Archive for February, 2012

When Love Isn’t Pretty

Valentine’s Day. Cupid’s arrow. Hearts. Cards. Balloons. Flowers. Chocolate. And maybe some bling. It’s a day we specifically set aside to show our love in tangible ways. A special dinner or concert, maybe a romantic getaway, or an evening out to see the latest romantic comedy at the theater. February 14th is a day to celebrate and express some of the deepest feelings of the heart.

It’s a beautiful day painted with reds, pinks, whites, and even purples in every possible combination. And isn’t it easy to love when love is easy? When it feels good, when it warms the soul, when it brings uncontainable joy?

But what happens when love isn’t pretty?

I must confess I’m a hopeless romantic at heart. I love romantic novels (real love stories, not the sleazy ones), romantic movies (Somewhere in Time, The Notebook, Sleepless in Seattle) and romantic music (no one does it better than Rachmaninoff and Barry White). But I’ve been reflecting these last few weeks about love. Real love. Enduring love. Love that goes the distance. It’s a very different thing from what we see portrayed on TV commercials and in magazines.

My maternal grandparents were a powerful example of real love. Oh my, how Memaw and PaPa loved each other! My grandmother could walk into the room and PaPa’s face would light up like Christmas morning. Memaw always spoke my grandfather’s name, Charles, with uncontested pride and respect. She genuinely adored being his wife. My PaPa was a preacher for 57 years and Memaw was a faithful preacher’s wife, pianist, Sunday School teacher, mother to five, and elementary school teacher right along beside him. Any time my grandfather expressed his concern about not being a seminary graduate, my grandmother would pat his arm sand say, “Now Charles, you’re a good preacher. And you love your people. Don’t you let anyone make you feel badly about not having a piece of paper on the wall at your office.”  Memaw and PaPa loved their children, their extended family, their neighbors, and their church. But they loved no one the way they loved each other. PaPa kept his good looks all throughout his life and Memaw was careful to keep hers, looking mighty fine for him as well. She still has the prettiest legs of any woman I’ve ever known – and she’s 96!

When my PaPa’s cancer returned aggressively in early 1991, he endured extensive radiation treatments that can only be described as horrific. My grandmother never left his side. When it was time to make arrangements for hospice, she found a nurse to come live with them. But Memaw made it very clear she was his caretaker; the nurse was there only to help her manage his pain. After he passed, through deep sobbing cries she said, “I miss him so much. But I wouldn’t bring him back for anything. He’s whole now and I wouldn’t want to take that away from him.”

That, my friends, is real love.

My paternal grandparents were a beautiful example of love that goes the distance. My Grammie and PawPaw were kind, gracious, respectful of each other and those around them, and hospitable. They loved their family and especially their grandchildren. PawPaw always planted an amazing garden in their enormous backyard and Grammie would surely have hosted a cooking show if The Food Network had been around in her day.  I don’t remember them being openly affectionate with each other but their love and commitment was undeniable. And I do remember upon my first trip home from college, PawPaw actually returned my hug when I threw my arms around his neck.

When doctors confirmed my Grammie’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, we knew it would be difficult. We had no idea how agonizing it would be. My beautiful grandmother, an elegant, strong Southern lady who never had a hair out of place, who taught me to peel peaches and cook fried chicken, who gave me my love for rocking chairs, lost herself in a place too far away for us to reach. I’ll never forget the first time I went to their house and she didn’t recognize me. It was crushing. My PawPaw gently, lovingly, stubbornly cared for her in their home 24/7/365 until it nearly killed him. By the time he finally relented and moved her to a nursing facility, he had not slept more than an hour or two at a time for months.

PawPaw spent every day with her, holding her hand, talking to her, bringing her things that might touch some place deep in the recesses of her mind. When she yelled at him and called him names, he loved her. When she tried to run away in her nightgown, he loved her. When she accused him of holding her hostage and keeping her from her parents (long since passed), he loved her. And when she could no longer communicate at all, he loved her still. He grieved the loss of his beloved Anna Mae for years before death finally released her.

That, my friends, is love that goes the distance.

When I received my cancer diagnosis in 2001, I was shocked to learn that many of our ‘friends’ told my husband that our marriage would never survive such a traumatic event. “Hang in there as long as you can, Richard,” they told him. “And when it’s finally over, just know you did your best.” That’s not enduring love. Enduring love doesn’t bail when love gets hard. Enduring love digs its heels in and finds a way to stay. And stay he did. Richard was by my side through every surgery, every doctor’s visit, every chemo treatment, every perinatal checkup, every lab appointment, every radiation treatment, every day, every week, every month.

Richard took care of the kids, managed my care, maintained the schedule of meals and house cleanings, and stayed on top of Alex’s homework. He knew when to let me do a little and he knew when to make me stop. He was my bodyguard when people wanted to hug me too soon after a surgery, my protector when strangers turned away from my bald-headed, pregnant, one-breasted self, and my personal comedian when we needed to add a little salt to our very full plate. There were many things we were afraid to confess to each other during that time; things maybe the other one of us hadn’t thought about yet. But leaving was never one of them. Richard is loyal to the core. And he would take on the devil himself for his family.

That, my friends, is enduring love.

All these examples point me to a greater love – undoubtedly the best example ever provided to humanity. His wasn’t pretty either. Subjected to cruel mocking and bitter hatred, an inhumane beating and a torturous crucifixion, Jesus showed us what love looks like when it isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty. His was a real love which valued obedience to his Father over his own comfort and convenience; an enduring love that bore the shameful, humiliating penalty of our sin on his own sinless body. Love that felt no bitterness, hatred, or judgment towards the one who betrayed him, only deep sorrow. Love willing to go the distance, even unto death on a cross, willing to do whatever it took to defeat Love’s enemy which he triumphantly accomplished on that glorious third day.

For your sake. For my sake. For eternity’s sake.

As we exchange cards, flowers, gifts, and our affection on Valentine’s Day, let us remember the greatest love of all, expressed in John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world [real love] that He gave His only son [enduring love], that whosoever believes in him should have everlasting life [love that goes the distance].”

Love that loves when it isn’t pretty.


Scrabble With God

After my cancer diagnosis years ago I had a small window of time between my last surgery and the first of four chemotherapy treatments. My ‘chemo cocktail’, Adriamycin and Cytoxan (known affectionately to us cancer insiders as A/C), would cost me my hair, my energy, and very possibly the child I was carrying. At the time, some precious friends of ours owned a cabin nestled deep in the mountains of north Georgia. They generously offered to let me have a mini-retreat there, providing a much-needed opportunity to clear my head and focus on what we were about to undertake. I tend to be rather introspective and, unlike my husband who would have chosen this time to be immersed in family and friends 24/7, I really wanted and needed some time alone.

Richard was concerned about me going so far away by myself, especially where cell phone coverage would be minimal, so we invited my ‘chocolate chip cookie’ friend, Alison, to join me.

A little back-story: The day I received my diagnosis (over the phone) was one of the longest, most bizarre days of my life. Time stood still in a way but also seemed to suddenly spin wildly out of control. A friend of mine recently described it as “frozen, but moving.” I became a cancer survivor, patient, victim, and fighter in a matter of seconds. By evening we were all completely exhausted. I had just finished giving Rachel her bath – she was 2 ½ at the time – and had walked into the kitchen to make chocolate chip cookies for Richard and our older son Alex. They had seen a commercial on TV while I was bathing Rachel and a nice plate of comfort food with a glass of cold milk sounded pretty good to all of us.

As our little Rachel was helping me find the cookie dough in the refrigerator, we heard a knock at the front door. Honestly, I wondered who on earth would be coming over at this late hour and headed through the family room to see who had come for a visit. When I opened the door, the unmistakable delicious aroma of chocolate hit my nose. There stood my friend, Alison, with a basket of homemade fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. Flashing that celebrity smile of hers, she stepped inside and said, “I didn’t know what to do except pray and bring chocolate!” We laughed. We hugged. We cried. We ate every one of those cookies.

Now back to my mini-retreat: Alison and I agreed that this was not going to be a trip for shopping and gallivanting. We have similar personalities and she was one of the few people in my life who truly understood my need for solitude. Heading out early one Wednesday morning we enjoyed some specifically chosen CDs on our beautiful drive into the trees. We found the cabin after only one wrong turn and it took just a few minutes for us to unpack and become acquainted with our surroundings. The cabin was gorgeous – beautifully decorated and perfectly inviting. Smiling photographs of family and friends were everywhere and I instantly felt a sense of peace and calm about my time there. The sun was warm and high in the sky so Alison and I ventured out for a walk.

We walked quietly together, winding our way through the trees and embracing the chill in the air. As much as I was enjoying the simple therapy of being surrounded by all things natural, Alison could sense that I was running out of steam. “Hey, why don’t we head back? I’m about ready for a bite to eat. How about you?” I agreed and we soon found ourselves back inside, deciding on popcorn and an apple for our snack. We were thrilled to find an enormous deck on the back side of the cabin complete with oversized rocking chairs and a breathtaking view of those rolling north Georgia mountains.

I grabbed a blanket to wrap around my legs and was rocking gently, watching the sun change the sky as it began to settle. Alison broke the silence by asking, “Have you ever played Scrabble with God?” My raised eyebrows answered for me. She explained that this was a game she had been playing for years by simply laying out a Scrabble board, choosing random tiles, building random words, and when no more tiles could be used, looking at the board as a whole and reflecting on what was there. I decided to give it a go. At first we joked and laughed a bit about some of the funny, crazy combinations we could design and how the words played off each other. But the more I pulled those random tiles from the table, the more focused I became. This game was drawing me in. It was truly as if God was allowing me to see words in my tiles before they were even a conscious thought.

When the board was full and I couldn’t build anything more with the remaining tiles, Alison and I began to read the words aloud. I don’t remember all of them, but I do specifically recall words like faith, joy, courage, family, spirit, and hope. I’m sure my frame of mind made me more attune to such words but still, the tiles didn’t lie. I hadn’t exchanged any, hadn’t turned in my slate for a do-over, or manipulated any of the letters. It was a simple yet profound way of God reminding me that He was very aware…and He was there. Alison and I sat quietly and watched a beautiful sunset paint its way into darkness before going inside. The rest of our time together was exactly what my doctor – the Master Healer – had ordered: I read, I wrote, I prayed, I laughed, I slept, I cried a little.

We arrive back home a few days later and I felt refreshed, focused, even energized.

Scrabble with God. Just one more beautiful way in which He reminds us that we are never far from His heart. Or His hand.

The Gravy of Grace

I am a loud and proud Southerner, born and raised in Georgia, a true Marietta native. I love Southern food, Southern etiquette (or sometimes lack thereof), Southern hospitality (did you ever hear anyone boast about Northern hospitality? I didn’t think so), Southern grammar (again, sometimes lack thereof), and Southern football (read: shameless plug for the SEC).

I remember my first picnic at a church north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was my freshman year in college and a gang of us had driven out to a little country church for Sunday service, passing a few Amish folk enjoying their horse and buggy along the way. The weather was gorgeous that Sunday afternoon and after service, the ladies were busily arranging all the food by category on the outdoor tables while the children got sufficiently sweaty and dirty before it was time to say the blessing.

My new friends and I took our place in line chatting about college classes, professors, upper classmen, curfew, and whether we would have time to stop by the mall on our way back to campus. I’m a fairly adventurous eater so I began to take a spoonful of this and a portion of that, moving down the line in great anticipation of what I was sure would greet me when I reached the meat section of the table: fried chicken.

To my dismay, I reached the last of all those tables with not even a drumstick or a thigh to show for it. No mashed potatoes; nothing even remotely resembling potato salad; and no gravy. I turned to one of my classmates and asked quietly, “where’s the fried chicken?” To which she burst into obnoxious laughter. She felt inspired to share with everyone else that I was looking for the fried chicken, to which they all responded with the same uproarious laughter. I didn’t think it was funny. Who has a picnic without fried chicken? Apparently, a lot of people – even those who go to church and have Sunday picnics on the church grounds!

Clearly, I was the only Southerner in attendance that afternoon, which sparked another entire conversation on life in the South, including why we get so bent out of shape talking about the Civil War.  I am happy to say I provided a proper education for my listeners that day.

One of my favorite things about Southern food is gravy. We put gravy on everything. We douse our roast from the crock pot, cooked carrots, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and cornbread in brown gravy. We ladle white gravy (best made from sausage drippings) on scrambled eggs, toast, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and the sausage the gravy was made from. Gravy makes everything taste better – and the key for both brown and white gravy is in the roux (pronounced ‘roo’ for you non-Southern readers). There is an art of absolute perfection in the mixing of butter and flour, stirred properly with a fork, at just the right temperature over a hot stove, until it reaches just the right color.

If something is salty, we tone it down a bit with the gravy. If it lacks a little seasoning, we spice it up with the gravy. Gravy is the perfect food accessory: you can make a puddle in the middle of your mashed potatoes and not get scolded for playing with your food; you can drizzle it over biscuits and let it run lazily around the plate; you can even dress up a pot roast on its platter by splashing a bit across the top.

I think grace is like that. Some people define grace as forgiveness. Some people define grace as elegance and good manners. Some people define grace as mercy.  My pastor has often defined grace and mercy this way: grace is receiving what you don’t deserve; mercy is not receiving what you do.

While all of these may be true to some extent, grace is so much more than any of them – and all of them.

The Greek word is ’charis’ and literally means free gift. Freely given, freely received. We can’t give grace and expect something in return; if we do, it’s not grace. We can’t receive grace and try to prove that we earned it; if we do, it’s not grace. Grace is a gift for both the giver and the receiver. Eugene Gladstone O’Neill, Pulitzer Prize winner in 1936 for Literature, said this about grace: “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. Grace is the glue.”  And I would argue that like gravy, grace starts with the roux – the perfect blending of the heart and mind, mixed together to perfection, making a conscious decision between both to give or receive in a spirit of love and thankfulness.

Grace, like gravy, makes everything taste better. When we extend towards others an attitude of grace, we release the selfish demands of life being all about ourselves. We look beyond our own comfort zone and extend a very personal, heart-inspired gift to our neighbors, friends, family, and yes, our enemies. And at times, when we are our own worst enemy, grace is one of those rare and beautiful gifts by which we are the giver and receiver.  A free gift to our own self, given by our own self, to reflect the unmerited favor God has showered upon us. Grace charges nothing and doesn’t look for a tip. It simply is. But oh, how much better life tastes when seasoned with a heaping helping of grace!

Are you in a season where life lacks flavor? Or are you feeling overwhelmed by too much spice in your days? Are those around you in need of some gravy from your plate? Do you need to step back and feed yourself a bit right now? Go ahead, mix up a tasty roux of heart and mind before you grab a ladle.

Then lavish yourself – and someone else – with the gravy of grace. Nothin’ like it to satisfy the appetite of the soul.

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