It’s my 52nd birthday. Here (in no particular order) are 52 of my favorites.
This piece appeared first as my July column for Baptist News Global. You'll find the full text at the link below.
Source: Amazing grace: Settling a troubled soul – Baptist News Global
When I stepped onto her hall, I could see her slippered feet just outside the door frame of her room. In her wheelchair, she rocked heel to toe, toe to heel, back and forth and back again.
“Hey, there,” I said, crouching to her height and attempting to push her chair back so I could get into the room. (Imagine a 5’4” duck wearing jeans and a tie-dye T-shirt pushing a wheelchair backwards; you get the picture.) I managed it, then pulled a stool right up next to her chair so I could speak directly in her ear. Nonagenarian ears aren’t especially known for their acuity, you know.
She does not know me; when I began my job at her church, she was already at the point of needing care. . . .
The 2017 graduation season has been an eventful one for the Lawrimore family and friends. First to turn the tassel this year was our soon-to-be daughter-in-law who received her undergrad degree from UNC. As for high school, we have two nephews, one niece, and our daughter’s boyfriend graduating.
It’s a big year. And I won’t make it to all of the ceremonies (two happen at the same time on the same day), but I’ll do my best to get to most. Those graduates who I don’t get to see in person will know I wanted to be a part of their day. They will know I am not casually dismissing this moment in their lives.
Now, I love graduation ceremonies. I don’t even mind bad ones. Wait. That’s not exactly true. There is one exception: a 2016 graduation ceremony I attended at a “Christian” school was so offensive that it required every iota of self-restraint I possess to keep from opening up a great big can of Aunt Aileen all up in that place. To be fair, I was already ticked off at the school because I felt they had done an awful job of educating my beloved nephew. As a whole, they missed the blessing of his uniqueness, his gifts, his potential. (If I’m completely honest, I’d concede that a good bit of Aunt Aileen had already been spilled in these judgmental halls that, by their infinite ineptitude and unmerciful demeanor, had in essence been using the name of God in vain. But I digress.) Anyway, the graduation for less than 40 students lasted for over two hours. Not much fun for Angry Aileen.
Still, I’m glad I went. In fact, I would do it all again to be there when my nephew graduated. Totally, completely worth it.
In general, though, I love the pomp and circumstance of graduation. I love the academic regalia of the faculty, the students in caps and gowns, the formal presentations. But even if I couldn’t stand that stuff, I would attend graduations. You see, I believe that it is positively irrelevant whether or not I enjoy the graduation ceremony. On that day, at that moment, it’s not about me; it’s about the graduates.
Let’s say I’m attending a graduation and I don’t like the speaker. Or the music. Or even the institution where the ceremony is held. Maybe it’s the experience that is unpleasant. The seats are uncomfortable; it’s too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet; or the ceremony is way too long and if someone had just thought this through, for goodness sakes, we could have been done a long time ago.
It doesn’t matter. Here’s what matters: it matters that I’m there. And it matters that you’re there too.
By attending graduation, you are saying a number of things. First, you are telling your beloved that you care about transitions. High school graduation is the first major transition for these kids since they left home for kindergarten. It’s a big, big deal. By being there at the moment of transition, you are saying to the student, “You are not making this change alone. You, graduate, are not being thrown out of school, into a black hole of uncertainty all by yourself. I am right here with you.”
Secondly, you are telling the graduate that you will be there for endings, not just beginnings. You will be saying to them, “You know how you are concerned that the friendships you’ve made over these last years will end? Know this: your relationship with me? It is forever. I will still be your sister, brother, uncle, aunt. I will still be your mother, your mentor, your lifelong friend. I know it feels like everything familiar is ending. But I’m not. I’m here. I will always be here.”
Thirdly, you are saying, “Your celebrations are my celebrations. When you succeed, I delight.” Sure, these graduates will have other—probably (hopefully) more significant—accomplishments over the course of their lives. Celebrate those too. But graduation offers a unique opportunity to celebrate the completion of an extended task. Finishing that which we have begun is an important habit to develop and maintain. By attending graduation, you are saying, “Finishing things matters. This is a big deal.”
Finally, you are saying to your graduate that inconvenience will never be your primary concern when it comes to milestone moments in that student’s life. So what if you had to drive all night to get there? Who cares if the experience isn’t exactly pleasant? You are there to witness three things: the processional, the graduate’s walk across the stage, and the recessional. Everything else is just extra.
It’s true: I love graduations. But I love the graduates more. So I’ll be there in the audience, watching for my graduate. And when I make eye contact with my beloved, I hope the message is clear: “You matter to me and I will always be here for you. Always.”
When I’m depressed, it’s almost like I feel guilty when I experience moments of cheerfulness. It feels as if I am lying or something because in fact, I don’t feel better. Underneath, I still feel the all too familiar, overwhelming sadness gripping me. So if I have a good day in the midst of a depressive episode, or even a good minute, it feels inauthentic. There’s this nagging emotional pull reminding me that the present moment is fleeting and that the sadness is waiting, lingering just on the other side of the laughter.
Can you relate? If you’ve struggled with depression, I bet you know what I mean. But if you have loved ones who have been depressed, my guess is that this sounds completely ridiculous to you. Why would someone fight feeling better? That doesn’t even make sense.
Nope. No it doesn’t. But that’s not what’s happening.
Think of depression as a separate entity from the person; let’s call it Bob. When Bob is visiting me, my feelings range from flat (best case) to despondent (worst case). When I am feeling flat, occasionally something will make me smile or even laugh. Now you might witness that and think, Bob must have moved on! What a relief for Aileen! Yet I know that Bob is actually just taking a quick nap. When I laugh, my brain—which is a terrible liar when Bob is around—says, “Hey stop that! You’ll wake up Bob!” which, naturally, wakes Bob.
This maddening cycle has frustrated me throughout my relationship with Bob. Recently though, I discovered another metaphor that seems to fit this scenario a bit better.
My epiphany moment occurred in the midst of a coughing fit. I’d had bronchitis, or some proximity thereof, for over a week. This is not unusual for me; I’m prone to bronchitis. If I get even a slight cold, it tends to go right to my bronchi (which I just call my throat, but whatever). Sniffle one day, hacking cough the next. It’s always been that way for me.
Anyway, I was coughing my ever-loving head off, so I did what I always did: I reached for my throat lozenges. Of course these are no cure for bronchitis, but they do offer a temporary reprieve from the constant coughing.
Do you see where this is going?
See, I realized that if I could think of the depression in the same way as I do bronchitis, those so-called “inauthentic” moments of happiness could stand in the place of the cough drop, offering welcome (albeit temporary) relief from a troublesome condition.
Think of it like this. Imagine I’m in the midst of a depressive episode. Still,, I manage to get myself together and get out of the house. But just as I find myself enjoying the moment, Bob starts screaming.
“HEY! Settle down! You’re sad you know. This is not real! You actually don’t feel happy. This is a lie. Get back to being sad like you’re supposed to be!”
So I just respond, “Chill Bob! I’m just taking a little cough drop therapy. No big deal. I know you are still here and are not leaving any time soon. It’s just a cough drop. That’s all.”
And Bob relaxes a bit. He’ll get all stirred up again; this is only a temporary fix—a momentary respite as it were.
When I thought of it this way, I found a number of cough drop remedies that work for me, giving me more moments of relief. Also, unlike actual cough drops, the more I enjoy the moment, the longer the moment lasts. Of course, Bob is persistent and refuses to be ignored; but I just keep putting him off a few minutes at a time. It works.
So don’t deny yourself a break from the sadness just because it feels like a lie. It’s just a cough drop. Pick a flavor you like and enjoy it. It’s really okay.
“This is fun Mommy!” Anna Kate, dressed as Princess Jasmine, held tightly to her brothers’ hands. (She wasn’t wearing her leg braces; they didn’t match her royal garb.) With her plastic pumpkin swinging from her arm, Anna Kate headed to the next house, dragging her brothers along.
International adoption had always appealed to Mark and Traci Willis. They had two biological sons; still, they longed to bring home a child from far away. They enrolled with an adoption agency and eventually received a referral for a Russian baby girl. Their boys, Connor and Lane, then four and seven years old, anxiously awaited their little sister’s homecoming. In June 2003, thirteen-month-old Anna Kate Willis came home.
“Meet our little serena,” Traci said to Dr. Amy, the pediatrician who had treated the Willis kids for years. (Serena is Russian for princess.) “We’re excited, but concerned,” Traci began. “Anna Kate has some physical delays. She’s over a year old and she can’t sit up, much less crawl or walk.” Dr. Amy watched Anna Kate as she listened to her mommy. “But she surely is feisty. We’re amazed by her determination, by her spirit.”
Dr. Amy completed her examination, agreeing with Traci’s concerns. “She’ll need to go to the Developmental Evaluation Center (DEC) for a thorough assessment.” She paused, her brow furrowed. “And, her head is small.” She wrote her diagnosis on the office form. “But, you know, she’s spent the first year of her life in an orphanage with minimal attention or affection.” Dr. Amy’s voice brightened. She reached over, caressing the back of Anna Kate’s head. “Let’s just see what a loving family can do for her.”
“Microcephaly.” Traci typed the word into the search engine. She had deciphered Dr. Amy’s writing and wanted to learn more. She glanced over at her brave little girl and back at the screen. “Microcephaly: a medical condition in which the circumference of the head is smaller than normal because the brain has not developed properly or has stopped growing.” The condition could cause mental retardation, convulsions, and worst of all, shortened life span. And we were only worried about her crawling late, Traci thought as she processed the overwhelming news.
“Anna Kate is significantly delayed developmentally,” Mark and Traci learned at the DEC. “Her gross motor skills are at the developmental stage of a child less than half her age.” The DEC prescribed weekly physical therapy and referred her to a pediatric orthopedist. “Have her brothers rough house a little with her,” the orthopedist told Mark and Traci. “That will help her muscles develop.”
“Cool!” Connor said when he heard the news. “You mean just by playing with her, we can help Anna Kate get better?”
“That’s what the doctors tell us.” Traci watched as Connor got on all fours and crawled over to his sister lying on a blanket.
“Come on Anna Kate! Let’s wrestle.” Connor often kept her company but had previously resisted physical play.
“Be careful,” Lane warned, “Be gentle with her.” Lane, the firstborn, was extra cautious with his little sister.
“Oh, she’s tough, aren’t you Anna Kate?” Connor rolled her over into a bear hug as Anna Kate giggled in agreement, embracing her playmate.
All that love and attention must have made a difference. Because, although Anna Kate was still classified as microcephalic, her head circumference showed an increase each time it was measured. Her muscles were becoming stronger too. However, at two years old, despite leg braces, ankle surgeries, and physical therapy, Anna Kate was not walking. But she wasn’t giving up either. “She’s got quite a temper,” Traci often said, “but not about her disabilities. When she falls, she just tries again. And again. It’s remarkable really.”
“Developmentally, she is still way behind in her motor skills,” the DEC technician said at her 2004 appointment, “but let’s talk about her verbal skills.”
“Mommy, what are verbal skills?”
“Exactly!” The technician laughed. “We would expect Anna Kate’s language skills to be delayed because she was born prematurely in another country. But she’s been here only fourteen months, and her vocabulary matches that of an American-born child several months older than she is. Anna Kate’s cognitive functions are advanced too. You’ve got a bright little girl here.” Ecstatic, Mark and Traci celebrated by explaining the news to their very curious serena. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Amy made it official, “Anna Kate’s head circumference is now within normal range!”
Months ticked by and Anna Kate kept trying to improve her motor skills with what appeared to be little progress. Doctors mentioned a possible diagnosis of cerebral palsy. At two and a half years old though, Anna Kate took her first independent steps. She walked on tiptoes, shifting her weight clumsily from side to side—but no doubt about it, Anna Kate was walking. With a proud smile, she walked across the room from her Daddy into her Mommy’s arms, “I did it Mommy, I did it!” Her brothers rushed in offering hugs and high fives while her parents breathed thankful prayers. “I do it again!” she said turning back to her Daddy, arms open wide.
Even so, it turned out that the doctors had been right: later that month, in November 2004, the cerebral palsy diagnosis was confirmed. Anna Kate remains determined though. It’s as if she fought her way out of a far-away orphanage so that she could have a chance at a full life. When Anna Kate first came home, her feisty temperament hinted at the depth and strength of her spirit. In time, she showed not only a fighter’s grit, but also the joyful expectation of a seasoned victor.
“Look at all my candy, Mommy!” Anna Kate held out her pumpkin for inspection, but didn’t wait for a response. “Hey, bros,” she called to her brothers who were only steps away. “Wait for me!” And off she went, a serena on tiptoe, to join brothers who were waiting to hold her hands.
Nothing in the program guide suggested I might slip through a time portal during worship. I’m sure of it; I would have noticed.
It’s one of the few aspects of my life in which I maintain some degree of consistency, predictability if you will. Every six months. Like I’d planned it or something . . . which, let’s face it—we’re talking about me here—so we all know that didn’t happen.
Before I tell you, you have to promise me that you won’t offer me any tips on how to fix this problem. Whatever suggestions you have, I’ve tried it. I might even be doing it right now.
I mean, there was that one time before I had the Civic . . .. It’s my husband’s favorite story to tell on this topic. One evening, he arrived at the Y a half an hour or so after the children and I did and parked near where I had parked. As he got out of his car, he thought he heard our van running. He walked closer and sure enough, it was; but when he tried to open the door, no luck. Oh yeah. I had left the keys in the ignition, the car turned on, air conditioning blaring, and locked the doors. (I only did that once, though.)
So back to my most recent keys-locked-in-car episode.
I’d gone to the post office just five miles from where I live. On the way, I was tuned into a great podcast on my ipad. I parked, took my keys out of the ignition, and continued listening. I was so distracted that I forgot to put the lanyard around my neck (don’t judge). When I came to a good place to pause, I grabbed my purse, locked the door, and got out of the car, shutting the door behind me.
“No no no no no!” Yes. Every door locked up tight as a drum, my bright red lanyard and attached keys sitting there on the passenger’s seat.
I went into the Post Office, mailed my letters, then went back to my car and called Triple A. (I get extra points here for having my phone with me AND my Triple A card—mark it down.)
“We’d be happy to help you with that ma’am. It looks like the estimated arrival time on that will be . . .”
About an hour and a half. Good grief. Ugh! What in the world would I do while I waited?
Then I saw the Terminex guy at his truck.
“Hey! You don’t have a slim jim in there do you?”
“As a matter of fact I do,” he told me, reaching back in to grab it. “I got it because my wife locks her keys in the car a lot.” (Smarty pants.)
Anyway, this fella was kind enough to break into my car for me. It took him twenty minutes and after five I started telling him not to worry about it that I’d just wait for Triple A.
“I’m not in any hurry. All done for the day. Plus it’s a puzzle for me now,” he said. “Can’t let it beat me!”
As he worked we joked a bit about his future as a car thief and my proficiency for locking my keys in vehicles. We chatted about the weather, the weekend, and other mundane topics. When he popped the lock, I cheered, he grinned, and that was that. I offered him $20 for his time, but he wouldn’t take it.
“Just let me do something nice for somebody, how about it?”
I protested, he refused. I thanked him, and we parted ways—him to go home to family, me to call Triple A and cancel my request. End of story.
He didn’t ask me who got my vote last November; I didn’t ask him who he supported. Maybe we voted for the same person; maybe we didn’t. But in those moments, the United States of America was truly great and the two of us were absolutely stronger together.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
Published originally January 22, 2011
Certain things bring certain people to mind. Like, at the mention of oatmeal raisin cookies, I think of my father-in-law. That man (inexplicably) believes those are the best cookies on the planet. I can just hear our ongoing debate over the benefits of other cookies, me trying to convince him that a chocolate chip cookie is most definitely superior. If I hear or see a phrase in Latin, in the same instant, my sister (a Latin teacher) comes to mind. I see her (really see her) standing, toga clad, before her students. I hear her voice, so full of passion when she talks about the language she loves. When I see daisies, my friend Traci’s favorite flower, I’m transported to her daisy-themed kitchen.
So, when I saw the order of worship at First Baptist of Marion last Sunday, I just figured the music minister had known Dan Goodman. After all, it was only a few days earlier that we marked the second anniversary of Dr. Goodman’s death. So surely, when “Be Thou My Vision” was chosen for the anthem, it was in his memory; everyone knows that was his favorite hymn.
It was the hymn we sang in the chapel on the day he died. It was sung at his funeral. And whenever someone wants to honor him, they often sing that song, post the title as their Facebook™ status, or Tweet™ a few of its words. “Be Thou My Vision.” Dan Goodman. The two were forever linked.
But the music minister didn’t know Dan Goodman personally. I asked him.
Meanwhile, Dr. Goodman’s wife, Barbara, was already at the early service in another town. She was worshiping that day with one of our mutual friends. On the way to church, Barbara mentioned, “Did you see that Aileen’s preaching in Marion today?” He had. (Facebook™. Gotta love it.) Sometime during their worship service, they made a quick decision to ditch that church and head over to Marion. Now I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure how they made their exit. Me, I like to picture them jumping up mid-homily, hurdling over co-pew dwellers, and racing out of the sanctuary. But that’s just me.
Back in Marion, the service began. From the dais, I spotted my friends in the congregation quickly, touched by their presence. I looked at Barbara, always so beautiful, her eyes sparkling, having pulled off this surprise.
The anthem. Did she know yet?
The time came. The choir stood. The organist played. My eyes found Barbara’s. The song began.
And there was Dan Goodman. Rushing out of Greek class saying, “I’ve got a lunch date with Barbara. I can’t be late for Barbara.” There he was before our New Testament class, telling of the early death of his own father, saying how much he would hate for his sons to have to endure what he did. “Maybe that’s why I want all four of us together all the time,” he said, laughing as he told us his boys were beginning to think he was dorky for wanting to be around them constantly. There he was, sunglasses clipped to the back of his shirt, water bottle in hand, standing outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. “The Jews believe memory is sacred,” he said. “Sacred memory. It’s just one more way to worship.”
The song drew to a close: "High King of heaven, my victory won, May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heav'ns Son! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Still be my vision, O ruler of all.”
The choir took their seats. The organist moved over to the piano bench. And the service proceeded, moved along by the rush of the Spirit, the light of the Son, and the immeasurable, unfathomable, inescapable love of God.
“Thou my best thought, by day or by night; Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.” From stanza one, “Be Thou My Vision.”
Published originally February 2009
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ " Isaiah 6:1-3
“In the year King Uzziah died. . .” Remember the year? It was an awful year. For the people of Judea, it was the year King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had been such a great king. During his reign, they were prosperous and peace ruled in their land. But when he died—well it felt like all hope died with him.
What year was it for you?
“In the year the shuttle crashed. . .
“In the year of September 11. . .
“In the year of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. . .
Or is it more personal?
“In the year my mother/father/sister/brother died. . .”
“In the year of my divorce. . .”
“In the year my favorite teacher died. . .”
It’s the year hope dies. The year that what was, is no more. It’s the watershed moment: when everything before and after is defined by that moment. Everyone get’s it when you say it. They nod, knowingly, as if to say, “Oh, that year. Yeah. That was awful.”
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”
I wonder what Isaiah was thinking when he went into the temple. Was he thinking, “I’m so great—righteous really—that I will lead the wretched ones out of their despair into God’s Glory. (amen)” That is, was he full of himself? Or. . .was he empty? Did he go to the temple thinking, “I’m not up for this. My hope is gone. How can I lead the people of God into his glory?”
We can’t know what he was feeling, but we know this: Isaiah went to the temple. Last Tuesday, I arrived at the divinity school to find out one of our professors, a man younger than I, had died. Soon after I learned of his death, I heard we would be having a chapel service in a few hours.
It was a terrible day. It was like the year the shuttle crashed. It was like September 11th. I felt shock, confusion, grief. It was that day. You know the one?
Like Isaiah went to the temple, I went to the chapel. By grace, I was not met by the fearsome vision that Isaiah beheld. But I did see God there. I saw God in the tear stained faces of my godly professors, struggling as we were to make sense of this tragedy. I saw God in the hunched forms of students, embraced by other students. I heard God in the stories, the testimonies, the music. God filled up that chapel last Tuesday.
In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah went to the temple. And despite his despair, Isaiah saw God there. But Isaiah did not stop with that one visit to the temple. Isaiah kept going back. Sometimes, he surely felt the full presence of God’s glory. Sometimes, though, I bet he came away with little more than a meal plan for the upcoming week. Still, he kept going back to the temple, going back to worship. And somehow, I’d say miraculously, he found his way out of the darkness of grief; he found his way back to hope.
To my sweet babies. You: who I held in your earliest days, whose preschool programs I applauded, whose elementary school presentations I attended, whose milestones I’ve celebrated. You: who have cried in my arms, on my couch, and on my shoulder. You: who I have counseled, advised, guided. You who I have loved and who have loved me in return: Hear me.
This US election is not the solution to the world’s problems or the creation of them. This is neither the beginning, nor the end. This is a moment. An historic moment, a game-changing moment, a moment for rejoicing or weeping depending on your perspective. But beloveds, this is one out of many such moments in the history of our nation and of our world.
Are you listening? This is important.
Some of you are delighted with the results of last night’s election. Okay, that’s fine. But don’t be a braggart. Be gentle and be kind. It is not okay, no matter what the world tells you, to call people names, to boast in victory, to bully others with no regard for their feelings, interests, or even opinions.
Watch your language. (You know how I feel about this!) Despite what your government’s leaders may model, it is not right or good to use filthy language. Rise above it. If you feel like a winner today, use language becoming of royalty, not trash.
Finally, if you are claiming this victory as a victory for Christ, please remember that there are people who share your faith, but not your political beliefs. You can be happy about who won or about whom you defeated. This is one of the wonderful things about this nation: you have the unalienable right to your opinion. But this right comes from your citizenship in the United States; as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, you are called to adhere to the message of Christ who said it is the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers who are blessed, not the boastful, the prideful, and the rude.
Are you devastated this morning? I’m so sorry. I wish I could make your pain go away by swaddling you tighter, by finding your lost lovey, or by binging on Ben & Jerry’s with you. I long for the days when your pain could be wiped off with a cool cloth and soothed by a band-aid. I know this is not one of those days.
I also know this: though you may grieve, you do not have to grieve as those who have no hope. If you feel this is a loss for the Kingdom of God, remember that God’s greatest strength was found on the cross; yet to the world, it looked like an irredeemable loss. This is not a defeat for God. It does look to many of us like a loss for our country, but no election can defeat God. Shoot, even death didn’t.
Now. Things will change because of this election. In all likelihood, you and I will need to become more involved as volunteers and as activists. We will need to take the initiative to protect our environment and to build bridges into relationships with people who are different from us. We need to listen, not just to people who share our opinions, but especially to those who do not. We must take steps to fight injustice and oppression wherever they are found. We must reach out to the strangers in our midst and we must care for the people on the fringes of society.
Here's what I think. I think that you can change this. Your innovative ideas, your unique way of thinking, your particular gifts, your awareness of others; all of these qualities empower you to bring about good and lasting change. Oft quoted American minister and reformer Theodore Parker (1810-1860) said
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”*
No doubt, Theodore Parker was frustrated by the inequity of the moral universe; his participation in reform movements led him to fight for women’s rights, public education, and most fervently for the abolition of slavery. His efforts frequently came to little avail. Yet he had hope.
And so do you.
Rest in that hope. Rest in the confidence that love always, always wins. And when your strength is restored, move forward. Create beauty. Encourage conversation. Seek innovative solutions. Reach across boundaries into new relationships. In so doing, even if you didn’t see the results you wanted last night, you will most certainly get a glimpse of God’s Kingdom tomorrow.