Thursday, April 28, 2011

An Affair To Remember

Everybody else is a whirlwind of activity, bringing hot food to the table, filling glasses with water, and chatting with family they haven't seen since Christmas. But like Martha, I sit, feet tucked beneath me as I absorb the dance taking place across the room.

The two sit close together on the sofa, bodies close enough so there is only room for his arm to rest in the gap. Her arm rests tentatively atop his, a touching I'm sure both are shyly aware of even though neither acknowledges the other's skin against his own--they're not even at the holding hands stage, these two.

This chaste beginning to romance stirs up an emotional mental snapshot of a similar scene not so many years ago, husband and I sitting on cold tile floor, backs against the wall outside a college classroom, us holding but not holding hands for the first time.

My fingers tentatively traced his well-calloused ones, rough as the bark of a birch tree from repetitive contact with equally rough hay twine. A river of students flowed past without noticing time frozen at their feet, unfazed by the life changing event they didn't even know they had just witnessed.

I envy the couple before me, knowing the rush they're experiencing. Quickly, I avert my gaze, feeling like an intruder, a peeping tom in this very public room. Seeing them together, I understand why so many people step away from their marriages to have an affair.

To feel again that first blush of uncertain love feel completely desired by someone who, as of yet, lacks the flaws of one you've lived with for a decade or more.

I know it's really all a mixture of chemicals coursing throughout the body, but still, the cocktail is intoxicating...and lethal.

When I was a tween, a young couple taught me in Church Training each Sunday night. Then, one week, their chairs were empty. The husband had let those intoxicating emotions lead him into another woman's bed, and upon learning the truth, his wife left him. From one week to the next, that betrayal dissolved our class into a flux of temporary teachers and killed my desire to attend evening worship activities until college.

Even after I was married, I still vilified him as evil incarnate. Quietly hating him was easy. Accepting him as just another sinner who merely acted on emotions all of us have felt at one point in our lives--that has been more difficult because with that acceptance came insecurity that any solid marriage--my marriage--is always at some level of risk.

Although familiarity seeps in to any long-term relationship, dulling the senses over time, an affair isn't the only choice. A reawakening is not impossible within the marital bounds.

Years ago, I began praying that my desire would always be for my husband and that my husband would always desire me. It was and is an honest prayer spoken out of my weakness, knowing that without God controlling my every action, I could be my former teacher, inadvertently killing her young charges' desire to learn about God.

After fourteen years together, ten bound by the cords of marriage, God continues to answer that prayer. I still get that rush I used to feel each time my husband walks through a door, still get the Jell-O legs when he kisses me at the end of the work day, still warm at the simple touch of his hand in mine.

May I always say, "I am my beloved's, and he is mine." (Song of Solomon 6:3).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What it Means to Really Sing

A mobile home trailer complete with crushed limestone parking lot may not sound like your conventional doctor's office. But there I was, waiting in a deep-in-the-country satellite office where the close proximity to an actual doctor (or nurse practitioner in this case) was well worth the non-plush surroundings.

A 35 minute drive cut to five? Definitely worth seeking medical attention in a building where the thunderous shaking of the floor wasn't an indication of seismic activity in the area but rather an announcement of the next patient's arrival.

We waited in an 8 x 8 room, much smaller than one of the cages we saw at the zoo a few weeks ago. Yet even without the extra space to run, the twins did everything but cartwheels while "sitting" in the two blue plastic chairs that flanked the tall exam table where my oldest perched, his every move irritatingly crinkling the thin paper beneath him.

Me, the actual patient--I stood.

One minute, Wyatt was peppering me with the repeated "what's this?" as he pointed to the room's single poster depicting a heart and arteries at various stages of being clogged by blue and orange spheres of cholesterol. The next, Amelia was belting out "Jesus Loves Me" with soul to challenge any singer on American Idol.

Despite my best efforts to teach her otherwise, she has one volume--her "outside voice," as we call it. And in that echoing cave of an exam room, I looked at the two inch crack separating the door from the floor beneath it and just knew how far her voice was carrying.

But since I didn't say "stop" or "be quiet," singing was instantly deemed an acceptable activity, and the other two children joined in their voices. When one song ended, another started.

Until the doctor finally took the hint and came through the door, the entire office was regaled with everything from "Here Comes Peter Cottontail" to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."

I thought about being embarrassed, but quickly decided against it and just let them go. To them, singing is as much a part of life as breathing--it just is.

We sing while we four sit and swing, while we walk across the field to Opa's, while we drive down the road. Even a seven minute drive to church need be filled with music. And when there is none, at least one child always speaks up to request certain songs from our praise CD.

"I want 'Light of the World' song, mommy." Other child responds, "No. 'None Like You.'"

Once the music starts, if I don't jump right in, one always prompts me: "Sing, mommy! Sing!"

Not feeling like it isn't an option. And so we sing together.

I remember when I sang like them, with abandon and without any hint of self consciousness. It was junior high before I realized people could hear me singing when I had head phones on. If nobody else could hear the music, then they couldn't hear my singing, either...right? Oh, my poor parents who put up with with me in the backseat on road trips from Louisiana to my grandparents' in Michigan.

By college, I had the head phones thing figured out, but I still didn't know people could hear me when I sang on my front porch...until a neighbor jogged past our house and commented. My poor neighbors...and poor parents again, sitting an insulated wall away from a pitchy nineteen-year-old girl who loved to sing with her everything when she thought no one was listening.

I know some kid will poke fun at my children's singing ability all to soon, tell them they're not as good as someone else. Someone will throttle those three songbirds just as a music minister's thoughtless comment did to me as a tween, making them sing in whispers and with hesitation.

Could I stop time to keep that day from coming, I probably would.

But until then, I will keep singing loudly and passionately with them, keep showing them a mommy who "sings for Jesus" in church...

...hoping that when that one day comes, they'll realize the song of praise in their hearts just bursting to come forth is worth singing with their everything, no matter what others think.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

For Those of You With Tweens

With three children in the preschool age group, I'm terribly underqualified when it comes to knowing a modern vocabulary those in the teenage set use to say something is "cool."

Not just a little cool--really, really cool.

Google tells me slammin' or hip is appropriate...but I'm still not sure. Anyone saying "It's slammin'" in my house is likely warning of imminent appendage damage...and I think my parents said things were "hip," so becoming a 60s version of my mom is just too weird.

Cool, slammin', or hip--any way you say it, G. P. Taylor's newest book The Secret of Indigo Moon is just that.

Second novel in his Dopple Ganger Chronicles series, this graphic novel is sure to entice even the most hesitant reader to consume it in one sitting.

Never a real lover of comic books, myself, I was apprehensive about how I'd like this book, especially considering the target audience is probably from about 9 years old through the early teenage years. But one of the reviews called Taylor the "new C.S. Lewis," so I wanted to see for myself.

While I'll admit I found it hard to get into at first since I hadn't read the first in the series, I quickly grew to love the mix of comic book graphics interspersed with regular pages of paragraphs. I also was sucked into the rapid-action much so that I couldn't put it down even when my children got up from their naps.

As far as the story, three children--Erik Morrisssey & twins Sadie and Saskia Dopple--uncover a series of tunnels beneath their school and the surrounding houses, interrupt a robbery, and place themselves in imminent danger. This fast-paced plot is complimented by a slower subplot with the C.S. Lewis-esque storyline.

In it, Saskia prays to a female angel named Madame Raphael for help and later prays to one whom Raphael introduces as "the Companion." Initially, no one believes Saskia because they have not seen the angel, which leads to a great platform for discussing faith in the midst of unbelief as well as why some can easily spiritually see what others cannot.

While I realize Scripture doesn't mention female angels, that's not that huge a deal for me here, especially considering I think they're actually non-gendered beings. If I have one critique of the novel, it's that the C.S. Lewis-esque subplot components are too heavily weighted in the second half of the book...and even then, they are not a significant enough part of the text for true Lewis fans.

But with that said, I still would recommend the book to any parent of tweens. It's fun. Its graphic art is sure to get them reading. And it preaches without preaching too hard.

* I receive nothing for my review except for a complementary copy of the book from Tyndale Publishers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Stripes of Suffering

I could easily tell you a warm, fuzzy story of yesterday's milk carton rabbit craft with my three children, then a cool-of-the-evening walk across the hay field to fill them up in Oma's strawberry patch before sticky-fingered devouring all the sweet-smelling fruit.

I could grab your attention with an action story of me clad in purple-gloves, scrubbing out the red barn until the bleach gasses were so strong, I had to go out for air more than once...and that was before I washed the completely assembled skeleton of a mouse right out the front door.

I could offer a spiritual story to grab your heart, one of this morning's monthly visit to the nursing home, me running late as always but finding peace once there as I worked again on training my twins to walk in big brother's footsteps of showing Jesus' love and say "good morning" while offering a smile to those who need it most.

Each of those stories is 100% true--my husband and mother could easily attest to my "keeping it real" on this blog. Yet, all three give you an image of myself that I want to project, not an accurate image of me and where God has been working the most over the past five days.

When reading an autobiographical blog such as mine, there's an unconscious trust one places in the veracity of what he is reading, an image that forms in his mind of the author--even if that image is a false one crafted by fictional lies in the guise of truth.

Stephen Crane's "Illusion in Red and White" addresses this very issue. In the story's beginning frame, the correspondant writes, "Now this is how I imagine it happened. I don't say it happened this way, but this is how I imagine it happened."

Yet, at the conclusion of reading the imagined tale, my students would almost always forget the story was completely in the journalist's head and would, instead, retell the fiction as fact.

That is something I fear the most. Although I'm certain to only tell true stories in this space, I still don't want you to have, to retell a false image of me, of my Christianity, or my God.

God works through the sentimental musings of a mother's heart, through the laboring sweat, through participating in the spiritual disciplines...but He also speaks quite loudly through suffering.

For the past five days, I have learned a small measure of suffering. I haven't slept well. I've been fighting against being irritable with my loved ones. I've cried at least once. And I have searched for, yet failed to find, a faucet hot enough to make me pull back.

When taming the wilderness last Monday, I cleaned both poison ivy and poison oak away from my children's "playground." While I normally don't have a problem being allergic to these plants, this time, my labors left me with numerous brush burns, a long winding scratch up my shin, and dozens of lashes up and down the backs of my legs and arms.

In these open wounds, the poison silently seeped in, only to erupt in fiery blisters three days later, giving me bright red whip-like stripes across my body that have consumed me ever since.

Living with literal stripes on my body for the past six days is not how I would have chosen to remember Jesus' sacrifice this Easter. I am not worthy to bear His marks of suffering and sacrifice.

Yet, there are no coincidences with God. The constant reminder of the cat of nine tails that Jesus was beaten with--it has kept me close, close....too close at times to thoughts of His suffering.

Each time one of my children runs an interested, empathetic finger down my leg, tracing the lash of a poison-filled branch, I remember Him.

Such unspeakable gratitude....

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Memory of a Cross Burning

As wheels turn into the curve, golden-red flashes of light rise out of the darkness, glimpses caught between fully-fleshed branches waving in the late-evening breeze.

I press the accelerator ahead, curtains of leaves rapidly moving aside and closing behind me until I am there.

Still rooted in soil, the entire height of a twenty-five-foot tree is alight. No remaining bark covers the armless trunk, its brittle honeycombed cells that once swelled with water now licking flames. Red swirled black embers dance in a frenzy around the fully immersed tree, making it seem larger and taller than it actually is.

To see fire shooting upwards out of the earth in a moving-but-not-moving pillar extending high above your head is almost indescribable, the majestic vision of it all.

Yet although I know what the burning object really is--just a dead tree--all I can see is a burning cross.

Today, I asked my mother if I ever actualy saw a cross burning, because in a far-away childhood memory, I did.

She says no, she doesn't think so. I'm not sure. Maybe it's Hollywood's Forrest Gump I'm remembering instead.

My mother then recounts a scene from her youth when a cross was burned at the crossroads a few steps from my childhood home. Maybe it's her story told before that my mind is claiming as its own.

I have grown up in the South, in a state where the Ku Klux Klan was active in promoting racism, where one of the governors elected in my lifetime was actually a former Klan leader. In other words, I'm not that far removed from a time when too many individuals found it acceptable to burn crosses on people's lawns...or from a culture where, sadly, some still do.

Such an action made a statement, captured people's attention, engendered fear...just as this burning tree has captured mine and draws me back further in time to another cross.

I've never really thought about it before, but the Romans' use of the cross as a method of execution was really quite brilliant as a tool for instilling fear and maintaining control of a people from afar. To instill that fear, a people needed reminders...very visual, vivid reminders of what would happen if they were to cross the reigning government.

Execution by crucifixion did just that--captured people's attention and forced them to submit to Roman authority if for no other reason than out of fear.

And then what?

What happened to the cross after Jesus died on it? The Bible doesn't say. I've read the stories of those who claim to have fragments hidden away...somewhere...maybe.

But my mind wonders at the mystery.

In a time period before power tools and chain saws? In a day when men would have cut down the wood for each rough-hewn cross with hand-forged axes? It seems more than likely that the cross upon which Jesus died was likely the same cross that many men before and many men after him also died upon.

How much blood was on that cross?

How many nails driven and re-driven into its beams?

How many crimes meted out judgment for as it hung suspended?

How many prayers to God whispered from its finality?

And then, it lay in wait to be used again...and again...and again, until perhaps any remaining bark fell off, its cell walls slowly gave way to the curse of death, and its visible decay made it useless.

What then? Was my Savior's cross thrown in the rubbish heap to rot and return to the earth that first gave it birth?

Or was there another cross burning in ancient times?

Maybe. Maybe, those splintered, blood- and sweat-soaked crosses were all joined together and set alight, flames burning high and hot against another night sky.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Taming the Wilderness

Two days now, I've been attempting to restrain that which has worked against restraint since the fall of Adam.

Though a woman, my arms, legs are laced with the marks of the curse of man. But even where the visible shows no trace, my invisible, inner parts feel the effects as well.

My tools are made for the thorn and thistle. I swing the axe when saplings' diameter is too thick for long-handled loppers. My youngest, Emerson, watches me with interest.

One swing. Two. Three, then four. With this six foot high "tree" growing close between the mighty oak's feet, the angle is difficult, making my strokes more hesitant lest I wound the tree I'm actually trying to protect.

"It not working," Emerson tells me.

I glare at my two-year-old, biting back several speeches I'd like to give him, all of which would make his eyes glaze over in seconds. "Yes, it's working, Emerson. Mommy's just not as strong as daddy is."

The work is hard, slow, and not terribly noticeable, but I press on. A year ago, a small forest separated two inlets at our family's end of the hay field. A bulldozer and my father-in-law removed most of that forest to make way for our driveway, and for our house to be set in the middle of the larger of those inlets.

Save for the few remaining oaks of that forest located a football field away from my door, our house is without shade. In south Louisiana, the direct heat of even our springtime sun can mean no playing outside after the first few hours of morning.

So, this quasi-shaded area has become our children's playground, providing extended playing hours for already-sun-tinted cheeks and appendages bronzed despite daily use of sunscreen.

My labor comes from the small trees growing bark-to-bark with each of the large shade oaks, sapping away sparse water during summers of drought...that, and the thick poison ivy ropes crawling ever-rampant up the trunks while sending tender runners outward beneath the dirt and across the play area.

The ease of spraying a strong batch of Roundup just won't undo the curse. Each vine must be cut, then treated, probably several times, before it is eradicated. As I strive to pull yard upon yard of rooted-to-bark runners down from high above my head and then put them in the fire, its rash-inducing leaves and bark brush my hair, scrape my arms, and leave fibers all on my clothing.

By day's end, the perimeters of eight trees are cleaned out, and my double-edged ax is starting to develop a sheen on one of its blades, polished by the repetitive slicing. As I stiffly gather children indoors, away from the hot afternoon sun, I appreciate my handiwork. That's when I gasp, noticing that even with the vines down, the tree still bear the marks. "And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord." (Jn. 20:20).

Thursday, April 7, 2011

One Person's Plain is...

Plain chocolate sheet cake. That's all husband wants for his birthday.

Ten years, and I still don't get it. The word "plain" just goes against the whole concept of celebrating a special date.

Growing up, I never had a party like kids have today. A birthday meant all my family coming over, singing, blowing out candles, and opening presents--and I thought that was special...still do. There were no balloons, no goodie bags for the guests, no themes, no special location.

BUT, my mother always made my cake. While there was the fondant-before-fondant-was-cool experiment for my 16th birthday, most years, she made "my" special cake--chocolate, chocolate coated with pink boiled marshmallow icing.

Perhaps this history with simple celebrations is why I have a hard time conceiving of birthdays as anything other than a time to eat cake and open gifts, except now that husband and I are older, sometimes we skip the "gifts" part, leaving me with nothing but cake to give as my love offering.

Plain cake, remember.

I'm the woman who my family gives something baking-related when they can't think up a gift for me. My cabinets are full of a dozen or so different-shaped bundt pans, two deep rows of holiday-themed sprinkles, all the supplies needed to mold gum paste flowers or roll out (attempted) fondant masterpieces, and a huge file on my computer of cake pictures I'd like to recreate myself.

And yet, husband wants a 9x13 rectangle!?

In years past, I've fought this plainness. But this time, I just did as asked, then went outdoors to join The Order of the Watering of the Sod for a couple hours.

Halfway through, I took a break to feed three ravenous children the casserole leftovers from last night and went back to watering. Less than ten minutes later, big brother Wyatt ran outside and screamed, "The babies are eating daddy's birthday cake!!!!"

With news of the cake's impending demise, I found I was suddenly quite fond of that plain rectangle.

Flinging off muddy clogs without stopping at the threshold and leaving soggy prints in my wake, I rounded the corner to the kitchen, twins starting to cry loudly upon merely catching sight of me.

Caught. Brown. Fingered.

In their economy, cake was cake. No matter its appearance, it was irresistible.

Tolstoy said, "To sin is human business, to justify sins is a devilish business."

Thankfully, there was no justifying with this sin--just crying. Then again, I guess it's hard to justify a sin when your mouth is full of chocolate frosting.

Sounds like something I should try sometimes.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Preschool Prayer Problems

Here I am, fifty feet from the house, watering squares of sod and periodically praying aloud the grass will sink saving roots down before the scorching heat of a Southern summer makes its appearance.

On the back porch, Amelia's short legs race back and forth between wicker table on one end and rock pile on the other. Even from this far, I can tell she's accumulating quite a pile on the glass, one rock at a time, carefully arranging them as an artist would.

I don't ask what she's doing. Almost anything that entertains is better than her trying to "I help you" jerk hundred foot hose across the yard and inevitably scream upon sinking hot pink clogs in newly created squares of mud.

At some point, Emerson comes out. Now, two little people huddle around some priceless (for the moment) rocks.

Suddenly, her loud voice rings out, "God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for....HEY! What you doin' takin' my rock!?"

She tries two, three times to complete the prayer over her "food," but each time, Emerson takes her bowed head for an opening to swipe a rock (as if there's not a million or more awaiting ownership just a few steps away).

Teaching my children to pray, especially at mealtimes, has made me laugh, shake my head in frustration, and want to crawl under the table--sometimes all during the same meal. I have learned two things from them, though.

One is that a prayer can be a possession.

In the beginning, all three children had to say their own individual prayers--one person's prayer spoken for all the food on the table, for "our" food, well, that just wouldn't do. That was fine with me...until somebody unconsciously (or deliberately) joined in with somebody else's "turn." Then, the three-pronged meltdown.

I thought I had this "my prayer, not yours" problem all figured out when I started requiring the trio to hold hands and pray in unison. Yet, somehow during the process of making that change, the twins have altered a pronoun, with Emerson proclaiming loudest in emphasis, "for MY food."

I can hear them when they're older: "What? The Lord's Prayer? Naah. That belongs to Jesus. This one's mine. And don't you be taking it either!"

We're working on it (sigh).

The second thing I've learned about prayer is that more volume is more better.

I've spent my life praying over meals in restaurants, but always quietly so as not to disturb those around me. I thought I was comfortable with bowing my head and praying or listening to my husband softly pray for us.

And then my trio of opera stars learned to pray.

With a Mexican meal wafting delicious smells towards their already watering mouths, they prayed in perfect unison like they had never prayed before.

They. Were. Loud.

No background music or dinner conversation could drown out those all-too-well-enunciated words.

I didn't peek, mainly because I was sure every eye in hearing distance had suddenly swung to our table, and in that instance, I felt my cheeks burn hot--first with embarrassment at them calling attention to our gathering and then in shame at my embarrassment.

Completely unfazed, they started eating.

As of yet, they haven't learned there's a stigma society stamps on those who follow Christ by the red letter, those who let their light shine so loudly and openly.

And that's a good thing, a reminder to me of how I should be, too.