For Melanie Carlton

Melanie passed away on May 24, 2018 from metastatic melanoma. I wrote this eulogy, which was masterfully delivered at her funeral by my friend, Pastor Nathan Rogers.

Melanie Carlton was a passionate person who found joy in many things. She was gifted at sharing that joy with others, especially through teaching. She loved dancing and baton twirling, so she opened her own dance studio in their house on Ninth Street. melanie old millShe loved her dance students and the time she spent with them, watching them grow and progress. Melanie loved to read, and she was passionate about her job as a reading teacher at De Queen primary school. She loved her students, her coworkers, and her administrators.

She loved her family, especially her amazing daughters. She showed them how to love others, and how to be compassionate. She gave them her gift of dance and her love of music. Their house is full of crafts they did together, and their hearts are full of memories she made with them.

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Things were rarely boring if Melanie was in the room. She was the queen of random. Her thoughts were unpredictable, and her plans grandiose. When she had a grandiose plan, she always had a way to pay for it. Jason called it “Melanie math.” Melanie would tell Jason about money she had been spending on frivolous things, but that she would now start saving so that they could afford to go on their next adventure. Melanie math often worked, and they went on many great journeys as a family.

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Melanie loved beautiful things. She had a genuine talent for drawing and painting. She loved music as much as anybody ever has… from worship music to Justin Timberlake. She always had a song in her head. She said there was a constant playlist in her mind, continually hitting shuffle. There was always a song in her head and her heart.

She loved people, all people. Melanie never met a stranger. People would often show up at church needing help of some kind, or for somebody to simply listen to them. Sometimes, people don’t feel comfortable coming into church, for fear of judgment or not fitting in. Sometimes people wonder if they have the right clothes, or if they need to hide their scars or tattoos. One of Melanie’s unique gifts was that she could make anybody feel at ease. She wasn’t intimidated by anybody’s appearances, or their issues. Melanie didn’t hide her own scars or her own tattoos. In fact, when Melanie’s first cancer surgery eight years ago left a large scar on her back, she looked at it as a canvas, and got a colorful tattoo to decorate the scar. It was very her.

Melanie had a unique gift of bridging cultural divides. If the music had a beat, she could dance to it. On more than one occasion, she and Becky Beck went line dancing at a nursing home. Jason wasn’t invited. She loved Jesus. And like Jesus, she loved people on the margins. She was perfectly at home at a Ouachita homecoming tea, or at a pawn shop.IMG_7504 editsmall

Her love of Disney World was so profound and well-known that friends would call so that she could help them plan their own family trips. One of her dream jobs was to be a travel agent for Disney, to help people experience the same joy that she found there. Using Melanie math, she tried countless times to convince Jason that they should just sell everything and move to Orlando and get jobs at Disney World. Melanie, of course, wanted to be a princess. She told Jason he could, “just drive the monorail or something.”

There are a few things that you might not know about Melanie.

  1. Just after high school, Melanie tried to join the National Guard. She showed up at the recruiter’s office in heels and a sun dress, with every intention of signing that day. The recruiter was genuinely surprised. He told her she needed to gain some weight and come back in a year. She never got around to going back.
  2. She was a licensed pawn broker. For quite some time, she worked at American Pawn on State Line in Texarkana. During her time there, she learned to interact people from a broad cross-section of humanity. She could spot a fake diamond from across the room, but was kind enough never to say it.
  3. At first, Melanie didn’t want to move to De Queen. When Jason entered the ministry, Melanie told him, “I will go anywhere in the world with you, but I will not move to De Queen.” But it wasn’t long until Melanie fell in love with De Queen. She used to tell her friends that living in De Queen was like living in Sweet Home Alabama. She became a proud De Queen Leopard. She loved football games and the Christmas parade. She loved this community. And when she was struggling these past six months, the community she loved so much rallied around her and eased her burden. Melanie came to learn that De Queen is the kind of place where your pharmacist will hand-deliver your prescriptions in the middle of a thunderstorm, and then get soaked while chasing down your runaway kitten. Melanie loved De Queen.
  4. Melanie considered it a personal outrage when McDonald’s switched from Styrofoam cups to plastic. To her, Diet Coke in a sweaty plastic cup just didn’t taste the same. She was a big fan of the complicated order. At drive throughs, Jason would lean back in his seat so that Melanie talk directly to the restaurant. She consistently ordered her grilled chicken well-done.
  5. Melanie struggled greatly with depression and anxiety, and she wanted to help others through the same valleys. She would be amazed if she could know how much joy she brought to others. She was open about her own struggles. She was anything but the typical pastor’s wife. But her unique personality and her willingness to share her personal pain allowed her to minister to hurting people beautifully.
  6. She was always for the underdog. About 10 years ago, Jason and Melanie were at a national church conference. One night as a large worship service dismissed, there was a man in the main hallway, apparently homeless, and asking for help as people left the conference. Melanie watched as pastor after pastor walked past the man without helping. Then she heard one of the pastors say something derogatory about the homeless man as he walked past. Melanie looked right at the pastor and said, “Are you kidding me?” And since Melanie never, ever had cash, she asked Jason for money to give to the man. Then she stood and talked with him for a few minutes. She listened to his story. She made him smile. She told the man that he mattered.

One time in Searcy, Melanie and Jason were in the grocery store and there was a mother yelling at her daughter. The daughter looked to be about seven or eight years old, and the mother was in the daughter’s face, saying that the child couldn’t ever do anything right. Melanie walked right up and stood between the mother and the daughter, and knelt down in front of the little girl. Melanie told the girl how pretty she was, and that she was special. The little girl’s face brightened. Then Melanie stood and faced the mother. Melanie didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to.

Melanie was always for the underdog, especially when she was the underdog. After her diagnosis, she said more than once, “Either Jesus will heal me now, or He will heal me forever.”

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A list of her favorite things, in no particular order: Funyuns with bean dip, Ruffles with onion dip, Diet Coke, 2 a.m. baths, Disney World, Will Smith, George W. Bush, Ben and Jerry’s, crab legs, road trips, Sunday afternoon naps, presents, prizes, tickets, holidays, and craft projects.

She was tougher than any of us realized, and that was never more evident than during the past two weeks. On Thursday afternoon, Melanie finally began to experience a heavenly joy, peace, and rest like she had never known here. And beauty beyond her wildest imagination.

The family would like to express their gratitude:
To their Memorial Baptist Church family, for their love and support these many months of Melanie’s illness, for their understanding and for their wonderful care of the girls.
To the administration of the De Queen School system, especially Mr. and Mrs. Hill, for their compassion, generosity, and for the amazing environment they have created.
To all of Melanie’s caregivers, especially to Dr. Jason Lofton and his staff, Amedysis Home Health, De Queen Medical Equipment, and Harris Drug Store. And to the wonderful, caring staff at UAMS, especially Dr. Sarah Beth Harrington. God was with us through each of you. You all went above the call of duty to care for our family.
To this community, for your concern and abundant care. You have made this difficult burden lighter.
And to each of you gathered here today, thank you for your love and prayers for the days ahead.

We know that since she is with Jesus, she is healed, and happy and whole.

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When you lose someone you love, take something that you loved about that person and make it part of your life. Have a pint of ice cream in the bathtub at 2am. Find something that brings you joy, and teach someone else how to enjoy it just as much.  Stand up for the underdog. Wear sunscreen. Let your own scars help you minister to others. Love everybody like Jesus loves them.

A friend passed along a quote yesterday, and it’s perfect to use here: “There are souls in this world which have the gift of finding joy everywhere and of leaving it behind them when they go” (Jean Paul). melanie hymnal.JPEG

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Let’s go to the river.

Over the past year, I’ve repeatedly hauled my tired body and hurting soul to the small local rivers of my native Southwest Arkansas. I find peace there. A born Romantic, I concur wholeheartedly with the words of Norman Maclean: “I am haunted by waters.” The fact that I can be concurrently haunted and comforted by waters is a dichotomy I’ve simply come to accept without understanding.cossatot stream

The summer of 1864 in New York City was miserable. The Civil War raged, devouring thousands of young lives in miserable places far to the south. Confederate sympathizers rioted in New York, burning down the homes of white abolitionists and free African Americans. Not content with that, they also destroyed two Protestant churches and an orphanage for African American children. To make matters worse, a vicious epidemic of typhoid fever raged through the city, killing more than 1000 that awful summer. In the words of one historian, “it was a summer of high anxiety and relentless misery.”

Rev. Robert Lowry was 38 that depressing summer, serving as the pastor of Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn. He grieved for his grieving congregation.  Every family in Hanson Place Church had been touched by the war, the riots, the epidemic, or all three. Lowry wanted to offer his people some hope and comfort in their suffering. At some point that awful summer, he sat down and wrote a hymn that soon became a standard.

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

In Rev. Lowry’s day, most faith-based river references were actually about death. We still sing it that way in “Because He Lives,” written just over 100 years later : “And then one day I’ll cross that river. I’ll fight life’s final war with pain.” Civil-War era culture and theology typically presented death in terms of a river to be crossed, as a transitional experience.

Lowry later spoke about his inspiration for writing “Shall We Gather At the River”: “Visions of heaven pervaded my senses. I saw the bright golden throne room and a multitude of saints gathered around the beautiful, cool, crystal river of life. I was filled with a great sense of joy. I began to wonder why there seemed to be so many hymns that referenced the river of death, but very few that mentioned the river of life. As I mused, the words and music came to my heart and mind.” Lowry looked at society, and then to scripture.

Instead of a seeing a river representing the experience of death, Lowry chose to see a river as a destination of life.

C.S. Lewis wrote about things and places of beauty in The Weight of Glory: “They are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” Surrounded by death, Lowry longed for the river of life.

Just as a river ran through the perfect beauty of Eden, a river will run through the perfect beauty of heaven. Let’s gather there, shall we? 

But one more thing before we go… Rev. Lowry was not a one-hit-wonder. He collaborated with legendary hymn writer Fannie Crosby, who also lived in New York City at the time. He would eventually write 500 hymns, including “Nothing But  the Blood,” “Christ Arose” and “Follow On.” He was an imminently gifted lyricist and composer… but his heart was in pastoral ministry.

He is quoted as saying, “Music, with me has been a side issue… I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative audience than write a hymn. I have always looked upon myself as a preacher and felt a sort of depreciation when I began to be known more as a composer.”

Several years after the Civil War and that terrible summer of ’64, Lowry was pastoring Park Avenue Baptist Church in New Jersey. When a merger with Park Avenue and the nearby First Baptist Church became imminent, Rev. Lowry resigned. He believed that it was in the best interests of the churches. In other words, he thought another pastor could do it better. I’ve never seen any references to a sermon Rev. Lowry preached, or a large evangelistic effort he headlined. Here’s what I know: Lowry was a wonderfully gifted musician. Here’s what I assume: Lowry was a disappointed pastor whose dreams were never realized.

And here’s where I find the great beauty concealed just beneath the pages of our hymnals. One of the most comforting hymns we sing was written during a summer of suffering, amid a vicious civil war, to comfort believers wrecked by racist riots and a deadly epidemic. And it was written by an incredibly gifted musician whose pastoral ambitions seemed to go unfulfilled. God has always been in the business of redemption, even when we can’t see it happening.

Rest, weary one. Let’s go to the river.

A Merry Matilda Jane Christmas

On November 3, I was driving home from a ministry conference when my wife Melanie called, crying uncontrollably. Before she was able to speak coherently, I knew exactly why she was upset. About a week before, her dermatologist had biopsied one of five lumps on her head. “They have some really good treatments for metastatic melanoma these days,” he had said while suturing. It was ominous foreshadowing. As we had feared, the lumps on her scalp were malignant.

We traveled to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston the week before Thanksgiving for a barrage of tests and scans. The uncertainty of pending results overshadowed the holiday, and Melanie’s condition continued to deteriorate. We returned to Houston the week after Thanksgiving and had our worst fears confirmed: it wasn’t just bad. It was just about as bad as it could get; she was late stage four.

Melanie had a small melanoma removed from her back in 2010. Afterward, she had followed the protocols, including numerous biopsies. She cleared the five year point of being cancer-free, and we thought she was all good. She was not. In the summer of 2017, she began having severe pain and numbness in her right arm. A lump appeared on her upper back, and then several on her head. Her cancer had returned with a vengeance, and by the time we found it, it was almost too late.

Melanie spent 10 days in M.D. Anderson, dealing with multiple symptoms of her aggressive cancer, which had spread to her bones, her brain, and almost every other organ. She started immunotherapy, but her prognosis was grim. We returned home in mid-December with challenges ahead. Home health nurses came daily. Friends cooked, cleaned, and shuttled our daughters to and from school and dance. Our house was full of casseroles, people and medical equipment. Melanie continued to decline. She was on constant oxygen and massive amounts of morphine. She was only awake a few hours a day.

A few days before Christmas our younger daughter Mia Beth, age nine, turned from watching TV and dejectedly asked, “Are we even going to have Christmas pajamas this year?” It’s always been one of their favorite traditions, maybe because it’s the only gift they get to open early (on Christmas Eve). I told her was working on it, and then I started to panic. Specifically, she and her sister Riley Cate, age eleven, wanted Matilda Jane pajamas.

If you’re not familiar with the brand, the Matilda Jane Company markets all manner of frilly clothes for girls. It’s a thing. About a year before, Melanie had hosted a Matilda Jane party for our friend Beth Shelton. Hoping that I hadn’t missed the deadline to get their pajamas by Christmas Eve, I messaged Beth about our pajama crisis. She said that some things were sold out, but she would call the home office and see what they could do.

The next day, Beth messaged to say that the company had taken care of everything: they  were overnighting the pajamas, and had included robes. Everything fit perfectly, and arrived just in time. The tradition was saved.

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I contacted Beth to thank her for the extraordinary service during our upside-down Christmas, and that’s when I learned about the company’s history. The Matilda Jane Company’s founder, Denise DeMarchis, had passed away from cancer in the summer of 2015.

When I read some background ahead of writing this blog, I came across Denise’s own blog. She posted often during the summer of 2013 when she was originally diagnosed. I was stunned by the images Denise had posted from her own time at M.D. Anderson Hospital, because they were so eerily similar to the ones I had taken during my wife’s stay four years later. The dominant vocabulary was the same: abdominal swelling, chemo, scans.

A long-term Matilda Jane employee said, “We just happened to sell clothes, but our true purpose was to give back.”

The same year that Denise DeMarchis was diagnosed with cancer, she and her husband started The Mighty Acorn Foundation, to help children in Africa. Among many other things, they funded the construction of an orphanage there.

Denise DeMarchis founded the Matilda Jane Company in 2005. Sadly, she only got to see it through its first 10 years. Denise passed away at age 41, leaving behind a loving husband and two boys, age nine and 13. She also left an impressive and lasting legacy. Cancer may have taken Denise’s physical life, but there’s an orphanage in Africa that serves as constant proof that cancer couldn’t conquer her true purpose: to give back. There’s also the company that continues her intended purpose: to give back.

Melanie turned 41 last month, and our daughters are nine and 11.  Her treatments are going well. The medical equipment is stored away for now, as are the pain medicines. The home nurses are caring for other people who need them more than we do now. The future is still sketchy, but we have every confidence that we can face what lies ahead because we know we aren’t alone.

As scary and as powerful as cancer is, there’s a limit to what it can take from us. During this reprieve, I’m trying to take time to thank those who’ve been so incredibly generous to us during our darkest hours, those who brought joy and light into our darkness. Thanks to Beth Shelton and the company she represents so well, fulfilling the Denise DeMarchis legacy of giving back.

 

David, Goliath and Vulnerability

Last night in bible study , we discussed chapter seven in Louie Giglio’s book Goliath Must Fall. Using 1 Samuel 17 as a launchpad, Giglio expertly calls out the giants in our lives. The application isn’t the standard Sunday/bible school one, that we should be like the heroic David rushing out to conquer our giants. Instead, Giglio makes the case that we are the scared soldiers sulking behind the lines; Jesus is the heroic figure who delivers us from our giants.

No matter how many times you’ve studied a bible narrative, there’s almost always another angle, a deeper truth to discover. The bible doesn’t change, but your understanding does. Saul and David had very different ways of dealing with David’s all-too-evident vulnerability.

You’re going to be amazed at this, but I do my own illustrations. Honestly, my fifth grader could have drawn much this better but she’s at school. Here’s what David’s vulnerability looked like on the battlefield…

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A huge, well-armed giant versus a small, lightly-armed teenager. [If you’ll notice carefully, my illustration even includes five smooth stones.] In 1 Samuel 17:33, King Saul objected to David’s plan to take on Goliath: “You are not able to fight the Philistine; you’re only a boy.” Saul could only see David’s vulnerability. David Goliath V

That yellow V represents David’s relative weakness to face the giant. It’s how much David was outmatched by his enemy. Saul was a leader, a tactician, and a king. Plus he was tall. Saul felt the need to address David’s strategic disadvantage: “Saul clothed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head.” Saul wanted to fill the gap with his own armor.

Saul’s armor was how Saul dealt with his own shortcomings. And of course Saul could let David use the armor, because Saul hadn’t been using the armor to fight Goliath himself. Saul probably didn’t think David had a chance of defeating Goliath, but he let David go anyway. In Saul’s mind, David was probably going to fail spectacularly, but at least he could look like a proper soldier.

Saul’s armor wasn’t made for David, and so David turned it down. That giant V represented a very real problem for David. He was relatively un-tall, untrained, and unarmed. Saul wanted to address that vulnerability with his own ill-fitting armor. But David chose to face his shortcomings through faith, a reliance upon the God who had already delivered him from difficult circumstances (bears and lions, verses 34-37).David V

But we’re not often like David. Here’s how Giglio puts it:

“We put on false armor all the time. We feel powerless in a broken world. We’re afraid, so we hide in addictions. We wrap ourselves in things that make us feel stronger or more protected than our normal selves. Instead of hiding in Saul’s armor, David relied confidently in the Lord.”

In an honest self-assessment, David knew that he was personally inadequate to face Goliath. That huge deficit left an equally large corresponding temptation to rely on something besides God (Saul’s armor). But through faith, David bravely responded to terrible circumstances that were totally beyond his control.

The greater the gap between our abilities and our problems, the greater our need for faith… or the greater the vacuum to be filled by addiction, which is false comfort. The greater the volume of our pain, the greater the operating area for grace.

Paul wrote about his own vulnerability in 2 Corinthians 12. We don’t know what his problem was, but he pleaded with God three times to remove it. Instead of liberating Paul from pain, God empowered him to endure it:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

That’s a gritty sort of realistic faith, well-suited for life in the trenches of a twisted world. Faith that endures unanswered prayers and unrelenting pain might not sell a lot of books, but it fuels the lives of people who have no choice but to bear the unbearable. This kind of faith defiantly shakes a fist in the face of gut-wrenching reality.

How will you deal with the giants in your life? With somebody else’s ill-fitting armor? Will you soothe those shortfalls with false comfort?

You can learn to delight in your weakness so that you can experience the strength of Christ.

So I went to Ulta.

[Disclaimer: If you’re not interested in reading about an average southern guy making an emergency trip to a cosmetics superstore, feel free to move along. No hard feelings.]

This past Friday night, I loaded up the family and drove about 50 miles to celebrate our daughters’ birthdays.  My younger daughter and her friends chose the trampoline park for their activity. Not wanting to risk their hair and makeup with such sweatiness, the older girls chose to go to the mall.

At some point during the hour-long drive south I sensed a familiar, annoying sensation. I’m a bearded American male. I don’t have a Viking/hipster/biker gang /19th century theologian beard. It’s just a sensible average beard. Perhaps the only downside of having a beard is that I occasionally get stray whiskers lodged in my gum line. Stay with me here. It’s my personal truth.

Somehow, individual whiskers come loose from my face and embed themselves between my teeth and gums. It’s physically uncomfortable, slightly painful, and distracting. This has probably happened ten times over the past five years. [As an aside, if you’re in medicine or media and you’d like to write up my case for a medical journal or documentary, please contact me.]

I’ve found that there is one surefire method to remove these foreign fibers: needle nose tweezers. Regular slant tweezers just won’t work. By the time we rolled into Texarkana, the foreign object in my gums was eroding my sanity. The older girls wanted to be dropped off at Pier One, which was conveniently located next to a store that was uniquely suited to provide relief.

While they were unloading, I ducked into Ulta. The chain posted almost five billion in sales last year from its almost 1000 locations… including the one in Texarkana, which was about to deliver me from my developing emergency.

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It’s blindingly bright. There’s an overwhelming plethora of cosmetic paraphernalia. There’s a salon. They even have a few rows of products for men: all sorts of spendy beard waxes and facial moisturizers. But I was a man on a mission.

I stepped in with manifest purpose. A chipper young lady greeted me and asked if she could help. “Tweezers,” I said. She tilted her head at me the same way that our dachshund used to look at me when I would try to explain theology to him. She was obviously a new hire. She directed me to a helpful sales associate who led me straight to the tweezer section.

Out of a dozen different models, I opted for the Tweezerman© needle points. tweezerman needle.jpgThey were $24, which sounds like a lot. But if you’re familiar with the finer things, you’ll appreciate the fact that Tweezerman© is owned by J.A. Henckels, a 350 year old German cutlery firm. That history, combined with the fact that I was being gum-stabbed by a rogue whisker made those $24 tweezers seem like a steal.

One of the sales associates met me at the checkout. “Will this be all for you today?” Everything seemed normal up until this point. I was one debit card swipe away from ending the oral nightmare I’d endured for 47 minutes. And then it all went haywire.

She asked for my phone number, but not in a complimentary way. Why did she need my number? Were these tweezers so sharp that they qualified as a weapon to be registered? Were they so expensive that they came with a warranty? At that point I didn’t care. I gave her my number. She keyed it in, and then looked down at her monitor with her own confused dachshund look.

“Okay, that number’s not in the system. Maybe it’s under your wife’s? What’s her number?” And that’s when I broke the social contract of Ulta. These words literally came out of my throbbing mouth:

“Can I just pay for the tweezers and go?”

It was rude of me. I should have just given the number and moved on. As an introverted American, I’m annoyed at the prevailing American economic system that is increasingly data-driven and relational. Join the rewards club!? Sign up for the credit card!? Complete this survey!? I just want to trade money for products like our forefathers did. But back to Ulta…

The original dachshund head tilt girl had come over to observe the transaction. She was stunned at my upending the social order. Her eyes widened. Clearly her training hadn’t prepared her for this crisis: a customer was refusing to give his phone number. Should she call security?

The associate at the register was surprised also, but in a more visceral, morally outraged  sort of way. Her jaw fell slack, but she said nothing. She didn’t have to. Her eyes said it all. I had broken the Ulta code.

She probably would’ve been more polite if I’d kicked her puppy and tried to hold up the place. Her eyes screamed rhetorical questions at me: “What kind of reprobate doesn’t provide a phone number at Ulta? What are you trying to hide?”

I swiped my card, got my receipt and speed-walked out of the store and back to the vehicle. Within 20 seconds I had unpackaged the German-engineered tweezers of healing and began operating on myself. Ninety seconds later, I extricated the offending object and was able to enjoy the rest of the evening.

At some point over the next few days, I relayed a brief version of my Ulta experience to my spouse. Her only reaction: “YOU MEAN YOU DIDN’T GET MY REWARD POINTS?!”

I can’t win.

 

A Tale of Two Giants

beach comfort BW.jpgIt’s easy to define comfort by what it’s not, or what it lacks. In the textbook definition, comfort is the absence of fear, pain, or constraint. In other words, to be comfortable means that you’re not scared, you’re not hurting, and there’s nothing that you need or need to do.

In his book Goliath Must Fall, Louie Giglio writes about the giant of comfort. The usual suspects are oppressive ogres like fear and rejection. But the enemy will use anything in his arsenal to bluster you back from the battlefield… or to lure you to lounge in the comforts of camp.

The unnamed giant in 1 Samuel 17 is the giant of comfort. Goliath was the scary giant that pushed soldiers to shrink back from battle. Comfort was the subtle giant that whispered to them to stay in the security of the camp.

Jesse’s three oldest sons were in uniform for the army of Israel. He sent his youngest son David to deliver provisions for his brothers and bring back word on their condition. David had been feeding the sheep back on the farm, but dutifully headed to the battlefield. David’s mission was clear: leave the groceries and pick up the news. But David was diverted by an overriding concern.

There was a status quo when David arrived in camp that day.

For at least 40 days, the three oldest brothers had been camped out against the Philistines, but it seems that there had been no battle. Twice a day for six weeks, Goliath had come out to curse and challenge the Israelites to send somebody to fight him. But nobody wanted to go out and face him.

Here’s what we know:
1) David was taking care of things back home (v. 15).
2) David was bringing groceries from home (v. 17).

I’m not downplaying the facts that Goliath was huge, or that the brothers had taken up arms for their country. But the brothers didn’t have to worry about the sheep, because David had been shepherding in their absence. They didn’t have to worry about hunger, because David arrived with groceries. Nor had they been fighting the giant, but David is about to handle that.

There’s a really good, accurate term to describe what the older brothers are doing when David arrives: it’s called camping.  They are in uniform, exempted from the drudgery of the farm, but they aren’t actually fighting. Goliath was the scary giant keeping the status quo, but comfort was the subtle giant helping the scary giant.

This status quo could have gone on indefinitely, as long as David kept feeding the sheep at home and feeding the brothers on the battlefield. The problem was the blasphemous giant, and David didn’t have the same reasons as the brothers to avoid the fight.

David wasn’t intimidated, because he had a proven record of killing scary stuff.
David wasn’t enticed by the comfortable status quo, because he had been working overtime to feed the sheep and his sheepish brothers. Most importantly, David sensed a divine mandate to face the giant.

This scary giant didn’t scare him, and this subtle giant didn’t seduce him.

As Giglio points out, we want to be David in this narrative. But in reality, we are the scared, complacent brothers. It’s fun to be on the team when you get to wear the jersey, eat the pregame meal, and go to the pep rally… especially if you’re not worried about getting hurt in the actual game. The brothers could camp for another day or another month, as long as their little brother showed up with more groceries.

In four minutes, David handled what they hadn’t handled in 40 days. Jesus is the liberating hero depicted in the bravery of David. His divine mandate freed the cowardly, complacent brothers to live in victory over the taunts of the giant. Jesus conquered sin and the grave, satisfying God’s requirements and stifling the taunts of our enemy.

When was the last time that you embraced the power of that divine victory and left the comfort of the status quo?

 

 

 

God, bless America… please.

Our family spent last week at Pensacola Beach, part of the so-called Emerald Coast. The name comes from the gorgeous water that kisses this 100 mile stretch of sand – a glimmering, translucent shade of green. Pensacola Beach claims to have the whitest beaches in the world. IMG_6743 editTechnically speaking, the sugar sand of Pensacola Beach is very fine Appalachian quartz, eroded from the mountains and deposited at the Gulf Coast over the ages. It’s a stunningly beautiful place. For me, it’s a also a spiritual place, an annual respite from hectic summers of ministry.

Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. Founded in 1946 and piloted by Navy and Marine aviators, the six F/A-18 Hornets of the Blue Angels  perform for approximately 11 million spectators a year. blue angels 2014On most Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the Blue Angels can be seen practicing in the skies over Pensacola. If you’ve never seen them perform, they are awe-inspiring. Their sheer force, matched with the incomparable precision, is truly something to behold. It is not uncommon for beachgoers to witness a flyover.

On Tuesday morning my eight-year-old daughter and I were sitting on the beach together when we heard that familiar, distant roar. We looked up to see the Angels flying east, about 500 yards off shore. It gets me every time. Chills ran down my spine and I got a lump in my throat at the display of American power.

There had been a good deal of nuclear saber rattling during the previous week, as the American president and the North Korean leader traded jabs and threats. There was something very reassuring about sitting on a sunny, beautiful beach with my daughter as the massive force of the U.S. military roared overhead. God Bless ‘Merica.

On Thursday morning I was reading by the pool when the familiar roar returned. But this time it was different. Judging by the relative height of the buildings, the six Blue Angels jets were no more than 75 feet off the beach. They flew right at the water’s edge, no more than 100 yards out from where I was sitting. The F/A-18’s were close enough for me to see the individual helmets of the pilots. Being that close to a fighter jet is not just something you see – it’s something you feel. It never gets old. I messaged several friends with the simple caption, “God Bless America!” That was Thursday.

On Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists from across America gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally.

NYT charlottesville pic

Credit: New York Times

They were protesting that city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, standing incongruously in the recently renamed Emancipation Park. For the past 100 years, the park had been named for the Confederate general around whose statue they gathered. They chanted anti-Semitic and white nationalist ideology. On Friday night the protestors carried tiki torches.  On Saturday they carried Confederate and Nazi flags.

Having gulfed hard all week, I was driving our family back home on Saturday. We followed a well-worn path that thousands of Arkansans travel each summer when returning from the Emerald Coast: west on I-10 through Florida, north on Highway 98 through Mississippi, then West on I-20 through Louisiana. Around 2 p.m. the news broke: someone drove a car into a crowd of people who were protesting the white nationalists. Dozens were injured. Heather Heyer, 32, from Charlottesville, was killed. It was hard to explain it all to my daughters.

Blood and news flowed in Charlottesville. The president struggled to respond. My reaction to Charlottesville was similar to my reaction to the Blue Angels just two days before. The words may have been the same, but the feeling was different. God Bless America.

On Thursday, I had tasted the acrid residue of American fighter jet exhaust while sitting in a beautiful courtyard overlooking one of the most picturesque beaches in America. The beauty, the might, the freedom, a lump in my throat. God Bless America!

On Saturday, Charlottesville (and America) tasted the acrid residue of centuries of sinful oppression. Heather Heyer is the latest causality in the age-old battle between human beings… all one race, all created in the image of God, yet divided by hate. The ugliness, the division, a lump in my throat. Where do we go from here?

God, bless America… please.

 

The Merciful Manager

It was the summer of 1993. I was 16 years old and had found gainful employment at Wal-Mart store #279 in my hometown of De Queen, Arkansas. That building now houses a Tractor Supply Company, but I digress and we’ve got work to do here.

When the store was exceptionally busy I would work as a checker, but my usual task was stocking the shelves of the household chemicals department. I would spend hours going from the stockroom to the sales floor, carting cases of bleach, laundry detergent, and awful assortments of potpourri sprays.

A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) had the same responsibilities for the adjacent department, so our paths naturally crossed. We had a lot of fun that summer. And sometimes, a lot of fun went right on over into too much fun, as you’re about to see.

If you’re unfamiliar with candied orange slices, they are hard to describe. The texture is orange slicessomething like a cross between a gummi bear and that paste that your dentist uses to make molds of your teeth. The flavor is too sickly sweet to be a fruit, but not nearly good enough to be called candy. So when my coworker and I discovered a bag of them unceremoniously busted on the stockroom floor, we immediately knew what to do.

We divided the bag between us and retreated to our respective sections of the stockroom. While generally unfit for human consumption, candied orange slices are perfectly designed for throwing. The size and shape are particularly suited for both distance and accuracy.  They are slightly curved, as well as angled toward their center, giving them an exceptional aerodynamic profile.

I hastily constructed my fort with cases of bleach and detergent while my coworker did the same with items from his department. Moments later, the shelling commenced. When he was in the open, a high-velocity, flat-trajectory sniper throw was in order. But when he ducked behind his fortifications, the situation called for an artillery-like arch. My goal was to lob a candied orange high and down into his cardboard foxhole.

My throw was perfect. Seriously, it was a thing of beauty. The high ceiling allowed for the perfect arc. I couldn’t have judged the height and distance better if I had a summoned all my geometry skills and used a protractor. I released the orange slice, and then stepped into the aisle of the stockroom to watch the beautiful flight, on a direct line to rain a sugary shelling on my buddy.

And then the unthinkable happened. My department manager was never at the store at that time of night. What was she doing here now?

The stockroom doors flung open as my orange slice reached its apex. In no-man’s land strolled my department manager, blissfully unaware of the unfolding carnage. My buddy’s head popped up and his eyes met mine. We both stood there, frozen. Between us stood my department manager. Unbeknownst to her, a candied orange was already beginning its descent. And her head was directly in the flight path.

Just as she turned to look in my direction, the orange slice smacked her right in the forehead. My buddy’s eyes were huge. I was utterly defenseless and without excuse. I froze, already framing my apology.

I don’t recall ever seeing an employee handbook, but I assume that shelling one’s department manager with subpar orange candy was a fireable offense.

To my great surprise (and relief), she simply said: “There’s some boys back here that need to stop playing and get back to work.” And with that, she turned around and walked right back to the sales floor. We cleaned up and went back to work. And that was it. No write-up, no warning, no scolding from the store manager.

Mrs. Frances was 44 then, just three years older than I am right now. She died on Tuesday after a very brief battle with cancer. I didn’t know she had been sick. I learned of her death during prayer requests last night at church. Her passing came as a shock to me, and I managed to hold back most of the tears until I could be alone after church. My personal surprise and sense of loss can in no way compare to that of her family, close friends, or church family. Or her coworkers from Wal-Mart #279 in De Queen, where she worked for thirty years.

My career with Wal-Mart only lasted six months (but not because of the candied orange situation). I moved on, but I never forgot Mrs. Frances and her mercy to me. I was impulsive and irresponsible; she was patient and full of grace.

In the years that followed, she and I never spoke of the incident, though we saw one another often. She and Mr. Don were the closest neighbors just up the gravel road from some property I look after for a friend. Our paths would cross on that gravel road every few weeks. She was always smiling.

Some lessons are hard to fully learn in the moment. In that moment, I was just glad to not face the full consequences of my irresponsibility. That was the short-term benefit. She corrected me, made her point, and that was the end of it.

The long arc of her reaction that day taught me how to show mercy, not just how to receive it.

I trust that the next time I cross paths with Mrs. Frances, the streets will be made of gold, not gravel.

Rest in peace, from the kid who threw the orange.

frances smith.jpg

 

It’s not about the yard.

IMG_6278 editYesterday was our church’s fifth annual day of service in our community. NEXT Teen Camp from Bogg Springs in Wickes, Arkansas brings its high school students to town one afternoon each summer. The project has grown steadily every year, and yesterday we had 13 dozen students sweating through a hot July afternoon to show God’s love to the people of De Queen.

One of those crews of volunteers was assigned to clean up a yard for a lady who lives just a few doors away from our house. Yesterday was hot, with a heat index well over 100 degrees. The students arrived at about 1:30 p.m., in the hottest part of a hot afternoon. The crew went to work, pulling weeds and starter cords.

When I knocked on the door to let my neighbor know we were there, she stepped out and gave me a big hug. I was surprised that she answered. For three days, I had stopped by to check on her and ask if it was okay if we sent a crew to clean up her yard. For three days, she hadn’t answered. Maybe it was sheer curiosity brought on by a dozen high school kids in her yard that finally brought her out onto the porch.

I explained the work day and what we were doing, and introduced her to the sponsors leading the crew. She was glad to see us, and sat down in a chair on the porch and started talking to the students. She has sons about the same age as these church camp students. Her life has been complicated lately, but that’s another story for another time. She hadn’t answered the door for a few days because she hadn’t wanted to see anybody. But she wanted to talk to the students while they worked.

To keep track of ten different work sites, I crisscrossed town all afternoon. Some locations needed more supplies, and some needed more workers. Even the best plans sometimes collapse when the action starts. I was stressed the whole time the volunteers were in town. I stopped back by my neighbor’s house about an hour into the project.

“I’m renting this place, but I’m about to move on Friday. Too many memories here.” Friday was only two days away. I was a little disheartened to think that those students were cleaning up a yard for a house that was about to be vacant in 48 hours. I left to check on other projects. She asked if they would clean up the back yard as well. I had budgeted an hour for her yard; it took two and a half.

It wasn’t until later that I realized what really happened. My neighbor has had a rough few weeks. She’s been isolating herself from the world. What drew her out to the porch was a yard full of energetic teenagers who volunteered for her under the hot July sun. The whole time the students were there, she sat on her porch and talked to them. Before they left, she gave them hugs and asked for a picture with them.

I’ve driven by a couple times since then, and she’s retreated back inside. But for a few hours yesterday, she enjoyed the presence of some strangers who loved her. It wasn’t about the yard at all. They thought they were just cleaning up her yard, but they were lifting her spirits. Even if she had lived in that house 20 more years, the grass would have grown back within a couple weeks anyway.

For ministry leaders, there’s a tendency to make ministry all about the method. It’s too easy to focus on the plan, the project and the process rather than the people. There’s a time and a place for plans, but this was ministry. And the plan can’t ever be more important than the people.

Have a plan, but love the person.

Finding the Good This Good Friday

 

cross pic upper room
Photo credit: The Upper Room

There’s a pastor out there stressing the crowd size for Sunday. Some are worried the crowd will be too small. Others will actually be irritated if the crowd is larger than normal, because after all, “Where are all these Christmas-and-Easter people every other Sunday of the year?”

There’s a pastor out there who’s stressing the fact that the church’s new projection system didn’t arrive in time for Easter services.

There’s a southern mom out there who’s stressing that this is the first years her daughters objected to wearing matching dresses.

There’s a grandmother out there who’s stressing the menu, and what time everybody will arrive for lunch, and how she’s going to get everything done in time.

There’s a believer out there who’s stressing that Christians have surrendered to paganism by calling it “Easter” and buying bunnies and eggs.

And none of those things dent the fact that Sunday morning commemorates the centrality of the resurrection to our Christian faith.

If there are five or 500 in your services Sunday, they need to hear about the resurrection, and it’s your job to tell them. All the disciples ran away from Jesus when it came time for Him to go to the cross. So He went alone. You don’t need a big audience, or any audience, to be faithful to God this Sunday. Preach your heart out to anybody who shows, and thank God for the privilege. If ISIS doesn’t kill 49 of your parishioners Sunday, you will have had a better Easter than the Coptic Christians’ Palm Sunday last week in Egypt

Christians victoriously celebrated the resurrection for approximately 1990 years before computerized projection found its way into church. It’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.

Through the deprivations of the Dark Ages, the Great Depression, and a thousand other catastrophes great and small, we are reminded that what anybody wears this Sunday is of very little consequence. By all means, wear some clothes to church Sunday, and thank God that you have clothes to wear and a church to attend.

If you buy the wrong ham, if you forget the beans are in the oven, you forget to make that weird salad that has nuts but no lettuce, and your irresponsible nephew is 30 minutes late to lunch, Sunday will go on.

If you’re a believer who’s stressing the incorporation of pagan symbols into the celebration of resurrection Sunday, take heart: the kids aren’t thinking about ancient Babylonian fertility rites (unless you tell them). And if it bothers you, then don’t call it Easter, and don’t hunt Easter eggs. We don’t mind. Easter and Christmas both represent the amazing power of the gospel to overtake darkness and baptize even its symbology to tell its own story… not unlike the cross itself.

Indeed, if the crowd is down 8% from last year, the rolls burn, the dresses don’t match, your sermon introduction is weak, and you can’t find your hideously ugly Easter tie… guess what?

If everything else goes wrong this Sunday, Jesus still rose from the grave.

In our own church, we lost four of our dearest older members over the course of the past year, the latest one just this week. Actually that’s incorrect. We didn’t lose them. We know exactly where they are. They are with Jesus. Their lives are hidden with Christ in God. And when He appears, they will appear with Him in glory.

So I’m in my office on this Good Friday, drinking coffee, typing through tears, and blaring some Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and being thankful that we have a day like Sunday. I’m thankful that every Sunday is a reminder that Jesus rose again, guaranteeing that we will rise again. Stop stressing. Find the good in this Good Friday. If you’re grieving, Jesus crying at the tomb of Lazarus gives you permission to cry at the tomb of your friend too. If you’re my friend and you weren’t planning on going to church Sunday for whatever reason, come to church with me.

Just know this. Sunday’s coming, and there’s nothing that death, deprivation or disaster can do about that.

What matters come Sunday morning is that when Jesus rose from the dead, He gave us the power to shake our fist in the face of darkness and proclaim, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”