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Let’s face it: without our men, none of us would be mothers.

This time last year, I dedicated a full week leading up to Mother’s Day to celebrate all the Moms in my life: friends, my mother-in-law, my grandmother, my mom, and the moms who – for whatever reason – have lost a child.

So this year I’d like to look at motherhood from another angle and dedicate this blog post to my husband, the father of my children.

Dear Richard, Thank you for Rachel and Stephen. They are the joy of my life. True, if I hadn’t married you I would never have known them and in essence would not have the capacity to miss them. But I can’t for one second imagine my life without them. My children are my heartbeat.

Thank you for being patient with me as a single mom and for understanding that Alex and I came as a package deal. I think you may actually have loved him before you loved me. And I’m ok with that. Thank you for being there when you didn’t have to be. And for sharing that freezing sink full of ice cold water after the firecracker accident. Thank you for making vacations fun and for your quick, strong arms when Alex tried to jump out of the boat!

You stared in disbelief at the card I gave you announcing that you were going to be a daddy (both times). You endured my morning sickness (which always hit around dinnertime), my emotional breakdowns and outbursts, my cravings (cheese pizza with green olives), my ever-expanding backside, and my labor. For all your jokes about a man’s place not being in the delivery room, you were right beside me to deliver both of our beautiful children.

You’ve helped me relax and appreciate eating popcorn on the sofa and leaving the beds unmade. You’ve shown by example the importance of being at every practice, every game, every doctor’s appointment, every parent-teacher conference, and every performance or competition. You’ve been a friend to our children’s friends and always made them feel comfortable and welcome in our home. You’ve encouraged our kids to expand their world by trying new foods, going new places, and being friendly and kind to everyone.

You make our children laugh, you tell them daily that you love them, and you shower them with genuine affection. You challenge them, encourage them to push a little further, try a little harder, and you celebrate every victory as if it were your own. Our mattress may be destroyed, but our kids hold wonderful memories of having an indoor trampoline on the ‘big bed’.

And in spite of the train wreck that was my first marriage, it would be shameful for me not to thank him for my first-born, Alex. I cut my “parenting teeth” on Alex and although there were many challenges it was Alex who gave me the strength, courage, and motivation to carry on. When I became a single mom, Alex brought a smile to my face and warmed my heart when no one else could. He taught me to be careful with my words and generous with my affection. Alex taught me to love with abandon, to trust when all the odds are stacked against you, and that the most important thing about falling is to get up again. Alex gave birth to the Mama Bear in me and renewed the wonder of Christmas morning.

So for Mother’s Day I say thank you for the privilege and blessing of being a mom. Without you, I would never have heard the sweetest words to echo through the Universe and into my heart: “I love you, Mommy.” 

This weekend marked my maternal grandmother’s 97th birthday. Yes, 97. She looks like a spritely 75-year-old, is in excellent health, and until very recently could work circles around anyone half her age. I remember a few years ago when she was in the emergency room with an about-to-rupture gall bladder and the nurse asked her what medications she was currently taking. She said, ‘I don’t take anything’. The nurse turned to my mother and asked the same question, remarking that my grandmother didn’t hear or understand what she had asked. My grandmother, in excruciating pain, fired right back, “I heard you and I understood you. And I will tell you again, I don’t take any medication for anything.”

 My mother didn’t need to say a word.

 This weekend my family also celebrated my youngest son’s 10th birthday. Finally, double digits. My grandmother, his great-grandmother, “Memaw”, 87 years his senior.

 Although we don’t get to spend a tremendous amount of time together, my children adore their great-grandmother. And I’ve been thinking of a few things I hope they have learned from her, passed down generation to generation, reminding them of their roots and the legacy they’ve been given.

1. Family is everything. My earliest memories of my grandmother center around family gatherings. She and my Papa loved nothing more in the world than being surrounded by their children and grandchildren. They loved the churches my grandfather pastored and poured their hearts into the lives of its members, but nothing – and I mean nothing – brought them greater joy than having family around them.

2. Loyalty matters. My grandmother is fiercely loyal. She can correct, rebuke, and even punish a family member who gets out of line, but woe to the outsider who attempts to do the same. My Memaw is one of the sweetest, most gracious and forgiving Southern women you could ever hope to meet. Until you say something unkind about one of her own. Then I would suggest you head for the hills. Fast.

3. Growth is important. My grandmother was a teacher for most of her adult life using a teaching degree she earned in 1934. And at the age of 50, she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Education fromBerryCollege. Yes, going back to college was difficult. Yes, it took time, and energy, and commitment. But she did it. She also learned to drive. And for the record, she was a better student than she was a driver. The roots of my “Lead Foot Lucy” nickname can be traced straight back to her!

4. Change is inevitable. My grandfather was a pastor. Not at one church. Not at two or three churches. In his 57 years as a pastor, my Papa shepherded seven church congregations spread out over three states. My grandmother always made it an adventure, a calling, an opportunity. And she always made it home. No muss, no fuss. Just set up house, share the (one) bathroom, gather the family around the table for a home-cooked meal, and say the blessing. Make friends, embrace change, celebrate birthdays, holidays, and babies, and be grateful for the pillow on which you lay your head at night.

5. Marriage is forever. My grandparents were married for almost 60 years. When my Papa, her beloved Charles, was dying of cancer she was his advocate, his caretaker, his nurse, his meal planner, his gentle bath-giver, his prayer warrior. She was strong as he grew weaker, and she bravely held his hand as he left his earthly body to embrace immortality. Memaw taught us how to grieve loss and celebrate life in the same breath. She cried and she laughed and she hugged long and hard those who shared her grief. And she has faced head-on the years without him, sadly at times, accepting that it is not yet her time to be reunited with him. When it was suggested at one time that she consider re-marrying, she looked away and softly said, “it’s not for me; Charles was my one and only.”

6. The Bible is true. I don’t know how many times my Memaw has read through the Bible but she can teach it as if she wrote it herself! (No disrespect intended.) When she talks about her favorite passages or verses in the Bible, they truly come to life. Her love for God’s word is the foundation and cornerstone of her existence. And anyone who has ever met her knows that to be true about her. She doesn’t preach the Bible to those around her. She doesn’t have to because she lives it every single day.

7. Prayer works. My Memaw has spent hundreds, probably thousands, of hours throughout her life praying for her family, her friends, her community, her country, and the world. When she awakens during the night, instead of getting a warm glass of milk and going back to sleep, she gets on her knees and prays for whoever is on her heart and mind. And she stays there until she feels a peace about climbing back under the covers. I’ve heard her tell of many a night when she prayed right on through the night until it was time to start the day’s work. My life is living proof that her prayers were heard and answered.

8. Eternity is forever. I can’t remember a time (almost ever) when my grandmother hasn’t reminded us all that she wants nothing more in the world than for her family to be together. Forever. Eternally. She reminds us all how important it is for us to stay in right relationship with God, to love Him above all else, and to be obedient to His leading. Through teary eyes and strained voice she pleads with us all to be sure, be absolutely sure, that we know where we will spend eternity. And then she smiles that sweet little smile, cocks her head and whispers, “I love you all so much.”

 Happy birthday, Memaw. Happy birthday, Stephen. As I find myself standing between the young and old, it occurs to me that the distance between 10 and 97 is not really very far. Not when it’s measured with love.

Taking the First Plunge

I wrote recently about our impending move to a new home (see, The Beauty of Transition on this blog site). Well, last week was not only Spring Break for our county school system, it was our week to move. Sometime soon I will blog about all the God-orchestrated events that brought us to this place. But my emotions are raw and my body is tired so for right now, let me share with you a few thoughts about packing, unpacking, and moving lives.

Our very first day brought an unexpected and wonderful surprise. A friend of mine had called and told me she would help. I wasn’t really sure what I would ask her to do that first day because we had only so much packed and we were going to take it slow. You know, pace our selves. Well, she showed up with a carload of high school boys who spent the next several hours moving everything they could get their hands on. She said, “Dawn, you know I refuse to break a sweat but I sure don’t mind making these boys work!” She helped orchestrate moving some major pieces of furniture and we ended the day excited, deeply grateful, and way ahead of the game.

The funny thing was that when the guys were moving a couple of particularly special pieces I had told them in the event of an impending fall to get out of the way. The furniture might be antique, but their lives could not be replaced. Come to find out, Richard had just told them a few minutes earlier that if they started to drop something they should sacrifice their bodies, not the furniture!  Thankfully, no one had to sacrifice anything. Everything and everybody survived the afternoon.

We had ideal weather throughout the week. Cool mornings and not-too-hot afternoons allowed us to have windows and doors wide open all week. Our children were incredibly helpful, picking up boxes, moving furniture, and climbing endless flights of stairs. We did everything ourselves except for a 3-hour shift late in the week with three professional movers who looked like they had just walked out of a wrestling arena. Man, those guys were big! And fast, too! Rachel and I were trying to move a mattress while struggling to hold its shape intact as we navigated through the hall and around a corner to the stairs. One of the movers walked up and said, ‘let me get that for you.’ In one quick motion, he threw that mattress across his back and had it in the back of their truck faster than Rachel and I could silently call each other wimps =)

Box after box after box after box made its way to the car, the trunk, the back of the truck, and the trailer. After surveying that every available space was filled, we would convoy over to the new place and unload box after box after box after box. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. We put our kids’ friends to work and bribed them with pizza. Little by little, one room at a time, one house was emptying as the other was filling. We still had a very long way to go, but we were making great progress.

On Wednesday afternoon Stephen, our youngest, asked if we were going to be able to have Easter Sunday dinner on “Grammie’s china”. It is a long-standing tradition that I bring out my paternal grandmother’s beautiful, antique china for Easter Sunday. My dad cooks a beautiful ham (a two-day process that makes my mouth water just thinking about it) and we sit down to a lovely meal around the dining room table. There was no way I could say ‘no, not this year, honey’ but I wondered if it was even remotely possible that we could pull it off in just a few days. On Thursday, my Mom emailed me to say that she and my Dad were preparing the entire meal and if I could just have the table set, Easter Sunday dinner was a go.

And so, amid still unpacked boxes and a mattress leaning against the wall just inside the front door, we sat down to the first of many family celebrations around the dining room table. Grammie’s china was in place, all our favorite side dishes had been prepared (we even had two of the same thing that Mom and I accidentally duplicated!), and Easter Sunday dinner found a new home for the Hoods. Exhausted? Yes. Unpacked? Not by a long shot. But looking around the table at my family, taking the plunge to make a home out of this new place, I felt incredibly blessed, thankful, and satisfied.

And I hadn’t even taken the first bite of that beautiful, scrumptious ham.

I heard on the radio this morning a news story about a video trend exploding across the country on YouTube. It’s a video called “Do you think I’m pretty?” and apparently it goes something like this: 12 and 13-year-old girls are making videos of themselves, talking to the camera and telling a little bit about their friends – or lack thereof – at school. The question at the end of the video is, “Well, do you think I’m pretty? Or do you think I’m ugly? Tell me the truth.”

As of this morning there are over 4 million hits on these videos from thousands of adolescent girls across the country. Four million! The host of this particular morning show made an interesting point: “Whether or not a young girl believes she is pretty is one thing; but there is no way she can possibly be prepared for the avalanche of cruel comments that will be posted in response to her video. Even if she’s drop dead gorgeous, people will say mean things just because they can. And because there’s such tremendous anonymity on the internet, you can say anything you want and no one has to know who you are.”

This is cyber bullying on steroids. What young middle school-aged girl, already insecure and overly sensitive, is not going to obsess over every negative comment posted and then dismiss the positive ones? What is it in our psyche that makes us unable to appreciate our own selves? Not in a puffed-up arrogant way, but simply because we are uniquely our own. The radio host and his crew decided to focus on one particular video and traced the girl back to a city in Colorado. Frightening in and of itself, this opens up a whole new world to pedophiles and would-be traffickers that someone can be so easily tracked down from a video posted on the internet. When the crew called the mother and told her what they had watched featuring her daughter, the mother said she had no idea the video even existed.

Please hear me: I am not condemning this mother. No one can possibly know her story or why she didn’t know about the video. Maybe she’s a single mom working two or three jobs because a dead-beat dad walked out on his family. Maybe she’s struggling to slay her own dragons and has lost her child or children in the process. Maybe she wasn’t taught by her own family’s example how to be a good parent and she simply doesn’t know what to do or how to connect with her own kids.

My point is simply this: somewhere in this young girl’s mind and heart, she is desperate for someone to affirm her, validate her, and tell her what she longs to hear. “I am valuable to someone.” It goes way beyond physical appearance, although I would bet this is the only way she knows how to express her need for attention. Be better, be thinner, wear nicer clothes, be more popular, have prettier skin/hair/makeup. The list goes on and on and on.

What does it say about our society as human beings – created and designed for relationship – when our children are screaming into cyberspace for attention and affirmation? The internet is a wonderful tool, no doubt, but as with every other advance throughout human history, it must be kept in balance. We must ensure that it falls way down the list of priorities in our lives, and certainly not allow it to be the barometer for our children’s love and appreciation of themselves and each other.

I fear we are losing our children to a world, a society, an environment that is not even real. And the only way to protect them – to snatch them from the grip of a cyber-society that is nameless, faceless, and shameless – is to regularly connect with them. They need to hear our voice, they need to feel our touch, they need to see our smile and embrace the warmth of our approval.

A friend said to me recently, “You know, I’ve come to realize my children will never love me as much as I love them. They can’t comprehend that kind of love. They’re not made that way.” It was a stunning revelation. She’s right. But what really struck me as I chewed on that statement throughout the rest of the day is this: our Heavenly Father can say exactly the same thing about us. We will never love Him as much as He loves us. We can’t comprehend that kind of love.

Our love for each other and especially our children is broken at best. We all have wounds that shape and, unfortunately at times, define us. Our perception of ourselves and the lens through which we view and respond to the world and people around us has to constantly be checked, evaluated, and adjusted. And I’ve found a great place to work on those adjustments: the word of God.  Check it out:

Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Psalm 139:13-16 “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Proverbs 4:23 “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

Isaiah 49:16 “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…”

Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Matthew 6:26 “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

Luke 12:7 “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

We humans are a fantastic mix of fragility and strength. We endure excruciating physical and emotional pain, we accomplish the seemingly impossible, and we press on against insurmountable odds. But at our core, in our heart, we are as fragile as a word, a look, a touch. And no one knows this better than the One who gave us our very breath. So walk gently with the world around you.

The mark you leave behind may very well be a permanent one.

The Beauty of Transition

Our house recently went under contract. We’ve lived here for a little over nine years. It’s been on the market for awhile and we’ve had lots of traffic – mornings, evenings, and weekends. Although I do draw the line on an 8:30 a.m. showing on Saturday morning (no, you may not show my house unless your client is able to overlook the fact that we are all still in bed sleeping.) I receive phone calls that go something like this:

Real estate agent: “Mrs. Hood, My name is [realtor]. I’d like to show your house this afternoon between [specific 2-hour window]. Would that be convenient?”

What I say: “Oh yes, that will be fine. Thank you for calling. If you would please give us a call when you leave the house you’re showing before ours, I will round up my family so we can be out of your way. Thank you so much.”

What I’m thinking: “dear Lord, is there any way I can get the dishes washed and put away, the beds made, the floors vacuumed, and the smell of last night’s bacon out of the house in two hours????”

It really hasn’t been that bad. The downside is we have two very active children who invite friends over after school several days a week. Between football, cheer leading, and baseball our house looks like a sports equipment and spirit wear store. Challenging does not begin to describe my attitude towards keeping the house ‘show ready’. The upside is everyone in the house has learned what their duties are when we get ‘the phone call’. We go into action like little army ants planning our strategy for a summer attack on a family picnic.

The dilemma comes now as I begin to reduce nine years of our lives to boxes. My youngest son learned to walk in this house; my oldest son got his first car while we lived here; my daughter became a competition cheerleader and survived her first crush (not at the same time, thank you very much). School papers and projects, daily writing assignments from when my children were in kindergarten, random broken things stuffed into the back of a drawer (how did this end up in here? I ask myself), gift receipts from Christmases long past, cards for every possible occasion, and dried up homemade play-dough that could easily be used as a hockey puck or murder weapon – take your pick.

Admittedly, it is frustrating. It seems the more I pack the more I find that needs to be packed. Some things are easy: the Christmas china which comes out the day after Thanksgiving and is put away on New Year’s Day; the multitude of extra blankets and sheets I keep on hand because – actually, I don’t know why I have so many; picture frames that don’t have pictures in them yet; and a host of recipe books that I haven’t opened in years, mainly because my brother is a chef and when I want to try something new, I call him.

There’s also a wonderful feeling that comes from going through all the stuff of life. No doubt about it, memories are one of the great joys of digging around in drawers and cabinets. A first tooth; pictures from vacation or a backyard cookout; birthday and anniversary cards; movie ticket stubs; DVDs from when my kids were toddlers; a special piece of jewelry. Christmas mornings and letters from Santa, birthday celebrations, Super Bowl parties, and Friday night pizza have all made their mark on our home. Packing all the things we will take with us as we transition is a beautiful reminder that we have built a life. It’s real, it’s tangible, I have proof!

My daughter decided to give away most of her substantial stuffed animal collection to our local Good Will store. At first, I questioned whether she would regret that decision. But her comment to me settled it. She said, “Mom, I know all the names I gave them. I don’t need to have them anymore to remember how much I loved them.” Wow. If this were a movie, the previous scene would have played out something like this:

Mom, looking sentimental while fidgeting back and forth on her feet, questions daughter’s decision to give away her stuffed animal collection.

Daughter, dropping her shoulders and tilting her head, makes profound statement regarding said animals.

Mom stares blankly, realizing daughter is light-years ahead of her when it comes to perspective.

For my son, this is a wild, new, wonderful adventure. He has willingly trekked around with us as we scope out new places and is careful to find something good to say until he can confirm our opinion. Then the truth comes out. “Whew! I was hoping you would hate that one. I felt like I had to squish my shoulders together just to walk down the hall!” LOL. He is forever my thinker, processor, and balancer. He wants to make sure everyone is good before he tells you what he’s really thinking. Once he knows he’s in safe water, though, hold on to your hat. He’s gonna’ let you have it with both barrels.

Suffice it to say we are approaching this new chapter with sentiment, sweat, and a little apprehension (couldn’t think of an ‘s’ word to go there. I hate it when that happens!) I know that we will find just the right place, at just the right time. I have no doubt that after a few home cooked meals, some shared laughter, a family celebration or two, and a few of my children’s friends over for a spend the night party, our new house will become home. And I’m reminded that as long as we’re a family, it doesn’t matter where we transition to.

What matters is that we do it together.

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.

“Be careful – you’re gonna’ reap what you sow.” Remember hearing these words spoken from someone older (and probably wiser)?

I certainly do. I found myself on the receiving end of this admonishment from grandmothers, parents, teachers, my parents’ friends, neighbors, you name it. Having been born and raised in the South, this little nugget of truth wedged itself in my brain right alongside the more classic, “you ain’t got no dog in that fight” (translation, mind your own business) and “bless her heart, every dog has to have a few fleas” (translation, no one is perfect).

Of course, I also learned at a very early age that we could say anything about anybody as long as it was preceded by “bless her heart”.

Ahhh, how I love the South! But, that’s another blog for another day…

Karma; consequences; GIGO, the iconic ‘garbage in, garbage out’ which originated with the IRS during its shift to computer science in the early 60s.  Whatever terminology you use, it boils down to the same thing: if you do good stuff, you’ll get good stuff back; if you don’t, you won’t.  Now, try this on for size:

Hosea 8:7, “they sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.”

This tiny little verse in the tiny little book of Hosea takes the concept to a whole new level. These words introduce the principle that we actually reap exponentially MORE than what we sow; ‘they sow the wind and reap the whirlwind’. I like the idea of reaping more than what I sow when it’s in the positive; but wow, not so much the negative. As I reminisce through the years, I can think of very specific examples where both these principles have played out in my own life and the lives of those around me. What about you? Are you able to temporarily see through the glasses of your past and examine where you have reaped – for the better or worse – what you have sown?

Our children begin to experience this at an early age: if they play nicely and use their manners, the reward is praise and encouragement – and sometimes an ice cream cone! Conversely, when children lie or act out inappropriately towards another, the consequence takes on varying forms of discipline. Discipline is a tricky thing these days, ranging in severity from the Time Out chair (or corner) to having the Hand of Knowledge applied to the Seat of Understanding (my dad preferred the latter but hey, I’m old school). Hopefully, these life lessons are engrained in our psyche very early on. But all too often as adults, I think we challenge this truth and try to beat the system. Minor offenses, ‘little white lies’, nothing significant or alarming to those around us. Until the whirlwind hits.

We behave based on the mindset that we are above negative or unpleasant consequences. We are not.

There are laws in nature: survival of the fittest; predator versus prey; gravity; the cycle of the tides. There are laws in life as well and this one is a classic. I’m taking this new month in this new year to re-examine some of the actions I take for granted and my mindset behind them. There’s some sowing I need to do and some sowing I need to stop. As my best friend shared with me recently, “if you don’t like the dance, change the steps.”

If you’re currently reaping an unpleasant whirlwind, may I encourage you to take a closer look at what you’re sowing?  And if you’re in that wonderful place where you are reaping a bounty and experiencing a refreshing whirlwind of blessing, be thankful…and do a happy dance!

Little Lambs, Lullabys, and Blessings

My daughter will become a teenager this week. Am I excited? Yes. Am I terrified? I’d be lying if I said ‘no’.

At 8:57 a.m. on a very cold Sunday morning 13 years ago, God graced us with a porcelain-skinned, long and lean, little pink bundle of beauty.  It took us three days to figure out what we would name her. Tagged “Baby Hood” for her stay in the hospital nursery, the discharge nurse finally brought me the birth certificate and a black pen. With a stern look she said, “you know you can’t take her home until you name her, right?”

We settled on Rachel Elizabeth. Her name fits her like a glove.

Rachel means ‘little lamb’; Elizabeth means ‘consecrated to God’.  She is everything her name means: playful, happy, sweet, snuggly, tender-hearted, and kind. Although we may have missed the lamb part a little – she can be pretty loud when  she gets excited! Rachel plays hard and sleeps harder. She has always been our best sleeper – blessing her parents early on by sleeping through the night at 8 weeks of age.

On the rare occasions that she was really out of sorts as a baby, her Daddy and her big brother Alex learned that if they sang, “You Are My Sunshine”,  it wasn’t long before she was smiling and cooing again. She and her Daddy have an amazing, not often spoken bond. They laugh, they cut up, they tease, but there is no denying that she thinks he hung the moon and he is convinced she is the reason the stars shine at night.

Rachel went straight from crawling to running; I think she walked for about a day. As soon as our baby girl realized she was mobile, she was gone. And she’s been going ever since. We used to joke that she could climb straight up a wall – it truly seemed that nothing stopped her. She loved to play on the floor with our two dogs and loved even more playing with them out in the backyard. She soon learned, much to the dismay of her mother, that she could crawl under the deck and play in the cool dirt right beside where Tiger and Bo liked to lay. All my coaxing and bribing could not bring her back out until the dogs came as well.

My brother describes her as a cartoon character come to life. He captured her 100%. She loves to dance, sing, jump, run, tumble, play on the trampoline, and cheer. She’s taken gymnastics, tumbling, ballet, tap, and jazz. Then she became a cheerleader and nothing holds a candle to the joy it brings her. She loves to practice hard and cheer hard; she expects her teammates to do the same.

Rachel has an infectious laugh – I’ve often said it sounds like butterflies. When she gets tickled about something, you simply can’t hear her laugh and keep a straight face. This has made discipline a bit of an issue at times; although she’s one of those kids who, thankfully, has not needed a strong hand. She usually realizes she’s crossed the line with a simple look…and those doe eyes of hers turn as soft as butter when she says, “I’m sorry”.

We have learned that gifts are her love language. I don’t mean big, expensive, extravagant gifts – although she does enjoy being spoiled by her PaPaw (her first word was “visa” as she sweetly reached for the plastic card in his hand).  Rachel gets excited when I come home with a package of her favorite gum; or when her Daddy takes her out for ice cream. She simply loves knowing that someone was thinking of her. And she loves to give gifts as well. Not a friend’s birthday goes by without her decorating their locker at school or taking them a super-sized cupcake to celebrate.

My little girl is growing up. Oh, how it tugs at my heart! Surely this is the epitome of contradiction: the joy a parent feels knowing their children are growing up to become responsible, wonderful young people. And the sadness that a season has passed. Rachel doesn’t need for me to help her into her snuggly, pink pajamas anymore; she doesn’t need for me to hold her hand when we walk through the mall. She can no longer curl up in my lap and fall asleep with her fingers wrapped around my hair. But when I look at her, I see a confident, happy, energetic young woman who sees the world as one enormous adventure just waiting for her to grab hold.

I thank God every day for my children and for the health He’s given me to watch them grow up.  I know the next few years will bring new blessings and new challenges as Rachel becomes a young adult, ready to launch out on her own. I may no longer sing her a lullaby at bedtime, but she is still my brown-haired, hazel-eyed blessing.

And she will always be my little lamb. Happy birthday, baby girl. Mommy loves you.

 

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