Friday, December 23, 2011

Not-So-Perfect Christmas Memories

As a mom, I want Christmas to be perfect. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get everything done and to do it well.

But, as a kid, I don't think I ever expected Christmas to be perfect. I just loved this time of year when everyone in my family stopped being so busy with their ordinary tasks and just enjoyed spending time together.

Here are a few random and precious memories of my Christmases past:

1) My mom, her sister Roberta, and my grandma "Honey" telling stories at the kitchen table. The more they talked, the harder they laughed. I remember my Aunt Bert with tears streaming down her face trying to make them stop talking so she could get her breath and stop cracking up.

2) One year my dad had the flu. We also had a house full of relatives. I remember my aunt and mom bundling my dad up and propping him with pillows next to the tree. Feverish and flushed, my dad was not his usual self - but my aunt kept teasing him - and we all loved him back to health.

3) My Grandma Storms gave the worst Christmas gifts ever. She was known to wrap up "used" gifts. One year I received a pair of men's overalls with the name "Jeff" written in black sharpie on the reverse side of the bib. She said I could wear them when I went camping. Our family would compete to see who could come up with the most creative "thank yous" for those gifts.

4) Every Christmas at Grandma Storms would feature take-away bingo and molasses cookies. My Uncle Ken would always try to win the not-so-cleverly wrapped up onion that my grandma put in as one of the prizes.

5) When I was very young, Christmas at my grandma and grandpa's (Honey and Papa's) would always include a Christmas pageant. I spent many hours practicing the drama with my older cousins and wearing bath towels on our heads as costumes.

6) In high school, I still hadn't lost my enthusiasm for Christmas morning. One year, I woke Julie (age 8) and Tim (age 13) up at 3 am to open our stockings and see our Santa gifts. My dad came down to ask, "What in the world was I thinking?" and sent us back to bed.

My dad playing Christmas carols on the piano. My mom's amazing marinated olive salad and Christmas roast. The Ben Franklin stove with a log burning and Johnny Cash's family Christmas album playing in the background.

These are Christmas memories I will always treasure. Not perfect to anyone but me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mothers and Daughters: Lessons from The Joy Luck Club

Last night, I watched a favorite movie of mine, The Joy Luck Club, with my teenage daughter. The movie, adapted from the novel by Amy Tan, tells the stories of four Chinese mothers and the daughters they raised in America. It was just as powerful as I remembered it to be.

The Joy Luck Club begins by introducing the daughters who are trying to forge their own identities in America and apart from their very traditional Chinese parents, specifically their moms. The women are both irritated by their mothers' concerns and, yet, still anxious for their approval.

One woman fears that her mother will never accept her white, very non-Chinese, fiance. Another thinks her mother will never really be proud of who she has become. Both women yearn for their moms to approve of them to be proud of them.

What they do not realize, is that they are.

The movie makes a point that resonates deep within me. As mothers (and former daughters) we must be honest about the events that have made us who we are today. We must tell our daughters about our triumphs and give them advice. But, we must also be honest and share our regrets and our failures. The hard lessons we learned - the good and the bad - will help our children understand how deeply they are loved and teach them difficult truths about life.

We are more like our moms than we realize...the connection runs deeper than we know.

As young girls, we look up to our moms. As teens, we sometimes begin to resent them. That struggle for individuality is natural, I think. But, it is also hurtful to both people involved. The Joy Luck Club paves the way for a resolution of that gap.

This is not an easy movie to watch - and parents can decide whether or not their teen is ready for the content. It tells hard stories. It does not flinch at depictions of rape or murder or grief. But, the stories here will move you deeply and open up converations with your daughter or your mom that you might need to have.

Sabrina and I in Okinawa, Japan, where we discovered our shared love of Asian culture.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Advent: How do you celebrate with your kids?

The weeks leading up to Christmas are among the busiest for most families. The parent to-do list is endless: shopping, baking, cards, decorating, scheduling parties and activities.

And, in the midst of it all, there is the nagging feeling in our hearts that maybe we should be doing things differently.

How do we push aside the "to-do" list and take time to honor the holiday with our children? How do we help them realize that Christmas is not just about toy commercials and making "I want" lists, but about celebrating the birth of Christ and spending time with those we love?

A recent facebook post by one of my former students, Misty Zeller, suggested a great idea. She has a basket of Christmas cards that each list a potential family activity. She has her kids choose one, open it, and use it to inspire a creative time with her little ones.

One of her friends said that she wraps up all of the old Christmas story books. Each night the children unwrap one and she or her husband read them the loved stories that only appear once a year. That might also work with Christmas movies. Whether it is Elf, The Christmas Story, or White Christmas - make it a movie/popcorn night!

Among my daughter's favorite pre-Christmas activities:

- the Chocolate Advent Calendar. I know this one is too easy. I almost didn't buy it this year, but she said that 14 is not too old to count down the days. We've had all types of these calendars - even a simple chalkboard that counts down the days.

- making Peppermint Bark Candy. When cookie baking was too time consuming, this recipe saved the day. Melt white chocolate, crush peppermint (have them go outside, give them a hammer, and let them pound the pepermint in a zip-loc bag). Spread the melty mix on a cookie sheet and set outside to cool. Kids have fun breaking it apart and bagging it for gifts that they made by themselves.

- explore your Heritage. The Polish Christmas involves placing the manger and Baby Jesus in the middle of the family dinner table along with a flat, pressed biscuit. The biscuit is broken and passed from one family member to another with a kiss, blessing, or word of love. We tried this one year.

- cutting down a Christmas Tree. Some years we have gotten away with buying our tree from the front of Walmart (or our 1950s aluminum tree pictured above), but my daughter loves the real-live-cutting-down-the-tree tradition. We freeze our way through snow and slush, arguing about the right tree. One year, our dog leapt right into a puddle of slush and I had to warm him in my down coat. Even when we find the right tree immediately, we spend a good half hour laughing and walking and enjoying the time together. Okay - I guess we'll do it again this year.

What do you do with your kids to make the days before Christmas special?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Glee No Longer Makes Me Happy

The last episode of Glee has disappointed its former fans, myself included. Gone are the lighthearted moments. Gone is the focus on dance numbers and creative costuming. Gone is the emphasis on teacher and student mentoring relationships. The old tween appropriate style and spirit of Glee is being crushed by the weight of controversial social agendas and sensationalism.

Even the producers must know this as they are shifting the time slot of the show to the "mature viewing" hour. The sad reality is that many young viewers will follow the show to this new time slot and view material they may not be ready to see.

  • There has been an increasing emphasis on homosexuality on the show. While I originally admired the show's tackling of a gay teen and parent relationship, the new episodes make it seem like homosexuality is commonplace and changeable. Two cheerleader girls, who both were previously very actively heterosexual are now "hooking up" in a relationship. Brittany hardly seems aware of what she is entering into with this relationship. Santana just seems mean.
  • They are introducing sexual relationships between Puck, the rebel, and an adult teacher. Not only is this inappropriate for teenage viewing - as he prowls after "cougars" - but it muddles the lines of legality. In addition, his newfound relationship with an adult is conflicting with his desire to father his child.
  • They are developing "Desperate Housewives" like plots. Quinn planting evidence for DCFS? This is a serious and outlandish plot that really takes away from a sensitive portrayal of teen pregnancy and adoption.
I will no longer watch this show and urge viewers to be careful in allowing your tweens to view it alone. The upcoming episodes promise more scandal, more outlandish plots, more sexuality, and more pushing the envelope in uncomfortable ways.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An Ode to the Old Fashioned Movie Theatre

When my brother Tim and I were little, my parents would drop us off at the Lansing Cinema for a double feature. We would watch Tim Conway in the Apple Dumpling Gang. One Saturday, we watched the four-hour long epic, Gone with the Wind.

The theatre was dark and musty. The velvet upholstered seats were stained and lumpy - and a few had duct tape across the arms since they were no longer safe to sit in.

Popcorn was less than a dollar for a huge bucket. We could pay for our tickets, popcorn, drinks, and candy and still have change for a ten dollar bill.

We had never heard of a cineplex or multiplex. The Lansing Cinema auditorium was huge and probably sat several hundred viewers. Most of the time, it was half empty. Heavy velvet drapes would part slowly, creaking as they moved, and the projectionist would start the film. A real person operated the projector, and if the movie started to skip or went out of focus, the whole theatre would yell to wake him up and fix it.

At old movie theatres, the audience felt like family. We would cheer the hero and gasp at the villain. We would even applaud together if we especially enjoyed the film.

It is for this reason that I am mourning the loss of some of my favorite old theatres. The latest to slip away was the Town Theatre in Highland, Indiana. Although I have heard rumors that it has been purchased by the town, it stands (for now) empty and abandoned.

The Town Theatre was a bit creepy with its knights and armor decor. Two life-size armoured figures stood on either side of the screen. I always imagined that someone was inside of the knight's costume spying on us.

But the price of the movie was cheap, and they picked odd, arty films. Kids were not allowed for evening movies. The Town had an intermission - designed to give people a chance to discuss the film (imagine that). During the break they served free - yes free! - cake and coffee. We would gather in the dingy foyer with its out-dated decor and stained burgundy carpeting, and eat squares of yellow cake with chocolate frosting, and drink watery coffee from styrofoam cups.

She was shabby, sure, but she was also loved by many. I am worried now that many of these small-town gems will be forever closed. This is a part of life that is slipping all-too quietly away.

The Town was, for me, a tiny piece of heaven, a remnant of my past.

She will be missed!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Top Ten Female Book Characters

I met each of these women in the pages of books.

They are fiesty and memorable individuals.

They did things I wished I had been brave enough to do and said things that I wanted to say.

If they were alive (and I think they might be), I'd be proud to have them as friends.

10. Nancy Drew - With her snappy little car and her lawyer father, she was brave and daring and intelligent. She solved cases and had no fear of creepy houses or terrible villains.

9. Muriel Pritchett- from Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist - A wacky scattered dog walker who talked a mile a minute, she was able to shake boring travel writer, Macon Leary, right out of his funk.

8. Laura Ingalls Wilder - Another childhood favorite, Laura was impulsive and tomboyish. She wasn't afraid to throw her enemy, that prissy Nellie Olson, on the ground and beat her up. I'd be happy to have her on my side.

7. Portia Quayne - from Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the Heart - She develops a serious crush on a friend of the family - a dashing young man named Eddie. Eddie unknowingly leads her on and breaks her heart. Certainly, Portia and I could exchange memories of heartbreak and first loves.

6. Anne Shirley - of Green Gables - With her carrot red hair, she was funny and poetic and got her best friend drunk on raspberry cordial. She was the kind of friend who could make even a walk in the woods seem magical.

5. Orual - from C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces - She is the oldest sister, an unlikely princess, who feels homely and unloved. She is both brave and amazingly self-absorbed. But, somehow, we fall in love with her in a way that surpasses the more perfect sisters.

4. Sophie - from Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. She is a tragic character - perhaps my favorite type - who is the love of Larry Darrell. They have a deep bond - and rescue one another from the social climbing of their culture.

3. Elaine Risley - from Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye. She is an artist, going back to New York City for a gallery exhibit of her work. She is a survivor of childhood angst and a creative soul searching for meaning.

2. Skeeter - from Kathryn Stockett's The Help - She is a journalist and doesn't always feel that she is attractive enough to capture the attention of the men her age. But her attitude and determination pay off and change the lives of those around her.

1. Ellen Olenska - from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence - Much more compelling than the lily-white conventional May, Countess Ellen causes eyebrows to rise and creates scandal wherever she goes. She is colorful and exotic and sensual.

If you'd like to see more Top Ten Lists - stop by one of my favorite book blogs for their Top Ten Tuesdays:

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Help, The Crucible, and Witchy Women

Two pieces of literature came to a crossroads in my mind last week.

I finally got around to reading The Help, Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel and movie, which depicts the conflicted relationships between African American housekeepers in the South and the women for whom they worked. That same week, as a fulfillment of my daughter's Social Studies homework, I re-watched the movie The Crucible, based on Arthur Miller's famous play about the Salem witch trials.

The Help is an amazing book. I loved the varied perspectives and the way it illuminated a slice of history that I know very little about. I found myself cheering for Abileen and Skeeter who were brave, wise, and wonderful women, each standing up against the repressive culture of their time. At one point in the novel, I came upon a date - 1963, and was shocked to realize that this period of American history happened during my own life time.

I was born in 1965. Since I grew up in the Midwest, my experience with racial inequality was somewhat limited. I went to a well-integrated public school. I never witnessed, first hand, the racist actions that caused riots and made headlines in the 1960s. Perhaps that is why it seems so far away from me - like it all happened a long time ago. The book showed how recently desegregation occurred and the hateful acts it inspired.

The novel focuses on the relationships of a group of Southern women and their help. The white women were smart and cultured. They loved their husbands, their children, their friends. They are not so different from the women in my own suburban neighborhood who put on spandex workout pants and earphones for power walks in the mornings and push their kids on park swings each afternoon. They are, in effect, "any woman" - the women you and I meet each day.

Yet, they had a chilling capacity to be cruel and to self-righteously justify their inexcusable actions.

These women felt compelled to put the black women who fed their children and cooked their meals in their "appointed place." They felt it was their moral, civic, and religious duty to emphasize the differences between the two cultures. They were scandalized if anyone challenged their thinking.

To Hillie, the self-righteous leader of the pack, making her "help" use a separate toilet was seen as her religious duty.

In The Crucible, Miller examines Salem, Massachusetts, a devout early American community. Conservative to the extreme, the townspeople frowned on immodesty and certainly on witchcraft. So, when local girls are found to be casting spells, the community turns a speculative eye around to find a scapegoat.

The town blamed their fears on whomever they did not like. They pointed a finger at an impoverished beggar woman who made them uncomfortable. They pointed another finger at a woman who was too outspoken. Surely, these women must be witches. The victims of the witch hunt were told to confess to witchcraft, or be put to death by hanging.

The Salem witch hunts fed on insecurity, hostility, and lies. It relied on the fact that people wanted to put blame on someone other than themselves. They wanted to protect their own family and their "Christian" community at all costs. They used religion as an excuse.

I found the similarities between these two pieces of literature frightening. How often we use the mask of religion to disguise our own hatred, insecurity, and contempt. How often we emphasize the differences of others to make ourselves feel more secure. How inexcusable it is that we throw the name of God into the mix.

It happened in Salem and in the South, and this kind of prejudice and cruelty still happens today.

As women, we sometimes blame the failures of society on men. We point to war and politics as examples of poor male leadership. But, as I reflected on both of these important novels that focus on women, I realized that the moral tone of our culture and the raising of our children is heavily influenced by the women.

The Help points out that the hatred of women can be just as destructive, "Womens, they ain't like men. A woman ain't gone beat you with a stick. . . No, white womens like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set of tools they use, sharp as witches' fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with em."

The white mothers taught their Southern children that prejudice was okay and that the color of skin should determine value. In a particularly poignant scene, the housekeeper, Abileen, tries her best to counteract their efforts with the child in her care.

She says, “I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain't a color, disease ain't the Negro side a town. I want to stop that moment from coming - and it come in ever white child's life - when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites. ... I pray that wasn't her moment, Pray I still got time.”

She fears her efforts may be in vain. The children raised by black housekeepers often grew up to forget the love that nurtured them. They forgot the truths about worth and mimicked the prejudice of their mothers.

I am a mother. I am a member of a community. I am a woman, and a religious woman at that. But, I hope to God that I never act like Hilly.

As Stockett so nicely says, "We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought."

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Parthenon and Middle School Projects

Yesterday, my daughter and I worked on her English class homework assignment. She was asked to take one of her vocabulary words and make a poster to represent its meaning. We brainstormed her assigned word "adage" and decided to create a wise old owl who is quoting proverbs.

Then, our creative side took over.

We found paint, construction paper, feathers and googly eyes. We painted and glue-gunned our hearts out. What started out as a simple illustration became a 3-D extravaganza. It was big and colorful and could fit well into any kindergarten classroom.

At 9 pm, she came back into my room with a smirk on her face.

"I just saw some messages that my friends are posting on facebook," she said. "I don't think we were supposed to make a big poster. They're talking about just taping an illustration on a piece of notebook paper."

We both looked at her gigantic, colorful project and busted out laughing. Perhaps we'd made a bit TOO much effort?

As a mom, I swore I would never take over my daughter's class projects. But, after hours of helping her memorize vocab lists and the countries of Africa, my creative side was just dying to be released. Is it any wonder I jump maybe too enthusiastically on board when it comes to the more open-ended assignments?

When I was in 7th grade, we were supposed to create a project about ancient Greece. My partner and I came up with a very amazing idea. Why not make a model of the Parthenon? Our idea took shape and morphed and became: a cake in the shape of the Parthenon.

With my own creative mom's help, we got cake mixes and pans. We made huge vats of white frosting. We created columns and iced trim. We built wall after wall....a huge, enormous yummy Parthenon.

Then I had to bring it to school. My dad offered to drive me and my friend and our enormous Grecian cake.

My teacher was awe struck. She made us march it from class to class throughout the entire school. My classmates? They were merciless. While they ate the cake with much enjoyment, they also mocked me.

I was a compulsive over-achiever. I had make a huge, enormous, impressive Greek parthenon as a cake. I had over-done it...just a little bit.

Hmmmm....maybe my daughter's gigantic owl poster was a bit too much?

But, then again, it sure was fun.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Your Favorite Book?

What was your favorite book as a middle-school or high school student? Do you remember what you read for fun - and why you loved it?

Please jot down your answers: I will post every comment!

My favorite was the first LONG book I ever read: Mrs. Mike. It detailed the adventures of a young woman who married a Canadian mounty. It balanced romance with rugged adventures and even detailed an amputation. It pulled me far away from Wolcott Junior High School in Thornton, Illinois, into another world of snow and horses and drafty log cabins. I was sad to see it end!

What was one of your favorites at that age?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dance Moms & Concerned Parenting

Some days it's tough to be a mom.

I watched the Lifetime show Dance Moms last night. The show focuses on one particular dance school named for instructor and owner, Abby Lee Miller. Set in Pittsburgh, the reality drama follows a group of pre-teen dance students as they train hard to win prizes.

My daughter was only enrolled in dance for a brief time - when she was four years old. She was in a combo ballet, tap, and gymnastics class led by a 75-year-old woman named Miss Jeannie. Parents were enthralled as we watched our little ballerinas sashay behind their animated teacher. The young girls loved Miss Jeannie.

Our second experience was not so great. Sabrina wanted to audition for the local Nutcracker ballet. She had limited experience, so was cast as a Toy Soldier. I did not expect the intensity of both the teachers and the parents. Competition was fierce. The instructors threatened parents that if our children missed or were late more than twice - they would be thrown out of the show. Several times I remember racing for the gym and being delayed at a train crossing, sweating out the moments and hoping my tardiness wouldn't boot my daughter from the show.

Dance - an activity that seemed to be about joy and creativity and fun - became exceedingly stressful for both my daughter and myself.

Dance Moms is all about stress. Teacher Abby Miller is both feared and revered by her students and by the parents. She is exceedingly demanding and critical. She calls the shots. She won't take no for an answer. Objections from parents are met with disdain and often yelling.

The little girls are pushed - sometimes beyond the capacity of 8 to 10 year olds. While any atheletic sport demands perseverance and excellence - the criticism often seemed cruel and unreasonable. In addition - the routines were so highly sexual that they made me squirm. Little girls dancing in skimpy outfits to suggestive music seemed out of line. Surprisingly, this did not seem to raise the concern of the parents in the show. When they were concerned, like "Holly" who fears that her African American daughter is being cast in a stereotyped role, they are shut down by fear of the teacher.

The show made me thankful that my daughter chose not to pursue a career in dance. And, while I realize this show focused on one extreme, it also reinforced some issues that most involved parents have with their children's education (inside and outside of school).

As a general rule, concerned parents:

1) Should pay close attention to what and how their children are being taught.

2) Need to communicate with teachers and to freely question inappropriate behavior. Follow your instincts! If it doesn't feel right, it might be a problem.

3) Must recognize that they are not always right. Listen to both your child and his or her teacher before jumping to conclusions. Speak to teachers with respect.

4) Should avoid living vicariously through their children. Does your child want to be "a star" or "an athelete" or a "straight A" student? Or, do you?

In one of the saddest moments of the show, a little girl is riding in the backseat of a car being driven by her mom. The mother is rambling on about how great the next dance event will be and how she wants her daughter to pose for modelling photos like she did when she was young.

The daughter, her little face fixed in a sullen frown, is whispering to herself that she doesn't really want to be a star....

The scene is enough to give any parent pause.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Happy Birthday to Our Daughters

This year, on October 6th, our daughter Sabrina will turn 14. We will celebrate another birthday that same day. Our other daughter, Noellia, lives in the Dominican Republic. Noellia and Sabrina share the same birthday, the same age, born on the exact same day. We support Noellia through the sponsor-a-child program at World Vision.

Our daughter, Sabrina, loves to read. She is always on her computer. She loves anime and cosplay and Japanese food. She gives a creative spark to everything she does, whether it is the clothes she chooses to wear or her hair styles. She is kind hearted and a wonderful friend. She is extremely smart and humble. Her dad and I are very proud of her.

We have never met Noellia. But, she has a smile that lights up every photo. She has been our sponsored child for about five years through World Vision. She has a pet goat. She helps her parents with chores like carrying water. She has resilience and determination and wants to be a doctor. Through her notes and sponsor reports, Noellia is also a constant reminder to me that our life here in the United States is very blessed.

While we have been given so many physical comforts, there are many children in this world who have nothing. There are many families who are without basic food and shelter. Many will die from illness or starvation. The current situation in Africa is just one of many crisis areas on our globe.

Organizations like World Vision remind us that life does not revolve around us as individuals or as families. We need to help others - we need to shift the focus just a little bit from our own world. We need to give as generously as we have been given.

So Happy Birthday to both of our daughters: to Sabrina, and to the daughter we have never met in person, Noellia. We consider ourselves better for having both of you in our lives. May you each experience God's richest blessings in the year ahead. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Baptized in Humanity

I stood in the middle of Miami International Airport, arms spread, palms facing up, feet on the two yellow footprints painted on the cement floor.

The female security agent was a foot shorter than me, her brown braided hair came only to my chin.

She pulled on latex gloves. "I'm going to pat you down," she said, "But when I come to sensitive areas, I'll use the back of my hand."

I nodded.

"Would you prefer to move to a private area?" she asked, her eyes softening.

"No," I shrugged. "This is fine."

My husband was behind me in line - and another security agent was being summoned to give him the same inspection. We had decided to opt out of the x-ray machine that was scrutinizing everyone attempting to fly out of Miami. The funny thing is that even after passengers were x-rayed, another agent was patting them down anyway. Regardless, the whole process made me feel like a common criminal.

Between the spread-eagle pat down and the already invasive procedure of disrobing and putting the contents of my life in plastic bins, I was feeling overwhelmed by the desperate state of humanity. "What have we come to" I wondered, "that we are treated with such suspicion - that these procedures have become an acceptable part of the ordinary human experience?"

My entire trip to Miami was an experience of feeling immersed in and overwhelmed by the world. It began with our bus ride to South Beach. The ride on public transportation was only $2.35 compared to the $28 ride on a hotel shuttle. So, hoping to save some cash, we boarded the bus - surrounded by speakers of many foreign languages.

The bus had only made one stop when a tall leggy and chesty woman boarded. She had leathery skin, a cowboy hat, bleached blonde hair, and a skimpy tank top that was stretched to capacity. She carried a large wooden skateboard with a chain attached to it. As the bus swayed to and fro, she clung to the metal bar like a stripper to a pole.

The entire bus was fascinated.

We were even more fascinated when, as she turned completely around, we realized she was most likely a man.

The man/woman continued to pose and preen. She would lean out the bus window and flip off random pedestrians, shouting expletives, and trying to catch the attention of the bus riders.

Everyone of us purposely avoided her eyes.

When the/man woman stepped off the bus, we gave a collective sigh of relief.

Miami is a humid blend of humanity. During our weekend visit, we met people from every walk of life. We ate French sandwiches and drank Cuban coffee. We chatted with our taxi driver, an Egyptian who had been beaten four times in his country for being a believer. We ate pizza outside of a club where African American teens were gathered, one wearing a gold chain that read "Free Lil."

There was extravagant wealth and extreme poverty. My husband and I were blocked from entering the pool area of the Fountainbleau Hilton where guests pay $500 to stay for one night. Immediately afterward we walked the boardwalk and met a woman from Ecuador selling necklaces in the blazing sun while her four year old son played by her feet.

And, in a fitting ending, on our last night, as we walked along the beach - we saw the same man/woman singing and yelling to herself standing on a park bench...her chained skateboard nearby.

Miami was the most vivid example of a melting pot that I had ever seen. It was for this world that Christ came. I thought of this as I stood with my feet planted on yellow footsteps. Scripture tells us that he humbled himself, that he came and dwelt among us.

Graham Greene says it well in his novel The Power and the Glory: "We were made in God's image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge...It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death."

Jesus didn't dwell in a church or cathedral; he rode the bus, walked the streets, caught a cab, wandered on the beach. He willingly stepped into humanity and lived and breathed among us. My public humiliation at the airport dwindles in the face of his extravagant love.

It is for this world that Christ died.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Finding My Inner Gleek

The first two times I watched the smash hit television series Glee, I hated it. I didn't like the characters or the plot - and, frankly, I found some of it offensive.

But this summer, I found it again on Netflix - so, starting from the beginning, my soon-to-be 8th grader daughter and I watched it.

I was hooked.

I had thought this was a show about high school and singing - and it is. But it is also a show about people who are multi-faceted and quirky - people who don't fit in or who don't think they fit in high school or in society. People like me.

I have now watcheed Glee up until mid-season 2. And, while I would still offer some parental cautions abou the show's content - I think there is much about it to love:

1) Will Schuster - Here is a teacher who loves his students. I had a few teachers like this in high school who loved us - and we knew it. One was my English teacher, Mr. Gansauer. We loved to talk to him and listen to his stories. He was funny and smart and kind. He treated us with respect. There is a mutual respect between Will Schuster and his students. They don't always see life the same way - but there is a shared communication that enriches their lives.

Too often adults want to impart their own choices onto children. In this show - Mr. Schuster does just that. He encourages his students to perform numerous songs by Journey and his favorite 80s bands. In one episode, he is introduced to their music. This common courtesy opens the door to serious conversations between him and those he instructs. When true communication happens, it allows teaching to move beyond the classroom.

2) Grilled Cheesus & Religion - Most popular tv shows avoid religion - or - at best - make fun of it. I found thi s episode especially intriguing. One character sees the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich - and begins praying to the icon. But - the more interesting part of the show for me were the various characters views of faith. They each had strong opinions, but the topic was covered with a serious tone that allowed each view to be heard.

Sue Sylvester - usually the most sarcastic character - became vulnerable by expressing her profound disappointment with God. Her mentally disabled sister, however, challenges Sue - saying that "God doesn't make any mistakes."

3) The Slushied Gleeks - Perhaps my favorite part of the show is the fact that each character faces an issue. They each feel that they don't fit in. One struggles with being African American and overweight. Another is handicapped and restricted to a wheelchair. Even the blonde leggy cheerleader struggles with a lack of intelligence. Their strength, in the show, lies in their community. They accept one another. They are on each other's side. They find that together they are stronger.

The show takes these set backs seriously. It shows consequences to bad behavior. It doesn't paint teens as stereotypes - but lets them show their insecurities and worries. It lets them fall down, make bad choices, and then lean on friends and family in times of despair.

Glee is not a perfect show. It has its soap-opera type moments. It sometimes steps a bit beyond my parental comfort zone in terms of topics or language. It makes me squirm a bit - as a parent - to realize the mature situations these high school kids get involved in. It deals extremely frankly with sex. It deals extensively with homosexuality - and (at times) this topic feels politicized. But, I also feel like the relationship between Kurt and his dad are handled with care and honesty.

If you haven't seen it yet - watch it from the start. It will open you up to the world of today's high school - and maybe (like me) remind you just a little bit of yourself.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

You're It!

Thanks to my friend, writer, and fellow blogger Amanda Cleary Eastep for passing along this blog prompt. Try it out on your blog or just enjoy reading it and meeting some new bloggers!

What do you think of when you the hear the word tag? I think of recess at Parkside School in Thornton, Illinois. I remember being "it" a lot because I wasn't so good at running or any type of outdoor activity. I also remember the "cootie" stage where the girls would try to catch the boys or boys catch the girls and "infect" them.
Do you think you’re hot? Last week, I was extremely hot :-). The humidity was killing me. My husband and I did the air conditioning battle - he inched the dial up - and I put it back down.

No - seriously - I feel like at age 45 I am finally growing into my body and becoming less worried about my appearance.
Upload a picture or wallpaper that you’re using at the moment.

This is a sunset in Door County, Wisconsin - always one of my favorite spots.
When was the last time you ate chicken? Yesterday, we went to La Creperie in downtown Chicago. We sat at the outdoor back patio and had crepes with chicken and mushrooms - finished off, of course, with a nutella and banana crepe (my favorite). Milt and I used to go to this little spot when we were dating. It was my daughter Sabrina's first visit.
The song(s) you listened to recently. I've been watching Glee with Sabrina...and I've really really enjoyed hearing some songs that I haven't heard for ages. The episode about religion was especially moving to me with: "Losing My Religion" and "One of Us"...two of my favorite alternative songs about faith.
What were you thinking as you were doing this? That my friend Amanda is pretty cool :-). And - I'm glad that I know so many writers, thinkers, and bloggers.
Do you have nicknames? What are they? Not really. Some people call me James. My family used to call me "Vera" after the dingy waitress at Mel's Diner. My grade school friends called me "Storms" - my maiden name.

Tag 8 blogger friends…

Who’s listed as No. 1? Connie. We were friends 25 years ago in college and reunited during the Chicago Blizzard at our reunion. Now we are reunited friends and writers - and she just got back from an exciting trip with Wycliffe to write about missions work in Europe.

Say something about No. 5 Ilene was my student. Her blog is so fun - and she is the most faithful blogger I know with a HUGE following. How do you do it!?

How did you get to know No. 3? John and I teach together. He has a sarcastic wit that helps keep me sane at MBI. I love his narratives. He is also published - I am jealous!

How about No. 4? Anna and I were roommates in grad school. She is creative and driven and is married to a Frenchman. I miss her!

Leave a message for No. 6. I will miss you at Moody! Be sure to stay in touch with me. I so appreciate your insights and sensitive soul...

Leave a lovey dovey message for No. 2. Hmmmm - I don't know about lovey dovey :-) - but I so love your huge heart and think you are an amazing person and writer and dad.

Do No. 7 and No. 8 have any similarities? Both former students. Both individuals who aren't afraid to step outside of the box and see everything (including faith) from a unique and yet utterly devoted light. I admire you both!
If you’re reading, please take a few minutes to check out these great bloggers, and if you have a blog…Tag, you’re it!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sitting at His Feet

When I read the story of Mary and Martha, I always thought I was Mary, sitting adoringly at the feet of Jesus.

Now I’m sure that I’m definitely Martha.

I don’t want to be, but I am.

There are two interesting passages about Mary and Martha in Scripture: the one where the sisters are hosting a dinner party for God’s only Son (imagine the stress that event would inspire in the heart of any woman if you will) and the second when their brother Lazarus died, and Jesus showed up for the wake.

When Jesus comes to dinner, Martha is a nervous wreck. I know just how she feels. When I am having guests at our house, my cleaning genetic kicks in. I dust – sometimes even lifting objects up to dust underneath them. I dust off my recipe books and cook something better than Hamburger Helper. Sometimes – because I am so stressed about everything, I barely focus on my guests. I forget to have fun.

Martha was like that. In this passage, Jesus is over to dinner and she is running around like she’s nuts, trying to get everything done. Meanwhile, what is Mary doing? Nothing.

She is sitting, relaxed as can be, at Jesus feet, while the meal was burning on the stove and the table was not even set. Martha, seeing her sister’s indifference to the tasks that needed to be done, was upset. I would be too! Why wasn’t Mary doing her part?

If I was Martha I would have resented the fact that Mary could relax while I did all the work. Why couldn’t I sit at the feet of Jesus? Why couldn’t someone else shoulder some of my burden?

In the second gathering, Mary and Martha’s brother had just died. Again, the two sisters have quite different responses to Jesus’ arrival. Martha goes out to meet Jesus – Mary sits in the house. Now we don’t know why. Maybe Martha wanted to take charge or do the right thing. After all, if God showed up at your house, wouldn’t you go out to meet him? Even if you were really upset?

This is the Miss Manners thing to do. Stand when a guest enters, sit when you’re told, cross your legs, curtsy. Act appropriately. Martha though surprises us a bit. She challenges Jesus: “If you had been here, “she says, “my brother wouldn’t be dead.”

She always does the right thing – why not Jesus?

In this passage – Martha is again the doer. She takes charge. She makes things happen. She does what is expected of her by everyone else.

Not Mary. This was the same woman who dumped expensive valuable perfume on Jesus’ feet. She is extravagant, unfocused, unexpected, and unconventional.

Yet, here’s the kicker. Jesus loved them both. The Bible says, Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. He doesn’t put them in descending order. He knows Martha’s quirks. He knows that she sometimes gets her priorities skewed – that cleaning takes precedence over company, that ambition takes over compassion, that common sense prevails over faith.

That’s me. That’s Martha.

I don’t know if I’ll ever wake up some day and be a Mary.

Yet, I do know that the moments when I feel most fully alive, most fulfilled, are not when I am scurrying around, stressed out, trying to get to the post office or scrub my kitchen floor. They are in those other moments – those wonderful unscheduled times when I am hugging my sleepy teenager or taking a walk with my dog (who desperately needs a bath). I need more Mary moments. Times when I slow down, shift my focus, remember what is truly important.

Because – if our fulfillment is in how clean our homes are – I am ultimately doomed. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I clean out the storage room or empty the laundry basket, the housework will never end. There is always more to do.

I do know God loves me anyway.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Think I Can: But What If I Can't?

As a child and as a parent, I loved the storybook, The Little Engine That Could. In the book, a brave little train attempts to make it up a big hill. He accomplishes this feat by sheer determination and bravado – pushing and struggling his way to the top.

However, at my college’s graduation this week, the keynote speaker referred to that childhood book in a different light. He said to these new graduates, “The truth is…You can’t do everything.”

He suggested that we don’t do our children any favors when we tell them that they can do anything, that they can be anything they want to be.

The truth is, there are some things they can’t do and things they won’t be able to be. His point was that, as parents, we’ve bought into a culture that emphasizes encouragement in all things. We want all of our kids to be winners – we want everyone’s self esteem to be protected. But, the truth is, that we aren’t all good at everything.

Some of us are better at public speaking. Some people have the ability to bowl a perfect game. Others have the ability to lift weights. Some excel at cooking gourmet dinners. The speaker suggested that we find out what we are good at – and do that – and avoid fretting about all of the things at which we don’t excel.

Good advice. For example:

  • I am good at writing. I am also a good teacher.

  • I am not as good at administrating: I get stressed when I try to manage too many things or too many people.

  • I am not good at athletics: I am a terrible roller skater, skier, dodgeball player.

  • I love to cook. I love baking even more.

  • I am terrible at keeping up with housework. I will never be a perfectionist

  • I can play a musical instrument – but I tremble at performing.

What is your child good at? How can you help your child accept and flourish in his or her strengths and learn to accept or compensate for weakness?

I remember my daughter’s preschool teacher telling her students that they should try everything once. You don’t have to like it, she urged, but you should try it. This is also good advice. We need to try things, but we don’t need to love everything. We need to attempt – but we might not succeed. We are not meant to be perfect.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Trials of Being a Girl: Cliques and Friendships

When I was in junior high, the cool girls sat at a different lunch table.

Every day, they would sit together in the lunchroom – the four of them – Jodi and Teresa and Diane and Cindy, chatting and giggling with secrets that only they shared. They did the same thing every noon. They would each purchase a different type of bagged chips or cheese popcorn, unfold a napkin, and pour the contents into one provocative mix. The rest of us girls would look up over our individual paper sack lunches with envy. If only we could be a part of their clique – if only we could take part of that chip mix.

In her novel Cat’s Eye, author Margaret Atwood describes the sometimes troubling friendships of girls: "Little girls are small and cute only to grown-ups. To each other they are life sized.”

As grown women, we often reminisce about our childhood friendships. Many of us had a best friend, someone who we confided in and played alongside: from swing sets to Barbies to trying on our older sister’s mascara. But we can also remember the pain of childhood friendships: the cliques, the snobbery, the bossy girls who led the pack and decided who belonged and who should be excluded.

In fourth grade, my daughter entered this minefield. She was best friends with one girl in her class. She also had an "enemy light". This girl did not like my daughter and made her feelings perfectly clear with little comments and rolled eyes. I kept giving my daughter advice: try to kill her with kindness, I suggested; or, ignore her and she'll stop. Nothing worked. We prayed about the situation. She often came home in tears. Then the ultimate betrayal happened. The mean girl convinced my daughter's BFF to turn against her. Suddenly my daughter was alone in the world of female hurt, and I was powerless against it.

I called the teacher who read the whole class a story about being caring and friendly to those in need. It did little good. It took time to lessen the hurt, and my daughter learned some lessons from it. She learned to not put all of her friendship in any one person. She also learned that girls can be cruel to one another.

I encouraged her to not be that kind of girl, to not be that kind of woman.

When I was young, I remember my mom praying that my brother and sister and I would find good friends: friends who would help us, encourage us, and provide positive peer pressure. For all the worrying we do about media's influence, I think parents would be well advised to pay careful attention to our children's friendships. It is in the working out of these relationships, the positive and the negative, that our kids mature and learn how to handle conflict and how to stand up for what they believe.

I am also profoundly thankful to my own friends, from childhood to now, who have stood by my side and made me a better woman.

You know who you are :-)... Thank you all.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why I Loved Being a Band Geek

As I sat in the audience at my daughter's handbell concert, the third one of the year, I couldn't help but say a silent thank you to my own mom and dad who faithfully attended my many band and choir concerts.

My music experience began in 2nd grade - taking piano lessons from Mrs. Vanden Bosch. In 5th grade, I joined the Wolcott Jr. High band pictured above. I am the one not dressed in uniform in the first row, second from the left. Our band director, Mr. Pitts, was an older balding man who wore short sleeve cotton shirts and frequently smoothed down his unrully white wiry hair. Mr. Pitts would patiently lead our beginning band as we squawked and squeaked through the notes. Shaking his head in despair, he would play the song for us on his upright piano. He would then raise his baton back to our 5th grade band, begging us to play anything that resembled the correct tune.

"Marching to Pretoria" was Mr. Pitts favorite song. We played it again and again while marching back and forth on a road next to the town's limestone quarry -- Thornton's only claim to fame. My classmate Paul Larson was probably the best musician in our straggly group - but he played the sousaphone, so his musical finesse was often under appreciated.

I joined the Wolcott choir as well, even though I sang in monotone. My parents, in an act of great pity, signed me up for private voice lessons where the teacher had me belt out Broadway show tunes and practice correct breathing. I remember exhaling slowly directly into a lit candle flame and trying not to make it waiver.

I wasn't a bad musician, but I certainly wasn't a great one either. Nevertheless, we were encouraged to participate in state music contests - where I both sang and played the flute. I am eternally thankful that my vocal rendition of "Edelweiss" was never recorded for posterity.

The pinnacle of my musical career was in high school where I was in the Thornwood Thunderbirds marching band and symphonic orchestra. I experienced the thrill and power of high stepping onto a football field at half time and marching down the Walt Disney World main street during the electric parade in full regalia. It was as close to royal as I have ever felt, participating in something so much bigger than myself or any sound that could come out of one silver flute. I was a member of something significant. I was in band.

My daugher has had a wonderful time as a member of the Clark Handbell Choir. Next year, they are cutting bell choir due to budget constraints. I am sorry about that. I think that most musical opportunities will stay available as extra curricular, after school activities. I hope she continues to be a part of an ensemble.

Band and choir groups aren't just about learning to play the flute or the oboe or the tuba. They are about discipline and growth. They are about seeing yourself struggle to make a sound in the 5th grade choir led by Mr. Pitts and then smiling as you march down Main Street making beautiful music. Music groups are about friendships that happen as a result of being on a team, from being a part of something bigger than any one person.

I am thankful for the teachers who listened to my bad music and who had the patience to help me improve. And, I am thankful to my mom and dad who encouraged me to take a chance, to learn piano, to sing on key, and to realize that I too could make beautiful music for all to hear.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Growing Up Baptist: Pot Luck Dinners

My childhood church had a cinderblock, cement-floored basement that we used as a fellowship hall. We had huge sliding paneled partitions that could be rolled out for Sunday School or Awana club meetings.

But, on special occasions, the partitions were rolled to one end, and folding tables came out – each one decorated with a white paper and a centerpiece. It was time for a Baptist potluck.

Baptists like to eat and cook together – thus they organize a tremendous number of potluck dinners. We had potlucks for funerals, for special occasions, for retirements, for youth group graduations.

At every potluck, the women would bring out a huge metal coffee pot, and set up three eight-foot long tables in front to hold the bounty of food offerings. Women would come bustling in before church carrying casserole dishes covered with kitchen towels.

As a child, the selection of food was intimidating. I remember trying to remember which dish my mom brought. There were casseroles made of hamburger. The Evans always brought wonderful Mexican food. There was usually lasagna, chicken and noodles, and always an assortment of salads.

While a seven-layer salad spilling over with mayonnaise and peas was popular, Baptist were best known for jello salads. Every type of jello was represented. There were strange ones containing carrots in orange jello or spinach and cottage cheese in lime jello. There were traditional strawberry and banana or frozen jello mixed with ice cream.

Once the pastor prayed, we would stand in long lines to get our food. By the time the last table was in line, the first table was back for seconds. Meanwhile, Mrs. Prater and the members of the Women’s Missionary Committee would hurry back and forth from the kitchen, reheating items and refilling coffee and water pitchers.

Those potlucks were like a huge family Thanksgiving dinner that happened multiple times a year.

As quickly as our church potlucks began, they would be over. What was left would be scraped in the garbage or covered with tin foil. Mrs. Prater and the other ladies would swarm the kitchen washing and scrubbing. The men would rip off the white paper table covers and fold the tables. The children would drag the chairs to one end with a clattering and banging.

At last, the sliding partitions were back in place for next week’s classes. We would leave with smiles and hugs and full bellies.

The church I go to now is larger and fancier than the one I attended as a young girl. Potlucks have been replaced by catered dinners. But for me, they just aren’t the same.

I have a warm spot in my heart for this group of people who played such an integral role in my childhood and my faith. If it is true that the family who eats together, stays together, then our church family was cemented by a solid bond of food and faith. We loved gathering together and looked forward to times when we were in church from morning until evening.

Although I have attended many churches since those early days at First Baptist, I have never again known the type of community that was well-represented by pyrex casserole dishes and orange shredded carrot jello.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Secret Millionaire: Teaching Our Kids About Poverty & Need

When we were very little, I remember driving through the worst section of a big city with my family. We were lost, I believe, and my dad was gripping the steering wheel of our 1970s station wagon tightly as he navigated unfamiliar streets. Scroungy looking men were hanging out on the corners, and my mom locked our car doors and whispered a tense command to the back seat: "If I say the word, duck."

Poverty was generally unfamliar to us. It is not that we were rich. I grew up in a middle class suburban neighborhood - extremely blue collar. My town's claim to fame was that we had the world's biggest limestone quarry. Every day, around 10 am, a dynamite blast would shake the walls of our ranch-style home. My parents were public school teachers, and, while money was tight, we always had clean clothes and new shoes when we needed them, and a hot-cooked meal on our table every night.

My first real experience with poverty came during my time as a college student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Just blocks to the west of our school was one of the city's toughest housing projects: Cabrini Greene. During my freshman year, I tutored a young boy named Roy who lived in the projects. In most ways he was just like any other 2nd grade boy, except he had grown up being used to shootings and violence. Now, when I thought of the dangerous projects, I also thought of Roy.

I saw poverty face to face when I worked at the Pacific Garden Mission on Chicago's south side. Women would come to the mission after many nights on the street or just after they had been released from prison. Their skin was weathered and their hair dishevelled. Their eyes were tired and hardened by the difficulties they had seen. I was often asked to spend time talking with the younger woman. Maria was a runaway. She was tired and angry and defiant. Her hair was greasy and her nail polish chipped. She looked away from me when she talked and wiped the stray tear from her eyes. She spoke of being lost and scared and afraid. When I returned the next week, Maria had gone. She was back on the streets. Now, when I thought of homelessness, I thought of Maria.

It is hard, as a mom, to know when and where to introduce my daughter (who lives a very comfortable suburban life) to the realities of poverty. I want her to be safe. I want her to avoid danger. Yet, I also want her to be grounded in the awareness of the world around her and the needs of people who have had a harder road to walk. Many of us have opportuntiies to take our kids on international trips or to help out with a charity. My one good friend takes her daughters to serve food at a soup kitchen. She is helping put a face to the concept of hunger.

Because this concept is near to my heart, I was pleased, this week, to watch my first episode of ABC's Secret Millionaire. Each week, the show features a wealthy individual or couple who want to bestow some of their wealth to some deserving individuals. They go undercover and are sent to some of the worst neighborhoods in our nation. The week that I watched, a very wealthy businessman went to Los Angeles's Skid Row neighborhood.

During their stay, they interact with both the needy residents and the volunteer organizations who are working to make a difference.

The show was inspiring. Not only did it highlight the work being done for those in poverty, but it put a face on the homeless and the underprivileged. The most remarkable thing about the episode that I watched was not the change that this millionaire was able to make in the neighborhood by writing checks for thousands of dollars. The more significant change happened in his own heart. He began to see not just an area with shady characters and dangerous dark alleys, but real people who are struggling and hurting and needing. He began to see faces, not just issues. He began to see a lot more like Jesus.

Secret Millionaire is not a Christian television show, but it could be.

It is just one way to teach your child, and maybe yourself, a little more about poverty and the ways we can join together to make a difference.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Confused by Your Child's Media Choices?

I am always on the look out for web-sites that will make my job as a parent easier. I was looking for information on the content of a movie I wanted to watch with my daughter. I remember the movie being very strong and powerful, and I thought she could easily handle it, but I couldn't remember why the movie had earned its R rating. This web-site is extremely helpful in giving specific content about an array of media choices, from DVDs to games to tv shows and the internet.

Commonsensemedia is designed to help parents review media choices both before and while their kids are involved in them. It allows kids, parents, and educators to review material.

Their mission statement is helpful:

"We exist because our nation's children spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school, which profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and physical development . As a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, we provide trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume."

Here is the link if you'd like to "favorite" this site for future use.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Hot off the Press! Creative Journal for Christian Teens

Aletheia is a magazine that takes teens seriously. It gives them a voice. It listens. It allows them to imagine and communicate in creative ways. What a great idea!

When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who told me I was a good writer. Not only did she notice this talent in me, but she recruited me to be a part of a competitive writing team. It was that teenage experience that caused me to gain confidence and to pursue the career I enjoy today.

Perhaps that is why I see such potential for teens in the world of creativity. I love to recognize that spark in younger people and give them a gentle nudge to make their unique voice heard. This new magazine offers opportunities, not just for teens to hear the words or advice of others, but to become published contributors!

Aletheia takes its name from the Greek word for "truth." Creativity here is about truth telling through poems, short stories and photography. The issue boasts an impressive amount of full-color illustrations. The layout is sophisticated and simple. The magazine seems to refuse to be bound by typical "teen" themes, but explores liturgy and nature and Scripture.

I especially loved one contribution that featured a creative piece next to the profile of the teen who created it. I think that many young people will be encouraged by seeing someone unique and fun and hip who is also committed to God and to the craft of writing.

The magazine is the creative brain child of publisher and editor Nicholas Muzekari who wants to "nurture, teach, enlighten, and strengthen Christian truth and values." The magazine is in its initial stages, but has an accompanying web site that details submission guidelines for your teen and creative contests!

Nicholas is the self-proclaimed "proud father of three homeschooled children in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and have been writing and creating artwork for as long as I can remember." He has his BA from Temple University and a Writing Diploma from the Institute of Children's Literature in Connecticut.

He says, "I have put all of my gifts and experience together to create Aletheia Writing Magazine. It is my sincere prayer and hope that it grows to become a wonderful resource and opportunity for young Christians who love to read, write, and create artwork."

Thanks, Nicholas!

I hope many of you will check out this creative work and pass it on to the teens in your life. All it takes is one simple word of encouragement from you to help pave the way for the next creative writer or artist!

Here's the link: Why not purchase a subscription today!?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I'm Becoming Obsolete

Do you remember when you used to have to get up off of the couch to change the channel on your television?

If you do, you're old like me.

I was telling my college students the other day about how the new formats of media are actually changing the way we act and think. Consider the things that young people now have never experienced. Can you add to my list?

1) Physically turning the knob on a television to get a new station. In addition, we often had to adjust the rabbit ear antennas on the top of the set and sometimes still dealt with a scrolling picture.

2) Waiting for a movie to be released on television. I remember watching The Wizard of Oz once a year. Once a movie was shown in the theater, we often did not see it for years. VCRs changed our ability to see old movies.

3) Watching home movies on reel-to-reel projectors or, better yet, slides. I have a slide that shows my family watching slides. This was a big family event - to set up a screen and gather around a slide projector.

4) Buying a record, 8-track, or cassette tape. These "old" forms of music distribution are things of the past. My daughter used to call our records: big cds.

5) The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature - Our English teacher used to make us look up subjects for research in this multi-volume index. Then we had to hope the library had our particular magazine. Now? We Google...

What else?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Coveting the Ten Commandments

Once a year, our small Baptist church would host a revival.

When I was ten years old, the featured evangelists were Cowboy Ken and Aunt Marge. The husband and wife came dressed in full cowboy get-up – Cowboy Ken wore the requisite ten-gallon hat, western belt, plaid shirt and jeans. His wife, Aunt Marge, was a busty woman in a western fringed dress that would sway when she sang. They could swing a lasso and preach with enthusiasm.

But what really drew us kids back night after night was their offer of a special prize: a Ten Commandments charm bracelet. Cowboy Ken told us that if we memorized each of the night’s seven passages of Scripture, and were able to recite them before the church at the end of the revival, we would earn the glittering gold bracelet.

I was determined to win that prize. So I began to memorize Scripture. Night after night I worked on my passage. And, night after night, we listened to Cowboy Ken preach the gospel. My best friend and I liked to sit close enough to get a better look at the gold charms that whirled around Aunt Marge's wrist.

Night after night the plan of salvation was unveiled. And, each time, we would dutifully recite the chosen Bible verse. Individually, the verses were not too hard, but remembering all of them in succession was tricky. Like a spelling bee, the playing field gradually narrowed, and I think my friend and I were among the very few to actually receive the charm bracelets.

It never really hit me, at that age, that it was probably wrong to "covet" the Ten Commandments. But I did. I wanted that bracelet, not just because it was pretty, but because of what it represented. I would be one of the select few to get to stand on stage and jangle my bracelet like Aunt Marge. It would be a big achievement – something that would make my parents proud.

I am sad to say that this covetous attitude continued to creep into my faith life from time to time. I remember being jealous of my college roommate at Bible school. Every morning at 5 am, she would get out of bed, click on her desk light, and spend time in prayer. She had a little file box with names of missionaries and specific prayer requests in alphabetical order. She was meticulous and faithful in her prayer life. My own was sporadic and sometimes non-existent. I coveted her spiritual habits, but I did little to change mine.

It has been easy to get caught up into wanting what other people have. I justify this attitude, because the things they have are good things. They may be talented preachers or brilliant writers. They have been gifted by God to do the work of the church.

Why can’t their giftedness be mine? My attitude can easily drift into coveting not just their gift, but their position, their prestige, or their reward. Social climbing, I’ve learned, can be replaced by religious climbing. It is easier to justify, but just as deadly.

The disciples had the same struggle. They wanted to be first in the kingdom. They wanted to be on top. They wanted to be the ones who Jesus noticed, the ones who had the power.

“Thou shalt not covet” does not just apply to our neighbor’s house, wife, or car. It can be a sickness that creeps into our hearts. Wanting what we have not been given, and ignoring the responsibility for the gifts we already have, is dangerous, even when the things we so desire are good things.

The Ten Commandments bracelet that I coveted at age ten is long gone. But I am thankful that the Words of God that I learned continue to break down and teach my stubborn heart.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Henna Tattoos and Teenage Hearts

Today, my daughter wanted me to help her put henna tattos on her hands. I gave her the kit for Christmas because it reminded me of our last summer. At a street fest , Sabrina and I had both gotten henna tattoos. The scrolling flowers and leaves were stained onto our hands and lasted an impressive two weeks.

Mixing the powder with eucalyptus was fairly easy. We had to let the pasty brown mixture sit for 45 minutes, then I carefully squirted it onto her hands in flowing lines. The design sat and hardened, turning a deeper brown and then black. Little by little the powder cracked and fell off leaving behind a brown stain. The henna left its mark.

Henna tattoos are a nice picture of our job as parents. Day in and day out, through conversations and laughter, through tears and sometimes arguments, we are impressing our beliefs and our faith on our kids. We might not even realize, sometimes, that it is sticking. They may shrug off our views and opinions as old-fashioned or uninformed. But our words will no doubt leave a stain.

I was talking to a friend whose kids are in their late teens. Some of their latest life choices have unsettled her. She is worried that their Christian heritage might not stick. I assured her that her efforts have certainly made an impression on both who they are and who they will become.

In my oft quoted Gilmore Girls, Lane Kim, whose mom makes every effort to restrict her life with church standards, chooses a rebellious path. At one point though, she confronts her mom. "Why have you done this to me?" she asks. "Why are you in my head!" She moans that though she disagrees with her mom's strict religious views, she cannot ignore her mom's guidance.

The Bible says that "Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against thee" (Psalm 119:11). God's word is like a henna stain that promises to remain in our lives, to help us and guide us. God's Words will stain our own lives and tattoo its truths on the lives of our children.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Things That Keep Parents Up At Night: MTV's Newest Shocker, SKINS

In evaluating the value of media, some critics find it helpful to ask whether the media is prescriptive or descriptive. In other words, does it describe reality - even tough reality - or is it trying to "prescribe" what we (and our children) should think or do?

While many Christians would hope to shelter their children from difficult subjects, most of us agree that addressing tough topics can be important. We want our kids to make right choices, but we don't want them to be completely naive and unaware of this difficult and sinful world that they must exist in. We want them to engage in descriptive television shows and books that teach them about tough subjects. That is why we have them read books about the Holocaust or think through tough ethical issues like the death penalty and racial inequality.

What we fear, as parents, is that some of these tough shows about tough subjects will actually educate and indoctrinate our kids with the depravity of their generation. They will make it look good and appealing. We don't want MTV to introduce our kids to drugs and sex. Shows like Jersey Shore and Gossip Girl scare us with their views of teens and bad choices.

This week I have been hearing a great deal about the new MTV dramatic teen series, Skins. This is hard core material and scares parents with its take on what teens today are like. These teens, and even preteens, are into sex and drugs in a graphic and shocking way. Is this what our teenagers are actually involved in? Or, is this MTV's prescribed view of teenage life?

No matter your view, parents need to be aware of this new show as it will certainly attract the attention of a young audience. I have not yet viewed it, but I intend to. This article by TIME magazine gives a helpful introduction:,9171,2042346,00.html,

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sarah Dessen: This generation’s Judy Blume?

If you walk through the young adult section of any bookstore, you won’t be able to miss her books. Sarah Dessen’s books have lovely covers of soft focused girls holding flowers or standing on the dock wearing rolled up blue jeans. They have just as lovely titles like: Just Listen, Keeping the Moon and The Truth About Forever.

They are middle school chick lit…books about girls and problems and relationships and falling in like (as I call it) and worrying about our looks and getting along with mom.

If you want to learn more about Sarah Dessen, check out her web-page and blog at: She is hugely popular with the young adult audience and has just published her tenth novel. Sarah never intended to write for teens. Born in Illinois, she grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of two professors. She loved to read and write. She says that, “When I was eight or nine my parents gave me an old manual typewriter and a little desk in the corner of our den, and I'd sit there and type up my stories.”

Sarah’s books are loved by her readers and by major award givers. She has been on the New York Times Bestseller list but has also claimed awards by the American Library Association and School Library Journal. My daughter has already read three books by this author and her books in school library's are known by their well worn covers. There is no doubt she is influencing our young women.

So I decided to read one.

I borrowed The Truth About Forever from my daughter’s bookshelf. It tells the story of Macy, a smart girl who has suffered the tragic and unexpected death of her dad. The story details the summer following this loss where Macy faces troubles with her boyfriend and her mom. She struggles with learning to let go of grief and to also learn how to be a different person, one who has been significantly changed by loss.

Macy’s character is real and engaging. She has those quirks that endear me to characters – the faltering confidence, the longing for love, the parents with strange hobbies. Sarah’s dad loved to send away for telemarketed products called EZ Products – things that promise to change your life (but usually don’t). Part of her struggle with losing her dad revolves around a box of these quirky products that she hides under her bed. “I put the box down, running my finger over the edge. It’s funny what it takes to miss someone . . . every time a box came from Maine, it broke my heart.”

I enjoyed watching Macy learn and grow in her relationships. She finds out that her “perfect” boyfriend is not so perfect. She learns that her mom might not have everything in control. She learns that, just maybe, control is overrated. She makes new friends. She takes chances. She meets a new love.

Yes – there is always a new love. This one will make you sigh. He is perfect and dreamy and artistic and mysterious – this is the guy you always wished you would meet in high school but never did. The character of Wes is almost too good to be true. He is a rebel who has reformed. He has a tender and true heart. This is where the chick lit part kicks in – because Macy’s life’s problems do get solved a bit too easily with the appearance of this marvelous young man.

At times, as a mom, I was frustrated with the portrayal of parenting. The mother is removed and unreasonable. I wanted her to engage and to see her daughter and to talk to her. But, I do realize that this is written from a teen’s perspective. And, as parents, we often fail to listen and to see what our teens are really going through. A good lesson.

There is not too much to be afraid of as far as content goes. My daughter is in 7th grade and reads Sarah’s books. The characters are in high school. There is some sneaking around and the main character goes to a party and drinks a beer. In one scene, she plays a game of quarters and gets drunk. Luckily Wes rescues her and gets her home. Otherwise, there are little consequences to this act…. I worried a bit that this is portrayed as normal.

Sexual content was limited to a kiss at the end of the book. I have not read Sarah's other books, but I do know that this book portrays characters who are a bit more mature than her readers may be. This age/maturity gap is not unusual. I think that my age group read Judy Blume because she introduced us to ideas our parents just didn't talk about. Scary for parents? Yes. But it is also the way teens find out and think about topics as they grow. If your pre-teen is reading Sarah's books, it might be helpful to read one with her and to follow up with a conversation about the content.

Some questions to talk about with your teen who might read this novel:

1) Why does Macy feel the need to be perfect? Why does her mom feel that way too?

2) Can any of us achieve perfection?

3) How do we know what boy might be right for us? What were clues that her relationship with Jason was not the best one?

4) What did you think of Wes and Macy’s game of truth? Do you have anyone who you can ask true questions? Are you comfortable telling the truth with your friends?

5) Should Macy have stayed in the library job? Why does she finally leave?

6) Why do you think Wes creates sculptures? Are his sculptures important to the story? Why?

7) The characters talk a lot about forever? What is more important: now or the future? Do you believe that anything lasts forever?