Framily

A couple of years after our youngest son joined our family, I took Ezra to a birthday party for a school classmate. When the party was over and we were driving home, he asked me where the birthday girl’s siblings were during the party.

 

“She doesn’t have any brothers or sisters,” I told him. Ezra, youngest of four, was shocked. “Some families just have one kid,” I explained. “Some families have four kids.”

 

“And some have six,” Ezra said.

 

I agreed, but then I glanced at him in the rearview mirror and thought about his response. I wondered what he meant by his calculation. Did he choose it randomly? Or was he counting all of the people in our family? (4 kids + 2 adults = 6) He had only been in the U.S. for a short time at that point, which meant he’d only had about two years of speaking/hearing the English language with all its inconsistencies and eccentricities and double-meanings, so I was accustomed to repeating and rephrasing. He’d also only been in the physical presence of his parents, siblings, cousins, etc. for just a few years, so I had to constantly find new ways to explain the concept of a Forever Family.

 

“Our family has four kids,” I told him. I counted off their names on the fingers of my left hand as I moved the steering wheel with my right. “You, Knox, Ella, and Lucy. Four.”

 

“Six kids,” Ezra corrected me.

 

“What do you mean?” I asked. Then Ezra reminded me about the two college students living with us. They were there for the summer to work with our church youth group, and they’d been sleeping in our basement for a week or so. Ezra was ready to include them in his final total. I explained that the college boys had parents and they were too old to be adopted. “Anyway,” I said. “They’re pretty much already grown-ups.”

 

As we pulled into our garage and I parked the van, Ezra opened the door. He looked back at me before hopping out and said with all seriousness. “Mama, dem boys is our famry.” Then he ran inside to find his two newest brothers.

 

We’ve learned so much since Ezra joined our family more than five years ago, but one of the biggest lessons has been how we define family. More than ever, we’ve realized that family absolutely doesn’t have to involve a shared DNA. We can carve out deep, sacred relationships with people who cross our paths but never appear on a single branch of our family tree. We can make connections with others by being their cheerleaders for big moments and just being available on an average Tuesday night, by making room at the table and making time in our schedule. Then Friends can become Family.

Hold my ladder

As a homeowner, there are plenty of jobs most of us just don’t enjoy doing: weed-eating, grout-cleaning, baseboard-dusting, etc. Generally, these are tasks which run on a never-ending loop: We clean. We pause briefly to bask in the triumph of our accomplishment. Then, before we know it, it’s time to do it again.

 

Cleaning out the gutters is an accurate example of this “life of a homeowner” principle, (along with possibly being on the list of the punishments God gave Adam in the Garden of Eden which are now meted out upon us, his miserable descendants).

 

When we get a heavy rain, it becomes obvious that the gutters are clogged. Water is pouring down in sheets at the corners of the roof, instead of coming down the drainpipes like it’s supposed to. Once the rain stops, my husband Brent goes out to the shed to get the ladder. He carries it over to the house and leans it against the wall. But before he climbs to the top, he does what smart people do: he asks for someone to hold his ladder.

 

I am usually the one at the bottom of the ladder, legs planted firmly in the ground using all my might to hold the metal frame which the love of my life is precariously perched at the top of. Even though I run the risk of getting splatted by the gross sludge coming down in handfuls from the clogged gutter, I preferred to be the one holding the ladder, because I don’t trust the kids to do the job. In a way, it’s an honor to be asked to do something so important for my most favorite person, or at least that’s what I tell myself as I comb rotted vegetation from my hair.

 

Now that I think of it, climbing should never be a solitary journey. In the same way that they encourage people to use the buddy system on a mountain climb, we should all be scaling the heights together.

 

Over 100 years ago, a group of women gathered together to form an organization that would do just that. It was called the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and their mantra was “Lifting as We Climb.” The women who started the organization, including the heroic Harriet Tubman, were dedicated to improving the lives of people of color, not just for themselves, but to lift up their communities for generational impact.

 

The NACW was born in a time when people of color, and especially African-American women, were demonized and considered less than human. When a British suffragette asked a Missouri newspaperman to encourage American journalists to speak out against lynching, he wrote back to her in no uncertain terms what he thought about the people of color in America. But his words of hate and prejudice only solidified their mission. The women proved their humanity in the best sense of the word by working together to better the lives of their sisters.

 

Anyone with an ounce of ambition (or who’s ever played Chutes and Ladders) knows it’s better to go up the ladder. We want better—better for ourselves, better for our kids, better at work, better at home. The question we should ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to hold the ladder for others as they scale to higher heights? Are we lifting as we climb?

Looking for my enemy

I was in Atlanta last weekend with my older son to watch him play a couple of soccer games. Not being a sporty person myself, I have had to learn a lot about the world of competitive sports over the past decade or so. But I’m not just referring to the rules of the game (although I definitely came in without knowing anything about “offsides” and “corner kicks” and “slide tackles”). A big part of my education was trying to understand the psyche of the players and fans.

 

For instance, it’s common for parents from Team A to suspect that preferential treatment is being shown by the referees to the players of Team B (“Come on, Ref! How’s that a foul?!”), but to feel entitled to the exact same treatment for their own players (“Finally! You have a yellow card! Use it!”). It’s cuckoo.

 

I usually tell myself that the only reason my son is on this team and not that one is basic geography. Same age, same sport, different cities. That’s it. Those boys on the other team aren’t our enemy. And although I might like to throttle those screaming parents from the other team, they aren’t my enemy either. Neither are the opposing coaches and the referees. But when we get angry, we humans seem to want to find someone to be angry with. We want a villain. That kid who just fouled my son will do, or maybe the referee who didn’t call it the “right” way. Something like hate boils up in us and comes spewing out. It’s not pretty, folks.

 

Jesus had a lot to say about how to regard those you’ve labeled as your enemies. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (NLT)

 

When Jesus stood on a mountainside and taught those words to the large crowd who were following him from town to town, he was giving them one example after another about how to be an alternative to what the World offered. He told them that God blesses the poor and the humble and the persecuted. He told them to be salt and light—to be different.

 

Jesus wasn’t necessarily referring to my conduct during a soccer game or our behavior towards others during this election season, but it’s applicable all the same. It’s a waste of time to villainize those around us. Friend or foe, we are called to love them all anyway.

Disagree to Disagree

I don’t get to read as much purely entertaining fiction as I’d like. They’re like dessert for me, so I don’t ingest them as much as the vegetables I end up reading and studying instead. But with our recent Fall Break trip to the mountains, I decided to treat myself by reading one of my favorite authors.

 

I read a book about a group of people taken hostage by a bank robber. (FYI: This was not a Grisham-like thriller. It was a charming and funny, character-driven story set in Sweden.) The basic idea was that these eight people with dissimilar personalities and established prejudices and heavy emotional baggage are thrown together in a traumatic situation, and they come out on the other side not as strangers, but as something more like family. They experience a potentially life-or-death situation, resulting in a new understanding of those people who lived in a different “universe” (though they all physically live in Sweden) than them.

 

I have been stewing over this story since I finished reading it a week ago. I keep thinking about if it’s really possible for a person’s entrenched perspective to change. Can years of hurt and misinformation actually move aside for a new view to form? What do we do with people we disagree with? Especially when it’s something we think is important and central to our entire moral code?

 

Dr. Christena Cleveland thoughtfully lays out the issues with division in her book Disunity in Christ where she devotes a lot of time discussing perspective divergence or what she calls the gold standard effect. “Basically, the gold standard effect leads us to believe that not only are we different from them, but we are also better than them…When we adopt a unique group identity and surround ourselves with similar ingroup members, we essentially create our own alternate universe in which we believe that the standards, ideals, and goals of our ingroup should become the new ‘normal’.” She explains that most of us like to live in homogenous worlds where all the people think and act and vote the same as us. And when our Gold Standard view is challenged, there is often hostility. (And when it’s challenged on social media…watch out! Sparks will fly!)

 

We’re living in period of heightened division, and as much as I’d like to think it will all clear up after November 3, I feel like these hurt feelings and angry comments will still be hanging over lots of relationships like a dark raincloud. Someone much smarter than me should suggest how to repair these divisions across our country, but in the meantime, I have a plea for those of us who are a part of the body of Christ.

 

Just like those fictional characters in the Swedish novel I read who survived a life-or-death situation and came out different people—realizing they were more alike than different—those of us who claim to be made new by the One who lived and died for us should be willing to love each other without hurting each other so frequently. Strangers, acquaintances, coworkers, friends and even those who worship at the same church are tearing into each other on social media because they don’t agree.

 

Here’s my advice, the next time you begin to type a comment which tears down the person who posted it have a conversation with yourself. Maybe it can go a little something like this: “Wait…Is this comment I’ve formed in my mind using my own Gold Standard going to punch this brother/sister in the gut? Is it a personal attack? Is there some motivation behind this person’s post which I’m unable to see? I was in a life-or-death hostage situation with this person and by the blood of Christ and God’s overwhelming mercy, we both barely made it out to the other side. If what I’m planning to say is really that important to me, I’ll call this brother/sister up and talk about it privately. Otherwise, I’ll move on. I realize that’s a lot more work than a hastily written 10-word comment displayed for all to see my brilliant assessment of recent political events, but I am not lazy. Looking to Christ’s example, I am a servant.”

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.

Tag team

When my twin daughters were newborns, they kept me moving. Seeing as how they were helpless in every way, there was always something to do for them. After a few months of being their mom, I realized something funny—they mostly alternated in their fussiness. One would be happily staring into her blurry void, a slobbery, toothless grin plastered on her face, while the other one would be screaming bloody murder. Then, a few hours later, they would change it up. Happy Baby would morph into Grouchy Baby and Angry Baby would switch to Cheerful Baby. It was as if they were professional wrestlers, tagging in and out of the ring (where I was the all-time opponent).

 

This memory about my now almost 18-year old daughters recently surfaced to my mind as we were all quarantined together. I noticed that all of the people in our home have been alternating in their emotions. One of us would begin to feel hopeless and scared about the virus and the shortages and the cancelled events, but not all of us felt these emotions to the same extent at the same time. Slowly, the frightened one would breathe deeply and pray silently, and the wave of nauseous panic would subside. Without verbalizing it, we were tagging in and out. It was as if we were announcing, “It’s my turn to cry in the bathroom, so ya’ll hold down the fort and play a few hands of Skip Bo like we’re just on Spring Break, without a care in the world.”

 

1 Corinthians 12 talks about this idea of all of us coming to the table with different strengths and weaknesses, different skills and challenges. The Apostle Paul uses the analogy of a body:

 

“Yes, the body has many parts, not just one part. If the foot says, ‘I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,’ that does not make it any less a part of the body. And what would you think if you heard an ear say, ‘I am not part of the body because I am only an ear and not an eye’? Would that make it any less a part of the body? Suppose the whole body were an eye—then how would you hear? Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything? But that isn’t the way God has made us. He has made many parts for our bodies and has put each part just where he wants it. What a strange thing a body would be if it had only one part! So he has made many parts, but still there is only one body.  And some of the parts that seem weakest and least important are really the most necessary. If one part suffers, all parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. Now here is what I am trying to say: All of you together are the one body of Christ, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it.” (TLB)

 

We were never meant to be alone—just a pinky toe or an earlobe, disconnected from the body—and this is more true now than ever, even if it might be more difficult to practice in our current situation. When I alternate in the peaks and valleys of the next weeks and months, I’ll need to be encouraged by the strength of the part of God’s body (or person) at the opposite side of the curve. Then, when my strength has been renewed and I can mount up with wings like eagles and run without being weary or walk without being faint, I’ll be able to be that source of encouragement to others.

Potluck

One of life’s greatest joys is a good old fashioned potluck supper. I have vivid memories of these meals in the various churches my family attended throughout my childhood.

 

As a young child, there were some women whose names I might not always remember, but I would know them by their signature homemade dishes. Their names might be Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Jones, but in my head they were “Mrs. Sourdough Bread” or “Mrs. Pistachio Jell-O Salad” or “Mrs. Lemon Squares.” Sometimes there were men with potluck specialties, too, such as “Mr. Bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken” or “Mr. Has His Own Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine.” Their contributions were just as welcome!

 

It’s comforting that in this ever-changing world, some things stay the same: Old men still make jokes, like “Thanks for making my plate!” when you approach holding a Styrofoam plate full of deliciousness you actually prepared for yourself. People still say, “I better get my dessert before everything good is gone,” just after setting their main course on the table, even though there’s plenty of desserts to go around. And sharing meals together—sharing the actual food you bring to the community tables and sharing the experience as you eat side-by-side—is still the best way to be a family.

 

Now that I’m the church lady bringing dishes to gatherings, I can appreciate the work put into these meals, and I often marvel at the variety. Crockpots full of soups and layered salads in glass trifle dishes, rows of pies and pans of brownies. Seasoned potluck organizers don’t worry what people will bring. These veterans of the Fellowship Meal know that it won’t be a table full of only fried chicken or only veggie trays or only chocolate chip cookies. They trust the attendees to bring their specialties, their best dishes, the food their own family prefers. As the people arrive, the food is laid out and…voila!…so much variety! Something for everyone!

 

The word potluck has evolved over time. Originally, it meant that a traveler was lucky to receive whatever was cooking in the pot at the home where he stopped for the night. Nothing special, just regular food. Now it means a communal meal where everyone brings something to contribute to the group. I like the second definition better and not just concerning food. I like the idea that people contribute what they have to share with everyone. Though a pan of brownies is delicious, if that’s all I’m eating it’s not much of a meal. But if you put together my brownies plus your pasta salad and her BBQ sandwiches and his potatoes chips (and the sweet tea…don’t forget the sweet tea), then we will have a great supper. It’s the same when we combine our gifts and talents.

 

It reminds me of the early church described in Acts 2: “And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything with each other,selling their possessions and dividing with those in need.They worshiped together regularly at the Temple each day, met in small groups in homes for Communion, and shared their meals with great joy and thankfulness,praising God.” (TLB)

 

This is the ultimate Potluck Supper—food and family, joyfulness and thankfulness.

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.

Bearing with one another

Last week I was honored to speak at a Mother/Daughter Tea at a church in town. It was a lovely event with tea and coffee and cupcakes and lavender sachets. I came away believing that we really should institute a regular afternoon tea time.

 

I shared a story with these dear women about my dental struggles.Several years ago my dental hygienist pointed out some worn down spots and asked me if I grind my teeth. I’d been having ear aches that weren’t infections, and once I started thinking about it I realized that my jaw was always sore. She asked me if I was under any particular stress. At the time, we were in year three of what would eventually be four years of trying to bring our adopted son home from Africa, so yeah…I was stressed.

 

During that time, I had unknowingly directed my stress and frustration and worry on my poor mouth. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth, causing damage to my gums. I would go on to have gum graph surgery and my dentist recommended I use clear plastic aligners (instead of braces) to correct my misshapen bite.

 

I’ve been through dozens of this plastic teeth movers now and from one aligner to the next, you can hardly tell there’s any change. It’s a tiny tweak, slight modification. But over the many months, the minor modifications add up to a new bite that will cause less stress on my gums and help me keep my teeth.

 

At this point in my talk, the women I shared this with were probably beginning to regret inviting me to their Tea. But I went on to explain that in relationships with each other, we can create bad habits. Dysfunction doesn’t usually happen overnight. It’s a slow teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching process. And this can be the case with mother/daughter relationships. An irritation or misunderstanding becomes a habit of slamming doors and shouting names. It’s hard when these habits become formed, but they don’t have to remain forever. That kind of stubbornness is a sin and God will always be on the side of breaking those sinful patterns, especially when they disrupt our families.

 

So we must look to Scripture for guidance. In the book of Ephesians, we see what the Apostle Paul thought was most important to say to fellow Christians while he was in prison in Rome. Ephesians 4:2-3 gives us some essential truths.

 

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (NIV)

 

In other words, be humble and gentle as Jesus was when he washed his disciples’ feet, choosing the posture of a servant over the attitude of a bully. Tolerate the differences you see in each other because you choose to love in an unconditional way. Then work diligently, with expectations of restoration, to become one as you join together in harmony to sing a beautiful hymn of goodwill.

 

If we can do these things in our relationships with each other, we can take those small steps toward healing. It will take patience, and sometimes there will be setbacks, but the sweetest fruit often take the longest to ripen.

A Golden Afternoon

For the first 6 ½ years of our marriage, my husband and I lived in Memphis. The majority of that time was spent in a modest, brick house built in the 1950’s on a sidewalk-lined street shaded by dozens of towering, deep-rooted trees. As is often the case in older neighborhoods, many of the homes were inhabited by elderly people—some couples but mostly widows. It was a quiet street nestled in the heart of such a busy city and we loved it.

 

Beside the fact that our best friends lived across the street, the main reason I look back on that home so fondly is because it was the place we brought home our newborn twin daughters. Our girls lived there until the weekend they turned 2, when we moved to Murfreesboro.

 

Next door to us lived an older woman named Golden Crenshaw. The first time we met, I was playing with my barely crawling babies on a blanket in the front yard. Ms. Golden walked over and invited us to her house to meet her housemate. I nervously entered with a baby in each arm, eyeing all of the breakable knickknacks in the warm living room which seemed to tremble in the presence of such small and possibly destructive children.

 

Ms. Golden introduced me to her late husband’s aunt. She was a tiny, frail woman well into her 90’s and I was instructed to call her “Aunt” (I have no idea what her name actually was). The women asked me about the girls—their names and age. They asked me where I was from and what brought us to Memphis.

 

Ms. Golden inquired about my name. “Abby? Is it short for Abigail?” she asked.

 

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered politely as a wrangled my restless babies. “But no one really calls me that.”

 

“Well, we shall call you Abigail,” responded Ms. Golden. “Won’t we, Aunt?” She said a little louder.

 

And that’s just what they did. In all the universe—other than the person who calls me back to see the doctor while I’m waiting in the waiting room, only Ms. Golden and Aunt called me Abigail. In spite of their precise attention to decorum, they exuded warmth and acceptance and a genuine interest in a fairly exhausted young mom. It’s like how some people can wear the color yellow while others just can’t. They could pull off the Formal Southern Thing without seeming stiff or snobbish.

 

Ms. Golden did most of the talking with Aunt chiming in every once in a while to answer her niece-in-law’s question. Aunt would mostly stroke my daughter’s baby soft hair with her worn fingers and smile. They told me about Ms. Golden’s late husband and her daughters, one of which had also passed away. That first afternoon, they shared their stories and asked me mine.

 

Over the next year or so before we moved away, we’d visit from time to time. They gave the girls matching dolls for Christmas which the girls would eventually take on many walks down those lovely, shaded sidewalks in their miniature pink doll strollers.

 

I recently found one of those baby dolls, abandoned and unused lying face down in a dark corner of the play room closet. I picked it up and thought about that hot afternoon with Ms. Golden and Aunt. Then I thought about the other women who early in my marriage encouraged me and valued my thoughts: our church’s custodian who told me I was beautiful even though I was nearly 9 months pregnant with twins and ridiculously swollen. The scores of women who brought us meals after the girls were born. The doctor’s office receptionist who gave me diapers from her own baby’s diaper bag when I ran out during a long day of appointments for my 18-month old who had a broken arm. Women who were there for me just when I needed them and others who were there the rest of the time.

 

When it seems that the world tries to convince us that we should tear each other down to make ourselves look better, I will think of these women. As Helen Keller—the inspirational author and speaker who had to rely on others to be her eyes and ears said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”