Holding Hands and Letting Go (Close to Home – Part II)

The taxi pulled up to Hampden Dubose Academy in Mount Dora, Florida. George was nervous as he jumped out and prepared to execute his surprise visit on Frances. He hoped to lie low and not create a big stir among the tight knit staff and students as he called on her.

It wasn’t that he needed to be nervous exactly…since their chance meeting during his first furlough back to the states, they had been writing.

Frances had been teaching at Hampden Dubose Academy for seven years; and while the ministry to Christian children of missionaries had its joys (including time teaching students such as Elizabeth Elliott); her family said (perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek) that the long hours and no pay had turned into borderline slave labor and nunnery. Her family encouraged George to “get her out of there;” and George’s sister (who had been roommates with Frances at Wheaton) offered helpful hints along the way. The families seemed to be all for the union.

In addition, not being big on suspense he had written her before leaving on this second furlough and asked her to marry him and she has said yes. So this surprise was just…well…the fact that he was there. And the ring, of course.

But it turned out to be George that got the surprise at Hampden Dubose. Or rather, he learned there is no such thing as surprises at Hampden Dubose. The first girl he saw offered to help George find Frances. But, unbeknownst to him, she was the headmasters’ daughter and tipped off both Frances and her parents that he was there before he even found her. And while his reception by Frances was warm, his overall reception at Hampden Dubose was quite cool.  They didn’t want him to take her away.

[I tell more of my grandma’s story including in this blog.]

Five months later, June 5, 1948, George and Francis were kneeling side by side in Canadensis Moravian Church. Her in her wedding dress, and him with a gaping hole in the bottom of his shoe. The depression years had been good preparation for mission life; he was (and still is) that tight.

[If you missed it, read more about their nearly 70-year marriage in this blog.]

George’s second tour in Japan had only served to convince him even more of the unique need and opportunity for the gospel. George had been assigned to a chapel in Hamadera (Osaka). Whole families from the US moved there as part of the occupation and the two groups were integrating as Japanese often worked for them as household help. His new chapel soon became a mix of American and Japanese. It was the first time in their lives that these Japanese had the freedom to read or even own a Bible.

And while most Allies were struggling with a hatred for the Japanese after the brutalities of the war, George had an unusual love for them. Perhaps his lack of racial prejudice traced back to the way he saw his mother eat with, pray with, and celebrate with Maddie, their black housekeeper in his early years.

During the war, he had not had much direct interaction with Japanese since he saw only one Japanese surrender…an old blind man who came out of the jungle with a rice sack tied to his sword.  Even then, George had done his best to protect him and even get treatment for his medical needs.  The old gentlemen was in such poor shape, he had maggots even in his eyes. The old man didn’t understand his kindness and neither did the other soldiers. It was all he could do to keep him alive long enough to reach the aide station.

And George had seen enough of the Japanese cruelty to understand the animosity. His responsibilities had included not only spending final moments with dying soldiers, but also writing to their families afterwards. Even worse, during his time in Manilla, he saw the aftermath of the atrocities committed to women and children.

Maybe that was why the Japanese were so surprised by the civility of the American occupation forces. Despite the bitter traces of the atomic bombs, the Japanese were anxious to learn English and learn from the tall, white Americans busy releasing the grip of the Emperor who, until now, had been not only their dictator, but their god.

Ministry in Japan took off immediately with receipt of a telegram. Another missionary named Esther Bower who worked near the Mikimoto Pearl farm (on the East Coast of Honshu) needed help restoring their bombed out mission. Together, they were able to start a church and a kindergarten.

So after kneeling at the altar holding hands with a man with holes in his shoes, Frances stood up to a new adventure as wife of a missionary headed to the war torn nation of Japan. There was no candidate school, language school, or transition time. She and George would visit churches, start a new “Mino” mission, share about the opportunity to minister in Japan, begin a family, take a long boat ride across the Pacific, and begin a new diet of fish and rice.

George’s brief time in reserves came to an end when he found out he had been given orders to Korea. The orders had been sent to Philadelphia by mail and then, slowly, by boat to eventually catch up with him in Japan. By the time he received them, he was already considered AWOL. There was nothing to do but write back and let them know that his service in the US Army was over.  He was fulfilling a different set of orders: that of “bringing the blessing of the gospel.”

(Stay tuned for Part III…because stories worth telling just can’t be rushed.)

 

 

Close to Home (Part I)

george on rockMy mailbox held a pile of junk mail and bills.  As usual.

But this time, it also held one special note.  A card from my grandfather.  The same one whom I’ve been telling everyone who will listen about…because he just turned 100.

Yes, he’s one hundred…That means he was born in 1917.  When Woodrow Wilson was president.  The year that the US declared war on Germany.  When the average house was $3,200.

A lot of life has been lived since then; and it has had a lot of pretty remarkable moments.

Grandpa was the grand son of a poor immigrant, John “Henry” Oestreich, who started out as a newspaper delivery boy.  His father, George W Oestreich Sr was a factory worker, turned dental salesman, turned dental instructor, turned restorative dentist.  He married in 1916 and my grandfather, George, came a long soon after followed by two girls.

His happy childhood memories included a dog named “Rags” who followed him home, and canoeing on the lake near the cabin his father built in the Catskills. As the sun would sink over the mountain, he would often sit on the porch and play “Taps.”

George was inspired to play the trumpet when he went with his father to Willow Grove and heard John Phillip Sousa lead the US Army Band in “Carnival of Venice.”

But life took a pretty drastic turn when his father died relatively suddenly George’s senior year of high school.  The Great Depression hit soon after and the stock market crash took most of Henry’s investments in the building and loan with it.  But a few of Henry’s friends from Wharton School of Business stepped in to help save some of his stock in AT&T, Dupont, and Philadelphia Electric so that they were able to keep the family home.

Geroge’s mother went to work and so did George.  First at LD Caulk Dental Supply and eventually also taken classes at Wharton school of business.

It was around that time that George really began to take his faith seriously, getting involved in “fishing club,” playing the trumpet and bringing friends to enjoy fellowship in the home of a local business man.

He soon transferred to Temple University–hitchhiking to school each morning and heading to work each night.  It was not an easy road–even when he got a lift.  The professors were not appreciative of his stand for his faith–one even failed him out of spite.  During the summers, he still went to the Catskills and would work for the farmers milking cows and threshing wheat.

His final year of college he spent at Wheaton where he recalls doing Greek homework with Ruth Bell–A young missionary kid who would later marry a frequent chapel speaker name Billy Graham.

It was also there that he met Frances Mikels.  But that part of the story was still long from being written…despite the long walks in the cornfields.

Dr Harry Ironside came to Wheaton and encouraged students to come to Dallas for seminary.  George would soon find himself in Texas under the teaching of Dr. Ironside and Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer.  He served as janitor to earn money and against the odds, resurrected a closed church in Grand Saline (home of Morton’s Salt Mines).  There he would play trumpet while a young parishioner played the sax.

God would use two years pastoring this tiny church as the experience he would need to get a position as an Army chaplain.

It was 1944.  World War II was reaching its climax.  After training, he boarded the Admiral Eberly on its maiden voyage and head to the Pacific Theater.  His arrival in Manilla was timed just as General MacArthur was fulfilling his promise to take back the Philippines.  He road a jeep up a bull dozed road through the mountains until the road gave up.  Then he finished the hunt for the 25th Division alone and on foot.

By the time he found his troops, he was out of daylight to dig a meaningful foxhole.  He would get his first introduction to the sounds of war in a shared foxhole with shrapnel falling around them.  It was a long night.

After the war was officially over, George was sent to Japan with the occupation forces traveling through Wakeama to Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Shizuoka, and Gifu and finding divine opportunities to connect with Christians who, up to this time, had been in hiding for fear of severe persecution.

He keenly remembers one evening when he was walking by himself through a tangerine orchard and heard a hymn being sung.  It led him to a house where he boldly knocked on the door.  When the Japanese gentleman opened the door to see a US soldier, he quickly slammed it again.  But George was nothing if not persistent.  He kept knocking and perhaps it was the cross on his lapel that caught the eye of his new Japanese friend.  George was invited in and took part of the family devotions…the family singing hymns in Japanese and George singing the same hymns in English.

When George left for his first furlough, his new friend came to the train station to say goodbye.  George said, if I come back, what do you want me to bring you?

The elderly gentleman, living in a desolate country in a desperate time replied simply, “bring us the blessing of the gospel.”

 

 

We’ll Never Forget You, John Gates

The kids in Sunday School proffered their feelings of sadness as we opened class.

“I’m going to miss Uncle John.”

“Me too.” Another agreed. “He was always so nice.”

“He called me his grandkid.”

“He always cheered the loudest for me. I could hear him yell my name…”

They were talking about John Gates.

John came into our lives through a simple act of kindness. He was attempting to trim some overgrowth in his yard one day and Curtis happened to be driving by. John had suffered a stroke and was almost complete paralyzed on one side. This made it extremely difficult for him to maneuver the clippers. Curtis and his sons jumped in and were able to make short work of the lawn care.

As they talked, Curtis learned that John was in need a of a lawyer. After years of making payments on his home, he was being told that the checks were not owner-financed mortgage payments as promised, but simply rent. Instead of turning over a deed, the owner wanted to turn him out. Unfortunately, John had been on disability for years and did not have funds to pay for an attorney.

So that was how I first met John; When the Bostic Law Group took his case. Which, I might add, we won. John was in tears when he thanked us for our help. He got to keep his home and we got a new friend.

In fact, John began showing up regularly at church. Despite his severe limp, he would work his way down to the front to sit with the Bostics whom he called, “his family.” He would often then often join them at home for lunch, chatting with Jenny as she would finish preparations. The stroke had left him to struggling some for words and stuttering a little bit, but that didn’t stop him. The man could talk.

I hung around some too and heard him share about his life and background. As best as we could put together all of the pieces, it appeared he had a rough upbringing and some even rougher adult years. In fact, it seemed that the litany of health issues that he dealt with were partially caused by years of drug abuse.

But despite whatever the challenges of life had been, he had kept his tender heart and sensitive nature. And in very little time, the whole church started becoming his family. I remember when Curtis and Jenny threw him a birthday party.

His first birthday party.

Most people thought he was turning 70, but in fact, he was only in his early fifties. And he was as excited as a kid. We were celebrating his first birthday party, but he was celebrating his first family. I remember watching him cry as we sang to him in the law firm conference room.

I thought Curtis was a little crazy when he suggested taking John to Disney World. That generally isn’t where you take fifty-somethings who struggle to walk (even with a cane), have one arm in a sling, have no children or grandchildren, and have frequent health struggles.

But John said it was on his bucket list. So we loaded up and went to Orlando.

And we had a grand time. Curtis rented motor scooters for John which helped him get around and helped all of us get in the “short line” everywhere we went. I felt mildly guilty cutting in front of the poor vacationers spending their whole day weaving back in forth in the long lines. Don’t worry, the feeling passed.

We even went to Sea World, and Stephen got John’s picture on the big screen during the Orca pre show. I doubt he ever forgot that.

One of my favorite memories of John was when I got assigned to a dessert contest judging panel with him and one other guy. After talking about his judging responsibility for days (and telling everyone not to tell him what dessert they were bringing), the time finally arrived for us to taste the huge spread of delicious looking pies, cakes, and cookies.

That’s when he announced that he was allergic to all nuts, berries, and chocolate. So…my apologies to everyone who entered that contest. It was rigged. Sorry.

I think having more to life than watching TV did great things for John’s health. He even seemed to be regaining some of the use of his paralyzed limbs. Weeks before the big day, he asked me to spot him while he walked to the front of the church one morning because he planned to do it without his leg brace. It was a huge deal to him as we paraded to the front—him carrying his cane and me carrying his brace.   It was a good reminder to me of the little things we take for granted every day, like two good legs.

Over the years, folks at church helped John in various ways. Jay and Anita brought him meals. Jenny drove him to the hospital a few times. Families like the Sterretts had him over for meals. People included them in their Thanksgiving and Christmas plans. Mary Lou helped care for his dog and would take him to Walterboro to watch the young people from church show horses. He talked all the time about how much fun he had watching them win ribbons.

John wasn’t just a on the receiving end of love and attention. He liked to “pay it forward” as it called it. He took an interest in all the kids at church, but particularly fell in love with the Remember Hope Children’s Home. He sponsored two girls in Burma faithfully, sending small gifts or funds for them to purchase new school uniforms. He was very proud of his efforts to procure hundreds of pencils, pencil sharpeners, and erasers with the help of the fine folks at the Dollar Store.

Last Tuesday, Jenny hosted another birthday party for John. Little did she know, it would be his last. It was Mary Lou who found him lying unconscious in his home a few days later when she stopped by to give his dog some meds. He passed away quietly at MUSC.

He can walk without his leg brace now. And he doesn’t need me to spot him.

John didn’t leave behind a lot by way of worldly possessions, but as Curtis went through his things he found what was perhaps most important to him—letters and cards written by members of our church over the years. I’m so glad he didn’t die a lonely old man with nothing to do but watch a TV set. He died a member of a huge, loving family.

The next day, I sat with some friends who were explaining to me why they didn’t go to church any more—just watched a service on TV. I thought about Charleston Bible Church and the incredible way this body of believers welcomes and loves others whether or not they can pay it back or “pay it forward.” I thought of our meaningful worship, solid Bible teaching, and practical encouragement for godly living. These folks are missing out.

I told them I loved my church and a little bit of why, but I didn’t say enough though. Or perhaps I said too much.

I can sum up my feelings about church in two words: John Gates.

Last Day of School

I remember my high school graduation. The song my senior class sang. The note I tried to hit and didn’t quite make. The hat I threw that almost knocked me unconscious on the way back down. The speech I gave…last because I’m a “W.” Which also meant I was at the front of my recessional. Unfortunately, no one followed me off the stage and I ended up marching down a very long aisle by myself. I tried to smile enough to make it look like I did the right thing and it was the rest of the class marching down the wrong aisle on the other side of the auditorium.

I knew that night that school wasn’t really over for me. I was already studying so I could earn another paper certificate that said I knew something. Four more years to go. But I was ready for the next challenge because if I had learned nothing else over the prior twelve years, it was what hard work looked like.

Because I was born lazy. Really lazy.

I didn’t like chores. I didn’t like school. I didn’t like to work. Or anything that looked, smelled, or sounded like work.

I didn’t like to exercise. I didn’t like to do math. I didn’t like to clean my room or even make my bed.

So God gave me two very critical character building influences in my life that really boil down into one: Homeschool. And my mother.

And that’s what this story is really about.

My mother was a stay at home mom as long as we were home. But she worked. Yes, goodness knows, she worked.All 1982

My mom raised kids, taught us school, ran an Awana club, ran a homeschool group, cooked, cleaned, paid bills, and taught us and a lot of other girls so many other things…sewing, painting, decorating, driving, and so much more.

I must have made her a little bit crazy because I was not a fan of work. I didn’t like to sweat. I didn’t see any point in doing the same type of math problems day after day, page after page. I didn’t really think I needed to know what happened on this planet 5,000 years ago or even 500 years ago. I didn’t see any point in running around an empty track. And I hated, hated, hated practicing piano.

If I got a lecture about racing through assignments, cutting corners, and being sloppy, I got 1,000. How I hated that lecture.

And I was only one of five kids.

So…here’s the thing: Day after day, my mom trained me and my siblings. She taught us to study, to do chores, to practice music, to memorize Scripture. She taught us to work. Yes, goodness knows, she taught us to work.

After years of persistence by my mother, I made it to graduation. But she had two more kids to go. Five more years of homeschool.

Two more kids who didn’t like doing the same math problems day after day, page after page. Who didn’t really think they needed to know what happened on this planet 5,000 years ago and who hated, hated, hated practicing piano.

When my brother—the youngest—graduated, Mom had been a mother for 26 years and had been homeschooling about 23. She deserved a break.

So here’s the other thing: After all that, my mom went to work.

She started teaching kindergarten, but she didn’t stay with the half day of letters and sounds long. She was turned into a high school science teacher. Physical Science. Biology. Physics. Microbiology. Life Science. Chemistry. Biochemistry. It varied from year to year, curriculum to curriculum. Just when she got something down, it would change.

Over the next twelve years, my mom worked as hard as the US President. She studied. She taught. She wrote tests. She designed PowerPoints. She helped kids prepare science projects and hosted science fairs. She drove back and forth to school on her days off to turn eggs in incubators. She took pictures of birds and flowers that she could use for future presentations. She built robots. She cleaned up roadkill so she could use animal skeletons for future classes. Yep, true story.

Now things were different. She wasn’t the principal. She wasn’t the parent. But some things were the same: she was generally dealing with lazy students who didn’t give a rip about the pictures of flowers and birds.

So, it was a good thing that she is a hard worker. It was years of long days, short nights, and super short summers. Years of commitment. Years of pouring her energy into lazy kids who didn’t want to learn science…and a few who did.

She got paid. But let’s just say, she didn’t do it for the paycheck. That would have been insanity. Okay, it was insanity.

But that’s my mom. Did I mention she is a hard worker? Insanely hard.

And after years of teaching and training, she has made an impact. If on no one else, on me. I no longer think it’s futile to do pages of math problems or study history of the world or practice music. I no longer race through projects and cut corners. Some of that comes from time and maturity, but most of that maturity came from godly influences. Like my mom.

This week marks my mom’s last “last day” of school. She is retiring from her job as a full time teacher. I couldn’t be more excited for her. Or more proud. She has invested so much more than science in so many lives. They may not all appreciate it now, but they have all learned something.

And I know this: if they passed one of her classes, they worked hard. It was far more than robots, hatching eggs, and handling animal skeletons. It was hard work.

Pages of problem solving.

No racing through projects; no cutting corners.

And today, I’m as proud of my mom on her last day as she possibly could have been of me on mine.

Thanks, Mom. Job well done. Now, enjoy a long, long summer!

She Smiles at the Future

A cheery voice always greets me when I call my grandparents.

“Hi, Grandma, This is Danielle” I say–Figuring it is too much to expect her to recognize my voice among those of her five daughters and eight grand-daughters (not to mention grand-daughters-in-law, great grand-daughters, and whomever else).

“Well, what do you know!” She always says, as if she is both surprised and very glad to hear from me.

Phone conversations with my 97-year-old grandmother are always short. She was raised in the day when you paid by the minute; and as a child of immigrants, then a school teacher, and later as a missionary wife with six kids, every penny counted and she counted every penny.

My grandma—Frances is her name—was born in Pennsylvania after the milk man and the nanny to a wealthy family fell in love and got married.

I don’t know why, but her father never showed her affection. The only memories of him I’ve heard her recount are the rather painful birthday spankings he gave her and the stinging disappointment when he wouldn’t let her ride with him and a friend in his friends’ new automobile saying (in her hearing) “well, if we wanted to take a pretty little girl, we wouldn’t take that one.”

Whether he was joking or not, I don’t know. But ninety years later, she hasn’t forgotten those ugly words.

Grandma worked several jobs at a time to put herself through college at Wheaton. She attended at the same time as Billy Graham and recalls going a few times to hear him speak at the “Tab” as they called the Tabernacle.

I’ve heard her tell a few stories of her teaching years, first at a country public school and later at a private boarding school. At the country school, the students would take turns bringing the teachers meals as part of their pay. One of the students brought a live chicken which proved to be a little much for the two “city girl” teachers and their cramped living quarters. Fortunately, one of the other students’ mothers put an end to the indoor “chicken run” chaos by taking the chicken home and bringing it back fried on a platter.

At the boarding school, she counts Elizabeth Elliott among her students; but there were many others over the years she taught. As World War II drew to a close, my grandfather (whom she had gotten to know some at Wheaton) wrote to her from Japan and asked her to marry him. She wrote back and said yes.

Her students and fellow teachers were excited for her but the administration less so when they found out that she was leaving. The headmistress dropped her off with a single suitcase at the train station while the rest of the school was in a chapel service.  No thanks. No goodbyes. No well wishes.

“It’s probably for the best.” She told me. “Because I loved teaching. And the next few years would be fairly difficult ones.”  As I was, I never looked back.

She left everything she knew for what would soon be a fairly isolated life as a missionary wife in Japan—a several month boat ride away from anything familiar. She didn’t know Japanese. The Japanese didn’t know English. There weren’t grocery stores full of familiar foods or phones to call her family.

Before long, the couple had six kids, a budding church, and a historical opportunity to reach Japanese for Christ. And they did it with all their hearts for thirty years.

I love to hear my grandparents talk about their years in Japan and I love to tell their story—even though I know my knowledge of it is limited to a tiny window into a huge world. There is a lot I don’t know.

But the part that has really struck me recently is not what happened in the past for my grandma, but what is happening in the present. You see, after 30 years on the mission field, they “retired” to jobs in Florida—Grandpa as a property manager/maintenance man and Grandma as a bookkeeper. Then, just before Grandpa turned 80, they “retired” again to Penney Farms, where they volunteered in all manner of other ways—Grandma at sewing service, the resale shop, the dining hall, the assisted living center, and as a Sunday School teacher.

Slowly, in the last few years, Grandma has had to give each of those items up. Her vision got so bad she couldn’t see to sew. Eventually, her legs bothered her enough, she couldn’t do resale, Sunday School, etc. I think she still wraps silverware at the dining hall one morning a week, but things have scaled back greatly. For a while, she enjoyed listening to audio books, but I think now it is hard for her to stay awake for long periods to follow the story line.

Amazingly, Grandma still cooks and does laundry. But otherwise, she spends the majority of her time in her stuffed chair or her bed listening to the Bible on CD.

And her chair is beside the phone. And if I ring that phone, I will hear her cheery voice on the other end.

Because with each season of life, Grandma seems to have mastered the beauty of not looking back. She never whines about the ways her body has limited her activities. She will tell stories if I can get her talking, but she doesn’t longingly brag about who she once was and what she once did. She isn’t bitter about life being reduced to a two room apartment; she seems to embrace the simplicity of it and be willing to let go of the things she can no longer enjoy.

Another woman in my grandma’s shoes might be looking in the rear view mirror at the hard things: the father who was never affectionate, the growing years on a lonely island in the South Pacific, the need to work right up into her 80s. Her quiet life so far from her family.

But instead, with each passing year, I’m more and more amazed at how bravely Grandma looks forward. Praying for her children, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren. Taking care of my grandpa. Listening to her Bible. Living in an ever-changing, always complicated world and yet letting life become more simple.

When I wasn’t able to get down to Penney Farms for her 97th birthday, she told me about it on the phone in a voice that rivaled a kid at Disney World. Because she is a contented woman with a beautiful life.

I want to be like that.

And maybe there’s hope for me. I can honestly say that I’m glad that God saw fit to keep me single for a longer-than-average length of time. Because it was here, in singleness, that I learned to love life for the beautiful gift that it is. Not waiting for the next season. Not fearing what is to come. Just enjoying the precious present. Because I too have a beautiful, fulfilling life.

Not quite as simple, perhaps. But beautiful just the same.  I can look at the future and smile.

You Are So Beautiful

They met at a honky tonk. He was fifteen. She was fourteen. And he married her only one year later.

Most stories that begin that way don’t end well.

And for a while, it didn’t look like this one would be any different. He had a drinking problem that landed him in jail repeatedly.

The couple had no money and the young wife found it increasingly difficult to bail her wayward husband out of jail. The only way she knew to get money was to ask her husband’s dad for a loan.

But even his own father was losing hope that his son would amount to anything and one day he told Lucy that was it. It was the last time. He would never again pay to bail his son out of jail. Don’t even ask.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Willard was out working on a water well drilling site (where he would be for weeks at a time) and he got to drinking…and fighting…and once again landed himself in jail.

Lucy had no money. She had no way of making any. She didn’t even know anyone who could lend her any. Except one person: her father-in-law. And he had told her never to come back.

With fear and trepidation, she approached her father-in-law again. And he was furious. When he found the words, he told her, “Lucy, I told you I wouldn’t give you any more money to bail Willard out of jail. And I won’t.”

But he wasn’t quite finished. He said, “But…you deserve better than this. I’m going to give you some money, but not to bail him out. It is your money. You can do whatever you want with it. You can take it and go back to your family if you want. It’s your money and your choice.”

Lucy took the money.   And immediately went to the courthouse and bailed Willard out. Even though she didn’t know then that it was going to be the last time.

But while drying out in a jail cell away from home, Willard had realized his need for a Savior. He trusted Christ to change his heart and his life. He purposed never to touch another drop of alcohol. And he never did.

That didn’t necessarily mean that life was easy from that point on. Two uneducated teenagers living in the hills of Kentucky. Three of their five sons died in infancy.   And there would be plenty of other bumps and bruises, ups and downs. But they faced life together—both bright, hardworking, and willing to take risks—qualities that paid off at first in small ways as their entrepreneurial spirit provided jobs for many well-deserving Kentuckians…and even a few undeserving ones.

And that was only the beginning.

In fact, another thing Lucy never could have foreseen the day she scraped and begged enough money to bail her delinquent, teenage husband out of jail—was that he would one day be one of the richest men in Eastern Kentucky. Fortunately, not only one of the richest, but also one of the kindest, most generous, and most unpretentious.

In fact, I had the privilege of being there on their sixty fifth anniversary. They celebrated by eating bologna sandwiches with some friends in the lunch room of their drilling company. He wore his usual khakis and a collared shirt; she wore jeans and her signature long, blond ponytail—I never saw her without it.

And I’ve seen them give millions of dollars to schools, colleges, performing arts centers, and one of her favorite causes, Hope in the Mountains—a home for young women overcoming addictions.

That’s not to say they gave it all away. They spent some of their earnings on themselves and their hobbies. Any they had the right to. They earned it. It was theirs to invest as they chose. Fast cars, fast jets, or bologna sandwiches.

As the years ticked by, she began to have some aches and pains that slowed her down more and more. It was hard—even with her chipper disposition—for her not to show pain. But when someone would comment on how beautiful she looked, she’d give a mischievous grin and say, “Well, I can’t help that!”

I was also privileged to know them when they celebrated their seventieth anniversary. Yep, seventy years together. They celebrated by going to church and then to a local restaurant with their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Because they were rich in ways other than money.

This week, Mrs. Lucy Kinzer was laid to rest and Willard planned her service. The church was packed for the celebration of the life of this remarkable woman. At the end, a soloist sang, “You are so Beautiful.” The music box Willard had bought her for her last birthday—only a few weeks ago—plays that song. “You are so beautiful to me…”

As the last notes faded, Willard kissed her gently on the forehead for the last time. “The last ten years of our marriage were the best!” He had told us. And in that moment, I believed it. If you had been there, you would too.

It was seventy one years since he had first seen her dancing in a honky tonk. And the last decade had been the best. Because God redeems and rewards some of the least expectant lives.

So that’s their story.

Humble beginnings. Rocky moments. Bad days for sure.

But “You Are So Beautiful” was a fitting summary of the life of a young mountain bride sporting a blonde ponytail and an unquenchable loyalty—and a fitting climax to one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever heard.

After seventy one years, he still thought she was beautiful. But even as I type those words, I can see that sly grin and hear her fun retort, “Well, I can’t help that!”willardandlucy

Sometimes Life Stinks.

Pastor Joel shared with us Sunday the story of Annie Johnson Flint.  I was intrigued by the snippet he gave, so I did a little further research…

Annie was born in New Jersey on Christmas Eve in 1866.  Unfortunately, her mother died during the birth of her younger sister when she was three.  Their father apparently didn’t believe he could properly care for the girls, so he left them with another widow.  But money was tight and the girls were never welcomed wholeheartedly by their foster mother who seem far more concerned about the wellbeing of her biological children.

Thankfully, a kind neighbor was able to find a new family for the girls.  Mr. and Mrs. Flint were devout Christians who truly loved the girls.  Shortly after they moved to the Flint’s home (when Annie was around six), their father died.

When Annie was eight years old, the family left the farm and moved into Vineland, New Jersey, When they reached their new home in town, revival meetings were in progress, and she attended. It was during one of those meetings that the Spirit of God operated upon that young heart and brought her to saving faith in Christ.

About the time she came to saving faith, she also began to take an interest in poetry.  She loved to read, and her new parents also taught her character and the importance of being hard working, self-reliant, and living within her means.  They gave her a healthy horror of debt and a powerful distaste for waste.

After high school and one year of higher education, she was offered a teaching position.  Her adopted mother was in failing health and she and her income were needed at home.  So Annie signed a three-year contract to teach at the primary school where she had attended as a girl.

By the time she was the second year into teaching, however, arthritis began to riddle her body.  She went from doctor to doctor, but it steadily grew worse until it became difficult for her to even walk. She had a hard time finishing her third year.

Both of her adopted parents then died within a few months of each other, and Annie and her sister were once again all alone in the world with very little money to spare.

Annie rented out the home and moved to a treatment center in New York hoping to find help and healing there. Unfortunately, when she finally received the verdict of the doctors, it was that she would be a helpless invalid. With her parents gone and her one sister also with frail health, Annie needed to hire someone to take care of her and she had no money to do it.

Sometimes life just stinks.

With a pen pushed through bent fingers and held by swollen joints, Annie began to write.  At first, she wrote without any thought that it might be an avenue of ministry or support.  Writing poetry provided a solace for her in the long hours of suffering.

Then she began making hand-lettered cards and gift books, and decorated some of her own verses.  Her “Christmas Carols” became popular. Two card publishers printed these greetings and this helped to get her foot in the door for publishing. It gave her the larger vision of possibly securing openings through some of the magazines, by which her poems could be a wider blessing, and at the same time bring some little return that would minister to her own pressing need.

Readers began to write of ways they had been blessed by her poetry, so in 1919, the first small booklet of her poems, “By the Way, Travelogues of Cheer” was published.  That became the first of seven, each being circulated more widely than the last.

Bingham (one of her publishers) said of her: One wonders how she could ever get a pen through those poor twisted fingers; but she was a beautiful writer, and a wonderful correspondent. Her letters were unique, bright and breezy, though written from her bed of affliction. They were as rich as her poems, and whatever the stage of her affliction, or however great the pain through which she might be passing, she always had a touch of humor that was refreshing. One of her great regrets in the after years was that the progress of her affliction made it necessary to dictate the messages to her friends and of course this added to her expense.

Even with her writing, life continued to be an exercise of faith, especially in the area of provision for needs.  She wanted to be independent and self-sufficient; she cut expenses everywhere she could and took in boarders for extra income.  But God chose to keep her dependent on Him for supply.  At times, she had to hire skilled nursing or make extra doctor’s visits which would quickly drain away her attempts as self-sufficiency into times of trial and testing.

Annie’s writing began to draw attention and from time to time, visitors.  While most of them were gracious and well-meaning, some adamantly claimed that anyone walking obediently with Christ would be delivered from physical infirmities and bodily sickness.

Annie listened, but after painstaking study and prayer, concluded that while God can and does heal in some cases, in others, He sees fit to leave the most triumphant saints with physical affliction.  God at times brings himself glory through weak earthly vessels saying only, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”

I have long loved this hymn, penned by Annie, perhaps at such a time as this.  When she was sick, broke, and criticized.  Annie knew grace.

He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength as our labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

Annie’s biography concluded: No one but God knew what suffering she endured as the disease became worse with the passing of the years, and new complications developed. But through it all her faith in the goodness and mercy of God never wavered. There were many times, no doubt, when her soul would be burdened with the mystery of it all and the why and wherefore of the thing that she was called to endure. In that respect she was most human like the rest of us, but the marvelous thing is that her faith never faltered, and that she was at all times able to say “Thy will be done.” For more than forty years there was scarcely a day when she did not suffer pain. For thirty-seven years she became increasingly helpless. Her joints had become rigid, although she was able to turn her head, and in great pain write a few lines on paper.

On September 8, 1932, at the age of 65, Annie left her curled and crumpled body on earth for a new and perfect one in heaven.  The faith that had gently sustained her was made sight and she was welcomed in the precious arms of the Savior she knew so well.

But she left something else behind as well.  A simple legacy of hymns.  A testimony of grace.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

Sometimes life just stinks. That’s when He gives more grace. 

AnnieJohnsonFlint

Lucy, the Kangaroo

Due to a series of events, I was elected to babysit for the weekend. Joseph dropped off Lucy and her bag of formula, bottles, and other doodads for the proper care and feeding of a baby kangaroo.

I just acknowledged my new charge with a wave—I was in the middle of an intense conference call with two other parties—one in Arizona and one in Pennsylvania. I was the official note-taker and trying to focus on the conversation. Lucy was in a little harness clipped to a tether fastened to the deck where I sat taking advantage of the outside cell reception, the spring sun, and the only clean secIMG_8845tion of the pollen-coated table.

Lucy has to be bottle fed every four hours. It is possible to mix kangaroo milk and take notes at the same time. Just FYI.

It was a few hours—yes, hours—into the telephone call when I looked over to see Lucy go hopping into the hedge. Dismayed, I noticed that the clip had come off her harness. Just a few hours and I had already lost my charge.

I did my best to make it seem like my head was in Pennsylvania helping solve the problems facing our clients when in reality, my head was in a hedge with one hand pressing my cell phone to my ear and the other feeling its way through the branches in effort to locate one small marsupial who blended perfectly with the sticks holding up the leaves.

If they could see me now…

I had read somewhere that if you overfeed a baby kangaroo they will get diarrhea. Well, Lucy and I were on the five-hour drive to Jacksonville later that day when she jumped out of her pouch onto the passenger seat.

It was then that I discovered that I had been over-feeding Lucy.

And before I could figure out what to do, Lucy had dragged her tail through the mess and jumped onto my lap.

I saw a cop slyly parked by a break in the trees and checked my speedometer. All I needed now was to try to explain to an officer why I was speeding through Georgia with a stinky kangaroo on my lap.

My car smelled like you might imagine it would smell under the circumstances. We had 100 miles to go. 

Needless to say, I was questioning the wisdom of my decision to take the little girl on a little adventure. If there isn’t a law against taking these things across state lines there should be.

Things got worse when I arrived to learn that my grandpa had a medical condition that would require an immediate visit to the doctor. I could just picture myself sitting in a hospital waiting room with my 96-year old grandmother bottle feeding a wallaby. Grandma hates attention.

But I didn’t have many options. Lucy tends to make friends rather quickly—and I had expected she would there at the retirement community—but the novelty wears off in a hurry, and…well…there was that overfeeding thing we were still dealing with.

My latest babysitting attempt was turning into a disaster.

But Lucy did charm my grandpa when I gave him her in a bag and a bottle—being very careful not to give her too photo (4)much. It got his mind off other issues temporarily and that was some redemption anyway.

And thankfully, we were able to get by with a fairly short doctor’s visit.

And the over-feeding thing did start to resolve, which seemed to give her a little bit more confidence.

While my grandparents napped, I saw one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. One elderly gentleman in a powered wheeled chair, pushing his wife—in a wheel chair of her own—around the courtyard. He was singing aloud a song I didn’t recognize. I suspect he might have written it himself. As he was singing it. “I love you…” he was singing, “…from the bottom of my heart.”

I took a picture, but I was at such a distance it you couldn’t really see it. Not really. And a picture just didn’t do it justice anyway. It was one of the sweetest things I ever saw. Especially since it didn’t look like his wife was the least bit conscious of what was going on.

It was a few hours later when I saw the same gentleman outside in the parking lot. I wanted to meet him. And I had an idea. I had something that he might like to meet too.

I introduced myself and Lucy. He introduced himself as Dean and told me about his wife, Mary. She had suffered from Alzheimers for the last fifteen years.

Fifteen years.

And for the last ten, she hadn’t even known who he was. Her mind was gone but her soul was still trapped in this earthly body. And as long as it was, she was still Mary. And he still loved her. And he was going to serve her just like he had in the happy days when she had known and appreciated him.

Dean enjoyed meeting Lucy, but I don’t think she made as much of an impression on him as he did I me. I was just glad Lucy was there so I would have an excuse to meet this faithful man.

And, I suppose, if he can take of his sick wife from a wheel chair, I can bottle feed a wallaby.

Just not tophoto (5)o much.

Impressed

She was four years older than me and a whole lot smarter. Maybe not “off-the-chart smart” but definitely calculus and rubrics cube smart. Maybe she got that way from all of the books she read. While most girls were in to dolls and dress up, Erin was in to libraries and bookstores.

Erin’s reclusive reading habits came in handy because when my parents were gone, she would predictably curl up with a stack of library books. The rest of us could wreak havoc as we pleased and Erin would get blamed at the end of the day. Because, after all, she was the oldest and was supposed to be responsible.

People sometimes confused the two of us. I never understood that because while we did have the same eye color, she was Erin and I was Danielle. We shared a room for years and that only brought out the differences: I loved to decorate and rearrange the furniture while she preferred the Spartan atmosphere. I liked the window open. She liked the window shut. And so on.

Somewhere along the way, Erin took an interest in piano. And when she was 14, she became our church pianist. Which, admittedly, was not so much because she was a child protégé as much as just the simple fact that she was the only person in our church that played piano. It was Erin or nothing. And Erin quickly became better. Than nothing.

Erin more than rose to the challenge, because that is what Erin does. She never met a contest too big; she never did things the easy way. If we were all making quilts, Erin made a king-sized, hand-stitched quilt with a million pieces to cut and four times that many corners to match.

Not me. If there was an easy way, I was going to find it and then make it even easier. Which I think is an under-appreciated skill. But I’m getting off track…back to Erin and the piano.

For years, Erin would get up at 5:00 in the morning and play scales and exercises on the piano. Allyson would be doing aerobics. And I was probably sleeping.

Erin practiced hard—four hours every day. She became very good. I know because she always went last at piano recitals. Of course, that might have just been because the “rest of the students” included me and a bunch of kids like me. But nonetheless, she did get good.

Toward the end of high school, Erin was selected to go on a short-term mission trip to Romania. Erin spent hours over the next year learning to speak, read, and write Romanian—all for a three week trip. Like I said, she was not one to just “get by” or do something the easy way.

After graduation, she decided to get a degree in piano performance—which figures, because as I understand, it’s one of the hardest majors. In addition to all of the regular studying a college student has to do, musicians have to practice for ungodly numbers of hours every day. Good thing she was already broken in on the 5:00 am thing.

After college, Erin went back to Romania for a few years as a full-time missionary. All of her hard work on language study was put to good use.

Then, she decided to come back and get her masters in piano performance. And because she is Erin, and because she never met a challenge too big, she decided to get her master’s in piano performance at Bob Jones.

Now, you may think BJ is good, bad, wonderful, terrible…all of that is beside the point. The point is, BJ is basically the mecca of conservative musicians. Kids in Greenville are born playing piano. They are proficient at violin by the time they are weaned. They do intensive music theory classes in Kindergarten. They have private tutoring sessions instead of recess. BJ is Julliard for the small but talented percentage of the world that doesn’t believe in the rock beat.

Majoring in piano performance at BJ is kind of like racing in the Kentucky Derby. Everyone is good. That is why they are there.

Erin was good, but she hadn’t had the support of a gifted music community like most of the BJ graduates. She hadn’t had all world-class teachers growing up. And, she had just spent several years overseas teaching. But once she had made up her mind, she went for it wide open.

If college piano performance was no joke, graduate level piano performance was probably the music equivalent of the Marine Corps. At the end of the program comes the “performance” part—the senior recital: an hour of memorized music that BJ professors deemed worthy of their stamp of music wizardry approval. Songs are picked a year in advance and then practiced until Fur Elise and Chopsticks feel like a nice break.

Erin selected her music and practiced literally until her hands couldn’t take it anymore. She is smart, and she worked hard, but I know that looming recital was not something she looked forward to. Even after years of church music and college classes ad nauseam, Erin was not a natural at performing. Perhaps it was become she is more the left-brained, smart analytic than the right-brain creative, artsy, performer. She is great at lot of things, and she had the skill and knowledge; she just wasn’t the showy type.

Somewhere along the line, I think it was suggested to her that she consider majoring in church music or piano pedagogy. Which, as I understand, was the same thing without the hour of music insanity known as the senior recital. But, as I understand, the difference between the two was also like the difference between being a college basketball coach and a PE teacher.

And it just wasn’t like Erin.

So she worked hard. Very hard.

Not all of my family could attend her recital. But I drove to Greenville the day before and spent the night with her. She is pretty even-keel, but like anyone, she was nervous about her recital. In fact, nervous doesn’t seem to be the right word.

The BJ standard is perfection. And most BJ students hit it or come so close that all but the pickiest of professors believe they did.

And even though she had poured her life into it the whole program, I think she knew she wasn’t going to be perfect.

Mind you, this wasn’t just a handful of family attending this recital. This was going to be a room full of professors and other piano performance majors who were required to attend. Many of them had ten or twenty years of lessons from world class instructors under their belt. Most were natural performers—because the rest had long since been weeded out. If you were just “one of the pack,” you went and found something else to do before you hit the senior recital for your master’s degree in piano performance.

Something else meaning home ec, elementary ed, or working at Chick-fil-A.   You ain’t nothing in Greenville just because you can play piano, violin, cello, tuba, and percussion. You have to be the next Dino Kartsonikis (who appreciates only Bach and Fanny Crosby).

And Erin, for all her virtues, was not Dino.

And the pressure would have put a lesser woman (me, for example) in the crazy house.

But not Erin.

I was very proud of Erin the next day. She looked nice. She had chosen difficult pieces. She played well.

And she made some mistakes. Several actually.

She just did.

But she didn’t make excuses. She didn’t blame the stiff piano. Or her hurting wrists. Or her years of service in Romania. Or her nerves. She didn’t make a point to tell everyone how long and hard she’s practiced. How many set backs she’s had. How many obstacles she had to overcome.

She had done her best. And she let it be that. She didn’t try to criticize herself just to hear people argue with gushy words of fake affirmation.

Erin told me she thought by BJ standards her recital was a disaster.

If anyone thought that, they were mistaken. Yes, if someone had come to nit pick or criticize, I’m sure they could have found something negative to say about the performance.

But not about my sister.

She was courageous. She was gracious. And I don’t know if I have ever been more impressed with her. Or with anyone.

Erin had just poured her heart into a goal because she believed that the process of working for it would make her a better pianist, a better music teacher, and more than that—a better worshiper. She went for it knowing it wouldn’t necessarily make her better than the people around her.

Erin worked to please an Audience of One.

I think she proved it that day. And I have every reason to believe that that One was pleased.

And I, for one, thought it was beautiful.

I could not have been more impressed. Not with Dino Kartsonikis.

Life Given

ceb family c and j small
Jenny & Curtis Bostic

I’ll never forget what attorney Curtis Bostic said to me on our first meeting.  “Wait until you meet my wife.”  He said proudly.  “I smacked that one out of the park.”

And when I met her, I knew instantly that he was right.

She was beautiful.  Not in a fake “Hollywood wanna-be” sort of way, but in a classy, contented sort of way.  She radiated a joy that was mature and gentle.

Two weeks later, I packed my suitcase and moved to Charleston.  My job started Tuesday and when I left the office Friday, the weekend stretched out in front of me and it hit me that I was in a new city.  All alone.

That was B.C. (before cell phone) for that matter, there was no internet or TV in the little home I shared with Miss Sandra—who worked all the hours I didn’t.

I don’t know why I checked the answering machine when I got home—no one I knew had the number, much less a reason to call.  When I did, however, I heard Jenny’s cheery voice inviting me to dinner.  She also encouraged me to bring “a pair of pajamas and a toothbrush” and spend the night.

I hesitated.  This was my boss’ family.  As to spending the night—I didn’t really know the Bostics and I was a little old for slumber parties.  But after piddling around the empty house for a few minutes, I found myself pulling the pajamas and toothbrush out of my suitcase.

I’ve often wondered since then if Jenny would have still invited me if she had known that I would stay the next five years.

But Jenny was gracious and hospitable.  She went out of her way to make me feel welcome in the family’s double wide which was neat, clean, and tastefully decorated.

The more I got to know Jenny, the more amazed I became.  She was intelligent, educated, and gifted—an excellent musician, fantastic cook, organized home-school mom, amazing housekeeper, and devoted wife.  She jogged faithfully and ate healthfully; yet didn’t criticize those who didn’t.  She worked hard; yet didn’t make others feel bad about taking time off or having fun.  In fact, despite her many strengths, she didn’t come across arrogant at all.  She always treated other people like she had all of the time in the world. Though she didn’t.

I remember one time shortly after that the she took me to downtown Summerville just for the fun of it.  She bought me a milkshake at the drug store even though (for health reasons) she could not have one herself and showed me some of her favorite stops and shops.

Jenny was probably up until the wee hours of the next morning making up the lost time on a Saturday—folding clothes and doing all the things that keep a household functioning.  But the pressure of those chores had not kept her from taking time with me.  It is humbling to think about even to this day.

Perhaps that is what I find so incredible about this dear friend.  Some people give from their surplus—not Jenny.  Some people give until it hurts—not Jenny.  Few people give until they have nothing left to give.  Even fewer still give beyond nothing left—but that is Jenny.  You’ll never know when you exhausted her limits because she won’t show it; she will just keep giving.

After getting to know her some, I thought I wanted to be just like Jenny—always joyful, always patient, always selfless.  But I wasn’t.  Not even close.  It frustrated me, but the more I tried the more hopeless it seemed.

Gradually it sunk in to me that the spiritual maturity is not inherited or won, it cannot be had for the asking.  It is earned.  Even a tree planted by streams of water will grow undetected—slowly, painfully, quietly.  Jenny had persevered through some storms in life—choosing joy over depression, forgiveness over bitterness, meekness over her own way.

Over the last nine years that I have known Jenny, my respect for her has continually grown. We have been on many trips together and at first it surprised me that she would bring along a book about being a godly parent, an excellent wife, or a better Christian.  She could have written all of those books and then some.  But that wasn’t her mentality—she was still growing and learning.

In fact, she hasn’t written any books that I know of; doesn’t have a full speaking schedule, a TV show, or even a blog.  From what I’ve seen, much of Jenny’s time during this season of life is filled with the thankless tasks of loading the dish washer, teaching reading, solving math problems, grocery shopping, scrubbing bath tubs, and driving kids to karate.

When I thought about her life, I was reminded of Mary and the costly perfume that she spilled on Jesus’ feet.  Many criticized the offering as resources wasted—a year’s worth of labor gone in a few short seconds benefitting no one but Jesus.

But Jesus saw the act of selfless worship as a great gift—so much so, that the God of the universe took the space to write it down in His short book so that her life and action would be read and remembered for years to come.  Her perfume was not wasted; it was given.

Likewise, a life given in simple, selfless ways is not wasted.  It is invested.

Jenny’s daily routine is not wasted to the five kids who call her mom or the husband who calls her “sweetheart.”  And it is not wasted to the hundreds—perhaps thousands of people whom she has taken time for, listened to, and encouraged.

I know many who would say that they are a better wife, a better mom, or a better Christian for having known Jenny Bostic and I would count myself in that number.  Her gentle, quiet spirit convicts and motivates me on an ongoing basis.

And I can’t wait to see the incredible things that are to come for a life so freely given and so gently sustained as Jenny Bostic’s.