courtesy of love2pedal.com.

 Everywhere I look there’s joy and delight.  I’m not talking about the aisles of Christmas accoutrements in the stores.  I’m talking about the moments that cause me to stop and smile for an extra second or two.  Like opening the mailbox and having stacks of Christmas cards spill out.

Image courtesy of rodadmb-blogspot-com.

Or the smell of the first snow and the glory of a tarnished world turning white before my eyes. Not to mention the pure pleasure of flopping down in the snow and flapping my arms and legs until a snow angel arches her wings underneath me.

Image courtesy of desertrosepress.com.

It’s the little things that tickle me most like candy canes hooked over the edges of mugs of hot cocoa or a snowman peeking over his carrot nose.

Image courtesy of danheller.com

 At night the world is all a-twinkle, lights shining bright into the dark, calling up to the stars that sparkle in response.

Image courtesy of switchboard.nrdc.org.

There’s joy in finding the perfect tree.  Maybe it’s a spindly Charlie Brown tree you found on a mountain top and cut down with your mittened hands.

Image courtesy of inhabitat.com.

 Or maybe you take home the thickest tree from the corner lot.

Image courtesy of techeblog.com.

 No matter where your tree came from, pulling the boxes of ornaments out of the attic, turning on your favorite Christmas music and adorning each branch makes for a perfect day.

Image courtesy of tributesport.com.

 When I was a kid, my brothers and sister and I piled into one bedroom on Christmas Eve.  We’d giggle in our sleeping bags and sometimes always sneak a peek at the presents.  But the best part of the night was listening for Santa’s sleigh on the roof.

Image courtesy of odditycentral.com.

Every tapping tree against the windows and each creak of the house became absolute proof of prancing and pawing hooves.

Image courtesy of instructables.com.

We’d crane our necks and cock our ears to the side, convincing my little brother that Santa was hard at work while we squirmed in our sleeping bags.

Image courtesy of the Embassy of Indonesia.

In the morning, the cookies we’d baked for Santa were only crumbs left on the plate next to an empty glass of milk.

Image courtesy of trishadean.blogspot.com.

Christmas morning began with stockings, the toe of the stocking stuffed with an apple and an orange that went straight to the kitchen fruit bowl despite my mother’s tales of how children used to cherish Christmas oranges.  She had a point, but it was only later in the day when I’d made myself sick by eating my entire Book of Lifesavers that I’d eat the orange.

Image courtesy of cmybacon.com.

 My mother was a master gift wrapper, each gift wrapped in beautiful paper, with military corners and a shiny bow on top.  The presents I’d wrapped were always a rumpled disaster of paper that would never lay down flat and yards of Scotch tape to hold it all together.

Image courtesy of loren24250.wordpress.com.

These days my favorite part of Christmas is when my husband and I sit on the couch underneath piles of blankets and read the story of Mary and Joseph and the night they welcomed my Christ to Earth.

Image courtesy of mesamooncards.com.

After the gifts have been opened and all the Lifesavers and oranges have been eaten, we sing O Holy Night and hope that God hears us amongst the choirs of heavenly hosts.  We offer our praise in exchange for the gift of his Son.  On Christmas and the rest of the year we are profoundly grateful for God’s grace that somehow makes our meager offerings enough.

Bicycle Heaven by Denise Cottin.

A Few of My Favorite Things

This Christmas I received many gifts that made my Grinch-sized heart grow.  There are a few in particular that stand out.  None of them are extravagant.  None of them are expensive.  They are simple and lovely.  And I am blessed to have people in my life who gave me such wonderful gifts.

1.  A friend made me a beautiful dragonfly necklace.  She used understated earth tones and I appreciate the fact that she took time out of her impossibly busy schedule to create something she knew I’d love.  I gave her a book.  I bought it online.  I am lame.

2.  Our school has a Christmas Boutique where kids can shop for gifts for their families.  One little girl, a blond fairy of a girl, kept shooing me away while she shopped because she had something in her basket I couldn’t see.  The next day she slipped a small box under our classroom tree.  I unwrapped the box and inside sat this precious dragonfly brooch.

“How did you know dragonflies are my favorite?”  I asked her.

“You told me once a long time ago, when I was little, and I remembered.”  She smiled proudly, showing off the window where her front teeth used to be.

I wore the brooch all day and thought of the precious girl, who at the age of six is still little, but already has a big heart.

3.  This giant Hershey’s kiss was from another of my little ones.  He’s an affectionate boy and we’ve had some conversations about how we hug, but don’t kiss each other at school.  He gave me a basket of pansies and then handed me a wrapped box.  When I opened it, he said “This kind of kiss is allowed at school, right?”  The class erupted into peels of laughter and the clever little guy grinned from ear to ear.

4.  I received this angel ornament from another student.  The ornament is sweet and when I hang it on the tree each year, I will remember how tightly the little boy hugged me after I opened it.  He also gave me dish of Hershey’s kisses and repeated the line from the kid who gave me the giant chocolate kiss.  In first grade if a joke is funny the first time, it’s absolutely hilarious the second time around.

5.  I have a friend who used to race bicycles and he always gives me awesome cycling stuff.  This year he gave me a gift card to RoadID.com.  My emergency shoe tag was wearing out and so I bought a shiny new one along with a wicking hat for spin class.  There are two great things about this present.  First, if something dastardly goes down on my bike, my shoe tag can help emergency workers figure out who I am very quickly.  Secondly, and much less morbidly, RoadID gives a percentage of each sale to one of nine charities, so upon check out you can choose which charity receives some cash.  Naturally, I chose LiveStrong.

6. My grandmother used to wear White Diamonds lotion.  When she passed away earlier this year, I wore one of her sweaters just to have her scent on my skin.  My aunt wrapped up a tube of White Diamonds for me this year and when I unwrapped it and unscrewed the lid, I was immediately filled with the scent of my grandmother, the scent of all the joyous memories we had together.

7. Okay, when I said none of the gifts I received this year were expensive or extravagant, I apparently had a brain hemorrhage and forgot about the gift Terry gave me.  My hubby gave me a housekeeper for a year.  Let that sink in for a minute.  He gave me an Alice.  Revel with me for a moment here: an entire year of no vacuuming, no dusting, no mopping.  Ladies, I understand that you’re probably swooning.  Put your head between your knees for a sec and breathe.  Yes, he is that good.  No, he doesn’t have a brother.

I hope your Christmas was full of lovely gifts and joyous memories.  And even if your heart was already the right size, I hope this Christmas season made it swell at least three sizes bigger.

Thankful Thursday #3


This week I’m thankful for…

  • the little girl who told me that I have beautiful hair like a movie star.  I didn’t ask which one because I thought I’d just better leave well enough alone.
  • walking my old neighborhood with my mom
  • the jar of peppermint nougat Christmas tree candies my mom gave me
  • falling asleep to the sound of rain
  • the light of the Christmas tree
  • sitting on my couch reading O magazine after a rough day at work
  • my student who got a paper cut on her finger and said, “It feels like my finger has a headache.”
  • the dragonfly necklace my friend made me for Christmas
  • the little boy, who moved away earlier this year, and called me this week to tell me all about his new class, his new house, and to tell me about his letter to Santa.  I only told him I missed him 7 times.  And my eyes only watered a little bit when it was time to say goodbye.
  • my friend, Abby, who was featured here for the stunning necklaces she creates
  • Christmas music on Pandora