Christmas Longings – Past and Future Make the Present Better!

Should I long for Christmas past or future? The way things used to be is a tempting road to travel. There are good memories even when things were difficult. My Mother had a major stroke in late fall 1992 and was in a coma for several days. I clung to her bed-rail asking her to wake up and come back. Out of motherly love she did, but it was a terribly difficult life for her. She could barely smile and move just one hand. She couldn’t walk or speak above a whisper.

Christmas 1992 was tough. Mother had a little tree with lights in her nursing home room, but it was hard to see her like she was. Just before Christmas, Cindy and I and the children visited on my parent’s anniversary, December 23. I had the flu and wasn’t allowed inside. Cindy and our children were in the room and I was outside her window looking in. We tried to sing Christmas carols to her with me trying loud enough for her to hear me through the glass. I’ll never forget her look and her smile back at me as she was propped up on a pillow.

She died thirteen days later, January 5, 1993, from another stroke. Oh, how I have missed her, but wished I had let her go months earlier, but I was too selfish. I still feel guilty for begging her to wake up from her initial stroke. She would have been so much better off. We have to love people enough to let them go to that place where there is no more pain or sorrow. But it’s hard, isn’t it? I was only 36, way too young, in my mind, for my Mom to die.

Longing for Christmas Past is nostalgic and idyllic, but it isn’t reality. As Christians we are more a New Jerusalem people than Garden of Eden ones. Living in the past isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Sure, there are fond memories, but the future is the culmination of our hope. Adam and Eve were exited from Eden after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cherubim with flaming swords kept them from going back inside. I used to think that was part of God’s punishment, but I think differently now. If they could have gone back they might have eaten from the Tree of Life, and then having eaten from both trees they would have lived forever knowing both good and evil. That would have been a horrible thing. God wants us to only know good forever so the cherubim with flaming swords were God’s agents of grace.

The New Jerusalem is our destination where there is no sorrow or pain. If the good old days were really that good how did we get into the mess we’re in today? So let’s focus on making the world a better place and working for God’s preferred future. What can we do to make the Kingdom come when all things will be set right, no more evil, injustice, sickness or oppression?

To be honest, some of that future vision does depend on a recollection of the past. I think that it’s okay to reminisce about lessons learned and people who graced our lives in years gone by. The past becomes a tutor and that’s okay, but that’s very different from it being a prison. We need to learn from it, but not languish in it. What helps me most is to remember the good things and try to build on them. That turns the past into a healthy present that springboards us into a great future.

As an example, my Grandmother, Milbria Dorn Jackson, known as “Mib” to many of her friends, conjures up a plethora of memories. Some are great and others not. My perspective is jaded because I lived with her. She was of tough German extraction. There are two smells that immediately come to mind when I think of her: BenGay and Sauer Kraut. There was a kraut jar in the kitchen where she fermented cabbage, and BenGay was her daily medicine for what she called her “neuralgia.”

She wasn’t what I would call the world’s jolliest person. As a matter of fact, she could be pretty stern. She was devoted to my older brother, but my middle brother and I were too rambunctious. I’m just saying, she was tough on us. Papa was jolly and happy, but nobody would claim that Grandmother was the life of the party. She wasn’t!

But, you know if I dwell on the not-so-fond memories of the past, it doesn’t do me much good. It makes me forget the good things like the twinkle of Grandmother’s clear blue eyes. The same eyes of my Uncle J.C. Thinking only of her strict standards makes me forget that she loved to hear me whistle and told me so. Nobody else ever did that. Thinking of her not-so-frivolous nature makes me forget how much she shaped me in good wonderful ways.

There’s a Bible on my shelf in my study that she gave me for Christmas 1964. Let me tell you, as a 9 year old in 1964 I thought that a Bible was the worst present ever. You couldn’t play with it, and it just underscored her usual guilt trips for our shenanigans. I opened it this morning just to glimpse her handwriting and was astounded to read something that I had forgotten was even there. The whole inscription reads: “To Tim from Grandmother, the one that loves you dearly. December 25, 1964.”

Wow, “…the one that loved loves you dearly.” If I only lived in the past of BenGay and Kraut, I would have forgotten the amazing love and gift that it was to experience her daily presence. So my advice is to let the past inform you, but don’t live there. If conjured up, remember the good times and good things. The rest does you very little good. We weren’t meant to stay in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s disaster, but to live forever only knowing good in the New Jerusalem! Savor your good Christmas memories, and make new ones for the future.

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A Christmas Gift From My Mother

Christmas 1978 was memorable, and not for all the right reasons. Cindy and I were in seminary in Boston. We wouldn’t be able to come home for the holidays, but I wanted to spread some cheer, especially to my Mother. She was always keen on doing unselfish things for others. She had a huge heart and was generous to a fault. She didn’t like much fanfare or thanks. She was kind to the core. Plus she was gifted in making crafts which provided a never-ending source of “pretties,” as she called them, to give to people.

One Christmas I recall her melting paraffin and pouring countless quart milk cartoons full of wax to make candles. She painted. She crocheted all sorts of things. At Christmas 1978 she decided to make a gift for President Jimmy Carter’s 11 year old daughter, Amy. Since President Carter had been a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, Mother decided to crochet what she called a “peanut doll” for Amy’s Christmas present. From what she described to me on the phone, it was an elaborately painted peanut with all the features exquisitely done with a full blown costume including a purse and shoes.

She also described the derision that my brother Carlee and my Father heaped on her. They said things like, “She probably won’t even get the doll. The Secret Service will confiscate it.” “You’re wasting all your time on something, and you’ll never even get a thank-you note.” She told me all of their comments, and I decided right then and there to do something about it. Cindy and I might not be able to come home for Christmas, but I could certainly stand up for my Mom. I wanted to silence her critics!

The next Friday I called. My brother answered and I put on a fake voice, “This is James McCabe calling from the White House. I want to express to Mrs. McClendon the gratitude of President and Mrs. Carter for the gift sent to their daughter, Amy.” Before I could say anything else from my script, my brother interrupted, “I’m sorry. She’s not here, but if you will call back in 15 minutes she will be here.” I said, “Certainly. I’ll call back.”

I didn’t think about my Mother’s usual Friday hair appointment at Sara’s in Edgefield. Anyway, I found out what my brother did. He went into town, burst into the all-female domain, blurted out that a phone call from the White House had been received, and that they were calling back in a few minutes. Mother was rushed out with her hair half-completed and whisked home.

I made the call with just the right amount of delay. Mother answered the phone and I went into my spiel: “This is James McCabe, White House Chief of Staff, and I just wanted to convey the President’s thanks for the lovely Christmas gift to his daughter.” I went on a little further and then gave her time to respond. She said, “Thank you so much for calling. I didn’t expect this at all. I just wanted to let Amy know that I was thinking about her and wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas.” She said some other formal sounding pleasantries, ever the Southern Lady in genuine appreciation for the call.

You could smell and hear the honeysuckle dripping. I couldn’t hold back any longer so I semi-yelled, “Mama, it’s me, Tim! I wanted to show up Daddy and Carlee for making fun of you….” She interrupted me, as if I hadn’t said anything or revealed my true identity, and said, “Once again, Mr. McCabe, thank you for your call. My husband and son are standing right here and are so pleased that the White House has called. Have a Merry Christmas and give my best to the President and Mrs. Carter, and, of course, to Amy. Goodbye.”

As I learned later, my brother drove her back into town whereupon she was greeted at Sara’s like a regal queen. No doubt they had heard about my Dad and brother’s mocking of her crocheted Christmas gift to Amy Carter. She told them about the call and got back under the dryer. By afternoon she had been contacted by what we affectionately called the “Edgefield Astonisher.” A front-page article the next week was titled, “White House Phone Call.”

Mother called me and said in no uncertain terms that I should never, ever, ever do anything like that again. My Dad and brother never learned the truth. Mother went to her grave never spilling the beans. I’ve wondered ever since what the moral of this Christmas story is. I think I’ve got it now. Mother always did things for others without ever wanting any thanks. She would have been happy even if she never got a thank-you note from the White House, which she did, by the way, the very next week. I was the one who wanted thanks as I blurted out my name to her on the phone. It was my way of saying, “I’m the one you ought to thank for defending you.”

I was right to defend her, but I was wrong to have wanted her thanks. It made the whole ruse about me more than about her. Well, my lesson was that Mama didn’t need defending nor did she require thanks. I wish that I was more like her every day. We don’t give gifts for the thanks we receive. God sure didn’t when he gave us Jesus, the best Christmas gift of all.

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Christmas Weddings and Wakes

Christmas memories are forever, good ones and not-so-good. My mother’s parents’ wedding anniversary was December 25. Since they lived with us, we were the hub where everyone gathered on Christmas Day. We laughed, exhibited our favorite gifts to one another, shot fireworks, and ate turkey, dressing, ambrosia and caramel cake. It was hilarious and holy all in one. I can hear Papa’s laugh and Grandmother’s orders. I can see Mother’s every-year-a-different-theme of decorations adorning the seventeen-stepped hall bannister. I can also see heavy-set Uncle Lee waddling up those same stairs to see the children play, the only adult brave or caring enough to dare invade our space.

He was also the one who gave us the strangest, yet most precious gifts. Uncle Lee would wrap a signed $2 bill around a pig’s ear, foot, or some other part then bundle it up in meat wrapping paper and grace each child with semi-macabre joy. I still have those treasures including a silver dollar with his “L.J.” initials in red fingernail polish across the coin’s face. The memories were mostly happy and they should have been. We found our cedar trees and cut them down. We were like explorers looking for treasure every year as we went Christmas tree hunting. Christmas was magical.

Christmas elicited the most marvelous experiences and memories. For instance, my call to ministry was shaped by Christmas Communion by candlelight at Trinity Episcopal. I can sense the awe and the love of God incarnate in Jesus right this minute. The Lord’s Supper never tasted so real. God marked me at Christmas. To this day, Christmas Eve services without communion just aren’t enough.

Christmas brought out the best in most people. I sold fireworks for my Uncle Homer every day of the holidays, a continuation of his son Jackie’s business. I nearly froze to death in that tiny little stand. I was warmed with very little heat thanks to all the gunpowder at hand. It was a happy joy to help a myriad collection of people celebrate the holidays. That was a gift in itself.

Christmas always meant love was in the air, too. It was not only my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, but my Mother and Father got married on December 23. In doing some family research this seems to be an automatic thing. Multiple generations have December weddings. Cindy and I got married on December 20, 41 years ago this year. We honestly didn’t think about any familial connection. I thought we were just too enamored with one another to wait until June.

But Christmas was a sad time, too. Uncle Lee died suddenly on December 23, 1974. Grandmother died sixteen days before our wedding on December 4, 1975. Uncle J.C. died on December 8, 2000. Weddings and wakes have been our family’s December experience for generations. Christmas has been the best of times and the worst of times. That sounds a lot like the first Christmas with Caesar Augustus and the Pax Romana, the enforced peace of Rome cobbled with a taxation to fund it. Good times and bad ones. That’s life, isn’t it?

And Jesus entered it, just like He always does. Jesus comes when we’re having a blast and making good memories, and He’s with us when times are tough and hard. Some of the chairs will be empty around the Christmas table again this year. Some of them will be filled by new mini-me’s of the latest iterations of our collective progeny. That probably won’t lessen the pain, but it certainly helps.

That’s our story, your story, humanity’s story. Maybe my family has been shaped by Christmas more than most as we ride the roller coaster of weddings and wakes, but, if anything, it has made us real. We’re such a Faulknerian Southern family. We have more saints and sinners than a story-teller like me can use, but authenticity is never a problem for us. Even better this Advent and Christmas is the Good News that Jesus is more real than us. He is the authentic, fully Human, fully Divine Savior. Whoever we are, whatever we’re going through, as my late brother Carlee always repeated, “Best of all, God is with us.” Emmanuel has come! He came to deliver us from everything that needs to be left behind. He came to make all things, including memories, new. Hallelujah!

All Saints’ as God’s Trick AND Treat!

I have great memories of Halloween! My Mother was the Queen of the best candy routes and had a waiting list of people who wanted to accompany us trick-or-treating. She’s very much on my mind as we approach Halloween. All Saints’ Day is a reminder that she is yet alive and that her influence lives on and inspires me. When Mother died in January of 1983 I was in my middle 30’s and since that time one of the most important lines of the Apostles’ Creed has been, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Yes, I do!

On some days, my mind goes back to recollections of Mother and it poignantly cheers me, affirms me, and gives me hope. I can see her hoeing the garden, and her love of flowers. I can recall her huge heart that looked out for the unfortunate. I remember her hearty laugh and her travails through the “sloughs of despond,” a la John Bunyan. She embraced life, loved Jesus, and put her faith into action. I miss her, but I know where she is. All Saints’ Day reminds me.

I remember that it was this time of year not long after her death when I went to the hardware store/gift shop, a wonderful place of implements and plants along with china and gift-type items. I saw this pansy-decorated planter and thought it would be a great gift for Cindy. When she got home from work and I presented the gift, I was reminded that we had three teenagers, money was tight, and she didn’t even like pansies, and that I should have known that in no uncertain terms!

Being the good guidance counselor, she helped me process why I got so angry at the rebuffing of my gift. You’ve probably already guessed it. I didn’t buy the pansy-painted planter for her. I bought it for my dead Mother. My anger was grief. She understood, and so did I. I returned the gift and bought 4 flats of pansies and planted them. Every year, right about now, I do the same thing because my Mother loved pansies. Of course, she preferred ones with “faces” and Cindy likes them without. I compromise and get both! This year I’m even trying violas for the first time.

All Saints’ Day reminds us that unresolved grief needs to be admitted, worked through, dealt with, and grace given to oneself, others, and especially the deceased. Just as they cannot see the bad things that we do, or it wouldn’t be heaven, we need to focus on good memories and ponder those. I’m not saying that we need to gloss over childhood abuse or neglect and forget the bad things, but we do need to forgive and believe in redemption.

All Saints’ Day redemption includes all of us, seen and unseen. We’re not perfect and neither were our loved ones, however much we cherish and sometimes overstate our experiences of them. Every Christian, dead or alive, is going on to perfection in Wesleyan terms. John Wesley believed so much in Sanctification/Christian Perfection that he bordered on an endorsement of purgatory; i.e., we continue to be made more and more like Christ even in heaven. So on All Saints’ we do our best to recall our loved ones and fellow church members and let go of that which we need to let go, and hold onto the best. We remember where they sat in the sanctuary, their work with missions through the UMW or UMM, their beloved pound cakes, harvest festival crafts, and so much more.

We remember! Another word for what happens in Holy Communion is “anamnesis,” also known as “to remember,” and the opposite of amnesia’s “forgetfulness.” Anamnesis is inspired by Jesus’ words that are carved on the front of most altar tables: “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we gather at Table this coming Sunday we will be surrounded by Jesus, the heavenly host from every nation, tribe and language, and our deceased believing loved ones will be as close as our breath. Think of it as God’s Trick AND Treat for you and me. He beat death and the treat is eternal life.

One of the best summations of all this comes from the PBS series on the Civil War by Ken Burns. It’s about Major Sullivan Ballou’s last letter to his dear wife Sarah on the eve of his death in battle. Read carefully his words and remember your loved ones as I remember mine:

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battle field.

The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you, come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and you that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience, till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladest days and the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air cools your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

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All Saints and Halloween: Places in the Heart

Who has a place in your heart? I’ve been rereading Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God which does my soul good every time I read it. Her last chapter is entitled, “Memories of God: In the Communion of Saints.” In it she poignantly describes her Auntie Ree’s last days on earth and the struggle she had with medical professionals about her aunt’s end-of-life decision. After much haranguing Roberta intercession on her aunt’s behalf worked. Her Auntie Ree was ready to leave the Church Militant and join the Church Triumphant. As the last doctor and nurse indignantly left the room, Roberta says that her aunt’s joy was overflowing, not so much because of no more needles, but because Aunite Ree said to Roberta, “You have given me eternity, my darling.” She thanked Roberta over and over again for the gift of transition from one life to another.

All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween is in a few days and my mind is swirling with memories. My mother was the best at finding the right houses to get the most Halloween candy. Every year the car would be full with ghoul and goblin dressed kids who wanted a chance to ride on my mother’s treasure-filled route. She made me a popular kid! I miss her greatly. She was so full of love and gave it so freely.

Bondi’s book comforts me because in 1993 after suffering a major stroke I hung on the side of Mother’s bed begging her to wake up and come back to us. I think that I got my wish because she responded out of her love for us without a thought about herself. As usual! Unfortunately, she came back with only the faintest resemblance of her old self. She was so debilitated. She could move only one finger and smile just a bit and that was it. In her gift to us she allowed us a few weeks to say goodbye and let her go. As she was finally dying, like Roberta Bondi’s Auntie Ree, you could see the response in Mother’s eyes, “You have given me eternity, my darlings.”

As Halloween approaches and I think of Mother I find great comfort in the Apostles’ Creed. In it we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” What does it mean? Very few of the classes that I had in seminary discussed it, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s not that it doesn’t in a tangential way, but the creed speaks of a communion that goes well beyond the tremedum mysterium of a regular Communion service. It really wasn’t until my parents died that a study of eschatology gave me a proper grip on the subject.

The “Communion of Saints” is all about eschatology. Eschatology is literally “a study of last things.” So, when we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints” we’re saying that we believe that there is some sort of mystical interaction, call it influence, memory, or inward impression that occurs between the saints in heaven and those on earth – an intersection of this life and the after-life. Saints on earth are called the Church Militant because we’re still struggling through life. The saints in heaven are called The Church Triumphant because they have overcome. Though dead, they are yet alive and continue to influence and inspire us to greatness.

They cannot see the bad things that we do. That wouldn’t be heaven, would it? I cherish the hope that just as much as I can feel my mother and father’s cheerleading presence, somehow, they, too, can know the good things that happen in my life. If they can see the good that I do, I am inspired to do all the more. Therefore, the “Communion of Saints” is a wonderful basis for inspiration and hope. It evokes the image of the family table reunited, loved ones living eternally, the cross-generational transmission of positive influence, and the circle unbroken.

Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart” captures this motif better than I can say it. The movie is a story of a young woman, played by Sally Field, widowed within the first few minutes of the film, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas during the 1930s. Her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children – a small farm. The tapestry of Benton’s story is woven with every sin and hardship imaginable.

Then the film ends with a communion service. At first the camera shows you a few of the good folk in town. Next, the film reveals some of the not-so-good characters who have been part of the movie, like the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. They’re all sitting together on the same pew, or in the same church. Suddenly the scene morphs into a visualization of the Communion of Saints. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful African-American farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. She is seated next to her late husband. As you are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the deceased young man who somewhat accidently shot her husband. They commune, and each responds one to the other: “The peace of God.” All these folks, some dead and some alive, commune, and there’s peace!

 This is more than a regular Sunday morning Communion service; this is the kingdom, eternity captured in time. This is not a human point of view. The camera has given us a new look at life, the way Jesus said God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come home. This is the Communion of Saints that we celebrate! This coming All Saints Day I will remember and hope that you do, too.

Places in the Heart

Summer Road/Boat Trips and Avoiding Snake Bites

My mother was an adventurer and my father liked safety. Today is going to be an adventure. My brother, Ralph, his grandsons and I, plus a couple of others, are going to canoe down the Little Saluda River and beware any snakes that might drop off a tree limb into the boat. Why are we doing this: adventure! There is something about taking risks and reaping rewards.

As I said, Mother was adventuresome. She went camping with us. We had impromptu road trips. She led us on odysseys beyond the beaten path. I miss her, but today my brother and I are going to get to remember her and use her as a compass. I wish we did that more often. Our lives would be richer for it, and immeasurably more fun!

Mother was someone who loved well and we were the primary recipients. She proved her great capacity for love time and time again from legally adopting a mentally handicapped man whose family had deserted him to being more than patient with my Dad and the rest of our crew. One of my biggest tests of her love came from an adventure that occurred about this same time of year nearly 45 years ago. At the mere age of 13 a friend of mine and I decided to take our own little road trip.

I didn’t have a driver’s license but Mother had been teaching me how to drive by letting me drive with her at my side on dirt roads near our house. So I guess I could say my running away was all her fault, but I know the limits of rationalization. It was my fault! You know it, and I know it!

Mother was at work and Daddy was busy, too, so “Red” Rainsford and I decided to take off. We went outside and got into the 1967 Chevrolet that I had been given as a hand-me-down to fix up and with no license between us we decided to travel the eighteen miles from Edgefield to Saluda, SC.

Thinking that wasn’t adventure enough, we decided to go a little further and ended up in Newberry, SC. There we made a fateful turn. As I recall, when we passed over Interstate 26 we sort of looked at each other time and said at the same, “Let’s find out where the interstate ends!” We got on the interstate and off we went!

In about an hour we were near Spartanburg, SC and I was starting to feel a twinge of guilt. I tried to call home and let Mother know what I was doing. No one answered. In a last ditch effort to assuage my guilt I called my Aunt Florence and asked her to tell Mother that “Red” and I were fine and would be back in a couple of days. “We’re going camping,” I said. I hung up too quickly to get any sage advice.

We kept traveling up the interstate and it got dark. By this time we were somewhere between a plan to keep driving or take a slight detour and spend the night at Chimney Rock State Park above Lake Lure, NC. Our minds were actually made up by the interstate itself. You may not remember the days when I-26 ended just below “Saluda Grade” between Tryon and Rutherfordton, NC, but it did. Our hopes for finding the end of the interstate were set back, but I had fond memories of a camping trip with the same said brother that I’m heading off with today. We had stayed at a roadside campground near Chimney Rock for a week when I was around 8. I even hoped I might be able to recognize the same campground.

We barreled through Rutherfordton, no license at all and not much sense to obey the speed limit. Thankfully we weren’t pulled over. We made it to Chimney Rock on Highway 64 with its dizzying curves. Despite the dark of night I indeed recognized the campground and though no one was awake to charge us any money or run us off, we pulled in and parked the car.

In my false bravado I told “Red” that he could sleep on the back seat of the car while I took the ground outside. It got cold! The mountain air was so chilly even in the dead of summer that I actually started the car so the exhaust would warm up the ground and the muffler. Avoiding the carbon monoxide fumes and turning off the car I drifted off into a fitful sleep wedged under the car as closely as I could. Pretty soon I was completely awake and I am sure that you know what woke me: my conscience!

I kept thinking about my poor mother. She would be worried sick and I could hear Daddy’s ire about her teaching me how to drive and telling her that I shouldn’t have had her old car in the first place. I went through all the conversations including calls to the Highway Patrol in my mind.

We were there maybe two hours when I woke “Red” and said, “We’re going home.” “Red” hardly openly his eyes as I gunned our way down the road retracing our trip. We did end up outside Modoc near Edgefield at Lick Fork Lake where we spent a few hours of sleep. Later in the morning I sheepishly took “Red” home and headed to my house.

With her intuition Mother knew we did more than do underage driving to Lick Fork, but instead of reaming me out – she hugged me tighter than I could remember. She hadn’t told Daddy anything except that I was spending the night somewhere. In her grace I learned a lot about unconditional love and also not to do anything like it again. Her hug and tears made that very clear.

When she finally told Daddy years later what I had done, he still got upset! That made me even more grateful for Mother’s grace years before. She proved over and over again the truth of I Peter 4:8, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” I hope that works today in a canoe on the Little Saluda, between Israel and Hamas, border patrols and children, and any other situation that calls for more grace than guilt. Indeed, love covers over a multitude of sins! May it ever!

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My Mother’s Train

I stopped Sunday afternoon at a Hallmark store to purchase a Mother’s Day card for Cindy. There was plenty of time to peruse them because I was between preaching, visiting a clergyperson in the hospital, and the last event of the day which was our District Pre-Annual Conference Orientation. After selecting an appropriate card I found myself looking at other items that might be an appropriate Mother’s Day gift for her.

Before it dawned on me that whatever I bought would just be another thing to pack for our upcoming move I noticed some rather odd items. The most unique and troubling gift was a mug with this phrase emblazoned on it: “If I were a Mormon fundamentalist I would want you as my sister wife.” I know that official Mormons have done away with the practice of having multiple wives, but I’ve seen too many ads for weird television shows about guys and their plural marriages to think that the phenomenon has disappeared.

It’s interesting that none of these shows are about women with multiple husbands, but that’s for sociologists to figure out. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but one thing for sure is that a mug with this “sister wife” stuff on it would NOT be a good idea for a Mother’s Day gift. As the saying goes, “My Mamma didn’t raise no fool!” and Cindy has been doing a pretty good job of shaping me ever since!

My mother was a great person. She taught me right from wrong, how to value every person no matter their faults, how to be accepting, and exhibit unconditional love. She wasn’t perfect. Who is? She came close, though. She was a spit-fire who didn’t mince words. She was fun and had the best laugh. She had wounds that she mostly kept hidden. She loved her family immensely. Her integrity was impeccable. What you saw is what you got and I am grateful for her constant and consistent example of being a Christ-follower.

Integrity is a powerful word and is sorely needed in our mixed up world. “Integrity” comes from French for “in touch,” literally meaning that a person with integrity has a solid core around which their entire lives revolve. They’re not two-faced. You can take what they say to the bank. They may have many spokes on the wheel of their life but there is a hub that is unshakeable.

Wow, am I thankful for a Mother with integrity! In this wishy-washy world of jello-like values, we need more people who know right from wrong and do what’s right. There’s part of the rub and takes me back to the weird mug at Hallmark. It’s hard to figure out what’s right and wrong nowadays. I think I would be better able to fend off the temptation to loosen my values if I asked whether my Mom would approve or not. I’m thinking that “W.W.J.D.?” and “W.W.M.D.?” (Jesus and Mother) are pretty synonymous for me.

I try to use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to help me discern right from wrong as well: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. The Bible is God’s inspired Word and definitely primary. Tradition is what the church has taught over the centuries. Experience is both personal and corporate in nature. Reason is self-explanatory though most of us have seen so-called logic used to prop up the irrational. Frankly, Scripture and Tradition are most reliable for me personally, and if making life choices was analogous to a train then the engine would be the Bible followed by Tradition with Experience and Reason following next. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that Experience ought to be the caboose and come dead last.

Elevating Experience over Scripture is an awful hermeneutic! Our culture puts Experience first. God help us if the Church does the same. When I use Experience as the highest bar of what’s acceptable and right it usually results in self-centered failure. Our culture’s promotion of Experience as the rule of behavior is like the excesses of the Roman Empire, and we know what happened to it. When I promote Experience over the other three of the Quadrilateral I know that I am not doing what my Mother would do.

So, this Mother’s Day I am grateful for a Mother with integrity whose values were on solid footing. Her train had the cars in order. The Bible was first. Christian Tradition was second through a good church and family. Reason was honed in the milieu of a good Methodist school. Experience was put in rightful perspective as the last arbiter of right from wrong. As we anticipate Mother’s Day let’s answer very carefully, “What Would Mother Do?”

Ready for the Dance?

My Mother died in January 1993 and my Dad in July of 2000. Their funerals were genuine celebrations of life. My Dad’s was a particularly powerful testimony. Daddy had lost both legs at age 80. After Mother’s death, he couldn’t bear to be alone in that big house without her so he divided up their possessions, sold our home place and the Edgefield Pottery Museum and collection. He moved to Saluda to be near my middle brother and one of his businesses, but he would drive every Sunday back to Edgefield United Methodist Church, 36 miles round trip, on two artificial legs.

His last Sunday there was a good one. He drove himself home and that evening his kidneys shut down. He wound up in the hospital at Providence in Columbia and quickly went into a coma. He died 9 days later. In so many ways he was my hero. He overcame so many odds in life and was so colorful. His funeral was truly a “Service of Death and Resurrection” with the emphasis on resurrection. I was fine throughout it until we got to the last hymn, “Lord of the Dance.”

I could see past the mists of time into eternity and Daddy had his legs back and he and Mother were dancing. He was cutting a jig and Jesus was right there striking up the band! My dry eyes became a torrent of tears, not from sadness but joy! That funeral service was Easter to me! I can so easily hear the echo of those words now, “Dance then wherever you may be!”

I wonder where you and I will encounter Easter this week. In the throes of Holy Week we’re not there yet, are we? There will be times of abandonment, betrayal, passion, suffering, and care this week. In the midst of our present challenges I hear Jesus’ voice offering grace from the cross giving sympathetic solace to a dying thief who wants to be in Paradise and to His mother and beloved disciple who will find new purpose in caring for one another. The greatest measure of compassion was shown by Christ when he looked down on that company and said, “Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do.” I want to hear Jesus’ voice afresh this week.

Wherever we are in the dance steps of life, Jesus has gone before us – through every emotion, trial, temptation, and thanks to Good Friday through death to resurrection. This is the bedrock of our faith that sin and death can never conquer. Health challenges, family issues, financial stress, personal problems, and ethical dilemmas cannot separate us from Easter Hope: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death not life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present not the future, not any powers, neither height nor depth, not anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).”

This Holy Week reminds us that Jesus is with us in whatever life deals us, and He wins! Dance then! Cut a jig wherever you may be!

Keep Calm and Carry On!

I saw a sign in front of a church that looked downright wrong to me. I’m sure they meant something else. It said, “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help.” As a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church I have experienced the unfortunate reality that sometimes the church can exacerbate worries more than help them. Church squabbles and differences of opinion distract too many Christians and turn them into worriers.

This is a season to be thankful, not worry! I am enjoying everyone’s “Thirty Days of Thankfulness” posts on Facebook. Each day’s renditions of gratitude for simple and profound gifts are inspiring. What a great thing to do. It reminds me of the refrain in my Mother’s favorite hymn, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.”

What a great spiritual discipline, especially if you are a worrier. “Turn your worries into prayers!” is an often heard phrase in our house, and I’m the one who needs to hear it.  I come from a long line of worriers. My Dad worried himself and everybody around him so much that I once made him a perpetual calendar that used interchangeable complaints and ailments for daily use. I called it, “Papa Mac’s Ailment Calendar.” At the bottom, I emblazoned the phrase, “For God’s sake and Mother’s, you only get to complain about one thing per day!” After getting upset about it, he actually lightened up and started showing it to his buddies.

Worrying doesn’t help a thing, does it? Someone said it’s like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere. Jesus talked a lot about not worrying. The most familiar verses are Matthew 6:25-34, but I’m especially partial to Luke’s version of the same passage. Luke 12:22-34 is really neat. Verse 32 nails it: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom.” What wonderful words of promise and a cure for worry!

I’ve heard from several well-meaning people that there are exactly 365 “Fear not’s” or “Do not be afraid’s” in the Bible, but what I add up with my concordances is about 70-something, even when trying different translations. Sure, it would have made a great devotional book to have one per day as a reversal of my Dad’s Ailment Calendar, but ONE is all we need anyway. If God says it one time then that pretty much covers it, right? However, there are lots of anti-worry passages, whether they have the exact wording or not. For instance, James 1:17 says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Isn’t it good to know that God is the unchanging source of all that is good! That’s a worry-killer!

What about Psalm 46? The whole psalm is great, but I cling to verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God…” Sometimes I can forget that so quickly, and I end up worrying. I get panicky over little things like where my cars keys are, and big things like Narcie’s health. If only I can wait on God without worrying! Instead I run around and make more trouble for myself and others. Heck, the debit card that I thought was eaten by the ATM machine turned up this morning as I happened to reach behind my car seat. Of course, this was weeks after I had already been to the bank and applied for a new card and put a stop payment order on the old one. I know not freaking out and being still are better choices to make. If I can stop and pray, “Lord, please show me where ________ is, then in that simple little act God usually lets me know which way to turn. It worked last night when searching for my watch!

This reminds me of one of the traditions found in the Navy. You’ve probably seen ship’s officers “piped” on board by a Bosun or Boatswain. These sailors use a high-pitched pipe that is like a bugle on land and can carry a specific tune and message. Each “call” is meant to be heard over the din of sounds found on a typical naval vessel. When a disaster or emergency occurs on a ship the Boatswain uses a specific signal called, “The Still.” The signal basically means, “Stop what you’re doing. Pause. Get your bearings. Prepare to do the right thing.” To some it may seem like a waste of precious time, but it actually saves lives. It clears away the confusion of worry and panic, while helping everyone remember their training. In stillness we find clarity that steers us in the right direction. Wouldn’t this world be a better place if we chilled out more before we react poorly and say or do the wrong things?

This reminds me of those British “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirts with a crown on top? Actually you’ve probably seen variations of them all over the place, especially on social media. In my googling I found out that the phrase was first used on posters and other items in 1939 at the start of WWII. It was a way to bolster the spirits of the British when things looked bleakest and there was the temptation to give up or give in to worry. I’m glad for its resurgence, but God’s been sending this message for a lot longer than 1939! Check out 2 Chronicles 20:1-22 for just a little proof. This passage is a testament to the “Keep Calm and Carry On” theme!

Whatever happens today – Pause and be still before God. Don’t let worry kill you. Keep Calm and Carry On!

keep-calm-carry-on

Our Family Wreath Includes You!

Years ago Cindy and I bought a framed pressed flower wreath composed of the tiniest of colorful blooms. It still hangs on our wall. Inside the wreath in dainty calligraphy were prophetic words that we have tried to honor through all the subsequent years: “Our family is a circle of strength and love, with every birth and every union, the circle grows, every joy shared adds more love, every crisis faced together, makes the circle stronger.”

There have been births and deaths, tragedies and triumphs, and we continue to praise the Living God who gives us the grace to endure together. If anything, it’s the together part that makes the journey easier. No wonder Jesus wanted his followers to be formed into a community of faith. The “two or more…” of the church represents the strength that we gain from bearing one another’s burdens. I can tell you this if you don’t have a community of faith, United Methodism’s connectionalism works! I want to say “Thank you!” to all of you who have been a part of our family sagas over the years. You have lightened the load. You have inspired us to live life with honesty and hope through Jesus.

The Christian faith is not an opiate for the masses as said Marx. Christianity is a very real source of hope. The world’s ways of coping with problems isn’t sufficient. Take a peek at the mostly inadequate methods espoused:

Sixteen Thoughts to Get You Through Almost Any Crisis

1. Indecision is the key to flexibility

2. You cannot tell which way the train went
by looking at the track.

3. There is absolutely no substitute for a genuine lack of preparation.

4. Happiness is merely the remission of pain.

5. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

6. The facts, although interesting, are irrelevant.

7. Someone who thinks logically is a nice
contrast to the real world.

8. Things are more like they are today than
they ever have been before.

9. Everything should be made as simple as
possible, but no simpler.

10. Friends may come and go, but enemies
accumulate.

11. If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame.

12. One-seventh of your life is spent on Monday.

13. By the time you can make ends meet, they move the ends.

14. This is as bad as it can get, but don’t bet on it.

15. Never wrestle a pig; you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

16. The trouble with life is, you’re halfway through it before you realize it’s a “do-it
yourself” thing.

Although there may be some truth in a couple of these, all in all these clichés are absolutely no comparison to the hope that comes from Jesus Christ. John 10:10-11 says: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Yes, the source of evil and disease isn’t God but the thief. Jesus is the Good Shepherd that gave himself so that we poor sheep can have life to the full.

As a family we thank you for your prayers through the years. Some critical times were when we lost our fathers 5 weeks apart in two sudden deaths, and your support through the deaths of both of our mothers was unwavering. Your prayers and presence through my brother’s sudden death were comforting. Your wisdom and guidance through our youngest son Caleb’s journey have been appreciated as well.  You have been with us through the births of our grandchildren Enoch, Evy, and Kaela, too. Guess what: Josh and Karen are about to have another daughter within the month, so thanks ahead of time for prayers for them! The baby is going to be another little girl! My Dad often said that he would have traded all three of his sons for one daughter so Josh and Karen are doubly blessed!

Thanks to Narcie, I can really understand my Dad’s sentiment about daughters. So today I want to thank you especially for your support through Narcie’s travails. It doesn’t seem like it’s been almost three years since her first surgery and diagnosis of an oligodendroglioma brain tumor, and here we go again. May 10, this coming Friday, she is scheduled for another brain surgery. Dr. William Friedman at Shands Medical Center at the University of Florida will be the surgeon. Pray for him and the whole team!

When Narcie got the appointment at UF for the Gator Wesley Director’s position, we had no clue that they had a medical school, much less a renowned tumor center, and Dr. Friedman is chair of the department! God’s providence is marvelous. Even when life’s storms have come our way, God has provided. God doesn’t cause the dilemmas, but God always provides a way out. I Corinthians 10:13 says: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it.”

So thank you now for the prayers for Narcie, and please continue to lift her up. We will make it by the grace of God. We will continue to live in a posture of faith trusting in a good God who gave his only Son that we might have everlasting life. We will rejoice together and suffer together, and we will prevail together! Thank you for being a part of our family wreath,

tim