Thank You #3: Mother

In a continued celebration of my 50th birthday 7-22-15, I’m writing 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks. Here’s number three.

 

8-2-2015–Mother’s 77th birthday.

Thank You MotherDear Mother,

Just yesterday, I realized for the very first time how difficult it must have been for you when we moved to North Myrtle Beach in 1982. I was a junior in high school; your youngest was in middle school; your oldest, a college freshman. The house we were building wasn’t finished, so while we waited, we stayed first in one rental and then another.

I gotta tell you: I thought I was the one with the problem. I mean, I had just moved from my beloved friends, my sister/soul mate was away at college, and I had the most annoying little brother ever born. Plus, we’d had to leave the family pet behind with friends while we stayed in the rentals. And school. And homework. And woe was me.

I never thought about how much harder it would have been if it hadn’t been for you. When I look back now, I can see the obstacles you deftly removed from my path.

The first rental was beautiful, but so sterile that it felt far more like a hotel than a home. You couldn’t change much there, but you added just the right touches to transform the generic to the familiar. Thank you.

The second rental was—well—not beautiful. It was old and so rickety it swayed from the ocean breeze. I distinctly remember your upbeat presentation of the place, offering me first pick of the rooms. I realize now that it was sort of a dump, but I didn’t really know it then. Because of you, it was home. Thank you.

When we finally moved into our house, you went to extraordinary lengths to make my room special. You essentially designed the room (at least in my recollection) around the dollhouse I loved so much. You didn’t have to—I know my furniture cost more than anything you bought for yourself—but you did it just for me. I loved it. I probably didn’t mention it then, but thank you. It meant so much that you valued what was important to me.

Today, I have two college kids and a high school senior myself; I realize more every day all the sacrifices you made for me. Thank you.

  • Thank you for making us start our day together as a family. Whether it was a hot cooked breakfast or cold cereal, we sat together, held hands, and said a blessing. Thank you for making those morning meals a priority. And supper too. Thanks for all those family dinners. I didn’t know why you made such a big deal of us all being around the table for the evening meal. Now I get it. Thanks.
  • Thank you for always welcoming my friends. Thanks for getting to know them, for playing games with us, for feeding us. My friends loved coming to the Mitchell house. They still do.
  • Thank you for all those times you gave up the family car so I would have a vehicle to drive. I’m sure I didn’t say thank you then, but thanks. Thanks for sacrificing your convenience for mine.
  • Thanks for making the painful choice to leave us on occasion to take care of your own parents. I truly had no idea how hard that was for you. I now realize that when you would go and stay with Grandmama and Granddaddy, you must’ve really missed Daddy and us. You went, though, because it was the right thing to do. While you were gone, I’m sure you worried about us eating right, sleeping enough, doing our homework, and getting to our appointments and obligations. Thanks for trusting us. Thanks for teaching us that taking care of aging parents is an important part of being an adult.
  • Thanks for not being needy. I understand now that it was hard for you when I spent holidays away from home. You never complained. You just made it clear that I was always welcome whenever I could be there. I didn’t realize how your heart hurt when we were away. Thank you for being selfless.
  • Thank you for not saying too much. I’m sure there were many times as I grew older that you struggled to refrain from comment. You let me make my own mistakes. I know now how hard that was. Thank you.
  • Thank you for showing me how to be a minister. So much of what I know about serving God, I’ve learned from watching you. Your life has taught me to remember significant days in the lives of others, to make an extra meal for someone in need, to listen, to smile, to volunteer, to study, to pray. You love God with your whole life. I’ve learned that from you. Thank you.

Nearly every day, as I learn more about myself, I learn more about how your love has shaped me. I could never thank you enough for being the extraordinary person you are, for showing me how to be a mother, wife, daughter, woman. I can only live my life in gratitude, humbled by the knowledge that by cosmic chance, I was born to the mother of all mothers. I love you.

With grateful heart,

Aileen

Millennials and Evangelism: An Attempt at Dialogue*

Millennials“Well,” the teen said after thinking only for a moment, “I’d like to talk about evangelism.”

I was with a group of young people—ages 19-35—and I had asked what issues of faith they’d like to discuss.

“Yes,” someone else said, “Like how do we balance evangelism with respect for other faiths?”

“Exactly. Who am I to tell someone what to believe?”

“And how do we know we are right?”

Lesson learned (again): Don’t ask millennials what they want to discuss unless you are ready to field their questions. The good news is you don’t have to have all the answers; otherwise I would have been utterly stymied that evening. Luckily, post-modern young adults are looking less for absolutes than for engagement.

I shy away from making statements like, “Back in my day . . . .” But seriously, back in my day, I didn’t know many people who didn’t believe pretty much exactly like I did. There were a few—a Jewish girl at school, my catholic uncle—but overall, the people in my life were Protestants, the majority Southern Baptists. I didn’t have much outside resistance to my faith in Jesus Christ and what little I did have was actually somewhat welcome to a Southern Baptist girl with a call to proselytize. Seriously, at the height of my adolescence, I could walk you down the Roman Road, lead you down the aisle during the first stanza of Just As I Am, have you repeat the sinner’s prayer after me, and cry tears of joyful relief when I proclaimed you saved from the fires of eternal damnation.

Things are a little different in 2015 than they were in 1975. The world is much smaller and ideas that were foreign then are now fodder for coffee shop chats. In the multicultural and pluralistic 21st Century, many Christians aren’t sure how to respond to the great commission Jesus gives in Matthew 28:18-20.

Like I said, I don’t have the answers. But I do think there is a place for evangelism today. First of all, we should be able to share the joys of following Christ without being disrespectful to people of other faiths.

Think about it. We share other joys without being offensive. For example, do you hesitate to tell someone about a movie you saw and liked? Imagine if we Christians guarded movie suggestions like we do our faith stories. Let’s say you saw the movie Inside Out (which you totally should because it is awesome). After seeing it, you run into some friends and you start to suggest the movie, but you stop yourself. Maybe they don’t care for movies; maybe they prefer live theater. Do they like animation or could they be opposed to such frivolities? Has someone already recommended Inside Out to them and how was that recommendation received?

Additionally, we don’t haul those same friends back to the theater, force them to pay the ticket price, and make sure they go see the film. We just say something like, “For me, the experience was a good one. Maybe it would be for you as well.” And we go on our merry way. Later, we could say, “So, did you go see the movie?” and then a dialogue might begin that could lead to relationship.

So don’t be afraid to tell people that following Christ brings you joy if the opportunity arises. That isn’t being disrespectful; it’s being conversational.

The risk, of course, is that when you are discussing things about which you feel passionate, it is easy to become dogmatic. Given the right circumstances, most of us can get a little bossy.  We all have our issues. Yours might be the risks of artificial sweeteners or the benefits of organic produce. It might be the plight of the small business or the need for affordable health care. Me, I can become downright inflexible when it comes to the importance of supporting public educators. On subjects such as these, we are generally quite happy to tell people what we think they should believe and for that matter, how they should act.

But you know (and I do too), that regardless of the strength of our convictions or the volume of our voices, folks don’t want to be told what to do. Rarely does anyone change behavior or thought process because of someone else’s insistence. No, change usually happens slowly (sometimes almost imperceptibly) over time, and within relationship. So, we can just stop telling people what to believe—whether about standardized testing or about Jesus Christ; it doesn’t work anyway.

This mindset also helps with the issue of who is right and who is wrong. If we could embrace the idea of sharing our stories without the compulsion to be right all the time, I think we might see real relationships forming across what would have been intractable barriers. Instead of entering into debates, we could enter conversations. If winning were no longer an objective, we could allow ourselves a little vulnerability. How freeing would that be?  We could say things like, “Sometimes I doubt,” and “Maybe I’m wrong,” or “I’m not sure.” Friends, hear the good news: God will still be God even if we utter those words. God can survive our questions; God’s been doing that for millennia. Frankly, I thank God prefers we be a little less sure of ourselves. It makes us lean not unto our own understanding.

That’s a little of what I think about evangelism today. What about you? How would you have responded to these questions?

*This piece was first published on July 26, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.

 

Thank You #2: Oakley Elementary School

In a continued celebration of my 50th birthday 7-22-15, I’m writing 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks. Here’s number two.

Oakley Elementary School Asheville, NC

Oakley Elementary School
Asheville, NC

Dear Oakley Elementary School:

It was a conscious choice for me to surrender the first of my three children to you back in 1999. I thought about charter schools. I looked at city schools that would accept transfers from the county. I considered private schools and even homeschooling. You see Oakley, as an educator myself, I knew the importance of starting formal schooling in the right way. I was unwilling to leave this aspect of parenting to chance. After prayerful consideration and active research, I opted for you, Oakley; and you—by my home address—had chosen me.

What a divine and blessed choice that was: for ten years, you nurtured my family. Thank you for caring for us so completely. I can’t list all the ways you did that, but I want to point out just a few.

First, thank you for keeping music education alive in your school. My children loved their music teacher and looked forward to what they’d learn in her class. But music did not stop—or for that matter even start—in the music room. No, at Oakley, music spread throughout the school. One teacher provided each of her fourth graders with recorders and taught them how to play. Others used music to aid memory or productivity. At Oakley, music was the norm. That made a difference for my children and I thank you.

Thanks also for the art you have displayed on your walls. Murals abound at Oakley Elementary, saying to my children and others, “Be creative! Explore beauty! Express yourself!” Thank you for whispering those encouragements to my children daily. They heard them. I did too.

Thank you, Oakley, for hiring fantastic teachers. My children have found academics to be pretty easy throughout their lives—owing in large part to the fact that they have always had books within reach and have parents and grandparents who value academic success. People told me my kids would lose interest in the classroom. Those people didn’t know Oakley’s educators. My children’s teachers engaged students across a wide range of academic abilities. Despite having 25 students in a class, many of whom needed more instruction and attention than mine, Oakley’s teachers recognized my children’s needs and responded to them. Thank you Oakley. Thank you so much.

Finally, thank you Oakley for your diversity. My son’s first grade class included children of six different nationalities. There were kids at Oakley who were first generation immigrants and those who were third generation Buncombe County landowners. There were kids who lived in government funded housing and those who lived in million-dollar mansions. They were black, brown, and yellow, red and white, but everyone was precious in Oakley’s sight. Thank you Oakley for showing my children what the world looks like. You taught my children from an early age that friendship isn’t dependent upon matching skin or equal resources. They’ve not forgotten that lesson. They never will.

Thank you Oakley for loving us in ways that seemed to come easily for you. You have blessed us beyond measure and this mother’s heart overflows with gratitude.

Thank You,

Aileen Lawrimore

Mother of Trellace, Baker, & Margaret Lawrimore

PS Trellace will finish her Bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University in Washington, DC in 2016 after finishing summa cum laude at Reynolds High School in 2012. Baker is on a full scholarship at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Margaret, an honors student at Reynolds, graduates in May 2016. You did well, Oakley Elementary School!

That’s who I’m thanking today. Who would you like to thank? Comment below to let me know!

You might also enjoy these posts:

A Tribute to ACRHS 

Teaching: Expectation Achieved
Me, Lisa, Tammy. Friends since 1983.

Kindergarten Teaching: Heart Enough to Share
My youngest daughter on Kindergarten Celebration Day in 2004

Thank You #1: TammyandLisa

Back story: Back in 1983, I began my freshman year at Campbell University. Within the first few days, I met Tammy and later Lisa. They are, in fact, two separate people, but I can’t think of one without the other, even for the purposes of a thank you note.

Thank You
Lisa, Tammy, & Me
7-22-2015

Dear TammyandLisa,

Truly, I can’t remember ever being as surprised as I was when I walked into my 50th birthday celebration Wednesday night and saw you both standing there. I can’t imagine the scheduling magic you must have pulled off to rearrange life’s demands so you could travel across the state to my party. What a gift! Thank you. Thank you for always being there for me.

Well. Not exactly always. As I recall, you were happy to stay safe and sound in your dorm room the night we watched Fatal Attraction on TV. Neither of you offered to walk me back to my room across campus, despite the very real danger of Glenn Close following me back to my dorm, only to arise bloody in my shower.

But ya know, other than that, you’ve been there.

You were there that freezing cold weekend in 2010 when I was ordained to the ministry. You came, husbands in tow, and celebrated every moment of the weekend with me and mine. Certainly, there was a financial sacrifice that weekend, but even more, I know you sacrificed family time and work responsibilities to be there with me. Thank you for taking the time. It mattered so much.

It mattered in part because you honored my call to ministry. You’ve known me longer than many, so you know–you’ve witnessed–my failings. You know my brokenness, my weakness, and my shortcomings. You know I’m flawed in countless ways. Yet your presence there that weekend, and again this week in the church where I serve, reminded me, “Yes Jesus loves me. I am weak but He is strong. Yes Jesus loves me.” Thank you for being the voice of God to me, reminding me that I am indeed worthy of this call God has placed on my life.

If that were all you two had ever done for me that would be enough for me to be forever in your debt. But there’s so much more. So here’s a list of other things.

  • Thanks for driving me around in college when I didn’t have a car. I’m sure I wasn’t appreciative enough. Thanks for doing it anyway.
  • Thanks for remembering my children’s birthdays and special days. You are so much better than I at those things.
  • Thanks for giving my family a place to stay when we’ve needed it. You both offer such nice bed and breakfast accommodations. (I’ll let you argue over whose breakfast was better.)
  • Thanks for hurting when I hurt and for keeping the advice to a minimum while you poured on the grace and love. Thanks so much for that.
  • Thanks for keeping the friendship alive for these 30+ years. When one of us has fallen off, the others have picked up the slack. What a blessing.
  • Thanks for liking me even though you know how really unlikeable I can be. I like that about you both.
  • And of course, thanks for laughing with me. All the laughter. So much laughter. In my memory, our laughter looks like hope.

Of course there is more. There will always be more. But Tammy and Lisa, know that I am grateful for your friendship. I love you both immeasurably.

With heart full of gratitude,

Aileen

Thank You Notes: A Life Journey

thank you noteI’m turning 50 this week. I’m pretty thankful that I get to see this milestone birthday since I have known far too many who didn’t get to have this privilege. So, to celebrate, I plan to write 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks. I’ll write most to friends and family, but also a few to institutions (like Gardner-Webb University Divinity School and Oakley Elementary School), a few to people I’ve never met (like Bob Newhart who makes me laugh out loud), and even some to people who have already passed on (like Beth Daniels).  And yep, I’ll post them here. Or at least most of them anyway.

So I invite you to join me on a journey of gratitude. 50 weeks, 50 notes. You’re welcome to ride along with me just as an interested observer, or maybe you want to take your own journey of thanksgiving. Share with me who you want to thank and how you go about doing so. Maybe you’re not a writer. No problem. Phone calls, visits, artwork . . . there are all kinds of ways to express our appreciation for the gifts we have been given in life.

Let’s get started then; we’ve got some thanking to do!

(You’re welcome.)

You might enjoy these thankful posts as well!

 A Fourth of July List of Things I Love
American Flag

7 of my Favorite Teachers
Mrs. Hayes (left) and her daughter Carol

Parenting: I Want the ScarIMG_5482 (1)

Non-Traditional Marriage: Defying Statistics*

Marriage

Jay & I shortly after we started dating in 1985.

The workers building a retaining wall at my house had only talked to my husband and hadn’t yet met me. That particular day, I’d been gone when they arrived and got back after they were hard at it. The foreman saw me pull up and waited for me to get out of the car.

“Hey there!” he greeted me, “You Jay’s wife?”

“Well,” I told him, getting the groceries out of the car, “I’m his first wife.” I walked on towards the house.

“Um,” the man clearly wanted an end to the awkward silence, but couldn’t seem to form any actual words.

“I’m also his only wife,” I said, as the poor fella started breathing again. It’s one of my favorite gags. I introduce my husband as my former boyfriend, my ex-fiancé, or as in this case, my first husband. (I make my own fun.)

Indeed, back in the late eighties, I finished my bachelor’s degree and married my college sweetheart. Coincidently, so did my roommate and my two closest girlfriends. Today, more than two decades later, all four of us are still happily married. Talk about non-traditional marriage: according to today’s statistics—at least two of our four couples should be divorced by now.

No matter what Americans believe about marriage, surely we can all agree that the rapid dissolution of so many families is alarming. I know a number of couples who have suffered divorce and listen, they all have valid reasons: chronic unemployment on the part of one spouse or the other, affairs, addictions, and just plain irreconcilable differences. Without question, marriages often fail despite the determined efforts of one or even both of the partners. And sometimes, marriages should be terminated long before they are: I’m talking about abuse here—physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional. Seriously, if you are in an abusive relationship, get out immediately. You and your children will be better living in a shelter than with an abuser. No exceptions.

But back to my college friends & me. What has held our marriages together?

One could argue that church-going is one thing. All four of us go as couples with our children to church on Sunday mornings and every other time the doors are open. But you know what? So do a lot of other couples who have faced divorce. Going to church is important, but it doesn’t guarantee a long-lasting marriage. The divorce statistics for couples in Sunday school are the same as for those who skip it.

All eight of us are hard workers. Among us are three teachers, a couple of business people, an engineer, a scientist, and a minister (who also happens to write compelling blog posts). But none of us would be considered wealthy by American standards. In fact, each of our families have been through lean years in which one of the two spouses was laid off, under-employed, or in school for further education. Financial distress is often cited as the primary cause of divorce, yet our relationships have persisted through such troubles.

Not that it’s been easy; none of us would be the millennium version of Ozzy and Harriet or Mike and Carol Brady. No, our marriages have included real-life frustrations; plenty of times it would have seemed easier to give up. So why didn’t we? I don’t know all the reasons, but I know one.

See, while the divorce statistic is the same for church-goers and party-goers, church-going does not equal faith. In all four of our marriages, we’ve either found or sustained a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Over the years, despite our struggles (or maybe due to those difficulties), we’ve all grown closer to God. All eight of us have aspired as individuals, as spouses, and as family members, to know God better and to be more like Christ. All eight of us have also failed resoundingly many times; but we’ve managed, by grace, to return to the path of spiritual formation, even when detours have distracted us from our objectives.

Marriage. You can hardly check a news feed without stumbling upon some so-called wisdom about it. Too bad Jesus isn’t on social media. If he were, he might say something like, “Strive first for the kingdom of God & his righteousness, & all these things will be given to you as well.” #Matt6:33NRSV #lovealwayswins.

*This piece was first published on June 29, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.

(One thing my husband and I credit with sustaining our marriage is a hearty sense of humor. These posts offer a window into that part of our lives.) 

 

From VMW to Mayberry

otis town drunk

YOU Take the Worm!

avery-county-north-carolina-appalachian-sunrise

Spousal Sports Repartee

conversation between penquins

A Fourth of July List of 18 Things I Love

American Flag

A non-exhaustive list of things, people, and events I love about being American (in no particular order).

1. I can worship however I want. Or not. Church. I love it.

2. Public School. I take it for granted (I do) that my kids have gotten to go to school in their own neighborhood for the cost of supplies and minimal fees.

3. Washington, DC. Love that city: the restaurants, the museums, the history. Plus it has one of my daughters now, so it’s even better.

4. Rosa Parks. What a woman. Proud to say we share the same nationality.

5. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because of this legislation, I have friends and mentors I never would have known. Thanks be to God.

6. Abraham Lincoln. A complex man who persevered through personal and professional difficulties to realize a dream. Since my childhood, I’ve considered him a hero.

7. The Gettysburg Address. These few words carry a magnitude of meaning. Also the economy of verbiage taught me more about writing than any class ever has.

8. Public Libraries. Ahhh. Where memories are made and dreams are formed.

9. Blue Ridge Mountains. Home.

10. Gardner-Webb University. My third and favorite alma mater.

11. The South. Flawed though it may be, it is still my home. And I love it.

12. Free Speech. I have a lot to say.

13. Roger Williams. He was nearly 30 when he arrived on North American shores, but what he did for religious freedom in America transformed our future.

14. White Lake, NC. The setting of my childhood family vacations. It sounds like joy there.

15. Jury Duty. I’ve got opinions.

16. Voting. Lots of opinions . . .

17. Fourth of July Fireworks. Caveat: OFFICIAL 4th of July fireworks. All the booms and explosions in backyards for the week preceding the actual event drive me kind of crazy–mainly because my beloved Charlie (may he rest in peace) was terrified of them. But the actual celebrations? The official, safe, sanctioned productions? Oh I love those. So beautiful, so exciting, so fun.

18. Denzel Washington. I like beauty. I just do.

What is something you love about America?

 

 

Bumper Sticker Theology *

bumper sticker theology“Prayer Works!” and its bossier sibling, “Pray. It Works!” are sayings I’ve seen on everything from tote bags to t-shirts, bumper stickers to Bible studies. You can get a “Prayer Works” apron for the saintly cook in your life or a package of “Prayer Works” pencils for those in need of a little Number Two inspiration. And don’t even get me started on books. Seriously there are about a gazillion books with that phrase or a close variation in the title. In just a quick glance, I saw Prayer Works for Teens, Prayer Works for Business People, and even a Prayer Works for Dieters. (Just might buy that last one, cause really: I can use a little supernatural assistance in that department.)

And I get it; I do.  Who among us does not need a reminder that the practice of prayer is an important spiritual discipline? I sure do. But is that what we mean when we say that prayer works?

Too often, I’m afraid it means that we got what we wanted from the prayer. We say it after saying “I got a promotion!” or “My child got into her college of choice!” or even, “My beloved has been healed of cancer!” Then of course, like all good Christians, we turn to social media to Instagram, Tweet, or Facebook the good news, challenging followers to “Pray! It Works!” I think most of us mean well, bless our hearts. We are so grateful for the blessings we’ve received we want to share the good news. We mean “Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!” But that’s not what we say. Instead, we tap out pithy theology that just doesn’t hold up to the trials of life.

Think about it. No one ever says “Prayer Works,” when they get laid off, or a child’s dreams are crushed, or a loved one doesn’t make it. Yet prayer works then too. It works to bring peace in the storm. It works to bring hope to the hopeless. It works to draw us closer to God. Of course prayer works. It always works.

Over the years, I’ve seen prayer work whether I got the job I wanted or not. I’ve prayed for career outcomes I just knew were within God’s perfect will for my life, praying with all confidence that I had heard God’s voice correctly, only to be devastated when things turned out differently. Prayer helped me deal with disappointment, sort out solutions, and overcome the sense of loss that frequently accompanies career frustrations.

Prayer works as high school graduates accept admission to the last school on their lists, because despite their excellent high school records, their dream schools have refused them. Prayer helps them ask “Why?” Prayer leads them to sing new songs. Prayer reminds them that they are more, so much more, than admissions decisions and test scores.

Prayer worked in 2008 when a child I knew and loved died of cancer. People prayed without ceasing for that little boy to be cured—really cured, on earth, in the flesh. But he passed from this life to the next at just over three and a half years old. My prayers were not answered in the way I wanted. And when that precious boy died, I felt as if my spirit was shipwrecked. But prayer worked. Prayer washed me onto shore, warmed me, sheltered me.

I think the function of prayer is well stated by twentieth century theologian CS Lewis. He said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God–it changes me.” Wow. Prayer changes humanity? Now that’s some hard work right there. To God be the Glory!

*This piece was first published on June 1, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.

Fresh Water From Old Wells

Please welcome guest blogger, author Cindy McMahon. She brings to the blog today an excerpt from the prologue of her newly released memoir, Fresh Water from Old Wells. If you are intrigued, as I was, go on over to her website at www.freshwaterfromoldwells.com to find out where you can pick up a copy of the book. Until then, here’s a virtual glimpse inside its pages. Enjoy!

Memoir southern historyIt began before daylight: a wide-awake feeling that led me to a quiet room, journal in my lap. My pen told me that I could leave my full-time job and be at home for a while. Find wholeness. Live in hope instead of fear.

I did resign. The rest proved somewhat more elusive.

After watching my dad die and quitting my job, both in the spring of 2004, I spent a year and a half careening from “I’m amazing! If I believe in myself, there’s nothing I can’t do!” to “What in the world was I thinking?” and back again. In between, I remembered how to play with my children, drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and spent a lot of time wondering about this thing, this important thing that I could feel waiting out there for me to do. I barely recognized myself: I’ve always known exactly where I was heading, what was coming next, and what I was going to get done once I got there. Living in indecision, in the unknown, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Somehow the idea finally bloomed in my head. I could write a book. About my liberal white southern family. About my crazy, idealistic, violent, tree-hugging father who started out as a Baptist preacher, tried to save the world, and ended up living in a tent and criss-crossing the country with his thumb out. About my distinguished maternal grandfather, also a Southern Baptist preacher, who quietly brought factions together without ever making a fuss. And about the women who somehow managed to hold it all together without anybody knowing what it cost them. And I could write about me—maybe I would finally begin to understand where I came from and how in God’s name I survived it all in one piece. Perhaps others would one day read my story and find inspiration to shine a light on the dark places from their own pasts.

The thing is, when you have the idea of writing a book, at least in my case, you have to spend many months exploring all the reasons why it’s a completely cock-eyed idea. Even if there’s a voice deep inside you, first thing in the morning and last thing at night that says, “This is why you’re here now. You have a story to tell. Tell it.” Even if the first tentative steps are ridiculously easy and you feel like you’re being pulled down a path by the hand, you still tell yourself, “Nope. Not me. Can’t do it. Don’t deserve it. Not good enough.” Until the Moment comes.

For me, the Moment was at a February church retreat, in a two-person chair by a roaring fire, snow pouring down outside, in a house on a hill full of burbling women filling their bowls with oatmeal. There were several of us in the conversation at first, talking about trusting the flow—getting into it, being open and prepared, letting it take us where we’re meant to go. As I sat quietly with the conversation swirling around me, I found myself getting angry. Flow, schmo. I had been holding my arms out to the flow for the past year and a half, to no avail. I was losing faith in the whole idea.

As others drifted off towards the oatmeal pot, I turned to my friend Jeanine, sitting in the chair with me. “You know—that whole getting in the river thing . . . I’ve been letting myself float out there for nearly two years . . . it’s always been clear to me before . . . I’m caught in some sort of eddy in the shallows. I’m going NOWHERE, and I’m getting frustrated.” Jeanine let loose a flow of perceptive questions. What was I resisting? Why was I resisting it? Every reason that I could give her that I shouldn’t write a book, all the barriers that I had so carefully constructed over the last many months, got knocked down like glued-together toothpicks. So you’re an extrovert? Find non-work ways to meet your social needs. You see yourself as a leader of people? What better way to lead than by telling your story? Worried about money? Trust the process.

She left me with nothing but belief in myself and a clear path ahead. By the time I filled my own bowl with oatmeal, I knew I was going to do it. The sensation was one I had felt before when jumping off a high rock into an icy-cold stream: that moment in mid-air, knowing the splash is coming, followed by the tingling of every pore. I was exhilarated and full of wonder.

And so I devoted myself, heart and soul, to this project. I went through my mother’s address book and got in touch with anybody and everybody who might be able to tell me more about my story. I drove up one Georgia road and down the other, knocking on doors of people I’d heard about my whole life but had no memory of, people who welcomed me with open arms, loved me simply because of who I’m related to, and generously shared their stories with my tiny tape recorder and me. I even ventured to the faraway land of Alabama. I dug through church archives and read their histories, visited cemeteries, and found old homes—mine, my grandparents’, and my great-grandparents’. And all along the way I shed springs, creeks, and rivers of tears as I watched my mama following her own path away from me into debilitating dementia.

This is my story—fresh water from many old wells. It is the story of an amazing time in my adult life, as well as my childhood and the family who got me here. And it is a goodbye to my beloved mother, who spent my whole childhood making sure our story would never be told. It is out of love that I finally tell my story.


Memoir southern historyUnplanned youngest daughter of activist hippies in the turbulent South, Cindy Henry McMahon survived family violence, fire, flood, poisonous mushrooms, and an ice-cold outhouse. She now lives a decidedly normal life in Asheville, North Carolina.

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A Baby Boomer, A Millennial, & The Kingdom*

imageI was making plans to meet a friend for coffee and conversation. She’s 23 years old and just finishing her first year of divinity school. After we settled on a time, she sent me one more text.

So. Question. As people with theological education and a view of a God of love, what do we do when things just don’t make sense? What do we do with earthquakes that take so many lives? How do we go about our days and not talk about riots in Baltimore? Why aren’t we communally angered about executions in Bali? What do we do when a 48 year old dies a painful slow death from brain cancer? Or when someone’s grandparents die 6 days before their wedding?

The questions my friend posed are not unlike ones that I have on my mind as well. I knew
we’d have plenty to talk about when we met.

“About your questions,” I began. “What do you believe thinking Christians should make of all these events?”

“I don’t know,” she responded. “But I don’t believe God causes all these things.”

I agreed and said so.

She continued. “I do believe God redeems everything, though.”

“Me too,” I said. “The problem is, we don’t always get to see evidence of that redemption. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ I believe the arc of redemption is also long, but it bends toward mercy. Still, sometimes redemption seems way too distant.”

We continued talking, seeking understanding. We agreed that while we don’t know what causes natural disasters, we do know that we take the gift of this good earth for granted. We waste resources and fail to appreciate the beauty around us. We can do better. We can all do better.

Injustice abounds: from Baltimore to Bali and beyond. It’s heartbreaking; it’s infuriating. Oppression is not the way of Christ, of this we are certain. But how — in this broken world that rarely resembles the Kingdom — can we as the body of Christ reflect less judgment and more grace, less criticism and more compassion? Our prayer is that God’s Spirit will inhabit our words and actions that we might be instruments of that unfathomable peace in a world churning with bigotry, racism and inequality.

So there’s redemption. There’s taking responsibility for what we ourselves have caused, and changing our behavior accordingly. But what about cancer? What about unexplained death and pain? For me, that’s where the theology gets a little murkier, a little harder to grasp.

I shared with my friend some of the times tragedy has entered my own little world. Like when my niece was born a single twin weighing less than two pounds or when a 3-and-a-half-year-old child I loved died from a rare form of leukemia. Like the time a child on my son’s baseball team died suddenly from meningitis or when my friend’s son died from brain cancer. None of these things make sense. None of them seem compatible with a God of love.

“I’ve learned,” I told her, “that it comes down to the truth found in 1 John 1:5: ‘This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.’”

When I’m surrounded by darkness, I know that to see God, I must look for light. Because in God there is no darkness at all. I look at my beautiful niece who is almost 20 now. I look back through my memories and see the bright smile and hear the sweet laughter of a little boy way too sick to exhibit earthly joy. And I listen to the light-filled testimonies of bereaved mothers, who though they grieve, they still have hope.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t offer my young friend any real answers that day. In fact, she may have left with even more questions than she had before our time together. But I do know that as we grappled with these tough questions of our faith, looking to God and to Holy Scripture for wisdom, we caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. And there was no darkness there at all; only light.

*This piece was first published on May 4, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.