How Will You Be Remembered?

Today would have been my paternal grandmother’s 118th birthday. I have many memories of my grandmother, and I wish more of them were pleasant.

I remember dreading time spent at Grandma’s house. She wasn’t a horrible woman, but she was not peaceful or kind or warm. Her house was small and dark, with cobwebs and dust bunnies in the corners and under furniture. There were very few toys, and most of them broken. Grandma always wanted my sister and I to be still and silent, and I always had the feeling that she dreaded our visits as much as we did. I had a cousin who loved it when we came over, because she was just a bit older and an only child. If the weather was nice, Grandma would send us all outside, and my cousin would dare us to climb trees, or jump over a pit or some other physical (usually dirty and dangerous, too) activity. When we came in, Grandma would frown and comment on how dirty and sweaty and noisy and un-ladylike we all were.

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Growing up, I didn’t think of Grandma as someone who had ever been young, and noisy, or happy and excitable, or awkward and easily hurt. She seemed to have been perpetually old and cranky and bitter. In hindsight, I can see how circumstances– being the middle child of seven living on a farm; starting her married life living in with a bossy sister-in-law and verbally abusive father-in-law; losing her husband when he was only 50–had been allowed to shape her character in negative ways.

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There are some pleasant memories, and I cherish them. Grandma was a good cook. She made wonderful chicken dinners, and a strange candy out of mashed potatoes and peanut butter. She always had cold tea on a hot day. I knew that she loved my dad, and that she could be proud of us, in her own way. I was sorry when she died. Sorry that I hadn’t made more of an effort to know her better. Sorry that she had chosen bitterness, and that I had chosen to stay distant from her.

I write all this, difficult as it is, to say that Grandma–both her good and bad qualities–lives on in my memory as someone I would not choose to be. I don’t want to grow old like her. I don’t want my family members to dread spending time with me while I live, and dig deep to remember something good about me when I’m gone, or justify my bitterness and negativity.

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My grandmother claimed to be a woman of faith. And it is not my place to be her judge. But I saw very little evidence of faith in her daily life. I cannot remember ever hearing her pray. She did not attend church. She had a Bible, but I never saw her reading it. Her better qualities, and her walk with Christ were overshadowed by rancor, bitterness, anger, hurt, and pettiness. I do not want that to be my legacy. I want people to know, not just from my words, but in my actions and choices, that God’s love lives in me, brighter and stronger than memories of Grandma.

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Shortly before her death, I ended up spending an afternoon with Grandma– just the two of us. She had moved into a small apartment in town, and somehow, it transpired that I had to be in town on Saturday morning for a school event, and no one could pick me up until that evening. We were forced to keep company. It began awkwardly, but as we talked, Grandma opened up about her childhood, her love of music, and more; she asked about my time at school and my love of history. It is the single most pleasant memory I have of her, and I wish there had been more afternoons like it; more afternoons to bond; more afternoons to cherish, rather than dread.

After her death, I learned a couple of things about my grandmother– things I wish I had known earlier. I found an old copy of her high school yearbook, which contained a story she had written. Grandma’s story was full of wonderful details and imaginative characters. She was a writer– and I never knew! I also found out that Grandma not only loved music, she was a singer– an alto, just like me. At some point in her life, she stopped writing, and she stopped singing. I hope that, even if I never saw it or heard it, that she never stopped praying. And I hope that when I’m gone, those who remember me will never have to wonder if I sang, or wrote, or prayed.

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The Sweetest Frame…

I have several friends who are really great at photography– some have made it their profession. One of the hallmarks of a great photograph is “framing.” I’m not talking about choosing a frame for a printed photograph, but choosing natural elements that draw the eye to a focal point. It include perspective, focus, lighting, and even composition– which elements make it into the picture, and which ones are excluded. After all, photos, by their very nature, only show part of the whole reality. Even a panoramic picture cannot show everything at once, and the photographer chooses where s/he wants to place the focus and framing.

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We have a tendency to “frame” our lives in a similar way. We focus on only part of the whole reality of life. We choose to “frame” our present situations, our past memories, and our future hopes– even when they are out of focus! We can do this in both positive and negative ways. At one point in my life, I felt I had found “the perfect job” as a youth services librarian at a local public library. It was pleasant work that made use of my skills, talents, and interests. It included a mixture of social interaction and self-directed projects. I loved the job, my co-workers, our patrons, the work environment–it was a pleasure and an honor to work there.

Library Story Time

But I was viewing my job (and myself in that job) through a frame. There was more happening in the wider picture of my life and development. After more than a dozen years there, things had changed. I still loved the work, and while some co-workers retired or moved, and the staff changed a bit, the work environment was still mostly peaceful and friendly. I still found the job challenging and rewarding, and I had gotten to know people in the community over the years who truly felt like family. But, as my role changed, so did some of the relationships. As new leadership came, so did new directions and new priorities. And I had become “comfortable”– and somewhat complacent as well.

In time, it became clear that my “perfect” job was not only not perfect, but becoming a source of frustration, stress, and unhappiness. And there were other things happening that demanded my focus. I was preparing to become a wife, and move to a new community. My mother’s health was deteriorating, demanding more of my time and energy (though my Mom remains feisty and independent in most matters!). My future husband wanted to open a shop– someone would have to work there, and we couldn’t afford to hire anyone, even part-time. That meant working a second job at the shop while trying to maintain my efforts at the library.

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As the “frame” of my life shifted, I felt confused, even angry, with God. Why would He allow something so good to turn sour? Why did I feel like I was losing myself? Didn’t He want me to be happy and fulfilled? Didn’t He want me to use my talents to help others?

Now, after a few years’ perspective, I can see some of the “rest” of the picture. I had begun to see myself through the lens of my job, and I was depending on that vision, rather than focusing on what God was doing in, around, and through my life. There was nothing “wrong” with my job, per se, but God needed me to be willing to let go and move in new directions.

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I write all this, knowing that there are people going through much more traumatic “shifts” in their lives– the loss of a job, and a change of career is a disappointment, but it is not the same as the loss of a spouse or child; or the sudden loss of a home to fire; or an unexpected diagnosis of cancer or other health issue. But the principle is not so different. God’s ways are eternal. Sometimes, we see the trauma in front of us, or surrounding us, and it becomes a frame for all of our thinking and emotions. But the “picture” is much bigger than just our immediate situation. God calls us to trust Him in all circumstances, knowing that His love for us is not just for this life, but for all eternity. Whatever we (or our loved ones) go through here is but a snapshot– one of millions that God will put together in a Glorious and Perfect collage.

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Moreover, God gives us the privilege of listening to us when we call out to Him. We need not be afraid to ask, “Why this?” or “Why now?” or even “Why me?” But when we ask, we need to be willing to shift our focus, and remember where our Hope is Built– On Christ the Solid Rock. Even the sweetest “frame”– our career, our relationships, our identity, our happiness in this life– cannot compare with His faithfulness and eternal Sovereignty.

Praying in Heartbreak

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. And it was a good day. It started out cold and wet, but I got to spend time with my mother, my mother-in-law, several other family members, and some dear friends from childhood. It was a happy day, and it ended with sunshine breaking through the late afternoon clouds, birds singing, and a full heart of memories and gratitude.

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But Mother’s Day wasn’t always like that for me. For many years, it was one of the worst days of my year. No matter the weather or the company, there was always a shadow of barrenness and emptiness. Yes, I was grateful for my mother; for my grandmothers and aunts and other relatives; for my friends and their adorable children. But I felt shut out– I was not a mother. I would never be a mother. I was always on the outside looking in.

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My circumstances are slightly different now, but I am still not a “natural” mother. No one calls me “mama” or even “grandma.” But Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be a day of sorrow and emptiness, and after years of prayer and letting go of expectations, God is showing me how to enjoy and embrace the circumstances in which He has placed me.

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I am not alone in this struggle– far from it. For the past few weeks, I have heard from heartbroken people who dread Mother’s Day. Those who have lost their mothers face the reminder of their grief and loss. It is particularly hard on those who were unable to spend precious days with a dying mother due to COVID restrictions, or lost their mother to COVID. Some mothers are reminded of the wrenching loss of a child– still birth, drug overdoses, suicide, auto accidents, childhood cancer– gut-churning emptiness where once there was a promise of joyful life, grandchildren, shared memories, and so much more. Other mothers (and their children) face the pain of separation and severed relationships. Many, like me, face the reminder that they are NOT a mother– not a “real” mother–even if their circumstances or careers are filled with children “not their own.” And some people face multiple circumstances that cause grief, bitterness, alienation, anger, and despair.

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These feelings of sadness and loss are natural, but they do not have to weigh us down or control how we face each day. God wants to share these burdens; He wants to carry the weight of our brokenness and free us to experience joy and peace– even in the midst of our pain! And on those days when our circumstances threaten to overwhelm us, God is never more than a prayer away. He doesn’t make our grief disappear; He doesn’t erase our memories. But He can redeem them with a changed perspective and new hope.

Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.– each can bring bitterness and heartbreak, as well as joy. We do well to pay attention to those around us who dread such holidays, and offer the comfort, hope, and encouragement of a listening ear, a loving heart, and, most of all, a loving God who longs for us to pray in and through our heartbreak.

Arguing With the Almighty

I was thinking the other day about the movie, “Forrest Gump.” In it, a bitter, beaten, and angry character begins arguing with God– in the midst of a hurricane!

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“Lieutenant Dan” was an able soldier, fighting in Vietnam and in charge of a small unit, which included the simple-minded Forrest Gump. When their unit was ambushed, Dan was badly injured and lost the use of his legs. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump received only a small flesh wound, and managed to save several of his fellow soldiers, receiving a medal for bravery. One of the soldiers rescued by Forrest, Dan resented his situation– disabled and ignored– while Forrest went on to become successful and celebrated.

Worse, in the years after the war, Forrest found Dan, homeless and dejected, and offered him a job and a home– on his shrimping boat. Forrest knew next to nothing about shrimping, and Dan, torn between bitterness and gratitude, gives Forrest a hard time. Dan’s life has gone nowhere, and Forrest seems to dodge every bullet (literally), finding success in spite of his naivete and seemingly stupid choices. When the two men find themselves in the middle of a hurricane, Dan can take it no longer. He lashes out– not at Forrest this time, but at God. How could a loving God allow Dan to go through trial after trial– the loss of his legs and so many of the men under his command, the loss of his dignity and productivity, the loss of his independence, and now, another deadly situation beyond his control. He yells at God–“Come and get me!” He challenges God to just kill him; just finish him off, or leave him alone.

(Please excuse the foul language in the clip.)
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But God is silent– and soon, so is the hurricane. Forrest and Dan have survived. In fact, Forrest’s decision to be out of the harbor means their boat is the only one to survive–suddenly, they can’t catch the shrimp fast enough! Forrest becomes a millionaire and hires a fleet of fishing boats. But what about Dan?

Somewhere in the middle of the storm, Dan’s heart is pierced by a simple and life-changing thought. God has not been the one “ruining” Dan’s life– He is the one who has been preserving it! God brought him through war, disability, injustice, loneliness, frustration, and the raging sea. God was not a cosmic bully. God was not singling out Dan for punishment– after all, thousands of others had been wounded and killed in the war; millions of people knew what it was like to be hungry, homeless, and lonely; and hundreds had been devastated by the hurricane– even while they were safely evacuated or hunkered down on land. Forrest had not dodged every “bullet.” He had lost his best friend in battle; he had been rejected (time after time) by the woman he loved; he had been teased, bullied, and cheated dozens of times, and he had been tossed about by the same waves and winds Dan had survived. Dan ends up leaving Forrest, and setting off on his own, having found a peace that transcends his pain and bitterness. He swims off with a smile, leaving behind the opportunity to remain with Forrest and make millions.

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Arguing with the Almighty is very tempting when we face difficult circumstances– and when we focus on our own lot, and not on the bigger picture. God is bigger than any of the troubles we face. And He is not unaware or unconcerned about whatever we are going through. Just as Lieutenant Dan challenged God, the biblical character of Job challenged God to vindicate him as he went through trials and pain. God finally answered, and Job realized that God was far bigger than anything Job had ever known or experienced. And in the end, God restored Job– giving him a new family, and even more material wealth than he had before!

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Sometimes, God allows us to go through periods of pain and struggle– not because He is punishing us or because He is a tyrant, but because He is more interested in our ultimate salvation than He is in our immediate comfort. We moan and complain that God “doesn’t want us to be happy,” as if our momentary happiness is more important than our character development, than the happiness of those around us, or than God’s design for the world.

Near the end of the movie, Lieutenant Dan visits Forrest. He is transformed. No longer angry and bitter, he is quiet, self-assured, and standing! He has “new legs” made of titanium, and he has found joy, love, and success of his own.

Of course, many of us, regardless of our situations, have tried arguing with God at certain times of our lives. The loss of a loved one; the breakup of a marriage; a diagnosis of cancer; a miscarriage of justice and the loss of a reputation– it is natural to be angry, hurt, and confused. And God is more than big enough to “take it” when we ask “WHY?!!” But we will never “win” such arguments– not because God is a tyrant who won’t let us have what we want– but because God is GOD, and we are not. He alone knows how our story ends, and what trials– and blessings– await us. He alone knows what is “right” in the scope of eternity– not just for us, but for our loved ones, our neighbors, our nation, and our times. God can see that we get, not just “new legs,” but a new heart, and a new mind!

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Hurricanes happen– so do hurts and hurdles. We can choose to see God’s hand–and believe that it is raised in anger, or reaching out to hold us. That choice is yours. That choice is mine. Every day.

The Lord Has Taken Away…

20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:20-21 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
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The book of Job presents us with a startling picture. Job is a godly man; a righteous man; a man of faith and good works. And yet, God allows him to experience loss upon loss– Job loses everything, short of his life and his nagging, bitter wife. His first response is praise and worship! But as the losses sink in; as the pain and agony and grief continue, Job questions God’s justice and wisdom. Job, like us, wants answers that make sense. He is willing to suffer– even greatly–IF he can see the purpose of his suffering, and justify it to himself.

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We are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S.– a day when we celebrate what God has given us. We normally celebrate family, health, good food, material blessings, etc. We celebrate abundance and comfort; peace and plenty; family and freedom. But his year, our celebration will be quite different. The Lord has taken away…

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Some of us have lost jobs, or we’ve lost our good health to COVID or related factors, or we’ve lost loved ones, often without the chance to say our final “goodbyes”. Millions of us have lost the ability to move about freely and conduct “normal” errands and activities. Schools and businesses are closed or operating from a distance. Families and friends have been kept apart. Much that gave us comfort and happiness has been “taken away” this year. And God has allowed it all to unfold. He has not “taken away” this disease or its consequences. He has not “taken away” floods, or fires, or hurricanes. He has not given us answers or explanations.

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Job’s initial praise turns to questioning. While he does not “curse God and die,” as his wife suggests, Job spends his time wondering, “Why me?” His friends try to find answers– “you must have done something to deserve this, Job.” Because God does not “punish” the righteous. It isn’t logical; it isn’t fair; it isn’t just.

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Except that God laid on His own Son– on Himself– the guilt and punishment for all those who are unrighteous. What Job went through–unknown and unseen to him and his friends–was a glimpse into what God Himself would suffer. Christ lost everything–INCLUDING his life– in order to bring salvation to all those who are willing to believe and receive it. Christ was willing to give away His dignity, His power, His friends and family, and His life. And the Lord allowed it all to be taken.

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Many people read the story of Job– his loss and all his questions and complaints–and conclude that God is not fair or just. They find Him to be capricious and unwilling to ease Job’s suffering or answer his questions. They conclude that God is wicked and unworthy of Job’s praise or trust.

But to do so is to ignore the end of the story– God DOES “answer” Job; He gives Job a chance to justify himself and bring his case. And more than that– He gives Job more than he had before. Job ends up with more children to love, renewed health, and even more wealth than he lost. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job+42&version=CSB And the same is true of Jesus Christ. Because of His “loss,” the world has gained the priceless gift of Salvation by Grace. Christ has become the first of millions to taste victory over death and enter into eternal life. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+15%3A20-23&version=NIV

Loss and grief still exist in this world; disease and suffering and hardship still plague us this year. But we have SO much to celebrate at Thanksgiving. When the Lord “takes away,” it is not because He is capricious, or jealous of our wealth or happiness. It is not because He is unkind or uncaring. At just the right time, and forever more, the Lord will Give without end– lavishly, extravagantly, abundantly. Nothing He takes away in this life– even a cherished love one–is beyond all hope of comfort, redemption, or restoration. Our losses cannot compare to the riches of His Grace and Love. This is a great mystery, but as Job discovered, God WILL DO IT!

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Blessed be the name of the Lord! Let us Thank and Praise His Holy Name!

Peace Like a River…

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my Soul.
(It Is Well with My Soul–Horatio Spafford)

…He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my Soul–Psalm 23:2b-3a)

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When Horatio Spafford wrote the poem that later became this famous hymn, he was not writing from a place of peaceful circumstances. He had suffered a series of financial and heartbreaking personal losses (https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1801-1900/horatio-spafford-it-is-well-with-my-soul-11633070.html). He knew very well that our lives will be blessed by pleasant and peaceful times, and tossed about during storms and waves of loss and despair. But through it all, God’s presence is the source of our strength and hope.

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Our Shepherd leads us where we need to go. He gives us everything we need. But He doesn’t give us only ease and pleasure and rest. Such a life leads to complacency, apathy, and spiritual atrophy. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters– He restores my soul. Even though these thoughts come in two separate verses, I think there is a close link between the phrases. We need rest; we need restoration. And we find it when we are drinking deeply from the “still waters”– cool and clear and life-giving waters–the “living water” that only Jesus provides. We are often attracted to swift water– white water rafting, ocean surfing, waterfalls, sailing, etc. Moving water is exciting and full of energy. But it can be overwhelming to fight against the current or the power of falling, churning, running, or raging water. Without being anchored to something stronger than the waves; without help to overcome the pull of the current or a way to get to shore safely– we would be lost.

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Storms and tides will be a part of our life– there will be dangers, and toils, loss, and unexpected heartaches. Sometimes, they come from our own foolish choices; often, they come because we live in a broken and fallen world filled with diseases and disasters beyond our control. God doesn’t lead us into storms just to leave us there, flailing and treading water with no end in sight. His goal is to lead us to the still waters and to restore our souls. The same river that contains white water will reach a peaceful valley, where it will run deep and wide and slow– perfect for restoring our souls and reviving our hearts.

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It is a comforting thought that God, our Shepherd, will lead us beside still waters. But that is not always our lot. God’s promise is not that we will always have quiet, calm waters in life. God’s promise is that He will lead us safely through even the raging storm– and that His presence will provide a peace that defies our temporary surroundings and our trying circumstances.

When “Mother’s Day” Hurts

Mother’s Day can be a wonderful day of celebration.  But it can also be one of the most painful days of the year.  Millions of women each year face acute heartbreak on this day– instead of celebration, they face the haunting memories of abandonment or separation, infertility, miscarriage, infant deaths, broken relationships, missed opportunities, regrets, suicide, and the loss of their own mothers.  There are no cheery greeting cards or perky flower baskets that can erase that kind of gut-wrenching pain– no pithy words or consolation gift that makes this day easy or comfortable.

I have an amazing mom, an awesome mother-in-law, the world’s best sister, world-class sisters-in-law, a remarkable step-daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, and a host of other wonderful women in my life (as well as a step-son, grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc.).  I love that I am still in touch with former students and story hour kids, Sunday School and Bible School attendees, and others I have had the honor to mentor.  So I celebrate Mother’s Day and honor those people and all the ways their lives have impacted mine, and (hopefully) my life has connected with theirs.

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But none of that chases away the ache of never having a child of my own– never knowing the joy of tucking my own child into bed; never being able to kiss away a boo-boo or a bad dream and say the words, “Mommy loves you.”

Maybe because of my own experience, I’m more attuned to it, but I see and hear a lot of pain around this time each year.  My heart goes out to all of the women with empty arms– the women who had to bury a huge chunk of their heart along with a child they can never hold; the women who had to say goodbye to the only one who could ever reassure them that, “Mommy loves you.”

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My prayer today is that you would know that even in those moments when your heart is crushed, and your arms ache to hold or be held, that you are not alone; you are not forgotten.  God knows the aching loss of seeing his only son on the cross as he took his last gasping breath before he died.  Jesus experienced the sting of rejection from the people who should have called him brother, and “Father.”  Throughout the Bible, God gave us examples of women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and others) who knew the ache of barrenness, rejection, strife, and loss of children.  God saw their pain; he heard their cries of distress and their prayers.  He sees you too.  He hears you.  He loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and beyond where any grief, guilt, or despair can take you.

More than this, he has promised to be close to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the broken-hearted, and to those who need rest and comfort.  He promises his presence, and he promises to turn our mourning into joy and bring us peace.  He is eager to restore us, to renew our strength, and to reassure us that we are loved with an everlasting love.  God created us in his image– and that includes the image of a mother hen gathering chicks, It includes the image of Mary who wrapped the God of the Universe in swaddling cloths and tucked him into a manger of hay, and who watched as that same God of the Universe died for her.

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God knows the passion, the pain, and the pure love of a woman’s heart– even when “Mother’s Day” hurts.

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