And then…and then: A sudden bend in the road, a detour. The path unpaved, the future uncertain. We’re off-roading, exhilarated and terrified in equal measure. All in a rush, life takes us somewhere we’ve never been: New stages or roles, new places or people… Unfamiliar, intimidating territory. Situations and difficulties we’ve never faced before, in myriad forms.
During times like this, I cling to Isaiah 42:16: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.”
Don’t let the title fool you: this isn’t exactly a parenting post.
Two weeks ago, we got rid of pacifiers for the last time at our house. (Sniff sniff…I can’t believe we’re almost through the baby stage forever—it’s killing me.) The first night went swimmingly—not a single cry or complaint, just an angelic “Night-night, Mommy!”—all thanks to Sawyer’s initial thrill at getting to sleep with a toy for the first time. She gave me her pacifiers, I gave her a giant stuffed Olaf to sleep with. That’s our rule, by the way: No toys or stuffed animals in the bed until you get rid of pacifiers. This simple policy has given us some leverage in convincing our little pacifier addicts to surrender their passies. But back to our story.
That first morning, two-year-old Sawyer woke up all smiles and bragging rights: “Me a big girl now! Me give up my passies!” The first nap also went beautifully—not a single cry. So for about 23 hours, we were like, “Whoopee! We got off so easy! What an angelic child! Lucky us!”
We spoke too soon.
The second night, I put my daughter in her bed and tried to tuck her in. She did not lie down.
Instead she handed me Olaf and said, “Here, Mommy, take Olaf. Me want my passies back.” When I attempted to explain in two-year-old terms that the pacifiers had a no-exchange, no-return policy, her little face melted. There was a long pause, the calm before the storm. And then the wailing started… and nine days of sleepless misery began. (To add to our joy, my husband’s back went out the same day, leaving him in excruciating, debilitating pain. Isn’t that just the way of it?!)
The next afternoon during “nap time” (a.k.a. “scream-until-you-lose-your-voice-and-then-dig-down-deep-and-find-a-way-to-scream-some-more” time), I went in to check on Sawyer, and found her lying naked in a naked crib. Everything was on the floor: pillows, sheet, blankets, clothes, Pull-Up, even poor Olaf. Sawyer just lay there, a pale little girl on a stark white mattress, and gave me a tired, watery smile. In a pitifully hoarse voice she croaked, “Me pooped in my crib.” I stared down in dismay at the tangle of sheets and blankets, wondering where, exactly, the poop was hiding. Wondering where Carson and Anna and all of my household staff were when I, Lady Elizabeth, needed them. Wondering why oh why we had ever decided we needed to get rid of pacifiers when they are the most blessed invention ever granted to sleep-deprived parents.
And as I began the world’s grossest-ever scavenger hunt, Sawyer supervised my work (still naked in her crib) and announced, “Me not a big girl anymore. Me a baby.”
I had to walk out of the room so I could laugh-cry at her (you know those moments: the I’m-so-exhausted-and-this-is-so-revolting-that-I-can’t-decide-if-I-should-laugh-or-cry-so-I’ll-do-both moments), and somewhere mid-laugh-cry, I started laughing at myself. Because the truth is, I’m not so different from my daughter. It’s not her fault she’s so stubborn. I’ve done something similar many times in my life—only I’ve done it to God.
Some days, life is good: Things are… not exactly easy, because life is never easy, but they’re manageable, pleasant, and as predictable as life can be with a visionary preacher-husband and four crazy kids in the house. And on those days I’m all gratitude and smiles. I’m like, “Thank you, God! You’re the best! I love my life. I love being a Christian. I love knowing that you guide me through my days. ‘Your rod and your staff, they comfort me’ (Psalm 23:4). Thanks for all the ways you are helping me to grow and mature.” I’m a big girl, God!
And then something changes.
Maybe it’s something big: a friend’s serious illness, a major financial setback, a heartbreaking disappointment. Or maybe the change is on the smaller side, one of those things that isn’t catastrophic, but ruins your plans and steals your joy nonetheless: hurt feelings, a sick kid (or two or three or four), a broken-down car.
All of a sudden, life isn’t so shiny anymore. I don’t want to be a grown-up anymore. I’m not a big girl, God. I’m a baby! I stop short of stripping off my clothes, but even so, I know that God sees me as I am, in all my unadorned glory:
“Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)
“You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.” (Psalm 139:2)
I toss all my toys out of the bed and give in to dark thoughts. When God comes in to check on me, he finds me lying there pouting: “This is harder than I thought. I wasn’t ready for this. I want to go back to the way things were, when life was simpler. I didn’t realize what I was getting in to—you tricked me, God!”
And in those moments, I have a choice to make: I can scream and fight God until I lose my voice (knowing full well that I’m wasting my time, and God’s), or I can give in and let him guide me through the change.
Like Sawyer, it usually takes me a few days to work my way through it. I have to cry and complain to God a little. I have to wrestle with the Scriptures a lot. I have to talk to friends who are wiser and more rational than I am. I have to write about it and process it on paper. I might have to apologize to my visionary preacher-husband and four crazy kids.
But in the end, like Sawyer, I end up giving in and quieting down. I let God have his way with me. Eventually I admit, “Okay, you win. You’re the dad, I’m the daughter, and you know what’s best.” I’m a big girl again. Eventually I find joy in experiencing my own growth, knowing my heavenly Father is proud of me. And at long last, like Sawyer, I sleep peacefully through the night, knowing God is watching over my dreams.
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In case you missed it, here are the first two videos in the new LizzyLife YouTube channel: Building Family God’s Way, and First Comes Love! (In spite of my crazy eyes in the thumbnails, I think you’ll enjoy the videos!)
My daughter’s chocolate brown eyes are sparkling. “Mommy, I’m going to plant these apple seeds, and they’re going to grow into trees, and then we’re going to save money and eat free apples forever!” Cassidy holds out her hand. A dozen tiny seeds rest in her palm, plucked and saved from apple cores all week long.
“Okay, honey, let’s give it a try,” I say. My heart gives a painful squeeze, because I know she knows I’ve been worried about money, and she’s trying to help.
I know nothing about planting apple seeds—I’ve always thought they wouldn’t grow until they’d passed through a bird’s digestive tract or something gross like that—but I figure, why not?
So we go outside and she pokes her seeds into a planter. For several weeks she waters and watches. I mostly forget about the seeds, but Cassidy doesn’t.
Then one shiny spring afternoon she comes running into the house, shrieking, “My trees are growing, my trees are growing!”
The little seedlings unfurl and stretch skyward, soon large enough that we have to transplant them into nine medium-sized pots. Some don’t survive the transition, but most do. And within a few months, we’ve got six growing apple trees, each about eight inches tall. My daughter fusses over them like they are her children. We start calling her Little Farmer.
Summer fades, the long luxurious evenings shorter now, and cooler. And something happens to the trees. A dark stain wraps around the base of the green stems, and spreads upward. Within a few days, the stems have turned brown and hard—they look dried out. Barren. Cassidy doesn’t seem worried, and I dread telling her that I think her beloved trees have died.
A few autumn weeks pass. I keep a wary eye on the hard brown sticks poking up out of their pots, wondering when it’s time to give up and throw them away, fill the pots with something else. But then I notice something: the sticks are taller. A few are dotted with tiny golden leaves.
And I realize: the trees weren’t dying—they were growing. They were changing their green stems into tough woody stems, future tree trunks. They were getting ready for winter and hard cold. Shedding their fragile baby shape and forming the tough layers they’d need to survive the winter.
For a minute I let my imagination run free: How did the baby apple trees feel about the transformation? Did they understand what was happening inside, or did they fear the change? Jesus’ words flash through my mind: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).
Begrudgingly, I sigh a little prayer. “I hear you, God. I don’t like it, but I hear you.” He’s been trying to teach me something for a while now, and I’ve been fighting him, trying to find a way around it. But now, looking at the little trees, I let myself listen: Sometimes growing is like dying.
Our family has faced some hard things in the past few years, things I couldn’t see past. Problems that felt too overwhelming, too exhausting, too much to bear. Sometimes I felt little pieces of me dying inside, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through the transition. How often I’ve come back to ponder our little trees. Every time they remind me: sometimes growing is like dying.
My kids are growing up, and it’s my job to help them through it—to give them the perspective and character and tools they’ll need to grow through the countless changes and challenges life will throw at them. Some days I hear myself spouting canned wisdom: “Don’t worry so much about what people think—you can’t make everyone happy. It’s not up to you to make people happy; it’s up to you to do right and make God proud.” I walk away and God makes me eat my own words, take my own advice, re-learn my own “wisdom.”
I never realized how much grown-ups have to keep growing too. I have to keep growing too. Life doesn’t stop being hard or complicated just because you’ve made it past puberty, or through college, or through the early years of marriage, or past the potty-training stage, or into your empty nest years. At every step, there are hard things. Things you aren’t ready for. Things you’ve never faced. Things you think you can’t survive.
And it’s time to grow again, to shed the green baby stem that helped you through a gentler season, and develop a tougher layer that will see you through the long hard winter.
But there’s no other choice. Frost is coming, maybe even ice and snow. And if I don’t surrender to growing, as scary as it is, then I might really die.
Sometimes growing looks like dying, but it’s not. Sometimes growing feels like dying, but it’s not. Growing is how we keep living. How we make it through the barren months, the painful times.
And when spring comes with its warm breezes and life-giving rains, that growth—that small near-death we suffered so many cold months earlier—pays off. We uncoil new leaves to the sun, happy to be alive. A little bigger, a little stronger, a little more beautiful. A little closer to bearing the fruit we were meant to bear.
Today, three years after those tiny apple seeds first sprouted underground, six huge pots line my back porch steps: four leafy apple trees and two pear trees, added to our “orchard” later by my Little Farmer (who is not so little anymore). The trees reach past her waist now, and again they need larger pots. Fall is here, with winter hard on its heels. Soon the young trees’ summer leaves will blush and die. All winter long they’ll rest and wait, looking naked and sad. But come spring, they’ll bloom again, stronger than ever. Although these trees have already given our family a lot to chew on, metaphorically speaking, their work is not yet finished. One of these summers, they will have grown big enough and strong enough and mature enough to fulfill the purpose that God intended and a faithful little farmer dared to dream: bearing fruit to feed a growing girl, a growing family, a growing me.
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My two-year-old beams up at me, pointing a chubby finger at the thick trees shading our front lawn.
Her word choice surprises a laugh out of me. “You know what? You’re right! God did paint those trees.”
I swirl the word paint around inside, exploring the delightful image of God the great Artist, paintbrush in hand, painting trees—a touch of green, a knot in wood, a crooked limb.
But my daughter is not done expounding. Her finger sweeps the yard. “God paint wow-ee.”
“Yes, and the flowers too.” A fragment of scripture flits across my mind: Lift up your eyes . . . who created all these?
Again the little finger searches, points. “God paint grass. Pink grass.”
I laugh, not bothering to correct her colors when she’s in the middle of a theological epiphany. “Oh yes, God painted the grass!”
She tips her honey-and-sunshine curls back, squinting up. “God paint sky. Clouds. Sun. Moon.” She casts me a smug grin as if to say, Aren’t you impressed that I know so many “sky” words?
“Oh, yes, you’re right. God painted all of those things,” I say. “Aren’t they beautiful?” I glance up at puffy clouds drifting on a sea of blue. The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Hazel eyes dancing, my daughter flings her hands out wide, the grand finale: “God paint me!”
I am struck speechless. I catch her up in my arms and bury my face in her sweet baby-soap smell.
She pushes me back and insists: “God paint me! Mommy tummy!” Pudgy fists pressed against my chest, round eyes locked on mine, she awaits my response.
At last I find my voice. “Oh, yes, darling, God painted you in Mommy’s tummy.”
She snuggles in and squeezes tight.
Even now her words echo inside me, a gorgeous refrain: God painted me. Such profound insight, from one so young, so fresh from heaven. God made us, yes, but more than that: he painted us.
I can just picture it: The great Artist takes up his paintbrush, selects his canvas, lays out his paints—a thousand hues of possibility—and ponders: What to create today? Oh, I know! Humming happily to himself, he dips his brush in paint and begins with just a single stroke: conception. Another stroke, a pause for inspiration—she’s taking shape now. A dab here, a curve there. He stops, debating: What color eyes to give? He mixes shades—a hint of green, a streak of caramel, a few golden flecks—there. Just right. He chuckles to himself, picturing those perfect eyes lit with wonder the first time they see a rainbow, a dandelion, a puppy. Now for the hair. He thinks for a moment, tapping his brush against his lip. I’ll borrow a little curl from her grandfather, a touch of auburn from her great-great-grandmother, a cowlick from her mother . . . oh, yes. Beautiful. On and on he paints—fingers, toes, crooked nose (because as any great artist knows, it’s the imperfections that make it perfect)—and when he is finished, he steps back, eyes shining. Even more beautiful than I imagined, he thinks. Oh, yes.This is good.She is very, very good. In the corner, he signs his name.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
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Watch the first video in the new LizzyLife YouTube channel: Building Family God’s Way!
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My kids blew past me toward the door, an early-morning tornado of jackets, back packs, and lunch boxes.
“Come on,” called Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, jiggling his keys. “We’re going to be late!”
“Wait! I want kisses!” I said. “That means you! And you! And you!” My three older kids clattered back into the kitchen, planted kisses on my cheeks, and then rushed to follow my husband out to the van.
When the door slammed shut behind them, my two-year-old looked at me in horror. “Mama kiss Dada!” she said.
Oh, yeah. You see where this is going. To finish reading, click on over to To Love, Honor and Vacuum! Take a look around the site and enjoy. So. Much. Good. Stuff.