Friday, December 13, 2013

"All Things Bright and Beautiful"

My neighbor's house...bright & beautiful

When we lived in the rural piney woods of East Texas, we made many trips back and forth to the Dallas area. It is about 100 miles between the two and what did Dallas have that we were missing in the country? Well, for one thing grandchildren, then a major airport.  We didn't take the road most traveled, but instead preferred a shorter route that brought us through numerous small towns and communities.  The highway took us through valleys, rich with fertile black soil and oaks and pines lining the road.  Other stretches of flat land were sparsely scattered with mesquite trees and very little to admire. The houses along the way ran the gamut from fine large ranch homes to extremely modest dwellings with varying cast-off appliances on the front porches and  yards strewn with stuff that didn't work any more.

Obviously, some of these homes were not much to look at driving by...except for one time of the year. Christmas! Somehow, someway, the occupants of these well-worn houses managed to put up Christmas lights like you wouldn't believe.  And so, after dark, uninspiring real estate along highway 80 turned into a jewel-colored, dazzling wonderland that always made me smile and feel warm and peaceful as we passed through it.  And I often thought to myself, it must make the families living inside those otherwise nondescript houses feel special to have their homes transformed by shimmering light once a year.  Maybe it even gave them hope for a better tomorrow.

But that's what light does!  You know, like the light at the end of the tunnel.  Like someone lighting up your life or letting your own light shine.  Like the little pieces of light that suddenly appear in the dark places on your journey. Light is symbolic of sacredness, goodness, magnificence, new awakenings, guidance, warmth, comfort and so much more.

When Jesus was born into this world, Isaiah's ancient prophecy was brilliantly fulfilled:  "For unto us a child is born....The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned...." (Is 9:6; 2 NIV).  This was a defining moment in history and it was huge!

The Creator, who had previously used light--a burning bush or a pillar of fire--to make himself obvious on earth, supernaturally became a part of his own creation. God's son, with unimaginable humility, deliberately abandoned the fullness of splendor and glorious light of heaven to enter into the black darkness of a womb and be born of a woman. This tiny God infant, with his little wrinkled brow, his wispy, raven-colored hair and his enormous questioning eyes, became the light of the world through his extraordinary birth.  He brought his light, the hope of all humanity, to the earth for the first time. "In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind...." (Jn 1:4 NIV).

That's why we put up Christmas lights. That's why lights adorn our trees, inside and out, and frame our houses and line our main streets. It is sublimely and beautifully symbolic of the salvation light that entered the world on the day of his birth.

Lots of people use professionals to string lights outside and the usually-tangled ropes of glowing bulbs are lined up perfectly. Others, like the big-hearted folks along highway 80 in east Texas, climb precariously onto their ladders and rooftops and haphazardly hang lights every which way.  But it doesn't matter because when darkness falls, they all twinkle and sparkle like precious stones in the Holy City and stars in the sky, turning our surroundings into "all things bright and beautiful" and filling our souls with wonder.  Glimmering Christmas "bling" is meant to remind us, though some may not even be aware of it, that the Lord Jesus is indeed our everlasting light.

Granddaughter Cassidy

*"All Things Bright and Beautiful" 17th century Anglican hymn for children, text by William Henry Monk 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls...

When I found out my next door neighbor, Carolyn, had requested to come home from the hospital, my heart sank because I knew she was coming home to go to her heavenly home.  After an intensive year waging war against a virulent and extremely aggressive form of lymphoma, she had had enough.

In our bedroom, just across the driveway and only a few feet away from the outside wall of their home, I slept fitfully and sometime not at all, fully aware her beloved husband, Doug, and cherished family members were keeping close vigil over Carolyn as her soul struggled to leave her earthly body.  Her husband, who had not once left her side during the past year, held onto her hand for her last three days and nights. And then she was gone. The final outcome was certainly not what anyone wanted.

We had often chatted or waved to each other coming and going as next door neighbors do. She was a beloved professor, educator and counselor at a nearby university.  You know how some people are by nature dynamic and charismatic?  Well, that was Carolyn.  She had a big personality, a big smile and a big heart.  So she left a monumental legacy having poignantly and joyfully touched the lives of scores of people.

And her memorial service, a celebration of her remarkable life, reflected her spirit and persona so perfectly. Held in their local church sanctuary, Doug, Carolyn's dear sisters, brother-in-law, colleagues and close friends told warm, humorous and affectionate stories about her. There were descriptive comments of her creating a lot of excitement in heaven with her bigger-than-life personality as she reunited with loved ones who were waiting for her.  They fondly pictured her exploring the streets of gold in awe and wonder and asking too many questions as she was prone to do. And yes, the significance of the loss of one so cherished was also apparent in the words spoken by those she left behind.

But, more often than not, those of us in attendance found ourselves smiling, sometimes laughing, through our tears.  At times, the sanctuary was filled with vibrant music that was touching, stirring and just plain heavenly as the worship band played and the choir sang with their whole hearts.  You see, Carolyn had been one of their number for years. We all left having sensed her energy and zest for life and feeling as though we had just had a glimpse of eternity.

During a time of reflection not long after Carolyn's death, the book I was reading had a reference to John Donne, 17th century poet and church leader.  It was he who wrote the famous quote "...never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."  Throughout John Donne's term as dean in London's largest church, three waves of the bubonic plague had swept through the city. During the last epidemic, Donne came down with what he thought was plague (which turned out to be typhus). As he lay severely ill for 6 weeks, he could hear the bell toll for each plague fatality. Realizing that the person for whom the bell tolled obviously could not hear it, John concluded the bell tolled for him--it made him reflect and meditate on the real meaning of life and about God and his divine plan. Therefore, each time the bell rang out for someone, he felt connected to that individual because it deepened his contemplation which he likened to gold, a treasure that had been bequeathed to him.

And so it is that what happens to others not only affects us profoundly, but connects us and in that way the entire human family is inextricably linked.  Though we may each be on our separate journeys, the truth is, as Donne so poetically explains, "No man is an island.... All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language....God's hand is in every translation...."

During times of devastating loss or calamity, whether globally or within our own circle of family and acquaintances, the clang of the bell comes as a shock. But it gives us pause, causing us to think about what truly matters. If we linger and don't move on too quickly, we will receive some of the golden treasure of which Donne spoke.  Carolyn's passing from this life not only prompted me to once again earnestly ponder life's meaning, but her purposeful memorial service lifted me up with precious hope. Whenever and wherever the bell tolls, we will always be changed for the better in some way, whether a little or a lot.

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Your Invisible Crown

"Always wear your invisible crown."  I lifted this phrase from the Facebook timeline entitled "We the Women" which puts a focus on inspiring women to feel appropriately empowered to be the best person they can be. But my immediate reaction to the quote was... Wait! Crown? What crown?  Knowing me, even if I had one, it would be carefully wrapped up, still in the original packaging and perched high on a shelf in my closet waiting for some special occasion to be worn.  I've not been in the habit of  imagining myself wearing a crown, invisible or not. It would have struck me as vanity because for years my definition of humility was just a little warped...well, actually a lot warped..

How did my interpretation of humility get so bent out of shape?  Let me count the ways.... For starters, in a Christian context, I thought humility equaled self-hatred.  One classic example: did you ever tape little notes on your college dorm bathroom mirror as a reminder, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, how worthless and sinful you were, to be precise "less than a worm"?  You think that's funny?  It is, kind of...  But I'm serious. This was only the tip of the iceberg of unfounded and faulty information I soaked up through the years.  The result?  I grew up hating myself, honestly and sincerely thinking this was how to be humble.

Now, what if the little note I put on my mirror had said "Always wear your invisible crown."  What a difference that would have made in my life! Though we are made of dust (where worms live...), we are made in the image of God.  He assigns eternal significance to our temporal existence.  In Scripture, we're promised a crown of life.  In fact, the Son of God wore a crown of thorns so we could wear a crown of glory. It is definitely possible to humbly wear an invisible crown (or a real one if you happen to be a royal).

"Always wear your invisible crown" brings all kinds of radiantly positive imagery to my mind.  Who doesn't need a touch of shiny and sparkly to boost cloudy moods now and then?  To me personally, wearing a crown has a ring of dignity and respect--a reminder to consciously treat yourself and everyone you interact with respectfully, from the youngest to the eldest, regardless of their station in life. And it follows, if we devalue ourselves, we will lack respect for others, barely noticing them because self-hatred is time-consuming and emotionally draining.

So what does "wearing your invisible crown" say to you?  It can bring a smile to your face as it serves to jog your memory that you are indeed a child of God. Depending on where you are in your life journey, imagining yourself being adorned with a dazzling crown can make you stand taller, be braver, regain perspective, feel special, hang on longer, reinforce your vision, appreciate more, sense you are unconditionally and eternally loved.

OK, I took my "invisible crown" off the closet self, unwrapped it and tried it on.  It felt really good!  If you aren't already wearing yours, put it on and you'll see what I mean.  I think I'll have to dust mine off though and shine it up a bit. I plan to make it a permanent, treasured accessory in my wardrobe. It may surprise you how good it looks with baggy pj's or sweat pants or a tee shirt you just spilled chocolate on. And it can work marvels on those bad-hair days or nobody-loves-me moments.

Once you've gotten used to wearing it, you may find yourself with the privilege of helping an acquaintance or friend or loved one locate her invisible crown, and perhaps straighten it for her ever so slightly as she tries it on for the first time.  But be sure to tell her how awesome it looks!

And remind yourself to "always wear your invisible crown."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Speaking Because I Can

Cassidy (right) and her friend, Kaytie, who wrote and directed the musical

"I speak because I can...."
"It's hard to accept yourself as someone you don't want to be...."
"Let it be known I was who I am...."                               
These are lyrics from songs composed by young British folk singer, Laura Marling, that struck a chord (pardon the pun) with me.  Her music was recently featured in a musical written and directed  by a close friend of my granddaughter, Cassidy, who had a part in the play. While I was blown away as usual by Cassidy's performance--she has a way of lighting up a stage--I was also unexpectedly moved by this unique production, entitled "I Speak Because I Can," highlighting the difficult life lessons precipitated by the societal, racial and gender discrimination that was so prevalent in the 50's.

While the younger people in the audience were being exposed to the realities of that era through a theater venue, my reaction was more pronounced and emotional because I had actually lived some of those realities as a teenager in the 50's.

"I speak because I can...."  The play touched on the unrest that simmered in the 50's in the U.S. and ultimately erupted into a struggle for social and cultural equality for women.  "The Women's Movement" grew out of that conflict.  There had already been a first wave of protest beginning in the early 1900's.  Eventually 12  governmental resolutions were set forth calling for equal treatment of men and women, including voting rights for women. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 giving women the right to vote.  Doesn't seem like that long ago, does it? Women were finally finding their voices and speaking out because they could. I feel I should mention it is not my purpose here to pass judgment pro or con on the Women's Movement. I mention it only as a backdrop on my own life experience.

"It's hard to accept yourself as someone you don't want to be...."  Most women in the 50's and 60's (myself included) had their life roles narrowly defined for them: i.e. find a husband and be a "housewife" and mother. There wasn't a lot of wiggle room.  Socially acceptable jobs outside the home existed but were few, filled mainly by single women and weren't a "good fit" for many. Without much of a say in the situation and lack of options to pursue one's dreams, a woman could easily become someone she didn't want to be. And, in the end, not really know who she was meant to be.

As a consequence, my expectations for myself in my earlier years were rather low. But in 2013 it is vastly different as opportunities to spread one's wings abound.  As doors opened for me later in life and I began to discover other things I love to do, I found writing truly satisfying.  I love words.  I love crystallizing my thoughts. I love editing. At first I wondered who would want to read what I wrote?  And later on I began to wonder why no one wants to read what I write.... And when it dawned on me I wasn't famous, and got over it, I concluded having a big readership may be nice but it's not the point.  I embraced my yearning of expression through writing and began to self-publish on a couple of blogs.  Today, I write to my heart's content.  I found my "voice" and now "I speak because I can."

Speaking "because I can" implies it is now permissible to do so and therefore a privilege. Finding one's "voice" requires some personal responsibility. Everyone knows ill-spoken or ill-written words can do much harm. Obviously, it's better used to benefit yourself and edify others and the world around us. And, in spite of all my efforts otherwise, I quickly learned not everyone will like what I write but that's not the point either.

I feel safe using my voice because the incentive to do so came from the enlightening and encouraging gospel examples of Jesus' one-on-one interaction with people affected by discrimination and inequality. He lifted up widows, beggars, sinners, outcasts, foreigners, children, the handicapped, the mentally ill.  He gave them validation and a "voice," a more positive identity, so they could move forward in their lives

Catching up on missed opportunities in my "third act of life" helps me define more clearly who I am meant to be, in addition to wife, mother and (my favorite!) grandmother.  So some day, when it's all said and done, "Let it be known I was who I am...."

Friday, May 31, 2013

Macy the Mall Kitty

Macy in her new home with Blair

Several months ago, my husband, Carn, heard the plaintive, sad cry of a kitten when he reached the entrance to Macy's department store at our local mall.  Peeking out among the shrubs near a huge trash bin was an adorable calico cat who appeared to be about four months old and desperately wanted some attention.  When he attempted to approach her she scurried away into the depths of the greenery.  She had obviously  been abandoned and left to survive on her own.  Carn often walks in the mall for exercise, so being both a cat lover and soft-hearted, he decided to use the same entrance to the store over the next few days to see if he might encounter her again and, of course, he did.

It was spring and the weather was pleasant enough for her to be outside but he wasn't sure how she was getting food and water. He didn't want her to starve, so a couple of times he bought her a sandwich from a nearby fast food place until I convinced him it would be much more economical to bring her dry cat food. He started to leave food for her every day and she began to make an appearance as soon as he put a bowl out for her.  Spring turned into summer and they became well acquainted.  Even though she would come close and greet him with a hearty meow when he had cat food in his hand, she wouldn't let him touch her.

My husband soon discovered there were others who shared his concern and they too would feed her from time to time, but none as faithful as he.  She became his "mall kitty" and he always carried food for her in the trunk of his car.  As colder winter weather approached, he had serious concerns about her survival.  Through friends at a cat-rescue center where I volunteer, an arrangement was made with the city animal shelter for the kitty to be captured and re-homed.  An employee at Macy's, a young lady named Blair, had also been worried about the tiny outcast's welfare and had been trying to gain her trust so she could catch her. She and my husband met by chance one day as Carn arrived with his bowl of cat food.  She was thrilled when he told her of the impending rescue and told him she had already decided to adopt this sweet little creature.

A few weeks passed.  One day after work, Blair stopped by to check on the kitty and noticed the animal rescue group in the process of attempting to trap her.  The terrified cat hid under the massive Macy's trash bin and couldn't be persuaded to come out.  Blair sat on the curb near her for two hours, talking reassuringly to her until the kitten finally felt safe enough to crawl out.  She was allowed to adopt her quickly and inexpensively from the shelter because she had been so helpful.  Within days, the homeless kitty had a name, Macy (naturally) and a warm and welcoming place to live.  And Carn breathed a sigh of relief.

I've heard people ask if spending time worrying about and rescuing animals makes sense when there are so many humans in the world who are in drastic need of help.  And that's a valid question. Obviously the needs of people should never be neglected.  However, the rest of creation is not unimportant to God.  I'm reminded of Jesus' beautiful and validating words in Mt. 10:29 "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care...." NIV. While Jesus goes on to say people are worth more than many sparrows, he, with an added touch of tenderness, also reveals the Creator's intentional concern for diminutive sparrows. Amazingly, God actually knows when each one falls to the ground and dies. Though seemingly insignificant and monetarily valueless, they are still within the "Father's care."

Noticing the helplessness of abandoned and abused animals softens hearts, drawing kindness and a desire to nurture from people. Participation directly or indirectly brings a feeling of satisfaction and usefulness. Rescue volunteers and facilities are altruistically devoted to the welfare of animals. And when "furever" homes are found, the happy new owners of these rescued pets then become recipients of the pleasure and companionship these adoptees bring. Godly traits are at the core of the entire process. It's a beautiful cycle of God's goodness reaching far and wide and a poignant reflection of the "Father's care" for his whole  creation.

Little Macy, the discarded mall kitty, found a lovely caring owner in Blair.  But wait! That's not the end of the story.  Blair already had two other aging rescue cats.  One fell ill and was being stressed out by the energy of the new kitten.  So we arranged for Macy to move in with our super-fun granddaughter, Jayci, and her new husband, Alex.  Macy now has undivided attention, her own princess bed and pink toys. Her fuzzy presence brings affection and warmth to her "new" new home. And my husband is as pleased as he can be to have been a part of her rescue.  Now what's wrong with that?  Any time we are able to help ease the world's suffering, even if it comes in the form of an abandoned kitten with a cute orange nose struggling to survive under a department store trash bin, it's all good.

Jayci and Macy in her "furever"  home

Friday, March 1, 2013


We all engage in self-talk, either in our minds or out loud.  Anyone ever catch you talking to yourself out loud?  A little embarrassing.... Not too long ago as I emptied my cart in a grocery store line, a young man nearby overheard me mumbling to myself  because I had forgotten an item while shopping and it was too late to do anything about it. When I looked up and noticed him, he just smiled and said:  "Don't worry.  I do it too."

Self-talk was the topic of a recent TV discussion among experts on the subject and it was stated: "Whatever you say to yourself, you will believe." Now if I only said positive things to myself that would be one thing, but I have a habit of bad-mouthing "me." I always assumed it was harmless to casually call myself derogatory names like stupid, dummy, loser or in a moment of disgust use adjectives which label me as unlovable or unforgivable or irredeemable --insulting things I would not choose to say to someone else. If I did say the same degrading and demoralizing words to another person, it could be internalized by that individual and have an emotionally damaging impact.  That's what bullies do.  In a way, being verbally abusive to myself is a form of bullying.

So why have I given myself permission to use such undignified language in reference to me? What made me think the self put-downs which flooded my mind wouldn't affect me the same way they would affect others?

Think about it for a moment. If we didn't believe what we say to ourselves, we probably wouldn't say it, right?  But here's the problem. Regularly telling myself I'm a loser affects how I feel about myself. The way I feel is the way I will act. Those of us who participate in habitual self-deprecation in our thoughts and conversations with ourselves have either failed to remember or never realized it does leave a detrimental imprint on our spirit and impedes the degree of effectiveness we can have in our interaction with family and the rest of the world.

Of course, there are deeper, underlying issues that prompt a person to bully him or herself.  When we forget our lives have value and dignity, we have forgotten the source of that value and dignity.  So we may need a reminder of how God sees us and why he created us, giving us a truly energizing, fulfilling and unique purpose in life. In his eyes no one is unlovable, unforgivable or irredeemable. Some may have never heard this good news. Our Creator doesn't have the same dim view of us that we may have of ourselves.  We are, after all, his beloved children.

When I became more conscious of my habit of self-ridicule, I made it a point to try to catch myself before the insults came fully to mind or out of my mouth.  Wow!  What a difference it has made! If this is something you identify with, you might want to give it a try.  What I am suggesting is not a quick fix that will answer the bigger question as to why a number of us don't seem to like ourselves very much. It merely involves an initial tweak in our thinking that could, however, lead to more serious sifting and sorting and searching of our hearts to uncover why we feel free to put ourselves down on a persistent basis.

Hopefully it is understood I am not invalidating the genuine moments of disappointment or discouragement  or the seasons of grief that life brings.  And I am absolutely not implying we shouldn't recognize and take responsibility for mistakes we make or sins we commit.   I'm "just sayin'" it sure helps not to repeatedly call ourselves ugly names because it's so not true. It's counterproductive and a waste of breath.

I have been personally surprised at how a relatively small thing like giving up negative self-talk has restored some dignity I lacked.  And having a more positive identity generates more positive reactions toward others. I suspect I will never stop sifting and sorting the accumulated stuff in my heart to discern "why" I've treated myself this way but refraining from self-bullying makes the process a whole lot easier.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Stepping into My Own Shoes

When my oldest daughter was preparing to move into her college dorm as a freshman in the early 80's, we had so much fun putting her wardrobe together.  We bought some pretty outfits, I made a few clothes for her by hand and on one shopping trip, we found the cutest lavender boots.  They resembled cowboy boots, but were a pinkish-purple suede with a cool feminine design on them.  She was so excited!  We got her all settled in and then school started.

Sadly, it wasn't long before she was reprimanded by school authorities for wearing those adorable boots.  This was only the first of several hurtful criticisms about her appearance. She was finally told she needed to blend into the crowd and "be like the other girls."

My sweet daughter was full of creativity and imagination. She wasn't overbearing at all, nor did she dress immodestly.  She just had a sun-shiny, fun outlook on life and she loved expressing her personality by wearing pretty things. But somehow this did not go over well in the straight-laced environment of her Bible college campus. By insisting she stop wearing her lavender boots some members of the administration were indirectly asking her to step into someone else's shoes.

Over the years, I've come to realize I spent much of my own life trying to fit into someone else's shoes.  It was like I had a whole closet full of shoes, some of them were really gorgeous, but none of them were mine.  And all of them felt uncomfortable. By ignoring my own individuality and trying hard to blend into the crowd,  I wasn't trying to be the best me I could be. So I became dissatisfied with who I was, shutting down emotions and natural expressions of my personality. One look at the  fabulous and diverse creation surrounding us should be enough to show us the Creator never intended that we all be just alike.  How boring is that?  We each have a mixture of distinctive natural traits and specific talents not to be denied that make us unique.

What it took for me to wake up was realizing (1) God created me to be me; (2) I have value in his eyes the way he made me and (3) I have a purpose for being on this earth.  An in depth study of Jesus, revealing how he, with great care,  singled people out in a crowd, gave them visibility and validated their existence opened my eyes.  Why would he bother to create the fascinating and multi-faceted human race if our lives were meant to be blah, meaningless, colorless and without individual purpose and impact?

I'm happy to report my adult daughter now figuratively wears her infamous "lavender boots" any time she wants.  And her own daughter, my newly-married granddaughter, thankfully has never had to struggle to "fit into her own shoes."  I think I've discovered my own particular version of "lavender boots" as it were and and am finally convinced it's OK to wear them.  I'm now enjoying figuring out how to be the best me I can be, not at the expense of others, but for the sake of others.  So step into those shoes, whether they're worn-out running shoes or sparkly five-inch heels or both.  Just make sure they're yours and they fit and enjoy being the best you you can be!

My daughter with her own daughter who most assuredly steps into
 her own shoes, usually sparkly ones....