Friday, March 13, 2015

Mary McLeod Bethune: She Has Given Her Best

I first heard about Mary McLeod Bethune when I was a student at Moody Bible Institute.

She was an early graduate of my college - and an African American woman. I knew she had gone on to become one of the greatest women in our country. She was so well known that she earned the status of being featured on our postage stamps.

But I didn't really know much about her.

As I researched Mary McLeod Bethune for my book, When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up. I learned a bit more about her remarkable life:
  • She was the 15th of 17 children, born to former slaves.
  • From an early age, she hungered for education.
  • She graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a desire for missionary service to Africa - an opportunity she was denied because of her race.
  • Undeterred, she started a school for African American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida, that went on to become Bethune Cookman University.
  • She was asked to work with Franklin D. Roosevelt and led many African American organizations for women and children through the early to mid 1900s. 
Each of these things is impressive. But as I read, I was also deeply moved by her determination, resiliency, and passion. Mary McLeod Bethune dreamed big - and achieved even bigger things.

She never let anyone deter her, and, even in the face of racial injustice, never let hate dominate her life. She had pride in who she was and in her people. She refused to be afraid, facing off against the Ku Klux Klan. When they approached her school, she ordered all the lights turned on so she could look into their faces. Leading the young girls around her, they began to sing a hymn - and they sang them right off the campus!

She had dreams, and she had the determination to make them reality. She rented her first school building with only $1.65 in her pocket. She used crates as desks and sang on corners asking for money. When she asked a wealthy donor to visit her school and be on the board of trustees, he looked around in dismay. "Where is this school you want me to run?" asked the wealthy man. "It's here. It's in my heart," said Bethune. And the man pulled out a checkbook. She believed, and incredible things happened.

As I walked by her grave, planted over a former garbage dump that she purchased for the expansion of her little school and turned into a major university, I was humbled. Her gravestone reads: "She has given her best, that others may live a more abundant life." The bell hanging up to the right, signifies her desire to "ring" the bell of education and freedom for African American children in the South at a time when that was not a possibility.

As I toured the Bethune Foundation that occupies her former home. I saw her desk, the sun streaming into her bedroom through glass windows (the windows she wished for as a young girl growing up in slavery), a velvet dress laid across her bed. Her home has been turned into a place that serves as an inspiration to others. I almost felt like she would walk into the room and greet me.

She didn't, of course, but her students did welcome me. Her college, Bethune Cookman University, is filled with students who are learning and achieving and growing.

This is a woman I wish I could have known.

Mary McLeod Bethune wrote: "My love is a universal factor in my experience, transcending pettiness, discrimination, segregation, narrowness and unfair dealings with regard to my opportunities to grow and serve. Through love and faith and determination I have been persistently facing obstacles, small and large, and I have made them stepping stones upon which to rise."

And rise she did.

God blessed the world through this remarkable woman.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

God Will Supply All Your Needs

Sitting a midst piles of brown cardboard boxes, I’m the classic “day after move in” mess. 

I still haven’t found our microwave or our kitchen table in the packing container, so I’m balancing my computer precariously on my lap and drinking coffee from my rapidly cooling mug knowing there is no chance of reheating.

But I am also filled with a thankful heart. God has been with us throughout our cross-country move. Day after day I have seen His provision and His guiding hand, and I am deeply and utterly grateful.

Last summer, in the midst of selling our house, I visited with a professor at Moody Bible Institute, Dr. Ron Sauer. I was interviewing him about his practice of praying, daily, for his students. Before classes begin, he walks through the room, stopping at each desk and remembering each of his students, individually, in prayer.

He said that he believes that God answers these prayers and cares about each of us, deeply and individually.

Then, he asked to pray for me.

As I sat in his faculty office, head bowed, eyes closed, he asked God to be with us in our move. He asked that we sell at the right moment, and that we would find the right town, the right house, the right neighborhood. He asked that we sell for a price that would make that possible. He asked that God would go before us and find a friend for Sabrina – the perfect friend who could welcome her to her new neighborhood. He prayed for safety on the road and for crazy, specific things that I never even thought to bring before the altar of grace.

And, I wept.

I cried because I had prayed to God, but I hadn’t thought to bring Him all of those tiny worries that were clogging up my heart and brain. I wept because I realized that God really did care for me like that, in specific ways, and that He cared for my family as well.

My favorite Bible verse has always been Psalm 32:8. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. I will counsel you with my loving eye upon you.”

Yet, I often live like I am the one in control. I act like everything rests on my shoulders.

In that office, with tears streaming down my face – heading unashamedly into an “ugly cry” – I knew in my heart that God would care for me.

When we finished, Dr. Sauer pushed a box of tissues toward me. “Do people always cry in your office,” I asked.

“No,” he smiled. “Mainly the women.”

Today, as I sit in our new-to-us, unpacked, cluttered, mid-century home in Ormond Beach, Florida, I am a witness to God’s provision.

He arranged our move so that Sabrina could leave mid-semester. He scheduled the pick-up of Milt’s car so that we were on the road at Christmas – but with good weather and very little traffic. Gas prices were at an all-time low.

My mom and her husband Bob allowed us to live, rent free, in their Munster condo and then crash our gang into their Florida home. We had a place to stay and were able to have a long-needed visit.

Our new house closed in less than two weeks – and Sabrina was able to start school on time. While her first day was very tough, she has already made two friends: a Russian girl who doesn’t know any English (and is so thankful for my sweet, caring daughter), and an artist, anime-loving, cosplay girl who is sweet and welcoming.

Thank you, God.

You know me. You care for me. You supply all of my needs...even when I don't know how to ask.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Messy Christmas Wish

We're moving before Christmas.

The idea of moving across country is daunting for anyone. How do you take 16 years of living and place it into four storage cubes? How do you tackle the list of to-dos, like cancelling utilities, switching insurance policies and disconnecting cable (when they make you say "no" five times before honoring your request)?

How do you reduce ten boxes of precious school mementos to a "reasonable" three? How do you negotiate the purchase of another house while living hundreds of miles away? How do you fit in goodbyes to friends and neighbors?

The planner in me is overwhelmed. I've taken on all kinds of jobs, big jobs, intimidating jobs, but this one...this one is huge.

And then, I realized what the timing meant for me and for my family. We were scheduled to close on our house just before Christmas. That meant no going to the Christmas tree farm to cut down our tree. That meant no live evergreen wreath on the front door. No putting out the nativity set with its little bag of hay and trying, again, to find the baby Jesus.

Cards are unsent. Lights are unhung. Ornaments are still boxed. Gifts are not bought.

My heart is homesick for Christmas.

But as I sat in my little puddle of being sorry for me, I had a thought. Actually, my Christmas is a lot like the first one.

Mary and Joseph were moving for Christmas. They were traveling too - of course not with a mother-in-law, teenage daughter, 35-pound dog, in a Kia Soul. They were riding a donkey and walking; Mary with her pregnancy almost to term. They were headed cross country with no hotel room waiting on the other end.

I am sure that their lives felt completely unsettled. Mary had announced her pregnancy out of wedlock. Joseph had stood by her, but they must have had moments of awkwardness and tension. After all, they were newlyweds, parents-to-be, still getting to know one another. I'm sure they were worried about the future.

Christmas for them was about where they needed to go and what they needed to do. They were living with the expectation of the birth of their baby, this Child who would change the world. Christmas had nothing at all to do with carols and trees and ornaments. It had nothing to do with my still unopened, ten Rubbermaid containers of decorations.

So, this year, I'll have that kind of Christmas. I'll have the one in my heart that knows and believes and hopes and perseveres. I'll hug my family close. I'll dream and sing and love and celebrate the birth of my Savior.

I'll pray for a family I know whose dad just entered intense chemo. I'll pray for my friend whose daughter is leaving for the mission field.

I'll hum along to the man playing, "O Holy Night" on his trumpet in the subway station.

I'll appreciate my neighbor's Christmas lights and turn the television to "White Christmas" while I pack.

I'll refuse my gloom, put aside my Martha Stewart expectations of what this holiday should be, and celebrate this strange and  unsettling Christmas on the road.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

White Roses and Paper Cranes: Symbols of Beauty and the Horror Within

Walking down the cobblestone streets of Salem, Mass., I was both intrigued and a bit spooked. In every other window, witch paraphernalia was displayed – ouija boards, spell candles, black cats. The Salem Witch Museum is in an old church with the glass windows lit in red. It is dusk and the perfect setting for my visit.

Turning a corner, we walked by a historic home, graveyard and a group of tourists being led by a man dressed vaguely as a pilgrim. My friend tells me to look down. I see a row of stones, engraved with words in capital letters. Some of the stones are cracked. Yellow leaves obscure parts of the text. But I see phrases: “I am innocent” . . . She tells me these are the last words of the men and women hanged after being accused of witchcraft. It takes my breath away.

When I look up, I notice a small courtyard – again surrounded by a stone wall. There are small stone platforms jutting out of the wall – about 20 of them – encircling the courtyard. I thought they were benches, then noticed that on each one is a single white rose.

These too represent those who died, accused of being witches. One after another, silently, I walk by and read their names, the date of their death, and their method of execution: “hanged,” “pressed.” 

Some names I recognize from literature, many I do not. I want to run my finger along the words. I long to whisper a silent apology and offer a prayer, but the night has grown chilly and it is getting darker.

In only one other place have I encountered such sadness, such a clear representation of our unfathomable human ability to harm one another.

My husband, daughter, and I traveled to Okinawa, Japan, in 2007. I was supervising a trip with my college students. They were filming a video to promote a Christian school. Our trip was fascinating and we soaked in the Japanese culture, eating sushi, collecting coral and seashells, walking through rice fields and carefully avoiding slithering Habu.

On one of the first outings, our hosts took us to the World War II Peace Museum. Row after row of headstones engraved with the names of the American and Japanese soldiers who lost their lives. The monuments stretched on past our vision. We walked through a museum containing mementos from both the Japanese and the American soldiers. The museum was a visual plea for peace.

But perhaps the most overwhelming moment for me was our next stop at the Himeyuri Peace Museum, a cave where 17 Japanese nurses and 194 school girls hid under orders to never surrender. Knowing they would soon die, they left letters, speaking of their sorrow to part with the men and families left behind. Of the more than 200 women, only 5 survived. They were young, so young.

Outside the caves was a tree, covered with multi-colored paper cranes. One thousand cranes, they say, grants one wish. Visitors bring these every day as a memorial to these young nurses and there are thousands of them – so many that they weigh down the tree and make it look vibrant and alive in an other-worldly way. Pink, green, turquoise, red, yellow, orange. In another pile were yellow flowers, stacks of them.

Intensely alive and a way for those who are living to touch the past and say, “We will never forget.”

It is hard to believe we are capable of these things. We don’t want to be. We visit sites and cry and feel the pit in our stomach that people can inflict such pain on others.

And so I walk away from that Salem memorial – the memory of a faded white rose in my mind and heart.

Were they witches? Were they evil?

Or were we?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Renee Zellweger, Orual, and Me

Renee Zellweger’s face was all over the internet this week. She had plastic surgery that took away her signature chubby cheeks and ruddy complexion. She is still attractive. The only problem is that she no longer looks like the actress who charmed us in Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jone’s Diary. She is too perfect. We liked the old-version of Rene, flaws and all.

I remember having a similar reaction when Jennifer Grey had a nose job following her roles in Ferris Bueller and Dirty Dancing. Her new nose was lovely – but she no longer looked like the same woman. I would stare at her photo and think, “Really!? Wow. What a difference a nose can make!” It was almost like the original Jennifer had disappeared, replaced by this new version without her distinctive personality.

As much as I am shocked at the tendency of the rich and famous to erase their flaws, I admit I have a few that I would not mind erasing as well. For many years, I battled with being much too thin. I wasn’t the good kind of skinny, but the kind that made clothes drape awkwardly on me, the kind that meant I also was flat chested with knobby knees.

If I was rich, would I have fixed that flaw? Perhaps. My angst about my own personal appearance was all consuming in my early teens. I hated the way I looked and was certain that everybody else focused on my flaws as well. Now, as I approach the end of my 40's, I’m in a constant battle with graying hair. Thank goodness for Clairol.

All of us, and perhaps women in particular, are plagued by self-awareness, self-doubt, even self-hatred. We get consumed by the one thing that is wrong with our physical appearance, whether it is the belly that refuses to get flat or the ears that stick out at an odd angle. We worry that this is what is holding us back – as if this one feature could prevent relationships from developing or block our prospects of fame and fortune.

It is all too easy to hate how we look.

It is even easier to equate who we are, our identity, with our physical appearance. Is there more to us than meets the eye?

In C.S. Lewis’s gorgeous (and lesser-known) novel, Till We Have Faces, a princess named Orual is consumed by her own ugliness. She realizes from a young age that her sister is the good looking one. She is the smart one, but she is also hideous.

When she is young, her father taunts her and holds her face to a mirror – “Who would want this?” he mocks. And, she agrees. Orual eventually goes to great lengths to hide her face, eventually wearing a veil to block others from seeing what she really looks like.

But, Lewis suggests this need for transformation goes much further.

What Orual discovers in the novel, after a great deal of soul searching, is that surface ugliness is the least of her problems. As she fixates on the need to transform the physical, she neglects to realize that her soul is in need of a greater makeover.

Yes, she needs transformation, but the knife must go deeper. Orual is jealous and manipulative. She ruins those she loves in order to get her own way. She is ugly, indeed, but not just in the way she thought.

At the conclusion of Lewis’s novel, Orual is an old woman. On judgement day, she stands, naked, before the gods, and they reveal not just her ugly face, but the depravity of her soul.

Surely, this is as bad as it gets. To be revealed, warts and blemishes for all to see. But, in revealing herself and finally owning who she is – completely – a miraculous thing happens. Orual is made whole again. And, she discovers (much to her shock) that her vulnerability before the gods has left her beautiful, inside and out.

Transformation, Lewis suggests, is not purely physical. It cannot stay at the surface. As Orual learns, identity goes far deeper than our outward appearance.

So, we can change our nose. We can add size to our breasts. Yet even these changes will not ultimately satisfy our longings for perfection. We live with a residual dissatisfaction that goes much deeper. Our fixation on the physical, hints at our spiritual hunger. Perhaps we struggle to adjust and improve what lies on the surface because we fear going deeper.

When we know God and allow ourselves to be exposed, unveiled, naked, before Him, only then will we be truly transformed. From glory to glory, He's changing us indeed - not merely erasing our physical flaws, but digging deep, perfecting our true identity to reflect His image.

"And we all who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into His image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." 2 Corinthians 3:18