The Same Kind of Sufferance As Me

I found myself yesterday for over 12 hours in the emergency room at the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Hospital with my mom who was diagnosed with cancer last spring.  Because of the Christmas holiday season, the hospital was at 103 percent capacity.  Doctors were not following the regular admitting process after seeing their patients.  Instead, they were routing patients through the emergency center with the idea that the patient would receive faster service.   This created a huge backlog of very ill people in a small, concentrated area for many hours.

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Mom and I settled in for the long stay in the back area of the waiting room as we witnessed patient after patient with family members or friends in tow to endure the hours together with the goal of finding at least some momentary relief from the pain and advance of their cancer.  A giant black man sitting in a wheelchair soon flanked me to my immediate right.  He appeared to be his 70’s, accompanied by his two buddies who had delivered him to the emergency room.  To our left was an extremely ill woman whose body was little more than a skeleton with skin.  She was lying on a hospital gurney wheeled against the wall to wait in agony with her vomit bag resting on her caved chest.  Across the isle from us were more cancer patients, all waiting, hoping for their number to come up soon in the computer in order to receive their treatment.

It was hard to ignore the multiple conversations in such a tight space.  My ear tuned into the conversation to my right between this big black man and his friends.  While I was entertained by much of what was said about how much he could or could not fill his bucket on a daily basis, I gathered the wheelchair bound man had kidney issues caused by his cancer.  I listened to the men talk about the topic for some time, and I tried to find humor in the subject because the rest of the room was over-shadowed with such pain and, for a few, imminent death.

I found it difficult not to stare or engage with my eyes but this man to my right was such a large person with a deep, gentle voice, I felt wooed by the conversation.  After a while, the triage nurse called this man’s name, Roy.   His friend pushed his wheelchair to the door of the triage room, passing him off to the nurse.  The friend came back and sat in his chair with the other man next to him.  After a few minutes, a hospital advocate walked over to our area and began to explain that Roy was experiencing severe kidney failure and asked the men if one of them had planned to stay with him during his time in the ER.  They both looked at her surprised and each one said “no” that they had things to do and would be leaving him alone.  The advocate sternly expressed to them that Roy seemed to be scared to be left alone but her words failed to change the friend’s decisions to leave Roy alone.  I then began to feel a tug in my heart toward this lone, ill man.

I will confess that I did not want to get involved.  I am like most in that I don’t go around looking for opportunities to interact with the marginalized and oppressed.  I don’t want to experience their shame, get my hands dirty or become entangled in the life of one of these needy people because doing so may cost me some inconvenience or worse, my reputation.  I read a book several years ago that made a huge impact on my life in how I viewed people who are different than me.  The title of the book is The Same Kind of Different As Me.   It’s a true story of how a high society art dealer with my same view of keeping a safe distance from the marginalized actually engaged directly with a dangerous homeless drifter and through his months of involvement realized that the two of them were the same kind with little difference between them.  We are all the same in the eyes of Jesus.  I thought intently about this as I watched Roy’s buddies walk out of the hospital leaving him alone in his fear.  I picked up my phone to send a text to my husband, Bill, to tell him that I was in the middle of  a “same kind of different as me” moment.  Something very unusual happened as I typed the word different, the auto-fill on my phone delivered the text with the word “sufferance”.   I was stunned as I glared at the sent text on phone screen – same kind of sufferance as me.  My thoughts began to stir.   Sufferance is by definition, “patient endurance of pain or distress without interference”.

Jesus calls us to be like him.  He calls us to a life that shares in sufferance.  For many yesterday at MD Anderson, sufferance was through cancer but for me, sufferance was in entering into the life of a needy man, to share in his fear and loneliness.  I began to process more deeply the same kind of sufferance that so many in the room around me were baring.  Myself, a cancer survivor, I can identify a little with some of their sufferance.  However, I didn’t loose my hair like my mom, or my body didn’t shrivel up on a gurney, or I wasn’t abandoned at the hospital by my friends in the emergency room like Roy to fight the cancer fear alone.  I’m extremely grateful that I did not have to endure these types of suffering during my cancer journey.

For six hours, in my safe chair against the wall, I continued to ponder the word sufferance.  I decided to walk across the room from where I sat to check on my mom’s schedule at the nurse’s desk.   The triage nurse had parked Roy in his wheelchair in front of the admitting desk.  He sat patiently holding his wooden cane across his island-sized lap.  My back was turned away from him when I heard him ask the nurse if he could get a cookie from the volunteer snack cart.  It was at that split second that I had to decide if I was going to participate in the same kind of sufferance of Christ or continue to maintain my secure distance filled with worry of loss of reputation.  I turned around to fix my gaze on Roy and bent over with my face in his face.  His big, soulful eyes filled with tears as I asked him if he had eaten today to which he answered, “no ma’am”.

I patted his knee and told him I would return with a hot meal and to save the cookies for dessert.  Handing the cafeteria cashier ten bucks for a stranger’s meal was much easier than engaging with this poor, needy man.  I placed his meal on a table near where my mom and I were sitting.   I then walked across the floor for Roy.   Wrapping my fingers around the handles of Roy’s wheelchair, I took a prayerful breath to surrender my reputation and began the short journey of sufferance across the waiting room.   I began identifying with Roy,  a poor, marginalized, man in need of a friend.  I carried the weight of his burden as I rolled him to the other side of the room and in doing so, I realized that through the sufferance of Christ, Roy is the same kind of different as me.

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The Pasture

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A five hundred acre parcel of land on the west side of our small home town was leased from the local family doctor for a cattle operation, based on a strong, callused hand shake and the binding word of my dad over 40 years ago.  To my family, this land parcel fondly became known as “The Pasture”.  Sandwiched in between Highway 90 and Interstate 10 in Katy, a stranger speeding by would hardly notice the ominous space of berry patches, clumps of prairie grass, mounds of fire ants and stretches of gravel roads that winded through and around the many acres.

With one handshake, Dad had no way of realizing the positive impact his decision would have on our family over the course of four decades.  Times were simpler then.  It was an era when a man’s handshake and his word could be counted on, just as the land could be counted on to give life and meaning to kids growing up.  It was a time when the only trouble that could be borrowed was in an inviting mud hole where my younger brother would run Dad’s truck so that he could study the tire traction and mud velocity at differing rates of speed.  And trouble for me when I drove the truck too fast down the muddy, slick road and felt the slow, helpless slide into the ditch as my younger brother strongly encouraged me to “gas it!” only to find us a few minutes later, as water flowed into the floorboard, hitch hiking a ride back to town in the rain.

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How would Dad have ever known that a strong, callused handshake and his word would result in lessons of shooting clay pigeons with a sling-shot, learning to pen and work cattle, ride and sometimes get thrown from horses.  Along with lessons of roping, bottle-feeding baby goats, calves, killing snakes, picking dewberries, as well as, lessons of pain from the sting of a wasp, or a scraped knee.  We learned to dove hunt, run a trotline, kill and skin deer, and hog hunt under the moon light with Kerr dogs.

A strong, callused handshake and a man’s word gave the kids in our family a safe place to play while learning some of the basics in life.  It was a place where the boys in our family learned to be brave hunters, cowboys, and men while the girls learned to be their cheerleaders.  How would Dad have known that the teenaged boy becoming a man, stuck in a muddy bog hole in the middle of The Pasture in his Jeep would some day be his son-in-law shaping relationships for future generations?

Times are not as simple forty years after that first handshake.  However, I am grateful for The Pasture and the life giving lessons that it bred.  I am even more grateful for my dad who, with a strong callused hand shake and an honest word allowed me the experience of life lessons that will never be replaced as, with all progress, The Pasture is turned over to commercial development and a new meaning of a handshake.

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His Sparrow

Luke 12:6-7Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

 

After six months of discomfort, and awkwardness, from having breast expanders implanted in my chest; the day that drives the “I am finished” stake of defeating breast cancer into the ground arrived.  This would be the day of the great “exchange”.  Exchanging the breast expanders for permanent implants would be a hallelujah day for me.   This morning, September 12, 2012, with much excited anticipation, Bill and I gathered our things to make the final trip to MD Anderson Cancer Center.  I only carried the clothes on my back and my driver’s license while Bill on the other hand looked like a pack mule to deliver a month of supplies to a lost city in the mountains, as he loaded the car with two computers, Ipad, cell phone and several power cords.  I could tell he was anticipating long hours in the waiting area and wanted to take full advantage of the quiet work time.

The plan for the day was for me to drive to the hospital so that he could begin his workday on the phone.  It became apparent as I pulled onto Interstate 10 that there wasn’t a soul on the road that knew and understood my need and anxiousness to arrive at the hospital on time.  Therefore, no driver offered to move out of the way to clear a way.  We quickly pulled into the HOV lane, which was a little faster but at times slowed to a snail’s pace.  I had not eaten or drank anything since the night before, coupled with the fact that I missed my morning coffee addiction, so my body began to complain and whine.  I could feel the tension in my neck as the headache silently traveled up the back of my neck to the crown of my head.  My appointment for check in was at 9:30am, which is when I pulled into the parking garage.   Bill suggested that I get out at patient drop off and he would park the car and I gladly took his offer.  I stood at the elevator bank for 5-6 minutes before a crew of elevator servicemen stepped off in front of me.  They had several of the elevators shut down for repair, which added unwanted delay to my time line.  I thought to myself, “That does it.  I am officially late and they will probably cancel my surgery”.

I scurried off the elevator onto the fifth floor and began trying to navigate my way through the alphabet of elevator banks.  I was looking for “Elevator F”.  I began at Elevator “A”.  The distance between each elevator bank was a minimum length of a football field winding around like a rat maze.  Stopping to ask for directions two times along the way and watching the clock, my head began to further pound.  Arriving ten minutes late at surgery check-in, the two women stood as I opened the door and began quickly shuffling papers for signature.  They were very polite but I felt tension which I am sure was self-induced.  Once the paperwork was complete, I was ushered back to the surgical prep area where I found my lovely, bed, gown, hair cap, and the very obtrusive vitals machine.

I stood silently overlooking the bed trying to collect my thoughts when in popped Joyce.  I can call her Joyce instead of Mrs. Williams or Nurse Williams because Joyce and I made an instant connection.  She had a smile that lit up the room and a twinkle in her eye that told me this is a woman of great faith.  We exchanged salutations and then proceeded to get down to business.  Joyce hooked me up to the blood pressure machine and quickly learned that my blood pressure was in the “red” and would need to lower before I could have surgery.  Thus the explanation for the pounding head- ache was understood.  Joyce told Bill, who had arrived later behind us, to pull up a chair and get comfortable because we would be there longer as we needed to wait for the blood pressure to lower into a safe zone.  Joyce was there to prep me for surgery but that wasn’t the business that we attended to over the next two hours.

She and Bill also found a kindred spirit at they joked and laughed about the fact that her real job was janitor, pushing a broom.  This thirty-year nurse veteran told us how she told her patients that she was actually a promoted janitor.  She explained that inserting an IV needle is the same motion used when pushing a broom.  Demonstrated to us by pulling her arms back and pushing forward, she laughed recalling some of the expressions on patience faces when she shared this with them.  One thing led to another when quietly she asked me what is my favorite hymn.  I told her that Amazing Grace would certainly take a top spot as I thought of others that I dearly love.  Joyce took a seat beside my bed as the blood pressure machine made its occasional hiss, she began to quietly sing in a mellow tenor voice,  Amazing Grace, directly to me.  When the last verse was finished, she picked up in our conversation sharing her personal story of breast cancer.  She too is a survivor at MD Anderson having one breast removed, without reconstruction.

Joyce spoke of the importance of having the breast cancer gene screen (BRCA) performed for our daughters.  Also, Joyce shared how she hesitated to have the test because she didn’t want her daughters to be burdened by the news of an almost certain diagnosis for them if her test came back positive.  She contemplated the pull of a mother’s love and concern for not wanting to burden her daughters with a positive report vs. feeling selfish for not having the test and being able to allow them to make a decision to have their breasts removed.Breast Cancer is a terrible disease.  However, Joyce spoke with such joy about all that she had been through.  I listened intently and thought of all that I had been through as well.  I began to thank God for placing me there at that moment with Joyce and Bill.  I felt the presence of the Lord ministering to me through Joyce as Bill asked her to sing her favorite hymn.  The words are so beautiful and the message of this song solidified in truth, my heart wants to share:

HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Chorus:
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Chorus

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Joyce’s job was complete with me.  Tears rolled down my cheeks, knowing that God sent her to deliver his word of truth to me, His Sparrow.   The hissing machine indicated my blood pressure moving closer and closer to the safety zone.  Joyce began to gather her things to leave.  I asked if I would see her again after surgery and her answer was “likely not”.  God places people in our paths every day to minister His truth and love.  Today, that person was my new found sister in Christ, Joyce.  The “I am Finished” stake was about to be driven in my fight against Cancer as the anesthesiologist wheeled His Sparrow down the hallway to surgery.  His eye is on the sparrow, and He graciously watches over you and me.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”  John 14:1

Count Down to Colombia

In two days, on June 23, a group of twenty will embark on a trip to Medellin, Colombia where we will minister to street children as well as families in a particular neighborhood of the city.   Of the twenty people that will be traveling together, nine are members of Grace Fellowship, three are from Colombia, and the remaining eight are from around the Houston area with the exception of one being from Minnesota.  We will introduce the team to you in upcoming posts.

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Medellin is a city with a close proximity to the equator at an altitude of 5,000 feet sitting in a valley in the Andes Mountains.  It is home to more than three million people.  Medellin is the center of the textile industry in South America and is today, a modern, vibrant city.  However, scattered along the hillsides surrounding the city are many makeshift communities that are home to the poor and displaced people of Colombia.  It will be in these out lying areas of Medellin that our team of twenty will converge to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need.  While there, we will post to the Grace blog as often as we have Internet service, hopefully once a day.

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Isaiah 1:17, encourages us with these words: “Learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless, and plead the case of the widow.”  Over the next week, it is our group’s desire to be obedient to the call of Christ as His instruments of love and grace among the lost, oppressed, fatherless and window in Colombia.  Also while in Colombia, we will share with our new friends about the unreached people groups (UPG’s) in the 10/40 window around the world.  As our team ministers, we will incorporate the Grace Fellowship adopted UPG’s into our games and activities in order that by the end of the week, we will be able to conduct a concert of prayer with our new Colombian friends, having made aware to them the Grace mission focus of the Bonjar, Makassar and the Bugis people.  We will also be playing games with new sports equipment we will take to leave behind as well as craft activities with string and yarn.

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Our families and friends cheering us on in the USA are as important on this trip as those of us who will actually be in country.  Without your support, a trip like this would be more difficult.  As Paul said in his letter to the church at Phillippi in Phillipians 1:3-6, “I thank my God every time I remember you, in all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”.

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Our group is comforted by the tremendous amount of prayer support that we will receive from all of our friends and family at Grace Fellowship as well as those who are supporting us from other places.  So just as Paul stated, we too are thankful every time we remember you!   It is our desire and prayer that anyone who has sight of this blog page will prayerfully consider making a short-term mission.  It has been our experience that the Lord wants to do as much ministering to us while we are away as he wants to use us to minister to others in far away places.  Bill and I along with the rest of our mission team invite you to follow this blog and enjoy the experience this next week in Medellin, Colombia.  You really won’t want to miss all that God is going to do in and around us!     Sandy Byrd

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Faith of Our Fathers! Living Still

Between the green hardback cover of my grandmother’s Melodies of Praise hymnal, is a treasure of yellowing pages speaking of God’s goodness to His people, a testimony of His power and, a call to complete surrender.  I hold Melodies of Praise second only to the Holy Scripture as God delivered His message  through inspired words composed to music.  Just as David, the lowly shepherd boy played his harp to soothe King Saul in 1 Samuel 16, the legacy of God’s message lives on in song.

Melodies of Praise

I recall my grandmother whom I called Mamaw, often leading the “song service” in our small, country, church.  The church used  one particular hymnal, titled, Melodies of Praise.  Mamaw kept her own copy and wrote in pen in the back, a list of her favorite songs to lead.   I would be remiss if I didn’t share a portrait of this  woman of faith.  She loved to “put-on-the-dog” in the way that she dressed.   For those of you who grew up in small town America know what I’m talking about when I say “put-on-the-dog”.  I can picture her in an ankle length dress which was usually in a shade of red, accented with matching “ear bobs”, brooch, a pair of pumps that would today make the cover of Cosmo and wag the tongues of many jealous women.  She also adorned her fingers, which were always well manicured, with lots of sparkling diamonds.  Her hair was fixed to perfection, piled high on her head and sprayed stiff so that it would hold in place for a few days.  She could belt a tune, as could most of the women on her side of the family, which is why we were often under her direction for song worship at church.  The more she sang and the Spirit moved, the less she could control her feet.  She would begin skipping around the platform in front of the congregation.  Her hair wouldn’t move but the skirt of her long dress was in full swing.  As a young girl watching this action before me, I couldn’t help but wonder how she kept the whole gig going as she skipped around singing, clapping and keeping her balance in her very high heeled pumps.

Mamaw’s list of favorite Hymns
Faith of Our Fathers! Living Still

If you have never experienced a “song service” in an Assembly of God church on a Sunday evening, life is not in you, friend.  As my Aunt Patty would strike the first chord on the piano and the faithful electric guitarist, Mr. Finch or, my Uncle, Nicky Monigold would pick the string of the same note, Mamaw would raise her right hand out in front of her as if she were leading a choir of a thousand angelic voices.  Her right arm swooped down with power and authority to begin the first note.  As the piano rang and voices raised, the walls and the ceiling in the small wood framed church began to vibrate.   For the next hour, sometimes two, the church shook.   At school on Monday, my friends, who often sat outside the building on their bicycles during the Sunday evening service, made comments about the noise coming from behind the church doors the night before.  However, what they considered noise, was a long legacy of faith delivered in song.

There have been many times throughout my life that I have opened the pages of  Mamaw’s hymnal.  At times, to live again the days of old with a good laugh as I remember the little church vibrating off its foundation,  or to find peace and comfort in a particular song.  There have been other times like today that I pulled the book from the shelf for no particular reason except to be sure the words were still on the pages of this very old friend.  Settling into my comfortable reading chair, I allowed the green cover and aged pages to casually fall open in my lap.  Immediately, I waifed a hint of Este Lauder, Mamaw’s signature perfume.  Looking down at the fading black ink on the yellowing page, 60, was the song titled:  Faith of Our Fathers!  Living Still.

Faith of our fathers, living still in spite of dungeon, fire and sword;

Oh how our hearts beat high with joy, whene’er we hear that glorious word

Faith of our fathers, holy faith!  We will be true to thee till death!

Our fathers chained in prisons dark, were still in heart and conscience free:

How sweet would be their children’s fate, if they, like them, could die for thee!

Faith of our fathers, holy faith!  We will be true to thee till death!

Faith of our fathers we will love, both friend and foe in all our strife;

And preach thee too as love knows how, by kindly words and virtuous life!

Faith of our fathers, holy faith!  We will be true to thee till death!

His Still Small Voice

 

I am down to the last three days before surgery.  It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride due to the plastic surgeon rescheduling twice from the original date.  His office called on Friday to tell me that I would now be scheduled for Thursday instead of Tuesday and that they could not give a surgery time until Wednesday, the day before.  Yet another preparation began.  After three scheduled dates, I began wondering if I am meant to have the mastectomy at all and maybe this is God’s way of telling me to turn around and go the other way.   In reality, I am always looking for an escape route when it comes to difficulties in life.  However, I realize I will not escape this trial and must press forward.

In the same conversation with the scheduler, I was told that I was to arrive at MD Anderson on Monday afternoon to consult once again with Dr. Selber, the plastic surgeon.  Also, after that appointment, I was to go to the research lab and participate in a project that will study the physical and emotional effects of reconstruction after mastectomy.  I intended to inform them that they should study the emotional effects of preparing for three different surgery dates and the physical effects that their plastic surgeon was about to endure from the lunatic of a woman presently called his patient.   Frankly, the description of the study sounded a whole lot more fun than any part of this ordeal to date, so I agreed to bare all after my visit with the surgeon.

I had been sitting in the very comfortable waiting area of the breast center at MD Anderson for thirty minutes, when Dr. Selber’s nurse walked through and announced loudly that Dr. Selber was running an hour behind schedule.  I wasn’t surprised given the history of my surgery dates so I settled back and began to study the people around me.  An hour of watching people with horrific scars; a missing eye ball, a neck cut from ear to ear, a jaw and throat distorted and the more mild cases of, women with sore chests and backs, I could feel myself again giving into fear.  This fear did not subside as I was called back, disrobed and climbed onto the table for examination.  There was something very comforting about having Bill with me during the last visit with the surgeon despite hiding his entire head behind a 7” x 9” IPad as I stood with my gown wide open for the surgeon and two nurses to assess the plan.  Bill has obviously never lost his modesty during medical exams and birthing children.  This time, I did not have Bill’s embarrassed face to give comic relief to the situation as I thought I could handle the second consultation on my own.

Dr. Selber entered and we conversed briefly when I saw him reach for a black Sharpy pen.  He asked me to stand as he measured and drew lines from my neck to my hips.  A couple of times, he rolled his stool backwards, tilting his head from side to side as an artist would do to admire his work.  He then asked me to stand in front of the mirror so that he could explain exactly how he would go about removing and reconstructing.  When I turned to face the mirror, doubt set in like a piece of cement.  Had I had any clothing on, I would have high hurdled the exam table and hit the door in a full sprint!  He asked me to get back on the table and he would have his nurse come in to sign release forms.

The door closed behind and I could feel my breathing raise to a level of hyperventilation.  Anxiety had reached its peak.  All I could think to do, as I have done often since January, was pray for peace and assurance.  I said Lord, please show me that I am where you want me to be at this moment.  I am scared to death.  Let me feel your peace and strength in this upcoming surgery.  I need your assurance today.  Your word says that you will never leave me nor forsake me.  Thank you for bringing me this far in this journey.  I pray In Jesus name, Amen.

The nurse came in. I signed all of the appropriate forms, releasing my life into the hands of the young doctor.  I stepped back into the waiting room to listen for my name to be called for the research appointment.  I didn’t go back to my original seat but chose a different seat across the room.  I sat down and glanced to my right.  There on the table next to my chair, a handwritten note on the inside cover of a small book, with the front cover folded back, caught my eye.  “To the person who takes this book, I have prayed for you!  Lean on Jesus during this time and He will carry you through victoriously.  He is our Redeemer, Healer and Friend.”  Signed with a cross inside a heart.  I placed myself back into the hands of Jesus, thanking Him for my answer.   I then prepared to have a grand time in the research lab.

Stuck Like Paste

God has a way of gifting us with special treasures throughout the course of life.  Certainly by the time a person reaches the half-way  mark, looking back and admiring these treasures becomes a little more frequent and better appreciated.  Recently, I reflected on my early school years.   Remembering years past, many of life’s treasures came to mind, particularly, the blessing of growing up with my best friend, Jennifer.

Jennifer Freeman 1st Grade

Upon entering Mrs. Pattison’s first grade class at Katy Elementary, where I first met Jennifer, my small world suddenly began to expand.  My eyes opened to the cycle of a chicken and the hatching of baby chicks.   Mrs. Pattison brought her old hen from home and placed the hen and her nest of eggs in the very center of our desk circle.  We were allowed to observe the hen on her nest as one by one, the eggs hatched.  It was during that time that Mrs. Pattison found it fitting to offer an indoor picnic complete with fried chicken and buttered bread.   We learned the lesson of the chicken: from egg, to frying pan, to dinner plate.  Story time was a treat as she sat in her adult size rocker, in the reading circle, while the class leader for the day was allowed to take the place of honor next to her in a small, child size rocker.  She taught us to use our blunt scissors to cut around the lines.  We also learned that paste was for sticking, not licking.  As first graders, being the keepers of paste and scissors in our cigar boxes placed in our desks was a sure sign that we were well on our way to successful futures.  All of these life lessons were of utmost importance but will never compare to the lessons of friendship gained during that first grade year with Jennifer, and in the many years that followed.

Sandra Oliver 1st Grade

I cannot say today at what point I realized I had a best friend but it was very early on in the year of 1968 that Jennifer and I became inseparable.  She was outgoing and I was extremely shy.  Jennifer, being the oldest of four girls, was used to watching out for others and taking charge.  She was bold and confident.  I found much security in her personality.  She was the leader and I, the follower.  If school was the game for the day, she was the teacher and without question, I was the obedient student.  Jennifer challenged me to step outside my comfort zone to reach a step beyond the farthest that I had ever been at any given time.  After all, Jennifer was the inventor of adventure.  There was never a dull moment as we spent hour after precious hour discovering the world, dreaming, pretending, and reaching into the future.  Upon Jennifer’s insistence, we became “blood sisters” by pricking our index fingers and rubbing them together “like the Indians”.   This was a double top-secret act only witnessed by one of her younger sisters.   This ceremony was to seal our bond into eternity.  She spent tremendous energy convincing me that pricking my finger was not going to hurt.  As the leader, convincing me to follow was always her duty and so, we completed the pact.

Our friendship strengthened over the years as we experienced life and grew into the women that God intended us to be.  We drifted away from each other in high school as school activities pulled us in different directions.   Upon graduating from high school, we took with us the memories that brought us to that point in time and began raising our own families.   As the years ticked away, I reminisced often about our special childhood.   One particular memory that is etched in my mind today was the time that she instructed me to lick the mineral syrup wheel in the cow pasture followed by rinsing my mouth with muddy pond water.  Today, I cannot remember why, but I am quite sure that she had good reason for me to perform this feat.  It probably had something to do with that same Indian tribe.

Jennifer with daughter Ellen

I believe that God ordained our friendship and enjoyed watching us together as children so much that He willed us into each other’s paths again.  Several years ago, we found ourselves living as neighbors a few doors down from one another.  Though older and wiser after thirty years, our roles when together have not changed and we picked up right where we left off.  Jennifer is still the leader and I am still the follower.  We are once again enjoying each other’s company through words spoken and unspoken.  We have stepped into the changing waters of mothering and grand mothering and are trying to figure out our places in this new chapter of life.  Reconnecting with my blood sister, confidant, adventurous friend has reminded me that even with the passing of time, and the ups and downs of life, our blood sister bond is in fact, like the Indians, sealed for eternity and our friendship will forever remain stuck like paste.

Sandra aka "Honey"

Gnarly Beans

Tis the season once again!   It’s the day before the stuffing of the big turkey and stuffing of self.  The preparations for Thanksgiving have been going on all week as the women in our family try to determine who is bringing what dish and which family member does or does not care for a certain vegetable, casserole, or dessert.  After all, this is a time when everyone must find total happiness and contentment in one exaggerated meal.  It is the duty of the cooks to verify which of the traditional or nontraditional foods will bring the most satisfaction to the stomachs of everyone feasting.

Case in point, my assignment this year is to cook a pot of fresh green beans while our daughter, Katherine will prepare the traditional green bean casserole.  We will serve two green bean dishes to promote thankfulness among the tribe as we all indulge ourselves with more food than any of us need.  I tried to wrap my mind around this phenomenon and find thankfulness in my own heart as I stood over the kitchen counter snapping the enormous pile of gnarly green beans. 

I began by pouring the pile of beans onto the counter top.  As I studied the task before me, I noticed a very eclectic pile of raw beans.  Knowing that these fresh beans are surely going to bring thankfulness to the heart of someone whom I love, I began to sort through and snap the large heap.  Each bean had to be handled individually.  I noticed that some beans were more maturely developed than others.  Some had scars that caused them to become deformed; some of the beans had withered on the vine or had holes where insects had eaten, while others appeared to be very close to perfect. 

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Staring at this simple vegetable, I pondered the object lesson before me.  It did not take long to very clearly hear the message that the Holy Spirit was teaching me.  (Yes, the Lord does speak in mysterious ways!)  The lesson is this: we are all one big pile of gnarly, green beans!  There are no two beans that are alike.  Each one has its own unique set of issues and imperfections.  Just as I handled the green beans, He handles each of us, looking at our scars and deformities, snapping the ends that need to be snapped in order to produce in the end, a beautiful pile for His glory.

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As we gather around the Thanksgiving table tomorrow, before I lift my fork, I am going to give thanks for all of the gnarly beans at the table, not only those on my plate but most certainly for the ones I love so dearly, those sitting in the chairs around me, whose lives are being snapped in order to bring God the most glory.  Thank you, Lord for the blessing of these gnarly beans.

First Bow Blood

I poured a cup of coffee early this morning and decided to enjoy it on the patio.  Upon opening the back door, a freshness in the air struck me.  It was much cooler and crisper than it had been in many months.  I walked across the patio and took a seat in my favorite porch rocker.  There is something powerful about a warm cup of coffee, with extra cream, combined with cool, crisp air that brings contentment to my  soul.  Reflectively sitting in the rocker, the change in the air brought about thoughts of opening deer season.  Our son, Ryan called yesterday to tell us that he was on his way to Weimer, Texas with his friend Mr. John Zuilhof to bow hunt. This news was no surprise. His passion for hunting of any kind runs deep in his blood.

Double Whammy Trophies in South Texas

As I thought about Ryan’s hunt, special childhood memories of my life warmed my heart.   I remembered my dad, holding a flashlight to illuminate the path while “running” mink traps along the rice canals and road ditches.  I also have flashbacks of trailing beagle dogs chasing rabbits, darting between clumps of tall grasses on the Katy prairie.  As an older child, I anxiously waited  for my dad to return home from deer hunting, anticipating a big buck in the bed of his truck.  Those were the days before cell phones and so it was always a surprise whenever Dad would pull into the driveway with a deer because he had no way of phoning ahead to report the news.  It was during these adventures that my dad taught his children life lessons which have been passed down to him by his dad, and would continue being passed down through generations.  As a child, I didn’t realize the memories formed or lessons learned through observations made with him in the wilderness.  It is only now as an adult that I can truly appreciate these precious moments in time that I wish I could relive

Bill Delivering Hunters to the Blinds

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Based on the environment in which I grew up, it was only natural that I would be attracted to, and one day marry a man who thrived on pulling a trigger or throwing a lure into the water.  It is what I know.   So, I sat in the quietness of the beautiful morning, enjoying my  cup of  delicious coffee and recalling the special time that our family has enjoyed together whether we hunkered down in a hole in the ground, covered with white rags waiting for snow geese to land in a frozen rice field, sitting quietly high in a tree, in the woods wondering if the big one would step in front of us, or riding in a tower on top of an all-terrain vehicle scoping out Javelina hogs and Bobcats in the wild brush of south Texas.  Hunting is one of life’s greatest pleasures for our family.

Papaw

With a slight breeze blowing and the sun beginning to rise, my thoughts were lost recalling  fond memories of our son, Ryan and his obsession with guns starting at the age of two.  Anywhere that Ryan was, I could count on finding a toy rifle or pistol within his short reach.  Ryan’s obsession with guns grew as he was allowed to hold, with supervision, his Papaw’s long rifles and shotguns. When he was strong enough to hold and balance a rifle,  Papaw bought Ryan his first gun; a very small .22 youth rifle.  Thus began many years of imparting hunting skills and life lessons into a child.  He was barely six years old the first time that my dad took him deep into the woods along with his hunting dogs to chase, corner and capture wild hogs.  His instruction to Ryan was to hold on to his back pocket and not to let go in order that Ryan would not be left and lost in the thicket.  Ryan was only eight when my dad sat with him in a tree stand, in a massive old oak tree, and instructed him when to pull the trigger in order to bring to the table, Ryan’s first buck.  There were some mornings in past seasons, that I took Ryan to hunt in the early morning hours, before school.  Loaded with a thermos of coffee and a warm blanket, I sat in the truck, listening for a shot.  Ryan has killed many deer and mounted a few as prize trophies since his first experience.  Using skills learned from his dad and Papaw, he has guided others to shoot their first trophy.

Beth Zuilhof's first trophy hunt guided by Ryan

About midway through my first cup of coffee, I was softly brought back to the moment at hand by the quiet ding of a text message from my cell phone.   It caught my attention because I generally do not get text messages so early in the morning.  Picking up my phone, I tapped on the screen.  Before my eyes, was a single snapshot with no caption.  The picture of a deer on the ground with an acutely accurate placement of the arrow to the vitals.  The photo said it all.  This kill would go down in history as Ryan’s first deer killed with his Matthews bow.  He has been hunting for five seasons with his bow prior to contacting his target today.  A progression of bow skills gained by many hours of dedicated practice along with the lessons of life passed down have brought him to this day. Excitement stirred my heart as I stared at the photo of Ryan’s first blood with his bow.  Ryan has proven himself fully equipped to continue the legacy of hunting into the next generation.

Dedicated Practice

Leaders Not Repeaters

I called our oldest daughter, Lauren to tell her that her dad and I were leaving town.  We would be spending three days in downtown Chicago and then traveling to a suburb of Chicago called Shumburg, to attend Family Life Marriage Conference.  Our adult children are very familiar with Family Life Marriage Conferences.  As they were growing up, Bill and I would sign up for the two-day get-away conference about every five years as we have found it necessary to review every so often, why God has joined us together.  We have found the conference extremely helpful for reminding us of God’s unique design for marriage and that He in fact gifted us to each other; for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, AND we are to like it and be happy about it, until death we do part! We have found the conference knocking us to our senses on more than one occasion. Family Life has been such a great tool for our marriage that when Lauren married her husband, Neil, we insisted on treating them to the conference weekend. We wanted to insure that they would start out on the right side of two-becoming-one.  On the day that I called Lauren, the conversation went something like this: “Your dad and I are going to Chicago for the Colliers real estate conference and then at the end of the week, we’ll attend Family Life.” Silence ensued on the other end of the line… after several seconds, Lauren quipped, “I hope you’re going as leaders and not repeaters.” I realized at that moment that she must believe that couples get to a point of “arrival” in marriage and in her mind, her parents should have arrived.  She and Neil, being married for six years, are obviously still in the early stage of, “to have and to hold”.

Arriving Friday evening, we entered the grand ballroom of the hotel where we proudly took our seats, front and center. There were over 400 couples in the room. As I scoped out the other couple participants, I took note of several “to-be married”, “just married”, “happily married for ten years or less”, and some “should have never married”. When the master of ceremonies asked for those married thirty years or longer to please stand, I fluffed my hair, straightened my tiara and stood with a straight back to receive the well deserved congratulatory applause. I turned to take my imaginary bow, my tiara sparkling. As I proudly faced the audience, I noticed only two or three other couples who fell into our age group.  My tiara began a slow slide from my gloating head.  If I had remembered my magic wand, I would have swirled it in the air, vanishing Bill and myself  from the room. With all eyes locked on us, I could only imagine the thoughts in the minds of these young couples who were the same ages as our children. Were they, like Lauren thinking that we belonged in the “should be graduates” group?  By all appearance, we did in fact fall into the same age category as the couple leading the weekend.

Family Life is committed to changing families, one marriage at a time. The conference touches on all the potential home wrecking topics such as: child rearing, submission, respect, and communication, just to name a few. This was our fourth time as attendees and we have found that with each conference, there is a new thought or idea that opens our eyes and catches our attention. I could only pray that this would be the case on this particular weekend if I was going to swallow my pride and rub elbow to elbow with this crowd of young marrieds.

As it happened, we shared our hotel with approximately one hundred very tall, capable high school basketball players. They were in Shumburg for a weekend basketball camp sponsored by Under Armor sport clothing. Under Armor’s marketing slogan is “Protect this House”.  Bill and I found this slogan more than fitting for our purpose of repeatedly attending the conference. We too want to “protect this house”, to build a strong marital foundation upon a rock, not sand, in order that we may leave a legacy of love and commitment for future generations.  C. S. Lewis said, “There are lots of things you can do with sand; but do not try building a house on it.”  We committed long ago to continually work together on the foundation of our marriage and family.  We see this work continuing until death we do part. Therefore, that meant overlooking age and overcoming the fact that we stuck out among the group of  young people.

Once we recovered from the initial shock of being the elders in the group, Bill and I settled in with the attitude that we would use the time to knock the rust off and affirm that we are in fact building our relationship on a solid foundation.  As by God’s divine appointment, the conference did in fact hit a few corroded spots in both Bill and me.  By the end of the second day, we were refreshed and  encouraged to have behind us some of the issues that the younger couples were just beginning to tread upon, which we also had addressed in the past, as well as some issues in our lives that have developed since becoming empty nesters.  The review was good for us.  We have a greater appreciation for our past and each other and are looking forward to the next thirty years.  At the end of the conference, we recommitted our lives to each other by reciting our marriage vows and determined that we are both prepared to be leaders, not repeaters.

I Will