Home to a Place I’ve Been Before

Quite a lot has happened in my life since my last post.

I sold my house in Webster, N.C. and moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

I’ve never lived here before — well, never more than a few days at a time — but I have long wanted to.

It’s the place where Angi and I became engaged; where we brought our kids for long weekends away from Little Rock; where this little cottage that is now my home was built in 1882 by the ninth governor of Arkansas, Powell Clayton (along with several others, the Crescent Hotel and the Eureka Springs Railway). And where it has been for sale for about three years and three realtors.

But no more.

I’ve bought it and am making it my home as I unpack all my boxes.

bedroom249

Angi and I talked about retiring here. I don’t know if we would have or not, but I hope to. Not yet, of course; I’m still working via web for Western Carolina University … writing and posting news articles to the university’s news website and putting together the weekly newsletter to faculty and staff, The Reporter.

I’ve been coming to Eureka Springs for weekend and holiday retreats for about 30 years now — I can still remember my first trip, riding the steam train and walking a couple of trails on an inexpensive trail map I bought at a bookstore.

I probably missed seeing my house (panorama of it currently featured in the blog header) the first time on that trip … I think I took the stair-step trail by Crescent Spring on up to the Crescent Hotel, and bypassed it. But I saw it many, many times thereafter on the countless trolleybus rides that our family took together. Laura and Matthew, even when little, loved to ride the trolleybuses.

Now they pass in front of my house, on the average of every twenty minutes on the weekend. Except when some idiot with Four Men and Two Trucks is trying to move in on a two-festival Saturday and causes a traffic jam along with a trolleybus and a guided-tour tram.

trafficjames

Eventually, a cooler head in the silver truck behind the tram un-logjammed everything by turning left in front of me, freeing up the Two Trucks full of my possessions behind me to move forward so that the tram beside us could move, too.

But no one really lost their cool, because Eureka Springs is just that sort of place — even when it’s hot and sweltery outside, people are there to chill out. And for the most part, they do.

And that, perhaps more than anything else, is why it feels like home.

Next to last

I watched “What Dreams My Come” just now because I needed to.

It was especially difficult to watch this visually dazzling movie about soulmates, loss, depression, death, suicide, the afterlife and love because it stars the late and truly great Robin Williams.

But it is the next-to-last movie on my list of movies I have had to wait to watch since losing Angi three years ago.

Only “Shadowlands” remains.

Still not ready to watch that one.

I read somewhere long ago – I think when trying to lead a Single Again Class for divorced and widowed people in Abilene – an author who recommended a year of healthy grief for every five years you got to spend with the one you’ve loved and lost.

That seems about right to me.

Next year, “Shadowlands.”

A Blessing for the Journey

May the wind be at your back
But not only at your back

May the wind be ever before you
To clear the path ahead

May the wind be always at your side
At either side and both, a friend

May it support you from beneath
And keep you grounded as the earth

May it blow above that clouds may part
And show you stars above

May the wind surround you like a warm cloak
Protecting you from threats and harms

And may it inspire you from within
God’s very breath, His Spirit yours

Today, tomorrow and forever.

Amen.

Easter – and Maybe My Shortest Message Ever

My little church family and I gathered at our old parsonage in Sylva this gloomy, grey Easter morning. We prayed. We sang. We dined together at the Lord’s table and remembered Him. Then John led us in “It Is Well With My Soul.”

It was time for me to speak. I gathered myself as best I could. And I said (to the best of my recollection):

“As many of you know, it was many, many months after Angi passed away before I could sing ‘It Is Well With My Soul’ again. Many of you prayed with me for the miracle that would save her life. And God’s answer was ‘no.’

“And that’s as good a segue into my message this morning as I know. We’ll be going out-of-sequence in our study of prayer in scripture” — last Sunday we left off with the prayers of prophets — “to talk about Jesus’ last prayers and what happens when God says ‘no.'”

Then we read Matthew 26:36-46. I asked: “What happens when God doesn’t answer prayer the way we would like?”

Suzanne and Brenda suggested that perhaps it’s because He has a better plan in mind.

Then I asked: “What would have happened if God had not said ‘no’ to His Son’s prayers?”

The answers cascaded: “We wouldn’t be celebrating Good Friday or Easter” … “We wouldn’t have celebrated the Lord’s Supper this morning” … “We wouldn’t even be here.”

So I paused a moment, and tried to phrase my next question carefully. “Forgive me; I have a colossal headache this morning and I’m not at my best. Let me ask this: Could God have saved us and still said ‘yes’ to Jesus’ prayers … ‘Yes, this cup can pass from You’?”

There was general assent the He could, indeed. “He can do anything He wants to,” Suzanne volunteered.

“I can’t argue with that,” I replied, “… and I believe it’s true. But if He had, what would have happened to Isaiah 53? And so many of the other prophecies about Jesus?”

There was a moment of silence. John, sitting an empty seat away, touched me on the shoulder. “Key point,” he said.

“It is, isn’t it?” I said. “I’ve thought about this for a number of years. And I’ve had to come to the conclusion that the only acceptable reason for God to have said ‘no’ to the pleas of His own Son for His life would have to be that there was no other way. God put put Himself in this box of prophecy, knowing the impact that this final blood sacrifice would have on hearts for centuries yet to come. Two thousand years down the road, this Story still gets us … right … here.”

And I felt my fist pounding against my chest.

And I felt my composure slipping away as I spoke.

“Nothing touches us like the Story of God’s Son giving Himself up. Nothing else could do. If it had only been a story of a man dying cruelly, it would have been only one of thousands of cruel deaths. But it was God’s Son. If God’s Son had only died cruelly — evil would have been shown for what it is, all right — but it would have been no kind of Story that tells us of God’s power; that proves only God … can … give … life … back.”

By this time I was nearly undone. I needed a tissue, but I had none. So my face got wet.

The_Garden_Tomb_2008“And that is why I have to believe that when God says ‘no,’ even when it hurts; even when you lose someone dearest to you, that God does indeed have a better idea; a better plan.

“This Story tells me that I can fall on my face and pour out my heart and trust God and say, ‘Your will be done,’ and that He will make the most painful of times turn out for a best that we can’t even imagine,” I finished.

“And it will be well with our souls.”

Confession

My eyes are dry.
My faith is old.
My heart is hard.
My prayers are cold.
And I know how I ought to be:
Alive to You and dead to me.

Keith Green phrases it well.

My prayer life is not what it used to be. My spiritual life is not what it used to be.

I say the words. I mean them. I believe in the One to whom they are addressed. I believe He hears.

But I am not sure about what He does with those words after that.

I have friends who have lost their faith. I have a friend who went from missionary to atheist in a matter of months. I have another who went from preaching to doubting in a matter of months.

I have other friends who have out-wrestled Jacob AND Job to keep their faith … having lost those dearest to them, yet remaining in the ministry. Some have remarried; brought new children into their hearts and families through these marriages.

And I am not my friends.

God and I are not exactly on speaking terms.

That is, I talk to Him and He does the listening. He doesn’t seem to say much of anything back anymore.

Not like He used to.

Except – and He’s funny about this; He’s a divine comedian, in fact – except on Sunday morning.

I teach at a tiny church in the slightly bigger town next to where I live. I don’t preach, because I’m smart enough to know I’m not gifted at preaching. And there’s no need for preaching. Preaching is for people who haven’t heard the gospel. There are, on a good Sunday, ten of us at my tiny church and we’ve all long since heard the gospel. So I teach. We try to dive deep into the word. We discuss. We argue sometimes. I try to keep it loving, or failing that, civil. We midrash. I teach.

And I am the worst. As far as the teaching paradigms go, I am the worst teacher ever. It doesn’t work to set out a course of study weeks or months in advance and nibble on each Sunday’s preplanned message a little each day and slave over it in prayer and meditation and practice standing behind a lectern because I teach sitting down from a chair and because God isn’t talking to me that way anymore.

He used to. I’d study and stew and pray and read over something pestering my soul for hours and be able to sit down at the keyboard with a pretty good idea where things were going to go because I felt deep inside that it had been made clear to me, bit-by-bit and bite-by-bite and byte-by-byte.

Now He is silent.

So this blog has been pretty much silent, too.

However, on Sunday mornings, things are a little different.

My little church family has requested a study of prayer. So we are studying prayer from its first instances with Abraham and Isaac’s chief servant through the Old Testament and on to the New … exactly the way we studied the Holy Spirit for more than a year. They are gluttons for punishment. They knew I was going to do this.

On Sunday mornings now, I select four readings. They’re not from a book. They are not necessarily in scriptural order, but I try to keep them in chronological order to the best of my ability. I read them over breakfast. I seek any clarity that’s desperately needed from my books or — cautiously — online. I pray that God will help me be honest.

And once I thought He was trying to communicate to me that was all He was asking for.

Then I go to the little parsonage where we meet and I teach.  I try to tell the truth.

When I don’t know, I say, “I don’t know.”

When I have a theory, I say, “That’s just my thoughts on it.”

When I think a doctrine we’ve all heard before is out of whack, I say so and I give my reasons why and I say, “But that’s my line of  thinking on it. Yours may be different. I don’t think God is going to judge you based on what I believe, but on what you believe.”

I don’t care where the best insight of the morning comes from or who puts it into words.

I’m just there to sing, pray, worship, break bread, drink a sip from a cup, remember Jesus and live out His love for others while keeping a discussion about Him on track. (It’s always about Him. Even in the Old Testament where we are studying now. It points forward to Him. The gospels point to Him. The Acts of the Apostles  and the epistles point back at Him. The Revelation points forward to Him once again.)

And then I go home.

During the week, I pray for my friends and my family. I meet with my church family again on Wednesday evenings, and except for the remembrance at the Table, we worship and do some more midrashing.

Sometimes I poke about in the word because something is distressing my soul. Sometimes I pray about me. Sometimes I pray the rest of Keith Green’s lyrics.

What can be done
for an old heart like mine?
Soften it up
with oil and wine.
The oil is You, your Spirit of love
Please wash me anew
in the wine of Your blood.

But I don’t hear the same response that I used to hear … the wording of verses from scripture that were uncomfortably poignant or illuminating or uplifting. Simply silence. Just His silence.

So I thought I’d confess that I’m a bad teacher. That I am struggling with a God who only seems to speak when He feels like it. That our relationship is strained.

Thought I’d try my hand at this blog again and see if I would know in advance how it would come out.

Nope. I didn’t.

And I sure didn’t expect that I’d be this honest.

On Grief

It’s that time of year again when I remember the day my dad passed away in the bitter cold of winter twenty-three years ago, with some measure of warning (he had a cardiopulmonary episode weeks before) but more importantly, with the warm hope of someone who knows Whom he has believed and has lived out that faith to the very last.

When someone you love dearly leaves your life, you mourn. You grieve. You put your life down where theirs ended. And for a while, it feels like yours has, too.

You keep doing what you have been doing, but it cannot really be called “living.” Colors lose a measure of their splendor. Flavors and fragrances seem less sweet. Humor falls flat. Comfort does not connect. People say things, and you hear them, and you know they have meaning but you are at something of a loss to perceive what that meaning might be.

Time trudges.

Then, little by little, you begin to pick up your life where you left it.

Memories begin to comfort and soothe rather than haunt and taunt.

You begin to feel the love that others have for you, and you begin to feel that love for them again, too.

You can smile without forcing it. Then you can smile without poignancy. At some point, you remember how to genuinely laugh.

And you begin to realize that life can go on; that you have survived this death with the help of others who love you; that you could do it again if you had to. You can live again.

And you do.

And you will.

But every once in a while, you will look back in a wistful moment, and remember how good and perhaps how bad it sometimes was with the one you cherish and miss; wonder how good and how bad it could be were they still here with you; and you wish.

And you accept.

And you go on living.


 

Norman William Brenton
September 24, 1926 – February 25, 1993
Brazil, Indiana and Indianapolis

From his three children, read at his funeral:

In the two and a half weeks since Dad’s heart attack, we have often found  ourselves commenting on his fine qualities: his kindness, dry sense of humor, love of children and people in general, his efficiency and thoroughness–meticulous and logical in all areas; his gentle spirit. In fact, the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-24 and the admonition of II Peter 1:5-8 to “add to your faith, virtue, etc.” were reflected in his life. Perhaps most often in our thoughts and conversations, the Beatitudes  of Matthew 5 came to mind, especially verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Certainly our Dad is a son of God.

–Linda

Sometimes when things just don’t seem right and we see no good in them, we need to stop and remember that God works all things together for the good. In our lives we experience what the Bible calls trials and sufferings, but when we are children of God, we are to consider them great joy. My father loved people like no one else I knew, except for God himself. He will continue to live through those of us who knew him and those of us who learned from his faithfulness to God our Father, and from his patience toward everyone. I pray we all will be worthy, as he was, to see Jesus Christ. He suffers no pain and no sorrow. He’s with our Father in heaven and that makes me joyful.

–Christy

My father gave me life, of course; but you may not know that on at least two occasions, he also saved my life.

One time, when I was about two years old, I had gotten hold of some hard candy, and had managed to get a piece of it stuck in my throat. Upon hearing me choke, Dad hauled me up by my feet and slapped my back until the candy was dislodged and I could breathe again.

Another time – when I was eight or nine, and we were on one of our vacation trips together – we parked on a lot overlooking Royal Gorge. The lot was marked off by big wooden posts threaded together by a chain. I hopped right over the chain, heading for a slope where some gorgeous quartz crystals had been dumped like fill dirt. The slope was about 45 degrees, and it ended in about thirty feet with a vertical drop of about a thousand feet to the Arkansas River below. The quartz crystals began to give
way underneath me as I struggled back to the top. Dad started to vault the chain, too; but I yelled back “Don’t! The rocks won’t hold you.”

So, holding the chain in one hand, he stretched himself as far as he could and reached out to me with the other hand. I had to take the next couple of steps myself, but then I felt his hand grasp mine and he pulled me to safety.

Maybe Dad didn’t do anything that any father wouldn’t have done. But he taught me a powerful lesson through those two episodes. He taught me that God saves people in two ways.

One way is when you feel like you’ve been picked up and turned upside down and life is hitting you from behind. That’s God telling you there’s something stuck in your craw called sin and you’ve got to turn loose of it or it will kill you.

The other way God saves us is when he vaults the chain in the person of His Son and, holding firmly on with His hand of Justice, He stretches Himself as far as He can and reaches out to us with His hand of Compassion. We have to take the first few steps on our own; then we feel His hand grasp ours and pull us to safety.

— Keith

Moving On and Moving

I’ve had a chance to notify many friends, most family and some colleagues that daughter Laura and I are beginning to make our plans to move back to Little Rock.

This week I hope to contact a repair person to take care of some home inspection obstacles, and soon after I hope to contact our realtor to put the house here in Webster, North Carolina on the market.

Laura is no longer engaged, and has been on board for this move. She’s very interested in attending a small college in Little Rock, and I could not be happier about that. I would like to be able to say she’s the reason for the move, but I know it’s just as much for me as it is for her.

We need to be a lot closer to her brother Matt and her Gran, Harriette — a lot closer than 650 miles. We need to be closer to friends we left behind more than 3-1/2 years ago now.

And I need to be around the place where I still had Angi in my life, rather than the places where I lost her. In that place — when I visit, even her grave — I have fond memories for which I’ll always be grateful. In these places here, I just see and hear the might-have-beens and the gone-too-soons.

Maybe that’s silly, but it’s the way I see things — and I think I have seen it that way for a long time without even realizing it.

This is a change of plans for me. I thought I’d be working here at WCU for another 3-5 years and then retiring to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. But that plan is on hold for now.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing professionally when I return to Little Rock, but when I approached my supervisor and his boss about working as a long-distance remote employee, doing news web work as I did for the Abilene Reporter-News 15 years ago, they seemed to be considering it as a possibility. (At least they didn’t reject it out-of-hand!) Still, it’s a bit of a leap of faith.

Speaking of faith ….

It was painfully difficult to tell my church family at Sylva Church of Christ that I would be moving on. I have taught there for more than two years now in lieu of a full-time minister. But they are family. And, God love them all the more for it, they understand.

The process will doubtless take weeks to months. I’ll need to sell here before I can buy there.

So I earnestly covet your good wishes and prayers in the interim — that everything will go smoothly, and that doors will be opened and closed as they should be.

I just really think I need to be moving so that I can be moving on.

Thanks, and love to you all.