“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. (Names changed.)
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 Alma is not alone, and Beatrice isn't and neither is Carol. 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 there's a bridge for Denise and Elmer and all grieving parents and that Karl and Jenna can cross it too. And I sigh so deep within my spirit, beyond the flood of tears that chokes my heart for those living in the grip of poverty. I sigh with relief because as I do, I find that the Spirit is already there; the bridge is already built. Everyone has brand new boots with nice long straps. I don't have to find the words to the perfect prayer; because “. . .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.
Technically, in the biological and legal sense, she's no relation. Meredith, daughter of my dear friend Debbie, was born July 4, 1995 at 25.5 weeks; her identical twin fell victim to twin to twin transfusion. Meredith lives 1000 miles away, but for nearly 15 years, our families celebrated Thanksgiving together. I'm so very grateful to have this grown-up miracle in my life.
My beloved Meredith,
Who could have ever guessed that a baby who weighed less than two pounds could make such a big impression on my life? You slipped into this world three months before you were due, right by yourself (your identical twin went straight to heaven, bypassing Earth altogether). Immediately, though, you found yourself surrounded by love—family, friends, medical staff—and found within your tiny little self, the spirit of a champion. I am so very thankful for you, sweet girl, and I thought it was time I tried to tell you how grateful I am for the gift of YOU.
Thank you baby Meredith, for surviving your shaky beginning. Somewhere in your amazing self, you found the will to thrive. So, after four months in NICU and I-can’t-even-remember-how-many days on the ventilator, you went home. It was only a few weeks later that I got to hold you for the first time. Thank you, tiny one, for smiling at me so readily. I can still recall the feeling I had, holding all five pounds of you (a pound for each month of your life), looking into your beautiful brown eyes. You made me feel like I was the only person in the world. Thank you.
Thank you little girl Meredith, for always being delighted to see me. (You’ve always been so easily delighted.) Thanks for crawling up in my lap, for letting me read to you, for playing games and watching movies with me, for letting me push you on the swings. And as hard as leaving always was, thanks for always holding on so tightly to me, asking me not to leave, begging us to stay longer next time. Oh how I loved every precious moment of those fleeting days.
Thank you middle school Meredith, for being so unexpectedly full of spunk. I know it wasn’t easy. I’m so grateful for the grit in your makeup that kept you moving forward. Middle school is just the worst, isn’t it? I’m so grateful that you survived those difficult times. Thanks for liking me when it was hard even to like yourself. It felt so undeserved and it felt like treasure. It still does.
Thanks high school Meredith, for sticking with it. It is just so very hard . . . being. Especially in high school. But you connected and found friends I’m certain you’ll have for life. Thanks for not giving up on my Meredith during high school. I’m eternally, endlessly grateful.
I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to have you in my life, but I’m even more grateful that you let me be a part of yours. Thanks for emailing, Facebooking, texting, and SnapChatting with me. Thanks for loving me from far away and for still wanting me to be with you. I’m so very grateful.
You will have nieces and nephews of your own before you can truly know how gratified my heart is that you are a part of my life. So thank you dear girl. Thank you for being Meredith.
I loved you before you were born.
When Jack was born, Booker T. Washington was still the principal at Tuskegee Institute. Bernice & Corrine came along later; by the time of their births, Lyndon B. Johnson had already been elected to the House of Representatives. Carrie is the youngster of the group: she was born just as Rosa Parks became active in the NAACP.
None of these senior adults grew up around people who looked much different than they did. And, even if Bernice & Corrine had lived closed together, it’s unlikely that they would have become lifelong friends. There were too many obstacles, too many barriers. Well. It just wasn’t done.
But today things are a little different. Every Thursday at the Senior Opportunity Center in Asheville these folk and others join my exercise class: Jack, a 97 year old white guy who walks with two canes; Bernice and Carrie, African American grandmothers; and Corrine, a cheerful white lady who lives with her kids.
Really, they should not get along. They should not be friends. Their not-so-shared histories should demand a certain distance.
And believe me: it wasn’t easy at first. A senior center in West Asheville closed. Participants who chose to continue in the program had to go to the downtown location, taking the bus further than they had travelled previously. These West Asheville members, almost to a person, are white. Downtown participants come from lots of different backgrounds; many are African American. In the beginning, when I would come to teach fitness, the West Asheville folk would sit on one side of the semi-circle and the downtown folk on the other: divided by a visible color line that would have made Jim Crow proud.
But then one day Carrie happened to be sitting beside a white woman named Mae, each on their own side of course, but right next to each other. Carrie said something funny and Mae laughed. Or was it the other way around? I forget. But they laughed. Together. So the next week, they made a point to sit beside each other again.
And the line began to fade.
They’ve been together three years now, those two groups. In a recent class, Jack sat beside Bernice who sat beside Carrie. Yao—a Chinese lady who speaks only scant English—sat on his other side, next to Corrine. No one seemed to realize that they weren’t supposed to be friends, these relics from a different time. No one seemed to remember that they had once been on opposite sides—and not just in my class either. In fact, no one seemed to notice race, creed, or heritage at all.
“Arms up reaching side to side,” I instructed the class. “Now reach over and give your neighbor a pat on the back.”
And they did. Without hesitation.
May God Almighty bless you . . .
until you become a community of peoples.
(One of my favorite posts of all time, this one was first published in 2011.)
An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord." Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV
"Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"
Twenty voices sang to the little guest of honor enthroned in her high chair. Anna Kate, celebrating her second birthday, celebrated her first in a very different place. Back then, she lay in a Russian orphanage awaiting her turn for nourishment and a little nurture as well.
"Happy Birthday Anna Kay-ate! Happy Birthday to you!"
Anna Kate beamed, looking around at all the people gathered just for her. A look of wonder filled her eyes as she said just one word, "Happy."
And in that moment, I beheld joy in the shape of a little girl. I got a snapshot, just a glimpse, of what it must have been like to see the face of Christ.
Christ had a second birthday too, you know. When Jesus was two years old and toddling about, do you think humanity realized the treasure in its midst? Of course Mary did, and Joseph. And surely other family members recognized that this baby was indeed extraordinary. But there must have been those who missed their chance to cradle joy incarnate in their arms. There must've been.
This advent season, we are called to embrace the coming of Christ. Don't miss your chance. Celebrate the joy of Christ today.
"Jesus, let us glimpse this day, joy incarnate. In the midst of our 21st century frenzy, slow us down that we might recognize your face, thereby experiencing the wonder of Advent."
Anna Kate & family 2018
8/12/2018 How fitting that on my first day as shepherd at Ecclesia Baptist, my "Hur" surprised me and came to the service. Thanks be to God for this precious and dear friend!
8Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. 13And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword. Exodus 17:8-13
Imagine the pressure: Moses—who as we know had his share of problems as leader of the children of Israel—is now in the midst of a battle. The battle goes well for his people as long as Moses lifts his arms; when his arms sag, so does the will of the people and the battle goes badly for them. Think about it. Or try it. Just try lifting your arms while you read this short blog. (I know: you have to lower one arm to scroll down. Make that little exception.) The leader, Moses, was faced with a situation that was physically taxing—one he could not manage on his own. Thank goodness for Aaron and Hur.
Most of us church goers have heard of Aaron. He’s the brother of Moses, the one who spoke for Moses. You may remember the story (you can find it in Exodus 4:13-15). But Hur is a less familiar name. Yet Hur seems to be a part of Moses’ inner circle of support just as Aaron was. In this passage, he’s there offering support to Moses when he grows weary. In a later passage (Exodus 24:13-15), Moses refers the people to Hur and Aaron for handling disputes when he left for the Mount of Sinai.
Leaders need people like Hur: people who will hold them up during times of trial, people they can rely on when responsibilities call them off site. In fact, leaders cannot lead effectively without the Hurs in their lives.
Several years ago, I was serving as coordinator of special grants at a community college. While there, I found out how a Hur can help a leader serve more effectively. In that job, (believe me) I had my share of battles. Sometimes I felt as if I were on the frontline, with student frustrations and provider disputes exploding all around me. I could not have managed on my own. Thank goodness for Keisha.
Keisha worked with me, fielding the frustrations and deciding the disputes. She held my arms up when I grew weary. She stood in for me when I had to be away. Of course, Keisha did not get a lot of credit in the annals of community college history for being my support system. But like Hur, Keisha shared her talents and abilities readily, making possible any successes we experienced in our little department.
Oh, you can put your arms down now. And be encouraged: you don't have to lead alone. Thank Goodness.
(Are you a Moses or a Hur? Have you had a Hur in your life?)
In 2009, I wrote this post for a different blog. June 22, 2014--I preached from this text, in part because our children had heard this story during VBS the previous week.
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.
Published originally January 22, 2011
Certain things bring certain people to mind. Like, at the mention of oatmeal raisin cookies, I think of my father-in-law. That man (inexplicably) believes those are the best cookies on the planet. I can just hear our ongoing debate over the benefits of other cookies, me trying to convince him that a chocolate chip cookie is most definitely superior. If I hear or see a phrase in Latin, in the same instant, my sister (a Latin teacher) comes to mind. I see her (really see her) standing, toga clad, before her students. I hear her voice, so full of passion when she talks about the language she loves. When I see daisies, my friend Traci’s favorite flower, I’m transported to her daisy-themed kitchen.
So, when I saw the order of worship at First Baptist of Marion last Sunday, I just figured the music minister had known Dan Goodman. After all, it was only a few days earlier that we marked the second anniversary of Dr. Goodman’s death. So surely, when “Be Thou My Vision” was chosen for the anthem, it was in his memory; everyone knows that was his favorite hymn.
It was the hymn we sang in the chapel on the day he died. It was sung at his funeral. And whenever someone wants to honor him, they often sing that song, post the title as their Facebook™ status, or Tweet™ a few of its words. “Be Thou My Vision.” Dan Goodman. The two were forever linked.
But the music minister didn’t know Dan Goodman personally. I asked him.
Meanwhile, Dr. Goodman’s wife, Barbara, was already at the early service in another town. She was worshiping that day with one of our mutual friends. On the way to church, Barbara mentioned, “Did you see that Aileen’s preaching in Marion today?” He had. (Facebook™. Gotta love it.) Sometime during their worship service, they made a quick decision to ditch that church and head over to Marion. Now I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure how they made their exit. Me, I like to picture them jumping up mid-homily, hurdling over co-pew dwellers, and racing out of the sanctuary. But that’s just me.
Back in Marion, the service began. From the dais, I spotted my friends in the congregation quickly, touched by their presence. I looked at Barbara, always so beautiful, her eyes sparkling, having pulled off this surprise.
The anthem. Did she know yet?
The time came. The choir stood. The organist played. My eyes found Barbara’s. The song began.
And there was Dan Goodman. Rushing out of Greek class saying, “I’ve got a lunch date with Barbara. I can’t be late for Barbara.” There he was before our New Testament class, telling of the early death of his own father, saying how much he would hate for his sons to have to endure what he did. “Maybe that’s why I want all four of us together all the time,” he said, laughing as he told us his boys were beginning to think he was dorky for wanting to be around them constantly. There he was, sunglasses clipped to the back of his shirt, water bottle in hand, standing outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. “The Jews believe memory is sacred,” he said. “Sacred memory. It’s just one more way to worship.”
The song drew to a close: "High King of heaven, my victory won, May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heav'ns Son! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Still be my vision, O ruler of all.”
The choir took their seats. The organist moved over to the piano bench. And the service proceeded, moved along by the rush of the Spirit, the light of the Son, and the immeasurable, unfathomable, inescapable love of God.
“Thou my best thought, by day or by night; Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.” From stanza one, “Be Thou My Vision.”
Back story: Back in 1983, I began my freshman year at Campbell University. Within the first few days, I met Tammy and later Lisa. They are, in fact, two separate people, but I can’t think of one without the other, even for the purposes of a thank you note.
Truly, I can’t remember ever being as surprised as I was when I walked into my 50th birthday celebration Wednesday night and saw you both standing there. I can’t imagine the scheduling magic you must have pulled off to rearrange life’s demands so you could travel across the state to my party. What a gift! Thank you. Thank you for always being there for me.
Well. Not exactly always. As I recall, you were happy to stay safe and sound in your dorm room the night we watched Fatal Attraction on TV. Neither of you offered to walk me back to my room across campus, despite the very real danger of Glenn Close following me back to my dorm, only to arise bloody in my shower.
But ya know, other than that, you’ve been there.
You were there that freezing cold weekend in 2010 when I was ordained to the ministry. You came, husbands in tow, and celebrated every moment of the weekend with me and mine. Certainly, there was a financial sacrifice that weekend, but even more, I know you sacrificed family time and work responsibilities to be there with me. Thank you for taking the time. It mattered so much.
It mattered in part because you honored my call to ministry. You’ve known me longer than many, so you know--you’ve witnessed--my failings. You know my brokenness, my weakness, and my shortcomings. You know I’m flawed in countless ways. Yet your presence there that weekend, and again this week in the church where I serve, reminded me, “Yes Jesus loves me. I am weak but He is strong. Yes Jesus loves me.” Thank you for being the voice of God to me, reminding me that I am indeed worthy of this call God has placed on my life.
If that were all you two had ever done for me that would be enough for me to be forever in your debt. But there’s so much more. So here’s a list of other things.
Of course there is more. There will always be more. But Tammy and Lisa, know that I am grateful for your friendship. I love you both immeasurably.
With heart full of gratitude,
In 1995 when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed by Timothy McVeigh, news reporters talked as much about the tragedy as they did about the heart of the Oklahoma people. Remember? It seemed like for every sorrow-filled story, the networks supplied at least one testimony of how wonderful Oklahomans are.
And you know what? They spoke the truth.
Back then, I had just moved back to NC from OK. My husband and I thought we were coming back to good ole' Dixieland where ever'body loved ever'body and good manners were mandated by state law. But when we arrived in Raleigh, NC we were met not with the hospitality we expected, but with angry drivers hunkered down behind their steering wheels. These Southern belles and their blueblood beaus were more than a little ticked off. Pretty soon, we knew why: there’s just not enough room for everybody, what with all the orange cones & “Lane Closed Ahead” signs. No kidding, when we moved back to North Carolina in 1992, it seemed like every single road in the state was under construction.
And good manners? Fahgetaboutit! If a motorist had the right of way, you could bet your sweet ice tea they weren't giving up their spot just to let you over—particularly if you were sporting an Oklahoma license plate. Heck, there wadn't enough room for the locals, much less a bunch of foreigners . . . .
Back in Oklahoma, there was plenty of room. I commuted to Chickasha from Oklahoma City. I travelled mostly on a turnpike and on many mornings it was me and the wide open road. After paying my toll, I rarely saw another human being until the city limits of Chickasha 40 miles away (yet so very many dead armadillos along the way—go figure). By then, I was as happy to see another car as the other driver was. We’d wave at each other as if we were headed to the family reunion.
In Oklahoma, there’s elbow room a plenty. Okies can twirl their two-steppin’ skirts and kick up their cowboy boots without ever touching anybody. They can stand on the edge of Oklahoma City facing west and point to Yukon 20 miles away. In Oklahoma, folks got space. Lots and lots of space.
I think that’s one of the reasons Okies are so warm and friendly: ‘cause they can breathe. Sometimes, I feel like I'm being strangled by all my doing, thinking and being. I feel like my schedule is caving in on itself and that I'm at risk of being trapped in the rubble. No doubt about it, I need a little space: space to inhale and then exhale; space to relax; space to realize how much love there is in the world and how little everything else matters.
So I think I'll take a moment right now. I'll breathe in and breathe out. I'll pay attention, but not too much. I'll breathe again. Ahhh. Space. It can sure smell sweet.