Seeds of Beauty

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Friday evening, I went to the funeral visitation for the father of one of my El Crucero girls. Two friends and I had already visited this child’s grandmother earlier in the week, where we had sat, drinking the cold water we had been handed and listening (via translation) to the grandmother’s grief. Her husband had passed away only 4 short months ago, and now her son, the baby of her 7 grown children–was gone, too.

It is too much.

Our young friend, the daughter of the deceased, wasn’t there. We don’t see her until we get to the funeral home. When we arrive, she is surrounded by cousins. Her little brother is coloring and seems unconcerned by the weight of the event. All of the children are in the front room of the funeral home, avoiding the specter of death in the room behind them. I avoid it, too, staying with the children, meeting the ones who are new to me, talking with a couple of their mothers.

It is the most somber visitation I have ever attended. I also come from a large family and have attended many viewings. They have always been one part tears and one part laughter. This visitation is missing the laughter.

This is our 3rd child to lose a father this year –2 to death and 1 to deportation.

Somehow that doesn’t seem normal to my experience. Elementary school and middle school children shouldn’t lose their parents on such frequency.

I often forget that there are aspects of my El Crucero children’s lives that are outside of my experience. The more time I spend with them, the more I forget. I see their joy and their squabbles. I hear their chatter about school and parents and dreams, and it all seems so normal and predictable. . .

Until I get a jolting reminder that many of my children deal with circumstances that should never be considered normal:

A child will ask for an extra bag of chips at the end of church on Sunday and tell me that our evening snack is the first food she’s had all day. Another child will privately tell us about the man who has been arrested because he did something to her he shouldn’t have. At homework help, a conversation about crushes will morph into an enumeration of which of our 7th-grade boys smoke pot.

Somehow, I always feel blindsided by these proofs of what is wrong with our world. Every time.

But I’m also perpetually discovering the beauty of loving well in hard places. Wherever pain and loss and lack is present, we have an opportunity to plant a seed of beauty. . . a seed of grace, a seed of hope, a seed of community.

This week my heart is heavy for a beautiful family’s loss, but it is also encouraged by the ways I’ve seen our El Crucero community rally to be a physical expression of Jesus to this family–through significant donations to the burial fund and a gorgeous bouquet of flowers, yes; but most especially through presence and connection.

I am increasingly realizing that every ugly, scary, painful situation around us is an opportunity to plant a seed of beauty. To stand in solidarity. To offer what help we have to give–a meal, a ride, a hug, a smile, a listening ear, a sincere prayer….

Of course, it is so much easier not to reach out into someone else’s pain, but these seeds can only be planted by pulling up our sleeves and getting down into the dirt. Being present in a dark place hurts. But choosing to do so out of love for another is a holy experience. Such choices connect us to each other and to God.

Be a seed planter.

A Word for 2016

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Note: This post was written in response to a Compassion Bloggers writing prompt.

A new year is coming and I am yet again reminded how selfish I am….how much I want to be in control of my environment and the people in it.

I don’t like this part of myself, but there it is again.

December seems to be my tipping point into frazzled discontent. The month is spent racing to get my children ready for their various performances, preparing for and celebrating the FIVE family birthdays we have between Dec. 10 and Jan. 10, juggling work parties, family expectations, the heightened planning and activity at El Crucero, the out-of-town visitors, the unexpected trips to the hospital (3 out of the past 4 years some member of my household has had to go to the ER sometime during Christmas week), the extra traffic, extra sugar, extra chores……

It all adds up to one exhausted and stressed mama.

That is not who I want to be….it’s not who any of us want to be.

The sad truth is that I am not only like this in December. December may be the triathlon, but I spend much of the year training in stressful activity and frustrated inefficiency.

So what is my word for 2016? Perhaps reduction would make sense. Or organization. Or patience. Or peace…..or gratitude.

I think all of these words have a role in how I redirect our family life in the coming year. But none of these are the words I want to define my life this year.

JOY. Joy is the word I want to live by this year. I want to know the joy of walking closely with God, the joy of raising my children, the joy of connecting with and serving others, the joy of being a forgiven, forgiving, grace-filled, beauty-loving, compassionate and unselfish woman.

As with all fruits of the Spirit, joy is both a gift of God and a discipline to strive after, develop and practice.

I will not attain godly joy immediately, but I am going to begin taking steps this very day to release my worries, frustrations, and selfish expectations and to make more time in my day to worship my creator and to recognize his presence and activity all around me.

Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.

This will be my mantra this year.

I encourage you to hold me accountable! And I pray you find joy in your own walk with God this year.

Be encouraged! Let’s focus our hearts and minds on Jesus this year and experience his hope, his consolation, his strength, his salvation, his life-giving PRESENCE.

What’s your word for 2016?

Seeking joy, too? Here’s a helpful place to start: 25 Bible Verses about Joy.

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:

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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.

Ode to the Show Tune

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“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.