Restoring Home: One of God’s Provisions

Everything

Don and I have had to miss Abel House several times lately because of my work with my sisters to restore our parents’ home in Varnville, South Carolina. I wrote the following focusing on the home God provided us while we were growing and learning.

Sandee, Kay, and I laughed until we ached while we ripped down the pink-striped chintz fabric covering the dining room wall to reveal gold metallic 1950s wallpaper we barely remembered. Then, still howling, we texted a picture to our sister Helen and promised to save every piece of the gold we could for her new home. Her swift reply, “You are mean! You are so mean to me!” echoed her cries back when she was the youngest of the seven children growing up in that house. Some things, like sibling teasing, never change, but others, like houses, do—and not always for the better.

We had first moved into our Varnville Pine Street home on March 18, 1954, with our parents, Jim and Nell Jackson. Thirty-three years old and soon to be parents of seven, they had needed and built a unique, large, comfortable, nearly childproof home! Sixty-two years later, we wanted another family to live happily in that home, but we realized that for that to happen we first had to reveal what only we could see beneath the changes. We were there in March 2016 to keep what remains unique, good, and special and strip away what is no longer right. Thus began the renovation and restoration of our childhood home.

The first question anyone asks upon seeing our house is How was it that one of the earliest midcentury modern homes in the United States came to be built in Varnville, South Carolina, of all places?

Varnville is so Southern, quiet, and traditional that it is the site of Forrest Gump’s hometown! Its Main Street is less than a city block long and home to the same buildings that were there in 1953. The family names that line up on century-old tombstones in the local cemetery are the same family names that students in the schools answered to in the late 1800s and still answer to today. Most of the homes are traditional, red-brick, three-bedroom, about 1500-square-foot, ranch-style one-stories.

But in the Wade Hampton Heights development, the third house built was our parents’ unpainted, stacked-concrete-block, flat-roofed, 3300-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-living-room one-story. Almost everything about it was and is unique to it. Mother found the original idea for stylistically midcentury modern, unusually-laid-out house in Better Homes and Gardens. But it has changed through age, redecoration, and neglect in the years since it was built.

The community, Wade Hampton Heights, has changed more than the house in that time. Streets are now paved and lined with well-kept homes and yards. And they are occupied by strangers to us as most of the homeowners we knew there while we were growing up have moved or passed away. But the house and the neighborhood are still perfect for raising a family.

Wade Hampton Heights grew along with us. First, the Detricks built on the lot southeast of us and then the Crawfords next door—after Daddy sold them half of one of our original three lots. Eventually, the Oglesbys, the Hoods, the Pratts, the Allens, the Calls, the McKenzies, the Williamses, the Rentzes, the Copes, the Johnsons, the Laughlins, the Sinclairs, the McMillans, three of our elementary school teachers (Ms. Clark, Ms. Manuel, and Mrs. Hanks), one of our high school teachers (Mr. Rentz), and three of our high school principals and assistant principals (Mr. Boyd, Mr. Dodge, and Mr. Ware) became our neighbors and friends. Every lot held a home and almost every home sheltered children.

Our large side yard became the neighborhood baseball diamond and the woods between us and Varnville furnished our jungle full of trees and vines to explore (our “jungle gyms”), our western plains to ride while fighting Indians, our urban area for cops versus robbers, our hunting grounds for everything from bears (never found one) to snakes (found many). The patio, before it became an additional living room, was the scene of roller-skating parties, tennis practices, and dodgeball competitions. Sandy Second Street was almost as good as the beach for building sand castles or playing Red Rover, Kick-the-Can, and Freeze Tag.

In a time when children were let out of a summer morning, called in for lunch, and then not seen again until supper, the mysterious sand roads leading from the neighborhood took us to places we were not allowed to go. We sneaked away to watch the prisoners work in the fields surrounding their prison nearby. We slipped off to the dump where we waded barefoot, feeling with our toes between broken bottles and tin cans we could not see, in murky water up to our shorts on fiery-hot summer days. And, best of all on a blistery, steamy day, we ran to the Varnville Cemetery only a long block from our house where we could sit in the shade on cool granite or marble and share the secrets of childhood. Years later, our own children played Spotlight in that cemetery on dark holiday nights and heard the stories of our childhood games there.

We were close enough to Varnville’s Main Street to walk or ride bikes to Andy Belger’s store or Pat Brown’s grocery or Orrie and Sissie Varn’s ice cream and soda fountain. We even walked or rode all the way to Sidney Varn’s Varnville Pool by the time we were teenagers. How could even young children not be safe in a town where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone looked after all the children? A town where all stores closed after noon on Wednesdays so everyone could go to church Wednesday night? A town where funeral processions stopped all traffic as drivers pulled over and bowed their heads in respect and prayer?

Our neighborhood was as close-knit as the town. The women in the neighborhood bridge club moved from house-to-house at least once a month for more than forty years to play bridge, eat delicious specialty Southern desserts, and catch up on the latest news. Rachel Laughlin taught me to play the organ at Varnville Baptist Church and organized Christmas caroling every Christmas with Mother providing refreshments to the carolers as they sang their rounds. Marilyn Allen introduced me to mysteries through her membership in the Mystery Book-of-the-Month Club—sparking a lifelong habit. Bob Laughlin located meteors in his telescope for the enlightenment of all the neighborhood children.

Tom Crawford knew to take a second swing of his hammer with great caution so as not to injure any little boys, especially our brother Ricky, who had arrived running to see what he was doing for his latest project. Frances McMillan drove Mother and us children to Dr. Hayne’s office when eighteen-month-old Ricky lovingly pulled two-week-old Philip off the bed, leaving him unconscious in Mother’s arms. Likewise, Norman Rentz drove my sister Kay and me to the hospital when four-year-old Kay jumped off the same bed and split her head open.

Mother entertained the Varnville Baptist church choir following our Christmas cantatas year after year with dinner at our house. Birthday parties filled the patio and yard with kids of all ages. Cousins, aunts, and uncles as well as neighbors and friends surrounded our holiday tables in a dining room and living room large enough to handle crowds. Once when living in Kansas, I stopped in Kmart to chat with a stranger, a young man wearing a Clemson shirt, only to learn that he had joined my brothers and one of the Rentz sons, all Clemson students, for her famously delicious turkey and dressing at Mother’s Thanksgiving table the year before!

Our world, stretching from our elementary school to our high school and encompassing our home and our church, was the center of the universe for us, the provided home into which God had lovingly, firmly placed us.

And thus, when we were ready to renovate that home, thirteen years after Daddy’s death and six years after Mother’s, we decided to restore it to its roots there in Varnville. We stripped away the changes made to the house and hired local contractors to take it back to its beginning.

Jim Mixson, Varnville contractor, said while adding to the house many years ago, that the house would survive anything except a nuclear attack, and even then a bomb would have to land directly on it to damage it. We reroofed it anyway because we want to be certain that it will last at least another thirty years, nearing its one-hundredth birthday by then.

Inside and outside, we repaired the broken, restored the worn, and modernized the dated. And in a move that would have shocked and amazed our mother, we painted the gray, stacked, concrete blocks for the first time ever.

We also exposed the house to sunlight and joy again, clearing away the trees that had grown to towering heights, the 60-year-old azaleas intertwined with ivy, young oaks, and pine straw, the window coverings, the wallpaper, and the carpets. In the brightness, we can “see” once again seven children running, playing, reading, laughing, and telling stories.

Our parents lie now in Varnville Cemetery only a short walk from our home, surrounded there by many of their friends and neighbors. Just since we began the renovations, one of the neighbors of our generation joined them and days later another of their generation. As their generation has passed away, the neighborhood has welcomed newcomers to the homes the post-World War II families built.

We remember lying in our hot bedrooms at night during the 1950s and hearing the sound of the train as it whistled for crossings all the way from Early Branch to the Brunson side of Hampton, the sound punctuated by the warnings of barking dogs that accompanied it through our open windows. It’s a sound we don’t hear anymore with houses shut tight for air conditioning. We miss it. We remember the families and the closeness of community from that earlier time. We miss them.

But as we renovated and restored the house in Varnville, we became convinced that other little children will come to live there and frame their own memories from life in an atypical midcentury modern dwelling in an ideal Southern town. Even with the changes, they will find the spirit of home that we still find there and forge their own closeness of community and family. They will find that what makes a place “home” never changes. We were reminded of that by our restoring laughter. We do not know why it was built there, but we do know that the only explanation we can give is that our home is in its perfect place as are all of God’s provisions for our lives.

Beauty and Function

Everything

I was thinking and talking recently about what it means to live a life devoted to Christ; not being just a mere Christian, i.e., attending a weekend service, or if you are really Holy, a Wednesday bible study too; but rather, a new life in Jesus. A life where every moment of every day is both normal and sacred. This morning, I was reading Eugene Peterson’s book on Jeremiah, Run with the Horses and I came across this:

We commonly separate the useful and the beautiful, the necessary and the elegant. We use brown paper bags for containers to which no one bothers to give shape or color or design. After all, we only want something in which to get our groceries home. Then we buy paintings to beautify the walls of our homes. We build featureless office buildings and ugly factories for our necessary work, then we build museums to contain the objects of beauty. But there have been times in history when these things were done better, when the necessary and the beautiful were integrated, when, in fact, it was impossible to think of separating them.Peterson, Eugene H.. Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best (Kindle Locations 944-948). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

He was speaking of the invention of pottery. And how for them at the time it was both exactly functional, and exactly beautiful. You couldn’t separate the two. That is how our lives should be. Inseparably Holy and Normal. Beautiful, and functional. Spiritual and physical.

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”Romans 12:1–2 Message

Grandmothers’ Legacies

Everything

Joel Hunter, senior pastor at Northland, preached Sunday on hell. As he noted, hell is a topic most of us do not want to address. We especially do not want to address what he was addressing: the devil’s method for reaching us and getting us to do that which we know God would not have us do. To illustrate his remarks, Joel used passages from Genesis focusing on the serpent’s temptation of Eve which resulted in her and Adam’s eating the forbidden fruit.

Joel pointed out that we should not be in a place of temptation at all, but I know that even when we are not positioned in front of what we recognize immediately as a place of temptation—a bar for some, a shopping mall for another, a computer for so many, places I have never heard of for others—we can be approached by and attracted to evil.

Joel also explained that we do not always refer to the evil we embrace as “the devil.” Some do, but others prefer “Lucifer” or “Satan” or “the Evil One” or to think of our weak natures as susceptible to “evil” or “our personal demons.” I tend to think of that which tempts us to embrace opportunities for self-gratification or intemperance or debauchery as our general makeup in a sinful world, something from within rather than from without. But we all know what we are talking about when we talk about inappropriate, unchristian behavior.

As I listened to Joel’s sermon, I remembered a long discussion that took place at Abel House recently. That discussion has stayed on my mind and in my heart and in my prayers for several weeks now. Joel’s sermon gave me an opportunity to re-examine my discomfort, my pain, my continued inquietude since that evening.

As we had sat in fellowship, in a large, room-encompassing circle and listened to prayer requests and concerns, we heard a small, shy, thin voice begin to speak the hurt inflicted by a grandmother. Yes, a grandmother! As the doting grandmother of six (soon to be seven), I knew surprise, shock, sudden tears, and throat-gripping paralysis that such a narrative were possible. The tale was not one of physical abuse, but it was one of emotional abuse. How could a grandmother possibly be capable of leaving a precious granddaughter with that cry in her voice?

The young lady described visits with her grandmother that should have been pure pleasure, visits including time together with her in the kitchen preparing family meals, visits during which her grandmother used the times together to mention her version of matters involving the daughter-mother who linked them, to relate inappropriate stories of questionable veracity, to offer her version of grandmotherly guidance that placed her own daughter in a very bad light.

Compounding our suffering for that young lady, another teen said she had experienced much the same thing at her grandmother’s house. And then a grown woman, mother of a preschooler, said her husband had endured such remarks about her from his mother who is her mother-in-law and grandmother of her little girl. And the first girl’s sibling confirmed that she, too, had been subjected to the abuse.

As we assured parents that they were doing right by their children when they limited their access to such grandparents, I wondered how any grandparent could betray a relationship with her grandchild that would cause such a separation.

But Joel’s sermon helped me to see how that which is within us in this world can result in just such an ending of a relationship.

In his sermon, Joel listed what he called “The Four Ds” as steps in the work of the devil as the devil attempts to thwart our relationships—not just our relationship with Christ but even our earthly relationships that provide us strength to build our relationship with Christ. Family, church, and friend relationships are critical to our well-being as we attempt to live in God’s kingdom on earth.

I am convinced that the breakdown in behavior one of my family suffered came about exactly as Joel described. And I see the steps Joel outlined in the workings of our sinful natures when I hear about the grandmothers described at Abel House.

Joel’s Four Ds were Distraction, Defeat, Disconnection, and Distance.

He spoke of how the devil, in the form of the serpent in the Garden, for instance, distracts us from God’s work by casting doubt. Eve stopped her work to stand in front of the temptation of the forbidden tree, listened to the serpent, and doubted what God had told Adam—that the fruit of the forbidden tree would bring death. She and Adam ate of the tree, suffering defeat as their eyes were opened to their natures, realizing disconnection from God Who found them trying to hide from Him and from each other as Adam blamed Eve for his response to temptation and she the serpent, and, finally, fully knowing distance from Him and all others.

My family member walked those same steps and made decisions to give in to distractions, to doubt what he had been taught regarding the necessity for focusing on the job God had provided him and staying connected to his wife and our family and their Christian values, to doubt God’s plan for his life. He sought division or isolation when he was thinking of giving into temptation, and he was soon defeated by sinful thoughts and, finally, distanced from all he held dear. God has welcomed him back into His fold as he has sought forgiveness, but the loss has been great and, in many ways, permanent.

The grandmothers may more closely be associated with the serpent itself, one of the devil’s tools. They have tried to distract their grandchildren and son from their trust in their family structures—from the trust the children have placed in their mothers and the son in his wife. They have introduced doubt regarding their own daughters to their granddaughters and spouse. If they can succeed, they might well break up families, defeat the bonds that tie mother to children and wife to husband and all to God and leave legacies of distrust, division, and distance.

But because of the strong relationships these Christian families have forged with their church and with the body of Christ at Abel House and, especially, with their God, that will not happen here.

What, then, is the role for grandmothers in a grandmother-grandchild(ren) relationship that honors God and the family? How are we to guide and positively influence those who “are the crown of the aged” as grandchildren are described in Proverbs 17:6?

According to 1 Timothy 5:10 and Titus 2:3, grandmothers are to have “a reputation for good works,” “to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers,” and “to teach what is good.”

I think we can “teach what is good” without resorting to slander or even emphasis on what anyone has done in the past that was wrong. We all have made mistakes. The emphasis in teaching to avoid mistakes should be on teaching to do that which is pleasing in God’s sight. If children are busy doing their jobs in life and focusing on their families and God, they will be more likely to live as their grandmothers want them to live than if they are focused on all that they can do wrong.

Our reputation should be for reflecting the love we receive in Christ to our children and grandchildren so that they, too, will walk hand-in-hand with Him as they do with their mothers. Practically, we should tell stories full of love, laughter, joy, and Christ-like behavior so that the children see their parents (and the husband his wife) as the crowns they were to their own grandparents.

My Granny Jackson’s home was my sanctuary. There was much she could have told me that would have truthfully put my mother in an unfavorable light, but the only negative words I ever heard her speak about either of my parents was referring to them both after Mother had given birth to their seventh child in ten years: “I am afraid Jim and Nell are going to have more children than they can support.”

I am evermore grateful to my grandmother that every minute of the time she and I spent together was filled with her love for me and her teaching me of all that is good. She loved the Lord and reflected that in her love of family. She remains my role model for how to be a grandmother. And she is remembered with a deep and abiding love. I hope that the unkind, unwise grandmothers mentioned at Abel House might realize what they are doing and seek guidance from the Lord to become grandmothers with a legacy of love.

Chapter Two of Your Own Sunshine

Everything

A couple months ago, I wrote the post “Your Own Sunshine.” This is Chapter Two of that post.

The story did not end there.

As I drove home from the restaurant and my time with my friend Erica and with the $68 lying on the seat near me, I thought about what I might do with the money and the task entrusted to me. As might be expected, I knew what I wanted for the $18! Erica cannot be forgotten, but she wanted us to get something to remind us of her. Easy.

Erica is Jewish. Few of my friends or acquaintances throughout my lifetime have been Jewish. Not only is Erica Jewish but she is faithful. To keep her close to me, a Christian, I would buy a silver charm for my charm bracelet—a Star of David.

As I made that decision, I said a little thank you to God for giving me the idea and asked quickly for guidance in spending the $50. I could think of many who need help, from family members who struggle to organizations that help the needy. But I do help family members who struggle and organizations that help the needy already. I sensed that this gift should be unique.

When I stepped through the door at home, my husband, Don, was just ending a call to a friend in California—a man who has been a friend since they were in high school 50 years ago. Don had made the call because he had awakened with the feeling that he should. I knew immediately that talking to Denny had left Don troubled, so I sat near to learn why.

Denny had been his usual quippy, funny, warm self on the call, but Don sensed that all was not well. Then, Denny volunteered the news that his work had been slow during the last few winter months.

Denny is an artist. His home is an amazing California desert one-story with every surface a separate work of art. Inside and out, peace and calm prevail. He has arranged (truly arranged) even the inside of his refrigerator with displays of colorful fruits, vegetables, and condiments! But mostly, because he treasures memories and people who have touched his life, he has arranged mementos of the richness of his relationships from his childhood until today all around in spare but aesthetically perfect story-telling tableaux.

Professionally, he installs signs. Rather, he installs lettering. Until I met him, I had never thought of how it is that the lettered signs are created and placed on buildings. Denny works for architects who know exactly how it is accomplished. He takes their creations and places them perfectly to be as aesthetically and informationally pleasing to us as are the tableaux in his home to visitors.

Outside work, especially architectural work in a down economy, means there will be slow times. But recent times had been slower than usual. On this day, he joked that his usual Friday buffet lunch at Margarita’s might have to come after he took back some aluminum cans to recycling. But Don heard just enough of an edge to his tone to become concerned. We had been with Denny to Margarita’s, owned actually by Gloria, several times. In fact, for Denny’s birthday the year before, we had called Gloria and asked her to decorate for Denny’s birthday and throw a little party with cake and balloons for him and his friends there! She had put it on with flair!

As soon as I heard Don’s concern, I knew what to do with the $50 I had received only a couple hours before. I knew that Denny was hurting. I knew that while Don and I could not fix the world, we could help someone who is special to us both and, more importantly, who needed not just the help but to know that he is loved. And it was Friday!

So we called Gloria again and told her that Denny had a paid tab of $50. She grew very quiet and said, “I don’t know how you knew, but I think he needs this right now, and it will mean a lot to him. Thank you.”

And thus we thought it was done.

But we added prayer to our gift for Denny. That, we knew, would be exactly right with Erica, too. And then we received the following email from Denny on Friday, January 22:

Well, that was a real surprise and I humbly thank you both for it. Not going to lie—although it’s something I do not enjoy talking much about—this has been a couple very tough months. Your timing was spot on. What a great end to the week! Thanks again, guys.

Denny

And then almost one week later, we received another email—one that made me cry:

Starting a week ago Friday, things finally got going for me. Due to a great friend’s astute observations and timely action at Margarita’s, I was able to leave the plastic in my wallet where it belongs. Also, I went into the weekend knowing lots of work was awaiting me this week. I worked Monday-Thursday, leaving me Friday off, back where I started—at Margarita’s. Cool.

Gotta tell you, your kind gesture was much appreciated—not just for the monetary value but for the uplifting of my spirits. Yes! You uplifted my spirits! That’s priceless. Thanks for being you.

Denny

And, again, the story could have ended there, but it didn’t.

By mid-February, Don had told Denny the story of the $50, and Denny wrote again—just to me:

Hi Sue,

Still thinking about the wonderful tale accompanying your gift. I wanted to tell Gloria since she was (once again) in on something between my friends from Florida and me. I’d like to ask if you have ever or if you plan to write this out so it may be shared and passed on, sort of like the story itself.

Love to you and your primate.

Denny

The joyous news is that Denny continues to have work and the love of friends. I hope that he realizes, too, that he has the love of God who, I believe, brought all of us together—Erica, Don, Denny, Gloria, and me. On my bracelet, Erica’s Star of David and my cross symbolize that love of God and the blessing it is to be able to create our own sunshine and share the stories.

The stories of God’s love are unending.

Your Own Sunshine

Everything

The adage appears on the side of a Recycled Zip Pouches pouch: Some days you just have to create your own SUNSHINE. I thought when I read it that the tough part is figuring out how to create sunshine, but this particular adage came with instructions—and they work!

My friend Erica (actually another Sue—Erica Sue) has had a “stinky” year. Already living with type 2 diabetes, at sixty-three, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a progressive chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease characterized by varying degrees of weakness of the voluntary muscles of the body. Just as she was beginning to cope with that completely life-changing news, she was hospitalized with serious diverticulitis. During surgery for the diverticulitis, she suffered cardiac arrest. Since the surgery, she is having to learn to cope with the colostomy performed in a hurry even as doctors worked frantically to restart her heart and save her life.

After such a year, many of us would be spending our days attending our own sustained pity party—but not my Erica. On her sixty-fourth birthday, she threw a party of a different kind—a party of celebration for her girlfriends! Erica treated seven of us to lunch at her favorite restaurant, Royal Thai, and she gave us gifts.

That’s right: It was her birthday party, but we got the gifts!

The colorful, zippered sunshine pouches she distributed, one to each, were her presents to us. Inside were snugged one tiny bottle of perfume to change the scent of the “stinky year” and two #10 envelopes. The first envelope held a $50 bill, ours to “make someone happy.” In it also were the instructions to spend the money to “generate as much happiness as possible” while “having fun and thinking outside the box!” She requested that the gift be anonymous—not anonymous in its being from us but in its being from her! Her “reward” would be our sharing our adventure with her “over lunch or in a letter to keep in my permanent happy memory file.”

The $18 in the second envelope were to “buy yourself a present . . . from me. Purchase something silly, practical, self-indulgent, or pretty that will remind you every day how much I love you and value you as my friend.” Then, again, share the gift with her as a memory.

Erica explained that what sustained her throughout her hospitalization was her knowledge that her family and her friends were waiting for her, pulling for her, praying for her, loving her. She struggled with and continues to struggle with the pain, the misery, the trauma of her experience, but what makes that struggle possible are family, friends, laughter, joy, and generating happiness. She said that she knows she will never have the means to be the wealthy philanthropist she aspires to be, but in these small ways, she is practicing philanthropy.

As is no doubt obvious, Erica never needed lessons on how to be a friend or how to love or how to appreciate or how to create sunshine. She already knew. She is wealthy in ways few are. But her “stinky” year reminded her, as it did her friends, that our time to create sunshine even when we know how is limited, and we truly do not know exactly when that time might run out.

I find that I am blessed not only by my friendship with Erica but, in much the same way, by my friendships in Abel House. The outpouring of love I witnessed recently when our Abel House family worked together to celebrate Julie and Rhett’s marriage and to join each other for the Ash Wednesday service and anointing with oil for Tom fill me with the same sunny warmth as did my time with Erica and following her instructions later to create sunshine for another.

May we all, with God’s help, look for ways to “create [our] own SUNSHINE and then thank Him for the opportunities as we turn “stinky” times into rich, rewarding times for others and ourselves.

Nurturing Foundations

Everything

My family moved to Varnville, South Carolina, in April 1954 when I was eight years old. Before the furniture in our new home was arranged, Daddy and the oldest five of us children, Sandy, Kay, Jimmy, Ricky, and I, started attending Varnville Baptist Church. That church, founded in 1877, is inextricably woven into the fabric of that young family that joined it in 1954.

Daddy served as a deacon, Sandy and I were baptized in the baptismal pool surrounded by its mural of the River Jordan on May 11, 1958. The rest of the seven Jackson children, including Philip and Helen, followed our steps into that pool in the springs of 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, and 1967. By 1959, I was the thirteen-year-old church pianist and, in 1960, the organist. Daddy and everyone else in the family sang in the choir as they were old enough, and Kay followed me at the piano. We taught in the Sunday school and vacation Bible school and served on committees. Helen, the youngest, married there on July 09, 1977.

That small church and its Christ-centered congregation modeled for us Christ’s love as it instructed, guided, influenced, and sustained us. It offered us opportunities and encouraged us to have the confidence to embrace them.

Among the most powerful leaders of the Varnville Baptist Church congregation was Mrs. Nell Lightsey. Her husband, Mr. Norris Lightsey, was a pillar of his family’s home church, the Crocketville Presbyterian Church, but Miss Nell, as we knew her, was ours. Miss Nell, deliberately and accidentally, by quietly living her life “to the glory of God,” helped to form me for whatever Christian service I accomplish. Miss Nell was my Sunday school teacher for many years and my Girls Auxiliary leader during my teen years, but it was by the way she lived that she most taught me.

Mr. Lightsey went to services at his church while Miss Nell taught Sunday school at our church. Then, every single Sunday after Sunday school, Miss Nell entered the sanctuary from the front and sat near the end of her left-side, second-row pew with a small space vacant to her right. Still and hushed, listening while I played the prelude to worship, she waited as the few hundred other people who attended the service slowly filed through the double doors at the back of the sanctuary.

Then, at a point no one else in the church sensed, Miss Nell turned slowly around to look at those double doors just as they opened to allow entrance to a gentle man, Mr. Lightsey. He slid quietly into his spot next to his wife, and they both worshipped with us all. I quietly celebrated his arrival every time from my organ-bench perch, never able to explain how she knew exactly when he would walk back into her presence but feeling that it was a part of the wonder of being in God’s place. I knew by their example that those who love Christ can evidence that love while they are apart and while they are together and even as they acknowledge and honor their differences.

Miss Nell built the foundation of my understanding of God and Christ in innumerable classes, but that did not encompass all her teaching. She also quietly showed me that Christianity was lived outside the church as well as in it. And she influenced my attitudes regarding women’s roles in worship and in the church organization by attending every Southern Baptist Convention, by providing much of the financial support of our church, by speaking out in church meetings, and—much to the horror of some of the men early on—by insisting that women be allowed to pray aloud in the services.

During the fifteen years I worshipped at Varnville Baptist Church, the Wednesday evening Bible study and prayer service was my favorite service each week. At that meeting following Wednesday night supper, Sunday formality dropped away and everyone participated. Members of the congregation called out song requests from the Broadman hymnals placed in each hymnal rack. The songs we sang most often were the old familiars such as “Trust and Obey,” “In the Garden,” “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” and “I Love to Tell the Story.”

I learned almost as much of the Bible from the old songs as I did from Bible study, but the minister’s leading in Bible study was also a part of the evening with the focus not on sermonizing but on studying God’s word. I thought the lessons learned on Wednesday evenings were the only possible interpretations or understanding of each verse—a comforting self-assurance for a novice Christian. Imagine my surprise a few years later when I discovered that my best friend, a Catholic, another good friend, a Jew, and a boyfriend, a Methodist, had different understandings of key passages! And that they had the same self-assurance regarding their teachings as I did!

Following the songs and Bible study, everyone who knew anyone who needed prayer named it aloud. We then prayed aloud—with the prayers of women who wanted to pray included. I learned in those long minutes to take everything to the Lord and leave it there with Him, for my role was to trust and obey.

At Abel House meetings on Wednesday evenings, I have oftentimes remembered those Wednesday evenings at Varnville Baptist Church. We follow many of the same customs, though I am grateful that we do not have the sight-reading-songs part of the service—always nerve-racking for me. We do share a meal, study the Bible, and pray. We linger both before and after our set time, too, to love and support the members of our Abel House family who congregate there at Robert and Lindsay’s home.

And perhaps most importantly to me, we nurture faith just as my church family did for me so long ago. Some of us have been Christians for decades and receive spiritual refreshment through the Bible study, prayer, service, and love that fill the minutes. Some of us are new in faith, in the realization of the love of the Lord and of His presence in our lives, and grow as Christians through the Bible study, prayer, service, and love. And some of us are children just as I was a child on those Wednesday evenings more than fifty years ago.

In recent weeks, we have heard eight-year-old Ethan eagerly volunteer to offer grace before the meal and then pray a prayer of true thanksgiving for his father’s role in inviting Christians into their home for Bible study as well as for the meal we all would enjoy. We have seen Ethan’s friend Allison declare her love for Christ and her desire to be baptized at the same time as her parents, uniting a beautiful family in their journey through faith.

We have seen gifted seventeen-year-old teenager Gabriela suggest to her parents that the answer to prayer they had received be celebrated by their providing communion and thanks to God at Abel House; we then watched, delighted, as Gabriela joined her father in serving that communion to us all in the name of Christ.

We have heard the shy, cogent comments fourteen-year-old Reina has brought to our discussions and appreciated the gentle care she shows the younger children. We have been greeted week after week by twelve-year-old Jaden’s beautiful smile and quick help as we arrived carrying dishes, and we have been impressed by her fluent, expressive Bible reading and knowledge. We have enjoyed Reina’s delicious soups and her and Jaden’s fine photography.

And we have heard and recognized his poise, his love of God, and his confidence in God’s love for him in the prayers of high-school senior Gabe.

Our time at Abel House is all the more precious for the moments graced by the children who join us there.

May Abel House Church lovingly instruct, guide, influence, and sustain its young people just as Varnville Baptist Church did my brothers, my sisters, our friends, and me. May we as a church model Christ’s love not only for them but for all His people inside and outside Abel House. May we nurture their growth in faith just as Miss Nell nurtured mine. May we continue to serve them and each other in the name of the Lord.

Finding God and Dodging Bullets in Maine

Everything

Every time I take a road trip, I go with the desire to learn more about people, cultures, and history. I do intend to rest, eat good food, and get away from it all—whatever “it” is. But most of all, I enjoy chancing on God’s sense of humor, His design, His overlay of beauty on every natural setting, and His music. I know I won’t have to search for them because He will place them on my way at almost every turn.

And “turn” is how I love to travel. I find an anchoring spot, and then each day my husband, Don, plots a “turning” to take us all around and through a large area. Mostly we drive for miles on a journey for the senses: seeing and hearing and smelling and tasting and feeling the world around us.

On every turning of our recent trip through New England countryside that neither of us had explored before, we found friendly, interested, and interesting people; forests, rivers, lakes, and streams; thousands of Monopoly-piece-styled farm houses far larger than any rural homes we had seen before with acres and acres of land separating neighbors by miles, not just fields or blocks; courteous drivers who drove cars as relatively separated by distance as were their homes; and kayaks, canoes, and boats for sailing, skiing, paddling, motoring, or storing in specially-built garages with boat doors taller than vehicle doors.

And on every turning, we found churches. Some were built of native stone; more were built from the lumber of thick hardwood forests that surround the towns and town squares all over Maine. We saw only a small handful of Baptist churches, the denomination that dominates the South in which I grew up. They were easily recognized, though, for they were generally white, steepled, plain, and watched over by those in the cemetery adjoining. We found rural and urban Methodist churches, beautiful stone Catholic cathedrals, and a Unitarian church. We saw not one mosque or temple or synagogue. Most prevalent, on town squares, urban corners, and rural acres, were Congregational churches. I could see the state’s religious history in the holy sanctuaries of every community.

In Boothbay Harbor, Maine, on Shore Road, at the point where the land touches the sea, we stumbled on the Janet M. Wilson Memorial Chapel. Almost surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and yellow coreopsis blooms, it is housed in a tiny, beautiful, stone building designed by Edwin J. Lewis, Jr., and built in 1917 by Lewis Wilson in memory of his late wife. Today, it is nondenominational and serves summer visitors on Sundays with visiting pastors who must find their time there to be a time of spiritual renewal in the presence of God’s gifts.

Perhaps, however, its greatest role is as a wedding chapel for those who yearn for a love so great that it will endure even after death, as it did for the bride whose husband built it. We met a glowing young lady visiting with her mother as they exited the chapel, a return for them a year after her wedding. She “sang” her story to strangers from Florida. On the Internet, I later found page after page of wedding photographs posted by other smiling brides who had shared a happy, love-filled day there with grooms and families.

As we drove away from Boothbay Harbor, I thought how blessed we had been to have the opportunity to love and honor God in a place designed and built to love and honor a woman who had loved and honored God during her lifetime.

On a turning a few days later, driving on Lakewood Road in Madison, Maine, we came across yet another chapel, the Daystar Chapel. The sign in front of it proclaimed it to be The Church with the Outdoor Enthusiast in Mind: Home of “MAINE-LY OUTDOORS MINISTRY.” The Christian cross displayed in the upper right corner was repeated as the “T” in “OUTDOORS.” Then, in bold, black, strong capital letters, the sign explained exactly what an “Outdoor Enthusiast” has in mind: WE BELIEVE IN OPEN & / CONCEALED CARRY / OUR BIBLE & GUN.

The sign further informed any still-interested passersby that the church is a “Member of IPHC” (International Pentecostal Holiness Church) with two Sunday services and Thursday prayer and Bible study meeting.

As I did with the Janet M. Wilson Memorial Chapel, I further investigated the Daystar Chapel through its website. According to it, Pastor Dell Wing and the church have set as their mission “[t]o advance the Kingdom of God by reaching and teaching all who will receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Equipping, empowering and enabling Christians to impact our community and beyond for Christ.” They list the major church event for July as the Hunter Safety Course on July 20, 22, and 25. The course fulfilled requirements for a Maine hunting license if the full 16.5 hours were attended. Additionally, they note that the Maine-Ly Outdoors Ministry hosts handgun as well as “various” safety courses required by Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife all through the year.

I admit that I am left puzzled and full of questions regarding the church’s Biblical stand for guns even after studying the sign and researching the Daystar Chapel website.

Just how is it that guns in church “advance the Kingdom of God by reaching and teaching all who will receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ”? While I can grasp that teaching people to handle guns safely will equip and empower them, doesn’t that increase the possibility that the “impact” on the community will not be Christ-like? What Christ-like “impact” could guns have on any community? Where is the Bible passage that exhorts Christians to arm themselves with guns? For what do chapel-goers pray on Thursday nights? Good aim that they may “impact” visitors in the heart? That bullets may take out evil?

What does it mean to “believe” in carrying anything? (Perhaps their use of the word “believe” has to do with its meaning to fancy something, i.e., I fancy carrying a gun.) Why is that strongly stated belief in carrying not the fifteenth belief listed on the website?

And of what are they afraid? Have Pentecostal Christians been threatened by people from other houses of worship in the area? Are they worried about hordes of illegal Canadian immigrants crashing through the doors? Are they being attacked by wild animals? (As far as I know, Maine does not have a large population of lions.) Have church-goers there been physically attacked by the police? By revenuers? By the government?

As we drove away from Madison, we watched carefully straight ahead, neither of us wanting to tarry as we left a site and surroundings that appeared to be ashamed. We heard no laughter or song. We saw no blooming flowers, heard no water lapping nearby. Everything felt unloved. I thought then that we had dodged a bullet, and I thanked God.

Mostly now I chuckle when I ponder the trip experiences and wonder what we chanced on when we discovered the two chapels. Are they examples of God’s sense of humor, His design, His overlay of beauty on every natural setting, or His music? I see all four characteristics in the Janet M. Wilson Memorial Chapel, but I confess that I do not in the Daystar Chapel. So of whose creation is it an example?

The Fish That Didn’t Get Away

Everything

Late Wednesday night, Don, my husband, found a waiting text message upon our return from Abel House. Tired and concerned about the lateness of the hour but filled with delicious food and the usual bonhomie following our time of conversation, prayer, and Bible study, he was a bit unsure about responding right then to the texted request: “Hey! Are u up for a quick chat? Good news to share!”

Then, he noted that the sender is someone he loves and for whom we both had been praying for a long time. If she were still awake, the time felt right. He clicked on the number.

She sounded different even as her conversation started with a job report—good news, promotion earned, management position achieved, more money, more responsibility, more opportunity—finally, a career! Don had always known her potential and listened with pleasure to her evident pride and joy in her accomplishment and to her sincere thanks for all his supportive love, prayer, guidance, advice, care, and concern that she had not only failed to acknowledge for many years but sometimes actually rejected.

As he warmly congratulated her, she shyly and awkwardly added more good news—the real reason for her text message: She who had once been in a close relationship with the Lord but like so many young people had drifted away with her independence from her family, with her job trials, with her friends who did not share her childhood church experiences now has answered His call to return to her relationship with Him!

Her testimony followed Don’s stunned, jubilant questions. During the job transition, she met another Christian young lady who shares her faith easily. They began eating lunch, talking and praying together. Then, she met a young divorced dad, a Christian, different from the many young men she has known and with whom she has had relationship opportunities. She described her relationship with him as “respectful”—several times—and mentioned that they pray together. A truly beautiful woman in her mid-thirties and never married, she seems to have found “the one.” And, after yet another long search, she has also settled upon a New Testament church home that offers many chances for service to the Lord.

She revealed that within the prayer times with both new Christian friends and her church, she had rekindled her relationship with Christ and realized that the Holy Spirit was still working in her life. She searched and saw His hand in numerous recent events: in His answers to prayers she had spoken and prayers she had not dared to speak, in His reminders of what she had been taught as a child in a Christian home, in His provision of her newfound confidence and peace, in His reminder that those who had always loved her and been there in the past are still with her just as He is.

That indeed is good news!

Her testimony reminded me of the many discussions I have known in both our home and Bible study in answer to the questions How is it that God through His Holy Spirit enters into our hearts and draws us to Him? and What is the role of relationships in our discoveries of His love and presence?

Clearly, Christ never left this young woman’s life, but her focus had shifted for a while from her relationship with Him to relationships that drew her away from Him. His response was to break those old alliances and send her new colleagues, a church home, and a possible soul mate to draw that focus back to Him.

Don reminded her that her relationship with Christ will have the hills and valleys that delight and annoy everyone in every relationship, including the fresh ones God has recently provided to her. He pointed out that we and others are always available as members of her Christian faith to rejoice with her on the hills or slog with her through the valleys until she is uplifted again. If she reaches for Him and others, they will be there.

I was reminded of my own first call from the Lord. I learned about Jesus through a children’s song when I was only three. I remember. In a Presbyterian Sunday School class in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, way back in 1949, we sang “I Will Make You Fishers of Men” by Harry D. Clarke. I can still sing the song but almost no one else remembers singing it when they were little. The lyrics of the first verse are “’I will make you fishers of men . . . If you follow Me,’” of the second, “Hear Christ calling, ‘Come unto Me . . . I will give you rest,’” and of the third, “’I will give you rest . . . I will give you rest.’”

Because we were so young, we performed the song with appropriate hand gestures, throwing out our fishing line with each sung line through the first verse, then sweeping the bountiful catch toward us through the second, and folding our hands at our cheeks to rest through the third. I never will forget it because it sustains me to this day.

Once again, Christ has cast out His line for a fish who was adrift, swept her into His embrace, and brought her to rest again in His love and the support of Christian relationships.

Legacy

Everything

Right now, as I write this post, my grandfather’s very long life is slowly waning. His name is Ed McGuire, and he has been a pillar of faith in my life. When I was wayward and feasting with the swine, he was on his knees for my life. When I was in need of encouragement he reminded me that I can be anything that I put my mind to. When I was afraid of my inadequacies, he was the gentle reminder that my life is not my own. The most paramount realization that I have had about my grandfather happened around six years ago. We had taken a trip to Sioux Falls to have a family reunion, and most of our family was gathered in many different homes and hotels around the city. Robert and I were traveling with three of our children so my grandparents insisted on us staying in their home, which was my mother’s childhood home.

ed

A beautiful thing happened the first morning I awoke in my mother’s childhood home. I realized as I stumbled to the kitchen around 6:15 that my grandfather had been up and out of the house and was just returning home to fix breakfast for us. As he put the coffee on I absentmindedly asked where he had been that morning. His answer has impacted my life more than any other conversation I have ever had. He explained that at their church there is always someone praying every hour of the day. That morning he had been praying as he does every morning, from four to six o’clock. He then unrolled what looked like a mini scroll with hundreds of names on it. He explained that he barely had enough time to get through each name on his list, and how he wished that he had just one more hour to pray for his loved ones.

On that list I saw my name and many names later were my children’s names, and my ex followed by Robert’s name. My grandfather saw that I recognized both names, and he apologetically and humbly explained that once he adds a name he does not remove it. He later apologized to Robert for having George (my ex) before him in his prayer list. He explained that he is aware of the struggles with addiction that George faces and expressed that he feels that George needs prayers more than we realize, even though he had abandoned his family. I found his prayer time as a whole to be utterly enchanting. To be so devoted to prayer, to carry a name and pray with such love that would span decades and relationships. What an amazing gift he had been silently giving to us all. What a treasure it was that my grandfather, whom many in my family call a stoic man, was sharing such heart and passion and beauty with me.

Changing Through Prayer

A Church in Formation

I know no place I would rather be on a rainy Wednesday evening than at Abel House. I find friends there, definitely snug, gathered around Robert’s father’s table with the rain’s sound lost beneath chatter, its fresh smell overcome by the aromas of peaches and cinnamon, pasta and fried chicken, pea soup and beans in vinegary broth, and chocolate. As the chatter gives way to prayer, I relax into communion with God and the others through thanksgiving and a shared meal.

Although we have always prayed at Bible study and Abel House gatherings, Robert has recently combined our prayer life and another facet of our Abel House mission—our life of service to each other. Formerly, when prayer requests were solicited, we seemed reticent to make them, perhaps because we were already praying privately for those we judged to be in need of prayer or perhaps because we thought the prayer for unspoken requests adequately covered all situations. Only rarely did we request prayers of gratitude for God’s splendid gifts. And though it was valuable time spent gaining knowledge of each other, we did spend more of the prayer time explaining the background of the requests than we did in actual prayer to answer them.

Then, one recent Wednesday evening, Robert distributed to each of us an index card, a bold, felt-tipped marker, and instructions to write a prayer request for ourselves personally and individually. Having made assignments to students to start writing what they were thinking hundreds if not thousands of times only to see them spend several minutes just doodling or finding other ways to avoid beginning, I was surprised to see almost all those in the room start immediately to write a thanksgiving, perhaps for what God had already done in their lives, or a supplication, perhaps for God’s intervention, continued love, grace, or help.

We wrote and then sat there with poised markers for the next instructions: Write a prayer request for someone else close to you—not for the sister-in-law of someone at work who has cancer (though that is a prayer that should be prayed) but for someone whose well-being or joy is important to you. Again, markers penned heartfelt pleas—just as they do when the prison ministers distribute prayer cards for requests at the various correctional facilities in Central Florida. We do all need prayer for ourselves and for those we love, no matter where we are at the time of petition. The cards we covered with requests, some signed and others not, were placed into a 4Rivers paper bag, shaken to stir, and then presented for retrieval.

Two weeks later, we again accepted our index cards and, this time, filled out one prayer request—for ourselves individually only. I guess the request could again be for someone else because the answer to that request would also be for us, but from what I saw, most of us made an immediate-to-mind decision, perhaps because our prayers during the last fortnight had created a change in us as Christians.

No, I do not know that my prayers transformed the life of the gentleman for whom I had prayed all that time, over and over again. I do not know that his wife has had the benefit he requested I petition for her. I, therefore, continue to keep him and her in my frequent prayers.

What I do know is that before the Abel House prayer initiative, I had rarely, if ever, prayed the same specific prayer many times a day for two full weeks in my whole life. Perhaps thinking that God gets it once I have voiced it, I had usually voiced a prayer once. I had mostly prayed for guidance with a problem, the nature of which could and did change not just weekly but, sometimes, hourly. I may have had a putting-out-fires kind of prayer life or a scatter-shot one in which I sent either a quick entreaty or thanksgiving and moved on.

Yes, I did also frequently thank God for whatever was before me—the beauty of the sunset, the joy on a little red-haired sweetie’s face, the bounty of whatever graced my life at the time—but I did not thank God several times a day for one particular moment, person, object that had passed and was no longer straightway before me, for the continuing joy the memory brought me.

For my prayer-request-card friend, I did that. I thanked God for him, for his wife, and for their having found each other. I thanked God for his request and the knowledge and love it evidenced for God and God’s grace. I thanked God for his relationship with his wife and his desire to make himself more worthy of it and her. And I petitioned as requested on his behalf—the pointed, clear, focused petitions he had so boldly declared to be his desire. Repeatedly.

And in the doing of that, in the praying, I changed in my relationships with God and with that Abel House prayer-request friend and with my husband and with myself.

My relationship with God changed because I became more aware of His presence in my life and of His work in the lives of those around me. I became more willing to join with Him in the work I had prayed for Him to do for my prayer-request friend.

My relationship with my prayer-request friend changed because I came to recognize his anguish, his fear, his trust in God, his love for his wife, his gentleness. I came to appreciate him more as a Christian and a husband to his wife. I became concerned for his well-being and more willing to serve him and with him in our Abel House community.

My relationship with my husband changed (though he may not have realized it) when I looked for God’s response in the gentleman’s life but found it in mine! I became aware that He had answered the man’s prayer in my own life by bringing new awareness to me of what is happening in my marriage, by making me ask if it were possible that my husband has those thoughts for me, by revealing answers to my marriage relationship questions, and by revealing possible “husband ideas” of marriage and how insecure a seemingly assured husband can be. I became more willing to serve with him in the couple role we play together.

My relationship with myself changed because my focus changed. I began to look more at the overall picture than at brief moments, single objects, one-time events. I became more patient and more grateful for the whole inclusive of all the details. I, too, recalled my own prayer request—not knowing who had drawn it—and searched my writings for evidence of God’s grace.

But God is not finished with changing me by Robert’s prayer initiatives. This week, I drew again the prayer request of a gentleman who seeks to overcome anguish visible only to him. I am adding my prayers for him to my prayers for the other gentleman. Clearly, I have not learned all the Lord has to teach me about serving Him through my help to and with others with whom He has surrounded me.

Prayer is uniting me with my Abel House family. It is providing me an opportunity to serve them and God. It is revealing them to me. It is changing my life as a Christian. It is uncovering my personal life to me. And it is leading me to be more thankful for what can seem to be negatives, such as the admission that we need help, such as the rain that accompanies us as we move inside to renew our relationships with God and each other in prayer and in Abel House.