Update for August 12 (sorry for the delay)

Years ago, on one of the occasions that Gary was preparing to return to Afghanistan for missions work, a friend gave out small smooth stones, about nickel-sized, to remind folks to pray for him while he was away. The idea was that we’d keep them in our pockets or purses, or on our work desks, and be visibly prompted to remember him. Gary’s name was written on each of the stones.

– – – – –

This past week, on Monday the 8th, Gary, Dad and I went to meet with the radiation oncologist, the doctor who will write and oversee the treatment plan for Gary over the course of the next 6 weeks. When he finally came to the small room where we would have our consultation with him, we stood, introduced ourselves, shook hands. After we had finished telling him our names, he reached in his pocket, pulled out a small stone, smiled, and said, “Yes, I know who you are.”

The choreography of the past three weeks has included moment after moment like our meeting with Dr. Ciuba, and has been filled with reminders that we are in good and loving, if at times inscrutable, Hands. Your kindnesses continue to be among of those reminders and, again, we thank you.

Short version is that Gary is doing well (most bothered by loss of short term memory) and will begin radiation next week – 5 days a week for 6 weeks  — during which time he’ll be taking oral chemotherapy (a pill a day). The hope is that the combination will shrink and fight his tumor into submission.

I’ll be taking Gary to the Amos Cancer Center in Columbus each day and consider it a great privilege to be able to be so close to him for the weeks to come. I know that it will be unpleasant and difficult in some ways, but I look forward to being his keeper. As I heard another say years ago about caring for a sick spouse, “I’m doing it not because I have to, but because I get to.”

– – – – –

Even now, the stones cry out. God is for us. Jesus is Lord.


Update for August 3

Just a quick update to let you know that Gary will begin radiation therapy for his tumor in the next few days. Not sure at present what the regimen will entail or what schedule we’ll keep but i’ve cleared my calendar for the next couple of months so that i can be with him full time. And i feel privileged that i get to spend the coming weeks at his side. …  Do continue to pray that the days move us Christward and that we will have and make the most of opportunities to care for and share with others. …   i hope you are well. every blessing, allen

An Update on Gary

Here are emails from the past week concerning Gary’s illness. They read from most recent back. … Best regards, allen

July 30, 2011 (5:15 a.m.)

Good morning friends,
It’s been a week, a long, trying, emotional week since we learned of Gary’s condition last Saturday. As I write this he is in the hospital ICU recovering from the biopsy that was done yesterday. Hopefully, we’ll return to the farm later this morning after a meeting with Dr. Gorum and, in the next couple of days, meet with the doctor again to discuss possible alternatives going forward.
For right now, Gary is eager to be out of the hospital. Last night was the only night he’s ever spent in the hospital as a patient.
i hope that you’ll not tire of our repeated “thank you’s” for all that so many have done for us. Please forgive me and the family if we’ve not been able to respond personally to your letters, calls and emails. We might never be able to do so, but not because we don’t want to. Gary’s travels as a missionary – 6 months in Jamaica, 1 year in Costa Rica, 6 years in Spain, 2 years in Bosnia, 2 years in Macedonia/Kosovo, 6 months in Peru, 5 years off and on in Afghanistan, and a number of shorter stints – along with a life deeply committed to the community here have resulted in a rather expansive population that knows and loves him. It is more clear than ever that Gary has genuinely modeled his life after that of Jesus: “He went around doing good.” It is equally cleat that a life well-lived returns blessings at a time like this.

So, again, many thanks. We are your debtors.

Live well. Love Christ.

– – – – – –

July 29, 2011
Dear Friends,

Gary had his biopsy done a little while ago and is presently in
the recovery room. The procedure went well, a tissue sample was
obtained, and he’ll spend the night here before heading back home
tomorrow. We will have a meeting with the doctor tomorrow or Monday to
talk about the findings and possible radiation/chemotherapy courses
that would be appropriate for Gary’s condition.
In case my previous emails have been a bit confusing, the
tentative surgery scheduled for Monday at Emory has been cancelled.
Today’s biopsy is the only surgery that we anticipate for Gary.
Thank y’all again for your thoughtfulness. All is well.
Christ’s love, allen

Dear Friends,
It has been a long day and, while the news that we have to share is
not what we would have asked for, at least it is clear and certain.
Gary and i, along with our Dad, met with a neurosurgeon in Columbus
this morning. He was able to communicate directly, authoritatively,
and kindly to Gary’s situation. We prayed for “light,” especially
after the confused and disappointing meeting yesterday, and within
seconds today, there was a sense of light and peace, even as we
received the sobering assessment concerning Gary’s head.
The tumor, which we initially thought to be rather confined and small,
seems to be a fast-growing glioblastoma that is fairly deep in Gary’s
brain and crosses into both the left and right lobe. It is not
operable, as any attempt to remove it would result in unacceptable
damage. We made clear to the doctor that, while the family prays for
and wants a full and complete recovery for Gary, we do not view death
as the end of life, but simply a part of it. He was most gracious in
hearing our perspective and in addressing our questions. We thank God
for Dr. Gorum and for your prayers that connected us with him.
While the doctor is 98% sure that we are dealing with a glioblastoma,
he thought it advisable to do a biopsy so that we might determine
exactly what Gary has in his brain. That information might be helpful
in treating the tumor with radiation and chemotherapy, a course which
we might be initiating soon. Gary’s remaining days, barring an
intervention from God or a good response to medicine, might be short.
But we trust God to give what is best.
The biopsy procedure will take place tomorrow at noon at the Medical
Center and Gary will spend a night there. One special prayer request … Despite, or maybe because of Gary’s faith, he has had some dark moments of the soul where words of
condemnation against him have been in his thoughts. He longs for peace
but has had some anxious periods. Music, especially hymns, and hearing
scripture give him calm. Would you please pray that he can rest and
feel deeply the presence and love of Christ? Holy Spirit, come.
We have had some sweet moments today. My sisters Beth and Linda have
been here and we have laughed, cried, prayed, and talked about real
things together. Sister Laura arrives tomorrow. And of course, you
have been here too. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

We love you and are grateful for your friendship.

allen, for the family

– – – – – – – – -

July 27, 2011

Dear friends,

First of all, please forgive me for waiting so late in the day to
bring you up to date on Gary’s trip to Emory Hospital today. He and i
have arrived home in just the past few minutes, are very tired, and
simply want to thank all of you for standing with us in your prayers
and thoughts. We feel them deeply and are grateful.
Short version is that we met with Dr. Jeffrey Olson, neurosurgeon, and
still have no definitive opinion as to the thing that is in Gary’s
head. Dr. Olson, as did our local (and beloved Dr. Harris), told us
that the only way to be certain of what we’re dealing with is to “get
tissue,” that is, go into Gary’s brain surgically. We are working on
getting more info and moving forward. Surgery is tentatively scheduled
for next Monday at Emory. We wish that we had absolute certainty about
the condition, about risks involved with the treatments, and such. But
for now, we’re still in the learning process. We do know that the
sooner we can resolve the present questions and move forward the
better. Thank you for continuing to pray.
Gary is tired but trusting that “the Lord rejoices in doing us good.”
He (Gary) is a delight, even in difficult circumstances and even
amidst the tears, concerns and uncertainties of the present situation.
i wish everyone could spend a day with him like the one we had today.

We’ll keep you posted and again are grateful for you.

Love, allen (for the family)


A letter from Gary, dated July 26, 2011

“Bless the Lord, o my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name.”
I don’t know where to begin in expressing my gratitude for all the calls, notes, emails, gmails, Skype, and Facebook messages that I have received in the past couple of days. I was hoping to answer each of you individually but now see that that might not be possible given the present circumstances. I am assuming that most of you now know that I have been diagnosed with a malignant tumor on the left side of my brain.
Many of you are praying for my healing. Thank you. I am praying for His will, that He will use this for His glory and honor, and that He will draw us all closer to Himself. Selfishly, a part of me is praying to go home. Like yourself, perhaps, I am tired of the struggles in this life, the fight with self and the flesh. Everyday it seems that I am more and more aware of my need and my weakness. I long to see Him face to face, with a glorified mind, soul and body and to be as He is. I’m not sure what will happen but I know the One Who does and I rejoice in the fact that He rejoices in doing me good.
It may seem strange, but I am excited about the possibility of going home soon. My brother wrote a song with the title, “the first of us to go.” We both long to go to our eternal home. I have often felt as Paul did when he wrote that he longed to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far. While I struggle with the thought of leaving loved ones that are dear to my heart, I hope that, in each one of us, there is a longing to be with Christ, a longing for home, a longing to be with the One Who loves us more than we can imagine and a desire to be in that place where we will be able to love Him back perfectly.

Life has been good to me in this fallen world, largely because of ones like you, but I know that there is something better and I want to fall asleep and wake up there. What a task and blessing I have now of thanking all of you who have enriched my life by allowing me to see Christ more clearly through your walk. Let’s continue to press on and obey Him until He returns. Your life enriches mine and I am blessed by our paths having crossed. My life and times, like yours, are in His hands. If He chooses to keep me here, I pray that I will love Him more and more, fight for His honor, glory and Kingdom. And if He chooses to take me home, I will praise Him until you arrive.
I love you with the bonds of Christ.

– – – – – – –

July 26, 2011

Good morning brothers.
First of all, thank you for the prayers which you have prayed for Gary and
the family, and for your kindnessses that prove the genuineness of them. The whole family, but Gary in particular, feels loved, appreciated, strengthened by your thoughtfulness. Thank you, thank you.
i wanted to give you a quick update on where medical matters stand.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, Gary and i will go to Emory Clinic for a meeting with Dr. Jeffrey Olson, chief of neurosurgery at Emory University Hospital. We are assuming at this point that Dr. Olson will be the one doing any surgery to treat Gary’s tumor. We obviously don’t know what the doctor will tell us but are hoping that he’ll give a more definitive assessment of Gary’s tumor (which, at this point, is strongly believed to be malignant — a
glioblastoma), recommend a course of treatment, and schedule surgery if, as seems to be the case, that is the appropriate action to pursue.
Please pray that we will be attentive and able so understand the doctor’s
assessment, that we will know hat he is the best doctor for Gary’s care
(amazing how this process calls upon us to entrust our most treasured gifts to total strangers), that the doctor will be wise, perceptive and, when the time comes, abundantly skilled for Gary’s treatment, and, most of all, that we’ll trust that God is lovingly in charge of all that takes place. And pray that we will be a blessing to Dr. Olson, his staff, and others that we come in contact with.
But pray too that God will be working physically in Gary’s body to heal
him if that is best. We know that God can and that God might choose to do something miraculous to remove the tumor.
A couple of nights ago, after hugging Gary good night, i imagined him sleeping while this thing inside his head, this thing that is intent on hurting him, continued to grow. My prayer throughout the night was “God, please stop it. Wherever it wants to grow or spread or swell, put Your hand around it or in front of it and make it stop. Lord, we are powerless, but Your hands are strong enough and big enough and small enough to reach this thing that is trying to hurt your child. Father, in Jesus’ name, for Jesus’ glory, please help.” That is still my prayer and will continue to be until the tumor is entirely gone.
i was talking to Gary this morning — we’ve had some wonderful conversation in the past couple of days — and he reminded me that, at the end of all this, he is going to be ok. “That doesn’t mean i won’t die, but
i’m going to be ok.” You know Gary well enough to know that he means that sincerely. The thought of heaven is a sweet one and the prospect of crossing over is a welcome one to him. For years, Gary has closed his letters to me with a two word salutation, “perhaps today,” a short prayer of hope that he would soon be with Jesus. For our brother, that is not greeting card
sentimentality, it is the deep longing of his heart. But he wants ultimately what God wants and if that means more days here among us, he wants that. His body is a bit tired, but his heart is strong.
We’ll keep you posted about the outcome of our meeting tomorrow.
Thank you again for all your kindness and encouragement. We love you and thank God for your friendship.
Might we all start this morning with the longing of the saints, “perhaps today.”
Gratefully His,
allen, for the Levi family

A Word About My Brother, Gary, and a Favor Asked

            Some of you know that a group of men meet at my house every Thursday morning to pray, to study the Bible, and to organize for involvement in our community. That gathering has, for all intents and purposes, been my church life for the past ten years or so, since work requires me to be out of town on many or most Sundays.

            This year, we are reading through the entire Bible, our third time to do so. I have been struck on many occasions at how the day’s reading was so perfectly timed for circumstances that I was dealing with in my own life, as if the text had been somehow scripted for a particular moment.

            This morning, I read the familiar words of Romans 8 which tell me that nothing can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, that God cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him, that one of God’s overarching purposes in our lives is to conform us to the likeness of Christ, and that God is “for us”.

            Those words are timely.

            Yesterday, my brother Gary and I met with his doctor and were told that he (Gary) has a brain tumor, likely malignant, on the back left side of his brain, about the size of a quarter. Given that Gary is very healthy and active, the news was more than a little surprising. At present, there are medical decisions to be made, plans that need to rearranged, questions that need to be asked and answered. We’re thankful that the source of Gary’s recent forgetfulness and headaches seems to have been identified and are hopeful that the tumor (which, the doctor tells us, is at a good location on the brain if it has to be removed) can be taken out and followed up with chemo/radiation.

            Many of you have already gotten word of Gary’s condition and have written to express your concern and tell us that you’re praying. I need not tell you how grateful and encouraged we are by such kindness. Might I ask that, if you are one who prays, you would keep Gary is your prayers? I still don’t, and probably never will, quite understand how prayer ‘works’ but I know that God tells us to do it, promises His attention if and when we do, and assures us that He’ll not give stones to the child who asks for fish. …  For you who’ve already taken Gary’s case to God, thank you. For those who will, you are in good company. Thank you. I’ll keep you all posted from time to time here on the blog.


            While I have no desire to be melodramatic about the present circumstances, I can tell you that, when I’ve not been crying in the last 24 hours, I’ve benn an inch away from doing so. But the tears are not those of anger or even fear. They seem to be some strange mixture of sadness and gratitude and even hope. I am very conscious of how rich I am to have the brother and full-time hero that Gary has been to me over the years. And I look forward to walking through this next part of the path with him grateful for the ones who will be alongside us, including ones like you.


            “God is for us.”



Facebook (a new song)

Click here —  Facebook — to hear song.

You still out there? After this long, long absence on my part? I’ve got several blog entries in the works, just some simple reflections inspired by summer moments at home – and will be posting them on consecutive days very soon. i’m also working on 8 or 10 new songs to post on the blog in August as I’ve done for the past couple of years.
At the request of Sue and Melvin from San Antonio, who I recently met at Laity Lodge in west Texas, I made this simple recording of a song that I sing a cappella in concert from time to time, usually while I’m changing guitars, tuning strings, or simply want to vary the sound palette a bit. It was written a couple of years ago when I first became aware of Facebook (after about a half billion other people in the world had already found it).

The song is true. I really am on Facebook, though I rarely visit the site and don’t quite know how to navigate my way around it. And this little tune is not meant to be a jeremiad lamenting the good old days of letter writing and face-to-face conversation. It’s just a poke at our present obsession.

I do see the benefits, the splendors even, of social networking, But i wonder if it doesn’t also have its limitations and dangers (captured perhaps in a statement that a friend made this past week, one of praise for the miracle of technology, about going to a crowded Starbucks where everyone was interacting with a device, “it was quiet as a library.”) For me, Facebook puts a spotlight on many aspects of the human condition: our desire to belong to something big, our hunger to be heard, our determination to be unbounded by time and place, our wish to have some record of our lives, our longing for relationship. Those desires and yearnings are all good, healthy, even God-given. I’m just not sure that Facebook is the highest, best, most lasting way to fill them.

Remembering Dr. Martin, my old professor

i don’t usually write letters to people expecting that i’ll put them on the blog, though a couple have ended up here. A few months ago, one of my college professors died and i wrote a letter to his wife. … With the end of the school year fast approaching, i’ve been thinking a bit of teachers and teaching lately, perhaps because i still go to the local high school each morning, and see educators on an almost daily basis. i think sometimes that the good ones little appreciate just how significant their work is. So i offer the following letter as an example of how one teacher and a textbook touched my life decades ago. (i hope that this might encourage any of you teachers, and have Dr. Pat Schoenrade at William Jewell College in mind as i share this.) To those of you who do it well, and take your calling seriously, thank you, thank you. Great is your reward. …

January 29, 2011

Dear Agnes,

I was sorry to learn of George’s passing, and am still a bit curious why the death of someone I’ve only seen once in the past thirty years touches me so deeply. Would you indulge me while I share some of my memories of Dr. Martin with you? Writing them down, and reliving them here in my thoughts, might help me to understand why I feel his loss as keenly as I do and might, at the same time, give you occasion to celebrate, even more than you already do, the good soul that he was.

I met Dr. Martin sometime in the late 1970’s, probably ’77 or ’78, when I was an English major at the University of Georgia. I enrolled in his class on the poetry of John Milton, a small one as I recall, maybe 10 or 12 students, that met upstairs in Park Hall. I clearly remember Dr. Martin in a plain but very professorial gray sweater, leaning back in his chair at the front of the class, feet propped up and crossed on the desk, cigarette in hand. He was not a very animated speaker and his lectures were hardly scintillating, but he brought poetry to life for me and his classes were not at all, like some that I endured at UGA, to be dreaded.
The principal texts, maybe the only ones, that we used in the class were the poetry of Milton and the Bible, which was a grand stroke of Providence for one who, like myself, had just recently begun to take a genuine interest in Jesus and the Christian faith. The combination of scripture, Milton, and Dr. Martin’s lectures kept Christ, the cross, redemption, repentance — in short, all the matters ‘pertaining to life and godliness’ — squarely before me during that formative time of my life. It was no accident that I was in George Martin’s class.

I don’t believe that I performed very admirably in the class, though I somehow managed to finish with a tolerable grade (an example perhaps, on Dr. Martin’s part, of the grace that we had studied in our coursework.) Interestingly, the only term papers I retained from all of my years of higher education are those from Dr. Martin’s class, which I have tucked away in the textbook that we used in our studies. On one of those papers, I barely made a passing grade, and probably deserved a proper scolding for my poor performance. Instead, being the kind soul that he was, and hoping perhaps to encourage a non-Miltonian such as myself, the generous professor wrote “D — but what you said was good.” … Though some might say that I was “damned with faint praise” by his inscription, I can only say that Dr. Martin endeared himself to me by his benevolence and gentleness. Even his criticism was soft-spoken, a trait I still wish to attain.

After finishing undergraduate and then law school in 1980, I lost touch with all of my college professors. But in the early 1990’s, I left law practice to return to school, this time at the University of Edinburgh. To gain admission into their masters program for English literature, I needed reference letters from two undergraduate professors. I could well remember most all of my instructors, but I was certain that, 12 years removed from their classrooms, none of them would remember me. My strategy was simply to choose my two favorite professors, give them a call, and take a chance that I could induce them somehow to say positive, if fraudulent, things about me to the admissions committee in Scotland. To my very pleasant surprise, when I called Dr. Martin (and Dr. James Kilgo), he not only remembered that I had been a student, but remembered that I lived in middle Georgia, that I had gone to law school and that I was something of an outdoorsman. Our conversations during that process were few but pleasant, and always left me wishing that I had made better use of the privilege that was mine as his student. I wished, too, that I might have the chance to enjoy a long conversation with Dr. Martin sometime. At 40 or 50, I think I would have appreciated him much more than I did as a 20 year old.

The last time, of course, that I saw Dr. Martin was when I had the added pleasure of meeting you. What an honor it was to have y’all in the audience at Newberry. The professor seemed very much the same gentle, interested, encouraging soul that I remembered from college days, and I’m sure that he was. How I regret now that I did not make good on my intention of visiting him and you in Spartanburg. … I am grateful indeed that you went to the trouble to find me this week. It is touching to know that Dr. Martin mentioned me from time to time, and I’m grateful that you sensed I would want to know of his departure.

Just a final note, and this perhaps explains why I am so inclined to reflect on your husband’s life as I do … Following my course work with Dr. Martin, I did, in fact, come to faith in Christ, a faith that continues to be the anchor and the compass of my life. Lord only knows the role that your husband played in getting me to bend my knee and bow my will to the grace of God. Can I ever be thankful enough for the timely gift that George Martin was to me? Since I cannot say thank you to him (though I think I did share all of this with him in our conversations), might I express that gratitude to you, knowing that his work as professor was affirmed, encouraged and supported by yourself. … I cannot imagine how much you will miss him after so many years of life together, but I hope that stories like mine will help you, as one suggests, “not to regret that they had to end, but to be thankful that they ever happened.”

Please know that you and your family are in my prayers.

With kind and grateful regards,

The Problem with Immigrants

You might know the story. Once upon a time there was a king who, like kings of that time, had a harem of women to call upon at his pleasure. Among the harem was one woman of particular beauty, a woman who had won a place in his palace by being deemed most beautiful in all the land.
At the same time, the king had an ambitious, petty, power hungry administrator, who had a distaste for one Jew in particular but all Jews, it seems, in general, so much so that he convinced the king to decree their annihilation. The king, apparently, had very little actual knowledge of who the Jews were, what they believed, or what their offense was. He simply trusted his underling and signed the order.
Unbeknownst to the king, the aforementioned woman of his harem, the one of particular beauty, was a Jew. That woman, Esther, learned of the edict and courageously asked for permission to speak with the king. Permission granted, she plead for her people.
It seems to me that the king had a revelation. A law he had haphazardly enacted became clear in its monstrosity. What had once been a mere abstraction, a political category, a stereotype – “Jew” – became flesh and blood, a face, a voice, a story. What had previously been a term of derision and a rallying cry for a bigot became an altogether different reality once he could put a particular name alongside the word “Jew”.
The law was effectively nullified and the Hebrews were spared.
If you’ve not read the book of Esther lately, it is a remarkable story of Providence, of courage, of redemption.

* * * * *

I am well acquainted with a fellow who owns some land in the county where I live. On weekends, there is a Mexican guy who helps him around his place, doing lots of heavy lifting, lots of sweaty, dirty, physically exhausting work. His work ethic, his punctuality, even the enthusiasm which he brings to every job are nothing less than stellar.
He has a social security card, of sorts.
When the Mexican guy started work for the white guy, he didn’t say much but he worked really hard. Over the course of a year, the two have become friends. The Mexican, by means of his broken English and the white guy’s broken Spanish and lots of sign language and drawings on bits of paper, has shared stories of sometimes being cheated and mistreated by employers. He knows that, in the eyes of some, he is unwelcome, persona non grata, pure alien, and easily taken advantage of, despite the fact that he and ones like him were implicitly encouraged, by Americans and ostensible American policy, to come here for work in years past.
The white guy often deliberately overpays the Mexican, has had him share meals with his family and friends, and knows now that his co-worker is a widower with children and grandchildren in Mexico. Each day, at some point in the day, the white guy’s mother will drive her ATV in search of the Mexican to give him something to drink, or freshly-made cookies, a snack or ice cream if it’s summer. He calls the sweet white-headed lady “Mama.” She bought him Christmas presents and work clothes. He brings her homemade tamales. When the white guy’s brother moved overseas to do missions work in a dangerous place, the Mexican cried when he told him goodbye.

Last week, the Mexican told the white guy that he’s heard that the State might enact a tough law against Mexican workers. He’s afraid.

I really do think that the whole illegal alien issue has to be addressed. And it might call for what, to some, will seem harsh, unfair, and inhospitable. The Mexican might have to go home. But in the course of whatever conversations that debate might entail, I hope that we might remember that, on both sides of the argument, there are people, souls, real flesh and blood. And that that remembrance might make us sane and civil and kind, even when we disagree.
The problem with immigrants and aliens is that, like the Jewish girl in the harem, they are not mere abstractions, but faces and voices and stories. The problem with immigrants is that, if you ever get to know one, especially if you get to know them over shared labor, you might grow to love them and want for them every good thing. It is the kind of problem that holds the potential to make us more human, more alive, more loving, more clearly the image bearers of Him “Who watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow.”


February 20, 2011

I just got home from Longstreet an hour or so ago. …

Several years ago, when I interviewed Deacon Shorty Floyd, then 81 years old, for the “People In My Town” CD, he shared with me that he could not read. (To learn more of him, and to hear him speak and sing, see the blog for July 29, 2010.) All through our conversation, he quoted (sometimes with charming imperfection) passage after passage of scripture.
“So, Deacon Floyd, given that you can’t read, how do you now scripture so well?”
“I been going (gwan) to Longstreet Church since 1943.”
“Where is it?”
“Just ‘round the corner (konah) on 208.”
“The little brick building.”
“Can I visit y’all sometime?”
“The doors (doze) of our church is built on welcome hinges. Whosoever shall, may come.”
A few weeks later, I went to Longstreet for the first time. The building is small, small enough to fit in many of the fellowship hall’s and sanctuaries that I’ve sung in over the years. It is small and simple, but adequate.
This month, if my memory serves me correctly, makes three years since that occasion, and three years that Longstreet has been my church home. On first and third Sundays, we have only Sunday School class, from 9:45 till 11. On second Sundays, we have 8:00 a.m. service, followed by breakfast and then Sunday School. On fourth Sunday, we have Sunday School at 9:45 followed by long service that goes until about 2:00. On first and thirds, there are only about 15 or 20 people in attendance. On second and fourth, there might be 75 or a hundred.
Most of our singing is a capella and the repertoire consists of very old, simple, easy to learn songs (“let it be real, let it be real/ let it be real, Lord, let it be real/ everything I do for the Master, let it be real”. … Longstreet has rendered me woefully ignorant of the popular worship songs that get sung in most churches these days.)

Someone asked me recently why I choose to go to Longstreet. My answer goes something like this:
– In a small town, where it’s hard to do anything ‘cross cultural,’ and where the danger of defaulting to the comfortable, the predictable, and the familiar is extreme (just as it is in big cities), being a white guy in an African-American church stretches me in a healthy way. Longstreet, in some ways, helps to keep me from stagnation.
– I know how ‘white’ church feels, looks, sounds (though there is admittedly a wide divergence of expression in our congregations and denominations), and I want to learn of Jesus from ones who see Him from a somewhat different perspective. Longstreet is a new lens on the Gospel for me, largely because of the life experience of members there (especially the old ones), and much that I witness there is challenging, refreshing, and though-provoking. Don’t get me wrong; it is as flawed as any other fellowship, but it is flawed, and praiseworthy, in ways different than ‘church’ as I’ve known it for most of my life.
– Mine is a community and ours’ are churches (like communities and churches everywhere) in need of racial affection and friendship. Longstreet allows me, in a very, very small way, to be an agent of those ends. And given that black folk in our area caught the blunt end of discrimination in decades past, it just seems to me that there is an obligation and privilege on me and my kind to take steps across the divide.
– The pastor, and now good friend, Wilford Brownlee, is a gifted teacher who honors scripture, loves Christ, loves his wife and obviously cares for our small congregation. His pulpit is not a political platform or personal fiefdom, but a place for declaring the Gospel, and he does that faithfully.
– Not least, by now, the people love me and I love them. Our shared worship and laughter and stories and singing have grown into the sort of neighborliness that, it seems to me, ought always to exist among people who, despite differences, share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father.”

Apostle Paul, who could be so blunt at times in his critique of the church, seemed, nonetheless, to have an abiding gratitude for the believers he served and worked with. He had to cross a ‘dividing wall of hostility’ to reach them, but, at days end, he considered them his “glory and joy”. … Sometimes, today being one of them, I think I get a taste of how he feels.

Excoriation and Two Conversations

January 9, 2011

excoriate |ikˈskôrēˌāt| verb [ trans. ] – to formally censure or criticize severely: the papers that had been excoriating him were now lauding him.

I have been excoriated from several quarters lately for the seemingly unbreakable habit of inattention to my blog. I want to do better, really I do, but, as I’ve expressed several times before on this very site, I cannot convince myself that these random scribbles deserve anyone’s time or attention. In a nod, however, to those who’ve recently encouraged me to ‘freshen’ the site (Odette, that would be you), I offer the following. I’m not even sure of the point that I mean to make but the following captures a couple of recent conversations that make me think about dads and daughters, about fathers and children, about loving others as God loves us.

Conversation one:
I was talking recently with a high school student, a girl I’ll call Keisha, who lives in a single parent home with siblings and a wonderful, caring mother who has done a praiseworthy job of loving her children and raising them “in the way they should go” — a task, she would tell you, that takes strength and wisdom which she does not possess on her own. Keisha and I were sharing thoughts about the Christmas holiday when our conversation turned to her dad, a man who she rarely sees and who she only talks to a time or two a year, despite the fact that he lives less than a couple of hours away from her.
I asked her if she misses not having a father in her life.
She does.
Enough to tear up at the question.
She said that she misses having someone to help her make decisions.
She misses having someone come to her special events at school and celebrate holidays and birthdays with her and her siblings. She misses knowing that someone is helping her mom with all that goes into keeping a household, providing for and raising children.
She misses … a lot.
And then she added, almost as an afterthought, that she wished she had a dad to give her a ‘special nickname.’
I’ve never thought of ‘nicknaming’ as a parental duty or a child’s expectation but, in Keisha’s mind, a daddy-born term of endearment is obviously some sort of treasure lost. It is symbolic perhaps of the countless small things – the shared experiences, the unique language, the inside jokes, the quirks and habits — that make each family different from all the others, and every child seem one-of-a-kind in the eyes of their parents.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I listened to Keisha, how a dad could ever walk away from a daughter and essentially disown three children. And I wondered what their nicknames might be if their father had chosen to be part of their lives.

Conversation Two:
Last night, I had dinner with an old friend and his wife. We’ve not visited, at any length, in a couple of decades and had lots of questions of where the years have taken us. He is a well-known and much respected surgeon who is the proud, and very involved, father of three children, two sons and a daughter. She is a full-time mother and does the work necessary to run a busy household. I asked them about their children. When the dad started talking about his daughter, an eighth grader who is the youngest of the three, he simply could not find words to describe her. “It’s as if she belongs to another world.” I think he might have used the word “angel” a time or two, might have said that her feet don’t touch the ground. His praise of the girl made me want to write her a letter just to remind her how blessed she is to be the object of such a deep affection. Maybe I will.
Had I asked, I would imagine he has a nickname for her.
And while I am sure that my old friend would be quick to recognize her imperfections, they obviously do not dominate his perception of her or overshadow the good things that he believes to be true about her.
The contrast between the two girls, their dads, the realities in which they live and move, could not be more stark.
I wish Keisha had a dad who believed in nicknames and who was committed to the hard work of parenthood. For now, I pray and trust that God can and will be the Father she needs. And He calls her, and us, by names that only a doting Father would choose for His children – beloved, little one, saint, bride, friend.

A few nights ago I was tossing and turning about something, something not worthy of sleeplessness but bothersome just the same, when I began to think of how God loves me. I brought to mind some passages that remind me of how, as a loving Father, He wants good for me, always good. And as thought of those nicknames and titles that He gives to His children, so help me, the knot in my stomach eased up and sleep returned. I belong to a Father Who might well tell inquirers that, despite the spots and blemishes, His children “belong to another world.”

As the new year begins, I pray that you can hear the God of all creation, the One Who showed Himself to us fully in Jesus, “rejoicing over you with singing” and calling you by name.

Option 2

As an act of penance for taking so long to refresh my blog, I spent a considerable bit of time today writing about some things that I’ve been turning over in my mind lately. It was a brooding bit of prose which, when proofed, struck me as something that no one would want to read. So rather than inflict it on you kind souls who visit the blog from time to time, I am opting to give a very short update on life as I know it these days.

My brother Gary arrived home from Afghanistan yesterday. Niece Mary is getting married next Saturday. In the garden, turnips and beets are eating size. Charlie dog is at my feet just now hoping that I’ll toss the ball one more time. In my weekly Thursday morning reading to Mrs. Cox’s third graders, I’m halfway through The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tullane. Breezes of the last few days mean that the sweetgums and hickories are losing their leaves by the truckload.

Work goes well. I’ve been party to some thoughtful and witty conversations lately. Life in the community is rich. I got an iPad. My lower back bothers me sometimes but there’s still almost nothing I’d rather do than work outside in the afternoons. My hair is turning gray at an alarming rate. I still write a lot and cannot quite believe that music is my vocation. It is a beautiful afternoon and I’m going to take a walk with friends in just a little while. It’s all good.

In short, life continues to be a varied and wonderful smorgasbord of small jewels which, taken together, make a crown. I possess it gratefully and look forward to laying it down at Another’s feet someday.

… I hope you’re doing well. (Now wasn’t that easy?)