Bittersweet

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I just can’t stop looking at this photo. It’s not as if I’ve never seen Olivia in a pool. My days are kissed with plenty of those sweet smiles, and it’s rare that any great length of time passes without me looking on as Robert sends her into a fit of giggles with his antics.

It’s true that I’m always looking for something new that Olivia will genuinely enjoy. Her eyes don’t often turn toward the cartoons that captivate other kids. She misses out on the music I love so much, and it’s hard to find a toy that draws her interest.

Olivia makes up her own games, and cuddling and tickling never fail, but sometimes I just want to see her face light up over something special.

Maybe this image means so much because it reminds me how sweet life can be, even with all of its imperfections. Somehow, my camera captured an instant of unencumbered joy. Against a blurred background of other memories–some nice and others painful or simply unremarkable–this particular moment in time stands out like a freeze frame, cut from the action of a fast-paced movie.

We moved recently, and I’m experiencing so many sweet moments against a backdrop of bitter. I lived in Levelland for longer than in any other place. In moving back, I feel like I’ve come home. I find myself sighing contentedly under the familiar sky that’s bigger here in West Texas than anywhere else in the world. But like the trees absent from our new landscape, I miss the strength and shelter of all we left behind.

The joy in making up for lost time here stands starkly against the reality of missing out on things there.

The excitement of new friends and endeavors plays tug-of-war in a heart still very much attached to people and times far away.

Olivia’s story–speaking loudly now in the absence of preschooler chatter and the presence of hearing aids–never escapes the notice of a new acquaintance. A longing for the comfort of those who already know our history is met by the wonder of another chance to give glory to God for peace that is beyond understanding.

There’s no good synonym for bittersweet, and some experiences can’t be described any other way. I am learning some things from the bittersweet, though:

Sweet can be easy to miss unless you know what bitter tastes like. How many trays of dessert pass us by until we are jolted from preoccupation by a mug of black coffee? I’m actually thankful for moments of loneliness that helped me see the value of relationship.

Sweetness is meant to be savored, but bitterness has its purposes too. The only way to really live the best moments in life is to be fully present in them. Sometimes pain, waiting, and loss are the teachers that convince us to trade the cheap for the precious.
 
Sweet things are often found encased by something bitter. Who can enjoy the taste of an orange without first removing the peel? Anything worth having is rarely gained without a struggle of some kind.

This is God’s redemptive way in a world where disobedience brought heartache of all types. He causes even the acrid to serve a purpose and allows His glory to shine brightly through broken vessels in dark places.

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”–Rom. 8:28

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure.”–II Cor. 4:7a

So, we relish time with loved ones even more for the time we missed, and spontaneous joy makes rivers from the cracks etched by drought.

We learn to give ourselves completely to the moment and to the people who share this place and time called here and now. That is how we capture images that have eternal value. The past and the future BOTH urge us to live immersed in the present. To engage with the present wholeheartedly is to trust that God is sovereign over time and place and that He guides us within them for our good.

So often, bittersweet means that God is working all things together for our good. He’s taking what was bitter and is making it sweet.

A Savior drinks from the cup of suffering and death for the joy of reconciliation.

The loneliest among us learn to be the best kind of friend.

And the child who doesn’t speak finds joy here and now, telling me all I need to know about what really matters.

Our New Life: A Mouse in the Oven and Psalm 23

“I am learning that the valleys we walk through are only a shadow of death–an illusory pall that attempts to veil the goodness of God, trying to convince us to fear. But the only death to fear is separation from God. With God, we can never lose.”

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You read the title correctly, I said “mouse,” not “bun in the oven.” We live in the country now, so these things are commonplace:  a mouse in the oven, snakes on doorsteps, and scorpions on the floor. Oh, and there are spiders. Everywhere. Robert isn’t even allowed to shoot them with his guns. Thank goodness winter is coming to protect me from these horrible, creeping things … unless they all seek shelter from the cold inside my house.

I haven’t lived in the country since the year we spent at Texas Bible Institute and before that, the time on my uncle’s farm as a little girl. But so much about my life has changed as of late, the scenery included.

For the past three months, we’ve lived on a farm–literally, it’s called “Happy Hill Farm,” complete with goats, llamas, and buffalo. At first, we referred to our new home as “the farm,” but we’ve since switched to “the academy.” It sounds much more important and leaves less opportunity for people to assume that we are mentally unstable or part of a cult.

The academy (NCTA) is a boarding school that serves both international and domestic students. It sits on 500 acres of trees, rolling hills and perfectly manicured grass. They even threw in a few ponds and a fountain for good measure.

The school serves pre-K through 12th, but of the ten couples and eight singles working as resident parents on campus, we have the best job. We get to spend our days with five amazing little girls, in addition to the O-mazing Olivia. They are in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, but are all about the same height. We are also incredibly blessed to have Chelsey (also known as Ms. Ray) on our team; without her, our job would not be nearly as fun nor our girls nearly as happy.

Biologically speaking, if I were mother to six little girls, I would’ve started at age sixteen and stayed pregnant for much of the last ten years. A slow transition from one to two and then more kids, each one making room for itself in the family and in my heart. That’s the way it normally goes.

But in the span of 60 seconds (which is how long it took to meet our five for the first time) my heart expanded to hold enough love for them all. God is so talented at growing our capacity for love.

Now I am the keeper of childish secrets, the leader of dance parties, the one who puts band aids on their cuts, who gives “just one more hug” and sings “you know that song you sang last night” … “just one more time.”

I get to hear knock-knock jokes and jokes that weren’t meant to be jokes–like the time the oldest was so excited that fish was on the menu for dinner … until she became “sea sick” from eating it too fast. Ha!

I get to teach math strategies and attempt to scale the language barrier that is Mandarin Chinese, trying to explain American idioms that really don’t make sense. Can you imagine what our Chinese 4th grader thought the first time she heard someone had “let the cat out of the bag?”

I answer questions about why Olivia needs hearing aids and if she’ll ever learn to walk. Kids have this ability to ask these difficult questions in a way that is disarming, and completely inoffensive to a mommy heart. We adults could learn a lot from them.

My evenings are filled with post-devotional questions like, “Did Noah’s family have to marry each other to fill the earth back up with people?” (“Gross!” was their response to Robert’s well-crafted reply.)

The bedtime routine usually begins as Robert chases them around the house–him avoiding the evils of glitter (times six), and them squealing high-pitched screams of joy. The night ends with prayers for parents and friends and Mr. Chapman’s dad in heaven and that Olivia feels better soon.

So I guess I do have a bun … or five … not in the oven.

Along with five more little girls to love, God has given us a gift that we didn’t ask for but was so needed during this season of our lives.

TIME.

Leaving the home we’d made for ourselves in Bridgeport–our family, cherished friends, youth we’d poured our hearts into and who gave us so much more–was SO very hard.

I miss my sweet 2nd graders and getting to lead worship, my house and a host of other things. But this sheltered community in the country that we’ve found ourselves part of offers something we really needed.

TIME.

–Time to see six different doctors and five therapists
–Time for God to help us bring some order to a family that never really stopped to breathe after we got the news about Olivia’s diagnosis
–Time to be there for all of the “firsts” in Olivia’s life (The most recent first? She tried to undress herself in the middle of the mall.)
–Time to work through the side effects of Satan’s (failing) plan to take our daughter and destroy our family
–Time to recognize the strength of God’s countermeasure and to reflect on the waves of grace that have washed over our lives during the past year-and-a-half

Just before we moved to Granbury, I started meditating on Psalm 23. I knew it by heart but had never truly experienced its living, breathing words. Until I was literally living in “green pastures” and “beside still waters.”

Looking back, it’s incredible how Jesus has shepherded us through the chaos of the past couple of years–bestowing a peace that is undeniably His and providing everything we need. Now, He’s brought us to a place where we have the time and space to heal–one where we can discover more about the path He is leading us on and how to honor Him as we follow it.

I am learning that the valleys we walk through are only a shadow of death–an illusory pall that attempts to veil the goodness of God, trying to convince us to fear. But the only death to fear is separation from God. With God, we can never lose.

It’s nothing but a shadow. Jesus won the keys to death, and in Him we can never be made to face more than just a shadow. Like the tree branch silhouette that makes a child tremble beside the window at night. There is nothing to fear. It’s only a shadow.

Always faithful, the Great Shepard is here–rod and staff in hand–ready to beat away the shadows and guide us through the valley. In full view of the one who tries to steal, and kill and destroy, Jesus pours out His goodness, His grace, and His healing. What Satan meant for evil, God anoints for His good purpose. My heart overflows with thankfulness for all that He has done and will do.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.”–Psalm 23:6 (NKJV)

Click here to read Olivia’s Story.