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WILDFLOWERS

by Kay Etheredge

Months ago my husband and I were driving in a rural area outside Birmingham after a funeral.  As we drove in a fairly unfamiliar part of Alabama we passed a huge field of yellow wildflowers.  They were stunning, and there appeared to be acres of them.  Everywhere we could see the yellow flowers waved in the breeze.

“Look!”  I said to my husband.   “Who planted all these flowers?”

As we rounded the next curve, my husband said, “Nobody planted them.  Look.”

He pointed out a large sign that said, “LANDFILL.”

The flowers had grown up out of garbage.  Stinky, smelly, rotting garbage…acres of garbage.  And out of the midst of the nastiest place, beauty emerged.  Breathtaking beauty.

This morning there was much talk about yesterday’s day of prayer.  A group of men from the BBM program and also staff members did a prayer walk.  They prayed at City Hall for our mayor and city councilmen and other city leaders.  They went to Linn Park and asked people in the park if they could pray with them for specific needs.  Daniel Roberson saw a bench in the park where he used to sit when he was homeless.  He left the group to go and sit on the bench again and reflect and pray.  Daniel is now a staff member at BBM.  Another man was beaten badly before coming to BBM.  At a nearby park 4 men beat him badly enough for him to be hospitalized.  It was in the hospital that some other serious health problems were discovered…health issues that, left untreated, could have killed him.  He ended up at Brother Bryan Mission where God has changed his heart and life.  He went back to the park with the prayer group and saw the same 4 men who beat him, and he walked boldly to them.  He said he wanted them to know that what they did really hurt him, but because of that beating some very good things happened.  He told them he forgave them.  In doing so, he set himself free.  He also told his attackers that he would recommend Brother Bryan to them as well.  Like Joseph in the Bible said to his brothers after they sold him into slavery, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”

Rob, a program man from Corinth, MS, said they were on their way back to the mission when they saw a homeless man sitting inside a doorway.  Rob said, “Let’s pray for him.”  He and another man knelt beside him and asked if they could pray.  In this day of Covid and masking and fear of touching or getting too close to others, Rob said he reached out and took the man by the arm.  When they asked how they could pray the man said, “I’m hungry.  I need food.”  They prayed, and as soon as they said “Amen”, a woman drove up, put down the window, and asked, “Hey, can y’all use some food?”  She distributed food to the man and others and a “random” homeless man in a doorway, who moments before had felt hopeless, saw God answer prayer on his behalf and provide the food he so desperately needed.

When Rob told me the story of the man in the doorway, his face clouded over and the tears came.  He was a little embarrassed and apologized, but there is great beauty in the tender, merciful ways that God deals with a human soul.  It is obvious that he has a heart that has been changed and his scars and hurts have been redeemed.  I believe God will use Rob in mighty ways.

Two different times I have been working on a Friday here when two different people, outside guests, got angry and literally pulled our door off its hinges.  The first time it happened was alarming; the second time was unbelievable.  Another day I was coming back from the bank and post office and I heard horrible, foul language being shrieked from the street outside.  Jim and I stood at the door and watched as an irate man fought with his mother.   One of the people in their group said over and over, “This is your mother!”  I could imagine the hurt this woman was feeling.  These are the bad stories… the landfill moments. Downtown and especially near a rescue mission there can be a lot of garbage being dumped.  But it is also a place that God moves and works amazingly on an almost daily basis.

In the book Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard, there is a part early in the book where Much-Afraid walks with the Shepherd through the desert.  She sees wildflowers blooming in a desolate place and she tells the Shepherd she doesn’t think it fair that such beauty grows in a place where no one can see.  The Shepherd tells her that nothing that He and God make is ever wasted, and the flowers give themselves willingly and with great love even if nobody ever sees them but God.  He tells her that in all the glories of this world, the greatest work ever done in man is work that is done in secret by the Father.

There is much work being done in hearts and lives here at BBM.  Most of it is the secret, inner workings of the Spirit.  But often there is so much joy and love that it begins to spill outward and overflow and there are tattooed men, hardened by rejection and abandonment themselves,  who can’t help but kneel, reach out, touch and pray.  And how sweetly the Father hears and answers!

These are the wildflower moments…the tender and golden blooms that sway in the breeze and their fragrance spreads like an offering down the sidewalks and into the parks and streets and doorways to others who need Him.  And the beauty that grows out of landfill moments is a beauty that reaches out and up after hope, producing flowers that give themselves willingly even if nobody else sees.

The most breathtaking beauty.

KEEP READING

by Kay Etheredge

I love to read.  A friend loaned me a novel several months ago and said, “This is a really weird book that you might enjoy”.  My reading is either feast or famine.  I either have a queue of books waiting to be read or I have nothing.  She happened to give me the novel at a time when there were a few books ahead of hers, so I started it weeks after she loaned it to me.  It was definitely weird.  I read half of the six hundred plus pages, thinking each time I sat down with the book, “I can’t finish this”.  Jim heard me sigh at bedtime each night as I picked up the book and said, “I cannot wait to finish this stupid book”.  I said I had read half of it so I had to finish it to see what happened.  I took the book to the beach with us thinking it would be easier to finish it down there.  It ended up that I was so tired each night that I read even less, falling asleep just a few pages in.  On Monday of this week I was 30 pages from the end and I became more annoyed because it seemed to me that the author used every foul word he knew in the last pages of the book, seemingly to simply fill space.  I became even more agitated.  I keep a list of books I read (because I have reached the age that I can’t remember) and I imagined with great satisfaction writing the name of the novel on my list and writing out beside it, A total waste of my time”.

On Tuesday of this week I finished the book.  The last two paragraphs were some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read.  I read and re-read those two paragraphs.  I text my friend and told her I finished and how tragically beautiful the ending was.  I text her again yesterday and mentioned another realization I had about the book.  I said, “This book is like radiation.  You think it is all gone but it stays with you, even when you don’t know it.  I can’t get this book out of my mind”.  She text back, “Start another book.  You’ll forget about it”.  (Thank goodness for friends who speak truth when I’m being way too dramatic!)   I need to return the book to her but I just keep reading the last two paragraphs over and over again.  I may or may not have openly cried.

Today as I worked at Brother Bryan Mission and drove downtown, I saw a man who looked familiar on the sidewalk.  It was raining and he was stooped, holding an umbrella.  It was a man who comes by Brother Bryan from time to time.  He asks for mints and money and we give him those and hugs and ask about his health and we like to believe that in many ways, we are almost family to him.  I’ve been warned that he can sometimes be very angry, and even though it is hard for me to picture it still kept me from putting the window down today and asking if he needed a ride.  It wasn’t a moment I am proud of.  Two weeks ago we were at the beach where the sea gulls fascinate me.  One day as the sun lowered on the beach and the sky filled with pinks and salmon and blues, I noticed the gulls flying toward the sun.  I sat and wondered where they go at night.  I couldn’t help but think the same thing when I saw our stooped friend under the umbrella.  Where does he go?  Where does he sleep?  What time of day does a life on the streets stop?

And there is a distinction between the men who live within the walls of Brother Bryan Mission and the people who are frequent guests here who don’t.  And even the men who live here are considered suspect by some.  We have had hurtful comments made to us about working in this ministry.  In this time of pandemic we have been asked if “those mission men” will be at our church.  It is easy to write a check but harder to hold out a hand, to touch an arm, to offer a hug, to listen and look into eyes.  To keep a ministry going when all the world is going into panic mode.  To take the time to look at a life with at least as much interest as one would give a novel.

Jesus was asked, in response to telling his disciples that the greatest commandment was to love our neighbor as ourselves, “Who is my neighbor?”  Our Lord’s response was to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that as an unchurched little girl I heard the first time at the Methodist church in my tiny community.  It was another radiating story…one that I couldn’t erase from my mind after hearing.

Orson Wells once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”  I almost missed a beautiful ending of a weird novel because I was put off by the ramblings before I got there.  The story of the Good Samaritan might have looked different if it had stopped right after the man was beaten and thrown in a ditch, or right after the good rabbi crossed to the other side of the road to keep from helping.  The men here at Brother Bryan may seem to some as weird, messed up people.  It depends on where their story is stopped.  I don’t know how many will get a happy ending, but I know some will.  I know many have.  I know they have to be given a chance.  And they, perhaps more than anyone, need a touch, a hug, a prayer, a friend, a church.   A pandemic doesn’t stop the need for hope.  And I preach to myself as I type this Friday afternoon…I who feared putting down the car window for my stooped over neighbor as he fought the rain on an August afternoon.

Teach us, Lord.  Teach us to show Your tender mercies to those You place around us.  Keep us from labeling anyone that You create…from writing with eagerness across a life that it was a waste of our time.  Teach us to keep reading, to not put the book down until it is finished, to see the beauty that hangs with possibility over each word.  And to remember that only You, Lord, get to write the final paragraph.

I CAN DREAM AGAIN

Martavial “Tae” Stevenson was asked what Brother Bryan Mission has meant to him.  With joy in his eyes and without hesitation he said, “I can dream again.”  This is the rest of his story.

Tae has never known his Dad.  His mother was out of the house more often than not, so that he was raised by his grandparents in the Center Point area of Birmingham.  He began smoking marijuana and taking mind altering pills at the age of 15.   At the age of 22 he was introduced to crystal meth which “took away his dreams.”

His job at a local restaurant led to his meeting Tiffany, who he soon fell in love with.  When Tae and Tiffany discovered she was pregnant Tae knew they needed to make a change.  “I didn’t want my son to grow up like I had grown up,” said Stevenson.   It was Tiffany’s parents who told Tae about Brother Bryan Mission.

As Martavial entered the doors of BBM his mindset was, “I thought everyone was going to jump me.”   What he soon learned was that Brother Bryan Mission was a safe place where he could learn and listen for what God wanted him to hear.  “I came to know Christ in my first counseling session with Chaplain Troy Walker” Stevenson communicated.   Continuing he said, “I immediately felt a weight was lifted and I began to really read the Bible and enjoy my classes.”

BBM’s New Life Fellowship Program is a nine-month Christian recovery and discipleship program in which a client is not able to work in the first six months.  During this time Tae has been progressing through the tests necessary to obtain his G.E.D.  He only has the Math component remaining and expects to complete that soon.

Tae and Tiffany are making plans to be married but the birth of their little boy wouldn’t wait.  Earlier this month Jeremiah Wayne Stevenson was born to excited parents and families who are helping with Jeremiah until Tae and Tiffany can get established.

Tae has a job waiting at the Mercedes plant in Vance.   He and another recent graduate of the NLF Program applied at the same time and both were given jobs that will start at the beginning of September.  He believes God has opened this door for him to be able “to give my son what I never had.”

Stevenson sees the value of completing the program since over 80% of BBM’s New Life Fellowship Program graduates are living free of addiction and have stable housing and employment while maintaining healthy relationships with God and others.  It is what he wants for himself and his family.

So when asked what Brother Bryan Mission has meant to Martavial “Tae” Stevenson, he said, “the world stole my dreams, but God, through the ministry of Brother Bryan Mission, has given me hope for a better life … I can dream again.”

THE GEORGIA FROG

by Kay Etheredge

It was early February and there was no mention, at least in Alabama, of a pandemic.  What freedom we enjoyed and took for granted!  I had driven to Georgia to stay a couple of days with our daughter, Jane.  Her new husband was going on a retreat so we thought it would be fun to spend some time together.  As soon as I arrived she started telling me things she had planned.  We shopped, discovered a Mexican restaurant where we shared fajitas, and decided to see the movie Little Women that night.  Jane had seen the movie twice but I hadn’t seen it at all, so she said she would gladly sit through it a third time so that I could see it.  We ran by the grocery store to pick up a few things and then to their apartment to put them away.

As we left for the movie, we made our way up the stairs, Jane ahead of me.  It was very, very cold.  Jane made it to the top step and I saw her hesitate.  She looked at something, then turned and ran back down the stairs.  I could tell she was terrified.  I asked what she had seen.  On the top step, she said, was a frog.  It was sitting there, she said, with its “beady eyes” looking right at her.  She begged me to go look.  Jane and I had some negative experiences in Cuba with frogs.  The frogs in Cuba were very aggressive.  After our missions trip to Cuba, we both give frogs a very wide berth.

“I’m not going to look at it”, I told her.

“Mom, you have to”, she said.  “Go look at it”.

I tip toed up the concrete stairs and in the very corner was a frog.  I did confirm that his eyes were open but he seemed to take no notice of me whatsoever.  I stomped.  He didn’t move.  His eyes blinked but other than that there was no acknowledgement on his part that he was even aware of us.  The clock was ticking for us to make it to the movie on time.

“Is there another way to get to the parking lot?”  I asked her.

“Nope”, she answered.  Up the stairs is the only way.

Their apartment is on the bottom and all the way around back of their complex and right behind it is a large wooded area.  They have seen deer and foxes since they have lived there.

I reasoned that there had to be another way.  She said the only way was to walk all around the perimeter of the apartment building, and, she added, there was a huge hill that there was no way we could climb.

“Come on”, I said.

It was pitch dark and we clung to each other as we made our way along the edge of the woods.  I stepped in something slick that I presumed to be mud.  There was really no way to know.  We walked and walked and then began to go uphill.  Jane was behind me and began to say repeatedly, “We can’t go up this hill”.  I reached the top before she finished her last sentence.  Later, as she relayed this story to Tyler she said, “Mom, in her heels, scaled that hill like a mountain climber”.  It was more to do with adrenalin than athleticism, for sure.

We made it on time to the movie and we giggled all the way about the frog.  We never considered that he might still be there when we got home, but as we approached the top of the stairs we cautiously peered over and it appeared that the frog hadn’t moved.  He sat facing the corner of the step but I could see his eyes blinking.  Jane went first this time and almost flew down the stairs. I followed immediately behind her.

I googled frogs and found that in really cold weather they do something called burrowing.  It made me sad to think that this frog had gotten out of the woods and onto the step and then maybe couldn’t figure out what to do.  I suggested that we get a large stick and poke the frog and see if we could guide him to the woods.  Jane said if the frog jumped anywhere near us we would both have heart attacks.  The stick was a bad idea.  All I knew to do for sure was pray, so pray we did.  We asked God to move the frog Himself to a safer, warmer area.  Somewhere FAR, far away.

The next morning we had scheduled Mother/daughter manicures.  As we left the apartment, we cautiously approached the top step.  The frog was gone!   We began to question if some predator got him, if someone in another apartment had stepped on him, moved him, etc…We then said we chose to believe that God moved this pitiful freezing frog just like we had asked Him.  How easy it is to reason away answers to prayer.

As I drove back to Birmingham later that night I thought of how silly we had behaved.  We went in pitch darkness in woods where we couldn’t see a thing.  We stepped in and over heaven only knows what as we felt slickness under our feet.  We ran straight up a hill where anything could have been…all to avoid a tiny creature that was harmless.

So many times the men at BBM behave the same way.  Rather than stick to the program laid out before them, they try to think of all manner of options.  They put together different scenarios where they can be in control themselves and still achieve the desired results.  Someone tells them to say this, to do this, to avoid doing the program.  Many have no problem at all asking that an exception be made for them…just for them…because they believe their way is better.  We really are all like that in the right circumstances.  We try to reason with God and suggest to the Creator of All that we, in fact, know better.

The frog has resurfaced at Jane and Tyler’s apartment…at least we presume him to be the same.  She sent me a photo about a month ago of a frog sitting in a tiny hole in the siding.  I drove back over this past week and someone had thrown a piece of chewed up gum beside his tiny home.  I grabbed a stick and swept the gum away.  I told Jane it was disrespectful to mar up his little home with blue gum.  We still don’t like frogs but we are trying to garner a small amount of respect as he tries to make himself at home.

Today I am working at BBM.  A young man came in and said he is leaving.  The anxiety was getting to him.  He might go into a different program somewhere else.  He is young and wearing a green shirt, and could be my son or yours.  I look into his eyes and see fear.  I pray that God protects him and gets him where He wants him to be, and I can’t help but let my mind take me back to early February, before the pandemic, when our biggest fear was a tiny, freezing frog on the step.

Psalm 64:1 says “preserve my life from the dread of the enemy”.  Sometimes the smallest dread can send us running recklessly in the absolute wrong direction, because the well lit path shows all too clearly where we have the least amount of faith.

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.

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