Lessons Learned from My Mom

Toward the end of 1968, Clara Dye gave birth to her fifth child. He came before Christmas, even though he wasn’t supposed to be born until the first day of 1969. The early arrival messed up Christmas for the other 4 Dye children — but, hey, that’s what babies do.

Now, 48+ years later, my mom would still tell you that I’m her baby — though I am the tallest of her 5 kids. I’m sure when I was a teenager, I rolled my eyes at such comments. Now, I don’t. I’m glad to still be her baby.

With Mother’s Day coming, it seemed a good time to consider lessons this 48-year-old baby has learned from his mom — a woman who turns 84 next month, and then 2 months later celebrates her 63rd wedding anniversary.

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Mom, on her wedding day

Lesson #1: Keep your promises. When mom finished high school in Buffalo, NY, where she grew up, she decided to follow her brother to a small college in Illinois. One of mom’s sisters, meanwhile, went the opposite direction — heading to Eastern Christian College in New Jersey. Mom told her: If it’s a good school, I’ll join you there my sophomore year.

Well, as it turns out, Aunt Dorothy liked the school. She told mom that. But there was one problem. Mom had grown to like the school she was attending in Illinois. She wanted to stay. But she had made a promise, and so she joined her sister at Eastern. It was there she met my dad. They fairly quickly became an item, and on August 1, 1954 joined their lives together in marriage.

Needless to say, I’m glad mom was a woman of her word. I’m grateful she kept her promise. Not only did it give me life, it gave me an example of how to live, and speak.

Lesson #2: Be faithful. Mom didn’t grow up in a family that lived out its faith. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that faith, and God, became real to her. But when mom made a commitment to Christ, she took it seriously. For most of her adult life, mom has served alongside my dad in ministry. This has included untold acts of service that all ministry spouses undertake: teaching, cooking, cleaning, supporting, ministering, and facing the long hours and low pay that was their reality for all of my dad’s working years. But through it all, mom was faithful, serving with dad wherever God took them.

There was one exception, though: music. Mom avoided that, because, even though most minister’s wives of her day played the piano and led choirs, mom didn’t. Even there, even in what she didn’t do, mom is still teaching me this truth: a part of faithfulness is knowing what you can do, and what you can’t.

Lesson #3: Watch what you put in your head. When I was growing up, mom had very clear standards. Secular music was off-limits. Foul language was not tolerated (But mom, all I said was ‘fart’…). And TV was carefully monitored.

For as long as I can remember, mom has enjoyed watching the evening news. As a kid, we would watch the 10:00 news, and on the weekends, or when I got older, we’d leave it on to watch the show after the news. Oftentimes it was Leave it to Beaver. Other times it was MASH. Occasionally, it was Saturday Night Live.

For Leave it to Beaver, we never had to worry about what was said or shown (though mom definitely agreed with June that you had to watch out for that Eddie Haskell). But when we were watching MASH, I knew that there was a good chance we wouldn’t make it through the whole show. Klinger would say something over the line, or Hawkeye would do something that was out-of-bounds, and we’d change the channel. And Saturday Night Live? Well, I’m not sure why mom even let us start that show. I think it was just inertia; if we were watching the NBC local news, SNL automatically came on. But we knew it wouldn’t stay there long.

Mom has always had a strong sense of right and wrong. And she really believed that it matters what you fill your mind with. That’s a lesson that has stuck with me, and one I try to pass on to my kids (though, sadly, they have no appreciation for the humor and life lessons from the Beav).

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Mom & Dad at their 60th anniversary celebration

Lesson #4: Good food brings a family together. Mom has always been a good cook. Whether it was the spaghetti recipe she picked up from our Italian neighbors in New Jersey, or her chicken pantalba that is layers of tasty goodness, or the Rigatoni a la Seventh Street whose taste is only surpassed by its fancy name, mom has always put lots of love and work into her kitchen creations. (And I haven’t even mentioned her killer pies….)

But for mom, food was about more than food. It was a part of what it meant to be family, to share life, to be together. For mom, dinner time was an essential part of family life; it was simply assumed that we would eat supper together. And in the eating, mom didn’t just show us love by lavishing delicious delights on us — she also gave us the opportunity to come together, to do the daily work of being family.

Thanks, mom, for teaching me lessons that matter. I only ask that you continue to be patient with me. Though I am 48, I’m still learning. After all, I am just the baby.

Christmas Traditions

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things was having my aunt come visit us at Christmas. She lived in the frozen tundra of Buffalo, NY, and so I’m guessing she didn’t mind heading south to the (relative) warmth of balmy St. Louis. I remember with great anticipation standing at the baggage carousel, waiting for her luggage to slide down the metal ramp — for she always brought Christmas treats. Some of it we could eat (like amazing sponge candySponge Candy, a Buffalo specialty), and some of it was wrapped, ready to be opened and enjoyed.

Christmas is truly a time for tradition and holiday memories. I have a friend who grew up in a setting where traditions were a bit different than what I experienced. As he described it, he didn’t have any church- or faith-based traditions in his family. The tradition he remembered, he said, was making sure he picked up the right Coke on the table, smelling it, so that he got just Coke – and not Coke and Jack. He also mentioned another tradition he remembered: watching his grandma cook while smoking, and hoping the ash from her cigarette didn’t fall into the food she was preparing. When it did, she would curse as she got a ladle and scooped it out.

Ah, Christmas memories. We all have them. Some good. Some not. But all memorable.

In a recent email, I asked folks some of their traditions. They were all tamer, and perhaps less interesting, then the one I just mentioned:

(My wife’s) family has everyone sit in a circle and open all of the presents one by one as people sit and watch. I have no idea how to react because my family would NEVER have done this. So I’ve had to learn how to fake being super excited about socks without coming off as sarcastic.

In my family we have always done advent with a small devotion and singing a few songs together every night. My parents would spice it up at times (or maybe they were just trying to find something to convince teenagers to come spend family time) by having a special snack or dessert with advent. When my younger siblings were little they would play with a nativity scene toy during advent and they always wanted to tell the Christmas story in their own words.
We started doing advent with (our oldest daughter) a couple of years ago, and now both girls love it. Not only does it help us put the focus back on Christ, it forces us to slow down for a few minutes and enjoy a little bit of family time.

We bake a birthday cake for Jesus and have it for breakfast. We stay in our pajamas all day on Christmas day and never leave the house. We buy each of the kids one big gift and then we spend the rest of our Christmas budget on a family trip. The kids will open up clues (a puzzle, a riddle, etc) and then collectively try to figure out what the trip is. The way we figure it, our kids will have many more lasting memories of the time we spent together doing something fun rather than the stuff they got.

So, what Christmas traditions do you remember? Better yet, what Christmas traditions are you starting? Are they the kind that help you, and those you love, remember the Reason for the Season?

Why I Love the Church

From my earliest days, I was in church. Not only am I a PK (preacher’s kid), I’m a CK (church kid). For me, that means church has always been a part of my life. So, I guess it’s fitting that I drive a Buick, for I am a Brought uichurch kid.

I had lunch this week with Ben, who preaches at the Shively church here in Louisville. And as I was talking to him, it occurred to me that the church where Ben serves would have been my first church. When I was a baby, my family lived in Shively, and would have gone to that church.  It was in that nursery where, no doubt, I first spit up on church carpet; it was probably there that I first tested the patience of kind old ladies (though, no doubt, I have tested their patience ever since). While living in Shively, my dad was also involved in an African-American church, Prentice Street Christian. Even so, I was too young to remember any of that.

Dad at the church in Newark, NJ
Dad at the church in Newark, NJ

My first memory of church, however, takes me to East Orange, New Jersey, where we moved after my family left Louisville. My dad was preaching at 2 churches then — in East Orange, and in nearby Newark. And it’s at Newark that my synapses bring to mind my first real personal memory of church.

I wish I could say it was something deeply spiritual — like a sermon by my father, or a first-grade lesson where the light bulb went off above my head. Instead, my first memory of church is … playing ping pong in the basement at Newark.

Funny thing, though: ever since, I have loved ping pong — and the Church. In a day when it is fashionable to point out the Church’s flaws, or say that It’s day is past, I feel extremely grateful to be a part of God’s Great Family. In the Church, I have learned about life, and love, and family, and grace, and Jesus. In the Church I have learned that people are difficult — but Jesus loves them, and so should I. For Church is where I learn that I am difficult — and Jesus, and His people, love me anyway.

The Church has taught me how much we need each other. With all our flaws, and failures, and foibles — it’s easy to make fun of the Church. And sometimes, if we’re honest, we do some pretty goofy stuff that makes the world just roll their eyes.

But that’s exactly why we need each other. Because we are messy, and bumbling, and we don’t have all our Stuff together. The reason the Church is belittled is exactly the reason we need each other — because we are so messy. And so, we need a place to bring our mess. And find hope. And family. And grace. And Jesus.

I know that there are many PKs and BUICKs who run from Church when they turn 18; I was never one of them. In fact, I feel incredibly blessed to have grown up in church; to have watched my dad serve the church; and to have learned from him and my mom and so many others how important the church is, despite our many weaknesses.

I love the Church! And I want everyone who doesn’t know what Church can be, should be, must be — I want them to experience the grace that overflows among a bunch of simple, sinful, struggling people. For that’s who we are; and that’s why we come. And together, we find the grace of God that is big enough for all of us — and all of us together.

Thank God for the Church! May we become all that God calls us to be, as we experience, and share with each other, His Grace.

A Family Challenge: Prayer & 40 Bucks

We have had a five-year-old living with us for the past five months. He’s a cousin who needed a place to live; and for now, he is a part of our family. I’m learning what I once knew when my kids were younger: five-year-olds change things.

Before he came, everyone in our family was pretty self-sufficient. Our family — two adults and three teenagers — was a place where everyone was able to take care of themselves (most of the time). Then we added a preschooler.

One of my favorite things about having our cousin is knowing that at the end of the day (no matter how long it’s been; despite whatever challenges we have faced), bedtime is almost always a joyful experience. He loves reading from a kids Bible story book. He loves to sing a song. He loves to snuggle. The other night, my teenage girls helped put him to bed — and the four of us had a fun time just being together, and enjoying each other as another day came to an end.

This is family. No matter what the day has brought — no matter the challenges or stresses that life has brought — we can end the day with joy, knowing that we share the love of family.

In a way, every night I get to experience what I think God has in store for us — for all of us. To be family, no matter what we face. And to open our family life to others who need it.

In fact, I think this is a huge part of what Church is about. We are a family, no matter what we face. And having experienced the love of God, we open ourselves to share that love with others. If there is a door into God’s family, then I believe that on it hangs a sign that reads: “Always open.”

This past Sunday, I challenged our church to put family into practice in two ways. Between now and Easter (a traditional 40-day journey the Church has called Lent), let me encourage you to do these two things to help us be family — and extend family:

  1. Pray for someone in our church family who is different from you. If you are 50-plus, you might choose to pray for a child, or a student, or a young adult. If you are in college, you might pray for someone who is retired. If you are single, you might pray for someone who is married — and vice versa. If your primary language is English, you might pray for someone who speaks Spanish — and vice versa. Whoever it is, would you commit to praying, every day, for someone in the church who is different from you? If you do, I believe God will use your prayers, and you, to extend the unity he longs for us to have as a family.
  2. On Sunday, I gave $40 to four different kids in our church, and challenged them to take that money — and with their families — bless someone. Let me extend that challenge to everyone in our church family: set aside $40 to bless someone else. What would it look like if our whole church did that? What if every family in our church family set aside $40, beyond your normal giving, and as a family, put it to work for someone else? If you can’t do $40, do less. If $40 is too small, do more. But do something; bless someone else this Easter season. The only limit to how you do this is the creativity of your family. The key isn’t what you do, but that you do it. And do it together, with your family, or whoever you share life with.

Family takes work. Anybody who has ever lived in family knows that. Church is no different. Are you doing the hard work of building up our church? Are you looking for ways to extend church family to those who need it? This Easter, let’s do that. Together.