Category Archives: essays

Apollo 11 and Possibilities

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View from the moon

Not long ago, I heard a special radio broadcast that included interviews from people like you and me who reminisced about where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It was fascinating to hear everyone’s memories. (I have searched NPRs website to find a link to the program to no avail. If anyone out there does know where to find this broadcast, shoot me a link.)

The program got me to thinking about the glory of the goal. As we look back now, it is easy to see that the race to the moon was all about the journey, and the side benefits of even attempting the journey, more than the destination itself. Buzz Aldrin talked about how they had computer problems during the mission, and I wondered what they learned from having to deal with those problems. I wondered how many other technological advances came about due to the grand goal of using brainpower, ingenuity, creative thinking, problem solving, and modern technology to get to the moon. Talk about aiming high!

There’s a great website I learned about recently called “Do Hard Things,” started by a couple of young guys who just wanted to challenge themselves and others to not take the easy way out. By challenge themselves and others to “do hard things,” they have started what they call a “rebelution” to get kids away from the Beavis, Butthead, and Simpson generation and into a new era of young people who want more than the path of least resistance has to offer.

A while back, I was talking with a friend who was going through some tough marriage problems. She said that she had concluded with that very same thought, “It’s not about my personal happiness,” she told me, “It’s about the journey and completing it well.”

The race to the moon yielded countless technological discoveries and advances. I find myself challenged to ask what kind of moon I can aim for and what I might discover in my attempt to make it there!

 

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

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My First White Friend

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Patricia Raybon

Patricia Raybon

Friendships that transcend color and culture barriers have always fascinated me, so when I first heard of Patricia Raybon’s book, My First White Friend, I knew it was a reading list priority. Normally, I would go into the book itself here, but my personal interest in the book will explain much of my reaction to it.

My parents, Alabama born and bred, were careful to raise my sister and me with the belief that we were no better and no worse than anyone else. They taught us to respect people of all colors and to appreciate differences, but as I was growing up, the South was still fairly segregated—not so much by law anymore as by choice.

When I was 18, though, I moved to Amsterdam where I worked with an international mission organization. I was smitten with cross-cultural life. I thrived on the discovery of living and eating like the locals, enjoying their traditions, customs, and quirky sayings. In turn, I learned to appreciate the quirks and eccentricities of my own culture and language in the process.

The fun of cross-cultural and interracial friendships is in the exchange. Once you get past all the little nuances, though, you realize that we’re all just people. The rest is secondary. Fun. Intriguing, Fascinating. Sometimes frustrating. But always secondary.

But when it comes to African American culture, I learned over the years just how hard it is to reach across the fence and find someone willing to reach back. I learned, in fact, that this fence isn’t so much about language or culture. Rather, this is a well-fortified wall of mistrust, hurt, and anger over any number of insults that African Americans have suffered. I also sense that there is, within the African American community, some sort of mantra that goes something like this: “Be polite. Be kind. But don’t trust.”

Eddie Huff

Eddie Huff

My black friends (those brave enough to reach back across the fence and such gold to me) taught me, through their stories, what racism looks like on a very personal level, and that’s what Raybon’s book does as well. I have heard stories like hers before from friends, colleagues and even students. It always shocks me. I know racist behavior happens every day, but because I am eager to transcend barriers, I’m still surprised when I hear about those who are not. It’s a shame. They miss so much.

Eddie Huff, now a talk show host, was the first black friend who reached across that fence to me. Actually, he jokes that I was his first teenage daughter.  I lived with Eddie and his wife Vickie while serving with the mission I mentioned earlier. Vickie, who is white, was a little nervous when I first moved in. Here I was, this young white girl from Tennessee that the mission had placed in their home. (Ironically, my roommate, yet to arrive, was a white woman from South Africa!) Eddie wasn’t home when I arrived, suitcases in hand. Vickie, a lovely, gracious woman, helped me move in and made me welcome. While we were lugging suitcases up the stairs, she suddenly stopped, turned around and looked at me, and said, “There’s something I need to tell you about my husband.” All kinds of scenarios raced through my head.  He’s a paraplegic. He’s deaf. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic!

I waited. After a beat or two, Vickie smiled sweetly and said, “He’s black.”

I laughed outloud. “Is that all? Geez, you scared me to death.” I was thrilled! Growing up in the South in the 70s was a long, long way from Bull Conner’s Alabama, but there still wasn’t a whole lot of interracial friendships in my schools. So this was my first chance to have a real black friend. Even better, I was part of their family. They had two small children—Talitha, who was 4 and Eli, who was about 3. I became the big sister, and I listened and learned.

I learned that though Eddie’s mother was a white German, the hardships he had faced in life had nothing to do with his white mother and everything to do with his black skin. He experienced the same snubs and insults that so many others have known before him. Yet, maybe because he had lived part of his life in Germany, maybe because his mother was white, maybe because he actually spoke another language for the first few years of his life—maybe all of that together made him a little more willing and able to reach across that fence to befriend anyone willing to reach back. I’m grateful for that.

Racial relationships have come a long way, but each time an African American is ill treated, it reinforces that mantra: Be polite. Be kind. Don’t trust. And sometiMy First White Friend Book Covermes the walls go higher. Raybon’s book provides deeper insight into what it feels like to be judged by your color. A dear Guatemalan friend once told me that she had experienced racist behavior from some of my colleagues.

“Really? I don’t see it,” I was genuinely surprised.

“Why would you?” she reminded me, “You’re white.”

Indeed. I had missed that very obvious fact. My corner of the world looked and responded to me differently simply because I am white. Oh sure, I’ve had my own share of insults for other reasons, but Raybon’s book provides just a taste of what it means to be targeted for no other reason than skin color, and this is a valuable perspective for white readers who have never experienced a similar prejudice.

But Raybon’s book is ultimately about forgiveness–which transcends all colors. Someone once said that unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping our enemy will die. Despite the ways she was treated, Raybon realized that if she did not forgive, she could never be whole herself. She began to see that her life was false and reactionary. A life all about proving herself to be worthy—no, even better—than those on the other side of the fence. After all, hadn’t her anger produced “good” things like career success, achievement, and recognition?

Remarkably, she finally named her behavior for what it was: bitter spite. And she courageously concluded that it provided a poor platform for an identity. She challenges us all with her willingness to do the hard work of rebuilding her identity on something far more profound—the grace of God. As a Christian, Raybon realized that the “love thy neighbor” bit included white people. Still, the reader feels the struggle and weight of the truth that Raybon slowly discovered: The journey of forgiveness is costly and lasts a lifetime.

OnBook Jackete sadness to me in this book was that the “white friend” in the title is barely a blip on the radar. I thought I would be reading a story about a wonderful journey of discovery and love between this writer and her white friend. Instead, the book is about Raybon’s growing awareness of her need to forgive and let go so that such a friendship would even be possible. I admit it: I was disappointed, but in fairness to Raybon’s very personal journey, I left the book knowing that as she embraced mercy, God would give her new friends of all shapes, colors and backgrounds. (Her latest book, I Told the Mountain to Move, does indeed reveal beautiful and moving glimpses of just how colorful her world has become.)

I’m not sure who Raybon had in mind for her reading audience: People of color? White people? I’m not sure it even matters. There are nuggets of wisdom here for anyone, and her considerable writing skills—powerful, rhythmic, lyrical, filled with a rich voice—make the reading a pleasure. We all have our biases, whether against another race, or another culture, or even another socio-economic group. The lessons of forgiveness cannot be taught enough, and Raybon’s willingness to reveal her honest struggles to forgive provide encouragement to us all that we can do the same.

 

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Beating the Bah Humbug in Me

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Mr. GrinchYesterday, I caught a snippet Dennis Prager’s radio show where he challenged those who believe that crass commercialization has ruined Christmas. With playful sarcasm, he reasoned, “During one period of time each year, the great majority of Americans feel obligated to buy presents for their friends and relatives. Imagine that! What an awful thing!”

He had me there.

He goes on. “Spending one’s money on presents for people is one of the nicest traditions in society and ought to be cultivated, not discouraged.”

Now, I have to admit. I have grumbled incessantly about buying gifts. “I’m not a big shopper,” I reason. “People have too much ‘stuff’” anyway!” But I think I’ve missed the point. It’s not about what people need, and it’s not about me.

I don’t know all that there is to know about love, but I do know this. Love is extravagant. That’s why diamond rings were invented. Their very extravagance says, “I treasure you.” When Barry and I got engaged, we were serving as missionaries in an urban mission in Amsterdam. We were poor as dirt, but we went window-shopping for rings. I fell in love with a very simple, dainty ring with a very small diamond. We ventured inside where the sales associate told us that the diamond in this particular ring was a lower quality “brown” diamond versus the flawless and superior “blue-white” diamond. (Amsterdam is THE place to learn about diamonds.) I didn’t mind. Heck, I was thinking I’d be lucky to get cubic zirconium. I thought it was a beautiful little ring and it suited me just fine, but I wasn’t sure Barry had funds even for this.

A few weeks later, we went out to dinner, and he surprised me with that very ring. But when I looked at it closely, I realized that the brilliance of the diamond was different. It was the blue-white diamond. He had asked the jeweler to switch out the brown diamond for the blue one. In his mind, the lower quality just wouldn’t do for the girl who would become his wife. Relatively speaking, for us this was beyond extravagant. It was lavish, but I’ll never forget the loving intent behind the gesture.

Such expressions of love are far more about giver’s love than the receiver’s need or merit. (Think of Joseph and his amazing multi-colored coat, a gift that was ALL about the father’s love versus Joseph’s merit.) We don’t earn a right to be loved, and, if we’re honest, we often don’t deserve it. But when you love someone, say, your children, for instance—you love them even when they are rotten. Like from the age of around 13 to 20. And you give them things they don’t deserve, like 2nd and 3rd chances, or forgiveness, or your time and energy when you are tired. We give our children precious pieces of our heart every day because we love them, even if they don’t always love us back the way we would wish. And that’s how love often works.

Clearly—gift giving is no substitute for the daily hard work of loving each other day in and day out, through thick and thin. But when that hard work is crowned by an extravagant gift (extravagance being purely relative to each individual’s circumstance and resources), the gift becomes a wonderful expression and symbol of the love that it represents.

So is it such a bad thing to get over myself long enough to consider a way, through a tangible gift, to encourage and bring a little joy to others? I’m thinking…no.

God is the first and most supreme gift giver. Clearly, it brings God joy to give to us. For Christians, consider this: Besides life itself, is there any more lavish gift than one’s first-born and only son? As if that weren’t enough, God’s giving doesn’t even stop there. He continues to open his hand to us. Should we do any less?

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Romans 8: 31-32

Now, I’m ready to go Christmas shopping.

Read Denis Prager’s thoughtful essay.

 

© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

In My Mother’s House

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In my mother’s house, there were few strangers and always room for one more. Every Saturday morning was cleaning day, and Sunday morning (& Sunday night and Wednesday night) was church, no matter how tired you were or what a devil you had been.

My mother’s house was all about sitting up straight, cleaning your plate, and learning to act like a lady. (You ARE going to wear a slip with that, right?) My mother’s house was cornbread, butter beans, and salmon patties–the poor man’s crab cake. It was sweet tea and minding your manners, please and thank you, and don’t tell your grandmother I let you get your ears pierced. It was also Dottie Rambo, the Speer Family, Bill and Gloria Gaither, and Mull’s Singing Convention. My mother never cussed, but she was known to s-p-e-l-l a cuss word once in a while. Somehow that didn’t count.

My mother’s house smelled of Pine Sol on Saturday and Pot Roast on Sunday. My mother’s house was a place where we were likely to linger over a dinner table for hours while Mama and her friends told one story after another. They were long stories, so you figured “might as well get comfortable” while they went “all the way around their elbow to get to their wrist,” as she says. But in Mama’s house, you learned to appreciate the beauty of a tale well told.

My mother’s house was about being there for others, walking with them through their joys and sorrows. It was about not being “ugly” to others but learning to look for the best.

My mother’s house was the place where I was trained to understand: This is what love looks like. It is the place where I saw a model of a life devoted to God and to family. In her house, I know that even though I drive my mother crazy because we are so different, she loves me just as I am. And in her house, I learned to believe that I could accomplish anything with faith in God, with belief in His ability to work in and through me, and with the love and support of family.

What a gift. Thank you is not enough, but it is the least I can say. I love you, Mama. Happy Mother’s Day!

 

© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Find Your Strengths…but Find the Point

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Over the last six years or so, my reading focused decidedly on leadership and “strength finding.” Leadership is a hot topic. Ask anyone in the business world. It has become a whole industry. Just as popular are books about finding and using your strengths in order to work within your “sweet spot.” Books like Good to Great, The Tipping Point, The Dip, and the Strengths Finder series have made swamis out of people like Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, and Marcus Buckingham. I learned a lot from these books and found them fascinating. Yet, amazingly, we are now in the midst of a season where the dirth of leadership could not be more obvious, and despite attempts to move people to work from a place of passion and service, it seems we are more self-centered than ever.

What is the disconnect? I’m not sure I know. But I do know this. After a little time and distance from these books, I’m discovering one significant missing piece. In a wonderful book called When People are Big and God is Small, author and professional counselor Ed Welch focuses on this passage from 2 Corinthians:

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Welch goes on to write

This means that the essence of imaging God is to rejoice in God’s presence, to love him above all else, and to live for his glory, not our own. The most basic question of human existence becomes “How can I bring glory to God?”—not “How will God meet my psychological longings?”

By extension, we might add that the basic question is also not, “How can other people or my work meet my psychological longings?”

This understanding of ourselves as servants of God is practically a foreign concept, perhaps especially in the United States where the “pursuit of happiness” is seen as a right to be fought for to the death–even when we trample others to do so! In truth, our purpose is not about pursuing happiness but about pursuing God–to love him with heart, soul, mind, and spirit, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Obviously, I love to write. But when people ask me, “What do you want to write?” I’m stumped. I don’t have an idea for a great novel. And blank paper freaks me out! But I know this—whether I’m writing the next great character novel like A Prayer for Owen Meaney or writing content for a website, my purpose is to find ways to allow the glory of God to spill over into the pages and into every relationship with every reader, client, or co-worker. When I believe that my purpose and passion are to love God and bear his image through love for others, it plays out in everything I do. And it matters not whether I am using my strengths to lead as a communicator, marketer, and writer—or operating from a point of weakness (bookkeeping!) where I must lean wholly on God to make it through. As Welch says, “Ultimately, the awesome responsibility and glorious privilege of image-bearing is expressed in simple acts of obedience that have eternal implications.”

 

© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

The Things that Remain

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The downward slide of the global economy continues to result in sobering and alarming headlines. The horrifying story yesterday of the man who took the lives of his five children, his wife, and himself after losing his job leaves us all speechless.

When I taught high school, I used to read a book with my students called Alas, Babylon! The premise was a nuclear attack that took out a number of major military bases in Florida, which, at the time the book was written, included Jacksonville, Orlando, Pensacola, and Tampa. The story focused on the survivors in the north central area of Florida who were instantly transported to primitive living. Suddenly, an entirely new value was place on things formerly ignored or easily discarded like books, rowboats, bicycles, salt, or even rain. The discovery of an old Victrola and the accompanying records was a luxury beyond belief. Much had been lost, but the best things, the things that mattered—like family, friends, and communityremained and were, ironically, strengthened.

Today, a friend who works at a coffee shop, said that one of her customers came in with the worries of the day’s headlines weighing heavily on her. “What are we going to do?” she asked. My friend replied, “I guess we’re just going to have to help each other out more.”

Indeed. The age of greed and rampant consumerism is dead.

We also cannot anchor our hope in careers or governments or even in hope itself. We must, instead, anchor our hope in the things that remain when everything else is stripped away.


And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.


1 Corinthians 13:13
© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Useless Beauty?

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wine and cheeseDo you ever wonder about the point of beauty? I mean, why do we need beauty, really? If life is only about survival of the fittest, beauty has no purpose, yet we long for beauty and will go to extraordinary lengths to have it.

We don’t desire simply to eat. We want to dine—else we would never have invented wine, or chocolate, or a million varieties of cheese or beautifully appointed tables with bright cloths and candles. We need clothing, but we don’t just cover ourselves with hay or animal skins. We adorn ourselves. We weave delicate silks or hand woven wools. We employ intricate dyes with rich colors, beads, embroidery, and other fine stitching. In our homes, we might spend hours choosing just the right paint color for the bathroom walls! Why?

Even in the most primitive cultures, I suspect there is still a compulsion to add some element of beauty to daily living, whether a handful of wildflowers, a dance, a song sung around a fire, or even a tattoo! We yearn not only to surround ourselves with beauty but also to create it. The world is filled with evidence of this fact. Think Taj Mahal, Alhambra, or the Louvre.

Our basic needs for food, clothing or shelter are surpassed by an even greater need—the need to feed our souls. If a mother were only meant to feed her child for sstring rehearsalurvival purposes, dinnertime would be quite a different thing. Why instead do millions of mothers waste time setting a dinner table or creating a special atmosphere for a holiday? Why, indeed, would anyone take the time to write music, fashion a piece of pottery, plant a garden, or even get a haircut?

We find joy in beauty. Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Can we also find truth in beauty? Keats thought so. He also wrote, “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” Keats was on to something, but maybe we do need to know more. Maybe we need to know the origination and purpose of beauty.

Edward Welch’s book When People are Big and God is Small has an interesting passage that I believe provides a clue. Welch notes how life itself provides pictures for us of who God is and what he is like. Scriptures say that God is a loving bridegroom, a redeemer, a feast giver, a judge and advocate, a father, mother, obedient son, suffering servant, friend, shepherd, potter, physician. We relate to these titles because we have known fathers, judges, physicians, and the like. The book goes on to say,

These concrete “snapshots” that God gives us of himself are not just God’s way of accommodating himself to human language. God isn’t using our understanding of servants to suggest that he is like a servant. No, God is the servant, the husband, the father, the brother, and the friend. Anything in the created world that bears a resemblance to these descriptions of God is simply God’s glory spilling into creation and into creatures. Whenever you see these albeit distorted images in other people, they are a faint reflection of the original.

Koi PondGod’s glory—spilling over into creation and into creatures. Is it possible that we are drawn to beauty because beauty is part of God’s glory. Indeed, if Welch is right, God is Beauty, and the beauty I see here is but a faint reflection of the original. So when I am touched by the best in human relationships, by the forgiveness of a father to his son, or by a woman lovingly caring for her elderly mother—any such tender pictures of love, forgiveness, and affection, I am touched because I see glimpses there of God’s glory. Likewise, when I am awed by the beauty of a glorious sunset, a breathtaking aria, or of the magnificent art and craft as seen in a place like Notre Dame, there too, I am seeing but vague hints of God’s glory—and it sets my soul on fire.

Copyright © L. Kay Johnson, 2009. All Rights Reserved