Prince Charming

Before my husband Brent and I began dating in college, we would hang out as friends as a part of a larger group. Sometimes we would play putt-putt or go out to eat or go to a park. On one occasion, we were all sitting around in the living room which belonged to the parents of one of our friends. We had watched a movie, and we were about to head back to school. Before we left, our friend shared something she was upset about and began crying. Brent was nearest to where she was lying on the floor, so he scooted closer to her and listened intently to what she was saying.

 

Though it was nearly 30 years ago, I remember so clearly watching that moment from where I sat on a nearby sofa. We hadn’t started dating yet, but I was already falling for Brent, and this display of kindness and consideration pushed me right over the edge. I don’t think I was necessarily jealous of my friend, but I did wonder what it would feel like to be the recipient of his attention to the degree I was seeing in that living room.

 

Even a person who detests standing in the center of the spotlight and fiercely shrinks from attention still wants to be noticed by someone. It’s wired into our brains to want to be seen and heard at least by the key people in our lives.

 

Years ago, I remember reading a question sent in to “Dear Abby” by a 13-year old girl. The girl mentioned that she felt invisible and that no one ever called to invite her to hang out. Generally considered to be a shy girl, she wanted high school to be different than middle school had been, and she was seeking advice. I searched for the column and found “Dear Abby’s” response:

 

No matter how you feel about yourself, everyone can be charming. Charm, in a nutshell, is putting the other person at ease and making her (or him) feel comfortable and important. The charming person makes the effort to make others feel good about themselves. Forming the habit of making others feel good will make you popular to be around.

 

I don’t know if the young teen girl took the advice (and possibly purchased Dear Abby’s booklet “How to Be Popular: You’re Never Too Young or Too Old” for $6.00), but I agree with her advice…to a point. It seems a little self-serving. It sounds like she’s telling “Alone and Shy in California” to be charming so that she can get what she wants—popularity. Maybe it’s the word charming. We don’t use it much now, and when we do, it sounds a bit superficial.

 

My own personal Prince Charming showed concern for our friend that night (and continues to do the same thing for me and others all these years later) with no strings attached. He isn’t kind to be popular. He isn’t considerate to be rewarded. He does it because it’s right and in line with the One he’s trying to model his life after.

 

It’s like our moms used to tell us: “If you want to have a friend, be a friend.” Or as a radio D.J. I listen to always says: “The world is full of nice people. If you can’t find one…BE ONE!” Whether or not that makes you popular is secondary. What matters is how you make the world a better place.

Rivals

Like many sports-loving, competitive 9-year olds, my son Ezra loves to talk about rivals. While watching a football or basketball or soccer game on TV, he’ll point to the two teams and ask his daddy, “Are they big rivals?” He wants to know the stakes for that game, how important it is to the players and the fans.

 

And it doesn’t just apply to sports. He recently asked me about other rivalries. “Who’s Chick-Fil-A’s rival?” he asked. I guessed Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then he asked, “Who’s orange juice’s rival?” That one threw me. I thought a minute, then I answered that I thought it should be toothpaste because of what happens when a freshly brushed mouth takes a sip of orange juice. He rolled his eyes and said, “No, Mom, it’s apple juice.”

 

I asked him to explain his answer. He opened up the refrigerator and pointed to the spot where the orange juice and apple juice sat, side-by-side. “Daddy said rivals live close together,” he declared as he shut the refrigerator door and strutted away, proud of his profound analysis.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Watching Auburn play Alabama on a fall day is exciting. And when the game is over, fans from both sides go on with their weekends, (mostly) without hating each other. There are rivalries in business: Coke vs. Pepsi, Microsoft vs. Apple, McDonald’s vs. Burger King. These rivalries create a strong market where businesses are encouraged to compete for consumers’ cash with better products and prices.

 

But there are rivalries that shouldn’t exist, mostly created by a fear of being replaced or forgotten. A certain amount of sibling rivalry is to be expected, but when jealousy and mistreatment changes brothers and sisters from friends to enemies, it’s gone too far. Neighbors might compete for a “Best Yard” award, but beyond that they should be first and foremost neighbors—people on the same street and the same team.

 

The word rival shouldn’t be synonymous with enemy, a philosophy my 9-year old may have understood before I did. Ezra may be looking for rivalries because he loves the thrill of competition, but he isn’t looking for enmities, groups in an active state of hostility toward another. Though his competitive streak is often exhausting for me, I kind of love that he’s looking for orange juice vs. apple juice battles right now. Still, it breaks my heart to know his future won’t always be filled with well-meaning, carefree rivals. I know he’ll have his share of orange juice vs. toothpaste battles ahead, so I pray that we all get better at loving each other.

On the lookout for angels

Since the task of feeding our family of 6 falls to me, I spend a lot of time in grocery stores. For the most part, I’m a Kroger girl and always have been. Other than a few years when my mom tried shopping at Mega Market (the place in 100 Oaks Mall where you had to bag your own groceries), I was raised on Kroger—smiley face stickers and “let’s go krogering” jingle and all. I will sometimes venture into other stores if necessary, but I like knowing where things are in my regular place—start with produce, move on to soups, then pastas, etc.

 

Last week, after dropping my youngest son off at soccer practice, I needed to do my weekly grocery shopping. I was going to pass a Publix to get to a Kroger, so I decided to get crazy and go inside a different store. Sometimes I even surprise myself.

 

Nothing was in the same place. I kept walking past things on my list, and then I had to backtrack (which was made even more difficult by the “do not enter” and “enter here” stickers on the floor). As a rule, I only go to Publix if we’re in Florida, so I kept reminding myself I wasn’t on vacation.

 

To make things even more confusing, when I was finally done shopping and the cashier was ringing up my items, the friendly bagger boy posed a puzzling question through his face mask. “Got big plans for the weekend?” he asked. I paused before answering. So many thoughts swirled in my head.

 

“The weekend?” I stammered through my own face mask. “I have been thinking today was Monday all day. What day is it?”

 

“It is Monday,” he responded. “I just like planning ahead.” I told him that I had no idea what I was doing in five days, but I liked his initiative.

 

As I drove home with my van full of groceries, I thought about my shopping experience and how it’s possible to feel like a stranger even when you’re just a few minutes from home. It can be an unsettling feeling. It’s a good reminder to be on the lookout for actual strangers (not just Kroger shoppers who’ve wandered into Publix) who might need a little help.

 

At the end of the Book of Hebrews, we see a final list of exhortations: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

 

The author is reminding the readers that the best way to love is to share, share their successes and sufferings and suppers. To love each other like we’re family, even if we aren’t related. I can’t imagine a better reward for showing hospitality than to be treated to dinner with an angel.

Have mercy!

Last week, I went into a store and left with a really interesting life lesson. The woman who worked there and I were discussing the importance of labeling our kids’ clothes so that they could be identified later in the Lost & Found bin. She mentioned that she had an embroidery machine at home and often used it for that exact purpose.

 

Then she told me a story about a time when she embroidered her teen daughter’s name in a large font on a prominent place on the hood of a jacket. She described the jacket’s various shades of pink and how much her daughter loved it. Another woman asked her about the jacket—where did she get it and how much did it cost—and then, a few days, the jacket went missing. “Eventually,” the woman at the store told me, “I saw her wearing that pink jacket. I could tell where she had picked out the stitches where my daughter’s name had been.”

 

I assumed the next part of the story was going to involve the authorities and an ugly argument, but I was wrong. “What did you do?” I asked her.

 

“As soon as she saw me, I could tell that she knew she was caught. So I went over to talk to her. I told her that I recognized the jacket and knew it was my daughter’s. Then I asked her if she would like me to embroider hername on the jacket. Knowing she thought I was just offering so that I could take the jacket back, I told her that she could come with me and stand right next to me while I sewed it.” This gracious woman embroidered another woman’s name—the name of the woman who had stolen from her—on the jacket she had bought especially for her pink-loving daughter without asking for anything in return.

 

At first listen, it may seem that this woman should’ve taught that thief a lesson. One might think: Now she’ll be stealing everyone’s stuff! Where’s the justice?! But there are moments when we are called to show mercy, and this angel listened to the call. I can only imagine what effect this had on the woman who had stolen the jacket. Was she so weighed down by guilt after this undeserved act of kindness that she could never wear the jacket again, or did she whistle happily as she walked away, congratulating herself on her good luck? No matter what the offender’s feelings were, the woman I met at the store that day was content with her response to the ill treatment she had received all those years ago.

 

This kind of mercy, especially when coupled with unexpected forgiveness, warms my heart and makes me all teary-eyed. These glimpses of what humans can do for each other when we’re not trying to tear each other down is refreshing. I like this quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I have always found that mercy brings richer fruits than strict justice.” Maybe that’s the question to ask when we suffer wrongdoing at the hands of others: What fruits will my response bring?

 

In Micah 6:8 we read the best prescription for doing what is good and what’s required of us: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” That just about sums it up.

Be the gift

How did I end up sitting on this metal bench next to a Customer Service desk? I just wanted two $25 gift cards, but instead the cashier rang up one $50 card and one $0 card. After talking to three different employees while nearly sweating through my Christmas red sweater and with no time to rectify the mistake because I needed to pick up kids from school, I left with what I thought was the $50 card, only to discover while sitting in the carline and finally examining the receipt that it was the other one.

 

I dropped off my kids at home and drove back to the store. My parting instructions from management were: “If you want to change this, come back and ask for me, (insert Assistant Manager’s name here),” so that’s what I did. I didn’t want to get in that long December return/exchange line, so at first I wandered around looking for my assistant manager friend.

 

“Do you know ______?” I would ask vested employees, as if I were searching for a missing child. “Have you seen her?” Finally, I found one of the employees who had been a part of the original purchase, and she helped me find the correct member of management. And that’s why I’m sitting here now, waiting while she checks the store log to find which card has what. As shoppers walk past me, I wonder if they think I’ve been caught shoplifting and that’s why I’m sitting here with no bags and no buggy. That’s silly, I tell myself, why do you assume people think you’ve done something wrong?

 

Other than being a slight inconvenience, this is really not a big deal. It’ll be worked out and I’ll soon be on my merry way, so in the meantime I’ll sit and watch the busy afternoon foot traffic. In spite of the festive decorations and the countdown to Christmas, generally-speaking, people look tired. They look stressed. They look not-so-Christmas-Spirit-like. A mom just snapped at her young son as he wailed for something she wouldn’t buy him. There’s some tension over a bike return at the Customer Service desk. No one is yelling, but there is a cloud of disappointment lingering over the participants in the bike return dispute. Everyone in that line looks they’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else at that moment.

 

I’m suddenly aware of an aspect of Christmas I hadn’t considered before. We (me included) get so caught up with the buying and wrapping. We can easily become consumed with lists and costs. So what if I were the gift? Not that I don’t think we should give each other presents! I’m not suggesting we eliminate any opportunities to be generous and kind. But as I sit on this metal bench on this busy afternoon, I can choose to be the gift. Nothing material. Nothing to be bought. Nothing to be wrapped. My smile, my understanding, my attentiveness can be what this stressed-out group needs this afternoon.

 

When the assistant manager comes back with my loaded gift cards, I can be the gift of calmness without a trace of self-righteous anger. When I get home, I can be the gift of patience with my kids while I try to juggle helping with homework, making supper and getting kids to ball practice. Hopefully, if I keep looking for ways to be a gift to others, it will become my natural inclination, then it might become contagious. Imagine what a pile of presents we’d have if we all endeavored to be a gift!

Famous

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my sisters and I were in Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Nashville, shopping with a couple who were friends of my parents. A woman approached us and asked the couple our ages and commented on our general cuteness. Although the woman might have seemed like any ordinary Nashville-area resident out running errands, I recognized her voice instantly. Even without her trademark straw hat topped with fake flowers and $1.98 price tag dangling to the side, I had watched enough episodes of Hee Haw to know it was Minnie Pearl.

 

I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be famous. To be recognized by people everywhere I went. To be mobbed by fans and photographers. To have the ability to give people a lasting memory and a treasured anecdote to impress friends and strangers just by being in the same room with them and acknowledging their existence in the universe. No wonder so many are drawn to the pursuit of fame, especially considering that at our very core, one of the most basic human desires is to be known.

 

Even though Jesus’ friends had the ultimate example of humility standing in front of them, they weren’t exempt from this clamor for fame. They even argued about it, speculating who would be the greatest in the kingdom and right on the heels of Jesus’ exclamation about his imminent death.

 

Jesus’ reply to their earthly ideas about fame was to bring a child to set in front of them. Then He said something that stopped their quarreling while also no doubt giving them a riddle to puzzle out during future fireside moments of quiet contemplation. “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.” -Luke 9:48 (NLT)

 

What did they think about this seemingly backwards path to greatness? How could accepting a lowly child give you access to the Prince of Peace and the Mighty King of the Universe? But Jesus was the master of these mind-blowing assertions about righteous living. He wanted them to understand the vanity of their kind of greatness. He wanted them to take a giant bite of the Humble Pie he had sliced up for them. It was as if He was saying, “Stop looking for ways to step on each other as you climb to the top. Instead, look down and notice these little children. Giving them your attention won’t make you world famous, but these actions will gain you fame in heaven.”

 

So strive to be famous—famously kind, famously generous, famously brave. Win awards for being the best listener, the most thoughtful, the truest friend. Hold the Box Office record for the highest-grossing number of encouraging words. Make the Fortune 500 list for the richest, most genuine friendships.

 

Paparazzi may not camp out in your front yard, waiting to take photos of you as you pick up your newspaper dressed in your bathrobe, but you will be on the real path to greatness.

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.

Same Species

I have found that the best way to get to know my kindergarten son’s friends and classmates is by making a weekly visit to eat lunch with him at his elementary school.

 

My go-to questions when meeting these classmates for the first time are usually: “Do you have any brothers or sisters? And if so, how old are they?” and “What did you do in Special Area (art, music, library, P.E., computer) today?”

 

I can’t get out of there without also saying something like: “You need to eat that fish sandwich or you’ll be really hungry later.” Replace fish sandwich with chicken ring thing or steak sliders or whatever else is on the menu, and you get the idea. You can’t take away my Mom-ness, even in a busy, ear-ringing lunch room with other peoples’ kids.

 

A few weeks ago, I noticed one of the girls in my son’s class carrying her lunch tray while timidly looking for a place to sit. I watched as another student banished her with an outstretched arm and pointing finger to the far end of their table. The little girl smiled shyly, assuming they were teasing and tried to scoot back down to sit with the trio of her classmates, but she was instructed a second time to move away. With a broken heart for the crumbling kindergartener, I asked my son if I could go and sit with her instead of staying with him. He waved me off as if to say: “No biggee. I sit with you all the time,” and I headed to the other table.

 

By then, the little girl had pushed her tray forward and laid her head on the table. We chatted for the rest of lunch as I tried to cheer her up and remind her to eat: “That chicken patty looks good! And that corn? Yum! Come on and eat up!” But I was mostly sad for how poorly people often treat each other, even little kids.

 

Our family has been watching The Blue Planet TV shows recently. This nature series—like its forerunner, Planet Earth—shows amazing footage of animals doing unexpected things. The Blue Planet episodes are all set under or around water.

 

One thing I found remarkable was a segment about Sand Tiger Sharks. They pointed out that they are one of the few animals which may resort to eating their own kind. Sand Tiger Sharks will hunt other fish, but if things get desperate they will turn on each other.

 

This got me thinking about all of the times I’ve watched shows with animals in hunting parties—a pride of lions trying to take down a pack of gazelles, for instance—and even if they’re unsuccessful, they won’t attack each other. It’s like there’s something instinctive in their brains telling them not to eat a fellow lion but to keep working together instead.

 

I’d hate to think of humans in the same category as Sand Tiger Sharks, Praying Mantis, and Black Widow Spiders—all animals who are willing to throw away any connection to their same species when mealtime rolls around. I’d rather think that we can show kids (and other adults) the best version of ourselves. Not just because we’re stronger when we work together, though that is true, but because it’s the right thing to do. And because tearing one person down brings us all down a little bit.

In the absence of hate

I feel sick. The constant news cycle. The pictures and videos. The soundbites. The unequivocal, unapologetic, urgent call for hatred of people whose skin is a different color.

 

I think I’ve always been bothered by the unfair treatment of people who aren’t white. I was raised on Sesame Street-style diversity and after-school specials that called out bullies and bigots. But now that I’m a mother to a beautiful, brown-skinned boy, I can’t just turn off the TV and stay in my white privilege bubble.

 

Though you could argue I should’ve felt this strongly all along, for me, there’s a new reality to the recent violence. With the addition of our son to our family, I now replace every mistreated, overlooked, belittled black person with his face, his eyes, his tears, and I am undone. When I see a picture of a torch-bearing white supremacist, I can’t help but think of how this man hates my son, even though they’ve never met.

 

How to keep him safe? How to teach him when to stand up and when to stand down? How to keep moving forward when there seems to be so much hate? I can’t think of what to do except to go out and love on people.

 

Yesterday in the parking lot of Sam’s Club, I watched an older white man approach a black mother of four small kids. I held my breath. I braced myself. Then I heard him say that her children are beautiful and a blessing and can he get her a shopping cart? It was commonplace and magnificent, all at once. It was regular kindness, a step towards healing.

 

Kindness promotes trust. Trust makes room for understanding. Understanding creates empathy. And once we get to empathy it’s a lot harder to hate complete strangers.

 

In that same parking lot, I saw a different white man, feet planted widely apart with hands on his hips, stare down a woman wearing an Islamic headscarf. Maybe he had lost his car. Maybe he was elderly and confused. I’m still not sure, but my senses were on high alert. I picked up my pace to walk closer to the woman, wondering what I would do if he said something unkind. Nothing happened. It was probably a scene created mostly by my imagination, but I was ready because I’m tired of letting others do the talking for me. I’m tired of all this hate.

 

There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to the recent events in Charlottesville. Everyone seems to have lots to say. I’m not in any way certified to speak about race relations, but I can’t let that keep me from saying anything at all. We can fight against racism. We can stand up for what’s right. In the space of one generation, we went from whites-only water fountains to an African-American president. Anything is possible, right? I know it’s not enough progress for my black brothers and sisters, but I’m searching for traces of hope wherever I see a glimmer of light.

 

As long as there are people willing to call out bullies and bigots, there’s hope. I will not be silent. Let’s see the glory that remains where there’s an absence of hate.