The meaning of the Fourth is losing its spark

The answer is Boston. The question is, “Your favorite Fourth of July?”

The kids were all at home that summer, but it would be one of the last. We’d planned a summer vacation sweeping the upper East Coast, stopping at every spot of historical interest, forcing them to tour sites and read countless plaques and markers about events and people long ago.

They claimed I thought even the roadside litter had historical significance. Carbon date it and we’ll see, kids.

A year later, our son was in college studying architecture and a professor asked for a show of hands as to who had been to this particular site or that particular monumentaround the country. Our son said he raised his hand so many times it was embarrassing. “Mom, did you realize how many of those places we’d been to?”

We’d been to Lexington and Concord the day before the Fourth. We lingered at the North Bridge a long time. It is quiet and serene there, with thick grass, quiet waters and mature trees that dapple the sunlight. It is the very ground where farmers and craftsmen, ordinary citizens, answered the peal of church bells to commence battle for every man’s God-given right to live free.

We walked the Freedom Trail through Boston on the Fourth, the red brick pathway that leads past King’s Chapel, Park Street Chapel, the Old South Meeting House, Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church and Bunker Hill. There are nameplates in the church pews. Many were regular churchgoers, faith being woven into the fabric of life.

Ministers in the pulpit at the time of the Revolution were firebrands. They weren’t preaching about enhancing self-esteem and 15 ways to love yourself more. Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian and Congregationalist ministers, Jesuits and priests preached revolution. Some became military chaplains and others like John Witherspoon served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.

After following the red brick road, we sandwiched ourselves into the Boston Harbor that evening amid a mass of humanity. Fireworks soared into the sky and exploded into magnificent balls of red, white and blue glitter, brilliantly mirrored in the water below.

The crowd oohed and aahed. For a time, we were all fixed on something larger than ourselves, not unlike when the colonists were fixed on a vision for a government where no man would be above the law.

Dwarfed by fireworks arcing and filling the sky, it truly felt like “E pluribus unum,” from many one. It would be one of the last Fourths that felt that way.

Today we don’t often embrace “from many one.” We are becoming fragments, shards and splinters screaming, fighting and clawing to get what is ours. The once broad vision for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has grown myopic focused on self, greed, and what’s trending on Twitter.

That shining city sitting on a hill? The lights are growing dim.

The question today is, “Do we have the grit and vision to refuel the lamps and rekindle the vision?”

I pray we do.

PBJ a small taste of giving

I’m baking brownies today. One hundred and twenty-five. Each one will go into a small plastic bag and be put in the freezer.

Next week there will be an assembly line in my kitchen as friends slap peanut butter and jelly on bread, drop small containers of applesauce, along with juice boxes, the brownies, spoons and napkins, into the paper bags.

We’re making sack lunches for a Vacation Bible School that meets in a gritty neighborhood on the near-Eastside of Indianapolis. We don’t pack veggies—the kids won’t eat them. Ours is to supply, not reform.

The first time we did this, it was for 80, then 90, then 100 and now 125.

Sounds wonderful of me, doesn’t it? The fact is, this is an easy way to give. Funding 125 sack lunches comes with a cost, but it’s only money.

This sort of giving doesn’t cost me at a gut level. It’s not the kind of giving that sits beside someone, listens to them, loves them, cradles them, challenges them, calls them to a new way of living. Seriously, have you ever heard someone say, “A brownie changed my life?” The sack lunches meet a momentary need, but they don’t address the deep need.

Our friends who pastor the church hosting the VBS address people’s needs on a far larger scale. They’re engaged in costly giving—they give of themselves. They believe to minister to the poor, you have to become poor. So they did.

And so they are.

Those who give much, reap much. They see the dividends that come with sacrificial investments—new life, more families doing foster care, addicts no longer addicted and a few more kids who now have a future. But the needs never end. One need is met and two more arise.

And then there’s the drumbeat of poverty constantly in the background. Cars stolen, gunfire, awakening to find a SWAT team on the front porch at 3 a.m.

But by far, the biggest cost of sacrificial giving is having their hearts broken. Repeatedly. It’s watching the smallest ones slip through the cracks and knowing all too well what’s ahead for them.

Yet, along with the neighborhood VBS, the leadership circle is growing, too—there are more solid church members helping shepherd the flock, and a few more transplants have moved in from the outer ring of the city to be of service.

They graduated another class of high school kids this year and have established an amazing health clinic. It’s all volunteer. People do what programs never can.

Of course, every gift counts. The parts come together to make the whole. But I am acutely and humbly aware with each brownie I pack that there is a rich and costly giving that changes lives, and then there are the crumbs.

Hopefully, the crumbs will bless, too. One hundred twenty-three, 124, 125.

A toast (with eggs) to breakfast with Dad

There’s not a day I can remember as a kid when my dad didn’t make breakfast. Dad was a morning guy. He was hard-wired to wake up with the chickens from growing up on a farm. Dad may have left the farm, but the farm never left him. I think he figured if he couldn’t be up early and feed livestock, at least he could be up early and feed his family.

He’d bring in the morning paper (along with a first-hand report on the weather) and start the coffee. Then as my brother and I appeared, he’d offer to pop some bread into the toaster or pour cereal, maybe peel an orange or halve a grapefruit.

I thought every kid grew up like this.

On cold winter days, he’d say we needed something to stick to our ribs and have a pot of oatmeal or cream of wheat simmering on the stove. I wasn’t a girl who relished the picture of oats and grains sticking to my ribs, so I was a hard sell most days. But on the mornings he sweetened the deal with raisins and brown sugar, I was game.

When we were out of milk, he’d constitute powdered milk, pour it in a pitcher and say it was just as good as the real thing. It wasn’t as good as the real thing; it was awful. And then he’d drink some of the powdered milk to demonstrate how wonderful it was. He drank alone.

When Mom came out, he’d pour two cups of coffee, and then they’d both sit down at the table and divide the newspaper. For 10 minutes or so we’d all be around the same table.

I thought every kid grew up like this.

My dad’s greatest gift to his kids was being there. Faithfully. Reliably. Every day. He wasn’t a big talker or flowery philosopher, but we knew what was expected. We also knew that whatever happened, we could count on him. He’d be there for us, just like he’d be in the kitchen every morning.

After Mom died and Dad got cancer I would often go stay with him for a week or so at a time. I was now the first one awake, dressed and in the kitchen.

“What’ll it be this morning, Dad?”

“Oh, I’m not too hungry. How about some toast? Put some of that strawberry jam on it, would you?”

After toast and coffee, he’d often say, “You know what sounds good? Maybe some scrambled eggs. See if we’ve got some sausage in there. Do we have any fruit?”

A little while later, “Would you mind making a little oatmeal?”

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be there in the mornings the same way Dad had been for us, day after day, year after year.

I don’t eat much in the mornings anymore, but breakfast will always be my favorite meal of the day.

Anything is possible in the Wonder Years

A four-year-old is counting her piggies as she calls them.

“I have nine piggies, Grandma.”

“If you have nine piggies, something is terribly wrong. Count them again.”

Silence.

“I have 11 piggies, Grandma.”

To me, this is very funny. It is not funny to her. She knows that the expected number of toes is 10, but in her world, some days you might have nine, 10 or even 11. She is not yet bound by the precise and finite expectations of numbers.

There is a gaggle of kids and grandkids in the backyard. One of the grands peels off when she sees a robin in the grass. Stepping ever so gingerly with her arms stretched out to her sides, as though she may need to take flight herself, she silently encroaches upon the bird. Closer and closer and closer and then the bird lifts off, soaring into the trees.

She returns with an “oh well, another one got away” smile. She is not the least bit frustrated, even though this is the third bird today that has slipped away. Unaware of the laws of aerodynamics that govern winged creatures, she is confident the next time will be the time she holds a bird in her hands.

A grandson, not yet 2 , has appeared over the back of the sofa and is preparing to propel forward. He probably launched from a large round can with a lid that holds toys and sits behind the sofa. Sure enough, he did. But the tin is not upright; it is on its side ready to roll. He was not, and never is, restrained by the possibility of danger. In his world, if it is there, it is to be climbed.

Our 4-year-old grandson arrives with a plastic bag of animal bones he found in the country. The bones have been cleaned and dried and are safe to handle. He spills them out on the patio and crouches over them. “What’s this, Dad? Is this a leg? Look at this tooth!” He is oblivious to social etiquette that dictates the only bones at a cookout are ribs. He is mesmerized, imagining how the bones connect and once held an animal together.

And then he returned home to Chicago without them. He sent a desperate message via his father, “DON’T THROW AWAY THE BONES, GRANDMA!”

I would not throw away the bones anymore than I would discount the possibility of extra toes and birds yearning to be held. I would sooner outlaw circus tricks on the sofa than to discard those bones.

The bones and birds and toes and tricks are part of the wonder years, where life is unscathed by the skid marks of cynicism and the sneers of skepticism. The wonder years are rich with curiosity and imagination, a place where every gust of wind is a delight and every dark cloud looks promising.

In the wonder years, children believe what they see and even what they don’t see. All things are possible.

Oh that these bones of mine might relive the wonder years, too.

Things teachers can’t say (but I just did)

It’s hard to teach kids right from wrong when the adults around them are terrified of the very words.

Several teacher friends say they are no longer permitted to say a student’s behavior is “wrong” or even that a student has made a “wrong choice.” Instead, when a child makes a wrong choice, engages in bad behavior, is unruly or noncompliant, teachers are to say such behavior is “unexpected.”

Teacher to child: “Please sit down.”

Child does not sit down.

Teacher to child: “My, that was unexpected.”

No doubt a cold chill races down the child’s spine. Hardly. For most children, “unexpected” would be an extended lunch period, a snow day or finding the spelling test has been cancelled.

For adults, “unexpected” usually refers to something along the lines of a surprise party, running into an old friend or a payment not clearing the bank.

Of course, there are committees, groups and studies funded by grants that stand behind the new nomenclature of “unexpected.” But that doesn’t negate the fact that it is painful for adults to wrap their heads around such convoluted thinking, let alone children.

“Unexpected” is a stray hair, or a poppy seed between your teeth, not a framework for social conscience. In the real world, people navigate mazes with turns and corners that wind up being right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, prudent or foolish.

Along the same convoluted lines as “unexpected,” teachers are also being told they are not to say a child “lied.” Instead, they are to say a child has told an “untruth.”

It is hard to imagine “untruth” catching on, yet I can hear the words of George Washington retooled for the 21st century: “I cannot tell an untruth.”

Courtroom dramas will need revising as well. Prosecuting attorney to the witness on the stand: “May I remind you that you are under oath and untruthing on the stand is a punishable offense.”

And then the jury breaks into laughter.

Lying is out; “untruthing” is in. You might also say a child is veracity-challenged, or has limited abilities conveying the full scope of reality.

If a lie is now an “untruth,” then cheating must be viewed as utilizing unapproved outside resources. Fighting in the cafeteria becomes exercising the full forward thrust of arms and legs.

Silliness proliferates. When a school sexting scandal broke out in Vermont, an article quoted a communications expert as saying that parents should talk with their sons and daughters about sexting, but they should not use the words “right” and “wrong.” Instead, parents were advised to use terms like “cool” and “uncool.”

Why not call behavior what it really is? Why not simply speak the truth? Playing games with words, clouding a child’s mind, and obscuring the consequences of choices will produce results that will be anything but unexpected.