Tuesday, November 27, 2012


I'm a bit timid about writing these words...This telling of God's "breaking through" to answer desperate, grief-stricken prayers is not something I take lightly.

But...I keep getting questions about what happened. And, his mama has said, "Yes, please share it." As I told Lynn that very first night...when the unexplainawayable found us...God did it for her...and Marty...and for our Sarah"Belle." But, Lynn's gracious heart wants anyone who needs these words to have them and be comforted by them.

So...I will write about that week...the week that broke our hearts and placed us in quite desperate need to be reminded about the Creator who became Emmanuel--God with us. God with us in our singing...and in our sorrow. God with us by the crib...and by the graveside. God with us when the road is easy...and when the journey is hard-as-nails.

Monday, September 24th, started with words from my son, Garrett, which I never thought I'd hear, "Well, mom, another one's gone." (Garrett had lost a childhood friend a couple of weeks earlier in a senseless car wreck.) Confused, I said, "What are you talking about, babe?" And his next words cut a place open inside me: "Matthew Bates is dead, mom."

The Bates and Bowdles had "grown up together" in our treasured little Bunker Hill neighborhood for the first 10 years of this crazy journey known as parenthood. (That beautiful photo above is of Matthew & Garrett.) We had trick-or-treated, and Christmas-ed and Fourth-of-Julyed through our four kids' most precious, wonder-filled years...with other neighbors who became "family" (and...Matthew's mama and I relish our Alabama-born-and-raised connection). My sweetest memories of Matthew are of this beautiful blond boy with heart-melting eyes and the longest lashes I'd ever seen on a child. 

And, even though most of us had ended up moving from Bunker Hill, whenever Matthew would see me, he would make a point to come give me a hug and sit and talk for awhile...with those same heart-melting eyes and long lashes. 

So...when I accepted that this awful thing was true, I drove to the Bates' home and...just cried and grieved and sobbed and tried to somehow reach in and hug their broken little hearts..'cause they would do that for me...for us. They just would.

Later than night, when I got back to the house, Kev hugged me, and I just broke. I kept saying, "I don't know how to help them...I don't know how...Nothing's enough." And he let me sob. A few minutes later, he made me go get on my pajamas and go to bed. I made it as far as the bathroom before I broke down and fell on my face and begged God, "PLEASE COMFORT MY BROKEN-HEARTED FRIENDS. PLEASE GIVE THEM SOME ASSURANCE THAT THEIR BOY IS WITH YOU." 

After awhile, I got up and went to bed...waking up often with that same prayer on my heart. Over the next couple of days, I prayed it many times--much less intensely...but just as desperately.

And...then came Thursday. On that day, my to-do list was longer than the day. Not only did I have my two largest fundraisers of the year happening over the next several days, with a final committee meeting that evening...but, now, I was also getting ready for Matthew's post-funeral reception at our home, which meant the house had to be cleaned and endless phone calls answered and made. I only tell you how out-of-control that day was to help you understand that going to visit my mama at Shannondale was NOT ON MY RADAR. 

But...when I left my committee meeting that evening, I checked voice mail and heard a nurse's voice saying, "Hi, Karen. Your mama's just missin' her girl; so, we were trying to get you on the phone to let you talk to her." Needless to say...I headed to Shannondale.

One other detail you should know. Alzheimer's has turned mom into a "stuffer"--she stuffs food, laundry, mail...in drawers, closets, pillowcases.... I've learned the hard way to check every nook and cranny of her room each time I visit. 

So, that Thursday night, when I began my usual cleaning "search," I opened the top drawer of mom's bedside table and saw a single sheet of yellow lined notebook paper, with words that were NOT written in my mama's handwriting. Here they are: 

"If you could see me now I'm standing tall and whole
If you could see me now I'm walking streets of gold
If you could see me now you would know I've seen His Face
If you could see me now you'd never want me to leave this perfect place."

For a few seconds I just stood there looking at that piece of yellow paper with those words scribbled across it. Without even thinking, I asked mom, "Where did you get this?" (Of course, she couldn't remember.)
And...then...my heart and mind went back to my desperate prayer:

I tried my best to explain it away. But I couldn't. (Why am I SO prone to explain away God's answers...and His sometimes mysterious and unexplainable ways?) 

But the more I thought about that long, busy day and how God had "engineered" the circumstances of it, I began to open my heart...which ALWAYS requires faith...that "this" was just too unexplainawayable. That "this" was in some odd, mysterious, unexplainable way, His answer to all our desperation prayers.

So, I drove to the Bates' home, where I first pulled aside our friend, Wendy, and told her what I've just "told" you,  because, if she had told me I was crazy, I would have stopped right there and never said another word about that piece of yellow lined notebook paper. But she didn't. And together we told Lynn. And...then Lynn asked me to tell Marty...so I did. 

And then came Saturday...a funeral service that broke our hearts all over again. A service where I watched Matthew's little sister be brave and grow up right in front of our eyes. A service where I watched hundreds of beautiful, young, fresh faces file out of that church with tears flowing. 

After we hugged more old neighbors...we hurried home to finish up last-minute details for the reception. As we were working in the kitchen, Garrett asked, "Mom, what do you want to write on the chalkboard?" So, I stopped and listened to my heart and Maraya wrote the words that came out of my mouth ...words that are still written there...words I can't bring myself to erase:

This past Saturday (the one after Thanksgiving), several of us gathered at Matthew's graveside to celebrate him again, to see the stone and bench his mama and daddy and sister so lovingly picked out and to release balloons. It was a beautiful, blue-sky autumn day, and I told Matthew's friends about that unexplainawayable "thing" that God had done for us. 

Then, I added one more thing--I told them about a plaque I had seen, which said,
"The greatest gift we can give to those who have left us is to live fully in their place." 
I told them that, if Matthew could come back to us and tell us one last thing...I felt it would be pretty similar to words Jesus once spoke when He was summing up the meaning of the Law and the Prophets:
"Love God. Love others." 

I told them I believe Matthew would tell them to live the life and make the choices that take them toward God's amazing hopes and plans for their lives...not away from them.

I reminded them of the God who is with us.

In gratitude to the God who IS with us...even when we don't feel Him...but most need Him...the God Who hears our prayers and, Who, sometimes, answers them in unexplainawayable ways....

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Re-Run of "The Great 4th of July Fire"

Whenever summer heat rolls in, I auto-pilot back to one parched Kimberly summer. It was 4th of July weekend, and it hadn't rained since...oh...March.

Kevin, Barney, Pam, me and a couple of leftover-Church-of-God-campmeeting-boyfriends were shooting bottle rockets out of Coke bottles in our front yard. (I guess I should point out that mama was inside in a drug-induced "coma," recovering from back surgery.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a few minutes I realized Pam could man the hosepipe on her own. So, I went into the house and grabbed up my mama's HOMEMADE quilts to help fight the still-spreading fire. (Yes, you heard me....homemade....as in heirloom....and only Alzheimer's has allowed her to forget it.)

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

Every once in awhile, you'd hear pinecones explode. Each time that happened, my brother would freak out. Later, he said that each little explosion reminded him of a previous brush-clearing fire when a red-hot pinecone seed went straight up his nostril. (We've decided that brush-clearing fires were our daddy's idea of fun.)

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

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

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

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

Again, we collapsed on the living room floor--more exhausted and soot-covered--this time joined by Jeff. And, once again, somebody said something that got us tickled--(boy, I wish I could remember)--and we couldn't stop laughing.

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

So we told her, swearing her to secrecy, and then...with a rather pitiful blank stare on her face...shaking her head...she went to the kitchen and did the only thing she knew to do--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 afterwards, he had to get out of bed, get in his car, park in our yard and walk through Albritton's woods ... just to make sure.

Funny thing...the next summer after The Great Fire, you'd have barely been able to tell what 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. New little seedlings were popping up everywhere...probably from those blasted exploding pinecones.

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

Thursday, February 9, 2012

You have to breathe before you can sing....

I don't remember the first time I met her. But, I'm certain singing was involved.

Her husband had come to our little country church as youth pastor, and she was part of the bargain. She became director of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir. (I never asked her how she felt about that--as a self-involved teenager, I rarely wondered how adults felt.)

One of my first memories of her is clear as a bell--she was teaching us how to breathe. "Breathe as though you're trying to breathe air through a straw deep down into your belly," she instructed us as she stood there with her hands on her hips, demonstrating this technique. "If you're raising your shoulders, you aren't doing it right."

She was smart enough to realize that you had to breathe before you could sing.

And, boy oh boy, did she teach us to sing! (That's her in the picture above...at a moment when it looks like we're causing her to at least want to pull her hair out.)

That group of awkward, pimple-faced teenagers ended up winning our church's State Teen Talent Competition, and coming in second at the national competition. (Losing to Mableton still sticks in our craw.)

One summer, we loaded up on a bus and traveled all the way from Kimberly to New York City, where we sang on street corners and in churches and sang "The Cross Is My Statue of Liberty" at the DADGUM STATUE OF LIBERTY! (Now, how many people can make such a claim?)

One year--I believe it was for our Easter service--she decided we needed to learn a musical titled "Celebrate Life."

...We did...We learned it so well that we performed it more than 100 times at churches across the Southeast.

It was a season of celebrating life that we will never forget.

To this day, I can recall most of the songs' words. One of my favorites was "I Quietly Turned to You," which is the song sung by the woman whom Jesus healed from 12 years of hemorrhaging. My friend, Joy, usually sang this solo. (If I close my eyes, I can still "hear" her clear, young voice.) After Joy died several years ago, I'd find myself sometimes singing those words--
"There was nowhere else to turn, and nowhere else to go.
My body knew all the pain a body could know.
Then I quietly turned to you; I quietly turned to you.
Help of the helpless...hope of the hopeless...I turned to you."

Then, there was the beautiful song about the last meal Jesus shared with those He loved most:
In remembrance of Me, eat this bread.
In remembrance of Me, drink this wine.
In remembrance of Me, pray for the time
When God's own will is done.
In remembrance of Me, heal the sick.
In remembrance of Me, feed the poor.
In remembrance of Me, open the door
And let your brother in....
In remembrance of Me, don't look above,
But in your heart, in your heart, 
Look in your heart for God.
Do this in remembrance of Me.

Whenever we would sing that particular song, my eyes were drawn to the bathrobe-clad actors who played Jesus' disciples--Greg, Jeff, Bob, Michael, Kevin, Joey...others I can't recall now. I always wondered if they felt a little of what those 2,000-year-old disciples must have felt.

I don't remember the exact date we stopped taking our traveling "Celebrate Life" tour on the road.

By then, all of our lives had become a little more complicated.

In the growing-up years since then, a few of those teenagers have gone on to sing in places around the globe. Some have stopped singing. Some have died, and are now with that Jesus they once sang about with such exuberance.

Each of us has learned in our own way that life is hard, but God is good.

Over the years, whenever kind, gracious people have asked me, "Where did you study music?," my response has been, "Marla Wilson taught me." They usually follow up that reply with, "Where does she teach?" And I answer, "She was my youth choir director at the Kimberly Church of God."

But, she was much more than that. Yes, she taught us to sing. But, more importantly, she taught us that music...singing...is a precious gift. She taught us that, because singing is a form of worship, we should approach it with an attitude of excellence. She was one of the first people to teach me about the role and importance of excellence in worship...and in life!

She also taught us the difference between performance and worship, and that worship should always be at the heart of singing.

Because of her vision for that little rag-tag group of singing teenagers...AND her and Jerald's faithful, hard work that vision required...we experienced people and places and things that opened our eyes and hearts to just how large this Kingdom of God really is.

Last fall, she offered to reunite those now-middle-aged teenagers to come and perform "Celebrate Life" for my mom, one of the Kimberly Church of God Youth Choir's biggest fans and most consistent chaperones.

But, the chaos of the season caused me to decline her sweet, generous offer. While I still believe it was the right thing to do, I'll admit there have been days when I've regretted having to make that decision. One of those days was when I learned that Marla has been diagnosed with some pretty major health challenges.

When I read the sweet, encouraging notes sent to her on Facebook and CaringBridge by so many of her "kids," (forgive us, April,...we all know she and Jerald were just waiting for you!)...I realize that what Marla was building with each rehearsal, with each "performance" (I never liked that word), with each trip on that converted school bus...was something that will outlast time.

She was building Levites (if I might be so bold)....She was building disciples.

So, thank you, sweet Marla, for teaching us to breathe so that you could teach us to sing...sometimes even in the dark.

I believe the Bible passage I read today is meant for you and your beloveds--Jerald, April and Glenda--from your Abba who loves you:
But now...listen to the LORD who created you...
The one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.
For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior....
“But...it is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
....Yes, I will make rivers in the dry wasteland
so my chosen people can be refreshed.
(from Isaiah 43, NLT)
And, for your birthday, here is a reminder, which I believe you'll recognize:
He is alive! Jesus is alive!

I waited patiently for the LORD to help me,
and he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
and steadied me as I walked along.
He has given me a new song to sing,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
They will put their trust in the LORD.
Oh, the joys of those who trust the LORD....
(Psalm 40:1-4, NLT)