Metamorphosis

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

A few years ago my pastor-husband Larry started hanging out with some homeless people.  He took them to lunch.  They sat on shady bus benches together and talked during the hot hours of the Memphis summer.   They started having dinner together on Wednesday nights at Taco Bell, and that slowly became a discussion of spiritual things, important things, things beyond just the physical needs of homeless folk.  Or homed folk, for that matter.  Taco Bell soon became a tiny, quiet church every Wednesday early evening, before services at our other church began.  Staff and patrons alike quickly grew accustomed to this little flock, oft listening in on the gentle conversations with amused ears, if not reverent ones.  Some of the homeless folk attending Church at the Taco Bell spoke and asked questions, many of them just ate.  The restaurant servers were admirably generous and loving to their new homeless parishioners and quite often gave everyone free food, especially when new menu items appeared on the scene and needed taste testing ~ a small revival broke out upon the debut of the Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.

Wednesday night dinner and Bible study at Taco Bell became the new norm.  The homeless seemed to love it.  So did Larry.

Larry’s Jeep slowly began to look like a storage closet – coats, shirts, boots, towels, blankets – now I know where homeless folk store their stuff.  Or at least the Memphis homeless.  Or at least some of the ones who stay on Poplar Avenue.

I started finding homeless people’s things all over my house.  Jimmy’s antibiotics in our refrigerator.  Luke’s frayed T-shirts in my dryer. Random shoes.  Sleeping bags and space heaters and a mountain of sports socks became a small congregation in my garage.  Friends gave coats and blankets as the winter dampness approached, and these items found their home in our storage closets as well.  Sally’s walker is propped up against our dog kennel still.

Larry loved picking up the homeless on Poplar Avenue and taking them where they needed to be.  Dostoevsky says “every man needs a place to go,” and in my opinion, he is always right.  Even the homeless have places they need to go.

To the courthouse to work on getting an identity card.

To the post office to send and receive things from relatives.

To the drugstore to pick up more medicine.

To the Salvation Army to get new shoes.

To church.

Larry’s homeless friends started coming to our church on Sunday mornings.  Some of the church folk were a little less enamored of the homeless.  And in all fairness, the homeless are not always the grateful lot that one would hope.

William with the wild dreadlocks wandered in and out during the service noisily and continually – though not that much more than regular attenders seeking one more cup of coffee or a bathroom break, but somehow it seemed different to people.  Frank sometimes shouted out at inappropriate times – blessings and curses – remarkably indiscriminate in his language choices.   Sally’s walker held a large cardboard sign that read “HOMELESS – HELP!” and she had a wonderfully unique fashion sense that included enormous, colorful hats and toile.  Jake snored loudly through every service like a sleep apnea patient.

They couldn’t sit still in their seats very well.  They fidgeted.  They slept.  They belched.  They smelled bad.

They all smelled really bad.

Some mothers held their children a bit closer when these folk drifted by to the restroom, to the coffee and doughnuts, in and out of the front doors.  But there was never any danger.  Offensive odors and blank stares were about as harmful as it got.

Looking back, I think the homeless probably preferred the Taco Bell Wednesday night church.  It was easy, and the food is good.

Pete was the first homeless guy Larry met.  At the corner of Poplar and Estate, Larry asked Pete if he would like some lunch, to which Pete mumbled a quiet “That would be nice,” and a friendship began to bloom in the Memphis heat.  A quiet man, wary, yet there was a tender vulnerability about Pete, dignity even, that compelled.  He was pure of heart.

There was story in his eyes.

Pete started riding around in the Jeep with Larry a little and they would talk some, but mostly they just rode in the quiet.  Pete became Larry’s sidekick, going along with him from place to place, making a church visit or picking up the food for the Senior Adult lunch or taking clothes to the refugee center.

The stuff of, the makings of a friendship.

Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was Me – you did it to Me.

That winter when Pete was in and out of the hospital with pneumonia, Larry went to visit and even sneaked some of his homeless friends in to see him.  Then there was that time that Pete was in jail for public drunkenness – the night he was so drunk that he hit both Larry and the policeman.  Pete sat in jail a few days for that one.  Larry went to visit him there as well.

When did we ever see You sick or in prison and come to You? 

Another winter came, and Pete and his son, who had come from Tupelo for a visit, got cold, really cold.  They had been sleeping on the porch of an out-of-business Mexican restaurant, and even though it doesn’t get really cold in Memphis very often, when it does get cold, we Memphians are thoroughly unprepared for it, and we all freeze.  Three snowflakes and we are done with winter.  Pete was no exception.  People from the church had given us a garage full of sleeping bags and coats for such a moment, but this particular cold spell required more.  It started to snow, and the porch of the dilapidated Mexican restaurant did not provide enough shelter for this night.

What Pete and his son needed was a roof and some walls.

Larry left our house late one night, and I had fallen asleep before he got home.  “Where have you been?” was my sleepy hello.

“Those guys needed a bit more than just a porch tonight.  Nobody should have to sleep in the snow.  They are at the Comfortel on Summer Avenue. Now go to back to sleep.”

I was homeless, and you gave Me a room. 

Insects and amphibians and crustaceans undergo the process of metamorphosis, which is a conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal’s body structure, usually accompanied by a change of habit or behavior.  After that night at the Comfortel – which ended up being a couple of nights, a relatively long cold spell for Memphis – Pete began a metamorphosis of his own.  He started to change.

Slow but measurable change.

We don’t often see change at the time it’s happening.  Like leaves unfolding or water warming.  Like children growing or parents aging.  Seeing change requires our attention and often some thoughtful inspection; otherwise, we can miss it.   Pete’s change looked like this:  he started giving Larry his money.  The homeless in Memphis (at least the few we know) all get a check each month.  Many of them also receive gifts from their families and, of course, there’s the money they get from panhandling.  I don’t know what they all do with this money, but I know what Pete did with his.  Each month he either lost it, or people would steal it from him, or he would spend it far too quickly on liquor and cigarettes at the beginning of the month, leaving himself nothing at all at the end of the month.  This was the plan of his life, month after month, year after year.  This was all he knew ~ this was all there was.

Until those snowy nights at the Comfortel.  After those nights I guess Pete thought that maybe he could trust this pastor-friend of his, and he started giving him his money.

Wordless pleas for help are often the loudest.

Larry would take Pete’s money each month and save it for him.  Then at the beginning of each week, Larry would give Pete one-quarter of the month’s money for him to live on.  “Try not to lose it, Pete,” Larry would say.  “Don’t drink it all up, buddy.”

And believe it or not, that’s exactly what Pete did not do.  He did not lose it as much any more.  Little by little, he quit drinking it all up.  He started sobering up, little by little.  He didn’t have a month’s worth of cash in his pockets anymore, so other people on the street started leaving him alone – they didn’t steal from him or beat him up as much because he never had very much.

This was how Pete spent the rest of his winter.  Trying.

Spring came.  Daffodils bloomed and birds erupted from their shells and Memphis warmed up again.  Pete found his way back to the porch of the still-out-of-business Mexican restaurant, and he and Larry started riding around in the Jeep again, top down, picking up and delivering things for the church and swinging by Taco Bell.  Normal springtime stuff.  Spring’s slow metamorphoses, opening slowly but beautifully like a gauzy butterfly or timid tulip.  On one such warm afternoon, Pete, more alert and sober than Larry had ever seen him, broke the news.

Pete had made a brave choice.

“I’m going to move, pastor,” he said, clearly, not mumbling so much now.  “My son wants me to come and live with them in Tupelo.  He and his girlfriend have had a baby – I’m a grandpa, did you know that?  I want to be there with them.  I think I’m going to do it.”

“Pete, that sounds great,” Larry said, masking his immediate sadness.  He missed his friend already.

“Pastor, could you take me there, to Tupelo?” was Pete’s quiet request.  “Could you help me move?”

“Of course, my friend.  Of course I’ll help you move.  That’s what friends do.”

Almost the next day, Larry carried Pete and his trunkful of possessions to Tupelo, helped him find his son’s apartment, and then drove home alone.

It was a quiet ride in both directions.

It’s been about a year now since we’ve seen Pete.  He calls sometimes, but that happens less and less.  Some of his stuff is still in the trunk of Larry’s car – some tee-shirts and rags and things – but I get the impression that Pete doesn’t need that stuff any more.  He hasn’t asked for it.

Pete called the other day and Larry put it on speaker.

“Hey, pastor.”

“Hey, Pete!  How’s it going?”

“It’s going good,” he said.  There was a bit animation in Pete’s voice. A lilt, almost musical.  I want to think that’s a good sign.

“How’s the grandbaby?” Larry asked, a bit jealous.

“Good.  She likes me.”  Long pause.  “Pastor, I’m not coming back to Memphis.  I thought I might, but I think I’m going to stay here.  I like being close to my family.  It feels good.  There’s a roof and walls here all the time.”

“That’s good, man.”

“Well, thanks for everything, pastor.  You helped me.  I miss you.”

“I miss you, too.  Call me if you need anything.”

“I will.  Bye.”

“Bye.”

He hasn’t called back.

Not long ago Larry and I ate a quiet, nostalgic dinner at Taco Bell on a Wednesday evening.  The other homeless people have wandered away, living on other streets now, under new bridges.  Sally took the bus to Florida when it got cold here last winter; word on the street is that she’s back in Memphis, but we haven’t been able to find her.  Luke just called again yesterday, after a long silence, so we’ll see if he shuffles back into our lives.  The kind-hearted restaurant manager asked about Pete in particular, and we told her of Pete’s courageous move to Tupelo to live near his son and grandchild.  She liked that story so much that she treated us to a Diet Pepsi, and we all raised a paper cup to his success.

Pete would have loved that.

The rest of the staff were new to the shift and knew nothing of the sweet, brief moments that were the Wednesday evening restaurant-church that once-upon-a-time gathered under the fluorescent lights and among the clean tables of our local taco place.

The ironic beauty of it all moves me deeply ~ what is nothing but a brief stint in a one-night cheap motel to one person changes the life of another.

But that’s just how grace works.  It reaches down and out and offers life where death is deserved.  It extends a hand of healing when pain is all that’s left.

It doesn’t say things like “I’m not wasting my time on you” or “You will pay for that.”

It doesn’t even think these things.

Grace says, “You are welcome to my table, no matter what choices you’ve made” and “You are loved beyond your most desperate thought.”

Grace says, “When you are hungry, I will feed you.  When you are thirsty, I will give you drink.  When you are naked, I will clothe you.”

Grace dwells in the dirty back alleys of humanity where religious men lower their eyes, on streets Pharisees refuse to tread.

Grace is greater than all our sin.

And it never ceases to amaze.

For Tommy

 

 

Geezer

photo-5

Shall I take the good from the Lord and not the bad?” 

His grandchildren call him Geezer.  In fact, these days everyone calls my father Geezer.   It is such an awesome grandpa-name that we always forget it sounds disrespectful when shouted in public by our entire family of loud-talkers.  Little six-year-old kids shouting, “Geezer, come look at this!” in restaurants and stores has brought us decades of scornful glances and pursed lips from crabby little old ladies and members of sophisticated wait staffs alike.

But ~ if you know my father at all, you call him Geezer.

Geezer was diagnosed two years ago with Parkinson’s.  We sat together in their quiet den and Nanny spoke the word.  In families, each person has his particular role ~ or at least that’s how it is in our family.  Nanny is my nurse-mother and the strength in the worst of times.  Geezer and I are the criers.  Pastor-husband Larry is the quiet one – he prays a lot.

After the word was spoken ~ Parkinson’s ~ and the tears came, we set about understanding the business of this road untraveled.  Neurologists.  Meds.  Nanny busy online – reading reading reading – symptoms and side effects. Coconut oil.  Vitamin E.  Physical exercise.  Let’s keep moving.

Geezer has been a Sunday School teacher his entire adult life – he taught junior high kids in the youth room of Whitehaven Presbyterian Church, young adults and young married couples at Broadway Baptist – if you live in Memphis, he’s probably taught you or someone you know in Sunday School somewhere along the way.

It is the South, for Heaven’s sake ~ God bless us, we do love us some Sunday School.

Geezer gets up early every morning of his life to read and study for his Sunday School lesson and has done this for most of his adult like.  Every.  Morning.  Commentaries and strong coffee in hand, seated in the serenity of his book-lined den, Geezer sacrifices several hours of sleep each day to the discipline of study and reflection. This is one of my earliest memories of my father ~ one of my most important childhood memories.

Husband Larry observed this morning ritual when he was a young man courting Geezer’s daughter, and he saw a fine example of how to be a Godly man by watching how a Godly man lives. Larry chooses to live his life in exactly the same fashion, rising early every day to sit in a book-filled room to study and pray, strong coffee and legal pad in hand.

Son-in-law Coleton now does the same thing.  Like Larry before him, he too watched this morning ritual when he was a young man courting Larry’s daughter and saw a good example of how to be a Godly man by watching how a Godly man lives.  Now he rises early every morning to study and pray, strong coffee in hand and an iPad filled with books by his side.

It’s called the blessing.  What we pass down to our children and our children’s children.  That’s the way it works.

Geezer has been teaching the same adult Sunday School class for over 25 years, a large class of about 150 folk, and now many of them have become friends – real friends – gently growing old together.  The precious, fragile gift of companions, mates, sojourners walking similar paths at similar times.

Walking roads together means not walking them alone.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.  The time came for Geezer to tell his Sunday School class about his diagnosis. Time to speak the word aloud, in public.  Time to be courageous.

“Geezer,” I asked, “Would you like for me to come and sit with you and Nanny on Sunday when you tell the class about your Parkinson’s?”

“Yes, I would.”

So that’s what I did.

It was a regular Southern Baptist Sunday School kind of day. Warm Memphis sun outside, the requisite coffee and doughnuts inside.  Dresses and panty hose and dark suits with ties.  Noisy, loud, church conversation interrupted only by the raucous and cacophonous cackle of a bevy of steel magnolias.  Seriously, we know how to laugh in the South.  My presence in the room was the only thing out of the ordinary on that very regular Sunday.  And even with that, I am not an unknown entity to this group, my parents’ lovely gaggle of friends, who have given so many bridal showers and birthday parties for all of us that we could never begin to repay.

Geezer taught his lesson well that day, although for the life of me I cannot recall what he taught on.  Nanny says she can’t either.  We sat dutifully on the front row; the lesson was not the foremost thought on our minds.  Geezer was going to tell them of his diagnosis.  He was going to say the word aloud for all to hear.

The lesson was over.  The time had come.

I’m not sure, but I think Nanny dreaded this moment the most.  The word spoken is not to be retracted.   “What’s done cannot be undone,” Macbeth said, and of course, he’s right.  Like gossip and slander and bad photographs posted on the Internet, once it’s out there, it’s out there. It cannot be undone or taken back.  He will say it and everyone will know that Geezer has Parkinson’s.

It will be real.

Some had already suspected this; a few of their closest friends had been hinting to Nanny that something seemed amiss.  True friends do that sort of thing.

Geezer speaks.  “I know that many of you have wondered what’s been going on with me lately health-wise.  Well, like my mother before me, I have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.”

Silence.   I hear the proverbial pin drop.  For a moment or two, we all settle in to the words he is saying, words none of us want but all of us hear.  But Geezer-the-Brave is not finished with his proclamation, his declaration, his moment.  Not yet. He stands with his back unusually straight.

Now remember I said that Geezer and I are the criers and Nanny is the nurse-mother who is the strength most of the time.  Well, this bright hot summer Sunday it was the exact opposite.  Nanny fished Kleenex out of her enormous grandmother bag-of-bags and her fellow magnolias did the same and they all passed them around and there were great waves of sniffing and snorting.

For Geezer, though, it was different.  This was Geezer’s moment, and he was fearless.  Tearless.  I was also unusually tearless, stoic even, watching my hero stand high before his troops on their parade ground and tell them all that he, too, was human and subject to the weaknesses and ills that age and time bring.  That he, like Hamlet, must consider “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

No one is exempt.

Geezer-the-Fearless had spoken the word aloud, and it had not destroyed him.  In fact, just the opposite.  He seemed to gain momentum in this moment, an unexpected strength.

He continues, his Bible in hand, his long-time companion.  “Job said it best.  He was smitten will all sorts of troubles – boils and bankruptcy and death of family and a critical wife.  Yet he looked it all in the face – his destruction and his God – and managed to spit out the words, ‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’”

Shall I accept the good from God and not the trouble?

The profundity of it overwhelms, as does the simplicity.  Snippets of my own recent struggle with hardship flood, along with the struggles of history, millennia past.  A lifetime of stories about the adversities encountered by saints and heroes flash into memory as Geezer speaks, as does my favorite hymn sung in chapel at St. Mary’s, my school ~

  I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true,

 Who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.

 And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was shepherdess on the green,

 They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.

Today Geezer joins in singing the song of the saints of God, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.  Good and bad, ease and difficulty, profit and loss, it all comes from the same hand, a good Hand that through the years Geezer and the other saints have taught me to trust.

I know this truth will set me free, for it seems to already be doing so for my father.

The little miracle came after the benediction and the last Amen of the morning.  I turned to look; I didn’t want to miss a single moment.

Something was happening.

A geezer-line began to form – a battalion 150 strong, Kleenex in their hands and encouragement on their lips, comrades-in-arms who had faced or were facing or would face similar struggles in their lives, in their aging.  I can’t recall all of their names, but this day was not about names.

This day was about coming alongside.

Crutches and walkers, oxygen tanks and prostheses, hearing aids and trifocals, a wheelchair or two ~ this is the line that formed to comfort and bless my father.  Companions walking similar paths.  Joining hands and hearts on a road that all must eventually travel.

I say again, walking together means not having to walk alone.

My good friend says that “getting older happens – everyone gets a turn.”  Today it is Geezer’s turn, and he stands at the head of a very long receiving line ~ receiving blessing and exhortation from those who have gone before him.  Receiving acknowledgement and respect from those whose feet have not yet trod this path.

Receive the blessing.

Geezer loves to fish, and he’s been fishing at Pickwick Lake with Jerry and Don and Bob and David for a long time now, and they have countless fish stories among them.  Hilarious stories ~ some of them actually true.  Today they were serious, though.  I was standing by Geezer when the fishermen quartet made their way to the front of the line, and I overheard their quiet talk at Geezer’s side, their fish tales this day honest and vulnerable.

Don took Geezer’s hand, already slightly shaking.  “I’m not ready to give up fishing,” Geezer admits softly, his voice breaking for the first time.  “I guess I’m just going to fish until I can’t bait the hook anymore.”

Don is the spokesman for the fishermen-band-of-brothers, and he puts it very simply.  “Don’t worry, Geezer.  When that happens, we’ll be alongside to bait the hook for you.”

I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true.

Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” recounts the aging of the great Greek hero Ulysses.  He said it so much more eloquently than I.  Ulysses is speaking about the companions that accompanied him on his adventures and throughout his lifetime of struggles, through the thunder and the sunshine:  “And though / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

So don’t yield, Saint Geezer.  Keep striving , seeking, finding, and not yielding.  The other saints, past and present, what your precious Book calls “the great cloud of witnesses,” are flanking you, holding you up with song.

They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.

God, help me to be one too.

 

Surprised by Imperfection

She was only nineteen, he twenty-two, and the young couple was having their first baby.  They had just recently married and moved from the bug-and-heat-infested Mississippi Delta to Memphis, their field of dreams.  Equally hot and river-humid, but their sense of hope and adventure trumped the oppressive heat – they had escaped the trap of small town life and had moved to the city. 

They had made it.

He found work at a feed mill in the city, and she wasn’t working since the baby was coming.  It wasn’t much, but it was a start and it was not the filling station in Decatur.  They made rent and turnip greens and cornbread are cheap.  Life was good.

It was the early 1960’s so there was no knowing the gender of a baby, and that just added more excitement to the day.  No ultra-sounds or 4-D imaging – one just waited for the pains to begin and shuffled off to the hospital.  A woman labored and near the end of her travail, she was given general anesthesia and fell into a “twilight sleep.”  The doctor was in charge of the birth at that point, and most of the time things went along just fine. 

Simple.

The soon-to-be grandparents had not yet arrived from the Delta so New-Dad was alone when the doctor came to the waiting room, face set and grim with difficult news.  New-Dad saw the doctor’s face and stood, steeling himself.  Scared.

“There’s an issue,” the doctor said in hushed and practiced tones.  “Can you come with me?”  Here was a voice that was completely unexpected. 

New-Dad was a quiet man and a meek one, so he nodded and followed silently down the hospital corridors with the equally silent obstetrician, their heads leaning downward.  They walked quiet steps to the nursery to see the new daughter, perfect in every way – except for her little left arm that curved sharply at the elbow, the little three-fingered hand nearly touching her tiny shoulder, like a teardrop.   

“We don’t know why these things happen sometimes,” the gentle doctor began, his voice low.  The words sounded distant and ringing to New-Dad, like they were echoing from the deepness of the country well on his grandmother’s farm.  He would have to hear them later.

“Does New-Mom know about this?” he fumbled, trying to get his mind around the phenomenon, watching the sleeping infant who had no idea that her little arm was so bent, imperfect.  That something was missing. 

“No, she’s still sleeping.”

New-Mom would wake soon enough from her twilight slumber, and together they would walk those quiet steps to the hospital nursery.  They would hold their new baby and wonder how in the world was this going to work out.  They would talk to the doctors and cry and fear and pray and marvel and eventually find their peace. 

But for this moment, New-Dad stood alone, his infant daughter resting gently behind the glass wall of the nursery, little teardrop arm slightly raised. 

I spoke with my father recently about the particulars of our story.  We were having lunch at Subway and I asked him to remember about that time.  I wanted to know what had popped into his head during those quiet first moments at the hospital.  He smiled.  “My first thoughts were not about your little arm at all,” he said. “My first thought was literally ‘How am I ever going to be able to take care of these two girls!’  I had a crummy old Hillman car with barely enough room in it for this small family.  I worked at the feed mill.  I didn’t make any money. Our apartment was tiny, and we only had one window unit air conditioner to keep us cool in these brutal summers.  I wondered how it would ever work.”

But of course, it did.  After the crying, New-Mom and New-Dad got themselves together and listened and talked and asked their questions to all the pediatricians and orthopedic docs that paraded through their lives for the next days and months. More questions than answers:  Surgery?  Braces?  Physical therapy?  Prostheses?  Come back in two weeks – come back in six weeks – we’ll need to see her routinely for a long time.

They had no money for this.

Finally, a doctor-prophet walked into their lives around the baby’s twelfth week, a soon-to-be-retiring orthopedic sage who took a long bespectacled look at the baby girl’s little curved arm with its tiny three-fingered hand.  He touched her teardrop arm gently, bending, pressing, stretching, eyeballing, and then looked the young parents square in their eager faces and simply said, “Don’t spend any more of your money at this clinic. Go home, let her grow up, and then buy this child some skates.”

And that is exactly what they did.

I have no memory of these events or of the strength and heroism of my parents in those first days of having a child with a physical disability. 

 My memories begin a bit later.  Years do pass, and there are so many important moments. 

Like the moment when I came home after just a few days in the first grade with a big question on my lips.   The question for my mother was simple, unfettered of fear or insecurity.  Just a question that needed a direct, factual answer.   My mother has always been very good at direct, factual answers. 

“Mama, am I handicapped?”

She paused, but only for a moment.  I wonder now if she had been anticipating this moment for a while, or if she really was just this good on her feet. 

“Well,” she asked slowly, “is there anything you want to do that you cannot do?”

I pondered that, but only for a moment.  “Nope,” I said with the full confidence of a happy six-year-old.

“Well, then you’re not handicapped.”

“OK.”  That was easy.  “Well, I’m having some trouble with my cartwheel,” I offered, wondering if that were enough to qualify a short-armed girl as disabled.

“Go outside and keep practicing,” she said matter-of-factly as she turned from me to fetch the potatoes out of the oven. 

Discussion over.  It really was as simple as that.

I remember moments.  Important ones, when having a strange little hand was something to consider.

The moment when Lou Banks Fulton looked me hard in the face and said, “I will help you.  But if you really want to learn to play the piano, you will have to work much harder than everyone else.  You will have to play the notes with your right hand that your left hand can’t play.  You must practice harder and longer than my other students to achieve the same success.  I will not accept anything from you but your very best.” 

I can do that. 

Lou Banks was sitting on the front row six years later when I won the high school talent contest, fair and square.  

There are so many important moments in our lives.

The moment when Mrs. McPherson looked me hard in the face and said exactly the same thing that Lou Banks had said.  “I will help you. But if you really want to learn to type, you will have to work much harder than everyone else.  You will have to learn a different set of home keys and your right hand will really have to do the lion’s share of the work.  You must practice harder and longer than my other students to achieve the same success.  Don’t sign up for this class unless you plan on working really hard.  I will not accept anything from you but your very best.” 

I can do that.

Mrs. McPherson winked and grinned at me at the end-of-the-year awards ceremony when I didn’t win the Typing Award, but she and I both knew that I had come in a very close second. 

What a wonder is the gift of people who require from us our very best.  

It was also Mrs. McPherson who kept me after yearbook class one day and gently called to my attention the fact that I kept my little hand stuffed in my back pocket all the time.  I had not realized this.  “You’re beautiful,” she said.  “All of you is beautiful.  Never hide your beauty.  Now take your hand out of your pocket.”

So I did.

What a wonder is the voice of people who challenge us to quit hiding our imperfections and learn to embrace them.  Who tell us the truth and love us just as we are.

I remember the moment when my own young daughter began to notice my little hand, taking my hand in her own and kissing and stroking and loving it and exclaiming, “I love little hand!  I can’t wait to get to Heaven, and do you know why, mama?  So we’ll all have a little hand just like yours.”

Moments of honest wonder that children bring.

There are difficult moments, too.  It isn’t easy to learn to live in imperfection, to rest in weakness.  People are often thoughtless, often cruel. 

The school playground is not for the faint of heart. 

Neither is the junior high cafeteria.  When a child has to learn to balance her school lunch plate on the back of her three-fingered hand, there are sometimes spills.

Not everyone thinks a disability is beautiful.  There are voices that say, “Don’t touch me with those three fingers” and “Your hand looks like a dinosaur” and “That’s so weird” and “Are you going to get that fixed?”  There are people who stare, and worse, people who look away.  People whose parents didn’t teach them about compassion and empathy, about beauty in imperfection, about strength in weakness.

These moments and these voices are important as well.  As important as the lovely words. Maybe much more so.

Ah, there is great power in our moments, isn’t there?

Moments when we are reminded of our own weakness, of our collective weakness even, when we can hear Him speak through the multitude of voices ~ “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Power in weakness.  Only the God who sent His own Son from perfection to weakness could write such paradoxes in our lives.

“We don’t know why these things happen sometimes,” the gentle doctor had said to my young and scared father in the first moments of my life; the words had sounded distant and ringing to him then, echoes of old fears.  Words no one ever wants to hear.  Scary, unknown, sometimes cruel words. 

New-Dad was scared of the unfamiliar, scared of the vocabulary of the unknown.

He was surprised by imperfection. 

He would learn, though, as he watched his baby girl grow up that there are other voices, too.  Voices of truth and strength and compassion.  Voices that would encourage her to work harder and always do her best.  Voices that dispel fear rather than encourage it.  Hopeful, loving voices that calm and reassure and say, “Don’t spend any more of your money at this clinic.  Go home, let her grow up, let her live her life.”

Let her learn her way to skate and type and turn cartwheels and cheer and play the piano and swim.

Let her learn her way.  This is beauty. 

God in His love brings into our lives voices that remind us about the importance of moments, voices that teach us that it is possible to live well in our imperfections, not just in spite of them.

Voices of grace that reveal the beauty in imperfection.  

Listen to these voices. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Becomes First

She was hard to love.  Even the adults found her tedious, but for the kids, her quirks were almost unbearable at times.  She was slow to move and slow to speak.  Something must have happened at birth, and it wasn’t going to get better with time.  You don’t “grow out” of whatever it was she had.  She had a profound limp and lumbered heavily as she walked.  She was always the last to get there.  She told stories that were tedious and never-ending, and she was very hard to understand.  Her mother dropped her off at the church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night in order to get a few quiet minutes to herself.  The other youth group kids did their best to include her, they really did.  There were a few heroes and a few villains, but mostly there was just apathy toward her.  She was hard to love.

No one wanted to room with her on the Chicago trip.  I did what all youth group leaders do ~ I went to the strongest and most mature of the kids and asked for help.  “You are a young woman of kindness and such strong character,” I said to Tiffany.  “I want to put Dorothy in your room on the trip.  Maybe you and your friends could help her feel included.  I know it’s hard, but could you help?  She sure could use a friend.”

“Of course, Miss Shari.  We’d love to have her in our room,” was the gracious reply, but I saw Tiff’s eyes and I knew what sacrifice I was asking of her.

Kindness and strong character can have its challenges.

Simply put, the Chicago trip was a disaster for Dorothy.  She cried a great deal from homesickness.  She lost her purse and all her money.  She got motion sickness and vomited on every leg of the trip (no pun intended).  Her mother failed to mention that she had night terrors.  Her mother also forgot to tell me about her bladder issues; Tiffany filled me in on that one after the seats on the bus were wet and Dorothy was dissolved in tears.  We all muddled through, but after that it was decided that Dorothy would have better luck attending youth group events at home.

We were wrong; sometimes things are just not that simple.  She nearly drowned at the swim party and we had to tell her “no more swimming.” She burned herself with a hot marshmallow at the campfire and we had to tell her “no more s’mores.”  She nearly got hit by a car and we had to tell her “no more crossing the street without a buddy.”

Even the small things were difficult for Dorothy.

Summer Youth Camp ended up being better than expected for all of us.   Sweet Tiffany and her friends were ever quick and cognizant in attempts to include Dorothy.  These girls were growing up together, and Tiff’s group had grown accustomed to Dorothy’s lack of speed and her long, cumbersome stories.  I think they all just took turns listening.

There are still a few heroes around.

Time passed.  Students grew up.  Some graduated – some went to work.  My youth pastor husband Larry and I moved away to Europe and said good-bye to youth work for a while to pursue other ministerial dreams.

And I simply forgot about Dorothy.

It’s been twenty-five years and today she Facebook messages me.  Memories of her cumbrous stories flood as I read the opening words of her very long message.  I look at her profile picture and see the face of Dorothy as a mother of three.  She looks pretty happy.  Cute kids, almost grown.  Her husband looks nice enough; I hope he is.

I begin to read.

She has had struggles.  Sisyphus is not the only one with boulders.  While two of her kids have had some real trouble in school, one is doing fine.  Her husband works at Walmart, and she has been on disability for a while, but she doesn’t mind.  She sews for people and makes a little money.  Her health always has been and always will be poor.  But she isn’t complaining.

Then she begins to reminisce about the old youth group days, and I begin to cry.

“Thanks for all the wonderful memories,” she writes. “The Chicago trip was one of the highlights of my life.  Six Flags was so amazing – I’ve never had a chance to go back, but I sure would like to take my kids there some day.  Remember when I lost my purse and I was so sad?  That seems funny to me now, although I still lose my purse sometimes.  I sometimes hear the songs we would sing on Wednesday night in the Youth Room, sitting in all those chairs lining the walls; Larry in the middle singing and preaching and waving his arms all around.  Does he still do that?”  (Yes, he does.) “Swimming parties and the boys throwing some of the pretty girls in the water, do you remember?”  (Yes.)  “Remember the Lip Sync contest at camp that year? Tiffany helped me and I lip-synced to that Amy Grant song “Age to Age” and I won third place, do you remember?”  (No – how could I have forgotten that?)  “Tiffany also helped me put on some makeup and fixed my hair for the Christmas party.  We had our picture made together and I still have that on a table in my den.  Tiffany was a nice person.”

I remember.  Tiffany was kind to Dorothy.  Unusually good and thoughtful to a person with so little ability to return the favor.  Did I ever really thank Tiff for her kindness?  Did I really forget these things that have so impacted Dorothy?  I wonder where Tiffany is now – I’d like to show her Dorothy’s letter and thank her for her generosity and goodness.  I find her on Facebook.  Good, I’m friending her now.

“There’s one more thing.”  Dorothy’s letter is drawing to a close.  “I wasn’t going to bring up bad past memories, but I want you to know that I have forgiven Kimmy Johnson.  It took me a long time to forgive her, but I did.  I will say it sometimes has made me be withdrawn and hesitant in trusting people.  I waite (sic) for people to say something or come to me first because I’m afraid of rejection or being hurt if I say or do the wrong thing and I am very hesitant to ask for rides to church!!  I had to be honest about it and now I have peace.  I’m closing now because it’s midnight.  I love you.  Dorothy.”

Kimmy Johnson.

Twenty-five years have passed and I had never given even a passing thought to our youth group

mean girl.

But now I know that Dorothy has probably thought about her every single day for the last twenty-five years.  I forgot about Dorothy being bullied by Kimmy Johnson.  Kimmy was mean to everyone, so of course she was cruel to Dorothy.  I’d just never thought about it.  Dorothy says she is now withdrawn and hesitant in trusting people because of Kimmy Johnson.  She’s afraid of rejection because of Kimmy Johnson.  She says she doesn’t ask for “rides to church!!” because of mean girl Kimmy Johnson.

I sit in my reverie and memory and imagine the scenarios:

Dorothy following Kimmy around trying to tell her a long, detailed story.

Dorothy needing help with her lip-sync song and making the mistake of asking Kimmy.

Kimmy mocking Dorothy’s lumbering walk behind her back – maybe in front of her as well.

Kimmy’s refusal to give Dorothy a ride to church.

I suddenly remembered an actual event (how could I have forgotten this?!) when Kimmy Johnson actually gave Dorothy a ride to Pizza Hut after Wednesday night church, got ready to go home, couldn’t find Dorothy (who had gone to the restroom), and so she just left her there.  Left her stranded at the Pizza Hut!  Dorothy had to borrow a quarter to call Larry to come and get her and take her home.

Dorothy’s biggest mistake was thinking that cruel Kimmy was in any way like kind Tiffany.

Poor Dorothy.

There is so much we do not know, so much we do not see.

So many Kimmy Johnsons in this world.

Yet Dorothy somehow seems to have found the strength and fortitude to forgive the girl who caused her this pain and insecurity.  I wonder how she did it.  Had she managed to pray Christ’s prayer, “Father, forgive her, for she didn’t know what she was doing”?  Is this prayer the path to peace?

Can I pray this same prayer over my enemies and find the same peace?

It seems that Dorothy has become my teacher.  She has taught me that it’s possible to forgive, even the meanest of folk.

“Now I have peace” is how Dorothy’s letter ends.  I believe her.

The last has become first.

I look at Dorothy’s Facebook picture again.  She looks happy.  Her kids and husband glance at her with love.  Hardship mixed with love.  I reply to her sweet letter and tell her I want to reconnect.  I’d love to see her sometime and take her to coffee.  She accepts my offer and we have a date.  “I’ll pick you up,” I say and she laughs.  “Good, because I still don’t drive,” she replies.

She gets it.

I know that Dorothy understands forgiveness.

I wonder if Kimmy ever understood she needed it.

I hope so.