Monday, July 29, 2013

Everything Nice

“Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn't supposed to be doing things that required pants. Aunt Alexandra's vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father's lonely life." ~ To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

            Poor misunderstood Scout. It’s no wonder that I related to her so much when I was a child. Little girls might be made of sugar and spice, but when God was mixing my DNA, He threw in some salt and vinegar. The fourth girl and youngest child, with three older sisters and an older brother, I was not a girly-girl, but I wasn’t as bold and adventuresome as my sister Jackie, so I didn’t exactly fit the tomboy mold either. She got hurt a lot; I only got hurt once in awhile, like when I face-planted in the driveway after running my bike into the side of my mom’s car. I took more risks than I should have as far as riding my bike with no hands and exploring places I wasn’t supposed to go, but I never swung out across the road on a rope when a car was approaching. I wasn’t afraid of bugs or snakes or any animals at all, other than bats and roaches. I wasn’t afraid of swimming in deep water after taking swimming lessons at age eight, but I was terrified of heights and the dark and all of the weird monsters and aliens I read about.

            I liked a lot of things that were not considered “girly”, such as mud and dinosaurs and Hardy Boys books. I was never good at sports and hated P.E. at school, but I did play baseball and kickball and sometimes even tackle football with my friends from the neighborhood. In fact, one day when I was ten, my mom looked out the window just in time to see me going down, clutching a football, with a swarm of boys on top of me. She shrieked in horror and I was dragged into the house and treated to a lecture on why this was now inappropriate because I had Become a Woman several months before. I was not at all thrilled with the early onset of puberty and was bored with all of the trendy teen-angst books that the girls at school were passing around. I thought Nancy Drew was an idiot and preferred Trixie Belden, and my role model in Little Women was not  prim and proper Meg, snotty Amy, or shrinking violet Beth, but , of course, the volatile and unpredictable Jo.

            Two of my best friends, Heidi and Holly, lived across the street and were always wanting to paint my nails and do my hair. We had fun together and I realize now that I pretty much always got my way because I was terribly bossy. I would deign to play Barbies as long as I got to make up the stories, which generally involved transforming Barbie into someone else, like Laura Ingalls. Great tragedies and disasters inevitably ensued. Once, Barbie and Ken’s plane crashed on a desert island and they had to survive by any means necessary, which ultimately included cannibalizing the other passengers. I was always trying to shock Heidi and Holly but they were such good sports that they went along with my bizarre imagination and seemed quite fascinated. I also dragged them along on various bicycling adventures, many of which did not end well. Imagine being eleven years old and being chased by two vicious dogs and a gun-toting old lady. Heidi lost her shoes that day-both of them-as we frantically pedaled away.

            I once did an experiment to see if I could grow my own maggots in a pile of rancid dog food. It worked quite well, leaving my parents wondering why there was a sudden fly infestation around the back porch. Then there was my pottery project. My fourth-grade teacher instilled in me a love for Alabama history, and I decided that I wanted to use the red clay in the backyard to make pots like the Choctaws did. They turned out okay, but they cracked so much when they dried that I couldn’t paint them. This was fine with my mother, since I had already ruined two pairs of pants and several shirts with the clay. I also loved to collect critters-turtles, lizards, caterpillars, ants, the occasional grass snake-and this required a lot of crawling around on the ground. Jeans were a must, but I insisted on the boy jeans for many years.I didn’t think it was fair that jeans for large little boys were called “Huskies”, but jeans for large little girls were called “Chubbies”. I thought husky was a nicer word. My mother did not understand this logic at all, but she got me the jeans I wanted.

            My logic extended to my reading of literature. If Flicka made a miraculous recovery and she and Ken lived happily ever after, then why did Gabilan in The Red Pony have to die?  If Rascal the Raccoon was set free in the wilderness and survived to father many generations of little Rascals, then why did Bertie in The Year of the Raccoon end up as “a battered body in a box”?  Wilbur the Pig was not slaughtered, yet the pig in A Day No Pigs Would Die was-in graphic detail. So why was the book called that? At seven, I had not quite grasped the concept of irony. Imagine my disappointment when I learned, after many years of weeping copiously over the demise of Jack the Faithful Old Bulldog in the “Little House” books, that in real life he was given away when the Ingalls family settled at Plum Creek! Or my shock and anger when I read the real story of the Sager orphans, which was nothing at all as depicted in On to Oregon. It was a long time before I came to understand what “inspired by actual events” meant.

            According to my family, I was speaking fluently at thirteen months and reading fluently at three years. Since I don’t remember not reading, the latter is doubtless true, but I wonder about the former. Most experts in child development say that the facial muscles have not matured enough before about fifteen months for a child to say more than a few words-although they acknowledge that in rare cases, children begin speaking in clear sentences earlier than that. Thus, if my family is remembering accurately, it is merely one more freakish thing about me. It also explains why I thought kindergarten was stupid. I did not voice this opinion at school-in fact, I rarely spoke at school-but at home I was very vocal in my disdain for formal education. I wonder to this day if I would have benefited from “unschooling”, but on this point my parents were firm-I had to go to school. In retrospect, they were probably right. I would have been too weird to function had I not been forced into social situations.

            My own kids have some of the same struggles I did, but they handle them with greater grace and humor. Despite their exceptional intelligence, they are friendly and sociable and relate well to their peers. To be fair, by the time I was eight or nine, I was reasonably socially adept, but I always got along better with boys than with girls, even in high school. Nevertheless, I had plenty of friends of both genders and, while not particularly “popular”, I was not a complete social outcast. I learned not to always blurt out the sardonic, witty comments that popped into my head a hundred times a day, and, by God’s grace and under the loving instruction of my parents, the compassion that I had for others blossomed despite the bullying and cruelty that I often faced.

            I still find the world a confusing place at times, and I wonder where I fit. I still seek acceptance even though I know in my heart that I am accepted and maybe even lovable. I read and write to try to make sense of things that seem backwards, sideways, and upside down. I still am the little not-quite-tomboy in the Husky jeans seeking the caterpillar than will eventually transform into a butterfly. I am a combination of all the things that made my parents as well as some things uniquely mine. I am sugar, spice, vinegar, salt, and maybe a little nutmeg. I am not everything nice, but neither am I everything terrible.  God creates us each from a recipe that makes us a little different, while at the same time we all have the desires and qualities that make us the same in our humanity. That’s the beauty of His design.Unity-and diversity. What a lovely collage we are.

“The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry





Monday, July 1, 2013




(esp. of change or action) Relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough.
Radical is derived from the Latin word radix meaning "root", referring to the need for perpetual re-orientation towards the root truths of Christian discipleship. (Wikipedia)
There is a lot of talk these days about “radical Christianity”.  Sometimes this is interpreted and/or carried out as fanaticism. Some think that it means you must abandon everything you have, forsaking everyone and everything that is comfortable and familiar-and it can include that. My belief is that to follow Christ the way that we are called to follow Him is indeed radical by definition, because the call is to change the fundamental nature of something-in this case, to change the world. To be radical Christians means to return to the roots of our faith. I’m not talking about necessarily returning to the roots of our family’s faith, although I was indeed raised in a Christian home. I am talking about a return to the roots of Christianity as a whole, trying to do what Jesus actually told us to do.
I guess it can be open to interpretation, this whole business of following Jesus, and of course we are all given different gifts and tasks. But I think that the basic ideas of loving one’s neighbor, being in the world but not of it, turning the other cheek, helping the poor, and allowing God to be the judge hold true for anyone who claims Christianity. Where we go with these basic tenets depends on where God sends us and whom He sends us. I have some friends who are selling and giving away most of their possessions and going to live and work in Haiti. To leave it all behind and go take care of some kids in an orphanage –that’s radical. They have faced criticism from people who just don’t understand. No one has to understand. It is a call from God. I have learned over the years that we become utterly miserable when we ignore the call ,no matter what it is. No matter how strange it seems. And we are indeed in good company.
Consider Noah, building a huge boat because water was going to fall from the sky and flood the earth. Do you suppose he got laughed at and mocked much? Consider Abraham, abandoning all that was familiar to go-where? He had no clue, but he went. Moses, after an encounter with God in the form of a burning bush in the desert, went to face the powerful and wicked Pharaoh. He ultimately took on the task of leading several million people out of slavery “to a land flowing with milk and honey”. A Promised Land that he had never seen. Radical? Oh, yes. And the Apostles, standing up to beating and torture, singing while imprisoned and in chains, refusing to back down. Jesus Himself, defying the legalistic leaders of His time to reach out to those who were the most despised and rejected. Jesus, making the ultimate sacrifice for a world that largely refused to acknowledge Him. Radical-and real-love.
Going beyond the Bible, we have heroes throughout history and in our world today. Martin Luther. William Wilberforce. Corrie ten Boom. Mother Teresa. Jim Elliot. Martin Luther King. Billy Graham.And those who may not be famous, but who are willing to give all. Think of the people you know-your parents, perhaps, or grandparents. Teachers. Pastors. Youth leaders. Those who are willing to sacrifice for the good of others, no matter the cost, no matter if anybody even notices or expresses gratitude. To be radical is to understand that it is not about ourselves. To be radical is also to endure being called crazy, sometimes.
It was crazy, some say, to adopt three kids at once, the oldest eleven, the youngest five, all with baggage and problems that we did not fully realize at the time. I have days and times, like today, like these past few weeks, when I ask myself if it was actually crazy. I ask myself if it really mattered. And then I have to ask if we could have done any differently, and the answer is no. It wasn’t as if we had a choice, not really. Not when we knew it was a call from God. We could not ignore it any more than we could ignore the call to be teachers, which is, I suppose, another thing that could be called radical. Anything that is designed to change the world is radical. I ask myself how “sane” it was for my father to give his last ten dollars to a homeless family when he had no job. How “sane” is it to go and live among the poverty-stricken and diseased people of Calcutta? How “rational” is it go to Haiti after an earthquake, or to Oklahoma after a series of devastating tornadoes? Does it make any sense to give your expensive coat, the one your kids gave you for Christmas, to some stranger who is cold, and then keep on handing out food and blankets in your shirtsleeves in thirty-degree weather?  Is there any logic to going into strip clubs and hand out gift bags to the women, gift bags with tags attached that say, “We love you just the way you are” and invite them to church? What if they come in scantily clad, with tattoos and piercings and stuff, and you are the one who encouraged them to come? What will people think?
“What will people think” is probably the worst reason for doing or not doing something. I’m really glad, for my own sake as well as everyone else’s, that Jesus was never motivated by that. I am truly grateful that He did not forsake God’s will and go count out mint leaves with the Pharisees. (Keep nine, give one away, and you are fulfilling the Law. It’s the Magic Formula from God Boxes, Limited.) If my daughter Alyssa chose her friends based solely on what her classmates thought, she would have missed out on some really great relationships with some truly fantastic people. If we only do things based on popular opinion, I doubt we’ll do a whole lot that is worthwhile, in the eternal sense. To put your last five dollars in the church offering plate when your bank account is empty and payday is three days off is a bit nutty, and it’s not necessarily something God always tells us to do, but if He does, we should listen. We have no way of knowing what that homeless man is going to do with the fifty dollar bill that we hand him-but God does. It then becomes a matter between that fellow and God. We have done what we believed God was prompting us to do.
God has not called everyone to do some Grand Big Thing. We aren’t all supposed to go be missionaries to Africa, or start a homeless shelter, or become evangelists. Those are indeed wonderful callings, worthy of notice. But God notices it all. To follow Him, to love and forgive others, to obey Him when He tells us to do something, no matter how odd it seems to others, is “radical” indeed. Every small act can be far-reaching. To use that old cliché, it really is like ripples in a pond. When people ask you why you are doing this-whatever “this” is-if your reason is because God said to, then tell them. You will get some raised eyebrows, some shakes of the head, some laughter and mocking at your foolishness. But you will also get, at least sometimes, “Really? Tell me more.” Those are the times that make it worthwhile.
Be radical. It will change the world.
“For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” –Philippians 1:21