Monthly Archives: May 2011

You Are What You…..Yard Sale?

I’ve got a serious case of the Yard Sale Blues.

For months Orlando and I have been sorting through the piles in our house, looking for whatnot’s that we don’t really use, don’t really need, don’t really want to move. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I can be a sentimental sort of person. But the truth is that I pale in comparison to my husband in this. Part of this, I’m sure, is because he has the superior memory. He can remember who gave us that dish as a wedding gift. He can remember the trip where we found that seashell or bought that knick knack. He can remember which baby wore which outfit in which picture. I’ve always been a bit different. I can get weepy over specific memories, but it’s generalizations that do me in. I’m not attached to that baby shoe, but remembering our lives with all those babies can choke me up. I don’t need an object to get to that thought–maybe just a boy crawling into my lap who is so big and tall I have to work to get him to fit. So generally speaking , I would say my brand of sentimentality isn’t usually connected to stuff. Or so I thought.

Our front room is now nothing more than a huge pile to be “yard saled” on Saturday. We have so much stuff in there, it’s going to be more of a front yard sale, porch sale, patio sale, side porch sale, and backyard sale combined. It’s such a mountain and has eaten so much space, I can’t wait to get it all out of here. But when faced with the task of deciding whether or not to “yard sale” a said item, I’ve found myself balking over things that, frankly, I’m surprised I actually care about. Me? Sentimental over mere objects? You can’t be serious.

Well, I’ll admit it’s not the valuable items I’m having trouble with. You can take all the crystal and gadgets and televisions I have. I’ve been pretty cutthroat with those things. I’ve been looking at some of these decorations around my house for over 15 years. Time for something new, I say. But I really don’t want to get rid of my dented canner, even though I know my mother-in-law has a few. It’s the only thing I’ve owned that has ever given me any inclination to be domestic. I feel like Martha Stewart when I have that canner out. And I really don’t want to part with my stuffed frog because it was the first baby gift anyone ever gave me. I don’t want to forget how exciting that was for me. I won’t sell the laser photo that Mike Steinbacher from the Lewisburg Pizza Hut gave me for Christmas in 1984 because if I do, I might forget the boy entirely and I resist erasing people from my memory.  But today was the worst of all.  I had go through the VHS movies and practically found myself having an identity crisis. Some people are what they eat. Some are what they read. In my family, you are what you watch.

Now I understand that these movies are on VHS and it’s a dying medium. I know this, but still it’s not likely I will ever spend the cash to upgrade these movies and my VCR still works. (So does our 8-track. Seriously.)  Even so, this collection is something I’ve worked on since video was invented and I have ALL my favorite movies. Richard Dreyfuss in the Goodbye Girl. I saw that one at the Ormond Mall when I was  freshman in high school. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window. Have you ever seen a more perfect woman? I SO wanted to be her when I grew up. How about A League of Their Own? A movie dedicated to women baseball geeks like me. Twister. Not a great film but about tornados and you all know how much I like the weather.  And I bet you don’t have a copy of a very young John Travolta in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. I do!  And how could I part with my tape of Jaws? I might actually go swimming in the ocean without thinking about Great Whites if I don’t watch it every year. That could be downright dangerous.

So for the first time ever, I reneged on lightening the load. I did put a whole bunch of movies into the yard sale pile, but they weren’t movies I cared about at all. And I kept far more than I purged. I decided that parting with my movie collection was just not worth the heartache and anxiety it was causing me. Take the baskets and the candles and the lanterns and the mirrors and the bookcases. Sell the dolls and the dried flowers. Get what you can for the antique bird cages. But by golly, leave me my movies. I may never have time to watch them, but I need to know they’re there. Just in case.

Crazy, I know. But suffice it to say that there are some things that are far too sacred to be subjected to the indignity of a yard sale.

Not Shards…Seeds.

On Sunday evening Orlando and I attended the memorial service for our dear friend Julie. It was lovely and touching and profound and anointed just like I knew it would be. She was so well loved, and is already so incredibly missed. Even so,  her service was joyous and full of the hope that comes when one moves past the veil and into glory.

And still, with so much to see and hear about the hope to come, I was struck by something completely different yet equally meaningful in the room. For the first time in years, I was in the presence of many, many old friends all at the same time. Friends who knew Julie and Gary well. Friends that had been part of my church family for years and years. Since Orlando and I joined Petra over five years ago, I had seen most of them but never all together in the same place as I did on Sunday. Lititz Christian Church, the church we attended together, had undergone some changes and many of those faithful saints had moved on to other church bodies as we had. But it wasn’t without a significant tearing for those of us who had called each other family for so long. In some ways, it was like leaving a piece of ourselves behind.

Our church move to Petra had been a healthy one, but when I encountered many of my friends from LCC in the grocery store or in the park, it always seemed to me that I was randomly running into a soul mate. Someone with whom I had shared many years of deep fellowship and communion. It didn’t really matter which person I ran into, because after so many years I had come to know almost everybody on a close and meaningful level. But somehow despite the closeness I felt with these dear saints, I could always sense the brokenness that the church “scattering” had caused. Almost as if a mirror had been shattered and we were the shards. Worrying that perhaps we would not reflect as much of Jesus separately as we did together. That we were not smooth pieces that fit in perfectly, but a sharp edges of a break that remained jagged.

I quickly learned at Petra that a lover of Jesus always has a place amongst His people. I learned that there is deep fellowship, anointed teaching, devoted friends in the house of God, wherever it may be.  Even so,  I missed my old LCC friends. And like I said, I had never seen them all together in the same place again until this past Sunday. And for the brief time we were together I could sense the presence of God with them as I have done many times before. The pastor who was leading the service told us that we were a “New Testament” crowd, and I knew exactly what he meant when he said that, but his words also triggered a hint of some understanding in my head. There were several instances when those from the “New Testament” or “early” church were scattered (often as a result of persecution.) Some went this way and some went that way. Some north and some south. Some to Rome, some to Greece, some to Jerusalem. And wherever they went, the gospel went with them and the church as a whole was strengthened and grew.

After the service as I chatted with the LCC crowd, I realized that so many of them had gone out from that place and had much to give. They’d grown and changed. They are living and thriving. They’d taken the gospel with them, into every church and town they went, and the Kingdom is richer for their efforts. And it occurred to me that when the members of the early church ran into each other years later, in whatever country they were in, they must have felt like they were running into soul mates, too. They had so much background together. So many stories to share. So many lessons they learned in the presence of each other. Trees of righteousness with common roots, but now spread out and growing just about everywhere. And it wouldn’t have happened if they had never scattered.

So we’re not really shards at all; we’re just seeds. His seeds.  Scattered, planted, growing, bearing fruit.

Atop the Nebraska State Capitol building is a beautiful statue called “The Sower.” I have always found its presence there incredibly comforting, although up to this point I would not have been able to tell you why. But as our family takes on the wind and travels to a new land, I am not afraid, but know I will forever miss all my old and new friends. But I also know that the hand that is planting us in Nebraska is the same hand that is planting each of them. Making homes for the homeless. Giving hope to the hopeless. Breathing life to the lifeless. He is the greatest Giver. He is the greatest Healer. He is the greatest Sower.

And that’s a reality I know I can live with. For myself. For all of us.

The Sower overlooks Lincoln. Photo from the Nebraska State Historical Society

A Preview of Coming Attractions

After a brief hiatus, I return with to the Big Red Blog with apologies for my unexpected absence.

I must admit, I thought the start of my first week as an ex-pastor would begin on a far different note from the one it began on. Benjamin fell prey to the stomach flu on Saturday and took the rest of us down with him in the next couple of days. Each of the boys, of course,  bounced back within twenty four hours. I, on the other hand, took days and days to recover. I am definitely too old to be throwing up, and that’s about all I have to say about it. You should certainly be glad I chose NOT to write about it.

On a happier note, dear Milton and Wilma, my in-laws, landed at our house on Friday. They came for “Grandparent Day” at the boys’ school, as well as to help us with the arduous and seemingly endless task of sorting and packing. Because of the plague at our house, they were delayed in coming and we actually saw them for the first time at the school for the Grandparent Day festivities. Dominick and I crept into the school gym during the breakfast part of that event to see if we could catch of peek of them.. And when we found the two of them in the crowd, you should have seen the sudden light come on in that little boy’s eyes. Instantly the hugest grin came over his face and he gave out this awestruck “It’s Grandma and Grandpa!” exclamation. Almost as if he couldn’t believe they were actually here in the flesh. Truthfully I have never seen a happier child.

But Dominick wasn’t the only one.  Each boy, in turn, had the opportunity to show their grandparents around their classroom and do little projects with them. They were so proud to have them in their little worlds. And for me, it was sweet to watch. With their grandparents living so far away, I know they’ve missed this kind of thing in their lives to this point. They’ve lived through several Grandparent Days before now, but either I’ve ended up playing Grandma or we artfully maneuvered our schedule in such a way as to miss the event entirely. But with Milt and Wilma here, the day took a whole new turn for them. Just like Dominick, they all lit up in their presence. They were honored to show them off to their teachers and friends.   These are our grandparents, our family. We go together. 

And for me it was simply more assurance. More confirmation that this move will be such a good thing for our boys and for us as a family. There’s something to this mixing of the generations that simply goes beyond words. I love watching Milt and Wilma’s godly influence on our children and seeing the boys watch their “faith in action” way of walking through life. I guess that’s why the Bible teaches so strongly that we are to pass down our faith from generation to generation. There’s something profound in it.

And of course now that Grandma and Grandpa are here, Orlando and I have been demoted to the position of chopped liver. We have to have the boys systematically take turns at the table sitting by them, in the car driving with them. I found Grandma in the backyard playing wiffle ball, dodging balls that Nicholas and Benjamin  “smashed.”I caught Grandpa climbing up into a pirate ship play set at the request of Anthony. And Dominick, well, he just keeps following them around with that great big grin on his face, taking every opportunity to sit on an empty lap and giggle. Just too thrilled to stop smiling. When I say, “Do you want to go with me?” the first question I get is “Are Grandma and Grandpa going?”

A preview of coming attractions, all coming soon to a farm in Nebraska. And wow, does it make me smile!

Lessons from the Last Page

I had this amazing, exhilarating thought today. A revelation. An epiphany. It will probably revolutionize my life.

It came to me when I was looking at the mess my family room still is. With a yard sale pending, moving happening, boxes multiplying, and the stuff from my office dumping into the mix, my inability to get to that room and others under control was gnawing at me today until the thought came to me. So sudden and so simple, it almost made me laugh. And of course it was a line from a movie–you may have figured out by now that my brain is full of them. But there it was, straight from the last page of Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel, the last scene of Gone with the Wind,  and complete with Scarlett O’Hara’s southern accent:

“Tomorrow is another day.”

I’m sure that sounds trivial to most of you, but please let me explain. For the last eight years, in other words since my children came on the scene, I have been doing the balancing act of being a full-time mom and a working mom. The last half of that time I’ve been a full-time pastor. My life, although wonderfully full and meaningful, has been an endless series of scenes in which I run out the door so I can get to the next thing. My schedules and lists have been fettered with notations referring to time. A simple letter “T” with a circle around it means “today.” In other words, if I don’t get it done today, it’s not getting done. Probably because tomorrow was filled with things from the other “job.” My days off, usually devoted to catching up with chores at home, always ended with unfinished business that would need to wait another week before I could get back to it. I routinely left meetings to get my kids, left my kids to get to meetings, and left the dirty dishes in the sink because in the big picture of life they fell to the bottom of my priority list.

So imagine my exhilaration today. When faced with yet another unfinished task, I realized that I don’t have to run off to work tomorrow. Rather, I can actually pick up where I left off. Even with the interruptions that life with my four-year-old, swashbuckler Dominick provides, when tomorrow comes I can keep plodding along.  It’s quite likely that given a series of days, I could actually get something accomplished that will make a difference I can see.

And wouldn’t that be grand!

Sir Dominick, my daytime companion.

Barnstormers and Other Acts of God

Just call me Dorothy.

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, with her house lifted by the twister and spinning in circles, clinging to her bed while watching people fly by her windows. Some don’t seem to notice the storm. They tip their hats and rock in their chairs. Some, who don’t seem to care where they are going as long as they go, turn from nasty neighbors to wicked witches in a moment’s watching. All the while Dorothy sits and watches her spinning world out her window. Until the big bump when she lands in Oz.

This is the best I can do to describe the emotions of the last week. Several momentous, life-altering events took place, but I don’t feel like I’ve had a solid chance to absorb any of them as the spinning continues. The week began with the loss of a dear friend Julie, followed closely by my last day at my job. The very next day my sister flew in from Florida. My in-laws will be coming on Tuesday, here to help us prepare for the move that is coming.  My son Benjamin became sick in the middle of a baseball game yesterday and threw up half of last night. But still I needed to drag myself out of bed this morning so that Orlando and I could say a formal goodbye to the dear congregation at Petra. It was a pathetic excuse for a goodbye I gave. (See the previous post about my propensity for squeaking.) But they prayed for us and blessed us which was an awesome time. But immediately upon completion of this in the second service, we ran out the doors.

Why? So we could attend the All Pro Dad event at the Barnstormers game. (For those of you who don’t know, the Barnstormers are a local minor league team). Orlando is the All Pro Dad Team Captain at his school and they were throwing this event, so we felt we really needed to go if we could. But Benjamin wanted to go and said he felt well enough, and since he got a pass for the trip from his Aunt Maryann the nurse, we went and watched the game. It was a fun time–although the game didn’t end until the bottom of the 12th inning. It was, however, the most fascinating weather event I’ve witnessed in along time. It started out cloudy and cool. The steady rain of the morning gave way to just a blanket of clouds. But then the clouds started to dance and move and the sun began to shine through the holes. And the sun was uncommonly  intense. I could feel it burning my face whenever it was out for longer than a couple of minutes. But it kept diving behind the clouds, just in time to give relief from the heat. But then the wind kicked up. And then suddenly, we are being pelted with big drops of rain. Huge drops. At first I thought someone had turned on a hose. We stood up and ran for cover, but it was over literally five minutes later and the sun came out again, dancing in and out of the clouds that were zooming by overhead. Eventually the sun just won the war and stayed out the last hour or so. One look in the mirror confirmed that I had been scorched. Same with Orlando and the boys.

But I will admit, sitting at that game I began to feel weary from the week’s events. And the weather just seem to confirm the roller coaster of emotions that I have felt during it. So sad to lose my friend. So glad to see old friends and my sister who came to mourn her. So sad to give up my job. So excited to see what’s next. So sad to leave my Petra friends.  So happy to have the opportunity to focus on my family. So happy to see my in-laws coming, and yet so concerned that I have so much yet to do. So sorry for my poor son struggling with being sick, and yet sorrier still for those we love who are struggling with illness beyond my imagining.

And just like for Dorothy, the fickle, swirling weather seems to emulate life. It’s all I can do to just cling to the bed and not fall off, waiting for the whole thing to land. And maybe when it does I’ll get to squish a few witches, meet a few munchkins, and experience the world in a whole new level of technicolor.

Or maybe I’ll just take a nap, sit and cry, and take a deep breath before the next storm.

My All Pro Dad and our boys at the Barnstormers game

The Closed Door

Well the day came at last. I cleaned out my files, emptied out the drawers, collected my books, organized my scads of  mechanical pencils and paper clips,  put my tinker toys away in boxes, and hauled it all to the van. I officially moved out of the children’s pastor office. A chapter ended.

It wasn’t totally horrible. The worst part was in the morning when I was stuck in the office for hours going through pile after pile, notebook after notebook, file after file. You’d think I would have dealt with some of those piles and files along the way, but never really felt I had the time to be that thorough. And truthfully even if I had the time, I would have found more interesting things to do with it. But today it sort of afforded me a look back. I forgot how much time I spent researching and collecting ministry ideas until faced with dumping the contents of all the research files. I forgot how many drafts of the mission and vision we came up with before we nailed it down. I forgot how many versions of the ministry logo there were before we got it just right. I forgot that I taught on the attributes of God in children’s church using Nerf balls and dissolving paper, and that I sent out a feedback survey to all the kids’  workers after my first year asking them what they thought about it all. It was kind of strange. When you spend your whole life asking the question “what’s next?”, it makes it kind of easy for you to forget all the things that were on the path to “next.” There’s never any time to savor the moment because the moment is going to be gone any second and you have to be ready to take the next step.

Not that I’m complaining. I’m definitely a “what’s next” kind of lady. I’m just saying I’m developing a love for remembering.

I will admit to getting a bit weepy at times during the clean out. The “what’s next”  for me equals not being here with these dear people. It’s been such an exhausting emotional journey these past few days, and goodbyes make me crazy anyway. I can sit here in the comfort of my own kitchen saying everything I want to say just the way I want to say it, but when I’m saying goodbye I just choke up and only squeaky sounds come out. I can never say all the words that fill my head, especially to those I really want to say them to. It’s a dastardly problem.

I was rescued from the choking up by my friend Kristen who came to the staff lunch party they were throwing for me. She showed up at my office and her presence diffused some of my melancholy. I know that Kristen will be my friend forever, even if I am living 1400 miles away. And then suddenly Orlando stood in my doorway. He escaped from school to come be with me at this lunch, and just seeing his face gave me courage.  I was so thankful to not have to do this goodbye lunch without him. My dear friend Tee, who was in charge of the food, had Kung Po Chicken, Green Beans Caesar, and banana cream pie waiting for me when I arrived. All favorites of mine that she learned by scoping out the blog post from May 4. Sneaky girl. Of course the choking started up again as my friends began to share stories and remembrances of my time with them. Encouraging, uplifting words that I will treasure in my heart. I tried to tell them what they’ve meant to me, but all I really did was squeak.

And then I went back to finish the office. And when I did, I walked across the hallway and gave Pastor Ken my office key. I had to make a quick exit before the squeaking began again. Then I went to see our assistant Becky, and told her this was the last opportunity to come down to my office and tell me things looked better. She did, just like always. And I would have told her how meaningful her friendship has been to me, helping me navigate the waters of Petra and listening to all my ideas and giving me honest appraisals. I would have told her I’ve loved getting to know her, that I think she’s one of the brightest, most accepting people I know. But of course, all I got out was “It was fun” before the lump started in my throat and the squeak began.

So then we stood in the doorway, I said “goodbye office” and I closed the door, officially locking myself out. I gave some quick hugs and walked out the door. It was over, almost as suddenly as it seemed to begin.  So I got in the van, turned on the engine, and asked the Lord the one question you knew I would ask.

“Okay, God,” I asked Him, “What’s next?”

Dancing Shadows: A Farewell to Julie

Yesterday we lost a dear, old friend. Just like that, she left this earth. A sudden, stunning exit.

I met Julie Loyd Benner when I was 16 years old, standing in front of the Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I liked her immediately because she was straightforward and came with no pretenses. She was who she was. She was smart, brilliant. A computer wizard and a self-described geek with an eye for detail and artistry. She was an enthusiastic people person, but when I met her that day in 1982, she was unsure of herself in this. She worried that she would overstep her bounds with people; laugh too loudly, speak too intensely, say too much, or say the wrong thing. We were alike in this. It was years later when we had the conversation where she told me she had learned that having a gentle and quiet spirit had nothing to do with how loud you were. And she was musical, a worshipper. And that day when I was 16 she came over and introduced herself to me specifically to talk about worshipful things. Another dear friend of mine had played her this little ditty of a tune I had written, and she came to tell me it inspired her, that she heard God’s Spirit in it and wanted to encourage me to write more. At the time, I really appreciated her words but was too insecure to believe her. I find it ironic that she told me the same thing recently about the writing she’d read in this blog, and again, I was hard-pressed to believe her. I guess some battles are fought over a lifetime. I think Julie understood that.

A few years later, Julie and I found ourselves in the same town, the same church, the same circles. She was my sister’s roommate and would visit me in at my dorm in college. I remember coming home to my room and finding her written notes of encouragement on the whiteboard on my door. “Hey Toni, I saw your pink and green neon shirt with matching sunglasses on Sunday and thought it was a great look for you..” What can I say, it was the 80’s. Her townhouse became something of the home in town for the single church ladies. I spent a lot of time there, alternating between having fun party times and serious Bible studies and faith discussions. Later, we were teammates and partners on a missions trip to Trinidad. I recall being amazed by her ability to strike up a conversation wherever she went. She could make people feel comfortable just by smiling at them. Was interested in anything you had to say, especially if you had something to teach her. She would ask you a hundred questions, and cock her head to one side, listening intently to your explanation. She might even take notes. She never seemed to tire of listening and learning from people. Even in a foreign country, she shined like that. My brother took to walking around with her and going up to people on the street saying “Have you ever heard a laugh like this?” and every single time he said it, it still struck her funny and she would laugh on cue. Her amazing laugh, a tremendous, resounding sound reminiscent of so many clarinets and so many wind chimes heaving in rhythm . I remember sitting at the dinner table at some home in Trinidad while the people served us this truly yucky stuff–I forget what it was called–but it looked like slimy seaweed. She chatted it up and ate the stuff, valiantly. It was all I could do to swallow, much less speak. Wow, did I admire her grace then!

Then came the day when we were walking around the Polo Field in Rothsville and she was telling me about this man she met. How she was sure he was “the one.” And he was. It was so easy to see how Gary and Julie were meant for each other. Two truly delightful, joyful, vigorous souls. Together they could make you practically bust a gut laughing. But they could also turn around and share deep things of faith with tremendous intensity. Julie was a person of profound feeling and emotion. And whatever she was ruminating was right on her face, heart on her sleeve, just out there with it. On a perfect spring day, I sang in their wedding, the most music-filled ceremony I have ever, ever, ever attended in my life. I still remember the song I sang, “Father God, and I always think of her when it comes up on my iPod. I’m probably the only person on earth with that song as a permanent fixture on shuffle.

When Orlando came into my life, we became “couple friends” and did so many things together. Restaurants and festivals and concerts and movies. Julie and Gary were foodies with refined palates. Orlando and I were, and still are, much less discriminating. I can still hear the uproarious noise we made when we saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” at the Allen Theater. But my favorite memory was a trip the four of us took to Newport, Rhode Island, to see the mansions. Such a dichotomy, we were. Orlando and I went through the museums looking at the treasures, learning bits about the Vanderbilts, commenting on the china patterns and the furniture. Gary and Julie rented the tour headsets. I still have a picture in my mind of Julie examining an exhibit, listening to every possible piece of information on that thing and inspecting every single artifact. It literally took her hours longer to tour those homes than it took us, not that we cared. We had a grand time.

It wasn’t too long after that when our twins joined our family. I’ve never seen two people more excited to hear of a pregnancy as Gary and Julie were for us. Gary, being a twin himself, had and still has, a special place in his heart for our boys. Eventually Orlando and I were called to a different church and our times with Gary and Julie became infrequent. We reconnected on Facebook several years ago now, but other than running into them occasionally, we didn’t get to see them as much as we wanted to. But even through a thin medium like Facebook, Julie’s precious heart still shone through. Encouraging comments, kind words, fun pictures and posts. Orlando and Gary just ran into each other this weekend and we were going to finally make a date. Time just ran out on us. At least for now it did.

Julie became sick this weekend and left us yesterday for the perfection of heaven. And her departure makes me sadder than sad for Gary and for all those saints who loved her deeply. But I have been able, in this mournful day, to see a glimmer of joy. Just a glint. A flash. A voice in the wind. I see her laughing and dancing and rejoicing. I see her listening intently, with her head cocked to one side–finally, as my sister would say, getting the answers to all the questions she has asked after so many years. All of this with Jesus, the One whose presence she had longed for so intensely through her days on this earth. Getting to see Him face to face, no longer through a glass, darkly. Her joy is complete. Her race finished. Her “Well done, good and faithful servant” given and received.

And in the shadow of that, I hear her laughing.

We love you, Julie. See you soon.

Cliffwalk, Newport, RI

Impressive desserts