Over the last few months, I’ve heard many tender stories about how people have imaginatively created community during these days of isolation, but none has touched me as deeply as this one.
A friend told me the story of her mother, Margaret, and her close friend, Martha, who live down the hall from each other in an independent living facility, each in her own apartment. Margaret and Martha (M & M) are both in their 90’s and continue to embrace life with open hearts and minds. Their friendship is one of which most of us dream: respectful, compatible, intellectually stimulating, inclusive of each other’s families and lots of fun!
Before they were quarantined, M & M attended the same church, driven there on Sunday mornings by Margaret’s daughter. Each week, after the early service, the trio would stop for donuts; and then, when they were back in the apartment, they would share them over coffee. These moments were weekly times of ritual, sharing stories, and gathering around the table of friendship.
When their church’s worship service went virtual, they devised a new routine: they would watch the service, socially distanced, but still together (as a preacher, I would love to be “a fly on the wall” to overhear their discussions afterwards! I know I’d learn a lot).
Then, it came time for Communion Sunday. What were they to do? They contacted their pastor who graciously told them that during these extraordinary times, it was fine for them to purchase their own communion elements and simultaneously have the sacrament in their home as he blessed the bread and wine at the church. So, Margaret called her daughter and asked if she could pick up a little bottle of wine and a small loaf of bread and deliver them in time for Sunday. They wanted to share communion with their church family, even if it would be around a little table in a comfortable apartment on a quiet hall in a retirement community. They wanted -- and I think, even needed -- to be pulled closer to the heart of God by receiving the “body of Christ, broken for you, and the blood of Christ, shed for you.”
In communion, there is no distance, only welcome and grace. Around God’s table, there is room for us all, whether the table is grand and centrally placed in the chancel of a sanctuary, at the end of a long journey down a dusty road (Luke 24), along a shoreline (John 21) or around a table shared by two good friends.
One Saturday, Margaret called her daughter with the news that the next day happened to be Martha’s 96th birthday! In addition to the communion elements, she asked if her daughter would pick up a little key lime pie from the local grocery store. You see, after they had communion and worshipped, Margaret planned to extend the celebration, continue the party, celebrate another year of her friend’s life, all of it made even more blessed by the ever-present Spirit of God in whom we “live and move and have our being.”
Jesus said: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be also.” Life and worship may be different right now, it may take gathering together in ways unimagined, but the Lord is where you are and everywhere, gleeful to be invited to your tables, to your friendships, into the “daily-ness” of your lives. There He is. There He will be.
A Letter from 1963
A Letter from 1963
Ashley Crowder Stanley, Pastor
July 11, 2020
My college roommate of four years always said that when I started cleaning up our dorm room that meant I was thinking hard about something. I thought of her theory yesterday as I began a cleaning project with the weighty reality of the pandemic’s toll on our world on my mind; I had just seen the statistics that reported another daily high of new cases; I was thinking hard. As I starting cleaning, I found a box of pictures and letters that I had moved from my mother’s home to our home after she died in March. I had stashed it in a safe corner in my closet and forgotten about it…until yesterday.
Unless you have a few hours and a lot of Kleenex close by, don’t open such a box because you will find yourself, as I did, lost on Nostalgia Road. You may even discover things , as I did, about yourself and your family that you never knew.
In 1963, my sister was born. I was old enough to anticipate her arrival with eagerness and curiosity. When she was born, she was very sick with Hyaline membrane disease (HMD), a condition that causes babies to need extra oxygen and help breathing. (Weeks later, President John Kennedy’s newborn son would die of this disease). My sister had to stay in the hospital in Charlotte for two weeks, receiving oxygen and skilled medical care which meant my brother and I couldn’t meet her. Our mom stayed in Charlotte to be near her, and my brother and I went to High Point to stay with our grandparents (which was awesome…magnolia trees to climb, real Coca Colas and Mimi’s cooking!).
This whole scenario was complicated because the week my sister was born was MOVING week for United Methodist clergy and so while baby sister and mom were in hospital, and Rick and I were at the grandparent’s house, my dad drove a moving van to his new church and parsonage in Boone, NC, preached his first sermon in that church, set up the parsonage and drove back to Charlotte to be with his wife and newborn daughter. It’s a good thing he was so young and fit at the time!
While in the hospital, my mom wrote us letters, filling us in on the baby’s progress and telling us how much she missed us. In these letters, she looks forward to us all being together again in the “cool, mountain air,” implores us to behave ourselves if we are taken to church at Wesley Memorial and tells us she loves us “a bushel and a peck.” In one of the letters, she reflects on the nursing care they have received:
“Hey sweethearts, Daddy and I are in the hospital room talking and just want you all to know we are thinking about you and hope that you are having a good time in High Point. Our baby is better tonight and the Doctor thinks she will be okay. Remember her in your prayers.
These nurses are wonderful and work so hard. We think it would be wonderful for you to be a nurse, Ashley. They are so sweet to me and to our baby.”
You would not be wrong if you guessed that I used a huge wad of Kleenex while reading these letters.
Her appreciation for the nursing care puts me in mind of today and the banners I see in the entrances to hospitals, clinics and retirement communities that say: Heroes Work Here. That is so true now as it has been throughout time. Our medical personnel, first responders, social workers and support staff are on the front lines every day during this pandemic, taking risks on our behalf, swabbing, comforting and working punishingly long hours to help folks survive. Putting their own health and the health of their families at home in jeopardy. Putting their own emotions and spirits on hold so they can be chaplain, friend, medical worker, therapist and deliverer of hard news, all rolled into one person. Their strength of spirit and devotion to their calling needs to be applauded, appreciated, compensated and never taken for granted. And, they also should be able to count on us to pray for them and their families every, single day.
In the wee hours of the morning on March 24th, a nurse called me. She was holding my mom’s hand and sitting at her bedside as she transitioned to her eternal life. A nurse.
Thanks be to God for the heroes who certainly are but who would never seek to be called such.
You Can’t Miss What You Never Had
You Can’t Miss What You Never Had
Ashley Crowder Stanley, Pastor
June 17, 2020
A few months after we were married, my husband and I packed up a rented UHAUL truck and our little Subaru sedan and began the long drive to our new home of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Moving from Durham, NC where we had been students for 8 years, it was now time to begin a new chapter in our lives. I didn’t want to go.
As I followed behind the truck, I listened to one cassette tape over and over: James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, primarily the song “In My Mind I’m Going to Carolina.” I wore that song out while I boo-hoed all the way up to the foreign territory of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I didn’t care about all those lakes because I had Carolina (that is, NORTH Carolina and not the university) on my mind and in my heart and James was obviously the only one who understood. Later, my husband quipped that I had clawed the NC soil so hard as we left it that the dirt under my nails might never wash out.
There’s an expression that goes like this: “you can’t miss what you never had.” So, as we drove far away from home, I wasn’t missing money, a great job or even the house I’d grown up in my whole life because I had never really had those things. With every mile, though, I was missing proximity to my siblings and parents, my beloved friends and the familiarity of the places I knew.
This week, I am in a missing place again. Along with thousands of other United Methodists from Western North Carolina, I should be at Lake Junaluska for our yearly conference meeting but due to Covid-19, the meeting has been cancelled. Honestly, in most years, I usually grumble to myself about having to go, but once I get there and see the first few lifelong friends, I begin to realize that there is simply nothing like the connection I feel to the people and place of this annual gathering.
Growing up in a preacher’s family, my children would always be curious about how carefully I packed my clothes and materials for Annual Conference. They knew this event was important to me but they never really understood why or even what happened there(it really is hard to explain). One year, I was the preacher for one of the Annual Conference worship services and my three children came to support me. Wide-eyed at the sheer number of people milling about in the auditorium, the exuberance of the fellowship and the warmth of the auditorium’s temperature, my then college aged daughter concluded that Annual Conference was like a “fraternity-sorority mixer without the kegs.” Yes, maybe. With hopefully more depth.
You can’t miss something you never had. So, this week, I am missing Annual Conference and my friends and the worship and the singing and the humidity and the ordination service and taking Holy Communion and sitting beside my best minister buddies and walking around the lake and talking under the trees and going to the Reconciling Ministries service and celebrating retirements and hearing stories of how God has been at work and seeing yet another generation of preachers’ kids roaming around with their soggy bathing suits on, hungry for lunch. I miss it all because I have had it and loved it.
In these days of great change, loss and sorrow, many of us are missing so much, we are yearning for some semblance of normalcy and reunion. We miss being at table with friends, sitting closely on a church pew, embracing when we see a friend, having a routine that makes sense, being able to focus. We miss the fullness of life and yearn for a time gone by when we were not afraid of a powerful pandemic virus.
Or maybe it’s just me that feels this way? I don’t know, but somehow, I think you might also be missing something or someone right now. And maybe, like me, you need to find nourishment in the memories until a time we can make new ones.
The cassette is long gone(melted), but the song’s poignant memory carries on. I am thankful for that song because it helps me remember the blessings of who and what I was leaving behind back in 1981. Six years later, we would travel the same highway going the other way, heading home, with Carolina on our minds. As we drove, I smiled through my tears to see the dark, rich Minnesota soil crusty beneath my nails. I didn’t want to go.
Our memories can sustain, teach and help us appreciate what we have had as we anticipate what is to come. Life is different and hard right now. But, life is not completely on hold. Our spirits are not quarantined; they can soar and find comfort in all the goodness that we have had.
So, how would you finish the line: in my mind, I’m going to…? Wherever it is, I hope it is a good place, filled with sweet memories and life-giving hope.
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Ashley Crowder Stanley, Pastor
June 4, 2020
Earlier this week, I listened to a recording of a hymn that speaks powerfully to the long, hard struggle against racism in our country. I was moved to tears. In researching a little about this hymn, I found this brief explanation: “Many people are surprised to learn that "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was first written as a poem. Created by James Weldon Johnson, it was performed for the first time by 500 school children in celebration of President Lincoln's Birthday on February 12, 1900 in Jacksonville, FL. The poem was set to music by Johnson's brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and soon adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its official song.
Today “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is one of the most cherished songs of the African American Civil Rights Movement and is often referred to as the Black National Anthem.” (from The Black Culture Connection). If you would like to listen to the song while you read along, I would suggest googling the hymn title and find a version. And, while listening, let the lyrics speak to your heart and then, move your feet. Black Lives Matter.
Lift Every Voice and Sing By James Weldon Johnson
Lift every voice and sing Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us, Facing the rising sun of our new day begun let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand. True to our God, True to our native land.