Beyond Outward Appearances

by Rebecca D. Higgins 

Perhaps it was the recent invitation from my alma mater inviting me to my 30-year class reunion at Homecoming this year or simply today’s date.  Whatever the reason, I found myself rummaging through my files today in search of something I had written a long time ago–back in college, to be exact!  I was a student at what was then Marion College (now Indiana Wesleyan University). One day as I walked across the campus in early 1985, one of my professors stopped me to ask if I was planning to enter the Paul W. Thomas Christian Writing Contest sponsored by The Wesleyan Church. “I don’t know anything about it,” was my response. She gave me the details and strongly encouraged me to enter. That was all the incentive I needed to sit down and write an essay that had been on my heart to write for some time. The following is the result. The bonus was that it won first place in the nonfiction category that year!

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Hands trembling, picking at imaginary threads, the wrinkled woman sits quietly in the rocking chair in the corner of the room. As I secretly observe her movements, I wonder what thoughts pass through her mind causing her to fiddle so industriously with the red and white crocheted coverlet in her lap. Turning from this occupationGrandma at Easter, she picks up the large-print Bible lying on the stand beside her and randomly thumbs its pages, pausing here and there to read a verse or two. She next peruses old church bulletins and missionary magazines—items she has read countless times before.

In the eyes of most people, this frail little lady is merely an old woman who has been robbed by time of her ability for rational thought. The sight of her stooped figure shuffling across a room with the aid of a helping hand perhaps would elicit some murmured words of pity. “What a shame! It’s too bad old people get like that.”

But I must ask myself, do I see her the same way others do? Will my memories be these last impressions of her as she is now in this the autumn of her life? Would that be fair? Hidden behind the wrinkled and shrunken exterior is the real identity of one of God’s precious children. Somewhere tucked into the recesses of her confused mind lie the remnants of yesterday’s beautiful memories—memories of the very full life that she has lived.

The room in which we now are sitting is covered with her treasures—pictures of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. In the faces of these her family, I see the true meaning of what her life has been—an unselfish giving of herself for those she loves.

Born just two years before the turn of the 20th century in a farmhouse in Fairfield, Wisconsin, she has faced the anxieties of two world wars, a depression, and many personal battles.

Grandma bows cropped

As a young girl she enjoyed school and after graduating from the eighth grade anticipated attending high school. However, that dream was pushed aside when it was decided she was needed at home to help her mother who was not well.

Later, after she had married and was living with her husband and children on another farm near Baraboo, Wisconsin, she sacrificed at mealtimes in preference of her family. She was the kind of mother who didn’t care for any pie when she knew there wasn’t enough to go around. When she served chicken, she always selected the neck or the back for herself so that her family could have the choice pieces.

She saw to it that her family was present in church Sunday morning and evening and every Wednesday midweek prayer service. Even in the midst of the Depression when money was so tight that they couldn’t afford a car, her family attended church services regularly.

The biggest sacrifice of her life was yet to come. Her oldest boy quit school after eighth grade and went to work. Her second son, upon completing his high school training, was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin. She didn’t want her boy to go to a liberal state school and prayed diligently that he would choose instead the small Wesleyan college in Marion, Indiana. She desired that her children would have the opportunity of a Christian education that she had been denied. Her prayers prevailed, and her boy turned down the scholarship and applied at Marion College.

When the superintendent of the Baraboo schools heard what had happened, he made a trip out to the farm. “Now, ma’am, I don’t think you understand what a big mistake your son is making,” he said. “You’re wrong to encourage him to go to some tiny college when he has such a golden opportunity in the form of a scholarship at the University.”

“I’m sorry you made a trip out here to tell us that,” she answered. “I prayed that my children would have the opportunity to attend a Christian school. Now God is answering my prayers.”

“You’re making a terrible mistake,” the superintendent fumed. “I’ll tell you this! If your son goes to Marion College when he has a scholarship at the University, I’ll never recommend him for a teaching position!”

In spite of the attempt to dissuade the little lady from her purpose, her son left home and enrolled as a student at Marion College in the fall of 1940.

In his first year he was a typical farm boy away from home. His letters to his mother expressed his homesickness, but although she missed her boy, she was thankful that he was receiving a Christian education. How she wished that the rest of her children could do the same! But such a thought posed a problem. If she and her husband remained on the farm, they would be unable to finance sending their remaining three children to Marion College. A decision had to be made. As always, she disregarded her own feelings and chose what was best for her children. Packing what possessions they could, she and her husband forsook everything that they knew and loved and moved their family to Marion, Indiana in 1941.

A farm woman with only an eighth-grade education, she felt inferior to the college people in her new environment. However, she enjoyed the services at College Church, and very quickly the people welcomed her with open arms and made her feel at home.

Accustomed to hard work, she wouldn’t remain at home without offering her services to those around her. She volunteered to baby-sit for married college students who had children, and many a young man at Marion College at that time was indebted to her for doing his laundry. Those were the days before permanent press, and every shirt had to be ironed and starched. She performed these tasks willingly out of the goodness of her heart.

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In 1955 her husband suffered a heart attack and died. Suddenly, she was faced with responsibilities she had never had before. She received a job working in the college kitchen. Unable to drive a car, she sold her larger house to a young family and moved into a small house within close walking distance of the church and the college. There she has lived up to the present. The doors of her little home always have been open to special prayer groups and to the college family.

Even though she filled many new roles after moving to Marion, the most important title to her remained that of “Mother.” When grandchildren entered her life, they, too, received a full measure of her love. Her cookie jar always was filled with her yummy chocolate chip cookies; consequently, little feet made frequent trips to her kitchen.

Her family has always known that she is a loving mother, but when on Mother’s Day in 1966, her church honored her as the Mother of the Year, the fact was made more meaningful. To her family it was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege for College Wesleyan Church to bypass all the college-educated mothers and select their mother as the one to honor. The church celebrated the occasion by portraying a This-Is-Your-Life drama.  All of her five children and their families were introduced. She was surprised and happy to have all of her children with her at the same time. It was a highlight for the whole family.

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Of all of her deeds of kindness and Christlike characteristics, the most important aspect of her life has always been prayer. Anyone who has sat with her at her breakfast table has shared in family devotions. Even yet, though most of the time her mind refuses to cooperate in directing her speech coherently, she still prays with intelligence and faith.. For years her prayers have held the often-repeated phrase, “Help us to be overcomers.” What a wonderful testimony to have! To be an overcomer! In these her final days when heaven seems so much nearer, she can testify that with God’s help she has overcome the trials that have come her way. Through them all, she has remained faithful. God has been her very present help staying near her in answer to the quoted words of an old hymn that she often prays:

We need Thee every hour;
Stay Thou nearby.
Temptations lose their power
When Thou art nigh.

But now I must shake myself from my reverie. It is her bedtime, and I must help her prepare for bed. Time has brought a reversal in roles. She who spent the majority of her life helping others now must rely on their aid. I see her as she is today, but in this short evening of staying with her I wanted to take a look at who she really is—a woman of love, faith, and prayer—and go on record that I for one will not forget the memories.

After her clothes are changed, her teeth removed, and she is lying in bed staring at the flowered curtains, I ask her if she would like to pray. Immediately, her eyelids close over her cloudy gray eyes, and a brief prayer from her heart parts her lips:

We come to You tonight. “We need Thee every hour; Stay Thou nearby. Temptations lose their power When Thou art nigh.” We thank Thee for this. We’re thankful that You are willing to stay with us, and we don’t have to stay alone. Stay with Beth and Becky tonight, and help them tomorrow. Give them the courage to face the problems, and help them to make the right decision and do the things they ought to do. Amen.

My heart is touched and inwardly I muse,  “Thank you for praying for me. It’s the nicest gift you could give and the best memory I could have.”

Aloud, I murmur, “Good night. I love you!”

“I love you, too, honey!” she says as moisture gathers in her eyes.

Stooping, I kiss the wrinkled cheek and again whisper, “I love you . . . Grandma!”

–written in February 1985

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Postscript:

A few months after I wrote this article about my grandmother, we had to move her from her little house into a nursing home. She lasted there about a year.  During that time, a shortened version of this article appeared in The Wesleyan Advocate–the denominational magazine at the time. I took a copy out to the nursing home, perched on the arm of Grandma’s recliner, put my arms around her so that she could see the pages, and read to her what I had written. I didn’t know if in her confused mind she would understand what it was about. When I had finished reading, I asked her, “Do you know whom that’s about, Grandma?”

Reading Grandma Advocate article 2

“Yes, it’s about your grandma.”

“It’s about YOU!” I told her.

She teared up and patted my arm. “You’re so sweet!”

A number of months later after suffering some setbacks and being taken to the Marion General Hospital, she lay in an unconscious state for a few days. Many of us who were her family gathered in her private room. We talked to her, told stories, laughed, sang songs, and most of all told her how much we loved her. We learned later that often as we were singing, nurses would tiptoe down the hall to stand outside the door and listen.

Various family members took turns staying with Grandma through the nights. On the night of June 12, 1986, my cousin and I stayed with her. After Lisa had left the next morning to go to work, I pulled out this article and read it to Grandma one more time. I didn’t know if she could hear me or understand, but I wanted to tell her once again just how much I loved her and how much she meant to me.

That night, June 13, 1986, as family members gathered around her hospital bed and sang songs of the church, my precious grandmother slipped from our arms into the arms of Jesus. I like to think that the echo of our voices as we sang, “What a Friend we have in Jesus” simply faded away as she woke up to meet Him face to face! At her funeral in the chapel at College Wesleyan Church a few days later, I read this tribute about my grandmother once again at the request of the family. Today, many years after her death, I pull it out in memory and thankfulness for the indelible imprint her love and decisions made on my life. You see, her second son whom she prayed would go to a Christian college was my dad. She encouraged him to take the less traveled road–the road of surrender to the will of Christ. In the words of Robert Frost: “That has made all the difference!”

As I soon will make my way to bed, my thoughts of my dear grandmother cause me to whisper once again, “Good night! I love you . . . Grandma!” I say it, and yet I know that for her, my “Good night” is an eternal “Good morning!”

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Homesick!

by Rebecca D. Higgins

(It was on April 17, 2000, that my father–Verdon D. Higgins–went home to be with the Lord. Not many days have gone by since then that I don’t miss him. Not many days have gone by that I don’t feel a little homesick.)

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“Yuck! I can’t believe Miss Woodring is makin’ us do a poetry notebook. I hate poetry!” was the response of some of my third-grade classmates. I didn’t join in those complaints, however, because, you see, I loved poetry. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Perhaps that’s because I had a grandmother who used to quote and even write a few poems herself, and she kept a scrapbook of the poems her son wrote–her son who later became my father.

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I still remember how my sister and I would sit side by side in the old red chair in my father’s office at our house and beg him to read or tell us a story. Oh, in the earliest years, I’m sure we heard the regular stories like Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, but those aren’t the ones that stand out in my memory. Around Mt. Carmel where he taught and served as principal, my father was famous for performing his imaginary tale about Herman, his pet lion. “Tell it again, Daddy!” my sister and I would beg at home and giggle in anticipation of his funny voices.

Daddy’s repertoire also dipped into the poetry genre as well. He didn’t dwell in Mother Goose rhymes. Instead we sat wide-eyed as he recited “Little Orphant Annie” or “The Bear Story” by James Whitcomb Riley. I learned Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” and “A Psalm of Life” and a number of my dad’s other favorites. His love for nature and the outdoors that he instilled in me came through when he quoted Joyce Kilmer’s lines, “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Sometimes he would tell us stories of growing up on the farm in Wisconsin and talk of the old farmhouse where he came into the world after a difficult birth and was not expected to live. And sometimes when he’d talk he’d get a faraway reflective look in his blue eyes as he quoted Edgar Guest’s immortalized words:

“It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home,
A heap o’ sun an’ shadder, an’ ye sometimes have t’ roam
Afore ye really ‘preciate the things ye lef’ behind,
An hunger fer ‘em somehow, with ‘em allus on yer mind.”

Funny, now that I think about it–Daddy never owned a house. A long time ago he followed Robert Frost’s advice and took “the less traveled road”–and that indeed “made all the difference.” When classmates were rushing down the road to pursue selfish pleasures of wealth and making a name for themselves, my father chose to follow God and honor His name. That decision led him to a life of faith–literally. He felt God’s call to serve in the Kentucky mountains, and in the fall of 1949 he arrived as a new teacher at a place he’d heard a lot about but never personally visited before–Mt. Carmel High School. Like the other workers, he didn’t receive a salary, but followed a pattern like that of George Mueller who went to God with his needs and trusted Him to supply–and He did.

Ten years later he married my mom, and my sister entered their hearts and home a year after that. I completed our family unit when I arrived with a bang on the Fourth of July four years later and almost immediately declared my determined and willful independence! But it was my dad who in love very early let me know that there were things about which I wasn’t quite ready to make my own decisions. I needed to eat some vegetables! I needed to be respectful to my parents and other elders. I needed discipline–not to break my will, but to train it. And did I ever get that discipline every time I loudly rebelled against my parents’ requests! (How hard is it really to eat some vegetables?!!) Some present-day psychologists would try to suggest that since my dad spanked me, I was an abused child. I know better. I can honestly say that never once do I remember my father’s spankings being done in anger–really! My father was firm but loving, and always, always told and showed that he loved me even when the spankings occurred.

In spite of the fact that my dad was the primary disciplinarian of our home, he was also very nurturing. I loved to be with him. Every summer he shed his suits and ties of the office and classroom for workpants and short-sleeved shirts and became the school’s gardener. I loved it–except for the sweating part. He sweat buckets! His clothes looked like he’d been hosed down! He started preparing for the garden weeks in advance by growing seeds in cups and trays along the windowsills of our house, but every spring also meant a trip to Keck. I always looked forward to riding along. Keck was really no more than a wide space in the road with a sign that proclaimed that it was Keck, Kentucky. But there were greenhouses there where Daddy would buy pepper plants and other things for the garden. To this day the tangy aroma of a vegetable greenhouse takes me back to those days when we would wind around the narrow mountain roads, the Kentucky mountains beginning to show the splash of color from the Divine Artist’s paintbrush–a touch of purplish pink here and there as the redbud trees began to bloom, a patch of white among the spring green leaves indicating the dogwood.

Daddy at Mill Creek

Spring and fall were times of wonderful walks together with my dad on Sunday afternoons. Oh, we had to observe “Quiet Hour” first, but then I’d come and say, “Daddy, let’s go for a walk.” And we’d head down the hill behind our house. Sometimes we’d sit on the large gray rock by the creek and marvel at how through the years the water had carved perfect circles in its base. As we sat in hushed silence, we listened to the music of the water as it rippled across the rocks on the creek bed. The birds sang sweetly in the trees, and Daddy would identify them all by their song.

As summer rolled around all of us on the Mt. Carmel campus worked hard, but if I could have had my preference I would have rather been out in the garden with my dad rather than in a stuffy house cooking or cleaning. The hot Kentucky sun would bronze Daddy’s face and arms, leaving him with the proverbial “farmer’s tan.” At night I would climb into bed with the windows open and be lulled to sleep by the symphony of the night– frogs, crickets, katydids, cicadas. I heard them last night. I almost missed it because of the hum of the window air conditioners trying to keep the temperature in my upstairs apartment tolerable, but when I went into the back room to rummage through my memories stored in boxes, the sound beckoned me to listen. I turned off the motorized noise, stepped outside onto the porch into the blackness of midnight and listened as the sounds took me home again.

But when was it that I had learned that “home” for me wasn’t so much a place but a person? I had moved away, but my carefully laid plans hit some detours within the first few months at college. Now what? I called home–I called to talk to Daddy and to hear him pray for me over the phone.

During those college years, anytime I drove back to Kentucky for a visit, my father would be watching out his home office windows for the car to pull into the yard, and then he would come to greet me with a warm welcome as I pushed open the car door.

After graduation, I worked at my church’s international headquarters for several years until one day I heard about an open door of ministry in the former Soviet Union and felt God’s call to go. On one of my visits with my parents, while sitting at their kitchen table, I shared with Mom and Dad that I felt God wanted me to go to Russia as a volunteer with CoMission. My dad’s response was what I expected. His chin began to quiver, his voice broke, and tears gathered in his eyes. “Becky, if God wants you in Russia, there’s no place I would rather have you be. It’s far away, but I would never stand in your way for anything.”

As I went through training in Kankakee, Illinois just prior to my departure for my first year with CoMission, I received the call from home that the doctors had discovered that Daddy had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. I was frightened and anxious. My dad knew that and did everything he could to reassure me. On their way to my Commissioning Service, he experienced chest pains which forced him to the emergency room in Lexington, Kentucky. However, Daddy announced to the doctor that he had to be released because his daughter was being commissioned to go to Russia. He needed to be at my commissioning. He was! He and I both knew that our limited time together was precious. Early one morning before I had to go to my required training sessions, we walked the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, ultimately finding our way to the prayer chapel. There we shared our love for each other and had a beautiful time of prayer together. Always concerned about how his problems would affect others, he told me about his prayers to God about his situation. “Now, Lord, my daughter’s going to Russia. She doesn’t need to be worrying about her old dad back home. She’s just had to say goodbye to my brother, her uncle that she loves who’s dying of pancreatic cancer. And now the doctors tell me I have an aortic aneurysm. My family doesn’t need this right now. I’ve got to have victory here!” He then confidently shared with me, “Becky, God has given me the assurance that I’ll be here when you get home.”

He and I both clung to that promise when a month after I arrived in Russia, I received the news that my dad’s brother had passed away. We clung to that promise five months later when my sister called me to inform me that my dad’s aneurysm had grown requiring immediate surgery. We clung to that promise a few weeks later when he underwent another emergency surgery to remove a gangrenous gall bladder that had almost killed him. Then when my year was over, we realized the fulfillment of the promise. As I drove up on the campus in a borrowed car and into my parents’ yard, my dad was watching from his office window. Before I could get the car door open and make it to the house, he had come to meet me. Tears glistened in our eyes. The embrace was what we both had been waiting and longing for throughout our year of separation.

God led me back to Russia two more years as a volunteer with CoMission, and my father became my most devoted and faithful supporter. He wanted to know everything. No detail was too small for him. He wanted to know the names of the people in the photos, what their stories were, and if they had come to faith in Christ. His prayers seemed to have a direct link to the Father’s throne and with me in Russia, bridging the distance between us.

When God directed me to return to Russia as a missionary with my denomination, my father never once questioned that decision or stood in my way. I knew it was hard for him to think of my being so far away in his years of deteriorating health, but all he ever wanted was for me to do God’s will.

On January 19, 1999, I was scheduled to depart from the Indianapolis airport. My parents had come to see me off.

I had probably had less than three hours of sleep in the preceding three days as I packed up and moved out of my temporary apartment, packed for going overseas, and took care of final logistics and business. I had literally moved the last of my things out of my apartment into storage that very morning, wading through crusted snow to carry things for storage to the garages of friends, then rushing back to shower and dress for my long trip. My parents’ car was piled with items they were taking back to Kentucky for me. My trunks packed for Russia were loaded into a minivan owned by Global Partners. Daddy rode along with me to headquarters, and then he got in the car with Mom to head to the airport. A mission administrator drove the van with my luggage and me to the airport, making one final stop at the bank on the way. We had sent my parents on ahead with Mom driving (Daddy no longer drove because of his Parkinson’s), telling them to meet us at the airline check-in. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the airport, there was no sign of Mom and Dad, and we had no cell phones back then with which to communicate with them. Mom had missed her exit and gotten a bit lost. They finally showed up, but by the time we were able to sit down at my departure gate (pre 9-11 security rules), I had only about 45 minutes before the boarding call for my flight.

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Anyone who knew my dad knows that the first priority when we sat down was to have prayer together. The minutes flew by all too quickly. My flight was announced, and it was time to say goodbye. A final lingering hug . . . tears . . . “I love you!” I then was walking down the retractable hallway to find my window seat in the Northwest airplane.

For some reason, my flight stayed at the gate for a while. Exhaustion brought from my hectic schedule of the preceding days took over and I fell asleep. When the plane finally began to back away from the gate, I woke up. As the plane backed around so that my window seat was parallel with the terminal, I could see my dad’s backlit silhouette in the window with my mom patting his shoulder. I did not have to see his face distinctly to know that his emotions were doubtless causing his chin to quiver and his blue eyes to glisten with moisture. I looked and waved until that cherished silhouette was no longer visible.

A few days after I returned to Russia in January 1999 for my 3-year term with Global Partners, my father sent a card in which he wrote in a shaky Parkinson’s-affected script: “Well, you are back in Russia again, and three years seems like a long time. However, as long as Russia is God’s will, then it is mine, too. I’m so glad I can say that from the depths of my heart. I am so glad you are our daughter. You have brought joy and God isn’t finished. I love you very much, Becky. A part of me is there in Russia with you. Let us hear from you. God bless you. I’ll be praying often. Lots of love, Dad”

Every time I talked to him on the phone, he would pray for me about the struggles, the burdens, the responsibilities that I carried at the Bible college and the Russian students that I taught. The last time was on Sunday, April 9, 2000. He and my mom had been in an accident a month before–an accident that had totaled their car and had left my mom with seven broken ribs and my dad bruised and sore. My sister had taken them to recuperate at her home in North Carolina.

Eight days after that April 9 phone call, I was awakened in the middle of the night the Monday after Palm Sunday to the shrill ringing of the telephone. When I picked up the receiver and heard my sister’s voice on the other end, I was immediately wide awake preparing myself for the bad news I didn’t want to hear. As she shared with me that Daddy had gone to heaven after suffering an apparent heart attack, I selfishly wished that I could have seen him just one more time, could have felt his embrace one more time, could have heard his matter-of-fact prayers one more time. But I knew how happy he was that he was finally home. As I knew that night was descending on my family in North Carolina, I watched as the first rays of dawn broke the horizon in Russia. I was reminded that what seems the darkest night for us here is daylight “over there.” And just as we were in the midst of commemorating Passion Week, the power of Easter brought with it the hope of the resurrection. I remembered how my father–who was not a world traveler (he’d only crossed the border into Canada)–had said that if he could travel anywhere in the world he’d love to visit the Holy Land. He once told me, “Oh, what a thrill it would be to see the empty tomb!” As we began that Easter week, I rejoiced for my father through my own tears and personal sense of loss that he was finally seeing– not the empty tomb– but the Risen Christ himself! He was experiencing the greatest thrill of all!

God answered prayer and got me on a flight a little over 24 hours after my sister called. On that long, lonely flight, I remembered my father’s promise the first year I went to Russia: “Becky, I’ll be here when you get home.” I turned my face to the window as tears welled in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. He wouldn’t be at the gate as the airplane landed in Cincinnati. Instead, my cousin who lived in Indianapolis would be picking me up to drive me down through the eastern Kentucky mountains that were coming alive with the colors of spring–splashes of green, the white of the dogwood, and purplish pink of the redbud trees. He wouldn’t be there to push open the screen door of his office and come to embrace me as the car drove into the yard. He wouldn’t be there to welcome me home. But then I heard it–the words whispered gently again in my heart: “Becky, Becky! I’ll be here when you get HOME!” And then I realized what it was Daddy had been teaching me all along: This isn’t home! We’re not home yet. This life of serving is just a journey to where we really belong. No, this isn’t really home, because home is where the Father is! And that’s what my earthly Daddy taught me.

Becky at Mill Creek after funeral

A trip by myself to the creek after my dad’s memorial service.

 

Daddy in Colorado (2)

A photo of my dad, Verdon Higgins, enjoying the beauty of Redstone, Colorado in 1991. Photo was taken by my cousin Brad Higgins.

 

In memory and celebration of my father, my teacher, my friend,

Verdon D. Higgins (June 29, 1922 – April 17, 2000)

DADDY IN THE CLASSROOM

One of the final photos of my dad taken in a Mt. Carmel classroom. Photo courtesy of Eldon Neihof.

 

Christmas Memories: A Book for Christmas

by Rebecca D. Higgins

We didn’t have a television in our home as I was growing up.  Now, before you exclaim about all of the shows we missed, let me be quick to say, we didn’t have time for TV.  Who has time for TV when there are swings to swing, trees to climb, creeks to wade, bicycles to ride, a whole campus where my parents worked to roam, hide-and-seek to play, leaf forts to build in the fall, plays to create with your friends and perform for your parents, softball and basketball to play, hills to sled in the winter, and more?  And, of course, we had our books. Curling up in the corner of the couch or under the covers with a flashlight at night to “just finish the chapter” . . . er. . . book, was an integral part of my early development. I devoured the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books and the Marguerite Henry series of horse stories, but quickly I graduated to much more developed plots and characters, starting at a young age to read books that often are categorized as “classics.”

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That early love for reading and literature greatly influenced my choice of a college major–English education. During the semesters that I had a course load that included three lit classes, it’s a good thing that I loved reading!

Following my college graduation, I worked for several years at the international headquarters of The Wesleyan Church as an editor in the Local Church Education Department. Besides my full-time work, my out-of-work activities seemed to revolve around the church—choir, Bible studies/fellowships, Sunday school. One day it registered that I needed to be involved intentionally in the community and not just my church. When I saw the advertisement “Literacy Tutors Needed” that was put out by the Greater Indianapolis Literacy League, I knew I had found my niche. I filled out the application and headed to the Central Public Library for the required training sessions. Once I had completed those, I eagerly waited to receive the name of the tutee selected as my match.

Kassidy (not her real name) was a tall, beautiful, soft-spoken African-American young woman. She had graduated from high school and had even attended some college (since she played basketball), but she could read only on a very low level. The truth is, she had learning disabilities that had never been diagnosed or addressed.

As a literacy tutor I had certain things that were expected of me within the Greater Indianapolis Literacy League’s course of study. Helping the students to increase their reading and writing skills was our main focus, but along with that I found that real-life skills including math became a part of our study. Besides the workbooks provided by the Literacy League, I incorporated other sources as part of our curriculum that fit in with Kassidy’s needs and wants. Learning to understand written instructions on her job was a major incentive for Kassidy. She worked with machines and needed to understand measurements, so that became a focus. I found a workbook that had written exercises with practice in using various measuring tools. The same workbook also had real-life forms such as sample bank statements that we could use so that Kassidy could develop those skills as well. I learned that she hated going out to restaurants because she couldn’t read the menu and order for herself.

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One day I stopped by the local Cracker Barrel and approached the hostess. “Do you let people take copies of your menu with them?” I asked. “You see, I’m a tutor with the Literacy League, and I would like to use your menu as a teaching tool with my student.”

“That’s wonderful!” she exclaimed.  “If they can be used to help other students, take all of these!” She handed me a stack of a dozen or more menus.

Kassidy and I met for our twice-weekly sessions at a local public library that was located most conveniently for her. After several lessons with the menu as our curriculum, I arrived one night with a surprise. “Kassidy, we’re going to leave your car here, and I’m going to take you out to eat. We’re going to Cracker Barrel. The dinner’s on me—my treat, but you’re going to do your own ordering!” As I drove to the Cracker Barrel, Kassidy started to show signs of nervousness. All of the old apprehensions were coming back. What if she blundered, made a mistake in reading the menu, and embarrassed herself? I assured her that she would not do that . . . that she was ready, and that she was safe with me. I would not put her in a position that would humiliate or embarrass her.

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At the restaurant, Kassidy told me that she’d always liked Cracker Barrel, and I did what I could to put her at ease and to feel confident in being able to read and order from the menu.  Once the ordering was done, we relaxed and just enjoyed our meal together. As we left the restaurant, Kassidy had a shy smile of accomplishment on her face. She’d done it!  Her pride in herself warmed my heart and brought an even bigger smile to my face.

I found in working with Kassidy, that we accomplished more if she had input in determining her own goals and if I selected reading sources that would pique her interest.  The newspaper became part of our curriculum—particularly the sports section!

As Christmas approached, I asked Kassidy if there were any Christmas-related readings that she especially liked. She told me that she had always wished that she could read “The Night Before Christmas” to her nieces on Christmas Eve. “Okay, Kassidy!  Let’s make that our goal!” I printed out the classic poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” penned by Clement Clarke Moore so many years ago. When we first started on our Christmas project, Kassidy struggled greatly with the words and the poetic word sequence. I had to try several different methods to help her learn to read it smoothly. Now you may be wondering if Kassidy was reading the familiar poem or if in repeating it so many times, she memorized it. One of Kassidy’s learning issues was that memorization was very difficult for her, so I can answer that question without hesitation:  she was reading!

As Christmas drew near, I visited the local bookstore in the mall. (I just realized that all of the malls near me no longer have bookstores in them. Sad indeed!  Those were the stores that I regularly frequented when I was growing up. Now kids seem to be drawn to the electronics and trendy clothing stores instead.)  Just before Christmas, Waldenbooks had put their Christmas-themed books on sale. I found a beautiful hard-backed edition of “The Night Before Christmas.” The colorful illustrations were masterfully drawn and would capture the attention and imagination of children.

At our last tutoring session before Christmas, I handed Kassidy my gift-wrapped present. I knew she would appreciate it as she read to her nieces, but I didn’t quite expect her reaction. When she saw what it was, her eyes got big. She caressed the book as though it were something very precious, carefully turning the pages and smoothing them as she thanked me and said, “People don’t give me books as gifts. I love it!”

One more time we went over the poem, reading it this time from her new book; and Kassidy read it well. I spent the final moments of our session playing the role of cheerleader—praising her, encouraging her, expressing confidence that I knew that she could read the story well to her nieces. I gave her a hug in parting.

Christmas with my family that year brought the good news that I was going to be an aunt! I found myself thanking God for the gift of being able to read. When MY niece put in her appearance, I could read her all kinds of stories with no struggle. I thought of Kassidy and wondered how her Christmas Eve story-reading had gone.  I couldn’t wait to see her again and get a report.

At our first tutoring session after the holidays, the smile on Kassidy’s face as she entered our tutoring room at the library said it all:  SUCCESS!

A few months later, I received a notice from the Literacy League about a written essay contest for literacy students. Kassidy wasn’t sure at first if she wanted to participate, but I encouraged her that it would help her to develop her writing skills further.

I will admit that the writing part of our sessions was a bit hard for me. In my regular job I worked as an editor. I got paid to mark up manuscripts! With our tutees, however, we were told NEVER to do that. Instead, we were simply to be encouragers of self-expression in written form. For the essay contest we were not to correct their writing, grammar, punctuation or spelling but help them to make the corrections themselves. My way of literacybookresizedhelping Kassidy learn to write more clearly was to ask her questions:  “What are the details of an event? What did you see? What did you hear? What did you feel? Is that a question or a statement? What punctuation should go at the end of that sentence? Now write down what you just told me.” After several different rewrites of her story, she was finally ready to submit it. The theme of the contest?  “My Favorite Gift!”

Later, the Literacy League decided to print some of the writings of the literacy students (with their permission) into a booklet form under various categories. The writings were taken from the essay contest or from a student survey that was conducted. I still have that booklet in my files. All these years later, it still warms my heart when I read Kassidy’s essay. It’s not the most polished essay ever written, but I know the work it represents and it makes me smile. Here it is in Kassidy’s own words:

My Favorite Gift

By Kassidy _____ (name changed)

     The best gift I have gotten was to be able to read the Christmas story, “The Night Before Christmas.”  About a month before Christmas, my tutor asked, “Kassidy, what is your favorite Christmas story?” I told her “The Night Before Christmas.” She asked me if I would like to read it.  I said yes.  I would like to read the story to my nieces on Christmas Eve.

     We met on Mondays and Wednesdays.  First she would read the story.  I would follow along.  Then I read. I did an awful job. I stumbled over a lot of words.  I tried sounding them out.  Sometimes it worked. She asked, “Kassidy, would it help if I made a tape of me reading the story?”  I would listen to the tape and read one paragraph at a time. Then I would read along with the tape. I worked hard. I didn’t want to miss one single word. I got where I was reading the story very well. I couldn’t believe my ears!

     Then the final evening came to meet with my tutor a few days before Christmas Eve. I read the story the last time with her. She was very proud of me I could tell.  I was proud of myself.  I exchanged gifts. She gave me the hardback book of “The Night Before Christmas.”

On Christmas Eve, my brothers and sisters and their family met at our parents’ house.  I reminded the kids that I was going to read the story to them at 9:00 p.m.  One of my nieces was very excited.  She couldn’t wait to hear the story. Nine o’clock came!  I got the kids together upstairs. At first I felt scared. As I started reading I was no longer scared. My mother overheard me reading. She told the rest of the family. They came upstairs to listen. After I finished the story my family hugged and kissed me.  My mother was especially proud of me. She knew how hard I worked on the story. She told me that all the meetings and hard work finally paid off. It was a good feeling to be able to read the Christmas story to my nieces and the rest of the family. That was my favorite Christmas gift. That’s something I will always remember.

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Even though many years have passed, I have to say as Kassidy’s tutor that it is one of my favorite gifts as well. I have found that there is more joy in giving a portion of myself for the benefit of someone else than all of the gifts I could ever receive.

May your Christmas be filled with that kind of JOY!  . . . .  After all, that is the kind of giving that Christmas is all about. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. . . .” (John 3:16a NIV). “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14a NIV).

 

Welcome to A Look Through My Lens

Featured

by Rebecca D. Higgins

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This website says my name is Rebecca D. Higgins, and it is my official name. However, most people just call me Becky. I’ve always loved stories and pictures. Sometimes the pictures are painted with words and sometimes the stories are found in pictures. Here you’ll find that I dabble a bit in both.

I once read a quote by photographer Dorothea Lange that resonated with me: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” Whether I’m looking through the viewfinder of my camera or just looking around, I have become an observer of the world around me, and I like to capture my observations in words and in pictures. My camera has indeed helped me to see the world through new eyes . . . to observe beauty in the ordinary . . . to stop to appreciate and capture moments that in our busyness we too often ignore or simply fail to see. I’ve come to value such moments—moments that remind me of God’s grace and care whether it’s while hiking woodland trails or sitting in quiet on mountain ridges or beside the ripples of creeks. In those moments I’ve come to appreciate the creative design in the delicate beauty of a butterfly’s wings, to savor the warm glow of a sunset, to enjoy the morning fog as it lifts off of the river. While those scenes and places are my preferred haunts, I have also learned to walk with eyes and heart open on crowded city streets where homeless huddle in doorways, in busy shopping malls where harried mothers try to corral cranky children, and in retirement homes where blank stares mask a person’s memories. Whispered through all of those moments has been the reminder to take the time to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a). What is God doing in that moment? What is He teaching? How is His grace at work? And how does He want me to be His hands and feet to extend the grace I have received to others? I guess you could say that the filter on my lens through which I see and write is my faith in Jesus Christ.

I invite you to come along and take A Look Through My Lens at what I see and what God is teaching me about His grace in my own life and in the lives of others.

In Remembrance

by Rebecca D. Higgins

Study Scripture: Mark 14:10-2

It was just family and a few long-time family friends who stood on the knoll to commit my grandmother’s body to the ground. My minister uncle conducted the graveside service and invited any of us who so desired to describe our special memories of Grandma. Those moments were intensely meaningful and sacred to our family as one by one we began to share: “I remember . . . .”

As I stood there surrounded by my loving family, my mind moved backward over the preceding days to the night she died. As ten of the family members circled her hospital bed and sang her into heaven, I intentionally burned the memory on my mind—who was there, the positioning of each person in the circle, the songs we sang, the moment we knew she had slipped from earth’s ties into the presence of her Lord. Why go to such lengths to imprint those moments on my mind? I wanted to remember.

In His final night with His disciples Jesus must have wanted them to do much the same thing. As He gathered the Twelve around Him to observe the final Passover meal with them, He no doubt gazed around the circle, peering intently at the countenances of the group and thought of their development over the three years of being with Him and of how far they yet had to go. He knew that before the night was over their bravado would falter and all would forsake Him and flee. So in those final moments before His Passion, He impressed on them the urgency of remembering that night.

I hesitate to compare the importance of remembering the Last Supper with my memories of my grandmother, because that final meal had such sacred significance—not for nostalgic sentiment, but as a means of grace. But one thing they have in common is the aspect of remembering.

There are places I cannot go without thinking of my grandmother. There are certain activities in which I participate to keep her memory strong.

And that is somewhat the idea represented behind observing the Lord’s Supper. It is to be done to help us to remember. What did Jesus mean when He said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19c)? Just what are we supposed to remember?

 

Protestant Communion Elements

1. REMEMBER THAT THE LORD’S SUPPER REPRESENTS CHRIST’S ATONING SACRIFICE FOR OUR SINS.

The broken bread and poured-out wine is a strong visual symbol of the broken body and shed blood of our Lord. He was broken so that we might be made whole. His blood flowed freely so that we could be set free from the bondage of sin. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that it was possible to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper unworthily—that is, to participate in the ceremony commemorating Christ’s death without fully participating in the life of Christ that frees us from the entanglement of sin.

2. REMEMBER THAT THE LORD’S SUPPER REPRESENTS THE FELLOWSHIP BETWEEN THE BELIEVER AND THE LORD.

Communions to me are among the most intimate moments in my relationship with the Lord. They are times to contemplate His overwhelming love for me that sent Him to the Cross. They are times to bow humbly before Him and thank Him that because of His willingness to go to the Cross, I can now go before God himself. They are times when I look back and ponder on His provision and presence in recent months and throughout my life.

3. REMEMBER THAT THE LORD’S SUPPER REPRESENTS THE ALL-SUFFICIENCY OF CHRIST.

Scripture records that during Jesus’ earthly ministry, He was faced with the seemingly impossible task of feeding the multitudes. But on both of the occasions recorded, He was more than enough to meet the need. He did it by breaking the bread and fish and distributing it to the hungry crowds until all were satisfied.

Evangelist Jimmy Johnson told of a time many years ago when he took a group of teens to a little church in northern California to minister in special meetings during Easter week. God moved in a powerful way as they visited in the community, passed out literature, and held preaching services each evening. By Friday night something incredible had happened. The teens had won the pool hall owner and his wife to the Lord, and true revival had swept the community.

On that Friday night before Easter, the group gathered at the church to have a communion service. They arrived to find the place packed. Some of the teens sat on the floor so the community people could have seats, but even then, there were still some individuals who had to stand. As the ministers began serving the bread and the juice, they were horrified when they quickly ran out of the elements. They did not have enough to serve the entire crowd. What could they do? Instead of allowing the circumstances to defeat the sweet spirit in the church, they were able to use the situation to highlight the sufficiency of Christ. He never runs out! He’s always enough! He’s there even when you’re not aware of His presence! He’s all we need! The elements of communion might not be enough, but Jesus Christ is!

4. REMEMBER THAT THE LORD’S SUPPER REPRESENTS A TIME OF UNSELFISHLY SERVING AND SHARING WITH OTHERS IN THE BODY OF BELIEVERS.

Some of the most memorable and meaningful communion services don’t always take place in stately cathedrals as Dr. Rich Eckley so aptly illustrates. On a church canoeing expedition with a group of men and young boys, Rich had taken along the elements to serve communion at one point on their trip. However, as so easily happens on canoe trips, the supplies in the boat got wet and the bread was ruined.

When it was time to observe communion around the campfire, the only thing they had to use was one hamburger bun. Rich shared with the group from Paul’s epistles about the body of Christ and how young men and older men can learn from each other. Each person has a part to play in building and edifying others in the body. Rich then took the hamburger roll and broke it symbolically to represent the broken body of our Lord. But as he looked around the circle of approximately 35 men and boys, he realized that one hamburger bun really wasn’t enough, so he said, “Listen, guys, I want to caution you—don’t take very much. Make sure everyone gets a piece.” He then handed over the two halves of the roll to be passed around the circle.

When everyone had broken off a piece of bread and Rich had collected the halves, they appeared to be almost as large as at the beginning. Rich looked around the campfire and noticed that each person was holding a tiny crumb of bread in his hand. The lesson to be learned from that hamburger roll was this: each individual around that fire had thought about the person to whom he was going to pass the bread, and each person wanted to make sure that his neighbor had a piece. Rather than breaking off a large chunk, they all had thought of others first.

That is the way it is to be in the body of believers for whom Christ died.

5. REMEMBER THAT THE LORD’S SUPPER REPRESENTS THE UNIVERSALITY OF CHRIST’S LOVE.

I have two specific communions that stand out in my memory for similar reasons.
The first was at an international women’s convention for my denomination. For several days those of us in attendance had been stirred and challenged through workshops and special evening rallies. The convention culminated in a Sunday morning worship service to be concluded with the observance of the Lord’s Supper. As I waited to partake of the elements, I looked around at the diverse races and cultures represented in the gathering. When the minister gave us the cue, the entire group partook of the elements in unison as one body. Suddenly, I felt hands behind me embrace my shoulders as someone whispered in my ear, “I’m so glad you’re my sister in Christ.” I turned to look into the beautiful face of a lady from Guyana. Though the color of our skin was different, and we hailed from different countries and cultures, we were united because of the sacrifice of Calvary. We were both part of the family of God.

The other communion that comes to mind took place in a football stadium with thousands in attendance. It, too, was an international denominational gathering. However, it was not my denomination. As I celebrated the Lord’s Supper with my fellow believers, I was reminded that it is humans who get hung up by barriers of gender, race, culture, and denomination, but Christ “is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier” (Ephesians 2:14a), and “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

6. REMEMBER THAT THE LORD’S SUPPER COMMEMORATES NOT A DEAD JESUS, BUT A CRUCIFIED AND RISEN SAVIOR.

There is a country cemetery just outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin, that contains the gravestone for my grandmother. I could go there and know that the piece of granite marks the site of her earthly remains. But I can’t do the same with my Lord. While the Scriptures record that there most certainly was a grave, they also proclaim the wonderful news that it is empty! When I observe communion, however, I don’t just think of an empty tomb. I visualize a rough, blood-spattered cross on which Jesus gave His life for me. For without the Cross, there would be no Easter; but without Easter, the Cross would be meaningless.

What do you remember when you observe communion? Take some time today to reflect on the Lord’s Supper and commit to live your life in such a way that it clearly proclaims, “Lord, I remember.”

(This article first appeared in Teacher Helps, Spring 2000, Volume 8, No. 3, Published by Wesleyan Publishing House, P. O. Box 50434, Indianapolis, Indiana 46250-0434.)

Carry Me

by Rebecca D. Higgins

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God” (Psalm 15:1-2a NIV).

 

“CARRY ME!” I looked at the trusting eyes and outstretched arms of my two-year-old second cousin Michelle; and without hesitation, I did what she asked. When I saw the frailty of Michelle’s leukemia-ridden body, there wasn’t anything that I wouldn’t have done for her.

It was summer 1975, and my family was in South Carolina for a few days of vacation with relatives. On this particular day, we had taken Michelle and her grandmother to visit a distant cousin. While the adults chatted inside the house, my sister and I entertained Michelle with a game of hide-and-seek in the yard. But Michelle’s weakened state caused her to tire easily and prompted her request to be carried.

Suffer the Children resizedLater, in the car, as Michelle’s childish voice sang the words, “Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong,” I thought how true it was for Michelle.

It was then that it dawned on me what Christ meant when He said, “Unless you become as little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He wants us all to have the simple trust of a child that recognizes her own weakness and who relies solely on a greater strength.

I haven’t forgotten that lesson in trust, and so I often whisper, “Lord, I’m weak, but You’re strong, so . . . please, carry me!” I rest assured knowing that I am sheltered in His loving arms.

Thought for the day: Trust is surrendering ourselves completely into God’s arms without trying to get down and walk on our own strength.

(This devotional first appeared in Light from the Word, Fall 1989, Vol. 38, No. 1., published by Wesleyan Publishing House, P.O. Box 50434, Indianapolis, Indiana 46250.)

Instruments of Christ’s Peace

by Rebecca D. Higgins

Charity Toys for Christmas

Sometimes when your own heart hurts, volunteering to help others brings with it a sense of peace and healing. Yesterday afternoon after one of the shopping sessions at Lexington, Kentucky’s Faith and Community Christmas Store, one of the volunteer personal shoppers came back with her empty cart to the starting point. She was in tears. When asked about it, she shared that the woman she had just helped find gifts for her children was celebrating being clean and sober. For the first time in three years she was going to be spending Christmas with her children. Stories like that are what make ministries like the Christmas Store worthwhile.

At the end of the shift, I was thanking volunteers for coming and giving their time and love. As this woman started to leave, I commented on the story she had shared earlier and thanked her for being a blessing to that mother. We talked about the busload of middle school kids who had helped during that shift, and she remarked on how important it was that they learn to share with others. “I took my son a number of years ago to help at something like this,” she told me. “When we got home, he wanted to clean out his closet and toys and donate them.”

“That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed. “Allowing children to be a part of these kinds of ministries helps them develop a greater appreciation for what they have and a generous heart to share with those in need. You’re a good mom for teaching your son that.”

Suddenly, her voice broke and tears gathered in her eyes. “My son passed away a few years ago.”

“I am so sorry!” I exclaimed as I instinctively wrapped her in a hug. We talked for a few more moments before she went on her way, and I oriented the new set of volunteer personal shoppers for the next shift.

Last night I replayed that conversation when I got home. I found myself praying for two mothers. One mother was grieving the loss of her son and not being able to spend any more Christmases with him. Even though there was an empty place in her heart, she didn’t hesitate to share the joy of another mother who, after the messiness of her life, was finally being reunited with her children for Christmas. Somehow I believe that sharing that other mother’s joy was healing and a good way to remember and honor her own son’s generous spirit.

No matter what problems or pain we may be experiencing this Christmas season, may we find healing and joy in allowing ourselves to be instruments of Christ’s peace for others who are hurting.

The Problem with Fair-weather Fans and Friendships

by Rebecca D. Higgins

“How was your weekend?” The typical Monday morning question floated over the office cubicle partitions as I prepped my computer programs for work on my first day back from vacation.

The co-worker to whom the question had been directed answered tersely: “Terrible!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry! What happened?” Concern poured from the voice of the questioner.

Crowd on the stadium

A halfhearted chuckle accompanied the explanation from my co-worker. “Oh, it was just the game!” [The University of Kentucky vs. Georgia football game] She went on to say, “I am so through with them!”– a sentiment I frequently hear voiced in regards to the UK football team. While known for its storied basketball program, UK is not known to be a football powerhouse. Many “fans” who are accustomed to cheering for a highly ranked, winning team when it comes to basketball just don’t seem to have patience with the football program. I call them fair-weather fans! They’re fans just as long as the team gives them what they want . . . wins! It’s all about what’s in it for them. After a loss they have nothing good to say about the players, coaching staff, or the officials. They don’t realize that just maybe the team needs their support even when they’re not doing well. I’ll be perfectly honest! I don’t have much patience for fair-weather fans!

You see, that’s just not the way I was raised! My father taught me by example that you don’t just cheer for a team when it is winning; you support it when it struggles. In fact, that may be the time when it needs the most support. My dad was a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan . . . need I say more?!!! If he were still around to listen to the call of their games on the radio (which is what he did his whole life since he didn’t get the TV broadcasts), he would have been pleased with how far they went this year. He never let their lengthy losing streak deter him from pulling for them and believing that they were worth his support.

It’s not hard to understand that since my dad had no toleration for fair-weather fans that he also taught that fair-weather friends really weren’t friends at all. We all know the type. They’re your declared “friends for life” as long as you meet their expectations, as long as you do what they want, as long as you are successful, as long as you are winning. But when you no longer measure up to what they expect, when you don’t give them what they want, when you experience setbacks and failures, they seem to disappear. Perhaps they think your failures might be contagious, and they certainly wouldn’t want to experience that in their own personal lives. They don’t seem to realize that friendship isn’t just about getting, but it’s also about giving. It’s about being there for the other person . . .even when that person fails, even when the person doesn’t meet expectations, even when the person is at his or her very lowest.

My dad was my high school principal at the private Christian boarding school where I grew up. He spent his whole life investing in young people. He understood that sometimes high school kids (and adults too) can make a mess of things at times. One thing that not all students of my father understood was just how much he cared about them even when his position and role required that he follow through with consequences for their actions. Just because a student failed to measure up to expectations, my dad still believed in second chances even when others may have given up hope. Several specific instances come to mind.

One young man was sent home for some infractions of the rules, but he had a change of heart at home and wrote asking that he be given a second chance and be allowed to come back. While some had reservations, my dad said “yes.” That young man proved that his change of heart was real. He became a pastor.

Another young man left the school and got involved with the wrong crowd. His choices landed him in serious trouble with the law that resulted in a conviction and prison sentence. My dad refused to write him off, however. Instead, he wrote him . . .literally! The whole time this young man was in prison, my dad regularly sent handwritten letters of encouragement expressing his belief that this young man could turn his life around if he’d let God have control. I honestly don’t know what became of him. Even though he responded to my dad’s letters while he was in prison, once he got out, to my knowledge my dad never heard from him again.

What’s my point? Don’t give up on people when they’re at their lowest. That may be when they need someone the most, someone who can look past what they are at present to what they can become through the grace of God. After all, that’s what Jesus did! We were LOSERS, with a capital “L”! We were sinners, but that’s exactly when Jesus stepped forward on our behalf.

“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS [emphasis mine]. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God” (Romans 5:6-11 NLT).

That, my friends, is no fair-weather friendship! And as Jesus stated at the conclusion of His parable about the Good Samaritan, we are to “go and do the same” (Luke 10:37b NLT), extending true friendship, mercy, and grace to others even when they don’t meet our expectations, even when they fail, even when they are at their lowest. After all, that’s when grace is needed the most!

Heaven’s Light

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During a Smoky Mountain getaway in the fall of 2015, I rushed up the mountain one evening in an attempt to make it to the Clingman’s Dome parking lot in time to photograph the sunset. However, this image and a couple more were the only ones I was able to capture before the fog completely obliterated the view, but for a few brief moments it seemed that heaven’s light was shining through.

Promises to Keep: You Will Never Be Forgotten

by Rebecca D. Higgins

On Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend 2011, I paused to sit down and watch the National Memorial Concert from Washington, DC on my local PBS station. As the stories of brave men and women were told interspersed with musical numbers, I found myself reaching frequently for the box of Kleenexes sitting on the coffee table nearby. Outside my living room window the gentle snap of my flag as it caught the evening breeze served as a reminder that I am still able to fly that symbol of freedom proudly as a result of the sacrifice of so many brave men and women throughout the years.

As I went to bed that night to sleep peacefully, I said some prayers for those families who have paid the ultimate sacrifice so that I can enjoy the freedoms this country holds dear.

The next day I had several at-home projects that kept me busy and away from the official Memorial Day observances, but later in the afternoon, I needed to get out of the house. I headed the few miles down the road to Camp Nelson National Cemetery, deciding to have my own quiet moments to remember the price paid for freedom. I drove my car back as far as I could in the cemetery, parked, and began to make my way quietly and respectfully along the rows of white markers and American flags that adorned each grave for the Memorial Day. A few other families were also visiting the final resting place of loved ones and friends.

Mike Tarter bugleSuddenly the plaintive notes of a lone bugle interrupted the hushed quiet of that sacred place as the familiar strains of Taps floated over the rows of markers and flags. I swallowed hard over the lump that formed immediately in my throat and wiped the moisture from the corners of my eyes. “Where were the notes coming from?” I wondered as my eyes scanned the cemetery. Then I saw them–two figures some distance away from me. Even though I had to squint to see and their backs were towards me, I recognized that they were wearing some type of uniform. As the notes of Taps died away, the arms of the taller of the two figures lowered the bugle to his side, and then his free right arm performed a slow, deliberate salute.

I had started moving in their direction as soon as I had determined the source of the music. I wanted to thank them for their service and for that poignant Memorial Day observance to which I had been a witness. Someone else who had witnessed the tribute reached them first, and I waited respectfully as a veteran from the Vietnam era talked about places and shared experiences that the bugler had also known. When I had opportunity, I shook the hands of the husband and wife duo and thanked them. I then heard their story.

Mike and Gerry Tarter are from Goshen, Ohio, where they both serve as VFW local honor guards at military observances and funerals. Mike served in the army as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. While he is thankful to have made it home, seven of his high school buddies from Goshen did not. Their lives were cut short when they were still in their teens and early twenties while serving in the military. For over 40 years Mike has kept a promise that they would not be forgotten. After his stint in the army, he served in the Air Force for the rest of his career. Since he retired in 1990, every Memorial Day, he and his wife Gerry make a pilgrimage. Following their participation in their local Goshen Memorial Day observances, they head out in their truck, making stops at national cemeteries in Kentucky and on down the road to Tennessee where Mike’s buddies have been laid to rest. At each of their graves he plays Taps, salutes, and spends a few moments talking to his friends, always reiterating the promise that they will not be forgotten and that he will be back next year. They had two soldiers to honor at Camp Nelson and I listened as they pointed out the trees that helped pinpoint the location of the second soldier’s marker. And again I was moved as Mike performed his ritual–Taps and a salute and a wipe of the eyes to dab away the tears.

As I talked to the couple, Gerry (Mike’s wife) asked me if I had seen his truck. “It’s one of a kind,” she told me. As they headed to where they had parked it, I tagged along so that I could see the pictorial tribute on wheels they had created to remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and to honor all veterans who have served. Even though it was around 5:00 p.m. when I encountered them at Camp Nelson National Cemetery, their day was far from over. They still had miles to go and more heroes to honor before they closed their eyes in sleep.

Mike and Gerry Tarter 1

As I watched their truck pull out of the cemetery and head south on state road 27, Robert Frost’s words appropriately came to mind as they continued their long Memorial Day journey:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)

They are keeping the promise that those who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice will not be forgotten.

Many years before them, one of our nation’s greatest presidents also stood in a cemetery that had been the site of a bloody battlefield. At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln eloquently urged the nation to remember:

 Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (“The Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln).

So I have come to learn that on these national days of remembrance and throughout the year it is important to take the time to acknowledge that freedom isn’t free and be one who makes the promise to ensure that freedom will continue to ring–not only from sea to shining sea, but in the hearts of all those who humbly bow before Almighty God, the true giver of all freedom.

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Postscript:  On March 3, 2016, I received a message from the daughter of Mike Tarter informing me that her dad was in his final battle with cancer. A few days later I heard the news that after a lifetime of keeping his promise, Mike’s journey had come to an end. On March 15, 2016, I traveled to Goshen, Ohio, to attend Mike’s memorial service. As I told his family, it was the least I could do to pay my respects to someone who had traveled thousands upon thousands of miles over the years to honor the memory of others. Mike, you will not be forgotten!

Mike Tarter's flag resized

Mike Tarter’s wife Gerry receives the flag presented in Mike’s honor.

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