Friday, October 30, 2020

Mary's Card

I wrote this a few years ago but never published it.  Until now.  This is the story of Mary, one of the faithful that I was privileged to know during our years in pastoral ministry.  Today I post this in honor of her.    

We drove to Corning yesterday to check in on Mary.  She was falling a lot, probably due to her failing  kidneys and dialysis three times a week. Now she is in a nursing home for rehabilitation.  Our visit was long overdue, she'd been there for several weeks and this was the first time we'd been over to see her.  But she didn't seem to hold it against us.  Not Mary.  Larry went in search of a couple chairs and she immediately started to talk, as if the words had been pent up for way too long and she couldn't wait to get them out.  So for the next hour or so as I plied her with questions, she did just that.  Talked.  And talked.    

A place like that can be lonely.  In the case of Mary, her husband and daughter are a good half hour away and neither drives.  Several days might go by before she's able to see them, and she misses her own place.  But still too weak to dress or bathe herself,  going home isn't an option.  Not yet anyways.

Mary has lived a simple life.  She and her husband rent a small duplex, filled with too many cats and a daughter who will never be able to live independently.  For years she rode the church van each Sunday morning and evening, teaching the preschool classes.  She was faithful, never missing, always there.  And then about a year and a half ago she stopped coming, simply too weak to make the ride over and back. 

Mary teaching one of her preschool classes

As simple as her life might seem,  Mary is actually quite intelligent and articulate.  She always had a book close at hand for the downtimes while working the information desk at St. Joseph's, one of the local hospitals, a job she had to discontinue when she became ill.  We also have a nice church library, and no one has taken greater advantage of its contents over the years than Mary.  She would probably have made a good teacher.  Come to think of it, she was.     

Mary opened the drawer of her tray table and pulled out an envelope.  "Bill and I just had our anniversary," she continued.  I nodded.  I'd seen it listed in the bulletin a couple of weeks earlier.  "Forty-two years.  We've been married 42 years.  I was in rehab that day, and I didn't know he was going to come."  She began to cry.  "He was here an hour before he even came and found me.  He didn't tell me he was coming."  She opened the envelope and drew out a greeting card.  "He brought me an anniversary card and he didn't even sign it.  He never signs his cards which annoys me." She was quiet for a moment as she slid the unsigned card back into the drawer.  "But he came.  He came."  And that was enough.  
A footnote: 
We would see Mary just a few more times before receiving word that she had died.  Her desire was to get back home.  She did.  She's Home.  


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Coming Home

Our Alabama Home

It was January of 2010,  and we were experiencing our first New Year in Elmira, a small city on the Southern Tier of Upstate New York.  We'd been living in the South for the last 14 years, so it would be a big change for us, even though we'd both been raised in snow country. For the next ten years we would welcome in each New Year from our little parsonage on the corner of Charles and Federal Streets.  It was the first time in many years we'd lived in such close proximity to the church that Larry was pastoring,  and we loved the spontaneous visits and activities we could host in our home.

We had sensed almost from the moment we came to interview that this was the church for us.  It would be confirmed through a divine encounter Larry had a few days later that these were the people God had chosen for him to shepherd. To love.  And that's what he did.  We did.   

When I met and fell in love with a preacher boy, there was a sense in my spirit that this was what God had prepared for me all along.  I believed it was my calling, very much in the same way that Larry was called to be a pastor.   When the challenges were especially difficult, and we've had our share, I would remember that this was what we were created for.

The diagnosis was not unexpected but still difficult to hear.  Dementia.  We'd seen the signs.  Larry was having noticeable memory issues and finding it harder to keep track of all the responsibilities associated with being a pastor.  And though the illness was fairly early in its progression, we sensed that it was time to step away from full-time ministry and enter retirement. It was not an easy decision.  We loved our people, our community, our calling.  We would have been content to stay the course for much longer.  But we learned a long time ago that the journey often takes some unexpected turns. This just happened to be a big one.

I've always considered myself pretty adaptable.  When the kids were young, we packed up and moved to Costa Rica and then on to Honduras.  That meant both a change of cultures and  language. We've lived in the country (on a dusty dirt road), small towns and cities of varied sizes. Moving was never easy, but I saw each change as a part of the journey already laid out for us.  And with the changes,  there was always the exciting prospect of discovery and adventure in new places with people that we would get to know and grow to love.

I have to be honest. I was not anticipating this next leg of the journey.  People would often congratulate us on the retirement that was fast approaching, the obligatory thing to do I suppose.  But I felt no sense of anticipation at the thought of leaving this life that had brought us such a sense of fulfillment and joy for the last forty-two years.   

It was in August, just over a year ago, that we stopped after a long day of several hundred miles and snapped a picture at the Alabama border, grateful that we had just a few more hours of travel.  The sentiments from that welcome sign, aptly borrowed from the southern rock group, Lynard Skynard, spoke more deeply than it had on our occasional visit back to the southland over the past 12 years.  That's because this time we were coming back to stay.  

When Larry resigned his position from the church in Alabama, we never anticipated living in this house again.   But after putting it on the market and trying to sell it on and off for seven years, we came to the conclusion that it simply wasn't to be.  When the time was right, this would be our home again.  Perhaps we should have known that this was God's plan all along.  This place, this house, for this time.   

When we first came to Alabama back in the summer of 1995, our first months were in a rental.  Less that a year later, we were living in a brand new house, our first ever, on an acre of land.  A contractor who attended the church offered to build a home for us at his cost. It was one of his last jobs.  Cancer took him within a year or so after we moved in.  And so here we are, living in a house built by someone, who in spite of his own need, provided for ours 25 years ago.  And God, knowing what our need would be down the road, chose to keep this place for us.  

Starting with the farmhouse turned parsonage on that dirt road in Pennsylvania, to the mission house in Honduras, and finally, on to that dear place on the corner of Charles and Federal in New York, all have been home to me. To us. But at this juncture in our lives, I am especially grateful for our Alabama home. We are taking each day as it comes with the challenges of dementia, and I am learning to be content in this season of my life.  And as for what comes next, there are no guarantees.  But for now, we are simply grateful.  

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Water from the Well

A free-flowing artisan well in Prattville, Alabama 
We stopped by one of the artisan wells here in Prattville a few days ago to fill our water jugs.  I met the nicest lady who had come to fill hers as well, and we chatted while Larry helped an elderly gentleman carry several full containers to his pickup.  This was not the first time we've met and visited with people at what appears to be one of the most popular spots in town.  Earlier this summer we met a group of women from a church in Montgomery loading various sized containers, anything that held water, into their van. It was obviously as much a social event for them as they gathered around the well, laughing and talking among themselves.

When we first moved to Alabama almost 25 years ago, I didn't think much about the artisan wells in the area.  We were living in a brand new house and I was perfectly content with the water pouring out of those shiny kitchen spigots.  Besides, my life was simply too busy to be hauling bottles of water into the house for what was at that time a family of six.      

Fast forward to Elmira, New York where we would spend our final years of pastoral ministry.  We were settling into the parsonage when a member showed up with a water cooler and plopped it down in our kitchen.  "As long as you're here, you help yourselves to as much water as you want from my store." he insisted.  One sip of that pure, spring water was enough to convince us that it was worth the few miles drive to John's business to keep us in supply, and for the next ten years that's all we drank at home.  When one has had a taste of the best, it's hard to be satisfied with anything else.

"Take the cooler with you,"  John insisted when Larry offered to return it as we packed up our household items. "That was a gift."  And a wonderful gift it had been, but out of his generosity I had moved beyond simple preference to dissatisfaction with anything but that pure,  unadulterated spring water.  And the other downside to all of this, we'd have to start buying what had been so generously given to us over the past ten years.

Not too many days later we pulled into our Alabama driveway, this time to stay.  The moving truck had already been emptied of our belongings, including the water cooler which now sat empty in the kitchen corner.  A couple days later, we were drinking what had come from one of those same wells that I had hardly taken notice of all those years earlier.  A couple of the guys who were helping us move in had taken our empty jugs and filled them with water that was still pouring out of the ground all these years later.  It cost us nothing, and it was good.  Very good.

Larry filling up one of our jugs 
Back to that elderly gentleman who Larry was helping a few days ago.  "Some friends visiting here from Chicago took as much water as they could fit in their vehicle back home with them," he said.   I thought of those women who travel from Montgomery to fill their bottles from the well.  And as I stood talking with my new acquaintance, we couldn't miss the deeper meaning in all of this.  She recalled Jesus meeting the woman at the well, a place where she opened her heart to the greatest need in her life, the Living Water.  I remember that all those years ago, I was satisfied with what came out of my tap. It was fine. That is, until I had a taste of something that was so much better.

Prattville--also known as "The Fountain City"     

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Message from a Fortune Cookie

It always hits me a bit after the new year rolls around.  I have this insatiable desire to organize and get rid of stuff.  A couple years back I hit the big file cabinet that holds our personal papers.  I spent days going thorough every single folder, throwing out and shredding documents from years back and reorganizing what remained.  I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment after finishing up and gave myself a good old pat on the back.  Yep, I was pretty proud of myself.

Therefore, when the subject came up on what we're keeping and what we're not, I thought to myself, "I've got this!  I mean, pack rat I am not.  Clutter?  Not my thing.  Too much stuff?  Absolutely not!" 

Several weeks earlier Larry had announced to the church that he would be retiring sometime during the summer.  With that announcement came the daunting realization that we had a big job ahead of us.  It's called packing, and it would be nothing like that move from seminary to our first pastorate.  For seven months we had lived in a tiny furnished apartment in student housing.  I think all we had were some wedding gifts, a few kitchen items, a vacuum cleaner and a dining room table (sans chairs) that we bought at an auction for fifteen or twenty dollars.  Fast forward 42 years and the accumulation was, needless to say, quite significant.

The big items weren't the problem.  What we needed we would keep.  What we didn't need, we could  sell or give away.  But the smaller stuff, well, where to begin?  Besides three closets full of clothes and bookshelves stuffed with books and movies and photo albums, there were boxes, totes and large containers full of holiday decorations, old letters, music books, toys, dolls, old photographs and Packer paraphernalia.  There were trunks full of costumes for dress up and puppets from our missionary days.  Board games and puzzles filled up the corners of the attic and children's books cluttered the shelves along with the old VHS tapes that hold the memories of those growing up years with our children.   

Yep, we had stuff.  And lots of it.  So where to start?  It wasn't 30 minutes later that I was peering into one of the kitchen cupboards.  Even though the move was several weeks away yet, I felt the need to start, to begin somewhere, and this was as good a place as any.  The first thing I spied was an unopened fortune cookie from Chinese takeout a few weeks earlier. Removing it from its plastic wrapping, I broke open the cookie, pulled out the tiny slip of paper and read the following: Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. 

Message from a fortune cookie  

Well that was certainly not applicable where I was concerned. Unnecessary possessions? I didn't have all that many things that are unnecessary, and the stuff I do have, it's just a natural accumulation of lots of years of living.  And besides, how seriously should I take some saying that comes out of a fortune cookie anyways? And yet the timing was uncanny.  Well, since I was in the cupboard I figured I'd get through my spices, some of which I knew I'd had for a v-e-r-y long time.  By the time I was done I'd tossed a dozen or more tins and jars of the stuff, some expired by several years I'm embarrassed to admit,  into the trash.   But it felt good, really good.  I could do this.  Round one done.

A few days later I hit the closets. Things went pretty well until I came to the one that held those things that I no longer wear but hang on to because of some emotional connection.   I found myself staring at the purple dress I wore at both Fawn's and Autumn's college graduations.  I hadn't worn that thing in 10 years and knew I probably never would again.  I'd tried it on a few years prior, thinking it'd make a great Easter dress but it was a bit tight in the stomach.  Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens.  It was time to let it go.  Stupid fortune cookie. I just had to open it.

My purple dress donated to the church's clothes closet

In the meantime Larry was attacking his study with a vengeance.   Books, old sermons, teaching notes, letters, pictures, photographs, gifts and assorted paraphernalia being packed away in totes, tossed or given away.  A couple of young pastors were on the receiving end as he cleared a few hundred books out of his library, some newer, others going back to seminary days.  "I don't need them.  Might as well give them to someone who can use them." I'd never seen him so pragmatic, this man who is notoriously sentimental.

That same pragmatism came a bit harder for me, surprisingly, as I am not quite as nostalgic as my husband.  But reality was starting to sink in.  Our forty plus years of pastoring was coming to an end and some pretty big challenges lay ahead, the first of which was getting all our personals from New York to Alabama.   Larry reserved a moving truck from Budget and the date set for loading was put on the calendar.

"I don't ever want to do this again." Over the course of Larry's career, we had pastored in five different states and served in Central America as missionaries for a time, but I didn't remember moving ever being this hard. The seeming insurmountable task of packing up our entire household coupled with the thought of leaving the people and area we had grown to love for a far-off place was overwhelming.  And I repeated my sentiments once again.  "I don't ever want to do this again.  Ever."

I'm not saying that God had that little slip of paper put into that fortune cookie specifically for me.  But it was still a reminder to me over those days and weeks of sorting and packing and tossing and giving away that just because we had it didn't mean we needed it. When the last item was loaded, or should I say squeezed, onto that truck and the door was slammed shut, I felt a pang of guilt.  There was a lot of stuff in there, and despite the multiple trips to the local thrift store, I wondered if we had let enough of it go.

Our friend John showing up to help load up 

"Why did we bring this with us?"  We had been unpacking, settling back into our Alabama home,  and I had already asked Larry that same question several times while holding up the items in question.  We have already made two or three trips to one of the thrift stores here in town and have plans to haul over another load sometime soon.   Why indeed?   

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Violets for Fred and Louise

Violets among the dandelions filled our yard in New York 

"Happy May Day!" I said to the cashier as I handed her the two bouquets of multicolored daisies to ring up.  "It's May Day?" she asked as she scanned the bar code.  "Yep, it most certainly is and I'm celebrating!" She smiled and nodded, probably more to humor me than anything.  I put the debit card back in my wallet and before stepping away wished her a happy May Day one more time.  I was feeling good, May had arrived, and I couldn't wait to share this day with a couple of friends.   

I always looked forward to that first day in May growing up in Western New York.  March seemed to stretch on forever and April was usually a tease, changeable and unpredictable.  But May was different.  Her disposition was sunny and she held the promise of many good days ahead.  At her arrival, the trees were blossoming and the returning birds were building or settling into their nests.  The grass was becoming a lush, thick green, interspersed throughout with the inevitable dandelion and the much daintier purple violet.   

I might have acquired my love for the month of May from my mother.  On May Day each year she would cut a small section off a roll of wallpaper, form it into a cone, make a handle and and glue it all together with a bit of wallpaper paste.  Then she'd send us on a hunt to fill it with whatever flowers we could find and each year it was the same.   We would fill our paper basket with violets.  

Fred and Louise McMullen lived next door.  I don't know how old they were, I just knew they were lots older than my mom and dad.  And they had no children.  So every first of May we would quietly creep over to their backdoor, place the basket full of violets over the doorknob, ring the bell and skedaddle before they could retrieve it.  I'm pretty sure they knew all along that the Marvin kids and their mama were behind the ritual, but we did it anyways.  Year after year.

I had decided the night before that I was going to surprise someone with flowers for May Day.  Perhaps it's simply nostalgia,  realizing this would be my last May Day in New York. Or maybe it was just one more way of thanking my mother for the example she had set for us, her children, showing us how to care for our neighbors in simple, yet tangible ways.      
So after leaving the store with my two bouquets, I called friend number one from the car.  Well into her 90's, it'd been way too long since I'd stopped in to see her.  She answered on the third ring.  The back door would be open for me, she said.  The second friend, pretty much confined to her home, seemed delighted with her bouquet as well.  But I know full well that the better part of my May Day surprise was the visit itself and that I had chosen to include them in my personal celebration.  The flowers were simply a reminder of that.         

I'm pretty sure that's what it was like for Fred and Louise as well.  The busy mom with the five rambunctious children next door (and we were) chose to include them in the joyful welcome of spring,  fully arrived after the long, long winter.  And for them, hopefully, the wallpaper basket full of freshly-picked violets placed on their doorknob was simply the reminder that there were those who cared enough to place them there.            
Violets that I discovered just today along the wall of our parsonage

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Divine Seat Assignment

Larry and I flew home from a conference in Orlando this past Saturday.  It was a long enough flight that if a passenger wanted to take in a movie they could.  Somehow we ended up across the aisle from each other, him in the middle and me by the window.  The couple to my left had their screens turned on and their big headphones plugged in even before we had taxied down the runway.  Only when the attendant handed the woman beside me her complimentary orange juice did I have a chance to ask where she was from.  "Australia," she responded and immediately put her headset back into place. 

I'm not one who feels like I have to engage every stranger I meet into a meaningful conversation, including those I might be sitting by while traveling cross country.  But I couldn't help but think of some months earlier when Larry and I were returning from a visit to Los Angeles where we had traveled to meet our new baby granddaughter.  The plane was much like this one, but that time we were sitting together, Larry by the window and me in the middle.  The man next to me on the aisle seemed approachable, so I'd asked him where he was from and where he was going.  He too was from Australia but lived in the States and was returning from a trip after a visit with his aging parents. 

I need to back up.  The day before we had visited a very large, used bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, a place that Autumn and Jimmie had wanted to check out since moving to California three years earlier.  I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to pick up something to read for the long flight back to New York.  I went up to the second level and found a small section of Christian books off in a corner.  I found something by a favorite author of mine in good condition for six dollars and packed it in my carry-on later that night.

The used bookstore in downtown Los Angeles

It was about an hour into the flight and an hour into my book when I read the following:  God is in the business of strategically positioning us in the right place at the right time.  God is setting you up....I don't believe in coincidence, not if you are living a Spirit-led life.  I believe in a sovereign God who is ordering your footsteps, preparing good works in advance, and making all things work together for good.   Then a few paragraphs later came the clincher.  Can I make a simple observation?  Notice who's next to you. What you think is a seat assignment might be a divine assignment.  The Person two inches away may change your destiny, or you might change theirs!  ("Chase The Lion" by Mark Batterson p. 41)

"Uh, Lord, are you trying to tell me that this is a divine appointment with this stranger sitting beside me?"  He'd been watching a movie for the last hour, and except for knowing what little bit he'd told me, that was it.  I didn't even know his name.  Besides, you don't try to carry on a conversation on a plane with someone wearing headphones staring at a screen.  But I also sensed that God was about to do something.  "OK Lord, if this is your plan, I'm in.  But you're going to have to get this thing started.  It's up to you."   

A few minutes later Larry suddenly whispered, "I need to get out. I have to use the restroom."  He'd been accepting coffee from the flight attendants every time they walked by.  This was the second time I was having to apologize and ask the nice, patient man in the aisle seat if he would mind letting my husband out. He smiled, a good sign, and Larry disappeared towards the back of the plane.

The earphones were now off and the screen was dark.  I felt a nudge.  It was time.  God promises to give us what we need when we need it.  In this case,  I needed an opener and He gave it to me, a simple inquiry about how hard had it been to leave his parents living so far away.  From that one question,  the conversation would continue for the next two and a half hours, the remainder of that flight.  In between the words spoken and stories shared, we were permitted to see into the heart of a man who was looking for answers to some difficult questions and seeking direction for the next season of his life. I opened the book and showed him what I had read, knowing by his expression that he too recognized that this had been a divine appointment.         

Before we landed I felt one last nudge.  I asked John (for that is his name) if he would like to have the book as a reminder that God had set up the seating assignments that day.  But mostly, that he would know that God had a plan for him in the next season of his life.  I wasn't even supposed to be on this plane," he had told us, "and as far as I know, I got the last seat."  It just happened to be by us.  He accepted my gift gratefully.  Our last moments were in the terminal in Detroit praying together. He would be boarding for Iowa shortly and we for New York.  That was the last time we saw him. 

There's a bit more to this story.  I emailed the author and shared the story of how God had used his words to bring a few strangers together on that flight out of Los Angeles.  And then I ended with this:  "I know this whole episode encouraged John at a crucial time in his life, but it also did something in me.  We've pastored and done missionary work for over 40 years.  But I needed something fresh, and those moments on that plane revived my spirit in a way that I can not explain.  Thank you."  A few days later, I received a reply, and this is what he wrote.  A big smile on my face right now. And God does it again! Thanks SO MUCH for sharing this.  Love it when the Lord sets up these divine appointments--never gets old does it?   Mark 

No, it never does.  

Monday, December 31, 2018

Finding Christmas

Cody and Kayla (aka Mary and Joseph)
"Marcy, it's Melody.  I've got a couple here with a dog in my car.  They got a flat and couldn't find a tire.  They have nowhere to go.  I don't know what to do."  I looked over at my husband.  He'd been working most of the day on his message for Sunday and had just settled onto the couch to watch some television before turning in for the night.  "Let me talk to Larry," I told her.  "I'll call you right back."  He looked at me warily, already sensing that his relaxing evening was about to be hijacked.   I repeated what she had told me and then handed him my phone. "You need to call her and talk to her," I said.   "They can't stay in their car. We've got to figure something out."   For being so early in December,  it had been uncommonly bitter cold that day.   He reluctantly made the call.

Newly married and recently discharged from the army, Cody with his new bride Kayla had traveled from Kentucky to New Jersey and then on to New England, believing that family would welcome them as they put down roots and settled back into civilian life.  But it didn't take long to realize that neither family was anxious to embrace and bring them in for the long term.  An invite from another family member in Arizona was their only other option.

That's where they were heading when the tire blew passing through Big Flats, the shopping mecca that everybody from three counties shops at around here.  Cody made a call and had his vehicle towed to the Super Walmart, not far from where the blowout occurred. Surely they of all places would have a replacement.  But they didn't.  For the next several hours, in between calling every tire place he could find listed,  he spoke to person after person as they emerged from the store, asking if they knew where he and his wife might find a place to stay the night. But no one offered them any help.   They were desperate, low on cash and a hotel was simply too expensive.  He would later say that he had approached no fewer than 30 people on that frigid Friday afternoon. When he could, he'd crawl into the back seat and share the one blanket with his bride and her dog Tobi, occasionally starting up the engine just enough to ward off some of the cold. Evening was approaching, the sun had set and the temperature was dropping even more.

And then he saw Melody.  He approached her, and when asked if she might know of somewhere that he and his wife and their dog might stay, this one didn't brush him off.  She peered into the back seat of his car and saw a girl with her hands raised,  crying out as if in prayer, pleading for help.  And she knew that this was no accident.  This was a divine appointment.

Cody and Kayla would be with us for the next three days.  We knew as soon as they walked through our door that they were to stay with us.  After dozens of calls, Melody eventually tracked down a place that could order that specific tire. But it wouldn't be in until Monday. So we gave them the spare bedroom and Melody took the dog to her house.

From the moment we met,  I knew God had a special plan in mind, and He was using us, starting with Melody, to work it out.  From the warm coats supplied through the church's clothes closet, the hundred-dollar gift card won at a special event the next afternoon and the cash pressed into their hands on Sunday morning from members of the church, they knew that they had not been forgotten.  That same morning, they read aloud for the second week of Advent, then lit the wreath and the appropriate candles.  Hope came first. Love followed. Cody was dressed in a three-piece suit that morning with a matching tie.  It was on a rack in the clothes closet.  There just for him. 

We saw them off on Monday afternoon.  The new tire was on and the gas tank filled, both early Christmas presents I guess you could say.  Tobi the dog had been reunited with his people, and all seemed right once again.  I don't think either of us could have spoken as the car turned the corner, away from us.  We had them for just three days, but we had loved them from the very first moment they walked through our door.       
Larry still calls them his Mary and Joseph, in part because they were far from home and had no place to stay.  But it was more than that.  We needed to be reminded that in the midst of our preoccupation with all the preparations and busyness of the season, we were missing it.  And they brought it back to us.  They brought us Christmas.  They needed us.  But more than anything, we needed them.       

Kayla reunited with Tobi