Friday, September 24, 2010

A Musical Friday Five

Mary Beth shares the Friday Five this time, saying, "Music is a part of the human experience, and part of religious traditions the world over. It is evocative and stirring, and many forms of worship are incomplete without it. And let's talk about the role music plays in your life and worship."

1) Do you like to sing/listen to others sing? In worship, or on your own (or not at all?)

I'm SingingOwl, so you already know I like to sing. I like to listen to others as well, unless it is painfully bad, and I like to sing in worship, at the kitchen sink, in the shower, the car, just about anywhere. I often associate a song with what is happening. My inner thoughts are a bit like a musical film. If people knew how often this happens to me, they might wonder about me.

2) Did you grow up with music in worship, or come to it later in life? Tell us about it, and how that has changed in your experience.

I grew up singing hymns and gospel songs and choruses. I loved to sing with my sisters and I learned to harmonize at a fairly young age. I sang my first solo at about age 8, playing a little ukulele and singing, "How About Your Heart?" Anyone remember that one? My dad loved southern gospel, and we listened to the famous quartets, The Statesmen, The Blackwood Brothers, The Cathedrals, and so on. I loved it. Still do, in small doses. My sister, Darlaine, loved Mahalia Jackson and so I learned to love that as well, loved all kinds of African American gospel singing, and still do. I like some of the contemporary worship music, and I do understand why we need to do things in fresh ways, but I do miss some of the richness of those hymns.

3) Some people find worship incomplete without music; others would just as soon not have it. Where do you fall?

Guess. Sometimes JUST music would suit me fine. Remember when youth groups used to do that? AH, I am really showing my age. We called them...ready? Singspirations. I know. Sappy. Don't care. I loved them.

4) Do you prefer traditional music in worship, or contemporary? That can mean many different things!

I love it all, and my perfect church service would include guitars and drums and also a fabulous pipe organ, but not necessarily together.

5) What's your go-to music ... when you need solace or want to express joy? A video/recording will garner bonus points!

Ah, so many kinds of things to choose here.

First, JOY! Funny, there are Christian groups I like to hear when I'm happy, but what came to mind first? Southern Rock. Like this one, best sung along to while driving, windows down, volume cranked. Can't do it when Ken is along. He won't let me.


Oh, it was supposed to be of a spiritual nature? Here is one that makes me smile all over.

And when sad, or reflective....SO hard to choose. Hymns, classical music. New stuff too. Here is one I love from Todd Agnew.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Little Big Foot: Bud Comes Home

After church, Bernice and Phil had dropped Dee Anna off at the house and headed to the hospital to pick up Bud. After tidying the living room, scrubbing the bathroom and vacuuming the bedrooms, Dee Anna watched anxiously out the window as she washed the coffee cups they had used before heading to church. The morning’s icy wonderland had melted , leaving the front lawn brown and crisp. A cold wind rattled the window pane. Even Ricky Rooster and his harem of hens were nowhere to be seen. Must be huddled in their little coop, thought Dee Anna, feeling forlorn. Kinda like me.

She thought about calling Madeline but decided against it, figuring she would call when she could say she was heading home in a day or so. Hopefully that would be soon. She wondered how church had gone at North Woods Chapel. What a long way away it seemed. And what a long time since Mom and Phil left! Has something happened? Is Dad not coming home?

She wandered about the house a bit, wishing that her parents had bought a television, Must be the only house in town with no TV! She went to her room and changed from her church clothes into jeans and the green sweater she had worn on the airplane. Should have done that an hour ago! she chided herself, easing her feet into her fuzzy slippers. Plopping down on the bed, she picked up My Utmost for His Highest from the bedside table where it rested atop her Bible. Must think about something besides what is keeping the family so long. Maybe good old Oswald will distract me.

After reading the same page three times, she gave up and tossed the little volume on the table. Sorry, old friend, you are too obtuse for me today. Aloud, she said, “I probably could handle Madeline’s book of children’s devotions about now.” She climbed off the bed and knelt by a small bookcase. Wonder what is still in here? Oh, "Winnie the Pooh," "Wind in the Willows," "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan"…does anyone actually read the real books anymore and not the Disney versions? ”Oh,” she cried aloud, seeing a set of thin volumes, “It’s my Madeline books! I thought they were long gone. She sat on the floor, legs crossed, and gently stroked the cover of the first volume, smiling at the long cover picture of little girls in yellow hats. Soon she was reading aloud:

"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
They left the house at half past nine,
The smallest one was Madeline."

She smiled, feeling her spirits lift a little. I really must ask Mother if I can pack these up and take them home to my own little Madeline! Hearing the crunch of tires on the gravel drive, she closed the book and clambered to her feet. They’re here!

An hour later, Bud had settled into his favorite reclining chair, a blanket across his lap. Phi was outside feeding the chickens some leftover bread, and Bernice was on the phone reporting to Pastor Wallace that all had gone well.

Dee Anna kissed her father on top of his head and settled down near him on the couch. “Feeling okay, Daddy?” she asked. “What do you think of the job Phil and I did on the Christmas tree?”

Her father smiled. “The tree looks fine, Kiddo. I’m glad I’m going to be here for Christmas. I feel terrific, actually. I’m tired, but it sure is good to be home.” His smile faded and he said seriously, “Thank you for coming down here and being with your mother. She needed you, both of you kids. I know she wouldn’t say so, but…”

“It’s okay, Dad. I needed to be here. I needed to see you.” Dee Anna paused, reflecting and then added, “It has been good. Phil and I got to reconnect after all these years.”

“Yeah, I was glad about that. I saw how it was with you two. You know about Phil and…” he hesitated, “Well, you know your brother wasn’t doing so good for a long time?”

“I know. I’ve missed him.” She smiled at her father. His round face, usually florid, was looking pale and his face was drawn. She took a deep breath. “Daddy, I’m sorry I have been so out of touch with home. I missed you and Mom too.”

“Honey…” a pained expression passed Bud's face, “Dee Anna, I am the one who needs to apologize to you. Lying in the hospital gives a man time to think. When I wasn’t awake, I wasn’t really out of it altogether either.” He paused. “I thought of so many things. I did some prayin’ too. Many things I’d sure do different if I could. I wasn’t a very good daddy to y’all. I know it now, Dee Anna. I mean…I know I wasn’t a bad man, but I was just…” He sighed heavily. “I was too busy at church, and managing things over at the feed mill, and feeling important. I was happy to let your mother raise you and Phil.” Dee Anna said nothing, but reached over to grasp her father's hand. She saw that there were tears in his eyes. “I know that wasn’t right, Dee Anna. Your mother is a wonderful woman. But…I know she was hard on you children. Too hard…”

Dee Anna felt chilled and wrapped her arms around her body, wondering what to say. An all-too-familiar lump settled in her stomach. “Dad,” she began, but her father held up his hand.

“’No, Dee Anna. I was too much of a coward to stand up to her. It was wrong. She loves you but she just doesn’t know how to show it. Her mama and daddy were upstanding Christians, but…” He paused, face stiff. “Kinda hard people. They didn’t like me much.”

Long moments of silence stretched out as they both gazed at the Christmas tree, lost in their own thoughts. “Daddy,” Dee Anna finally said gently, taking her father’s hand once more. “Daddy, Mama told us. She told me and Phil about falling for you at the dances.” She grinned, “She said you could sing better than Elvis.” Her father smiled back at her, the memory making him look more like his usual self. He nodded at his daughter, waiting. “And she told us the other part too. About how she got pregnant, and how she had to leave home, and….and…it seems kinda crazy to me, holding on to bitterness all those years, but I think it made her scared. Scared that her kids would be wild.” Dee Anna ran a hand over the top of her red curls and shook her head ruefully. She glanced at her father, whose face was impassive. He sat very still. Was he listening? Suddenly the words tumbled out in a rush. “Daddy, I tried so hard to be good. All the time. She has no idea…” Her voice trailed off as she sensed the tightness in her middle spreading to her arms and legs.

“I caint believe she told y’all that stuff! She’s been keeping that to herself for a lotta years. It did something to her, Dee Anna, did something to her heart. Her daddy was so angry with her. Called her…” Bud’s face twisted. “He called her awful names. Said he’d kill me if he thought he could get away with it.”

“Now that’s good Christian behavior!” Dee Anna snorted and then spoke more quietly, “ Oh Dad, it all seems so needless to me! I know she wanted…wants…to be a good woman. Maybe wants to be perfect…and wants us to be perfect too.” Her neck hurt and she felt chilled. What is wrong with me? My father doesn’t need to hear this right now! Unwanted feelings were flooding her body, unwanted memories assaulting her thoughts. She pulled her feet up under her on the couch and squeezed her eyes shut. Think about something else...Horrified, she realized tears were rolling down her cheeks. She dashed them away impatiently, hoping her father didn’t see.

“Dee Anna?” Phil stood in the living room doorway. “Danna, you okay?” He crossed the room and put a hand on her shoulder. “Dad, is she all right? What’s wrong?” Bud shook his head wordlessly, looking stricken. Phil patted his sister’s shoulder, “Sis, what is it?”

Phil felt the tension in Dee Anna’s shoulders and her back shook as she began to cry soundlessly, covering her face with her hands. “I always tried so hard…” Sobs choked her and she stopped.

Phil knelt by her chair and put his arms around her, “I’m sorry, Danna. I’m sorry.” He looked over at his father, who was looking a little grey. “Dad, maybe you should go to bed…?”

“No!” Bud rose, a bit unsteadily, from his chair and sat next to Dee Anna on the worn sofa. “No! It was my fault.” Dee Anna struggled to stop crying, concerned that she would upset her father, but the sobs kept coming.

“Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Phil. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“I do.” Their mother’s voice startled them. She crossed the room and stood stiffly by her children, arms crossed on her chest, misery etched in the lines of her face. “These past days I watched you, both of you kids, and I saw what I’d done. Saw how you were almost afraid of me. I know part of what happened to you, Phil…runnin’ away and not writin’ or callin’ for almost three years…” She looked as grey as their father did as she added, “I know it was partly to get away from me and my…my mouth. And, Dee Anna, I am ashamed of how I treated your Michael when y’all came home. Ashamed, Dee Anna, especially now since…since he’s gone and I can never tell him I’m sorry. And me callin’ myself a Christian woman. Lupita Garcia and her mother think I’m some kind of saint. I know I…”

Dee Anna’s cell phone rang, piercing the silence. “Ode to Joy--how dumb for a cell phone. I have to change that stupid ring!” said Dee Anna angrily. She wiped her nose with a tissue Bud was holding out to her and picked up her phone, glancing at the name and number on its display panel. “It’s Lee Coats from Little Big Foot. He’ll leave a message.”

Bernice was looking at her husband, “Bud, you need to lie down.”

Dee Anna pulled her legs up and put her forehead on her knees, not wanting to look at any of them. Oh, God. I want my Maddie. I want to go home now. And then, with a fresh rush of tears, I want Michael. I want someone who loves me.


The small bedside lamp cast a warm glow around the girlish room, illuminating the bookshelves with their store of childhood classics, the small desk in the corner, the pastel pink curtains at the window and the twin bed covered with a fluffy green and pink plaid comforter. Dee Anna pulled a flannel nightgown over her head and climbed into bed. Leaning back against the headboard and closing her eyes, she heard the creak of a board in the hallway as Phil headed for his room, boot heels clicking on the floor. She crossed her arms over her chest, shivering a little. I thought Phil was going home to his apartment. Thanks to me and my big mouth, he must have decided to stay for another night and make sure Dad is okay. Her head ached and her eyes burned. Stupid crying! I hate crying!

After a few moments, she reached over to the little table and picked up her Bible, flipping it open randomly. The lamplight glowed on the pages, illuminating the words of Isaiah the prophet.

…Prepare the way,
Take the stumbling block out of the way of My people.”
For thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“ I dwell in the high and holy place,
With the one who has a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

She recalled reading that same passage the morning she had awakened in the North Woods Chapel parsonage. She had written the date next to the verses and had added a question mark in the margin. She sat for a while, eyes closed, hearing the soft settling noises an old house always makes at night and feeling the hard wood of the headboard pushing against her back. She glanced down at the open Bible on her lap, remembering the stillness that had surrounded her in the upstairs bedroom of the North Woods Chapel parsonage. She had forgotten about that moment. How strange that i began that day with certainty that i would never live in Little Big Foot. Now I'm feeling homesick for the place.

Placing her Bible on the table, she reached up and snapped off the lamp. Lying down on her back, she pulled the comforter up to her chin as darkness enfolded her. She was tired, but sleep did not come. She heard the water from the bathroom sink running for a moment and the indistinct sound of her mother’s voice. After a long while, something pattered on the roof and she wondered if it was rain or sleet. Faintly, she heard the creak of the long-unused windmill that stood in the front yard. For a long time, she lay still, feeling the odd comfort of being in her childhood room, her own bed from long ago, with her bookcase, and her little lamp. They must have missed Phil and me, she thought sleepily. They left our rooms just as they used to be...Can I go home now, God? Am I done here? The only answer was the tick tock of an old-fashioned wind up alarm clock that sat on the bookcase.

God, I’m not sure if I am humble, but I do know that I feel contrite. I sure need reviving. What was wrong with me, upsetting Dad that way? Why does coming home always have to be painful?

Feeling chilled, she turned on her side and pulled her feet up, wrapping her arms around her body. She sighed. Unbidden, scenes from the previous week played like a movie in her mind. There was Phil at the airport, shockingly thin and looking ten years older than he should have. His warm smile. The hospital room and her father’s still form, hands folded on his chest, making her wonder if he was dead. She could smell that anonymous hospital smell and hear the thup whoosh of the respirator. Sitting in the family waiting room with her mother and brother, listening to Dr. Martin and absently seeing Oprah on the wall-mounted television. Her mother’s unexpected tears and Phil’s even more unexpected suggestion that they should pray. Lupita, with her warm smile and sparkling brown eyes, sympathetic and caring and full of almost unbelievable revelations of a mother Dee Anna had never known. Her mother’s sudden honesty as she sat with her children at the kitchen table. Phil talking, once again, like the brother she had missed so much. Her father’s gentleness as he regained consciousness, and his recovery. The unexpected pleasure of worshipping at her childhood church. Dad at home.

Ah, I’m sorry, Lord. Here I am feeling sorry for myself and when I stop to think, I have to admit that it has, overall, been an amazing week of unexpected revelations and blessings. I’m sorry for being such a baby…what was all that boo hooing about…? She drifted off to sleep.


She was abupry awakened by the sudden ringing of the house phone. Phones are always interrupting us around here, Dee Anna thought. Then she remembered that it was the middle of the night and she sat up, heart racing, and turned on the light.


The little alarm clock said it was 1 a.m. Phil’s door opened and his boots clacked down the hall. He must still be dressed…who's on the phone...? Nobody calls at this hour unless something is wrong! Dee Anna rose quickly. How many rings is that? As she opened the bedroom door, the phone stopped and she heard the rise and fall of Phil’s voice from the kitchen. She headed that direction, and then bumped into Phil in the darkness of the hallway.

“Dee Anna, I’m sorry, but it is someone named Lee. Isn't that the guy who called your cell phone before? He sounds really upset.” He followed his sister into the kitchen, flipping the switch by the door way and squinting as the light stabbed his eyes. Dee Anna was standing at the wall phone, lifting the receiver from where it dangled near the floor. His heart went out to her. She looked so childlike and vulnerable in her flannel gown, hair tousled and eyes swollen from all that crying earlier.

“Hello? Lee?”

His sister grew silent, listening, and Phil sat down in one of the wooden kitchen chairs. What more is going to happen now? He knew that a middle-of-the-night call from Wisconsin was not going to be good news.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

About Finding Little Big Foot and Authonomy

Some of you know that I started posting the "Finding Little Big Foot" chapters here a while ago as a sort of fun way to focus on something outside my life--feeling a little overwhelmed and stressed--and writing for me has always been a pleasant escape.

I was surprised and happy to read so many good comments, compliments and encouragement. I know reading a chapter every so often is not they way to keep one's head in the story, but a few of you have stuck with Pastor Dee Anna over the

Meanwhile, I started writing a non-fiction book and was researching possible publishers. One well-known Christian publishing house said they do not read unsolicited manuscripts (so what else is new?) but they do look at serious religious work at a site called Authonomy. One thing led to another, and I ended up there, intending to post chapters of my "serious" book. That hasn't happened yet, but what did happen was that I started posting the (now 30) chapters of "Finding Little Big Foot." I think it is about half finished.

Now, here is where you come in, if you choose to. You can go to Authonomy and search for my book and read all the chapters much more easily than you can find them on this blog. EVEN BETTER (for me) you can register and then you can "back" my book. That means it goes up in ranking, and once a month the top five books receive a free read and edit by someone on the editorial staff at Harper Collins. Some books even get published that way. I am not expecting that Harper Collins would likely be the publisher for "Finding Little Big Foot" (though several people have commented that they think the book has "crossover" potential into broader markets) but having a professional editor comment would be very helpful, of course. Being up in that top five would greatly increase my chances of getting noticed by an agent, or by one of the other publishing houses, like the one I first checked out.

The remaining chapters will be posted, as I write them, on Authonomy. I am not sure if I will continue putting them on The Owl's Song. Right now I am doing a major edit of the 30 chapters already written. Once Pastor Dee Anna gets back home to Wisconsin things will get challenging in Little Big Foot, and there will be a bit of theology to ponder...I hope I can keep it fun reading while making a point or two.

If you'd like to read more than one chapter every few weeks, and ESPECIALLY if you'd like to help me move up the chart, go HERE.

If you do, THANK YOU!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Little Big Foot: the Home Church

It had rained and then grown cold overnight. The sun rose on a frosty landscape, turning the front yard of the home place into a sculpture of sparkling winter jewels. Dee Anna had awakened before daylight, missing Madeline. She wondered what was happening in Little Big Foot, finding it strange to wake up on a Sunday morning and have nothing to prepare for, no expectations, and no sermon notes to review.

After spending some time looking at the silvery scene outside the window, she had settled back into bed and pulled up the blankets. “Good morning, Lord. Thank you for the beautiful scene outside. I guess it’s church for us today.” She sighed. “If I’m honest, and I might as well be since you know it already, I’m not exactly looking forward to it.” She turned over in the bed and fluffed the pillow, picturing the little church in which she had grown up, remembering it as a good place for a child but later seeing it as too rigid, too legalistic, and just too small-town.

A memory of a long-ago visiting preacher swam into focus. It had been a week of summer revival meetings and the preacher had pretty much roasted the congregation at every sermon. Dee Anna, aged thirteen, had disliked him on sight, and she would have chosen to stay home, but her parents would not hear of it. Phil played sick, she recalled. How had he fooled them? He sure didn’t fool me!

After the first service of the week, she had overheard the visiting evangelist berating the pastor’s wife for wearing “earbobs.” That good woman had obediently removed them for the duration of the week. Dee Anna figured that the preacher was proud of himself for straightening out Sister Ellis. Dee Anna shook her head a little, recalled that the earrings had returned the next Sunday after the preacher had departed. Then she recalled the good things Lupita had recently shared with her about the congregation’s kindness to her family, the assistance the pastor had given, and even how her mother had been a blessing. She actually thinks my mom is a wonderful person and that it was a compliment to me to say how like her I am! Ah, if Lupita only knew how many ways I tried not to be like my mother.

“Oh, I give up!” she exclaimed and sat up. “Dear God, I pray for a good day with the family, and for a heart that is focused on you and ready to worship. Be with my little Madeline today, and the people at North Woods Chapel. Be with Daddy this morning and continue to heal him.”

Half an hour later, she was mixing pancake batter in the kitchen, singing a song she had not thought of in years.

This world is not my home,
I’m just a passin’ through,
My treasures are laid up,
Somewhere beyond the blue,
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door…

As Ricky Rooster crowed loudly, she burst out laughing. “Oh man, I have reverted to a Texas church lady in one week! Someone rescue me!”

“Don’t look at me for help!”

She whirled around, a little embarrassed. Phil had spent the night in his apartment, promising to return for breakfast with his mother and sister, which was one way to let them know he would attend church with them too. Now he stood in the doorframe, grinning at her with affection. “I mean, look at me. I’m wearing a western shirt and boots and I admit to having a cowboy hat in my car trunk.” He moved to the refrigerator and pulled out a bowl of eggs. “Those hens do lay some good eggs!”

As his sister flipped pancakes in a vintage 1960 electric skillet, Phil scrambled eggs at the stove. Soon they were both singing with exaggerated country twangs.

O Lord, You know,
I have no friend like you,
If Heaven’s not my home,
Oh Lord, what would I do?
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymoooooore.

Like their father, both of them had nice singing voices and they were happily aware of the sunshine, the fragrance of coffee and pancakes, and of each other’s company. How far we have come in a few days, thought Dee Anna. So much different from how it seemed at the airport. Phil even looks different. Thank you, God, for your goodness in bringing Phil and me together again.

“How can a woman sleep with all this racket!”

As their mother entered the kitchen, Phil and Dee Anna both turned toward her, feeling guilty. Then they saw that she was smiling. They exhaled at the same time, and both smiled back at her, surprised.

“Just like your daddy, singing away at th’ crack o’ dawn! She pulled plates from the drain rack by the sink and placed them on the table. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you two,” she went on,” but Dr. Martin called last night when y’all were at your Uncle Chuck’s house. Your daddy is coming home today. “

On the back seat of Bernice’s Buick, Dee Anna’s cell phone played Ode to Joy. She quickly picked it up, looking at the display. “Oh, it’s Jim Johnson calling. He’s one of the North Woods Chapel deacons,” she said to the two in the front seat.

“Hello?...Oh, yes…It is good to hear your voice, Jim. Thank you for thinking of us…Please tell the people at the church how much all of us appreciate their prayers for my father and the family. He is doing amazingly well...Yes, I think so. He’s coming home today and I’ll be able to fly out in a day or so, I expect…Sounds like Madeline is having fun at Dana Sullivan’s place, and Tom and Brenda told me their kids want to adopt Charlie!…Yes, I heard you all had quite a snow since I’ve been down here…Of course…Greet Lorene for me….I sure will!…Yes, bye now.”

“Sis, do you know how annoying it is to drive down the street listening to one half of a cell phone conversation?” Phil griped good-naturedly.

“Just hurry up,” snapped Bernice, “ We’re gonna be late for church. Some things never change with you two!”

In the back seat, Dee Anna turned off her cell phone and placed it in her purse, wondering why her mother’s words, while a little sharp, held no sting for her. Something has happened, that’s for sure. It’s not like she’s become all sweetness and light, but…” A sudden jerk of the car and Phil’s voice, swearing, abruptly interrupted her thoughts. “Sorry, Mom, “said Phil. “That just slipped out. I was afraid that idiot was gonna run the stop sign.”

Yes, not all is sweetness just yet, but that's all right. Dee Anna laughed softly and leaned forward to pat her brother’s shoulder. “And on Sunday too!” she teased. Phil replied, “Well, I am sorry. I’m trying to do better, and mostly I am.”

Even Bernice had a tiny smile playing on her lips as they pulled into the parking lot of the church. ___________

Entering the little foyer, they were immediately greeted by a plump and pretty Hispanic woman about Bernice’s age. Her eyes sparkled, and she held out her hands in welcome. With secret amusement, Dee Anna noted that she was wearing bright red earrings. Some things do change.

“Oh Bernice, I am so glad to see you this morning, and with both of your children!” The woman smiled broadly. “Good morning, Phil. Nice to meet you at last! And this is Dee Anna! I have heard so much about you! Your mama and daddy sure are proud of you.” Before Dee Anna could absorb that remark, the woman patted her cheeks, exclaiming, “You are just as striking as your beautiful mother.” She went on, “You two don’t remember me. That is okay. I am Deloris Garcia. Lupita is my daughter.”

Phil smiled a little nervously, and Dee Anna finally spoke, “Ah! I should have known. It is lovely to see you, Mrs. Garcia. I was happy to get reacquainted with Lupita over at the hospital. You must be proud of her.”

Bernice gave Deloris a hug, and Phil and Dee Anna glanced at each other in surprise. Their mother did not hug people. Well, not that either of them could remember. Mrs. Garcia gave both of them a church bulletin and a Welcome Visitor card. Dee Anna noticed that the picture on the front of the card was of two men in suits and ties, shaking hands. I’ll bet there’s still plenty of women in this place. Wonder when they will get into the Twentieth Century? As Lupita came around the corner, Dee Anna was immediately sorry for her critical thoughts.

“Oh, good morning, all of you!” Lupita’s face lit up in a smile even broader than her mother’s had been, and she immediately gave Bernice a hug, which appeared to be warmly returned. Two hugs for Mom in less than a minute? What is going on? thought Dee Anna, now completely astonished. Lupita nodded at Phil, who still had not uttered a word. She reached out for Dee Anna’s hands as she said happily, “I am so glad I am not working today. I wanted to be there when your daddy was discharged, but I wanted to be here with all of you in church even more!”

Before long, three more people had greeted Dee Anna and Phil, and Lupita had introduced them to two of her brothers. As they entered the sanctuary, Dee Anna saw that a plaster nativity set sat on a back table and a small artificial tree stood in a corner. How long since I was here?

She had no time to think about it as several people they knew greeted them warmly and asked about their father. Phil was looking acutely uncomfortable, and Dee Anna slid into a wooden pew and beckoned to him. Uncle Chuck, their mother’s brother, waved to them from the sound booth. They waved back, and just as they were about to sit down, a tall middle-aged man approached with the unmistakable air of a man in charge.

“Good morning, how nice to have you here with us today.” Glancing at Phil he questioned, “It’s Phil, right?”

“Yes sir” They shook hands.

“I am Pastor Daniel Wallace. And you are Bernice and Bud’s daughter? Dee Anna? It is Pastor Dee Anna, correct?”

Dee Anna nodded. “I haven’t been here for some time. I remember Pastor Don Ellis was still here when I was home last.”

The organist, an elderly woman Dee Anna remembered teaching in the Children’s Church long ago, began to play, and Pastor Wallace said to Dee Anna, “I’ll have you greet the folks,” as he moved away and headed to the platform.

Greet the folks? Oh…what to say? What do they know about me? Too much, no doubt! Phil was grinning mischievously, and he whispered, “I’m glad you are the preacher in the family and not me! I’m just a plain ol’ prodigal son!” Dee Anna gave him a small push as their mother entered the pew with a disapproving look.

“Y’all shush up now. I taught you how to behave in church!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” whispered Phil and Dee Anna.

The service proceeded with a prayer, a worship chorus, two hymns, and one Christmas carol. As the offering plates were being passed, Pastor Wallace announced, “We are so happy to hear that our dear Brother Bud is doing well and will be coming home from the hospital today.” There was a general murmur of approval, a couple of “Praise the Lord” exclamations, and several heads turned in the direction of Bernice and her children. “It is a joy to have the family with us today. Both the children, Phil and Dee Anna, are here. Of course, they are new to me, but I realize many of you have known them for years. Dee Anna is pastoring a church. We are all proud of you, Pastor Dee Anna. Would you like to greet the folks?”

Greet the folks…here it is… Dee Anna was feeling like she had travelled back in time. The small piano and the electric organ were the same, and each stood exactly where it had the last time she was here. There were new faces, true, but the missions map was still featured on the back wall, the same songs were sung, the same offering plates passed. Dee Anna felt about ten years old and for a moment she wanted to sink under the pew. Help, Lord! she implored as she stood to her feet. She took a deep breath and smiled, looking around.

“Good morning, friends! It is good to be here to worship with you this morning.” Her eyes travelled over the familiar scene. Many people had entered after she had been seated, and now she saw that she knew several of them. There was her dear Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Newbill, white haired and stooped with osteoporosis, but with the same smile of love for Dee Anna. She saw a few people that she remembered from days in the youth group, now with spouses beside them. There was Lupita and some of her family. And there were others, some whose names she recalled and others she wasn’t sure about. She noticed a young African American man sitting near the back with two small children. She smiled, acknowleding again that some things had changed. Suddenly she realized that the words she had just spoken were true. It was good to be here. Sudden tears stung her eyes, and she swallowed a lump in her throat.

“It has been a long time since I have seen some of you.” Nodded heads. “And a lot has happened to me in the years since I was a little girl in this place.” More nodding and a few smiles. “Thank you for being here for me when I was a little girl, for teaching me to love the Bible and to love God.” She smiled at Mrs. Newbill as she continued, “and for putting up with me, and Phil too, when we were teenagers. And for sending me care packages when I went off to Bible College. Some of you may remember that I served as a youth pastor in Lubbock and maybe you also heard that I headed to seminary but left and went through a bad time. For those of you who prayed for me, I thank you very much,” and with a sideways glance at Phil, she added, “My brother and I both thank you. We know some of you never stopped believing in us. God’s endless grace is new every morning and God’s mercy never ceases.” She paused, feeling a rush of emotions—among which was gratitude.

“I wasn’t always faithful to the Lord, but He did not give up on me. He rescued me from my own foolishness, and he gave me a wonderful husband and daughter. A couple of you met them last time I was home. Michael is with the Lord now, but Madeline is the joy of my life. And I rejoice that I am now serving a small Pentecostal church up in the northern part of Wisconsin. Yankee country! We thank you for praying for Dad.” She paused and then gestured to the congregation. “I see so many people who are dear to me. It was here that I first knew Jesus loved me.” She smiled at Mrs. Newbill again, and turned to smile at the elderly organist. “I thank you for the spiritual foundation I received right here in this little church.”

It was all true. Every word. Dee Anna sat down, feeling a little breathless and realizing with fresh astonishment that her mother was surreptitiously wiping tears from her eyes. Hugs and now tears? Dee Anna thought, feeling happily perplexed.

Phil gave her a quick pat on the hand. Pastor Wallace was standing at the pulpit asking for volunteers to make cookies for the Christmas bake sale. Then he went on, “I want to talk about our heavenly home. Before we continue with the message for this morning, turn to page twelve in your hymnals…” And soon they were standing together, listening to the wheezy old electric organ and singing,

This world is not my home,
I’m just a passin’ through,
My treasures are laid up,
Somewhere beyond the blue…

Phil sang with an exaggerated drawl and grinned at his sister, “Yep, some thing just never change.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Prison Praise and Prayer

Every Tuesday I visit the prison where my husband is the chaplain to lead a group called, "Principles for Successful Living." We are slowly working our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' "principles for successful living." Last week we started our perusal of what is commonly called "The Lord's Prayer" or, by Catholics I know, "The Our Father" (from the first two words).

It was, as always an interesting mix of people.

A. is the gracious, grey-haired, educated and erudite one, probably older than his smooth dark skin would reveal. He's been inside a long time. He was educated before he came in, a professional person who used his position to commit a terrible crime. He is straightforward about how he wrecked his own life, and he offers no excuses except to acknowledge that he was arrogant and prideful. He is a pleasure to have in the group. He hopes to be moving to another institution soon, preparatory to finally going home to Milwaukee. Not a week goes by that he does not mention his beloved wife, a church-going, pillar of strength who loved him dearly in spite of his sins. It was a while before I realized she died while he was inside.

B. is a little scary. Oh, not in the group. I am never afraid when I'm there. Like A., he has been in prison a long, long time. I don't know what he did to get there, and I don't know if I want to know. He is a man who longs to be a better person, who wants to help others, who faithfully attends church, sings in the choir, comes to every study he can. He is also moody, and he has a "dark side" that I can, sometimes, see. He knows it and I think it is scary for him too.

C. is a tall, lanky, black youth who looks like a sort of goofy "kid next door." He doesn't seem to have a mean bone in his body, and I suspect he is one of the many felons who got caught up in a life of crime by helping someone else with more brains and brawn. He always tells me he is praying for me. Sometimes he tells me more than once. He has big dreams of doing "great things for God." I just encourage him to do small things in a big way. He makes me sad.

D. is quiet, pale, always leaning forward as if he doesn't want to miss a word. When he does speak I am surprised at what comes out. He does listen well!

E. is a little cocky. He has some talent, and it seems that every inmate with a little talent blows it up into a MAJOR talent. Pride and arrogance are epidemic inside the walls of prison. But he listens too. Interesting guy. Chatty, smart, and also has a barely concealed dark side.

There are more. It is never the same group, though there are some who are pretty regular. Inmates come and go, get new work or school assignments, and so on, so I know they may only sit in that small room with me once or twice. I try to make it count. I try not to waste words. I try not to be judgemental, but I also want to be straightforward. They don't need a "do-gooder" who feels sorry for them. (I do, but I try not to let that ever be uppermost.)

I'm heading over there after I go cast my vote in the primary.

Last week our discussion of the Lord's prayer was powerful. Much more honest than what often happens in a church. Our conversation centered on being thankful for blessings, even in unlikely places (like prison). Jesus' teaching prayer shows us, among many other things, that we begin by acknowledging it isn't all about us. Our thoughts first go to God, God's holiness, rule, provision. Only later do we turn prayerful thoughts to others and to ourselves. Prison prayers are often about needs and asking for things. This time we just thanked God for something.

The last prayer, from A., was a praise for being in prison. He thanked God for stopping him before he did more damage, for humbling him, for protecting him from himself, for saving his life by "sending" him behind bars. He then thanked God for those who have taught, loved, mentored, and "set him straight." "Thank you God, for this place" was his last sentence. I have genuine hope for A. It takes a humble man to thank God for prison.
They teach me something every week. I do not know if I understand anything about true gratitude!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Dinner With the "Carnies"

The kitchen/fellowship area of our church smelled wonderful last night. The tables were set invitingly. Large glass bowls contained a colorful fruit salad. There were crock pots of side dishes. One large roaster held fragrant rice and another contained chicken breasts and homemade gravy. Sodas were chilling in ice chests; coffee and milk were on a side table. Another table held an amazing array desserts. We were ready for visitors, who soon began to arrive, some in cars and others on a yellow school bus.

My daughter, Kris, and my little granddaughter, Trinity greeted our guests. These guests were the carnival workers who come to town each year for the annual county fair, held for four days surrounding Labor Day weekend. This was about the eighth or ninth year that Christian Life Assembly of God has held these dinners as a way to thank, bless, and honor people who provide entertainment for the town. The carnival workers, or "carnies," show up a few days in advance, and they work in the hot sun doing heavy labor. Some live in carnival "bunk houses" and those more fortunate may have some sort of small RV or trailer.

On Monday, some of us wander around saying hello and passing out bags of homemade cookies along with an invitation to dinner. Others cook or set up. Still others greet and serve and talk with our guests. Each year we see some familiar faces and some new ones.

Last night I met a young couple who were working their first year "on the circuit. They had left two children with relatives back in Florida and they are running a ride for the carnival because, as the young wife said, "There just isn't any work. Even at McDonald's. The economy's hit our town hard." Next to them sat a scrawny man with sinewy muscles and leathery skin burnt brown by too much time in the sun. He had about half of his teeth, which he regularly revealed as he laughed and smiled, joking with everyone. When I brought my plate over and asked if I could eat with them, he gave me a quizzical look and said, "You want to?"

Next to him sat a pleasant-looking woman about my age wearing a worn tee shirt and jeans. Her companion was bearded, talkative, the brunt of many good-natured jokes and, it seemed, a bit of a fatherly type to the others at the table. He had a tattoo of praying hands on his arm, with a gaudy rosary on the hands and MOM beneath. He told me, more than once, that we were "amazing people." I had an interesting conversation with a man directly across from me who was handsome in a sad sort of way. He told me proudly that he was "born and raised" in Wisconsin and that his daughter was attending Marquette University in Milwaukee. He's a little concerned about her and as he told me why his large eyes grew soft. His eyes were remarkable, very beautiful and expressive. He wants his daughter to stay in school more than he wants anything else, and he sends her some of his wages to help with the tuition.

A few tables over sat a large black man who looked a great deal like Shaquille O' Neal. He was quiet and very polite. Not far away was another black man, this one alarmingly thin and with a wild mass of hair. Next to him sat a man with wrinkles etched deep into his cheeks, long straggly hair and beard and an alarming amount of grease on his hands.

Like any society, this one has its own culture, inside jokes and lingo. The ones who run a ride, the jocks, tend to hang out together. Down a rung on the social scale are the "jointys" who man the booths of carnival games. Some run food booths, serving up mini donuts, cheese curds, cord dogs, and so on. Some people own their own food stand and they tend to set themselves apart from the rank and file "carnies." Carnival workers are often invisible to the townspeople who ride the rides, play the games (or try to) and eat the carnival's junk food. Like homeless people, we tend to simply not "see" them.

Each year they seem genuinely grateful for the home style meal, the conversation, and the chance to cool off in air-conditioned comfort. Some are obviously trying to clean up their language or be more polite for us church folks. Others use profanities with complete oblivion to their surroundings. They are, many times (most times?) broken people with tragic mistakes and circumstances in their lives. Some would not survive outside the hard-working, hard-drinking and partying world of the carnival and have been there for many years. Others hope that their stint with the travelling shows will be short. Some don't think beyond the next day.

As they left, Kris and I said good bye and Kris offered hugs. Some declined, almost looking afraid. Other hugged her like their lives depended on it, sometimes with tears in their eyes. It made me wonder if the last hug a couple of them had received had been a year ago when they came to dinner.
Kevin, Ken's brother who lives with us now, spent several years on the road as a carny after he had burnt his bridges with most of the family. He told me a story of what happened once when, remembering going to church with Ken and me when he had lived with us for a year (as a teenager), he tried visiting a church once when he wasn't working on a Sunday (rare). What happened wasn't pretty.

God loves them, and they are some of "the least of these" for whom Jesus lived and died. If you see some of them, look at them and say, "Thanks for helping us have some fun!" They don't hear that very often.