Saturday, July 30, 2011

Everyone, even the Sweet and Salty

Flags from around the World

John 3:16 NIV
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

The summer I turned twenty, I traveled and studied abroad. After six weeks of classwork in Bregenz, Austria, my friends, Carmen and Donnie, and I traipsed around Europe on Eurorail passes. We became expert at stretching our money until the very end of our trip; however, we were all down to our last coins on the final days we were to head back home.

We were traveling through France to England via the hovercraft boat. Our last evening in France, we walked upon a town fair. Small rides for children were set up, and families mingled with each other. As we walked past the fair, the unmistakable aroma of hot pop corn grabbed our imaginations, and all we could think about was that pop corn. We followed our noses to a small booth. My mouth watered. My stomach growled. After a day of very little food, I anticipated the salty crunch of the pop corn.

I lay down my last francs and bought a small bag. I cradled it in my hands, reached into the bag, took a large handful, and stuffed my mouth. Whereupon I swiftly looked for a place to spit it out. To my surprise, the popcorn was not salty, but rather it had been coated with sugar.

My taste buds short-circuited due to the conflicting messages my brain sent. Yes, it wanted pop corn, but no, not sugared corn. Salty corn.

I wanted to cry. I had spent my last coins on a dish my American sensibilities would not allow me to eat.  My disappointment followed me as I continued my path to the hovercraft.

How many times in life has something looked familiar to me and then, close up, I realized I didn't know it at all.  People are like this. Some are exactly how I thought they would be, and others are nothing like I imagined, and I can't get away from them fast enough.

Although there are times I have trouble with the variety of personalities I encounter during the day, God has His arms outstretched to all of us. He loves all of the folks around me and desires a relationship with them. 

Sometimes it's hard for me to remember this truth as I look at people and decide whom I will become friends with. All I can do is pray for others. Even if their personality is too sweet or salty to my tastes, they are a child of God. 

People come in all flavors in life, and they are all desirable to the Lord.
Lord, thank you for loving us all.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Boneyard

Oregon Hillside where the Bones were Located

The Bleached Ribcage of a Cow

Luke 6:31 NIV
"Do to others as you would have them do to you."

On a hillside beside a rutted path cattle follow to water, nestled among sage brush and shrouded in the shade of Juniper trees, lay a rib cage. The bleached bones were highlighted by sunlight streaming through the trees. The serenity of the moment belied the tragedy which had befallen the cow. The scene was uniquely suggestive of the wild west.  It was June, and I was in cattle country.

Not every cow survives, I reminded myself as I studied the remains.

Predators and harsh weather can destroy the most determined spirit. No matter how many times the cow had struggled to its feet to continue its path, it met with disappointment until it could rise no longer.

How does it feel to give up?

I'm a fighter. With God's grace, I have battled some tight spots in my life.  I haven't given up, but I have seen others struggle to go forward on their own. 

I see people who lead lives Henry David Thoreau described as "quiet desperation."  If I don't reach out to others, and lend them a hand when I see their need, then what am I doing here?

What is my life worth?

Jesus commanded,  "Do to others as you would have them do to you."  As far as I'm concerned, I need to encourage others to keep walking on the path, to get up when they fall down, and show them where they can safely rest.  

I don't like to think about people who face troubles on their own. Their lives usually look as sad as the scene I passed one June afternoon.
Lord, let me reach out to those in need.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Take My Blanket

God's Promise of Hope through the Magnolias

Proverbs 3:5 KJV
"Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face." --Eleanor Roosevelt

At times, fear paralyzes my ability to write. I stare at the blank page before me and wonder what will come out of my life that will touch others. What would God have me share today?  Nerves wash over me, and I walk away from the page.

My classroom students have the same fears of the blank page. Rather than just writing, hoping that ideas will shape and form around their words, my students freeze and resist my entreaties to "just write what comes into your mind".  The same fears of being misunderstood or judged on the merit of what they write prevent them from working around the mental block.

God knows the unwritten future, like a blank page, looms before me. What I do today impacts tomorrow. Decisions I make can carry lifetime consequences. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I don't get "it" right? 

Fear is one force I face that causes a wall between God and me.  I must let go the worries. I have got to lean on Him through my writing and the uncertain times we live in. Yet like a child clutching her worn blanket, I am loathe to let go my fears and would rather wrap myself up inside them.

Like a shadowy figure lurking in the dark recesses of my soul, fear's only purpose is to keep me from the light of God. When the dark veil of fear is removed from my life, when I am able to face straight on those things I have feared, I discover they were nothing but fantasies of my mind. Inventions of my insecurities.

What precious time was lost in worry.
Lord, help me lean on you!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cleaning out the Clutter

Jade Slept Through the Cleaning

1 Kings 10:24 NIV
"The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart."

Two bottles ketchup. Four bottles mustard. Five jars pickles: bread and butter, hamburger dills, and baby gherkins. Three bottles barbeque sauce. Four tubs butter. Four packs lunch meat. A dozen slices of American cheese plus one unopened pack. Six varieties of salad dressing. 

These are just a few of the many contents of the refrigerator I just cleaned out.

I consolidated condiments, read dates, and tossed spoiled tomatoes and last Sunday's pot roast into the trash. I placed lunch meat and cheese into ziplock baggies to keep them fresh. It took about thirty minutes to complete the task I'd dreaded for weeks.

More importantly, it also wouldn't hurt me to clean out what Jennifer Rothschild refers to as my "thought closet".  School approaches, and my summertime bliss will end on August 5th.  I have to admit, I'm not looking forward to adding school stress to my life. I have enjoyed not having to call parents, pushing their kids to perform for tests scores, or answering to administrative dictates.

So I'm currently working on my thoughts and attitude.  I'm praying for guidance as I start a new school year.  It's a big responsibilty working with young people and the many problems they bring with them to the classroom.  I need God's wisdom to help me every hour of the day.

Like my overcrowded refrigerator, I need to clean out the clutter in my own life to make room for the new experiences I will soon face.
Lord, help me open my heart and mind to the responsibilities I will inherit in two weeks. Pour your wisdom over me this school year as I face a variety of challenges.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Twenty Years Ago Today

John and Me on Vacation
March 2010

Genesis 2:24 NIV
"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."

Twenty years ago today I married John Durham. After two years as a single parent, and having endured an ugly divorce, I decided to take a chance on love again.  A colleague at school asked, "Do you know what you're doing?"  I smiled broadly as I replied, "Yes."

Her concern went beyond a superficial curiosity. Many others in my circle of friends wondered the same thing but didn't voice the thought. It was natural on their parts as they were protective of me. After all, John and I only dated fifteen weeks from the first date to the altar.

Before that, he endured ten weeks as one of my college students, so we had ample opportunity to observe each other in an objective environment. As awkward as I thought it might be to date a former student, my nervousness abated during dinner.  When he put his arm around me during Dancing With Wolves, I knew I had "come home." I have no other words to express that comfortable feeling when I laid my head on his shoulder.

We talked at dinner tonight about our life together. It has been a grand adventure, but it hasn't seemed like twenty years. We firmly believe God meant for us to be together and feel blessed to have found each other.

We used to be the "young married couple," but by today's standards, we are the "old married couple".  Each year has flown by, and I have no reason to think the rest of our years together won't also slip past us. However, we know God continues to lead us as we walk our path together.

With God as our focus and His love to sustain us, there's no reason to fear anything the future may bring.
Thank you, Lord, for the blessings of twenty years with the love of my life.

Für the Stranger

Double Rainbow
July 2011

Matthew 25:35 NIV
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.

One of my first memories of meeting someone from overseas came in the early 1970's through a church experience. My family was told a group of Vietnamese boat people were traveling through Cincinnati and needed overnight housing.

I was around 12 years old and possessed only a cursory understanding of the Vietnam War based on news coverage on television. Even though I didn't comprehend the politics of the time, I recognized the urgency of the request for homes for the refugees.

Mom and dad agreed to host, and we were given a girl, not much older than I, for the night. She was quiet and reserved when we first met her, but we eventually found a way to interact and communicate with her through music. She didn't speak English, but that was no problem.

She was classically trained on the piano. She played by memory pieces such as "Für Elise".  Her visage was transformed as her fingers danced on the keyboard. She no longer looked worn out, lost, or misplaced as the music transported her to a different place and time. She relaxed as she played.

We discovered she spoke French, yet none of us knew French. However, we knew the French words to "Frère Jacques", so we all sang it repeatedly, laughing as we tripped over words.

The overnight visit elapsed in a moment, and then she was on her way to wherever God was leading her. 

However, in her brief visit, she influenced me. I discovered the joy of spending time with people from other cultures.

God planted a seed in me as a child which grew to become one of my life's focuses.
Lord, thank you for teaching me the value of interacting with people from other cultures.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Comfort Food for the Soul

A Birthday Feast
Exodus 23:16 NIV
"Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. "Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field."

The past week my life has been bookended with vacations first in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and now Orlando, Florida.

The time in-between the visits with friends and family has unfolded in stark contrast to the carefree days of sitting on a balcony on the beach watching the continual rise and fall of the tides of the Atlantic or playing hide-n-seek in the hotel pool with my daughter and nieces.

I lost a dear friend this past week, and I was unable to attend his visitation and funeral due to our Orlando trip.  At a loss to know what to say or do for his family, I delivered food to their home before the trip. 

I asked my mother-in-law for help with the meal as she prepares the best "comfort" food I know. She cooked two purely Southern dishes: Chicken-n-dumplings and peas and butter beans with white rice.

Granny didn't blink an eye when I asked her to fix the meal for me. She is this way.  She loves people and helps out in times of need. 

When family gathers, in addition to her other dishes, Granny is most famous for her macaroni and cheese. Southern chefs could learn something from her about how to prepare macaroni and cheese.  No Southern, home style restaurant I have ever visited has come close to the creamy, cheesy richness of Granny's concoction.

Comfort food makes me feel like a child again. It offers solace when I am emotionally weak. Comfort food speaks to the soul.

God's words are comforting and lift us up, and I have recently noticed there are many feasts mentioned in the Bible.  The Passover Feast, the Feast of First Fruits, The Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths are all mentioned in the Old Testament.  The Last Supper is found in the New Testament as well as dozens of other meals, including the loaves and fishes served at the Sermon on the Mount.

God understands one of our basic needs is to replenish our energy through food.  Furthermore, through the socialization of breaking bread together, Jesus was able to spread his comforting message of hope to the world.

Comfort food delivered to an ill or grieving family is an attempt to let them know we care about them. Our message is one of hope during difficult times.
Lord, thank you for understanding that the comfort food of life can also feed the soul.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Yesterdays Ago

Three Cousins
Psalm 37:25 NIV
"I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread."

Laughter bursts and erupts throughout the hotel room as suddenly and colorfully as fireworks over St. Simons Island in July. Three cousins romp on a double bed, tickling and tackling each other. Their enthusiasm inspires the adults who recall fondly their own roughhouse days when they were 14, 11, and 9.

Time is slipping by us. The girls don’t stop growing. The eldest will enter high school this fall. The other two not far behind.
Yesterdays ago, when the girls were 6, 3, and 1, it seemed impossible to think they would drive cars, be chased by or chase boys, worry about algebra or read sad stories of war time torture and death.

Yesterdays ago, we were able to raise a protective wall around them and shelter them from the evils of the world.

Yesterdays ago we read to them and prayed with them at night before bed; we rocked them on our laps; we healed the cuts and bruises they accumulated.

Today we will not be able to mend every hurt, rock them when we want, or shelter them from the evils of the world.  But we still pray and tell our stories. We tell them they are one of God’s children. They are loved by Him and us. We show them how to talk to God in prayer and find His spirit in themselves and others.

Yesterdays ago we planted the seeds of tomorrow, which has almost become their todays.  Life for them will be fraught with challenges, joys, hardships, and love.

But today, laughter rings through the room, the pool, and the parks of this magical vacation time among cousins.
Lord, Bless the children as they grow into young adults. Protect them for us.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Help in the Midst of Life's Storms

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
5 July 2011

Luke 8:24 NIV
"The disciples went and woke him, saying, 'Master, Master, we're going to drown!' He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm."

I waded today beside my childhood friend, Leigh, along the sandy coastline of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Almost six years have passed since our last walk, yet our conversation flowed as easily as the rising tide sweeping warm Atlantic waves over our toes.

Leigh and I first began walking in middle school. Slowly at first, like waves building energy off shore, and then with the fierce steadfastness of whitecaps confidently lifting surfers on their backs, we crafted an unsinkable friendship which has endured the rise and fall of the tides of our lives.

We have bouyed each other through the deaths of those close to us, loves both lost and discovered, and the raising of our children. She has been a constant beacon of hopeful light throughout the storms of my life. 

In high school, we arrived at the conclusion that neither time nor distance, like the endless roar of waves pounding the coastline, were going to erode the bond we had forged.

God's hand christened our friendship forty years ago. Like sailors searching the night sky for Polaris, we have kept a careful eye on each other. Our plotted course continues Westward while full sails flutter and propel us ever forward through the winds of change.
Lord, bless all my friends. As the saying teaches, "Some are silver and the others are gold."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lessons from the Teachers

Sam has Taught me to Sleep in the Sunshine

Matthew 13:13 NIV
"This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand."

Mr. Chips, from Goodbye Mr. Chips, by James Hilton, stole my heart.  It's no wonder I became a school teacher as his character demonstrated so clearly the power a teacher welds in the lives of others.

My real life teachers impacted me as well, especially the high school teachers. I learned how to teach by observing their interactions with my classmates and me.  

My chemistry instructor, Mr. Brandt, found creative ways to teach. I'll always remember hundreds of ping pong balls, which sat precariously upon mousetraps, exploding in a nuclear reaction when he tossed a ping pong ball into the midst of the carefully hinged spheres.  Furthermore, I recall his patient help after school as I muddled through complicated equations. 

From Mr. Brandt, I learned creativity and hard work will overcome difficult challenges.

My choir director, Mr. Duncan, spent countless hours perfecting our voices in Concert Choir as the numerous awards we won at contests proved. Not only did he work with us as a whole group, but he also took time to work with us individually. He helped our little girls ensemble group for four years. We formed on our own, but he was our constant support.  He also encouraged me to grow musically when he allowed me to perform as an occasional accompanist on the piano.

From Mr. Duncan, I learned to trust your students and encourage their creative talents to flourish.

My senior English teacher, Ms. Richards influenced me to help struggling English students like myself who despised the subject. As a result, the course of my life has been richly blessed.

From Ms. Richards, I learned no matter how much students say they don't care about a subject, many desperately want to succeed and are only using their defensive walls to protect them from feeling stupid and inferior.

Oh, there were negative role models as well who taught me what not to do to my students. There was the geometry teacher who slammed the textbook in the faces of two of my friends and me when we asked him to show us how to prove a theorem we had been stumped on for several hours the night before. As the thud of the book hitting the desk sounded, he looked at us, and said, "Go figure it out on your own. I don't know how to do it."  That moment I lost interest in math.

From him I learned to master my subject material.

I learned one more important  lesson about teaching from the greatest teacher of all, Jesus, who taught in parables.  He broke down complicated ideas into short stories to illustrate his message. Stories like the Prodigal Son and the Widow's Mite are powerful tools he used to show God's love for us and our need to sacrifice all for Him.

From Jesus, I have learned the story-telling tradition is an effective way to teach.

When I watched Goodbye, Mr. Chips as a child, I cried at the end. However, now I am older, I look at this story from the angle of a teacher, not so much as a student who has lost a favorite instructor.  I think back to the lives which have passed through my classroom doors, and although I didn't reach them all, I know I did my best with the talents God gave me.

God has blessed me throughout life with role models who have formed the basis of my teaching philosophy.

For this, I am a grateful student.
Thank you Lord for those who teach by example.

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Glimpse of Heaven

A Heavenly Landscape
Sprague River, Oregon
June 2011

Matthew 13:44 NIV
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field."

Some people have difficulty believing in heaven, but I am not one of those.

There are places I have visited, where I have left behind pieces of my heart such as Bregenz, Austria; Richmond, Kentucky; and Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Long after I have lived in these areas, I still dream about them at night, reliving the places, people and landmarks.

As a nineteen-year-old college student studying german in Bregenz the summer of 1980, I ate with my classmates at the Golden Hirschen (Deer) every evening for dinner. Last week I dreamt about that landmark and tasted the delicious soups, entrees and desserts offered us that summer. Apple strudel has never melted in my mouth as much as it did in my dream.

I woke in a fog of confusion as I realized the memory was 31 years old. I searched online for the restaurant, and to my delight, I discovered it's still open for business. One day, ah, one day, I would like another meal there.

Richmond was my home-away-from home off and on for about ten years from 1978 to 1988, the year I finished my graduate degree. The foothills of the Appalachian Mountains roll through the region. About twelve miles south of Richmond, outside of Berea, is a trail that leads to a peak so high I could see Lexington, Kentucky, about 35 miles away, on a clear day.

Richmond was a place for discovery. I explored a cave located in a farmer's field, I frolicked (yes, frolicked!) in the rainbow colors of autumn leaves that had fallen in the Ravine on Eastern Kentucky University's campus, and I followed a small trickle of a stream to where it opened into a creek, where I first learned to fish.

Finally, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, has helped me work in the career I trained for in grad school. I earned my master's degree in English as a Second Language hoping it would take me back to Austria.  Instead, God led me to a developing nation that formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

My work with English teachers and their students has opened my life to a steady stream of adventure I would have missed out on had God not opened that door.  I have visited an underground lake with reported healing powers and seen a hill beside a sacred site that some women believe can make them fertile if they roll down it.

(As a side note, I don't know how effective it is to roll down the hill, but I know after walking beside it, I inherited a 15-year-old daughter as an exchange student from a remote region in Turkmenistan. I have no doubt God has a sense of humor as I was teased quite a bit by my companion about rolling down the hill. Apparently internationals don't have to roll at all, they just have to walk beside it to receive a child.)

God has imprinted these locations on my heart, and for me, a piece of heaven is represented by all. The Austrian Alps and the Bodensee (Lake Constance) that shape Bregenz, the rolling hills of farmland covered in Bluegrass surrounding Richmond, and the beauty of the living desert of Turkmenistan, where camels roam in search of food and drink and lonesome tumbleweeds blow in the wind.

Heaven will be all these places as well as other moments I have lived. It will be laughter breaking the silence of a somber day, an amber sunrise over lavender azaleas and wisteria, the festive melody of a brass fanfare.

Heaven is real: I have experienced bits of it here on Earth.
Thank you Lord for glimpses of things to come.