The Changing Family Table

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Every year it seems Thanksgiving is getting closer to being squeezed out by all the fanfare of Black Friday. In between the adds for “Best Deals” are the grocery specials on sweet potatoes and turkeys.

Then there are voices proclaiming appreciation for Thanksgiving more than Christmas. They like the slower pace dictated by the day that seems to be focused on family.

Family has always been the focus of our Thanksgiving gathering. Some years have included friends who would have been home alone. We discover which customs we share and where we differ…usually as it relates to food. My mother-in-law always brought the northern foods to our more southern group that would never consider having a Thanksgiving meal without pecan pie.

Menu aside our real reason for gathering was each other. This year will be the first in our 41 year marriage where we won’t be with family on Thanksgiving day. In today’s mobile society that’s quite an achievement. It also speaks to the fact that we like each other.

I know my heart will be missing our coming together. It already does. I’m saddened that my cousin won’t be able to host this year because of damage to their home caused by Hurricane Michael. Five weeks later and only one supermarket chain has been able to reopen.

While we won’t be with kin we will be with our community that gives us every reason to be thankful. Some of our residents in our ARC will celebrate with their sponsors or friends. Very few will share the day with family. For all of them we will be that for them, as best we can while also wearing the hats of pastor, teacher, director. Seeing change in their lives gives us more than we can ever give to them.

One of our counselors focuses on gratitude in one of her groups. Many of us have learned the value of incorporating thoughts of gratitude daily. It’s an intentional practice. It’s especially important for those who find themselves living in a place that was their last hope.

We’ve used different ways to share our thanks over the years. Reading their words humbles me and draws me in a little more to their journey.

We’ve done this at our family Thanksgivings too. Our words of thanks are evidence of privilege: family, music, food, laughter. They are simple and general even though said with true gratitude.

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It’s a mingling of both that brings hearts together in a real family table. One that extends beyond the literal table and chairs. We need the experience of each other to build a stronger community. But we need it most to come closer to God’s immense grace and mercy.

Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.

His mercy seat

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Peter Gabriel’s voice sang low and pleading, the words “mercy, mercy, looking for mercy….” (Mercy Street, 1986) It’s a lovely and haunting melody that conveys the heart that searches for compassion, desperate for forgiveness when none is deserved. Mercy.

The Psalmist pleads for mercy over and over as did Job when he said “I could only plead for mercy” (Job 9:15)

***

As a child, I was instructed the altar, the wooden structure with a cushion for the knees, was not a place to play. You didn’t stand on it, run on it or sit on it. You came here to kneel and pray. This was serious business when you come in front of the congregation to kneel at this place. At times, my parents called it the mercy seat.

I didn’t know what mercy was, but I knew it was serious. It was personal stuff and some people cried when they knelt and prayed but they all seemed to feel better after spending time at this mercy seat. Some of them scared me as a child, their emotions so……loud. But mostly, folks were quiet when they knelt there.

***

We don’t call it the mercy seat much these days but it is. I know God’s mercy isn’t confined to a particular place but I love the symbolism of it. The tangible where we can physically bow our bodies and heart, humble and quiet ourselves to beg of God, “have mercy on me and hear my prayer” (Psalm 4:1). Psalm 25:16, “Turn to me and have mercy, for I am alone and in deep distress.”

Mercy, that which isn’t earned or deserved…compassion in our need.

***

It’s the close of another service. The message ended with a compelling video that described who God is and asked “I wonder, do you know him?” Henry knelt at the alter asking those who wanted to come pray with him. And I saw Lloyd. In his chair, at the end of the row next to a window, he got out of his chair, turned and knelt. Right there. It was one of those moments I wanted to photograph, not with a camera because it would be one dimensional. No photo could show the meaning of this simple motion. My heart has captured it and replayed it. To see his tall frame, dark skin and bright smile, quietly slip out of his seat, turn and kneel, head bowed over that chair. His mercy seat.

It’s how our services end each Sunday, with Henry asking, “Pray with me?” and with more men going forward than is room at our Mercy Seat so they crowd around and make their own space. Some kneeling at their chairs, some standing in the back, a visual sign of unity in prayer.

God’s mercy is free and freely given.

“Let Us Help You”

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I have a voice. Not one to serenade you with song unless you like your tunes a bit off key. I am loud like most of my family but unlike my mother I also have the ability to whisper. And, generally, I know when to use my inside voice and when to yell.

My husband calls my side of the family the Loud family. He also calls us Announcers. We, apparently, loudly announce that we’re leaving the room, going to the store, making a phone call, or taking a shower. We are the voices of information.

I use my voice to make people smile as easily as I use it in defense of something that seems wrong. Ill treatment of others gets me speaking out. I write letters, use my vote, stand by them. Many times it means being silent to listen to the one wronged.

It’s easy to confuse speaking out  with reaching out. But they are very different.

My voice goes silent when it’s time to reach out for help. I wait for someone to notice I’m fragile and about to break. I wait for them to see me beneath all the masks I’m wearing trying to look strong and secure.

I was walking down the hall outside my office with my hands full. Nothing heavy but a bit awkward. One of the residents called out, “You need some help?” No thanks, I’ve got it. A few more steps and this time he said, “Let us help you”.

If we’re honest, I think that’s what most of us are waiting for. We’re carrying our load like a boss. We’re the parent, spouse, manager, leader, pastor……we’re the strong one. Sometimes the weight is heavy but we prop it on our hips, use our legs to lift it and we carry on. “I’ve got this.”

Maybe it isn’t heavy at all but it’s awkward. It doesn’t fit. Still you soldier on. You’ve said “I’ve got this” time after time, hoping for that one to insist “Let us help you”.

If I had to describe Jesus today I’d say he looked like William. A white guy in his 50’s, out of shape, missing several teeth and a bit worn looking. I wouldn’t have recognized his face but I knew his voice when he said Let me help you. 

When the Bough Breaks

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A friend of mind has often said, “don’t let them see you cry”. I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard to hold back the tears, to keep the voice from cracking but my face tells all.
 
For years I did my best at blinking them back and blaming allergies and contact lenses for my tear-filled eyes. But then mama got Alzheimer’s and that seemed a very legitimate reason to let the tears fall.

 

I am a contradiction of tears and strength.

If you asked most people who know me they would describe me as strong. I’m not sure why but I’ve been told that and have tried to own that description. Maybe it’s because I’m not afraid to use my voice. I am passionate and that seems to speak strength. The thing is, when you care deeply you hurt deeply. I would never want to be described as an emotional person but the truth is, I am. I can look the part of strength but it only comes with the other side which isn’t weakness but caring.
 
The strength I thought I had broke wide open not long ago. The nursery rhyme of Rockabye Baby came to mind. I was in my cradle of security when the winds on uncertainty began to rock it. The winds were blowing from unexpected directions. What should have been gentle breezes sometimes had powerful gusts threatening to knock me over. For the most part, there was balance. Until a tornado swept in and the bough broke tumbling me and my cradle to the ground. 
 
The feelings of fear, doubt, and shame overwhelmed me. I was bent over sobbing as I told myself how I was letting other people down. How could I be so weak?
 
What I realized was that my security has been rocking a lot the past few months. We are looking forward to our retirement next year but it has brought a surprising display of emotions.  Grief brought on by change and fears of an unknown had become more than I realized and turned into a tumultuous windstorm that knocked me to the ground. 
 
I wasn’t strong after all. I wasn’t the warrior people thought I was. Tears show up unexpectedly and often. When I’m watching a television show, reading a blog post or seeing a homeless man on the bridge. I sniff them back and thank God my heart is full.
 
Something happened in the midst of my puddle of emotions. Strength began to stir when I recognized my limitations. I can’t do it all. I have limits that my despair has made me keenly aware. 
 
And that’s okay. The tears are okay. I’m okay.
 
Yes, my safe cradle has been rocked and at times I feel like I’m tumbling down. But it only serves to remind me that God’s grace is sufficient for me. His grace comes in the familiar. He comforts me a counselor’s wise words, and friends listening through my tears even though it makes them uncomfortable. 
 
Weakness is silence. But there is strength in our voice, even a voice trembling with tears. 

Write 31 Days {week 4}

This is the last full week of October’s writing challenge. I’m enjoying culling through my photos to see what is sparked by the prompts. It’s not always the obvious. I’m trying to stretch my mind though some days….there isn’t much to stretch. You can follow me on Instagram to see my previous posts or check them out here: week 1, week 2, week 3.

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21 | start

“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Arthur Ashe

Start a book, a garden, a family. Start singing. Start dancing. Start living.

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22 | help

My husband and I are Administrators of a residential rehabilitation program. People come to us for some kind of help. Some come seeking shelter from the streets thinking they just need food and rest. Some are looking for a magic cure. But they come searching for help. Help is easy to offer. That’s what we do. 

As I walked down the hall trying to balance the boxes I had in my arms one of the residents called out, “Need help?” “I got it”, I replied as I continued toward the door. He was persistent as he said a littler more firmly, “Let us help you.”

Me? Need help? He caught me. Yes, I could have managed the load I was carrying but to be honest, it was nice to have someone notice the load and want to share it with me. I want to think that accepting his help actually helped us both.

There’s an old hymn we sing we often sing that reminds us who is our true help.

“Are we weak and heavy-laden,

  Cumbered with a load of care?

Precious Savior, still our refuge—

  Take it to the Lord in prayer;

Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?

  Take it to the Lord in prayer;

In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,

  Thou wilt find a solace there.”

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23 | common

Shells are as common to our South Florida landscape as fall leaves are in the northeast. What’s ordinary to one isn’t to another which is our cue to take note of the every day things around us. The simple and familiar are where our gratitude begins.

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24 | brief

The lifespan of a butterfly is brief. Yet in it’s time it does what it was created to do. 

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25 | capture

Like so many others, this young one is watching for a wave to capture. Often, they spend more time waiting. Perhaps the anticipation is part of the lure. 

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26 | celebrate

11 years ago I stroked my daughter’s hair as she gave birth to her daughter. We celebrate the grand’s birthday this weekend. We’ve been to parties at parks, bounce places and zip lines but this year we’re being banished. After we eat at her choice of restaurants and watch her open her presents, that is. This year she’s having a sleepover. Even her dad is getting the boot for a girls only night. I expect there will be little sleep and an overflow of giggles.

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27 | whole

Our nephew and his bride cut through the whole for the first slice of their wedding cake. This is how we live life – one slice at a time. Make it sweet!

 

Write 31 Days {week 3}

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14 | ask

41 years ago today, the minister asked and we said “I Do” 

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15 | When

“Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it. ” – Ray Bradbury 

When? Now

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16 | Pray

Some of our family live in Panama City, Florida. Hurricane Michael has devastated that community. It will be months before any kind of normal will resume. My brother-in-law made the decision to stay in their home. It was a category 2 storm when they went to bed Tuesday night. No one was forecasting it would be a strong cat 4 when the country woke up Wednesday morning. This photo is of one of the rooms in their house. He and his wife stood where they thought it was safest as the winds snapped a big pine tree in their yard that fell on their roof and rolled on to the back of his truck. They are thankful to have survived along with their sons and families there. But as the needs of this community fade from the headlines (as they are) please don’t forget to pray for them. Pray for electricity and clean water to be restored. For hospitals and schools to be able to reopen. For needs to be met and strangers to come together as neighbors.  Pray for each other.

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17 | Pause

This beach is where we go to pause. Lucky for us it’s only a 20 minute drive and worth the congested traffic. The limitless horizon, the sky that is never the same, the palm trees waving their crowns, the ebb and flow of the tide…all of this part of creation is like breathing. It’s where I can finally exhale and inhale God’s grace.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28 the Message

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18 | Search

I search books and music for meaning, for rest, for encouragement and self-improvement. Sometimes in my quieter, darker moments I’ve even searched for God. I’ve found he’s never far. He’s in the words, the melodies, the smiles and tears. He’s in each life-giving breath.

“His purpose in all this was that people of every culture and religion would search for this ultimate God, grope for Him in the darkness, as it were, hoping to find Him. Yet, in truth, God is not far from any of us.” Acts 17:27 the VOICE

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19 | who

The song sticks in my head, unwanted and uninvited. While the WHO were a band of my generation they weren’t a band I followed but that song…….’who are you, who, who, who, who?’ Now it’s on a loop in your head. You’re welcome 😉 

Who is the word prompt for today.  So, who are you? We use descriptors on our tag lines and about pages like mom of two, wife of one…..writer, artist, believer, sister, friend..”  But who are you? If you’re like me it might depend on the day or even the time of the day. I’m not the same at 7 am that I am at 10 am. But those are external things. 

Who I am behind the externals is a deep feeler, an over thinker and someone who desperately wants to give grace to others to the great extent it’s been give me.

So, who are you?

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20 | audience

Our great-nephew turned 1 this week. No doubt he is surrounded by an audience of family and friends coming to celebrate his life. He’s my brother’s first grandchild and the delight of his Jefe and Honey (the names are really getting creative!), his aunts of multiple generations and cousins. All of us not living close enough to gobble up baby hugs but we remain his biggest fans.

Life in Pieces

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They did the obvious work first: removing the tree that was snapped by 155 mph winds and fell on their roof then rolled onto the back of their truck. They took pictures of the damage for the insurance claim they’d file in the coming days. Then they began picking through the water saturated things inside this house in the Florida panhandle that is a gathering place for our family.

Ten days later and there is no electricity but cell coverage is coming back in spurts. My cousin drove an hour and half away to have wifi and file a claim with their homeowners insurance. They were the only ones inside a restaurant they found open at the beach to celebrate her husband’s 60th birthday. This will be one none of us will forget.

We live 9 hours south and have had our scares with hurricanes. Last year we evacuated as Irma took aim in our direction but unlike Panama City, we escaped a direct hit and Irma’s punch was much lighter. It doesn’t matter if you live in tornado alley, on a fault line or where annual blizzards cover your cars there is nothing to prepare you for sifting through your life amid the ruins of your home.

When my cousin found a spot of cell coverage she called and quickly said, “We’re okay”. In an instant you realize all the stuff is just that and you celebrate life.

We’ve been able to talk to a few times. Each time we speak I hear her old self coming back but this devastating event will remake her like they’ll remake their home.

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Boxes of photo albums had expanded with water were pulled from the attic. Some were beyond saving but the ones in frames made it. Pieces of their life sat in piles to save or trash.

She sent texts as she sorted through. I wish I could have been there with her. She’s not a cryer but I know my eyes would have teared up and maybe together we’d have let a few tears fall. We would have found humor where we could because it’s what our family does. But the texts were good. Her words connected us.

As she sifted through the damp and curled pieces she found love letters between she and her husband when they were dating. They had survived Hurricane Michael just as their love has survived. Thirty-eight years of marriage doesn’t come without figurative storms and they’ve had a few. We’ve all had those moments when we surveyed the damage and made decisions to rebuild or not.

Standing in the middle of their house with a gaping hole through the roof, water still puddled on the floor, insulation hanging down through the ceiling, he asked if she wanted to move. It didn’t take my cousin long to answer a definite NO. She reminded him she likes her neighborhood and her neighbors. This is more than a house. It’s where they’ve put roots that are stronger than the trees tossed like toothpicks.

The ruins that remain are looking more like pieces than can be put back together.

“The rainbow doesn’t negate the effects of the storm, 
but does bring light to the dark and is a symbol of hope.”

*As I finished this I got word their water and electricity have been restored!

Write 31 Days {week 2}

This the second week of the writing challenge to write everyday in October. I’m expressing my writing with photos posted on Instagram and posting weekly reviews here. You can find week one here.

Five Minute Friday gives word prompts to direct our writing. If you want to explore the writings of others check out the hashtag #write31days.

Day 7 | Hope

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From the tiny acorn, the ones that litter the yard and crunch under your feet, come strong oak trees. The acorn and mustard seed, both small in size, are symbols of hope. Their growth and strength doesn’t come overnight but with waiting. Their growth is not limited by size. Hope in God is always without limitations. 

“Wait with hope. Hope now; hope always!” Psalm 131:3 the Message

Day 8 | Comfort

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“The best comfort food will always be greens, cornbread, and fried chicken.” Maya Angelou

Cornbread is one of my comfort foods. My granny made hers in a cast-iron skillet in the oven. She liked to crumble her cornbread in a glass of buttermilk and eat it with a spoon. I just like it slathered with butter. Though it’s pretty good to crumble a bit of it and add to beef stew. Delicious comfort!

Day 9 | Inspire

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“Creativity takes courage.” Pablo Picasso

Day 10 | How

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“A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Eleanor Roosevelt  

I wonder if we’re at our strongest when we feel the weakest.

Day 11 | Door

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This is a door at Thomas Edison’s winter home in Ft. Myers, FL. (An interesting tour) Edison opened the  door to sight and sound with his inventions of the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, film, and movie camera just to name a few. These days I’m contemplating what new doors will open to a new future. I’m learning to accept not having that answered today. I can accept it because I believe in God who has been called the door. It’s not always easy but faith seldom is.

Day 12 | Praise

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The past 10 years we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with extended family in Panama City, Florida. Most years, tables have been put end to end outside to accommodate our growing family. Over the years we’ve added spouses and grandchildren and held space for empty chairs of parents who have passed. 

Each year my cousin (our hostess) has a different way for us to express our thanks. One year there were five corn kernels on our plates. Another year we wrote on construction paper leaves and hung on a branch. It wasn’t the method but the priority and reason we gathered. From youngest to oldest we shared things that filled our hearts with thanks. Music, family, faith, being together, laughter….so much.

This year Hurricane Michael marched through their town with no respect to the families who make their lives there. When my phone lit up with my cousin’s name I answered screaming her name in sheer delight – “Beki!” Her first words were actually, “Breathe….breathe….we’re alright. Our home is destroyed but we’re all okay” A tall pine tree at the corner of their yard came down on their roof and then rolled onto his truck. They were inside their house praying and singing songs of praise. They were scared but the worst had passed and now we were so very thankful for their safety. Gratitude is another form of praise. 

It’s too early to know if we’ll be able to gather for another Thanksgiving celebration in their yard this year. But we will continue to praise as our hearts are full of thanks for each other. 

Day 13 | Talk

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I miss this lady.  I miss her laugh and her encouragement. I miss the long talks we had catching up on life from our corners of the country. I miss her heart for service. But all that I miss is held in our memories and passed on to us through her example. 

Write 31 Days – week 1

Every October writers are invited to join the write31days challenge. Most choose a theme to focus on for the month and post daily on their blogs. I’ve participated in this a few times. It’s a challenging exercise.

I wasn’t going to participate this year until….

A friend was putting a twist on it. She decided to post a photo to go with a word prompt on Instagram for the month. That sparked my creativity. Photography is something that helps me explore the unforced rhythms of grace.

I thought I’d expand on that by sharing my Instagram posts for the week in Saturday blog posts for the month.

It’s interesting to put a visual expression to words. They’re sometimes abstract in thought and other times intimately personal. Choosing an image to go with the word forces me to dig deeper and look at the word from new perspectives. This is particularly a good practice when creativity feels absent.

What I see may not be what you envision which makes the process more interesting. I’d enjoy you sharing your thoughts in the comment section. What do you see? What doe these words and/or photos say to you? Let’s explore together.

Day 1 | Story
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“Live your life from your heart. Share from your heart. And your story will touch and heal people’s souls.” Melody Beattie

Day 2 | Afraid

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“We are afraid to care too much, for fear that the other person does not care at all.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Day 3 | Believe

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This beautiful beach in Haiti was a harsh contrast to the garbage in the canals of Port au Prince. It was more reflective of the joyful hearts found in the people there because in the midst of their hard lives they believe in Jesus and have his joy.

“We believe in God And we all need Jesus
‘Cause life is hard
And it might not get easier
But don’t be afraid
To know who you are
Don’t be afraid to show it
If you believe in God
If you say you need Jesus
He’ll be where you are
And he never will leave you” – Amy Grant

Day 4 | Why

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“We all face storms in life. Some are more difficult than others, but we all go through trials and tribulation. That’s why we have the gift of faith.” Joyce Meyer

Jesus: 3 “This is the truth: unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3 The Voice

Day 5 | Share

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Share a laugh
Share a hug
Share a coke a song a smile
Share a tear
Share love

“We are not cisterns made for hoarding, we are channels made for sharing.” Billy Graham 

Day 6 | Belong

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My family circa 1970. We have so few pics of us together. This one always makes me laugh seeing daddy trying to suck his belly in.

“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.” Brene Brown

All photographs were taken by me or property of mine, not for reuse without permission.

The Warriors Pose

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The last time I sat with her in church was like sitting in a draft. She was next to me, somehow knowing she was in her church of 40 years, but there was a current of air separating her from me. She smiled and I chose to believe it was a smile of familiarity even though she referred to me as “that lady with a nice smile”.

That lady. The one who’d grown inside of her for 9 months, who she’d taken to piano lessons and sewn clothes for. Her first born, first daughter who she instilled an interest in art and a desire for lifelong learning was ‘that lady‘.

She was there in body but there was a presence that was missing. It made the air still, stagnant.

I decided to fly cross country to visit my sister on the first Mother’s Day after mama passed. It felt right to be there, as if it would somehow redeem the loss.

I thought it would be easy.  But when my eyes peeled open in the early morning light on Mother’s Day, sleeping in my nephews room at my sisters house 3000 miles from mine, I missed her. I missed mama sitting next to me not knowing who I was but smiling kindly.

You see, she was a warrior. Her life had been given to fighting for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. She’d organized teams of volunteers to take kids shopping at Christmas. She lead food drives and took coats to families needing protection from the harsh winters. She’d enlisted a whole army who never realized they too were warriors.

Bit by bit we would lose her memories of being a family. The look of uncertainty covered her face. She was lost and searching not only for memories but for words and meaning.There was no fighting Alzheimer’s. It was always going to win.

Somehow her reverence for scripture remained long after our connection was lost.  On my husband’s last visit with me he pulled up a passage from the Bible on his phone and started reading. Her body stilled as she focused all she had on the words being read. She seemed to give a slight nod of affirmation. It was something I held onto as if a small victory had been won.

In yoga, the warrior pose is standing with legs apart and arms stretched outward. It doesn’t appear to be a warrior-like position. Rather than looking like one ready for battle it’s one of complete openness. It was the pose mama held as she fought poverty and loneliness. Compassion always stands firm, arms always outstretched.

Alzheimer’s left ongoing grief in its wake. Grief is stealthy in its attack brought on by the best of memories. It aims for the heart. Some days I want to take the curl-up-in-a-ball-and-watch-Netflix pose. Instead, I allow the grief to wash over me, blinking back the salty tears filling my eyes.  An open heart is stronger than we can imagine. 

I’m a fighter I remind myself. I come from a long line of strong women, women who stood firm in conviction and held their arms wide open for family and strangers. There is no assurance you won’t be hurt. To the contrary, there is evidence you will be hurt. Again and again. But you won’t stop fighting.

It can feel a little like losing but love sometimes does.

Only the truest of warriors expose themselves in battle. They stand unarmed and unprotected, with arms of grace wide open.