My Many Mothers…

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Don’t get me wrong, my mother was an amazing woman. Growing up, she came home every afternoon from school, saddle up her horse and rode out with her brother Pete to doctor screw-worm calves across 10,000 acres of marsh and swamp.  She was the most popular girl in her graduating class at Lake Placid High School (of course, there were only six).  She married my father, who though a tough cowboy, still lived with his mother. When Daddy died, Momma resisted all suggestions that she sell the ranch, move into town and live a life of ease.  Momma had strength.

I suppose Momma once had a nurturing side, but when Daddy died, something inside her died.  I remember Momma as fun and strong.  As I look back, the weight she carried was unreal.  But she didn’t have time to explore her feelings; there was work to be done and she did it.  She had a lot of steel, not much cushion.

But God put other mothers in my life.

When I went to my Aunt Frieda Gill’s house, the rules were different.  We could have cokes and Hershey’s Chocolate Bars.  Comic books were forbidden at our house.  Not at Aunt Frieda’s.  There was a stack of comic books you could read till your eyes hurt.  Aunt Frieda gave me a lot of joy.

My aunt Faye Shackelford owned the S&S Grocery Store in town.  Whenever Momma went in to buy groceries, Aunt Faye would call me over and tell me to get a candy bar – but not to tell Momma she let me have one.  It would be years before I realized you had pay for candy bars.  Aunt Faye taught me grace means something you get, something really good for free.

My aunt Mildred Hadsel (we called her “Aunt Mooie” for some reason) would pick me up and go riding around the county to look at new houses people were building.  I can still see her, in her heels and holding her purse, exploring Adrian Chapman’s house while it was under construction.  “Good Lord,” she said, “You’d have to ride a bicycle from the bedroom to the kitchen for breakfast!”  Then we’d go to Senterfitt’s to get a cheeseburger and fries.  That was the best part of all – I didn’t have to share fries with my brother.  Aunt Mooie gave me taste for exploration – and she spoiled me a little too.

My aunt Neta Prescott kept me often when I was small.  Every afternoon she would settle into her recliner for a nap.  I would watch “Let’s Make a Deal” and she would emit gentle snores.  About four in the afternoon, a thunderstorm would come up.  Thunder and flashes of lighting could scare a five-year-old boy, but Aunt Neta would sleep right through the storm.  Something about her steady breathing made me feel safe in the storm.

My aunt Iris Hendry was my defender.  Once she told my brothers to stop picking on me or she would sit on them.  They did not heed her warning and keep it up.  The next thing they knew, Aunt Iris had picked them both up, put them on the couch, and sat on them.  Aunt Iris was not fat, but she was also not small.  The couch erupted with cries for mercy.  Aunt Iris protected me.

Bert Calder helped my Momma at home and watched over us.  I loved Bert.  All I had to do was tell her Steve was picking on me (whether he was or not), and she would get on to him.  Bert was always on my side.

Somewhere in college I learned that parents were supposed to be perfect.  Any problem in your life could be traced back to your parent’s failures, according to Freud.  I spent too much time being angry at my mother for not being perfect.

As I matured, I realized Momma did the best she could.  Given who she was, what she was dealing with, she did what she could.  It’s not fair to be mad at someone for not giving what they don’t have.  One the most important things I did as a follower of Jesus was to forgive my mother for not being perfect.

God was gracious enough to give me other women in my life who filled in the gaps.  I’m not sure Hillary Clinton is right, that it takes a village to raise a child, but I know it took a whole lot of women to raise me.  God provided many mothers for me.

This Mother’s Day, forgive your mother for not being perfect.  She probably was doing the best she could.  I’ll bet God sent some other women into your life to mother you in the best sense of the word.  Give God thanks for the many mothers in your life.

And if you are a woman, chances are pretty good someone besides your own child needs you to pour into them.  You might be the mother God sends to help someone know they matter, they are safe, and someone is on their side.



The Empty House…

 two story house

No one lived in the old Durrance home place.  The two-story house sat empty most of my childhood and teen-age years.  What had once been home to a family was home to rats and snakes.  The house was a hazard.

The surviving grandson, Juddy, owned the place.  He decided to burn it down (you could do such things in those days).  Mildred, married to a Durrance descendant, asked me to go over with her to see if anything was left in the house worth saving.

The house had been emptied of all furniture years before.  But strewn on the floor were old papers, bills, and books.  It was debris left from decades of a family living and farming and making this house a home.

In an upstairs bedroom I found a Bible.  It laid on top of a pile of papers.  I picked it up and opened to the flyleaf.  Written there was the name “Sam Durrance.”

Sam was a country preacher legend where I come from.  He died before I was born, but I heard the stories.  Once, preaching at Fort Green, he got so excited he ran on the tops of the slat-backed pews from the front of the open-air tabernacle to the back and then ran up the center aisle, never missing a beat (church was more exciting back then).  Not content with just preaching, Sam was a County Commissioner, and a friend of political powers.  He had other colorful traits I won’t mention.

Now, here was his Bible, in an empty house, about to be burned.  If I left the Bible, it would burn up.  I picked the Bible up, gave it to Mildred, and told her if she didn’t want it, I would be honored to have it.  Just then, Juddy drove up.  We showed him our find and asked him if he wanted it (hoping he would say no).  But he said yes, and took the Bible with him.  I never saw it again.

A few days later, Juddy burned the house.  We saw the smoke four miles away at our place.  When we passed by a few days later, we saw still-smoking ruins.  The house was gone, everything good taken out of it.

Jesus told a story about a demon who left a man, trying to find a better place.  After wandering around for a while, he failed to find a new soul that would welcome him.  So, he went back to his old home.  He found the soul clean, but empty.  The demon went out and found seven other spirits eviler than itself, and the eight of them moved into the empty soul.  Jesus finished the story by saying the man was worse off than he was before (Matthew 12:43-45).

Jesus is teaching us that it is not enough to get rid of evil in our lives.  This is why most of us fail in our battle against evil.  We falsely believe if we have enough willpower, we can stop doing wrong.  We succeed for a little while, until evil comes back with a greater force, and wrecks our souls again. We’ve got to fill up our souls with something else, something more powerful than evil.   We must fill our souls with Jesus.

I think about the old Durrance place, empty all those years.  But there was something eternal there, a Bible, God’s word which endures forever.  When the Bible was removed, the only thing really to do with that old wreck of a house was to burn it down.

If Jesus is not occupying your life, evil will move in.  It will shove out everything eternal, until finally, your soul is like an empty house, only fit for snakes and rats and burning.  That’s not what God wants for you.  He wants to give you eternal life and make your soul his home, his beautiful home.

Is your soul empty?  Or full of Jesus?



My brothers and I were given the chore of cleaning out the horse stalls.  Steve was seventeen, Bobby was fourteen and I was ten.  Over time, the horse stalls fill up with processed horse feed.  My step-father, Lawrence, never one to waste a resource, wanted us to shovel it onto the truck, and then shovel it out into a sandy section of the orange grove to build up the soil.

My brothers made it their mission in life to let me know where I stood in the pecking order.  When they were left in charge, I would have to run around the house three times before I could have one potato chip (I was a lot thinner then).  When the three of us were assigned chores, they tried to arrange things so they did the supervision and I did the labor.  This chore was no different.

The problem, however, with them supervising and me shoveling was that a scrawny ten-year-old boy can’t shovel very much.  They soon realized they would have to work as well.  Much colorful language ensued as we piled the contents of the horse stalls onto the truck.

We all three crammed into the seat (this was before super crew cabs) and drove over to the sandy place in the grove.  A fight ensued about who would drive the truck and who would shovel.  My brothers realized that if I shoveled, we’d be there all afternoon.  That’s when the miracle occurred:  they let me drive.

To those of you aghast at the idea of a ten-year-old driving a truck, I should explain we were all taught to drive early.  In the country, driving a truck or a tractor was an essential skill.  I learned to drive in a 1959 Willys Jeep truck three-speed, when I was five.  No body worried about me running into something.  There were only orange trees and cows.  The trees would stop me and the cows had enough sense to get out of the way.

My brothers climbed in the back with the shovels, giving me strict instructions that I was to ease forward, then stop.  They would shovel out the soil enrichment material and then I would ease forward again.  I put the truck in first gear, let out the clutch slow as I had been taught and eased forward.

After about five minutes, boredom had set in.  A bored ten-year-old mind is a dangerous thing.  I began to remember all the times my brothers made me run around the house for a potato chip.  I remembered them telling me about the monsters that only lived under my bed, because they liked young, tender meat.  I remembered when they told me I was adopted (I’m not and I have the pictures to prove it).  Then temptation came to me.

I can’t say where the idea formed, only that it sprang to life in my conscious.  What would happen if the next time they yelled, “Pull forward,” I popped the clutch and plopped them into the load of processed horse feed?  They would be covered in revenge.

A small voice in my head said, “Love your enemy, do good to those who persecute you.”  Another voice said, “It’s time to get even.”  Can you tell which voice belonged to God and which belonged to Satan?

Steve yelled out, “Pull forward.”  I popped the clutch.  They plopped into the pile of processed horse feed, revenge covering their faces.

I had enough sense not to stick around.  I opened the door of the truck and ran for the house.  I had a good head start but forgot they had the truck.  I looked over my shoulder to see Steve gripping the steering wheel, wiping the processed horse feed out of his eyes, bearing down on me.  Bobby was still floundering in the back of the truck, unable to get his footing.  I zig-zagged around orange trees, trying to shake them.  Steve was grinding gears, making those four cylinders whine.  I reached the house just as the truck skidded to a halt.  Mamma came out to see what all the fuss was about.

I can still see her, looking at one son, panting, out of breath, then looking at her other sons, covered with processed horse feed.  She covered her mouth and tried to look disapproving, but she broke into laughter instead.  She did not punish me.

Steve and Bobby, however, got their revenge a few days later.  This time we were in the grove, pruning trees.  They found a black snake, a harmless little thing.  Then a tempting thought entered their mind.   They waited until my back was turned and threw the snake at me.

I don’t know who was more traumatized, the snake or me.  The snake went one way and I went the other.  The war of the brothers continued most of that summer.

It’s been a long time since I thought about that summer and a long time since I was tempted to get revenge on my brothers.  My mind focused on different things.

Your battles, your wars always continue until you say “no” to temptation, “no” to revenge.  The best way to defeat temptation is to focus your soul elsewhere.  Focus on what God wants for you, not on putting people in their place.

Funny, though.  Suddenly I have this urge to call my brothers and pretend to be an agent of the IRS, telling them they have a tax audit.  Time for me to refocus again.

Four Letter Words…

four letter words

There is nothing better than a tangerine.  When I grew up, down behind the barn, along the fence line of the lot, there were three big tangerine trees.  There is no telling how old those trees were.  When tangerines were in season, we’d take a break, pick a tangerine off the tree, peel back the rind, and eat each slice.  Refreshing.

Racoons like tangerines too.  Each year there was a struggle between the racoons and Pop, my step-father, over who got the most tangerines.  Pop rarely got mad, but he hated to see tangerines wasted as racoon food.  Finally, he’d had enough.  “Clay,” he said, “Come on.  We’re going to pick the rest of those tangerines before the racoons get them all.”

We propped a ladder against the tree, and I put my foot on the first rung.  Pop said, “No.  You stay on the ground and catch ‘em.  I’ll go up the tree and throw ‘em down.”  I protested that I was younger and lighter.  He was insistent.  So up the ladder he went.

Pop was pretty agile for a sixty-five-year-old man.  Before long, he stepped off the ladder and onto the branches of the tree.  He had been a baseball player in high school and could pitch tangerines to me on the ground with deadly accuracy.  I’m still not sure why he wanted to climb the tree himself.  He did believe if you wanted something done right, do it yourself.  Or maybe, he just wanted to feel young again and climb a tree.

We had picked a bushel of tangerines, but there were still some high in the tree, where the ladder wouldn’t reach.  You’ve heard of a “bridge too far?”  There is also such a thing as a “limb too far.”  Pop went one limb too far.

I heard a loud crack.  Then I saw Pop, all 180 pounds of him, falling toward me.  A good son would have caught his father, or at least broken his fall.  I was not a good son.  I ran.

There was an old metal gate under the tangerine tree.  The grass had overgrown it, so it wasn’t easy to see.  As Pop plummeted to earth, I waited for him to turn over and land on all fours, like a cat.  He was agile, but not that agile.  He landed flat on his back, on the metal gate, with the thud of metal resisting bone.

The fall didn’t knock him out.  Amazingly, he sprang right up off that metal gate and grabbed his head.

Pop was not the first person I’d seen get hurt on the ranch.  Cowboys have colorful, four-letter words to deploy whenever they are run over by a bull, or kicked by horse, or put a nail through their hand.  Those words were all appropriate for use when you fall out of a tangerine tree.

Pop was not a cussing man.  In fact, I had never heard him cuss.  Never.  As he sprung up from the ground, I thought the moment would finally come.  I would hear him swear.  I would hear four-letter words.

Pop said, “Kiss my foot.”

Not exactly the four-letter words I expected.

We all have four-letter words we use for emphasis.  I’m sure you have some in your vocabulary.  God uses four-letter words for emphasis too.  Whenever we fall out of life, God comes to us with four-letter words…Love. Hope. Rest. Heal. Calm. Gift.

God’s four-letter words are the words your soul longs to hear.  God’s four-letter words are a lot better than “Kiss my foot.”  Or some of the other four-letter words I’ve heard.

Cousin James…

James Skipper

When I heard the news, I sobbed.  I’m not ashamed.  When someone adds deeply to your life, you cry when they die.  My cousin, James Skipper, passed away last week at the age of 59.  Fifty-nine is a lot younger than it used to be.

How did James add to my life?  He rolled me around in a barrel.  When we were kids, the Durrance boys (Kelly and Steve), James, and me, would play with the fifty-five-gallon barrels they used for barrel racing at rodeos.  You haven’t known fun until you’ve crawled into a barrel and your cousins roll you fifty feet or so.  Rolling around in a barrel shakes loose thoughts you didn’t know you had.  It sure beat any video-game I’ve ever seen.

Some people chuckle; James exploded in laughter. His laugh was a high-pitched squeeze of the gut that made you laugh, just because he was laughing.  It was his gift to the world, because when James laughed, you could hear it all the way to the next county.

Never have I known a man who enjoyed life so much.  At his own wedding, he was thrown into the pool, and he came up laughing.  He was a connoisseur of steaks, good breakfasts, and Cuban sandwiches.  Some men who claim to be tough don’t have much use for little girls in pony tails.  Not James.  He taught a brood of nieces to be racoon hunters.  He’d take eleven little girls out at night to shine light into the trees of the swamp to find the racoons.  I’ll spare you the details, but every one of those little girls grew up to be beautiful women who loved their Uncle James.  James found joy in the joy of those little girls.

James was comfortable in his own skin.  Other men in town tried to be a cowboy by dressing the part: jeans, big belt buckle, cowboy hat.  I’ve seen James go out to work cows wearing baggy sweat pants and crocs.  If you laughed at him, he’d have a fast retort.  You undertook verbal-jousting with James at your own risk.

For years, James was a volunteer coach at the high school.  He took fatherless young men under his wing and tried to teach them about life, about work, about self-respect, and about faith.  Seventeen-year-old boys are not very aware or very appreciative.  But James altered the trajectory of some lives.  He never bragged about it or sought recognition.  He just showed up in their lives.  Sometimes showing up is the most important thing.

My brother Steve and James were best friends.  Every Saturday, James would call Steve, and say, “I’ll be by to pick you up in a minute.”  They might catch breakfast at the Pioneer Café (where the elite of Zolfo Springs meet to eat), or they might drive to Tampa.  They might pick up a part for a diesel pump engine, or go to a gun show in Fort Myers.

Occasionally, I got to go along for the Saturday adventures.  James would give me the rarest of gifts: he related to me as a person, not a pastor.  Most people can’t get past the “Reverend” in front of my name.  It never mattered to James.  “Pastor” was what I did, not who I was.

It was during one of those Saturday morning breakfast runs, Steve and James were talking about heaven.  I’m in the back seat, listening.  My brother Steve (who after all, does have a lot to repent of) said he was willing to sweep the streets of heaven, just as long he got in.  I was about to open my mouth to correct my brother’s theology, when James spoke up: “Steve, it’s not about having to work to get into heaven.  It’s about grace.  Jesus came to give us grace.”  Great theology from a man wearing shorts with a hole in them and a pair of crocs.

It seems so unreal that James is gone.  I know he’s in heaven.  I know he knew the grace of Jesus.  But, I will miss his laugh.  I will miss his joy.  I will miss him.

Somewhere in heaven, a new arrival in sweat pants and crocs is laughing with Jesus, laughing in grace.

Show and Tell…

football baseball

As best I remember, it began the day Mark brought his new football to Zolfo Springs Elementary.  Suddenly, he was the most popular boy in first grade.  I had previously held the title (at least, in my memory), but Mark usurped my position.  All the kids gathered around Mark at recess.  He was the new king of the playground.

I went home that afternoon and demanded my mother buy me a new football.  I wanted to reclaim my position and I was sure a new football would do it.  My mother was old school.  You could threaten to hold your breath until she gave into your demands, and she would briskly say, “Go right ahead.  I’m cooking fried chicken tonight and your brother will get both legs.”  Manipulating a kid with threats of fried chicken is cruel and unusual punishment, and I caved every time.

The agony of recess continued.  Mark was the king of the playground and I was a has been.  It was a long fall and winter.

Spring came, the orange trees were in bloom, and it was baseball season.  Mama in a spurt of generosity bought me a baseball.  I’m not sure why.  We lived a mile from the nearest neighbors, so there was no one to throw it to.  My dog Moe just ran off with it when I threw it to him.

Lying in bed that night, it hit me: I could bring my baseball to school!  Maybe my baseball was my chance to regain the recess throne.

It worked like a charm.  Mark’s football was forgotten, and we played baseball (or a first-grade version of it) all through recess.  Once again, I was the king.

Aren’t you glad we grow out of such childish thinking?  Aren’t you glad no adult is ever envious?  Aren’t you glad adults don’t compete with each other?  Aren’t you glad no one measures self-worth based possession comparison?

Reality is we compare the size of our houses, the newness of our cars, and achievements our children.   Adults haven’t come that far from recess.

Salvation, among many other things, means you no longer have to play the comparison game.  Jesus comes to teach us a different way to live.  It’s not wrong to want nice things or have nice things.  It is toxic to base your human value on what you own.

That’s why the Apostle Paul said to us, “I know both how to make do with little, and I know how make do with a lot.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of contentment – whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Your worth is not based on what you have, but who you have.  If you have Jesus, you have everything you need.

Is it time for you to get off the comparison treadmill and be content with Jesus?

My Favorite Christmas…

cow breathing

My favorite Christmas happened when I was twenty.  It wasn’t because of a gift I received, but a gift I gave.

That Christmas, I decided the best gift I could give my step-dad was to get up early and feed all the animals down at the barn.  Pop usually had to trudge off to do this chore in between opening gifts and cooking breakfast.  I wanted him to have a more relaxed morning.

I got up at 6:00 am, not early on most days, but early for Christmas morning.  I slipped into my jeans and boots and went down in the dark to the barn.  It was brisk for a Florida morning, cold enough to see my breath.  The horses were already up and eager to eat.  I measured out their feed, and threw in a little more because it was Christmas.  The barn cats slunk around my ankles, looking for their breakfast, which I delivered in abundance.  Christmas was the one day there would be a truce between myself and the cats.

Then I hoisted a 40 pound bag of feed on my shoulder and crossed the lot over to the log barn.  The log barn had been built by my great grandfather around 1861. Behind it, there was a pen where we kept the steers we were feeding out.  In that pen was an old feed trough that had been there all my life.  There was no electricity in that barn, so I had to be guided by the light of the full moon slowly slipping under the horizon.  The steers looked at me as I poured out their feed, their breath fogging the air, waiting for me to get out of their way.

That’s when God spoke to me.  A gentle whisper came to my soul: “It was here, in a place that smelled like this, with mud and muck that I came into the world.  I was laid into a feed trough like the one you just poured feed into.   Joseph had to keep the steers back from bothering the Savior of the world.  Clay, I did this for you and for the whole world.   That’s how much I want to be with you and save you.”

A chill ran down my spine.  I realized how wide and deep and high my Heavenly Father’s love is for me.

Making my way back to the house, the brightest star in the heavens, Sirius, seemed to wink at me, one more part of the Christmas story.

Why is this my favorite Christmas?  Because on this Christmas, I got to live the day, instead of just celebrate it.

This Christmas, use some holy imagination and live the day.  Let your mind conjure the smells.  See the breath of the cows.  Feel the squish of the mud.  See the wooden trough made smooth by a thousand licks.  Let your soul hear the good news, that unto you is born this day a Savior in the city of Bethlehem.  Tis Christ the Lord!

Lesson From My Father-in-Law …


My father-in-law, Floyd, passed away last week.  He was fighting lung cancer, but God graciously gave him a quiet and peaceful passing to heaven.

Floyd was not like the men I grew up with.  Freud would have called them “repressed.”  Emotions were for women and children.  “Don’t cry” was not a suggestion, but a command.  If a bull trampled you in the pens, you were expected to get up, dust yourself off, and say, “Bring the next one.”  If someone noticed you bleeding, you said, “I don’t feel a thing” or “Shoot, that ain’t nothing.”  A man was expected to be in control.

The same rules applied to positive emotions.  If you had a good crop and your neighbors congratulated you, you just shrugged your shoulders and said, “God’s been good.”  If your son got into Vet School, you told him “Good job.”  That was praise enough.  A wife of one of these men complained he never told her that he loved her.  His response?  “I told you I loved you when we married.  I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

This upbringing, I suppose, had its advantages.  There were not many complainers or whiners.  On the other hand, these men would start to boil up like a pressure cooker whistling off steam.  Something would break inside of them.  Then the steam would come shooting out.  A deacon would run off with one of the sopranos in the choir; a cowboy would lose his temper and fight somebody; or the quiet man who worked with his hands would turn into an alcoholic.  Taciturnity extracts a price.

Floyd was not like the men I grew up with.  He was the first man I ever meet who felt free to express his emotions.  If he was angry, you knew it.  If he loved you, you knew it.  If he was proud of you, everyone knew it.

It took a while for Floyd to warm up to me.  Facing the marriage of my own daughter, I understand this now.  No father believes any man is good enough for his precious girl.  Gina and I were married three years when he told me he loved me.  This was a significant leap from telling Gina he loved her; and was a step up from “I love you both.”  Now, it was personal.  I was 29 when he told me he loved me; he was one of the first men in my life to openly declare love.  He was not afraid to say it first and put his feelings out there.  He kept telling me he loved me for the next 30 years.

He would also tell you if he thought you were being stupid.  He once told me, “If you ever leave that church in Sumter, I’ll personally come down and whoop your (term referring to large section of muscles located below the back and above the legs).”  He did not believe in repressing his feelings.

Best of all, if he was proud of you, he would tell you and everyone else.  Granted he exaggerated.  In his hometown of Gaffney, he would tell people my church was largest in South Carolina (it isn’t) and we baptized thousands (we haven’t), and people were lined up at the doors of our church (the doors to the restrooms between Bible Study and Worship).  My mother-in-law once told me, “I know your father died when you were young and your step father was a quiet man, but I believe Floyd is proud enough of you to make up for them both.”  She was right.

Floyd was not afraid to admit he was afraid.  After his cancer diagnosis, we had several conversations about him fearing death.  He was sure of his relationship with God; he knew he had accepted Jesus and his grace.  He was simply afraid of the unknown and he wasn’t afraid to admit it.

Emotion run amuck is not a good thing.  I saw Floyd learn to temper his temper and control his passions.  But he kept telling us he loved us and was proud of us.

The lesson Floyd gave to me was to tell people the real you.  Tell people you are angry.  Tell them why.  Tell people you love them.  Tell them why.  Tell people you are proud of them.  Tell them why.  Tell people you are afraid. Tell them why.

We live so much of life pretending to be all put together.  How much healthier would we be if we learned to share what’s really going on?  How much healthier would our relationship with our Heavenly Father be if we were simply real and honest about what was really happening to us?

The lesson Floyd taught me? It’s okay to be real.  Thanks, Floyd.

What Mama Taught Me About Giving Thanks…


God never meant for children to receive underwear for Christmas.  The Wise Men did not bring Jesus underwear as one of their gifts.  Christmas is for toys and joys.  Underwear falls into neither category.

Yet every year of childhood, one of my aunts seemed designated to give me underwear.  One year it might be Aunt Mildred; another year, Aunt Lola.  At least those years were better than Aunt Bill’s year; she would give hand me downs from her son Bob (and yes, I have an Aunt Bill.  Her name is Billie Jean.  It’s a Southern thing).  I never knew if this was orchestrated by my mother or not.

There was less money those days.  Mama knew I needed underwear more than toys.  I already knew enough Bible to know Adam and Eve didn’t wear underwear.  I told Mama I didn’t need any either, but she told me they sinned and God made them wear underwear.  Then she informed me I had sinned also, so I needed to wear underwear, too (“Let him who is without sin among you not wear underwear?”).

One Christmas, my underwear frustration reached its peak.  I think it was Aunt Iris’s turn to buy me underwear.  I opened the package and saw six pairs of white Fruit of the Looms.  In disgust, I threw down the box and exclaimed, “I hate getting underwear for Christmas!”

The crowded room of aunts, uncles, and cousins went quiet.  In a low lethal voice, my mother approached.  Hissing through clenched teeth, she told me to go outside with her.

My previous experience taught me going outside would be detrimental to my backside, since last year’s Christmas gift was not padded in that particular area.  I shook my head “no” whereupon my mother seized my ear, twisted it and lead me through the living room and the kitchen and onto the back porch. Parents were more direct then.

Once the door closed, my mother began to instruct me on the finer points of etiquette.  She told me Aunt Iris didn’t have to give me a present, underwear was something I needed, and it was kind of Aunt Iris to spend her hard-earned money on me.  Then to drive the lesson home, she applied her hand to my bottom and sent me back into the living room to tell Aunt Iris “Thank you.”

My face was flushed red as the entire family watched me approach Aunt Iris, head lowered, ready to mumble my “thank you.”  Before I could stammer out any words, Aunt Iris said in her no-nonsense voice, “Look me in the eye, son, when you talk to me.”  Apparently, she was in on me learning this lesson as well.

I lifted my head, looked at her steely eyes, and said, “Thank you Aunt Iris for the underwear.”  Then, she smiled, and said, “You are welcome.”  I thought I saw her throw a conspiratorial wink at my mother, but I’m not certain.

Mama and Aunt Iris taught me one of my most important life lessons that Christmas:  Give thanks to the giver, not thanks for the gift.

This Thanksgiving families will gather and express thanks for food, blessings, and each other.  That’s fine.  Just remember, it’s not about the gifts.  It is about who gave them to you.

Remember to look God in the eye and say, “Thank you.”  Still your soul long enough and you might hear, “You are welcome.”

Maybe you’ll catch God winking.

What I wish Mama Could See and Hear…

Kong and Sissie

It’s been almost five years since my mother died.  She really left us years before, as Alzheimer’s robbed her of her mind.  Sometimes her eyes would lock on you and you could almost feel the part of her brain that was clear of memory robbing plaque trying to communicate.

People ask me from time to time if people in heaven know what’s happening on earth.  The honest answer is “I don’t know.”  God didn’t make that clear.  I do know when people die and go to heaven, they are not converted into angels.  That’s folk theology that isn’t taught in the Bible.  Sometimes I pray and ask God to tell my mother some things I wish she could see and hear.

I wish Mama could see her grandchildren now.  They are all grown and very good looking (some too good looking for their own good).  When Sarah and my niece Katie graduate next year, all of her grandchildren will have graduated from college.  She would be thrilled.  A college education to her represented a real achievement.  She’d be even more amazed that three of the eleven have Master’s degrees.

I wish Mama could hear me say to her, “The older I get, the smarter I realize you were.”  Like every adolescent in the world, I was convinced I knew more than her.  Now I know she had a wisdom that let me try and fail; that spoke her mind when she thought I was making a mistake; and that supported me even when she wasn’t sure about the path I was taking.  I also know that she must had many conversations with my step-father I never knew about, pleading my cause: “Lawrence, don’t make him go fishing again.  That’s just not him.”

I wish Mama could hear me say, “I forgive you.”  When I hear people talk about their perfect mothers, my skepticism kicks in.  I don’t know any perfect mothers.  My Mom had a wounded soul from a father who fell short and from losing a husband far too soon.  She could lose her temper and be very judgmental.  But in many ways, I think she did the best could.  She was like the injured runner who persevered, and finished the race.  As I’ve gotten older and faced my own shortcomings as a parent, I want to apologize for being so judgmental toward her and tell her “I forgive you because I know you were doing the best you could.”

I wish Mama could hear me say “Thank you.”  I never said it enough.  Maybe you don’t realize how much you have to be thankful for until your mother isn’t there.  I want to thank her for reading stories to me, for pushing me to be all I could be, for taking me seriously when I said at four years old, “I want to be a preacher.”  I want to thank her for her imperfect love, the best she could offer.  I want to thank her for being courageous after my father died.  I want to thank her for letting me go explore, which was really the beginning of my passion for next steps.

I wish I could give Mama a Mother’s day gift one more time – like the coffee mug I made for her in 3rd grade that looked like a piece of mud with a handle.  She kept it all her life, ugly as it was, because I made it.

But for me, the window of time has closed.  I can only pray that God lets my mother know these things – and lets her know I still miss her.  I don’t know if God passes on messages, but I’d like to think he does.

And if God passes on messages, I hope he passes on one more.  There’s one more message I’d like Mama to hear:

I love you.  Happy Mother’s Day Mama.