Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thankful Thursday - Or is it a Thursday rant?

This was supposed to be posted last Thursday, October 30th. Oops. Even though the date at the top of the post says, October 30, today is November 6th. Not sure what is going on, but here is last week's post. Sorry about the confusion.

A dear friend of mine who is a knowledgeable and seasoned coffee drinker lives in the town where this brave and generous couple decided to take their love of coffee to another level. Check out this video of their story and the difference their coffee is making. Thank you, Lisa, for opening my eyes to how something as simple as thoughtfully purchasing coffee can affect the lives of people in Nicaragua, the country I loved so much when I visited six years ago.

Earlier this week, I read a blog post about still loving the church, even with all of its many, many, many problems. Thank you, Kathy, for expressing so articulately so much of what I feel about this family I'm glad to still be a part of, the church. Thanks also for taking me back to this website with hundreds of videos of people talking about faith, hope, love, growth, transformation, light, life, and everything else that matters. I watched Kathy speak on this video and nodded at how similarly we think about the issue of "us and them."

What if you really are living your best life already? Is it okay to enjoy the life you're already living? Thank you, Glennon, for giving me a better answer when people ask me, "What's next for you now that you're done with homeschooling? What are you going to do now?" I have been stumped by that question over the past few months because I like the life I'm already living. Still hanging out with my son before he heads to college next August. Still cooking and cleaning. Still walking my dog. Still making friends. Still laughing and crying and telling stories. Still traveling and making plans to travel more. Still dreaming about living overseas at some point in my life. Still teaching Sunday School and leading discussions at churches and other places around Charlotte. Still visiting with friends, meeting them for coffee and lunch and dinner and Hindi movies. Still going on dates with my husband. Still reading and journaling and blogging and hoping to write a book someday. Still praying and giving and maintaining my hope, my optimism, and my faith that all shall indeed be well. What's next for me? More of the same. Thanks be to God!

An awesome article for those who are on the healing journey back from kanswer, called, "Don't waste your kanswer" (The author spelled that last word a different way...) Thank you, whoever it was whose blog comment led me down a wild and unpredictable path to this article. Even though some might argue that my kanswer journey is behind me, I know it is not. The woman I am today was shaped, physically, emotionally, spiritually by the diagnosis of kanswer I received almost two years ago. I plan to keep learning the lessons kanswer has to teach me, to keep sharing those lessons, and to keep living in such a way that I can declare that I did not waste my kanswer. Thank you, kanswer, for pushing me into deeper living, deeper prayer, deeper love, deeper joy and deeper gratitude.

In the safety of my home, rather under the protection of my delusions of safety, I must remember that we have ebola. It's not "them over there;" it's us. We as a human race, as people who suffer and die, have ebola. And this article provides us with a compassionate look at those of us who are dealing with and dying of ebola in West Africa.

We are being sold into sexual slavery. Worse, we are selling each other into sexual slavery. This horrendous crime is enacted on boys and girls of outrageously young ages, perpetrated on teenagers whose yearning for love and attention is turned against them, and adults whose addictions and fear and hunger lure us into actions that we know will probably kill us.

We are anorexic, bulimic, overfed and undernourished.
We are wasteful, wasted, and wasting away.
We are bombing each other, shooting each other, and sawing each other's heads off.
We are segregated, isolated, and insulated.
We are tired of being yelled at, being belittled, and being told that we are worthless.
We are angry, accusatory, addicted, and ashamed.
We are sick and tired, so very tired, of being told that we should be afraid, very afraid.

We want to be better and do better, but we don't want to be the first one to change our ways.
We want to be kind, but we don't want to be seen as weak.
We want to be heard, but we don't want to speak up.
We want to be seen, but we don't want to reveal any of our scars or flaws or broken places.
We want to be loved, but we refuse to accept the tenderness and affection that is offered to us because it doesn't look anything like The English Patient or Love Story or Nights in Rodanthe (Spoiler alert - those are novels... besides did any of those stories turn out well for the lovers involved?)
We want to be honest, but we don't want to see our words used against us.
We want to say "enough," but we don't know what "enough" means.
We want to sit down and shut up, but we don't want to be kicked while we're down or be permanently silenced by others.
We want to be whole, healed, and held.

We are blind, deaf, mute, crippled, hungry, thirsty, leprous, and hemorrhaging our lifeblood away. Thank you, Jesus, for coming into the world to heal us, to feed us, to touch us, and to allow us to touch you in order to be healed. Thank you for the many times that you reached out to those who were sick, dying, and even dead, rendering yourself "unclean" for their restoration, for their healing, for their resurrection to new life - and not only for them, but also for us, for all of us, for me. Thank you for giving us each other - so that together we can walk towards wholeness, fullness, and healing. Thank you that we are learning to reach out to one another in our weakness, in our sickness, in our hunger, and in our desperation. Thank you that strength comes, that hope comes, and that new life comes when we receive your touch, your compassion, your tenderness, and your love through those around us.

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
Donnie McClurkin
Lynda Randle
Hezekiah Walker
James Cleveland
The Talleys
Bill Gaither
Tommy Walker
Juanita Bynam
Yolanda Adams
The Imperials
The Crabb Family

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, "_____________________."

chosen this
move on
Really? That's a lie and you know it
let you leave
a sweet, strong drink
I'm done
done that
I am a better person because you are in my life
kissed him
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.