Sunday, January 31, 2010

Turning 50 -- 55 Days to Go

Well, the blog is going to have to wait for a while.  I'm sick.  I'm leaving for Africa on Tuesday.  And I'm turning 50 in 55 days, and just have to admit my limitations!  Besides that, my little brother told me he tried to read it and found it "too religious, too sentimental" for him.  So I've got to get a little edgier.  Ha!

Anyway, thanks faithful friends.  I'll try to post some more in coming days, but it will be spotty, since I don't know when I'll have web access.  I have the cutest new Mini-Notebook, with Skype capabilities, so I'm hoping to keep up with the boys while I'm gone.  We'll see how that goes.  And I'll have time to do some writing on the plane, and probably on the ground in Africa, since we often have quite a bit of free time between meetings. 

I'll be back!  Thanks for reading.  See you soon.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Turning 50 -- 56 Days to Go -- My Towns

My dad became a pastor back in the days when tenure was short in each church and moves were typically made every three to four years.  Thus, by the time I was eleven years old and Dad was going into fulltime evangelism, we had lived in three different communities.  Lambert was the first, and then came Columbus, MS, and Broadacres United Methodist Church.  I was barely three years old when we moved there and so many of my memories are sketchy, but I can certainly say that a number of experiences there remain etched in my memory.

There was the day my brother and his friend, Jerry, were shooting fireworks in Jerry's backyard.  One of them failed to let go of the cherry bomb soon enough and nearly got his fingers blown off.  Then there was the day we were visiting parishioners and their German Shepherd bit my on the collar bone -- 44 years later, I still have a scar to show for it...and a healthy respect for guard dogs.  And again, my mother had to be admitted to the hospital for an ectopic pregnancy and I was left with another church family.  By then, I think I was five and their son about the same age when he pulled a butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer, said "En Guarde!" and sliced my left ring finger.  Got my first stitches with that one, and still have a scar to show for it, too.  And there was the night that we were walking in the neighborhood (yep, the same one of the thunderstorm on my daddy's shoulders) and I felt down, cracking my head on the edge of a pot-hole -- more stitches.

I never shall forget the day Mama took me with her to a very fancy lady's house -- at least that's the way I remember it.  We were poor as church mice and lived at the end of a dead-end street in a very nondescript frame house, among a neighborhood of nondescript plain houses, none of which could have been more than 1000 square feet in size.  This family lived in a lovely hillside mansion, with landscaped gardens terraced behind the picture window off their kitchen and den.  While the ladies were talking, I went out back and picked several lovely flowers for my mother, which I did often from our abundant crop of dandelions.  When I came back in with a fistful of beautiful tulips for my mother, I received a severe tongue-lashing for my indiscretion.  I'm sure my mother felt badly for that, as I have when I scolded my son for doing the "wrong thing" but with the best of intentions.  Why can't we parents see the heart, first, as Jesus does?  How many times must he praise us for our efforts at love, even when the action falls far short of perfection?

It was in Columbus that I first was introduced to the notion that Santa Claus might not be real.  We were in church, the night before Christmas, and some little boy -- maybe the same one with the butcher knife; sounds like him, doesn't it? -- asked me if I knew there really wasn't a Santa Claus.  What I remember most is my mother's outrage that he had burst her baby's bubble.  And then I turned right around and asked some other child the same thing, and another mother came to her, just as incensed that I had stolen this last bastion of childhood innocence from her little one.  Oh my, the tangled web we weave.  I'm sure my own seven year old must have pondered the reality of the fat dude who comes down the chimney, especially now that we have a chimney-less fireplace, but he refuses to face that reality, and this mother is grateful that he is truly innocent and trusting.

In Columbus, our church had a fair sprinkling of military families, since the Air Force base was only a few miles down the road from the church.  My mother befriended several military "widows" and at least one of them, another Norma, stayed in our home with some frequency while her husband was deployed.  She was working on a degree at Mississippi University for Women, and while she stayed with us, she was doing a project with baby chicks.  I begged for a chick, and sure enough, I had one delivered to me.  I was so proud of that tiny bundle of yellow feathers, and begged for permission to take it to the skating rink on Saturday morning.  Mama finally relented, and it must have been the cacophony of rubber wheels on wooden floors, and shouting chicken, and The Baby Elephant Walk that did him in.  That night, I sat on a quit on the floor furnace and tried to nurse that tiny creature back to life, but it was no good.  The next morning, he lay cold and dead.  And the quilt was burned, too, with the criss-cross pattern of the furnace forever marking the death of my beloved pet.

My dad became the possessor of a German Shepherd dog while we lived there, presented to me and my big brother, Sam, on Christmas morning.  The neighbor boys tormented him ruthlessly and precious, gentle Little Ruff became a mean, uncontrollable bully.  There was no fence around the yard, so Dad was forced to chain him to the clothes-line.  The chain was loose, so he could run back and forth, but he couldn't run away.  It just left him defenseless to the neighbor boys.  One day, my mother and I were near him, perhaps to pet him or feed him, and he wrapped our legs completely in his chain, bruising both of us from ankle to thigh.  We were both terrified and helpless. 

One day, Dad came out to find one of those mean neighbor boys on the ground, with Ruff standing over him, still chained to the clothes line, growling and drooling.  Another moment and that child might have met his end.  The next day, Ruff was sold to my dad's cousin, who needed a guard dog for protection during a particularly tough season of race relations.  Years later, their son returned home from college and when he entered the house, with no one else at home, Ruff attacked him and tore his flesh down to the bone.  When his wife insisted that they have him put down, he said, "No, that's exactly what we need him for.  We'll just teach him to love Junior." 

Those boys truly were mean.  Treats, special gifts, were a truly rare occasion in our house.  There just was nothing extra to go around.  And so, when my daddy bought me a pom-pom on a stick (you know, the kind they hand out to the cheering crowds at football games; not the real ones the cheer leaders use), I thought I was the toast of the town.  Less than 30 minutes later, one of those mean boys took a match, while I was still holding the stick, and burned my prize possession in one blaze of glory.  My daddy took that stick and tanned that little boy's hide with it.  I was afraid to go anywhere near him for the remainder of our time in that town, but I was so grateful my daddy stood up for me against that bully.  And I don't remember that he ever taunted us again.

Not everything in Columbus was terrifying and tragic.  I also had two of the best school teachers I have ever known.  It began with Miss Lola and the Peter Pan Kindergarten.  I loved going to school, and had actually attended preschool at the lab school at Delta State University when we lived in Lambert and Mama did a couple of years toward her degree there.  I remember little of that experience, excepting watching huge earth-moving equipment work just on the other side of the school fence.

But Miss Lola's place was where imagination was born.  I remember the shelves loaded with wooden blocks, those old brick-painted cardboard building blocks, shelf after shelf of books, wooden furniture, paints, crayons, construction paper.   It was a child's dream world.  At the close of every day, we spent a few minutes in show and tell.  Parents were gathering by then, and waiting, in clement weather, outside the sliding glass doors, peering in to admire their perfect children.

One week, and I vaguely remember the experience, my daddy took me with him to a funeral.  What I remember is standing on the steps of an old house, peering into the parlour, where the dead guy was laid out for observation, and family and friends trooped by to pay their respects.  I remember a song, a sermon, and a few words of appreciation. 

So, for show and tell that week, I asked Miss Lola if I could arrange a funeral.  She told me that I could, but that I would have to put it all together by myself.  Ever one for a good show, I did just that.  I had 3 little girls sing a trio, one appropriately serious little boy give the sermon and eulogy, and I was the dead guy, all laid out in a casket made of brick-painted cardboard boxes. 

I saw Miss Lola 30 years later while I was leading a revival in Columbus and she still remembered that day, too.  But what she remembered was how nervous she was getting as the funeral wore on and on and parents were arriving and she wondered what they would think of letting her let 5 and 6  year old children conduct a funeral.  Long after the service had ended and the benediction was said, I still didn't move from my pretend casket.  After several impassioned appeals from Miss Lola, ending with, "Lee Ann Williamson, get up and return to your seat now!" I finally raised up from the dead and said, "Whew!  It's harder to be dead that I thought it was!"

And that is ever the case.  Until it is really so, I suppose.

My second wonderful teacher was Miss Fannie George, the world's best first grade teacher, at Franklin Academy, just two blocks off Main.  The school was close enough to our house that a big gang of us kids walked to and from school every day.  I think the journey took 30 minutes or more, but we loved the time and freedom.

I was Miss George's teacher's pet.  There.  It's been said.  And as I write it, I realize that she is just the sort of teacher who would have had the genius to make every child in the room feel the same way.  I remember that I was asked to read to the entire class, that I was told to supervise when she had to step out of the room, that I was given special privileges.  But I suppose the rest were equally treasured.  She moved to Starkville years later and joined the church our family attended.  What a joy to reconnect with her.

AT the end of one grade period, we were each given our report cards.  Mine usually recorded straight A's, but this week, when I opened the envelope outside the building, I saw one long list of the blackest, roundest zeroes that have ever been recorded.  I wept all the way that long walk home, and dreaded what I would find when I got there -- surely a fate worse than Ruff's chains. 

When the long walk finally ended, Mama greeted us at the door and saw my grief.  I thrust the horrible grade card into her hands and burst into a fresh round of crying.  She took one look at it, picked up the phone, and spoke immediately to Miss George.  The story was...Miss George had recorded my grades in the 3rd quarter column instead of the 2nd quarter column, so she had very carefully covered each A with a dark, round circle, and then backed up to the proper position to record my usual straight A's.  I think those grades were the sweetest I ever received.  And the good laugh it gave Mama and Miss George, for years to come, was almost worth the angst I suffered on that long walk home.

My dad endured the most difficult pastorate he ever had in that town, though with some of the sweetest rewards of forgivness and reconciliation, and a completely new understanding of the power and person of the Holy Spirit.  My parents survived the rockiest season of their marriage in that town and came to know that with God, they could keep the vows they had made before Him, and move on to renewed trust and affection.  My mother lost two babies while we lived in that town,but did manage to finally finish her college education, after five or six schools in as many communities.  Columbus was an eventful three years in our family's life.  We will certainly not ever forget the precious people who helped us to survive the tough times, and who poured into our lives the goodness and gentleness of God's grace.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Turning 50 - 57 Days to Go -- My Towns

About a month after my birth, Daddy finished his Master of Divinity program at Chandler and took an appointment as pastor in Lambert, a tiny community in the Mississippi Delta, populated mostly by farmers, and the town folk who provided necessary support -- grocery, pharmacy, bank, lawyer, school, etc.  We were there for three years and frankly, I remember almost nothing about that time. 

My folks loved that community and the people there immensely, and the fact that they remained in touch with several families for many years bears testimony to the fact that they were well-loved, too.  The Puckett family were among our favorites, full of teenage girls who sang, and a much-younger sister who was my best friend.  I would love to reconnect with them and see how their families have developed.

I have two very vague memories of our time there, both of which resulted in fears that I dealt with for many years.  The first involved my brother and I camping out in a pup tent in the yard, which was between the parsonage and the church.  I recall rolling out from under the tent and into the bushes, and being found there by Mama the next day.  Did that really happen?  Was it only a dream?

The second was a night of terrible storms and tornadoes.  Mama was at home with Sammy and me when the tornado passed directly over our house, not touching down, but kicking up quite a mess.  The windows and doors were blown open, and Mama put me in a chair while she rushed to try to find a way to protect us from the fierce winds -- close the door, cover us with a blanket, I don't know.  In those days, there was no advance warning of storms, no sirens, no radio or television alarms, just the sudden on-set of that train-like roar, the severe drop in air pressure, and the ferocious wind.

For years, I was afraid to sleep alone, and many was the night that I flipped off my light switch, ran as fast as I could, and leapt from 10 feet away to land in my bed without getting to close to the monsters under it.  I would not let a hand or foot dangle from the edge of the bed, certain that whatever lurked beneath would use a tiny appendage to reel me in and gobble me up.  Why does it never occur to a child that if a monster is going to get you, it's probably just going to come out and do it, whether you attract it with a finger or not!

I slept with my mother occasionally, especially after Daddy started traveling, until I was 13 years old, and especially if the weather was bad.  My fear of storms was epic.  My seventh grade history teacher, Carmen Haynes, will remind me of that to this day.  When there were storm warnings at school, I would run to her room, with or without permission, to seek shelter.  She was downstairs, yes, but I think it was the comfort of her presence that was the greatest help to me.

When Daddy was appointed to Broadacres UMC in Columbus, following Lambert, we often took family strolls through our tiny, l-shaped street of a neighborhood, especially in the evening.  I often rode on his shoulders, and I remember there being a loud clap of thunder one night while I was on my high perch.  I screamed to get down and he thought it a fun trick - for a very short minute - to keep me up there.  It took a long time for me to forgive him for that mean trick, too.

My fear of storms finally ended, truly, when I was about 26 years old.  By then, I had established Grace & Gladness Ministries and was traveling by myself all around the world.  It does not behoove one to be afraid of things that creep in the dark or of bad weather when one is "adventuring" in mostly remote and dangerous places.  Anyway, in one trip out west, I had crossed the San Francisco mountains just before sunset and found a hotel room in Seligman or Prescott.  I heard quite a commotion on the 2nd story landing and stepped out to find a couple of dozen fellow travelers enjoying a powerful thunderstorm that was coming over the mountains.  It was truly beautiful, a heavenly lightshow that dazzled and electrified.  I made some good friends that night, sharing God's beauty.  Then I took my Chinese take-out in the room and ate dinner in front of the TV until the storm reached us and plunged us into darkness.  That night, as the storm raged around me, I realized that for the first time in my life, I was not afraid.  Somehow, embracing the beauty of the storm, in spite of its potential devastation, had set me free from fear. 

I have a healthy appreciation of the power of weather, and I take appropriate precautions.  But I do not quake with fear as I did for so many years.

Dad and I returned to Lambert for revivals on several occasions through the years, with him preaching and me leading singing.  Those were sweet times and it was fun to be welcomed into the community as an adult by the parishioners my parents had loved so well, so many years before.  Lambert is even tinier now, going the way of so many farming communities as the family farm gets swallowed up by the corporate monstrosities that are so common today.  I haven't been back there for at least 20 years. 

Maybe that's something I need to do as I turn 50 -- make a day-long journey to these wonderful cradles of my childhood.  Most of them are within a 2-3 hour drive.  I think I shall plan to do that.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Turning 50 -- 59 Days to Go -- My Towns

Moving back to the community in which I spent most of my adolescence and early-adulthood has been a journey in itself. I find that a 13 year absence really has made a difference, in me and in the town. We are not the same! And I believe that both of us have grown in mostly good ways - like the new openness we both have to people and ideas -  and some not-so-good - like my literal weight-gain, and the town's endless proliferation of tacky apartment complexes. Eventually I will come back to this experience, but I thought I would "start at the very beginning," where I was born.

My parents married in 1953, very shortly after my dad's college graduation. They immediately moved to Atlanta, GA, where Dad enrolled in seminary at Chandler School of Theology, Emery University, and Mama went to work as secretary to the dean of some science department.  The expense of school sent them back to Mississippi on two occasions before he graduated, during which time he served churches and my older brother was born in 1956, in the Leflore County Hospital in Greenwood, MS.  During their last stint in school, I made my arrival, while Daddy was serving a local church and they were living in Gainesville, GA.

And so, here is the story of my first arrival in that first town:

From his earliest days in ministry, Dad had a passion for evangelism and church renewal.  He eventually became a very good preacher, but in the early days, he used his very good singing voice to lead music in revivals with other preachers.  And so, that is where he was on the day of my arrival, March 27, 1960.  It was a Sunday, and Mama was at home with 3 year old Sammy, aware that the new baby could arrive at any time.  Late that afternoon, she realized the time had come and sent Sammy down the street to the church yard, where the youth group was gathered.   He was instructed to tell Miss Debbie (name is fiction) that Mama said she needed help, the new baby was coming.

Well, as most three year olds are wont to do, Sammy got interested in the play of the older kids and completely forgot about the urgent message.  Some time later, Miss Debbie noticed him there, thought it unusual that he would be allowed to wander down the street on his own, and asked if everything was alright.  "Yeah, it's okay, Miss Debbie.  But, oh!  Mama said it's time for the new baby to come."

She rushed down the street, horrified at what she might find, and got Mama to the Gainesville hospital in plenty of time for the new baby to arrive under the supervision of trained medical staff.  At 10:20, after a difficult breach delivery, I finally poked my head into the world and probably screamed with gusto.  Been doing it ever since, don't know why I wouldn't have started out that way, too!

Daddy arrived later that night (I think) to welcome his baby daughter, and when he graduated one month later, we moved back to Mississippi and he took his first appointment as an elder in the Methodist Church.

I visited Gainesville again as a young adult, this time to be courted by another young Methodist preacher, and spend some time with his family.  We visited their vacation house on Lake Lanier and saw just the edges of my birth place.  Someone was having a birthday while we were there (could have been mine...I just don't remember) and we went out for Chinese food.  In the style of that wonderful movie The Christmas Story, the wait staff sang, "Highpy Bighsday to Yow!"

And that is what I remember, or have been told, about my first town.  A difficult start, with a bit of delay and tension, but fond thoughts of laughter and God's providence and protection.  Not a bad way to begin!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Turning 50 -- 60 Days to Go!

Okay, I managed the title and even an exclamation point. But I am sick and that's about all you're going to get tonight! If you're reading, please pray for my dad. He's had flu-like symptoms since about the 16th, with a low-grade fever and dizziness. Today, he went in for a second round of IV fluids, and several friends from church came over to pray for him. We are scheduled to leave for 3 weeks in Africa next Wed, 2/3, but at this rate, our team may be lacking its leader. Thank you for remembering us!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Turning 50 -- 61 Days To Go -- Mama's Friends

The last friend of Mama's is one who stands alone. While she and Mama were in Bible study together, it was not the larger group that defined their friendship, but the special personal relationship they shared with one another. I certainly have not "covered" all of Mama's friends, and have failed to even mention many, many, many precious people who graced her life with love, joy, and generosity. But I'm hitting the highlights, and the one I have saved for "last" had a deep impact on both of our lives.

Less than 5 months ago, I moved back into the neighborhood of most Mama's friends. Some have gone on with her, and they're enjoying Celestial Seasonings now. (Ha ha! I make myself laugh!) Several live in other cities, but the majority are still right here in the small town that has been our family home since 1971. A wonderful town...the university opens the door for exposure to a variety of cultures, ideas, and worldviews that are not usually present in provincial small town America. When I was growing up, we didn't avail ourselves of much of the university scene, but it touched us, nonetheless, in the daily brush of elbows around town.

These days, television and the Internet have made the entire world more accessible, and even those in remotest hamlets can be bombarded by the larger world's ways and wonders. I lived away from this fascinating place for 13 years, and upon my return, have found that it has changed in some pretty remarkable ways. It has grown in population, and the international flavor seems to be much richer. Among houses of worship are now included a Mosque and a Buddhist temple. The eating establishments and shopping venues have multiplied, and while we are missing some of our favorites in KC (Red Robin, Carrabba's, Zone 510, Kohl's, Hobby Lobby), there are places aplenty to choose from, and franchises are near enough for a nice, day-long shopping trip.

Because of the university, the population here is fairly mobile, making it inevitable that dear friends will move away, and new ones will come in to make their own place, even temporarily. Just a couple of weeks ago, we learned that the only real friend the boys have made at our "new" church will be moving away in June so that his father can take an engineering job in Huntsville. They were heart-broken, and we said silent prayers of gratitude for the multitude of little boys in the neighborhood.

In spite of the mobility, the exposure to cultures and ideas, and the sense of other-ness that a university town affords, there is still much about small-town America, particularly southern, that flavors Starkville. For the most part, wonderfully articulate southerners still take twice as long to drawl out their dialogue as our mid-western friends. A large part of the population speaks in a way that we are having a hard time interpreting to our two little Chinese transplants. Last week, while doing business at a favorite drive-thru in Missouri, one of them remarked, "I can understand these people better than the ones in our new town." Me, too! Case in the grocery store a few weeks ago, I overheard one small boy ask another, "Wachu gifa Crimma?" Took me 10 minutes to figure that one out -- I didn't have the benefit of the capitalization!

So, you ask, why all this elaborate detail about the community when my aim is to share about our phenomenal friend, Kay? Kay embodies the best of both -- the inquisitive, open mind that isn't satisfied with provincial thinking, and the appreciation of things that never change and give us a solid foundation for life. She finished Bachelor and Master's degrees in French in less time than it takes most of us to finish one degree. She stood beside her husband, a member of the School of Business faculty for years until he moved into administration, entertaining fellow faculty and state government officials with grace and ease. She is also an avid Bulldogs fan -- that would be the Mississippi State team in maroon and white, make no mistake.

She has taught the youth Sunday School class in her tiny rural church for decades, and averaged just 3 or 4 pupils during most of those years. I participated in just one of the many women's Bible studies she has led since the mid-70's, and I can truthfully say that I was challenged not only by the depth of new information she offered through exhaustive study, but by a constant call to go deeper and higher with the Lord.

For years, Mama and Kay talked on the phone at least once a day, sometimes more than that. They shared a sour-dough bread recipe (Muriel, another stalwart friend and lover of Jesus, supplied the starter) that has come to define homemade bread for many-a-household in the tri-county area. I'm quite sure the woes they faced with Mama's 4 children and Kay's 1 occupied many hours of conversation. But Mama told me on more than one occasion that she never had a friend with whom she shared her life on a deeper level. It wasn't just the amount of time they spent together or talking on the phone, it was the content of the conversation. They might cover every current event in their personal and community lives, but it was done in the context of followers of Christ who were earnestly striving to live out the Great Commission in their own backyards.

Kay and my mother touched this community with a breadth of influence that would rival any local pastor or politician. Kay's influence was through university friendships, and primarily, through the many Bible studies she taught in churches and homes, which reached across racial and denominational and gender lines. Mama's influence was through her newspaper writings (from feature to opinion), the weekly talk show she co-hosted for a number of years on the local television station, and her leadership roles in church.

I don't think they ever made a plan to influence the community, the way some of us resort to publicity campaigns and advertising in order to get our message out. They just remained engaged with their friends and neighbors, and stayed prayerfully connected to God, continually asking what their part was in His Work. Neither of them sought acclaim or fame, and both of them remained well-grounded in faith and family.

When I was a teenager, I used to ask Mama to make lists of her favorite scripture passages for me. When I became a young adult, Kay led me to books like My Friend the Bible and Into the Glory, which shaped my love for and dependence on God's Word and will. Mama wrote volumes of letters to me during my college years. Kay read books on tape to occupy me during long hours in transit during the five years I traveled alone. Mama and I read Shakespeare plays together and cut up on the piano bench, butchering easy 4 hand duets. Kay and I shared our mutual love for the worship music of the early '80's and spent hours discussing discipleship.

Even the best of friendships must weather some storms, and ours with Kay was no different. But when Mama died, there was really no one else to whom we could turn to speak at her funeral. I've tried to find a way to end this particular musing, and have decided to let Kay's words speak of their friendship. I will weep as I post it here, with warmth for the memories, with loss of that precious one, and with gratitude that Kay has made my life so very rich, long after Mama's passing. Enjoy:

"Like many of you, I knew Norma - or felt I did - before I met her because of her articles in the Mississippi United Methodist Advocate. I was fascinated by all the tales of the Williamson household and amazed that she survived, even seemed to thrive on the activities.

"I had a regular husband who went to work in the mornings and came home in the afternoons and who took care of things around the house. Norma had a husband who traveled the world preaching the Gospel, came home occasionally to whip things into shape and drive the family around while asleep at the wheel!

"I had one son who was quiet and rather bookish and at 31 still has never seen the inside of an emergency room. Norma had four non-stop adventurers who kept her on her toes and in the emergency room on a regular basis.

"I would read and wonder, fascinated by her ability to take the ordinary (to her) situations that arose and with great wit and insight, and a deep faith that was obvious even when not overtly stated, draw lessons from them to which we all could relate.

"Shortly after I began volunteering in Cecil's ministry office I met Norma in person, home from a visit to Sam (oldest son) in Hawaii where her stay had been slightly extended by her emergency surgery. It was love at first sight and thereafter we were fast friends who talked on the phone at least once a day when we were both in town, shared frequent meals, walked miles, cooked together, shared our love of music, commiserated about husbands, children, and the state of affairs of the world, studied and prayed together.

"Scripture tells us that as believers in Jesus we're all gifted in some way to help the Body of Christ function as it was intended to do. Some of us are minimally gifted; Norma was not of our group; she got more than a double dip in the gift department. In addition to her genius with words and keen insights which enabled her to write and teach so well, she was the hostess with the mostest. A really good cook, she not only fed you well but made you feel as if her home were yours. She loved to garden, from the digging and dunging all the way to the finished product, was a talented musician, a wonderful wife, mother, and friend, and always looked as if she had just stepped from a band box.

"One of the things she did well was proof-read, and one of our favorite times of the month was newsletter time. Cecil would give me the handwritten copy of his article which I would type and edit, almost always having to resort to calling Norma for help with the final product. I saved all the misspelled words and the quaint turns of phrases and we would howl with laughter as we tried to figure out exactly what it was Cecil wanted to express. We threatened more than once to send out the article in its original form just so people would understand how important we were to the ministry.

"Norma never pretended to have all the answers or have it all together. She was a fellow struggler who is not being nominated for sainthood today. But we who knew her recognize that a very ordinary but gifted lady made an extraordinary impact on those privileged to have their lives touched by hers. We don't know why one so gifted was slowly stripped of all that made her her, but we do know that she fought a good fight, she has finished her course, and is now perfected, enjoying the presence of the Savior she loved and served so faithfully.

"Today, I echo her final words in the moving tribute she wrote when her sister, Betty, died in the late '80's: 'I am glad for a faith that says life is worthwhile, good is ultimately stronger than evil, and the resurrection is real.' Her winter is past, the rain is over and gone, and the flowers and the singing of birds fill her life. If I know Norma, she's already settling into her nest, and I look forward to having her show me around when I join her in heaven.

"You, her family, have a wonderful heritage. May God bless you."

Kay included this P.S. to me when I asked for a copy of her eulogy:

"LAW - knowing I had only a few minutes to say more than could be said in many, I omitted something that came back to me as I meditated on what and how to express my love for your mom. Many years ago, when you were in the first apartment on Gillespie, you had her, me, and some others over for a pre-Christmas lunch. Norma had found a lump in her breast and was going after lunch to have it checked out, obviously somewhat concerned. As I prayed for her that morning, the Lord gave me Psalm 72:6: 'He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.' Now, I haven't a foggy notion how that could have said anything to her that day, but I remember discussing it with her.

"Today (and I mean no disrespect for the Messianic Psalm, here!), I sense an application to Norma: Some people are a bit heavy-handed, some of us bulldoze over others, but Norma was like a gentle spring shower who watered tender plants that could easily have been trampled underfoot by one less sensitive than she. She had hurt in enough places that she could empathize with others in many different situations and she seemed always to have a word of comfort and encouragement.

"As I write this and as I read back over her book and the articles I dug up while meditating, the word that comes to mind is 'bereft.' I'm so glad she's free from this body of death, but so conscious of the treasure that we have lost. As you work through this last stage of grief may God lead you gently and bring comfort in all those hidden, perhaps forgotten places. Love you. K"

Well, I guess I have a post-script of my own. Mama and Kay both led me to Jesus. Neither was heavy-handed or bumbling. Both were and are like a gentle spring shower. And as I return to this "garden" where I grew up, Kay is once again helping to tend my life, with grace and sensitivity, and prayer, and the never-failing Word of God. My goodness. To have known these two women, my mother and Kay Verrall, is to have been blessed beyond one's wildest hopes.

Mama has gone ahead. Kay and I, and so many others, will join her in the future. I'm glad I'm near enough to Kay to re-kindle the friendship. And to remember Mama with someone who loved her as much as I.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Turning 50 - 62 Days to Go -- Mama's Friends: The Flower Girls

No, they didn't call themselves "The Flower Girls," but that's what they were. Norma (my mom), Faye, and Ruth. All were preacher's wives, all lived in the same community, attended the same church (Mama and Faye were married to men serving in ministries outside the pastorate), and all beautiful, strong-minded, creative, and delightful.

My mother gave me her tiny inheritance money for the down payment of my first home, which I purchased when I was 30. It wasn't much, but it meant the world to me that she wanted to bless me that way. I've learned since that in order to make a house "mine," I have to change some things, inside and/or out. That first little cottage measured approximately 24 x 40, had a kitchen, dining room, living room, 2 bedrooms, and 2 baths, and I shared it first with my brother and then with my best friend. We replaced a toilet, painted the walls, replaced the kitchen counter tops and painted the cabinets, added 2 large rooms, and built a deck. We also put a bright yellow, 1960's era free-standing fireplace/stove in the new den, with beautiful Mexican tile under it. It was a gorgeous room.

But even before those internal changes, Mama and the other flower girls helped to make the exterior a true home. My middle brother, Amos, man-handled the tiller to create flower beds around the entire perimeter of the fenced backyard. The ladies showed up that same day to help create a virtual paradise. Mama sat on her bottom literally all day long, lining the beds with monkey grass (liriope), most of which had been dug from her own yard. Faye and Ruth had also brought cuttings from their gardens, and by days' end, we had an antique rose, several crepe myrtles, a bed of hostas and calladium, and a variety of other beautiful, flowering plants. I don't believe I ever expressed to them adequately just how much their labor of love meant to me. Thank you, ladies. You made that house a home.

The Flower Girls were drawn together by a number of things. Flowers, yes, and gardening. Mama and Faye owned their homes and had gone after their respective lawns with a vengeance, creating outdoor rooms before they were popular, coaxing azaleas to bloom in soil that was too alkaline, finding antique flowers and other rare specimens, and sprinkling in a heavy dose of the Southern standards -- forsythia, quince, nandina, and lots of monkey grass. Ruth still lived in a parsonage, but she was no less dedicated to her "borrowed" yard, and as long as she and B.F. occupied the manse, it was a true showplace.

On several occasions, they made trips to see famous gardens and raid massive nurseries. They also loved antique and junk-store shopping, and Faye and Ruth left a large fingerprint on Mama's house, with their decorating finesse. Years after Faye and Ed boldly painted their textured wallpaper a bold cranberry color, I followed suit to paint an entire living room that was papered in texture -- I went for an off-white color, but Faye led the way. Ruth once gave me a beautiful blue bud vase with a fluted top, and I treasure it to this day, placing the first jonquils of spring in it every year.

When Mama began to lose her mind, literally, to Pick's Disease, Ruth and Faye stayed strong and near, in spite of the fact that Mama became a person none of us could recognize. When Mama tried to paint Al Gore being chased by a wild hog out of the textured ceiling of her bedroom, dropping an entire gallon of paint on her bedspread and carpet, Faye called me home to help. And Faye was still there when we needed to have an intervention to end her driving privileges and arrange for daycare.

Ruth and B.F. were Mama's favorite people during those early years of her dementia, and they were unfailingly supportive of her. She was a handful, in public exhibiting outrageous, uninhibited behaviors, and in private, pouring out her woes and frustrations ad nauseum. They just hung steady, loving her, supporting her, encouraging her. When Mama seemed to turn to them and away from family, they loved us, too, and eventually we found some solace with one another as we watched this bright shining one we had loved so much deteriorate so thoroughly into an unrecognizable shadow of what she had once been. They retired and moved 70 miles away, but still remained a presence in our lives, praying and encouraging us as we continued the journey.

The week that Mama died, Faye sat with me for long hours in the nursing home. She held Mama's hand and reminisced aloud about the things they had done together. She was as delighted as I when Mama squeezed her hand in recognition, after weeks of recognizing and responding very rarely. She kissed her gently when she told her goodbye, and helped me to know that though this might be the most difficult thing I would ever face, I could do it, with God's strength.

The Flower Girls added so much beauty to the world around them. Their friendship was cherished by many, individually and as a group. Thank you, Faye and Ruth, for loving my mother and sharing your lives with us all.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Turning 50 -- Something Like 64 days to go...I'll count later

We have just returned from a flying trip to Kansas City. Saw lots of good friends, visited two schools, ate at several of our favorite restaurants, even learned to cook my grandma's shrimp gumbo recipe for friends while we were there. Busy, busy time. We drove for 12 hours today to get home, unloaded the car, unpacked all the bags, made 3 beds so we could go to sleep tonight in comfort, and I am now tee-totally exhausted.

When I was 26 and had just begun my own itinerant ministry, I drove 24 hours seven times in a two-week period once. I am not 26 anymore. I am almost double that. And I am twice as tired after one long day of driving than I remember being after 7 unwise marathons 'way back when. Fifty is not the same as 26. I mourn the loss of some of that youthful exuberance and seemingly endless energy. Particularly when the two 2nd graders in this household are still bursting with it at the end of a week like this. Ugh. That's why they give babies and young children to young parents.

But I'm grateful for what 50 brings, too. For one thing, I really know how to appreciate home now. I still love to travel and experience new things, but home is much more precious now. I also know how to cherish the friends in my life. I regret that at 26 I connected so deeply with so many (again, the travels) but failed to hold on to many of them for the long-haul. I hope that now my traveling has begun again, I shall do better to nurture the relationships, even when I have to move on.

Finally, 50 knows when to go to bed and rest. Good night, all! I'll catch you tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Turning 50 - 66 Days to Go -- Mama's Friends -- the News Hens

"Why are you talking about your mother's friends in a blog about turning 50?" you ask. Well, I don't know...filler? No, really, there is a method to my madness. Part of my plan in this time of transition is to take a look backward, not just at my own life, but at the things that influenced me, and my mother and her friends were certainly among the strongest influences.

The other reason I am focusing on Mama is that she was 25 years old when I was born. She would have turned 75 in August, 2009, and so this would have been a milestone year for her, too. Mama died 10 years ago, and some of her friends have gone (including Carolyn #3, who died 30 years ago of a brain tumor). My hope is to see many of them during this special year, invite them to join me somewhere in a garden for tea, probably near in an antique mall. That is what they enjoyed doing together.

In the last 20 years of Mama's life, she had three groups of friends who played an important role in her life. In the early 1980's, Mama joined the staff of the local newspaper, editing, writing local news, features and opinion columns. Like most news rooms, the writers sat in an open hall, desks clustered together to encourage creativity and open sharing of ideas. I never understood how they could concentrate on anything, but Mama thrived in that atmosphere and treasured the companionship of her workmates. The flock of friends that emerged there was known as "The News Hens."

Throughout her life, most of Mama's friends had been discovered through involvement in various church/faith activities. But the News Hens were the first group that gathered primarily because of their career interests. They worked in every department of the newspaper, from hard news to feature writing to editing to advertising to graphic arts. They shared a mutual passion to offer the best local paper they could, and I think a mutual frustration at the limitations imposed on them by limited finances and sometimes callous corporate decisions.

I didn't know the News Hens well...only 2 or 3 of them actually crossed into my circles of church and university activities. But I know that Mama cherished each of them individually for their unique personalities. Shirley was the wise older sister, bringing a large dose of humor to everything they did in a way that kept them from losing focus. Francis' connection to the local community, Beverly's youth and enthusiasm, Fairfax's gentle grace, Vicky's no-nonsense news reporting. There were several others I didn't know as well, and I regret that I never had the opportunity to have a really good look into the Hen House and understand what kept them close to one another. More than work, certainly. More than mutual indignation about those indifferent corporate bosses. More than simple time spent in the same space.

I think part of what kept them together was a genuine respect for one another's intelligence and creativity. In a field in which many journalists were greatly under-appreciated for their long, hard hours of work, their contribution to community transparency and cohesion, and their genuine desire to help make a better community, they provided one another the encouragement and fortitude necessary to keep producing the best product they could offer.

And they like each other! I remember "landing" at the same restaurant as the Hens one lunchtime. I didn't know they were there, but kept hearing the roar of laughter from a boisterous group seated on the patio. I don't remember why I ventured out there, but I somehow caught a glimpse of them, circled around a wrought-iron table under the trees, heads thrown back in raucous laughter. A few minutes later, they were leaning forward, heads tilted toward one of their flock who was sharing something intimate. And yet again, laughing, wiping tears, squeezing hands.

I've known that kind of friendship with 2 or 3 different groups in my lifetime, friendship not born of mutual faith, but of deliberate choice to gather. Our personal values and political positions were not what drew us together, but as openness to differing opinions and mutual respect for one another grew, I came to love these friends in a kind of protective, family way that I found to be a refreshing change from the sometimes insulated, isolated circles of friends I have had in church. They challenged me to make sure that my opinions and values were based not on inherited, cultural norms, but on genuine, informed belief that they were the staff of life.

I think that's what Mama found with Shirley, Frances, Fairfax, and the others. All precious women, all "church" ladies, though not in the traditional sense, but all with a view of the world that wasn't dimmed by stained-glass windows. These are the friends that take the strength of faith and give it roots, simply by virtue of challenging one to make sure the so-called strength is not just stubborn adherence to unsupported opinion.

Thanks, Ladies. You've made my life much more colorful, Mama's too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Turning 50 - 67 Days to Go - Mama's Friends, Silver and Gold

When I was a little girl, before handheld digital game players and portable DVD players, our family spent travel time in the car reading aloud and singing together. I learned a lot about melody and harmony in those years, simply from singing simple rounds. One of our favorites said, "Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold." My mother lived that principle beautifully.

The mark of a truly good friend is found in one who genuinely loves people, and my mother certainly had that trait. Some people favor friends of this age or that, but Mama loved them all. During a couple of my father's pastorates, she worked with the children's and youth choirs, and through that experience gathered around her a large following of adoring teenage girls. The boys were probably just as enamoured of her, but she drew the girls close to nurture, mentor, and counsel.

By the time I was a young adult, I realized how many young women actually came to my mother for advice. It wasn't just that she was older than them, it was that she possessed a wisdom born of the quiet she had spent listening for God's wisdom and pondering his word. She genuinely enjoyed her young friends, and at times, they just got together to enjoy one another's company. But for the most part, they came to her for the insight and guidance she shared about their love lives, careers, friends, and futures. I certainly understand why...she was my chief confidante and counselor.

At the other end of the spectrum were the grandmothers and aunts who generously offered the same kind wisdom and compassionate understanding for my mother that she learned to give to others. Granny Tess, in Itta Bena, used to come get my younger brothers (ages 15 months and 7 months) and say, "I need me some little boy lovin'," but what she was really doing was given my worn-out mother a much-needed respite from the 24/7 job of caring for 4 children. Others taught her their favorite crochet patterns and bread recipes. Others reminded her that God was in control and that every seemingly impossible situation in her life would be wrapped up in His good plan for her life.

She gave to those elderly ones, as well, reading to a blind, bed-ridden friend for years, tutoring another who had never learned to read. She baked several loaves of bread each week and spent part of the weekend delivering delicious, warm, fresh-from-the-oven comfort to shut-ins. As a newspaper feature writer, she sought out many retirees and told the tales of their fascinating lives, forging lasting friendships with many of them.

The tapestry of my mother's life was beautiful, in large part due to the colorful variety of her friendships. I enjoyed sitting under the fringes of that beautiful tapestry in those days, and looking back now to remember the riches. It is not untrue to say that my life is, likewise, richly blessed by precious friends.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Turning 50 -- 68 Days to Go --

A couple of days ago, I started talking about Mama's friends. She had three wonderful friends named Carolyn/Carol.  They will be the start to my musings on the individuals.

Chronologically, the first was the wife of a seminary student, another would-be Mississippi Methodist pastor, and the men were both in school while the wives made their tiny nests in married student housing and worked to put food on the table. These two couples remained dear friends for many years -- at least 20 -- until the other couple divorced and Mama developed dementia. They not only went to school together, but had their first children together, a boy and then a girl, all of us almost the same age, and in that same order. (It's late...did that make sense? Their son and my older brother were both born in 1956, and their daughter and I were both born in 1960.) Both men returned to Mississippi to pastor churches. And both women maintained a great sense of humor through all the challenges they met in the pastorate.

I remember hearing them talk about parsonages, some of which were so "simple" that they could see through the floor boards to the dirt under the foundation. (I avoided saying 'dilapidated' because that wouldn't be respectful of the precious parishioners who did their best to provide housing for their pastors' families. I'm thinking they might have been able to do a bit better, in some instances. I'm just sayin'...) They learned to laugh about meddling members, testy trustees, and crusty choir directors. They loved the people to whom they ministered, and they were in that old breed of ministers' wives who felt they were partners in ministry, whether they received remuneration for their service or not. (Please don't misunderstand -- the workman is worthy of his hire, and we lay persons should do our best to bless those who serve us, official staff or not.) I think Carolyn #1 and Mama were, first and foremost, a safe soundboard and an endless encouragement to one another, in their unique sisterhood as clergy wives.

Carolyn #2 was school librarian and wife of the high school principal in the last community where my dad pastored, before he went into itinerant evangelism. She, again, had a son close to my brother's age, and a daughter my age, and Penny and I were bosom buddies. I can't wait until I'm talking about my friends and can share with you about her. But tonight's subject is Mama's Carolyns, so...

While the roles were not identical, as two of the first ladies in our tiny community of 2000, Mama and Carolyn #2 again found a camaraderie in their shared sisterhood, but they also clung to one another because they helped one another laugh. In fact, as I recall, all three Carolyn's helped my mother laugh, and vice versa. Principal's wife Carolyn lived on a corner on the main drag into town, just 2 blocks from the town square. We were off the main drag one block (the town was only 3 blocks wide, at it's widest, at least on our end of town), and only one block away from one another. To say that these women lived in "Glass Houses" would be a gross understatement. Small town America, especially in the deep south, is by very nature a hotbed of personal interference. Nothing remains a secret for 24 hours, and town leaders are fair game for anyone's curiosity.

The oldest sons in both of these families matured to adolescence while we were still living there, and I know that at least in our household, there was a lot of prayer, biting of the lower lips, and wringing of the hands, as my parents endeavored to let him stretch his wings -- knowing all too well that well-meaning, busy-body neighbors would be standing ready to lob ground-to-air missiles at the young eagles. Mama and Carolyn were once again a safe haven and a source of equanimity for one another, a reminder to each other that you can survive just about anything that the local gossips dish out.

Carolyn #3 became a Navy widow at about the same time my mother became an evangelist's widow. In Carolyn's case, her husband was actually lost at sea when his aircraft failed to make altitude from the air craft carrier. I believe he was stationed in the Pacific, during the Vietnam War. Her widowhood was permanent. She moved to Starkville, MS, in 1971 in order to take a position in the early childhood education department at Mississippi State University.

My dad started traveling 45 weeks of the year in 1971, pursuing his call to itinerant evangelism. My mother was an evangelist's widow, left at home a majority of the time to care for my now three brothers and I. We also moved to Starkville that year, and were connected to Carolyn and family by mutual friends from the Mississippi Delta. Again, there were boys in both households just entering the teen years, girls on the cusp of adolescence, and then Mama had two additional toddlers. We all attended the Methodist church, Mama and Carolyn becoming fast friends and her daughter and I becoming fierce rivals. We have a sweet admiration for one another now, and I love her all the more for her connection to my mother.

This friendship was the first one I really remember trying to eavesdrop on...hanging around at the breakfast table while they solved the world's problems, learning how to open my heart in friendship to another woman, learning how to respect her boundaries, to give her courage in her weakness, comfort in her sorrow, laughter in everything. They were like sisters, sitting close to one another on the couch so look at magazines together, swapping children and recipes whenever there was a need, calling one another in the middle of the night when the darkness was too much to manage. Looking back, I am so grateful that the Lord, once again, gave my mother the perfect sister/friend, who could understand her aloneness and hold her hand.

Phileo -- the Greek word for the kind of love that friends have for one another. I used to think it meant "I like you because you're like me." It does, but it also means that the two share a common bond, whether it is similar life circumstances or favorite pasttimes. In their likeness, those who share phileo love for one another are much like Jesus as our high priest who "was familiar with our every weakness" because he became a man like us.

We need phileo, the love of friends who understand us because they are walking the same road and share the same values. This is the love that helps to make the path of life secure so that when we venture out into unknown territory, we know that there are those who will be "holding the stuff" for us back at home, anxious to bring us back to center, back to safety.

God, thank you for the Carolyns in my mother's life. by the way....did you know that Carolyn means, "One who sings"? Ah, I like that. It also means "free woman." Appropriate, don't you think? And I certainly saw in these woman a freedom that exhibited itself in a life sung well.

Carolyn was the #1 most popular name given in the early 1930's, when all three of these women, and my mother (Norma) were born, but it has fallen 'way down in the rankings now. I think there should be a revival of the name, don't you, especially if there is any truth to the Biblical practice of naming your children with their future in mind.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Turning 50 -- 69 days to Go -- I'm an OLD Mom

A few years ago, I realized that I could easily divide my life into approximate 20 year segments: 20 years of growing up under the protective care of my parents (yes, college years count); 20 years of living single, traveling the world, a tramp for the Lord; and then, after adopting Christian when I was 44 and he was 20 months, I expected 20 years of full focus on rearing my son. Yes, I knew I would, as a single mom, be required to work in order to support us both, but one doesn't really take into account just what will be required in single motherhood.

Friends warned me, and after two years of, "I told you so!" I wanted to smack some of them in the sunset of their sweet anatomy! Do people say that to biological parents? "I told you so, I told you so!" As if I had a choice! Adoption for me, while completely out of the norm for our culture (maybe any culture), was not an choice, anymore than birthing a much-wanted biological child is an choice. It was an irresistible pull, like finding my magnetic north and forever being dragged that way, from the time I was a little girl. Sure, I could have resisted the pull, just as biological parents can exercise options to prevent parenthood. But I would have forever been off-kilter, struggling to figure out why I was limping through life.

Parenting is a full-time job. Full-time and a half, three-quarters, double-time! There is never a day off, and even when I get the chance (curse?) to have 24 hours away, my mind is always pulled back to him. I'd like to think that as an older mom, I have a lot of wisdom and grace under my belt that younger moms lack. Unfortunately, I think what I have discovered is that I just have 20 more years of living to please myself, a veritable fortress of self-absorption that stands between me and the kind of sacrificial living that is required for motherhood.

I never dreamed that I would be so completely enamoured of this little human! While I am driven to the brink of madness on a regular basis, I wouldn't trade one minute of my life with him in order to return to "freedom in singleness." He is perfect in every way. He is thoughtful and impulsive, cheerful and whiny, pensive and pulsing, focused and scattered. A few days ago, he slipped into an unusual spell of quietness and I worried the entire evening that something terrible had happened - that someone had wounded him and then threatened him, should he tattle on the evil-doer. But the next morning - and ever since - he has talked almost non-stop, chattering about everything under the sun, working his imagination overtime to discuss how rolls might rise on the moon, where there is no gravity to keep them in check; how we might re-locate our house and everything and everyone in our new Mississippi neighborhood to our old location and among our old friends in Missouri; demonstrating that his food is shaped like a light saber, his rolled-up pajamas a submarine, and his "precious, little camel" a falling star. Life is never boring for him.

And it's never boring for me, either. Exhausting, but not boring! He is a pressure-pot exploding with energy, and I am the slow cooker, set to low. He is a Ferrari on the Autobahn and I am a Studebaker on the boulevard. He is shooting stars and fireworks and I am the slow glow of the punk used to light them.

This year, we together undertook the adventure to move back to Mississippi to join my dad's ministry, which requires me to travel all around the world in ministry. Eventually, I hope that he will be able to join me all the time. For now, we home school and he is with me Stateside, while I am anxiously anticipating our first 3-week separation in February when I go to Africa. Tonight, we are on the road again, settled into a hotel on our way to our next destination. We'll be here only one night, but we've made a little nest for him in the room, in the car...home away from home.

I worry that he won't have the on-going, day-to-day relationships with the 300+ 2nd graders in the school he would attend. But then I I really want him spending more than half of his waking hours, 5 days a week, under the influence of 300 seven year olds, 300 6 year olds, and 300 kindergartners? I think not! The advantages to this life far out-weigh the limitations, in my estimation. He is out-going and friendly, but has learned to set boundaries and find time for himself. He never meets a stranger and he is comfortable introducing himself to grown-ups, ordering his own meals in restaurants, and asking for assistance when he needs it. He is learning about our great nation by seeing it first-hand, and someday, he will get to see the rest of beautiful planet Earth in the same way. Yes, this is a good decision.

But tonight, after a full week of preparation for a long, 2-day conference, and beginning a 700 mile journey this morning, the day after the conference, I am feeling every bit of my "old mom" status. He is moving like a whirling dervish tonight, unable to be still. I am so tired I can't think straight. But we are together. We are family. And God has made it so. I wouldn't have it any other way!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Turning 50 -- 70 Days to Go -- Mama's Friends

One of my goals during my 50th year of celebrating is to see as many of my mother's friends as I can. Mama died 10 years ago, and she would now be 75. I think it will be a fitting way to honor her, and a real treat for me to see the girls.

My mother was very good at friendship. She had two sisters, and I think her genius as a friend was birthed in her love for her sisters. She said that Aunt Betty never let her go to the outhouse by herself after dark, and they often lay in bed, reading either side of the page of the same book. Aunt Karey said that Mama took on that role for her, and they always loved being together as adults. But I'll save the sisters for another day.

Today, it's the friends I want to start talking about. Again, Mama knew how to be a good friend. She was a wonderful listener a gifted conversationalist. She had the ability to engage in small talk that I still long to develop, and yet, she could just as easily slide into deeply meaningful conversations on any number of topics, from faith and politics to favorite books and child-rearing. I loved to sit at the table with them and listen as they weaved a tapestry of words, the ups and downs of life the warp and woof. I was often shooed away when they turned to more serious issues.

Funny, this week as I talked about things with some of my girlfriends, I wondered if Mama and her friends ever covered those subjects. My thought was that they were probably too conservative or prudish to touch them, but now that I think about it, I think they just shooed young ears out of the room before I could pick up on "adult" things.

Mama's closest friends were such special folks, so unique and different from one another, but all with down-to-earth values and no-nonsense perspective. They laughed easily, cherished family and church, often loved music, always loved books, usually loved gardening, sometimes enjoyed baking, and to a person, loved Jesus. She had lots of other friends, and enjoyed them all, but the ones she spent the most time with were a reflection of herself...not a mirror image, but more like a deep lake, in which you could see your own image, but with depth and color and shadows and light.

There will be more to come in the future, but I wanted to make a start tonight. I'd like to tell you about them individually, so maybe that will come. Tonight, I need to get busy.

I was hoping to write every day, but we had a weekend ministry event and I was not able to write yesterday. Tomorrow, we're headed to Kansas City for a few days, and the next week, to North Carolina for a retreat, and immediately after, I will go to Africa. Busy, busy time. I'm going to do my best to keep up. I'm talking to you like you're really paying attention...ha! What a hoot! Anyway, I hope to be here as often as I can. And thank you for reading.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Turning 50 -- 72 Days to go -- "Mom, what's an earthquake?"

This morning, I was watching news coverage of the disaster in Haiti and my seven year old, Christian, joined me. He said, "There are tornadoes and hurricanes and fires and floods and blizzards and..." He listed about 8 different natural and man-made disasters, cataloging all the possibilities for destruction.

Then, he needed a lengthy explanation of what he was seeing and told me that there might be an earthquake in New England (how does the kid know about New England?) and half the United States might break off . I explained that earthquakes are more common in coastal areas and islands, but he wanted reassurance about the possibility of earthquakes here. I told him that there actually is an earthquake fault running through Missouri and Memphis and into North Mississippi, called the New Madrid, and that some scientists believe we might have a pretty big earthquake here someday.

"What causes earthquakes?" Oh, for Pete's sake, I thought, but I dusted off my Earth Science memories and tried to describe Plate Tectonics just a little bit. I compared a fault to the seam in his clothes and told him that when the pressure built up along the seam, it had to release the pressure, and so the earth shakes to adjust itself. Have you ever tried to describe to a 2nd grader what causes an earthquake? He listened intently and seemed to be satisfied, whether it made sense or not.

Then he asked if our buildings would be destroyed like the ones in Haiti. Some, I said, but Haiti is a very poor country and many of their structures are not built with the best materials or the best technology. We might do better, but it would still cause a lot of damage.

Then he brought up his plan for an underground house, dreamed-up during a tornado warning a few months ago. We could be safe there. All of our neighbors could join us there.

I just wanted to scoop him into my arms and tell him not to worry about any of those things, and that he was safe. I did tell him that the chance of any kind of natural disaster destroying our house was pretty remote, but I'm not sure he bought it.

Tens of thousands of babies and little boys are living this reality in Haiti tonight. I want to shelter my child from the horror, but he is old enough to be aware now, and he needs to understand that even if we have a wonderful, safe life, there are many in the world who don't. We need to find ways to help them.

When I was his age, a tornado swept through Inverness, Mississippi, just down the highway from where we lived in Itta Bena. Most of our community had gathered in our church basement that night, the sturdiest underground shelter in the area. The roof of the Methodist church in Inverness collapsed onto the pews, as I recall, just minutes after evening service had dismissed. We drove by there a few days later to see what it was like. And we had another tornado drill in school the next week, gathering in the hallway with our heads between our knees. I'm thinking that wouldn't have helped much.

At about the same time, I was learning to duck under my desk to be protected from nuclear radiation. I'm darn sure that wouldn't have helped a bit. And the next year, Hurricane Camille devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where most of my mother's family lived.

I wasn't sheltered from the horror, nor can I keep my son from learning about these horrific things. What I can do is let him know that there is a God who shields us all in his love, no matter what may happen. "Though the mountains fall, though the earth should shake, though the sea should roar with all the heartache. Though our throats be dry, we will lift Your Name on high! You have been a shelter, Lord, to every every generation. A sanctuary from the storm, to every generation, to every generation, Lord." We need to be reminded of the One Who is our sure foundation.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Turning 50 -- 73 Days to Go -- Earth shaking in Haiti

About 30 hours ago, a devastating 7.0 earthquate rocked the island of Haiti. I heard about the earthquake last night but had to attend a funeral this morning and have spent the remainder of the day in "office isolation," preparing for a conference this weekend. So when I got home this evening at 10:30 and heard the estimates of several thousand to half a million dead, I suddenly lost perspective on everything.

I flipped to one "news channel" and found nothing but political haranguing and light-hearted banter about the coming demise of the democratic party. I flipped to two other news channels and was assaulted by the images of death and destruction in Port au Prince. I tried to settle on a drama or a sitcom in order to unwind and get ready for bed, but I was just ashamed for my escapism.

If the high estimates are even half right, Wikipedia is already estimating that this will be the 5th most deadly natural disaster in human history. In one of the smallest nations in the world.

Tonight, I am ashamed of my abundance and insulation. God, help me to live outside myself, to live as you died -- willing to pay the price.

The Psalmist said, "When the foundations are being destroyed, what does the Righteous One do?" Big-R, Big-O -- He is seated on His throne, and He has compassion on His children. Other versions use little-r, little-o -- that's you and me, the ones who call on His name. What are we doing?

I'll be 50 in 73 days. Just when I thought it couldn't be any worse, it suddenly is. God, help us all.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Turning 50 -- 75 Days to Go -- Profane and Profound

I've been gratified by the response I've received to the blog the last few days, and I've had a long day, so I thought I'd share a couple of those responses with you. Forgive my brevity, and I promise to elaborate tomorrow night on today's events. For now, just enjoy!

The first is from friend Kay, for many years my number one spiritual mentor and still a precious sister/friend:

"Since you're casting off all restraints (or most of them), I thought this might save you some money and still speak of freedom:

'Good news for all you wine lovers out there!

'Wal Mart announced that, sometime in 2010, it will begin offering customers a new discount item...Wal Mart's own brand of wine. The world's largest retail chain is rumored to be teaming up with Ernest & Julie Gallo Winery of California to produce the spirits at an affordable price - in the $2 to $5 range.

'Wine connoisseurs may not be inclined to put a bottle of the WalMart brand into their shopping carts, but "There is a market for the inexpensive wine." said Kathy Micken, professor of marketing at University of Arkansas, Bentonville. "However, branding will be very important."

'Customer surveys were conducted to determine the most attractive name for the WalMart wine brand. The top surveyed names in order of popularity were:

10. Chateau Traileur Parc
9. White Trashfindel
8. Big Red Gulp
7. World Championship Riesling
6. NasCarbernet
5. Chef Boyardeaux
4. Peanut Noir
3. I Can't Believe It's Not Vinegar
2. Grape Expectations
1. Nasti Spumante

'The beauty of WalMart wine is that it can be served with either white meat (possum) or red meat (squirrel).

'P.S. Don't bother writing back that this is a hoax. I know possum is not a white meat.'"

I've laughed all day about that one, and wished for a little Nascarbernet of my own.

But on a more serious note, dear friend Mari Carley Stermer sent this beautiful prayer, written by her for another friend who turned 50 in December. Would you say it for me? I'll be praying for you, too.

"Prayer for Kathryn

"Does she rejoice, this woman of light, upon reaching her fiftieth year;
As she recalls her nomadic days, the liberty well-lived, well-loved?
Does the looking glass reveal to her the lines or how they were won?
When, in prayer, she opens her heart, does she know you are enthralled?

"Show her you will spend this year redeeming her regrets.
Give release from what enslaves, bring your contented rest.
Return to her what she thinks lost, raise her spirit closer to yours.
And, send her dancing rejoicing as she returns in Jubilee!"

Profane and profound, laughter and tears, "shock" and Awe. That is life. That is what Turning 50 is all about. Thanks, Kay and Mari. You both bless me more than you can imagine, you amazing women of light.

Turning 50 -- 74 days to go...

What a day yesterday was! Drove 124 miles one direction to see a new gynecologist for my annual exam. Why, you ask? Well, this is a small town. The only gyn group includes an old friend I sang with in the high school church choir (male), and I don't know why, but I'm just not comfortable going there. When I lived here before, I went to three different gyn's over the years, and they all fit safely within the parameters of "my mother's doctors," so it was okay.

The first was the one my mother drug me to when I was a teenager and menstruation hit me like the Jericho wall falling down. Years of that monthly experience, complete with fainting from pain and many unmentionable embarrassing moments later, I had an endometrial laparoscopy, but nothing suspicious was found, so I suffered through until I turned 30 and finally surrendered to taking birth control pills to abate the symptoms. Worked like a charm and I wondered why I waited so long.

Anyway, the first fellow was a member of the church we attended, though I didn't really know him in that setting since my crowd was all in high school. He knew I sang, and so, at the beginning of each exam, we would chat for a few minutes about the country music he loved and composed, and then he'd get down to business, so to speak. I must say, neither his folksy chat nor the funny posters on the ceiling made the experience any less appalling.

The second one was an old, grandfatherly GP who was father to one of my favorite junior high school teachers. He was safe, and had an old, grandfatherly bedside manner, and saw me through my mid-twenties until I finished my master's degree and could no longer go to the university health clinic.

The third was our longtime church friend and family practitioner, but since I had no unusual health concerns that required a specialist, his care was more than adequate. And, he took an entire morning to perform a thorough physical every year, with extensive blood work and long discussions about various health issues. I loved it and felt well-cared-for. Those were the early years of my international travel and he was fastidious about making sure I wasn't bringing home any unusual bacteria or infection.

When I moved off to the big city, I just followed my friends to their favorite doctors, first to our GP, and my first female physician, until she retired. And then, finally, to a real gynecologist in a real healthcare clinic for women, but a man. This fellow saw me through an endometrial ablation in 2007, necessitated by a large uteran fibroid and increasingly painful cycles, even with The Pill. The ablation ended my need for pills, and for any feminine products, too.

When it was time to choose a doctor this time around, I just knew I didn't want to be face-to-face, in a manner of speaking, with that old friend from the high school church choir. So, I asked around a bit and discovered that the daughter of one of my favorite women at church is now a gynecologist. It never occurred to me that she might feel the same discomfort in treating me that I had felt at the thought of being treated by Joe Choir. When I walked into her office yesterday afternoon, we exchanged a big hug, and then it dawned on me that she might be feeling a bit awkward. "Are you okay with this?" I asked. And she said, "Are you?" And we made it through with lots of laughter and I left feeling cared-for and heard in a way I haven't for a long, long time. If you need a good gynecologist, try Karen Cole at Jackson Healthcare for Women in Flowood.

Okay, maybe that's WTMI - Way Too Much Information - but a woman doesn't turn 50 without thinking through some of these things. I'll do my best to be discreet. When I told a friend about seeing Karen, she said that she just loved her, had been in Bible study with her years ago, and that a female gyn would probably be much better than a male, but that she would probably stick with her guy to the grave. Convenience, habit, familiarity, all that. And my guy-gyn in KC was great, so I've discovered the gender of the gyn doesn't really matter.

But it got me to thinking...these doctors are people who are with us at our most vulnerable moments. Some are really sensitive to that and some are not. Dr. Karen was great. She's a girl. She gets it. She was perfectly respectful and thoughtful, but she didn't lose the warmth of her humanity. Some try to make it so strictly professional that they become detached and cold. And truthfully, while I want proper decorum and distance, by nature of the examination, I find myself having to clamp down the lid on my emotions and my tongue to keep from spilling every thought and feeling I have when I'm at my annual exam! I don't want a doctor who is trying so hard to keep it professional that I end up feeling like an idiot for feeling! Or for getting flustered while I'm trying to keep my wits about me in that situation.

I mean, really, I have GOT to start making a list before I go in for my annual exam. By the time I've been flattened for the mammogram, impaled for the blood work, humiliated for spillage when filling the little bitty teeny weeny plastic cup, and examined from sunrise to sunset...well, my brain is just mush and I can hardly remember my name, much less whether I have "issues" that need to be discussed.

These days, my issues are so many and varied that it's almost funny to start listing them. I have hot flashes day and night, summer and winter, sinking spells with what I call "hormone surges," (kind of like sugar lows, but not), arthritis in my hands and hips, an increasing number of skin tags all over my body, trouble getting to sleep, and staying asleep, and then waking up, inflammation in my right rotator cuff, plantar fasciitis in both feet, ketatoderma in hands and feet, weight gain, cramps, digestive issues. And that's just my physical ailments. Care to hear my emotional and relational issues? I'll spare you. For Pete's sake! I'm still 74 days from 50!

If I wasn't already feeling old, the AARP decided to make sure I was properly informed by sending me an invitation to join their club just 2 days after the first of the year! It's true...aging is irreversible.

It's late and I need to try to go to bed so that when I wake up after 3 hours, I can still hope to catch another cat nap before I have to get up for real. You know, I really don't mind all this stuff happening, and I know with a bit of weight loss and some regular exercise, both of which I am already doing, I can abate some of these unpleasant symptoms. The reality is that I have always liked getting older. From the time I was a little girl, I wanted to be a teenager, and as a young woman I could hardly wait to be a middle-aged and wise (doesn't that make you laugh?). And while I'm not ready to be old, yet, I certainly don't mind some of the perks that come with having lived this long...

I've had a lot of experiences, good and bad, enough to let me know that I can survive just about anything with God's help and some good friends around. I've learned that people come and go, and while it hurts like the dickens to lose them, in time, God will heal the hurt and help me to open my heart again. I've been blessed to have a rich treasure-store of precious friends in my life, and most of them are still "in the box." I am regularly receiving dividends of their love and good intentions toward me, and vice-versa, I hope.

And I've learned that the annual trek to the gyn will come to pass...

So, I hope Dr. Karen will be around a while to help me through this phase of femine development...disintegration? I'm sure her expertise will be really helpful from time-to-time, but it's her friendship that I really value, and I'm glad that finally, I have found a physician who seems to share the same perspective.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Turning 50 -- Day 2 -- Red Hat Ladies

Yesterday I was so full of eager anticipation about the challenge of this blog. I was certain that I would daily sit to record my thoughts, confident that I would know just which direction to go, whether to reminisce and reflect, or dream and celebrate. Well, I've been thinking about today's post for more than 24 hours, and the theme has only come to me in the last 30 minutes, after much mental thrashing about. I sure hope it comes easier as I go on!

Anyway, I thought today it might be good to answer the question, "What's the big deal, anyway?" I've had quite a few comments already, a surprising number, to tell you the truth, and they've come from almost every perspective. Friends who have already passed this milestone (and other, greater ones, I might add) have written to offer encouraging words, like, "Enjoy! It's the beginning of the best time in your life!" Several friends have written to say, "Fifty! No way! You are much too young for that!" Not one person has yet said anything patronizing like, "Oh, honey, just wait. Fifty is nothing," though I'm sure several have thought it. And a few people have actually thanked me for launching this journey and expressed their desire to walk through it with me. I'm humbled, truly.

There have been enough interested responses that I started asking myself today, "Well, Lee Ann, what is the big deal, after all?" So, I have ruminated and thrashed about, and finally came up with an analogy at the end of this long day. Any men reading this post will not completely understand, so forgive me, but I think most women will answer with a resounding, "Amen!"

Twenty-five years ago, I comforted myself, in assessing my increasing girth, with the fact that I had my father's "big bones." Truth is, my bones have been so thoroughly encased in a cushion of flesh and fat for so long that I have no idea how big they are! When I was a tiny little girl, my bones were boney...skinny, knobby, pencil posts. When I became a teenager and started developing curves, I think my bones were still fairly small, but it didn't take long for my protective covering to obliterate any clear vision of the bones. Well, these days, I'm just downright fat. There, I've said it. We'll deal with that on another day.

Back to the analogy at hand... My generous proportions have to be made presentable to the world every single morning. So I begin my daily routine by strapping myself in with rubber and lycra and metal hooks, and cinching up the shoulder straps as tightly as I can stand, and then hope that my jostling and jiggling will be neither distracting nor disgusting to anyone I am with during the day.

And when I come home, the first thing I do is release myself from the bondage! Yep, I come in the back door, pass through the kitchen and living room, make a quick left into my bedroom, and shed myself of the wretched contraption before I pet the dog, stop in the toilet, or even hug my son. Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!

Maybe I can help you men understand a bit. Wearing this innovative fashion accessory for 12 to 15 hours every day might be akin, I think, to wearing an athletic cup for that same length of time. It is not God-given equipment, and its function is more for utility than for comfort. It binds and pinches more and more as the day goes on, and fairly screams to be removed by days' end.

And what does that have to do with Turning 50? Well, in some ways, I feel that I have lived the first half-century of my life (there, isn't that optimistic?) in similar bondage. In an effort to live well, fit within the cultural norms of the day, make myself presentable, and even in recent years, cover some of my flaws, I have taken on "unnatural equipment," emotionally and spiritually, for certain. The result, at the end of the day, is a sense of bondage in some areas of my life of which I am ready to be shed.

When we lived in Kansas City, we would often see small and large groups of women clad in purple with red hats, joining the ranks of Jenny Joseph's old women casting off aged sobriety in favor of unrestrained youth. I have vowed that I would never dress that way in public (or private, for that matter), but I do like the sentiment. Why do we do this to ourselves? We play tapes in our heads every minute of every day that remind us to sit up straight, don't talk with our mouths full, use our inside voices, speak only when spoken to, and on and on and on until we remake ourselves in a socially respectable form that little resembles the glorious, free creatures God has made us to be.

As I am Turning Fifty, I want to cast off restraint. No, I do not intend to indulge in all of the fleshly pursuits of youth that I missed. Shoot, I didn't miss that many of them, nor did they provide any real satisfaction or pleasure when I was indulging! Nor do I intend to start permitting myself to say and do anything at anytime, and to heck with the consequences! But here are a few of the things that I would like to cast off so that I can begin this second half with more freedom and joy, and thus, bring a little more joy to those in the wake of my journey:

  1. I want to stop second-guessing every conversation I have. If I say something I shouldn't, I want to learn to ask forgiveness when needed, or just have a good laugh at myself for stupidity.
  2. I want to stop being so cautious about expressing my thoughts. If I say something that you don't agree with, you and I should be able to laugh and love one another, and stumble through until we either agree to disagree or find the truth together.
  3. I want to stop carrying around the dust of disgruntled villagers. Remember when Jesus told the disciples to speak peace to any place they entered? He went on to say that they should stay as long as they were welcome, but if they were rejected, they should just go, shaking the dust off their feet as they went. I've been carrying around too much dust. I don't want to be callous or indifferent to those I might offend, but I also don't want to have my feet so weighted down by disappointment and discouragement that I fear entering another village.
  4. I want to stop avoiding some things because others might disapprove. I learned a long time ago that God's laws were given, not to deny me of pleasure, but to protect me from harm. At this point in my life, I have no desire to enter into debauchery, I'm just too old and tired! But there are some things in life that some of my strait-laced friends look down upon, and which I avoid in order not to raise any eyebrows. Well, I want to be done with that. I'm going to enjoy life. I'm not going to harm anyone, and I'm not going to set a bad example. But I am also not going to occupy this holier-than-thou podium anymore. My mother used to quote some Christian leader who said he feels that when we get to heaven, God will say, "I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it more. I certainly intended for you to do so!" I'm going to throw off prudity in favor of the pleasure He gives.
  5. I want to cast off bitterness and unforgiveness. That's a big one. I'll deal with it more and in greater depth as I make this journey. But more than any other bondage, it is my refusal to fully forgive, to extend the grace that is not earned and the mercy that is not deserved, that keeps my own heart bound up in darkness and despair. Enough. God helping me, I'm going to learn to be like Jesus in this.

I suppose that's enough for today. And gracious, please don't write back tomorrow asking me if I'm free, yet! Jesus said, "[She] whom the Son sets free is free indeed." Paul echoed the thought with, "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm, then, and don't let yourselves be burned again by a yoke of slavery."

I'm throwing off the yoke, people! Join me!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Turning 50

It's true and I can scarcely believe it. 2010 has finally come and so in less than 3 months time, I will reach my 50th birthday. This is a milestone, no doubt about it, and I want to make the effort to do it well. I have been so haphazard about so much of my life, letting too much of it happen to me, reacting rather than responding, passively watching too many days, weeks, months and years trickle away. Well, now it is time to become more intentional about living again, and to hold myself accountable to this goal, I am going to share the process with you, dear reader. Let me hear from you occasionally, and feel free to gently encourage me to move forward and not dwell too much in the past. But please be gentle.

I intend to do some backward looking -- time to remember and celebrate, to reflect and grow. I intend to make the effort to take stock of what I have accomplished thus far in life, and with God's help, determine whether any of it is of lasting value, and then do better to invest myself in things of eternal worth. During this year, I hope to arrange several celebrations of life, with special friends, and I will share those with you. I also intend to set some goals for growth, not the least of which is the daily commitment to write this blog about turning 50.

I don't know how long I shall continue to write about the process, but since I am beginning some 75 days before my birthday, I shall probably continue to record the change process for at least that long afterward. That will see me through Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, which might just be a good outline for this momentous time in life.

Do I think that my experience of Turning Fifty is more important than anyone else's, or that I have any particular insight that will shatter the world? No, not at all, but I do want to do this well, and set a course for the second half of my life (well, sure, it's already begun, but better late than never) which will take me to the end in victory.

Yes, I am going to make some resolutions, and some of them will be the same old tired ones I've been making for 25 years or more, but if I don't try again, then I will just percolate in the same juices until I am thick and no good, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I shall try to share those resolutions with you, and my progress in them, as I undertake to make the changes. If I fail to record my progress, let me know! Again, accountability and encouragement are part of the method of my madness.

About 20 years ago, my then elderly friend Eleanor told me about another aging woman she knew who lived alone. This woman knew that she was losing some physical and mental acuity, but had no family nearby to help her make changes that might keep her safe. So, she spoke to the postman and the beat-cop, both of whom were good friends, and asked them to follow her in their automobiles from time-to-time, when they saw her out and about in her car. If they noticed that she was making poor decisions or reacting slowly and felt that the time had come for her to give up her auto-mobility, they were invited to speak directly to her. She wanted their input and recognized that she would not always be able to see her own needs and limitations clearly.

So, I am inviting you to do the same, not only in this post, but in the years to come as we both grow older. As I said, please be gentle. "A bruised reed he will not break." I want to grow, not just be reminded of how far I have yet to go, or of how poorly I have yet done.

And I don't intend for this exercise to be a belly-gazing, myopic, self-absorbed meditation on me. The whole point is to learn to live well, to live better, and that means to learn to live a more other-focused life. I want to learn to love more freely, forgive more readily, and laugh more heartily. Join me! We just might have fun!