“Lily” (Part eleven)

The pastor disappeared behind the chancel area. The congregation looked wide-eyed and nervimgresously at each other. Some sprinted towards the woman’s scream. Other people knelt behind their pews.

Finally the pastor appeared at the lectern. “Beulah, I don’t know exactly how to say this, but our beloved Fred Aims has apparently had a heart attack and died. Our elders have called for an ambulance. Two of our members are EMTs  and they are with Mrs. Ellen and Beth now. I know this is awkward, but please try to remain calm. As soon as we know something definitive, we will put that information out. For now, however, let us join in prayer for the Aims family.”

Lily tried to focus on the pastor’s public prayer but she could not silence her own thoughts.

“In Jesus’s name, Amen,” the pastor concluded, but Lily had lost sense of time and place. How could she go to Mrs. Ellen? They’d never even met. How could she express her condolences to her, or especially to Beth?

Lily admitted to herself that her sadness had an element of selfishness. She felt Fred was her only friend in church, and Beth was his daughter. Beth! Who would replace Fred in leadership at Covenant? Beth is so unlike her father.

“Miss Lily, are you okay?” It was Donald. His soft white hand touched Lily’s left elbow, and his voice coated her nervous mind.

“Oh, Mr. Donald! Yes, I suppose I am,” Lily said, “but I cannot really believe what has happened.”

“But how are you? Are you friends with Mr. Fred Aims?” Lily asked, gathering herself.

“Yes. Fred and I farmed together out off Highway 91 for years. Our farms almost joined property lines except for some pines managed by the power company,” Donald said. “Fred is one of the finest men I know, Miss Lily.”

Confirmation gripped Lily’s soul. She and Donald understood something about Fred, about character, about friendship.

“Fred grew soybeans and peanuts. But I grew cotton and corn most years,” Donald continued.

Lily thought Donald’s fingers were too soft to be a farmer’s hands. She caught the scent of Jergens.

“I have grown sons who now farm it for me,” Donald continued. “But Fred had daughters. I think you know Beth, who went into education. Anyway, the other girls moved off and Fred left off farming when God called him to begin Covenant. I don’t even know what to think about what will happen at the school, Miss Lily.”

Donald at her elbow. That’s almost all Lily could remember of Sunday, after Beth’s scream. Donald at her elbow. His solicitousness. A new friend? Why am I drawn to older people and they to me? I have an old soul, she thought, a middle-aged Holden Caulfield with Beth phonies running the school. And dear Lord, she purports to counsel, with a soul hard as a pine knot?

February’s days lumbered. It was Monday, and Lily peppered herself by way of staccato interrogation: When will you cease pouting? Why repeat ‘Fred is gone’? So what if Beth becomes headmistress? Does God revoke his promises? Did God call you to Covenant?

FACULTY MEETING @ 3:30 P.M. THURSDAY. MAKE-UP FRI @ 7:00 A.M. MANDATORY.

 When Lily entered the teachers’ lounge to make copies Monday at 6:45 A.M. that was the day’s first greeting.

(To be continued)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is that All?

There is danger in familiarity. This morning at church, the pastor taught from Mark 14. I suppose millions of people worldwide know the story of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anointeimgresd Jesus with her flask of oil. And Jesus paid her one of the highest compliments possible: “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:8-9 ESV). The pastor reminded us of several things. One precept, in particular, abides with me: Mary did all she could. And this convicted me about how superficially I can treat others, especially those with whom I’m familiar.

There is danger in familiarity. And nothing quite rouses me from the slumber of familiarity like the reality of death. Let me explain.

This morning in the Sunday school hour, the pastor stopped by the class I teach. He shared with our class that one of the elderly ladies in the church family had died in the early hours of that very morning. And as soon as he said her name, her face appeared in my mind’s eye.

We all have certain facial expressions, or nuances of demeanor, that mark us as unique. And this lady’s ways became almost palpable to me. But I grew more and more convicted. Why? Because I’d not spent quality time in conversation with her the last time I’d seen her at church. I was too familiar with our standard “meet and greet” time. Of course, I shook hands, and hugged, and engaged in small talk with some folks. But had I known that I’d not have another chance in this life to speak with this lady, I would have done things differently.

That is part of the danger of familiarity, at least for me. I grow accustomed. I develop a routine. The routine becomes superficial. I can atrophy as a human being. I don’t attend to my neighbor. Instead, I take her for granted. This is a danger of familiarity. We are easily habituated to feigned courtesy. Until death shakes us from our torpor.

As the church service progressed through its order, we sang and prayed and sang again. And then there was the “meet and greet” time that I have sometimes dreaded. (Like my grandfather, I’ve never excelled at small talk, so I can be ungainly at times, at least with this sort of thing.) But this morning was different. No, I didn’t suddenly become gregarious and go around backslapping and talking of the day’s news headlines. Instead, I stayed in my pew, and spoke at length with a dear couple in front of me. They talked of their many years living in southern California. The husband spoke of being a firefighter in San Diego. The wife spoke of her childhood in Colorado. They spoke of their children. I could see their eyes sparkle as they reminisced about certain events in their past. Why is all of this important? Because rather than going through the motions of caring, I did care. And they cared. We talked. We listened. We fellowshipped. I learned from listening to them, and by having watched their lives for years, that they know what it means to give all.

Like Mary, who anointed the Lord with her costly perfume, these saints in front of me have taught me (whether they know it or not) what it means to give all, to invest eternally. And so much of that investment comes, not by way of the extraordinary, but by way of the ordinary, by the familiar feel of another’s handshake, through the recurring scent of a woman’s favorite perfume, or the grin of an older wiser man, who says much in few words.

For Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, she never became so accustomed to the Lord Jesus that she atrophied spiritually. She gave all. And now she’s remembered.

There is a danger in the familiar. And I think it’s failing to appreciate beauty that surrounds us. God’s providence is displayed, not just in the beautiful sunset or poem, but also in the saints on the pew in front of us.

The Death of Appreciation?

Very recently, I led another memorial service for an 84-year old Army veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The man had been a sergeant major (SGM) when he retired. He continued his service as a defense contractor upon retiring from the military. In the last chapter of his life, he moved near Ft. Benning, GA to be near a longtime friend under whom he’d served as a first sergeant (1SG) during the early 1970s. He spent his last years deer hunting in west Georgia. Finally, the cancer he’d battled for years conquered his body, and he died. When I spoke at his memorial, and before we committed his asheist2-4686483-word-death-on-paper-and-broken-pencil-in-hands to the ground, most of the chairs on the rostrum were vacant. Most people did not know or care of this man’s passing. As I read Scripture, prayed, and consoled a couple of his friends, I had an overwhelming sense that there were multiple deaths at hand. We were not just marking theimgres-1 passing of another veteran’s life. I was witnessing in microcosm a culture that chooses to forget what is praiseworthy. What/whom one generation fails to honor, thenext generation will forget altogether.

People are busy, I understand. No one can be more than one place at a time, I understand. However, I fear that there’s a sense of callousness in our culture today towards almost everything once viewed with honor. What was heretofore praiseworthy is now neglected or even mocked. It is as if many people’s consciences are seared. But should we not laud that which is praiseworthy, when it’s in our power to do so? What does it say about a culture that forsakes its warriors? What does it reveal about us when we inventory what fills our time? What/whom one generation fails to honor, the next generation will forget altogether.

Nothing quite diagnoses a culture’s ethos as clearly as seeing what it worships. Man becomes like what he worships. But what does it mean when many worship at the altar of self, or at the altars of what Francis Schaeffer called personal peace and affluence? In other words, are we now so self-absorbed that we fail to recognize the passing of those that lived lives of sacrifice, courage, and honor? Are we so taken with our conveniences that we cannot think of those who gave of themselves for the greater good? Some of the deepest lessons I have learned come from times I’ve spent in cemeteries. They are among the quietest places on earth. You can hear yourself think. As you survey the tombstones, the mausoleums, the white markers, you relearn that this life is passing. You learn that man is a vapor. You learn that generations come and go. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes: “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” (Eccl 2:16a ESV). But Solomon’s thesis in Ecclesiastes was how not to succumb to that. The answer is to look to God, not to oneself alone, not just to our personal peace and affluence, but to recognize that which endures. But I’m suggesting that we are living in a time and culture that largely chooses to neglect what should be appreciated and worships that which should be minimized. The banal has replaced the praiseworthy. What/whom one generation fails to honor, the next generation will forget altogether.

When the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, he wrote a letter known as Philippians. It’s a short New Testament book about Christ’s humiliation and subsequent exaltation. It’s also a NT book of encouragement. But what I want to focus on here is how he instructs the Philippians in matters of what they should honor, of what they should deem important: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8 ESV). It’s vital to understand what is honorable and praiseworthy, not what our selfishness deems honorable and praiseworthy.

If we want to know what we honor, let us examine how we spend our time. We are not witnessing the death of appreciation; we are witnessing idolatry—the appreciation of the wrong things/ideas/gods/people.