Monday, April 23, 2018

The Lord's Potluck


As a child I didn’t realize that The Lord’s Supper and Church Potluck Supper were different things. Maybe it’s because Baptists didn’t use lofty language like “the sacrament of communion” or maybe as a 5-year-old I was more interested in snacks than theology. And c’mon, they both have the word “supper” in there. Fortunately, my observant mother corrected my misconception and restored me to the proper path of salvation.  It was an understandable mistake, though. Being from a long line of church ladies who made my soul soar with their fried chicken and banana pudding, I knew that no matter where we were eating, I was not to take even a tiny bite before somebody asked the blessing. Thus it was that the sharing of food was forever linked to gratitude to the God for the hands that prepared it.

My favorite recipes are the ones handwritten by the women I love most. They are stained with Crisco, Eagle Brand Milk, and Cream of Everything soup. There is a collective food consciousness among women my age consisting of weird recipes that used Coca Cola as a cake ingredient and held grated carrots together with Jell-O, but then, every all-star cook, even MawMaw, is going to strike out sometimes. The important message was that breaking bread together was a way to express love and faith and joy and all the things that matter.  Maybe my 5-year-old self wasn’t too far off after all.

If I had to pick one recipe as the most memorable, it would be the roast beef made by my mother-in-law, Hazel Case. I promise that the instructions below are straight from the great woman herself.

Get up early on Sunday morning and begin by dredging a roast in flour, salt, and pepper. Heat a small amount of oil and brown the meat in a skillit. Place the roast in a large covered cast iron pan and put in the oven at 325 degrees.  Go get ready for church. Add peeled potatoes, carrots, and an onion to the roast and return it to the oven. Go to Sunday School, then stay for preaching. The roast will be perfect by the time you get home.”

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Rewriting the Obituary

Sometimes I forward obituaries to my daughters with a note that says something like, "here's a good one" which means "which ever one of you writes mine, put some thought into it." I have an aunt who has chosen her photos for the funeral home celebration of life PowerPoint slide show because she doesn't trust the ones who remain to select the most flattering ones. This is something like that. I once suggested that instead of gifts for Christmas, we write obituaries for each other, because truthfully, I wanted to proof mine. My proposal was soundly defeated, and I remain at the mercy of those who I must trust to be clever, witty, and able to present my quirks in a pleasing light.

Perhaps because of my written tribute to a life-well-lived fixation, I was asked to write the obituaries for the two most momentous passings of my life -- my mother and my mother-in-law. In both instances, I had one day to complete it, and it was a sad, sad day of mourning, too. That's my excuse making one huge error in both of them. I have been rewriting their obituaries in my mind for years now. Maybe if I write them down here, the lapse will stop taunting me. It's like my wedding gift thank you note list that contains about 872 gifts and 871 thank you note records. Someone mailed me a warming tray as a gift but no name was included in the package. Obviously, this was before online shopping records, so I called everyone I knew but could never find the giver so that I could thank her. Thirty-five years later I still cringe that I never fully completed the thank you note imperative that every Southern girl is taught is one of the premier measures of refinement.

So here goes....

In Mom's obituary, I said, "Her favorite vacations were with family no matter what the location."

That's not true. She liked family vacations, but they were nowhere near her favorite. The trips she loved were the ones that she took with her church friends. Even worse, I forgot to mention her church membership at all. So here's the replacement.

"She loved to travel with her First Baptist friends from Jacksonville and Pleasant Grove."

For my Mother-in-law, I omitted a child in the family list. She was widowed with five children when she married James Case who had a daughter.  Together they had one child. So that's seven. I omitted the step-daughter altogether and I feel awful about it. She and Mrs. Case had a loving relationship, and also shared a due date. That's right. James Case had a child and a grandchild due on the same day. The grandchild was born first, so James and Hazel's child was born an uncle. Ok, here's the replacement.

"Hazel Case was preceded in death by (parents, first husband, second husband) and stepdaughter, Gail Case Warren."

I feel a little better about this now, and if I could just figure out who to thank for that warming tray, I could move on with my life.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Sunday Shoes

Pastors Dale and Kelly Clem survived a 1994 tornado. Rev. Kelly Clem was leading the Palm Sunday service when the storm hit Goshen Methodist Church and claimed their 4 year old daughter, Hannah as one of its victims. Somehow, they had to grieve every parent's worst nightmare, cling to their other daughter, 2 year old Sarah, and be the supporting light for their church. I will never forget Kelly's swollen black eye as she spoke a message of hope for the TV coverage and then led a sunrise Easter service a week later. It might be the strongest display of faith and courage that I have ever seen, and the fact that my two daughters were the same age as theirs at the time has kept that tragedy ever present in my heart.

So, it's not surprising that 20+ years later it was the Clems who were asked for advice as Jacksonville recovers from our own tornado disaster. In an Anniston Star interview, Rev. Dale Clem spoke frankly about his sorrow and healing, and he gave a wise and thoughtful response for the article. One thing stood out for me, though. He said,

"At Goshen, one of the surprising things to which many became emotionally attached were the shoes which were left behind by the 140 people in the church. Several garbage bags full of shoes were pulled from the debris or around the church. No one wanted to throw them away, but also it took a long time for them to be claimed. It sounds silly but it was hard."

He mentioned a similar phenomena at a New York church where first responders took off their shoes, changed clothes, and went into the Twin Towers on 9/11 then never returned. Part of that church and community's healing was to walk an outdoor prayer labyrinth one evening with the shoes and candles placed along the path. Somehow it gave the mourners an opening for their grief so that healing tears could come.

Here's a more personal example.....

When my daughter Catherine was almost 2 and Elizabeth's scheduled appearance was less than a month away, my mother had to have surgery that was potentially life threatening. Before she left home, she handed me a package and told me it was a gift for Catherine's 2nd birthday in case she wasn't able to be there. When I saw that it was a pair of tiny red leather, ankle strap shoes, all my "put a positive face on it" collapsed and the pent up anxiety over the thought of losing my mother gushed out. Fortunately, Mom had decades of life beyond that surgery. I still have those shoes.

And one more....

I grew up in Birmingham along with the Civil Rights movement. It shaped me for better or worse. It's a long story, but a quote that sums up a lot of it is from Texas columnist Molly Ivins,

"I believe all Southern liberals come from the same starting point -- race. Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything."

"Lying" is a pretty strong word, but whatever the motive, I was taught some things that I came to realize later were born of fear and not fact. So, what does this have to do with shoes? Well, it took me a long, long time to get to the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham because I already knew the story and didn't really want to relive it. When I finally got there, I went alone and walked through it acknowledging the "separate but equal" housing and school exhibits and all the other artifacts. I was sad, but composed until I got here.


Look at that display case at the bottom right. It contains the Sunday shoes of the little girls who died in the 16th Street Church bombing. One of them was wearing "heels" for the first time. Suddenly I was every mother who had ever laced Sunday shoes on little girls before heading off to a safe time of worship at church. The other museum visitors politely gave me space to sob for what seemed like a long time. I have no idea why after all the evidence I'd seen that it was the shoes that said it was ok to weep over hatred that created unthinkable sorrow.

 As with many odd things, I thought it was just me, but Dale Clem uncovered a host of people who feel the same way.  I'm probably overlooking some obvious insight into how and why the humble shoe has the ability to release pain and start the healing process. Maybe it has something to do with the Holy Ground that we're all standing on in our Sunday shoes, and sassy sandals, and gotta-be-the-shoes sport version, and kinky boots, and mules, and flip flops, and Doc Marten's, and stilettos, and wingtips, and....

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Writing in Someone Else's Language

I often roll my eyes at the grammar structure of my department head's memos. English is not her first language, and my snobbery conveniently ignores the fact of my own mono-lingual status. Holy Solitude, my study for Lent, describes the biblical book of Revelation written by John of Patmos as being written in "clumsy, almost illiterate Greek" that was clearly not his first language. Maybe his choice was an attempt to reach out of his banishment to the largest possible audience for his anger and despair. Apparently it was not because he had a gift for the craft of writing. The reflection question asks us to consider the creative power involved in writing in someone else's language. To take it beyond writing, what medium would we choose if we wanted to explore a personal experience through some kind of art?

Sewing is my mother's art language. The whir of her Singer (what an appropriate brand name!) is the defining soundtrack of my childhood. She was flabbergasted by "bought dresses" in which someone didn't even bother to match the plaids, and she didn't mind saying so. In almost every other aspect, she was unusually meek. Maybe the reason I turned to sewing as therapy during a bleak period of my own life is because it represented her strength. Hmmmm. But anyway, when our children were small, we moved from a home and career that I loved to a place that turned out to be a great disappointment for me. It eventually worked out, but for a year I was in a serious funk. One day, mired in the middle of the funk, I picked up a bunch of scrap material and started putting together a rough picture of the front yard, stone walkway, and garden that I had left behind. I cut out pieces and arranged and rearranged, then started stitching by hand and throwing in a little decorative embroidery. It was a marvelous distraction, and looking back in light of this study, a healing time of solitude. Here's the finished product....
 It's not anything special, but it might have kept me sane enough to function day to day. Mom helped me finish it and she put a loop on the back so it could be displayed as a wall hanging. I've never done that, but I might someday. When we were monogramming the tree with the address and the names of our family members and pets who had lived there, my daughter Elizabeth put in her dog Lucy's name as "Loozey." I corrected it and I've regretted it ever since. It was better art with the misspelling.

Writing in someone else's language or sewing in your Mom's language (as the case may be) may let your heart tell you more than your head ever could.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Payback

"It would be wrong for me not to come out here and help after I was helped...I plan to work until I drop or run out of diesel." (Jacksonville resident David Williams)

The Lent study has a lot to say about almsgiving. In the aftermath of the tornado, the questions for reflection take on another dimension. Does giving make us feel rich or poor? How do we decide where to give? Is it meaningful or just an inconvenience? Some disasters (cancer, nature's fury) bring out the selfless best in us, while others (mental illness, poverty) repel us. Why? Jesus also had things to say about giving. Although it's usually stated as a harsh pronouncement, the Old Testament "eye for an eye" rule was generous when compared to the typical response of escalating retaliation. The idea of equal reparation is appealing, but it's so hard to balance a revenge equation. How can we hurt someone in exactly the same amount that they hurt us?  We can win for sure by giving a little worse than we got. Or.... we could respond by turning the other cheek and giving a warm coat to our cold enemy. A generous idea exploded with grace!

Oddly, payback escalates in our response to good gifts too. When my friend's son was starting an egg business, I intentionally overpaid for eggs to help with his startup costs. He responded by throwing in a bag of his organic garden bounty along with my egg purchases. His payback far exceeds my own overpayment. If he was Whole Foods, I would be out some serious cash. The guy I quoted at the beginning was helped on the night of the storm and responded by helping others until he was exhausted and depleted of fuel for his machinery. For the record, I intend to steal that quote at the first opportunity, so when you hear me say that I will do something until I "drop or run out of diesel" you will know exactly where I lifted it.

We all know that payback is hell, but sometimes payback is heaven too.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Poustinia

This was a new word for me, but not a new place. I've been going on an Advent spiritual retreat in the middle of Nowhere, Mississippi for over 20 years with some of my friends. The location is actually Brooksville, MS, but it's mostly a massive pasture,  populated by some charismatic nuns and a few Mennonites who who run a bakery that is almost worth the trip all by itself. There are hermitages for individuals, but my friends and I stay together in the Umbria guest house. It has 6 bedrooms and a common area and a kitchen. No TV or dishwasher, and until recently, no cell phone service.
I guess all catholics know each other or they must have heard of Catherine de Hueck's poustinia description, because it pretty much describes Umbria-- bare furnishings of two twin beds in a room with a desk, chair, table, and Bible. The icons honor St. Francis and the Poor Clares. We have good Mennonite bread, but we supplement with lots of snacks too, because we are Southern girls and it's Christmas after all. Is group solitude a thing? I had the deepest spiritual experience of my life here with two of my friends while we were walking the stations of the cross. We think we're hilarious, so we laugh a lot. I always go home with what Rob Bell calls a "happiness hangover," emotionally drained and fulfilled at the same time. What a luxury to "just be and let yourself by loved by God" and some amazing women. Some years we are all spiritual and deep, and some years we cry together over someone's personal loss, and some years we're all tired and we just rest. If that's not "having a cup of coffee with God, " I don't know what is.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Thirsting

Heidi: Decide if you can realistically go without caffeine.
Me: Nope

I was in graduate school the first time I ever saw someone drink a room temperature beverage by choice. As a kid I sometimes drank out of a garden hose (which we called a hose pipe) because we were afraid if we went inside to get a drink someone would make us stay there and we wanted to keep playing outside. There was also the occasional grown up who deemed us too dirty to come in the house and said if we were thirsty we could get a drink from the hose. These were the exceptions though. No southerner that I ever knew would drink a Coke or tea that wasn't iced or coffee that wasn't hot. It just wasn't done. The first people I saw drinking a tepid beverage were not southern or even American. It was just more proof that the rest of the world was strange. I'm not sure when this changed for me, but now I really don't care about temperature at all. I enter my office every day carrying hot coffee for the morning and iced tea for the afternoon, but as one cools and the other warms, I just keep sipping. I don't know why I bother heating and icing them in the first place. So, the suggested practice of "drink only water, without ice and without flavoring" was not the hardest thing ever. Well, except for the caffeine. I could quit drinking coffee (really) but I don't want to, and I didn't have time to deal with the headache. I did, however, spend time thinking about Heidi's real question.

What am I truly thirsting for in my life right now?

I am a teacher, and it's all I ever wanted to be. I've been teaching for 37 years, and I love it every day. Lately, though, I've been wondering if there is something more or different. I like the Quaker saying, "Proceed as the way opens." I'm trying to be open to other possibilities without doing something drastic that I might regret. Is there another teaching option at JSU? Is there a way to work with students and teachers that doesn't take place in a classroom? It's a good spot to be in because if no way ends up opening for me to proceed into, I'm happy as is. But I'm looking. And waiting. And thirsting.