Sunday, January 24, 2010

Remembering Larry: Sinner and Saint and Recipient of Grace

A recent picture of Larry in Arizona.

Most of you who have read this blog over the years know about my beloved sister, Darlaine, and her sad sojourn with Alzheimer's disease.  Not long ago I asked readers of this blog to pray for my brother-in-law, Larry. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer and about to be admitted to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America campus in Illinois. I had not seen Larry since Darlaine's funeral.  Ken and I travelled there and had lunch with Larry and his new wife, Earlene. It was a good day. Larry cried and hugged the stuffing outta me and told me I was like a sister to him. We ate Mexican food and laughed and just enjoyed being together.

After the cancer surgery, Larry and Earlene went to Arizona for his recuperation and things seemed to be going well. Then a short while ago, he had a sudden stroke and collapsed. A few days later he was gone, never having regained consciousness.

I have, of course, been thinking about Larry in recent days, and thinking of Larry has led me to thinking about people and about God and about grace--and what a wonderful mystery it all is after all.
There are many things I could say about Larry. His story is an interesting one. He was Jewish, but not religious, and he met my sister, Darlaine just as she was in the midst of a divorce and at a time when her own faith was pretty tattered, to say the least.

They were a little wild, and not a little strange. They had what I can only describe as a goofy hippie wedding. They put nude posters of themselves on the hallway and the bedroom wall (way too much information). My poor dad was horrified. Makes me grin to think of it now, but it wasn't funny at the time. They went to a commune in Tennessee for a while, called The Farm. Thankfully, when they discovered it was really a cult, they left. My sister shocked me with her increasing change from the youth group leader, singer in the choir and Sunday School teacher to pot smoking agnostic. Of course, we blamed Larry.

Over time Darlaine began to realize that she really did believe in her Christian faith after all, and later Larry, a professed atheist, had an unusual experience after which he burst into the room where she was, exclaiming, "Darlaine, God is real and just revealed himself to me!"

They started attending a small Christian and Missionary Alliance Church Bible study, and Larry deliberately antagonized them to see what they would do. Once, he later told me, he showed up at a home Bible study drunk and high and plopped his muddy boots on the coffee table. They loved him anyway, he said, and their love won him over. The first thing Larry got rid of in his new life was not booze, nor smokes, nor pot. It was his beloved Dr. Bronner's castille soap (with weird religious stuff on the label, much of it anti Christian). Yes, Larry was one-of-a-kind.

He was sometimes arrogant, often talked too much, and micromanaged everyone who would let him. He was a fairly autocratic and often patriarchal husband and father, and if you know me at all well you already know how I feel about that.

Even after Larry became a committed believer in Jesus, he could be infuriating (according to one of his kids, sometimes even more than before). He was a long-time Campus Crusade for Christ staff member, as was Darlaine. They mostly worked with Campus Crusade's prison ministry, and Larry had a hand in Ken's eventual interest in being a prison chaplain. That can be good, and I'm not dissing CCC, but in Larry's case it was also sometimes bad. His passion for Jesus was real, and he shared God's love with many people, but I think he also pushed some people away with his sometimes misplaced zeal.

Recently Tom, also a Campus Crusade staffer and Larry's long-time best friend, called me about some estate issues. One of the first things he said, with a catch in his voice, was, "The guy drove me crazy! But I really loved him, and I sure am going to miss him." I laughed. I couldn't help it. I told Tom I thought I was the only one who felt that way. Tom added, "Larry made me just nuts sometimes, but something I really appreciated about they guy was the he wasn't afraid to say, 'Please forgive me. I was wrong.' Sometimes he just couldn't see that he had made a serious mistake, but if he did see it he was quick to own up to it and try to make amends.'"

Larry and I became close about five years ago after my sister was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. It is my opinion that the disease began much earlier, but she was a very intelligent woman; her vocabulary was always extensive, and I think that fooled the doctors for a long while (and Larry as well). Not much would have changed, even if he had known the truth.

People with Alzheimer's usually can't express themselves as well as Darlaine did. Once I was visiting and she was searching for her shoes. She spent most of every day searching for her shoes or her jacket. She said, looking distressed, "This is such a frustrating conundrum." Then she turned to me, with her lopsided grin, and said, "I can't remember who I am and I can't find my shoes, but I still have my vocabulary!" I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so I hugged her.

Anyway, when it became clear that she was genuinely ill and it wasn't going to get better, Larry turned to me for help. It seems I became the sounding board he had always needed and my sister had formerly been. We discussed Alzheimer's disease, finances, Larry's somewhat fragile health, living wills, long-term care arrangements, family issues, and much more. Larry, for once, was often at a loss, and I am grateful that he allowed me to help in at least some ways.

I made several trips to Washington. I brought my aging mother to visit while she and my sister could still enjoy one another. We also had fun, in bittersweet ways. Ken and I joined them and some other family members a couple of times at their time share condo in California. We sang songs (something my sister and I had done together since we were children), prayed, cried, laughed...and I found myself growing to love Larry to a degree I never expected.

He really didn't know what to think about having a sister-in-law that was a pastor, but he tried his best to be supportive. Once he said, "Well, I'm glad you were willing to go to a difficult place. Sometimes if men don't listen to God then God will send a woman instead."

Yeah. You already know how that went over. And when I told him that comment was rude and insulting he was genuinely shocked. I can't say he was ever enthusiastic about my role in the church, but he did modify his point of view--to a degree I found gratifying. He was insulted on my behalf when his pastor did not give me the respect Larry had decided I, as a fellow minister, was due. I was amazed.

I did not back down when Larry got bossy. I told him to stop--and he usually did.  I saw a kinder, gentler, side of him. I heard him express hope and pride in Jessica (his "daughter-in-love" as he called her) who cared for Darlaine with tenderness and wisdom for a long time. I heard many of his regrets.

I listened in surprise as he told me he now realized (too late) that he had not really known how to be a nurturing parent or husband. He grieved the estrangements that had happened in the family. He praised my sister. He talked about their combined family of children and some of the things he hoped for each of them. He agonized over some of his mistakes. I cried with him as he sobbed one day, facing my sister's imminent leaving home for a long-term care facility. We both felt guilty, even though we knew it was for the best.  At Darlaine's funeral he held my hand and tapped his foot to Mahalia Jackson music and grinned even as the tears pooled in his eyes.

He shared the love and forgiveness of Jesus with prisoners, foreign students, inner-city poor. He spent some time in jail for his work with the anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue. He sang country gospel off key but with gusto. He loved the sun and the beach and good food and the writings of his "friend and mentor" Oswald Chambers. He took pride in his Jewish heritage.

In short, Larry was like all of us. He was a mix of human pride and surprising humility, sinfulness and goodness, and love and fun and sorrow and wisdom and incredible foolishness.  His mix of traits were just more obvious than in some of us. He was who he was, for good or ill, and he just didn't seem to be able to modify or contain his feelings. Sometimes I wonder if the Apostle Paul was a bit like Larry. I suspect Paul might not have been the easiest person to be around, but all who knew him knew he loved his Lord, and that was true of Larry too.

It is not yet real that Larry is gone. There have been so many losses in my life these last few years that I'm having trouble taking this one in. As I ponder how it should be that this dear brother-in-law can be someone who made me furious and also someone who left a deep void in my life, I am compelled to thank God for the unutterable grace and mercy that he shows each of us.

From Romans 5
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God...But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us...For if, while we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation...
those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!...But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I too am both a sinner and a saint. What you hear about me depends on who you ask. Some people love me and some people do not. How glad I am that when I stand before God I will not need to depend on my own good deeds, or wisdom, or holiness. Neither does Larry. He can stand, free at last, in the robe of righteousness that Jesus gave to him. Rest in peace, my dear friend! I hope you enjoyed your reunion with my beloved sister, and I'll see you both soon.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Religous People *&^% Up Everything

The title is a quote I read recently. More on that in a moment.

The occasion of the remark was that Pat Robertson made another embarrassing comment, saying offhandedly on The 700 Club that Haiti's problems are the result of a long-ago pact with the devil, and adding "true story." Really? I'd like to have a footnote for that. I wish Pat understood that he is giving ammunition to people who want to say that Christians are _________ (insert pejorative term here).

What I find most disturbing is not the actual comment. I mean--maybe some time in the past some people did do that--or thought they did. It is no secret that there is a great deal of occult practice in Haiti. Pat Robertson's comments are not the main point of this post however.

I made the mistake of watching Pat's comments on You Tube, and then the even bigger mistake of reading the comments (numbering well over a thousand at that time). They were, predictably I suppose, vicious, obscene and often completely false. For example, it is one thing to say that the comment was ignorant or stupid or whatever. It is quite another to say that he cares nothing for anyone, never gives any money to charity, and lots more that is, demonstrably, incorrect. Actually, Operation Blessing, the charitable organization that he started and donates to, gets very high marks from those who monitor the fiscal responsibility of non-profit charities.

But here's the deal. By the time I had read about 20 comments, I realized that there was a theme. The emerging theme is the title of this post. An alarming number of people apparently believe that those of us who believe in God are the cause of most of the world's ills.

People of faith have done plenty of damage over the years. Not that others have not, but I'm speaking of the camp to which I belong. I've written more than one post here about my frustration with what a friend calls "Christiandumb." I'm all too aware, these days, of how short we have fallen from what Jesus wanted his disciples to be.

However, I'm tired of the labels and the name-calling and the outright slander that is becoming the norm in a lot of places.

Listening to the radio yesterday, I heard several interviews with people in Haiti. Who were those people? They were World Vision employees, missionaries staffing an orphanage and feeding programs, people on humanitarian missions from a Bible college, and so on.

Are people who believe in God the only people who are involved in charitable persuits? No. But it's fair to say that they appear to be in the majority.

I will never forget the trip Ken and I took to the gulf area just days after Katrina devastated the coastal cities. Yes, FEMA was there, as was the Red Cross, and others. But the overwhelming number of people who were manning makeshift medical clinics and food and clothing distribution and much more were from churches. I was proud, during the exhausting week we spent there, to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ. I worked alongside Catholics and Lutherans and Alliance and Baptist folks. Convoy of Hope was there.

Again and again the locals said things like, "If it weren't for the church folks we'd have nothing." The disappointment with the efforts of many of the usual relief organizations was sometimes pretty bitter.

WE DO SOME THINGS RIGHT! Let's rejoice in that. And for those who believe we are the source of all ills, wake up! Let's go to a portion of the world that has had little or no Christian presence and see what we find.

We we believe in the gospel of Jesus Chrisst have so much more to do, and so much more we could do if we just would. But we are not the source of the world's ills.

P.S. The pictures are of Convoy of Hope staff and voluteers in action in Haiti. Convoy of Hope is the organization I mentioned in my previous post.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Helping Hatians

I've been looking at a few pictures from Haiti this morning, and I listened to a NPR report from a woman working there with World Vision. The devastation seems to be almost indescribable.

Just in case you do not have a good option for sending a donation, may I recommend Convoy of Hope? They started out Assemblies of God but are now interdenominational with many on-the-ground connections. You can make an online donation.

I can vouch for them from personal experience. They were among the first to arrive on the scene after Hurricane Katrina. And after our experience there I strongly believe that church relief organizations are the way to go. Join me in prayer today, and please do what you can.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Blogging Through 2009

Last year was rather tumultuous. I did not post here as much as previously, and I hope to get back into the swing of writing, if only for my own sake, in 2010. Here is a look back at 2009 in the first blogged sentence each month.

Earlier this week we considered the unseen shadow of the cross that awaited the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the One who had come to show us what God is like. (This was from the devotional book that I had printed for Advent through Epiphany last year.)

Presbyterian Gal and Kievas Fargo both gave me the "Blogging Friendship Award." Aw, you guys...I like you too!

Yes indeed, it feels very strange, these few remaining days with my congregation of ten years.

I will soon try to post something deep and thoughtful, or at least get on with the doings in Little Big Foot.

Someone asked me, "May I call God Mother?"

Last week Ken and I went to Milwaukee's Veterans Administration (VA) hospital.

Ken recently retired from working with Royal Ranger (a boys ministry).

The worship service for [the Assemblies of God] General Council was really good.

We just returned from the last fur-trade rendezvous re-enacting camp we will be at this summer.

The feed corn is brown and drying in the fields, the soy beans are about ready for harvest, the trees are beginning to show more color, and the wind is usually blowing.

I recently heard a Pentecostal preacher say something about how we Charismatic types tend to look for the "short cuts" in life.

I am currently employed at Veritas Financial Services.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Little Big Foot: Phil

If you would like to start at the beginning of the "Little Big Foot" story, click on the link at the bottom of this post or the one in the sidebar. When you are redirected, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Phil stood in the baggage claim area scanning the crowd, looking for Dee Anna's red hair. People were coming down the escalator, but there was no sign of her yet. He rubbed the back of his neck nervously. Would she be glad to see him? Would she be shocked, disappointed--or maybe glad? Would she stand back and look at him or would she she hug him?

What did she know of his life the last few years? He had no idea, really, but he knew it seemed like a very long time since he'd seen his kid sister. He sat down on a bench, suddenly feeling old and very tired. Much too tired.

He watched the people approaching the conveyor belt. There was a harried-looking mom holding a little girl about four by the hand and pushing a stroller with her other hand. He wondered why no one was helping her. And here came a beautiful black woman, hair cropped very short and a large pair of hoops dangling from her ears. She was dressed in an African-style caftan and looked like a model. A large man rushed up to her and enfolded her in a hug. Phil looked away.

Next came a family, all short, all round, all talking at once. Mom was clearly in charge, directing her husband in a loud voice. Phil sighed heavily. Where was Dee Anna? He leaned back against a concrete wall and closed his eyes. Just for a moment, he thought to himself. It sure had been a long couple of days.

It would, he hoped, be good to have Danna home. He smiled, remembering his long-ago nickname for her.

What a funny little kid she had been with that round face and even rounder green eyes. How she used to stare at the world, taking it all in. She'd been pretty quiet. Of course, who wouldn't be quiet when you never knew which word would set Mom off? Better to be quiet.

She'd talked to him though, sometimes, sharing things she had learned in school or asking him questions about whatever popped into her head. She did ask a lot of questions. Sometimes they would walk the mile into town just for the companionship and the quiet. He remembered the feel of her hand tucked in his. How could he have forgotten how vulnerable she had seemed?

He could see her as she sat at the kitchen table that long-ago Sunday morning, feet tucked into the rungs of the chair, looking down as their mother strode into the room. They were late again, he recalled, and that brought a memory of their mother's voice scolding Dee Anna for dawdling. Dad, as usual, had already escaped outside.

That was the day that he'd left home, standing on the highway with a duffel bag and nothing else. He shouldn't have left her, he thought sadly.

He opened his eyes and there she was, wearing a pair of black slacks, boots, and a green sweater, her hair short and looking a little tousled. She hadn't seen him, and she was wrestling a large, shapeless bag onto the top step of the escalator. She looked good, he thought. Pretty.

He stood up and she looked down and saw him. A look of surprise and...he couldn't tell what...crossed her face. He moved toward the bottom of the escalator and watched her descend. When she reached the bottom she kicked the bag off the step and shoved it to the side with one foot.

Phil stepped backwards, almost wanting to run.

"Oh, Phil! I didn't think you'd be the one to pick me up!" Dee Anna's smile was huge. " I thought Uncle Chuck was coming. I'm so glad its you!" With the sweetness he remembered, she threw her arms around his waist. After a moment his arms went around her short frame and he shyly bent to kiss her cheek.

Were those tears?

Dee Anna stepped back, putting her hands up to his cheeks and looking hard at him. He held her gaze for only a moment and then looked away.

"Oh, big brother," she said softly, "I missed you. I didn't realize how much."

He was afraid to speak. He swallowed hard and after a moment he said stiffly, "Yeah. Me too." He moved to the conveyor belt just as a forest-green suitcase came down the chute. "Yours?" he asked. It was Dee Anna's turn to feel speechless, and she nodded wordlessly. She hoped she'd done a good job of hiding her dismay at how he looked.

Lifting the suitcase off the belt, Phil looked back at her and smiled for the first time. Dee Anna smiled too. When he grinned like that he looked more like the Phil she remembered.

"Dad's car is not far" said Phil. C'mon, Danna, we can talk on the way home. We're stopping by the hospital before we go to the house. Mom's waiting for us."

Friday, January 01, 2010

A New Year & New Covenants Friday Five

I rarely get to play the Friday Five anymore, but I can today. One of my favorite bloggers, Sally from Eternal Echoes, hosts the Rev Gal FF today, and she says:

We stand at the beginning of 2010 looking not only at a New Year, but at a new decade full of promise and possibilities. For some of us this will be exciting, but others will approach it with trepidation and probably most of us stand on this threshold with a mix of emotions and reactions.It is at this time of year that many (British) Methodist Churches celebrate their Annual Covenant Service, a service that will include this prayer:

I am no longer my own but yours,
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now glorious and blessed God,Father , Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so forever.
Let this covenant now made on earth
be fulfilled in heaven.

This prayer is said every year, and offers every member an opportunity to renew their covenant with God. This is no soft or easy prayer, it states in the company of others our willingness to worship God come what may, not that we should become doormats, but that we place God above all else. ( And every year if we are honest we have to acknowledge that we fail).With this prayer in mind I bring you this Friday Five:

First off, I am going to pray that prayer mindfully and intentionally and savoring every line. I know I mean some of it, but perhaps not all of it. Thank so much, Sally, for sharing it.

The questions are:

1. What will you gladly leave behind in 2009?

All of it. 2009 was a difficult year that started with my mother's death, went on to include my resignation from my church (difficult and absolutely necessary), watching Ken struggle with physical stuff that included a serious and scary leg infection...and much more. Except for Kris' and her little family moving to Wisconsin, I am happy to wave good bye in the rear view mirror to 2009.

2. What is the biggest challenge of 2010 for you?

Balancing work, home, ministry efforts--I have to put some serious work into it if I want to use my ministerial credentials in any meaningful way. And time is a factor, and energy, and much more. But it is not or maybe not ever...

3. Is there anything that you simply need to hand to God and say "all will be well, for you are with me"?

My disappointment with myself, my sadness at not being in active ministry, my sense of all needs to be put in God's hands and LEFT there.

4. If you could only achieve one thing in 2010 what would it be?

To stop struggling and to be genuinely content in whatever place I find myself.

5. Post a picture, poem or song that sums up your prayer for the year ahead....

Okay. Here are a picture and a song.