What a toddler taught me

What a toddler taught me

She was camped out on one side of the waiting room, an obvious grandmother charged with wrangling kids while other family members were having an appointment.

A boy sat in the chair on the other side of the table, all arms and legs thrown over the chair, lost in the world of a game on the grandmother’s phone. She was grateful that he was breaking through the levels that had long frustrated her.

She herself  sat surrounded by the sure signs of toddlerdom – an open bag with toys that weren’t working their magic today. The little girl was fine with a set of keys until she started trying to eat them, at which point the grandmother demanded them back. The little girl roamed her half of the waiting room, seeking and destroying.

The grandmother appealed to the boy. “You have a choice. You can let her use the phone or listen to her scream.” The older brother was unmoved and kept playing. I aspect eh’d learned long ago how to tune out the screams.

The grandmother appealed to the toddler, “Have some more biscuit.” The little girl obediently toddled over, even though her cheeks were bulging with uneaten biscuit.

I caught the girl’s eye and years of babysitting, children’s ministry and aunt-dom kicked in. I started playing peep-eye with the magazine I was reading. She stopped, giving me the side eye. I raised the magazine to cover my face and lowered it again. She stared, considering whether to join in this game until the grandmother offered biscuit again.

Let me be clear. I don’t stand in judgment over this overwhelmed grandmother. Sometimes we do what we can do and with small children, survival is always a noble goal.

But the encounter also made me sad. The only avenues of connection for this grandmother were food and electronics. Peep-eye. Itsy bits spider. So many ways to capture the attention of a toddler.

It made me think of the ways in which we interact with each other as adults. I’m not advocating for games of Itsy Bitsy Spider, although if you’ll start I’ll join in. I’m thinking about all the times that we miss the  simple ways of connecting with each other.  We distract each other with shiny objects when what we really want is just to be present with each other.

Some days I think it’s the most powerful thing that I offer in my therapy office: a space in which one human being is present with another human being.

This week today I dare you to connect with one other person. It doesn’t have to take more than a minute. Forgo the shiny objects. Set the electronics aside. If you and they are the hugging sort, give them a hug and allow yourself to feel how it feels to connect. Look them in the eyes and ask how they’re doing… and make a space for them to answer.

Sometimes we just want the simple things.

 

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How I Changed My Mind

I’ll admit it.

Once upon a time when it came to homosexuality I was in the “Hate the sin, love the sinner” camp. I mean, it was so clearly against God’s law. It said so right there in one or two verses in my Bible. Besides, I didn’t know any gay people.

Well, actually I did. One of my first escorts to a winter dance was a gay guy in our youth group. Except no one openly said he was gay. There were just some oblique remarks about the fact that he was different, maybe he was “that way.” I didn’t care. He was a great dancer and I had a great time.

As I got older I was scared of looking at the issue directly. It was so different from my experience and that foreignness felt like threat. Still, I eventually decided that I owed it to myself to consider the issue more in depth.

Two things happened.

The first is that I read a book. Entitled, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor, it provided for me a context for the biblical verses regarding homosexuality. I realized that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality but a terrible abuse of the Middle Eastern hospitality mandate. For the first time I considered what sort of practices Paul was really railing against, and the fact that he had no model of a committed, monogamous gay relationship.

Ironically, I’d been on the wrong side of selective scripture myself. I came along as a woman called to ministry in the eighties in the Southern Baptist Convention, a time when that issue was part of the dividing line between folks on one side and different folks on the other. I’d had people tell me straight out and to my face that I must be wrong because after all, Paul said that women should keep silence.

Of all people, I understood the dangers of proof texting. In reading this book and others I finally understood that we’d been doing the same thing to gays and lesbians.

A second thing happened that was just as important and even more powerful. Openly gay people started coming to my church. When they found welcome they told of other experiences, like being met at the doors of churches and told not to come in because “we don’t want your kind here.”

(Parenthetically, let me just say I cannot imagine Jesus ever saying such a thing.) 

They told me of the anguish and sometimes near suicidal despair of trying to reconcile being who God made them to be and who God’s people demanded that they be. I saw a brilliant, kind, funny and deeply faithful man face his own death with fear that the fundamentalist preachers were right. This man who’d followed Jesus his whole life at the end of that life feared going to hell.

I’ve seen them care for partners whom they could not marry, in sickness and in health. I’ve seen them care for their friends and give sanctuary to abandoned and abused four legged friends. I’ve laughed with them and been inspired as they’ve shared their gifts in worship. I’ve seen them care for Christ’s body, the church, doing what needs to be done for the church as a whole and for individuals within it. I’ve seen some of them be deeply involved and others just show up on the occasional Sunday – kind of like the rest of us.

I’ve seen my friends love God and love people.

If this be the gay agenda, then by God, may they be successful in overtaking our culture.

When I was called on staff of that church I was the first ordained woman to serve. One of the older members later admitted that she couldn’t understand why we were calling a woman when “there were so many fine male ministers around.” After confessing this to me, she said, “but then I met you and saw that you were going to be my friend.”

I met these folks, and saw that they were going to be my friends, and in that I was blessed indeed.

Reading the book opened my mind. Embracing my friends opened my heart.

I have to disagree with something President Obama said after the Supreme Court handed down its decision. He lauded the “small acts of courage” that led to this day, like people coming out. With all due respect, Mr President, that’s no small act of courage. That’s a great big, knees knocking, heart pounding, doing it even though your life may change forever act of courage.

Through these roller coaster weeks it has become increasingly evident to me that we cannot afford not to know each other. Law enforcement and citizens, black and white, gay and straight, popular and outcast. We need to know each others’ stories and to catch a glimpse of each others’ worlds. Only then can we truly hear with our hearts what the other is trying to say.

A race over too soon

This week in one of my Facebook groups the posts have been filled with pictures and memories. A woman who’d been with us in many training sessions died after a brief bout with pancreatic cancer.

fleet feet running
Lynn Hutchins Edwards

Her friends reflected on her ever-present smile and the fun she brought to even the most mundane workouts. In fact, sometimes they missed the turns they were supposed to take because they were having so much fun. She trained with the training groups sponsored by our local running store and she served as a mentor for other training programs. She was always ready to encourage someone else, trying to seduce them into loving running as much as she did.

I spent some time looking at the pictures they posted and yes, she was smiling in every one. She was strong and she was fit, but she wasn’t petite. Still, she was a runner.

As I looked at her beaming face, I thought about how many women keep themselves from such joy simply because they don’t think they’re the right size. They’re afraid of what someone might think. Their fear of what doesn’t matter (what other people might think) keeps them from doing things that really do matter.

When I bought my first tri suit the saleswoman warned me, “it’s going to show every bulge and you just have to step out anyway.” She was right, it does. But she was also right in that I did. Now I’m training for my seventh triathlon. More than that, I have the joy (okay, and sometimes the agony) of all of those races. I didn’t let the fact that my body wasn’t perfect keep me from a perfectly good time.

Lynn was average size with a bigger-than-average heart. And she was a runner.

Thank God for that, for through her running she blessed us all.

You go, girl.

The point we’ve been missing

A friend posted a link to a recent NY Times article on books addressing the growing Spiritual but not religious segment. Writing a recent memoir has made me think a lot about Christiian community, and specifically, the communities that raised me, formed me and continue to support me. I want to offer an excerpt from that memoir as my response.

from I Don’t Remember Signing Up For This Class: a life of darkness, light and surprising grace

I think we get confused sometimes about who church is really for. Of course, I need the challenge and the community and the comfort and the chance to sing. I need the friendships that I form. But it’s not just about me.

I spend hot summer days helping with the recreation for Vacation Bible School because someone did it for me. I invest in helping to lead a Sunday school class because I never know who might need that small group of fellow pilgrims. I never know what people bring with them into that room. I gather for worship because I need it. But I also gather because there are children and youth who will need to know that God loves them too. There are children and youth who need to be connected with adults who aren’t their parents.

It’s what the “I can worship anywhere” crowd forgets. It’s not just about us. It’s about the widow living alone who has no other source of hugs than what she gets on a Sunday morning. It’s a teenager who gets told in a thousand ways that she’s too fat or he’s too stupid, and who need to know that there are people who love them as is. It’s children who need to learn first hand that God’s house is a place where they can laugh and have fun, be silly, talk about what bothers them and know they are loved.

Sometimes you can pick them out. Even if you don’t know them, you see the haunted, desperate look in their eyes. You feel the hunger in their hug. And sometimes you’d never guess.

Just look at me.

We encourage each other to pay for the cup of coffee ordered by the person behind us in line, and when it happens to us we’re astounded by the grace of it. Yet week in and week out there are folks who are paying it forward, and I gladly count myself in their number.

The God I came to know through God’s people saved me. How can I not extend the same grace to someone else?

I participate in Christian community not just because my spirit needs it, but because I’m helping to create a container that the world needs.

It isn’t just about us.

I Don’t Remember Signing Up For This Class will be available on Kindle within a week, and will come out in paperback in September. Sign up for my newsletter (click on sign up) to get fair warning for both of these events (as well as others.)

A Brick of a Fellow

Our sixth grade teacher had already given us the news so  I wasn’t surprised when I saw the obituary in our local paper. “Brick” Johnson, the much beloved custodian at our elementary school, was dead at age 95.

And yet I was completely surprised by the front page article announcing his death.

His role as the custodian at Brunson Elementary School was but a footnote. He and his wife were owners of Les Abres, a club that was a major gathering place for African-Americans during the days of segregation. Mixing jazz and soul and great food, the club was a gathering place for professionals, civil rights leaders and blue collar workers.

I never knew.

I don’t think my surprise was a case of prejudicial assumptions. At that age, I lumped Brick (who, incidentally, I liked a whole lot because he was always kind to me) in with the teachers and principals; that is, people who have no lives other than school. (A friend’s preschool age son saw his Sunday School teacher in the bookstore one day. “They let you out?” he exclaimed in surprise.) Brick running a club was just as unimaginable as the reality we later discovered: one of our fifth grade teachers was only ten years older than us. Back in those days, she was considered the ancient age universally shared by teachers.

But it did make me think about our human tendency to create judgments and assumptions about people based on the one small snapshot of their lives that we are able to see. A school custodian. A CEO. A welfare mom. A jock. A disabled person.

We see something that is indeed true about them. Too often we mistake it for the whole truth about them. The truth is we cannot know even a fraction of who they are until we have taken the time to listen to them, to listen to what their journey has been and what they hope it will be.

We see one photograph and mistake it for the whole movie.

Sometimes we even do it to ourselves. One moment of failure becomes the whole of our lives. One negative flaw in our makeup becomes the definitive statement of our character. What we do becomes who we are.

It’s not true for them. Neither is it true for us.

And by the way, upon reflection it’s not so surprising that Brick owned such a club. Any man who could shine such a light in the midst of snotty nosed, garishly dressed (it was the late sixties and early seventies) children must have had real music in his soul.

Elementary

I’ve been going down memory lane a lot lately.

Someone had the brilliant idea of having an elementary school reunion the day of our high school reunion.  Most of the kids came together in the third grade and I joined them in fourth. We went all the way through school together. For many of the years , there were only two classes so we got to know each other well.

Like kids straggling in after recess, we’ve been joining our Facebook group and sharing Peggy Haymes, Brunson Schoolmemories. Playing Greek dodgeball and the day a kid broke his arm. Lunch-boxes and Tang and space food sticks. All of the plays and musicals we put on, from Antigone to the Mrs. Frankenstein pageant, from the Wizard of Oz to a Rodgers and Hammerstein review. The Scholastic Book Club, one of the finest inventions known to humankind.

We laugh now about the year we studied tobacco, going to a farm and a tobacco warehouse and finally to the plant where cigarettes were being made. (Did I mention we were in Winston-Salem?)

Some of us can still spout off Mrs. Womble’s list of helping verbs. Some of us have never forgotten the lesson the day we learned about prejudice. (Blue eyed kids had to eat last.) For my part, I can still recite “Grandpa Dropped His Glasses,” along with the somewhat theatrical inflection we were taught to use.

Mostly we talk about how lucky we were, to have had the teachers we had and to have had each other. We were lucky to be in a place and a program in which creativity wasn’t just shoehorned into a few minutes a week after all the “important” subjects had been covered. And creativity wasn’t just for the students; it was allowed for teachers as well.

Sometimes people will ask me how long I’ve been a writer. If I’m truthful, I guess I have to go back to those days at Brunson School. (Incidentally, just before writing this I read the glowing  New York Times review of the latest book by one of my classmates. That writing thing really took for some of the kids.)

Here’s what I really learned in those days at Brunson:

I learned that being creative was fun and something that I could do, even if  I wasn’t as creative as Billy. (No one was. Or is.)

I learned that books were very wonderful things (a lifelong lesson reinforced in my book-filled home.)

I learned to use my mind to think and not just regurgitate facts.

I learned that it was okay to challenge myself and okay for some things to be hard and if I didn’t succeed, it was okay to keep trying. (Yes, Iris, I realize that’s a run-on sentence.)

I learned that the gift of being good friends with good people in childhood is a very great gift indeed.

I know that it’s a different world in schools these days. After all we came along after the nuclear war and before the mass shootings disaster drills so we only had to worry about fire or tornados. I know computers were not yet invented for us to learn and the Vietnam War was a current event.

But how I wish every child could learn those same lessons that I learned at Brunson.

All I can say is that they’ve certainly served me well.

Put Down the Phone and Get Connected

As  I write this I’m at my neighborhood Starbucks, enjoying working in my secondary office (their patio.) Across the way is a scene I have seen repeatedly over the last week.

A parent or parents is/are out with a their child. In this case, both parents. The parents have their phones and the child has an iPad. They are all glued to their screens. At least these folks occasionally look up and share something from their electronic world. The other week I watched a mom and her son never say a word to each other as she returned phone calls and he played a game. Not a single word.

It is all  I can do not to snatch the devices out of their hands and scream at them, “Do you know how short this time is?”

Look, I’m not a Luddite. I have my laptop (on which I’m writing this.) I have my phone. I have for the moment lost my iPad and have had a difficult time weathering the change. (While hanging out watching TV with friends I’ve been known to pull the phone out. I’m trying not to do that, even thought the TV already serves as a third party in the room. It’s an easy distraction. If I’m alone, I’m working to change the habit of immediately pulling out my phone.)

I’ve been  known to give couples an assignment to text each other during day to express gratitude or appreciation. I am as beholden to Apple as anyone.

And yet what I’ m seeing more and more disturbs me more and more. Our electronics are becoming our primary relationship. We reach for it without thinking. We have become so used to being distracted we no longer realize that it is a distraction.

We are cheating each other of the gift of our attention.

And we need that gift. We all, every single one of us, need that gift. In Death of a Salesman Willy Loman’s wife declares, “Attention must be paid.” When we have one eye on a phone we cannot be fully present to another person. Being fully present creates a safe space, a space in which we can speak of our dreams and our fears, our triumphs and our stumbles.  Someone’s full attention tells us that we are valuable, that we matter more than whatever is on that little screen.

It makes a difference even when we are alone.  I want to weep when I see people out walking, hunched over their screen, completely missing all of the gifts creation is showering around them. One of the truths about paying attention is that the longer we look, the more we see. How much do we miss when we never look up?

Put down the screen.

Stop relying on Huffington Post or YouTube to give you something to talk about. Let your child’s imagination muscle be exercised even without the help of Disney.  Look to the stuff of your own day, listen to the silly story your child wants to tell. Just look around… the way the clouds are scattered across the sky, the kindness etched into the old woman’s wrinkled face, the way your coffee tastes in your mouth.

As a child  I frequently had my nose in a book, and I’ve wondered if what I did is any different from what I’m seeing now. Here’s the difference. When we went out on the porch to eat watermelon together, we were together. If I’d picked up a book I would have been told to put it down – it was rude to shut other people out that way.

Just this morning a radio show host told of going out to dinner with a group. Someone demanded that all phones be placed in the middle of the table. Anyone who picked up their phone before the evening was over had to buy a round of drinks. I can only hope they had a designated driver.

Put down the phone. Get connected.

With your family.

Your friends.

Your Self.