Plump and blue and ripe, the berries signal their readiness from among their green leafy haven. I take them, one by one, and listen to the thud as they hit the bottom of the old warped aluminum pan that was my grandmother’s—her bent, arthritic knuckles strained white against its rim as she filled it, summer after summer, with succulent muscadines, tart crabapples, peas, beans, and okra. She cradled it next to her body as she cradled babies—her own, and the children of her own, and even their children, and she walked, rocking from front to back—shuffling to keep from having to bend knees stiffened with age and decades of harvests– from the fertile dirt of the garden, across the dew covered grass, and into the kitchen—her sanctuary. She set about filling her freezer and cupboards with enough for her and my grandfather, and enough to weigh down holiday tables filled with hungry family—hungry for the wonderful tastes as well as the love that grew strong and bountiful in their home.
I hold the pan like a treasure even though it is not fragile—maybe only the memories themselves are fragile. I can feel her hands and the hands of my mother on this pan. They are both gone now, and I am left to reap the harvests in their stead. I never imagined a time like this when I sat, innocent, and lanky and freckled from the summer sun, shelling peas into this very pan, my red hair damp on my scalp from the heat and sweat dripping down my back, my thumbs purple from the peas’ hulls, and I listened to the stories. I miss the stories most—along with the satisfaction that our family would be ready when the winter winds blew—our food was in the freezer and in the Ball jars in the cupboard, and our winter would be a time of sitting around the table and laughing and making our own stories as we reveled in the ones we all knew from the past—the ones that were repeated from old to young—and now my memory fades and there is nobody left for me to ask, “How did it go again?” I don’t want the stories to disappear like the food in the Ball jars that now sit empty—their glass mouths open and filling with dust and cobwebs in the cardboard box on the basement floor.
I imagine that in heaven we will revel in the stories again and we’ll have new ones—about how God’s mercies sustained us in the good and bad times, and how His grace rained down on us when we deserved it the least, and it will all finally make sense.
I started making fabric yo-yos over ten years ago. Yo-yos were made by women a hundred years ago as a way to use up scraps of fabric…a circle is cut from fabric and then gathered up to make an even smaller circle. The yo-yos are then joined together to make a quilt even though there is no actual quilting involved.
I had seen yo-yo quilts in antique stores and I loved touching the tiny circles and imagining the hands that took the time to make these …maybe women sitting around together gathering up the circles and making something not only useful but beautiful from scraps. In the movie Sleepless in Seattle there is one scene where there is a yo-yo tablecloth in the background and I decided to use the yo-yos to make myself a tablecloth. I chose fabrics with pinks in them to match the pink in my wedding china.
I made yo-yos at ballparks as our son Grant played high school baseball and my needle paused, mid-air, as I watched his foot move in the red dirt of pitcher’s mounds in out of the way towns. I made them as I passed the time while our daughter’s ballet company traveled and I served as a chaperone and waited in auditoriums and on grass and carpeted hallways while I breathed in the sight of how the sun made her ballet bun glow like coppery promise. I made them at my grandmother’s house as she traversed a torturous, five year journey with dementia, and I prayed as I stitched as she looked around wildly for some semblance of familiarity. My mother and grandmother were both seamstresses so I told my grandmother I wanted to put some of her fabrics in my quilt. She couldn’t quite grasp what I meant even in the early stages of her disease, so my mom went and got some fabric for me from my grandmother’s cabinet. It was pale pink with tiny white butterflies. When my mother passed away I chose some of her own fabrics to make yo-yos for my quilt. It began to take on a sentimental feel and I felt more and more convinced that it should be a baby quilt instead of a tablecloth. I told our daughter Emily, our first born, that the pink yo-yo quilt would be for her daughter, even though Emily wasn’t even married at the time.
Her first child was a son, Tobias, but she is expecting a baby girl this summer. I went several days ago and pulled the yo-yos out of a drawer. Over ten years of sewing them in many different places and phases of life, I had accrued 2 gallon Zip Loc bags full of circles. I had no idea how many yo-yos it takes to put together a quilt but I knew it was a lot. I began to lay the small circles out on the bed on top of a baby quilt to get an idea of how many I had. I laid them out, side by side, and filled up row after row. Soon the first gallon bag was empty. My heart sank as I realized I might not have enough. I continued to place them on the bed, and as I neared the bottom of the second bag there was a small section of the design that had a big gap. There were 16 fabric circles in the bag that had not been gathered up, so I sat down and spent the rest of the afternoon gathering them. As I went back to place them on the gap in the design, I was amazed to realize that I had exactly enough! Not one too many and not one too few. Exactly enough!
And just that morning I had prayed, agonizing over a big decision that I wanted God’s clear and sure perspective on, and I thought I had peace and then a wave of anxiety flattened me and I cried, “Lord, please show me!” And hadn’t I just read also that same morning a quote by Elisabeth Elliott that said, “The devil has made it his business to monopolize on three elements: noise, hurry, and crowds. He will not allow quietness”.
So it was that quietness I sought and fought for as I sat and finished the last 16 fabric yo-yos. Pushing my screens aside, I sewed and stilled and sat in total quietness and my pile of tiny remnants of thread grew larger. And then there was the perfect number of yo-yos.
The men here at Brother Bryan Mission are often called with a sweeping arm, “Mission Men”. I have even used that title myself I’m sad to say. Each man here is unique. They each come with their own stories, their own special circumstances, their own scars. They are treated as scraps that many times the world has tossed aside and called worthless. God takes the scraps of our lives and He lets no hurt, no scar, no difficulty go to waste. He gathers remnants and He lovingly arranges in a pattern of beauty all that we will hold out to Him as an offering.
Those fabric yo-yos will be a covering for our new granddaughter, Lord willing, with pieces of fabric from her great-grandmother’s and great-great grandmother’s fabric collections., sewn with tremendous love by her grandmother throughout a decade of life that flew by like a fast-ball crossing home plate. I hope I get to tell her about the God who went before me and surrounded me and counted out carefully pieces of fabric for a quilt I didn’t even know I was going to make, for a granddaughter I didn’t even know I would have, and how there was not one too many and not one too few, and how He knew that on this day I would seek an answer before I even knew a question would be on my lips and He showed me through tiny fabric circles just how wise and mighty He is, and how completely He can be trusted.
And how there are men we know who have been mightily and profoundly saved by the God who takes the faded scraps of our lives and hearts and fits them into patterns and designs that only He could imagine and He becomes our covering and He is always enough. He is simply and completely enough.
(Note: BBM will be hosting Cuban pastor, Heber Romero, and his wife, Lydia, this week as they speak at the Wednesday evening chapel service.)
There are many highlights from our trip to Cuba four years ago. We were so very blessed to be chosen as parent chaperones to travel with Ballet Exaltation from Briarwood Ballet. Our daughter, Jane, was a senior and in the group. None of us knew what to expect and we went with great excitement but also some trepidation. There were many unknowns. We bathed the trip in prayer and God truly went before us and prepared the way, opening doors that caused us to be even more in awe of Him.
Many of the girls came from very privileged homes. I write this not as an indictment or criticism, but as a confession that I had struggled with insecurities over the differences that became glaringly obvious over time. Our daughter didn’t have a cell phone until she was a senior and her brother gave her his old one because, right out of college, his brand new employer provided one for him. Jane was never really one to complain but she had commented to me that she was the only girl in the Briarwood Ballet to not have a cell phone. I chided her and said that was impossible. Once I joked with a ballet staff member who told me with all seriousness, “I think she could be right”.
We were told there would be no cell phone service in Cuba. No internet access. It sounds like no big deal unless you’re taking a bunch of teenaged girls who constantly had phones in their hands. We feared there would be grumbling and complaining from the girls regarding their lack of communication. One night as we sat around for a meeting in Cuba, one of the girls made this statement, “In America, when we need something, our parents get it for us. Here, we have had to rely on God”. Another girl commented, “I thought I would miss my cell phone and internet but I really have enjoyed it and don’t look forward to going back to that”. It was very sobering.
Jim and I stayed in the first city in the home of a dentist and his wife. He confided to us that his salary was roughly $40 a month. Each morning that we were there I watched his wife wash diapers for their brand new grandbaby outside with a scrub board. She then hung them out on a clothesline to dry in the Cuban sun, then take them down, lay them out on the table where we ate, and iron the wrinkles from them. Her iron looked just like the one my mom had when I was a little girl.
I had struggled through the years with feeling that where we lived and how we lived was not enough. Our 1950s ranch style home is the one Jim grew up in. Many of Jane’s ballet friends lived in very nice homes and some of them were given cars at 16 that were nicer than our own cars. There were obvious socio-economic differences that I allowed myself to be weighed down by and even though Jane wasn’t necessarily aware, I certainly was. I struggled with contentment as I looked around at our dated furniture and small rooms and when I drove Jane to sleep- overs at her friends’ homes I allowed myself to compare, and we always came up short.
One night in Cuba as we traveled on one of our two vans our driver, a delightful man named Junior, pulled off the paved road onto a bumpy gravel road. He drove for just a bit, then pulled over in front of a small home. It was two story, but not by American standards. I can’t even think of a place that it would compare to here. The front yard was dirt and the home was tiny. Very, very tiny. Junior stopped our van and began with great excitement to honk the horn. Soon a small girl appeared at the door of this home and she began to wave as he waved back. Junior turned proudly to his van full of Americans and gestured proudly with his arm saying, “Mi Casa!” This was his home and he wanted us all to know, to see where he lived. And as I looked out the window at the grinning little girl and saw Junior’s great pride in showing us his home, I knew in my spirit that this very moment was why God brought me to Cuba. My loving Father had a picture of contentment He wanted to show me and He took me to Santa Clara, Cuba to unveil it. I learned much on the trip, and we saw God work in so many mighty ways. But for a comparing and discontented mama of a very amazing daughter, I knew that this tiny house with a dirt front yard right off a gravel road in Cuba, was exactly what I was meant to see.
The Cuban people we had the pleasure to come to know weren’t living in a state of grumbling or even acquiescence. They were living with gratefulness. God gave me a living picture of what the word home should mean, and He used a sweet man named Junior and his small daughter to show me. It wasn’t about finding someone with less, as much as seeing how beautiful a grateful heart looks. Twelve days later a very exhausted family flung open the door of our 1950’s ranch style home—the same one where my husband grew up. The furniture was still dated and the rooms still small. Nothing was different. And I looked around me and said to my husband and daughter, “Just look at this beautiful place”.
It seems all humans have pride, but some struggle with it more than others. The moment we think we don’t struggle with pride, we have pride in not being prideful. Once I heard Barbara Barker speak at a ladies’ retreat. She said she didn’t go to malls. One reason she didn’t is because she would see all the lovely things to buy and covet and she didn’t want to covet. The other reason was she would resist the urge to buy anything and then she would feel like she was better than all the other people who didn’t resist and then she became prideful. It was an analogy I’ve never forgotten.
In a church we pastored in another state we had the opportunity to be in many homes. Two of the people whose homes we visited took great pride in their cleanliness. One couple had a rocking chair and when we sat in the chair and got up, she went behind us and re-aligned the rockers with the indentations they had made on the carpet. It was not a home we enjoyed visiting for that very reason. It was so perfect that we couldn’t feel at home. Once we went to eat at a restaurant with another couple and they said they couldn’t finish their meal because the windows of the restaurant were dirty. If the windows were dirty, the kitchen must be too, and they were sickened. Their lawn was impeccable and their house was impeccable but this man got up during supper at their home when we were there one night and tore the head off a sparrow that had gotten in a feeder outside the window. Give me dirty windows anytime. We didn’t enjoy being in their home either.
The couple that had us over the most in that church was a couple who lived in a double-wide and spent most of their time outside. They had farm animals that had to be tended and milked and they just didn’t have the care to spend overt amounts of time cleaning their home. We ate more meals around their table and had more laughter in their home than any other while we were there. It was the kind of home that you could pull your shoes off and let your hair down and there was real conversation and real problems were discussed around that table. When the meal was over we crowded in her tiny kitchen around her sink and we shared laughter while we helped with the dishes. I can still remember the way the crickets sounded through the screen by her sink, and the way the stars looked, brightened because of the absence of city lights in the Kansas countryside as we drove home after our times there. She was the one I called when our rooster escaped our little chicken coop at the parsonage and we laughed uproariously as we chased that rooster around our yard. She fell over a fence at 57 and it should have killed her but she got up and we caught that rooster. She was the first person at the parsonage when word came that my dad had passed away back in Alabama. She walked right in and went to grab the clothes out of the dryer when the buzzer sounded and I was too numb to move. She was real and because of that I didn’t mind her folding our clothes and helping us throw things in a suitcase to head home for one of the hardest times in our lives. She never noticed the dust bunnies that I’m sure were in the corner or that the windows weren’t sparkling.
The men at Brother Bryan Mission are refreshing because they are real. They are humble. They aren’t living in pretense because when you are in a men’s rescue mission there’s not a lot you can hide behind. The conversations I have had the privilege to have there have been deep and meaningful. There are hopes and dreams thrown on the table and opportunities to listen…to encourage and look into eyes and souls and listen. Most of our churches have little time for that kind of conversation. Our services are mapped out and there is time to shake hands and comment on the weather and “how are you?” and the answer is most always “fine”, even when we are so very far from “fine”.
If we add anything to grace it is not grace. Anything we take pride in diminishes the need for grace. Anything we take pride in becomes self-reliance. God never wants us to rely on ourselves.
As I played the piano for a wedding Sunday I was overcome with my own ineptness at the piano. For a moment I thought of how foolish it was for ME to be sitting on that bench in front of these people. For a moment I fought running from the sanctuary in shame. God swept away those thoughts and I had one of the most intimate moments with him at that piano that I’ve had in a long time. When I am in the kitchen or planning menus and food amounts I am in my element. But that becomes its own form of pride. When I am at the piano I am uncomfortable, so I am totally reliant on Him. I don’t like to be seen and noticed and I don’t want to wave my mistakes and sour notes in front of a sanctuary full of strangers. But that gives me the opportunity to be genuinely bankrupt and God can then work by teaching me to rely totally on Him…to press close into Him and welcome His embrace.
I am encouraged by how God is working in the lives of the men at Brother Bryan. There are baby steps to be sure , but still forward moving progress. There is little self-reliance, and there is a freshness in the eyes and conversations like a fragrant spring breeze. It is the kind of place where you can feel at home, and talk of the Savior is easy and pure. It is a place where mistakes don’t have to be hidden and laughter is heard.
The windows could be spotless there. Or maybe not. I couldn’t tell you, because I’ve honestly never noticed.
(This was originally written for a church newsletter a couple of years ago).
I love a story and I especially love a story involving a quilt. Quilts can be made out of new fabrics that are all matched and coordinated, but my favorite quilts are made out of scraps. In some of the quilts that my grandmother made and my mom in earlier days, I can see bits of fabric that I recognize—vaguely familiar from a dress or cheerleading outfit or even soft pajamas and gowns sewn by two of the women in my life who cloaked me in all things homemade—each stitch a hug.
A group of ladies from the Church of Brook Hills makes quilts for the men at Brother Bryan Mission. Maybe they want each man who enters the mission to be wrapped up in something homemade—something that has been lovingly pieced together from scraps of fabric and prayers. Perhaps some woman has a son or grandson or husband who is struggling with addiction and she can’t do one single thing about it so she does what she can do and she sews. She takes scraps and makes something beautiful.
Last month our church hosted a Brother Bryan graduation ceremony and I was privileged to be one of many in attendance. The family of William Heaton came as well. William passed away a couple of months ago from liver cancer. He came to Brother Bryan Mission sullen and angry. This was one of many in his long chain of rescue missions and he didn’t have much hope that this place would help him any more than the others had. In a class that Jim taught, he challenged William to explain what the plan of salvation means. William faltered and tried many times to explain salvation. He never got it right and I believe the Holy Spirit prompted William to go and talk to Brian Keen, his counselor, about salvation. Through Jim’s tough challenge and Brian’s explanations, William gave his life to Christ. Not long afterwards he was diagnosed with the disease that would take his life in just a few short months.
His family came to the graduation ceremony at our church so that they could receive a Bible given posthumously to William for completing the Brother Bryan program. They came as a family unit to stand on the platform of our church and accept the Bible. Several of them spoke about William, whom they called Billy, and it was touching to hear about his struggles with drugs/alcohol through their eyes…how they prayed for him and how each time he left they hoped that he would be okay. His sister told about how her Sunday school class had prayed for his salvation for years, and that always, always, her fear was that he would die and they would never know. Sometimes the unknown is the hardest thing to endure, and when his sister and daughter spoke, those of us in the audience experienced through their raw emotions just a small glimpse of what they’d lived through. One thing was definitely clear, and that was throughout their years-long ordeal, they never, never stopped loving him.
After they finished their tribute to William, Thomas Kicker went forward. His bunk had been right next to William’s bunk, and as William’s illness began to take over, Thomas had been the one to help inject him with different medications. William left the mission to go to his sister’s house to die. He spoke to the men poignantly before he left and we were able to see the DVD of that last goodbye to his friends at Brother Bryan. When he left, he left behind the quilt off his bunk. Thomas told about how he wanted William’s quilt—a keepsake –to remember his friend, so he folded it and put it away and kept it. When the word reached them at Brother Bryan that William had indeed passed away, they all wanted to attend his funeral service. Thomas told about how he met William’s granddaughter at the funeral—a little girl around 10 years of age—and he heard her speak of her love for her grandfather. Thomas said all he could think about was the quilt he had stashed away, and he knew he wanted her to have it. At the graduation at our church, Thomas gave the quilt to William’s granddaughter. She was totally taken by surprise and her reaction was unrehearsed and tender. She took the folded quilt in her hands and then buried her face in it and wept.
My story was about William Heaton and his salvation but it’s also about Thomas Kicker. Thomas, in his own testimony, tells about spending roughly 20 years in prison. He was a tough cookie and robbed pharmacies to fuel his addiction. I never knew that Thomas, and cannot even fathom the Thomas we know and love doing something unkind. The same God that saved William Heaton, that saved you and me, saved Thomas Kicker. The same Holy Spirit that works in every believer to convict, to prompt, to minister, etc…worked in Thomas to move him to give up something he treasured—his dear friend’s quilt. Through the grace of God, William left behind a godly heritage for his granddaughter, and Thomas gave her a precious keepsake that came with a beautiful story—a true story—of sin, the scraps it leaves behind, and our loving Creator who weaves and pieces and sews us into stunningly beautiful, God-breathed patterns of Redemption.
Everyone experiences white-knuckle fear at some time in our lives. When I was young, I was accidentally left at a ballpark where my brother played park football and I was a cheerleader. We carpooled with a neighbor who somehow didn’t realize he was to pick me up as well. He took my brother home and I was left at the park. The men in charge of the huge lights at the park apparently didn’t see a small, terrified girl standing there alone as they switched off the lights and the park became very, very dark. It didn’t matter that a four-lane highway ran right by the park because all I saw was darkness and I wondered “what if they don’t come for me?”
A favorite author, Ann Voskamp, says there are seven things a soul is always asking.
Am I looked for?
Am I looked out for?
Am I looked over?
Am I looked down on?
Am I looked at as enough as I am?
Am I looked into because what is in me is priceless to you?
Am I looking up to the way of Abundance—looking up for more grace, more love, more joy, more Jesus?
I believe every soul is asking these questions on some level. I see it in the eyes of the men who live at Brother Bryan Mission. I see it in the eyes of the people in our church. I see it in the eyes of the volunteers. I see it in the eyes looking back at me in the mirror.
We all ask the questions in different ways. Some of us try to neaten and straighten our lives so that it appears our “ducks are all in a row”. Some of us try to control the people around us so that nothing unexpected happens and we aren’t caught off guard, therefore exposing our own inadequacies. And obviously some turn to drugs and alcohol because ultimately the answers to the seven questions aren’t the answers we need. As a young girl I remember believing in my heart that I might be left at that ballpark forever. It wasn’t rational or reasonable, but I feared that I might stand there and be swallowed up by the lonely darkness and nobody might ever miss me or come for me.
So many of the men at Brother Bryan Mission have been told by their families and by the world that there is nothing priceless in them. They have been used up and beaten up and they have used up and beaten up others until there is nothing left, but there is always, always question seven. Are we looking up to the way of Abundance—looking up for more grace, more love, more joy, more Jesus?
Voskamp says, “Without any words, everyone, everywhere is asking if you love them, without any conditions.”
The hearts of the men at Brother Bryan are possibly the most open and most vulnerable and most refreshing of anyone I know because there is the absence of pretense. They have hit bottom and they can’t pretend their ducks are all lined up anymore. We all have to hit bottom before we can realize our need for the cross, and if we all hit bottom how is it we can place limitations and conditions on our love for anyone? Sometimes the hardest people to love are the ones who pretend they have it all together. It isn’t that the men at Brother Bryan are any lower emotionally than anyone else. They are sometimes easier to help because of their honesty, and the ministry of Brother Bryan helps them to move…to not be stagnant any longer.
The men are taught at Brother Bryan how to refute the lies of the world…how to mend relationships that have been severed and how to dig deep into the Word of God so they can know the real answer is in the form of question seven. And as Ann Voskamp says, “What we all really are looking for is someone really looking for us”.
When my mom found out I was at the ballpark she assumed someone’s Daddy was waiting with me. Even so, she rushed so much leaving the supper table and feeding my baby brother in his high chair that she fell in our tiny kitchen and bruised and cut her underarm on the top of the high chair. As she neared the ballpark and saw only darkness the horror of what had happened hit her. She turned our old station wagon into the gravel drive and saw the outline of my form there in the blackness, waiting alone. She came for me. She showed up.
Are we loving others unconditionally? Are we looking into the eyes of those God places in our paths and listening to the cries of the questions of the soul? Are we dealing with the questions our own souls are asking? What are we doing to keep ourselves from being stagnant? Every soul asks the questions. Where are we looking for our answers?
It is easy to be a Christian and still be drowning. The waters of hurry and busyness come crashing over us and our nostrils burn hot and our lungs grow tight with the filling of all the expectations of others. We fill up our calendars and we reach for our screens and we think that next week will be better and next month we will rest and before we know it, we don’t know which direction to go to search for it. We are in a labyrinth of sensory overload and it’s easy to say it is a worldly thing to let ourselves get caught up in this but what if the road between the Christian way and the world’s way merge and begin to look exactly the same? The colors that were once pristine and separate now bleed unmistakably together and who really cares about the health of our soul? Who really cares?
We sing hymns and we pray and hold hands and say you are my brother and I will support you but in the end, we still raise our expectations and demands like a chalice and say, “drink this cup, do it my way, do this one more thing, for me.” We all say “meet my needs because mine are the ones that matter” and we have the heart pounding realization that sneaks in at 4 am that I can’t do this anymore.
My friend told me about visiting her mom in a nursing home. Her mom, in her nineties and suffering from dementia, didn’t recognize her own daughter, but when the attendant left the room her mom mouthed to her in silent panic, “Help me”. It broke my friend’s heart and broke mine to hear it and I told my husband this morning that I feel that woman’s fear. I look into the faces of total strangers and think “Help me” to understand how to find the end of this suffocating tunnel called hurry.
If we keep time with too many screens we lose time for anything meaningful, and I scroll through just one day’s inbox and see a list of demands disguised neatly and politely as invitations.
“Can I see you for just a few minutes?”
“How about lunch? Pick out a date”
“I need you to pick this up…ASAP”
“Don’t forget about the 25th”
“Can you look this over and get back to me?”
These are just a few; everyone has them, and how is it that some people’s offers of help sound sincere while others sound like an indictment? I made a list of books I wanted to read in the next few months and my husband came back from a conference where he had been given one of the books on my list. I began reading that very night and in the first chapter there was a quote by Dallas Willard that said, “You must eliminate hurry from your life. It is the biggest enemy to spiritual growth”. I let my fingers slide across that sentence several times. Such a powerful sentence, but how do we do it? We are handed lists by well-meaning people who suggest things to do in the coming year, and how I am coming to know that God is much more interested in our being than in our doing.
This past week we had the blessing of going to the Global Impact Conference at Shades Mountain Baptist Church and I pushed hard against going, not because I didn’t want to go but because it was another commitment…another obligation, sandwiched in between two very busy weeks. At the conference I heard one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard, and we were given gift bags that contained thoughtful things…tissues and candies and food coupons and there in the bottom was a ring holding together verses written in the form of prayers with my very own name filled in. I read, “Father, when Kay is weary, and heavy laden, call to her to come to You and give her rest. Encourage her to take Your yoke and learn from You, because You are gentle and lowly of heart , and she will find rest for her soul…”
I read them and wept and realized how close I came to missing this wonderful time. I allowed this beautiful gift to anoint me and minister to me and I wondered how total strangers could have known just what my needs would be on this particular night. The answer of course, is they didn’t have to know because they serve the One who did. We were humbled and a bit embarrassed because we were treated as missionaries and we felt somewhat like imposters but in the end the conference was a balm for our weariness and that is what it was designed to be.
The Old Testament tells us repeatedly that God gave the children of Israel rest on every side. It’s not the kind of rest we get from sitting in a recliner in front of the television. It is beautiful and needed soul rest. Rest from the expectations of others that draw and quarter us across dates on a planner. God longs to give us that beautiful rest. He places His spirit within us and His beauty all around us and His word bountifully within our reach, and sometimes we are just too busy to notice.
I find that I begin to resent even good things and begin to avoid anything that marks a big X on our agenda, rather than laying our agenda at God’s feet and asking, “What matters from this great list of demands, Lord, and would You sift through these for us and separate chaff from wheat because we don’t know how”. How slowly I am learning and how very patient and faithful He is and He asks me to take His yoke upon me instead of my own. It is in that moment that true rest comes. And soul rest is a beautiful thing.
Our oldest daughter recently convinced me to take an embroidery class with her. The class was at a trendy coffee shop downtown—only four students and the very patient young teacher. As we sat in this busy place at a table in the back, I commented that it was very relaxing. The teacher replied that it is probably because it forces us to put down our screens, and I thought there was much wisdom in what she said.
Our daughter Emily and I shopped for hoops and fabric and we have enjoyed sending each other photos on our phones each day of the progress we’ve made with our newfound hobby. I discovered that my needle was too large and I experimented over the weekend with using a smaller one. I sat in our den Saturday as I stitched and at one point I realized the larger needle, the one I’d gotten in the class, was missing. I looked under the sofa cushions and on the rug in front of me. I thought I remembered putting the needle down in the kitchen so I went back and looked everywhere. The needle was gone. I had awful thoughts of one of the grandkids coming over and stepping on the needle or even Jim or myself. I remembered a story that Jim’s aunt told me about stepping on a needle once and it went all the way into her foot, and I shuddered as I searched for the needle.
By Sunday morning I had actually forgotten about it. The missing needle got lost in the jumble of things that were crowding out my mind before church. I left, came back home, and the data that contained the missing embroidery needle was pretty much deleted from my 60 year old mind.
Monday I was busy cooking for my catering job and our daughter came over with our grandson. We even talked about embroidery and looked at patterns online but I still never remembered the needle. This morning I went outside to walk our dogs. It is a beautiful day in Alabama and feels like spring. The dogs pulled on their leashes letting me know that they were expecting a longer walk than I had planned. I laughed and let them pull me and as I stepped off the curb in front of our house, the sun hit something on the street and I saw a small glint…just enough to make me look down. There on the pavement in front of our house was my missing needle! I picked it up, amazed that I had even seen it. We live on a very hilly street and the leaves from the top of the street wash down in front of our house. The needle rested in the only spot in front of our house where there were no leaves.
I wish I could say that I began to thank God for allowing me to find the needle. Instead, my faith was so small that I text messaged our daughter as soon as I got in the house.
“Did you lose your embroidery needle?” I asked.
She replied, “I don’t think so”.
I reasoned that it had to be hers. That she had been at our house the day before and had surely dropped it. When she finally called to ask what I was talking about, she looked and found her needle safely in the project she is currently sewing. The finding of the needle was not random. God longs to show Himself strong and mighty in our lives. He used the tiniest of objects to remind me of that.
Nothing that happens to us is by chance. The men who come in the doors at Brother Bryan Mission are here for a reason. Each man’s circumstances are different but one thing they all have in common is that the hand of our heavenly Father led them through these doors. He has a beautiful plan that He longs to unfold before us. His timing is impeccable and He makes no mistakes. The hardest situations don’t scare Him as He lovingly redeems even the worst traits in us.
I will probably never know how the needle got from our den on Saturday to the street in front of our house and stayed there, undisturbed, until Tuesday. I wasn’t worried about it and have other needles—it wasn’t even something of great value. But I do know that the finding of it was planned intricately by One who loves me deeply. And only God knew that in a Lent devotion book I am reading, the reading on Saturday said, “Ask Him today frank questions”. I asked Him a very frank question that had nothing to do with a needle and I waited for Him to show me His answer, which I believed did not come.
Today, I had a break in my schedule at just the right time…the dogs convinced me to go on a longer walk than normal…the morning sun peeked through the trees at just the right moment to hit something metallic in the street…I noticed that small glint…and the needle that I had given up on, was found.
Psalm 37:20 says, “ The steps of a man are established by the Lord and He delights in his way”.
And I believe that as He establishes our footsteps, there are days when He just might speak to those around His throne and say, “Watch this”.
This is not a story about Georgia Tann, although her story affected me as nothing else has in quite a while. I began writing this last week on my day at Brother Bryan Mission but quickly got lost in the high weeds of “what am I trying to say?” I shut down the computer and left it hanging.
Saturday I had a call from a very wise twenty year old who just happens to be our youngest daughter. She was telling me with great enthusiasm about a book she just read and how she wants me to read it and I am amazed that she doesn’t realize how her words are a balm for me. I ask her to repeat something twice because I am grabbing my prayer journal to write it down. And she tells me about the temptations of Jesus and how it is what this author says our world tries to tell us today and I am fascinated and can’t write fast enough. She then says something else that is almost an addendum and I write that down too and realize as I’m writing that it is what I needed to help me find my way out of the tall weeds with my story about Georgia Tann. And isn’t our God so faithful and wonderful like that? All the straining and trying to force something onto paper and then He steps in and says ,“Isn’t this what you were looking for”?
Georgia Tann was the founder of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in the late 1930’s. She was lauded at that time by great segments of society for her selflessness, her altruism, and her efforts to save the poor and suffering orphans she took in. Numerous magazines and newspapers praised her and she even received a personal invitation to the inauguration of President Harry Truman. She was asked to be a consultant on a book about adoption by author Pearl Buck, and Eleanor Roosevelt sought her counsel regarding adoption issues of the day. She ran in elite circles and became very wealthy.
The problem was that most, if not all, of the children in the Tennessee Children’s Home were stolen. She took children from impoverished families or unwed mothers through dishonest measures or even kidnapping and she sold them to wealthy families. She amassed a small fortune in the 26 years that the home was in existence. While in the home, the children were subject to horrible abuse. They were beaten, starved, molested, and many were killed. Because she changed their names and identities and destroyed paperwork, there were no records. Most of them were never returned to their birth families. And celebrities such as Joan Crawford, Dick Powell, and June Allyson purchased children from her. She had in her inner circles judges, attorneys, police officers and doctors. All turned a blind eye to what they had to have known was happening. And all the while she was extolled for her kind heart and selfless living.
In my conversation with our daughter that had nothing to do with Georgia Tann, or so I thought, she mentioned the great difference in personality and character. Personality comes from a Latin word meaning mask. Character comes from the Greek word that means engraving in stone. And with Georgia Tann on my mind and troubling my spirit for days, this is what I needed. You see, the people in her circles were looking at the wrong thing. They were looking at her personality. Her mask. Masks are meant to deceive. To cover up. And Georgia Tann was very successful in her cover up. It wasn’t until 3 days before her death that a Tennessee official came forward with what he knew and she was exposed. Sadly it was too late, at least in this life.
We all have personalities. We all wear masks. Many of the men who seek help at Brother Bryan have big personalities. Loveable personalities. Many times they have perfected the art of “schmoozing”. It’s how they’ve learned to survive and thrive in their world. God desires to teach us all another way…a better way. He wants to work on our character…what is engraved in our stone. That takes a lot more work, but God is able. He takes His loving chisel and He begins to chip away. He has something very special to say through us. The men here tell stories of being annoyed…someone snores too loudly or they eat too much or they take too long in the shower. All these are part of the hammer God uses to pound away at His chisel. Sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes it is painful. We are often way too content or comfortable with what our stone already says. Some of us believe our stone says “Loser” or “Drunk” or “Addict” or any of a long list of names like that. Others may believe their stone is etched with “VIP” or “Top Dog” or “Got it All Together”. I’m only guessing but I believe Georgia Tann believed her own press. She believed on some level that she was saving children from poverty and placing them in a status they would never achieve without her intervention. She was playing God, and she became rich by this world’s standards by doing so. Don’t mistake the world’s applause for God’s favor. Often they are diametrically opposed.
A person’s character shines. We can fake it for a little while, but character always trumps personality. Only God knows what He etches in our stones, but a person with Godly character can’t keep it hidden. I am grateful for our daughter’s wisdom and I’m grateful to know men at Brother Bryan and to be a tiny part of what I believe is a great ministry. I’m grateful God is still chiseling away within these walls and within my own character and His desire is to chisel in stone for His own glory. We are simply vessels. The men here learn how to live biblically and tear off their masks. May they go out from this place like arrows, teaching a very jaded world that clamors after fame, fortune, success, reputation, etc…just how beautiful it is to tear off our masks and, as singer Michael Card says, “see the art of our face”. God’s message is the antithesis of the world. God says “Go lower”. Get on the ladder going down. And the men here are learning along with all who are teachable, that the road leading to smallness is the least congested.
When I heard Matthew Zarna’s story I pictured the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He talked about big Sunday dinners with extended family at his parents’ home in Fairfield, and he told stories that have been passed down for generations about his ancestors back in Greece. The stories have been told and retold around tables laden with Greek food until Matthew tells them with ease. Most of us know we descended from Ireland or England or Italy but Matthew knows the names of the people he descended from and even for many of them, how and when they died.
His parents were deeply in love and their marriage lasted 49 years. His dad died first, suddenly, from a stroke. His mom died after a lingering illness with cancer. Matthew had his own home and several different businesses at the time, working primarily as a Bail Bondsman. As his mom’s illness progressed she needed more and more care. Matthew, glad to be able to help, found he was spending less and less time with his businesses. He began to suffer financially because of it but also because he was addicted to heroin.
He had had the same girlfriend for 10 years and she was also using drugs. He lost so much money from the neglect of his businesses and from his drug habit that he eventually lost his home. This put him in a downward spiral that resulted in the loss of his home, his girlfriend, and cars that he owned. He was homeless, an addict, and physically very sick.
He describes being dependent on his church for help getting into hospitals, motels, and shelters. Because of his inability to kick his addiction even his church family wearied of helping him. Family members turned their backs on him and he found himself alone. He had multiple health issues and on 12/31/12, Matthew was told by doctors that he was dying. “I remember looking out my hospital window and seeing fireworks”, Matthew says, and he remembers clearly the irony of the dazzling fireworks against the stark backdrop of the devastating news he’d just received.
He left the hospital and checked himself into a Birmingham shelter. He stayed there until they began to realize that they were unable to care for someone in his grave condition. Matthew had a list of places to contact and Brother Bryan Mission was at the top of the list.
It was early in 2013 when Matthew showed up at Brother Bryan and he was met by Tom Zobel and Brian Keen.
“They decided to take a chance on me”, Matthew said, and they allowed him to come in off the street and welcomed him in. Matthew says he immediately knew he was in the right place, and he has thrived at Brother Bryan Mission. Six years after his terminal medical diagnosis he is now living on his own and has joined the Brother Bryan Mission Staff. He talks animatedly about how he loves to help the men here. He remembers his own desperation and wants to help others who might be in similar situations.
“I belong to an exclusive club”, Matthew said. “You have to lose everything to gain everything. I have less materially than I had when I was 16 years old, but I have more contentment than I have ever had”.
Matthew says the men at Brother Bryan Mission have become his family, and he delights in spending holidays with the men here, who he calls his brothers. It may be different from the big Greek dinners in Fairfield, but they are family just the same. And years from now someone will be telling his story with great ease…the Greek with big, doleful eyes who lost everything, but gained so much more.