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Thoughts on Three Weddings: A Week, Five Years, a Lifetime

One week ago, a beautiful, highly anticipated event occurred, one that had consumed a great deal of my time and energy for nearly four months. Our daughter got married, moved out of our house, and left us with an almost-empty nest. And we gained a wonderful son.

This was a very different event from 2018, when we celebrated the marriage of our oldest son after his time in the Marine Corps. He became a married man that summer, but he had been overseas for most of the previous four years anyway, so the change was felt much less in the Matt household. We did, however, gain a delightful daughter and eventually two granddaughters, as well.

I have a few thoughts after these two weddings, and I submit them here with the admission that  a) due to my not-so-typical upbringing, I do not know what I’m doing with milestone events, such as special birthdays, graduations, and funerals—I was pretty much winging the whole wedding thing from beginning to end; and b) I have friends who have gone before me (even multiple times) and have helped me along the way, thank goodness. What I have observed from my wedding experience is that:

  • “Mother of the Bride” is an entirely different ballgame than “Mother of the Groom. That wedding five years ago when my oldest son got married was a piece of cake for me. Now, partly this was due to my own ignorance of anything I could or should have offered to do or contribute, and partly this was due to the bride’s mother and the bride herself being incredibly competent, organized, and gracious about doing 100% of the work and decision making. But event planning is not my favorite thing, so let me just say that God knew exactly what he was doing when he gave me a 3-to-1 boy/girl ratio.
  • People want to help. Let them. If the planning is in your court, delegate tasks to others, accept their help with whatever it is you don’t like doing or don’t have time/energy/money for (décor, crafts, addressing envelopes, shopping, cooking, organizing and storing items, cleaning up), thank them profusely, and tell yourself how good it feels to let go of control and not be responsible for everything.
2023, our daughter and son-in-law
  • You can have a wonderful, meaningful, beautiful wedding and reception for much less money than Google says you can. I’m not going to throw out numbers because different areas of the country have very different economics, but it can be done for less than you might think. Churches are usually inexpensive to rent, you can prepare and serve food with people who want to help (see above), friends and relatives can lend their talents and items they may have on hand, and word-of-mouth is a great way to find affordable vendors you may actually need to hire, such as the baker or photographer. You can also scale down your (or the bride’s) expectations because after all, it is only one day and that day is actually about a marriage, not just a wedding.
  • There’s a lot to be said for a short engagement. Embracing the attitude of “why wait?”, agreed upon by all parties, we planned and executed a late spring wedding in less than four months. My mantra to myself during this time was, “When this is all over, I’m going to have a great summer.” And I will. More importantly, so will our daughter and her husband.
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Long Books Worth Their Weight

The other day, my daughter referred to her immense Brandon Sanderson paperback (does the man write anything under 1000 pages?) as her emotional support brick. I had just finished rereading a “brick” of my own—Kristin Lavransdatter. Which made me realize that some of my favorite books of all time weigh in at more than 500 pages, and several are over 1000.

Let’s be honest: these gloriously long novels are heavy, cumbersome, awkward to hold, inconvenient to carry around, and take up way too much shelf space. But for the days and weeks that it takes to read them, they become my true and faithful friends, my evening couch companions, my familiar alternate universe worthy of investing my time and my mind and my heart.

There are long books that I love, and there are also long books that I absolutely do not love, and in some cases couldn’t even finish. Here are some of my favorite (and not so favorite) long reads.

Big books I’ve read recently and loved:

The Bible (you knew this was going to be here, right?). It’s over 1000 pages, I’ve read it several times and in several translations, and I get more out of it with every reading. And yes, if I were stranded on a desert island with only one book, this would be the book. This book differs from others on this list in three important ways, though: first, it’s not fiction (but it is one overarching story); second, its 66 books can be read out of order—in fact, it’s good to read them out of order, especially if you know how and why you’re doing it; and third, it’s the inspired Word of God. Highly recommend.

Kristin Lavransdatter (1168 pages) by Sigrid Undset. The setting is 14-century Norway, and this book was written as three smaller novels that tell Kristin’s story from childhood through the end of her life. Don’t tell my other books, but Kristin Lavransdatter is probably my favorite novel of all time. It’s an historically accurate, achingly realistic account of flawed human beings who lived centuries ago and half a world away, yet are more like us than we might care to admit. About halfway through the book, Kristin “…thought about her own heart, which fully understood what was right and wrong, and yet it had always yearned for what was not righteous.” Certainly a human condition we’re all familiar with, if we’re honest with ourselves. The Catholic church is thoroughly woven throughout this story, which was also true to daily life in the European Middle Ages. Kristin Lavransdatter was the primary reason that Undset received the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature—the third woman ever to do so.

Gone with the Wind (1037 pages) by Margaret Mitchell; winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. This is probably one of my top five novels of all time, partly due to Mitchell’s deft hand with her notorious heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. Childish, self-centered, manipulative, conniving, and charismatic, Scarlett is a character the reader loves to hate (or at least I did). Mitchell herself occasionally indulges in a bit of sly and witty commentary about Scarlett that, if you’re not reading closely, you might miss (I certainly missed that on my first reading at age eleven, but not this time around). GWTW is also a serious Civil War novel, and unlike any other. On a related note, I read this book the same year I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved (a much shorter, astoundingly original post-Civil War novel by a Nobel prize-winning author) and I was immediately struck by the thought that if you read these two novels back to back, you will come away with a pretty good overview of how we got where we are with race relations and racial issues in this country. Certainly both books provide a lot of food for thought.

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Present at Their Passing

When I was present at the first death, I was 17.

At the second, I was 32.

At the third, I was 44.

At 17, I sat by my grandmother’s hospital bed at the end of a long and painful recurrence of her cancer. My aunt held one hand and I (her only grandchild) held the other. We wept silently as her breathing became more ragged, until she was mercifully released from her prison of disease at about one in the morning. She was the matriarch of our family and had a great influence on my entire childhood. Losing her, at the age of only 59, was a tremendous blow; our family shattered after this event and never really recovered.

At 32, pregnant with my second child and having spent the last year and half caring for my grandfather after his stroke, I arrived breathless at his bedside about 11:00 a.m., where my mother was already present. I could hear in his breathing that he wasn’t long for this world. Although he had been sedated for pain relief (thank you, hospice care), he became unusually lucid moments in his last moments. As we watched and held his hands, his eyes opened wide and he gave a startled gasp—not of pain or fear, but of surprise. Then he was gone … the dear man who had been like a father to me for my whole life.

At 44, I left the four kids with my husband and drove one last time to the hospital where my mom had been admitted more than a dozen times in the past year. She was very sick—worse than usual, even for her—and I (her only child) asked the hospice doctor if we could possibly move her across the parking lot to the more comfortable hospice building. He said she would likely go into cardiac arrest during the transport and the EMTs would be required by law to restart her heart, no matter what the consequences to her frail and dying body. So I chose to stay with her in the hospital room instead. I sat by her that Thursday evening, and then, thinking I was in for a long night, I moved to a more comfortable chair across the room. If I could undo one thing from that evening, it would be that move … my mom breathed her last around 8:00 p.m., without me right next to her, without her hand in mine. I regret it to this day.

I honestly don’t know how common a life experience it is for a person to be present at the actual passing of a loved one. Because I’ve been in this situation three times, it seems a natural part of life to me, to help usher family members from one world to the next. And the experience has been both a privilege and an honor every single time. But looking back, I realize now that it could, and perhaps should, have been more—and not just for me, but for the person whose hand I was (or wasn’t) holding.


Whose Pins Are You Juggling? A Parenting Story

My 16-year-old son had just gotten a job working at the local supermarket, and was attending orientation, his first day at work. He called me to come pick him up when they were done, and my 23-year-old daughter, having nothing better to do at the time, drove with me to keep me company. We sat in the parking lot together, waiting for him to emerge from the store.

Time passed. No son.

I looked at my phone. “He said he’d be done at 3:30, and now it’s 3:41. I guess on the first day he might be finishing up some paperwork…”

We talked some more. Time marched on. It was 3:53.

“Should I just go in there, very discreetly, and see what’s going on?”

My daughter’s answer was quick. “No, you shouldn’t.”

I sighed. She was right. It was his first job, his first day, and if he was old enough to be hired, he was old enough to not have his mom come into the store looking for him and trying to solve his problems.

Then he sent a text.

“Sorry I’m late. I downloaded this app and something isn’t right with it. I’ll be out soon.”

I breathed a sigh of relief at the belated communication. Okay, he’ll be a little later—that’s fine. I can handle that.

4:12. “I wonder what’s wrong. What about if you go in instead of me? You’re not his mom, you’re just a sister. You could just see if he needs more help with the app.”

“No. I can’t go in, either. He needs to do this himself.” Said with the wisdom of one who has had three new jobs, three first days, not so long ago.

Again I said, “You’re right.” And after a few minutes, “I’m glad you’re here to keep me company and to keep me from going inside.”

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Who Chose Whom?

A long time ago, I made a choice.

I chose to follow Jesus. I chose to ask God into my heart. I chose Christianity over all of the other religions out there.

Or did I?

After discovering God and Jesus on my own at a very young age, I drifted far from the faith for about twenty years. When I returned, I took a very methodical, logical, and well-thought-out path to God, through a few good books and a class I was required to teach on the Bible as literature. Along with 1990s Christian talk radio, those things convinced me that Christianity was true, and that I ought to follow it in my life.

So I chose. Out of all the religions out there (including new age spirituality and “none,” both of which I’d tried), I chose Jesus and turned my life over to him. I understood the truth that we all are going to worship something in this life, and I decided that for me, it would be Christ.

That’s what it felt like, at least. Because as I experienced my conversion process, I felt very much in control of it. Even as it unfolded over a period of more than a year, I was under the impression that each step toward or away from God was mine alone to take, that I could at any point choose to reject this religion altogether and go back to my old ways. But I chose to stay, and here I remain today.

For a long time, I understood my conversion as my decision, my choice. I had been raised to be independent, pro-choice in every possible way, and in control of my own destiny, so the idea that I had simply made a purposeful choice to follow Christ was an easy intellectual transition for me to make. I suspect it’s easy for most Americans to think of conversion in this way, born and bred into a pro-individualistic, pro-autonomy culture as we are. A culture that fully believes “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul (“Invictus”), and, as death approaches, has “not the words of one who kneels … I did it my way” (a huge hit by Frank Sinatra in 1969).

But a few years after I became a Christian and after I had become much more familiar with the whole Bible, I saw that I didn’t actually choose Jesus at all. Instead, he chose me (Eph. 2:8-9, Rom. 8:29-30, Eph. 1:3-6, John 15:16). I saw that from the beginning (the beginning of my life, and even before the beginning of time—Psalm 139:13-16), God had known and pursued me. Even though it seemed to me that I was seeking him out, he was actually calling me to himself, at the exact moment that he’d determined was best in my life. Here’s a key question: did I have free will to choose or reject him, or was it all under his control from the start? The answer is yes to both.

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The Blessing of Forgiving Our Parents

One conversation changed my relationship with my mom forever.

“…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

These are hard words that Jesus gives us in the Lord’s Prayer. As Christians, we know we ought to forgive—in fact, we’re commanded to do it. But often it’s easier said than done.

To emphasize the point even more, immediately after saying those words, Jesus has one further, critically important comment to make: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:9–15).

Jesus later clarifies the consequences of unforgiveness after telling a parable about a master who forgave a servant a very large debt. When the servant did not show mercy to another as his master had shown toward him, he was thrown into prison. Jesus then says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:21–35).

Paul encourages believers in Colossae to bear with one another “and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13). And James reminds us that “judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Are you convinced yet that you need to forgive?

I’ve had some trouble with these verses in the past—not because I was unwilling to forgive, but because I seemed unable to forgive. Especially when it came to those who had inflicted deep wounds in my childhood.

As Christians, we understand that if someone apologizes for doing us wrong and asks for forgiveness, we are to forgive them. But that’s a “best case” scenario compared with the all-too-common situation of a family member who has sinned against us, sometimes in childhood when we were young and defenseless, sometimes repeatedly, and they admit no wrongdoing. And we know with almost 100% certainty there will be no apology forthcoming in our lifetime.

Do we still need to forgive? And how do we do that?

I struggled with these questions for years. After I became a Christian, I fervently hoped to hear a sermon on this topic, but to this day I never have. It was a conversation with my mom, an unplanned talk we had many years ago, that opened the gates of forgiveness for me, and healed my heart of the bitterness and resentment surrounding much of my past. I see God’s hand in that conversation in so many ways, and I thank him for setting in place for me a path of understanding and reconciliation before my mom passed away.

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The Case Against “Do the Next Right Thing”

Why adding one word changes everything—and not in a good way.

I first heard it in a Disney movie a few years ago, in a song from Frozen 2: “Do the next right thing.” More recently I’ve seen this phrase on posters, t-shirts, and used by addiction recovery groups.

In Frozen 2, “Do the next right thing” is sung by a character in despair over her bleak future: she is trapped in a cave and has just lost a good friend. I was empathetic to her plight … but when she sang that line, my mind instantly rebelled.

What? Somebody got that wrong! Somebody added an unnecessary word! Disney, you ruined it.

Because to me, the original, shorter, and far better phrase was, “Do the next thing”—something I’d said to myself many times over the years. I first heard it from Elisabeth Elliot and Oswald Chambers, two Christian authors who helped form my faith twenty-five years ago. Those four words had helped me get through difficult times of every possible description.

But what’s the difference, really, between saying, “Do the next right thing,” and “Do the next thing”? Does it really matter?

Yes, it does. It matters quite a bit.

Think about the times you’d be likely to tell someone (or to tell yourself) to just “do the next right thing.” It’s likely to be when the listener is in despair, confused, and possibly paralyzed by fear or uncertainty. They are so unhappy that they literally don’t know what to do—so you might say to them, “Do the next right thing.” Here’s what could be wrong with that advice.

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Unshockable Parenting

What will you do when your 17-year-old tells you that his girlfriend, the one you counseled him not to date because she is not a Christian, is pregnant? How will you react when you find out from another parent that for the past six months, your daughter has been going by a different name and using the boys’ restroom at her middle school? What will be going through your head when your teen proudly displays her new tattoo or eyebrow piercing at church? What will be your facial expression when your young adult son tells you that he’s pretty sure he no longer believes in God?

Many years ago, when I was the parent of a toddler and a baby, I heard something on Christian radio that changed my parenting mindset: “If you’re a parent of a child, even a very young child, now is the time to ask yourself this question: What will I do, what will I say, when my teenage daughter comes and tells me she’s pregnant? Or how will I react when I find drugs in my son’s room, hidden under his bed?”

Not if, but when.

Not because you would literally expect your daughter to someday say this to you, or because you fully expect to find drugs in your son’s room, but in order to have a clear mind and a prepared heart for whatever you might hear, see, or discover one day about one of your own children. So that despite the shock and sadness you may feel, despite the hard conversations you may need to have or decisions you may have to make, you can, above all, maintain the relationship with your child.

And have I found the need to employ this good advice over the past 26 years of parenting? Yes. Yes, I have.

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