My mother’s Bible

*Thank you, Lorie Mink, for sharing your reflections and gratitude in this post.*

While searching my closet for a pair of slippers, I came across my mother’s Bible. It’s been sitting on the shelf since we moved in the house three years ago. And I can’t remember the last time I opened it. Mama’s been gone for ten and a half years now, and it’s been almost that long since I took it out of its case and looked through it. So I did.

My mother’s Bible is a treasure trove of memories. There are pictures of the grandkids, notes from the grandkids and from her former Sunday School students, bits of paper with Bible verses written on them, even old letters from family stuffed in between the pages.

Even the cover, with her name pressed in faded gold lettering, holds memories. The corners are ragged and chewed on, thanks to a Maltese Poodle mix named Critter, who passed away at 13, just two short years after Mama died. Rubbing my fingers over the jagged edges immediately brought forth the memories of that dog, who Mama swore she didn’t care that much about but loved as much as I, sitting at her feet on the porch, head resting on her house-shoed foot, while she drank her morning coffee and read the Word of God each day.

Ribbons and bookmarks were placed here and there by highlighted bits of scripture that she felt were important to remember. Even Valentines and inspirational cards could be found.

My mother’s life is held in this Bible. The scriptures she liked and highlighted, the bits of paper she felt important to keep, even her driver’s license, birth certificate, and marriage certificate are nestled in the pages.

As I leafed through her Bible, I immediately felt connected to my mother again, as if she sat beside me telling me the stories of what each piece of paper and picture meant. As I read over the highlighted passages, I also felt my connection to God rekindle.

God and I are just now renewing our old friendship. He’s been there patiently waiting for me to come back to Him. I stubbornly held myself aloof. I’ve always believed in God, thanks to my mom, who instilled this belief in me at an early age. But I kind of took a veering path, not necessarily away from Him, but distant to Him nonetheless. Shifting through the pages of Mama’s Bible seemed to shift things in my mind. And suddenly I saw God, sitting quietly beside me as if He’d been sitting there for a long time patiently waiting for my return. As if He had nothing better to do but wait for me to come to my senses.

It’s been a tough two years for me. I’ve had to deal with some situations I really wish I hadn’t. But I mistakenly believed I had to deal with them on my own. Now I know I don’t have to. I talk to God every day. Sometimes, He still seems distant. Sometimes I feel like I am talking to Him as if through a long tunnel, where the voices carry but are faint. I know this is me, not Him. I know He hears me perfectly and answers me in His way. I am the one who is distant, who is unable to hear Him clearly or understand all that He says to me. But I know that the distance is fading every day.

And though I am still going through troubled times, I know He is with me, drawing me nearer every day. I am truly grateful for all He has given me. Especially for leading me back to my mother’s Bible.

What I learned from my parents

This piece was written by my former professor, who I like to consider one of my writing mentors, Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, as a tribute to her parents. They will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this month. Happy anniversary to a couple who obviously understand what it takes to love others well.

My parents outside their first apartment in Long Beach, California

My parents outside their first apartment in Long Beach, California

My parents were both teachers, so there were lessons galore at our house.  I’ve written the following two stories to illustrate what I learned from each parent before I even “formally” started school.

From My Father

My sister, Liz, and I were tucked in our warm bed when the pre-dawn stillness of our house was rattled by the sound of a ringing phone.  I lay awake, listening to my dad’s voice as he took the call, paying close attention for clues as to the identity of the caller.  Then I heard the sounds of my dad’s footsteps coming into the room Liz and I shared.

“Teresa,” my dad said.  “I’ve got to drive the bus this morning.  Do you want to go with me?”

Did I ever!  I sprang out of bed and into my clothes.  The caller had been the superintendent of the school where my dad taught, informing him that one of the bus drivers was ill, asking if he could take that driver’s morning route.  In those days, there were no requirements for school bus drivers to have a commercial license.  They just had to have enough nerve to navigate the twists and turns of rural Arkansas back roads while ferrying a group of school kids.  I knew driving the bus was an unwelcome chore for my dad, but I was always thrilled when he got the call because there was a chance that I would get to ride with him.

I followed my dad out to his car, and we took off through the streets of our small town.  Lights in the houses along the road that led to the school flickered on as their inhabitants woke up and prepared for the day ahead.  The school building where my dad taught was not yet illuminated when we arrived at the space out front where he parked his car. Together, we walked to the area where the buses were kept and then we were off.

I could barely contain my excitement as I slid into the seat behind my dad.  To me, this was as good as a carnival ride, particularly the moment we left the familiar streets of our town, and the bus lurched onto the gravel road where most of the kids on the route lived.  Sometimes, we stopped for a single kid standing in front of a house tucked far back into the woods.  Other times, we collected a whole family of kids, often having to wait a few extra minutes while one of them, struggling into his or her coat, ran across the yard having perhaps overslept or lingered too long at the breakfast table.  Always, when my dad gave the silver handle a yank, and the bus doors whooshed open, the kids’ voices registered both surprise and delight to see “Mr. Burns” at the wheel of their bus.  As they made their way to their seats, some of the kids even spoke to me, and I basked in the glow of these older kids’ attention.

Those bus rides added texture to my mostly monotonous days.  Since I wasn’t yet old enough to attend school, my dad had to drive me back home when the bus ride was over.  In retrospect, I’m sure it would have been much easier for him to have tiptoed quietly out of our house, leaving me in my bed, garnering a few moments of peace and quiet before embarking on his task of driving the bus.  But he didn’t.  He invited me to go along on the journey, and I am all the richer for it – gaining in those few hours a glimpse of my dad’s world beyond the confines of our home.

From My Mother

The year I turned four, my sister, Liz, turned six.  That fall, she not only got to go to first grade, she also got to move out of the nursery at church and into a regular Sunday school class.  I knew there was no way I could go to school with her.  There were laws against that; but, I felt I had a good chance of joining her Sunday school class.  After all, this was church where you weren’t supposed to be a respecter of persons.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that my mother was going to be teaching Liz’s class.

I was sick of staying in the nursery with a bunch of babies and coloring those Bible story sheets using broken crayons worn down to a dull rounded shape, most of them with their paper wrappers peeled completely off.  Some of the crayons were even pocked with teeth marks where either the babies or nervous preschoolers had chewed on them.  I just didn’t think I could take another year of coloring with those gross crayons or pushing thread through those silly little sewing cards and being lumped in with a bunch of drooling, bawling babies while Liz joined the big kids in a class where they’d have actual lessons.  While my mother was no push-over, I felt it was worth a shot to begin my begging campaign to join her class.

“Pleeeeease,” I pleaded.  “Please, let me move up to Liz’s Sunday school class.”

I’m sure my mother finally grew tired of hearing my pitiful appeals because she reluctantly said, “Okay, but only on one condition.  You have to do the work that the older kids do.”

Even though I wasn’t at all sure I could meet that demand, the vision of myself spending another year in that nursery propelled me to promise my mother that I would do everything the older kids did.

I was beyond excited that first Sunday morning when I got to walk right past the nursery and into the first grade Sunday school classroom.  The other kids eyed me suspiciously, but they didn’t say anything for fear of making a bad impression on my mother.  When my mother announced that our first lesson was to learn the books of the Old Testament, my crisp enthusiasm wilted.  I was hoping we’d learn some Bible verses, preferably short ones like, “Jesus wept,” or even the books of the New Testament.  At least I could actually pronounce those names.  I wanted to whine, but I knew a complaint would send me straight back to the nursery, so I kept my mouth shut and focused on the assignment.

All week, I pestered my mother to go over the names of the books of the Old Testament with me.  This would have been going the extra mile for any mother, but my mother was completing her B.A. in English at Arkansas (now Lyon) College.  So in addition to dealing with regular motherly things – like preparing meals, doing laundry, and refereeing fights between Liz and me, she had tons of homework to do.  Still, she listened night after night as I stammered over all those names until I could say them without missing a single one.

I could barely sit still in my chair the next Sunday morning.  When my mother asked if anybody could say the books of the Old Testament, I shot my pudgy hand in the air.  My mother looked from face to face, but no one else moved except to narrow their eyes at me.

Finally, my mother said, “Okay, Teresa.”

To my amazement, I said them all from Genesis to Malachi, and then I held out my hand.  My mother’s pledge to pay fifty cents to the students who could reel off all those Old Testament books just sweetened the deal.  She smiled as she plopped the two quarters into my open palm, while the older kids looked on with what I’m sure were unchristian thoughts roiling through their brains.

Who cared what they thought?  With my mother’s help, I had learned that tenacity plus hard work could equal success even for an underdog like me.

From Both My Parents

Both of my parents took the time to teach me many other lessons, and they continue to teach me lessons even now.  Some of these lessons have been easy to learn.  Others, well, let’s just say I’m still working on them.  Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from them is the lesson of commitment.  Throughout our lives, my parents have remained committed to my brother, Rob, to my sister, Liz, and to me.  And, they have remained committed to each other for many, many years.  This month, my parents will celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary.  The symbol for that year is a diamond.  This hardest of gemstones was known to the ancient Greeks as adamas, the same word they used for anything that was indestructible or unmovable. My parents’ love for their family and for each other has been both enduring and constant, and that has been the most important lesson of all.

Being the dish

Giving back, paying it forward, passing it on. . .  these are concepts I live by—partly because other people have done these kind of good deeds for me and to me.

With two of my favorite do-gooders at my baby shower, 2012

With two of my favorite do-gooders at my baby shower, 2012

A friend and mentor of mine once gave me her family’s tax refund to help pay for a mission trip overseas. Their donation funded more than half of the expensive adventure. Countless times, good friends and coworkers have bought me lunch when I couldn’t have otherwise afforded to join them. When I was in third grade, my Sunday School teacher funded gymnastics lessons, a gift that led to the development of my favorite pastime and some of my greatest childhood memories and lessons learned. My gym coach lowered his rates for my parents, allowing me to compete in the sport. When I was going through a divorce and needed temporary housing, two of my friends allowed me a peaceful, quiet break from the chaos, along with plenty of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Texas soup.

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With my mentor, October 2013

I’ve been given other gifts that have nothing to do with finances, too. Many of my mom friends have prayed for Maggie and for me, encouraged me, and mailed us packages of beautiful tiny clothing, toys, books. My boss generously mentored me through the entire fall semester, answering emails, fielding questions, and sharing handouts with not even a hint of annoyance. My mentor in recovery has listened to me, mentored me, and guided me as I took her advice (or didn’t) over the past six and a half years. In college, one of my professors offered to host a few eager students at his house weekly for a Bible study on the topic of love; it changed my perceptions permanently. Many of my friends have trekked into the woods to visit me since having Maggie, making it possible for us to continue to connect in spite of my temperamental little traveler.

This fall, a friend of mine handed me four Wal-Mart gift cards worth $50 each. She explained that a friend of hers, who preferred to remain anonymous, had given her the cards to give to someone else who could pass them on to people in need. Instantly, I thought of two friends—one was caring for three foster children with no financial reimbursement, and the other was in the midst of multiple surgeries, mounting medical bills, broken appliances, and a car on its last leg.

I was so grateful for the chance to pass on the good will of someone I had never met. I was especially grateful for the timing. I’d felt compelled to help these two people, but since it was a lean time of the year for us financially, I didn’t have the means. This anonymous do-gooder did for me what I could not do for myself.

039This is the nature of God. He is always doing for me what I cannot do for myself. Giving to me when I don’t even know what I need and allowing me to extend the same blessing to others, even when my hands and wallet are empty.

Empty hands aren’t such a bad thing. I open them up, and God fills them. I give the blessings away, and I open them up again.

My God has an endless supply of goodness—I’m thankful that He lets me be the dish He uses to dose it out to His other children.

Who’s who

Knowing who’s who makes a big difference–specifically, knowing Who is God and who is not.

Me sporting a pretty sassy mullet in 3rd grade

Me sporting a pretty sassy mullet in 3rd grade

I memorized Psalm 100, a psalm for giving thanks, in first grade in order to earn a special ribbon-like bookmark in Sunday School class. This bookmark was the first in a collection of hundreds. Each time I look at the bookmark, I fondly recall the Sunday School class at Olivet Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas, and my teacher, Mrs. Gutshall, who a few years later generously provided the financial means for me to pursue my love for flipping and twirling via gymnastics. I remember running up the stairs of the church, clickity clacking in my new shiny black patent leather mary janes, excited about what crafts we’d concoct out of empty tuna can lids and construction paper.

I recite Psalm 100 each time I pull out the faded ribbon. It’s amazing how my memory has clung to the psalm’s vibrant words for decades.

Today as I read the psalm yet again, I noticed that before it instructs us to “enter His gates with thanksgiving and enter His courts with praise,” it admonishes us to “know that the Lord is God.” It then goes on to clarify, in case any of us are feeling confused about who’s who, to state that “it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves.”

Well duh.

But how many times a day do I attempt to take the reins and control my own destiny, often steering myself off the best course for my life? How often have I clearly been instructed by God to do X and did Y instead?  How many times do I worry and fret over situations out of my control without turning those worries over to God, who is very much in control? How often do these actions result in additional anxiety, missteps, and self-pity?

All the time.

The Psalmist–or God–must have known that stubborn folks like me would read these words and need to be reminded of who’s who.

God’s God. I’m not.

If I understand that, I can let go of my worries, release my fears, stop trying to fix everything, and rest knowing that Someone more capable has things under control.

Then, and only then, can I wholeheartedly and single-mindedly focus on thanking Him for being Who He Is and making me who I am. When I know Who He Is and who I am, I’m more likely to feel gratitude for what I have because I understand that all my blessings are gifts and that my futile efforts and the fruits of my labor could never amount to a fraction of what God provides me with.

Maybe I’ll remove that old orange satin bookmark from my collection box and tack it onto my bulletin board to remind me of who’s who.

Counting on Counting Bob

*Thank you, Teresa Burns Murphy, for stepping in as today’s guest contributor. Check out Teresa’s website for information on her novel.*

Author Teresa Burns Murphy’s father

My dad has a reputation for being good with numbers.  This is one of the reasons he has been the official attendance taker at church and Sunday school for many years.  He also has a reputation for being good with children, and that’s how he got the word Counting affixed to his first name, Bob.  He frequently allows one of the children to help him sound the bell to signal that Sunday school is over and church is about to begin.  This is a coveted honor among the children of the church, and several years ago one of the children remarked to her mother that she wanted to help “Counting Bob” ring the bell.  Before he was “Counting Bob,” he was “Mr. Burns” to hundreds of students at Batesville High School.  In addition to helping students find their way through the often-murky waters of adolescence, he taught mathematics. Mathematics has been defined as “the study of quantity, structure, space, and change,” a discipline that “seeks out patterns to form new conjectures.”  Always the mathematician, my dad was and continues to be a problem solver.

I strongly suspect my sister, Liz, and I presented my dad with many of his greatest problems.  One problem in particular occurred when were we small and shared a bedroom as well as a bed.  As all parents know, sending their children to bed doesn’t equal their children’s going to sleep.  Liz and I could be counted among those youngsters who are sleep resistant.  In fact, we developed a nightly bedtime “pattern” of behavior that began with whispering and crescendoed into a full-blown giggle-fest.  For us, this was so much fun we wanted to stay awake and keep the party going.  Night after night, we fervently fought sleep, but exhaustion ultimately overpowered us.  Still not wanting to give in to sleep, we resorted to arguing and tussling, leaving our bedding in a tangle and our parents in a less-than-pleased frame of mind.

One evening when we had wreaked particularly violent havoc with our bedding, my dad decided to put the quietus on our late-night antics by giving us a spanking.  While my dad has never been a fan of corporal punishment, I suspect this was an action of last resort brought on by the exhaustion of an early bird who had to contend constantly with two rambunctious night owls. I’m not sure about Liz, but I believe this is the only spanking I ever got from my dad.  I’m pretty sure it didn’t halt our nightly roughhousing, but it set my dad to speculating about a more viable solution.

First, he looked at the “quantity” of the entities involved and came up with the conclusion that one bed and two girls were never going to add up to a restful night’s sleep.  Soon thereafter, we received a set of twin beds.  While that change in “structure” didn’t totally solve the problem – we still argued – it kept us in line until we were in junior high school and my parents built a new house that included enough “space” for us to have our own bedrooms. We still managed to have a tiff now and then; but, when we did, my parents could send us to our respective rooms.  This “change” in our sleeping quarters kept our house much more peaceful.

I’m grateful that my dad is good with both children and math and that he has for years put his expertise to practical use, solving problems in and out of the classroom.  Early on, he adopted the philosophy of another mathematician – Benjamin Peirce –  who defined mathematics as “the science that draws necessary conclusions.”