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Temptation: Divinity School Style

Originally posted to a wellness support group September 12, 2009

It’s different in Divinity School. Our Greek prof hands our tests back to us and says, “Okay, now let’s grade these things.”
“We are grading our own tests?”
“You’re trustworthy aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but. . .”
“Then, let’s get these things graded.”

So it came as no surprise then that another prof gave us a rather nontraditional midterm. See, we’d missed class when the exam was scheduled on account of a rare snow day. Later that same day, we found an announcement on our class website and an email in our inboxes. “Due to the class cancellation, I’m asking you to take your midterm at home.”

Cool, I thought, a take-home exam: My favorite.

Except not really.

“I’ll post the exam on the website and you are to take it exactly as if you were here in class.”

You’re kidding.

“That is, you may use only your Bible, and that only on the essay questions. No outside materials are allowed on the objective portion.”

You really must be kidding.

“You may complete this exam at your convenience any time between now and Friday at 5:00 pm.”

You're not kidding.

So here’s the deal. The exam was posted on Monday. All the exam questions were right there—every last one of them—for my own private consumption. But I wasn’t exactly ready to take the exam yet. So there they were--waiting, beckoning, cajoling:

“No one would know if you just glanced over the items.”
“What if you just look at the essays?”
“You could just look at the questions—that’s like looking at the study guide, for heaven’s sake.”

Except not really.

Where this kind of temptation is concerned, I have endless willpower. There is absolutely no way I could have looked at the test before I took it: even though it would have relieved stress to know what was on it; even though it would have saved me a lot of time; even though others might give into that kind of temptation. Not me. No way. No how.

So it occurred to me: if I can handle temptation in one area of my life, I bet I can handle it in another. The truth is I could apply my skills regarding academic temptations to the enticing calls of a fresh bag of Cheetos® or an unopened box of Capt’n Crunch®. I could say, “I won’t do that because I don’t make those kind of choices.” I could realize, “I prefer the inconvenience of not giving in to temptation to the consequences of being swayed.” I could claim, “I will be obedient because my behavior is not dependent on the behavior of others.

Temptation. We can handle it.

 

summer night fireflies

Light in the darkness: Baker's firefly

Published August 29, 2009 when Baker was 13 years old.
Over and over again that week at divinity school, I was asked how my summer had been. I was seeing folk I'd not seen since last semester and the question was more of a greeting than an inquiry. I knew that, but I stumbled every time to say something that could sum up the last three months. It was a hard summer in many ways, and it felt almost deceptive to dismiss the greeting with “Fine, thanks. You?”

Eventually, I settled on a response sort of like this: “Actually, it was hard: I experienced a lot of losses this summer. Most of them were minor, some were a little more unsettling, and one was nearly overwhelmingBaker in August 2009. And yet, this summer I witnessed the goodness of God in remarkable ways.”

It’s true. The summer was hard, but there were some amazing, almost miraculous moments. I was able to see those moments, in part, because of a conversation I had with my son towards the end of July. It went something like this.

“Hey Mom I think I thought of something pretty profound.”

“Oh yeah, Baker, what was that?”

“Well I was looking at fireflies, ya know?”

“Yeah.”

“See, it’s like they are all around us in the dark, and we don't realize it. Then they light up and suddenly we know they've been there all along.”

“Okay.”

“And I think that’s kind of like Jesus is. Sometimes, we can't really see Jesus because of what’s going on in our life.”

“The darkness?”

“Right. And then something happens to remind us that Jesus has been there the whole time.”

“The light.”

“Yeah.” Baker, hands on hips, grinned. “That’s pretty profound don’t you think?”

"I do indeed, Baker-boy, I do indeed."

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:1-5 NRSV

Vintage bus

Riding with the Spirit

Update: 3-22-2013

Sometimes I pull older posts back up and promote them to new readers. I was about to do that with this four-year-old post, so I thought I would add a picture. I googled "Trailways bus, Georgia, Country roads." In seconds (amazing!) I had pages of photos that matched or almost matched my search criteria. Though I hadn't put the date in the search string, the pictures were mostly illustrating events from the forties, fifties, or sixties. Perfect! Except not really. The top ten or fifteen returns did include buses on country roads; the problem was, each depicted some form of violence: buses burning, riots, people being beaten. Hideous.

And from the midst of all that comes this story about my daddy, on a back road in Georgia, riding a Trailways™ bus.

 

It wasn’t something a boy got to do every day you know: taking the Trailways™ bus from his home to his grandparents' place 20 miles away--especially by himself, seeing as he had half a dozen siblings who would have loved to have joined him. But that’s just what my daddy did one Georgia day some decades ago.

“Was it 1947 or 1948?” Daddy asked himself, folding his napkin in half, then into fourths, then eighths before unfolding it only to repeat the process, this time on the diagonal. “Well let’s see. I know I’d been baptized.”

Daddy seemed to wander back through his memories arriving at the little Baptist church over the railroad track and down the road from his family home. “I was nine when I made my profession of faith.” (We all knew that. Daddy loved telling that story.) “But it took more than a year for the preacher to get around to my baptism.” Baptisms only happened in the summer when the creek was warm enough, but why Daddy didn’t receive the sacrament the summer after he walked the aisle is a mystery. “I reckon it was 47 or maybe it was 48,” Daddy declared this time with conviction. “Whichever it was, it was after I’d been baptized,” Daddy said, certain. “‘Cause I know I’d been baptized.”

So back in 1947 (or 1948) Daddy, soaped up and shiny for his special trip, boarded the bus. The bus was nearly full. Back then, segregation was law, and down in the Deep South Jim Crow ruled the buses with at least as much authority as he had in the classrooms. Daddy, belongings in hand, worked his way from the front toward the back of the bus looking for a seat, finally finding an empty one just inside the Whites Only section. He plopped his things down and took his seat. The bus started up again, chugging on toward Daddy’s adventure.

In those days, at least in rural Georgia, bus drivers would pull over occasionally to pick up riders. You see, folks needing a ride would wait along the side of the road, and then they’d pay a pro-rated fare for their truncated trip. Daddy looked out the windows, watching the Georgia terrain ease past. In the distance, Daddy could see a woman waiting. A child was with her: a very young child. The woman’s arms full of bundles, she still managed to keep hold of the child’s hand. The bus inched closer. Daddy’s view sharpened. The woman was black.

Daddy glanced over his shoulder. The section behind him, the seats designated for this mother and child, were all taken. The bus bumped to a stop. The woman, shifting her load to access her fare while still holding tight to her little one, climbed aboard.

“I remember deliberating on that thing, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I.’” Meanwhile, the woman got closer. “I’d been taught to respect our elders; she was an adult and I was just a kid. But mostly,” Daddy’s voice caught. He cleared his throat and gazed above our heads, “Well, I had the Holy Spirit. Because of that, I was guided, prompted. I knew what was right.”

As the woman got to his row, Daddy met her eyes. Picking up his things, he slid over to the window seat, leaving the aisle seat free. Her expression hardly changed as she placed her things on the floor, lifted her child into her lap, and took her seat: a seat in the White’s Only section of the bus, a seat given her by my daddy who was just an 11 year old boy (or maybe 12).

And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us . . . Acts 15:8 NRSV

Rev. Dr. Harold M. Mitchell and Mrs. Gloria Mitchell (AKA Mother and Daddy)

"Don't Know Beans about Praying"

cottonpatchgospel“Similarly, the spirit also helps us out in our weakness. For example, we don’t know beans about praying, but the Spirit himself speaks up for our unexpressed concerns. And he who x-rays our hearts understands the Spirit’s approach, since the Spirit represents Christians before God.” Romans 8:26-27 The Cotton Patch Version

Clarence Jordan (translator of The Cotton Patch Version) is right. I don't know beans about praying. Prayer absolutely blows my mind: God, the creator of the universe, wants to be in communication with me? I really can't grasp that.

But I pray anyway. I pray to music. I pray Scripture. And I pray for loved ones. I pray for Barbara and her two boys—their husband and father died suddenly this past January. A friend who has pitiful insurance and horrific health problems. Cathy whose younger brother died way too young leaving a wife and children. Teachers whose salaries have been cut or who have lost their jobs—particularly those among them who are single parents. A loved one in a new job. My nephew-in-love who goes off to college next year and his dad who has Parkinson’s disease. Niece Rachel who is about to start her senior year. My mother-in-law with MD. And then there’s this: my friend Kim who beat breast cancer last year just before her son, now 11, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer—the same Kim who has just been diagnosed with colon cancer. This week, her son, who was just denied access because of his age to clinical trials that might save his life, will be going to NIH in Maryland to explore further treatment options with his dad (Kim’s husband) while Kim faces her own cancer surgery back in Oklahoma.

Yeah, I gotta tell ya. I don't know beans about praying.

But thanks be to God, knowing is not necessary. Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV) says “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (emphasis mine)

And when I read that I sigh: a sigh of relief. I sigh because suddenly I remember, I’m not alone.  I sigh, I breathe, remembering that Barbara is not alone, and Cathy isn't and neither is my nephew.The Spirit is sighing with me, magnifying those sighs, translating them into words that I can't seem to find, building them into bridges from the hearts of the hurting to the very heart of God.  I sigh knowing my Rachel has a bridge and my mother-in-law can cross it too cause this bridge is seriously wheelchair accessible. And I sigh so deep within my spirit, beyond the flood of tears that chokes my heart for a little boy who just wants to play baseball with his brothers and for his mother who wants to watch him. I sigh with relief because as I do, I find that the Spirit is already there. The bridge is already built. The words don’t have to be found. “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes” for me.

Even though I don’t know beans about praying.

Ahhhhh.

No Worries for Margaret

15 May 2009 Here’s a conversation Margaret and I had on the way home from school one day last week. I thought you might enjoy eavesdropping. (I’ve changed names and identifying details of all other kids mentioned—well, except for Charlie who is indeed a kid in his own mind . . . and I suppose in ours too. . . .)

“Hey, Mommy! Hey, Charlie! Come sit with me, buddy. That’s a good boy.” Margaret buckled up as our beagle stepped into her lap.

“Hey Margaret, how was your day at school?”

Margaret shook her head. “Not so good: there was a tornado warning.”

“Yeah, I heard about that.”

“It was awful because I needed to go to the restroom, but we had to sit in the hall with our heads down and we were in the downstairs hall with the kindergartners and first and second graders and it was really crowded and hot and boring.”

“You had to go to the restroom?”

“Yeah but at first I didn’t have to go that bad so I told Mrs. Seals I could wait but then after like 20 minutes or something I told her that I really did have to go and so I went but it was so embarrassing because there were girls sitting in the bathroom—because see the hall was so crowded that some girls had to sit in there the whole time—and so all those girls knew I was going to the bathroom. . .”

“I bet that was embarrassing.”

“Yeah, it sure was. Oh, but Mommy, some kids were really scared about the tornado and some were even crying. I’m talking about kids who don’t ever cry, they were crying. Like Natalie she never cries but she started crying because she has family in Black Mountain and somebody said the tornado was headed out to Black Mountain, you know, and so she started crying and Brandon he started crying—you know Brandon he is that big tough boy—and he never cries, you know, he never cries, ever, and he cried, because he was worried about his grandparents, because they don’t watch TV or listen to the radio, so he was scared they would be caught in the tornado because they hadn’t heard about it, and how would they hear about it if they didn’t listen to the news, you know? and then of course Taylor cried because her family lives in a mobile home and, I don’t know if you knew this Mommy, but—did you know this?—it is really, really, super dangerous to be in a mobile home when there is a tornado, and her whole house could have just blown away, so of course she was crying—I mean, who could blame her?”

“Not me.”

“Yeah that was really scary for her. A lot of kids were crying . . .”

“Were you scared?"

“Nope.”

“Not at all? Come on.”

“Well, I was a little worried about Charlie.” Hearing his name, Charlie turned to face her, expectant. “Yeah, I was worried about my little buddy,” Margaret told him, scratching his ears as he leaned into her.

“Yeah, Charlie pretty much freaked out,” I told her, “You know how he gets in a storm.”

“Was he shaking?” She asked, knowing. She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him close.

I chuckled. “More like quaking.”

“Poor Charlie,” Margaret said shaking her head, “I knew it; I just knew it.”

“So that was all you were worried about, really?”

“Yep,” she said, repositioning Charlie so his white-tipped tail could swing free.

“Good for you, Margaret. I’m glad you were not fearful.”

“Well,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and stroking her beagle’s back, “I figured if there was anything to be worried about, Daddy would take care of it.”

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”                    Matthew 5:26-27

Childhood cancer

Remembering Paxten, Part I

Originally posted on April 2, 2009

On April 6, 2008, Paxten Andrew Mitchell slipped from his parents embrace into the gates of heaven. This time last year, no one was talking about Paxten getting well. He was home, with his family, with hospice. I miss him.

When Paxten was still well enough to be in the hospital, I visited him about once a week. I’d come bringing fresh Playdoh® or new dinosaur stickers. (I still catch myself looking for stickers or checking for a bargain on Playdoh® before I realize my reason for buying those things is no more.) Paxten and I would stick the stickers all over ourselves and anything else we could find; we’d sculpt new creatures with the Playdoh®. Actually I would sculpt, or Amy would, as Paxten directed our efforts. We made funny faces. We wrestled—careful not to disconnect IV cords as we played. And we laughed. We laughed a lot, Paxten & I. Eventually though, I’d have to go home to my children, often leaving Amy by herself with her boy.

In the hospital bed (it seemed huge when Paxten was in it alone), Amy slept with her boy curled into her. No doubt she did all night what she did all day—checked his temperature with her mommy hands and diagnostic kisses, glanced up at the monitors to see if everything was normal (that is, as normal as it ever got for Paxten), and readjusted his tubing so he was not lying on it. . . When Paxten stirred during those long nights, I bet he had the same conversation with his mother that he had several times every hour during the day.

“Mommy?”
“Yes Paxten?
“I Wub You.”
“I love you too, Paxten.”

call to worship

Come. . .

 March 31, 2009

Today I led the call to worship for our chapel service at Gardner-Webb Divinity School. As I prayed this week about what I would say, I kept coming back to the wonder that Almighty God calls out to me. In response, I am to come out of myself, away from my busyness, and into God's rest. I'm ashamed I don't always answer that call. Yet amazingly, God still calls.

 

A Call to Worship

Come.

Now is the time.

Answer the call to worship.

Come.

You who are broken, burdened, bereaved.

Come.

Come out of frenzied chaos and

Into sacred peace.

Come.

Come out of the mundane and

Into the magnificent.

Come.

Come out of the pressure of the daily and

Into the presence of the divine.

Come.

Come because you are called.

Called to worship.

Wonder Done Right

Only one child got it right.

Oh, all the children knew their parts; the creation play in this morning’s worship service was lovely. The flowers, colorful and bright, stood tall, blooming and blushing. The birds flapped otheir wings. The fish swooshed, the mice crawled, the frogs hopped. The apple tree, its branches menacing, taunted. The young man who played Adam delivered his lines masterfully, having us laughing at all the right times. Eve entered the garden, singing with a voice that sounded as if it had indeed been created by God for this moment in time.

But only one child—only one—captured the wonder.

Our church has been celebrating creation for the last few weeks—art, the written word, music, drama. During this time, sermons, anthems, and special events have focused on the beauty of creation, more specifically on the wonder of the Creator. The point, it seems, has been to bring our minds, our hearts, to a state of amazement. We’ve had the work of a local artist hanging in our atrium: wall sized paintings depicting the explosive dynamics of creation. We’ve had dancers—yes dancers in our Baptist sanctuary—offering their gifts in worship. We even had kites one Sunday (they called them liturgical kites to make them sound more churchy but they were kites all the same). Our orchestras played, our handbells rang, our authors read from their books. It’s been a time to delight. It’s been a time of awe.

And this morning, Cameron Brown, full of wonder, delighted in the awe of it all.

Of course, Cameron is exceptional, gifted really and it is not fair to compare others to him. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite that usually happens: he’s often compared to others in a most unfair way. (Some people are such slow learners.)

When Cameron came down the aisle this morning wearing a bright red shirt, carrying a gigantic rose-red flower, his eyes sparkled. When his little brother came down, dressed like a mouse, Cameron giggled a little, watching his favorite person mount the stairs then crouch like a critter. He looked around at all his friends standing there with him, his smile growing, his eyes dancing. When the audience laughed, Cameron laughed too. When Eve sang, Cameron watched her every move. And when it was over, all too soon, Cameron stayed in place. He looked around that great big sanctuary, appearing every bit the picture of pure, innocent wonder. The director came to him, he took her hand, and flashed her his full-face grin. And as they slowly made their way back down the aisle, Cameron continued looking over his shoulder. It was as if he didn’t want it to be over, not yet. It was too wonderful, too delightful.

Anyone could tell by the look on his face: Cameron got it. And once again I thought, I want to be more like Cameron. I want to see the world like he does. I want to see God like he does.

Guy Sayles

One Quick Question (On God and Grieving)

Originally published on December 15, 2008. Caleb Spady died on July 21, 2009, having fought brain cancer (DIPG) for 15 months.

“One quick question,” I said to my pastor. He was heading back to his lunch table with a full cup of coffee; I’d finished my lunch and wanted a word with him before I had to leave.

“Oh hi, Aileen,” he said, more gracious than most would have been, having been caught between coffee and dessert. “What’s up?”

“A lot. For one thing I just lied to my pastor." I realized in that moment what he no doubt already had guessed. “My question is neither quick nor singular.” Guy Sayles smiled, relaxed and unhurried. I forged ahead.

Caleb Spady“My friend’s son—he’s 10—has inoperable brain cancer. He got bad news yesterday, really bad news. His mother and I were talking last night, and she asked me some tough questions. I’m only in the second semester of seminary here. I have no idea what to say.”

"I’m not sure theological degrees give you the words to say under those circumstances," Guy said, speaking the frustrating truth of pastoral care.

“My friend's question was this: ‘If God is omnipotent as we believe God is, then why hasn't my son been healed?’ Good question right? So, ya know, why?”

Setting his coffee on the counter, Guy shook his head. “Well the first thing I would ask myself is, 'Is this really an appropriate time for a theological discussion?' It probably isn't. If not, I would say, ‘I don’t know. I’m so sorry. I love you.’”

I found this to be brilliant instruction. How many times do we spout off theological treatises when it just isn't the time? The person really needs to hear, “What you are going through is awful and I’m sorry that you are going through it because you matter to me.” And we start quoting scripture, telling them about God’s will or the nature of creation. Sometimes, we need to say less in order to say more.

Guy continued. “If it is a good time for a theological discussion, then I might say, ‘Well, God doesn't always get God's way.’”

He must have noticed my hesitation because he elaborated. “When people disagree with me on this, I ask them, ‘Does God always get God's way with you?’ Of course not. If it is true with one person, it must be true with others. And if God doesn't always get God's way with people, then God doesn’t always get God's way in the world. After all, if God did, then why would Jesus have commanded us to pray for God’s will to be done? It would just be done whether we prayed or not.” (Intriguing, huh?)

“But,” Guy said, “If God is omnipotent, and we are Christians, then we believe

  • God's greatest power was displayed on the cross.
  • God's strength comes through suffering;
  • God's power is in weakness.
  • We are free when we become God's slaves.
  • We are greatest when we become the least of all.

Christianity is confusingly full of contradictions. The equations just aren't as simple as we would like them to be.”

I knew he was right. But what could I tell my friend that could comfort her, if only momentarily?

“There is one simple formula, though,” Guy went on. “God loves us. God just loves us. God always, completely, beyond-our-imagination loves us.”

“So, when our hearts are breaking. . .”

“Then God’s heart is breaking too.”

Olive tree

Aging Gracefully: A Tale of Timelessness

“The olive tree never dies,” Zach told us gesturing to the trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. “These trees are thousands of years old and yet they still bear fruit.”

Zach, the Palestinian who guided our tour of Israel, knew a little something about aging gracefully. A grandfather who had been considering retirement for months, Zach was hard at work, leading our group of 34 American tourists through his homeland. He walked all over Masada and Qumran in 100° heat. He hiked through Megiddo and strode up and down the ancient streets of Old Jerusalem. All the while, Zach shared his knowledge with us: telling the history of the area, quoting scripture chapter and verse, and recalling vignettes particular to the sites we visited. As far as I know, he never once sat to rest; he walked every step I did.

A month after my trip, my family and my sister’s headed to North Myrtle Beach, my parents’ hometown, for our annual vacation. My brother, Hal, and his family were already there. A few weeks earlier, they had moved back to the area and purchased a home right down the road from our parents.

Unfortunately, things were not going well. Because of a series of complications and botched repair jobs, Hal was still not in his new house. For six weeks, his family of five had been living with our parents while my brother became increasingly frustrated with the work crews he’d hired to make his home safe for his family. As we sat around Mother’s dinner table one night talking over my brother’s predicament, the doorbell rang.

“It’s Mr. Rothman,” Mother announced.  “Come in Dick; have some supper.”

Mr. Rothman has been a family friend for 25 years (he watched my brother grow up). He passed retirement age at least 15 years ago. Since that time, he has nursed his beloved wife through Alzheimer’s, becoming her daily visitor when he made the gut-wrenching decision to place her in a nursing home. In addition to spending hours with his wife (who long ago had stopped recognizing him), he visited the other residents of the home. Mr. Rothman brought sunshine to the lonely, even when he was heartbroken with loneliness himself. More than ten years after she became ill, Mr. Rothman’s wife drew her last earthly breath, while her devoted husband looked on, weeping.

Also during the last 15 years, Dick Rothman has been running his own business. An electrician and an expert in air conditioning repair, Mr. Rothman has plenty of opportunities to stay busy. So by 9:00 every morning, Dick Rothman is out making his rounds, visiting customers who’ve relied on him for years.

“Hey, Hal,” Mr. Rothman began that night, “I’ve been thinking about that job you’ve got going on over there at your house.“ He had been over helping my brother with odd jobs while a larger company had replaced all of the duct work in the house and then worked to get the air conditioning running again. The company, though it had come highly recommended, seemed to be botching the job.

“Here’s what they’ve done,“ Mr. Rothman said, taking a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket and drawing on a table napkin. Hal nodded in agreement.  “And here’s what they should have done.“ He drew a different diagram.

“Uggh!” my brother groaned, “I knew it! I knew they were not doing it right.” Dejected, Hal slumped as he propped his elbows on the table and covered his forehead with his hands.

And then Mr. Rothman laughed aloud.  “Oh now, Hal,” he said, “I didn’t come tell you this to get you worried. Let’s worry about it tomorrow if they don’t fix it.” He folded his hands in his lap, smiled and shook his head, seeming to recall some distant memory.  “’Wait to worry.’ I’ve got that written all through my Bible. ‘Wait to Worry.’ I have to remind myself of that. But the thing is, we’ve got plenty of time to worry.” He patted my brother affectionately. “Let’s worry later.”

Hal knowing Mr. Rothman was right, laughed with his friend--a friend more than four decades older than he, a friend who had reached out to him and pulled him out of his despair.

“The olive tree never dies,“ Zach said. No matter what it has been through, no matter how old it gets, the olive tree keeps bearing fruit. Just like Zach. Just like Dick Rothman.*

On November 6, 2014, Dick Rothman celebrated his 90th birthday. Two days later, he passed from this world into the arms of his Savior, Jesus. Hal's air conditioning still works just fine.