Colored Squares

“The idea,” Kellie said, “is for each child to recreate this tiny photo of a color square using tissue paper and pieces of black construction paper, and then we’ll put them all together.” 

These were the instructions for the craft on the second night of Vacation Bible School.  I was helping with the crafts, and even though Kellie explained this end result of this craft to me, I couldn’t visualize it.  So I just made sure the children followed her instructions. 

We had three different age groups for Vacation Bible School unofficially designated “older, younger, and teeny.”  We had no problem getting the older ones to recreate their color square and in fact, some of them made more than one square (which was good, since there were 47 squares in all).  The younger group required more observation and guidance and even then, some of the colored tissue paper was doubled-glued and therefore doubly sticky, some of the black pieces of construction paper were placed a little wonky, and one “artist” chose to wad up his tissue paper rather than smooth it out, creating a 3-D effect.  Finally, we had the teenies, who absorbed all of the adult volunteer help, as glue and tissue paper and black construction paper seemed destined to go on the table, clothing, or floor.

Still, after the last VBS class left, the floor of the craft room bore the fruits of the children’s labor—47 colored squares, waiting for the glue to dry so that the next day, they could be put together.  Truthfully?  It was not a pretty sight!

Not too far into that next day, Kellie called me out into the hallway.  The individual squares that had been overglued or made from wadded, wrinkled tissue paper, or were less-than-perfect now blended together in one beautiful, colorful cross.  It had been impossible for me to visualize (even after being shown a picture!) while the children were working on their squares; it was even more impossible for me to visualize when each completed square seemed so different.  But there it was—gorgeous in its unity yet equally lovely in its individual parts. 

That Vacation Bible School cross reminded me of Paul’s words, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one, so it is with Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body does not consist of one member, but of many.” 

I’m grateful for that reminder in a time when so many Christians seem to want everyone in the church to think and believe uniformly, as if all would have made their tissue paper square exactly the same way.  It can’t be so in the body of Christ—we are composed of too much glue, too little glue, smooth paper, wadded up and torn paper, precisely placed, and slightly wonky.  But when it all comes together, it’s beautiful!



Funeral Rites

Years ago our daughter Mary became the proud and happy owner of two gerbils. She named them Cookie and Brownie.  Even though the “shelf life” of gerbils is about eighteen months, Cookie and Brownie triumphed over the pet store statistics.  Cookie lived to be about two and a half years old, while Brownie made it past four years.  These gerbils were tame enough that they climbed up and down Mary’s arm, and around her bed when taken out of their cage.  They co-existed with our cats, even though Edward terrorized them by sleeping on top of their cage and once had to be forced to release a stolen gerbil out of his mouth.

When Cookie died, it was a sad day; sad most of all for Mary who came to me, sobbing, and placed a lifeless—but still warm—Cookie in my hand.  There was no doubt that we had to conduct a funeral for this small, well-loved rodent.

Our family gathered around the hole Will had dug in the ground.  Cookie was placed in a small box which Mary had decorated.  We put the little gerbil casket down into the hole, and covered it with dirt.  Then one of us read from Psalm 104, Mary gave a little eulogy about what a good gerbil Cookie was, we said the Lord’s Prayer, and then sang “All Creatures Great and Small.”  It was as lovely a graveside service as any gerbil could want.

When Brownie died, we also had a little funeral service, not as memorable, much briefer—probably because the weather was colder when she died.  Then Mary bought two more gerbils, which is when we learned that pet store people do not know how to tell the gender of a gerbil.  The two little girl gerbils turned out to be a boy and a girl, and in case you are wondering, the gestational period for gerbils is every 25 days. So in less than two months, we had a total of 17 gerbils.  We had to separate the male gerbils from the female gerbils, placing them in separate cages to avoid further reproduction, and then separate them even further because one of the gerbils was born angry or crazy and would attack the other gerbils, thus necessitating her own cage.  We put the original pair of gerbils in their own cage, having had the male gerbil neutered (now that’s a story unto itself!).  Our front hallway was lined with gerbil cages; our evenings will filled with the sound of nocturnal rodents, chewing and skittering in their cages.

Unlike the original pair, these gerbils were not hardy.  Despite our best efforts, about every week we’d find a dead gerbil in one of the cages.  The very last gerbil died on the day we were hosting a party. Moments before our guests were scheduled to arrive, the children discovered the lifeless gerbil body, and I instructed them to put the entire cage in the garage where the temperature was cold and the body would “keep” until we could tend to it.  Later, after all the guests had gone, we retrieved the gerbil’s body.  The elaborate funeral rites once held for Cookie had now morphed into a less elaborate rite of wrapping the dead gerbil in a paper towel, placing it in a plastic bag, and putting it in the dumpster.  No scripture, no prayer, no hymn.

Still—and you probably won’t find this in Calvin’s Institutes or Barth’s Dogmatics—I believe that whatever or whoever God created goes back to be with God.  No, I can’t quote you a scripture to back up that statement.  But whether we are burying an animal or a human, and however we are burying an animal or a human–that bit of creation returns to its Maker, and is welcomed home by its Creator.  Regardless of the type of funeral rites,  “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful—the Lord God made them all!”


Driving Words

On two consecutive days, I have found myself driving behind the same blue truck.  It’s not a new truck or a large truck, but a weathered blue truck with a broken taillight.  I couldn’t see who is inside of the truck but I could see what’s written in large, yellow letters across the glass of the truck cab: YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.  One yellow heart preceded the YOU and followed the BEAUTIFUL. The first time I saw this truck, I drove behind it from downtown Franklin to my house; the second time, I drove behind from my house to downtown Franklin.  Now, the driver of this truck could have written those words about his or her truck–after all, truck owners are quite fond of their trucks!  But I prefer to think that the truck owner took a little time to jump in the bed of his or her truck, and write that phrase to counter so much of the unkind, unpleasant sayings that appear on other cars and trucks today.  Bumper stickers no longer declare a preference for a political candidate, they denounce the opponent in unflattering and sometimes crude ways.  Even religious views are affixed to vehicles with an edgy “you’d better watch out” phrasing.  It seems to be a indication of a discourtesy that has infiltrated our nation.  Reading negative bumper stickers certainly doesn’t help our mood in traffic, either!

So how refreshing to be behind this truck whose message was a simple, “You are beautiful.”  I may be ascribing far more meaning to this phrase than the truck owner intended but it was a relief to travel down highway 96 behind a compliment instead of a criticism.  So to the owner of that beat-up blue truck, I hope you know you are beautiful, too!

Customer Relations

At the end of a long, busy day, I have discovered that what perks me up every time is a visit to my neighborhood grocery store or dry cleaner. 

The people who work in my local grocery store seem to like their work, and communicate that they like the customer as well.  So when buying groceries for dinner feels like I’m wearing concrete shoes, it’s wonderful to have a friendly grocery store person make an entrée suggestion–and not in quota-driven, aggressive manner but in a “that’s what I’m here for” way.  And all through the grocery store, whether they are stocking groceries or returning carts, each employee gives a nod or smile, makes eye contact, asks if he or she can be of help.  At the check out line, each checker is efficient but not frantic, always asks about my day, shows genuine appreciation for my presence.  So it is that I leave the grocery store happy and energized, marveling at how a trip to the grocery store was the tonic for my weary spirit.

Likewise, at the dry cleaner, I am greeted with a smile and flattered every time that the clerk begins to write my name at the top of the cleaning slip as I come through the door.  [This, of course, is due to the fact that I am a frequent customer!]  They inquire about my health and my day, and they take pride in their work, even pointing out when all of a stain couldn’t be removed.  While my visits to the dry cleaner aren’t daily, on those days when I drop off clothing early in the morning and pick them up on my way home, my day is  bracketed by a pleasant experience.

Here are two businesses whose overall spirit and attitude makes me want to return to them again and again, as well as to recommend them to others. 

So I have wondered: does the church do the same?  And not just my particular church, but does any and every church communicate that we Christians like the gospel and enjoy sharing it with others? Do we in the church show a sense of caring and concern, without being overly intrusive?  Do we greet one another warmly and inquire about one another’s health? 

Oh, I know that the church is not a business, nor do I want the church to be run like a business.  However, I think the church can learn a little something from the business world about customer relations.  The church could strive to make each member feel important (especially the less honorable ones, as the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 12), responding to member needs, creating such a positive experience that people want to return Sunday after Sunday and recommend the church to their friends.  As the writer of I John expresses it, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  And that’s just good customer relations!

Grace and Grape Juice

In the 27 years since I’ve been a minister, I feel like I’ve made every mistake at least once and had all sorts of things happen to me at least once. I’ve misplaced my sermon in worship, I’ve had to halt a baptism because there wasn’t any water in the baptismal bowl, I’ve read the wrong scripture passage before preaching, I’ve prayed good health for a person had already died, I left off the entire closing portion of a confirmation service, and in a wedding service, I completely forgot about the soloist, concluding the service while he stood waiting—and never getting–to sing. Well, the list goes on and on. So I thought I was on the tail end of “things that happen to me once” until this most recent communion service at church. All seemed to be going well at communion—I had not forgotten my communion words, there were enough elders to serve, elements to be served, and I had just finished serving the elders and was placing the cover on the juice trays. At that moment, I heard a thump, a sound which is not a part of the communion service. Specifically, I heard a thump accompanied by a small gasp and as I looked around to discover the source, much to my horror, I saw that I had overturned the goblet filled with grape juice and a large purple stain was quickly spreading over the handmade white communion cloth. Lots of words were piling up in my head at that moment but I managed to restrain all of them from being piped through the sound system except for the one word, “Ooops!”
Meanwhile, an elder from the choir loft was capturing the juice which was now spilling down onto the sanctuary carpet. Another elder was moving the trays around the table to provide more dry space for the placing of the pledge cards, which came next in the service. It was a horrifying first for me; I hope it is the last!
Although much embarrassed, I nevertheless moved the congregation into the passing of the peace which followed. I was somewhat hesitant to participate because I was so embarrassed by what looked like the world’s largest purple stain on a pure white cloth, so I was slow to move toward the congregation. However, the congregation wasn’t slow to move toward me. I am quite sure we took a bit longer to pass the peace than usual that day, but I was certainly grateful for the hugs and pats and kind words that people shared with me, consoling me or commiserating with me. It truly was peace that was passed, and I led the remainder of the service with such peace in my heart and thanksgiving for folks who don’t value things over people, who seek solutions to the problem rather than dwelling on it. In this case, three ladies of the church helped move that stained cloth from the sanctuary into the parlor sink, and ran cold water over it. I think whether that cloth had been 100 years old or 10 years old, those ladies would have showed the same calm, sensible, kind manner.
At this writing—despite various remedies and even a trip to the dry cleaner—the stain remains visible. It’s no longer purple, but is kind of a grayish blob. Maybe before the next communion service, someone will figure out how to remove that stain. Or maybe that stain will be our visible, constant reminder that at the Lord’s Supper, forgiveness, grace and peace abound.

Little Scraps of Love

In our kitchen, a scrap of paper is taped to the cabinet door above the dishwasher. It’s a drawing of a snowman, with the words, “let it snow! let it snow! let it snow!” printed underneath the snowman. The paper is faded and brittle—so brittle, in fact, the top part of the snowman’s head broke off when my daughter handed me the picture. She had rescued it from the kitchen cabinet in my childhood home in Nashville, shortly before all new cabinets were installed.
I drew that picture of the snowman when I was a young adult, and while I don’t remember the details, I know it was during one of those times when I was living at home and working in Nashville, having discovered that the concept of “snow day” didn’t exist outside of school. I remember that my dad was still going to work in Old Hickory, TN and that his carpool was never fazed by inclement weather. I knew that in our household, my father liked snow and my mother only liked snow if, to quote her exactly, “I don’t have to go out in it or any of you have to go out in it” and also if there was enough bread and milk in the freezer (we would have survived months of blizzards based on the milk and bread we had stored in our freezer).
It was snowing pretty steadily that morning as I left for my work and my dad left for his work. Knowing my mom would most certainly be staying home, I hastily drew her a snowman with the inscription, “let it snow! let it snow! let it snow!” and taped it to the kitchen cabinet, above her Desert Rose cup and saucer, Sanka instant coffee, and Sweet ‘n Lo. My father left out those three things for her every morning before he left for work. That evening, I learned that my mother was amused by the snowman, as well as grateful that my dad and I got back home “without incident.” And so the little snowman stayed right there on the kitchen cabinet through about thirty more winters and summers as well. Now I look at that tattered little picture every morning as I pour my own coffee, and fondly remember my father and my mother who never took down the little picture that I taped up that morning.
I am writing about this little picture because it illustrates for me that the journey of grieving is navigated through subtle obstacles that we encounter in places like bathroom drawers, hall closets, and kitchen cabinets. Oh, sure, we miss our loved ones on the obvious occasions such as the holidays or birthdays or anniversaries but the surprise of grief comes when one opens a closet door and a faint, familiar perfume still lingers or we catch a handwritten note that falls out of the leaves of a book. We steel ourselves for the family events which are forever changed by the absence of a loved one and we manage to emerge from those events fairly intact. But on an ordinary day, for no apparent reason, we will stumble across some silly, even trivial object that causes us to feel our loved one’s presence—and absence—with such clarity that it brings tears to our eyes. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s always a surprise. The nature of a surprise is that we can’t be ready for them. And those surprises continue for many, many years, as long as we can remember and grieve.
So when the Apostle Paul wrote, “Love never ends,” in his famous chapter on love (I Corinthians 13), I think part of what he is describing is the unexpected recollection of love. The love we have for someone in this life doesn’t stop when one person moves to life eternal while we stay earthbound. No, here on earth, love lingers and surrounds us through major events and the minor little scraps of paper, so that like Paul, we, too, believe that the “greatest of these is love.”

Women Ministers

Recently, a minor mishap in assembling a piece of furniture at our daughter’s new manse in Whitmire, SC necessitated the 22-mile drive to nearby Newberry, SC to the locally owned furniture store. The friendly folks at Morris Furniture Store (this is like free advertising!) were helpful and as I was paying for our purchase, the cashier asked what brought us all the way from Franklin, TN to South Carolina? And I proudly replied that our daughter was now the pastor of the Whitmire Presbyterian Church in Whitmire, to which the cashier replied, “Oh, I’m Lutheran myself and I knew that we Lutherans had lady pastors but I didn’t realize the Presbyterians had lady pastors, too.” I told her that I was a pastor, too, as was my husband and we engaged in a wonderful conversation about churches, preachers and genders.
Her comment about “lady pastors” reminded me of when Will and I moved to Ripley, Mississippi where not only were we the first clergy couple that Tippah County had ever known, I was the first woman minister the county had ever known. (Well, there was supposed to be a female pastor at one of the Methodist churches but something happened and she ended up going to another church. I don’t know the story, but wish I did). And as often happens when one is a “first,” the local newspaper wanted to write an article about me (there had already been an article about Will and me). The interviewer for the article was a quiet young man named Kenny Goode, whose name appeared as a byline under most of the articles that appeared in the Southern Sentinel, leading me to believe that perhaps he was the only writer on staff. Kenny, a native Mississippian, hailed from the Potts Camp/Hickory Flat area, southwest of Ripley. Kenny was also a lifelong member of the Church of Christ and from our first handshake, admitted that he had never met a woman minister and in fact, didn’t know that women ministers existed.
Kenny and I had a long chat, which felt less like an interview and more like a theological discussion. While I have encountered folks who, not favoring women ministers, have been somewhat antagonistic and confrontational with me, Kenny seemed fascinated if not somewhat puzzled by this “woman minister” thing. The interview drew to a close; Kenny and I stood up to exchange goodbyes. He said, “I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and I hope we’ll meet again sometime. . .” and then he stopped and looked at me. “But what should I call you?” he said, “Should I call you Brother Sally?” I considered for a moment, realizing that in a very real sense, Kenny had paid me a compliment. I said, “No, you can just call me Sally.”
That day, a newspaper reporter from Ripley, MS learned about the existence of women ministers, and a woman minister learned that to survive in the male-dominated world of priests and ministers, sometimes it’s a compliment to be called “Brother.”