Posted by: pamrichardswatts | April 8, 2014

Lent Day 35 Reflection

Originally posted on Harris Creek Baptist Church:

She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
- Proverbs 31:25 -

You know you’re a “team” parent when . . . you have an entire section of your closet devoted to spirit wear.

With four active children, team t-shirts have taken over my hangers and drawers the same way team activities monopolize my calendar and my checkbook. I grumble while buying them—but I am only too happy to wear them! The uniform of choice for any spectator parent, spirit wear marks me as a busy but devoted mother.

FamilypicI was so excited when our daughter made the high school dance team that I couldn’t wait to put on my Midway Goal Tenders t-shirt, with “Katherine’s Mom” personalized on the back. I continued to wear some variation of it to every football game, all season long . . . four years in…

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Posted by: pamrichardswatts | March 20, 2014

Game Plan for the Injured Child

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There is nothing like the hurt we feel when our children get hurt.

So is it any wonder that we mommies want to make the hurt go away as quickly as possible? Maybe that’s why motherhood comes standard equipped with the “kiss it and make it better” instinct. Such a response is the time-honored cure for skinned knees and banged-up elbows.

But our little patients grow up all too soon, and the complexity of their injuries grows right along with them. A bruised ego. A defeated spirit. A broken heart. Such hurts aren’t as easily kissed away. What’s a loving mother to do then? How can we help? Even after my kids have outgrown the days of booboos and Barney Band-Aids, they still look to me to make it all better.

Nursing is a critical mommy job, but just one of many hats we wear. Our various duties include coach, cheerleader, and—my least favorite of all—referee. That probably explains why I’m so fascinated by high school football. There is a lot to be learned from the sidelines about the parenting game.

As in a family, every winning team depends on the support of many people with different but equally significant roles. The strategic leadership of coaches. The rowdy enthusiasm of cheerleaders and other spirit groups. The faithful presence of loyal fans. And yes, even the judgment of ruthlessly impartial referees! However, one job goes largely unnoticed . . . until a player gets hurt.

At that moment, the most important responsibility belongs to the athletic trainer. As the trainer heads toward the fallen man, everyone else stops whatever they are doing. The entire stadium holds its breath while the trainer evaluates the injury. How badly is our player hurt? Can he shake it off, and get back in the game? Does he need to ice it and sit out a quarter? Does the injury require more serious attention, like x-rays and hospitals? Only after the trainer completes this initial assessment does the player get to his feet—and everyone else gets back into action.

I find this “man down” protocol very effective. It keeps me from straying out of bounds. Mommy instincts are powerful and compelling—but not always rational. For instance, when someone else hurts my child, I’m instantly ready for battle. My first impulse is to call a foul, assign blame and hand out penalties. However, while such tactics might make me feel better, they are not necessarily in the best interests of my child—or anyone else, for that matter.

Nowadays, whenever one of my players gets hurt, I pause briefly. Taking off all other hats for the moment, I concentrate on my role as trainer—the first person needed on the scene after an injury. Before I do anything else, I help my child by giving their pain my full attention.

As trainers, we minister to our children’s wounds.

 At that point, I choose my next hat from the following:

Coach. It is the coach’s responsibility to help make the call for the next play. Characterized by empowerment, coaches equip players for successful living with instruction, discipline and winning maneuvers. Coaches build on past experiences for future action, asking questions like, “What have you learned from this? What can you do differently next time?”

As coaches, we guide our children’s next steps.

Cheerleader. It is the cheerleader’s responsibility to boost morale with words of encouragement. Characterized by enthusiasm, cheerleaders, as the name suggests, lead through example, modeling positive attitude and a winning outlook in the face of setbacks. We root for our children with affirmations like, “You’re so good at _____. I’m really proud of you for _____!”

As cheerleaders, we lift our children’s spirits.

Referee. It is the referee’s responsibility to insure that the game is played fairly for everyone—not just our kid! Characterized by impartiality, referees monitor the action from all sides and maintain a wider perspective. As referees, we consider, “Let’s look at this from the other person’s side. Why do you think s/he may have acted like that?”

As referees, we broaden our children’s understanding.

Spectator. It is the spectator’s responsibility to show up. Characterized by dedication, such loyal fans represent community support and confidence. “We are here for you. We are counting on you. We have faith in you!”

The most passive of all the roles, spectator is particularly hard for devoted parents—especially when we play in helicopter mode, i.e., “hover and rescue.” However, often we can actually help our children more by resisting the urge to swoop in and fix things for them. With focused but restrained attention, as spectators we allow other people or circumstances to impact our children.

Ideally, our children grow up forming relationships with many others throughout life equally equipped to coach, cheer and referee. These include mentors and authority figures such as teachers, youth leaders and actual coaches, as well as friends, classmates and others. As hard as it is to keep silent, I am relieved to discover that I don’t have to have all the right words and answers. I also find that my children may listen to others even when they have tuned me out!

As spectators, we strengthen our children’s independence.

I am so thankful for this training in sports injury procedure. I now have a winning strategy to help get my injured offspring back into the game. As I consider which hat to wear, my attention is refocused from my own hurt back to my child’s. And that is where it belongs—it is their injury after all. I give up what I want to do in favor of who they need me to be. In the end, this simple but selfless act of putting my child’s pain ahead of my own is just a more potent version of that “make it better” kiss.

Love in action is pretty powerful medicine.

-excerpted from When Jesus Takes the Field: Reclaiming Kids’ Activities (and Busy Families) for God’s Kingdom

Coming Next: The Game Plan in Action

Posted by: pamrichardswatts | January 27, 2014

More Life Lessons from Downton Abbey

DA funeral

Life is Full of Plot Twists—Postscript

Previously, on Life Lessons from Downton Abbey:

In last week’s post we ended, not with an actual cliffhanger, but an unanswered question: “Why does a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?”  How do we respond to a question that has stumped man for centuries? There are no satisfactory replies; certainly none I can provide in a single blog post. Even Julian Fellows would struggle to write his way out of this one. The “To Be Continued” was implied.

However, the best I can offer is an epilogue, one that followed the most tragic plot twist of my own life. I was fifteen years old when I lost my mother following a six-year battle against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After such a long and determined fight, it was inconceivable that the disease would ultimately triumph. Her illness and death took captive too many unanswered prayers; too many unlived years, too many loved ones left behind. Victory should have been hers—and ours.

In the aftermath, I wasn’t just grief-stricken; I was positively furious—outraged by the injustice of it all. Moreover, I wanted nothing to do with any Being who would allow such a cruel finale. I was so angry at God that I decided to boycott Him altogether.

This resolution I did my best to keep even at a private school with daily chapel services. I was like a kid plugging my ears yelling, “La-la-la! I’m not listening, I’m not LISTENING!” Determined to rewrite the story my way, I persistently ignored God and anything direction He might offer. The result was a disaster of epic proportions.

Miraculously, I survived some very turbulent years in spite of myself. At last I realized God had to be keeping a pretty strong hold on me no matter what I said or did. Despite my continual rejection, He refused to turn his back on me. The worst of my heartbreak and fury were no match for his tender but persistent faithfulness.

Unlike Masterpiece fiction, the great work of life needs more than an episode or even a season to wrap up conclusively. My own story continues to unfold in multiple volumes. It took ten years to accept I needed Divine revision to reach any kind of happy ending. It was another decade still before I found any purpose in tragedy or restoration for loss. It was so long, in fact, that a whole new generation of people had entered the story by the time I gave God full control over all of it.

I read recently that “what we believe about God determines what we will do with him.” I still don’t have definitive answers to the question posed above—but I am convinced that a loving God is faithful when bad things happened to good people. Even if I don’t know where the story is going next, I know Him well enough to trust Him as he leads me through it. As one who is fully reconciled with God, I can finally make peace with the darker chapters of my life. As I collaborate whole-heartedly with my Author, I am able to endure each new plot twist, finding eloquence in the story which issues from them.

Sin doesn’t have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that’s the end of it. Grace, because God is putting everything together again through the Messiah, invites us into life—a life that goes on and on and on, world without end. Romans 5:20-21 (The Message)

Posted by: pamrichardswatts | January 22, 2014

Life Lessons from Downton Abbey

DA-Cast

Ask any Downton Abbey diehard, and they are sure to have an opinion on the latest episode. While not everyone is tuned in to the series, those who do never fail to weigh in. Scarcely a week goes by that Downton Abbey doesn’t elicit a firestorm of reaction wherever fans are gathered. Downton Abbey has generated such a storm of heated reaction and controversy that Masterpiece Theatre has created an online discussion forum for viewer debate.

What is it about Julian Fellows’ creation that generates such strong emotions? How did we get so personally involved with something so foreign to us? After all, we have to cross an ocean, a century and an archaic class system in order to get there.

However, Downton Abbey’s portrait of the aristocracy addresses issues common to all. Even if we can’t identify with the characters, we can sympathize with the complexities of life they experience. Downton’s delicately-shifting lifestyle creates the perfect backdrop for some powerful realities, allowing us to view timeless truths through an historical lens. I for one can’t help but be inspired each week by the saga of Crawleys and their numerous staff.

Lesson One: Life is Full of Plot Twists

It was a typical weeknight in the Watts home. My husband was playing with our dogs outside, and I had just sat down to write when—WHAM!—a thud and a whimper by the back door caught my attention. Outside, I found Brent kneeling on the ground by our dog Eddie, who was shaking and unable to stand. Together we sought to comfort our pet and move him into the warmth of the house as we tried to assess his injury.

Meanwhile, my thoughts raced anxiously forward. How badly was he hurt? Did this mean a trip to the after-hours clinic? Expensive vet bills? I saw my “ordinary evening” scene dissolving into an entire chapter of animal trauma. Happily, Eddie’s injury was so minimal that he recovered with sitcom-worthy speed, and soon we returned to our “regularly scheduled program.”

If there’s one thing Julian Fellows does well, it is shock us with unexpected turns in the story line. When it comes to scenes that stun and horrify, he’s right up there with Stephen King and Wes Craven. The moment we settle down to enjoy pictures of everyday life at Downton—WHAM!—along comes another plot twist that knocks us breathless in horrified disbelief.

Did that really happen? Why on earth would they put that in the story?

The truth is that real life is full of plot twists as shocking as anything Fellows could write. My own “cast of characters” has certainly experienced its share. Our image of happily-ever-after was shattered last year when my mother-in-law suddenly lost her sight. Up until that moment, she was enjoying the role of spry septuagenarian, so full of boundless optimism and energy that we expected her to outlast us all. Then—WHAM!—a burst blood vessel destroyed the vision in both eyes—an occurrence so traumatic and rare her doctors had to search through fifty years of medical literature to find another documented case.

We have watched, helpless and broken-hearted, as Brent’s best friend surrendered a storybook life to the nightmare of cancer. A brilliant lawyer, loving husband and devoted father, Dirk was happily anticipating the birth of his third child, when—WHAM!—what appeared as the flu turned out to be a brain tumor.

Just this past year, our sister church mourned their senior pastor of thirty years after a serious illness. Even as they labored in the midst of their grief to continue to work of the church—WHAM!—the associate pastor was killed in a head-on car collision.

And it wasn’t so long ago that our community witnessed an event so tragically bizarre it made national news: a local pastor was electrocuted in the baptistery before his entire congregation.

Seriously, who writes this stuff?

Thankfully we can find some sanctuary in the Abbey. Its generous halls and vast estate invite us to vent our outrage and frustration with careless abandon. When tragedy strikes Downton, we can blame it on heartless and ambitious actors who desert the show in search of greener roles. If the drama gets too intense, we just change the channel or turn off the set. If we are that offended by Fellows’ work, we can even boycott his show altogether. Such things are possible from the safety of the audience.

Real life, however, is much less accommodating. It doesn’t always provide ready sympathy or obvious scapegoats. No matter how tempted we are to tune out or shut down, ultimately there is no escape from our own story. And even while it is acceptable to declare our undying hatred for Fellows and his atrocious storylines (and there is always an angry mob calling for his head!), how will we respond to the One who authors our lives?

Coming soon: Life is Full of Cliff-Hangers

Posted by: pamrichardswatts | December 20, 2013

Confessions of an Advent Conspirator-Spend Less

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For the past few Christmases, my family and I have joined our church in Advent Conspiracy, “a movement designed to help us all slow down and experience a Christmas worth remembering.” Fellow “conspirators” are encouraged to:

  • worship fully
  • spend less
  • give more
  • love all

Movement leaders point out that to in order to accomplish this, we have to do things “a little differently. A little creatively. It means turning Christmas upside down.”

We’ve been working on this for a while, and we’ve tried to cut back on holiday spending. But that can be pretty tough to manage when you have a large gift-loving family. (Particularly when four of them are at the age when they live and die by their electronics!) As much as we embrace the “spend less/give more” philosophy, it takes some serious ingenuity to do BOTH.

If there’s anything I love more than Christmas, though, it’s a chance to get creative! Wanting to get fully into the spirit of the thing, I started looking for inventive ways to spend less AND give more—to my own family, as well as strangers in need. So I slapped on my elf-shaped thinking cap and pretty soon ideas were jingling away. One surefire way I found to turn Christmas upside down is by adding a new twist to old traditions:

Christmas Cards

Christmas card

I love Christmas cards. Really. I love everything about them. I love finding envelopes in the mailbox that I actually look forward to opening. I love the beautiful images, the touching sentiments, the precious photos of children growing up much too fast. I even love the outrageous propaganda and parental PR cleverly disguised as “celebrating milestones.” (Be advised that our family missive will contain generous doses of same—it’s been a banner year for the Watts!)

On our end, I like discovering new photo ops to show off my own kids. I treasure reading each name on our address list and affixing a silent blessing along with each holiday stamp. However—speaking of stamps—have you checked out the price of postage these days? Holy Mail Fraud, Batman! We’ve reached the point where it costs us about as much to mail our cards as buy them. One rather obvious way for us to spend less at Christmas is to find a more wallet-friendly way to exchange Season’s Greetings.

Since we really do love the cards and want to participate in the whole glorious endeavor, we have worked out what we hope will be a successful compromise—to cycle, every other year, between electronic messages and the “recyclable” paper kind. (By the way, if you have some more affordable options for sending out Christmas cards, please post in the comments section!)

Meanwhile, our personal decision is in NO WAY intended to imply that we think sending Christmas cards is somehow wasteful, decadent or sinful. We DON’T! We LOVE seeing all the news from loved ones all over—we’re just trying something new!

Christmas Pajamas

Christmas 2006

Christmas 2006

This was a tradition that started as an homage to mom’s passion for scrap-booking. If there’s anything cuter than four little kids in holiday pajamas on Christmas morning, it’s the pages one can make with photos of same in color-coordinated outfits! Before long I had created a Christmas Eve ritual—each child opened one present at bedtime, and predictably that gift contained matching pjs.

However, with two girls, two boys and eight years between them, this tradition only got harder every year—my teenagers like wearing matching clothes even less than they like wearing pajamas! Still, I was determined to stretch the ritual until it snapped. Come December, I would embark on some Jingle-all-the-way frantic search for the Holy Grail of sleepwear that would somehow manage to suit my kids’ ages, sizes, genders and tastes, along with my budget. (And YES, I did try Old Navy. I advise you not to mention “Jingle Jammies” in my presence lest I’m tempted to flick a candy cane at your head!) Inevitably I would only spend precious time and money on something only I wanted. Talk about the gift that keeps on taking away!

Clearly, it was time for a change–but all I had to do was reinvent the tradition, not abandon it altogether! I realized we could celebrate the Spirit of Christmas pjs Past with ANY gift that brings our family together for some holiday fun. (And hey, if it lends itself to some cute photo ops, so much the better!) Here are a few alternatives I came up with:

  • MAKE IT! Gift: Ingredients (one or two per person, as needed) for a favorite Christmas treat. Every year my kids look forward to traditional holiday goodies like homemade, oven-roasted Chex party mix and reindeer food (aka puppy chow). Pick your own favorite recipe to prepare and enjoy as family; make enough to share! For the truly ambitious, how about an old-fashioned candy pull to make your own candy canes? There are some photos I would LOVE to see!
  • PLAY IT! Gift: Playing cards or board game pieces and a holiday date for Family Game Night.
  • READ IT! Gift: Bedtime reading of any holiday classic that’s sure to leave “visions of sugar plums” dancing in their heads! My personal recommendation would be The Twelve Days of Christmas, a beautifully illustrated explanation of the Christian symbolism in the classic Christmas carol. Another favorite is The ADVENTure of Christmas, which explores the original meanings of Christmas traditions and shows how hanging lights on the house, wrapping gifts, and decorating the tree are beautiful opportunities to learn more about Jesus as we celebrate his birth. Option II—depending on the ages/reading levels of your household, try copies of the same book (library versions are fine!) for each family member; agree to read and discuss together.
  • WATCH IT! Gift: Popcorn, candy and favorite film for Family Movie Night.

Coming soon: Give More—Gifts of Self

Posted by: pamrichardswatts | December 3, 2013

Annunciation

annunciationLuke 1:26-38

This time of year, I always feel a special connection with Mary. She definitely takes center stage these days as Advent readings highlight her role in Jesus’ arrival—beginning with that remarkable conception story. However, for me it’s always been much more personal than that.

The Christmas season never fails to take me back to one particular December, eleven years ago. My pastor Joe Loughlin had invited our congregation to refresh our understanding of the Christmas story by viewing it through the lens of a specific individual. For some, he suggested, that might be the innkeeper—we’re just so busy and overwhelmed by everyday responsibilities that we miss the extraordinary taking place just outside our door.

Immediately I knew which character I would pick. At almost nine months pregnant with our fourth child, I could readily identify with Mary, and now felt a whole new sympathy for her. How thankful I was that I didn’t have any travel plans in my immediate future—I could barely make it across the room, let alone across country!

Still, the connection ran much deeper than coincidental due dates. I felt a common bond with Mary as one who could fully appreciate what it’s like to have God interrupt life with unexpected, remarkable and seriously mind-blowing plans. You see, at that time we were actually expecting two children—the child I would soon deliver—and the child I would have to collect. Shortly after Evan’s birth I would be taking an extended trip of my own, traveling around the world to China to claim our daughter Elizabeth.

Our plan to expand our family through adoption had its own “supernatural conception,” taking place in the heart rather than the womb. At the time, I felt just as astonished as Mary. I had my share of “how can this be?” moments. I remember one day in particular when I, too was “greatly troubled.” It had been one of those rock-bottom, epic mommy-failure days with preschoolers Katherine and Parker. I’m not sure what went wrong, but I’ll never forget crying out to God: “Do you see? I can barely parent the two kids I have—how can you ask me to take on another one?”

Like Mary, I received a paradigm-shifting answer:

“I’m not asking you to do it. I’m asking you to let me do this through you.”

Such powerful revelation enabled me to respond as trustingly and obediently as she did, “May it be to me as you have said.”

In the months that followed, I would often be “troubled” as we made our way through the bureaucratic tedium of international adoption. (Yes, Mary, I do know what it’s like to contend with faceless and arbitrary government officials!) Then—just as the end of our journey was almost in sight—we received even more astonishing news. We were expecting yet another child, due to arrive at the very same time as our daughter.

How can this be?” As in, how could this have happened despite reliable birth control—but more importantly—how can we possibly manage such a thing? Two babies? At the same time? A world apart? How?

Time and again I returned to the same truth that first emboldened Mary so many years ago: “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Impossible for us—sure. But miraculously possible for God to accomplish through us.

Perhaps the miracle of the Annunciation is not limited to literal conception and pregnancy, or even Christmas. Maybe it takes place whenever God breaks into our ordinary lives with unsettling, amazing, life-altering plans, and we respond with faith and humility. When we trust him enough to journey from fear and disbelief to acceptance and obedience.

I hope I will continue to be identified with Mary that way.

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Posted by: pamrichardswatts | October 1, 2013

Counting Blessings: Looking Back

CountYourBlessingsFramed_detail

Foreword: Did you know that giving thanks is actually good for your health? Research confirms that gratitude benefits mental, emotional and physical well-being. People who regularly inventory their blessings are less stressed or depressed, and more alert, energetic, optimistic and satisfied with life in general. They also show increased levels of exercise and fewer physical complaints. Apparently, counting one’s blessings only serves to increase them!

I have certainly seen that principle in action these days. My last two posts describe the thanksgiving that accompanied Katherine as she left for school, and the joy that was an unexpected dividend of that gratitude. That is why I dedicate these next posts to “Counting Blessings”—all the benefits and wonders brought into light now that the college door has opened.

The Blessing of Birthright

Their children and children’s children shall have it as their inheritance. Psalm 69:36 (The Voice)

I count it as a blessing to fulfill a lifelong ambition. When Katherine entered college, she realized a dream that was years—even decades—in the making. While I don’t want any of my children to take their education for granted, a college education has been their legacy. Katherine comes from a long line of highly educated people, entering the University of North Texas as a fourth-generation college student. Her family tree includes teachers, dentists, lawyers and judges, all examples of those who have invested significant time, money and hard work into education and careers.

This commitment to education was passed down to her through Brent and I. For the record, I count this same birthright as my blessing, too. I am particularly thankful that my parents introduced me early to a passionate love affair with learning, as well as higher institutions thereof. (Even as a child I was secure in the knowledge that my father loved me almost as much as his beloved alma mater, The University of Texas. Hook’ em, Horns!)

Small wonder that by the time Katherine was born, her college education was a clearly defined goal. Before Brent and I officially became a family (somewhere between “Will you marry me?” and “I now pronounce you man and wife”), we envisioned university degrees for our future offspring. As our family grew, critical decisions were aimed at higher education: where to buy a home (because a good school district was imperative), how to budget our money and even where to travel. We once spent an entire summer vacation on a cross-country trip just to tour universities on behalf of our college-bound daughter. Most importantly, our educational goals influenced the way we raised our children. From the first, we’ve tried to instill a love of learning and set high standards for academic performance. Like our parents before us, we have always been purposeful about college attendance.

The Blessing of Provision

God is the One who gives seed to the farmer and bread for food. He will give you all the seed you need and make it grow so there will be a great harvest from your goodness. II Corinthians 9:10 (NCV)

I count it as blessing that Brent and I can afford to send Katherine to college. I admit it—Brent and I had it easy. We never had to fight to pay for our college education any more than Katherine does now. We appreciated how fortunate we were to begin family life debt-free. Meanwhile, many other couples in our circle have struggled to enjoy their graduate-level careers in the face of staggering student loans. But for the sacrifices of our parents, that may well have been us, too. So we resolved to pass this same legacy on to our children. We met with the financial planner long before the first obstetrician appointment, setting something aside for the kids’ college tuition before there were any kids. In a way, our marriage only solidified the “academic dynasty” into which we had both been born. “For this child we prayed”—and paidbut once that first tuition bill was due, all we had to do was write a check.

The Blessing of Preparation

God is the one who began this good work in you, and I am certain that he won’t stop before it is complete. Philippians 1:6 (CEV)

I count it as blessing my child received a topnotch public education. Our school district is equally resolved that every child should be not only qualified for college acceptance, but equipped for college attendance. For years I’ve been awed by the scope of resources designed to shepherd students and their families safely out of high school and into college. Dual credit and advanced placement classes. PSAT, SAT and ACT prep. Parent education lunches and college nights. An abundance of counseling websites to help navigate the labyrinth of tough college questions: “Where should I go? What should I study?” And for many, the most daunting of all, “How will I pay for it?” Entire Academies of Study that prepare students for college and career success. Small wonder that just this year Midway was publicly ranked as one of “America’s Best High Schools,” proving itself to be “one of the most effective in turning out college-ready grads.” How truly fortunate that my daughter was able to graduate from there!

Clearly, if we wanted Katherine to have a college oriented education, we couldn’t have picked a better place than Midway ISD. However, I can’t take the credit for that one—it was “God, the Ultimate Realtor” who planted us here. By way of the ugliest home we had ever seen, He led us straight into the sweetest little elementary school we could hope for. The moment we entered the campus nicknamed “the private school that isn’t,” we found ourselves blessed both academically and spiritually. For years my children have been taught, directed, coached and guided by faculty and staff who are not only devoted to children, education, the district and each other– but to Christ.

The Blessing of God’s Handiwork

 We each carried out our servant assignment. I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plants, but God made you grow. It’s not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God. I Corinthians 3:6 (The Message)

So many blessings. So many reasons to give thanks. I know that’s why we watched Katherine walk away with so much joy—because her way has been smoothed by many “raining” blessings over her life—and over us as we released her to go live it. I do not take such things for granted. There are many who have found this same path rough and full of obstacles, and I give thanks for them too:

  • I am inspired by first-generation college graduates whose families never planned for or even valued higher education. I give thanks for their boldness and courage as they dare to envision a more ambitious future.
  • I am humbled by the sacrifice and resourcefulness of those struggling to come up with college tuition. As they endure FAHSA forms, anxious waits and burdensome debt, I give thanks for their faith and perseverance.
  • I am encouraged by every student who goes on to succeed in college and beyond in spite of a second-rate education. I give thanks for their ingenuity and determination.

But most of all, I am thankful for the sovereignty of God, which enables Him to accomplish His purposes no matter what the odds or circumstances, through us—or in spite of us. No matter how well—or how poorly—we plant and water, He promises to make something grow.

I’m not sure I can count that high.

 Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. I Chronicles 16:8 (NLT)

 

 

Posted by: pamrichardswatts | September 20, 2013

Thankful for Joy

thankful joyThe Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. Psalm 126:3

Ever since my oldest child left for college, something significant has gone missing: the sadness I expected to move in the moment she moved out. After all, when one’s baby leaves the nest, that’s what is supposed to happen, isn’t it? And each reminder of her absence should trigger a fresh ache of loss and longing, right? At least, that’s what I prepared myself for. Given all the stories of other parents, advice of college orientation leaders, and concern from sympathetic friends, I thought I should count on it.

Anticipating the sniper tactics of grief, I braced myself for numerous bouts with standard issue sorrow. However, each time I ran across something that should take me down, I only stumbled into delight. Like the time I took the kids—sans Katherine—to the movies, where I relished the task of smothering the popcorn in plenty of butter. (The “authentic” butter flavoring used to give Katherine a stomachache.) Or the day I hit the grocery aisles and reached expectantly for the fried shrimp I couldn’t serve until now. (Katherine is also allergic to shellfish.) What on earth was wrong with me? I should have been crying, and was laughing instead. I wasn’t glad she was gone—why was I celebrating?

Could it be that I was only giggling with gratitude? I have cried since Katherine left, but on the whole they have been grateful tears. We have so much to be thankful for—it seems to me that deserves some celebration.

For instance, when I pull up to her abandoned car in the driveway, I remember how fortunate we are that this indestructible vehicle always protected our precious cargo, especially through a couple of hair-raising fender-benders. When I finally took the “Midway Goal Tender” sticker off my car window, and removed the “Katherine-2013” dance team sign from the yard, I was just glad that my child got to spend four wonderful years doing something she loved with people she loved. To me, such reminders of her departure are not markers for sorrow, but souvenirs of a blessed life. And I am inspired to recount such blessings, appreciating all the many reasons we have to give thanks and rejoice.

Give thanks . . . and rejoice. It seems I have gratitude to thank for my happy. The reason I am happy is because I’m thankful, which in turn makes me that much more thankful that I am happy. While I miss my child and look forward to her return, her absence remains full of thanksgiving and joy. I am grateful—and happy—both for the past we’ve shared, and for the future that now lies before her.

Most of all, I am thankful for what God has done to make all these things possible.

Coming up next: Counting Blessings (Part One): Looking Back

Posted by: pamrichardswatts | September 10, 2013

Champion of Joy

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Foreword: this is a follow-up to Anticipating Joy which I wrote just a year ago as we looked ahead to Katherine’s senior year. With high school graduation and college matriculation now behind us, I can speak at last as a mom who’s been there/done that/bought the t-shirt—at least once, anyway!

You’ve got to laugh a little, cry a little, until the clouds roll by a little.

That’s the story of, that’s the glory of love. 

At long last, the big day has come and gone. Recently we helped our oldest daughter Katherine move into her new college dorm for the very first time. Since our return, I’ve been fielding a lot of kind inquiries from sympathetic friends: “I’m thinking of you. How are you doing? Are you okay? I’m praying for you.”

Such comments imply that I am struggling, hurting or even devastated. And why not? Isn’t that the norm for parents like me? Honestly, though, while I appreciate the concern, the biggest trouble I have is with the questions themselves. Because my response seems anything but “normal.” My current state doesn’t exactly fit the protocol for such moments. So here I sit, searching for an answer that is at once both sincere . . . and sensitive. I don’t want to be disingenuous; but then again, I don’t want other moms to smother me with a Space Bag.

Because the truth is, I feel . . . happy. That’s right. While many admit to the conventional “bittersweet” and others confess it’s been awful—even agony—for me it has been wholly, almost shockingly joyful.

And there’s something almost disrespectful about that. We don’t flaunt victory in the face of defeat—it’s downright unsportsmanlike. Even as a very new mom I knew better than to admit Katherine was a “first-try conception” baby to those struggling with infertility. And no matter how much I loved being pregnant with her, and was a little sad to see it all end, I would never dream of saying so to my friend who endured nine months of round-the-clock morning sickness.

It is not, as the French put it, “comme il faut.” Or as we say here in Texas, “t’ain’t fittin.’”

Is there a proper place for my happy?

At last I find both the words and the justification for my happy in a scene from one of my favorite movies: the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The Drayton household has just received a startling announcement from daughter Joey. The bulk of the story takes us through the reactions of various characters as each of them comes to terms with the unexpected news. Joey’s mother (played brilliantly by Katharine Hepburn) is the perfect spokesperson for me when she makes the following declaration to her husband, Matt:

“[Joey’s] always been a happy human being. She laughed out loud before she was six months old. She was happy as a baby, happy as a little girl, happy all through school and college. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen her quite as happy as she is right now. And I have to be happy for her, Matt. And I am. I feel happy for her. And proud of the fact that we helped make her. And whatever happens now, I feel glad . . . that Joey’s Joey.”

Under normal conditions, there would seem to be nothing exceptional about such motherly sentiment—but these are uncommon circumstances. The complex situation inspires all kinds of mixed emotions, and Hepburn’s response distinguishes her from the rest of the cast. We soon learn that not only does she feel happy; she has to fight for it. Even when others dismiss her position as foolish and unrealistic, she refuses to back down, going toe-to-toe with those who take a less positive few. It is this tension between the “bitter” and the “sweet” that drives the plot, keeping us all in suspense to find out which will triumph in the end. Intuitively we sense that a “happy ending” is impossible unless someone comes forward to champion joy.

Hepburn’s stirring articulation gives voice to feelings about my own Katherine. She has always been happy—and made us even more so. When she entered the world and the doctor announced, “It’s a girl!” I wept with indescribable joy. From that moment on, happiness took on a name and a face. Happiness moved into our family and lived among us. Every major milestone has been marked by happy. We’ve been blessed with eighteen years of happy. Why would this moment be any different? It seems that sending her out is destined to be just as joyful as welcoming her in.

Just as Christina did, I prepare to fight for happy—but I must pick this battle carefully. As I said, it’s definitely not the conventional response. So far I’m the only mother quoting Katharine Hepburn, and I’m afraid I’ll sound foolish and naive. (Even my own inner skeptic wonders what will happen once we say goodbye to a different child—especially the last child.) Meanwhile, I worry about being insensitive. Will my song of praise sound out of tune amid the chorus of laments? What if my shouts of joy drown out another’s weeping? Can I make room for happy without causing further unhappiness?

I find the answers to these questions by turning to God. When the complexities of life leave me baffled and defensive, He comes forward with perfect wisdom. When my responses refuse to conform to protocol, I surrender to the authority of my unconventional Lord. When I am lost inside the mysteries of the human heart, His voice helps me navigate with sincerity and sensitivity. Most importantly, He points out that it’s not my job to champion joy, because He has already done so. With more clarity and eloquence than even Miss Hepburn herself, He explains how He will put sorrow in its place to make way for joy.

First of all, He points out that there is a time for tears (Ecclesiastes 3:4), even calling us to shed them in sync with others when they mourn (Romans 12:15). Meanwhile, He reminds us again and again that joy will always triumph over sorrow in the end:

  • Sorrow is temporary, but joy will last. (Psalm 30:5, Isaiah 35:10, John 16:22, I Peter 1:6)
  • Sorrow is only a precursor to joy. (Psalm 126:5-6, John 16:20)
  • God has the power to transform sorrow into joy. (Psalm 30:11, Isaiah 61:3, Jeremiah 31:13)

Whenever we struggle through sorrow, he fights alongside us as the undefeatable Champion of Joy, assuring us all the while that His happy will always win. The real “story of love”—His love—is the sure promise of a Happy Ending. Then the glory of His love is revealed as He makes good on that promise. At last we can all laugh (and cry)  in perfect unison, singing together as we rejoice:

God’s redeemed . . . will be happy forever, forever free from sorrow and grief. Isaiah 51:11

Sing for joy, you heavens, for the Lord has done this; shout aloud, you earth beneath. Burst into song . . . for the Lord has redeemed his people, he displays his glory. Isaiah 44:23

Coming up next: Thankful for Joy and Counting Blessings: Looking Back

Posted by: pamrichardswatts | September 27, 2012

Chicken Little Moments

Lord, I look upward to you, you who live in heaven. Psalm 123:1, NCV

I have often been complimented on my “authenticity” or “transparency.” I have a confession to make: I don‘t know how to be anything else. It’s almost impossible for me to keep my personal business private. While I’m pretty discreet with regard to other people’s affairs, I can be downright indelicate about sharing my own. If the news is wonderful, I celebrate in front of everyone, and when something rotten occurs, I complain just as publicly. I am Chicken Little: when I think the sky is falling, you can be sure I will run around telling everyone about it!

One week I had plenty of news to share, both good and bad. As I encountered the same people each day, the gracious friends who heard me sing praises on Monday were the very ones who also endured my griping on Wednesday. The cause of all my grumbling? Money worries, what else? Trips to the gas station or grocery store were a constant slap in the face. Rising summer temperatures came with mounting electric bills. Every time one of the kids went outside I could almost see the dollar signs floating out behind them. (“Close the door!” could easily be the title of our family theme song.)

Though the squeeze on our wallet kept getting tighter, I didn’t snap, at least not immediately. That is, until the week in question when I took the girls to the eye doctor and everybody to the dentist. As I looked over bills for exams, procedures, contacts, fillings and crowns, I felt the sky falling. (Crowns for a six-year-old? Are you kidding me?) To quote my husband, “I felt like a giant bird—everywhere I looked I saw in front of me an enormous bill!”

Since I don’t like the sound of whining (even my own), at first I tried the old “attitude of gratitude” approach. After all, perspective is a wondrous thing. I gave thanks that the only real money we spent on our children’s healthcare was at the dentist as opposed to say, the oncologist. Unfortunately, the “count your blessings” strategy didn’t stop me from panicking.  I grew increasingly anxious and irritable, and true to form I made sure everyone knew it. I felt a little sorry for the unfortunate women who picked that day to ask me how I was. My answers were predictably and painfully honest.

Eventually I told so many people how awful everything was that even I got tired of hearing it. That’s when I had one of those “coming to Jesus” meetings, and on this occasion God condescended to meet me in . . . well . . . a bathroom stall. Not exactly what you would call holy ground. To be fair, it was the church restroom during Vacation Bible School, sounds of praise music drifting in from the sanctuary. But still—Jesus in the potty? Can a girl have no privacy?

He didn‘t waste any time. “Pam, here’s the thing. You’ve been hit by something that scares you, and you are running around trying to fix it.” (He was right. It would take a LOT of coupon-clipping to recover from bills this size.) “Meanwhile, you’ve spent so much time listening to your own words that apparently you’ve forgotten some of mine, like, ‘Don’t worry about anything.’ And ‘You can trust me to take care of you.’”

See, this was Chicken Little’s problem, too. He assumed the worst at the first sign of trouble, and then ran around frantically trying to figure out what to do about it. However, if only he would have looked up, he could have saved everyone a lot of fear and panic.

In the midst of our “Chicken Little” moments, if we will look up to God, he will provide all the answers:  “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace” (Phil. 4:6-7, NLT).

The next time life hits me in the head and I just have to tell someone, I’ll know where to start. Whether I’m shouting for joy or hollering in fear, I’ll be sure I share it first with God. And we’ll go from there.

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