By Jane Thornton –
I am white. So white, in fact, that my college buddies, upon seeing me in my swimsuit, dubbed me Flo, short for florescent.
Their mockery did not scar me even though I remember it vividly almost thirty years later. I’m sure their ridicule has nothing to do with the embarrassing fact that I dye my legs before wearing shorts or skirts in the spring.
I teach in a district where several of my classes are ninety percent African American, nine percent Hispanic, and one percent white – and I have been that one percent in some classes. Jumping right in during the first week, if not the first day, of school, I address the conclusions we might draw based on appearance. What does a middle-aged, white woman wearing a dress purchased in the eighties have in common with a teenaged, black guy sagging his jeans to his knees?
Students respond well to laying the cards on the table. The issue re-emerges several times throughout the year, most notably when I try to use a term like gangster. (Don’t ask me why this term is relevant so often. I can’t explain it.) My pronunciation of this noun engenders great hilarity, with repetition and exaggerated, drawn out versions of the syllable er. So, I adapt and say gansta. Now the students are rolling on the floor. Nothing opens up a conversation like a little self-inflicted derision.
I share with my kids how my friend Michelle Stimpson’s book, Boaz Brown, opened my eyes to my ignorance. Some of her characters, who were professional, educated, Christian African Americans, struggled with prejudice—against whites. Of course, I knew I was white, even without my college friends’ insulting label of Flo, but that detail remained in my subconscious, rarely crossing my mind. I have discovered that both African Americans and Hispanics seem much more aware of their race. In fact, as a minority in my environment, I, too, have become more conscious of my color, or lack thereof.
The differences in culture among the races have also become evident. Acknowledging these undeniable distinctions does not constitute racism; de-valuing them does. I have found that frank, respectful discussions free all parties to learn and adjust their lens on life.
This possibility indicates progress for our society. We have not arrived; tact is still required and always will be. But I look forward to the day when no race feels defensive, when we can use descriptive words related to ethnicity and skin color just like words related to height and eye color without hesitating lest they seem racist. I look forward to the days when we embrace each other as we embrace this scripture: “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29 NIV).
Hmm. Yes, I see the irony of an author writing an article about being comfortable with who we are yet planning to continue with the silly, vain habit of smearing iodine-colored lotion over her pale skin to subdue its luminescence.
Comment prompt: Do you have an encouraging story in our battle with prejudice?
By Jane Thornton –
My daughter just called me Satan.
Not in so many words, but the “Get thee behind me, Satan” sentiment came through loud and clear. And too late. Off in Abilene, she is doing a great job of making lifestyle changes, shedding close to twenty pounds. She called and asked for her Easter basket to be healthy instead of the normal overflow of chocolate. Yes, we unashamedly still do baskets and probably will until we have a new generation to take over the children’s roles.
I complied, but with company in the house for the holidays, I filled the three candy dishes scattered throughout our living room. As strong as she has become, that inconsideration did not do her in. However, eight other adults scooping out Cherry Sours by the handful and heaping seconds of chips and salsa onto our plates brought her down with a crash.
She lay face down across my bed and moaned about my bad influence. After I laughed, I apologized. So much for being a supportive mom. Thoughtlessness and my own gluttony undermined us both.
A glimmer of proper parenting broke through, though, when I reminded her that all was not lost, or regained, and we could start fresh the next morning—Easter morning, perfect day for renewal.
Perhaps, this provision, at least in part, inspired God’s creation of time. As an eternal being, He exists beyond seconds, days, years, millennia. But all of these units bestow opportunities for His children to start over, with His grace removing the errors of the past. With each day and awakening, the world rouses to the prospect of new beginnings and do-overs. Each season, each year, each decade, nature reflects these chances. With technology, we’ve even broken down our days into innumerable measurable moments that provide starting points for restitution, rejuvenation, and restoration.
Sometimes our needs require us to move in both the space and time continuum, to use science-fiction lingo.
When I was a sophomore in high school, poring over the signatures in my new yearbook, I found the inscription, “To the girl I cheated off of in chemistry…”
What? I never gave that guy permission to copy my paper. Unfortunately, he probably knew that I had allowed others that privilege. I was too chicken to stand up for what I knew was right and didn’t want to be labeled even more of a goody-goody than I already was. A precedent had been established. A slippery slope breeched. I didn’t know how to halt the slide.
Until we moved.
Torn away from my home and friends by one more military decision in my father’s Marine Corps career, I found a silver lining in this opportunity for a clean slate. I could re-establish my integrity.
Not every weakness demands a move of a thousand miles, but some do. Thank God for the feet, yards, miles and the minutes, hours, and years He puts between us and our sins.
“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12 NIV).
Comment prompt: How will you take advantage of God’s do-overs? When?
By Jane Thornton –
The mirror confirmed my fears. I had a zit on my chin. Nasty and inflamed. But not yet rupturable. Which didn’t stop me from worrying at it, trying to make it disappear. The monstrosity had birthed itself just in time for the holidays—and, thus, pictures.
I first noticed the zit’s arrival in the car on our trip to my parents’ house. A little discomfort drew my questing fingers to my jaw. The spot reacted to my touch with nervy tenderness. I tried a discreet look in the visor mirror. I knew better than to draw the ruthless attention of my teenaged children. In the dim car light, I pretended to get a stray dust particle out of my eye while casting concerned glances at the lower half of my face.
I’m not sure what gave me away. Perhaps shielding my jaw line while craning backward to answer a simple question about when we’ll get there looked unnatural. Whatever, my family pounced. Did I say family? Yes, not just my children, but my adoring husband joined in the laughter disparaging my anxiety.
So I gave in and pleaded for reassurance that the blemish was not too obvious. Their snickers belied their wide-eyed, soothing words. As soon as we pulled into the driveway, I rushed through the greeting hugs and scuttled to the bathroom.
No comfort there. The blotch glared angrily, dominating my features. Vainly, I doctored. Time and healing would have to run their course. With sheepish self-awareness, I returned to the living room to re-embrace my folks.
Only to be met by ridicule.
My son and daughter each had big, red dots under their laughing mouths. Even my husband had taken a turn with the lipstick tube. His eyes gleamed with humor above his spot-enhanced chin. I screeched in ultimate betrayal when I took in my mother’s giggles over her own fake zit.
What could I do but turn a good sport, grin, and bear it—and, of course, take a picture to record their cruelty for posterity? However, I did experience an odd relief at their acknowledgement of my condition. No more hiding. Everyone had seen the sore and laughed and moved on. Why was it funny? Because they had all experienced the same thing before and could relate to my worries.
Could we do the same with our spiritual pimples? Instead of concealment and shame, could we recognize each other’s sins and flaws and deal with them openly? “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16 NIV).
No one would assume we were bragging about a skin blemish by admitting its presence. Everyone would know we hated it and planned to treat it vigorously. We might even get suggestions for effective remedies.
The analogy breaks down a bit at the mockery. There is room for shared amusement at our mutual imperfections, but none for derision. We don’t want to laugh at sin, but we can laugh with the joy of forgiveness and the ability to come clean and move forward, supported by our family who also claims God’s grace.
Comment prompt: Do you have a story of an awkward moment reclaimed by laughter?
By Jane Thornton –
The Armpit Extended Hold.
Every person who has spent any time around infants or toddlers learns this vital protection strategy. Adult fingers wedged firmly in the hollows under the child’s shoulders, elbows locked to maximize distance and stability, caretakers allow the kid to dangle harmlessly a half yard from their own vulnerable clothing and sensitive nostrils.
When the nursery attendant interrupted my soulful rendition of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” with Matthew so suspended at arm’s length, I cannot say I set aside my praise time to face my motherly duty with any alacrity. The tricky transfer from her grip to mine was accompanied by empathetic chuckles from neighboring congregants. I tried to focus on the benefit of bicep development as I trekked to the ladies’ room with my aromatic toddler. Matt’s blue eyes twinkled with unwarranted innocence for the creator of the extensive mess I would discover.
We passed through the empty lounge area with its seventies shag and leatherette sofa to the cramped cubicle. A bountiful space for individual needs had seemingly shrunk when occupied by both my son and me and his diaper filled to quadruple its capacity. Without sharing too many gory details, let me say that if he’d been wearing anything but the precious corduroy, flannel-lined jumper, handmade by his loving aunt, the entire outfit would have been dumped in the trash. Luckily, my diaper bag held an entire box of wipes, which I used liberally.
After disrobing, wiping down, and disinfecting my little blessing, I set him outside the stall with instructions to stay put. I hiked my dress and hit my knees, not to pray, but to restore order for future occupants. All done, I heaved a sigh, made my fiftieth trip to the sink for a final scouring of my hands and forearms.
I did a double take. Surely not.
What were those brown tracks on the linoleum tile? I snatched Matt up for inspection and sniffed at his stained heel, hoping for mud. No such luck.
Upon further inspection, I determined that we must have dripped on our way into the room, and one sample landed just inside the doorway—in the lovely shag carpet.
With devilish timing, the benediction tolled over the PA system. I knelt in the shadow of the door and scrubbed one-handed, using the other to try to ward off the rush of elderly ladies who flooded the restroom at the end of every service.
When all was as clean as I could get it and I had resolved to call the janitor with a warning and request for rug sterilization, we ventured into the lobby and searched for my husband, planning a quick getaway. I almost gave Matt away to the second grandmother who patted his little bare back and told me I needed to put some clothes on the poor child.
My petty mind tried to blame the fiasco on indulgent grandparents who fed Matt an entire bunch of grapes the night before, but reason intervened and reminded me that such debacles are part of the reality of parenting. Part of life.
Living is messy. In His wisdom, God made it that way. Huge proportions of our humor and bonding stem from sharing our messes with each other. And Jesus, “too shared in [our] humanity…he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God . . . Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able t help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:14,17b-18 NIV).
Comment prompt: Any funny, yucky stories from other comrades in arms?
By Jane Thornton –
Molly sighed, plumped her pillow, and rolled over again. Hank’s sigh echoed hers. After stilted conversation at dinner, she had lingered in the bath, debating ways to heal their marriage. She hated the arguments alternating with silences full of mutual hard stares. Her mother’s advice resounded through the years: “God can heal anything; He can restore a romance.” Molly humphed. I still feel romance—when I’m not angry or hurt or tired. Does Hank?
So she shaved her legs, slathered on musky, floral lotion, put on her not-too-obvious shorty nighty, and here she lay. She chanced to bump her smooth, silky leg against Hank’s hairy, hard one. Molly sighed again.
She heard Hank inhale and felt his calloused hand rest on her forearm. Molly turned invitingly. Hank stared at the ceiling. He released his breath only to draw another. “I think we need to see a counselor.”
Stunned, Molly sputtered and bit back a cry. Oh, God! Oh, God! She screamed in her head. She managed a breathy, “You do?” as all the fluid in her body rushed to gather behind her eyes and at the top of her sinuses.
“Yeah. I got a name from Steve Dell.”
Molly felt herself shrinking. “You did?” she choked.
“Yeah. What do you think about it?”
Failure crashed in and strangled her. “I guess that would be okay.” She managed a whisper, then held her breath. Hank seemed so calm, breathing evenly.
Silence reigned for a few moments. “I’ll make an appointment then.”
The previous passage is a snippet from my first—unpublished—novel, Menace. You know what they say: Write about what you know.
Eighteen years ago, I was much further into denial than my character Molly. We had two very young children. Tired and stressed at times, I still would have rated our marriage at a sevenish. Wes’s request sent my world reeling. The only people I knew who had been to marriage counselors were divorced.
Intellectually, I believed the advice of Molly’s mother, and my own, that God can heal anything. I’d been blessed with a mom who shared enough of her own story to know that marriage doesn’t bloom without watering and pruning.
But a counselor? My husband’s suggestion shouted to my shaken soul that I wasn’t giving him enough water, that I needed pruning, that I had let our marriage wither. I had been rolling along content with a measly seven rating, and I was crushed to know I’d been oblivious to Wes’s misery.
Nowadays, Wes would probably call misery an exaggeration, if only to spare my feelings, but I needed the shock to call me back to my priorities. We went to counseling. We learned to talk. We kept learning. A few years later, we attended the His Needs, Her Needs seminar where we forced ourselves into more soul searching and more communication.
And now our marriage is a ten, and we’ve lived happily ever after.
Truly, God used our Christian counselor to strengthen our commitment. He has used several seminars through the years to grow our relationship with each other and Him. We’re not perfect, but we’re doing better at living up to the pledge engraved on our wedding rings—committed to love.
“So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6 RSV).
Comment prompt: Will you share any wake up calls that improved your marriage?