Sugar and Amazing Grace

IMG_0209It’s that time of year again when chocolate, candy and flowers become the language of love. As a sugar junkie, it’s a dangerous time of year for me. I love sugar. Not so much in candy, but I can’t say no to chocolate, ice cream or cookies.

I volunteer at the local food bank as a receptionist. Last week, a lady came in to donate  food. She had 2 packages of frozen cookie dough that was calling her name. She had an urgent need to get the stuff out of her house. I understood her pain. One pack was open as she admitted to eating some the night before. Of course, we couldn’t accept an opened package. She was desperate to not go home with the cookie dough. She wanted me to take it home. I declined. I did, however, accept the unopened package to give to one of our clients. 

This weekend I purchased a small heart-shaped box of chocolate, and on a whim, frozen cookie dough. I guess the ladies’ plight at the food bank was somehow buried in my subconscious. I ate all five pieces of chocolate from the heart-shaped box in one sitting.  Then, I ate five squares of frozen cookie dough too before I put it in the trash. I eat certain types of sugary stuff like an alcoholic needs a drink. I can’t stop myself. 

This morning I have been thinking about Jesus’ words that are sometimes called The Beatitudes. In the Message Bible, the passage starts, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” 

I am pretty much at the end of the rope when it comes to sugar. Sometimes, I feel like there’s no hope for me when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy relationship to food. If I understand Jesus’ words, then I am actually blessed by knowing I’m at the end of my rope. 

Jesus fills in the cracks left inside me from the self loathing that drains me. That’s how it works. So in the upside down way of God’s kingdom, I am blessed when I am feeling the least amount of confidence in myself. 

That’s the kind of grace that makes me shake my head in amazement. It’s why I posted the quote by Brennan Manning on the sidebar of my blog. Brennan Manning’s life, when examined, makes one wonder anew at the centrality of grace. I don’t want to detail his life’s path in this blog post, but know that he didn’t lead a perfect life.

Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. Brennan Manning

This week I won’t buy any chocolate, cookies or ice cream. I’m going to walk wobbly and weak-kneed through the Valentine’s aisle at the supermarket.  I am not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. 

 

The Purpose-Driven Blog

Where there is no vision, the people perish.  Book of Proverbs, The Bible KJV.

question marksI have been meandering through a variety of posts on this blog these past few months. There has been no one set theme to my writings. Of course, I gave myself wide latitude in the naming of the blog, Gumbo Ya-Ya, wherein I could scribble posts about whatever topic I happened to light on that week.

In general, writers with a particular focus and intended audience tend to be more successful.  The reader knows what to expect from the printed, or in this case, digital page. The reader then can anticipate and look forward to reading something that fits in the general subject area of the writer.

For example, one of my favorite columnists, Rick Bragg, writes a monthly feature for the magazine, Southern Living. Bragg focuses on humorous, folksy stories about his life in Alabama. His writing tends to center around his family, most notably his mother, or food, or sports. Another one of my favorite writers, is Anne Lamott. She writes achingly personal details about her life with a heavy emphasis on the spiritual lesson that she learns in some way from the conflict in the re-telling of her life’s small (and sometimes big) dramas.

What is the central theme of the Gumbo blog? Who is my audience save for the paltry few whom are shown in the comments and stats?  I am re-thinking the focus of the Gumbo blog. Perhaps, no focus IS the focus. I don’t know. Feel free to offer counsel or comments.

Was Your Life Changed By A Book?

Last week, a friend wrote on Facebook about a challenge from the New York Times. The Times is asking for entries to answer the query: Was your life changed by a book?  Readers are encouraged to submit an entry of 200 words or less about a book that has influenced your outlook.  I’ve been thinking about this question. What one book would I choose?

On my bookshelf there are many books that helped shape my way of thinking. I thought about Rich Thinking about the World’s Poor by Peter Meadows which helped shape my views on poverty and missions.  I considered a humorous book of short stories by Bailey White, Mama Makes Up Her Mind. Or, perhaps I would select a book from my childhood enticing me to enjoy novels. I particularly recall my delight at ten years old reading The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas.

My mind kept returning though to the obvious book: The Bible, the book of books. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the dramatic, inspirational, and practical dynamics of the sacred book of books. The Bible has inspired multitudes of persons in its uniqueness among books. But let’s keep it short.

My first true encounter with the Bible was almost absurd. I was probably eleven years old at the time that I read excerpts from another book, a bestseller at the time, The Exorcist. My oldest sister had a copy, and I glanced a bit too long at it.  I was scared, maybe even scarred,  by the story of the demonic possession of Regan, an eleven year old girl. I had trouble sleeping for fear that I would share the fate of Regan.

At this time, in the early 1970s, the movie was released, too. I felt like I even resembled the actress, Linda Blair, who portrayed the demon-possessed girl. I was doomed.

My sister assured me that it all was a story, make-believe if you will. However, I knew just a smidgeon about the Gospels mentioning demons. So, I looked up instances in the Gospels of demonic possessions.  Not only did they exist, but they had the power to possess the body and mind. I was terrified even more than before I read the Bible’s accounts.

Demons existed!

So my first forays into reading Biblical texts made me a believer, not of the love of God, but in the power of the devil. If the Bible had accounts of demonic possession, then I could not idly dismiss the existence of such evil personified. I felt terribly hopeless.

My heightened fear of potential demonic possession eased, but a general malaise stayed with me. I had no hope. All life seemed purposeless. It wasn’t just the specter of Linda Blair that frightened me. It was just life in general. What meaning did my life have?

Then, I heard something when I was around 12 years old.  I heard a man speak at my  church who seemed to have an unmistakable sense of the divine about him. It was as if he spoke from a different perspective, not his perspective but from God’s.

I was convinced that the man in the front of the church had something more powerful than words with him that night. He offered me Hope. And I, like John Wesley, felt my heart strangely warmed. I reached out and took hold of Hope.

After that day, the Bible was no longer a book that just offered evidence of the power of the demonic. It offered a story of the One who was more powerful than any demon. I read the Gospels with new clarity. How had I overlooked it before? You see, Jesus did indeed confront demons but he had power over them. People were liberated from the power of the devil.

Since then, I see the Bible in so many ways. It’s not a book to condemn but to set free. It’s about light, not darkness. It’s a book of hidden treasures, with new insights to be gained daily from its reading.

I am certain that the New York Times is not looking for essays on the efficacy of the Bible in influencing a preteen girl both towards fear, and later, freedom. We, in the United States, live in a post Christian world. That great and glorious best-seller, the Bible, has been relegated to a place where it’s influence can be explained as a history lesson, a cultural milestone of years gone by. Current Bible enthusiasts are regarded as oddities, stuck in cultural backwaters that is being swept away by the modern cynical age we live in.

I remain, though, convinced of my convictions. The book that has changed my outlook more than any book I’ve ever read is the Bible. No matter how trite or how inane it sounds, the Bible remains my bedrock and foundation as the most powerful book in my life.  It’s words are like my daily bread, new every morning.

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? 

Isaiah 43:19

If you want to submit your entry about a book that has shaped your life to the New York Times, you must do it now. Entries must be submtted  by 10:00 a.m on January 15. 

An Angel in the Room

I wrote another version of this story from my viewpoint in Spooked by An Angel earlier this year. I rewrote the story from the viewpoint of my mother who told me the story originally. I submitted this article to Guideposts Magazine. It’s been accepted for publication in one of their sister publications, Angels on Earth. 

Early one morning, my mother spoke. That statement doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Mothers talk every morning, all over the world.

My ninety-three year old mother, Adele, hadn’t spoken in nearly three years. She had never been talkative, and as the years wore on, she spoke less and less. One day, she quit speaking completely. There wasn’t an obvious reason, like a stroke, to explain her silence. I think she just ran out of things to say as she got older.

Then, one morning, living quietly in a nursing home in Louisiana, my mother spoke. That morning her roommate had died. The nurse closed the curtain around the deceased woman. No one told my mother that her roommate had died.

My silent mother spoke.

“There’s an angel in the room,” she said to the nurse in the room.

In fact, every time another person entered the room, she repeated her words.

“There’s an angel in the room,” she said.

When I arrived later that morning to visit, my mother was still in bed, in her nightgown with long braids lying across her shoulders. I walked to the nurses’ station to ask why hadn’t anyone helped my mother that morning.

The nursing supervisor overheard me talking to the assistants at the front counter and walked out of the inner office.

“Mrs. Matherne,” she said, “we will attend to your mother shortly. Right now, I am having trouble finding a staff member who will go into her room. Let me explain to you what staff members are saying about your mother.”

During the morning, word had spread through the nursing home of the mute woman who had spoken of an angel. As I walked back towards my mother’s room, the daughter of the deceased woman met me in the hall.

“Did you hear about your mother?” she said. “I have been praying every morning for a sign that my mother would go to heaven. Your mother’s words were my sign.”

I didn’t know what to say. My mother was a spiritual person, but she had never spoken about angels or visions before. I thought about what I had heard. It seemed impossible to believe. Perhaps the story was just a result of overwork, lack of sleep, and excess emotion on the part of the staff, I reasoned to myself.

I questioned my mother hoping she would speak to me. She never said a word. Soon, two assistants came into the room to help change my mother into her dress and help her into her day chair. Still, my mother had nothing to say.

I stayed until lunch was served. As I helped her with the meal, I tried to engage my mother in conversation, asking her about her meal, the weather, and again, of the events of the previous night. She said nothing.

adele cropped
My Mother Years Before She Saw An Angel

I left the nursing home and drove home. As I drove, I thought about the morning’s events. I had studied the Bible throughout my life. I believed in God and angels. I had to admit that it was possible that the story of my mother speaking in the night of an angelic encounter was true.

For certain, I know two things. I know that the story brought comfort to a grieving daughter who saw the event as a sign from God. Secondly, I know that mother never spoke again after that morning. She died quietly at the age of ninety-seven.

Christmas Eve In Jail

I have been thinking about helping women in jail as part of my church’s outreach. I have done it before, over twenty years ago. Here’s a story from a Christmas Eve visit to the local jail. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed being part of this experience.

The buzzer sounded. The doors opened. I stepped into the confines of a women’s jail. It was Christmas Eve. I might have been late, but here I was, about to encounter thirty women prisoners. I thought about the conversation I had a few hours ago.

“Laurie,” Tina said, “I’m not going to the jail tonight. My sister and her family surprised me with a visit. They came all the way from Pennsylvania. I’m sorry.”

I still remember my thoughts as I hung up the phone twenty-five years ago. I had never led the Bible study with the lady prisoners, and I had never gone into the jail alone. In the few short months that I had been accompanying Tina at the jail in Houma, Louisiana, Tina had been the one leading the lessons, praying for the ladies, and generally taking charge of everything. I went along mainly to learn and give support to Tina.

What good could I do alone? And, would anybody truly expect me to come on Christmas Eve? I sat down on the couch next to the telephone. Maybe I should call the jail and tell them I wasn’t coming. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and I had family gathering that night. With a sigh, I decided to go to the jail even though I didn’t have a lesson or a plan. I would undoubtedly just be there for emotional support for the lonely women in jail.

After entering the jail’s doors a few minutes late, I walked into the commons area of the women’s jail. I expected to see a few stragglers with notebooks and Bibles at the tables. Instead, I was greeted loudly by a group of eager women.

“You’re here!” someone shouted.

“Sit down!” another lady said.

Most of the women were talking excitedly among themselves. Others were pulling bedsheets off the bunks. The ladies started wrapping themselves in bedsheets.

What was going on? None of this made any sense until Jenny,* a tall, commanding dark woman, stepped forward to tell me the plan. They didn’t want a Bible study. They planned to put on a Christmas play they had produced among themselves. The one thing they lacked for the drama was an audience. With my arrival, the one hindrance was eliminated. Now, the show could go on.

Mary and Joseph were wrapped in white sheets. A pillow subbed for the baby Jesus. Women standing in for shepherds and wisemen draped sheets over their orange jumpsuits, too.

One lady stood to the side, Bible in her hand. As she read from portions of the Christmas story from the gospels, different actors did their parts. First, Mary and Joseph, along with pillow-turned-Jesus, made their way to the front of the room. They put Jesus on a chair as they gazed adoringly at him. Then, the shepherds came, guided by angels robed in more white sheets. Next, the Three Kings came and presented their gifts of ramen noodles and bottles of toiletries, which I understood to be stand-ins for the more traditional gifts of the Magi.

Interspersed throughout the presentation, the ladies sang Away in A Manger, Silent Night and We Three Kings. At the end of the presentation, the narrator invited everyone in the dorm to kneel before the baby Jesus. The participants of the play readily kneeled on cue. Other women were cajoled, and some were threatened with harm if they didn’t kneel before pillow-turned-Jesus. One way or another, all the women in the jail that night knelt before the solitary pillow representing Jesus.

After a short but blissful moment of silence, I applauded. It was a fabulous, heart-felt performance. After the drama, the ladies were eager to hear my reaction.

“Did you like the play?” one lady asked.

“How were the songs? Did we get the tune right?” another said.

They had spent the entire day rehearsing, and then, waiting for an audience for their re-enactment. No one wanted prayer or counsel that night. No one talked about loneliness,  sadness, or bitterness about missing Christmas with family and friends. That night, they were singular in their purpose to celebrate the birth of Jesus in their own way.

As I left the jail, I thought about how happy the women had been. I expected sadness and loneliness to be the theme of the evening. Instead, the night was defined by a sense of purpose. The ladies seemed content and happy.

What happened that night? I went with the idea that the women needed me to bring inspiration and hope. Instead, they inspired me, and most of all, themselves, in their re-enactment of the first Christmas. The power of the good news of the birth of Jesus was on display that night as the ancient story was retold.

I’ll always remember that Christmas play performed in shades of orange and white on Christmas Eve twenty-five year ago. I’m glad I decided to go to jail on Christmas Eve. Jesus’ birth may have occurred over 2,000 years ago, but in places great and small,  whether it be in palaces or small town jails, his birth and life still influences our world today

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Isaiah 9:6

* The name has been changed.

How Cool is Abita Springs, Louisiana?

How cool is Abita Springs, Louisiana? Well, let me tell you. Abita Springs, a town of about 2500 residents, made the list of 25 Top Coolest Towns in the US.* You can read the article yourself if you want their opinion. I won’t repeat the article here in this space.

However, I think this is a cool town. I live here, so I might be a bit biased. Let me give you my list on what makes Abita Springs a great place.

mapld bakery
The town bakery not only has great baked goods, but a great wrap-around porch and its own ghost.
  1. Abita Springs has quaint architecture. The town came into its own in the Gilded Age as a place to escape the Yellow Fever epidemics of nearby New Orleans.
  2. Abita Springs has the St Tammany Trace running through the center of town.  The Trace is a bike and pedestrian trail that replaced the train tracks in St. Tammany Parish.
  3. Abita Springs has two museums. One museum is devoted to the history of the town, and the other is a museum of oddities with things like a stuffed alligator and collections of glass shards.

    abita mystery house
    Entrance to UCM (You See ‘Um) Museum and Mystery House
  4. Abita Springs has the Push Mow Parade every Mardi Gras. I can’t add anything else to that – it’s just cool.
  5. Abita Springs has its own Opry. The Abita Springs Opry has six concerts a year in the town hall, dedicated to preserving bluegrass and country music.
  6. Abita Springs hosts an annual city-wide garage sale every spring. What can beat that? I don’t know, but maybe the beer. . . ?
  7. Abita Springs is home to Louisiana’s best craft beer.  The Abita Brewery sells thousands of barrels of beer and ale across the state and the nation.

    Abita Christmas Ale
    Christmas Ale from Abita Brewery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The Matador Network, a digital travel magazine. 

Thoughts on Being Home

I’ve recently returned home from a trip to Disney World. After a week away, I had a list of tasks that are common when returning home, such as collecting the mail, watering houseplants, and answering email. All are part of being home again. There’s the rhythm of normalcy that comes from being home again. I like simple pleasures such as sleeping in my own bed and fixing my own coffee first thing in the morning.

While I was away cavorting with Mickey and his pals, Louisiana State University’s football team beat Alabama. That’s big news in Louisiana. The two football teams duked it out in Tuscaloosa, Alabama last weekend. We were the underdogs. LSU wasn’t expected to win, but we beat ‘Bama. Now, LSU is rated number one in the country. It was a good feeling when I came home knowing that my home state was first in college football rankings.

I want to hold on to some happy feelings about Louisiana because otherwise, the news about the state is alarming. This week an article from US News & World Report ranked Louisiana as the worst state in the nation. The magazine editors considered things like education, job growth, health care, opportunity and crime. There’s a US map on the magazine’s website with a big 50 emblazoned on my home state. We even beat Alabama for last place. Alabama is 49. Number one is Washington

A final note on being home: my dear friend, Sandra, passed away this week. She had battled breast cancer for over fifteen years. The cancer spread to her liver a few years ago, yet she had good health almost to the very end. She had been aware, as she told me a few months sago, “that the pages are turning faster.” She knew that even though her oncologist kept using different tools from his toolbox, as he phrased it, that her time was limited. She’s home now. In heaven.

IMG_0124
The Hardy Plank house that is my home, at least for now.

I believe in heaven. I don’t know a lot about it, as the Bible isn’t as specific as I’d like it to be on that subject. It’s just a gut feeling I have that heaven exists. Even when I am feeling most at home in my own house, comfortably settled in my daily routines, something seems not quite right. Something’s askew. That’s because there’s more.  There’s another dimension. There’s another reality beyond this one. There’s a place that God calls to me to my permanent home. When my thoughts turn homeward, I know it’s not just to a house made of Hardy Plank siding in Abita Springs, Louisiana, but to another home that is just beyond my grasp, where God dwells.

If you’re unsure how you feel about heaven, that old-fashioned solace of the ancients, I invite you to listen to this song with the refrain, You’re calling me, I’m coming home. It’s not too other-worldly, because as far as I know, heaven may be all around now, just in another dimension.