Friday, April 3, 2015

Saturday's over....

What follows is my post from two years ago when, even though it was Easter, Resurrection Day, mama was caught in some sort of perpetual sad "Saturday." Driving to work this morning, I thought back to these words. When I read the last paragraph, I was almost overwhelmed with gratitude:

"And even though...for now...she is locked in some sort of perpetual Saturday, not remembering it's Sunday...not remembering it's Easter...not remembering the power of the day she will. His voice will remind her. His voice will call her name--Joyce--in a way that heals,  resurrects, and restores her broken body and mind. And, when she hears Him, all the sorrow, hurt and hardness--which sometimes led her nearly to despair--will be burned away by the joyful brightness of His Love, His Light."

Oh, what a Savior!

This morning, I cut my Sabbath "quiet time" short to make the 25-minute drive to Shannondale Nursing Home to get mom ready and take her to Easter service. 

In words I wrote earlier that morning, I reminded myself that "a far-off battle" won by Jesus has made all the difference, even in a world that looks and feels like it is under the control of a foreign, oppressive power. And, on the drive to Shannondale, I had been singing an old Kimberly COG ensemble song loud and strong: 
"Hear the bells ringing, they're singing that we can be born again.
Hear the bells ringing, they're singing Christ is risen from the dead...."

As I walked through Shannondale's front doors, I gave my best "Happy Easter" to everyone in the lobby, got on the elevator and hit the 5th floor button. But, that elevator stopped on almost every single floor and, when the doors opened, my view was one of sad faces, broken bodies, damaged minds. 

By the time I arrived on 5th floor, my smile and song were gone and my heart was heavy. It no longer felt like Easter Sunday--and the power of the Resurrection seemed far away. The faces I saw and the heart inside me felt more like some sort of perpetual Saturday. 

As I stepped off the elevator and saw mama's waiting face...dressed in a winter sweater...I pushed my sadness aside. After getting her wheelchair loaded and getting her buckled in, she and I headed for church. During the 20-minute drive, her frequent, repeated question began to grate: "Today's Saturday, right?" which I replied, "No, mom, today is Sunday...Easter Sunday...we're going to church." 

When we got there...miracles of miracles, a handicapped parking space was open. Then, a kind usher found a pew where I could easily park mom's wheelchair next to me. Then, my two handsome sons actually found mom and me...and sat beside us. 

My emotions are always a bit ragged on Easter...overflowing with gratitude for the cost of my salvation and for the promise of eternal life because of the Resurrection. And, I don't remember the last time I made it through a Sunday service without wishing I had more tissues.

But that Easter Sunday...became a powerful parable which  took awhile to read. With my gifted, Jesus-loving husband in front of me playing in the orchestra; my beautiful, gifted, Jesus-loving sons on one side of me; and my beautiful, Jesus-loving, stroke-and-Alzheimer's-damaged mother on the other side...well...I was, quite simply, a puddle. 

Then, as if God wasn't already speaking loudly enough, Pastor Avant began to talk about one of life's hardest "stones" to deal with--the "stone" of Alzheimer's. He read two incredibly beautiful letters--one from husband to wife...the other from wife to husband--who were locked in battle with this despicable disease. Then, my youngest son, who was sitting closest to me, reached over and patted my knee, and I lost it...dissolved into the kind of crying that's plain old ugly. 

When the service ended, I recovered and wheeled mom out. My three beautiful, gifted, Jesus-loving guys and I took her to Cracker Barrel where she ate her favorites--beans and greens, okra and cole slaw. Then, I loaded her back in the van, and headed to the place that has come to represent all that is "fallen" to me--sickness, brokenness, loneliness, dementia, death. 

On the way, she asked many times, "When am I going to see the boys?"...."When am I going home?"...."Today's Saturday, right?"....

And, at that point, it sure felt like that in-between time...when those first followers must have felt like the enemy had won...felt their hopes and dreams had been nailed to the same piece of ragged wood as their now-dead Rabbi. 

But, as I drove, I remembered two of Pastor Avant's words after he read those sad, beautiful letters--"God remembers." 

And, when my mama can't remember that it's Easter...when she can no longer remember the cross and the Resurrection... can no longer remember the words of the long-sung hymns... can no longer remember our names...her name...God remembers.

And even though...for now...she is locked in some sort of perpetual Saturday, not remembering it's Sunday...not remembering it's Easter...not remembering the power of the day she will. His voice will remind her. His voice will call her name--Joyce--in a way that heals... resurrects... restores... her broken body and mind. And, when she hears Him, all the sorrow, hurt and hardness--which sometimes led her nearly to despair--will be burned away by the joyful brightness of His Love, His Light.

"Love never dies. 
Inspired speech will be over some day;
praying in tongues will end;
understanding will reach its limit. 
We know only a portion of the truth,
and what we say about God 
is always incomplete.
But when the Complete arrives,
our incompletes will be canceled….
We don’t yet see things clearly.
We’re squinting in a fog, 
peering through a mist.
But it won’t be long 
before the weather clears
and the sun shines bright!
We’ll see it all then,
see it all as clearly as God sees us,
knowing him just as he knows us!
But for right now, until that completeness,
we have three things to do
to lead us toward that consummation:
Trust steadily in God,
hope unswervingly,
love extravagantly.
And the best of the three is love."
(1 Corinthians 13:8-13 The Message)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Before Jesus can show us who He is....

Thinking back to a few years ago. Lessons learned from an Ash Wednesday service I almost didn't attend.

It had been a busy day of job interviews and getting mama to a doctor's appointment. I'd almost talked myself out of going to an Ash Wednesday service at a church I'd been wanting to visit. But, reluctantly, I went. (Why does the Holy Spirit so often show up in "reluctant places"?)

As different speakers shared the Ash Wednesday readings, I began to realize it was the Holy Spirit who had pushed me past my excuses, out of my comfort zone, and onto that wooden pew to hear their pastor read the following passage:
"Be especially careful when you are trying to be good
so that you don't make a performance out of it.
It might be good theater,
but the God who made you won't be applauding.
When you do something for someone else,
don't call attention to yourself.
You've seen them in action, I'm sure—
'playactors' I call them—
treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage,
acting compassionate as long as someone is watching,
playing to the crowds.
They get applause, true, but that's all they get.
When you help someone out, 
don't think about how it looks.
Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively.
That is the way your God, 
who conceived you in love,
working behind the scenes, helps you out.
And when you come before God,
don't turn that into a theatrical production either.
All these people making a show out of their prayers,
hoping for stardom!
Do you think God sits in a box seat?
Here's what I want you to do:
Find a quiet, secluded place
so you won't be tempted to role-play before God.
Just be there 
as simply and honestly as you can manage.
The focus will shift from you to God,
and you will begin to sense his grace."
(Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, The Message)

This pastor then explained to us that, whenever we see the word "hypocrite" in our English Bibles, it's translated from the Greek word for "actor" (hupokrites). In Biblical times, actors wore masks, depending on the character they were playing. So, with that background, here are some words I wrote down from his sermon (thanks to the shorthand I still use from time to time):
"Most of us live our lives behind a mask.
We're afraid if people see behind our mask, they won't love us.
....Our masks do nothing to heal us--they only hide us.
....But, Jesus already sees and knows all the ugliness behind the mask,
and He says, "I love you child...this much"...
Then He stretches out His arms on a cross and dies.
....Lent is a time to let God help us take off our masks.
For us to offer our unmasked selves wholeheartedly to Him.
Taking off our masks is vulnerable and can make us feel completely naked.
....But He has not called us to be actors--
He has called us to be ambassadors. He has called us to be:
'a rebuilder of walls, a restorer of homes,
to raise up the foundations of many generations'
--for our children and our grandchildren and their children....
Could there be anything more beautiful than to live like that?"
Then, I stood in line for communion and to have those cross-shaped ashes painted on my brow. As the man who had just spoken those powerful, convicting, comforting words traced a cross on my forehead, he said quietly: "My sister, from dust you were formed, and to dust you shall return."

And, right there, my mind flashed back to a conversation with mom from earlier in the day. She couldn't remember something she wanted to tell me, and became frustrated and angry. She asked me, "Am I ever going to be normal again?"

And I began to cry.

NORMAL. What a loaded word.

I lost count of the times mama said to me, "I just always wanted to be normal." The sad irony is that her definition of 'normal' and the choices she made trying to achieve it brought even more chaos into her life.

But, standing there in front of that pastor, I realized that, like mama, NORMAL is one of the masks I wear. I too want to fit in and "just be like other people." And, just like mama, inevitably, that mask causes choices in my life that bring more chaos, damaging comparisons, confusion and sin.

The morning after that Ash Wednesday service--with mama's words and that pastor's words still echoing in my heart--I opened my favorite Lenten book, and the page fell open to words I wrote years ago:
"Before Jesus shows us who He is, He has to show us who we are."

And those words rattled my masks. They still do.
"The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the LORD’s love is with those who fear him,
his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts."
(Psalm 103:8-18 NIV)

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Ashes...the stuff left after the fire.

How fitting that churches observing Ash Wednesday use ashes gathered from burning the previous year's Palm Sunday leaves. Once used to help sing "Hosanna!," these leaves become an ash-and-oil, cross-painting paste to remind us of life... death... the ongoing need for repentance... renewal... redemption.

Truth be told, the first Ash Wednesday service I attended was more a comedy of errors than the practice of something sacred. The ability to juggle the bulletin, Book of Common Prayer and hymnal, while learning how and when to pull out and push back the altar from beneath the pew in front of you was definitely out of this PresbyBaptiCostal's comfort zone.

Since then, I have learned the Ash Wednesday minister's focus--through song, sermon and prayer--is to call people to repentance. However, I was so distracted, trying to keep one step ahead of the next step, that I don't remember anything from his sermon.

But I do remember words he spoke as he painted the cross-shaped ashes on my forehead: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The elderly couple sitting in front of me caused his words to ring and echo. This frail husband and wife “preached” me a crystal-clear sermon of just how quickly each of us "returns to dust," and of how we are called to live in the meantime.

When it was my turn to go down front to receive communion and have ashes painted on my forehead, I waited to let this couple step in front of me. All the way out the pew and up the aisle, the husband took halting, shuffled steps, which seemed possible only by the support of his wife's small arm around him.

I wondered how he would ever manage to kneel and get back up but, with her help, he did. I more heard than saw him take the bread and cup, because every breath was labored. They lingered the altar...together...for several moments.

As I watched their slow and painful walk back down the aisle and into their pew, I wondered what sort of devotion was required to get one’s self and one’s frail husband dressed and into the car…one’s self and one’s frail husband out of the car and into the church…one’s self and one’s frail husband up the aisle to painstakingly kneel at an altar to take the bread and cup and to get back up again.

Watching them--with newly painted crosses on their foreheads--made me cry...and I bowed my visiting head to hide tears that might cause those around me to wonder, "What's wrong with her?"

The church's Book of Common Prayer lay open in my lap, and I noticed tiny gray spots on its pages. I touched one, and it smudged. Then, I saw one of those "spots" drifting down and landing on the page, and realized these spots were ashes flaking off the cross on my forehead.

As I tried to brush them off without smudging the page, the Holy Spirit spoke deeply into my soul, “That’s where such a determined devotion begins… in the flaking off…. of selfish desires…. of "the old you.”

And, Jesus' cross...the forgiveness and power found the only place... the only way... such life-saving “flaking off” can ever begin and can ever endure.

So, in spite of how clumsy and vulnerable that "new" kind of worship felt, Jesus met me there and taught me a living parable.

In his book, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," C. S. Lewis paints a beautiful picture of this "flaking off." One of the characters, Eustace, through pride, self-pity and greed, has acted in ways that have caused him to be "turned into a dragon." Once the exciting newness of being a dragon wears off, Eustace is miserable and very sorry for how he has treated everyone. Listen to what happens:
"I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming toward me...It told me to follow...And I knew I had to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me to...a garden. In the middle of it was a well, which was more like a very big round bath...and I thought, 
'If I could get in there and bathe, it would ease the pain in my leg' (from the jeweled bracelet that had become more like a shackle).
But the lion told me I must undress I started scratching, and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then, I scratched a little deeper,...and my whole skin started peeling off if I was a banana...In a minute or two, I just stepped out of it. I could see it laying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.
But, just as I was going to put my feet into the water, I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkly and scaly just as they had been before....So I scratched and tore again and (it) peeled off beautifully again and out I stepped...and went down to the well for my bath. And exactly the same thing happened again, and I thought, 'Oh, dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off?'...
Then the lion said, 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay down and let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the old stuff peel off....
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off...And there I was as smooth and as soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me--I didn't like that very much for I was very tender now that I had no skin on--and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that, it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing, I found that all the pain had gone....
After a bit, the lion took me out and dressed new clothes....
And then, suddenly, I was back here...
Then Eustace asked, 'What do you think it was?'
And Edmund answered, 'I think you've seen Aslan.'....
Now, it would be nice and fairly nearly true, to say that from that time forth Eustace was a different boy. But, to be strictly accurate, he (only) began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But...the cure had begun."

"Before the Passover celebration,
Jesus knew his hour had come to leave this world
and return to his Father.
He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth,
and now he loved them to the very end....
Jesus knew the Father had given him authority over everything
and that he had come from God and would return to God.
So he got up from the table, took off his robe,
wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin.
Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet,
drying them with the towel he had around him.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter,
Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing,
but someday you will.”
“No,” Peter protested, “you will never ever wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”
(John 13:1-8, NLT)

Oh, Christ, 
You faced the fire of the Cross.
And turned its ashes into 
Forgiveness, Redemption, Resurrection....
During these next 40 days 
May I see you like never before. 
Shine your Love
Your Light on those places
In me that need to flake off...
Even be scraped off...
by the Lion of Judah.
Help me to desire
what You long for me to desire.
40 days from now,
may I love You more than I do today.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The 35th anniversary of The Great 4th of July Fire

Yeah…yeah…I realize 4th of July memories are supposed to be all about family gatherings and food, fireworks and fun. But…for me…the memory that tops the list is what I’ve come to call “The Great 4th of July Fire.”

It was 35 years ago today that Kevin, Barney, Pam, me, and a couple of leftover-Church-of-God-campmeeting-boyfriends were shooting bottle rockets out of Coke bottles in our front yard.

I should probably point out that it hadn't rained since...oh...March. And, I should also point out that, during almost everything I’m about to tell you, mama was unconscious in her bedroom in a drug-induced "coma," recovering from back surgery. 
Which…looking back…was probably a BIG blessin’.

Just across our front yard, separated only by two-laned Stouts Road, Albritton and Lucy Rice lived in a house fronted by 10-12 acres of pine trees, which amounted to LOTS of DRY pinestraw. (Did I mention it hadn't rained since March?) One last detail--to this day, Kimberly has a Volunteer Fire Department. (You may have seen the damage it suffered earlier this year when the tornado hit Kimberly.) That particular year, the primary bottle-rocket-shooter, Barney, was running for Town Council, with one “plank” of his campaign platform being better fire protection.

Well, sometime after midnight, an hour or so after shooting off the last rocket, we closed down the party. As my brother crawled into his twin bed (in the room he shared with our now-comatose mama and whistlin’ daddy...don't was a 2-bedroom house), he said he had a feeling he needed to look out the window. Next thing I know, he's running into the living room where daddy is snoring in his chair and Pam and I are watching TV. He's yelling, "The woods are on fire! Albritton's woods are on fire!"

On the way out the door, stopping only long enough to call Barney and tell him to get his butt and a bucket up to our house, Kevin yelled at me, Pam and daddy, “Hook up the hosepipe and get as many buckets as you can find." (We only found 3.)

Once and in look across Stouts Road told me that fire COULD NOT be put out with a hosepipe and 3 buckets. It was blazing!

But...truth be told...we were always a little scared of Albritton. He was the silent type. And most of us read lots of "stuff" into silence. So, all we knew was that...somehow...we had to put out that fire with a hosepipe and 3 buckets.

We could not call Albritton. We dared not alert the Volunteer Fire Department. The only call we could make was to Barney, who always was our family's version of 911. So, Pam and I—barefoot in our pajamas at the edge of Stouts Road (that's how far the hosepipe reached)—would fill up the 3 buckets; and then Kevin, Barney and daddy (who chain-smoked Salems throughout that entire night) would run into those fiery woods and back again to fill up those 3 buckets.

Well, this bucket brigade went on for quite awhile with no obvious results, So, in an act of frightened desperation, I went into the house and grabbed all the blankets and quilts I could find (many of them being mama's HOMEMADE quilts) to help fight the still-spreading fire. (Yes, you heard me.... homemade.... as in heirloom....and only Alzheimer's has allowed her to forget it...for now.)

I dumped that pile of quilts on the road beside Pam and yelled at her to soak them. Then, in my Keds and pajamas, with those dripping quilts, I ran into those blazing pine trees--throwing them onto burning patches of pinestraw and wrapping them around blazing tree trunks.

Every once in awhile, you'd hear pinecones explode. Each time that happened, my brother would freak out. Later, he said that each little explosion reminded him of a previous brush-clearing fire when a red-hot pinecone seed went straight up his nostril.

I can't tell you how many refilled buckets and resoaked quilts it took to put out that inferno...but with the bordering-on-miraculous help of God…and Barney, we did it. By that time, we couldn't go to sleep. So, all of us...exhausted and soot-covered...just piled on the living room floor...except for daddy who sank into his recliner...still smokin' a Salem. After a few minutes of quiet, Barney announced, "Well, there goes my run for Town Council." And...that did it...we couldn't stop laughing...tears made tracks down our soot-covered faces.

Eventually, Barney went home, and the rest of us decided to get some sleep. But...just like was deja-vux all over again. Again, Kevin looked out the front window. Again, he came running into the living room, this time yelling, "It's goin' again!" And out the door he went, stopping only long enough to call Barney...again.

By this time it's about 3 a.m., and I was just coherent enough to realize we needed reinforcements. So, I called Jeff Easter. Jeff says he remembers the phone ringing and wondering, "What fool is calling at this time of the morning?" But, he picked up, and...well...I'll let him tell this part of the story: "I heard this voice say, 'Put your hosepipe in your car and get to my house now'!"

When Jeff got there...hosepipe in hand...Pam and I were on bucket duty again. (But, sadly, by this time, mama's quilts had been lost to Fire #1.) And, we managed to hook up Jeff's hosepipe to ours, which made it long enough that we could actually get the water directly to the fire. the first hint of daylight and, quite thankfully, before Albritton ever had his first cup of coffee...Fire #2 was out.

Again, we collapsed on the living room floor—more exhausted and soot-covered than before—this time joined by Jeff. And, again, we ended up laughing ‘til we cried.

About 7 a.m....mama came stumbling into the living room in a post-surgery haze. She took one look at her living room floor, filled with soot-covered, sleeping people, and yelled, "MY, LORD, WHAT HAPPENED WHILE I WAS ASLEEP?"

So we told her, swearing her to secrecy, and then...with a rather pitiful blank stare on her face...shaking her head...she went to the kitchen and did the only thing she knew to do—cook us some biscuits and gravy.

Years after "The Great 4th of July Fire," as we came to call it, Barney confessed that, for several nights afterwards, he got out of bed, got in his car, parked in our yard and walked through Albritton's woods ... just to make sure.

Funny thing...the next summer, you'd have barely known what happened. As I walked through those woods...trying to figure out exactly where mama's quilts had “died,”...patches of grass were growing, wildflowers were blooming, and most of the trees had somehow survived. New little seedlings were popping up everywhere...probably from those blasted exploding pinecones.

Out of the ashes of The Great Fire 4th of July Fire, new life had already started. It occurs to me...the same thing happens to us. Out of the very ashes of the fires of our lives...God brings new life, growth, beauty...even laughter... IF we let Him.
"To all who mourn,...he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
that the Lord has planted for his own glory.....
Instead of shame and dishonor,
you will enjoy a double share of honor.
You will possess a double portion of prosperity in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours....
I will faithfully reward my people for their suffering
and make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants will be recognized
and honored among the nations.
Everyone will realize they are a people the Lord has blessed.”
I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
and draped me in a robe of righteousness....
Everyone will praise him!
His righteousness will be like a garden in early spring,
with plants springing up everywhere."
(From Isaiah 61, NLT)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Growing up Kimberly

I’m not sure what will flow out of my heart and onto this blank page. I hope it offends none, encourages a few, comforts some. 

As is true most of the time when it comes to "things I worry about most," last night as I started scrolling through Facebook for weather updates and Garrett “sightings,” I was focused on the safety of “mine.” And then I saw a picture of my little church in Kimberly, Alabama—roof blown off, walls blown out, debris blown in. 

And I couldn’t quite take in what I was seeing. 

I haven't attended that church in more than 30 years. And, for the most part, the people who ARE that church to me have either died or move to other churches for reasons I won't go into here.

But, in those 30 years, I’ve taken that little church…and those people…WITH me. It and they make up such a large part of who Karen Kelley is that, to see it wounded and gaping open like that…well…I felt wounded...gaped-open. 

The worst damage was inflicted on what I’ve always thought of as “The Old Sanctuary.” My first still-crystal-clear memory of this thing called “church” was in that old sanctuary. I was no older than 4, standing on the pew next to my mama, who was crying over a sermon some preacher was shouting about “the moon turnin’ to blood.” I was wiping her tears away and wishing I could tell that preacher to shut up and stop makin’ my mama cry. 

At the altar of that old sanctuary was where I asked Jesus into my heart, where I saw “signs and wonders” and watched in mortal fear as my little brother would pretend to be “slain in the Spirit” and hurl himself off the stage. (I just knew he was gonna be struck down dead.) 

In this old sanctuary was where one of my favorite Kimberly stories took place—when Sister Janie (name changed to protect the innocent) shouted down her “stack” and, as she ran by the board where the YWEA plaques hung, that long whipping hair picked up one of those plaques…and she shouted it all around the sanctuary. (Like I said…signs and wonders.)

The stage of that sanctuary is where I played the little blind girl in “Christmas Comes to Detroit Louie,” and learned to LOVE the gift of music. 

That sanctuary is also where I became three peas in a pod with Joy and Pam.
Two of the "peas": Joy in pigtails; me in blue.
Downstairs was where Sister Gracie and Sister Minnie made Bible stories come to life through flannel boards and tables turned into sandboxes. That basement also held the church kitchen, where you could count on the smell of a constant pot of coffee brewing if Brother Jim had anything to do with it. And that far back room (more dark cellar than church basement) was where Sister Mary scared the pee out of me (quite literally) on more than one occasion. 

In the “New Sanctuary,” which suffered less tornado damage but is still gaping and gashed, is where—after years of worrying and praying and bad dreams— I FINALLY was able to look down from that choir and see my sweet daddy’s hands raised in worship to a Savior who not only saved him but also instantaneously freed him from a 30+-year-three-pack-a-day Salem addiction. 

That sanctuary is where our sweet Brother Thompson showed us what Love looks like, acts like, pastors like. And that sanctuary is where his…our…sweet Sister Thompson would be so filled with the Spirit of God as she sang about “The Love of God” that a heavenly tongue was needed to finish its verses. 

That room is where, on a Sunday night, as I sat between Jeff on piano and Barney on organ (or vice versa), while waiting to "sing a special number," we all three fought HARD to recover after hearing my mama stand up and give this tearful, worry-filled prayer request: 
"Y'all need to pray for me; my doctor says I'm a walkin' bombshell."

That room is where our Brother Jerald encouraged us, disciplined and discipled us, and where our beloved Sister Marla taught us that “you have to breathe before you can sing.”

And how we did sing! Across the entire state of Alabama, much of the Southeast, on street corners in Manhattan, and general assemblies in Dallas. To this day, I’d hazard a very large bet that every. single. member. of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir could—with just a little prodding—remember every.single.word. to of “Celebrate Life.” 

That sanctuary is where Becca and I got in BIG trouble for laughing out loud when our "skippin'-Brother-Beasley- prediction" came true right before ...actually just to the right...of our very eyes during a Sam Luke revival.

That sanctuary is where I said goodbye to my sweet daddy. And where—years later—our Opa dedicated our first sweet baby boy to the Lord…surrounded and serenaded by family and friends. 

And, most recently…so many years after all of THAT…that sanctuary is where I said goodbye to Sister Mary, my mama’s best friend--the same one who scared the pee out of me--said goodbye for both me and mama. 

For some reason, not being able to share today’s sad news with mama—that the church she loved and worked for…fried countless pieces of chicken and apple pies for…fought for (even if a couple of those “fights” were with its preachers)—well…somehow it makes it more sad. 

And...confession time...this special place is where I had hoped to say the final goodbye to my mama after this years-long season of "the long goodbye."

Over the last few years, as Facebook has given me the gift of reconnecting with family and friends, three phrases have become frequent expressions of how blessed we were…and didn’t even know it: 
“Growing up Kimberly” 
“Growing up Kelley” 
“Growing up Kimberly Church of God.” 

I guess that makes me three-times blessed!

I’ve read and "Amen" people’s encouraging words: “God will bring beauty from ashes.” 
“It’s just a building; the people are the church.” 
“Maybe God wanted Kimberly to have something bigger and better.” (Although I’ve learned bigger does not always mean better.)

But…for a few days…I just need to grieve what is now gone. And…that…well…that somehow feels fitting…even sacred. 

So, for all you others out there who know the blessing of “Growing up Kimberly Church of God,” if I could, I’d reach out and gather you all up. And we’d stand in a tight circle… and we’d hug… and pray… and cry… and we’d tell our stories (for the 10th or 30th time) all over again…and we’d laugh…and laugh some more…and we’d share “I Love Yous”…and we’d sing—OH HOW WE WOULD SING—and we’d say a proper “Goodbye” to this special little place God used in such a mighty, loving way in our little lives.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Surprise Upon Surprise....

You, whose conceiving 
was predicted by that incensed angel
In answer to a prayer by parents 
long past creating.
You, whose birth was unannounced 
by your voiceless father,
Whose doubts had dared to question,
And…then…mutely waited-out 
some pregnancy of his own.
Your name scribbled 
by that still-silent father.

(Because who on earth would listen to a mother!)

And…then…with new voice suddenly birthed,
That father breaks into Holy Ghost song:
"And you, my child, 'Prophet of the Highest,"
Will go ahead of the Master to prepare His ways."*

—Surprise upon surprise—

You, who grew up healthy and spirited out in your desert,
Until that voice of yours had to cry
(or else bust your soul wide open)
That message sent from God,
"Prepare for God's arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in,
Every bump smoothed out...."

(And who doesn't want that?)

So they came to your riverbank,
Expecting filled-in ditches and smoothed-out bumps.
Oh, to have seen their faces when you greeted,
"Brood of snakes!
Why are you slithering down here to this river?
You think a bit of water on your snakeskins
Deflects God's judgment?
Change your life, not your skin.
And don't even think about pulling rank
By claiming Abraham as your father--
God can make children from stones if He wants."

—Surprise upon surprise—

But something—sickness of themselves,
Desperation for change,
Fascination with you and those camel-haired coverings
And honey-covered bugs,
Some primal, cosmic longing—welled up in them to beg,
(or else bust their souls wide open)
“What can we do to change from snakes to children?”
To which you cried, 
“Quit hoarding and extorting!
Quit beating, bribing and blackmailing!”
Which made those wannabe children wonder,
“Could this camel-covered, bug-eating voice be Him?
Be Messiah…?”

—Surprise upon surprise—

Even Herod got wind of you;
Courted that wild voice of yours.
But got stung by it instead
“On the matter of Herodias,” sister-in-law-turned-wife.
And, so, stung back—that’s what Herods do.
And there you sit, in that prison cell
Cut off from your saving riverbank.

And, because sometimes cells wear down voices
--no matter how wild and free they once were--
You begin to wonder about that cousin of yours,
The One you baptized,
“Are you the One?”
“Or are we still waiting?”
Waiting in that prison cell
With worn-down voice and worn-out heart.
How many doubt-growing days passed, John?
Until you send heart-sick followers to ask,
“Are you the One?”

And…for 3 hours…
(at least not with words)
He’s too busy—
Curing. Casting. Causing.

—Surprise upon surprise—

And then, as if 3 seconds had passed,
He answers your question with His own,
“Is this what you were expecting?
...The blind see, the lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth
Have God's salvation extended to them."

And your followers return to that cell where you wait,
Telling their own stories of what they saw Him do
--with their own now-opened eyes;
And echo words they heard Him speak
--with their own now-dug-out ears.
Did their stories answer your questions?
Did His question quiet your doubts?
(I ask because I know how hearing of others' miracles
Can cause the question, "Why can't I have one of my own?")

But, your cousin, The One you baptized in that river,
He doesn’t seem offended by questions:
"What did you expect?
When you went to see John in the wild?
A weekend camper?
A sheik in silk pajamas?
Not by a long shot.
What then?
God's messenger?
That's right...
Probably the greatest messenger you'll ever hear."

—Surprise upon surprise—

Then Herod has a birthday,
And a young beauty
—the girl of that sister-in-law-turned-wife—
Gifts him a dance.
What a dance it must have been!
A dance that birthed a vow,
“I’ll give you anything you want!”
But the young dancer has no wants.
And, so, asks her still-stinging mother, who hisses,
“That meddling Baptizer’s head on a platter!”

—Surprise upon surprise—

And so the birthday encore:
That plattered head—eyes and mouth open—
Looks straight at Herod.
(No wonder his dreams turned to nightmares)
And that headless body is buried
By stomach-sick, heart-broken followers
Who must tell his cousin, The One,
That the voice crying in the wilderness is silenced.
But wait…
—Surprise upon surprise—

(*All Scripture references are based on The Message.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

We are bold to ask...

So....another side effect of being 50something--sometimes I REALLY believe I have that "thing" known as adult-onset ADD. Used to, I could keep at least 6 or 7 "balls" in the air without even breaking a sweat. But no more. 
Where my ADD reveals itself most is in my prayer life. I'll begin to pray, and the first shiny object that crosses my mind...--well, let's just say the prayer turns to dust, and I'm off and hopping down some rabbit trail.
But...somehow...Jesus must have known there would be people like me. (Well...HA...of course He did--He knit us together.) So, when those first road-weary followers asked, "Teach us to pray, Lord," He gave them words that would settle them down, focus them on what's important, words that can be used as a START line for any prayer that has ever come out of my heart. They aren't FANCY words and, when you REALLY contemplate their meaning, they definitely aren't EASY words. (He must have known we don't really need FANCY or EASY--oh, of course He did.)
So, this morning, after I had JUST used this unfancy prayer to settle me down, to focus my heart, to pray for His Kingdom to take over my heart, my Honey's heart, our boys' hearts, my nephews' hearts, my beautiful niece's heart, my family's and other dear hearts...well, these words for March 27 found me. (I just love it when God has a theme!):
"....'We are bold to say'.... 
The word 'bold' is worth thinking about.... We do well not to pray the prayer lightly. It takes guts to pray it at all. We can pray it in the unthinking and perfunctory way we usually do only by disregarding what we are saying. 
'Thy will be done' is what we are saying. That is the climax of the first half of the prayer. We are asking God to be God. We are asking God to do not what we want but what God wants. We are asking God to make manifest the holiness that is now mostly hidden, to set free in all its terrible splendor the devastating power that is now mostly under restraint. 'Thy kingdom come...on earth' is what we are saying. And, if that were to suddenly happen, what then? Who would be welcomed in and who would be thrown the Hell out?...Boldness indeed. To speak these words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.
To speak the second half of the prayer, you need to be bold in another way. Give us. Forgive us. Don't test us. Deliver us. If it takes guts to face the omnipotence that is God's, it takes perhaps no less (guts) to face the impotence that is ours. We can DO NOTHING without God. We can HAVE NOTHING without God. Without God we ARE NOTHING
It is only the words, 'Our Father' that make the prayer bearable. If God is indeed something like a father, then as something like children, we can risk approaching him...." 
(Frederick Buechner, "Listening To Your Life")
“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?
Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. 
Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:
Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right;
Do what’s best—as above, so below.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
You’re in charge!
You can do anything you want!
You’re ablaze in beauty!
Yes. Yes. Yes."
(Matthew 6:5-13, The Message)

Oh, Abba God...thanks for knowing I would need these bold (but centering down words)...and then giving them to us. 
May Your Kingdom come. 
May Your will be above, so below. 
Yes. Yes. Yes.