Archive for October 2013

Family Farewells

October 28, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    October 28, 2013

 

                                          

     Today is a good day… with a taste of sorrow.

I’ve been back in southern Ohio for the past week, spending time with my dad and sister. It has been just shy of two months since I was here last for my mom’s funeral, and gatherings associated with it. Two weeks ago my dad, escorted by my sister and brother-in-law, came out to Colorado for our daughter’s wedding. This week, however, has been focused on spending time together with no agenda or meetings. Sitting in the family room watching the World Series and Ohio State football, eating my sister’s exceptional cooking, reading the Ironton Tribune, which takes less time than it does to drive down to the store to get a copy of it. This week has been about a lack of urgency, something that seems a little foreign to my usual schedule.

Today is the day of departure. We will say our final words, realizing that it could very well be our final words in each other’s company. There’s a specialness to those closing moments, even as our souls ache in the midst of the pain such separation causes us.

It used to be that my brother, sister, and I would worry about losing Dad first. Mom’s health had been declining for years, but my dad has had cardiac problems for years. If the Lord called him home first Mom would need to go to a full-care facility. Although it taxed his strength, Dad wanted Mom to be cared for at their home for as long as possible. It meant hiring a home health care person to come in for at least four hours a day, and sometimes up to eight hours a day. Dad’s schedule revolved around Mom’s needs. After she passed I asked him what he was going to do in the coming week after we had left. He looked at me and, with a hint of despondent confusion, replied, “Well, Bill, I have no idea!”

The remark wasn’t about being freed up to do what he wanted, but rather about unwanted freedom.

As I drive to Charleston, West Virginia with him and my brother-in-law, Mike, we’ll do some story-telling, have some quiet moments, and tell one another how much we love each other. Dad will give me a farewell hug, and I will feel the sadness within him.

Farewells are painful and piercing. They stay with us as we walk to our next point. We wish it were not so, and yet we are thankful for it being that way.

Walking Amongst The Relatives

October 26, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     October 26, 2013

      Yesterday I returned for the first time to the cemetery where my mom was buried this past September 6. The day was grey and cool as we drove the hour and a half into the hills of eastern Kentucky. The conversation between my dad, sister Rena, and I was warm and reminiscent. We talked of past events and family practices, and the miles passed quicker than the coal trucks.

At the cemetery Dad guided us towards my mom’s grave site. The last time I was there a tent canopy told us where to head. Our family pallbearers carried my mom the final sixty feet in honor of how she had carried many of our burdens through the years. It would have been appropriate for a squash casserole to have been passed through the grieving at that moment. Problems often got soothed with food in our family.

This time, however, there was not a canopy, just Dad to shepherd us towards the place of rest. Though filled in you could tell that the sod had been recently positioned to blanket the departed. There she was…still below me, as I kneeled by her marker.

Virginia Helton Wolfe

               1927-2013

Someday my dad will lay down to her right, just as he stood on her right when they were married at the United Methodist Church in Paintsville, Kentucky on August 13, 1948.

Let me tell you…being in that cemetery was like being back at the dinner table of my Mamaw and Papaw Helton’s farm house in Oil Springs, a few miles further down the curvy road; for my mom has been laid to rest in the midst of family.

Mamaw and Papaw were to the left, gone for years but not from memory. I asked Dad on the way back home how they had first met. A grandson seldom knows how romances of previous generations begin…or even cares to know, in case some family scandal get forced to the surface, but I was curious. How did people meet before Facebook or text messaging? Dad told me the story. In the company of a couple of his friends, Papaw had come by the house where Mamaw lived. She had expressed her interest in him by throwing green apples…not at the whole group, mind you. Her aim was squarely focused on him. Romance followed shortly after the apples. Family history that is not written down is often more interesting than anything else.

Right next to Mom is my Uncle Bernie. Her sister Cynthia, Uncle Bernie’s wife, is the only one Helton sibling still living. Uncle Bernie almost made me a smoker. He used a pipe and smoked cigars. As a young boy the smoke from both were always a satisfying aroma, like a pleasing Levitical sacrifice to God.

I walked a little further and greeted Uncle Milliard and Aunt Rene. Milliard had been a barber, and for a short time had operated a Dairy Queen. Barbering was much easier. As a barber he could have conversations with people. At DQ people were only interested in getting their hands on sundaes and properly-dipped cones. Aunt Irene was a saint. She had taken in our one year old cousin, Johnny Caroll Helton, when my mom’s brother, Uncle Doc (John) had lost his first wife and needed to get a grasp on his life again. Aunt Rene and Uncle Milliard never had any children of their own, and so we were all their children. When Aunt Rene was diagnosed with cancer she gave a sum of money to each of her nieces and nephews and told all of us that she wanted to see us enjoy it while she was still alive. We went to Disney World. It’s a family vacation we still measure others by.

Uncle Junior (Dewey Helton, Jr.) and his first wife, Grethel, are buried close by as well. Uncle Junior was a good man who liked to give me a little pinch on the leg to make kids squirm. I kind of wonder if they taped his fingers together in the casket just in case when his body rises in the last days he will come out seeking the backside of some unsuspecting saint’s leg? It’s a question I am not willing to find a quick answer to.

My Papaw’s Uncle Ernie is laid there…in a lonesome place with no one beside him. Ernie had been estranged from the family for a while and still looks somewhat isolated where he rests.

Across the narrow road where hearses pull in is my dad’s part of the family. My Granny Wolfe, whose husband passed away in a mining accident when my dad was young, is there. She was a school teacher back in times when women who got married had to give up teaching and be at home. Granny had a calming voice. I remember staying at her house in Wittensville, Kentucky and she would let me stay up and watch a movie on NBC on Saturday night. That was the first time I became familiar with Bride of Frankenstein. Sleep did not come easily that night.

My Granny Wolfe would always be taken back by the beauty of a wrapped Christmas present. Each Christmas we would fully expect that the opening of her new sweater or blouse would be preceded by the words “This is too pretty to open!” My mom was skilled as a gift wrapper…a talent that has not been passed on to me.

And then there is my Aunt Lizzie, a Kentucky Colonel, who lived to be 99! She was a delight, soft-spoken with a definite strength in her voice. Aunt Lizzie had a determination that ran deep. In fact, it has run deeply into our own children. She took art classes at the community college when she was 96, and painted pictures of the log cabin she was born in.

Flanking those two great ladies are my Uncle Dean and Aunt Della and their spouses. Great Uncle Sam is laid there as well, as are several other relatives that I don’t recall, but all who have histories.

We walked and pondered. Most of the markers had recently-mowed grass on them, which I gently brushed off in respect and honor to their continuing presence in my life.

We walked and talked, laughed and spent moments in quiet reverence.

Walking amongst the relatives was what I needed to experience. To see that Mom is in good company, even though she has moved on to eternity. There was something deeply fulfilling for me to be there…with Dad and Sis…stepping between generations…remembering and being blessed by it.

Telling Laughter

October 25, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       October 25, 2013

 

                                          

 

I admit it! My prejudice shows as I listen to someone’s laughter. Laughter to me is the telling sign of who a person is. It conveys warmth and character, but to me it also reveals arrogance and a darkened spirit.

There is good laughter and there is evil laughter, sinister snicker if you will. There is laughter that brightens the darkest room and laughter that darkens the brightest room.

I was watching an interview the other night on CNN. Piers Morgan was interviewing Warren Buffett, his son Howard, and grandson Howard W. Buffett. I don’t often sit down and watch an hour-long interview on television, but I found myself enthralled by the whole conversation. A big reason for my interest was the laughter of Warren and his son. Howie has that kind of laugh that reverberates through his whole body to where he looks like a wind-up toy that has been set loose. His laughter involves every body part. His dad, one of the richest men in the world, has a deep laugh that very few would associate with wealth. It’s a light-hearted chuckle that is delightful.

The main reason they were being interviewed was because of Howard’s new book that had just been released, Forty Chances: Finding Hope In A Hungry World. Howard has traveled the world seeking to help remedy the problem that very few people, let alone wealthy people, want to face…world hunger.

I went on-line that night and downloaded a copy of the book for my iPad and have started reading it. It’s very good, but what drew me into making the purchase was the laughter of the author. It was grounded and solid in tone. You can tell he is very serious about the issue, and yet he doesn’t take himself that seriously.

His laughter convinced me. His dad’s laugh seconded it. I one-clicked the purchase.

Some might think I’m really off base here, but laughter tells me more in a moment than an hour long conversation with someone. A laugh makes me like someone or want to leave like I’m being force-fed a spoonful of Castor Oil.

Jesus had a great laugh. Okay, I can’t prove that from scripture, and he certainly wasn’t laughing around the Pharisees and religious types, but gather a flock of kids and I can’t imagine Jesus not laughing. As the late Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids say the darnedest things!”

Laughter tells me that a kid is happy. Laughter at the wrong time tells me of some deeper issues going on. Laughter at another person’s pain is grieving.

I love to laugh. Whenever I see Brandon Bayes (which has been a number of years) one of the first things I will do is mimic the laugh of a man who was a part of the same Holy Land Tour group that we were in. We will laugh at the laugh. The laughter will reconnect us to a week spent together some twenty years ago.

My dad has a great laugh. It resembles Howie Buffett’s. His whole body gets into the act. My brother-in-law, Mike, often slaps his knee as he laughs. He feels comfortable with knee-slapping light-heartedness.

My late Aunt Irene had a great laugh. It kind of came at you like a wind that was building up to a roar and then got released. My late Uncle Bernie was the “he-he” kind of chuckler. Uncle Bernie worked at his church’s food pantry into his nineties and brought a bit of levity into the lives of a number of people who were on the edge of despair. One of my former college professors, the late Ron Richards, had a laugh that warmed up the room. We needed laughter in the midst of Economics class. Economics was one of those classes that could have easily depressed me.

I realize that I’ve used the term “the late” several times in the past couple of paragraphs, but it brightens my day to know that I can remember how so many people who have proceeded on to glory sounded in the humor of life. It makes me chuckle in a pure way.

A New Name

October 25, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                             October 25, 2013

 

                                           

 

     Today my dad and I invited a great gentleman named Bill Ball out for lunch. Bill was one of my mentors growing up.  Always encouraging with a urging towards perseverance, Bill was a welcome smile to a high school boy of smaller stature. He also had three daughters, the middle daughter, Teresa, whom I thought the cat’s meow.

A week ago Bill’s wife of sixty-six years, Sue Ball, passed away after a sudden illness. Sue was a fine lady, charming and personal. She was one of those people you’ve save a seat for beside you in a restaurant because she was such a delight. When I was back for my mom’s funeral less than two months ago Sue and Bill came up to my parents’ house and we sat and talked for a solid hour about life, kids, and pursuits.

I was taken back at her passing, and then today Bill told me that her name wasn’t really Sue. My response: “Say what?”

The first day of class as both of them began their college careers at Rio Grande College in Rio Grande, Ohio, they met in the college library. Bill took a fancy to this young woman immediately. They started dating, and five years later they got married. But her name was Edna Pearl!

Bill, however, called her, Sue. I’m not sure why he called her Sue. She was always “Pearl” to her mom. Perhaps he didn’t think she looked like someone whose name was “Pearl.” Whatever the reason, “Sue” stuck! It stuck so much that when they moved to Ironton, Ohio fifty-something years ago everybody in town came to know her as “Sue”. Whenever Bill was around Sue’s mom he was wise enough to call her Pearl, but otherwise she was Sue.

It isn’t often that someone is so accepting of a new name. Our identity gets associated with who we’ve been, not who we will be, or even invited to be. I know who I have been. There’s a certainty to it. A new name takes a bit of faith in the not-yet.

I never knew Sue in her prior life of her original name. Most everybody in Ironton, Ohio didn’t know her birth certificate name either. So unknown was her “Edna Pearl days” that Bill had to put “Sue” into the obituary listing to make people aware of who it was that had passed.

I was amazed by the story as he shared it today. Scripture tells several stories of new names that God gave people. Usually the new name was bestowed at a “fork in the road” moment. Abram to Abraham…Saul to Paul…nomad to father of the faith…persecutor to proclaimer.

The thing is…the longer you wrap yourself in the new identity that Jesus gives you the more it seems that is who you have always been. At some point people see you more as a “Paul” and forgetting of “Saul.”

Whatever name we remember Edna Pearl Sue Ball by the Lord knows her by a newer new name…”Beloved!”

Soup and Salvation

October 23, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    October 23, 2013

 

 

    On Wednesday nights at church we have soup and simple sandwiches…grilled cheese, lunchmeat…not Monte Cristos, Ruebens, or French Dips. Sometimes the soup comes from a family named Campbell, but at other times we have Barbara Shepard’s stuffed green pepper soup that would make Julia Child smack her lips if she was still living, or meaty chili worthy of royalty.

Soup warms up the palates and the conversation. Soup turns a bad day at work into an evening of reconsidered blessings. Our cooks and servers stand at the kitchen counter with smiles and greetings as young and old shuffle by with their trays extended and taste buds jumping out of mouths.

Before the kids head to Awana to learn Bible verses, and be told stories of the love of Jesus, soup preps the path. Crumbled up crackers are kind of like communion wafers ready to pull a person into the fellowship of the saints. Soup slurpers are living examples of grace. Making noises as a hot soup spoon of broth is being sucked in requires a lowering of personal pride and a raising of our understanding that all of us have fallen short.

The soup puts everyone in the same boat, knowing that we need each other to make it to the other side.

The soup also flows us towards serious considerations of where we are with God, each other, and life itself. It’s like the vehicle that carries us to the event. People talk about their days, tell humorous stories, show pictures of their kids, and release some of the tension that was apparent in their faces and shoulders when they had first arrived.

Soup has no hidden agenda. People donate a buck…if they want to or can. A second bowl is there for the taking if anyone desires…even a third. There has been a couple of Wednesdays this year where we ‘ve just added more water to the pot to take care of the larger crowd. Let me clarify that! We never add water to the stuffed green pepper soup. That would border on desecration, and be disrespectful of Barbara’s caring preparation. Only Campbell’s get extra water!

People say that Jesus comes to them in different ways…at a summer camp, in a sermon, through a tract in a hospital waiting room, or through an old-time weeklong revival completed by an altar call of extreme length. But I also wonder if Jesus begins to be glimpsed in the sharing of bowls of chowder and steaming cups of cream of something soup.

We’ve had several new families that have appeared on Wednesday nights. Those uncomfortable first moments of newness seem to disappear as the soup becomes the focus. Most people are hesitant about new surroundings, kind of like meeting your blind date for the first time…those initial moments of awkwardness when you feel sure you are going to insert one of your shoe soles inside your mouth. Soup connects and lightens the table conversation.

And it is delicious!

It’s interesting that there are a number of stories in the gospels about Jesus and meals. The meal was the icebreaker. There’s no fast food mentioned in Scripture. Jesus gets criticized for wining and dining with “sinners.” He goes home with Zacchias for supper and conversation. And, of course, the last supper in the Upper Room was the Passover meal being observed.

Food and fellowship roll on together like a team of horses pulling a wagon. Soup is an entry point for conversations about purpose, faith, life, and the next life.

Pass me another saltine cracker!

Spiritually-hungry Adults In Kids’ Bodies

October 22, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         October 22, 2013

 

                      “Spiritually-hungry Grown-ups in Kid’s Bodies”

 

Understatement that is about to be made. Kids like to have fun!

Nothing like a good game of “Red Light, Green Light!”

Kid’s birthday parties are celebrations of delight with icing!

A neighborhood gathering of children for a game of “hide-and-go-seek” still gives me goosebumps!

I love watching my grandson have fun playing soccer on a small-sided field with other five year olds. He hasn’t learned that you’re suppose to keep score yet, even though most of the adults watching are keeping track of that. He’s just having fun…and regardless of whether his team scores twenty goals or zippo the post-game snack will be be the same and taste just as good.

Kids often have a great perspective on things.

What I’ve been noticing lately in our church is that there are a number of spiritually hungry kids. I’ll call them “spiritually-hungry adults in kid’s bodies”, because a lot of them are asking deeper questions than how many loaves and fishes did the little boy give Jesus?

One young man, just a tee shirt size past being a kid, asks me questions of depth each week. He’s looking for substance in this thing we call “walking with Jesus.” He’s figuring things out in his heart and in his mind. His mom has told me that he’s thinking about being a pastor. What do you say to a “Samuel?”

“Be a good little boy for Jesus” does not suffice. I’ve come to realize that spiritually-hungry kids don’t need all the answers in one gorging session. They need questions that lead them to discovering answers, and they need conversations that bring them to certain points where they can hear my answer.

Spiritually-hungry kids want to ask questions that don’t necessarily have one clear answer. “If God created everything, why did he create Satan?”  “If God knows I’m going to tell a lie why doesn’t he stop me before I tell it?” “Why is our worship service on Sunday morning for about an hour? Why not thirty minutes or three hours…and why don’t we have popcorn? Is there something in the Bible that says we can’t have popcorn in church?”

     No question is out-of-bounds for spiritually-hungry adults in kid’s bodies.

And here’s something else that I have no proof of, but just a sense in my spirit about. Kids who ask deep spiritual questions are often borderline threatening to a church. Sometimes it’s because the actual grown-ups aren’t asking deep questions themselves. If the climate is always one where only questions that have easy answers can be asked, deeper questions weigh on people like the after effects of the Sunday potluck.

In other situations kids who ask deep questions create uncomfortableness because it throws the whole system out of whack. Kind of like someone taking college courses he though he’s still in high school. It isn’t the progression we are used to, and yet a whole lot of high school graduates now enter college already with a number of college credits.

Kids asking deep spiritual questions…listen to this…is the hope of the church!

How so? It’s a rescuing of the community of faith from meaningless ritual and superficial spirituality. It’s leading new followers of Jesus beyond the tyranny of the urgent that keeps telling us that everything else is more important than the murmurings of our spirit.

Kids asking deep spiritual questions conveys that THIS really is IMPORTANT, this relationship with Jesus and life amongst the other believers. When kids stop asking questions the church has questions to ask.

I close with a confession! Too often I’m more concerned with the agenda and schedule than I am with the questions. For instance, last Sunday I did a kid’s story in our worship service. It did not go as I planned. The kids had comments and questions that did not fit into my plan. I rushed them to “my finish line”, because there was the adult message to get to. Sometimes that’s how we are…rush the kids to the pre-determined end point and ignore the questions.

And you know something! Kids are more important than that! They need to be seen…and heard, especially while they are still willing to give us “older kids in adult bodies” a hearing!

When A Child Prays For You

October 21, 2013

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      October 20, 2013

 

 

Today I was incredibly blessed in numerous ways. Every day is like that. We just don’t recognize a lot of the blessings.

But today a ten year old boy named Miles blessed me more than he will probably ever know. Before our worship service started, he was invited into my office, along with Rich Blanchette to pray for me.

Rich and Miles each laid a hand on my shoulder and “prayed me up” for the morning service. Miles has not been ordained, elected, or even assigned. He’s just a neat kid who likes to wear combat pants in the woods, laugh a lot, and follow Jesus. He got baptized last April along with his little sister. He goes to school like any other kid, eats turkey legs at Air Force football games, and can be a goofball when he feels like it.

So why was I so blessed by Miles? Because too often kids are tolerated in the church, not empowered. Kids are cute, but seldom are taken seriously.

But a church that allows kids to not only pursue a relationship with Christ, but also be a part of ministry is awesome.

And why is that important? Because kids are awesome. Kids simplify what we grown-ups complicate.

I’m not nominating Miles for sainthood or planning his ordination. I’m just saying I was overwhelmed that he thought enough of me to want to pray for me.

Perhaps next week I’ll be surrounded by praying kids…and I’d be okay with that.