Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Being Clear on Transparency

A recent walk on the beach inspired
all this transparency thinking...
Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the issue of transparency. Maybe because it has become a favorite buzz word of politicians and pundits of all political persuasions. Or maybe it’s because social media have given people a convenient forum for proclaiming their every action and thought, no matter how trivial or offensive. Most likely, though, this transparency thinking was spurred by a recent walk on the beach in search of sea glass.

Frosty nuggets of varying hues, as lovely as any semi-precious stone
I wasn’t aware of the existence of sea glass until I read a magazine article about it a few years ago. Being a landlocked beach bum, I became mesmerized by its beauty. I switched the focus of any beach-combing opportunity from searching for shells to searching for this rare ocean gem. Rare because it’s much harder to find than shells, even intact ones.  And a gem because—while mankind does lend a hand—nature applies patience and force to make this glass as lovely as any semi-precious stone. The process for making sea glass is cyclic. Nature gives sand and heat to humans, who combine these components in such a way as to produce glass. Then, some bits of that glass eventually find their way back to nature, specifically to the sea. Over time, sand and surf toss and tumble those bits until they are polished to frosty nuggets of varying hues. 

During my most recent search for this treasure, I picked up the occasional piece of glass, examined it for its cloudy quality, and ran my finger around the edges.  Any shards that still contained transparent spots or sharp edges were discarded—given back to the sea so she could continue working her magic on them. The pieces passing muster—after hours of searching, there were only a couple—had been sanded to translucence, permitting  muted rather than glaring light to pass through them. The edges had been buffed to harmless smoothness. The chosen pieces were pleasing to my eye, soothing to my touch, and satisfying to my soul.

Transparency has its place...
Transparent glass has its place. If I buy a jar of pickles, I want to see them through the clear jar and know exactly what I’m getting. Transparent windows in my house allow enough sun for me to see clearly in daytime hours without artificial means. But, depending on its purpose, glass doesn’t always have to expose everything. Sometimes, glass is beautiful and desired when it has been rendered hazy but still allows light to penetrate in a softer, gentler way.

I look at the need for transparency of information much the same. Times exist when we definitely need clear-cut, accurate facts to make informed decisions that will impact our lives. But like glass, stark, revealing words are not needed in any and all situations. Do we really need information that won’t affect our lives other than insult our intelligence or offend our sensibilities? Do we need information for which we lack the necessary background or ability to process? Are we entitled to every jot and tittle of information even when it might result in harm to others? I’m not talking just politics or government, here. There are plenty of instances in our personal lives when we should carefully consider and answer those same questions. This discernment also applies to the words we speak. Is it really necessary for all of our opinions to be shared? Even if we state facts, is it necessary they be expressed? If they are, has the filter of care or concern or tact made our words less glaring and harsh? Will something constructive be achieved from their being spoken? 

Long ago a very wise person (source obscure) established a litmus test for the words we speak. I will add we should also apply this test to the words we listen to. We should always ask, “Is it true?” “Is it kind?” “Is it necessary?” It’s a practice much easier said than done. It usually takes years to learn, and sadly we often undergo much tumbling and tossing before we perfect it, if perfection is even attainable. However, if we diligently pursue it, this habit has the potential to turn our words into rare, polished gems  . . . as rare and polished as sea glass. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Sometimes It Takes a Funeral

You don’t have to remind me. I realize that in a January post (just three short months ago) I blatantly proclaimed “joy” as my focus word for 2018. I still claim that word, and I still strive to obey the Apostle Paul’s command to “be full of joy in the Lord” (Philippians 4:4). But sometimes that joy in the Lord must struggle to overcome my human proclivity to slip, for no identifiable reason, into the doldrums. Not mad or deeply depressed. Just in need of an attitude adjustment. 

Thankfully, this doesn’t happen often, but I had such a morning a few days ago. Maybe my dour mood was the result of a restless night. Or maybe it was brought about by a return of winter temperatures that had worn out their welcome. Or—to paraphrase a great line from Steel Magnolias—maybe it was because the elastic in my pantyhose was shot. Whatever the source of my malaise, I needed a strong dose of encouragement to lift me out of it. 

I got it from a very unlikely place.

On my schedule that day was a memorial service for a former assistant pastor at my church. Marvin had overseen congregational care and nurturing and, in my opinion, was the perfect person for the job. We weren’t really what you’d call close friends, but we often exchanged greetings and handshakes at church. No matter how brief those exchanges, I always felt good after they occurred. Marvin always—and I mean always—had words of encouragement to share. At over eighty years old, he was one of the most gracious, positive men I knew.

From the messages and testimonies at his service, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Because that’s what Marvin was—an encourager. The trait was second nature to him. In fact, one of his eulogizers referred to him as “a Barnabas”—that early church leader who was nicknamed “Son of Encouragement.” 

Marvin had planned much of his own funeral, and to use one of the phrases he often bestowed on others, it was “the total package.” Marvin’s life had not been free from pain and challenges. He had dealt with job frustration, depression, and divorce. Yet the music and the singers and the messengers he selected to participate in his service all gave testimony to God’s power to lift us from our hurts and  problems—even the doldrums—to a life of hope and joy in Him.

My heart ached for Marvin’s close friends and family who certainly were suffering a great loss in their lives. But I also was uplifted. A man who had encouraged so many people while alive continued to do so from beyond the grave. I left that service determined to be more encouraging in my own words and actions—an area in which I often fall short. On a day when I really needed it, my spirit had been refreshed with  a sense of gratitude for people like Marvin and for all that is good in this world.

As I said, sometimes it takes a funeral to give us a renewed outlook. Not a tragic service in which the departed left this world far too early or unprepared. But one that is truly a celebration of a life well lived. 

          How about you? Have you ever found inspiration in an unusual place or circumstance?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Moonlight and Meatloaf

In the Author’s Note in Some Form of Grace, I promised readers some down-home recipes from Flo’s restaurant. Today I decided to go with Flo’s Famous Meatloaf because when Flo features this as her blue plate special, the line is out the door. (Get recipe here.)
To get the ball rolling on this post, I googled “quotes about meatloaf” (not to be confused with “quotes by Meat Loaf”), hoping to find something really clever or funny as a good lead-in. Fortunately, I found quite a few quotes. Unfortunately, I also found that in the food world, meatloaf is maligned only slightly less than Spam. Of those quotes, 99% of were not the sort that would entice you to click on a meatloaf recipe. For example: “Meatloaf. I don’t like it. It’s like a bunch of hamburgers that got caught in a car accident” (Norman’s Corner, 1987). Or this: “Meatloaf. Smeatloaf. Double beatloaf. I hate meatloaf” (Randy-A Christmas Story, 1983).  

But I was diligent in my search and eventually came across this: “If you make this meatloaf for the boy you’re hung up on, you’ll own him” (Bijou Hunter, Damaged and the Bulldog.)

Ding! Ding! Ding! I’d hit the Daily Double. A quote for meatloaf AND Valentine’s Day  all in one. I could multi-task! In the blogosphere, it doesn’t get much better. 

For all the verbal abuse it takes, meatloaf—if done right—can be delicious. And, believe me, Flo does hers right. As proof, I made her recipe for dinner while recently visiting family. My niece said her husband didn’t eat meatloaf, so she’d bring some fried chicken. Not that I was watching, but that evening I noticed he not only ate meatloaf but went back for seconds. 

So ladies, if you want to please your sweetie this Valentine’s Day, whip up this recipe for a romantic dinner. Chill the wine, dim the lights, and, as the quote says, “…you’ll own him.” 

Give this recipe a try and let me know how it works for you, but please keep your comments G-rated.

PS Gentlemen, this goes for you, too. What lady wouldn’t appreciate a meal thoughtfully prepared by your own hands? And if you throw in kitchen cleanup, she’ll be positively swooning.

PPS Wine with meatloaf? Why not? Go here and enter meatloaf in the search bar.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

First Runner-up: Expectancy

Last week I blogged about joy, the word that would direct my mind set for 2018. I explained in that post I’d decided upon the word during Advent when I read in Philippians 4:4 that uplifting command to "Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again--rejoice!” 

...an intriguing combination
of allegory and analysis
Until that time, I’d had another strong contender: expectancy. I’d begun considering it early in the fall, after reading Allen Arnold’s The Story of With: A Better Way to Live, Love, and Create,  

While reading this book, a section of it gave me pause because it seemed to go against so much of what I’d been told all my life about having expectations. I’d always considered expectations desirable things. What happened to "setting our expectations high" or "living up to high expectations"? When we complete any task, we have certain outcomes we want our work to achieve. What’s wrong with that?
But while Arnold doesn’t encourage having expectations, he does recommend living with expectancy. And he explains there is a vast difference.

Expectations are what we think should happen. They lead us to think we should be in control. And when our expectations are unmet--which often happens--it leads to disappointment, disillusionment, and discouragement.

Living with a sense of expectancy accomplishes the opposite. Expectancy is being open and prepared to accept what does happen.  Living with expectancy keeps us in a state of readiness or anticipation for what comes our way—whether good or bad. Expectancy leaves room for God to take our lives, our work, our situations far beyond what we would have ever imagined.

I'll admit it took me a while to wrap my mind around this idea. But after giving it considerable thought, it began to make sense. And it gave me an entire new way of looking at the book I would soon be releasing. What freedom there was in letting go of expectations for Some Form of Grace! I sent my best writing, publishing, and marketing efforts into the world and let go of expectations for reviews or awards or financial success. I could live in expectancy of what God would do with my book. 

Both joy and expectancy would make excellent focus words for the year. In choosing between them, the struggle was real. For various reasons, joy won out, but that doesn't mean I won't be living in expectancy of what God will do with my choice. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

I Chose "Joy"

The odds of my sticking to a New Year’s resolution are about the same as an egg sticking to a brand new Teflon skillet. So a couple of years ago, I jumped at the idea of picking an idea or word to focus on for the new year rather than making a resolution I would never keep. Whoever came up with this brilliant idea, I thank you from the bottom of my undisciplined heart.

The word I chose for 2018 is joy. Please bear with me as I explain how I arrived at it. A few years ago (I’m still not sure how this happened), I became the “co-facilitator” of an adult Sunday school class at my church. After a study of the book of Acts, we decided to embark on a study of the letters of Paul. We figured it would take us about a year or so to work through them but soon discovered the Apostle had a lot more to say to Christians of the first century than we’d originally thought. We also discovered he has a lot to say to Christians today. So after three years of diligent study (with an occasional break and a few rabbit trails thrown in), last fall we were ready to tackle the book of Philippians. Chronologically, Philippians is near the last of Paul’s letters, so like a horse who senses he’s near the end of a journey and starts trotting for the barn, we charged full steam ahead, not even planning to break for an Advent study. But as so often happens with God’s “mysterious ways,” Philippians turned out to be a perfect study for Advent. The last Sunday in Advent found us at Philippians, Chapter 4, which includes that beautiful commandment (notice it's a command, not a suggestion) for Christians to be joyful.  “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!” (v.4)  And what is Advent if not a time of joy? 

Of course, a Christian’s joy shouldn’t be limited to the season of Advent. It should be continuous. And that is why I chose the word joy for 2018. Through the good times and happy experiences and even through the hurts and disappointments, I want to be mindful of and dependent on the deep-seated joy God provides for those that know him.  I want to always be aware that “ache is not the last word for those who believe God” (Ann Voskamp) and that “Joy…is the gigantic secret of the Christian” (G. K. Chesterton).

For my favorite video of 2017 and a demonstration of pure, unadulterated joy click here. If you can watch this and your spirits aren't lifted, you might want to check if you're alive. 

                      Wishing you and your loved ones unlimited joy in 2018!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Advent Reflections: Grace and Bling

Unfortunately, Nordstrom has sold out
of their sandals. But if you think the man
 in your life would LOVE a little bling,
 these can be purchased at Neiman- Marcus.
I’ve long considered laughter one of God’s best gifts to people. In my Advent reading, I discovered Ann Voskamp feels much the same way. In fact, she calls laughter “oxygenated grace,” and I agree it's exactly that. How else could we survive all this Earth-generated insanity without moments of  belly-holding, tears-flowing exuberance? 

For about a week, I’d been planning this post, thinking about what poignant and insightful thoughts I could share on the subject. I fear I was headed toward a post that was more likely to evoke tears of boredom than tears of laughter, but then my daughter Kristin called. Fortunately for you, my plans changed. While I hope you see this as more of an offering of “oxygenated grace” than an opportunity for Grammy Dee to tell about her precious grandsons, in reality it might be a bit of both.

Kristin called to tell me about going Christmas shopping with seven-year-old Brooks. (Yes, Master Brooks is seven now!) On a mission to pick out a present for his dad, she and Brooks somehow ended up in the high-dollar section of Nordstrom—the section with designer clothes bearing designer price tags. Before Kristin figured out her mistake, Brooks had already zeroed in on the perfect gift for his dad. “Oh, wow, Dad will LOVE these!” (Brooks hardly ever lacks for enthusiasm.) He picked up a black leather sandal, all blinged out with gold studs.

Kristin could only stare, struck speechless by the disconnect between her son’s perception of his dad’s fashion sense and the actual thing. Among the statements she could make with certainty about Brad, “Bling is not his thing,” would be a near the top. How could she explain that his dad would appreciate a pair of black leather, gold-studded sandals about as much as he would a new pony? Fortunately, the problem solved itself when Brooks turned the shoe over and saw the price tag, for while he might be enthusiastic he is also practical. 

“FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS FOR A PAIR OF SANDALS?!!!” His astonishment resonated throughout the entire first floor. But not easily daunted, he moved on to another pair of shoes he was sure his dad would “LOVE!!!” A pair of designer red suede sneakers. 

Kristin determined that this store was clearly not going to fulfill their shopping requirements, so she ushered Brooks down the mall to Dillard’s where—his enthusiasm in no way daunted—he wasted no time picking out some more perfect gifts: a snow globe or a shiny gold cocktail plate. Once again, he assured Kristin his dad would “LOVE!!!” them. 

At that point, Kristin saw this shopping expedition was going nowhere and suggested they meet up with Brad and Bennett, who were happily ensconced outside the Hickory Farms store scarfing down popcorn. Five-year-old Bennet had finished his Christmas shopping many days before at his preschool, where he and his classmates had purchased minimally-priced gifts from among items donated by parents. (Think white elephant sale.) 

Brooks was not happy about this halt to his endeavors. I mean, a guy’s enthusiasm can stretch only so far. He’d made several wonderful suggestions only to have his picky mother veto them for no good reason. 

Back at their house, the Christmas tree is still lacking a gift from Brooks to his dad, but thanks to Bennett, Brad is not giftl-ess. Nor is he bling-less. Kristin has it on good word—from Bennett—that come Christmas morning, Brad will be the proud owner of a shiny gold chain.

I’m sure he’s going LOVE it! 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Reflections on Advent: A New Connection

At my church’s annual Christmas brunch, the question was raised: “Are you ready for Christmas?” It seems we hear it everywhere this time of the year, and it has been known to throw more than one person into a yuletide panic. Please don’t hate me, but since I’m not hosting Christmas at my house this year, I haven’t shifted into panic mode. Yet. I still  need to do some shopping and card-mailing and baking, but at least I don’t have to do a lot of decorating. And I don’t have to search for an Advent devotional book because this year I’m re-reading Ann Voskamp’s The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas.
I’m a fan of Voskamp not only for what she writes but also for how she writes it. Admittedly, her style is sometimes a bit confusing, but I’ve found if I linger over her words long enough, I realize she has actually used the just the right words in just the right order. 

While reading the first devotional in her book, I lingered long over this: “The mattering part is never what isn’t.” Confusing at first, but it makes so much sense in the context of her focus on Isaiah 11:1-2, 10. “Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot …” 

I don’t claim to be a theologian or Bible scholar, and I’m not presuming to rewrite Voskamp’s devotional. This is just my personal takeaway, my reflection, on her words. In these verses, the prophet Isaiah is saying that what has been cut down and cast away—the what isn’t—no longer matters. In the midst of its upheaval and destruction, God promises the nation of Judah a new shoot, a new way to connect to him through a Messiah. A new what is

What a wonderful thought with which to begin Advent! In spite of our past disappointments and failures—our own personal upheavals—God has provided us a new what is in Jesus. We can go forward, clinging to the new shoot of Jesse's tree, connecting with God through him. Praying that during this season of Advent, you will find the time and desire to make or strengthen that connection.