Don’t Just Pray About It: Be About It!

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Around this time last year, my family and I were hurting as we grappled with the loss of our Mom. This was not my birth mother; it was my mother-in-law. But “mom” is the word that best captures her. She was all hugs and kisses, presents and perfume, laughter and good times, birthday cakes and apple cobblers, holidays and cheer, grandchildren and treats — and we miss her dearly. However, so much has happened this month that has reminded me not just about her but about empathy for people dealing with their own grief moment.

As a professor of graduate students, I often get a peek into the windows of their lives for three months or more during their journey at my current university. These are individuals who all lead busy lives as spouses, parents, teachers/professionals trying to juggle it all in the pursuit of higher education. Yet even with so many balls in the air, sometimes the unexpected happens and every ball threatens to come crashing down on them, like it almost did for our family on November 13, 2013—the night mom passed away.

I have been touched by the tenacity of these students in the face of significant challenges—an only child and single parent mother managing her family and making endless trips to the hospital as she deals with the debilitating health of her mother;  a young man whose heart is breaking as he waits for news about the survival of his first child;  and a mother of two planning funeral services for her last living parent—her mom. These are my students juggling it all in the middle of a busy and taxing semester and my heart breaks for them. And they inspire me in so many ways. What can I do? How can I help?

I am not a stranger to grief. However, this post is not about my grief or the palpable grief I sense in my students. These incidents have made me question my own response to others in moments of despair– death, loss, illness, life challenges. How should I respond? How should we respond?

Last year, while we rode the mental and emotional roller coaster of having a loved one in ICU for almost a month, if there is one phrase my husband and I had grown to despise was: “If there is anything I can do to help..? Though I am sure well intentioned, it was so cliché, so unanswerable—felt almost like a cop out, the thing to say, the path of least resistance. Likewise, while we did appreciate the prayers of friends, how much more meaningful was the food sent over in our time of grief, the advice from a close friend who traveled from Florida to be with us, to help us figure out how to break the news to our 4 and 6 year old daughters, the one who came to stay with our kids while we were at the hospital, and the friend who made the difficult journey with my husband to collect mom’s things….

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As I reflect on the life of Jesus, it occurs to me that when confronted with the grief of others He did not just offer to pray about it, though that would have certainly been enough! Instead,  we see Jesus traveling to Bethany to comfort two grieving sisters; we see him making breakfast for a boat full of weary fishermen, there he is on bended knee making mud with his own spittle and putting it on the eyes of a blind man; can you see him holding the hands of a little girl and saying the life giving words: ‘Little girl, Wake up!’ ?

This world is filled with hurting people. While they can certainly use our prayers, how much more do they need us to be the hands, the feet, the arms, the voice, the money, the gifts, the warmth, the care, the food, the time that gently and lovingly supports them through heartbreaking moments of grief.

Don’t just offer to pray about it—be about it!

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In Support of Intentional Parenting

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On a Stick Adventure

Without a doubt, parenting is proving to be the hardest job that I have signed up to do to date. This, mind you, coming from someone, who spent 4 years studying child and developmental psychology and has taught educational psychology at the undergraduate and graduate level for years. But as you probably can attest to yourself, knowing something and doing it are two different things altogether. Moreover, there is a current backdrop in social circles that has taken to labeling different kinds of parenting styles with acclaim for some and disdain for others as deemed appropriate. For example, you would have to be from another planet to have not heard the terms: “helicopter parenting” or “Tiger mom parenting”. Without casting aspersions at anyone, because my motto is “to each his own”, I refuse to be labeled by any other terminology than the one I choose. So although I have read, or rather skimmed an article here or there about the definitions relevant to these types of parenting, I remain blissfully ignorant about the descriptions aligned to any one approach. What I do know is that at the intersection of my professional calling, my faith, and my socialization, I am on a mission to be an Intentional Parent. (Yes! I know, as if we needed a new parenting term). What do I mean by this? Well, I am glad you asked. However, before this posts develops into a rant (trust me that can happen quite easily), let me set a few organizational mile makers to keep me on track– the context and intentional parenting.

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The Nearby Creek

When I think about the sociocultural context in which young children are being raised, the words of Michael Jackson’s song come to mind: “All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us!” I have come to accept this as a truism about the cultural and commercial ethos in which we live—this includes music, entertainment, television, books, movies, food and even supposedly educational services and products.

A few years aback, I walked into my 4 year old daughter’s preschool classroom and was shocked to find them doing warm up exercises to Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies”. And no, I don’t think it is cute! Of all the songs to choose for preschoolers, what is the mindset that would allow an educator to choose this one? I am clueless! On another occasion, just around this time of year, my daughter was crying because she did not want to walk through the hallways and be greeted by ghosts and vampires with blood dripping from their teeth etc. This was more than I could bear. I approached the director to explain that although I did not celebrate Halloween, I respected others’ choice to do so. However, when I told her that I was not in favor of the developmentally inappropriate choices for decorations, she was oblivious that anything was amiss. Could they not use spider webs, or pumpkins, or corn stalks or scarecrows? Am I alone here? Well, needless to say, that facility soon saw our backs.

Television viewing has its own perils. During the last Olympics, our family sat down to watch the games. My husband and I thought what a great opportunity to educate our 5 and 3 and 1/2 year old about good sportsmanship. Unfortunately, the lesson was not to be had because the kids were almost scared out of their teddy bear pajamas! During the commercial breaks, graphic and violent content assaulted our senses about up and coming movies targeted at mature audiences. Moreover, my husband and I could have been sitting on a bed of hot coals instead of a sofa—given the level of discomfort we felt about what commercial would come up next, what sexual innuendos would be projected at them in the name of savvy marketing.

If you think books are better, think again. I am appalled at the content that is being marketed at even kindergarteners in the name of literacy. At a recent book fair, one parent said to me: “You have got to check out this book. It is so funny!” The book was entitled “How to get a girlfriend” and was written by kindergarteners with the help of some, I am sure, suave book editor. And wait for it, this book had also won a coveted award. I was not amused. A+ for application of the idea of helping youngsters become authors but an F for the choice of content for this age group. In fact, this tongue in cheek maturity for youngsters in popular books is now the vogue. If you are interested in a good chapter book series for your aspiring reader, you will realize that more often than not the hero and/or heroine of many popular series is the bratty, rude, obnoxious kid who calls people “stupid” talks about “bashing in their brains” and talks back to parents and teachers. Like really, this is supposed to be cute? Don’t even get me started on the clothing, technological gadgets, supposedly kid movies, sugary, nutrient empty foods etc. etc that are marketed to children. I think you get the point.

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Books on our Shelf

I do not presume to tell anyone how to raise their kids. However, after reading some of the works of my learned colleagues in the field of developmental psychology, I have to say that I disagree that much of this is “all harmless fun” and “they will grow out of it”. What I can say is that “As for me and mine……”, we have decided to become VERY intentional about our parenting. We have decided to think carefully about where and how we choose to live and be deliberate models for our kids about what we value. Shortly after the Olympic fiasco, we cut the cord—cable I mean. We decided to take control of the media content that we allow “them” to expose our kids too before they are ready for it. So “NO Disney!” you do not get to define the standards of beauty with your commercial and never-ending onslaught of princesses and their limitless assortment of gadgets designed to empty parents’ pockets; my kids are not dollar signs waiting to be realized. Furthermore, you do not get to define what is age appropriate viewing for my kids. I can do that all by myself, thanks to Netflix, Amazon prime etc. etc. What is more, television is SO overrated!! What do my kids do for fun? — play in the yard, explore in the creek, have a stick adventure, collect and sort leaves, find bugs, plant tulips, help out in the garden, paint, draw, color, read a book, play a board game, complete a puzzle, play the piano, learn to make a cupcake, play dress up, plan a concert, write a short story, play hide and seek, swim, kick around a soccer ball and on and on. In sum, be actively engaged in the world! Be CREATIVE! Now there’s a novel idea!

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Deer Watching

I do realize that one cannot raise a child in a bubble, and seriously that is not my intent. But I agree with David Elkind and his central thesis in The Hurried Child that our culture seems bent on a mission to have kids grow up too fast and too soon. So I am going maverick here! First, I refuse to let the status quo dictate a frenetic pace through childhood for my kids. Instead, I am on a mission to provide my children with an unhurried childhood. Secondly, my goal is to teach my children that in a world buffet of endless choices of food, clothing, media, and entertainment, they do not have to pile everything onto their plate. They can learn to make discriminating choices based on sound principles and values. And I know that you are probably thinking it is an impossible task. And perhaps you are right. Like I said at the beginning, it’s a tough job. But hey, I have always been one who rooted for the underdog. Moreover, it’s just not my nature to back away from a worthy fight—especially one as important as raising my children well. So all I can say is “Game on!”

Living with Death on my Shoulder

Jean and I

*Jean and me

First off, this is not the post I intended to write this week. After all, the title itself sounds so morbid—and not like me at all. However, as often happens, during the course of a week when I begin with an idea for a blog post, another idea provokes its way into my mind, demanding that it be penned. And so I have decided to obey, because I’ve come to believe that these are not chance ideas; they are spirit promptings.

Late last year, we were having dinner with one of our friends. As a medical doctor, he has worked at large hospitals and in private practice, but has now settled into hospice care. To the surprise of almost everyone at our dinner table, he reported that he was really enjoying hospice care. Crazy, right? How could anyone find enjoyment in this kind of work? When prompted to explain why, after what seemed like more than a few seconds of deep thought, he responded, “Because often when people realize they are dying, that is when they really start to live.”

I have been thinking about the paradox of life in death. As I told one of my classes recently, in a sense we all have a terminal illness. We know how this story of our life will end. And though the thought of it might seem a bit gloomy, at the same time, I think a healthy acceptance of this reality should allow us to place the right value on our life, our time, this moment, this second.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favor of over scheduling every iota of our time engaged in lofty meditative pursuits of the meaning of life, or even aggressively attacking our proverbial “bucket list” until we have had the pleasure of striking through each item with a loud: “Ta-dah. Done it!” That I think would be a mistake. We should leave room in our lives for the spontaneous. These are the serendipitous elements that add “flavor to life”. It is like the last minute extra dash, pinch, or swish of an ingredient I add to a tried and true recipe without a rhyme or reason other than, because on that particular day and time it just felt like that was what would give it that extra “oomph” (This, of course, makes it impossible for my friends to replicate my recipe no matter how they try. Oh, but I digress. Back to the subject at hand). In a similar way, the acceptance of life in death should inspire us to live so close to God, and to the spirit promptings that we heed His whispers and follow along paths of His choosing rather than our own. For, I would suggest that these promptings, journeys and sometimes even hardships often lead to moments of unanticipated joys—the extra “oomph in life.”

Case in point, I have had both the pleasure and hardship of walking alongside a few loved ones facing terminal illnesses. Indeed, it was a hard thing to do, and yet it was a pleasure because they are all remarkable people. These journeys have birthed in me this understanding of living with the twin companions of life on one shoulder and death on the other. I will not be disingenuous and suggest that it was all nirvana. Many days, we cried, and prayed, and questioned our way through it all. And yet behind the tears and through the pain, we loved each other with a tenacity that had eluded us before the illness–we said words that would have remained unspoken, shared gifts that would not have been given; we hugged each other deeply, shed tears uncontrollably, laughed belly achingly, and prayed unceasingly. Through these experiences I was in awe of their love for life, an appreciation that often escapes many of us with a more distant end date. In fact, one of my dear friends said to be recently, “I don’t understand it, but in a strange way I’m happier as a result of my walking through this incredible journey with cancer.”

Perhaps, this is the outcome the Psalmist had in mind when he prayed: “Lord, teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. When I think of this, I know that like Thoreau, I want “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” and “not when I [come] to die, discover that I had not lived.” I want to be guilty of saying too much to those I love rather than too little, to hug people more, to laugh more, to declutter, revamp, reorganize my schedule so that I can place people and relationships at the top. I want to choose to be irreverently happy in this one precious life that God has given me.

PS: Oh yes, and to savor with reckless abandon each delectable morsel of apple pie eaten with vanilla ice-cream (My favorite dessert!)

Note: For more about living with a terminal illness, check out Livingly Dying

* Jean lost her battle with cancer on June 26, 2009. I dedicate this post in honor of her memory.

Why I Still Teach

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I have often said that if there is one reason why I would leave teaching, I mean actually pack up my bags and say “Adios!” “Hey, It’s been real.” “Hasta, la vista, baby!” is the day I have finally had enough of student apathy —a growing disaffection with learning among students. As someone who had to work to earn every penny to pay my way through undergrad and graduate school, I have a deep appreciation for the privilege of education. In fact, I still get excited by the idea of learning something new. Hence, one of the hardest parts of my job is to walk into a classroom and feel the weight of a monstrous cloud of apathy that has settled over the room. Many days, I push against this Cloud Giant to make it to the front of the room even as the monster grips me by the throat and tries to choke out my enthusiasm. Yet, I still sputter the words out, scanning the faces in search of that one or those two students who are there for more than a letter grade, for more than a university stamp of approval, or this particular class to earn them that additional bump in their salary. And though I remain fiercely committed to the learning of every student in my classroom, it is those students who inspire me to continue teaching. But there are also other reasons.

Over the years, because of my interest in social and academic outcomes for Black males, I have been particularly sensitive to the needs of the few Black male students whom I have encountered in my classrooms, and they have been few, indeed. In fact, at my current university, it is not uncommon for me to have a class without any Black male students. However, having taught at the tertiary level in Trinidad, in the British Virgin Islands and here in the US, I recognize that this is not just a US issue; it is an international issue. And I could wax on and on in scholarly speak about what the research has revealed about factors behind the growing gender gap in pursuit of higher education in the Black community. However, I have done so elsewhere.(1) This blog is personal. You see, though I am the mother of two girls, I feel that in the course of my several years of teaching, I have birthed many sons—or I have tried to mother them as a Black matriarch.

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Me and one of my former students, Walter Barrett, who is now the Chaplain and Rehabilitation Coordinator at Her Majesty’s Prison, Tortola. BVI.

Within the Black community, the role of Black women within the family structure is salient. In the US, given the harsh realities of inequitable incarceration of Black men and other socio demographic realities, Black mothers, aunts, and grandmothers have been single handedly raising boys even as they wage war against systems and structures designed to marginalize, essentialize, and even disenfranchise them. In Caribbean societies as well, women play critical roles in the socialization of males. And the ways that Black women effectively parent run counter-cultural to dominant views of effective parenting styles. For example, Diana Baumrind’s typology of parenting styles (2) suggests that the authoritative parenting style was deemed more effective than authoritarian parenting styles (3) among a group of mostly European middle class pre-school children. However, other research has shown that higher parent control, like in the authoritarian parenting style, has been linked to better grades for African American children (4) and greater emotional maturity for inner city kids . (5) This is often the way that Black women parent–with an iron fist. In fact, one of my Black male students said to me recently after class: “Wow! You are the first professor in the program who intimidates me!” Then with a broad grin on his face, he continued, “That’s a good thing. I’m EXCITED!”

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One of my former students, Kendoy Penn, BVI Crown Counsel, who passed away on September 22, 2005 . Rest in peace, my son.

There is a way of being and interacting with Black males in an academic setting that I get intuitively as a Black woman that is inextricably linked to my cultural ethnic identity. Yet, in the department where I teach, I am one of two such women. Moreover,  my research agenda and my intimate understanding of the ways gender and cultural ethnicity intersect in academic settings to hinder or facilitate Black male success emboldens me to act.  If I step away from the chalkboard, how many of us will be left to mentor Desmond, and Kevin, and Marlon, and Kendoy, and Walter, and Brice, and Philip? (6) Who will say to them: “You better recognize!” “I have my eyes on you!” I am gonna be on you like white on rice!”? Who will say to them, “You’ve got this!” I believe in you.” Who will hug them hard and look them right in their eyes and say: “I am so proud of you, my son!”

Notes

1. See for example, Hernandez, K. C. & Davis, J. E. (2008). The Other Side of Gender: Understanding Black masculinity in teaching and learning. In R. Milner & E.W. Ross (Eds.), Diversity and Education: Teachers, Teaching, and Teacher Education (pp.17-30). Westport, CT: Greenwood/Praeger; and Hernandez, K. C. (2006). Under the Afro Tree: Perceptions of the School Related Experiences of British Virgin Islands high School Students. In K. Mutua & C. Sunal (Eds.), Crosscurrents and Crosscutting Themes: Research on Education in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, Volume III. Greenwich CT: Info Age Press.

2. See Baumrind D. (1991). Effective parenting during early adolescent transitions. In P.A. Cowan & M. Hetherington (Eds.). Family transitions (pp. 111-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

3. Diana Baumrind’s typology of parenting styles suggests that the authoritative parenting style which is defined by less strict punishment and more guidance was viewed more effective than the authoritarian parenting styles– a strict parenting style where children are expected to be mature and do what the parent says.

4. Glasgow, K. L., Dornbusch, S. M., Troyer, L. Steinberg, L.. Ritter, P. L. (1997). Parenting styles, adolescents attributions, and educational outcomes in nine heterogeneous high schools. Child Development, 68, 507-523

5. See Garner, P. W., & Spears, F. M. (2000). Emotion regulation in low-income preschool children. Social Development, 9, 246-264.

6. These are the names of a few of the Black men I have had the privilege of teaching over the years. Kendoy Penn passed away tragically on September 22, 2005.

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In Search of An Unhurried Life

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Morning walk -Tortola, BVI

One of my friends shared a link to a book by Alan Fadling entitled, An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest. As I made a bee line to get the book from my library, I could not help but think: “Foiled again! Someone beat me to it!” Well, perhaps, not exactly, the title of the book I have been writing in my head for the past year or so, but close enough to the central thesis. But even as Fadlings’ book sits on my pile of books to read, my mind has taken off again with thoughts about the hurried age in which we live.

Somewhere along the line, I think we’ve been bamboozled into thinking that the level of busyness in our lives is in some way equal to our level of importance. In the book, Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace, Jan Johnson launches a sharp critique against a culture where we actually celebrate such busyness. In fact, it is common place to hear comments like: “Wow, I only got three hours of sleep last night”; or “I flew to 3 different states in this past week” (all uttered with an air of thinly concealed importance). Unbelievable! And wait for it! This is usually not a singular, once in a while occurrence. It is, in fact, a way of life. Well, not for me. I pass! Before you take me to task for adopting such a stance, I will offer three reasons in defense of my penchant for easy living.

First, I come by my quest for an unhurried life quite honestly. My aversion to such “madness” and I do call it “madness” stems in the first instance from a source that is partially out of my control—my socialization. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. For those of you who do not know, Trinidad and Tobago has been ranked in the top 10 countries in the world for having the most public holidays, 14 at last count. It seems that every week in Trinidad and Tobago, there is always something to celebrate—a moment to “kick back”, “buss a lime’ with friends and family, “have a fete”, or just take it easy. And though some have argued (I must admit with some credence) that this kind of frivolity is one of the chief culprits behind low levels of productivity, I would argue alternatively, that the benefits of such a life style to the “je no sais quoi” –that certain something that is so infectious, bubbly, inviting and warm-hearted about Trinidadians is in my view of inestimable worth.

The second influence, is a function my personality. Again, not exactly something I could control, right? I knew early in life that I wanted to find a job that would feel more like play than work for me—a job that would nurture my spirit life and also leave me enough time to live. I didn’t want to be pressured to take a bus, or train, or plane, or bicycle for that matter; in rain, wind or snow in a race to catch the mighty dollar; to get to a job that would suck up 8 hours of my day for 50 to 51 weeks out of the year. So, I became a professor And I don’t mean to gloat, but, hey, it works!

I can deal with less money in my pay check—but not less time to live. Living for me involves crafting out the right ratio between time to work and time for the really important things in my life. For me those things include time to seek out an old teacher/mentor or friend and reconnect, and tell them what a blessing they have been in my life; time to lose myself in a new favorite hobby that does not require clicking or dragging anything on a screen, time to ease into the day with a good talk with God so that I am clear on His assignment for me for that day; time to sip and enjoy a cup of tea and a good book; and time to look into my children’s eyes and really listen to what they are experiencing in their world.

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Sunrise run -Fort Myers, Florida.

The third influence on my quest for an unhurried life is the most critical. It is my faith. I believe that God calls us into a space of simplicity and quietude so that we can come to find him and know Him better. Moreover, I have been struck by how little “capacity” (a term my husband and I use to describe our lack of time) we have built into our lives for anything other than our concerns or what is in our Google calendar. There is just no time to do ministry, meet for a casual informal get together, stop by someone’s house just because, or help a neighbor in need.

Just to be clear, I do not live in “La La Land”. I know what it is like to have bills to pay and mouths to feed. In spite of my job and my desire for an unhurried life, each day, I push against the current and a tidal wave of activities and requests that threaten to crowd my life with ‘stuff to do” for me, for my kids, commitments at work and at church, financial commitments etc. etc. And yet, ultimately how we choose to spend our time has to be a personal choice. We can take control! How intentional are we in crafting out unhurried time and space, to reflect, take in the rhythms of life and to hear God’s voice? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God”. I don’t have all the answers, and I am not totally in the quiet, unhurried space I want to be so God can effectively use me, but with His help, I am continuing the search. I want to be ready for His interruptions! Won’t you join me?

 

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Lessons from my Father and a Summer Garden

My father had two girls, but I don’t think anyone ever told him we were girls. While other neighborhood girls were busy painting their nails and playing dress up, we were often working as his “go-fors” on any one of his many projects, or we were cleaning the yard, putting fertilizers around the tomatoes, or helping him get his crop of watermelons ready for the market. Dad loved the land, and he was a constant gardener.

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My experiences working in my garden this summer, made me reflect on dad and the legacy he passed on to us in understanding the value of work– not just any work but of “manual labor”– working with your hands. When I went to boarding academy in Trinidad, Manual Labor was a required course in the curriculum. I kid you not! Everyone had a pick of where they would work: on the farm, in the broom shop, on grounds, at the health food store, in the laundry, or in the cafeteria. And as I think of it now, what a valuable addition to the curriculum that was! There are gifts that come from the kind of work where we must bend our backs—work that makes curls droop, nails chip, sweat drip, muscles ache, and hands chafe. Yeah, that kind of work.

When I started posting garden updates on my Facebook page, one of my friends suggested that I take a picture in a straw hat, and wearing a long, white flowing dress that would hopefully blow in the wind, as I appeared to stare dreamily at the plants in my garden in a Martha Stewart inspired moment. I resisted. Why? Because, the truth is that gardening is far from glamorous– and I have the tan, the scars, and nails to prove it. Actually, this lack of glamor is one of the things I love about it! After spending most of my days in the world of books, nothing is quite as raw and unpretentious as digging in dirt, pulling weeds and battling with aphids, beetles, and caterpillars. Yes, not exactly a beauty queen moment. And yet, there is a beauty to it all that is beyond compare.

garden June

In the garden we are confronted with “life at the bone”, and it is here, according to Thoreau, that “life is sweetest”. In the garden we see that seeds shallowly planted can be carried away by birds, a heavy downpour can wash away the potential for life, and young seedlings must courageously battle the elements and bugs to have a chance at survival. I saw plants learn to grow where they had been planted—some beds were clayey, some too moist, sandy or lacking in nutrients— yet, they persisted growing and flourishing as best they could. In the garden, I grieved the loss of plants—eaten by critters that did not tend them. But then I watched them bounce back when not even one leaf was left on a chewed off stalk. That indomitable spirit spoke to me, inspiring me to replant and press on. It made me recognize that my part in the process was to sow the seed, water it, and cultivate the young plant. His part is to do what I cannot– breathe life into dead places.

I am grateful that dad cultivated in me an appreciation for the value of work with my hands. As I reflected on his legacy, I was reminded that the first work God gave man was to “farm the land and take care of it”. No doubt, God did not need Adam’s help. He, who made the earth out of nothing, did not need a co-laborer to keep his creation beautiful and “good”. However, in assigning Adam this work, God was handing him a gift (pun intended). I like to think that God was passing on to Adam a treasure that would nurture his own spirit, that would teach him important life lessons, and ultimately remind him that like the plants under his care, he was himself under the care of a master gardener—God himself.

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