Longitude and Gratitude

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This past Sunday night at El Crucero, in preparation for Thanksgiving, all of our small groups were doing lessons on thankfulness. My husband, Cliff, began his lesson by asking the boys in his group what “gratitude” means. After a bit of head-scratching, one boy spoke up: “You mean like longitude and gratitude?”

Cliff and I chuckled over this story on the way home, but the phrase has stayed with me all week.

Longitude and gratitude. Wonderful analogies spring to mind: the impact of gratitude on our horizontal and vertical relationships, the value of gratitude as a navigational tool in our journey through life, gratitude as a to-be-desired destination….

Instead of heading down any of these paths, though, I think I’ll simply replay a snippet of my small group time with the 3rd/4th/5th grade girls last weekend:

Giving Thanks

My nine girls and I begin the night by reading a short passage in Luke about 10 lepers (17:11-19). As usual, the girls go around the circle, each reading a verse out loud until we have finished the passage.

While they are reading, volunteers keep coming in and out of the room bringing in the night’s snack—pie and milk—so there is a fair amount of commotion. We reach the end of the passage and no one seems to be able to tell me what we’ve just read, so I stand up on a chair to enact it for them.

“Does anyone remember what leprosy is?” I ask.

I pause until someone gives me an answer and then I continue: “Yes, it’s a horrible skin disease. Let’s pretend I’ve got this skin disease. Some of my fingers have fallen off. I’ve got terrible sores everywhere. You believe I am contagious.”

I hold out my hand to the girl beside me and ask, “”Do you want me to touch you?”

“Ewww! No!”

I look around the room.

“Do you want me to live next to you? Go to school with you? Ride the bus with you?”

Collectively the girls respond to each question, “No!”

“Well, the people who lived at this time in history didn’t want to catch the disease either, so they made everyone with leprosy leave the city.”

My girls are visibly surprised by this.

“So, I’ve had to leave my family. I can’t go to school. I’m living outside the city gate. No one wants to come near me. I’m lonely! And I’m sick. So when I see Jesus passing by I cry out to him: HAVE PITY ON ME! HELP ME!”

I loudly call out these last six words, not only trying to demonstrate the lepers’ desperation, but trying to hold onto my girls’ easily-lost attention.

“Now, what does Jesus tell me to do?”

“Go to the priest,” answers Yorleni after a pause.

“Yes! He tells me to go to the priest. I’m not well yet, but I do what he says. I obey him. Then what? What happens to me and the 9 other lepers?”

Fingers quickly search the page. “They are healed.”

“Yes! They are healed while they are on their way to the priest. When this happens, one of the men does something different than the rest. What does he do?”

Another pause and Alma declares: “He goes back to thank Jesus.”

“Yes!”

Here I step down from the chair, walk to the end of the long table and kneel down.

“Jesus! Thank you!”

My voice begins to crack, “Thank you for making me well! Thank you, thank you!”

My eyes begin to fill and the words I’m saying become powerfully real to me: “I can go home again! I can see my family again. THANK YOU!”

By the time I finish this short speech, I am crying. I look over at the table full of astonished faces, and I am as surprised by my crying as they are.

I try to steady my voice as I return to my chair, “Only one of the men turned back. The rest were happy to be healed, too, but they were so focused on what they had been given that they never stopped to think about the one who had healed them. They never thought to tell Jesus thank you.”

I notice that Jakeline is gently nodding her head in agreement with me. Her eyes are glassy, reflecting my own.

As I sit down, Yoselin enthusiastically declares, “Wow, Ms. Brooke. You are a really good actress. You looked like you were really crying.”

“That wasn’t acting, Yoselin. I really was crying.”

What I don’t know how to share with my girls, what I have a difficult time putting into words is how deeply I feel such stories of restoration. With a single act of healing, Jesus restored this man’s health, his family, and his community; and, most amazingly of all, declared him right with God.

Just as beautifully, Jesus restores my broken relationships. He places me in community (El Crucero, for one). He reconciles me to God. How infrequently my heart and mouth give thanks.

Longitude and Gratitude. I’ve decided it must be that joy-filled point of intersection where we recognize and appreciate what God has done for us.

The Dominion of Fear: How Do We Respond When the World is in Turmoil?

Another morning, another devastating headline.

How are we to process such a barrage of tragedy? Some of us have become desensitized and feel nothing. Others of us feel sad. Or angry.

Many, many of us feel fear.

Fear is such a strong emotion. Anyone who knows me well, knows I have certainly battled it myself. My first child was born 4 weeks early in the midst of a particularly bad flu season; and, in my obsessive desire to protect him, he and I didn’t emerge from my house into public spaces for about 3 months.

I didn’t just find ways to keep my son home during that time, I barricaded myself in and shut the world out. I wouldn’t even do my own grocery shopping because I thought I’d bring the flu home with me.

My husband had to handle all communication with the outside world. When he would return home, I would ask him to leave his shoes outside the door and head immediately to the shower. I was neurotically afraid of germs.

Once fear had taken such complete control of my life, I became a slave to it. Even after flu season was over and my baby was big and healthy, I couldn’t shake my fanatical need to shield him from germs. I had been living in isolation from the rest of civilization, and I found it very difficult to re-emerge.

Fear has the insidious power to darken every aspect of our lives, impacting our decisions and driving our relationships. Once fear takes hold, we often become irrational in our decision-making and destructively self-focused. My early months of motherhood left me feeling anxious, alone and depressed. I was far from God, and it wasn’t long before I entered a season of anger and bitterness. Only after I rejoined a community and re-ignited my relationship with God did I begin to let go of my fear and all the ugly feelings and attitudes that had grown out of it.

We are living in a time of great fear. Atrocious stories of unforeseeable acts of violence and destruction fill the news. Every week seems to bring another horrible incident and a new count of innocent lives lost. It is unsurprising that our instinct as individuals and as a country is to close and lock the doors. As insidiously as germs can infiltrate our homes, we are afraid terrorism will slip into our country, invisible but deadly.

The truth is that we can’t lock out acts of terror. Your kindergartener could be killed today at school, but you send her anyway. You and your husband could be shot attending prayer meeting tonight, but you attend anyway. Your teenager could die in an explosion at the movie theater this weekend, but you give him permission to go anyway.

A terrorist might be among the thousands of authentically desperate refugees, but we need to offer sanctuary anyway.

The opposite of fear is courage and the opposite of self-centeredness is love of others. Courage and love of others. As a culture, we claim to admire both of these qualities. So, then, why don’t we strive more purposefully to live them out?

Even in light of the Paris attacks, I stand by my earlier post “Refugees, (Il)legal Immigrants, and the Christian.” Let’s let compassion motivate our attitudes and decisions. We cannot defeat darkness with hate and fear. Only love can do that.

The world will only know we are Christians by our love.

 

Ode to the Show Tune

show tunes

“I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play new music….”* A simple line of melody and immediately my heart soars. Suddenly all that is commonplace fades away; and life, stunning and grand, is beckoning to me to join the music. “Haunting me and somehow taunting me, my love was never half as true….”

“Please.”* A single sung word, clear, beautiful and so heavy with meaning that the moment I hear it my eyes begin to fill. By the time this short song is done, my heart wants to burst. Long before I had children of my own, the desperate cry of this forgotten mother was already piercing me to my core.

“There are giants in the sky.” * A silly tale, sung by a half-wit character grabs my imagination and speaks to me of lost dreams. I wonder what kind of genius can create such poignancy out of such simplicity. “And you think of all of the things you’ve seen, and you wish that you could live in-between….”

I like to believe that we all have beauty “triggers”—certain specific types of places, people, activities or things that, when encountered, fill us with awe, that refresh our soul and make the world seem like a brighter place. I think many of us share similar triggers: catching a glimpse of multi-colored sky at sunset, gazing out on a calm expanse of beach and ocean, holding a newborn. What strikes me as more interesting, though, is how often these triggers can be so radically different from one person to the next. What touches the deepest parts of one person’s soul can seem mundane (or perhaps even annoying) to another.

For as long as I can remember, show tunes have been one of my most faithful “beauty triggers.” No matter how I’m feeling, I can turn on a beloved soundtrack and feel an immediate lift. At home, the tunes give me an extra bounce as I go about chores; in the car, they compel me to sing along. On a deeper level, though, these stories set to music have a strange power to cut right to my heart. Somehow, while listening, I feel that the veil of the ordinary is pulled back and I’m stepping into the current of all that is real and significant about humanity.

My love affair with musicals took root early, initially ignited and fueled by annual television screenings of The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music and by trips to the movie theater to see an assortment of Disney animated films. By second grade, I had become obsessed with Annie. My life goal was to move to New York and play the title role on Broadway. In the years that followed, I saw 2 touring productions of the show (one in Alabama and one in Tokyo, Japan–in Japanese) and became a huge fan of the 1982 movie. In middle school, I became active in local community theatre; and by high school, much of my social life revolved around theatre productions. In fact, a passion for show tunes was one of the dominant common denominators in my friend set.

Thirty years later, I still have my Annie collection--poster and all.
Thirty years later, I still have my Annie collection–poster and all.

Now, many years later, certain songs, certain soundtracks bring back past seasons of my life, past friendships, long-ago joys and pains. My enjoyment of such musicals has become a multilayered experience, often as bittersweet because of past connections as it is beautiful in the present.

As much as I adore books and movies, I do not tend to re-read or re-watch them. If I truly like a musical, though, I will listen to it persistently until every note, every word embeds itself in long term memory. Amazingly, no matter how much I listen, the music maintains its power to make me cry, or laugh, or simply sing along. In fact, the better I know a musical, the more it becomes a springboard and background for my contemplations on the complexity of life and relationships.

I think it is interesting that although I can enjoy a show tune apart from its show, I only really begin to appreciate its power and brilliance once I’ve heard it in its true context. Knowledge about the characters, their histories and their current situations provide me with the pathway to understand and enter into the emotions, dilemmas, and joys they are expressing through song.

I’d like to think that in this way show tunes offer us a reflection of how we can best relate to people in the real world. We might admire someone from afar, but until we really know who they are, where they’ve been and what they are walking through now, we have no framework for understanding or appreciating them. We are not likely to be able to empathize with their struggles or participate in their joys.

Show tunes allow us to briefly enter into the experience of another. In that way, they not only entertain, but can enlighten, encourage, and engage us. This is also true of many other storytelling mediums, but somehow the well-executed combination of music and storytelling creates a magic more powerful than either has alone. After experiencing a great musical, my heart can honestly say:

“And I know things now, many valuable things, that I hadn’t know before….”*

*Musical Quotations are from: Ragtime, Miss Saigon, and Into the Woods.