Saturday, January 30, 2016

What if...

I love when people ask me to pray for them.
A couple of years ago, I asked people to send me an email with prayer requests.
I received far more than I expected.
Even from people who themselves do not pray, don't consider themselves religious people.
I was honored to pray for them, to kneel in my brokenness and plead for mercy for the brokenness of others.

I have no idea how prayer works.
I don't know how (or if) prayer actually changes situations.
But I do know that prayer changes me.
Prayer strengthens me.
Prayer motivates me.
Prayer gives me courage.
Prayer calms my fears.
Prayer reminds me that I am not in charge of anything.
Prayer settles my anxious heart.
Prayer connects me with people I know and people I don't know -
before the throne of God, we are all in need of healing, wholeness, and true freedom.

Who are your favorite prayer warriors?
The ones whose prayers you can count on?
The ones that, when they say they will pray for you, actually do pray for you?

What if the Bible is true when it says that Jesus is at the right hand of God praying for us?
What if Jesus is God? If Jesus is God, then is God praying for us to God?

If Jesus is praying for us, if Jesus is praying for me, then what on earth should I be afraid of?
What on earth should I worry about?

What if I actually believed that Jesus is praying for me?
How would that change the way that I live and breathe and move around in the world?

What if...?

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thankful Thursday - On Worry and Gratitude

Ask the average person what they think the Bible is about and I would guess that most people would either say that they have no idea what the Bible is all about or they would say that they think the Bible is a book full of statements and chapters that begin and end with "Thou shalt not."

Truthfully, there are many times when I think the same thing - on both counts.
There are parts of the Scriptures that I cannot decipher, and there are other sections, many sections that begin and end with "Thou shalt not..." And "Do not..."

But that's not always a bad thing. For example, one of the most repeated "Do not..." statements in the Bible is this: "Do not be afraid." Angels appear to people and say, "Do not be afraid." After receiving CPR from said angel, many of those who were told to not be afraid must have been thinking, "That's easy for you to say, Angel dude. You knew you were coming to see me. I had no idea. How on earth am I supposed to not be afraid?"

Do not be afraid in the flood or in the fire - God says in Isaiah - because I am with you.
Do not be afraid - Jesus says to the disciples as he approaches their boat, walking on the water in the midst of a terrible storm - because it's me.
Do not be afraid - the angel Gabriel said to Mary - just before he informed her that she was going to give birth to the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Huge news. Huge life changing news. And a command - Do not be afraid.

Another Biblical mandate is this: Do not worry.
Don't worry about what you will eat or drink or wear.
Don't worry about tomorrow.
Don't worry about anything.

That last one is the one that has been on my mind a lot today.
Here's the verse in its entirety and also the one that follows - Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Easy peasy. Don't worry about anything. Tell God everything. Give thanks in everything. Understand that God's peace is beyond your understanding. Trust that God's peace will guard your hearts and minds. Like I said - easy peasy. Just kidding... this is one of the hardest things in life - this "not worrying" and "not being afraid" thing.

I remember reading someplace that worrying is praying for what you don't want.
But it makes sense - for me, prayer is keeping people and situations in mind, giving them to God over and over again, pleading for peace and healing and restoration and reconciliation.
Worry follows a similar pattern - keeping people and situations in mind, giving them to nobody but my own fear-filled and fear-driven self.

So I get it - I understand why fear and worry don't help anybody.
I understand why fear and worry paralyze me sometimes.
I understand why the Bible commands us not to fear.
But still I worry. Still I struggle with fear.
I admit it - I don't do this Christian walk thing, this life thing, particularly well.

So today, I'm going to tie my fears and worries to gratitude.
I am going to share with you the three things I worry about most.
And I am going to attempt to find reasons to be grateful for those fears and worries.

1. I worry about money.

What if we don't have enough to pay our bills? What if we have an unexpected expense? What if we aren't saving enough for the completion of the kids' college education? What if we aren't saving enough for retirement? What if one of the cars breaks down? What if there's another major medical expense?

Embedded within each of those questions, each of those worries, are reasons to be grateful. Our children are both college students. We have cars that run. We have good enough health that we are not currently in a major medical challenge. We have hope that at some point my husband won't have to work full time to provide for us. We have hope that someday we will be able to travel more, to sit and sip cool drinks on a screened in porch. We have money to worry about. We have savings to add to. My husband is gainfully employed, so much so that for more than twenty years, I was able to stay at home and be a full time, at home, homeschooling mother. And now I am a student again, reading, writing, learning, preparing to serve God and serve people. I am enormously grateful.

Considering how many people have lost their jobs and remain unemployed for years, how many people have lost their homes, how many have never had homes, how many live with homelessness and joblessess, I am challenged to stop my complaining and release my worry and fear. I am challenged to be grateful every day for the ease and abundance I enjoy.

2. I am afraid that something is going to happen to our house, our cars, our computers, our stuff.

In our twenty-four and a half years of marriage, we have lived in four different places: an apartment, a townhouse, and two single-family houses. In those four different settings we have had to do a lot of house repairs. We have laid out a lot of money to keep the roof over our heads and the floors under our feet.

Mold. Mildew. Ants. Cracked bricks. Cracked hardwood. Cracked foundation. Overflowing gutters. Windows that need to be replaced. A driveway in need of repair. Carpeting in need of replacement. A doorknob that no longer works properly. A storm door that no longer closes completely. Dampness. Kitchen cabinets in need of replacement. Painting to be done. Appliances in need of repair or replacement. Leaking pipes. New septic tank. Swimming pool repair. Roof replaced. Wallpaper taken down. Wallpaper put up. Computers infected, disinfected, dead, and replaced. Phones broken. One phone used underwater in a waterproof case that wasn't properly closed.

Here's the thing - that whole long list of work that has been done is also a long list of blessings. We have lived in four amazing homes, places to which we always returned with joy and gratitude. Places where we welcomed friends and families for meals, for parties, for celebrations, for sleepovers, for Bible studies, for baby showers, for bridal showers, and just to hang out together to talk. We have never had a house fire. We have never had our home broken into. We have never had a significant infestation of any kind. We have always had kind, attentive, generous, caring neighbors. They have brought meals when we are sick. They have taken care of our dog when we are away. They have invited us over for parties. Their children have played with our children.

I said I am afraid that something might happen to our house and our stuff. Well, stuff happens all the time. Things break. Things malfunction. Things fall. I am grateful that each one of those things serves as a reminder of the countless things that have been mine to enjoy, mine to clean, mine to repair, mine to replace.
Mine. Ours. God's.
Grateful, grateful, grateful.

3. And I worry and am afraid, most of all, that something will happen to my family, my friends, and other people I love.

Stuff has happened to my family, my friends, and everyone I love. Stuff does happen. Stuff will always happen. Kanswer. Diabetes. Depression. Job loss. Divorce. The loss of a parent. The loss of a child. The loss of a pet. Finding a job after many years of unemployment - and facing the challenge of maintaining relationships and a home that had been the focus of attention during those years at home. Getting pregnant within months of completing kanswer treatment - wondering about the possibility of a return of the kanswer due to elevated estrogen levels during pregnancy and beyond.

Stuff happens. Difficult stuff. Painful stuff. Frightening stuff.
Good stuff too. Encouraging stuff. Love stuff. Friendship stuff.
Lunch after too long without any time together.
Writing together with another journaling soul.
Creative activities together.
Meeting for tea and talking.
Texting someone I don't get to see as often as I'd like.
Being asked to teach, to preach, to drop by.

I am enormously grateful that even though "stuff happens" to me and to everyone I know, love remains. Friends remain. Hope remains. Joy remains. And that's not all - love grows, hope grows, joy grows, friendships grow.

Depending on the translation of the Bible you read, it is possible to find more than three hundred places where we are told, "Do not be afraid" and "Do not worry." I disobey both of those admonitions every day. But I am grateful for the people, the places, the stories, the faces, the relationships, and the many adventures that prompt me to worry and be afraid. If I weren't so profoundly blessed, I wouldn't have as much to worry about or be afraid to lose.

I hope and pray that when the rising waters of fear threaten to drown me,
when the fire of worry threatens to consume me,
that is the moment when I need to pull out my journal and make a gratitude list.
That is the moment when I need to get on my knees and give thanks to God for every person and every situation and every meal and every trip and everything I have seen and known and experienced.

Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Thankful Thursday

I am thankful for electricity and heat and running water and food.
There's a dreadful winter weather forecast for our area.
Snow and freezing rain and ice. Potential power outages.
Schools have already been closed for tomorrow.
I know it's nothing compared to what is expected a few hours north of here.
I know it's nothing compared to what is the norm in many northern cities and states.
But I live in the South. We don't do snow. We don't do ice. We don't do freezing rain.
We panic. We load up on milk and eggs and bread - an inch or two of snow can paralyze the region for days. Ice takes down our power lines and plunges us into panicky darkness.

At times like this, I worry about the folks who sleep outside in tents, in parks, on benches.
I worry that there aren't enough beds in shelters and churches for those who live with homelessness.
I worry about people who don't have heat in their homes.
I worry about those who may be indoors, may have heat, but don't have enough food.
Worry is the wrong word - I think about them often. I pray for them even more.
I know, I know - praying is good, but it's not good enough.
So after I pray, I give. I serve. I try to find other ways to help.
I encourage others to do the same.
All the while, I give thanks for the blessings of our home, my family and God's bountiful provision.

I am thankful for my children.
I have a friend who has four daughters. When they were younger, she regularly thanked them for choosing her to be their mother. She would say something like, "Before you were born, you were in heaven and God told you that you could pick a woman to be your Mom. I'm so glad you chose me."
Parenting is not easy. Not at all. But I am thankful that my children chose me to be their mom.
I am grateful that they still choose to tell me so much of what is going on in their lives and hearts and relationships.
I am thankful for the homeschooling journey we completed last year.
I am thankful for my children's independence.
Even though I spent more time than I care to admit worrying that they would never be able to handle academics in "the real world," even though I worried that they weren't really learning anything at home, but they were just glad not to have to take the school bus every day - even though I was a chronically underprepared homeschooling mom, they are both articulate, self-motivated, self-confident, critical thinkers inside and outside the college classroom.
I am grateful for all the leftover school supplies - spiral notebooks, colored pencils, folders, glue sticks, watercolor paint, stickers, staplers, paper clips, rubber bands, to name a few - that I still get to play with, journal with, and even use for seminary.

I am thankful for the tough conversations around issues of justice here in Charlotte.
School segregation and desegregations.
How churches can and should be involved in these conversations.
How uncomfortable it makes us all feel.
How we are reminded of our desire to ignore what doesn't affect us personally.
I am grateful for the many people working together and working separately to educate our children.
I am grateful for the challenge to remember that I cannot be concerned only for my children;
rather, I must be concerned for our children. All of us. All of our children.
I am grateful for the patience exhibited by those who are on the forefront of these discussions about equity and education with those of us who are less aware, less involved, less fluent in the language of justice.

I am thankful for -

* adult coloring books. No, I am thankful for coloring books.
I am not sure why some are for kids and others are for adults.

* sweet potatoes, especially when they are peeled and cubed ahead of time

* my yoga mat and the stretching and breathing I get to do when I'm on it

* my Bosu ball and hand weights - and the balancing and strengthening they provide

* stories like this one that give me hope, stories like this one that make me groan, and stories like this one that make me smile. Discussions about how to end - or at least, diminish - racism, watching Stephen Colbert, and travel planning all make me think and live more deeply.

* seminary! Have I mentioned that I love my seminary classes? Or how every Sunday I understand more of what I hear and experience at church because of what I am learning in seminary every Saturday? Or how, even though there have been disagreements and misunderstandings, there have also been moments of discovery and delight? Prayers I have prayed for decades, songs I have sung, beliefs I have embraced - some of them originated more than fifteen hundred years ago, and finally they begin to make sense to me.

Potentially dangerous wintry weather could result in cancelled classes this weekend. Because I have always been addicted to school, tonight is not the first night I have prayed that the forecasters are wrong and that school will be open. Beginning early in elementary school, I was the kid who prayed that school would not be cancelled. I was a conflicted child because I wanted to go to Sunday School five days a week and weekday school for two days. Except for when I wished I could go to my weekday school five days a week. I always wanted to be in school - whether that was at church or elsewhere.

All this writing and thinking about the winter storm approaching has reminded me that I need to get on my robe and pajamas before I strategize about what we would do in the event of a power outage. What we would eat. And what tropical island I will fantasize about living on as this cold night turns into a cold morning.

Stay warm, my friends.
Stay grateful.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Stormy Weather

Several times in the past few months, I have written about We Walk Together, a newly formed walking group here in my beloved Charlotte. Walking. Talking. Laughing. Taking photos. Learning the history of our city. Seeing the broken places. Inspiring one another to be "repairers of the breach." During the summer and fall, we walked two, sometimes three times per week. Once we completed our fall schedule of walks, we took a break. Well, now we are back on the move. 

Our 2016 plan is to walk together every month on the 15th of the month and find a way to serve the community the 30th of the month. Last Friday was our first walk of the year. And on January 30th, the group will join an organization called Perfect Provisions to serve a meal to people living with homelessness. 

Because I talk so much and write so much and like talking about what I write and writing about what I talk about, I was asked to provide an inspirational quote for each walk. Sometimes I quoted other writers. Sometimes I wrote original pieces. Sometimes I combined someone else's words with my own. Always, I felt honored and humbled to speak to those who joined us in our meandering.

This is what I read last Friday morning - There’s a magnet on my refrigerator with a quote by Vivian Greene that says, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain…” Here we are on a cold, cloudy morning, with rain threatening. It would be easy to stay indoors on a day like this, to avoid stormy weather. It would be easy to postpone a walk because of possible rain. But sometimes the best thing we can do is go for the walk anyway, dance anyway. In life, we all face storms and challenges related to our health, finances, relationships, politics and more. We can hide and pout and be afraid. Or we can dance. We can walk through the storms - and we can do it together. As we walk together this morning, can we encourage each other to find ways to dance in the rain? To be grateful and keep our spirits high and our hearts in one piece even when we are struggling to stay above water? As we walk, perhaps we can dance a little bit too. 

After I read it, someone wondered aloud if there were crosswalk signs anywhere that suggested that pedestrians dance across the street. I commented about seeing an advertisement in Spain many years ago with a photograph of a crosswalk signal that said just that: Don't Walk. Dance. And I boldly suggested that on our walk that morning, that we should dance across an intersection. 

This past Sunday evening, my daughter and I attended a service honoring Martin Luther King Jr's birthday - and the preacher's sermon was entitled: "Your Storm, His Peace." His chosen Biblical passage was the eighth chapter of Matthew - the story of Jesus being asleep in the boat while the disciples faced a terrible storm. 

"Don't you care that we are drowning?" That's the question they asked Jesus when they woke him up. For them, this was a life-threatening storm. For Jesus, apparently it was white noise, so unimpressive that he slept through it. Their storm needed his peace. They begged him to save them, and he did. He calmed the storm. Then they wondered, fearfully it appears, who the heck he was that even the wind and waves obeyed him. 

I have faced some storms in my life. I am still facing storms in my life.
So have you. So are you. 
So is the whole wide world. 
Today I heard about another school shooting, this time at a university in Pakistan.
I heard the story of a student hanging himself in a student hostel in India.
Recently, I heard the story of a woman who lost her baby just hours after childbirth.
Poisoned water system in Flint, Michigan.
Kanswer, kanswer, too much kanswer. 
Hospice care. All night vigils.
Depression. Diabetes. 
Anniversaries of tragedies. 
Wars and rumors of wars.
Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Snow. Ice. Sleet. 
So many storms. 

We don't all face the same storms.
Nor do we face them at the same time or in the same ways.
Kind of like the way storms roll around this country and the world.
Kind of like the way it's winter right now where I live 
but it's summer right now where The Australian Open tennis tournament is happening.
Their storms are different from our storms. 
Your storms are different from my storms.
Someone I love dearly was diagnosed with breast kanswer a year before I was - Stage 0. Until she told me about it, I never knew that Stage 0 even existed. A little over a year later - I was diagnosed with Stage 2B. Just a year later, someone I knew, someone almost twenty years younger than I am - Stage 3B. The wife of an old friend of mine lives with chronic Stage 4 breast kanswer. Different storms. Different times. Different stages. 
Same desperate need for peace. 
Our storms. God's peace. 
The three of us felt it, basked in it, emerged from kanswer deeply indwelt by God's peace.
Others are still in the stormy weather. Bracing for impact. For the roof to be blown off. 
For the house to be shaken from its foundation.

On Sunday night, the preacher challenged us to imagine ourselves in a flood situation.
Having climbed an embankment or a hill, we watch in horror as our houses, the whole house, floats down a swollen river. Everything. Gone. Floating away. 
We may never have to experience that kind of devastating loss, but we are not immune from suffering. We are not immune from loss. We are not immune from sorrow. 
There aren't tornado shelters strong enough or secure enough to guarantee our protection from the storms that life inevitably brings our way. 

I pray a lot. A lot. And often when I pray, I ask God the same question that the disciples asked Jesus: Don't you care that we are drowning? 

Then I create variations on that ancient query.
Don't you care that we are suffering?
Don't you care that there are children living in deep poverty and attending dreadful schools?
Don't you care that the planet is getting hotter and storms are more frequent and more intense?
Don't you care that there are so many people who are hungry and homeless and sick?
Don't you care?

As the questions arise, so does the realization that these are questions that must be asked and answered in the mirror. And out in the world. In conversation. In food banks. In school board meetings. In classrooms. In town hall gatherings. In government centers. In churches. In our neighborhoods. And yes, sometimes in our own backyards. 

In the meantime, in the in-between time, let there be dancing. Let there be singing. Let there be rejoicing. Because lives are changing. Lives are being saved. Communities are coming together to solve gang, drug, and violent crime issues. Churches are opening doors and sanctuaries and fellowship halls to provide shelter on cold nights. Protesters are making their voices and requests heard. Permanent housing is being constructed and offered to those in chronic homelessness. And larger conversations are happening around transforming our broken school systems so that our children can be educated and prepared for a productive life in their communities. This work is not easy. It is not fast. It brings its own difficulties, its own storm clouds. 

I live in an area where some news programs refer to their weather forecast segments with names like "Severe Weather Center 9." Strong storms are frequent in these parts. When there is thunder and lightning, we are advised to wait for the storm to pass before venturing outside. We are warned against using electric and electronic appliances. Stay away from windows. And in extreme cases, residents on the coast of North Carolina are forced to board up windows and head for safety inland.  

I confess that there have been many moments in my life when I have wished I could board up the windows and head inland for safety from the hardest moments. The first week of each three week chemotherapy cycle was always one of those times. During my father's bout with kanswer. During some of the early years of parenting. During the illnesses of other loved ones. Following the shootings in Sandy Hook in December of 2012 and in Charleston, SC in June of 2015. And those are just the stories that affected me on a personal and spiritual level. We have all had those moments. The world reels from those moments - every single day. 

The good news is that in the midst of my storms, every single one of them, I have felt peace. 
Inexplicable peace. 
Undeniable peace. 
Life-affirming peace. 
God's peace that passes all understanding - because I know it didn't come from inside me. 
Peace that kept me calm and hopeful during chemo.
Peace that kept me calm and joyful in Haiti and Nicaragua.
Peace that kept me calm and confident when the second Gulf War began while I was in Europe.
Peace that reminds me that I am not alone. I am never alone. Nor are you. 

I can't see God. I can't feel God. Not directly anyway. But I believe that I see God in the smiles, the eyes, the faces of those who walk and work and live with me. I believe that I feel God in the touch, the tenderness, the embrace of my friends and family. And I believe that experience the presence of God in the company of those who walk and dance with me along life's journey. 

Last Friday, we did dance across one intersection on our walk. 
Arms raised. Bottoms shaking. Laughing out loud. 

In life, we walk together.
We laugh together.
We suffer together.
We weep together.
We dance together. 
We face storms together.

I cannot and will not speak for you and your house.
But as for me and my house, in our storms, we rely on His peace. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thankful Thursday - My Dog Trainer

Our neighbors have a new dog. A beautiful little Snickerdoodle or some other extra cute combination of dog breeds. His name is Toby and he is adorable, frisky, easily excitable - like every puppy. They have hired a woman to help them train him. When to give him treats and when not to. When and where to walk him and when and where not to walk him. Leash or not. Collar or harness. Turn your back on him when he does this, face him when he does that. So much to remember. So much to practice.
How cute was Toby when he was teeny weeny?

In some ways, their three month old puppy is already better behaved and obedient than our ten year old dog. He will retrieve his favorite toy dozens of times, with increasing excitement and precision. One afternoon, we watched him run back and forth across their backyard, chasing that little purple donut toy more times than Maya has retrieved anything in all of her life. All ten years! My daughter and I shook our heads in amazement - and I came home wishing we had done a better job of training our little beast in the early years. I'm pretty sure that I don't have the patience to train our old dog any new tricks. Nor do I want to pay a dog trainer. I'm way too cheap for that.

Besides, I already have a dog trainer. Not the kind of trainer who comes to the house and trains the dog and dog owners how to interact. Not that kind. My dog is my trainer - get it? Dog trainer. For the last ten years, my sweet little Yorkie has been training me to be a better wife, better mother, and better person.

 Meet my Maya.

Here are a few ways in which Maya is training me.

1. She is training me to be contented with what I have. That dog has had the same squeaky toys for most of her life. One of them is a well-used gray hippo, small enough to fit into her tiny mouth and cart around. She picks it up and tosses her head back, throwing it across our family room, sometimes up onto the hearth, sometimes up onto the couch. Then she runs to pick it up and throw it again. How did she learn to throw it like that? I have no idea. But she loves that little toy. I am married to somebody who likes buy her new toys. But she doesn't care - she goes back to her little hippo.

I need to learn to be more contented with what I have. The people. The relationships. The clothes. The food. The house. The body. The challenges. The joys. All of it. I mean, I like my stuff. I love my study and all the books and journals that line the shelves in there. I love my clothes and my shoes and boots. And I have more than I need. But still... but still... It is so easy to go shopping for things I don't need, to stock up of stuff, just in case. In case of what? I'm not exactly sure. Doomsday prepping, perhaps. What if it snows and we lose power? We need lots of canned food and other things that don't need to be cooked. What if it gets hot and we lose power? We need bottled water. What if? What if? What if? When in doubt, buy more canned beans, more pairs of socks, and more wine. If we lose power, I may need a strong drink to stay calm.

Maya has no fear of a doomsday. She doesn't worry about the latest toy gadgets or new foodie recipes or having a sparkly new collar. She is happy to be alive, to have a warm place to lay down, food in her bowl, and water in her tea cup (yes, she drinks out of a tea cup). She exemplifies contentment. I need to follow her lead.

2. She is training me to be more alert to my surroundings. When she holds her head up as high as she can, her face is about nine inches from the ground. When she lowers her face, it is only about one inch from the ground - or closer. She sniffs everything. She wants to investigate every crumb she finds on the floor and wander through every tuft of grass outside. Her curiosity and interest in her surroundings are inexhaustible.

I need to learn to keep my head up and not down. When I walk, I tend to look down at my feet. I tend to be clumsy and have been known to trip over cracks in the sidewalk frequently. But the other night,  on a frigid Charlotte night, when I went out walking with my dog trainer, I looked up, all the way up at the sky. Stars. Millions of stars. Peering up at the starry sky, I nearly tripped over my tiny dog - who was peering down and sniffing everything around her. I thanked her for dragging me out into the cold night - not sure where my husband was and why he wasn't out there with her. But I suppose I owe him a word of thanks as well - if I hadn't taken her out, I would have missed the majesty of the heavens.

Same thing is true about my emotional life. I tend to be an optimist, always looking for the silver lining, the rainbow, the happy cliche to lift my spirits. But like everybody, I can sometimes lean the other way, finding more reasons (excuses?) to complain than to be grateful. That's when I need to look up - look up at the sky above me, look up at the journals on the shelves above my desk, look up at the roof over my head, look up at the chandeliers in the sanctuary of the church I love, look up into the eyes of my son, look up at the shelves in our pantry, look up at the photos on the shelves and walls of my family room, look up to the sky and say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord, for the bountiful blessings of this life you have given me."

3. Maya is training me to get outside more. Whenever anyone opens the front door or the door that goes out onto the back deck, that little dog comes running, barking. The only time she doesn't want to go outside is when it's raining. She will chase the squirrels that appear on the deck. When she's tired of chasing squirrels and snapping at the bees buzzing around her, she will plop down under the bench and take a nap. On spring days, when she is done with "doing her business," she will plop down on a neighbor's lawn and pretend that she can't walk another step. She will bark at people as they walk past our house. (See? She's terribly trained. She's practically not trained at all.) She wants to be outside all the time.

This past summer and fall, I walked more miles than any other summer of my life. I joined an awesome group of people who decided to walk 100 miles here in Charlotte, getting to know the city and each other after the tragedy of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. I made the acquaintance of dozens of people I would never had known otherwise. We explored areas of Charlotte I wouldn't have known otherwise. We Walk Together Charlotte will gather together tomorrow morning to begin another round of walks here in our beloved Queen City. Rain or shine. Cold or hot. Get together. Get outside. Look around. Look at each other. Look within.

4. Maya is training me on how to love. That dog is madly, and I do mean madly, in love with my husband. Mention the word "daddy" in her presence and she will instantaneously wake up from a nap, jump off of whatever piece of furniture she's on, and run to the kitchen door, tail wagging. When he's at home, she's with him. When he's not at home, she's looking out for him. She wants to eat what he's eating. She wants to sleep where he's sleeping. When we are out for a walk, she stops to stare at every car that approaches to see if it's his car. Believe me, she recognizes his car when she sees it. And when it is his car, when he drives past us headed for home, she becomes my 9 pound sled dog - pulling, pulling, pulling, tail wagging, all the way home. Her love for him is immeasurable and immovable.

How cute and young were we???

There was a time when I loved him that way. There was a time when he was the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night. Truthfully, that is still often the case - but mostly it's me being annoyed by his snoring before I fall off to sleep and upon waking. I won't lie - there are also quick flashes of "What is that smell?"

Don't get me wrong; I love my husband. He's the most generous person I have ever known. He takes better care of his mother than any other man, any other person I know. He has siblings, but he is his mother's only caregiver. He cares for her with a level of humor, patience, and consistency that I cannot begin to comprehend. And don't get me started on how much he adores and spoils his children. 

Having said all that, I confess that I need to relearn how to love him and my kids and my friends the way Maya loves: freely, fully, unreservedly. I calculate. I keep score. I keep a journal - a written record of the ways and times that I think I've been wronged. I often don't even come downstairs to the kitchen when my family members come home from their many outings and activities. I need a transfusion of some of Maya's passionate, undiminished love potion. I need to regain my sense of humor around marriage and parenting. 

I need to return frequently to the photo albums and journal entries of earlier parenting. Back when my kids didn't talk back. Back when they volunteered to do chores. Back when they went to be before I did. At the same time, those photos and journals remind me that I had to drive them everywhere they wanted to go and then wait for them to be done. I had to do their laundry and make their beds. I had to make sure they woke up at the right time and completed their assignments. I don't have to do any of that anymore. I am enormously grateful for how well they have raised themselves.

I need to return frequently to the journal of my recent trip to Hilton Head with my husband, the written account of the best week of our marriage. We have continued to honor and enjoy other's company since that trip, but I want to do even better. I want to be even better. I want to take more lessons on love from my sweet little beastie dog. 

5. Maya is training me in trust and faith. She trusts that we will feed her and walk her. She trusts that we will pet her and scratch her back. She trusts that when we leave, we will come back. She trusts that she is safe with us. She trusts my husband the most, but she trusts all of us.

I have sooooooo much to learn about trust and faith. I want to learn how to go deeper in my trust that all is well, that all shall be well. Even when I'm angry at the tenor of politics in our country. Even when I'm worried about money. Even when I'm jealous of the success of other writers. Even when I get nervous in movie theaters, wondering if someone has a loaded gun and is planning to open fire on us in the darkness. Even when I am impatient with and critical of my seminary classmates. Even when I am journaling furiously about how much I hope to the Powerball lottery, buy a one way ticket to Madrid, change my name, and live in a penthouse apartment above el paseo de la Castellana in the only city where my soul is completely at home. I am learning to trust that God walks with me right here in Charlotte. God works with me as I sweep and dust and do laundry. God hears me as I pray, as I complain, as I give thanks, as I share my heart with dear friends and other loved ones. God's faithfulness and tenderness are increasingly evident in my life - or perhaps God hasn't changed. Perhaps I'm the one who is changing, seeing more, hearing more, believing more, trusting more. Either way, I want more faith, more trust - so much more.

6. Maya is training me that age is just a number. Well, except for the stiff joints in the morning, the teeth that have to get professionally cleaned and pulled when they rot, and the hesitation to run and jump quite as much and as vigorously as she used to. Yes, all of that is about Maya - she has knee caps that slide out of place. She needs to get her teeth cleaned every year, and this year, one of her teeth fell out while they were being cleaned. Poor thing. She used to jump down off our bed when she heard Steve come in from work - yes, I put her up on the bed every now and then. She doesn't sleep up there, but sometimes she gets to lay on the bed and watch television with me. Anyway, she used to jump down when she heard the kitchen door open. No more. She will stand at the edge of the bed, tail wagging, but she won't jump anymore. In dog years, she's more than 70 years old. She will turn 11 in May. But even the veterinarian's nurses and groomers comment on how young she seems.

I've got a few sore joints of my own - aching and cracking ankles and knees. I definitely don't jump or run as much as I used to - I am grateful to be able to walk these long morning walks and jump on the rebounder. Running is overrated as far as I'm concerned. My hairline is receding. My skin is beginning to create lines and wrinkles. I get my teeth cleaned twice a year because I don't want any of them to fall out.

Yesterday, I sat for several hours with my mother-in-law before and after her oral surgery yesterday. The last of her teeth were removed so that she can be fitted for dentures. During all the years I have known her, more than 25 years, she has commented about my teeth. "Look at those beautiful teeth." "You have such beautiful teeth, Gail." I'm not bragging about my teeth; I am pointing out that she always points out my teeth. Her compliments make me extremely uncomfortable. Every time she says something about them, I feel like a horse being looked at before being sold. "Check her legs. Check her feet. Check her teeth." Someday I will be brave enough to say, "Claire, I am neither a horse nor a slave being considered for purchase. Stop staring at and talking about my teeth." In the meantime, I will keep brush and floss these pearly whites - I want to keep them for at least twenty-five more years. To that end, I have dental floss stashed in my car, in my purse, in the drawer of my nightstand, in my desk drawer - I'm a bit of a dental floss fanatic. Perhaps because of the circumstances, perhaps because of the quinoa I had had for lunch, I flossed my teeth while waiting for my mother-in-law's teeth to be extracted.

Like my favorite doggie trainer, I too am getting up there in years - and also in experience and joy and gratitude. There are many people who don't get to live 50 years. There are lots of people whose teeth don't last 50 years. There are many people who don't survive kanswer. There are many people who don't have ankles or knees or legs.

Age is just a number. But every one of those numbers is a gift, a blessing, an honor and a responsibility. I am so happy, so grateful to be alive. No shame. No covering up. No denying my age. I have lived long and lived well. Thanks be to God.

I am enormously grateful for every mile these creaky knees have carried me. I am grateful for every smile that has etched a line on my face. I am grateful for the buckets of tears I have cried - all of which were once carried in the bags under my eyes. I am grateful for all the books I've read - even the ones I have forgotten. I am grateful for the classes I've taught and the ones I've taken. I am grateful for the photo albums and journal pages. I am grateful for the scars too - the scars I etching into my legs and knees and elbows from dozens of falls during my 50 years, the shingles scars that formed on my neck when I was in 9th grade, and the post-kanswer scars in my armpits, across my chest, and on my abdomen - because they all remind me that I have survived 100% of the challenges I have faced in my lifetime. Thanks be to God.

I don't know how much longer Maya will be with us.
I don't know how much longer I will be with Maya.
But this much I do know - I will be grateful for every day.
Every meal. Every toy. Every walk.
Every hug from my husband and children.
Every safe trip and every safe return home.
Every flight. Every ride. Every journey.
Every birthday and anniversary.
Every Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve.

I am grateful for every training session Maya has given me over these past 10+ years.

Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea #SpeakeasyBookReview

I have a confession to make: I don't really like to cook.
I like to eat, as does my family. But cooking, not so much.
I have an apology to offer:  I am woefully unqualified to review a cookbook.

What was I thinking? Here is what I was thinking: I like tea. A lot. I drink tea nearly everyday, sometimes more than one steaming mug of that elixir each day. So when I read the description of this book, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea, by Annelies Zijderveld, in the Speakeasy Book review email, I said, "Yes." Immediately after accepting the request to write the review, I began to worry and  even regret my decision. I am not an enthusiastic cook. I am not an adventurous cook. I am barely a cook at all. However, now that I've had the book for a few weeks and have had a chance to cook through some of it, I am glad I let my love of tea guide me to this lovely book about tea.

It is a beautiful book. Photographs of pasta dishes, fancy teapots, silverware, flowers, fruit, dishes of well-crafted food - it is all delightful to look at and the recipes we created were delightful to eat and drink. I must be honest - my daughter and I (she is really the better cook of the two of us) didn't make every recipe in the book. In the coming days and weeks, we plan to make more of them, and we expect that we will enjoy the future finished products as much as we have enjoyed the ones we've tried thus far.

Annelies begins the book by explaining the differences between the types of tea we commonly drink - black tea, green tea, white tea, oolongs, and herbal tisanes (she explains why they aren't actually "tea"). She goes on to explain how to brew tea - water temperatures and brewing times. She specifies kitchen utensils and pantry supplies that will make cooking with tea an easier endeavor. Those few pages piqued my curiosity and drew me into the rest of the book with greater interest.

I had no idea that breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert could be so elegantly elevated by the addition of tea. I had no idea that popcorn, ice cream, granola, smoothies, jam, pancakes, salads and even egg sandwiches could benefit from the deep flavors and rich colors of tea. I love a warm cup of matcha green tea in the morning, but seeing it poured over ice cream like a sauce, deepened my appreciation of its versatility. One of my favorite soups is corn chowder, and this book substitutes the traditional veggie broth with chamomile tea. Lovely.

One suggestion I would make to anyone planning to buy and use this book, make sure you read the recipe completely before beginning it. I suppose that's true of any recipe book, but we made the mistake of not reading all the way through and sometimes found ourselves unprepared for the steps as we read them. So if you find that you need to brew tea and let it steep for significant periods of time, or if you are making a yogurt parfait that includes the step of allowing tea and yogurt to refrigerate together for up to four days, or if you need to raise the temperature of jelly up to 220 degrees but you don't have a thermometer, you are in trouble. Trust me on that. I am somebody who tends to decide on a recipe based on whether I already have the ingredients in the house. In the case of many of these recipes, mercifully they were made of relatively common ingredients (which is a blessing) but they involve relatively adventurous techniques (which is a challenge for kitchen novices like me). Let me emphasize that this is not a complaint about the book - it is a suggestion for its readers. Even after reading the introduction and tea primer, I still managed to not be prepared for all that the recipes required. So I figured I would pass along this example of my ineptitude as a warning to others to be more attentive than I was.

If you like to cook, if you like to drink tea, if you like to rethink and reconfigure dishes that you have mastered, and if you are intrigued by the idea of mixing the teas you love into the foods you love, then this is the cookbook for you. And if you are like me, and you just like to look at beautiful cookbooks and drool over well edited photographs, then this is the cookbook for you too.

When/If you buy this book and decide which dishes you will create and recreate, please invite me over to taste your tea-soaked creations.
I'm always up for a hot cup of tea and an enthusiastic conversation while enjoying somebody else's cooking.
Just ask my daughter.

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.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Insulated or Isolated?

I really like living in Charlotte. Great weather most of the time. Good food. Lots of churches to choose from. Friendly people - for the most part.

This city and our neighbors warmly and openly welcomed our biracial, homeschooling family way back in November of 2002. As a homeschooling family, we didn't have any problems with the public school system. I never learned much about the school system - not even when our neighborhood was rezoned from one elementary school and high school to two different schools. The new high school is twice the distance from our house as the old one is, but again, it didn't matter to me because I knew my children weren't going to either one.

Last night, I attended a meeting for a local grassroots education advocacy group called OneMeck. Passionate, dedicated, determined, informed, convincing, and committed, these men and women are hard at work trying to change Charlotte-Mecklenburg (our county) Schools (CMS). I can't and won't try to quote exact statistics (check out their website if you want to know more specifics - actually, check out their website even if you don't. their work is truly impressive), but I will say that far too many of our city and county's students are segregated by race and socio-economic status. Many of the schools are more than 90% one race. Too many schools have more than 90% of their students living in poverty. There is too much data that shows the negative affects of this kind of isolation to allow this situation to go unchallenged. So OneMeck and several other groups here in Charlotte are working towards change. Last night, the topic of the meeting was affordable housing - how to acquire more, build more, scatter it all over the city, and how it will affect our entire city and county in positive ways.

Those of us who live in the suburbs of the city, those who live in the more affluent areas of the city and county, those who have the privilege to homeschool or send our children to private school or send our children to high-achieving public schools often do just that in order to insulate our children from situations that we think may be difficult or dangerous or somehow detrimental to their emotional, educational, physical well-being. We think we can protect them from life's challenges in our brick houses and school fences and fine automobiles. We use our powerful voices and influence to vote down initiatives that would create affordable housing developments in "our back yard." "Let them live somewhere else," we say. Whoever they are. Wherever they live.

One of the leaders of OneMeck, Justin Perry, works with people who are dealing with addictions. He frequently talks about how many of his wealthier clients are driven to addiction because of isolation - the isolation of wealth, the isolation of assuming that money will make life better or easier, the isolation of expectations that all is well and that money solves loneliness.

We think we can insulate ourselves from problems, but what we end up doing is isolating ourselves from one another.

Insulation is a great thing in the walls, the floor, the attic, and the basement.
Insulation is a great thing in our coats, vests, gloves and hats.

But insulation is not so great when it creates a buffer between me and my feelings,
or me and my husband and children,
or me and the people around me at church or in my neighborhood or in my city.
Insulation quickly leads to isolation.

I want to protect my children, to insulate them from pain and suffering,
but I often end up creating a bubble around them.
A bubble that keeps them from learning how to handle bullies,
coaches who are bullies,
classmates who are bullies,
pastors who are bullies,
and even extended family members who are bullies.
A bubble that keeps them from learning how to live with other people,
how to learn from other people,
how to love other people.
A bubble that keeps them from recognizing the beauty and the pain,
the talents and the trials,
the power and the weakness,
the greatness and the meanness that is within all of us.

I want to protect myself, to insulate myself from ever feeling ill-at-ease,
but I often end up creating a bubble around myself.
A bubble that keep me from seeing, appreciating, befriending, loving, and walking alongside people who are different from me,
people who aren't married and don't have children,
people who don't go to church and aren't interested in God,
people who go to church but have different beliefs than mine,
people who are homeless,
people who are addicted to one thing or another,
people whose political leanings frighten me,
people who advocate and engage in violence
- and people who are wise and gracious,
people whose strength is underestimated,
whose weakness is overestimated,
and whose personhood, whose wholeness, whose glory is overlooked.

My desire to insulate myself from those things and those people
that make me uncomfortable,
that make me afraid,
that make me angry,
that make me want to walk away,
that desire to avoid trouble and uneasiness, if I give in to it, provides me with temporary relief from the discomfort, but the long term outcome is isolation. Distance. Deeper angst. Profound loneliness.

I remember being at a student government meeting in college in which we were talking about course requirements at Williams. At the time, all students were required to take a foreign language. We were permitted to take a proficiency exam to see if we could opt out of college courses or we could choose to take classes on campus. I remember that one of the students objected to the language requirement because, he said, "Everybody wants to come live in this country anyway, so why should we have to learn another language? Let them learn to speak English."

I was flabbergasted. Struck silent by his arrogance and avowed isolationist way of thinking. Fortunately I was not the only one in the room appalled by his comment; others in the room practically leaped across the table in vehement rejection of his point of view.

But there it was - insulation and isolation at work. Let me isolate and insulate myself from having to learn anybody else's language or culture. Let me create a bubble around myself and my education and my mindset so that I don't have to welcome any other way of thinking or anyone else's way of life. I wonder if he's preparing to vote for Donald Trump in the upcoming republican primaries...

I don't know what my role is in this movement towards school desegregation. I don't know if I will have any role beyond showing up at meetings and supporting those who are doing the hard work of trying to change the trajectory of the school board and the schools they oversee.

I don't know what my role will be in the movement towards racial, religious, and personal reconciliation either. I don't know if I will have any role beyond showing up at meetings, at church services, at seminary classes, at neighborhood barbecues, at the supermarket, at the mall - and being a woman of grace, of joy, and of peace. I will listen and pray. I will ask questions and pray. I will laugh and cry and pray. I will speak up and pray. I will shout and I will sit in silence and pray. I will kneel, I will stand, I will march, I will walk - and I will pray the whole time. I will teach and preach and write - and I will pray.

There is a lot that I don't know, but I do know this:
neither insulation nor isolation are working in CMS.
Neither is working in my home or in my heart.
Neither is working in the church.
Neither is working in seminary.
Neither is working my my city.
Neither is working in our nation.
Neither is working in our world.

May God have mercy on us
and may we have mercy on each other
as we work to end the insulation and isolation
that are threatening to destroy us all.