Saturday, August 30, 2014


When you name a child, it begins as an idea in your head.  By the time it is associated with a person, that person is a baby that you are just getting to know.  As a grandparent, we have watched six children receive names from the heads of our own children – names that now flood us with emotion and images of a granddaughter.

Our first grandchild is Laila Willow.

Can I say that again?  Laila Willow – Laila Willow – Laila Willow.  There has never been a name so well suited to a child that I can think of - although I didn't always think this way.  Hearing it from David for the first time made me choke on a cracker. 

“Laila Willow Rodriguez?” I asked David over the phone (I have never been able to mask my surprise or disapproval well). 

“Yeah,” I could hear him smiling on the other end of the phone.  Either that or he was rolling his eyes.

“Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?”

“Janet…” Mario warned me from the extension.  He is very good at accepting news – even when his first grandchild was going to be given a hippy name in front of our traditional Spanish surname.

“It’s beautiful,” I finally corrected myself.  “I’m sure it will grow on all of us.”

Laila was born on the 30th of August, a day that changed my life. 

“Things will never be the same for us,” I whispered to Mario as we went to bed that night.  We kissed, and I felt very lonely for her.  She was born in Kansas City and we couldn’t afford the trip out to see her.

By the time I saw her in person (thank God for email and the power of digital photography) she was already walking.  She had the biggest green eyes I had ever seen and they were carefully watching me as she clung to her mother as they got off the airplane. 

“Can I hold her?” I asked, extending my arms.  Laila objected, shrinking back into Lennae. 

“Maybe later,” Lennae said.  “That was the worst flight.  I need a drink!”

We talked about their flight from hell as we drove home, Laila observing me with her huge eyes, not speaking at all. 

Later that visit, she finally warmed up to me.  She liked things like frozen blueberries, bubbles and hiding in the curtains.  She was a sheer delight and as soon as she spoke, I dropped everything just to hear her voice.  I cannot tell you how it affected me, other than to compare it to an adolescent obsession I had with the Bay City Rollers. Every time she spoke, I froze and listened closely, my heart in my throat.

She grew into a precocious girl, speaking in whole sentences and proving herself to be a brilliant thinker.  She became a great big sister to Lili and Lauren, who followed closely behind her, having a perfect balance of protective-ness and antagonism.  Early on we noticed an unusual genetic disposition to tell very corny jokes (just like her father) and we laughed that he would have to endure all of the corn we did as parents.

While we were in Africa, she entered school, made BFF’s, learned a musical instrument and became quite accomplished at gymnastics.  Now, when we talk on the phone she is always busy with a new hobby or business idea.  She is (honest to God) the most precocious child I have ever met in my life.

Today she is eleven years old. Whoever said “time flies” must have had grandchildren. 

I still remember the magical day she said my name.  We had been outside, blowing soap bubbles while her mother snapped pictures of us.  As the sun went down, I went upstairs to go to the bathroom.  As I ascended the stairs, she followed me.  

She turned to her mother and said, “Where is Abuela going?” 

I stopped where I was and my heart melted.  I didn’t care what happened in my life after that – my granddaughter called me Abuela.  It was like a bolt of sugary lightning that made my whole being feel loved. I was a grandmother to this wonderful little person! 

I admit, I still haven’t gotten over it. 

Happy Birthday, Laila Willow.  Your name is the perfect explanation of you - you are unique, solid and beautiful.  Everyday when I count my blessings, you are right there -a breathtaking picture of how much God loves me.  I love you so much, honey.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Our Table was one of the last things we gave away in 2006

Today I got our dining room table back. 

It’s the same dining room table that we gave away to people we had never met before - seven and a half years ago -  before we left for Africa. 

There is a little miracle in this story, one that involves asking and receiving; sharing and giving with no expectations of ever being rewarded. 

Seven years ago, Mario and I moved to Africa to volunteer (for lack of a better description) as Christian missionaries.  In leaving the USA, we downsized.  Whatever could not fit in four suitcases and a 10’x13’ container was either sold or given away.  95% of what we owned was given to family – kids, parents, sisters, nephews.  After that,  friends put dibs on bookshelves, books, records, beds, couches, Christmas decorations, on and on and on…

We were unable to find a home for our dining room set, a large Asian-styled wooded table with six matching chairs.  I asked my friend, Cristin, if she wanted it.

“I don’t,” she told me.  “But I have neighbors who need one if you want to give it to them.  They’re a really nice Christian family.”

In the Kingdom of God, we believe that we are brothers and sister if we share the same Father in heaven.  We decided to gift the table to our “brother and sister” we had never met before.   

The day we dropped it off, I ran my hand across its beautiful surface and said goodbye.  It used to be Mario’s mother’s – she bought it in 1970 to mark a new season in her life.  Mario’s step-father, Al, had just died and she was rebuilding.  The set was expensive and fashionable – she loved it.  When she died, we took it.  We raised our kids with that table; the place we ate Thanksgiving dinners, hosted company, even had family game nights.  I remember the day we moved it to the house on Timber Cove Way; I remember each nick and scratch it took and survived. 

It couldn’t come with us to Africa and it would now be this new family’s table.  The family did seem very nice.  I was happy to give it to them – I never thought we’d see it again. 

Fast forward seven and a half years.  We are back in Sacramento and we are also rebuilding.  Africa was a beautiful, life-giving experience and we don’t regret going – but being away from family for that long took its toll on relationships.  I think our whole family is just getting used to the idea that we are back – we are in a season of rebuilding ourselves.

We bought a small house upon our return – one I named Hester (after Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter) because she had a terrible reputation in our neighborhood as the “bad house”.  We restored her to a thing of beauty and (a year later) we sold her to the highest bidder.

So, we’re moving.

We bought a house that could fit our whole family when they come to visit.  I want them all to be able to stay in our house, happily crowded without being squished.  We also needed a space to entertain – or host others.  We bought  a larger house in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. 

After buying it (we are scheduled to move mid-Spetember) I realized we would need to buy  a formal dining room set.  I started shopping online (craigslist) to see if we could possibly find one that would be similar t the one we gave away.  I went through hundreds of styles, finally finding one that looked just like it.

“Mario, look at this,” I called him in as I pulled up the pictures.  “It’s just like your Mom’s, don’t you think?”

He looked at a few, but didn’t like the style, the price, the color…

“We should have never given my Mom’s set away,” he said, sadly.  I couldn’t help but agree.

When we left America (filled with passion and fervor to give our all for Jesus, any way we could) we went forward with no hold barred.  A dining room set was nothing to us, just a “thing” – it wasn’t the same as memories of Mario’s mom.  Eventually (imagine five years into our “mission”) we realized that things are sometimes important.  Sometimes they are worth holding on to in this life; they remind you who you are and where you came from.  Letting go of the dining room set was probably a mistake.  I started wondering if we might be able to hunt it down and offer to buy it back from that nice family we gave it to. 

One night, I instant messaged Cristin:

“The reason I am messaging is very strange...  We are moving houses again (into something a bit bigger) We were wondering if you are still in touch with the family that we gave our dining room set to.  We were shopping for one and realized we are looking for something exactly like what we had in that one.  Do you think your neighbors would want to sell it back to us?  We wouldn't want them to give it back, we are looking to buy it back.  If you are in contact with them, would you feel awkward asking?  Or maybe forwarding me their details?
Weird question, I know!”

Cristin wrote back right away:

                “Please message Amanda -----, Dave ----, and Lisa ----!
It may be just perfect because they are moving to Michigan”

I was excited – and a bit nervous at the prospect.  How does someone begin this conversation?  I just swallowed and did it.  I wrote first to Amanda, and it went like this:

Hi Amanda!
My name is Janet Rodriguez, I don't know if you remember me, but I'm a friend of Cristin's.  We gave you a dining room table and chairs a few years ago as we were moving to Africa - it is kind of speckled and has cane-back chairs.  We're back in the USA again and I asked Cristin if you guys would consider selling it back to us!  We've been shopping for a set and have found our tastes going back to that style!!  Cristin tells me that you're moving to Michigan (?) and you might be game to part with it.  We don't want you to give it back- we would like to buy it from you.  Please let us know if you'd be willing!  Thanks again! 
Janet Rodriguez

Amanda was also quick to respond:

Hi Mrs. Rodriguez!
We are more than happy to give the table back! You don't need to buy it back.

I was so excited!  BUT I was also embarrassed.  After all, I didn’t want to seem like I gave them a gift and now was asking for the gift back.  I stumbled over myself the next few messages to Amanda, trying to explain that I didn’t intend to force her generosity; that I had every intention of paying for it; that I only wanted to see if they had it. 

Somewhere in my flailing, trying to show the right attitude and manners, I came to my senses.  This family probably thought the same thing we did: we are brothers and sisters in Christ and we are moving.  It’s their turn to have the dining room set. 

We scheduled a date for pickup (which was today) and we borrowed a friend’s pickup.  As soon as I came in to their house and saw it, my eyes clouded with tears.  It was like being reunited with a long-lost  relative.  The table looked almost exactly as it did when we gave it to them.  I started gushing my thanks, the father (Dave?) seemed to be as happy as I was.

“This is how it works with God,” he said.  “You gave it to us and we used it for years, now we’re moving and you’re getting it back!  This is how He does things! We shouldn’t be surprised!”

I was elated  (I still am.)  We loaded the table and chairs up, took a little time to pray (mainly for their move to Michigan), then drove back home.

As I drove, I thought of how God has genuinely been at work restoring us after we returned.  We were never forced to go out into “the mission field” – we wanted to.  What we thought we were choosing when we moved to Africa – we got.  We received so much more than what we ever imagined.  He gave us everything in South Africa – not as a reward, but a provision.
We thought we sacrificed critical relationships – we thought our families would have to endure quite a lot without us, and they did.  But God is restoring those relationships day by day as only He can. 

God takes delight in restoring us, just like we took delight in the process of restoring  Hester .  He loves to make us as we were in the beginning– even better.  Even with all of our  dings and cracks,  He still has plans for restoration for all of us. 
Babette’s Feast is a short story written by Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), written about Jutland, Denmark while Blixen was living in Kenya.  The story is a simple one; almost simplistic, but it's perfection. 

It’s about a French chef (Babette) who escapes the French Revolution and comes to stay with two Puritan ladies (Martina and Philipa) in Denmark.  These ladies have simple lives - nothing compared to Paris.  The greatest excitement in their corner of Jutland is when the members of their dwindling church quarrel amongst each other. 

The story culminates with a feast – one where the eleven members of the church are joined by a distinguished General who recognizes fine French cooking.  In the middle of the feast, the General stands up and gives a speech. 

I’ve included it here tonight because it is what I thought of as I was driving home today with our dining room set back in our possession.

“Mercy and truth, my friends, have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

Man, my friends, is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble.

We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite.

Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


God loves depressed people.

Before you start churning with pat answers about how God didn’t create depression and how it’s not of Him, let me first elaborate.

A lot of us have friends and family that struggle with this baffling disease.  It’s neurological, physical, emotional and spiritual, making it the “whack-a-mole” of the medical community.  Once one symptom (mood swings, sleeplessness, dark thoughts, a feeling of hopelessness) of the disease is struck down, another is quick to pop up.  No medicines have proven themselves to be very effective against combating it; many depressed people find that self-medicating works best.  Alcohol, methamphetamines and tobacco seem to work the best for them – even with all of the dangers, side-effects and addictive properties.  Many of my friends have told me that the ever-present self-doubts become very noisy and demand attention; few medicines can shut them off.

I have recently become a fan of twelve-step programs for a couple of reasons: one is I have been transformed; the second is I have been awakened.  In my wide-awake state, I can see that I am not in control of another person’s behavior, thoughts or actions. 

Most people with depression are surrounded by people who love them.  These people often make things worse by trying to tell them how to get better.  I’ve been guilty of this until recently.  Our biggest fear is that the depressed person will give in to their fantasy of ending it all once and for all.  The thought keeps me up at night; I don’t have any power over the matter and can’t even imagine the conflicting thoughts in their heads. 

As I was writing one of my friends called, wrung out from her day of mixed emotions.  She called with happy news, news that she could hardly contain and we celebrated together.  As we talked, I recognized the thing in her voice that is there during dark times.  I felt fear at first because of her history, but then I listened.  She was “dipping” but I wasn’t in charge of buoying her back up.  I was in charge of two things: my words and my prayers for her. 

“I love you no matter what,” I told her sincerely.  “I love you when you are dark and I love you when you are bright.  You are woven together with dark and bright threads which is what makes you beautiful.”

As I said this, I realized that the same could be said of King David, Moses, Elijah, Ezekiel, Joel, Peter, and many other of our "heroes" in the faith.  They were all people who experienced depression and were in touch with the terrible suffering in this world.  They felt things heavily and hard; they wondered why others didn’t. They spoke often with God and would never be accused of neglecting time with Him.  He had a special place in His heart for them, because He actually put His heart into them. 

That is why I  believe that God loves depressed people. 

He is literally the only One who understands the depth of their hearts; He is the only One who understands their desires of being done with the battle. 

Will You Be My Friend? 
By James Kavanaugh

Will you be my friend?
There are so many reasons why you never should:
I’m sometimes sullen, often shy, acutely sensitive,
My fear erupts as anger, I find it hard to give,
I talk about myself when I’m afraid
And often spend a day without anything to say.
    But I will make you laugh
And love you quite a bit
And hold you when you’re sad.

I cry a little almost every day
Because I’m more caring than the strangers ever know,
And, if at times, I show my tender side
(The soft and warmer part I hide)
I wonder, will you be my friend?

A friend who far beyond the feebleness of any vow or tie
Will touch the secret place where I am really I,
To know the pain of lips that plead and eyes that weep,
Who will not run away when you find me in the street
Alone and lying mangled by my quota of defeats
But will stop and stay-to tell me of another day
When I was beautiful.

Will you be my friend?
 There are so many reasons why you never should:
Often I’m too serious, seldom predictably the same,
Sometimes cold and distant, probably I’ll always change.
I bluster and brag, seek attention like a child,
I brood and pout, my anger can be wild,
But I will make you laugh and love you quite a bit
And be near you when you’re afraid.

I shake a little almost every day
Because I’m more frightened than the strangers ever know
And if at times I show my trembling side
(The anxious, fearful part I hide)
I wonder, will you be my friend?

A friend who, when I feel your closeness, feels me push away
And stubbornly will stay to share what’s left on such a day,
Who, when no one knows my name or calls me on the phone,
When there’s no concern for me – what I have or haven’t done-
And those I’ve helped and counted on have oh, so deftly, run,
Who, when there’s nothing left but me, stripped of charm and
Subtlety will nonetheless remain.

    Will you be my friend?
For no reason that I know,

Except I want you so.