Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Great Gain

Several days ago I was on my porch.

And my soul was full. The sunlight was bright—touching and permeating even into the dense undergrowth at the porch’s edge. I took Henry out with me. He’s learning to remain there with me no matter what tempts him to run into the front yard. I’m very pleased with him.

I remember the condensation on my water glass. And my book was upside down and splayed open on top of another (just in case I wasn’t in the mood for the first), and my timer for the chicken in the oven ticked away the minutes.

I was content.

How underrated that phrase and state of mind really is. To be content. Paul tells Timothy godliness with contentment is great gain.*

Great gain. To be pleased with where you are at that moment. Contentment is not a disregard that it could be better; it is not a denial that anything needs improvement. It is not an apathy and lethargy that settles like dust on us. Real contentment defies these; it looks around and assesses the situation with prudence and gentleness and says, “This really is good for now. This really is a good place to be.”

For years this contentment eluded me. I could never settle, never bend into the now enough to realize that everything doesn’t have to be perfect to be good. Life (and your house, your husband, your children, your job) does not have to be immaculate and pristine and orderly for it to be a divine place, a sacred place, an anointed place.

The yard needed to be raked . Mowing had left rows of dead grass and debris from the weed eating needed to be blown away. The porch needed to be swept and the potting soil from the overturned plant needed to be removed. My life was and is much like the front yard. But that is not what I saw that afternoon.  And it most certainly was not what I felt. I experienced something far beyond these.

In my moments of contentment I absorb the truth that God is good. Really good. And it is not an epiphany or a revelation in my theology. It is a gradual absorption. A slow saturation of a reality that I can’t explain, only experience.

Last year (and many times in the past) I had a very hard time finding contentment. My schedule was too full. There were too many responsibilities and people in the course of my day. From early in the a.m. until late at night I was with people—people I enjoyed. I love to teach and I most enjoy high school age students. But in the course of the day I would shift between teaching six classes and then on to my next job which involved a whole of people. Contentment eluded me. There was always something to be done; there was always something that hadn’t been done. And the list never shortened. Our family lived in a semi-survival state. Yes, I am very aware that I made these choices. And because I did I tried very hard not to complain, not to be disgruntled and not to be constantly frustrated.

Would I do it again? The very gut of me says no. I think the price was too high not just for me, but for my whole immediate and extended family. We learned much about ourselves and each other, but the price was a costly toll.

My schedule has been greatly modified this year. I am still teaching, but in a far different situation and capacity. I am still working, but only one job with modified hours. I see the promise of Sabbath in my life now.

God designed Sabbath to give us breathing space. He set in place a day of leaving, a day of staying, a day of remaining—a day of resting. Last year (and in many other seasons in my life) I did not have that sacred space.

That day on the porch (and many since then) I allowed myself to breath. I did not have to be at work until 3. This seemed to be a foreign concept to me. I went to the grocery and walked leisurely around assessing, pricing and purposefully gathering. I came home and did laundry, straightened the house, cooked chicken for our evening meal and for chicken salad for lunches this week. I looked at the clock. I still had a whole hour and a half before I needed to get ready for work. I fixed lunch and carried it to the porch. I dawdled. (I can’t remember the last time I engaged in this Southern pleasure.) I took my time savoring my Santa Fe salad. The avocado was rich. The chicken was spicy. The black beans punched. The salsa burned (a little). Then I began to read. Somewhere in the midst of those pages I realized how content I was.

I was utterly content.

I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. As I mentioned my life tends to be as rag-tag as my porch and front yard. Certainly not all is in order. Definitely everything is not as it should or could be. But it didn’t seem to matter.

Breathing space helps with contentment.

When life is stupid-crazy and there is no room to change or shift then there is no breathing space. I didn’t have time last year to sit on the porch and allow the afternoon sun to shine on me. I didn’t have time to do laundry or chores without the hurry button on overdrive. I was constantly doing, but rarely being.

Because of the choices and opportunities offered to us (because of the beautiful grace of God) this year my husband and I have more breathing space. Sometimes my husband still has to work hard to get me to relax—to be in the now. My mind is often on perpetual forward; it doesn’t seem to have an idle mode. But he is quite adept in his methods to get me to relax…he’s sneaky with them. I don’t recognize them until I am already uncoiling.

Our Father wants us to be content. He desires for us to be in a place where we can see what he is doing and giving. And he is quite adept in his methods to heightened our awareness. He is sneaky with them. He knows that when we live in the hurry mode we fail to see these provisions. And when we fail to see the provision then we do not experience the contentment. Breathing space is a remarkable gift given from a Father who knows us. He knows our limitations, boundaries and perimeters far better than we know our own.

Contentment stays the hungry monster called More. More woos us into believing that if we have just one more thing, if we can just fix this, change that or rearrange this then we will be happy. Contentment whispers to us that this is enough—for now. Contentment is learning how to abide in the now. To be grateful and thankful, like Ann Voskamp**, for right now. Contentment teaches us to be pleased with the tiniest of gestures, the smallest of actions and the minutest of details. Contentment teaches us that we don’t have to wait for the then. When we learn to make this awareness a part of our daily living then we are content because we see and experience the great gain.

In the past few weeks I have become more aware of this place of great gain. It has been available to me all along. Waiting for me. Patiently.

This morning I lay in my bed. The room was dark and quiet and I moved in and out of a shallow slumber. I remained there not so much because I was sleepy, but because I could. I can’t do this every day. There are days when my schedule begins quite early. But today, today I had breathing space.

 I remained cocooned in my thin sheet and thin veil of sleep—prayers floated in and out of my head. One sentence, two sentences. Prayers for my husband who is being stretched, prayers for my oldest daughters who carry my grandsons still, prayers for my youngest daughters who are attempting to navigate new places in life, prayers for my brother’s family, prayers for my friends who are walking in new arenas and fighting hard battles, for my co-workers who are struggling and prayers for you.

Yes, you.

I slid out of the bed this morning content.

I Timothy 6:6

Ann Voskamp

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Miracles Beget Miracles

My brother will be a guest blogger on this site in the near future. Certainly he has a story to share of God’s grace and redemption, and it is his to tell. And he tells the story far better than me.

You see there’s a principle in God’s kingdom—one of many—miracle gives birth to miracle. There’s life in a miracle. Abundant and frothing it spills over and feeds the birth of other miracles.

On July 16, 2012 two little miracles arrived in this world. They entered after their mama and daddy spent a month living in the hospital. They arrived after weeks of medical intervention to delay their arrival. They arrived after bed rest and lack of iron. They arrived after sleepless nights and confinement. They arrived after much prayer and weeping. They arrived after much longing and yearning.

Aiden Seth* and Allie Jo* were born. They arrived seven weeks before their expected date. Thirty-three weeks and one day after their conception.

Twins. My brother’s children. My niece and nephew.

My youngest daughter and I were there. We packed our bags and readied the car for a road trip and drove two hours to the hospital. There had been many false starts as we awaited their arrival. Near calls of when we thought they were going to be born—all times that would have been far too soon. But that morning the inevitable was finally happening. We got there at noon and late in the afternoon the medical staff wheeled Mama to the delivery room and we began our vigil. We were told if we waited in the hall in front of the elevator we would get to see the babies briefly as they were transported to the NICU. It was not a long wait. Less than forty-five minutes after she left us we saw the babies only minutes after they were born—swaddled in hospital blankets and carried by masked nurses.

Aiden Seth
 Aiden first. He was seven minutes older than his tiny sister. And he looked exactly like his Daddy did twenty-nine years ago. I know; I was there. Allie next. The little sister—the youngest of four siblings. God love her heart she has three older brothers.
Allie Jo

My step-father wept. My mother cried. I looked at my step-father, one of the dearest men in the world, and asked him how it felt to have his legacy continue? His pale blue eyes were milky with tears and he had no words. He just held his hand over his face. His stooped and slumped shoulders shook with his weeping. My mother simply wanted to know if they were healthy. Would they survive? Would they be ok? Abby and I just stood in awe. In awe, both for the tiny babies in front of us and for the miracle God had wrought in my brother. There was no way we could look at Aiden and Allie and not remember the place from which God had pulled their Daddy.

Five years ago my brother, Courtney, was near death, (not figuratively, but literally) because of drug addiction. And that’s his story to tell, but through a series of events and interventions and prayers he went to rehab a third time. He fought. He fought hard. And he survived.

His account will stun you. Courtney’s story will soften the hard places in your heart. His Damascus Road was long and rough and narrow. But like Paul scales were removed from his eyes. And like Paul his heart was changed from stone to flesh. The phrase it’s a miracle is tossed so frequently and flippantly that it seems cliche; therefore, miracles often become invisible and commonplace and we forget to stand in awe. But my brother’s life is a miracle—a testimony to the intervention and grace and provision of our Almighty God.

During the entire month that Courtney and his precious wife, Angela**, were in the hospital we texted every morning. The messages evolved into mini bible studies. They were born out of daily reading and immersion in the Word. He would send me a passage or verse of Scripture to read. Then a volley of discussion would occur. Church happened on my sanctuary couch almost every morning.

Several times there were intense scares with the babies, but I witnessed Courtney and Angela working through each crisis. Their tools? Prayer, the Word, encouragement from the people who love them and especially each other. Courtney plastered Scripture on the bulletin boards of their hospital room. He shared the Truth with the doctors and nurses and the staff. Courtney had no qualms and no hesitations telling what the Good Lord had done in his and Angela’s life.

Now we were seeing what the Good Lord had done.

The NICU staff explained to Courtney that after an hour and a half he could come to the NICU to see his children—his daughter, his son. He would be allowed to bring two people.

The time passed. The labor room clock read 6:20 p.m. The staff rang the phone in the room and told Courtney he could come. We thought our mom and dad would go with Courtney, but he turned to Abby and me and said, “Let’s go.”

I hesitated. I felt awkward. I struggled with usurping a place that wasn’t mine. I didn’t want to go ahead of the others. I voiced my thoughts.

My brother looked at me. Without wavering he held my gaze, “I want you to go with me.” My heart became too big for my chest. And I had to work really hard to keep the puddle of moisture in my eyes from becoming tears and running down my face. I was so honored, so touched by this unexpected privilege.

A NICU can be a frightening place. There are so many machines and medical paraphernalia. There is a lot of noise and the hum of contraptions that I had to ask for the names and often an explanation too. There seemed to be way too many nurses standing outside the small room pouring over charts comparing and assessing the recorded information. Aiden and Allie’s nurse was a young man named Zach; he was incredibly strong and sure. He deftly, but gently handled Courtney’s babies. I was touched and impressed. God knew what Courtney needed.

Abby and Uncle Courtney

Zach, Courtney and Allie.

Big Sister and Little Brother

Abby and I were not allowed to touch Aiden and Allie. We remained about two feet from them. Sometimes we would lean in and peer through the glass wall of their beds to memorize their little faces. We could only look and watch, but it was enough for us because we were peering at miracles.

Tiny, perfect miracles.

Abby stood at the end of Allie’s bed. She looked at me and these words came from her, “That’s a little person. A little person who will grow into this.” She said as she pointed to herself. I looked from Allie to Abby. Seventeen years. Abby is almost as old as I was when Courtney was born.

Courtney, age 3--Tamera, age 20
 Zach helped Courtney change Allie. I watched Courtney touch his little daughter—his hands, so large, cradled her miniature body. His dark head bent towards her. Adoration already vivid in his face. Tears puddled in my eyes again.

Courtney, Zach and Allie
Later Zach would allow several more people in the room. Our mother, Courtney’s father. A couple of very close family friends. Zach seemed to understand that we all needed to be reassured. We needed confirmation that they were here: alive and relatively strong and healthy considering their prematurity. A hum of excitement and joy hovered in the room.

We were allowed to stay for over an hour. I snapped photographs as fast as I could. I am not a photographer, but I wanted so much to record this for Courtney and Angela. I wanted them to have images as reminders of the early moments and hours of the miracles who came readily from the hand of God.

The last photograph I took is my favorite. Courtney was standing beside Aiden’s bed. Quietly I lifted my camera. Could I manage to capture what I saw there in this new daddy, my brother? Could it be pressed into the digital pixels and become a visual memoir of the moment? Immediately after I clicked the photo Courtney turned and disappeared.

Courtney--blessed man

His absence was noticed and everyone began to look for him. Worried. Concerned. I knew where my brother had gone. I knew what he was doing not because he told me, but because I knew what he wanted and needed to do.

He went to find a quiet, solitary place. He went to be alone. He went away from the crowd. He went to tell the God who had saved him thank you. He went to praise the One who had changed him and given him a second chance. He went to bless Him who had called him out of darkness into his marvelous light.

This week Aiden and Allie are five weeks old. They have been home for three weeks. I have held and kissed them. I have prayed over them. I have rocked them. I have put them against my cheek and breathed I love you in their tiny ears. And I have blessed the Lord for their Daddy over and over and over and over.

Tamera and Allie

Miracles beget miracles.

Aiden Seth and Allie Jo***

* Aiden Seth is named for his older brother and his Daddy. I gave Courtney his middle name and he passed it to Aiden.
* Allie Jo is named for our maternal grandmother and Courtney's paternal aunt: Madelyn Allie and LaVinia Jo. See archives Mad-e-lyn and White Cadillac.

**I am sad that Angela is not in any of these photos, but laboring mothers are not interested in having their photos taken. Angela is a blessing sent by God to my brother. She is his helpmeet. She loves and encourages him. She makes him laugh. She does life with him. She prays and believes with him. She has given him a family. I bless God for her. I thank God for her. And we are going to keep her!

***This incredible photograph was taken by my daughter Katherine Rector with Rae Rector Studios. See archives A String of Pearls

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