Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent Snatches....

Dear friend,
I hear you've had a brutal year--one filled with heartbreak and betrayal, worry and wondering, hurting and being asked to "Let go!"

I understand. I've been there...most days I still am. We are all  "there" at many points along this journey home.

Your friend truly wishes she could take away your suffering, answer your questions in a once-and-for-all way that would bring comfort and peace and healing....she can't. I can't.

But...what we can do is decorate your home. We can place little "touches" of beauty and memories and Advent moments in rooms where you work and sit and eat and pray...and hope (somehow) that those will bring you snatches of peace...and hope...and reminders of joy during this Advent season.

We can wish that when you light the candles we placed on your mantle and kitchen table, you are reminded of "the Light that shines into our darkness," the light that even our darkest darkness cannot extinguish.

We can hope that when you look at the Nativity scene on your end table, you are reminded and encouraged by the Baby Redeemer and Restorer who lies there in the "book manger" (which, by the way, I count as a serendipitous answer to an unspoken "prayer").

I've decided that, on this journey home, sometimes there are no BIG miracles. We pray for them, we hope for them, we wait for them. But, they just don't arrive.

And, in our weariness...disappointment...grief...the temptation is to become discouraged...disillusioned...even despondent.

Especally in those moments, the great challenge is to find the SMALL miracles Jesus brings into our lives every day...those small "snatches" that whisper to our broken hearts, "I love you. I hear you. I know. I care."

I wish you could have witnessed your friend helping decorate your home. Her heart was all for you, and her hope was to lift your sad, sweet heart (even just a little) toward "a future and a hope." As she helped prepare your home with light and beauty and love, she was truly "Jesus with skin" for her hurting friend.

Over the past three years, I know there have been many days I've been so burdened by not getting the BIG miracle that I've missed all the beautiful "small" ones He sent every day.

This you enjoy your beautiful home...touched by your loving prayer is that you find snatches of joy...and hope...and love...and Shalom (wholeness).

Some words I read this first Advent morning spoke deeply to me: "I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God's saving power....Our temptation is to be distracted by them....When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence--a baby's smile, children's carefree play, words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends--I will always remain tempted to despair. The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, HE asks for my full attention...." (Henri Nouwen)

Held by Grace,
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.
He will remove forever all insults and mockery
against his land and people.
The Lord has spoken!
In that day the people will proclaim,
“This is our God!
We trusted in him, and he saved us!
This is the Lord, in whom we trusted.
Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!”
(Isaiah 25:8-9, NLT)

Friday, September 10, 2010

When Surely beat up Grace...

My 5th decade. 50 years. 18,250 days of breathing, beating, living.

And many things about this week caught me off guard. Sadness. Disappointment. An old grief I thought was buried and could no longer touch me.

"Surely," I thought, "God will finally answer this one big ongoing prayer." He didn't.
"Surely,"...I hoped and wished and waited about so many "fill-in-the-blanks."

As I approached the big 5-0 day, I found myself thinking back to my 40th birthday. We celebrated with a picnic at Cove Park, surrounded by my then-intact family and many good friends. Life was easy and sweet and good and full...with so much to look forward to. My sons were 6 and 4, full of life and love and all the time in the world for "mommy." At the party, my mom was running after the boys, playing and feeding the ducks.

I have a framed photo of that day. In it, my arm is around Honey--he is grinning, and I am toasting the photographer--an appropriate gesture--it was a season for "toasting."

And seemed to fast-forward to 5-0. My sons are now 16 and 14, full of life and love, but not nearly as much time in the world for "mom." My mom is now completely dependent on a walker or wheelchair, and is quickly sliding into that January diagnosis of Alzheimer's.

My 50th party was supposed to be in a far-away, exotic place with a person I dearly loved, a person I shared so many dreams and plans and secrets with. But she is gone. She left in a heart-rending way that still, at times, feels like some wound that won't quite heal. She remains my biggest "Surely..."

So...there I sat on Monday night, in my bed, feeling sorry for myself (even after a wonderful family-filled birthday weekend where people I dearly love celebrated with me).

About that time, I turned to Honey and asked, "What time do I need to be ready for Prairie Home Companion?" (...only one of two things I had asked for.)

"I haven't ordered tickets yet," Honey answered calmly.

SURELY I had heard him wrong..."What do you mean you haven't ordered tickets YET? The concert's day after tomorrow."

"I'm ordering them tomorrow" he calmly responded, glancing up from his book.


And...right there...Honey got mad.

But...I was packed and loaded...and the trigger had been pulled.

"What about Rosetta Stone? Did you order it YET?" (The other thing I had ASKED for. I think I'm being called to the "mission field" of Italy, so I figure I better learn Italian.)

"I'm ordering it tomorrow, too." (By that point in the conversation, Honey REALLY didn't want to tell me that, so give the man points for honesty.)

I won't bore you with all the hurtful words...back and forth...but we both went to bed wounded, and woke up pouting, backed into our corners, licking our wounds.

That evening, I decided to put on my big girl panties and take myself to the movie "Eat Pray Love." I ended up being THE ONLY PERSON in the theatre, which was a good thing, given that I was having one of my "let's-just-cry-til-we-make-animal-noises-moments". The whole experience was a bit surreal and probably held deeper lessons on many levels, if I had just been willing to listen.

By the time I got home, the boys had gone to bed. So I told Honey goodnight (no kiss, of course) and spent the rest of my 50th-birthday-eve still pouting.

The next morning, Honey and the boys woke me up with a cup of coffee, a song and a card. A good start--even though Honey seemed a bit like a pup afraid of getting kicked again--cautious, guarded, crouching around the edges.

"Surely," (I thought).

The morning was filled with "Surelys..."

Eventually, I decided to kick this 5th decade in the butt and go for a run. I sometimes talk to Jesus when I run. (That morning, I talked AT Him.) " can make it so that, when I go to the mailbox today, there will be a letter from VA saying they've approved mom for benefits....SURELY....You can show up today."

And He did.

No, there was no letter from VA. And, at first, I didn't recognize Him.

He showed up a letter from my oldest son that I will ask Jesus if I can take to heaven with me.

He showed up in lovely words on Facebook and in text messages and e-mails and phone calls and long walks and yummy lunches with cherished friends. He showed up in surprise visits from old friends, who came bearing sweet, thought-filled words and gifts.

And...that first night of my 50th year...He showed up in Honey's gift, which...thanks to me..was given a bit sheepishly.

(The gift requires a little explanation. You see, Honey has heard me say at least 1,000 times that I will always be thankful to Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church because that's where I first heard about this amazing thing called GRACE.)

As I sat there looking at Honey's gift, trying to "figure it out," he had to explain that the images in each of the five photos spelled out a word. Armed with that hint, I started looking at them a little closer




Honey explained that he had gone to the Cedar Springs campus--where I first experienced GRACE--and taken the photos, and then recruited our talented friend, Julie, to PhotoShop them into just the right "look."


And to think that, over and over again...all week long...I had let "Surely..." beat up on "GRACE". (Isn't that just like the "Surelys" in our lives?) the end..because of HIM--that amazing Giver of GRACE--and His GRACE-filled people (especially my Honey) who pour out GRACE on me...every day...throughout each of my decades...GRACE won!

GRACE always does!

"So we're not giving up. How could we!
Even though on the outside it looks like things are falling apart,
on the inside, where God is making new life,
not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.
Hard times are small potatoes compared to coming good times,
the lavish celebration prepared for us.
There's far more here than meets the eye.
The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow.
But the things we can't see now will last forever."
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, The Message)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"Come to Vacation Bible School! Come to Vacation Bible School!"

Every summer, the most exciting thing to happen in Kimberly, Alabama, was the back-to-back-to-back run of Vacation Bible Schools.
While Kimberly's pastors might not have agreed on such things as eternal security and being filled with the Holy Ghost "with the evidence of speaking in tongues," most years they did agree that the best juvenile-delinquency-AND-cussin'-mamas-prevention program was to keep us up to our eyeballs in Elmer's glue, macaroni, Kool-Aid and graham crackers. So, usually, they would cooperate and spread VBSes over several summer weeks.
What this meant was that, on just about any given summer Saturday, the respective church's congregation would gather in their parking lot and decorate their Chevrolets and Buicks and Ford pick-up trucks with balloons, crepe paper streamers and homemade-poster-board signs. (Me and my brother were lucky--we had Church-of-God and Baptist VBS connections.)

Most years, our Mimi came all the way from Birmingham for the Kimberly First Baptist parade. And, our cousin Donald always had the coolest vehicle--some years a convertible, others a VW van.

Well, the excitement in those parking lots would build and build...until the Kimberly Volunteer Fire Department's lone engine pulled in. As the firetruck driver (usually the pastor of that particular VBS) would give the siren a test run, kids and adults would start clapping and cheering.

Then, with the pastor-firetruck-driver leading the way, followed closely by the Kimberly Police cruiser--driven by Officer Dingler or Bullhead--followed by a line of festooned, kid-packed four-doors, we would begin our slow-but-exciting evangelistic appeal.

Because it was a highly anticipated event...and because the firetruck and police sirens announced our arrival long before we actually arrived, Kimberly's citizenry would come out in their yards--some even lined the road--and we would hang out the car windows and wave and holler "Come to Vacation Bible School! Come to Vacation Bible School!" (To this day, whenever I read or hear the Scripture, "Go out into the highways and byways and compel them to come in", I flashback to VBS parades.)

First, we'd parade down Stouts Road, eventually winding along Cutoff Road, before finally ending at Thunder Road, which--ironically--was right smack in the middle of the Morris Cemetery (not that that fact ever made us stop our "compelling them to come in.")

It was at the cemetery STOP sign that LeahJewel Nail broke her nose. (As far as I can remember, hers was the only VBS Parade casualty in the entire history of Kimberly parades.)

In a recent re-telling by LeahJewel, she told how the car in front of her had stopped  to (unsuccessfully) try to retrieve a stray balloon for a crying pre-schooler...Well, she saw the stray balloon. BUT...what she didn't see was the balloon-fetching driver's sudden, unexpected STOP. So, when she hit that car, her nose hit the steering wheel...hard. To this day, her eyes get a little bigger and  her voice raises a notch as she points to her parade-rendered "nosejob", which, to all us admirers, only (somehow) made her prettier.

But, enough about LeahJewel's cutely-broken nose...let's get back to the parade.

And...just like that...just the other side of the STOP sign in the middle of the cemetery, the VBS parade would end--sirens would silence, kids would stop evangelizing, and mamas would start yelling, "Get your heads back in this car...right this second!"

That is...until the next Saturday morning...when another denomination would take up where we had left off. (Hmmm...maybe, ultimately, that's the purpose for so many denominations.)

When I think about those summer VBS parades, I'm reminded of things exciting and wonderful and bigger than myself.

Thankfully, VBS is alive and well. At our church, it's HUGE!!! If you accidentally stumbled in during VBS week, you'd think you had discovered some Disney theme park tucked away in East Tennessee. (In fact, this past Sunday almost 70 people--ranging in age from 5 to 80--were baptized at the final VBS service! Wow!)

But...I just wish I could have offered my boys a full-fledged VBS parade (and maybe a macaroni-coated, gold-spray-painted cigar box or two). I tried a variation of the parade one year. On the way to the first morning of VBS, I rolled down the window of my unfestooned minivan and hollered, "Come to Vacation Bible School! Come to Vacation Bible School!"
...Let's just say...they were appalled.
"...When it comes to the church,
(Jesus) 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)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Memorial Day....

My daddy was one of six children born to John Walter and Cora Mae Kelley. They had five boys--Shirrell, 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), pictures of himself and others he's sending home, fruit cakes and candy he's "gobbled up" each Christmas, his longing for "film (size 120)" and for "a radio that works." And assurances that he will "send more money home to help Pop".

In several letters, he writes worriedly about his sick "Pop", and of a young niece (Brenda) who had 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 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 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 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)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Big-Girl Panties...

Writing. It's one of those frustrating "things" I attempt now and again. I don't call myself a "writer." In my mind, writers write whether they feel like it or not. Me? I'll go for weeks with no inspiration. It's been that way for MANY weeks now.

And then...just like that...some word...some person...some inspiration...(some folks would call it "muse")... hits me and I start pounding keys...pouring words...weaving help make sense of my journey through this always-compelling, often-confusing upside-down kingdom.

As many of you know, the past two-and-a-half-years have brought challenges and emotions that, quite frankly, I never thought I'd have to wrestle with--disappointment, loss, grief, anger, despair--feelings that, at times, have threatened to take me down for the count.

But...through the darkest of those days...SHE's been there--talking with me, crying with me, praying for me. Even making me laugh over our shared Alabama quirkiness-es.'s only appropriate that today...when I thought there might not be any words left...any more "diary entries" to share...that SHE became my muse.

SHE is Marla Murrah DeLong. (That's her and her beautiful family....Keith must have been snapping the picture. But...he's cute too!)
I still remember the first time I met her. I was working in an office cubby at Cedar Springs, and she stuck her head into my cubicle...carrying the beautiful (then-toddler) Emmy on her hip. The first words that popped in my mind when I met her were, "She's bubbly." (Which, for me, isn't necessarily a compliment.)

That day...neither one of us realized God had somehow orchestrated that cubby-meeting. You see, we each had "dreams and visions" of making a difference in the church we loved. Marla was a lay-counselor; I was something called a "communications specialist"--you figure it out.

But that church-work "stuff" calls for something I just didn't have. (Maybe that, after all, is the lesson God wanted to teach me.) So, after about three years, with my proverbial "tail between my legs"--with no more dreams and not one single vision--I left that cubby. (Marla's leaving came about a year later.)

And...through those mutual-yet-different experiences, God began growing a friendship.

Over the years, I've learned she's not "bubbly," although one might mistake her for that. When I'm describing her to people who haven't met her, I usally describe her something like this: "She's one of the most passionate followers of Jesus I've ever known. She truly believes...with all her heart...that Jesus didn't die just to get us to heaven...that He died to bring us Life...right now...this moment."

Don't get me wrong. Hers is not a rose-colored, PollyAnna faith. She completely understands that life is hard. After all, she's a Christian counselor. She's walked with people through some of the darkest days and most challenging times of their lives--depression, divorce, addiction, death. (And she's faced quite a few sorrows of her own.)

One time, as I was working on a Bible study that dealt with the Holy Spirit's work as "Counselor" in our lives, I asked her, "As a counselor, what do you do?"

She answered, "I pray. Listen. Ask tough questions. Speak hard truths."

(Hmmm...exactly how He's used her in my life.)

Many of the words Marla has spoken have become little soundtracks in my a downright pain in the butt...especially when it would be easier to just stay STUCK...At least I know STUCK... But then I'll hear her voice in my head:
"It's our secrets that keep us stuck."
"God wants us to walk in Truth. Only the Truth sets us free."
"You've gotta have a healthy boundary right there."
"You can't get pizza at McDonald's." (One she admits to borrowing from a fellow counselor.)
"If this were Garrett or Jackson facing this decision, what would you want them to do?"
Or...(this one is also my least favorite):
"Now...what are YOU going to DO about it?"

But...ALL of said and done with what I've come to think of as "guileless love." Marla simply wants truly KNOW the incredible love, forgiveness and grace of Jesus...and then to give it back out.

Is she perfect?...No. She'd be the first one to share with you her stumblings and shortcomings. But all that just makes her more real...more approachable...more aware of why all of us so desperately need Grace as we journey home through this upside-down kingdom.

On more than one occasion, she and I have butted opinions, with me typically stomping off mad. (That passive-aggressive "thing" I do is SO much easier than confronting.) But she never lets me stay in that corner. She always forces me to learn to look a little deeper...for the nugget of Truth buried in that situation, which Jesus longs to use in his ongoing Freedom project.

And...the rare times I've actually taken one step forward out of STUCK, I can always count on her to cheer me on with those classic words that make my heart smile: "That's the way to put on your big girl panties!"

I think she would want me to share her life-verse with you. It truly is the theme of her life...And she truly does want you to believe it and live it too:
"A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy.
I (Jesus) came so you can have real and eternal life,
more and better life than you ever dreamed of."
(John 10:10, The Message)

So...Marla Murrah DeLong..."HAPPY BIRTHDAY!"

As the card I found expresses so perfectly:
"If you had come into the world with a gift tag attached to you,
it would have read:
'Here is a blessing of joy, laughter, love and friendship.
Enjoy! Love, God"

Here would be my card back to Him:
"Dear God, THANK YOU for the gift!
Everything you said about her is true!"
Gratefully, Karen (aka a-wannabe-big-girl-panties-wearer)
By the way, you can read more about Marla's journey of faith and obedience in the book she wrote last year, "The Simple Way of Love". In it, she shares many life-transforming truths that Jesus longs to whisper to our hearts and help us live throughout our journey. Its pages are also filled with the beautiful photography of Christine Patterson. It is a beautiful work of obedience! You can order it from their website:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My cousin Barney is a liar...(Re-run for Jeff's birthday)

(Today's Kimberly story was "told" to me by Jeff Easter, one of my dearest, 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. I'm re-running this story in honor of Jeff's birthday.)

"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 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 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 and those sweaty 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)

The Night of the Nub (Jeff's Birthday Re-Run)

The following story originally "debuted" on the blog in January 2009. But, in grateful tribute of the countless times my friend, Jeff, has made me laugh, I'm re-running it for his birthday. (FYI: That's him dressed as the "Sheik of Arabic"; the other "characters" are my buddy, Mike Wooten, as  scarecrow-clown; my brother Kevin as Super-COG; and Phillip Roper as...well, I guess a grease-monkey :
Jeff and I grew up in Kimberly, AL, a small SOUTHERN town about 25 miles north of Birmingham. We grew up in the Church of God, those days...meant pretty much everything but going to church and eating was a sin!

But, man, could we eat! And, COULD WE SING! (Now, before you think I'm making fun of anybody or anything, you need to know I'm deeply, truly grateful for how I grew up. It's part of who I am. Some of my best, funniest, happiest memories are because I grew in a small Pentecostal church in a small southern town.)

And, as I said earlier, "We could sing!" My friend Joy and I had earned a reputation as "wedding singers." One wedding we sang at required that Jeff (pianist extraordinaire), Joy and I rehearse on a Wednesday night at an even smaller Pentecostal church. This little church had prayer meeting every Wednesday night, which, unfortunately, we weren't late enough to miss. As soon as we came through the doors, the pray-ers invited--OK, insisted--that we come join the prayer circle.

Well, chicken that I am, I got right in the middle of Jeff and Joy and grabbed their hands, leaving them to grab the hands of praying strangers. (A prior experience at a nursing home had left me a reluctant hand-grabber. But that's another story for another time.)

So...Jeff reaches for the hand of the man standing next to him, only to jerk around and look at me with THE MOST SURPRISED, PERPLEXED LOOK"What do I do now?" So I look over and realize that man doesn't have a hand...or an arm for that matter!

But before either of us could say a word, the man literally hollers to Jeff, "Just grab the nub, brother, just grab the nub!"

Now, how can you pray after something like that? Unless you count unable-to-stop-laughing as prayer.
Come to think of it...maybe God least at times. Who knows, maybe He laughs with us everytime we remember "the night of the nub."

I love how C.S. Lewis talks about such "frivolous" things as laughter:
"It is only in our 'hours-off,' only in our moments of permitted festivity that we find an analogy (of Heaven). Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for "down here" is not their natural place. Here they are a moment's rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven."
"On your feet now—applaud God!
Bring a gift of laughter,
sing yourselves into his presence."
(Psalm 100:1-2 The Message)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Pell City Cabin

Writing about Mimi's cabin in Pell City brought back SO many memories of that place...and always of her. She bought it for us--for that pile of nieces and nephews who never even knew how blessed we were.

That's her standing on the deck of the cabin, which overlooked Logan Martin Lake. I'm bettin' she was aiming for my little brother. But he swears she was aiming at squirrels.

Many summer weekends were spent at that A-framed cabin. The year Uncle Bill got the boat, we thought we'd died and gone to summer camp. He even let the older boys--Kenneth and Gary--haul us all over that lake. Several cousins even learned to ski behind that boat. I tried...about 7,842 times....but, we've already discussed how me and any type of physical activity never got along.

Our days at the cabin were divided between the lake and community pool, which had a slide AND a diving board. Almost every day, we'd hold "diving" competitions--working and working until we had perfected the can opener, the banana split, the cannonball. Or...we'd see who could survive "the most painful belly flop ever". Then...with stinging red bellies...we'd walk back down the gravel road to the cabin where Mimi's coca-cola cake would almost always be waiting.

My cabin memories of Uncle Bill involve him driving the boat or fishing from the dock, or working on projects around the cabin. In fact, the funniest cabin memory ever directly involved one of his projects.

Late one night, us cousins were hanging out in the living room. Mimi was in the room with us, but she was single-mindedly focused on exterminating a family of wasps who were competing for cabin space. And Uncle Bill was working on a project in the loft. One of the cousins (can't remember who) had brought their tape recorder, and we were taping each other singing, making bodily noises and other stupid stuff like that. In the background, Mimi was shouting instructions to Uncle Bill about what she wanted him to do about the wasps, and the tape player recorded her voice crystal-clearly. So, when we started playing  it back, Uncle Bill thought Mimi was repeatedly shouting at him.

At first, we couldn't figure out why he was getting in such a huff up in the loft. Then, one of the brighter cousins figured it out. So...of course...we had to let Mimi in on the fun; then we kept rewinding the recording, and Uncle Bill kept yelling from the loft, "WILMA, I SAID I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME!"

Well, after three or four rewinds, Uncle Bill was apoplectic, us cousins were quietly snickering and Mimi...well... she was doubled over on the floor laughing at Uncle Bill's increasingly loud responses to her pre-recorded instructions.

When Mimi finally let him in on the joke, he chuckled (sort of)...but not as much as us cousins and not NEARLY as much as Mimi, who could hardly quit laughing long enough to explain to him WHY she was laughing.

And that memory...of Mimi laughing so hard that tears rolled down her face...of me...of us together...being a part of such still...somehow sacred.
We laughed, we sang, .

we couldn't believe our good fortune.
...God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.
And now, God, do it again—
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So that those who have tears
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So that those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing
(Psalm 126:2-3, The Message)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Talladega Nights....

So...last week my friend Jeff posted a picture of himself on Facebook. (As you can see, I stole it.) What was funny about this particular picture is the completely unrelated, wide-ranging comments it generated. When I got to the end of the 80+ comments, I felt like I had just played that game where the person at the front of the line whispers a sentence in the ear of the next person--but can only whisper once--and by the time the person at the end of the line has to say the sentence out loud--it's nothing at all like the sentence whispered by the first person.

Don't get me wrong. The comments were FUNNY. They conjured up memories of Jeff "marrying" Pam Nail on the steps of the Kimberly First Baptist Church at the ripe old age of 10ish, only for her to ask him for a "divorce" shortly after the ceremony. Then, they dished up reminders of another old friend, Joey, blazing a trail through all three Nail sisters at one time or another.

And...all would have been well and good and funny if everybody had just stopped right there. But, NOOOO...after that "thread" of comments, everybody insisted on getting a bit meddlesome.

Eventually, their comments reminded me of yet another Kimberly Church of God (KCOG) Youth Choir story--one that, to this day, includes some of the funniest words my mama ever uttered--almost as funny as the time she asked the Sunday night church crowd to pray for her because her doctor had told her she was "a walking bombshell."

The story goes something like this: The KCOG Youth Ensemble--a smaller, more portable version of the KCOG Youth Choir, led by the incomparable Sister Marla--got invited to sing at "a young evangelist's" revival in Talladega.

(OK...OK...for all you meddlesome Facebook commenters...I'll admit to a brief, albeit-now-embarrassing courtship with that "young evangelist," which--I kid you not--started when I went to "his" revival at the Sumiton COG with another "friend," and this young evangelist called me out of the audience to pray for me. Looking back, I have no good reason as to WHY I ever went out with him. Well, that's not quite true--as Brother Gump says, "Stupid is as stupid does."...Anyway, I quit dating him after he told me "God" had told him that, if I would marry him, God would heal him of cancer.)

But...God is merciful, and that young evangelist didn't die....After he disappeared for a few weeks, he arrived back in Kimberly--healthy as a horse, wearing a bowler hat and carrying a shiny, black cane. And...he started dating one of my best friends--no one could ever accuse us Kimberly girls of not knowing how to share.

Now their courtship led to the more-portable KCOG ensemble being asked to sing at this young evangelist's revival in Talladega. Because of the distance, my mama decided that, instead of driving all the way back to Kimberly after the revival service, we would all stay at my Mimi's cabin in Pell City. So, we sung a few classics, the young evangelist preached...and called out a few more young ladies for prayer. Then, we all piled into our cars and headed to Mimi's cabin...that is...all of us except the young evangelist and the good friend.

Anyway, every once in awhile, between eating and laughing, one of us would pipe up and ask, "I wonder where the young evangelist and the good friend are?" (That was before the days of cell phones and, at that time, the cabin didn't even have a landline.)

Well, about 1 a.m. in the morning, my mama decided she had waited long enough. So, she put her shoes back on, grabbed the keys to our Wildcat, and we went out looking for the lost evangelist. Not knowing where else to start, she headed straight for the Talladega pastor's parsonage, located next to the church.

On the way to Talladega, the rest of the search-and-rescue-party were put on notice to "keep an eye out for that little -------." Upon arrival at the parsonage, mama pulled up the gravel driveway, got out of the Wildcat, and knocked on the front door, shouting as she knocked, "Knock, Knock! Knock, Knock!" I can only imagine what that pastor must of thought when he turned on the porch light....(Suffice it to say that, at first, mama had to talk to him through the storm door.) Perhaps that's why those of us still in the Wildcat could hear my mama's next words--words that have become immortalized in Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir lore: "PASTOR, YOUR LITTLE EVANGELIST HAS ONE OF MY GIRLS!!!"

But, alas, the startled, bleery-eyed pastor was as ignorant as mama about the missing evangelist's whereabouts. So...we left. Not knowing where else to look, we headed back to Mimi's Pell City cabin. Of course, mama would slow down whenever she saw headlights, scouring for any sign of a bowler hat.

Well...just guess who showed up shortly after we got back to the cabin? Yep, the young evangelist....with the good friend.

(Forget the cancer--it's a wonder that young evangelist didn't die at the hands of my mama that night.)

These days, that young evangelist has his own talk show that airs on his own TV network. (I'm afraid if I ever watched that show for more than 20 seconds, I wouldn't be able to fight the urge to call in and ask, "How's your cancer?")

More importantly, the good friend found a good man. (She reminded me that I had also dated that good man a few times.)

But, that's OK...I found my own. Eventually. It took awhile. Mistakes were made, tears were shed, heart was broken. But...he's worth it.

The first time I heard the following words, I wished with all my heart I had written them for my good man. They are exactly how I feel about him:
I set out on a narrow way many years ago
Hoping I would find true love along the broken road
But I got lost a time or two
Wiped my brow and kept pushing through
I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you
Every long lost dream led me to where you are
Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms
This much I know is true
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you
I think about the years I spent just passing through
I'd like to have the time I lost and give it back to you
But you just smile and take my hand
You've been there you understand
It's all part of a grander plan that is coming true
Now I'm just rolling home
Into my lover's arms
This much I know is true
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you.
("Bless the Broken Road" by Rascal Flatts)

Ironically, that bowler-hat-wearing-cane-toting young evangelist gave me some of the best marriage advice I ever heard: "What you do to get 'em, you do to keep 'em."
"And we know that God causes everything
to work together for the good of those who love God
and are called according to his purpose for them."
(Romans 8:28 NLT)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A little birdie told me...

So I was going to write about my Mimi again today, but a little birdie told me a friend of mine is celebrating a special birthday. Oh well, it would be fine with Mimi to get "bumped" for this friend. She'd like him.

You see, Garrison Porter--that's him standing next to his dad--came into the world 18 years ago today. When he arrived, right away he had to start dealing with a couple of "things" that cause him to have to work a little harder than some folks.

But, instead of becoming angry, bitter, closed-off...Garrison has become more wise, more strong, more real than many of us. He's never let having to work harder get him down...or at least, if he has, he's never stayed down. And that in itself has encouraged the rest of us.

Garrison is one of the most passionate people I know...about things that really matter. He loves the message of the Gospel--he's never lost his fascination with the true but astonishing story that God wrapped himself in skin and came to earth...was born....showed us how to live...then died...then was resurrected back to life...all so that we could know this with this Jesus. Garrison's love of this timeless story makes me want to hear it with "new" ears.

Garrison loves his family. Every now and then, I get to peek in on the loving bond he shares with his mom and dad and his younger sister and brother.

Garrison loves his friends--of all ages--he even makes us "old folks" feel like we're still just a little bit cool.
Garrison loves to cook--something that definitely makes him a man after my own heart.

And he loves history...especially ANYTHING to do with the presidents who have led this great country of ours. One highlight of his life was when his dad, Richard, took him to the Reagan Library in California.

Often, when his mom, Dawn, tells me about one of Garrison's latest ventures, I remind her (and myself): "We're gonna say we knew him 'when' one day."

Of course, Garrison would be the first one to hop into this blog and tell you that his mama has been a loving, faithful, fearless warrior on his behalf these past 18 years. That's just what mamas do. (Dads too, of course, Joe Pack  ;-D.)

So, Garrison Porter, HAPPY 18th BIRTHDAY! We can't wait to watch you live out the rest of the amazing story God is writing on the pages of your life.

"For I know the plans I have for you, (Garrison)" declares the LORD,
"plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future."
(Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Baptism of Uncle Bill

So, my brother made me cry this Christmas. Well...crying doesn't exactly describe it. I'm told I made "animal noises."

You see, at some point in December, he found Mama and Daddy's old slides. From these, Kevin created a 10-minute-long digital slide show, complete with songs that seemed to perfectly fit the memories captured by the fingers that had snapped all those pictures--most of them, no doubt, snapped by our Mimi. (That's her in the blue dress. That's my adorable cousin Patty with her hands over her eyes. I'll tell you more about the man in the picture as I go.)

Mimi was my daddy's only sister. She was born into a houseful of boys. She loved them all.

Her real name was Callie. But everyone called her Mimi. To this day, she remains a bit of an enigma to me. I sometimes find myself wondering how...why...a beautiful young lady who put herself through nursing school... served as a nurse in World War II... spent holidays with girlfriends in such places as Miami, FL, and Havana, Cuba...would then just...come home and devote herself to that same family of brothers and those brothers' children. Not her own.

Family rumors have it that a handsome Army captain broke her heart, and she never quite recovered. (I discovered a picture of him once--he looked like Clark Gable.) But...I never asked Mimi about him. I was afraid it would make her cry.

When I was 6 and my brother was 3, Mimi started hanging out with a man who would drive her to Kimberly in his truck. He was a widower, who had no children.

My first memory of "that man" took place in my mama and daddy's darkened bedroom, where we were watching Mimi's latest Kelley-Family-Movie installment on the white bed sheet Mama had hung on the wall.

I guess my then-three-year-old brother thought he better find out a little more about this guy who had started driving his Mimi around. So, Kevin crawled up in his lap and asked, "Uncle Bill, do you have a tally-whacker?"

Well, this question caused my Mama to Daddy to Mimi to laugh out loud...and my Uncle Bill to reply, "Well, buddy, last time I checked I did."

I've always thought of that moment as "The Baptism of Uncle Bill". Why he ever said "I do" to that wild, country bunch of nieces and nephews simply remains a mystery to me! He must have loved our Mimi even more than we did.

From the moment Mimi and Uncle Bill said, "I do," that quiet house in Hueytown, which had originally belonged to him and his first wife, was never quite the same. About every other weekend, some group of nieces and nephews--sometimes all 15+ of us--would descend on it. Every room filled with noise.

My brother's favorite room was the study--he loved to look at the old pictures hanging in there of Uncle Bill's life before the invasion of the Kelley clan. But my favorite room was NOT even a room--it was the bathroom closet. From that closet, you could crawl into Mimi & Bill's bathroom. I remember sneaking in there, hoping to....Well, come to think of it, I'm not quite sure what I was hoping. But, I felt sneaky and powerful. Almost every time, one of my cousins, Lisa or Denise, would find me, and I'd quickly hold up a finger to my lips and motion for them to squeeze in with me and listen to the mysterious, grown-up bathroom talk just on the other side of that wooden closet door.

Of course, Mimi would always fuss when she found me, which was almost every time. I guess chubby girls sneaking around in closets make more noise than we think. But, her anger never lasted long, which is probably why I kept crawling back in.

That Hueytown house became an extension of Kimberly, only more magical, more exotic. I can remember asking my friend, Julie Reno, "Wanna go to Mimi's house?" in the same way you'd ask a child now, "Wanna go to Disney World?"

Looking at pictures of that house, I don't see a thing that made it so special. It was just your standard, 1960s 3-bedroom brick rancher.

But...its living room was the place where Mimi tried her darndest to teach this little Pentecostal child how to dance, while the rest of my cousins (especially Gary Paul) were cuttin' a rug. (The boy could dance!) I can still hear Mimi telling me, "It's just like pickin' apples--reach up and pick 'em from the tree...then reach down and put 'em in a basket."

This living room was also the place where a 3-foot-tall silver aluminum tree became the stuff of Christmas magic. I can still hear the "wwhhssshh" as the older, more "responsible" cousins--Kenneth, Gary Paul, Dawn, Patty--would pull those silver branches out of their paper sleeves and insert the red-tipped branches into the red-tipped holes and the blue-tipped branches into the blue tipped-holes...until every single branch was in place. Then...once the tree was decorated, Uncle Bill would plug in the color wheel, and all of us would go running into the front yard to look through the picture window as the silver tree changed from yellow...and back again.

And, of course, this living room was always the place where we watched Mimi's latest installment of "Kelley Family Movies." But, in this living room, we didn't have to resort to moviewatching on wrinkly sheets hung on the wall--she and Uncle Bill owned their very own portable movie screen! I loved to run my hand across that screen--it looked and felt like somebody had sprayed it with shiny sand. Between reels, some cousin inevitably felt compelled to entertain us with his or her latest anatomically-correct shadow puppet discovery. (I guess we got that part honest--our Mama Kelley delighted in making anatomically-correct teacake men. But that's another story for another time...)

So many memories were made in that Hueytown house. Of course, they had nothing to do with that house and everything to do with her...with them--Mimi, Uncle Bill, my brother, my cousins--sometimes even my mama and daddy and aunts and uncles were allowed to join in the fun. They are the ones who made it feel like Disney World, and Mimi will forever be the perfect Fairy Godmother.

Even now...some 40 years later...her pictures, her captured memories...were magically transformed into a treasured Christmas present by the last nephew born to she adored.

Watching my Christmas gift reminded me of just how much I miss the people who created those memories with me...for me. Of how much I miss her.

We all have sad little places inside. One of mine is that my honey and sons and nephews and my one beautiful niece never got to be loved by least not yet...

I have this daydream about seeing her again. In it, all the "Kelley" babies who've been born since she went Home line up to meet her...all the way down to the newest little Callie who was born into the Kelley-Cummings-Beasley clan just last year. In my dream, Mimi scoops each of them into one of her from-the-heart hugs and issues her standard blessing...the one pronounced over each of us every time we saw her, "You know your Mimi loves you."

"But the love of the Lord remains forever with those who fear him.
His salvation extends to the children’s children
of those who are faithful to his covenant,
of those who obey his commandments!"
(Psalm 103:17-18, NLT)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

No Loogies in Heaven

Have I really not posted on this blog since September? Where have I been? What has kept me away from this keyboard?

The complete answer to those questions would take several days of posts, but suffice it to say that, beginning November 1, 2009, LIFE got a little interesting. That week, I went to Alabama to take mom to a couple of doctors' appointments. She had been down in the dumps, so I suggested she come back to Knoxville with me for a few days.

Well, two days after getting here, she fell and broke her left hip in four places...actually five, but her surgeon said "she didn't really need that fifth little bone." (Huh?)

Anyway, she was in the hospital for almost two weeks battling surgery-related complications--low blood counts, low blood pressures, etc. Then, as if all that wasn't exciting enough, her insurance company (VIVA) decided they didn't really feel like paying for her rehabilitation in Tennessee. Even after turning into my alter-ego, Tawanda, and getting mom's legislators involved, they continued to make life very hard.

Finally, one day when I had to stop screaming at them long enough to catch my breath, I finally heard my mama say, "I just wanna go back to Alabama." So we did--she in an ambulance, followed by me in a disgruntled huff.

It was very late when I arrived at the rehab center. I had gotten lost. By the time I got there, the ambulance had deposited mom and headed back to Knoxville. As I walked down the long hallways, looking for mom's room number, I must have passed 50 rooms or more...all with lights out, doors open. I never realized until that moment the sights and smells and sounds that emanate from nursing home rooms in the middle of the night. By the time I found mom, I was thoroughly depressed and on the verge of being sick.

But, as life continues to teach me, almost everything is better in daylight. When I arrived the next morning, the lights were bright, the reception room was cheerful, and the only smells that met me were of coffee brewing and biscuits baking. For the most part, the residents were friendly and at least appeared to be happy. As I told "honey," the most humbling aspect was that each employee I talked to seemed as though they wouldn't work anywhere else--they acted like it was a joy to be there and (most importantly) to be helping my mama.

Of course, there are sights and sounds there that still disturb me, and the hallways still seem like long mazes. My friend Becky, whom mom has appointed as her "interior decorator," has found the solution to both those problems. She parks on the grass in the back and uses the entrance that's three feet away from mom's room. (She always was the smart one.)

And, I won't lie. Everytime I visit mom, I have flashbacks about an incident that happened to me way back when the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir used to "have church" at Ketona Nursing Home. One of our most faithful "members" at Ketona was a sweet, elderly, black lady who would "get a blessin'" before Jeff or Barney had ever hit the first chord. If you weren't expecting her "blessin's," she could literally make the hair on your neck stand up. But, she isn't the reason for my flashbacks...she's just a sweet, funny memory.

My flashback is of the male gender.

Of course, all this happened before I lost the gift of mercy. Back in those "mercy" days, I was drawn to the people who had not been able to attend our church services. Before we left, I'd walk up and down the hallways, shaking hands, talking to residents for a few minutes, and praying with any of them who wanted.

One particular Sunday, a particular little man seemed particularly eager to shake my hand. He was rolling his wheelchair toward me, his hand already extended from about 10 feet away. So, I walked toward him, leaned down, grasped his hand and squeezed...tightly...only to realize he had just hocked up a loogie!

It was ALL I could do to stand there and let him tell me how much he loved Jesus. And, no, I did not offer to pray for him.

As I went running down the hallway, looking for industrial hand cleaner...or a meat cleaver...whichever I found first, Jeff insisted that I stop and tell him what had happened. Of course, when I did, he just thought it was the FUNNIEST THING EVER! (With friends like that.....)

To this day, thanks to loogie-man, I have a problem shaking the hands of strangers (and eating oysters).

This past week, I had to drive by that very same Ketona Nursing Home on the way back to Knoxville. While I was stopped at the red light in front of it, I realized that the sweet lady who loved to get a blessin'...and loogie-man...had certainly, by now, "slipped the surly bonds of earth." And I couldn't help but wonder how things ended for them here...and began for them There.

And, as the light turned green, I thought to myself, "I sure hope there are no loogies in heaven."

Life in this upside-down Kingdom is full of surprises, some good... some not. But, we are told that all of them will...eventually "work together for our good." Here's how Brother Peterson puts it, "That's why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good" (Romans 8:28, The Message).

Down here...those details often look like jumbled, tattered threads, maybe even with a few loogies tossed in. But...There...when we will see things as Jesus sees them...Well, perhaps the words of a song we used to sing at Kimberly Church of God say it best..."We will understand it better by and by."
We are often tossed and driven on the restless sea of time;
Somber skies and howling tempests oft succeed a bright sunshine.
But in that land of perfect day, when the mists are rolled away,
We will understand it better by and by.
By and by, when the morning comes,
When all the saints of God are gathered home,
We will tell the story how we've overcome,
And we'll understand it better by and by.
"Then he told me, 'These are those who have...washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb. That's why they're standing before God's Throne. They serve him day and night in his Temple. The One on the Throne will pitch his tent there for them: no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching heat. The Lamb on the Throne will shepherd them, will lead them to spring waters of Life. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes'." (Revelation 7:14-17, The Message)