Thursday, April 23, 2009

Crackers and Juice

Crackers and Juice

I found her offensive.

Clearly, her appearance would drive anyone away. The mottled hair, the fat that hung from her chin, the nose that pointed almost straight up from her face. They each served to drive all who would approach away.

But it was not just her face. The fingernails had not been trimmed for some time. The first time I met her I was afraid to shake her hand as I wondered if she would slash my palm. Her hips had been stretched by the extra body fat in her mid-section. She almost waddled as she moved down the hall.

One might hope that her voice might make up for her appearance. That was not to be. That squeak came every time she had to open her closed lips - like whenever she had to speak a word that started with "b" or "p". I could not help but be reminded of someone scraping their fingernails across the blackboard.

I found her offensive. But I learned a long time ago that I too am broken. And that morning I found that my brokenness kept me ... well, that is what this story is about.

Though, I found it hard to be near Claire, that was her name, there were others that did not. The children. They loved her. Why? Because, as I watched them this morning, it was clear that she loved them. I first saw her in the middle of that big, multicolored, target shaped rug. Not standing, but sitting on her knees. There at her left side were three girls. There were four boys on her right. I did not see the two other children who were sneaking up behind her until it was too late. For as those last two climbed on her back, all ten of them went tumbling forward and as they looked up I saw ten of the loveliest smiles I had ever seen. Claire flipped to her back and start lifting the children as high a she could reach. She would no sooner pick up one child and hold her or him high and gently place them on the ground than she would find another and repeat the process.

The play that day was not just for the young children, but for all those who remembered what childhood was like.

When someone over in the corner yelled "refreshments", the kids bounced off Claire and ran to the table to sit. It would not be fair to say Claire bounced, but she, too, took a seat at the table, right in the midst of all those kids. As she took the hand of the girl to her right and the hand of the girl to her left, the children began to grasp each others hands, following her example. She bowed her head, waited a moment, and began to say grace. It was a simple prayer, but, other than her voice, there was no noise. The children listen while she spoke for just a few seconds to the God that had showed her the love that the children felt that morning. "Amen." And then noise began again - what do you expect from a room full of pre-schoolers who had been wrestling on the floor one moment, in the presence of God the next, and now were ready to take the juice and crackers that were offered.

The children loved Claire, because she loved them. And now, I'm really not sure why she offended me.

With apologies to Dr. Paul Welter, author of Learning From Children.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Tree

The Tree

It was the only tree he could climb - or the only one he knew he could climb. There were other trees in the park, but the branches were so high he would never reach them. But this one, just off of Crosby Road, actually had two trunks. They came together in a "V" about two-and-a-half feet from the ground. Just high enough that he could climb up and start up the one side. The other side went almost straight up - climbing that side of the tree would have to wait awhile.

But this side had a shallow enough slope that he could start shimmying up the tree. And he did. One hand, one foot, another hand, another foot. Up he went. One hand, one foot, another hand, another foot.

At first he could see the acorns on the ground, but as he climbed higher, even they could not be seen. He did see patches of dirt in the grass. Or was it patches of grass in the dirt? He could look a bit further away and see the younger kids playing in the playground on the other side of the fence.

And so it was - one hand, one foot, another hand, another foot. He continued to go further up the limb. Though he had not planned it when he started, he had decided, today, to go as high as the branch would allow him.

And he did climb higher. Now those kids on the playground equipment looked down right small. Given how small everything looked, he began to wonder how far he had climbed out on the limb. Could it have been 25 feet – no way. But it sure felt that high. Maybe he could go just a bit higher.

Wait, what was that. It was amazing how easily he could hear his mother’s voice. What had she said? Was it “Dinner!”?

There, he heard it again. “Dinner!” It was his mother – and dinner was ready. Now he had a decision to make – should he climb back down the tree or jump the three feet to the ground? Regardless, he knew the food would be worth it and the tree would be climbed another day. After all, it was the only tree he could climb.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Mug

It is one of 300 in my collection. They come from twenty states. They represent six artists, 18 different companies, four colleges, and a variety of thoughts and insights expressed by their creators. But it stood alone – for, of all 300, it was the only handmade one in the collection.

It was also the only imperfect one I owned. But I knew that the first time I saw it.

And if I wanted a cup of coffee, I could not use this one. It would never work.

I had long thought of it as being my favorite mug. My youngest son had made it as part of a 7th grade craft project from rolled bits of clay. His excitement showed for a week before he brought it home – of course he would not tell us what he was so excited about, we would have to wait. Finally, on the last day of school before Mother’s Day, he brought it home and proudly handed it over for our inspection.

The colors were perfect – purples, browns, and white. There was the obligatory handle, of course. It had a bottom with circular sides. If I stood a ways off, it looked almost like any other mug. Oh, it was a bit flatter, but that was offset by its larger than normal diameter. My son glowed as he handed it to my wife and me that Friday afternoon.

But it was imperfect. It would not hold the coffee, the tea, or the hot chocolate that one might want it to hold. The clay bars that had been designed to form the bowl of the cup had separated and formed holes in the side. There was a notch in the top where a small piece of clay had fallen away from the rim. No, this cup, this mug, would never hold coffee or tea or chocolate.

Yet this mug has rarely sat empty. It has held M&Ms, it has held a day’s receipts, and it has held pocket change. Today, it holds quarters. Not just any quarter, but state quarters from around these United States. But its most important contents have not been the M&Ms, the receipts, the pocket change, or the quarters. Its most important contents were the tears that came as I held it in my hand one that afternoon fifteen years ago.

A few years after my son had brought it home from school, I had been asked to bring my favorite mug to a weekend retreat of hospital chaplains. That afternoon, as if I were looking at it for the first time, I saw a broken life. That afternoon, it reflected a life full of holes that could not be easily filled. It was that afternoon that the mug began to fill with tears.

It would be another 24 hours before I could understand that even a mug full of holes and flaws could be useful. It could hold M&Ms, receipts, or pocket change. And though it never has, it could even hold tea bags. That same afternoon, I came to see that even this broken life, this life full of holes, could serve a purpose. It could share love with those who had not experienced it, it could hold the hand of a parent whose child lay dying, and it could pray with a mother who does not know where her son will live tomorrow. I could no more fix this broken mug than the life it reflected that afternoon; but I could use that mug, I could use that life, to serve those who hurt in the world around me.

With apologies to Joyce Rupp, author of The Cup of Our Life,
and J. Andrew, my youngest son.