Thanks, Dad

A longtime friend and I were catching up recently.  He shared with me that his father had recently passed away, a man I knew only briefly but definitely someone I would characterize as “one of the good guys.”  Having lost my own father, I can empathize with his deep sadness and sense of loss as well as his need to connect with those who knew his dad.  As we reminisced a bit, he made the following statement:

What a great experience my dad made available to me.

I knew what he meant.  On the surface, at least.  But as I pondered his words I realized there was a deeper meaning.  Maybe I was suffering from road-trip brain, the result of too many hours trapped inside the car with my children and only the underwhelming west Texas landscape visible outside the car.  Maybe I was sleep-deprived from sleeping on so-called “luxurious” feather pillows that are really not all that luxurious in my book.  Maybe I had fallen victim to an excess of overly oxidized fountain Diet Cokes, that sweet nectar  that proves God loves me and wants me to be happy.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was God, once again whispering His truth in my ear, helping me to rediscover His blessing and revel in His goodness.

You see, my friend came from a family of limited means.  His dad was not some well-to-do CEO of a major corporation.  He didn’t drive fancy cars or take lavish vacations several times a year.  He was a humble man, a hard worker, someone who labored faithfully for years behind the scenes, doing a job that many of us would – and did – take for granted.  Though I didn’t know him well, I know he must have been a kind and loving man, because he opened his heart and his home to other people’s children as well as his own, fostering several and adopting my friend.  Despite his lack of wealth, my friend was able to attend a high-quality, upscale private Christian school and eventually a private Christian college.  He spent his summers sailing and hiking and waterskiing and learning archery and backpacking all over northern New England (and even a little bit of Canada).  He enjoyed the opportunity to study in Puerto Rico for a couple of months in high school.  Certainly not what one would consider a “deprived” childhood.

Dig a little deeper into that phrase, though, and there’s a treasure to be uncovered.  A treasure that reveals the heart of our heavenly Father, our Abba.

What a great experience my dad made available to me.

My friend’s dad chose to father my friend.  He certainly wasn’t obligated or under compulsion to.  But, through the beauty of adoption he did.  And because of his sacrificial, unselfish love, my friend had opportunities beyond anything he could have imagined.

My Abba chose me to be His child.  He certainly wasn’t obligated or compelled to.  As the ultimately perfect, infinite God over all creation, He was complete in Himself.  But, through the beauty of adoption – the price being His own son – He did.  And because of His sacrificial, unselfish love, I have opportunities beyond anything I could have imagined.

What a great experience my dad made available to me.

As my friend reflected on his life, on his father’s legacy in his life, he recognized the blessings he enjoyed because he was part of this family.

As I reflect on my life, on my Abba’s faithfulness in my life, I can recognize the blessings I enjoy because I am part of His family.

What a great experience my dad made available to me.

Opportunities to minister to the homeless in New Orleans, deaf children in Tennessee, and orphans in Uganda.  Opportunities to share the gospel to hundreds of children each week as the “music fairy.”   Opportunities to lead volunteers – youth and adults – to discover their God-given talents and use them for His glory.  Opportunities to befriend other calloused-kneed moms from around the state through the mission and ministry of Moms in Prayer.  Opportunities to share God’s truth through writing and speaking, being a part of building up the body of Christ.

What a great experience my dad made available to me.

Opportunities to learn about God’s world and His creation.  Opportunities to study and practice my calling in the safety of a supportive, caring Christian community.  Opportunities to use my skills in the “real world”, touching real lives, forging “real” professional relationships, honing my craft and furthering my understanding.  Opportunities to do what I love and love what I do.

What a great experience my dad made available to me.

The opportunity to be a wife, to experience firsthand the blessing and beauty of marriage.  The opportunity to be the recipient of true love – though not in the Princess Bride sense: a love that is faithful, unconditional, and sincere.  The opportunity to become a mother, a realization of a lifelong dream.  The opportunity to nurture that life within me and then, at the appointed time, bring it into the world.  The opportunity to be the guiding force in these two precious lives, teaching, directing, and preparing them to use their own God-given gifts for His glory.

What a great experience my dad made available to me.

Opportunities to be a part of something bigger than myself: a thriving church, a loving family, a broad circle of friends, a diverse global community.  Opportunities to discover my place in this big world and be reminded of the small but important role I play.  Opportunities to travel and experience the uniqueness of each geographical locale, its people and its culture.  Opportunities to be awestruck by shooting stars in Africa, overwhelmed by snow in summertime in Utah, delighted by pristine Hawaiian beaches, mystified by mossy and humid South Carolina swamps, humbled by majestic Canadian mountains, dazzled by crystal-clear New England lakes, and energized by London’s urban perpetual motion.

What a great experience my dad made available to me.

Yes, my friend was correct.  This life – no, this abundant life – is a great experience, all made available to me because of my Abba, my father, my Daddy.

And all I can say in response is simply, Thank You, Dad.

Book Review: Jacob’s Oath

Jacob's Oath coverThis is the summer of the the new arrivals.  Here is another gem I discovered in those lovely bookshelves at the front of the library, those shelves that allowed me to avoid climbing the staircase only a couple weeks after my knee surgery.  Yay for new arrivals!

It seems as though I am drawn to WWII historical fiction, but books written from unique perspectives.  The Pearl Diver (one of my favorites) was written from the point of view of a Japanese woman deeply affected by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  Tree of Heaven was narrated by both a Chinese soldier and his Japanese female servant, both prisoners of Russians in a remote viillage decimated by war.  Jacob’s Oath is the story of the first – and for a time, only – two Jews to return to Heidelberg following Germany’s surrender.

Jacob, the first to return, is the sole known survivor of the Holocaust, a refugee from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  He watched his beloved brother Maxie die at the hands of a particularly cruel and ruthless SS thug known as “the Rat” – a nickname bestowed more for his appearance than for his actions.  As Maxie’s life ebbs away, Jacob promises to avenge his brother and vows to kill the Rat.  His oath brings him to Heidelberg, not only his hometown, but the Rat’s as well.

Shortly thereafter, Sarah appears.  Though Sarah escaped the horrors of a concentration camp, her experience was no less horrific.  Hiding in a bombed-out basement in Berlin, she experienced near-starvation, freezing temperatures, and the kind of brutality toward women that turns your stomach inside out.  Only the kindness of a Russian soldier spares her from being raped and abused to death.  As this soldier takes her under his care, he provides not only the medical attention she so desperately needs, but also the means to travel to Heidelberg and begin her new life.

As Jacob and Sarah meet and eventually fall in love, we, like them, dare to hope for a happy new beginning.  But looming all along is Jacob’s oath, and the impact it will have on his new-found happiness.  To be perfectly honest, oftentimes in a book like this the storyline becomes so drawn-out and heavy-handed that I just stop caring.  But not this time.  I found myself just as anxious as Jacob, just as frustrated as Sarah, just as conflicted, just as anxious.  Gut-wrenching page after page, I found myself alternately enraged with the unfairness and injustice Jacob and Sarah endured, and thrilled and delighted with their resiliency and determination.  And while a truly “happy ending” was impossible, it felt complete.  Finished.  As if a literal and figurative chapter had closed and a new story was ready to be written.

Well played, Martin Fletcher.  Well played.

 

Book Review: The Nightspinners

the nightspinners book cover

Remember my last post about popcorn books?  And how Girl Soldier was definitely NOT a popcorn book?  Well, guess what?  This one is.  In fact, if you look in the dictionary under the phrase “popcorn book” you’ll see this picture.

This book was a real change of pace for me, a sort of supernatural thriller.  Not the type of book I normally choose, but the book jacket intrigued me and sometimes that’s all it takes to get a book lodged in my library bag.  Somewhat surprisingly, I’m glad it did.

When we meet Susannah, she is a successful interior designer living in Philadelphia.  Her twin sister, Marina, was brutally murdered 18 months prior and the search for her killer has grown cold.  As children, Marina and Susannah could communicate telepathically, a skill they labeled “nightspinning”.  As the girls mature, Susannah begins to resent the nightspinning and yearns to distance herself from both her small-town upbringing as well as her controlling twin.

Then, suddenly, the copycatting starts.  Bizarre incidents – acts of vandalism, random gifts, strange notes – lead Susannah to wonder if Marina is attempting to contact her beyond the grave, or if she, perhaps, is the killer’s next victim.

Each character we meet in the book becomes a potential suspect.  Every act becomes a potential clue.  I even found myself looking over my own shoulder a few times and double-checking to be sure the doors were closed and locked.

A great, fun, summertime read with an unexpected ending.  Be sure to get your popcorn ready.

Book Review: Girl Soldier

girl soldier coverSome books are what I call “popcorn books”.  You sit down with a bag of freshly-popped Orville Reddenbacher’s and one of those books and before you know it, you’ve not only polished off an entire bag of popcorn, but also a few hundred pages of brain candy.

Let me be very clear about this: Girl Soldier is NOT a popcorn book.

In fact, it’s so far from being a popcorn book that the corn kernel hasn’t even been planted yet.

And when you sit down to read it you can only read a chapter or two at a time because:

1) your brain is fried trying to follow the social/political/religious roots of the Ugandan civil war/unrest/conflict, and

b) your heart is broken wide open and shattered into a million pieces as you realize these atrocities are really happening.

I started this book about 4 years ago, between my first and second trips to Uganda.  It was recommended reading as part of our preparation for our visit to the Village of Hope.  Because many of the children in the Village – and the IDP camps around Gulu – experienced what Grace describes in her book, our leaders felt it would give us insight and help us to be more aware and sensitive to their needs.

Try as I might, I could not finish it.

But this summer, I was determined.  This conflict is real.  These children are real.  Their stories are true…and truly awful, horrific, and unimaginably traumatizing. I was determined to remember.  I was determined to remain aware.

I was determined to still care.

This book is co-written by Grace Akallo, a survivor, and Faith McDonnell, her American friend and companion who has traveled with Grace as she has shared her story across the United States, even in front of the United Nations.  Grace’s story, though difficult to read and impossible to imagine, is not one of bitterness or anger or hatred, but rather forgiveness and love.  Despite her background, her mission is not so much to retaliate, but to educate, to inform, and to stir us to action – to do something to keep Grace’s experience from being repeated on other children caught in this crisis.  By sharing her first-hand account, and including background and anecdotal information from Faith, Girl Soldier provides not only a comprehensive, factual description of the political/social civil unrest in Northern Uganda, but also an emotional cry for help.

It may not be a popcorn book, but it certainly left me hungering to do more.

 

A Divine Sing-along

“Dear Jesus, thank you for mommy and daddy and thank you for everything…

…and thank you for singing with us today.”

The words caught me totally off-guard.  Thank you for singing with us today.

Spoken innocently, but sincerely.  Heartfelt and genuine.  And with full conviction.  Jesus sang with us today.

I had just finished a worship set with a class of 3-year-olds, a group that more often than not views our singing time with great suspicion and a touch of apprehension: who is this crazy “music fairy” lady and why is she here…again?  But today, for whatever the reason, they were all in with the singing.  Who knows why…maybe the barometric pressure was messing with their 3-year-old nervous systems, maybe they’d had a good breakfast and their tummies were pleasantly full, maybe they’d had an extra-good night’s sleep, or maybe – just maybe – the Holy Spirit was priming them for a divine sing-along.  And then, as I prepared to pray with them, one little cherub piped up and in a tone that invited no argument from me proclaimed, “I am going to pray today.”  So she did.

Her words grabbed my attention…and my heart.

Thank you for singing with us today.

Not meant for me, the singing lady, the person who is actually tangibly present, whose fingers work the technology and whose brain masterminds the sessions and whose voice calls out for them to join in.  No, her gratitude was directed to Someone else.  Someone who, though not visible, was no less present.

I realized, she was right.  Jesus did sing with us today.

As I heard their beautiful voices raised with confidence: He’s got the whole world in His hands…. I knew, Jesus instilled that in them.

As I watched their bodies mimic mine as we moved in rhythm to the music: God is so good, He’s so good to me…I knew, Jesus removed their inhibitions and calmed their fears.

As I felt the joy that radiated through the room: Praise Him, praise Him, all you little children…I knew, Jesus was filling us – that place – with His very presence.  Immanuel.  God with us.  Literally.

Jesus sang with us today.

Thank You, indeed.

 

Book Review: Trains and Lovers

Trains and Lovers cover

Never judge  a book by it’s cover.

Or by its title.

By all accounts, this is a cheesy book, with a cheesy title, written over cheesy cover art, containing with a cheesy plot line.  But the moment you read the first line, you realize this cheese is not at all what you expected: a gourmet sampling served with fine wine, delicious juicy grapes and crisp crackers.  Elegant.  Tasteful.  And definitely something to be savored.

I’ve been anxious to read one of Alexander McCall Smith’s books for quite a long time, ever since my mother told me about Portugese Irregular Verbs.  In fact, she not-so-subtly hinted that I should try one of his books by giving me a copy of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which still sits, gathering dust, while I wait for “someday” to arrive.

So when I saw this books on the “New Arrivals” shelf, I snatched it up, partly because it was my excuse to check out this author and partly because I was hoping to get to it before my mom did.

Oh.

My.

Goodness.

What a read.  Not as in the suspenseful, can’t-wait-to-figure-out-who-did-it genre of John Grisham.  Not as in the I’ve-got-to-keep-reading-or-I’ll-have-nightmares style of Michael Chrichton.  Not as in the will-the-guy-win-the-girl formula of Nicholas Sparks.  No, this guy is just flat out interesting.  Intriguing.  A master storyteller, with characters so real and yet so complex that you feel as though you, too, have been on that train and been part of that conversation.  As if you should hug the book good-bye at the end with promises to keep in touch and wishes of luck in your endeavors.

As the book begins, we are introduced to four characters, strangers really, sharing space on a train as it journeys through the English countryside.  Typically, those four individuals, very different people from different nationalities and walks of life, begin making small talk to pass the time.  Their conversation soon deepens as they begin sharing stories of love: some unrequited, some undiscovered, some hidden, some promising, some triumphant.  Their stories reveal truths about love: who and why we choose to love, the mysteries and complexities of relationships, and the relentless pursuit of happiness and contentment that comes with being unconditionally accepted and admired by another.

His mastery of language, and the seamless way he wove backstories into the narrative made for genuine escapism.  Like a fluffy beach towel spread across the warm sand, it was easy to snuggle down into their lives, becoming a part of the fabric of their literary existence.  The pages flew by as fast as the trees outside their train window, and their stories of life, love, and loss resonated with my own experiences, though in different ways.  I haven’t been this taken in by such a genuine narrative since The Brave by Nicholas Evans.

Satisfying.  Full-bodied.  With subtle hints and nuances that tickle and tease the senses.  Cheese, perhaps, but more like Camembert and less like Cheez Whiz.

A Tale of Two Fathers

This is a story of two fathers.  They were both from the same family, and in many ways were very much like each other.  They both loved God deeply, their wives completely, their children wholeheartedly.  They both worked tirelessly in their chosen vocations, lived lives of integrity and constancy of character, and gathered excellent reputations.  They both spoke truth, boldly, and were unashamed to take a stand for what was right.

And I had the distinct privilege of belonging to them both.

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Book Review: The Racketeer

The_Book_Cover_Of_The_RacketeerI’m not a detective, nor do I play one on tv.  But I do enjoy a good game of cat-and-mouse, as long as I’m a spectator and not playing the role of either cat or mouse.  Sometimes, I’ve been known to figure out the “whodunit?” before the big reveal.

In The Racketeer, John Grisham returns to his roots with a true detective story, a guessing game of epic proportions, a storyline with more twists and turns than a Dallas highway interchange.  That’s a lot, for those unfamiliar with Texas highways.  See what I mean?

dallas highway interchange

(somewhere, a civil engineer is sitting at his or her desk, smiling smugly and nodding, This makes perfect sense. But I digress.)

I’d grown weary of his formulaic writing somewhere around The Brethren.  I loyally slogged through The Testament, The Last Juror, The Confession and The Appeal hoping to recapture some of the magic I’d experienced early in our relationship.  I tried to enjoy his diversions as I waded through A Painted House and Bleachers.  I plodded through Skipping Christmas though I hated it from the beginning.  And I really did try to feel justifiably angry at “the system” as I read An Innocent Man.  I’d reached the point where I’d walk through the bookstore and see his latest release and think, “John Grisham, I’m just not that into you any more.”

Until I read this book.

Perhaps it’s true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Perhaps I just needed some “brain candy” after a theologically serious and deep read.  Perhaps this book was just *that* good.  Whatever the reason, I haven’t been this taken in by one of his legal thrillers since The Partner.  That’s a long time, friends.

We’re introduced to Malcolm Bannister, a small-town lawyer unfairly imprisoned.  Malcolm is an all-around good guy, solid, smart, articulate and well-mannered.  It’s hard to believe a guy like him would ever get wrapped up in something illegal, much less be convicted and thrown in jail.  But Malcolm has a secret: knowledge that he uses to his advantage.  He plays his hand perfectly, and soon the FBI is twisting arms and making deals along the judicial ladder to not only release Malcolm but provide him with an entirely new life: a new identity, new appearance, new job, and new future.

Except for one thing: the Racketeer.

We soon discover that not is all as it seems.  Who’s telling the truth?  Who can we trust?  Questions like these keep the pages turning quickly, the mental gears turning and churning to put all the pieces together.

Light and fun, not too serious, and definitely no hidden agenda or moral imperative, this book is great entertainment, perfect for a lazy summer afternoon.

A Maverick No More

When McGowen Elementary opened its doors on August 27, 2007, we were there.

We were a part of many of the “firsts” and “inaugurals” as McGowen formed its identity: family dances, fall carnivals, Mavs Dads events, fundraisers, class parties.  We supported many of the initiatives and helped launch some of the programs that are now an integral part of both the school and the community.

We purchased bricks in our children’s honor that would one day line the butterfly garden, a garden that is now flourishing and being cared for by McGowen’s Green Team.

069And today, we bid farewell to our Maverick community.

Crisana enjoyed her final last-day-of-school party, a cookout at the front of the school.

070

She hung out in the classroom for the last time.  We made one final walk down the hallways to say goodbye to two very special teachers.

072 Mrs. Bianchetta, her music teacher, has always been one of Crisana’s biggest cheerleaders.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Crisana loves music and is probably one of the most enthusiastic, involved students in her class.  But last year, I experienced something that showed the depth of the love and concern that this very special woman has for my daughter.

Crisana had participated in the annual “McGowen’s Got Talent” talent show.  As she has done each year, she chose a piano piece to perform, this time one of her all-time favorite praise songs, “Bless the Lord (10,000 Reasons)”.  She practiced for months.  She memorized the words and adapted the arrangement to fit in the required time allotment. Unfortunately, issues with the sound equipment caused her performance to be nearly inaudible on the day of the show.  And competing against martial arts demonstrations, dance troupes, and singers with hand-held microphones put her at a serious disadvantage.

Sure enough, when the winners were announced a couple days later, Crisana’s name was not called.  Bravely, she congratulated her friends who had won, but I could see the quiver in her lip and the tears forming in her eyes.  She applauded the others and told them how happy she was for them, but I could see her struggling to hold back the disappointment.  And then, all of a sudden, the dam burst.  She buried her head in her hands as the tears flowed freely, her shoulders wracked with sobs, her breath drawn in ragged gulps.  Quickly, I grabbed her and ushered her into the hallway where I could gather her into the safety and comfort of my arms, stroke her hair, and breathe words of love and affirmation into her deflated spirit.

A moment later, Mrs. Bianchetta was there.  She held Crisana’s face between her hands, looked directly into her eyes, and spoke passionately into her soul.  “Don’t let this define you.  You are far better than an elementary school talent show.  You had poise, you had stage presence, you sang from your heart.  You sang a song that meant something to you, not a song that would win you popularity points.”  I could hear the strain in her voice and see the tears in her own eyes as she encouraged my daughter, over and over, reminding her of her abilities, her strength, her courage.  She squeezed Crisana tightly.  “I love you, you know that, right?”  And then she hugged me.  A precious, spontaneous moment I will never forget.

The next day, on the last day of school, Mrs. Bianchetta presented Crisana with a special certificate all her own.  Signed by both her and Ms. Caldwell, the art teacher, this certificate proclaimed Crisana to be the “winner” in their book.

Seems to me, they’re the real champions.

071

Ms. Caldwell, Crisana’s art teacher, is the tandem to Mrs. Bianchetta.  A mighty duo of unsung heroes, this teacher is – in my opinion – solely responsible for Crisana’s dream of becoming a famous artist living in Paris.  Ms. Caldwell has always seen the potential in Crisana and has taken a special interest in nurturing that potential, despite the fact that other students may actually be more talented.  To prove it, this year, she commissioned Crisana to do a painting of her dog.

Just before Christmas, Crisana came home from school especially excited.  She breathlessly informed me that Ms. Caldwell was going to give her a canvas so she could paint a picture of her dog.  I didn’t think much of this, until a few days later, when Crisana emerged from school with not only a canvas, but a printed full-color photograph and an entire art kit including paints and brushes, all of it a gift from Ms. Caldwell.  Over the break, Crisana spent hours diligently working on her painting, practicing techniques of shading and blending to create just the right effects.  Considering that my stick figures look more like stop signs, I was unable to be much of a help to her.  But with a few suggestions here and there, and a little persistence, she was able to make it just the way she wanted it.

And wouldn’t you know, Ms. Caldwell loved it so much that she left it hanging in the classroom, where she can see it every day.

When the last day of school came, Ms. Caldwell teared up hugging Crisana good bye.  “I don’t say this about every child, but I am going to miss you.”

The feeling is mutual.

With those final hugs, those last wishes of “good luck” and “keep in touch”, our time at McGowen was done.  We walked out the double doors at the front entrance for the last time.  We made our way to the car, crunching along the crispy, drought-weathered lawn that spreads between the school and the street.  We paused for a moment to savor the images: the marquee, a favorite first-day photo spot for the past 7 years. The playground, with the shade canopies that Crisana’s Brownie Troop wrote letters to petition for and raised funds to help purchase.  The classrooms, filled with special teachers and friends, people who have made lasting impressions on our lives and hearts.  It was a bittersweet moment.

With a sigh, and a brush of the eyes, we were off.  Headed for summertime fun and the adventure of middle school that awaits us.  A Maverick no more, a Panther-to-be.  A nod to the past and our eyes set to the future.  Who knows what it holds?

Right now, a watermelon nerds slush.  It’s happy hour at Sonic.

 

Watercolour Ponies, Once Again

It seems like only a few days ago I wrote this post about Crisana’s preschool graduation.  But according to my blog, that was May, 2008, meaning six years have passed.

And once again, I’m watching those Watercolour Ponies.  Except now, they’re a little bigger, a little more well-defined, a little more recognizable.

There are watercolour ponies

on my refrigerator door

and the shape of something I don’t really recognize…

Drawn with careful little fingers

and put proudly on display,

A reminder to us all of how time flies.

* * * * * * * * *

Oh, the pleasure of watching the children growing

is mixed with a bitter cup

Of knowing the watercolour ponies

Will one day

Ride away.

Six years ago, those ponies were in the corral, learning their paces.  Now, they’ve begun to canter, to trot and gallop, to discover their abilities and begin to come into their own.  Six years ago, in this epic adventure known as “Parenthood”, we ended the chapter entitled “The Preschool Years.”  Now six years later, on a day that at one time seemed so far in the future it was hardly comprehensible, we have completed the third chapter, “The Elementary Years.”  Our baby officially crossed over, being promoted from elementary to middle school.

We are now officially old.

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