Volunteer tomato plants

I aspire to have a magnificent garden someday. In my imagination, I grow heirloom tomatoes, delicate lettuces and beans with cranberry speckles. I know just what to plant and where to plant it and when to get the plants in the ground. I can identify any insect that might enter the domain of my beloved garden and the best way to eradicate the sinister ones. I can feel an approaching storm in the marrow of my bones, accurately predicting the rainfall my plants will receive.

 

Unfortunately, this is all in my imagination. If only dreaming were the same as doing. Instead I spend most of my outdoor time in the spring at soccer games. Someday…

 

In the meantime, I have been able to grow one thing abundantly—cherry tomatoes. There are few foods in this world that I love as much as fresh-grown tomatoes. In the summer, we eat a lot of BLT sandwiches and green salads with homemade ranch dressing and pasta tossed with sliced grilled chicken, olive oil, chopped garlic, ribbons of fresh basil, halved cherry tomatoes and a bit of sea salt. But I’m just as happy to eat a bowl full of sliced tomatoes topped with a big dollop of cottage cheese.

 

Because of this great love of the tomato, it’s such a thrill when I see a tomato seedling pop up which I didn’t plant. It’s a bonus plant, an unexpected gift. As I watered my little row of cherry tomato plants this morning, I found the little fella, trying its best to grow in the shade of its bigger and more productive brothers. I spoke to it (I’m that Crazy Tomato Lady you’ve been hearing about), and told the baby plant to keep on going so it could give me some of those ruby-like tomatoes which I crave.

 

This was a good kind of surprise, one that I didn’t see coming but welcomed with open arms (or, in this case, open mouth). It made me wonder if I had ever been the volunteer tomato plant for someone else. Wouldn’t it be nice to give someone a good surprise? How many times have I overlooked or ignored an opportunity to go out of my way to do something for a fellow human, not out of obligation or personal glory, but only because I had a chance to brighten that person’s day?

 

This week, let’s look for an opportunity to be an unexpected surprise for someone. It can be a stranger or a neighbor or a person you’ve known your whole life. Don’t let them know it was you, but do let them know they are loved. It doesn’t have to cost anything. It just takes a little effort and selfless motivation and a desire to bloom where you’re planted.

Cheerleader

I was never a cheerleader in school. For most anyone who knows me (or who has seen me attempt to clap and sing simultaneously in church or have a conversation while jogging on a treadmill without tripping myself), this is not a big surprise. I was more of a “help-paint-banners-for-the-pep-rally” kind of girl, which doesn’t involve cartwheels or rhythm or a basic understanding of sports.

 

In spite of this, I do find opportunities to cheer people on (no pom-poms required).

 

My older sister texted me the other day and said, “I need a pep talk. I don’t want to go to the grocery store.”

 

Here was my reply: “You got this!! It’s a magical place!! Your children won’t be there!! You can lean on the cart when you get tired!! You can go to the deli and ask for cheese samples!!”

 

Miraculously she responded that it worked! She was on her way to Kroger!

 

This should’ve been my career—Professional Pep Talker. People could sign up for my services (maybe download an app on their phones? Something I understand as well as I understand sports), and then they could text me when they need motivation. Dear Penny Pep Talk, tell me why I need to finish this research paper? Or Hey Pep Talk Lady! I’m going crazy! I just can’t match any more of my kids’ socks! Help!It would be so fun!

 

Being able to cheer each other on is one of the best parts of being human. The Apostle Paul knew this when he told the church in Thessalonica, “So encourage each other to build each other up, just as you are already doing.” (TLB) Paul encouraged them to keep on encouraging each other.

 

I recently spent a few weeks teaching a Bible class for women at my church on Wednesday nights. Talk about professional encouragers! These ladies are phenomenal! Women of different generations sat around tables and drank up the reassuring news from the Scriptures. Then they poured out love on each other, building up their sisters. Paul would’ve been so proud!

 

So here’s the good news: if you always wanted to be a cheerleader but never made the squad, you’ve got another chance. Someone somewhere sometime today is going to need your encouragement. Two, four, six, eight! Who do we appreciate? Encouragers!!

My favorite teens

For as long as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a mom, partly because I always enjoyed being around younger kids. I transitioned from playing with baby dolls to babysitting to working at an after-school care program to working as a certified teacher. The natural next step was becoming a mom.

 

When your kids are little, well-meaning people will say things like, “Just wait until she’s a teenager,” as if those early, harrowing years of keeping a newborn alive or surviving toddler tantrums weren’t bad enough. This kind of mentality—the dreading of parenting teens—would seep into my thoughts as I anxiously awaited the day that my precious babies would morph into hideous creatures bent on my destruction. I gravitated toward preschoolers, not high schoolers. Then my daughters reached that pinnacle age that made them teenagers.

 

I’m not going to say it’s been easy. Hell hath no fury like a 7th grade girl who’s having a bad day. Their moods were erratic. They suffered through the highest highs and the lowest lows. But we’ve survived middle school and nearly half of high school, so now I can say that I truly love teens. And not just mine.

 

This weekend I was a chaperone of 55 or so teen girls on a church retreat. We drove up the side of a mountain and made our beds in cobwebby cabins full of Asian beetles tapping at the windows. It wasn’t luxurious or especially comfortable, but that’s not why we went up the mountain. The five other “chaper-moms” (and two sweet college girls) and I were there for those girls. We cooked for them and prayed with them. We helped them find misplaced sweatshirts and enthusiastically played card games with them. We laughed with them and shared with them. A deep sisterhood developed.

 

The chaperones told the girls stories about dating our husbands and giving birth to our kids. We frankly answered questions and explained how we didn’t always get everything right. Hopefully, we showed these already loved girls that there are other women who care about them, too, casting that net of safety and protection just a little bit wider.

 

But the beauty of weekends like these go beyond just a few days. When you reach the heart of someone who is at such a midway place like those teen years, you can see the effects and after-effects for years to come. I’ve already seen it in my daughters. They were once those younger teens, watching and following the lead of the older girls. Now they, along with their friends, are being watched and studied. They are setting the bar for how to treat others.

 

And I know they are watching us moms, too. They are seeing how we laugh together and cry together and share our icky stuff without judgment or an ultimate need to fix everything.

 

So when I came home and sorted through the mail, setting aside a pile of graduation invitations, I knew without a doubt that I no longer consider teens “hideous creatures bent on my destruction.”

These sisters are my people.

Best friend

Most everyone can point to an early friendship that forever shaped them. Besides my sisters, my earliest friends were Briony and Stacy.

 

Briony had a treasure trove of Colorform sets (those vinyl cut-outs that were like stickers except that you could peel them up and place them on a different a background), and we would play with them for hours on end. Her collection included Barbie, Holly Hobby and Monchhichi, to name a few. Not that it seemed remarkable at the time, but she was my first non-white friend. Her father was African-American and her mother was from England. Her mother’s accent plus her toy selection plus the fact that their house had a bay window (I always wanted to live in a house with a bay window) made Briony an excellent playmate.

 

My friend Stacy lived behind us until I was seven. Her mom had a water bed, and when I spent the night there we got to (sort of) sleep aloft the motion sickness-inducing waves of her bed. The summer my family left Louisville to move to Nashville, Stacy gave me a going-away gift. It was a belt made of wide, red elastic and a magnet latch on the front with a picture of the Louisville Cardinal’s mascot. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but it was probably her mom’s attempt at giving me something special to remember my first home.

 

My son Ezra was born on the other side of the world in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We have few details about his first year, but we can feel confident in saying that his first best friend was Max, a boy who’s nine months younger than Ezra. They lived in the same orphanage until they were 3-4 years old, followed by the same foster home for about 18 months, until they were able to come home to their adoptive families in the U.S.

 

Max’s parents live in Kentucky, and we live in Tennessee, so we don’t cross paths very frequently. Still, I know that Max will always be a part of Ezra.

 

A few months after Ezra arrived, if he looked sad and I asked him why he would say, “Me miss Max.” He would talk about Max and ask to watch videos with Max in them. He would pray for Max every night, asking God to help his friend to “sleep good and no cry.”

 

When I watch Ezra interact with other children, I am so grateful for Max. I believe that Ezra’s ability to nurture and encourage those younger than him was developed as a result of their friendship. I also believe that his closeness to his big brother Knox can be traced back to the bond he had with his “Congo Brother” Max.

 

In spite of difficult circumstances, God carved a path for Ezra and Max. While their American families were fretting over bringing them home, they had each other. Because when we’re lucky that’s what best friends become—family.

Movement

When I was a little girl, my family would make the trip from our home in Nashville to our grandparents’ house in Danville, Illinois, several times a year. My grandmother was older when she had my mom (nearly 40…so old!) so by the time she became our grandmother she was practically ancient. It was a mercy she didn’t use “thee” and “thou” in her regular, everyday speaking. There were times when we just didn’t understand each other.

For instance, every time I left the bathroom, my grandmother would be waiting for me just outside the bathroom door to ask me the same question: “Did your bowels move, honey?” This was not a phrase we used in our house. I had no idea what my bowels were and why they might be moving, but seeing as I was a middle child with a pathological need to please people, I interpreted from her tone that bowel movement was a good thing so I always said yes. I can’t imagine what she thought about my obviously overworking digestive system.

If we had found a word we both understood for the process in question, I could’ve given her the real answer and her data (I can only assume she was creating a Granddaughter B.M. chart) would’ve been more accurate.

In most situations where there is conflict, the majority of the issues could be resolved if only those in conflict could find common ground and understanding from the perspective of others. There are few things in the world that can impart peace to a troubled heart better than someone who can empathize with your sorrow.

Recently we were blessed by the presence of three families in our home. These families had one very important thing in common with us. Each of us had waited years to bring home an adopted son from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We connected mostly through Facebook and found that we all lived within 1.5 hours of each other.

The boys and their siblings played at our house that evening while the parents compared notes. “How often did your son wake up during the night when he first came home? What foods does your son like the best? What non-English words does your son still use on a daily basis?” and on and on. We laughed and hugged. My husband said a prayer of thanksgiving for what had at times seemed impossible. The level of loving, non-judgmental understanding was remarkable.

These families just happen to be made up of people who most anyone could get along with. These aren’t difficult people who cultivate conflict, so our evening would’ve been fine even if we had been introduced in another way—through church or school. We could’ve become friends even if we didn’t have Congolese sons.

But there are times when it’s challenging to find harmony with those around us. We vote differently, worship differently, parent differently, literally speak different languages. Despite these differences, and with hard work and a little imagination, I believe we can find a place where we can work towards peace and understanding with most people. We can find a common interest, passion, or experience. Because sometimes that’s where everything can change.

If you can meet someone—toe to toe—where they are, and you can see the world from where they stand, you can begin to say, “Now I see why you feel this way!” You don’t have to agree with them, but it’s harder to hate someone close up and personal, and if there was ever a time to stop hating people, it’s now. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Sharing is Caring

There are a lot of positives to having a baby: the miracle of birth, the revelations about the preciousness of life, the somber bestowing to parents a new purpose and responsibility. The epiphanies go on and on. But the real beauty of bringing home a new baby is the free meals.

 

When my twin daughters were born, our church family fed us three times a week for two months…two months! We ate casseroles and lasagnas and chicken potpies. They brought their best, for-company recipes, complete with desserts. It wasn’t a great plan for shedding those pregnancy pounds, but it was a load off my mind (though not off my thighs and rear end).

 

Being a first time mom was excruciating at times. I had dreamed of being a mom my whole life but the reality of it hit me hard. We had no family in town and I had convinced myself that it was all on me. The pressure led me to one afternoon, alone in the house with two squalling infants, crying and telling my girls, “I’m so sorry I’m your mom! I don’t know what to do!” My hormones were at Threat Level: Inferno.

 

Soon after that break down, a woman from church brought us a meal. When she brought the food and laid it out on the kitchen counter, she stepped into the living room to check out the babies. Then she sat down beside me on the sofa and said, “I know this is hard but it’s going to get better.” I must have had HELP ME written all over my forehead. Her few words of kindness were a succor to my soul.

 

I couldn’t tell you what she brought for supper that night other than a loaf of banana bread. Months later, when I was a little bit more myself, I asked the woman for her recipe. The taste of the bread, paired with her sweet words had remained in my mind. I’ve been making the bread ever since.

 

This recipe makes two loaves. When making the banana bread, it’s become our family’s tradition to keep one loaf and ask the Lord who should get the other loaf.

 

Over the years, we’ve had lapses into greediness and we’ve tried to eat the second loaf, too. But like the Israelites who were warned not to gather more manna than they needed, the second loaf never tastes as good as the first one, convicting us that sharing really is caring.

 

Find a way to share with someone today. It doesn’t have to be baked goods or handmade quilts (no wonder grandmas are so beloved!), but there will be a multitude of opportunities available to you, if only you keep watching for them.

 

In case you would like to share a loaf of this banana bread, I’ve included the recipe below:

 

Share-a-Loaf Banana Bread

(makes two 9×5 loaves)

Ingredients:

3½ cups all-purpose flour

2½ cups sugar

2 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

4-5 ripe bananas (makes about 2 cups mashed)

1 T lemon juice

1 cup vegetable oil

4 eggs

½ cup + 2 T buttermilk

2 tsp. vanilla extract

 

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Puree bananas in a blender. Add lemon juice, oil, eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla. Blend until smooth. Add to flour mixture and mix well. Grease and flour two 9×5 loaf pans. Pour the batter evenly in the two pans. Bake at 325-degrees for 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Hilltop Friends

Moses was tired. He was old. His belly was full of his breakfast—wafers of manna and the water that poured from a rock. As he climbed to the top of a steep hill, he reflected on his life. In his mind, Moses saw mistakes and wrong turns. But he also saw miracles—a vast sea parting in two, a brilliant light high on a mountain.

 

Now Moses sat on the top of the hill, flanked by his brother Aaron and his friend Hur. Below him, a battle raged, the Israelites and their attackers, the Amalekites.

 

Throughout the long battle, Moses came to realize that if he kept his arms raised—the staff of God firmly grasped in his hands—the Israelites would succeed. But as soon as his arms became too weak to hold his staff in the air, the favor would turn to the Amalekites.

 

The pressure to remain strong was depleting Moses. His arms shook. He closed his eyes, tears and sweat trickling down his cheeks. Aaron and Hur saw their friend’s exhaustion. They saw him gritting his teeth, trying to be strong. They moved to help. They held up Moses’ arms, one on each side. They kept him going until sunset, until the battle was over and the Israelites won.

 

If you have ever been the recipient of this kind of support, you can appreciate the value of friends like Aaron and Hur. To have people willing to stand with you, lifting you up when you know it would be impossible to find the strength on your own.

 

Moses could’ve shrugged off their help. He could’ve told Aaron and Hur to leave him alone. He could’ve said he was capable of doing it by himself. Instead, Moses allowed their strength to fill in the gaps and crevices created by his weakness. Moses let his friends pour into him.

 

At times, I have been on a hill overlooking an intimidating battle. No Amalekites are clashing swords in a skirmish in the valley below, but the overwhelming trials still sometimes feel like I’m waging a war.

 

So, a few nights ago, when life handed me a moment of “It’s-just-too-much”-ness, a group of women surrounded me. They supported me and lifted me up. They held my hands and stroked my hair. They prayed for me and gave me tissues.

 

We don’t always have to have it all together and there is no shame in needing support. This need is only the evidence of our universal human frailty and a testament to the blessing of true friends. I don’t enjoy the crumbly feeling of falling apart but I will be forever grateful for my own personal “hilltop friends.”

In Their Shoes

We had a visitor in Sunday school last week. A mom I’d never seen before dropped off her 5-year old daughter and left us to get acquainted. I noticed right away that this girl was full of personality. Her cheeks were covered in purple glitter and she was carrying a small, jam-packed purse. I asked her if she wanted to hang her purse up on the hooks by the door before joining her classmates on the rug for free time. Reluctantly, she hung it up and went to play with a box of Mr. Potato Heads.

 

A few minutes later, she went back to her purse and took out a simple calculator. Looking at the screen with a serious expression on her face, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and began to press the number buttons with her thumbs. Then she paused, sighed deeply, and returned her “phone” to her purse.

 

When the class sat down to hear a Bible story, I found a spot to sit next to my new friend. She smiled at me and whispered, “I have a boyfriend.” Apparently she thought that was all I needed to know about her.

 

This little girl had no trouble getting into the head of someone else—namely a teenager. She is wholly devoted to understanding the psyche and tribal customs of a girl on the cusp of adulthood. Her understanding may be flawed and stereotypical, but you have to appreciate her dedication.

 

The solution to so many of our relationship problems might be doing just what that 5-year old attempted to do—put yourself in the place of another. That’s not to say we should allow and excuse misbehavior and cruelty in our society, but we might be able to understand the reasons for bad behavior a little better from someone else’s vantage point—from their home life, their disappointments and their experiences.

 

As Atticus Finch in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird tells his daughter, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

 

Once we see things from their perspectives, our “enemies” can become regular, flawed people we understand and, then we can help them understand us better.

 

After that, we can do what the Apostle Paul devoted his life to as explained in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul says: Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” He goes on to say: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

 

When we can truly “climb into his skin” and “become all things to all people,” then we can truly extend to others the grace offered to us every day by the One who knows us inside and out.

Sharing our Sorrows

I am the queen of strange injuries, allergies, and illnesses. For instance, a few weeks ago, while drying the dishes after my sister-in-law washed them, a cup full of silverware tipped over on the counter. One of them—an innocent-looking table knife—fell on the top of my foot, slicing a tendon. That tiny tendon’s main job was to make my next-to-baby toe mobile. Without it’s efforts, that toe has retired from service to his four brothers. It flops. It gets annoyingly tucked under the toes that flank him on either side. In other words, it’s worthless.

 

When I’m sitting for a period of time, I forget the accident happened. There’s no sharp pain and it stopped bleeding long ago. But as soon as I stand up, and walk barefoot across my floor, I remember. When it fails to clear a door threshold and I nearly lose a toenail, I think, “Oh, yeah. That’s right…I forgot.”

 

This is what it can feel like to live with an ongoing sorrow. The original, agonizing pain may be gone but there’s a dull ache that remains.

 

This pain may be the result of the death of a loved one or the end of a marriage. It may be the mourning of the life that was never realized—never married, never had children, never became that person. There may be moments when you don’t think about what or who is missing, but those moments are fleeting. Before you can settle into breathing without this sorrow bearing down on your chest like an anvil, a photo or a note reminds you of what’s been lost (or never found).

 

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife, he wrote about grief. He said, “The death of a beloved is an amputation.” You can survive it, but the sorrow remains. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”

 

So how does one live with this kind of relentless sorrow? Find someone to help you carry it. Even if it’s been months or years or even decades since you came face to face with your personal nightmare, speak it to another person. Now, it can’t be just anybody. The listening ear you’re looking for should be empathetic. He should not say phrases like: “Well, you think that’s bad…” or “It could be worst. At least…” This listening friend isn’t there to repair or change history. He’s there to absorb a bit of the pain, to say: “I’m so sorry.”

 

We were never promised an easy life. In fact, Christians are assured of persecution. But we’re also called to carry one another’s burdens. If you are overwhelmed by sorrow, find someone to listen to your story today.

Friends

Ever since I can remember, I have been blessed with great friends. I attended the same school from second grade through college, so I enjoyed a real consistency of companionship. I have friends I’ve known for more than thirty years who I could call today if I needed them.

 

Throughout high school, there was a group of us—six girls—and we were each other’s best friends. We had a lot of shared interests but the most important common thread in our group was our lack of boyfriends. We didn’t have to choose between dates and friends. It just wasn’t an issue. Our Friday nights were free to hang with the girls.

 

Within this circle of friends, we each had a role to play: Melissa was the mother hen, driving us on road trips in her parents’ mini-van. Mature before her time and an intuitive nurturer, you could always count on Melissa to have a “mom’s supply” of necessary items in her purse. Liz was the creative genius. She was never bored. Liz could easily say your name backwards. She was the one who suggested we whistle in harmony on the way to class or invent a new handwriting style. Rachel made sure we kept it real. Her dry, dry, dry sense of humor cut through every situation until you could see the ridiculousness of the moment and read it for what it truly was. Jenne had the built-in map skills. She was all no non-sense and get-it-done with a heavy dose of kindness and compassion. Jenne kept us moving in the right direction—literally. Karen was the artistic one. She created beauty on canvases and with found objects. She made us jewelry boxes from reclaimed pizza boxes and a lobster costume for herself out of red felt and wood glue. Karen’s art was no respecter of labels.

 

I’m not exactly sure what my role was in this group, or what it is now. Maybe my purpose was to be grateful for it and document the uniqueness of these friendships.

 

Those five ladies prepared me for the relationships I have had since high school, like our friends who lived across the street when we were first married and finding our way in a new city. Those friends who became mothers at the same time as me were my lifeline to sanity.

 

I continue to have friends who amaze me. These relationships have been forged at church and at my kids’ schools and sports teams. They help me with pickup and drop-off. We stand side-by-side for hours, shivering at soccer games and cooking for teacher appreciation lunches.

 

Some days, they share large but mostly hidden, secret parts of themselves, honoring me with their trust. Other days, they tell me little things, like when my friend told me her magnolia tree smells like lemonade when she mows around it in the summertime. These small gifts make me smile and help me know them more fully. When I get bad news, they text and ask how they can help. When I get good news, they text and tell me they cried happy tears for me.

 

I often feel undeserving of their love and concern. No matter what, these friendships have encouraged me to be a better friend—to show up and be real and laugh easily and cry readily. It will take me the rest of my life to pay them back for their devotion, but it’s a privilege to try.