Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A House Unwrapped

There is a house in our neighborhood that is naked. One day last week, the stucco siding was removed, and the wood underneath was exposed for all to see. While it poured rain that night, I thought about and prayed for the family living there. I prayed that their house wouldn't be too leaky, and I prayed for the mother. As a mother myself, under those circumstances I know that I would be worried about the possibility of insect invasion, of water infiltration, of the collapse of a wall - of every single thing that could go wrong. I prayed that she would be able to rest well and not worry about her family or their safety.

Today the wood is covered in what appears to be tar paper of some kind. It's black anyway. I assume that it is meant to protect the wood underneath the new siding. Will it be another coat of stucco? Will they choose brick? What about the type of wood shingles that are more popular in the north? We have to wait and see.

When we were looking at houses here in Charlotte four and a half years ago, the real estate agent warned us that stucco houses can sometimes have difficulties that require the replacement of the entire facade of the home. She told us that it can cost as much as $100,000. Hearing her say that only served to confirm our desire to own a brick house. Safe, sound, solid, and very unlikely to ever need to be replaced - at least, that's what we hope.

A house unwrapped.
A naked house.
Exposed, vulnerable, penetrable.
Like me.

There are times in my life when I feel like the skin of my heart and my soul has been peeled back, and all the world can see the leaky, insect-riddled inner layer of me. I remember feeling that way when my father passed away; the strongest, kindest, gentlest man I'd ever known was gone, and I was exposed in all my sorrow. I felt that way when Karen died two weeks ago: eyes and heart raw with my tears. When I stand in front of groups of women to speak or teach, I feel a deep sense of contradiction because I know that so much of what I say is teaching me more than it is teaching them. "Seek peace and pursue it" comes out of my mouth, and I know that peace is a rare phenomenon in my relationship with my in-laws. "Forgive and be forgiven" comes out of my mouth even as I struggle deeply with forgiving those who have caused soul-scarring harm to my nieces as a result of the divorce of their parents. I feel that way every time I hear someone speak negatively about others because of their race, their religion, their gender, or their immigration status. I feel peeled, salted, and boiled in hot oil. Not a nice feeling at all.

It is at those moments of exposure that I know it's time to reinforce my underpinnings. Time to peel off the cracked outer layer, to tend to the wounded spots on my heart, soak off the crusty parts with hot tea, rewrap with the tender loving care that comes from journaling, prayer, exercise, and taking a nap, and then I get back to living well. At those leaky times, when the tears escape from ceaselessly flowing eyes, I don't try to patch the holes. I let the water flow. I pour it into my journal. I call on the friends who are willing to help me carry my burdens. And when I fell better, I offer my shoulder for the reinforcement of others in need of reinforcements during their recovery time.

I expect that within a week or two, the house down the street will be completely recovered. The mother in the family will sleep better. The father will be glad that the house has been restored to its former grandeur - and beyond. The children will be sad that the scaffolding is gone, and there is no more banging and hammering going on outside. The folks footing the bill for the work will hope and pray that no similar kind of repair has to be repeated during the rest of their tenure there.

I'm feeling pretty strong at the moment.
Safe, sound, sealed up tight.
Hopeful, joyful, rested, recovered.
Let's see what happens next time a storm blows through my town.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Just one of those days...

when all is right in my world. The sun is shining. The sky is that gorgeous Carolina blue I love so much. I went to church this morning and was greeted by friends and family of the faith. We sang. We prayed. We hugged. We talked and laughed.

After church, we came home and hastily pulled things out of the fridge and the oven in anticipation of the arrival of two couples, four friends from church, who we'd invited to enjoy lunch with us. Two hours later, with pasta, salad, homemade key lime pie with fresh whipped cream, cannolis, lemonade, sweet tea, and port in our bellies, we bid them farewell. Steve and Daniel are at a baseball game. Kristiana is playing with a friend. Maya is drifting off to doggie-dream land on the ottoman next to the window. And I am listening to some of my favorite music, pausing sometimes from my typing to pretend I'm holding a microphone and singing a solo.

Reflecting. Giving thanks. It's one of those days...

But never far from my heart and mind is that this is also just another day of sorrow in countries torn by war, corruption, famine, and the aftermath of another tsunami. The families of the students and faculty slaughtered at Virginia Tech prepare for funerals, for the transportation of bodies back to their homelands in far off places. The bodies of their sons and daughters whose hopes were set on an American education and a bright future are being taken back, lifeless, to their home countries. It's another day for those who are suffering from depression, fear, loneliness, and abuse at the hands of people who claim to love them. Several missionaries had their throats cut in Turkey this week simply for wanting to share their faith with others. Karen's husband and children continue to mourn her passing. Drew is in rehabilitation after a devastating aortic rupture. Katie has bid her husband farewell for a few days - until she meets him in Barcelona for ten days' vacation. I'm terribly jealous of her upcoming journey, but for now she is alone in her house.

Just another day, one of those days when laughter is closely followed by tears. When joy is followed by sadness for the sorrows of others. Just another day when I am reminded that today is the day to rejoice. Today is the day to show others that I love them. Today is the day to tell others that, in spite of the darkness and evil that seems to be growing in our world, there is hope. There is love. There is mercy. There is restoration available.

The Psalmist wrote thse verse ages ago -
and today I copy them here, in my own words,
with an emphasis on the experience of a woman who trusts in God.

"God is my refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore, I will not fear, through the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

"She who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.'

"'Because she loves me,' says the Lord, 'I will rescue her;
I will protect her, for she acknowledges my name,
She will call upon me, and I will answer her;
I will be with her in trouble,
I will deliver her and honor her.
Will long life will I satisfy her
and show her my salvation.'"

So I call upon the name of the Lord, asking for grace, for forgiveness,
for restoration, for comfort, for salvation and for peace.
Peace. Let there be peace in us, between us, and among us.
Let us seek peace and pursue it. As much as it is up to me,
I will live at peace with all people.

I pray that we lay down our arms, the bombs, the guns, the knives, the sticks and stones that we wield in physical conflicts. We must lay down not only those weapons, but also the weaponry of our words, the words of hatred, anger, bitterness, retaliation, jealousy, and pain with which we so readily pierce each other's minds and spirits.

Yes, it's one of those glorious Charlotte days that makes me glad to live here in the city of trees. But it's also one of the days when I refuse to let my comfortable surroundings allow me to forget the pain that crisscrosses this globe and paralyzes some, emboldens others to commit murder, and affects each and every one of us.

Again and again and again I plead:
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Two floors below the shooting...

is where the son of one of my neighbors slept while the first of two waves of senseless violence rolled over the Virginia Tech University campus this morning. "He is safe," his mother reported in an email sent to the entire neighborhood. She was grateful for all the calls and emails of concern sent to her by those who knew where he studied. We are all grateful that he is safe and sound.

I was sitting in the customer waiting area of the Town and Country Toyota dealership in Charlotte waiting for my minivan to pass the state inspection when I first heard the news. Yet another campus shooting in this violence-saturated nation of ours. "This is the worst shooting rampage in our nation's history," the reporter said. I scribbled frantically in my journal: why do such statistics even need to be kept?

Jack Cafferty on CNN said that he scrolled back through his mind's databanks and 25 years of reporting and confessed that he couldn't come up with even half a dozen shooting incidents of this nature - on school campuses - anywhere else in the world. He wondered aloud, as do millions of people all around the world, why we Americans have the monopoly on this type of action. Why do we do this to each other and to ourselves? In an Amish one-room school house? In a shopping mall? And far too often, in our large suburban "safe" schools?

What is it that drives men - and it is most often men - to pick up guns, enter schools, classrooms, dorms, and libraries and shoot unarmed people? And why are they so cowardly that they then kill themselves rather than stand up and take credit for their actions? Rather than having to give an explanation for their behavior? What pain does a person have to suffer, what depth of sorrow must he have sunk into, what comprehensive despair must take over a person's psyche that they can gun down other human beings for no apparent reason?

Perhaps this man, whoever he was, left a letter of explanation.
Perhaps he was abused by other students. Or by his parents or other relatives.
Perhaps he was mistreated by professors or the administration.
Perhaps he was angry about an unfair school policy. Or a national policy.
Perhaps he was deranged, insane, and suicidal...
no "perhaps" applies to this guess; he was all that and more.

But still I ask: why? What lessons can we learn from such acts?

More funerals. More memorial services. More caskets. More photo montages.
More discussions about guns, the right to bear them, and why we as Americans are so quick to choose this particularly gruesome way to leave a mark in the record books.

Here's a sobering statistic: One quarter of a million, that is 250,000, 9 millimeter handguns are manufactured in this country every year. Every year. And that's just that one kind of gun. Sure, a portion of them go to the military, but lots of them, far too many of them end up on our streets, in our homes, and in our schools wielded by maniacal killers.

Suicide bombers are no less heinous or random in their destruction.
"Regular bombs," like the one in Oklahoma City, are horrific.
Drive-by shootings claim still more innocent lives.
The anniversary of the Jonestown massacre is upon us...
nearly 1,000 people killed themselves in November of 1978,
almost thirty years ago now.
Man's inhumanity to man, to women, and most often to our defenseless children.

Being the eternal optimist and pacifist, I keep praying for peace.
The peace of God that passes all understanding.
The peace that can rule in our hearts and in our world.
The peace that convinces us to stop choosing guns
as a means for protection or retaliation.
The peace that we choose over and before and after everything else.

And I thank God that Sue's son was on the 2nd floor and not the 4th.
Two floors below the shooting.

Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Tax Day

Today has been a taxing day. In all honesty, this has been a taxing week.

My friend Karen's death on Wednesday and the funeral yesterday cast a shadow over the latter half of the week. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the photos of her birth family as well as her family through marriage. I hugged her three beautiful, strong children for as long as they would let me hold on to them. I jumped at the chance to share with those gathered some of the ways in which Karen extended joy, grace, and hospitality to my family and to me during the last four and a half years. And I cried almost uncontrollably through the entire service. I will miss her very much.

Much of last week was characterized by a profound feeling of restlessness, loneliness, and doubt. A week of reaching out to friends and family for support. Of feeling the heavy and demanding responsibilities of parenting and homeschooling and being a wife and daughter and teacher and friend to so many. My friend Katie warned me that grief would show up in uncanny ways and at unexpected moments. She was right. Tears, anger, impatience, inadequacy, jealousy - all manifested themselves in me within the same hour some days.

Two blogs that I read regularly have helped me a lot today.

One is The emotional topsy-turvy of life. The urge to leave, to run, as well as the pull to stay right where I am. Wanting to see down the road, but also not wanting to see. Looking for permission to live out my dreams and asking whose permission I need???!!! Anger, love, sadness, joy, peace, and beauty can be found in her fantastically written poetry.

The other is She wrote last week about quietness of heart and spirit. At the moment, I envy her quiet mind because my mind is full to overflowing with so many topics, questions, dreams, hopes, and yearning that I can barely sleep. I know that the end of this mental wrestling match will come eventually; at the very least, I hope and pray that there will soon be a break between rounds. Her words reminded me of the peace that is possible; I hope to find some very soon in the midst of this current storm.

In the meantime, I read, journal, mourn the loss of my dear friend, and make soup, salad, and chicken dishes for my family. I continue to prepare to lead the women's retreat two weekends from now on the topic of getting away alone and getting some rest. I talk with, listen to, cry with, write to, phone, and hug my friends. I sat on Katie's screened-in back porch for hours on Friday afternoon, sipping coffee, eating cannolis, and telling each other stories of our life's journeys. I cuddle with my children in their beds at night. I scratch Maya's tummy. And when the lights go out, I lay my weary head on my husband's shoulder and soak his shirt with my tears. I've been doing an awful lot of crying lately... Par for the course for me, I admit.

Today is April 15th.
Tax day, indeed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Here we go again...

I hope I never get over this anger I feel about death, especially death that comes as a result of cancer. My friend, Karen Hughes, died this morning. I hope and pray that she was surrounded by her family when she passed from this life into the next.

Last week, I visited with her for a brief few moments. I entered her bedroom quietly, leaned in close over her bed, my forehead touching hers. I gripped her weak and bony hand, and wished her traveling mercies. "Go home, Karen, go on home. There is no need to hang out here, suffering for anyone else's sake. We will look in on Bekah (her college-age daughter) and make sure she is okay. So don't you worry about her or anyone else. I love you. Steve and the kids love you. We pray for your peace, Karen. I pray for your peace. Peace. Peace. Peace." As I said that word to her, over and over, she drifted off to sleep. As I made my way out of her bedroom, I stopped and looked back at her one last time - and I knew it would be the last time. I was right.

As I sit here, crying for myself and for her family because we will miss her so much, I am also glad that she is no longer in pain. No longer feeling the effects of the cancer, the chemotherapy, the various medications, and the sheer, overwhelming exhaustion from having to endure it all.

For Karen Hughes, it is finished. The battle is over. But here we go again. For those of us who are left behind, the tears continue to flow. The battle is not yet over.

I wonder what is left for me to do in this life.
I wonder who I am meant to befriend, to encourage, and to love in this life.
I wonder whose cause I am meant to take up.
Whose burdens I am meant to bear.
Whose laughter and joy I am meant to share.
I wonder what marvels I am yet to see and enjoy.

For me, it is not yet finished. So here I go again.
Back to homeschooling, doing laundry, and making dinner.
Back to loving Steve, the children, and family and friends far and near.
Back to dipping homemade cookies into cups of hot tea.
Back to reading, journaling, blogging, and sending out email and text messages.
Until the very end.

Traveling mercies to each of us.
From here to the end of the journey.
Wherever and whenever we come to the end.
Peace to you.

Friday, April 06, 2007

No Greater Love

For the past two days and nights, our church has hosted the visitation and funerals of two Charlotte-Mecklenberg County police officers who were senselessly gunned down in cold blood last Saturday night. Apparently, they hadn't even drawn their weapons; they were caught unawares and killed. One of the officers was married, but he and his wife had not yet had any children. The other was the father of a three-year-old son, and his wife is seven months pregnant with their second child.

Kristiana and I returned home a few minutes ago from standing on a street just outside our neighborhood and waving at the family, friends, and hundreds of police officers as they made their way from our church to the cemetery.

Helicopters have hovered over our neighborhood (we live walking distance from our church) for the past two days. A firetruck has stationed itself in the church parking lot with its ladder fully extended and an enormous American flag flies from it. Flags are planted all over the area. The two funeral services were broadcast live on local television channels. Tears flowed. Stories of their bravery, their commitment, their calling to serve the Charlotte community brought me so close to those men that I too wept for their loss and for the family and friends they left behind. Such sorrow is incomprehensible and unnecessary.

Today a soloist sang, "I Can Only Imagine," one of my favorite songs. The chorus says, "Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for You, Jesus, or in awe of You be still? Will I stand in Your presence? To my knees will I fall? Will I sing Hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine." Every time I hear that song, I am reminded of my own father, singing, dancing, and laughing in heaven. Talking to the men and women whose Biblical writings he studied so fervently here on earth. No more glasses, cane, oxygen mask, or arthritis. I can only imagine how joyful he is.

When those two men joined the Police force, they pledged to protect and serve the citizens of Charlotte. They lost their lives in the keeping of their pledge. There is no greater love, the Bible says, than to lay down one's life for a friend.

On this Good Friday - I still don't know why it is referred to as "good" - another death is remembered. An innocent man. The only truly innocent man who ever lived. Arrested. Betrayed. Tried. Convicted. Condemned. Crucified. Senseless. In His case, there were no military honors. No long line of police cars. No one waving flags or banners. He was spat upon, mocked, laughed at, and most of all, ignored. One of the men who knew Him best was the one who betrayed Him to those who sought His death. The rest of His disciples, those who knew Him best, ran and hid. Denied knowing Him. For all people of all times, even though most of us ignore Him and refuse to even consider the possibility that His love was and still is real, that it makes all the difference in the world.

This morning as we celebrated Communion together here at home, the children and I talked about Jesus' horrific, terrible death. My son asked, "But, Mom, couldn't Jesus have made the nails not hurt?" "Yes, Daniel," I answered. "He could have stopped the pain. He could have stopped the entire thing from happening. But He knew what had to be done, and He went through all of it. Pain and all."

Those of us who say we know Him, who claim to follow Him, who sometimes want to live by His Word and sometimes want to hide from it, we still deny Him, run away, hide behind our fears and silence. We so rarely live as though we believe much of what He said; sometimes I wonder whether or not I believe it fully and truly. I know that I don't always stand up for what I believe or speak up when necessary. I often run away like the prodigal daughter and pretend that I am not His beloved child.

Thanks be to God that, indeed there is no greater love than His love. Because every time I come back home from my wandering and going astray, He receives me as His own. Every time I pull out the weapons of hate, of sarcasm, of unwarranted anger, of inexcusable silence, of self-righteousness, and aim them at someone I know and claim to love, like the bravest Police Officer on the beat, like the most loyal Secret Service Agent in the service of a dignitary, Christ stands in the way of my bullets. By His wounds, everyone I seek to injure is healed. And most miraculous of all, He pours His love out over and over again on me as well.

My prayers are with the families of those two slain officers. And also with the families of both soldiers and local civilians alike who die daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. In war-torn nations and families all around the world. With the family of my dear friend, Karen, who I visited yesterday as she battles through the last days of her life, ravaged by that hateful disease that starts with "c."

Because of the Greatest Love of All, the love that led Christ to the Cross on Good Friday, and because of His return to life which we will celebrate on Easter morning, because of the power of the Resurrection, we repeat that powerfully redemptive phrase:

"It's Friday, but Sunday's Coming."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"The Year of Pleasures"

Great title. But it's not original to me. It's the name of a novel by Elizabeth Berg that I plowed through earlier this week. A woman named Betta is widowed in Boston. She sells her house and moves to a tiny town outside of Chicago in a quest to fulfill the dream she and her husband, John, had shared. What happens in the course of the rest of the book makes up her year of pleasures. It is a well written volume with details about food, flowers, and friendships that made me smile, wonder if I could survive life in a small town, and give thanks for the family and friends I have.

At one point, Betta, discovers a box of old love letters in the attic of her new house. After reading the first letter, Betta began to think back to her own marriage.

"I reread the letter, sat back in the chair, took another long drink of coffee. And noticed a specific and breathtaking absence. At the moment, nothing hurt. What I felt was only hope, that internal sunrise. The image of John's face came into my head, and I felt only my great luck at having had him for as long as I did. I'd learned enough about grieving to know that other ways of feeling would come back soon enough. But it seemed to me that this was the way we all lived: full to the brim with gratitude and joy one day, wrecked on the rocks the next. Finding balance between the two was the art and the salvation."

"Hope, that internal sunrise."

What a wonderful phrase and apt description of hope. In the face of sorrow and pain, there is still the expectation that the sun will rise again. That joy will bloom again, as assuredly as the daffodil bulbs buried beneath the lawn will push a persistent bud through the hardened soil again in the spring. It will take time. The darkness of despair, pain, and loneliness is deep, but the sun does come out again. It always does; the question is: will we notice when it does or will we have taken up residence in the dungeon of discouragement?

Today is the first anniversary of the death of little Christopher Sanders, the boy whose death I wrote about last April. His widowed mother continues to mourn him. His sister continues miss him. Every time I see them, I want to hug them both and assure them that they remain in our thoughts and prayers daily, but they both still look fragile enough to disintegrate and blow away if I even touch them. I pray that they will soon feel and see the bloom of peace and of joy in their own lives.

"But it seemed to me that this was the way we all lived: full to the brim with gratitude and joy one day, wrecked on the rocks the next."

Perfect description of my emotional life these days. I'm reading a lot. Questioning the value, the meaning, and the importance of everything in my life right now - everything. Some days I feel like I am on top of it all, that life makes sense. That my marriage and my church and homeschooling and this house and teaching and everything else are just as they ought to be. On other days, none of it makes sense. None of it satisfies. None of it holds even the slightest appeal. But I hang on, hold on, pray on, and journal my way through to the other side.

I feel like a surfer. When I see a wave coming, I get a good grip on my board, hoist myself to my feet, and ride it in to shore. Then the next wave comes, so I prepare to stand, but my feet slide out from under me, and I am overwhelmed by the water. I take a deep breath, hang on to the board, and hope that my lungs don't burst before I reach the surface. Sometimes, I don't know what board I should be holding on to. I don't know how much I want to come back up. And I don't know which shore I am on when I land.

"Finding balance between the two was the art and the salvation."

There must be an art to surfing, to trusting one's ability to know which waves to ride over and which to ride under. I haven't mastered that art yet, but I am determined to learn.

I am reminded of the two or three unsuccessful attempts I have made to waterski. I have never "gotten up," but I've come very close. I hold the rope too taut and land hard on my face. I don't hold it far enough in front and land on my bottom. (Or is it the other way around?) In any case, I've never been able to get up onto my feet and see the lake from above my skis. My mind often goes back to those attempts, and I imagine myself giving it one more try and getting it right the next time.

In the end, the best part of waterskiing for me was lying in the water, on my back, waiting for the boat to come back around and pick me up. I'd lie there, looking up at the beautiful Connecticut sky, wishing I could figure out how to waterski, but also grateful for the solo time out on the water. I ended up talking to the clouds about the man I loved, about the children I adored, and wondering what would happen to my floating body if a boat came my way and didn't see me there.

Finding my balance on waterskis has not happened. Yet.
Finding my balance in life happens on occasion.
And then I hold on too tight and lose my balance again.
In any case, I'm glad to be here, floating on the sea that is my life, looking up at the Carolina blue sky by day, the phases of the moon by night, and determined to find the balance required to see and land successfully on the distant shore, wherever or whatever it turns out to be.

And in the meantime, I will work hard to make this a year of pleasures.