Thursday, December 27, 2012

Redecorating a Naked House

Sparkly foam gingerbread men, boughs of artificial spruce, and velvety poinsettias glisten inside unlabeled boxes, translucent to show what lies captive inside. 

The wrought iron stair railings no longer twinkle with tiny stars, butterflies, and golden clusters.  Even the mantle is bare, save for the layer of dust that somehow sifted through a woven masterpiece of coiled plaid ribbon and holly leaves.

Then there is the pink aluminum Christmas tree, almost undecorated, courtesy of the cat who tipped it over this evening, spilling ornaments across the floor.
And Jesus?  The plastic Christ child who spends the Christmas season with all eyes upon him, with pudgy fingers moving his visitors ever closer to the manger?

He rests within a crepe paper nest deep in a cardboard box.  His parents, the shepherds, and wise men lay beside him, no longer able to see the Christ child through their own darkened veils.

Such putting away feels sad.  Yet, in my heart, I know it is no large matter to put Jesus in a box and behind closed doors.

His absence from the table I see first thing every morning at the bottom of the stairs doesn't mean He will be absent from our daily lives for the next eleven months until His plastic visage makes an appearance again.

We don't have a once-a-year-Jesus here.

Still, the house seems almost sad to see those visible reminders of Christ's coming tucked away in boxes. 

That is why tomorrow, the children and I will blanket the house again, this time in hearts, reminders of the One who taught us how to love, of the One who first loved us.

We can keep Christ the focus of every holiday, every season, and we must.  

He is the author of love at Valentines Day,

of resurrection and new life at Easter,

of true freedom on Independence Day,

of every good and perfect gift at Thanksgiving.  

Thank you Father that the Christmas celebration can resound in our hearts all year long.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Best Christmas Party of the Season

I've been to the Christmas party no one wanted to attend but everyone did anyway.  I'm sure you know the kind.

It's the one where you got a workout just from scouring the stores to find that perfect dress and jewelry.  The one where you paid as much attention to your hair and makeup as you did on the day you said "I do."  Where you painted on a broad smile from the moment you exited the car, laughed politely at jokes that weren't really funny, and focused on making eye contact while shaking the thousandth hand and following sometimes three conversations at once...all while in heels that were killing your feet.

By the end of the night, you collapsed at home, glad that was over for another year.  In fact, you were certain both your face and feet would need the full 364 days to recuperate.

Then, there are the loud family Christmas parties with houses stuffed full of a dozen or more people who share your DNA, who know you better than most, and who feel compelled to tell every embarrassing story about your childhood to those significant others who have been grafted into the family by marriage.

While some people dread these type gatherings, too, in my family, these get-togethers are always joyful, full of laughter, stories of years gone by, no handshakes but lots of hugs and snuggles, smiles that reach our eyes, way too much homemade food, the reading of the Christmas story, a carol or two, and maybe even a round of Bible Trivia

All nineteen of us are usually split apart by many lines on a map, making this time together more precious than gold.  Still, by the night's end, we collapse just the same as before.  Our faces still hurt, too, but this time it's from hours spent grinning with real laughter.

When I think of an adult Christmas party, these two contrasting images come to mind.

But this past Tuesday, I was blessed to experience a rather impromptu Christmas party with a group of refugees who have never before celebrated Christmas.

I hadn't fixed my hair, worried about my clothes, or even put on lipstick.

Still, that tiny, cold room held the most true spirit of Christmas of any party I have ever attended.

Through a pretty dense language barrier, we sought to explain the American traditions of giving gifts to show our love for each other, of eating way too much, and of singing Christmas carols.

Then, the party really got started with us ESL teachers helping pass out large Christmas bags to each refugee.  These presents weren't what you would expect under the tree; yet, they were given out of hearts of love to those less fortunate and were received with more gratitude than I have ever seen.

Some ladies in a Sunday School class at my church had gathered things like fleece blankets, warm weather clothing, toilet paper, rolls of quarters for the laundromat, rice, and other necessities these refugees struggle to provide for themselves.

I added a few bangle bracelets, which I knew my ladies from Burma would love, and sat back to watch the joy fest around me.

Each refugee's eyes light up when it was her turn to receive a bag.  One woman pointed to her chest in surprise--this was all for her?

Another bubbly woman said, "You give, and I have nothing give."

I tried, but there was no way to truly share how wrong she was, how I left there full, taking away more than I had come with.

At the party's close, we paused to pray and sing.

What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

The sound of a half dozen cultures and tongues raising their voices together in praise of the Christ child come for us--surely, the heavens were dancing with joy along with our praise.

Oh, what a party that must have been up there. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

How Motherhood Changes You

The infamous "they" say having children changes everything. 

When I was pregnant with Wyatt in 2006, I would begrudgingly shake my head in agreement and grit my teeth hard into a forced smile every time some gray-rooted sage gave me such advice.

Of course things were going to change.  I was about to lose my freedom, discretionary income, leisurely weekends, 8-hour of sleep each night, claim to my husband's free time, my heart, and even (at times) my mind. 

All this, I expected, although expectations can never really depict the never-ending 24-7 of reality. What I never expected, though, is how having children would change my perspective on the world around me, would change how I relate to others and their life stories.

With each day that passed after the birth of my son, every child I saw on the news, in the papers, or just around town made me pause and take note.  Increasingly, my mind began to replace the foreign face, darker skin-tone, or different language with my own child's image and tongue. 

Any child could now be my child. Likewise, any mother losing her child could be me, but for the grace of God.

And in that instant, my tiny universe blew wide open.  No longer were those children and their mothers random faces, victims of this or that horrible event. 

Now, they were children of women just like me, mothers who had grown a supernatural love for that child.  In motherhood, we shared a bond that carried my heart across the globe to them, that made me really care about them for the first time in my life.

The Columbine school shooting was in 1999, before I was married or had children.  It was sad, shocking, even frightening to me as a new teacher; yet, somehow, it still felt more than an arm's length away from affecting me personally.

But today? The events in that Connecticut kindergarten classroom left me dripping tears in the flower bed as I pulled the random winter weed from already damp soil.

Only the rational side of my brain kept me from driving fast from the farm and pulling my son out of his own kindergarten class for the rest of the day, just to hold him close for as long as he'd let me.

Perhaps it's that raising children forces you to stop being selfish, to look beyond your own narcissistic tendencies and focus (sometimes almost exclusively) on the needs and feelings of others.  Or maybe it's that motherhood makes you finally know real fear of what you hold dearer than your own life.

Whatever the reason, tonight, I and many other mothers grieve with these who are letting go of their children when they should be holding them close in the season's celebration. 

There is no way I can imagine the magnitude of their heart ache.  Still, my mother's heart aches in prayer for them and alongside them as I weep for the senseless violence of sin...for what innocence is lost and for what emptiness is left behind.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

When You Already Need a Christmas Do-Over

This is not the vision I had for the 2012 Christmas season, not how I planned to worship the coming of our King.

By mid-November, the Operation Christmas Child boxes were packed and shipped.  The week of Thanksgiving, the children and I decorated the house for Christmas with deep crimson poinsettias and tiny white lights, hand crocheted stockings and the pink tinsel tree with its treasure trove of history dragging down the branches.

Everything was on track for a repeat of last year, the first time since my oldest son's birth that I felt peace about how our family celebrated Christ's birth by keeping some traditions while still retaining focus on Jesus' birth.

Then, our family had gathered for Sunday afternoon and evening meals around the purple Advent candles. We had read the Scriptures and daily placed ornaments on The Jesse Tree, which reminded my children of God's journey through history that brought Him to the place when He would send forth His one and only Son.

But here we are, eleven days into December, and the candles remain unlit, the Jesse tree undecorated, the Christmas cards addressed but still sitting on my dining room table, the traditional foods all as yet unbaked.

The calendar's turn came with fireworks, my oldest, husband, and I knocked out by the stomach flu a few hours before the month began.  By the following Tuesday, the living room rug had been converted into a makeshift sick ward full of plastic-encased pillows, mounds of soft, fleece blankets, and hospital bed pans as the twins succumbed to the same illness.

It was three days before my daughter spoke again. Even our year-old "kitten," Hannah, gave up her mouse chasing games to sit and cuddle our tiny girl's head as she huddled under daddy's warm crocheted blanket, her body too exhausted to move.

By Friday, with the tide turning, husband and I went out for an hour's dinner just to find ourselves amidst the chaos of the week.  Huge mistake.  Ever since, I have been the exhausted patient, striving to overcome a debilitating case of food poisoning.  Success this week has been marked in terms of minutes, spoonfuls, and fluid ounces.

Our children are on the mend, as is evidenced by the fact that they have all started fussing and yelling at each other again.  I guess the same must be true of their mother, since this afternoon as I tried valiantly to swallow anti-nausea medicine, I stopped and complained to God.

This wasn't the Christmas season I had wanted to give you, Lord. Eleven days of worship already lost.

In that still, small voice, my Father reminded me that I had been worshiping Him and giving Him gifts throughout all the sickness.

I was reminded that this Christmas season is about sacrifice, about God giving His everything for us--starting in that manger and ending at the cross.

While washing multiple load of puked-on laundry, rinsing and re-rinsing bedpans, praying without ceasing, forcing myself to attend my son's first Christmas performance, and rocking fevered babes may not seem to embody the Christmas season, I  couldn't be more wrong.

These actions are all about sacrificing myself--my time, my body, my everything--all for another person.  They have been about demonstrating Jesus' love and mercy in action to each other.

I have demonstrated the Christmas spirit with my gift of true, selfless love to my children.  In turn, my husband has demonstrated such unfathomable love to me.  And even my children have demonstrated more compassion towards each other and to me than they usually do.

The extra trip to Wal-mart for more mashed potatoes and ginger ale, a soft rub of a concerned little cheek against my shoulder, a shy confession of prayers said for me and a sister--this is a Christmas gift our family has given each other.

Without giving it any thought, each of us has been caught doing not random acts of kindness for each other but consistent acts of kindness.
Maybe by week's end, I will be well enough to eat again, maybe start a little baking or just walk the mall and soak up the sounds and smells of the season with my mother.

But if not one cranberry loaf rises in the oven, if the advent candles remain dark, if the Jesse tree's branches are still short, if I end up spending this whole Christmas season showing others love in these less than the traditional ways, that's ok.  As Jennifer @ Getting Down with Jesus said just last week, the greatest gift we can give our God is all our heart.

Sometimes, there is no better way to give God our all than to willingly tip our heart's vessel so that our love and devotion to Him spill over onto others as an anointing of sacrificial blessing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What to Do with Hate in Your Inbox

I hurriedly click the check marks down the left hand side of the screen without stopping to read anything beyond the subject line.  The Inbox is always overflowing with promises of retail happiness and fulfillment, but during the last two months of the year, every company start spewing out emails too fast to delete.

It's usually best to delete without even opening.

In the midst of my rhythmic clicking, I pause at a subject line from a retailer's site--a response to one of my posted book reviews.

A simple flick of my index finger, and my stomach drops.

"You sound like someone who thinks our national flag should be solid white. Funny how cowards always try to pass themselves off as tolerant."

Coward? Me?

Whoever said only sticks and stones can hurt was a liar.  Hate in word, not only deed, can pierce, can hurt deep even across the miles and from the anonymous.

The hatred from his words escapes the mega pixels and fills the room like a poisonous fog.  Seemingly demure black Times New Roman can't mask a total derision of me as an individual.

Is that what I am? A coward? Because I believe Christ called me to witness to everyone in the world, even those of the Muslim faith? Because I don't believe all Muslims should be feared as terrorists?

I stretch my arms high and lean back deep into my office chair, listen to the creak of metal groaning.  Hands run hard through wild curly hair as I sigh and think again how it would be so easy to just stop writing.

As always happens, I second guess myself, my writing, my words, my calling to different ministries.

Maybe he's right.  Maybe I am a coward.  Here I sit, three times a week, hiding behind this back lit screen, professing a written confident faith in a triune God who saves while fumbling over my every word when called upon to share that same gospel face to face with a live human being.

Is that a coward?

The cursor flashes much too long with my pause, pulsing in time with my heart that finally speaks a simple no.

A coward would not begin the conversation about God in the first place.  A coward would turn off the computer screen and never publish her writings again.  A coward would let that fear of others, not God's word, rule her actions and words. 

Yes, I feel overwhelming insecurities and insufficiency for the task each day.  But over this past year, I've moved so far out of my comfort zone, I have to squint to see it behind me.

One night a week, I have a chance to be a coward.  Mixed in with the excitement at obeying God's call on my life is a heavy dose of fear as I drive into the city to teach a group of refugees.  This semester's new group has been great in number, all male, and almost all Muslim.  I know how the Muslim religion views women.

After the first night of classes, I was more than a little intimidated, actually felt the sting of one man's exasperation with my inability to understand him.This wasn't my group of beloved refugees from Myanmar.  This was different.

I wanted to be a coward, told God I couldn't do this--not with this many men who I knew hated my faith.

But in His power, I returned.  Another male church leader sat in as a helper that night.  And in that instant, the class dynamic changed.  Slowly, God opened my heart to this group of refugees just as He had done with the former group.  He transformed the heart of cowardice and fear into one concerned about not only their spiritual needs but their physical ones as well.

I worried less about what they thought of me and found myself  focused on finding them all warm coats for the winter ahead.

No, these aren't the actions of a coward.  They are of a woman who fears God more than man, who is living out the Word of God despite her fear.

I slide the mouse up to the left and click delete.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Finding Autumn

Autumn isn’t really a brilliant season on the farm this year.  A summer’s-end drought too early curled green leaves into dried brown husks before offering them up to the winds.  

The more resilient oaks fan only marbled pale yellows mixed with olive and brown, their stretching trunks wrapped high and round with hints of crimson painted on sturdy cords.

This is one of the things I will come to miss most at this time of year—the Thanksgiving trip up north to Michigan, a two-day’s drive through fields and mountains, wide open farms and dense rugged wilderness…through Autumn, itself.

While we journeyed far north last year, this year’s circumstances didn’t make such a trip possible.  So, on Thanksgiving Day, our family filled every seat in our mini van and journeyed a mere hour away to find Fall.  

We didn’t have to search hard, not really. Over this hill, deep in that valley, beside the dried-up lake with its cypress knees jutting high out of crawfish pocked mud.

And then, there it was in patches.  Radiant. Back lit by the high afternoon sun, gently tousled by a breeze, like a horse shaking out its mane to show off a multifaceted beauty that can only be perceived in movement.

We scooped up the gold offered for free, the already fallen pine cones, just starting to open for winter’s feast.
We “surfed” in high-pile leafy carpets as yet untrampled by little feet and, after a rather frightening encounter with a large alligator sunning himself at the water's edge, took the road more traveled down through the forest with its peek-a-boo canopy.

It wasn't the same as the fullness of Autumn up North. (It never is, is it?)

But it satisfied a heart's longing to catch a glimpse until another year when a true gathering together is possible once again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How to Instill a Healthy Attitude About Exercise in Our Children

Day one saw three excited children hurtling down the quarter mile, winding gravel drive that links our corner of the farm with my in laws' place.

That excitement lasted maybe fifteen seconds before my four-year-old son, Emerson, put on the brakes and turned puffing with hands of his hips to complain.

"My knees hurt."

Imperfect mother that I am, I actually frowned and rolled my eyes heavenward before my heart caught up with my brain to force a grin and speak words of encouragement over him.

"It's okay, Emerson," I said, jogging past him.  "Keep going.  It'll get easier.  You can do this!  C'mon, catch up!"

Seconds later, he passed me up, then stopped a few feet ahead...again.  Same complaint.

My Emerson is solid and strong like an elephant, completely unlike the light and airy bird that is his twin sister, Amelia.  Then, there is their older brother, Wyatt.  We call him our "gazelle," the competitive one always powering ahead to the blue bird box, then passing up his mother and sister on the run back to the house so he can sit at the finish line and heckle us "slow pokes."

If any one of my children wasn't built for distance running, it's Emerson.

When husband and I decided it would be a good idea for our family to run in the Louisiana Kids' Marathon, I expected this child to have the most trouble with our new running program.

I was wrong.

Almost three weeks into the "training" that will see our family run the full 26.2 miles over nine weeks that the super men and women will run all at once in mid January 2013, I'm learning that my daughter is the one who needs the most encouragement.

Emerson has learned to compete with Wyatt.  No, he never wins, unless big brother stops, distracted by beauty, to pick up red leaves freshly fallen on the drive or is suffering from a cold.  Still, the rivalry between brothers is there, always leaving Amelia and me in the dust.

Ever slow, she is the child most unsure of herself, the one who stumbles and falls when her attention wavers and who craves those positive, verbal reinforcements to constantly propel her forward.

She is also the one who wants so desperately to be like me, especially in this.

Unlike the boys, she never leaves my side unless tired or distracted by a leaf, a pretty rock.  Even then, she catches up and reaches up for my hand.  And so we run, hand in hand, side by side, my long legs slowing to match her shorter, double-time stride.

"I'm exercising! Just like you, mommy!" She grins at me, this vision of boyish femininity in pink tutu. I squeeze her hand and grin back, a mirror separated only by the wrinkles of time.
Our daily run finished, I slip off my running shoes to find they have been displaced by hers, tiny pink sneakers lined up atop the olive green bathroom scales where my shoes have rested for the past two years.

Instead of fussing at her to put them in the cubby where they belong, I quietly sit mine on the floor beside hers.

How can I complain? This is the only mother she ever remembers knowing, the one who has routinely exercised five day a week on the upstairs treadmill since Spring 2011.

She'll tell you why mommy exercises, too.  "To stay healthy for us."


Growing up, exercise was always about losing weight, about the number on the scales. 

When I was much younger, my mother did aerobics, I assume before my brother and I awoke each morning or while we were at school.  All I remember is her white sweatband and the over-sized laminated book demonstrating each exercise in black and white simplicity.  On the front cover was a bright picture of a woman with big 80s hair; a black, skin-tight outfit; and striped, hot pink leg warmers.  Even then, I hated that woman's broad-smiled perkiness and taught figure.

By college, my mother had measured off the circumference of the empty field next to our house, the one designated for summertime baseball games. Together, we spent many happy evenings walking in circles.  But the damage had already been done.

I equated exercise with punishment for being born with genes predisposing me to a tummy that hadn't been flat since the fifth grade.  Exercise was just a reflection of an eternal fight to look like someone I could never be and to always be unhappy with who I was.

In front of the mirror, I still struggle with this definition and God's vision of me as "wonderfully made."  But some words like 'losing weight' or 'fat' never cross the lips of anyone in our house. My struggles are my own.  I refuse to pass them on to my daughter, at least not without a good fight.


This marathon we're running together that takes over two months to run a measly twenty-six miles--it won't impress most people.  But that's not the point.  

For Emerson and Amelia, the point is the "jewelry," the medal at the end.  For Wyatt, it's winning.

For their mother, this is about demonstrating not only in my own personal actions how to take care of the fleshly temple God has given me but to also let my children demonstrate those choices with me by running alongside...or ahead, or behind.

It's about learning by doing, starting early to instill a healthier definition, a different attitude in their malleable minds so that one day, taking care of their own temples will be something that comes naturally even without a mother's nagging voice reminding them to make "healthy choices." 

Friday, November 23, 2012

For the Tech Savvy Child: The Beginner's Bible App

My husband owns a first generation I-pad, a gift from a friend who was trading up.

To date, the only apps we've bought have been two 99 cent Angry Birds games.  My two boys love them, and there's just something about using a slingshot to propel a willing bird at a thieving green piggie.  Then again, their love of the game could be that they're only allowed to play on weekends or Thursday nights with daddy on the way back from ESL class.

While I love the angry eyebrowed flock, I've wanted to expand the apps for my children by offering them an app that focuses on their interaction with the Bible without making it seem like school.  The problem is there are not many Christian based apps out there for children who can't read thus far.  And honestly, I can't see my kindergartner enjoying MacArthur or any other commentary.

Recently, Zondervan released a Beginner's Bible App based on for I-phone and I-pad. 

Our household purchased Zondervan's The Beginner's Bible long ago for our children who quickly fell in love with the quirky looking people in the illustrations.So, this interested us.

The app uses those same stories, same illustrations while a narrator reads them aloud.  I liked that the words lit up on the screen as they were being read so the children could follow along and begin to correlate the written word to the spoken word.  While I was ambivalent about the very basic 2D animation on each page, my children liked that some of the illustrations moved a little bit.

The bad news is you can't just pay once and download the entire app.  You can purchase the Bible app in $1.99 packets that include six stories at a time.  Along with the six stories, there are also three coloring pictures, two puzzles, and one game, one activity corresponding to each story.

The coloring pictures seem to be the favorite, but only because of the "magic paintbrush," which reveals the artist's coloring of the image.  They truly love this.  But, none of my children has bothered with the other paint colors because the app doesn't give them the ability to change the width of their paintbrush strokes, and even my kindergartner easily grew frustrated at his inability to stay in the lines.  The coloring pictures would also be better if they did not stretch to the edge of the I-pad screen, which causes my children to inadvertently exit the program all too often.

The one game that comes with each packet is also simple enough for my four year olds but not really challenging enough to keep their attention for long since there is no way to "level up" and work towards a higher end goal.  For instance, in one game, you fling apples away from the serpent in the tree.  In another, you throw flies out the window.  Fun, but for only so long.  The "instructions" for each game remind me a lot of Angry Birds, with just a simple screen showing an image of what to do with your finger.  The problem? None of my children could figure out what to do even with the image instructions.  A simple sentence would have helped mom figure it out easier.

The puzzles are simple nine-piece drag and drop puzzles.  My four year olds have been putting together 24-piece puzzles for over a year now, so a 9 piece puzzle isn't too much of a challenge.  All three children do enjoy them, but it would be more challenging if they could have levels of difficulty, where they could choose to put a 9-piece of 24-piece puzzle together.

When you download the first six stories for free, it shows the other packets available for purchase to entice you to buy them (and to let your children know there are more stories available that you haven't purchased--sigh).  I know the whole point of an app is to make money, but I would rather Zondervan just charge $4-$5 for the entire Bible versus making me keep go back and pay $2 for each six stories.

After a month, all three of my children (ages four and six) are still using the app, mostly for the puzzles and magic paintbrushes. I enjoy that they have a Bible-based option on the I-pad.

I do recommend this app for very young children (ages six and under).  It's fun. It's Biblically sound.

I simply think it's a little pricey at $2 per six stories and that the Zonderkidz team could make the app even better if it made the activities have different levels of difficulty so there was a challenge and not mere repetition of the same activity over and over.  I would also like to see them add some sort of "quiz" feature to test children's knowledge of the information of the story.

**I have not been paid for this review by Zondervan.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Offering Thanks Through Sorrow

Everyone keeps asking what my family is doing for Thanksgiving.  Are you going anywhere?  How many family members are gathering together?  How big is the turkey? How many desserts will there be?

I fumble over myself, almost embarrassed to explain that there won't be a grand Thanksgiving dinner spread across my mahogany stained table.  Yes, there will be turkey, but cold and tucked inside dinner rolls as sandwiches.  There will be no labor-intensive pans of dressing or overflowing bowls of mashed potatoes filling the house with nostalgic aromas of Thanksgivings gone by, no cranberry sauce made from scratch.  Instead, there will be a salad of fresh lettuce straight from the garden and who knows what else.

My head unconsciously ducks as I reveal the reason for our simple meal. "We're going to have a picnic at Percy Quinn, a state park a little over an hour from here."

My listeners shake their heads politely.  Some express surprise; others change the subject to what they are doing instead.  All have plans far more intricate than mine.

Our family did this once before when I was in college--taking off for a State park.

Last weekend, my mother stated she just was too tired for Thanksgiving this year.  Her shoulders sagged a bit with the telling.  In the long pause, I read more than her words said.  Her son, my brother, and his wife won't be here.  Her daddy is no longer with us.

In short, there is no need for the large meal when our family is planted around the country, unable to come together until the end of the year.  And yes, there still is the tiredness

I understand where it comes from.  I feel it, too.  More emotional than physical, it still feels like both. And so we agree to go back to the park, to revisit this memory of simplicity.

For our family, the months of November and December are like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, swinging wide and high to sadness, then seeming to pause there before barreling down the arc and up again to the other side towards joy before pausing again and repeating itself.

This cycle of contradicting emotions defines the Thanksgiving / Christmas season.

With my brother and his wife along with me and husband celebrating our wedding anniversaries during these months; with the pausing to give thanks for the year's many blessings and the birthday of our Lord Jesus--it is a most celebrated, joyful time that our home looks forward to with great anticipation.

Yet, it is also the most painful time of year.  Just five years ago this November, our family's patriarch, my Grandfather, died.  Last December, my husband's Maw Maw left us to spend Christmas in heaven.

And yesterday, we buried my husband's Aunt Lisa--a beloved aunt, mother, sister, and friend.
Although this is my husband's blood, since my adoption into the family by marriage twelve years ago, it is mine, too.  It is my children's blood.  And so, I grieve with heavy heart.

My sorrow is not so deep for her who is no longer bound fast by strong cords of physical suffering but for her two still-young daughters, for her husband now left alone.

The oldest daughter just slipped a wedding ring on her hand less than a month ago.  We celebrated together at that wedding, another mixture of joy and sadness in this season.  It is a blessing she has a help meet.  It is the youngest I worry about the most, the one who has yet to really find her way in life, is still a free spirit searching for a place to land.

But even through this sadness, I listened yesterday as family around the tables circles round and voiced audible thanks--for happy memories, for each other, for those little mementos of a young mother's love of her daughters yet left behind.

Funerals are a paradox like that--sounds of weeping and laughter, heart's pain at the separation from the one beneath the flowers mixed with heart's joy from the knitting together with those left behind.

This is the only way to truly live.  We allow our hearts to open to those around us by embracing the living and those still alive in our hearts. Then, there is never a time when there is nothing to be grateful for.

Only with tender hearts can we give thanks.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

How to Look for the Double Blessing

You know that coat in the back of your closet? The one you haven't worn in years but can't bring yourself to throw out because you could (theoretically) wear it again someday?

Or maybe it's a dress, a shirt, a pair of pants you've hung onto for a decade or more in hopes (or dread) that it might fit again.

What if I told you these weren't just pieces of fabric that others might classify as old, out-of-fashion, hand-me-down, worthless.  What if, instead, you looked at them with labels such as blessing, gift, ministry?

Even more importantly, what if you truly believed that even hand-me-down clothes could have a God-ordained purpose?

In my heart, I do believe just that.  Everything has a purpose.  All things work together to the glory of God, towards His eternal plan.

The problem is sometimes I am guilty of unconsciously believing that what I consider insignificant and not really useful, God does, too.  Without really thinking about it, I place everything I see, own, or do on a mental chart, each piece ordered in a hierarchy of importance.

The old coat? Box of my daughter's sparkly rocks from the driveway? Stack of children's watercolors from the month? These all get categorized as Unimportant.

My shelf of completed Bible studies? Photo albums? I-phone? Important.

Receipts for the IRS? Birth certificates? Wedding ring? Teaching files? Very important.

Perhaps you're like me and those things, actions, ideas considered to be insignificant or unimportant, we simply overlook.

Yet, what God has been teaching me over the past year is that it's the small, insignificant pieces of life that can hold the most value.

The way to bless others doesn't have to be big, flashy, or front-page news.

To bless others and to be blessed on a daily basis requires us to seek out the small, the seemingly insignificant parts of life, to follow that still, small voice, and to inject Christ's love whenever and wherever.

To bless and be blessed might come from something as insignificant as taking the time to help an old man find a two liter bottle of root beer in Wal-mart. Or of lingering on the phone an extra five minutes with a friend who just needs to talk.

Or, it might come in the form of an old coat.

This past Thursday night, I experienced such a blessing from being able to pass along a few coats to a group of new refugees in my ESL class. The week before, I had asked my church family for help.  Two men offered their gently used coats, and I added them to the few I had found at the thrift store.

I expected to be a blessing to my new guys.

What I didn't expect was to learn that the middle aged refugee I had been teaching all year long, the one whose job is to wash up to five hundred cars a day---he was the one who really needed a coat with a hood to keep him warm this winter. Unbeknownst to me, he had already made his request to the church's pastor a few weeks before.

Although he also was unaware of the specific need, my brother in Christ had given just such a coat--with a hood, the perfect size for this man.

There are no words to communicate how proud my student was of his new coat.  This usually quiet man kept coming to me and giving me thanks when all I had done was deliver the blessing.  I was so very blessed in seeing God at work through something small.

It was humbling and heart warming at the same time, the thought that an idea that we thought began in our own heads began in the mind of God who then warmed our hearts to give.

I know what it is to bless and to be is a chance to see the fingerprints of God in daily life.

Since the birth of my twins, I have been blessed a thousand fold by others' passing along their children's clothes and toys.  I have learned to prefer shopping at America's Thrift over the mall, to be grateful for a closet full of my fashion-savvy mother-in-law's hand-me-downs.  And I have learned how to both receive these blessings and to pass them along to others.

It's what I've come to call a "double blessing," being blessed by the gift and then being blessed by the giving of it again.

It makes me wonder what other blessings we have received are just waiting in the wings to be passed along to another, to bless again.

Monday, November 12, 2012

My Children's Hero

By tonight, most of America has now wiped Veterans Day from its mind as we plod through another nine to five work week. 

My mind continues to dwell there, especially in this week just following the presidential election.  Perhaps it is because I am concerned about this country.  Or maybe it's simply that I feel guilty at how easily I find it to turn my back on all thoughts of our veterans and their sacrifice, like flipping a light switch.

I am guilty of taking for granted my freedoms, for not being thankful enough for those who have served my country.  Yet, it's not because I am unfamiliar with their sacrifice.  My problem comes from being so familiar with sacrifice that it can easily become commonplace.

I grew up with a father who had a shoebox full of black and white images from Vietnam, a few depicting a young man not yet my father, his unwrinkled face sporting a dark moustache and toothy grin as he held a machine gun as large as my car's front seat.  I still have a hard time imagining my father flying an airplane or wielding such a large weapon.

On my upstairs dresser sit portraits of both my World War II veteran grandfathers in full uniform.  I sat for hours with both of them, listening to what they wanted to tell me most--war stories, sadly, most of which I have forgotten.  Although both men are now gone, the images I see each day are of men in their youth, full life ahead of them, children yet unborn.

Even as a child, I knew sacrifice for one's country wasn't just something done in the past but something that must be continued in the present to protect our nation. 

That present included sacrificing my mother's sister and their family as they traveled the world with her spouse, "Uncle Elton," a chaplain for the Navy.  Our visits together once or twice a year were always packed with laughter and love, always ended with tears and the pain that comes from love stretching over the miles.

Now that I have children of my own, they, too, are growing up with a knowledge that sacrifice for one's country is a calling, is just an ordinary part of life.  Like me, they will likely struggle to really appreciate that sacrifice because it is so near.

My children know that Grandaddy fought in some war years before they were born, but to young minds, the present is more important than the past, easier for them to grasp, imagine, hold in their hands and hearts.

The concept of a soldier's sacrifice lives vibrantly in their minds through their Uncle Johnathan, my brother.  As a chaplain in the Navy, Uncle Johnathan (along with Aunt Liza) can't always be at their birthday parties, can't "just come over" as Emerson and Amelia still often ask him to do. 

To my children, Uncle Johnathan is their hero.  He is mine, too.
I give thanks that in this day when so many people let us down that it's almost expected, there still exist real heroes with hearts devoted to God and lives given in service of our country.

May God richly bless them.

Images: Poster for Wyatt's school last week and a painting door prize my mother won at that celebration.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Best Way to Begin the Christmas Season

My children already have Christmas smiles, the kind that melt your heart, that light up not only the whole face but the entire room as well.  Any mother will tell you such smiles are as beautiful as any museum-quality gem and as contagious as laughter, inviting the world to linger and share in their joy.

The beauty of this smile is that it is fueled by a Christmas joy, one that has nothing to do with talk of Santa Claus, sugary treats, decorations, or visions of gifts they would like to personally receive. 

Instead, the joy of Christmas has been glimpsed in three red and green paper shoe boxes lined up on our dining room table, three boxes that contain nothing for us.

While we have participated in Samaritan's Purse and their Operation Christmas Child ministry in the past, this is the first year all three of our children are old enough to really get involved in picking the items for their own boxes.  

Even the dreaded weekly shopping trip turned into a celebration as we marched our very conspicuous empty boxes into Wal-mart.  The children literally bounced up and down the aisles, searching, choosing, seeking to figure out how much could fit inside.

No, a Barbie's legs were too long.  So was Tinkerbell.  The pink sparkly pom poms did fit, but took up too much space that could be used for the bouncy ball, glittered hair clips, and necklace/bracelet set.  
The tie-dyed socks squeezed around the lenticular puzzle, a yo-yo, and a couple matchbox cars.  Then there was the play-dough, Angry Birds stickers, lollipops, toothbrushes, and t-shirts.

At one point, my excited Emerson ran straight up to a stock-lady, his words tumbling over themselves as they told about him buying gifts for a boy and Amelia buying gifts for a girl, both who would get no Christmas presents to remind them that Jesus loved them.
It warmed my heart to see his uncontainable joy at being able to spread the true meaning of Christmas, of Christ giving of Himself for us, of us giving of ourselves to others around the world.

The wonderful news is that this ministry opportunity is open for everyone.  It's not too late for you to pack a shoe box, too, and impact the life of a child this Christmas season.  Operation Christmas Child National Collection week is next week, November 12 – 19, 2012.  To find a drop-off location near you, visit this link.

And the absolute coolest thing?  While you can just use the usual labels on your box, this year, Operation Christmas Child has made it possible to track each shoe box's journey through "Follow Your Box."  By making a $7 donation online to cover shipping and handling costs, we were able to print out special labels with a bar code.  As the box travels, Samaritan's Purse will scan that bar code and send us an email, telling us its destination.  

The children and I are all excited to learn where God will cause those boxes to end up! 

Even as I write this, I know from past experience that as the season gets into full swing, my focus will waver at times from Christ's birth.  

But before the pink aluminum tree comes down from the attic, before the annual family photos are stuffed into cards and envelopes, before the Christmas songs shuffle in the CD changer--this, this seems the perfect way to begin to the season.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A New Place to Gather Together

On my front lawn, a flock of seventy six Canadian geese have already turned South for the winter.  Their loud honks resound through the double-paned glass, announcing webbed feet's return to earth for a breakfast in our hay field.

Closer to my threshold, frost kissed yellow lantana have already withered into brown death while a liberal salt shaker of leaves brightens my gravel driveway anew each morn.

The seasons, they turn ever so quickly.  

Even when I am watching the calendar like an hourglass, when I think my senses are focused, watching, alert...still, I close my eyes to summer and awaken the next dawn to the inescapable presence of autumn surrounding me.  I breathe it into my lungs, feel its dewy coolness reach deep within every exposed pore of my skin.

These are the changes I can prepare for, the ones marked in the Farmer's Almanac.  Then, there are those changes I know will come but just can't really plan for until they are upon me.  Sometimes, these are the ones that are bittersweet.

When we moved into our new home in July of 2010, my parents loaned a small table and four canary yellow 1950s era chairs, the perfect size for two year old twins, a four-year-old big brother, and this mother.

For almost two and a half years, the intimacy of daily life has revolved around that little table more than any other place in our home.

It is there that I taught my Wyatt how to read, to form his letters, to color in the lines.  It is there the children and I gathered each day to give thanks for breakfast and lunch, read the Word of God together.  We danced wild, happy, giggling circles round it, painted enough watercolor masterpieces on its surface to paper the entire room.

We lived, we loved, we gathered there.

But come August, it became obvious that our family had grown beyond what a 29" square table could accommodate.   

Now at six and four years old, the children's art projects, books, schoolwork, cups, plates, utensils--they overlapped, covered, infringed upon--we simply did not fit anymore.

This table that had long brought us together was now causing division, bickering.

And so, I began my search for what I have now learned the industry calls a "gathering table," a name, a God-incidence, that still makes me smile.

This past week, we have gathered anew around a larger rectangle, this one counter height and with more than four chairs so even our six foot tall daddy can join with us. 
Once again, the children and I pull out the paints and pencils, books and paper, working separately and together in the same space.  I have even begun to teach the twins how to read just as I did with their older brother at the smaller table in this space two years ago.

Like every change, this one, too, means letting go.  Yet, it is a choice to live in the past or to embrace the present and celebrate life, joy, and family.

We choose joy.

Images: The morning after we moved into our new home--July 6, 2010--and present day, almost 2 1/2 years later.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Evenings are Not For Ourselves

When husband comes in from a long day at the office, I know the thing he'd like to do most is flip a switch and turn himself off, just focus on something, anything mindless for a half hour or more.

Before children, he could do just that.  Each evening's routine involved him shelving the wingtips and exchanging the decorative hangman's noose, crisp white straight jacket, and knee-high black compression tubes for threadbare jeans, a t-shirt, and white Hanes socks.

I cooked supper while he collapsed in his easy chair before an old episode of MASH or a football game.  With a chilled can of Dr. Pepper in hand, he simply disappeared for a half hour.

Now with twin four year olds and a kindergartner, disappearing is not an option.

The children go outside most evenings ostensibly to play, but I know what they're really doing--watching, waiting for daddy to turn the corner of the driveway and make his way across the hay field to them.

Mommy is expected to be here always.  But Daddy?  He is special, the much-awaited one whose coming is celebrated by squeals of delight.

Long before husband turns the knob to come inside, he has been mobbed.

Even from the kitchen, I can hear those knock-down bear hugs and loud clamoring for attention, for the chance to tell daddy something about the day first

These short spaces between our days and our nights no longer belong to husband or to me as individuals but to each other as a family.

And so, the five of us gather most nights of the week around a home cooked (or at least can-opened / defrosted / reheated) meal where we take turns sharing the best and worst  (or "baddest" as the twins call it) things about our day.

We speak aloud our joys and those parts we wish had happened differently, our successes and our failures.  While one good and bad thing is required of all, some days, a whole list tumbles out across the table.

On one particularly hard day, Amelia stopped my more-than-one-thing bad list, saying, "Uh....that's enough."  The good days, though, are filled with little ones struggling to find a worst part to their day.  When that happens, Emerson always says, "The baddest thing today was that I didn't get to go to the fair."

Then, in that short space after dinner but before bath, book, and bed time, my six foot plus man folds down to little people size.  In this three foot tall world, he gives horsie and piggy-back rides, races die cast cars, plays hide and seek, puts on or takes off a pile of dress up costumes, or referees a board game.

My children's faces have glowed especially bright this past week as they've laughed at daddy's inability to play a new game from Emerson's fourth birthday party.

It has been an absolute riot to watch two boys try and set up the hardest layout possible for their father, then their sister climb on daddy's shoulders for a bird's eye view of a valiant attempt to aim and fire three rubber birds at a tower of plastic wood and pigs.

Misses are met with taunts from the boys while direct hits on the plastic green pigs are met with uproarious celebration.

I know it would be so much easier for him to just say, "Daddy has had a hard day.  Go play with your brother and sister."  It would be easy to just sit them before a Charlie & Lola or Veggie Tales video or to even simply hand over the Ipad with the electronic version of Angry Birds.

But this?

This is a choice to invest in one another, to invest in family, to invest in joy.

Monday, October 29, 2012

When Not Everyone Will Be Your Friend

Even from half a football field away, I can see my oldest son's face crumpled in anguish, streaked cheeks catching the afternoon sunlight as he stumbles down the school bus steps and hurtles across the gravel towards me.

His every step is slower, heavier than normal, that light, carefree bounce I can't imitate if I try completely absent.  I walk more swiftly to meet him halfway, fighting a motherly urge to just run and catch all fifty pounds up in my arms, lifting him in an embrace for all to see.

Wyatt is still too young to be ashamed of tears, of running into mommy's waiting arms while a whole bus-full of children stare out of cloudy rectangle eyes.  Still, I am aware that day is coming and try to let him take the lead in how much emotion he's willing to share in public.

A couple weeks ago when this same teary scene played out, his small frame literally folded at my feet so that I, too, had to sit in the dirt, draw him onto my lap, and rock him until the worst of the storm had passed.

Today, though, our thick, puffy coats, thin bluejeans, and the fading light say it is too cold to sit on pebbles until the waterfall dams up.

When he reaches me, all he can choke out before falling into my chest is, "I really don't think he wants to be my friend." 

This.  Again.

Hand in hand, I guide him inside Oma's house where the twins are gleefully underfoot in the kitchen, supper preparations filling the air with smells of warm goodness.

Yet, even the unmistakable aroma of brownies fails to entice him as he moves down the hall to the solitude of the unheated bathroom.  I follow, turn on the room's small space heater and sit by the radiating warmth of its glowing zigzags.

Through his sobs, I make out a tale of being falsely accused by his seatmate of taking a paper, of that same boy tattling to the substitute bus driver, and of that poor, poor man fussing at Wyatt to put it back where it belonged.

While this is the present symptom, it's just one of two dozen or more that speak to a deeper hurt--that this little boy doesn't want to be Wyatt's friend.  It's something he can't comprehend, why anyone wouldn't want to be kind and friendly, why anyone wouldn't want to hear his story, look at his Scooby Doo book, or just simply talk with him.

I've tried explaining that it is impossible for everyone to be his friend.  I've shared my own stories of mean children not liking me in grade school. I've suggested ignoring him, praying for him.

He and I have brainstormed reasons why this little boy may say cruel things to Wyatt.  Perhaps he's very tired or sick.  Perhaps he doesn't know how to be friends.  Perhaps he doesn't have a mommy or a daddy.  Perhaps he doesn't have Jesus in his heart to teach him how to love others.

Logic, though, doesn't touch an injured heart. Hurt is hurt.

"It was a perfect day," he sniffles, pauses, tears starting to cease.  "Except for the bus."  And with those words, the second wave begins.

I don't tell him his feelings are wrong.  I don't tell him he is a big boy who must get over it and move on, even though this is the truth of life he will have to learn himself.  I simply sit in the soothing whir of the heater's fan blades and make shushing sounds as I rock my firstborn on the floor.

After awhile, he reaches his arms completely around me and draws me closer.  I whisper that daddy will speak with the bus driver and ask if perhaps he can move to a different assigned seat. 

This rejection--it's hard enough for adults to deal with.  I'm thirty five; both head and heart still feel the sting when I receive a negative comment on this blog or when someone is overtly rude to me because of my Southern accent, my faith, my appearance, my whatever.  But not understanding why everyone can't like you just as you are is devastating for a five year old.

I can't protect him from everything, much as I'd like to.  The comfort of returning to the safe haven that is his home won't block out the pain inflicted by the world outside the farm. It won't keep out those who would rather bully you than befriend you.

This is simply the curse of sin, the pain and division it causes to to all living under the curse.

But understanding that doesn't heal the heart of a hurting little boy.  Only God and a whole lot of love can do that.

In his own time, Wyatt unfolds himself, gives me a weak smile, then asks, "Can I have a brownie now?"

Sunshine peeks through a crack in the clouds.

Friday, October 26, 2012

What to Do When You Lose Sight of Yourself

If the calender depicted this past week as a child's see-saw, there would be a five hundred pound feed sack sitting immovable at the far end.  High up on Monday, I would be hanging on for dear life as my body slipped slowly down the board to that box marked "Saturday."

The phrase "It's all downhill from here" would apply, but not in a good way.  I can almost feel myself going downhill towards insanity, becoming that someone I don't want to be anymore.

With all three of my children's birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all falling during the last three months of the year, I find myself Spring Cleaning in the fall when rooms full of people start trickling into my house.

Sure, I clean, on a daily basis, as every woman must.  But, getting my house ready for family and friends to come over for an official visit brings out the absolute worst in me.  

I wonder WHO ingrained in us this obsessive burden, this crazy need to make all things appear perfect for company?

In other countries, there may be a hut and a dirt floor, which is brushed out each morning, and that's it.  There is no fretting over the dirt that swirls through the sheet in the doorway, just thanks for a roof overhead and food in the belly.

I know this and have intentionally forced myself over the past year to give those "come as you are" invites of the moment.  I have worked to grow comfortable with opening my not-your-Southern-Living house.  If there is a thick layer of dust quilting the television, folded laundry still waiting to be tucked away, a labyrinth of books at your feet, or water colored paintings wallpapering the kitchen counters, the clutter is almost excusable.

But come October, I feel the pressure.  My vision shifts to finally see the red clay hand prints on every light switch and door jamb, the gray sheen on those high shelves I hardly ever glance at, the small toys not quite invisible under the La-Z-boys. 

This normal mother who cultivates a quasi-chaotic haven for creativity suddenly develops unreasonable expectations.  Insanity sets in with the belief that this house can be whipped into streamlined perfection for just one week.

I snap at children for Lego projects left in the kitchen.  I snap at husband for not doing something to help. I snap at myself for not getting it all done faster, better, earlier.

Can't they see the dust on that chandelier? those fan blades? The tarnished finger streaks around the stainless steel canisters in the kitchen? the toothpaste on the bathroom mirror that no one but mommy can scrub off?

What is wrong with me!?  Where is the woman who learned love and hospitality were more important than perfection?

It's sad how quickly I can lose sight of her. 

Last night, I left the vacuum cleaner, floor polish, and laundry hamper to drive into the city and teach ESL to a small group six.  Five smiling men in ironed button-down shirts worked to learn their third language.

Sudan. Libya. Eritrea. Ethiopia.

A hair dresser.  A mechanic.

All five less than a week into their new life as refugees in America.

At least for a few hours, I escaped back to reality where there is no concern about dust, about what the new boyfriend in the family might think of my home, about whether I'll succeed with my fondant/butter cream/gum paste cakes for the twins.

This reality is one where five kind, intelligent men have no jobs, where before the end of the year, they will be on their own without a shred of government support.  These men's needs were simple--shampoo, laundry soap, and dish washing liquid.

If I were dishonest, I'd end here with something profound about my chiropractor God giving me a major adjustment so that suddenly, my priorities were realigned.

But that's not quite the truth.

Instead, I drove back home with two worlds trying to coexist inside my head--the one where I'm not the psychotic mother and wife obsessed by an unrealistic image of the perfect setting for people to gather together...and the other where I know deep down that stuff doesn't matter.

I don't have it all together.  All I can do is pray for the Helper to give me grace to make complete what is not, to focus on what I already know to be true, and to ask forgiveness along the way when I slip into that other person more concerned with the things of this world than with the hearts and souls of those around me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fighting for Our Little Girls

I watch my daughter stand before the full-length mirror, swaying first to the right, then the left.  She smiles, frowns, makes a dozen more faces as I get ready for the morning race to the bus stop.

Amelia's face draws so close to the glass, her breath leaves a foggy mist for just a few seconds before vanishing.  What she can be looking at eludes me.  Her face is smooth, unwrinkled by time and unscarred by the sun or a bad case of the chicken pox like her mother's face.  When I look at her, I see my deep brown eyes set in a frame that can be described as nothing but beautiful.

Still, her eyes narrow as she puts her hand to her right cheek, swipes pudgy fingers backwards towards her hairline, and frowns, displeased by what she sees.

"Mommy.  I have moles.  Why do I have moles?"

Amelia is days away from her fourth birthday.  She's too young for this sudden scrutiny of her body's appearance.

She doesn't live in a household where this mother spends hours on her appearance.  Make-up is for trips to town, date night, or looking my best for God.  Nail polish is for parties.

She's never seen me try on two or three outfits and fuss that I have nothing to wear.  While we regularly use the word "beautiful" when describing a particular outfit or extra time spent on fixing hair, appearance is not something we dwell upon mainly because I am hyper conscious of how much pressure is put on young girls to look a certain way.

I don't want her to end up like me, a woman in her mid-thirties who still can't believe her husband finds her beautiful. He can say it a thousand times, and still, I expect him to change his answer, tell me he never really meant it.

In this house, the only time I use the word "ugly" is when a child screws up his or her face into a deep frown to express disapproval over something mommy has done.  That sort of attitude is always ugly.

Somehow, though, here we are, mother and daughter having a conversation about her beauty.

I stoop to look closely at her face to see the defect she has discovered.  My fingers trace a line of Hershey brown freckled dots run from the bridge of her nose across to her ear.  Hollywood would call them "beauty marks."

She smiles and giggles at my touch.  "That tickles, mommy."

I cup her face and raise it to lift mine, tell her this is how God chose to make her unique, so there would be no one exactly like her in the whole world.  I explain that she is just like her mommy and her Grand mama, inheriting this predisposition somewhere tucked away in her double helix.

She examines my arms to confirm this fact, pointing out the tiny pinpoints not even my closest friends have probably ever noticed.

Then, I spin her around to face the mirror again.

"Look," I say counting each tiny dot.  "They make a constellation.  Remember those star pictures in the sky at night? The ones we studied last week in Sunday School when we learned about how God gave Abraham as many descendants as the stars in the sky?  God painted one of those constellations right on your face."

Her face breaks open in a wide grin.  "YEAAAAHHH!  A constellation!"

And that's it.  She runs out of the bathroom, loudly proclaiming to her brothers this exciting news.

For now, it is the right answer. But it is also a reminder that helping her understand and honestly believe that God made her beautiful inside and out is a war that has already begun.

It is a battle we mothers and fathers must fight daily for our little girls, not one where we merely sit back and wait for the questions to come but one where we are on the offense, exposing the lies before they have a chance to take root.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Unearthing More Stereotypes

A small "oh" of surprise escaped my lips as I came to an abrupt stop  in the neighborhood where we were prayer walking.

Before me in the semi-open doorway stood a rough looking young man about my age.  His three day stubble; wrinkled, sleeveless undershirt; and unkempt presence at home after 9 am instantly sounded the warning bells in my head.  Add to that extremely well muscled upper arms decorated with intricate black line tattoos arms and an unlit cigarette--he looked like one of the bad guys from one of the shoot-em-ups on television, so much so that I could actually feel the surge of adrenaline making my heart pump harder.

While I meet people all the time prayer walking, my son had run up the walk before me and had been perched for at least ten seconds on a plastic lawn chair he had found in the "shade" of this man's two-foot-wide porch.  Emerson was completely oblivious to the fact that the man was standing there or that his mama had just been frightened.

After nervously laughing at my snafu, I smiled and pushed towards him the tract and invitation to our church's Fall Festival.  I quickly spit out my explanation, that we were praying for his neighborhood today and would love for him and his children or his family's children to come to our festival on Halloween night.

Honestly? I fumbled over the words.  I used the Word of God as a defensive weapon, a piece of paper to physically separate me from him, not connect me to him.

Still, he acted like he didn't notice my reaction to his appearance, shook his head affirmatively at the mention of children, then said, "Thank you.  God bless you."

I have been prayer walking almost every Thursday morning for a little over a year now.  This is the very first time anyone has said "God bless you."

This man, the one with the huge muscles, big tattoos, and cigarette--the one who made me fearful because of stereotypes I still hold onto in my heart--he is the one who spoke God's blessing down on me when so many others whom I have unconsciously stereotyped positively have ignored me or simply given the courteous Southern thank you before racing away.

As I drove away, I felt ashamed that with all God has done to help rid my heart of discrimination of others who are of a different culture or a different social class as I am, I still continue to find other vestiges of discrimination hiding in the shadows.

With this event fresh on my mind, I picked up my oldest son, Wyatt, from a half day at school and drove the four of us into the city for a special lunch with their daddy.   After the chicken and french fries were all but gone, Wyatt pointed out the window and said, "That lady looks just like you, mommy."

I turned, scanned the entire parking lot, but still saw only one person.  Could he be speaking of the tall, slender black woman with dark curly hair.  A bit surprised, I turned to him and replied, "Yes, she has very curly, dark hair like mommy, doesn't she?  I think she does look a lot like me."

He smiled, pleased that I agreed, then said very matter-of-factly, "Yeah, except she has brown skin."

Yes.  That she did.  But she was "just like me" in every other way.

I honestly believe the Father ordained both my encounters, one to show me stereotypes I still need to work on recognizing, confronting, and overcoming...and the other to show me how far I have come in my own heart so much so that I have impacted my children to see curly hair before skin color, to see sameness before difference.

I am a work in progress. But I am thankful that my Father doesn't give up on me, that He keeps challenging me to confront a form of discrimination so I can truly love as He loves.

Image: This print, titled “America in My Book,” depicts a map of the good ol’ US of A based on silly stereotypes that any American is familiar with. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

One Hour at Death's Door

The lunchroom with its labyrinth of tables always seems to have the same number of people scattered around.  It always looks like less, but each time, I do a head count of twenty to twenty-five.  Never more.

Most sit alone, many sleep, their hunched over forms quiet at a round table large enough to hold a company of eight.  Yet, even those who sit two by two are alone, physically side by side though never speaking to one another.   It's as if this is not the place to make friends since most all are just passing through.

I have been going to the nursing home for several years now, one hour on the third Tuesday of every month.  One thing I have noticed is how the faces are rarely the same. While the turnover rate in such a facility has something to do with the random attendance, the truth is that most of them didn't come for a church service.

Some are waiting for coffee.  Some are waiting for their rooms to be cleaned so they can go back down the hall.  Others haven't moved since morning exercise, scheduled right before our half hour church service.

The woman who once grabbed my son Wyatt's stuffed Tigger and took off with it down the hall isn't there. Instead, a burly man sits at the far back table in front of the coffee pot.  He can't be older than my own father, a fact confirmed by the black military cap pulled down low on his brow, the word "Vietnam" embroidered in gold across the front.  Centered among the colored bars and stripes that all hold some unknown meaning is a pewter pin of a long barreled rifle.

I try to strike up a conversation, tell him that my father flew planes over there, but he isn't interested.  Although it sounds awkward, I feel compelled to speak the words, "Thank you for your service to our country."

He mumbles a thanks, and I move on.

Up front are a couple of the "regulars," those I would miss if they weren't there. 

One sports a new silver brace on her pinky finger--broken.  Last year, her arm was broken when she fell in the shower.  Today, she wears the same white silken muumuu dress as last time, the pretty one with the cardinal red paisley pattern. I give her a hug and smile, make some comment about her not being able to crochet until it heals.

She asks the twins for a hug, and they smile shyly as always before wrapping their arms around her girth.  It's like having another grandma.  She loves my small children, covets the hugs and energy found in such compact forms. 

Then, one of the wheelchair-bound men waves me over.  He tells me the same story every time I visit, as it's a story I could ever forget, the one about him having three holes in his heart when he was born.  He knows my face by now and holds his arm out, uncontrolled, until I grasp it for a firm handshake.

He is one who always wears a soiled dishcloth bib, whose peppery mustache and chin are almost always coated with remnants of his last meal of his ever-present frozen Coke

As the pastor brings the message, I watch this man spoon the oatmeal to his mouth.  He holds the spoon carefully above the bowl, patiently waiting for the brown-cinnamon goo to ooze off both sides.  Only then does he carefully lift it to his mouth.  He tries valiantly.  But with wobbly hands, he is no marksman.

Two seats by the piano are empty, those ladies likely down the hall at the Catholic service where another small group gathers to pray the rosary each morning at ten.  Of all the people I've encountered, they're the only two I've never seen separately.  One in a steel gray bun high on her head, the other with silver waves cropped above her shoulders--each visit, they claim they didn't know we were coming, and ask when we're coming back. Always the same question.  Always the same answer.

I wonder about the man who always came dressed in well-worn black slacks and a button-down long sleeve white shirt a couple sizes too small for his now-expanded waistline.  He always requested the same hymn.  I played it once.

While my children don't remember, I think of Maw Maw being in this service last November, just once as she passed through the home on her way out of this life. Even then, she didn't really remember me, although she played it off quite well.

Sometimes, I wonder if my actions make any difference.  My piano playing isn't anything worth noting unless you want to count the number of wrong notes.  My pastor is the one who does the important part by sharing the Word of God. All I do is give a few hugs, shake a few hands, offer a few words of encouragement and concern, and send my children around the room to "show Jesus' love." 

It's thirty days until my next visit....that's a long time in a place like this.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The God of Photography--Who Knew!?

As one who has been blessed the past few years to teach a full time load during the regular school year as well as the summer semester, those two to three weeks between posting that last student's grade and emailing out first day syllabi are precious.

While that time is still full of work to prepare for the following term, it is also a time for playing 'catch up' with those items I really want to do.  Putting photos in albums, crocheting, reading a book for pleasure, researching ideas for the next seasonal or birthday party, or even something as simple as shopping--those things I can never find the time for get placed on one of my infamous "between semester" bucket lists.

Among the usual entries for this time of year was a long-growing desire I'd finally felt certain enough was God-given to voice in print.

 See @ photography class.

Unlike some pipe dreams that I didn't have a chance of accomplishing within a two week time frame (like crocheting a whole boy Pilgrim doll), this was actually possible.  The problem was I had no idea how to make it happen and even less of an idea of who I could contact for advice.  The only photography class I knew existed was at our State's flagship university, and that wasn't going to happen--financially or time wise.

And so, that line sat untouched while I plowed through the list, crossing out some and conceding others for the next inter-semester break at Christmas.

Then, five days before the semester started, I received an email from a friend of a friend--the online deal service Groupon was offering a one night 3 1/2 hour introduction to photography for a third of the normal price.

One night? Forty dollars?  I had goosebumps from seeing His fingerprints all over this desire in my soul and then fulfilling it when I could not.

A few weeks and one crazy drive into the city later, I dropped off the children with husband to sit in a large hotel conference room with fifty others who all wanted to understand how to take better photographs, how to use those buttons on their fancy SLR cameras...and how to decipher a foreign vocabulary of words like ISO, F stop, exposure compensation, metering, and aperture priority.

Two male teachers walked to the front of the room and began introducing themselves.  Instantly, the one named Randy left no doubt I was in the right place.

"Photography is all about light," he began.  "All you see is light.  You don't see the tree.  You only see the tree if light bounces off it."

With those words, I was back in my small college philosophy class of six studying Plato, listening to my professor say, "What surrounds us are not really trees.  They're just shadows, feeble representations of 'tree-ness' that stem from the realm of ideal where the perfect, true idea of a tree exists."

Even back then, I couldn't understand how my peers couldn't make the leap from this philosophy to a concept of God.  And here it was again--nothing exists in its fullness unless God shines His light on it. He is the author and finisher of all that surrounds us.

As I sat there dumbfounded at this sudden lesson on God's daily presence, the teacher continued, "Light's job is to move from its source.  It goes to the darkness and wakes it up.  Light is always moving from its source toward the darkness."

Yes.  His light is all about awakening our souls.  His light reflects off those who are His so that the world sees the light, not the individual. Although I didn't know it, this was the lesson I really came to hear.

A month later, every time I pick up my camera, I can't help to look for Him, for the light that has the power to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

This is my lifelong desire, and not just in terms of photography.  I am a seeker of light, not for my own glory but for His alone.  May others look at me and see nothing but the Son.