Monday, May 30, 2016

Reflection: Memorial Day Memories And Honoring The Fallen

Today across America families are gathering in city centers for concerts and parades or on area waterways for picnics and barbecues. They are gathering in CrossFit gyms to complete the "Murph" workout, or venturing out to local cemeteries for a time of remembering family members and friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of others by laying down their lives. Today is a holiday and a day of remembrance filled with a mixture of patriotism and reflection for some. For others it is a day off of work, a day for grilling out, and maybe the start of "vacation season" and the winding down of another school year. 

My earliest personal memories of Memorial Day are rooted in cemeteries. I can remember going with my grandpa, my dad, my mom, my brother and sister, and sometimes a couple of my uncles to tend a family grave plot in a larger cemetery about 20 minutes outside of the town where I grew up. We would drive out in an old pickup truck filled with lawnmowers and trimmers and us. We would cut the grass all around a what seemed at the time an infinitely large section of the graveyard. We would make these trips through the spring and summer, but in late May we would also lay out flowers and other tokens of remembrance for generations of ancestors.

I learned a lot during those care-taking times during my childhood. Some very old family and Shawnee cultural traditions were passed along to me--traditions that taught respect, honor, and service. We would never walk on graves, and we would never remove anything from the cemetery. In addition to certain etiquette around graves, we also made it a point to visit graves during the weekend of memorial day and to decorate the graves of all of our relatives with garlands, flowers, and flags--regardless of how those relatives left this world. Too seldom in our busy "modern" world do we take time to reflect and to remember all of those who have gone before us and wore down the paths over which we freely walk today. 

Although many uncles, great uncles, and older family members served, I was too young to know any who had made the ultimate sacrifice in combat. But, as I have grown older, my life has placed me in contact with a number of friends who have served in various capacities in our military. Again, thankfully, I have not lost any of my close friends in military combat, but I know many of them have lost loved ones in the line of service. Most of the year, we give very little thought to what our service men and women and the families of the fallen may be carrying all year long every year. Organizations like Carry The Load are helping to encourage us to take time to reflect on those who have fallen, their families, and their friends. 

Today, maybe you are traveling to visit a family grave plot, attempting a "Murph" workout, or maybe just enjoying a day away from the workplace. Regardless of the place this day may find you, may we each take at least a moment to honor the fallen and those who have gone before us. They deserve so much more than a moment, as do their families and friends, but even a moment of reflection is better than no reflection at all. May we each take a moment to hug those close to us, weep as appropriate, and fill our hearts with gratitude that we each continue to have the privilege of moving forward and ensuring that the ancient paths are free and clear for another generation.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Remembering and Looking Forward: Celebrating Our Fifth Anniversary!

I remember it as freshly as if it were yesterday. Eight of my closest friends joined me to stand on a boat dock in West Virginia on Lake Floyd, and we prayed together as the time moved purposefully to the grand moment. A text message came through indicating it was time for us to begin the journey. It had been raining earlier in the day, and all around the region, massive storms had broken out, but for us, there were blue skies and the lush greens of spring. The water was calm, peaceful, and inviting. The nine of us purposefully descended into three small rowboats, and began our journey across the lake.

Upon docking at the far side, we came walking in single file to a gathering of a few close friends and family (to be honest it was all family—our friends are our family as well). The music had begun, and I was looking over the crowd smiling and filled with anticipation of what was to come. And then, she came from around the corner of the Lake Floyd Clubhouse with her father walking alongside her. My eyes began to well up with tears of joy. They came down to the waters edge across a grassy field through a center aisle made by folding chairs brought out for the occasion. I breathed in deeply as I thought about the sacredness of this moment. I was about to commit my life to this amazing woman, and she was about to do the same.

She looked so beautiful as she gracefully made her way down the aisle in a refitted and redesigned wedding dress, made from her mother’s own wedding attire. Her eyes glowed in the same bright azure blue that I’ve enjoyed waking and looking into as we start our day together for the last five years. I can remember so vividly every moment because my heart was (and is!) so captivated by this incredible, compassionate, faith-filled, beautiful woman. We exchanged our vows, we participated in an ancient Shawnee wedding tradition, and we even had the blessing of my best friend in the whole world, Willie, writing an original song for us. The entire time we were surrounded in beauty and held in love by our gathered witnesses.

As the wedding came to an end, the celebration started, and honestly hasn’t really stopped! We were presented to our gathered family as husband and wife, and made our way down the aisle exceedingly joy-filled to the tune of Country Roads, a fine new West Virginia/Appalachian tradition. We made our way to the dance floor of the clubhouse and enjoyed the best wedding food I have ever experienced thanks to the generosity of Jessica Kerr—She even made pepperoni rolls from filo dough. (Jamie had told her dad when she was a little girl that she didn’t know all that she hoped for with her wedding day, but she definitely wanted pepperoni rolls—a West Virginia staple).
And here we are, five years into the future. As full of joy and vivid memories as that day was, today seems more full. We have both grown in our understanding of what it means to be husband and wife, and we have also both grown in our understanding of how deeply loved and cherished we are by God and by each other. On our wedding day, when Willie sang that song he wrote, we carried it aspirationally, and today we still carry it in the same way, but at the very least we can say that for the last five years it has held completely true. Our love has only grown stronger over time, and our understanding of just what a treasure God has given us in each other gets revealed freshly each new day.
As we left crossed Lake Floyd late that night on a paddle boat to the cheers of many who we hold very dear, we had no idea that the late night paddle across the lake and ensuing drive to our home in Morgantown would be not only the very beginning of our marriage, but it would be a foretaste of our adventures around the world to make new friends and connect with old ones. So many times we have been richly blessed by the hospitality of others, and we have been so privileged to share in experiences with them as we learn together how to live out the exhortation of the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

And today, the journey continues. We are nestled on a small island off the coast of Maine, and enjoying a moment of respite and reflection before making the journey across another body of water and starting the drive back home. This time, instead of a paddleboat, the Swan’s Island Ferry will provide our transit.

We do not have any idea what the future holds for #TeamWilliams, but we are certain that if we continue to faithfully seek the wisdom and counsel of our gracious Creator together, He will supply us with absolutely everything we need for the adventure ahead. We are thrilled as we think back over memories that we have made with many of you during these last five years, and we look forward to savoring each new chapter of this story we are writing together with each new day. May we all take moments to soak in the joy of the present while we look forward to a future filled with hope and possibilities.

Reflection: Swans Island Adventure

This morning Jamie and I awoke to a light New England rain and gentle coastal winds on a small island off the coast of Maine. We are staying in a cozy space in the middle of a few thousand acres on Swan’s Island Maine. It is a bit ironic that here in the middle of the ocean and off the coast of the mainland, we still have internet access. I guess the folks who provided our lodging space felt like it may be a bit too spartan to not have access to the internet out here, but we were prepared for no access.

The drizzle of rain and cool wind provides us with a natural incentive to stay inside, to write, to reflect, to enjoy the company of one another, and to celebrate. And there is so much to celebrate! Today marks our fifth wedding anniversary, and our hearts are warm and full from the joy that God has given us over these five years together. Every single day is a gift, and thankfully we have been able to spend the majority of the last 1,827 of them together with Christ as our center and exploring this majestic and magical world He created.

In our world today, we hurry about from event to event, and do not take time to savor the present moment, to remember the journey to this point, and to cast our vision forward to the enchanted future filled with opportunities and new worlds to discover. Jamie and I strive to make this a part of our daily rhythm, and during this time away, we have made it a central part of our daily adventures. Sitting on rocks by the ocean, we invite the crashing waves to awaken our spirits to the deep memories and then take time to savor even greater moments of gratitude for this life, the incredible friends we have, the unbelievable adventures we have experienced, and the awe we have for being privileged to enjoy this journey together.
Swan’s Island is a beautiful place, and the pace of life here is such that it affords a space for slowing down. There are about 350 inhabitants on this 80 square mile island and lots of wilderness to explore. Many of the locals make their living from the seasonal provisions of lobstering. In many ways, this island community is very similar to communities back home in West Virginia. People are hard working, friendly, and willing to help out someone in need. Everybody waves as they drive by us on the island.

There is so much in this world to savor and appreciate. For us, slowing down the pace of our routines is just disruptive enough to deepen our sense of gratitude for little gifts all around us. We have found ourselves curiously exploring wooded trails and rocky beaches and filled with wonder at the slow movements of sea crabs, snails, and barnacles along the coast as well as the darting of rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, and the soaring of eagles and gulls among the treetops.

The really amazing part of this adventure is that there are similar treasures awaiting discovery all around us every day.  Having a moment to pause, Jamie and I have found ourselves sharing stories of childhood adventures from fishing trips at Mountwood Park (and elsewhere) on an almost daily basis each spring with my dad, my uncle Russell, and cousin Jo Ann, to journeys over the hill and into the woods behind her house for Jamie and her dad as she started her “Save The World Club” by collecting acorns for the squirrels around Lake Floyd. So many of our memories are connected to the wilderness, and every opportunity we get, we make moves toward the trees, the water, and the forests.

May we each take time to savor and create memories, and may we step out into creation as curious explorers of this world. God has provided us so much for which to be thankful, and even if we spent our whole lives trying to soak it all in, we would only be scratching the surface. May we scratch and play and uncover fresh treasures and make memories to savor, enjoy, and press us further into this grand narrative that the Creator of the universe writes through and with us.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

#MyMomIsStrongBecause Happy #MothersDay

Over the last few days at Nuru, we have been posting photos of a few of our staff along with their mom's in honor of Mother's Day. Although my mom is no longer with us, I thought it would be a great way to honor her. I'm grateful for moments like this to pause, to remember, and to consider just a few of the ways she shaped our family and led us by example. My mom was the kind of person people wrote songs about. 
I could list a number of reasons why my mom is strong. She and my dad both worked full-time jobs to afford being able to bring up three children. Just like any mom, she wanted her children to be able to go forward and experience more than her--to have better opportunities, and so she and dad ensured all three of us kids finished high school. All three of us also went on to college as well.
Today, there is a growing movement of women entrepreneurs and women leading businesses. My mom was a pioneer in that regard. Not only was she a full-time employee, but also she started multiple successful businesses (again alongside my dad--they did everything together). My mom raised shih tzu and poodle pups and sold them as one form of additional income. She gave the pups all of their shots, clipped their tails, and for the shih tzu pups also clipped their duclaws. She also raised and sold birds (parakeets, cockatiels, budgerigars, finches, canaries, and parrots). We must have had more than 200 birds during the hay-day of that business. She ran the business, and dad built cages and nesting boxes for the growing menagerie. She used the extra money from the sale of puppies and birds to pay for school clothes and Christmas presents for all of us. 
Mom also taught us kids to be thankful for what we had, and to do our best to take care of it. Sometimes she made clothes for us and for our relatives, and if our clothes got holes in them, she would mend and patch the garments so we could get more life out of them. And, she and dad both encouraged us to do our best in school, and she also encouraged us to learn responsibility by having pets of our own. We had dogs, birds, cats, fish, and rabbits, and we had to share in making sure they were fed, watered, and cared for year round growing up. My mom and dad gave us kids a great example of what a local economy looks like. Every one of us had a contribution to make to the good of the whole household. And each of us kids were made available to do work for our neighbors growing up as well. Each of us understood very clearly that it was our role to contribute to the good of the house as well as to the community. 
Mom was a life-long learner. She taught herself about caring for all of these different species of birds and dogs, and she taught us kids these same skills at the same time. She taught herself how to knit, crochet, and sew, and she would always make sure she had baby blankets available to any other mom who was expecting, and spare scarves and gloves on hand just in case she ran into someone who didn't have any of their own. 
Any time one of us kids was doing something extracurricular, my mom was out supporting us and cheering us on. From choir to basketball and just about everything in between, she would make sure she had time to come out and support our efforts.
But it wasn't just my family who benefitted from my mom's love and support. She extended that love to cousins, neighbors, and any of our friends growing up. My best friend in the whole world, Willie, has two children who are now approaching adulthood. My mom loved Willie as a son, and in the eyes of Willie's children (as well as from my mom's perspective), she was a Grandma to them...and to a number of other children as well. Although she never held any formal positions of leadership, she was a wisdom-keeper, and a care-taker for many, many people. 
Mom was deeply committed to her rich Christian faith, and to her heritage as a Shawnee woman. She and dad both really enjoyed spending weekends on our tribal lands and strongly supported me as I was elected into positions of service in our tribal community. Many of the children of our tribe looked up to her, and she was always making time to listen to them and encourage them. 
She always took time to listen to and encourage us as well.
I remember about a month before she left this earth, I was visiting her in the hospital, and it was time for me to leave. I was driving to Morgantown so I could walk across the stage and receive my master's degree. I leaned over her to give her a hug, and said, "I'll try to make you proud Mom."
She grabbed my hand, and looked me in the eyes with her eyes filled with love and compassion and responded, "Every day you make me proud!"
That's just the kind of person she was. She was strong raising three children. She was strong running businesses and working full-time for very low wages. And she was strong as she stared down death after being diagnosed with cancer. She never let her present circumstances dictate what was possible for her or for any of us. She faced cancer with a smile and with hope. She faced her last hours encouraging strangers, and loving her family. 
All of us really miss her. We each strive to honor her legacy and the lessons she taught us through her strength, her compassion, and her service. I often fail, but I personally strive to be the warrior, the leader, and the servant that I saw her and dad exemplify--and that they believed I could be. 
As a kid, I don't think I ever fully appreciated the sacrifices my parents made to ensure that us kids had more opportunities than they did. But, better late than never. If you have an opportunity today, let your mom, and the world know why your mom is strong. Post online #MyMomIsStrongBecause or just tell your mom how she exemplifies strength. May we each aspire to be the sons and daughters that our moms dreamed was possible, and may we savor those precious moments we have been given to learn from our moms for the good of our own lives as well as the good of the world.
Oh, and that comment about my mom being someone people write songs about? Here's the song in its entirety. So grateful for Willie taking the time to write this and post it on YouTube.