What if Thanksgiving Wasn’t Just One Day?

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I took some heat last spring after I published my rant on the topic of Mothers Day. But in the months since, I’ve come to realize what was bothering me was the question of gratitude, and what precisely that means.

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Image by KateWares, via Flickr

As mothers (and fathers!), we do a lot for our kids. We give and give and give until we’re worn out. And the thing is, we don’t really need to be told “thank you.” Right? Wouldn’t we all rather our kids show us their appreciation every day, rather than getting cards and crafts and/or a fancy dinner one day a year?

If your answer to that question is “no,” this post probably isn’t for you.

But if your heart lit up, going “Yes, yes yes!”, then it’s worth thinking about Thanksgiving as if we were the kids in that equation, rather than the parents.

In other words: Does God (or the great nation of America, if you’re not the believing type) want/need our “I’m grateful for” lists on this on one day, only to have us revert to business as usual the following day? Or would the world–and not coincidentally, we–be better off if we showed our gratitude in our actions on Thanksgiving Day and every other day, too?

(In case you’re wondering, that’s what you call a rhetorical question.)

My point is this:

If I am grateful for the roof over my head and the food on my table, the best way to show it is to do something to ease the suffering of those who don’t have the same benefits.

If I am grateful for my spouse and children, the way to show it is not to focus on what annoys me about him/her/them, but on what makes them such a gift in the first place.

And if I am grateful for the gift of free speech, I should not abuse it by hurling insults, invectives, half-truths, false news stories and outright lies at anyone, no matter how high the stakes.

In other words, the best way to honor Thanksgiving is by living out mercy.

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Image by peregrine blue, via Flickr

 

Cover artIf you use Joy to the World: Advent Activities For Your Family during Advent, I’d like to suggest that the Advent Calendar is a really good way to put this idea into practice. Why? It offers a structure, and structure can make the difference between lasting change and a quick reversion to “business as usual.” Here are a few ideas to stuff your Advent calendar with mercy in motion:

  • Pull a page (or a few!) from the Random Act of Kindness calendar
  • Make dinner and take it to a homeless shelter. (Make it communal by asking for help from friends on Facebook.)
  • Ring the Salvation Army Bell.
  • Go Christmas caroling and collect canned goods for the local food bank.
  • Choose a charity and let the kids donate from their piggy banks, or do chores to earn money to contribute.
  • Make gift bags with cereal packets, water bottles, gloves & scarves for homeless people.
  • Have the kids help pick out Christmas gifts for families in need, via giving trees or Toys for Tots.

What other kid-friendly ways have you found to teach the practice of mercy?

And with this post, and the last week of the Church year, we farewell Mercy on a Monday. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

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Blankets, Anyone?

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Lots of people right now are looking for ways to serve. Here’s a great one: blankets for refugees! But it comes with an expiration date: they must have the blankets in Virginia by Nov. 30. We all have been given lots of baby blankets, right? And most of them saw very little use and are still in very good shape, lying on the shelf gathering dust? Launder them, box them up and let them be your love letter to the world.

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Ten Simple Ways To Model Mercy For Your Kids

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cedar-berriesAs the Year of Mercy winds down, I thought I’d bring things down to a practical level. As parents, we have primary responsibility for forming our kids’ view of and approach to the world. Providing a good example alone isn’t enough—we do have to teach—but it’s a darned good start. Here are ten simple ways to model mercy in the mist of your everyday life.

1. Take a deep breath and say a prayer before reacting to whining, breakage, spillage, or fighting. It doesn’t have to be fancy or particularly eloquent. I think the most fervent prayer I ever pray is: “Lord, help!” (I use that one a lot. Ahem.)

2. Measure your words when discussing political candidates, work associates, and others who upset you. For many of us, speech is where mercy disappears first.

3. Lead the way in mending hurts. You may have to send your kid to his room when he’s behaving badly, but go in and offer love—cuddles for little ones, gentle words for older ones—as soon as you’ve calmed down.

4. Banish “It’s okay” from conflict resolution—because if there truly was an offense, then it isn’t okay. Instead, take a deep breath and embrace the difficult words “I forgive you.”

5. Instead of trying to resell your kids’ outgrown clothes (or yours, for that matter), donate them. School nurses always need clothes. So do shelters for abused kids and battered women. There’s also Goodwill, and USAgain bins (for usable clothing) and PlanetAid (for holey socks and threadbare shirts).

6. Keep protein bars, water bottles, or jars of peanut butter and sleeves of crackers in the car so you have something nonperishable to give to the homeless who beg at major intersections.

7. Make a family charity jar. Give your kids the chance to do small chores, and afterward let them put $.25-.50 in the jar. When it’s full, choose a charity as a family.

8. Donate blood. (You don’t even have to take your kids along. Because you know if they see the tape around your arm they’ll ask about it!)

9. Help with funerals in your local community.

10. Offer child care, kid transportation, adult transportation, grocery shopping services, or lawn care to an individual or family facing illness.

Practicing mercy doesn’t have to be dramatic or time-consuming. Small, simple, and realistic beats grand gestures every time.

How do you model mercy in your home?

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Mercy On A Monday

Carrying The Future

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Photo by John Vetterli, via Flickr

I know I’m not saying anything revolutionary here, but the world is really screwed up.

 

I’m also aware that this is nothing unique to this particular era, this particular election cycle. The world has always been a screwed up place.

Maybe this is maturity—spiritual or otherwise—finally allowing me to reserve a piece of my mental and emotional energy for the suffering of someone besides myself. (We can hope, anyway.) One way or the other, I’m finally beginning to understand where the term “bleeding heart” came from, and although it’s been a term of derision my entire life (almost always followed by the dreaded “L” word—”liberal”), I finally recognize it and embrace it, because I see it in the mirror.

As I laid awake tonight, tossing and turning, all too aware of the headache and the sting in my scratched eye, a song kept going round and round my head. It’s a song I heard a concert at a pastoral music conference a number of years ago. It goes, “Please break my heart, O God, with what breaks your heart, O God.”

This is the top of the list of things breaking my heart these days.

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My good friend Kelley is doing something amazing in a couple of weeks. She’s going to Greece with an organization called Carry the Future. They provide “baby boxes” that help refugee mothers take care of their children. Mosquito nets, diapers, clothing, blankets, baby carrier, cleaning supplies for Mom, to help her stay healthy so she can safely carry her piece of the future.

And then there’s this telling line on the “baby boxes” page:

“The baby boxes also include a plastic bin and legs to protect and elevate the baby box from hazards at camps such as snakes and flooding.”

Just imagine trying to raise your children in those circumstances. It puts all our fears about kidnappings and head injuries into perspective, doesn’t it?

I’m envious of Kelley for the opportunity to put the works of mercy into action—and I stand in awe of her family’s willingness to shoulder the logistical difficulties associated with the extended absence of its primary caregiver.

My family and I are not that bold, but I can support her efforts, and I can urge those who read this page to donate to Carry The Future, as I am doing today. It should be obvious by now that holing up on our side of the Atlantic cannot protect us from the violence taking place elsewhere. For better and for worse (and it really is both), we are an interconnected world now, and we need to recognize that and start participating in finding solutions. War probably isn’t the answer. Diplomacy might not work, either. But mercy? Mercy just might put a dent in the carnage.

The world is screwed up; our $10 or $20 isn’t going to change that. But as St. Mother Teresa put it: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”

**Note: if you do decide to donate, will you comment here, so we can see if a little blog post from one of the least influential bloggers out there can make a difference?

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Notes from The War Zone

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That's my candy pumpkin! No, I had it first! You've had three already! MOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM!!!!! (The LEGO storm troopers never disappoint. Image by DuckBrown, via Flickr)

That’s my candy pumpkin! No, I had it first! You’ve had three already! MOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM!!!!! (The LEGO storm troopers never disappoint. Image by DuckBrown, via Flickr)

A lot of days, I feel like I live in a war zone. And a lot of days, I just want to throw in the towel. Like yesterday, for instance. We let the kids sleep in, let them wake up slowly, gave them no responsibility whatsoever. Just a nice, relaxing morning, in advance of a once-a-year treat: a baseball game.

By nine-thirty a.m., there had been three major fights, at least one of them taking place outside for the edification of the entire world.

Every so often I ask adults how they got along with their siblings when they were kids, and how they get along now. Christian likes to say that his brothers beat each other up, but then it was done—and nobody, but nobody, outside the family had better mess with them. And now, generally, they get along great.

A lot of other people tell me, “Sure, we fought some, but mostly we were really close. We were best friends.”

When I hear things like that, I can’t help feeling like a complete failure as a parent. Because surely it’s our fault—and really, mine, because I’m the primary caregiver—that my kids haven’t learned how to deal with each other with some slight measure of tolerance. That they get in each other’s business to the point where the fighting sometimes seems nonstop. I get so tired of being asked to arbitrate “he hit/kicked/pinched me” or “he won’t give me the fill-in-the-blank.” Because a hit was almost always provoked by the victim at the end of a long escalation, and you can never tell who actually fired the first shot. And there’s virtually no way to get a straight answer about which kid actually had dibs on the toy (or book, or article of clothing) in question. Sometimes I just take it away from them both, because it’s easier.

Not that long ago, I told them I refused to arbitrate, because they were asking me to play favorites, and that wasn’t fair to me.

We try to teach conflict resolution in love. We require apologies—often from both parties, because so few conflicts are one-sided—and we require the words “I forgive you” (NOT “It’s okay,” because that’s flatly untrue; it’s NOT okay; if it was, there wouldn’t be a need for an apology in the first place) and a hug. Which is the hardest part, by the way. Words are easy. Actions make it real. We talk about Jesus, we talk about love and kindness and the importance of family–that someday, when we’re gone, all they’ll have is each other.

I don’t use the word “mercy” with the kids, because it’s taking me so long to wrap my head and heart around it. But mercy is what I’m trying to teach. They’re very aware when I’m having to take deep breaths and self-regulate my own reactions. I don’t try to hide it. And I’m pretty open about apologizing when I don’t succeed.

Some days I think this is all part and parcel of the learning process. I can take it philosophically.

Other days, I just feel frustrated.

(Can you guess which is true today?)

Recently I wrote an essay for Columbia Magazine called “Mercy Begins in the Home.”. My kids opened my eyes to that reality, but there’s a vast chasm between recognizing something to be true and teaching them to choose mercy themselves.

Of course, choosing mercy is a tall order for children at ages almost-5, 7, 9, and 11. But if we don’t expect it now, how can we expect it from them ever?

Empathy and “here’s what works for us” would be welcome.

For posts containing more actual “mercy,” click here.

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The Incredible Sick

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Image by Sky Noir, via Flickr

Every superhero movie these days involves a mind-blowing escalation of the final battle. You know. The Avengers are fighting creepy mechanical creatures that fly around knocking New York City to pieces. You think it can’t get any worse, and then it does: there’s a lull in the action, a low-pitched roar, and my kids start singing, “The FISH thing! The FISH thing! The GIant GIant FISH thing!”

 

Sometimes life feels just like that.

Every two or three years, in the early fall we have an epic, extended Battle of the Ick. (In case you haven’t intuited it? We’re in one.) This year it got an early start with a dry, hacking cough around the 20th of August. I remember that because I saw my 90+ year old grandmother on the 26th and I was afraid to kiss her because I thought I was probably incubating the boys’ bug.

A month later, we’re all still coughing. And before anyone invokes the almighty doctor, we’ve been to urgent care twice and the regular doctor once, each for a different person. So far in the month of September, we have spent $200 on copays.

It’s not a bad illness, but it wears on you after a while. Nicholas is dramatic by nature, but when he gets sick, he’s even dramatic in his sleep. His coughing can keep the entire house awake, because he sounds like he’s choking. Mama Kate hasn’t been sleeping much the last month, and most of the time it’s not because of a full brain. It’s because I’m getting up and rolling over sixty-pound kids, smearing them with Vix, re-dosing them with Triaminic or Dimetapp, and the like.

In the past three days, I finally feel like we finally started getting a handle on it.

But now we’re staring down the barrel of one of Those Weeks: upcoming deadlines; catching up from a weekend trip to Illinois that set me back by five days; the need to grocery shop on a Monday because a bunch of the weekly staples are flat out gone; the lawn that is threatening to turn into a set for the Jungle Book (see: out of town over the weekend); an NFP class to teach; a massage for which I’ve been waiting for over a month, to fix the burning tendons in my feet; a flute lesson; a DS group plotting session…

And that’s just Monday!

And on the eve of That Week, we came upstairs at bedtime to discover…well, I’ll spare you the details.

So here’s the thing: there’s this little set of instructions for Christian living called the works of mercy. And one of them is “visit the sick.”

But in the past eleven years I’ve had ample opportunity to beat my head against the fact that nobody wants to visit the sick, because nobody wants to GET sick. In fact, as a mother I’ve often felt that the time I most need support is the time the support completely evaporates.

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Photo by muscalwds, via Flickr

It got me to thinking that we take these works of mercy too literally. The thing is, when you have a sick kid, the rest of your life doesn’t stop. The deadlines are still there, the family still needs to eat, the lawn still has to be cut, and the other kids still have to do their homework. Some things can be rescheduled. Many can’t.

I realized this weekend that we need to rethink the meaning of “visit the sick”. There are ways to help a family overwhelmed by illness—even the petty kind that lasts a month and doesn’t threaten anyone’s life–without exposing yourself to the same illness. Mow their lawn. Rake their leaves. Bring the un-sick family members a meal, or just pick up a handful of groceries and drop them off. Help transport the un-sick kids. Supervise them outside, where carriers will be less likely to share their germs, so they don’t have to tag along while parents drive the sick kid all over creation to see doctors who have oh-so-thoughtfully decided to move their practice to the OPPOSITE END OF TOWN.

Do the things the parents can’t do, because they’re too darned busy taking care of the stuff that can’t be put off.

And when it’s all over at last, help them catch up with everything they had to let slide in the interim.

We’ve got to stop putting mercy in a box. Mercy wants out. Mercy means finding a way.

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Note: this is not a thinly-disguised plea for help. God willing by the time this posts, I’ll have the lawn mostly mowed. I’m just realizing we’ve got to quit thinking two-dimensionally and give mercy a place in real life.

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Double Standards

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Photo by quinn.anya, via Flickr

At the sound of a crash on wood, Christian and I both turned around, gearing up for a Parental Scowl at the offending child. By the time we saw the toy tractor, which had been dropped into our pew by the non-Basi boy in the row behind, I realized it was far too sharp a sound to be a hymnal, which was the only thing our kids had access to. The mother mouthed, Sorry! and I leaned back and chuckle-whispered some insufficient comment about how it wasn’t our kids so we weren’t worried about it. And then realized that did not at all communicate the sentiment I was trying to convey. So at the sign of peace I made the effort to clarify.

What I was trying to say, and never quite got out of my mouth right, was this:

I’ve been a parent for eleven and (almost) a half years, which is more intense than it seems, because during that time I’ve been steadily adding to the number of kids under my care. As a parent, my first rule has been “make sure my children know they are loved.” But close behind it has been “Make sure they don’t bother other people, especially at church and concerts.”

And because I have four kids, three of whom are boys and the fourth of whom has no sense of boundaries, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been the mom mouthing “sorry” to people, who always and inevitably said, “Oh, it’s fine, your kids are so well behaved!”

I know other people have been browbeaten for their kids’ behavior, but it’s never happened to me. (Yet, anyway. I mean, until a month ago nobody had ever threatened to call DFS on me, either.)

Smiling at that woman in church yesterday morning, I realized my first reaction had been to scold my children for something that, now that it wasn’t my kid, I didn’t find the least bit problematic. Why would either of us feel compelled to scold our kids, when the kids clearly were hurting no one and nothing?

It was a rather jarring moment of clarity. We all know, deep down, that as parents we are way, way harder on ourselves than other people are on us—and often, though not always, harder than we are on other parents. But that doesn’t stop us. We set up impossible standards and then run ourselves down for not meeting them. And when a critique is leveled, we recoil inwardly and then set out to Fix It, even when there’s no way to fix it. Like, I swear my family must think we are sick all.the.time, because we have the worst luck with family gatherings. It seems like any time there’s a holiday or get-together, I’m going to have at least one family member who’s sick, and usually more. And the last couple of years it seems like we get the long-incubating, slow-moving, not-that-severe-but-man-they-just-won’t-go-away bugs that crawl through the family over the course of a month.

I’ve always taken a sort of c’est la vie attitude toward illness. I mean, reasonable precautions. If we have a playdate and someone in the house we’re supposed to go to has strep or lice, we stay home. But we have four kids in three schools. Three separate sets of germs to catch, and four candidates to do the catching. The odds (of catching) are ever in our favor.

And yet when the back side of an illness coincides with a family gathering, you can’t imagine the guilt I have about it. And when a kid comes down with a sore throat and fever in the middle of the weekend? Ugh! I feel terrible! Even though, if the illness was coming in from nieces and nephews, I’d be like, “Whatever, it’s not your fault. It is what it is, if we get it, we’ll deal with it.”

Now, why do I give myself permission to self-flagellate for things I can neither control nor would ever dream of holding against anyone else?

I said once before that mercy begins with me. Apparently it’s a lesson I haven’t yet internalized.

For more Mercy on a Monday posts, click here.

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