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A Foil

Jane Austen’s Emma was the book I was bent on reading over Christmas vacation in 2015.  I was so intent, that I actually went to an actual bookstore to buy a physical copy.  I find it to be Austen’s wittiest work.

I was getting a kick out of recounting the twists and turns throughout the plot to my mother as she recovered from surgery.

She loved hearing about Frank Churchill’s antics and all the drama he put poor, control freak, Emma through. This charming beauty of a man who could talk his way in and out of anything, who made his way through life politely offending everyone he loved in a way so delightful they almost thanked him for it!

But see, sweet Churchill was nothing but a literary plot device known as a foil… a foil for dearest Mr. Knightly.  Steady, moral, vocal, handsome, loving…but Mr. George Knightly is only seen as literary hero, “Mr. Knightly,” because of Frank Churchill. The contrast, the juxtaposition, makes the difference.

To quote my favorite of Austen’s works, “A girl likes to be crossed a little in love now and then.  It’s something to think of.”

And what would being crossed a little in love be without those that cross it?

In life there are moments where you see the Churchills from the Knightlys and life comes into full focus.  Churchills are the ones that fascinate you and catch you up in a whirlwind only to leave you to fall, unaccompanied, when his fancy suits.  But the Knightlys…oh the Knightlys live up to their name.  They swoop in, at the nick of time when it really counts.  They cushion your fall regardless of what it might cost them emotionally or physically. See, the Knightlys…they’ve been there, all the while.  They’ve seen you at your best and worst and stood by you no matter what.  The Knightlys are quiet and yet their presence is a constant comfort. He may be in the corner…but he’s always in YOUR corner.  When you need him, he’s there.

When life gives you those moments of clarity and focus, find the Knightlys in your life. Keep them close and allow them to provide perspective.  Frank Churchill isn’t worth the time it takes to say his name.  But a Knightly? Well, it’s all in the name then, isn’t it?

Student Ministry

There are so many titles for what I do. Youth leader, youth minister, student coordinator, student pastor…my official title is, Youth Director.  It’s all the same to me because I get to minister to kids all the time so I think it’s the coolest job ever.

I’ve been intentionally ministering to students since I was a student. I think I started teaching bible studies at 16 or 17.  So much of my life is about pouring into other people. Pouring into students, pouring into volunteers, pouring into people I mentor.

It’s a beautiful thing when the people that I have poured into over the years turn around and do the same for me in the midst of my own tragedy.  I have one student who came through my seventh grade small group.  She’s a sophomore in college now.  She was at the hospital the night we lost my mom.  I have no idea what words she said to me, and honestly, it doesn’t even matter, but she was there, hugging me in the moments when I needed to feel God’s love the most.  This student, now and adult, that I had been teaching about God’s love for years, was giving me a physical representation of it right then and there.

I had another student texting me scripture.  Another sending me words of wisdom from her daily devotional. Others simply sending their love.

All things I’ve done for them over the years.  They returned that love in kind. In the midst of my sadness, I have never been more proud to be a minister of students.  I get to watch my students, minister.

Wash Day

“Daddy, can you blow dry my hair this weekend?”

That’s how it usually starts, “Wash Day.”  Black hair care is no joke.  Especially in my house.  The ladies in the Tennie home take hair seriously.  The running joke is that when I’m seriously dating someone, I’ll know he’s the one if he can blow dry my hair.  It’s actually not even that much of a joke because, he’s really going to have to do it.

“Uh, yeah, I think I can do that,” is my dad’s usual reply.  The day is set, the required tools gathered.

It always has to happen over the weekend because it’s a lengthy process. I’ve got that seriously kinky hair that starts to lock up in no time. It’s an all day affair. You have to comb it out first, then wash it.  That’s 2.5-3 hours right there.  Then blow dry it.  That’s an hour and a half, but it’s a nice break before the real work begins.

I can skip the blow drying part and get straight to twisting, but it’s a different style, a different look.  I’d always told mommy, “I like it best when we do it.”  The “we” in that statement summed up the proper styling technique that’s come to be my favorite.

Wash Day always happens over Christmas vacation. You can’t have that many days off in a row and not spend one of them dedicated to hair.

Daddy would make sure that his blow drying technique was on point because he knew that the straighter my hair was, the easier it would be for mommy to do it.  We always wanted things to be easier for mommy with her back problems and all.

She would always call me her human Barbie Doll.  She never complained about doing my hair.  She ended up getting really fast, too.  She could twist my hair in about 5-6 hours on a really good day.

As I got older I would always “start.”  That meant I’d get the back three our four rows going, give mom a little time to rest or do some school work.  She’d come in and check on my progress, “You ready for me to help?”  “Almost,” I’d say.

When it was her turn, I’d move from my perch on the right hand side of the couch to a cushion on the floor.  She always made a fuss about making sure I had the right amount of pillows so my back wouldn’t hurt.  I think she was projecting.

When I moved to Stuart, there were a few weekends that I wasn’t able to make it home.  So Wash Day happened on my own.  But not really.  It was just a matter of time before I hailed her on FaceTime.

“Hi Pookalooka!”

“Hi mommy! I’m doing my hair.”

“Oh very nice, very nice (except she’d end up pronouncing it “veddy” with an affected accent.)”

“But mom, I can’t get the part, I need you to help me with the part.”

I have this thing where I must have bangs over my right eye.  Once, someone did the part wrong and the bangs were over the left eye instead and I had an identity crisis because I would flick my head to the right and nothing would happen.  I looked like I’d developed some sort of tick.  It was bad.

“Well, let me see what you’ve got.” She’d say.

So then it became a process of angling the phone and mirrors properly so she could give me the right instruction so I could get the part just right.  The part was always a big deal.  Even when she was doing my hair I’d have to turn around, face her, kneel down, remind her which direction the hair needed to fall, and then she’d make it happen, after a few tries, to get it right.

Christmas 2015 mommy was recovering from a surgical procedure.  A few days later, was Wash Day.  I had combed out my hair, washed it and had daddy blow dry it.  I was sitting on the couch for hour and hours doing my hair.

“Pooh, I want to help you do your hair.”

“No mommy, it’s ok, you need to rest and recover.”

She pouted.

A few hours later…

“Pookie, maybe I can help after I take a little nap!”

“Mom, go lay down, it’s fine.  Listen, I can do it, I just need you to help me with the part, okay? Go to sleep!”

Later she came back in the family room, “Oh wow, these are beautiful! You’re doing them so tiny!” She said.

“Am I really?! That must be why it’s taking me so long, this is ridiculous!  Is it time for you to do my part for me?”

It was unceremonious.  The last time she parted my hair.

“I’ll plait it for you in case you don’t finish it tonight so you don’t lose the part.”

“Okay, thanks”

“Which way is it supposed to go again?”

“Over my right eye, mommy!”

“Okay, go look in the mirror, see if I did it right.”

“I think it’s good!”

“Okay, good.”

For some reason it was taking me forever to do my hair. I had been on the couch for hours and I felt like I wasn’t even half way done.  I was up till two in the morning before I finally gave in and went to bed.

The next morning I was back on my couch corner. It was New Year’s Eve.  I planned to head back to Stuart once I finished my hair.

I could tell she was bummed because she hadn’t been able to help me do my hair.  I think at one point she even apologized. She was also proud though.  It took me forever, but my hair looked good!  The part was in the right spot, bangs were bangin’.

I kissed her goodbye before I left.  That was the last time I saw my mommy.

Today is Wash Day. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I called the hair salon.  Then I realized that going to the salon meant that my part would get lost.  That realization hurt.  It’s a simple part in a hairstyle, but it’s a piece of my mom I won’t ever get to have again.

Wash Day.  Means something different than it used to somehow.

Identity

I am the observer. That was my job, to observe and to anticipate what mommy needed. I never knew a mommy without pain, so that was my job. What does she need? How is she feeling? Did this person hug her too tight? Has she taken her meds? Does she need to lay down? Did she forget that she had a busy day yesterday? She’s not going to be able to function well today. Is that bag too heavy? Has she been standing talking to that person too long?

She would fuss at me for fussing at her. “Okay, little mama!” She’d say that in frustration when she knew I was right about something, but didn’t want to listen…So stubborn. Or, I’d be fussing around her while she was on the phone, or talking and she’d stop mid sentence and say, “That’s mama number two, over there.”

In all that she would still be surprised when I would know what she needed. “Pookie! How did you know? How did you know I was hurting?! How did you know?” I would laugh…”Ma, you act like I ain’t been knowin’ you all my life!” She’d laugh.

A big part of me is doing ok even in the midst of all this.  The part of me that had to anticipate…the part of me that hurt because I had moved away and couldn’t anticipate what she needed anymore. I’m doing ok because no one knows a mother like her daughter…and I knew mommy was in pain. So her being gone from me and praising Jesus instead -no pain? Oh I’m so glad for that. I rejoice in that.

I’m sad though; taking care of mommy was a part of my identity. Praying for her when I wake up in the mornings, texting her songs that I know she would like. Calling home because I know my stories make her laugh. Going home because I know having her kids there was her great joy.

I was so happy to take care of her during Christmas break. My dad and my brothers are the most fantastic human beings…but they are boys, and sometimes they just don’t get it. Me and mommy, we were the girls. The boys could be off doing x, y, and z…but the girls would look after each other.

So that’s the hole. That’s what’s missing for me. What do I do, what do I anticipate? 28 years is a long time to learn and  anticipate what one person needs. Taking care of mommy meant I was doing my job. So now what?

Big Musics

At this point it’s a widely known fact that my mother started the youth choir at her church at the age of 12.  I have no idea what I was doing at twelve but it probably involved reading a book in a corner and not in fact creating a work of art out of other people’s voices.

The one thread I can say that my mother wove throughout our family, other than her faith, was music.  She couldn’t help herself.  Even my father, who married into it, had to embrace music more than he ever thought he could when it came to her. My dad has a very pleasant, solid tenor voice.  Yet the only time you would hear him sing is if Rose Tennie were directing a choir.  She brought music out of people, from places they didn’t even know they had.

At one point we just started calling her, “Big Musics.”  It was the best description we could come up with.  All that love wrapped up in notes, chords and rhythms.  That was mommy.

It’s funny though, all of us kids get our love for music from her, and yet she was always surprised by it.  When we would come home for Christmas, Easter or Summer vacation there’d be no time wasted before the Tennie kids would break into song in one way or another. “Oooh, I got some musical babies,” she’d exclaim.

This last Christmas vacation, we were in the living room messing with the piano and she said, “Y’all the ones that’re, ‘Big Musics,’ you passed me!”

It’s not true though, her music, her musicality, is still the thread that runs throughout. Our music is because of her.

Tonight I had to sit through my first choir practice knowing that she wasn’t at the other end of the phone if I wanted to text her about what we were singing.  We did that pretty often, ever since I moved away and got a job at a different church. I’d take a picture of the latest octavo our director passed out and say, “Look what he’s picked out this time. Remember this one? Oh, this one is my jam!” She’d respond enthusiastically, as I knew she would…because my love of music comes from her.

So tonight I sang the alto line to, “He Never Failed Me Yet,” a song I’ve been humming for as long as I can remember because it blared through the radio at least once a Sunday in my house growing up.  Instead of texting mom and saying, “You won’t believe what we’re singing,” I had to actually mean the words I was singing from the page. “Trust and never doubt, Jesus will surely bring you out, He never failed me yet.”

18-4=14

It’s been 14 days since we first had to say, “Mommy’s gone.”

So much of that still doesn’t make sense even though I understand it logically. I have this counseling degree under which I’m supposed to know and understand that, “everyone grieves differently.”  It’s one of those things you say until you face something that really makes you believe it. I don’t know what my grieving process will be…but the journey has begun, because Mommy’s gone.

I have to say, I’m so thankful for my faith…something my parents made a point to instill in all of us kids.  When scripture says there’s a peace that passes all understanding, I know that to be true now.  I believe that God gave me that peace while squatting on a hospital floor leaning up against a wall, holding my best friend’s left hand and someone else’s in my right.

I got that peace between when the doctor came in to say, “She’s arrested again, it doesn’t look good,” and when he came back in and my dad looked up through tears,  and said, “She’s gone, isn’t she? She’s gone?”

I don’t know how much time there was between that exchange…I just remember trying to take deep breaths and prepare myself.  But the only way I knew how to prepare, was to talk to God. Nothing made sense. The fabric of our family was being ripped in two.

“Okay, Jesus.  Okay, Jesus.  Okay, Jesus.”

I don’t know how many times I said it, it was the only prayer I could pray. I had been praying all day.  I had been praying for God to comfort my family, to protect the hearts of my dad and brothers, praying for mommy to be okay.

But that prayer, that was the most basic prayer all day.  In it, He brought me peace that I still don’t understand. Mommy’s gone.   She’s gone from us, but she is present with her Lord, Jesus.  In that prayer I stopped holding on to my mommy here on earth, because only Jesus could take care of her better than we ever could. Only Jesus could comfort us more than mommy ever could.

“Okay, Jesus,” meant that the years of mommy telling me about God’s promise of her one day having a new body-with no more pain, were over because that day had come.  No more pain.

I didn’t realize it at first, but over the years, instead of mom repeating that God promises us new bodies, it was me that had to remind her…the pain was wearing her out.  No one knows a mother like her daughter.

So, although everyone grieves in different ways, in the midst of my grief and disbelief, I have peace.  Mommy’s gone, she’s in no more pain and I am so relieved. It was the one thing I could never fix for her. Thankfully, for 14 days, she’s been well taken care of.

Mommy

Below is the script of the words I spoke at my mother’s memorial service on January 9th, 2016.

For some reason as a child I found a reason to be afraid of many things…

Mom’s response was that God hadn’t given us a spirit of fear, and that it was our job to fight against that fear. She taught me that the best way to fight spiritual warfare, is with scripture.

So, because her daughter was a scaredy cat, she would make index cards with bible verses on them. The idea was for me to be able to memorize them and pull them out when I needed them most.

So, because of that foundation whenever I’m afraid to this day I recite:

“What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.” Psalm 53:6.

Or:

“The name of Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run into it and are safe.” Proverbs  18:10

I was going through some of mom’s stuff this week and found this stack of index cards. It’s exactly like what she used to make for me to memorize scripture, except I see here that she wrote down the names (and immediate family members) of each and every First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale staff member to pray for.

It reminded me that mom was always praying for people and exercising her faith in a major way.

As I am coming to terms with the loss of mommy, God gave me another verse that sums up mom’s life in my opinion.

It says this,

“The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, And He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; For the LORD upholds him with His hand.”

‭‭Psalms‬ ‭37:23-24‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

Mommy exercised her faith and worked to be a righteous person.  I believe God gave me this verse because mommy was a good woman, righteous. Therefore her steps were ordered as she delighted in the Lord. She had her battle with pain, but she was never cast down. God upheld her through the very end.

Though I wish my mommy could be here with me, I believe God ordered her steps and I will rest in that. We don’t understand why after only 56 years, mommy would be called home, but even though it was short, she lived SUCH a full life…she was so faithful in everything and she gave so much…God said, ok, faithful servant, come on home…and there’s no other place she’d rather be.

Uncommon Insecurity

Middle Schoolers are weird and I love it.   Insecurity, self worth and body image are rampant issues as a rule.  My youth group traveled to BigStuf summer camp the other day in Panama City; it was there that I had the opportunity to engage in a conversation with a student who seemed to struggle with insecurities that were very much opposite to that of her peers.  I ended up giving her what seemed to be a reverse pep talk.  First time for everything.

Where I am very used to encouraging 6, 7 and 8th graders to be confident in who they are even through the awkward teenage stages and to overcome the feelings that they are ugly or too skinny or too fat and all the usual teenage insecurities; I found myself face to face with an 8th grader who was not in fact awkward and whose peers could not keep their eyes off of her, not because of her gawkiness, but because of her natural beauty.

Racially ambiguous, flawless skin, petite figure, stylish fashion sense, a welcoming smile…this kid has a lot going for her when it comes to the outward appearance alone; that’s all before getting to her fun personality and sense of humor.

“I just feel like everyone is always looking at me, trying to figure out what I am.  And I’m like humble and stuff…so I don’t really know like…what to do…” she explained.

Well what do I say to that? The usual, “you’re beautiful because you are God’s creation “doesn’t really apply here.  Neither does the, “Your body is going through an awkward stage…hang in there and you’ll grow out of it,” speech.

This is where I’m thankful that as a Small Group Leader, you can never get too much help or too much training.  One of the authors that helped write the book Lead Small gave taught an hour long leader training at summer camp this year.  In the session, one of the things he said that stuck out to me was, “Change is not an option, but how you respond to it is. You can either ignore it and drift nowhere, hold on and let it drive you where you don’t want to go, or make an adjustment so you can move in the right direction.”

So here I am standing next to this frustrated 8th grader and it hits me, she’s struggling with how other people are treating her regarding her appearance and it is effecting her feelings and the way she views life.  The way that she is letting other people effect her is the same way that we as humans get bent out of shape when change happens.  But just like we must learn to accept that change is not an option, she has to learn that her God given beauty is not an option either.  She can’t change the fact that people are going to double take when she walks down the street and she can’t change the fact that people are going to want to know what combination of races created her gorgeous skin tone, eye color and the placement of her cheekbones.

She has the option to ignore it and just drift through life, miserable.  Or she can hold on to the discomfort and anger she feels and let it drive her somewhere she does not want to go in life. Or, she can make an attitude adjustment so that she will be moving in the right direction.

After getting through that whole thought process, I was at least able to use the classic ending of, “You just do you no matter what,” but it was really interesting to see how different people struggle through those young years regardless of whether you are considered pretty or awkward.

At the end of the day we all have to come to the conclusion that we are going to be in charge of our attitude about things that happen in life and the ways in which we react to them.  There may be a different journey to that conclusion for all of us, but we get there nonetheless.

Through that one conversation with one student I saw the importance of being open to establishing community with a student and building relationships.  That one conversation was the only time I talked with that student during the week. Every other time we crossed paths it was simply in passing, but the foundation is there and the door is always open.  That’s when “leading small” gets big.

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