This little light

Sarah In My ArmsIn February of 1962, Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. Yesterday, I left a large part of mine in Birmingham, Alabama.

It is something of a rite of passage for parents my age, and I thought I was prepared for it. Turns out, not so much. Yesterday morning, I said good-bye to the first of my children to move away from home. Sarah, my bright and beautiful 18-year old daughter, is now a student at Highlands College, a wonderful ministry school that is about four hours and twenty minutes away from home. Which is four hours too far for me. When her mother and I were discussing which vehicular configuration would best get all of her stuff up there, she mentioned the three of us—Sarah, her, and me—each driving a car. “No way,” I said, with a good deal of sage wisdom. “Trust me, honey, when we leave there, you are not going to want to drive while being all weepy.” She agreed, and we only took two cars. Good thing, too. Turns out she had already done a lot of grieving for the past two months. So she drove while I cried for an hour and a half.

I know what you’re thinking, at least some of you. Those of you who have already gone through this are thinking, “Hey, I got through it, so will you. It’ll be fine. Don’t be such a baby.” To which I reply, “Well, you could have warned me a little more. Thanks for nothing.”

Then there are those of you who have yet to walk in this place. I hear you, too: “What’s the big deal? You knew this was coming. It’s the natural order. Don’t be such a baby.” And to you, I say what I almost never say to anybody about anything: “Just you wait.

And if by any chance you’re thinking, “I don’t see what’s so hard about it. I couldn’t wait for my kids to leave. Could not have happened soon enough.” All I can say to you is, “I’m happy for your kids.”

Sarah is our number two child out of four. Our oldest, Samuel, is halfway through college, but attending in Mobile and living at home. Nathaniel, almost 16, is a sophomore in high school, and Autumn, almost 11, is entering fifth grade. That makes Sarah the first to break the hometown barrier, while simultaneously breaking my heart and my bank account at the same time.

Sarah1stBirthdayDon’t get me wrong, I am so very proud of her and excited for her as she steps into this phase of her life. She has been ready for this since she was fifteen, I think. Sarah has always been mature beyond her years, and Mobile was already like a room with a low ceiling for her. She never had any interest in silly high school boys (thank you, Jesus) and she has had a real call to ministry for a long time. I didn’t really try to discourage her from ministry, but for the last few years I pulled back the curtain so that she could see more than most people see of the good and the bad of it. But every day, she just wanted more and more to give her life to seeing people set free to fall more in love with Jesus than they have ever been before.

And, in the end, that is why we have children, and that is why we let them go. It doesn’t have to be ministry, but from the moment we first see those wrinkly little fingers and our heart skips at the tremble of their bottom lips when they cry their first cry, we have dreams for them. We want them to succeed. We want them to have children of their own. We want them to love and be loved. Heck, we just want them to be nice people. And we hope, when it is all said and done, that they think we did an okay job being their parents.

I have those dreams for all of my children, and I know that as each one of them steps out of the nest that their mother and I have been building for 27 years, each of them will get their own tribute from me. But for now, I miss my Sarah. I just don’t know how to not have her in the room. She makes me laugh. I mean, really laugh. She hugs me and kisses my face. We like the same stuff. She has her mother’s smile and my eyebrows, a problem which she now corrects with makeup. She lights up any room just by walking in, and she loves God from deep in her heart, and with everything she has. I am a proud father.

SarahArtAwardAnd she is about to have so much fun. I wouldn’t trade anything for the memories I have with my college roommates. They are lifelong friends, and though we all live in different cities, if we met up today, our conversation would begin with the word “and…” Sarah is about to have that, too. Though I am always here, she is on her own, now. She will learn her own way around a whole new city. She will make new friends and find new restaurants. She might be meeting, any day now, the man who will love her for the rest of her life.  I want all of that for her, as much as I have ever wanted anything. But she has to leave to find it.

So on the long road home yesterday, I thought of a childhood song in a different way than I ever have before. When I used to sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” I thought I was singing about my own life. Turns out it isn’t about me anymore. So here’s how it goes now:

Sarah and meThis little light of mine, I’m gonna let her shine

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let her shine

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let her shine

Let her shine, let her shine, let her shine

 

Hide her under my own roof?

No.

I’m gonna let her shine.

Hide her just inside my heart?

No.

I’m gonna let her shine.

Hide her away because I miss her here?

No.

I’m gonna let her shine.

Let her shine, let her shine, let her shine.

 

Shine on, Sarah.

I love you,

Daddy

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Grace: It’s not just for salvation anymore

anita_bryant(NOTE: I’m back! After a lengthy respite from this blog, I am ready to insinuate myself into your schedules, mailboxes, and facebook timelines again. Thanks for waiting.)

In the mid 1970s, the Florida Orange Growers Association made advertising history when they paid singer Anita Bryant to utter the famous phrase: “Orange juice—it’s not just for breakfast anymore.” In the years since, the slogan has been adopted to apply to everything imaginable, so if you will indulge me, I want to add my own small twist to the pantheon of parodies.

A couple of years ago, as I was preaching through the parables of Jesus and looking at them anew through the lenses of the present reality of the Kingdom of God and the revelation of our complete acceptance as sons and daughters, I stumbled onto something that has taken me deeper into the heart of God and changed me in ways that I could not have foreseen. As I studied and preached on the parable of the old and new wineskins, I finally saw it in its true meaning: you cannot combine the Law and Grace. (I won’t copy and paste it here, but you can read about that in my blog posted on July 21, 2011 called “Careful With That Wine.”)

Since then, my world has been proverbially rocked. I have seen the message of grace and I cannot un-see it. And once you see the greatness of God’s goodness, the unsurpassable sufficiency of Christ’s finished work on the cross, the immeasurable width, depth and height of the Father’s unquenchable love for His sons and daughters, there really is only one response—you can breathe again.

You see, this grace, this freely given love, isn’t just for salvation anymore. God did not limit His love, bought for us by the sacrifice of His Son, to a “just enough” allotment for you to be born again. You didn’t use up your allowance when you gave your life to Christ. That was only the first breath in a new atmosphere, and now God’s intention is for you to breathe this air of His love every moment for the rest of your life. It is this air of the continuous, unbroken love of God for you—again, paid for by Jesus—that makes you live.

Let me see if I can put it another way: there is no other way to be spiritually alive, engaged in a vital relationship with God, than through the gift of God’s grace that not only saved you, but is flowing into you and over you right now, even as you read these words. You cannot relate to God through the Law any longer. You can’t go back and breathe the old air, and why would you want to? The Old Covenant has been fulfilled. The New Covenant has come, and the Scriptures declare that it is better than the old one. What that means is that your performance is no longer the issue in relating to God. Jesus has performed for you, perfectly. So perfectly, that your performance—your discipline, your faithfulness, even your obedience—cannot raise your estimation in God’s sight by even a smidgen, as my grandmother might say. That, my friends, is the good news of the Gospel. Jesus has done it all.

Now, I know very well all of the questions that this kind of statement begs. And we will get to them. But before all of that, do you think you can just sit back and believe the unbelievable for a little while? Can you dare to believe that the good news really is that good?

Let me repeat it one more time: Grace—it’s not just for salvation anymore. In fact, it never was.

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An Open Letter to the Deeper Life Family

Dear Deeper Life Church Family,

As you may already know from news reports, one of our young families is struggling. Alicia Gray, a teacher at Mary G. Montgomery High School, has been charged with having an inappropriate relationship with a student. She presented herself to the authorities yesterday afternoon with her husband, Chris, was released on bond, and is spending time with Chris and their baby, Claire. The investigation into the allegations is continuing.

This is a crucial time for the Grays and for our church family. Alicia’s guilt or innocence in this situation is not the factor that determines our love for her and her family. Please hear me clearly in this: no matter how the investigation ends, and no matter to what degree Alicia’s guilt or innocence is proven, at Deeper Life Fellowship we have heard a sound, and we will gladly and unashamedly proclaim that sound to the Gray family. It is the sound of grace, forgiveness, healing, and restoration. We support Alicia no matter what because we love her. We also extend the same heart of God to the young man involved, and his family—grace, forgiveness, healing, and restoration.

And so we stand alongside Chris, Alicia, and Claire. We need not be convinced of her innocence because it is not necessary in order to love her with everything we are. It is our place as the Gray’s church family—brothers and sisters all—to remind them that they are not alone. They have not been nor will they be forsaken. We will pray for them, we will encourage them, and we will watch as our God once again demonstrates that there is nowhere we can find ourselves, where He is not there.  Where there is sin, there is always more grace than sin. Where there is innocence, there is an awareness that it is only the Holy Spirit in us who causes us to live lives that are holy and godly. In both of those realities, it is, and always will be, grace by which we stand.

As it becomes more evident how we can practically walk with the Gray family through this, I will certainly update you. For now, please just pray for them. Pray for these things: grace, forgiveness, healing, and restoration.

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A Merry Little Christmas

tree picI come by my love of Christmas music honestly.  When I was a little boy, the Christmas season would officially begin when my mother brought out the albums that had been tucked away the rest of the year. There was the quiet whisper of cardboard as the vinyl discs were slid from their jackets, and my anticipation mounted when she would put the whole stack on the spindle inside the big console stereo. The feeder arm swung over, ratcheted down to the top record, the bottom one dropped and slapped softly onto the turntable, and the slender arm moved smoothly over to set its needle down with a slight pop onto the first track. And the atmosphere changed. Dennis Day sang “O Holy Night” in a clear Irish tenor. Bing Crosby crooned “Silver Bells” in a smooth Irish baritone. But my favorite, then and now, was when Perry Como proclaimed “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” All my life, it has made me want to head for Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie, even though from Pennsylvania, folks are traveling to where I already live, which is Dixie’s sunny shore.

And while the music played, the decorating would commence. Out came the Nativity scene; the artificial front door wreath with the painted flocking; the blue mesh/net miniature tree made and given by Mrs. Miles, across the street; candles, ornaments, lights, centerpieces. One year, I drew, colored, and cut out a number of Rudolph heads that I was then allowed to tape to the inside of the front windows. I am forced to admit, though, that no Christmas accoutrement stirred a thrill in me more than the sight of the Christmas candy platters and trays. When those hit the counter, I knew that very soon, brownies with almond extract would be melting in my mouth, followed quickly by divinity, chocolate chip cookies, and, as God is my witness, potato candy. It’s made with potatoes. And peanut butter.  And sugar. Lots of sugar.

In the weeks that followed, gifts would begin to accumulate under the Christmas tree in the living room. My favorite place became sitting under that tree as the daylight faded to dark blue outside, tree lights on, end table lamps off, branches filling the air with pine, Andy Williams filling the air with carols, as I looked for the tags with my name on them. Sift through, find one, pick it up, gently shake, listen. Maybe even sniff the box. No clue. Just as it should be.

When Christmas Eve finally arrived, we would be allowed to open one gift, and only one. And it had to be a sort of second tier gift, from an aunt or uncle or someone else who wasn’t going to be there tomorrow morning anyway. That was fine with us, though. A gift is a gift, and this one’s purpose was just to whet our appetites for whatever else may lie in wait under the tree. Or better yet, the things that weren’t even under there yet, but would appear out of nowhere while we slept. Then we would break out the little Christmas Carol songbooks with pictures of crewcut boys and Mary Jane shod girls on the covers with mouths open wide, and then, all seven of us would sing, and we’d sing, and we’d sing, sing, sing, sing! And when bedtime finally came, I wondered, every year, how I would ever go to sleep. But sleep, always, would find me.

And on all the Christmas mornings of my childhood, when all five children would run down the stairs before the light appeared outside, we would look for the sign with our name on it, designating which pile of treasures we knew would belong to us, and us alone. Mark, mine would read, and it might be taped to an Indian headdress or perched tent-like on top of a drum. Before very long, amid the noise, all the noise, oh the noise, noise, noise, noise, Mom and Dad would walk down the stairs and enter the chaos, wearing pink quilted and flannel robes respectively, along with knowing smiles of secrets revealed and a mission completed.

Of course, Dad would be armed with a Super 8 movie camera and what we affectionately referred to as “airplane lights.” We had no doubt whatsoever that the two rows of bulbs that extended about a foot from either side of the camera could be used to signal any aircraft at any altitude and direct them safely to the ground. In all of our home movies, it’s difficult to tell who is really in them, because most shots are of hands shielding faces from cornea-melting beams of white hot intensity. I’m just assuming that those people are actually my family. The film processors could probably get everyone’s Christmas morning home movies completely switched up and no one would ever know, as long as every father had camera lights like that.

My Mom spends Christmas in heaven now, and my own kids are growing more quickly than I had expected, but when I hear Dennis Day, or Perry Como, or now the songs that I have shared with my wife and children- “Christmas Time is Here” by MercyMe, or Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas/Sarajevo 12/24”- all the magic of every Christmas I have seen accumulates in my heart. And I hope—no, I am certain—that one day, my children will tell their children about the goofy songs I liked at Christmas. Or how much I loved “Christmas in Connecticut.” Or how much I loved their mother. And maybe they will know how full my heart was every morning of the year, just to be their father. And maybe, one day, they will see on my face, as I step away from this life, that same knowing smile of secrets revealed and a mission completed.

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Ordinary Hero

A couple of months ago, it was my privilege to be invited to the 90th birthday celebration of a man whom most of you will never know. He is gentle, articulate, and insightful. He served as a gunner and an Army chaplain in World War II, a pastor after the war, and a missionary after that. He was married more than 60 years to his only love before she went to be with the Lord last year. His name is John Dodd, and he is a hero in the Kingdom of God.

I first met John Dodd as an 8-year-old boy. At that time, in 1969, he was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Tillman’s Corner. On the evening of Saturday, December 6, the Lord was dealing with my heart and drawing me to Him, and my Dad knelt with me beside his bed, and prayed with me as I gave my heart to Christ. The next morning, it was my turn to do what I had seen my siblings and others do already—I had to walk the aisle. Brother Dodd finished his sermon, stepped down to the head of the center aisle, and stood in front of the pulpit. I eased one foot out of the pew and started toward him. I knew that all eyes were on me, and I had never done anything this public in my short and uneventful life. I felt like I was moving underwater. I glanced up and saw Brother Dodd’s kind face, though, and so I kept moving. Of course he already knew why I was coming, but he took my hand, smiled at me, and asked me to tell him what had happened in my heart.

I don’t remember what I told him, but I knew without a doubt that I had been forgiven of my sins, and I have never doubted it since. The whole experience of being saved, though, had shaken me. As I talked with my pastor, I began to weep. It is interesting to me now, though, that weeping is still the most prevalent demonstration of the touch of God on my life.  It is not uncommon for me to choke up during any song that proclaims the gospel, and I usually finish the song in silence and tears. There was even one stretch of eighteen months when I couldn’t get through preaching a single sermon without weeping. I remember, though, that bright and cold December morning, as I wept in lingering repentance, and over the knowledge that I had been rescued by the mercy of God from a life and eternity without Him. John Dodd put his arm around my shoulder, drew me in close, and said, “Don’t cry, son. Today is a happy day!” I can still hear him whispering that in my ear as if he said it this morning. It helped set the tone for all that would come. My new life in Christ was to be celebrated. Shame and guilt were gone, hope and joy had moved in.  “Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul.”

A few months later, a special Sunday arrived at the Wyatt home—Brother Dodd and his family were coming to our house for dinner after church. You have to understand, in the Deep South of the 1960s, this was still a very big deal, to have the Preacher sit at your table and share a meal in your home. So, on that day, the Dodds met us at our house.

We walked in, and like every Sunday, the air of every room was saturated with the warm aroma of a roast in the oven, a roast that had been cooking while we were Sunday schooling, hymn singing, choir listening, tithe giving, sermon hearing, and hand shaking. Soon, the scent of baking biscuits would join the fragrant symphony even as green beans were heated on the stovetop and potatoes readied themselves for mashing.

While this orchestra was being tuned, my brothers and I ran up and down the two flights of stairs that connected the basement/den to the main floor/living room, and then around a sharp corner to ascend to the upstairs bedrooms. On one such run, I was speeding up from the basement, fleeing from my brother Rick, who was a deadly shot with the string bow and the suction-tipped arrow that was now pointed at my back from the bottom of the stairs. Once, he shot our little dog with it and pulled a circle of hair off of its hide. Pepper had a bald spot for a month. I was not about to let that happen to me.

Without looking behind me, I could feel the arrow streaking up the stairs, homing in on the back of my crew-cut head. The instant my right foot hit the living room floor, I pivoted to the right to keep running up to the next floor. The very second that I turned my shoulders, I heard and felt the arrow whistle past me.  Unfortunately, sitting directly across the room from that doorway, John Dodd sat on our couch, contentedly reading the Sunday paper– directly in the flight path of the incoming arrow. It would, undoubtedly, slap into his shiny bald pate and affix itself to his forehead with the smack of a high velocity elf-size toilet plunger. He never saw it coming. And yet, the Lord was with him. The very second before impact, Brother Dodd bent over to pick up a section of the newspaper from the floor. The arrow sliced the air above him and smashed into a picture on the wall, right where his head had been, showering bits of glass on the back of the couch. Unhurt, and thankful to have been spared a mark that some would have certainly interpreted as the Sign of the Beast, John Dodd smiled, helped clean it up, and Sunday dinner with the Preacher successfully concluded an hour or so later.

The next year, my family moved to a different part of the city, and we said goodbye to our friends at First Baptist Tillman’s Corner. A year after that, Brother Dodd invited a team of missionaries to come and speak, hoping that someone would sense the Lord’s calling to serve on the mission field. And someone did. Soon after, John and his wife, Norma, moved to Liberia, North Africa, to preach the gospel. He was almost 50 years old.

After a number of years in Liberia, they went on to minister in Kenya, where they founded and built a Bible College that thrives today. When I reconnected with John about four years ago, he was about to go back to Kenya to help them connect the electricity and prepare the building for a second story to be added. He was 87 then.

John Dodd’s family had been well-known in our city for years as the owners of one of the most popular nurseries. Years ago, the family business was sold and the siblings went their separate ways, and John now lives in the little house that once served as the nurery’s offices. He told me once that when he goes around town, people talk to him as if he is rich from the sale of that family business.

“But I’m not,” he said. “And then I show them where all my money from my inheritance went.” And he handed me a few simple pictures of a cinder block building set in the tall grass of the savannah, with classrooms down the side and scrub trees behind it. It is the Kenya Bible College. And he smiles like a rich man.

Norma spent her last years in an assisted living facility. Alzheimer’s had taken its toll on her, and she barely remembered or recognized anyone from one encounter to the next, though she could still surprise you sometimes.  John had served in Italy during World War II, and his Italian name had become a term of endearment between the two of them. One day, about a year before she passed away, John walked into her room and she smiled up at him, and said with love what he had not heard in years: “Giovanni!”

He was there to hear it that day because he was there every day. He would drive all the way across town, even as his eyesight was failing him, to be at her side. He arrived every morning at 5:30 AM, and stayed until after she fell asleep in the afternoon. And on Sundays, he would go get her and bring her to worship with us.

When he returned from his last trip to Africa, John called me and asked about Deeper Life Fellowship, where I pastor. The next Sunday, they came in, John pushing Norma lovingly in her wheelchair. Though the Alzheimer’s was advancing, Norma smiled and sang and clapped better than any of us. And I became my pastor’s pastor. They continued to come, every Sunday, rain or shine, where they sat on the very front row.

This worried me a little, at first, because our worship style is very contemporary, and I know that the volume can be a little loud for some of our older folks, including me, sometimes. Without my prompting, though, John addressed my concerns. This 88-year-old man said, “Do you know one of the reasons we like your church so much?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because Norma and I can actually hear the music!”

So now, when people tell me the music is too loud, I think of John Dodd. And I just tell them they’re not old enough yet.

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A Dad in Summer

For at least that one week, we had him all to ourselves. Every Monday through Friday, Dad was designing bridges, buildings, and who knew what else for the Corps of Engineers all day long, but for one week and two whole weekends—one on either side of it— he was ours. As soon as school was out and summer was in, the family car was loaded and all seven of us would pile in for the four hour drive to Lake Martin. In the early years, it was the white station wagon with blue vinyl interior, but later it was the wide, yellow Ford LTD Galaxy 500 sedan. Except for that first summer when the LTD was brand new, and my mother backed into a fire hydrant in the Shopper’s Fair parking lot after buying supplies for our vacation, which was to take place in our brand new car the next day. The car was creamed. Back to the white station wagon that year.

I liked traveling in both cars for different reasons. In the LTD, as the youngest and smallest of five children, I got to ride curled up in the back window. If I saw that today, I would call the police. In the station wagon it was cool to sit in the rear-facing jump seats and make faces at the people behind us. But when we took that car on vacation, the back was packed, so the only place I could stretch out was in the floorboard, among my siblings’ dangling feet. That was okay, too, once you got used to the hump. And the places where the front seatbelts were bolted to the hump. Man, you had to watch out for those. I think I still have a tattoo branded on my hip from the scalding metal.

It was all worth it, though, because in four short hours, my father would manifest his one magic power. Somehow, he knew, every year, when we were exactly ten beats away from our destination. “10, 9, 8, 7…” and when he got to zero, we would turn off the main road and onto the long driveway to the cabin. We knew we had arrived, as we passed the little arrow-shaped sign that said “Whispering Pines,” and heard the welcoming crunch of the large, smooth rocks that filled the two tire ruts, down a gentle hill, up another, curving to the right, turning left, to pull up at the door. After the unpacking and bladder relieving, our week on the water commenced.

Every year, I counted the number of boards on the pier, from the shore to the plywood deck at the end with the green canvas rope that served as some kind of rail, although I can’t remember for the life of me what that number always was. What I do remember was how I stepped faster at the end because my feet were burning. We jumped a thousand times into the deep, green water from that pier each day, and floated inside enormous truck tire innertubes for hours on end, continually splashing cool water on the black rubber and trying not to get impaled by the three-inch long valve stem that always seemed to find its way around to your back.

But no matter how much fun the five of us kids were having, the excitement level went up when Mom and Dad came down to the pier. Mom would slather Coppertone over everyone again, but I think it was just fragranced hand lotion in a Coppertone bottle, because we all got sunburned just the same. Then Dad would dive in, and it seemed the most perfect dive ever performed. Granted it was only two feet from the edge of the pier into the water, but there was always so little splash that we figured that our father had a secret history of Olympic diving achievements that he just never told us about out of modesty.

During that week each summer, we would be awakened before dawn to motor away to the best fishing spots, and we would come back in a few hours to the smell of breakfast. After a few hours of swimming, we walked to Real Island Marina for Chocolate Snaps and Yoo-Hoos and Coke in glass bottles. When it rained, we laid on the bunk beds on the screened-in porch and watched it move across the lake like a curtain. On at least one afternoon, sometimes more, it was our job to assist with the homemade ice cream by one of us sitting on the freezer while Dad turned the crank, stopping periodically to smash up a frozen milk carton of ice with the side of a hammer. On other afternoons it was our grown up thrill to shoot his .22 pistol at cans on the hillside, or to unload a million BBs into ketchup bottles at the dump. At night, we fried the fish caught during the day, and caught lightning bugs in a jar as the starlit lake lapped against the shore. Then, back upstairs in the cabin, we played every kind of game imaginable—card games, board games, push-your-arms-into-the-doorframe-as-hard-as-you-can-for-thirty-seconds-and-watch-them-float-upward kind of games. My favorite of those was one night when I was about 6 years old. I was blindfolded and told that I was going to take a magic carpet ride. My siblings sat me on a wide, sturdy board and flew me around the room, until I bumped my head on the ceiling, which was actually just a dictionary that one of them held just above my head. For years I was convinced I had flown.

It has only recently occurred to me that those times at Lake Martin were only seven or eight days long, but when I talk about it, I find myself telling people that I “spent my boyhood summers” on the Lake. Today, my most powerful memories of summer swirl around that time and place; the fragrant pines, the fresh, clean smell of the lake, the distant thrum of other boats, the small splash of a perfect dive, the night songs of a hundred frogs, the Carpenters, Bread, and Seals and Croft rising from the tinny speakers of a Panasonic portable tape recorder on a gloriously hot afternoon on the pier. And I know the reason why my memories stay tethered there. Because that was where we were all together. My mother has since passed away, we all now have families of our own, and the cabin was sold years ago.

And now I am a Dad in Summer. A few days ago, I taught my daughter how to ride a bike in a local park. A few weeks ago, we had homemade ice cream at my brother’s house, and nobody had to sit on the freezer. My wife and children and I spent a week in a house at Gulf Shores, where there is a store that smells just like Real Island Marina and sells Yoo-Hoos and Coke in glass bottles. During the day, we swim together, and at night we watch the sunset, cook fish, and play all kinds of games. And we are all together.

The last time I was near the Lake, I took my family to see where my summers had been made. I counted down from 10 and turned off the main road, and heard the crunch of rocks under the tires. The “Whispering Pines” sign is long gone, but I followed the drive down the hill, up another, right, then left. I could hardly see the house behind the overgrowth. It sat, solitary and neglected and I noticed that part of the roof had caved in. It was the same roof, I remember, that I bumped my head on one night when I took a magic carpet ride. And somewhere, on a warm summer evening, that house is still there, with the lingering smell of supper, laughter ringing against the walls, and the easy comfort of nowhere else to be. It is there, in my childhood, where we are all still together.

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The Roman Candle Incident

We had been married only seconds, still standing at the front of the church, when I, the newly minted husband, said the first two words of my married life to my beautiful new bride: “Shut up.”

Now, it must be explained that “shut up” was not and is not a phrase that I have ever said lightly or regularly. It was not allowed in my family when I was growing up, nor is it allowed in my home now. Still, that didn’t stop me from using the phrase like a bottle smashed on the hull of my marriage as it steamed away from the dock.

June 14, 1986, dawned as a beautiful, if typically hot day on the Gulf Coast. It would be a bright and sunny Saturday, perfect for a wedding. Mary Ann and I had been dating for only a year, but we both knew that we wanted to stay together, to share whatever would be the rest of our lives. And so, all morning, all the normal about-to-get-married thoughts paraded through my head: this is the last time I’ll wake up as a single man. This is the last breakfast I’ll eat as a single man. This is the last time I’ll put on deodorant as a single man. Those kinds of things.

Our wedding was to be at 4:00 in the afternoon, in the chapel of Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. All the necessary preparations had been made, so I donned my tuxedo with a gray morning jacket and striped ascot, and waited. I had arrived at the church about an hour early in order to have all the pre-wedding pictures taken. I had already been in at least half a dozen weddings, so I knew how it went. All the groomsmen (I only had one plus a couple of ushers) would be gathered in a room for various poses, then the bridesmaids (again, just one), then the groom, then the bride, all while keeping the future husband and wife from seeing each other. Honestly, I had been looking forward to this little photo shoot for a long time.

So, it came as a surprise to me when, at 3:45, the professional photographer we had hired had yet to show. Finally, at 3:55, a young woman arrives, looking like she wasn’t quite sure what a photographer is supposed to do. That was compounded when she said it looked like she had forgotten batteries. Or film. Maybe the camera, I don’t really remember, but I do remember thinking we were going to end up without even a Polaroid of the entire event. Luckily, Mary Ann’s cousin had brought his camera, and he volunteered to shoot from the balcony to supplement whatever the “photographer” might get. Fine. Let’s just get on with it.

Four o’clock sharp. Organ music. Candles. Processional. And, standing at the altar, I look up and I see the most beautiful girl that has ever appeared on the earth, and she is gliding down the aisle toward me. My mother is beaming. Her father is crying. He’s weeping, actually, and it occurs to me that he might not be so happy about this whole arrangement, but I just chalk it up to the whole father/daughter thing.

And the ceremony is beautiful. Guitar music. Family. Friends. Rings, vows, prayers. It all comes off as smoothly as might be expected. Until the candle. We have promised our love, glided down the two steps to the unity candelabra, where we will each take our previously lit candle, join them at the one in the middle to start a new flame, and return our individual candles to their holders. Simple enough. Mary Ann, with the perfect grace of an elegant bride, pulls her candle out of its holder and starts going for the top. I pull gently on my candle, and– it’s stuck. So, of course, I do what you always do when a candle is seated too firmly in its place. I twist it.

Now, without drawing a schematic diagram, let me share with you what I did not know in that moment. I didn’t know that the candles we were using were dripless candles. The part that looks like a candle is actually just a plastic sheath that slides down over a spring loaded metal cylinder that pushes a column of wax up to the hole in the top of the sheath as it burns. Again, this is information that I did not have available to me at the time. What might have been more important to know is that the whole devious contraption is held together by a couple of twist-together gaskets at the very bottom of it. Where, as you might guess, it sits in the holder. So, what you really don’t want to do, is to try to remove this particular kind of candle from a candle holder by twisting it.

Finally, after twisting what I don’t know I shouldn’t twist, I yank my candle out of its place, the great force of which causes the flame to go out. But I’m smooth. I veer my sad, empty wick over toward where Mary Ann’s bright fire is heading up to the top candle, I relight from hers, and everything is wonderful. Together, we light the middle one, blow ours out, and we each return them to their respective places. And now, the extent of my ignorance of the dripless design begins to manifest. I was blissfully unaware that as I held it in my hand, it had already come apart at the little twisty gaskets in the bottom. So, I gently pressed it into its holder, and as I take my hand away, it—well, it bounces a little. After a couple of those bounces, it begins to fall off the stand. So, I do the only thing I know to do. I push it into the holder as hard as I can.

And that, it turns out, initiates the launch sequence. When I remove my hand, the whole spring-loaded projectile rockets into the air, and I can still see it as I did that day, in all its slow-motion splendor. The first- and second- stage separations are beautiful, as cylinders of wax and metal tumble through the air in a ballet that would have made NASA proud. Then, as the elements tumble back toward earth, I am propelled back to the reality of what is actually going on here. I instinctively reach out and catch what pieces I can in mid-air, as other parts plunk to the carpet. My back is still to the congregation. I hand what candle detritus I could salvage to the friend/usher unlucky enough to be standing next to me. And I actually think these words: “I bet, if I act nonchalant, nobody will have noticed.”

My bride and I spin smoothly around to be presented to the audience, and the horror dawns. I think they noticed. I can’t see my mother. She is supposed to be right there, on the second row, but she’s gone. We have a picture, though, from the balcony, where you can just make out my sweet little mother literally almost on the floor under the pew, laughing and trying to breathe.

The pastor isn’t saying anything. He is supposed to be presenting us. The organ isn’t playing. And I look to my left, where my new wife is hooked into my left arm, to see if she is okay. And, much like my mother, she isn’t there. I mean, she is, but I can’t see her. She is completely doubled over in laughter, shaking, her face to the ground. It is at this point that I elbow her and utter my first words as a husband: “Shut up!”

Mary Ann, my beautiful Mary Ann, stands up straight and promptly puts her bouquet of flowers right in front of her face, still laughing and shaking. Finally, the pastor starts to present us as a new couple, husband and wife, and halfway through our name, he loses his composure and bursts into his own laughing fit. The organ still has not played, but the roar of laughter and applause is the music to which we march down the aisle into our brand new life.

After the ceremony, I received the most important word of encouragement and promise that has ever been given to me. My brother, who was trying to fight his way through a difficult, troubled marriage, came to me, smiled, and said this: “If you can start your marriage laughing, you can get through anything.”

He was right. And today, 26 years later, the laughter hasn’t stopped yet.

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