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.
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.
“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)
“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!
“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.
Becoming a big sister.
I stood on tippy toes to reach the phone, still corded. Daddy gave me the news: “It’s a boy!”
Learning to read.
The letters were right there in colored chalk. “C-A-T means this.” My sister stood beside her chalkboard, pointing to a picture she had drawn of a cat. And in that moment, I got it.
Losing a pet.
I tried to get Pickles, our Cocker Spaniel, to come back; she kept running after the car. Straddling the banana seat on my bike, I called and called to her. But Pickles never came. “Do dogs go to heaven, Mama?” and “Will I ever stop missing her?”
Falling in love.
In the end, she didn’t know any of us. No matter: loving Grandmama for better or worse gave me sweet joy and made me a better me.
Becoming Aunt Aileen.
Nothing. Nothing prepared me (has prepared me yet) for the joy of it.
Believing beyond Meredith’s birth.
When Meredith was born twinless, my faith quivered at its core. This one was to be two, this tiny singleton sans sister who fought for her life in NICU. Praying through the questions, working through the doubt, set new roots to my faith. (Meredith—one of my 12—is all grown up now. Thanks be to God.)
He was only 3 years and 7 months old when he died on April 6 2008. I still wish the truth were a lie--I wish that Paxten still lived on, growing bigger, getting stronger. I do not want it to be true that he's gone. Yet while losing him hurt like nothing I'd experienced before, it was loving him that changed me: Love fast, Live now, Laugh anyway, Linger a little longer. I loved loving Paxten. I love him still.
Originally posted 4-6-09
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.
“I Wub You.”
“I love you too, Paxten.”
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.
“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.
“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
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. . .”
Update September 1, 2015
Since I published this seven years ago, Caleb Spady slipped from his earthly father's arms into the embrace of his Heavenly Father. He passed away 15 months after his diagnosis on July 21, 2009. Many others have been diagnosed with DIPG since then. It is a cruel and horrible disease.
But there is good news. Research is being done; treatments are being perfected. Because people are becoming more aware, more funding is available for all pediatric cancers. Don't be afraid to learn about pediatric cancer. Awareness doesn't lead to cancer diagnoses. Awareness leads to hope.
Knowledge. It really is a good thing.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Each year, Chili's holds a Donate-The-Profits day to benefit St. Jude's research hospital. This year, that day is Monday, September 14, 2015. Find a Chili's that day and eat up! Just by doing that, you'll be making a difference in the life a child.
Published on: Aug 29, 2008
Five months ago, at a huge party to celebrate a life that we already knew would be way too short, Paxten Andrew Mitchell gave me a big hug and a kiss. As he fell into my embrace, I rubbed his fuzzy head, feeling hair there for the first time in our year-long friendship. Later Paxten wrestled me to the floor and stood triumphantly above me giggling at my weakness.
In less than a month, Paxten’s fight against cancer ended at Heaven’s gate. Now my friend Kim Spady is fighting for the life of her son Caleb, a vibrant ten year old boy with a ticking bomb in his brain called a Diffused Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG).
Caleb, like his brothers, is the joy of his parents’ hearts and the pesky younger brother to Jacob and older brother to Seth and Luke. DIPG is totally random. Kim & Ken could not have protected Caleb from this monster by having the right genetic mix or by sealing Caleb in a bubble from birth. They could not have kept DIPG from attacking their son. But now they will move heaven and earth to win the fight over DIPG. (Caleb passed away on July 21, 2009. He was 11 years old.)
Surely we can all do something to stop these random pediatric cancers from ripping open our hearts and tearing out our children. Kim believes, and I know she is right, that the first step is awareness.
Would you visit one of these links and become a little more aware?
You don’t have to become an expert. Just learn one thing. You don’t have to spend your whole night on the internet (Kim’s already doing that). Just learn a little bit. I’ll never get another hug from Paxten on this side of Glory, but one way I can honor the gift God gave me in Paxten, is to spread the word about pediatric cancers.
Join me, okay? Together, we can strengthen the hope for a cure. Because as Kim says, “One day a child with DIPG will be healed. Maybe even today.”