A dust of snow awakened hope today.
We woke to see the white flakes in the air.
The kids put on their gloves to play.
The earth stayed brown. They sit inside and stare.
A dust of snow awakened hope today.
We woke to see the white flakes in the air.
The kids put on their gloves to play.
The earth stayed brown. They sit inside and stare.
An Atlanta staple was preparing to close its doors. Rhodes Bakery has been in business in the Morningside community for more than sixty years. I personally love their cheese straws and birthday cakes. They are the best in the neighborhood. They announced a couple of weeks ago they would be closing this location. It was December 23rd. They would close for good on Christmas Eve. I thought I’d surprise our tech team and staff at church with some petit fours and cheese straws. The days are long and hectic for church staffs those final two days before Christmas. Apparently, all of Atlanta had the same idea.
I walk inside and the line is twenty folks deep. Their racks of savories and sweets are bare. I’m wondering how in the world will there be enough desserts for any of us. A baker from the back ambles out from the back with more cheese straws. “Who needs cheese straws?”
“I’ll take three.” “I’d like one.” “What are cheese straws? I’ll take two.” He passes out the cheese straws packets wrapped in cellophane.
I’m noticing there is one more caramel cake in the display window for sale. That’s their most popular item. The woman working the register receives the orders. “Alright, one caramel cake it is. That’s our last one.” I don’t really like caramel cake and I am devastated. The groans throughout the store are audible. She hands it to the woman in the front of the line and takes her card. The lady behind her says, “Dang it. I have been waiting in line for thirty minutes hoping to get that caramel cake. Are there any in the back?”
“Nope. Those are all spoken for.”
The woman with the cake is about to head out the door when she says, “I’d be happy to split it with you. Would that work?”
“Seriously? Yes. Please.”
“I can cut it for you,” says the worker.
She takes the cake out of the white box and slices it half and boxes up the other.
They both left with their boxes. Although there were still no cakes for the rest of us, the kindness was dessert enough.
In her book, No Cure for Being Human, Kate Bowler defines bureaucracies as “automated systems made up of people who must choose each and every day whether their job will require any of their humanity.”
And on this day, humanity was on full display and it was a treat to experience.
I had just finished officiating the funeral in the chapel at the funeral home. Instead of taking my own car to the graveside for the burial, the funeral director invited me to ride up front with him.
It was December and cold that day. As we drove, I asked him.
“How is your team at the funeral home?”
“Well, we’re entering our busy season.”
I said, “What do you mean? I didn’t know there were different seasons for funeral homes.”
He said, “Oh, yes, winter is tough for folks. It’s so dark and cold. If people are real sick, they just give up their will to fight. You get a lot of suicides too.”
As we enter this most holy season of Advent and Christmas, I’m also reminded of this funeral director’s lesson. People also give up during this time. If that’s you, hang on. God is working in your life and God is with you. There are people who love you. There is joy and their is hope. This season is about new birth. God can give a new birth to you.
This past Sunday, we remembered All Saints Sunday. We honored our dead by lighting candles. A bagpiper piped Amazing Grace. In the sermon, I reflected on June Dunaphant. We lost June last year. She had been our accompanist at Haygood for more than fifty years. She was known outside of the church too. The entire Atlanta music scene seemed to know her. She played in all sorts of night clubs and in cabarets. She loved to entertain.
One Sunday morning, I arrived early, brewed some coffee and headed into the sanctuary. I wanted to rehearse the sermon. June was there on the piano.
She said, “Go ahead pastor. I’ll listen.”
I started practicing the sermon. June sat on the bench.
I was rehearsing one of the more climactic moments. June starts up on the piano. No one else is in the sanctuary. She plays a courageous tune. I believe it was A Mighty Fortress is our God. With these fortified notes playing underneath, I could feel my emotions stirred like I was Hamlet, on a hushed stage, delivering my “To be or not to be” speech letting loose with all of the might and courage within me. I stopped and looked at June. “June, I wish I could have you follow me around all day and play music.”
She said, “You and I visit different places.”
Then she said, “But that’s why I love accompanying choirs and people. Some of them can’t sing well. I cover the rough places. But most people can sing and the music is in them. When I play I help give them the courage they need.”
June’s words were perfect for All Saints. We all have more courage and capacity than we realize. Those friends and saints who have before us are accompanying us with the courage we need.
I was already late as I made my way up Piedmont Road. I was heading to the Wesley Woods Clergy Appreciation luncheon. Typically, clergy gatherings are held in church fellowship halls. Wesley Woods hosted theirs at the Buckhead Club on the twenty sixth floor with a panoramic of the Atlanta skyline.
At a stop sign, I glanced down at the instructions for parking. There would be “complimentary valet.” I hardly ever use valet. I hardly ever attend venues with valets. The times I have used valets they have hardly ever been complimentary. But I thought to myself, “It’s clergy appreciation. You deserve valet every now and then. Brush off the crumbs on the floor and roll on in with your mini-van.” But then I remembered. I had no cash! I hardly ever carry cash. I was running late and the Bishop would be there. I didn’t have time to stop at the ATM.
I dug between the seats looking for wadded and forgotten bills. Nothing. And then I remembered. We had gift cards in the console. In fact, they were spilling out of the console. I sorted through them. We still had some from Babie’s R Us. There was Carrabas and Home Depot. But I thought, “Let’s class it up.”
After the luncheon, I huddled with the other pastors as we waited on the attendants to bring our cars. I was filled with appreciation from the luncheon and wanted this exchange with the valet to be behind me. I saw the other ministers folding their bills in their hands. Then my Honda Odyssey, in all of its splendor and soccer odor, turned the corner in the parking garage. The valet seemed all too happy to hop out. He extended his hand and waited for that sometimes smooth, sometimes awkward exchange of keys to cash between us. But there would only be a key.
I said, “Sir, hold on.” I reached in the console. “Do you like Zaxby’s?” “Excuse me.” “Do you like Zaxby’s?” He took the card with its $25 credit and no expiration date. He looked me in the eyes in disbelief. Unsure of his disappointment or delight, he laughed and said, “Thanks. Best tip all day.”
It’s good to be appreciated.
Owning a dog in the city is quite a new experience for me but I’m getting used to it. Although leash laws still feel new, I admit that I feel quite boujee walking my golden retriever as she prances in her harnessed leash around our Atlanta neighborhood. And I have been encouraged to select the “premium” dog food. And so I pay the extra five bucks for the “Smoked Trout and Whole Grain Recipe.” When we first got our pup, I put her in the backyard because she wouldn’t quit barking inside. The next day in our mailbox was an anonymous photocopy of a city document with the reminders of the barking ordinance. It was a bit of an injury to my pride, but I got over it. I even started taking her to the local “Dog Village” where she gets to socialize and they send us pictures throughout the day of her and her new friends.
Again, the leash laws still feel new. And I’m sure they were in place growing up in my hometown of Jackson, but we always had a big yard and the neighbors were fine with our dogs moving about. Or if they did mind, they never said anything. There were times we wouldn’t see our dogs for a week but we knew they would show back up in the garage. My dad bought Old Roy dry food from the 70 pound red bag at Wal-Mart. Our dogs would jump in the lake and roll in the dirt. When we’d go on vacation, we’d set out two pots of dry food that we left in my dad’s shop. They would drink from the lake.
Today, we have a golden retriever named Zoe. My two elementary aged girls gave her the name. For a split second I thought they had chosen the name for the Greek word Zoe which means life and is found throughout the New Testament. They named her for their favorite teen zombie. We have to be careful about saying the word “walk” too loudly. Her ears perk up and she turns into an NFL linebacker.
It’s funny how accustomed Zoe has become to the leash. I’m up in the North Carolina mountains for the weekend. Zoe is with me. I put her on the leash as we walked around Lake Junaluska. As we finished our walk, we headed up to our home. Without her knowing it, I unhooked her leash but pretended like I was still holding it. For the next quarter mile, she stayed the length of the leash next to me. She could have sprinted for the lake or chased the neighbor’s cat. She walked by my side the whole time. As we approached the driveway, I stopped. She kept going. Confused, she looked back at me. Then she looked ahead. I said, “Go. Run. Be a dog.”
She slashed across the paved road and into the yard chasing a squirrel. She wouldn’t stop running. I opened the door to our home and left her outside in the free open range of our half-acre yard with no fence and no leash. Within minutes, she was at the door. I let her in and she climbed onto the couch. I poured some sparkling water and sat next to her. We both fell asleep.
Leashed: My growing acculturating to owning a dog in the city.
I was sitting in the hospital chair in the corner suite. Through the metal blinds and milky window I could a see a few miles away where the tower from the local shopping center emerged over the pine trees. My mother had knee surgery. She had needed it for years. The doctor said, “Imagine a chicken wing. Do you know that rubbery shiny stuff between the bone? You don’t have that in your knee. The surgery was good!”
My mother was still on her pain meds sitting up in her chair. Laree, my sister-in-law in law, had driven from Madison that morning and arrived early to be there for my mother’s physical therapy. I met Laree in the room and we spent a few minutes together with my mother before Laree headed back to Madison. My mother looked at me and Laree and said proudly, “Do you see this yellow band they put on me?” She held it up. It says, “Flight risk. I’m a flight risk.” Laree leaned in and looked closer at the band.” Claire, that doesn’t say flight risk. That says fall risk.”
“Oh, that makes more sense,” my mother said.
For some reason, I could not quit laughing. We all laughed. I’m not sure it was the picture of my mother imagining herself dashing and darting her way past nurses and out of the hospital on a knee should be barely lift or the sudden realization we all feel at times that we are not who we thought we were. It’s the awful and funny feeling that in this moment we need more assistance than we do restraint. Thankfully, her knees is getting better. I know my mom and she’s strong and willful. She’s likely not to be a flight risk anytime soon, but she will certainly find her new step.
These past few months have been excruciatingly tough as a pastor. That’s difficult to admit. Last spring, I could see the light. Vaccines were rolling out. We were coming out of COVID and we were back in our beloved sanctuary. The nursery was beginning to fill again. Some Sundays we had twelve babies. Life was returning. But then I got the call, “Someone in the nursery had a case.” This happened on Mother’s Day. On Mother’s Day afternoon, our children’s staff had to call new moms and dads and tell them they would need to take off work and quarantine their kids for the next two weeks.
I was angry. Really angry. I felt terrible for these families. I felt terrible for our staff having to make these calls. I knew that the word would get out about our case in the nursery and the parents would stop bringing their babies.
By Wednesday, I mustered enough courage to mandate vaccines for all nursery workers. I reasoned that the kids couldn’t wear masks and that wasn’t fair to them. But I also felt ambivalent about the mandate. Because I knew our nursery workers loved our kids and had been faithful to us throughout the pandemic. I got calls from people thanking me for making the best decision for their children by the decision. I got calls of extreme disappointment. I wanted to agree both sets of calls. Pastors are usually pretty empathetic people. We try our best to understand the viewpoints of all sides.
This all happened in May. Then I took a big gulp of air and soldiered on with worship planning for the summer. I knew attendance would be sparse. It always is during June and July. I was pleasantly surprised that attendance was back to pre-covid levels for the summer. When we sang, Praise to the Lord the Almighty, our congregation did “let the amen sound from his people again.” Worship was lively and strong. Our choir was back in the chancel.
Just a few weeks later, I got to be the hero. I sent out the note they had been waiting to read. “Due to the new CDC guidelines, there are no more masks mandates for worship if you have been vaccinated. We look forward to seeing your faces this Sunday.” I received several emails telling me how grateful they were to the church for leadership during these times.
We had a backlog of baptisms for children born during the pandemic. We had baptisms almost every Sunday this summer. It all felt good. I had a vacation planned for the fourth of July. I pulled out of our driveway breathing a sigh of relief. I couldn’t wait to be with our family in the mountains and I knew when I returned we could start stoking the fires for the fall at church.
Sure enough, we began our work as a staff. It was early July. We set a date for early August for two welcome back events. We planned a welcome back Sunday and trivia night for Wednesday night dinners. The worship would included duets, stringed instruments, a full choir, a rousing sermon and a petting zoo with pony rides. Yes, I love Jesus and felt a little bit like a sell out for bribery for bringing the animals to get the families back to worship. But people have been away for a year. When in doubt, bring animals.
As the big worship day was approaching, I watched the COVID numbers ticking up. I’m checked every night and every night I was more disappointed. This was supposed to be our our big return. It’s time to get people reengaged with God. It’s time to get them back on their journey with Jesus. I’ve told me people time and again that the hardest part about being a church during a pandemic is we are a congregation. By nature, we congregate.
As our big day approached, there was no going back. Despite the rising numbers, we went full steam ahead. Yes, I reinstated the masks mandate for worship. We were following the CDC guidelines and the executive orders of our mayor. Let me say this. Living in Atlanta, has only amplified the complexity of matters as our political leaders continue to give different messages. You worry the decisions you make are going to get wrapped up in some larger political narrative that you don’t want to be a part of. You have to make these decisions but all you really want is for your people to be able to worship God and find some joy and hope on a Sunday morning. A good offering would be nice too.
We went full steam ahead with our big Sunday. We had quite the crowd and some glorious music. Our front yard was a zoo as we left worship. It was a beautiful day as we enjoyed ice cream sandwiches on the lawn and watched the kids riding ponies and parents snapping pictures with the cow.
Was I little reluctant to post much about it? A little. I wasn’t sure how some of my clergy friends would react. The last thing I needed was a thread of criticisms. This day gave me life and it gave our neighborhood life too.
As this awful Delta variant rages on, I find myself slipping again towards anger. We were supposed to experience a rebirth this fall. I hopeful we still can. Yes, I want to keep our children safe, but suspending children’s events is not the way to go. Children need church just as much as they need school. Families need dinners with other families. We’re going to give it our best shot.
To all my fellow clergy out there, whatever decision you make for your churches, I support you! I miss seeing you. Congregations, we thank you and continue to ask for your support. It may take a moment to remember some of your names. But we’ll get there. God is with us.
This last Wednesday night I was awoken at 1 a.m. by our dog. She sleeps beside our bed. She usually doesn’t bark at night. Blair and I both woke up. She quit barking and we went back to bed not thinking much about it. About thirty minutes later, she barked again. Blair goes downstairs to check it out. The next thing I hear is Blair running like a sprinter up the stairs. I’m thinking to myself, “There’s someone in our house.” My heart is pumping hard. Blair catches her breath and says to me, “There’s a racoon…on our couch.”
I walk gingerly down the steps, our dog bravely at the top of the steps behind me. I grab a broom from the closet. Blair whispers, “What are you going to do with that?” I said, “I’ll think of something.”
I turn my head towards the living room. There is a racoon lounging on our couch. He’s looking at me sure in the eyes. He is twice the size of most lap dogs. I want to open the door and sweep him out. I make my way towards him. He lightly jumps onto the floor and ambles his way to the dog’s door and leaves. That was it! I quickly lock the dog’s door. Blair and I head back to bed. Thirty minutes later I hear a big “thump” downstairs. This racoon is trying to get back in. Then it struck me.
When he was in our house, he was not disoriented. He knew right where he was. Then I thought back. On several mornings the dog food had been scattered on the floor. This was not the racoon’s first time in our house. This raccoon has been sneaking in our house during the night through the dog door. He’s been eating our dog’s food, kicking back on our couch and watching Ted Lasso.
On a recent youth mission trip to Hazard, Kentucky I had the opportunity to visit with the homeowner. His name was Randy. We were working on his trailer. We were tearing down his back porch and building a ramp. He walked with a cane and wore a blue tooth.
He was a kind man and he lived in a poor trailer park. He offered us Pepsi’s each day. During a light rain, he invited our youth on the porch to tell us about his life. He told us about his days as a coal miner. “I was twelve years old on my back half a mile into the mountain mining coal. Mama made us sandwiches and we ate inside. We worked nine hour shifts. The coal company made it so our family wouldn’t leave. They helped us with housing. They had a store. But when they left they tore down the store. We were as poor as they come but didn’t know it.”
After the youth left, he told me about speaking in tongues. “I’m part of the holiness church. I don’t know what church you’re apart of. It don’t matter. We all got our own journey. When I was a kid, I could never get the holy ghost. All my friends got the holy ghost. They could speak in tongues. I was always so mad because I knew what they did on Friday nights. But when I got older, my mom got sick. She was here in this trailer. All I could do was pray. I prayed all day. Then the Holy Spirit put me in a trance. I’m telling you. It got me higher than any drug. I felt like was floating. It was like I was hovering off the ground in this trailer. And if there wasn’t a roof on this trailer, I would have floated on up and out of this trailer park. I would floated real high and looked out over all the holler as free as a man can be. That’s the way that spirit got hold of me. I never had it like that again.”