Christmas Greetings from the Farm

On December 25, 2012, in Commentary, Life, Personal, by Chris

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It’s Christmas Eve at the farm on Willow Road. The house has long fallen asleep as I atone for my procrastination. I had every good intention to bang out this annual greeting in the light of day; but one marvelous distraction after another intervened. Visits with family and neighbors, eating way too much, quiet meadow walks in the first snowfall of the season, gift exchanges and a late night roughhousing session with Julia has its way chipping away at the time.

So here I am, bleary eyed and typing away feverishly next to a window, cracked open to let the chill of the night air keep me awake; but also in hopes that I will hear some spooky night sound that would quicken my pulse in my younger days.

WeatherVane-01Julia has lately come into the habit of waking early, sometimes as early as 5am, and this morning was no exception. I decided to let Jocelyn sleep and took Julia downstairs to snuggle in the cool darkness of the farmhouse in the comfort of her grandfather’s easy chair.

I love the moments of quiet that visits to the farm afford. They give me time and space for contemplations that simply will not deepen and grow in the shallow soil and frenetic pace of my daily life.

But as my daughter dozed on my chest, the thoughts that came to mind were not comforting ones. In the quiet of the pre-dawn light, I finally let myself embrace a taste of the pain to which I had been consciously numbing myself.

I’ve been watching, in horror, over the last several months as this world has seemingly been tearing itself apart. I pondered the empty arms of the parents of twenty Connecticut school children who are still in the throes of their grief. And I’ve watched as our nation – the world, in fact – struggles to right itself in the midst of the shock; our politicians and pundits scrambling for air time to push the “one agenda” that will supposedly be the solution to the mess we find ourselves in.

The tragedy this year has not been limited to people outside my community. I’ve been watching over the past several weeks, sometimes helplessly, as a nearly thirty-year marriage of a couple very close to me has quite simply imploded before my eyes.

In so many domains, in so many hearts, a piece of our collective innocence has been taken from us.

And I wonder what is it about the holiday that brings this melancholia out of me. Never mind. You don’t need to know how deep that rabbit hole goes; and any of you who have been following these over the last few years will know that it ends with more hope than it starts with.

Later in the morning, I read the backstory of an old Christmas carol that a friend had passed along to me the day before. I was surprised to learn that it was adapted from a poem that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had written in the depths of personal despair. Having lost his wife in 1861 to a horrific and accidental fire that permanently scarred him as well, he would write that Christmas of how “inexpressibly sad are all the holidays.”

But that would not be the only sadness that Longfellow would experience. His eldest son, against Longfellow’s pleading, took a commission as a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac and sustained a grievous wound in 1863 (he would eventually recover after a long convalescence). A year later, on Christmas Day of 1864, Longfellow penned a poem that began with despair and loss, and the seeming irony of the bells that tolled for peace in war’s midst…

     I heard the bells on Christmas Day
     Their old, familiar carols play,
          and wild and sweet
          The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     And thought how, as the day had come,
     The belfries of all Christendom
          Had rolled along
          The unbroken song
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     Till ringing, singing on its way,
     The world revolved from night to day,
          A voice, a chime,
          A chant sublime
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     Then from each black, accursed mouth
     The cannon thundered in the South,
          And with the sound
          The carols drowned
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     It was as if an earthquake rent
     The hearth-stones of a continent,
          And made forlorn
          The households born
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     And in despair I bowed my head;
     “There is no peace on earth,” I said;
          “For hate is strong,
          And mocks the song
     Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

And if Longfellow’s verse had finished there, darkness would have won. And in my moments of despair, it has been scarily easy to let myself give in and be utterly overwhelmed by the hatred, the senselessness, and the crushing grief all around.

But there is so. much. more.

In the midst of the pain, there are reminders of the beauty that will eventually overtake it.

As a whole nation and I were struck dumb by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, while some commentators repeatedly asked if God was, at best, an absentee landlord and other commentators shot back with the standard right wing theo-social talking points, a friend decided that she was going to simply be different. Here is her Facebook post less than a day after the incident:

          This is my “Do Something” in response to my visceral maternal alarm bells.
          Hurting people hurt people. So I will love people. I’m going to be a one woman
          love flash mob. I will make eye contact. I will smile. I will love on my sphere of
          influence and help them love on others. It’s not just a gun control or mental
          health issue. I think its a love issue too. A fear issue. I will not live in fear
          and turn inward. Love always beats evil. Always. It has to. Join me. Share this.
          Smile. Love. Do Something.

I’m embarrassed to tell you that all I could manage at the time was to choke out four words in response:

Bravo, my friend. Bravo.

But for me, it was an early reminder that this season reminds us of: In love for us, God came to those who wanted no part of love so that the reorientation of history and the transformation of our futures could be made possible.

The small decisions to love are not all I stand in awe of. I have friends who are pursuing a creative way toward peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Others are pulling up stakes in the comfort of the suburbs to continue their lives in the neighborhoods of Detroit. Others have decided that clean water should not be a luxury for the Pokot people in Kenya and are working tirelessly to drill wells. Some of my favorite people in the world have committed their lives to build an enclave of hope and beauty in the midst of despair in Dowlaiswaram, India.

Perhaps the reminder of Love enfleshing itself in humanity on that unlikely day in that unlikely place is the invitation of a return to the innocence that we lost. It is in these and countless more reflections of that love where the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem is made manifest:

     Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
     “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
          The Wrong shall fail,
          The Right prevail,
     With peace on the earth, good-will to men.”

Peace on earth, goodwill to all humankind. To that worthy mast, I have fastened my heart. To that improbable, inconvenient, overcoming, all-consuming truth of a here-and-now Savior (who I do such a lousy job representing), I commit my life to pursue.

And whether or not you decide to pursue with me, I think we can all agree that the world would be a better place if we decided to love first and do something out of an overflow of that love.

I give God thanks for all that you do, and wish you all the best for Christmas.

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Pumpkin Fun

On October 28, 2012, in Life, Personal, by Chris

Just so I’m not all serious all the time on this blog, I wanted to share the fun we had last Sunday looking for a pumpkin. Julia had a blast messing with these massive orange things in the dirt!

I love watching the wonder unfold in her eyes now that she’s well along the way as far as interacting with her environment. When we visited family down in Ft. Worth last year, we took some time out in a pumpkin patch and she wasn’t nearly as interested.

We have a marvelous holiday season ahead of us and it’s always fun to begin it with Halloween. Julia will be dressed up as a flower this year, and I shudder to think of the next few years when she realizes she can get free candy from everyone in the neighborhood!

She finally started trying to play “ball” with it, but had a little more difficulty than usual…

But finally got it to roll… well, fall over!

I guess perseverance still counts for something!

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She Picked Me and She Picked Us

On September 20, 2012, in Life, Personal, by Chris

I’m taking a moment to celebrate today, and it’s an easy one to remember. It’s the day that two lives were completely and permanently woven into mine. It’s the day that life would (twice!) never be the same.

Four years ago tonight, I was a new husband. A year prior, I had basically surrendered to the possibility of lifelong bachelorhood, but it seemed that God had other ideas. Jocelyn and I met in December, 2007, and our tribes saw the magic before it became completely clear to us. We exchanged vows nine months later, fulfilling a prediction of one of Jocelyn’s mentors that it would happen before the summer was over. It’s amazing to look back and to see the design in it all – just to say, “thank you.”

Two years ago tonight, I was a new dad, scared spitless as I looked at my daughter under the oxygen tent in the NICU while my wife rested two floors below after a scary, premature birth. The future was so uncertain at that moment as the staff checked her for the myriad complications that can face a child with Down syndrome and we embarked on the months of preparation for the inevitable heart surgery ahead of us.

All I could do was croak out a meek “thank you” to God – at least for that moment – that my girls were safe.

But even in my fear, my soul was enriched by our ever-widening community (with representatives from four continents) praying in solidarity for Julia’s health and Jocelyn’s and my sanity. And many of those friendships still remain even after we got through the surgery in January 2011. (editor’s note – she just met with Dr. Weinhouse yesterday and he described her as “magnificently healthy”)

Moreover, as Julia’s life has unfolded over the last two years, a conviction that I clung to before she was born has slowly come into focus. Even through the frustrations of navigating the endless bureaucracies finding resources to help her reach her fullest potential, it is becoming more and more evident that it was no haphazard pairing and re-pairing of chromosomes that brought us together.

Just as God somehow moved in Jocelyn’s heart to choose this clueless guy to live out the rest of our lives together, I (perhaps foolishly) like to think that Julia somehow chose us. Her bright little spirit was tasked by God to teach Jocelyn and I how to love in a new way.

That learning process has often been a gut-wrenching one, especially now that Julia’s two-year-old willfulness has emerged. But the ancient covenant that is struck between parents and child still remains, and Jocelyn and I pray every day that God strip from us all that could get in the way of his dream for the life he has entrusted to us.

I am so glad for this day and so glad that Jocelyn chose me and Julia chose us.

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Scenes From a Coffee Shop

On February 8, 2012, in Commentary, Personal, by Chris

Not long ago, I decided to take a Monday away from the office and work remotely at my favorite coffee shop in town. Time away like that is surprisingly productive – especially with the crush of distractions and interruptions that can come at the office.

As I was burning through the mountains of correspondence, a quiet exchange caught my eye. A little girl and her dad had come in and sat snuggling together in one of the comfy chairs nearby. She with her orange juice and he with his coffee, they beamed at each other and shared a muffin with a love and affection that can only be found between a father and child.

I smiled to myself as I watched, looking forward to the days I would bring my daughter Julia to this coffee shop and do much the same thing.

Not much later, a woman came in – obviously the little girl’s mom – and the scene changed. I didn’t hear all of the words of the conversation between dad and mom. But the tone was unmistakable – admittedly civil, but with the clipped exchanged of a couple that was simply trying to get through an unpleasant situation.

And then it hit me. I was witnessing a kid hand-off between divorced spouses.

The conversation ebbed and flowed in the few minutes they were together. He forgot to get a picture of the girl printed that was to be used for a craft later that day. He apologized, she cut him some slack; but as I looked at her careworn brow, it seemed she was silently adding it to the list of broken promises that had been piling up over months and years.

And the little girl, who had been happy and carefree just minutes before, was stone faced. It was a kind of stoic bravery that I see in people far older and with lives far more complicated than a four year old girl has any business having. And that expression remained as she hugged her dad and went with her mom out the door and down the street.

Please understand, dear reader, that I’m not assigning blame to anyone in that embattled little family. I don’t know their story and would never presume to armchair quarterback the situation – or any situation for that matter. I’m not assigning blame – but I have to tell you that I’m seeing that kind of pain more and more.

My chosen career has afforded me a unique vantage point on situations like this. My job is running a portfolio of initiatives at a local church that deals with the equipping and healing of relationships. Part of that is overseeing the premarital program that works with couples before they’re married to give them a few tools that will prepare them for the continuous exercise in self-denial and service that comprises a healthy marriage.

I also oversee the divorce recovery workshops. Twice a year, a team of dedicated volunteers works with scores of adults who have gone through a divorce and help them heal from the pain of it all. We also work with their children, who sustain much of the collateral damage of the broken marriage. And it’s amazing and humbling to see how a little truth applied with liberal amounts of love can redeem a broken situation.

But it’s ironic to me that if I asked those bonehead-in-love couples entering our premarital program to tell me their aspirations for their marriage, exactly zero percent of them would dream of being divorced within a few years.

It’s never the plan, but it’s sadly the case sometimes. And as I watched that little girl walk away with her mom, I asked myself and my Creator what could be done.

Then I looked down at my work and the answer came to me (from God or from my computer, I’m not sure which):

You’re already doing it.

I am part of a small band of co-conspirators who have spent a year developing a consensus and a plan for a marriage mentoring initiative. I had taken time away from the office that day to put together content for our first vision and training gathering. We’re still in the developing stages at the moment; but we’ve realized that as great as a workshop or a retreat weekend or a counseling session can be, the thing a couple often needs most are friendships that can regularly encourage them to continuously do the simple things that feed a healthy marriage…

Talk to each other
~
Fight fair
~
Laugh a lot
~
Let go of everything you think you’re owed
~
Pour everything you have in service to your spouse
~
Trust God and the identity He’s given you – and here’s how

Forty six couples showed up at our first gathering last Friday night; and the anticipation in the room was truly breathtaking.

Like I said, we’re starting small and developing as we go; but it’s my prayer that this growing conspiracy is going to be able to push back just a little bit against the fearsome cultural forces that are tearing marriages apart or making people give up on marriage altogether.

And maybe someday we’ll see fewer little girls walking away from one parent in the hand of another.

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Heart Day’s Eve

On January 16, 2012, in Commentary, Julia's Journey, Life, Personal, by Chris

I rocked my little girl to sleep tonight.

I know that’s not such a news flash. In fact, it’s pretty routine around our house. Even though all the experts say you shouldn’t let your baby fall asleep in your arms, but lay them down while they’re still awake so they can self soothe and all of that, I indulged myself a little bit, just for tonight.

I also cried like a little girl when I read Julia one of her bedtime stories tonight.

Okay, that’s a little less routine. Jocelyn was out at her book study and Julia and I had a great night playing stack up cups and tossing her rattles around and knocking down blocks and doing our silly little dances together. Then she gave me that “I’ve had enough” look and we settled into a few books before I took her upstairs. And I have to admit that something caught in my throat when I read those words to her:

For never before in story or rhyme
(not even once upon a time)
has the world ever known a you, my friend,
and it never will, not ever again…

Heaven blew every trumpet
and played every horn
on the wonderful, marvelous
night you were born.*

*Taken from a great children’s book called On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman. Find out more here.

I have read those lines I don’t know how many times before, but tonight I couldn’t even get through the second stanza before I sat there, thunderstruck and weeping at the realization of what a gift this little girl was in my life. As I tried to compose myself and read through the blur of tears, Julia looked up at me with her wide, innocent eyes, knowing that this was not the usual program.

Okay, I’ll let you in on the mystery behind all the waterworks. Today marks the eve of a very important anniversary in the life of the Cook family and Julia especially. It was a year ago tomorrow that we handed her over to the Cardiovascular Team at Children’s Hospital for an eight hour procedure that made her life a year later even possible.

And it all seems so long ago now…

I took some time this weekend to look back at some of my posts from those seemingly endless days just to jog my memory of what we were facing. The pictures from the surgery day still make me gasp.

But the interesting thing is that we really don’t think about the scary stuff any more. The only reminders we really have is the fading scar on Julia’s chest and a very infrequent consult with her cardiologist.

A year ago, we were gutting it up for eight hours of surgery. Nowadays, we are gutting it up for the war of wills when nap time comes around.

A year ago, we were dosing out four different medicines at several specific times each day. Now we’re doing high fives if we can get a sometimes picky eater to down all of her peas.

It all feels so… normal.

Yes, there’s the morning ritual of her thyroid medicine and the regular (and frequent) adjustment of expectations that come with the territory when you have a kid with Down Syndrome.

But with God’s grace, the prayers of so many and the hand of a skillful surgeon who had the humility to know where his skill came from, our baby’s heart is just fine.

Thanks for celebrating January 17th – Julia’s Heart Day – with us!

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