Sunday, May 8, 2022

Mothers and Success

 When my mother graduated to heaven in 1996, she left behind a loose leaf notebook of favorite quotes, poems, etc., written in her own hand. I followed her example, and this past week as I leafed through my own favorites, I reread this article. It still resonates with me, and I hope it will encourage you. Remember: God doesn't define "success" the way the world does. 


Roger C. Palms, Editor of Decision Magazine


               When we feel obligated to measure our lives by the “success gospel,” we can too readily close the door to the sovereignty of God and miss what our Christian lives are meant to be.

               The Apostle Paul knew better. When he felt called to go out on his first missionary journey, life was not all that good. In the malarial coastal regions of Perga in Pamphylia, John Mark, his helper, left him and went home, and Paul may have become ill. So he and Barnabas went north to the mountains and preached in Antioch, where they were soon persecuted and expelled. They walked to Iconium, where their preaching stirred up people who wanted to stone them, and they had to flee, finding their way 18 miles farther down the road to Lystra. There the people first thought they were embodiments of Greek gods. But then Paul was stoned and ragged through the city gates, cast outside the walls and left for dead.

               Had Paul missed his calling? Did he ever wonder why there was so little “success”? Still, there was a teen-aged boy in Lystra who believed (perhaps he was even in his early twenties). His name was Timothy. He was ready for the Gospel because his mother and grandmother had taught him the Scriptures.

               When I think about Mother’s Day, I reflect on conversations I have had with mothers who wonder if they have missed God’s calling because they aren’t out in the marketplace being “successful.” They can’t point to great, immediate results from their calling to stay home and care for their children. A lot of things go wrong, or at least they don’t seem to go right. Are these mothers failures?

               Paul had the larger view and kept on. There proved to be some results from his preaching in each of those cities on that first journey, and small churches were started. Years later, just before he was martyred, when he wrote his last letter to Timothy, he could see the results even though he was still reminded of the terrible pain during those early years. He saw the work of God that enabled him to keep on going.

               We need that perspective, allowing God to be the God of history, not just of the immediate, as if he has to fit our make-it-to-the-top-now syndrome. If Paul had accepted that kind of teaching, he could easily have seen himself as a failure, and have seen someone like the Emperor, the man with the prestige, the power, the expensive chariots and the big house, as an example of a man blessed by God.

               Our obedience to Jesus may not seem to pay off immediately. That’s when we do what Paul did: keep on investing ourselves. It is faithfulness that God honors, whether on a missionary journey or in teaching of the Christian faith to one teenaged boy.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Josiah's Legacy

I recently attended the most amazing, moving, beautiful celebration of life for Josiah, a little peanut of a baby boy who accomplished much in his short life. Josiah's twin sister thrives here on earth while Josiah thrives in heaven. I was so moved by the words of his mother shared at that celebration, that I asked permission to share them. Be encouraged by the grace-filled words of this woman of God. I am humbled by her faith in the face of profound loss. 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

As many of you know and have walked beside us through these last few months, it would seem that this year has been a year of loss for Ves and I. We lost Ves's Dad, we lost our house, we lost our dreams of teaching and living in West Virginia, we lost our money, and ultimately we lost our son, Josiah.

While it has often seemed that everything that possibly could go wrong, has gone wrong, we have learned to see this year, not as a year of loss, but as a year of learning to hold things loosely, of learning to hold all that we own and love with an open hand out to God. We have learned that ultimately nothing that we have (our belongings, dreams, and even our children) belong to us, nor do we deserve these gifts. God graciously gives them, but sometimes in the wisdom of His purposes, He chooses to take them away. What can we say besides, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord."

When we first found out that we were expecting twins, one of the first people that we called to tell were the Keisers. After the usual congratulations, I remember Jeff making the comment that we "had created two eternal beings that would never cease to exist." While I immediately felt the weight of that statement and the responsibility that we as parents had to raise up these two souls for the glory of God, I didn't realize how fitting and comforting this statement would be in the coming months.

A few months later when we found out that we would most likely lose Josiah, and in the days that followed, there were many things that went through my mind. There were many tears, many conversations had with God, and much pleading for Josiah's life.

On thing that I have learned through trials is that they test your faith, but often not in the way that you would think. As people prayed for us and encourage us after finding out about Josiah, many well meaning people would say things like, "I just know God will heal Josiah! There are so many people praying for you guys," or "Keep on praying, God will heal him!" While I appreciated the sentiment and understood where they were coming from, it always rubbed me the wrong way. What if God chose not to heal Him?

You see, when we go through hard times and we are faced with the unimaginable, we tend to put God in a box. We tend to think that we know what is best and what God should do in a given situation. We try to help God out by reminding Him and even commanding Him to do what is obviously the right thing to do in our eyes. But the thing is that God's ways are not our ways and God, in His wisdom, chose to take our son. Where does that leave us? Does that mean God made a mistake, or isn't good, or somehow acted foolishly? No, it means that sometimes the greatest act of faith is to trust in God's goodness and plan even when it makes absolutely no sense in our circumstances.

You see, Josiah's life went exactly like it was supposed to. It wasn't too short, as it is easy to think. The meaning of all our lives is to bring glory to God and to bless His name. In Josiah's short 6 months and 6 hours of life, God did exactly that. God's purpose for his life was fulfilled exactly as God had planned and God was glorified not only in his seemingly short life, but also in his death.

While we may not ever know why God chose for Josiah's life to play out the way it did, we can rest in the fact that Josiah's life wasn't cut short, and the number of his days were ordained by God. We can also find joy in the fact that we know that Josiah is now whole and completely healed in the presence of our savior, which is better by far.

While we will always carry with us regrets (regrets of not memorizing his face better, or taking more pictures, or remembering what it felt like to hold him in our arms) and struggle with the "what could have beens" of birthdays, milestones, and the day to day life with a twinless twin, we hold fast to the hope that his life was meaningful and that we will see him and hold him again.

We are thankful for the way Josiah blessed our life, for the way that through his death God strengthened and upheld us, and for the ways that God used Josiah's life to bless other people and continues to do so. 

--Josiah's mom, September, 2019
Reprinted by permission

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Memories 2018

Pondering ... remembering ... thanking God for the people represented by the things we used to celebrate this Christmas. 

The soup pot … was my mother’s. Always thrifty to the extreme, Mother did not scrimp on her cookware, and that soup pot, which may be fifty years old, serves me well. 

The dishes I set the table with … were a gift from my dad after mother passed away. Our family often vacationed at Lake of the Ozarks, taking over every small cottage in a retired truck driver’s resort, and enjoying blackberry cobbler at almost every meal … thanks to the wild blackberries that grew along the roadside. The dishes reminded me of those happy times, and when Daddy heard the story, he handed me a check. “You buy those dishes.”

The water gobletsMother saw them in an antique store and loved them, but “could not afford them.” My siblings and I went together and bought them for her. The stems are tree trunks and oak leaves sprout upwards from the trunks. I don’t particularly like them, but I love the attached memory. Documentation in Mother’s papers claims these goblets were offered as store premiums back in the late 1800s.

The silver-plate knives, forks, soup spoons, etc. … my husband’s grandmothers—a set with three different sizes of forks, three different sizes of spoons, olive forks, sugar spoon, etc. Clearly created for a family far more refined than mine.

The crystal candlesticks … my children’s great-grandmother’s. More than one of the grown children in the family wanted them, but my mother-in-love gave them to her son and me.

The napkinsmy best friend’s … who was also my current husband’s first wife, and mother to my step-son. She’s been in heaven since 1996, and remembering her is a joy.

The Christmas tree … my husband’s and his first wife’s. She was also my best friend and my step-son’s mother. The hand-made paper angel ornaments were her creation

The nativity set … a gift from my children and expanded by my step-son and his wife, bless them.

The snow people … made by my daughter, each snowman represented a beloved family member, including snow angels for those in heaven.

The miniature quilt beneath the porcelain nativity … a dear friend and sister-in-Christ. We have quilted together, prayed for one another, and served together in our local church for decades.

Christmas Day is drawing to a close. We’ve shared it “just the two of us,” my husband and I … and as I ponder the “cloud of witnesses” represented by soup pots and candlesticks, snow people and napkins … I am thankful. So. Very. Thankful. For the simple things that call to mind beloved friends and family members.

Merry Christmas, dear readers.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas Ornament Stories: The Eiffel Tower

Christmas tree ornaments tell many stories. Repaired ornaments hint at toppled trees and toddlers. Others testify to admired artists or designers or beloved crafters. And some whisper meanings no one would ever guess--like the sparkly Eiffel Tower on my tree, which reminds me of a Christmas when we ran away from home. 

I recently promised to tell the story over on my Facebookpage 

The First Christmas Without Dad

     Bob and I took care to establish traditions that would ensure that Christmas was the best holiday of the year for our family, one of the more unusual of those traditions being that someone in our family always got a box of dirt. Never mind the significance. It was just part of what it meant to be a Whitson. But as my four children (ages 21, 18, 15, and 12) and I faced Christmas 2001, no one cared about the box of dirt. Dad had died of cancer the previous February. 
     Grief is a strange journey. Sometimes it leads us straight at the thing we dread, and we face it down. Sometimes we need to take a detour to avoid the dreaded thing until we are stronger. As Christmas approached, I felt we all needed the detour. A phone call provided it, but it took me a few days to embrace it.
     A dear niece had been living in Geneva, Switzerland, for two years. Was there any way the children and I could spend Christmas with her?
     No, I didn’t think so.
     I would get back to her.
     At the last minute, I asked something absurd. If we came to Geneva, did she think we might also be able to spend a few days in Paris? I’d lived in France when I was in college, and I had always longed to return.
     Laura didn’t hesitate. Of course! It would be great fun. Just let her know. She’d see what she could do about finding hotel deals.
     I hung up and contemplated the obstacles. My two oldest children had jobs. They wouldn’t be able to get away. They were both in love. They wouldn’t want to leave for a week at Christmas.
     And the money. Oh, the money.
     As it turned out, the airfare was miraculously cheap. The two oldest children wanted to go. Their bosses let them off. My financial advisor approved. Bob would approve, he said. I thought he was probably right. And so, on Christmas Eve (2001), instead of crying our way through the usual, we were on our way to Geneva. On Christmas day, instead of stumbling into the Daddy-less living room and pretending to enjoy opening presents, we were fighting jet lag, walking the medieval streets of Geneva, eating dinner with an international group of Laura’s friends from Switzerland, Sweden, and England. My Midwestern children loved it.
     The day after Christmas we boarded the TGV and sped to Paris. I speak French and I adore Paris. This part of my life predated my falling in love with their father. There were no sad memories to confront here. I couldn’t wait to share Paris with my children. Would they “get it”?
     Standing before Notre Dame Cathedral, my son asked, “When did you say they built that?”
     “In the 1200s.”
     He stepped closer to the doors, staring up and up and up at the myriad stone carvings.
     One night we rode the metro, emerging along the Seine, admiring a particularly beautiful bridge and watching an excursion boat make its way up the river before advancing beyond the row of trees shading the walkway. The Eiffel Tower loomed above us in the night, its ironwork glowing bronze in the lights.
     On another night we read the sign mounted on a tall iron fence not too far from our hotel near the Sorbonne and discovered we’d been casually walking past the third-century ruins of a Roman bath. Roman. As in Julius Caesar and togas.
     We grabbed floor plans of the Louvre one day just before it closed, and that evening in our hotel room I told the children to look it over and mark the three things they most wanted to see. I wanted them to see less and appreciate more—to remember more than a maze of marbled halls.
     The next morning at the museum, I watched my children watch. What would they really see? It turned out to be the Greek/Roman/Italian sculpture. My children were in awe. Their mother was delighted. They were getting it … they really were getting it.
     In those four days, we probably walked five miles a day. We didn’t see the Musée d’Orsay or go up the Eiffel Tower or ride on an excursion boat or eat at a fancy restaurant or do any number of a zillion things tourists usually go to Paris to see and do. We did, however, climb the towers of Notre Dame and see the gargoyles. We walked the streets of Little Athens and marveled over the array of foods. We shopped at the century old La Samaritaine department store. We ate mussels and crepes and lychees, discovered Nutella, and marveled at the smallness of the cars and the beauty of the roses at a flower market. We made mistakes and got lost.
     I don’t imagine I’ll ever spend Christmas in Paris again. But in 2001, traveling far, far away from home helped one heartbroken family detour around a monster named Grief. We spent our first Christmas without Dad in the City of Lights. Of course, Dad spent the day with the One who said, “Let there be light.” But we did all right, too, because we came home knowing that we were going to be all right. We would return to the beloved traditions the next Christmas, and we would smile through our tears when the lucky recipient opened that box of dirt.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

If this is your first Christmas without someone, take heart. Be kind to yourself. Say "no" to the things that will just be too hard this year. Say "yes" to something completely new that you can navigate without the memories. And remember that you are not alone. Even in the moments when it feels that way, Someone is there to listen, to love, and to help you carry the weight of grief.
May He bless you with the knowledge of His presence in ways that speak comfort to your heart.
["The First Christmas Without Dad" was originally published in God Rest Ye Grumpy Scroogeymen, New Traditions for Comfort and Joy at Christmas, by Laura Jensen Walker and Michael K. Walker, 2003 Subsequently published in Christmas Moments, 50 Inspirational Stories of the True Meaning of Christmas, compiled and edited by Yvonne Lehman, 2014]

Monday, January 30, 2017

Amazing Grace and This Novelist

I'm reading Jonathan Aitken's biography of John Newton--a gift given me years ago by a woman I admire and respect. I came to this biography knowing very little about Newton beyond what everyone knows--he wrote "Amazing Grace," and he captained slave ships. Learning more has been a moving and encouraging personal experience. 

This morning, learning about his hymn-writing spoke to me on a personal level about my writing. Why? Well. Because, over my 20 years as a published novelist, there have been times when I was painfully aware of the number of people who look down their noses at "popular fiction." 
Once, I attended a lecture on a favorite writer. Afterwards, I introduced myself to the English professor who had just given the lecture, offering to visit her class if she ever wanted to give her students a chance to talk to a "working writer." When the professor learned what I write, she actually turned her back on me to begin a different conversation with someone standing nearby. 
Now, that's an extreme version of the kind of thing novelists sometimes encounter. Still, though, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy appreciation for the ministry of popular fiction. After all, the Enemy of our Souls is really, really good at discouragement. 
Below, I've excerpted what encouraged me most from the chapter about the "most sung, most recorded, and most loved hymn in the world," "Amazing Grace." (Here's a purchase link for the book:
Newton's writing "People's Hymns" was highly unusual for his day. But his congregation were tradespeople, and he knew that the principal religious books of the established church (the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer) were replete with phrases uneducated people found difficult to understand. "Newton thought he could help them to understand the Scriptures if he amplified his sermons by writing simply worded hymns that illustrated the biblical passages on which he was preaching."
"Newton saw himself as a simple wordsmith who could hammer out verses that would appeal to the ordinary folk of Olney."
"This concept of serving God and his parishioners was Newton's primary objective in writing hymns. He had no interest in pleasing persons of superior social status or literary taste. He made this clear when he wrote in the preface to Olney Hymns:
'Though I would not offend readers of taste by willful coarseness and negligence, I do not write professedly for them. If the Lord whom I serve has been pleased to favor me with that mediocrity of talent that may qualify me for usefulness to the weak and the poor of his flock without quite disgusting [displeasing] persons of superior discernment I have reason to be satisfied.'
Newton was therefore consciously avoiding highfalutin language and poetic phrases in his hymnody. He was an unashamedly middlebrow lyricist writing for a lowbrow congregation. He wanted every line of his hymns to be easy for his parishioners to sing, understand and commit to memory. Clarity and simplicity were therefore the cornerstones of Newton's hymn-writing technique. On these foundations he built his rhyme, rhythm, syntax, and choice of words. 'Amazing Grace' passes these Newtonian requirements for hymnody with flying colors. The rhymes and rhythms of its verses are so clear and so well-known that they require no further comment, but a less well noticed strength of the hymns is that of the 146 words in 'Amazing Grace,' no fewer than 125 are words of one syllable."
I share this with you, just in case you, too, have been tempted to feel "less than." While simplicity should never be a synonym for lazy writing, I find comfort in the notion that ministry to readers who are attracted to my simple stories is not something I need feel apologetic about---ever. Sign me Stephanie Grace Whitson, "unshamedly middlebrow." 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Christmas memory that became a novella
What follows is excerpted from a book of sod house memories published by the Sod House Society. Many years after I first read it, it inspired my novella titled "A Patchwork Love" for A Patchwork Christmas. I hope you enjoy reading "the rest of the story" (as Paul Harvey would say).


It was Christmas Eve! I was seven years old during World War I. My father was in Los Angeles. My mother worked as a satin lady in a big store in North Platte, Nebraska. On Christmas eve when the store closed, we took the seven o'clock train to go out to Ogallala way out in the sandhills of Nebraska where her brother lived on a farm with seven children.

We were the only passengers going to Ogallala as the train headed into a terrible snowstorm. The heavy snowstorm increased the depth of the snow until the train was forced to stop. 

My mother hadn't brought any food because it was supposed to be only a two-hour journey. We were snowbound on the train. The drifts of snow were up to the tops of the windows. The only people on that train (five passenger cars and a mail car) were the engineer, the fireman, the conductor, the brakeman, and us. 

My mother was very tired and emotional. She began to cry and sat quietly crying the whole evening--how terrible it was! But the conductor and brakeman were very good to me, giving me a nickel and some candy, and tried to cheer up my mother.

About twelve o'clock midnight I was awakened, as we heard some jingling bells outside the train. The conductor came into our car and said, "You'd better put your coats and boots on, because a nearby farmer has come to get you in his sleigh." 

We went to the door of the train with our suitcase and my doll and looked out. There were two great big black horses with bells all over the harness. They took us out and put us in the sleigh and covered us with fur lap robes. I recall how wonderful it was for me to ride behind the bells through a white world.

The man could not speak English and neither could his wife. They were Norwegian. She gave us hot coffee and some kind of wonderful bread. I can just remember that good bread because we were so hungry.

It was a two-story homestead house--two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. We went upstairs and there was a featherbed. It was cold--oh, my land, but it was cold! It must have been 40 degrees below zero and no heat upstairs. We got into bed and the lady put another feather tick on top of us.

In the morning, I dressed by the big cookstove in the kitchen. The lady had made a Christmas tree for me. She had taken this beautiful handmade lace and wrapped it around and around a chair with ribbon bows, and right on the seat bottom of the chair was a dish with an apple, an orange, and some hard candy. Another plate had some beautiful cutout cookies. She didn't have anything else to give me but I thought it was wonderful. My mother had a sewing box for me. Inside was a blue satin lining with needles and thimbles, scissors, and some satin scraps. 

I was happy.

--from "Pioneering--My Story" by Florence May Callihan Noble May

Here is a link to the book of Sod House Memories in which Mrs. May's original ten-page memoir first appeared. The book is out of print, but used copies can occasionally be found.

Have a blessed Christmas.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Dad

Cecil Grayson Irvin graduated to heaven in 1996. 
I wrote this tribute as a Father's Day gift to him in about 1983.
Just before he died, he promised to meet me just inside the gate.
The older I get, the more I look forward to that day
I know he'll be there. 
Daddy was a man of honor. 
He always kept his word. 

            My Dad is a tall, slender man (“Slim” the guys at work used to call him) with gentle blue eyes and slightly rounded shoulder caused, I am sure, by years of bending his 6’5” frame to catch the words of those shorter than he.
            Of course I can’t remember it, but the family tells of Dad teaching me to walk by standing me on the toes of his shoes as he walked backwards.
            I remember as a child waiting excitedly for the car to pull up in the drive when he returned from his over-the-road trucking job. He would unfold his tall frame from the driver’s seat and put on the brown cap that matched his driver’s uniform. Dad took pride in his well-pressed uniforms with the company badge embroidered on the shoulder. We often laughed to see other motorists slow noticeably when we passed, thinking they were being monitored by a policeman in an unmarked car.
            When I was little, he was often “on the road.” But when he was home, I climbed onto his lap after meals, just for the feeling of being sheltered by his arms while he visited with Mother or read the evening paper. When I grew older, and Tuesday and Thursday nights were Dad’s nights home, Mother would cook corn bread with ham and beans or round steak with biscuits, and we would bask in his presence, just glad that he would be there to share our supper, coffee, and late night popcorn.
            On Sundays, Dad read me the comics and then entertained me by taking out pen and paper and drawing Dick Tracy and Brenda Starr. I still love to read the comic strips, enduring considerable chiding from my husband for the habit. I can’t copy the characters like Dad, but I occasionally clip one to slip into Bob’s lunch sack. He enjoys it in spite of himself.
            When childhood terrors over starting school after the summer overtook me, Dad was there to help relax the wrenching knot in my stomach. With his quiet voice he reassured me that everything would be all right. I believed him, and the knot loosened, and it was all right.
            I don’t remember him ever spanking me. Mother says he didn’t. He never had to. There was just something in his quiet love for me that motivated me to obey.
            In the days before seat belts and car seats, Dad used to sit me on his lap and let me think I was guiding the car.
            On summer nights when I was in junior high, we went to baseball games, sitting high in stadium seats provided by the St. Louis Cardinals to students with the right grade point average. Dad bought me soda pop and peanuts and we cheered Orlando Cepeda, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock. I knew every player’s batting average and skipped classes once to watch the World Series on T.V. Without Dad in the next seat, baseball just isn’t much fun anymore.
            He taught me to drive defensively—and then trusted me with his car on a weekend away with other students. I would have done anything to keep from betraying his trust, and we all drove carefully that weekend. Dad must have spent a couple of sleepless nights wondering if his daughter would become another highway statistic. But he trusted me. He understood my need for independence.
            I remember my first car. Dad drove it home, parked it in the driveway, and ordered me to change an imaginary flat tire.
            He spoiled me. On snowy mornings I would go outside to find my car cleaned off, the driveway shoveled so that I could drive off to classes at the university.
            I remember tears in his eyes as he walked me down the aisle to become Mrs. Robert Whitson. Those tears still shine every time we have to say goodbye after a visit that spans the miles between Nebraska and Illinois.
            When my first child was born, the familiar knots returned to my stomach over the responsibility of motherhood. Dad reassured me. He drove me to the grocery store and patiently experimented until he found a way to fit the infant seat securely in a grocery cart while still leaving room for groceries. He couldn’t have known how much it meant to have him there, his frame towering over me, protecting his “little girl”—and a new granddaughter.
            Dad loves the Lord. He serves in quiet ways that people often don’t notice. For years, he and mother visited widows of fellow drivers killed on the road, providing help with business details, organizing a fund to provide cash in the early days of widowhood. He still chauffeurs “the elderly” around town and on trips to the airport.
            Dad taught me how to walk. He taught me to love baseball and comic strip characters and molasses-and-butter on bread. He taught me to obey authority. He proved that things would be all right next year in school, and that I could be an efficient mother, after all. He taught me about my heavenly Father, too. Oh, not with many words, but by being there, by loving, by listening—by being so very much like Him.
            I’m over thirty now, and much too old to call my Father “Daddy,” but he will always be “Daddy” in my heart … in my thoughts … in my prayers … because part of me will always be a little girl when he’s around.

            I love you, Daddy … Happy Father’s Day.