The Cross Is Not Greater

It’s hard to find silver crosses, the kind you wear around your neck. I wore a gold one for years because it’s what mama sent me and it was simple, the style I like. I remember when our home church got a makeover and the cross that hung on the stage was transformed from a simple fashioned cross to one resembling a bookmark. It was framed with molding and a contrasting color in the middle, the cross now fastened to the wall against this red. It took some getting used to.

The chapel in our Center underwent renovations and it was the cross that drew questions. When there was no cross in sight the first few weeks the men asked.

The hymn sings about a rugged cross and I suppose it was. It wasn’t for looks but utilitarian purposes. What did you need other than wood strong enough to hold the weight of a man, hold the weight of a people?

Holy Land Tour  claims of being on the site of the birth of Christ

Holy Land Tour  claims of being on the site of the birth of Christ

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present day Golgotha

present day Golgotha

There was a hillside where these public executions took place. In Jerusalem it was Golgotha, the place of the skull. Today, this hill sits above a bus terminal with a Muslim cemetery on top of it. It still sits high over an area, an area one can picture hoards of people gathering, crosses situated where everyone could get an unobstructed view.

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we focused on the palm branches and the people waving them or placing them on the ground for Jesus’ entry as they called out, “Hosanna!” Later we will focus on the bread and wine of the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples but already it’s the cross that occupies my thoughts. It’s symbol looms large as the shadow is cast.

Jesus says all who follow him must carry their cross too. It sounds harsh and I work to reconcile it with his promise to help carry our burdens. I wonder about the crosses we carry and the times we let them press us down as we try to carry it alone. I see many who carry the cross of addiction. It’s an easy one to see like the crosses atop the high steeples. Some of us tuck our crosses inside our collar, behind our shirts, trying to hide the weight dragging us down. It’s so much easier to disguise gossip as concern or depression as just a rough time that will pass. This cross called an emblem of suffering and shame doesn’t have to be the suffering that will kill us. We don’t have to die on our cross because Jesus did that on his. 

It’s a song I haven’t heard in years but the words came to mind today:

The cross is not greater than his grace

Our sin, is not ever, greater than his grace.

 


The Cross

It was that year, the year I was searching a bit, stretching into a new journey. I’d claimed my faith the summer before, held it as my own, no longer accepting the hand-me-down faith from my parents. So when I saw that crucifix hanging in the seaside shop on a weekend with my cousins, when I saw that bold statement not part of our faith tradition I bought it. Life was different, I was different and this was bold. For me.

No telling what daddy would have said but he wasn’t there, he’d left mama and she was the less reactive one. She was calm when she said, ‘we believe He [Jesus] isn’t on the cross anymore.’ And that made sense. Perfect sense really so I didn’t wear that crucifix much after that. No problems with the symbol but if I wanted to be bold I would be bold at saying that cross didn’t hold him then and it doesn’t hold him now.

But it is the cross, that cross with its promise and shame, that claims attention this week of the passion of Christ.

My friend, Cindy, over at Mama’s Empty Nest, is telling the story through her photography and I hope you’ll stop over to her place.  I keep telling my story with too many words and should take a cue from Cindy but we follow our hearts.

It’s a story about a cross because that’s where it all changed. A cross designed for slow death, a criminals death. A cross that held death but could not contain it. Let’s begin.

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Holy Land Tour

 

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taken by Tampa


“But wait! There’s more!”

Times like this my heart is so big and full with gratitude and joy and my face is beaming brighter than the Florida sun. It’s just been one of those evenings. The kind that can’t be scripted but should always be cherished and it is and I believe there will be more of these days. I believe it because I believe in a God who is changing lives every day.

The monthly awards are always a special time. You can gauge the attitude of the house at these meetings, the way the men cheer each other and the nicknames you discover. Tonight may be a little more dear as our speaker has been solid since the day he walked in over 3 years ago. I wasn’t sure about him at first. He has those droopy eyes like stoners have and I didn’t think he was serious. I questioned the house manager who assured me he was a great guy and yes, yes, he is. When Eric first came through our doors he looked my husband straight in the eyes with his droopy ones and said, “I’m here for the long haul” and three years later Eric is a valued employee.

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handing out birthday bags at our monthly awards

handing out birthday bags at our monthly awards

April awards

April awards

Eric has long moved out but comes to work in the warehouse everyday, working with the newest men, the men who aren’t sure why they’re with us or if they’re going to stay. The men still weak from their crack or heroin diet, the ones whose hands aren’t steady because they haven’t had a drink to steady them. Eric and Jeff (another exemplary employee with 12 years sobriety) work with these men and show these men what integrity and character is.

So he stood behind the microphone with his strong voice and focused eyes staring into our hearts and telling how his worst day ended in a prayer. A prayer in a crack house telling God, ‘if this is all there is for me take my life now’. So God did. He took that life, the old life that wanted crack and pills and shots and whatever he could get, God took that life and gave Eric a new one. Somehow, Eric got to our doors and when he walked through, he said he decided to abuse everything the program had to offer him the way he abused the drugs. So he used the counseling and 12 steps and used the Bible and prayer and he used it all. And God kept giving him more.

Yes, it was a day that was ending like that. A celebration that continues every day Eric lives to tell it. And like the crazy loud man on the commercial says, “But wait, there’s more”

We come home to see our daughter and granddaughter on FaceTime and when I sing out to the 6-year-old, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” she beams big and sings back “bright copper kettles with warm woolen mittens”. She has just watched both old and new versions of The Sound of Music and has ranked, in order, her favorite songs and our music worlds can join together and it is joyous.

family christmas  family christmas

And once again, I hear the voice, “But wait!, there’s more!”

The message tone sounds on Facebook and I check it to read a note from Nick, celebrating 3 years the end of May. Nick who called me every Sunday night for a year after his grandma passed because he used to call her. Nick, who came through our program twice and relapsed but got up again and again and is finding the blessings of sobriety too. He was writing to tell us about a possible new job, an advancement and to say he misses us and will visit soon. Again, my heart swells up and my face beams a smile in an empty room.

In three hours time all of this. Blessing after blessing and God’s extravagance is poured out on me, an undeserving child who is prone to whining and sarcasm. But God says, ‘Wait, there’s more!’ There’s always more because this is how God loves his people.

 


Five-minute Friday {paint}

I’ve always used a light hand with color. Always easier to make darker than to lighten. Too much color scares me so I tread lightly, preferring to use a splash rather than a wall of color.

I don’t remember if I was 19 or maybe 23 but I’ll never forget her words. Slipping out of my row after church one Sunday, the tall lady who had her generations look of a southern lady stopped to greet me and offered these words: “I was always told if the barn needs painting, paint it.” 

Barn? What barn? It actually took me a moment to register she was talking about me, my face, my choice of makeup application.

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Mama never wore makeup. At all. Ever. She had no need really but I think she didn’t have the confidence and shied away from color she would have thought bold. Her eyes that pretty brown with the glisten of kindness. She needed no paint to cover them. I didn’t learn from mama about makeup or fashion but she didn’t will me to live by her choices. I poured over the magazines and kept in step with my time, my comfort with a light hand. A comfortable hand.

Words can cover us like thick layers of paint blotting out our true grain and texture. Her words may have stuck with me but they didn’t change my habits. She didn’t change my style and my choice to allow what shows most is me.

Linking up with Lisa-Jo Bakers blog and a host of bloggers joining in for Five-Minute Friday where we gather each week to free write on the word prompt provided by Lisa. To read others or join in, click here.


Such Extravagance

Church. The building, not the people. Church in a rented space in a strip mall; in a very old two-story house with peeling linoleum floors and creaking stairs. Once our church had been a funeral home, a place to remember the dead and now, it was a place to raise the dead in spirit.

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Holy Land Tour  Greek Orthodox church

 

Holy Land Tour

 

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Our church buildings have seldom looked like a church. No steeples or tall spires. Some had folding chairs rather than pews. The look almost always, sparse. Modest. A pulpit, a table called the “holiness” table and always, always, always, the mercy-seat. The altar. The place to humble yourself before God in prayer.

We were walking through the Vatican in Rome several years ago. Our tour group moving too fast for me to take in all the beauty. The ornate detailing and art wasn’t just in the Vatican but, it seemed, in every cathedral in Rome. Gold, marble floors and marble sculptures and stained glass that streamed light in a way it seemed heaven was shining  right down. It was a lot. Too much, I thought. I would have sided with Judas when he chastised Mary for using expensive perfume to pour on the feet of Jesus. Such extravagance, wasted, when it could have been used to feed the poor.

Holy Land Tour

Henry's iPhone pics

Israel tour

Nazareth

Last month we were in Israel and again, the churches were magnificent. The chandeliers dripped from the ceilings in the Greek Orthodox churches as gold painted frames hung heavy with paintings centuries old. I’ve been in museums with less. This wasn’t modern culture but the ancient traditions carried on. In days long ago when people lived spartan lives this was their church. I didn’t get it. It seemed to gloat in the face of their lack.

This was their museum, she said. Their education. This was their solace, their sanctuary from the day-to-day. Our tour guide was smart, this one. As she instructed us in the less obvious.

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Holy Land Tour

We had seen the dryness of the surrounding desert. We had glimpsed the nomadic life of the Bedouins and remember at one time, in that time, there was little beauty and much toil. I could see the dirt floors and imagine the smells of sweat that couldn’t be washed off with a daily shower. How the dust must harden like a scab and the escape the beauty of this house of God would offer. To know this beauty was lavished on you by a loving God. Yes, that is comfort from a hard life. That is worship.

I was critical of beauty being displayed in church. I was ignorant of the importance of that beauty. Of what it communicates about God, about his loving nature, his pleasure and joy to share such artistry. I failed to get how His story is told in the stained glass images. The Gospel message in pictures because few could read the words from the text.

Times are different. We are different. Not better, not worse, just different. The stories of our faith are told through multi-media. Projected on a screen, played from the stage by the worship band. Coming together still provides the solace from the week. Not the dusty grime of old but a calm for the harried pace of working parents just trying to get from Sunday to Sunday where they can exhale for a couple of hours.

The beauty once found in the buildings must now be carried in us. His beauty, in us. His radiance in kindness shown. His colors shown in our laughter and tears. We use to sing this old chorus that tells the true story:

“Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me

All His wonderful passion and purity

Oh, Thou Spirit divine, all my nature refine

Till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me”


When the Woman in the Mirror Isn’t You

mirror image

mirror image

It was the thing I dreaded most the years we spent in our traditional church pastorate: women’s ministry. By gender, I was the default leader of all such ministries under the heading of “women”. Ugh!

I also headed up the youth programs and planned Sunday services and special events. I worked with volunteers and got dirty in a warehouse screening gifts for kids at Christmas. There were plenty of things I was more drawn to to keep me busy.

reflection

reflection

Give me a weekend trip with a van load of middle school kids any day but please, not another trip to the Strawberry Festival or local buffet with a group of women! I didn’t have one more service idea in my head. How many tray favors can you make for a nursing home? I don’t even think they use them. They’re just nice and accept our pitiful need to do something, anything.

But here I sat, in the midst of 30 or so women who were 30 or so years older than me, around tables in the back of our chapel. Most of these women had other churches and that was okay with me. They came together to get out and be with other women. The very thing I didn’t understand. I wasn’t too good at the “just being”.

I did my thing. I smiled. I learned their names and laughed when they laughed. I patted shoulders and hugged the huggers. I even drove the van to the Strawberry Festival on a very cold Central Florida morning. (Okay, maybe I made our youth director drive so I’d have someone to hang with.) But I never felt like I fit.

Agnes sat me down one day. Actually, she was already sitting down but she wanted to tell me something important and I needed to sit to listen to her. So I did. She told me her husband had been a pastor and she didn’t fit the role of their churches previous pastor wives. She didn’t play piano. She didn’t teach Sunday School class and she had to tell them she couldn’t, wouldn’t be like those before her. She looked at me and said, you have to be you.

I nearly cried. This woman from a different generation, different church, different customs and expectations knew what it was like when the woman in the mirror wasn’t you. She understood her abilities and she understood mine. She saw my awkwardness like the clawing at a sweater that just doesn’t fit right. You tug and pull and shift it this way or that but it’s never right because it doesn’t fit.

Because of our church structure and requirements I couldn’t relinquish this role. The women in our denomination aren’t Pastors Wives but Pastor’s themselves. But Agnes released me from my self-imposed constraints. She gave me freedom to realize I had been looking into the wrong mirror. I’d been peering into one made by man and its reflection is always poor.

I still had to oversee the Women’s Ministries but I could do that in peace knowing it would never be the right fit and that was okay. Sometimes the things we’re called to do can feel that way, awkward and uncomfortable. Those are the times God tells us it’s okay. Grab the right mirror. There’s only one that will reflect you, the one made in His image, the one like no other.

Linking up with SheLoves Magazine for this months theme: mirror. Click here to read other SheLoves posts.


Five-Minute Friday {writer}

writer

This 5-minute Friday writing has gotten to my head. Or heart. I get them confused. On Thursday I start wondering what the prompt will be this week. I got to bed thinking about it, hoping for once, she’ll give us an early hint. She does not.

After last weeks word, mighty, and this week, I’m convinced Lisa-Jo is plucking these words out of some jar marked “let’s see what they do with this” and then she laughs that crazed way a mom with three little ones often does after answering “why?” for the billionth time in one day.

It’s okay Lisa-Jo, because I’m prepared. I’m ready to go this time because I’ve wrestled with this word. I’ve thought about it a lot and denied being this when kind friends heap the compliment because, well, friends have to say that. Friends and sisters.

I’ve practiced telling my inner critic to SHUT UP (if you say it with a British accent it sounds better, or stupid because I’m not British) and I keep telling that joy thief, comparison, to get out of my head.

I do not write to be like, or sound like, someone else. I am not them.

I write because I need to write. I want to write and I like to write.

Getting the words out of my head and into print help me sort out the jumble they can be in my head. Sometimes, writing has helped me moved on move through. Writing about mama’s dementia has been therapeutic not just for me, but my sister too.

I write to heal, to connect, to understand, to encourage. I write to understand God more and to share him with others. I write to know I’m not alone and you’re not alone. I write for community.

I write because I am a writer. Yes, I am.

Linking up with a host of bloggers for Lisa-Jo Baker’s weekly link up Five-Minute Friday. Each week, at her blog, she gives a word prompt and the guidelines. If you ‘d like to join or read others in this weeks edition, click here.


Laughing again

“There are two of me
And two of you”

So starts the song by Jackson Browne that describes so many relationships in life. Two of me, the daughter-child and the adult-child and two of him, the father who was only still when laying on the living room floor, pillow under his chest, watching television at night. Daddy to me no matter what age but when his age caught up he was the second him, the one who couldn’t conquer his health problems and went from joy to lament.

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4 of us in Tulsa

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I have to count backwards to remember how many years he’s been gone. I only know because he passed the April before our daughter graduated high school. I guess it’s terrible not to remember the exact day and year your daddy died. I do. Sort of. I remember it was during spring break and we were doing a day camp with the kids from church who needed something to do. I remember getting the call from a friend who thought I knew. I remember his voice when it became clear to him that his condolences were actually my first hearing of daddy’s passing. I remember that exactly. How I was at my desk in that pitiful old building we called a church. I was facing the window and I remember his voice. I don’t remember what I said. Just Ron saying, “I’m so sorry.” And the kids. A dozen or so of these precious kids that Henry kept in the other room while I called mama to tell her. They’d been divorced years but she cried.

I remember the day went on and I went to where the children were and each one hugged and kissed me and maybe I didn’t show them how to grieve when we continued on with our outing for the day. But grief doesn’t come then. Grief is a sneaky bastard. Sometimes cruel in his attacks.

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So yeah, it’s been a long time and I guess I can blame reading about others loss and today, April 2nd, being the day the second of him left this world that’s brought this on.

And the song goes on….

“There were two of me
And two of you
Searching for a passageway
Hidden from our view
And together we went crashing through
Every bond and vow and faith we knew”

There was always something hidden, or at least not clear to me. The fiercely protective daddy of his little girl and the sad, confessing dad to his grown daughter. Things I’m not sure a parent should tell their child no matter how old but I think I already knew.

In his absence I’ve lingered on the bitter taste of loss a bit too much. Loss and how hard his life was the last few years. Three days a week on dialysis, position taken from him through retirement and a realization he wasn’t in control. The passageway he went crashing through was frustration and sadness and it broke my heart. Bonds and vows had been broken. Faith? I think we kept that.

Some days I miss daddy. I miss telling him the funny stories because laughing with him was the best. But I don’t miss his sadness and his grieving over a life of activity lost. I don’t miss hearing his strained voice when he called after dialysis. I don’t miss his complaining about what he couldn’t do and couldn’t eat and couldn’t be because I couldn’t help him. God intervened and took him home where, I’m sure, he’s laughing once again.

 

 

 


April, How I love your promise

April on Ft. Lauderdale beach

April on Ft. Lauderdale beach

The granddaughter has an April Fools joke planned for her dad. She is going to tell him, “Daddy, there’s an Easter Egg on your head” and then he will reach up and feel nothing, she will say “APRIL FOOLS!”

Because all good daddy’s reach up, knowing nothing is on their head. And he will feign the ultimate surprise and she will spill over in laughter.

Ah, the innocent whimsy of a six-year old.

Christmas day

And so begins the month that is already teeming with words in my head. Words that want to be typed out in hurried pace before I forget them all. For your sake, I pause. I take a breath. I hit “save draft” because, let’s be honest, all the ideas wrestling for space aren’t good ideas.

But, I do give you this warning: be prepared. It’s autism month and there’s family stuff and this is the Jesus month! It’s Easter and Palm Sunday and Holy Week and it’s so much better than Christmas because the Easter Bunny can’t compete with Santa so Jesus can get first billing this time. Really. It’s a lot so I want you to be ready for me. Be gentle, dear readers, but then, you always are.

One more thing: while I appreciate every one of the “likes” I’m feeling a bit needy just now. Needy to know what you like best and what you’d like less of and what I’m missing. So what’s the 411? (Yeah, this 56-year old can play with the kids;))

I don’t know I’ll change much because, really, it’s the heart that writes the words and my prayer, my heart prayer is always God’s grace will be seen and shared. Because I’m living in graceland.

 


To the West Coast Neices

Your mama posted that picture on Facebook. The one of you with your parents and standing with and Papa Sargent holding the ceremony book. Another event from your life I’ve missed because of the miles and miles in between.

So now you are Senior Soldiers in your church. It’s a big step to sign that Covenant, the promises you’re making but you girls have lived those out already. You’ve been taught well. You’ve spent summers with your Auntie watching her organize a day camp for kids and the after school program she ran helping to make a difference in the lives of others.

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Covenants

Your grandma Hunter (in her better days), uncle Paul and aunt Dawn.

Your grandma Hunter (in her better days), uncle Paul and aunt Dawn.

You’ve lived most of your short lives next door to a Grandma who was tireless in her service to God. You were her Sunbeams and she was proud of you girls. She loved hearing you sing, Jordan, and Maddie, oh Maddie she would be so proud to see and hear you play the piano. I know she would. Even in her dementia, her not knowing you, you visit her and help bring smiles to her face. That’s love girls, because you’ve been loved your whole life.

You had what few have when your great-grandparents moved there and, again, showed you what commitment and faithfulness looked like. You have been in the midst of God’s Soldiers working and serving and loving. And now, you’ve made a public declaration you want to be part of this Army. The world needs this kind of Army. The kind whose fight is done with service to others, giving glory to God.

In concert with Phil Laeger

 

But listen to me girls, this Army is just one of many parts of God’s Kingdom. His workers are many and the most important thing isn’t what you wear to church on Sunday but what you wear in your hearts every day. That’s the most important thing you’ve seen in your family. This is the real covenant to sign. This isn’t about what you do Sunday morning or if you join the band or wave a tambourine but how you live everyday. This is about allowing God to be present in all of your life, to show His presence by how you treat others. It’s about smiling at those who need to see your light today and slowing down to listen to the old person that talks soooo sloooowww.

This Army isn’t perfect, but you know that. You haven’t even graduated school and the future may take you to different places and different churches, if you can imagine that. But this Army needs you. This Army needs your willingness to be part of its mission to meet human need without discrimination and do this in the name of God. It needs you to sing and play the piano and help at Christmas with the food boxes. It needs you to carry on the work however that will look.

The Army may not always be where you find yourselves on Sunday mornings, but it will always be your home. It will always be a mission you are part of because you have been called by God to be part of His service to others. Remember that word, girls: OTHERS.


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