Thursday, September 10, 2009

When Life Hands You A Mary Will Findley...

So, if Sister Lee was the saint of the lunchroom, Mary Will Findley was the devil with horns of the 2nd/3rd grade.


I never could decide whether Miss Findley just hated teaching or simply delighted in scaring the pee out of us. She screamed at us all day, everyday. Her number one rule was "SIT UP STRAIGHT!"--no easy feat for a girl with undetected 20/100 vision. In order to even see what my #2 pencil was writing on that wide-ruled paper, I had to get REALLY close to my desk. This wayward behavior got me whacked across the back with a yardstick EVERY SINGLE TIME she caught me, which was a lot.

Looking back, even her idea of "fun" was a little sadistic. During the hot Alabama school days of September and May, she would line all of us up outside under her classroom windows. Then, she would dip a rag into a bucket of ice water and whack us across the face. For some reason, we LOVED this. We BEGGED, "One more time, Miss Findley! One more time!"

During those two years in "Mary Will Findley Hell," the only parts of the school day I enjoyed were Sister Lee's lunchroom and reading. Chubby girls are typically very good readers. So, I was in the advanced reading group. This "group" consisted of me and my friend, Pam Nail (who wasn't chubby but was still a good reader). We would take advanced-level Dick & Jane books and go into the cloakroom and read to each other. I loved that cloakroom. It was dark and warm, and I would snuggle into whatever sweaters and coats were hanging on the hooks behind me.

Mary Will did not like for children to bother her. You had to raise your hand (a long time) just to get permission to go up to her desk. She sat at that desk with her skirt pulled up a little and her legs spread in such a way that you could see her white girdle. I guess she did that for ventilation purposes. But it was a disturbing sight for 2nd graders.

Anyway, one morning I had this "place" on my leg before I left for school. It was red and itchy, and mama put some Polysporin ointment on it. But, as the morning wore on, that little red place grew to the size of my thigh. It was killing me, and red streaks were running from it (a sure sign of blood poisoning, according to my Mama Kelley).

Well...I raised my hand, but Miss Findley would not acknowledge me. So, in my fevered, pain-filled fog, I did the unthinkable--I went up to her desk without permission.

Very timidly, I asked, "Miss Findley would you please look at my leg? It's hurtin' REAL BAD." To which she SCREAMED, "GO BACK TO YOUR SEAT; I'M NOT A NURSE." So I did.

After school, the bus driver always let us off in front of my uncle's store, which my Aunt Barbara manned until Uncle Walter (whom we called NooNoon) got home from working at the brickyard. When I walked into the store, Barbara noticed I was limping and asked me what was wrong, so I showed her my leg. Well, she went flying out the door, instructing my cousins to take me up the hill to our Mama Kelley's house. (Barbara had gone to call my mama who worked at Sears Roebuck, all the way in downtown Birmingham.)...I don't remember much after that.

I do remember my Mama Kelley laying me on her little twin bed and putting something on my leg. Next thing I know, I'm laying on an exam table at Dr. McCarn's office in Warrior, with my mama crying and stroking my forehead with a wet rag.

Turns out, I had been attacked in bed the night before by something poisonous. Dr. McCarn said it looked like either a really bad spider bite or a scorpion sting. (I've always opted for the scorpion sting--it sounds so much more exotic.) I was put on antibiotics and ordered to stay in bed for three days with my leg propped up on pillows.

On the way home, mama asked me, "Karen, why didn't you get Miss Findley to call me before your leg got so bad?" When I told her about Miss Findley "not being a nurse" and all, her soft, brown eyes became a hard shade of black!

Now, you need to know that my mama's "spiritual gift" is mercy. In the words of her cousin, Fran, "She's always taking in strays and lost causes." But, she did not practice that gift on Mary Will Findley the next day.

What happened the next morning at Kimberly Elementary School (while I was being petted by my Mama Kelley) has become the stuff of legends.

My mama did not raise her hand and ask permission to go to Miss Findley's desk. She marched into that classroom in front of all those straight-sitting second and third graders and "invited" Miss Findley (who outweighed my mama by....oh...about 100 pounds) out into the hallway.

When Miss Findley declined her invitation, I'm told my mama said, "We can either do this here in front of these children, or we can do it outside. But, it's gonna be done."

When I came back to school from the "scorpion bite," my fellow second/third-graders were in awe of my mama. I never found out exactly what she said or did to Mary Will (maybe mama whacked her across the back with a yardstick), but for the rest of that year, every time I raised my hand, I got almost instantaneous permission to come to her desk.

Unfortunately, though, it seems Mary Will's schoolin' didn't last. Because, three years later, when my little brother arrived in second grade, he says Mary Will gave him "shaken-second-grader syndrome" when he left his leaves at home on leaf-collection day...a fact never shared with our mama...until now.  
Years later, when I was a senior at Mortimer Jordan High School, I was asked to give the devotional for a regional teachers' meeting. Unbeknownst to me, Mary Will Findley was in the audience. After the meeting, she walked up to me. When I saw her coming, I automatically stood up straight and...quite probably...even peed my pants a little.

What happened next...well...let's just say you could have knocked me over with a feather. Mary Will Findley HUGGED me. She had tears in her eyes, and said, "I always knew."

I didn't dare ask, "Knew what?" I just hugged her back. I didn't thank her for all the ways her teaching had touched my life because, at the time, I thought all those ways were bad.

But, Mary Will Findley toughened me up. In this upside-down Kingdom, life's yardstick whacks you across the back...a lot. And, she taught me how to take it.
"Consider it a sheer gift, friends,
when tests and challenges come at you from all sides.
You know that under pressure,
your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors.
So don't try to get out of anything prematurely.
Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed,
not deficient in any way....
Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on
and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate.
For such persons loyally in love with God,
the reward is life and more life."
(from James 1, The Message)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Everything I know about Grace v. Works....... I learned from the Kimberly Elementary School lunchroom lady

Each year, as I begin again the annual back-to-school routine, I can't help but think back to my own school days. So, for the next few posts, I'm going to re-run a few Kimberly Elementary School stories. For those who've "tasted" these already, I hope you won't mind "seconds." For those getting their first taste, I hope you enjoy.
----------------------------------
Kimberly Elementary School was a square, brick building with six grades crammed into four classrooms. The way they managed that was to put the "smart" 2nd graders into the 3rd&4th grade classroom and the "smart" 4th graders into the 5th grade classroom. No matter how smart 1st graders were, they got stuck with the "dumb" 2nd graders. (There was no kindergarten--maybe that's the reason for all those "dumb" 2nd graders.) Sixth graders had a room all to themselves; probably because the 6th grade teacher was also the principal...You know what they say, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
When you walked through the doors, you landed in a wide, tall hallway with wooden floors burnished to a dull brown from wax, dirt and chalk. The walls were painted a puky shade of "peppermint," with water fountains on the right and stairs on the left. These stairs led to the basement, which contained the girls' and boys' bathrooms, the furnace room and the lunchroom.
From this lunchroom, the smell of Sister Lee's yeast rolls wafted up those stairs and into those four classrooms every day of the school week. Like me, Sister Lee went to the Kimberly Church of God. (I still believe this denominational tie garnered me some of her biggest and best yeast rolls.)
But, of all the feelings stirred by her food's delicious tastes and aromas, the most delicious feeling was the knowledge that she loved me. Every day, as she ladled out heaping helpings of rolls, mashed potatoes, mounds of sticky, white rice--all loaded with gravy, she would say, "Hey, baby, Sister Lee loves you." And, even though she said this to every child who went through that line, you somehow felt you were the most special, perhaps even her favorite.

And, you knew she meant every word. After all, she woke up before 5 a.m. every school-day morning to make sure the poorest children in Kimberly--the ones who qualified for "free lunches" (and breakfasts)--started their school day with a hot, delicious breakfast. She never settled or scrimped--her breakfast buffet included homemade biscuits, hot oatmeal, bacon, sausage, eggs. It was the breakfast of champions. Sister Lee's breakfasts were so delicious that, even those of us whose daddys were too proud to let us get "free lunch," would beg our mamas for the 25 cents that bought you a "ticket" to Sister Lee's breakfast.

These days, when I hear really smart people trying to explain the differences between grace and works, I find myself wishing they could have gone through Sister Lee's lunch line. You see, she didn't wake up before 5 a.m. for the pitiful little salary she made. (If so, we would have had old, dry toast, and no one would have begged their mamas for 25 cents.)

Nor was Sister Lee trying to earn love. She did what she did because she loved--she simply loved Jesus--and her sweet love for Him just flowed out on us, the blessed ones.

I don't know for sure what the "wedding supper" of Jesus is going to be like, but I sure hope it includes Sister Lee's yeast rolls (and maybe even some of her mashed potatoes with gravy).
"How great is the love the Father has lavished on us,
that we should be called children of God!
And that is what we are!...
This is the message you heard from the beginning:
We should love one another....
Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue,
but with actions and in truth...
We love because He first loved us."
(1 John 3:1, 11, 18; 4:19, NIV)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Gold-plaid jumpers

That's me...circa 1968. There's a perfectly good reason for the bluish tint to my skin.

It all started when my aunt, Mimi, took me and two of my girl cousins--Denise and Lisa--shopping for school clothes.

Every year, she would get one of her brothers or sisters-in-law to take us all the way from Kimberly to downtown Birmingham, where we would shop at Sears Roebuck, New Ideal and, sometimes, even the fancy Pizitz.

I LOVED shopping at Pizitz. Or, I guess I should say, I loved eating at Pizitz. They had a restaurant on something called the "mezzanine," and you could sit there and eat AND watch people shopping on the first floor below you. Mimi would always take us to "Breakfast with Santa Claus" at Pizitz...but that's another story for another time.

Anyway, that particular year, my cousins spied a gold-and-brown plaid jumper with a pleated skirt, and decided it would be "so cute" for us to get matching ones. Only problem was it didn't come in "chubby" sizes. But I'd-be-dadgummed if I was gonna walk out of that store without a matching gold-plaid jumper. (I've always been a little stubborn that way.) So, I sucked in and sucked in some more, and Mimi somehow got that jumper to zip.

On school-picture day, it had been pre-determined that us three would wear our matching jumpers. So, that morning, I skipped the daily biscuits-and-gravy breakfast in hopes the zipper might be a little more forgiving.

It wasn't....Had it not been for a near-meltdown on my part, mama would have given up and made me wear something else. But, eventually, between the two of us--me suckin'-in and mama zipping--we finally got me in that thing.

(And now you understand the bluish tint to my face in the picture above.)

I think I remember the photographer taking a picture of us three together in our matching jumpers for our Mimi. But I couldn't find that picture anywhere.

Shortly after picture day, the zipper on that poor little jumper blew completely out. Fortunately, for me, this happened at home and not in front of Roger Nichols.

What is it about me and clothes? I attach so much self-esteem to pieces of cloth. There's this skirt that's been hanging in my closet for 5 years. It has never once fit...not even with Spanx. Truth be told, it's what keeps me walking up and down the hills of Mallard Bay and stepping on that dadgum scale. Why don't I just give it to Goodwill and go eat me some biscuits and gravy?

I'll tell you why...because that would be admitting defeat. That would be like walking out of that downtown-Birmingham-store without my matching gold-plaid jumper. So...that skirt will probably hang in my closet until the moths turn into a banquet or until someone comes out with turbo-charged Spanx.

It occurs to me...it's pretty much the same story with my "spiritual clothes."

I'm told that, as a follower of Christ, I am "clothed" in Him. But, truth be told, most days that garment just doesn't seem to fit.

Of course, it's always there--beckoning me, encouraging me to keep walking, to keep believing, to keep wearing.

Many days, my pride and selfishness cause me to bust the zipper wide open. But, then, my "Dresser" simply says, "Come here. Give it to me. I'll make it good as new. And, one day, it will fit just right."

At the end of the movie "Nanny McPhee," there's a scene where the poor maid, Evangeline, is about to be married to the handsome Mr. Brown. As she stands there, looking down at her pitiful dress, she says to Nanny McPhee, "But, I don't look much like a bride." To which Nanny declares, "Oh, but you will, child. Oh, but you will."

And...as Evangeline walks toward her loving groom...step-by-step...her dingy, ill-fitting dress is transformed into a glistening gown...fit for a bride.

So, I keep wearing...I keep walking...I keep hoping and praying and growing...step-by-step in my ill-fitting garment...believing that one day...when I see Him...it will finally fit just right.
"Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!"
........................................................
"We know that when these bodies of ours
are taken down like tents and folded away,
they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven
--God-made, not handmade--....
Sometimes we can hardly wait...so we cry out in frustration.
Compared to what's coming, living conditions around here
seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack,
and we're tired of it!
We've been given a glimpse of the real thing,
our true home, our resurrection bodies!
The Spirit of God whets our appetite
by giving us a taste of what's ahead.
He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so we'll never settle for less."
(Romans 13:14 and 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, The Message)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ouiser Boudreaux...Room Mom?

I used to be many things. If you'd asked someone who knew me in my teens to describe me, they would possibly have told you something like, "Oh, that Karen, she's just so...sweet."

In my 20s the description likely would have changed to something like, "Oh, that Karen, she's just so...outgoing."

The 30s would probably have seen a BIG change in adjectives. "Oh, that Karen, she's just so...stressed...and...what a control-freak!"

And the 40s...well...I gotta be honest...depending on who you talk to...there's just no telling what people might say. Cause, in the words of Steel Magnolias' Ouiser Boudreaux, "I ain't as sweet as I used to be."

Some days I'm glad of that fact. To tell the truth, I still HATE confrontation. But then I find myself doing things like confronting VERY LARGE, angry men in parking lots and e-mailing pointed questions to attorneys who are seemingly getting paid to do nothing.

Inevitably, after the fact, I end up wondering, "Was that really me?" My "sweet-old self" would NEVER have considered such actions!

This "new me" has also lost patience with people who base reality on how they "wish things were" rather than accepting reality and the universal rule that actions-have-consequences.... That drives me crazy, right there.

I've also lost any drive...motivation...(whatever you want to call it) to try to force relationships. I think it's because I spent so much of the first 40 years of my life wanting people to like me, accept me, affirm me. I just don't have the energy that requires anymore. I've come to believe something my Mimi tried to tell me 40 years ago, "Real friends find each other."

But then...there are days when I deeply miss my "sweet-old self". The one with eyes and arms and mind and heart wide-open. Those days, I wish I could put life in reverse and try to find the exact "thing" that made my eyes a little more narrowed, my arms a little more folded, my mind a little more nit-picking, and my heart a little more (OK...a lot more) cautious.

You might wonder what has me thinking about all this? Truth is, my thoughts seem to wander this way every year when school starts, and I'm surrounded by all those sweet, young, heart-wide-open moms.

Anyway, this morning, I went to a meeting for "room moms." In this room were dozens of moms, many of them first-time-kindergartner-moms. They were bright-eyed and beautiful and full of ideas for EVEN MORE special school events.

And then there was me....wondering how I was ever going to get a bunch of grizzled, old middle-school moms to sign up to help with parties...and to donate items for the school auction basket...and to donate money for teachers' gifts...and to buy tickets to the school auction...and to donate items to Awesome Acts...and to find food and games and a speaker for a Thailand party...etc....etc....etc....

OK...I know what some of you are thinking--with that attitude, why did you sign up to be a room mom in the first place? Well, that's another thing I miss lately--my memory.

You see, when wonderful Mr. V, who has "been Jesus" to my boys, walked up and asked, "Would you be our room coordinator?", I honestly forgot about ALL the other stuff that goes with that job. And, out of sheer memory loss, ignorantly imagining myself simply bringing in a few chocolate-chip muffins and juice boxes during the year...I looked at Mr. V and said, "OK, I'll do it...for you."

But, truth be told, I miss being being one of those enthusiastic, energized moms.

I miss the part of me that is eyes and arms and mind and heart wide-open. But I've also grown rather fond of my Ouiser side. She's the side that follows bullies into parking lots. The world needs a few more Ouisers, I think.

I have no answers as to how to merge my old, sweet, wide-open self (if I ever find her again) with my new Ouiser self. I guess it's a process...a journey....something I'll figure out along the way.

Maybe I'll let them job-share.

The "Ouiser me" can be room mom. After all, who would dare say "No" to her.

And, the "sweet me" can....Hmmm...guess I'll have to think about that....It's been awhile since I've talked to her.
"Continue to work out your salvation
with fear and trembling,
for it is God who works in you to will and to act
according to His good purpose."
(Philippians 2:12,13)

Monday, August 17, 2009

35 Days...

Well...today we sent Garrett and Jackson back to school. (That's them with the hairy pits. Garrett is the big, Amish-looking one.)

Garrett is a sophomore, AND gets his driver's license next month. (Oh, sweet Jesus, help me!) Jackson is a 7th grader, who DOESN'T get his driver's license next month. (Thank you, Lord, for all small favors.)

Each year, for about two weeks before school begins, I find myself in a no-good, really-bad-day kind of mood. (Keven has learned to just set his face to the wind and weather this annual storm with me.)

Of course, I know the reason I get so...so..."angst"-filled (for lack of a better word)--because, with each passing summer, I realize the time is drawing ever closer when those two boys will be packing up a car and leaving for some college campus.

So, as a result, each August, I tend to begin measuring our summer by experiences we didn't have, memories we didn't make, wise words I didn't say...etc., etc.

And...at the very same time...I have the audacity to talk to my youngest about the importance of "seeing the glass half full"! (He's been bummed because, in his opinion, he didn't get to spend enough time with his cousins this summer.)

But, last night, as I stood at the sink slicing watermelon for one last high-schoolers party, I decided to take my own glass-half-full medicine....So, here goes...
Summer was AHHMAZING--if I may be allowed to borrow a word I hear from the many teenagers in my life! One with perhaps-fewer-and-smaller-glassfuls of family than Jackson or I would have liked...but, nevertheless, FILLED...FULL... OVERFLOWING...with family, old and new friends, new experiences, new challenges, new dreams.

So, from my WAY-MORE-than-half-full glass, here's a toast to Summer '09 and its Creator, for the experiences we DID have, the memories we DID make, and the wise words (if any) I DID say.

And...officially...Summer '09 has 35 days left. (I think I'll just pretend the boys are at some sort of week-long academic "camp".)

35 days...plenty of time for a few more gulps of family and friends, a few more memories and perhaps even a wise word.
"Teach us to realize the brevity of life,
so that we may grow in wisdom."
(Psalm 90:12, NLT)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My cousin Barney is a liar

(Today's Kimberly story was "told" to me by Jeff Easter, one of my dearest, kindest, funniest friends. He has made me laugh on some of my saddest days and cry from laughter on some of my happiest. The other character in the story is my friend, Barney, who was always my family's version of 911, and a pretty funny guy in his own right. That's him in the picture. I love them both.)

"It's an easy job. All you gotta do is answer the phone."

I should've known better. After all, my cousin Barney is a liar.

I should've paid attention to the chill that ran up my spine as I thought of the shadowy, casket-lined rooms and the pre-recorded, macabre organ music piping out strains of "Rock of Ages." I don't even like that song. Nor do I care for the smell of carnations--the funeral bud of choice among lower-income Southern mourners.

What if I got trapped in the embalming room? Or had to touch a dead person? Doesn't the Old Testament speak against such things?

But, Barney kept assuring me, "All you gotta do is answer the phone!" (At that point in his vast and sundry career, Barney was apparently serving as Messmer Funeral Home's human resources director.)

Truth be told, it was sort of expected of me. I was a 16-year-old Harden, and working for Mr. Messmer had become a rite of passage for us Harden men.

Besides, I'd make three dollars and fifty cents an hour. I'd be rich!

So, I said "OK, I'll do it."

My boss was Mr. Messmer himself, a kind and portly man who had earned the trust and, therefore, the newly-passed members of most families in the Kimberly-Warrior metropolitan area.

My first assignment was the Thursday night viewing for the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor. The plan was for Mr. Messmer to greet the grieving family, get them settled in and then leave me to "answer the phone."

At 5 o'clock sharp, the mourning Taylors arrived en masse. There were tall Taylors, short Taylors, fat Taylors and skinny Taylors. There were ugly Taylors and foxy Taylors. Taylors in suits and Taylors in overalls. There seemed to be a thousand Taylors, all packed into the small confines of the parlor, which was unchangingly decorated in faux-wood paneling, naugahyde chairs and crushed-velvet drapes.

Shortly before 6 o'clock, with Mr. Messmer long gone, a steady stream of grievers began arriving to pay their respects and to comment on how "natural" Mrs. Taylor looked--yet another reason Mr. Messmer was the regional undertaker of choice.

At four minutes past 6--I noted the time because it was my first official duty--the phone rang. "Messmer Funeral Home," I said, with a sudden swell of manly-Harden pride.

"Who's dead?" screeched the voice on the other side of the phone.

Somewhat rattled by the irreverent inquiry, I blurted back, "Mrs. Taylor. She's being buried tomorrow. Thanks for calling." And hung up.

Just then, a wiry Taylor woman, with a trail of what appeared to be dried snuff running down her chin, marched up and informed me, "There ain't no toilet paper."

As I sat there, blinking at her snuff trail, the only thought I could muster was, "Is that my problem?...My job is to answer the phone. Barney said so." But Snuffy just stood there, chewing on something, clearly expecting me to solve the encroaching toilet paper crisis.

Well, before I could get up out of my chair, both phone lines lit up. "One minute," I signaled to Snuffy....And there it was again...that screeching voice. Only this time it was angry and crackling, insinuating that I had hung up on her.

After repeating the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor's arrangements--twice--I finally began making my way through the sea of grievers in search of toilet paper...all the while doing everything I could to avoid "Snuffy," who had stomped off in a huff while I was dealing with Screecher.

As I maneuvered toward the mystifying no-man's land of the ladies' room, carrying an armload of toilet paper, I remember thinking, "I could be at home watching Gilligan's Island."

Now, for some unfathomable reason, Mrs. Taylor had chosen to pass in late July, the very apex of the Great State of Alabama's annual inferno. Each time the doors opened to welcome the seemingly endless tide of friends, neighbors and church "family," the evening's hot, humid blanket rolled in with them.

Who was this woman? How could one gain so many admirers in one short lifetime?

But, apparently, Mr. Messmer's air conditioner was no respecter of persons and, on that Taylor-congested evening, it decided to give up the ghost. Within seconds of its final, sputtering, lukewarm puffs, I was sweating life a farm animal.

Right then, one of the short Taylors in overalls reached out and grabbed my arm, practically shouting, "I been lookin for you everwhere. I think there's somethin wrong with that-there air condition."

"Ya think, Shorty?" was what I wanted to say...right after a much-needed cussin fit.

Instead, I strived to assume the kind countenance of a funeral home director, which seemed to work so well for Mr. Messmer, and told Shorty, "I'll see what I can do."

By this time, the smell in the over-Taylored parlor was a hot, cloying concoction of body odor, perfume, spearmint gum, Aqua Net and those blasted carnations.

I wound my way back to the desk where both phone lines were blinking...holding my breath and loosening my suffocating necktie.

And...I kid you not...as if on cue..."Rock of Ages" began piping through the speakers. At that moment, I would have gladly traded places with the newly-passed Mrs. Taylor.

As I sat there...phone lines still blinking...the ugly truth hit me. I couldn't call Mr. Messmer. I couldn't fix the "air condition." I couldn't stand on my desk and shout, "Will all you people just please go home?"

We were stuck...together...me and those sweaty grievers...in that stinking, hot place of death. Hell took on a whole new meaning.

At 8:35...with just 25 minutes to go...I thought I saw the proverbial light at the end of the proverbial tunnel...until I realized it was just a reflection off the sweaty forehead of the rapidly-approaching, panicked-looking Taylor woman.

"May I help you?", I reluctantly asked. To which she responded by covering her mouth and speaking to me in low, hushed tones, as if we were sharing some long-held secret.

"Umh," she began. "I really don't know how to...umh...tell you this. But, you see, Mrs. Taylor is my sister, and...well...y'all have too much 'stuff' up there," she stammered, gently patting her own well-endowed chest area. "Could you possibly take a little out?"

What!...Could I what? That was definitely NOT in my job description. I had never touched a live woman's chest...I was certainly not about to touch a dead one!

"I'll tell Mr. Messmer," I spewed, as I took her by the elbow and ushered her out the door.

Forget Gilligan's Island. I'd rot in the Jefferson County Jail for murdering that lying, no-good Barney before I'd ever do this again!

By that point, I had shed my tie and jacket--a certain violation of Messmer's employee policy. (Good thing I'd listened to mama and put on clean underwear because the pit-stained, blue Oxford was the next thing about to be shed.) But, just as I began unbuttoning it, I happened to glance at the clock and noticed that its little hand was on the longed-for 9. "Thank you, sweet Jesus!"

Thankfully, one endearing quality of Southern mourners is that, except for the few disturbed outliers who threaten to fling themselves into their loved-one's casket for the night, they know when to call it a day. (After all, the food's back at the house.)

So, at 9:01 sharp, the tired, hungry Taylors began emptying the foodless, inferno-like parlor. By 9:05, everyone was gone...except for me and the newly-passed, newly-endowed Mrs. Taylor.

After tucking her in for the night, I snapped off the organ music--how could Rock of Ages possibly be playing again?--and, with neck hairs standing on end, beat a hasty path through the shadowy, casket-lined room and out the back door to sweet, blessed freedom.

....My cousin Barney is such a liar!

For everything there is a season,
a time to be born and a time to die....
a time to cry and a time to laugh....
a time to grieve and a time to dance....
(from Ecclesiastes 3 NLT)

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Mortimer Jordan High School Dixie Devilettes

Look at them! Aren’t they somethin'?

Those are the 1977 Mortimer Jordan High School Dixie Devilettes.

They kicked.

Let me clarify--
they kicked HIGH...
toes reaching well above their Friday-night-football-game hair ... WHILE wearing pom-pommed cowgirl boots.

My daddy usually just called them "those purty high steppers."

I wanted to be them.

There was just one small problem. Or, I guess I should say, one large problem....

I was too fat to be a Devilette.

I tried....When I realized Devilette tryouts were a few weeks down the road, I quit eating the biscuits and gravy and bacon and eggs mama lovingly set before me every morning. I started doing sit-ups and jumping-jacks. I even practiced my kicks when I thought I was the only one at home....My evil little brother would have never let me hear the end of it if he had ever caught me.

(By the way…chubby-wanna-be-kickers be warned--if you have to sprinkle baby powder on your thighs just to keep them from chafing while standing…then trying to maneuver said thighs to kick one’s pointed toes above one’s head is probably not the brightest idea.)

My wanna-be-a-Devilette determination and discipline lasted about…three days…until I got hungry for mama’s biscuits and gravy and tired of that awful stitch in my side during jumping-jacks.

But, while my ambition faded, my obsessive admiration never dimmed.

I remember sitting in my cousins’ bedroom—frequent Devilette hangout—watching them become Devilettes. Before the days of Sudden Tan, Patty and Lisa and Denise would rub a concoction of brown liquid shoe polish and baby lotion on their fiendishly-skinny legs, instantly transforming them into bronzed, lubed kicking machines. One of the Devilettes in my life even used a baby-oil-and-Mercurochrome mixture to achieve instant tan--for the life of me, I can't remember who it was. (I would tell you what happened when I attempted to practice kicking after using that oily concoction. But, I don’t remember much about it—I think it was the closest I’ve ever come to a major head injury.)

Once my cousins' shoe-polished tans dried, they would don their practice uniforms, which basically consisted of an elasticized “diaper” with a cropped top that, every now and then, showed off their cute, flat little belly-buttons. (Come to think of it, I think Patty and Lisa's mama, my Aunt Barbara, was one of the primary Devilette costume seamstresses, which explains why their bedroom was Devilette heaven.)

Of all their costumes, I loved that practice uniform the best. It was just so dadgum CUTE. I wanted one. I wanted to step into those bloomers and show off MY flat little belly-button in that cropped top.

But, alas, I wanted my mama's biscuits and gravy just a little bit more.

And, in addition to being too-fat-to-be-a-Devilette, I had one additional challenge that stood between me and pom-pommed-cowgirl-boots. You see, the Kimberly Church of God, of which I was a teenaged-bun-wearing member, frowned on belly buttons. Come to think of it, they frowned on thighs…and knees…and sometimes even elbows. So, even if I had managed to lose 30 pounds and get my kicks higher than any other Devilette, I don’t think Audrey Hasenbein, Devilette-sponsor-extraordinare, would have allowed me to kick in knee-covering culottes.

Anyway...all during July and August, those highsteppers practiced in the heat and humidity of Alabama summertime. By the first Friday night home football game, you'd have sworn they were Rockettes instead of Devilettes—their perfectly synchronized, gravity-defying kicks made even more glorious by those white-leather-cowgirl boots with the sassy, red pom-poms. Every kick and shrug and curtsy flawlessly choreographed to the music of the Mortimer Jordan Blue Devil Marching Band which, for a few proud years, marched under the fine direction of my cousin, Gary Paul Kelley.

During the years when the Devilettes reigned, even the football team played better—eventually earning them a trip to Brewton, Alabama—to advance toward a state title.

My Uncle Paul and Aunt Adalene (Gary Paul and Denise’s daddy and mama) asked me to go with them to that game. During that 40-miles-per-hour trip, I remember two things--the smell of my Uncle Paul’s Hav-a-Tampas and hearing the song “Blinded By the Light" by Manfred Mann's Earth Band play on the radio about 32 times. (To this day, every time I smell cigar smoke, that song plays in my head.)

We stayed in one of those mom-and-pop motels that once dotted the South before the interstate system put them out of business. The morning after we arrived, I heard a noise out back, so I pulled the curtains and…staring back at me through the window was a goat munching on grass. A whole herd of them lived right there at the motel. We just stood there staring at each other for a minute until he (perhaps he was a she) "baaahhed" and then turned and walked away. I laughed out loud.

Well...the Mortimer Jordan Blue Devil football team lost that game in Brewton. But that wasn’t the biggest heartbreak ever suffered in This-Is-Blue-Devil-Country-Love-It-Or-Leave-It.

Sometime after that trip, the Mortimer Jordan Dixie Devilettes were grounded. No more gravity-defying kicks. No more envy-inducing costumes. No more sassy, pom-pommed cowgirl boots.
Their kicking days were just over…just like that. Those of us outside the kicking circle never really did know why.

One thing we did know--football games were never quite the same without those purty high-steppers.

Another thing I know is that, even though it wasn't my destiny to be a Dixie Devilette, I owe them.

Being too-fat-to-be-a-Devilette was just the kick-in-the-butt I needed to begin realizing that eating biscuits-and-gravy for breakfast EVERY morning was probably not the healthiest idea, even for a Pentecostal girl who could hide a few extra pounds under those double-knit skirts and long-sleeved blouses.

Being too-fat-to-be-a-Devilette also forced me to find something I could do, something I could be as passionate about and committed to as they were to those endlessly-rehearsed, always-smiling, flawlessly-choreographed kicking spectaculars.

So…“Thank you, Mortimer Jordan High School Dixie Devilettes.”
You were beautiful, amazing, inspiring. Perhaps my daddy summed it up best when, after one of your half-time performances, he turned to me and said, "Well aren't they somethin'?"

I’m sure you still are.

But, in the event there's ever a Devilette Reunion Tour and a spot needs to be filled, I think I should warn you that...when Keven and the boys are miles and miles away…if my dog Hallie could talk (and she certainly tries)...she would tell you that every once in awhile she's caught me practicing a kick or two.

And, if I do say so myself, I’m gettin’ pretty good!...Well, at least I haven't suffered any more concussions.
....Now, where did I put that baby oil and Mercurochrome?
(Thanks to once-a-Devilette-always-a-Devilette Tammy Wilson Brown for allowing me to use her photo.)
He knows us far better than we know ourselves...
and keeps us present before God.
That's why we can be so sure that every detail
in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.
God knew what he was doing from the very beginning.

He decided from the outset
to shape the lives of those who love him
along the same lines as the life of his Son.
The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored.
We see the original, intended shape of our lives there in him.
After God made the decision of what his children should be like,
he followed it up by calling people by name.
After he called them by name,
he set them on a solid basis with himself.
And then, after getting them established,
he stayed with them to the end,
gloriously completing what he had begun.
(Romans 8:27-30, The Message)

Monday, July 20, 2009

"I hear voices that aren't moving...."

This past weekend, me and the three guys in my life (plus two friends) went to one of our favorite places--Cashiers, NC. More than 12 years ago, Kev and I discovered this little slice of heaven-on-earth, when we took a short trip to celebrate our 10th anniversary. During that visit, we hiked to the top of Rock Mountain, and promised to celebrate our 20th anniversary by hiking it again.
On Saturday, two years and one week after our 20th anniversary, we finally kept that promise...sort of.
You see, about a third of the way up, we came to a fork in the trail where we had to decide whether to turn left and hike up the promised Rock Mountain. Or, turn right and hike up the even-taller-steeper Chimney Top Mountain. Kev and I (and Jackson and Morgan) chose Chimney Top Mountain, while Garrett and his friend, Zach, chose Rock Mountain.
I'm trying to be OK with these swiftly increasing steps our sons are taking toward independence. But...I won't lie...it's hard. So, at the fork on the mountain, I took a deep breath, said a silent prayer and let Garrett and Zach turn left. (It made be grateful that my sons have good friends to share their climbs.)
Us other three Bowdles (and Morgan) turned right. However, it wasn't long before the teenagers grew quite bored with the "old" folks' speed...or lack thereof...and decided to run ahead. (Yet another deep breath, another silent prayer, another letting go.)
Leaving just me and Kev climbing together. Eventually, I gave him "permission" to go on....He didn't....That's just Kev.
But...even though we were climbing "together"...it dawned on me that I also was experiencing my own journey. I saw plants and insects and lights and shadows and obstacles on the trail that Kev didn't see. And, he saw orchids and birds and views and obstacles on the trail that I didn't see.
And, when we shared these, we made each other's climbs fuller, richer, safer.
There were moments when I thought I couldn't climb one more step. At certain points, the "trail" was non-existent--nothing but rock going almost straight up--and it felt like my heart was going to pound out of my chest, my breathing was labored, and even my vision was a little off.
At these points, Kev was there with a reaching hand, an offer of rest and a drink of water from the bottle he alone had thought to bring.
Eventually...although I hadn't voiced it...something must have told him I was just about to sit down and let him go find Jackson and Morgan. Because, right about then, he said, "I hear voices that aren't moving, so we must be near the top."
And those 12 words...spoken when I needed them...were enough to keep me going.
When I think of what I would have missed had I sat down...well....it makes me grateful and happy and a little sad...all at the same time.
Because...at the top of the mountain...the view was...breathgiving. (Especially when I saw the face of my "No-mom-I-didn't-fall-off-the-side-of-the-mountain" 13-year-old and his buddy.)
In every direction we looked were green-covered mountains with craggy balds poking out here and there; bluish-gray lakes dotted around the valley below; and little patches of colorful rooftops peeking out among the trees. The sky above was crystal blue with puffy, white clouds gliding by and birds wheeling between our mountain and the one next door, where Garrett and Zach were climbing.
Thanks to modern technology, Kev was able to call Garrett and Zach on the cell phone. After a few minutes of waving and hollering, they saw us and we saw them. (Of course, from that distance, they looked 2 inches tall.)
We stayed there awhile...on top of that mountain...catching our breath, sharing Kev's water bottle, taking pictures, shouting back and forth to Garrett and Zach, and drinking in the beauty of creation below us, around us and above us.
One picture Kev took was of our shoe-clad feet, circling a "gold" placard set into the rock, which declared a particular spot as being the summit of Chimney Top Mountain.
Which got me to wondering. How many summits have I not reached because I got tired of the climb? How many breath-giving vistas have I not witnessed because I was afraid of the imagined danger-filled cliffs that lay ahead? How many beautiful memories have I not made because I gave up when the trip got hard?
Those are the questions that cause me to be just a little bit sad as I sit here and remember Chimney Top Mountain.
Eventually, the time came to head back down to the valley. For most of us, mountaintops are not meant to be lived on...simply enjoyed for a few exceptional moments. It's the memories of them that linger and help us remember the meanings of beauty and majesty and wonder.
So, I took one more drink from Kev's water bottle, enjoyed one more 360-degree-view and yelled one more warning at the already-rapidly-descending teenagers--"Remember, pay attention. The trip down is more dangerous than the trip up!"
Then, Kev and I started walking.
About halfway, I looked back at a part of the trail where we had just been. And, there, tucked under one of the thousands of ferns growing along the trail, was a fist-sized bunch of tiny purple flowers.
In some odd way, that almost-hidden, almost-missed bouquet was as wonderful as the majesty of the summit. It reminded me that, even when I'm not on the mountaintop, beautiful little surprises are all along the journey. Many times, I don't even recognize them...except in "the looking back." It makes me long for the Creator to "open the eyes of my heart" so that I don't miss any of His almost-hidden, constantly-present surprises.
Near the bottom, Kev and I made a wrong turn, which took us on a different, longer trail than we had intended...or wanted. But, this detour held surprises of its own--startled chipmunks dashing back to the woods, laughing toddlers running ahead of their just-trying-to-keep-up parents, golfing "seniors" smiling proudly when their swings hit the green, and the view of the mountain we had just climbed.
Eventually, we made it to our table in the dining room of the lodge, where we heard all about Garrett and Zach's adventures up "their" mountain. (FYI, Bear Grylls has nothing on those two.)
And they heard all about ours.
In many ways, that Saturday hike is our "story." For 22 years and one week, we've been walking, climbing, descending, ending up on paths we didn't expect, getting lost and getting found.
And, all along the way, Kev's steadying hand has reached out when the climb got tough. Often, with no words, he has kept me going, kept me believing that "we must be near the top."
During that climb, two beautiful, wonderful sons have joined our journey. But...faster than either of us would choose...they will set out on their own journeys with their own companions. And...as they leave...with the help of Kev's steadying hand...I'll take a deep breath, say a silent prayer and let them go climb their own mountains.
So...even though it's more than a week late...Happy Anniversary, Kev! You make the journey fuller, richer, safer...more filled with laughter, adventure and love.


The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.

He lets me rest in green meadows;

He leads me beside peaceful streams.

He renews my strength.

He guides me along right paths,bringing honor to his name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,

I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.

Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.

You honor me by anointing my head with oil.

My cup overflows with blessings.

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life,

and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.

(Psalm 23, NLT....This Psalm was sung at our wedding on July 11, 1987)


Blessed be God, our mountain….
He's the rock on which we stand, the castle in which we live,…
The high crag where we run for safety….

Make our sons in their prime like sturdy oak trees,…
How blessed the people who have all this!

How blessed the people who have God for God!
(A few verses from Psalm 144, The Message)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Handkerchiefs

Handkerchiefs. Until today, I had not used one, touched one, thought of one in years.

Handkerchiefs were how I learned to iron. My mama started me out ironing my daddy's handkerchiefs. (He carried one every day in the back, right pocket of his brown polyester "work" pants.) After I perfected pressing those white cotton squares into starched, folded rectangles, I got promoted to pillowcases and...much later on...to daddy's shirts.

As a child, every holiday, I would go shopping in my Uncle Walter and Aunt Barbara's small general store for just-the-right gifts for my mama and daddy. Since I was family, I got to walk behind the counter, past the cash register and candy case, down to the very last glass-encased shelf, where...each and every gift-giving holiday...I would reach in and select a plastic-topped, ribbon encased box of three handkerchiefs..the ones for my daddy were stitched around the bottom edge with brown, blue and tan...the ones for my mama were each embroidered with a different flower.

And...each holiday...my mama and daddy acted like that was the best gift ever.

Whereas my daddy always carried a handkerchief, the only time I remember mama carrying one was when she went to a "viewing" or funeral.

Perhaps the reason my daddy always carried a handkerchief was because his mama always had. Mama Kelley was always holding a handkerchief. I can still see her "working" it between her fingers--that is, when she wasn't using it to dab away any telltale remnants of snuff from the corners of her mouth.

(She used to send me on surreptitious snuff runs down to my Uncle Walter's store. She'd say, "If anybody's in the store, just go behind the counter and get me a can of Bruton. Don't let anybody see you. I'll pay Walter later."...Those clandestine snuff-lifting runs made me feel nervous, guilty, special and loved...all at the same time.)

Of course, handkerchiefs played a special role at the Kimberly Church of God. Whenever the Holy Ghost would start moving, men and women all over the church would take out their handkerchiefs and start waving them. (Except, of course, for my mama, who was saving hers for the next viewing.)

But, as I said to begin with, it's been years since I thought about any of the above handkerchief memories...until this morning...when I somehow knew I was supposed to anoint cloths to send with my friends--Marla, Jordan, Tina and Beth--who are all leaving for Ethiopia this week. (Marla, Jordan and Tina are going as part of a Cedar Springs missions team. Beth and her family are going to bring home two of the three newest members of their family; they go back in August to get their little girl. Wow!)

Anyway, as I started looking for a cloth to anoint, I opened the top drawer of my dresser...and there it was...a rose-embroidered handkerchief I bought my mama all those years ago at my Uncle Walter's store. (I don't even remember how I ended up with it--probably borrowed it from her for a viewing.)

Surely God didn't want me to use that?...But, as I started to close the drawer, I knew what I was supposed to do. So...I pulled the drawer open again, took out the handkerchief and cut it into four pieces--one for each of my Ethiopia-bound friends. Then, I anointed each piece and prayed for each friend.

Later, as I was reading Isaiah 61, God gave me a comforting little sign that I had "heard right" when I cut up that sweet, old, rose-embroidered handkerchief. (He doesn't always do that when He asks us to obey but, when He does, it is a precious gift.) Here are God's words through His prophet:
The Spirit of God, the Master, is on me because God anointed me.
He sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to heal the heartbroken,
to announce freedom to all captives, to pardon all prisoners.
God sent me to announce the year of his grace—
...and to comfort (and care for) all who mourn,
to give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes,
messages of joy instead of news of doom,
a praising heart instead of (despair).
(Isaiah 61:1-3, The Message)

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Great 4th of July Fire

Whenever summer heat rolls in, I auto-pilot back to one parched Kimberly summer. It was 4th of July weekend, and it hadn't rained since...oh...March.
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 guess I should point out that mama was inside in a drug-induced "coma," recovering from back surgery.)
Just across our 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. 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, after shooting off the last sad rocket, we closed the party down. As my brother crawled into his twin bed (in the room he shared with my mom and dad...OK...don't judge...it was a 2-bedroom house), 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 to tell him to get his butt and a bucket up to our house, Kevin yelled at me, Pam and daddy to "hook up the hosepipe and get as many buckets as you can find." (We only found 3.)
Once outside...barefoot and in our pajamas...one 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, for some reason, young people always read "stuff" into silence. So, all we knew was that...somehow...we had to put out that fire with a hosepipe and 3 buckets.
We dared not call Albritton. We dared not alert the Volunteer Fire Department. The only call we could make was to Barney. (Barney was always my family's version of 911.) So, Pam and I--standing barefoot in our pajamas at the edge of Stouts Road (that's how far the hosepipe reached)--would fill up the 3 buckets, and Kevin, Barney and my Salem-smokin' daddy would run from the hosepipe into those fiery woods and back again to fill up those 3 buckets.
After a few minutes I realized Pam could man the hosepipe on her own. So, I went into the house and grabbed up my mama's HOMEMADE quilts to help fight the still-spreading fire. (Yes, you heard me....homemade....as in heirloom....and only her Alzheimer's has allowed her to forget it.)
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 soaked, beautiful quilts, I went running into those blazing pine trees--tossing  heirlooms 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. He said later that each little explosion reminded him of a previous brush-clearing fire when a red-hot pinecone seed had gone straight up his nostril, sending him running around and around the house, screaming his lungs out.
I can't tell you how many refilled buckets and resoaked quilts it took to put out that fire...but with the bordering-on-miraculous help of God, we somehow did it.
By this time, we can'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' Salems. 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 my soot-covered face.
Eventually, Barney went home, and the rest of us decided to get some sleep. But...just like that...it was deja-vux all over again. Once again, Kevin looked out the front window. Once 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 911-Barney...again.
By this time it's about 3 a.m. 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 very soft, very calm 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 once again on bucket duty down by Stouts Road. (By this time, mama's quilts had been lost to Fire #1.) We managed to hook up Jeff's hosepipe to ours, which made it stretch long enough so we could actually get the water directly to the fire.
And...by the first hint of daylight and, quite thankfully, before Albritton had ever had his first cup of coffee...Fire #2 was out.
Again, we collapsed on the living room floor--even more exhausted and soot-covered--this time joined by Jeff. And, once again, somebody said something that got us tickled--(boy, I wish I could remember)--and we couldn't stop laughing.
About 7 a.m....mama came stumbling into the living room in a pain-pill-induced 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 (until now), 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--she cooked us biscuits and gravy.
Years after "The Great 4th of July Fire," as we came to call it, Barney confessed that, for several nights, he had to get out of bed, get in his car, park in our yard and walk through Albritton's woods...just to make sure.
Funny thing...the next summer after the Great Fire, you would've barely been able to tell it ehappened. As I walked through those woods...trying to figure out exactly where mama's quilts had burned up, patches of grass were already growing, wildflowers were blooming, and most of the trees had somehow survived. In fact, 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 begun. It occurs to me...the same thing happens to us. Out of the very ashes...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)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A New Name...

My mom was born into the world as Joyce Fay Franks, daughter of Sheriden and Nola. Her mom died when she was only 12 years old, leaving her to pretty much raise two brothers--ages 5 and 3--and causing her to abandon childhood and take on the role of "mother."

Eventually, she had to quit high school and go to work to help put food on the table for her family...a sacrifice never appreciated by the stern grandmother who lived with them.

My mother's life has been hard...very hard. Her daddy and grandmother and brothers and sisters and their children have always looked to her when crises hit...and there have been many crises.

And...over the years...the weight of all those people needing so much...so much time...so much care...so much her...has taken its toll. But she is still standing.

She might need a cane most days...but she is still standing.

During her almost 77 years, she has gone by many names--daughter, sister, aunt, friend, sweetheart, wife, mommy (followed eventually of course by mama, mom, mother), DoeDoe, Joycie. And she has loved them all.

But, I think her favorite name arrived about 15 years ago when she began to be called "Dae."

My oldest son, Garrett, gave her that name one day. She had wanted to be called granny. I think I figured out how he came up with it: whenever he and I would be headed to Alabama or she would be headed here, I would tell him, "You're gonna see granny to-DAY." And the last syllable just stuck.

...It suits her well. She had a cousin, Delilah, whose granddaughter called her "Mornin'." Mama used to tease Delilah that "Dae" lasted a lot longer than "Mornin."

These days, not only do her four grandsons call her Dae, but so do we and the rest of our family and our friends and our boys' friends. It's a good name.

Everyone who knows Dae realizes she has that spiritual gift known as mercy. In the words of her cousin Fran, "Joyce is always taking in strays and lost causes." At times, her "exercise" of that gift has caused conflict between the two of us. Most of the time, I just want her to tell them, "You need help that I cannot give." As anyone in my life would tell you--I do not have the gift of mercy. I'm not proud of that fact...but I just don't.

But...several years ago, when I was reading in the Old Testament, I ran across a verse that sums up Dae's life. (Ironically, it comes from the book whose name her second grandson bears.) It is how she has lived and...according to God's Word...it is ALL He requires:
With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings...?
He has shown you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To live justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:6, 8)
So...Dae...we love you. And, we hope you have a wonderful Mother's Day. You have embraced well every name you've ever inherited--daughter, sister, aunt, friend, sweetheart, wife, mommy, DoeDoe, Joycie....Dae.

And...we know you will wear well the final name--the new one your Savior gives you one day.
To everyone who is victorious...
I will give to each one a white stone,
and on the stone will be engraved a new name,
a name that no one understands
except the one who receives it.
(Revelation 2:16-18, NLT)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Question and A Promise

So, yesterday, I was reading in Genesis (chapter 18:1-15, NLT), where the pre-incarnate Christ, accompanied by two angels decide to visit Abraham's family on their way to check out Sodom and Gomorrah before destroying it. (Sometimes, when I remove my "overexposed" lenses, the words of Scripture just blow me away.)

Anyway, what I realized when reading these verses is that I don't think Jesus and his two angel escorts came just to visit Abraham...I think one of the main reasons they came was to visit Sarah--to give her a promise, to encourage her, to help her faith grow. (Remember, up to this point, Abraham had been the only one to hear directly from God about all the wonderful things He had in store for the two of them.)...Well, here, I'll let you read it for yourself:

"...One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent
during the hottest part of the day.
He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby.
When he saw them, he ran to meet them
and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground.
“My lord,” he said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while.

Rest in the shade of this tree
while water is brought to wash your feet.
And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit,
let me prepare some food to refresh you
before you continue on your journey.”
“All right,...do as you have said,” they replied.
So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah,

“Hurry! Get three large measures (seahs) of your best flour,
knead it into dough, and bake some bread.”
(FYI, I recently learned that "three large seahs" is about 50 pounds of flour, enough to feed more than 100 people--a pretty extravagant offering for these three heavenly guests!)
Then Abraham ran out to the herd
and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant,
who quickly prepared it.
(OK...I can't help myself from pointing out that while Abraham might have said, "let me prepare some food"...notice who actually did the preparing--Sarah and the unnamed servant.)

When the food was ready, Abraham...served it to the men.
As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.
“Where is Sarah, your wife?” the visitors asked.

Now...one of those "visitors" was the pre-incarnate, all-knowing Christ, which meant He knew exactly where Sarah was. So, why did he ask where she was? I think it's safe to assume He wanted Sarah to hear Him call her name. After all...who of us doesn't perk up our ears when we hear someone speak our name?

Abraham replied, "She's inside the tent."
Then one of them said,
“I will return to you about this time next year,
and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!”
(Now,) Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent.

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time,
and Sarah was long past the age of having children.
So she laughed silently to herself and said,
“How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure,
especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?”
My heart hurt a little for Sarah when I read those words. Remember, in Sarah's ancient culture, barrenness was viewed as something shameful, and many saw it as as sign of being cursed by God.

"Then the Lord said to Abraham,“Why did Sarah laugh?

Why did she say, ‘Can an old woman like me have a baby'?"

If there was any leftover doubt about the identity of One of these visitors, I think the above verses obliterate it--after all, only God could cause a 90-ish-year-old barren woman to conceive a baby and hear silent laughter from inside a tent!

(Then, the Lord said,) "Is anything too hard for the Lord?"

...I think those 7 hope-giving, faith-building words are meant for Sarah's "worn-out" heart...her worn-out faith. He knew He had to rebuild and renew that faith before the conception and birth of His promised child could unfold.
Sarah's answer...her response to Jesus' question...is vital. So, He doesn't leave her with just that question. Instead, he speaks to her a promise. Let's listen:
"I will return about this time next year,
and Sarah will have a son.”

But...like many of us (including myself)...when Jesus starts trying to bring us out of hiding, Sarah's initial, knee-jerk reaction is fear, which causes denial and...let's just call it what it is...lying...to herself, to others, to Jesus:
Sarah was afraid, so she denied it, saying, “I didn’t laugh.”
But the Lord said, “No, you did laugh.”
I love those two verses. They perfectly paint a picture of Jesus' consistent "modus operandi"--He has to show us ourselves before He can show us Himself.

In a "perfect world," the next chapter of Genesis would tell us all about Jesus' promise to Sarah being quickly and neatly fulfilled. But, the Divine Author of Genesis knows the world in which we live; so, in the next chapter, He shows us that, even in this fallen, imperfect, often dangerous world, He keeps track of His chosen ones. And, does anything necessary to make sure His promises and purposes are fulfilled in their lives.

Let's look at what happened to Sarah after Jesus left her with a question and a promise (Genesis 20 NLT):
....While living (in Gerar) as a foreigner,
Abraham introduced his wife, Sarah, by saying,
“She's my sister.”
So King Abimelech of Gerar sent for Sarah
and had her brought to him at his palace.
But that (very) night

God came to Abimelech in a dream and told him,
“You are a dead man,
for that woman you have taken is already married!”
But Abimelech had not slept with her yet,

so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation?
Didn’t Abraham tell me, ‘She is my sister’?
And she herself said, ‘Yes, he is my brother.’
I acted in complete innocence! My hands are clean.”
In the dream God responded, “Yes, I know you are innocent.

That’s why I kept you from sinning against me,
and why I did not let you touch her.
Now return the woman to her husband,
and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet.
Then you will live.
But if you don’t return her to him,
you can be sure that you and all your people will die.”
....Then Abimelech took some of his sheep and goats,

cattle, and male and female servants,
and he presented them to Abraham.
He also returned his wife, Sarah, to him.
Then Abimelech said, “Look over my land
and choose any place where you would like to live.”
And he said to Sarah,
“Look, I am giving (Abraham) 1,000 pieces of silver
in the presence of all these witnesses.
This is to compensate you for any wrong I may have done to you.
This will settle any claim against me, and your reputation is cleared....”

So...through a "dream" to a pagan king, God protected Sarah, His promise to her, and His still-to-come purpose for her. (And even caused her husband to acquire more sheep, goats, cattle, servants, land and silver!)
Now...don't you imagine that, as Sarah saw God's hand working in the above scary events and circumstances of her life, and delivering her from Abimelech (with sheep and silver to boot), she remembered His question to her that day as she hid in the tent: "Is anything too hard for the Lord?"
...And, as she remembered, her mustard-seed-sized faith began to grow...even before the promised baby began to grow in her 90ish-year old, miraculously rejuvenated womb.

While we know "the rest of the story," just for fun, let's read it as Eugene Peterson records it in The Message (Genesis 21):
"God visited Sarah exactly as he said he would;
God did to Sarah what he promised:
Sarah became pregnant
and gave Abraham a son in his old age,
and at the very time God had set.
Abraham named him Isaac.
When his son was eight days old,
Abraham circumcised him just as God had commanded.
Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born.
Sarah said, God has blessed me with laughter

and all who get the news will laugh with me!
She also said,
Whoever would have suggested to Abraham
that Sarah would one day nurse a baby!
Yet here I am! I've given the old man a son!"

Over and over again in God's story...both "then" and now...I see a pattern:
God shows us who we are...
Then...He shows us a new revelation of who He is...
Then...He allows a test to see if we're going to have faith in that revelation of who He is.
(In other words, how are we going to answer the question, "Is anything too hard for God?")
Then...when we answer "Yes, God, I'm going to trust You."...in spite of our feelings, circumstances or consequences...He shows us something new (again) about ourselves and about Himself....
And the same pattern just seems to flow and unfold continually throughout the story of our lives.

Abraham and Sarah's stories tell us there's no such thing as a "retirement plan" when it comes to our journey of always-tested, ever-growing faith through this upside-down Kingdom. With each new revelation from Jesus about who we are and who He is, there's always the test--the moment where we have to answer the question, "Is anything too hard for God?" My Jesus-lovin' friend Marla puts it this way, "New level...new devil." (She says she heard that from Joyce Meyer.) But, Marla and I (and Joyce...and Abraham and Sarah...and millions of others) would be quick to add, "New place. New grace!"

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Far-Off Battle

It seems just about everything I've read this week deals with the Resurrection and what that history-changing event is supposed to mean in the lives of those who love and follow the Resurrected One.
For most of my life, I thought the Resurrection only affected what happens to me after that last breath, that final heartbeat. But, thanks to those whose words have opened the eyes of my heart, I'm beginning to grasp that God wants me to walk in the power of the Resurrection in the here and now...in this very day.
Well...here...I'll let Paul tell you in his words: "I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 2:19-20 NLT)
So, what keeps me from living in that incredible power? Well...for me...it's probably a combination of things. First of all, I don't take the time to fully embrace that truth and what it means in and for my life.
Secondly, I don't want to experience the death that resurrection requires. I don't want to "die to Karen Bowdle"...her wants...her worries...her motives...her plans...her old patterns. I want her to be in charge. In other words, I'm so full of Karen Bowdle that the power of the Resurrection can't even find room.
But, thankfully...the Holy Spirit is teaching me (remember...it's a process) that...as long as Karen Bowdle is in charge...she cannot live in the power of the Resurrection that Jesus longs for her to live in.
So...the call is to die daily to me...to flesh...to fear...to worry...to self-effort...to past failures....to old patterns. And, in this physical, natural, material world, "death" always sounds like something negative and depressing.
But...in this upside-down Kingdom of faith...this daily dying is simply a cross-shaped door that allows me to live this day in the power of the Resurrection--with all of its blessings and brokenness, crashes and chaos, dreams and disasters.
Here's how the Resurrected One said it to those first disciples: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it." (Matt. 16:24-25, NLT) Eugene Peterson translates the Master's first few words this way: "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead."
Wow! What would life be like if I fully embraced those words?
I want to share some words by Alister McGrath about the power of the Resurrection. I know they're long, but since I've read them, they've stayed with me. They encourage me. They help explain for me the seeming contradiction between this physical fallen world we live in and this spiritual Kingdom in which those who love Jesus walk by faith:
"The cross spells freedom. It brings liberation from false understandings of God. It shows that God is there--despite all suggestions that he is not. Good Friday seemed to confirm that God was dead....Easter Day showed that God is alive, well and caring. The cross frees us from the idea that human nature is somehow too sinful, or the human dilemma too complex, for God to do anything about it. The surly bonds that tie us to these deeply pessimistic and oppressive views of God are torn apart by the cross. The Creator becomes a creature within his own creation, in order to recreate it. In the aftermath of Gethsemane, we catch the fragrance of Eden. Jesus was betrayed in a garden...to undo the disobedience of human nature within the garden of Eden. The resurrection is like the first day of a new creation.
So, how does this image of what God achieved through the cross help us make sense of sin? What does it tell us about our situation apart from Christ? It encourages us to think of sin as enslavement and oppression. It is like the oppression that burdened the Israelites in Egypt...It invites us to imagine the sense of despair and hopelessness that plagued Europe in the darker days of Nazi occupation. It declares, "This is what sin is like." It reminds us that a state of oppression leads to a feeling of oppression. And, no amount of tinkering around with the feeling can ever change the real state (situation), which causes the (feelings) of despair (and oppression) in the first place. Real peace of mind requires a real change in our situation.
Now, think of the cross and resurrection of Jesus as breaking the power of sin (the state of oppression). But, if the power of sin, death and evil has been broken, how can we make sense of the fact that it still continues to plague us?...How can be handle this (seeming contradiction)?
A helpful way was (described) by a group of writers....They noticed important parallels between the New Testament and the situation during the Second World War. The victory won over sin through the death and resurrection of Christ was like the liberation of an occupied country from Nazi rule. We need to allow our imaginations to take in the sinister and menacing idea of an occupying power. Life has to be lived under the shadow of this foreign presence. And, part of the poignancy of the situation is its utter hopelessness. Nothing can be done about it. No one can defeat it.
But...then comes the electrifying news. There has been a far-off battle. And, somehow, it has turned the tide of the war. A new phase has developed, and the (evil) occupying power is in disarray. Its backbone has been broken. In the course of time, the (enemy) will be driven out of every corner of Europe. But...(for now)...they are still present in the occupied country. In one sense, the situation has not changed, but in another more important sense, the situation has changed totally. The scent of victory and liberation is in the air. A total change in the psychological (and spiritual) climate results.
I remember once meeting a man who had been held prisoner in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. He told me of the astonishing change in the camp atmosphere that came about when one of the prisoners (who owned a shortwave radio) learned of the collapse of the Japanese war effort in the middle of 1945. Although all in the camp still remained prisoners, they knew their enemy had been beaten. It would only be a matter of time before they were released. And, those prisoners, I was told, began to laugh and cry, as if they were free already.
The end of World War II in Europe came (in 1945),...but an objective change had already taken place...with the establishment of the bridgeheads in Normandy in June 1944--(which caused) a resulting subjective change in the hearts and minds of captive people.
And so with us now. In one sense, victory has not come; in another, it has. The resurrection declares in advance...God's total victory over all evil and oppressive forces--such as death and sin. Their backbone has been broken, and we may begin to live now in the light of that victory. ..." (Alister McGrath, "In the Light of Victory")

"In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen:
everything perishable taken off the shelves
and replaced by the imperishable,
this mortal replaced by the immortal.
Then the saying will come true:
Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who's afraid of you now?
It was sin that made death so frightening
and law-code guilt that gave sin its leverage,
its destructive power.
But now in a single victorious stroke of Life,
all three—sin, guilt, death—are gone,
the gift of our Master, Jesus Christ. Thank God! With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends,
stand your ground.
And don't hold back.
Throw yourselves into the work of the Master,
confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort."
(1 Corinthians 15:54-58, The Message)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Come to Vacation Bible School!

Every summer, the most exciting thing to happen in the little town of Kimberly, Alabama, was Vacation Bible School. I'm not quite sure who was more excited--the kids or the mamas.

Most years, the Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals would cooperate and spread their VBSes over several weeks--those were the years the mamas were happiest.

On the Saturday before each VBS, all the church folks would gather in the respective church parking lot and decorate their cars and pick-up trucks with balloons, crepe paper streamers and signs made from magic markers and poster board.

Me and my brother were lucky--we had connections at both the Church of God and Kimberly First Baptist, so we got to be in both parades. Most years, our Mimi came out all the way from Birmingham for the Baptist parade. And, our cousin, Donald, always had the coolest vehicle in the parade--some years it was a convertible and other years it was a VW van.

The excitement in those parking lots would build until the Kimberly Volunteer Fire Department's lone firetruck pulled in. (It was typically driven by the pastor of the church hosting the parade, which meant that, for most of my childhood, Brother Thompson was the driver.)

When it pulled in...well....we'd just go crazy. We'd clap and cheer and jump up and down. The boys in their summer buzz-cuts and newly-cut-off jean shorts would start fighting over who was gonna ride on the firetruck. Eventually, they'd sort it out.

Then, with the firetruck leading the way, followed closely by the Kimberly Police Department's cruiser--driven by either Dingler or Bullhead--mamas and daddys would line up their cars with piles of kids packed inside (no seatbelts required).

And...with the sounding of the firetruck siren, that year's Vacation Bible School parade would officially begin.

Because it was an anticipated annual tradition...and because the firetruck and police sirens announced our arrival long before we got there, families would line up all along Stouts Road. They would wave and holler, and we'd holler back, "Come to Vacation Bible School. Come to Vacation Bible School."

We'd parade through Kimberly all the way down Stouts Road...then we'd boldly cross into the town of Morris, shouting our evangelistic VBS message all the way down Cutoff Road, until we'd loop back on Thunder Road and end up at the cemetery. (I always wondered why we kept hollering "Come to Vacation Bible School" even while driving through the cemetery. But...some things you just know you're not supposed to question.)

It was at the cemetery Stop sign that Leah Nail broke her nose. If I remember correctly, she didn't realize the parade had come to a complete stop; she hit the fender of the car in front of her, and her nose couldn't stop before it hit her steering wheel. As far as I can remember, that was the only parade casualty in the entire history of Kimberly VBS parades.

As we made our way back to the church parking lot, the crowds on the sides of Stouts Road would have dwindled, with only a few stragglers returning our waves.

Then...just like that...the parade was over...until the next weekend...when another denomination would take up where we had left off. (Hmmm...maybe, ultimately, that's the purpose for so many denominations.)

But...you couldn't stay too sad when you remembered that your upcoming week held the promise of glued-on-macaroni-and-gold-spray-painted-cigar-box crafts, graham-cracker-and-apple-juice snacks, and the hope that you just might get picked to carry the Christian flag up the aisle for pledges, while everyone sang the unofficial VBS anthem: "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before."

One year, one of my teachers--I think it was Sister Bobbie Stone--went to the extra trouble of buying us ceramics to paint. I picked a pair of praying hands. I thought they were beautiful. I always imagined they were Jesus' hands as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. For years, I kept them hanging on a nail in "my half" of the little room I shared with my brother.

When I think about those summer VBS days, I still feel something...warm and wonderful...down inside. If I had to guess, I'd guess that our pastor, Brother Doug, grew up with his own VBS memories. I'll bet that's why he's so determined to give today's children their own--many of them will even have "salvation memories" as a result of Brother Doug's untiring passion for VBS.
If you stumbled into our church during VBS week, you'd swear you'd found some hidden Disney park tucked away in a parking lot in Farragut, TN. At our church, VBS is HUGE, and Brother Doug is the most excited one in the bunch.

This will be the first year my boys won't be able to go--they'll be on a mission trip with their dad in Honduras. Until this year, we had our own VBS tradition, with nephews and our lone niece often traveling from Alabama and South Carolina to "experience" VBS at First Baptist Concord. To tell the truth, it will be a little sad this year.

But...my hope is they'll look back one day with their own "warm and wonderful" memories of VBS week--I just wish I could have offered them a full-fledged parade. I tried a version of it one year. On the way to the first morning, I rolled down the window of my non-ballooned, un-crepe-papered minivan and started hollering, "Come to Vacation Bible School! Come to Vacation Bible School!"

Well...let's just say, they were all appalled.

"In the Messiah, in Christ,
God leads us from place to place
in one perpetual victory parade.
Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ.
Everywhere we go,
people breathe in the exquisite fragrance.
Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God,
which is recognized by those on the way of salvation—
an aroma redolent with life."
(2 Corinthians 2:14-15, The Message)
"We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen.
We look at this Son
and see God's original purpose in everything created.
For everything, absolutely everything, above and below,
visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—
everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him.
He was there before any of it came into existence
and holds it all together right up to this moment.
And when it comes to the church,
he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.
He was supreme in the beginning and
leading the resurrection parade
he is supreme in the end.
From beginning to end he's there,
towering far above everything, everyone.
So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God
finds its proper place in him without crowding.
Not only that,
but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—
people and things, animals and atoms—
get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies,
all because of his death,
his blood that poured down from the cross."
(Colossians 1:15-20, The Message)