I will change your name

When my husband and I found out we were having twins, we were a bit like Noah filling his ark—most everything came in 2’s. Two cribs, two car seats, two bouncy seats, a double stroller. We also had to come up with two names.

Before we knew we would have twin girls, we came up with a boy name and a girl name: Sam and Ella. They were short and sweet and sounded pretty good together. “Sam! Ella! It’s time for dinner!” “Sam and Ella, did you brush your teeth?” But the more I practiced saying the names aloud, the more I realized that they weren’t all that great as a combo. If said quickly, Sam and Ella can evolve into Sam ‘n Ella. Then it’s just a short trip to salmonella. Not wanting to name my babies after the bacteria that causes food poisoning, we kept looking.

Luckily, we had two beautiful baby girls—Lucy and Ella. (And it was only a couple of times that someone thought I said Lucy and Ethel.)

Coming up with that perfect name can be a fairly stressful task for expecting parents. So much seems to ride on a person’s name. Does it sound good paired with a powerful handshake? “Nice to meet you. My name is (insert assertive sounding name here).” Or how about: “All rise. The honorable Judge (don’t-mess-with-me name) presiding.”

When I get a chance to do a little creative writing, one of my favorite activities is coming up with characters’ names. For me, it’s the first step in making fictional people real.

Although we place a great deal of weight on naming someone, our names don’t have to forever define us. I love that God takes the time to change the names of some people in the Bible. Abram and Sarai become Abraham (father of a multitude) and Sarah (mother of nations) to show that they would have countless descendants. After Jacob wrestles with God, his negative name changes from “supplanter” (he would unseat his twin brother) to Israel which means “triumphant with God.”

Jesus gave James and John the nickname “sons of thunder,” possibly for their fiery tempers. He took one look at the fisherman Simon and changed his name to Peter which means “rock”.

Most of these new names describe what these people would become, not their present situation. God looked into the future to see that Abram and Sarai, a childless couple, would be parents to more children than the stars in the sky. When others saw an impulsive, inflexible, dirty fisherman named Simon, Jesus saw a firm place (a rock) to build his church.

Though it would be impractical to legally change our names to something new, it is possible to redefine who we are with the help of a mighty God.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Hosea was exceptionally obedient to God’s calling. He was even willing to live out the most inconvenient morality play in human history. Hosea was told to marry a prostitute and give their children specific names to describe God’s displeasure with the Israelites. Their first child was named after a massacre that occurred in a place called Jezreel. The next two children were named Lo-Ruhamah (which means “not loved”) and Lo-Ammi (“not my people”). That’s pretty harsh.

But our merciful God didn’t leave it there. In the next chapter the Lord explains that He will pursue His sinful people. “I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people.’”

If you feel that your name is Unloved or Unwanted, allow God to change your name and your heart. It is in His power to do it.

Mind Reader

When my sisters and I would come from school in the afternoons, we liked to do what a lot of kids in the 1980’s did: we watched reruns on TV. We mostly watched classic shows from the 1950’s and 1960’s like The Brady Bunch, Leave It to Beaver, and I Love Lucy.

One of my favorites was Gilligan’s Island. Even though it’s been a couple of decades since I watched an episode, I can still conjure up scenes of the Skipper hitting Gilligan with his captain’s hat as easily as if I just saw it yesterday. My sisters and I were lured in by the suspense of the story. We always wondered if the 7 castaways would ever get off the island where they had been shipwrecked after what was supposed to be “a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.” (I know you’re singing the theme song right now.)

We enjoyed the show so much that we used to pretend to watch episodes of Gilligan’s Island on the back of our parents’ seats in the station wagon during long car trips. We’d ask, “How many more Gilligan’s Islands until we’re there?”

One particular episode has been popping up in my mind a lot lately. In the episode called “Seer Gilligan” our man in the red rugby shirt finds a bush growing special seeds. Gilligan eats some of these seeds and he’s able to read the thoughts of everyone around him. He eventually shares the seeds with the other castaways. At first everything is fine and dandy as long as the thoughts they are thinking are kind. Then it gets ugly. They eat the seeds and read each other’s minds and think hurtful things. By the end of the show, Gilligan burns the seeds and the bush to restore peace to the island (at least until the next head hunter invasion or cosmonaut landing).

I find it interesting that the castaways are so surprised by what each other are thinking. How was Ginger so surprised that MaryAnn thought she was lazy? Was Skipper really shocked to learn that they all blamed him for the shipwreck? But sometimes, we can’t explain the thoughts and actions of another person. Having the ability to read another’s thoughts only gives us insight into that moment. We lack context.

Context is what I see lacking lately. My Facebook newsfeed is full of people fuming about something—candidates and elections, marches and interviews, speeches and nominations. People post angry rants and are answered by a string of widely varying comments. Then they seem surprised that there are so many differing opinions.

Sometimes I read these posts and comments and I’m amazed, too. Who are these people who think this way? How could he/she feel like this when he/she has had this advantage/disadvantage or life experience? And why would he/she post that in such a public place?

Context.

Regardless of how you voted in November, speak to others from a place of kindness.

Regardless of how you feel about free speech or gun rights or prayer in schools, pause before you resort to calling names.

Regardless of your nationality, gender, race, or religion, practice Jesus’ admonition to His Apostles. He said, “When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.” (The Message)

Jesus didn’t tell them to go to the temple steps and publicly ridicule those who live there. This is a face-to-face interaction. If you aren’t brave enough or skilled enough to lovingly disagree in person, then maybe the comment section of Facebook isn’t the place either. Check your motivation. Do you want to be right for your sake only or for the revelation of God’s glory?

Unless you can not only read the minds of others but also see all the places they’ve been hurt and mistreated in their lives, don’t respond from the lofty heights of righteous indignation. Instead, obey Micah 6: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

I’m grateful Gilligan destroyed those seeds because I don’t really want to read anyone’s mind. That’s the easy way out. Let’s do the hard work of restoration and peace-making.

Awkward

When I was around 6-years old, I would imagine that I had curly blond ringlets and blue eyes (think Cindy Brady). My imagination was so proficient, I can remember being truly surprised to look in the long mirror in my parent’s bedroom and see my boring, brown helmet hair and doo-doo brown eyes staring back at me. What a disappointed and slightly delusional little girl I was!

My imagined identity was just that—imagined. In real life, I was (am) not a striking beauty, not athletic, not graceful, barely in the same species as a runway model. So as child with an active imagination, I would go to a place in my mind where my awkwardness was replaced with cool confidence. I may still do it from time to time. It’s called daydreaming and it’s pretty great.

If you ask a group of 4-year old girls to raise their hands if they think they’re beautiful or smart or fast runners, they’ll mostly all answer with an enthusiastic “yes!” But if you ask the same question to a group of 5th grade girls, you’ll get a lot fewer raised hands. Why is this? Logically-speaking, they should all be more of what they had been 5 or 6 years before, but they often don’t see it that way. These gangly, growing girls only see the flaws and the awkwardness.

As a 40-something year old woman it’s still difficult to not feel out of place in certain situations. But trying new things and putting yourself “out there” where you might fail can be a catalyst for growth.

In spite of what you might think, I’m actually an introvert. I like intimate gatherings above large groups. I like a quiet house with few distractions, although as a mom you have to learn to block out things if you want to ever get ANYTHING done. I am depleted by noise and activity and conversations with lots of people.

So as an introvert, I have to give myself little pep talks telling my “I-just-wish-I-were-home” self to take a chance and speak to a group or say hello to a new acquaintance whose name I can’t remember. Sometimes the reward for stepping outside my comfort zone is immediate and evident. Sometimes it’s a disaster in the produce aisle.

There was a teacher at my kids’ school who I didn’t know well and had trouble reading. In fact, we barely had occasion to speak. Then I saw her at the grocery store. I was in the produce section, picking out some cucumbers. I turned around just as she stepped forward. We exchanged brief greetings and she raised one arm for what I thought was a shoulder hug. I guess I should explain at this point that I am an introvert but I’m also a hugger which is maybe a strange combination. I went in to fully reciprocate that hug—both arms right around her midsection—feeling validated and loved and significant (did I also mention that I am a people-pleasing, middle child?) to someone who I was never sure how she felt about me. Instead of hugging me back, she reached up to tug down one of those plastic produce bags hanging above my head. She wasn’t so much looking for a hug but more like looking for the perfect bell pepper. It was a bit awkward.

I look back at that one (of many!) awkward interactions, and I have to say that I am weirdly proud of myself. I hugged a non-hugger and lived to tell about it. I’m hoping I took a step closer to becoming who I’m supposed to be, even if it was painful.

One of my all-time favorite chapters in the Bible is Psalm 139. “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.”

I love the imagery of God creating us in this special place—a dark and cozy womb. Then what happens next? Our messy and—if we’re being completely honest—gross birth. We all start off in this same way: slimy and bloody and messy. And things will continue to be messy off and on for as long as we’re here. We make mistakes. We feel pain. We shed tears. We stretch and grow and all the while we can live with the assurance that we were fearfully and wonderfully made. What we see as awkward, God may see as progress, purpose, possibility.

Knowing your audience

I am privileged to spend five hours of most every Tuesday and Thursday with a group of 4- and 5-year olds. I teach preschool at our church and every day is different.

This is my favorite age of human beings. Most are young enough that they haven’t perfected the back talking (aka “Sass-Mouth”) but old enough to take care of bathroom stuff by themselves. It’s a time where anything seems possible for them. Their end of the year goals are things like learning the ABC’s (LMNOP or “ellen limo pea”?) and counting to 20 independently (13, 14, 15, 16 are the stumbling blocks that trip up many a preschooler) and tying their shoes…or at least getting them on the correct feet.

About 20 years ago, my first full-time teaching position was 4-year old kindergarten. I had no kids at home so those 15 students were my kids. There was Luke who tried to convince me that 4 ½ was older than 5 because it took longer to say. There was Seth who made it difficult to determine his dominant hand because he would write the first half of his name (S-E) with his left hand and then switch his pencil to write the second half (T-H) with his right. And I could never forget Hunter. He made up a song called “God Killed All the Dinosaurs” and sang it for the class, encouraging us to all jump in for the chorus.

I kept a Mason jar on my desk and I would add marbles to the jar when the class was especially well-behaved. A full jar bought them a popsicle party. After a drought of marble-adding I asked the class, “What kinds of things will get marbles for the jar?”

Hunter answered, “If we pick our nose but don’t eat the boogers?” I didn’t see that one coming.

Those students from my first class are grown now but my current class is still full of surprises, like yesterday when they pretended that the robot lacing cards were cell phones and they walked around our classroom looking for a place to charge them.

My job is still to figure out what in the world they’re talking about.

One day before Thanksgiving, when the weather was warm enough for outside recess, they ran out the door saying, “Let’s play T.J. Maxx!” How does one play a game inspired by a low-cost clothing and home goods retailer? Upon further inspection, I realized (okay…my kids told me) that there’s a TV show called P.J. Masks. Totally different.

In the first few weeks of school, I intervened in an argument about one student’s lunch item, a turkey roll-up sandwich. Here’s the dialogue:

Girl: “It’s not a ballerito!”

Boy: “I know. It’s a burrito.”

Girl: “It’s not a ballerito!!”

Boy: “I know! It’s a burrito!”

It escalated until I could get them understanding the other’s point of view. That’s when I had to say a few sentences I’ve never said before: “You are making her feel sad when you call her sandwich a burrito—which she pronounces ballerito. Please call her sandwich a turkey roll-up or don’t talk about her sandwich at all.” Phew. Everyone stand down. Crisis averted.

Trying to understand kids is often a lot more fun than trying to understand adults. Kids have agendas but they are normally: play more, nap less, eat candy. With adults, it’s usually more difficult to understand what pain or learned habits they’re accessing when they do something unexpected. Unfortunately, kids can also act and speak from a place of great pain but it seems different somehow.

My advice is to try what works for 4-year olds. Sit on the floor right next to them. Pull out a puzzle or read a book or have an imaginary tea party. Get eye-level and try to see things from their perspective, then things might clear up a bit.

Unless it’s Hunter. Then you’re on your own.

Happy Snow Day

Once there was a little boy who had never seen snow. Sure, he had read about it in books and watched it on TV. He had even seen home movies of his new brother and sisters—his ya-yas—throwing snowballs and making snow angels and sledding down hills, but his very own deep, deep brown eyes had never looked straight on those graceful, white flakes. And those graceful, white flakes had never lit on his eyelashes or shoulders or nose or outstretched mitten.

The country where he was born was never cold. It was hot most days and warm most nights. His new mama took down the map from the refrigerator and showed him why. “This red line is called the equator,” she told him. “Everywhere this line touches it is a hot place with no snow.” She pointed to a city just below the red line. “This is Kinshasa. That is where you were born.”

On the hottest days before he left Kinshasa, his foster mama would cover his neck, back, and arms with talcum powder to soothe his skin. There, he napped every day, especially when the sun high up in the sky made him feel so sticky and sweaty and drowsy that he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

When it was springtime, the little boy left Kinshasa and flew across the world to his new home. He was excited to see new things, places, and people. He was excited to see snow.

The little boy waited through the rainy days of April and the sunny days of May, but no snow. He visited the ocean in June and saw fireworks in July, but still no snow. By summertime, he had sung “Happy Birthday” to everyone in his family. His mama in April. His daddy and sisters in May. His brother in June. The little boy asked his mama when it would be his turn to blow out the candles. “After Christmas,” his mama said. “When it gets much colder.”

“Snow? For my birthday?” the little boy asked, hoping and wishing and praying.

“Maybe,” the mama replied. “We’ll see.”

August brought muggy heat and he watched his ya-yas go back to school, but no snowflakes fell. In September and October, the little boy was delighted when the leaves on the trees magically turned gold and red. Then the leaves fell and by November, the air began to cool.

Then came December. Some days were as warm as springtime and some days were chilly enough for him to see his breath in puffs of tiny frozen drops. Each time that his mama told him: “It’s too cold for shorts. Put on pants.” or “Go get your jacket. It’s cold outside!” the little boy would ask, “Snow today, mama?”

His mama would look at the weather forecast in the newspaper and say, “No, not today.”

“For my birthday?” he would ask again and again.

“Maybe,” his mama would say, hoping and wishing and praying, too.

After Christmas the little boy wanted to know if it was time for his birthday, so he asked his family.

On Monday, he asked his ya-ya Ella, “My birthday today?”

“No. Not for five days,” Ella said as she helped take ornaments off the Christmas tree.

On Tuesday, he asked his mama, “My birthday today?”

“Four more days,” Mama said as she made a yummy soup for their supper.

On Wednesday, he asked his ya-ya Lucy, “My birthday today?”

“Three more days,” Lucy said as she packed her lunch for school.

On Thursday, he asked his ya-ya Knox, “My birthday today?”

“Two more days,” Knox said as he sharpened his pencil to do his homework.

On Friday, he asked his daddy, “My birthday today?”

“Tomorrow!” Daddy said as he scooped up the little boy in a big good morning hug. “Come with me and look out the window. You have an early birthday present!”

The little boy followed his daddy to the window and looked outside. There was snow! Snow on the grass and snow on the roofs. The wind was blowing the snow in swirls. It flew in the air and landed in ocean waves. It was beautiful.

The little boy dressed as quickly as he could, pulling up his ya-ya Knox’s borrowed long soccer socks and slipping on his ya-ya Lucy’s old pink gloves and letting his ya-ya Ella tie his warm hiking boots.

He spent most of the morning exploring the backyard—jumping on the snow-covered trampoline and breaking the icicles that hung from the fence. When he was finally so cold that he couldn’t feel his toes or his nose, the little boy walked up the driveway to the back door. Before he went in the door and kicked off his boots, he looked behind him at his footprints in the snow. He saw the path where he had walked—all the places he had been—and he was happy.

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Passing Faces

I spend a significant amount of most of my days in the family minivan. Four kids—none of whom are old enough to drive themselves—require hours of shuttling around town. So I find various ways to entertain and distract myself during those trips to and from practice, school, church, the grocery store, etc.

The most fun (as well as creepiest and stalker-recommended) distraction is to people-watch at red lights. The best opportunity for this is when I’m at the front of the line and cars are turning left into the lane next to me. In this way, these drivers come (often uncomfortably) close to my car and I can see their faces straight on.

Some people are talking on the phone. Some are singing. Every once in a while, I’ll see a mom give her kids in the backseat and rearview mirror scolding. Most people are indifferent. In other words, if you were going to draw a smiley face representing their expressions, the mouth would be a straight line.

99% of the people who drive past me are strangers. Considering that this is Murfreesboro, if we stopped and talked we could possibly find common acquaintances with just a few degrees of separation, but these are mostly unknown faces. Strangely, it always amazes me there could be so many people in this world that I will never know, not their names or their birthdays or their favorite food.

When I see these strangers pass by me with their pokerfaced expressions, I often wonder what their lives are like. Do they live alone? Do they like their jobs? Do they wish they spent their days and nights differently? In those handful of seconds when their cars are a few feet away from mine, I look into their eyes and ponder what parts joy and agony they feel on a daily basis.

It can be an exhausting exercise to try to care about every motorist that comes within 10 feet of me. Even more exhausting when I take into account that these souls make up only a tiny percentage of the world’s 7.4 billion population. How do we love them all? How do we exist on a planet with so much suffering and chaos and attempt to care about so many strangers?

In such a moment of disquiet and defeat, I look to how Jesus instructed those around him. When a teacher of the law tried to stump Jesus with a question about eternal life, Jesus had the teacher quoting Leviticus. “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’” the man replied, confident he was getting the answer right. Then the man asked, “So who is my neighbor?”

At this point, Jesus lays out the story of the Good Samaritan. He tells of the traveler who is beaten and robbed and left to die on the road. Then Jesus tells of the men who didn’t stop to help even though they would say that they understand God’s teachings the best. Then the despised Samaritan rides by. Though most likely considered unclean and unwanted by the beaten man, the Samaritan stops and helps him, dressing his wounds and taking him to a place where he can heal. Jesus finishes his story with a question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The teacher had no choice but to give Jesus the answer he was looking for. “The one who had mercy on him.”

My goal for this year is to love the ones whose paths cross mine. That may mean the paths in a 5-mile radius of my home or the Lord may put a burning desire on my heart to widen my path’s reach to a greater distance. Either way, I will try to be available to show mercy where He directs me. I will try not to be one who can walk past suffering, untouched.

“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

-Edward Everett Hale