In the image

29 06 2011

It was a cavernous sanctuary, ornate mahogany pews with red velvet cushions, a massive pipe organ dominating the wall behind the platform. We always sat in the balcony, slightly to the right of center, in the second row.

I was a small, somewhat impish child — not at all averse to occasionally sneaking up forbidden stairs and peeking between those enormous pipes as the congregation gathered, always scurrying back down at their first sonorous blast, my black, patent-leather Mary Janes echoing in long hallways as I sprinted to join my parents before the prelude ended and suspicion began.

I didn’t know Jesus then. Nor did I consciously know the power of art and beauty to move a soul. But I felt it. In the grand architecture, warm light spilling from chandeliers, glorious music from blended voices, and words. Such poetry! I listened and heard and loved it for reasons I couldn’t name. Reasons that would find me years later. On the long drive back to the suburbs from downtown Dallas, I’d whisper to myself The Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. I couldn’t have told you why, but I didn’t want to lose those words. Didn’t want to forget.

Do we recognize His hand in simplest things? I didn’t then. Not yet. Two things rise as constants in those days. Two things that remain as final things now:

Hearing my mother sing alto and watching her draw on her bulletin.

The music, it was always the gift. I didn’t know my eyes and ears were being trained. I only knew I wanted it. She held the hymnal and sang, and I followed the notes and heard them and learned their language. Amazing Grace and This is my Father’s World and For the Beauty of the Earth and The Doxology — praising God from whom all blessings flow, singing and believing the truth as a child believes. As we all must believe to enter the Kingdom.

But the drawings, they were her sanctuary. She’d scan the crowd and select a subject, and all through the service she would sketch. And I watched with wonder as the image took form. That old man with the crazy eyebrows and furrowed jowls may have gone home to his fried chicken dinner after church, but he also came home with us in her purse.

We are born with abilities engineered into our DNA — those places where we feel most at home in our own skin. When she was a little girl, “going outside to play” meant taking her color books and crayons to the sidewalk. She used to tell me that story, laughing at herself. But I loved it. Loved the way our gifts discover us. In college she majored in art, and toward the end of her senior year, she had to turn in an oil painting. The project was due, and she was running out of time. She and Dad were dating then, so she sat him down and painted his portrait, all in one afternoon. She added the finishing touches after he left, and in her hurry, painted the button on the wrong side of his shirt — another joke she always loved telling on herself. The portrait still hangs in their dining room.

She doesn’t tell these stories any more. Or any other stories. But her heart’s homes remain. Music. Drawing. And my father.

Recently they were sitting at the kitchen table after breakfast, and he asked her to draw him. She balked at first, but he insisted, so she took a sheet of paper and pencil, and glancing back and forth from her favorite face to the page, she drew.

After he saw the result he took her to an art supply store and bought a sketch pad and pencils. Last week he asked her to draw me. I watched her face as she sketched, and the smile appeared of itself. The same smile that lights her face when she holds Naomi. Her words said, “It’s not very good,” but her smile said, “I’m a little girl on the sidewalk. The breeze is ruffing my hair, and the sun is warming my back, and the crayons — oh, the wonderful crayons! — they are creating something out of nothing.”

And now I’m a little girl, too. Sitting beside her in church, watching her sketch a man in liturgical robes as he raises his hands toward heaven and gives thanks to an Almighty God who spoke the world into existence, creating beauty and form from nothing. And we who are weak, earthen vessels, frail and breakable — we are His image bearers. We who are small peek through cracks, snatching mere glimpses — notes, words, the faces we know and love best. Simple, powerful, eternal things.

I grasp for words, but who can wrap words around these mysteries?

We see in part, and we don’t want to lose it. Don’t want to forget. So we sing it to the deeps, and the music, it remains. By His grace.

When Curtis and Grace were in town last week, he pulled out Mom’s old classical guitar, Grace found lyrics and chords on the internet, and we sat around the kitchen table singing songs Mom loves. I used my phone to video a couple of them and thought I’d share them here with you. These recordings aren’t professional on any level, but I’m so glad to have captured a small sample of this sweet time. I love how Mom is transported to a far away place on Summer Time, and I love watching my dad’s face as he watches her.

One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take to the sky . . .

One of these mornings. Until then, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known.

We are made in the image, and when we see Him, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. The face we love best.

* * *

Considering the Practice of Humility, or in this case, what it means to be small.

The Acorn to the Oak

13 06 2011

“There’s something I want to talk to you about at some point while you’re here.”

I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for bed, but one look at my father’s face changed my course.

“We can talk now,” I said.

He retrieved a thick file from the file cabinet and we sat at the kitchen table. There were some important documents in the front and he briefly mentioned their contents, but he was mostly looking for a separate manila folder inside. “Your mom wrote these obituaries for us years ago, but I want you to rewrite them when the time comes.”

“Okay. I can do that for you.” I scanned the detailed documents, filled with dates and events, hobbies and travels, college degrees and career moves.

“This is too much,” he said. “I don’t want all this. For mine, just say, ‘Family was everything to him.'”

I smiled. Because I probably won’t just say that. And because it’s true.

We continued to flip through the folder’s contents until we came to a yellowed clipping of his father’s obituary. Poppy died when I was only three years old. There was also a letter. As soon as Dad opened it, I recognized his mother’s handwriting. My Mimi. Four handwritten pages penned fifty years ago by a young widow to her son and his wife.

Dear Patsy and Jim, How can I ever express to you how much I love you and how much you mean to me! You have been so wonderful at a time I have leaned so heavily on you and such a comfort to me. The days must look very dark to those who have no Faith when they lose a loved one. Dad has always had such deep faith and I’m sure he’d have us say, “Thy will be done” . . .

We both leaned in close. It was almost as if Mimi were there with us, speaking the words in her soft Southern tones. When we reached the middle of the second page, I felt like I was tiptoeing on holy ground — sneaking a glimpse into God’s ways.

Jim, you have such a wonderful wife and three lovely intelligent children — they show that they are loved and will grow into useful and happy young ladies with well rounded lives not omitting their spiritual side of it —

And suddenly I’m sixteen again with a newborn faith, bowed before the One who made me and then made me His, and I know that someone has prayed me here, but who? And the Spirit whispers her name. Mimi.

The letter goes on, pouring grace words on my young parents, words of gratitude and love, her heart so freshly broken yet full of them. Full for them.

Kiss each other and all the children for me, she writes at the end, and then I love you. And we feel it, Dad and I, his words catching in his throat.

He closes the folder. We’ve been facing finalities and now he turns to look at me, and he wants to know. What do I think about the scriptures that say there is no marriage in heaven? My sweet father who loves with his whole being. He doesn’t say it with words, but he doesn’t have to. I know his heart. Family is everything to him. The bride of his youth, she defines him, and he can’t fathom a good heaven that would take that bond away.

We talk. Of acorns and oak trees. Of a drop compared to the ocean. Of love made Love, and how can we imagine it when we have no context? And no, I can’t promise the partial won’t be swallowed in the Whole, but I can promise that we won’t miss the good when the Perfect comes.

Words seem so inadequate. I want to believe for him. To be sure for him.

The days must look very dark to those who have no Faith when they lose a loved one. 

She whispers it again, and I ask. For him, faith, and heart soil to receive it, and the miracle of new creation. I ask with joy and gratitude. I ask with hope. Because I know His heart.

Family is everything to Him.

* * *

Giving thanks in community for:

#129 Mimi’s faith and prayers
#130 my father’s beautiful heart and example
#131 delicious meals provided the past week by Luke and Sarah’s friends
#132 Naomi’s soft hair and sweet squeaky sounds
#133 Grace and Harper arriving tonight
#134 Heaven

Letting go

23 03 2011

It was more a day dream than anything. Or that’s what I thought at the time. It could work, but it would mean a lot of letting go for all of them, and who was I to suggest it? So I didn’t. But I did pray. “Lord, if this is of You, bring it to pass — not the way I imagine it, but the way You want it to be.”

Somehow, somewhere it happens. You don’t notice, between the paper dolls and skinned knees and snuggling into your mom’s lap for bedtime stories and report cards and school plays and first dates and college majors and a wedding and babies, and then you’re the mom kissing skinned knees and telling bedtime stories and going to school plays and graduations and weddings, and can it really be that your babies are all grown up and having babies of their own? Then one day you slow down to catch your breath, and you look at your parents, and you realize they’ve grown old.

I’m living in this ache. My mom is losing her memory. She’s frail and sometimes afraid, and I watch my father keep the vows he made to the bride of his youth, the wild-ish one who won his heart and has held it more than half a century.

The walls were closing in, and something had to change. But who was I to suggest it?

Luke and Sarah lived in a refugee community, a world in need right outside their doorstep, and were preparing to move to Japan as full-time missionaries. They actually planned to go last December and even had plane reservations, but several months before their departure, God gave them clear guidance the timing wasn’t quite right. Her name is Naomi Belle, and she’s due at the end of May.

Since they knew they’d be around a while, Luke mentioned that they hoped to move closer to my parents, and I breathed a prayer, and I asked them. Yes, they said. They would be willing, but would that be best for everyone? God, You know.

I was in town to catch a flight the next morning and had joined them for an evening service. We parted ways in the church parking lot, and I returned to my parents’ house — Mom dozing in front of TV and Dad and I talking in the kitchen, and did I want to see the latest doctor’s report? We sat on the edge of the bed and read the hard words, and I don’t even remember how the conversation went, but something I’d said about navigating unknown territory and God providing when we ask, even when we don’t know what to ask for, it had stuck in my father’s mind. He ventured, and I breathed another prayer and said, “You know that’s not just for Jacob and our family but for everyone who asks Him.” And he was quiet, but hope sparked.

Then, the next morning, in the car on the way to the airport, he hesitated only a moment and then he said it. “Do you think Luke and Sarah would be willing to move in with us? I could clear out the back half of the house and they could have those rooms . . .” and he kept right on, describing my day dream to the last detail.

I listened amazed, and then I told him, and we shared the wonder.

“I think this may be an answer to prayer,” he said. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say those words before.

A couple of weeks ago they moved in. They’re painting and arranging, and life is echoing off walls that have been mostly quiet for a long time. The large central room where my siblings and I played is now their living room. (They opted to keep the carpet we added as teens. “When else in my life will I have orange shag carpet?” Sarah pointed out. Indeed.) My sister’s old bedroom is Luke’s and Sarah’s. And the same crib that many a wee hour I tiptoed to and sang beside and prayed over, and that still holds memories of Naomi’s father — infant smiles in early morning and little arms reaching up to embrace a new day — has been cleaned and reassembled and now stands in my childhood bedroom awaiting sweet new life once again.

It’s a big change for all of them, and I won’t romanticize it, but I also can’t get over this holy sense of eternal purpose and the divine dance. This time to be born and time to die and everything in between, and how life is one letting go after another, but only so our hands will be open to receive the next gift. The galaxies swirl, and the planets spin, and the God who holds all things together with His singing word, also stoops low to visit a kitchen where a trembling woman sits wrestling an unnamed fear, and a grandson reads Words of Life, and a granddaughter-in-law comforts with presence and intercession, and a faithful husband-father-grandfather-great-grandfather receives and recognizes an answer to a barely-believed-possible prayer.

And I, who watch and pray from a distance, live in this exquisite ache, trusting the Always Good — letting go of what was for what is and for the promised joy of what will be. Letting go, not because it’s easy, but because I know He never will.

To read more posts that consider The Practice of Letting Go, visit Ann Voskamp’s site.

Colorado Rocky Mountain Highchair

9 07 2010

Yesterday I returned from a lovely Colorado get-away. It was lovely for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I got away from my East Texas home-sweet-sauna and got away to the yes-you-may-actually-need-a-jacket-here Rocky Mountains. Four generations of family members gathered to celebrate four family birthdays, and the centerpiece of this festive rendezvous was my dad’s 80th birthday on July 2.

Apparently all of Colorado loves my dad because they were shooting off fireworks and throwing parades. It was pretty sweet. Also, pretty sweet for me was the chance to spend five days with Harper Sparrow who is now two months old and steadily growing in adorableness.

I took lots of pictures and so did my brother, sister, daughter, and son-in-law. Today I posted an album on facebook containing mostly my images along with some of theirs. If you’d like a peek, click here. (Feel free not to notice the inordinate number of baby pictures in the mix. I may be slightly obsessed.)

Isn’t she irresistible?

Rock Star Fathers

21 06 2009

Yesterday I talked to my dad. I called mostly to ask if he will be available to shuttle me back and forth from DFW when I fly to Detroit next week, but before we hung up I said, “Happy Father’s Day tomorrow. I’m sure I’ll call you again, since I was lame-o and didn’t get a card in the mail.”

He chuckled and said, “Okay. Good to know. I look forward to being surprised by your call.”

After I hung up I thought about the fathers in my life. My dad, the father of my children, and the future fathers of my (potential) grandchildren. And I realized something amazing and perhaps rare. I’m surrounded by fatherly greatness.

Every year when Father’s Day rolls around, I see articles written by people who grew up fatherless or abused or who’ve lost their dads and desperately miss them. The holiday looms large and oppressive, a reminder of what they don’t have or never had. Greeting card racks or store displays showcasing golf balls, silk ties, electronic doodads or other dad-type items only magnify their pain or loss.

The irony is, while they feel the holiday keenly, I hardly notice it. I’m sure part of the reason is distraction and pure laziness, but I think it goes deeper than that.

Suppose someone in your family becomes a rock star. When you’re out in public with him you notice people staring and snapping surreptitious photographs. The bolder ones approach, giggly and starry-eyed, to ask for an autograph. But to you he’s just your goofy cousin who always made up funny songs to make you laugh. You don’t get the hype, because living around that kind of talent is your norm.

I suppose Father’s Day is no big deal to me because off-the-charts fatherly talent is my norm. I was loved, cherished, nurtured, taught, disciplined, and trusted as a child. My kids received the same beautiful gifts from their dad. And I’m 100% confident my sons (I include my son-in-law in that group, because I love him like a son) will do the same. I don’t need one day out of the year to force me to especially love these men. If I loved them any more than I already do, my heart might explode.

But a designated day is an opportunity to remember and express appreciation for things I all too often take for granted. The fact that beautiful fathers are my norm makes them no less beautiful and worthy of celebration. So I think I’ll quit writing this and go make that “surprise” call to my dad. Then I’ll spend the rest of the evening with the amazing man I married.

To all you other fathers (and potential fathers) out there, happy day to you, too. Rock on.

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