Monday, July 31, 2017

Sea of Tears

Death and grief, they are inescapable- I’ve written about this before.  It entered into my world again on Friday.  Not directly, but no matter how indirectly or directly it strikes your world, once it has come to your own doorstep, the compassion for others quickly rises when you learn someone else has just opened their door to find inescapable death and grief waiting for them.

In an instant, a friend of my dear friend Janine lost her 21-year-old son in a car accident. No warning.  No preparation.  These things we cannot explain away.  They happen.  He was a newlywed of 2 months.  He and his young bride had yet to even receive their wedding photos from the photographer. 

My thoughts went to the young bride.  They went to the young man’s mother, his father, even his best friend.  If I could sit at their feet right now and look into their eyes, what would I say?  What are the most basic things I could say that would help them in the long run during their walk through the dark valley that lay before them?

I remember going to see my internist a couple of months after my husband died in a car crash.  My heart rate and blood pressure had been all over the place.  My sleep was nonexistent.  He gave me specific and basic advice. “Cry.  When you feel the urge arise, cry.  Don’t push it down.  Let it out.  Now, you can’t emote everywhere you go-there will be times when you are out that you will need to hold it together.  But when you can and where you can, go ahead and cry.”

Another doctor gave me basic advice.  Fear jumped on me the first night after learning of my husband’s death. My heart beat raced and pounded in my chest so hard I thought it might burst through my chest.  My blood pressure was erratic, both high and low, plus panic attacks, and even social anxiety disorder.  I was petrified of going to get coffee, to church, and most of all - the grocery store. 

One day while checking out in the grocery store where I had shopped for 25 years, I felt my heart pounding and all the blood dropping from my head.  I feared I was going to pass out in the parking lot. (This was not the first time.) I called my mom explaining my situation to her.  I said, “If I don’t call you in 5 minutes, come straight to Kroger.”  After buying my own blood pressure cuff and experiencing this for way too long, I finally met with a cardiologist.  After multiple tests and a month of wearing an external monitor that sent daily reports directly to the hospital, he sat me down for some real talk.  He told me he lost someone tragically while in college.  His body experienced everything mine was experiencing.  He looked at me and gently said, “Jené, there is nothing wrong with your heart.  It is strong and healthy.  Here is what I want you to do. First, get rid of your blood pressure cuff.  It feeds your fear, which in turn makes things worse for you.  Cry when you need to. The next time you are out and this happens, keep your eyes straight ahead and tell yourself, ‘I will not pass out. I am fine. I am healthy. Press through it.  Don’t give into the fear.’ “

In The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George tells a magnificent story of Monsieur Perdu, a Parisian bookseller who thinks of himself as a literary apothecary. From his floating bookshop on the river Seine, he prescribes books for the hardships of life.  Prescribing the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he has not been able to heal is himself.  He’s been grieving for twenty years over the loss of his lover.  She abandoned him leaving only a letter behind-a letter he has yet to open.

In one small tender scene, Perdu checks on a neighbor who has recently been deserted by her husband. Noticing her reflection through the frosted glass window on her front door, he quietly knocks then addresses her through the door.   Without ever opening it, she leans in and speaks through the frosted glass.  He closely watches her reflection.

I need to cry some more.  I’ll drown if I don’t.  Can you understand that?

Monsieur Perdu responds, “Of course.  Sometimes you’re swimming in unwept tears and you’ll go under if you store them up inside.”  I’m at the bottom of the sea of tears. “I’ll bring you a book on tears then.”

So what is some basic advice I could share with this young bride, this mother, and this father who have just experienced tragic loss?  What can I say that will help them in the long run during their walk through the dark valley that lay before them?

Cry some more.
Don’t swim in unwept tears or you’ll go under.
So cry some more.
Don’t apologize when you do cry.
Take deep breaths.  Frequently.
Talk about him.
Tell stories.
Take care of your grief – don’t put a Band-Aid on it.  Treat the wound; take care of it.
Don’t put grief in a closet or sweep it under a rug to make your life look clean.
Don’t go back to business as usual too soon.
Lay down your stoicism.
Allow yourself to feel.

Even King David knew how to let out all of his tears.  “I am weary with my groaning: all night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with tears.  My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows old because of all my enemies.  Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity.  For the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.  The Lord has heard my supplications.” Psalm 6:6-9 NKJV

Crying does not mean you have lost your faith.  You are simply human and hurting- you need God’s presence more than ever.  He does not abandon you during this time, but sits beside you.  He grieves with you.  He feels your pain.

Your tears, your cries… they are your prayers.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Love Like That

The billboard holding these words feels as if it’s pointing fingers, judging every passerby. The lower right hand corner holds an image of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  There is nothing else. 

As I zoom past it, my heart is instantly heavy.  It’s not heavy from guilt. It’s heavy because it aches. It aches for all the people who are hungry for the love of Christ.  It aches for all the people who are hurting and searching for more out of life. Someone spent a large sum of money on a billboard message only to give these hurting people a message of guilt, rules, and judgment instead of a message of love and hope.

What was the goal of this billboard?  Was it to make converts?  Spread the gospel? Slap all Christians on the hand with a ruler and make them sit in the corner?

REAL CHRISTIANS OBEY JESUS’ TEACHINGS….Are any of us real Christians then?  Don’t we all sin?  Don’t we all veer off the road every once in awhile?  Is anyone perfect every single day, in every thought and action? Has anyone ever obeyed every…single… teaching? So then, real Christianity is for perfect people only?

I guess heaven is going to be an empty place if real Christians are only described as those who have never disobeyed.

For the love of God!  Really….

God is love! We were made in His image.  When we love, we are reflecting His image.  He wants love more than obedience just as we desire love from our children.  He wants relationship, just as we want relationship with our children.  REAL CHRISTIANS HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS.  It’s possible to obey Jesus’s teachings without loving him.  But is it possible to love him without wanting to obey him?  When our own children love us deeply, it’s easier for respect, honor, and obedience to follow.

Curly, a rough cowboy in the movie City Slickers, sums it up. Mitch, Billy Crystal’s character, is out on the range with Curly, while he teaches the city slickers a thing or two about life.  

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [#*@#*]
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: [smiles] That's what *you* have to find out.

Jesus did the same as Curly.  He looked at his followers and said (my loose translation), “One thing. Just one thing.  You stick to that and the rest of it doesn’t matter.”  

“’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’  This is the most important, the first on the list.  But there is a second to the set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s law and the Prophets hangs from them.” Matthew 22:37-40  

 His disciples continued teaching "that one thing” throughout the New Testament.

The whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love others as you love yourself.’” Galatians 5:14

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Galatians 5:6

Love means living the way God commanded us to live.  As you have heard from the beginning, his command is this: Live a life of love.” 2 John 1:6

 “Let love be your greatest aim.” 1 Corinthians 14:1

 “Keep company with God and learn a life of love.  Observe how Christ loved us.  His love was not cautious but extravagant.  He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us…Love like that.” Ephesians 5:2  

I love that last line. Love like that. You see how Jesus did it?  Love like that, not cautious but extravagant.

I have shared this story before but I find this topic on love continues to rise up and make my heart ache for everyone to know “that one thing.” On our twentieth wedding anniversary, my husband gave me a continuous string of fresh water pearls that was at least 30 inches long. I can wrap it around my neck three times, leave it long, tie it in a knot or any other creative way that hits me.   I remember opening the package while we were seated at the restaurant and, as I pulled them out of the pouch, they just kept coming and coming and coming until my arm was straight above my head trying to hold them up in the air!  The next day I told my friend Beth about the pearls and she said with a smile on her face, "I just love it when a man can love extravagantly."  

Extravagant means to exceed the limits of reason or necessity, profuse, lavish, lacking in moderation or restraint, excessive.  Does our love look like this?  Paul says, "Love like that."

Rick Warren says in Purpose Driven Life, “Life is all about love…its what matters most…. Because God is love, the most important lesson he wants you to learn on earth is how to love… It is in loving that we are most like Him.”  This is our purpose.  As we love others, we organically discover our unique purpose, but love is our universal purpose.  It really is this simple:  Love God, love others.  Life boils down to this…. that one thing.  When we get to heaven, I doubt God will ask us what we got done on any given day, or if we obeyed every single teaching of Jesus’ at all times, but He may just ask us how well we loved.

God’s purpose for our lives is practically a flashing neon sign in the scriptures. Love. Love. Love… and then love some more.  How can we possibly miss it?  Yet we do, daily.  But daily He forgives us, daily He encourages us to try again - daily He gives us the grace we need to love like Him.  Daily He believes in us.  God knows our potential.  In order for us to walk in our unique purpose, which He established within each of us, we must learn to love much and love well.  


 A perfect way to end this post.  Listen now, close your eyes, and go love much and love well.
"More Like Love" by Ben Rector

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Captured by Beauty-Part 2

Janine and I have been friends since high school.  We met at a tiny church far removed from civilization where both of our families attended.  The youth group consisted of my siblings and me, Janine, and two other sibling groups.  Several years ago, she and her husband Ted bought a 3 bedroom cabin in the middle of NoWheresville, Mississippi. Using it only on the weekends, they generously give me access on weekdays when I need to write. A large portion of Good Night, I Love You was written in this amazing log cabin with a wrap around porch settled within 80 plus wooded acres… in the middle of nowhere.  The Wi-Fi is good enough for email and some slow Internet but phone calls are almost impossible.  This makes it a perfect place for a writing retreat! We scheduled a few days this week to set aside time for my new writing endeavors. 

While on a conference call yesterday with my agent and publicist we discussed my rapidly approaching book launch this September for Good Night, I Love You.  The details heading into these last 10 weeks before it’s release make my head swim. While discussing the long view, I assured them I am also working on the next thing…new material!

I arrived at Janine’s cabin yesterday and felt as if I were coming home. I turn into their lane then press the code to open the gate. As I hear the gate squeak slowly open, I creep my car forward down the winding road to the cabin. At this point, I usually roll down my window a bit so I can hear the peace. The sound of the pebbles crunching under my tires instantly relaxes me.  I feel lighter as I leave the weight of my mind and heart behind me. I haven’t been here to write since last fall when I was finishing my first book.  I embrace these few days of beauty, creative writing, and God’s all encompassing presence.

There is a supernatural peace here. I completely decompress here.  I sleep deeply here. In fact, on my first day here, I go straight outside and lie on the queen sized swinging bed that hangs on the porch.  I never intend to fall asleep, but usually find myself slowly waking up after about 30 minutes of catnapping.  I go days without speaking while I’m here.  I don’t watch any movies or television.  It’s my laptop, the pond, the trees, the turtles, the swinging bed, a dog named Foxy, and me.  Foxy’s an outdoor dog with beautiful blue eyes that are a striking contrast to her white hair. She’s my company when I eat meals on the porch…Foxy likes me.

The solitude is a healing balm to everything in my soul. I hear the bugs and birds at all times. Most people couldn’t handle the seclusion but I love it.   I spend much time soaking in the beauty.  It’s my inspiration.  Beauty carries my thoughts deeper into a bottomless well where God nourishes my soul.  He quenches my hunger and my thirst through beauty - he ignites my passions through beauty. With huge windows on every wall on the first floor, I take in nature while I’m on the couch with my laptop.  When I take a break, I step outside to eat at the table on the porch with my friend Foxy resting at my feet. 

My other breaks are spent on the swinging bed.  I like to lie there and think of absolutely nothing.  I watch the water, make myself aware of any sounds, stare at the tree tops while looking for birds, stretch my legs out into the air just for fun and because it feels good, or I take a siesta on the swinging bed. I give my mind space. I sit alongside Beauty.  I inhale her.  I inhale her serenity. I inhale her silence.  I inhale the beauty of God’s presence in the simple life.  In the mornings, I take my coffee outside and sit on the corner of the porch facing the water as the rising sun breaks through the trees to warm my face.  Foxy joins me on the corner of the porch but stays cool under the swinging bed behind me.

This morning I sit and linger a little longer with my coffee and Beauty –she’s offering too much of herself to walk away.  I study the way the mist moves then swirls over the water.  It hovers, then, in random spots, lifts into mini tornadoes before opening and releasing into the warmth of one of the rays of light streaming through the treetops. It’s as if the mist is traveling through the ray of light back to heaven from where it came.  The rays are like multiple staircases leading to the sun in the heavens.  I feel God’s presence.  My imagination takes me back in time to creation. “God’s spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.” Genesis 1:2MSG   The Amplified says, “The Spirit of God was moving (hovering, brooding) over the face of the waters.”  I’m transported to Day 1.

A turtle launches into the water from the dead tree breaking through the water.  He had been doing his morning yoga stretches with his neck while basking in the sun.  I hear the multiple varieties of birds calling to one another.  I even hear an owl.  This is normal for me.  Owls follow me everywhere. My husband Michael knew how to speak to owls.  When he heard them call from a distance, he made his call back.  They spoke back and forth to one another until the owl perched on top of a tree right next to him. This made him giggle with satisfaction.  There were a couple of owls that lived in our neighborhood while we lived in Jackson.   Standing on the front patio with his glass of Cabernet, he lifted his chin and joined in the conversation with our neighborhood owls.  When I moved to the countryside of New York, woods surrounded our home.  An owl called for me on my first night.  I felt as if it were Michael watching over me.  The owl touched base with me weekly.  I couldn’t help but smile every time.  The owl finds me this morning, in the middle of NoWheresville, Mississippi.  I smile back at him.

A fish flops in the open water, the dragonflies dance across the tops of the stalks of grass on the edge of the pond.  A cow’s voice rises up from a distant pasture.  I hear Foxy crawl out from under the swinging bed.  She’s at my feet looking up at me with adoration while swishing her tail back and forth on the porch.  I’m drunk with beauty now.  I feel full and satisfied.  Reaching down to Foxy, I rub her neck and chest.  She closes her eyes relishing the moment. 

I carry this satiation with me into the day of writing ahead of me. My time with Beauty was time well spent - the fire igniting my passions has been stoked.  I'm captured once again.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Captured By Beauty - Part 1

On my way home last night from a late night run to the grocery store, I spot the full moon peering through the horizontal clouds streaking across the sky in front of it.  I’m drawn to its beauty.  My car takes me to the waterfront in our neighborhood.  I roll down the window facing the water. My sunroof is already open so I can hear the summer sounds of the evening bugs.   I turn off the engine. There she is - the moon in all her glory.  Her light shines on the water with the reflection coming straight towards me in a breathtaking column of glistening light, like a white royal carpet spread before the queen. I take in the beauty.  I watch the rippling of the water move across the reflection.  I see the tall grass at water’s edge wave in the moonlight.  I simply sit.  I let the silence and the beauty envelop me.

I wake up this morning, open my emails and find God sending me another reminder of beauty. I read the Daily Reading sent out by John Eldredge and Ransomed Heart Ministries.  It captures me quickly as he speaks of beauty and our need to chase after it. It’s the very subject that rises above my circumstances every single day. I began looking for beauty and catching sight of her, as much as possible since my husband died 6 years ago.  Reading Eldredge’s words brings my thoughts on beauty to a denouement, a grand culmination.

In an excerpt from his book entitled, Fathered By God, he writes, “We must open our hearts to all the other ways God is bringing beauty into our lives. The beauty of a flower garden or moonlight on water, the beauty of music or a written word. Our souls crave Beauty, and if we do not find it we will be famished. We must take in Beauty, often, or we will be taken out by beauty.”

Moonlight on the water.  It enraptures me every time.

I remember with great clarity the moment in my life when I recognized my hunger for beauty.  I was famished yet had not paused to take notice. 

The year is 1990. I’m teaching at a huge public school in Rankin County, just east of Jackson, Mississippi. My classroom buzzes with constant movement, restrained movement.  It’s full of boys with learning disabilities, most of them on medication for ADHD.  Eighteen preteen boys without a fulltime teacher’s aid.  Teaching this motley crew requires every ounce of focus and strength I can bring to the table each morning.

Wearing my Janet Jackson “Rhythm Nation” look, all the way down to the large hoop earrings with a cross hanging from one of them, I am not the average Special Ed teacher.   I am tough but cool and the boys love me for both.  I wear fake glasses to look older and more serious. It seems to work.  One day, James (think Fat Albert in look and voice), says, “Miss Barranco, you be mean when you wear ‘dem glasses!”  They were worth every penny of the five dollars I spent on them at the flea market.

 During my interview for the teaching position, I’m hired on the spot because I am currently reading C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien simultaneously, and because I use all of my verbs in proper tense. (I’m not kidding – the principal told me this then almost leapt out of her seat across her desk when I answered what I was reading at the time.)

I took that job in the middle of the year when the woman holding the position couldn’t handle the boys (or the room) any longer. She simply didn’t show up for work after Christmas.

…In walks Janet Jackson, a young newlywed fresh out of student teaching.

Armed with all of the colorful and creative bulletin boards I crafted in the days leading up to my first day, I walk into a room completely barren of beauty. Floor to ceiling grey cinder blocks become the backdrop to our uncommon yet surprisingly thriving little learning center. The fluorescent lights, hanging high above from the 16 some foot ceilings, disburse even more grey light and shadows in the room.  Their incessant buzzing is a bonus added to the dungeon-like atmosphere.   Without any windows, the soaring ceilings save us from feeling as if we are in some type of torture chamber or interrogation room.

I use the walls as enormous bulletin boards to bring life and color to the room.  When it’s time for afternoon activity period, they bust out of the room as if it is the last day of school.  I completely get it.  Sitting outside with them, I watch them detonate the stored energy in their bodies. Occasionally, I close my eyes behind the brown Ray-Ban wayfarers while my soul and body greedily inhale the light, the breeze, and the vitamin D.   I see a car drive by on the road and I think, “Oh, I would love to be going somewhere…anywhere.

I loved my boys in spite of the cinder block dungeon.

After the last student walks out at the end of the day, I head straight to coach and train two cheerleading squads until 5:30. Working only five minutes from home, I’m quickly back in my kitchen preparing dinner before my husband gets home from work.  After dinner it’s IEP work for one of my students, laundry and choreography for an upcoming dance job.  Crashing into bed is never early enough.

Our tiny house backs up to a small wooded area between subdivisions.  It’s early in the morning. I step outside the back door to head straight to my car before work.  I stop suddenly. I notice the quiet in the air. Beauty calls me.  The moment snatches me.  I breathe in this little slice of beauty.  It feels as if I am out in nature instead of standing on a concrete slab in the middle of our zero lot line neighborhood with cars parked on the streets and no privacy from neighbors.  Then I hear the birds.  I see the blue sky outlining the towering pines.  I notice the leaves that are now on the trees from an early spring.  I press the pause button and truly see.  I see there is beauty if I only pause and acknowledge it.  It is in this moment I realize I’m starved for natural beauty.  I know in order to survive my days in the cinder block dungeon, I have to take in natural beauty wherever I can, whenever I can - even if it’s only while standing on a concrete slab, in a little cookie cutter neighborhood development, in Rankin county Mississippi.

I have short-term memory.  I found how easy it is to forget beauty.  Easy to forget to feed my soul with her.  Easy to forget she’s right there, if only I pause to breathe her in, in all situations, locations, and circumstances.  I must find time for beauty.  She desires to fill me and bring me back to life, as it should be. I must be intentional. When I acknowledge beauty and take a moment to simply be with her, I’m renewed.  My hope renews, my stress recedes, my joy emerges.  I am reconnected with God on an intimate level.

Some people never connect with beauty.  How tragic that is to me.  They don't even recognize they miss her.  They are content in their routines, schedules, to do lists, and more. They learn if they simply stay in motion, then they can silence her cries.  More times than not, these people are the ones who have turned down the volume of their heart's voice because they "don't want to go there."  They don't want intimacy - with people, or with nature, with beauty, or with their own heart.  So they shut off opportunities for beauty because it makes them squirm.  They turn away and get back to what they "need" to do.

Since my years of living in the Hudson River Valley of New York, I’ve become even more keenly aware of beauty.  Beauty in all things.  Nature especially, but also in people (not their looks), but the beauty of a conversation, the beauty in pain shared, the beauty of fellowship over a meal, the beauty of laughter. The beauty of a naïve comment from a small child.  And the beauty of real love.  Deep, pure love - love without judgment, love in spite of flaws, love that is patient, kind, and compassionate. Enduring love.

Now I sit typing while listening to a summer rain land on the tin roof – another beautiful moment.  Allow unexpected beauty into your life. Hit the pause button. I pray you see, fill your mind with, and experience beauty today.

 “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.”  Philippians 4:8 & 9 MSG

Photo cred to Mia Jené Barranco