Category Archives: Love

Is God Holding out on You?

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I have a friend who was so hurt over a broken relationship that she became obsessed with the offending party’s wrongs. In fact, she looked for new offenses, each new one a confirmation of her own “rightness.” In doing so, she was blind to her own ungracious heart, and by focusing all of her attention on the matter, she made it an idol.  I’d like to say I don’t get it, but I do. There are times I’d rather be vindicated than obey God’s command to worship him only and to love others. After all, “worship” literally means to “ascribe worth.” How many pointless arguments and vain pursuits do we attribute worth by giving them attention and energy, and what lengths do we take to justify ourselves in the process?

The temptation of Adam and Eve began in their minds, as all temptation does. Did you catch the subtle, slimy tactics that the serpent used? At first, the serpent hints that God’s instructions aren’t reliable. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Then the suggestion that God is actually holding out on them is served up like a delicious dessert:

“God knows that when you eat of [this tree], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Shadows are thrown on God’s character and motives. This divide and conquer tactic is extremely effective. You are off the hook for your own bad behavior, while doubts are thrown on the other person or on God. All you have to do is hint at someone’s shortcomings or failures, and you come out smelling like a rose. Commonly known as throwing someone under the bus, it ain’t pretty. The ensuing division is the loose thread that unravels the entire garment of community and friendships. Sometimes, we even throw God under the bus, rather than do the right thing.

I am most tempted in this way when I’ve been offended or wronged. Those are the times when that “love your neighbor” rule goes out the window, and I’m ready to drop-kick someone under the bus!  I put more importance then on being justified versus trusting God to grow me past the offense.

What about you?  Can you think of situations where it has been easier to blame and cast aspersions on others versus obeying the command to forgive, to trust, and to honor God first with our attention and energy?

On a side note: If you find yourself tripping up over whether or not there was a real serpent, a real garden, or a real Adam and Eve, can I just offer a suggestion?  Get past that argument and remember that the accounts in the Bible are given to point us to God and tell his story.  They teach us about God’s character, God’s relationship to us, and how we can and should relate to God and to one another. So rather than getting all hung up in the “literal or not” argument, just ask yourself, “What can I learn about God in this story?”

Where are you?

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Can I just let you in on a little secret? I have never liked women’s events, whether at work or at church.  Girl’s night out? Not a big priority. Honestly, Barry and I such great friends that I never saw girl time as an urgent need. Besides, women can just be so…complicated. Am I right?

Lately, though, I’ve come to see how important girlfriends are. There are some things, for instance, that my girlfriends understand instantly, while I could spend hours trying to explain the same thing to Barry—and he still might not get it. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m crazy about this guy. But, let’s face it, he can’t be my girlfriend, and it isn’t fair to expect him to be.)

But friendships are costly. I have to be real, let someone see my warts, and open my heart to risk. I have to deal with other people’s stuff too. Truthfully, I’d rather sit on my couch!

But friendship is worth the price of undignified pursuit. In the story of the garden, God shares a perfect friendship with Adam and Eve until they betray him and hide. But God leaves all sense of personal pride behind and bolts after them, searching through the garden, calling “Where are you?”  It is a picture of loss. The trust, ease of friendship, and sweet companionship enjoyed between man and God is gone, replaced by shame, awkwardness, division, mistrust, and fear. Anyone who has suffered a divorce or even a falling out between friends can relate. We say to ourselves, “It wasn’t mean to be this way.”

And we’re right. It wasn’t! We were designed to share friendship with God and one another. After all, God himself declared of’ Adam’s solitary state, “It is not good.” Barring those momentary times when hiding under the covers sounds perfect, we all know that we need friends. We need family. We need soul mates.

Ecclesiastes puts it this way:

Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up…And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.   Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

If friendship is such a good thing, why do we sometimes avoid the effort? Could it be that our ability to give and receive is in direct proportion to our ability to trust God? Is is possible that if we trust God completely to be all we need, we free those around us from the tyranny of our expectations, and free ourselves to just love people where they are and receive whatever they have to give?

The Faces across a Table

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There are few things more satisfying than scanning a dinner table or looking across my kitchen counter to see the faces of people I love.  Even when it includes those oddball characters no one quite knows what to do with (you know who you are).

You know the ones. They have a real knack for artfully–almost poetically–saying exactly the wrong thing.

Yeah, even them.  Maybe especially them.

In fact, those are the very people who usually make things more interesting. Like the other night when one of my son’s friends went off on a rant about anti-depressants. He said, “Not to be graphic” (so we braced ourselves), and then he went on to describe scientifically (and graphically) why antidepressants take all the umph out of orgasms.

Really?  Hmm.  Didn’t know that.  “Coffee anyone?”

Or there was the recent dinner when my nephew was home from college with two friends. I overheard one family member  talking about the politics of homosexuality with one of the friends. (To his credit, the young man maintained a remarkable poker face. Didn’t even flinch.)

I sat for a moment that night taking it all in. I scanned the table, watching everyone joke and gesticulate, while they stuffed faces full with pizza and somehow still managed to share stories, tall tales, gross exaggerations, good-natured ribbing, and belly laughs—all without bringing soda up their noses.

Somehow it was all so….glorious.  So wonderfully and beautifully imperfect. No matter what is being served or where, if I can look across a table or a room into the eyes of someone I love, it is all so very, very good.

A Time to Walk Away

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cast away

Photo by Beni Ishaque Luthor

Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” isn’t exactly a pensive song. At first glance, it seems like nothing more than a celebration of a perpetual drunk fest on some Mexican beach. But tucked in the lyrics is a slow, somewhat poignant, realization: As he considers his Margaritavile demise, the singer first claims it was “nobody’s fault,” then “…it could be my fault.” And finally, the epiphany, “It’s my own damn fault.”

Oi vay. I can relate this slow grind to humility, especially when it comes to knowing when to walk away. When I was a young teacher, I was surprised to so readily see among my colleagues the ones who had stayed too long. I remember telling Barry, “Please remind me to quit when I don’t like the kids anymore!”

But sometimes we are the last to see when it’s time to go, aren’t we? Ecclesiastes says, “There’s a time to keep and a time to cast away.”

Wisdom is about knowing when.

When is it right to let go of whatever we are holding onto? A job? A person? A dream? A grudge? A personal war?  I don’t always know, do you?

I do know this: Hang on too long, and the misery that ensues is often my own fault because I’m only hanging on out of fear, comfort…even laziness. I may even have legitimate grievances to pin my frustrations to, but the truth is that I have outstayed the grace I was given to deal with them. Without that grace, the weeds in any human interaction eventually wind round our necks and choke the living daylights out of us.

Knowing the “when” is hard, though.  I’m often too close, too tangled in the weeds to see. I do know this much. It’s time to walk away if–

1) My only reason for remaining involves fear, laziness, or the desire to be comfortable

2) My “round” self just no longer fits the ever-tightening square hole of my circumstances

3) I’ve made a god of the thing or person I’m clinging to–and I’m trying to squeeze life, or affirmation, or provision from it, when I should be trusting God for those things instead.  Ugh.

I’d love to know how others deal with this question, though. As you think about letting go, what determines your “when”?

Dealing with that “love your enemies” verse

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After Jesus tells his listeners (during the Sermon on the Mount) that those who struggle in life are the “blessed,” which really does seem like a strange blessing indeed, he gives them a huge word of encouragement: He tells them they are the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth.”

Mind you, he is speaking, here, to an oppressed people. Their land is occupied by a mighty and, often, cruel foreign empire.  Many of their own countrymen have ridden the coattails of Roman power right over their heads. Their own religious leaders offer little comfort, instead using oppressive legalism to exert their own power–only adding to the already overwhelming burden of Roman occupation. Jesus’ words must have been either encouraging or downright hard to believe.

I am the salt of the earth?  Really? I thought I was just dung under someone’s foot.

Just when the crowd might have been tempted to congratulation themselves (“He says we are the light of the world!) or see Jesus as siding with them against those nasty Romans, Pharisees, Scribes. and tax collectors, Jesus turns his challenge directly towards them.  He says they have to do an even better job than the Scribes and Pharisees, their own hyper-holy leaders, in being righteous.

What?! Isn’t this the guy who just said we are the light of the world. This is a such a downer message.

For at least 27 verses, Jesus goes on to talk about–what?  Political oppression? Hardships? Life’s difficulties?  No!  He talks about relationships. Relationships!  Is this guy serious?

He challenges his listeners to do a better job in loving others–and he has really weird ideas about who those “others” are. He talks about loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, giving up your right to retaliate, allowing people to take advantage of you, treating others the way we want to be treated.

Juliet's balcony. Loving the Enemy

Juliet's balcony. Loving the Enemy. Photo by Vavva

It’s one thing to encourage people today to go the extra mile, smile when you’re down, or overlook insults. We live in a rich society. We have generous rights and legal recourse if we are harmed. But Jesus addresses crowd here whose sons or daughters could be, and often were, enslaved, killed, or imprisoned at a moment’s notice–and they could do nothing about it. These people had nothing close to the rights we know today, and many lived in or on the edge of poverty.  Yet Jesus has the gall to sit there and say it’s not good enough to love your friends and family.  Anyone can do that, Jesus says.  How about loving your enemy? How about loving someone who really doesn’t care about you?  How about loving someone who wishes you harm?

Is that even possible?

I won’t lie. It is totally impossible to me. If someone hurts me, I want to hurt them back.  If they hurt my kids–forget it! Mercy and grace may be in God’s nature, but it’s not always in mine. There are times when I just want justice–not mercy. And there are times when justice is the greater need. But even in oppression, Jesus does not let them, or us, off the hook.  Can oppressed people be guilty of sin? According to Jesus…absolutely. Had his listeners been given the power at that moment to overturn their enemies, would they have behaved with largesse and kindness and generosity towards their former oppressors?  Not likely. They would probably have given the Romans back, in spades, what the Romans had given to them.  And how, then, would they be any different from the Romans, their enemy? How are we?

Jesus doesn’t let us get away with simply exposing the sinfulness and unrighteousness of others. He challenges us to see and deal with our own. It starts with us. It always starts with us.  When we are incapable of love because we are hanging on to our right to retaliate, we must start and end with a dependence on God for the love and forgiveness we cannot give.

Grace Both Ways

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Give and Take

Photo by Bhagathkumar Bhagavathi

We are often inconsistent about grace, aren’t we? Think of those times when you, or someone you know, have been hurt by someone at work, or at church, or by a good friend.  Our righteous indignation kicks in at the injustice of it all. Where is the compassion, we wonder—where’s the grace?  the kindness?  We complain loudly about how we are treated—and then we tend to write the Offender off as persona non grata.

The Offender no longer exists.

Ironically, we withhold the very thing we wanted from the Offender.  We wanted grace. We wanted understanding. We wanted forgiveness when we screwed up.  We wanted kindness.  We didn’t get it.  So now, we are going to be certain that the Offender never gets it from us.  I hate to say it, but I see the worst of this in three groups:  Those who’ve been offended by judgmental parents, by a boss, or by a church.  The plaintiff, in each of these circumstances, becomes a “withholder.”  I’ve done it myself more than I care to admit.  It goes like this: You offend me.  I wanted grace or kindness.  I didn’t get it.  So now, I’m withholding mine from you. I’m taking all my toys and leaving.  I’m taking my grace. My kindness. My forgiveness. My love. You aren’t getting any of it because you are a jerk!  You don’t deserve it.

And when I do this…I become like the very person or situation that offended me in the first place.  Grace goes both ways. We want to receive grace, but sometimes we don’t. In those times, all we can do if we are to hang on to any shred of integrity is to offer grace. That is the nature of grace. It is undeserved. If we fail to do so, we simply become a different version of the Offender.

Think Small

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Have you been dreaming about something you would like to do? Do you think it might never happen?  Take some encouragement from writer Leigh McLeroy.  Dream big. Act small.  If you need a little kick in the pants, read her post here.

Wednesday words from Leigh.

To Mothers of Boys

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My mother-in-law raised four boys. Four! Boys!  That deserves a trophy or something. Let’s face it, though, men just aren’t great about things like Mother’s Day. We girls get it, don’t we?

Lest some of you men beg to differ, let me just ask you: How many women changed their profile pictures on Facebook to a picture of their moms today?  How many men did the same?

Go ahead…count. I’ll wait.

As a mother of two boys, I don’t worry too much about this. I understand that holiday remembrances are not often a guy’s priority. Boys don’t plot for weeks about how they will surprise their moms this year. (“Hmmm…should I get her the manicure or the facial?”)  They don’t call us up to chat or drop by to take us to lunch. But it’s all good.  Moms of boys know that their boys love them–even whey they are being…well…typical boys.

So this is a toast to all the moms of boys out there. While mothers and daughters and planning their pedicures, we will chalk it all up to a nice day off and not worry about it.

But since she did raise FOUR BOYS, I thought my mother-in-law deserved a little tribute today too. Over the years, I’ve come to know a three critical things about my relationship with her:  She loves me.  She will fight for me. And, annoying as it is, sometimes she’s (darn-it) right!

Marilyn is outspoken, and she’ll tell you so! Sometimes, this makes it hard for her to have easy friendships, but there is something amazingly redemptive in this very aspect of her character. She has remarkable compassion for outsiders. She’s been teased about her tendency to collect “stray puppies” in the form of lost, broken, lonely people. She spots them a mile off, and she swoops them up when others won’t go near.

Marilyn came to a life of faith later in life, and perhaps that’s why she is so ardent about it.  She remembers all too well what life was like without it. Her hope in God got her through some tough times, including the loss of her oldest son, T.J., to cancer. Amazingly, she can still declare a steady faith in a loving God. You cannot watch faith like that and not be touched by it.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

I love you, Mom.

(Oh…and thanks for Barry. I still say I got the pick of the litter! ;))

Janice LaNita

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My mother looks for miracles in the every day.  A chance encounter.  A casual conversation. A random passage of Scripture she happened to come across that spoke into her circumstances at the moment. I used to think she was almost superstitious.  Now I understand she simply looks for God in everything–and she expects to see Him looking back!

I don’t worry so much now that I’m “reading too much” into the same sort of everyday “God winks.”  I’d rather look for God too much than miss him completely when he’s right in front of my nose.  My mother taught me that.

My mother is Janice LaNita Hood. She is:

  • Southern Gospel
  • Sweet Tea “with extra ice and lemon, please”
  • Suppertime Storyteller
  • Shoe shopper extraordinaire
  • Southern Living decor on a shoestring budget
  • “Jay-un” or “Jay-un-nice,” depending on if you are from Tennessee or Alabama
  • “Red”
  • Lucy’s daughter and Ray Ray’s princess
  • Ron’s ever lovin’
  • Pam and Kay’s “Mither”
  • Isaac, Michael, Brad, and Brian’s “Nana”
  • Clancy’s “Woof”

She blessed us with unconditional love, a heritage of unflinching and unashamed faith, and a model of what it means to be a faithful wife and friend. She she gave us a stable home where we might not always get what we wanted, but we never lacked  anything we really needed. Her mother did the same. Her mother’s mother did to. So did my Father’s mother, and her mother.  I am embarrassingly rich with a heritage of amazing women. I hope I do them proud.

I love you, Mama.

Stupendous Friday

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Good Friday Worshipers

© Lawrence Wee | Dreamstime.com

It always seemed strange, maybe even a little morbid, that this day is called “Good” Friday.   This is the day when Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Christ.

What’s so good about that?

A dear friend once asked me, “What’s the point of Jesus?  I get God.  I just don’t get Jesus. Jesus just sort of gets in the way for me.”  After some discussion, though, we both concluded that if you don’t see yourself as someone in need of a Savior, Jesus would get in the way.

I am not one of those people.

Good Friday Cross

© Paul Mckinnon | Dreamstime.com

I know my own heart all too well. I know when I act in jealousy, pride—even hatred.

If our one purpose is to love, I fail more often than I care to admit. I love myself too much to love my enemies, and I don’t always even love my friends as I should.

So I cannot fulfill those two commands that Jesus said were the culmination of all the laws: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and spirit. Love your neighbor as yourself.  Just two little commands.  That’s all.

But love for self prevents me from fulfilling them. And THAT is what sin is all about. It is a failure to love.  It is, sometimes, a refusal to love. A just and loving God cannot turn a blind eye to a refusal to love. He would no longer be just and loving. Sin must be addressed.

Therein lies the rub.  How could we ever “pay” for the sin of failure to love God or love others?  What is the price of that ticket?  Even if we could pay, that wouldn’t solve our problem.  We’d fail again, and again, and again, until we’d owe an eternal debt that could never be paid.

And THAT is what Good Friday is all about.  God stepped in and said, “Child, I cannot turn a blind eye when you refuse to love.  But I can show you what Love looks like by paying your debt.  I will bear this burden on your behalf because I love you.” God didn’t even wait until we appreciated or acknowledged this self-sacrificial act.  No, we are still quite enjoying our self-consumed journey—not even seeing the need for God to intervene.  Yet, God steps in anyway.

That’s not just good news.  It’s stupendous.  We should calls this “Stupendous Friday.” God’s self-emptying, ego-less, utterly humble love should leave us speechless.

Good Friday Service

© Lawrence Wee | Dreamstime.com

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5, NIV)

Go ahead. Make a fuss!

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dishwashers

photo by Pam Roberts

Guys, need a Valentine tip?  If your girl says, “Don’t make a fuss!”—trust me—MAKE A FUSS!  It’s simple, really.  When you make a fuss to do something just to make her smile, you are telling her, “You are so worth this. You are worth my time. You are worth my effort.”

My friend Lela wrote on Facebook the other day “There’s nothing sexier than a man cleaning the kitchen!”  She got 21 comments off that post.

Why? Pay attention, guys. It’s about noticing. (Hmmm.  Maybe she’s tired.) And it’s about taking the trouble. (You relax! I’m cleaning the kitchen.)  The point here is not about cleaning the kitchen for Valentine’s Day, though that might be a nice start.  Just pay attention. What would make her smile? Whatever it is, go to the trouble. You don’t have to spend a mint, but you do have to spend a little time and effort.  Take her for a sunset walk. Plan a surprise picnic. Take her for a bike ride. Get creative, for Pete’s sake!

In the end, maybe that’s a good definition of thoughtfulness for all of us: Stop thinking about yourself long enough to consider what might encourage another. And then go to the trouble. Admit it, it’s nice when someone troubles themselves to show you they love you.

 

Encouragement in a "New York Super Fudge Chunk" Minute

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On Monday, I was at a Christmas party where I somehow ended up talking with my friend Jeanne about our first jobs. I laughed when I recalled my first job at Baskin Robbins where I quickly gained 10 lbs.!

“What was your favorite flavor?” she asked, awaiting my answer with the eager anticipation of a 10-year-old.

“Pralines and creme.”

“No way!” she said, “Me too!”  We were fast becoming secret ice cream buddies. I had to admit, though, that I’d moved on from Baskin Robbins:
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no greater flavor this side of paradise than Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk.”

“No way!” she said, “That’s my favorite too!” she gasped. We soon forgot everyone around us while we gushed about the rich, dense dark chocolate ice cream filled with dark and white chocolate gobs, as well as huge fat chunks of walnuts. Ah…divinity.

The next day, my husband and I received some long-dreaded disheartening news regarding a family matter.  Jeanne called me later to just say she was thinking of us and if I wanted to get together for coffee, she was available.  Later she called again, “I’d really like to stop by and give you something. Will you be home tomorrow?”

Today she showed up on my doorstep with a Christmas bag. Jeanne makes beautiful handmade jewelry, so I thought maybe she had brought me one of her creations.  She insisted I open it right away.  Inside were four pints of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk Ice Cream. FOUR PINTS!  Do you know what GOLD this is? This, my friends, is love.

Never underestimate the power of New York Super Fudge Chunk.  More important–never underestimate the power of a thoughtful gesture, even a silly one, to bring encouragement. Jeanne didn’t help my waistline, but the fact that she took the time to go buy 4 pints of Ben and Jerry’s and bring it to me…well, how can you put a price on friendship like that?

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

Southern Biscuits

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The trick to making good biscuits is to handle the dough tenderly. You just knead it for a minute, very softly, like patting a baby’s butt. I can just picture Nanny’s hands now—they were not the hands of a Southern belle. But then again, this was not the South of the debutantes. Hers were hands that had worked, snapped beans, and sewn a flock of feed sack dresses. These were not hands that held a dance card at the cotillion.

She always had a wooden bowl on her kitchen counter with a bit of flour in the bottom and the sifter resting on top. The bowl was always ready because biscuits were a daily affair. She would sift a small hill of flour into the center of the bowl and then work in the fat with her hands. Using her fist, she’d make a well in the center, and in it she’d pour buttermilk–no measuring, of course. She’d slowly pull the flour into the milk, working quickly until the dough was as soft as an old woman’s cheeks. She’d sift a little flour out on the counter top, gently work the dough into a ball, which she’d roll out quickly with her rolling pin. Then she’d cut out the biscuits, quickly taking up the scraps to form another ball, until there was only enough scraps to make two little baby biscuits. Those were just for me and my sister, Pam.

I got stuck trying to recall the details of how my Nanny made biscuits. She died when I was fourteen, so my memories of her are limited, but somehow her biscuit making routine stands out. In an effort to recall details, it occurred to me that some smart Southern soul might have had the foresight to video the biscuit making ritual for posterity. Lo and behold…several people did just that. This one reminded me so much of my grandmother.

So, anyone out there have their own secrets for the perfect biscuits?

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved. (Video not included in this copyright notice.)

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.