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LESSONS FROM LILIES

By Kay Etheredge

Mother’s Day, 2020, came with a new narrative called Covid.    Our oldest daughter, Emily, sometimes bears the challenge of planning and ideas because she is the only child now who lives nearby.  I told her early on that she should plan something for her and her family and Jim and I were fine to be alone.  She kept saying she wanted to do something together, outside, and different.  We mulled this over for several days.  A couple days before Mother’s Day she sent me a text that said, “You know what I would love to do?  Go see the Cahaba Lilies”.  My response was “Let’s go”.

Her husband Martin prepared lunch at their house and then we all set off to the Cahaba River.  None of us knew what to expect since none of us had ever seen the Cahaba lilies, but the day was beautiful and we looked forward to spending time outside.  When we arrived at the river, traffic was congested.  It seemed that everyone had the same idea.  We squeezed into a parking place off the gravel road and set out on foot.  We were surprised to see that the lilies were only growing in the middle of the river.  We could see them from a distance and they were glorious, but the only way to see them up close was by kayak, canoe, or wading.  Emily and I left the children with Jim and Martin and walked maybe a mile down the gravel road.  As we encountered different people, we asked if there was access farther down the road that was closer to the lilies.  A young couple told us they were in the middle of the river and they had tried to wade but the rocks were just too slippery.

We all began to walk in the other direction and we saw people wading out into the river.  Some had large sticks for balance, some held onto each other, but all were moving very slowly and carefully.  We sat on the bank and watched as each small group reached the lilies.  They took photos, and smelled and touched the lilies before starting the slippery trek back.  None of us had worn swimsuits or shoes that we could wear in the water.   We were truly Cahaba lily newbies.  Emily really wanted to get closer so Jim said, “Come on”.  They removed their shoes, rolled up their pants, and headed out.  Jim turned to me and I said “No thanks”.  I said I didn’t want to risk falling, breaking a bone, and having to go to a Covid laced emergency room.  Martin and the kids and I sat on the bank and watched as they slid and slipped and grasped their way out.  As we watched, I realized that what I really was saying was that I wasn’t willing to risk.

Soon two young women walked up with their mom.  She was red-headed like me and had a brace on her knee.  I overheard her say to her daughters, “I’ll sit here.  You two go”.  One of the daughters said, “Mom, don’t be ridiculous.  It’ll be fun”.  And I watched as they set off, arm in arm, not too far behind Emily and Jim.  They slipped and slid and laughed and squealed and I was so enthralled with how much fun they were having.  They were making a delightful Mother’s day memory, and I was sitting on the bank.  As Jim and Emily took photos, sniffed and touched the lilies, I began to unlace my shoes and roll up my pants.  A lady who had reached the bank threw her huge stick over to the side of me as they left.  I got her stick, called out to Jim, “I want to go out”.  I held his hand and he directed me where to put my feet and where the rocks were really slick.  In those places he grasped my arm more tightly and I leaned into him and clutched my gifted stick.  And we slipped and slid and laughed and we made it out to the lilies.  We sniffed and touched and Emily took our picture from the bank.  The red-headed lady with the brace on her knee passed me and we smiled at each other and I said I wasn’t going to go until I saw her and how much fun she was having with her daughters.

Fear can keep us paralyzed.  The Covid-19 pandemic has many people living in fear.  It is a scary thing.  It has affected people we all know and love.  It has affected Brother Bryan Mission.   Everyone has to choose how to deal with it.  Some people we know have barely left home since March.  Others have jobs that are essential and have no choice.  Our choice as a family has been to obey the authorities over us by wearing masks and sanitizing and being as wise and careful as we can be.  But we have also chosen to see our immediate family and sit around the table and spend holidays together and see Cahaba lilies on Mother’s day.  Our daughter talked about their first time back at church and how the pastor said, “look around you.  Some people are wearing masks, and some are not.  The ones with masks are not more spiritual than the ones without and vice versa.  We are extending grace to others who don’t believe the same”.   In Birmingham (and more recently, Jefferson Country) we are required to wear masks and we do.  We carry hand sanitizer with us everywhere we go.  We shop for groceries but make a list and try to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible.  We have chosen to live wisely but not in fear.  Shelley Giglio said, “Before the truth can set you free you need to recognize which lie is holding you hostage.”  For me, on Mother’s day, it was fear.

I could choose to sit on the bank and watch from a distance, letting fear win.  Instead I chose to trust my heavenly Father, and to believe that He, who created the lilies to begin with, wanted me to enjoy them.  Together, my husband and I stooped and smelled them and cupped them in our hands and marveled at their beauty.  We stepped on mossy rocks and we shrieked like children when we slipped and we laughed and made a memory.  And I firmly believe that the God who knew about Covid-19 before the foundation of the earth and who imagined and created the Cahaba lilies, delighted in our delight and laughed the loudest of all.

FAMILY

By Kay Etheredge

Our granddaughter, Charlotte, came two weeks early as a global pandemic raged.  Our son, Grant, called us just after supper on Thursday night, March 20.  We threw our things in suitcases, made a quick call to our pet sitter and left for Jackson, MS.  We made it around 1 am, just a short time before Charlotte made her entrance into this turbulent world.

Grant face-timed my phone since he was the only one allowed at the hospital with Chelsea.  Grant’s voice was weary but proud as he said, “Let me introduce you to Charlotte Mercy Etheredge”.  Chelsea, looking wonderful, held our newest granddaughter in her arms.  It was a beautiful, but surreal, moment.

Jim was able to stay until Monday morning but had to head back to Birmingham.  I stayed to help with the other children, aged 4 and 17 months.  Because of illness, Chelsea’s parents weren’t able to be there and even though I know she needed and wanted her own mom, I was thrilled to be able to help.  Grant designated himself as the runner.  Anytime we needed groceries or anything else, he was the one who went out.  We prayed for protection from covid-19 for us all.

One day, Grant made a quick run to the store and while there bought some Legos that he could build with the older kids, and he bought a puzzle.  He said it was the last puzzle on the shelf, and he didn’t realize until he got home that it was much too hard for the children.  He spread out the pieces on the table and we began to assemble the border.  Grant, an engineer and methodical in his thinking, began to separate the pieces into piles…darker green here, lighter green here, white for the waterfall over here.  With a new baby in the house and 2 toddlers there wasn’t a lot of time but we did the puzzle in increments.  Five minutes here, 30 minutes there, a few minutes before bed…sometimes we worked independently and sometimes we sat down together and fit in the pieces.

Grant became philosophical at one of our puzzle table gatherings.  “I thought Henry was a baby until we brought Charlotte home.  He now looks huge and it’s scary how fast that happened”.  I said, “Grant, I thought you were a baby too, and then I blinked and you now have three children of your own”.  Normally he would roll his eyes at Mom’s sentimentality but I think as we both held our puzzle pieces in mid-air, he got it.

Jim was coming on Thursday to take me back to Birmingham.  Wednesday night as we all went to bed, there were still big gaps in the puzzle.  I felt determination mixed with a bit of desperation, that I wouldn’t get to see the puzzle completed.  It saddened me, and I began to make comparisons to parenting.  I was grateful to be a part of Grant’s family…to see my son who was the kindest little boy, grow into a man, a husband, a Daddy.  To see him wrestle with his kids on the floor and growl and make them giggle and to see his patience as they clung to his neck and climbed all over him.  His thoughtfulness as he bought a puzzle to try and make the long days of social distancing more bearable.  To know that in spite of our mistakes in parenting, he will be fine.

I awoke Thursday morning and Grant was at the table.  I joined him.  We filled in gaps.  Grant patiently found pieces that fit and called Caroline, the oldest, over to place them…to make her feel like she was part of the process of accomplishment.  And then, the last piece went in.  I took a picture as Caroline posed proudly beside it, wearing her princess nightgown and trying to figure out in a 4 year-old way how the change in family dynamics will affect her.

Jim came and we couldn’t wait to show him the completed puzzle.  I’m sure it has long been boxed up by now, but when I think of the pandemic and the late night drive to Mississippi, the arrival of Charlotte, and a million other things that transpired during those short days that I was there, the puzzle is a big part.  We worked together.  We laughed.  We probably annoyed each other some.  We marveled at the miracle of new life.  And we pieced 300 puzzle pieces together and came out with a beautiful scene that had highs and lows and sunshine and shadows.

Outside a pandemic raged, but inside there was family.  A new baby.  Warmth and love.   We drove away with them all standing in the yard and waving.  The sun shone and just for a moment it was easy to put our anxieties about covid-19 aside.  It seemed so normal.  Our daughter-in-law, Chelsea, holding the baby.  Henry and Caroline waving and pretending to run behind us.  And beside them all, our little boy who suddenly is a grown man with a family of his own.  I am proud to call him son, and they will be, with

God’s grace, just fine.

 

OUTSIDE OUR KITCHEN WINDOW

by Kay Etheredge

Outside our kitchen window the wisteria is blooming.  I have always loved wisteria.  It makes me think of my friend, Suzanne.  It makes me think of my mom, and it makes me think of a godly ballet teacher who took my daughter’s class on “wisteria walks” when it bloomed each spring at Briarwood.  My daughter loved those walks and the talks that accompanied them and I am grateful for the people God put in her life.

Our church met this past Sunday.  It wasn’t a decision that was made cavalierly, and I admit my faith was small.  I expected a small handful of people.  Our church is tiny at best, but in the midst of a pandemic we had 25 people.  We took precautions, but we worshiped as a body.  One of our oldest members, 87, was there.  One of our weakest members, a man who uses oxygen, was there.  A dear lady who is in a wheelchair, was there, only this time she walked bravely in on her walker.  Afterwards I expressed to her that I was surprised she came.  Her response was, “yes, when I saw it was supposed to rain I almost didn’t come!”

When we got home, our daughter in Georgia told us that their service was live-streamed and we could watch it if we wanted.  We watched it as well, and our new son in law preached.  We sang along when they sang, we prayed when they prayed.  We relished seeing our daughter go to the altar and receive Communion from her new husband.

Monday night we went for a long walk.  The sun was setting and it was beautiful.  The birds sang.  We stopped at one point to laugh at a bird perched on a limb above us, chirping loudly in our direction.  As it got dark, we walked past a small walking trail where there is a creek.  We stopped there to listen to the crickets, and I told Jim that my Daddy always said, “as long as you hear crickets, everything is good.”

This COVID- 19 is showing us the best and worst in people.  It is showing us the best and worst in ourselves.  I have chosen to deal with it by spending more time reading my Bible and praying, and less time watching the news stories on television.  I believe we are called to be wise and to obey the governmental authorities over us.  This week they have said meetings of 25 or over are prohibited.  This Sunday, our tiny church will be empty.  But we are also called on to be Christian in our behavior.  Our son told us about being in a store and a lady beside them got the last two bottles of formula water.  Seeing our son and his pregnant wife, she turned and said, “Do you need one of these?”  She took it out to hand it to them.  Our son said no, they didn’t need it.  She then said her baby had just gotten out of the NICU.  What a sacrifice she was willing to make!    In a Lent reading I read this week, (written and published long before COVID 19), I read that the most frequently used command in the Bible is “Do not fear”.   Three words that are easily said, but in these days so much harder to live out.  In fact, I think they are impossible without the Holy Spirit.  It is a supernatural act, much the same as the choice to forgive those who wrong us is supernatural.

Things are getting tough.  They will get tougher, we are told.  Our daughter in law is expecting a baby in just a week or two.  She text me this morning from her OB visit in Jackson, MS.   Greeted by people in masks, her temperature was taken in the lobby before she could enter.    When she got inside she found out that her doctor, the same one who is to deliver our grandchild, was possibly exposed over spring break.  He is currently not there and is quarantined.

My husband and the staff are trying to keep BBM running.  They are trying to keep 76 men in 4 common dormitories healthy and fed.  It is a tremendous burden and it is done with deep and sincere love for the men.    They take temperatures daily and two staff members are out today.  Our children are saying, “Dad needs to stay home.”  When this newsletter is mailed out and you are reading it, none of us knows what may be different.   Our prayer is that the men at BBM will stay healthy.  We have asked God to work mightily in keeping them well.  Our prayer is that each of you and your families will be well, too.  We pray that we will be well so we may make it to Jackson to help our son and daughter in law with the other two children while they deliver our new grandbaby.

God tells us throughout His word, “Do not fear.”  Sometimes the best thing to do is turn off all the screens and just spend time with Him.  Tell Him we are anxious, we fear, and we need to know He is here.  We need to see His hand amid all the chaos around us.  He is Lord over everything, even Covid-19.

Sunday, in our daughter and son in law’s church in Georgia, the congregation who bravely gathered there sang this song.  It has stuck with us and blessed us and given us great peace.  It is called Come, O Redeemer, Come” by Fernando Ortega.  Whether you know it or not, may you receive comfort from these lyrics.  Look it up online if you want to sing along.

Father enthroned on high, Holy, Holy.

Ancient eternal Light, Hear our prayer.

Come, Oh Redeemer come, Grant us mercy.

Come, oh Redeemer come, grant us peace.

Lord, save us from the dark, of our striving,

Faithless and troubled hearts, weighed down.

Look now upon our need, Lord, be with us

Heal us and make us free, from our sin. 

 

We hear the fear in our adult children’s voices.  We see it in the faces of strangers we see clutching toilet paper and bread in the stores.  We see it in the empty seats in our churches, and in the faces and voices of the men at BBM.  We hear it in our own voices as Jim and I repeat to each other that we are in the at risk age group.  Last night, my husband’s phone beeped and he looked at it.  One of the men had sent a text saying he felt led to pray for us and wanted us to know that he was doing that.  What a comfort that was!

The wisteria is blooming outside my kitchen window.  Today is the first day of spring.  The birds, oblivious to the fact that a pandemic is raging, are building nests.  Our Father, who tells us not to fear,  promises to care for them.

How much more, then, will He care for us?

BURNING BUSH MOMENTS

By Kay Etheredge

I recently copied a quote into my prayer journal. 

“Earth is crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God:

But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”

    – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Two incidents stand out as I thumb through my prayer journal…this particular journal was started in July of 2019, just a little over a week before our daughter’s August wedding.  Both incidents involve prayer, one with a total stranger, and the other with someone who I have come to count as a friend.  Both stand out to me as common bushes afire with God, and both involve a grandmother’s heart cry for a grandchild.

A dear lady who hosts one of the Bible studies that I have the privilege to cater asks regularly about our family…our children and grandchildren.  I answer her questions and she is sensitive to my responses.  She is godly and kind and she has that gift that many older women possess to look into eyes, listen to an answer that comes with a catch in the throat, or the tiniest of hesitation that shows an attempt to cover up fear and emotion that rest just below the surface.  On this particular night, as her house filled with eager medical students, she asked about a grandchild.  I expressed to her that there were still concerns with this child’s lack of interest in eating, and I saw her looking into my eyes.  As I finished placing the food out and prepared to say goodbye, she took me by the hand and said, “First let’s go into the living room and pray.”  My boss’s wife saw and joined us.  And we sat together, the three of us, and prayed.  I allowed the busyness of the day and the food preparation and all the concerns for children and grandchildren to drain from me into that sacred moment.  Author Meredith McDaniel says, “We want. At any point on any given day we all yearn for something.”  What a privilege to join together with other believers and voice those yearnings to the Father. As we exited the living room and headed back toward the kitchen we heard the students’ voices blending together as they sang “One Thing Remains”.  It was beautiful, and I realized that I usually am gone already when they sing.  It was a moment that made me feel like taking off my shoes.  Holy ground can be in a kitchen or living room or in the touch of a hand or the blending of hearts and voices as we all look expectantly to the One who, as Colossians tells us, holds all things together.

The second incident was weeks before Christmas.  Jim and I had gone to a tree lot in Vestavia to pick out a tree.  It was the middle of the day and it was freezing cold and rain came down in a slow but certain drizzle. We always buy our tree from the same people—sweet Christians from Michigan.  Picking out a tree used to be a drawn out process when our kids were with us but it seems like now it doesn’t take so long.  Maybe at our age we recognize that the best trees are imperfect like us.  We quickly selected a beautiful Fraser fir and Jim stood by as they cut and netted the tree.  I began to pick up the cut off pieces to use for decorating and I noticed an older woman, across the lot, who was doing the same.  We were the only people there and she saw me as well.  She walked across the lot toward me.

“Do you want these branches that I picked up”? She asked.  I explained that I had all I needed.  She then said, “We need to pray that they sell all their trees.  Last year I prayed that they would and they were almost all sold.”  She said, “You know they are Christians”?  I said I did know, and that we are as well.  She told me she is a healer.  She didn’t say this in a boastful way at all…she was very quiet and humble.  Earlier in my Christian walk I would have inwardly scoffed at this…I would have appeased her but inwardly written her off.   But our daughter married an Anglican priest and we have been theologically stretched and moved in beautiful and freeing ways.  She asked me if I could ask God for anything…any healing for anyone…what would it be?  It took me a minute to fine tune what she was asking, and I realized that at that moment, if I could pray for anything, it would be the same concern I mentioned above…a precious grandchild who has very little interest in eating. So I told her.  She wrapped her arm around me in the cold rain and began to pray.  When she finished she asked if she might anoint me with oil.  I said “yes”.  She took a small bottle from her coat pocket and opened my right palm.  She gently made the sign of the cross in my outstretched hand.  She told me the next time I see this child, to place this hand on him and say that I agree with her in prayer.  It is irrelevant  whether or not I agree with every facet of this story…the point is that in my mind and spirit, this moment in the rain at the tree lot was a burning bush moment.  As I drove home with my husband, I opened my hand several times and tried to make out the cross that just moments before was there.  I held this story with a guarded heart because I knew there would be some who would scoff.  I did tell my son in law, (the Anglican) and his response surprised me.

“If she told you to do something difficult would you do it”?  He asked, reminding me of Naaman the leper in the Bible who was told to go and dip seven times in the Jordan River.

Men walk through the doors at Brother Bryan Mission weighed down with addiction and the scars the world has given and the labels our culture places on them.  They are taught about God’s great mercies and asked to make a decision to trust Him with their lives.  Some eagerly do that and recognize the burning bush moment.  You can see it in their eyes and the way they carry themselves.  Others choose to walk away, back into a life of drugs and alcohol, the glow of the burning bush fading and growing smaller behind their backs.  Like Naaman the leper, they are unwilling to do something as simple as drop the burden they carried as they entered these doors.  What makes the difference?  Some simply see the common bush afire with God, and choose to take off their shoes.

Earth is crammed with heaven and maybe it is easier to glimpse at a place like Brother Bryan.  Or maybe it is anywhere His people are…people who are willing to bend, to bow, to stand in the cold rain and trace a cross with an oiled finger into the open and willing palm of a stranger.

A GOOD MAN’S PASSING

by Kay Etheredge

A good man died just before Christmas.  His name was Elmer Harris, and I met him once.  He was genuine and patient and he took the time to listen to someone who only works at Brother Bryan once a week.  He came to meet my husband and I was excited to be here because my dad retired from Alabama Power where Mr. Harris was CEO.  One of my brothers retired from there and one still works there.

Some of my fondest memories as a child were when we drove to pick my dad up at work at the North Birmingham Shop.  We did this from time to time because it was the early 1960s and like a lot of people, our family only had one car.  Usually my dad drove to work and my mom was left without a car, but on the days when we had dentist or doctor’s appointments, we drove my dad to work and picked him up in the afternoon.  They blew a huge whistle and we knew Daddy was coming.  Our mom would allow us to pile out of the huge backseat and wait in the gravel parking lot until we saw him coming toward the gate.  He walked with weary shoulders and he was covered in steel shop grime, but we latched onto him anyway.  He hugged us, his reason for working, like he hadn’t seen us in weeks.   Sometimes his coworker, Mr. Davis, would give us each a dime, which was a lot of money in those days.

I told Mr. Harris about my one brother who is currently working at Alabama Power and I told him my Daddy retired from there.  He was surrounded by others who brought him to Brother Bryan and he had an appointment with my husband, but he didn’t rush.  He asked me when my Daddy retired, and what he did for Alabama Power.  I told him he was a welder, and he had supported our family of six on his welder’s salary.  I think Daddy would have liked that.

As the group moved next door into Jim’s office, I could hear only snatches of the conversation, but one thing stuck with me.  Mr. Harris, in talking to one of the staff about Celebrate Recovery, said, “When you go you speak to every person in the room.”

I met him once, but I know he put into practice what he said.  One of my brothers told me how he would come into Alabama Power offices, shake hands, and pull each person close to him, asking as he did, “What have you done for Alabama Power today”?  And then he would listen.

In contrast are those who come through the door here, dressed to the nines, barely stopping, and as they look through me, say rudely, “Where’s Jim”?!

My husband and I have talked as well about people who enter a room, shake your hand, but all the while their eyes are darting around the room assessing who is the most important or influential person there.  That is the person they want to be seen with, which becomes evident when they spot them and leave you mid-sentence.

A lot can be learned about a person by how they treat those they think are beneath them.  Have you ever been out to eat with someone who treats a waitress or server as chattel?  The men here at Brother Bryan Mission have all felt that way before…many of them still do.  It takes time with the Father to begin to believe we are what He says we are.  Most of us have experienced the hurtful dismissals by others.

Our own Daniel Roberson gave his testimony to Mr. Harris.  He told him his Dad is in an assisted living home for veterans in Pell City, near where Elmer Harris lived, with Alzheimer’s.  Mr. Harris said to Daniel, “Next time you’re out there, call me and I’ll take you both out for a steak.”

I wrote a quote in my prayer journal on the first day of 2020.  Ann Voskamp said, “Sometimes you have to accept that you’ll never be acceptable enough for some people.  And whether you accept that as their issue or yours—is up to you.”

Always a little behind, Jim and I read our Christmas Eve Advent reading in the car on the way to Brother Bryan Mission this morning.  Taken from the book The Greatest Gift, also by Ann Voskamp, we read, “Tonight at the foot of the cradle of Christ, like at the foot of the Cross of Christ, there are no big people—no powerful, no proud.  Tonight there are only those who tramp to the manger with nothing; there are only manger tramps, the men who lay down all the self-made, the women who lay down all the self-sufficiency, the children who lay down all the wants.  We, the manger tramps, who kneel where thrones tremble and demons fall and the self-made crumble and the self-righteous weep.  Tonight there are only manger tramps, who tramp in with all our poverty of spirit…so there can be an abundance of God.”

In that quote lies the key to what I think made Elmer Harris a good man.  He wasn’t afraid to lay down his self-made and to become small.  He grasped hands and looked into eyes and asked questions and he really heard.   He could have brushed me aside but asked me when my Daddy retired.  I told him 1985, and only because he had cancer.  He listened.  He said it was before he became CEO.  He would have liked Daddy, and Daddy, who was wary of the CEO type, would have liked him too.

Daniel and his Dad never got to go for that steak, but everyone in the room was certain Mr. Harris was extending a genuine invitation. Jim asked after the meeting if he could get a photo of me with Mr. Harris so I could show my brother.  He seemed like it was an honor and gladly obliged.

His trajectory with Alabama Power was very different from my dad’s but they both were very good at what they did and to this day I think it is a great company.  Others may criticize them when their power is out, but my Daddy would drive by the linemen as they worked in the dark and rain and he talked about them almost reverentially.   My mom was known to bake them pound cakes and take with coffee when they worked in her neighborhood.  It was such an honor to me to meet a former CEO and to find him to be so very kind.

A good man died just before Christmas and I’m sorry.   And I only met him once.

 

 

 

HANDS THAT TELL A STORY

by Kay Etheredge

It wasn’t an ordinary Friday.  My husband had an eye appointment so I drove myself to work at BBM.  As I stepped out of the car and onto the sidewalk out front, I noticed a beautiful yellow colored finch lying dead on the sidewalk.  I bent over and looked at it and thought how sad to be greeted first thing by this pitiful sight.   I wondered what had happened to him.

Jimmy Coshatt pulled up behind me and got out of the BBM van.  I called him over to look.  I pointed out that ants were beginning to crawl on the bird and if Jim were here, I’d ask him to bury him.  Jimmy and I stood over the bird for a moment then went in two separate entrances to the mission.   I was approached inside the door by an outside guest who asked if we could give him a bottle of water on this hot day and another man who asked where he needed to go to get an ID.  I had just made it to my desk when Jimmy walked in.  He held out his hands which were obviously dirty and said, “I buried the little bird”.

Many of you may have heard Jimmy’s testimony.  When he was 8 yrs old he saw his father murder his mother.  He felt such rage and anger toward his dad and suffered from anxiety attacks for years.  He lived in fear of having one at school, but he tells about how family members would hold his little body as he shrieked in fear of what, he didn’t know.  He told me his mom wore a tank top…it was August in Alabama.  She was shot in the chest and fell over backwards and he ran to her.  Their eyes met.  And she was gone.  He said he remembers her look and knows that her last thought was of him.  No child should have to experience what he experienced.

His mother’s parents were godly people and they took him and his sister in, raising them in the church.  They gave Jimmy the choice of whether to keep his last name or change it to their own, his mother’s maiden name.  He chose to change it.  He remembers that over and over his grandparents would say, “You are going to have to forgive.  Someday, you will have to forgive your Dad”.   Jimmy says he never once heard these people who lived out their faith say a harm word about his dad.  And he did forgive his father when he died.   He talks about going to see his dad’s body and expecting to feel more hate and rage but when he saw him in the casket he didn’t feel that.  He said that day was the beginning of his own healing.

After that Friday when Jimmy buried the bird, I was awakened and felt prompted several times, “Ask Jimmy about his tattoos”.  The next Friday when I worked, he came by the office door.  I said, “Do you mind me asking what your tattoos say”?  He seemed a bit embarrassed but held up his hands, knuckles bent, so I could see.   I don’t know what I expected him to say, but what he did say was not what I expected.  The 13th letter of the alphabet is M, the first letter is A, so the numbers on his fingers spell out “Mama”.  The tattoo on that hand is a tribute to his mom.  The other hand has similar numbers which stand for “I Miss Little Man”…a tribute to a young nephew who died.  He said he did feel slightly embarrassed over the tattoos and had paid for them with coffee when he was in prison.  I said it is part of his story and God is the author of each of our stories and he should never be embarrassed.

Today I sat down with Jimmy to collect information to write this.  He told me in graphic detail about the murder of his mom.  He told me about his freedom from the anxiety attacks, and how even in his own drug and alcohol abuse and eventual prison time, God protected him and guided him to the life he now has.    As we talked our conversation turned to the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, and we talked about the fact that we both fervently prayed for her safety and release.  Jimmy said he got angry at God when he found out she was dead, then apologized to God the next day.  I said I got angry too, and my faith was tested as well, as I’m sure is the case with many people across our city and state and even nation.  We all cried out to God to deliver this precious girl…to bring her home unharmed…to protect her and keep her.  And we prayed unceasingly as the days ticked by and fall finally arrived in Birmingham and we read that she was abducted wearing no shoes.

Jimmy said, “You know I went to the memorial for her over at the park”.  I had to lean in to hear because his voice had gotten softer.  He said they gave out purple ribbons because that was Cupcake’s favorite color.  He has his in his Bible he said, and he’s using it as inspiration to read through the Bible again. He will do it, he said, as a tribute to this little girl.   I said I wish I had known 8 year old Jimmy…that I could have hugged him and said to the scared little boy who watched his mother’s life taken right in front of him that he would be okay…that he would grow up to be a fine man like his grandfather.  His heart is tender and he has a kindness that proves he has not let any aspect of his story make him bitter.  He wears the word MAMA in numerical code on his hand and their last look at each other is vividly in his heart all these years later.  He can see God’s hand and how the horrible ashes are being turned into great beauty.  He carries a purple ribbon in his Bible and who knew that a little girl named Cupcake would help a heart, already scarred, to heal just a little more.

The street is busy in front of Brother Bryan Mission and the sidewalk is rarely still.  It is a concrete jungle but there are trees with dirt beneath them, and a beautiful yellow finch placed in its final resting place by a man with hands that tell a sad but beautiful story.

Fall has finally come to Birmingham and the trees give up their leaves – their true colors ablaze with glory.  And we know that even the hardest and saddest things, placed in the hands of the Master are never ruined or wasted.

THE SAME MEAL

What would happen if you were offered the same meal someone on the street would eat today?

SACRED MOMENTS

By Kay Etheredge

It is Friday, my one day to work at Brother Bryan.  I haven’t been here in two weeks due to visits from two of our children.  It was good to come back today, even though I will gladly take a day off work to spend time with our kids if given the chance.

Before we entered the building a gentleman asked Jim about a change of clothing, so I came in alone.  The lights in the back hallway hadn’t been turned on yet and I went to put my Greek yogurt in the refrigerator.  As I turned to start back down the hallway, I noticed a large shaft of light coming in the front window onto the carpeted floor.   I have always loved light and shadows and the contrasts they bring, so I stood for just a few seconds enjoying the beauty.  Then I saw the camera on my husband’s desk and ran to grab it to try and take a picture.  It was maybe a span of 8-10 seconds.  I took off the lens cap and turned and the light was gone.  I tried standing at several different angles, even walking back down the hall to try and recreate it.  In that very short amount of time the sun had moved just enough to keep the light from entering the window and the beautiful light beam on the floor was just a memory.

A little over a week ago I topped “hospital hill”, a hill in our neighborhood that is on the top of the street that the old Trinity Hospital is on.  I was turning right to go down the hill when a very large tree to my left lit up before me like someone had flipped a switch.  There are dozens and dozens of trees in that area, but this particular tree with the sun directly behind it, was the only one that was affected.  The leaves became a grey, almost turquoise color and they literally appeared to be dancing.  It took my breath away, and I slammed on the brakes so I could stare.  I’m grateful nobody was behind me.  It was the same situation as this morning.  I stared, afraid to move,  and then, in just seconds, the sun shifted and the tree blended in with every other tree around it…non-descript green leaves parched from our hot summer and lack of rain.  I made a mental note to look up the Bible verse that says something about trees dancing and clapping as I verbalized my gratefulness to Creator God for allowing me to see just a small glimpse of this sacred moment.  I suspect that God Himself never wearies of the beauty of His very own creation, and longs for us to delight in it with Him…to notice it…to show Him gratitude.

After this morning’s grace of light I sat down at my desk to begin work.  Only moments after, I received a phone call telling me that a dear lady in our church, someone I love, lost her daughter-in-law yesterday.  Sudden and unexpected, she had died in her sleep.  My friend had been on a trip with her son and daughter-in-law and was in the same hotel when it happened.  Devastated, she sobbed into the phone.  I could feel her brokenness and bewilderment.   There is little comfort outside of the One who gives us Hope, and all I could do was ask if I could pray with her.  All day she has weighed heavy on my heart.

As I work today I reflect on the testimonies the men gave at last night’s graduation hosted by Christ Fellowship Church.  The men told stories of addiction and broken relationships.  They told of becoming clean and sober and reaching out for forgiveness to those their actions had hurt.  Some received forgiveness immediately…for others it will be a process, but through the ministry here at BBM, the process has begun.

I think about how the Christian walk is about light and shadows…about contrasts.  How each of us, every day, stand in grace and are surrounded by grace and we get the chance to extend grace to those who, just like us, are undeserving.  Each of us may stand in awe of God’s goodness one moment and then be knocked to our knees by grief the next.  There are moments we want to drink in and stay and there are moments that we wish we would never have to experience.  And the tragedies that life brings are graces as well because they are the moments when He draws us closer and holds us more tightly.   The shafts of light and sacred moments are prevalent in this world but we have to be aware of them…to be looking up toward the One who is our Hope.  The One to whom all creation sings.

And that verse?  The one I made a mental note to look up?  This is what it says:

“For you will go out with joy,

And be led forth with peace;

The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,

And all the trees of the field will clap their hands”.  (emphasis mine)

Isaiah 55:12

It is 4:30 and almost time to go home and even though it is Friday, there are those who hurt deeply and need our prayers, so there is no “weekend release”.    There are graces in this world and they happen in the form of great, great beauty as well as indescribable grief.  It is a world that is not void of One who is greater.  One who is Creator.  One who stoops and bends and comforts.  One who calls Himself Light.

The afternoon sun is sinking lower and lower.  Right now the hallway is a shadow, but it isn’t ominous.  Because somewhere, very close, a shaft of Light breaks through in splendor that takes away the breath.  He places it there and asks us to simply see, admire, and call it grace because in a moment, it will be gone.

SACRED BEAUTY

By Kay Etheredge

This is really not my story, although I feel like I’m a part of it.  I graduated in 1975, a year after my older brother, but going through school with an older brother who was in the grade above me means we shared a lot of common friends.   And sometimes the stories that others tell us are the most moving.

Every school has the people who are “in”…these generally are the football players, cheerleaders, and homecoming queens.  And sadly, every school, especially middle schools and high schools, also have the people who are “out”.  I was in the band, and I spent a lot of time simply trying to steer in my own lane.  I wouldn’t have even understood at the time what I was doing, but I tried to steer in the lane that was sub consciously called “status quo”.  Don’t do anything to look different, be different, sound different…just stare straight ahead and keep moving. 

My brother recently had his 45th high school reunion.  I saw photos on social media and wondered who all these old people were.  It was startling to realize as I stared intently at the group photo, trying to find one face that I recognized, that old age has definitely arrived.  My brother called and relayed different people who had asked about me or said to say hello.  We talked about who was there and who wasn’t.  And then he mentioned her name.

I won’t put it in print because it is a name that anyone who went to our high school within a 3 year span would know.  And it had the misfortune to be a name that could easily be mispronounced as profanity, or rhymed with another word that was also profane.  And this girl was definitely not “in”, except that she was the favorite for people, male and female, to taunt, ridicule, and bully.  She was a bit slow mentally and she dressed in high school in the seventies just like my grandmother.  Long skirts when mini- skirts were the norm.  Cats eye glasses when wire granny glasses were the style.  She had permed hair when almost every other girl (myself included) wore waist length hair, parted in the middle, and we either ironed or rolled on giant rollers to insure that not one single wave would survive.  It was the era of Woodstock and hippies and apparently no self-respecting hippie tolerated curls.  She talked with a deeper voice than most and she plodded when she walked.  And, as the other girls assured me in gym class, she believed, really believed, that she had boyfriends who were movie stars.  This was almost always punctuated with a “watch this”, from someone, who would then turn to her from our hard metal bench seats, call out her name loudly, and ask who she had a date with that weekend.  I can still see her eyes flutter open and shut behind the dated cat’s eye glasses, and she would then call out some pop star singer’s name or movie star’s name that she claimed to have a date with.  And triumphantly, the girl who asked would turn and say, “See”!   And the rest of us, myself included, would laugh.

I don’t think I ever actually asked her myself.  I don’t remember ever even talking to her.  But I saw her being the target of football players who, maybe even on a dare, would either openly make fun of her or pretend to be interested in her.  And she would smile and her eyes would flutter open and shut and she would plod away into another school day and we all just presumed this to be what was normal.

And somehow, we blinked and raised kids and became grandparents and most of us learned about the brevity of life and the speed with which it torpedoes past, and it has been 45 years since high school graduation.  And my brother and sister- in- law went and this time, unlike any other reunion, she was there.  As I scanned the group photo for the familiar cat’s eye glasses I didn’t see them.  I searched each row of attendees and zoomed in on my computer.  And I saw her name written on a stick- on nametag and I zoomed in more and she was smiling…a brave but genuine smile.  Like most of the rest of us, her hair is colored and now it is straight.   She wore makeup, and as I told my brother, she looked as good as any other woman there and even better than some.

My brother told me that two football players went and apologized to her for their actions in high school.  Both of these men danced with her at the reunion.  Another man who is now a pastor, asked forgiveness for anything he may have said in high school to offend anyone.  And this woman probably had one of the most special nights of her life.   Maybe it is simply that after 45 years have passed most of us know what is really important and that there might not be another chance to seek forgiveness.  My brother mentioned that the class of ’74 has lost 63 people since graduation.

If I had been there I think I would love to have asked her what her memories are of high school.  As we all self-consciously got dressed each morning and looked repeatedly in our mirrors and tried to wear just the right shoes and jeans, what was she thinking?  Did she wake up each morning with a sense of dread at another day of being ridiculed?  In my memories, she smiled a lot.  I have no memory of her ever lashing out as she was teased.

It is raining today as I work at Brother Bryan Mission.  There are men here who struggle with the day to day rubbing of shoulders and close quarter living and just daily life interactions.  There are men who will leave this weekend, and there are men praying that Monday they will have a bed and get a chance to start over.  The mail comes and there are kind people who generously give, and there are others who superfluously mail business reply envelopes to try and irritate.  And I begin to fine-tune my thoughts about redemption.  Maybe the people with funny sounding names and dated glasses who are bullied in high school and return morning after morning wearing a smile are the ones who will lead in the kingdom to come.  Maybe the people who were homecoming queens and quarterbacks have already experienced the glory that this crumbling world offers, and they will be the servants of all.  And how much courage would it have taken for me to simply say, “Don’t keep asking her that”?  Or to simply go and sit beside her at lunch.

Playing fields have a way of being leveled.  Class reunion photos after 45 years are proof.  Men have lost their hair and women their figures, and everyone feels the hot breath of old age on our necks. It is the equalizer, and the men who come through these doors at BBM are all holding out open palms, bowed over with the weight of ridicule that drugs and alcohol and severed relationships can bring.

There is a sacred beauty in sitting beside someone, looking into their eyes, and saying, “I was wrong to mistreat you”.  To own the pain we caused others, whether explicit or complicit.   It is what redemption is all about.

Sometimes we need to bravely change lanes and be amazed when the view changes to beauty that was there all along.

HOUSE FINCHES – haemaorhous mexicanus

By Kay Etheredge

Every year we hang two ferns on our front porch.   Every year the ferns serve as a place for a family of house finches to build their nest.  I say family because generations of these same birds have nested on our porch.  Our children were all still at home when we first noticed the tiny birds inspecting the ferns.  They flitted to and fro and then decided that the ferns were perfect for them.  We delighted in watching the male and female birds hard at work, building straw by straw their nest, and we delighted even more at the chirping of baby birds on our porch.  Each time we walked out our front door the mother flew away, and we felt a degree of pride and sadness as the birds learned to fly and left their cozy home.

The next year the birds were back…we assumed they were the babies, now grown, returning to build their own nests in our ferns.  Year after year we notice them outside our living room window darting in and out of the ferns and we announce to anyone who happens to be nearby that the finches are back.

Meanwhile, two of our own children have married and left our nest and have had children themselves, carrying on the process of expanding our family and building new generations.  They still enjoy the progress of the finches and it has been a thrill to show our older grandchildren the baby birds.  We lift them up and oh so carefully pull back the fern fronds, revealing tiny beaks opening and closing as they await their next meal.

This year the finches were back and I enjoyed seeing them carefully building their nest in one of our ferns.  I was preparing to travel to Wisconsin to help our youngest daughter pack her things to move back to Alabama.  She will be married in August so even though I was excited about her being here for the summer, it was tinged with sadness at the thought that she would be here only for a minute and then she would not be back to live in our home again.  Each time I opened the front door I would see Mama Finch fly away, and I sneaked a few peeks at the baby birds in the fern.  I could hear their chirping each day and feared that I would miss their learning to fly while I was in Wisconsin.

I flew to Wisconsin and spent the next week packing and working to get our daughter’s things ready.  One day my husband called and his voice was somber as he said, “Something got the baby birds last night”.  I was horrified and so was he.  He said how he had gone out to water and the fern was pressed apart, then he saw the nest itself was in the flower box below and feathers were strewn everywhere. We began to wonder if the entire family had been killed or just the babies.  It was too sad to allow ourselves to think that their family lineage had been interrupted by some intruder.  I told my husband to look back on the security camera to see if he could see what happened.   He said he didn’t know if he could stand to watch it. 

Several weeks later we did look at the security camera for other reasons and we discovered that the intruder was a large black cat.  We don’t own a cat and don’t know where the cat came from, but in the middle of the night he half jumped, half climbed into the fern and ate the beautiful finches.  I told my husband I felt almost responsible…like somehow we had let them down.  My husband told me days after that he saw the finch parents eating from our bird feeder.  We rejoiced together that the mama and daddy finch had survived.  I wondered if birds grieve the loss of their babies.  I wondered if their hearts can break.

Last week our daughter and I sat at the dining room table working on wedding invitations and I saw movement outside the window.  As I looked, I saw the finch parents back at work, building a new nest.  This time they put it in the fern next to the fern where their babies were killed.  Yesterday when I walked outside I saw the mother fly out of the fern and I heard loud chirping from down inside the fern.

Here at Brother Bryan Mission we have seen some of the same men cycle in and out of the program.  Some we have known through ministry at another mission, some we have known because they have been here before.   It is hard to see the same men succeed, fail, and come back through the doors to try again.   But some do come back and it can maybe be seen as an encouragement to see that they believe in the process and they remember the help and progress they experienced here.  They know the love that staff members extend and they want to try again.  I remember as a teenager when my parents would leave the porch light on when one of us was still out at night.  I think at Brother Bryan the porch light is on and there are men who return to that light when they have failed and life for them has become dark.  There are loving staff members here who lead them gently back into the Light that illumines even the hardest and steepest path.

God is faithful.  He is faithful in the lives of tiny house finches and He is faithful in the lives of men who reach out to Him from places of desperation.

Little tiny finches are learning to fly in Crestwood.  Two birds, brave in the face of adversity, decided to try again.  They returned to the same porch where year after year there are two ferns…something that is familiar and comfortable…almost like a porch light…waiting on them to come home.

 

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