Monday, July 23, 2012

Above Rubies

“A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.

                For several years now I have been struggling with the idea of “the Proverbs 31 woman” spoken of in Scripture.  There are countless websites and devotional books focusing on this topic, and the interpretations vary, but in the minds of many women I believe it has become an impossible ideal that has led to frustration and self-doubt. For a handful who truly believe they have reached this goal, it is a source of pride that causes them to look askance at those of us who don’t meet the standard. I personally have been hurt by some insensitive remarks thrown out by SAHMs (stay-at-home moms). In today’s economy, the stay-at-home mom is a rarity, but there has been such a turnaround. It used to be that the working mom was the “elitist”; now it is the SAHM. My opinion is that each family should do what works best for them, that there is no “one size fits all” in this situation.

                My mom worked before I was born, leaving my sisters with their grandmother. She quit two years before she had me, and stayed happily at home for twenty years, but was by no means idle. She had five children, was involved in the PTA, the church, and various volunteer and neighborhood organizations. She has a gift of hospitality and loved hosting all kinds of parties and get-togethers, from kids’ sleepovers to fancy dinners for my dad’s business associates. She would sometimes take classes to learn a new skill, such as ceramics. She was there for us when we needed her but she fostered in us a great self-sufficiency and independence. We were expected to help out around the house and, as soon as we were old enough, to start doing odd jobs to earn pocket money. I began doing this at the age of ten and by thirteen or fourteen was a much sought-after babysitter and pet sitter in our neighborhood. Thus my mom found a good balance that worked for all of us. When she had to return to work, I was a senior in high school and very much able to take care of myself.

                I do not think that being a “helicopter mom” or having a “child-centered family” is healthy, but there are those who think that one can only be a “Proverbs 31 Woman” by being a slave to her children-and her husband.  They believe that one absolutely CANNOT be a “Proverbs 31 Woman” and work outside the home. In studying the scripture for myself, I have to disagree with this assessment. “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.” Obviously the Proverbs 31 woman is a hardworking lady who is also a businesswoman of sorts. She “watches over the affairs of her household.” It does not say that she is staying there 24/7. It does not mention where her kids are when she is going about her work in and out of her home, but she probably either took them with her or had some kind of co-op arrangement with other women of the village. In that time, Jewish communities functioned as extended families.

                Do I think it is probably the best case scenario for someone to be at home with the children for the first three or four years? Yes. I know of situations where parents work alternating shifts so that can happen. I know some stay-at-home dads, and some moms who work out of their homes (online jobs are pretty popular these days and make it easier for women to earn money while staying home). Some women babysit a couple of extra kids so that they can be home with their own. But often these days, women have no choice but to work full-time away from home, and they should not be made to feel guilty about it. I was lucky in that my kids were already in school when they came, and I have the best possible working situation because my kids are at the school where I teach. But had things been different, had we adopted an infant or toddler under the age of three, we would have had to either find family or close friends to babysit, or hired a nanny, or found a small church or home daycare. We would have worked it out and the world would not have ended and I could still have been a good mother.

                I do good to my husband, I do not “eat the bread of idleness” and I am the one who makes sure the necessary chores get done most of the time. I do not cook. My husband is an expert at it and I’m not, and he enjoys it and I don’t, and it is something that he and the kids have fun doing together. I don’t generally do laundry or dishes because my kids are capable of those things and there is no reason for them not to do them. I go to work every day during the school year and minister to students while also adding to the family income. For the past four years I was also taking online classes which I worked on in the evenings and on weekends. I am involved, along with my husband, in church activities. I work to make sure that my family has what they need. I spend time talking to my kids and I help them with homework and projects. They know they can come to me and tell me anything and I will listen. I do NOT wait on them hand and foot and I never have. If I had not had to work, guess what? I STILL would not have waited on them hand and foot-because it isn’t good for them. Children need to develop the skills required for independence and I have seen far too many teenagers who can’t even cook a simple meal or do their own laundry. This does not make me less of a “Proverbs 31 Woman”.

                I asked my husband why he thought this scripture had been interpreted the way it has for so many. My theory was that women who stayed at home wanted to somehow “justify” themselves, which isn’t necessary. My husband thinks that maybe it was interpreted that way by men who wanted to make their wives into servants. Whatever the case, I know that, while I was offended by the woman who commented, “I work harder staying at home than I would in any other job”, for some women this may well be the case-for example, I would concede that my friend with twelve children who homeschools them all works at least as hard as I and probably harder. I have no quarrel with that. What I do get upset about is the notion that a woman who works outside the home is breaking some commandment of God and should be ashamed, or a woman who doesn’t coo over her children and constantly hover over them is a terrible mother. The goal for our children should be to prepare them for their future as adults, and that cannot be accomplished if we never allow them any freedom or independence and never have any expectations.

                Right now my two daughters are away at church camp. I miss them, but I am not particularly worried beyond the constant worry that exists deep in the heart of every ordinary mom. I was wondering if the fact that I worry relatively little makes me a bad mom, but my husband pointed out that they are, and always have been, in God’s hands. And, as my sister said, He loved them first, and loves them more than I ever could. Were I to spend much time thinking about what could happen, I would never let them out of the house. And if I never let them out of the house, they could still fall down the stairs –and actually have a few times. There are no guarantees, ever. Ally has asthma. She took her inhaler with her to camp and she knows how to use it. They are with Christian people in a Christian setting, people I know well. It’s as safe as it can possibly be. People who worry so much about their kids being molested are obviously unaware of the fact that most children who are molested are actually abused by a family member, at home or near home, not at camp or church or school or ball practice. Maybe I worry less because I know this from personal experience-my abuse was at the hands of a family member. But you have to trust some people, sometime. Christians should not walk around in a constant state of fear and pass that fear on to their kids. Teach them to be strong and confident, and reasonably cautious, but not paranoid.

                A Proverbs 31 woman does good to her husband. Interesting that the husband is SPECIFICALLY mentioned, not the children. Maybe that’s because the writer of Proverbs understood that once a woman becomes a mother, she is apt to neglect her husband and that should not be. The husband-wife relationship is vital to the family, to the marriage AND the well-being of the kids. I grew up secure in the knowledge that my parents loved me and my siblings dearly-and that they loved each other just a little bit more. I was fine with that. They loved God most of all. I was fine with that, too. I understood that was how it should be.

                And what about the divorced mother, or the divorced childless woman, or the widow, or the woman who has remained single? Where do they fit into the whole Proverbs 31 idea? Well, I have friends and family members in all of the above situations who, to me, epitomize the Proverbs 31 woman. My sister has never married. She works two jobs, both ministry-related. She manages the finances for herself and my mother, who lives with her. My mother, an older Proverbs 31 woman, was widowed at the age of 49 and has managed to make a life for herself. I wrote about her an earlier blog entry. Slowing down she may be, but idle? Never. She still has that gift of hospitality and her greatest joy comes from entertaining friends and family in her home. She also cares for her cat and my sister’s dog, works in the yard, cooks, cleans,shops, is involved in church activities, and reads lots of books. I have a friend who has four children and went through a very painful divorce about three years ago. She now has her own photography business and is able to support herself and her truly awesome kids. She has made the best of her circumstances. She is a true Proverbs 31 woman. Her children will arise and call her blessed.

                We should never think they we are limited to a little narrow God-box, but many women are frustrated trying to fit into the one they believe is labled “Proverbs 31 Woman.” In truth, the Proverbs 31 woman is any woman who does the very best she can with whatever situation God has given her. For me, it is being a working mom whose job also happens to be a ministry. Of course my husband and children come first and I treasure every moment with them .But a Proverbs 31 woman seeks God’s will for her life, whatever it may be. It does not have to fit into some “traditional” mold. God loves variety and diversity. He gave all of us different gifts and different personalities. The circumstances of our lives may vary also. What is most important is that we work at whatever He gives us to do with all of our hearts. This is all He really wants-our hearts.

“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Life is a Celebration

Dance  till the stars come down from the rafters
Dance, Dance, Dance till you drop.
~W.H. Auden

            My husband and I both come from families who love to celebrate. Holidays, birthdays, and other special events were always celebrated enthusiastically if not lavishly. I remember attending birthday parties at his house, and vice versa, until we were well into our teens. Since his birthday is close to Halloween, he sometimes had costume parties and we would all come up with the craziest getups imaginable. We both had moms who loved nothing more than to host a good party, complete with amazing food, and dads who would willingly make the mad dash to the grocery store when the punch ran out or cook a hundred hot dogs on the grill for two dozen hungry teenagers. It was part of our lives, as were egg dyeing at Easter and cookie baking at Christmas and explosives on the Fourth of July.

            With this in mind, you can probably imagine our dismay, a few weeks before our daughter’s ninth birthday, when we asked her what kind of party she would like to have and she said, “I don’t know. I never had a birthday party before.”  Seeing our horrified expressions, she quickly added, “Well, once at school I did. My teacher brought in cookies and we played games, and the class made cards for me.”  God bless that teacher, whoever she was. But the idea that a sweet girl like Raina had never been celebrated just for being who she was was, to us, very nearly tragic. So we prepared to go the last mile.

            We had already celebrated our younger daughter’s sixth birthday a few months prior, and none of the children had said a word about this being the first time any of them had had a party. We gave Ally a fairy-princess themed party at a local park, and when my husband asked how many were coming, I was a bit stumped. “Uh-well-I invited a lot of people…”

            “How many?” he demanded.

            “Oh, just all of the kids in her class. And her teacher. And, well, all of the school staff kids and their families, and of course your family and my family, and all the kids from her Sunday school class…but you know they won’t all come.”

            He looked a little sick. “I hope not.”

            I was right. Only thirty children actually showed up, not including our three, and about twenty-five adults. Roughly eighty percent of those we invited, in other words, which was basically the same thing that happened with our wedding and I should have learned my lesson then. But it was grand, that first birthday party we were privileged to give our daughter, with balloons and streamers and a fairy-princess cake and a piƱata. The birthday girl wore fairy wings as she opened present after present, and throughout most of the festivities she was quiet, as though she could not quite believe that all of this was for her.

            Raina verbalized that sentiment when she walked into the dining room on the afternoon of her ninth birthday party. She had decided on a horse theme so her dad made a cake with horses on it, and it was displayed proudly on the table along with bags of party favors and a big vase of flowers, with balloons tied to each chair and a giant Happy Birthday banner hanging in the doorway. Her jaw dropped in surprise and she said, “All this for me? For me?” As the party went on (and on and on, since was a sleepover) she kept coming back to us in between activities and hugging us, “Thank, you Mom. Thank you, Dad.”  The next day, her dad took her out to lunch and he said she beamed the entire time , the climax being his presentation to her of a very special pearl necklace to remind her that she  was a pearl of great price.

            Our celebrations still mean a lot to our kids. They look forward with anticipation to all of the holidays and the traditions we have created to go along with them. They don’t really want birthday parties as such anymore, just dinner with the family and then a shopping excursion with a friend or two. They are teenagers and they want clothes, and quite frankly they have figured out that a smaller party means more money to buy such items. But I am not hurt by this. They still appreciate the fact that we recognize and celebrate their special days. It is also a whole lot easier to give them money and let them buy what they want than it is to throw a big birthday party-but I would still do it if they desired.

            Those birthday parties during the first few years we had our kids are such precious memories to me. One year Tony had a backyard campout and the boys built an actual campfire over which they cooked hot dogs and marshmallows. One little guy, while fixing his fourth hot dog, grinned at us and said, “Boy, ya’ll really know how to throw a party!” Another time after one of Raina’s sleepovers, a girl told her father, “Daddy, there was so much fun I can’t remember it all!” I think that may have been the time when one of the games we played involved scooping marshmallows out of a bowl while blindfolded. For weeks afterward, the dog would appear with a marshmallow in her mouth that she had found in an obscure part of the living room.

            I cannot imagine growing up in a family that does not celebrate with abandon every special occasion. Celebrating should come naturally to us as human beings and as Christians. We have every reason to celebrate, for God has blessed us beyond measure. We should all be like Raina, asking in wonder, “All this for me?”  We certainly don’t deserve it. We don’t deserve His mercy and His grace. He took what we really deserved on Himself, when he was nailed to that cross. That in itself is reason to celebrate, to laugh, to dance, to give praise. And so every day should be a festival of joy and a time to give thanks. Jesus performed His first miracle at a wedding feast. I am sure that he enjoyed a good party, that He laughed and danced and sang. I doubt that a somber and scowling Jesus would have attracted many followers!

            We have reason to rejoice-so let’s rejoice! Get out the balloons and the streamers, bring on the cake and ice cream, and celebrate Him-the God from whom all blessings flow.

“For, after all, put it as we may to ourselves, we are all of us from birth to death guests at a table which we did not spread. The sun, the earth, love, friends, our very breath are parts of the banquet.... Shall we think of the day as a chance to come nearer to our Host, and to find out something of Him who has fed us so long?” ~Rebecca Harding Davis

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Life Can Be Puzzling

The reproduction of mankind is a great marvel and mystery. Had God consulted me in the matter, I should have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them out of clay. ~Martin Luther

            “Mom, should I be reading this? I don’t think I should be reading this.”  My daughter Ally, then age nine, asked me this question with a very red face as she perused the four pages on sexual reproduction in a book I had given her about the human body. In our family we don’t believe in making certain subjects taboo, and the Bible tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. The “Song of Solomon” is read with just as much reverence and respect as any other part of Scripture, and we have a menagerie of pets who, being uninhibited about such things, have provided us with many opportunities to discuss the workings of the human body also.

            Nevertheless, Ally was instinctively embarrassed about this topic. It was a combination of factors-past negative experiences, admonitions to “not talk about that” in her previous foster home, and the result of the Fall that causes us to regard our own bodies with shame, although God very clearly tells us otherwise. We addressed the issues of sex very early on, for our children had already been exposed to things way before they should have and we did not want them to develop a warped, perverted view of something that, in its proper context, is a beautiful gift from God.

            As a child of seven or eight, when I began asking my mother questions, she handed me a book and told me to read it and then come back to her if there was anything I didn’t understand. After reading the book, I was still not quite clear on some things. However, I could see that my mother was squeamish about the subject, no doubt the result of a rather strict Southern Baptist upbringing, so I sought out my father. A New York City native raised in the Bronx, my father had come to the faith later in his life and thus did not regard this topic as taboo. He explained things to me very clearly and I realized that I had seen plenty of animals doing that. I just had not known exactly what they were doing. I remember how my dad then used Psalm 139 to show me that there is nothing dirty or ugly about sex and that someday, when I was grown and married, I would discover that it was indeed a great wonder, another of those things that God said was “very good”.

            In the beginning, ALL things were good, and God made them all good, and He blessed them. It is human beings who have perverted and distorted God’s Creation, because of the Fall into sin and disobedience. Therefore, Alyssa’s reaction was what one would expect, but I did not want her to feel that way. My husband also believes that so often, adolescent girls are ashamed of their bodies and feel that they are worthless and inferior. In some cases they are even taught that they are “cursed”. Is it any wonder that so many girls have low self-esteem?  Thus, we have been very intentional in celebrating our girls’ beauty and femininity. Each of them was taken out to dinner by their daddy on her ninth birthday and given a special necklace with a pearl in it to remind them that they are pearls of great price. They were also taken out to lunch by their daddy when they reached that special milestone that is delicately referred to as “becoming a woman”. Since they both reached that milestone at an early age, we were glad we discussed “the facts” with them when we did!

            I say “we” because my husband has been very much a part of all of this and, unlike many men, he is not embarrassed or afraid to discuss it. Thus I believe that all three of our kids are developing healthy attitudes about the opposite sex, love, and marriage. We decided from the beginning that we would encourage them to talk to us about anything…and I mean ANYTHING. We never wanted to have the disconnect that can occur around age twelve, when many kids shut down communication with their parents. No. That is simply not allowed. I don’t read their journals, although I would if I felt it necessary, but I do check their Facebook feeds regularly, we are aware of where they are going and who they are with at all times, and, when they are away, they had better answer their cell phones! This, to me, is just common sense.

            Raina has taken a course in self-defense and could easily take down any guy who messed with her. I do not want my kids fearful; I want them confident and self-sufficient. I want them to have meaningful experiences and I want to empower them, not shelter them. We have always operated on the premise that we were raising ADULTS, not perpetual children. Yet we are still, even though they are now thirteen, fifteen, and nineteen, ever available to give advice, answer questions, and give them a good lecture if necessary. We also hold the power of the car keys (since we bought the car, after all), and the power to cut them off from electronic devices and other pleasures. This is called “grounding” and I don’t actually care if it makes them angry. They live in our house and they can do us the courtesy of abiding by our standards, making good grades, showing us respect, and doing what is asked of them. Most of the time, they don’t resent it.

            After Ally finished reading the pages in the anatomy book, I asked her if she wanted anything clarified. She said no, but was that why the rabbits bled when they went into heat? I said yes. That was all, for about two years. Then one day, we discovered in the course of conversation that she still was fuzzy on how the sperm actually gets to the egg. This resulted in a rather hilarious conversation during which I tried desperately to conceal my amusement, while my husband spoke very candidly and Tony kept saying, “Wow, is this awkward.”  Raina wanted to know why he thought it was awkward-she is definitely the opinionated and outspoken one, to the point where I once asked cautiously, “You don’t , like, discuss this topic at SCHOOL, in front of people, do you?” For that I was rewarded with THE LOOK, the one that says “Mom is not smart”, and an exasperated, “Wow, Mom, what do you think?”

            As the conversation progressed to ovaries, Ally, who had just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird (yes, I know eleven is young for that book. Don’t judge me. I read it when I was nine) said, “Ovaries?? Like Jean Louise wears?”

            “OVERALLS!!” Raina and I shouted in chorus, and Raina fell over laughing.

            “Awkward,” Tony muttered.

            Finally, Ally reached a conclusion. “So, it’s like a puzzle-the way they fit-and everything?”

            “Yes,” we agreed.

            “Well, I’m never playing with THAT puzzle.”

            “You’ll change your mind when you get older.”

            “Nope. Gonna leave that puzzle on the shelf.”

            “Well, sure. Until you get MARRIED,” Raina emphasized.

            “Yeah, but a puzzle with only two pieces is no fun anyway.”

            With that, I gave way to hysterics. And I would be willing to bet that we are the only family in the Universe whose euphemism for sex is “playing with the puzzle”. Quite frankly, Ally is still pretty grossed out by the whole thing, which is at it should be when you are thirteen, but she also understands that she won’t always be grossed out by it. She also still plays with dolls sometimes and Raina, while of course interested in boys, is at this time consumed by training her horse, riding her bike, making jewelry, learning to cook, hanging out with her sister and her BFFs, and making good grades. Though they both like to wear some makeup and have the usual teenage obsession with hairstyles and pop music and movie stars, they are only boy-crazy in the most innocent sense and understand why their father has said that it is not yet time for courtship (this is Biblical courtship as opposed to dating, which is a whole other topic for another time).

            There have been embarrassing moments, of course, like when Raina was ten and we were at the zoo and she asked what the turtles were doing. I told her they were mating, and I cringed and laughed at the same time when she turned around and yelled, “HEY, EVERYBODY! COME LOOK AT THE TURTLES MATING!”  It was almost as bad as the time when Ally asked about Santa Claus, having pretty much figured it out for herself, and we told her about St.Nicholas, and that we got the Santa myth from him but that he was a real person and was now a saint in Heaven. She went to school the next day and informed the first grade that Santa Claus was dead. So the ways in which your children can humiliate you are certainly not limited to sex, and discussing sex should be as natural as discussing Santa Claus, or, in our case, time travel, the nature of reality, the literary and cultural references in Lost, and why Finn and Jake are brothers even though Jake is a dog and Finn is a human (adoption, of course).

            At the center of it all, for us, is God, and what He says, or doesn’t say, about things. Some things are right and some are wrong and some may very well be matters of opinion. I hope that we as parents have set the right example as continual seekers of Truth. And never underestimate the power of literature and movies as teaching tools- I had tried to explain artificial insemination to Ally once she understood the concept of sex, but the movie Gattaca did a much better job. Hearing me talk about racial injustice is all very well, but Scout Finch and Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, along with Minnie and Aibeleen and Skeeter in The Help, were probably a lot more effective. I can say that God is with us in all circumstances, but Corrie ten Boom’s personal experiences in The Hiding Place brought it home in a much more powerful way. I believe that children need to know things, and we as parents need to determine when they are ready, and for most it is probably far earlier than we think. They are going to hear everything somewhere, and I would rather they hear it at home first. If they haven’t, then I want them to be comfortable asking about it, or talking about it, without fear that we will be shocked. If they do wrong, I want them to be able to tell us, even though they know there will be consequences, because the truth is ALWAYS better than a lie. When we had to have our dog Buttercup put down, I did not lie and tell Ally, “Oh, she lives at the vet now,” or any of the other silly things I have heard. I told her that Buttercup was old and sick and it was time to let her go. I was also able to say with conviction that if we want Buttercup in Heaven, we will have her, because C.S.Lewis and Martin Luther and William Wilberforce all believed that and they are far wiser than I.

            Indeed, the truth is always best-however “puzzling” it may be. Can I get an “Amen”?

Only in the U.S. do we find children drawing a picture of a baby coming from the clouds or from under a cabbage leaf.” ~Floyd Martinson

Monday, July 9, 2012

Learning to Be The Light

“When a heart is cold as ice
You can't melt it with advice
No one wants to listen to
A list of things they shouldn't do
So I build a city on a hill
And I light a candle on the sill
Knowing You'll be always knocking at the door
Oh God I just want to love on everyone
All I have is Yours to give so let the people come...”

            On a cool November morning in 1978, I made my early morning dash outside to get the newspaper. It was my habit from the time I was seven or eight to grab the paper before anyone else was up. I would scan the headlines, read the funnies, look for interesting editorials and pictures ,read the advice columns, peruse the sports section if there was anything about horse racing or gymnastics, attempt and occasionally complete the crossword puzzles, and mentally file away which things I wanted to cut out for my scrapbook later. To desecrate the paper with scissors before my parents had read it was, I had learned, not a good thing to do. Daddy did not appreciate picking up the sports section and finding a huge gaping hole where a picture of Secretariat had once been.

            A little over a year earlier, I had been the first to read the horrifying story of the Girl Scout murders at Camp Scott. It gave me nightmares and also justified in my mind my decision to withdraw from the Girl Scouts after one boring year of sewing pillows and singing dumb songs. I had an aversion to outdoor toilets and, although I loved nature, the woods were scary at night. It was not wild animals I feared, mind you, it was serial killers. Perhaps sneaking into my closet with a contraband copy of Helter Skelter when I was only ten was not the best idea. At any rate, I became fascinated at an early age with the workings of the human mind as well as the tragic events of history. These are interests that I have carried with me into adulthood, although I have learned to balance them with other things lest I become preoccupied with the dark and morbid thoughts that consumed me during my teenage years.

            On that day in 1978, I was twelve years old. Middle school had proved thus far to be confusing, confounding, and stressful as I struggled to find my place in the world. I was making good grades and my teachers loved me, but that does very little for one’s social status in seventh grade. I had plenty of friends but they were not cool and neither was I, and, unfortunately, one of the Mean Girls in eighth grade had targeted me as a victim. I made it too easy by letting her know it bothered me, and my mother did not understand why I suddenly had to have expensive tennis shoes and trendy shirts. I had never cared before. But I had never felt like such an outcast before. I hoped that the clothes would help, but so far, it wasn’t working. I was just thankful for weekends. I opened the paper and, in full color that filled two-thirds of the front page was a picture of hundreds of dead bodies. The headline above it screamed MASS SUICIDE IN GUYANA.

            I was in shock. I knew that Guyana was in South America or Central America somewhere. I had heard a few blurbs on the news a day or two before about a guy down there who might be holding people against their will in some kind of weird cult. But the little information I had somehow did not connect, in my mind, with this picture. I studied it with a feeling of cold horror, realizing that there were children lying there dead, children younger even than me. How could little kids commit suicide, and why would they? I noticed a couple of dead dogs in the picture. Dogs don’t commit suicide. Dogs don’t even know what death is. I began reading the article. At least three hundred people were dead. A “preacher” named Jim Jones was responsible. He had somehow coerced his followers into drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. The adults had given it to their children and their pets. Old people had been injected with it. As I followed the story in the ensuing days and the body count rose, I was plagued with questions that no one seemed really able to answer-not my teachers, not my parents, not my minister or youth leaders. How could people do that? How could they kill themselves and their children and their pets? How was this man able to entice over nine hundred people to commit such a terrible act? My questions were no different from those of the people around me.

            I began to read about and research cults. I remembered my reading of Helter Skelter and I saw the similarities between Manson’s “family” and Jones’s “People’s Temple”. Years later, in college, I did a research paper on cults and I saw again the common thread. It was the need to be part of something. Cult leaders are able to build their little “kingdoms” by offering to the unwanted and outcast the opportunity to belong. Those who feel rejected by society are drawn to these charismatic leaders who offer them unconditional acceptance. Jim Jones convinced his followers that they were building a perfect society. Charles Manson did the same thing in a different way. Both men had people who were willing to kill or die for them. Those who came to their senses and attempted to leave were stopped and were made examples of by being humiliated, abused, or even killed. But the majority gave their lives to their alleged “saviors” and never looked back.

            So I have to ask myself this question: what are Christians doing? What is the Christian church doing? Why are we not giving these people the love, the acceptance, the refuge they seek? I have talked to many people who turned their backs on Christianity because they were given a box labeled “God” accompanied by an extensive list of rules and regulations that they were afraid to break. They were never given the gospel message, the real one that is Love, or, if they were, it became obscured by a set of impossible goals of perfection. And because everyone is seeking Something, those who feel ostracized by the church will look for unconditional love elsewhere.

            Yes, I do believe that there is such a thing as sin. Without it, we wouldn’t have anything from which we need saving. I believe that there are basic moral principles found in God’s Word, and that He does expect something from us as we grow in our faith and our understanding. But I don’t believe that sins can be categorized by levels or that the Bible was written to be used as a club. What it is is God’s Love letter to all of creation. The God of the Old Testament is the same God that is in the New Testament. He didn’t change, but the terms of the covenant did. The terms changed because He came to earth and felt everything that we feel and was despised and rejected and finally nailed to a Cross. His Love covers all our sins. His wrath is done. He has made His peace with mankind, and we can choose freely to accept or reject the grace that He offers. When I have kids come to me in tears because they feel that they aren’t good enough, that bad things have happened to them because God is punishing them, or that God is disappointed in them because they have failed in some way, my heart breaks. Who told them that? What are we doing?

            My God’s Love is SO BIG that it can carry all of the sins I have ever committed and fling them far away. My sins alone would be a staggering burden, but He took the sins of the whole world! Because it is a sinful and fallen world, bad things sometimes just happen. Sin has consequences that must be dealt with. Nevertheless, there is forgiveness. Whatever we may have done, and whatever consequences we have to face because of our sin, we still can go to Him and make all of it right. If this message of Love was properly communicated to the whole world, a Jim Jones or Charles Manson could never get a foothold. The beautiful thing is that Charles Manson himself could even now be forgiven if he would cast off his foolish pride and confess all to Jesus. As much as I despise what Manson did, I would rejoice if that were to happen. I would also rejoice if we as Christians would stop being so darn judgmental and learn to love as Christ loves. It is silly to think we can “save” anyone. We can’t do God’s job for Him. But we can be His witnesses. The Great Commission tells us to go into the world and make disciples. Nowhere does it say that we are to browbeat, humiliate, or frighten people into the Kingdom. The Bible even says that we are to meet people’s immediate physical and emotional needs FIRST. I am a proponent of meeting folks where they are, and it is not in my “job description” to decide if I like where they are. I’m sure that God didn’t like where I was at age seven when I first got saved, or at fourteen when I re-dedicated my life, or at twenty when I returned to Him after a three-year prodigal journey. He has never once judged me for who I am, but has seen who I can be in Him.

            In recent months God has revealed to me more and more that I need to learn to reflect His light more and more. When I see “Christians” doing things like protesting at the funerals of homosexuals while carrying hateful signs or holding book burnings or screaming hellfire and brimstone from street corners, I cringe.  Yeah, that’s effective. It turns people off and turns them away and sends them straight into the clutches of Evil. It makes us look ridiculous and crazy and mean. But “a city on a hill cannot be hidden”. So carry the Light. Love your enemies. Forgive those who hate and persecute you. Embrace the unlovable. Everyone has a past and a struggle and a wound of some kind. Speak the truth to them in Love. Just love them like Jesus.

Go light your world.

“I'm learning to be the light
That makes the shadows hide
The light that breaks the curse of pride
The light that takes the weary in its arms
When it all came crashing down
There was only darkness all around
But in the distance I could see
A flame...
It's so much brighter living in Your world
Savior what You did for me
You gave me something I want everyone, I mean everyone to see.”

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Family Pictures

“I liked having some time to myself. Our family was such a close one, you could get smothered. Of course, we didn't always agree with one another. Sometimes I quarreled with my brother and sisters, but I couldn't remember hating anyone for more than five minutes.”
Gloria Whelan

            I keep saying I am going to make a scrapbook of the family photographs. I have a box full of them, and a Ziploc bag with more, and then there are the thousands that are on the computer, and the hundreds at my mother’s house that, miraculously, survived the fire. I have every intention of organizing them, creating slideshows, making some kind of order from the chaos. This summer, I actually have time to do these things, but then I get lost in just looking at the pictures and somehow manage to waste the hours that I should spend putting them together. I don’t know; maybe it’s better that way. Each photo is a story in itself.

            The picture I have in front of me now is one of the five of us children sitting on the pier at my uncle’s house by the lake. It was somewhere near Valdosta, Georgia, down one of many dirt roads that existed in that area at the time. Every summer we went to the family reunion, and every summer we had a pre-reunion get-together at Uncle Julian and Aunt Myra’s house.  I learned to fish from that pier and caught tadpoles in the shallow part of the lake, which allegedly was inhabited by water moccasins and huge alligators. Uncle Julian always had enough watermelon and boiled peanuts to feed an army. I remember that I once participated in a seed-spitting contest with my brother and some of my boy cousins when my mother wasn’t looking. At family reunions I had a bit of freedom from watchful parental eyes-there were so many people around that my mother figured someone would rescue us if we fell out of a tree or tumbled into the lake.

            Of course, getting there was half the “fun”, especially the camping part. Imagine seven people sleeping in a pop-up camper designed for four. Eventually my father added another “room” that was actually a glorified tent attached to the camper. Family togetherness was a necessity in those days, and we were expected to be nice to each other, which included not killing each other over games of Crazy Eights or the best seat in the car. It also included politely eating the bacon and eggs that tasted of Coleman fuel. The best we could manage was to choke it down without gagging and thank our mother, who was grimly determined to keep us well-fed while pretending that she didn’t hate camping with a passion. But we prayed for the days when we had to break camp early and could have cereal for breakfast, eaten right out of those cute little individual packets. The first person alert enough to comprehend what was happening could   snag the Apple Jacks or the Cocoa Krispies. To be the last was to be stuck with soggy cornflakes. These were the rare moments when one could fervently wish to be an only child.

            Sometimes we would forego camping, when finances permitted, and stay at a Holiday Inn. There was air conditioning, there was a breakfast buffet, and there was blue water in the toilets. For some reason, this fascinated my brother. Personally, I liked writing on the hotel stationery with the little pencils, assuming I could get to these items before a sibling grabbed them. When night fell, we would attempt to sleep-I, as the youngest, squished in between our parents so that I could get the full benefit of Daddy’s snoring, two sisters in the other bed, and my brother and Jackie on pallets on the floor. It was lovely, especially when somebody threw up, which was a routine occurrence. Over the sound of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre that echoed and re-echoed from my father’s vicinity would come a vast, deep, ominous urping noise, warning everyone that they had approximately two and a half seconds to get out of the way.

            The family reunion made up for everything, though. The party at Uncle Julian’s was a blast, even when my little cousin Richard, who was so evil that even the grownups were afraid of him, nearly knocked me off the pier. I was minding my own business when he came running at top speed, having caught a fish too small to eat. He hurled an expletive at me while hurling the fish into the water. I asked his older brother, who was, inexplicably, not evil at all, “What is WRONG with that kid?” He shrugged and said, “I have no idea.” It made me realize that I was lucky to have siblings who were merely annoying and bossy as opposed to being potential criminals. My brother and a couple of my cousins helped me catch sixteen tadpoles, but we hastily let them go when Richard, after staring at them for a few seconds, announced, “I think I want to SQUISH them.”  I mean, EWWW.


            The family reunion itself followed a predictable pattern. One must endure being kissed and squeezed by a variety of grandparents, aunts, and uncles before moving on to tables laden with food. You had to eat fast before too many flies gathered on your potato salad, and you had to make sure you took at least one piece of fried chicken from each aunt so no one would be offended. After gobbling the chicken, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, squash, bread and butter, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, roast beef, green beans, lima beans, and corn on the cob and washing it down with sweet tea more fit to be poured on pancakes that to quench thirst, you moved on to the seven-layer cake with fudge frosting between each layer. In order to keep from exploding, you then grabbed cousins and siblings and played tag and hide-and-seek in the little cemetery behind the church. My goal was to not let Richard find me, but he always did. Once we were all out of breath from running, we would explore the cemetery and read the inscriptions on the headstones. Later, the grownups rounded us up and everyone went into the church to sing. “I’ll Fly Away” was a favorite, and so was “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, and of course we had to end with “Glad Reunion Day”. My Uncle Robert always did a solo, usually one with a recitation. He liked recitations a lot.

            Looking back, I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. There is something about connecting with extended family that makes you understand who you are and where you came from. As the years went by and more and more people grew old and went on to Glory, the family reunions became a thing of the past. There was too much sadness. Uncle Julian died in a house fire when I was eight, and it wasn’t until years later that I learned that my wonderful uncle who took me riding in his rattly old pickup and told stories of gator hunts was a drunk. Somehow, it didn’t make any difference. I learned a lot of things about my aunts and uncles and cousins as I got older, but those skeletons in the family closet mattered far less than the memory of a group of people with a shared history, four generations of a backwoods Georgia clan, singing gospel songs together in a little country church. As I look at the photograph of us on the pier, three of us grinning while Bobby looks solemn and Dona annoyed at having her picture taken, I think of what we shared as siblings. I think of my dad who took the picture, and my mother who was probably standing somewhere nearby admonishing him to hurry up. I think of what it means to be a family. My father has been gone for almost twenty-five years. My mother is seventy-four. I, the youngest sibling, am closer to fifty than to forty. We have a legacy. It is not a legacy of material wealth, but a legacy of wisdom, faith, and love.

“The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.” ~Erma Bombeck