Far From Suburbia: What I Learned in Two Hours in the Slums of San Francisco

I was uncomfortable to say the least.  From the moment my Uber pulled over and I stepped out of its pristine cleanliness onto the wet and trash littered sidewalk in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, I felt my guard go up.  My shoulders tensed and my head swung left to right as I looked for number 232 Jones Street.  The storefronts lined the sidewalk without a break, many of them plastered with posters, decorated with graffiti or marred by cracked glass and rust stains.  Somber faced people passed on either side of the road without making eye contact with me, but somehow I knew they still saw me.  The drone of traffic was occasionally broken up by people 20 feet away from each other shouting jokes, a woman babbling nonsense to herself as she pushed an overloaded shopping cart.

I stuck out like a sore thumb–clutching my purse, wearing clean Nike sneakers, eyes wide and afraid.  This was not my suburban North Carolina sidewalk.  I walked up it a few feet, counting the numbers before deciding that I’d gone too far and then turned around and retraced my steps.  It was nestled in among buildings I’d just passed, and seeing the sign on the door, I breathed in relief:

San Francisco City Impact Mission

Opening the door I was greeted by a smiling young woman who invited me to sit while I waited for someone named Andrea, who had been emailing with me the week before and had given me instructions for meeting her at the City Impact office.  When she emerged and introduced herself, she apologized as she confessed that she’d forgotten who I was and what I was doing there.  I chuckled and repeated what I’d told her over email.  My husband was in San Francisco for a work conference.  I’d tagged along on his trip as a little vacation.  I’d never been to San Francisco before and the trip was mostly pleasure, but I liked to take a little bit of time serving in a local mission as a way of getting to know the city and not spending my entire vacation solely focused on pleasing myself.  Despite my altruistic explanation, there was a slight swell of pride in my chest as I spoke.  I thought of the old Friends’ episode where Joey tells Phoebe that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed and she sets out to prove him wrong.

Recognition came to her face as I explained my presence and she started nodding.

“Oh THAT’S right!  I’m sorry I just totally blanked about why you were here because you didn’t come through our regular volunteer pipeline.  I do apologize.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“We’re so glad to have your help though.  Thanks for coming down.  I’ll take you over and introduce you to Randy and he’ll get you settled.”

Randy is a diminuitive man orginially from the Phillipines, a former youth pastor who was now dividing his time between overseeing operations at City Impact and setting up events at the Moscone Center, San Francisco’s convention center.  He took my hand and gave it a firm shake, smiling warmly when Andrea introduced us.

“Great!  Thanks so much for being here.  Come on in and I’ll show you what we’re doing.”

As Andrea said goodbye and turned to go back to the office, I followed Randy inside the meal hall.  It’s a basic cafeteria-style room–tile floor, white walls, folding tables and chairs set up the length of the room, about enough to accomodate a maximum of 50 people.  All the chairs were arranged to face the small stage at the far end of the room, where a simple podium stood in front of a cross mounted on a backdrop of shiplap.

The air inside the hall was warm, close and musty.  I wasn’t sure if the smell came from the bedraggled people already lingering in the room or the crates and boxes of donated produce that were stacked up just inside the door–perhaps it was both.

Several eyes followed me as I followed Randy, who was walking quickly and greeting people just as quickly.  He took me back to the small kitchen behind the main part of the hall.

“So I’m a little disorganized today.” he chuckled amicably.  “Cara who usually runs our meal service isn’t here, and I don’t really know what I’m doing.  But we’re gonna figure it out.”

He introduced me to an older Asian man named Yomo who didn’t speak any English, but who was so accustomed to the flow of the meal services that he didn’t really need to talk or understand what you were saying.  The entire time I was there he rotated from one task to another, filling plates, washing pans, and wiping tables.  I quickly learned that he  was one of those invaluable, behind-the-scenes people who is often unnoticed, but without whom the entire process would crumble.

Randy continued to describe his plan for the meal.

“Since it’s raining today I asked them to make some soup in the kitchen.  That’s a treat, we don’t normally have soup.  We’ll walk over there now and see what else they have.”

I wondered if I looked as awkward as I felt: my small purse clutched tightly against my side, my Columbia rain slicker zipped up to my throat and my wedding ring turned to the inside of my hand so that my diamond wouldn’t be obvious to people who may see me as a mark.  I mentally kicked myself for not leaving my ring back at the AirBnB.

“Is there a place I should put my stuff?” I asked Randy, hoping for a locker of some kind, or a drawer in the internal office that I could see through the window.

“Uh, yeah, you can just stash it in here.”  He gestured to a stainless steel cupboard full of dishes and pots and pans and aluminum tins.  “Alright, let’s go visit the kitchen.  I’m supposed to have more people helping serve here today but I think a lot of them are running behind with the rain…hopefully it won’t just be us!” The smile had never left his face, but he chuckled nervously.

I only considered putting my purse in the cupboard for a moment, but quickly decided against it, afraid that one of the rough-looking men staring into space in the cafeteria would wander into the room and discover it and take my phone and credit cards.

On the way out, an African-American man named Russ (who unfortunately bore a resemblance to Bill Cosby) stopped to talk to Randy, and when Randy introduced me and said that I was there to volunteer, Russ’s eyes went wide and his arm swung open in the direction of the office.

“Well, I’ve glot plenty for her to do!  Follow me young lady.  I’ll put…”

“Um,” I chuckled nervously. “I’m actually here to help Randy with the meal.”

“Yeah, sorry Russ,” Randy said. “She signed up to do the service.”

“Oh! I’m sorry!  I didn’t realize that.  I shouldn’t have assumed.” Russ apologized.

Randy waved him off.  “It’s okay.  We’ve gotta get over to the kitchen.”

As Randy and I went outside and walked around the corner to the kitchen, he asked me where I was from and how I’d found out about City Impact.  In turn, I asked him a couple of questions just to find out a little more about him, but I was distracted by the people on the street–either shuffling along and staring at the ground as though every step was a movement of great effort, or aggressively striding down the sidewalk with a pace that indicated you should not try to stop them or speak to them.  Expletives were flying through the air, horns were blaring incessantly, steam was hissing up from the ground, the occasional used needle littered the sidewalk, but Randy continued smiling and chatting with the ease of someone who had become accustomed to the noise and subliminal intensity that set all my nerve endings on edge.

The kitchen was full of hot food, with not a soul in sight.  It was almost as if it had been prepared by ghosts.  There were at least six huge pans of penne pasta; two vats of an indistinguishable brothy soup (which we later mixed with the pasta); ovens containing four whole baked chickens; two pans of corn-dogs; two enormous plastic bins of salad; one filled to the brim with sliced oranges and another with slices of baguettes; and three metal pans containing what we assumed was meatloaf, which we ended up smothering with barbecue sauce.

As if on cue, a couple of teenage boys showed up and loaded all the food onto a cart with Randy’s help and wheeled it back over to the room we’d just left, which I now realized wasn’t really a kitchen after all, but more of the assembly station.  Randy quickly filled a styrofoam container, showing us how he’d like the food to be presented and then left me and Yomo alone to get started.  About five minutes later, a young Latino man walked in, donned an apron, snapped on a pair of latex gloves and, smiling, introduced himself to me as Allan.

I’m ashamed to admit that my first glance at Allan produced a combination of fear and judgment.  He was dressed in all black, his pants hanging low on his hips, and he walked with a cocky swagger that didn’t fit his childlike, crinkly-eyed smile.  His hair was closely shaved and the sleeves of his baggy black hoodie were pushed up to reveal tattoos that covered his muscular forearms.  I just knew, that in my regular life in my upper middle-class, mostly white neighborhood, if I was ever alone on a street at night and saw Allan approaching me, I’d assume he was trouble and would cross the street to get away from him or look for storefront to duck into until he’d passed.

As these shameful thoughts came to my mind, I intentionally pushed them aside and started asking Allan questions about how he became involved with City Impact, because the fact that he was beside me, already scooping out the mystery meatloaf onto the plates I was passing him and neatly arranging them on a cart without a word of instruction or a glimpse of hesitation, spoke volumes to me about the heart under the intimidating exterior.

“I drive the truck, pick up donations.  And this part of the job is just a kick-back,” he said, still grinning and looking directly into my eyes.  I found myself grinning back–it was impossible not to.

“A kick back?  What do you mean?”

“I get to see these people smile, just because they’re getting a warm meal.  It makes my day.”  It would’ve sounded cliche, fake, except that it came from someone who looked, on the outside, like they wouldn’t care about such simple, yet essential things.  I liked him so much in that moment–he reminded me of my brother, and I would’ve hugged him if I had known him for longer than five minutes, and if I’d known that he’d have let me.

Soon the room was full of helpers: the same lanky teenage boys who had brought the food over from the kitchen, me, Yomo and Allan, and then an Asian woman in her 40s named Jen, who seemed to take on a leadership role once she arrived.  The two teenagers cut up and joked with Allan while our assembly line passed Styrofoam trays, but their joking around never led to idleness.  They were funny and happy and never once seemed to begrudge their time being spent in a soup kitchen.  At one point, I heard one of them tease Allan about prison, and he calmly but firmly said:

“Man I’m never going back there.”

It was then I wondered whether this young man had to have had an experience with God, whether through Randy, someone else at City Impact, or maybe no one connected there at all, that had changed the course of his life.  And he was here out of gratitude.

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Someone turned on some praise music, and as the cart filled up with trays and the talking ceased, I focused on the words to a popular song, “Build My Life”by Housefires:

“Holy, there is no one like you, there is none beside you, open up my eyes in wonder.  Show me who you are and fill me with your heart and lead me in your love to those around me.”

This chorus was one I had just heard for the first time when attending worship with my parents the Sunday before flying to San Francisco.  It was meaningful while standing and singing it, but it was so much more powerful as it rang in my ears in this tiny makeshift kitchen in the slums of San Francisco, working side by side with people I would normally never encounter–people outside my age group, outside my socioeconomic category, outside my preference.  We were there not to be seen, not to be noticed, praised, graded, or critiqued.  We were there because we’d been led by the Father, in love, to serve those around us, regardless of the legitimacy or caliber of their stories.  And it also explained to me how things just seemed to happen in this place without discussion and even when my first impression was that things were completely disorganized: God was so active here, His love so palpable, that people joined in where they were needed without complaint or rush, because they just wanted to be His hands and feet.

Randy spoke to the crowd of wet men and women, about 30 of them, and he brought them a message of hope, of challenge.  His diminutive frame seemed to grow larger as he filled the musty air with fragrant truth.  He reminded them that Jesus is able to change their hearts, their desires, to reflect His own heart and then use them for His glorious purposes.  His angle surprised me, because on an average day I would’ve looked at these people as beyond hope, as expendable, as weak.

Their faces lit up as we brought them food.

“Thank you.” “Please.” “Where are you from?” “I used to live in North Carolina–Winston-Salem, do you know it?” “What brought you to San Francisco?”

My own eyes were opened in wonder in those two hours in the Tenderloins.  I marveled, and inwardly praised God, for these reminders and the urging to come to City Impact, so that I could see again how wrong I was and how easily my assumptions block the pipeline for Christ’s life-changing love.  For these people, so easily ignored and looked down upon by the rest of the world because they outwardly wear their struggles, simply reflect what so many of us are like on the inside: broken, tired, slogging through life, hostile, dirty, hungry.  And City Impact was a place where all of these similarities were laid bare.

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The meal wrapped up and the people left quickly, arms full of to-go boxes, heads nodding in thanks.  A couple of them stopped to say a word to Randy or Russ, but most just walked out the door without looking back.  I guess there wasn’t much to say when this place was so familiar to them, such a regular stop in their days.

I helped wipe some tables and then stood up and looked around the room, understanding that my job was finished.  I went back to the mini-kitchen and tossed my rag in the sink and grabbed my belongings out of the cupboard, which, halfway through the meal I’d decided was actually the best place for my purse and jacket after I’d tried to dish out pasta with my purse constantly swinging forward into my arm.  I went back through the cafeteria toward the door and was grabbed by Russ, who apologized profusely for assuming I was there to help him. I assured him it was fine, that I wasn’t offended.

“Thank you Jesus!” He breathed, wiping his brow dramatically.  He then sat down on the edge of the stage and started to give me his testimony, telling me how he became a part of City Impact, and about the biggest roadblocks and problems the mission was experiencing.  Something he kept saying over and over again was,

“It’s bad out here.  People are hurting!”

He asked me to pray for him.  I felt so unworthy to pray for a person, for people, for a movement that was investing in the details of the most difficult environment in San Francisco.  Knowing that they would be back there tomorrow pouring themselves out, and that I would never look back and would eventually get on my airplane and go back to my comfortable furniture; my needle-free, swept sidewalk; my suburban life with an expanse of green grass, put a lump in my throat and I had to fight the shame, the thought that Russ didn’t really need my prayer.

But I prayed anyway.  It was uncomfortable at first, but as he squeezed my hand and agreed with me in prayer, “Mmm-hmm.  Yes Lord, yes Jesus,” my wall crumbled yet again and tears started to well up in my closed eyes, because I felt as though I was praying for a brother.  I knew that I’d made a friend, one only God could’ve brought into my life.

Russ said thank you after I said Amen.  He gave me a quick hug and then jumped off the stage and disappeared.  I shouted goodbye to the rest of the volunteer team, who responded with smiles, waves and a few thank-yous, and then pulled Randy outside for a photo under the City Impact sign.  His smile was still there, even in his eyes, as I walked away and called probably my 20th Uber in San Francisco.

A week or so later I was showing my six-year-old daughter how to pot some pansies for the pedestal on our front porch.  She was eager to help, but she wanted to just pull the pansy out of the plastic container and stick it straight into the pot.  I explained to her that we first had to break the soil that had retained the stiff, rectangular shape of its confined space in the plastic.  She watched as I gently squeezed the soil and freed the delicate roots, turning the rectangle into a mess and then placed the pansy into the waiting bed of soil in the bottom of the large clay pot.

“See honey, this pansy can’t grow anymore if it just stays in the same space.  It needs to have more room to grow, but first we have to break up the soil and expose the roots so that they can grow deeper and stronger, so that the flowers will grow higher and produce more buds.”

I’d like to thank San Francisco City Impact, for being the space that I needed to see, to experience in order that God might break down my comfort and shallow soil, expose the frailty of my roots and give me the nourishment and inspiration that I needed to blossom and grow deeply into His love.

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God, Marriage, and Justin Timberlake

I can almost hear the eyes rolling in your heads right now.  That title couldn’t be cheesier right?  Is this some article by an obsessive fan who thinks that she has some cosmic connection to Justin Timberlake?  No, not really.  I promise that I have a point and it will make sense if you can just hang with me for a little while.  Let me explain…

I wouldn’t call myself a huge JT fan, more of a nominal one.  I was at the perfect age to become a boy-band-crushing-teenager when NSYNC formed in 1995, a year before I graduated high-school, but I was always more of a 98 Degrees kind of girl.  And years later when all those 90s boy bands started breaking up, I really didn’t foresee a solo future for any of those guys.  But low and behold, Justin Timberlake surprised us all with his knowledge about the industry, musicianship, his vocal range and connections to all the right people.

Even as his career took off and matured, I was still a moderate fan.  I’d listen to his music from time to time, and took a break from it for a while when it was on the raunchier side.  Recently though it seems that Justin and I have regained some common ground–we’re only 3 years apart; we’re both parents; both married; both getting pretty reflective about our pasts and carefully considering the trajectory of our futures.

I’ve found more interest in his most recent album as I feel that it talks about “real” life (as “real” as your life can be when you’re insanely talented, an international superstar and a gazillionaire).   Knowing the life-cycle that rock-stars usually have, I also sensed that his career may be peaking, and with a slew of hits under his belt I thought if there was one JT concert tour that I should see, it would be this one.  So when I found out that he was coming to Raleigh, NC, I spent a little more money than I usually do to get General Admission tickets for my husband and me, so that we could be close to the stage for what I thought may be one of Justin’s best, last concerts.

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But my mind went to places that I didn’t expect as I watched the show.  Justin was handsome, yes.  His feet moved quickly and his body was all fluid, precise, smooth motion.  He smiled for cameras, fist-bumped fans, flirted with his back-up dancers, told us that we were the best crowd he’d seen (which of course was a lie), and all I could think was, yeah this is awesome, but then what?

You see, my husband and I were the minority of those crushed close to the stage.  We were surrounded by Superfans–those who buy their babies JT onesies; who follow him from concert to concert; who cry if he comes within four feet of them.  And yes I was woo-hooing with them all, but I walked away from the concert not marveling about Justin Timberlake, but rather about the awe he produced in about 20,000 people in one night, and realizing that he does this night after night with people around the world.

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And it made me think about whether my/our awe has been misplaced?  What if I, what if we, directed even half of that awe, half of that amazement, toward the One who created Justin Timberlake, the One who gave him his talent?  As fans, we cluster to have an encounter with someone we pay to give us two hours of their time.  (And sometimes we pay a silly amount–especially if you’re sitting in the VIP section).  We might get a fist-bump or a high-five, but does that personal encounter really change us?  Does it take away our troubles, give us a sense of peace, a new identity?  Does Justin Timberlake really know any of the people he touched last night?  Will they ever really know him?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions is no.  Nothing about the concert last night has changed my reality this morning, and it certainly hasn’t changed his.  I’m the same person, living the same life with the same ups and downs, joys, sorrows, and okays.  I’m not richer or poorer, and Justin has continued on with his life, climbing into his tour bus bound for another city and another concert in front of another crowd of thousands.

But every day I can spend as much time as I want with the God of the universe, who stepped down out of heaven to, get this, PAY for an encounter with ME.  He gave up everything to be with me, and He offers to make me His for life through His Son.  He’ won’t just entertain me–He’ll hold me.  He won’t flatter me with savvy lyrics that speak to my vanity–He’ll speak the truth that gives life and nourishes my soul.  He won’t ever pack up and leave town–He’ll be my Immanuel, “God With Us.”  When He touched people, they were healed.  When He spoke, mountains rose up out of the sea and people fell flat on their faces in true awe.  When He sees you, you know that you are safe, yet you aren’t ever the same.

Isaiah 43:1,  “…this is what the Lord says–he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”

Matthew 28:20, “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

John 10: 14-15, “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with spending money to see your favorite singer for a couple of hours.  I think music, dance and fun are gifts from a Good Father who loves to see His kids enjoy life.  I also disagree with those who say that there’s nothing beneficial or edifying that comes from the secular world of entertainment.  Simply because, God can do exceedingly more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20), and I believe that if we are walking closely with the Maker and Sustainer of all things, that He can use most any setting, environment, crowd and subject to remind us of His presence and His glory.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that one other person could have experienced an awakening by the Living God last night during the Justin Timberlake concert, because God really is in the business of taking our wisdom and ideas of what we think we know to be true, and flipping all of it upside down to reveal HIS truth.  And if just one person entered into relationship with Jesus last night, then Heaven is certainly rejoicing just as loudly as it would after an Elevation or Lauren Daigle concert, and that makes it all worthwhile.

I not only reflected on Jesus last night at moments during the concert, but I also looked to my left at the handsome man that I call “Husband,” and remembered for about the 10,000th time why I’m so blessed to have him.  Bryan doesn’t really care for JT.  He only knows a song or two and we got into a pretty heated argument right before we left the house yesterday, but instead of refusing to accompany me and making me go alone, he got in the car.  That was humility.  He sat with me cheerfully and kept me company during the three-hour wait outside.  That was kindness.  He walked to a nearby restaurant and got us food and drinks so that we wouldn’t be starving after the show.  That was graciousness.  He stood beside me the whole time even though his calf muscles were knotted up and painful after a long run yesterday.  He even danced with me a little.  That was sacrificial.

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I told Bryan before the concert began that even though I might scream and yell at Justin as he danced down the stage, I still think he’s hotter.  He replied, “yeah right.”  But as the concert ended, I knew I meant every word.  Because although Justin is certainly cute, charming and coordinated, he’s a stranger.  Yet Bryan, like Jesus, has demonstrated over and over again that he truly loves me.  He knows me. He takes care of me.  He does all of this so well that he’d even stand beside his wife as she snaps photos and videos of another man.  And he went home with me and was still there when I woke up this morning.  That’s a gift of faithfulness that God and Bryan have both given me, that is far more valuable than any concert ticket.  They make me feel like a VIP.

So Justin, if you read this, (doubtful, but a girl can dream) I want to say thanks for being a vessel for yet another Jesus-takeaway.  I’m sure that’s not what you expected, but I suspect you’d be amused.  Hope you have a great rest of your tour, and hurry home, I’m sure your wife wants you beside her too.

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My silly-creepy “selfie” with JT.

 

 

The Week That I Was Glad to be Wrong

Flomaton is an easily overlooked town in South Alabama.  It’s the type of place where there’s only one church to notice, and its steeple rises high above the modest ranch homes and one-story mom-and-pop storefronts.  It’s the type of place where you use landmarks instead of street signs to mark directions for newcomers (although there are rarely any of those), because there is only one chicken place, one supermarket, and one Subway sandwich shop in the whole town.

But it’s also where people live their whole lives as neighbors.  Where they remember the day you were born, the tree you were hiding in when you shot fireworks at passing cars, the day you met your husband or wife, and where your relatives are buried.  It’s the town where my grandparents proudly made their home and raised their four boys.  It’s where this story begins.

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John and Shelmerdene Folsom with their sons (from left): Kenny, Mickey (my dad), and Johnny.  Baby Chris was born years later.

After serving in the Second World War my grandfather, John Folsom, took a job as a high-school principal at Flomaton High School.  He was known for his strict but fair leadership and disciplinary styles and was even known to dole out spankings to his students with a paddle, back when spankings were still acceptable in school.  This was back when girls’ skirts were very long, and boys’ hair was very short.  My dad tells a story of when he was sent to the principal’s office (or dad’s office) for sticking lizards on his ears to frighten his teacher and claimed that it was the only time he saw his dad crack a smile while disciplining a student.

John Folsom may have been tough on the job, but he was also caring.  He wanted to see kids succeed and do their best and expecting a lot out of them instead of viewing them as teenage disappointments earned him their respect.  He was generous—creating jobs for people who needed extra money and serving tirelessly at church and on various mission trips.  He was moral—practicing a high work ethic that stemmed from his upbringing and faith in God.  He was enthusiastic—boisterously singing hymns from the church pews or the Flomaton Hurricane fight song from the bleachers at football games.

About two years ago my grandparents, whom I affectionately call Paw-Paw and Mamadene, moved from their beloved home in Flomaton to an assisted living facility close to one of their sons, in Malbis, Alabama.  The move was emotional and a difficult step to take, but it was necessary at their life stage.  At 90-years-old, Paw-Paw was the last surviving member of his family of origin, the baby of 10 children in a typical Depression Era family.

Paw-Paw settled in well at his new home, happy as ever to just have people around him.  To him it didn’t much matter that he and Mamadene were confined to one room, if he still had his recliner and her in bed beside him at night.  It didn’t matter that he couldn’t remember his kids and grand-kids when they stopped by to visit him or take him to church, as long as he had people to talk to, although from time to time you could see a glimmer of recognition in his eye.  Even if he didn’t know your name, his mind seemed to recognize that you were his family.

This is what I saw in his eyes when I visited him in the hospital in Fairhope, Alabama last week.  It had been two years since I’d seen my Paw-Paw, on his 90th birthday and shortly before he and Mamadene relocated to The Blake.  Fortunately for Facebook, I’d seen pieces of his life down South—enough to know that he was enjoying being fed rich Southern cuisine and singing his favorite songs with his visitors.  But all of us knew that the day was coming when we’d get “that” call—the one that we didn’t want, that told us that Paw-Paw was no longer doing so well.

So, when my parents, who live near me and my family in North Carolina, called and told me that they felt it was important to get down to Alabama as soon as possible, I immediately felt an urge to go along.  I looked at my husband with pleading eyes and he insisted that I join my mom and dad on the 10-hour drive, practically shoving me in their car when they arrived at our house.  I thought about my Paw-Paw’s legacy the whole drive down–remembering the joy in his hearty laugh; the passion in his voice when he talked about the way things should be; his tradition of passing Certs down the pew, mid-service, to all the grandchildren in church; the way he pushed Heavenly Hash ice cream on me when I was a teenager.  I felt sad again, and somewhat cheated, that I didn’t get more time with my grandfather as a child because I was raised in an Air Force family, so I replayed the blocks of memories stored away in my mind from my brief visits with my grandparents and tried to refresh them.  I don’t know if I was using these memories as support for the potential pain that awaited me at the hospital, or if thinking of Paw-Paw that way was a connection to something deeper, to my roots and the people whose stories had contributed to my own.

Either way, I was not prepared for the emotion that rolled over me when I walked into his hospital room the next day.  I’d gotten three hours of sleep, and at 6:30am my mom and I received an ominous phone call from my dad, who’d gone straight to the hospital to sit with Paw-Paw during the early morning hours.  I choked back tears as I surveyed the scene. In his bed, Paw-Paw’s head was practically falling off the pillow.  His breathing was ragged and weak and he couldn’t stop coughing.  He was talking nonsense and not comprehending anyone’s questions or demands; he didn’t even know there were people in the room with him.  He was listless and drawn.

I was convinced that he would be gone that morning.  I started talking to my mom about plans for a service.  I wondered aloud where all the family members would stay in the tiny town of Flomaton.  I cried quietly as I considered that Paw-Paw’s death would mean the end of a family.  I listened to the hymns that my cousins and uncles and aunts sang around him with a feeling of finality.  When I placed my hand on his shoulder and sang “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” it was not with a heart of hope, but with the intention of saying goodbye in a way that would somehow speak comfort to Paw-Paw’s retiring mind, because I knew that he always loved music.

I kept expecting the worst, because to me, he was now 92 and it would kind of make sense if this was his time to go.  He’d lived a wonderful life—he’d traveled the world, even flew to Nicaragua in his late 80’s to see his oldest grandson get married.  He’d been a role model to young men in his community, a loyal husband, a cheerful giver.  It never occurred to me that first day, watching my bed-ridden grandfather, that he might have more life to live.

More family poured into the room.  More hymns were sung.  On Facebook people were asking for prayer for John Folsom.  People were already telling stories about what he’d meant to them, and as I read them or heard them read aloud to Paw-Paw, I saw them all as eulogies memorializing a great man, not an encouragement to boost his spirits.  But I was so wrong.

 

24 hours later Paw-Paw was more responsive.  He noticed us when we stood by the bed, although he still didn’t recognize us.  His eyes were clearer, and he expressed a desire to write notes, he said he was hungry, he laughed when something was funny.

And he sang.  Oh, did he sing.  What I realized sitting in that hospital room was that even though Paw-Paw couldn’t remember people, he could remember lyrics, and it seemed that he used lyrics of songs to communicate his feelings, and to me it was as though God was using these songs from Paw-Paw’s life to communicate to us that Paw-Paw still had hope, that his faith was alive, and that God was watching.  When we asked him what his favorite song was, his eyes lit up like a child’s and he launched into the Flomaton high-school fight song:

“Fight, fight for Flomaton High,

Always say fight, never say die.

We can win if we will try

So, fight on for Flomaton High.”

And over the next few days I started believing that the lyrics to that song had a deeper meaning to Paw-Paw than just being the fight song for the school where he’d been a leader for 30 years.  They seemed to be the very words of his soul, a sort of rallying cry—urging him to fight, to get better, to show God’s healing power in his aged body.

And I was proven wrong over and over in those few days.  I didn’t believe that the wheezing in his breath would go away, but it did.  I didn’t think that he would start eating again, but he did.  I didn’t think he’d be strong enough to stand up, but he did.  And before any of us knew it, the hospice evaluators were telling us that he no longer qualified for their care, and the doctor directly referred to Paw-Paw as “the miracle man.”

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At some point in all the sitting around at the hospital, someone mentioned that Flomaton High School’s football team was in the state championship playoffs that very week.  In the school’s history, since it opened in 1925, it had never gone farther than the quarter finals.  My uncle and cousin promised to get the game on TV so that Paw-Paw could watch, although when they first brought it up, several of us were skeptical that he’d still be alive to see it, or conscious enough to know it was even playing.

Paw-Paw was transferred to a local rehabilitation facility on Wednesday, December 5, and on Thursday, December 6, my mom and I walked into the Westminster Skilled Care center in Spanish Fort, Alabama and saw my Paw-Paw sitting up in a chair for the first time in a week, eating some mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, and watching the Flomaton Hurricanes play their hearts out.  As I listened to the drawl of the local announcers and watched each play inch the Hurricanes closer to a state championship, I allowed myself to marvel over the miraculous events that were too perfectly arranged to be called coincidence.  I felt ashamed that I’d been so doubtful, so ready to assume that my grandfather’s life was over, when God clearly had other plans and others around me had demonstrated more hope than I.  I was also relieved and touched, that the Lord would be so good to give my Paw-Paw even a day longer than we had imagined, that He’d been good enough to include me as a witness to His work so that my faith would increase.  And as the Hurricanes caught a victory-clinching interception, I smiled that He loved my Paw-Paw so much that He would strengthen his body enough to sit up and watch his hometown’s football team win their first ever football championship.

We sang the fight song, together, for the camera.  And my Paw-Paw finished it with a smile and a hip-hip-hooray.  And a swig of sweet tea.

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Party On–Joy in the Face of Judgment

I have an annual tradition for Mother’s Day that began about five years ago.  Every year, I throw a party for my local mommy-friends.  We gather without husbands and children with no purpose other than to celebrate the one thing that we all have in common—being mothers.  I can always tell that those who are new to the party aren’t sure what to expect because there’s no agenda at all.  I’m not trying to sell Pampered Chef, Norwex or Lula Roe.  I’m not raising money for a charity.  We’re not throwing a baby shower for anyone, and most difficult for these sweet women to wrap their heads around is that I don’t need them to bring anything.  They are so accustomed to helping and serving that showing up to something empty-handed, and then consuming food and drink, seems selfish.

And that’s exactly why I do this.  Moms throw parties for their children.  They bring food to families welcoming newborn babies, struggling with serious illness or recovering from surgeries, or mourning a loss.  They are always so busy working, working working—inside and outside their homes, that they often forget how it feels to enjoy their own brand of fun.

My Mother’s Day parties have varied in their style and size over the years.  One was a fancy brunch, several were evening parties with lots of snacks and wine and a chick-flick about motherhood.  We’ve played funny ice-breaker games at a couple, and at my first one I asked everyone to bring photos of them with their mothers or of them with their children.  But one thing that all my parties have had in common is an interesting blend of women.

My friendship spheres sometimes intersect, but many times they don’t, and what I love about my parties is that they are comprised of women from many different countries: Americans, Brits, South Africans, Canadians, Swiss, Australians, Luxembourgers, Belgians.  They’ve been comprised of women with different religious beliefs: Atheists, Christians and Muslims.  I’ve invited moms I’ve met through church, mom’s groups, the gym, my neighborhood, my children’s’ school, and through some very random connections.  I’ve invited women from different ethnic backgrounds.  And the beauty of this gathering is to see them begin to open up to one another as they laugh and relax, to watch them discover the things that they have in common with each other as they gather as mothers.  In a world where we tend to congregate with those groups of people who are most like us, what I seek to provide in this environment is an opportunity for the Lord to reveal His nature in the surprise that comes when we find a kindred spirit in someone we may never have spoken to otherwise.

But this year, when I decided to go with a Zumba theme for my party, I discovered that Phariseeism is alive and well. I know that my party idea this year was a little unusual, but it’s very frustrating when people assume the worst about something you’re doing simply because they misjudge your intentions.  Because I know that God desires hearts and community, I knew that He could even use my Zumba party to spark conversations about Him, and to build friendships that can lead to testimonies of His goodness.

On the outside looking in, apparently that wasn’t the conclusion for some people.  They questioned the holiness of Zumba-style dancing—even though there were no men around for women to grind on, and no children to influence one way or another.  They questioned the lyrics of the song choices—even though I went over and over the playlist to ensure there were no offensive curse words or extremely suggestive lyrics.  They questioned the fact that I served alcohol—even though almost every gathering in the Bible involved wine because it’s a social beverage, and I barely served enough for my guests to have more than two drinks.

And I don’t know what judging a fellow sister in Christ for throwing a dance party will profit anyone.  Does it make the judge happier to declare the party unholy or inappropriate?  No, it just divides the family of God even more because it pits one person against another over something that’s really a gray area.  I bet if I asked those critical of the party if they really thought that Jesus loves them more because they think my party was a bad idea, they’d honestly say no, so why bother judging?

Would it benefit me to argue with people to try to convince them that my way was right, that my party was okay?  No, because it’s not my job to try to win an argument and allow myself to be distracted by someone’s opinion of me.  And to get wrapped up in defending myself would waste energy that I could be spending loving on people, and it would make me angry instead of filling my heart with compassion for those who are picking my choices apart.

Would it be better for the party not to happen and for none of these women to interact and socialize?  I say no, because God is all about seeking people out and building relationships and opportunities to share the gospel.  So by now, the ladies who came to my soiree and are still reading, have learned that my surface goal was to have fun with my menagerie of friends from my life here in Raleigh, NC, but as usual with me, there was an underlying purpose, which was to serve up just a taste of the goodness and extravagance of the Lord’s love by loving on my friends.  To show them what joy and fellowship and diversity exists in the kingdom and family of God.  And I don’t think that any Pharisee could argue with that.

And you know what?  I suspect that Jesus loved a good party, and maybe even a little dancing.

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When Being in Control Controls You

Come with me for a moment and picture this—you’re sitting on the bow of a boat in rough water.  The boat moves steadily toward an approaching wave.  It’s big, and you know when you reach it the boat will tilt upward and slam down hard on the other side of the wave.  It may hurt, it may jolt you from your seat, so your body tenses in anticipation.  You grab onto your towel and the handle beside your seat.  And sure enough, you feel some pain after that wave.  You may come away with some bruises from knocking sideways into the hull.  But here comes another wave, and another, and soon your jaw hurts from clenching your teeth so hard every time the boat crests the water.  So you decide to let go, and when the next wave approaches and the boat rolls over it, you intentionally relax your muscles, loosen your grip, and allow the movement of the boat to pass through you.  The downward dip doesn’t seem as steep, you haven’t lost your place and you find yourself leaning forward, ready for the next wave.

Trying to maintain control of forces and people out of your control is like the above scenario.  Over the last ten years, I’ve been noticing and pondering the differences in people’s reactions when things don’t go their way.  When someone realizes that they have no control there are a myriad of ways they can respond.  Perhaps they’ll be angry and bitter, frightened and immobilized.  They can become withdrawn and uncommunicative.  Or they can step back and take stock of the situation, understand they have something to learn or some plans to adjust, and they can change course and sail on.

What makes the difference for people in how they respond to drastic change or loss of control?  For so much of our lives we are taught to become independent, to set goals and make plans, but I think there’s a flip-side to setting goals that you can only learn through failure.

Teddy Roosevelt said, “there is no effort without error and shortcoming, so that doers shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat.”  Teddy Roosevelt talks about action, about effort and perseverance.  Truly, it’s a mark of maturity to work, to plan for our futures.  To sit idly by expecting fortune to smile upon us is vain and irresponsible.  There is definitely a time to plan, to rebound and be a “doer.”

But it’s also a mark of maturity for us to be at peace in the midst of adversity and unwanted change.  There is an element of humility and trust that goes along with remaining flexible and teachable.  The book of James speaks about contentment, perseverance, generally a humble and positive perspective toward life, but what I really like is this remark about making plans.

“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes.  All such boasting is evil.” James 4: 13-17

Ouch, that stings a little, doesn’t it?  How many of us have laid out blueprints for our lives only to see the colors smear and run when rain begins to fall?  Yet, these are good precepts to keep in mind.  As far as I know, there is only One who knows exactly how my life will turn out.  And after moving 14 times in my 39 years of life, being a victim of abduction and sexual assault, suffering three miscarriages, watching friendships die, dealing with personal temptation and sin, I can say with certainty that my life has not gone the way I expected.

Yet, I have a wonderful life.  I can only be grateful, and it’s because of my trials, defeats, failures, that I can recognize today’s blessings.  It’s because I have tasted humility and sorrow and heartache that I can have compassion, acceptance, and empathy for others when they are tempted to withdraw or lash out because their lives take a dip.  If I had never experienced these dips in life, I wouldn’t see when I’ve crested the waves.  And because I have gratitude, I have perseverance, because I know there’s always hope.  This gives me the courage to not remain defeated.

A recognition of my lack of complete control also prevents me from giving full reign to judgment.  Because of my past struggles, I know that at any moment, everything that I hold dear could be taken from me or I could make a mistake that would cost me peace and stability.  This last year I’ve seen good friends suddenly lose loved ones.  I’ve talked to people whose lives have changed drastically in mere hours due to hurricanes, health diagnoses, marital bombshells, and more.  And as I get older, these things seem to happen more frequently.

When days and weeks and months of comfort go by, I count my blessings.  I know that they come as a gift from my good Father.  But I must confess that I am tempted to soak in that comfort and look down my nose at others who are struggling and wonder what they could have done to earn these difficulties It’s tempting to judge people, to sit back and analyze and smugly prescribe a solution for someone’s problem.  My compassion weakens.  My humility suffers.  And I don’t like myself that way because it means that I’m starting to worship my blessings more than the One who blessed me.  I forget that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1: 17).

I have a trick for bringing myself back to earth when I tend to mentally boast in how “together” I am.  To me, the ultimate test for how I’d handle utter lack of control, human dependence and find out for sure how much I depend upon the Lord would be if I suddenly lost my husband.  There have been nights when he’s been late getting home from a business trip and I’ve wondered: is he okay?  Is he alive?  And then that gets me thinking, what if he doesn’t come home tonight?  So, every once in a while, I’ll allow myself to ask the “what if” questions.  What would I do, how would I respond if I no longer had Bryan?  How would I live if my bread-winner was gone?  Would I trust in the Lord for my daily bread?  How would I sleep at night and feel comforted if my lover wasn’t in bed beside me, holding me?  Would I cling to my Comforter and the Lover of my soul?  Would I remember that no matter how quickly my life changes, my Father does not change?

It’s these “what-if” questions in life’s comfortable moments that turn into living, breathing “what now” questions in life’s terrible moments.  Because the fact is, as much as we like to pretend that we do, we don’t have absolute control over our lives.  And living under the pretense that we do makes us self-focused, fearful, judgmental people.  We grip so tightly to whatever is in our reach, whether that’s diet control, health control, emotional control, child control, spouse control, calendar control, to the point that we bring ourselves more pain, more fear, more reluctance to let go and ride the wave.

Life is an unpredictable sea rich with depths and storms and doldrums and peaceful currents.  At times we will cruise comfortably, but rough waters are always a possibility.  Then we will get jostled.  Things around us will roll and tumble and fall.  We can fight the wave and come away bruised and weakened, dreading what comes next.  Or, we can loosen our grip and trust the boat to carry us over the swells to smoother waters once again.  Either way, we will reach them, but our approach to the next swells will largely depend upon our posture in the past, and who we trust more, ourselves or the boat.

I trust the boat every time because it has an Anchor, a Life Preserver, and a Captain.  Only He is fully equipped to guide me safely across the sea.

The Slavery of Secrets

John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

In grade school you’d hear it when you and a friend were caught whispering and giggling to each other— “secrets don’t make friends!”  It was a chastising idiom that reminded you to not exclude others.  Because when you lifted your hand to hide your mouth as you whispered into someone’s ear, while throwing glances around to see who was watching, you automatically gave the impression that you were hiding something at best, or at worst, stirring up trouble.

It’s one thing to keep someone’s confidence and trust.  Those kinds of secrets can build relationships and lend silent support when someone who trusts you is going through a challenging time.  But, what I’ve noticed recently about American culture is that we tend to hide too easily.  We are very good, especially in American Christian spheres, about putting on our makeup, our best smiles, and pretending that our lives are perfect while we struggle privately.

And I know why we do it.  We don’t want to look weak.  Sometimes our struggles are too painful and personal to discuss.  Perhaps they are too embarrassing and reveal parts of us that we’d rather not show.  Maybe we know that our problems are not easily fixed or could last a while.  In some cases, we may even secretly enjoy something that we know we shouldn’t enjoy, and speaking of it would require us to acknowledge a sin that the Lord needs to remove from our lives.

The snow has been falling steadily today as I’ve written this.  It collects little by little—just tiny flakes that settle on the ground, lawn chairs and children’s garden toys until they are a nebulous conglomerate of snow that turn recognizable objects into unidentifiable lumps.  It’s hard to know or remember exactly what’s covered up by all the snow.  When the blanket of white is that thick, it can be dangerous to walk around my own backyard because I might stumble over a rock or root that I can’t see anymore.

Secrets can be just like this—they disguise the truth of what’s under the surface.  They cover up our flaws with a pleasant, soft layer which is far more fragile than we want to acknowledge.  They can turn familiar ground into dangerous, sensitive territory.  Sooner or later, they must melt away, and we must acknowledge the raw and real materials left behind.

In the last couple of years, many of my friends have experienced great trials in their marriages and families.  I have grieved with many over the shock and loss of peace in their home, and have rejoiced with others as they’ve experienced restoration that only Jesus can bring to their lives.  But in the moments when they revealed their secrets, two things happened: 1) They talked about loss—loss of peace, safety, security and belief in someone or something.  2)  I felt compassion for them—a need to pray for them and a desire to help in any way that I could.

This is what honesty and openness does—it brings people closer.  It breaks down façades and walls and reminds us that we all struggle.  It provides opportunities for us to show compassion and love.  Being vulnerable is risky, but it also gives us the ability to admire people without idolizing them and assuming they “have it all together.”

And it’s also this openness that shows us how much we need a Savior.  Jesus said in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  I am grateful for those people who have allowed me to enter their mess, because it strengthens the bond of community that we have as people who need the healing, restorative work of Jesus.  I’m glad that I don’t believe that lie that anyone is perfect, because then Jesus would be inconsequential and unimportant.  And once we allow Him to shine His light onto our darkest secrets they stop looking so scary and destructive.  They lose their power and we begin to take steps in freedom.  What was once a secret that enslaved us becomes a testimony of hope and deliverance.

This happened for me lately too.  I was keeping something to myself for about a year and a half.  I wrestled with something, prayed about it, tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal, until I was faced with it again and realized that keeping it private was making the problem bigger than it really was.  I was afraid to confess to my husband, fearing his anger and rejection.  But a beautiful thing happened when my silence began costing my peace—I sincerely asked God for a way out and He gave it to me.  I told my husband about it, in tears, and he showed me compassion and grace.  He prayed for me and comforted me and expressed understanding, not condemnation.  His reaction did two things: 1) it made me more grateful to the Lord and more aware of the power of confession, and 2) it reminded me of why I love my husband so much—he freely offers me the forgiveness of Christ and loves me just as I am.

So, let’s say that your life suddenly changed yesterday, or three months ago, or last week.  Or maybe it will tomorrow, or five months from now because of someone’s poor choices, disregard, sin, negligence, distraction.  Maybe it’s your own problems that got you into a mess.   If you’re tempted to hide and stew over your anger and sadness and shame—don’t.  Let God shine His holy spotlight onto your secret.  I know from experience—it won’t seem as daunting once it’s exposed.  Watch your secrets melt away under the warmth of His love.  You’ll be amazed by the beauty they uncover.

Bigger Clothes, Bigger Problems: Hot-Button Issues with My Daughters

girlsIn the very first days after my eldest daughter was born, I remember grieving my loss of sleep and discussing my exhaustion with my mom.  She empathized with me and then said something that has stuck with me as I’ve navigated the twisted roads of motherhood.  It went a little like this: “When your kids are very young they need your energy and constant attention because their problems are frequent but small.  They are easy to fix but they happen repeatedly.  When they’re older, your kids need your wisdom and your heart because their problems are fewer, but they’re bigger and there is less you can do on your own to fix them.”

Vivienne turned seven this month and her younger sister Georgia recently turned five, and although they still have many years head of them, I’m astounded at the depth of our conversations at this point in their lives.  I’m always a little sad when I realize they are old enough to comprehend that the world isn’t perfect, that some people are mean or that I can’t give them every answer to soothe their tender emotions or settle their confused minds.

All moms are familiar with the gut-sinking-bitter-sweetness that comes when you discover that your kids have outgrown their clothes and need an entirely new wardrobe.  There’s a double-whammy that hits while weeding out old clothes and buying new ones for our children.  The first punch goes to our checking account—time to budget for clothing this month!  The second punch goes to our hearts—our babies are getting bigger.  And bigger.  And as their bodies grow so do their minds.  Their brains fill with new information, new concepts.  Their eyes notice behavior and social structures.  Pretty soon these children start to ask very good questions, very challenging questions that make us stop and consider, “Hmm, how am I going to answer/handle this?”

And what complicates this for me even more is that my girls are SO different.  They have shared a room since my younger daughter was five-months-old, a bed since she was two, and they are the best of friends.  But they could not be more opposite if they were characters in a story.  Often a tactic or method or even tone of voice that I use with one does not go over well with the other.  I must get creative with tailoring much of my mothering-methods to each of my three children (because my youngest is a boy—talk about different!) and their personalities, while maintaining the convictions and ideologies that my husband and I feel are important for our family.

My night-and-day daughters have tested me lately in my ability to succinctly yet thoroughly answer their concerns in a way that will assuage their fears, teach truth and be considerate of their immature emotions.  My oldest daughter is very into science and dinosaurs.  She has just learned to read and will devour any text about dinosaurs that she can find.  But not all these books agree about exactly when dinosaurs existed, how long they lived and how they became extinct.  My husband and I are Christians and believe in Creation, but we are old-Earth Christians, so we tend to agree with scientists who maintain that the earth is much older than the 6,000 years that the new-Earthers claim.  We happen to own a book about dinosaurs by one of these new-Earth apologists, Ken Hamm, that we picked up from our local consignment store before we realized its angle.  He claims that dinosaurs were roaming the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.  But just last week, Vivienne came home with a book about dinosaurs from her school library which supports the traditional scientific view that dinosaurs predated humans and even evolved into birds!  (An entire blog-post could be derived from this example about different schooling options for Christian families, but I’m not going to go there right now).

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You can imagine Vivi’s confusion when she read these two conflicting accounts.  I pointed out to her that the school library book was aging the earth at millions of years old, whereas Ken Hamm’s account ages it at around 6,000 years.  I asked her what she thought.  She said she agreed with the library book from the school because: “There’s no way people and dinosaurs could have lived at the same time because the dinos would have crushed or eaten the people!”

(Amazing the logic of little kids sometimes.)

So, I ended up encouraging her to take a faith-filled posture on this one.  I explained to her that there are some things we will never know this side of heaven.  But what we do know is that everything comes from something.  Every creation has a Creator, and the timing is mostly irrelevant.  We believe that God created all things for His glory and purpose, and that science helps us to learn about His creation and to reveal Him within it.  She seemed satisfied with that.  I believe her very words were, “I know that Mommy.”  And then she waved me away so she could continue reading her book on her own.

Georgia’s interests are not in science.  They are in performance, dancing, play-acting and looking pretty.  I think that this is a confusing are for girls and women in our current climate.  On one hand, people spend way too much money and time worrying about being beautiful.  Just the number of YouTube make-up tutorials, Pinterest pins and beauty products is overwhelming.  On the other hand, there is a growing movement among feminists which is telling females that beauty is shallow and unnecessary.  This perspective suggests that beautiful women who take care of themselves are enslaved to some patriarchal system, and that they are brainwashed ignorant bimbos.

I believe both groups are wrong.  I believe that my God loves beauty—it’s all around us in the animals we admire, the gardens that we cultivate, the mountains upon which we gaze, and yes, the diverse patchwork of humanity across this globe.  So, my task with Georgia is not to squelch her interest in beauty and the pleasure she takes in looking pretty.  My task is to put beauty in its proper place, to encourage her to focus more on cultivating a beautiful spirit and heart than on wearing an outfit or a hairstyle that others will notice.

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She threw a fit the other day when I would not allow her to wear her play make-up to school.  Now, the child is five, so it’s not like she was going to be in full super-model make-up anyway.  But I know that she sees me wearing make-up most days, and she has asked me why I do it.  I must be very careful about my answers because I don’t want her to ever think that her value lies in her beauty.  And she is lovely—she has creamy white skin, big blue eyes and light blonde hair.  She is blessed with a lean, muscular frame and her muscles are well-defined without that much physical effort.  But I know that God created us in His image, and all beauty is ultimately there to point to Him.  It’s nothing we can claim on our own because it was given to us.  I also know that nothing spoils beauty in a person like an ungrateful and selfish heart.

More questions and explanations are sure to come.  I hope that God gives me enough wisdom to communicate what He’s taught me, and that He’ll help me to tap into His grace when I get things wrong.  Please pray for me as I continue to nurture these feminine souls, knowing the struggles and expectations that are waiting for my girls as they grow.  Now my son, Roman, well…he’ll be an entirely different ball of wax!

Hope for Today

Is it just me or are there more causes and criticisms than ever before?  Oh, how I wish for simpler times.  When there wasn’t such a need for instant information, when there weren’t ever-changing windows into others’ lives, when we weren’t voyeurs watching for something better than what is right in front of us.  (When the temptation wasn’t so great to do all of the above).

Is it any wonder that children are happier and more content than adults?  Is it any wonder that once young people are handed a smart phone they tend to become more rebellious, meaner, and depressed?

People poise ready to attack–anticipating being criticized and judged.  People compete for attention and fame.  People elevate their causes and their rights above compassion and empathy.

We don’t concern ourselves any longer with how our actions and words affect others.  We shock intentionally, and more and more, just to get attention.  Nothing is ever good enough for us.  No ONE is ever good enough for us.  We dismiss and discount and insult without a second thought whenever someone dares to disagree with us.  This imperfect world will never satisfy–no matter how many times we protest, march, complain, fight, debate.  And if we do win a court battle, if we do see legislation change, it will only pacify our greed for a little while, before we find another perceived weak spot that we feel needs to change so that our lives can be “fair” or “better.”

Whatever happened to contentment?  The notion that things aren’t perfect but that it’s okay because that gives us the desire and opportunity to help, to contribute, to work instead of take.  Not everything is supposed to be given to us—that makes us lazy and selfish.  Instead of giving up on each other in friendships, marriage, government, communities—we’re supposed to give grace.

We elevate ideals above people.  We obsess over problems.  We go straight for huge issues that have already polarized a nation, instead of building bridges in our own communities—one relationship at a time.  We yearn for change that may or may not prove to be healthy instead of acknowledging the goodness that exists here and now.

I want my kids to enjoy and appreciate this life.  I want them to look back and say that their childhood wasn’t perfect, but it was good.  I want to see them content in the life they are living now.  I want them to be grateful to God.  I want them to see other people as fellows and contributors to their current joy, not as battles to fight, causes to push or stepping stones to nebulous dream.

I want to look my friends in their eyes, hear their voices and remember their hearts.  I want to remember that behind each typed word is a deeply considered thought and a memory, an experience.  I want to listen to what they say, to pray about it and let the Lord work out the truth.   I want to try to understand.  I really want to try.

Yet, there is hope in this jar of clay.

One day I will be no more.  Maybe my words will live on (this is one of my personal dreams), but they may not.  But I do believe that I will leave a legacy, and above all I want it to be one of faith, hope and love.  Tests will come and go that will shake my faith, but if it fails and disappears like a vapor, it was never faith.  Jesus has proved Himself to be true and trustworthy, and although I am occasionally untrusting, I can always hope to see His hand move.  I can always hope that one by one, lives will be changed and hearts will be changed when people know Him as Savior.  I can hope that as people go from sin to righteousness, from despair to joy, from idolizing themselves to worshiping Jesus, that the world will be different.  Love has been minimized to simply a feeling and an acceptance of everyone and everything, when in its purest form, it means sacrifice and elevating others’ needs above your own.  This self-sacrificing, submissive and encouraging love is one that the world at large does not know.

The joy of Jesus is not a promise of ease.  Christians are not meant to bury their heads in the sand and pretend like all is okay, like the world doesn’t have problems, that there isn’t true injustice.  But we are meant to identify FIRST with Him and His glory.  We are not meant to hold our personal banners and causes, our races and genders and occupations and educations above Him.  All those things are subject to Him.  All those things are meant to point to Him, to celebrate His kingdom and glory and His perfect love.  We are meant to hold our banners up to Him and see that He is still higher.  We are meant to walk through our struggles with Him leading the way.

Oh, that I could love and hope like Jesus.  That is my deep dream.

Godliness Over Girl-Power: Setting Priorities of Identity

Last night I went to see Wonder Woman with a girl-friend.  To be honest, I’m not really into superhero movies, and especially not ones with a female lead because they are usually even more far-fetched than superhero films with male leads.  But I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by this film.  Yes, Wonder Woman was strong, and fast, and GORGEOUS–deflecting bullets with her wrist-guards, leaping hundreds of feet in the air and flattening villains with her supernatural power.  But there were things she was NOT, which are worth mentioning.  She was not selfish.  She was not vengeful.  She was not easily discouraged or offended.  She was not a man-hater.  She was not prideful.

It was intentional for the story of Diana Prince (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) to be set during the 1920s when the War was amping up and women’s suffrage was a controversial issue. To see Diana in her tiny uniform barely hidden by her cloak, taking advice from corseted secretaries in their prim-and-proper dresses with buttons to their throats was quite ironic and comical.  But as I watched the interaction between the two primary female characters: one a dowdy receptionist and one a beautiful, warrior goddess, I found myself becoming grateful.  I’m grateful to be able to celebrate the freedom as a Western woman who benefits from the battles won for women throughout the 20th century.  But I’m most grateful that my worth as a woman does not come from what I can earn.

I know that I can celebrate my femininity because God gave it to me.  In some way, I am able to image Him.  This gives me meaning as a woman, and the fact that His son rescued me from sin and gave me new life gives me freedom.  It’s an ultimate freedom that has already been won and need not be proven by marches, by protests, by wearing my female-ness as a prideful badge.

Everywhere I look, there’s a groundswell of women on a mission to prove themselves. There’s an idolatry of gender that offends more often than it helps, alienates more often than it unifies, and embarrasses more often than it encourages.  And for Christian women, this is especially dangerous because the risk is that we begin to hold our cause higher than the cause of Christ.  Do we want to be seen first as women or as children of God?  If our goal is to have equal treatment, then we would be best served by remembering these words:

Galations 3:28, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fight for women who are marginalized or oppressed. There are women all over the world who are raped, enslaved, mutilated, ignored, abused, and mistreated in a number of ways.  These are real problems.  This is true inequality.  What I am saying is that as a Western, Christian woman, my goal is to be grateful for what I already have and to look for opportunities to glorify God in this body and in the feminine way that celebrates His goodness, not to complain that my life is different from a man’s.

The cause of Jesus Christ is my banner, my march.

Wonder Woman showed some Christlike characteristics: grace, generosity, a recognition of who she was, not what she didn’t have, perseverance, hope, LOVE.  In these ways, she is certainly a superhero that my daughters and I can admire.  But she is also fictional. There are real women who have made a mark on history, on the world, women who were heroic in their faith and strength–Hannah, Ruth, Mary, Priscilla, Elizabeth, Esther.

Theirs were voices of peace.  Theirs were hearts of love.  Theirs were hands of strength. Theirs were spiritual battles of heaven and earth, which they won without picking up a megaphone or a sword.

May we be women of faith, strength and gratitude.

 

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Help Me Hear You: Listening for the Sound That Matters

My days are filled with sound.  The sound of birds chirping, as melodic as they are, starts far too early in the morning these days, rousing my three children under seven from their sleep.  The sound of their footfalls on the stairs as they try to sneak out of their rooms before their toddler clocks flash green disturbs my morning quiet date with my Bible and hot coffee.  The sound of my name, no not Adrienne, that other name, Mommy, plays on repeat all day.  The serious sound of my husband’s voice on conference calls makes me grateful for his dedication and provision, while the sound of his silliness with our children makes me proud that he’s my partner in this parenting adventure.  Then there’s the hum of the washing machine, the clicking of water through pipes, the chiming of my Apple Watch reminding me that it’s time to breathe, traffic, other people’s conversations at the supermarket—it goes on and on.

What I don’t realize about all these sounds, sometimes until it’s too late, is that they draw my attention to the immediate and pull it away from the eternal.  Before long I’m starting to focus on the tasks that are directly under my control, simple goals that I can meet on my own that don’t seem to be a big deal.  However, there are so many days when I step back and look at the hill of small things in front of me that I’ve built single-handedly by listening to my own voice saying, “you can do this.”  At times, I become overwhelmed and frustrated because I’ve piled too many things atop one another and it’s very difficult to see the priorities, to sort through pile without it toppling over at my feet.

It’s in these moments that I must fall on my knees before this mountain of minutiae and surrender it.  I must acknowledge that I allowed the noise of my life to drown out the One voice that wants to direct me, to guide me, to fill me with peace and joy and empathy.  I must confess that all the noise has trained my ears to listen to a selfish voice instead of one that would speak love into and through me.

The word resonate means to produce or be filled with a deep, reverberating sound.  This speaks to me of my deep desire be filled of the Holy Spirit—to know His voice so well that it shouts louder than any other sound in my environment, as precious as those sounds may be.  I want THAT voice to reverberate in my mind so that I can accept or release challenges and tasks with confidence.  I want that filling to consume me so that I don’t listen to lies that tend to produce guilt because I should be doing this or that.  I want no distractions from what God’s voice is calling me to.

Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit in John 14, calling Him Counselor and the Spirit of Truth.  Lies confuse us, they shackle us to expectations and standards that we were never designed to meet.  They create division.  Jesus said the truth would set us free.  So then as our Counselor, the voice of the Holy Spirit can fill us with truth and confidence in our mission as women called to love and represent Jesus in our communities and homes, not in a forced and tired way, but in a joyful and empowered way.

So, my prayer is, help me hear You, Lord.  Resonate amidst my busy noise.  Help me to recognize Your tones, Your words, Your truth.  From the eager sound of chirping birds to the rhythmic sound of my husband’s snoring at night, call me back to your side so that I can be restored and reminded of Your good plans for me.  Let my head be filled Your deep, reverberating sound.