Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Teenager at Your Thanksgiving Table

46503992_918579165008420_2801454627122315264_nThe area of my life that I am good at–the best skill I possess–is a non-monetized sector of our economy. I am good with teenagers. I get them, and they appreciate the fact that I do. We actually enjoy our time together, mostly–they will say things like, “I mean, if I have to be in this school building, I guess I would rather be here then anywhere else . . . but I wish I didn’t have to be in this school building.”

Tomorrow, they are going to have to be somewhere else that they do not want to be: at your Thanksgiving table. And the reasons that they do not want to be there are many:

  1. It all feels fake: they are wearing clothes they don’t normally wear. Yes, we parents would like our children to always look Christmas-card worthy, but, after all, we aren’t parading around our prized show goats–we are just taking our kids to Aunt Helen’s. If your son wants to wear a UGA hoodie, ask yourself–are you more concerned about what Great Aunt Mabel thinks than what your son feels? Your son needs to have his autonomy respected at Thanksgiving among his relatives so that he can maintain it down by the river with his buddies on a moonlit Friday night. For teenagers, clothes are personhood. Trust your teen to be a person.
  2. It all feels fake: your nuclear family is (perhaps) pretending to be happier than you truly are. If Mom hasn’t spoken a kind word to Dad in two weeks; if elder brother Bobby Joe got arrested last week for breaking and entering; if Sis just told everyone she is pregnant–if there is any sort of ongoing family crisis at all and you are all in a tacit agreement to pretend otherwise, then you are asking your teen to participate in “finessing” everyone at dinner. And teenagers generally prefer authenticity.
  3. It all feels fake: distant relatives are acting elated to see them. I’m a fairly terrible long-distance aunt. So, when I am around my nieces and nephews on holidays, I do my best not to act as if I am World’s Best Aunt material. I am genuine and warm with them, sure, but I do not gush over them because that would be patronizing. If you see your nephew only twice a year, to pretend that you are devastated that you don’t is just wrong. As an adult, you either need to do better and see him more or tell both of you the truth: you are happy to see him when you do. He will appreciate your honesty and attention.
  4. Relatives keep asking the wrong questions–and putting teens on the spot. In one of my favorite speeches, Paul Graham tells teens, “People are always asking you [what you want to do with your life] . . . adults ask this mainly as a conversation starter . . . They ask it the way you might poke a hermit crab in a tide pool, to see what it does.” Resist the urge to poke the teenager at your Thanksgiving table–because the last thing any fifteen-year-old wants is five adults waving their forks at her while offering friendly advice. Ask her instead about books she is reading, movies she has seen–anything the two of you could talk about quietly together. Because . . .
  5. Teenagers are generally embarrassed to be alive. When my students enter my classroom on the first day of school, I herd them in while hollering, “It’s okay, I know you are embarrassed to be alive,” and they always chuckle–because they are, they really are. This is why the same kid who wins a public speaking contest can’t give his order to the waiter or talk to the cashier at Wal-Mart. It’s all just too much sometimes. And for some teens, Thanksgiving is one of those times. So, let it be. On the ride over to Aunt Helen’s, ask if there’s anything they would rather not talk about, and then don’t talk about it. While you may be ecstatic that Johnny won third place in the hog show at the fair, if he doesn’t want to mention it, just don’t–even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
  6. Some relatives play favorites, and teenagers have begun to realize this. If Grandma calls Cousin Sally “honeybunch,” buys her Dr. Pepper, and only invites her for sleepovers, then Cousin Sally has it a lot better than your teen–and you should acknowledge that. If Pop-Pop bought your brother’s son a Bobcat ATV last  Christmas and only gave your son a Carhartt beanie, well, there’s a problem–and you shouldn’t pretend otherwise. (Our family is unique in that our older daughter, who is adopted from foster care, was taken back to her birth family when she was eighteen months old–and when DFCS returned her to us four months later, we all spoiled her. Her younger sister has had to recognize and live with that: “She was given a car on her birthday, but you weren’t” is much more difficult to process if no one tells you why.) Acknowledge the why; remind your teen that Cousin Dale had three heart surgeries at birth and that’s the reason everyone dotes on him. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere; help your kid to find it.
  7. Some relatives are awful. If you have a sister who calls your child “fat,” do something about it. If there is a drunk uncle who hugs your teenage daughter for a millisecond too long, deal with him. Confront, confront, confront. Don’t put your sister’s self-worth before your child’s. Don’t dismiss your daughter, saying, “Uncle Fred is just that way, he didn’t mean anything by it.” When you make excuses for an adult’s behavior, your teen learns that other people are more important than he is: and no one else should be more important to you than your child.
  8. Some relatives are racist or sexist or homophobic. (Some parents are too.) My elder daughter dated an African-American man in college, and they were not always treated well by outsiders–watching their struggle was difficult. My younger daughter is a member of PERIOD: The Menstrual Movement at her university. Providing menstrual products to less fortunate women is something she has done for three years–but bringing that up at Thanksgiving in the South might be “too liberal”–it would definitely be too something. If your child can’t talk about her boyfriend, her interests, or her friends, why should she be excited about lunch? She is eating with people who are supposed to love her–but they can’t even accept the things and people she loves.
  9. They are made fun of for their dietary choices. If they are vegan or gluten-free or Ovo-vegetarian, please don’t mock them. Just let them eat in peace. There are toddlers in the kitchen eating only macaroni; there are adults who are just gorging on pigs in a blanket and swilling their beer. Leave Grace alone if she doesn’t want turkey. Or bread. Or milk. It’s called autonomy.
  10. Their maturation can go unacknowledged. They are seated at the kids’ table or put in charge of meaningless chores. After lunch, they are sent out of the room or even told to go outside. This wholesale dismissal badly hurts teens. If they aren’t worthy of time and attention, why should they come to dinner at all? After you eat, invite your niece or nephew to sit and talk to you. Look them in the eyes and really talk. Tell them stories they have never heard before–mistakes you made, adventures you went on, how things were when you were fifteen–and then listen, really listen, when they respond. Resist the urge to check your cell phone or to check the score on the TV: focus instead on the teenager talking to you: he’s a person, and he just wants someone to see that. Make sure you do.

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Should Church Really Stress Us Out? (Living on the Verge of Falling)

46459316_514541725729785_8217113980255076352_nDuring my teenage years, I was in church almost every night. It was a better place to be than home, where chaos ruled and supervision was lacking. Church gave me a loving God, caring adults, funny friends, and a place to be me–just me. It gave me a place away from my family, away from school, away from everything–but close to God. I could focus on His plans for me and His plans for my life.

I loved it.


Now, though, as an adult approaching fifty, my family has been drifting away from the church. Church has been hard because it’s been difficult to be around people. Some days we don’t want to talk, other days we do. Sometimes it’s just hard to sit still and listen and not do. Our minds wander too much when our hands are not busy.


I have a lot of Christian friends–friends who are smart and holy. Like me, they post a lot on Facebook because we live in South Georgia where there’s not a lot to do. These well-read people post interesting things–and one recent fad seems to be writing articles about the theology of worship and whether or not contemporary Christian songs are even Christian at all. So, now, when I’m at church and hear songs like “Oceans” or “10,000 Reasons,” rather than using them to focus on God, I think of Facebook articles I read about the “ad nauseam repetition” and whether the songwriters are truly Christians.

Not only do I have to wonder whether my clothes are appropriate, whether I’m sitting in someone else’s pew, whether I was polite enough to the old lady who greeted me so nicely in the narthex–now, I have to wonder whether Matt Redman is theologically sound.


My father-in-law always says that too much information is a bad thing. I think the current emphasis on worrying so much about so many things–the lighting, the sound of the drums, whether ear plugs are necessary, what kind of coffee to get, set decorations, the ambience, and, now, the theology of lyricists–all of these things distract from the one thing that we all need most in every church, and that is the presence of the Lord.

By obsessing over so many things that do not matter–and so many things do not matter–we are losing sight of the things that do. It is easier to read ten articles on Facebook about Christianity than to read one page of the Bible. It is easier to post six scriptural illustrations than to show Christian kindness to one person who smells really bad. And it is easier to psychoanalyze songwriters than to look at our own hearts and see our filthy rags–our hearts made righteous only by Christ.


I really don’t know when everything became an ordeal and nothing could be simple 46522727_573206093108602_3026601700451418112_nanymore. Maybe our parents also felt this way and had these struggles–I don’t know–but I don’t think church has to be hard.  Church doesn’t have to be a place where we dwell on all the wrong or, conversely, pat ourselves on the back for all the right that we do. Church is a refuge, a place where we are safe and we can forget about this world and how lousy life can be and focus on God, who heals and restores.


One summer day in 2001, I sat in a  hospital conference room desperately praying with a Jewish woman as her husband was dying. Later that month, I held another hysterical friend in the moments after her own husband died. In both instances, my prayers were very repetitive.  I prayed very simply because life had been stripped to its core.

Perhaps some praise and worship songs come from such places of simple truth.


When Greg was flighting his third cancer, as I walked through the house one day, I heard, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus.” And then I realized I was saying that. Those were my words. My spirit man was crying out repetitively. The need for prayer was so great that it was coming forth, that it was filling the house even though I was in a wretched state, beyond prayer myself.

God was there. God was present. In my distress, He came to me.


I think people who parse lyrics, who search for nuance and subtext and sin, who subject them to “The Berean Test” and numerically rank their theology miss this: God can use anything, anyone. God can touch and heal at will, using tools that you and I would not understand or approve of.

Because He’s God.


After my granddaughter was stillborn, missing part of her skull, missing her leg, after our world was destroyed and there was nothing but loss and sorrow, every single day I spent my entire planning period listening to “He Knows My Name” and “Didn’t I Walk on Water” on a loop–those two Joseph Larson songs over and over. Their strong reminders of God’s love and presence allowed me to function.

When I Googled their singer, I found a site that talked about his alleged marijuana use and labeled him a “lascivious fornicator.” For a second, I thought I couldn’t listen to his songs anymore. I thought it would be wrong of me, to choose to listen to a “bad” person.

And then I remembered that we are all, at our cores, bad people–there are none righteous. There are none good.

Christ is, truly, for all of us, our only hope. We may rank sins, forgiving some and condemning others, but our judgment is only an attempt to soothe our own souls. The truth is, I don’t know the hearts of Joseph Larson or Matt Redman or Lauren Daigle.  I don’t know if they are singing for God or mammon. I don’t know if they have drug problems or are squeaky clean. But I do know that, through Christ, God can use them no matter their sins.


Have you ever stood in a church service and sung “Awesome God” in a loud, true chorus with everyone singing as one? Wasn’t it wonderful? You felt either complete or strengthened. You were pushed forward in your faith.

On Pinterest, you can choose your “Awesome God” imagery. There is Jesus holding the world in his hands; there are men and women with their hands upraised; there is a small child in a snow cap; there is a woman in a field–and all of these images declare, “Our God is an Awesome God.”

The song-turned-catchphrase was written by Rich Mullins, who also wrote another, less well-known song entitled “Hold Me, Jesus.”

He wrote it when he was in Amsterdam, where everything was legal, and where he was tempted by sin–even though he was a contemporary Christian artist who knew better.

He was so tempted.

Of that time, he stated, “You think you’re getting somewhere, you think you’re growing as a Christian . . . and all of the sudden, you’re in a situation where you go, ‘I am just as susceptible as I was when I was 16 to a lot of things.”

When I was sixteen and susceptible, what resonated with me about Mullins’ music was that it sounded true. The faith that he presented was accessible and human, not mysterious and complicated. His self-acceptance helped me then, and it helps me now.

He is right to say: “Whether or not I like who I am, that is who I am . . . People are gonna judge you, and there are I think actually people who look for excuses to condemn you and look for excuses to say bad things about you, but God doesn’t look for those kinds of excuses . .  . the conclusion of the matter for me was that I think I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God than to live in some kind of pietistic illusion of moral excellence. Not that I don’t want to be morally excellent. But my faith isn’t in the idea that I am more moral than anybody else: my faith is in the idea that God and His love are greater than whatever sins any of us commit.”

I live on the verge of falling. I live among people whom I fail every day, who list my shortcomings in a litany, a continual screed of my inadequacies and failures. For some of them, I will never be enough.

Yet in spite of my flaws, through Christ, I can write this blog.

In spite of his failings, Rich Mullins wrote powerful Christian anthems.

Because in our miry pits, places from which we desperately need comfort and rescue, we know our only hope is Him.

We know that God and His love are greater than sin. Than my sin. Than your sin. Than our sin.


These days, there are few things in our adult world that make us want to “take a lap.” To get up and run and dance and shout for joy. Church, in my opinion, should be a time to focus on that amid such rubble and ash.

God’s grace is a shoutable thing.

We know how awesome that is.

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Self-Comfort: My Israel in the Wastelands

46362233_259261271386451_1887850289386487808_nI’m a teacher with two sick days. That’s a bad enough state to be in when it’s late November and teachers are exhausted, stressed, and frazzled. It’s even worse when you need to have an abscessed tooth pulled.

Fortunately, we have been studying World War II, and there are plenty of World War II movies that relate directly to the GSEs–so my plan was to drive to school and stay there until 8:10, let my husband cover my first class during his planning. and then dash back (sans tooth) by 9:50. Dunkirk was the order of the day, and I would gut my way through with the cooperation of 107 teenagers.

When I left the house, I still wasn’t thrilled–the kitten had stolen a slice of my breakfast bacon, my tooth hurt badly, and the day was cold and gloomy. Still, as I do most days, I stopped before getting in the van and stood in the carport and looked at the pine trees across the road–the sun rises behind them, and some days, the brilliant orange makes it look like they are afire. This morning, they looked as they never had before, the sky a brown misted pink.

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The drive to work is four miles through a downtown mostly unchanged over my forty-eight years. I drive past a park named for the great-grandfather I never met; past the empty building that was R & R fabric shop, where Grandma and I spent many hours when I was a child–she visited while I organized the patterns by number in their metal drawers;  past the bank-turned-furniture-store, where I took my young second cousins to see the antique safe in the first hours after their grandfather, my uncle, died; past the brick gazebo where my elder daughter had her prom pictures taken on one of her life’s happiest nights.

But these are not the sights that move me. In the fourteen years that I have made that commute–the 2,660 times I have driven that road–it’s the morning sky over the CSX Rice Yard that is my favorite. Mind you, I am neither a morning person nor a joyous soul–so my looking at the sunrise is not Instagram-worthy. It’s more a desultory, at-least-I-have this moment. My consolation for all the else.


Today, there was a patch of blue sky through the gray. Fluffy white clouds peeked beneath the haze, cornflower blue behind. I stopped in a parking lot to take a few pictures–I had often told my daughters, “When I don’t have you guys with me, I’m going to take a picture of the sky here every day”–so, today, I did. But, by the time I stopped–in just those thirty seconds–everything about the sky changed. It was gray.

I drove the last mile unthinkingly. Stopped at the red light beside the high school, I sat listlessly looking at the trees; in the silvery morning light, their leaves were layered in a stony effect– it was as if I were looking at a rock wall made of trees. And then, I heard from deep within, “This is your Israel.”

It was weird, jarring.

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Three of my friends have spent the past week in the Middle East–two, married Christian pastors, have been in Israel, and one, celebrating her fiftieth birthday, in Egypt. Their photos have filled my social media with camel rides and tomb visits and distant sunsets. I have viewed these photos with a sort of quiet satisfaction–happy that people whom I have known since my teens are across the world, now far away from rough beginnings and old heartaches. I’ve enjoyed seeing the shine in their eyes and instinctively prayed for their refreshing.

46313345_537456686678946_5818458578905726976_nI’ve never wanted to go to Israel or Egypt. I don’t wish I were with there. I haven’t thought about the pictures for even a moment after I pressed the heart or thumbs-up. But there it was, that voice: “This is your Israel.” 

Sunlight and rocks and sky and trees.

(And Ware County High School.)

They are my everyday, plain places. Regular and ordinary. But they restore me. I stop to look at them, and on some days, I am refreshed. Like a child running his hands over every spindle on a banister, I pass my touchstones. Are the turtles in the canal on City Boulevard on their log today? Is the sun shining perfectly down on the palm tree centered at the end of Euclid? Are there fluffy clouds in the Big Sky near Reid’s Pasture? Are there wildflowers blooming on the railroad berms? Is the sunset view better from the overpass or from Wal-Mart’s parking lot?

It seems absurd, doesn’t it? To think: the sunset from Wal-Mart is sometimes my Wailing Wall.


46459310_437930890069369_6606997772539265024_nIn the months after Stephanie Grace was stillborn, I can’t tell you how many times we checked on the canal turtles. We would drive down and sit in the van on the bridge and look down at them, eight turtles on a log, offering us solace simply by their existence, pushing us on. There was just enough beauty in the sight of them–solid and scattered on the log skimming the water–to remind us of Him. Of somewhere, goodness.

I recognize, after my husband’s three cancers, after my granddaughter’s death, that my only hope is in the outdoors–the Drake Elm, the stars over the driveway at night, the feeding of the garage opossum–in these reminders of God.

My little family has been endured much, and we are all in various stages on the journey to repair. We sometimes bravely say “ifs” to each other, almost wishing aloud.  On hopeful days, we say “catch a break” as if it is possible. On other, worse days, we find solace in our own healing Israels–the snows of Connecticut, the hills of New York, the pines of Georgia.


When Hurricane Michael brushed past our area, I was home alone.  I intended to sleep in the hallway under a table, and when the winds came I wandered outside to watch the trees in our backyard–wanting to see which were holding up, planning to sleep near the sturdiest. I was transfixed by the roar of the wind through the trees, by their swaying silhouettes against the orangey gray sky. I lay in the grass and sang the doxology, something our pastor had done sixteen years ago when my husband was first declared cancer free. It seemed fitting when he did so, and it felt appropriate on that October night, in the face of such majesty.

As the feral cats wandered around me, I lay on a quilt for an hour and sang and prayed and thought about how hard it all is, how hard it continues to be, how unholy I am, how holy and powerful He is. I got neither revelations or relief–we seem to have ordered lives that are without them. No hope sprang anew.

I was just alone in the wind, watching. I was just still, and I knew.

 

 

 

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