A Note from Jessie – Covenant Newsletter, March 2021

While waiting for my coffee to brew this morning, my gaze rested on an abstract painting that my son created last week and hung proudly on our kitchen’s wall of fame. As I stared at the pleasing colors and the unusual shapes– at both the positive and negative spaces they created that somehow harmoniously balanced each other– a whisper of a new idea started to form in the hazy outskirts of my mind and travel down to my waiting heartstrings…

Suddenly, a seeming non-sequitur of a memory projected like a movie in front of my tired, pre-caffeinated eyes:

It’s 1986.

A wood-paneled station wagon pulls up to a yellow stucco house. A little girl, hiding inside the house behind a drapery, watches as a middle-aged woman steps out of her station wagon and approaches the front door. The silently crouching girl knows that this kind woman, a neighbor, has come to offer a ride to a birthday party at a miniature golf course way across town. This little girl does. Not. Want. To. Go.

The little girl’s mother answers the door. She has been expecting this woman. Carpool plans, clearly arranged in advance, are now underway.

The little girl’s mother calls out, “Jessie! Time to go to Kate and Wallace’s birthday party! Their mother, Mrs. Stark, is here to take you!”

Silence.

Awkward moments follow as the two women spot the little lurker’s socks poking out from behind the window treatments. Try as they might, they cannot coax the child out of hiding. She doubles down in quiet, concealed resistance. She is incredulous within her private chamber of curtains. Why would anyone want to leave the familiar peace of home and be thrown into sticky, screaming, shoving chaos? she wonders only to herself. The notion is simply preposterous to her young mind. How could these seemingly well-meaning adults subject anyone to such a peculiar form of forced-fun-torture? No, she is not going. She pulls in her socked feet as she hugs her knees more tightly to her chest.

“Oh, is there a birthday party?” 

All eyes quickly turn to another young girl who has entered the foyer. It’s the hiding girl’s older sister. She is bright-eyed and eager. She has the same alert and energetic presence of a puppy anticipating a thrown ball.

“Yes…” says her mother wearily, unsure how to solve the growing inconvenience that her children are creating for this poor carpool-volunteering-friend whose car is still running out front with her birthday children inside, waiting to attend their own party.

“I’ll go!” chirps the freckled-faced older sister, blue eyes twinkling with new excitement.

The two mothers look at each other– one is good-naturedly amused while the other seems exhausted and bewildered.

“No, Annie,” replies her mother. “This party is for 5 year old girls and 7 year old boys. You are 8 and a half.” The older sister blinks blankly back, unfazed by this information.

“Also, sweetie…this is for Jessie’s little friend. You were… not invited.” Again, the older sister does not see the issue. Her steady, undeterred gaze communicates, “And the problem is…?”

In the end, a very patient Mrs. Stark gets back into her car with one of the Palmore sisters. It’s just not the one anyone was expecting. As the station wagon pulls away, the jubilant older sister waves enthusiastically from the car window. The little sister, still curled up behind the drapes, feels her shoulders relax as a joyful relief floods her tiny system.

As I returned to the reality of my waiting coffee cup, I pondered this Stark birthday debacle from ages past. It always amazes me into a chuckle to recall what different children my sister and I were. She craved adventure, outward stimulation, and constant interaction as strongly as I craved peaceful time at home, snuggling my stuffed animals, climbing the tree in our backyard, and maybe doing a craft or two with my mom. Her zest for life burned as brightly as the sun, and my subdued shyness was more of the gentle moon beam variety. Night and day. Or “lion and lamb” as our parents often laughed and called us. You can guess who was who.

But this morning, as I honed in on the opposing forces of the abstract painting, the new idea-turned-feeling I experienced can best be described… as gratitude.

And that gratitude hit me like a growing revelation this morning with several layers to unpack.

The people in our lives (in our families, in our places of work, in our church congregations and neighborhoods…) who are the most different from us are also often our biggest blessings, whether we readily recognize it or not. Sometimes it is all too easy to focus on how tricky it can be to understand others who are wired so differently than we are. But this morning, a swirling compilation of artwork and memory and gratitude finally took shape to show me this:

Just as a bold object in a painting takes up specific space on its canvas, it simultaneously carves out the negative space that can be equally compelling. The diverse elements and opposing colors in a piece of artwork balance each other, create room for each other, and ultimately magnify and more clearly define the strengths of each other as complements. The result is a complex harmony that is full and beautiful. What I realized slowly this morning was that the same is true within human relationships.

My sister stepped forward naturally in her own exuberant strength that day to stand in for me when I was flailing in my own puddle of weakness, and my hiding in the shadows actually allowed her to enjoy the light of a new opportunity. As Annie and I grew older, we continued to grow and change, but we almost always landed on opposite sides of the spectrum from each other. We were not opponents, I now realize, but we were each other’s complement.

As we moved into our teenage years, unpredictably, I became the friendlier one with strangers, always stopping on walks to chat with neighbors, while Annie blazed ahead as the fastest speed-walker you’ve ever seen.

As she became more serious about her career in the corporate world, I became more creative and playful in mine as a teacher.

Whenever one of us was facing stress or hardship, we became a soft place for the other to land.

When in our twenties we lost all of our beloved grandparents, Annie was the pillar of strength while I was a blubbering mess.

Years later in our thirties when we lost a beloved parent, she fell more deeply into her emotional grief while I discovered unexpected peace, perhaps borrowing strength from the model Annie had provided for me over so many years.

We have yin-and-yanged our way through life for 40 years now in innumerably varying ways, and the older I get, the more respect I have for our differences. Indeed, I feel grateful for the balance they have provided us. I know that neither of us would be the people we are today without each other. And of course I feel especially grateful for the one mainstain and connective thread in our relationship throughout: Laughter. We have always, always been able to laugh together.

As I took my coffee to-go this morning for the gorgeous drive in to First Pres, I felt a further sense of appreciation. Here we are now on the verge of spring– which will surely usher in the glorious weather that will allow for friends and families to recommune with each other outside in fellowship– and I feel an eager anticipation for all sorts of reunions. Afterall, when we are in relationships with people who are different from us, our wide-ranging gifts, arrays of flaws, diverse personalities, varying ages, and all other differences combine like distinctive elements of a painting, a magnificent masterpiece designed by God’s infinite creativity. As Romans 12:4-5 asserts, we are better together than we are alone. We fortify each other naturally. And now as I finish writing this rambling reflection, having finished perhaps one too many cups of coffee,  having just reached out to a plethora of young parents to invite them back into the fold this spring at FPC, and having just texted my sister that I love her, I feel deeply grateful all over again.

Dear God, thank you for the blessings of other people. As our pastors say, Your greatest gifts to us are wrapped in flesh and bone. Thank you for the diversity of Your creation and the rich beauty You create through our varied relationships. Help us to delight in each other’s differences, to rejoice as a reunited community again soon, and to give thanks for the masterpiece You create in artfully intertwining our lives with others in unexpected, often mystifying, and deeply enriching ways. Amen.

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