Friday, April 30, 2010
I can't remember anything I enjoyed more as a child than fishing with Pap. Saturday afternoons, Pap would take a quick nap in his recliner while I sat on the floor at his feet and completed the tedious assignment of turning every single page in a ginormous Bible dictionary. Flip. Flip. Flip. Tick. Tick. Tick. Time. Crawled. Past. Sometimes, I thought I'd NEVER reach the back cover of that book. Finally, Smack!, I'd slap the book shut and return it to the shelf. "I'm done! Let's go fishing!"
Just down the hill from their white frame house was a small pond stocked with bass and bream. Grabbing cane poles and a bucket of worms, Pap and I headed down the road and through the gap to the pond. My favorite spot to fish was under a willow tree that hung out over the edge of the pond. Confident that record-breaking fish lurked in the dark shadows beneath the tree, I passed countless Saturdays sprawled on the bank beside Pap, listening to the hum of dragonflies and the gurgle of red-wing blackbirds. Sweet, sweet memories.
One summer, my family traveled to North Carolina for vacation. I don't remember much about that trip except The Fish. While in North Carolina, Dad took us to a trout farm - one of those places where you watch fat trout swimming lazily around stocked ponds, hoping they'll nibble at your golden kernel of corn. We had several kids in tow, so my siblings and I took turns fishing with the few poles available.
Pole-less, I plopped belly down on a broad, sun-warmed boulder that curved out into the pond and waited my turn to fish. I dangled my arms in the cool water, kicking my bare feet in the air behind me. Suddenly, the biggest fish I'd ever seen swam up just below the surface of the water, nibbling at stray pieces of corn that drifted in the shallow ripples along the edge of the pond. My heart skipped a beat. Would it be possible....? I froze. Sure enough, that monster fish swam right up between my outstretched hands. Giving a whoop, I clamped down and then flung him over my head!
I jumped up, screaming and flailing my arms. Mom and Dad came running, afraid I'd somehow injured myself. "I caught a fish! I caught a fish! I caught it with my bare hands!"
Dad took a picture of me holding the prize fish before we cleaned it for supper that night. I wanted documentation. I couldn't wait to tell Pap my Fish Story! He was going to have a hard time believing this one!
Before we returned home from North Carolina, however, Pap went to the hospital in Union City to have some tests run. He'd been having a lot of pain in his lower back and the doctor wanted to find out what was the problem. Turned out he had pancreatic cancer. Pap never came back home, and I never saw him again. Riding from the church to the cemetery the day of Pap's funeral, I looked out the car window and prayed, "Lord, please don't tell Pap my fish story. Please, wait and let me tell him when I get there."
It's been many, many years since my Pap died, and I wonder sometimes if he knows yet, knows my fish story. And, by the time I get there, my silly fish tale may not seem very significant in the glory of heaven. But maybe, just maybe, there will be fish stories, even in heaven.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
The battle around me has at times been a bloody gore-fest. The battle in my mind, even more gruesome. For a person who can't stomach a PG-13 action movie, where I know the carnage on the screen is fiction, real life threatens to absolutely overwhelm me. And if the intensity of the struggle on the field around me lets up for a moment, the battle in my mind escalates, grows into an exhausting cranial shout-down match between the old man and the new. Even as I read the command to stand, I feel my knees buckle.
This is where I find myself this morning, pleading for internal quiet, for rest, for peace. And this is what I read this morning: Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. "Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah. -Psalm 46:8-11
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Yesterday, with the help of a couple of fabulous teenagers, I began working on the kitchen. The refrigerator is sparkling now, and the floor beneath it has been swept and scrubbed. Plastic storage containers have been sorted and purged ...where do those odd lids and bowls disappear to? We've emptied and washed several of the lower cabinets and will hopefully finish cleaning cabinets and drawers today.
The yuckiest part of cleaning the kitchen each spring is definitely washing the tops of the upper cabinets. I don't clean up there every week or even every month. Out of sight, out of mind, right? That's a job we tackle only a couple of times a year. Over the winter months, a thin film of grease builds up and traps dust into a grimey sludge that is almost impossible to remove. Last year, I discovered a secret that makes this odious job a snap....
Skip the general-purpose household cleaners. Instead, mix up a solution of hot water and a small amount of laundry detergent such as Tide. (We use the powdered kind. I've never tried this with liquid laundry detergent, but would be interested in hearing from someone if that also works.) For a gallon bucket of water, we use a heaping tablespoon of detergent. This solution cuts through the greasy, sticky goo like magic. Wash, wipe with a clean damp cloth, and dry...what used to take half of one day is now the quickest part of spring cleaning in the kitchen.
There's lots more to do after the kitchen - I'd love to read your cleaning tips, Dear Readers!
Monday, April 26, 2010
My very proper, genteel Granddaddy married the electric and unorthodox Claytus after his retirement from the ministry. Their first Thanksgiving together as a married couple, Granddaddy and Claytus invited my mom and dad and us kids to join them and a few other guests for the traditional holiday feast.
The grownups gathered around the long, highly-polished table in the dining room. China, silver, crystal, linen napkins - everything sparkled and glistened. We kids sat at the kitchen table, decorated just for us with orange and red placemats and a funny pinecone turkey centerpiece.
Claytus's philosophy of food was: if it's not rich enough to potentially cause a heart attack, it's not worth eating. Potates smothered in sour cream, sweetened cream cheese squeezed between layers of sugary jello, rolls glistening with butter...every dish crowded on the table that day oozed fat and calories. She had outdone herself to impress her new family.
For dessert, Claytus offered pumpkin and pecan pies, fruit cake, and the traditional boiled custard. Following dinner, she served everyone their dessert of choice and supplied each of us with a small glass of custard. Buzzing about the kitchen, Claytus pulled a small flask of whiskey from the cupboard.She paused at our table, spoon in hand, flask poised. "Does anybody want flavoring in their custard?" Recognizing the "flavoring" as whiskey, we kids declined the offer. At our house, whiskey was medicine for sore throats and sinus congestion and sick calves - we knew it tasted nasty and none of us wanted an unnecessary dose.
As we youngsters eavesdropped from the kitchen, Claytus repeated her offer to the adults. My tee-totalling Granddaddy choked on a bite of fruitcake and began coughing violently. He struggled to regain composure. "Claytus! I don't think offering your 'flavoring' to our guests is appropriate!"
Claytus didn't miss a beat. "Charles, I've already offered flavoring to all the children. It would be rude not to offer some to the adults as well."
Granddaddy again erupted into coughing, while everyone else seated at the table struggled to suppress laughter. Poor Granddaddy! He had a lot to learn about his new wife!
Over their years together, Granddaddy did learn a lot, both about and from his new wife. Claytus added a generous dose of spice, danger, and adventure to his rather quiet, retiring way of life. She encouraged Granddaddy to learn to play billiards, although he always emphasized that it wasn't the same as playing pool, like the local ruffians did at disreputable establishments. No, billiards was a gentleman's game. She joined him on road trips to explore new and interesting destinations. She convinced him to become active in a social club for seniors, where he eventually dared to participate in a womanless beauty review, winning the title of First Maid.
When Claytus died, Granddaddy kind of slowly withered up and faded away. All the ooomph disappeared out of him. She had brought enough life and energy into their marriage for the both of them - and she took with her his will to press on in this world when she left. But she left the rest of us a treasure chest full of memories, family stories that bring smiles and laughter with every re-telling.
Friday, April 23, 2010
My Grandmother Stricklin kept a small pink perfume decanter on the dresser in her guest bedroom. I don't remember there ever being any perfume in the pretty glass bottle, but when I dusted my Grandmother's furniture every Saturday, I always paused to lift the stopper and sniff the hint of fragrance that lingered inside. That bottle had once contained an entire rose garden.
Many years after my Grandmother had died and all her things had been distributed among relatives, I received a tiny clear vial in the mail. My sister was working then for a cosmetics company, and the glass tube contained a single drop of perfume, a store sample for interested customers. I opened the tube and sniffed. My heart skipped a beat. I closed my eyes and breathed as deeply from that tiny tube as I possibly could. Instantly, I was back at my Grandmother's, standing in the guest bedroom, the one with the blue satin comforter, holding a pale pink decanter in my hand as I paused from my dusting. Inhaling the sweet, faint scent of roses, I could almost hear my Grandmother calling from the other room.
A very different smell from my childhood....bologna. My parents housed an assortment of lost souls over the years, and one of them was a young man named Johnny. While he was living with us, Johnny worked at the local meat packing plant. His job was slinging bologna. All day long, he took long, heavy socks of bologna and hung them on hooks mounted to a conveyor overhead. Every evening, Johnny came home exhausted from a long day of lifting bologna and collapsed into the rocking chair at one end of Mom's kitchen. I would climb into Johnny's lap, and he would rock me and chat with Mom while she cooked dinner. He smelled exactly like a giant sock of spicy bologna. Forty-something years later, the smell of bologna reminds me of the comfort of a warm embrace, a creaking rocker, and Mom busy in the kitchen.
Last week, I wrangled use of the car and made a trip to Jackson. Morning chores checked off, I climbed into the car and hit the road. Ummmm, this car sure smells good, I thought as I pulled out onto the highway, kind of like molasses. A couple of miles later it hit me. Sweet feed! I had picked up sweet feed for the horses at the Co-op the day before, then forgotten to tell the boys to unload it from the trunk. I turned the car around and headed back to the house to empty my cargo.
Back on the road, I drove through the Obion River bottoms. Farmers were making the most of the sunshine. Tractors as big as mountains pulled disks as wide as valleys, turning up acre after acre of rich dark soil. Windows down, I inhaled deeply, savoring the smell of freshly-turned earth. It smelled like spring. It smelled like home.
What about you, Dear Reader? Any favorite "smell" memories?
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Used to, when I heard references to "putting on the armor of God," I envisioned a rugged, muscular Roman soldier, arming himself before charging into battle against an enemy doomed to crumble before the ranks of Rome's mighty legions. Or William Wallace, painted blue and shrieking like a banshee as he ran toward the conflict - F-R-E-E-D-O-M!
Then something in the Ephesians 6:10-20 passage jumped out at me. Stand. Four times in this passage, we are told to stand. And then, finally, we are told to pray, to keep alert and pray.
Well, an armed soldier standing (and praying) presents an entirely different image from that of an armed soldier charging (and perhaps screaming!) So this passage is NOT telling us to charge the enemy? To storm the gates of hell? To throw everything we have into pursuing and destroying the forces of evil? No, Ephesians is telling us to stand. Brings to mind the situation in Exodus 14, where Israel is fleeing the pursuing Egytians.
Moses said to the people, "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent." - Exodus 14:13-14
Who's on the offensive in that passage? The enemies of the children of God. And who does the fighting, who defends? God himself. So what are God's children supposed to do during this melee? They are commanded to stand.
Another thing that struck me recently about the Ephesians passage is that the battle is not "out there" - you know, out there where Satan has his strongholds. Rather, the battle is "in here" - the battle is for my mind and my heart. It is a battle of schemes and authorities. My armor is constructed of things like truth and righteousness, peace and faith, Scripture and prayer.
It's almost as if God, fighting the battle for us, realizes that a lot of mess and a lot of dangerous debris are going to be flying around. He tells us to stand, to watch Him fight for us - and He arms us to protect us from the shrapnel of battle. There is a battle, a very real battle, and we are in the middle of the battlefield, a very dangerous place. But we are not allowed to flee. Instead, we are commanded to put on armor, stand, and watch the Lord's salvation.
One more thing about this battle. Have you ever noticed where this passage about the armor of God is placed in Scripture? It comes right after a series of exhortations on how we are to glorify God in our most intimate relationships - brothers and sisters in Christ, husbands and wives, children and parents, bosses and workers. Where will Satan's attacks come? The attacks will occur in our relationships at church, in our marriages, in our families, in relationships with people we work beside every day.
That's where life gets messiest, though, isn't it? At home, in our marriages and families. At church with other Christians. At work. That's where we are most tempted, when things get splattered with the blood and gore of battle, to run to another spouse or lover, another church, another job, anywhere that these crazy kids are not! And that, dear sisters and brothers, is exactly where we are called - commanded - to stand.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
BEST TOYS FOR CHILDREN
1. Blocks. Legos are good, because they snap together and allow for building more structurally-sound creations. My favorites, though, are the plain wooden blocks that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Blocks are fun for babies and toddlers, and also for teenagers and their parents. Ageless. Timeless.
2. Dress Up. Go for the classics - capes, shawls, hats, vests, scarves, Grandma's cast-off high heels, cheap costume jewelry, etc. Thrift stores and Goodwill are great places to shop if you're stocking a dress-up box. With a Disney "Cinderella" dress, a kid can only be one thing - a Disney Cinderella. With a box of scarves, she can be a princess, or a gypsy, or a ballet dancer, or a haute couture fashion designer. (One of the funny stories in our family is how little Emily used Indian pants to make "long hair" for her younger brother, then proceeded to "style" it with bows and ribbons. Amazing what you can do with a few basic items and a good imagination!)
3. Sand - or - Dirt. In a box. In the back yard. (You'll need a screen to cover the box with when it's not in use because neighborhood cats will rank this toy top on their list, too.) You don't have to spend money on manufactured sandbox toys - recycled yogurt cartons, ice cream buckets, laundry scoops, etc., work just fine.
4. Dolls. For the girls, baby dolls are best, but fashion dolls are fun, too. For the boys, the larger GI Joe dolls. You can go lay down a cool grand at American Girl Dolls/Pleasant Company and outfit Baby Me with furniture, toys, pets, and an enviable wardrobe - but DON'T DO IT. And don't waste your money on Barbie clothes - there's nothing available on store shelves for her to wear, anyway, that wasn't designed for a professional hooker. You don't have to buy GI Joe the battery-powered, high-tech, mobile command unit complete with radio-controlled vehicle, either. Instead, buy an assortment of fabric swatches, thread, needles, and trim. Even very young children enjoy creating new dresses and uniforms for their dolls. And my boys have spent countless hours sawing, hammering, drilling, sanding, and painting, building an impressive arsenal of tanks, jeeps, and artillery pieces for their GI Joe army.
5. Craft stuff. We really like Sculpey clay at our house, but Pla-dough is great for younger kids. Paint - watercolor, acryllic, fingerpaint, fabric paint, leftover exterior latex from painting the shed, black and green spray paint (great for camouflage schemes!). I would NOT recommend oil-based paints, at least not until you officially have a master artist in the house - cleanup is a monster. Crayons. Good quality colored pencils. Good quality drawing pens. Markers - fine tip, broad tip, washable, permanent, primary colors, flourescents....more is better. Glue, tape, staples, string. Boxes. Cloth, buttons, lace. PAPER. Granddaddy brings whole boxes of paper from Office Max when he comes to visit, and it's one of my kids' very favorite gifts ever.
6. Rope. Most hardware stores sell a 3/4 inch cotton rope (used for working with horses, I believe) that is absolutely fabulous for climbing because it is soft and doesn't burn your hands. We try to keep a length of rope hanging from one of the trees out back. The boys use it for climbing, to build upper-body strength; the girls will tie a board on the end of it for a temporary swing. Also, long lengths of smaller, nylon rope are fantastic. My kids have used rope to build tents, wilderness shelters, rafts, and swinging bridges. In fact, rope has frequently been a request at our house come Christmas or birthday time.
7. As Thomas puts it, JUNK. I'll admit that I'm prone to throw away anything that I don't see an immediate use for, but plain old JUNK makes a terrific "toy" and ranks at the top of the list at my house. The boys have recycled old lawnmower wheels, barn tin, and wood scraps for their GI Joe vehicles. The girls have used empty thread spools, plastic food cartons, and scraps of upholstery fabric to create furniture for their Barbie dolls. A long afternoon, a vivid imagination, a nice supply of "junk" - no telling what amazing things your kids will invent!
8. Last on today's list, but first in importance - Books. Lots of books. If I could only give my children one thing with which to entertain themselves, it would be books. But that is such a serious thing that I don't really consider it a "toy" - no, it is a necessity. Again, skip Disney books and the Junior Illustrated Classics. And the stupid books based on the latest inane kids' movies. Don't buy a picture book that isn't truly beautiful or delightfully whimsical - otherwise, what's the point? Read-a-loud books - the old fairy tales (one illustrated by Anastasia Archipowa is our favorite), A. A. Milne (the real Pooh Bear), E. B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books, C.S. Lewis...so many delicious stories! First "chapter books" for kids - we really liked Frog and Toad, Little Bear, Henry and Mudge, Nate the Great. I could go on for pages about books.....
In conclusion, don't purchase any toy that limits itself to one type of play. My girls received a Fairy Kingdom Playset one year as a gift. Really cute, I thought - colorful plastic flowers, which were houses for tiny little winged fairies. But that's all that it could ever be - a fairy playset. After a few weeks, it disappeared into the girls' closet and hasn't been seen since. But the plain old baby dolls, Shea and Alice? They have had tea parties, wardrobe sessions, been hiking around the farm in backpacks, performed ballets, held church services, completed math lessons for school, written stories, sung operas, planted geraniums, and shared cookies out on the porch swing. Don't choose toys based on the glam marketing of companies riding the latest fad wave. Give your children the limitless possibilities that spring from the fertile and creative imagination that is already theirs.
What's on your list of favorite toys?
Monday, April 19, 2010
I froze, plastic cartons in hand. A wave of panic crashed over me. In the lower back corner of the refrigerator, tucked out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind, sat my jar of sourdough starter. Oh, no! I moaned. I pulled the jar out and swished the contents gently, looking anxiously for signs of life. How long has it been since I fed the starter?! Forgetting the grocery list, I shifted into EMT mode.
Sourdough starter is a living organism - or rather, a colony of living organisms. Even though they live most of their lives in the refrigerator, they DO need to be fed. They can't get out and hunt for nutrients on their own.
The little buggers eat a sweet slurry of sugar, dehydrated potato flakes, and warm water. I feed them whenever I make bread. However, I don't make sourdough bread every week - if I did, I would weigh 300 pounds. I have to remind myself, the weeks that I'm not baking, to pull the jar out and feed the culture.
What would happen if I forgot to feed the starter? Well, it would die. You may think, so what? - it's just a bunch of little microscopic organisms, right? No big deal. WRONG.
Sourdough starter is not something you can pick up at the local FoodRite. Creating a living culture from scratch is virtually impossible. In these modern times, finding someone who has a living culture they can share is also extremely difficult. And no starter means no sourdough bread. Definitely a major bummer.
But far worse, if I kill my sourdough starter, I lose a piece of Donna. That recycled plastic peanutbutter jar sitting on the bottom shelf looks like it's filled with cloudy goop. Actually, it's full of Donna. It's the little bit of Donna that I keep in the refrigerator.
You see, Donna gave me the starter almost ten years ago. A true sister, she sacrificially halved her own ration and shared with me. Donna and I lived much closer together back then, and visited almost weekly. Now, ten years later, we are separated by many miles. Visits are rare, separated by many, many months. Maybe because of the separation, baking bread has become for me a celebration of Donna.
I mix the batter and knead the bread, conscious of Donna's influence in my life. Her hospitality and generosity, which challenged me to "go and do likewise." Her sweet smile and sharp humor. Her down-to-earth, common sense approach to life. I cannot sit with Donna at her kitchen table this week...but I smell her bread baking in the oven and I smile. In spite of the miles, we will be breaking bread together.
Friday, April 16, 2010
Granddaddy was raised by a very Victorian mother. During the Victorian period. (His father died of appendicitis when Granddady was a young boy.) Great-grandmother West was the sort that referred to table legs as table limbs, to avoid vulgar speech. One didn't play cards or games which required the use of dice. One didn't indulge in any type of rowdy, noisy play. Young children should spend their Sunday afternoons studying the catechism. Great-grandmother's influence evidenced itself in Granddaddy's sense of propriety and his personal manners. Granddaddy's views of right behavior were much more relaxed than his mother's, but he was still a long way from anything like easy-going.
Granddaddy West was a very proper, dignified gentleman. I don't remember once hearing him raise his voice (except when cheering a Georgia Bulldogs game). He always appeared in public well dressed and meticulously groomed. He would nearly trample a woman in order to reach the door ahead of her, where he would hold the door open and allow her to enter first, nodding and bowing slightly as she passed. He did not swear or drink or smoke or indulge in any other disreputable activities. My memories of Granddaddy are of a gentle, polite, upright Presbyterian minister.
Then, he met Claytus. After the death of his second wife, Granddaddy retired from the ministry and relocated to a small town in rural northwest Tennessee. There he met a completely new kind of woman. Josh Turner has a hit country song out now, with a line stating "My baby, she's a real firecracker!" Well, Claytus must've been the original Firecracker. She turned Granddaddy's life into a wild ride, introducing him to an entirely new system of protocol.
I first met Claytus shortly after she and Granddaddy married. He drove up to the family farm one Sunday morning to introduce his new bride to the broader family circle. Mom always cooked a big Sunday dinner and invited friends and neighbors over to share the meal. This particular Sunday was like every other - a house full of guests, lots of good food, a leisurely afternoon visiting in the crowded living room.
Of course, everyone was eager to know Claytus better - who was this vivacious, animated woman who had captured Granddaddy's affections? Claytus radiated life and energy, even as she sat primly beside Granddaddy on the camel-back sofa. At close to 80 years old, she defiantly sported coal-black hair and ruby red lips. When someone asked if the two enjoyed their honeymoon trip to North Carolina, Claytus charged headlong into a lively recollection of the excursion.
She told of how she wanted a pine tree to bring back from North Carolina, as a momento of their honeymoon. She had Granddaddy stop the car on the shoulder of the highway. Granting his lady's request, Granddaddy clambered across the right-of-way and into a nearby thicket of pines. Moments later, he returned victorious, bearing a knee-high sapling.
Back home in Trenton, Claytus planted the young evergreen in the back yard, where she could see it from the kitchen window. "One day this week, I was washing dishes and looking out the window at my precious pine tree. A little rabbit hopped across the yard and up to my tree. I thought that was so purty," Claytus cooed to the crowd of listeners. She paused, then concluded her story. "The next time I looked out the window, the rabbit was gone...and so was my pine tree! That bast*** ate my pine tree!"
Recognizing this gross violation of family protocol, everyone in the room froze. Granddaddy flushed red to the top of his bald head, then fell into a spasm of loud coughing. Cutting their visit short, Granddaddy insisted that he and Claytus really did have to be going, that they hated leaving such good company but that they needed to start the drive home.
Mom and Dad and a cloud of kids walked the new couple to their car, laughing inwardly at the antics of this fascinating treasure Granddaddy had found. Granddaddy couldn't get away fast enough. Claytus, on the other hand, seemed content to linger as long as possible.
The next time they came to the farm, Claytus apologized to the family. "Charles thinks I might've said something during our last visit that offended you good people. If I did, I surely didn't mean to upset anyone." In truth, the only person Claytus had upset was Granddaddy. For the rest of us, it was too late for an apology - we were already in love.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
I, too, am a mediocre pianist - I play just well enough to be dangerous, not well enough for my "talent" to be any real blessing to others. In fact, I strongly dislike playing when others are listening. But the lessons my Mom drug me to week after week when I was a child have paid enormous dividends.
I explained to my friend, "There have been times in my life when I was so discouraged or so broken that I simply did not have the strength or the heart to pray. But playing the piano (even badly!) has pulled me through hopelessly dark seasons."
When I cannot even begin to pray, I play the piano. I play hymns. I read the words, which become silent prayers squeezed from the depths of a weary, broken heart. The words of these hymns remind me of the truths of Scripture - that God loves me, that He is sovereign over everything in my life, that even difficult places are ordained for my good and His glory. Consider these excerpts from a few of my favorite hymns:
Come, my soul, thy suit prepare: Jesus loves to answer prayer; he himself has bid thee pray, therefore will not say thee nay....Lord, I come to thee for rest, take possession of my breast; there thy blood-bought right maintain, and without a rival reign....Show me what I have to do, ev'ry hour my strength renew: let me live a life of faith... - Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare (John Newton)
Whate'er my God ordains is right: his holy will abideth; I will be still whate'er he doth, and follow where he guideth. He is my God; though dark my road, he holds me that I shall not fall: wherefore to him I leave it all....Whate'er my God ordains is right: though now this cup, in drinking, may bitter seem to my faint heart, I take it, all unshrinking....Whate'er my God ordains is right: here shall my stand be taken; though sorrow, need, or death be mine, yet am I not forsaken. My Father's care is round me there; he holds me that I shall not fall: and so to him I leave it all. - Whate'er My God Ordains Is Right (Samuel Rodigast)
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding ev'ry hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flow'r. - God Moves in a Mysterious Way (William Cowper)
My oldest son explained to me recently the music "philosophy" of the campus ministry he attends. They do not sing contemporary praise songs or repetitive worship choruses. As Reuben put it, "A person who is truly struggling or even mildly depressed couldn't sing those songs. They are so clap-happy that you really have to be in a party mood to participate in singing them." Instead, this ministry has taken the rich, old hymns and set them to more contemporary music. This provides for a greater breadth of expression and emotion - everything from exuberant praise to gut-wrenching grief to crippling guilt. What this ministry may not realize is that by singing the old hymns (in a new way!), they are giving these college students a resource they will draw on their entire lives.
Steve has commented before that he can tell when I'm feeling especially discouraged or depressed....he finds me often at the piano. It's the place I pray when praying is impossible. Where I can wordlessly praise my Savior as an act of defiance against an enemy who presses me to denounce the beauty and sufficiency of Christ. Where the old hymnwriters, seasoned in this journey, walk with me through shadowed valleys and back to the light of the cross.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Decorate! Decorating the table makes dinner more festive. This doesn't have to be elaborate or complicated, but can be as simple as lighting a few candles or setting out some seasonal ornaments. Better yet, let your kids choose a centerpiece - a toy train, flowers picked from the yard, brightly colored fall leaves collected during an afternoon walk, an assortment of interesting rocks or pinecones. If you have several children, they can take turns picking the centerpiece each evening - you'll be amazed at the creative ideas they come up with!
When I was a little girl, there was one very special seat at the table - the seat between Mom and Dad. I remember racing my younger sister for the coveted chair when the call came for dinner. If there is a particularly desirable seat at your family table, why not let it be an occasion for honoring each child in turn throughout the week?
Instead of a special seat, your family could have a special plate. This plate is used by a different family member each night, as a token of the family's gratitude for each individual. We didn't have an "official" special plate when my kids were little, but we had a funny variation on this idea. One of our dinner plates had a chip missing from its edge. Nothing big or very noticeable. The tradition somehow got started at our house of it being a really big deal to get the chipped plate. Once everyone was seated, an excited voice would invariably pipe, "Hey! I got the chipped plate!" I guess it was special because it was different!
Also, make dinnertime....dinner time. Don't eat and run, but develop a habit of lingering at the table for conversation. No one needs to leave the table until everyone is finished eating - remember, this is a family ritual, not just a short-lived gathering of individuals. When our kids were young, we found that word games made dinnertime a fun occasion they didn't race to finish. Here are a few games we enjoyed...
"Something you would find on/in a ...." - Steve usually started this one off. He would name an item/theme, and then we go around the table naming something that went with it. It was fun to see how long we could keep coming up with new words before we had to start over with a fresh theme. For example, Steve might say "What is something you would find on a ship?" The rest of us would answer - anchor, rope, mast, sail, etc.
"Something bigger than/smaller than..." Again, Steve usually started this game: "Name something smaller than a cow." Each successive answer had to be smaller than the item named before. This game grows quite challenging, very quickly.
Rhyming games - How long can we keep going around the table naming new words that rhyme with a particular starting word?
One of our favorite rhyming games also incorporated simple riddles. We call these stink-pinks. Think up a riddle, the answer to which is a pair of rhyming words. Then, everyone takes turns guessing until someone gets the right answer. What does a spider use to drink coffee? A bug mug. What do you wear to a campout? Bonfire attire. What do you call a laughing goat? A silly Billy. (That's a stinky-pinky.) What do you call a frozen two-wheeler? A bicycle icicle. (That's a stinkety-pinkety.) Kids pick up on these pretty fast and have a lot of fun creating their own riddles and rhymes!
Family jokes - What a great mealtime tradition. We had a family collection of totally ridiculous cow jokes. I think the goal with the cow jokes was to outdo one another with absurdity. My kids have all outgrown the cow jokes, but simply asking "What do you call a cow who crosses the road?" still elicits a chuckle and a smile. Fun memories!
Investing the time and energy to develop a habit of eating dinner together and conversing as a family produces incredible rewards. A couple of my children are adults now. Several more are right on the brink of adulthood. I can't think of anything more enjoyable than sitting down to a meal together with these wonderful people. Cow jokes and stink-pinks have given way to discussions about faith, current events, college classes, this week's top ten country music singles, and the fur market in China. Something tells me we're just beginning to get warmed up...for eternity!
Monday, April 12, 2010
Mrs. Vaughan was an extraordinary teacher. She truly was one of those people who made all the difference in the world in the lives of her students.
Coming from a rural community and familiar with only a very small circle of people, I was an extremely shy first grade student. Extremely shy. I am shy by nature - still shy at 46 years - but my shyness became particularly acute when I first plunged into the sea of humanity called public school.
I loved school - I was smart, eager to please, and enjoyed the work. But I was petrified by the overwhelming number of people. I would sit mute in class, not talking to or looking at anyone, barely able to answer my teacher with the quietest whisper when called upon. No doubt I wore that "deer in the headlights" expression for the first several weeks of class!
A few weeks into fall classes, each parent had to schedule an appointment for a one-on-one conference with his child's teacher. My Mom drove the twelve miles from home to Central Elementary and met with Mrs. Vaughan. During that conference, Mrs. Vaughan explained that, as a professional educator, she had some concerns about my mental condition. She suggested I undergo testing to determine if I might be slightly mentally retarded. (I'm sure there's a euphemism for retardation these days, but remember, this was 40 years ago when folks were much more matter-of-fact.)
Mom was stunned. "I know Camille is not retarded," Mom protested. "She is a very bright little girl!"
Mrs. Vaughan listened attentively to Mom's defense of my mental abilities. Mom felt sure that the "symptoms" Mrs. Vaughan described were a consequence of my extreme shyness, and she explained that I probably felt a bit overwhelmed by the culture of first grade. Mrs. Vaughan spent the rest of the conference working with my mom to develop a plan of action for my educational future.
I think I became Mrs. Vaughan's #1 project over the next several weeks. She slowly, carefully, ever-so-gently drew me out of my shell and helped me engage more and more as a student. Mrs. Vaughan communicated somehow that I was precious to her and she made me feel safe in a strange environment. She transformed first grade from a trauma to an adventure.
I completed first grade with flying colors and eventually went on to graduate highschool at the top of my class. An academic scholarship paid for my education after highschool. And now, I teach children myself. Amazing!
Can you imagine how very different my life would be if not for this one teacher who respected my mom's input, then took the initiative and sacrificed her time to know me, to understand me, and to help me grow? I could have been pigeon-holed as unteachable, anti-social, incompetent, locked into a category and set on a lifelong track of frustration. It scares me to think what my life might look like now had it not been for Mrs. Maggie Vaughan.
Funny thing is, Mrs. Vaughan probably doesn't even remember Camille Stricklin or her peculiar situation. How many hundreds of students passed through her classroom over the years, each of them with unique needs and personalities? Still, forty years later, this former first-grader gets a lump in her throat when she thinks about Mrs. Maggie Vaughan. Thank you, Mrs. Vaughan, for making all the difference in the world in my life.
Do you have a similar story - of a teacher who radically impacted your life for good? Someone who made all the difference in the world to you?
Friday, April 9, 2010
When I pressed my case with Mom, her response surprised me. "Using ugly words severely limits your vocabulary." Well, according to my way of thinking, the freedom to use ugly words would instantly increase my vocabulary, quite significantly. Mom didn't buy my argument. "You may not use ugly words. Period."
Guess what I've learned over the 30 or so years since that conversation with Mom - She was RIGHT. Having lived many years out in the big wide world, out from under the watchful eye of Mom, I've been exposed to all variety of ugly words. East Coast. West Coast. Back woods and hollow. And I've noticed that people who do use swear words....use them a LOT. Often to the exclusion of alternative, more appropriate words. Descriptive adjectives? Powerful verbs? Precise nouns? Missing!
I was sitting at the vet's office last week with my girls, waiting to take the cat back for her check-up and shots. A friendly man with a black lab chatted with us from across the room. His cell phone rang. "Yep? Oh, I'm just sitting here in this *#$%+ waiting room, waiting to take the *#$%+ dog in to see the vet. What the *#$%+ are you up to?...." This fellow was very pleasant and amiable. He wasn't upset or angry. Why was he using such foul language? (And, just what makes a waiting room a *#$%+ waiting room? The room looked fine to me.)
It seems that most people who swear have vocabularies of about twenty words that they use over and over. And over. And over. They have arrested vocabularies. They are almost incapable of communicating with any significant degree of clarity or precision. They have handicapped their own ability to verbalize ideas and emotions. Happy? They swear. Furious? They use they very same swear words. Awed? Yep, same old words.
Now that I'm beyond the enlightened maturity of my teenage years, I understand and appreciate my mother's hard stance on swearing. Thanks, Mom! What about you, Dear Reader? What kind of "ridiculous" rules did your parents have that you grew to appreciate later in life?
(Too bad Vice-president Biden didn't have a mom like mine - maybe if he had, he could've told us more accurately, and with less ensuing embarrassment, what he thought about the recent passage of President Obama's healthcare bill!)
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Then, at age 6, it was time for me to go to school. (This was before the days of kindergarten and preschool, when parents and teachers and school systems and life were much more sane.) To put it mildly, first grade was a tremendous adjustment. In a single day, the boundaries of my comfortable world expanded exponentially. The playground at recess might as well have been New York City - I don't think I had ever seen so many people gathered in one place before, and they were almost all first-graders! Same-age peers, classrooms filled with soldiered rows of desks, teeter-totters and stomach-churning merry-go-rounds, lunchrooms, long hallways paved with glistening linoleum....so many new things to see and process.
Like most children back in those days, I was raised to respect adults, to mind my manners, to obey authority. My teacher, Mrs. Maggie Vaughan, stood god-like at the front of our classroom every day. She loved her students and we loved her. Her smile of approval was a rich reward for hard labor at math facts and spelling lists, and a frown or stern word from her felt like purgatory. I was an awed student, very eager to please, and worked diligently to always stand in the sunshine of Mrs. Vaughan's smile. But then, there was the toe...
Growing up on a little farm in rural Obion County, I had not been exposed to many people of different races - everyone in my family was pretty much white or pink or tan. (Of course, this is all different now. As I sit here typing, a Chinese boy and a black boy are ripping through the house around me with a bevy of pink and cream kids, carrying out some elaborate GI Joe campaign.) Anyway, being suddenly among so many brown and black children at school, I was fascinated by the amazing variety of people.
Everyday after lunch in the cafeteria, my firstgrade class filed back to our room for rest time. Each student had a small foam pad, which we laid on the floor between our desks. Then, we all pulled off our shoes, plopped down, and either napped or didn't - we just had to be quiet for 30 minutes, I think to give Mrs. Vaughan a mid-day break from the stress of being mother to so many children. The rules were simple: Stay on your mat. No talking, whispering, or giggling. If you broke the rules, Mrs. Vaughan would write your name on the chalkboard, and you would have to miss recess.
One warm day in late spring, we were all flopped in the floor, twiddling our hair or picking our noses or whatever it was we did for the interminable 30 minutes.
I turned my head and looked between the silver metal legs of the desk beside me. It was Ike. Ike was one of those incredibly fascinating brown people - dark skin and black curly hair, a smile full of tiny teeth that flashed like lightning.
"Hey! Look at my toe!" he whispered. Ike had discovered a hole in one of his socks and managed to wiggle his big toe through the opening. I stared at his wiggling, chocolate toe in amazement - it was absolutely beautiful. I twiddled my hair, stared silently at his toe, and wished I had a hole in my sock so that we could compare digits. Then Ike affected a deep, grown-up voice, "Look at my big, black toe!"
I smiled and giggled, then snorted to suppress more giggles. That beautiful toe triggered a fountain of uncontrollable mirth.
That was the only time I got my name written on the chalkboard in Mrs. Vaughan's first-grade class. And missing recess wasn't so bad after all - it turned out to be some special one-on-one time with my favorite teacher in the world. Now, 40 years later, I still think the consequences were a small price to pay for the wonder of seeing that wonderful, beautiful toe.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
During worship, Brother Billy read Exodus 24:11, where Moses, Aaron, and others "...beheld God, and ate and drank." The heading in my Bible for this particular passage is The Covenant Confirmed, and a footnote for the above-mentioned verse comments that similar meals were a common way of concluding or celebrating a covenant. Our New Testament reading Sunday morning was from John 21, where Jesus called His disciples in from fishing and served them breakfast on the beach. Again, we have God eating with His people.
I mention the Sunday School lesson and the verses in Exodus and John to point out that eating together seems to be something valued by God and important to the life of His people. As is so often the case, the "school" where we learn and practice this reality is the home. Are we as parents teaching our children the value of shared fellowship over a meal at the family table? Or is "dinner" a 10-minute pit-stop while we catch up on the local news or latest sports scores? Is it a come-and-go, throw-it-in-the-microwave affair, squeezed somewhere between ball practice and homework? A stop at the fast-food drive-thru so folks can "refuel" enroute to the next commitment?
Making dinner time a priority, and adjusting our schedules accordingly, is an important part of family life. This shared meal is a daily, ongoing celebration of God's covenant with and provision for His people. Often, everything "out there" threatens to commandeer the family and to define our family culture. Parents, we must resist the pressure to conform our families to the world and the world's demands, and we must teach our children to resist, also.
When children are very young, maintaining a regular dinner time isn't too difficult, since their world pretty much revolves around Mom and Dad. But, this is something we should strive for even as our kids grow into teenagers. Older kids may complain a little when they have to adjust their schedules or plans to accomodate the family, but learning to budget activities and respond to invitations with " I'll meet you after dinner" will become a more comfortable habit with practice.
Same goes for us parents. Saying "no" to activities that encroach upon family dinner time may initially seem like a sacrifice or a hassle, but shared fellowship around the table has much greater value than the distractions which entice us away from the ritual family meal. We need to protect and defend this time with our families.
Family mealtime doesn't have to be a big deal - maybe tonight it's just pancakes or chili and grilled-cheese - but it should be regular, consistent, a normal part of the family routine. Something assumed. Not sitting down together for dinner should be the exception rather than the norm. Think of family mealtime as practice for eternity. Christ Himself is preparing a family dinner for us in Glory - dinner with the family begins this evening; for Christians, it will go on forever!
Monday, April 5, 2010
Actually, at our house, we don't exactly have Spring Break - skipping Spring Break is one of the benefits (or drawbacks) of homeschooling. We press on through the textbooks, finishing our schoolwork almost an entire month before our neighbors. Then, school is OUT for a nice l-o-n-g summer break! But with longer days and increased sunlight, every afternoon seems like a mini-holiday anyway.
So why am I writing about Spring Break? Because of a friend of mine. I have a young friend who attends a local highschool. Last week, he put in some very full, hard days of studying as he slogged through mid-term exams in each of his classes. Even when class let out in the afternoons, he still had work to do - he is on one of the school's sports teams, plays in the band, and sings in choir. This kid works more hours a day than many adults I know, often "burning the midnight oil" even into the wee hours of the morning. I don't think I could physically endure the demands which are a normal part of this teenager's routine.
But, thankfully, this week is Spring Break. Which means he can finally catch up on some sleep, get reacquainted with his parents and siblings, and decompress from the insane schedule and pressures of school. Right? Wrong.
This week, the choir is "on tour" - an out-of-state road trip (gotta be fun, right?) with several performances scheduled at stops going and coming. When he told me about the choir trip, I thought, Do school and extracurricular activities not command enough of your time already? Do organizations and activities have to dictate every moment of your teenage years? Even holidays aren't holidays anymore! I wonder what kind of toll the long days and frantic schedule are taking on him physically. He's going to be an old man before he enters college!
But another question concerns me even more. This student devotes nine to twelve hours a day to school and school-related activities. And then there's the nightly homework. And the weekend sports events. Music rehearsals and concerts. School dances. Fundraisers. And occasionally, outtings to see a movie with classmates. When - WHEN - is this teenager with his family?
I'm not just talking a quick five minutes over PopTarts in the morning, or a shared burger between afternoon classes and band practice. When does he have meaningful conversations with his parents? When does he cultivate his relationships with his siblings? What is he learning about "normal" family life from the insane lifestyle he is currently leading? Is it possible that he is so busy "living" that he doesn't have time to practice being human?
I guess I'm writing this as a challenge to any parents who may be reading. There are so many good things our children can be a part of - soccer, piano lessons, youth group, cheer team, community softball, scouting, drama,... The list truly seems endless. I understand the pressure young people and their parents feel to take advantage of a multitude of opportunities, to build impressive resumes for college applications. But I assert that the best thing our children can participate in is family.
If all these other activites hinder or prevent the development of meaningful family relationships, they are a curse, not a blessing. As parents, we influence how our children invest their time. Let's see to it they invest their time in things of eternal significance, including the people God has given them at home.
If you are a parent, what strategies do you have for safeguarding your child's time? What suggestions can you offer other parents facing a similar struggle?
Friday, April 2, 2010
Scripture teaches the absolute sovereignty of God. Yes, we do face very real hardships in this life, but none of them come to us outside the purpose and plan of God. Scripture also teaches that God loves His children, and that He disciplines those He loves. But discipline, despite similar outward appearances at times, is not punishment.
"Punishment" refers to suffering or loss that serves as retribution. It's a form of compensation or payment for having violated a rule. It's a fine and a blot on your driving record for speeding. It's a penalty for paying your taxes late. It's hammering rocks on the chain gang for jacking up the Piggly Wiggly. It's death by hanging for rustling horses.
"Discipline," on the other hand, refers to training. It is instruction that corrects error, training that works to mold and perfect. It's white-knuckled driving practice for the 15-year-old. It's a ten-mile hike with full packs for recruits. Intense weight-lifting for a linebacker. Late night, in-depth literary analysis for the college English major.
Both punishment and discipline can be extremely difficult. Both can weary your body and your soul and sometimes seem absolutely too much to bear. But they proceed from very different motives, and aim for very different ends.
No, Christian brother, God is NOT punishing you - God punished Christ in your place. All the penalties for your sin, your gross violations of the law, have been paid in full, once and for all. Retribution has been made, completely.
But, God IS disciplining you. He is molding you to perfection. Sometimes, that discipline is uncomfortable, even painful, but it is always for your good. And God ALWAYS administers it in love.
At church Sunday evening, Justin Westmoreland preached on repentance. Repentance, he explained, is the method by which sinners are reformed. Repentance is seeing the righteousness of Christ - and knowing our own sin. It is desiring forgiveness and dealing with God accordingly. Repentance is personal and relational, and it alters our thoughts, our habits, our behaviors. Near the end of his sermon, Justin stated "calamities and disasters in our lives are designed to bring us to repentance and to conform us to Christ. They are NOT a punishment for our sin."
Jon Acuff had a powerful post recently on the difference between the two words caught and found. Under the gaze of God, the unredeemed person is caught in his sin - he is guilty, and payment must be made. The child of God, however, is not caught, but found - like the prodigal son, or the lost sheep. Found, and lovingly led through repentance back into his Father's arms.
Satan, the father of lies, accuses the children of God - "You are caught. You are guilty. You must be punished." Our Father, on the other hand, assures us - "You are found. You are forgiven. I'm leading you home."
Jon Acuff writes, "You are found, not caught. We've got a God who loves to find us....You are found. You are found. You are found." Amen, Jon.