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Family, Life, Mercy and Suffering, Special Needs

Opening Our Hearts: How the Sorrowful Mother encourages us to reach out to others

“Suffering is a guaranteed part of your journey,” I told my daughter. “There is nothing you can do to prevent it, but you can equip yourself to walk through it with grace. Suffering done with grace becomes a team effort between you, the Holy Spirit and whomever you have brought into that trusted circle. Discern carefully and ask for wisdom.”

Suffering has such a negative connotation and for so many years I longed to not be in the position of a sorrowful mother. Now I embrace these transformative moments. As a mom of eight, and two who were born with a rare neuromuscular disease, I have spent countless hours, days, and weeks in hospitals. I have held my son’s body blistered and bruised after surgery and after casts have come off, his slight frame a feather in my arms. I have stroked my daughter’s hair and held her hand bedside as vital numbers continued to decrease. I have stood at my front door and watched teenagers drive away in anger and frustration, and I have ached for my childrens’ hearts as they suffer heartache and betrayal. It all sounds exhausting, and indeed those moments were, but they were also some of my most cherished and deepest moments of conversion. Choosing to embrace the suffering and allowing it to form us strengthens us to walk forward with courage and firm in our identity as children of God. When we own that identity, we dismiss the lie that we are alone and that our suffering is in vain.

Our Lady of Sorrows Feast Day is approaching, and I have been reflecting on the depth of her sorrow. Consider her seven sorrows given to us: The prophecy of Simeon, The Flight into Egypt, the finding of the child in Jerusalem, Mary Seeing Jesus on the road to Calvary, standing at the foot of the cross, the crucifixion and descent from the cross and assisting in his burial. Even listing them, no mother’s heart can be unaffected by the immensity of these sorrows! I believe this is because we understand the depth of a mother’s love. Either by the gift of being a physical or spiritual mother, or by having received that depth from our own mothers. With Mary as our example, the strength to embrace our crosses comes filled with grace.

The beautiful thing about praying with Mary through her sorrows is that we realize we are not alone in ours. There is a temptation among us to ask for prayers for the minor things but hold tight fisted our inner most fears and worries. Perhaps we think we are protecting our children, husband or whomever is involved in our suffering. Sometimes it is pride. We want to appear that we are holding it all together, portraying an image of a family all buttoned up and perfect. The irony being that none of us are immune to suffering. We can look around and know that sin and suffering are truly rampant and that families can fall under the weight of it all.

Why then do we hide? Did Mary hide her suffering? I often think of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth as a model for discernment of whom to allow into my suffering. After the Annunciation, Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth. I imagine she is going there because she feels within her a calling to confide, to share, to pray together. Elizabeth’s response to this overture is beautiful as God reveals to her the truth of Jesus nestled within the womb of her Cousin Mary by having John, the son within her own womb, leap for joy at her arrival. Jesus also gives his mother and his apostles a model of how to walk through suffering. At the foot of the cross, in the end of his passion, he gives Mary to John and to us all as a mother. Both John and Mother Mary must have had hearts twisted with suffering at watching the crucifixion. My heart drops to my knees at the agony of that moment and yet Jesus does not want them, or us, to walk alone.

Discerning whom to invite into your suffering is a personal decision that must be brought to deep prayer. Sometimes it is the person whom we are walking with in that moment. This can be especially powerful within our own families. I remember a moment where my husband and I were stretched threadbare. We had two children in different hospitals in different states. He was in Philadelphia. I was in Columbus. I left a child at the hospital to take the rest of our family to mass. Many asked how we were doing, and I smiled and thanked them for their prayers. Inside I was falling apart but tightly held my emotions in check. I watched as my children stood likewise, occasionally, reaching out to hold my hand through mass. As we left mass, our parish priest, a dear friend, stopped me and asked if we were ok. I nodded, smiled weakly, gathered my flock, and headed to the car. As I loaded the last child into their car seats and buckles, I closed the door. Placing my hand upon the outside of the van, I inhaled a shuttering and sobbing breath, truly from the depths of my soul. I slowly walked back to that priest. I tugged on his garment like a child. He paused from saying his goodbye’s, turned his full attention to me and I whispered “I am not ok. This is not Okay.” I will never forget his response, for it dramatically transformed my family. He placed both his hands upon my shoulders and in the most firm and fatherly way turned me towards my car. He said, “Then go tell them. For if you don’t tell them, they will forever think you held it together and will never be able to share their suffering.” I slowly walked back to the van, opened the door, and climbed into my seat. The kids could tell I had been crying. I turned around, looked at them honestly as they asked, “Mommy, are you ok?” “No, I said. Mommy is not okay. She is struggling because she is sad and tired and worried.”

I still remember the exhale of breaths from the back seat. It was as if the air of a hundred balloons had been let out. Words and tears flowed like a waterfall. “This is hard.” They said, “I feel scared.” “I miss you when you are gone. Will everything be alright? I miss Daddy.” And, “The dog ate my chicken nuggets at lunch yesterday.” We cried many tears and hugged till our arms hurt in the back of that car. We began again as St. Theresa says. New beginnings are formed with moments like these.

Fast forward seven years later. My nineteen-year-old daughter calls from college and confides her struggles. A son slides onto the couch in my bedroom and tells me he’s not happy. My twelve-year-old, seeks me out, grabs a blanket and cup of tea, setting the stage for an intimate talk, and we all have eyes to see and ears to hear each other’s struggles. We all have found a way to walk together in our suffering. Outside my family, I have learned to let others see both my sorrow and my joy and this has formed deep and abiding friendships.
Bearing witness to the reality of suffering does not mean that we must disclose our innermost pains, but rather that we realize the power of being vulnerable enough to say we need prayer. We release feelings of isolation and loneliness and embrace the truth of being loved and known.

Our Lady of Sorrows feast day is September 15th. May she continue to intercede for us in our suffering and encourage us in our humility and vulnerability.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Times

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Family, Life, Marriage, Parenthood, Reflections, Special Needs

The Importance of Roots

It is early, or late, depending on your perspective. I have held another vigil caring for my family and I am empty. I’ve not slept in my own bed through the whole night in weeks. While grateful for the space in this big home of ours, it feels like I am crashing in different hotel rooms rather than refreshing for the next day. And the days are so unexpected; family who start the day up and falling by mid-day and those crawling downstairs in the morning are ready for popcorn and a family game night by evening. I have had enough of this pandemic. When sickness strikes a family, it can be challenging. When sickness strikes a large family, it can be exhausting. Adding in the needs of those who depend on you to be their hands and legs and provide for their basic needs, and this C.O.O. of Eberhard Inc. is assessing her performance and feeling quite low. I am recognizing that my typically hope filled perspective has changed, and I need to regroup. 

My lenses seem fogged. Things that were once positive and beautiful all seem to reflect my ineptness or neediness as a provider for this family. I see my young children asleep on the couch and not in their beds. Mommy was too tired to so a proper bedtime last night. My son needs a shower. There are finals to help with. Dad was too sick, and Mom was in so many directions, there just wasn’t time. Not to mention, they worry about me; my kids with special needs. They feel like too much work sometimes. I see it and I strive to erase it. For caring for them and loving them has changed me, recreated me, and I love them so very dearly. My older boys, they sit next to me on the couch before bed and ask how I’m holding up. They hold me and I want to break. The image of my sons holding their mother is beautiful and encompasses so many parenting goals of compassion and selflessness. They are growing, and it is beautiful. 

I examine my day and am in wonder at the depth of my children’s love for me. I yelled today, loudly. There was so much chaos after dinner, and someone needed my help immediately and kids were complaining about doing dishes and I lost my patience. For some, this may not be a big deal but for me, yelling is a trigger that I decided long ago to try to avoid. My sweet son, who lights up the days with his curiosity and capriciousness, must have felt like he was in a revolving door, how many times I called his name. Sometimes for help, sometimes in frustration. Reflectively I see that the frustration was more my inability to control this environment than his inability to focus on the task at hand. I dislike yelling. To me it signifies a lack of self-control and patience, virtues I value greatly. And yet they love me. They tuck me in. They come down to check on me. “Mom, Christmas will take care of itself.” “Mom, how can I help?” “Mom, Let me help you wrap presents.” “Mom, I love you.” “Momma, you look like you need a snuggle.” Each one in their own way reaching out in love and service.

We talk often of roots in my family. When we are challenged by a person, my response is to remember the roots of that person. Whom do you know them to be? My hope is that they remember that that brings us all back to our creation in the image and likeness of God. But more realistically, it is that they look for an act of kindness or particular strength within that person. Sometimes however, they need to look for the roots to avoid a relationship. It works both ways. 

Tonight, or this morning, again depending on the frame of mind and how late my family sleeps, I am choosing to look at the roots of myself. When self-doubt creeps in like a thief to steal my joy, when the worry and comparison pile on like a cloak too heavy to carry, I am filling my well with my own counsel. I am looking to my roots. Who do I know myself to be? From these roots has stemmed a beautiful marriage filled with romance, laughter, joy, service and wrapped with a shroud of holiness and peace that is not of our own making, but rather a protection and gift from the Lord. From these roots has stemmed our children. Nine beautiful souls, eight here on Earth, who truly see and serve one another. They live mercy because it has been modeled to them. They seek mercy because they have felt its healing touch. They sing, dance, read, play, and pray because it has been modeled for them. They love through mistakes, even mine, because I have loved them through theirs. Your story begins and ends with mercy is a mantra throughout our home. Mercy runs deep in their roots as it has nurtured the soil of our family for years.  I am reminded of a trip to the Redwood forests in California I once made. I stood amid the trees, in awe of their majesty, and realized that beneath y feet grew the same depth of majesty. Roots that have weathered storms, earthquakes and have blowing peacefully on a Spring afternoon. Regardless of the season, those roots stood strong and anchored that tree in its purpose. Thank you, Jesus, for being the anchor to my roots and holding me steady during the storms. 

Family, Life, Marriage, Parenthood, Reflections

The Father’s Love

Every morning when my children come down the stairs; my younger ones carrying a blanket or stuffed animal and my older ones searching for their first cup of coffee, I make an effort to stop what I am doing and reach out to them physically and emotionally. I embrace them. With this daily action, I look into their eyes and whether exhausted or busy, I stop and force my eyes to meet theirs. I call Christ forefront into this exchange and I feel the softening. My eyes crinkle just thinking of it and my lips lift into a smile. I speak truth and love into their hearts, every morning. I look for ways to do this throughout the day as well. I ask them how I can bless them. I go and sit upon a bed, ignoring the soda cans and popcorn bowl and listen. I swing on a hammock and listen about the colors of the rainbow within the horizon.  I sit upon a swing and let my body relax into the moment with a son who has a story to tell.  A ministry of presence is paramount in building relationships in my home. 

I look forward to my mornings. Rolling over and seeing my husband beside me, I am in awe of the blessing he is to us all. Sensing my presence, he will sleepily open an eye, reach out and roll me into his embrace. We murmur morning prayers of thanksgiving and start our day. This continues throughout the day as my husband works from home and our witness of connecting with each other manifests itself in how our children seek to engage with us and with each other. My children seek me out in the morning if I miss their entrance. This routine of connecting has become necessary and beloved. It has extended itself to our evenings as well and even while away, they call or text to connect; every night. Some mornings or bedtimes can seem like the never ending sign of peace in my home as hugs are given, small siblings snuggle into bigger sibling’s laps. Older siblings have established their rituals as well but they all seek an encounter with the other. 

I often think of the gaze of the father upon us. Our Father in Heaven who ever more so seeks to engage and connect with us. The image of the joy upon the father of the prodigal son from the book of Luke Chapter 15 comes to mind. I can see this father’s eyes light up upon seeing his son. I can feel his smile spread wide as he runs to greet his lost son. I can feel the gratitude within his soul, and I believe ever more so, this is the love the Lord has for us. With just the tilt of our head and heart we have the ability to reconnect to the father countless times a day and there He is ready to run; his face filled with joy that we have turned to Him. Sometimes I find myself on my knees where the physical act of lifting my head can seem too much. From that place, I lift my heart to my Father and he is there, engaged and ready to carry me. In other moments, I am watching something beautiful, whether it be a tender family moment or a sunrise that brings forth the day, and I lift my soul to Him in recognition of the gift of this moment and we connect.  

            In his book, Abba Father, Finding our way back to the Father’s Heart, by Neil and Mathew Lozano, we are reminded of the privilege of calling God, our Father. “When Jesus teaches us to address God, as Father, [in the Lord’s Prayer] He is inviting us into a relationship with the Father based on trust, confidence and the openness to ask.” Reflecting back on the prodigal son, it is exactly these virtues that the father has instilled in his relationship with the prodigal son that allow his son to come back. Our Lord has paid into these virtues with His relationship with us by his precious body and blood. Luke 11:9 tells us “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  We must have faith that Lord is actively waiting for us to call out and seek Him. 

            Jesus’s whole ministry here on Earth was a manual on how to build authentic relationships that call us back to The Father’s heart through a ministry of presence. It is easy to let the distractions and preoccupations of this world steal us from this necessity but scripture reminds us to “Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD God of Israel. – Joshua 24:23 The Lord is present for us in all the countless moments throughout our days and all we need to do is incline our hearts to Him; and he calms every storm, wipes every tear, and celebrates every little victory. As we actively invite Jesus into these moments, we see it all through His lenses. This rose colored view shows us we are not alone and regardless of the content of the situation in which we are seeking Him out, like the Father in Luke’s gospel, our Father’s eyes light up, they glisten and he runs to meet us. The embrace of the Father is unlike any other. 

Life, Reflections

Death Does not Make Me Sad

I have a confession to make. Death does not make me sad. This is a change I’ve noticed in myself as I’ve grown older. The deeper I grow in my relationship with Jesus, the more I notice changes like this. I have faced the proximity of death in many ways in my forty-four years of life; from close encounters with my children to my own health scares. I have grown, been strengthened and changed by its proximity in every encounter. As I have pondered my lack of sadness, I often wonder if I am lacking in some human emotion that others have been granted. I find myself pondering at funerals; wondering at the person’s encounter with Jesus, the angels, and the Saints. Can they hear in purgatory the choirs singing from Heaven? Does the choir draw them upward? Are their hearts lightened of the burdens of this world? Are they at peace?

I am up this evening pondering this because death is knocking again at the door of my family. I received news this week that my mother is dying, and I once again found myself surprised that I am not sad, but rather reflective. I grew up listening to country songs of Jesus and the angels. My mom would play them very loudly and if I learned the song well enough, she’d let me attach the little microphone to the radio and sing along. Over the years, my mother has collected angels that might rival the heavenly courts, or maybe she is trying to replicate it; I am not sure. I do know, however, that my mom knows Jesus. Regardless of the scars inside and out that both she and I carry from our time together, this I am certain. My momma knows who Jesus is and that is sweet comfort indeed. That means to my heart, that no matter how long it takes she is going to Heaven. It means that one day I will get that long-awaited embrace with my mother that I crave. It means that we will one day be reconnected and healed, and death only brings us closer to that realization! I have the privilege of an amazing younger sister whose strength, love, and dedication have been a lifeline through these past years.  She longs for everything to be put together and well. We all do. My gift to her is this glimpse that one day, with the help of Jesus, all the messiness will be wiped away. Everything we could not fix here in life, if we keep our hearts aligned with the heart of Jesus, He will make well in Heaven and that life is eternal. This is such solace and comfort!

I have shared glimpses of my childhood, journey and parenting. No one’s life is as it appears in a snapshot, social media image.  We all carry wounds either physically or emotionally.  I have found it an interesting thought that scar tissue can attach itself to the bone; limiting and sometimes restricting movement. From a spiritual standpoint, I find that thought-provoking. When my son or daughter have had one of their surgeries, the protocol is to always rub at that scar to keep it from attaching. It is necessary to break down the sensitivity to it. Physical therapists have told me that it is possible to break up the tissue into smaller parts so that it does not adhere. We all have scars from the choices we have made and from events we have experienced. Perhaps a little spiritual rubbing is necessary in our lives. For me the practical application of this rubbing looks like a continued giving of my relationship with my mother to Jesus. I say yes to the Lord’s promptings in prayer and in action.  I have tried to make this relationship well and I am unable to do so, but I know the Lord can and will either here on Earth or in Heaven. I trust in this. He gave me this mother for a reason and she is his daughter as much as she is my mother. I give this struggle to him and then I pick it back up and this process continues day in and day out as I wrestle with my desire to make all things well. But in the quiet, which is where I sit right now, the truth speaks. In Revelations 21:5, we hear the words spoken “Behold, I am making all things new.” As my son went off to be a missionary this year, he struggled with a great feeling of unworthiness. The director of the program wrote him and his words resonated within my soul. “We know who and what we are getting and we said yes knowing and wanting all of you.” Jesus speaks that to our hearts from the cross. He died for us and he calls to us knowing who we are and wanting all of us. And so I am not saddened by death but rather I rejoice in the glory of what is to come; for me, for those I love, and for all whose hope is in the Lord. 

Photo credit: Elizabeth Eberhard

Family, Life, Marriage, Parenthood, Reflections, Special Needs

The Land of If Only

The slippery slope of comparing our lives robs us of the beauty of the suffering moment.

I’m wishing upon a star tonight. Leaning on the edge of my deck looking into the bright country sky where God displays his artistry, I sense his presence. Perhaps it’s not a star I’m wishing on, but rather a door I’m knocking upon. I often do that in prayer. I visualize my encounter with God. Tonight I’m knocking. It’s an unexpected visit. I hadn’t intended to go out in the crisp night air and pray, but just as I suddenly break into conversation with my husband, I felt the need to just start conversing with my Lord. 

            Today has been a full day. Every person within this large family of mine has needed me in big and small ways. From drinks of water to close the door and can I talk to you serious conversations, the onslaught of need was intense today and all the while I felt as if I couldn’t keep up. 

As a mom of many and adding in the special needs of my family, life is very fast paced and fluid. We have physical, occupational, assistive technology and aqua therapy. We have speech and sensory challenges. We have counseling and durable medical equipment appointments. I am constantly checking skin breakdown and bones are brittle around here. I am Chief Operating Officer of Eberhard Inc. and it can be a daunting job indeed. When you add in the schoolwork, outside activities and our commitment to place our church activities first, one outburst or unplanned trip to Urgent Care has the potential to throw the day into a tailspin.

My younger son recently broke his arm and the turn around time to the car was less than 7 minutes. My kids know this drill and executed the plan flawlessly. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to wallow in the what ifs. It’s ever so much harder to accept what is and take the next step forward. A friend once referred to this danger zone of comparison as the Land Of If Only. If only I had a smaller family. If only I didn’t have kids with special needs. If only we had this or that. Comparison is the thief of joy says Teddy Roosevelt and I wholeheartedly agree. The slippery slope of comparing our lives to the lives of anyone else robs us of the beauty of the suffering moment. Some of my most powerful encounters with Jesus are in my suffering and surrendered moments, on my knees in my room by my crucifix or kneeling in front of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by our family altar. This is where Jesus heals me constantly. He heals my feelings of inadequacy. He heals my self doubt. He fills my heart with His grace like I fill my car with fuel.

            I am so gifted to know who I am and whose I am.  My creator and redeemer stand by my side with every breath and from that realization I draw my strength. God promises us enough manna for today;  and from that truth, we need to draw our strength and comfort. In our home, when momma looks overwhelmed and maybe a little teary-eyed; actually if anyone in our family feels this way, we call them moments. If you are overwhelmed, have lost your self-control, or made the wrong choice, it is just a moment; and our days are filled with moments; good and bad. Let our hearts be led by mercy; for others and for ourselves. 

            Traveling to the Land of If Only is not a mental vacation spot I advise.  Instead, I draw strength from the realization that as a mom of this incredible family of mine, God has revealed His plan for my path to heaven. I am sanctified in every “moment” by my “Yes Lord!” and my “More, Lord” (Both of which some of my children now call out loudly when things go a bit haywire.. I think they are a wee bit mocking me, but we plant seeds as parents right?) These are our fiats and the consistent reminder that by disciplining our minds and hearts to live in The Land That Is and see its transformative beauty, we can enter the gates of What Will Be with trusting hearts and the assurance of hearing the beautiful affirmation from Mathew 25:23 “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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Life, Reflections

Behold How They Love One Another

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Early Christians were made recognizable by their actions. Aristedes, sent by Emperor Hadrian during the days of the early Church to scope out those known as “Christians,” gave a report and these ending words have stood the test of time. “Behold, how they love one another.”

I love my Bible. The sense of belonging, understanding, mercy, comfort, and love it brings me has no parallel. It is a love story that provides unending hope. In it, we are reminded of the steadfast love of our God. He is our constant companion. There really is nothing that we need that He will not provide. We wait with an expectant heart. For us, God is also a Father who loves to bless. Let us not forget this in times that may seem challenging.

Like a parent who picks up the extra treat at the grocery store or who puts gas in her son’s car, the Lord is this type of parent to us as well. We simply must look for His blessings. We also must trust that as for our ancestors before us, God’s plan for us is always better than what we can imagine.

We all can look at our life and see times of trials and crises where we struggled and felt tested. There is a temptation to allow ourselves to feel distant from God or abandoned by him, but that is very far from our reality. We must look back and see how the Lord was with us and how we were changed from those experiences. The situation we find ourselves in today is not new. The threat of this current health crisis can make fear, anxiety, and worry dictate people’s actions. It is an unknown time of wanting to provide and protect our own families. We are being asked to distance ourselves physically from others as a way to prevent the spread of this virus.

Social distancing is by definition isolating and fear feeds that emotion. The challenge again is to look and see how our Father is working in these times. With eyes to see Him, we see Mass and group prayer being live-streamed. We see families drawing closer, playing games, sharing meals, and praying. Candles are being lit in windows as communities join in prayer. Entire industries are responding in ways to unite people. Individuals are pondering their gifts and humbly sharing them, from posting songs on their social media to poems, letters of encouragement, and selfless acts of kindness to others. The Lord is using this situation as an opportunity for us to respond in grace.

For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

The truth of our history is that God is always giving us opportunities to become more of the people He created us to be. The Christian paradox is that even in times of trial and tribulation, the Lord is blessing and forming His people. We see this numerous times in Scripture. Consider 2 Corinthians 9:8:

Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work.

How many times in my struggles have I, on my knees, cried out to the Lord how hard it is to be a Christian and He reminds me that being a Christian is not supposed to be an easy task but rather a leap of great faith. But our Father wants us to have a big and deep faith, a faith that covers all our worries and fears in a blanket of security and trust in Him.

In Philippians 4:6, we see St. Paul offering that same relationship with Jesus.

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.

So let us cry out to God in prayer and petitions. Let us turn to him with expectant hearts that we will be refined and our relationship with him made deeper through these times. But let us take this faith we profess and use it in all the means we have available to us to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. For as the old hymn says “ They will know we are Christians by our love.”

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