Monday, December 23, 2013

"The Mirror...a Christmas Memory"

     Two of my (grown-up) babies got engaged at the same time this last Christmas season.  I caught myself thinking several times that this might be my best Christmas ever.  It brought back a long forgotten memory of what really was perhaps my favorite Christmas gift ever.
     I was about twelve or thirteen, and it had been a lean year financially for our little family on the Vesta Prairie.  It was cold and we were broke, but that isn't the part I've been remembering...  
     Christmas was coming, and I had my mind on the expensive designer jeans my “town friends” were wearing.  I was experimenting with make-up and spending hours locked in the bathroom curling my hair, surrounded by clouds of hair spray.  The teenage years were hitting fast and furiously.  My emotions were spiraling out of control.  I spent the majority of my time with the phone receiver cradled to my ear and the cord stretched to my bedroom.  Gossiping with my friends about cute boys, piles of “Teen” magazines scattered across my bed.  I wanted to be a rich glamour girl.  I wanted to live in New York City.  I had a ways to go.  In every sense.
     My dad and his brothers had been out hunting in the woods on our mountain every night, coming home late and exhausted.  They skinned the animals they killed and sold the skins.  “Hide” money funded my parents Christmas shopping.  I lived in a state of constantly conflicting emotions, stuck between praying for those poor animals to get away, and hoping for money to buy those designer jeans.
     Dad spent more and more time working out in the barn at night, often going back out in the cold weather after supper and staying until long after my brother and I went to bed.  I assumed he was skinning animals.  I avoided that barn as much as possible.  I can smell it in my mind, even today.
     After much anticipation, the long-awaited Christmas morning finally dawned…my brother and I opened the gifts stacked under the tree one by one.  I can’t remember what they were that year…maybe make-up or a cassette tape for me, maybe a football for Cody.  No wrapped expensive designer jeans- and I tried not to show my disappointment… but then Dad slipped outside when we were almost finished, hurrying out to the barn and coming back with something wrapped in black trash bags.  He handed it to me excitedly…
    He had secretly spent those hours late at night out in that barn with all those stinky skinned animals- in the one place he knew I wouldn’t snoop- building me a large oval make-up mirror surrounded by lights.  He fashioned the frame, positioned the mirror and attached it, ran the electrical cords and carefully screwed in the large bulbs…all with money we could hardly do without.  It was beautiful.
      I can close my eyes even today and easily remember the excitement on his face when I squealed with joy as he carried it in from the cold outside.  
     Mom spent Christmas Day hanging my mirror above a fancy new vanity table, with its short and padded stool.  Oh, the many happy hours I spent primping in front of all the bright lights, pretending I was headed to model for a fancy magazine, applying and reapplying my make-up, modeling every outfit I owned.   Getting ready for the day I would move away to the big city.
     It’s been about thirty years since that Christmas morning so long ago.  I’ve received a lot of presents and given a lot of presents myself, many of which cost much more than that mirror did.  But I’m not sure I ever received a gift that had more effort and thought put into it, or brought me more fun and happiness.
     I still lived in the country.  I was still poor.  I would never model for a magazine or even own those fancy designer jeans…but each and every time I sat in front of those bright lights, in my private little dressing room… lost in my pretend world…I was glamorous and rich.               
     I never made it to New York City.  At least not to live.  Never fulfilled many of those teenage dreams.  As I got older, other dreams replaced them.  Better dreams.  Of family and faith, and small town life.  It took me a lifetime to understand that I wasn’t poor- even in my childhood, but rich in ways that I wouldn‘t understand for many years…

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"The Gathering Place"

     I’ve been home alone this week, trapped by snow and ice, and without electricity, like so many others here in the Charleston area.  I’ve had some unexpected quiet time, broken only by the sharp crack of limbs breaking and falling in our back yard. Made me start thinking about how much I love trees.  And one in particular.
     In previous generations, kids in small towns such as ours gathered in sand lots to play pick up baseball games, unencumbered by the watchful eyes of referees or coaches.  Playing long into summer evenings and running home to supper when the sun began to set.  And maybe, once they were driving age, those same kids gathered at the local drive-in, where they compared cars and clothes and ate ice cream under warm summer skies.  These days my teenager and his friends gather at the local high school gym in the evenings to shoots some baskets, and probably discuss the same issues as so many before them.  The gym is their “gathering place.”
     Young kids and old men have a tendency to gather and visit.  I think the rest of us, hurrying from place to place and activity to activity, could learn some lessons from them.
     To get back on track, my brother called recently to tell me he was cleaning up around our old home place and planned to cut down the big tree in the side yard.  He knew he should call.  He knew I would want to know.  He knew I would be sad.  And he was right.  That tree was the “gathering place” of our childhood.
     We were country kids, raised almost seven miles from town.  We rode an old bus to school and back every single day, an hour each way, through winding dirt roads. With dust blowing in through the lowered windows, sweating in the summer and freezing in the winter, it felt like seven hundred miles instead of seven.  I don’t remember my parents worrying too much about our comfort in those days.  I think they worried more about our character.  Riding that school bus taught me many things.  Some good and some bad.  I suffered a little.  But I think now my parents had the right idea.  Suffering just a little bit as a child taught me many good and enduring character traits.  Makes me worry a little for the generation we are raising now.  Afraid they are entirely too comfortable.  Don’t think they are spending much time climbing leafy trees or riding hot buses.
     Anyway, the point is, we didn’t have a ball field or a gym to enjoy.  We didn’t have a drive-in anywhere in Vesta, USA.  What we had was a tree in the yard.   And a lot of boredom.
     It wasn’t just an ordinary tree.  It was perfect as far as trees go.  The trunk was several feet around, solid and sturdy.  It split about four feet off the ground into several thick low limbs that were perfect to get a first foothold, then continued up for forty or fifty feet, horizontal limbs branching off in all directions.  I think God planted that tree as a special gift to Cody and me when he plotted out the blueprint of the world.  Our world was small, and some days never expanded any farther than those cool, leafy branches.
  When we were really young, dad poured us a sand pile.  Oh, the excitement!  There was no frame except for the thick tangled roots of the tree standing proudly above, and no expensive pesticides to keep away the tiny bugs, which we caught and kept for pets.  We buried broken toys we found at the city dump, and old pennies we shined up, then dug them back up, over and over again.  We built elaborate miniature houses from rocks, and used sticks to form long, curving roads and deep lakes, which we filled with muddy water.  We fashioned various schools and churches (although at Cody’s insistence, the schools stayed closed year around).  We tried unsuccessfully to grow plants in our sand pile, transplanting grass cut by the lawn mower and watering it faithfully.
     After many years that load of sand was swallowed by the damp earth underneath, and there remained only a trace of what had been.  Our sand pile was gone forever.
     At some point in those early years, my brother decided he would grow up to be a professional bull rider.  I don’t remember anyone ever telling him it was unlikely.  In fact, my dad hung an old rusty barrel from the low branches of the tree and he commenced to practicing!  I spent countless long hot hours pulling on the four ropes that suspended it, making his “bull” turn to the left and right, bucking and twisting the barrel until he landed in the left over sand pile, standing quickly to throw his hat in the air and wave to the imaginary crowd that cheered wildly.  Those who were surprised that he actually grew up to earn a good living in the Professional Rodeo world were not with me under that tree all those hot summer days.
   I, for one, was not surprised at all.
     On the other side of the tree, we had an old tire swing that was never still.  We were not the only ones who made good use of it, as we often tied unsuspecting farm animals in against their wills, naked broken baby dolls, and even an occasional adventurous adult!  The rope had to be replaced periodically due to use and abuse, as we would sometimes load it down with three or four neighborhood kids at one time and swing high, stretching the tire to the ground, where it would hang and rub in the smooth dirt below until dad climbed the tree to loop the rope over the branch a few more wraps.
     Many summer days found us eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking kool-aid under the tree while pretending we were far away from home on a fancy picnic.  We attempted to ignore that fact that mom was delivering discreetly from her kitchen fifty feet away.
     As we got older, we had family birthdays and country church picnics under the sprawling branches, resting afterward, spread out in the shade, slices of garden fresh watermelon resting in our laps, sticky juice dripping from our chins.
     Years later, I grew up and got married, gave birth to my first child, and took him straight home from the hospital to live in our old home place.  I had the satisfaction of seeing him play under the old tree, just as we had a generation before.  It was starting to droop a little, not producing as many leaves.  But it still had the strength to host one more group of children playing happily beneath it’s sheltering branches, puppies and mud puddles close by.  I’m so grateful for that.
     My kids are grown and married now, and many years have passed.  I’ll have my own grandchild next summer.  But I think often of my time as a child, playing under that tree.  It was a simpler time.  A time when “busy” lived somewhere seven miles away in town, and our vivid imaginations ruled our simple country world.  
     When my brother called recently to say it was time to cut it down, I knew in my heart he was right.  It had been leaning slightly, with rotten branches slowly splitting, for several years.  It was becoming a danger in it’s old age.  It was time to let it go.  And so we did.  But it felt like we had lost an old friend.  Some might not understand.  Some might point out that it was “just” a tree.  But they would be wrong.  It was the “gathering place” of a happy childhood.  And gifts like that aren’t easily replaced.  Good memories seem harder to make these days.  Long carefree summer afternoons are fewer and far between.
     I am thankful for the gift God gave us all those years ago.  The seed he planted and nurtured.  I am thankful for those sturdy familiar limbs where we whispered secrets and dreams.  I am thankful for parents who didn’t structure our time and energy, but turned us loose to explore and imagine.  I am thankful that I learned the seasons of life not from a book in the school library, but from vivid changing colors of an old oak tree that allowed me to nap often in its leafy branches, under a calm and clear blue sky.  I am thankful that I got my first glimpse of what heaven may be while lying in the limbs of that old tree, watching clouds drift lazily by, far above my little world.
     I am thankful, most of all, for the gathering place of my youth.  Thankful for the lessons it taught me and the adventures it gave.  My tree is gone now, like it never existed at all.
     But always, always…my sweet memories remain.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"The Holy Hush" ~Zephaniah 3:14-17

“Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion!  The Lord has taken away His judgments against you.  He has cleared away your enemies.  You will fear disaster no more.  He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in his love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” ~Zephaniah 3: 14-17

     I’ve never heard these verses before.  Never studied them that I remember, but I heard them in a sermon recently and they shook me to my core.  When they were being read, the tears just streamed down my face, and even now, weeks later, they threaten again as I type these words.
     I struggle with my sins.  Even now.  Years after being saved.  Years after God’s mercy washed over me.  There is rarely an alter call when I don’t confess them again, and again, and again.  Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to convince God just how bad I really am.  Like He doesn’t already know.  He does.  He’s heard all the details.  Many times over. And over. And over.
     It's always been hard for me to wrap my mind and soul around mercy and forgiveness.  The truth is I crave judgment instead of mercy.  I feel ashamed.  I often sit in a church crowd and hope they won’t discover how bad I really am. An imposter.  Not worthy.  Not clean.
       I am serving a prison sentence inside for things I’ve done.  A prison sentence that no one sentenced me to.  It is self-imposed.  But just as stifling.  My invisible bars sometimes keep me from speaking up, singing loudly, teaching, serving, reaching out.  Which of course, is a form of failure resulting from failure, sin resulting from sin.  It’s a cycle.  And a prison.  My bars are solid.  My jumpsuit striped black and white.  Sin and mercy side by side.
      It’s been pointed out to me on occasion that my feeling this way is a slap in the face to the power of Jesus’ blood to cleanse.  Do I not believe his grace is sufficient?  Do I not trust His mercy?  My sins were wiped away.  He can’t see them anymore.  I believe that.  I really do.  But I can still see them clearly.  They are etched on my soul.  And they still hinder me, cripple me, every day.  Consequences remain.
     You can understand why these verses hit me so hard.  It’s been years since I shouted for joy.  Or even spoke it loudly.  I don’t shout.  I don’t speak up.  Satan has his hand firmly over my mouth.  My failures have smothered my "joy shouts".  I’ve always felt like God knows this.  We have an understanding.  The shouting part is for other people.  The people with enduring marriages, perfect children, bills paid and savings accounts firmly in place.  The “got-it-all-together-and-know-where-I-put-it-people.”  You know some of them, don’t you?  The holy hush crowd.  Sometimes it’s hard to shout for joy in the midst of them.  When I can clearly see the road behind me.   A long dirty road that is littered with heartaches and potholes.  Broken dreams.  Soul shattering sins.  My sins.  When I look back on that, all my shouting gets swallowed and choked on.
     And then the next verse speaks straight to me.  The Lord has taken away His judgments against you.  Maybe the most powerful words He could say to me.   He has taken them away.  They are gone.  Not waiting for me somewhere.  Gone.  Gone.  Gone.  So the big question now is, who could I be without my sins smothering my shouts?  Without my prison bars?  Without the ball and chain of regret that weighs me down.  Can I really let go and let Him cover the mess I made?  Can I?
     He will exult over me with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over me with shouts of joy.    The idea of My Father in Heaven shouting over me brings me to my knees in humility.  I am so undeserving.  So dirty.  Such a failure.  How can He shout over me?
     So many times I get in my comfortable Bible study rut.  I read my old favorite verses, my Psalms, my much studied parables and underlined passages.  I find such comfort in the familiarity of them.  I find reassurance in the sameness of scripture.  It’s always there for me.  A trusted friend.  And then something like these verses hits me right between the eyes and slays me.  A fresh and new word.   A message from God written straight to my heart.  A wake-up call that knocks the wind out of me.  Just when I start to feel comfortable. Hidden and safe.   He knows me so well.
     So today I will try to shout.  Even if it’s just to Him alone.  I will shout.  I will sing to Him.  I will praise Him for His mercy.  His cleansing, soothing, snow white love and forgiveness.  I will rest in it.  And I will try to accept my pardon from sin.  My release from prison. His mercy shines a bright spotlight into the deepest black pit of my sinful soul.  And I will rejoice, just for a while, with shouts of joy.  Just as He does!