Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Day After Valentine-Ash Wednesday

Seven doesn't usually constitute a majority, but when seven of twenty-five people gathered around are 5 years old and younger, they quickly become a majority.  

All twenty-five people "sat" in the first four pews on the east side of the church. It was 6:00pm, the second of our services for the day with several others attending the earlier option at 12:00pm. In this service, the adults sat mostly still while the kids were up and down a bit, curious why they were at church in the evening, happy to see their friends, wondering what was in the brown bowl that sat up front surrounded by candles.  As Pastor, I stood behind the mystery bowl holding my Book of Worship to lead us in a service of the Imposition of Ashes.  

As I said the words "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," using the ashes to paint crosses on the foreheads of my church family, my heart slowly sank.  The kids were joyfully whirring around us chattering a bit and then exiting to go find a place to play as the adults lingered for the confession using Psalm 51. And then everyone left the church having acknowledged our inevitable death... from 11 months old to a woman in her 80s.  It wasn't until I was alone in the dark hallway about to set the alarm when my sinking heart finally hit rock bottom in my soul. 
People die every single day.  Countless unnamed people.  Some surrounded by love and some alone with the exception of the unbidden presence of God.  Even Jesus, at his death, died on a cross at the hands of people who did not understand the kind of kingdom that turns the world on its head-- that calls the powerful to lay down their power and the vulnerable to be lifted up.  Its a frustrating concept, really, but as we have seen played out time and again, it is a matter of life and death. 
Jesus was right when he called his disciples to join him in giving up the privilege of being served for serving others.

Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday are a strange combination of solemness at the heart of the hustle and bustle of a day of celebration and love, and now this day would have one more bedfellow.  Another school shooting where a troubled young man took 17 lives.  

As I stood in the hallway of my church, balancing all of the things in my hands and the images of my church people with ashy crosses on their foreheads with the images of children and staff escaping their school and loved ones hearing the news of their loved one's status, my heart hit the very bottom of this helpless numb slump.

And to my surprise it pushed open a well hidden trap door that reminded me: you are NOT helpless.  The floor feels like it could fall out this far down in one's soul.  

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  One day, but not today

Friend, no matter what you think the problem is, please commit to educate yourself, pray, advocate, and vote to address this complicated and dark web for we are all united in our weariness of these fatal outcomes.  

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Secret to Doing it ALL

"I just don't know how you all do it all!"

Those words are offered in our general direction with an understanding inflection at least once a day.  Usually when one of us is solo-parenting, usually mid-child wrangling, and usually when we're feeling a little frazzled and downright wrangled as a result of balancing parenting and work with this little brood of ours. Its a generous thing to say, really, an "I see you" kind of moment, and it reminds us to be forgiving and generous toward ourselves.

We have three intelligent, spunky, and beautiful daughters, ages 4, 3, and 5 months. 
I have a full-time job.  
My spouse has a full-time job, which includes a 2.5 hours commute daily.  
Both of our jobs are also our callings, so we happily have lots of community commitments.
Oh yeah, we also have two dogs. 
And a household. 
And all of the appointments.
And everyone has to eat. 

Even as I make that list of generalities about our life, I'm sure that I have forgotten something essential.  We are busy, I'm not going to lie about it.  Life has its daily challenges from the moment everyone wakes up in the morning... note: 2-4 year old do NOT like broken cereal bars or broken bananas (you're welcome)...until the girls are finally all snug in their beds relaxing and slipping toward sleep.  We often look at one another, set a minimum of what has to be done, give a high five, and get busy so that we can go to bed as early as possible because Im pretty sure our alarms wake the sun in the morning.


I'm glad you asked.  We don't. 

First and foremost, we could never do it alone. We depend on Jesus and the people running this busy race around us that love us and love our kids well.  We have the benefit of an awe-inspiring village of people--our amazing church family, neighbors and friends like family and biological grandparents, aunts and uncles that live 90 miles away who make our babies a priority.  With the guidance of trusted friends, we have found excellent childcare for all three girls and we bring enough money home between the two of us to pay our bills (most of the time). When it comes down to it, we are beyond privileged.  And we do our best to never take that for granted.

Second, we don't do it all.  Some weeks we have to do a load of underwear and towels in the laundry because like rabbits in springtime, the laundry seems to reproduce on its own!   Some days we don't feel like we gave our full presence of mind and heart at work.  Some evenings we worry that we aren't parenting our children well or giving them the love and attention they deserve. We eat cereal for dinner from time to time and have even had Chick-fil-A more than one night in a week. Most nights we go to bed still ticking off the to-do lists.  

But, when it comes right down to it, being able to check off to-do lists for work and home does not raise kids to be kind, justice-oriented, God-loving Christian leaders and citizens.  

Next time you see one of us, wrangling kiddos at Chick-fil-A or some other public place, don't be in awe of us and all that we do, or our bravery for being out with such a young crew...rather, look beyond us to see the village, our cloud of saints.  They are the real heroes.

Now, go get yourself a village!  If you don't have reliable or geographically available family like we do, you can always start by finding a church and  getting to know your neighbors and go from there (we do that, too!!) 

We highly recommend it. In fact, we depend on it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Elizabeth wore "the Dress"

I used to imagine my future children, wondering how many I would have, what they would be like... would I have sons or daughters or both? It wasn't until I became an adult that I learned just how simultaneously complex and simple, beautiful and painful these child-bearing years can be. My heart has been broken and mended more times that I am willing to name.  We don't take these journeys alone, because we do it alongside other hopeful friends who have varying degrees of difficulty, joy and grief along the way.

So, here I am-- cuddled up on a Saturday morning watching cartoons with 3 daughters and my sweet hubby while a rare summer morning storm brews outside. The scenario of my imagination has become my reality and I don't take these gifts for granted. With 3, most of our life is a glorious whirlwind of activity, but we try to take the moments as they come as best as we can. 

A little over 3 months ago, a precious soul entered the world with minimal cries, adorably large cheeks and an immediate commitment to cuddling.  Once again, our hearts swelled with incredible love for this new soul in our care.  I cried tears of relief and joy as I heard her first noises and then felt her nuzzle into my neck. We named her Elizabeth Allen.

Like our other daughters, we labored over the perfect name.  You can read about Grace and Allison.  When we found out we were expecting, we started the process of making lists and experimenting with potential names.  One night, about a week before we found out the sex of this third child, I had a very vivid dream that our baby was born and we named her Elizabeth Allen.  The next morning I told Daniel about my dream, and a week later, surrounded by family and friends, we opened a bag full of pink balloons.

Elizabeth is an old Hebrew name, based on the Greek translation Elisabet meaning "my God is an oath" or "my God is abundance" and Allen is Gaelic meaning "Harmony" or more literally "small rock."  Elizabeth is my middle name and Allen is my Sweet Hubby's middle name.  Allen was his maternal grandfather's name. Elizabeth is also the middle name of one of my best friends.

Elizabeth Allen may have surfaced in the form of a dream, but as easily as the pink balloons rose out of the bag to our 3 year old and 2 year old daughters exclaiming, "Mommy, pink balloons!!!  Daddy, pink means a girl!" the name felt like it was meant to be hers.  And so, we gave her parts of the names that our parents lovingly gave to us.

And in the tradition of most of the baby girls in my family for the last 60+ years, yesterday was little Elizabeth Allen's day to wear "the dress."

I chose to keep the dress simple, as is, which represents her easy-going, peaceful and pleasant spirit.  Thank God for her sweet nature. And knowing that she has a lifetime of hand-me-downs in her future, I chose the bow that I bought just for her-- that she wore the day she was welcomed into the world and several times since.  Her picture was made in the rocking chair where Grace sat, with our frontdoor in the background where her sister Allie posed for her picture.  She is 3 and 1/2 months old and she is a delight. She is our last, and I worried I might grieve all of the last things-- but instead I have been over-joyed by each one of them.  And like my Mamaw Sue before me, I have three amazing and unique daughters.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Holy Week with Toddlers

I am pastor and mother. Holy Week and all of its emotions and experiences are very much a part of my life and psyche this week.  All the while, I am mother of two thrill seeking and darling toddlers.

We play kitchen, or as my oldest says "chicken" with the fake food, and when I am asked to hold the grapes, my mind wanders off to a scene of the disciples and the Last Supper.  We play outside on the swing and the slide and I reflect on what betrayal does to relationships, in Jesus' time and my time.  We bathe them, and kiss their tiny feet as we dress them for bed, and scenes of Jesus and washing the road weary feet of his adult disciples seems so far removed from the experience of giggles and soft baby feet.

On Good Friday, their respective childcare was closed and both sweet hubby and I were home.  We did typical things: watched Frozen, play in the "chicken," negotiated cease fires (over toys) with children whose language skills are not complex enough yet, we ate lunch, and put them down for their afternoon naps.  Now, a moment to reflect on the cross that is not broken up by cries for "Mommy" and "Daddy," or diapers to change...

I keep thinking about how I won't always be able to shelter them from some of the horrible things that happen in this world. My beautiful children will indeed experience heartache, disappointments, and pain.  One day I will hold them while they cry over the latest injustice or act of violence.  And then in the next breath I feel guilty because I can shelter my babies knowing that there are children throughout the world that are subject to horrible things.

Today, I reckon with the cross.  And its messy and not always focused, but I am grateful that God's grace is big and wide and welcoming.  And I'm thankful that Jesus loved us all that much.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

To the Gravy-Makers!

5:00am is really early.

The husband and I had an understanding early on--no speaking before 8:00am beyond pointing and brow furrowing.  Then, we had children, and those rules no longer apply as they once did.  This morning the youngest decided 5:00am was a good time to wake up, request some milk, Momma's undivided attention, and an episode of Doc McStuffins.

About 6:00am, it was time for some breakfast.  We are cereal people.  Or yogurt and some fruit when we are making an effort toward good health, and on our quickest days-- poptarts or cheerios.  But this morning, I had time.  Plenty of time.  So I made biscuits, and got out the iron skillet to fry up some turkey sausage patties, and while I was there I decided I would make some gravy.

I can't make gravy without thinking of my Papaw and the time he decided to teach me how to make gravy.  He was an expert gravy maker, but on that day with his life-worn hands and finger tips having lost feeling a long time ago, he managed to add powdered sugar rather than flour, resulting in one of my all-time favorite memories of him.

At 6:30am as I remembered that moment with my Papaw,  I smiled in my barely lit kitchen with the sounds of my youngest now playing with the train table in the background.  Oh, how he would have delighted in his great granddaughters!  Then, I began to wonder who taught my Papaw how to make gravy.  My Great Grandfather or Great Step-Grandmother?  His mother died shortly after his birth.  Maybe my Great Great Grandmother Gray?  She was the one who cared for him in early childhood. 

That's a lot of generations of gravy makers.  

As I looked out the kitchen window, gazing more into the past, the sun began to light the earth bringing me back to the present. Back to the gravy that needed my attention.  I stirred and added a little more milk, realizing that my reflections weren't really about gravy at all.  Its not even about the sleepless nights and early mornings and general lack of sleep--I'm telling myself sleep is over-rated anyway.  It is about the little one who is almost past the baby stage preferring some cuddles and attention from her Momma rather than being alone in her crib on a cold winter morning. Its about the gift of slowing down, reflecting, loving, and remembering. 

When my kids get a little older, I'll tell them the story of my Papaw that is safely cradled in my heart among my most cherished memories.  In the meantime, I'll treasure the sound of her sweet voice in the middle of the night calling my name, I'll memorize the smell of her tiny head, the way her cheeks indent when I kiss them, and those precious little hands.

Hands that will one day make gravy, among so many other things. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Allie's Turn: "The Dress"

If you read my very irregularly (and rarely) updated blog, you may remember the day that Grace wore "the dress."

This little green dress has been passed down and worn by most of the daughters and grand daughters and great grand daughters on my Mother's side of the family.  Part of the tradition is to add something to make it unique.  My Mom said that when I wore "the dress," she wove ribbons of bright colors through the holes.  When Grace wore it, I strung a pink ribbon in those same well worn loops.

Today was Allie's day to wear "the dress."  Such a special day to pass this tradition on to another wonderful daughter.  She's 6 months old.

In order to make it suit our Allie, I carefully pulled my Great Grandmother's pearls through the loops.  On her wrist is a small string of pearls, a gift from my parents.  On her head is the lace bow that she wore on the day of her baptism, and in the center of the flower is one pearl.   Pearls seemed like an elegant theme for our smiley girl.  From the moment I dressed her, it was as if she knew she was wearing something special.
As with most parents to be, we take the process of naming very seriously.  When we found out we were expecting a daughter, Allison became the front runner on our list of names. Suzanne came quickly as well and once we put them together, it felt and sounded...right. Allison Suzanne is named "Allison" for Sweet Hubby's best friend, Robert, whose middle name is Allison.  "Suzanne" is for my second sister (my first and oldest friend), whose middle name is Suzanne.  The Sue in Suzanne also covers several women from my family: Mamaw, Mom, and Great Aunt. We even call her "Allie Sue" from time to time in the spirit of these great women. Her name may honor many, but it is all her own. This girl is happy to be in the world, and our world is made much better because she is in it.  We love our girl so much!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sunday: Remembering Papaw

"For all the saints who from their labors rest..."

This morning as I am preparing for our All Saints worship service at St. Paul, I am remembering a gift I received in 2007 in the midst of a great loss.  That was the year that my Papaw died and went to be with out Lord.  At the time, I was taking a preaching/creative writing course at Duke.  My assignment was to find a connection between Halloween and All Saints and explain it through story.  I wrote this sermon on the evening of October 30th, reflecting on my Papaw's illness and planning to go visit him the following weekend.  He died the morning of October 31.  Below is the sermon, which continues to be a gift for me. Cherish the saints in your life, friends, those who have gone on to be with God and those who are still among you. 

Papaw is like a garden grown vegetable. Sometimes he’s sweet, and he looks like he’s going to be real sweet; and sometimes he looks so sweet that he’s about to be rotten. He’s always worth the first bite. I sat in the yard under the tree with my sister and watched him poke around in the garden that he fought to maintain despite the rode that that receded closer to its border like a balding middle aged man.  He hated that road, and always fussed if we got too close to it.  But he loved that garden.  My sister and I participated in our usual adventures of exploring the yard.  Sometimes I followed him around stepping on things that were meant to be eaten, asking “Papaw why is the sky blue?”, picking up bugs, asking “if I pull this critter’s antennas off will he die?”, making mud pies, asking “Papaw, do you love chocolate more than you love me?”, and poking my fingers into the soft skin of the tender tomatoes.  Mostly I got “mmhhmm,” and “what do you think, say-rah (that's how he said my name)?”  I treated my grandparents like organic toys to be prodded and poked, and they treated me to cocoa puffs, playing in the garden, strange mixtures of foods, and the wisdom of the old people.  It was like living a story, and I always tried to imagine the pasts that they painted of my extended family,  of Cook’s valley, Arkansas, and my Papaw’s mom, Sarah Byra Gray Moody, who died shortly after his birth.  Their world seemed different from my world, so much like that place between waking and dreaming, just barely painted across a mountain backdrop enough that I could see myself inside them, somewhere. 

My Papaw was a strong man with several masks—husband, Father, Papaw, business manager, brother, church elder—and each bore with them a mask to represent a memory that remained fully present in a past sense.  My masks include: student, daughter, preacher, oldest child, friend, girlfriend—some out of necessity and others out of natural progression.  If ever one mask is removed, there is another beneath it.  What will be left when I take them all off? I removed the Sunday school student mask one day to confess that I hadn’t read the whole bible.  That for all fourteen years I had been alive, I never once read it like I did my extensive collection of other books.  I have always been a reader.  He told me that he read the whole bible more times than he could remember, and that when I learned to love the scriptures more than I loved the book world I lived in that I wouldn’t be able to put it down.  He recited God’s Word back to me--which had become his words--and told me that he had been a Sunday School teacher for much longer than I was alive. 

I always think of Papaw in the autumn when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees.  The birds get quiet and the silence of the night becomes overwhelming.  I’m captivated by smells that make me recall dreams, or even actual events in life that only seem like dreams swept up in the dew of the morning dawn.  Who do I see when I look at my Papaw?  Which mask that I place on his face is true?  Can a mask be true?

I remember my first time tasting honeycomb sitting at the cash register at the short stop.  It was like playing store, except that it was a real gas station/convenient store.  I loved running back through the freezer and sifting through the numerous projects Papaw had going on in the corner that was his “shop” for knives and sewing machines.  We played with his cane, the cane with a handle that smells like his hand—harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time foam shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees.  In my own organized courtroom, I accused him of making holes in his mouth with the chewing tobacco that bulged out his bottom lip.  I refused to allow him to make holes in his mouth that I saw in a video at school.  I tore the mask away, stole his deadly candy and emptied it on the ground.  I wore my stubborn mask, and I sat crying with the shame of being so forceful with my gentle Papaw.  I was already a failed lawyer.  He never stopped chewing, but on some level, I felt like I stripped him of one of the fairy tale masks that I used to cover his face.  Who told him that was his story? Why did he start?  Those were never questions I asked.

“Do what I say” he said, and my Mamaw whispered, “but  not always what he does,” as he instructed me to pour grease into the skillet to make gravy.  The gravy never did get thick enough, probably because he had calloused touch sensations due to years of hard work and diabetes.  As we sat down to eat, discouraged at our ability to make things “just right,” he asked me to pray. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food, Amen.”  We tasted, and everything was sweet.  The meat was sweet, the gravy was… sweet, the potatoes were… sweet, the cornbread was way too sweet.  I was the first to giggle, and then we all laughed at Papaw’s mistake—powdered sugar instead of flour.  The amount was right, but the substance was all wrong and it made our feast taste like a cavity waiting to happen.  He took off the mask of Teacher, and became the student.  

I always think of Papaw in the autumn when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time foam shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees.  I remember when I told him I was going to seminary, and I knew that he didn’t support woman pastors.  He told me a story.  He told me the story of a capable woman who worked in the church because it was safe.  He forgot to take off the mask of church elder to show his face as grandfather to a scared granddaughter who was a confident adult by paper, but really a child looking for assurance at heart.  My story was his story, the story that he told me of a blessed redeemer that kept him going each day.  The story of a God whose message to the world was one of Gospel to those trapped by sin and death, a message of healing and deeply loving… and of resurrection.  He came to hear me preach one time—the word that he helped teach me to love—and I know he was proud.

Last time I saw my Papaw he sat in his chair watching one of his favorite Westerns.  He muted the sound, but the action played on as though it was depicting the battle within his heart.  I knew he was scared, and I knew he would die, and for the first time I saw him as a man—another child in need of God’s grace—a fellow beggar at the door of mercy. I hugged him and kissed him as I left and said, “I love you rascal, try to behave yourself,” and he said, “I never behave.  I love you too, Say-rah.”  Driving away from their home—I looked into the space that was once the garden—now an overgrown bunch of weeds long past harvest time, its last harvest being several years back and I painfully choked out the words:  “Dear God, I trust you with my Papaw.”  

Sisters and Brothers, what masks do we wear?  How do we tell our stories?  How do we live out our stories?  When we see Jesus standing in the Jordan beckoning us home, will we recognize the songs of the saints?  Our visible communion is incomplete and small compared to the invisible cloud of witnesses that surround our tables.  God made us maskless and said we were good.  My Papaw was a man of true faith, a man that did not live like a Pharisee; he did not live that others might see his good works, but lived so that if others were looking they would see his good God. So that a fellow traveler in this crazy world might see Jesus’ painfully visible fingerprints of blessing on his life.  I will always think of him during the autumn-- when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees.  Merciful God, give him the courage to hear the wooing of your Saints as they sing the Hallelujahs into the depths of all your creation.  Breathe into him eternity.  Amen.

October 30, 2007