Tackling faith, football and friendship

football and faithI meant to avoid my problems, to give my weary emotions a break, so I gathered the children and turned on the football game. I live too far from Boone Pickens Stadium to drag the boys there on game days, but I sat them on the couch and reminded them to wave an arm each time we scored — a tradition almost as old as the state of Oklahoma.

I settled in and tried to forget, for just a couple of hours, that my friend and her two tiny sons were scared. That her husband had a brain tumor so large that he went directly from the MRI to the emergency room. That there would be surgery. Dangerous surgery.

I pushed aside the fact that another friend’s brother was in intensive care. His fate uncertain. I sat down the wounds of my own that I was carrying, wounds that weren’t physical but that still bled, and I turned my attention to the sport I’ve been watching since before I was a week old.

First down. Second down. Then, a young man in orange caught the ball, broke away from the opposing team and raced toward the end zone, half a field away. But before he had taken many steps, he was surrounded by other men in orange whose only job was to take the hit for him. If anyone was going to fall, it would be one of those men first.

They didn’t stop to discuss where he should go or what path would be best. They didn’t check their calendars. They didn’t decide to take the ball and give it to a faster runner. They followed him and they covered him.

And when the one who carried the weight and the responsibility of the ball made it across the line, they all celebrated.

I stood and waved my arm as the band played, and I cried at what I’d seen thousands of times before and only noticed once.

We all need people to surround us, to pray down heaven when we’re too weak or discouraged to do it for ourselves. We need people to make meals, to show up and mow the grass and answer the thousandth text message.

We need people to take the hit so we can move the ball down the field.

But none of that happens unless we understand that every time our cleats hit the turf we all risk getting tackled. The quarterback. The center. The linebacker. The businesswoman. The husband. The farmer. The teacher. The sister.

People are playing some of the biggest games of their lives, and this game isn’t meant to be played alone.

Maybe I can stand up for your integrity when others try to tear you down. Maybe I can meet you at the hospital. Maybe I can pay your rent while you find work. And we can celebrate together when we cross into the end zone.


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For when you need to be overwhelmed by grace

IMG_9027IMG_9014For almost two years I talked to the boys about the Great Salt Plains in Oklahoma — how we would leave the trees and hills of Tulsa and trade them for the red dirt and flat, fertile plains to the west.

I described to them how you can watch a thunder storm careen across the sky for miles without buildings and lights spoiling the view and how, when we got to the salt plains, we would see the white stretch out all the way to the horizon.

Still, when the dirt road ended and we passed through the gate, they weren’t sure what to make if all that salt. It was overwhelming.

We brought out our borrowed shovel and began to dig shallow holes. We poured water down the sides and caught glimpses of sparkling crystals. The boys filled one plastic cup with treasures and started on another while I looked at their smudged faces and their shoes caked with mud and salt. Our tires were white. The knees of Jessie’s black jeans were white.

Everything was white because there was an abundance of salt. Not a salt shaker full, acres and acres full.
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The Christian scriptures tell us that people of faith are to be light and salt in this world, and in all these years that I’ve been reading that verse, I’ve pictured salt on my dinner table. I’ve thought about salt’s importance in preserving and seasoning, but I’ve visualized it as small and scarce. I forgot that it fills oceans and seas and mines — even a portion of the plains in my home state.

I forgot that there is plenty of salt for purity, for sharing the flavor of compassion and grace. If we want, the salt that was once used to bind people in an unbreakable covenant of friendship could overflow on our tables and in our lives.

And the light that shines in darkness? The symbol of God’s love and hope? It’s plentiful, too, year after year after year.

That changes things for me. It shifts my thinking and my fears.

Unlimited love. Hope. Purity. Healing. Grace.

And suddenly, like the boys, I’m overwhelmed.

The accent of truth and confidence

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It was quick visit at home – just an extra two days in Oklahoma tacked on to a busy business trip – but it was long enough for me to start hearing that accent, that drawl in my head.

When I moved to Rochester in 1998, they tell me I talked like that, too.

One friend likes to joke that when he got on the elevator with me, it took me three floors to say, “Hi, my name is Marketta.”

But there were other aspects of having an accent that weren’t so funny.

I could be in the middle of a business meeting and have someone tell me, “Oh, that’s so cute the way you say that. Say it again.” Even worse was the time someone I supervised told me she just assumed that people who spoke slowly also thought slowly.

It became so frustrating that after a couple of years I started trying to hide it. I removed phrases like “fixin’ to” and “going into town.” I stopped saying ornery and cement and other words I knew I pronounced differently.

It was exhausting. And, if I’m honest, it still is. It is so much work to sand off the edges that make you different, so much effort to be like everyone else.

But when I return home to the place where my story began, to the people who loved me first, I exhale. I turn off the filter, and I fall into a comfortable cadence. I am simply myself.

I suspect it’s that way for all us who wander and get distracted by what others think, those of us who grow up and leave the spiritual nest and forget just how much we – and our accents and quirks – are loved and cherished by God. We feel all alone and out of place but we have a place at the table, a place where we all belong.

Sometimes we need to go back there to be reminded, to be grounded in truth and confidence. Then, we can bring the accent of home back with us in our heads and in our hearts.

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How to take care of what scares us

IMG_3798That almost-man of mine, the one who turns 15 this month, he has a generous and helpful heart.

I’ve seen him bus tables for people in need of a Thanksgiving meal and bend down low to take his brother’s hand and check a skinned knee. I’ve watched him spend his last dime to buy candy for someone else and take part of his vacation and feed animals that other people had given up on, animals that needed refuge.

The woman, the one who runs the refuge, she showed him how she prepares the food for the 250 exotic animals that were once pets. The tiger that was a Christmas gift for a 5-year-old. The peacock that previous owners found to be too loud.  The turtle that grew too big.

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We humans did this to them, she said as she doled out blueberries and chopped up melon. We captured them. We made it so they don’t know how to live in the wild. And now it’s up to us to fix it.

She patted a horse, greeted an iguana and fed two lemurs. When the gate closed behind us, I slipped in the question I’d been wanting to ask since I first heard about Safari’s Sanctuary – the one where I ask how she takes care of the dangerous animals. The bears. The majestic lions. The alligators. The snakes.

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How do you care for an animal like that, one that terrifies you?

Fear is often learned, she said. And anytime I’ve been scratched or hurt, it has been my fault. She misread the animal. She missed a cue.

She and Jessie walked ahead. I followed along but my mind was still processing how much of my own fear was natural and necessary – and how much fear I had simply taught myself.

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I choose to fear failure. I agree to worry about what people will think of my messy house, my rowdy boys and my written words. I use fear as an excuse for not helping more and that truth cuts as deep as a cougar’s claw.

Fear is easier than faith. It makes it OK to pass on that rewarding job or that amazing volunteer opportunity. It stops us from pulling out the guitar or the paints or the running shoes.

Fear requires less but it also makes us less of who we were made to be.

We walked to the animals with the high fences and fierce teeth and all the while she talked about safety precautions and about love and responsibility. But no more talk of fear.

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Five ways to help your spirit this weekend

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Ready for some fun assignments? Add these to your weekend to-do list:

1. Give yourself permission to try something new, even if it is as small as a new drink. Pops, near Edmond, Okla., has more than 500 kinds of soda. Maybe crack open a bottle of apple pie or a specialty root beer?

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2. Build a fort. Even if there aren’t any children around, forts make great places to escape and read. (If building forts becomes a regular thing you might consider sewing strings to the ends of a sheet. The strings make it much easier to attach to dining room chairs.)

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3. Bring nature inside. You’ll feel yourself relax every time it catches your eye.

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4. Water down some glue and then use it to paint the inside of a jar. Sprinkle glitter. Add a tea light candle and a prayer.

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5.  When you start to feel the pressure of your neighbor’s green lawn, your sister’s new car and your friend’s skyrocketing career, read this. Maybe memorize it. This is from Jeff Manion’s book, “Satisfied.” You can buy it in January.

“Comparison is a thief and a killer. Comparison robs you of gratitude and contentment. Comparison massacres joy…. Comparison is the enemy of the satisfied, generous life.”

The legend — and lesson — of the rose rock

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In Oklahoma, the Trail of Tears seems so recent, so close, that you can almost see the dust on walk-weary feet.

Our history books share the dates and explain the political reasoning but more powerful are the stories the grandparents tell, stories of how their aunts and uncles and cousins left tribal homes in the East and walked 1,200 miles to what was then Indian Territory.

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They talk of sores, of typhus and cholera, of starvation, of homesickness and of death after death after death. Historians estimate the Cherokees alone lost 4,000 – more than 25 percent of the tribe – during the forced removals.

It’s no wonder the trail became known for its tears.

But those stories passed down from Cherokee generation to Cherokee generation? They also tell of a legend of love, one that starts where the Trail of Tears ended.

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As the story goes, God saw the suffering of the Cherokees and took note of each painful drop of blood and each heartbroken tear. And every time one fell, he took sandy crystals of barite and arranged them to look like a rose – a rose rock that blooms forever.

IMG_3666Nowhere else in the world is there a larger collection of these rose rocks than near Noble, Okla., what was once the heart of Indian Territory. They are still easily found in ditches and fields. Some are the size of your smallest fingernail while others are larger than your palm or have clusters of blooms, clusters of troubles.

When I search the red soil for them, they seem so fresh, so close to the surface. It’s as if the legend continues, as if God never stopped marking and transforming the pain of his children – as if my tears over hurt feelings and your tears over past due bills and a sick loved one have been counted and captured, too.

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I keep a small bowl full of rose rocks by my desk, a constant reminder of a constant God. They help me see that my God isn’t some floating deity watching me from high above, but a God who walks with me step by step on my journey and turns my struggles into strength.

Those red-brown petals are symbols for me, a visual lesson of God’s attentiveness. And when I grow weary or feel forgotten I try to remember that already the beautiful barite crystals are forming. Already God and his love are present.

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Patience for the road trip — and for God's timing

photo2We told the boys on a Saturday night, just as we sat down for dinner.

We’re going to Oklahoma for vacation, I began to explain, but by the time I had finished my sentence, Benjamin was out of his seat and headed for his backpack.

Sit down. Finish dinner, we told him, and then we counted to 14 together so he’d understand how many days we’d need to wait.

There will be time to pack your toys.

It worked for the 5-year-old, but the 2-year-old was already asking for help with his shoes so he could get in the car and go see Grandma Marie.

We tried everything we could think of to explain the concept of waiting two weeks, but Colt was inconsolable. He wanted grandma and her Diet Pepsi. He wanted to wave at the trains that run by her house. He wanted to hug his aunts, see the sharks at the aquarium and blow bubbles in the backyard.

And he wanted all of that now.

photo3He didn’t remember the 22-hour car ride or comprehend the need to wait until my scheduled weeks off. No, the only thing on Colt’s mind was the fun he’d have there.

That’s OK at his age, but it’s not OK that I act the same way with God.

I fuss and whine when I don’t get what I want right away. I complain that the good stuff is taking too long — and I tell that to a God who sees eternity.

I’m ready, I think. But I gloss over the hard work I will need to do to get me where I want to be, the hours of preparation and practice.

I don’t want to wait to put on my shoes.

Maybe that 2-year-old is a lot like his mama, and maybe it’s time for me to grow up.

Would you like to send love to Oklahoma?

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It’s fair to say that I have some connections in Oklahoma, and I’d like to use them for a good cause.

IMG_1498If you’d like to send a little note — perhaps a picture drawn by your child or a scripture — to cheer the people who survived the recent tornadoes, I can make sure it arrives safely in their hands.

Would you like to reach out in that way, offer an encouraging hug via pen and paper?

Just mail it to me at P.O. Box 12923, Rochester, NY 14612 and mark “Oklahoma” on the envelope so I know to leave it sealed. I’ll need your notes by Monday, June 17.

(Please, don’t send any money. Just love!)

If you’d like, here’s a quick little design you can download and print. Enjoy!

Oklahoma stationery

OklaLetter

Finding beauty in the imperfections

240924_231567196858225_2020360_oI was 8 or 9 when I first fell in love with my gray trunk. It was sitting among rows and rows of things at an estate auction, and even then it was scuffed up from traveling in the 1940s. Its leather straps were worn. Its insides smelled like the pages of old books. And I thought it was beautiful.

In the last 30 years it has crisscrossed the state of Oklahoma as I relocated for my first couple of jobs and even rode 1,200 miles to join me here in Rochester.

It has been in bedrooms, living rooms and dens, and it’s one of the few pieces of furniture that my brother-in-law has requested never to move again, even if I make him enchiladas. So, I took that into consideration when I decided that I was ready to part with it, ready to release it to a new home where people had more space and perhaps fewer children.

My husband took the old gray lady to the curb and drove off to pick up Chinese food. Almost immediately drivers started stopping to check her out and that’s when I lost it.

I called my husband and with a shaky voice asked if he’d consider lugging it back in for me. Without a single complaint, he promised to move it. That’s how much he loves me and how well he understands me.

One of his cousins is an artist who specializes in vintage pieces. She takes photographs of tired old dressers that have chipped paint, and through her lens they look romantic and peaceful. Antique sheet music turns into chic gift tags and a bowl of white buttons becomes a work of art.

I think God sees us in much the same way – finding beauty, hope and tireless loyalty right in the middle of our imperfections.

“I have always been drawn to older, worn pieces because they exude character, history and romance that newer pieces can never contain,” said cousin Alice Wingerden, who seems to specialize in helping us see common things in a new, respectful way. “I love the stories that they tell with their flaws and imperfections.”

Maybe the next time she’s over, I’ll show her my trunk. Something tells me she’ll approve.

Why we stay through the storms

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I come from a place that’s no stranger to storms, a place where Mama restocked the storm shelter each spring and where schools — from kindergarten to college — have tornado drills.

We prepare because we know the rain and wind will come. The tornado might not touch down on our house or our town, but it will surely blow and threaten. We will need to take cover. We will need to find the strongest place in a building or dig shelters deep into the earth. We’ll bow down and cover our heads. And wait.

Others wonder why we stay in a place where our very air twists and destroys. But we know that storms are everywhere. Ice. Floods. Fires. Earthquakes.

No place is immune, and so we stay. We help each other, and we rebuild.

Sure, we’re scared and we’re cautious, but we’re home.

*I don’t know how to credit this picture. It’s being passed around Facebook, and I really wanted to share it here.