Saturday, July 27, 2013

Susanna Wesley - Forgotten Woman in Church History?

Susanna Wesley, the mother of John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) and of his hymn-writing brother Charles, isn't exactly a forgotten woman in church history.  In the evangelical circles in which I spent my formative Christian years, she was one of the only historical Christian women who was mentioned in teachings and sermons -- usually by women leaders of other Christian women, who held up Susanna Wesley as the superlative example of what it meant to be a good Christian woman: wife of a church leader, mother of many, and devoted to God.

Susanna Wesley, I was taught, was a gracious and submissive minister's wife who had 19 children and raised 10 of them to pious adulthood through her strict but loving parenting.  Susanna devoted one hour a week per child to one-on-one spiritual counseling, but when she sat in her kitchen and pulled her apron over her head, all her children knew she was in prayer and that punishment for interrupting her unless in dire emergency would be severe.  Susanna was the Christian woman we all should take as our example and strive to emulate.  Susanna was proof that it was possible to be a good mother to so many children, and we all should desire to have as many children as we felt in our hearts God wanted us to have. (Maranatha Campus Ministries, where I was taught these things, was pre-Quiverfull and officially rejected the anti-birth control message just beginning to be spread by Mary Pride-- but Maranatha women still learned that the highest honor they could attain was to be a pastor or missionary's wife -- and thus automatically a leader of women's ministry-- and a mother of many).

What my Maranatha teachers apparently didn't know was that in Susanna Wesley's time, being a minister's wife did not put you in charge of women's ministry.  Women were forbidden to minister at all-- not even to other women.  But even so, what was most emphasized in their teachings about Mrs. Wesley was that motherhood itself was the most important thing for a woman.  And if you were as good and godly a mother as she was, you might even raise a John Wesley!

The biographies of Susanna Wesley I have found online also tend to emphasize her motherhood of the famous Wesley brothers, almost to the exclusion of everything else.  Susan Pellowe's blog, for instance, opens with this:

Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), although she never preached a sermon or published a book or founded a church, is known as the Mother of Methodism. Why? Because two of her sons, John Wesley and Charles Wesley, as children consciously or unconsciously will, applied the example and teachings and circumstances of their home life.

I would be the last to say this isn't an amazing accomplishment.  Raising children who contribute to the good of the world is a very meaningful thing-- whether we're mothers or fathers.  But the above blog is incorrect about Susanna Wesley having never preached a sermon; she actually preached hundreds of sermons, to men, women and children alike, during the absences of her husband, Samuel Wesley, from his Anglican parish.  According to Daughters of the Church: Women in Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, John Wesley himself is quoted as calling his mother a "preacher of righteousness."  (p. 237)

The way it came about was this.  Samuel Wesley was apparently an autocratic and intolerant minister and a strict disciplinarian of his flock, resulting in his widespread unpopularity in his own parish.  In fact, he was often harassed by his parishioners, and there were many times when he was away from the parish (Ibid, p. 236).  During the winter of 1711-12, Samuel was away for an extended period, and Susanna began holding meetings in her home.  The History's Women website details the situation:

Samuel was attending a long church conference leaving his pulpit in charge of another minister, a Mr. Inman. . . .Since there were no afternoon church services, Susanna began an evening family gathering where they sang psalms, prayed and Susanna read a short sermon from her husband’s library. It began with the family and the servants but soon word spread and others neighbors appeared, and soon there were too many for the parsonage. Susanna had written her husband of what she was doing, but then in his own letter when he perhaps saw the services as competition, Mr. Inman complained to Samuel. . . [because] at that time the idea of a woman having any part in a worship service – even in her own home – was unheard of.   Samuel suggested to Susanna that she have someone else read the sermons, but still Mr. Inman complained and finally Samuel told Susanna to discontinue the meetings. However, she declined as she described how the meetings were a genuine and effective ministry to those who attended and that Mr. Inman was about the only one who‘d objected. The services continued.

Daughters of the Church, describing these meetings, says that "Susanna could not prevent the spontaneous growth. . . to the point where she could say: 'Last Sunday I believe we had above two hundred.  And yet many went away, for want of room to stand.'" (p. 238)

The people of the Wesley parish strongly preferred Susanna's sermons to those of either Samuel Wesley or his chosen replacement.  They could have simply attended morning services and considered their spiritual duty done-- but what Mrs. Wesley was offering was clearly something that spoke to their hearts and met their spiritual needs.  They came because they wanted to come.  As this series on women in church history has already frequently illustrated, the Holy Spirit has often found cracks in the systemic repression of women's ministry, through which to speak through God's daughters-- despite the best efforts of their brothers in the faith.  

And despite the emphasis of my teachers on Mrs. Wesley as a submissive wife, Susanna was not particularly submissive-- even despite the fact that the law of the time required women to be obedient to their husbands.  History's Women explains:

Susanna was a strong supporter of the Stuart King James who had been overthrown in 1688 and replaced by William, his Dutch son-in-law. In 1702 when in family prayers Samuel prayed for King William Susanna refused to say “Amen.” She was, as her son John described it later, “inflexible”, and Samuel was equally so.

“Sukey,” he told her as he left home. “We must part for if we have two kings we must have two beds.” Susanna asserted that she would apologize if she was wrong but she felt to do so for expediency only would be a lie and thus a sin.

In her own writings (quoted in Daughter of the Church, p. 237), Susanna Wesley said that after calling her into his study, her husband "imprecated the divine vengeance on himself and all his posterity if ever he touched me more or came into a bed with me before I had begged God's pardon and his, for not saying amen to the prayer for the King. . . I have unsuccessfully represented to him the unlawfulness and unreasonableness of his Oath [referring to 1 Cor. 7:5's admonition that husbands and wives should not "deprive one another" except for short periods of prayer] . . . that since I am willing to let him quietly enjoy his opinions, he ought not to deprive me of my little liberty of conscience."  

More than a year later, after the death of the king whose rule had caused the conflict, Samuel returned to Susanna and to her bed, and it was shortly after this that John Wesley was conceived.  Susanna had proved herself right about her husband's foolish oath.  Nor did she afterwards refrain from expressing her differences of opinion from her husband, but had no difficulties telling John when she thought her advice for his future was better than the advice of his father. (Ibid)

Mrs. Wesley was not, however, unmindful of the English laws requiring her obedience.  The United Methodist Women website notes that when Samuel Wesley asked Susanna to discontinue her unauthorized meetings, this was how she worded her dissent:

"If after all this you think fit to dissolve this assembly do not tell me you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity for doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The wisdom and intelligence of this answer is admirable.  In effect, Mrs. Wesley placed on her husband the responsibility before God of stopping what she believed, and desired Samuel to believe, was God's own work.  Her words had the effect she apparently intended, because Samuel never issued that command. 

Susan Pellowe (see above) also notes:

Susanna Wesley wrote meditations and scriptural commentaries for her own use. She wrote extended commentaries for instance on the Apostles Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments. Alas many of these were lost in the rectory fire, but many survive. The most accessible means to her writings is Charles Wallace's excellent and important Susanna Wesley, Her Collected Writings.

Those surviving writings reveal her as "a practical theologian in her own right. . . in conversation with contemporary theological, philosophical, and literary works," according to Google Books.

With such a mother as this, John Wesley could hardly help being open to God calling women in his own movement into full public ministry, even though he was initially against it.  As Daughters of the Church puts it (p. 242), "Wesley eventually became so convinced of the rightness of women's ministry that he openly encouraged women to preach, despite the opposition he knew they would face.  [Methodist preacher] Sarah Mallet recalled that he had advised her 'to let the voice of the people be to me the voice of God; -- and where I was sent for, to go, for the Lord had called me thither.'"

Susanna Wesley had influence on her son John, all right-- but in evangelicalism, this particular result of her influence is somehow never brought up.

In light of all this, the cherry-picking of Susanna Wesley's life story, such that she is only known as a minister's wife and mother of the founders of Methodism, seems profoundly unfair.  Why are women so often defined only in terms of the men in their lives?  The website thoroughly illustrates this in its entry about her, which is entitled "Susanna Wesley, Christian Mother" and mentions none of her other accomplishments.

Susanna Wesley may not be a forgotten woman in church history-- but the whole Susanna Wesley-- the complete person and all her accomplishments-- certainly is.  If evangelical Christianity is going to hold a woman up to us as a historical example for Christian women everywhere, we Christian women should be given the whole picture, not just what Christian leaders want us to hear in order to keep us compliantly in our place.  Susanna Wesley is not just an example of a godly mother-- though of course she is that.  But she is also an inspiration to women everywhere to do the utmost with what they are given with their whole selves, remembering that:

". . . religion is not to be confined to the church... nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that every where I am in Thy Presence." 

Amen, Susanna Wesley. Amen. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Weeping with the Parents of Trayvon Martin

With so many people blogging and so many news articles about Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial, I've wondered what I could possibly add that hasn't already been said.  But I'm a mother of teenagers myself, and I know Trayvon Martin's parents are weeping.  I must weep with them.

And in solidarity with them, and with parents like them everywhere, I must stand up and respond to the voices who are saying "This wasn't about race."

Actually, it was.  It is.  I'm not going to weigh in on whether George Zimmerman should have been convicted or not; I have been a member of a jury before, I think the jury did the best they could to arrive at the best verdict they could come up with given the instructions they were given in the criminal trial process.  But to say this incident, as it arose, as it progressed and as it horrifically concluded, was not about race, is to speak from the luxury of not having to live as Trayvon Martin and his family have always lived: in a world where, like it or not, race is what it's about-- on a daily basis.

Blogger Caryn Riswold puts it like this in her article "I Am Not Trayvon Martin":

In the months leading up to the trial of George Zimmerman, #IAmTrayvonMartin became a popular hashtag, a way for people to show support, empathy, solidarity. I think it’s important for me and all white people who work for racial justice to say: I Am Not Trayvon Martin. Like [other middle-class white people] . . . I generally perceive law enforcement to exist in order to protect me. I will not be hunted down on the street because of the color of my skin. I will not be suspected of stealing the nice car I might be driving or trying to get into. I have never been followed in a store by a clerk who is afraid I might steal something.

Understanding this is a base level of awareness of white privilege, necessary in order to dismantle the system that declares open season on young black men.

As a white person, I need to step away from the luxury of not being required to think about this.  If I'm going to follow Jesus, I need to follow "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That means trying to see through their eyes.  It means trying to understand what my life would be like if I were them.

White privilege is "an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious . . . like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks."  Certain realities that I take for granted in my life-- realities that make my world easier for me and my children to live in-- simply do not exist for the person of color who might be walking down the street next to me.

White privilege means my son, if he goes out to get a snack in the evening-- even if he's wearing a hoodie-- will not automatically look over his shoulder.  No one has ever told him-- or had to tell him--that his very presence might be perceived as a threat.  If a policeman or someone in a neighborhood watch stops him, he might be startled or even nervous-- but he has no ingrained expectation that the confrontor is already most likely set against him, or that harm to him might result.

So I'm trying to think what it might be like to be Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mom.  Could I even let my son have the freedom a teenage boy needs as part of growing up, to leave the house and hang out with his friends, if I knew what Sybrina knew?  If I knew that the assumptions people were most likely to make about my son were not that he is probably peaceful and law-abiding, but just the opposite?

If I knew that my son also knew this-- knew that the deck was stacked against him before he even walked out the door?

That he might become wary and defensive as a result?

That his very wariness and defensiveness were most likely to be interpreted as dangers?

Blogger Libby Anne has written a piece on George Zimmerman and Race in America, in which she pulls together the results of a group of studies that make it clear that Trayvon Martin was no isolated case.   That there is a "subconscious but measurable preference to give white men the benefit of the doubt in these ambiguous situations."  (Sociological Images: Who Would You Shoot?)

That "[w]e are already biased in favor of the white defendant and against the black victim." (Sociological Images: Stand Your Ground Increases Racial Bias)

That "[a] finding of “justifiable homicide” is much more common in the case of a white-on-black killing than any other kind including a white and a black person." (Ibid.)

And this is exacerbated by the recent Stand Your Ground Laws which were in effect in the Martin-Zimmeran interaction, in which "a misinterpretation of physical clues could result in the use of deadly force, exacerbating culture, class, and race differences" resulting in "a disproportionately negative effect on minorities, persons from lower socioeconomic status, and young adults/juveniles."

What would it be like for my family, to have this be our reality?  And how can we so confidently say, having never experienced this reality, that Travyon Martin's death was not about race? 

As MSNBC's Analysis states: 

Many legal analysts, convinced that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to prove its case, had predicted the acquittal even before the trial began. Reasonable doubt, they said repeatedly. The state must persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

But reasonable doubt is an elastic standard, and it seems to work in favor of whites much more often than it does blacks. It is hard to imagine that a black “neighborhood watch volunteer” who pursued and killed a white kid under the same circumstances would have walked away a free man.

So I weep with Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton.  And I hope that somehow I can come alongside them to work for a different reality.  Because, like it or not, their reality is my reality. "No man is an island," John Donne famously said.  White privilege might give me many a free pass through situations that undermine my brothers and sisters of color, but those situations are part of the world I must live in, whether I blind myself to it or not.

An article in The Atlantic called "Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice" put it in a nutshell for me:

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by a jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for the lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest. . . You should not be troubled that George Zimmerman "got away" with the killing of Trayvon Martin, you should be troubled that you live in a country that ensures that Trayvon Martin will happen.

This is the nature of American justice.  And it is deeply, fundamentally unjust. And because of it my son is safe, while Tracy and Sybrina's son is dead.

How can I keep from weeping? 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Christianity and the "Male Gaze"

Be modest.

Be beautiful.

"Don't cause a man to stumble."

"Don't let yourself go."

These are some of the central messages evangelical Christian women continuously receive from our churches.  Similar messages come simultaneously from secular society:  Be sexy.  Be attractive. Female empowerment includes sexual empowerment, which means "you respect your needs, realize your desires, and accept the sexual aspect of yourself. Break away from the stereotypes that society enforces on women, on how to behave, the Do's and Don'ts which most of the time subdue the spirit and confidence of a person."  And this sounds like-- and can be-- good advice.*  Except that too often women's response to this advice still seems to be not actually focused on the woman as herself, but on how men see her.

And it's not hard to understand why.  To an extent rarely, if ever, experienced by men, a woman's identity, status and social approval are a function of how she looks.  This is why female leaders and politicians' clothing and hairstyles are often the subject of media discussion, while male leaders and politicians are almost never subjected to such scrutiny.  This is why women on magazine covers are usually in some state of undress, while men most often appear fully clothed.  This is what sociologists call "the male gaze."

As this academic paper describes it:

Though this may not necessarily be common knowledge, we can all buy the argument that a woman’s place in society’s stratification is defined by the outward manifestation of her person, and that person is identified first and foremost by her gender. . .women, in the majority of societies around the world, live lives of spectacle. . . females seldom find themselves in the role of spectator, or in the case of film, in the role of control. Women form the spectacle. They are the objects while males are generally the subjects. (Emphasis added.)

The "Landscapes of Capital" website created by sociology professors defines "male gaze" as follows:

When you look at an object, you are seeing more than just the thing itself: you are seeing the relation between the thing and yourself. Some objects are made to be looked upon. . . .The painting of female beauty offer[s] up the pleasure of her appearance for the male spectator-owner's gaze. But the spectator-owner's gaze sees not merely the object of the gaze, but sees the relationship between the object and the self. . .WOMEN ARE MADE TO APPEAR AS OBJECTS OF DESIRE based on their status as OBJECTS OF VISION. . . The male gaze is so pervasive in advertising that it is assumed or taken-for-granted. Females are shown offering up their femininity FOR THE PLEASURE OF AN ABSENT MALE SPECTATOR. "Men act and women appear"[.] . . .  Oddly, the female viewer also looks at the exterior of women as an "object of vision." She surveys their appearance as she does her own, through the eyes of a man. 
(Emphasis in original.)

The idea that women's primary status is as "objects of [male] vision" is so long-standing, so internalized and deep-rooted that we are hardly aware of it.  But it's there, and it affects the way both men and women-- Christian and non-Christian alike-- view themselves and one another.

The blog A Woman's Freedom in Christ recently posted a clip of a video in which actor Dustin Hoffman discusses how he had been used to thinking of women, during the creation of his 1982 movie "Tootsie."  He says he had an epiphany that changed his attitudes about women when he was told that though he could appear believably as a woman in the film, the makeup artists could not make him beautiful.  Mr. Hoffman actually tears up as he recalls how it came to him that he had spent his life up to that point considering a woman's physical beauty as the single criterion for whether or not he would even try to meet her or get to know her:

"I think I'm an interesting woman, when I look at myself on screen, and I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character, because she doesn't fulfill physically the demands that we're brought up to think women have to have in order for us to ask them out. . .  There's too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life, because I have been brainwashed." 

Hoffman is talking about the male gaze here-- and he expresses it in terms of brainwashing.  He literally was unaware of the way this viewpoint had affected his behavior his whole life, until viewing himself as a woman showed him how narrow and limiting to actual women it really was.

The question, then, is whether the male gaze is somehow part of Christianity?  While it's true that the human writers (all those we are sure about, anyway) of both Old and New Testaments were male and wrote from a male-centered perspective, there is no indication in the Bible that the "male gaze" is God-ordained or divinely sanctioned.  God's recorded interactions with humans, though accommodating such human perspectives, repeatedly ask humans to lift their gaze and try to understand God's perspective.  "'My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,'" declares the Lord.  'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'"  Isaiah 55:8-9.

Proverbs 31, the famous passage on finding a good wife, says, "Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised." (v. 30.)  1 Peter 3:3-4 says to women, "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment. . . rather, it should be that of your inner self."  Paul advises Timothy that women should adorn themselves "as is proper for women professing godliness, with good works."  (1 Tim. 2:10) It's interesting how Christians, instead of focusing on Paul's desire that women seek to be known for actions rather than appearance, focus so strongly on the verses immediately prior to verse 10, which do speak in terms of women's outward appearance.  This ends up turning the whole passage into a proof text for "modesty" in dress-- when the passage, read as a whole, is really a refutation of that outward focus.

In fact, both the 1 Peter verses and the 1 Timothy verses, written in a time when males and females alike covered their bodies in swathes of robes, really aren't about "modesty" in terms avoiding sexual display, but about not showing off one's wealth through elaborate hairstyles ("see, I have a maid to do my hair!"), gold jewelry or expensive clothing.  Churches were largely comprised of poor people and slaves (see 1 Cor. 1:26), so it was important not to flaunt markers of high social status or to show partiality to the same (see James 2:1-9).

Christian teachings about women's personal appearance, therefore, should be centered on changing this focus on outward appearance to a focus on the heart and actions.

However, it's very difficult for us as Christians to shake the longstanding cultural/social male-gaze focus on women in terms of their appearance, both historically and now.

Christians in earlier centuries took to heart much more than we do today, the New Testament's words on displays of expensive ornamentation.  But often the very absence of ornamentation became part of women's pride of appearance, as shown in George Eliot's classic novel Adam Bede, in the attitude of respectable farm-wife Mrs. Poyser:

"The most conspicuous article in her attire was an ample checkered linen apron, which almost covered her skirt; and nothing could be plainer or less noticeable than her cap and gown, for there was no weakness of which she was less tolerant than feminine vanity, and the preference of ornament to utility."

By contrast in the same novel, Bessey Cranage, the blacksmith's daughter, is held to be "the object of peculiar compassion [being set apart as an object of pity for moral weakness], because her hair. . . exposed to view an ornament of which she was much prouder than of her red cheeks-- namely, a pair of large round ear-rings with false garnets in them, ornaments condemned . . . by her own cousin. . . ."

Thus the point of Paul's and Peter's words was lost-- for rather than focusing on a woman's inner self, the focus of those more austere times was still on women's outward appearance, simply reversed to glorify outward plainness of dress rather than outward glamour. 

Today, Christians are adept at holding, at one and the same time, attitudes that women should be outwardly beautiful/sexy and modest/sexually concealed. The shaming of Christian women for supposedly not staying attractive for their husbands, is a prime example of the former (while by contrast, Christian men remain nearly exempt from any teaching that they should try to remain attractive to their wives).  And as to the latter, it's hard not to notice current summertime focus in Christian blogs on women's swimsuits and "modesty."  As the Word of a Woman blog humorously but pithily points out:

Summer is upon us kiddos and you know what that has meant (at least in my Facebook feed)? A plethora of articles from my well meaning Christian friends that tell me what I can and cannot wear at the beach or even in my own swimming pool if I am going to claim to be a proper Christian lady. Bikinis are taboo my friends and not just for me but also for my 10 year old daughter if I don’t want her to grow up to be some sort of floozie. . . Where is the line between too sexy and just sexy enough? Because the same folks who tell me there are rules about me wearing a bikini also tell me there are rules about not “letting myself go” and making sure I am still sexy enough for my husband. Sigh. It is exhausting.

The same blog also showcases the current Christian trend in which women ask men what they think of women's clothing choices, and men rate everything from sleeves to shoes in terms of whether it might "cause them to stumble."  Amusingly, the blogger points out that even a "Modest is Hottest" T-shirt is immodest by some of these standards.  We Christians appear to be skilled at not only perpetuating the male gaze, but elevating and catering to it.

But all this focus on women's physical appearance-- whether too sexy as a cause for men to stumble, or not sexy enough as a cause for them to stray-- unfairly places the burden on women for the actions and attitudes of men.  As Rachel Held Evans' book A Year of Biblical Womanhood states, "While young love is certainly celebrated in the Bible . . . nowhere does it teach that outer beauty reflects inner beauty.  The Bible consistently describes beauty as fleeting." Evans points out that Proverbs 5:15-19 advises men to choose to remain satisfied with their wives through the natural aging process. As she puts it, "Both husbands and wives bear the sweet responsibility of seeking beauty in the other at all stages of life.  No one gets off the hook because the other is wearing sweatpants or going bald or carrying a child or battling cancer.  Any pastor who claims the Bible says otherwise is lying.  End of story."

Jesus Himself placed the responsibility for lust squarely on the person doing the lusting (Matthew 5:28), and said nothing whatsoever about women's personal appearance, in that context or any other.  Jesus always related to women in terms of their personhood, not their appearance. As Evans points out in the same section of her book, "The gospel writers never rated the hotness of Jesus' female disciples."

In the midst of a male-centric culture, Jesus and His apostles sought to turn off what we now call the male gaze, encouraging men and women both to see themselves through God's eyes, in terms of a kingdom-of-God focus on the inner self rather than outward appearance, and on actions rather than looks. 

So what business do we have, as Christians, catering to the male gaze?  I suggest we stop worrying so much about what women are wearing and whether they've lost or gained weight, and just let our sisters be who they are and dress according to their own consciences and preferences.

Sound like a plan?


*Even the most conservative Christian women can be sexually empowered when they develop their own principles informed by their own understanding of the faith and of themselves, rather than what they're told by religious traditions and leaders that they have to be and do.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Deep in the Heart of Texas (Family Reunion)

Hot, moist Texas air clung stickily to my arms as I waded into the Gulf of Mexico.  Water warmer than a standard swimming pool swirled around my ankles.  In Oregon, even in summer, we'd gasp with the cold as we tried to wade in deeper than the tops of our feet, shrieking as the freezing waves chased us back to dry sand.     

But here I found myself quickly up to my waist, then my chest, struggling to stand as warm, strong waves tried their benevolent best to knock me over.  "Use a boogie board!" my sister-in-law called from further in.  My kids, aged 14 and 18, laughed with the novel sensation as the waves pushed them around. 

We'd come to Surfside Beach, Texas (a few miles west of Galveston) for the 2013 Rosser Family Reunion, hosted by big-hearted members of the Texas Rosser branch named Steve and Millie.  They'd rented four houses right on the beach, hiked up on stilts against winter storms, but high and dry in the late-June weather for us all to enjoy.  

My husband and I had a beautiful private bedroom with a king-size bed and a balcony overlooking the beach.  The kids had to share bunk-bed rooms, but they soon settled in. 

We had a whole week to swim, visit local attractions, spend time with 80+ family members (some of whom we'd never met) and over-indulge on pot-luck meals served in the biggest house's kitchen and dining room.  I didn't even attempt to compete in the matter of desserts prepared by the best home-cooks you can imagine! -- though I did contribute a salad or two.

One day we visited the Houston Zoo with most of the Wyoming contingent of the family (my husband's sister and one of his brothers).  It was HOT.  

But there were so many animals I'd never seen before, including an albino alligator.  This beautiful creature is carefully washed with scrub-brushes by his attentive keepers on a regular schedule.

I even got to feed a giraffe!

In the evenings we relaxed on the balcony of the beach house while the grackles (which looked like crows with extra-long tails but screeched like jays) waited for us to drop food.  (They were everywhere, like camp robbers at an Oregon campground).  

Gulls with black heads floated overhead, and flocks of brown pelicans winged over the house or, far out to sea, dove into the waves after fish.

The next day we drove a rental car that was far nicer than anything we had at home, into Galveston to visit the Moody Gardens Pyramid Aquarium.    It was an amazing, shiny blue pyramid structure, filled with sea lions, penguins, sea turtles and sharks.  

My husband took a picture of me and the kids in a shark cage.  

Hmm.  I wonder if maybe he was thinking of keeping us there. . . 


The Rossers are a musical bunch, and several evenings there was singing and guitar-playing.  The houses were filled with children, from newborns to teenagers.   They all seemed to have fun, especially the ones who were the right age for scavenger hunts and kite-flying.

One little niece  celebrated her first birthday on Friday afternoon.


Everyone got along, everyone teased and laughed and reminisced.  And the last night was a huge party with a band, lots of Rosser talent, and dancing.

I danced a little myself in my family reunion red T-shirt...

Here's my husband, his dad and our kids in the T-shirts.  

Aren't they adorable?

The next day we had to fly home-- and we almost missed our flight!  Our GPS unit didn't seem to understand that there was construction on the Sam Houston Parkway, and it kept telling us to take on-ramps that didn't exist.  But we did arrive at the airport with 45 minutes to make our flight, and managed to check in and get in line just as the plane was boarding.  I was so stressed out and relieved to have made it after all, that I fell asleep on the plane-- something I normally never do.  

But the best thing about the trip was the amazing feeling of being surrounded by loved ones -- even  those we'd never met before!  The stress of daily life and our continued struggles in this economy melted away in the warmth and generosity of this wonderful family.  We couldn't seem to stop them blessing us-- and we never could have made the trip without them. 

In fact, one morning as I soaked in the huge garden tub, enjoying the peace and relaxation, I felt the Spirit of God speaking gently in my heart.  "You are always this safe, this taken care of, even when you don't see or feel it," it felt like He said.  And I knew this message was the family's gift to me.

Rossers, you are all amazing.  

Marrying into this family was one of the best things I ever did.