Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Christian Perspective: To Santa or Not to Santa

I love talking to young parents, hearing their issues, and feeling a little superior that I've been through it all and survived. I'm honored when they ask my advice on anything, and most recently the Santa question came up. "We don't know what we want to do about the Santa thing," one said. "We don't want to lie to our kids, but do we deprive them of the fun of Santa?" Good question. I remember that issue as a parent, 37 and 38 years ago. (Parents do have the first two Christmases to decide.) Then suddenly our son Josh was caught up in the season, with people asking him what he wanted from Santa and all the pictures and books and stories and then we didn't actually decide. We just went with it.

When our daughter Kelsey was five, she asked her dad directly, "Tell me the truth. Is there really a Santa or is it you and Mom?"

Being a painfully honest (painful to others, at times) person, Steve said, "Your mother and I put out the toys."

She was crushed. She cried and stormed around and acted as though her world had ended. And a part of her world of make-believe had, indeed, met a sudden death.

In a Wall Street Journal article, Tony Woodlief gives the best explanation I've ever heard for a Christian parent to support belief in Santa. He titles it "OK, Virginia, There's no Santa Claus. There Is God." It's a worthwhile read for parents of young children and for parents whose children are grown and they are wondering if they did the right thing about Santa. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122963990662019887.html

Yesterday's excellent post by Jon Acuff on the same topic, though from his usual comedic perspective, is at http://stuffchristianslike.net/2010/12/the-santa-problem/#more-4154 . One point that I really like is that you never hear anyone say they don't believe in God because Santa wasn't real. As to the "I don't want to lie to my kids" angle, he says "we also have to be careful that we don’t miss out on the word 'pretend.'” I agree.

I am grateful that God gave us imagination and creativity from which can pour droplets of delight for young and old. Santa Claus is part of that--and in no way takes away from honoring the Christ Child at this time of year. We have many avenues for enjoying and celebrating, and Santa Claus is one that adds to the fun for us all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ol' Tennessee and a Colorado Christmas

My grandfather, Luther David Ralph, was quite a storyteller. Between chewing his tobacco and spitting it into the spittoon when Grandmama was watching and into the fireplace when she was not, this is a story he’d tell.

In the year I became old enough to vote, I took off for points west. I ended up in the mining town of Pueblo, Colorado.

One of the first people I met was a jovial old gentleman who headed a big operation in there in Pueblo. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him Tennessee, he said, “No one out here will ever bother you if you tell them where you’re from, because people from your state have a reputation of shooting anyone who crosses their path.” I thought he was kidding, but found out later he wasn’t.

I went to work in probably the biggest store in the state, with a force of 200 clerks and a concern selling practically any item you could imagine. The owners not only owned a whole town up in the mountains, but also the railroad that ran through it. Soon after I started working, the president of the company told me he wanted to send me to his store up in that little town.

“Luther, I want you to help the manager up there,” he said. “I’ve watched you work and I know you’ll be a valuable asset to him.”

Two friends from Shackle Island who were department managers in the big store told me not to go. “It is impossible to get along with the manager there. He’s a Yankee from Maine!” they said.

I paid them no attention because I had always gotten along with everyone I had ever worked with. I knew I could do so with this man as long as I minded my own business.

I took the job. In about a month the manager, my new boss, said to me, “Ralph, you wait on the Mexicans when they come in. I’ve been here six months and can’t understand a word they say. I’ve noticed that you can understand them and speak their language fluently, so they’re all yours.”

I didn’t speak the language that well, of course, but he didn’t know the difference. He had probably watched me weigh five pounds of beans and hand it to them, saying, “Dora alice.” And then he had seen them hand me a quarter, and I’d said, “Mucha gracias,” instead of “Thank you.”

I did have a sort of advantage, however. The day I arrived at the store Ralph Gonzales, a red-headed Mexican, twice my age and a U. S. citizen, shook my hand and became my best friend. As he put it, and correctly so, we had the same name—my last name and his first. He was a bachelor and stayed in the store nearly every night long after the manager had gone home and until I closed it. He taught me with great enthusiasm what everything in the store was called in Spanish. It was great fun to me, and the Mexicans, too, who would always laugh and say, “Si, si,” meaning I had spoken it correctly.

Then came Christmas Eve, 1912. The weather had been down to 20 degrees below zero and nobody could work in the open pit quarries and mines. They were all buying on credit at the store. Headquarters in Pueblo sent us word to let them have only the necessities to live on, which made it hard on the kids at Christmas time.

The store that evening was full of people, and I was over behind a side counter waiting on the Mexicans. Suddenly through the front door burst a little sawed-off fellow that I knew to be originally from Missouri, and right behind him came his tall, hawk-nosed wife. With her urging, he came in mad as a hornet and cursing my boss for not selling his wife a $15 toy wagon for his four-year-old son that morning. Of course she had wanted to buy it on credit. Everyone in the store froze when he declared he was going to beat the manager up. All the while the manager was trying to explain why he couldn’t let the woman have the wagon.

As for me, I was scared plumb out of my wits. I remembered that the president of the big store in Pueblo, when sending me out there, said that he was sending me to help the manager. But did he send me there to help him fight? I pondered it, but stood there unable to decide.

The angry man advanced closer, declaring he was coming over the counter to beat the daylights out of my boss. Then something—I don’t know what it was—prompted me to move. I didn’t really want to get into the fight, but I must have thought that moving closer to my boss would be a show of support.

I walked about 30 feet around behind the counters, stopped about a yard behind my boss, laid my right hand upon the shelf behind me, and leaned there. I knew I looked calm, but inside I was wildly wondering what I should do if the man came over the counter.

The fellow didn’t come over the counter. Instead, in a flash he whirled and bolted for the door, his wife right behind him.

Someone in the crowd asked, “What in the world made him stop so sudden and run out the door?”

The head superintendent of all work crews in the town happened to be there, and he said, “Why—didn’t you see ol’ Tennessee walk all the way around the counters and lay his hand beside that .44 on the shelf behind him?”

To my astonishment, I looked—and my hand was almost touching the gun! I had, unknown even to me, shown the man from the “Show Me” state that if you scare a Tennessean enough he might shoot you, just like the old gentleman had said about the reputations of Tennesseans.

A couple of years in Colorado was all Luther, my maternal grandfather, needed to get the wanderlust out of his system. He went back home to Tennessee, married his waiting sweetheart Hester, and built a home just down the road from the one where he was born. As I visit the old home place where he and Hester raised their nine children, fruits, vegetables, chickens, and cows, I recall with tenderness the many times I sat at his feet in front of the fireplace and heard him tell of his Colorado adventures. Of all his stories, this was always my favorite.

Monday, December 06, 2010

A Delicious But Inedible Gift

As we all contemplate gifts to give and receive, think about an instance when you received the gift of time. How priceless is this gift! A changed appointment, a canceled event, a child who unexpectedly takes a long nap, all the family out of the house for various reasons—moments that you can seize as your own.

What a delicious feeling—time to do as I please, accountable to no one because no one knew this little drop of heaven was coming my way. How did you use that unexpected time you were given?

Depending on the situation, I’ve reacted in a variety of ways, none of which ever included scrubbing the toilet. Lounging with a good book is at the top of my list, but writing one is a close second. When so many other things called to me, getting uninterrupted writing time was a rare event when my children were home.

Sometimes I’m in the mood to go out with a friend, lingering over a tasty meal or an indulgent dessert with steaming cups of coffee, always laughing and sometimes crying together.

I’ve rented a movie I knew Steve wouldn’t care for and had the popcorn all to myself as I watched and cried over the plight of the heroine.

I’ve called a far-away friend and chatted for an hour, just catching up without interruptions or feeling guilty.

And there are other activities that I want to yearn for but do not—longer time for prayer, delight at having more time to study scriptures, helping a less lovable person in some way. I do these things regularly, but they are not how I use a surprising gift of time. I believe those little gifts of time are from God to refresh my spirit so I can then refresh others.

I’d like to have your comments. How do you use an unexpected gift of time?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Day 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 in Lafayette, Indiana—in the heartland of America. Endearing, tiring, heartwarming, exhausting, uplifting, frustrating, inspi riing. In other words, a typical Thanksgiving.

The food was fabulous, from the triple mushroom/Brie soup to the brined turkey to the fruit and nut bread pudding and pecan pie cake.

The variety in our assemblage was wonderful: our four children and three grandchildren, Gina’s mom and stepdad, Gina’s sister Gennifer and her husband Tom and three children as well as Tom’s parents from California. SuSu and Alex, Purdue students from Penang, Malaysia. Foo, a Malaysian student most recently from Texas. Adelina, a Malaysian student at the University of Colorado, with whose parents we stayed in Malaysia last summer. Yves, from Rwanda, a graduate student at Purdue.

The seventeen adults were seated at long tables that were beautifully decorated. Conversation flowed smoothly as we got better acquainted. The Malaysians were in for the adventure of trying all the novel American dishes.

We exemplified teamwork throughout the day—cooking, serving, unstopping the kitchen sink, cleaning up the dishes, putting away tables and chairs, playing games, caring for the two babies, watching the older children perform.

Two of the most inspiring parts were before we began the Thanksgiving meal when Josh read from a Pilgrim diary and led a Thanksgiving prayer. Then later in the evening, we assembled in the living room and Josh read to us from Psalm 100, which combines thanksgiving and singing. Then we sang.

Singing is a wonderful tradition that I treasure. We sang both old and new songs, and were most fascinated when Grant, age 8, requested “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” I’m delighted that the youngsters are learning and loving the old hymns as well as the new praise songs and children’s songs.

We closed with a prayer of Thanksgiving in which everyone from four to sixty-six participated. Going around the circle as we each voiced our thanksgiving for specific blessings was a tearful experience for me. Especially touching was Tom’s dad’s appreciation for the knowledge that traditional family values are alive and well in America, and that he can testify to that in California.

We all felt warm and loved and glad we could share with lonely students far from home. Once again I was reminded of why this is my favorite holiday.

Monday, November 15, 2010

And What Happened to November?

It’s the middle of November and I just tore off the October page on my desk pad calendar. The weather this month so far has been more October-like than I ever remember. It’s reminded me of one of the childhood poems a teacher had us memorize, “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” by Helen Hunt Jackson. I still remember the first verse,
O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather.
The entire poem is at http://www.potw.org/archive/potw10.html . In the Smokies last month I saw purple gentians and wished I knew the verse about gentians.

What has happened to November? And because the rest of the month is so scheduled, I feel like November is already gone. But the weather is finally colder and more November-like. My favorite November poem is “I Love the Fall” by Dixie Willson. I used to help my third-graders write it in their laborious cursive writing and then we would memorize it together. A wonderful exercise, with simple but memorable words. It begins:
I like the fall
The mist and all
I like the night owl’s lonely call
And wailing sound
Of wind around
You can read the whole poem at http://holyjoe.org/poetry/willson.htm . If you read it aloud, be sure to draw out the “waaail-ing” sound and make a wind noise as my third-graders did.

One of the advantages I most enjoy about the internet is that you can know a snippet of a poem and magically find the entire piece right before your eyes. My mother and her brother-in-law my Uncle Gilliam Hawkins both had vast storehouses of poetry in their memories, but as they aged they would forget some of it. Mother would call him and say the part she knew, and he almost always could tell her the whole poem. That has to be even more fun than finding it online. I can still see Mother with the phone in her hand, nodding as she hears him give the rest of the poem. The internet may supply the words, but it will never replace the warmth of those people connections.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Pumpkin Project

Family traditions are often both wonderful and dreadful. (No dreadful ones in this post--maybe later.) Steve and I discovered early in parenthood that anything we did two years in a row was fun, but anything we did three years in a row was a tradition not to be messed with.

Carving pumpkins, for example. That was easy when the kids were growing up. Buy a pumpkin, carve it in the kitchen, set it on the porch with a candle inside. Easy tradition. But then, due to people’s schedules, we often found ourselves in the Smokies on Halloween, and that required that the pumpkin be carved there. (The Smokies in October is another tradition that no one will alter, even though it’s an 8-hour drive for Josh’s family.)

That works well, as a rule. But this year everything got a little hectic. We hiked all day Friday, the first day, ate dinner late, and didn’t feel like starting the Pumpkin Project at that point. The routine since grandchildren arrived is that Kinley designs a face on paper, Kelsey draws it on the pumpkin, and Steve carves it. So all hands have to be available and the little ones, having arrived at 1:30 a.m., were desperate for bed.

Then we were gone to Marcus’s memorial service on Saturday, missing from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., so all hands were not on deck that day. On Sunday, we hiked and picnicked after church, then rushed back for the children to get in costume, for that was actually Halloween. We walked the Parkway in Gatlinburg, where stores were generous in their treats, and surely most of Sevier County was there as well as out-of-town visitors. It was crazy. Stephen even videoed part of it and posted it on Facebook.

Knox, as Woody from “Toy Story” got quite a bit of attention and would strike a pose at a moment’s notice.
Kinley, dressed as a Sri Lankan princess, was beautiful, but didn’t get the raves she might have received in her own neighborhood. (We tried to get her to say she was an Indian princess, but she protested that she had bought this outfit in Sri Lanka and it wouldn’t be accurate to say she was Indian.)

But the hit of the evening was Finn, dressed as a box of popcorn.
His other grandmother and his mother, Kelsey, had made this adorable outfit and they were stopped constantly as people wanted to take pictures.

We finally had our dinner and returned to the hotel—and to the pumpkin carving. So late on Halloween, the pumpkin finally was designed and carved. We put it on the balcony, as usual, and admired its glow. But its glow was nothing compared to ours as we wound up our lovely traditional weekend together.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What Does Prayer Get You?

In It’s the Little Things, Lena Williams says that a test of true friendship between those of different races is that you have been in each other’s bedrooms. Until Friday, the only time I’d been in my friend Amy’s bedroom was several years ago when some children were playing there during a party.

This Friday, I was in her bedroom helping her pack to go to New York. No, not a trip for fun, but because her 27-year-old son Marcus had died suddenly. He was traveling on a bicycle in Manhattan when the driver of a parked car opened the door in front of him. He was catapulted into the path of a large truck and died immediately. There is more detail at http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/10/24/2010-10-24_fatally_doored_cyclist_had_a_passion_for_helping_the_poor_dream_of_moving_to_new.html.

Where is God in all this? I know Amy. We’ve been prayer partners for years; we just prayed together Thursday evening. We pray for each other’s children and I know Amy prays for her children’s safety and guidance every day. So couldn’t God have made that driver hesitate before opening the car door? Of course he could have. So why didn’t he? I don’t know. I keep going back to the “his ways are higher than our ways” passage, but I don’t think this was God’s doing. Human beings were just doing their things and God didn’t intervene.

I don’t like the suffering that accompanies God’s lack of intervention. I don’t like seeing the tear-stained faces and feeling the gut-wrenching pain of everyone who knew Marcus or his parents.

Ironically, our Bible study group is presently studying prayer, and one thing I’ve gotten from it recently is that many times God’s answer to our prayers is that he gives us peace—not our request, but peace with the circumstances that accompany our request. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). I’d never read this passage in quite that way before. Paul tells us to present our requests to God, and that His peace will guard our hearts and minds—not that God is a fairy godmother-type who will grant our wishes.

So that’s the blessing I pray for Amy and her family, for the newly widowed Adrienne, for the vast network of friends that Marcus leaves behind.

I can just picture Marcus walking up to Ruth and her saying, “Well, Marcus! How great to see you! I wasn’t expecting you so soon, but let’s sit and talk a while.” And there will be his old friend Bud who just died in August, and Marcus will be the first of us to hear Bud speak clearly and walk standing straight and tall. What a blessing for him!

Thank you, Lord, for the assurance of heaven. I pray for those who have no hope, that they will turn to you and receive your peace.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Optimist or Pessimist--Either Can Be Learned

Columbus Day was a special day when I was in elementary school. We’d review “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two” and study his travel routes to the New World. Then after I became a teacher, much of the traditional story was disparaged. I still mentioned it on October 12 each year, though, for it is part of our culture.

It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how long ago that was that I was in Miss Sue’s class, or Miss Floy’s class, or Miss Valley Legge’s class. (You know I couldn’t make up that name!) They taught basic values that still serve me well today. Maybe soon I’ll write about the day in 1954 when Miss Floy led us outside and we all added “under God” to the pledge of allegiance for the first time.

I’m now reading The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman. He has excellent explanations for why so many more people in the United States are depressed than years ago when they had more reasons to be depressed. Years ago, everyone espoused the value of God, nation, family, and duty. Today much more emphasis is on self—what we can accomplish ourselves and what others can do for us. Pessimism is a characteristic of depression and he has good tips for counteracting pessimism.

His style is very readable and applicable with any child—or adult, for that matter. He is much more analytical and has studies to back up what he’s writing, but his philosophy for building a child’s self-esteem in a realistic way reminds me of the Haim Ginott books I read as I was rearing my children. You compliment specific accomplishments, such as “You did a good job of putting away your toys” rather than a blanket statement that they might believe is not true, such as “You are a great kid!” Not that you shouldn’t say the latter—just that pointing out their capabilities in a way they can agree with is most effective.

I’m not even half way through with the book, but already I think it’s a must-read for parents. I may be giving a few of these at Christmas this year!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Maranatha Christian Writers' Conference

My week at Maranatha was inspiring and helpful, both to my Christian goals and my writing goals. The main speakers—Jerry Jenkins, Lynn Austin, and Crystal Bowman, among others—were so focused on presenting Jesus in all their work that I was quite humbled. I’d say a main point I got was that I don’t pray enough over what I write.

So I wonder how many Christians take seriously the “pray without ceasing” instruction. Sometimes I get up with the intention of praying about everything all day, and then I simply forget. I get so caught up in the day’s activities that I don’t think to continue to pray. I doubt that I’m alone in that.

Jerry Jenkins told about asking Billy Graham about his daily disciplines as a Christian. He keeps a Bible open all day so he’ll be reminded to go to it often. He prays constantly about everything that arises in his day. No wonder the man has influenced so many people for Christ! And already my Bible is closed and I didn’t pray about watering the yard. Should I have? I did pray over this blog post and have no idea where it’s going. I guess I just want to remind us all to pray without ceasing. (Yes, I learned that verse when the King James Version was the only one I’d ever read, but “pray continually” is equally powerful.)

I’ve always been inspired by Nehemiah’s response when the king asked him, “What is it you want?” He says, “I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king….”

I can recall specific instances where I was in such a hard spot that all I knew to do was to pray. Afterward, I rarely remembered what I said, but I knew it had been the right thing because the situation worked out okay.

Once a parent accosted me on my way to class one morning. She was upset that her son had gotten a C on a paper—a gift, from my perspective. I suspected she had written it because it in no way fit the assignment as we had discussed in class, so I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. I prayed as I began to answer her. Whatever I said worked for her, because we parted amicably. I still wonder what words God gave me to say to her that diffused her anger and allowed us to remain congenial. And remembering that always inspires me to pray about everything, but especially when I am speaking. I need special prayers to control that tongue of mine, since I know it is “a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body,” as we read in James 3:6. But no doubt the “pray without ceasing” approach (I Thessalonians 5:17) can overcome the evil of my tongue. I'm sure I need to pray more about that.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Farm Life as I Knew It

I've gotten some questions about the farm, so here's a summary. The first few years of my life we had a milk cow, Bessie, that Daddy milked twice a day so we had fresh milk, which I disliked. Much later, when I tried skim milk and liked it, I realized that it was the cream that I didn't like. We always had a garden where we raised tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, squash, and flowers for cut arrangements. At one time we had chickens, but that didn't last long because my dad didn't like to eat chicken and just getting the eggs wasn't worth the bother.

We always kept pigs and had them slaughtered in the fall, making pork sausage and smoking hams and bacon. Quite a foreign idea to those living in a Muslim country! We also kept beef cows and would have one slaughtered and the meat cut up and frozen. We had a large chest freezer that was often filled with beef and vegetables from our farm.

The part of the farm I disliked the most was working in tobacco. We would take the tobacco worms off the leave and kill them, one plant at a time. Then we had to "sucker" tobacco--take off the small sprout out of the middle so the base plant would grow stronger. Then we had to cut it, stalk by stalk, and hang on wooden sticks in the barn. I still have a scar on my toe from the time the tobacco knife slipped. At least that got me out of the job for the rest of the day!

The barn in the picture on an earlier post was one of the tobacco barns where the sticks of tobacco were hung to dry. After the leaves dried, we'd "strip tobacco," taking off each leaf and binding several together at the stems. Then it could be sold at market. The tobacco leaves were sticky and the stuff would be almost impossible to get off our hands. After Steve joined the family, he was shocked at how labor-intensive it was to grow tobacco. Then he persuaded my father that it was inconsistent to be opposed to smoking and raise tobacco, so Daddy quit growing it, though it was his most profitable cash crop.

We also raised wheat, and harvesting it was the only part of farming that I liked because I was allowed to drive the tractor from about age ten or so. The wheat would go into bags and a person had to tie off one bag while the wheat grains were pouring into the other bag. Daddy and I would take turns on the tractor or bagging the wheat. It was hot work, but I did enjoy that part.

The best part of all of it, whether canning beans or cooking or farming was that my parents talked to me and listened to me. I think that may be the most important part of parenting—listening to your children and responding. Mother, especially, would tell me Bible stories and stories from her childhood. Daddy would talk about the soil quality and seeds and sowing and reaping and draw spiritual connections. They were constantly planting seeds in my mind and watering them as well. They were both life-long learners and encouraged me also always to keep learning.

That learning thing really stuck, too. So next week I'm attending the Maranatha Christian Writer's Conference http://www.writewithpurpose.org/ to see what else I can learn about writing and publishing.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fort Thomas, Kentucky

There are many formal and informal nicknames for Fort Thomas, Kentucky, where I have lived for 35 years—“City of Beautiful Homes,” “City of Trees,” and even, according to Cris Collinsworth, “Mayberry, USA.” All are true descriptors.

The city is safe day and night. My husband jogs or walks before daybreak without fear. I walk later in the day; others jog in the evening darkness with confidence. We don’t lock our house when we’ll be gone a short time; some people never lock their doors. “Oh, this is Fort Thomas!” they say with pride, though occasionally it is unfounded.

School transportation is not furnished to the students, so they either walk or are driven. Children can safely walk to school unescorted, but it’s the kind of town where parents enjoy walking their children to school.

We only feel desperate when our health is threatened, because that’s something that even living in Fort Thomas can’t forestall. When health or financial problems arise, the community rallies around, taking food, child-sitting, working on the house, sponsoring fundraisers.

There are many churches in the town and Sunday morning is still left free of scheduled sports activities or meetings. Almost everyone seems to be connected to a church in some sense or another. Our churches sponsor effective outreach programs to poorer areas in nearby cities.

But there is a downside to all this peace and safety. The people here live in a bubble of unquestioned security. There is rarely a need to feel desperate for God and his strength and love and mercy. Our lives are not affected by third-world poverty or the persecution of Christians worldwide. We are too safe, too secure, too dependent on ourselves.

I don’t want a disaster to turn us more to God, but I do want us to awaken to the needs of the rest of the world. I keep recalling Jesus’ words in Luke 12:15: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions." I’m trying to remind myself of this more and more. How can I reorder my priorities to be in line with those of Jesus Christ?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

About the Farm

I grew up on a farm and do not have idyllic memories of those early years. I couldn’t wait to leave the farm and live in a town or city. I wanted close neighbors that I could chat with when coming or going or working in the yard. I wanted to be able to walk to something—school, or church, or a grocery store. I wanted to be able to pick up Chinese carryout en route home from work. I wanted to walk on sidewalks and not the side of the road. From the time I got married, I have lived out that wish. With the exception of one year in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina, we have always lived in town.

And now the irony: I couldn’t wait to leave that farm and now I own it—or at least part of it. When my brothers and I divided up Mother’s property, I ended up with 16.31 acres of the farm my parents bought in 1953. It is all pastureland grazed by my brother’s cattle.

My 17.39 acres across the road are part of the “Tennessee Century Farm,” designated as having been in continuous agricultural production for over 200 years. Of course this cannot leave the family. Even though I still don’t want to live there, I treasure the history and the memories that go with that land. Corn was raised there this year—not by me, of course!—and I appreciate the conscientiousness of the farmer that works our land. Next year will be soybeans.

And there’s a barn. Who would ever expect me to own a barn? Not I! But there it is. The orchard that was adjacent to it is long gone, but my fond memories of picking apples and pears there—and getting a stomach ache from eating too many green apples—remain. I have to admit that I’m glad I own a farm as long as I don’t have to live there. I appreciate the comforts and convenience of living in our little town so close to the big city of Cincinnati. I really do have the best of both worlds.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kitchen Tables I Have Known

The first kitchen table I recall fondly was my maternal grandmother’s table. It took up most of the long kitchen and had often been filled with parents, nine children, and guests. But I loved entering it in the morning when Grandmama was listening to her soap operas on the radio—“Young Doctor Malone,” “The Guiding Light,” and “Helen Trent” are some I remember.

Grandmama would give me my sausage and eggs and biscuits she’d prepared before Granddaddy left for work. Then she’d fix me a cup of coffee that was half cream and sugar. Mmmm, did I feel pampered! We’d talk about what we’d done the day before or our plans for that day. She never said, “You’d better get dressed so we can get to work,” like my mother did. She seemed to have nothing on earth to do but talk with me. I still feel the coziness of sitting at the end of that long table with the old black wood cookstove nearby and Grandmama working at some kind of food—stringing beans, or cutting corn, or canning. She loved for me to help when I was ready, but she never asked for help. She just made me feel cherished.

The next kitchen table I loved belonged to Ruby Totty of Totty’s Bend, Tennessee. Ruby was about forty, I guess, and had been swept off her feet in South Carolina by Harold Totty, a young serviceman on maneuvers during WWII. He fell hard for the beautiful Ruby and brought her back with him to be a farmer’s wife. Steve preached at Totty’s Bend Church of Christ from 1964 to 1966 and her table welcomed us anytime we stopped by. The church was about 90 minutes from our apartment, so we would stay all afternoon, taking turns eating Sunday dinner with various church families. But even if we hadn’t eaten with Ruby that day, after evening services she would often say with her soft Southern accent, “I have a chocolate cake on my table just waiting for you to stop by.” And since we were young enough to value chocolate cake and Ruby and Harold’s company over getting to bed on time, we’d always go by for cake and coffee and conversation.

Another kitchen table was Steve’s dad’s table in his various little apartments after Mom died. He kept their long “harvest table,” and moved it to each new location as he sought peace and comfort without his beloved Dorothy, always thinking that the next place would work out better. We’d often have breakfast there with him, and he would scurry around the kitchen, trying to make our cereal and donuts and coffee just right for us. It’s a precious scene to me, little Kelsey and early-teen Josh as we sat around that harvest table that had so many memories for Steve and me of when his mother would host with her bountiful meals.

My mother’s kitchen table for the last 36 years of her life was a round table at a bay window overlooking her back yard. When the house was full of guests, we ate at the larger dining room table, but when it was just Mother, Steve, and I, we ate at the kitchen table, lingering over her warm cinnamon rolls and coffee, honoring the tradition of “I really shouldn’t eat any more” and “But you’ve got to have one more” that was both comical and comforting. At those times, Mother was her softer self with us—not agitated, not critical, not managing, except to manage our hot coffee and warm food. She would talk in pleasant tones, often mentioning someone she’d been working with and wanted us to pray for or bringing up a human relations problem she wanted advice on.

After she developed crippling rheumatoid arthritis, I would be the one to get up and down, but she still orchestrated it all. Her quick wit entertained us and helped us to ignore her physical limitations.

In our marriage, our earlier kitchen tables were the ones where our reluctant eaters would sit long after the family had moved on, as they were determined to eventually eat the vegetables and earn dessert. The kitchen table we have now has been with us only eighteen years, but already it holds warm memories—meals of laughter and conversation and lingering long after the food was gone. It’s seen multitudes of games of Boggle, Pit, and Scrabble, and, more recently, Qwirkle.

I’m reminded of a song our children used to sing, based on Song of Solomon 2:4. The only line I remember is “He gathers us into his banqueting table; his banner over us is love.” I think that’s what appeals to me about these kitchen tables: the banner over them is love. They are all where I felt loved and treasured.

We’ve enjoyed many meals at many beautiful and bounteous tables, but it’s the kitchen tables that mean the most to me. Do you have good kitchen table memories to share?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Big Stuff and Small Stuff--an Amazing God

I’m sure I’m not the only one noticing that God is pretty amazing in how he cares about small stuff as well as big stuff.

First, the big stuff. This has happened before, but I’m always surprised—a slow learner, I guess. This morning I was walking along and praying along and listening some, too, when suddenly I realized that I hadn’t done anything for anyone except me and mine all week. (Taking my dear friend Shirley to lunch for her birthday does not count. It was as much for me as for her!) So of course, after that holy reminder, I said I was open, but who needed me? No answer within the next few minutes. But a couple of hours later, I got an unexpected call from a woman I don’t know well but who is a member at our church. I do know she’s raising her three ADHD grandchildren, grades 4, 5, and 6, because their mother, her daughter, is in prison. I hadn’t seen her since we returned, but at least she knew we’d been gone. She began with, “Oh, good! You’re home! I didn’t know if you were still in Honduras or Africa or wherever it was you were all summer.” At least I give her points for knowing we were on a mission trip to a far country.

Turns out she has had lung problems and throat surgery and is still recuperating. Her husband took off work to care for her and is now back at work, but there have been only bills and no paychecks for quite a while. Knowing gold is selling, she sold what jewelry she had and that helped for a while, but now the cupboard is bare.

She hesitated to call me, but called because she couldn’t reach the church office to ask for food from the church pantry. (So was the secretary not answering the phone one part of this godly plan?) I was thrilled that she called, because I had an enormous amount of leftovers from Saturday night, and we’d eaten on them all we could. I took her all that and more from my refrigerator, relieved that I still had it, all cooked and ready to share. I also stopped by the church building and loaded up on canned and boxed goods. When I took them to her—the first time I’d been in her home—she was ecstatic. I was impressed at the neatness and cleanliness of the house. This evidently is a woman who usually has it pretty much together but is up against hard times. The Lord just told her to call me, I’m sure.

She said she had my number from an old email I’d sent her months ago. Way back then I’d said for her to call me any time, but she didn’t squander that opportunity. She saved it up until she really needed it—and until I needed it as well. I can just imagine God saying, “Well, Lanita has all that food and not enough awareness to realize Debbie’s in need of it. I’ll just have to nudge Debbie to call her.” Because I don’t think he makes us do things; he just gives us the ideas and it’s up to us to follow through—or not.

Now for the small stuff. On Tuesday I picked up my contact lens to replace a broken one. (I’ve been dealing with an old one that’s the wrong prescription for two weeks, having to wear reading glasses, then they broke, blah, blah, blah.) I put the little square white packet on the front passenger seat of my car. I stopped at the bank to cash a check and at Dollar Tree where I bought two more pairs of reading glasses, just in case the new lens wasn’t the right strength. When I got home, the little plastic square was not on the seat. I searched, Steve searched, even Shirley searched the next day. We drove to the bank parking lot, guessing it might have stuck to my checkbook and been flipped out of the car. Nothing. I asked inside the bank. Nada.

This afternoon on the way home from Debbie’s (and the printer repair shop and the camera repair shop) I decided to check the Dollar Tree parking lot, too. I’d thought of that, but it just seemed too unlikely. I got out and looked under cars and all around where I’d parked. No luck. I got back in the car and started to drive away, still looking, as I had at the bank parking lot. Up against the wall of the store I saw a small white square. “That’s absurd!” I thought. “I didn’t even walk there. It couldn’t be….” But since I was checking all options, I stopped the car and got out to go look. There, against the wall, some Good Samaritan had carefully placed my contact lens container so it wouldn’t be run over and yet I would see it if I were looking. I was stunned. I almost fell to my knees right on the spot, but other cars were needing to get around where I’d stopped right in front of the store, so I got back in and drove home.

I feel so wrapped up and secure in God’s care. How on earth can he manage to care for all of us that way? That Holy Spirit guidance thing is a powerful force. I’m convinced that was the source of my thoughts to keep trying different places and to keep looking even when unlikely.

Thank you, Lord! And thank you for nudging that unknown person, probably another contact lens wearer, to put my lens in a safe and noticeable place. Thank you for the nudges for Debbie to call me and for me to be prepared with food they’d enjoy. She said, “My kids will go crazy over this! They will love dinner tonight.” And so will I—a spiritual feast just thinking about what a fabulous, Spirit-led day I’ve had!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Categories of Friends

A friend recently invited me to a luncheon at her house because "my Kenton County friends want to meet my Campbell County friends." Her invitation said that her golfing friends wanted to meet her non-golfing friends, which must boil down to the same thing.

That made me think about how I group my friends into categories and sub-categories. For example, there are two couples that we know fairly well that I think of as "our rich friends." That's purely a money designation, for many of my friends are rich in other ways.

Tonight we had for supper four couples (rich in love and children) that fit into a very specific category, but not one I think of often. They were all couples for whom Steve performed their wedding ceremony. The oldest are now grandparents; the youngest have a three-year-old. Five other couples had previous plans.

Worshiping with so many couples that Steve married seems especially unusual because the present generation of marrying age tend to have our youth minister marry them. He's been at our church for 16 years, so they are close and it is appropriate for them to choose him. But two weeks ago Steve performed the ceremony for a 29-year-old man who used to go to our church and still holds us in high regard. It's touching that a person who has been gone from our congregation for over 10 years still feels that connected to us. In counseling with the couple, Steve paid them one of his highest compliments for engaged couples: "They seem more interested in their marriage than in their wedding." The wedding and the reception were beautiful and well-planned, but that was not their main focus. Friends of the bride's family thanked Steve for emphasizing faithfulness to God in the ceremony. We were reassured to know that her family and friends are believers who live out their beliefs.

As a part of a toast, the best man/brother reminded the couple not to depend on each other for happiness, but to look within themselves and their relationship to God. This was a poignant moment for many listening who realized the young man was speaking from his own experience and mistakes.

Tonight we loved being with families with whom we have a long shared history. Thirty-five years with one congregation creates unbreakable bonds. I look at each of these couples and remember: a roadtrip with Bev before she was married; the year of dinner and Bible studies that Ruth and Bob had with Jim before he became a Christian; Kim's strong faith throughout the death of her first husband; Scott being the only person at church besides Steve who calls me "Nita;" Donia, from a family of twelve children, traveling to China to bring back this precious albino little girl; Cathy, who is more beautiful in both appearance and as a person now than when she married; Bill and Gene, whose quiet service keeps building and grounds functioning smoothly and their families grounded. What a special group of people!

Such a pleasant time together makes me want to plan a time when the other five couples and their children can come. But how could it match this?

Now to think of other categories of friends to invite: those who are unbelievers, strong believers that are part of other faith traditions, new hires at the university, neighbors, those of our church older than we, our children's peers that Steve didn't marry, people new to our congregation in the last two years, those who persist in special ministries that are often under-appreciated, couples with babies, singles of all ages, former elders and deacons and their wives, those who taught our children (now grown) in Bible classes. The list is endless. It was fun to have them guess their commonality. Bill figured it out, but the rest were surprised to know Steve married Bill and Bev.

Life is cyclical and we must savor it and examine it without letting it slip by unnoticed. God gives us each day, each friend, each moment. Let's pay attention to our relationships in every sector of our lives. Only by keeping up these connections can we avoid the "if only I had...." regrets in our lives.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Flying Time

My flight plan from Malaysia to Cincinnati couldn't have been more streamlined: Kuala Lumpur to Paris to Cincinnati. Except for leaving Paris late, all went very smoothly. Thirteen hours plus nine hours in the air.

Plowing through all the accumulated mail after being gone seven weeks is quite a task. Taking care of urgent bills takes more time. And balancing the checkbook? Just a dim memory. Then there’s the detritus in suitcases after traveling to two countries with the accompanying miscellaneous shopping. Putting away the clean clothes and dropping the others down the laundry chute was the simplest part of unpacking.

So yesterday morning I finally got to my yard. Steve, Kelsey, and Stephen had done a great job of keeping everything watered and alive, but all needed to be watered again and there were weeds to pull and deadheads to remove. Three of my eight hardy ferns in the back yard have yellowed and shriveling fronds, so I suspect that some local animal has been using them as a toilet. My basil is flourishing (and nowhere near the ferns), so I’ll get to have lots of basil on tomatoes and in salads right away.

But to my dismay, as I was working, I saw a golden leaf flutter to the ground. Looking around, I realized that our borderline maple tree (I’m not sure if it’s ours or the next door neighbor’s) is shedding its leaves all over the back corner of our yard!

“How did this happen?” I even said aloud. I was shocked. The last time I worked in my yard, little green shoots of plants were popping up, full of the promise of summer. Now signs of fall were here and I was not ready for that. I know it was officially spring when I left on June 14, but it’s still officially summer, as well. We’re certain to have another six weeks of warm to hot weather, so the leaves are supposed to stay green and stick tight for a while longer.

And as I mulled this over, I thought of other parts of my life that seem to slip by too quickly. There are many people who need my help and encouragement, but I’m too preoccupied with putting away my stuff, and cooking for my friends and family, and shopping for gifts for my loved ones, and getting in my physical and spiritual exercise times. I understand how often I use the word "my." It's appalling how narrow my circle of activity can be.

And that time is slipping away just as quickly as summer. How can I be more proactive to use my time for others? Last week I thought I’d have more time this week. Now I’m thinking it will have to be the next week.

My friends Linda and Lynette are having surgeries tomorrow, and I’d like to be there. But my children and grandchildren will be here for dinner this night only, and I want to shop and cook for them and pick them up at the airport, so how can I fit everything in? I think of pillars of the faith that I’ve read about—those who said they couldn’t get everything done if they didn’t spend two (or four or five) hours in prayer for preparation. Dare I try spending more time in prayer? Not this week, except in my car as I take care of all these errands. Maybe next week, Lord. Keep reminding me.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Last LST Party

Our last party was a rousing success. We couldn’t get the students to leave! It was after eleven by the time we got home, but ours was a sweet tiredness.

Thirty-five of our 49 readers were at the final party. Everyone brought food and Gina, Kinley, and I made a huge taco salad—4 packages of taco mix for the “minced beef,” and all the lettuce, tomatoes, etc., that go with it. We bought several 3MYR ($1) bags of chips and used them all. We were able to buy salsa here in the Western Foods aisle. The American, Sharon, who attends the church here lent us her enormous bowl to put it in. There was a preponderance of desserts, but of course no one could complain about that!

We gave awards which were received with much excitement. Josh had a reader, Kong, who came for 17 lessons! I think even Josh, with his 10 LST trips, has never gotten further than that with a first-time reader. My reader Yike came 13 times, so she also got a prize. We gave them CDs of a mix of Christian music that Josh put together several months ago and that we’ve listened to a lot. We also gave prizes for those who brought the most people, and those who attended every party received CDs from the parties.

We sang for the group “Ancient Words,” “Magnificat,” and “In Christ Alone.” Then we taught “God is So Good.” But the highlight of the evening for me was when Matthew, the local song leader, got together all our readers and had them sing “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Seeing all those sweet young people singing praises to Jesus was very touching. We knew that many had said they did not believe in Christ and still believe in following Buddha or Tao, but at that moment they were affirming God. I prayed that the words they were saying would become true to them. They also sang in Chinese a song of blessing that was very sweet.

What a terrific way to end our project! After studying 321 hours, we could see some fruits from our work.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Day of Let's Start Talking

On Thursday Josh videoed us on and off through the day and here is the link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=308tpjkKOQI. It takes almost 7 minutes to watch, but it gives a good view of what we do each day.

I can hardly believe we only have two more reading days. Our party Thursday night is a potluck, so it will be interesting to see what readers bring. Since most are college students, they will probably buy from the "hawker stands," which in Bangkok we called "street food." Some of it is very good. We are preparing taco salad. Steve brought several packages of taco seasoning from the U.S. and we can buy everything else here.

At the party, we are giving prizes for the five people who have attended every party, the four who have recruited so many readers, and the three who have read the most lessons. Then everyone gets a certificate of achievement as long as they did three lessons.

It's a bittersweet time since we've made some good friends here. Best of all is my friend Doreen, who is sure to be a forever-friend.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Last LST Themed Party

Our Indianapolis 500 party was great fun! We played games connected with driving and racing and watched video of some Indy 500 races. It’s great to have a large screen and internet access to show pertinent video. (At the baseball party, we showed video of a Goofy cartoon explaining the game of baseball and a video showing how Cracker Jacks are made. Ever noticed that Cracker Jack popcorn is round and doesn’t have all the little offshoots of regular popcorn?)

We sing an appropriate song at each party, so of course we sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” for this one. (Last week Knox first sang a solo of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which you may have seen on YouTube, and then led us all in singing it.)
The chocolate chip cookies and milk were a big hit. Of course we had to offer milk because that’s what the Indy 500 winner gets. After all our struggles, we were glad everyone seemed to like the cookies. People here do not drink milk, but they did with their cookies and no one complained.

A popular drink here is Milo, which is a chocolate-flavored beverage with some milk product in it, similar to Nestle's Quik. Knox loves it. His other favorite drink here that Kinley loved at that age is yogurt drink—much more liquid than in the U.S. Cans of Coke Light (no calories) and Pepsi Light are usually available at the same price as a can of Coke, but Coke Zero, strangely enough, costs three times as much. It’s imported and the other is canned locally, I think.
Another food note: in the grocery store I couldn’t find a bottle of mustard in the usual places. I finally found it in the “Western Foods” aisle. “Western” here refers to anything from Europe or America. In other words, everything here is eastern and most commonly referred to as “Asian.” We will be told that something is “the Asian way” of doing something. When we eat out on Sunday nights, there are often large families eating out together. The Chinese restaurants have enormous round tables, often with a lazy susan turntable, that seat up to 16 people. “Sunday night is family night when Chinese families eat out together,” they say. By “families” they mean at least three generations, sometimes four. It’s very sweet to see all those relatives talking together and sharing their meal.

Work days here are very long. Stores are open from ten till ten, as a rule, every day. Evidently they have not adopted the idea of shift work here. You work those 12 hours or not at all, according to one of my readers. So many Chinese Malaysian women are housewives for that reason. Many Chinese families have maids that help extensively with the children. It’s possible that parents who both work outside the home will only see their children on the weekends since the maid may get them up and off to school, and they have been fed and are back in bed by the time the parents get home.

One Chinese mother whose youngest is fifteen told me that she has never cared for a child by herself from morning till night. She also said that with their long working hours, they sometimes feel they hardly know their children. That’s understandable, with such long days.

Most of the people here are very trim. I’ve only seen about 6 or 7 obese people on the entire trip, and two of those were Caucasians. I’m not sure how that works since local foods feature rich rice and noodle dishes. Unfortunately, the local food is not getting me down to local size!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Just Chocolate Chip Cookies....

As Americans, we love our chocolate chip cookies, but they are never considered very special. "Oh, they're just regular chocolate chip cookies," the cook might say. But now I have a very different view of the ease of making chocolate chip cookies.

For our Indianapolis 500 party on Thursday, we will serve chocolate chip cookies and milk, to connect with the race winner, and as a typical American snack. Josh found chocolate chip cookie mix on sale at Target ($1.16--makes 3 dozen!)so Steve lugged six of those with him from Cincinnati to Wangsa Maju. Then we started figuring out how to bake them.

The church kitchen, typical in Asia, has a two-burner gas stovetop but no oven. Two of the members brought their "portable ovens" for us to use. I couldn't even imagine what they meant; how could an oven be portable? Well, they are approximately the size of a large crock pot and can bake one layer of a cake. We figured we could cook ten cookies at a time and get them done in about 20 cookings. We were sort of right.

First, we had to calculate what 375 degrees Fahrenheit would be in Celsius. Gina's handy iPod told us it would be 197 degrees C. The package said for 8-11 minutes, so we tried that yesterday. The first ones looked pretty good from the top, but they were uncooked in the middle. The second batch we left in longer, and the three in the middle were too brown to serve (but not to eat, of course!) So from then on we put eight around the edge and none in the middle. I hope you can see the cookies in the picture of the open oven.

So we have finally figured out a routine. We mix the softened butter, egg, and mix. Then we refrigerate it until it's firm enough to roll into balls. We can bake 8 flattened balls at one time in one of the ovens. The other doesn't have a pan with it and the only pan we have only holds four cookies at a time. This is a slow process! But we are getting them done. When we take them out of the oven--now down to 150 degrees C.--they are still a bit gooey in the middle. So we cool them upside down and then the soft middle stays in as it cools. They look pretty good from the top, but definitely not typical from the bottom.

We have not allowed ourselves a single bite today. We've tried to cook every single bit, not even popping that occasional bite of cookie dough in our mouths as we rolled the balls. Confession time: So when Doreen escorted two readers into the kitchen and offered them a sample, I yelled, "Oh, no! Not until tomorrow!"

Then I immediately realized that that really wasn't the Christian attitude I should be displaying, so I laughed and apologized and told them to have a cookie. Last week we had 63 at the party, so we'll have enough for at least two each. I'm sure it was my jealousy exerting itself when I saw Bee Ping pop that warm cookie into her mouth!

We've lost track of how many we did today, but probably around 100. Gina, Kinley, and I worked every minute we didn't have readers or weren't eating lunch. Kinley was a trooper when we were busy with readers. Today Gina and I each had three readers, but tomorrow we have about twice that many, so it was imperative that we bake a lot today. (I admit to not being too disappointed when one reader canceled and I could keep baking.) We're glad to bake some tomorrow because the smell is so wonderful. But we'll have to leave the kitchen by 4 because the church women come in cooking for dinner for the college students that come to the party.

At this point, we've cleaned up all the buttery mess, heating water to be able to get all the butter out of the utensils and bowls. And speaking of utensils, there is no such thing in this kitchen as a pancake turner--or whatever you call the implement for removing cookies from the pan. So that's also been a challenge.The whole process has made us appreciate our large ovens and cookie sheets at home.

So, believe it or not, that's the short version of our baking day. When I get home you can ask me for "the rest of the story."

Perhaps next I can post pictures of our party and of our readers eating chocolate chip cookies for the first time!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Asian Travel

This is our fourth trip to Asia, and third with Let's Start Talking. There are certain things that we are accustomed to that might be news to someone who hasn't lived in Southeast Asia.

Any retail transaction is slower than in the U.S. For example, I bought a cheap ring at a local department store, Jusco. I handed it to the clerk, who hand-wrote a sales slip. Then I had to take it across the store to the cashier, who took my money and gave me a computer-generated receipt. I took it back to the salesclerk, who took my purchase out of a drawer, wrapped it in tissue paper, bagged it, and gave it to me. Not the quick transaction I anticipated, since I was paying cash.

Friday we went to First World Hotel at Genting Highlands, http://www.rwgenting.com/, which is the world’s largest hotel—6118 rooms at an altitude of 6118 feet. When we arrived, we had to stand in line for a ticket so we would be called to register. The digital numbers showing then were 189, 190, etc. Our was 4013. Not encouraging! But after about 35 minutes, the numbers jumped to the four thousands and eventually we got a room. EVERYWHERE requires your passport number. The clerk asked if we wanted connecting rooms and of course we thought that was great. When we got to our 18th floor rooms, we found that even though the numbers were consecutive, there was a large section of doors to machine rooms between our two rooms. Never have two consecutive room numbers been so far apart!

For one who compulsively reads every sign I pass, Asian signage can be frustrating. In Thailand, I got used to not being able to read anything at all; here there are certain Malay words that are similar to English, and that part is entertaining. The rest is just frustrating.

Saturday, however, I used my ignorance of the language to my advantage. Josh and I went to buy bus tickets to ride home from Genting Highlands. He got in the long line and I was in the short one. I noticed that KL was only listed above the window for his line, but I was hoping my window would serve KL also, since all the people were sitting together behind the ticket windows.

At the window, I asked for six tickets to Kuala Lumpur at 12:30. The lady there said I had to get in the other line to get KL tickets. I said, “I am sorry, I did not know.”

She pointed to a sign posted in the next window. Fortunately for me, it was all in Malay. I said, “I am sorry, but I only speak English. I cannot read the sign. Can you please sell me the tickets here? The line is long and I have already waited a long time." I tried to look helpless and must have succeeded because she said, "Which time? Six people?"

Gratefully, I agreed, and she reached over to the other person and typed in the info to print out our tickets. So she might think Americans are rather stupid, but surely she knows that we are grateful since I kept thanking her profusely.

Finally Josh and I could leave those 14 people still in line in front of him, grateful that we got our tickets to return to KL. Unlike the US, both bus tickets and movie tickets are for assigned seats, so getting seats together was essential to us, and it worked out very well. (Especially for Gina, Steve, and me. Josh was the one sitting with Knox when the hairpin curves prompted him to throw up!)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Giving Attitudes

Worship outside the United States is always fascinating to me. This project is easier than usual because the services are conducted in English, though it is a second language for all but one woman and us. There are more similarities than differences in what I'm used to at Central in Cincinnati. They use the same hymnal, but, as we do, have all the songs on PowerPoint so that books are unnecessary. Communion is before the sermon, and the communion talk is very scripture-based.

When giving the prayer before taking contributions, the gentleman leading the prayer said that we should be "cheering givers." In the next sentence, he corrected it to "cheerful givers," but his slip of the tongue made me think. It would be terrific if we could also be cheering givers--cheering God for his blessings, cheering God for his Son, cheering each other on in our Christian walks. We do want to glorify God in our lives, but "glorify" is kind of a "churchy" word. Maybe we could get more enthusiastic about living for God if we looked at it as cheering God!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Steve Safely Arrived!

We are all most excited that Steve (and his luggage) arrived safely this morning. Steven, my host for the last few weeks, drove Kinley and me to the airport to meet him. My usual Thursday morning reader, YiKe, agreed to come at one so I'd be free to go pick Steve up.

Steve was greatly impressed with the efficiency and quality of Singapore Airlines and the Singapore airport as well as the KL airport. He looks quite chipper and seems none the worse for wear after the long journey.

I know many prayers went up on his behalf, and he mentioned how just the right person was always there when he needed help. Surely God does provide! Does he not send angels as ministering spirits to serve us? Indeed he does! (Hebrews 1:14)

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Malaysian Pizza Hut Experience

Last night we were being picked up at the train later than usual, so we had time to get off the train at an earlier stop to have dinner. We stopped at KLCC, a large mall, to eat at Pizza Hut--our weekly American indulgence after eating Asian food all week.

The sign was familiar and the table and chairs were typical, but there the similarities to American Pizza Huts stopped. Our server was a Muslim girl who had on the Pizza Hut uniform, shirt and pants, but her head and neck were covered with a black tudung, the Muslim headcovering that clearly distinguishes the Muslim women from the Chinese or Indian women (or Americans!)

We have also seen Muslim women wearing the burka, such a complete covering that there is only a slit for her to see out. This is quite disconcerting, especially in a restaurant where she must lift the flap on the front to slip her food up under it and into her mouth.

So our server was a very efficient young Muslim woman. The menu featured pizza with prawns, so we passed on that to get one pepperoni and one veggie. From the menu and from what we had been told locally, we knew that the pepperoni was beef rather than the forbidden pork. Since Malaysia is officially a Muslim country, pork is found only in some Chinese or Indian restaurants marked "non-hallal."

Each table had a buzzer on it with buttons marked Call, Bill, and Cancel. Kinley and Knox, of course, vied for who would get to push the buttons. Since it's an American restaurant, I asked if there were free refills. "No, no refills," she answered. She'd obviously had that question before. I ordered "Diet Pepsi," and when she read back our order, she said, "Pepsi Light." You'd think I'd know how to order my diet soda by now!

As we ate, more people arrived. It was around 8:30, but we've noticed that families eat much later here than in the US. All the other women in the room were wearing tudungs. Most of the men were dressed in a typical American way except for one who looked like Osama Bin Laden and was dressed in white with a Nehru collar. He did help the children with their food. We felt it inappropriate to take a picture, but I did take pictures of shops selling the tudungs.

There were two precious little girls dressed to match that looked about 8 and 10 years old. Their headbands matched their outfits and they looked so cute. But it bothered us to think that soon they will have to cover their heads and retreat into a world that thinks less of them than of men. (Though Muslim women do work here in restaurants, banks, retail, etc., still wearing their tudungs.)

Eating pizza in a room full of Muslims was quite an anachronistic experience for us. As a result, I think we all felt even more determined to spread Jesus here. We cannot teach the Muslims, but we can reach their Chinese neighbors and hope eventually they, too, will know the truth. Jesus is Lord!

Praying for Readers

Before we came to Kuala Lumpur, the Wangsa Maju church had been praying for us for months. One of their prayers that I would not have thought of was that God would protect the time of our readers so that they would be able to come for their lessons.

At first our readers were the most consistent that we have ever had. But lately, due to rain or exams, they have been less so. So we are increasing our prayers for our readers to make time to come for their lessons. Some of them are very engaged and do not miss at all, but some, just as in the US, are less committed.

Here are my male readers I am praying for: Wai Man, Chang Hoe, Boon Hui, Ching We, Lee, and Jeremy. My female readers are Fei Ling, Wai Chan, Yike, Yun, Hing Chuan, Bee Ping, Vhonne, and LeeLee. (I am just now getting that straight without looking at my notes!) So prayers for these precious college students are greatly appreciated.

On Friday, we took a bus to Malaka, the oldest city in Malaysia. There was a gate there built by Europeans in 1543, but Malaka was settled long before that. The architecture reflects Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, and British influences. We especially enjoyed the ceramic tiles on the old buildings. We returned Saturday evening--3.5 hours there, 2.5 hours back, due to traffic on Friday morning.

It was very hot there and we appreciated even more that we are working, traveling, and sleeping in air conditioned comfort.

We enjoyed a special treat there that we have also found here in KL: waffle sandwiches! We watch a vendor cook a round waffle, cut it in half, slather it with chocolate (or honey, or strawberry jam, or peanut butter), and put it together. They drop it in a brown paper envelope, and for less than a dollar we have a delicious dessert treat! I can see that I am not going to lose weight here!

We are excited that Steve leaves the States on Tuesday morning and will arrive here Thursday morning. He'll get here the day of our baseball party. Prayers, please, for his safe and uneventful trip as well.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Video from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Yesterday Josh put together a brief video about our situation here. You can read it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ly-FPeJudHM, I hope. I can't get the hyperlink to work, so you can copy and paste. It's a sketchy view, but should give a good picture of our space here and our outdoor surroundings. Be sure the sound is on, especially for the beginning.

Kinley is an integral part of our team. She helps prepare party invitations and nametags and jumps at the chance to help in other ways. She loves to go to the 7/11 below us and get some little treat for Knox with her own money. Today she brought me a treat--mango TicTacs. She knows I love the fresh mango here, so that was a thoughtful choice from her to me.

Tonight the theme of our party is Independence Day and we have tons of red, white, and blue decorations to put up between 6 and 7. Last week Josh's reader Steven came early to help decorate and is returning this week. We really enjoy that interaction with our readers. Our first party had 56 attendees, so we hope to at least match that.

Rain halts just about everything here. A thunderstorm, especially, prompts calls to cancel sessions because of the rain. This was a mystery to us until one of Gina's readers told her there is a strong taboo against wet hair. (I guess anyone seeing you with wet hair--not sure, because hair here is always clean.) The reader said that women aren't allowed to wash their hair for a month after giving birth. So obviously there are still many unusual cultural differences here.

Wai Chan wanted to know who helped Mary have her baby in the barn--just Joseph? I'd never given that much thought, but I guess that was it. Then she wanted to know where the cows ate while Jesus was using the manger. So even though some questions are deep and probing, many are more practical!

Sometimes I ask why all the rooms in Bethlehem were full. Some readers finally come up with an answer, but the quickest--that everyone was in town to register because of Augustus Caesar's order--came from a hotel management major. I told him he was in the right field, to be thinking that way.

All our readers are precious to us. We're hoping for good follow-up with them when we leave. After all, we are only the planters. God needs waterers in order to give the increase.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Accessing Power

I forget that electricity is an expensive commodity in much of the world. Every outlet here in Malaysia has an individual switch to turn it off when it's not being used. So at night when we leave the church building, we turn off all power to everything. (That's when I'm glad to hold the flashlight while Josh locks up with three different keys, because turning off the power also turns off the light at the head of the three flights of stairs.)

The first time I used my adapter with my hair dryer from home, I was so disappointed because I thought it wasn't working. Then I remembered to turn on the outlet and it worked just fine.

I'm sure there are many spiritual applications to this situation, but the one that occurs to me first is that we never have to turn off a switch to conserve the power we receive from God. His power is in unlimited supply. On the other hand, we do not benefit from his power without choosing to use it. In that sense, we always want to keep our power source going so the Holy Spirit can help us out at any time.

Our "switches" to maintain our power source are Bible reading and prayer. All our project is centered on teaching the Bible, and that makes me sometimes lazy about my own personal Bible study. Now prayer is a different matter--I'm praying constantly for the wisdom I need in working with our readers, fellow Christians, and our team. I have the confidence that I can always access that power that "comes down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." Thank God for our easy access to both the Bible and prayer!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Spiritual Questions

As Josh, Gina, and I discussed our readers, it seemed to me that their readers had much more spiritual questions than mine did. I realized that I needed to direct the discussion toward more spiritual things. Especially when the readers have pretty good English, it's easy to simply discuss interesting things but not spiritual things.

So I prayed that my readers would ask more questions about spiritual things. And we all know to watch out what we pray for! Today my reader YiKe (rhymes with "Mikey" of the LIFE commercials) was very interested in spiritual matters and asked excellent questions. Here are a few: Do Christians have to marry only Christians? If a boy goes to Thailand and gets surgery to become a girl, can God forgive that? Do Christians have to go to church every Sunday? Is there another way to baptize besides immersion? If God is our Father, is Mary our mother?

I'm certainly glad God was behind all this, because I'm confident that he sent his Holy Spirit to guide my answers. How else could I have answered all that as well as studying a lesson in just 50 minutes! YiKe's friend Vanessa is a believer so I'm sure YiKe has learned just enough from her to come up with some questions on her own. But the timing for more spiritual questions was pretty good, after praying just yesterday and today for more such questions. I can't wait to see what God will send with the rest of my readers today!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lodgings and More

The house where we are staying is lovely. Our hosts, Steven and Eileen, are very gracious and accommodating. And last night when we returned, I felt a bit like the farmer who took the wise man's advice to move all the animals in his house in order to appreciate his original situation.

In this case, I had been rooming with about 867 (estimate, of course!) action figures that belong to the two sons of the household, now 13 and 18. They ranged in theme from Ninja Turtles to Star Wars figures to Toy Story figures and anything possible in between, plus dinosaurs. The upside was that Knox loved to visit my room all the time! His imagination went wild with all the possibilities.

While we were on our two days off, Steven and Eileen had removed the toys and replaced them with a bed, possibly for Steve when he comes. What a change! Wide open spaces in which to put things, just as I'd adjusted to keeping most stuff in my (broken) suitcase. It was a delightful surprise. I should add here how much I appreciate 13-year-old Isaac for giving up his room for me.

One morning I awoke to the patter of little feet in my room and I assumed it was Knox. "What do you think you're doing in here?" I asked playfully. When Isaac timidly said, "I'm getting my clothes for school," I was mortified. I hope he understood my explanation that I thought it was Knox!

So now the real test of Knox's loyalty to me will be if he keeps coming to visit in my room....

And about my broken suitcase: The journey to Malaysia was its maiden voyage, and it arrived with a split seam of about 10 inches. As far as I could tell, nothing had fallen out, so it obviously held through most of the trip.

Last night I put all my clothes on the new bed and today took the suitcase to a place called "Minit Cobbler," near the church building. The man examined it carefully and decided he can sew it back up, but may have to remove and then replace the wheel base. He said it would take 3 hours, so I hesitantly asked the cost. He said 35 Ringits, which is roughly $11 US. I am delighted that it can be repaired rather than replaced, though it is a duffel bag and not one I'd chose to carry again. I used it because it was the lightest wheeled suitcase we own. And I'm sure I'll appreciate that aspect when I pack it to return home.

Church today was wonderful and inspiring. Some of the teens had taken so seriously Josh's prompting to use encouraging words that they made up several postcards with encouraging words on the front that the members can send to each other. What a great response to a sermon! It's also a reminder to me to be more encouraging to my teammates. I am so used to their doing a great job that I may forget to affirm them as much as I should. The announcement-giver at church this morning said Thursday's party was the best they had EVER had here, so we are pleased. God is so good and we have so much to be grateful for (such as taking our laundry in this morning and picking it up this afternoon, all folded and ready to wear tomorrow!)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cooling Techniques

Malls and grocery stores have central air conditioning, but homes and small offices, such as the church building, do not. They have individual room air conditioners that are installed on a wall at the ceiling. They operate with a remote control that usually has a holder near the door. The temperature can be regulated through the remote and these air conditioners do a terrific job of cooling a room. The large room of the church that is used for the Sunday assembly and that we'll use for tonight's party has three such air conditioners. They cool the rooms very well until a crowd arrives. Then it can get a bit warm.

Soon I hope to post some pictures of our party as well as our space.

Part of our conversation with our readers is to show pictures of our families and homes. One reader asked if our home was air conditioned all year round. I told him that in the winter it was very cold and we needed heat. He said, "So you have a heat conditioner?" It's very strange to think of entire nations that have highways and cars and skyscrapers and yet have no concept of needing heat--ever at all.

A constant temperature certainly simplifies a lot. No seasonal clothing, no need to change out closets. No need for cold weather foods or looking forward to the foods of a different season. Hot drinks are the norm here. People strongly believe drinking hot drinks cools you down. And well they may--if you like the idea of sweating so much that the air then cools you because you are so damp!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Breaking Our Own Records

We are so excited about the great response to our lessons! The groundwork laid by the Christians here has made a great difference. Yesterday Josh, Gina, and I put in a marathon day, meeting with a total of 18 readers! Averaging 4 each would be an excellent turnout, but we obviously exceeded that. But the record-breaking part is that as of Wednesday afternoon at 2, we have had NO no-shows! We are delighted, of course, for on every previous project there have been times when a reader simply did not come or call.

Today I had a student whose family speaks English in the home. That's a first, and of course his English is better than average. It's interesting that he does not feel overconfident and still wants help with his English. When I have a reader that skilled, I'm thrilled when I can teach him new vocabulary or help with his pronunciation.

We are getting ready for our party tomorrow night with the Southwestern theme. We expect a crowd since the church families are supplying dinner first. Here is where the United States and Malaysia have something in common. As they said, college students will always come if a meal is provided!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Schoolchildren Worldwide

From the kitchen and bathroom windows of our third-floor church complex, I can see the children coming and going to school and can hear two familiar sounds: children playing on the playground and school bells calling them to return to class.

Those sounds are the same everywhere I've been, from Tennessee/Kansas/North Carolina/Illinois/Kentucky to New Zealand to Fiji to Malaysia. It's a unifying sound, reminding us all that we are the same at the beginning, changed only by our surroundings and our culture.

My readers are all very earnest and eager to improve their English. Today a third-year college student said her roommate had flunked out and had to go home, so she is living alone. "Do you want to come live with me?" she asked, smiling. I told her I was tempted to take her up on her offer because she lives much closer to the church building than the Christians we're staying with. But I'll stay with the plan.

Today I have readers without a break from 2 until 7 pm. We supposedly have 10 minutes between readers, and sometimes that works out, but not always. We are excited that every single person scheduled has come! One reason, of course, is the encouragement and reminders given by our angel/secretary, Doreen.

Today Doreen took us across the street to eat at an Indian restaurant. We had a delicious dish that was a scrambled egg/chopped chicken mixture between two pieces of naan, with a curry dipping sauce. We love trying new foods, and we're enjoying most of them.

I appreciate all the prayers on behalf of our readers and us. I think we've finally gotten past the jet-lag problems and are settling into our routine. Kinley and I just made a run to the local grocery store, where we bought cereal and milk for our breakfasts here. We also managed to pick up some Coke Light and TimTams, for those of you who know what treats they are, since TimTams are not available in the U.S.

Now off to my marathon afternoon!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Worshiping in KL

We had a wonderful day with the Wangsa Maju Church of Christ in Kuala Lumpur. Our new friend Matthew led the singing very well. Josh taught a class on Mark and then preached as well, preaching on "Words of Life." His points were on encouraging words, commissioning words, and convicting words. Excellent points that held the attention well.

The women of the church had prepared porridge (kind of a chicken/rice soup) and noodles for everyone to share for lunch. There was also a pasta salad made by the American member here, which was more familiar than the other food. All was very tasty.

After we ate, we were included in a meeting about our LST plans. They wanted to know what parties we are having and how they could help. Terrific! They plan to feed our students before each party, so that should ensure a good turnout. Our first party is with the Southwestern theme, and we are supplying chips and salsa for the snack. The American volunteered to add con queso dip as well, so that's a great addition to our plan.

We're reading from three until seven each Sunday. Today I just had two readers but Josh had four! His schedule is packed, but Gina and I are fairly busy, too. As people realize that they can come more than once a week, our schedules are filling up.

We are delighted that the people here have such an interest in helping us have a successful project! I've never seen so many people so involved in all aspects of an LST project. God has truly responded to all the prayers on our behalf. We will continue to pray for our readers to have open hearts to God's truth.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Chinese Readers

People here are very aware of their status as Malays, Chinese, or Indian. Malays are all Muslim and get many more privileges than others. My first two readers are typical of our group--Chinese students. These young women are called Yi Ke and Wai Chan. Wai Chan has already invited me to be her Facebook friend, and all the other comments on her page are in Chinese. Both of them read English very well and are eager for help with English. When I explained that "day" was not the correct pronunciation of "they," we had quite a discussion about the two ways of pronouncing "th." When I mentioned "thin," Wai Chan said, "Not 'tin'?"

I told her that was a metal and did not sound the same as "thin."

She said, "But my English teacher said it is 'tin.'" Thus the problem of having other Chinese teach their English classes. So once I started listening closely, I realized that most of the Chinese at the church do not pronounce "th" at all! That sound is not in their language and is very hard for them.

Our best "pronouncers" are those who have watched lots of American movies and tried to emulate the pronunciation. It also helps if they've lived in the US at some time.

Last night we ate at a Food Court that was quite different from our mall ones. It was outside, with 40 vendors, looking more like state fair vendors. We got a table in the center that was numbered, and as we went to the food stalls and wanted to eat something they had, we just told them what we wanted and then our table number. We paid them when they delivered it to our table. Very busy and interesting. The food was good, but more bland than we expected. It was an excellent cultural experience for us, and one we wouldn't have attempted without being taken there by some of our new church friends. Our adventure continues!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Upstairs?

So our new friend Pearly, a member of the Wangsa Maja church here, told us it's important not to leave any food out when we leave the building. She went on to explain that some civets escaped from the local zoo and have been seen in the apartment above the church's area on the third floor of this building. They hear them pacing upstairs, so, in order to allay the fears of the children, they refer to them as "Mr. and Mrs. Stanley."

We're told any food left in the kitchen can disappear, thanks to the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley. I'm glad they avoid people!

Working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Safely arrived! What wonderful words, especially when linked to both our team and our luggage!

We were met at the KL airport at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday by two cars and hosts who were most hospitable. They took us to the home of Steven and Eileen Shee, where we are all staying. We settled in, went to lunch at an Indian restaurant nearby, and then Steven took us to the church building.

The church meets two floors above a 7/11, which makes it an easy way to tell people how to find us and makes it an easy way to get a quick snack when needed. After arriving here 26 hours after leaving Cincinnati, a little caffeine was definitely welcome.

We were warmly greeted by Doreen, the church secretary who is sweet, efficient, and helpful. She had already signed up some people in advance, and we had only been at the building a few minutes when students began to arrive. We signed people up from 4 until 8 pm, and each of us has a full schedule. Josh has 17 readers and Gina and I have 15 or 16 each. Everything is still in flux the first few days, so we'll see how it falls out in the long run.

The students who came last night are for the most part freshman at a nearby college. many of them went to Chinese-speaking schools and even though they have taken English in school are ill-equipped to hear all their professors in English. We hope to bridge that gap for them and in so doing also share Jesus with them.

This morning Josh's devotional was based on Acts 17, and truly most of our readers come from a background of "many gods." We hope to point them to the one true God and his Son Jesus Christ.

Knox and Kinley are "troopers," as always. In the hours when we have four readers and just three workers, we will take two readers at a time and let Kinley assist with that group. She would like to take a reader all by herself, but this is a good way for her to get in her "student teaching" practice. The multiples are often based on transportation situations where people must come together.

Clearly, God is alive and well and working in KL! We are so grateful for all the prayers that brought us safely here and will see us through all the studies in the days ahead.

One Knox comment from yesterday at Steven and Eileen's house: "I am going to go downstairs and after I go downstairs then I will come back upstairs." At least he knows to report in when he's changing venues! Right now he is playing and singing "I Will Call Upon the Lord." Inspiring!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Celebration Continues

Though I was not eager for Ruth to leave this earth, I feel blessed that I could participate in her joyous memorial service that was truly a celebration of her life. Knowing that on June 14 I’m leaving the United States for seven weeks, I expected her to last beyond that time and that I would not be here. This was a major blessing for me, and the blessing for the family was that she was herself to the very end.

On June 14 I will leave Cincinnati for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with son Josh and his family—Gina, Kinley (9), and Knox (3½). Steve will join us July 6. Our project is under the auspices of Let’s Start Talking of Fort Worth, Texas. We offer free English lessons and use a workbook of the stories in the book of Luke. In this way, our readers learn basic Bible information as we help them with their English conversation skills. In our six weeks of study, we become friends with them and often stay in touch after we leave. We work to connect them with local Christians who will continue the friendships and possibly Bible studies. The Church of Christ in Kuala Lumpur has had other successful Let’s Start Talking projects and we are excited to be working with them. Greater KL, as it is called, (much easier to say, too!) has 7.2 million people, so “the field is white unto harvest,” as I learned as a child from my KJV.

I will have some access to the internet while there, so I will blog about our activities when possible. This is the place to keep up with how the Lord is working in our lives and in KL. I am confident there will be much to celebrate. Please pray for open hearts from our readers and safety and wisdom for us. Perhaps you should also pray for the families we will be living with!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Little Brother

My brother John was born when I was 9, and I loved being a little mother to him. Back then, being in the South and in the fifties, we called him “John Ralph.” Fortunately, he outgrew that several years ago, though some over-80s still call him that.

By the next summer, my regular duty was to rock my baby brother to sleep. He would sit in my lap facing me, straddling my scrawny body and laying his golden curls on my chest. Mother would check on us occasionally to be sure all was well.

As I rocked, I sang. I always started with “Brahms’ Lullaby,” adding my own new verses as I sang. John Ralph relaxed gently as I sang, “Lullaby and good night, you’re your sister’s delight, you’re our own sweet baby boy, and I love you so much. Go to sleep, baby boy, go to sleep little darling. Go to sleep, baby boy, go to sleep little one.”

At age ten, I’d already started to take on adult responsibilities. And, for that summer at least, I loved it.

Today he is much taller and more educated than I, and I am proud of all he's accomplished. But he’s still my baby brother, and I am sad that we aren't together to celebrate his birthday today. I love you, John. Happy birthday!