56, too early

The text message showed up on the evening of Saturday, November 23. Unfortunately, the words were a sad, out of the blue jolt. 

Back in the summer, a nice young couple, Phillip and Rachel, moved into the house beside us on our west side.  The text reported that Phillip’s mother had died.

She was 56. We all know this was way too early to jump up above. 

Yet, life has a way of giving us these unpredictable, unwanted, unfair intrusions, and those of us who are still hanging around have one question—why?

It is a small world. A few years ago, Phillip, his mother, younger siblings, and stepfather lived in the house beside us on our east side.

To make the world even smaller, our son and his wife purchased their first house from Phillip and his wife this past summer too.

We had lost track of Phillip when he graduated from high school. Eventually, his family moved out from next door.

I remember when Phillip was scouting the house on our west side that he wanted to purchase. He brought his mother by to take a look at it.

 I hadn’t seen Phillip and his mother in years. But, I could sense right away Phillip’s passion for returning to the neighborhood, and this was despite my gentle warning that the house would need lots of work. At the same time, I picked up his mother’s wholehearted support of him in the pursuit of the house.

Phillip’s zeal worked, their proposal was accepted. Throughout the summer and into the early fall—a flurry of frenzied activity took place just about every day. The house was being transformed in and out, and on some of those days—Phillip’s mother was present. 

Her presence was both physical and emotional support. Remodeling a tired house can wear a person down, and I suspect Phillip’s mother was just the right cheerleader in some of those moments.

The memorial service for Phillip’s mother took place on Tuesday, November 26. My wife and I planned to attend.

On Monday afternoon, I saw Phillip for just a minute as he was talking with another neighbor at the end of his driveway. I wanted to let him know that if he and Rachel needed anything, all they had to do was just call or knock on our door. While conversing with our neighbor, Phillip was full of tears and emotions. I knew Tuesday’s  memorial service would be tough for him and the family.

The afternoon of November 26 was a bonus day with the weather. A mild temperature, soft blue sky, and patches of color from the annual changing of the leaves filled out the landscape along Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

Inside the Sanctuary, the magnificent old wooden pews filled quickly. This was our first visit to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

The memorial service was constructed around eulogies, hymns, Episcopal liturgy, scripture, a homily, and communion.

I always admire when a family finds the courage to share their stories about a lost loved one. Those stories come straight from their hearts. And, I’ll go ahead and say, sometimes those insights are more powerful than the words of the presiding pastor.

For this service, there were three eulogists. 

Each was special, but Phillip’s words about his mother were as stunningly beautiful as his mother. Between his tears, quick gasps to catch a breath, and tiny pauses to attempt to steady himself, Phillip delivered an unforgettable tribute to his mother. It was the perfect blend of raw emotions, stories, and humor.

He captured everything about her. But, most important were the life lessons she shared with him. Those difficult lessons, those motherly conversations, her perspectives stuck to him. Clearly, Phillip was molded and shaped by her. I am certain those essential character guides for life will never depart him. 

In the homily, the pastor basically acknowledged he could not equal the words from the eulogists. But to his credit, he did two things exceptionally well. 

He carefully explained the communion protocols, and made clear that everyone— no matter our religious convictions was welcome to participate. 

And then at the very end of the service, the pastor thanked everyone in attendance. He noted this packed Sanctuary was a real tribute to Phillip’s mother and her family. Love had prevailed.

As long as I live, I will forever remember the closing sentence in his mother’s obituary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It stated:  “In memory of Cathleen, her family would be honored if you would be kind to someone who needs it.”

With Thanksgiving in my rearview mirror, and Christmas barreling down on me there could not be a more timely reminder. 

I just wonder how much better I might become as a person if I looked to be kind to someone in need beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Clearly, I need to go and find out.

How about you?

No Business Going

On the morning of July 4, 2019, our neighbor, Barbara Teague, my wife, and I were headed to Lottsburg, Virginia.

Lottsburg is barely a dot on a Virginia map. It is located in Northumberland County up on Virginia’s beautiful Northern Neck.

We had been invited to the getaway home of Jay and David Miller to celebrate the Fourth of July. Barbara’s husband David was helping their youngest daughter and her husband with a cross country drive for a career move to California.

I had no business going to Lottsburg. My internal whine—I had too much to do. Around the house chores, and assorted distractions from my work assignments for my church and local school board were my excuses.

The last time we had traveled to Lottsburg was on a beautiful October Saturday. 

It was for the wedding of Jay and David. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a happier couple. Jay was beautiful. She beamed like that October sun. And David was handsome. His eyes sparkled like the sun reflecting off the waterfront Coan River in their backyard.

In truth, curiosity was quietly nudging me to make this trip. I had seen this section of the Northern Neck in its autumn splendor. I wondered how summer might transform its landscape.

Our drive was uneventful. Barbara is a good driver. Traffic was light.

The small towns and communities along the way were still in place. Some of their appearances were geared toward encouraging consumers to make seasonal summer purchases.

 Plots of land, farmed for generations were in their green mode. I’m guessing the farmers are hoping all of nature’s unpredictable conditions will conspire favorably upon their hard work and yield a bountiful harvest.

I sense the pace out here is slower. That would definitely be the case if you were traveling behind large farm equipment on a two-lane byway. But,  I can see why Jay and David were drawn to this remote quietness and less hectic commotion. 

Well, we arrived. Jay and David greeted us, and quickly introduced us to one of Jay’s childhood friends. She was here with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend.

Since the wedding, Jay and David had been busy with assorted projects for the house. One project was significant.

 A garage/storage building had been converted into a guest cottage. I could see Jay and David’s touches in the finished product. The space is now useful and comfortable. If they chose to showcase these improvements, Southern Living magazine would be the perfect place for this repurposing story.

Quite a spread was offered for lunch. After lunch, we eventually found our ways to the dock area and the converging waters of the Potomac River, the Coan River, and the Chesapeake Bay. 

Assorted water toys were available for floating. The water was just the right temperature for a tepid old man. A soft, sandy bottom was a perfect cushion for exploring. There was conversation bouncing off the water, and we kept our eyes on the sky too.

The sun peeked in and out, clouds gathered and departed. Rain looked like a certainty, but it truly never intruded.

As the afternoon moved on, we each found our spots for independence. In this peacefulness, Jay and David were working toward the dinner plans. David had a critical assignment—the making of homemade ice cream. 

A screened in porch off the back of the house was a good spot for chatting and prior to dinner, there was lots of chatter.

Everything about dinner worked to satisfy our appetites, and we all know that only a fool would turn down homemade ice cream on a muggy summer evening. The ice cream was perfect. It would quiet any craving sweet tooth.

Real estate agents preach—“location, location, location”—well, this evening we were in a perfect location for fireworks. As darkness continued to encroach, our eyes were drawn to the sky. No matter where we scanned north, east, west we saw fireworks. Even the next door neighbors provided a show too.

Those distant pops and booms of sparkling, glittering colors shimmered in the sky. Propelled to their optimum height, the hues and shades glimmered as they exploded into the thick, smoky air. 

Those choreographed images, brought satisfaction to the admirers back on earth. We were dazzled by the hang time of the fireworks before the embers streaked downward slowly burning out.

 And the finales were just what they should have been. 

Chaos ignited in rapid fire, sustained bursts, spewing a palette of colors into the darkness, and capturing wonder for all observers. And then, no matter where we looked, the shows were over. 

Selfishly, I thought to myself, I’m sitting on this back porch, no crowds and traffic to battle to get home. I could get use to this.

All that watching of fireworks can wear a person down, and my old body was asking for some sleep. 

On Friday morning, David and I were up early. We were driving back to Richmond. David had an important assignment. He was picking up their grandson to take back to Lottsburg. I was going home to mess with all of those things that were going to be my excuse for not traveling to Lottsburg.

David and I attempted to solve the world’s problems on the ride back. We weren’t successful. 

Last night taking in all of those firework displays made me think about freedom. I wonder if I really understand how lucky I have been in my 66 years of living. I wonder if I truly comprehend how much of what I enjoy pivots off the sacrifice and work of others. People who somehow never stopped pursuing freedom for our country.

Our country is in turmoil in so many ways. I wonder how much of our current struggles might be related to our loss of appreciation for freedom. I know at times, I am guilty,  I take freedom for granted. 

Taking freedom for granted isn’t acceptable. By doing this, I silence my voice. I prevent myself from the potential to make a difference in an American’s life who hasn’t experienced freedom.

I don’t think our forefathers want me to take freedom for granted. 

That stance only weakens the future. 

Every new sunrise brings hope.

In that hope is opportunity.

The question for me is how will I use that opportunity to advance freedom for those who haven’t had my path of privilege?

Clearly, I have no business pushing that opportunity to the side.

"Just Calm Down"

It was good advice. 

I heard the wife say to her husband “just calm down.” They were leaving the aisles of the electrical department in a big box hardware store on a fall Sunday afternoon.

Since October, we have been moving into the time of the year when retailers work consumers into a frenzy.

Days before Halloween, some ginormous retailers without a blink rollout their Christmas displays. This move agitates me. I must remember “just calm down.”

Next, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, advertising related to Christmas shopping is popping up on television. My old brain senses these ads are running much earlier.

 By the time Christmas arrives, these ads will have a repetitive nuisance factor like political ads. This pre-Christmas advertising will make me bonkers. Thank goodness for the mute button on the remote control. “Just calm down.”

Early in November, my wife told me that a local radio station had started playing Christmas music. I love Christmas music, but it was November. I even heard Christmas music being played in the big box hardware store. Now for sure, I am approaching the edge of madness. “Just calm down.”

This early rushing of Christmas drives me crazy. Why all of this rush, rush, rush to thrust Christmas upon us? 

I know the answer, it is all about sales, sales, sales. 

Even at our church the staff is jostled into a somewhat controlled chaos. Planning Advent and Christmas events, some new, some traditional is coming down to the final details. 

Will we be ready? What is our communication plan? Can we give some of those very predictable Advent and Christmas traditions a new twist, a new angle? Can we offer something for everyone?

We started work on our Advent devotional book in the middle of the summer. 

You know Richmond summers— 90 plus degree days are common. Bermuda highs lock down off the North Carolina coast holding the heat in place. The humidity created is as miserable as a combination of Scrooge and the Grinch. Why don’t we work on this book in the middle of winter instead?

Why does this pre-Christmas lunacy do this to me?

The answer is quite simple—I let it.

Every Christmas, I am internally very well intentioned in my self-talk. But, I let the beast, the noise, the roar consume me. I fail.

I wonder what God thinks about all of this hoopla? 

I wonder if he is able to “just calm down”?