Any of you who read After the Flag has been Folded know that my mother was a force of nature. She earned that nickname Dragon Lady that my girlfriends and I called her behind her back. We didn’t dare say it to her face. (Mama, if you are reading this, skip this part.) Mama could stop an angry mob just by cutting her eyes at them. You didn’t want to mess with Shelby Jean when she cut her eyes at you.
It’s amusing to me the way my siblings and I, all middle-aged now, still defer all things in life to Mama. Brother John manages over a 100 people in his Seattle job, but when it comes to Mama, he is all “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am” and “How high did you say, Ma’am?”
It doesn’t matter where you go in life, or how many honors you obtain, or how many people you boss around, when you’ve been raised by a southern mama you never ever forget that your mama is the boss of you.
I was thinking about all that today as I hugged my nephew Mannie goodbye. Sister Tater and I spent the night at my nephew’s home. Mannie married a beautiful woman several years ago and he works for the same company as Brother John. I haven’t seen much of Mannie and Nicole since they got married. They have been busy building careers and I’ve been pretty busy myself.
There was a time in our family when we would all gather at Mama’s house for Christmas. That was a our tradition for most of all our children’s growing up years, but as the kids married and moved on in their lives, the getting together at Mama’s became less and less frequent. The cousins are all close enough in age and life that they get together with one another when they can but that’s usually a weekend of hiking or a weekend in Seattle.
We no longer gather annually as one big extended family.
Rarely are Sister Tater, Brother John, Mama and I under the same roof anymore. I’m sure that’s the same for your family, right? That core family that you grew up with has morphed into something different, probably something larger.
There was a time when our family seemed so small to me. In those early years after Daddy died we felt so incomplete. Like we weren’t a family at all really, just the remnants of a family that used to be.
This morning as I sat in my car outside Mannie’s house, waiting for the engine to warm up, I looked at Mannie’s beautiful craftsman home and I smiled. Who would have ever have guessed it?
Those years after Daddy died seem like yesterday to me. I can recall how close we all came to self-destructing. We were all so wounded. We were all so very lost. In 2005, when I appeared on ABC’sGood Morning America to talk about my memories of those years following my father’s death in Vietnam, Robin Roberts asked me, “How did your Mama get by?”
“A lot of beer, sex, drugs, country music and a little bit of Jesus,” I replied.
I realize now I should have said “A lot of Jesus.” Because even though God often felt so far off from us, I only have to look my nieces, my nephews, and my own children to realize how very close God was to Mama, Brother John, Sister Tater and me that whole time.
As a teen, I did not have the luxury of praying about making the tennis team or landing a role in the school play. My prayers were all tied up on Brother John and his drug addictions. Or Mama and her honky-tonking ways. Or that pot-head boyfriend I was foolishly fooling around with. Or whether or not I could have an abortion and still be saved.
Those were my prayers.
My nieces and nephews and my own four children have had their own heart-to-heart talks with God over some heavy burdens of their own, but they each have grown up with the knowledge that no matter what, God is there for them. They only had to look to their parents to see God’s faithfulness, right?
The problems Brother John and I dealt with in our own childhood did not manifest themselves in our children. We say it to each other, and to Mama, all the time — we have wonderful kids, all of us.
They aren’t perfect, but every single one of them is working to be that man or that woman that God created them to be. They are caring people with servant hearts. Nephew Robert spent time this past year working in missions in Jordan. Nephew John and wife Nancy have devoted their time to Mars Hill’s urban ministries. Nephew Gabe is at Northwest College studying to be a preacher. Niece Jessica is teaching at a Christian school in Hawaii. Nicole is teaching at a Christian school in Kent. Nephew David is an Iraq War veteran and has started his own publishing company. Daughter Shelby went on a misson’s trip to Cambodia. Daughter Konnie serves as a high school leader at her church.
And perhaps the greatest blessing of all? We’ve never had to post bail for any of them.
Inside Mannie’s home is a dining room table large enough for all of his cousins to gather around. Mannie designed and built the table himself. He hand-chiseled the table to add character and texture.
“Did you ever worry that you had made too deep of a cut?” Sister Tater asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Mannie replied. “Several times.”
I kept thinking about that table as I drove away.
We are all like that table that Mannie built. We’ve had cuts that seemed too deep at times, but God just kept laboring over us, running his loving hands over our scars, trusting in his own abilities to turn us into something beautiful and strong.
God’s most cherished hand-chiseled design.
A prayer for 2012, for our family and yours:
II Samuel 7: 18-29.
King David went in, took his place before God, and prayed: “Who am I, my Master God, and what is my family, that you have brought me to this place in life? But that’s nothing compared to what’s coming, for you’ve also spoken of my family far into the future, given me a glimpse into tomorrow, my Master God! What can I possibly say in the face of all this? You know me, Master God, just as I am. You’ve done all this not because of who I am but because of who you are—out of your very heart!—but you’ve let me in on it.
“This is what makes you so great, Master God! There is none like you, no God but you, nothing to compare with what we’ve heard with our own ears. And who is like your people, like Israel, a nation unique in the earth, whom God set out to redeem for himself (and became most famous for it), performing great and fearsome acts, throwing out nations and their gods left and right as you saved your people from Egypt? You established for yourself a people—your very own Israel!—your people permanently. And you, God, became their God.
So now, great God, this word that you have spoken to me and my family, guarantee it permanently! Do exactly what you’ve promised! Then your reputation will flourish always as people exclaim, ‘The God-of-the-Angel-Armies is God over Israel!’ And the house of your servant David will remain sure and solid in your watchful presence. For you, God-of-the-Angel-Armies, Israel’s God, told me plainly, ‘I will build you a house.’ That’s how I was able to find the courage to pray this prayer to you.
And now, Master God, being the God you are, speaking sure words as you do, and having just said this wonderful thing to me, please, just one more thing: Bless my family; keep your eye on them always. You’ve already as much as said that you would, Master God! Oh, may your blessing be on my family permanently!