Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kum Ba Ya

Spring! The word itself makes you think of newness...of the color green...of baseball and soccer and playing on the water....It makes you think of life.

At our house, spring has definitely sprung. Last week was the boys' Spring Break. During the course of the week, we had three different sets of company, including two uncles, one aunt, three nephews, one grandmother and three "old" friends.

Two Knoxville friends, Richard and Dawn, keep threatening to put a "Kum Ba Ya" sign in our yard. I think I'd like that!

I get it honest, I guess. The little house I grew up in always had more people than it had places to sit. And, at times, my grandmother's house literally burst at the seams with her daughter and sons and daughters-in-law, grandsons and granddaughters. Visitors may have claimed to come for the good company, but a large part of what "compelled them to come in" was the good food they knew they'd find there.

My mama says she would never have even learned how to cook had it not been for Mama Kelley.

One of Mama Kelley's all-time popular specialties was Butter Roll. Now...how do I describe Butter Roll in mere words? Here's a partial list of ingredients--cream, butter, sugar, vanilla. I get a buttery, sugary rush just thinking about it. Imagine the most delicious homemade vanilla ice cream you EVER tasted, only it's liquid and hot and topped with a buttered and sugared pastry. (In all fairness, whatever taste you're imagining, I must inform you that Butter Roll is even better.)

And...unfortunately...Butter Roll is one of the secret family recipes I've never been able to master. My pastry always comes out too soggy. (Keven would add fried okra to the list of "Things You Never Want Karen to Cook"--just think black on the outside, slimy on the inside.)

Anyway, my Mama Kelley was always cooking and canning and freezing and then cooking some more. To this day, the smell of chow-chow transports me back to that summer-hot kitchen, where I would stand on a kitchen chair and help stir that huge pot of chow-chow while she sterilized and lined up the glass Mason jars that would hold that hot-sweet vegetable concoction.

But, I think baking was Mama Kelley's favorite culinary pastime...especially at Christmas. Her Christmas cake-baking actually began before Thanksgiving. As she baked that amazing assortment of cakes, she'd cover them with waxed paper and then line them up on an ironing board she kept in her backroom; that room always seemed to stay about 15 degrees cooler than the rest of her house. When the ironing board ran out of room, she'd set cakes on top of the large, upright freezer that occupied a corner of her kitchen.

Every few days, her daughter (our Mimi) would get a ride from one of the brothers or would ride the bus out to Kimberly from her apartment in Birmingham. (I LOVED that apartment--to this day when I hear the word "cool," I have a flashback to that apartment building with its glass-block and metal-staircase entry.)

Besides helping with the cake-baking, it seems it was Mimi's job to "season" the fruitcake. While this fruitcake was born into the world weighing under a pound, by the time Christmas rolled around, it had probably gained two more liquid pounds from Mimi's seasoning.

And this cake was treated special--first, it was wrapped in cheesecloth, then placed in a lidded container, then tucked away in the even-cooler dark closet of the already-15-degrees-cooler backroom.

Nosy little thing that I was, one year, I caught Mimi red-handed during her surreptitious seasoning responsibilities. (After all, the Kelleys were supposed to be good, tee-totalin' Baptists, except of course, for the three errant, black-sheep, tee-totalin' holy rollers--mama, me and my brother. At that point, daddy was simply non-commital when it came to denominational lines.)

But, like always, Mimi merely saw my nosiness as an opportunity to teach me a thing or two about the finer things in life.

Sitting on the floor of that closet, with that cake tin cradled in her lap, she popped off its lid, and the aroma was...well...I imagine it's what a Jack Daniels' distillery might smell like--sweet and warm and a little bit dangerous. She sat there a few seconds with her eyes closed, just breathing in deeply.

Then, she looked up at me standing just outside the closet, and asked a question that made me feel deeply loved and trusted, "You wanna pour?"

I nodded humbly. (Truth be told, I was just a little bit scared--after all, what if Jesus came back right as I started to pour?). Well, she unscrewed the lid off the bottle that held that wonderful-smelling, amber liquid, and patted a spot on the floor next to her.

Once I was seated, as close to Indian style as a chubby-legged girl could get, she handed me the bottle, cupped her hands around mine, and instructed, "Just a few little splashes all around the cake...not too much...there that's about right." Then, she pinched off a bite of that fruit-and-nut-and-liquid seasoning-laden cake.

After it was tucked safely back into its hiding place, she pulled me in her lap and gave me half of her "pinch." As I sat there in her lap on the floor of that dark little closet, enjoying every single crumb of that dangerous little cake, I knew with all my heart that she was the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world, and that I was a very blessed girl!

And...that is one of the memories that comes back to me whenever I find my house filled with company...whenever I find myself cooking for a crowd in my kitchen...the memory of how special food shared with special people can make everything seem just a little more blessed in my little corner of the world.

Recently, Kev and I had one of those random conversations...started by me...the ones where, over the years, he has just learned to make the leap....I asked him what he would request if he knew he was eating his last meal. (Remember...at last meals, calories and carbs don't even count. Can somebody say, "Hallelujah!"?)

His choices were, in my opinion, a little boring--filet and cheesecake.

Here's my last supper menu: my mama's fried chicken, biscuits, dressing, creamed potatoes, creamed corn, slaw, corn bread and...of course...Butter Roll; Keven's drunk and dirty tenderloin; Gigi's lemon lush; Shawn's shrimp and grits and Shawn's figgy pudding; Karen's sweet potato casserole--the one with the pecan topping; my Aunt Barbara's Coca-Cola salad; Calhoun's fried green tomatoes and S&S Cafeteria's fried okra. And,if I could bring her back, my Mimi's "special" fruit cake (I haven't found one yet that can match it!)....Hmmm...I feel like I'm forgetting something....oh yeah, maybe a small sliver of Mimi's chocolate sheath cake--the one with just a touch of cinnamon and pecans on top.

One fantasy I've had for a few years now is to pit the Kelleys' cooking against Paula Deen and her boys in a fried-chicken-and-biscuits-and-chicken-and-dressing-and-butter-roll throwdown. There's no doubt in my mind who would win.

So...just in case..."What about it, Paula, you game?"

"Open your mouth and taste,
open your eyes and see—
how good God is.
Blessed are you who run to him."

(Psalm 34:8, The Message)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

But, I want my T-shirt NOW !

My sister-in-law, Karen, "complained" that I haven't been posting on the blog this week. I have been writing, just not here. It's been one of those weeks, filled with emotions and things that make you go, "Huh?!?"

Just when I thought I'd rounded the last corner of a painful experience and was planning to go out and buy a "Been there...Done that...Got that T-shirt!"...here comes some stray, leftover emotion...anger, sadness, resentment...that seemingly just reached up out of nowhere, bit me in the butt and tried to take me down for the count.

And I found myself sitting in the middle of a Bible study I'm supposed to be "teaching," crying my eyes out, embarrassingly confessing all this anger I thought I'd dealt with and was done with already.

I told the ladies at Bible study that a huge part of me just wants to quit writing these lessons. Because, inevitably, before the ink even dries, Jesus seems to say, "OK, you've written it down, now I want you to live it out."

For instance, the past two lessons have been all about the life of Joseph. You remember him-- the spoiled, bragging little tattle-tale with the fancy, embroidered coat who's hated so much by his brothers that they plan to kill him, then change their minds and throw him in a pit, then sell him to slave traders whose caravan reads "Egypt Or Bust." Then, he gets accused of rape by a desperate housewife and finds himself in an Egyptian prison, where he interprets a couple of dreams, is forgotten about for two long "years of days." And then, finally (in a mind-boggling flash), interprets two more dreams and gets appointed as the king of Egypt's second in command.

The overarching theme of these chapters is all about God's sovereignty even when we find ourselves undeservedly in a pit or a prison. Time after time, we read these words, "And God was with Joseph."

Not one time do we hear Joseph whining or complaining about his circumstances or being sad or angry or depressed.

And, this week, truth be told, that ticks me off!

But then, it occurred to me that this is not Joseph's diary I'm reading. The account of Joseph's life that we read, while absolutely true and absolutely inspired by the Holy Spirit, was written by Moses, at least 400 years after Joseph had died.

What I wish I could read is Joseph's diary!

I think it would make me feel less guilty about these "pop-up" feelings I thought I had dealt with. Because, while Joseph was an amazing man whom God "was with," he was human just like me...just like us.

I'm sure there were many days on that trip down to Egypt, chained and shackled, when he struggled with deep anger, resentment and grief over what he had lost at the hands of people who were supposed to have loved him.

I'm sure there were numerous times in that prison dungeon when he struggled with wanting to find his own justice and take his own revenge for the deceitful, cruel way he had been treated.

But, I think one of the lessons the Holy Spirit is trying to teach me is that...while Joseph might have struggled with the same emotions I've struggled with this week...he didn't stay there.

He trusted in his God, not in his emotions. He didn't let those emotions become the place where he "lived." He somehow managed to give them...cast them...onto the God who was "with him."

Perhaps, like me, those emotions sometimes...without warning...reached up and bit Joseph in the butt and tried to take him down for the count. But, because he somehow knew that "God was with him," they did not destroy him and they did not disqualify him from his amazing part in God's bigger story.

Those emotions did not rule him--God ruled him.

During those pit-and-prison years, Joseph had no idea of the forgiveness, restoration, blessings and beauty that lay ahead for him and his long-lost (but...truth be told...quite dysfunctional) family. He simply trusted in the fact that "God was with him" and then (in the words of my Jesus-loving-friend, Marla) "he just kept doing the next right thing."

Sometimes, as is my case, that "next right thing" requires poking around in that anger or resentment or (just fill in the emotional blank) to see if my actions or reactions, my own lack of healthy boundaries, my own unforgiveness...the list could go on and on...is part of the problem....And then, in faith, going to Jesus...one more time...for forgiveness and direction and the strength to press on.

(Dear, amazing Thursday Bible study ladies, THANK YOU for helping me hear the above hard truths from your wise, loving lips! I love you all, and you teach me and encourage me more than you will ever know!)

As someone much smarter than me once said, "It's not that we quit believing; it's just that we sometimes forget what we believe."

Today, I need to remind myself of what I believe about this crucial thing called "faith." So, I'll share it with you. It's from my pastor, Doug Sager:
"Faith is NOT faith IN faith. Faith IS...faithful obedience to God's words in spite of feelings, circumstances or consequences."

Even though Joseph was still in that prison...even though his feet were still in those shackles... even though he was "forgotten for 730 days"...Joseph, in faith (read above definition again), simply pressed on.

And, eventually, but evidently long before his shackles were removed...long before he walked out of that prison...long before he lived in his own palace...Joseph arrived at a place where his heart was free.

Hundreds of years after Joseph died, a shepherd-king-songwriter tells us that Joseph's years in prison "helped put iron in his soul" (in the words of Warren Wiersbe)...helped put iron in his faith.

It truly is an upside-down Kingdom through which we are called to walk...a kingdom where everything--the start, the journey, the finish--is all about this "hard-to-put-in-a-box" thing called faith. A Kingdom where the purpose of pits and of prisons is to grow iron-souled, iron-faithed saints.

So I...so we...simply press on...in faith...doing the next right thing, even in...no, especially in..the pit-and-prison-times of our lives.

I'm beginning to think we aren't meant to wear the "Been there...Done that...Got that T-shirt!" this side of heaven. Apparently, Paul felt the same say. Listen to how he puts it:

I don’t mean to say that I've already achieved these things
or that I've already reached perfection.
But I press on to possess that perfection
for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.
No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it,
but I focus on this one thing:
Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead,
I press on to reach the end of the race
and to receive the heavenly prize for which God,
through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things.
If you disagree on some point,
I believe God will make it plain to you.
But we must hold on to the progress we've already made....
For I have told you often before,
and I say it again with tears in my eyes,
that there are many whose conduct shows
they are really enemies of the cross of Christ.
They are headed for destruction.
Their god is their appetite,
they brag about shameful things,
and they think only about this life here on earth.
But we are citizens of heaven,
where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.
And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.
He will take our weak mortal bodies
and change them into glorious bodies like his own,
using the same power
with which he will bring everything under his control.
(Philippians 3:12-21, NLT)
Like Joseph...like Paul...like so many who have walked before us through this upside-down Kingdom, we are simply called to press on...in faith...doing the next right thing...eagerly awaiting the return of our Savior.

Friday, March 6, 2009

They "stood firm a little"

Today (March 6th) would have been the 57th anniversary of my mama and daddy's wedding day. Since beginning this "diary" back in January, I've been drawn to old letters and pictures.

In my hallway upstairs, I have a picture of my mama and daddy when they were dating. In it, they're standing in front of a dark, 50s-model car, with wide-set headlights and a grill that makes it look like it drove straight out of a Disney movie.

In this black-and-white picture, mama is dressed in a white blouse, light-colored skirt and black, peek-a-boo-toe (very high) heels with thin little straps around her thin little ankles. My daddy is dressed in a white, short sleeved shirt and snazzy, pleated pants with a trim black belt--looking very "James Dean-ish."

What I noticed recently about this particular photo is the road they're standing on. It's dirt...with rocks scattered around...full of ruts...not a perfect road by anyone's standards...especially for two young, beautiful people who look so fresh, so dressed and ready for life.

This little silver-framed photo has actually become a picture of marriage to me...heck, a picture of life itself.

We start out young, beautiful (at least to our Daddy), fresh, dressed, ready for life. Then, we stumble over a few rocks. But (usually) no big deal. Eventually, we get up and dust ourselves off--just a little more (perhaps a lot more) cautious this time.

And...then...we meet our "other." And, in our passionate, till-death-do-us-part-altered state, we just know the road is gonna be rockless...smooth sailing...or, at the very least, there will now be someone to move the rocks out of our way.

But, truth be told, once it wears off (usually very quickly), this "other" only doubles the number of rocks and ruts. Their rocks and ruts and their reactions to them somehow become ours. (And...to be fair...ours become theirs.)

And right there is where the crisis comes: "What are we gonna do about all these rocks and ruts?"

These days, when I pick up this picture to dust underneath it, I find myself wondering, "Would it have made a difference if they had known the road they were in for?"

I don't think it would have. The handsome young man in that picture loved that curly-dark-haired girl. Not perfectly. Sometimes, not even well. But, he loved her. He did the best he knew to do with the rocks and ruts he encountered.

And she loved him. Not perfectly. Sometimes, not even well. But, she loved him. She did the best she knew to do with the rocks and ruts she encountered.

When the crisis came and they each had to ask, "What are we gonna do about all these rocks and ruts?" They decided to just keep dealing with them...one step...one rock...one rut at a time...together.

They may not have done it perfectly. I'm sure they would admit to stumbling and falling. Wishing they'd never said some things they said, or done some things they "done." And, at times, I'm sure each of them wanted to just go off and find a new road, one less rocky, one less filled with those bone-jarring ruts.

But...they didn't. They stayed. They "stood firm a little"... for better or for worse... in sickness and in health... until death did them part. There is something very sacred about that right there.

And I believe they would each tell you that, on the road...together...they did indeed find moments of joy that made all the rocks and ruts worth it.

It's bigger than we thought.
It's taller than it ought to be,
This pile of rubble and ruins.
The neighbors must talk.
It's the worst on the block,
Just branches and boards
where walls once stood.
Did it seem to you like the storm just knew
We weren't quite finished with the roof
when it started?
So we build. We build.
We clear away what was
and make room for what will be.
If you hold the nails, I'll take the hammer.
I'll hold it still, if you'll climb the ladder.
If you will, then I will, build.
On any given day,
we could simply walk away,
And let someone else hold the pieces.
The lie that we tell
says its better somewhere else,
As if love flies south when it freezes.
What I'm trying to say in some clumsy way
Is that it's you and only you,...
Not just for now, not just for today,
But it's you and only you for always.
("We Build" by Nichole Nordeman)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sleepless Nights...Sundust Mornings

My baby is going to turn 13 years old in less than one month. How can this be?

Last night, he came into our bedroom and announced that, for his birthday, he wanted to invite the entire middle school over to our house for a party! I laughed sarcastically and said, "Yeah, right." When he kept campaigning, I gave him the standard, parental put-off answer--"We'll see."

But, a little part of me wants to do it! 13 is BIG.

A little part of me wants to celebrate BIG...not just his birthday, but the fact that he and I have made it to 13! (I never had any doubts about his calm, cool, collected daddy.)

You see, for the first 10 1/2 months of Jackson's life, he didn't sleep. Oh, he may have slept for 2 hours at a time, but then he would wake up in a three-alarm scream. There is nothing quite like getting woken up at 12 a.m, 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. by a screaming baby for 10 1/2 months straight...then getting up and going to work the next day.

I still remember the first time he slept through the night. I rolled over after a full night's sleep, saw that the clock said 6:05 a.m., and jumped out of bed screaming, " Keven, wake up! Something's wrong with Jackson! I think he's dead!"

I went running into his room, threw open the door and, half afraid of what I was going to find, looked down in his crib and saw him there...sleeping...curled up under his blanket...sucking on his paci.

I don't know what I was most thankful for--the fact that he was alive or the fact that we had actually slept through the night.

Keven just made some gutteral, disgusted noise, turned around and went back to bed for the last 30 minutes of blissful, noiseless sleep.

I actually had time to go down to the kitchen, put on a pot of coffee, eat a bowl of cereal and heat up a bottle before Jackson blasted the first scream. It was a lovely sound!

Jackson was one of the most beautiful toddlers I've ever seen. He had this head-full of strawberry blonde hair, peaches-and-cream skin, gorgeous hazel eyes with eyelashes that touched his cheeks when his eyes were closed.

But, in the words of Buzz Lightyear, "He (was) not a happy child." His Aunt Karen once described it perfectly--"It's like his nerve endings are on top of his skin." Everything made him cry...loud.

Without a doubt, Year 3 was the hardest. I've actually been known to measure my life by whether it happened "when Jackson was 3." (For those of you who think I'm exaggerating, just ask anyone who stuck by us during that year. To all of those who did--you know who you are--Thank You!!!)

But...I will always owe Jackson a little extra debt of gratitude. You see, he was the one who brought me to my knees. He was the one who taught me that I needed something more...Someone More...than just my own best efforts.

Don't get me wrong--we loved him....But, I remember praying this prayer many times, "Please, God, give me something to adore about him."

Shortly after we had turned the corner of that very hard third year, he was sitting at the kitchen table eating Goldfish while I was sweeping. The sun was shining through the sliding glass door.

Pointing to where I had just been sweeping, he said...with this enchanted look on his face..."Look, mommy, sundust." Well, I looked at where he was pointing, and he was right. The sunlight had turned that plain old, annoying housedirt into "sundust."

But, I never would have noticed without my Jackson.

I walked over and sat down with him until all the sundust had settled. Then, I looked into those beautiful little eyes and said, "I adore you."

I still do.

Don't get me wrong. We still have our moments...probably always will. For many years, I thought this was because we were so different until a wise, dear friend pointed out to me all the ways we are alike. (Thank you, Aunt Sandy.)

For years, I've been praying for Jackson and for his big brother the last words Luke writes about Jesus' growing-up years--that they "would grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and men." (Eugene Peterson translates that verse this way: "And Jesus matured, growing up in both body and spirit, blessed by both God and people.")

Three nights ago, at his school's sports banquet, Jackson was awarded the school's top honor--the Heart of the Lion award. When they called his name, his face beamed. And, as he was walking up to accept his award, I had a flashback to that "sundust morning."

As I watched that beaming young man walk to the podium...with the picture of that beautiful, Goldfish-eating toddler still in my heart...the Holy Spirit nudged me a little and reminded me that God has definitely heard my prayers.

"May God himself,
the God who makes everything holy and whole,
make you holy and whole,
put you together—spirit, soul and body—
and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.
The One who called you is completely dependable.
If he said it, he'll do it!
....The amazing grace of Jesus Christ be with you!"
(1 Thessalonians 5:23-24,28, The Message)