the sermon that was never heard…

I had a dream last night. So strong in its witness, I needed to “get it down” on paper this morning. Perhaps in doing so, it will get down to a deeper place inside of me so that I might more fully live it outside of me.

The sermon that was never heard.

Allow me to explain. In May of 2016 my father was scheduled to preach at the Garner UMC. There was nothing particularly unusual about this event. Dad was often called upon to “fill the pulpit” on occasions when the pastor wasn’t available. As a professor of preaching at Asbury Seminary for over thirty years, and as a pastor of several congregations in the last fifty years, my dad has always been a natural choice for such occasions. His spiritual journey, as well as his giftedness in and eloquence for telling a story, have allowed him notable stages from which to deliver God’s message. But no stage was more glorious and important to my father than one holding a wooden pulpit overlooking an audience of Sunday morning seekers. Accordingly, dad rarely refused an opportunity to fill a pulpit.

I had planned to make the two hour trip to Garner to hear my father speak that Sunday. My mother texted me early in the morning to tell me not to come, that dad wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to preach. Later that day, when pressed for more details, dad revealed that he was having trouble reading his sermon notes, that his thoughts were jumbled up inside of him. And while he didn’t have any manifestations of a physical illness, he knew something was wrong. So did we. Thus began the unraveling of the diagnosable mystery known as a stroke.

For the last nineteen months, we’ve walked with dad through this period of redirection. The adjustments have been numerous. And while dad’s aphasia has altered his daily routine, it hasn’t changed his heart or his passion for telling the story. Certainly, the “stage” has changed; they’re smaller now, more intimate. His words are fewer and, sometimes, aren’t delivered as eloquently as he would like. But the warmth is there, the smile, the laughter, the love … always the love from dad. And through it all, we’re all learning to make peace with…

The sermon that was never heard.

The words that were never spoken that Sunday morning. The “text” that (some would say) would be my father’s final declaration from the pulpit. And this morning, after tossing and tumbling all night long, after mulling over what my father’s final benediction might have been from the pulpit that morning in Garner, I have decided that God is still writing that sermon. That after nineteen months of altered steps and interrupted dialogue, the sermon that was never heard is still preaching its witness.

And therein, folks, lives and breathes the greatest story ever told. When the curtains are drawn, the script is lost, when the words won’t come, and the audience has departed, what remains is the sacred echo – the deafening whispers of the sermon that was never heard.  

Like my father, perhaps even like you, I have a few more stories I’d like to share, a few more moments of dialogue I’d like to give to the world. But I am no longer convinced that these are the “sermons” that God will most thoroughly use to live and give his witness. What I am growing convinced of, however, is that…

Not every sermon needs a stage.

Not every manuscript needs eloquence.

Not every word needs to be spoken.

Instead, our “sermons” just need to be lived in the shadow of Almighty God. With warmth. With smiles. With laughter. With love … always the love.

If we can get to that place of settled peace, friends, then the sermon that was never heard surely will be boldly proclaimed with a depth and with a clarity that may not come otherwise. So…

Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me how to live with an unwritten, unspoken, and unfinished script.

And thank you, God, for making it count eternally. As always, 

Peace for the journey,

Nine Miles with My Grandpa…

Grandpa and I at Uncle George’s -1975?

We drove my Grandpa Al home yesterday.

Well… sort of.

He wasn’t really my grandpa. My Grandpa Al died in 1994 at the age of eighty-three. The man we drove home, Howard, is seventy-four but could have passed as Al’s brother. Short in stature, round in the belly, missing hair and missing teeth – all the makings of the grandpa I remember so fondly in my heart.

It had been a busy, exhausting day for us. Sunday services (and all the drama therein), followed by a mid-afternoon funeral, punctuated by picking up pizzas for the youth group with no Sunday afternoon nap squeezed in between, can quickly consume one’s energy. Accordingly, as the sun slowly began its descent, my husband and I decided that a quick trip to McDonald’s was in order, not necessarily to fill our empty stomachs but, instead, to fill our depleted, emotional tanks.

As we were exiting our cars, Howard was exiting his hard day’s labor as an employee of McDonalds. His gait indicated his tiredness, as well as his arthritis. We made small talk and blessed him to an evening of relaxation. After all, he’d earned it. Eight hours of cleaning bathrooms and refilling the condiment bar would leave even a robust youth longing for a pair of pjs and a night’s lounging on a comfy sofa.

Once inside the McDonalds, I realized that my patience wasn’t equal to the long line waiting to be served. Hence, we moved our patronage next door to the Bojangles. Same story. A longer-than-I-was-willing-to-wait-for-line greeted us, and we made our exit to the car. Suddenly, I was no longer feeling hungry; instead, I was feeling lost … unable to focus and ready to head back home, unfed and unfilled. We hadn’t traveled far before we noticed him – the tired McDonald’s employee walking under an overpass. He, too, was headed for home. Ten minutes earlier, we had talked to him in the crowded McDonald’s parking lot next to our car. It never occurred to us that he didn’t have one of his own.

Something broke inside of me. A sadness that lent itself toward compassion.

“We need to give him a ride home, Billy. There isn’t any housing close by, and it’s getting dark. If my grandpa had put in a hard day’s labor at McDonald’s and had to walk home, I hope someone would stop and give him a ride.”

Tears slipped quietly down my face as my husband made a u-turn. We slowed our vehicle as we reached the underpass, and I rolled down my window.

“Sir, we just met you at the McDonalds a few minutes ago. Can we give you a ride home? You look like you’ve had a long day, and we’d like to help you out.”

Without hesitation and with much effort, he made his way into the back seat of our van. He dropped his brown canvas bag onto the seat next to him and began to tell us his story. He told us he sure appreciated the kindness and that we didn’t need to take him all the way home, just up to the Nic’s Pic (a local gas station). From there, he’d thumb his way home.

“Where exactly do you live, Howard?”

“In McColl.”

McColl, South Carolina, that is. Nine miles away from where we picked him up in Laurinburg, North Carolina.

“That’s an awful long way to walk to work. Is your car broken down?”

“No ma’am. I’ve been hitching rides to work for (… wait for it) thirty plus years now. If you’ll just drop me off at the Nic’s Pic, I’ll get a ride home from there.

“Howard, we’re going to take you all the way home. Tonight, we’ll get you home a little earlier than usual so that you’ll have a little more time to relax.”

And so, for the next nine miles, we got to know our new friend. We told him a little of our story, but mostly, he told us nine miles’ worth of his. Three marriages, a daughter he hadn’t seen in decades and with no understanding of where she might be, crippled up with arthritis and punching the clock at McDonalds for at least thirty years, well, even though his biography read more like a tragedy, he didn’t seem overcome or undone by it. Instead, he seemed content, like he’d made some sort of peace with what I perceived to be his less-than life.

As we approached McColl, he gave us the short-cut instructions to get to his house. Driving the back streets of his neighborhood, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. The dilapidated homes, the junk piled up therein, and the occasional wandering inhabitants, quickly had me checking the door locks. My sobering assessment of Howard’s seemingly declining neighborhood didn’t match his own.

“There are some nice houses back in here … nice mill homes. My third wife left me one, even though it is falling down around me. Now she was a good one. I wish I’d had her longer.”

My precious grandparents, Al and MayBelle

And part of me wished the same. He shouldn’t be alone, not now. Not ever. And for nine miles last night, he wasn’t. I wasn’t. Instead, we were together, sharing a ride and sharing our lives – a tiny intersection on the long road toward home. Grandpa Al has been gone from my life for twenty-three years now, but last night, a part of him was with me, reminding me that this life is meant to be shared. That in some sense, we’re all really close to being family. All it takes to arrive at that realization is opening up our eyes to see those around us and opening up our hearts (and car doors) for conversations therein.

As Howard exited our car, he left me with a final word of benediction:

“There sure is a lot of evil in the world these days, but there’s still a lot of kindness. Thanks for the ride.”

And with that, our nine miles together came to a conclusion. What began as a quest to fill my hungering stomach was met, instead, with a meal to fill my hungering soul.

Grandpa Al, his son (Charles), and great-grandsons, Nick and Colton – 1993

 

There sure is a lot of evil in this world, but there still is a lot kindness. So, give kindness to others in this season, friends. Share nine miles or more with the person you meet at McDonalds, being willing to cross the state line should the occasion dictate. In doing so, you just might recognize a brother, a sister, maybe even a grandpa from your past.

In some greater sense than I fully understand, we’re all really close to being family. As always…

Peace for the journey,

The Old Guard

Arlington National Cemetery, May 2017

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

Those are the words chiseled into the marble sarcophagus that holds the body of an unidentified military veteran from WWI. In addition, two other unidentified soldiers from WWII and the Korean War are memorialized at the same site in separate crypts. A fourth, previously unknown soldier from the Vietnam War (later identified through DNA testing at Michael Blassie) rested there until 1998 when his remains were moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. Since 1937, the Tomb of the Unknowns has been guarded 24/7-365 by a select group of soldiers known as Tomb Guard sentinels, an elite group of soldiers from the 3rd US Infantry Regiment – “The Old Guard.” The soldiers rotate throughout the day, ceremoniously and meticulously marking their steps, following a prescribed protocol of duty. It’s fascinating, sobering and sacred, to sit as a ringside witness to such tribute and honor. For these soldiers, their service isn’t played out on the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq.  Instead they surrender their duty, give their time and their best, on the battlefield known as Arlington National Cemetery, all for one sacred, privileged purpose.

To guard and protect the unknown – an American soldier known but to God.

And tonight, in the quieting moments after a week that has forced my faith to new heights and my knees to deeper prayer, I am thinking about those unknown soldiers, their stories and the secrets they keep encased within those crypts. Most tenderly, I’m thinking about the soldiers who, for the past eighty years, have given up their days and their nights for the sole purpose of guarding and protecting this mystery.

Sometime in the distant past, on a landscape not my own, three soldiers died on different battlefields while defending the rights of liberty. And while their identities currently remain a mystery, their earthly remains are heavily defended by The Old Guard.

As it is with the Tomb of the Unknowns, so it is with my life. So it is with yours.

a sentinel from The Old Guard – Arlington National Cemetery, April 2017

There are many mysteries, countless unknowns attached to our stories. The previously written chapters of our lives are safely scripted and bound within the annals that bear our names. But there are other pages, other secrets, chapters to come, and chapters writing themselves in this very moment, that are unidentified to us. And this can be scary at times because we have very little control over the unknowns; instead, we can only bear witness to them as they arrive and pray for God’s grace to hold them as our own. And when we’re shaken by newly discovered realities – when the unknown is finally identified and brings us fear rather than peace – as Christians, we have a deeper reality that we can cling to, a known truth that will cover our hearts and our minds like a warm blanket on a bitter winter’s night…

The Old Guard is standing near.

Marking his paces. Guarding his own. Rain or shine. 24/7-365. Back and forth before the crypts that carry the fullness of our lives – the mysteries, things known to us, and things known but to him. For this Soldier, his service is no longer played out on the battlefield known as Calvary; instead, he surrenders his duty, his time and his best, on the battlefield known as our lives, all for one sacred, privileged purpose.

To guard and protect the unknown – a soldier’s story, our stories, known but to Him.

See him there, friends. Oh how carefully Jesus Christ is guarding your tomb. Your surrender is precious to him, and in his great love for you, he has promised you his protection. What you cannot see, what you cannot know, is already seen and known to him. Your unfolding mysteries are not a mystery to him. He knows your story. He knows what’s at stake. He’s laid down his life for yours, and you can be sure that he’s not going to let the enemy rob your surrender of one single glory.

The gates of hell may rattle and shake its cage against you today, threatening your capture. But take heart. The Old Guard is standing near, and the gates of hell are no match for the protective, loving reach of this Sentinel. He has given his life and his pledge to bring you safely home. He will keep his word. It is his highest honor to do so 

So rest in honored glory today, Christian soldier. You and your unknowns are known to God. He can be trusted with the rest of your story. As always…

Peace for the journey,

PS: Psalm 91 has been a balm to my soul in this season. You may read it by clicking here.

A Mapmaker and a Grace Giver (a tribute to Bill Olsen)

Grace’s words surprised me that night. I wasn’t expecting them. What I was expecting … well, I’m not quite sure. I’d never been down this road before. Just an hour earlier, I was eating orange sherbet while sitting on a couch next to my mother-in-law, Rosalie, when the call came telling us what I was expecting to hear—that my father-in-law, Bill, had stepped peacefully from this side of the eternal veil to the other.

As quickly as we could find our shoes (as well as our pulse), we made the five-minute walk from Rosalie’s new apartment to the nursing facility where Bill had been residing. This living arrangement had been a dream of theirs, selling their home on Tinkerbell Rd. and moving to Carolina Meadows—a retirement community that would afford them a peaceful and pleasant pasture to write their final chapter together.

The dream had a few revisions along the way. Two years earlier, Bill’s cancer (as well as a fractured hip, diminished mobility, and several late-night trips to the emergency room) interrupted their plans. Despite the multiple roadblocks along the way, both Bill and Rosalie eventually arrived at their new address. And while they would no longer share a bathroom or eat sherbet beside one another on those light-green, chenille couches that had cradled their marriage of nearly fifty-three years, they could at least spy each other’s bedroom windows across the verdant lawn that now separated them—a chasm that could not be crossed quickly enough in those late hours on Wednesday, June 14th.

Soberly and tenderly, Rosalie and I entered Bill’s room as well as the sacred moment. I have often said that the ground we stand upon is never more hallowed than in those moments that exist between the now and the next. Just two hours earlier, we’d been sitting in this same room with Bill, singing hymns, praying prayers, and speaking words of release to him while he peacefully slept. That was the now. This moment, well this was the next, and the difference between the two was stunningly apparent to us both.

“He is not here, Rosalie. He’s gone home.”

While Rosalie cradled her grief as well as Bill’s fragile frame, I quietly removed the wedding band from his ring finger and slipped it onto the chain around Rosalie’s neck. I stood in the shadows, watching a bride say good-bye to her husband. I was profoundly moved to a place of deeper understanding, a deeper connection to all things eternal. Indeed, what God hath wrought together, no man had been able to put asunder (Mark 10:9).

And that gift … being witness to such love … would have been enough to salve the grief that began to fill our hearts. But God gave us another gift that night, the gift of Grace—the nurse’s aide assigned to Bill in his final hours and in the many weeks preceding his departure. We met her in the hallway while making our way back to Rosalie’s apartment. She told us a story about a recent encounter she’d had with Bill:

“Mr. Bill was trying to help me find a shortcut through Chapel Hill. He drew me a map.

[*For those of you who knew Bill, this doesn’t come as a surprise as Bill was always drawing maps and knew the Chapel Hill area better than most, as he’d been selling real estate in the surrounding community for more than fifty years.]

He told me that should I ever travel down that particular route and found myself thirsty, that I should stop by Tinkerbell Road … that a glass of water would be waiting for me.”

And these, friends, were the words that surprised me that night, shook me and sweetly startled me at my core. I’m not quite sure the reason behind Grace relaying this particular story about Bill, but as soon as she released it to us for safe-keeping, I knew that no finer epitaph could ever be carved in stone to best memorialize the life and witness of Bill Olsen, Jr.—a man who lived on Tinkerbell Road, always ready with a cup of water for anyone whose thirst led them to his door.

Bill was always looking for the best route in and around his town … in and around this life … while watering his town and this life with a generous cup of goodness. He was a mapmaker and a grace giver.

A mapmaker and a grace giver. God has replayed this message over and over again in my mind these past six days since Bill’s departure. More significantly, God has etched these words onto my heart eternally.

Indeed, Bill is not here with us in body any longer. He has gone home. But God, because of his great mercy and love for all humanity, granted Bill the holy privilege of drawing us a map so that we, too, may find our way home. Additionally, whenever a thirsty soul came knocking, Bill was faithful to fill our cups with a ladle of water from the well of God’s amazing grace, more than enough to fuel us for the journey that lies ahead.

A mapmaker and a grace giver. Bill’s life was a life well-lived. He lived simply and quietly. He loved purely and certainly.

He left a map and he left a ladle.

A mapmaker and a grace giver. The trail has clearly been blazed. The mission has clearly been defined. May we endeavor (with God’s help) to follow the map, to fill the cups of the thirsty, and to live ever so rightly, vigilantly and attentively, all of our remaining days on this earth. Amen. So be it.

Peace for the journey, friends.

74…

There are seventy-four left.

Classroom hours that is.

In just a couple of weeks I’ll be saying good-bye to another group of fourth graders. Yes, I’ve been counting down the days … since the third week of school. Somehow calculating the hours way back in August seemed too formidable. But now? Well, an hourly count feels doable … like, I’m going to make it.

And tonight while sitting around the dinner table with my family, the weightiness of that number struck me deeply in my core. Seventy-four more hours …

To love.
To invest.
To give them my best.
To say my good-bye and to make sure that I say it well.

And here’s the rub in all of that loving, investing, giving, and saying:

I’m not sure I remember much about my 4th grade year. I don’t recall it being particularly impactful for me. Or so it seems. And I wonder to myself what they, my now fourteen students, will one day recall about their fourth grade year.

Gosh, I hope they’ll say it was fun. We sure have packed a lot of laughter into the year. I hope they’ll retain some practical knowledge as it pertains to their book learning. Maybe they’ll read with their children about Old Dan and Little Ann from Where the Red Fern Grows, laugh about Melba Jane’s hair turning blue in Love, Ruby Lavender, or eat some Turkish Delight like Edmund did in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe . Perhaps they’ll pull out a charm-filled, tarnished-with-years necklace from a keepsake box and remember the laps they had to walk to get those charms.

But even if they don’t remember the laughter, the stories, fractions and nouns, or even if the necklaces never make it through this summer, there is one thing I pray they’ll never forget…

The truth – the gospel of Jesus Christ. Truly, that alone is what pulls at my heart in these final hours of this fourth grade year.

And this is where I must have faith in both the seed that’s been planted and in the Sower who authored it. God’s Word is stronger, more enduring than my efforts at the loving, the investing, the giving, and the saying. Long before I planted any heaven-sent seeds within my students’ hearts, God tended to the soil therein. He plowed up their fields, readying it to receive his eternal impartations. He will continue to tend the garden going forward. Like the Apostle Paul, I can (with all certainty) say,

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. -1 Cor. 3:6-7

I am nothing but a conduit of the Father’s amazing grace. And truly, friends, in that state of nothingness, I hold everything.

This is how I will spend the final seventy-four hours with my students. This is how I will love, invest, and give my best. This is how I will say my good-bye. Not only am I going to make it, friends, but I am going to make sure it counts for all eternity. As always…

Peace for the journey,

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