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.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

More Than Just Eating

Not sure what it says about me, but when I finished writing Some Form of Grace, I noticed there was a lot of eating going on in the story. My first inclination was to attribute the high incidence of eating incidents to my unfortunate passion for food. But then I recalled some information I’d read several years ago in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In that book, author and English professor Thomas C. Foster explains that whenever you run across characters in a story sharing a meal, more often than not there is more than just eating going on. He claims, “Whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion." And, indeed, much communion does take place over the course of my story.

Admittedly, I didn’t have this notion all plotted and outlined as I developed the eating scenes in my novel. But as I look back on it, I realize I’d happily stumbled onto this important principle. Two of my characters who are at odds with each other begin to bridge their differences only when they sit down  together for a snack (yellow cake with buttercream frosting). After that, many of their self-revelations take place while consuming food in some form or another, and as a result, their understanding and acceptance of each other continue to grow. 

The point of this post is twofold. First, it serves as an intro to a new page on my blog. In the Author’s Note in Some Form of Grace, I promised to post recipes from Flo’s Restaurant from time to time. It is only fitting that the first recipe is for bread pudding, as the yummy dessert provides an opportunity for further bonding between the protagonist Gracene and her foil. Second, this post comes on the brink of the holiday season, a time that heavily focuses on food and eating and fellowship. This Thanksgiving, whether you participate in a family gathering or join with friends or take part in a public or church-sponsored meal, remember to do this: Give thanks not only for the food but also for the people around you—for those with whom you can clasp hands and say, “I’m with you…we form a community together.”

May You and Your Community Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

NOTE: If you want to know how bread pudding brings two people together, you’ll have to read the book. But if you want an easy recipe for one of my personal favorite desserts, you have only to click here.

Mark and Kathy Sewell, dedicated sponsors and volunteers
at Exodus House celebrate at annual Thanksgiving Dinner
hosted by Wesley United Methodist Church.
Residents, administrators, and sponsors came
together to celebrate God's gifts of redemption and

Benny looks very pleased with the
Christmas decoration he got to pick out.

Kim's apartment will definitely be decked out
in style!

Jay claims these are for his kids.
Yeah, right...

Monday, October 30, 2017

Orange Jello Fluff

I received an invitation from Maria Polson Veres to attend an open mic event where she would be reading selections from her newly released chapbook Church People. Being a big fan of Maria and her work, I accepted. 

As the title suggests, Church People is a collection of poems about individuals she has encountered on her faith journey as a Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and—I love this—“failed agnostic.” The few poems she read aloud enticed me to buy her book, and since then I’ve read through it at least three times and have insisted other people read it as well.
Having experienced a rather varied path on my own journey of faith and having made my own observations from both the front and back pews, I recognize many of the characters Maria features in her poems: the searching, the sure, the broken, the restored, the disillusioned, the inspired. However, I could never portray them with the heart-tugging poignancy or laugh-out-loud humor Maria does. 

Lines and images from her poems linger with me long after I’ve read them, surely a mark of meaningful literature. In “Breakdown,” the despair of a man who “all his life [has] fixed” things but is helpless to repair his “broken” wife haunts me. On the lighter side, in “Billie Sue Gets Her Way,” the “lurching, dive-bombing” notes of bagpipes screeching out “Amazing Grace” give Billie Sue the final send-off she’d hoped for. 

There it was, right inside the door emitting
an orange, ethereal glow.
As proof of the persistence of Church People, I offer this incident. On one of my tri-weekly drives to Walmart, the image of orange Jello fluff (from “Pot Faith”)  popped into my mind, and I burst out laughing. Not grinning or chuckling, mind you. Laughing. At that point I figured any literary piece that could invade my thoughts at random and elicit such a strong reaction needed to be shared. I toyed with the possibility of posting about Maria’s book on my humble blog but had misgivings. Worrying about whether I could do her work justice, I walked into Walmart. 

What happened next is the stuff of miracles. After I smiled at the greeter and stepped into the deli section,  my eyes were instantly drawn to a kind of orange, flourescent glow. And right there on the middle shelf was ... wait for it ... Orange, Jello. Fluff. With the millions of products Walmart offers, what are the odds that item would be the first one I saw? No doubt, many of Maria’s “church people” would’ve considered it a sign. 

I know I did.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Story Behind the Story

Available here
 This Saturday, Oct. 28, from 1-3 PM, I will be launching my second novel, Some Form of Grace, at Exodus House in Oklahoma City. After my first novel was published, I wasn't sure there would be a second. Oh, I enjoyed writing that book and will be forever grateful to the publisher who thought it worthy of taking a chance on. And there were many good experiences connected with the journey of publication. But there was also lot of stress that I didn't feel was necessary at this stage in my life. I decided to limit my writing efforts to blogging and contests and maybe the occasional magazine submission. But I changed my mind. I changed it because sometimes a story comes along that needs to be shared. Because sometimes people's lives are so inspiring that their experiences can possibly inspire others. 

   In 2008, I became acquainted with a few of the residents and workers of Exodus House in Oklahoma City. Exodus House is part of the prisoner re-entry program sponsored by the Criminal Justice and Mercies Ministry of the Oklahoma Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Until I became aware of this program, I had never considered the difficulties ex-prisoners face in trying to piece their lives back together.  I was dumbstruck at the challenges: finding an affordable place to live with a supportive environment; getting a job while having a criminal record; overcoming mountains of debt that have accumulated from unreasonable fines and jail and court costs. Day-to-day operations become big problems when a person doesn’t have transportation to get to a job or money for bus passes or a drivers license. Even getting decent work clothes can be difficult. Add to this list, child custody battles or dealing with addictions or health issues, and it is no wonder that in Oklahoma the prisoner recidivism rate—without additional support—is almost one in three. 

   As I became more involved with Exodus House, I discovered another group of story-worthy people--the dedicated people who work with this program. Some are employees of CJAMM, and some are volunteers from churches in the OKC area. So many of them give tirelessly of their time and generously of their money because they are convinced that "you can't just preach the Word, you have to be the Word." This book is a work of fiction, but in it I’ve tried to present some very real issues in a sympathetic and entertaining way and to show loving Christians actively responding to those issues. 

Equally important, I wanted to demonstrate the impact faith can have in overcoming impossible odds. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), about the time I became acquainted with Exodus House, my pastor began preaching a series of sermons on grace. I had already been thinking of writing a novel inspired by Exodus House, and when I began deeply considering the concept of grace, the idea for my character Gracene and her faith journey was born. Hopefully, this book can be used to bring about social awareness and, at the same time, spread the message of God’s matchless gift of grace made available through his Son, Jesus.

If you would like to learn more about CJAMM and Exodus House, please visit their website.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Front Porch Pointers

Last fall I finally converted my porch wannabe  into a proper front porch. It turned out to be one of the best worst moves I ever made, as now all I want to do is sit on it. Even in the scorching days of summer and with the house needing a good vacuuming or dusting, I find myself lured to that place to enjoy the fresh air and to idle away stolen moments in reading, reflection, and rest.

It saddens me to see so many lovely porches going to waste these days. Brought up with backyard swimming pools or barbecue grills, Gen Y-ers (X-ers?) who are fortunate enough to have porches don’t appear to know how to use them. Or maybe they just don’t have the time. But even retired Baby Boomers, who should have the time, seem reluctant to gravitate to the front of the house.

In an effort to return people to the time-honored tradition of porch-sitting, I’m suggesting the following:

1. Keep it simple.
 I love looking at the porches featured in my favorite southern lifestyle magazine. They advise decking them out with settees, usually in wicker, and accessorizing with over-stuffed cushions and colorful pillows. For an extra dose of charm, throw in a few potted plants and a chandelier. (Did I say chandelier?) Step onto one of these porches, and before you know it, you’re craving a mint julep and referring to it the veranda. But a word of caution here: This kind of charm can be more trouble than it’s worth. When I planned my porch, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want—another room to clean and take care of. I purchased simple but comfortable furniture that would withstand all types of weather and didn’t require a lot of cleaning, maintenance, or hauling in and out of doors. I also kept the number of furnishings to a minimum. The “floor” is flagstone, which means I don’t have to freak out over a few fallen twigs or leaves or the occasional splat of bird poop. My porch gives me a pleasant spot where I can unwind and not be reminded of the need for upkeep. However, it hasn’t yet shielded me from the reminder my flowerbed needs weeding. I’m working on that.

Magazine's idea of perfect porch decor

My idea...

 2. Extend a welcome.
Screens around porches are good for blocking things we don’t want like flies and mosquitoes, but they also block things we do want—waves and greetings to and from passersby. For me, that’s a big part of front-porch appeal. The market offers plenty of unobtrusive products for deterring pests (the insect kind, not people kind) without sacrificing views or closing off opportunities for quick, neighborly visits. Speaking of those visits, extra chairs should be available for guests to have a seat and chat a while. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a pitcher of iced tea (or a bottle of wine) chilling in the fridge.

My idea of perfect porch entertaining
3. Sit a spell.
Many years ago, as a busy twenty-something, I spent a weekend visiting my grandmother in a black-dot, East Texas town. The time passed way too quickly, and as Bill and I  headed home to another hectic work week in a crowded city, I was tired just thinking about all I had to do when I got there. We passed a little frame house that listed slightly starboard and was badly in need of a paint job. But its saving grace was a wrap-around porch, where an old man sat, calmly rocking and looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

If you’re lucky enough to have a front porch, take advantage of it, if only for a few minutes each day. Make time to put your feet up and enjoy a cool drink.  Listen to the birds, take in a sunset, call out to the neighbors.

The image of that old man has stayed with me for years, and I think it has fueled much of my porch obsession. I can’t say for sure what he was thinking that day (maybe that he needed to weed his flowerbed), but I do know what I was thinking: That fellow knows how to use a porch.

NOTE: You might have noticed a slight change in the look of my blog. More to come in the near future!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Few (More) of My Favorite Things

In Christmases past, I’ve posted about some of the things that put me in the spirit of the season and the thing that turns me into a proper Grinch. (Think Dirty Santa.) This year, I’m sticking with the “nice” rather than the “naughty” in comprising my list. While these items might be a bit unusual, I’ve found them to be invaluable in sparking or enhancing my holiday mood.
1. Wire ribbon – Years ago, I embraced wire ribbon with open arms and admit I might go a little overboard with it. It makes decorating a snap for those of us who are digitally challenged. With wire ribbon, my bows are now flouncy and fabulous.
2. LED lights – I think it was Christmas 1987, when my mother, my aunt, and I loaded up the car with kids to pursue the time-honored tradition of looking at Christmas lights.  This was the early days of spectacular civic light displays, so we headed toward the extravaganza that had popped up just off the highway on the edge of town. We wound through acres of East Texas piney woods that had been transformed into a fantasy land. Thousands...nay, millions of lights twinkled and flashed, drawing oohs and aahs from even the adult passengers in the car. At the exit, my aunt voiced the horror that only people of a certain age can appreciate: “I wonder if these are the kind of lights that when one bulb goes out, they all do.”
I tell that story to reinforce how grateful I am for the advances made in the Christmas light industry. This year I purchased new strings of LED lights that are guaranteed to last ten years. TEN YEARS! Think of it! For ten years I don’t have to worry about putting up strings of lights, only to have the middle string go out two nights before Christmas.
3. Extension cords and three-way connectors – While we’re on the subject, anyone who has ever put up outside lights knows that that house-lighting scene in Christmas Vacation is really no laughing matter. Few tasks are as maddening in the season of peace and good will as getting strings and strings of lights properly connected. The job requires the patience of a saint. An electrical engineering degree comes in handy, too. This year, even with the few strings I put out, I faced a particularly challenging situation. I was able to solve it with an extra extension cord and a three-way connector. So far the house hasn’t burned down. Talk about a Christmas miracle.
4. Silver, gold, and white – I once had a pilates instructor (blonde and millennial) who claimed her favorite color was “shiny.” When it comes to Christmas, she and I are on the same page. And when it comes to shiny, nothing gives you more bang for your buck—or flash for your cash—than gold, silver, and white ornaments. Add some crystal icicles and glittered grapes, turn on the tree lights and Wham! The bling is blinding.
5. Wax warmers – Burning down the house with electrical cords and connectors isn't a huge concern of mine. Burning it down with a candle is. So while doing early Christmas shopping this year, I bought myself a gift—an electric wax warmer. With a fake tree and fake greenery, let’s just say the perfume of pungent pine never permeated my house. But this year—thanks to my wax warmer—the scintillating scent of cedar does. (I know. I get carried away with alliteration.) Let me add this one caveat: No matter how effective a wax warmer may be, it’s no match for steamed Brussels sprouts. Just sayin’. 
6. Fairy lights – Yes, we’re back to lights again. My favorite southern writer, Rick Bragg insists that it’s “lights of color...that mean Christmas,” but he and I will just have to differ on this one. While I admit the intense hues of those trendy, new lights do create a giddy and gaudy glow, for me nothing creates a wonderland like white lights. And if they happen to be reflecting off snow, it’s a magical bonus.  
Like I said, a rather strange list, but they truly are small things that have added to my enjoyment of the season. In summary and in the spirit of sharing, let me wish you...

                        Flouncy bows,

                        bulbs that won’t fail,

      scents that remind you of a forested vale.

                        May the sparkle of Christmas be yours to discover
                                                                                            in twinkling lights... matter the color.
Have a blessed Christmas!     

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Surprised by Enjoyment

Disregarding some advice I was given long ago, I’m beginning with an apology. I apologize for including personal information in a review—something that should be about the book, not the reviewer. But in order to explain how much I enjoyed reading Women and C. S. Lewis, I feel it’s important to explain the expectations with which I approached that task.
I was given a copy of this book along with a request for a review by Carolyn Curtis, one of the editors. Having read a couple of Lewis’ books and watched Shadowlands and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I was an admirer of the man but not what you would call an ardent fan of his work. Surprised by Joy was a pleasurable read for me, but Mere Christianity required careful and time-intensive processing. I assumed this book would be much the same and, frankly, wasn’t too excited at the prospect of such heavy reading. But Curtis was such a delightful person, I couldn’t refuse. And I’m so glad I didn’t. The book, while written by erudite and scholarly contributors, is far from heavy-handed or complicated. Once I began reading, I found it absorbing. Divided into brief, manageable sections, the book lends itself to being read in short increments. But individual essays/interviews were so engaging I couldn’t wait to dive into the next one. I finished it in four days. (And I’m a slow reader.)
Two questions drive the content of this book: Was Lewis a sexist, even a misogynist, as many critics have labeled him? Is his work relevant and does it speak to our current culture? In regard to the first question, the book offers so much evidence refuting the charges—the women in Lewis’ own life, excerpts from his writings both public and private—as to make the accusations appear   ludicrous. Indeed, such charges put Lewis in good company. The same ones have been hurled against Jesus and the Apostle Paul, two figures who have done more to change attitudes toward women than any other in history.  Concerning the second question, the book was an eye-opening experience for me. I was born in the US, came of age in the sixties, and entered the workforce in the seventies. I also grew up surrounded by Christian friends and family. Benefitting from the support of those around me and from the hard work of so many who came before me, I never felt held back or less valuable because I am female. Reading this book, however, made me realize how ego- and ethnocentric I have become. It reminded me of the severity and extent to which injustice toward women (and men) exists in the world. It convinced me that, in today’s climate, communicating the “high view” Lewis held of women is more critical than ever.
For me, one of the hallmarks of a good book is that the reader can glean “extras” from it, whether or not intended by the writer(s). Among the extras I gained from this book:
1) Confirmation that Christians aren’t stupid - In an increasingly secular culture, the media love to portray Christians as knuckle-dragging troglodytes—persons who exchange all intellect and reason for emotion and superstition. While Christianity does indeed involve edification of the heart and spirit, this impressive group of writers, scholars, and thinkers proves that the brain doesn’t have to be sacrificed in the process.
2) A re-vamped and compelling TBR list – The extensive references throughout this book to Lewis’ works, both fiction and nonfiction, have kindled a fire in me to read them. As a child, I never read The Chronicles of Narnia, but at the conclusion of this book, I immediately ordered a boxed set for my grandsons. And I plan to read it along with them!
3) Confirmation that the difference between the sexes matters far less than the difference between the “fallen” and the redeemed - The overarching purpose of Women and C. S. Lewis is to examine the charges of sexism leveled against him. But excerpt after excerpt from his post-conversion writings reveals Lewis’ guiding purpose in his own writing was to share his joy at discovering “... the dignity of a free moral agent made in God’s image to live a life worthy of my creator.” Certainly a message needed by all, regardless of their sex.