Love

::Just a Shoe Box::

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Christmas Shoeboxes 2016

The weather’s finally turning cool. A fall nip is in the air, the one that tells me, “cozy nights by the fire” are not far off! I smile as I sip my coffee, and am happy that I’ve once again turned my attention to shoeboxes. I mean the shoeboxes filled with gifts that Samaritan’s Purse gathers. They spend their Holiday carrying them to children across the world who might otherwise not have a Christmas at all.

My boxes for this year are just about ready. A couple more things to tuck into them, and I’ll be done.

A couple of years ago, I was in a very tight space financially. In my life, money has  ebbed and flowed, and I’ve always been pretty good at rolling with it. But that year the money was especially thin.

I was watching TV one morning that autumn, and heard Franklin Graham talking about Operation Christmas Child. He was saying that people could fill shoeboxes with items for children in third world countries. He explained how the process worked, talked about what to put in the boxes, shared video footage of children exploding with excitement over these shoeboxes, and … while he was still talking …

I went upstairs. I went to my closet and opened the door. Almost like a robot, I dumped shoes out of two large shoe boxes, turned, and carried them downstairs. How will I afford this, I thought. But even before that thought was finished, the answer came: you’ll figure it out.

I pulled out wrapping paper, and went to work. These shoe boxes were the big ones with hinged lids, so the wrapping took its own time. I’ll tell you with no pride whatever that I’m a perfectionist. It is a curse more often than not. The results are usually worth it, but when it came to these boxes I’d call it a draw. I re-did them. Twice.

Once the boxes were ready, I had to find things to put in them. I poured the loose change out of the money canister in the kitchen, counted it … it came to about 12.37, I think. I put the money in a baggie, put the baggie in my purse. I grabbed my coat, got my keys, went to the car, and drove to the Dollar Store.

What was I looking for? I wasn’t sure. Tooth brushes, maybe? tablets, crayons, combs, stickers, a stuffed animal. Two.

I spent more time than anyone should in that store, parsing pennies and figuring out how to get the most with what little money I had. I was able, with my meager sum, to get everything I needed. Yay, Dollar Store!!

I then went to Kohls. My Kohls credit card had a little room left on it, and I knew they had stuffed animals for $5.00 each. I went in and selected a monkey (Curious George) and a bear (Classic Teddy). I found a cute girl’s jewelry set on clearance, and a boy’s shirt.

I went home, and tucked everything inside the boxes. They were looking so cute! My heart was soaring, even though my pockets were empty. EMPTY.

There were only a couple of days left to deliver the boxes to the drop off location. I looked up the address for Lighthouse Baptist Church, put the boxes in the car, and headed out.

When I walked into the church, there were several ladies waiting there.

“Welcome,” they chorused. One woman — whom I learned was “Miss Rita” — came toward me to take the boxes.
“You’ve brought shoe boxes! God bless you!” I had a grip on my two boxes. Strange sensation; I didn’t want to let them go. But I let her take them with only a slight tug; we walked to a long table where she placed them and began labelling them for gender, age, etc. I looked along one wall and there were filled boxes, several deep, stacked about twelve feet high.

Miss Rita finished up and snapped a rubber band around each of my boxes. “I had to do this,” I croaked lamely. My throat was tightening up. Why am I so emotional? My heart was racing.

“You had to do this?”

“Yes. Because I’m broke. I’m flat broke.” She looked confused, so I continued.

“This for me is an act of faith. God will take care of me. He sees me helping these children. And yes. He will.” My eyes welled up. “He will. He’ll see me through this. And Lord, it feels good to give! Doesn’t it?” My speech brightened and I smiled, but there was a tear rolling down my cheek.

“Baby, God sees you, He KNOWS you, and He knows your heart.” She reached up and wiped my cheek, wrapped her arms around me. “Would you like some hot cider?” I nodded, blinking fast so I wouldn’t cry. What in the world is wrong with me, I thought.

She handed me the cider, and said,
“We always pray over the boxes, and we would also like to pray over you today. Would that be alright?”

“Oh, my … yes, I would be so humbled. Thank you.” Eyes welling again. I looked down, swallowed hard, and took a sip of cider.

The ladies gathered in a circle around me, hands linked. Miss Rita prayed. She prayed loud, and proud. She asked God to bless my shoe boxes, and to bless me. She prayed me so big, and so full, that when she ended it and all the ladies shouted, “Amen,” I could hardly breathe.

I hugged Miss Rita. “Thank you. So much.”

“No,” she said, “thank YOU. Baby, you are the blessing. And God uses you to bless others. He’s got His eye on you.”

We said our goodbyes and I went to my car. The woman I was climbing into the car was different from the woman who had climbed out. I’d been changed. I was lifted. Lightened.

I turned on Christmas carols; I sang, and cried, and laughed along with them all the way home.

A few days later, I was watching a morning show and there was a handsome young man who was talking about the scarf he had around his neck. It was a muffler like we wear in the winter. But his story was incredible:

When he was a little boy, he’d received that muffler in a shoe box of gifts at Christmas. He said that shoe box was all he got for Christmas, and he chuckled when he talked about taking out that scarf. He said,

“Where we lived it was never cold. Ever. I had no idea what that scarf was for. But I knew it was something important. So I kept it. I used the toothbrushes, and the crayons, and the toys … but that scarf I kept with me.

“And now, here I am, a grown man in New York City. It’s winter time here, and look:” He held up the tail of the scarf around his neck. “This scarf. This is my shoe box scarf. I’ve always kept it with me. And I always will. It’s more than just a piece of cloth. It’s a message that I’m not alone, that the world is bigger than I know, and it’s filled with good people.”

That man’s message stopped me in my tracks. I pray that the shoeboxes I pack will help fill the hearts of those little children with hope, and the knowledge that God sees them. God loves them. They are never alone.

That’s also true for me.

And for you.

 

 

::Beginnings and Endings::

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Beginnings Disguised

Beginnings are sometimes hard to wrap our brains around. 

A baby’s last push into this world, that would be seen as an ending — of life inside her mother’s womb — and yet, that first gulp of air is the breath of Spirit; a beginning infusion which, repeated throughout her life, will sustain her, until she draws her last.

What happens then? Some say they know; have crossed over and come back. Who am I to question them? I can only wonder, hope, and believe.

I’m wondering this morning if life itself isn’t one long, dramatic birth canal that carries us to places we’ve only read about, dreamt of, and imagined. 

My mother is 96. She lies in her bed … old, frail, a mere shadow of the woman she’s been. She’s unresponsive, for the most part, and time is growing short. Soon, she will be gone.

But on that other side I see her emerging, young and beautiful, running into the arms of my Daddy, who passed four years ago. Truth is, I believe that, in many ways, she is with him now.

Beginnings — endings. The circle of life. All of it a painful, and wondrous, and a miraculous journey.

What the caterpillar knows as an ending, is the beginning to the butterfly.

Caterpiler and Butterfly

::THE FAIRY TALE KING::

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Fairy Tale Castle

 

There’s a saying, “a man’s home is his castle.” And nothing – in a quite literal sense – could be more true for Luddy, or “King Ludwig of Bulgaria” to his subjects.

He was a young man when he assumed the throne – 18 years of age. But rather than focus solely on war and conquest, he chose instead to turn his attention to architecture, and built the Bavarian Neuschwanstein.

Such a beauty is this castle. Gatehouse, turrets, corridors, ballrooms, and a sixth floor singers hall, grand and spacious, with soaring ceilings. Yes, Luddy was into music. Wagner was his favorite. From high in that castle hall, the strains of those musical performances surely floated on the wind, and were enjoyed by people for miles.

Any one of the turrets – there are six major – may have held a young girl whose long, flaxen hair spiraled down, allowing her suitor to climb up.

The connecting bridges, did they ever feel the Beast’s weight as he went searching for Belle? I would not be surprised.

And what of Ludwig? Did he ever stand, high up on the sixth floor of his castle, looking down on the valleys surrounding, and ache for his princess to show, the one he had built all this for, the one he was prepared to rescue on his white horse? I like to imagine.

If you look at the chateau, above, and think it looks familiar, it should; Disney has used it as the architecture reference for its fictional castles … including the one it uses in its logo.Disney Castle

This dwelling has been known throughout history, and still stands today, as the Castle of the fairy tale king.

 

::FIRST FROST::

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Gloved Hands Holding Hot Chocolate

When the season turns crisp and cool; when there’s the tiniest bit of frost on the lamp post; when I grab a wool scarf on my way out the door “just in case,” and end up glad I did … those are the days I relish.

They take my mind a hundred different directions: shore up the house, bring in the wood, stock up on dry beans in the pantry for soup. Visualize where the garland will go, begin gathering little goodies to fill the “Christmas shoe boxes” that are shipped to children far away.

It’s the time of year when my eyes shine brighter, my step is quicker, and my to do list is longer. I have so many things to accomplish, and so little time to do it in!!

The Christmas movies start early for me — sometime just after Halloween. I keep them playing in the background as I move through the day. And, soon after, comes Christmas music. I know most people don’t want to hear those songs played outside the “four week Christmas window,” but I play them off and on year round. It’s like stepping back inside my favorite season anytime of year.                                                                                                       
So yeah, it’s November 9th, and the carols are playing in my house. Flannel pajamas are being sewn for all the Littles, and calls are out to handy-workers to get things done on the house before winter sets in.

Once the cold snap hits hard, “first fire” night arrives. Wood blazing in the fireplace, chili in the slow cooker, and friends gathered ’round for music, stories, and laughter. These are the things and the people that warm my heart.

Christmas tree – at least one, there have been as many as five – is installed, decorated, and the halls festooned with holiday swag. To me, too much is never enough. Let’s do more!!

Christmas cookies rolled, cut, and decorated by small hands. The gingerbread man’s leg broke off, tears start, but hey! Here’s an idea, buddy! Let’s give him a cast, and a crutch!  A laughing little boy, proud of his cookie. Problem solved.

Fudge making in the microwave, homemade pecan pies, peanut brittle, and my special “Nanny-Boo cookies.”

Holiday tins filled, ribbons tied, but no one enter the dining room! The sign on the swinging door, in big red letters, reads: “Nanny Clause’s workshop; boys and girls keep out!” The Littles are excited, but they grudgingly obey.

Advent wreath, three purple candles and one pink, marks the waiting for the Baby’s birth. Nightly prayers, with candles lit, keep us mindful of the meaning, and take us through each day.

A Birthday cake is made, white with white icing. Writing on the cake, “Happy Birthday Jesus.” The candle is a star.

On Christmas day, family gathers, and – just as it should be – children are the center of attention. Of course. It’s the Baby’s birthday, after all. Let us all be as little children this day; allow our hearts to fall open like old gates with loose latches. On this day … and every day henceforth … let’s hold on to what we’ve found in these moments. A feeling of connection, of love, of knowing that, while we’re part of something bigger, there is nothing bigger than Love. And that is what we’re made of.

But for today, I run out the door and grab my wool scarf. I smile, because there’s a nip in the air. I sense the beginning of something familiar and wonderful; I know it’s pulling me, and  I go willingly. I love every step of this journey.

 Snowflake

::JUMP::

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Jumping Off a Cliff

The other day, I was thinking about how love works. There are, some say, many different kinds of love. Parental or ‘paternal’ love is one. Romantic love is another. The love between friends, the love between siblings … all real, all serve to soften the edges and warm the heart as we traverse the predictably rocky path of life.

I like the way M. Scott Peck talks about it:

Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” 

There’s a kind of love that keeps us going … in pursuit of a dream, pursuit of justice, pursuit of a passion. Sometimes even pursuit of a relationship. There’s the warmth of camaraderie between people who share interests — in music, theology, writing, art.

C.S. Lewis describes the recognition between kindred spirits:

“Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” 

The backside of love is the broken heart. Love and heartbreak are two sides of the same coin. We jump off the “love cliff” and fly for awhile – months, years, decades – but eventually experience the crash of loss at the end. Sometimes it’s the soft landing of age and knowing that it’s time. Other landings are sudden, unexpected, hard. Unforseen crashes leave our heart in pieces.

Somebody said it, though I can’t remember who … one of my favorite philosophers, I’m sure. He said the beautiful heart has been softened by being broken over and over again; it has been turned to grains of sand.

I love that analogy. For a heart to be in that state, the person has chosen love every time, knowing the crash always comes.

Those who jump off that cliff again and again are valiant. And yet, what are the other options? What would life look and feel like if we stayed away from that jagged edge, safe and secure, never jumping at all?

According to C.S. Lewis, we have that choice:

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

So yes, to love is a choice. And yes, it is a brave choice; we step into our own vulnerability when we open ourselves to it. But, given what Lewis describes as the alternative, it’s really the only choice to make, isn’t it?

Here’s what it comes down to: it’s love that keeps us glued together inside our own skin. It’s the connective spark that pulses through us, the flame that puts the light in our eyes.  it’s the sweetness that makes everything else worth breathing for. It’s what we’re made of. And it’s the stuff of Who made us. Love and dust. So, really, what do we have to lose?

Let’s jump.

::GONE BEFORE::

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Those Gone Before Us

There’s been a lot of loss lately. Death. People much younger than I am, going home. “Home.” And yet, here I sit, typing on my laptop. Wondering, “Why them, and not me? I’ve pretty much done all I came here to do, right?” And the answer is, apparently not. If it were true, you’d be home too, Cece. Breathe.

Sometimes I feel a fleeting pang of jealousy. They’ve reached their final reward. I grieve the loss of their presence, but I’m very clear about the fact that God’s timing is perfect. Who am I to question that? And who am I to think I’m done here … I’m the boss of me, alright, but not to that extent.

There’s much to learn from these people who have gone before. How did they live their lives? Whose lives did they touch? And when the final moment came, were they ready? I pray so. And I wonder if I’m as ready as I think I am …”All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.”

I’ve seen the accounts of people who were pronounced ‘legally dead‘ but who ended up coming back. They’re still with us. What they said, every one of them, is that they had to be told, “It’s not your time. You must go back.” In other words, they were happy to be where they were: home.

The world is a chaotic place. So many people of divergent opinions are positively convinced that they are correct. Protocol is gone, respect for self and others seems dwindling. I remember the saying, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” I doubt many people even know what than means today. For the uninitiated, it means it is better to be prudent than merely courageous. Mind your mouth, and your choices. In other words: thoughtful. Be thoughtful.

I asked my attorney one day, in the midst of my divorce, “What should I do?” She said, “Go home. Plant flowers.” That was almost thirty years ago, and the weight of that advice has never left me. It’s saying, plant flowers to show your hope for tomorrow. Even if your time is up, you’ve made the world a more beautiful place.

Since then, I’ve given that same advice to others in counseling sessions; I think of it when I plant flowers today.

No one lives forever. But blessed are we who are still here and bear witness to the gifts left by those who are gone; the music, art, kindness, architecture, love, heart-stopping light – each individual “Magnum Opus,” are the flowers planted for us all.

Let’s live our lives, big and bright, as thankful celebration in their honor.

::BROKEN HEARTS ARE RED::

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GLASS HEARTWe’re living in very difficult times. We have every modern convenience,  every means of communication, yet we live lives of anguish and isolation. Our ability to communicate, and to assess the subtle nuances of truth-versus-lie is tied directly to our face to face human interaction. You’d think we’d have more of that than any generations before us. But we don’t.

Ironically, psychologists tell us that our children will have less ability than any generation in history to interact with others in healthy and meaningful ways. The reason is because they spend far more time looking at a tablet screen than they do looking into the eyes of another human being.

And I totally get that. I can’t hear someone’s vocal inflection in a text. I can’t sense their energy or see their facial expressions in an email. In my head and without realizing it  I write the story, I infuse the tone, I define the intent. That is what determines how I “hear” them. How often am I correct? How often have I gotten it wrong? I can’t know, because the moment in which it happens is gone in an instant. I’ve reacted based on “my assessment” before I even think about it.

And this, I contend, is how we have gotten so far away from each other.

Then there is the media. Do we really know what’s happening in this world? Or why? Are we given all the facts of a situation, and trusted to draw our own informed conclusions? No. There are extensive, complicated algorithms and processes that media uses to decide what we should be told, when, and how. The goal is to “drive” our opinions and conclusions; to create outrage, cause us to take sides, and define others as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on what we “know.” And the result is that we end up unable to debate or agree-to-disagree.

But … what is it that we really know?

I can’t say definitively. I’m honestly still searching, and I feel more confused than ever before.

But here are a few basic conclusions I’ve reached:

  • I know that things are happening at high levels over which I have no control.
  • I know that every story or event reported on is colored by the reporter’s bias – be it strong or subtle – so that I will believe I “know” something that may not be the whole truth or the whole picture.
  • I know that it takes deliberate and brutally honest energy to dig into the volume of information … to find those missing pieces of the puzzle that make the picture whole, and true.
  • I know that if I claim to be a seeker of truth, I have an obligation to the whole truth, regardless of what I might think about it.
  • I know that people need each other. The separation we feel is an illusion. We are connected to each other.
  • I know that we are more alike than we are different. Like flowers in a garden that thrive in the same dirt, drink the same water, and bloom under the same sun, we are a world of beautiful humanity, all created by the same God.
  • I know that hearts are broken every day in a variety of ways. But generally speaking, it’s always about loved ones lost, either through death or separation.
  • I know that when any person, anywhere, feels overcome with that loss, that it feels the same everywhere.
  • I know that all broken hearts are red.