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I have lived a lifetime in just the last week. I’ve stood by my elderly mother‘s deathbed, keeping vigil as she drew her last breath. My siblings and I have mourned Mom’s passing, celebrated her life, and sorted through her most special treasures. After weeks away, I have finally returned to my own home, to my own life, to try and figure out how to incorporate some of Mom’s treasures into my own!
As we dug ever more deeply into Mom’s life, we discovered things about her and our Dad that we never knew. By the time any of us was old enough to remember, Mom had run into enough limits that she carried a resentment that would hurt her, diminishing her throughout the rest of her life. I often hid during Mom’s tirades, as did several of my siblings (amazing what one learns during a death vigil!). We each knew to challenge Mom with great caution…the price for implying that she might have made a mistake was always unpleasant, even caustic…often not worth the battle!
But these things we already knew. The real surprises were revealed in old photographs, notes, and letters that none of us realized even existed! There were pictures of young adult George and Louise. They loved being together! They loved each other! (None of us ever saw that side of their relationship. Instead, we all have hard memories of bitter words …)
I have long been aware that my love of books and writing was inherited from my Dad. He was an incurable bookworm. Our weekly trek to the public library is one of my favorite childhood memories. The surprise was finding the beautiful notes he wrote to the love of his life, and realizing Mom kept them!! Who knew that Dad was such a romantic? Or that Mom was so sentimental? Mother, following the example of her mother, left notes on many of her treasures. We had errantly assumed that many of her “doodads” would be easy to toss. They were Mom’s memories, after all, not ours. But those small hand-written notes, taped to backs and bottoms, or stuffed inside some orifice…those notes tied us to generations past with old, long-forgotten family stories. Those notes are largely to blame for the many extra boxes of stuff that have found new homes with my siblings and me after the funeral!
So, here I am, at the time of life when I need to be getting rid of things, adding more to my domain and existence instead! As I began to unwrap my “new” treasures, I pulled out a large empty box and began filling it with stuff we no longer use or need. And, I realized that I am falling down on the job! There are a myriad of items in my home that hold wonderful family stories. I need to add my own note to some treasures, telling the stories that go with the memories. My notes are an important of the family narrative too!
The evening of the day Mom died, my siblings and I met together in a nearly empty apartment where Mother had lived happily for more than 7 years. For days and days, we had each picked through Mom’s treasures, sorting, donating, and then, choosing our favorite items…and our ability to make further decisions was exhausted. A few precious heirlooms were relegated to an “Everybody Want This” corner. Numbers were put into Keith’s favorite hat, and we pulled numbers for each item we wanted…until all was parceled out, each sibling with a few very special treasures. There were no arguments…just laughter and tears, stories and agreements about who should really have certain items.
In the last days before Mom died, it seemed as if the soul had gone out of that place: Mom’s bright eyes and always warm (sometimes teary) greeting and embrace were gone, the shell of her body wasting away in an adjacent room. The light and life we knew as “Mom” was gone as the previous generation ended and I became the eldest female in our immediate family. It is an odd place for me to be to be – a supposed matriarch for this family! I am quite certain I am not ready for nor do I really want this “auspicious” role. But I know most of the family stories…and I know it is the stories that help us make family. Sharing the memories that tie us together helps keep us together as family!
Three of Mom’s grandchildren sat around the perimeter of her nearly vacant apartment on that evening only a few hours after Mom’ death. They didn’t gather there in order to get something. Rather, they came to hear the stories we told about the treasures. These special young ones got it right! The Essence of Family! It’s not the stuff, the tangible things, but rather the relationships that are reinforced every time we share a meal, make a memory or tell a story reliving family legend. The soul that Mom brought to that special place is very much alive in each of her children and grandchildren. So, we will continue to tell the stories, aware of our foibles and follies, as well as the unique strengths that are part and parcel of the “Rodgers Clan”. We are making family as surely as did our parents and grandparents and all the ancestors before who brought us to this place and this time.
What a strange week this has been at the Spencer home. We knew for several months that this was coming, and put it off as long as we humanely could. Last Tuesday evening, we said goodbye to our dearly beloved pet, Kelsey. She was a German Shepard mix whom we found at a pet adoption agency in Greensboro in late 2003. She came to live with us on January 5, 2004. Kelsey was so smart, so sensitive to her new “Owners” needs that she immediately adopted us, blending into the household and family as if she had always been there.
Kelsey grabbed hold of my heart from the first picture I saw on the Internet. She waited for me patiently each day as I went off to teach school. She greeted me with joyful abandon when I returned. We played together (she knew all the “tricks” and eagerly learned more), walked and camped together. She slept on the floor by my side as I worked on lesson plans or colored or crafted teddy bears.
She knew her job as my protector, resting with her back toward the door of whatever room I worked in, on alert for any threats. She alerted incessantly to doorbells on the TV, strangers on the street, imagined sounds in the dark outside at night. She let me cry into her soft fur on those days when Parkinson’s seemed to be winning. Kelsey was such rich company for me! She even blew out her knees and had surgery on each of them– both of her surgeries happened immediately after I had my own major surgeries! Even at the very end of her long life, as the vet pumped blessed relief into her veins, she stretched up to lick the tears from my face. But perhaps her greatest accomplishment was winning Ed’s heart! “I’m not a dog person,” he avows, “but Kelsey made me a Kelsey person!”
So, my house is a good bit emptier than it was. For more than 15 years, we were graced with the presence of this Gift we called “Kelsey.” I am humbled by her commitment to each of us, by her awareness of our needs, by her patience and understanding when we were not at our best. I can only hope to be as good a friend.
Thanks, Kelsey. Godspeed.
Dr. Mueller was my organ performance professor for 4 years in the early 90’s. He taught me to make Bach’s music dance, to soar with the elegant beauty of Mendelssohn’s melodies, to engineer the compositions of Cesar Franc so that my small hands could perform the music of this giant of a musician who also had very large hands! I learned so much from him, but perhaps the most important came in the green room just before my final one hour recital: “You have done the work. You know the music well. Now, go out there and have fun! Don’t try to play every note perfectly. Love your audience!”
To play the organ well takes incredible amounts of practice time, extensive training, and muscle memory that won’t quit! Thanks to John Mueller, I learned to play with abandon, to live the music, to love the audience. The organ bench became my sacred place, where I could bare my soul before God, praying without words, expressing feelings far deeper than words could say. I am ever so grateful for the 18+ years I was able to play after Dr. mueller’s teaching. I am grateful for the voice of the pipes in so many churches. Perhaps the instrument seems outmoded today, but I believe it still is the King of Instruments, and those who are blessed enough to play it well are Gifts to all who hear. Thanks, Dr. John Mueller.
This weekend we must say a final goodbye to David Adkins. I’ve been working on this goodbye for years, dreading it, avoiding it, running from it, trying to make sense of it. I have thought many times about composing a greeting card for him and his family, but words have failed me over and over and over. What does one say to a mere man who brought the voice of God so vividly, so consistently to an entire community? What is there to say about a dearly beloved pastor who lived richly in God’s Presence, who lavished that Presence on his congregants, and who, according to our human logic, should now be enjoying his retirement years, traveling, writing, being Papa to his grandchildren, hiking, painting, singing, resting from years of nurturing a church and the community around it? David could have served well as a pastor anywhere. With his credentials and expertise, one would think he would have landed in a large city, a huge church, or occupied a position that brought with it great prestige and renown. Instead, he chose to spend nearly his entire adulthood – more than 37 years of his career – pastoring a small church in a small, obscure city in the piedmont of southern Virginia. I believe he literally changed the face of this microcosm as he showed us what living the Kingdom of God is all about.
Since we served together on the same church staff for more than 18 of those years, I have a multitude of “David stories.” Many of them make me smile and laugh almost as much as when they first occurred. All of them are examples of who he was and Who God is in our midst.
Once, when the much of our church family went tent camping together (we took over most of the campsites at Fairystone Park), David offered to take the children on a hike to search for mushrooms. (He was passionate about mushrooms, and was an expert in finding non-toxic ones … and also was quite a chef when cooking them in the kitchen!) When the group returned with their earthy prizes, David challenged them to taste some of their specimens. He took one mushroom, broke it open (like he often did with the communion elements at church), ate a bit of it himself, and then offered it to the unsuspecting children…Too late, they realized that they had been had! That mushroom’s liquid was really bitter and tasted terrible!! Fortunately, I caught the mischief in David’s eyes, avoided this particular communion with nature, and gained a vivid memory of a pastor who lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way…who understood that the most basic rule of leading any group of people is to love them first, without any reservation. To see in each person the very image of God. To know that God has a wonderful sense of humor and it was okay to laugh with his parishioners like family.
Besides being “Pastor,” David was also an Artist. (I remember asking him once, in the security of the office building, how he dealt with some of the downsides of ministry. He smiled and said, “I have my ways.” I would learn much later that, among other pursuits, he was a very gifted painter…) In the early days of our ministry together, I was asked to play the organ for the wedding of a young couple at the church. After the festivities, I had to return to the church to retrieve a forgotten item. As I re-entered the building, I could hear the organ … someone was playing a Choral Prelude by J.S. Bach! “Who on earth knows how to play such a piece….on the organ, no less….?” I wondered. I peeked in at the organ console, and there sat David! Pastor David!! Without saying a word, I backed out of the sanctuary, knowing instinctively that anyone with enough training to play Bach on a pipe organ would inherently know that I still had much to learn to play that instrument well!
The artistic David brought the Arts into our worship space. He challenged other artists in the church to create banners for all aspects of the church year. Working with other ministers in the church, he often brought graphic, visual arts into our worship space to help us focus on specific aspects of God. David’s creative approach to worship and to life itself tapped into the creative spirit of the congregation, growing us ever deeper into God’s Presence.
From David, I learned that “Ministry” may also be called “Bold Love.” Long before I was called to be a part of this ministry team, I wondered how on earth the church was so very stable. When I took my resume to apply for the organist position, I asked specifically about that stability. The answer to my query was strikingly simple: “David is very bold….” He was so cognizant of his church members that he would go directly to speak with those he understood would be upset by changes the church was considering. There is power in such love…
My most cherished memories of David are couched in those moments when we would stop to chat on the office steps. I struggled often with the demise of the SBC and was often angry with the treatment of professors and anyone else who stood their ground against the heresy inherent in the controversy. Lamenting the slowness of my own family to see the SBC controversy for what it was, I railed one day at being the “black sheep” in my family. In one of the strongest affirmations I ever received, David assured me that I was not off base and that once someone has seen through the façade of religious cultural “rules,” there is no going back. One cannot “unsee” the face nor the touch of God!
As David neared the end of his formal ministry at our church, he pushed for the church to ordain me to the ministry. While the formal recognition felt good, David had always included me as one of his ministry peers. His understanding, wise counsel, and mentoring stood me in good stead throughout most of my own adulthood. He called out the best in all of us!
My earliest memory of both David and his long-term associate, Gerry Robinson, is from a trip we all made together as part of an associational committee. I was new to the area and was serving as Minister to Youth and Children at a sister church at the time. It had rained much of the week before we left, so the shoulders of the roads were soft and muddy. We left town in Starling Avenue’s church van and after a few miles, we all realized that something was the matter with the right rear tire. These two ministers, dressed in their “Go to Meetin’” suits, ended up on hands and knees trying to jack up a van in the mud. I glimpsed that day, long before I was on the same staff as they, the specialness of Starling Avenue Ministers. They were not afraid of the most mundane of chores, determined to take care of those around them, all with a sense of humility and mirth. And therein lies the “secret” with which David Adkins lived his life among us. His love of life, his artistic bent, his humble determination to be at his best all made him stand head and shoulders above the rest. I can almost hear the voice of God saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Welcome home!”
Godspeed, David. You were made of dust and to dust you return. But your spirit is alive and well. Your soul, besides being finally with God, is imbedded in the lives of a church family that loved you dearly.
I have just finished reading a new book by author and Duke professor, Kate Bowler. Her book, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Enjoyed, is an honest accounting of her recent and on-going struggle with colon cancer. She spoke of the “gospel of prosperity” which seems to have infected much of our religious practice and belief in this country…and I am hard pressed to find my own way beyond that mind set.
Lately, I’ve been plagued with questions about life changing (life threatening) events like incurable diseases that literally steal one’s life away, car wrecks caused by things like irresponsible drivers with cell phones or violent weather that catches drivers en route … “unfair” events that happen seemingly at random, catching their “victims” unawares, unprepared for devastating changes to the lives both of the victim and to those who love them.
Not long after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a well-meaning friend offered to pray for healing for me. I shied away from the offer, not sure such “Healing” was or could be real. What was the matter with me?! Didn’t I believe God is powerful enough to do such a miracle? Was I afraid of what might happen, or how I would feel if, after such a prayer, healing did not happen…?
In the ten years since that event, I have often wondered about that reaction, wondered if I blew my one chance to actually be rid of this insidious degenerative disease. Was I thinking that I could boldly soldier on, making the best of it, banking on God’s goodness to keep the disease from causing too much damage to my existence? Was I naively waltzing into the future, believing that because God is love, He would keep me from suffering? Did I honestly think that the power of positive thinking would keep the illness at bay?
Ten years. In that time, I have watched a wonderful friend, a gifted pastor for 37+ years who has been struck with a virulent form of Parkinson’s that responds to none of the current treatments. It’s like Parkinson’s on steroids. He should still be painting, writing, hiking, teaching, and mentoring! Instead, he has become a prisoner in a body that doesn’t work, bedridden except for the vigilant care giving of an amazing wife. Yet, they keep living, facing daily challenges, and, word has it, they are even working on a book using technology that lets him type on the computer with his eyes! I find myself wondering at my friend’s demeanor…why is he not railing at God, shaking his fist angrily at what he has lost. What is God thinking of, allowing him and his family and community to suffer such devastating loss?!?!!
I have another friend of similar age and malady who has very few “people resources”. No church family. Essentially no natal family. Few resources. No hope. And I find myself at a loss as to how to help her. She was a teacher for more than 30 years. She worked as a dog trainer and treated my own dear Kelsey as her own when I left my pet at the kennel. Yet, now this friend is but a shell of her former self, an aging, angry, defiant elderly child locked inside a body that defies her every demand. She exists in direct contrast to my aforementioned pastor friend.
My ”list” of unfairness grows longer each month. There is the 5-year-old son of a young woman to whom I taught piano – beautiful family. And the son has cancer. As grateful as I am for places like St. Jude’s Hospital, no one should ever have to take one’s child there! And there are several dear ladies in my church who are facing down recurring cancers that would seem to steal their lives away long before their loved ones are ready to let them go. And on and on and ON….
So, what is the secret to coping with such devastation? I’ve been, it seems, one of the lucky ones in the coping department. I’ve lost much of what I used to do, of who I was before. I don’t want to review those losses here. I just want to find some answers. I want to know the secret to surviving the devastation with the rest of my soul intact!
With each loss, I have allowed myself to grieve, sometimes for months. At times, I have revisited some of those favorite lost places…the organ bench, my school and dearly beloved classroom. I have railed against the injustice. Raged at the unfairness of it all. I have wiped away many tears that rise, unbidden, at the words to hymns or anthems or poems or scriptures that have touched nerves still raw from the most recent loss. I have hidden, often, behind a barrage of busyness, seeking to replace favorite activities with other things to occupy my mind and emotions.
(Don’t get me wrong: learning to make teddy bears from old coats has been fun. Making memory bears to help
others with their own grief has largely filled some of my own yearning to make life better for someone else.
Photography has pulled me outside into a world, giving a new understanding of the World Maker’s creativity. I have connected with friends over impromptu luncheons; worked on our home, making it more handicap accessible; built an outdoor hardscape complete with fire pit, stacked stone walls, graveled seating area, and flagstone walkway. I have especially enjoyed friends and family around campfire cook outs and s’mores. I have enjoyed the freedom to be with grandkids and help my kids as they have moved more deeply into their adulthood….
But still the question remains: Why do bad things happen to good people? How do some folks seem to cope so well, rising above the devastation even as life ekes away?
If I take an honest look at my pastor friend, I realize he and his wife are “simply” living one day at a time, enjoying the good that comes their way, piecing together an existence different from what they had planned or expected, but they are continuing to live each day, not skipping anything. Even as bleak as the future might seem, there is still a goodness in life that is worth savoring, cherishing, relishing. And perhaps, therein lies the secret, the answer to my original question. Keep living, day in and day out, searching for what is interesting, refusing to allow Parkinson’s to invade one’s soul. Don’t skip anything! I have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s does not have me!
In Kate Bowler’s book, there is a moment in her story that cut through the devastation, offering a truth that I too have experienced, along with many others who have experienced a brush with death. In the midst of the chaos and devastation came a sense of being Loved, a sense of Peace … Dare I say it? … A sense of God’s peace. Even after that feeling faded, very often the one who had the experience was left with an indelible imprint, as if they were somehow “marked by the presence of an unbidden God.”
Personally, I cling to the memory of those experiences. I have no scientific proof that they happened, but I do know that experience, that Presence changed me. So, I accept the challenge of living in the present, not skipping any thing, savoring the good, determined to live on the happy side of existence, while also trying to keep my feet on the ground, based in the reality that the “gospel of prosperity” is a lie, but the Kingdom of God is real.
One of the oddities of Parkinson’s Disease is that it messes with one’s sense of smell. Yes, it’s less of an offense to one’s way of life than tremors or some of the other more odious issues, yet it’s still an often-inconvenient loss. For example, gas companies put a noxious odor in the gas that is piped into your house so you can tell if there is a leak. That’s a great strategy if your sense of smell is in working order! With Parkinson’s, however, no so much…
Recently my elderly dog has had incontinence problems…always, it seems, as she is resting on the carpet in my sewing room. I realized one day that without a sense of smell, that room and everything in it could reek and I would never know. Solution: begin carpet removal. Then borrow a good friend’s nose to be certain the “treatment” was effective. (*sigh*)
Sometimes, I go for days without smelling anything, and don’t really miss it…until I realize that I cannot taste some of my favorite foods. How, I ask you, is a cook supposed to check to be certain seasonings are just right if said cook cannot taste!?!? And, how can I tell if something in the oven is done? I’ve always been able to tell when something is just done by how it smells. Can I blame burned or under-cooked things on Parky……Of course I can!
All of these things really are mild inconveniences when compared to other Parkinson’s issues. But there is one place where I miss this sense the most. The best way to explain is to tell the story: Years ago, my husband decided to give me roses, knowing I love this flower. Rather than the cut variety, he brought me a dormant rose bush. In time, that bush produced dozens of gorgeous pink roses, one of which even made the head table in a rose competition. Needless to say, I was hooked. Thirty some tea rose bushes later, my rose garden produced the heady perfume of a myriad of roses, all chosen for their fragrance.
Sometime before I discovered the connection between Parkinson’s and the loss of sense of smell, I realized that my roses no longer smelled good. In fact, they had no scent at all, no matter how carefully they were watered and pruned and fertilized. Of course, they really did still have their marvelous scent, but it was lost to me early in the Parkinson’s journey. Sadly, the upkeep on my rose garden soon became too much for me to handle and the “scent motivation” was no longer there. So, like many other things in my life, that garden was dismantled…
I do have some gorgeous pictures from the rose garden, and some wonderful memories of sharing huge bouquets of roses to students, parents, and friends who needed some TLC. And of course, there were those crazy days when my Dad and my sister and I transplanted the entire 30+ shrubs to new homes. When we sold our
Virginia house and moved to North Carolina, Dad and I dug up those shrubs, ignored their thorns, dumped them in buckets, and then drove30 miles south to dig more holes, replant the bushes, water and mulch the new bed. The project was completed as we enjoyed a cup of coffee on the back porch, surveying the fruits of our labors. One of those “fruits” has become a favorite picture: I found Dad very early on the morning of his 85th birthday, outside on his hands and knees in the new rose bed, digging yet another hole.
Rose Garden memories abound: when we moved to our home in the country, my sister, Marie, was present to help move the garden. Again, there were buckets and shovels, hoses and rakes, thorny bushes and a truckload of mulch, but there was more. The weather played games with us all day, cycling from snow to intense sunshine and heat to rain, and back again to snow, then heat. We laughed and sweated and made a wonderful memory as we fought the ever-present red clay and a monstrous tiller.
That rose garden has now been reduced to only five of my favorite rose bushes. I am building a perennial bed there with a myriad of shrubs – paying attentions to things like texture, color and relative height. Its effectiveness is based on visual aspects – not the sense of smell! (Who would have believed that planning a garden is a work of art!)?
As I wrap this journal entry, I have one final query: Why is it, I ask you, that I can always smell the skunk that has been hit on the road?! Seems sort of cruel somehow! Or an ironic twist. Or something…
I pulled this piece from a website I set up in 2014, as I was just beginning to explore possibilities and opportunities for photographers. (scenealongtheway.com) I had forgotten about this essay, but it fits well with my Father’s Day sermon (previous blog entry). It also gives me pause when I realize that it was this very week in 2005 when Dad contracted Pneumonia from which he died on July 31…
Well, actually, this is a new phase of a long journey. One that began in my earliest memories as we trekked to the camera club at Eastman Kodak where my Dad worked as a chemist. Dad was a photo bug who especially liked working with stinky chemicals in the dark room. I didn’t understand during those early childhood years that he was really a fine photographer as well. I just thought it was weird standing in a totally dark room with only an odd red light while Dad fished papers in and out of different liquids, finally hanging them all on lines to dry like the laundry out back of the cottage.
Dad had a knack for helping my siblings and me see and experience our surroundings in almost magical ways. Petoskey stones could become owls, given a bit of paint and some patience.
Mushrooms would leave a perfect gill pattern if one took the cap, placed it on black paper, and left it covered with a bowl overnight. Cherry tomatoes tasted like warm sweet candy when picked right off his plants in the late afternoon. My worms always caught the best fish when I tiptoed out of the lake cottage with Dad before the sun came up. There was magic in those mornings, sitting quietly in the middle of Sugar Lake, watching the sunrise reflecting off the lake’s glassy surface as we waited for the largest northern pike or the fattest sunfish to arrive for its breakfast.
But I digress! Now, half a century removed from those memories, I have finally taken an enormous step in my own artistic journey. My first set of photographs (and the cards and coasters enhanced by those images) are being adjudicated for admission into an artisans’ center. I was not nervous as I carried my precious cargo to the desk…..merely curious as to whether my work would fit with that of other artists who have traveled this path before me. Some are friends of many years. Some are friends I have yet to meet. But all, it seems, have their own unique style and perspective on the world around us. I grow richer and deeper as I study their work, absorbing colors, textures, lines and symmetry. There is magic in that place, with personality that reaches out from the creations of artists who see the world with new eyes.
I wonder, Dad, if you knew what you were instilling in each of your six children all those years ago? You were an artist, shaping the souls of our generation. I wonder if that magic will again reach beyond time and place? There is artistry in the world around us. There is power in the lens of a camera. The magic lies in what is “scene along the way”……and then shared for others to see as well.
When I was young, say 40 years ago, I did a good bit of public speaking. I even partially paid for grad school by speaking (preaching) at churches on the weekends. Somehow, as I got older, that gift of speaking got channeled in different ways, mainly in the classroom and in the public performances by my students. “Preaching” took a backseat as music and teaching became the main avenues for helping support my family.
Recently, however, I was given the opportunity to preach at my church. So, several decades after I learned how to do this, I found myself in the pulpit on Father’s Day. The text for the morning was from Mark 4. Here is that sermon text:
One of the first things I remember learning about the Bible as a young child was that Jesus talked in parables. He told stories! A parable, I was told, was an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. I have been bumping into parables my entire life and only in recent years has the full significance of this type of teaching really made sense to me. As a teacher myself, I discovered that my young students often were more attentive to information given via a story than by any other means, even technology! And so it was when Jesus told his stories – simple, yet complex parables/stories that extend far beyond the story into the middle of Life itself.
My Dad was a master storyteller too. Another of my earliest memories is of sitting on my Dad’s lap or hanging over his shoulder with my other siblings while he regaled us with stories of B’rer Rabbit or Uncle Wiggly or Uncle Remus. Dad introduced us to Dr. Seuss…he discovered “The Cat in the Hat” the very first week it arrived on our public library shelves. Dad was forever telling us stories, entertaining us with his vocal and facial expressions, teaching us – albeit indirectly – how to be family for each other!
We learned many lessons from those stories Dad told or read to us – lessons about life, about morals, about relationships…but I realize now that the most significant lessons were inherent in the very act of telling those stories. Jesus, too, understood the power of a good story. He used that power to capture the attention and imagination of his listeners, imbedding in those stories some of the essence of God’s Presence. Perhaps I can get at this best by telling you a story!
When our younger son, Joel, married Maria, she brought with her a young son, Samuel. We were delighted with this “instant” grandchild, but our chances to really get to know him were severely hampered by the fact that Joel and Maria moved to Chicago. A few short visits a year were all we could manage at first. Sammy seemed like a stranger, and I wondered if we would ever have those special grandparent feelings I had heard so much about.
Then, one summer, Joel suggested that we go camping with them. So we loaded up our cars with everything, including the kitchen sink (!) and headed for the mountains of West Virginia. There was the normal chaos of setting up camp, followed by days of cooking over open camp fires, searching for tree frogs after dark, photographing mushrooms and bugs, hiking in the woods, riding horses, throwing the Frisbee, playing board games, napping in the hammock … all those things that were part and parcel of a Spencer camping trip.
We were beginning to forge some family bonds with our young grand son, but the real clincher happened on the night a storm was brewing. As we listened to the approaching thunder, and felt the wind begin to blow, little Sammy crawled into my lap, curled up under a blanket, and said, “Grandma, can you tell me the story of the day my daddy was born?”
And so, the family stories began. In the following days, we relived many details of Joel’s childhood, laughing over long forgotten antics, growing closer, becoming family as the stories unfolded. In that one short week, we, Sammy and Ed and I, became family for good.
Jesus apparently understood that stories helped draw people together. He recognized that his listeners would come the closest to understanding his message if he couched that message in stories. He began many of his own stories, or parables, with the words, “The kingdom of God is like…” In today’s gospel we get a glimpse of two such parables, but the verses that most caught my attention are the last two (verses 33 and 34): “Jesus used many similar stories and illustrations to teach people as much as they could understand. In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables.”
Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant when He talked about the Kingdom of God? The focus of much of Jesus’ teaching was the Kingdom of God. In fact, that Kingdom was Jesus’ central message. He wanted to make certain that his listeners understood as much as possible about living in God’s Presence. “The Kingdom of God” happens in one’s life when that person learns to become aware of God’s Presence always.
When is the last time you were personally aware of God’s immediate Presence? When you knew God was present, working in your midst as surely as that friend now sitting next to you? Do you believe it is even possible to sense God’s presence, to catch God in the act of working out details on your behalf? God is involved in the details of our lives. God is constantly at work in our lives, pulling together events in such a way that one cannot possibly believe it is coincidence.
Let me tell you another true “dad” story to illustrate: In the spring of 2005, I was working in my classroom after the students had left for the day. Normally, I worked in silence – welcomed it after the noise that was inherent in the music room! For some odd reason that day, I flipped on the radio, tuning into NPR just in time to hear about a new venture called “Story Corp.” A mobile recording booth had been constructed in Grand Central Station. People were encouraged to bring loved ones in to record special family stories. The recordings were made and archived in the Library of Congress as a record of everyday American life. The main idea behind these interviews was that listening is an act of love.
Somehow, as I first heard that report on NPR, I knew I had to get my Dad into one of those recording booths. Several mobile units were beginning to travel around the nation as part of the project. One was coming close to Martinsville, with stops in Charlottesville Virginia, and another in Charleston, West Virginia. By some miracle, my busy teaching schedule “just happened” to offer a short window of down time at exactly the time the phone line was opened for taking reservations for recording time. I was fortunate enough to secure one of those limited and highly-coveted appointments. Our recording date was only a few days after Dad turned 85.
Dad had always been the paragon of good health. He only went to the hospitals for the birth of his six children, but never was he a patient himself! Yet, less than 2 weeks after our interview, he came down with such severe pneumonia that he was hospitalized. Ten days later, he was gone! That very evening, someone working the Story Corps booth called us to be certain our interview experience was successful! From that phone call, our story became part of the national fund raising efforts by the Story Corp team.
The recording of our Story Corps interview was a remarkable gift that shaped not only the celebration of Dad’s life, but also fixed in our memories the sound of his voice and much of the essence of who Dad was. I found myself, much like Moses and the burning bush… standing on sacred ground in the Presence of God! There is no other way to explain how perfectly the logistics of that entire event fit together! Such timing to me is always a mark of God’s Presence, as uniquely recognizable as a thumbprint. The Kingdom of God is at work just as surely now as it was when Jesus spoke in parables!
I was always Dad’s little girl. I was the only girl in the middle of four brothers, and Dad did many things for me, seemingly little stuff at the time, but that had huge significance later. I have many warm memories of time we spent together… gardening, shopping, making book runs to the public library. I learned that all routes to our home led past Krispy Kreme, especially if the “Hot off the line” sign was lit!
One of my favorite memories was searching for agates along the banks of the Mississippi River near the lake in Minnesota where we vacationed every summer. Over the years, I filled a glass jar with those layered red and orange gemstones. Every year that jar went with me on the long trip from Tennessee to Minnesota; the rest of the year, it had a prized place on a shelf in my closet.
When my parents downsized from the large home where they raised 6 children, I went looking for my agate jar… and couldn’t find it anywhere! I assumed those rocks had been assimilated into the family’s large agate collection, but I was sorry they were no longer in my jar.
Not too many years passed before my mother realized that keeping up the house by herself was too much of a burden. She decided to enter an assisted living facility, so we began the process of shutting down her home. I was with her one weekend and she suggested I make one last trip to the basement. “There might be something down there in all the junk that you might want.” She said.
So, I bleakly rummaged through the piles of ancient tools, boxes of rocks from family rock-hounding days, moldy camping gear, listening to the echoes of years gone by, grieving that such days were over and done. And then, I stumbled upon a small, innocuous plastic box. The contents took my breath away! In a flash, I vividly remembered a conversation with Dad on a weekend visit home from college, some 40 years before. He had offered to tumble polish my agates in his lapidary. I gave him the entire jar, carefully pointing out a few favorites that I wanted left in their natural state, because I loved their texture and color. There in the plastic box was my entire agate collection carefully tumble polished, …and those most special favorites were there too, left in their natural form, just as I had requested! Forty years hence, and years after my Dad died, I felt as if he was standing beside me. I could hear his voice almost audibly, feel his breath on my hair as he hugged me close. In those brief moments, I experienced again the depth of my Father’s love for me. The surprise was that such love could reach beyond the grave and rock my emotions so intensely! In that same instant, I was aware that God was there, giving me exactly what I needed during a difficult time of transition.
The Kingdom of God! It’s as simple as it is complex! As I researched for today’s sermon, I ran across a blog called “From His Presence…because your life can be Heaven on Earth”. It is written by a young woman named Jamie Rohrbach. She writes from the premise that Jesus himself taught us to pray, asking “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus himself taught us to ask explicitly for God’s Kingdom! We ask for it every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer!
Just what is the Kingdom of God? The arrival of the Kingdom of God was Jesus’ central message. “The Kingdom,” Jamie Rohrbach writes in her blog, “––happens in your life when you learn to become aware of God’s Presence always.” Miss Rohrbach believes intensely that we can and should regularly experience the presence of God in our everyday lives.
God’s Presence for me is a constant reality. Sometimes I am more attuned to that Presence than others. Thankfully, God doesn’t base that Presence on our awareness! God comes not as an audible, disembodied voice, but rather in the midst of life, often in a sequence of events, so carefully choreographed, so perfectly timed that there is no way it could be mere coincidence. Most fascinating to me is that God seems to work in similar ways with others. God’s Fingerprints – in the form of a tiny boy and an approaching thunder storm, or in preparation for the death of a loved one, or in finding a long lost treasure … The more one takes time to slow down, listen and look for God’s presence, the more one can discover God is there in the midst! That still small voice speaks as eloquently today as it did 2000 years ago.
And so, I ask again … when is the last time you were personally aware of God’s immediate Presence? When you knew God was working in your midst just as surely as that friend sitting next to you? What stories do you have to tell about these experiences? Have you shared those stories with friends or loved ones? There are many ways to talk about God, about what we do here at church, about how much God loves us. But one of the most effective ways is direct, immediate, personal experience with God’s Presence!
What goals or dreams do you have for yourself? For this church family? What does the Presence of God look like right here at Starling Avenue? In many ways, we are family for each other here in this place. Yes, we have stories to share. Hopefully, we have dreams to share as well. As we move into the future, may God’s immediate Presence – His Kingdom – be immediately upon each of us, sharing beyond ourselves with a broken world the reality of God’s love – of God’s Kingdom in this time, in this place! Amen”