Monday, August 17, 2015

Enemies can be defeated with praise

Last month I attended the funeral of a World War II United States Navy veteran. The military honors presented at the close of the memorial service included folding an American flag with eagle-eye focus and extreme precision. Once it was neatly tucked into a triangle shape with only the blue field and white stars showing, his two young adult grandsons, both in their own full military dress uniforms, handed it off to their mother, the deceased’s daughter.

Then we heard the sound of a bugler playing “Taps.” I thought it was a recording at first, but then someone next to me nudged me and pointed. There was a young woman in a white Navy uniform in the balcony of the church blowing into the brass instrument. She hit the last note with controlled accuracy and then, as if actually hearing a drum cadence even in the silence, she turned and, holding her bugle upright, marched in strict rhythm out of the balcony and down the stairs.

Here it is a month later and I’m still thinking about that bugler. Uniforms and American flags are definitely things that make me want to stand up and salute, but not necessarily bugles. It’s made me wonder how we ever came to have buglers in military service in the first place. I remember pictures in my school history books of fife and drum corps from the Colonial days. I think it’s safe to say that they probably received their musical training in Europe. I also assume because of that, the musicians and military association is older than the United States. It didn’t start with us. We have to look even further back in history to find its origin.
Musicians and armies go all the way back to the Old Testament. While our military bands today are mostly ceremonial and celebratory, I think originally their purpose must have been to sound signals and alarms, something like a warfare wake-up call.
Here’s a historical example: “Whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!” That was Nehemiah dealing with threats from army opposition as he lead in rebuilding the wall at Jerusalem (Nehemiah 4:20).
And another one: “When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled…” That was Gideon defeating the Midianite army (Judges 7:22).
Still one more: “After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for His love endures forever.’ As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men…who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.” That was Jehoshaphat facing battle against the Moabites and the Ammonites (2 Chronicles 20:21-22).
Here, the musicians were up first. They were on the front lines, so to speak. They were commanded to play and sing before any blades were thrown. Once they did, they didn’t even get around to fighting. It was the music that did their enemies in. The musicians win. I can only imagine what all that singing and trumpet playing must have sounded like.
I don’t think any of us can escape facing the enemy or the battle. I do think, however, that there is evidence in scripture that shows the enemy can be defeated. All it takes is praise. Turn up the volume, start singing God’s praises. You might inspire others to sing along.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Freedom to Serve One Another

I pulled in the driveway at home just after five o’clock. In my car was a box of recyclables I had collected at work so I walked over to the large collection bin beside the house and dropped them in. I walked back across the yard to the mailbox where I pulled out an advertisement, the bank statement, and a vehicle recall notice. I made a mental note that the latter two things needed to be added to my to-do list.

I walked back by my car and reached in for my purse before I made it up to our front door. Once I was inside the house, I dropped my purse on the ironing board and walked straight to the closet where I picked up the laundry basket and lugged it to the washing machine. I turned the knob to start the water flowing, added the detergent and the dark colored clothes.

My washing machine is old and a little temperamental, but faithful. It requires a little extra pampering to get the tub filled with cold water, which means sometimes I have to manually fill pitchers up in the kitchen sink and then walk back over to the washer and pour them in to get it going. This was one of those days.

Once it started agitating, I went back to the kitchen, pulled a pot out of the cabinet, filled it with water and put it on the stove to boil. Noodles were on the menu for dinner. I rummaged in the cabinet for a dish for the broccoli and a bowl for the sauce. From the kitchen I could see outside to the back yard where a peace lily’s thirteen blooms were all wilted and hanging over from the heat. I already had a pitcher out from filling up the washing machine so I filled it up again and added some plant food. I went outside and poured the entire gallon on the lily. It didn’t take long for it to perk up.

That made me think that perhaps the plants in the front yard might need a little attention too. I filled the pitcher up with water again and added more plant food. I emptied it into two ferns on the front porch. The flowerbed there was looking a little sad too, so I got the hose and starting spraying the Mexican heather and the spider grass.

I stood there staring at the water spray from the hose nozzle. The graceful trickling sound of the water stream mesmerized me for a moment and I thought to myself, after working all day then coming home to all this, I just wanted to be free. Free from cooking, laundry, recycling, plant care, bank statements, and vehicle maintenance. I wanted to sit down and do nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I want anyone else in my household to take up those chores either. I didn’t want any one of us to have to worry about those things any more. I wanted freedom from all the responsibility for all of us.

Do you know what would happen if I exercised my own freedom and emancipated myself from the office, the washing machine, or the kitchen? The people at work would have to spend weeks trying to figure out my computer filing system. My husband would have to read the instructions on the noodle box. He would also likely have a drawer full of pink underwear because he would not be able to figure out my temperamental washer. In other words, they would lose some of their freedoms.

The recent newsmakers like same-sex marriage, the Confederate flag, Planned Parenthood and abortion have had us all thinking and talking about freedom lately. It’s caused us to consider the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and how we believe it grants us the freedom of press, speech, assembly, religion, due process and bearing arms.

I think the Bill of Rights and the Constitution make a lot of sense. I think it makes even more sense when you look at it in light of scripture, which I believe the framers of those documents did. Paul wrote in Galatians 5, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”

If I choose and demand liberty for my own sake only without accepting any responsibility for the outcome and how it affects everyone else around me, then we all lose true freedom. True liberty comes with real responsibility. That’s what serving one another is. That’s what freedom is.

Now, please excuse me. The dryer buzzed so I need to take the liberty to go fold some clothes.

The was originally posted July 26, 2015 on The Press and Standard website: 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The past week was inexplicable

This past week has been inexplicable. It was one of those weeks that contained the best and the worst. Much of it is indescribable, yet we will be talking about it for weeks as we try to make sense of it, both good and bad.

Saturday, my husband and I attended The Response event at the Charleston Coliseum. It was an event designed specifically to pray for America. It was coordinated and facilitated by Doug Stringer and there were many different kinds of people involved. Included in that diverse group of people were several elected officials from local, state, and national levels. Not one of them spoke a word about any kind of political agenda. They all prayed, out loud, for our communities, our state, and our nation to return to God. We spent six hours there and left feeling glad we had done so. We knew we had experienced the presence of God. It’s hard to describe how that happened or put it into words, we just knew it was good.

We hadn’t planned it, but on Tuesday we were presented with an opportunity to take a meal to a group of hungry workers. The Carpenters for Christ from the Autauga Baptist Association in Prattville, Alabama were in Colleton County to construct the Bennetts Point Interdenominational Chapel. When we arrived at the site they were finishing up the roof underlayments. Just three or four days prior, there was only a concrete foundation. The residents of Bennetts Point have been praying about and working to make this a reality long before the Carpenters actually showed up. We delivered the food and waited around the construction site for the whistle to blow signaling dinnertime. As we waited, I talked to a few of the residents about how the project came about. It’s an amazing story involving a community of folks, a commitment to God, and a vision to be and do more than they currently are. Every story I heard included details about conversations or actions of the group. No one talked about themselves or took any individual credit. They all spoke of how God had been the instigator. Again, it was an experience that is hard to put into words, we just knew it was good.

While that chapel was being built, an attempt was made to tear down another church not too far away. Wednesday, the Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston was pierced with gunfire that took the lives of nine individuals who were there for the purpose of uniting in prayer. It was a difficult day in the South Carolina Lowcountry. At first, it felt like God was a little further away.

Thursday, we cancelled what was on our calendars and headed back down to Bennetts Point for a worship service led by the Carpenters in the chapel they had been constructing. My husband and I both felt like we needed to again be reminded of the good that happens when people follow God. We needed to sense the closeness of His presence again.

We arrived to find that the stilted structure was now dried in. They brought in folding chairs for the worship service. We sat near the front, crowded in with anticipation. There was no insulation or sheetrock yet, just bare rafters and beams. Every direction I looked, I saw wood. Nothing but wood. I thought about Jesus being a carpenter and imagined Him leveling a beam and hammering nails into a two-by-four in this wooden frame.

 During the service, we were served communion. My thoughts then went to Jesus sharing communion with His disciples. He did that just before He died. His death was wrought by wood and nails.

 Jesus was a carpenter, but He didn’t use his carpentry skills to build a church. It was His self-sacrifice and never-ending love for us that enabled His church to grow. Jesus nailed to a wooden cross is where evil dies and good wins. It’s what had to happen in order for us to be able to experience the presence of God today, in prayer events, chapel construction projects, and anything else we face. Jesus’ death is the reason we can experience God with us.

 “They shall call His name Emmanuel, which means, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). God is with us, even in churches where massacres happen. Emanuel AME Church, your name bears that hope and peace. Emanuel. God is with us. 

This was originally posted Sunday, June 28, 2015 on The Press and Standard website:

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Anchors Away and God Bless America

My husband is a professionally trained and educated musician. I am not. I would love to be able to sing like him, but I learned a long time ago that it’s better if I just stay back in the alto section of the choir and try not to stand out. I do that every chance I get, because music is something that really speaks to me when nothing else can. Sometimes it’s the melodies that move me, other times it’s the lyrics. It comforts me. It reassures me. It inspires me. It motivates me. 

A few years ago, my husband felt lead to bring together voices that don’t normally sing together and thus the Voices of Colleton Community Choir was born. Even though the roster changes a bit with every program, the individuals in the group represent different cultures, races and religious backgrounds. 

We are currently working on a patriotic musical, “Homeland.” While we have had numerous rehearsals, the most recent one just about did me in. I could feel the pulse of the trumpet fanfare in my chest in the prelude to “The Marine Corps Hymn.” Later we sang, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me; As He died to make men holy let us live to make men free! While God is marching on.”

I was struck with the simple but profound reality that I am free. Not everyone in this world can say that. I stood in the midst of this group of diverse singers that had found a way to harmonize on the message of freedom. From the back row of the alto section, I found myself standing in a picture of the American melting pot. The freedom to stand here and sing about the sweet land of liberty is what we have in common.

The book of Galatians says that I was called to be free. Verses 13 and 14 of Chapter 5 tell me why: "But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command:    'Love your neighbor as yourself.' "

My father was a World War II veteran. He was about 21 years old when he boarded the Queen Mary, bound for the European war theater. We have a few pictures of him as a handsome, smiling, young sailor in his Navy uniform, but for a very long time that was the only evidence we had that verified his military service. He was in his 80s before we ever heard him talk about crashing through the waves aboard a watercraft in the English Channel on D-Day. He never talked about the struggle or the sacrifice, even though he no doubt experienced both.

He did, however, show me time and time again how to serve one another humbly in love. Even in his last hours on this earth, I witnessed him selflessly thanking others and expressing love to them. He was able to do that because he took his call to freedom seriously.

When we sang “Anchors Aweigh” in rehearsal, I was flooded with thoughts of him. The “until we meet once more, here’s wishing you a happy voyage home” message felt personal. He made his final voyage to his eternal home four years ago and now enjoys the only true freedom, gained by loving God and serving others while he was on this earth. Until we meet once more, Daddy.

Yes, we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but it doesn’t come free or without responsibility. We are all called to serve. I hope that you will allow us the privilege of serving you by sharing this musical presentation with you. Please be our guest Sunday, May 31, 3 p.m. at First Baptist Church as the Voices of Colleton Community Choir presents “Homeland.”

May God bless you and God bless America.

 This was originally posted Sunday, May 24, 2015 on the Press and Standard website:

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sometimes you just need your mom

I went to visit my mother last weekend. She lives in a nursing home in Georgia, about three hours from here. Just about the time I drove in to town, the nursing home began a quarantined lock down of the facility. Some kind of bacterial infection was spreading and as a result, no visitors. I spent two nights there, visiting with my sisters waiting for the quarantine to lift. I finally had to head back home. I never got to see my mother.

Mom never knew the difference. The reality is, she probably still wouldn’t have known I was there, even if I had been able to hold her hand and kiss her cheek. Her memory began slipping slowly at first, but not long before my father died in 2011, the descent became significantly steeper and darker. I don’t think she remembers the day he died. It’s hard for my sisters and me, but Mom’s not remembering that he is gone is a blessing. She doesn’t feel the pain of living without him.

Really, the trip to visit my mom was mostly for me, not her. Sometimes you just need to see your mom. You need a reminder that someone really has loved you all your life, even when you’ve not been your best self. You need to look into another face that you see glimpses of when you look in the mirror. It reminds you that you are not the only one. You need to remember because she can’t. You also need to forget some things too.

I have a special memory of my mother that always seems to surface around Mother’s Day. I was a preschooler riding in the front seat on the passenger side of a sedan that my Aunt Alma was driving. This was before car seats and seat belt laws. I was barely tall enough to see out of the window, but I had my head turned towards it as I peered out.

A drunk driver coming from the opposite direction swerved over into our lane and crashed into us head on. I remember the loud noise and how my head bounced back and forth off the window several times. There was a full service gas station nearby that not only pumped gas for you, they also worked on engines and such. As people rushed to help, somebody from that station handed me a greasy red rag filled with ice and told me to hold it on my right eye and not let go. The gasoline smell of that rag almost took my breath away.

I don’t remember how I got to the hospital. I do remember that I didn’t see anyone there that I recognized. The nurses made me lie down on a cold, metal table and they put my head in a green foam form to immobilize it for the x-rays and scans. Once they determined that my greatest injury was just a black eye, they sat me up on a high counter near the reception area. My four-year-old legs dangled over the edge while I sat there alone, just waiting.

From there I could see the ER doors that opened automatically when someone approached. The sun outside was very bright and the light inside was dim, so I couldn’t really see any faces or details of the people coming through those doors. I only saw dark silhouettes. I watched figure after figure pass by. Then, finally, I didn’t have to see her face to know it was her. I recognized my mother as she came through those doors simply by the shadowy outline of her permed hair and the curved shape of her hips. She ran in, put her arms around me and scooped me off that counter. I know I must have ended up with one heck of a headache that day, but I have no recollection of pain. The only physical feeling I remember is finally having my mother’s arms around me.

You forget the pain when you remember the blessing. My mother knew that. Jesus taught us both that.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy. Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” (John 16:20-22)

This article originally posted May 10, 2015 on The Press and Standard website.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Flash the color wheel of love

I love color. I have a bright red accent table in my office. The sofa in my living room is purple.  Depending on my mood, the polish on my fingernails can be anything from turquoise to orange. Each bridesmaid in my wedding wore a different color gown because I couldn’t narrow it down to just one color. There’s no need to ask me which Homer Laughlin Fiestaware colors I have in my kitchen cabinet. I have them all, and not just in my cabinets but all over my house. I have this need to use as many different colors as possible. Shamrock, peacock, sunflower, scarlet, poppy, it goes on and on.

Season after season, people who make, advertise, and sell things like nail polish, bridesmaid gowns, and dishes often get pretty creative in naming the colors. I guess they feel that naming it something other than red year after year gives the impression that there’s something new and exciting about the product. So, basic red becomes something like Fired Up or Cheery Cherry.

Colors are some of the first things we learn to identify even before we can formulate complete sentences.  While at some point in our lives we all have coveted the big Crayola 64-crayon box, it is still hard to outgrow that primary color knowledge. We couldn’t even come up with a better or more accurate color descriptor for a juicy Florida orange than, well, orange. 

Sporty, speedy cars are candy apple red. Tangerine, plum, persimmon, and lemongrass are official Fiestaware colors.  There’s a strawberry blonde bottled hair dye. There is a longstanding association between fruit and color and we are helpless to break it because there simply is not a better alternative. Fruit is color. Color is fruit. If you Google images for fruit the results will be page after page of bright colors. Purple grapes, green kiwis, yellow bananas. Even the blackberries aren’t black. They’re a rich violet color. It’s a very visually stimulating picture. 

When the apostle Paul said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law,” he was telling the Galatians to look around. You should be able to recognize the people who follow Jesus and are filled with the Spirit. Their true colors will be evident. 

Jesus touched on something similar when he closed his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7). He said, “You will recognize them by their fruits.” Jesus wasn’t telling them to look for bushels of peachy peaches. He was telling them to look for vibrancy in their mission to serve Him. If we’re truly serving Jesus, there will be some visual evidence.  The evidence will be bright enough to be noticeable by others and deliciously intriguing enough for them to want to fill their baskets with it too.

In that sermon Jesus also talks about good fruit and bad fruit.  At our house, my husband likes firm, green bananas. I like them a little soft with just a few brown specs on the peel. When we buy a bunch, he starts eating them right away. I have to wait three or four days. Then practically overnight the last one or two in the bunch become totally brown and neither of us will eat them. We throw those out because nobody wants a banana that’s lost it’s color and flavor.

We use lemons and limes to dilute the taste of fish. We use cherries and grapes to mask the taste of medicine.  The taste of fruit is potent, especially when it’s fresh. Our enemy Satan also knows the power in the alluring color and impressively scrumptious taste of fruit. That’s why it was the very first thing he ever used to tempt a human being.

Satan was trying to use something that wasn’t his to give Eve something she didn’t need. He’s still trying do to that with you and me. However, God is the one that made that fruit and He’s the only one that can fill us with the fruit of His Spirit. Don’t be tempted. Flash that color wheel of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control at Satan. It will make others wonder if you had oatmeal for breakfast. More than likely, though, it was probably a fruit salad and they just might want you to share.

This was originally posted April 5, 2015 on The Press and Standard website:

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Only Jesus Can Give That New Skirt

I stood at the ironing board pressing a multi-colored cotton skirt. The radio was tuned to a station playing Christian music and the song playing was a familiar one. I hummed along moving the steamy iron back and forth in rhythm to the music. I knew the tune but for whatever reason had never really paid much attention to the lyrics. Then, boom, the words suddenly hit me as very unsettling:

“You may be knocked down now but don't forget what He said, He said. I won't give you more, more than you can take and I might let you bend, but I won't let you break and No-o-o-o-o, I'll never ever let you go-o-o-o-o. Don't you forget what He said…”

Did God really say that He won’t give me more than I can take?

Really? Because I think I passed my limit a long time ago.

Here’s what I do actually find in scripture:

“For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-10)

Paul’s life was dedicated to living for and like Jesus. Yet, he wrote those words because this life that he had chosen was hard. He felt the despair. He felt like he was dying.

To live like Jesus feels like dying. Living for Jesus feels like dying because that’s exactly what Jesus did, but there was a purpose in it. Paul talked about that too.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”  (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

Living like Jesus feels like dying, but it gives us the comfort only God can give us. It is comfort that only God can offer because even if it kills us, He has the power to raise the dead. That’s why we continue to do it. Plus, there are people around us who need to know and experience that comfort and we need to show them.

Here’s the thing. To say God won’t give me more than I can handle is basically saying, “I can handle it myself.” And if I can handle it, then I don’t need God. But I can’t handle it. My track record proves that.

I'm just like the skirt I'm trying to iron. Wrinkled, faded, worn, jostled through a wringer, tumbled around in a hot cylinder, and pressed with a burning, steamy iron, doing everything I can to look brand new. But I am not new. I die a little bit every day. Some days more than others. Some days a lot more than others.

As much as I might want them to, and as much as those who love me may try, there is not a human soul on this earth who can stitch all my torn remnants back together or make the grim reaper stop breathing down my neck. Only the God of all comforts who raises the dead can do that. Jesus is the proof.

Jesus knows what it’s like to be broken. He knows what it’s like to feel death coming.

He's the only one who can make my life feel like I'm wearing a brand new skirt for the first time. A skirt that's never been subject to sweat, dirt, stretching, or harsh cleaning chemicals. Even if I have to wear that new skirt to a funeral.

Yes, to live like Jesus feels like dying and that makes me more alive than anything in this world. 

This was originally posted March 29, 2015 on the Press and Standard website: