Thursday, July 28, 2011

As Simple As Black and White

Simply friends and sisters in Christ
I just finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, and I'm trembling on the inside. I grew up in Biloxi, Mississippi, three hours away from Jackson, the setting of this story. The street and church names are familiar to me, and I have shopped at Jitney Jungle. (Yes, there were real grocery stores called Jitney Jungle — JJ in my checkbook.)

My mom was raised by a black maid named Ruby, although I'm pretty sure I only know Ruby from the few stories my mom has told. The most vivid are of Ruby wringing the neck of a chicken from the back yard to cook for dinner, and Mom teaching Ruby to drive on Brodie Road. Brodie Road was was where I lived as a girl, one generation removed from black maids in white Southern households. So I'm not overstating it when I say I tremble.

I thought the white women in the story were overdone, with caricature amounts of catty and shallow, but a friend who lived in the South in the '60s and read the book says, "It really was like that." And perhaps it's true with their silver table settings, bridge club meetings, and women's leagues. Sad.

There was a Jitney Jungle in New Orleans, too, right beside the seminary where Mike and I lived for almost three years.  The seminary was known as an oasis because the campus was a safe haven in an otherwise "rough" area of the New Orleans inner city.  I have to admit I stopped alone in that Jitney one night late (it was unavoidable) and I was the only white person in there. 

I was afraid.

But was it black skin or inner city desperation that leads to drugs and crime that unnerved me? I'll never really know.

Years later, we find ourselves in Columbia, South Carolina, leading a multi-cultural congregation. A racially mixed church doesn't just happen by chance in Columbia, South Carolina, not even in the 21st century. History can be hard to shake. But we were intentional about it, going into housing projects and family shelters to minister. And the God who will have every tribe and tongue and nation and people group in heaven blessed our efforts to cross socio-economic and cultural boundaries with the cross.

 Now, my kids are growing up as witnesses that every dividing difference can and should be overcome by the body of Christ. We have embraced food-stamp recipients and former drug-addicted prisoners as equal, valuable, contributing members of our church. The blood of Jesus and love really do cover a multitude of sins and transforms us, even the well-educated suburbanites among us.

This book poignantly explores our hang-ups, our short-comings, our fears, our ignorance, our courage — both black and white, and how complicated relationship can be when squeezed by social conformity. It portrays the audacity to look at the failings of the past as something that can stop at any given time, if we would deem them important enough and take the risk.

Sure, there was some foul language from several of the characters, but I'm glad I didn't let that or the ugly issues this book addresses keep me from its lessons. We, in our selfish insecurities, have made much gray area out of what should be as simple as black and white.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

For Love

When I crested the hill and saw the parking lot so full, I had to swallow them hard. The tears surprised me with their early defiance. The sanctuary was overflowing to the balcony, so many come to celebrate thirty-seven years of a life lived in abandon to Christ. Jennifer's last nine months were spent in a slow graceful submission to cancer. She was thirty-seven, and I think of Mike when he had cancer. He, too, had been thirty-seven. 

I sat alone and scanned the room for familiar faces. It's been fifteen years since Mike was Jennifer's minister. She was a twenty-year-old nursing student back then. It's like balm to go back, see old friends, be strengthened by memories. I hugged Christy, her sister, and she asked if we could see one another soon. "Yes, soon," I say over her husband, Ashley's shoulder, as he is next in line to hug. I squeeze the hand of Jennifer's husband, a man I've never met, and look sadly into his eyes. He smiles back brave, all for love.

And there we all are, a mass of humanity, facing death, facing life, looking back, being forced forward. We hold each other up, all for love.

Mike could have died at thirty-seven, me widowed at thirty-four. This same room of people would have attended his funeral. It could have been right here in this very sanctuary. Our three kids may have never known their dad. They were only three, four and seven, so very young. But he was spared. I was. Our children, too.

Two days ago we sat in a restaurant to celebrate the life of another who walked away after a fall from a roof to asphalt below that should have been fatal one year ago this week. Without explanation, he lived. God is so good.

And why do some live and some die? Why is there a brain tumor, and a surgery that ends with no brain activity, and a forty-four year old mom just gone? Why do families have to drive home alone? Is God so good then, too?

Why the shooting, a needless violence, a teenager dismissed from this life with the thin smoke of a tragic amount of gunpowder. A family coagulates at the point of the wound, the fatal one. All for love.

We are in such need of you, Lord. And it's so hard not to ask why. What kind of God doles out good and bad both, so seemingly arbitrary in his giving of life and death? I see no logic in it, so there is room for only faith. I swallow again, and dab another tear that escapes the floodgates holding back hard.

Scriptures rotate on the screen behind the singers, all friends of mine from long ago, but sisters in Christ still today. Those rotating scriptures are recycled, because they are the ones Jennifer chose herself, not for her funeral, but as text messages to support a group of her loved ones. She sends them, the one dying encouraging the living, because that's just who Jennifer was. All for love.

And I sit tonight weary from three days of emotion, but glad for a Father to run to when there has been three tragic deaths in as many days dotted with the remembrances of two that were spared. When hearts break, when tears flood, when relief sighs heavy, and when questions come, He is there. Simply there for love.

I'm grateful for Him to walk with this Wednesday, to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.  Remembering Jennifer, Catrina, Boyd's nephew, Steve's miracle, and every day I've had with Mike since he was thirty-seven and it was found to be cancer.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Dirt

This mound of dirt gives me hope.

We live behind the elementary school and pass by both the middle and high schools on our way to most everywhere we go, and we've watched work being done all summer long at all three schools.  The middle school is almost done. The replacing of the parking lot lights at the high school looks like the rapture happened because they took the old ones down about three weeks ago and have done nothing further.  At the elementary school there's been a flurry of activity, too.  They dug up the pavement in the bus rider road and repaved.  They've boarded up every glass door, awaiting replacements. And just this week, the dirt arrived.

It's the end of July and summer is getting by me way too fast this year.  Perhaps it's because I've been off at work this summer for the first time since I had kids.  Perhaps it's because I'm older, my kids are older, and time really does go by faster and faster the older you get, just like they say.

This is supposed to be the point in the summer when moms are tired of the mess, the constant food, the bored bickering.  Moms are supposed to be ready for routine and schedules and bedtimes again by now, but I'm not. And it's all going to end in four more short weeks, ready or not.

Then I see the new mound of dirt. The playground is a pile of dirt, one last project getting under way before the start of school.

There is still time this summer for more.

My house is also a pile of dirt:  the dirt created by a family who is simply, beautifully there, and the dirt that we all are because that's what God used to craft each of us from. So I'm embracing dirt, heaping it up as high as I can these last few weeks, because soon it will all be leveled out and my kids will head back out to the playing fields of their school days soon enough. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Hot Sticky Thick of Things

The high today is 102. Even at 6:30 this morning it was 81 with a heat index of 87. The birds weren't chirping. It's downright oppressive out there. So when we aren't absconding ourselves off to my brother-in-law's pool, we're hiding in the air-conditioning, the five of us, sliding slick between laughter and fighting, computer overdose and boredom. It's July, and the dog days of summer didn't wait for August to show up. But I am not complaining, because in this thick and sticky press of Us, the things I'm grateful for rise like heat, and I can't wait til Monday to count them.  Numbers 468 - 497:

~ summer heat forcing a slow-down
~ teens in the pool, their fluid water games making solid memories
~ a hug from her when she's crying at the end of the book
~ and I smell soap, feel her shower-damp hair
~ books so good you cry at the end
~ a new summer salad recipe for dinner
~ summer reading
~ overcoming fear and singing for love
~ her feeling of accomplishment that shows in the smile
~ being proud of that, too
~ very berry smoothie from McDonald's
~ the desire to explain myself
~ how cute Boomer looks when he needs grooming
~ air conditioning, open-toe shoes, sleeveless shirts
~ sunglasses
~ a beautiful quinceneara celebration

~ cousins who are friends and growing up together
~ a friend who comes to the rescue with flashing lights when I'm stranded on the interstate
~ an evening on the deck at dusk to doze
~ godly historical perspective from Historian David Barton
~ political leaders that might possibly be restoring my faith in them and the process
~ tomatoes, peaches, and watermelon, this season's bounty, when it's too hot for anything else
~ menu inspiration after a summer of my menu-planning drought
~ ice skating in July for the skater-girl
~ celebrating anniversaries of God's amazing grace with friends
~ the look, the feel, and the smell of my freshly mowed yard
~ the way things work out, especially when they weren't how we planned them
~ baffled doctors with good reports for our Guatemala kids
~ July heat that smokes out summer blessings

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dear Pastor Yousef

Dear Pastor Yousef imprisoned by the Islamic government of Iran,

A small congregation in the United States of America prayed for you this morning. My hope is that you felt our prayer.

But I don't write to inform you of our prayers; I write to ask your forgiveness.

You have the world's attention right now.  You are making global headlines with your impossible choices:

Option A -- Renounce Christ,
Option B -- Deny that you once adhered to the Muslim faith,
Option C -- Die for your surrender to Christ,
and the world is watching.

My own struggles and options are vastly different from yours.  Mine involve being patient with my children, not yelling at them, finding time to devote to prayer, the possibility of being dismissed as stupid, silly or irrelevant  by my neighbor if I dare mention the name of Jesus at the mailbox. Mundane things like that, and how glad I am the world is not watching me.

You appear to be winning your battle and I appear so often to lose my own. That I even call these issues struggles indicts me.

Much suffering has been endured by men, women, even children for their fidelity to Jesus Christ, and you have entered the ranks of such men. When I behold you and your impossible choices, I feel ashamed -- ashamed that I squander much of my opportunity and freedom to serve the Lord wrestling foes that should have long been defeated by a Christian of thirty years.

So I write, not to share our prayer for you, nor burden you with my disgraceful struggle with my complicated and spoiled American faith, but to ask your forgiveness.  My soft Christianity makes your bold and courageous stand and potential fall for Christ (as in fallen soldier) a little in vain.  You are overcoming fear in the face of imprisonment and probable execution while I struggle at the mailbox and in my safe living room. My actions do not honor yours.

I am supposed to be a fellow soldier, and I have rarely shown up for duty 100%, duped thinking it's not necessary to really surrender it all. Could I? Would I? I don't dare ask myself. But there you are, not only on the front line, but now in enemy territory, held captive by men who would seek your demise. Yet I imagine you see them as fellow men for whose sin Jesus likewise came to die. I am absent from the battle because R and R (rest and relaxation) is at my disposal and easier.

I do not apologize for facing fewer and less intense trials. I apologize that in light of your faithfulness unto death and in light of Jesus' example of embracing the cross for the joy set before him, I have failed miserably. I have compromised my faith in the sheer admission that these mild issues of ridicule and being dismissed by others and losing my temper with my teenagers are even trials. To me these have been my theatres of defeat.  To you they must seem like a box of green toy soldiers.

I count it God's grace that he would even allow me the privilege of praying for your comfort and encouragement and be of any use to you at all.

Your life, and perhaps your death, cause me to take note of your condition and mine both.  Whether or not Jesus stands and watches as He did when Stephen was martyred, I kneel and take note:
--of your options,
--of my own,
--of your complete fidelity and tried surrender to the goodness of God rather than the evil manipulations and threats of your captors.
Should you share in the sufferings of Christ to the point of death, I will be left alive in my free society and in my western standard of living with many resources at my disposal to be faithful to Him in life, just as you are in probable death.

Please forgive me for my being less than completely faithful in lesser trials. Your devotion is not without consequence. But neither is mine, and you teach me that. So your life, your death, and your faith are not in vain. They are to God's glory. Mine must be, too.

May you and your loved ones feel Yahweh's presence ever with you to hem you in.

Your fellow soldier reporting for duty,
Dawn in America

{Click here for more details so you, too, can pray for Pastor Yousef.}

:     :     :

In spite of and a little because of Pastor Yousef, I continue to count my blessings : :  #443 - 467

~religious freedom
~prosperity and abundant resources available to the American army of God
~so great a cloud of witnesses that has gone before us
~that no death which serves the purpose of God is in vain
~that the same is true of lives lived for God's glory
~mercy applied to weakness
~forgiveness and redemption
~faith that can grow from seed to towering mustard tree
~things fully surrendered
~physical safety in a civil society
~cool Sunday morning in July
~finding a surprise love song in my inbox
~perseverance in trials, from toy-soldier intense to spiritual-battle-military-theatre intense
~God's endurance and notice of me both
~that He would include me in His will, His work, and His way
~inspiring faith in the face of persecution
~inspiring faith without facing persecution
~prayer and God's presence so close it's within us
~that He never leaves us nor forsakes us
~the things of Earth growing strangely dim
~the care of Jesus
~entrusting myself to that care as many times as it takes
~His patience with me until I get it right
~that He would entrust his kingdom to mere Spirit-filled humans
~promises that are Yes and Amen -- every time.

Sharing these trying thoughts with Ann and with Graceful Michelle this week.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On the Wings of Song

I remember him vaguely from when I was a girl of about seven.  Uncle Jack was delighted to see us kids, and would kiss my cheek with his thin, wet lips, and bump my jaw with the point of his chin and my cheekbone with his prominent Portuguese nose. I dutifully received his unpleasant kisses. He was short and gray-haired, and he played the tiple.  I thought he was ancient, and I guess he was.  You see, he wasn't just my Uncle Jack, he was actually my grandmother's Uncle Jack. That makes him my great-great-uncle, a whole generation ahead of my grandmother, and when you're seven, that's old.

Uncle Jack was married to Aunt Pinky.  I don't remember her at all, but I wish I did because everyone should have someone named Pinky in their lives. She and Uncle Jack divorced, although they remained good friends. They had a daughter named Avis, Auntie Avis to me. She was a spinster, but that never stopped Auntie Avis from being larger than life all by herself.  She had a glorious career for a woman of her day and was devoted to taking care of her mom after her parents divorced late in life. She treated her cousin's grand kids as her own, and we were the richer for it. She taught us the waltz in Grandma's living room and how to dive in the four foot deep pool at Tammy's house. And although she sang, she never played.

Uncle Jack was never without his tiple in his hands. His second wife, Betty, played, too. They were professionals, paid for playing the concert ukulele and the tiple all across the state after he retired. What sheer joy they got from playing, singing, and doing a jig to songs like Tiptoe Through the Tulips and Tiny Bubbles.  His living room audience of family at Grandma's house listened for hours, as delighted as he.

That's how Dad got started.  Dad bought a tiple of his own shortly after he was married, graduating from the uke he played in high school. We had kazoos when we were kids so we could play along. And Dad taught us all of Uncle Jack's World War II songs he sang in his own living room growing up:  My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, A Tisket A Tasket, Three Blind Mice, and I've Been Working On the Railroad. He taught us the newer stuff from his childhood, too: The Mickey Mouse Club Song, and It's Howdy Doody Time.

When Dad came to visit last summer, he learned that his own grandson had inherited a love of the strings. Adrian's loves was guitar strings, but he became smitten with Dad's tales of his high school ukulele.  Just a few weeks ago, Dad came to visit again, and this time he brought his tiple with him.  It was love at first sight for Adrian.  They played duets on the guitar and tiple, and harmonized to Rainbows and You Are My Sunshine. They shopped for a ukulele, and almost bought one, but Dad held off.  He secretly called his sister, Auntie Lynne, who ended up with all of Auntie Avis's things when she died a few years ago. Among those things were Uncle Jack's and Betty's instruments.

As soon as his plane returned him to Boston, Dad made a trip down to Auntie Lynne, and returned home with two tiples and a ukulele, earmarked for Adrian by his Grandpa and great-Auntie Lynne. And a week after we sent Dad home, we opened a box with the past suspended in pink styrofoam and faded memories.

The tiple looked as ancient as I remember Uncle Jack being, so we did some research. It's a Martin, and was hand-crafted in Nazareth Pennsylvania is 1924.  The uke is a Stratford and probably from the 1960s. We haven't had them appraised yet, but they are already worth their strings in four generations of joy and song. 

And it doesn't look good for Adrian, the fifth generation.  He hasn't a chance against such love of music, his talent, or this long a legacy. Only more time and distance will tell when and where these heirlooms will finish making their musical mark on our family.

But I do know it began with Uncle Jack, who was born in Portugal 113 years ago in 1898, who sailed to a new continent on a steamer as a toddler, and who soared posthumously through more than a century of time on the wings of song into the heart of his great-great-great-nephew.

One of the first songs Adrian decided to tackle on his new, old ukulele?  A song from his own childhood — Disney again — from The Jungle Book, I Wanna Be Like You.

And you are, Adrian.  You are.

~ ~ ~ ~
This post was featured in the HCB Community. Christian Blog Network

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Kitchen Towel at the Top of the Stairs

It's been there since Monday, and five people have traveled those stairs countless times since then. Not one of us has picked it up.

How it got there is anyone's guess. And everyone's denial (although we haven't discussed it). I'm pretty sure it wasn't Mike or me. That would leave three teenagers (or almost) in the running for the not-so-coveted title of Towel-Dropper. And let's face it, it could be any of them: it's the specialty of teenagers across America, the dropping of cloth things on the floor and hoping it won't smell as bad, but will decompose just as well as the compost pile, so they don't have to pick it up — ever.

My son's even made the extra effort to hide his dirty clothes in a neat pile on the far side of his desk, unseen from the doorway. It takes more effort than actually putting them in the hamper. I really don't get it, he's going out of his way to live in filth.

I constantly badger my kids about picking up after themselves to no avail. The broken record keeps screaming, "There are no servants here!"

And today, when I passed that kitchen towel for the umpteenth time, I realized it's still on the floor because there are no servants here. 

I think I might have just aired some dirty laundry, but that's okay. It's an uncomfortable glimpse into the pastor's glass house with the realization that we're more like you than you think.

So the goal is that our home will house a real servant or two sometime soon, the kind who do the important, not-so-glamorous work of seeing the forgotten, doing what's necessary, namely applying grace to messy situations. Nagging will only get me so far. I think I'll change my strategy to picking up dirty dish towels that have wandered from their calling in the kitchen in hopes that we, also, will wander back into our true calling of servanthood.

Until then, does anyone know where the Fabreze is?

I link this repost with Ann today, who's considering humility today, as we Walk With Him on Wednesdays.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Waiting For Grateful

I took Lisa-Jo up on her Friday Five Minute writing today. Her topic is "Grateful," which I am. And here's why, in five unedited minutes.


He didn't wait. For that I'm grateful.

He lavished us with the rules, the commands, the protection for a lifetime. He metes out the blessings for obedience and the curses for rebellion. It seems harsh, but he's not just the ref with the rules all in his head. He's the coach with the compassionate heart, the one who teaches, protects, guides, hones us into what we never could be without him.

And he didn't wait for our gratitude. He did it for love. He crafted us and knows of our potential and loves us that much.

Enough to do the hard thing, the thankless job. He's the heavy with the "Thou shall nots." Even so, he's willing.

And after many years and meanderings through life, I begin to glimpse it — the love of his thankless way. And I begin to feel grateful.

That he didn't wait. That he loves forever. Always, even when I don't understand where he's leading. When I wring my hands instead of hold his. When I thought I knew better than He.

He didn't wait for my gratitude. It wasn't pre-requisite for his love.

But I give it freely now, rendered speechless by his unending impatience to woo me nearer, his never relenting in the face of my ever complaining.

He didn't wait, and I [am grateful.]  (Last two words added after the timer.)


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Leadership Smeadership

What's the deal with leadership anyway? We're all a little obsessed with it. There are seminars, websites, conferences, a whole section at Barnes and Noble devoted to it. We study it, crave it, mimick it, and envy it in others.

We encourage it in our children. Even before they can walk and talk, we're pointing out leadership traits in their hardly budding personalities. "See how Junior turns his face away from that jar of Gerber squash, Ashley? He definitely knows how to get what he wants. He's gonna be a leader." I always thought that was just a toddler being a toddler, stubborn and opinionated, just like the rest of us. Silly me.

Leaders take office. Leaders have long, impressive resumes. Leaders take fledgling companies and drive them like cattle to the Fortune 500. Leaders connote fame and fortune. Leaders make history and duplicate themselves with happy, successful,over-achieving children who grow up into more leaders.

I don't have a problem with leadership, except that I'm mostly a follower type. See what just happened? I can't even admit with pride that I'm a follower — period. I have to soften it by saying "follower type," as if in apology rather than with confidence. Not to mention that there's no support group, newsletter, nor businessman's luncheons at First Church for busy Christian followers. Not even a rehab group.

But maybe there should be. It would be refreshing to see a shift away from exalting leadership and disdaining followership. Has that word even been coined? (It has — I looked it up. But it entered our vocabulary a full century later than the word leadership did — following the leader even in this.) Followership may not be as glamorous or in vogue as its flashy alter-ego, but it is necessary. After all, leaders are only leading if they turn around and see someone following. Leading and following are so closely related, in fact, that one can't be defined apart from the other, so it is rather baffling how one can be so beloved and the other so piteous.

But being a follower has proved to be an asset in my life in many ways.

It has helped me to be a submissive wife. As my marriage has grown in maturity and longevity, following my husband's lead has become a thing of growing beauty. I am not overstating it when I say that it is a silver bullet for a happy marriage that is actually within a woman's power. This may come as a surprise, but it shouldn't. The secret's been laid bare in scripture since days of old. Perhaps we don't heed this wisdom because we don't value following. Following him is a relief and a joy.

It helps me obey the many commands of the Lord. In John 10:1-8 Jesus likens his followers to sheep. Granted, sheep are simple animals and not self-sufficent, but they don't follow blindly. They know the voice of their shepherd and will follow only him, even to the point of fleeing a strange voice. This is not mindless, weak activity. It is noble and honorable devotion that involves scrutinous discernment. Follower tendencies can only be an asset in our efforts to obey Jesus, and I for one can use all the help I can get.

I model before my children that followership is a beautiful thing, something to aspire to. Perhaps they might latch onto the beauty in it and somehow incorporate it in their asset pool, especially if leadership really is in their future.

Followership has a bad rap, lacks marketability, boasts few spotlighted role models, and has no famous gurus spewing forth followership advice for the hungry masses. Despite all this, I have given in to my tendency to be a follower. It is the bent in which God created me, and I have come to embrace it. I admit it proudly, as a profession rather than a confession. It is a trait that has served me well, often bringing peace to my home, rest to my soul, delight to my husband, and develops a valuable character trait in my children.

I want Jesus to be able to look down and see that, indeed, he is leading, because I am in front of him, in His lap, following. He was the ultimate follower; He was the forward face of God on the Earth doing only the Father's will (John 5:19). And come to think of it, his penned words are the longest running on the New York Best Sellers List. Perhaps there's a followership guru after all.

Linking my thoughts today with Ann and Emily.

Friday, July 1, 2011


They've gone. Little brother with littles of his own who resemble their mother, and a father who was back again after only ten months. What was left was as it always is:  tired, dirty, quiet with finality, and the feelings all out of sorts. The deep missing I feel so strong, because it's born of love, is back, and I don't know what to do with it.

I can't put it away with the extra blankets and pillows, it won't be swept up as crumbs and extra foot traffic across my floors. It's a leftover much like the ones in my fridge; I'm never sure what to do with it until time makes it no longer fit for consumption and it can be thrown out.

Home is usually our familiar house on my usual street. But today home flew north to Boston and drove all day towards Texas with strawberry blondes singing Journey songs in the backseat.

And even with a lifetime of practice, I still don't know what to do with that.   

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