Childhood Memories of Dad

One morning I was working on my sermon for Sunday. It especially struck me this time how I learned my basic sermon construction and delivery far before I ever considered preaching on a regular basis. I learned how I like to deliver sermons from the way that my father delivers sermons.

Unlike my father, who one Christmas Eve took a Post-It note with six words on it to the pulpit for his sermon notes, I need to write out the whole manuscript of what I want to say, word for word, in order to do my best work, even if I don’t read the text word for word once I get in front of people. However, it was my father who taught me by his example of interweaving storytelling and scripture reading along with the exegetical work necessary to apply the scripture to the lives of the people who listen. It is work that draws the hearer into the narrative, and when I get it right, I know that it is because the Spirit is working through me, the same way that I’ve seen the Spirit work through Dad in some tough places.

Once he preached about Moses who had to hold his staff up while the Israelite army was fighting, if the staff lowered, the army began to lose. Moses has two of his most supportive and trusted leaders come and hold his arms up so that the army can win the day.

Dad got a limb from a tree outside, and preached the entire sermon with it over his head, asking two of his leaders who were supporting him in the midst of conflict to come hold his arms while he continued to speak. He delivered that sermon over twenty years ago, and I still remember the vision of him with his arms raised in the chancel area of that sanctuary.

The week before Christmas I made a batch of Santa’s Favorites, the chocolate chip oatmeal walnut cookies that are our family’s specialty. My mom adapted the recipe to perfection and it has carried over into vegan brilliance now that we bake that way. These are the cookies that are our personal Santa’s favorite, our Santa being our father. He always wrote back to us after we left him cookies and a note on Christmas Eve, even after we knew we were playing pretend. Our Santa, every Christmas morning, leaves a Santa Apple for every person who is in the house. I know that dad worked hard to perfect the Santa Apples, carefully placing each individual element to make a fun creation. I’ve continued the tradition in our home, even before we had children; it’s a little like Dad is here even when he is a few states away.

We eat Santa’s Favorites at other times of the year, too. They make excellent river cookies. One of my dad’s favorite things to do is to go canoeing. He took both my sister and I canoeing out on the river throughout our childhood, teaching us how to read the water and plan ahead for obstacles downstream. He is an excellent paddler, able to brave rapids in a canoe that I would never dare without a guide. I get part of my love for the outdoors from dad, in part because he shared his joy and excitement with us as he taught us the names of trees and how different birds sounded as they echoed through the woods.

I learned how to be brave and caring from my father, as he navigated the rapids of rivers and twists and turns of ministry. I learned that you can’t always avoid the rough spots, but you can enter the bend and paddle through it in a way that gets you out the other side in one piece. Maybe with a little water in the boat, but still sound. It’s not always easy, but the journey and excitement are worth it.

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Creating Our Family Story

My husband and I are preparing to usher a new life into the world in about five months. Baby Bryant is coming. We are getting ready to expand our family and share a whole host of new things with this new little person on the way. Among the host of preparations, considerations, alterations, decisions, and worries associated with becoming parents, I want to make sure that we pass on traditions that we cherish from our own families.

One of the traditions of my family is going to really interesting places. This may be as part of a really long trip on a vacation, or as simple as making a set of memories as we go away for a weekend or as short a trip as a picnic. I remember specific picnics that we took while I was a child on Sunday afternoons, the meal already prepared before church, then carried out to the edge of a lake at a bench on the side of a hill at Callaway Gardens. I remember going on a camping trip to Amelia Island so we could watch the full Lunar eclipse. I remember trips to the High and the Cummer Museums to go look at poignant paintings and sculptures four feet across made of ribbons and feathers dipped in wax.

But there were longer trips that I cherish as well. We loved going to Colonial Williamsburg, more than our trip to Disney. There was more to do, more to see, more to learn, and really, there were not as many people there, which made it all the more better. We were delving into history, learning the steps of the old dances and the stories of the people who created our nation. We traveled to California to learn about the westward expansion of the nation, and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at Big Sur to see the waves, in the forest to walk among the Redwoods, and at Monterrey to watch the seals flop around. We traveled down the Florida coast to the Keys, and went sixty miles west of Key West, to the Dry Tortugas. We camped on the beach (again) and listened to the waves (and the cars on the highway) lull us to sleep.

I want to be able to share these kinds of memories with my child. I want to learn what different things my husband loved to do, what we want to create for our own family, what memories we have to share with this new thing, this new family we are creating. We are creating a family, and a family is held together by its common story, by the narrative that we weave together. We will take our different parts, the memories of each of our families, and create something new together.

Finding Inspiration

When I am looking for a new idea or a new way to describe an old idea, I need to go away from where all the bustle is, and I need to go to find a bit of peace.

When I am struggling with feeling dry and complacent, I need to go somewhere to clear my head. Generally I can go for a walk close to my house, or if I need to I can go take a shower, something that gets my body moving and helps to work ideas to the surface. Or, if I need to, I go to practice centering prayer, where I lie still and allow my mind to open, relax, and release into the presence of God.

Sometimes I am not searching for inspiration as much as it is placed on me. When I go to the top of the mountain, or to the shore of the ocean, or even to the edge of the local creek, I am inspired by what I see, hear, and feel. I become fully present.

It seems that the common thread in all of these places and situations of inspiration is the ability to become fully present in those places and in my own body. When I am at the edge of the ocean, I can taste the salt in the air, feel the sand under my feet, hear the waves crash against the shore, and see the water continue its endless and never replicating cycle of movement. I have no choice but to sense the place of where I am, and so stand more solidly in myself, rather than have my mind flit between a hundred different places and a thousand different thoughts.

It helps if I don’t have my phone on, tethering me to everyone who has my number. Sometimes I need to get away, and be where I am, rather than wondering or worrying about this friend or that family member. I need space to remember who I am, in my own skin. When I do that, I can more ably respond to others with grace and kindness.

When I know who I am, I am better at being who I am.

I guess, in a way, that I find inspiration in places that allow me to be myself at my fullest potential. When I am not able to be myself, I end up rehashing old ideas and lack the creativity that lies silent and deep in my core. I can grow crusty with old things, but when I crack the shell of routine I am able to do more than I could ever do before.

When I go to find inspiration, I find more than that. I find joy.

Storm Shelters

A storm blew through our community last night just after sundown. The sun was setting in the west, and the storm was blustering in from the north and the east. It made for a pretty sky, but it also made the darkened storm clouds approach with a deeper darkness than we would have had otherwise. I love the way that storm clouds rush in over a landscape, and so I went to a neighbor’s yard to get some photographs with my phone. As I was taking the pictures, I looked back toward my house, and noticed that the storm had blown even closer, sinking us deeper into the dark. The wind was picking up as well, bending trees and whipping my hair around my face. Lightning flashed. It was time to get inside.

The Storm Appoaches
Storm Rolling In

I get nervous when a storm approaches. I can feel the storm approach deep in my bones. I get antsy. If you try to have a serious conversation with me when a storm approaches expect unthoughtful, one word responses. Lightning and thunder make me startle and jump, and the rush of a heavy rain with possible hail makes me check the storm reports and the colour of the sky, just in case of tornadoes.

I also love storms. I love their power, I love their force, I love the way that they renew the earth with fresh water. I just need a little more comfort when they blow through.

I’ve gone through some storms recently in my personal life, when I really needed extra comfort. Watching the storm clouds brewing in abstract doesn’t give me nearly the same kind of joyful awe as seeing the ones that blew over us last night. Life storms—whether they are upheaval, heartbreak, or loss (sometimes all three at once)—tend to solely fill me with dread and utterly sap my energy. The comfort I sought, through my support system and reliance on God, didn’t shelter and protect me the same way that the roof over my head covered me last night. It is as if I am stuck in a picnic shelter in the midst of a huge rainstorm, and the wind is blowing nearly horizontal sometimes. I still felt the creeping cold of loss deep into my bones.

Perhaps I need to learn to build better storm shelters, dig myself a shelter deep in the ground somewhere, go hide until the storm blows over. But if the shelter is deep and secure enough, then I may not know when the storm has gone. I may hide in my shelter and never realize that the skies are blue again.

There is another problem with a shelter dug too deep. I am the only one inside it. Sure, folks can come and provide me with some essentials now and later, but a shelter that protects me from every single little thing has only space for me inside it. Not only is it lonely, it is also selfish. With a deep personal hiding hole, I don’t provide shelter or provision for others. I cannot help others with their storms and crises when I am sunk deep into the earth myself. Part of the way that I heal is by providing shelter for others. I can’t do that deep within my own insulating shelter.

And so I keep myself from digging a cellar in the ground, a metaphorical storm shelter that will insulate me from every single drop of hurt and brokenness. Instead, I expose myself to the storms, feeling the pain and hurt of those around me, looking for the way that each new storm will provide the space for new healing and renewing power. Because storms have power. They have the power to destroy, but they also carry energy to wash away the debris and detritus that have built up in our lives. Yes, destruction will occur. Objects, emotions, and relationships will be torn away. But what remains is space for renewal and rebuilding. The cold will seep deep into my core, but sooner or later the skies will clear and allow warmth and healing to begin.

The storm is not the end of the story. The storm does not speak the final word. The storm is a powerful, magnificent, awesome (in every sense of the word) force of nature. But the one who created nature is bigger, and has a bigger story to tell. And so I celebrate the storm. I know there is a sun shining right behind it.

Inbreaking
Inbreaking Light

My Tree

There was a tree outside my window in the house where I grew up. It was on the hill that went down to the road, and stood tall above the house on Lancaster Drive. Thick and strong at the base of the trunk, it branched out about ten feet above the ground into two smaller trunks and then began its myriad of division into branches and limbs and twigs and leaves. I can’t remember if it was a maple or an oak, but it was something that grew and had big leaves that fell each autumn. I probably have a picture or two that I took with my first camera that shows it in full leaf and bright greenness.

I haven’t lived in that house since 1995. But occasionally when I am in town to visit my family in Columbus and Phenix City I will go drive behind the K-Mart on Airport Thruway and drive past my house. The deck that my Father and Grandfather built together still stands on the rise behind the house. The bushes that we took the leaves to pretend were broccoli hollandaise still surround the front of the windows. The magnolia still sits right above the fire hydrant.

My tree is gone.

It no longer stands in the center of the yard, drawing attention and casting shade on the house. Instead a stump, ground level to the rest of the yard, and then later, sod covered even that. They took my tree down. Perhaps it was struck by lightning, had gotten a disease, or come loose from its roots. Maybe for the safety of the house they had to take it down.

But it was my tree. At my house. The house where I had girl scouts and learned to delve deep into a book and learned to cook and spent the night on the mayflower and sang musicals at the top of my lungs and had my two cats and now the tree is no longer there because it is no longer my house.

I really do love shade trees. I don’t care how much pollen they produce in springtime or how many piles of leaves they drop in the autumn, I love watching them grow and furl their leaves out and still remain strong through the cold winter when they stand deceptively bare. I love the shade they cast over a house, keeping us cool through the hot summers here in the south.

I loved that tree. I still miss it and it’s been nearly twenty years since I lived in that house.

 

For Sarah Grace.