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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

What's Become of our "World" View?

I'm just about finished with my first reading of Steve Brown's book Three Free Sins. I say first reading because I fully intend to finish it, flip it over, and read it a second time.

He's old. He's bold. He's tired of hypocrisy. He's realized the fallacy of being a pastor and thinking his job is to restrain others' sin so that the church "looks good" from the outside. He's telling it like it is, like it really is, and making some people mad in the process, or so he says. I have yet to meet anyone who's read his book and come away mad. Rather, it seems to me, every one of us comes away with at least a few scabby scales having fallen off our eyes.

I'm near the end now and have come to a passage which, though he says it more coarsely than I have considered, sums up an undercurrent of thought I've been doing the tango with for a couple of years:

"When Christians get to the point where they read only Christian books, go only to Christian movies, hang out only with other Christians, eat only Christian cookies, and wear only Christian underwear, it's time for a reality check. That's sick, and it's a sickness unto death.

"Once we are set free from the need to defend, protect, and hide, we have the freedom to show up in places where proper Christians don't go for fear of getting dirty. And it is in our showing up that the authenticity of who we are [the extremely needy, terribly sinful, and really weak] becomes the 'flavor' that attracts others to the ice cream maker.

"So go do something that isn't religious. Just show up."

Taken out of the context of the whole book, this might seem a little odd--particularly because of the way he chooses to illustrate his points. But even in his hyperbole, I think we can get what he's saying. We Christiany people Christianize everything, and miss the whole big-picture thing of this world and life view we were almost on the track of grasping back in the 1980s to about the early 2000s. But where did it go?

Where did we lose our confidence that Christ is pre-eminent? That our righteousness comes from him, and can not be tainted by outside forces? Where did we lose our focus that redemption was an overarching, effective thing, and not a fragile, limited, must-be-hidden-behind-the-fortresses-of-our-homes kind of thing? Where did we jettison the truth that he came into the world not to condemn it but to save it--the WORLD, this place, this culture, these people and the products of our existence?

On March 1, it will be 20 years since I took a job working with an organization that existed to promote Christian world and life view. Twenty years. A whole generation has grown up in that time. And yet, with only a few exceptions, I don't see the impact of that mission reaching very far into the culture. And even as I was promoting and working and teaching and writing with that in mind for others, my own life was shrinking further and further into a bubble of Christianese. It happens so easily.

And salt loses its saltiness sitting on a shelf. And talents buried in the ground amount to nothing but a pathetic sort of security in the same old, same old. Like seedless fruit--good only for one-time consumption, or rotting in the crisper drawer.

Is it in the fact that we taught ourselves to say, "I live FOR Jesus" instead of "I live WITH Jesus," and by that little change of preposition, we changed our whole relationship to a set of practices we defined ourselves as "godly" and "holy" and "set apart" and "above reproach" and forgot how very present in the real world he was?

I worked briefly with a college student, a young woman with some potential, for a time. But she could not see how to apply her gifts or develop them in this world. "I just want to marry a pastor and let that be it," she said. All she could see of her ability to live FOR Jesus in this world today, educated and intelligent as she was, was to set up housekeeping for someone else who would be doing the most typically "religious" job we can think of. And my heart sank, because somewhere along the way, we've missed the power and the creativity and the breadth of the calling of being a member of Christ's body in this day and age.

When Francis Schaeffer asked, "How shall we then live?" it wasn't a rhetorical question. It was meant to call us out of just our own minds and into action--living, moving, effective action.

A dinner-table discussion two or three weeks before Christmas in our own home grew out of a poem my second grader had to memorize. "'No room for him,' cry men today as through the world they plod. 'My life is crowded, don't you see? I have no room for God.'"

When I asked my own girls HOW we make "room for God" in our lives, and how we are called to "follow now his star," I got theoretical, detached, generic, and intellectual answers. "Think about good things." "Read the Bible." "Pray more." And my heart began to sink again. The one thing I wanted them to see and know was a living, active, relational faith. And what had we become? Stuck in our own heads.

We have minds. We have bodies. Hands with opposable thumbs! Arms to reach and grasp and draw in close. We have emotions. We have words to use and ideas to bring to materialization (which means to put into material--physical form!), things to create, heart bonds and actual bridges to build. And God has an opinion about every single aspect of it, and every single part of our lives should be in this tension of doing WITH him as we do WHAT we are called to do, WHERE we are called to do it.

What has become of our "worldview" if it never pushes us out into the world? Can one even have a "worldview" if we retract from the world and all the opportunities it affords?

I cannot help but think today that more than anything else this Christmas, I am wanting him to come, not again as a baby, though I am so thankful for that. But I want him to come as a fire. Under me. Return me to what I once knew to be true: a raw, real, enthusiastic, all-encompassing passion to be for him in this very world, this time, whatever place he puts me, with an open mind and an open heart and open doors and a willingness to go where he sends me, and for that to be seen by my children and known by them and by me that it is the power of God and the power of redemption and the power of resurrection that makes it possible, overcoming fears of failure and reputation, overcoming fears of discomfort, even fears of loss, fears that I can't defend God well enough--as if it's up to me to be Protector of his Existence. But all of it with him.

In Philippians, Paul called the religious people--among whom he had once counted himself--the "dogs." And he referred to all his religious righteousness in their eyes as "rubbish," which literally translated "dog food." All his works righteousness was nothing but food for the movement he was warning his beloved believers, "his joy and his crown," to beware of. Whenever we sacrifice a true, outward-looking world and life view and replace it with a Christianized version of a passing of our days meeting what we've come to think of as a certain brand of religious identity in our lives (usually characterized by what we DON'T do, rather that what we are freed TO DO), are we not feeding the dogs ourselves?

I'm tired of dog food. In the words of my friend Brad, who I believe was paraphrasing Tim Keller, I want the steak dinner. The real deal. "Taste and see that the Lord is good." The Lord, who is making all things new. Who came to the teeming, twitching, squirming, pining world--and stood in contrast to the empty, polished religiosity of those who had "an appearance of godliness" about them, but "denying its power."

And so, like Isaiah, I stand and I say, "Here I am Lord. Send me."

What's next?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas in Exodus

It’s Christmastime and our pastor has begun a new sermon series. Naturally, it’s on the Book of the Exodus. At least, it seems natural to me, and even more after today.

I can honestly say that I love the gospels, I love the book of Acts, I love the Peters, the Timothy letters, the letter to the Philippians. At some point, each of those has probably held a position of highest favor among all the other books of the Bible. But every time we come back to the Exodus, I get excited. It’s my story. It’s the story of all of us. It’s the story that encapsulates all of it in one place—our condition, our nature, our perceptions, God’s seeming absence, God’s obvious presence and faithfulness, the practical, nitty-gritty, physical symbols of the great spiritual actions he is up to.

Today we read the passage in chapter 2 in which Moses’ mother has to do the unthinkable. Our pastor is particularly conscious of how instrumental God has made women to be in his redemptive history, and so he spent a good deal of time last week painting a robust picture of the role of Shiphrah and Puah, and again this week on the mother, the sister, the daughter of Pharaoh. But mostly, on the mother.

He also showed us images of the Nile River. “It’s not the French Broad,” he says. “The most dangerous thing you’re likely to find in the French Broad is a rock.” We look on banks writhing with crocodiles and waters with surfaces broken and bumpy with hippos. The threat is startling to our modern, urbanized sensibilities. But there was a greater threat in Egypt.

Pharaoh, we had seen last week, had put himself in the place of God over Egypt—except that he was a god who felt threatened by the abundance of human life. Suppose the Israelites rose up against him? Fearing for his own position and well-being, he tried enslaving them to control their numbers. It didn’t work. So he determined to coerce the midwives to kill the male babies as they were born. Failed again. Enact plan C, then. Pharaoh himself would have the male infants thrown into that predator-infested Nile. Between the current and the animals, the babes hadn’t a chance. The anti-god would control life and protect himself in it.

Then we meet the woman who becomes the mother of a lovely baby boy. She’s a mom of at least two already, we know. And at this point in history, she gives birth to her third, a boy. She knows his fate if the anti-god finds him, so for three months, she keeps him hidden. If you’ve been a parent of a newborn, then you know that around the three-month point, babies begin to spend more time awake, observing and interacting with their world. They find their voices and don’t just cry when hungry, but make happy cooing and gurgling sounds. They begin to imitate patterns of speak/pause/speak that will one day allow for interactive conversation. It became impossible for her to hide him any longer, and so she does what seems like an unthinkable thing: she puts him in the river—or at least in the tall grass by the water’s edge. Because she takes time to make a little “ark” and coat it with waterproof material, I think we can expect that it was, indeed, in contact with the water, though it is unlikely it would be picked up by the current and swept away.

Our pastor suggested that she may have placed it particularly where the Pharaoh’s daughter might find it—an appeal from one mother to the nurturing sensibilities of another woman, in a desperate attempt to bypass the brutal hard-heartedness of the murderous Pharaoh.

I so love this story. Long ago, I connected with the mother of Moses because my first daughter, as a toddler, wanted only one story: The Baby in the Basket. Every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. I could still quote the entire little book to you if pressed. I’m sure I could. And so over and over again, I thought of the mother who had to give up her little baby boy, at just three months of age.

In that same time period, our second daughter was born. She was a sick baby, from birth. And while there was no brutal king going door to door looking to throw her into the Nile, there was still the ongoing anguish over her. What is wrong? How do we help? Is she going to be OK? At one point, the speculation about her condition did include a rare genetic syndrome that could mean death during the preschool or early elementary years of childhood.

It was in that time that I had to come to my first point of real surrender to God. A mother surrendering her child. I thought of Moses’ mother on a daily basis—even when I wasn’t being compelled by a persistent two-year-old to “read it AGAIN, Mommy!” I felt her then, holding her warm little bundle against her body, and knowing: I have to let him go. I was in the same place. I could not myself help or fix or save my baby. I had to entrust her to someone outside myself.

The baby Moses was going in the river. There was no way around it. But how?

I met Pastor Dave in the hall after the service. Interestingly enough, he was on his way to do a baptism—presumably applying the water symbol to another infant, presiding over the surrendering of the parents, in submission to God’s authority and God’s means of salvation, applying the sign and the seal of that salvation to their infant—but he stopped, as he always, always, does, to give me a moment. My excitement over the book of the Exodus is probably puzzling to some, but for two weeks now, he’s taken it in stride and let me gush a bit after the sermon.

In keeping with the attention he calls us to give to the women in the biblical story, I emptied the contents of my head in a passionate verbal deluge: The mother, she’s like the Church, the Bride, the woman parallels the Church in being the physical Body, acting out God’s will in surrender and submission… and what surrender! To give up her little baby, so young, so dependent on her, but she knows, he’s going in the river. She won’t let him go by the hand of the anti-king, but she’s going to trust the sovereign King, the creator who made the river and the animals with her son.

I was excited over the parallel, but there was something else I had not even connected yet. And that’s when Pastor Dave leaned in, like he does. I’m beginning to realize that when he does this, something really good is coming: He touched me on the elbow, and moved to look me straight in the eye, and he said, “Rebecca—she’s not just like the Church. She’s like God.”

And my head exploded with that truth.

(As an aside here, I am going to mention that I have become convinced that what Pastor Dave does to get my attention just has to be what Jesus did to Mary Magdalene in the garden after he rose from the tomb and met her there. She was going on, all empassioned, and thinking she was spilling her guts and grief to the gardener, when, I believe, he leaned in to her, touched her on the elbow, moved to look her in the eye, and said, “Mary.” And her eyes were opened. I think it happened, just like that.)

But back to the point: She is like God. And in some regard, each and every one of us who has experienced that kind of surrender also gets to be like God—to know how he works. What he gave.

I said to him, “If it doesn’t feel like dying, it isn’t really surrender.” It must have felt like dying to her. That tiny baby needed her for his very life. A three-month-old cannot live long without the sustenance he receives from his mother. In just two hours separation from him, her very body would be joining her head and her heart in full awareness of her separation from him, as she would be ready to bring him again to her breast, and nourish him and be relieved and herself fulfilling her design to so supply him. And he was torn from her, by her own desperate submission. She chose to give him up, into the threats of the world. She chose to.

She just had to choose which way he would go, and whose hand she would give him into—the blood-thirsty, self-protective anti-god, or the creator and sustainer, the one her own parents told her about, and their parents before them, keeping alive the stories of the patriarchs and the life-saving deliverance that brought their people to Egypt in the first place.

Some years ago, a board member of the company I work for spent some time working intensively with me in evaluating our business model. It was in trouble and we were looking at all alternatives. He was a pilot, and he gave an example: When a plane is in a tailspin and falling, the gut reaction of the pilot is to try to pull out, opposite of the forces acting on him. But that’s the worst thing he can do, he said. The only saving answer is to drive forward, farther into the fall, create a nosedive, and from that terrifying position of giving in to the inevitable with vigor, the pilot can then regain control and pull out.

I see Moses’ mother as being in a situation like that. There’s no way out—only further in. But she’s trusting in that which is not within her own power, not even within normal intuition. She’s trusting in surrendering her child to the current of God’s will, like the pilot pushing forward into the nosedive. You take this, God. It’s your plan. It’s your child. And she gives him up…to save him, to get him back, to even allow for his placement to set all this people free from the oppression that brought them to the point of this choosing.

And here’s where it becomes about Christmas. Because her surrender of her child is like God’s of his own son. This world is reeling from sin, like the plane in the tailspin. Ruling authorities, who ought to be there for people’s good, are oppressing people and killing babies. We’re all moaning in the darkness, under the oppression. The pain and turmoil and separation comes from within us and from without, and we can’t fix it. And God could have walked away. He could have turned and left us spiraling down eternally. But he didn’t. In himself, he chose to act. He chose to surrender his own Son. The Son chose to surrender to the Father’s will. He willingly entered in, surrendering his glory that he had with the Father, knowing that the threats here were real, and they would get him and bring him down, but that even then, the Sovereign would reign, and his good purposes would be fulfilled.

He drove downward to meet us, with vigor, and in doing so, he rent the Trinity.

If tearing a baby from his mother’s breast is painful and unthinkable, then how much more—even inconceivably so—is this tearing of one person of the eternal Trinity from the others?

This is where the idea gets into me like a grain of sand into an oyster—like an irritant that chafes my very soul until blisters begin to form. It’s wrong. It’s wrong to take a baby from a mother. As a mother, everything in me says, “No!” But that is only a tiny taste of what it must have been like for God the Son to be taken from the Father.   I.can’t.even.imagine.

Christmas is when Jesus entered in to the world. We tend to focus on the humble conditions of manger and poor parents. There’s the good news of glad tidings. Shepherds and magi are united in the same community—worshiping the one true God. All of that is good. It is very, very good. But for it to happen, the bosom of God was torn open. He surrendered his own Son, his very own Son.

And that is the pearl that was produced this morning in me. God doesn’t ask us to do anything he himself isn’t willing to do. So any of us who have wrestled with surrendering to the point that it feels like death can know: He sees. He knows. He does. And in that, we are a little bit like him too.

Exodus 2:25  God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.

Oh, the wonders of his love!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Here on the Island of Misfit Toys

A train with square wheels. A squirt gun that shoots jelly. A cowboy on an ostrich instead of a horse. A darling elephant who isn't grey, but had polka dots. A Charlie-in-the-Box.

For each, one can see some reason for the obvious title "misfit." But what about Dolly?

I always wondered. "A Dolly for Sue" just seemed like a perfectly adorable little red-headed ragdoll to me. Why was she there, on the Island of Misfit Toys?

And all my life, I felt a little bit of a connection to her--fitting in with the misfits, but never quite sure why.

Today, I went looking for other information related to the Rudolph special (in particular--I had just found out that all reindeer, both male and female, have antlers. I don't think I knew that before, and I wondered if Rudolph's mother and Clarice were depicted with antlers in the made-for-TV movie. I honestly don't remember.). I ended up at Wikipedia, obviously the easiest source for non-critical confirmation, and found this about Dolly:

"Dolly is voiced by Corinne Conley and is a seemingly normal girl rag doll with red hair and a red gingham dress. Her misfit problem is never explained on the special, but was possibly revealed on NPR's Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me! news quiz show (broadcast December 8, 2007). The show revealed that Rudolph's producer, Arthur Rankin Jr., says Dolly's problem was psychological, caused by being abandoned by her mistress and suffering depression from feeling unloved."

And that makes a lot of sense, and I can even see how it can bring some light into the purpose of suffering for the otherwise healthy. Why did this happen to me? Well, it happened. But maybe it isn't just about me.

Dolly, abandoned and depressed, doesn't fit in the world of the lavishly loved, valued, and happy. But note: She isn't alone either. Somehow, she made it to this little community.

I've always related to Dolly. She is currently my Facebook profile picture. I never knew the above, and still, of course, don't know if that was what was originally intended, or if the producer just as recently as 2007 got on the bandwagon for the psychologically depressed and found an application he hadn't thought of before. It doesn't really matter, though. I don't care. I still see a parallel and a purpose.

Even if Dolly wasn't able to fulfill her primary purpose, which was to be loved by a little girl somewhere, her existence wasn't meaningless. And even if, in the mental and emotional turmoil I struggle with at this stage of my life, I am never quite sure if I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, what I'm made for, what I will one day know in fulfilment to be my God-given design, my existence isn't meaningless either. Nor is yours.

Imagine being a misfit and truly being alone. I've written before about the importance of community in giving comfort (see The Land of Tears). And here's depressed little Dolly, who works just fine in other ways and only wants to be loved, present among a train that can't roll at all, and all those other unique-but-not-what-you-expect characters. And none of them are alone.

It reminds me of this:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. -- 2 Corinthians 1: 3-4

Paul has said that he suffered to the point that he "despaired even of life itself." And yet, he lived to receive comfort and to be able to comfort others. We need one another. I have close to my heart a small band of hurting people. Of course I want to fix them. I can't. But I can be there, on the same island, knowing the pain of the something-we-sometimes-just-can't-identify.

Sometimes we know: It's THIS. Sometimes it is much more vague and nuanced--the longing, the lack of fulfilment, the wondering, the sense of abandonment, the "Where are you, God?" cry. And we just know. We can't fix it, but we can sit together, and share the understanding of this human misfit condition. We can remind one another of when our need was met, our cry was heard. We can remind that even if misfits at this point or that, we are still made by design, and beloved, and beautiful in the sight of the one whose craftmanship we are--and in the sight of one another. I see it most when one of my loved ones shares his or her heart. An honest heart, even a broken, damaged, darkened one, is beautiful.

To my beloved misfits--The day is coming when you will no longer wonder about your place, your purpose, your status. But don't doubt that even now, that is as full and complete as ever it will be. I've needed you, and by your presence on my Island, I have been comforted by you--the Father of mercies working through you to me. I hope you can say the same.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

What's It Like To Be "Happy"?

I saw him a few weeks ago.

The girls and I were in our car and he was in his wheelchair. He was parked on the side of the road. Waiting? Stuck? We didn't know.

But as is common for us, we felt that infuriating pang of desire, helplessness, and paralyzing fear all at war within us. How can I, able bodied and financially supplied, empowered with four good limbs, a checkbook that isn't totally empty yet, and half a tank of gas be more immobilized than a one-legged man with no more possessions than he can carry with him at any point in time?

But I am. Because when we saw him a few weeks ago, I said out loud, "I want to help. I just... we don't know him." We kept driving. One of the little girls waved.

Today, the two older girls had breakfast with him. His name is "Happy," and they say it fits. He is. And he has no home, and very few possessions. He lives day to day. But he has friends. Friends who also know his name and are truly happy to see him. They said it was like watching a reunion unfold. They were under the tent, Emma on coffee duty and Jane cooking hashbrown potatoes. It was cold and rainy. A few others had already gathered to warm their chapped hands with the coffee cups and fill plates with breakfast fare the first time, when up came Happy. The girls instantly recognized him. He was greeted all around by his friends, who had hoped he would join them for breakfast this week, one of the places they normally gather. A chorus of greeting rose upon his arrival, and smiles all around.

He's a veteran. The girls didn't pick up yet which war. I could guess. Emma just said, "He seemed full. It's not what I expected. We have all this stuff. We're always frustrated with it--it's not enough when we want something new. It's too much when we have to take care of it. He just has. . . something else."

She's right. And we've got a lot to learn.

Maybe it got started this morning, because of Happy.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Imogene Herdman Can't Be the Mother of God!

Mrs. Armstrong was absolutely scandalized. For as long as anyone could remember, she had directed the church Christmas pageant. And for as long as anyone could remember, Mary, the blessed mother of the sweet little baby Jesus, had been played by a mild and subdued, prim and proper, debutante-in-training. It was just unthinkable that the unchurched, rough and tumble, cigar-smoking, curse-word using, hair-dying girl who came from the welfare family and who was known, along with her brothers, for talking about "sexy things" could possibly be acceptable enough to play "the mother of God!"

And it came on me, too, all at once, like a case of chills and fever: Who else? Who possibly OTHER than an Imogene Herdman could be in such an auspicious role, if the gospel really is good news at all?

It was at that moment, sitting on the second row of the theater with my second-grader, that I knew the good news once more, in my very being. This Jesus is for me. And I started to cry then and I didn't stop until long after getting home from dropping the children back at the school. It came and went, in fits and starts: I'm a Herdman! He came for ME. I couldn't possibly be acceptable enough for the family of God! He came for ME. He's the image of the Creator of the Universe, Immortal, Invisible, God ONLY Wise, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace! He came for ME. He came TO me.

And there I am. More Herdman than the traditional view we have of Mary. Which made me stop and think: Why do I picture Mary like the church people do anyway? Drive to the gospels. Drive to the word. What does it tell us about her anyway, and how does our tradition hold up?

Many scholars believe that Luke, the gospel writer, met and spoke directly with Mary in order to record the story of Jesus' birth. Perhaps she also even described herself and her relatives for him.

It's interesting to note that before telling us Jesus is on his way, we get the word that Zechariah and Elizabeth are finally having a baby, the one who will be John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. Zechariah and Elizabeth get introduced as the people who will be the parents of the herald in this way: "And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord."

Why, they sound just like the church people in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! I'll bet they volunteered to hold the church bazaar every year, and always showed up with their shoes shined for church, and could bake an enviable applesauce cake. Walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Zechariah and Elizabeth really looked good. Just the kind of people that God ought to choose to parent the unique individual who would herald his own coming, right? Just the kind of people you and I would want representing us in our Christmas drama.

But after a bit, we meet her. Mary. And does it say that Mary "was righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord"? Doesn't it? Doesn't it say that she was mild and prim, well-coifed, demure, gentle in nature, obedient to her parents?

Sometimes what is NOT there is not there for a reason. And after such an explanation about the righteous character of Zechariah and Elizabeth prior to their selection by God to bear the one who would proclaim the need for repentance before the coming of the Savior of the entire world, I kind of expected something similar to be said about the one chosen to bear that God himself.

But it isn't there. There is no mention of Mary as righteous, blameless, obedient, walking well in submission to God's laws. It isn't there.

All we know is that she is as of yet unmarried, betrothed to Joseph, and her name is Mary. (It means "bitter," by the way.)

Now I know I am going out on a limb of intense speculation here. I admit it. And I know that with some, any suggestion even of Mary's normal humanity is a hot-button topic. But really, when we think about the humans God chooses, how many of us were wise? How many of us were good? How many of us were influential?

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." -- 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31

Suppose nothing is said about Mary's righteousness and blamelessness because she had no such claims to make? Is it possible that Mary really was more like Imogene Herdman than we have ever stopped to consider? Is it possible that the reason she was greatly troubled by the angel's saying (despite the fact that, come on, an ANGEL is talking to her in the first place--again, it doesn't even say she was troubled by seeing an angel, but troubled by what he said to her), is because she had absolutely no reason to expect him to lead off with the words "O favored one"?

Elizabeth, it says, took relief and pleasure in the knowledge that finally, by being pregnant, she would no longer have to fear other people's reproach. Finally, those who looked at her with skepticism for her barrenness would know: She really was righteous. God was not punishing her with childlessness. (It was the belief in those days that children were a reward from God for obedience. A woman who was barren feared the reproach of others, as if she was living in a state of unrepentance and missing out on blessing specifically because of it.) But Mary seemed to have no reason at all to be considered "favored." Nothing in the passage suggests that Mary was anything special in terms of right conduct or obedience.

Perhaps (again, I admit to my possibly ridiculous level of speculation), in a culture in which sexual immorality was punishable by extreme measures (the Old Testament even allows for stoning, though the Pax Romana looked unfavorably upon such harsh punishment), Joseph's initial decision to simply put her away quietly may have suggested that no one was all that surprised by the word that she was expecting before she was married.

Mary's speech when she arrives at Elizabeth's has a fullness of appreciation in it that seems unlikely for a young girl who had never experienced soul-longing, identity crisis, grief. I think of the woman of whom much was forgiven. It was she who, in return, loved God much. I hear in Mary's words the song of one who has been forgiven much, and is responding with apt awe, adoration, astonishment: Rather than saying, "What in the world am I going to do, an unwed mother? People are going to hate me, they are going to despise me, ostracize me. I don't deserve this! I've been good all my life! I walk in righteousness and this is the thanks I get? Scandal and suspicion?"

No, instead she is floored by the fact that she has been given God's favor, and she, undeserving, is being used as his instrument. He will bring down the proud who would judge. He will fill the empty (perhaps even the emptiness of a teen girl, searching for self in the normal "rebellious" ways most of us have known in our own lives?), and empty the "filled," he is full of mercy--mercy is mentioned twice. She rejoices--her spirit "leaps" within her.

Imogene Herdman wept as she sat by the manger, cradling the doll in her arms, the words of the gospel being read over her. In today's play, her tears were so real that the children afterward asked the director not once but three times if the actress was really crying, and why.

The Apostle Paul called himself the worst of sinners. And yet, he is the vessel chosen by the holy God to carry the word of the good news to the world. He was not the most righteous, but the worst of sinners.

Why then, should we insist that the vessel chosen to carry the Word Made Flesh into the world would be someone particularly blameless and righteous--one who earned her favor?

And what of our role today? He calls us his Body. Jesus took his body and left this place. He left us to take him with us as we go. We are how he chooses now to image himself to others. Can I claim to have earned that favor? When I heard the description of what the child chosen to play Mary should be like, I had to cringe. Because I believed it too, and I knew, it certainly wasn't me. No, I am much more like Imogene than the idealized Mary we envision.

But if the gospel is true, perhaps Mary is more like Imogene than I've ever considered before either. And in that, I find hope. And my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices within me, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

He has helped his servant Israel, the one who wrestles with God--wrestles and strives, tumbles and struggles--in remembrance of his MERCY. So that no one can boast--but only, he or she who boasts, may boast in the Lord.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

It Happened One Holiday Season (Caution: May contain trauma triggers)

I've been wrestling with whether to share this. I realize for some readers, it may hold triggers for painful memories. It does for me.

It's not how I want you or anyone to think of me, when you think of me. It's not how I want to think of me. I'd rather not remember what I can't remember. I'd rather it never happened. I'd rather have those hours back, and while I'm sure there is mercy in the blanks, I'd rather know where I was during the missing time.

So I thought about not sharing this. I almost didn't. And yet. . . what if I don't, and it happens to someone else? Or what if there is good in being, yes, even this transparent?

A friend and mentor once told me, during a difficult time, that nothing that ever happens to one of us happens to just that one of us. Somehow, it is meant for more than just the one.

Perhaps there is someone among you who needs to know that an event that happened TO you doesn't define you. That something that occurred to damage you really doesn't make YOU damaged goods. Perhaps someone carries guilt, and by my sharing, I can help that one see: It wasn't your fault. It happened, and it shouldn't have, but it wasn't, and isn't, your fault. You are not dirty. You are not worth less. The shame belongs on the perpetrator, not you. You can be free from it.

And perhaps there are many others who simply need awareness--so that it doesn't happen to them; so that they can assist or help prevent for another's safety.

It is the holiday season. For many of us that means unusual social situations. In some cases, that in itself can mean danger. So I'm sharing my story, from some years ago.

This is what brought this back to mind for me again this year, as the holidays approach and I begin to think again of what occurred:

A friend sent me this article [Drugged by a Stranger] to read. She sent it because she knows what happened to me. I told her and three other friends while we were away at the lake one long weekend earlier this year. I told another friend, years ago, when he was going off to college. "Be the big brother for the girls," I asked him. "We need our guy friends to look after us."

It was a long time ago. I had just turned 21 three weeks earlier. I was at college over the winter holiday because I had missed a large amount of school the previous semester--emergency surgery and recovery had left me with a couple of "incomplete" grades in key classes. I had gone home for Christmas day, but returned to my apartment in the college town to work independently through the break so that I could still graduate on time.

The town lived and moved and had its being because of the university, so it was practically a ghost town over extended breaks. Only the two adult graduate-school women in the apartment above mine were around. I worked daytimes in the studio on campus, checked in and out with my professor and advisor, and then rented movies at Death Valley Video pretty much every day. I watched them at home alone in the evenings. I was very busy but a little lonely too.

For New Year's Eve, the apartment complex clubhouse announced that there would be a party. As a just-turned-21-year-old, I was excited to go to my first New Year's celebration when I would be allowed to partake of the celebratory champagne at midnight. But I was alone. As a general rule, I didn't go out alone. Usually, there was often another girl and at least two of our guy friends when we went out into social situations like this one.

It's a good rule and I still stand by it: Always have a buddy.

On this particular evening, I would have stayed in, but the women upstairs invited me to go along with them to the party at the clubhouse. We got dressed up--hats, heels, makeup--the whole thing. I think we looked pretty cute too. And we must have--at least enough to draw some unwanted attention.

The clubhouse was walking distance from our apartment--not more than two and half city blocks' distance. It seemed safe. It seemed wise. We would walk--no driving to worry about if anyone did have a drink or two. We would go together. I assumed that also meant we would come back together. But I assumed too much.

When we got to the clubhouse, the place was hardly hopping. We three ladies could pick any seat in the house. The bartender was there. The television over the bar showed scenes from Times Square. Two individuals sat together at the bar, and at a round table at the back, another pair of guys was hanging out. One was probably in his mid-thirties, with a pencil-thin mustache and an annoyingly high-pitched voice. He wore a skinny tie and a jacket. The other did not match him at all. Long, smooth, light brown hair, parted in the middle, hanging almost to mid-back. A heavy, western-style mustache. He wore jeans, a white t-shirt, and a jean jacket. He stared.

My creep-meter pegged. Both guys set it off, but jean-jacket creepy guy buried the needle in the dash.

Pencil-thin mustache approached us, bursting with chattiness directed at one of the grad-school women. She told me he was OK. She had met him before. But Creepy Guy just sat and stared.

I decided I would not drink. I wasn't comfortable. I would just wait until the ball dropped in Times Square, and then the other women would surely be ready to leave. This was not a very happening party. The bartender turned on some music. He handed out those silly party favors you blow into and they produce an awful screechy horn sound and unroll to smack your nearest neighbor in the face, retracting when you stop blowing. It was corny and we laughed some. We danced. We three women sat at our own table, but Mustache kept hanging around. He wanted to dance with each of us. I refused. Creepy Guy just sat and stared.

I remember that as the ball began to drop, we were all on our feet. There might have been 15 people present by this time. Not a crowd at all. The bartender set out a tray. He poured champagne for the house. And then Creepy Guy moved. He came to the bar. He lifted the tray. Creepy Guy let each of us take our glass from him to toast the new year.

I remember raising the glass. I remember a chorus of "Happy New Year"s. I remember the ball touching down.

I woke up almost five hours later in the front seat of a car I'd never been in before. Creepy Guy was driving. He was agitated and angry. Mustache was in the back seat. He was saying, "We have GOT to get rid of her! Now!"

I had to roll a bit to lift my head, and then I felt panicked. I started to demand, "Where am I?! I don't know you! Take me home! Let me out! Where are we!"

We weren't far from the clubhouse and the apartment complex--maybe two miles. "Shut up!" Creepy Guy yelled to both of us. "I've got to figure it out!"

And then, oh merciful heavens, there were blue lights in the back windshield. We were pulled over. I tried to get out of the car. I was wobbly and woozy. I told the police officer, "I don't know them. I want to go home."

"Well, miss," the officer said, "Mr. [I can't remember his name--but he was referring to Creepy Guy] is going to jail. He's driving with a suspended license. I'll call another car to come for you."

He did. I don't know what happened to Mustache. But the other officer arrived and helped me into the front seat. I told him my address. I felt like hell. My head was so cloudy. I didn't feel strong. A block of my life had just completely vanished. I had no idea what had happened--no memory at all. My hat was gone. The other two women--where were they? Who were those people?

I talked most of the way to my apartment: "I don't know them. I wanted to stay close to home. I wasn't even drinking. I don't know what happened." The police officer drove in silence. He never said a word. He didn't ask me a question.

I'm sure he just thought that I had underestimated how much I had had to drink, but that was not the case. I had consciously decided not to drink at all until the champagne came around, and then I remember only one sip.

He shone the cruiser's lights on my front door while I let myself in. I'm sure he saw the full length of my back, head to heels, as I entered my apartment.

I went to the bathroom and took off my clothes. I pulled on an extra large t-shirt and got into bed. Hours later, I woke. I went back to the bathroom and saw my clothes on the floor. The entire back of them was covered in red clay mud.

I took the clothes to the kitchen trash can and threw them away. I got into the shower and washed. I took the trash to the dumpster. I never cried. I never told anyone. I went to the studio. I did my work. I came home. That evening, one of the graduate students stopped by. She had my hat. It had been found in the hedge near the clubhouse parking lot. "Why did you leave me?" I asked, amazed and bewildered.

"You seemed like you wanted to stay," was her only answer. I can't imagine what she saw that looked like "wanting to stay" with Creepy Guy. I can't remember. It's just black. And terrifying.

I never saw Creepy Guy or Mustache again. I pretended for a very long time that none of it happened. It shouldn't have happened. But it did.

I know it did. Because ten months later, I had to go to my doctor for a checkup--a standard year's followup from the surgery I had had the previous year, the one that caused me to have to stay at school to make up work over break. A routine test showed something I refused to think about. I had HPV. Caught early, HPV is 100% treatable, curable. Undiscovered, it can take a woman's life. My doctor asked questions. I answered as honestly as the life I had lived supported, except that I never mentioned the incident with Creepy Guy. I could tell my doctor was bewildered, but I couldn't go there. My brain would not cross the threshold to access that possibility. I think my doctor had other ideas about me, but even letting him think what he would was better, at that time, than facing the truth.

Perhaps there's a mercy in not remembering. But it doesn't mean it didn't happen. A few years ago, another person I know let knowledge of something similar in her own history be known. And suddenly, very suddenly, I couldn't suppress any longer that something had happened to me. My mind had to deal with it, even though it is still unknown. I sometimes have deja vu. It's happened in movie and TV scenes when a woman is being forced into a car. Once I had to leave a viewing.

I still don't know exactly what happened. I know some. Not enough. And too much at the same time. It's an onion I'm not sure I will ever be able to peel completely. I've run through so many emotions. I've struggled to be a whole, real, three-dimensional person, because for a time, I was only someone else's object. And I don't remember. Even God ordained that for a time, I was only an object and not a sentient being.

But this much I know: It can happen so easily. It can look like something else entirely. It can be hard to believe. And it wouldn't have happened to me if I had been with my real friends. Had Matt or Dave been with me that night, I wouldn't have this story to tell. There is no way either of them would have left me.

The holidays are coming. There will be times for outings, social situations. Alcohol does not even have to be involved in order for a stranger to spike a drink. There are many substances that will work to bring about such an effect, as the article linked describes. You don't need to know the chemical names. But you do need to have a plan. Here is what I recommend:

--Never go alone. Always have at least one other person with you, and make a commitment beforehand that you will not leave one another. Never leave a man or woman behind! Not even to go get the car!

--Don't take a drink from a stranger, not even off a passing tray.

--Don't leave your drink unattended and return to it. If you leave it, leave it for good. Even if you have it in your hand, keep it protected.

--Trust the creep-meter. Almost all women have it, built in. Sometimes it's just a flutter, sometimes it's a red alert. It's a gift. Believe it. NEVER, no matter how polite you've been taught to be, act against the creep-meter. If it tells you Creepy Guy is dangerous, find another place to celebrate. Don't hang around.

--Tell your guy friends about the creep-meter. Some of them likewise have such intuition and a protective nature too. Ask them (and be sure they agree) to honor your creep-meter readings without question and negotiation.

--Keep your eyes open for your friends' sakes too. If in doubt, throw the drink out. Watch each other's consumption. If your friend who can normally hold two or three or even four drinks seems unusually affected too quickly, assume that something unusual happened.

--Seek medical help. I was being watched over, I know. But sometimes, the dosing can be harmful or fatal. Seek medical help. Don't worry about what other people may think.

And again, above all else--never, never leave a friend behind. Never. If you go out together, you come back in together. Period. You ARE your brothers' and sisters' keepers. Don't ever forget it.

But if even all of that somehow leaves you exposed and injured, I beg you to know you're not alone. It feels so alone, so foreign, so wrong. It is wrong, but it's not your fault. And come find me. Because I know.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Not Ordinary Love Songs

When I woke up this morning, on a spare mattress in the college dorm room of a good friend who let me stay with her when other travel took me close to her campus, I planned to get up, shower, get dressed for worship, and go with her to her church.

But I got up way early. Way, way earlier than most college students do on the weekend. (You see, I'm regularly an insomniac, and the last few days, it's been prevalent and persistent. Last night was one of those.) I had tossed and turned sleeplessly for at least two hours, until the sun was pretty much fully filling the room even through the dense fog outside.

So I found myself ready to go about the time she headed to the shower. I took my Bible and prayer journal and went to the commons room for some early prayer time before corporate worship.

Generally, prayer journalling for me can last an hour or more, if my schedule allows it. Five to six handwritten pages, as I struggle and plead and confess, and then confess more explicitly, and search and seek and weep, is pretty normal. Call me Israel. I wrestle with God on the page daily. And I thought this morning might go the same way.

If you read my last entry, then you know that I've been struggling deeply with depression lately. Topping the list of causes have been my sense of worthlessness, expendibility, and pointlessness. Grief has been ever present. Loss has loomed. There have been unfair speculations. I have felt accused, accused, accused. From my (admittedly erroneous, but I know that only cognitively, not emotionally) limited perspective, it has felt as though God has been playing a game of cat & mouse with me. Just when I feel I've made it safely to a corner to catch my breath, POUNCE, down he comes again. I begged him to relent. I thought it would never come. And my frame, it is only dust. I wanted to run away. I just wanted to run and run and hide somewhere. But where?

So this morning, I sat down by the open window, the air damp from the mountain mist, and opened the journal. My mind was all over the place. I didn't know what I wanted any more than I knew what was good. I knew I was about to go to worship, and with that fracturing and discombobulation, I feared I would hear not one word of the service. Depression brings its own form of ADD, it seems. I always feel guilty when I attend worship and can't get my head to get in there with me. That only adds to the depression, in the end.

So I was writing and praying and asking him what he wanted me to do, because I just didn't know. And when I was just a paragraph--not pages--in, I think he said, "Go home." It was such a relief to hear! It was an immediate confirmation. I had planned to start the trip just a few hours later, but it seemed so direct. "Go home." I love an adventure. I love to travel. I love to be out in different places. But today, I needed that one destination. I needed to go home.

And it's good to be home. I'm thankful for a safe trip. Coming down the mountain was a bit hazardous. Thick fog, high altitude, tightly winding road with practically nothing between driver and empty space--and not an incident to report. I'm thankful to be home with my family, even though it's a chorus of deep coughing around here right now. But it was the ride home I needed most.

Don't get me wrong: I am completely committed to regular corporate worship. We are called not to stop meeting together. Worshiping away from home sometimes is more encouraging to me than being in my regular spot, because I get to see the evidence of the universal church, alive and well. So I am not advocating skipping out on services. But I also do believe that sometimes God just wants us alone with him, for a time, and that's what I had with him in the car today. God and me and my (mostly) secular music.

I plugged in the iPod and the first song to come on was Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes. Commonly thought of as a love song from that 80s-era teen classic movie Say Anything, I have never considered that song as something to be taken at face value. It has always rung of deep spiritual meaning to me. It was even more so today. And here's what I heard first:

Love, I get so lost, sometimes.
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart.
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
but whichever way I go
I come back to the place You are.

And all my instincts, they return
and the grand facade, so soon will burn
without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside.

Yes. That was me, and it was what I needed to hear. I felt total security right then, like the opening of the doorways of a thousand churches. He sees me. He really sees me. I was so tired. Everything is so much WORK! Relationships. Job. Home. Managing these crazy emotions. Work. Grief. Pain to push through. Senseless hurt. Misunderstandings. Accusations. Work.

Love, I don't like to see so much pain.
So much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away.
I get so tired of working so hard for our survival.
I look to the time with You to keep me awake and alive.

The music was enveloping, and I realized I needed this time with him alone in the car more than anything else right then. And the pain of the accuser's tactics began to melt away. For the first time in weeks, I didn't feel that clenched fear and anxiety in that space between my gut and my heart, under the ribs, where it lodges so regularly. I was exhaling and inhaling in time to the music. It was relief. But it didn't stop there. The next song was a love song, directly from him to me.

It's the purest track on my iPod. Lavender by Marillion. It became a dialogue between us this morning.

The sweet imagery is of innocent children, playing without even a hint of corruption in sprinklers in the park. They were running through the rainbows. They were singing a song for you. It seemed to be a song for you, the one I wanted to write for you...for you...you.

And this is what He wanted to write for me: Lavenders blue, dilly dilly, lavenders green. When I am King, dilly dilly, you will be queen. A penny for your thoughts, my dear. A penny for your thoughts, my dear.

My King has promised himself to me. The beauty of creation is his love in physical form, shared for daily enjoyment. He loves me. I am secure. The accuser is silenced. He sees me, pure, innocent, no condemnation. And my thoughts, he wants them. "I owe You for Your love. I owe You for Your love. For Your love." The world, though dimmed by fog and mist, became instantly beautiful again.

I have missed it.

But it didn't stop there. The early church dealt with Rome. This morning, Rome dealt with me. The Promise continued the conversation:
If you need a friend, (John 15:15)
don't look to a stranger. (Job 19:15)
You know in the end,
I'll always be there.
(Matthew 28: 20)
. . .
And if I had to walk the world
I'd make you fall for me.
I promise you, I promise you, I will.
(John 1:14)

He did walk the world. He did it to fulfill the promise. And he did it for me. And I needed to know that, really, really know that this morning.

The promises flowed. The accuser was silenced. I was renewed.

I could respond with Bono as he belted his own version of Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55) --though not nearly with the vocal power or range, but I did the best I could to magnify the Lord with my strained, wavering, untrained contralto.

Magnificent. Oh, Magnificent!
I was born, I was born to be with You.
. . . This foolishness can leave a heart black and blue. . .
Only love can heal such a scar. . .
I was born, I was born to sing to You.
I didn't have a choice to lift You up
and sing whatever song You wanted me to.
I give You back my voice, from the womb.
My first cry, it was a joyful noise!
. . .
Justified, till we die you and I will magnify!

And it was. Magnificent. Personal, intimate, absolutely necessary worship wrenched from me today to hold back the voices of despair and sweep away the effects recent events had left on me. My black and blue heart was touched and healed as surely as the wounds of the woman who had only the hem of his garment.

Magnificent. OH.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Dear friends who check my blog from time to time even when I don't advertise that there's something new here. Maybe you will come by and see this and think to stop and pray for me.

I am experiencing writer's block.

While my mind is whirling with thoughts all the time, nothing is formulated to come together as a shareable post. My writer's block is brought on by grief. There is too much of it in my life right now. Several weeks back, I wrote about The Land of Tears. I suppose I am myself in that place again, but not confident enough even in my own thoughts I had expressed then to share the sources of grief publicly. Plus, some circumstances involve others. I am not at liberty to share.

In the meantime, depression is near to me always. I am struggling. God promises that the waves will not overwhelm me nor the flames consume me. (Isaiah 43) I am borrowing on past belief to claim that.

There is so much loss in this life. What does it mean, "To live is Christ"? And is there an order implied there? I am not sure how to live right now. The cloud is over everything. I find myself having to remember to breathe. My lungs prefer to freeze after each exhale, until it becomes uncomfortable. Will other normally involuntary functions keep pace or likewise sputter and stall?

Words are often worship for me. And now I don't have words of my own. I am simply holding, albeit at arm's length it seems, the promise that the bruised reed he will not crush and the smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Five Years: Remembering Gene Franklin

It’s been four years to the day since Weathertop, Sam. It’s never really healed.

Frodo was reflecting on an excruciating journey, fraught with turmoil, confusion, pain, and the drive to finish the job well. To press on, even against all odds, against waning strength, against all personal desires. The wound he received at Weathertop, near the beginning of the ordeal, remains with him.

Perhaps some wounds never heal.

On Monday, November 11, it will be five years to the day since a tragic, avoidable, and completely unexpected accident took the life far too soon of someone I love. We travel on. But still. . .

It’s never really healed.

When I was a girl, my family settled at a very small Baptist church in the midlands of South Carolina. They did so for one primary reason: respect for the man who was the pastor of that church.

William Eugene Franklin, Jr., was a young, handsome, well-known family man with deep dimples, sparkling eyes, wavy blonde hair, and the greatest servant’s heart I have yet known personally. He and his wife Tina had two daughters close to my age and a son not too far behind, and a policy of an open door to their home and their hearts. It took no effort at all on my part to find a place there. I think I just showed up, and that was that. I was one of his, and I never doubted it.

In addition to being a pastor—who served two different congregations simultaneously—the man with the servant’s heart also served for decades as a fire fighter. I’ve often thought that perhaps his quiet way, always ready, always willing, always able, never boasting, underlies my to-this-day longing for comic superheroes to exist in reality. Mild-mannered heroes, dwelling among us, ready to come to the rescue when need arises. Good overcoming evil’s worst attempts. Yes, maybe there really are a few.

“Uncle Gene,” as my older brother suggested we call him, had a large part in good overcoming evil in my own life. Though I was never really a “bad kid,” I suppose I would have been classified as a “beautiful corpse.” The walking dead, perhaps. I had been taught morals and respectfulness, and I behaved fairly well most of the time. It was an acceptably convincing presentation of what a good, little Southern girl ought to look to anyone looking (and in the South, that's usually a significant number of people)—if all you could see was the outside appearance. But soul-wise, it would be several years beyond my childhood years before Gene’s teaching made any real sense to me—before it became more than cultural tradition but actual personal faith. Before it gave life.

I think he knew. When I graduated from high school, he gave me a graduation present: my first actual study Bible. I’d previously had only a non-annotated King James Bible. It came out pretty much only on Sundays and went back on the shelf afterward. But because someone I so loved and respected, and who so loved and respected me, gave me that Bible, I made sure to pack it in with my other essentials when I left for college. It was after being challenged by another pastor whom I respected, because he respected me, that I opened it to read it thoroughly. And it changed my life. It changed everything.

I know that Gene Franklin prayed for me. I know because it was who he was, and I know because he told me so once, and everything else I know about him tells me he kept his word. I think of that sometimes, when I am praying fervently for one of my young friends in a hard spot in life, far away—I remember that I perhaps benefited from his persistence on my behalf. So I persist. God answered Gene, who set the stage for that prayer in the first place. God may answer me as well, for that one.

Christianity is a relationship doctrine. God made people to be in his presence, to be in his company, to enjoy him. God put people into relationships. God uses people in relationship to show himself to each other, to encourage each other, to bring more into the relationship. I think Gene loved me into the Kingdom. And I wasn’t the only one, either, but maybe I had more, closer opportunity than most others.

I got to go camping with the Franklins, in the crowded, pop-up camper. We slept three girls across one mattress, which was fine except for the late night giggling. Shopping and errand running in the giant Econoline van. Hours on the side-deck gave opportunity for him to listen to the music of the day, and give some input. I wish I could remember the song I was playing there once that he gave his approval to, something trendy, pop-music, radio friendly. But he listened, gave me that side wink to match the dimple on that cheek, and snapped his fingers while swaying a bit. I was proud to say I’d made a Baptist preacher dance—even just a little. But it was his presence, his involvement, his acceptance and approval that was planting seeds.  

I remember once I was included on his family’s beach trip. We were walking on the broad, white sand, watching waves and just chatting when, to my astonishment he suddenly inverted next to me. He just tumbled over into a perfect handstand! The man was then walking the beach on his hands next to me! I had no idea he had such a talent, and a moment later, he walked directly into the surf, still on those hands. When he emerged, he gave me a gift from the sea—a live sand dollar he had immersed his inverted self to find.

As fun and personal as those memories are, though, there’s one that nearly haunts me to this day.

I had a high-school friend named Joey. Joey had (and, I’m sure still has) a huge heart of gold and a big bellowing laugh to match it. After high school, Joey determined that he would enter the fire department. So of course, I told Uncle Gene, My friend Joey is going to be a fire fighter too. We were sitting on Gene’s couch, under the big window in the family room of his home, where we usually sat to talk. Again, he gave me that dimpled smile with the near-wink and made me a promise: I intend to get to know that young man then.

And he did. He sought out Joey and they too became great friends.

Five years ago, Joey was working out his duties for the fire fighter team. One of his jobs was to gather prayer requests and forward them to Gene, who served as chaplain. On November 11, 2008, a fellow fire fighter was in the hospital. Joey called Gene. Would you be able to get in to visit him? he asked. Of course, that servant’s heart would do just that.

Gene got on his motorcycle to head to the hospital, about 10 miles away. Within about a mile of his own home, however, a car coming from the other direction, and turning left, failed to yield to him. The collision took Gene from all of us. And pierced us all as well.

Joey told me at the funeral that apart from his own father, no one in the world had ever had as much impact on him as Gene Franklin had. I believe it. Because I know, too.

It still hasn’t healed.

I have to pause in writing here to remember again, so many ways he was in my life.

When I brought home from college a young man I thought I was going to marry, of course I had to take him to the Franklins, and to Gene in particular. We had dinner there together, and again, to the couch to talk. But that evening, as we were getting ready to leave, Gene made the joke he always made, something about it being cold, and throwing his arm around my shoulders (the Armstrong heater, he called it) he pulled me close. He took my left hand, and lifted it to almost eye level. It was at that point still ring-less. And he looked me directly in the eye with genuine affection and said very firmly, Don’t do this too soon.

He was right. That young man was not the one for me. He knew. I was saddened at first by his comment. Not angry. Not defensive. I trusted him too much for that. Just puzzled and sad. But he was right. I saw that truth before long.

A few years later, Gene gave me that playful wink again as he stood with Bill and me on the platform at Gaither Chapel and declared us man and wife. He first held what was soon to be my wedding band in his own hand, held it up before the congregation, turned it in his fingers, and then gave it to Bill to place on my hand. In his own nervousness, he forgot the order of events, accidentally omitting the congregational Lord’s prayer I had wanted in the service. I whispered to him, and he leaned in so humbly to me, his head almost against my own, and replied, Oh my. I am about to mess up, aren’t I?

Gene, me, and Bill
December 1994

When our first daughter was born, Gene and Tina were just about as quick to arrive as my own blood uncle and aunt to greet the new one—even though they had grandchildren of their own by then. It just didn’t stop, that connection, that relation, that inclusion. That love.

At the funeral, one of the speakers made note of how Gene would willingly open his heart to expand his family inclusively. I grinned and nodded obviously, in agreement. I thought somehow the one speaking was talking about me, specifically. But as I looked around that filled-to-capacity auditorium, I saw other heads nodding, other faces smiling. I wasn’t the only one? Of course I wasn’t. But he always made me feel that way.

It was appropriately grey and wet that day. But that didn’t stop the public. As we rode for miles in the procession from the church in town to the burial site out in the county, at the little church he pastored and my own family had attended, people lined the streets, both sides. A nearly continuous wall of people, mourning with us all, for miles. Fire fighters came from other counties to stand by in case of emergency so that all the other servicemen could attend. Ladder trucks gave tribute over the roadway. It almost seemed as if the whole state had come to a standstill. It was awesome and appropriate and it still wasn’t enough.

It’s been five years to the day on Monday. It really hasn’t healed. But it will. Those who make it to old age say that life is short. It’s too short in some cases. This is one. But he’s on the other side, and because he didn’t keep his love and knowledge of truth to himself, I know I’ll be there one day too. He was a hero and a life-saver, and though he never saved me from an earthly blaze, I can’t say he didn’t have a very important role in saving me from that which such earthly tragedies can symbolize.

It’s hard to end this particular story, but that’s OK, I think. Because we don’t know the end yet. In fact, there isn’t one. Gene lived by the promises of an eternal, loving, forgiving God. He lives by them still. And in this intricate tapestry of overlapping lives that God ordains to weave, I can say that even though the wound of losing him still hasn’t healed, I would change not one thing to ease it if it meant not knowing him. He was a willing participant through whom God’s grace reached me. Thank you, Father, for the life and love of William Eugene Franklin, Jr.