Building Bridges

Sharing your story can be one of the most powerful tools to cross the divide that seems too vast to navigate. It builds a bridge that crosses the divide and encourages reconciliation. I believe it is the building block of any good relationship. Be intentional. Listen. Treat people with love and respect. I love to hear other people’s stories. I need that in my life. When we share our stories and find commonality we lay that cornerstone for true connection.

So how does my story build a bridge? I think by being vulnerable and sharing you help others. Someone who needs to know they are not alone, someone who needs to know you can overcome. It will resonate with some and not with others. The people it strikes a chord with may have a similar story, or they may have empathy or are just curious about who I am now. I think the Divine Master puts it before the people who need it and those that don’t scroll on by, and that’s ok. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, you can’t take yourself too seriously.

So here’s a glimpse of my story, I hope it resonates with someone out there.

My younger years were pretty tough, by the time I graduated high school, I had moved 16 times. I lived in a town with no diversity from the time I was 7 until I was 17, I am the illegitimate daughter of a divorcee. I was born in the 1960s before divorce was as common. Coupled with my family issues, my childhood was unstable at best. At times I was considered too good for my raisin’ and other times I was white trash who came from the trailer park. I had a sprinkling of middle class, depending on who I was living with at the time, but those experiences were short-lived. I didn’t have a lot of stability.

Moving all the time as a kid prepared me for life with a military man. My husband served 15 years in the Army. Military life exposed me to a diverse community. The inclusion in the neighborhoods I lived in was beautiful. When spouses deploy, you band together to help each other. Struggle tends to bring people together.

When my husband separated from the Army, we moved to Knoxville. It is now the place I have lived the longest in my entire life. I have been here 21 years. I love it here. When we first moved here I intentionally looked for a community that was diverse. I struggled. I was disheartened. It is said that 11am Sunday is the most segregated time in America. I believe that.

When we moved to our little country house in east Knox County, we visited a black church just down the road, they were so open and welcoming. They showed us so much love. We were “fostered” by a family that now almost 20 years later, still loves me. They have been with me through the good, the bad, and the heartbreaking. There are only a chosen few from my own family that have done that.

Sitting across the kitchen table every Sunday with our newly found “foster family” we shared our stories, who we are, we talked about life, religion, fears, hopes, and dreams. We found we weren’t so different at all.

I found out that poor white food is the same as soul food. I think soul food is a great description of the relationship-building that happens around a kitchen table. It fills your soul in so many ways. Sharing a meal creates a bond. One of the greatest gifts I ever received was when Mama Lee gave me her recipe for mac and cheese. That’s an honor ya’ll. It’s family.

Daddy Lee before he passed away would take my skinny, very white late husband to other churches and introduce him as his son. Both he and my late husband got such a kick out of it. As someone who didn’t have a good family life, this space became sacred. It filled a need that we didn’t even know we had. At Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas, weddings, and sadly funerals we were always included. They know our story, we know theirs. We built a bridge together in our community. It is a beautiful thing. Even today, I try to spend some quality Sunday time with this family that loves me, even though I am not their blood.

I struggle with the modern church right now, too often I see them building barriers rather than building bridges and it hurts my heart. The church isn’t the only place you can build a bridge. During COVID I think community-built bridges became overgrown and underused and need a little revitalizing. We all need to work on our bridge-building skills.

A study by Michigan State University found that living in isolation can be dangerous for individual health and maintaining diverse relationships is just as important, if not more, than having a large number of relationships. Specifically, we found that individuals with more diverse relationships had a lower risk of mortality and experienced less cognitive and physical decline. Socially isolated adults have a 29 percent higher risk of death compared to those not living alone.

So think about the people you know, do they all look just like you? Do you know people of other ethnicities, other cultures? Do you know people in varying age ranges? Do you know their story? Have you asked? Be observant, ask questions and apologize when you don’t understand something. Be respectful and loving. Be inviting, have lunch with someone new and just get to know them, be genuine, be intentional, and spend some time really listening. You will be amazed at how much you have in common.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other just as God in Christ also has forgiven you, (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Worst Typo Ever

As often happens my mind picks up small threads and weaves them into something I wasn’t expecting. God has a way of working on me like that. Sometimes the strangest thing will set my wheels in motion and then it gets scribbled down in a journal somewhere and during prayer and meditation, it turns into something else. Eventually, it ends up here for my fine readers to ponder upon.

Recently a friend of mine told a joke, he was then told it was racist. The joke, while maybe in questionable taste, was never intended to be racist. I would never think of this person in that light. His actions do not match the words, I’ll unpack that more as we go.

This is the thread my mind picked up…Has it become so easy for us to judge one another based on a poorly phrased, misspoken, errored, or unwitting statement? Do we discount and discard the person altogether because of something they said? As my boss likes to say, we often throw the baby out with the bathwater.

For 25 years I had a career as a graphic artist. It was a lifetime or two ago before I delved into managing a newspaper or working as a marketing manager or working for a nonprofit. If you could put a logo on something I did the artwork for it, from billboard-sized signs to golf tees.

Creating art for someone else gives you a pretty thick skin. You have to be able to take someone else’s vision and make it come to life. You also have to be able to take their criticism and feedback to give them the design they want, oftentimes leaving your preferences on the cutting room floor. Things happen, instructions get can lost in translation or words get missed in proofreading. When this happens there is usually a conversation where someone has to eat a little crow. And since the customer is always right, it is usually the designer.

I had one such episode. At the time, I worked for a very large printing company in Nashville. We produced ad specialties and had an extensive calendar line for customers to choose from and customize.

I had worked on a very large wall calendar that had multiple advertisements on it for a veterinarian. They ordered 10,000 calendars to be distributed. It was very copy-heavy and graphic-intensive. The piece went through proofreading multiple times, went to the plate maker for printing prep, and finally to the press. Everyone in the company had laid eyes on this piece before it went out the door. And yet….

Two weeks later, I get called into the CEO’s office. The question, “Are you anti-Semitic?” Stunned and dumbfounded, I could only answer, “No, not at all.” My boss, who was Jewish, said “I didn’t think so but I just had to ask.”

At a loss for words, all I could say was, “Why?” He tells me he had a very good customer call him ranting that they couldn’t believe a Jewish company (they were also a Jewish company) would let such slanderous material leave their shop and that we should be ashamed.

My face lost all of its color when I saw the large calendar laid out behind his desk. He pointed to the area and said, “How did this happen?”

In VERY LARGE, very bold type was the name, address, and phone number of the veterinarian. Instead of the state being New Jersey, it said Jew Jersey. I was mortified. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me.

My boss, being the kind gentle soul that he was, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I know you did not do this on purpose, the words do not match your actions, you are kind and caring, this is not who you are. But, I have to tell the client what happened and the company will have to reprint all of these calendars at no charge.”

I knew exactly what happened. I had been interrupted and when my hands went back to the keyboard, my right hand was one row higher on the keyboard and not on the home keys. I showed him on his keyboard how it happened and he was relieved it was such a simple mistake.

I have never forgotten that mistake, nor the words he spoke to me about the mistake. My words did not match my actions, it was not who I was. There have been many times I have misspoken, and said the wrong thing at the wrong time, my words came from ignorance. However, as I have lived, I have learned. We all have lessons to learn. I am so thankful that the people who were willing to walk alongside me did not discard me because of my ignorance and allowed me to learn from them.

Too often, we are not willing to meet someone where they are and spend time learning who they are and realizing we can learn from them. We throw out quick judgments and cut people off before giving them a chance. We cast blame, and tell them what they should be doing, or how they should be thinking. Pressing forward without listening or learning. We think we have all the answers or know what’s best without truly understanding the situation. That behavior gets you nowhere and builds walls rather than tearing them down and making progress.

It is not until we know a person and are willing to walk alongside them without judgment that can we see if their actions and words align. Leading child psychiatrist, Dr. James Comer said, “No significant learning occurs without significant relationship.”

I grew up in a very judgmental home where there were few significant relationships. Sadly, there are times when people’s actions do match their words. People who are hurting hurt people and distance themselves to avoid more pain. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of a solitary existence. They often feel they don’t measure up, so no one else can. This can make relationships impossible because there is no flexibility, no grace, no compromise, only negativity, and the need for you to bend to their will. I have found those people I have to love from a distance, they rob me of my peace and well-being. You have to find your own balance. You can not plant seeds in concrete, nothing takes root until the seed finds a crack and even then the seed struggles to grow.

Everyone has a bias of one kind or another, no one is without sin, and we all fall short. Now, the question is, can we offer the same grace that is given to us? That is a hard task to do at times and sometimes we have to do it from a distance and know that God is in control.

Now, I have to admit, I had one other terribly memorable typo in my career. I worked for a company that designed collegiate wear and I did the artwork for a women’s track team in West Virginia, I’ll let you ponder what that typo could have been and what the ensuing conversation was like.

Now, in honor of how this train of thought got started and for old time’s sake, I thought I’d close with a joke for my graphic arts and proofreading friends…

Helvetica and Times New Roman walk into a bar. “Get out of here!” Shouts the bartender, “We don’t serve your type.”

Remember to smile, you’ll brighten someone’s day.

Bring Your Own Sunshine

Every Monday morning at work we have devotions. It is an hour that starts the week off right by helping all the staff to grow in our love and knowledge of God, to better serve our community.

During these times we are broken up into small groups. I enjoy these small groups and getting to know my coworkers that work in the many other initiatives that serve alongside ours.

Most Mondays I come away with a nugget of wisdom to use throughout my week and my life, but sometimes, a coworker will say something that strikes a chord deep in my soul.

Our study was on the book of James. We were discussing the darkness that can creep into our daily lives during the daily news. What are the messages we listen to? How do we discern what is right or wrong? How do we combat the darkness?

During these questions, my coworker Omar said something that really spoke to my heart. It was about bringing our sunshine with us into the darkness. While I can’t remember it verbatim, the premise of the conversation created a spinning spiral of thoughts.

I thought about that light that God puts within us, and that Omar reminds the students he works with that they have that light. We all need to be reminded that we have that light. The Spirit Christ put within us. When we rely on the heavenly Father, the light He creates in us grows and others can see it. That special Sonshine can be brighter than the noonday sun when we listen to Him and treat others with love.

Another thing that spoke to my soul was when Omar said to beware of the feelings and emotions of others. Without good boundaries and respect, others can rob you of that light within. You don’t want it to get so dark that it overcomes your Sonshine.

How often do we let others break through our boundaries, rob us of our dignity, and break our souls to steal the Sonshine within us? Why do we give people the power to overcome our Sonshine? How do we prevent it? The enemy tries to extinguish that light every chance he gets.

That’s easier said than done. I know too often in my life I didn’t know how to set boundaries, I didn’t want to upset anyone so I allowed myself to be a doormat. I gave other people the power that should have been mine. Our human nature often gets in the way. We forget that light lives within us. That we were all created in His image.

For me it took a huge shift in knowledge, it took someone being kind, someone willing to pour into me and show me my worth. It took years of two steps forward and three steps back and people who didn’t give up on me. It was people showing me the love of Christ rather than telling me about the love of Christ. That is how I learned “Greater is He who is in you than he that is in the world,” (1 John 4:4). He was with every person who poured goodness into me as they walked with me, and He was with me no matter how low I sank. I am thankful every day that God does what I may think is impossible.

Sometimes the simple act of a kind smile, especially to someone who feels unloved and unseen can start a chain reaction. Kindness can be contagious.

I never knew my birth father, but when I was very young my mom told me that when he smiled, he lit up a room. She told me I had his smile and that ability as well. After hearing that, I began to smile more. It made me feel connected to a father I never knew. After I began my walk with a Father who knew me, the smile and the joy grew. I made a conscious decision to find the positive in whatever situation I found myself in.

Believe me, if you know me or have read this blog for a while it’s apparent that there have been many times in my life when smiling seemed impossible. It is my hope that my life shows Joy really does come from the Lord. He has always given me that little ray of Sonshine, just when I needed it most.

So taking Omar’s advice, I am asking you to bring the Sonshine with you wherever you go because there will be times of deep darkness when you need to shine brightly and let others feel the warmth of the Sonshine on their faces.

It is Sonshine that lights up a room with your smile. Spread a little kindness and share it with others. Trust me it makes all the difference in the world.

Godspeed, how fast are you going?

I am blessed to work in a place that values God, people and community. We start each Monday with a time of group devotions. This helps me keep my focus on what matters thoughout my week.

Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

Last Monday’s devotional brought me to my knees and made me take a hard look at how I serve others. When you work for a ministry or nonprofit it is all too easy to get bogged down and overwhelmed because the needs of our city are so great. Sometimes you wonder if what you do truly matters, are you making a difference? That is when we have to slow down and remember who we serve.

Our world moves too fast. Can you imagine how our community would change if we just took our time with people? This 30-minute video reminded me that Godspeed is not our speed, we tend to fly by in our own little world at 55 miles an hour when we really need slow down and walk at 3 miles per hour with those we serve. So take some time, slow down for a bit, watch and let me know what you think.

What is Community to You? defines Community as: 
  1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
  2.  a locality inhabited by such a group.
  3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists(usually preceded by the): the business community; the community of scholars.
These were the top 3 definitions, as you can see, a community can look different depending on your vantage point. Consider your community, is it a neighborhood, sports team, church, school, work? The list could go on and on.
Recently my church moved into a new community. We have been there a few months and are not familiar with the neighborhood. This move has me pondering how to engage with those around us? I find myself going back to a book we read as a staff at work last year. This little book called The Art of Neighboring really had some practical insights and I highly recommend it.  Why study a book on neighbors? Shouldn’t we love our neighbor as ourselves?
The Art of Neighboring Book

Ask yourself, how often do you intentionally reach out to your actual neighbors? Do you care about what goes on in your neighbors’ lives? Most of us don’t even know our neighbors anymore. So maybe we need this book more than we realize. We come home, through the garage, close the door, retire to our dens or backyard without even seeing those around us. No kind words or even happy waves happen. We are in and we are out.

I believe so many times we alienate ourselves from our neighbors because they don’t look, act, or talk like we do. We are afraid to step out and introduce ourselves or afraid to make a social faux pas because we don’t know the person. But how can you get to know someone unless you step out on faith?
When we were stationed overseas, no matter the country we visited, I always tried to learn, at the very least, how to say “please” and “thank you.” Americans are notorious for expecting you to speak English no matter what, but the ones who at least try to speak the language are blessed with helpful people and forgiveness for butchering their language. My point is, most people are more forgiving if they know you are trying.
I am a strong believer in the power of diversity. As a child, I colored with every crayon in the box. Too often in this world, we tend to gravitate toward sameness,  what we know and where we are comfortable. There is a wealth of richness and beauty in relationships with people who are not the same as you.  You don’t have to agree with someone to care about them. Genuine, loving, long-term relationships with our neighbors requires us to be present, get to know someone by listening to their story. Stories bring us together and allow us to relate on a level we might miss if we don’t have time to listen.
Too often we feel we need to fix people’s problems or tell them what they should do. Most of the time, people just want to be heard, to feel like someone really cares and is there if they need to share.
Matthew 5:43-45
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; 
So my thought for the day is…What is “community” to you?  How do you live that out? How do you connect with those around you? What can you do differently to truly be a good neighbor?