Friday, December 2, 2011

I Love You More

Our son entered the world twenty-seven days ago - one rotation of the earth for each of my trips around the sun.  He came in wailing, as all of us do, a writhing ball of fury at the cold and the light and the trauma of birth. He is quieter now, asleep against my breast, drawing small, quick, breaths that sound like the opening of a door hung on old hinges.

I spend my days and my nights meditating on the clockwise swirl of his downy hair, his pink, shimmering, thirsty, tongue, the web of miniature veins in his eyelids and ears, as intricate, as perfect, as the wings of a butterfly. My son. My Brendan. My gift from a God whose goodness I have never known until now.

When he cries, I ache. When I sing to him, I must whisper the words, or my voice will crack with the tears surging behind my eyes. There is nothing I would not do, no sacrifice I would not make, to provoke that gummy, open-mouthed smile. And now I understand.

I always say, "I love you," to my mother when we hang up the phone.

"I love you more," she says.

"I can never win that game," I laugh.

"That's right," she says, "because I'm the mom."

Yes. Now I understand.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Blessings 195 to 197

195. The good plan of God that I can't yet see
196. The steady beating of a tiny heart
197. Kicks, squirms, and wiggles

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Blessings 188 to 194

188. Invitation into patience
189. Afternoon sun through the sliding glass door
190. Waking next to one I love
191. Being alive
192. The flight of geese
193. A false alarm met with kindness and understanding
194. The last quiet moments to breathe, to read, to count blessings that fall upon me like raindrops

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Blessings 182 to 187

182. Homemade chicken and dumplings on a cold night
183. A well-timed whisper from the Lover of my soul
184. Blue October sky
185. Morning sun lancing the mist
186. Grace to persevere
187. Telling the stories that say who we are

Monday, October 31, 2011

Blessings 178 to 181

178. A steeple rising up through the morning mist
179. The season's first frost across a great green field, like the breath of God upon a mirror
180. Leftover snow cradled amongst the tree roots
181. This day

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Blessings 171 to 177

171. An early snow
172. Hope
173. Every hour that brings me closer to holding my baby boy
174. A new friend
175. The tree that has burst into glory outside my patio
176. The endearing absurdity of pumpkins
177. Firemen taking the fire truck to buy pumpkins for their carving party

Monday, October 24, 2011

Blessings 160 to 170

160. Unmerited favor
161. A sermon delivered with a British accent
162. A truth unsoftened
163. The patience of trees reaching for the sun
164. A mum the color of Christmas
165. Hunter-green gourds
166. Bags and bags of ripe apples
167. The soft voice of an old acquaintance
168. Permission not to worry
169. A hug when most needed
170. A skilled hair stylist

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Blessings 156 to 159

156. Itsy-bitsy socks
157. Teeny-tiny shoes
158. Wee little T-shirts
159. Dying of cuteness

Monday, October 17, 2011

Blessing 151 to 155

151. A nested nest
152. Smell of fresh sheets
153. Trees with leaves like a low-burning flame
154. New friends
155. His growing spiritual leadership

Friday, October 14, 2011

Blessing 150

150. Helping him writet his declaration of independence

Blessings 143 to 149

143. Helpful, courteous technician visiting my home twice
144. Panang chichen leftovers
145. Finding just the right answer at just the right time to stave off complete frustration
146. The heat-absorption properties of silicon
147. A husband who understands when it's just the (raging) hormones talking
148. A full-sized washing machine!
149. A full-sized clothes dryer!!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Blessings 140 to 142

140. Soothing sound of rain on asphalt
141. A dish lost and a temper kept
142. Waking to a thunderclap

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Blessings 132 to 139

132. Praying to a God who knows my needs before I ask
133. The cleansing that the rain brings
134. Stories worth the telling, stories worth the hearing
135. Restoration of power
136. A diner that's open late
137. Galoshes
138. A poncho the color of Barbie's convertible
139. My small group, the apartment-cleaning/box-moving brigade

Blessings 128 to 131

128. Bursts of "nesting" energy
129. Storm-tossed evergreen tree
130. Spider's architectural flair
131. Rabbit fleeing across the lawn by moonlight

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blessings 124 to 127

124. Being the only customers in the Thai restaurant on Columbus Day evening
125. A pond positioned just right to reflect the blushing trees
126. Pre-dawn waking
127. The memory of monarch butterflies raised on the kitchen counter

Monday, October 10, 2011

Blessings 118 to 123

118. Crutches
119. Chicken shwarma sandwiches
120. Waking up to silence
121. Friends armed with packing tape and cardboard boxes
122. Elevators
123. Fountain in the courtyard

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Blessings 114 to 117

114. Warm chocolate chip cookies
115. Breeze playing with my skirt on the escalator
116. Golden majesty of sunset and clouds
117. The "pregnancy discount" at the auto service station

Monday, October 3, 2011

Blessings 112 and 113

112. Crisp, cool autumn air
113. French landladies

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Blessing 111

111. The gliding descent of leaves from trees, like boats down an easy river

Friday, September 30, 2011

Blessings 101 to 110

101. The Oxford comma
102. Flashes of unexpected virtue
103. Freshly laundered shirts
104. Clean water to drink
105. Warm milk
106. Hand-knit Afghan from my sister
107. The safe delivery of Hannah Marie Poole
108. Mail
109. Rich, outdoorsy scents of autumn
110. The anticipation of total joy

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Blessings 89 to 100

89. An evening with storytellers
90. Baby-blue balloons
91. Newborn-sized athletic pants that match my husband's perfectly
92. The crunch of dead leaves
93. The intricacy of grasshopper legs
94. A stranger's offer of a post-partum casserole and brownies
95. Afternoon sun-glow through the blinds
96. Our new place to live (don't have one yet, but thankful that the Lord is going to provide what we need just in time!)
97. A late-blooming rose
98. Grilled pineapple
99. September breezes
100. A ride home from the auto repair shop

Monday, September 26, 2011

Blessings 80 to 88

80. Free shipping
81. A way forward
82. A diaper pail
83. Lustrous blue sky behind the dour-faced clouds (I believe it)
84. No stretch marks (yet)
85. No waddling (yet)
86. No back aches (today)
87. Invitations into grace
88. Iced tea, a bar stool, and an old friend

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Blessings 78 and 79

78. Carnations the color of fresh butter
79. The Compline, as lovely now as it has ever been

Friday, September 23, 2011

Blessing 77

77. Just enough creme brulee

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blessings 70 to 76

70. The welcoming yellow light shining from a friend's windows
71. Apples in season
72. Golden oil rubbed into the skin
73. Black-and-white photograph of wedding-day waltzing
74. Wind among the leaves
75. Rocking chair
76. Stillness of the chapel

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Blessings 59 to 69

59. Prayer with eyes wide open
60. Hushing the anguished voice
61. Wise words from old saints
62. The slow, steady thrum of a beloved heart
63. Warm water in the shower
64. Peppermint toothpaste
65. Deep indigo of blueberries in the cereal milk
66. Gas in the tank
67. Planning a party
68. The certainty of being understood
69. Freshly chopped basil leaves, smelling like the last of summer

Monday, September 19, 2011

Blessings 56 to 58

56. Irish accents
57. Cleansing breaths
58. Joy from pain

Friday, September 16, 2011

Blessings 51 to 55

51. Red leaf
52. Black butterfly
53. A feast of cloud and sky
54. Autumn fields overspread with mustard flowers
55. Pile of pale gold Gruyere cheese curls

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Blessings 48 to 50

48. White bar of moonlight clinging to the top of the mailbox
49. The laying on of hands
50. Friends to walk through hard times with

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Blessings 43 to 47

43. Six geese against a pale blue sky, honking to each other
44. Pumpkin spice latte
45. Discovering that the baby likes Wang Chung better than David Bowie
46. Salt-and-pepper mustaches
47. Nesting in heaped pillows

Monday, September 12, 2011

Blessing 43

43. Acetaminophen

Blessings 35 to 42

35. Strange woman chasing me across the lawn to rub my belly
36. Squirrel harvesting grass blades to line her nest
37. Cardinals and chickadees in the birdbath
38. Rocking chair on the back patio
39. A long exhalation
40. Stained green bowl in the dawn light, the first thing in the day to own its color
41. A kiss good morning
42. An excellent sermon

Friday, September 9, 2011

Blessings 29 to 34

29. Raindrops dancing on the asphalt
30. Cricket song outside the bedroom window
31. Sunlight framing a hole in the clouds
32. Apologies
33. The generosity of strangers
34. The opportunity to wait on God

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Blessings 25 to 28

25. Thick wet grass under bare toes
26. Rain beaded into pearl drops (the miracle of surface tension!)
27. Unexpected chocolate
28. The first hug after a too long separation

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How to Make God Visible: My Interview with Philip Yancey

How to Make God Visible: An Interview with Philip Yancey (Part 1 of 2)

By Alyson R. Quinn | September 06 2011

Best-selling Christian author Philip Yancey has followed Prison Fellowship since its early days, and recently he was a keynote speaker at a worldwide Prison Fellowship convocation in Toronto, Canada. While he was there, he sat down with Prison Fellowship to talk about prison, grace and making God visible.

Prison Fellowship: When did you first learn about Prison Fellowship? 

philipyanceyYancey: I’ve known Ron [Nikkel, president of Prison Fellowship International] since before he was the director. We lived about a block away from each other in Wheaton, Illinois. I was the editor of a magazine and he headed up an organization called Youth Guidance, which dealt with…the euphemism they used was non-school-oriented teenagers, which is a polite way of saying juvenile delinquents. We became friends. I also knew Chuck Colson. I had a lot of friends who worked at Prison Fellowship, and then Ron was appointed director—I think Chuck actually made that choice right when they were first expanding into other countries. So I’ve known the organization right from the beginning of its international outreach.

PF: And what drew you in?

Yancey: Like a lot of Americans I was very unaware of the conditions in other countries. In many countries, of course, the prison doesn’t provide food. So the families are responsible for feeding the prisoners. Well, if the prisoner has shamed the family, the family isn’t motivated to provide food, so prisoners will literally starve to death unless someone steps up and provides. I got to know the appalling conditions, and the desperate need that Prison Fellowship International was addressing.

More positively, as I visited some of these prisons with Ron I found a devoutness, a vibrancy that you just don’t find in your normal, suburban Sunday church. I thought, Wow, this is really the Church here, because these guys had little but their faith in God to keep them going. They were in hopeless surroundings, and they needed hope just to survive.  We visitors went away with more encouragement and inspiration than we brought in, by far. We learned from them.

PF: You’re a popular author and speaker with a busy schedule. Why did you accept an invitation to address an international convocation of prison ministers?

Yancey: Most of what I do is vicarious. I am not on the front lines of ministry. What I can do, however, is shine a little light on works that I believe in.

I sit in my basement office. I’m just writing words in hope that one day those words will jump out and help somebody, and I hear that they do. So, I’ve learned that’s what I can do. I can help motivate and bring encouragement to people who are doing the real work.

PF: You wrote a book called What’s So Amazing About Grace?, and recently you visited Old Folsom State Prison in California. While there you asked inmates who had been reading your book what they thought was so amazing about grace. What did you learn from them?

Yancey: One of the most articulate guys said that grace sets you free. If you don’t have grace, you’re bound to respond. If somebody hurts you, you’ve got to hurt them back. In a prison, if somebody hits you, you’ve got to hit them back. Prison is a very non-grace environment, often ruled by gangs who are quick to take advantage of any weakness. And so you get people who will cover your back, who will stick up for you. And if you’re insulted, you’ve got to respond in kind. That becomes a kind of slavery, said this prisoner. You are bound with the law of the jungle, as it were, and grace breaks that law. He went on to say, “Grace is the house in which I live. What I need to do is learn to invite other people into that same house.”

I thought, That’s a beautiful way of expressing it. He’s discovered the freedom of grace. Yet it’s hard to put into practice, isn’t it? Our instincts kick in, especially in a prison environment, and if you show any kind of weakness, others will exploit it. But no, there’s a better house. I’ve got to occupy that house, and gradually invite other people inside it. And that may be a metaphor for what Prison Fellowship does. We’re showing another way. We’re building a new house, and we need to invite other people in and say, “It’s a better house.”

PF: What else have prisoners taught you?

Yancey: A different prisoner said, “How would you like to be remembered for the worst thing you ever did in life?”

That’s the shame a prisoner wears. It reminds me of the old scarlet letter story by Nathaniel Hawthorne: you take the one thing a person did wrong—adultery, in this woman’s case—and make them actually wear it, literally, as the letter A, so that everyone knows, “Oh, that’s the woman who….” Essentially, we do that when we convict prisoners: for the rest of their lives, every time they apply for a job, every time they try to vote, they are known for their mistake.

We all do shameful things and wrong things, and the Bible is very clear that our artificial distinctions between the really bad things and other bad things are just that--artificial! If you go back to Romans 1 through 3, for example, Paul starts with the really bad things, like perversion and murder, and then he proceeds to say, “You who judge are guilty of the very same things.” Much like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you’ve been angry, it’s no different than murder. If you’ve lusted, it’s no different than adultery.” More, Paul goes on to say, “Actually, it’s people like me who are the worst of all: self-righteous people.” Paul knew that syndrome well. Most people would see Paul as a righteous person, but he knew, “No, I was, a self-righteous person, and it was my self-righteousness that caused me to do things like participate in the stoning of Stephen. I became a murderer because of my feeling of superiority. I thought I was better than those guys.” And that’s the danger.

What I’ve learned from prisoners is that they are just like us. For whatever reason, we have put a label on them that puts them in a different class from us. That’s a danger for the rest of us because, as Paul said, it’s easy to slap a label on someone and say, “I’m certainly not as bad as that!”  But Paul insists, “No, you’re not better. You may in fact be worse.”

Blessings 23 and 24

23. To be of use to a friend
24. A sky that weeps so you don't have to

Monday, September 5, 2011

Blessings 16 to 22

16. Straight stacks of clean, warm laundry
17. Envelopes the color of avocados
18. Smell of castile soap
19. Husband's voice on the answering machine
20. Hymns in harmony, ringing through the narthex
21. Bread and wine on the tongue
22. Joy of benediction

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Blessings 13 through 15

13. Baby hiccups
14. Hot bittersweet chocolate fudge
15. The memory of a perfect weekend we spent once, listening to the waves lap against the North Shore while we lay on the sand and talked about the bottomless happiness waiting in our future

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Blessings 8 through 12

8. Early morning silhouette of husband sleeping
9. The restless heaving of Irish oats cooking in the pot
10. Stirring honey into my herbal tea
11. Gray clouds in the northwestern sky, strange and beautiful
12. A new perspective on an old pain

Friday, September 2, 2011

Blessings Five through Seven

5. Warm belly skin taut with my son
6. A praying husband
7. Making something delicious out of leftovers--a daily act of "redemption" from the back of the refrigerator

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Blessings One through Four

A thousand blessings:

  1. Ruddy breast of robin
  2. The first leaves on the first trees going scarlet
  3. The arrival of the beautiful days, the days with just enough heat and not too much humidity
  4. The bus driver going off his route to drop pregnant me at my doorstep

Monday, March 14, 2011

Honey, I'm Home!: Challenges During Family Reintegration

From Prison Fellowship's Inside Out.

Alyson R. Quinn

Before joining the staff of Prison Fellowship, Pat Nolan spent over two years in a California prison. During one family visit, their second daughter asked Pat, who had grown grayer behind bars, “Daddy, when you come home, will your hair turn dark again?”

Dad_back_from_prison_02_200x300When a prisoner is locked up, the world he leaves behind does not stand still. It moves on without him. So when his long-awaited day of release finally arrives, he can’t just transition back into the same job or community that he left. He steps into a whole new world. And his family life is no exception.

During the prisoner’s absence, roles have shifted, children have grown, and emotional and financial hardships have been endured. Even when daddy (or mommy) comes home, the prisoner and his family can never go back to the status quo that existed before prison, no matter how much they would like to. They must negotiate a new family dynamic that takes these changes into account.

Rebuilding a Marriage Means Tackling the Serious Stuff

In the early 1990s, Joe Avila was imprisoned in California for a drunk-driving accident that killed a teenage girl. When he entered the California Men’s Colony near San Luis Obispo, he left behind his wife, Mary, and his daughters, Elizabeth and Grace. Joe and Mary accepted Christ just prior to his incarceration, and they were committed to maintaining their marriage, but seven years of separation still wrought great changes in their relationship. 

When Joe was released in 1999, he had to take things slowly. “I couldn’t assume I was head of the family just because I was out,” he remembers. “They were doing quite well without me for seven and a half years.”

During his absence, Mary had taken over Joe’s former responsibilities, and she had managed to thrive. After his release, Joe heeded the advice of wise mentors and took his cues from Mary. He looked for small ways to serve and worked hard to prove that he was becoming a better husband and father. Gradually, as he earned trust, he reassumed the role of head of the household.

Dad_back_from_prison_300x200When it comes to resuming the delicate balance of married life, many couples have a harder time than Joe and Mary. As Lennie Spitale writes in Coming Home! A Guide for Those Receiving a Loved One Back from Prison or Jail, the couple may have to overcome painful, guilt-ridden memories of abuse, addiction, and broken promises. The spouse who stayed at home may await the prisoner’s release with as much dread as expectation.

But for husbands and wives committed to the reconciliation and reintegration of their family, certain processes remain vital no matter the depth of past hurts: patience, true repentance, forgiveness, and communication.

For Pat and Gail Nolan, communication played a particularly important role in their success.

When Pat first came home, he and Gail found it difficult to discuss “serious things.” The children clamored for their father’s attention, and the couple tiptoed around volatile issues that arose from Pat’s reentry into the family.

“We would hold back,” remembers Pat, “and then it would burst like a dam.”

To overcome this difficulty, Pat and Gail reached back to a tool they learned during their engagement. They decided to set up family business meetings every Sunday—a structured time away from their children when they could both bring up pressing issues in a loving, gentle way.

It worked.

Pat and Gail enhanced those times of communication by holding hands, a physical gesture to remind them of their unity and commitment to each other.

Children Adjust Differently

The night of Joe’s release from prison, his daughters invited all of their friends over to the house. They could not wait to introduce them to their father. 

“I’m pretty unique,” says Joe. As the executive director for Prison Fellowship in California, a role he assumed in 2000, Joe has learned that, for most children, a parent’s return from prison comes with more difficulties to surmount.

Ann Adalist-Estrin, a child and family therapist, identifies four stages that many children will go through when a parent returns from behind bars.
  1. The honeymoon phase. Eager for everything to work out, children are cooperative and obedient, but anxiety can lie under the surface.
  2. Suspicion. As they grow more comfortable, children will allow some of their more negative emotions to rise to the surface. They will question the returning parent’s position and permanence within the household.
  3. Resistance. Children may go through a period of defiance, challenging the returning parent’s authority and love with rebellious behavior.
  4. Expressing or withholding feelings. Children may ask whether it is acceptable to vent their emotions, or whether they need to hide their true feelings about the turmoil going on in their home.
Whichever phases a child goes through, it helps if the caregiver and the returning parent prepare the child before the date of release. Whenever possible, and with appropriate supervision and guidance, the child and the parent should interact through personal visits, phone calls, and letters. Maintaining a positive relationship before release will ease the process of reintegration. The child should also be included in discussions about the parent’s return and what it will mean for the family, though the complexity of the discussion will vary depending on the child’s age and maturity. Finally, educators, school counselors, and Sunday school leaders should be made aware of the child’s unique needs during the time of the parent’s return. Greater awareness can help these adults respond more positively when a child demonstrates stress, fear, or anger.

Dad_back_from_prison_03_300x200Ex-Prisoners Need to Put First Things First

Shortly after Pat’s release from prison, family friends invited him, Gail, and their children to spend a day at the beach. Excited for a respite from daily life, the Nolans packed up their family car with beach gear and prepared to hit the road. But then Pat remembered. The beach was outside of his parole district, and he had forgotten to inform his parole officer. In a panic, Pat attempted to reach his parole officer and, when that didn’t work, her supervisor. His efforts were to no avail, and he had to tell his heartbroken children that the trip was canceled. 

“They were crying,” Pat remembers, as he also fights tears in the telling.

Pat’s dilemma highlights another important component of family reintegration. In the rush to become parents and spouses all at once, ex-prisoners should not forget that their own transition must come first. Whether they need to overcome an addiction, get a handle on their anger, or simply meet the technical requirements of their parole, ex-prisoners cannot become the trustworthy spouses and parents their families need until they resolve their own issues.

“They have to work on themselves a little bit at a time,” adds Joe, reflecting on the slow and sometimes tentative work of reentry and reconciliation, “but they get more respect from the family if they do that.”