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.
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
“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)
Racism. It can be so sneaky. I know. Racism snuck up on me and I never saw it coming.
There I was, sitting in Jan Davis Tire Store (time to get the tires rotated), minding my own business, when in walks (I kid you not) Osama Bin Laden’s nephew. Olive skinned and bearded, with a pill-box shaped hat perched on his Middle Eastern hair, he wore billowing britches, a flowing blouse that reached his knees, and a long linen vest draped over the whole ensemble. He approached the counter; I didn’t hear what the clerk called him, but I think it was Mr. Bin Laden.
Now, it would have been bad enough having a terrorist’s blood kin walk into the place of business I was patronizing had I not been studying (you guessed it) biblical Hebrew, of all things. And I was sitting right by the door, practically in the doorway.
So I think to myself, Well now, Osama Bin Laden’s nephew has just walked into Jan Davis Tire Store and I’m sitting in his pathway reading Hebrew. How very nice is that. Well. Hmm. How should I handle this situation since I know I’m not an over-reactive person and I’m certainly not a racist for heaven’s sake!
About that time, the fella turns around and before I realize what I’m doing, I smile and say hello (because I smile and say hello to everyone—it’s a habit). He smiles back, says hello, does not pull out a machine gun, and proceeds out the door. Then he stops, noticing my book, and comes back inside the store.
“You’re reading Hebrew?” His eyes are kind.
Stupid racism! I mentally slap myself for slipping into the stereotypes that are based on the tiniest minority and are so unfair. I know better. But knowing and doing have never been the same. This person is a potential friend, regardless of his religious or political background. Shame on me for missing that, if even for a moment. Ugh! I can't stand racism! Especially when I find it in my own self.
“You don’t see many people reading Hebrew in Asheville.” He smiles, chuckles a little.
I smile back and explain. “No, I guess not. I’m in divinity school. I’m taking Hebrew and I have a test next week.”
He asks where I go to school and then where Gardner-Webb is and we talk about that for a minute or two. The conversation turns back to Hebrew.
“I read Hebrew,” he says, “but only about as well as a third grader.” His countenance is warm, open.
“That’s great. I’ll have to learn a lot more to get to the third grade level.” We both laugh a little.
“Well, good luck on your test. Have a great day.”
“You too,” I say and I really hope that he does. I hope, I pray, that throughout this day, Godly people will treat him the way they would want to be treated.
“It was nice meeting you,” I say, and I really mean it.
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2 (NIV)
Originally posted 9-27-09
“I got the invitation to my friend's birthday party, Mommy.”
My 11-year-old daughter, Margaret hesitated, seeming to withhold information.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, dragging the word into two syllables, “it’s a sleepover.”
“And . . . ”
“And what, Margaret?”
“Well, it’s on a Saturday night, but I really want to go and she only invited two other girls and if I don’t go then that would mean she only had two girls at her party and that’s if those two girls can actually come and what’s the chance of that, I mean probably one of them can’t come and that would be horrible to have a birthday party and only have one friend there don’t you think mommy, so can I go please?”
Saturday night sleepovers. I don’t much care for them. You see, I want my kids in church with us on Sunday morning and Saturday night sleepovers make that tricky at best. Sure it’s fine to visit church with friends, but I feel like there will be plenty of time for that when they are older. For now, this family goes to church together on Sunday mornings. It's a parenting priority.
After we talked about it, Margaret shared our plan with her friend. According to Margaret, it went something like this.
“Guess what? I can go to your party!”
“Only I have to leave at 8:00 Sunday morning.”
“Whoa. That’s really early.”
“Yeah. I know. But I get to go to the party and I’ll be there early so we can have plenty of time together. It’s just I have to leave at 8:00 so we can get to church on time.”
“Okay, but Margaret? Can’t you miss church just once?”
As she told me the story, Margaret demonstrated how she shook her head in disbelief before she laughed, answering her friend, “Ummm, have you ever met my mom?”
Church. Around here, it’s a priority.
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 overwhelming. 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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“Right. And then something happens to remind us that Jesus has been there the whole time.”
“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
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
“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.