Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9.1.1. (Twelve Years Later)

All of us. That's who remembers exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news begin pouring out of televisions, radios, computers.

I was sitting at my kitchen table pulling worksheet pages for Garrett's 2nd grade teacher, watching the last few minutes of Good Morning America. Charlie Gibson was the first voice that let me know our world would never be the same: "We're getting reports that SOMETHING has happened over at the World Trade Center."

That SOMETHING would consume our thoughts for days on end; would take the lives of almost 3,000 people across three different attack sites--fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends.

It would give us new heroes, and new mottoes that captured the selfless courage of their last few seconds: "LET'S ROLL." "STAY CALM." "TELL THEM I LOVE THEM."

That day would change how we live as Americans--our liberties, our fears, our policies. The resulting "War on Terror" would still claiming...thousands more lives to prevent a "second 9/11."

As the mom of an almost-8-year old and 5-year-old soon as the horror I was watching on TV that day began to sink in, my first reaction was to jump in my van and go get my boys, and somehow try to keep them safe from this new terror-stricken world where we now lived. No one was sure that another attack wasn't imminent. It felt like it could happen anytime...anywhere.

Across America, planes were grounded. Buildings shut down. Schools closed. SAFE was a word that lost its meaning that September morning. How could anyone be safe from monsters who flew people-laden jets into towers and Pentagons?

People in New York lined up for blocks to give blood to survivors. Very little blood was needed. 

Few of us slept that night. We felt we needed to keep watch.

As the days wore on, churches across the country kept their doors open for people who needed to pray, talk, gather. We took up offerings and held fundraisers. We dug deep into our pockets. In Knoxville, we raised enough money to send a new ladder truck to a fire station in New York that had given so much and lost so many; we named it the "Freedom Engine."

Several days after 9/11, I was sitting in the stands at the baseball park with other nervous parents. We were trying our best to stay calm, or at least to put on a calm face in front of our children. As we sat there watching our ballplayers and retelling our stories, we heard the very first plane since the grounding fly overhead. We stood up and cheered! We waved up at that plane, with shouts of "Fly! Fly!" and "God Bless America!" (To this day, I wish those people on board could have heard us cheering their courage for getting on that plane and getting on with life.) Somehow, it gave us permission to try to do the same.

In the 12 years since that terror-filled day, life has gone on. But, in so many ways, our world...our lives...will never be the same. In the name of "security," many of our liberties have been taken away. (Perhaps the moral is that too many liberties take away security.) I don't know.

In these last 12 years, many of us have faced our personal "9/11s"--where life as we knew it collapsed, leaving wreckage that didn't make sense, questions that held no answers, events that caused the word SAFE to hold no meaning. They left us grief-stricken--questioning ourselves, our family and friends, our God and our faith in Him.

I've looked out at that kind of wreckage. I've asked those answerless questions. I've questioned my God and my faith in Him.

There isn't enough time to share all the stops made, setbacks encountered and lessons learned on this personal "9/11" journey I've been on. I can tell you that God saw it all, cared about it all, and has been faithful to lead of the wreckage that, for awhile, felt like it might swallow us.

For many of those months, I never...not one time...FELT this God I just gave credit to. My prayers felt as though they made it no further than the ceilings of the rooms where I prayed...begged... cried for God to somehow put this wreckage back together.

During those months, which also saw my mama suffer a series of strokes that destroyed her balance and began this downward spiral into Alzheimer's, I dryly but desperately clung to words I had once written about in a Bible study I had taught:
"Then Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom else would we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God'.”
(John 6:68-69)

Was any of it God's fault? No.

Was God somehow punishing me with His "absence"? No. (I've learned that almost every follower of Christ experiences what Thomas Aquinas called "the dark night of the soul.")

What was/is His purpose? Well...I'm still discovering that answer; it keeps unfolding. But, I will tell you that my desperate seeking for Him has changed me. For one thing, I've learned that faith is not a feeling. Instead, it is (in the words of one of my favorite writers) "A Long Obedience In the Same Direction" (a book by Eugene Peterson that I encourage you to buy today and read, and then read again.) Or, as Pastor Doug would describe it, "Faith is faithful obedience to God's Word in spite of circumstances, consequences or feelings."

Last year, for my 25th anniversary to the man who stood beside me during all the fallout...the man who wakes up every day and keeps doing the next right thing for me, for our sons, for his employees and patients, for his family and friends... well...he bought me this silver bracelet. On the inside, he had the jeweler engrave the verse with these words:
"Lord, to whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life."

That's the bracelet I wore this morning on the 12th anniversary of 9/11. They are good words. They are hard words. They were spoken in answer to a question from the One whom Peter followed, when so many disciples were leaving Him because of His "hard teaching." As He watched them walk away, He looked at those few who remained and asked, "Do you want to leave me too?”

I'll be honest. There were days when I did...want to leave Him. But "to whom else would I go"? Even through all the grief and never-ending questions, I somehow knew my heart belonged to Him...that to leave Him would only multiply my heartache. So I stayed.

More importantly...He stayed. He said He would. He promised to "never leave us or forsake us." But, sometimes, He asks us to believe that Truth...even when our circumstances and feelings shout at us to doubt it.

Then...just like that...the dark night is over...our mourning has become dancing...and He has restored the joy of His salvation to our hungry, thirsty souls.

And...if we're wise...we no longer take those moments for granted. We soak them up. Drink them in. Embrace. Dance. Laugh. Cry. Sing. Celebrate. Worship.

Late last September...when our hearts broke wide open again...I found these words. I believe the people who died on that 9/11 of 12 years ago would Amen them:
"The best way to honor those we have lost is to live fully in their place."
"Made Me Glad" by Hillsong has become my theme about this mourning-into-dancing journey: 
I will bless the Lord forever; I will trust Him at all times
He has delivered me from all fear;
He has set my feet upon a rock
I will not be moved, and I'll say of the Lord
 You are my Shield, my Strength
My Portion, Deliverer
My shelter, Strong tower
My very present help in time of need.

 Whom have I in heaven but You
There's none I desire besides You
For You have made me glad
And I'll say of the Lord
You are my Shield, my Strength
My Portion, Deliverer
My shelter, Strong tower
My very present help in time of need.
If you have 6 minutes to listen to this AMAZING song, here it is. It also includes "Through It All."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"Let This Be My Best Day...." I've skipped across three denominations (so far) on my PresbyBaptiCostal journey through this upside-down kingdom, each one has brought new beauty, insights, "food and drink" into my soul.
One of my favorite surprises about being a Presbyterian was how much I grew to enjoy the congregational prayers we would pray together in unison--there's something rich and ancient-yet-timeless about the sound of hundreds of people...young and old...male and and poor...praying the same words to the same Father.
The prayer on this photo, which was cut out and saved many years's now taped to my desk. (In this new and challenging job, where that day's "demons" typically hurdle at me before I've sucked down nearly enough coffee, I need its reminders of WHO I'm praying to, HOW I'm to view ALL THINGS, and the fragile nature of life on this side of "the veil." I'm not sure whether Pastor John or someone else wrote it, but...after all these years...its words still touch the eternal in me.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

So..."tongues" have "died"?

So...of course, writing about Brother Thompson the other day made me think about his beautiful wife, Sister Thompson. When I was a little girl, I didn't know what to call the kind of beauty she had. These days, I would say she was elegant and grace-filled. Every now and then, she would sing a solo in church. When she sang "The Love of God," at some point during the song, it was like she became so moved by this Love that human language was simply not enough, and she would begin singing in tongues.

Photo by our friend, Marlon Rampy;
words are possible because of Becca :).
Now...before you just dismiss this thing called "tongues," let me share a story with you.

A few years ago, for months, I had hovered very close to a place I can only call despair. A beloved friend had left in a way that seemed to take a large part of my soul with her. For months, I had prayed and cried, begging God to help me move on from this ever-present sadness and depression. felt like my prayers made it no "higher" than the living room ceiling. Going to church was, be honest...a burden--I just sat there and cried at the first few words of a song...which just led to worrying about what people around me thought.

Then, one Sunday morning, as I was getting ready for church, I prayed this prayer at my bathroom sink, "Jesus, you've got to help me today. I need to know that you see me, that you care about what I'm going through."

Well...that balcony seat in that Baptist church was taken; so, I had to sit in a different section. ( should keep in mind that, these days, I go to a Baptist church--it becomes significant a little later in this story.) When it came time to "shake hands and greet those around you," I noticed I didn't know a soul around me. But, I put on a smile, shook hands, and greeted away.

That morning, Brother Doug's sermon was about living as a follower of Christ when life has pulled the rug out from under you. Needless to say, I was a puffy-eyed, snotty-nosed mess by the time of the altar call--had even considered getting up and leaving, but didn't want to embarrass honey (any more than my snuffling already had.). Then, Brother Doug asked for everyone who felt like they needed prayer to come to the altar. But...I didn't...just couldn't.

(I feel I should remind you at this point that I was sitting on a Baptist church pew where I normally didn't sit...and had never met the couple sitting behind me.) I sat there weeping...the man behind me leaned over, placed his hand on my shoulder...and began PRAYING IN TONGUES for me.

Me...who had grown up listening to my Sister Thompson sing about "The Love of God" in some heavenly tongue...and hearing others pray in tongues my whole life! And...remember my "blackmailish" prayer earlier that morning--"Jesus, you've got to help me today. I need to know that you see me, that you care about what I'm going through."

And He did. He orchestrated that entire Sunday morning...for me. On a Baptist church pew, I sat there and wept some more, and drank in that beautiful "other" language interceding for me. And I was taken back to the song my beautiful Sister Thompson used to end up singing in an "other" language:

"The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song.

....*Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky."

Well...of course...after the service ended, I HAD to tell this man whose name I didn't even know the part he had played in Jesus answering my desperate, early-morning prayer. And, just like God, my sharing helped him--who said he often wondered why God had him--him, who has this "thing" called "the gift of tongues"--at a church which believes that, of all the gifts, that gift alone has "died."

I'm just grateful it hasn't.

After that Sunday morning, as I continued healing and moving on from my brokenheartedness, I would remember that "other" language prayer...and KNOW that Jesus does see me...does care about what I'm going through...for then...for now...for always.

If there's one thing I'm learning, it's that, while I may try to fit God into a tidy little box, He just flat out refuses to stay there.
I love the LORD, because he heard my voice 
and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.…
Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
our God is merciful….
Return, O my soul, to your rest;
for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living….
What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation 
and call on the name of the LORD….
O LORD, I am your servant;…
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the LORD.
(from Psalm 116, ESV)

(*FYI, a footnote on the Hymnal page for "The Love of God" reads: "The words of the last verse of this song were found penciled on the wall of a narrow room of an asylum by a man said to have been demented. The profound lines were discovered after his death.")

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Mess of Greens....

It seems fittin’ to begin this new “page” of my writing journey by introducing you to the pastor who set the bar so high. To all my pastors since him, “I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you. Maybe once you 'meet' him, you’ll understand.” (By the way, if any of you Kimberly folks have a picture of him...PLEASE send me a copy.)

Summer always brings memories…the parades and crafts and pledges and prayers and songs of weeks spent in various-and-sundry Vacation Bible Schools…the peddler with his fresh vegetables and swinging scale and frozen Goo-Goos in a cooler of ice…trips to the ice house in Warrior…working in the garden with daddy. (Well, truth be told, daddy did most of the work—with hoe in hand and that ever-present Salem precariously dangling at the corner of his mouth—how he balanced it AND whistled remains one of the mysteries of life.)

One particular day…two of those summer constants—daddy’s garden and Vacation Bible School—came together to teach me a lesson about just how easy it is bless someone down to the marrow of their bones.

You see, when it comes to my church journey, those sweet years are filed away in my heart as “The Brother and Sister Thompson Years” at Kimberly Church of God.

I loved Brother Thompson...and Sister Thompson too, of course. But I   L.O.V.E.D.  Brother Thompson! (Was there anyone who didn’t?)

Truth be told, I don’t remember a single word from a single sermon he preached. What I DO remember is that those sermons were delivered with a passion his pulpit could not contain. Most often, he would take a microphone out of its stand and come down off that stage on floor-level with the rest of his little flock. He kept a handkerchief in one hand and would stop every now and then to wipe the sweat from his brow created by his deep emotions and passionate delivery. Brother Thompson had this beautiful, honey-coated voice…that would become wrung out with what I’ve come to realize was LOVE. (How funny—I remember all that…but none of his pulpit words.)

The words I do remember were ones he spoke to me one morning on the way to Kimberly Church of God Vacation Bible School. You see, during Vacation Bible School, Brother Thompson also drove the “converted” ramshackle school bus our church owned. He’d drive all across Kimberly and even into parts of Morris picking up children so they could heed our evangelistic parade appeal to “Come to Vacation Bible School!

Me and my brother waited for the VBS bus in front of our house, where Stouts Road begins to curve to the right at Reno Street—not exactly the safest place for children to wait for a bus…but…I digress.

One particular VBS morning, I was the proud owner of a paper bag filled with a mess of turnip greens from daddy’s garden. Mama and I had been promising Brother Thompson we would bring him some, since they were known to be one of his favorites. (We promised...Daddy picked.)

As I stood there on the side of Stouts Road, I could hardly wait to give MY Brother Thompson that bag of greens…which—as I said before—I had NOTHING to do with growing or picking.

When that bus stopped, grinding out of gear, and Brother Thompson pulled that door lever open…I marched up those stairs and…with a toothless grin so big it made my pigtails hurt…I handed him that paper bag, announcing, “These are for you.”

And…his response was the only reward I needed. He kept that bus stopped…right there in the middle of that Stouts Road curve...pulled me into his arms, gave me a hug…started crying, and pronounced the most beautiful pastoral blessing I've ever received, "Brother Thompson loves you."

And THOSE are the words I remember.

For the rest of his days at Kimberly, whenever the occasion arose, he’d tell people about the morning he was driving the VBS bus…and saw this pig-tailed, snaggle-toothed-smiling girl holding a paper bag filled with turnip greens.

You’d of thought that bag was filled with money, instead of a mess of greens. But I guess there are some things worth more than money.

That bag of greens still teaches me to this day—that even the smallest gesture (which we sometimes have very little to do with) can bless a heart.

Eventually, Brother and Sister Thompson went on to other churches in Alabama. But…not before they left an eternal mark on Kimberly, Alabama. Our dear Rudy Sandlin, who died a few months ago, once said about Brother Thompson, “If he can’t get you to Jesus any other way, he will just love you to Jesus.”

“Love you to Jesus…” What a legacy!
"Let me give you a new command:
Love one another.
In the same way I loved you
(said shortly after He had washed their road-dirty feet),
you love one another.
This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
(John 13:34-35)
"Oh, Abba, when words fail, help me to just love them to Jesus."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Re-Run of "Come to Vacation Bible School!"

All summer long...proud church members have been bringing food, money and clothing to the non-profit where I work. Before they unload the first box or hand over that check, their first item of business is to brag on the children who brought that food and raised that money--"THEIR children," they say, with a big smile and buttons bustin' with pride--children who were part of their church's Vacation Bible School.

And...every single time they come through our doors...I'm taken back to my own sweet, gold-spray-painted-macaroni-covered-cigar-box Vacation Bible School days.

So...I decided to re-run an old post about one of our funniest Kimberly Church of God VBS "moments." Enjoy!
Every summer, the most exciting thing to happen in Kimberly, Alabama, was the back-to-back-to-back run of Vacation Bible Schools.

Now, Kimberly's pastors might never have agreed on such things as eternal security and being filled with the Holy Ghost, but they did agree on ONE thing--that the best way to nip juvenile-delinquency and WHEN-does-school-start-backslidin'-mamas in their proverbial "buds" was to keep Kimberly's children and pre-teens up to their eyeballs in Elmer's glue, macaroni, Kool-Aid and graham crackers.

And while, to this day, they might not admit it, I'm convinced that on a pre-determined midnight each spring, Kimberly pastors would hold a covert meeting behind Sandlin's General Store and come up with a master plan that would spread the Kimberly-Vacation-Bible-School-marathon over June, July and most of August.

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 an "in" for both the Church-of-God and Baptist VBS parades.)

Most years, our Mimi came all the way from Birmingham for the Kimberly First Baptist parade. And, our cousin Donald (who all us Kelley cousins lovingly called DonDon) 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 fire-truck 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 by the Kimberly Police cruiser, driven by Officer Dingler or Deputy Bullhead; and, finally, by a line of festooned, kid-packed four-doors, we would begin our slow-but-sincere-and-exciting evangelistic appeal.

Because it was a highly anticipated event...and because the fire truck and police sirens announced our arrival long before we actually arrived, Kimberly's citizenry would come out into their yards--some even lined the road--and we would hang out 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 have a 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 (but that fact never stopped us from "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 casualty in the history of Kimberly VBS parades.) In a recent re-telling, Leah told how the car in front of her had stopped to (unsuccessfully) retrieve a stray balloon for a crying pre-schooler. Leah had her head stuck out the back passenger window, in her words, "maniacally yelling, 'Come to Vacation Bible School' when the car in front of them abruptly stopped," and she hit the metal divider between the front and back doors. (OUCH!) To this day, her eyes get bigger and  her voice raises a notch as she points to her parade-rendered "nosejob" which, to us admirers, just made her cuter.

Now, for some reason, on just the other side of that cemetery STOP sign, the VBS parade would end--sirens would silence, kids would stop evangelizing, and mamas would start yelling, "Get your heads back in this car!"

That is...until the next Saturday morning...when another pastor would become a fire-truck driver and another church's parking lot would fill up with festooned Fords.

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

Thankfully, VBS seems to be alive and well! 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 our church's VBS (which is HUGE--think VBS meets Disney), I rolled down the window of my unfestooned minivan and hollered,
"Come to Vacation Bible School! Come to Vacation Bible School!"

...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)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What if...just for these next 24 hours...I REALLY believed?

So….I need you to track with me for just a bit as I try to connect the dots for the parable God painted AND read to me this morning. This picture was what Hallie-dog  and I looked up and saw when we had just finished reading these words from Peter (that fragile stone, as Michael Card calls him) and C.S.:

"We couldn't be more sure 
of what we saw and heard--
God's glory, God's voice....
You'll do well to keep focusing on it.
It's the one light you have in a dark time
as you wait for daybreak
and the rising of the Morning Star 
in your hearts."
(2 Peter 1:19, The Message)

“….We believe God will one day GIVE US the Morning Star and cause us to PUT ON the splendor of the sun. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But, all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day…we shall get IN.” 
(C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
So…then…after realizing He obviously had a theme for me today, I asked Him how I would live these next 24 hours…IF I REALLY BELIEVE all those words. And...some words from a long-ago-read poem came to me…which, of course, I HAD to get up and find:

"If I REALLY believed I was free,
My heart would leap in me for joy.
My face would shine bright as the sun,
If I REALLY believed I was free.

I’d throw a freedom party and dance around

….into the late hours of the night.
I would gleefully tell everyone all about my story--
My captivity, my release and all about Who freed me.

If I really believed I was free,
I’d smile more and laugh easily.
There simply wouldn’t be much space left
In my heart for the grim, if I really believed.”
(Freedom, by John Randall Dennis)

Of course, I of all people--fearful, prideful, fickle, sometimes Pharisaical--realize this “call” to living and breathing and walking in the freedom and resurrection power of Christ is a lot to bite off in one day…24 little hours.

But…what if, just for today, I…you…we…at least start practicing this freedom, forgiveness, grace, peace, love, intimacy with God, as co-laborers using the gifts He has given to each of us (not even letting the enemy get close enough to whisper his dirty little lie that our gifts aren’t big enough or good enough)?

What if, just for today, we think and walk and talk as though we ARE co-heirs in a Kingdom ruled by Him…His beloved...His child...His bride?

A few years ago, I read the following words from a nationally-known, highly respected Christian counselor: "If Christians REALLY believed they were forgiven, I'd lose more than 90 percent of my patients."

What would our today look like if we REALLY believed? 

"I write this to you whose experience with God 
is as life-changing as ours, all due to
...the intervention of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ....
Everything that goes into a life of pleasing God 
has been miraculously given to us 
by getting to know, personally and intimately, 
the One who invited us to God. 
The best invitation we ever received!
We were also given absolutely terrific promises 
to pass on to you—
your tickets to participating in the life of God 
after you turned your back on a world corrupted by lust.
Don’t lose a minute to build on what you’ve been given, 
complementing your basic faith with good character, 
spiritual understanding, alert discipline, 
passionate patience, reverent wonder, 
warm friendliness, and generous love, 
each dimension fitting into and developing the others. 
With these qualities active and growing in your lives, 
no grass will grow under your feet, 
no day will pass without its reward 
as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. 
Without these qualities 
you can’t see what’s right before you, 
oblivious that your old sinful life 
has been wiped off the books.
....We couldn’t be more sure of what we saw and heard--
God’s glory, God’s voice….
You’ll do well to keep focusing on it. 
It’s the one light you have in a dark time 
as you wait for daybreak 
and the rising of the Morning Star in your hearts.” 
(2 Peter 1:1-9, 19 The Message)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

When it feels like it's still Saturday....

So, this morning, I woke up early, cut my Sabbath "quiet time" short so I could make the 25-minute drive to Shannondale Nursing Home to get my mom ready and take her back to First Baptist Concord for Easter service. 

Earlier this morning in a Facebook post, I had boldly reminded myself and anyone who chose to read it that "a far-off battle" has made all the difference, even in a world that feels like it is still under the control of a foreign, oppressive power. And, on the drive, I had been singing loud and strong: 
"Hear the bells ringing, they're singing that we can be born again.
Hear the bells ringing, they're singing Christ is risen from the dead...."

As I walked through Shannondale's front doors, I gave my best "Happy Easter" to everyone in the lobby, then got on the elevator and hit the 5th floor button. But, for some reason, that elevator stopped on every single floor and, when the doors opened, this was pretty much the scene I saw on floors 1, 2, 3 and 4: 

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

But, as I stepped off the elevator and saw my mama's waiting face...already dressed in a winter sweater...I tried to push my sudden sadness aside. (The physical activity involved in getting my wheelchair-bound mama anywhere is a great distraction to whatever is going on inside my head at the moment.) 

After getting her wheelchair loaded in the back and getting her in her seat and buckled in, she and I head toward the Easter hymns and the ancient greeting and response of  
"He is risen!...He is risen indeed!

Along the 20-minute drive, her frequent, repeated question began to grate: "Today's Saturday, right?" which I reply, "No, mom, today is Sunday...Easter Sunday...we're going to church." 

Well, we get there...and, miracles of miracles, there's actually a handicapped parking space...(so my mood begins to brighten). Then, a kind usher finds a pew where I can easily park mom's wheelchair next to my pew. Then, my two handsome sons actually find mom and me...and sit beside me on the pew. 

My emotions are always a bit ragged on Easter...overflowing with gratitude for the cost of my salvation and for the promise of eternal life because of the Resurrection. And, I don't remember the last time I made it through a Sunday service without wishing I had more tissues. Easter Sunday...was some sort of powerful parable that will probably take me awhile to "read." With my beautiful, gifted, Jesus-loving husband in front of me playing in the orchestra; my two beautiful, gifted, Jesus-loving sons on one side of me; and my beautiful, gifted, Jesus-loving, stroke-and-Alzheimer's-damaged mother on the other side...well...quite honestly...I was a puddle. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, even though...for now...she is locked in some sort of perpetual-in-between Saturday, not remembering that it's Sunday...not remembering that it's Easter...unaware of the Resurrection and all that it day...she will. His voice will remind her. His voice will call her name--Joyce--in a way that heals and resurrects her broken body and mind. 

And, when she hears Him, all the sorrow, hurt and hardness, which sometimes led her nearly to despair, will be burned away by the joyful brightness of His love and light.

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"I Thirst for You"

"I looked for love, but there was none;...for my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink." (Psalm 60:20,21)

"....Knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, 'I am thirsty.' A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. (John 19:28-29)

These are the words this thirsty One longs for you to hear:

"I know you through and through--everything about you....Nothing in your life is unimportant to me; I have followed you through the years, and I have always loved you--even in your wanderings. I know every one of your problems. I know your need and your worries. 

And, yes, I know all your sins. But, I tell you again that I love you--not for what you have or haven't done--I love you for you, FOR THE BEAUTY AND DIGNITY MY FATHER GAVE YOU BY CREATING YOU IN HIS OWN IMAGE. It is a dignity you have often forgotten, a beauty you have tarnished by sin. 

But, I love you as you are, and I have shed my blood to win you back. If you will only ask me with faith, my grace will touch all that needs changing in your life, and I will give you strength to (be) free from sin and all its destructive power. 

I know what is in your heart--I know your loneliness and all your hurts--the rejection, judgments, humiliations....I carried it all or you, so that you might share my strength and victory. 

I especially know your need for love--how you are thirsting to be loved, cherished, (respected). But, how often have you thirsted in vain,...striving to fill the emptiness inside you with passing pleasures--(which leave you) with even greater emptiness. 

I thirst for you. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe my love for you. I THIRST FOR YOU. I thirst to love and to be loved by you--that is how precious you are to me. I thirst for you. Come to me and fill your heart and heal your wounds.

If you feel unimportant in the eyes of the world, that matters not at all. For me, there is no one any more important in the entire world than you.

....My Father already has a perfect plan to transform your life, beginning from this moment. Trust in Me. Every day ask Me to enter and take care of your life--and I will. I promise you before my Father in heaven that I will work miracles in your life. Why would I do this? Because I THIRST FOR YOU. All I ask is that you entrust yourself to Me completely. I will do the rest.

Even now I behold the place My Father has prepared for you in My Kingdom. Remember that you are a pilgrim in this life, on a journey home. Sin can never satisfy you or bring you the peace you seek....Above all, do not run from Me when you fall. Come to Me without delay. When you give Me your sins, you give Me the joy of being your Savior. There is nothing I cannot forgive and heal; so come now, and unburden your soul.

I THIRST FOR YOU. Open to me, come to me, thirst for me, give me your life--and I will prove to you how important you are to my heart. No matter how far you wander, no matter how often you forget me, no matter how many crosses you may bear in this life, there is one thing I want you to remember always, one thing that will never change: I THIRST FOR YOU--just as you are. You don't need to change to believe in my love, FOR IT WILL BE YOUR BELIEF IN MY LOVE THAT WILL CHANGE YOU. 

You forget me, and yet I am seeking you every moment of the day--standing at the door of your heart, and knocking. Do you find this hard to believe? Then look at the cross, look at my heart that was pierced for you. Have you not understood my cross? Then listen again to the words I spoke there--for they tell you clearly why I endured all this FOR YOU. 

....Yes, I thirst for you....All your life I have been looking for your love--I have never stopped seeking to love and be loved by you. You have tried many other things in your search for happiness; why not try opening your heart to me, right now, more than you ever have before. Whenever you will hear me say to you again and again, not in mere human words but in (your) spirit: "No matter what you have done, I love you for your own sake."
Come to me with your misery and your sins, with your trouble and needs and with all your longing to be loved (and respected). I stand at the door of your heart and knock. Open to me, for I thirst for you." 
(The heart of Jesus Christ for you through the words of Mother Teresa)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Right into God-forsakenness....

For the past few years, I've revisited a Lent devotional that, with each reading, speaks to me in new ways, "Bread and Wine, Readings for Lent and Easter." But, this year...this morning...words fail to describe how the following words from John Stott and Peter Kreeft moved me.

I don't know why, but I believe I'm supposed to share them here...with you. Maybe you're in a dark place and need to be reminded, "No matter how deep our darkness, He is deeper still." (Corrie ten Boom).

Wherever you are...whatever you are going reminded--God is with you...right there...right now.
"I could never believe in God if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the Cross'." In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I've entered many Buddhist temples and stood respectfully before his statue--his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But, each time, after awhile I've had to turn away and, in my imagination, I've turned instead to that lonely twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorns, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, PLUNGED IN GOD-FORSAKEN DARKNESS. THAT IS THE GOD FOR ME! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us." (John Stott)

"Calvary is Judo. The enemy's own power is used to defeat him. Satan's craftily orchestrated plot, rolled along according to plan by his agents--Judas, Pilate, Herod, Caiphas--and culminated in the death of God. And, this very event, Satan's conclusion, was God's premise. Satan's end was God's means. God won Satan's captives--us--back to himself by freely dying in our place.

It is, of course, the most often-told story in the world. Yet, it is also the strangest, and has never lost its strangeness, its awe, and will not even in eternity, where angels tremble to gaze upon things at which we yawn.

(But), however strange, it is the only key that fits the lock of our tortured lives and needs. We needed a surgeon. He came and reached into our wounds with bloody hands. He didn't give us a placebo or a pill or good advice. He gave us Himself.

He came. He entered space and time and suffering. He came, like a lover. He did the most important thing and He gave the most important gift: Himself. It is a lover's gift.

Out of our tears, our waiting, our darkness, our agonized aloneness, out of our weeping and wondering, out of our cry, 'My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?' He came, all the way, right into that cry.

He sits beside us in the lowest places of our lives, like water. Are we broken? He is broken with us. Are we rejected...despised? He was 'despised and rejected of men.' Do we weep? Is grief our familiar spirit, our horrifying familiar ghost? Do we ever say, 'Oh, no, not again! I can't take it any more!'? Do people misunderstand us, turn away from us?...

Is our love betrayed? Are our tenderest relationships broken? He loved and was betrayed by the very ones He loved....

Does it seem sometimes as if life has passed us by or cast us out, as if we are sinking into uselessness and oblivion? He sinks with us. He too is passed over by the world. His way of suffering love is rejected; his own followers often the most guilty of all; they have made His name a scandal, especially among His own chosen people....We have made it nearly impossible for His own people to love Him, to see Him as He is, free from the smoke of (prejudice), battle and holocaust.

How does He look upon us now? With continual sorrow, but never with scorn....We, His beloved and longed for and passionately desired, are constantly cold, correct and distant to Him. And still He keeps a mother who has had all her beloved children turn against her: 'Could a mother desert her young? Even so I could not desert you.'

He sits beside us not only in our sufferings but even in our sins. He does not turn His face from us, however much we turn our face from Him.

Does He descend into all our hells? Yes. In the unforgettable line of Corrie ten Boom from the depths of a Nazi death camp, 'No matter how deep our darkness, He is deeper still.'

Does He descend into violence? Yes, by suffering it and leaving us the solution that, to this day, only a few brave souls have dared to try....

Does He descend into insanity? Yes, into that darkness too. Even into the insanity of suicide? Can He be there too? Yes, He can. 'Even the darkness is not dark to Him.' He make light even there,...though perhaps not until the next world, until death's release.

LOVE is WHY He came. It's all love. The buzzing flies around the cross, the stroke of the Roman hammer as the nails tear into His screaming flesh, the infinitely harder stroke of His own people's hammering hatred, hammering at His heart.

Why? For LOVE....

(From this moment on), when we feel the hammers of life beating on our heads or hearts, we can know--we MUST know--that He is here with us, taking our blows. Every tear we shed becomes His tear. He may not yet wipe them away, but He makes them His. Would we rather have our own dry eyes, or His tear-filled ones?

He came. He is here. That is the salient fact. If He does not heal all our broken bones and loves and lives now, He comes into them and is broken, like bread, and we are nourished.

And, He shows us that (from this moment on), we can use our very brokenness as nourishment for those we love. SINCE WE ARE HIS BODY, we too are the bread that is broken for others. Our very failures help heal other lives; our very tears help wipe away tears; our being hated helps those we love....

God's answer to the problem of suffering not only really happened more than 2,000 years ago, it is still happening in our own lives....All our suffering can become part of His work, the greatest work ever done--the work of salvation--of helping to win eternal joy for those we love."
("Shared Hells" by Peter Kreeft)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

They stood firm a little....

Today (March 6th), they would have been married 60 years. My mama and daddy. 
This is one of my favorite pictures of them. So young, fresh, in love. In it, mama is looking uncharacteristically shy and is dressed in a white blouse, light-colored skirt and black, peek-a-boo high heels with thin little straps around her thin little ankles. My daddy seems to be the one in charge of the moment, dressed in a crisp, short sleeved shirt and snazzy, pleated pants with a trim belt--looking very "James Deanish."

What I've noticed about this photo is the road they're standing on. It's dirt...with rocks scattered around...full of ruts...not a perfect road by any standards...especially for two young, beautiful people who look so fresh, so dressed up, so ready for life.

This photo has become a picture of marriage to me...heck, a picture of life itself. We start out young, fresh, dressed and seemingly ready for life. Then, we stumble over a few rocks, get caught in a few ruts. But, usually, nothing too serious. And, eventually, we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off--perhaps just a bit more cautious before setting off on our next journey.

Then, we meet our "other." And, in our passionate, 'til-death-do-us-part-altered state, we just know the road is gonna be less rocky...less rut-filled. Or, at the very least, we believe we now have someone to move the rocks out of our way.

But, truth be told, once the honeymoon wears off (usually quickly), this "other" only doubles the number of rocks and ruts. Their own rocks and ruts and their reactions to them somehow become ours. ( be fair...ours become theirs.)

And right there is where the crisis comes: "What are we gonna do about all these rocks and ruts?"

These days, when I pick up this picture to dust underneath it, I find myself wondering, "Would it have made a difference if they had known the road they were in for?"

I don't think it would have. That handsome young man loved that curly-haired girl. Not perfectly. Sometimes, not even well. But, he loved her. He did the best he could with the rocks and ruts he encountered.

And she loved him. Not perfectly. Sometimes, not even well. But, she loved him. She did the best she could with the rocks and ruts she encountered.

When the crises came and they each asked, "What are we gonna do?" They decided to just keep dealing with it rut at a time...together.

They did not do it perfectly. Some days, they did not even do it well. Before they had ever met, life had already seen to it that they were each a bit  "broken." War had taken its toll on daddy; and, at the tender age of 12, my mama's mother had died, leaving her with an alcoholic father and 5-year-old and 3-year-old brothers to help raise.

I'm sure they would admit to stumbling and falling...wishing they had never spoken certain words, or taken certain actions. And, I'm sure each of them had many moments when they each wanted to just go off and find a new road, one less rocky, one less filled with those bone-jarring ruts.

But...they didn't. They stayed. They "stood firm a little"... for better and for worse... in sickness and in health... until death did them part. There is something sacred about that right there. And I believe they would tell you that, on that road...together...they even found moments of joy.

Last year, when mama was recovering from surgery, she experienced what the Celts described as "thin places," when this world and the next seem to be closer than we ever imagine. During one of these thin moments, my brother got to listen in on a conversation mama was having with daddy, where she told him, "Honey, let's go sit over there by that shade tree and sit down and rest awhile." 

One day, mama. One day....

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Third re-run of "My Cousin Barney is a Liar"

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