Musings from a Pastor, Educator, Wife, and Mother

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Stories To Tell: Part XII

The Call

Some of you may be wondering when I am going to tell you about Michael--our meeting, our marriage, and our Kemper.  Rest assured, I am saving the best for last....even though now the story may be a little bit out of order.  Just know that Michael has been the prominent force in my life for fourteen years, so he is the thread that runs from Hollins to the present.  

As I may have said before, I went to Hollins for the Creative Writing program.  I like to tell people that I wanted to be a famous writer and show up on Oprah's book club, tour the country and be named poet laureate.  But it wasn't long before I felt at odds with this choice.  The program at Hollins is excellent, but writing on demand to turn in something creatively for critique each week became difficult for me.  It seemed to stifle me.  I also felt out of place among the other writing students. The ones who were majors in the subject like myself (for the most part) wrote of drastically different subject matters than I did.  We generally did not run in the same circles of friends.  Many of them wrote of dark, depressing things.  I could truly see them in a dark brick basement, sitting on a stool before a microphone while people snapped fingers and cigarette smoke lingered in the air.  They were all really good writers...but it left me feeling like I was....maybe...not.  

So in the fall of my Sophomore year I had to declare my major and minor.  What did I want to do? Who was I going to be?  What did I love to do enough to follow it to a career?  The answer came to me while sitting on the front porch of Main.  I loved the church. I loved to be a part of the creative nature of worship.  And I was transformed by youth group, so maybe youth ministry was where I could use the gifts God had given me.  My calling was not a lightening rod moment. It did not come to me in a vision or a dream.  But it did come in a moment of calm and clarity.  And I remembered my youth leaders telling me in high school that I should go to seminary and being in complete opposition to it. There was no way I was learning Biblical languages just so I could sit in boring session meetings all day.  So, for this to all come to me in such a definitive way was surprising.  I stuck with English/Creative Writing as my major and declared Religious studies as my minor. I secured a short term internship in youth ministry from my home church and I started scoping out seminaries, just to get an idea.  

I told my parents of this line of thinking and they were overwhelmingly supportive. I went to my pastor Joseph  ( who was moving to a new church pretty soon after that) and he cried tears of joy with us. I told Michael and he said, "yeah I figured."  As most of you probably know, Michael's dad is a Methodist minister so I always tell folks that for him to stick by me through all of this, knowing full well what he was getting into is a miracle.  Michael's parents have also been among my greatest supporters and mentors.  In the spring of that year, Michael and I went to Asheville and Montreat to visit, so that I could tell Bill and Aimee Buchanan, my former youth leaders, of my intentions.  It was like telling them that I loved french fries--they already knew! It seems like everyone around me saw what was inside except for me.  It is a great affirmation, but also kind of scary! 

I decided I wanted a dual degree--to get a Masters of Divinity and be ordained and also to have a Masters in Christian Education.  I visited Union in Richmond, and much like Hollins, I didn't feel a need to look elsewhere.  It seemed like the right fit for me.  Michael was living in Charlottesville at the time so location was a great factor as well.  I didn't want to be far from him or my family.  I was looking at four years straight of seminary education.  I plowed through.  I graduated Hollins in May of 2006 and began Seminary in July. 


Seminary is a special place.  Taking a summer crash course in Biblical languages has a way of bringing people together.  You quickly form bonds and learn to lean on one another to make it through. Seminary is this little bubble of its own. It's just a unique community when you are all coming together from different backgrounds and worshiping together, studying together, asking hard questions, living in close quarters and having a social life at the same time.  And ultimately, in the end--you are all competing (like it or not) for the same jobs!  While in seminary, you work on two timelines--you have requirements for your school and degrees that include internships, coursework, and ordination exams.  But you also have a timeline with your presbytery.  You have to go yearly for consultations and achieve certain things before they give you approval to be ready to receive a call.  I am really glad that I can say that I did all of that in Presbytery of the Peaks and had a positive experience.  I now serve on that same committee as a pastor.  Fun side note, Kitty Mortara was on the committee when I was a student! Dusty Fiedler was on the examinations committee when I came forward for ordination.  

I met wonderful folks at the seminary.  Friends and colleagues who have taught me so much.  People that I have shared meals with and celebrated weddings, ordinations, birthdays, and children with. One of my dearest friends, Crystal, is a lifelong Richmonder.  She began serving as youth director at Three Chopt Presbyterian and she said she needed youth advisors and asked if I'd like to visit sometime.  This is probably the greatest invitation I have ever had.  Three Chopt was the perfect church home for me.  I did serve as an advisor, and I was the student intern for one year, and finally an interim youth director before my call to Appomattox. The congregation and pastors there were loving and supportive.  It's a great church for seminary students.   Now those teens are all grown up but I get to watch from afar and be so proud of them.  This gave me a church family and roots in the big city. 

My life was different from a lot of my friends in several ways.  Michael and I got married after my first year of school and there were not many married students my age.  We lived in a teeny-tiny campus apartment....and then moved across the hall to a wee bit less tiny of an apartment. :)  Michael worked at Cokesbury in Richmond while we lived there so I got a deal on text books and lots of sale items.  Thank you, Michael!  To be newlyweds while in seminary is not ideal, for downtime is precious little. But, we knew we wanted to be married. And Michael decided he didn't ever want to have another roommate, except for me.  We did not honeymoon until after I finished Greek school. We went to our favorite little motor lodge in the Outer Banks. We would occasionally go out to PF Changs for a date night (miss those lettuce wraps).  Michael would buy me rainbow cookies from Ukrops.  We roasted with a little window AC unit in the summers.  Our bathroom was the size of a crackerjack box. But, it was home.  

When I wasn't in class or at Three Chopt Presbyterian, I was working.  Most students did not work in seminary. It was said that more than ten hours a week could not be done.  It can be, trust me.  Probably the single greatest surprise and gift of my time in Richmond was working at Saxon Shoes.  I first got a job at Target but I hated it.  A college friend, Kate-Sears was living in the area too and she worked as a cashier and told me to apply at Saxon's.  I thought Gary, the owner, would hire me as a cashier.  Instead he told me I would be selling children's shoes...and not to worry, they would teach me.  This is probably the only place in the world where a student like myself could create their own work schedule. I did learn how to do the job and did it well.  I worked there for almost four years and by the end I was often the person left in charge of the department to close at night.  I met the most wonderful people.  I made the sweetest friends.  The women in that department became like family to me. When I had to do a summer internship, they allowed me the flexibility. When I was preparing to interview for jobs and move away, they gave me that time. They threw me a shower before my wedding.  They came to my graduation. They have visited me and sent cards and letters.  I took Kemper back there for his first pair of shoes. I could not have asked for a better community.   There are certainly days in the ministry where I think, "maybe I'll just go back and fit shoes."

I've been so blessed by the people God has placed around me.  Pastors that have nurtured me in the faith who I can call and say, "how would you handle this?"  Friends and colleagues who I can call and say, "what curriculum are you using, how is your session structured, what did you do for that first funeral?"  And friends I can call and say, "Do you remember that time when Peter put on the tiny t-shirt?" or "I'm eating french fries and thinking of you, Asian Priestess." or simply, "Do you remember Calvin Ball, or sketchy mustache night, or that one time at Whitby." And they get it.  You share a special bond because of a few years of time in your life.  And I for one am glad that they Presbyterian world is, in fact, very small when you get to know it.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Stories To Tell: Part XI

The Hollins Years

As I said last week, I think I moved into Hollins University on the hottest day of summer in 2002.  I moved into a dorm with no AC called Randolph.  As an incoming student when you looked at the first-year dorm Randolph, compared to the other first-year dorm, Tinker, you thought you were getting gypped.  But, those assumptions could not have been further from the truth.  I would take Randolph with a hot room with big windows facing toward the pretty exterior of Tinker than the other way around any day! 

Our first week of school we had a day when the internet was completely down. For the first few minutes it seemed like a crisis of epic proportions--but in truth it was the best thing that could have happened to the girls on the second floor of Randolph--Randy 2 as it is lovingly known. We had little connection to the outside world and we were forced to get to know one another and bond together. We spent our time out in the hallway talking and having a dance party in which I think boa's were involved.  Our RA didn't last too long after that and I always wondered if we had scared her away.

I loved my freshman hall.  These girls in large part became my sisters.  We would all traipse across the quad to the dining hall together for dinner and sit at the same table.  We would pile into one another's rooms to watch the latest episodes of whatever shows we loved. I particularly remember Friends and The Bachelor.  We made cakes or cupcakes for everyone's birthdays.  My friend Sarah drove me to the hospital to see my mom when my car wouldn't start.  Jennifer and I survived our first January term in an English class together which bonded us together as "Tater" and "Poo Poo Head" forever.  I would not have passed Spanish (or life) without Meagan.  I would not have met Michael without Holly.  I would never understand how to appropriately pronounce "Knoxvull" without Katherine, "Katty".  I've never met someone so witty with words as Corinne.  My friend Kayte that I met at Hollinsummer lived two doors down.  A lot of us traded roommates and switched rooms throughout the year, but in truth no one really wanted to leave the hall so we made it work.

Study Abroad

I became an RA for my last three years at Hollins. I really loved the community that it provided for me and the involvement on campus.  I worked for excellent staff on campus in residence life and I learned a lot of skills that serve me well today. But, for the spring of my Junior year, I went abroad to study in London for about 3.5 months.  By that time I had been dating Michael for a year or so and it was really hard to leave him behind but I just knew that this is one of the dreams I had for my college experience and I am so glad my parents helped make that happen.  We all lived with host families in an area of London called Muswell Hill.  Some of us had positive experiences with this and others not so great.  But, mine and Katherine's host family, The Skinner's, were the absolute best! I could not have asked for better people to open their home to us and bring us into their lives.  Their three children were young--a teen and two elementary age kids--now all grown! We were always welcomed at their table and (bravely) into their kitchen to make American biscuits.  They had this precious cat who we  were told would probably steer clear of us.  Little did they know how much Katherine and I love cats.  Harry became our constant companion.  He slept on our beds, drank water from our sink, and ate peanut butter from a spoon. 

Our classes were created for us to experience as much of the city of London and culture as possible.  The schedule was designed for us to be able to have time to travel and explore.  I took Theatre, History, Architecture and British Media.  We went to plays and visited museums and historical buildings regularly.  On weekends and longer holidays we went on excursions around Europe.  I felt like this might be my only chance to go abroad so almost every weekend I went somewhere different.  One of our first trips taken with my closest friends was to Edinburgh, Scotland.  Scottish people are so friendly! On the train we met our dear friend Alec.  Alec was quite annoyed with these four loud American girls on the train and we were annoyed with him because he would not give up his prime seat at a table where we could have all sat together! By the end of the trip we had discovered his love for pop music (Britney Spears) and the rest is history.  We have remained friends with Alec and even got to spend a weekend with his lovely family in Torquay before we returned to the states for his 30th birthday!  Gee, Alec that puts you at what age now?.... :P.  He has come to visit us here in the US as well. 

In larger groups we traveled to Ireland where I almost died horseback riding (another story for another day), and the Canary Islands for our spring break.  I got to travel with each of my closest friends on trips individually.  Meagan and I went to Prague where we landed late at night and suddenly felt very American and out of place.  We went on a ghost tour and tried too much Absinthe.  Jennifer and I met my aunt and uncle in Paris for a weekend in April where it was still so cold we layered all the clothes we had and saw snow at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I got to visit the Palace of Versailles which was a great dream of mine.  Katherine and I went to stay with her family friend in Florence--so beautiful! Seeing the Duomo was definitely on my bucketlist.  We also saw Rome in a day and I was blessed by a Catholic priest in the Sistine Chapel.

We saw crazy things in London riding the Tube and the double decker buses.  We met Joshua Jackson and Patrick Stewart after a play one night.  We celebrated birthdays in the Church Pub down the street (yes, a real pub in a former church, beautiful place). We found the restaurants that served sodas with ice. By the time we left we could pick out the tourists from the locals.  I was so glad to come home but I was much more sad to leave my host family than I ever imagined I could be.  It was a special season of life. 

Hollins Traditions

I could spend a lot of time teaching you about the Hollins traditions of First Step (you are not allowed to walk on the grass of front quad until you are a senior), Tinker Day (crazy costume hiking day), Ring Night (Juniors "earn" their class rings by taking orders from Seniors all weekend and doing silly things), and of course graduation.  Seniors are given four champagne bottles (usually at Ring Night) decorated by their Ring Sisters to celebrate the grand occasions of senior year.  I could regale you with fond memories of birthday parties, formals, and memories of these grand traditions.  But truthfully, my fondest memories are made up of lazy afternoons in January watching movies and eating Jennifer's famous cheese dip.  My favorite times were the ones when we sat at the dinner table in the dining hall until they were ready to turn off the lights. When Nikki would make artwork with her leftover food and Katherine would play "Fishin' In The Dark"  or "Sweet Home Alabama" on the jukebox.  The treasured moments are the ones sitting on the steps of West recounting the stresses of the day with Meagan. 

These are the women (not even all of them) whose friendships would sustain me through college and all of the years since.  We've celebrated moves, graduate degrees, jobs, weddings, and babies.  We've grieved the loss of grandparents, loved ones, jobs, relationships, and all manner of life's changes.  I said just the other day how I wish we could be living back in Randy 2, where our friends were only a few steps away.  I have friends that would tell you my degree from Hollins was not in English but in Crafting.  My parents might tell you the most practical thing I learned was how to put salt on a napkin to keep the glass from sticking.  But what I gained the most is that which cannot be given a price--the community to which I can always return, and always be myself. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Stories To Tell: Part X

Early 2000's

The millennium turned in the blink of an eye and the world did not come to a crashing halt.  I did well in high school. I think my experience would be considered average for a teenager.  I had a lot of friends from different grades and classes.  My home became the central place for everyone to gather.  I don't know how this happened except to say that my parents were always welcoming and always had food in the cabinets.  We also lived centrally, right outside of the town so our house was easily accessible and big enough to hold everyone.  As an only child I never felt alone because my friends were always welcome in the house.  It was a difficult adjustment, especially for my mom when all  of her kids left the nest and were not coming over anymore.  I was in the National Honor's Society, I participated in theatre and chorus as my elective classes.  I was the manager for the boys Varsity Soccer team with several friends all four years of high school.  I spent my free time socializing at sporting events or going to movies and shopping in Roanoke or Lynchburg.  I had boyfriends--some who were great, others not so great--typical teenager stuff.   I never partied in high school, I was not exposed to drugs in a direct way, nor alcohol until I had graduated.  This is not to say that it wasn't around or that some of my friends did not experiment with these things as we got older, but I had no desire to be involved with those activities.  My life was full and wonderful.  I was so blessed to be in a healthy environment and I am certain that I often took that for granted.   

I believe it was either my sophomore or junior year of high school that I was introduced to Hollins University.  The Wyndham Robertson Library had just been built and on a trip to visit my Grandma Becky in Salem we drove by Hollins because Dad wanted to see it.  I saw the campus from just over the hill of the library and I was instantly enchanted.  Then I was told that Hollins has one of the best creative writing programs in the nation and my longing to attend was solidified.  I loved to write, one of my favorite activities was to write poetry and was heavily involved in writing skits and things for Youth Sundays at church.  I asked my parents timidly if it was very expensive to go to Hollins and I was told that it was indeed.  But, I recall my Dad saying after a time that if Hollins was really where I wanted to go, they would get me there.  I was able to attend Hollinsummer-- an awesome program which was really just taking shape back then.  I did the creative writing program-a two weeks summer intensive program.  I met one of my favorite people there; little did I know that Kayte Neas Geise would become a lifelong friend in college.   Oh yes, I very much did want to be at Hollins University.  

The summer before my senior year at Liberty High School I visited many colleges.  No need to put all of our eggs in one basket.  I visited many Presbyterian schools--Presbyterian College, Warren Wilson, St. Andrew's, and Montreat College. I also visited Appalachian State several times and UNC Asheville.  Funny now to think that I have some good friends who did attend these great schools.  But they just were not for me.  I came back from the North Carolina tour and visited Longwood, Sweet Briar, and Roanoke College.  Again, great schools but nothing held a candle to Hollins.  I applied early admission to Hollins University and got accepted in October of 2001.  I never applied anywhere else and I never looked back.  

The Accident

The summer of 2002 finally came.  In fact, I probably thought that it had dragged on as an 18 year old, but my high school graduation came and went in a flash.  My family summer was mapped out. I went to Senior Beach week with my girlfriends right after graduation.  Mom and I had two trips to Montreat; the Worship & Music Conference and the Youth Conference (my last one and Mom was a chaperone).  After those trips we would have a month or so to get ready for my move to Hollins.  Mom was a great planner so I was not stressed about any of this really.  I was just ready to spend as much time as possible with my friends and boyfriend before we all went our separate ways.  

The first half of summer was great-filled with adventures.  When we came back from youth conference our cousins from Texas were in town, staying in Salem so we had plans for a big family get together for dinner.  It was mid-July, dry and hot as I can remember.  It was a Saturday and Mom was cleaning house.  My room looked like a tornado and had cleared a path from my door, two feet to my bed and that was it.  But, I had no interest in cleaning, neither did we made ourselves scarce as was our typical behavior (sorry, Mom).  I had finally gotten my housing assignment for college and desperately wanted to see where I was living (Shout Out, Randy 2!).  My boyfriend, Andrew, and I headed off to Roanoke early so that we could check out the campus before dinner with my family.  The evening, what I can remember of it was a fun one.  My cousins from Texas are dear to us and we rarely saw them at the time so it was a special treat.  Having two separate cars, my boyfriend and I returned to Bedford early, leaving my parents visiting with family longer.  

My parents were driving through an intersection in Roanoke, having been given a green light.  They never saw the drunk driver coming.  He plowed into the passenger side of the car where my mother sat.  Thank God for seat belts and airbags for both of them.  I thank God also that a rescue squad was located right around the corner and there was a cop on the other side of the road across the intersection.  What a miracle in itself.  The jaws of life were brought to extract mom from the car--her seat now a fourth of it's original size.  Dad had a few lacerations, his blood pressure was high-how could it not be.  Mom retained two collapsed lungs, shattered ribs, a broken pelvis, and mild brain damage.  I got a call from Dad--he'd rang a million times before I heard the phone, I'd been outside stargazing.  He told me there had been an accident--he didn't know--mom was bad--I better come--"don't come alone" he had said.  My boyfriend didn't hesitate to drive me to Roanoke.  Can you imagine?  Can you imagine being a seventeen-year-old boy driving your eighteen-year-old girlfriend to a hospital late at night and having no idea what news you would find upon arriving?   He was brave and supportive.  I will never forget it.  

When we arrived at the hospital I was met at the door by a hospital chaplain.  I learned in that instance what not to do for pastoral care.  His first words to me were, "we need to talk" and I told him I was not going to talk to anyone until he took me to my father.  Dad was in a holding bay in the emergency room. We were waiting to hear news of Mom, he knew nothing at all really.  Our pastor, Joseph Gaston and his wife Karen came to be with us.  They, and boyfriend Andrew stayed with us all night.  It was hours before we got to see her.  She was not herself.  Hooked to all manner of machines, in a coma and extremely critical.  We went to my grandma's house in the wee hours of the morning to sleep and I just remember laying on the fold-out couch praying, "Lord, don't take her from me."  

In the days and weeks following we were surrounded by love and kindness.  Pastors and church friends called and visited daily.  Neighbors brought food measured in pounds, both to grandma's house and back to our house once we started sleeping at home.  My friends were all there, someone almost every day.  One night a dozen of them came and got me, took me back to Bedford, and had a movie night with me. She was their Mom too. Daily, I would go to Mom's bedside and talk or sing to her.  The nurses were extremely kind and patient to explain things to me. You know that sucking sound a ventilator makes--I'll never forget it. The beeps and bells and green squiggly-lined monitors. I'll never forget it. I made her two binders filled with the cards and letters she received. I wanted her to be able to read them all when she woke up. Hundreds of them, I'd guess.  Mom's work friends were amazing.  They brought us groceries and her doctor co-workers would stroll into the ICU and get medical updates then translate them for me! Time marched on for Dad and I, even though for Mom it stood still.  While she lay unconscious, medically induced so she could heal-she got pneumonia and MRSA--Dad went back to work and I had to get ready for college.  When we couldn't get to the account with my college funds in it without Mom's signature, a friend of hers offered to pay my semester's tuition, but the man at the bank bent the rules for us.   My best friend Whitney and her mom took me shopping for college. When I over-drafted my bank account buying college gear, my uncle footed the bill (I was too scared to tell Dad).   Dad, Andrew, and a neighbor, Earl Agee, moved me into Hollins.  It was probably the hottest day of summer.  

For weeks this went on.  Was it 6 or 8? Hard for me to remember now. I entered her room one day and it was eerily quiet.  Something was different...what was it?  Oh my god.  The ventilator was gone.  She was breathing on her own!  This should have been really exciting to me, and it was, but in a sense it was also terrifying--what if she couldn't do it on her own?  One afternoon, a few weeks into my first year at Hollins, Dad called.  Mom was awake.  She had been weened off the medication and had woken in the middle of the night asking for him. What a reunion that was for me to see her awake and speaking to us!  She was confused for a long time and didn't remember anything from our summer- months had been wiped away and missed.  To trade those few months for the rest of her life was absolutely worth it--and eventually memories came back.  Eventually, she went back to Lynchburg for rehabilitation.  I was sad she was not as close by anymore but she went to the right place.  The day she came home--mid-October, right at my birthday, friends "flocked" our yard--dozens and dozens of pink flamingos flocked us! Friends of mine from High School and College sent her messages for a big card to welcome her back.  There has never been a sweeter homecoming.  

Later on, Mom said that she wasn't angry and that she'd forgiven the man who hit them while driving intoxicated.  She said everyone makes mistakes.  I held anger for a long time.  You see, this man, had he not plead guilty, could have gotten off free.  Because the officer on the scene thought my mom would die.  He thought he could charge this man with manslaughter.  And because he was going on vacation the next day, he didn't do all the paperwork right, and he didn't get a BAC level recorded.   The laws and requirements have changed a lot since then, they are much more strict and I am so thankful for that.  No family should ever have to experience such hardships--or even worse! 

 I have to thank God for the angels watching over my parents that night, and for each day they have guarded us since.  See, another family miracle.  

Monday, July 31, 2017

Stories to Tell: Part IX


I love that I can remember my baptism.  In some faith traditions, it is crucial that children be baptized as infants.  In others, it is only when one becomes an adult that they can be baptized.  In our tradition as Presbyterians, it does not matter if you are 1 day old or 100 years old--it is the holiness of the moment that matters as well as all of those both before and after it.  You see, for us, baptism is a sign and a seal of something that happened before you were ever born, before you were in the womb even; God loved you and called you by name.  You are saved by God's grace before you can even claim it for yourself because God is always, always reaching for you. 

My parents decided that they would let me choose if and when I would be baptized.  I think this taught me that my relationship with Christ is personal and something that I need to believe in because of my own heart, not because of someone else's choice.  But, being part of a loving congregation taught me that my relationship with Christ is also communal, because you need the community to guide and teach you in the faith.  You need the community to be present as you ask hard questions and interpret the Scriptures.  And so it was that as my relationship with the church I was intending was forged--so was my relationship with Christ. 

After my grandfather died and I attended Montreat for the first time-I knew that I wanted to be baptized for certain.  Rev. Bill Buchanan baptized me on August 15, 1999.  It was his first baptism which creates a special bond for us I think.  My dear friend and elder, Jo Carson stood beside me, smiling her gorgeous smile of encouragement.  Bedford Presbyterian has large, clear windows that while shaded by shutters, let in shafts of summer sunlight.  I remember the bright morning sun beaming on the mint green carpet at my feet. My family and friends sat in pews in front of me.  And I truly felt that I had people who loved both before and behind me.  The choir sat robed in maroon in the choir loft behind me (don't touch the brass railing please) and youth sat above me in the balcony (don't let the golf pencils roll off the edge please).  I remember the water being cool on my head, warmed by Bill's hand as he pressed down on me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I remember the calm in Bill's voice and the smile in his eyes. 

We had a party that day at home, after worship.  Why wouldn't we?  Neighbors, church families, close friends, and teenagers piled plates high and scattered around the house in fellowship.  Gertie, our basset hound wove her way in and out of legs, hoping to catch some fallen scraps.  As she exited through the doggie door, so did Bill and Aimee's daughter, Elli-in close pursuit. 

I was given a Teen Study Bible in a sturdy zipper case.  Since that time treasured scraps of tangible faith have been folded between the pages and stuffed in side pockets.  There is a letter there from my friend John, who wrote to me when my grandfather died.  There is a little packet of confetti from when we attended a Millennium youth conference in Indianapolis.  There are pictures from that trip as well as ones from Montreat and Massanetta.  The pages are highlighted with Scriptures that mean the most to me and bookmarked with quotes or lyrics that spoke to my teenage heart.  There's a swatch of terrycloth to remind me of my baptism.  The first of my Montreat wristbands. So many other baubles and notes that I can scarcely zip the thing much less carry it anywhere.  But, if I am looking to the Bible for solace and not for study...this is still the Bible to which I turn. 

I guess we never forget our roots and these are mine. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Stories To Tell: VIII


It is all I can do not to take my shoes off and pick up the soil and dirt on my soles to carry with me.  This week I am walking on holy ground. The birds are chirping and the mountain rises deep green against the bright blue sky. And friends, it is HOT!  From where I sit I can see the paddle boats and canoes creating ripples on the water and hear echoes from the voices of 1000+ youth enjoying each other’s company in this sacred space. 

For this week I am in my favorite, favorite place, Montreat, accompanying the youth from Covenant Presbyterian and Presbyterian Community Center.  We are having a wonderful experience together as we sleep and eat and sweat in tight quarters! Through our keynotes, small groups, worship services, and back-home discussions we are exploring the theme, A Missing Peace, and I am excited for our youth to return home and share that message with the rest of our congregation. 

This morning, the keynote speaker, Paul, talked about disruption in our lives, the chaos that can happen, and how we can find peace in the midst of that through the Holy Spirit.  He directed us to several Biblical examples, beginning with the first verses of Genesis.  In the beginning there was toh-vu-va-voh-hu  (my favorite Hebrew word) meaning chaos, by my favorite definition.  And then the ruach, the breath/wind/Spirit of God hovered over the deep.  In this moment God separated the light from the darkness.  I was struck by this because no matter how chaotic life feels, there is a shift for me when I drive through the gates of Montreat.  And believe me, Sunday was chaotic as we loaded up after church and made our way here.  I was feeling stretched in many directions and anxious about how this week would play out.  Then, I entered this thin place where God is so close, and I felt at peace. 

On Sunday night as we gathered for opening worship a face almost as familiar to me as my own hovered in front of me and I squealed in delight at the shock of it! My dear friend Erin, the one I wrote of a few weeks ago, my forever friend who brought me into the church is HERE in Montreat!  Her youth group sits across the aisle from mine.  Neither of us had any idea we would be here together.  What a gift from God that we have been able to spend time together.  Never expecting to be where we are now when it first began….

I will never forget my first Montreat, I was so nervous to come, I almost did not make the trip but Bill, my amazing youth pastor and now mentor and friend convinced me.  It was 1999. Week Four. My small group number was 33. The theme was On The Threshold  and Bill and his wife Aimee were keynoting the conference.  What a perfect, perfect theme—I was indeed on the threshold, the threshold of my faith and ultimately my vocation.  One day at keynote there was this incredible opening with Bill drumming a tribal beat and a team of youth did a chant about God calling us to fish for people.  It was incredible.  I have never seen anything like it since.  It was a powerful moment and it transformed the way I thought about worship. 

Most of my closest friends growing up were in the youth group, so coming to Montreat was basically like being with my family.  We shared hard conversations after we sat on hard pews that are older than your grandmother.  But we also had so much fun.  We spent hours rock-hopping or getting ice cream at The Huck. My first year I shared a room with Erin and Katie.  We took turns sleeping on a cot in the middle of the room we shared.  One night, in the middle of the night, I woke up (sort of) and I tried to make my way to the bathroom in the dark.  I reached out my hand and touched Katie’s cot, I think so I would not trip.  Katie bolted straight up on the cot and screamed bloody murder and then laid right back down, seemingly asleep.  (I am still laughing with tears in my eyes as I write this almost 20 years later)I dove back into the bed and covered myself.  Then, maybe 10 seconds later I hear Erin’s voice, “WHAT. WAS. THAT?” By that point we were all awake and belly-laughing.

   I also remember seeing David LaMotte’s first concert that year. It is amazing the way music can impact our memories.  I bought David’s latest CD in the bookstore this week.  I listened to it on the way into Montreat this morning.  As I was driving through Asheville the song he had written about our friend Aimee who died I few years ago came on and I thought, wow what a God moment to flood my mind today with memories of her, her mentorship and her motherhood. I also remember her telling a profound story from her young adult life from the stage one morning when I was a young adult, that I had never heard before.  It made me run to my own mother, who was there as an advisor for my home church and hug her tightly.  Someone snapped a photo of the moment and it is framed in my office.

I remember summers here with Bill and Aimee’s children Elli and Taylor.  One day I asked Elli (she was about 7 at the time) if she would come to Montreat youth conference when she was older.  And she said, “well, yea, I basically live here.”  Elli was three when I met her, a precious little blond child.  And now, I have my precious little blond child here with me for the first time.  Kemper is loving the energizers and the music.  When we sing the song, Ten Thousand Reasons he sings the chorus and does the motions that Ms. Candace taught him in Vacation Bible School.  It is the most precious thing in the world and brought tears to my eyes to see him so happy in the place that brings me such joy.  He was in worship a few nights ago when the pastor began to read the story of “doubting Thomas.” Kemper piped up with, “I know Thomas!”  

I’ve always loved Communion at Montreat along with the Candlelight service around Lake Susan.  I remember one Communion service in particular sitting next to Bill in the pew after we had taken Communion and singing the hymns.  Bill just hugged us, one youth on either side of him, with his arms on the back of the pews.  Watching all of those teenagers who had been working through hard conversations and sharing deeply personal things together having The Lord’s Supper was really meaningful to me.  And knowing how lucky I was to have many adults like Bill who loved us and cared for us enough to support us financially to send us to Montreat. By far, my favorite memory of Bill here has been seeing his alternate ego-Right Rev. Smoothe get on stage and do a rap about the Protestant Reformation.  It was amazing!

I’ve come to Montreat Youth Conference a few times as an adult advisor.  When I was in college I came back with my home church, Bedford Pres.  I got to know the youth who were younger than me in my home church and that was a special experience.  In Richmond, I was a youth advisor at Three Chopt Presbyterian Church.  I drove by a few of the houses we stayed in and smiled to think of them.  Such great kids.  I will never, ever forget one of our Seniors, Graham, thinking that he was mooning a bunch of boys that our girls had invited over for lunch, and mooning the pastor, Brenda instead. This earned him the name Moon Pie.  He took the ribbing, all in good fun.  I also remember having deep and meaningful conversations with some of the girls about what it meant to be intimate with another person at such a young age and what the Bible said about sexuality and relationships. I talked to the boys about respecting the young women they were interacting with—even if those young girls acted like they didn’t have much respect for themselves.  Now they are young adults; getting married and graduating from college.  I know we are not supposed to be prideful or boastful—but my goodness, I am proud of them! 

This is my first time coming with Covenant, but I hope it will not be my last.  I have been so impressed with their willingness to engage with other people, and with one another.  We are still getting to know one another and building relationships takes time.  But I am honored that they have shared this time with me and that they have been so patient and welcoming of Kemper. 
If I didn’t believe in the Holy Spirit, I’d call it magic—what this place can do for a person’s soul.  But I know that it is God.  I know that it is God because I meet God here time and time again—and we become reacquainted, God and I.  I remember who God is, and who I am, and who God created me to be.  And I am home.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

Stories To Tell Part VII

The Second Miracle

My life seems to be stitched together by miracles.  Mostly of the modern medical kind, if you want to be technical about it.  But, that's okay, because God has given us the gift of our minds to understand and discover science, medicine,  and the healing arts.  There are still things that happen that are beyond our understanding when it comes to our minds and bodies.  We learn more each day.  The second miracle becomes more fuzzy in my mind as time goes on.  Besides that, God keeps adding new miracles, each one more life-changing and critical than the one before it.  

As I entered high school, my Papa Tate was growing increasingly frail.  Now, the best description I can give you of my grandfather before his illness is to point you to my Dad. Dad looks like him, walks like him, talks like him, acts like him.  My Dad got his incredible talents of building things and fixing things from my Papa.  Papa had green eyes that twinkled when he was tickled at something. He also had a quick temper and you could hear him cursing from his shop on top of the hill when you walked out of the back door of their house. I have fun memories of him. When I wasn't much older than four I was staying at their house. I went into the bathroom while he was shaving.  I got stuck in the toilet and he had to pull me out.  I don't know why I thought it would be fun to see if I'd fit all the way into the toilet bowl while I was sitting there!  I also remember how he would say a blessing before our meals.  He mumbled the prayer and said it so quickly that no one in the family actually new what the words at the end of the blessing were! Same blessing for years on end, but no one can replicate it. He also loved gravy and country style steak more than any other person on the planet! 

Papa had Alzheimer's, followed by colon cancer.  I remember that in his last few years he would tell stories from his early life, but they were muddled and did not always make sense.  He began to talk less and less about the present and lived in the past.  He would do things like put on his clothes over his pajamas.  I am sure there were way more things going on for him than I really remember, I was only 13 or 14 years old at the time.  But I do remember it being very difficult for my grandmother.  It is one thing to know someone has this horrible disease but another thing entirely to really understand the depths of it.  It takes that person away from you in reality.  The body is there but the individual inside can become different altogether.  I don't think Grandma could fully fathom this so she spent a lot of time worrying (who wouldn't) and fussing at him about things he couldn't make sense of or understand.  There came a time near the end of his life that he couldn't call us by name anymore.  

It was early June of my freshman year of High School when Papa went into the hospital.  The cancer was ravaging his body.  I think he had some surgery to remove part of his colon...but what I remember is  that he was unresponsive for several days. The day he woke up he remembered every one of us by name!  I was fortunate enough to be able to go and spend an afternoon with him in the hospital.  I was so pleased that he could say our names, even people he had not seen for a long time.   He passed away only a day or so after that.  Mom called my school and had someone come and tell me of his passing during my last class period of the day, gym.  She knew I would have friends around me to comfort me.  

I do recall (humorously) that when Dad went to Lewis Gale the day he passed away, he left the sunroof and windows down in his car and it poured down rain.  I insisted on riding back to my grandparents house in Salem with Dad.  We sat on soaked seats as we drove down the River Road, back to the "holler" which would never quite be the same again.  Papa Tate had basically lived in that neighborhood near Green Hill Park his whole life, spending his Sunday mornings at Green Hill Church of the Brethren.  

I am so thankful for the gift of that warm, sunny afternoon that I got to spend by my Papa's bedside.  We were never as close as I was with my grandmothers, but I loved him all the same.  All of that happened as we were becoming more involved at Bedford Presbyterian and I was sorting out if I was ready to join the church or not.  I had a lot of questions about my faith.  In a few weeks time, I traveled to Montreat for the first time.  I have no doubt that the experience of miracles I witnessed with my grandparents and my trip to Montreat solidified my belief in the Triune God and the ways in which he works continuously in the world.  

Friday, June 30, 2017

Stories to Tell: Part VI



When you are thirteen or fourteen years old, there are experiences that stay with you.  There are memories or moments in time that become a part of your identity.  You are beginning to discover who you are and consider who you want to be.  You are beginning to be more reflective--even in the midst or raging hormones, rash reactions, and rampant distractions at every turn! But, with some guidance (which I thankfully had via family and church) you can begin to contemplate issues about your life and the world on a deeper level.  You find things you enjoy and see people you admire.

One sunny afternoon when I was fourteen my friend Anitha came over to hang out.  Y'all, I love Anitha with my whole heart. She has been one of my closest friends since those middle school days.  She was my friend with whom I could be my goofiest self.  She was my shopping buddy, and my boy crazy buddy, and my friend who loved junk food and Surge soda!  She was always creative and crafty.  And she grew from this gangly girl in glasses to one of the most beautiful women you've ever seen.  To know her is to love her, because for all of her outer beauty, it is magnified ten times within.  When I officiated her wedding a few years ago it was one of the most special things I've done since being ordained.  I cried when I left her wedding because it had been years since I'd seen her in person and it will likely be several more years before I see her again. 

Anyway, I have lots of good stories on Anitha-- but I was telling you about that Sunny Bedford afternoon.  She came over to the house and said, "let's watch this new video I have, it's about the band Hanson."  "Oh, I don't know....I don't even know anything about them..."  "Loren, come on, they are so awesome...." I am sure she also said something about Taylor Hanson being dreamy because, well, she was a Taylor girl. She was also a Justin Timberlake girl... hey, for a 90s kid, she had good taste!   After that day, I too was a Hanson fan and to know me now is to know that it stuck. 

This may seem like a really odd thing to talk about...I mean, following a band is like telling people about your hobbies, right?  It doesn't give your life definition. It doesn't alter who you are.  Until it does. 

What Hanson first did for me as a teenager was give me something in common with some of my newest friends.  Anitha and I bonded over our fandom, as did some of our other friends.  Hanson's first single Mmmbop went to number 1 in 27 countries at the same time.  They were a huge deal in 1997-1998, nominated for 3 Grammy's when they were just 17, 14, and 11 years old.  But, as with many artists-they were either loved or hated.  And if you were a person who loved them, you got picked on by the kids who hated them.  So, all the more reason to bond together with the people who shared your enthusiasm.  The music became a place to hide. I would spend hours in my room listening to that first CD and plastering my bedroom walls with Hanson posters.   I gobbled up every teeny-bopper magazine I could get my hands on and I knew everything about my favorite band.  I video-taped them each time they were on television.  I *think* I had a cake with the Hanson symbol on it for one of my birthdays.  I. Just. Loved. Them.  Think about the hysteria over Elvis, The Beatles, The Monkeys... or modern day  One Direction, Taylor Swift, or Justin Bieber.  Y'all-this was my life.  To see these three brothers writing and performing all of their own music also fueled my creativity.  I loved to write and they inspired me to never give up on doing what I enjoyed. 

As time went on my love for Hanson faded into the background while I moved into and through High School.  However, I will never forget Anitha's mom winning tickets from the radio to see Hanson in concert.  Anitha gave me the tickets.  I was SO excited. Whitney and I went together, her parents took us to Greensboro to see them.  I didn't see them again live until 2007. We were living in Richmond and a friend of Michael's said off handedly, "Hanson is doing a show here."  WHAT!?  I bought tickets in 10 minutes flat, and called Whitney to tell her we were going.  We've gone to at least one show on every tour since.

The Music Lives

Hanson is celebrating 25 years as a band this year.  It has been 20 years since Mmmbop hit number one on the pop radio charts.  That's insane.  That's a lot of life lived!  They are all married and they all have children.  The truth is, we grew up together--as a band they acknowledge how special that is.   Michael tells me it is strange to talk about them like I know them--but to a fan who has followed their career since the beginning- we do know them.  We know them as authentic people with individual personalities and interests.  We know them as passionate businessmen and dedicated family men. They became independent and created their own record label when they were in their early twenties.   We are inspired by their interest in their own community of Tulsa, OK and their compassionate service to others through raising funds for needs in Africa as well as bringing in food trucks in local urban food deserts, with Food On The Move.    Hanson's dedication to their fans means that I've met them now several times, before or after concerts.  It doesn't get old!  I finally got a front row spot on the last tour in Atlanta.  Another life goal achieved! They do live-stream events online for fans, they have destination concerts and host a huge festival in Tulsa every year. 

It may sound strange, but the music has always been there for me.  Through every milestone and difficult trial-- the music has been there.  It has grown and evolved with me and continued to be a place to find refuge, and strength, and joy. 

In recent years, what being a Hanson fan has done for me, is it has brought me into yet another community.  In 2013 I met some amazing women while waiting for a show in Richmond.  We bonded as we waited in line, sitting on the sidewalk outside of The National on a hot September day.  These girls became close friends, who I talk to regularly.  We've gone to other shows together and had reunions to celebrate our friendship.  What started out as a friendship built on music, built around our common love of Hanson, became another place of safety all together--where we can share our joys and concerns day in and day out.  In fact, I just attended a baby shower for one of these friends.  A few of them were able to come to mine when Kemper was born. 

So I always tell young people to be themselves and not conform to what other people think. I could have stopped listening to Hanson at 14 because my peers gave me a hard time.  I could have taken down my posters and given away my CDs when my other friends stopped listening.  But then I wouldn't have this amazing collection of music to crank up and dance to with Kemper.  I wouldn't have these awesome memories of meeting Isaac, Taylor, and Zac for the first time or asking them for parenting advice.  And I wouldn't have these supportive friendships that have been formed all because we shared one common interest.  

Music doesn't matter--until it does.