Friday, April 26, 2013

Not Today, Maybe Tomorrow

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Sheila gently laid the photo album on her Aunt Mary’s lap. It had been a while since she had visited with the last of her mother’s siblings. Time and distance conspired to keep them apart. But a 100th birthday didn’t happen ever day, so Sheila put everything else aside to be at Riverdale for the celebration.

Frail hands, veins standing out and marked with age spots, caressed one of the photos on the first page of the album.

“That was 1911, the year I was born. That’s my mother.”

Sheila moved closer. Aunt Mary’s hearing wasn’t very good anymore.

“They didn’t smile much for photos, did they?”

Mary harrumphed, as she said, “Mother wasn’t a very happy person at the best of times. Ten children before me and all the farm work too—just about wore her to death.”

She turned the page. The photo of a handsome young lad in a military uniform stared up at them.

“Was that one of your brothers?” Sheila asked, hoping to encourage more memories. “Some of them were in the First World War, weren’t they?

Mary thought for a moment before she answered: “No…at least I don’t think so, though…well, it might have been Charlie…but…oh, I don’t remember…” Her voice trailed off. Mary’s hand stopped over the picture, resting on it as though waiting for an answer to magically flow from the thick cardboard into her mind. Sheila could see the struggle to remember on her aunt’s face.

“It’s okay, Aunt Mary, it’s not important.”

The older woman looked up, meeting Sheila’s gaze and pinioning it with the icy blue of her own. “It IS important,” she retorted, frustration and a touch of anger adding an edge to her usually calm tones. Immediately her eyes went back to the photo.

“It was Charlie, not my brother, but my mother’s younger brother. He went away and never came back,” she said. It was as though that moment of pique had chased the fog away. She turned the page and reached out to stab a more modern photo with a long, boney, arthritic finger.

“That’s Emma, my sister.”

“My mother,” said Sheila.

Mary looked up again as though seeing Sheila for the first time.

“You were away for a long time, weren’t you? Where was it…Africa?”

“Japan, Aunt Mary. I was there for twelve years.”

“Yes, of course,” her aunt replied.

There had been a time when her visits with her aunt had resulted in hours of questions about Sheila’s life and experiences. Mary kept every letter, writing her questions in cramped handwriting in the margins so that she wouldn’t forget what she wanted to ask the next time her niece came. Now the questions wouldn’t come and the answers didn’t matter.

“Have you heard anything from Edith McKay? I haven’t had a letter from her in a long time. Has she called you?”

Sheila smiled to herself. In her latter years Aunt Mary had begun to collapse time in her mind and think of her niece as one of her peer group, another one of the “girls” like Edith, Mary’s best friend from her younger days.

“Edith died several years ago, Aunt Mary,” Sheila said.

The older women looked puzzled for a moment. Then, as her brow cleared, she nodded slowly. “Yes, of course,” she replied.

Sheila decided it might be time to press her aunt a little. What kind of present do you get for a woman about to celebrate 100 years of life?

“What would you like for your birthday, Aunt Mary?”

This time Mary didn’t hesitate. “What I want I think I’m going to have to wait for,” she answered. Sheila knew that her aunt loved to go out for drives through the countryside and, thinking that perhaps the other nieces had some special outing planned, she asked: “And what might that be?”

“I want to go home.”

Her cousins had assured Sheila that their aunt had made the adjustment from her apartment to the seniors’ home with relative ease, so she was surprised that her aunt would be so adamant about leaving Riverdale.

“Don’t you like it here? Don’t they treat you well? It’s almost as good as the apartment and you don’t have to cook, or do your own laundry.”

The older women straightened with an effort. For the first time during the visit, there was a twinkle in her eye, certainty in her voice, and not a wisp of fog to be seen.

“The apartment isn’t the home I was thinking of.”

Friday, April 19, 2013


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In that other life, I might have cried bitterly, but I had only happy tears now. I should have been sad, or angry, or resentful, but those emotions had died along with my diseased and corrupted body.

So I faced my sister in Christ at the corner of Golden Passage and Angel’s Walk with nothing but love in my heart. Heaven is odd—I had never met Sandra on the dark side of eternity, nor any member of her family, but I knew her. I also intuitively felt the link that connected her former life with what had been mine. That’s why I wanted to meet her.

Even though time is endless here, there is no time in heaven for small talk, no need to “work up” to the subject. I simply asked. Sandra had never met me before, but she sensed the connection with me as much as I did with her.

“What happened?”

She smiled, not a sad smile, but a reflective one.

“It seemed so simple then, Mercedes. Why would my daughter and her husband go so far away, take my grandchildren to another world, another life, and deprive them, and me, of each others' company?”

“Not even to serve God?” I said.

“No, not even to serve God. I reasoned that they could serve Him at home just as well as they could in some foreign country—better, in fact. There was no new language to learn, no strange culture to adjust to, less danger, more of the good things of life. What could they do with youth thousands of miles away from me that they couldn’t do three streets over in the neighbourhood we had shared all of our lives.”

“And your grandchildren?”

“They were so small when Susan and Jeff left—three and five. It tore my heart out to see them go. I was determined to convince them to come back home so that I could watch the kids grow, be part of their lives. It just didn’t seem fair. I had the means to visit frequently during that first year they were overseas. I called, sometimes two and three times a week. At every opportunity I reminded them of what they had given up, and of what they were depriving me of. Did you know Susan and Jeff?”

“No, they left before we could meet. I worked at the guardería where Susan would have left Toby to do prekindergarten, if they had stayed. She would have been the first real Christian to come into my life.”

The memories were purged. I remembered, but there was no hurt to feel. I had been so young when I began working in the guardería: needing and wanting, not knowing how to distinguish between the two, or how to interpret their signals. I followed where others led and ended up pregnant, destitute, and alone. Two bad relationships, two abortions and years of grief later, I was introduced to a missionary who introduced me to Jesus.

“In what was once my culture, family is very important. Being a grandmother, having the children close by, must have been vitally important for you, Sandra.”

“More important than anything, then. I was certain that having them home was the best thing in the world for all of us,” she replied.

“It wasn’t?”

Sandra shook her head. “They had everything being overseas couldn’t give them, and I had everything I wanted—my grandchildren. Susan and I were so close, more like sisters than mother and daughter. After they came back, it wasn’t quite the same. There always seemed to be a piece missing for Susan.”

I thought I saw a shadow appear and then disappear behind Sandra’s eyes. I must have been mistaken because there are no shadows in heaven.

“You were the missing piece, weren’t you, Mercedes? You were Susan’s mission. And I pressured her away before she could get to you, didn’t I?”

“God sent someone else later,” I said softly.

“Yes. Later.”

For eternity’s version of a second, heaven was silent as we acknowledged God’s mercy and His forgiveness—for both of us.

“How did your grandchildren fare?”

“Mercedes, distance isn’t only measured in miles. Danger lurks in familiar places and behind friendly faces. I watched them grow up and grow away from me anyway. Things happened—well, I came to wonder if they might not have been safer if they had stayed where Susan and Jeff felt that God had called them.”

Gently, I said: “But you did it for family. I understand.”

“You’re being kind. No, nothing so noble; I did it for myself.”

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tale of a Missionary Car

It wasn't quite this bad! (Google Images)
(Author's Note: This story came up in a Bible study I was leading this week, so I decided to post it on the blog today.)

A single candle flickered in the room, threatening to leave us in darkness as we prepared for bed. Chilling drafts crept in through cracks in the wall, the roof, and the partially opened door. Rain pounded down outside.

I lay shivering on a straw-filled mattress. What we had come to this community to do was not going to be easy. Fear and superstition in rural Colombia, South America made it difficult to explain the Gospel. How could an inexperienced team of Bible students break through years of deep-seated tradition?

It was during summer vacation in 1978, and I doing children’s ministry with some of my students from our Bible Institute. We had planned to offer the program in six churches—three in Medellin, a highly industrialized city of over a million people, and then three more in our rural churches.

My coworker Maria and I—plus Gustavo, our lone male team member, and two other students, headed out to a farming community about an hour outside of Medellin. Once we got off the main highway, the going got very rough. The path was filled with craters and jagged rocks that seemed destined to rip something vital off the bottom of my small car. We finally decided to get out and walk, leaving Maria to drive, in the hopes of lightening the load and avoiding any major damage.

When the path ran out, we were still some distance from the home where we would hold our program. Maria parked the car by a small schoolhouse on a hill just off the path. The school yard was about 10 feet above where the road ended. The car was out of sight. I was sure it would be safe enough parked away from the embankment with the doors locked and the brake on.

Our hostess Guillermina and her husband Efrain were poor tenant farmers. They entertained us royally with what little they had and they were so excited that we had come to tell their friends and neighbors about God’s love and forgiveness.

That afternoon we rounded up children from the neighboring farms and began our first kid’s meeting. It was late when we escorted them back to their homes. A house meeting was planned for the evening. The church people began to drift in one by one. Some had walked a long way. Because it was beginning to rain, the return trip home promised to be a wet one.

By the light of gas lanterns and with every bed and bench occupied, Gustavo delivered a stirring message from the Bible. Outside, the storm grew worse.

After the meeting, all us girls were glad to climb into our beds to escape the cold. The bedroom door wouldn’t shut, so I propped it closed with a box to keep out the worst of the draft. At last, Maria blew out the flickering candle and we settled in, seeking a little warmth against the dampness of the night.

I could hear someone talking on the porch outside. Suddenly the door flew open, sending the box crashing against the wall.

“Señoritas, señoritas!” Guillermina cried hysterically as she burst into the room and threw herself at the foot of the bed. “Forgive us!” It took some to get her calmed down enough to find out what we were supposed to forgive her for.

On the way back to their homes after the meeting, the Christians had found my car upside down in the middle of the path. Two tires had been slashed. The other two were flat. The gas line had been ripped out and some damage attempted to the motor. Earlier Gustavo had offered to sleep in the car for the sake of security, but it was too late for that now. What will we do? I wondered.

“Señorita,” our hostess continued, “we know who did this. Efrain is going out with his machete to punish them.”

Efrain, a new Christian, had once been notorious for his temper. Once again, anger had taken control. As our avenging angel he was now prepared to do battle.

“No”, I begged, “tell him to stay here. Murder is not God’s way of dealing with this.” Guillermina scurried out of the room after her husband.

Voices rose and fell outside the door. The four of us prayed that somehow God would prevent Efrain from this evil mission. Gustavo talked and prayed with him all through the night and our prayers were answered.

I shook uncontrollably as questions raced through my mind. How bad was the damage? How will we get back to Medellin? Why did this happen on the first night of six weeks of ministry? How will we do all the other clubs without the car? Was there worse to come?

Just hours before, I had congratulated myself that we had gotten the car this far without any damage. Now it was ruined.

As I lay there, God began to minister to me. Verses of His care and protection flashed through my mind. He reminded me that where the Spirit of God is, there is no room for fear, for “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (Psalm 34:7). There on that prickly mattress, peace returned. The car was His. Hadn’t I given it back to him when He first provided it? It was no longer mine, but HIS to do with as He pleased.

I fell asleep, thanking God and asking His forgiveness for my worry and fear.

The next morning, before we went back up the road to see the car, we had devotions together as a team. We prayed that God would glorify Himself through this situation. By the time we reached the school yard, a small crowd had already gathered. News travels fast, even in the remote, telephone-less hills of Colombia.

We answered the questions of all who passed, telling them about God and explaining to them why we had come here in the first place.

Our efforts at getting the car on its “feet” and back to town, accomplished with the help of La Unión’s battered fire truck, were closely watched and reported. As a team we resolved that we would stay, finish out our week, and not only talk about God’s love and forgiveness but prove it.

The meeting that night gave us the first glimpse of what the Lord was doing with His car. We were invited to hold our service in the home of a neighbor who wasn’t a believer. Strangers appeared at the door and the house was full to the rafters with people who had never heard the Gospel before. Curiosity had overcome fear. This amazing blessing would repeat itself every night during that week.

Colombians are very careful with their cars. Damage is swiftly repaired and keeping the car looking good is a “must”. But even after we returned to the city, I was reluctant to fix the car. Apart from the tires and the damage to the motor, both passenger and driver’s sides were crushed from being rolled down the embankment. This external damage provided us with endless opportunities to witness. At gas stations, stop signs and parking spots, people always asked what had happened. And when they asked, they received far more than just a “tale of a missionary car.”

With my limited understanding, I thought of the car as only a means of transportation from one place to another. But in God’s hands the car was to become an invaluable part of the missionary team, proving once again that He is always creative, always right and always faithful.

Friday, April 5, 2013

White and Gold With a Touch of Red

The sisters and sisters-in-law, still decked out in their flowery “Sunday-go-to-meeting” frocks, sat under the shade of the maple trees on this warm summer day. Erna fanned herself with the Sunday bulletin as Esther and Adeline chatted.

Near the corner of the house and within sight of the moms and aunts stood Erna’s boy, Wayne. He was a hand’s length from a hydrangea bush overflowing with greenish-white blooms.

“Whaddya think they’re talkin’ about?”

Wayne’s cousin Brenda nervously plucked at the embroidery on her dress. She peered around the hydrangea at the women. They kept looking over at the two children, smiling and pointing.

“Dunno. I don’t think we’re in trouble. But whatever it is, it’s about us,” she said.

“Yuh think so?”

“Yup. We shoulda bin told to take off our Sunday stuff soon as we got home from church. And nobody did.”

“Maybe they forgot?”

Brenda gave Wayne that “don’t be stupid” look.

Adeline worked fiercely every Saturday night to wrap Brenda’s blond hair in rags so that her golden ringlets bounced continually through Sunday School and church. Today the little girl wore a huge off-white bow in her hair. It matched a puffy-sleeved dress complete with Peter Pan collar, socks, and shoes.

The children wanted desperately to climb a tree, chase the chickens, puddle with the ducks in the creek, but had already been sharply rebuked by mothers and aunts and sternly told not to get dirty.

“Do yuh think we’re goin’ to church again?”

Brenda shook her head, making the ringlets swirl across her face.

“Brenda, don’t mess your hair up. For goodness sake, stay still!”

This rolled across the grass from the lawn chair occupied by Aunt Esther, the family fashion plate.

This time Wayne rolled his eyes. He was as blond as Brenda, and was also dressed in off-white right down to his shoes. Anyone looking at the two children would think that they were twins, not cousins.

The families, separated by five hundred miles, got together once every summer for a family reunion. Today was the day.

The other cousins came roaring around the corner of the house, almost colliding with the two semi-angels in semi-white.

“How come they can do what they want, and we can’t?” complained Brenda.

Wayne just shrugged. He was the quieter of the two. Every inch of Brenda craved for constant motion. This “stay still” was torture for her.

Uncle Harry came around the corner accompanied by a stranger carrying a tripod and a box.

“Wayne. Brenda. Come over here,” called Adeline, indicating the center of the lawn.

The man with the tripod set it up not far from them and then arranged the box on the top.

Brenda leaned over and whispered: “It’s a camera. They’re gonna take a picture.”

“They could’ve done that with my mom’s Brownie,” he observed with some disgust.

Adeline and Esther hurried over to the spot where the children were rooted. Erna stood back, not eager to get in the way of the movers and shakers of this little event. Esther went to work arranging the children.

“Now Brenda. You stand over here. Turn a little this way—no, that’s too much. Fine, that’s better. Put your arms down at your side. Stop fidgeting.”

She snapped out instructions like a drill sergeant as she smoothed Brenda’s skirts and adjusted her bow and sash. Then it was Wayne’s turn.

“Wayne, turn and look at your cousin. There, one leg in front of the other and bend towards her. Not too much now. Fine. Now, both of you lean forward just a bit. Wayne, reach out and touch Brenda’s arm. Don’t move, Wayne. Don’t wiggle, Brenda.”

Having positioned the children, the aunt turned to the photographer and signaled with her hand that everything was ready and he had better be ready too. She stepped out the way.

“Now Wayne, lean over and kiss Brenda on her cheek.”

Kiss her? On the cheek? Yuk! Why would I want to do that?

Kiss me? On the cheek? Yuk! Why would he want to do that?

Wayne knew better than to protest. Carefully, without moving the legs his aunt had positioned so precisely, he puckered his lips and leaned over.

Somewhere between pucker and cheek, the camera flashed and the white and gold moment was forever captured, framed by the luxuriant hydrangeas.

Personally, I think it’s a wonderful picture. Fifty years later, Brenda laughs at the memory. My brother? Well, he’s just as embarrassed today as he was then.


Author's Note: I was very young when this happened so I can't say that my description of the events is even close to true, but the picture is, as they say, "worth a thousand words."