Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.


Living With Passion

27751901_10214050313705370_7567982830482257335_nI suppose that it is a natural human trait to want to be someone who makes a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes that just means being an exceptional friend, or parent or co-worker. Most of us leave a small but nonetheless meaningful footprint on the earth. Some of us achieve a wider reach. Joann Stringer was a woman who impacted a multitude of lives in an exceptional way.   

I did not know Joann Stringer personally other than through contacts at parent/teacher meeting, and yet I loved her and even modeled my own teaching style after hers. She was a biology teacher at South Houston High School for twenty six years and both of my daughters as well as scores of my former students spent time in her classroom. She had a gift for making what might have been a difficult subject not only understandable, but also fun and exciting. Both of my girls came home from school filled with gleeful stories about the topics that she had introduced to them. They felt that she had opened a whole new and interesting world that had hitherto been unknown to them. Best of all she did so in a gentle and loving way that took into account the needs of each of her students. They never felt stressed or unworthy in Ms. Stringer’s care. There was no time in which they believed that she had been unfair or had not tried hard enough to teach difficult concepts. As a parent I appreciated their anecdotes about a truly caring and passionate teacher. As an educator I quietly filed alway those stories to use in my own classroom, knowing that I was learning from a giant in the profession. 

Even after my own children had left Ms. Stringer’s classroom I continued to hear about her magical abilities. Former students would tell me of how her inspiration had literally changed the courses of their lives. So many of her pupils realized possibilities that they might otherwise have never considered with her encouragement. They became doctors, nurses, researchers and even teachers. They fondly told and retold stories about this incredible woman who had so influenced the trajectories of their lives. I understood what they were telling me because one of my daughters who is presently launching a career as a science teacher often mentions how much she hopes that she will be able to teach as effectively as Ms. Stringer.

Joann Stringer truly dedicated her life to the thousands of students who came to her as freshmen, uncertain about what high school life would be. She reassured them and helped them to find their best selves. She made Biology seem almost easy with her artful explanations and exciting activities. They remember skinning rats, dissecting cats and even being reminded of how to be more mannerly. Ms. Stringer took them on field trips and mentored them as they followed pathways to careers in science. She kept in touch with them, attending their weddings and congratulating them as they reached so many adult milestones. She was in every way an exemplary teacher, the kind that we wish for all of our young people.

Joann Stringer retired in 2011. She pushed herself to keep going long after she might have taken the opportunity to rest. I suspect that she was so devoted to her calling that she was reluctant to leave even as she grew more weary. She suffered from a number of illnesses in her final years but still managed to reach out to her students via Facebook. She always seemed ready and willing to continue to assist them. Last week she died, leaving so many bereft, but also grateful for the imprint that she had made on their lives.

I watched as my Facebook feed filled with one tribute after another for this incredible woman. She indeed lived her life so fully that we would all do well to emulate the best of her qualities. I doubt that she grew rich in a material way, but her spiritual and emotional rewards were surely beyond our ability to count. As we walk through this life each of us has a vocation, a reason to be. Joann Stringer found hers and ran with it like a champion.

I suppose that Joann Stringer is still teaching those of us who knew of her in her own unique way. Her life is a lesson in itself. She showed us that our goal should always be to discover whatever we were meant to do, and then execute our talents unselfishly and with passion. Each of us has something to share, and Ms. Stringer taught us how to do that well. Perhaps it was her ability to help mold young people into happy and productive adults that was after all her greatest contribution to this world. Thousands of her students are paying forward the gifts that she helped them to develop. Her work was of the greatest importance for the future of our society and her impact will be felt for years to come.

I truly hope that Joann Stringer knew how loved and appreciated she was. I will always remember meeting her as a parent and feeling so reassured by her gentle words and her sincere smile. Now she will rest with the angels and we will hopefully carry on her work wherever we may happen to be.

Being There

a-heart-made-of-stone-from-god-to-remind-us-of-his-love-brigette-hollenbeckImagine being an American of Japanese decent immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It had to have been a very frightening time for everyone, but the overreaction to the incident resulted in fear of anyone who was Japanese even if they were born here and had lived in our country for decades. The United States government answered the attack by rounding up these citizens and placing them in detention camps, one of the more unfortunate missteps in our country’s history. Among them was a little girl who lived in Los Angeles. She was in the first grade at the time and her best friend was Mary Frances. Immediately after Pearl Harbor the little girl became a pariah through no fault of her own. Only Mary Frances continued to be her ally and to protect her from the taunts that rained down on her head. Eventually the child and her family were sent to Wyoming where they lived behind a chain link fence fortified with barbed wire. Their conditions were cramped and frightening, and the little one did not understand what was happening, but she would always remember how Mary Frances had stood up for her. She loved Mary Frances and never ever forgot her.

A lifetime of years passed. The little girl became a woman. She studied to be a nurse and worked all over the world. She had a very good and productive life, but more than anything she wanted to find Mary Frances to thank her for her unfaltering friendship. She had no idea how to even begin, but with the help of professionals she tracked Mary Frances down. They planned to meet in the Japanese Gardens in San Francisco. There the once tiny child who was now an old woman rejoiced upon seeing her old pal. She was finally able to describe how important Mary Frances had been to her at that crucial time.

As I heard this story I thought of the people who have passed through my life who were exactly where I needed them to be at important junctures in my development. Most of them were there and then they were gone forever. I never really had an opportunity to tell them how much they actually meant to me, and I so wish that I might one day see them again.

My first recollection is of a woman named Pat Wright. She was our next door neighbor when I was no more than four or five years old. She was a striking woman with a flair for the spectacular. She might have played the role of “Auntie Mame.” She was a commercial artist and her home reflected her avant guard take on life. She often invited me to visit with her and in those times she and I created art work together. She told me how talented I was and made me feel as though I was the most special person on earth. Nobody other than family members had ever before been so attentive to me and I loved her dearly. We moved when I was six and my parents made promises to get together for visits, but somehow that never happened, and so I never again saw Pat Wright. I have thought of her over and over again and smiled at the memory of being in her extraordinary home and drawing with her professional tools. I suppose that if she were even alive she would be well into her nineties. I would so enjoy being able to tell her how much I enjoyed our time together, but I suppose that will never really happen.

When I was five years old my parents enrolled me in the first grade with no warning. One day they simply announced that I would be going to school the following morning. I was terrified, but unwilling to reveal my fear with tears. I needn’t have been so worried because I was soon to meet two angels who have forever been in my heart. The first was my teacher, Sister Camilla, who in so many ways inspired me to become a teacher and influenced my teaching style. She was gentle and loving and helped me to feel welcomed and secure. I also met a girl named Virginia who seemed to sense just how upset and worried I was. She guided me through the ropes of being a student as well as a youngster is capable of doing. She gave me wise advice and encouraged me. I adored her as much as I did Sister Camilla. Between the two of them school became a happy place for me. I had thought that Virginia and I would surely be best friends forever, but that was not to be. My family moved to a new neighborhood and soon I was in another school.

I imagined that I would never again see either Sister Camilla or Virginia, but as with Pat Wright I carried the warm memories of being with them in my memory. Consider my surprise when I learned at my fiftieth high school reunion that a number of my classmates had been in that same classroom when I was, and among them was Virginia. I have learned that Virginia is today as sweet and wonderful as she was back then, and I hope that she doesn’t think it too strange when I tell her what a profound impact she had on me.

There have been others like Rose Marie Frey, a neighbor who was perhaps the most beautiful woman that I have ever known. She had five children of her own but somehow she always found time to talk with me and make me feel very grown up. She taught me how to do so many things that I might otherwise never have known about. I was quite sad when she and her family left our neighborhood. We went to visit them many times but as so often happens we soon lost touch. I truly hope that she has had a very good life.

Perhaps Edith Barry wins the grand prize for being there when I most needed someone. She and my mother were the best of friends and had shared many secrets with one another. One of the things that my mom had confessed to Edith was her fear of being diagnosed as mentally ill like her mother had been. She asked Edith to promise that she would be a protector if anyone ever even suggested that Mama needed medical care for such an illness. Of course how could Edith have known that my mother would have a terrible nervous breakdown requiring hospitalization? When virtually every adult abandoned me as I struggled to get my mom the care that she so desperately needed it was only Edith who was willing to incur Mama’s wrath and be a true and loving friend by insisting that she admit herself for care. By helping me Edith did in fact lose my mother. Their friendship suffered, but I understood all too well that Edith had made the ultimate loving sacrifice and she would become my all time hero. I don’t suppose that I really ever explained to her how much I appreciated what she had done. Now she is gone and I can only hope that somehow she knew.

We each have those special people. They do remarkable things for us that we almost take for granted at the time, but in retrospect we realize how wonderful they actually were. We would do well not to wait too long to let them know how important they have been. 

The Season of Love

Christmas-LoveI’m celebrating my seventieth Christmas this morning and in another eleven months I will enjoy a birthday that makes me a septuagenarian. That’s a great number of December twenty-fifths, and somehow they have always been of great comfort to me even in years filled with tragedy. Christmas for me is bigger than me or any individual. It represents a brief moment when the vast majority of the the people in the world pause to celebrate, some for religious reasons and others just to have a good time. Whatever the motivation the season is all about showing our love for one another. It reminds us that our purpose here on earth is bigger than our individual needs and wants. From the humble beginnings of a baby born in a stable came a revolution in thought that eclipses even the greatest generals and politicians of history. Whether one believes in the sanctity of Jesus or not, there is little disagreement that His message of compassion and understanding is the key to peace on earth, goodwill toward all.

Perhaps my all time favorite Christmas card was a cutout of the word “Love” with the simple message, “Love was born at Christmastime.” I suspect that it moved me so because I had just delivered my own little girl only days before receiving it. I understood then as I do now that each tiny person who comes into to this world has the potential to be an apostle of Jesus’ message of unconditional love. Our challenge in life is to demonstrate kindness and understanding and to use our talents and our blessings for the good of all mankind. It is a daunting task, but one that brings us much joy when we make the attempt and find even a small level of success.

Even more so than Valentine’s Day, Christmas is all about love. As we gather with family and friends we demonstrate our humanity and its glorious potential. We celebrate each special person remembering those who have passed through this life before us and dreaming of those who are yet to come. We exchange gifts as an outward sign of our feelings for one another. We feast on our bounty as a way of sharing and enjoying our blessings. We send greetings to those who have touched our lives. We assess our yearly progress in becoming better persons who follow the message of giving and sharing and loving.

The world is an enormous place. Many among us have beliefs far different from our own. Christians celebrate the coming of the Savior. Jews continue to follow traditions as they await the fulfillment of a promise. Muslims follow the teachings of their Prophet. The nonreligious seek answers to life’s great questions in the words of philosophers and intellectuals. Our commonality lies in our very human quest to be good people whether for purposes of salvation or simply because it is the right thing to do. Christmas day is a time to embrace all of our brothers and sisters without judgement or self-righteousness. It is a moment to enjoy our individual uniqueness and to celebrate our own journeys through life.

There are those who are suffering on this day. It is up to us to remember them as well and to do whatever we can to help them. Maybe that means little more than brightening their day with a quick phone call or the delivery of food or a small gift. We’ve all endured Christmases that were bleak and challenging, but somehow even the most horrible situations have a way of turning around as long as we just keep trying.

Whether one believes that the little baby who so changed the world was truly the Son of God or just a very wise teacher, His words to us were always so simple to understand. By example and deed He demonstrated that every person is important and worthy of our love. Whether it be innocent children or those with whom we disagree He taught us to forgive and embrace everyone. The traditions of the Christmas season were all invented by people who followed Him to commemorate all that is best in our natures. The trees and sparkling lights are signs of the amazing power of life. The gifts are symbolic of our naturally giving natures. The food and the celebrating point to the fact that happiness is all around us and is meant to be shared.

So on this Christmas day of 2017 my hope is that each of us will find the spirit of love and peace that was born in Bethlehem so long ago. For over two thousand years mankind has been attempting to emulate better and better versions of our humanity. We have certainly missed the mark over and over again, but the most important point is that we continue to try even as we falter. Live your life today as though it is your grand opportunity to truly become the message of this season. Spread the love.

God’s Wink


This is a busy time of year with people traveling all over the world to take mini-vacations or meet with family and friends. My husband Mike and I joined the road warriors last weekend by taking a small trip to San Antonio to camp for a few days and see our grandchildren and other friends who live in the area. It was going to be our first venture in our trailer since Mike had his stroke back in July. I was a bit reticent about going, but understood the doctor’s advice that we have to continue living in spite of the scare we had only months ago. He told us that camping is just fine as long as we don’t go too far off the beaten path, so early on a Sunday morning we headed west on Interstate 10 in search of fun, adventure and relaxation.

Things were going rather smoothly until we had gone a few miles outside of Houston. It was then that we heard a loud thunk, and Mike realized that one of our tires had blown out. Luckily he maintained his composure and steered the truck and the trailer without incident, while I thought of the many times that I had witnessed overturned trailers with damaged tires. I was thankful that we were still upright, a fact that Mike attributed to having double axles on the trailer, something that he had insisted upon when we were searching for ours.

Unfortunately we were on a busy highway too far from an exit to continue driving in order to get to the safety of the feeder road. Mike had to proceed slowly while searching for a wide shoulder suitable for parking our rig. When we found a decent place he insisted that he would change the tire, but I was instantly worried about having him exert so much effort. I knew, however, that I would have to allow him to decide for himself because he doesn’t take nagging too well. With that in mind I kept my thoughts to myself and prayed that God and the angels would watch over him. I really did not want to witness him having another stroke.

He struggled with the unfamiliar jack for the trailer and couldn’t seem to find a good steady spot for raising the structure. In the meantime the traffic was speeding by so quickly that I found myself worrying that someone was going to accidentally swerve and take both of us out. My only comfort was that we were both wearing red for the season which I hoped made us more visible. When it became apparent that Mike was not doing well with the task I finally insisted that we call AAA. I was thankful that he conceded immediately and that we had fully charged cell phones and a GPS system that gave us the exact address of our location.

We were inside the truck dialing for help when a young man suddenly appeared at Mike’s window. He asked if he might help us to change the tire, and of course we said that we would be most happy for him to do so. He appeared to be big, strong, confident and drove a huge well equipped but battered old truck . He definitely seemed to be up to the task, and I was silently saying prayers of thanks that he had arrived, because I knew that our wait for AAA would have been long and I really did not feel comfortable being so vulnerable. I believed that it was just a matter of time before a distracted driver hit us, complicating our precarious situation even more.

We learned that our angel was from southeast Houston, the area of town where I grew up as a child and the place where Mike and I had lived for over thirty years after we were married. The man told us that he worked at the intersection of Almeda Genoa and Telephone Road, a location very familiar to both of us. He was a pleasant fellow so typical of the people that we have known from that part of town. I didn’t ask, but I imagined him helping people stranded by the floods of August in that area. Somehow I suspect that he had been there being a Good Samaritan because when we offered to compensate him for his time he insisted that it was his gift to us and wished us a Merry Christmas as he left as quickly as he had appeared.

In the meantime a Waller County sheriff had come to assist us as well. He directed traffic to help us return to the highway, and watched to be certain that we were safely on our way. I know that Waller County was also badly affected by hurricane Harvey and I felt that he too was no doubt responsible for saving lives back then just as he was looking out for us. I felt an enormous amount of gratitude for the kindness of the two strangers who had come to our aid.

We thought that our travails were behind us but when we later stopped for gas Mike took a survey of the tires on both the truck and the trailer only to find that yet another tire was slowly leaking. His inspection revealed a piece of embedded metal that had created a slow but steady leak. Our troubles were not yet over, but we were close to our destination and decided to search for a business that sells trailer tires. Luckily there was a Discount Tire store only ten minutes away, and Mike was certain that the tire would make it there without incident. We took a deep breath and headed off in search of new shoes for our home on wheels. Imagine our consternation when we arrived and realized that the place of business was still under construction. It was beginning to feel as though we were players in a tragic comedy of errors, when our vision cleared and just behind the not yet ready tire store we saw a huge Walmart.

After driving to the auto section we learned that they had exactly two tires of the kind that we needed and took care of our needs immediately while commiserating with our dilemma. The price was reasonable and the men who worked there were eager to help us as quickly as possible. Within less than about thirty minutes we were all set and finally heading for our campground and what would ultimately prove to be a great time in the Texas Hill Country.

The news is filled with horrific stories of violence, crime and ugliness. It isn’t often that we hear of kind acts, but the reality is that they abound. The reason that bad things are so often featured is that they are actually rather uncommon. On any given day generosity rules the day, and often we simply take it for granted until we are in a situation similar to the one that Mike and I so recently endured. When we find ourselves in trouble and someone takes the time to help us, we appreciate them far more than words or compensation will ever demonstrate. So it is with the benevolent gentlemen who turned a frightening situation into one that renewed my faith in mankind, strangers who will never adequately know how much we appreciated them. It literally felt as though God Himself had winked and smiled upon us when these souls so generously stopped whatever they had been doing to render aid.

In this Christmas season it would behoove each of us to take the time to look around and find troubled souls who need our assistance. Perhaps all that they need is a phone call, an invitation, a visit or even just a smile to lighten the burdens that they carry. We might all learn from the goodness of the men who helped me and Mike when we were in a bind. It’s up to each of us to spread the good news that mankind has not lost the way. The true meaning of Christmas is peace on earth, good will toward men.

Enjoy the holidays. Celebrate with family and friends. Remember those whose hearts are heavy. Be an angel and reveal God’s wink to someone.

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukah, Happy Holidays.