Everyday Graces

by Katherine Murray © 2009

reVisions Plus, Inc. www.revisionsplus.com/practicalfaith.html kmurray230@sbcglobal.net

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This short book of essays is a collection of pieces from Practical ~faith~ (a blog on faith and life), the newsletter Openings I wrote during the late 1990s, and other miscellaneous writings.

beauty

freedom

Everyday Graces

Table of Contents
The First Day of First Grade .......................................................................................... 3 Born in a Barn............................................................................................................... 5 Decisions, Decisions ..................................................................................................... 7 Give Your Gift .............................................................................................................. 8 Filling the Gaps .......................................................................................................... 10 Not Knowing.............................................................................................................. 12 Morning on the Monon Trail....................................................................................... 14 An Immanuel Moment ............................................................................................... 16 Expectantly Yours ...................................................................................................... 18 The Beauty of a Face ................................................................................................... 20 Thank Goodness for Cap'n Crunch ............................................................................. 22 Cars and Colors.......................................................................................................... 23 Rubber Mats............................................................................................................... 26 The Suddenly Sacred .................................................................................................. 29

one

The First Day of First Grade
Just a few hours ago, I drove through the drizzly gray morning, taking my 6-year-old son Cameron to his first day of first grade. He'd been up since 6:00 am, ready since 6:30, with his school-supply-filled bookbag packed and positioned by the front door since yesterday. During the three-minute drive, we talked about first days--about my first days, about other first days. "Were you ever nervous?" he asked. "Sure," I said. "I was always nervous the first day." "Did you tell your parents you were nervous?" he wanted to know. The weight of memory hit me. "No," I said. "I guess I didn't." Pulling into the parking lot, we saw a colorful, smiling group--parents whose arms were filled with bookbags, lunchboxes, and papers, somehow at the same time holding the hands of their youngsters, guiding and cautioning, watching cars, gauging traffic, navigating their children to the front door of the school building. Cameron and I joined the flow, carrying his bookbag and lunchbox and papers. He didn't want me to hold his hand. As we were swept in with the other parents and children, I tried to fight the lemming-like feeling, that tightness that was growing in my chest. Inside, we found his room; we found his desk. His name was written, in the standard Denealian form we are supposed to practice every evening, on a tag on the mauve metal side. He sat down in the chair. His knees were too tall for the desk. Too big on the outside, I thought, but too small on the inside--too small to be facing entire days in a classroom, too little to have to rein in all that jittery joy that makes him jump and sing and twirl spontaneously in the checkout line, at the library, anywh ere at all. I kissed him twice, quickly, on the top of the head, making the Mommy noises that come so naturally. "You have a good day, okay? I'm just three minutes away, remember. Listen to the teacher and don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't understand something. Have a great time, okay? I'm proud of you, sweetie." He mumbled something from a mouth made of marble that was an acknowledgement of what I said but meant, "Really, Mom, that's enough. Go away and let me figure this out." I stopped and waved twice on my way to the door; he waved quickly and looked away. His eyes were big worried saucers. Outside in the parking lot I felt like I'd either abandoned him or left an important part of myself behind. Or both.

I looked around at all the empty-armed parents leaving and thought "I'll bet we're all feeling this and agreeing to hide it." Tough moments. Necessary, but tough. We feel our children spinning out beyond the family atmosphere, where a safe kind of gravity held them close. Suddenly they are out there in the world, beyond our immediate protection, learning new things (that have nothing to do with us), thinking new thoughts (that we aren't teaching them), and interacting with people we can't see or know very well. For me, going to first grade the second time may have had more meaning for me than the long trek to my own first grade classroom 30 years ago. It was one of those key moments when things get sparklingly clear: I saw how briefly our children are really "ours," how precious the time truly is, how important and incredibly sweet is the moment of innocence that exists before the system begins its shaping and molding process. My hope for my son is that he never loses his jittery joy and that even as he's asked to practice "restaint" he finds a way to sing joyfully (even if inside), laugh uproariously when he can, draw purple giraffes just because he likes the color, and continue to live the world the way he feels it, painted in bright colors, sung to a happy melody, hung with a piece of rainbow-colored yarn on a golden nail in the center of God's bedroom wall.

two

Born in a Barn
Cameron left the door wide open after he came in from playing in the snow. "Were you born in a barn?" I asked him, shaking my head and closing the door tightly. It's one of those questions we pick up somewhere and use without thinking. Someone probably said the same thing to us when we were children. It means "What are you thinking?" or "That's unacceptable!" or "Where are your manners?" But something I read this morning led me to think differently about the idea of being born in a barn. We are often blessed and even led by people who *don't* do the right thing, at least in our eyes. The very people we shake our heads about--those people we think are wrong or missing the point or outside the mainstream--they have their part in God's work, just like we do. They (or we) may carry great messages to the world; contribute a small thought that makes a difference; or shower love upon a child who desperately needs it. They (or we) may live with the accolades or criticisms of others. They (or we) may look different, sound different, act different, feel different than the rest of the "normal" people in the world. God has a history of surprising us with the people he chooses to do His work. Moses was an introvert, but God chose and equipped him--in spite of his great insecurities--to lead His people out of captivity. David was a shepherd with a slingshot and a big spirit...and very human flaws. Jeremiah was an eccentric; John ate locusts and honey; Paul was a deadly persecutor turned into a church founder, and the apostles were plain fishermen--working-class, rough-handed men with hearts softened by the spirit of truth. And, oh yes--Jesus was born in a barn. My hope for us this Christmas is that we remember that God uses all of us together -businessmen and tax collectors, stay-at-home moms and politicians, pastors and criminals, tattooed teens and toddlers, to do His work in the world. The next time we're tempted to belittle someone in our thoughts, words, or actions, I hope we can remember that Christ himself was born in a barn and didn't live up to the expectations of the Messiah the people were expecting. They had waited and prayed for a mighty king, a king who would crush the oppressive rule of the day and set them free. What they received instead was a quiet gift of hope that was born inside their own spirits--a gift that would transform them and make it possible for them to give, receive, and model the presence of God in their (and our) lives. That doesn't mean we should leave our doors standing open, chew with our mouths open, or let dust bunnies grow in our homes until they are the size of haybales. What it

does mean is that God uses ordinary, extraordinary, eccentric, and even unpleasant
people to accomplish His work in the world, and, born in a barn or not, we have the opportunity to recognize and welcome His spirit in everyone we meet.

three

Decisions, Decisions
My son Christopher wants the N64 game Perfect Dark. Knowing it is rated M(ature), which means "not for 12-year-olds" at our house, he recently launched into a campaign with the goal of persuading me to back down on the rating rule. He wrote to a software review site, asking whether the game would be appropriate for him; he brought me the reply, which said "If you're mature enough to be writing to us, you're mature enough to play the game." Their opinion, I said. He came up with compromises and possible solutions. He presented all this to me one humid Indiana afternoon with all the zeal, focus, and persistence of an TV evangelist. I was impressed by his developing debating skills, but ultimately I stood firm on my original decision: Just say No to M games. Sometimes it's hard being the Unreasonable Mom, the one saying "No" to what's very possibly a harmless choice. I sometimes ask myself, late at night, after the sounds of Nintendo 64 have quieted and the boys are asleep, Why do I do this? But there's a solid answer, every time: To trust my gut. To hold the standard. To be consistent. Even though it's sometimes a battle to hold with poise to the ideals we set for our familes, right now I think my 12-year-old needs me to be someone he can test and push against, someone who won't give in on matters that are important to me, an adult who means what she says and follows through. That may not matter much, day to day, over little things like games and toys and homework, but down the road 10 or 20 years, I hope to find that loving consistency worked. Several years ago one of the major orange juice companies ran a commercial that really stuck with me. The scene showed a family hurrying through their morning routine. Mom opens the refrigerator and pours a glass of juice for each child; then for Dad; then for herself. For a brief moment, everyone stops and drinks. Peace. Togetherness. Then, like a switch has been flipped, the schedule kicks in and everybody hurries out the door. As the door closes after the last child, the narrator's voice says, "We won't know the outcome of some of our decisions for another 20 years. Orange juice is one good thing you can do today." My hope for us all as we travel this occasionally rough and lonely path (with our kids sometimes pelting us with mudballs from behind the trees) is that we'll invite both our hearts and our minds to give their input to our decisions; that we'll trust ourselves and our natural parenting abilities when it comes time to make the hard choices; and that we'll be able to communicate those choices to our kids with the loving, clear, solid resolve we'll need. That's at least one good thing we can do for our kids today--whether they drank their orange juice this morning or not.

four

Give Your Gift

"Rumpah-pum-PUMMMM!" Remember the chorus of the Little Drummer Boy? It was a favorite Christmas carol of mine at six-years-old. I hurried through all the verses so I could get to my favorite part, the chorus: "Rumpah-pum-PUMMMM!" Johnny Whitaker, the boy from Family Affair, played the littlest angel in the Hallmark made-for-TV special, about a boy who brings the Christ child a box of his favorite things. There's a Gap commercial on television right now, part of the mod, aloof group of dancers and singers; it fades to simple letters on a white background: Give Your Gift. Following the horrific tragedies of this fall, we saw a nation dig deeply into its pockets and passions. Gifts were given. A great outpouring of sharing in the wake of incomprehensible loss. Give your gift. I struggled, like many others, with my own personal response to both the horror and the need. What would I give? Blood? Money? Time? Give your gift. I've asked myself through my life what gifts I had to give. I love to write—and it's something I like to share. Gift your gift. Does it have to be a gift no one else can give? No—what possibly could the Christ child need of you that hasn't already been given Him? Does it need to be clever, or useful, or beautiful, or exciting? No, it only has to be yours. Something of you, given willingly, whole-heartedly, out of love. We confuse gifts, I think, with goods—sweaters and car stereos, baskets and tennis bracelets—but what we really want is the smile, the light in the eyes, the happiness brought to one we love by something we thought they'd want. What we're really doing, when we shop for a person and find just the right thing for them, is give the gift of our

time, the gift of our thoughtfulness, the gift of sharing our abundance, the gift of loving them enough to want to bring them some small happiness. If I were to give my gift to the Christ child, it would be a small journal of drawings and poems and stories—stories about the loves in my life; the color of the cardinals that live in the trees by my house; the happy sounds of my son singing in the bathtub; the smiles of friends; the wagging tails of friendly dogs; the warmth of blankets on a cold, rainy night; the special moments of peace at the beginning and ending of the day, time He has given me, that I lovingly give back. The only thing I have to give that is only mine to give, the only thing that Christ could possible want that He couldn't get elsewhere, is my life. Give your gift. And remember, "That which you do for the least of these, you do for me."

five

Filling the Gaps
Third grade is one of the toughest grades in elementary school, or so some experts say. Judging from the experiences of my kids, I'd have to agree. Multiplication tables, cursive writing, book reports—it's a whole year full of higher expectations. In fact, it's a year that follows us longer than we realize. That's the year that showed up as the culprit when my daughter was tested for her struggles in high school math. "Was there a lot going on when Kelly was in 3rd grade?" the test administrator asked me the day we looked over the results. I blinked. Third grade? How many years ago was that? He showed me the chart. "Third grade is really important for many of the important math skills we use later. Most of the things Kelly has trouble now with trace back to skills she would have learned in third grade." Well, now that you mention it, yes, third grade was a difficult year for our family. A separation and a reunion. Two moves, two schools, and finally, a divorce. I'd say that, at 8 years old, math facts weren't first on Kelly's mind that year. As a mom who chronically tries to do everything right, I battled back the guilt cloud that hung over my head. Circumstances from seven years before were impacting Kelly's life today. And this was only one relatively small thing—a math problem. What other hurts had that year left? What other pieces were missing that we didn't know to look for? I did what I needed to do to keep us from getting stuck in the moment: I swallowed and took a deep breath; I made arrangements for remedial work so Kelly could finally fill the gaps that were causing her so much trouble. But I left that place thinking about those mysterious gaps—the gaps we don't know we have until something or someone shines a light on them. Some gaps may be practical, such as not knowing how to balance a checkbook; being confounded by when to use bleach (in what temperature water, and on which clothes); the impossible hardship of stopped a leaky faucet or hanging up Christmas lights. Other gaps may be emotional, like not knowing how to make ourselves safe when we're afraid; being unable to reach out to others when we feel alone; or understanding how to stop pushing ourselves so hard and wrap ourselves in our own blanket of kindness when we need it most. Usually after the fact, I can be thankful for those moments when life gives me a piece of the puzzle I didn't know I'd missed. Sometimes, before I can feel grateful, I have to

struggle with that "Doh!" feeling that comes along with "I should have known..." There's a certain amount of embarrassment involved with learning something you didn't know you didn't know. Thank goodness there's always a next step, a way to find what we need. Life seems to help us with this. We're still stinging and chagrined when we see a household-management class or a caulking-and-painting workshop advertised in the paper. Or suddenly a book or a sermon, a song or a friend, shines a loving light on the next thing we need to learn. The older I get, and the more mothering I do, I am coming to terms with the fact that my own unique-and-mottled path through life has left gaps in my learning that I'll probably spend my whole lifetime discovering—and maybe when I least expect or want them. But I'm discovering something wonderful, too: The places where I don't have gaps sometimes nicely fit what others around me need. And friends who have traveled this way before me often help me fill in my missing pieces faster and easier—and more joyfully—than I could do it alone. The only cost is that I had to take off my "perfect person" cloak and be willing to be seen as the still-learning person that I am. But really, I think I did that long ago. In third grade, if I remember right.

six

Not Knowing
I think one of the hardest things in this life is not knowing what comes next. What will the summer bring? Feast or famine? Abundance or lack? Health or illness? A happy home or family struggles? Not knowing the answers makes our decisions tougher. If we knew what the outcome of our choices would be, deciding which road to take in any given situation would be much, much easier. So, trying to guarantee our safety, health, happiness, and hope, we squint into the future. We lean anxiously toward God’s blessings, standing with as much strength as we can on His promises, doing our best to keep our faltering gaze on the goals He’s set before us—if we can see them through the mist. And sometimes that mist is so deep and so thick that it blots out the rays of light that might lead us to the next step. Those are the times when there’s nothing left to do but sit on a rock and wait for God to bring a little clarity. I sometimes wish that God would tell us, as He told Jesus, what we are here to do, what we can expect from our service, what hardships we will endure, who we will find as friends, and who will try to drag us off in other directions. I’d like to know, I think, how long I’ll be here, what my particular challenges will be, how I can overcome them, and what my witness on this earth will ultimately look like. I wish that for a moment, anyway. And then I come to my senses. Certainty is a comforting thing, and wanting to know how to move through and avoid unhappy circumstances seems reasonable enough. But if God gives us a script, what happens to the trust we build as we travel along this path with Him? If He tells me what to expect from the next 10, 20, or 30 years of my life, doesn’t that encourage me to pull back from His hand my moment-by-moment trust and walk on in my own sense of confidence, in the security of knowing? What God promises is His presence, always, forever, in everything. He promises to be with us, to guide us and teach us and keep us. He promises to give us the words for our witness. He promises to care for our lives and the lives of those we love. But He does this moment by moment--one checkbook overdraft, one cavity, one temper tantrum, one doctor’s appointment, one rosebud, one healing, one smile at a time. I’m not so sure that Jesus knew everything that was to befall him, when he had dinner with his friends in the Upper Room, when he knelt in the dew-soaked grass of Gethsemane, when he struggled with his desire to stay alive, to fix things his own way, to remain with his friends and continue healing, blessing, and teaching. What if he didn’t

know the future and had to rely, like us, on the leadings of his spirit and on his understanding and love of God and man to know how to meet the circumstances in his life? Even without divine foresight, he would have noticed the look in Judas’ eye—he would have known, the way we know when our children aren’t being truthful with us, that something was amiss. Whether he looked out from the eyes of God or the eyes of man, he could not possibly have missed the fact that he was in danger and plots were being made against him. And when he saw Judas and the soldiers coming toward him in the garden, he would have known—as we each would know, in that moment—that all he could do was relax into the only real security there is: Our lives are part of Love itself and together we share a light that cannot be put out, even by death. I find it easier to identify with a Jesus who didn’t know what was coming, who sensed the danger, longed for peace, loved his friends, and wanted to live, than I can an allknowing Christ who had the benefit of seeing how everything would work out. He struggled, hurt, and wrestled like the rest of us. He had times of powerlessness, like the rest of us. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to wonder whether he had blind spots like the rest of us. The point is that he trusted anyway. And, through the gift of God’s grace, he found enough trust to release the grip of ownership on his own life with the words, “Not my will, but Thine.” My hope for us all this Easter is that we come to a new understanding of what it means to trust in the midst of not knowing. I hope our lives will blossom with more trust in God, in each other, and in the under-it-all goodness of life. By opening up to trust in this moment—and now this moment, and now this one—we learn to see and sense the subtle, tender workings of God in our lives. And once we’ve recognized who our Companion is, we can begin to rely on His company, which ultimately teaches us—whether we can see the future or not—that all is well.

seven

Morning on the Monon Trail
I awoke at 5:51 this morning with the Monon on my mind. It wasn't that I was full of energy and eager to get out in the world to share my vibrance; rather I awoke feeling weak and a bit too small to face the day. Yesterday had been one challenge after another with my kids, my work, my life. Today I wasn't sure I was up to the task. So, as I wondered what I could do to help strengthen myself, an image came to mind: Orange, early-morning sun spreading slowly across smooth asphalt, stretching before me in a long, clear lane. From past rollerblading excursions, I remembered what the breeze felt like on my shoulders; how empowered I was when my strides were smooth and no rocks shocked their glide. I got up, got dressed, wrote a note to the kids, and grabbed my keys--and almost without thinking I was there, looking at that long open lane, the early morning Monon when I'm alone with my thoughts, my hopes, and my skates. I should start by telling you that I am not a great rollerblader. In fact, I wasn't blessed with many of the physical attributes others have--I have little coordination and less athletic talent than your average first grader. But what I lack in ability I make up for in attitude. And this morning, come what may, I was out to get things moving--to start my heart pumping, brain working, ideas flowing, wishes coming true. My first steps were more sure than I expected. Encouraged, I glided carefully to the center of the trail. Left-right, left-right, left-right. I tried to smooth out my steps, the way the good rollerbladers do. L e f t - r i g h t; l e f t - r i g h t. My arms shot out at a slight wobble; but only once did I do the full windmill wave, trying to regain my balance without going down in a puff of dust and embarrassment. So far, so good. A jogger huffed by, wiping his brow with a handtowel. For a brief moment, my eyes left the trail just in front of my feet and we made contact. "Good morning," we both said from our islands of self-absorption. A little bud of something sprouted inside me. Today is going to be a better day, I thought. I continued my path-- L e f t - r i g h t; l e f t - r i g h t. The breeze flowed over my shoulders and neck, and the sun, not yet high enough to warm, began to touch my face. I passed a woman being walked by two beautiful golden retrievers. We caught each others' eyes and smiled. The bigger of the dogs decided he wanted to investigate me and say good morning. I did the windmill wave and teetered to a stop to pet the rich -coated fellow and look, smiling, into his deep brown eyes.

As I straightened and said my goodbyes, I was aware of being yet a little stronger, a little more sure, a little more hopeful. The dog had given me something. The woman had given me something. The jogger had given me something. Each contact had been a little blessing that had touched my heart and helped me to see the simple goodness already around me--the early morning sun, the breeze, the open trail, my own strength and willingness, the smiles and good wishes of fellow travelers, the welcoming interest of a dog--all were contacts life was making with itself, reminding me that I'm not alone, there are smiles around, that life is good. Now I'm back at home, in my office in the early morning. The cats are fed, Edgar-theDog is outside no doubt anticipating right now the delicious barking frenzy he will launch into when my next-door neighbor leaves for work. My kids are still sleeping--it may be an hour yet before the house fills with sleepy-but-territorial voices and sparkproducing questions like "Who gets to play Mario Golf first?" I relish these moments, feeling full and grateful, glad that I have the time, awareness, and choice to bless my day before it happens. My hope for us all is that, rollerblades or not, we will be able to recognize the many ways life reaches out to us today--that as we take our L e f t - r i g h t steps through the office, the neighborhood, or the mall, we remember that we don't walk alone, there's a smile when we need it, and that "Good Morning!" is really a blessing in disguise.

eight

An Immanuel Moment
This spring, along with the pink-and-peach tulips and the purple lilac blossoms, my life started to bloom. I was surprised and joyful; it seemed that each day I found a new opportunity poking its bud-like head up into the landscape of my life. Beautiful things I didn't even remember planting were reaching out to me; new ideas and possibilities lined the path of my life and work. I happily set about faithfully tending the new blossoms, filled with love and a hopeful expectancy for the good they would produce. But then some of my older plants started to die. A long climbing vine, one that had been with me for many years, began to curl up its leaves. Its collapse happened amazingly fast--a dull green one day, brown the next, dropping leaves and drooping before nightfall. Dumbfounded, I struggled to understand what was wrong. Did it need more water? More fertilizer? Stronger sun? A bigger pot? I tried everything I could think of, but it was too late. None of my efforts made any difference. When I finally accepted that new, green growth was not going to shoot through those brown, withered leaves, I sadly put my long-time friend out with the Thursday-night trash.
Then something else in my life began to wither. The comfort of familiar clients, steady writing work, and a business which had seemed to be within my control suddenly shifted, and I found myself searching for a way to understand--and reopen if possible-the closing doors in my life. I listened, I prayed, and I read. I talked, I fretted, and I reasoned. I couldn't fathom what God would do to solve the situation, and I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. I tried everything that occurred to me, and none of my efforts made any difference. I wondered how in the world I would be able to navigate this major change and shakily asked myself whether it would be my business going out with the trash next week.

And then, just when worry was giving way to despair, came a gift of grace--an Immanuel Moment that brought back to me the memory of "God with us." For the briefest moment, the nagging voice in my head quit chiding and pushing and prodding long enough to take a breath--and that instant was all God needed to completely change everything. In rushed love and peace and tenderness, replacing my mistaken image of an impatient God who was tired of my thrashing with the Father I knew--a God who loved me so tenderly that He simply stayed beside me while I prayed, loving and blessing me and offering me His comfort and companionship. He wasn't a God who demanded that I come up with just the right answer or do just the right thing, right now. He wasn't a God who functioned like a lucky rabbit's foot--a safe talisman against the scary things that happen every day in lives like mine all over the globe. I met again the God I'd known since childhood--Father, Brother, Friend, Counselor--a real presence who simply loved me wherever I was, whatever I was struggling with. A Companion who would help if I was willing to let Him, but who would never force ideas, solutions, or even trust on me without my invitation. On Mother's Day, my climbing rose bush bloomed. It has grown an entire foot in the last few weeks, unnoticed by me as I wrestled with my troubles. This morning there were six velvet red roses turning their faces to the gentle Indiana rain. Watching the raindrops slide

from one petal to the next, I realized--with thanks--that I don't yet have my answers, but I do see--and deeply feel--the beauty blossoming all around me. I don't yet have a road map for this new, unexplored path, but I do have a Companion who knows the way better than I ever could. I don't have any plan in place except to recognize and accept all the gifts God has for me in this time of heightened learning, to welcome His presence every step of the way, to accept that He is changing my life to accomplish His good purpose, and to know that it is safe to release the things He says I don't need anymore. Somewhere deep inside, I believe that spring--and the promise it brings--has truly arrived, in my garden and in my life. And in this moment, that's enough.

nine

Expectantly Yours
Sometimes it’s hard to live up to everyone’s expectations. The kids want to go to the pool; my publisher wants to see a finished chapter; I had hoped to transplant the hostas in the backyard to a place where they have more room to spread their smooth, rounded leaves and reach their flowers toward the sun. When the phone rings, someone is expecting an answer; when an email message arrives, someone wants a response. It’s possible to go through a day, simply answering “have-tos” and solving problems as each new expectation comes into view. It’s a little like hitting baseballs, one at a time, as they are pitched over the plate of my life. This morning I was thinking about expectations—those I put on myself and those I accept and place on others—when the image of Jesus at the well, talking to the Samaritan woman, painted itself in my mind. Jesus was always defying and surpassing expectations. Here he was, a single man, a Jew, resting by the well and talking to a Samaritan woman. It was something not done in the culture of the day, and yet it opened up a new world to a message of forgiveness, acceptance, and peace.
When it came to feeding multitudes of people with a few fish and a basket of bread, what if Jesus had done nothing more than meet the expectations placed on him? When the disciples said, “We can’t possibly feed all these people—let’s tell them to go get something to eat and then come back later,” Jesus would have said, “I guess you’re right. Tell them to come back after dinner.” The result would have been a miracle missed, an opportunity overlooked, and yet another time we stuffed God back into a human’s body, thinking “it’s not possible for us, so it’s just not possible.”

When the panicked disciples awakened Jesus in their sea-swept boat, he stretched and yawned and shook his head at their fear; then proceeded to calm the storm. What if he instead had jumped to his feet in alarm and hastily started to recite the Lord’s Prayer, trying to pray the storm into submission? Think of the comfort, the calm, the peace, the assurance that would have been lost. He surpassed our very human expectations by not acting as a man would act, but rising as God and calming our fears. And in the final moments of his human life, when all the hatred and ignorance of mankind was heaped upon him, Jesus looked around with knowing eyes and asked for forgiveness for us all. Surpassing expectations? Absolutely. For all time.
When I think of the expectations in my own life, I become aware of a several key things. First, by the time I start to notice others’ expectations of me, I am already feeling overwhelmed. The expectation that comes with “Can we go to the pool today?” isn’t the problem—my feeling inadequate or unable is the problem. There’s something inside me that says “I can’t possibly take the time to do that today!” and then I resist and push back against the perceived demand by creating an argument in my head that justifies my feeling. What a lot of wasted energy! That’s why Step #1 for surpassing expectations is to remember that we’re all working in the same direction. My sons want to have a

good day; I want to have a good day. My publisher wants a good chapter, delivered on time; I’d like to give her a good chapter, delivered on time. When I realize that we’re really working toward a common goal, I can look at the situation differently, seeing that we’re really moving together and not at odds helps create some kind of internal shift from confrontation to cooperation. The expectation then becomes an opportunity to be creative about ways we can all do what we want or need to do. Next, it’s important to see what needs to be done—and ask myself whether it’s mine to do. If I am taking on the expectations of others simply because I’m unable to say No, I will be buried in a heap of tasks, duties, and unnecessary busy-ness that keeps me from doing the things I’m truly responsible for. Even though in Jesus’ day there were plenty of openings for military leaders and revolutionaries, Jesus knew what was his to do, and he kept as close as could be to the mission that was his to fulfill. In the tempting in the desert, all kinds of opportunities were thrown at him. Each one he denied, choosing to stay focused on the work given only him. Step #2 for surpassing expectations is to

know what’s ours to do and be willing to say No to expectations that take us off course. How will we know which expectations we are to meet and which we are to
leave? The only answer I’ve found is through prayer and meditation —and lots of it. I invite God into the situation (even though He’s been there all along, making the invitation reminds me that I’ve asked for His help and I’m then more likely to remember to accept it); I listen closely; I stay tuned into my body’s reactions and responses, and take heed of the feelings in my mind and heart. The last step is the turning point for me. Once I’ve found the harmony in the situation (Step #1) and determined that the expectation is one I need to address (Step #2), I choose to let God work. Step #3 for surpassing expectations is to remember that with God, all things are possible—and I need only to yield and let Him do what He will do. I don’t want to stuff God into a human body through my too-low expectations of Him or my limited understanding of His love and power. My best guesses are just that— guesses--when I act alone. But God fed the multitudes; God stilled the storm; God spread his message through Samaria with a single conversation at a well. He sees solutions I do not; He knows the yearnings of hearts I cannot know. The best thing I can do for a peaceful, graceful resolution—whether it’s a question of going to the pool, meeting a hard-to-reach deadline, healing from an illness, or resolving hurt feelings—is to stop struggling against the situation and let God work.

My hope for us all this month is that when we’re overwhelmed with burdens or expectations—whether those are things we place on ourselves or the responsibilities we accept from others—we remember that we are not alone, and that God will let us know, if we ask, what’s ours to do. And if He gives us an assignment, we can be sure He will work through and with us to provide the strength, courage, and inspiration we need to accomplish it—even if He has to change our calendars, rework our priorities, and move heaven and earth to do it.

eleven

The Beauty of a Face

One morning last week as Cameron was taking a shower and getting ready for school, I was in the kitchen packing his lunch and making his breakfast. I heard him call "Mom?" from the other room and I stopped rinsing the dishes, dried my hands on a kitchen towel, and turned in time to see him step into the doorway. He stood there with a radiant smile on his face and both hands pressed against his cheeks. "I just looked in the mirror..." he said excitedly, "And my face is beautiful this morning!" I stifled a surprised little laugh and stood there smiling at him. "Well, yes—" I said, not quite sure what to say. "You do look happy—" "It's not that," he interrupted. "It's my face! My eyes are bright, my cheeks are red. My face is just beautiful!" And with that he was off to make sure his homework was in his bookbag and he was ready for the day. I stood there, aware that I had just been blessed. It felt like joy was sparkling in the air all around me. Such a gift—to be present to another's radiant happiness. Every time I think of that moment, I smile. I'm still smiling. What struck me was the honesty, acceptance, and joy of Cameron's reaction to the beauty he saw—even if momentarily—in himself. When we look in the mirror as adults, I think it's so much harder to see what's really there: the child of God, the gift, the blessing, the life. How much easier is it—or at least more routine—to look in the mirror and see where we don't measure up, where our flaws are most obvious, what we don't like about ourselves. Our long road to self-understanding brings up many opportunities to experience the unbeautiful in ourselves. How much different would it be if we could experience an 8-year-old's radiant joy in simply being the beautiful person God created? And then it occurred to me that, thank goodness, forgiveness can open our eyes. Forgiveness can set us free to accept the beauty that is really here right now, lifting us over our disappointments in ourselves, dissolving the "shoulds" that we've heaped on other people and accepted from them. As I sat quietly, a freeing thought came to me that I would like to share with you, a type of simple prayer that I suspect—if I could say it to every person I know, have known, or ever will know—would clear my eyes of

expectations and enable me to be myself with them and allow them to be their authentic selves with me:

"I forgive you for sending me messages that I'm not who I should be and for missing the blessing of who I am. I forgive myself for the same thing. And I ask your forgiveness for my messages to you— both spoken and unspoken—that imply that you are not good enough just the way you are. You are loved, just as you are, and so am I. We all need forgiveness to remind us of the love that is ours unconditionally and forever, simply because we live."
I repeated this thought as many dear people past an d present came to my mind and heart, and I felt a tenderness, an acceptance, and a gratitude for what we'd all been to each other and how special we all are to God. I also said it to God, because even though His messages to me are loving, I sometimes tap my foot impatiently and urge Him to be different than He is in a particular moment (usually when I'm waiting for Him to do something I want Him to do). I felt myself lighten as I put down the heavy box of expectations I had been carrying and let myself feel the gift of life, just the way it is. After writing all this down in my journal, I got up from my cozy rocking chair and stretched. The morning sun was streaming in, gold and soft—beautiful. I heard birds outside, which is funny in mid-January in Indiana, and I accepted their song as a gift. And then, curious, I went and glanced at my reflection in the hall mirror. And you know what? That person smiled back.

twelve

Thank Goodness for Cap'n Crunch

This morning I caught myself taping up a cereal box. When I opened a new box of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch--Cameron's favorite this week--I accidentally ripped the back of the box. That meant the thing wouldn't close all the way when I slipped the tab into the little slot on the box top. I tried it twice an d then reached for the tape. I bandaged the rip with the clear plastic and closed the box securely, feeling a relieved wave of life as it should be wash through me. And then I looked at the near-perfect box sitting upright on the counter and thought "What am I doing?" My eyes scanned the kitchen around me. Clean countertops. No evidence of last night's supper on the stovetop. The kitchen table cleared of yesterday's graded papers and the sparkling glitter of the art project. Even the floor seemed to be missing the tell-tale juicespills and dropped-crumb evidence of life with kids. Where did this come from, this sudden moment in time when I had the focus, energy, and will to tape up a ripped cereal box ? What about the days, nights, and years of never a quiet moment; of always on the run; of a house never clean enough; of pushing activities, schedules, and tempers to the *tilt!* point? When did my life become quieter, and how did I miss the moment when it happened? I stood there for a moment filled with nostalgia for those rushed and hectic days--the days when everything stopped for a crying baby, when laundry sat and deadlines passed because chicken pox came to roost; those times when plants were neglected in favor of preschool meetings and I was always waging a losing battle with carseat buckles. During those times, there was the rush of importance -- I could see my priorities so clearly when they stood before me with runny noses or scraped knees. And as they learned to grab their own Kleenexes and shrug off the little bumps and bruises (especially when it meant losing their turn at bat), my role became fuzzier, and more up to me. The choice of what to do and when to do it became mine again, somehow -almost without me noticing it. And suddenly I'm taping up ripped cereal boxes. My hope for us all today is that we recognize and appreciate the gifts each season of parenthood offers us. Whether our kids are grown and on their own or just taking those first tottering steps on chubby legs, we can remind ourselves to slow down enough to accept the tender blessing each moment with a loved one brings.

thirteen

Cars and Colors
My son made his first ethnic distinction at age three. He stood before me, looking up, small and reddened from his exposure to a rather unseasonably harsh October wind, sniffled, and said: "Mommy, I let the chocolate boy ride my bike." Hmmm. How to handle that? I smiled, of course. And although I knew at some point I would probably need to correct his terminology, I nodded and said "Good, honey." When you're three, you don't think of things as unimportant as names when you've found someone new to play with. True to his age, my son didn't think to ask his friend what his name was. They played in the sandbox together. They pushed the Big Foot trucks around in the dirt. They picked up rocks from the driveway and threw them as far as their little arms would allow. Sharing. Fun. What more do you need from a relationship than that? Three-year-olds have freedoms that you and I do not. They don't have the world-view understanding to know what a put-down is. They don't have the command of the language that you and I have, so they don't fill their time with meaningless conversation. They join forces in an imaginative world of unlimited adventure; they become partners in fantasy. They can't analyze and scrutinize and judge the actions of others like we can. They don't carry with them past experience that tells them to stay away from this group or that group. They only know how they feel in the moment. To a three-year-old, life is right now. Consider, from a three-year-old's perspective, how ridiculous our labeling system sounds: black, white, yellow, red. Gay and straight. Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim,Taoist...the list goes on and on. Black people are not black. White people are not white. Gay people seem as happy as everyone else. And what else could "straight" mean except someone who walks with good posture? I'm so thankful that children are born without labels. Labels are created by the mind, the ego, as a means of identifying us and others we come in contact with. Labels don't start to stick until we reach the age where we are aware of ourselves thinking. Thoughts, as adults, come to us in the form of words, a kind of internal talking to ourselves. As you read this book, your eyes scan over the words and something very much like a voice-your own voice--is reading them to you in your head. We can capture the thought as though it is being spoken to us. We can hear ourselves thinking. At three, my son didn't realize what thinking was. Not like you and I. He didn't analyze things. He didn't hear that small internal thinking voice in his head. When he saw

freshly baked chocolate chip cookies sitting unguarded on the counter, there was no voice in his head to say "Wait a minute, hold on. Mom wouldn't want you to sneak those without asking." He saw, he wanted, he took. Only through programming do we teach our children to hear that separate, inner voice that cautions them to go against their inner nature. As an adult, have you ever tried to return to the world of pretend? It probably didn't happen. As a kid, I spent hours and hours pretending in a drainage ditch close to our apartment. We lived in a world surrounded by concrete and asphalt, so trees and grass and water were things to be cherished. My friend and I worked diligently to clean up the area, digging up discarded Coke cans, pulling up wads of paper that got stuck in the rocks and the trickling stream carried them out of the apartment complex. We called it our Secret Cove. I remember that place with a certain awe-laced love and wonder. No matter how many truly beautiful nature-filled places I visit as an adult, I don't think the feeling can match the one I felt sitting on the bank of th at ditch, watching the water rippling along. My son has close to a million toy cars of varying shapes and sizes. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. But it seems like a million when I'm the one picking them up off the living room floor.) When he gets those things out and starts playing, he goes away, mentally. He becomes the car he's pushing around. "Beep beep! Look out! The monster truck is going to squash you!" the monster rolls over my little car, smashing it into the carpet. "Call the ambulance! Anybody in there?" His voice changes to become the ambulance. "Let's get him to the hospital!" The voice goes back again to the monster truck. "Look out, you little cars, I'm coming back!" And what do I do? I play along. I use different voices. My cars go to the grocery st ore, to the gas station. My red car gets washed in the pretend car wash. I use the Lincoln Logs and the Legos to build garages and oil-change places. But you know what? I'm aware that I'm pretending. Christopher zooms around, unconscious of the fact that h e's a boy, not a car. He has no idea, in this moment, that he's participating in a game known as make-believe. And that is what I think happens to us when we begin to listen to our thinking and start gathering labels. I think we cover ourselves up so that we can't be the experience anymore. "I'm an adult," I think. "What if Doug sees me playing this? He's going to make fun of me."

Or, even worse: "Maybe I should use this time with Christopher to teach him something." And outwardly I say "Christopher, what color is that car? How many blue cars do you see?"

Wrong.
I should be learning from him. I need to take my Parent label off for a moment and see how seamless he becomes with the experience. There's no little voice inside him saying "I look silly" or "I should be watching cartoons right now." There is no I. There are no labels. He's living in this moment, true to the experience, not carrying around judgment or labels or fears or restrictions. He is Light. He's what I hope I someday remember I am, too .

fourteen

Rubber Mats

Several years ago I had a dog named Larry. Larry was a sheepdog, big and hairy, with one unseen blue eye and one brown. I'd always wanted a sheepdog puppy, and my mind was filled with expectations of a huge animated teddy bear, my best buddy, a lovable companion. Larry wasn't playing along. He'd been the biggest male in the litter, and from the first time I'd seen him, he'd been forging his role as the bully of the family, pushing the other puppies around, rolling them away from their mother, jumping on them and biting their ears. "How cute," I said. Nine months later it wasn't so cute. Larry had become a bully in our family. He was the dog-equivalent of a cocky eighteen year old boy, full of himself, sure of his strength. When my daughter--then five--would try to play with him, he'd treat her like he had his littermates. I was getting worried with his aggressiveness. So I enrolled him in dog training school. We showed up the first night to an incredible mix of dog species. Each dog stood or shook or paced near its owner. Yorkies and Rotweilers and everything in -between. The owners all stood regarding each other nervously. A huge rubber mat lined the outer edges of the room, encompassing us all in a big black oval. The object, we were told, was to begin walking with our dogs around the mat. The instructor blew his whistle and we all began walking counter-clockwise, dragging our canines along with us, like we were participating in some oddly conceived cake walk. Larry wasn't about to cooperate. For that matter, most of the dogs weren't either. The instructor tooted his whistle and shook his head. "No, no no, people," he said. "You are supposed to control your dogs. Your dogs don't control you." And he proceeded to show us what he meant. He walked up to a woman timidly holding the leash of a tiny

Westie. He held the leash tightly in his hand, said "Heel!" and yanked on the leash so hard that the puppy's feet came clean off the ground. The owner stood by, blushing. He walked that dog once around the ring, very fast. The rest of us stood silent while our dogs figetted nervously, sniffing at each other. When he reach ed the point where he'd begun, he swung the leash carelessly around to his other side, dragging the animal like it were a toy duck on wheels. After frightening the animal into submission, he flashed a smug smile at the rest of us. "That's how you do it," he said. I looked down at Larry. He was hopeless, I knew. I was hopeless, I knew. I couldn't force my dog to comply to such a ridiculous practice, no matter how ill-behaved he was. I couldn't force him to walk around some stupid ring and learn appropriate people behavior and jerk his leash so hard his eyes would roll. Why was I involved in this relationship with this dog? Was it to control him, to turn him into the Perfect Dog I saw in my head? What about his own nature? Why wasn't I respecting that? As people, we often try to get other people to walk around out little rubber mats. We jerk the leash. We bark commands. We tell ourselves that it is for their own good. When we live in the rainbow, we need to be convinced of how "right" we are. When we discuss religion or politics, we're not wanting to be enlightened by someone else's point of view, we're wanting to convince others that we're right. When we walk away from a discussion in which we've made our point, we think " My, that was a good talk." When we leave a discussion where we feel that others disgreed with us, we have this hurting, Nobody-listens-to-me kind of feeling.

Not Being Right
The world continues to operate on a level that is beyond right and wrong. The sun shines, the flowers bloom, streams flowing into other streams. Animals live and die. The earth goes through its cycles of birth and death. Storm clouds gather, expend themselves, and the sun comes back out. None of this has anything to do with who's right and who's wrong. As people, as rainbows, we are invested in our arguments. We take sides (Us-and-Them) and find evidence to support our positions.

When you get in touch with your light, you realize that there is nothing to take sides about. All the disagreements that happen on the surface begin to seem a little silly. You find yourself less willing to take sides, less eager to state your case on any given matter. It's not as important to be right. And it's not a behind-your-eyes "Oh these people don't really know what they're talking about" kind of feeling. More of an accepting "Whatever they believe is right for them" understanding. You don't have to point fingers at people anymore. Or label them wrong. Or spend countless hours and energies trying to convince them of their error. You start to understand that, on the surface, you'll only agree with people to the point they mirror your decisions. A friend feels strongly about ecological issues. "You should be recycling," he says. "I know," you say. "And how come you still use XYZ products? Don't you know they pollute the environment?" "I forgot," you mumble. "And what's this spray can of vegetable oil doing in your cabinet? Don't you care about our environment?" You put your hands on your hips. "You're really turning into a fanatic about this," you say. And so a heated debate ensues. He didn't mirror your choices, obviously. And you, feeling threatened (and maybe a little guilty), could not mirror his. Who is going to walk whom around the rubber mat? What a waste of a good evening! Why be right and lose the moments we have now in disagreement? Underneath all our rainbows, there is no cause to fight for. There are no battle flags to wave. In spirit, we are love pouring through. Love that is not threatened by differing opinions. Love that does not waver because an individual, a group, or a society does not mirror our rainbows.

fifteen

The Suddenly Sacred
My son learned to walk suddenly. Oh, the process had several very definite stages. There was the I-can-pull-myself-up stage, in which he'd clutch at the arm of the couch and, with a white-knuckled death grasp, pull his little round body into an upright position. Then, pleased with his new perspective, he'd squeal and raise one arm over his head, wanting everyone to see. Then--plop--down on his bottom he'd go. After that, there was the Look-I-can-move-while-I'm-holding-on stage. He could hang on to the couch, more secure now on his tottering legs, and move a step to the right or a step to the left. One day he got tired of the couch. He was, I assume, fed up with watching all the other humans in the house walk around unaided. He turned, set his sights on the middle of the living room, and let go. He was walking. One minute before, he hadn't known how to walk. We fool ourselves into thinking that becoming is a gradual process. Someone might argue that my son was preparing to walk-- becoming a walker--since the first day he tried to crawl. Or from the day he was born. But no matter how we look at it, the change really happens suddenly. One minute you weren't yet born. (Your mother probably remembers that moment very well.) The next, there you were, pink and squalling and probably mad as hell. One minute, you hadn't graduated from high school. You stood in line, with that hot robe and the hat that wouldn't stay on right, and waited nervously for your name to be called. When you heard your name, you crossed the stage and accepted your diploma. Just a few seconds before, you hadn't graduated. Now, you had. Every change can be traced to a single moment. When you plant a seed, it remains a seed until that first green, tender shoot parts the earth and shows itself. Now it's a plant. You may not have been around in the moment it happened, but it did happen in one precise moment. There was a single microsecond in which the green growth first poked itself through the moist dark earth. Understanding, like all other change, happens in one single instant.

You may tell yourself that it is a process; that alleviates you from feeling pressure to look for the change too soon. But understanding, loving, realizing what we truly are takes no time at all. In the time it takes to read one word, take one breath, or hug one person, you could be illuminated by your own light.

Dear reader, Thanks for reading this small book of essays. I hope you found something that uplifted your heart or stirred your thought and inner knowing. I love to write and am grateful to have someone to share it with. Namaste. :) Katherine