Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Flaking Off

Ashes...the stuff left after the fire.

I find it interesting that most churches observing Ash Wednesday use ashes gathered from burning the previous year's Palm Sunday leaves. These ashes mixed with oil form the cross-painting paste.

Truth be told, the first Ash Wednesday service I ever attended was more a comedy of errors than the practice of something sacred. Personally, I think liturgical churchgoers possess amazingly good motor skills and are strong multitaskers. The ability to juggle the bulletin, the Book of Common Prayer, the hymnal and the altar you have to pull out from beneath the pew in front of you and then push back at designated points in the service was definitely out of this PresbyBaptiCostal girl's comfort zone.

I have since read that, at this service, the minister--through song, sermon and prayer--calls people to repentance. However, I must confess that I was so distracted, trying to keep one step ahead of the next step, that I don't remember a word he said.

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 reason these words had such an effect on me was because of the frail, elderly couple sitting in front of me. They “preached” me a crystal-clear sermon about just how quickly all of us "return to dust," and how we are called to live in the meantime.

When it was time to go down front to receive communion and have the ashes painted on my forehead, I waited at the end of this elderly couple's row to let them 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 them laboriously 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 the two of them slowly walk back down that aisle, with the newly painted crosses on their foreheads, made me cry...and I bowed my head to hide those tears.

This 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 the 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 service made me feel, 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, during these next 40 days 
May I see you like never before. 
Shine your Love and Light on those places
In me that need to flaked off...
Even scraped 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.

"My, Lord, what happened while I was asleep?"

Yesterday, I got a little fixated on the idea of being Ash Wednesday and all. What are ashes?

They are what's left after the fire.

How fitting....

And that got me remembering one particularly hot, dry Alabama summer. It was 4th of July weekend, and I don't think it had rained since May.

Anyway, me and my brother (Kevin) and Barney and Pam Moman and a few other friends had decided to shoot off bottle rockets in our front yard, which bordered Stouts Road, the main street that ran through Kimberly. Just across Stouts Road from our yard was Albritton Rice's land. Before you got to Albritton and Lucy's house, there were about 10-12 acres of woods, mainly pine trees, which amounted to LOTS of extremely dry pinestraw. I mention all this only because it becomes important later in the story.

Hmmm...on second thought...before writing this story, I guess I should have checked on the statute of limitations about certain things in the Great State of Alabama.

But, oh they say...confession is good for the soul (and an important part of Lent)....So, here goes. (Just remember, Rice family, I love ya'!)

Oh...I should probably mention that earlier that very day, daddy had checked mama out of the hospital after having back surgery.

I should probably also mention that, to this day, Kimberly only has a Volunteer Fire Department. And, oh yeah, that particular year, the primary bottle-rocket-shooter-offer, Barney, was running for Town Council, with one "plank" of his campaign platform being better fire protection.

(In the last decade or so, the Kimberly City Hall burned down because the keys to the volunteer fire house were locked in City Hall...but that's yet another story for yet another time.)

Anyway, back to that 4th-of-July-bottle-rocket night...

After shooting off the last rocket, we went inside. My friend, Pam Moman, was spending the night with me. (Mama was passed out...dead to the world...from pain pills the hospital had sent her home with.)

Well, as my brother was going to bed (about midnight), he decided he better look out and make sure those 2 or 3 stray bottle rockets had not started any trouble. (In hindsight, I'm sure that was a Holy Spirit "prompting," trying to save our hides.)

Next thing I know, Kevin is running through the living room where daddy is asleep in his chair and Pam and I are watching TV. He's yelling, "The woods are on fire! Get up. Albritton's woods are on fire!"

On the way out the door, pulling on shoes and stopping at the phone only long enough to call Barney to tell him to get his butt and a bucket up to our house to help fight that fire, Kevin yelled at me and Pam and daddy to hook up the hosepipe and "get as many buckets as you can find."

Once and in look across Stouts Road told me everything I need to know--that fire CANNOT be put out with a hosepipe and 3 buckets. It is blazing!

But...truth be told...we were always just a little bit scared of Albritton. He was the strong, silent type. And, for some reason, young people always read other things 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 always was my family's equivalent of 911. Thanks for that, Barn!)

Now, here's the picture you need to get in your head--Pam and I standing barefoot in our pajamas at the edge of Stouts Road (that's how far the hosepipe reached) and Kevin and Barney and daddy (chain smoking) running from the hosepipe into those fiery woods and back again to fill up their buckets.

After a few minutes I realized Pam could man the hosepipe on her own. So, probably inspired by some Lassie show I had watched, I went into the house, threw on a pair of Keds, and gathered up my mama's HOMEMADE quilts to go help fight the still-spreading fire. (Yes, you heard me right.. in heirloom...And, no, she's never quite let me forget it.)

I dumped that pile of quilts on the road beside Pam and instructed her to soak all of them. Then, in my Keds and pajamas, I went running with those beautiful quilts, one-by-one, into those blazing pine trees--tossing them onto burning patches of pinestraw and wrapping them around blazing tree trunks.

Every once in awhile, you'd hear pinecones explode. And, each time that would happen, my brother would freak out. I guess he was remembering an earlier fire--our daddy was constantly using fire to clear brush. During one of daddy's quarterly-brush-clearing fires, when Kevin was about 10 years old, a red-hot seed from an exploding pinecone had gone straight up his nostril, sending him running around and around the house, screaming his lungs out. (To this day, he's not fond of pinecones.)

Anyway...I couldn't tell you how many refilled buckets and resoaked quilts it took to put that fire out...but with the AMAZING (bordering on miraculous) help of God, we finally did.

By this time, we're so keyed up we can't go to sleep. So, all of us...tired, dirty, soot-covered...just piled on the living room floor. (Of course, daddy was in his recliner...still smokin'.)

Then, Barney announced, "Well, there goes my run for Town Council."

And that did it...we doubled over laughing.

Eventually, Barney went home, and we decided to get some sleep. But...just like was deja vux all over again.

Once again, Kevin looked out his bedroom 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 Barney...again.

By this time it was 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 anyway, and...well...I'll let him tell you this part of the story:
"I heard this very soft, very calm voice saying, 'Jeff, just put your hosepipe in your car and get to my house as soon as you can'."

When Jeff got there...hosepipe in hand...Pam and I are still on bucket duty down by Stouts Road. (By this time, mama's quilts have been lost to Fire #1.)

Well, we managed to hook up Jeff's hosepipe to ours, which made it stretch long enough that we could actually get the water to the fire. the time the first hint of daylight was dawning and, quite thankfully, before Albritton ever had his first cup of #2 was out.

Again, we collapsed on the living room floor--even more dirty and more soot-covered--with Jeff joining us this time. And, once again, somebody said something that got us tickled, and we couldn't stop laughing.

Then...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 filled with soot-covered people, all in various stages of reclining and sleep, 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 into the kitchen and did the only thing she knew to do at that point--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 into his car, park in our yard and walk through Albritton's woods...just to make sure.

The funny thing is that, the next summer after the Great Fire, you would have barely been able to tell it had ever happened. 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 pine tree seedlings were popping up everywhere...from those blasted exploding pinecones, I guess.

Out of the ashes of that Great Fire, new life had already begun.

The same thing happens to us.

Out of the very ashes...the very failures and setbacks of our lives...God brings new life, new growth, new beauty...if we let Him.

And that's what He reminds me of when those cross-shaped ashes are painted on my forehead on Ash Wednesday.

Because of the love of the Savior who hung on that cross, even the ash heaps of my life can be blown away by the loving breath of my Father God. their place...redeemed, you might say...forgiveness and life and growth and restoration and beauty...can begin...again.

"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.
“For I, the Lord, love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
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)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A 48-year-old PresbyBaptiCostal chick Learns about Lent

A couple of years ago, I felt the Holy Spirit leading me for the first time to participate in the ancient observance known as Lent.

Of course, growing up in the Kimberly Church of God, I'd never even heard of such a thing. I didn't even know what a Catholic looked like until I got to Mortimer Jordan High School--turns out the two of them looked a lot like me...only thinner...all that fasting I guess.

If Jay Leno had walked up to me on Stouts Road and said, "What do you know about Lent?"...I would have said, "It's that stuff you have to clean out of the dryer and...sometimes...out of your bellybutton."

But, as I flipped the page of my calendar two years ago, the words "Ash Wednesday" sort of leaped out at me every time I wrote down some new appointment or reminder. I'm learning that, when things like that happen, it's usually the Holy Spirit's "finger" poking me, saying, "Pay attention here...I want to show you something."

So, I started praying about it, and the desire to "do Lent" only became stronger. Since I was a newbie at this thing, and a member of a Southern Baptist congregation least I think...everyone else is as clueless about Lent as I was, I asked God to send me a friend to share this journey.

And, just like Him, He sent me two--Janie and Marla. In fact, my friend Janie called me out of the clear blue sky on a cold rainy day and asked, “What are you doing for Lent?” (Now, to the best of my memory, in our 20+-year friendship, we’d never even spoken about Lent.) It was one of those “God moments” where I just stood there with the phone to my ear feeling the grin of God. It let me know that His “I want to show you something” had already begun.

That year, I shared with my boys that I would be giving up some things for awhile (don't even remember now what I fasted that year), and I just wanted them to understand what was going on. Well...surprise...they announced that they wanted to tag along on my Lenten journey.

I tried to explain to them that it wasn't just a "game," and that the fasting involved was simply an outward way of encouraging a spiritual hunger...a hunger to know more about God and His desires for us and from us. But, they wouldn't be deterred by my rather negative warnings.

(It's been kind of funny to see how many of their little Baptist friends have joined them in their Lenten journey. I keep expecting to get a phone call or, worse, a letter.)

In response to Janie's question, "What are you doing for Lent?"...I bought her and me a book to use for devotions--"Bread and Wine, Readings for Lent and Easter." This book introduced me to voices I had never heard before--William Willimon, Walter Wangerin, Christina Rossetti, Madeleine L'Engle, Frederick Buechner...just to name a few.

Not to say that I agree with everything these new voices say to me but, somehow, they enlarge my small little heart.

So, today...Ash Wednesday...I thought I'd share a small morsel from "mine and Janie's" book: "
Whatever the gospel means, we tell ourselves,
it could not mean death....
The first week of Lent begins with old John the Baptist.
His sermons could not be entitled, 'Be Good to Yourself."
This prophetic 'voice crying in the wilderness' not the Christ.
John is the one who gets us ready. (But,) how does one prepare...?
Repent, change your ways and get washed.
(The Baptist) will let us take no comfort
in our rites, tradition or ancestry.
Everybody must submit to be made over.
Everybody must descend into the waters,
especially the religiously secure and morally sophisticated.
How shocked the church was (and is) to see its Lord
appear on the banks of the Jordan asking John to wash him too.
(Matt. 3:14-15)
How can it be that the Holy One of God
should be rubbing shoulders with naked sinners
on their way into the waters?...
(Jesus') message is not the simple one of the Baptist, "Be clean."
Jesus' word is more painful--"Be killed."
The washing of this baptism is not cheap.
'You must consider yourselves dead,' Paul tells the Romans (6:11).
In Jesus' baptism, the 'old Adam' is drowned.
Discipleship is more than turning over a new leaf.
It is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation.
Nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death will do.
Paul seems to know not whether to call
what happened to him on the Damascus Road
'birth' or 'death'--it felt like both at the same time....
We may come singing 'Just As I Am,'
but we will not stay by being our same old selves....
the lures of the world are too seductive...
the status quo too alluring.
It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the 6:30 news,
our institutions, theologies and politics.
The only way we shall break its hold on us is to be...
cut loose from our old certainties,
to be thrust under the flood and pulled forth fresh and newborn....
On the bank of some dark river, as we are thrust backward,
onlookers will remark, 'You could kill somebody like that.'
To which old John might say, 'Good, you're finally catching on'."
("Repent" by William Willimon)
From Colossians 3, The Message:
Your old life is dead.
Your new life, which is your real life—
even though invisible to spectators—
is with Christ in God. He is your life.
When Christ (your real life, remember)
shows up again on this earth,
you'll show up, too—the real you, the glorious you....
And that means killing off everything connected
with that way of death: sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust,
doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it,
and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy.
That's a life shaped by things and feelings instead of by God.
It's because of this kind of thing
that God is about to explode in anger.
It wasn't long ago
that you were doing all that stuff not knowing any better.
But you know better now, so make sure it's gone for good:
bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk.
Don't lie to one another. You're done with that old life.
It's like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes
you've stripped off and put in the fire.
Now you're dressed in a new wardrobe.
Every item of your new way of life
is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it.
All the old fashions are now obsolete.
Words like Jewish and non-Jewish,
religious and irreligious,
insider and outsider,
uncivilized and uncouth,
slave and free, mean nothing.
From now on everyone is defined by Christ,
everyone is included in Christ.
So, chosen by God for this new life of love,
dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you:
compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline.
Be even-tempered, content with second place,
quick to forgive an offense.
Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you.
And regardless of what else you put on, wear love.
It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other,
in step with each other.
None of this going off and doing your own thing.
And cultivate thankfulness.
Let the Word of Christ—the Message—
have the run of the house.
Give it plenty of room in your lives.
Instruct and direct one another using good common sense.
And sing, sing your hearts out to God!
Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—
be done in the name of the Master, Jesus,
thanking God the Father every step of the way.
Wives, understand and support your husbands
by submitting to them in ways that honor the Master.
Husbands, go all out in love for your wives.
Don't take advantage of them.
Children, do what your parents tell you.
This delights the Master no end.
Parents, don't come down too hard on your children
or you'll crush their spirits.
Servants, do what you're told by your earthly masters.
And don't just do the minimum that will get you by.
Do your best.
Work from the heart for your real Master, for God,
confident that you'll get paid in full
when you come into your inheritance.
Keep in mind always
that the ultimate Master you're serving is Christ.
The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible.
Being a follower of Jesus doesn't cover up bad work.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bang, bang...I surrender.

My pine-straw playhouses always had cinder-block ovens, and these ovens were where I learned to cook.

The specialties of the house were mudpies--mudpie chicken, mudpie cornbread, mudpie chocolate cake and, of course, mudpie pie. In a bowl borrowed from mama's kitchen, I'd mix up dirt from the nearby driveway and water from the hosepipe at the back of the house. Then, I'd roll this muddy mixture into little balls and pat them flat to bake on my cinder-block oven. Funny thing...I never could get my little brother to try one.

To this day, I can't pass a cinder block without a flickering desire to make a mudpie.

These days, as I look out my kitchen window, I don't see a single pine-straw playhouse or cinder-block oven. What I do see are castoff-plywood bunkers where my youngest son has created his own airsoft battlefield. (I'm sure the neighbors love us for this!)

As some wise someone once said, "I used to be so smart when it came to parenting...and then I had children."

When I was pregnant with my oldest son, Garrett, I had decided I was going to be one of those know...the ones who don't allow violent cartoons (like Road Runner), toy guns, etc. (OK, I know what you're thinking..."Yeah, right.")

Well, morning I'm in the kitchen with Garrett (who's never even seen a toy gun at that point) who's sitting in his high chair eating cinnamon toast. I'm standing at the sink loading the dishwasher when he says, "Hey, mommy, yook."

So, I turn around and see that he's eaten his toast into the shape of a small gun. He's pointing it at me, head lowered, eyes narrowed, saying, "Bang, bang."

At that very moment...hands raised in surrender to a cinnamon-toast gun...I realized I was fighting a losing battle (no pun intended), and that something in little boys (at least in little Bowdle boys) just inherently knew about and loved playing with guns.

Since the morning of the cinnamon-toast ambush, we've had bubble guns, we've had cap guns, we've had Star Wars guns, we've had water guns (even water cannons). We've had potato guns (built by the 40+year-old Bowdle "boy"), marshmallow guns...and now...this craze known as airsoft guns.

Sorry, neighbors. The only good news I can give you is that I promise to try and confine them to our backyard.

Actually, when this airsoft craze first started, I didn't think to mention to the boys that they needed to stay in the backyard...that is until one of our neighbors looked out his back window and saw, in his words, "a bunch of wild teenagers in militia gear, carrying guns." He started calling all the neighors, warning them about the clear and present danger in the neighborhood..... OOPS!!!

So...that's why I now have a plywood-bunker-filled backyard. (But those geographical boundaries seem to have no effect on those miserable little pellets--they're EVERYWHERE--in our yard, in our driveway, on the sidewalk, in the road, in my house. (I even found one in the peanut butter.)

I'm convinced that one of the reasons God loaned me these wild and wonderful boys is to help me finally realize that I am in control of NOTHING!

And, that's a VERY HARD LESSON for the control freak who is me.

I think that's one reason why I loved those pine-straw playhouses so much. I could usually control everything that happened in them (except, of course, not being able to make my little brother eat my mudpies).

And, even on the rare occasion when my meanie little brother decided to kick down the walls, all I had to do to put everything back together in my perfect little pine-straw playhouse world was to grab a rake, chase him with it and then rake that straw back into perfectly controlled straight lines. isn't meant to be lived in pine-straw playhouses, and control over what happens to us in our brick-and-wood, real-life houses is, quite simply, an illusion.

Take today for instance. I took my youngest son, Jackson, to check out a magnet school for the performing arts. Within seconds after we walked through the door, we found ourselves in "lockdown." We were escorted to a conference room and told, "Just sit here for a few minutes, please, until we can figure out exactly what's going on."

So, I'm sitting at this conference room table with all the recent news coverage about school shootings playing in my head. And, I'm trying to figure out the best strategy for being able to protect my son should the need arise. never did. I was told it was simply a matter of mistaken identity.

But...that just goes to show you....there is no such thing as control.

And...after this illusion of control has been blown away...
all that's left is Trust...
Trust in the character of this God who is our Father...
this God who loves us too much to live without us...
this Father who sent His Son to die and defeat death for us...
this God who now lives in us...
this God who has called us out of our illusions of control...
and into this journey of surrender to Him...with Him...toward Him...
this journey matter how many valleys we travel through...
or dangers we meet along the way...
we know it will end with the words...
"Well done, good and faithful servant." I've said's a I must confess that I still have a whole drawer in my kitchen dedicated to the one little piece of control I cling to in my airsoft-pellet-filled life.... goggles....lots of least ten pairs.

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—
most of which are never even seen—
don't you think he'll attend to you,
take pride in you, do his best for you?
What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax,
to not be so preoccupied with getting,
so you can respond to God's giving.
People who don't know God and the way he works
fuss over these things,
but you know both God and how he works.
Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions.
Don't worry about missing out.
You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now,
and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow.
God will help you deal
with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
(Matthew 6:30-34 The Message)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Japanese Tulip Trees and Pine-straw Playhouses

In his book, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis writes about the first two times he felt what he could only describe as a fleeting, yet intense desire for "something"...something that...even at a young age, he knew was always just out of reach, unable to be in this fallen world. He refers to this longing as "the enormous bliss of Eden."

For him, this longing was first stirred by a perfect little toy garden his brother had created in the lid of a cookie jar and, later, by a desire to "possess Autumn," when he read Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin.

Lewis' words rang deeply in me, because I know the feeling he speaks about. For me these feelings are associated with two specific places--both involving moss.

To the right of my Mama Kelley's house, the yard sloped and was always particularly shady and at least 10 degrees cooler than any other part of the yard...even on hot Alabama summer days.

Because of the shade, grass didn't grow very well, making it a patchwork of cool, moist dirt and exquisite little mounds of moss. In the middle of it all was a Japanese tulip tree, which never bloomed long enough for me.

When this tree was in bloom, my idea of "Eden" was to walk barefoot through that moss-and-dirt patchwork blanket, daydreaming about what life would be like when Prince Charming showed up beside that tulip tree and kissed me...transforming me from a chubby, clumsy, four-eyed "frog" into a beautiful, graceful, dancing princess.

I would jump from moss patch to moss patch...stopping long enough to rub my toes across the cool, tickly-green surfaces. Then, I would dance around and around... humming...with the tulip tree serving as my partner, Prince Charming...who always looked a lot like Bobby Sherman.

Anything was possible in this dirt-and-moss patchwork paradise. Looking back I realize I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see fairies or leprechauns dart out from behind my tree...shushing me for humming too loud.

I would always get particularly annoyed when a cousin or little brother or hickory-toting grandmother invaded my privacy and broke the spell, sending the fairies and Bobby Sherman darting away to the netherlands with an almost audible "Poof."

Not quite as magical...but just as special...was the second "paradise" of my childhood. It was located behind my house (well, technically, my mama and daddy's house).

Somebody...I feel quite certain it wasn't my daddy...had built a tin-roof shed that leaned up against the house. Right above this shed was the window-unit air conditioner which, whenever it was on, continually dripped water onto the tin roof, which then dripped onto the ground below.

Apparently, this was the perfect recipe for growing moss, because there was always a large patch of it there, bordered by a long row of purple irises. This spot was where I always built my pine-straw playhouses.

My mama was the best pine-straw playhouse builder EVER! She taught me how to rake up pine needles in straight lines to make the leave openings for the mound up the pine straw for chairs in the living room and for baby-doll beds in the nursery...and to "box" up the pine needles for tables and refrigerators. (Thank goodness we always had an abundance of pine straw in our yard.)

In these playhouses, my bedroom was always located next to the tin-roof shed, and my little bed was always that exquisite patch of moss. It was large enough that, if I pulled my legs in just a bit, I could lay down on it....There is nothing quite like the feel of laying down on a cool patch of moss on a hot summer day.

I have to admit that I was somewhat territorial about my moss patches. One of the biggest fights Julie Reno and I ever got into was because I wouldn't let her have my moss bed.

Over the years, I've tried to discover the perfect formula for growing moss. But, there doesn't seem to be one....It still has somewhat of a "magical"quality--it just appears where and when it wants to grow.

So, imagine my delight last year, when I discovered little pots of it for sell at my favorite nursery here in Knoxville. I bought the last two pots they had and came home and planted it in two pots along the path through the woods in our backyard. (For some reason, I didn't trust just putting it in the ground.)

Each time I walked down that path, I stopped...reached down...and let that tickly-green magic carpet transport me back to a tulip-tree moss garden and a pine-straw playhouse. And, once again, felt the longing Lewis speaks of...for "the enormous bliss of Eden."

I've come to believe that God Himself places this exquisite, almost-aching longing in us as we journey through this upside-down Kingdom.

I believe it is a longing for home...for heaven...for Him.

And...I just know there will be great big patches of cool, tickly-green moss beds there....enough for everyone...but I promise to share...then.

"Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life,
clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.
It flowed down the center of the main street.
On each side of the river grew a tree of life,
bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month.
The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.
No longer will there be a curse upon anything.
For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there,
and his servants will worship him.
And they will see his face,
and his name will be written on their foreheads.
And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—
for the Lord God will shine on them.
And they will reign forever and ever.
Then the angel said to me,
“Everything you have heard and seen is trustworthy and true."
....Blessed are those who wash their robes.
They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city
and to eat the fruit from the tree of life....
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.”
Let anyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life....
He who is the faithful witness to all these things says,
“Yes, I am coming soon!”
Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!
May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s holy people."
(Revelation 22:1-6, 14, 17, 20-21 NLT)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rock-hard things

Last week, my brother asked me to write a letter to my nephew, letting him know my favorite things about him. He was going to a retreat, and these letters would be read to him during the weekend.

Well...let's just say that exercise taught me something. Had you asked me before that letter-writing experience what my favorite things about my nephew were, I'd have had to stop and think awhile. (Not that he isn't a great kid...he's amazing.) But, writing about them caused them to come into focus for me. Today, if you asked me, I could rattle them off...just like that.

I think that's one reason I keep posting on this blog. It helps bring into focus God's unending love and faithfulness through every circumstance of my life. Even the rock-hard things...

No...especially the rock-hard things.

I've mentioned before the amazing group of women I get to be with every Thursday. Well, yesterday, as I was writing our next lesson on the Covenant, God showed me something. I think I'm supposed to share it with you:

At the very beginning of Abraham's journey of faith, God promised him that he would one day possess the land of Canaan. Several times over the course of Abraham's life, God reminded him of this promise of land. (In the agricultural society of Abraham's time, land was everything.)

But, ironically, the first piece of land Abraham acquired was because of a small "war" over scarce water resources. And, the second piece of land was acquired when his beloved Sarah died.

Both of these first land acquisitions were the result of rock-hard events that came into Abraham's life. But they were also, undoubtedly, part of God's plan for possessing the "promised land" that was part of God's covenant promises to him.

At first...when I thought about this irony, it seemed...well...odd. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize that's exactly how God works in the lives of His children on their journey of faith through this upside-down Kingdom.

He never promises this covenant life with Him will be easy. Only that He will even cause the "rock-hard" places of our lives to work out for our ultimate help lead us closer to Him.

When I was a little girl...sitting on the pew at the Kimberly Church of God...every once in awhile someone would ask my mama to sing a particular song. I always wondered why it made her and others cry one minute and shout the next. But...I don't wonder anymore....

In shady, green pastures, so rich and so sweet,
God leads His dear children along;
Where the water’s cool flow bathes the weary one’s feet,
God leads His dear children along.

Some through the waters, some through the flood,
Some through the fire, but all through the blood;
Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song,
In the night season and all the day long.

Sometimes on the mount where the sun shines so bright,
God leads His dear children along;
Sometimes in the valley, in darkest of night,
God leads His dear children along.

Though sorrows befall us and evils oppose,
God leads His dear children along;
Through grace we can conquer, defeat all our foes,
God leads His dear children along.

Away from the mire, and away from the clay,
God leads His dear children along;
Away up in glory, eternity’s day,
God leads His dear children along.

Some through the waters, some through the flood,
Some through the fire, but all through the blood;
Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song,
In the night season and all the day long.

("God Leads Us Along," written by George A. Young, 1903)

"I will exalt you, Lord, for you rescued me.
You refused to let my enemies triumph over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you restored my health.
You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.
You kept me from falling into the pit of death.
Sing to the Lord, all you godly ones!
Praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime!
Weeping may last through the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
When I was prosperous, I said, “Nothing can stop me now!”
Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain.
Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered.
I cried out to you, O Lord.
I begged the Lord for mercy, saying,
“What will you gain if I die, if I sink into the grave?
Can my dust praise you?
Can it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me.
Help me, O Lord.”
You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
You have taken away my clothes of mourning
and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!"
(Psalm 30 NLT)

Saturday, February 14, 2009


The three guys in my life LOVE to snow ski! So, we drove about 6 1/2 hours yesterday to Snowshoe, WV, to enjoy a little family time and slope time before a crazy baseball (Garrett) and soccer (Jackson) season consumes our lives.

The three of them love to be the first ones at the ski lift.

Me? I prefer to have 2 or 3 Advil and 2 or 3 cups of coffee before I pull on all the clothing (which also serves as necessary padding for clumsy me) and maneuver my feet into those clunky boots. (The BEST FEELING IN THE WHOLE WORLD is taking off ski boots--nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, tops it.)

Well, as I sit here on this Valentine's morning (my sweet daddy's birthday), working on my third cup of coffee, I began thinking about this "thing" we call LOVE.

After 48 years, it remains somewhat unsearchable to me. At times, I love well. At times I don't. Loving becomes all wrapped up in HOW we have or have not experienced love. And none of us experience it in a truly perfect form in this fallen world.

That is...until we realize how much our heavenly Father loves us. As I've written in the last several posts, I loved my daddy, and I know he loved me. But, because of his illness, I often told myself, "Don't bother daddy. Don't worry daddy." (Daddy never said this to me, of course. It was something I told myself.)

During the past few years, as I've looked back, I've come to realize that for most of my life, I projected this same attitude and these same words onto my Heavenly Father. (Since then, I've learned that most people do that very same thing.)

So, God had to break this "just-handle-it-yourself" attitude. He had to get me to a place where there just was no "fixing it myself"--flat on my face on the floor crying out to Him for help.

I'm still on that journey. (It's a process--a lifelong one.) But, He's a patient Father. And, He's caused me to realize that He's just crazy about me...about you...about us. So crazy that He exchanged His Son's life for mine--and for yours.

I used to think that Jesus was the "good guy" and God was the angry Father, just waiting to pass down judgment for any little misstep. (He even patiently tolerated THAT in me.)

But then, one day, the words of a verse that I long ago memorized jumped out at me in a whole new way..."For GOD so loved..." My Heavenly Father so loved loved us..."that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." (John 3:16, 17)

God loved...God gave...I am (we are) simply called to receive that love.

I used to feel very inadequate whenever I would read the "Love chapter" (1 Corinthians 13). I knew I didn't love that way even 1% of the time. But, then I learned that the word Paul uses for "love" in that chapter is "agape." You could simply call it "God love." In other words, that chapter tells us how God loves us. And, the only way we can ever love like that is to first receive that love from Him.

Then, it's a matter of letting Him abide in us, with us. And letting His Spirit begin to grow the "fruit" of His (agape) love in us.

As I've's a process...and I still tend to slip into that "fix-it-myself" mentality when I get my eyes off Him and onto myself, but He continues to call me--to woo me--on this journey of love through this upside-down Kingdom.

I hope these words help you understand how deep the Father's agape love for you is:
"Love is patient and kind.
Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude.
It does not demand its own way.
It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.
It does not rejoice about injustice
but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.
Love never gives up, never loses faith,
is always hopeful,
and endures through every circumstance."
(1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NLT)
Now, I think I'll squeeze my feet into those clunky boots and go find my three guys on the slope!
Much love,
(P.S. I wonder what birthdays in heaven are like? Happy Birthday, my sweet daddy!)

Thursday, February 12, 2009


My daddy was one of six children born to John Walter and Cora Mae Kelley. They had five boys--Sherrill, John Walter (Jr.), Brady, Paul and daddy (Hoyt); and one little girl, Callie Wilma. (That's my Uncle Shirrell on the left, Mimi in the middle and my daddy on the right.)

They grew up during the Great Depression--very poor, very proud. For a time, they sharecropped. Several of the brothers played musical instruments, and I've been told they performed at community functions to make "spending money."

Four of the sons and the daughter (whom we called Mimi) served in World War II. My Mama Kelley was honored in the newspaper for being a "Five-Star Mother."

To the best of my memory, none of them spoke much of their wartime experiences. I believe this was ingrained in them during the war itself, when speaking of such things could potentially endanger themselves and others. Daddy mentions how some things he would like to send home would "never make it past the censor."

And, unfortunately, they had all passed away before I realized what a wealth of history I had been born into. (I did find out from one of daddy's war letters that Uncle Walter played guitar in an armed services "orchestra" for awhile--how cool is that!)

A few years ago, mama divided up daddy's war letters between me and my brother. In one letter, daddy mentions seeing a boxing match in England with a young, up-and-coming boxer "named Joe Louis."

But the letters I inherited speak mostly of the day-to-day challenges of a young man, far from home, who clearly misses his family. They are all addressed to "Dear Mama," and give reports about letters he's received (and not received) from home, pictures of himself and others he's sending home, fruit cakes and candy he's "gobbled up" each Christmas, and his longing for "film (size 120)" and for "a radio that works."

In several, he writes worriedly about a sick "Pop" back home and a young niece (Brenda) who has been stricken with polio.

The happiest ones are where he's writing about being able to meet two of his brothers, Paul and Walter. Apparently, they were all stationed in Europe within a few hours of each other. In one, written from "England" on March 27, 1944, daddy is writing about "the slow mail service."'ll let daddy tell you:
"I didn't get Paul's letter until yesterday at noon saying he was coming here. So, I ran into town and met him. He had been there since the night before. If I had gotten the letter sooner, we could have been together longer. He had to go back last night."

In that letter, daddy goes on to say: "Paul has gained weight too since he's been over here. We didn't get to have any pictures taken."

From daddy's frequent mention of "pictures" and his repeated requests for "film (size 120)," photographs were of great importance to a mother who had sent five children off to war and to a son who had been away from his family's faces for far too long.

My favorite Kelley brothers' war story involved Paul and Walter. The two of them were traveling back to the States onboard the Queen Elizabeth. Neither had heard from the other in awhile. And, neither knew the other was on the ship...until a mutual friend somehow saw both of them and managed to get them together.

Can you imagine?

Whenever I replay that story in my head, I picture them throwing their arms around each other's necks...and being grateful for the world not to be at war any thankful to be headed home...together.

Many of daddy's letters were sent from Belgium, during the months he was involved in the historic Battle of the Bulge. Interestingly, in all his letters from these pivotal months in Belgium, he never mentions battles. He never mentions danger. He never mentions fear. He either wasn't allowed to, or he didn't want to worry his "Dear Mama."

Here are some typical words from a letter written by him from Belgium on December 18, 1944:

"Dear Mama, I received Brady's letter of December 4, so I thought I would write you tonight. I was glad to hear that everyone is getting along fine back there. I'm still OK myself....I guess all of you will have a nice Christmas there. I hope so anyway. Sorry I can't send you anything, but you know how it is over here...I have received the package of Christmas cards and paper you sent me, but as yet I haven't received the cookies and fruit cake. Hope they get here by Christmas, but I know they'll be enjoyed anytime...Well, mama, that's about all for now, so I'll close. Answer soon. Love, Hoyt"

Only once did daddy talk about these months in Belgium and, even then, it was only in response to questions from his history-loving son. Here's my brother, Kevin's, memories of that conversation:
"Daddy told me that during the Battle of the Bulge his unit was basically cut off by the massive German advance. They were holed up in a small town in Belgium. Days of heavy fog and overcast skies had prevented Allied pilots from dropping in supplies. So, they were running critically low on everything. They were also being strafed fairly often by German fighter planes. When they could, they would take their rifles and shoot at these low-flying planes....Then, one day, they awoke to see a clear sky filled with American planes. This sight was special for two reasons. First, it meant that Allied bombers could finally start bombing the Germans, who were getting dangerously close to them. And, second, they could now be resupplied by air drops."

Kevin remembers daddy saying, "One of the best things I ever saw was that sky full of parachutes delivering the supplies we needed so badly."

According to my Mimi, when daddy got back home, he was not the same Hoyt who had left. She once told me about an incident that happened when he first got back--she had gone into his room one morning to wake him up and had reached down and shook his shoulder. Before she knew what was happening, he had rolled over and grabbed her by the throat.

Of course, when he came to himself, he was deeply sorry. But, he refused to talk to her about what had made him react that way.

I'll always be convinced that daddy's later emotional troubles were a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. After his series of shock treatments in 1967, he managed his "nervous condition" with tranquilizers. Their main side effect was how sleepy they made him. From the time he walked in the door from his job as a "parts man" at Drennen Buick, it was as though he could not stay awake. We woke him up to come to the dinner table. Then, we would wake him up to go to bed. Looking back, it was as though just getting through the day simply exhausted him.

But, I don't remember him ever complaining.

What I do remember is him whistling. When he was awake, he was always whistling.

And, I remember the smell of the soap he used to lather up his beard for shaving.
I remember the feel of his freshly-shaved face against my cheek when he would hug me.

I remember the sound of his laugh when my cousin Nonnie (yet another infamous Kelley nickname) told him one of her newest jokes.

I remember how tickled he once got at himself when he tried on a pair of shorts that were about three sizes too small. The zipper wouldn't even zip up all the way, but he came walking into the room...laughing...announcing, "OK, I'm ready. Let's go."

I remember how he'd sit for hours listening to music and recording it for fellow music lovers to enjoy.

I remember him standing with his brothers...smoking, talking, laughing...along the fence at the Mortimer Jordan High School football games.

I remember him kissin' my mama on the cheek.

I remember him once telling my cousin, Nathan...upon being questioned about why he wasn't scraping off the blistered, peeling paint before putting a new coat on the house..."Awww, Nathan, it looks good from the road."

I remember the utter joy and relief I felt when he finally gave his heart to Jesus when he was almost 60 years old.

Because of that...I will get to hear him whistle and laugh again. I'll get to feel his cheek on mine when he reaches down to give me a hug.

I'll get to see him enjoying the good company of his brothers and sister and his Dear Mama and Pop....When his last brother (Paul) died, it was like a light went out inside him.

And...if there's kissing in heaven...I'll get to see him kiss my mama again...even if it's just on the cheek.
For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,”
has made this light shine in our hearts
so we could know the glory of God
that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
We now have this light shining in our hearts,
but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars
containing this great treasure.
This makes it clear that our great power is from God,
not from ourselves.
We are pressed on every side by troubles,
but we are not crushed.
We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.
We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God.
We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.
Through suffering,
our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies....
We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus,
will also raise us with Jesus
and present us to himself together with you.
And as God’s grace reaches more and more people,
there will be great thanksgiving,
and God will receive more and more glory.
That is why we never give up.
Though our bodies are dying,
our spirits are being renewed every day.
For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long.
Yet they produce for us a glory
that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!
So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now;
rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen.
For the things we see now will soon be gone,
but the things we cannot see will last forever.
(from 2 Corinthians 4, NLT)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Answer soon. Love, Hoyt"

After re-reading my post yesterday, I realize I need to clear up a wrong picture I might have painted of my daddy for those who didn't know him.

Yes, daddy suffered a nervous breakdown. Yes, it affected him for the rest of his life.

But, NO, it did not make him a bad father. He was a wonderful daddy--kind, affectionate, funny. He loved a good joke. He loved music. He loved watching his son play sports--I don't think he ever missed a single game my little brother played.

Daddy was one of six children born to John Walter Kelley, Sr., and his wife, Cora Mae. They had five boys--Sherrill, John Walter (Jr.), Brady, Paul and daddy (Hoyt); and one little girl, Callie Wilma. (I don't remember their birth order, but I do remember my daddy was the baby.)

They grew up during the Great Depression--very poor, very proud. For a time, they sharecropped. Several of the brothers played musical instruments, and I've been told they performed at community functions and "passed the hat" to make a little extra money.

Four of the sons and the daughter (whom we called Mimi) served in World War II. In fact, my Mama Kelley was honored in the newspaper for being a "Five-Star Mother." (In the above picture, Uncle Sherrill is "2"; Uncle Walter is "3"; Uncle Paul is "4"; Mimi is "5"; and the baby of the family, my "6".)

To the best of my memory, none of them spoke much of their wartime experiences. And, unfortunately, they had all passed away before I realized what a wealth of history I had been born into. (I did find out from one of daddy's war letters that Uncle Walter played guitar in an armed services band for awhile. How cool is that!)

A few years ago, mama divided up daddy's war letters between me and my brother. In one letter, daddy mentions seeing a boxing match in England with a young, "up-and-coming boxer named Joe Louis."

Many letters I inherited speak mostly of the day-to-day challenges of a young man, far from home, who clearly misses his family. They are all addressed "Dear Mama," and give reports about letters he's received (and not received), pictures of himself and others he's sending home, the fruit cakes and candy he received and "gobbled up" each Christmas he was away, and of his longing for "film (size 120)" and for "a radio that works."

In several letters, he writes worriedly about a sick "Pop" back home and about a young niece (Brenda) who had been stricken with polio. The happiest letters are ones where he's writing about being able to meet two of his brothers, Paul and Walter, who were stationed in Europe within a few hours of each other. In one letter, written from England on March 27, 1944, daddy is writing about "the slow mail service."'ll let daddy tell you in his own words:
"I didn't get Paul's letter until yesterday at noon saying he was coming here. So, I ran into town and met him. He had been there since the night before. If I had gotten the letter sooner, we could have been together longer. He had to go back last night." 

In that letter, daddy goes on to say: "Paul has gained weight too since he's been over here. We didn't get to have any pictures taken." From daddy's frequent mention of "pictures" and his repeated requests for "film (size 120)," photographs were of great importance to a mother who had sent five children off to war and to a son who had been away from his family's faces for far too long.

And, almost each and every letter ends..."Answer soon. Love, Hoyt"

My favorite "Kelley brothers' war story" involved Paul and Walter. The way I always heard this story told is the two of them were traveling back to the States on the Queen Elizabeth. Neither had heard from the other in awhile. Neither knew for sure if their siblings were alive...injured...missing. Neither knew the other was on the ship...until a mutual friend somehow saw both of them and managed to get them together.

Can you imagine?

Whenever I replay that story in my head, I picture them throwing their arms around each other's necks...and being grateful for the world not to be at war any thankful to be headed home...together.
"Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words:
Be joyful. Grow to maturity. 
Encourage each other.
Live in harmony and peace....
Greet each other with Christian love.
All of God’s people here send you their greetings.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, 
the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."
(2 Corinthians 13:11-14 NLT)

Saturday, February 7, 2009


My first memory of life is being about 3 1/2 years old, sitting on the footrest of my baby brother's stroller...watching black-and-white Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans...while baby Kevin slept in the stroller bed.

My job was to roll the stroller back and forth if he woke up, to see if it would help him get back to sleep. Most times it didn't.

Unfortunately for my little brother, he showed up in my life right about the time I was developing quite an affinity for baby dolls. It didn't help that he looked just like one--blond-curls, chubby cheeks, big brown eyes.

So, from the beginning, our relationship has been somewhat of a pull-and-tug between me wanting to be "mommy" (or at least boss) and him declaring over-and-over again, "You NOT da boss of me, Sissy!"

When he was 3 and I was 6, our family moved from Kimberly, Alabama, to a place that, ironically, was named Green Acres. As I've said before, it was not green and there were no acres.

We did this as part of my mama's efforts to fight off my daddy's "nervous condition." It did not work.

In January of 1967, my daddy was diagnosed with what I was told was "a complete nervous breakdown." He was in the hospital for weeks and weeks.

During those weeks-and-weeks, my only memory of daddy was the weekend of his birthday. (He was a Valentine's baby, born February 14.) That particular Saturday morning, someone had taken me and my little brother from Green Acres out to our grandmother's house in Kimberly. The plan was for mama to check daddy out of the hospital for the day so we could give him a big party. (In hindsight, a big family party was probably not the best thing for someone who had just undergone a series of shock treatments. they say...only hindsight is 20/20.)

I still remember daddy walking in the front door of that house. He looked so handsome...he looked so afraid.

At first...he seemed not to know me. But, as the day wore on and as I annoyingly refused to get very far from his side, he seemed to remember who and what I was to him. I specifically remember him sitting in my Uncle Brady's chair, rubbing my back, as I sat on the chair arm next to him.

Late that afternoon...mama had to take daddy back to the hospital. I remember being angry. Angry at mama for taking him away again. Angry at him for having to go away. ("Just quit being nervous!" was what I wanted to yell at him.) Angry at myself for being angry at them.

Decades after that birthday party, as I sat in a Knoxville movie theatre watching "A Beautiful Mind," witnessing Russell Crowe "undergo" shock therapy, I leaned over and whispered to my husband, "Is that what they did to daddy?" He looked at me, nodded his head and squeezed my hand.

So many times in recent years, I've wished I could bring daddy back for just a minute to apologize for not being...aware.... I believe a huge part of my heart stayed asleep until I had children of my own...until I had to walk through some emotional valleys of my own.

That year, after daddy's birthday weekend, the three of us--mama, Kevin and me--left my Mama Kelley's house and returned to the not-so-Green Acres.

During those months when daddy was in the hospital, my mama's day consisted of waking up early enough to go see him at the hospital before she went to work at Sears Roebuck. Most days, she would go see him again during her lunch hour. Then, after work, she would go see him again before coming back home to us. And then, she would start the whole thing over the next day.

She had to rely on whoever was available to help out with me and Kevin. Often, that was her daddy, whom we called Papa.

In the spring of that year, Papa came back to the little room I shared with my brother and told me, "I can't find Kevin. You have to go find him."

So I did. I just kept walking up one sidewalk and down another, calling his name.

Several blocks later, as I walked past a light green house, I heard my 3-year-old brother laugh.

I ran up to that screen door, cupped my hands around my eyes, and pressed my nose against the screen so I could see inside.

And there he a picnic table just inside the door...grinning and laughing...eating dinner with a family of Spanish-speaking people.

I knocked on that screen door frame, pointed at him and said, "That's my little brother, and I've come to take him home."

Well, the mother was clearly relieved and delighted. She jumped up, halfway-running to the door to let me in. The whole time she was clapping her hands and speaking the first Spanish words my 6-year-old Alabama ears had ever heard--"Hola! Hola! Si! (something...something) Bambino! Si! (something...something)."

Anyway, Kevin got up from that picnic table, took my hand, and we walked out of that spicy-smelling house.

I don't remember even saying thank you to that kind mother.

Once we were on the sidewalk, I looked down at Kevin and asked, "How did you get here?" He looked up at me with those brown eyes and said...quite matter-of-factly..."I 'tended I wuz a tuwtle, and I cwawled acwoss da woad."

Over the years, that story became one of our family standards. wasn't until my own children were 3 and 6 (the same ages of me and my brother when that story happened) that God used its telling in a powerful way in my life.

It was at Christmas. Our extended family (Kelleys, Bowdles, LaBelles) were all enjoying the afterglow of a big dinner...sitting around our dining room table...and my brother began telling that story. As I sat there listening...laughing in all the usual places...the Holy Spirit spoke to me.

(Now, you need to know that I don't go around hearing voices.) But, that day, I did. When God speaks to you, you just know it. Here's what that "voice" said:

"It was not you that found him. It was not you that kept him safe. It was not you that brought him home. That was Me. And, I have been with you both every step of the way."

Well...analytical, borderline cynic that I I've pondered and poked around at the meaning and timing of that "voice" thing I've realized is that the Holy Spirit waited to speak to me about the "tuwtle" incident until my children were the same ages as me and my brother when this story happened.

I believe He wanted to show me the complete vulnerability and helplessness of a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old. He wanted to show me the complete inability of a 6-year-old to bring a 3-year-old safely home under those circumstances. (I'm convinced that God even caused my little brother to laugh at just the time I was walking by that house.)

During these past months, as I've had to sit back and watch my "little" brother go through the most difficult year of his life, I've had to lean on that "voice." I've had to lean on the belief...the faith...that God is STILL here...with me...with my brother...with all His children...every step of the we try to find our way Home in this upside-down Kingdom.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I have all 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)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Simon Cowell's got Nothin' on Elsie Sanders

So, I've taken you with me to hear Elsie Sanders' stories and to dance a little reel. But the journey wouldn't be complete if you missed out on the most memorable of the Kimberly Elementary School outdoor concerts.

You see, Mrs. Sanders loved to sing. And, as with everything she loved, she generously shared this passion with us. Several times a week, we would break open our songbooks, which had these wonderful little colored-ink drawings...and we would sing.

We would sing rounds, we would sing ballads. Mrs. Sanders even taught us to sing "parts." (That was the year the alto in me was conceived and born.)

My favorites were "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain;" "Shoo Fly" (which also sufficed as a square dance number); and my all-time favorite--"Daisy Belle":
"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do
I'm half crazy all for the love of you
It won't be a stylish marriage
I can't afford a carriage
But you'll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two."

Looking back, I realize Mrs. Sanders was using every creative tool in her possession to help us discover our own creativity...our own imagination.

And the lady had a definite ear and appreciation for true talent. In fact, Mrs. Sanders just loved showing off any talent she "discovered." (Just think of her as a sweet, Mrs.-Doub 1960s Simon Cowell.)

One of her favorite "discoveries" were the Nail Sisters--Leah, Vickie and my other best friend, Pam. Their daddy, Dickie, had been training them to be Fa-So-La singers since they were old enough to talk. Their beautiful, acapella, three-part harmony was enough to make grown men cry (and often did).

In the springtime, Mrs. Sanders would hold outdoor concerts, and the Nail Sisters were almost always her "headliner." We had the perfect spot for these songfests--a sloping, pine-straw-covered bank under a tall pine tree, whose rough bark had a yellow-chalk-eraser-dust-ring all the way around it. This shady bank was just past the playground, between the see-saws and monkey bars. (I hated those monkey bars.)

During one particularly warm spring concert, just as the Nail Sisters were either starting or finishing their fa-so-la concert (that part is fuzzy) the rest of us sat there trying to remember if Do-Re-Mi came before or after Fa-So-La...we saw something drop from the branches of the pine tree just above where the Nail Sisters and Mrs. Sanders were standing.

I believe Roger Nichols was the first to figure out what that "something" was, and in his loudest, most urgent voice, he yelled, "Snake!! Snake!!!"

We screamed and scattered.

But...what was most memorable was the speed and agility with which Mrs. Sanders removed herself from the premises of that snake. She passed great numbers of younger legs on her sprint up that pine-straw-covered bank. I've never seen a woman move so fast in all my life, especially one who had the build and speed of "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Survival instincts are a funny thing.

Once she came to her senses (which had a definite correlation to her distance from that snake), she kicked into Teacher-of-the-Year mode again...started counting heads...and asking, " everyone OK?"

By this time, all the boys were claiming they weren't scared of "a little ol' snake"; some girls were still screaming for effect; and only a couple of skinny climbers had to be talked down from the monkey bars. (I hated those monkey bars.)

But, every last one of us...including the Nail Sisters...survived to sing another day.

And that's a good thing.

In May, the Kimberly Elementary School always held its year-end concert and play. We would open the heavy, wooden doors between Mrs. Sanders and Mrs. Thomas' rooms. And moms and dads, grannys and grandpas, aunts and uncles, would come and squish their adult-sized bodies into those child-sized desks. (My daddy always opted for leaning against the chalkboard.)

Then, us kids would march up the steps to that stage and sing and act our little hearts out.

That particular year, we performed the apocalyptic "Chicken Little"--"the sky is falling, the sky is falling"--where I gave a somewhat convincing performance as the infamous Ducky Lucky.

But, of course, the harmonic Nail Sisters stole the show...and rightly so. I do wish you and Simon Cowell could hear them sing!

"Sing God a brand-new song! Earth and everyone in it, sing!
Sing to God—worship God!
Shout the news of his victory from sea to sea.
Take the news of his glory to the lost,
news of his wonders to one and all!
For God is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs!
....Bravo, God, Bravo!
Everyone join in the great shout: Encore!
....Then to your knees—everyone worship!...
Let's hear it from Sky,
with Earth joining in,
And a huge round of applause from Sea.
Let Wilderness turn cartwheels.
Animals, come dance.
Put every tree of the forest in the choir—
An extravaganza before God as he comes,
as he comes to set everything right on earth...."
(From Psalm 96, The Message)


Well, as I mentioned in the "Elsie" post, Mrs. Sanders was my favorite teacher EVER. And that's saying something, because I've had some amazing ones.

As I've already told you, she loved the multiplication tables and she loved reading books to us--books that took us places. She also had two other loves she shared with us--square dancing and singing.

On square-dancing days, she and Mrs. Thomas (the 6th grade teacher and principal) would fold back the heavy, wooden doors that separated their two rooms. Then, we would scoot all the desks to the walls and we would make these HUGE oval-shaped circles. Mrs. Sanders would put the square-dancing-record (complete with the caller's instructions) on her little record player, and we would DANCE.

Keep in mind that, besides the dancin' I witnessed most Sunday nights at the Kimberly Church of God (yet another story for yet another time), dancing was not a part of my chubby little life.

My skinny Baptist cousins could dance....Man could they dance! (In my mind, I can still see Gary Paul and Patty and Dawn and...especially...SONJA bustin' some moves. I was SO jealous.) Whenever all us cousins were together at my Mimi and Uncle Bill's house...all the way down in Hueytown...and everybody was dancing, my sweet Mimi would try to help my rhythm-challenged body learn some moves. She would say, "Here, Baby, just pretend your picking apples and puttin' 'em in a basket." ...Unfortunately, that's exactly what it always looked like.

But, square dancing sort of leveled the playing field for us chubby, non-rhythmic Pentecostals. Typically, all you had to do was meet your partner in the middle, hook elbows, skip in a circle, then join hands and dance to the end of the line. (Almost always, Mrs. Sanders even appointed your partner, so that nobody was left not getting "picked.")

My FAVORITE square dance was the Virginia Reel. It had some fancy moves, where you would do-si-do and chasse and take everybody in line around for a spin. This lasted until everyone had a chance to be "head couple." Then...we would usually beg "Do it again!" And, of course, Mrs. Doubtfire (umh...I mean Mrs. Sanders) would always let us. I can still see her sitting beside that record player, clapping her hands and tapping her feet. Sometimes, with enough begging, she would even join the dance.

After I became a mom, I really wanted my boys to learn to square can imagine their reaction.

But...just I've written this...I realize it wasn't so much that I wanted them to square dance as it was that I wanted them to feel the same happiness and freedom I felt in that circle...with my favorite teacher smiling and clapping...and the music swirling around me...and...just...dancing.

That's what I wanted...what I still want...what I'll always want for my sons--moments of BLISS as they journey through this upside-down Kingdom.

"They will come home and sing songs of joy....They will be radiant because of the Lord’s good gifts.... Their life will be like a watered garden, and all their sorrows will be gone. The young women will dance for joy, and the men—old and young—will join in the celebration. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them and exchange their sorrow for rejoicing....My people will feast on my good gifts. I, the Lord, have spoken!” (Jeremiah 31:12-14 NLT)