Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Made in the USA #Speakeasy Book Review

When I'm shopping at the mall or Good Will or Vert and Vogue, I am always glad to see the label "Made in the USA" on the garments I purchase. Whether I (over)pay full retail price or spend $3.99, I want to know that the garment was made here in my home country because the people who made it were (most likely) not working in a dangerous or abusive environment. I want to know that they are paid a living wage for their hard work. At least that's what I hope and believe when I see that label. 

Years ago, when I learned that the United States is the world's largest producer and exporter of pornography, the "made in the USA" label lost a bit of its shine in my eyes and my mind. I am sad to say that recently I encountered that phrase again, Made in the USA, on the cover of a book - and once again it broke my heart. The full title of the book is - Made in the USA - The Sex Trafficking of America's Children. The book's author, Alisa Jordheim, is a passionate, caring and courageous woman and has penned a terrific book about a horrific topic.

Before reading this book, I knew very little about sexual trafficking in this country. Before reading this book, I didn't want to know about sexual trafficking in this country or in any other country either. I knew it was happening. I had heard about it, seen segments in news stories about it, and listened to tales about people who choose vacation destinations based on the availability of commercial sex in other parts of the world. What I didn't realize is the extent to which it is happening right here in the USA, and  that many of the victims are American-born children. 

Who are these exploited children? A sargeant in the Atlanta police department said, "We've seen young girls being exploited, and there's no common thread as far as black, white, Asian, upper class, upper-middle class, lower middle class, poor, house, home, single, double. That varies." Whether they are in strip clubs, at truck stops, on the street, or online, these children are beaten, raped, drugged, stripped of their dignity, and often arrested for their behavior. 

One clarification the author makes that I think is crucial on this topic is this - "There are no child prostitutes. A prostitute is commonly defined as an adult who consensually exchanges sex for money. Using the term prostitute in connection with a child can bring misunderstanding to the definition of child sex trafficking and implies that the child is making a choice. These children are not making choices. They are being exploited... It is time to remove the stereotype that these are just 'oversexed kids' making bad decisions. It is time to align our words with the truth: Children who are sexually exploited commercially are always, initially, victims of a crime." 

This book shares the stories of five young men and women who have been the victims of sexual trafficking. One of them was kidnapped by people they knew. One was lured into prostitution by a pimp posing as her boyfriend. One felt that the only way he could survive after running away from home was by selling himself for sex. One was forced into sexual exploitation by her family members. At one point, I closed the book and slammed it down on the table where I was reading - how can any mother listen to her daughter talk about what her uncle was doing to her and with her and dismiss it by saying that the daughter was getting older and cuter - she was seven years old when the abuse began - and that she should be flattered by her uncle's attention? How does that mother send her precious girl child back to her uncle's house every summer for nearly ten years knowing what her daughter suffered?

One of the challenges with reading this book, one of the many challenges, is the distinction that is made between American children being abused and tortured this way and children from other countries. There is a term that refers only to American children within US borders: "domestic minor sex trafficking." I think that any child, regardless of nation of origin, is worthy of care, of redemption, and of freedom from a life of sexual slavery and abuse. I'm not saying that there is any hint of hierarchy in the language of the book, but the fact that there is any distinction made between these victims based on their nationality is problematic.

Another challenge with reading this book is dealing with the overwhelming sadness, sorrow, and anger that it stirs up. I appreciate the way that the author addresses those emotions in the book's introduction. "These stories are gritty and heartbreaking and, at the same time, riveting. Many of the scenes are difficult to read, and the language among the pimps, johns, and children is rough and sometimes profane. This is intentional. My hope is that, after reading this book, you will understand the psychological and physical abuse these children face daily... Your willingness to read this book indicates that you are bold, brave, and living a little on the edge. Thank you for that. Many people cannot, do not, and will not acknowledge or discuss this difficult topic. You may need to take a breather between stories. It's okay... Allow the reading of the book to become a labor of love in honor of these exceptional survivors."

I am glad the book was gritty and raw, sobering and difficult. I am glad I followed through with the labor of love and sorrow that this book demanded. I needed to be exposed to the dreaded statistics related to the victims of these brutal crimes - "Tragically, most trafficking victims will die within seven years of first being trafficked. An average woman may live to be eighty-one years old and a man seventy-six, but these children can expect to die at an average age of twenty to twenty-one years old." I needed to read these accounts. I needed to cry over these children's plight. I needed to know what is happening to children against their will and against the will of all sane and thinking people. I am grateful that my eyes and my heart have been opened and exposed to the inside story of the underside of our nation. 

The book ends with almost twenty pages of ideas, suggestions, organizations, and information that provide the reader with action steps to take in order to make a difference in the lives of sexually exploited children. Rather than simply being paralyzed and immobilized by the weight of the stories, we are offered solid leads on how we can help. I am still considering what my response will be to what I now know.

The stories are terrible, horrendous, painful, and heinous. The accounts told by and about these young men and women and how they were forced to live, to sell themselves, and to break free from "the life" made me want to crawl back into my safe house, my safe neighborhood, and be grateful that my children were homeschooled and therefore never far from my reach or my sight. But the truth is that all children are unsafe as long as any children are unsafe. All children are vulnerable to sexual exploitation as long as any children are vulnerable. 

Lately I have been convinced of and convicted by the notion that there is no "us and them;" there is only us. The young boys and girls whose photos are being disseminated on the internet, those who are being repeatedly raped at state fairs, conventions, and in the back seats of cars, vans, and in the cabs of eighteen wheeler trucks - they are our sons and daughters. The young people who are forced to leave home because of their homosexuality, bisexuality, and unsettled sexual orientation are our sons and daughters, sent out to fend for themselves when they barely know themselves. The mentally ill, the mentally disabled, the uneducated, the homeless, the runaways, they are our children. Our lost children. Our brutalized children. Our abused children. Our trafficked children. Bought, sold, rescued, redeemed - and made in the USA. 

**********
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review, and the review and opinions offered here are my own. I do not receive any compensation for writing this review or posting a link to purchase the book. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Soundtrack of My Life

I am not a huge music person. My children can tell stories of going on long rides in the car, four, six, even twelve hour drives when I will either not turn on any music at all or I will listen repeatedly to the same CD or playlist for hours at a time. The music I listen to most of all is hymns, the old hymns of the church.

Among my favorite hymns are:
To God be the Glory
Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine.
It is well with my soul.
When we all get to heaven.
Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.
Victory in Jesus.
When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.
Amazing Grace.
I love to tell the story.
I know whom I have believed.

There is a handful of contemporary songs that I return to often.
My hope is in the Lord.
I have a hope.
He is here.
Through the Fire.
We will remember.
We've come this far by faith.
Jesus, what a beautiful name.
Holy Ground.
When I don't know what to do.
Hear me calling, Great Redeemer.

My list of favorite musicians and groups is as mixed and colorful as my extended family.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir
Hillsongs
Donnie McClurkin
Lynda Randle
Selah
Hezekiah Walker
James Cleveland
The Talleys
Bill Gaither
Tommy Walker
Juanita Bynam
Yolanda Adams
Carman
The Imperials
The Crabb Family
Avalon

The soundtrack of my life takes me back to my childhood church, Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. I am transported back to the Wednesday night services when we would sing a couple of hymns before praying for thirty to forty-five minutes. Even then, I cried when I prayed.

I am reminded of Vacation Bible School - two weeks during the summer months during which we marched (literally) into the church singing "Onward Christian Soldiers," carrying our Bibles, and imagining ourselves as soldiers for God in "this sin-sick world." I remember the flannel boards and flannel figures that the teachers used to explain the stories of Scripture to us. I remember wanting to sit in the front row every time, so that I wouldn't be distracted by my restless and sweaty classmates.

I remember that my "piano lessons" consisted of my father pointing to middle C on our upright piano, showing me middle C on the treble and bass clef of the hymn book and leaving me to figure out the rest of it on my own. Other than a few months of fiddling around with the old John Thompson Modern Course for the Piano book, the only music I ever learned to play was hymns. Songs with four flats were my favorites.

I remember having to hunt and peck out a few hymns during Sunday and Wednesday evening services on the rare occasion that no other piano players were present. I remember being honored to play even though I made repeated mistakes and regularly lost my place on the page. I would tell them to keep on singing and I would catch up when I figured out where they were.

I remember sitting up in the choir loft with the two daughters of our senior pastor when they practiced playing the organ for Sunday services. I remember that neither of them seemed nearly as excited to be up there as I was. They were up there because they had to be there. I was up there because I loved the music and wanted to be near the source of that magnificent sound.

I remember listening to my father and my two oldest brothers singing in men's quartets at church. I remember my father playing the guitar and singing duets with my mother at church. I remember one of my brothers playing the piano and my father singing solos at church. I remember sitting nearby and listening to them when they practiced at home. I remember wishing I was old enough, gifted enough, and brave enough to sing solos at church.

I remember listening to Southern gospel music and classics hymns with my father on the many records he kept stacked in our living room. I remember listening to those albums even when he wasn't at home. I remember playing them so loudly that our upstairs neighbors would come down and complain about the volume. I remember hoping they wouldn't mention my loud music to my parents.

I remember occasionally attending evening services at Brooklyn Tabernacle during the years when my brother and his wife sang in that legendary choir. I remember wishing my parents would choose to attend that church - I wanted to listen to them sing every Sunday.

Aside from those musical experiences, I have been to several James Taylor concerts - as well as performances by Bruce Hornsby, Huey Lewis, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. I own several Billy Joel CDs along with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Kenny Rogers, John Legend, Erykah Badu, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, India Arie, Sarah McLachlan, and Bette Midler. Quite the eclectic mix of artists, I know. They have each brought smiles, wiggles, toe taps, and knowing nods to me and through me when I hear them.

But the soundtrack of my life is the soundtrack of my faith.
The soundtrack of my life consists of the hymns and songs of my faith.
The soundtrack of my life reminds me of who and what matters most to me, what motivates me, what defines my life.
The soundtrack of my faith is the soundtrack of my life.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thankful Thursday

I am grateful for this beautiful, sunny, crisp fall Thursday. I am grateful for my scarves and boots and pairs of thick socks.

I am also grateful for Erika, who challenged me to remember that not everyone likes cool mornings and crisp afternoons and chilly nights - homeless people and others who spend most of their time outside don't welcome the temperature change, nor do they have the luxury of merrily sipping a pumpkin spice latte or a green tea latte with soy milk and no sweetener (which is my preferred indulgence) while appreciating the change of seasons.

I am grateful for the abundance of fall vegetables and fruits available at the supermarket these days.
I am grateful for two recent encounters with folks selling local produce and honey and baked goods.

I am grateful for the smily face drawn into the dust on a glass sculpture at the Mint Museum. As I stood and looked at one of Jon Kuhn's magnificent pieces, I thought, "It sure needs to be dusted." That's when I saw the art drawn on the art. I would never be bold enough to touch a sculpture in a museum, nevermind draw something on it. I chuckled at the brazenness of that art defiler/dust artist.

I am grateful that regular gas has dropped below $3 per gallon in our fair city.

I am grateful for the flowers and chocolate chip cookies we received in exchange for our unused, though perfectly functional ping pong table. One less space-consuming, dust-gathering thing in our garage.

I am grateful for those who have put their lives at risk to work with the thousands who are affected by the ebola virus, the wars in Gaza, refugees in Iraq, the displaced in Afghanistan, and people who are suffering elsewhere. I am grateful for the opportunity and ability to contribute financial assistance.

I am grateful for the time I was able to spend with Kasandra and her two young children on Tuesday. Talking. Laughing. Changing diapers. Watching airplanes take off and land at the airport overlook. For those of you who are praying people, please pray for her - she is on a difficult kanswer journey. She is only 30 years old, has three young children, and is about to embark on an aggressive treatment protocol that will last for many months.

I am grateful for the many stories of victory over kanswer I have heard lately. I watched an episode of Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta last night - it was actually called Say Yes to the Cure because the owner of the salon, Lori, had a breast kanswer challenge in 2012, only a couple of months before mine. There was an African-American woman profiled on last night's show who has had breast kanswer twice, ovarian kanswer, and at the time of taping was dealing with lung kanswer. Such strength. Such beauty. Why was she featured on Say Yes to the Dress? Because she and her husband were about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They said that she had spent 23 of their 25 years together dealing with kanswer in one way or another. There was much weeping and even more rejoicing on their special day.  I am thankful that I saw that show. I too cried - not that it takes much to get me going - for them and with them and also for myself and everyone who has had to deal with this dreadful disease. We are strong. We are survivors. We are here. And those whose battles ended in death, like my father, at least they aren't suffering anymore. I know they are missed, but no one misses kanswer when it's gone.

I am grateful to be on this side of treatment and on this side of the grave. I am grateful to be able to share my story with others in person, as I did with Kasandra, and also by video. For those of you who haven't seen it yet, this is my story.



I am grateful for Rick who asked me, "What was the miracle for today?" Apparently he remembered a recent Sunday School class in which I said that I see miracles everyday. What was my miracle for yesterday - which was the day he asked? I avoided two car accidents yesterday on my way to church. 
Confession: in one case, my music was playing so loudly that I didn't hear the ambulance approaching and had to slam on my brakes to avoid hitting the stopped car in front of me. I wondered why that driver stopped so suddenly, then I saw the ambulance. Oops - I guess I'd better turn my tunes down...

My miracle for today is multi-layered; I suppose I should make it plural. I have experienced several miracles today.  
* This morning, I went to Target to say good-bye to a wheelchair bound employee there who is soon to retire. I have seen him there for years and he has always been friendly towards me and my family. When I went through kanswer treatment and didn't go shopping very often, he would ask Kristiana how I was doing. He will retire in three weeks, and because I didn't want to miss him, I went in this morning to wish him well. From there, I went to the library to vote early. From the library, I went to Trader Joe's and bought groceries. Early this afternoon, I went to Benjamin Moore paints to purchase supplies to have our bathrooms updated - we are having the wallpaper removed and all the walls painted. After I put the paint in my car, I went to the bagel store two doors down and picked up a few rings of doughy delight to bring home for breakfast tomorrow. Less than half an hour later, I took our dog to the groomer. 

The miracle? I did all those things and got home safely. No accidents. Not even any near misses. You don't think those are miracles worth being grateful for? Ask the family of the man or woman or child who won't get home safely today. The family members of the loved one who will be injured or diagnosed or even pass away today - they will tell you that safe travel and safe returns are miraculous.

* I have never grown spaghetti squash or bananas or oats or chick peas or red peppers or tomatoes or kale or romaine lettuce or apples or lemons or limes. I have never made hummus or coconut milk or pizza dough or pepperoni or almond butter or kombucha from scratch. I have never laid a floor or installed a refrigerator or ordered food from a warehouse or programmed a cash register or hired a stock person or unloaded a delivery truck. 

The miracle? Someone had the foresight to plant and water and weed and reap at the right times so that we can eat. Someone grew the food, fed the animals, harvested, slaughtered, plucked, canned, wrapped, sealed, delivered, unpacked, shelved, and sold these miraculous things to me and you and countless others.  

* I have never cut down a rubber tree, worked in a steel mill, molded hard plastic, created glass panels, or even pondered the electronics necessary to create and control the car I drive. I don't know the function of a carburetor or a ball joint - which makes me an easy target for unscrupulous mechanics, I realize - but someone invented those and many other car parts so that I can go to the library and the supermarket and the vet's office and church. Tomorrow morning, I expect it will transport me to one friend's house so that together we can go visit another friend who recently had a baby. (Don't get me started on the miracle of conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and new life. We get to bring people into the world with hearts, minds, lives, and souls of their own. Is there any greater miracle than that?)

I have never fully comprehended the way airplanes work - all that stuff, all those people, all that fuel, up in the air, across land and sea. Air pressure controlled. Food and beverages provided (sometimes). Cargo below. Steel panels above. Turbulence withstood. Pilots. Autopilot. Flight attendants. Air marshalls. Up in the air. Zipping across the sky. 

The miracle? Isn't every vehicle a miracle? Isn't every safe passage truly a miracle? Isn't every meal a miracle? Isn't it a miracle to wake up in your bed, alive, still breathing, with your heart still beating, your house still standing, your family members and loved ones still alive? Isn't every day above ground truly miraculous? 

Monday, October 20, 2014

More of my kanswer story

Make yourself a cup of coffee or tea; this is gonna take a few minutes.

Back in 2009, my daughter and I became members of the Y and started attending Cardio Funk classes under the direction of the energetic, happy, and extremely fit Andre Hairston. When he's not whipping his huge Cardio Craze classes into shape, Andre is an actor in movies and on television, writes and produces plays, and also makes videos.

Not long ago, he asked if I would be willing to tell some of my kanswer story for a video he was producing. Of course I said, "Yes." If my story can help or encourage anyone else, then I want to tell it. So here is the video that Andre produced. Please feel free to share it with anyone and everyone.

If you haven't gotten your tea ready, now's the time to do it.
And you may want to grab a tissue on your way back to the computer.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

At the last minute

Today was the Fall Festival at our church, the one I wrote about in my last blog post. Hundreds of people came. Children played in the playground. They had their faces painted. They chose pumpkins. There was live music. Food trucks served up bbq and other goodies. There was a local farmer's market there. (I bought spaghetti squash, honey, tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic. There will be a veggie feast for dinner at our house tomorrow night.) I talked to people about the Good Samaritan fresco and encouraged folks to decorate rocks, to write one word prayers, to write what they are grateful for, to name people who have been good Samaritans in their lives and those for whom they have been good Samaritans.

I smiled my way through the afternoon.

When it was time to clean up, I took down the signs, put away the markers, the rocks, the easels, and closed one of the two doors to the outside when they arrived. At the last minute.

The taller woman said she had been in the church before - for Room in the Inn, the church's ministry of opening its doors several nights per week during the winter months so that a few of our homeless neighbors don't have to sleep outside in the cold.
The shorter woman asked if it was too late to kneel.
It is never to late to kneel.

I asked them how I could pray for them.
One said that her car had been towed while she was in prison.
The other said that her life isn't going the way she had hoped, that it is going down the wrong path.
I could see physical scars on their faces and necks.
They carried their belongings on their backs.

I asked if I could pray for them right then and there.
They said, "That's why we are here."
I put my hands on their shoulders and began to cry.
I sometimes find it difficult to pray out loud without crying.
When I finished praying and opened my eyes, I saw that they had embraced each other.
Completing the circle.


During my two and a half hours in that room, they were the only ones who asked for prayer.
They came at the last minute.
They were right on time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"Come on down!"

Unabashed advertising about to happen on this blog-o-mine.


If you live in the Charlotte area and are looking for something fun and free to do this Sunday afternoon, October 19th, from 3:30 until 5:30 pm, please come uptown to First Presbyterian Church for our Fall Festival. There will be food trucks, games, activities for kids, live music, a farmer's market stand, a reverse food truck (you get to bring food that will be given to and distributed by a local food pantry), a blessing of bike helmets (if you have a bike helmet, bring it so that one of the pastors can pray for safe bike travel), stickers to decorate those blessed helmets, and the church's fresco lobby will be open to the public.


What's a fresco lobby, you ask? Ben Long, an American fresco artist, painted a scene from the parable of The Good Samaritan in one of the church lobbies. That space will be open for people to view the fresco/mural. Yours truly will be hanging out in that area, holding space for people to ponder the painting and the story, to sit and pray, to read and write, and also to simply enjoy a quiet space on a busy afternoon.

The event is free and open to everyone. There will be food for purchase at the food trucks and farmer's market stand, but all the other activities are FREE.


So, come on down, y'all, and enjoy some good old fashioned Presbyterian hospitality. (I am new to being a Presbyterian and am not certain if "Presbyterian hospitality" is really "a thing." Perhaps we will make it "a thing" starting this Sunday.)


Full disclosure - I took these photos a couple of years ago during the spring. The church has a gorgeous front lawn, as you can see. Our hope is that it will be full of people having a great time together on Sunday. Will you join us?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Fill in the __________________.

I came across a quote on Pinterest this morning that got me thinking. I mean, I like the quote as it is written, but after I read it, I wondered what other words I might choose to replace the first one.

What do you think? What words would you choose to fill in the blank?

Fitness is not about being better than someone else.
It's about being better than you used to be.

______________ is not about being better than anyone else.
It's about me being better than I used to be.

My newfound focus on my health
How I eat and exercise
What I no longer eat and drink
My journaling habit
Blogging my life's journey
My commitment to living a messy, imperfect, "reformed and always reforming" life of faith


Here are a few other blanks I created and then filled.

___________________ is not about us being better or smarter or more clever than anyone else.
It's not about us comparing our story to anyone else's story.
It's about us trying to become a more loving, more forgiving, more accepting family than we used to be.
It's about us trying to become better people than we used to be.


The way we live out our marriage
Our pattern of parenting
Our decision to homeschool
Our decision to attend First Presbyterian Church
Our willingness to tell the difficult stories of our lives openly



The reason I ______________ is not because I think I have a better life than anyone else.
It's all about me living my life to the fullest every day.

laugh so loud
talk so much
smile so quickly
cry even more quickly
try not to complain
focus on what is good and beautiful and simple
keep coming back to the topics of gratitude, hope, love, joy and faith


I am committed to learning how to love __________________.

to cook
the neighbor who lets his dogs poop in my yard
homeless people who ask for money
grumpy people in line at the supermarket
family members and friends when they are grumpy and ask for money
my own sometimes difficult-to-love self
God even more


When I feel lonely, I reach for _____________________.
When I am bored, I _______________________.
When he makes me angry, I want to _______________________.
When she drones on and on with her stories, I fantasize about _________________________.
What was I thinking? I should never have ______________________.
Instead, I should have ____________.
This isn't the marriage/home life/church/friendship/life I thought it would be. I'm sick of this/bored with this/tired of doing all this hard work. So I'm gonna ______________________.
If only I had the courage to stand up and speak up, I would say, "_____________________."

leaving
chosen this
move on
Really? That's a lie and you know it
let you leave
a sweet, strong drink
scream
I'm done
done that
I am a better person because you are in my life
kissed him
candy
go shopping
kept my big mouth shut
I miss you
said that
do something risky and foolish
You are a wonder
walked away
I'm sorry
duct tape
held back
I really don't like you right now
eaten that
give up
tried again
Please forgive me and give me another chance
asked you to stay
complain to anyone who will listen
my passport
You are wrong
told you the truth
my debit card
followed you
fantasize about _______________ (yet another blank)


Perhaps I need to go get some Mad-Libs books and continue filling in the _______________.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Thankful Thursday

How can I say thanks for the friends, the relationships, the food, the safety, the house, the clothes, the abundance without also saying thanks for the tears, the losses, the pain, and the suffering? It's nearly impossible for me to maintain hope during the latter without remembering the joy in the former. It's nearly impossible for me to appreciate the former without remembering the challenges of the latter.

One year ago tonight, I was aboard a flight from Miami to Madrid, on my first trip to Spain after surviving my kanswer journey. I was grateful for the ability to carry my backpack, to traverse the long corridors and escalators at Miami International Airport. I was grateful for the friends who were ready to receive me and host me and celebrate the end of the hard-fought battle to regain my health. I was grateful for my husband and children who once again released me to go to the place where I experience deep joy and profound peace. I look forward to getting back there sometime soon. Judging by the many people who have recently asked me when I'm going back, I think it's time to plan another Iberian adventure. Last week someone asked me why I keep going back there and don't go to new places. Because for me, Spain is new every time. New people. New towns and cities. New foods and drinks. New discoveries. Why take a chance going someplace where I might be disappointed when I know that Spain is a sure thing?!?

Tonight I am grateful for the time I spent with a dear friend this afternoon. In my family room. Talking. Laughing. Telling stories. Crying. Shaking our heads. We sat together and marveled at the foolishness, the pride, the deceit, the beauty, the strength, and the courage of the people we know - and also the people we wish we didn't know. Life is hard. Marriage is hard. Having children is hard. Being single is hard. Not having children is hard. I will say it again - life is hard. But we have each other. We lean on each other. We listen to each other. We love each other.

I am grateful for the challenges of parenting an 18 year old and a 20 year old. Their questions. Their orneriness. Their closed doors. Their refusal to just do what I say just because I say it. Their insistence that I listen to their point of view and their willingness to listen to mine. Their unwillingness to be treated disrespectfully and their willingness to admit when they have treated me disrespectfully. Let me be clear - I am even more grateful when they do what I ask just because I say so. I am even more grateful when they hug me and kiss me and speak to me with respect. I am more grateful when they cook and feed themselves and then clean up after themselves. I am even more grateful when they do their laundry and put their dishes in the dishwasher without being asked. These two people I gave birth to push me to want to drink heavily and scream loudly, but they also give me reason to laugh until my stomach hurts.

I am grateful for the difficult questions we ask and discuss at church. About poverty and peace. About wealth and suffering. About what it means to be a church in the heart of Charlotte, where there is so much homelessness, hunger, loneliness, sorrow, anger, fear, and also so much goodness, generosity, faith, hope, and the longing to touch one another's lives. I am grateful to be learning how to disagree and still be friends, still be a community of faith. I am grateful to be learning how to ask questions, how to not always offer answers, and how to work together to be people who are known for our love, our grace, our hospitality, our compassion, and our proclamation of the good news that Love wins.

I am grateful to be able to write and think and talk about the many ways that my heart has been broken in my lifetime by people who knew better but didn't do better. By people I trusted and loved and gave myself to. By pastors and teachers and family members and friends. By those I knew well and total strangers as well. Groped. Hit. Pushed. Laughed at. Embarrassed. Rejected. Beaten. Ignored. Taken advantage of. Ridiculed. Lied to. Lied about. I am grateful for the healing that comes when I write unsent letters to the perpetrators and talk about them out loud.

I am grateful for the many times that grace mercy, forgiveness, and compassion have been extended to me when I hit, pushed, embarrassed, rejected, took advantage of, ridiculed, ignored, lied and gossiped about, and wounded people I claimed to love. I am grateful to and for all the people who have accepted all of my apologies over the years.

I am grateful for the honor of listening to her story of the challenges of her marriage, the pain of watching his wife battle alcoholism, the challenges of her child's anxiety, wishing for children, longing to meet the love of her life, wishing he had never come along - I am grateful for the gift of their trust, for the gift of their friendship, for the gift of their time. Often I feel unworthy of all that I have been entrusted with so often by so many people. I am grateful that I can come alongside other hurting people and sit with them in their pain. I am grateful to be learning how to keep my mouth shut more, to just listen, to not jump in and tell my stories. As Kathy Escobar writes, that is very hard to do.

I am grateful for the book, Tattoos on the Heart. OMG - truly, Oh My God! It is a soul-stirring, mind-expanding, heart-rending account of one man's experiences working with gang members in Los Angeles. I read it in one day - and I need to read it again. I copied dozens of quotes from it into my journal.

Here are a few gems -

Where we stand, in all our mistakes and imperfections, is holy ground.

The no-matter-whatness of God dissolves the toxicity of shame and fills us with tender mercy.

Just assume the answer to every question is compassion.

Everyone is just looking to be told that who he or she is is right and true and wholly acceptable. No need to tinker and tweak. Exactly right. 

Everything on this side of death, however, is "requesting the honor of our presence" so we can delight in life's astonishing, joyful poetry. 

Robert Frost: How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?

Pema Chodron: You are the sky. Everything else, it's just weather.

Teilhard de Chardin: Trust in the slow work of God.

I am grateful tonight for the messiness, the mistakes, the imperfections that show us our need for compassion, tender mercy, and kindness. I am grateful for the increasing recognition that where we stand is holy ground - and all the ground between us is holy ground as well. I am grateful for how astonishingly beautifull and joyfull and hopefull life is - even in the face of illness, pain, loss, sorrow and death. I am grateful for the no-matter-whatness and slow work of God's love.

Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Angels Among Us

This past Thursday was my turn to go to Loaves and Fishes again. To distribute food to our clients. To walk with them through the pantry while they choose what to take home. Those three hours are among the most meaningful hours of the month. Because I don't want to forget my interactions with the people I serve, I jot down a few details about each one on the little post-it notes I am given with their names and the size of their families. When I get home, I staple them into my calendar-journal and pray for them every time I see them. 

My first client was a man who came in with the muscle shirt and the baseball cap on backwards. Family of one. He was slow, thoughtful, and careful about his food choices not only because he wanted to choose things that would last a while in his kitchen, but also because he was going home by bus. So he was mindful of carrying the fewest number of bags. He also said that one of his arms was weaker than the other and grimaced when he picked up one of the bags. Big man. Slightly intimidating looking. Gentle in spirit - he wished me well and said, "God bless you," as he left. I had to check and recheck my unwarranted fears and prejudices during my brief time with him. 

Then there was the slightly older gentleman with the long black denim shorts. Also a family of one. I often wonder what it is like to be hungry, to be in need of assistance in order to eat - and be alone. I wonder if their loneliness feels more desperate because they are by themselves or if there is a certain sense of relief that at least they are only looking after themselves. He too left with gratitude and shared a kind word of blessing for me. I shook my head and thought, "If only you knew how much a blessing you are to me."

After him, there was a woman who looked about my age, there with her teenaged son. Family of four. She said another of her sons was outside waiting in the car. The two of them expressed surprise and a certain sense of awe at how much food they were able to take home for their family. How many boxes of macaroni and cheese? How many cans of vegetables? All of this yogurt and cheese? Really? As I walked them outside to help them load it into their car, she said, "I wish I could hug everybody." I said, "I'll take a hug." After we embraced, she said, "I don't take this for granted. I'm about to cry; I'm so soft." I assured her that tears were perfectly fine, that I'm a bit of a softie too, and that as a mom myself, I know how much she wants to make sure her family eats well. All she could do at that point was nod as tears rimmed her eyes.

Between clients, the volunteers often share stories of the folks we meet. We also remind one another of how blessed we are to be able to go to the supermarket and purchase the groceries we want and need. We remind each other of the privilege it is to serve our Charlotte neighbors through Loaves and Fishes. We are grateful to the companies and the individuals that donate food and time and resources to purchase the food we distribute. We know that giving food away for free isn't going to solve the problem of hunger or poverty in our city, but we know that for some people, those cans and boxes and bags of food are what keep them, their parents, their children, their siblings, and their spouses from going to bed hungry. 

The next woman came in wearing a lovely floor-length green and white sundress. I'm a huge fan of maxi skirts and maxi dresses, so I commented on it. She proudly said, "I got it for $5." There's nothing wrong with that kind of careful spending. As she left with her provisions for her family of one, she looked deep into my eyes and said, "I really do appreciate this." I wanted to hug her, but I decided that since she didn't ask or offer, I should keep my embraces to myself that time. 

My last clients of the day were my favorites - two brothers, Wesley and Patrick. I had worked with Wesley a few months ago and at that time, he told me that although he was designated as a family of one, he lived with his brother. Because I am such a softie, I allowed him to pick a few extra items and made him promise not to tell anybody. Apparently, he told his brother because this week, when he showed up again with his brother, Patrick said, "He told me about you and that you are one of the good ones." I responded with a laugh and said, "I don't know about all that, but I'm glad to be here to help." When I greeted Wesley this past Thursday, I said, "It's good to see you again." He seemed surprised when he asked, "You remember me?" "Of course I remember you." Those two men walked through the pantry like they were choosing Christmas gifts - grateful for every can, every box, every bag, every morsel. They traded ideas about the various meals they would be able to prepare with the items they picked. It sounded like they are creative cooks in spite of the meager provisions they had at their disposal. At the end of our walk through the pantry, Patrick said, "You all work so hard here." I laughed and said, "We are here to serve you all. Why wouldn't we work hard?" Once again, I wanted to hug them, but did so only in my heart and mind. 


This morning, the pastor talked about angels. The verses he read were from the thirteenth chapter of the book of Hebrews - Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

His first question was this: do you believe in angels? He went on to explain that the word angel means messenger, so the question can also be asked like this: do you believe in messengers? Do you believe that God sends messengers to us nowadays? Do you believe that some people come into our lives to teach us lessons and bring us messages that are meant to challenge us and to change us? 

Yes, I do believe in angel messengers among us. I believe that every person we serve at Loaves and Fishes is an angel, a messenger meant to teach us to love all people as our brothers and sisters. They teach us to welcome in strangers and discover that they can become friends quickly. I believe that the people in my church are angel messengers who are teaching me to not judge others based on race or income or appearance or the fact that they are "Southerners." I believe that the people who live on my block are angel messengers as well, angels who brought us meals during my kanswer journey and my daughter's illness. I believe that the people I met online who have since become non-virtual, real life, "let's get together" friends are angel messengers who have taught me about trust and taking chances. I believe that the people who greet me happily and heartily at Trader Joe's are angel messengers teaching me that everyone deserves to be looked at and spoken to and asked how they are doing. I believe that my children are angel messengers who are teaching me patience and love and how to laugh at myself, at them, and at the crazy world we live in. I believe that the folks I met in Sevilla, Spain in 2006 and in Nicaragua in 2008 and in Haiti in 2012 and everywhere else I have ever been are all angel messengers teaching me about love, about gratitude, about hope, about courage, about hospitality, about vulnerability, about faith, about welcome, about sharing, about food and wine and water and gathering around table together as brothers, sisters, and friends. I believe that each of us and all of us have entertained, are entertaining, and are ourselves angel messengers in this wounded, weary, hungry, thirsty, broken, mysterious, miraculous, marvelous world. 

I hope and pray that Wesley and Patrick and Tony Lee and Gerald and Adrienne and Patricia all find meaningful and fulfilling work that pays them enough to provide food, shelter, utilities and a few extras for themselves and their families - and they don't ever need the assistance of Loaves and Fishes again. But if they aren't able to do so, I hope I'm around and can spend time with those angels again at some point in the future. 

Someone once said that we need to be the change we want to see in the world.
I say that we need to be the angels we all want and need to see in the world.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Memorable Sunday

Twelve years ago this week, I drove to Charlotte for the first time with my mother and my two young children. Steve had already started working here, and we came down to find a house and make arrangements for our imminent move. I found this house on the morning of my only day of looking at houses with our real estate agent. Steve met us for lunch and we came back here that afternoon. He loved it as much as I do. We put in a bid only to find out ten minutes later that someone else had also bid on it. What??? In the end, we bought this house, and the other couple that bid on the house that day bought the house across the street from us two years later.

On the Sunday of the first weekend in October of 2002, we visited a church, a big pink church, that Steve had visited before we came down - and we all loved it. It was big and pink - and welcoming and warm. I met other homeschooling moms. My kids met other homeschooled kids and athletic kids and kids who rode horses. There were white pastors and black pastors for the congregation of nearly 2,000 English speaking people. And there was a Brazilian pastor who preached in Spanish to a congregation of 300+ Spanish speakers every Sunday morning. I sat in the back row of the huge sanctuary that Sunday and wept - we had found a church that we all loved from the first time we attended.

The children, my mother and I returned to Connecticut where I packed boxes, gave things away, got together with friends for final dinners and gatherings, and we left our house in Norwalk, Connecticut, on the morning of Friday, November 1st for our drive to our new house. We arrived in Charlotte the next night, after a stop in Hickory, North Carolina, where we ordered new furniture and rugs for our new home. On Sunday morning, we got up, went back to the big pink church and started membership classes. That same week, that Brazilian pastor asked me to translate from Spanish to English during the Wednesday night Bible study. Nervously, I obliged. Less than a month later, I was asked to translate for him for three weeks during the Sunday morning service. Once again, I nervously obliged. At the end of those three weeks, I told him that if he ever needed help again, he should feel free to ask. He said, "What about doing it every week?"

Thus began seven and a half years of being the pastor's regular translator. I even went with him to other churches a couple of times to translate. I translated at funerals. I wrote letters and went to meetings with lawyers and translated documents for my dearly beloved Latino brothers and sisters from the end of 2002 until the middle of 2010. I loved it. I loved them, the men and women of so many central and south american nations, brave, strong, beautiful, loving, kind, generous, fearful, messy, needy, desperate people. They were just like me. I was just like them. Together we laughed and cried and drank coffee and ate delicious food and told our stories and read the Bible and prayed and grew to know and love one another. I learned more Spanish in those seven and a half years than I could ever have dreamed or hoped.

Early in 2010, my husband and I made the decision to leave that church. We didn't have another church in mind to attend, but we knew that we were done there. Our family had been deeply wounded by a lack of care and concern, especially on the part of the leadership of the church, at a time when we were in need of their care and support and presence. We were angry. I was tired. It was time to move on.

A year later, we began to attend another church. A quieter church. A smaller church. A loving church. A welcoming church. So welcoming, in fact, that even though I wasn't a member of the church, I was invited to teach there. Often. On Sundays mornings and Wednesdays evening. And when I taught there, they paid me. When I taught there, I taught men and women - which for many people is not a big deal. For that congregation it was not a big deal.

However for many of the people at the big pink church and all of the leadership there, that would have been a very big deal. Women are not allowed to teach men there, or any male over the age of 13 or so. Women teach women. Women teach children. Women don't preach or teach there, nor can they be elders or deacons. Women's wisdom is only for women.

Once when I was teaching a class on spiritual journaling there, a man came into the class. He was an avid journaler and shared many wonderful insights on writing with the rest of us. Unfortunately, he never came back. And soon thereafter, I was reminded that my classes were for women, not men. Not long after that, I was informed that my classes on spiritual journaling did not fit in with the vision and plan of the church and I could no longer teach them.

For years, I submitted to the tradition of women not teaching men. It always hurt my heart and wounded my soul because I knew so many wise, insightful, powerful, strong women who had so much to teach and share. I knew far too many unwise, power-hungry, angry, women-bashing men who had regular opportunities to speak their mean words from the pulpit and in front of groups of men and women.

Anyway, in this new church, women occupy every level of church leadership - pastors, elders, deacons, teachers, directors, music. I confess to being floored by the ease of it all. I confess that there were times when I would be teaching or listening to a woman preach or watching women distribute communion when I would brace myself for someone to stand up and say, "This is unbiblical. These women should not be speaking or leading or teaching. They need to sit down and be quiet." But it never happened. In fact, the opposite happened. Men and women embraced their female leaders and teachers in love and with gratitude, thanking them, thanking me for sharing our gifts with the congregation. They still do.

Many years ago, when I first attended this church's Wednesday noon service, I went out to lunch with one of the associate ministers at the time, a woman, and asked her how she would respond to people who said that women should be silent in church, that women shouldn't teach or preach or have authority in the church. She said many powerful and beautiful and grace-filled and Bible-based things in response, but the one thing that stood out most for me was this - "I would rather stand before God and have to answer for being a minister and preaching in church when God told me to be silent, than to answer for being silent when God told me to speak and preach. And I believe that God has called me to preach. Lives are being changed. People are being drawn into the kingdom. That's what matters most. Jesus said that if we don't praise and honor him, the rocks would cry out. No rock is gonna cry out in my place." I have thought about her words many times since that day.

This past January, we made the decision as a family to join this new church, this women-embracing, love-spreading, imperfect, messy church. As a member, I no longer get paid to teach, but I do get to teach more often. I am overwhelmed on a regular basis by the gratitude and support and encouragement I receive from not only from the women, but also the men in the church. The men who thank me for teaching and who share their stories with me, eyes brimming with tears, far outnumber the women. I believe God is using them and using this new church to heal my wounded heart, the places that were bruised and battered by the constant silencing of women in most of the churches I have attended in my lifetime. I believe that God has brought us to this place, to this congregation, to this community so that we can serve them and they can heal us as a family and as individuals. I believe that because we went through the pain, the sorrow, the loneliness, and the anger of the final years at the other church, we are now able to more fully appreciate the rich blessing of this new place of fellowship.

This morning was the last service for the Spanish speaking congregation at our former church. Someone decided that the church should be "united, one body, worshipping God in one language." Of course, if anybody needed to hear the English speaking service translated into Spanish, they would be provided with headphones in the balcony.

I am broken hearted for the hundreds of people who now have to find new places to worship. I am broken hearted for the people who may decide to not go to church anymore at all because of the pain inflicted on them today. I am sad because I will likely never see some of those people again. I pray that they will all find places of peace, of love, of comfort, of community, of grace, and of genuine caring. We certainly have.

This morning was also an important day at our new church. A new slate of elders and deacons was voted on by the congregation to begin a three year term of serving the body of Christ as leaders. As dreamers. Implementers. Planners. Guides. Teachers. Caregivers. Encouragers. Pray-ers. Overseers. Most of all, as servants. Together. Before God. Alongside one another.

I was voted in as an Elder.

I wept.

One door categorically and completely shut.
Another one broadly and warmly opened.
At exactly the same hour.

Today has been a memorable Sunday indeed.
Thanks be to God.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Thankful Thursday - Henri Nouwen's thoughts on gratitude

Currently, I am rereading Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal Son - A Story of Homecoming. Today, while waiting to have a filling replaced (I'm grateful for a fantastic dentist!), I read the following.

Gratitude, however, goes beyond the "mine" and "thine" and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy. 

Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly. I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and see grimaces of hatred.

There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection: "You are with me always, and all I have is yours." Indeed, I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off that I, lament about the many misfortunes that have plagued me in the past, and thereby wrap myself up in my resentment. But I don't have to do this. There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude. 

The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is an Estonian proverb that says: "Who does not thank for little will not thank for much." Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace. 

**************

I am addicted to gratitude. To seeking the miraculous in the mundane. To discovering reasons for joy in the midst of the messiness of life. Certainly we could all choose to complain about something, about someone, about the government, the church, about marriage and about our children. There is always someone to gossip about - or "share prayer requests" about. There are always disappointments and conflicts. Always.

But there is also so much beauty. And so much for which to give thanks.

As I mentioned earlier, I am grateful for our wonderful dentist. Gentle. Thorough. Kind. A few days after my first chemo treatment, at the end of November 2012, I cracked a tooth. My teeth are ridiculously fragile - I am grateful to still have them, but they break easily. My dentist made room for me in her schedule, filled the tooth, and then didn't charge me for it. I had no problem and no shame with "swiping the kanswer card" that day.

I am grateful for dental and medical insurance.

I am grateful for eyeglasses, sunglasses, and those cloths that clean my glasses.

I am grateful for rainy days and sunny ones too.

I am grateful for Panera, their delicious sandwiches, roomy dining areas, and for the company of a dear friend for lunch today.

I am grateful for hot tea and slow-cooked oatmeal in the morning.

I am grateful for Trader Joe's organic corn chips, blue chips, and sea salt and black pepper potato chips.

I am grateful for phone calls, texting, and What's App.

I am greteful for Moleskine sketchbooks, Miquelrius notebooks. and Ecojot journals.

I am grateful for bilingual dictionaries, bilingual Bibles, and bilingual people. 

I am grateful that my car runs so well, so consistently, and without any hesitation.

I am grateful for laughter, for tears, for silence and for solitude.

I am grateful for Alice Walker, Frida Kahlo, Toni Morrison, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

I am grateful for movie theaters, NPR, and the fact that I can connect my iPod to the sound system in my car.

I am grateful that my son celebrated his 18th birthday this past Monday and that he gave himself the gift of accepting an offer to play tennis at Presbyterian College down in Clinton, SC. I love that boy of mine and am proud of and grateful for the young man he is becoming.

I am grateful for the love and support he has received through this process: from his coach, Ben Swain, from other players, from other coaches who have followed his progress and expressed interest in him, from the many people at our church, First Presbyterian Church here in Charlotte who have reached out, written, asked questions, and cheered him on. Love is a beautiful, life-affirming, heart-growing thing.

I am grateful for the many people in my life who do appear to be better off than I am, but who also are willing to share their empty places, their wounded places, and their lonely places.

I am grateful for the people in my life who think I am better off than they are, but who are also willing to allow me to show them my empty, lonely, fearful, wounded, despairing places.

I am grateful that the frequency of my comparisons is diminishing - after all, how is it possible to know, to really know, who is better off than anyone else? What measures and standards am I using to make that judgment? How is my standard any better than anyone else's?

I am grateful for the many times that I have been reminded to look for the beauty, to ponder the grace, and to stand in awe of the miracles that make up my daily life. Water from the faucet. Light from the bulbs. Food in the fridge, the freezer, and the pantry. Clothing in my closet. Paper for me to write on. Pens for me to write with. Sponges and dish detergent, and plates in my sink. Washing machine and dryer and drying racks in the laundry room. A family that eats, sleeps, bathes, and gets its clothing dirty. Eyeglasses. Shoes. Boots. Jackets. Toothbrushes. Toothpaste. Floss. Soap. Towels. Wash cloths. Coconut oil. Shea butter. Hair. Hairbrushes. Razor blades. Socks. Pajamas. Jeans. Skirts. Shirts. Dresses. My laptop computer. My printer. Ink cartridges. My desk. If I started listing the people I'm grateful for, this would turn into the neverending gratitude list - which might not be a terrible thing.

Every single thing, every single person, for me, is a miracle. A gift. Something worth being grateful for. Something worth celebrating. Something we too often overlook, take for granted, or complain about - until fire ravages, turnadoes destroy, floods contaminate, or bankruptcy reclaims it all. May I never take this life of mine for granted, not one day, not one hour of it. May I never presume that I can abandon this discipline of gratitude.

Thanks be to God.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Another Everyday Miracle

On the way home from a matinee movie an hour or so ago, I was forced to stop behind and to the left of a school bus. The lights were flashing and the little stop sign was engaged, so I eased to a halt and watched the proceedings as best I could considering the fact that I was on the outside and backside of the bus.

Parents and siblings waited patiently as the small feet of their elementary loved ones descended from the bottom step of the bus onto the curb. Asian people. Latino people. White people. African American people. Standing several yards away was a Muslim woman, identifiable by her hijab. As the children began to disperse towards their family members, she began to slowly approach first the rear and gradually the front of the bus. She disappeared from my sight for a few seconds, but I saw a pair of pants and sneakers approach her covered feet. Then she came back into my line of sight, her face lit from within by the love she felt for her beautiful, young daughter. She took and put on her daughter's backpack, wrapped her arms around her precious offspring, kissed her thick brown hair, and they began to walk towards home (I presume) with their arms wrapped around one another.

I imagined that woman at home all day, cleaning and cooking, thinking of her daughter, saying her daily prayers. I imagined her making her way from her home to the bus stop, standing off on her own every afternoon, waiting for her child to be returned to her. I imagined her preparing her beloved's favorite snack and putting out two small dishes, two glasses, and silverware in anticipation of their time together at the table. I imagined her excitement over the fact that for the next two mornings, she will not have to rouse her sleepy child, get her dressed, and walk her to the bus stop - she has two whole days with her child by her side.

The truth is that the little girl might be a beast, yelling and screaming and throwing tantrums whenever she doesn't have her chocolate chip cookies baked just right. Or perhaps she has nightmares and her mother and father spend hours awake every night, dreading the terrors yet to come. I have no idea - but I want to believe the former rather than the latter. I know it's just my imagination, but there it is.

In any case, as I sat there watching the several reunions of parents, grandparents, and other caregivers with their children, I witnessed another everyday miracle. The miracle of school and school buses. The miracle of trust in the school system, the teachers, the administrators, and bus drivers. The miracle that another day and another week ended without an accident en route or a madman entering the school with high powered weapons or a fire or a tornado or any other of countless tragedies that are possible. Those parents sent their most prized possessions on a bus driven by a stranger to a place staffed by strangers with the hope and prayer that all would go well and that their little ones would emerge from that bus in good health and with some new idea or discovery implanted in their young minds.


When I think back to my school days, I remember my ecstatic joy at getting onto and off the school bus every morning. I loved going to school - not as much as going to church, but school was a close second. I enjoyed talking to the bus driver. My father was a public bus driver when I was child, so I couldn't ignore the driver the way most of the other kids did. I knew that bus drivers were fathers and husbands and brothers and sons (I never had a female bus driver), and they had stories to tell just like my father did. I was intrigued by the process of driving, especially how they used the stick shift, and I loved being able to open the door at the bus stops for my friends to get on. I loved school - but who can be surprised by that? I'm still as big a geek as I ever was back then. And my fascination with riding the bus didn't end until I graduated from high school. Whether I rode the bus provided by the private school I attended or the public bus, the drivers always caught my attention. And the people watching was spectacular, whether I knew them or not.

When I was in second or third grade, my mother served as the bus monitor on our school bus. I don't remember if she rode the bus with us to school every morning, but I do remember her being on the bus on our way back home. Every Friday, she would give a prize - a candy bar or bag of jelly beans or something else small like that - to the child she deemed had been the best behaved that week. I remember that I finally won that little prize on the last or second to last week of school that year. I'm sure she didn't want anyone to think she favored me because I was her daughter. All I remember thinking was, "I have to be good on the bus every single day of the entire year - and I get nothing to show for it for the first eight months of this nine month school year. It's not fair."

Even though I couldn't have articulated it very well back then, somehow I knew it was all a miracle - that not everyone got to attend a magnet school in Brooklyn, New York, be taught to read and write and appreciate music by passionate, hard-working young teachers, play the violin in the school orchestra, be chosen to attend a biweekly music program in Manhattan, go to hear the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, learn braille while volunteering with several blind students at school, participate in school and district-wide spelling bees, and ride the school bus to and from the Daniel Hale Williams school from kindergarten until the end of sixth grade - except on the days that I chose to ride the public bus with my free bus pass. And don't get me started with describing the process by which I was chosen to attend, then welcomed into, then emerged from Poly Prep, a private school that went co-ed the year I entered as a seventh grader. I wrote about some of  my school bus adventures not long ago.

Somehow I knew it was all a miracle. Every single day at school, sometimes bullied, sometimes insulted, sometimes threatened, sometimes embarrassed, always seen, always heard, always engaged, always astonished, I knew I was living a miracle, blessed indeed. I knew it even as a child.

Now, as an adult, I am still struck by the miracle of school buses. A couple of years ago, when I used to take my son to his tennis lessons, I would often park the car in the parking lot there and go for walks while he played. I would emerge from the neighborhood where the courts were located and walk alongside a rather busy street for a mile or so before turning around and heading back. On that route, I would pass the public high school that my children would have attended if they hadn't been homeschooled. Often I would arrive at that intersection as the school day ended. Hundreds of teenagers would approach me, walking home. In groups. Alone. Chatting. Listening to music. Backpacks hanging low. Glad to be set free, I'm sure.

What caught my eye even more than the students whose lack of attention forced me to almost have to step down into the street to avoid bumping into them was the long line of school buses that emerged from the school parking lot. Police officers would stop traffic, both automobile and pedestrian, so that the buses could begin their appointed rounds through our South Charlotte neighborhood. I would stand and look up into the windows of the buses, catching brief glimpses of the students as they sat or kneeled on the seats. Some of them stared out the windows, but most seemed to be engaged with other kids on the bus.

I tried not to imagine the horrors and the hunger, the anger and the abuse that some of them faced when they got home. I tried not to imagine the addictions and violence, the desperation and despair that plagued so many of them. I hated to imagine how some of them suffered at the hands of their classmates, of bullies in the hallways, the cafeteria and the locker room, as well as the mean kids who sometimes rode the bus with them. So I would pray for them instead, for their education, for their protection, for their families, for their relationships, for their tender hearts and their growing minds - and I would give thanks on their behalf for those buses and for the drivers that had so courageously taken on the responsibility of driving them from place to place. Every time I watched those buses roll away into the afternoon, I prayed that the ordinary miracle of school and school buses would provide some safe haven for them, even if only for a little while.


For those folks who stood waiting for the appearance of those flashing lights at the corner of Ballantyne Commons Parkway and Ballantyne Trace Court today, another everyday, every week, ordinary miracle occured. I am enormously grateful I had the chance to witness it again this afternoon. I am grateful for the memories it brought to mind. I hope I never grow cold and dull to the wonder of it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thankful Thursday

I hear lots of stories every week. On the telephone. In person. Via the internet. Sent in texts and What's App messages. Tearful stories. Joyful stories. Parenting stories. Faith stories. Broken relationships. Financial hardships. Pregnant. Trying to get pregnant. Preparing for the birth of their first child. Decorating the nursery. Married. Getting married. Wishing to be married. Widowhood. Divorced. Getting divorced, Wishing to be divorced. Recovering from abuse. Their dog died. A new puppy has joined the family. New jobs. Lost jobs. Seeking a job. Wild fires burning near your home. Kids heading off to school. Kids coming home from school. Kids deciding not to go to school at all. Anxiety. Loneliness. Abandonment. Homelessness. Times of transition. Addiction. Over-spending. Arthritis. Kanswer surgery and chemotherapy. Chronic illness endured and overcome on a daily basis. Doctor's appointments. Dentist appointments. Teeth pulled. Dentures made. The college search process. Car accidents and near misses. Encounters with mailboxes. Church crises. The end of a congregation I attended for nearly eight years. Figuring out ways to get our houses and our lives in order. Accepting the messiness of our lives and learning to love ourselves anyway.

I love listening to stories, the happy ones and the sad ones.
I laugh. I cry. I write some of the details in my journal.
I write down names and places and circumstances.
I write down hopes and prayers and dreams.
When I reread them, I laugh again and cry again and pray again.

Tonight I am grateful for all of the stories.
I am grateful for you, the storytellers.
I am grateful for your courage.
I am grateful for your beauty.
I am grateful for your trust in me.
I am grateful that I can trust you.
I am grateful for your ongoing presence in my life.
I am grateful to be an ongoing presence in your life.
I am grateful for your friendship.
I am grateful for you.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Holding Onto Hope

Tonight I met a group of awesome women.
Brave women.
Strong women.
Determined women.
Beautiful - every single one.
Overcomers - every single one.
Victorious - every single one.
Even if they don't know it or believe it yet.

We talked and laughed and cried and wrote in our journals.
They told their stories.
I told mine.

Please, please, please, when somebody wants to tell you their story,
stop what you are doing and listen.
Let the goose bumps rise. Let the tears fall.
Hug them - if they will let you.
Honor them.
Love them.
Bless them.


Everybody wants to be heard, listened to, understood.
Everybody wants to be seen, to be looked at lovingly.
Everybody wants to be held, touched, embraced.
Everybody feels lonely and afraid.
Everybody wants to be loved.
Everybody's got something.
Joy comes and smiles erupt when we realize that we also have each other. 


A kind and gentle man said something powerful and life-affirming to my daughter a few years ago when she was fighting for her health and her life. It is something I should have said to those powerful, funny, courageous, and insightful women tonight. It is something I will definitely say the next time I see them -
"You may not be able to hold onto hope for yourself right now.
But I will hold onto it for you until you can."

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Two Fridays in a Row

Last Friday as I drove home after taking my son to a college visit, I drove the way I usually drive: three or four miles over the speed limit in the slow lane. Every car passed me like I was standing still. Even the eighteen wheelers went around me. Here's the thing: I'm not a NASCAR driver. I'm not in a race to get home. I just want to get home safely.

Then it happened. Just ahead of me. In the fast lane.

Boom. Tires squeal. Rubber flies. Smoke billows. A car careened from the fast lane all the way across the highway and into the grassy shoulder. Did a truck blow a tire? Did cars hit each other. I saw it unfold but it happened so fast that I couldn't decipher what I had seen before I drove past the scene. I'm so glad I was in the slow lane, far out of the way.

My heart raced. I immediately began to pray: Lord, I hope no one got hurt. I hope those people, whoever they are, get home safely tonight. I hope there are no more accidents as other speeding vehicles approach the debris on the highway. Thank you for keeping me out of the way of that accident.

Yesterday as I drove home from a day of silence at Starrette Farm, I was driving the way I usually drive. Only this time, a light was blinking on my dashboard - the low tire pressure warning light. Shoot, shoot, shoot. I remembered that the warning light comes on every 5,000 miles to remind me to get the tire pressure checked, but I had recently taken the car to get the oil changed and knew they had checked the tire pressure. I hoped this warning light was on because they had neglected to reset it. But still... I was concerned. I didn't want to be in the fast lane or the middle lane if I did have a problem, so I moved over to the slow lane, driving warily while watching that light, hoping it would go off on its own.

That's when it happened again. Just ahead of me. In the fast lane.

A Walmart truck blew a tire. Rubber flew. Tires squealed. Cars swerved to avoid each other, some did so unsuccessfully. I pulled off onto the shoulder to avoid the cars that were trying to avoid the vehicles involved in the accident. A pick up truck careened from the fast lane all the way across the highway to the shoulder. It stopped right in front of me. Plumes of white smoke bloomed from the front right corner of the engine block. It reeked of burning rubber. I slowly pulled around the pick up truck and looked over to make sure the driver was okay. He was. The driver of the Walmart truck climbed out of the cab and walked back to the pick up truck. I moved along.

My heart raced again. Again, I began to pray for safety, for peace, for calm, and for a joyful reunion with their loved ones later in the evening.

I looked down at my dashboard - the warning light was off.

What if that warning light was meant to warn me to get into the slow lane and avoid that accident? What if that warning light was meant to put me in a position to make sure the driver was okay after that accident?
What if I'm not so fortunate next time and the blown tire hits my car and I'm the one who careens from the fast lane onto the shoulder?

Two Fridays in a row, I have seen accidents from the slow lane.
Two Fridays in a row, I prayed for safety for all those involved.
Two Fridays in a row, I gave thanks for my own safety.

All the way home after seeing yesterday's wreck (down here in NASCAR country, car accidents are referred to as "wrecks."), I sang this verse from an old Amy Grant song to myself -

God only knows the times my life was threatened just today.
A wreckless car ran out of gas before it came my way.
Near misses all around me, accidents unknown -
Though I never see with human eyes that hands that lead me home,
I know they're all around me all day and through the night.
When the enemy is closing in, I know sometimes they fight.
To keep my feet from falling, I'll never turn away.
If you're asking what's protecting me, then you're gonna hear me say:
"He's got his angels watching over, every move I make.
Angels watching over me.
He's got his angels watching over me, every step I take.
Angels watching over me."

When I think about the many times my life has been saved - not just these two Fridays in a row, but every day of my life - I have to wonder, "Did God have his angels watching over the people who got into the accident? What about the ones whose kanswer treatment doesn't halt its spread? What about the young woman who is hospitalized for 31 days due to a bad drug side effect? What about the victims of domestic violence and the subsequent public humiliation? What about the woman who loses her husband and a couple of years later loses her only son? What about the 30 year old mother of three little beauties who will undergo a kanswer-induced double mastectomy and reconstruction on Monday morning? What about the child who drowned, the one who is kidnapped, and the parents whose anguish is indescribable? Are there angels watching over them too?"

I believe the angels are even closer to them. Holding them. Offering comfort and peace and courage and strength. Granting them space to grieve, to weep, to scream, to accuse, to ask why. I believe the angels stand guard over and around them while they mourn, while they writhe, while they clench angry fists and wail. I believe the angels hover ever nearer to those whose hearts and lives are shattered by sorrow and loss.

That is certainly what I have prayed for those I know in those situations.
I have prayed those requests for two Fridays in a row.
I will continue to do pray that way for as many Fridays as remain for me -
and every day in between.