Archive for May, 2010

While waiting in the JFK airport, Will and I sat near a little girl wearing a pink striped shirt, grey sweat pants and tan boots and a little boy, the same age, wearing a sports jersey and sweat pants. The little girl’s mother was dressed in a long, dark skirt, chunky sandals, and had a scarf covering her hair. She was immersed in a magazine. The little girl’s father was seated nearby, completely engrossed in his laptop computer. He wore a dark suit, had a brown beard and wore a yalmulke. Based on their attire, they seemed to be orthodox Jews.

The mother of the little boy was dressed in a long, black dress, with a long black scarf that covered not only her hair but much of her face. She was taking care of an elderly woman, who was dressed the same way. The little boy’s father was pacing the floor, waiting on a delayed flight. He was talking into his cell phone, speaking rapidly in what seemed a Middle Eastern language.

Their parents otherwise occupied, the little girl and boy kneeled on adjoining seats of the waiting area and looked out the window of the airport waiting area, at the planes coming and going–but, given the amount of snow that day, mostly sitting on tarmac. The two began a child’s conversation about snow and airplanes–short statements, obvious questions, looking at each other then looking out the window. They pointed at what was going on outside on the runway; they laughed. The little girl covered her mouth as she giggled and the little boy rolled his eyes. Their laughter and conversation continued for some time, until suddenly the little girl’s mother looked up, and saw them together.

With great urgency, the little girl’s mother walked over and pulled the little girl away from the window. She led them over to the husband, who was still hunched over his laptop computer, She instructed him to pack their things; they needed to move to another place in the airport. The little girl never took her eyes off the little boy, but stood obediently there, her shoulder gripped by her mother, who was packing up magazines and snacks. There wasn’t anger in her insistence that they move, just a matter-of-fact, determined tone of voice. The husband, clearly irritated at having to pack up his laptop and move, nevertheless, got everything together and began pushing the straps of the various bags over his shoulder. All the while, the little girl stood and watched the little boy, her eyes wide and serious. The little boy stared back, his eyes wide and curious. The little girl’s mother, noticing their mutual gaze, turned the little girl away from the window. But that didn’t stop the little girl from turning her head, so she could look over her shoulder at the little boy. Her hand still obediently holding onto her mother’s hand. All packed up, as the three walked off, she said to her mother, “Where are we going?” and the mother said, “We are going to wait in another part of the airport.” It was 11:00 AM; I had overheard them say their plane wasn’t leaving until 1:30 PM. They disappeared into the crowded waiting areas of JFK.

The little boy watched them until they were no longer in sight. Then, he got down from the window where he and the little girl had been watching, and climbed into his mother’s lap. She pulled out a bag of M & Ms, and gave it to him. He ate a few of them as he rested his head back against her breast, now looking at the airplanes from where they were seated, instead of going back over to the window.

All of that happened over three years ago, when Will and I were on study leave. At the time, what popped into my head were the words to a song from the musical, South Pacific, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” Now, in light of Memorial Day, I remember these more hopeful words from Isaiah: “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall stream to it. . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”


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I called Will today after finishing up a meeting and he told me that there was a bird in the sanctuary. I drove to the church to see if I could help him with “bird catching,” and upon entering the sanctuary, I saw the bird–it was a grackle! (c’mon, what are the odds??) Anyway, this bird flew to and fro, perching on top of the organ pipes and then zipping to the back of the church and fluttering against the recessed lights. We opened the doors and for some length of time, tried to encourage the bird to go out but he continued to fly from the top of the highest organ pipe to the back of the pew in the last row. Finally, we succeeded in getting him to go into Memorial Hall, and then he disappeared–we think he went into the attic area of the church, squeezing through an opening in the ceiling. I hope that he found a way from the attic to get outside, through some opening in the roof. Even if he is a grackle, I don’t want to find his lifeless bird body in the church attic.

I knew that bird was scared today, watching him fly back and forth across the sanctuary. As silly as it sounds, I wished that I was like Dr. Doolittle, and I could speak “bird.” Then I could have said, “Hey, just go out this door–don’t keep flying back and forth, or batting your wings against the light fixtures! Go out this door and you’re free!”

I know some people–they aren’t birds, of course–but I wish I spoke their language as well. As I watch them fly, terrified, across the circumstances of their lives, or I see them banging up against obstacles that have no “give,” I want to point out the open doors and windows. There’s forgiveness and hope. There’s grace and new life.

I hope that someone (it doesn’t even have to be a Presbyterian!) speaks a language that they understand, or that they find an opening which will gain them freedom. I pray that God shows them the way.

“For freedom Christ has set us free.”–Galatians 5:1

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The Duck Phone

When Will and I served churches in North Carolina, we lived near the Cape Fear River, which gave me the opportunity to go fishing now and then. My fishing partner in North Carolina was a 78 year old man named James.

Now James–a lifelong bachelor–decided at the age of 69 to get married to Maggie, much to the dismay of his sister, Catherine. It had been Catherine’s plan to take care of James for the rest of his life, but this was clearly NOT James’ desire. Catherine, by the way, could have been James’ twin, except she had a moustache and James didn’t. Maggie, on the other hand, was quite attractive, a widow, sociable, and was very attentive to James. At least–until they got married. After they married, Maggie’s true personality began to emerge. She was–how shall I put this delicately?–a handful.

Maggie, for example, would begin every conversation with, “My first husband, Bob Marshall, “ as if there was anyone in this small community who didn’t know Maggie had been married before she married James. She said it one breath: “myfirsthusbandbobmarshall” and as soon as you heard it, you knew that you were going to hear a story from Maggie’s former life, back when she alleged to be a popular, vivacious young woman. (Back before something happened to one of her eyes and caused it to sort of ramble around in her so that you were never sure whether or not she was actually looking at you. But that’s another story.) People in that community believed that Bob Marshall arranged for his heart to stop beating just so he could get away from Maggie, but that’s just rumor of course.

So Maggie and James were married, and while it was not a marriage made in heaven, James would never have considered divorce. They simply went their individual ways: Maggie played bridge, talked on the phone, and watched television; James loved to drive his vintage 1965 Mustang, go duck hunting, and go fishing.

Now I believe that James fished because he loved the way the river looked early in the morning, when the dew rose like steam above the surface of the river. James fished because he loved being the sound of the water and the skill of casting his line. But I’m also quite certain James fished because he needed a rest from Maggie!

I was teaching a Bible study at nearby church when someone came in to tell me that James had died. This person told me that James had just climbed behind the wheel of his pick up truck, had a heart attack and died. I headed over to James’ and Maggie’s home.

When I arrived, there was Maggie, elegantly dressed in a black outfit she no doubt had kept in the dry cleaners bag in her closet since Bob Marshall’s death. The home was full of people, all devoted to James, utterly devastated by his sudden death. Maggie was treasuring her role as the grieving widow, greeting visitors at the door, and then sinking back down onto the couch to wipe away a tear.

As I stood there with the folks from my church, I heard the sound of a duck quacking. It only took a moment to realize that the duck sound was coming from the telephone that James had recently purchased–a telephone in the shape of a duck, which quacked for the ring, and was answered by grasping the upper part of the duck’s body and saying, “hello?” into the lower end of the duck. Someone answered the duck phone and handed it to Maggie, who, in all her stylish grief, stood there, speaking into the body of the duck. As if she had practiced it a thousand times, she spoke low and dramatically into the underbelly of the duck, “Oh, thank you so much for calling! Yes, it’s quite a shock, quite a shock.. .” and off she walked, gravely cradling the duck against her rouge-painted cheek.

The sight of Maggie, crispy attired in black, speaking oh-so-solemnly into a telephone receiver shaped like a duck was too much for the group of us standing there. Like little children, we all started to laugh, and turned away so Maggie wouldn’t see us. Others around the table stared at us in horror, but then caught the humor as soon as they caught sight of Maggie. A couple of the men had to leave the house and go outside, they were laughing so hard. All of us agreed that had to have been for just such a improbable sight that James had ordered that particular phone.

Maggie-on-the-duck-phone was the very sign those of us who loved James needed to see. We were now at peace, assured that James was now happily fishing on the river of the water of life, and that he wanted us to be as happy as he.

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The Go-To Girl

On Wednesday, I had a breakfast meeting with a young woman with whom I had exchanged e-mails but had not met face-to-face. While it probably would have been smart to have worn name-tags so that we could readily identify one another, I counted on the fact the restaurant where we were meeting was small, and that she had described herself as being of medium height with short, blond hair. At the exact time of our meeting, a young woman matching that description approached me as I stood near the doorway of the little breakfast place. She immediately apologized for her appearance (which looked fine to me), explaining that the reason she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt was because the entire first floor of their home had been flooded which was the location of their bedroom–and her clothes. In addition, even though they had parked their cars in what they thought was a safe place, the water had reached them and both cars were lost. It was my turn to apologize for not even calling her to inquire about whether she had sustained storm damage or needed to postpone our meeting. She quickly explained that she was glad for a break from the heartbreak of seeing the mud and muck coating all the furniture and personal effects in their home.

She then told the story of a friend who came over to their house on Tuesday afternoon, after the waters had receded from their home but while they still stood in shock at the sight of their home’s interior. She described her friend as the “Go To” Girl, one of those people who appears at the right time with just the right thing: a casserole when your oven has gone out right before a dinner party; scooping up your kids and taking them away when you think you’ll scream if you don’t have one hour of quiet; showing up with a cup of coffee after you’ve spent a long night in the ER with a loved one. In this case, the “Go To” Girl showed up with industrial strength garbage bags and a huge scented candle. Pushing her feet through the still-wet coating of mud on the floor, the “Go To” Girl plopped the scented candle on the mantle and lit it. Almost immediately, this young woman said, the smell of flowers and spring began to push aside the acrid, strong, sour smell of mud and dirty water.
That simple act had an amazing effect of lifting the spirits of everyone in the room. There was still clean up to be done, and personal effects to salvage or over which to grieve; and the first floor was still a chaotic, brown mess. But over it all floated the sweet scent of flowers, which gave them hope and a little boost of energy for the clean up task that lay ahead of them.

“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.”
–2 Corinthians 2:14

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I had a funeral this week, so originally I had ntended to write about the funeral, mostly so I could cleverly entitle it “One Wedding and a Funeral” but this morning’s weather took my inspiration (and cleverness!) in another direction. I woke up to dark and threatening weather, with that weird diffused light coming from the clouds that makes the grass seem unrealistically and intensely green.  Not too long after I made my first cup of coffee, the thunder and lightening show began and since then, it’s been steadily raining.
The storm reminded me of how, when I was a child, my dad would use the occasion of a thunderstorm to teach a little religion.  Now, my dad was not a minister; he was a mechanical engineer who worked for DuPont.  But he’d been raised at the First Presbyterian Church (now Downtown), baptized by Dr. James I. Vance, was a charter member of Trinity Presbyterian Church and so knew a thing or two about theology.  
As the thunder and lightening would begin, my dad would interrupt me from whatever I was doing, and we’d go down into our basement. Daddy would open up both the garage doors, giving a full, unblocked view of the driveway and yard.  We’d stand there while the thunder thundered and the lightening flashed and the rain would pour down.  (note: I’m not sure my mother thought this was a great idea.  She would call down the stairs after every thunder clap or lightening flash and ask if we were all right)  Every time we engaged in this thunderstorm observation, my dad would say two things.  “The Lord is still in charge,” he would say first and then second, “We may not have wanted this rain, but someone somewhere else is mighty grateful to have it.”
I must admit that watching the rain beat down the flowers and feeling the thunder and seeing the lightening was kind of scary, but a rainstorm that we could neither control or cancel did mean the Lord was in charge.  And afterwards, as I picked up the flowers that had been broken by the hard rain, I would remember that someone somewhere who was thanking God for the downpour.  
The sovereignty of God and gratitude for all God’s gifts are concepts that my father taught me as we stood there in the doorway of the garage.  Those concepts have sustained and strengthened me through many storms, actual and personal.  “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118: 23-24)

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