One of my all-time favorite stories (at the end of this post) and worth a re-run.
Before I moved to North Myrtle Beach, SC in my junior year of high school, I lived in Goldsboro, NC. Back in the 1980’s when I was a student there, Goldsboro High School lacked diversity. Everyone there looked alike—at least to the few of us who were of the paler variety. Evidently we white folk couldn’t differentiate between the colors of mocha, caramel, and dark chocolate. I guess we couldn’t tell the difference in hair texture, color, and style either. And, perhaps we didn’t notice the zillions of variances in facial features, body structure, height, weight, and so on. We were, after all adolescents, and by nature not that discerning. Anyway, I don’t know the ethnic percentages at GHS, I just remember that when we saw white faces, we waved; they were probably our relatives.
When I lived in Goldsboro, I was blessed: African-American role models were the norm for me. My favorite teachers, Mrs. Delaney and Mrs. Hayes, were strong African-American women; our principal, Mr. Best remains the standard by which I judge all school administrators. He is an enormous man in my memory. “His biceps are the size of our football players’ quadriceps,” we often quipped. But it was his presence, not his size, which looms large in my recall: how he commanded the boisterous hallways by striding silently along, nodding at students, calling them by name. He died young, a loss to the community and to the world.
Goldsboro is an Air Force town; race boundaries blurred early there. So, if I’d get off the bus to find my mother was not yet home, I’d go to the home of the African-American couple the Hightowers. Mr. Hightower had retired from the Air Force and was always home during the day, usually tending the roses in his yard. I spent many afternoons there learning about the delicate flowers he loved so well.
The Hightowers lived on one side of us in a house about the size of ours. On the other side was a house twice as big and parked out front was the son’s BMW. This family was also African-American. Sometimes I caught a ride from school with Darryl, who didn’t have to ride the bus since, well, he had the BMW and all.
Recently, chatting with a friend who coaches girls’ basketball, I got a chuckle when she told me about something her nearly-all-white team experienced. They were playing at a school that must have been something like Goldsboro High School was back in the 80’s because most of the students at the rival school were African-American. My friend’s team was not bothered by the circumstance, played a good game, and headed to the locker room. On the way, they passed a few middle-aged men from the rival school and my friend over heard a bit of their dialog. Observing the pasty skinned opponents, the men shook their heads and commented quietly to each other, “Man, look at those girls. They all look alike!"
Dr. Sheri Adams led a class on Civil Rights and Religion in May 2009 which included a tour of key historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement. One of the places we visited was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage where Martin and Coretta King lived during their ministry there. This story comes from that experience.
I am standing in my Grandmother Martin’s kitchen. It’s true: Grandmama died nearly 14 years ago and her kitchen was dismantled long before that, but I’m telling you, this is her kitchen.
Her resin dishes are laid out on the Formica table ready for supper—though I remember them being a pale pink, not this mint green. The table setting includes a bowl of pecans. Granddaddy often collected pecans from the yard to be cracked after supper; and for the record, he and Grandmama called them “pea ca’ns,” giving equal emphasis to the first two syllables and letting the third one slip in for free. (Only those uppity carpet-baggers from the North used the term “puhcahns,” spitting out the “puh” just to get to the “cahns.”)
The ceramic napkin holder is new to me. I’m not surprised it’s in her kitchen though since it has strawberries on it; Grandmama did love her strawberries. Her oven, probably still hot from cooking biscuits, looks like it always did and her Frigidaire does too. The coffee pot—a percolator—has not changed at all. The kitchen shelves hold the usual, everything from Jewel® shortening to HotShot® bug killer in the pump and shoot tin can. Granddaddy murdered many a 6-legged intruder with that beastly weapon.
“’Get out of town within three days,’ the caller threatened, ‘or you’ll be sorry,’” The docent’s words drew me out of my reverie. “Martin knew this threat was different.”
“The call had awakened him and he could not get back to sleep, so he left Coretta and newborn Yolanda asleep, and came in here to the kitchen.”
This kitchen: this kitchen that looked so much like my Grandmama’s.
“He made himself a cup of coffee, but says he never even took a sip. And he sat down at his kitchen table. By the way, most everything in the parsonage here is authentic; however, this table is not the one that was here at that time, but it is very much like the one Martin sat at that night.”
(And it’s very much like the one my Grandparents sat at in their kitchen in Georgia during those very same years.)
My divinity school colleagues—19 of us counting students and professors—crowded into the parsonage's tiny kitchen and stood around the little table. Studying civil rights and religion, we were travelling to significant sites in the South, learning more about faith’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Coming to the end of this tour of the Birmingham parsonage of Martin Luther King, Jr., we found ourselves spellbound by our guide’s retelling of the famous “kitchen table epiphany.”
“Martin sat here, full of despair. He thought of Coretta, and baby Yolanda. He thought of all the threatening phone calls. He thought of all he had to lose. He sat here in the wee hours of that morning and cried out to God, confessing his own doubts, his own weaknesses.
“When Martin recalled the story, he said it was at that moment of confession that he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, ‘Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ He heard Jesus tell him he would never be alone, no matter what.” The docent looked up to heaven, lifting her hands as if in thanksgiving. Then looking down, she shook her head slowly.
“And he didn’t give up. Not even three days later when his house, this house, was bombed. You see Martin was right: the call he got that night was more than just a prank. It was a real threat. What a blessing that Martin had just reaffirmed his calling and his faith right here in this kitchen.”
This Montgomery, Alabama kitchen that belonged to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American Baptist preacher and the leader of the Civil Rights movement. This kitchen:so familiar to me that it could have been in the Albany, Georgia home of Mrs. Mabel Louise Martin, my white, Southern Baptist grandmama.
Published originally February 2009
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ " Isaiah 6:1-3
“In the year King Uzziah died. . .” Remember the year? It was an awful year. For the people of Judea, it was the year King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had been such a great king. During his reign, they were prosperous and peace ruled in their land. But when he died—well it felt like all hope died with him.
What year was it for you?
“In the year the shuttle crashed. . .
“In the year of September 11. . .
“In the year of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. . .
Or is it more personal?
“In the year my mother/father/sister/brother died. . .”
“In the year of my divorce. . .”
“In the year my favorite teacher died. . .”
It’s the year hope dies. The year that what was, is no more. It’s the watershed moment: when everything before and after is defined by that moment. Everyone get’s it when you say it. They nod, knowingly, as if to say, “Oh, that year. Yeah. That was awful.”
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”
I wonder what Isaiah was thinking when he went into the temple. Was he thinking, “I’m so great—righteous really—that I will lead the wretched ones out of their despair into God’s Glory. (amen)” That is, was he full of himself? Or. . .was he empty? Did he go to the temple thinking, “I’m not up for this. My hope is gone. How can I lead the people of God into his glory?”
We can’t know what he was feeling, but we know this: Isaiah went to the temple. Last Tuesday, I arrived at the divinity school to find out one of our professors, a man younger than I, had died. Soon after I learned of his death, I heard we would be having a chapel service in a few hours.
It was a terrible day. It was like the year the shuttle crashed. It was like September 11th. I felt shock, confusion, grief. It was that day. You know the one?
Like Isaiah went to the temple, I went to the chapel. By grace, I was not met by the fearsome vision that Isaiah beheld. But I did see God there. I saw God in the tear stained faces of my godly professors, struggling as we were to make sense of this tragedy. I saw God in the hunched forms of students, embraced by other students. I heard God in the stories, the testimonies, the music. God filled up that chapel last Tuesday.
In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah went to the temple. And despite his despair, Isaiah saw God there. But Isaiah did not stop with that one visit to the temple. Isaiah kept going back. Sometimes, he surely felt the full presence of God’s glory. Sometimes, though, I bet he came away with little more than a meal plan for the upcoming week. Still, he kept going back to the temple, going back to worship. And somehow, I’d say miraculously, he found his way out of the darkness of grief; he found his way back to hope.
Original Publication: July 31, 2012
“Oh, she’ll be fine!” “She’ll love it there!” “She is so ready for this new stage!” (And my personal favorite . . .) “Honey, it will be much worse on you than it will on her.”
True. Every single statement: absolutely true. In fact, because everyone knows these things are true, you will never need to say them to another mother whose child is going away to college. She already knows this stuff. Trust me (more on this in a later post).
But NOT saying something can be so difficult can’t it?
For example, if someone has a stomach bug, it takes true restraint for me NOT to tell them to drink plenty of water. Everyone knows that gastrointestinal upset in the extreme can lead to dehydration. I know that everyone knows this. But I feel the urge to tell them, just in case they’ve been living under a rock.
Here’s another one. I’ve actually tried not to say this; I can’t do it. My kids leave this house, keys in their hands, and I’m going to say . . . (say it with me now) . . . “Drive carefully!” I can’t help myself.
There are more critical times than these though, when people seriously do not need our comments.
Like when my sister was pregnant. She had a highly uncommon obstetric liver disorder that caused her to itch constantly, from the inside out. It was miserable, plus it was life-threatening to her and to her baby. She finally got some relief from an internationally renowned specialist and both she and the baby managed just fine, but here’s the thing: long before any doctors knew what was causing her symptoms, complete strangers would come to her aid.
“Have you tried lanolin? That stuff is amazing!”
“No, go with cocoa butter. It’s better.”
“Girl you need to get yourself some hydrocortisone cream. That’ll take care of you.”
Naturally, she had tried all these things and dozens more before she got her diagnosis. She knew all that and was painfully tired of hearing such things. In fact, not only did she not need to hear their advice, she really needed not to talk about her maddening condition at all.
The truth is, people usually do not need us to correct, advise, counsel, or admonish them. They need only for us to be with them: completely—silently—with them.
During the 2017 Elevating Preaching Conference held at my alma mater, Gardner-Webb University, attendees heard three preachers whose words challenged and inspired. It was, as always, a fantastic conference, refreshing and instructive. Here are a few of my favorite moments.
Preaching Session 1: Dr. Kevin Cosby, Senior Pastor, St. Stephen Church, Louisville, KY
Acts 5:29, Matthew 16:21
“You cannot get away from the musts of life.” Cosby explained that there are different kinds of musts—ones from the outside (civil laws and social obligations, for example) and ones that come from within. Musts, according to Cosby, are about conviction, not convenience. He challenged us, “Where does your MUST come from? Your must cannot come from the Law, but from Grace.”
On his church’s decision to stay in an area of Louisville considered dangerous and inhospitable to the Gospel, Dr. Cosby spoke of the transformation that has taken place in that neighborhood saying, “It’s Black Christian Gentrification! [The church now has] the land of the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Bud Lights!”[By the way, check out the church website for evidence of this amazing gentrification.)
Preaching Session 2: Dr. Kimberly Moore, Senior Pastor, Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church Gastonia, NC
“I May be Tired, but I won’t Quit.” Jeremiah 20:7-9
Dr. Moore, referencing how exhausting ministry can be, pointed out that Jeremiah was also tired, weary of the obstacles he continued to face. Dr. Moore challenged us,
“Realize WHO is fighting for you! Where you are is not your destiny. I know you are tired, but you have to remember [your struggles are] taking you somewhere. . . .”
She added that in the face of overwhelming difficulty, we might do as Jeremiah did and offer praise to God. She said that we don’t necessarily need to praise God for the hardships, but rather offer praise for what you know God WILL do. She concluded, “You’ll find that praise is your strength!”
Preaching Session 3: Dr. Wade Bibb, Senior Pastor, Central Baptist Church Beardon, Knoxville, TN
“Insignificant People” II Timothy 1:3-18
“It is dangerous to preach to insignificant people,” Dr. Bibb said. “Because sometimes they listen.”
Dr. Bibb recalled a time when he had listened to the pastor of his small church and had become quite the 12-year-old evangelist. In an admittedly immature method of discernment, 7th grade Bibb picked out the child in his class who was most often in trouble. Despite fear and trembling, he approached his intended target saying, “I want you to know that God loves you, and I love you, and I will be praying for you.” He continued this routine for a week or so, his unchurched friend becoming more and more open to the idea of a God who loves all people. Bibb’s efforts were thwarted, though, when his pastor suggested that perhaps Bibb shouldn’t bring his friend to their church. “He should go to his own church,” the pastor said, meaning a church that was as homogeneously African American as his church was Caucasian. Bibb then had the task at just 12 years old to find a way to say to his new friend, “God loves you. And I love you. But you can’t come to my church.”
Community Worship: Dr. Cosby
1 Corinthians 16:8-9.
Before beginning his message, Dr. Cosby summarized the day’s events up to that point.
“People in our lives are like elevator buttons. They take you up or down. They add value or take it away. Today, you people have taken me up!”
After reading the text, Dr. Cosby pointed out how foolhardy it was to start a church in Ephesus. Ephesus was the home to the cult of Diana; it was an idolatrous place that would most certainly be closed to the Gospel of Christ. But Paul says he will stay in Ephesus to build the church.
“Starting a church in Ephesus would be like starting a girl scout troop in a brothel. Starting a church in Ephesus would be like Al Sharpton going to recruit at the annual conference of the Knights of Columbus Ku Klux Klan.”
Fear though, has no place in following God’s purpose for our lives. Dr. Cosby illustrated this concept through a story of birds sitting in a tree above a berry patch. They were hungry and loved berries, but wouldn’t approach and eat because there was a scarecrow in the patch. “They were letting a stick wearing clothes and stuffed with straw keep them from being filled.” Dr. Cosby drew an undeniable parallel between those birds and those of us who are followers of Christ, hesitant to do God’s work. He pointed out “No farmer puts a scarecrow somewhere there isn’t something of value. If I were you, I’d fly around looking for scarecrows because wherever they are, there is value!”
Small Group Session: Dr. Moore
Regarding the task of preaching, Dr. Moore summed up her convictions with two directives: “Just be you. Just preach Jesus.” Amen!
It’s my 52nd birthday. Here (in no particular order) are 52 of my favorites.
Published Originally Oct. 7, 2011
“Where has the time gone?” I say to just about anyone who will listen. “Don't get me wrong; I want my children to grow up (the alternative is unthinkable). I just want to know: Where has the time gone?”
It’s baffling. I can't figure out how my brown-eyed girl (born just yesterday), is today a young lady looking at colleges. Or how, overnight, I went from buying my little boy light-up Batman sneakers to shopping for size 15 Nikes™. And how--how in the world--did my baby girl get to her last year of middle school already, when just last night I was sneaking her ragged pink blankie into the laundry?
Where has the time gone?
I don't know, but I think I’m looking for it in the wrong zone. In Greek, there are two words for time. There’s Chronos—time that is measured, ya know, chronologically. And then there is Kairos—time that is measured by experiences. Chronos dissolves into seconds, days, years. Kairos, though . . . Kairos remains.
Chronos counts birthdays by ordinal numbers: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, . . . . But Kairos thinks back to a ballerina party that blended over the course of chronos into a makeover session, a Firefighter party for preschoolers that ended as a pick-up basketball game for teenagers in the church gym, and a ladybug piñata in our backyard in Sanford, NC that exploded into one surrounded by teenagers in our Asheville garage.
Chronos sees the seasons come and go and checks off another year. But Kairos sees differently. Kairos sees the Queen of Hearts, Angelina Ballerina, and Thing 1, all with curly blond hair; a puppy, a robot, and a number of clowns, all making lots and lots of noise; a pediatrician, Hermione Granger, and Toy Story’s Jessie, all of whom were far more grown-up than they should have been. Kairos remembers . . . the ball dropping, its year changing in that chronos way all the way down; sandcastles washed away one year and built back up the next; trips to Houston, trips back home, & trips back out again. Kairos smiles remembering all the games of Barnyard Bingo, Blink, & Bananagrams; all the books we've read—from Dr. Seuss and Sandra Boynton to Brian Jacques and J.K. Rowling; all the hours of Veggietales, American Idol, and Psych. And Kairos weeps, weeps as faded faces and sharp memories come to mind: Wayne, Paxten, Matthew, Caleb, Cliff . . . . Chronos, distracted by the clock’s ticking, the days passing, just can't keep up.
Chronos says things like, “How long’s it been . . . .”
Kairos says, “Remember when . . . ?”
Chronos, nervous and fretful, checks its watch and marks days off the calendar.
Kairos flips through photographs and artwork, videos, mementos.
Chronos grows anxious.
Kairos becomes nostalgic.
Where has the time gone?
Chronos doesn’t know.
But Kairos does.
Kairos says, “Look around you. It’s all right here.”
Back in 2011, I wrote this little parody of the classic children's story "The Little Red Hen." From time to time, I pull it out for the children's sermon. Today's message was from Acts 2:42-47; it felt like a good time for a retelling of The Little Red Church.
Once upon a time there was a little red church. The little red church had lots of friends. She had friends who were very old. She had friends who were adults but not too old. And she had friends who were still quite young. One day the little red church needed to bake some bread to send to God’s hungry children. The little red church went to her friends and said,
“Who will help me bake some bread to deliver to God’s hungry children?”
“Not us,” said the very old friends. “We baked bread before, but we are tired now. We are too old to bake the bread.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “We are busy busy busy. We have work to do and families to care for. We can’t take time to bake bread for people in need.”
“Not us,” said friends who were still quite young. “We are too young to bake bread. We don’t even know how. We will bake bread later when we are older.”
So the little red church sighed. She could not bake the bread herself.
But soon, the little red church tried again. Some of God’s children were sick, so she asked her friends,
“Who will help me visit God’s children who are sick?”
“Not us,” said the very old friends. “We have our own aches and pains to worry about. We cannot go visit the sick.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “We have too many appointments to attend: not just for ourselves but also for our parents and for our children. We cannot go visit the sick.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were still quite young. “We are not allowed to go to hospitals. We are much too young. We cannot go visit the sick either.”
So the little red church sighed. She could not visit the sick herself.
Before long, though, the little red church heard of another need: some of God’s children had just moved into town. So she asked her friends,
“Who will go and welcome God’s children who have just moved into town?”
“Oh, my, not us,” said the very old friends. “We have nothing to offer new people in town. They are young and we are old. We cannot go visit new people in town.”
“Not us either,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “Perhaps you could have them come to our offices. Or hey! We know. Tell them to come to the Civic Club meeting next Tuesday at 7. We will welcome them there.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were still quite young. “Stranger Danger!”
So the little red church just sighed. She decided to take a nap. She was so, so tired. The little red church slept for a very long time.
While the little red church was sleeping her friends began to get worried. They missed the little red church. They missed her singing. They missed her laughter. And they even missed her questions.
The friends who were very old talked together and decided, “We may not be able to do as much as we used to, but we could surely bake bread.”
The friends who were still quite young overheard them talking. “We have lots of energy but we do not know how to bake bread. Will you teach us?”
And so the friends who were very old and the friends who were still quite young began baking bread.
Meanwhile, the friends who were adults but not too old talked together and decided, “It doesn’t really take too long to visit someone who is sick if you plan ahead. We are very good at planning. Let’s make time to visit the sick.”
And some of the friends who were very old overheard their discussion and some of them said, “We would like to go and visit the sick, but we don’t like to drive downtown. Could you take us with you when you go to visit?”
And so the friends who were adults but not too old and the friends who were very old, began to visit the sick together.
About the same time, the friends who were still quite young began discussing the new students in their schools. “We can welcome these new children even though we don’t know their languages. Let’s go play with them.”
And the friends who were adults but not too old listened and thought, “We can welcome these children’s families too. Let’s have them share a meal with us.”
And so the friends who were still quite young and the friends who were adults but not too old began welcoming strangers.
In the little red church's yard, children were playing and laughing. In her kitchen, people were cooking and eating; in her sanctuary, people were praising and thanking God for gifts of hope and healing.
And so (naturally) the little red church woke up.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42
This piece appeared first as my July column for Baptist News Global. You'll find the full text at the link below.
Source: Amazing grace: Settling a troubled soul – Baptist News Global
When I stepped onto her hall, I could see her slippered feet just outside the door frame of her room. In her wheelchair, she rocked heel to toe, toe to heel, back and forth and back again.
“Hey, there,” I said, crouching to her height and attempting to push her chair back so I could get into the room. (Imagine a 5’4” duck wearing jeans and a tie-dye T-shirt pushing a wheelchair backwards; you get the picture.) I managed it, then pulled a stool right up next to her chair so I could speak directly in her ear. Nonagenarian ears aren’t especially known for their acuity, you know.
She does not know me; when I began my job at her church, she was already at the point of needing care. . . .
Having battled depression since I was in the first grade, I’ve gotten lots of suggestions and advice over the years on how to “get over it.” Here are just a few of those and the responses I would love to have given.
See, me, I think you just don’t take things seriously enough. Have you given any thought to world hunger lately? Poverty? Abuse? Because I have and it’s pretty serious stuff. You see me getting upset because of one (so-called) minor incident and you think I’m overreacting. What you don’t get is that, I’m not just responding to this occurrence. I was already thinking about the world’s pain and suffering. Then this thing happens and I’m catapulted into a thought process that attempts to take into account all sadness, all pain, all brokenness of all time. You try thinking about that without getting serious.
Oh okay. If you’d just hold my brain for a minute or . . . I dunno . . . a decade.
What you don’t understand is that I do not have an emotional epidermis. Think of me as a hairless cat. Wait no. No one should think about that. Ever. Think of me as . . . well . . . think of me as someone who doesn’t have an emotional epidermis. Best I can tell, my filters are super permeable. More stuff just gets to me.
Also, I’m not consciously choosing to be “too sensitive” as you seem to think. I’m trying to handle emotional difficulties better; but when you say “You’re just too sensitive,” what I hear is, “You are broken. Fix yourself.” Your not-at-all-well-thought-out advice reinforces what I already believe about myself. And that makes me want to curl up and sleep for a week. Which just makes people say, “You take things too seriously.” (See above.)
I promise you, I’m working on it. You can’t imagine how hard I’m working on it. This time, I just didn’t have the energy to use the coping strategies I’m developing. And I’m tired of picking up the mask every time I face people. So when you see me like this, please refrain from giving me your pithy solutions; instead of reducing my depression, they actually inflame the condition.
On it! Thanks for the suggestion. Wow. Wish I could have known you 45 years ago. Would have saved lots of money in counseling and pharmaceuticals. Gosh, really! I’m all fixed now. Thanks!
You are so right. I don’t. That’s why I don’t understand why I feel this way. Nothing is wrong. Except for everything. And also nothing. But everything.
Here’s the way things go down inside my brain:
Brain: You have no real problems.
Me: Then what’s wrong with me?
Brain: Lots of people have it worse than you! You have no reason to be depressed.
Me: You’re right; I’m such a loser.
Brain: Think about all the people who have truly difficult struggles. Victims of assault or abuse, people in poor health, those who are bereaved. You literally have no problems.
Me: You’re right. I have absolutely no right to feel this way.
Brain: Then stop feeling.
Me: Okay, how?
Brain: Ummmm. Yeah, I got nothing. Not my expertise.
So I hear you, I do. I even quote you to myself all the time. As a matter of fact, there’s no need for you ever to say this to me again. I say it to myself plenty.
Is that a question or an accusation? If it’s a question, settle in friend. I’ve got lots to say. Most people, though, don’t really want to hear the “why.” It’s not really a question at all. It’s an expression of frustration and I get it! It is hard to live with or around someone who is chronically sad. But if you really want to help, give me compassion not judgment. Compassion is infinitely more effective in reducing depression’s symptoms. So instead of making the above statement, why don’t you just create a safe place for me where love is plentiful and mercy is abundant, k? Thanks.
Here’s the thing: if someone you know or love is suffering from chronic depression, resist the urge to give offhand advice. Instead, offer grace: because grace, like love, never fails.