In one, I’m late: late and lost. Everyone is expecting me, but I can’t find my way out of a maze of locked doors and dead-end hallways.
In another, it is exam day. The problem? The class never made it to my schedule, so I didn’t even know that I was registered for it. Now I have to take an exam on material I’ve never seen.
In my favorite recurring dream, though, people from all over the world, “children from every nation,” come together in peace. They sing. They laugh. They hold hands. Lifelong friendships form instantly. Differences are dealt with civilly. The world is at peace. It’s a great dream—one that leaves me with a wakeful longing for unity.
But this week, my 16 year old daughter is actually living my dream. She is in Nairobi, Kenya attending PassportKenya. At this camp, kids from the US and Kenyan kids, experience true cultural exchange. (Trellace’s roomie is a Kenya native.) All the kids—American & African—are followers of Jesus Christ. This is not an evangelism trip on which middle class suburbanites go into the wild to save the savage tribesmen. It is not a mission trip in the traditional sense; that is, the Westerners did not rush off to a foreign land to offer aid. This is a mission immersion trip: a time for Christians from this country to develop friendships with Christians from that country. They have worshipped together; they have ministered together; they have sung songs together—some in Swahili, some in English.
And in so many of the pictures I’ve seen, they are holding hands—white hands and brown, black hands and tan. Peace. Right here on earth. It’s like a dream come true.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
Originally posted July 19, 2010
You can’t miss it. If you travel that road, you will see it. Looming over the highway for all motorists to see: a billboard-sized picture of a mangled motorcycle with the ominous declaration “Death is forever.” Every time I pass it, I get the message; I never intend to read it, it is just that prominent, that unavoidable. That . . . gripping.
And every time I see that sign three faces rush to my mind: faces that are forever never-changing. Paxten, always 3 years and 7 months old—even after his younger sister turns four and then five. Matthew, staying 12 while his twin rushes into high school. Caleb, forever 11: his younger brothers eventually matriculating to grades he never got to start. And I just wonder: How can you face forever when your boy is gone?
How can you imagine a future without your child, your parents, your beloved? I gotta tell you, I wouldn’t want to face tomorrow without my beagle, much less my people, and I’m not kidding, not even a little bit. Death is forever. And it hurts. It hurts on the big days (the ones you know will be hard): the anniversaries, the birthdays, the holidays. But it hurts on the little days too: when the family gathers and one is forever absent, when you go to the restaurant that will forever be her restaurant or his, when you go to the ball field, the bookstore, the band concert. Everywhere. Always. Forever.
I hurt so much for loved ones who are bereaved; my heart screams about fairness and longing. Yet if I hurt for them this much what must it be like for the childless mother, the lonely widow, the grieving child. I can’t bear even the thought of it. And that’s because, well, it can’t be borne—not by human hearts anyway.
At that thought, my soul stretches out, finding hope within reach. Because for me, on account of my faith, while I know death is forever, I also know life is eternal. I can rest in that assurance. So, I slip my hand into the nail-scarred hand and fall deep into Christ’s embrace. There, I feel the tears of Jesus mixing with my own. There I am reminded that even when I walk through valleys that are permanently shadowed by death, I do not walk alone. And somehow, because Jesus lives, I really can face tomorrow. Forever.
Published originally June 25, 2010
The METRO was packed. To the regulars, I’m sure it was normal: Washington, DC at 5 o'clock is not, after all, the most deserted place in the world. But I was a tourist from Smalltown, NC and subway trains are scary enough to me when riders all have room to spare. Slightly motion sick and seriously wide-eyed, I sat-tight beside a stranger as the train rushed to stop and more weary workers flooded the aisles. They reached to the ceiling, grabbing hold just as the train sped on to its next destination.
In front of me, a man had been snoozing on and off throughout the journey. I'd watched him, amazed by his commitment to rest despite the chaos that surrounded him. (A devoted sleeper myself, I was impressed.) But as we took off this time, he sat up, eyeing the older woman who stood holding the pole in front of him. He watched her until she met his gaze.
“Here,” he said, gesturing to his seat and starting to rise.
She shook her head smiling unspoken thanks, “Next stop,” she said, pointing to the door.
The man nodded, pulled his cap back down over his eyes, and went back to sleep. When the train stopped again, the woman exited and went on her way.
And that was that. No big deal. No one called the police. No one staged a riot.
An African American man offered his seat on the train to an elderly Caucasian woman. They had a polite exchange, and life went on as if nothing had happened—as if what I had just witnessed was not, in fact, a little miracle.
That exchange illustrated for me what the students in the Mississippi Freedom School knew back in 1964 when they penned their “Declaration of Independence from the State of Mississippi” in which they listed their grievances against Mississippi’s government. They enumerated injustices common in the Jim Crow South and then they closed with a remarkable statement. They said, “That no man is free until all men are free.” (MLK said it too. So did many others over the years.)
See, the man on the subway could offer his seat (or not) because he was free. And the woman, well because he was free to offer it, she was free to refuse. Sixty years ago, they would not have been on the same train at all. Fifty years ago, they might have been on the same train, but few would have questioned it if the woman had awakened the sleeping man and demanded his seat. Forty years ago, tensions ran so high between the two groups, that no one knew what to do. And we still don't know. We still have so, so far to go.
But last week, two people passed each other courteously, respectfully, and peaceably. And in their faces, I think I saw the face of Christ.
“Have you chosen a major” I asked my niece. Rachel, her mother, my daughter Trellace, and I were sitting in Starbucks™ having a late night snack. Rachel had graduated from high school a few hours earlier.
“Theater, I think, with a minor in photography.”
I recalled the last five years or more when she and Trellace (her twin cousin) spent hours taking pictures with their new digi-cams. I thought back to her elementary and preschool years when her carefree hours were filled with playing dress-up and gathering audiences for her impromptu shows.
“Perfect!” I told her, “Everyone should major in something they love.” I spent more than a decade in college admissions and career counseling. I can hardly stop myself from offering unsolicited advice.
“The way you find out what that special something is,” I went on, “is to think back to what you did for fun when you were a child. Major in something that parallels that activity. That’s what you’ve done by choosing theater and photography.”
Rachel nodded, understanding. She said she had recently talked to a radio announcer who told of his childhood.
“He used to talk into a cassette recorder, listen to his voice, erase it, and then do it again. He did that over and over again as a kid and now, as an adult, he is in radio.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” I said, “Like my sister, she’s a teacher, and when she was little, she loved playing school.”
Rachel and her mom nodded as I continued.
“Your Uncle Jay loved his microscope, plants, anything that had to do with science, and today he is a scientist. I loved books and played library when I was a little girl. Today, I write and I’m in a field that requires a lot of reading.”
Laughter spurted from Trellace, who had been silent throughout the conversation.
“What?” I asked, “Did I say something funny? Embarrassing?”
“No, it’s nothing,” she managed, still sputtering from her laughter, “I was just remembering that when I was little, Hollyn* and I always played ‘Queen.’”
*Hollyn lived across the street from us from the time she and Trellace were 4 until they were 9.
Guy Sayles says those words each time a new believer rises from the baptismal waters. Those of us who attend First Baptist Church of Asheville have heard these phrases many times, but never did they ring truer than they did that day.
Cameron is older than his brother Collin by several years. Yet Collin learns at a higher level, and moves with greater ease than his big bro. He’s what the world would call academically and intellectually gifted. Collin is a delightful child, interacting as easily with kids his age as with the adult friends of his parents. He’s a great kid.
And so is Cameron. But Cameron’s words are sometimes hard even for adults to understand; kids his age too often fail to communicate with him at all. His steps are slow, particularly when stairs are involved. Cameron is what the politically correct of the world would call “special.” And they would be right. They would be right in ways they can’t even imagine.
Cameron’s smile brightens the world around him. His laugh brings joy to all who hear. His ready hugs can lift the lowest of spirits. Cameron understands love. He knows his family loves him, particularly that precocious little brother who does double duty as Cameron’s best friend. He knows that everyone at his church loves him, especially the little girls in his Bible study class who rush to sit beside him and to hold his hand as he goes up and down steps. And, in a way others will never understand, Cameron knows that Jesus loves him. So Cameron, being Cameron, just loves Jesus right back.
Because he is being raised in the Baptist church, part of Cameron’s upbringing has included conversations about making his profession of faith in Jesus Christ. His parents have talked to him about what it means to join the church and have entertained his questions, helping him to understand baptism. Brother Collin had already made his profession of faith privately, but found baptism itself intimidating and therefore hesitated to make his decision public. Not Cameron. Once his mind was made up, it wasn’t long before he stepped right out into that chapel aisle and walked straight to his pastor, letting him and everyone else know that he had chosen to follow Jesus. What’s more, he wanted to confirm his decision by believer’s baptism.
Whoa. This would be complicated. Collin had not even been baptized yet and he is not even scared of water like Cameron is. In fact, just getting Cameron into the baptismal pool and back out again posed enough obstacles to discourage the whole idea.
But Cameron was determined and his courage inspired Collin who decided he was ready for baptism if Cameron was. “This is something the brothers should do together,” Collin told his mother.
Collin went first. Dripping from his dunking, he stepped out of the baptistry. It was Cameron’s turn. The pastor turned to take his hand but Cameron hesitated. (Negotiating stairs is hard enough without water underneath your feet, for goodness sake.) Slowly, he made his way toward Dr. Guy. Within reach, Cameron grasped for his pastor who lifted him into place. Now, most people who are baptized, turn to look at the congregation or gaze toward the pool’s exit. Not Cameron. He turned to face Guy, waiting.
“Cameron, upon your profession of faith in Jesus Christ,” Guy said looking into Cameron’s eager face. Cameron wrapped his arms around his pastor. “I baptize you,” Guy scooped up a handful of water and poured it over Cameron, “in the name of the Father,” another scoop, “and of the Son,” one last handful of water, “and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Cameron, you are a child of God and God takes great delight in you. God is giving you everything you need to be all that God is calling you to be.”
Cameron leaned into Guy’s embrace, and after a moment or two, Guy lifted Cameron out of the baptistry, to walk in newness of life.
“And on March 9th, we’ll have a lab experience,” my professor said, “to practice baptism by immersion.”
Practice baptism? Shoot, I’ve been doing that all my life. No, I’m not an ordained pastor. In fact, I’ve only been in a baptismal pool once, for my own baptism 38 years ago. But, I’m a Baptist preacher’s kid and I’ve been baptizing folk ever since I started swimming, maybe even before then.
“I get to be the preacher first!” My sister, the oldest, raced me into the water. Whether we were vacationing at White Lake, NC, or playing in the local swimming pool, we spent much of our summers immersed. We could get pretty creative with water games and since our lives revolved around the church, it was to be expected that our experiences there would be reproduced in playtime. (Some kids play cowboys, firefighters, cops and robbers. We played Baptist.)
“Fine,” I told her, “But you only get to baptize me once. Then it’s my turn.”
Assuming a solemn expression and a preacher voice (which my Daddy never had but we’d heard our share) my sister placed one hand on my back and raised the other skyward. “Aileen? Why have you come?”
“Because I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior and I want to be baptized.” My voice sounded funny. I was holding my nose prematurely as my sister had been known to dunk me before it was time.
“Then,” she said, pitching her own voice down to sound more like Daddy’s, “Upon your profession in him, I baptize you my [giggle, giggle] little sister, in the name of the father, the son and in . . . the hole you go!” Before she got the last word out, I was under.
“Okay! My turn!” I said, wiping my dripping hair out of my face and taking my place behind her.
Now that I think about it, I suppose our little game was a bit disrespectful, maybe even borderline sacrilegious. (I won’t even tell you about our Eucharist tea parties.) But mainly, looking back at those days, I’m grateful. I’m grateful that my faith traditions were so familiar to me that they became a very literal part of my everyday life. As a child, that meant I baptized playmates. As an adult, it means that I continue to follow Christ. And I’m not even playing.
I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Mark 1:8 NRSV
“It’s driving us all crazy,” I told the vet. She and I sat cross-legged on the exam room floor as my beagle paced, sniffing around for a way out.
“Charlie licks the floor constantly,” I said, “And it’s not just the floor either. He licks the carpet, his bed, everything. It’s . . . well. . . it’s gross.”
She got my point. “Any other symptoms?” she asked, holding out her hand to Charlie, enticing him to come close. She scratched his ears, cooing, “That’s a good boy, Charlie. Aren’t you a sweet boy?” He leaned into her so she could do a better job.
I told her what was going on with him, trying not to leave anything out.
“It sounds to me like he has some tummy trouble,” she said. “When dogs experience stomach pain, they try to find a way to get rid of that pain. So, they lick, trying to consume something that will make them throw up.”
“Yeah, I know. But when they can get rid of the contents of their stomach, they feel better. At least for awhile.”
Fascinating. What she was saying was that it is my beagle’s instinct, when his tummy hurts, to consume something even worse for him to make the pain go away. Even after Charlie and I left the vet that day, I kept thinking about this canine tendency. I thought about how many times I do this. How many times do I self-medicate, using a drug that’s far worse for me than the problem itself? My drug of choice is food. Yours might be sleep, anger, work, cigarettes. Whatever: we just keep licking the floor, trying to find something to make us feel better.
“And the problem is,” the vet said, “that the licking itself can become a habit. If an animal has had long-term chronic stomach pain, even if it is treated and the problem is resolved, sometimes he will keep licking out of habit.”
(Like self-medicating just because we can?)
“Then we have a psychological problem.”
“So what we try to do is treat the stomach ache early, before the licking has become a compulsive behavior all its own.”
(Now there’s an idea.)
She prescribed—yes it’s true—Pepcid®. In a few days Charlie was feeling much better and licking a lot less. Amazing. We treated the real problem, and the destructive behavior went away.
Wonder if that would work in humans?
“I’ve probably only got a couple of months,” George said, drawing in a quick breath and blinking at persistent tears. He lay on his couch, a warm blanket covering him and cozy pillows tucked behind his head and under his feet. “But I’m at peace with it honey, I really am.” George squeezed his eyes closed but the tears seeped out anyway. “I don’t know how I can be at peace, but . . . well . . . yes I do. You know too.”
George loves living—cancer or no cancer—and he’s in no hurry to give this life up for the next. George knows where he’s going; he even has a son and a wife there waiting on him. He doesn’t fear leaving here for heaven; it’s not that. It’s just that . . . well, George loves life. He really, really loves life.
While we were visiting, his daughter brought me a cup of tea and on the tray was a serving of homemade fudge. “Oh, try that fudge!” George encouraged me, “I just made that last week. Oh, and Marilyn?” His daughter returned. “Bring Aileen some of my jelly too. You like jelly don’t you Aileen? I made peach and blackberry.” (Of course I like jelly—particularly the kind you can’t buy in stores.) “Bring her one of each.”
“Have you met my great-grandchildren? They’re downstairs.” I had not. “Of course Ben and Jocelyn--that's just two of them; you know I have eight?” I did not. “I’ve been so blessed.” George smiled, nodding.
“Hey did I tell you? I went to Florida last week.” George's eyes twinkled; he looked like a kid who had pulled a fast one on the adults of the world.
George, in the advanced stages of cancer, had been scheduled for surgery last week. By a fortuitous turn of events, the surgery had to be rescheduled for the end of the week; it just so happened that one of his daughters was Florida bound. George loves Florida.
“What in the world did you do down there?” I asked him, still shaking my head at the wonder of it.
“Mostly what I’m doing right here.” George laughed at himself, gesturing at his comfy set-up. “But it was good just to be near the water.” He sighed, wistful. “You know that’s not like me to sit around.” I knew.
In addition to making culinary delights to share, George has countless other hobbies and avocations. He goes to first run movies, art galleries, and the homeless shelter. He is an avid fisherman, a woodworker of remarkable talent, and a gardener with a bright green thumb. He reads voraciously, maintains his North Asheville home, and attends Asheville’s First Baptist every Sunday he is able, his time-worn, green-covered Living Bible in hand. And he’s planning even now for a Thanksgiving family reunion when he’ll be surrounded by his children and theirs, and theirs.
“I know you are at peace, George, but it’s okay to be sad too.”
My octogenarian friend nodded, tears flowing freely now.
“You really love living don’t you?”
“I really do, honey, I really do.”
Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.
(New Living Translation)
Published November 7, 2009
I’m not a baseball fan—I’ll give you that. Still, I'm also not an anti-fan. I care if my son’s favorite teams win (which means the Red Sox and anyone playing the Yankees) and I like the Angels—because Reggie Willits is a real live angel, that’s why. (See caption at right for proof of this fact.) But no, I didn't watch the 2009 World Series. I did hear it, though; and I heard a lot about it.
Back in 1967, according to Google Answers, the average pro baseball player made around $6000 a year. In 2000, the average salary for the same job was $1.9 million. But get this. The median household income in 1967? Around $33,000. In 2000? Approximately $45,000. So, let’s just make this simple. In 1967, a pro ball player made one-fifth of his annual income playing ball; he made the rest some other way or he slipped below the average. Today, a ballplayer makes enough for his family plus 41 other families to live at the level of the common folk. (These numbers are, of course, for salaries, and don’t include income from commercial endorsements. I think we can assume there were no such things back in the 1960’s.)
Then there are the ads. An ad for this year’s World Series ran, on the low side, $100,000 for a 30 second spot. These ads tried to get you and me to buy stuff: stuff or services, we can’t afford because we don’t make $1.9 million, but that we will pull out our plastic and purchase because we think we will be better off if we have that which is advertised. (Also, perhaps, a discussion for another time.)
All this is appalling, but I heard something today that absoflippinglutely blew my mind. If you watched the World Series you noticed that during the game, little banners ran across the top of your screen pulling your eyes away from the batter. Stats of the player? Details about the game? NO! Another dadgum advertisement. You get this right: the $100,000 and up for the actual commercials was not enough! They needed more. What in the Sam Hill?
I don't care how much a person likes baseball. This is crazy.
Greed. It’s a nasty business.
And [Jesus] said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15 (NRSV)
(In the words of my preacher friends, "That'll preach.")
“This isn’t going to end up in your blog, is it Mrs. Lawrimore?”
My daughter Trellace and her friend Kaitlin, having participated in the annual five-mile Crop Walk, returned to the church prior to the evening’s activities. Hungry and with time to, ya know, burn, they found a bag of microwave popcorn, set the timer to two minutes, and stepped out of the room. When they returned, the popcorn was toast, and the whole fourth floor told the story. You’ve smelled burned popcorn, right? There’s no mistaking it. It spoils every pocket of available oxygen.
That afternoon, I’d come to the church early, a rarity for me. A few minutes after I arrived, Kaitlin rushed up to me.
“Mrs. Lawrimore! Help me!”
Kaitlin explained that she and Trellace had pretty much scorched the upper floor of the church, and then Trellace had rushed off to hand-bells, leaving Kaitlin with the smoking bag. Any minute the fire alarms would go off, bringing Asheville’s finest to our doors.
Half an hour later, we’d made good progress upstairs in the youth center. With windows open and fans going, the air quality was considerably better than it had been. But alas, it was too late: the smell had made its way all the way through the church. Everywhere, people were asking, “Something burning?” or “What’s that smell?” Kaitlin and I just smiled, shrugging our shoulders.
Thirty seconds. That’s how long it took for the popcorn to go from tempting teenagers to tempting fire fighters. When it began, it seemed like such a safe activity. In fact, during the two minutes ante-burning, down the hall from the scene of the kernels, Trellace and Kaitlin had mocked up what they thought was an absurd scenario.
“Wouldn’t it be funny, hahaha, if that popcorn burned, hahaha, and we went back to the youth room, hahaha, and the whole place had burned down, hahaha.”
“Yeah, like that could happen, hahaha.”
“Wait,” (laughter waning) “How much time did you put on that timer?”
“Two minutes, why?”
“NOOO! It only takes a minute and a half!”
“Oh come on, what’s 30 seconds?”
It shall be made with oil on a griddle; you shall bring it well soaked, as a grain offering of baked pieces, and you shall present it as a pleasing odor to the Lord. Leviticus 6:21 (NRSV)
Addendum: This happened at First Baptist Church of Asheville--a 65,000 square foot facility. Think about it. That's some powerful stink!