A new president will take office in a few days in a ceremony that has been repeated every four years, give or take, for more than 200 years, and people around the world will watch (or not) in unprecedented disbelief. How it happened and how it turns out will long be analyzed in political science textbooks.

But I don’t think it’s premature for every voter to do some serious navel-gazing: why did I vote the way I did? Here’s some click-bait for you: we didn’t need a woman president. But that doesn’t mean what you think it means, because neither did we need a black man. Or a Hispanic. Or, before a crowd comes after me with pitchforks, a rich white guy.

Here’s why. I live in a large and culturally diverse school district. I pass one of the district’s more than 75 elementary schools on a busy intersection on my way to church. Next to the school is parked a cheery yellow school bus that serves as a billboard advertising for bus drivers. On the side of the bus is a carefully posed banner: a sampler platter of a dozen or so smiling children and teens, almost comical in its carefully intentional diversity. I think if I were the parent of the kid in the wheelchair, I might resent them displaying my child to say “See? We have those.” Funny how contrived inclusion can feel a lot like marginalization.

I guess the purpose is to have as many people as possible look at the advertisement and see someone who looks like them. I get it. But you would be hard-pressed to find a group similarly comprised on any bus in the district. It’s trying so hard to be right, it’s wrong. The implication seems to be that the best way to attract people is to hold up a mirror.

But the reason for intentionally getting to know people who don’t look like us should not be so that we can check them off a list like we’re buying school supplies. It should be that we might otherwise miss out on knowing some awesome people.

People. Multi-dimensional people who are more alike than they are different. People who are more than their category, people who fit multiple categories, people who will not be categorized. People whose category doesn’t do them justice. And even people who don’t think much of your category.

Back to the election: Sometimes it’s hard to separate candidates’ experience, visions, and qualifications from the circumstances that preceded their birth — who they are vs. what they are, their integrity vs. their category. Refusing to accept someone based on the latter is considered bigotry, and rightly so; however, rallying around a person for the same reason is somehow considered at least patriotic, if not obligatory. I think both viewpoints are nearsighted.

Whether it’s a friend, a spouse, or a candidate, we’d better choose our allegiances wisely and look deeper than issues of birthright — race, gender, heritage. Selecting “one of those” or even “one of us” for no other good reason is risky and a little bit lazy.

But as divisive as it can be around a holiday dinner table, politics may be a natural arena in which to have these discussions — especially this year, when almost every political comment is punctuated with head-wagging incredulity, and it’s hard for anybody to pretend they totally saw it coming. The birthright philosophy gets tricky when you take it personally to heart, and trickier still when you take it to church — a place where “us” and “them” should seldom be heard. So maybe we can just put down the mirrors and the pitchforks and stop trying so hard to get it right that we get it all wrong.

 

Cut it out. Please. The only ones who read it are the people who already agree with you.

And, however well-written, if it’s about a controversial or divisive topic (which it usually is), you are just stirring the stink.

Redirect some of that effort into getting to know some of those people that you felt compelled to address….you know, anonymously and from a distance. Earn the right to be heard. Even if you have something positive and affirming to say, it would mean a lot more delivered in person, from someone with skin in the game.

And having done what I just said you should stop doing, I totally get why you do it: that felt really good! But this is my first and last open letter. Join me in letting this genre go the way of the Letter to the Editor.

We were almost finished with our evening walk: we were cold and tired of walking in the wind, but we consulted the Fitbit muse and determined I needed a few hundred more steps. My shoe had come untied, so I told my husband to go ahead: I would catch up. I bent down, took off a glove, tied my shoe, then straightened up and looked at the stretch of sidewalk ahead as I fumbled to get the glove back on. No husband. Where the heck did he go? He’s a fast walker, but he couldn’t already be out of sight: had he turned into a driveway to chat with a neighbor? Where is he?! Immediately, my hands were on my hips. Then I heard him coming up behind me…… He had walked the other way and circled back while I tied my shoe so we could walk the rest of the way together. With the wind and traffic from the nearby street and the warm hat pulled over my ears, I hadn’t heard his footsteps. Irritation, meet chagrin.

Since Easter, we’ve been talking in Children’s Ministry about something I had never paid too much attention to before. We usually skip through the 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection to get to Day 50: the Day of Pentecost. We might talk about the first day or two when he magically poofed in and out of gatherings, we might mention the “Feed my sheep” story, and we generally squeeze in the ”Go into all the world” directive. But that’s about 3 days’ worth of action, and the Bible is extraordinarily vague about the rest of the time.

It seems that the invitation to the first 40 days back on Planet Earth read: “Come and Go.” Jesus was there, then he wasn’t, then a whole bunch of people saw him, then nobody saw him. It was just enough to cause some sleepless nights for the religious leaders who had thought they were rid of him once and for all. And the disciples? After those first few days, a whole week went by with no recorded sightings. This strikes me as odd. The shell-shocked platoon huddling in a locked house had to be thinking in Aramaic vernacular: “Where the heck did he go?”

Some stories indicate that maybe he looked different: for one thing, he had to be wearing different clothing because some lucky soldier was now the proud owner of his signature cloak. And most people who saw him had to rub their eyes and squint to bring him into focus. Maybe he could change his appearance at will, which could explain why the men on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize him until suddenly they did. I love that when they recounted this story later, they said, “I had a funny feeling about him from the beginning,” when the first thing they had said to Jesus was “What rock have you been under?” (Pun totally intended.)

Did he go back and forth to Heaven, as some suggest? Did he hide out in Bethany? One of the kids said she was going to put that on her list of questions to ask when she gets to Heaven. I told her I have one of those lists, too, but I suspect the questions will be a lot less important to me when I actually get the chance to ask them. With the perspective of some 2000 years of hindsight, where and how Jesus spent those 40 days is little more than an interesting enigma. But it had to have been maddening in real time for the 11 men who had spent nearly every waking moment with him for the last 3 years. And for his mother. And for all the followers whose lives he had upended. Where. Is. He?

Which is exactly how I feel sometimes. He was just here. I know I saw Him, at least I think it was Him……wait, was that even Him at all? There are times that even the things I’m most certain of get fuzzy around the edges. But what holds me is what held the fearful disciples, what they somehow found the courage to start shouting from the rooftops. The Son of God came to earth, lived as a human, and died as a perfect sacrifice. Then He did what no other sacrifice had ever done before — came back to life, smashed the altar to smithereens, dusted off his hands, and said “There: you’re welcome.” Even if I don’t always see Him circling or hear His footsteps through the distractions, He is never far away. And He will be there to finish the walk with me.

Homeplace

Posted: March 1, 2016 in Home, Memories, Personal, Uncategorized

I once wrote a piece that started something like this: “I guess I’m an actual Southern adult now, because I can claim as my homeplace an old run-down house where no one lives anymore.” It was actually pretty good, as I recall. It described in great detail the old house we lived in until I was 15. It was a dogtrot cabin onto which someone had long ago extended a wing, making an L-shaped string of five rooms the full width of the house. It has not fared well in the 40 years it has sat empty: they say houses know when they’ve been abandoned.

And now, there’s a new old, empty house. Newer than the first one, but still pushing 100, although modernized and redecorated a few times. But if houses do indeed know when people leave them, this one’s heart is broken. Or maybe it’s just mine.

When we moved from the first old house, every stick of furniture was carefully hoisted, loaded, padded, and transported, a pickup load at a time, down the rocky driveway at a snail’s pace and a half mile down the road to the house my grandmother had left us. The only moving day any of us had ever known, the day was fraught with nerves, tears, and at least one event that would spawn an epic family story. (It started with all the frozen food from the deep-freeze on the kitchen table, a frantic farm dog that darted underfoot through the propped-open front door, and a poorly-aimed kick from a size 12 brogan — luckily, the dog escaped untouched, and the table, albeit with that one wobbly leg, sits in my dining room.) I was a teenager, the only chick still in the nest, and the prospect of having an indoor bathroom, carpet, and a bedroom that wasn’t basically a hallway to the kitchen made moving feel more like a beginning than an end.

The new old house has only an end.

________________________

We didn’t take a thing out of the house for weeks. It just didn’t feel right. We watered her plants. We kept sweeping the front porch because the leaves that swirled in and settled in the corners always bothered her orderly nature. We battled with the ladybugs, sucking them up in the vacuum cleaner like she did every chance she got. We didn’t advance the Chamber of Commerce calendar on the wall or move the little notebook in the tidiest kitchen junk drawer in the history of the world. We left it like that — like she had just gone to town to get her hair fixed — for as long as we could. But then it was time. And we started separating things that had always stood side-by-side, carrying them out the front door to our own homes — things promised, things long admired, things we could touch and smell and remember.

And now the prettiest little place — because that’s what you call it in the country: a place, not a house — for miles around is nearly empty. Our voices sound strange in the unfamiliar acoustics. There’s no disguising the slope in the floor, the nail holes in the walls, and the ghostly imprints of where things used to be. The empty mailbox, still bearing the name of our father who’s been dead more than 30 years, sometimes blows open and flaps for days before anyone comes by to close it. The barn, the outbuildings, the big dinner bell that no child was ever allowed to ring, the trellis where roses used to run, even the creek at the bottom of the hill, are in mourning.

It makes sense that we like to refer to where we came from as our homeplace. It’s more than just home, and more than just a place. It’s where you can wake up in the middle of the night and walk around in the dark without running into anything: you know where you are. You know who you are. It anchors you to the purest form of yourself: like Miranda Lambert  sang, it’s the house that built you.

At my age, I should be pretty well anchored, but I miss my mother, and I’m homesick for a place that is no more. And it’s kind of the same thing.

Sometimes, I have had it up to here with Facebook. I don’t know where to start with the things that irk me. Here is a partial list.

1. People don’t do it right. If they misspell a word in a comment, they comment again with an oops. Please, just edit it! Delete it and start over if you like. If you have a personal question or comment, it’s okay to use the private message feature: that’s what it’s for.

2. And on that topic, please don’t subject everyone on your friend list to: “does anybody know what time the party starts?” Actually, yes, I do, but I doubt it’s the same party to which you are referring, since we live 750 miles apart. Am I really your only fb friend who doesn’t live in your neighborhood? If so, that’s just sad, and I already feel a little awkward for assuming otherwise.

3. Beware the hoax. Or as Lewis Grizzard, the late humor columnist from Atlanta used to say, the HOE-ax. Please don’t share that “you won’t believe what happens next” story immediately as the gospel truth. Even if we’re lucky and it doesn’t lead to some kind of malware, you look silly for having been suckered in. I know: I’ve done it. It took considerable finagling  to get that one picture off my news feed. And it was a doozy.

4. I have been known to hide people from my newsfeed who do not respect the line between personal and professional/business pages. Ok, I went back and “unhid” them later every single time. But still…. I am not completely disinterested in your business ventures — eyelashes, nail wraps, oils, dietary supplements, hair products, real estate, purses, jewelry, retirement plans, insurance, software, consignment sales, candles, home decor, etc. I like hearing about what you are doing. But if I am your friend on fb, I am sort of a captive audience. Please don’t make our entire interaction about making me a customer.

5. This is a tricky one. I wish people would think about who is seeing their posts. And I’m not talking about too much skin or even TMI. Sometimes….it’s just too much perfection. I love seeing pictures of your family gatherings, your vacations, and your precious kids doing precious things. But (I’m sorry: I know there are a lot of “buts” here) sometimes before we gush about how God has blessed us (with these kids, this boat, this Disney trip, grandma’s birthday), we need to think about people who are wondering why God passed them over in the blessings department.

6. Sorry, but I do not play the games. Ever. I do play a few games (mostly word games), but none through Facebook. Sorry. It’s not you: it’s me.

7. There is no context button on fb. Sometimest I read someone’s status and wonder if it’s a quote from a movie I haven’t seen (likely) or a song I haven’t heard (also likely), sarcasm, a riddle to be solved, a ploy to prime the interest pump, or a legitimate roadside flare. I admit, I have bitten on most of the first five: I hope I haven’t dismissed anybody on the last one.

8. Hateful, hateful comments. This is mostly on the links, and I’m pretty selective now where I click. Who are these people? And where are their mothers?!

I could go on and on. But here’s the thing. I’m not leaving Facebook any time soon. I love keeping up with my friends from childhood, high school, college, and everywhere we have ever lived. I stay connected with extended family members, former work friends and associates, and fellow Torchers from our trips to Honduras. I’ve been on it a long time, and even with all the petty irritations, I see no reason to leave. I use several other social media platforms, too, but fb is the Grand Poobah. Chucking it would cut me off from a lot of folks who are important to me. You, for example.

Sometimes I’ve had it up to here with church, too. There. I said it. Not my current congregation, but the church in general. People don’t do it right, and they won’t keep up with the updates. They use it for their own personal club, they send mixed messages, they keep trying to suck me into their favorite games. They want me to buy what they are selling, and some people seem to have a monopoly on all the cool stuff God hands out. And there is the rare but hurtful biting comment. I admit it crossed my mind briefly during one or two rough spots to delete my letter and not look back.

However (I got tired of saying “but”), the church is not some common-interest club or social network I just decided to join. God added me to it, and I provide at least one more dimension to its glorious imperfection. It is unpredictable and unwieldy, but it was in His plan all along. But not for us to operate as customers or consumers, but as connections to people who are important to us. And to Him.

It’s a long way to my mother’s house. There is no internet, and using your cell phone requires finding that exact spot in the driveway or on the side of the hill where you can get one bar. Barely. Maybe. The well water tastes funny, which means the ice tastes funny. And water pressure? Forget about it. Throughout the tiny house, every single thing is in its place, so your stuff strewn about makes you feel like a slob.

The one and only bathroom used to be a pantry, so it opens into the middle of the kitchen. Right into the middle of the kitchen. Awesome. She keeps the house cold in the summer and hot in the winter. You have to talk loud and stay close, and you may or may not have heard that story more than once. And you may or may not know half the people in the story.

It’s a trek into “town,” especially if you get behind a tractor. And although she says it isn’t necessary, you always let her out at the door. She forgets to tell you where to turn until you’ve passed it. And she writes a slow, painstaking check on the local bank in her tidy handwriting for nearly every purchase.

But Sunday was Mother’s Day, and I didn’t think twice about where I would be: I belong there. I actually look forward to all the “inconveniences,” because they mean I am with her. All 90 years and 5 feet 2 inches of her. How many more Sundays and stories and miles will we have? She’s a gracious and lovable person, but even if she weren’t, I would.

The positives don’t balance out the negatives: they render them toothless and ridiculous. There’s no spreadsheet, just a birth certificate. There are no ifs, just becauses. And even the becauses don’t make sense when we get them backward. She’s not my mother because I look like her (as I have always been told), or because I show up at family gatherings, or because I sign my name to a pretty card on the appropriate holiday. Invert the equation, hold the picture up to a mirror, turn the shirt inside out, and it makes much better sense.

The same goes for my church family. We’re not family because we gather to worship (or fill in the blank with your most cherished identifier), but the opposite. It’s not what we do, but what was done for us and long before us that conceived us into a family not of our own making. And it’s where we belong, even when it means hearing the same old stories now and then.

Relax: It’s Just a Spoon

Posted: April 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

I was emptying the dishwasher, and while returning a handful of spoons to the drawer, I noticed that some of them were a little more dull than others. I started absentmindedly putting them on the bottom of the stack and bringing the new ones to the top to get used more often. Halfway through the task, it hit me: I have become that woman. That woman who rotates the spoons in the drawer. What’s next — a plastic cover on the couch?

My heart sank at the prospect, although realistically, there is little danger of me actually becoming an obsessive housekeeper, or even a particularly good one. It felt like an oddly strong reaction, but I think it had very little to do with the innocent silverware.

When I lost my job more than six months ago (two words: federal grant), I also lost part of my identity. Think about it: one of the first things that come up in a casual conversation is “What do you do?” A gentle lady in a church we visited recently actually asked me: “and do you work outside the home?” You don’t hear that expression much anymore: I think she also called me “dear,” but I may have tacked that on in my head. I loved my years as a stay-at-home mom, but since then, I have really enjoyed working, as much for my psyche as for our bank account; some days, maybe more!

I didn’t worry too much about the job situation at first, because I was still riding out my unused vacation days, and we took that lovely trip to Hawaii — that we didn’t pay for — and then there was Christmas…..and then, just like that, I was officially unemployed. I’ve beaten the proverbial bushes and applied for jobs ad nauseum; in the meantime, I’ve cleaned out closets, read some books, made curtains, re-organized cabinets…..and rotated spoons. I do a lot, but I don’t “do” anything with which to answer that aforementioned ice-breaker. Which makes for a lot of awkward conversations and well-intentioned advice. And just so you know, the wolf is not scratching at the door. Yet.

When we first moved to the Deep South years ago, I was pulled aside more than once and asked, “well, now, honey, who are you?” It was always asked politely with melodious southern inflection: the “are” jumped to a higher pitch, and while the “you” was not technically more than one syllable, it felt free to linger as long as it pleased. The lovely southern ladies already knew my name and other basics, but now they were drilling down to “who my people were,” which would determine who I was. Lucky for me, the little town had a historic street lined with lovely Victorian homes that also had my maiden name on the sign. Once we discovered a distant but significant connection to that prominent family, I was golden.

What we do, how much we make, who our people are, whose camp we are in — these things are the coin of the realm, and they tend to define us unnecessarily, even in the one place where they should not. You’re probably ahead of me — church. Beyond giving an innocent description of a person’s circumstances, those defining details sometimes also involve assumptions. And where assumptions go, generalizations often blindly follow. Did you notice how quickly my mind made the quantum leap from the spoons to the plastic-covered couch?

Generalizations are by nature notorious squatters who put up fences on land they do not own.

But the ground at the foot of the cross is level, and not ours to grade. That figurative real estate is exactly where the greatest oxymoron of all time plays out: the more extreme the differences, the more powerful the gospel. Like the blind and lame who wound up in Jesus’ path for a reason, the differences among us are just opportunities for God to do His thing, and get all the glory.

So when we cross spiritual paths with someone who wears clothes we wouldn’t be caught dead in (my mother used to say, “I wouldn’t wear that to a dogfight if I didn’t know either dog:” rest assured she was referring to a spontaneous canine dust-up, completely independent of human involvement), or sends us running to urbandictionary.com to find what the heck they’re talking about, let’s try to resist the broad-brush instinct. And even if a detail goes beyond personal dislike, relax; it might still be just a spoon, completely devoid of the baggage with which we presumptuously burden it.

My recent circumstances can’t define me. I’m not one of those people who’s out of a job. I’m Jennifer, who just happens to be temporarily (she said optimistically) out of a job. And just because I rearranged the spoons that one time does not make me a neat freak. Although, come to think of it, morphing into one from time to time might come in really handy when I start cleaning out the basement.