Three Thanksgivings

Thanksgiving has long been a favorite holiday of mine. It’s the beginning of the Christmas season, a time for delicious calorie-heavy food, and a welcome opportunity to break from the craziness of life and catch up with family we haven’t seen in months. It’s a season of reminiscing; lots of laughter, sometimes tears.

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For my family, this was the first Thanksgiving without Pappaw. It was different, and a little sad. But also sweet. Because sitting together and digging through boxes of old pictures and memorabilia sparked so many stories and memories. We found childhood drawings and letters we’d sent to Granny and Pappaw decades ago. We laughed at awkward family pictures, and passed around old family photographs from the early 1900s. I think this year, more than ever before, we were all reminded of our beautiful inheritance.

I’ve recently realized that most people don’t have cousins they can sit around a table with for hours, drinking pour over coffee, sipping red wine, eating buttery pop corn, laughing out loud, playing hand after hand of Oh Shucks, quoting movie lines, loving life together. We are a family of laughter and joy. Even with the heartache of this past year, the difficulties of life in general, the miles apart (many of us spread out in different states and countries). This year, we all returned. My sister from Mexico, my brother from college, my husband and I from Augusta. This year, for the first time in many years, we all met together again at the home that holds some of the happiest memories.

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I am thankful for these 28 years with my family. Twenty-seven with pappaw. Almost three with my husband. And as we’ve left the nest, and started this new military life, it’s been so important to me that we carry on a legacy of hospitality with our Navy family here. This past week, we enjoyed three separate and uniquely different Thanksgiving meals. Yes, it’s a lot of food. But more importantly, it’s a lot of fellowship. A table full of beautiful souls.

A few months ago, I commissioned my brother to build us a six foot farmhouse table. Now I realize everyone and their mother currently has a farmhouse table or is making one, or at least dreaming about one. It’s a trend that has caught on like wildfire – and for good reason. Farmhouse tables are beautiful and welcoming. I wanted a space where people could gather, converse, laugh, swap stories, enjoy food, drink wine, break bread. I told my husband to invite everyone. Our house is small. Parking is a problem. The turkey was only 13 pounds. But I didn’t care. Come one, come all. I decorated for Christmas, roasted a turkey, turned up Bing Crosby, made a bowl full of homemade cranberry sauce (boiled down from plump cranberries in water, orange juice, and sugar, with a just a hint of cinnamon). Last Tuesday night, we had a house full of sailors. One soldier. A few wives. The house was loud. We ran out of chairs. But somehow, there was plenty of food. I made homemade hot apple cider and passed around tupperware overflowing with brownies.

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And once again, I felt grateful for this opportunity. I knew very few of the people gathered around the table. But it didn’t matter because I absolutely believe that the walls of separation diminish when you sit down to share a meal with a stranger.

Our third Thanksgiving took us back home to North Carolina for two days. After far too much turkey, casseroles, and pie, my mother in law decided to bake a few lasagnas instead – a very welcome reprieve from all the leftovers we’d been consuming for days. This time, we gathered with my husband’s sweet family. Grandparents. Sister. A brother home from college. It was intimate and welcoming. We ate leftover pumpkin cheesecake, and turned on the fire as the temperature dropped outside.

I know it’s a cliche to say I’m thankful for family. But I am. I have a rich, beautiful heritage that has only grown sweeter with age. We’re surrounded by a growing group of supportive sailors and soldiers who actually enjoy hanging out with us, pet sitting, or coming over for a meal. And to top it all off, I married into a loving family of servant-hearted individuals.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

 

October 2016: A Little Life Update on Moving + Friendship

October has arrived in all the glory of less humidity (thank goodness) – a welcome reprieve.

Photo by Sarah Southern

Photo by Sarah Southern

I’ve found myself buying more pumpkins than I know what to do with, wandering around the local produce tents and admiring all the fall things (while still wearing tank tops and shorts because even though the humidity has died down, the temperatures are still in the mid-eighties). In Augusta, we make chili, light pumpkin spice candles, and turn down the AC – pretending that outside it’s brisk and cool enough for boots and sweaters!

Photo by Sarah Southern

Photo by Sarah Southern

In all seriousness though, our fall has been glorious. While missing the beautiful colors of a North Carolina autumn, I am rejoicing in the glory of church fellowship, new friendships and opportunities, and a growing appreciation for the area. It’s been a long time coming – a hot, slow, and rather dull summer (with a few fun trips thrown in). Battles with loneliness and discontentedness, many tears, many coffee dates with me, myself, and I. Honestly though, I think I needed it. I needed to go through this lonely period because I’ve learned a lot through it. I’ve learned to persevere and not give up on finding community and friendship. I’ve learned how to extend myself far beyond my comfort zone (often going into unknown territories – strangers homes full of dozens of people I’ve never met). I’ve learned to be observant of others just like me – women longing for friendship and not really knowing how to initiate. I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) that a new adventure or experience is what we make it – we’re either open to opportunities (regardless of the zip code), or we waste our time, counting down the days until we can get the heck out of here.

Gracious, that’s a lot of lessons to learn. And I’m still learning, still being challenged, and (Lord willing) still growing.

Yesterday, we realized it’s been a year since my husband graduated bootcamp. In many ways it’s been the most emotional and hectic year of our lives! So much has happened since his inaugural day as a United States sailor! There have been moments I’ve wondered what the heck we’re doing. Why leave a solid community, good jobs, a great church, loving family, and fantastic friends? I think the answer is that growth often comes in the pursuit of the unknown. Not everyone is called to leave their hometowns – and that’s a good thing. But I do think we’re all called to take risks, venture outside our comfortable bubbles of familiarity, and give the uncertain future to a God who is entirely trustworthy.

Photo by Sarah Southern

Photo by Sarah Southern

This is something that requires a lot of practice. I’m learning so much. Failing often, and starting all over again and again. But I guess I can see a little more clearly now, as is often the case. The hardest thing about our move to Augusta was the overwhelming feeling of loneliness. It’s the same feeling I experienced 16 years ago at 12 years old when I stood in the driveway of our new house in our new hometown. I felt so alone – believing I’d never make friends (oh, the many insecurities that come with youth). And yet that was the date I met my husband (God indeed has a wonderful sense of humor). That move led to lasting friendships, wonderful opportunities, an incredible church. At 27, I was confronted once again with 12-year-old Sarah. “I’ll never make friends. No one wants to hang out with me! Everyone else already has their cliques and girlfriends!” And yet God was pushing me. Quietly whispering, “Say hello. Invite them to dinner. Go to that event. Don’t be afraid of rejection.” And you know what I’ve discovered? Other people are longing for friendships too. Other people are lonely. They’re also just waiting for an invitation, a kind smile, an intentional greeting. And when we can brush aside our feelings of awkwardness, our own self awareness, and take risks, friendships are formed. Walls come crumbling down. Expressions of helplessness turn to expressions of gratitude and joy.

 

Photo by Sarah Southern

Photo by Sarah Southern

It’s true what C.S. Lewis says: “to love is to be vulnerable.” When we love, we risk rejection. And that’s a scary thing. But when we withhold love and distance ourselves we are potentially missing out on the glory of fellowship. We are wired to desire community. And that’s what I’m learning – becoming a recluse, staying home, and waiting for friends to line up at my door is never going to happen. I must be proactive – become vulnerable. And I have been. More and more so these last few months. There have been some rejections, but mostly budding and blossoming relationships. It’s amazing, I’ve found, the power of a meal shared between strangers. Afterwards, we often find we’ve already arrived at friendship – isn’t that a beautiful thing?

One Year Later

Savannah River, Augusta, GA

Savannah River, Augusta, GA

My husband reminded me last week that we’ve just passed our one year anniversary in the Navy. A year ago, I dropped off my soon-to-be-sailor at a hotel in Raleigh (after squeezing his neck and sobbing into his shirt collar for half an hour). We had two more phone calls before all communication was cut off (with the exception of an occasional letter). In the past year, we changed careers, sold our very first home, moved to Pensacola (where we continued to live separately for two more months); and after six months in Florida, ventured on a seven-state road trip, returned to North Carolina to pack up our things, and relocated to Augusta, Georgia.

A lot has been packed into one year. A whole heck of a lot of new. Lots emotions. Some loneliness. Countless blessings.

I heard a beautiful reminder recently about the importance of remembering our journeys. I think about the Israelites who erected pillars in remembrance of what God had done… These days, we move on, get over, run past the tough stuff. We forget to slow down, reflect, thank the Lord for His goodness. I don’t want to forget what God has brought us through, or the lessons He’s taught us together and separately.

“…set up road markers for yourself; make yourself guideposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went…” (Jeremiah 31:21)

I did not want to move to Augusta. I was beyond ready to experience something other than the South. I wanted to live in a new state, explore new surroundings (preferably near mountain ranges). The last thing I expected was orders for hot-and-humid Augusta, Georgia. It’s been a tough three months. It’s taken a lot of diligence to meet people (me venturing into uncomfortable and unknown situations to get involved). But as I’ve pushed myself, as husband and I have extended dinner invitations, visited churches, and gone to military and local events, our dislike for the area has begun to fade.

Augusta may not have been our first choice, but there’s a reason that we’re here. We’re starting to notice beauty, we’re making friends, and learning to appreciate our current duty station. And we’re also reminded of how far we’ve come in the last year. My husband is home again, we’re living together again. We finally have our furniture and belongings (after six months in Pensacola with ugly rented furniture and just a suitcase full of clothes). He left for bootcamp a lowly seaman recruit. Now he’s a genuine sailor. I couldn’t be more proud.

It’s been a good year. A very different year. A year full of learning curves. But I certainly wouldn’t change anything – even the hard stuff. Even Augusta.

My thoughts on ‘church shopping’ and the modern church movement

When my husband and I arrived in Augusta (three months ago), we didn’t have a single friend in the area or any connections whatsoever. Craving Christian fellowship, we’ve spent three months hopping from church to church trying to find a new church home. For anyone who has moved to a new town or decided it was time to find a new church, the experience of “church shopping” can be daunting and even intimidating.

I still have vivid childhood memories of visiting foreign churches with my family – dreading the inevitable “child roundup” that separates kids from parents (segregates siblings by age), and sends them to dank basements for Sunday School with strange kids, felt Bible story boards, and animal crackers. Church shopping was always an adventure – sometimes good, and sometimes weird: like the Sunday morning (probably 15 years ago) when the pastor preached about his birthday and his birthday wish list (I, of course, did not actually witness this sermon as I was most likely in the basement for Sunday School – but it’s a story my parents mention often as a very weird church experience).

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Fast forward to 2016, and I no longer have to worry about being rounded up and sent to the basement (thank goodness). “Church shopping” as an adult has been tedious and discouraging (seven churches in three months). Coming from a small, simple church background, I was not prepared for the modern church movement. Parents don’t send their kids to basements anymore. They check their kids into Sunday School with fancy kiosks stationed in foyers, and hand them off to staff members who have been vetted and undergone background checks. I’m going to sound far too old for my age, but I had no idea (until three months ago) that modern churches had become so technologically savvy! Not only are there kiosks for checking in kids, there are *usually* kiosks for tithing as well (gone are the days when the deacons walk up and down the aisles, passing around old fashioned baskets collecting cash and checks). Husband and I have walked into sanctuary after sanctuary (except for the first Sunday when we were forced to sit in the overflow seating), in awe of fancy, expensive sound equipment, lighting, video screens, etc. Churches now have full on rock concerts during the worship portion. They have fog machines, light shows, and just in case you can’t see the worship leader from your seat, they often provide extra video screens of the worship team.

Week after week, we visited churches that seemed to have it all – large buildings, qualified staff, beautiful facilities, top-of-the-line equipment. But we left feeling unsatisfied, unfed, and lonely.

I write all of this not to critique large churches, programs, or technology – all of which can be good things. I’ve been to some amazing large churches, worshipped in settings of thousands, sat under many different kinds of preaching from many different pastors. My own preference is not the only way to do church at all. There is beauty in diversity – and in my 27 years I’ve seen a lot of different ways to do church from conference settings, to intimate gatherings in English and Spanish. But I don’t think I’m off the mark to say that while America is full of beautifully diverse churches, it has also entered a time when the Gospel has taken a back row seat. Maybe not intentionally – but in so many churches, somehow the meaning and purpose of the church has gotten lost amongst the giant congregations, the programs, the donuts and coffee, the new building constructions, the fog machines, the topical sermons, etc.

I’m reminded of a quote from David Platt in his book ‘Radical,’ “We are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.”

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In her novel, ‘And the Shofar Blew,’ Francine Rivers paints a story of a pastor who moves to a small town to help a dying church. The pastor is young, humble and energetic and has plans to get involved in the community and bring people in. At first his intentions are purely fueled by his love for the Gospel. The church grows, lost are saved. The unwanted become wanted. But with the growth of the congregation, comes a focus of more material things. The pastor starts kicking out the original elders and replacing them with younger, “more hip” elders. The church goes into massive debt to build new facilities, and the pastor becomes so involved in the church that he neglects his own family. Over time, the pastor stops preaching from scripture, skips over topics of sin and the crucifixion because with so many newcomers and unbelievers pouring in, he doesn’t want to scare them off with the “messiness of the Gospel.” He gains wealth, fame, notoriety. But loses the essence of the church.

‘And the Shofar Blew’ is a difficult book to read, but one that is incredibly relevant to today’s culture and an important reminder that even our Christian leaders can be deceived and lose sight of their purpose.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reminded to pray diligently for the church in America. The church is the bride of Christ – and as such, she is precious to Him. But the church is not above reproach. We’re living in a time when it is far easier to tickle ears with watered down scripture than to preach truth. So many are sacrificing convictions, being won over by a very convincing culture. The church is not immune to this and we need to be prepared – girded in armor and founded on the Word of God.

So, I digress a lot. Because what has been our personal experience of church shopping has actually been a much deeper look into the modern church. I’ve been wrangled out of my comfort zone and I’ve been challenged to have grace always, but also to have discernment to see where the church is heading if we’re not careful. Maybe it’s because of my own experience living in a third world country, but I cannot help but be sickened when witnessing the extravagance and opulence of some of the churches we’ve visited (which reminds me a lot of Francis of Assisi in the movie ‘Brother, Sun, Sister, Moon’ and his shock walking into a cathedral adorned with gold and jewels while people outside the doors were literally naked and starving). The world (especially the third world) already views Americans as disgustingly wealthy. What would they think if they stepped foot in our churches, walked across the expensive tiled floors, used the granite laden bathrooms, worshipped in the massive, technology filled sanctuaries? What would Jesus think?

“The price is certainly high for people who don’t know Christ and who live in a world where Christians shrink back from self-denying faith and settle into self-indulging faith. While Christians choose to spend their lives fulfilling the American dream instead of giving their lives to proclaiming the kingdom of God, literally billions in need of the Gospel remain in the dark” [David Platt]

Remember the story of the rich young ruler? He had faith. He obeyed the law. He wanted to follow Jesus. But one thing hindered him from pursuing a radical faith – his wealth. He couldn’t let it go. He could not imagine a calling that required him to lay down comfort, convenience and fortune. Perhaps this is where the modern church is today. Money is pouring in, and the temptation to indulge in fancy facilities and high end technology, hire professional staff, provide free donuts and coffee every Sunday can (sometimes) be stronger than the calling to cast aside everything, go into the world, and preach the Gospel. Do we need church? Absolutely! Christ desires the believers to be in fellowship, to come together in worship, to be discipled, educated, challenged. But there’s always a danger, no matter if it’s in the church or our own lives, to allow material belongings and love of money to become too strong – deep seated idols that replace our first love.

We’re standing at a crossroads in America. Disaster is eminent – and I don’t necessarily mean nuclear bombs or world war III. But when the church becomes less distinguishable from the world, when the world begins to feel comfortable in the church, when we neglect the bedrock (the Bible) of our own faith, then we have surely lost our way. This is not the case in all American churches – not by a long shot. But it is true for some. And that is something worth mulling over. At the very least, praying about. And if God leads, taking action.

Three weeks ago, my husband and I walked into our seventh church. We came across the website and decided to visit. At this point, I didn’t have any expectations but I hoped we’d enjoy good worship, teaching and fellowship. The building was small, the sanctuary was tiny (and hot). It felt like we were stepping back into 1999 with metal chairs and an overhead projector. We quickly learned the congregants were in the process of moving and this would be their last Sunday in the warehouse (they had spent the last two years renovating an abandoned old schoolhouse into a new church facility). This body of believers made an impact on us. Despite the packed room, the warm temperature, the simple worship and message, the unimpressive (or lack of) decor, we were incredibly blessed. We were welcomed, not ignored. The worship was genuine. The message simple but rooted in scripture.

In the weeks since, we’ve attended a work day, broken bread with believers in the church, visited a home group, and enjoyed several Sunday services. It’s not perfect – because people aren’t perfect. Christians are far from perfect. But we’ve been encouraged and exhorted not to be passive partakers, but active servants. We’ve found community.

 

Let Me Be a Woman!

 

Women, we’ve scored a victory according to the mass media and blaring Facebook statuses. Regardless of political affiliations, we’re told we should be excited that history is being made. A woman is competing head to head for presidency – how historic, how inspiring, how awe-striking. Turns out women are equal after all and are capable of achieving one of the highest seats of power in America – if not the world.

Photo by Bethany Cubino, Chasing Skies Photography

Photo by Bethany Cubino, Chasing Skies Photography

We’re told this is the absolute height of female empowerment and women’s rights. After battling men for ages, we’ve finally proven we too can become president despite our sex. As women, we’re swept along in that automatic assumption that we can’t possibly be anything but thrilled about a female presidential candidate simply because we share the same chromosomes.

What kind of simpletons do they take us for? The reality is there are countless conservative women who are appalled by Hillary Clinton. The fact that she is a woman does not guarantee her the support of all women – nor should it. Just as I can oppose a man, I can also oppose a woman, especially one with such a history of manipulation, abuse of power, and corruption. And yes, many would argue this is typical of all politicians – and maybe it is. But not all politicians are being championed as the icon, the heroine and shining example, of women’s rights. And that’s why, as a woman, I cannot sit here and simply take it quietly.

Ladies, one of the best ways we can arm ourselves against the propaganda of a culture that instantly labels us as betrayers of our gender if we’re anything but liberal, is through reading and research. I recently finished the book “Feisty & Feminine” by Penny Young Nance and I would recommend it to all women who are tired of being shamed for their conservatism.

 

We’re living in a culture that is attempting to eliminate the differences between the sexes, encouraging women to shirk their femininity and don masculinity. We’re applauding women who use manipulation, coercion, power, sexuality, and wealth to gain success. We’re pointing to these sorts of women as champions of feminism, as if their title, their wealth, their fame, their glory is what all women should strive for – no matter the cost.

Ladies, we’re better than this. We were created and designed to be different from men. This is not a handicap – God did not create us as lesser beings. We are different beings. And this is an incredibly beautiful and glorious thing. It is because we are women that we can lead and live with compassion and empathy, show hospitality and grace, offer alternative perspectives, engage, communicate, serve. We are women – and as women we are different. It’s time we embrace our differences, and bask in our femininity that distinguishes us (quite beautifully) from men. As Christian women, our ambition, our ultimate desire should be to live in holiness – as Elisabeth Elliot declared, “Let me be a woman, holy through and through!” 

Does this mean women can’t or shouldn’t run for president? Absolutely not! Women have achieved great levels of leadership in America. We have a female attorney general, a female secretary of the interior, a female secretary of commerce, a female secretary of health and human services – Hillary Clinton herself was the secretary of state! We have women serving on the supreme court, the senate and congress. We have women serving on the local level as mayors and city counsel members, women in the police force and the military. We have women talk show hosts and hard-hitting journalists – sex is no longer a factor that keeps women from achieving whatever they want to achieve. The reality is that the vast majority of women (and men) do not want to run for president. The chances of winning an election for the majority of candidates is slim. A woman winning the election has the potential to be an encouraging historical achievement OR just another corrupt politician who weaseled her way into the office through manipulation and lots and lots of political favors.

Women are integral in God’s design for humanity. Throughout scripture, we see how God uses women (in their glorious femininity) from Sarah, to Miriam, to Rahab, to Ruth, to Esther, to Hannah, to Mary to Lydia, etc., etc., etc. God’s design is perfect and He created US WOMEN to be mighty vessels for His kingdom. We were not created to sit on the sidelines, or compete head to head with men. Elisabeth Elliot said that it’s through our limitations as women that we discover our gifts.

When I think about women worth emulating, I think of women who were successful BECAUSE of their femininity. I think of Hannah Moore, a popular writer and philanthropist, who used her gift of writing to work alongside William Wilberforce in abolishing slavery in England. I think of Rosa Parks who risked a great deal to fight for civil rights because she believed ALL people deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. I think of Corrie and Betsy ten Boom who hid Jews during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and were eventually arrested and sent to a prison camp – but it was their femininity and holiness as women that kept them devoted to their God through absolute suffering. I think about Elisabeth Elliot who went to live amongst the Indian tribe that killed her husband to extend forgiveness, and demonstrate Christ’s love. I think about Abby Johnson, an anti-abortion activist who works with doctors and nurses coming out of the abortion industry in desperate need of healing and restoration.

I think about the women in my life – not famous or well-known, but women of God, holy, and feminine.

We’re not lacking in good examples of real female empowerment! We have countless examples to look towards – women who have literally impacted the lives of dozens, hundreds, even thousands! And these are the kinds of women we should seek to emulate – not a power hungry politician who uses her gender to shame women into supporting her.

Women, we don’t have to do all the things men do. We don’t have to score the presidency to be considered important and worthy. We certainly don’t have to sacrifice our values and morals for some skewed platform of gender equality. We are women created with incredible gifts to achieve much, and contribute to society and the world. Let us be women of God before we’re women of the world. Let’s be women who are not ashamed of our femininity. Let’s stand for truth and justice – let’s be bold in our convictions!

“We are women, and my plea is LET ME BE A WOMAN, holy through and through, asking for nothing but what God wants to give me, receiving with both hands and with all my heart whatever that is.” [Elisabeth Elliot]

Resources:

Let Me Be a Woman by Elisabeth Elliot

Fierce Convictions by Karen Swallow Prior

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

Unplanned by Abby Johnson

The Walls are Talking by Abby Johnson

Feisty and Feminine by Penny Young Nance

7 Women and their Secrets of Greatness by Eric Metaxas

Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

Stories from the Fireworks Tent

It’s been a few weeks since my best friend, Bethany, and I returned from a spontaneous (for me anyway) trip to Minnesota where we sold fireworks in a grocery store parking lot for nine days.

Yes, you read that right. We sold fireworks. And no, I knew absolutely nothing about fireworks prior to this trip – I’ve never bought or set off fireworks in my life. I certainly knew nothing about fireworks laws in my own state, let alone Minnesota. But hey, I’m all about adventure and any extra time with my best friend who I rarely get to see anymore.

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Bethany, unlike me, has previous fireworks-peddling experience. She spent a week last summer helping out her aunt and returned this year to work her own tent. Selling fireworks is hard work – especially for two women. For nine days, we worked 13-14 hour shifts (the first few days were incredibly slow and consisted of sunbathing, movie watching, and lots of book reading), ate far too much fast food, and drank copious amounts of Caribou coffee. We manned a tent full of fireworks, unpacked and set up the merchandise every single morning and packed up and hauled off the merchandise to a pod every evening.

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And throughout these nine days of hard work and pretending to know a lot more about fireworks than we actually did, we encountered some of the most bizarre customers – like the “phone guy” (as we called him) who walked up and down the parking lot everyday, mop of crazy gray hair and a white beard, pushing a lone cart, and always, ALWAYS, talking on the phone like it was attached to his face. I couldn’t help but wonder if there really was someone on the other end of that phone call – my theory is that he’s an undercover agent and his incredibly discombobulated and confusing conversations were just code words.

And then, there was “exorcism lady” who appeared our first day out in the parking lot. She plopped herself on a bench outside of the grocery store and commenced screaming, yelling, and moaning at passers-by in an eery, demonic manner until a taxi cab finally showed up (one of our customers commented, “this sounds like something out of ‘The Exorcist.'”).

We had a visit from Dan, a seemingly nice older gentleman who showed up to just chat and buy a few fireworks – which was perfectly fine until his stories about traveling to Thailand grew more and more racy (it’s always uncomfortable when an old man talks about prostitution – how the subject came up I’ll never know). Dan stayed for a good 45 minutes and every story was followed by “this will be my last story and then I’ll leave you ladies alone.” Dan finally left, but returned a few hours later with his spoiled grandchild (or grandmonster) who ran through the tent, knocking over fireworks, and rudely questioning Bethany and I about everything from the amount of money in the cash register to “can I have this for free?”

It’s amazing how many people stopped by a fireworks tent (of all places) just to hang out and chat. And of course, we met some interesting and genuinely nice people – like Mike who worked at the grocery store and visited us on his breaks to tell us stories about his own crazy customers and dating life. And there was the sweet veteran who came in with his family to buy a few fireworks who’s face lit up when we told him about the discount for active duty and retired military. A disabled veteran who probably doesn’t get a lot of thanks anymore looked so happy in that moment, he turned to both of us as he was leaving and said, “God bless.”

In customer service there’s always that one customer who insists on pushing the limits and testing your patience. After working nearly 13 hours, the last thing anyone wants is a customer that just won’t leave. We were getting ready to pack up one night when a woman entered the tent with her two granddaughters. They circled the tent, asking questions about every single firework. The girls could not make up their minds and the grandmother was growing more agitated by the minute. Finally, the girls settled on a $40 grab bag but the experience was far from over. Grandmother dumps her large purse out on the table and all three begin to count out $40 in change…meanwhile, Bethany and I are packing up hoping to ring up the customers so that we can go to bed (we’re completely worn out). Grandmother keeps shouting over to me, “how much is this again?” “$40,” I say. They have $36 in bills – the rest will have to be counted out in quarters, nickels, and dimes but they forgot to factor in the tax! So grandmother makes a phone call to (I can only assume) the girl’s mother. Grandmother is in a terrible mood at this point and yells into the phone, “We need $3! FELICIA! S**T!” Felicia, apparently, hung up the phone. Now, grandmother is yelling at the girls for not having enough change for the grab bag. “But grandmother…,” they object so politely. Felicia (thankfully) arrives and hands the girls $3. And now, I begin counting the change. I count it twice because the last thing I want is a short changed register. The girls are $0.13 short – grandmother starts yelling at me – “You need how MUCH??”

We finally got the situation straightened out – Felicia had some extra change, the girls got their fireworks, and grandmother was finally able to go home and (hopefully) crawl into bed and sleep off her grouchiness.

But all of the frustrating and weird customer experiences paled in comparison to our most outrageous pair who visited us on the 4th of July. I have to admit, by July 4th we were beat. We had worked nine days straight and the last few days were incredibly busy with last minute buyers. By evening, we had asked at least eight people to move their cars (which, according to the fire marshall, cannot be left running next to the tent). So when Abe and his enabling buddy obnoxiously parked their car mere inches from the tent, I was in no mood for an argument and demanded that they move their car immediately. While Abe’s buddy genuinely was interested in buying fireworks, Abe was looking to start a fight from questioning the fire marshall guidelines, to smoking in the tent (super bad idea), to harassing Bethany because the fireworks “should be discounted on the last day.” He just wouldn’t stop talking – we were growing increasingly annoyed trying to help other customers while being distracted by this chauvinist jerk who actually accused us of being “two teenagers who wanted to close early so we could go party.” I finally turned around and said in a stern (but noticeably frustrated voice), “If you don’t stop talking I’m going to call 911.” I sounded like an idiot, I know. But I was shaking with frustration. “Call the cops,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I’ll spare my readers all of the details but this kind of thing went on for a while – Abe was a jerk, his friend said nothing, and our customers didn’t seem the least bit phased by it. Abe and company eventually left. And soon after, the cops showed up. I guess one of our customers decided some intervention would be nice though it was too late to do anything.

All in all, this will forever be the most memorable 4th of July I’ve experienced to date. And I think Bethany feels the same.

Customer service jobs always attract all kinds of people. But if you ever want to experience the weirdest, most interesting types, I recommend spending nine days sitting in a parking lot. Anything can happen!

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Love can only win with Christ

Love. It’s a word easily thrown around but rarely understood. Love, according to society’s understanding, is the ability to uphold and affirm everyone, never arguing, never disagreeing. In the wake of tragedy – one so obviously inspired by a flawed agenda and hate-filled heart – love is the anthem, the catch-phrase, the reminder that evil acts are few and far between. Love will win. Love wins.

I’ve been mulling this idea over and over in my mind. My heart has been heavy over these last few days – an attack on American soil is an attack on us all. And the loss of lives is always, always a tragedy that should never be taken lightly or pushed aside. It’s because we’re human that we possess the ability to empathize, to mourn the loss of strangers, to feel anger at injustice. It’s because we’re human that we long for universal love and the dispelling of all hate and evil. And it’s because we’re human that this Utopian dream will never be a reality this side of Heaven, that evil will always exist, and that love – real love – is something we have to fight for.

As Christians, our understanding of love is inherently different from the world’s. We’re called to patience, kindness, long-suffering, and most importantly love. Love, as we see in scripture, is sacrificial. Love is action – doing unto others, loving our neighbors as ourselves. But love goes even deeper still. As we see in First Corinthians, love is so much more than outer works. Even faith great enough to move mountains, but lacking in love, is nothing. Martyrdom without love is nothing. Prophesy without love is nothing. Giving of your time and resources without love is nothing.

Christ calls us all to a humanly impossible standard – a standard that directly involves our hearts. The ability to love in such a way is a holy one. We cannot love selflessly without the holy spirit working through us, illuminating the selfishness, bigotry, hate and prejudice lurking in every single human heart.

I’m sure the “love wins” hashtag is shared (for the most part) with good intentions. We live in a society of perceived tolerance – we want everyone to feel affirmed and accepted, and we equate those feelings with love. We, as a society, assume most people love most people and the terrorists and hate-filled criminals are rare and isolated.

But do we really love the way we think we love? How many times have you been filled with road rage at the person who purposefully cut you off on the high way? How often, when standing in line at the grocery store, do you find yourself incredibly annoyed (muttering under your breath) at those “slow” customers ahead of you? Do you spread gossip? Do you make assumptions about people you haven’t even met? Are you biased? Do you love your neighbor even though he blasts loud music or has an annoyingly loud barking dog? What about your co-workers? Family members? Do you hate anyone – even a little?

Are we really, truly, a loving society? Because based on my understanding of humans in general, comments on social media, actions observed in the community, I’d say we’re pretty unloving beneath the surface. We don’t just love people – especially strangers. We’re easily annoyed. We cut people out of our lives, stop making efforts, yell at our neighbors for being too loud. We roll our eyes, and get frustrated with people who disagree with us. We’re offended quickly and withhold forgiveness easily. We are not righteous – as scripture says, “no not one.”

Love, very often, does not win.

Loving others does not come naturally – even if we think we’re pretty good at it. When that magnifying glass comes out and our hearts are revealed, we see what’s really going on beneath the surface. Beneath our charitable giving, our volunteering, our perceived tolerance for everyone and anyone, our inward nature very often is secretly riddled with hate, bias, and unforgiveness. According to scripture, we’re not just naturally unloving people, we’re naturally evil people. Apart from Christ, we’re all capable of the most heinous actions. We all have the propensity to be driven by hate rather than love.

But for the grace of God, we can truly learn how to love in a way that penetrates the heart. It’s the kind of love capable of forgiving the most horrendous actions. This kind of love values all human life, and treats people – no matter the differences – with dignity. It’s the kind of love that can acknowledge true evil and mourn with those who mourn. Love that clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, gives to the poor. We can love in this way, because “He first loved us (1 John 4:19).” Christ served, spent time with sinners, forgave his persecutors, demonstrated love for a lost and evil world through sacrifice, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).”

Love, in human terms, does not win. We cannot possibly hope to conquer human evil with human love – our wells run dry, life is too hard, people too unforgivable. Love, apart from Christ is shallow, empty, and selfishly motivated. But through Christ, through his redemptive and sacrificial love, we can love with a holy love – a love that pierces through the evil and forgives the unforgivable.