Day #5 and #6 Life is as test, a trust and temporary The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren

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So tell me Sweet Sister, what is weighing on your heart today? A messy relationship in your family or at work? An Illness? A struggling or hurting family member?  Rick Warren says that “Life is a Test, Life is a Trust and Life is a temporary assignment” 

I wrote the poem Pieta’s Peace during a time when I grieved the loss of my brother Billy and my daughter struggled as well at college. When we grieve for ourselves or for a loved one who is struggling we have a choice to pass the test of trusting God and surrendering with open arms those people God has put in our lives for a short time.  

I couldn’t stop gazing at her hands. Carved from white marble, her hands did not tightly grip her dead Son, but instead gently cradled his limp body upon her lap. Her left hand lay open with its palm facing upward as her beautiful, serene face admired her lifeless son.

One of the highlights of our trip to Rome consisted of my husband and I touring St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. St. Peter’s Basilica Catholic Church is one of the largest churches in the world as well as a masterpiece of architecture containing numerous chapels and altars lavishly decorated with renaissance paintings, mosaics, and sculptures. Such a large collection of beautiful art overwhelmed me, as I knew I could never take it all in within a single visit.     

Despite the numerous pieces of religious art on the ceiling, walls, and even the floors in the massive cathedral that holds the tomb of St. Peter, I felt drawn back to those marble hands. The hands were Mary’s in the masterpiece The Pieta by the world-renowned sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer Michelangelo.

The Pieta depicts the moment when Jesus was taken down from the cross and his mother, Mary, was able to hold him one last time. I stared in awe that a sculpture chiseled out of stone could mesmerize a crowd 1500 years later as we stood in silence taking in the heart-wrenching scene. When I had left our home for our trip, my heart felt heavy with concern over one of my children who was going through a rough patch, and this masterpiece seemed to specifically whisper to me through the ages.

After watching her son suffer and be crucified, Mary’s hands still rested open as Jesus lay on her lap. Meanwhile, my heart and hands were gripped tightly with fear and anxiety as I worried about our daughter who just recently started college. She did not seem to be thriving socially and wanted to transfer to a larger school that offered more classes in her major. She was attending the school where her father and I had met. A place filled with great memories, but where I initially struggled, too. During my own freshman year, I endured tough hallmate and professor situations and felt that I benefited from these refining challenges. I later thrived as I found like-minded friends and classes that I enjoyed.

So while I was on this trip, many questions continued to linger in my mind; “Should we make her stick it out and insist that she stay? Would this put her behind if she were to come home and/or transfer? Wouldn’t the best thing long-term be to make her stay and allow her to adapt in due time?

As I looked pensively at The Pieta, I felt as it contained a special message from above, so I decided to read up about Michelangelo and his timeless Pieta. I googled his name and learned that at early age of six, after losing his mother to a long period of illness, Michelangelo was then sent to stay with his uncle who was a stone cutter. After suffering such a tragic loss at a tender age, Michelangelo obviously knew the agony of grief. Perhaps, though, he also learned how God can reconcile loss as he began his career as an artist using the skills he learned at his uncle’s workshop.

The word “pieta” literally means “pity, compassion, and suffering.” Michelangelo wrote later, however, that he did not want his Pieta to represent death, but rather to show “the religious vision of abandonment.”  Abandonment. Yes, that is what those open hands are demonstrating.

I interpreted the scene as Mary trusting in God’s love and goodness and giving back to God the gift that was given to her so many years before. I wondered if the sculpture that took two years to complete was Michelangelo’s gift back to God. Maybe he learned as a young boy the secret of abandonment and found the serenity reflected in Mary’s face. Perhaps he wanted to share with others the peace found when one holds onto people and things loosely.

Later in our trip, I reflected on perseverance and remembered the times in my life when not giving up had actually become a detriment. When my children were younger, I wanted us to be a musical family so badly I insisted that me and all three children take piano lessons. I had visions of us all around the piano playing Christmas carols. Each night, I faithfully spent time playing songs over and over, hoping that I would be able to start a musical tradition for our family.  Playing with two hands did not come easily, yet I faithfully practiced for two years as I encouraged my children to do the same. I remember one day my piano teacher turning to me and asking, “Do you enjoy playing the piano?” I realized then that I no longer enjoyed it, and that I had hit a standstill in my progression. I asked myself what did I enjoy doing? My answer was writing poetry. I loved the satisfaction of creating a poem – spending hours mulling over each syllable and line, and the inevitable joy when my poem finally came together.

Why was I spending my time on what I struggled with instead of spending my time on what I enjoyed  doing? Why wasn’t I sharpening the gifts that God had given me instead of trying to force the gift of music he hadn’t given me? Then I asked myself: “Am I doing the same thing now to my daughter?”  It must not have been easy for her to ask to leave after one semester.  Did she need a fresh start and a new direction?  A redo?

So I took my hands out with palms up and pretended my daughter was in my arms and lifted them up to the hotel ceiling as I kneeled beside the bed. I released her to God and said, “I give her back to you. She is Yours.” I continued to pray this “prayer of abandonment” whenever an anxious thought gripped me. As my husband and I discussed options, I kept releasing my own expectations as we sought God’s will for her. As I handed over my daughter into His loving, strong arms, I felt peace. Peace as beautiful as Mary’s serene Pieta face as she calmly gazed upon her son.

My husband and I decided at the end of our trip to work on helping our daughter to withdraw so she could have a fresh start at a new school. She began anew at a closer, larger school that contained more classes that fit the major that she enjoyed. She now thrives in classes designed specifically for her desired major, as well as socially with the sorority she joined when she transferred. And I am trying to each day to hold my hands with palms open facing up and intentionally release any concerns up to God, trusting that He cares about every little detail.     On the entire six hour plane ride home from Italy I joyfully penned The Pieta’s Peace, my small gift presented back to God with open hands and a grateful heart.  

A Wake Up Call

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Four years had passed since I’d last seen Annie and her daughter, and as she approached me, my heart froze, halting between joy and trepidation. Children’s laughter filled the air during the annual family carnival hosted by my preschool, but all I could focus on in those few moments was my last interaction with Annie. I was overjoyed to see her, yet I feared our reconnection might be marred by the fact that I had fired her years ago. Was she angry with me? Was she here to confront me about what had happened? How much had changed in the time since I’d last seen her?

Annie had worked in the infant room of my preschool. Not only did she lovingly care for each infant in her classroom, but she cared for her room as a whole. She loved a clean classroom and the order it provided; she meticulously cleaned each item and table, and continuously tidied up to keep the room spotless. Her daughter, Jenna, thrived in the preschool, as well. Jenna’s father had died in a car crash soon after she was born, leaving Annie a young, single mom. We joked how Jenna was Annie’s “Mini-Me” as they looked so much alike. She was a diligent and determined young woman who took great pride in her work and I was glad to have her as an employee.

After a year of teaching in the infant room, Annie was faced with another tragedy. Her best friend suddenly died of an aneurysm and her world spun out of control. Her focus shifted from her classroom as she processed this new grief on top of her older grief. Instead of working through her grief, Annie put her efforts into attempting to numb the pain. Noticing she was struggling, I invited her into my office and tried to encourage her to join a grief group, but she was not yet ready to face her grief head on. She was trying to outrun her pain, and it was wearing on her. She increasingly called out of work, and on the days she did show up her co- teacher ended up doing most of the classroom duties. My heart ached for her, but as the owner of the preschool, my main responsibility had to remain the children, and providing them with the best care possible. I was torn. I had compassion for Annie and her situation, but I also had compassion for the children in her care and her co-teacher. I wrote her name in my prayer journal and prayed for her each morning. I hoped and prayed that she would find healing some way. That she would learn healthy ways to handle her grief. That her weariness would lift. That she would return to us, the focused, caring, diligent teacher we all knew and loved.

Then, another teacher reported Annie had nodded off during the children’s nap time. This is a major violation of my school’s policy. My director brought her into my office to discuss our concern. On a Thursday afternoon, I told her that she needed to make some changes in her personal life and to take Friday off and come back in Monday with a fresh start. I also had to inform her that if it happened again I would need to fire her.

She came back in Monday, and I was hopeful that she had made some positive changes. But a few days later when the children were resting she dozed off again. As the owner and lead supervisor on site, I knew what I “needed” to do, as the safety of the students must come first.  However, asking Annie and her daughter to leave was the last thing I “wanted” to do. I invited her in and told her that she needed to leave immediately. Annie was very quiet and did not dispute that she had fallen asleep. She calmly picked up her daughter and left the building. My heart grieved as she walked out the door. The last thing I’d wanted to do was send her off when I knew she was grieving, but I knew it was the right decision for the school. For years, I questioned my decision. I wondered if I had failed her. I wondered what had became of her and Jenna.

And so four years later when she stood before me, I was filled with mixed emotions. I was so happy to see her and her beautiful Mini-Me. I was relieved and overjoyed that they seemed to be doing well. But I couldn’t help but wonder how she was feeling toward me now. I couldn’t help but wonder how my decision had impacted their lives.

As Annie and Jenna approached,

Annie looked me in the eye and said, “Thanks for the wakeup call.” 

She wasn’t angry. She didn’t blame me or my staff. She was grateful. We hugged and caught up and she and Jenna returned to the carnival.

I was blessed with the opportunity to rekindle a relationship with Annie and to learn more about what was happening during that time. She confided that she felt her life was falling apart and felt lost. She had settled into a toxic, abusive relationship and had lost the will to fight for herself. Instead of heeding my advice for a grief support group, she continued to let her world spin out of control, staying out late with friends and not getting enough sleep. I learned that Annie struggled with being alone at night and was prescribed medication for anxiety that had made her excessively tired during the day. She shared her sorrow at being fired from the place that she loved so much, but that it served as a much needed wakeup call. Unsettled by being asked to leave, Annie was driven to start fighting for and taking responsibility for her happiness, step by step. She found new friends, a new boyfriend, and a new job as a nanny. Annie told me,

happylife

While you can’t control what happens to you, you can control what happens next. If you want a happy life, live a happy life.”

Annie’s words of gratitude felt like a spring rain after a dry, cold winter wait. I was grateful that my tough decision had positively impacted her life. How many employers have an employee they have fired come back and thank them? I was grateful for the confirmation that sometimes tough love is needed in tough situations. I no longer questioned myself and wondered if I failed her. I rejoiced in knowing that she had taken control not only of her grief, but of her life and her own happiness.

As I shared with my husband my interaction with Annie, we both felt that we would like her to come back and teach in our school. I am a big believer in second chances, and knew in my heart that Annie had more than earned hers. We called her and asked if she would like to come back to work for us. Providentially, the family she was working for was moving to Florida. She used this opportunity to return to our school as a long term substitute. She came back full of joy and energy and the hard work and dedication we had initially seen those years ago. Soon, she was back to being a full time teacher. Her first year back, Annie won Teacher of the Year. She has now been with us for three years and I am grateful to have her.

Who would have thought that letting her go was the wakeup call that would bring her back? Only the God of wakeup calls and second chances.