What A Wonderful World

The worship service took place in the shade, facing the lazy river and the multi-colored rock cliff behind it. The light breeze made the Texas evening heat bearable. So did the beautiful surroundings, both geographical and human.

We sat on the third of four rows. People we are very fond of but see only once a year filled the other seats. A group of them had just stood before us and delivered an energetic and moving reading of a portion of Genesis. They ranged from young children to the middle-aged to those long retired. We mix seamlessly here. It’s always magical.

To conclude the time together, the worship leader played a song to emphasize her message. As soon as the song began, the teens behind us began stirring.

“That’s from Shrek!” one said excitedly.

“No, it’s from Toy Story.”

“Madagascar.”

“No, I’m telling you – it’s Shrek.”

“Remember? It was playing while they floated in the boxes in the ocean.”

Their voices tumbled over each other, everyone talking at once but still hearing each other too. Jane and I looked at each other and smiled as the song continued on.

My husband turned his head to the side and stage whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “It’s from Louie Armstrong!” The kids all laughed and then settled down to listen. I closed my eyes to take it all in.

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

The teens behind me were giggling. Just ever so softly. Not irreverently or disrespectfully, but they were obviously enjoying something. I opened my eyes to see what they were seeing. I didn’t see it right away but when the view collided with the words of the song, it didn’t matter. The images around me were so much better than those in my head.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you

And that’s when I saw him. One of the youngest members of the conference – a boy not quite school aged. A boy we had watched grow a little bigger over the last several years. He was running in giant, lazy, looping circles in the grassy space between us and the river. As he looped closer to the front row where his parents sat, he’d lift his arms out to his sides and dip toward them like a plane banking on a turn.

And then he’d be off again. Not in a hurry, not making a scene, just moving to the music. And it was beautiful.

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world

As the last notes faded away and the boy fell into his dad’s open arms, my husband summed up what had just happened.

“That was the most beautiful liturgical dance I’ve ever seen.”

And so it was.

The readers had practiced their lines several times and they did an outstanding job. But it was the carefree expression of the music delivered by a child that carried the day. Truly, you just need to leave room for the wonderful to happen and it will. The question is, will your eyes be open to see it?

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Silent Night

It’s been a good week. Time has moved relatively slowly, not rushed – despite the fact that we didn’t really start working toward Christmas until Sunday. We did a bunch of shopping and planned our Christmas surprises and in general enjoyed ourselves. We actually had our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, just the five of us plus Jane’s boyfriend. It was a relaxing day. To top it all off, two packages that we thought weren’t going to arrive until after Christmas arrived just in time. Life was going well. This might have contributed to what happened that night.

I have always enjoyed the Christmas Eve worship service. Most services I have attended over the years have involved Lessons and Carols. The service alternates between Scripture reading and Christmas hymns. The last song is almost always Silent Night, sung by candlelight after the light of the Christ candle in the Advent wreath is used to light everyone’s handheld candles.

In my experience, people then file silently out of the sanctuary. It is a very solemn and spiritual moment. This year, however, my church added Joy To The World to the end of the service. And I was one of four people playing bells for it.

This meant that I walked up to the front of the sanctuary, behind the altar, just in front of the chancel area, before the candles were lit for Silent Night. We needed to be ready for Joy To The World, so we would sing Silent Night up front instead of in our pews.

I was looking down at my music and in general getting ready when the pastor approached with the flame. I lit my candle from his and turned to Jane who lit hers from mine. We each turned behind us to the choir so someone could light theirs from ours. And then we turned around.

I was stunned. All but the back few rows already had their candles lit. It was glorious and beautiful. It took my breath away. And then we started singing Silent Night – that beautifully haunting song. I had the benefit of a dozen gifted singers right behind me and the lights of candles lighting up the faces of my church family in front of me.

My throat constricted. I had to force the song through. I sternly told myself not to cry. Not because there’d be anything wrong with that but because it would prevent me from joining my voice with the choir. I regained my composure.

And then I saw my middle child standing there by himself – his father was in the choir. His mother and sister preparing to play bells. His little brother asleep in the pew. I thought of the darling boy who couldn’t wait to light his candle who was now sleeping through the song. I looked at the smile on my standing son’s face – the son who had lit his candle without adult supervision and hadn’t burned anything down. His smile was beaming. I think he had forgotten to sing.

I saw the man on hospice care sitting in his wheelchair in the center aisle. It had to have taken so much energy for he and his wife to have been there. I hadn’t seen either one of them in months.

Then I saw my friend and her aging mother. Her mother but not her father, who had passed away earlier this year. Her mother was still grieving and was starting to get confused and requiring more focused care. My friend was trying to help her mother with the candle. It was not unlike helping a child. But both of their faces were lit up with the light of Christ. They were beautiful. In all their love and struggle and grief. they were beautiful. It was Christmas Eve. And everyone was beautiful.

My throat constricted again and I pushed through a little less successfully. I was sure I had never seen anything more powerful or heard anything more powerful or been part of anything more powerful. A single tear traced a path down my cheek and I let it travel without wiping it away.

My church family means so much to me. My biological family lives at least four hours away – all of them. So when I need help and support, it’s my church friends who provide it. And it’s them who receive my support. But this went beyond that. Beyond love of my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am, in my heart, a skeptic. I analyze, I doubt, I require proof. I do not accept a literal reading of all parts of the Bible. I have a modern look at it. There are many things that members of my congregation believe that I do not. I can understand where atheists are coming from. I can.

But in that moment, with the beautiful music swelling around me and the soft glow lighting people’s faces and the tear on my cheek, I saw the hope. I felt the hope. I shared the hope. I’m still the same person with all the same beliefs and doubts. That will likely never change – it’s how God made me. But that moment was sacred for me. I can only assume I felt my “heart strangely warmed” the same as John Wesley felt so many years before me.

I am at peace. Merry Christmas everyone.

Growing Up Moments

I’ve been serving as an elder on our church Session for almost a year and a half. I’m halfway through my commitment. There are a variety of responsibilities but the one that makes me most uncomfortable comes only once a year. It’s when, during the month that you are the Elder on Call, you accompany the pastor when he takes Communion to the shut-ins.

I’ve done this twice now. There are several things that make me uncomfortable about the process. I am not a patient person. Not in the least. And to interact with the old and frail, you have to have patience. They will move slow. They may talk slow, both in the general mechanics of speaking and in how long they take to get to their point. And you have to slow down too or they either won’t hear you or won’t track what you are saying. This is excruciating for impatient people. For busy, fast-moving people.

I’m not alone. Many people are uncomfortable in nursing homes and other places where we come face to face with mortality. But I’ve never liked this aspect of myself. I know that these people who look like shells are real people with real histories and real feelings and I don’t want to be uncomfortable around them. But wanting something is not the same thing as being something. Sometimes the process is gradual.

When we visited a nursing home last year, we visited a lady that was well-known in the church but not to me, a relative newcomer.  I had never known her during her more vital days. I had nothing to pull from. She was so tiny, so incredibly tiny. A pad on her bed needed to be changed, leaving the room with a distinctive odor. She kind of curled in on herself.

And she had the most beautiful painted fingernails that I had ever seen. And she talked fervently to the pastor about her hope to return to church very soon. She spoke in plural, referring, presumably, to her recently deceased husband. Her body had wasted away and her mind wasn’t too far behind, but her fingernails mesmerized me. Someone knew who she really was. Someone loved her and remembered her when and knew that she would enjoy her nails painted.

When we left her room, a line of people sat in wheelchairs. Just sitting there, staring forward. Not talking to each other, not looking around, just sitting and waiting. Between what I had just seen and the folks immobile in their chairs, I felt desperate and trapped. I wanted to get out of there quickly.

Fast forward to this month. It was again my turn to travel with the pastor. We first visited a couple, of which the husband was recovering but the wife was still quite healthy and active. And talkative. She talked on and on and on about the things happening in her world, about her husband, about church. She eagerly asked questions and then talked some more. When her husband mumbled something, she knew exactly what he was saying, responded, and moved on with her tale. There was no ending in sight and, unlike the gross stereotype on speed I gave above, it was rapid fire.

And I loved every minute of it. I didn’t feel trapped. I wanted to hear what she had to say. I wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere, even though I did actually have places I needed to go.

We left there and visited a woman who had recently been put on hospice care. We talked with her children for awhile and it was a lot like being at the previous woman’s house. It was obvious they just needed to talk. They just needed someone to listen. To hear and acknowledge what they had been going through as caregivers. To hear about their mother’s last days. To affirm the worth of it all.

And then we went to see the woman. She was tiny and frail. She weighed so little that she was sitting against pillows and not knocking the pillows down. She wasn’t wearing her hearing aids so we had to sit close and talk clearly.

The pastor introduced me and she said, “I know you. I’ve seen you in the church. I never introduced myself but I know who you are.” We soon learned that we shared a birthday. My birthday mate, the pastor, and I talked amiably for awhile. I enjoyed her company. I enjoyed her family.

It was my responsibility to give the prayer and so I did. As we turned to leave, she took my hand. She held it and told me to enjoy our next birthday, that she probably wouldn’t be around to see it. I was touched. I liked her. This wasn’t the simple “isn’t she sweet” reaction to an older person, I genuinely liked her.

I thought about sending her a card, letting her know how much I appreciated our visit. I thought about calling to see if I could stop back by. But it was a busy week, as so many of them are. Six days later, she had a stroke and it’s now only a matter of time before she leaves this world. I lost my opportunity to touch base with her again, but I haven’t lost that feeling that I’m growing up some more. Becoming comfortable where I previously wasn’t. Becoming the person I want to be.

So here we are, just a week after my visit with her. I’ve been thinking about that day a lot and I’ve been feeling the effect it’s had on me. During our Session meeting last night, one of the oldest Elders was to give the testimony. He had asked permission to go “off script” and began to tell his story, instead of answering the standard questions.

His story started when he was 6 months old. It was pretty clear that this was going to go beyond the usual time allotment for the testimony. I should have been impatient. I should have been rolling my internal eyes. Instead, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I hung on every word. And I realized as I sat there, that he could talk on forever and I would sit and listen.

I wanted to hear his story and I didn’t care how long it took. It was an emotional and fascinating look at his brushes with death over the years, starting with having Diphtheria as an infant. A disease children don’t get anymore because of vaccinations, I thought to myself.

I wanted to hear his perspective. I wanted to drink in his history. I wanted to get to know him and love him and respect where he’s been and where he’s going. I wanted a piece of him, the real him. Not the simple caricature I had created of him in my foolish mind.

I think I’ve grown up a lot in this past week. I hope it sticks.

What’s On The Other Side?

Hal is the youngest member of our children’s choir at church.  As such, it’s sometimes necessary for him to step out of the choir room before rehearsal is actually finished.  This could be because he’s just gotten too restless or it could be because they need to work on a song with the older ones.  Either way, the ladies running the choir seem to always have a plan for him.  This week, he made a miniature “paper doll”.  He told me it was him.

20140928_203114I told him it was great and I really liked that he was wearing pink shoes.  The shocker was when he turned it over.  The back, in fact, shocked everyone.  His big brother told him he was stupid, which earned a sharp rebuke and lecture from me.  Later, his sister, standing in line for dinner with the youth group, expressed her shock without insult but a handful of teenagers bursting out laughing as he proudly showed his ‘doll’ was too much for him.  He buried his face in his dad’s leg in shame.

It hurt to see him hurt like that.  He was so proud of what he had done.  What none of the other children had bothered to do was ask why.  Why had he drawn what he did on the back?  It’s simple, really.  Take a look.

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Those are butt cheeks.  What possessed him to draw (albeit too small) butt cheeks?  Isn’t it obvious?  Do you see any pants covering the back of that boy?  No?  Me neither.  Which means we’d obviously see his butt cheeks.  And that’s why he drew them.  Because that’s what we’d see.  And even though it’s a bit off-color and most people won’t be able to keep from laughing, I’m proud of him.  It shows intelligence and creativity and attention to detail and… humor.  He knew he was being funny.  In a silly little boy kind of way.

Sometimes I ache for him, growing up as the youngest of three.  Worse, growing up five years younger than the next youngest.  And, without a matching partner in any of our friends’ families.  One of our closest sets of friends has two kids: a girl 2 weeks younger than Jane and a boy 2 1/2 months younger than Daryl.  Our kids have been close friends for years, but when Hal is around, he’s the third wheel and is often treated as such.  One of our newer sets of friends also has two kids: again, a girl in the same grade as Jane and a boy in the same grade as Daryl.  Jane and the girl are friendly, not as close as they’ve been in the past, but Daryl and the boy are pretty much best friends.  And Hal wants to be part of it.

Hal gets upset every time the boys get together and he’s left out.  He doesn’t understand that he’s too much younger.  He doesn’t understand that he’ll eventually make friends of his own.  But even if he does, it won’t be kids from the families we currently socialize with.  So when those families gather, he’s still left out.

I don’t know what kind of effect this will have on him long-term.  I certainly don’t regret our decision to have another go at the kiddo roulette wheel.  But sometimes I wonder whether this was fair to him.  Whether we spent any time thinking about the impact of this gap on him.  Whether we even had the capacity to understand it had we thought to consider it.

Take this doll, for example.  If he had been Jane – the firstborn, he would have been met with nothing but praise and merriment.  He would have only had adults to show it to – loving, supportive adults.  He would have been validated, his creativity rewarded.  But as the “baby”, he still receives the love and support, but he also receives ridicule and rejection from people he truly looks up to.  Even if he believes the supportive adults, he is still left with the sense that something about his creativity was maybe not-quite-right.  And that’s sad.

All we can do now, of course, is make sure he knows just how much he’s valued.  And how much I love his tiny-butt-cheek, pink shoe wearing, googly-eyed selfie and every other wonderful thing he comes up with.  And help him (and his siblings) navigate this tricky path we’ve laid for them.  And teach his siblings that he is worth their respect.  He has feelings too.

 

Age is Relative

At dinner last night, Hal told his older brother that he had figured out why he (Daryl) was so mean to him (Hal) when Daryl was hanging out with his friend Tony.  Now, I already know why.  No one likes their little brother trying to hang with them – especially when that little brother is five years younger.  Hal pretty much hit the nail on the head:

“It’s because you are acting like a teenager.”

Jane jerked her head up, correctly interpreting that she, as the only teenager in the family, had just been slighted.  But it got her to thinking.  “Wow.  You know when Hal is a teenager, I might not be living at home anymore.”

“You better not still be living at home!” her dad said.  “I’ve got plans for that room.”

“But when Hal’s a teenager, I’ll be…”

“Twenty-one,” he finished.

“I could be attending the local college still.”

“But hopefully not living at home.”

Hal looked up from his Daddy’s lap and gave him a big hug.  “When I’m twenty nine, I’m really going to miss you.”

“Well, honey, you don’t have to miss me.  We can visit each other.”

“You mean you’ll still be alive then?!”  He sounded surprised but hopeful.

“I sure hope so!” Daddy responded.  “I’m turning 40 in a few days and my parents are still alive.”

“Mommy,” Daryl cut in, “You know that lady at church?  She’s got short gray hair and wrinkles?  She’s only 37.”

“Who are you talking about?” I asked.

“She always helps with the potlucks.  She’s only 37!”

Figuring out who he was talking about, I responded, “Um, honey, she’s older than 37.”

“But you look younger than her, Mommy!”

“I am younger than her, sweetheart.”

“But she said that if I kept doing what I was doing that one day that I’d make her older than her 37 years.”

“It was a joke,” Jane responded.  “She was joking.”

“Oh.”

Age is such a tricky thing for kids to get a handle on.

I’m Thankful

There is a sweet woman at my church who picked up a new habit over a year ago that she found charming and a great opportunity to witness.  She first brought it up in a group we were both part of by talking about the rather inane greeting habit that I, too, find rather pointless.  Assuming you have eyes and ears and a working tongue and have left your house since adulthood, you have participated in it.  It goes like this:

Two people approach each other from different directions.  Whether they know each other or not is irrelevant.  Maybe they make eye contact, maybe they don’t.  Maybe they smile, maybe they don’t.  Maybe they nod, maybe they don’t.  Maybe they slow down, most likely they don’t.

“Hello,” says one. “How are you?”

“I’m fine.  You?”

“Fine.”

Whether any variation of that last line occurs depends heavily on how fast the people were walking and whether they actually know each other.  It’s usually either mumbled or not bothered with.

I’ve always found this pointless.  Likely, neither party actually cares how the other is doing.  They certainly don’t slow down to absorb the information, not expecting more than a one word response.  The second party almost always responds that they are fine, regardless of whether they are.  If they respond that they aren’t fine, it’s almost a social faux pas.  They’ve deviated from the script.  We are just making noise.  We don’t really care.

We might as well just grunt at each other in passing.

Some people have changed from “fine” to “I’m blessed”, which they imagine to be a more positive response than the rather bland “fine”.  Initially, this annoyed me even more because I found it too full of sweetness.  Eventually, though, I recognized it as just another phrase that that particular person uses every time in the silly little greeting play and left it alone.

The sweet woman from my church had also found “I’m blessed” to be too rote and pointless, although I think she found it an improvement over “fine”.  Someone that she heard on TV or radio said that Christians should respond to “How are you?” with “I’m thankful!”

I reacted to this the same as I did to “I’m blessed” but held my tongue as she continued.  “When you do that,” she said, “it takes people by surprise and they ask you why you are thankful and then you have the opportunity to tell them!  You should always be ready with a response!”

I personally thought that many people would respond with an internal groan and a roll of their eyes but I didn’t say so.  Several of the other hearers of her wisdom, those possessing of less cynicism and more grace, exclaimed that they thought it was a wonderful idea.  And so it came to be that this woman and one of the men replaced their “fine” with “I’m thankful”.

I have an almost visceral reaction to people manipulating me, whether the manipulation is nefarious or not.  If I know you want me to behave or respond in a certain manner, I will resist.  Especially if I find the whole process silly.  In this particular scenario, I know the game.  I know they are saying they are thankful in order to provoke me to ask them why and I refuse to play along.

Ironically, I can’t drop the decades old habit of asking people how they are doing, or of responding to a similar request with “I’m fine – how ’bout you?”.  Which means I’m inevitably faced with their “I’m thankful” response, to which I have always responded with some variation of “that’s nice” or a smile and a nod.

After a year of this, one such exchange happened recently between me and the sweet woman’s disciple while the sweet woman was present.  She turned to the man and said significantly and with reproof, “She didn’t ask you why you’re thankful.”

“No, she didn’t,” he responded with mild, slightly feigned disapproval before saying matter-of-factually, “She never does.”

It hadn’t struck me that we had exchanged greetings often enough for them to notice my passive aggressive refusal to play along.  I smiled at them and said truthfully, “It’s because I know you are expecting it.”

We are different creatures, them and me.  They happily absorb themselves in sweet platitudes and feel-good moments and habits.  Me, I am cynical, logical, and analytical – to a fault.  I find a system of interaction that you have constructed with expectations for people to respond in a particular way to be at best silly and at worst exclusionary.

On the silly end, I don’t find their habit of saying “thankful” any different than anyone else’s habit of saying “fine” or “blessed”.  I don’t see why they should expect anyone to ask why someone is thankful any more than asking why someone is blessed (or fine, for that matter).  I would bet that most people don’t ask why so I don’t feel compelled to ask just because I know they are fishing for it.

On the exclusionary end, those that “get it” can respond appropriately and make the thankful person feel good about the response.  Those that don’t, the thankful person can categorize in his or her mind as inattentive and unloving for not caring to ask.  As a person who knows what they want yet not willing to give it to them, I suppose I don’t get even the possibility of benefit of doubt.

Hopefully they just think I’m stubborn rather than insensitive.  I’m learning to be true to myself, regardless of how people expect me to behave.  I’m pretty sure those two people still love me so I guess it’s working out ok.  Then again, if I’m not going to make myself into the image that each person I come across expects, then I suppose I’ll also have to be content with some folks deciding they don’t like what they see.

And Now for the Positives

Ok, so I was pretty whiny and ungrateful in my last post.  I realize that.  But really, I felt a strong need to relate how I felt and to communicate that not all moms feel sunshine and roses on their “special day”.

There were some great positives to the experience, though.  One that surprised me was that a number of unexpected people sent me text messages or gave me a shout-out on Facebook wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day.  It’s almost like my “She’s having a crappy Mother’s Day” vibe stretched all the way to Dallas and even as far as California, to co-workers and former co-workers and people I haven’t seen in some time, to fellow beleaguered moms-of-teenagers and to people who have no children of their own.  It was humbling that those people thought of me that day.

Then there was the older lady at church who recognized my drawn and stressed face.  Who gave me a hug and wished me a Happy Mother’s Day.  Who expressed no surprise that my day was not going well.  You have three kids after all, she said.  She hugged me and encouraged me and spoke in such a loving voice that I just held on for a little while.  Her greeting was not perfunctory.  She was watching and caring.

My kids didn’t really get me anything for Mother’s Day.  Other than the excellent Key Lime Greek yogurt with the cookie crumbles that Jane and her Daddy got for me.  That was very nice.  And while she didn’t fix me breakfast in bed like one of her friends, she was still a step ahead of many of her peers for remembering the day without prompting and wishing me a happy one.

Daryl didn’t get me anything nor make me anything.  (What in the world is wrong with the school system these days?  No baby jar with multi-colored tissue paper glued to it and a votive candle inside?  No macaroni necklace?  No handprint flower?  Nothing?)  But what he did do was notice at one point that I was having a pretty sucky morning and then walk along beside me with his arm around my shoulders, telling me it was ok and he loved me.  This tenderness was dear… even if it did draw attention to the fact that he was tall enough to get his arm comfortably around my shoulders, although not quite on the shoulders.

Then there was dear Hal, who dogged me all morning and into the afternoon to open the package he handed me at church.  I was always too busy and I didn’t want to open it absentmindedly while hurrying off to something else.  So when I called him to me after the recital and asked if I could open it now, his face beamed.  And here’s what it was:

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“That’s the rain falling,” he said, pointing to the blue circles.  And I thought, how appropriate that the rain should be falling in my Mother’s Day picture.

“And see how tall it’s made the flower grow, Mommy?”

Indeed, my dear.  The flower has grown quite tall.  Now if only your Mommy can grow as much.