Red Shoes

A guest post by our younger daughter Alyssa.

Today I wore a black dress and red shoes.

A little after 2 p.m. Tuesday afternnon I stopped by Pierce Funeral Home to say goodbye to someone I looked up to.  He was many things: a retired Lt. Col, a husband, father, and grandfather, a Sunday School teacher, a friend. Carrol Bryant was a fixture at my parents’ church as I was growing up, and one of the kindest, most real Christians I ever met.  And by “real Christian,” I don’t mean someone that went to church every Sunday and always carried their Bible.  (Because as we know, going to church makes you a Christian as much as sitting in your garage makes you a car.)  He was kind.  He was genuine.  He measured his life in love.

Mr. Bryant and my dad taught a Sunday School class together, which was an odd combination if there ever was one: the veteran marine, and the hippie who was once pepper sprayed for protesting the war.  But they got along famously.  I don’t know that I ever saw Mr. Bryant be unkind to anyone.  In fact, his zest for life was apparent regardless of what he was doing: chaperoning a bunch of sixth graders on a camp retreat (God bless him), repairing a damaged house, cleaning cafeteria trays after Wednesday church supper.  If it needed to be done, he did it, and he did it with a huge smile.  In fact, if anyone wore red shoes–particularly my mother–Mr. Bryant would dance with them down the hallways of the church.

Often many church staff members’ kids became distanced and disenchanted with the church and its politics, and feel as though they were “projects” for various ministers, deacons, elders, and others.  Not so with Mr. Bryant–it never even occurred to him see anyone as a project: he saw a person. He loved people into the church, and that, believe it or not, is a rare quality,  Carrol made me want to be a better person.

So today I wore my black dress for my friend who was double my age, but who had quadruple the heart.  And I wore my red shoes, because when you measure your life in love, sometimes you just have to take ’em for a spin down the hallway.

Alyssa Verner – July 1, 2014

Advertisements

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happy Boy Flier

Matthew 5: 12: Be filled with joy and be happy…
Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. It is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude. -Denis Waitley
I don’t know if you heard about an editorial in The New York Times by Arthur Brooks, president of The American Enterprise Institute, who wrote explains happiness stems from three sources: genetics, events and values.

While half of one’s happiness is genetic, Brooks wrote that 40 percent of happiness can be attributed to events in one’s life and 12 percent boils down to circumstances well within one’s control.

“Everybody’s got these cheerful co-workers who are very annoying, and you think they must have some sort of secret potion. ‘What are they drinking, man?’ But the truth is, half of your happiness is genetic. And understanding that only about 12 percent of your happiness is under your control … you really can control it.”

What are these circumstances one can control to achieve 12 percent of total happiness? Brooks noted that there are four: faith, family, friends and work.

“Don’t waste your time on money, don’t waste your time on these things, spend your time on faith, family, friends and work, making sure that your work serves others and creates value. And if you do those four things, you’re going to get the maximum amount of happiness.”

While a promotion at work, a new house and even a chocolate sundae bring joy, Brooks wrote that the resulting state of euphoria is fleeting — a temporary feeling.

“People will work for years, just to make a boatload of dough and buy that dream house, and six months later, they’re back to their old bummed-out ways,” Brooks wrote.

So while 40 percent of happiness is attributed to events in one’s life — such as that new house, or a professional accomplishment — the happiness experienced from these milestones is short-lived.

Because of this, Brooks advised not to “bet your well-being on big one-time events.” Instead, investing energy in faith, family and friends is a better investment for long-term happiness.

“Knowledge is absolute power in this case. It’s so important. Every time I write about (happiness), it reminds me of the things that I am doing wrong, and it makes me a better dad.”

Mr. Brooks’ reminder is an important one, but it is only a reminder. An itinerant rabbi told the world the same thing over 2000 years ago when he sat thousands of people down on a hillside in Palestine and reminded us of the source of joyful living. Praise God for the gifts of joyful living and for his one and only Son.

 

Poem: Ladies of the Church

I posted my piece on the ladies of the church last week, and my friend and former colleague Mary McElveen and also former Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria, put this on her blog.

She wrote, I wrote [this] for a friend who was asked to say a few words about a lady at the church who died of cancer. Gloria was one of those indefatigable volunteers, and probably has heaven organized and running like a top.

Thank you for letting me post your poem, Mary. Every church has its church ladies.
They are legion,
the church ladies:
the hands that smooth the tablecloths, brew the coffee,
bake the cookies, make the sandwiches,
arrange the flowers.

They think of everything,
then do it.
They are the voices on the phone
the fingers on the keyboard,
the gentle nudge
reminding, recruiting,
reorganizing and regrouping—
doing the things no one has time for,
for the people no one has time for… and for us all.

They are all things good:
secretary and sorceress,
chauffeur and counselor,
teacher and student,
greeter and galley slave…

And I can’t help thinking that if Jesus is among us,
He is cleverly disguised
as a church lady.

The Ladies of the Church

Church Ladies
 
1 Timothy 5:1-3 (selected): Treat…older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters… (and) give proper recognition to widows…

 The title of this piece this is not a reference to Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, a hilarious send-up of an uptight, self-righteous judgmental church lady on Saturday Night Live several years back. No, these church ladies are a group of ladies of a certain age at my church who are at opposite poles from uptight and self-righteous. Many (though not all) of them are widows, and they are faithful supporters of the church and its people. I see them sometimes sitting together in services. They are always immaculately dressed and well turned out and don’t seem to change or age that much.

 The ladies of the church have been through more than most of us. They have suffered the deaths of spouses, children, friends, and losses of all kinds from financial reverses to illness. I would not minimize their sufferings, but they have an indomitable faith, and a spirit that bears them up and carries them on. I feel better just seeing them wherever they are, and they are in most places around town—at plays, concerts, restaurants and sporting events, making a contribution to the life of the community just through their presence and good cheer.

 The ladies of the church have children and grandchildren of their own, and they are actively involved in supporting their families. They baby sit, take the kids to rehearsals, attend performances and games and celebrate birthdays. In some cases they are raising the grandchildren because their children are not able to do so.

The ladies of the church have a wide range of interests. One is involved in a book club that has run for years; she always has a good recommendation for me of a book to read. Another is a Nationals fan like I am and we share in our team’s suffering. One coordinated and taught in our ESOL program for decades. She lived all over the world and has a deep appreciation of other people and their culture. Another oversees a quilting ministry at the church which involves dozens of people. Another is a master gardener and leads the effort to keep the church grounds beautiful.

 I have identified the church ladies by their interests instead of their names because they would not like the attention. In fact, some of them will probably smack me in the head for implying that they are any more special than any one else. But they are, and I value their good sense, insight, sense of humor and their wisdom, although they would not claim any special qualities for themselves.

 When there is a funeral, they are there in the kitchen, making sure the family and friends are fed and insuring that they will have enough food during the trying days after the service. They supply food and help at church dinners—and you’re lucky if you come to a meal where they help provide the food—they are all excellent cooks.

 They are women of faith, with beliefs that have been tested by trial and trouble. They are involved in the Sunday School, music program, missions activities, women’s ministry and senior adult program, just to name a few. They serve without notice, but they are the quiet mainstays of the fellowship.

Of course, there are many other groups within our church family—the smallest babies, the children, the young people, the couples, the singles, those who are middle-aged and the seniors. They’re what helps make a church a church. Every church seems to have them, and each group contributes something special to the community. This time, though, I want to salute the ladies. I hope you’ll recognize and encourage them as well.

 So, here’s to you, ladies of the church. May you prosper, and may you continue to inspire and lead the rest of us. May you keep on keeping on for a long, long time.

 

 

 

No Greater Love

Greater Love
John 15:13: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

I don’t know if you saw or heard the news reports this week about five members of a family who were killed in a rock slide while hiking in the Colorado mountains.

The thirteen-year-old daughter of the family was the only survivor. She told authorities her father shielded her as boulders crashed down on them and likely saved her life.

Rescuers dug Gracie Johnson out of the rubble after Monday’s slide, and she was airlifted to a Denver-area hospital with a broken leg.

“She told me at the last second when the boulders were coming down on top of them that he covered her up and protected her, which I believe it saved her life,” said sheriff’s Deputy Nick Tolsma.

The Deputy said he was one of the first at the scene and heard screaming from beneath the rubble. He saw Gracie Johnson’s hand sticking up through the rocks.

“I started digging her out until I had more help come and we got her all the way out,” he said.

When I heard this sad story of loss and the bright note of salvation, I immediately thought of what Jesus said about great love. He was talking about giving up one’s life for a friend, or a family member. While either one would be difficult, I would suggest that most of us would find it easier to sacrifice ourselves for a friend or family member than it would be to give up our lives for someone we don’t know.

And yet that is exactly what Jesus did—he sacrificed himself for friends and family, certainly, but he also died for his enemies and those he never knew, and those yet unborn—and that would include each of us. Thanks be to God for this love which reached out to us and came to us through the centuries to redeem us. Amen.

 

Bright Hope for the Future

Eagle Eyrie

 

This week, Becky and I have been teaching at Virginia State  Music Camp at Eagle Eyrie, the Baptist Assembly outside Lynchburg.  Actually, the real name of the event is Music and Worship Arts Camp, sponsored by the Virginia Baptist Mission Board in Richmond.  Baptist churches are independent but cooperate through agencies like the VBMB for missions and support. This gathering is an arts camp  with a decided musical emphasis for fourth grade through high school students.

The assembly at Eagle Eyrie is 57 years old and perches on the side of a steep mountain. It had fallen into a state of disrepair several years ago, with peeling paint, broken fences and walls, and old fixtures.  A largely volunteer committee, headed by our former senior pastor at Manassas Baptist Church, Bill Higgins, restored the property.  Today it looks fresh and new, with beautiful plantings and landscaping.

The Music and Worship Arts Camp is coordinated through the Worship and Church Music Ministries division of the VBMB, headed by Tom Ingram, Field Strategist/Worship and Church Music Specialist, and Debbie Cobb,  Administrative Assistant to Empowering Leaders Team.  They are dedicated, humble, Spirit-filled servants who essentially put together a school for 350 children each summer, along with their other duties during the year. They work with a committee to establish a theme (this year’s was, believe it or not, “The Gift of Christmas.” The kids have been singing Christmas carols all week. That helps to counteract the extreme heat we’re having here closer to the sun) beginning in February.  Becky is on the committee as are several other Virginia church musicians such as Fred Horn and Bernadine Donovan.  (I don’t know the names of the others on the committee.)

Tom and Debbie are assisted at the camp by several energetic interns either in college or just out of it, Laura, Hilliary, Ariana and Megan. There were thirty-eight faculty members this year, along with numerous chaperones of church groups.  These faculty members are incredibly talented and experienced musicians who are  a joy to watch work with the children.

I slid in as a teacher by teaching a class in song-writing, using my experience teaching writing which is more developed than my musical skills. The class was called “Lots of Lyrics,” and the students showed great insight and creativity writing words to familiar tunes, writing poems based on the Psalms and writing a Christmas carol. One of their songs was used in a worship service.

Class selections include handbells, a vocal ensemble, banners, guitar 1 &2, instrumental ensemble, interpretive movement, make it/give it (students make an item which is give to an orphanage or shelter), orchestra, piano, ‘scapes (visual art project), puppets, stomp (students play trash cans, pots and pans, and some other more or less indescribable instruments), voice, drumming, and worship leadership. Each student is also part of a choir, Alpha for younger children, and Omega for the older ones.  The choirs are usually directed by musicians from out of state, although Becky directed the Alpha choir a few years ago.  Imagine directing a choir of 135 children!

There is also a Delta level for high school students, who help with classes and learn what is involved in being a worship leader.

The Worship and Church Music Ministries division also sponsors an All-State Choir and Orchestra in February, with students chosen by audition from all over the state.  They work with a director and produce some beautiful music.

I think you can tell this week, while exhausting, was a mountaintop experience for me, both literally and figuratively. Seeing the leaders work with the children, who were exceptionally well-behaved and enthusiastic (with some exceptions–they are children, after all) was uplifting. One of the teachers in another class I overheard was talking with his students about eventually taking the places of the church musicians now working.  Their experiences at camp are a start, he said, and they could work until they are ready to step in at some point in the future when we can’t minister any longer.  Judging from what I saw this week on the mountaintop, thanks to the efforts of a lot of people and the grace of God, that future is very bright indeed

A City upon a Hill

Image

I suppose everyone at this point within listening or viewing distance of mass media has heard about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin fourteen months ago. So much has been written about this case and this trial. I find it difficult to add much to the conversation, except to note that it has been marked by polarization and widely differing opinions and interpretations. Again. We seem to go through this sort of thing every so often, and this makes me sad.

So, what to write? First, I think it notable that most people (myself included) gain their information and draw their conclusions based on mass media, which invariably has some sort of bias. Some outlets claim no bias, but in this world, that’s not possible. I used to tell my students that the important thing was not finding an unbiased source, but being aware of the bias and adjusting one’s conclusions accordingly.

So, we are left with the questions: was George Zimmerman a wannabe cop, an overzealous Neighbor Watch member, a stubborn, irrational young man who lost it on a child? Our younger daughter went to school with him and his brother Robert (she knew Robert better than George), and said they were nice guys from a solid, religious family. Was he a conscientious citizen trying to keep his neighborhood safe who was threatened by a menacing young fellow up to no good? What happened to George, and why?

And, was Trayvon Martin a gangsta thug in a hoodie up to no good? Or was he a child innocently walking home, in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. We will never know the truth of what happened that night. George Zimmerman knows, but he is unlikely to tell all he knows. And Trayvon Martin cannot speak from beyond the grave. More’s the pity.

It seems to me that both young men in this case are victims. Trayvon is more obviously a victim of violence and misplaced anger, but they both are in another sense. Mass media has a tremendous impact on how we see ourselves, and it looks as if both young men bought into some media stereotypes and roles for their age and gender. Perhaps Trayvon was acting like the kids depicted on television, in movies and in video games and music: bad dudes who prize violence and breaking the law. Maybe George had seen one too many Chuck Norris program and saw himself as a citizen upholding the law when the authorities wouldn’t. These are only my theories: the reality is one young man is dead and another’s life has been irreparably chhnged for the worst. And I do mean “worst.” Our daughter days the whole ZImmerman family has received death threats and are afraid to return to their homes.

So, what are we to do?

I think we need to be aware of the influence on mass media on our lives. We need to teach our children how to think critically about what they are exposed to, to make good decisions, and to reject those who counsel paths that lead to destruction. We need to treat each other with respect and love, regardless of our perceived differences. It is possible to have a just and righteous society: it takes a lot of work, and we’re obviously not there yet.

The Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony spoke of establishing “a City upon a hill” in the New World, one in which people would live in harmony and peace, with “liberty and justice for all.” In the nearly 400 years since that colony was established, we have made progress toward that ideal. The case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin shows that we still have a way to go. May we continue together on that journey.