Friday, September 29, 2006

Shalom and Bread

My mother is a stain ninja.

She can attack and remove anything that might think it found a permanent home on a beloved piece of clothing. As a child, chocolate ice-cream remained my all-time favorite snack. After ballet, she would drive me to Beasley’s, and I would run inside and buy an ice-cream. A small dollop dripped down my chin and onto my t-shirt each time. However, those stained never lasted long. Mom defeated them whenever the shirt finally made its way to the laundry.

Even though I have been doing my own laundry for many years now, she still will grab the articles of clothing with stains that I cannot shake. A few of those stains are precious to me. The small paint splatters on jeans memorialize artwork that soothed my soul while I was creating it. Most importantly, several jackets and blouses now are emblazoned with a small purple dot on the sleeve. At all costs, those stains will remain.

In my life, few things stay the same. Change thrills me, so I move towards it. Still, a few constants in my life bring peace. One of them is church on Sunday mornings. We take communion every week. The weeks that I have the privilege of holding that cup as everyone dips the bread brings consistency and steadiness to my life. It offers a connection that extends beyond words.

Lauren Winner describes the sacrament of communion in her book, Girl Meets God. She tells of a young girl with dark curls and her description of the Eucharist. “I think he (the priest) is pouring God into the cup for us to drink.” Winner tells that this young girl must have a deeper understanding of communion than the rest of us who are so caught up in an argument between transsignification or consubstantiation. She just knows that God is present in that cup.

When I hold the cup, I can see those who dip in it from another side. Each face holds eyes that tell a story. Some cry as they step towards the cup. A few close their eyes and pray quietly before they dip. Others hold the hand of a child or the hand of the person they love most when they take communion. Some quietly whisper words of thanksgiving. No matter what they are thinking, they do not see me standing in front. They only see the cup. As they dip into the cup that symbolizes the sacrifice of Jesus for them, they might drip on my sleeve a bit of the juice, the wine, the reality of God.

My stains show that Molly, Debbie, Meredith, Randy, Kevin, Justin, Cathy, Keith, Carol, Wayne, Stanley, Marilyn, Chris, Sarah Grace, Kelly, Bart, Savannah, Leaf, Paul, Julie, Samantha, Don, Josh, Margaret, Lexie, Patty, Jason, Tara, and all of the rest are loved by God. He loved them so much that entered into this world to walk with us. He died for us. He gives us a better way to live and to love.

Now, I am honored to hold the cup for them as they walk through their lives with Jesus. Winner also tells of Elijah as he “slept under the broom tree.” She tells the story of the prophet in the Scriptures and that the angel told him to “arise and eat, the journey will be too great for you.”
Our journeys are too great. We must eat what God has given to sustain us. I am so thankful that on Sunday mornings, I take the bread with those who are equally as thankful.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Don't Go Back

No man had ever shown up at my front door holding a can of SKOAL before. The irony of that moment took a back seat to the immediate blasts of pain from various points on my body.

I opened the door; he quickly came inside and said, “Let’s fix those bee stings.”

We took small pinches of dip and I rubbed them on my arms, my neck, my ankles, and my shin. Amazed at the instant relief, I hurried to my medicine box in search of some band-aids. Only one crusty, old band-aid lined the bottom of the box.

Scotch tape became my next best bet. I took a pinch to cover my itch; he put a pinch in his lip. Our southernisms bleed out in moments of stress. After we finished the creative doctoring, my body was polka-dotted with round tape patches, resembling tiny anthills.

This summer ranked as my first real attempt at gardening. Standing in the grocery store line at PUBLIX forced me to gaze upon lurid gardens gracing the covers of “Southern Living” and “Country Gardening.” My little home in Olde Town would become one of those flourishing gardens by the end of summer.

Just as Orly instructed, I waited until Mother’s Day to set out my impatiens and zinnias. She knew the danger of a late freeze. Sunflower seeds lined my front flowerbed, and various orange, pink, white, and purple flowers cover the back. My small herb garden would spice up my homemade meals that I would begin cooking. Last, my Southern garden held two ferns that I planned to drug with so much Miracle-Gro that my porch ceiling would refuse to hold them by late July.

My gardening dream became more real as May and June progressed. My late night waterings and early morning weed inspections produced beautiful flowers and perfect herbs. By this time, I had hosted four parties on my back patio. We relished in the flowers and beauty of the summer.

When July rolled into the summer, the gardening started to lose some of its appeal. The heat was oppression even in the early morning. However, I would soon meet my little enemies.

That fateful morning, my watering can awaited the morning filling. When I lifted to hose to place inside my red watering can, that wasp blasted me on the wrist. He dug in so deeply that I his fluttering wings brushed my skin like a hummingbird before I pulled him from my arm. My next sting came while trimmed the edges of the front yard.

Later in the summer, my dad came by to help cut the grass. I had waited so long since the last mowing that my neighbors must have hated me. We plowed through the weeds. As I trimmed the edges with the push mower, a swarm of yellow jackets declared war on me when I moved over the nest hidden underground.

My father, still laughing after witnessing my 50 yard dash, commented, “Caroline, why do you keep going back to the same places? Don’t you ever learn?”

In my moment of flurry and pain, my dad taught me a life lesson. Don’t go back to the places that cause the most pain. Plow a new path with someone beside you helping cut the way. Old loves, bad habits, addictions, and fears swarm when we go back. God warned Lot not to look back. We must learn not to look back either. Great wisdom comes to those who hear the warning of God and their own experiences. And, sometimes it helps to listen to your dad.

Remembering College Music

In college, new music was my constant entertainment. The experiences of those four years can be catalogued by the CDs being played at the moment.

Adam Duritz sang through my freshman year on the Counting Crows’ “August and Everything After.” The opening line to my Art Appreciation final paper rang, “if I knew Picasso, I would buy myself a grey guitar and play.” My professor did not find the line nearly as clever as I did.

Dave Matthews’ Band and Hootie & the Blowfish blasted me through my Sophomore year by providing ballads for long car rides back to college. “Ants Marching” always found its way into the CD player somewhere around Knoxville on that trip. That song jolted us for the second half of the ride.

My junior year revolved around a little band out of Cincinnati known as Over the Rhine. The then current boyfriend took me to a concert and introduced me to what I referred to as “the music of my soul.” He has been gone for quite a while now, but I still pull out that CD when I need company.

U2 drove me through my senior year. Bono and his band have been my music companions for as long as I can remember. I found myself in the Georgia Dome, standing by my oldest friend, Jen, listening to “With or Without You.” That song played as Ross and Rachel fell in love that year on Friends, and I knew that music moments could not get better than that.

In a conversation recently, I confessed that my adoration for music has waned significantly these last few years. My last musical purchase was months ago, and the only bands that I saw live in the past year were U2 and Over the Rhine. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me at all.

A few days later, an email containing a link to the NPR show All Things Considered popped up in my inbox. The story told of a study led by neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, that tells of the psychological change we undergo as we grow older. My statement about music supported Sapolsky’s theory.

He tells of an assistant that constantly irritated him at the office. The assistant, who was 20, listened to a wide variety of music. Sapolsky realized that the assistant possessed an adventurous spirit, always desiring new experiences, while he felt drawn to the more familiar.

Sapolsky began to study this phenomenon. His research led to him to conclude that as individuals grow more successful, they lose their desire for adventure or novelty. The least likely people to try new music are those people who have achieved the most success at a job over a long amount of time. Those who are willing to risk the least are those with the most to lose. I am not sure if I agree with his findings, but I think those of us who have our college music on repeat should learn from those who still seek adventure.

People who embrace the new find life and bring change. At 22, I eagerly packed all of my belongings to move across the country simply because I wanted to help someone. Eight years later, would I still be so willing? I pray that I would.

As you find yourself seeing comfort in the familiar instead of seeking constant change, let us remember to embrace adventure. That sense of adventure pulled Peter out of the boat to walk on water. It motivated the disciples to follow Jesus. Adventure and surrender bring world change. Let us not be too comfortable to embrace it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I Dream In Color

Grief makes me dreams turn colors.

This week, tears and sadness flooded my days. When I finally found a moment to catch a bit of rest, my grief struck often and woke me throughout my sleep. I rarely remember my dreams in the night, but when I feel sad, they stick in my imagination.

Some psychologist reader out there might diagnose this, but I am willing to take the risk. My dreams glare with sunshine and color. The swimming pool is the color of lime jello. The flowers burst fire-engine red. In the middle of the swirling color, I find myself crying in each of the dreams. Then, I wake up sad again.

What do our dreams tell us?

Ezekiel, one of the minor prophets in the Bible, tells about his dream. He stood looking out over the Valley of Dry Bones. Some say this is Gahena, the literal “Hell on Earth” that Jesus mentioned.

That valley was full of bones; it was a former battlefield, according to some. Bodies lay there that were never buried. The bones cluttered the valley with death. Ezekiel, looking out at death, heard from God.

“Son of Man, can these bones live?”

Ezekiel answered in honesty. “Only you know.” He spoke to God, and his answer revealed his uncertainty. However, faith lives in the midst of uncertainty.

God created an army from the bones. At the sound of rattling bones, an army came forth, wearing flesh and breathing the breath of God. They were real. Ezekiel saw them in his dream.

My dreams do not shine with new life; they glare with false color. In each dream, I am shocked by my own grieving presence.

The dreams stopped when I found comfort. I haven’t thought of them again until I ran across this journal. So strange—I don’t remember any dreams since.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Pine Street Needs Our Help

“Push up / every morning / 10 times / not just / now and then / give that chicken fat back to the chickens / and don’t be chicken again.” These words blasted from the record player sitting on the corner of the table in the gym at Pine Street Elementary. “Go You Chicken Fat, Go” was our favorite song for exercise during P.E.

Always being a more cerebral child, P.E. never was the highlight of my grammar school day. Reading circles and trips to the library caused more excitement in my life, but I kept that little secret under wraps. Since the cool boys loved P.E., I tried to smile as if I loved it as well. As we walked to P.E., I would say a little prayer that it would be a jump rope day, or a parachute day, or, most importantly, a “Chicken Fat” Day.

Mrs. Nancy Elliot, my kindergarten teacher, greeted me at the door on my first day of school. She hugged my sobbing father and ushered me into the grand new world called school. That year, she presented me with paints, books, and new friends. My world was perfect.

Mrs. Elliot taught me a lesson about life that kindergarten year. She called my house as I was watching “The Muppet Show” to tell me about a classmate who had died in a tragic accident. Mrs. Elliott soothed me by saying, “Caroline, we have lost Cole from our class, but we have not lost him from our hearts.” She was right. A huge fish tank still sits at Pine Street celebrating the life of young Cole McWilliams.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had the privilege of sitting with a strategic planning team for Pine Street. A few community leaders joined a handful of faculty from the school to brainstorm and create a strategy for building a stronger school. The report they shared astounded me. Pine Street has 86% of its students on free and reduced lunch. This is the highest percentage in our county.

With such a high percentage of low-income families, Pine Street suffers from a lack of funding. Students do not receive the books, materials, play ground equipment, or filed trip opportunities if the PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) does not have the budget to cover them. Those Pine Street teachers formulated limitless ideas for involvement and support. However, their ideas continued to hit the glass ceiling of no funding.

So, Conyers, it is time for us to embrace our family school sitting gracefully in the heart of Olde Town. If each of us joined their PTO, we could give the students and teachers of Pine Street more resources. The costs for PTO membership is only five dollars. Of the 500 students at Pine Street, only 42 families have joined. On Saturday morning, I plan on placing my check in the mail for PTO membership instead of buying my iced tall hazelnut latte. I dare you to join me.

Our community has changed since I last walked the halls of Pine Street. However, those Pine Street teachers taught me every child mattered, learning is the key to my future, and a school is really just a big family. These truths still hold at Pine Street.

Let us take up the new commandment that Jesus gave us. We will love God with all of our hearts and we will love our neighbors as ourselves. Did you join your child’s PTO? Now it is time to join your neighbors. The students at Pine Street matter to God. Now, let us show them how much they matter to our community.