Tag Archives: mississippi

Hold on to Joy

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Loving Joan was not optional. She was eminently lovable. I preached in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for a decade and could count on Joan and Joel (or, “Joe,” as she called him) to be sitting up front cheering me on every time the doors opened. Joan cheered everybody on.

It was sad to hear that Joan died last week at eighty years young after a heck of a fight with cancer. But it would be a discredit to her memory to linger in sadness.

Joan was no stranger to challenges. Before my time in Mississippi, she lost her son in a tragic car accident. During my time in Mississippi, she encountered the American law of eminent domain when the government decided to put a highway through the house she and Joel intended to inhabit for the rest of their retirement years. After my time in Mississippi, her “Joe” contracted Parkinson’s Disease. And then there was the cancer.

But Joan never let a challenge dampen her positive attitude. She often quoted a line from an old sermon that she accepted as a life approach: Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Joan spent her life giving to others, but she jealously guarded her joy like she was Ebenezer Scrooge.

It has been years since I saw her in person, but Facebook worked its magic to keep us in distant contact. Joan “liked” lots of things on Facebook. That fit her well. Joan was a really good liker of things. She would have made it just fine without the frowny-face option.

One of my favorite memories came as a result of one of Joan’s worst days. Joan had two children, the son whose life was tragically cut short, and a daughter who was her pride and joy. Joan’s daughter pursued a successful career and chose to marry later in life. Joan was ecstatic about the wedding and could not wait to travel to the ceremony. But one afternoon, while shooing blackbirds away from the back porch, Joan fell and broke both ankles, landing her in a rehabilitation hospital and threatening her ability to make it to the wedding.

True to form, Joan kept her joy and started to work. She soon knew everyone in the hospital and worked hard at physical therapy with that beautiful wedding ceremony as her inspiration. The fateful day came when the doctors would decide whether she was fit to travel, and despite her very best efforts, Joan was not cleared for takeoff. I’m not exactly sure how devastated she was, but the rest of us were heartbroken.

In those days before Skype and FaceTime, we tried to invent things like Skype and FaceTime just for Joan, but alas, we were in over our heads. Joel traveled to the wedding alone, and the family had the clever idea to use a cell phone during the ceremony so that Joan could listen in. A group of us from church went to her hospital room that day to share the occasion with a corsage, wedding cake, and being good Southern church folk, sparkling cider. It was a party, but it was no pity party. I will never forget Joan trying to hand the cell phone to the rest of us during the ceremony so that we could listen and our laughing and frustrated refusals — This is for you, Joan!

It remains one of my best days. A terrible day somehow turned into joy.

That was Joan. And today, in her honor, and while mourning her loss, I will hold on even tighter to my joy.

DCF 1.0

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This Unpredictable Life

18253094_119542288608447_7804326198149906432_n(1)We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
– Wendell Berry, Given: Poems 74 (2006).

I first traveled to California ten years ago to attend the 64th Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures.  At the time it seemed possible that it would be my first and only trip to beautiful Malibu (ironically blogging at the time, “I cannot imagine working in this gorgeous setting.”).  Life is funny.  By the next year, we were planning a crazy cross-country move to Pepperdine for law school with absolutely no idea that we would just stay—and “absolutely” absolutely no idea that I would ever return to full-time ministry.  So you can imagine the crazy déjà vu feelings this week when “Lecture Central” took up residence in my office for the 74th Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures.

Life apparently is analogous to a box of chocolates (all rights reserved).

Life is unpredictable, and if you give me enough time to think about it I can pull my brain muscle.  What if we had stayed in Mississippi?  What if we had left California?  How did we really end up here?  Where are we headed now?  What’s for lunch?

But you know what?  I do know exactly how we got here: One day at a time.  And I’m pretty sure that’s how we will get wherever it is we find ourselves ten years from now, too.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’  They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future.  But real life takes place in the here and now.”  I’m with Nouwen on this one.  I’m not good at it, but I’m with him.

Still, looking back every now and then, as Berry so beautifully described, provides nice motivation for the journey forward.

Beauty in the Fog

17932387_153447835186184_4417267868438102016_n(1)Our 2008 move from Mississippi to Malibu sounds like a seismic culture shift, but moving from affluent, artsy, coastal Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to affluent, artsy, coastal Malibu was not as mind-blowing as you’d think. Okay, it was mind-blowing, just not as mind-blowing as you’d think.

One of the major differences is simply topographical. Ocean Springs sits on the super flat Mississippi Gulf Coast. Malibu officially sits at sea level, too, but that is only half the picture since the vast ocean spectacularly combines with equally stunning mountains. The views we are privileged to enjoy on the Pepperdine campus are ridiculous, and quite often we awaken to see that we are actually above the clouds. It is like a flight with adequate leg room and spacious bathroom facilities.

Recently, on such a morning, I drove from Sunshine Mountain down into the murky clouds for a beachside run along Malibu Road. It is one of my favorite runs because it is nearby, flat, quiet, and scenic, but it isn’t quite as scenic on mornings when the clouds decide to take a nap on the surface of the planet. Despite the cloud cover, I took off with eyes wide open since I have developed a habit of memorializing each morning run with a photograph. It was a challenge. The crashing waves were pretty great in the fog, but not so much for my increasingly outdated iPhone camera, and the horizon was simply nowhere to be seen.

And then I noticed the flowers. The reds and purples, the yellows and lavenders, all nestled in a setting of green and white, almost shy and hiding in the morning fog.

Life lessons exploded from the haze like the colorful flowers. For starters, when life descends into a fog, remember to look for the beauty that is ever present. But also, when life floats in the sunshine above the gray clouds, remember to go to the trouble of joining the world struggling through the smothering gloom. It would be tragic to miss out on the stunning grace that can be found in the obscurity.

Thankful

PICT0001.12[Note: I took the picture above and wrote the essay below nine years ago on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It is worth sharing again this Thanksgiving season.]

I discreetly pulled out my camera after climbing in my car, turned off the flash, and snapped a picture of Carolyn as she went back to her daily work without her knowing. I did not want her to think she was some sort of display, but after our conversation, I also did not want to forget.

I go to Biloxi every couple of weeks to visit my friend, Hezekiah, in the nursing home. Hezekiah is a disabled man in his late 60s – disabled both mentally and physically – and Hezekiah is a hoot. He spends his days coloring in magazines and listening to his radio, with occasional interruptions for his harmonica and smoking breaks. He generally cheers me up when I visit, and today was no exception. We talked about Christmas approaching, and he renewed his constant desire for a “jew harp.” I have no idea what he is talking about. Oh, I know what a “Jew’s harp” is – actually bought one once upon a time for Hezekiah, but when he saw it he didn’t have a clue what I had given him. So who knows… In addition, he’s interested in a football this year, too. One he could kick. The nurses will love that…

I also visited with Mr. Flowers on the way in and on the way out. He cheers me up, too. He also sits in a wheelchair, but he has a lot more going on upstairs than Hezekiah. He always wants me to say a prayer for him, something I’m glad to do. Today was no exception.

When I made it back to my car today, there was a lady working hard in the nursing home yard, picking up trash, and piling up pinecones. As is normal for me, I said something to catch her attention – “You’ve got a never-ending job, don’t you?” I said as I began to step into my car. She responded as I put one foot in, and this unleashed a 20-minute conversation in that position.

I learned a lot about Carolyn while I stood there, and I’m glad I did. She walks around with her body a bit hunched and noticeably leaning to one side. This was explained when she informed me that her ex-husband had taken out a lot of life insurance on her and then threw her out of a moving pickup truck. She lost one of her ears on the fall.

But she thanks God that she’s alive today.

Carolyn has five children, all adults now. They come and visit her every now and then at the nursing home, and she loves them dearly. If she could have one wish, she told me she’d live somewhere where she could see them every day.

But she thanks God that she was able to raise them.

Carolyn spends her days picking up trash and pinecones from the front yard of the nursing home. It is a never-ending job, but it is one she takes pride in. Her bedroom window faces this yard, and though Atkinson Road is a popular road for litter it seems, and although the trees continually shed themselves in this yard, it makes her feel so good to be able to clean it up enough to look out each morning and see it looking clean.

She thanks God that her health is such that she can spend her day picking up the trash.

And what was it again that I have to complain about?

I told Carolyn not to work too hard, and she told me she wouldn’t. She was about to take a break for a while, but when I left she took her bucket and went after a few more pieces of trash before sitting for a spell.

Carolyn is quite the metaphor for life I believe. All of us damaged creatures get up to face the world as seen through our bedroom window every morning. And if we could just have the blessing of being able to pick up the trash we see cluttering up our part of the world, and if we could just have enough breath and life to make it through that day, and if we have been able to touch a few lives along the way…

Then we have a lot to be thankful for.