Back Road Musings

by Rebecca D. Higgins

The Kentucky Tourism Board announced earlier this week that the governor had proclaimed today “Road Trip Day” to encourage people to get out and explore Kentucky’s scenic back roads. I guess I got in on the action a week early.

Last Saturday I found myself wanting to get out of the house but yet not wander too far afield. Cleaning out Mom and Dad’s house and sorting through retro things lately has caused me to wander through peddler’s malls and antique stores to see what some of those things are worth. So I decided to head to the premier antique store in our area, a place called Irish Acres. It’s a good destination for someone with a solidly Irish surname like Higgins! But road trips often are just as much about the journey as they are the destination, and last Saturday’s jaunt was no exception to that. There’s something peaceful about riding the country back roads that causes the worries and cares to recede. Perhaps the demand to drive more slowly around the twisting turns connects with our psyche and causes us to slow down emotionally from the mental rat race and worries and to concentrate on the unfolding scenery instead. My camera always accompanies me on these road trips, and frequently I will pull over to record an image that catches my attention. Last Saturday’s narrow, winding road didn’t allow for sudden pull-offs; so as I drove I found myself mentally taking pictures, forming descriptive words and phrases in my head rather than capturing them through the camera lens.

So, if you’re not going to take a road trip today down one of Kentucky’s beautiful byways (or wherever you happen to be), I invite you to come with me in your mind to a place called Nonesuch—honestly, that’s the name of the community seemingly out in the middle of Nowhere—where Irish Acres is located a mere 20-minute drive (or longer depending on how fast you choose to drive) from Wilmore, Kentucky.

After a quick errand in Nicholasville, I headed over to Harrodsburg Road to start my journey.

It was a lazy, quiet kind of Saturday—the calm before the storm—literally, as weather forecasters predicted a tempestuous Sunday. I rounded the curve on Highway 68 instead of exiting where I always do to go into Wilmore and mentally settled in to enjoy the journey. You can never go very far in this part of Kentucky without seeing horses grazing in a picturesque setting. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch them as they gallop across the field with the wind in their manes as though stirred with an inner desire to fly like the birds . Today, however, the ones close to the highway merely nodded at me as I passed, and I gave them a friendly Kentucky, “Howdy, y’all!”

Stars of the Bluegrass

I noticed the owners of the Potter’s Inn B&B were out doing trim work next to their roadside sign, their 200-year-old log home in the background beckoning travelers to come aside and rest awhile in a cozy environment that takes a person back to a quieter time and place. I haven’t seen anything but the outside of the Potter’s Inn cabin. The owners actually live there and have a couple of rooms with private entrances for guests. The main part of their Potter’s Inn B&B is a restored Victorian farmhouse located near Wilmore’s downtown green. If you like to hear train whistles, sit on wide veranda porches, curl up with a good book in a bright sun room, and sleep in a comfortable room decorated tastefully with antiques and the ambiance of original fireplaces, check Potter’s Inn out if you’re ever in the area. No, they’re not paying me for the commercial! Just thought I’d throw that out there in support of the local economy!

Back to the journey. I exited Highway 68 onto even more narrow and winding roads. The twists and turns took me past a herd of cattle lazily lying in the shade and a variety of quilted barns displaying the designs created so long ago by skilled needle workers and kept alive today by quilting circles and the creative quilted barn project. I caught the flash of iridescent blue and noted the indigo bunting perched on the top of a barbed wire fence. Inwardly, I thanked my dad—a lifelong bird lover—that I knew the difference between a bluebird and an indigo bunting.

I passed fields of soybeans and tobacco, and fields of cornstalks marching in perfect alignment across the wide open space. My mind drifted back to summer days of long ago when “corn days” at Mt. Carmel brought a community together. The pickers started early before the hot Kentucky sun made the task even more difficult. Then everyone else–from the old to the young—gathered behind the dining hall, pulling up chairs and turning over crates on which to sit while we husked and silked the corn. Laughter and stories abounded, and sometimes we accompanied our work with 4-part harmony as we sang fun folk songs or old hymns and gospel songs—sweet memories AND sweet, sweet corn!

I continued the journey to Irish Acres by following the clearly marked arrows that pointed out the twists and turns. I passed distinctive stone fences, some of them in need of repair, stones piled together waiting for the stone masons to arrange them like pieces of an intricate puzzle and to put them in order again. My literary background recalled Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” and I thought of the philosophical differences that sometimes separate people as in the poem. The poet opens with the words: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He goes on to describe the springtime ritual he and his neighbor have of setting loose stones back in place in the wall between their properties. His neighbor simply says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost’s written reply to that is articulated in the following memorable lines:

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

But his neighbor continues repairing the wall:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

My journey continued, the roadsides decorated with nature’s bouquet of blue and white–a mix of Queen Anne’s lace and blue chicory.

I passed signs with memorable names like the Clover Bottom Baptist Church that was apparently decorating for some big event—a wedding perhaps? I could just imagine having that on a wedding invitation! I passed the Knotmuch Farm, and thought of two other uniquely named farms on the road between Wilmore and historic High Bridge. One is the Seldom Rest Farm; and just down the road, its near neighbor is the Seldom Work Farm. Yep! Here in Kentucky people can be creative in naming things!

Before I could think about it much I had arrived in the community of Nonesuch! I knew I had arrived when I saw the one-stop shop –the Nonesuch Grocery and Hardware with a couple of gas pumps out front.


Just down the road I reached my destination of Irish Acres. An old school building has been transformed into what has come to be known in the area as the premier antique gallery that draws the rich and famous down these country byways when they make trips to Lexington and Keeneland. Irish Acres sits across the road from a cornfield and a house with a porch swing and a simple fundamental-style country church. When I pulled into the driveway, an old dog was lying in the front yard by the flower beds, obviously kept there as a trusty friend and not as a guard dog.

When I exited the building quite some time later (words aren’t enough to describe the interior of Irish Acres. It’s another story completely!), it seemed that the old dog hadn’t moved much but still sprawled in the shade enjoying a lazy summer afternoon. I decided to follow his example of enjoyment of the day by stretching my drive a bit further.

I headed on down the road toward Versailles. Now, if you’re not from these parts, you probably think that word is pronounced Ver-SIGH–like the palace/art museum in France. But around here, the pronunciation is Ver-SALES! Obviously, my computerized voice that gives navigational instructions in my smartphone isn’t from Kentucky! I chuckle every time “She” talks about Ver-SIGH.

As I rolled out of Nonesuch, I pulled up behind a large tractor with a baler attached moving at a cumbersome pace down the highway. On the narrow road, we quickly created a mini traffic jam as other cars lined up behind me. Knowing his farm machinery was difficult to see and maneuver around, the farmer driving the tractor became the traffic cop, motioning cars to pass when from his high perch he could see that the oncoming lane was clear. We exchanged friendly waves as I followed his direction.

Country Sky

As I rolled along, I passed fields where the hay had already been baled in big round wheels waiting to be picked up and hauled to the barns. I passed wineries and stables.

I came to the crossroads where Highway 33 and Highway 1267 meet. Strategically, very close to that intersection of ways stands the historic Troy Presbyterian Church that has ministered to the community for well over 100 years. I’m sure that long ago when a location was chosen for the church that a prime factor was that intersection where the church spire could serve as a beacon to travelers approaching from all directions. Isn’t that what churches should do, after all? Shouldn’t they stand in those places where people are at a crossroads and point people toward Christ?

I continued my musings and observations as I rolled on down the road past Misty Morning Farm—a name I love for its alliteration as well as the picture it creates.

The curves in the road wound through a wooded area that provided deep shade on all sides. I breathed deeply and enjoyed the shelter of the trees.

I continued on over the overpass for the Bluegrass Parkway and on into historic Ver-SIGH itself. No, Kentucky isn’t the location for the Versailles Palace; BUT Versailles, Kentucky DOES have its very own castle. Really! Castle Post is a medieval-looking construction with stone walls and turrets and huge gates, and they tell me (since I’ve never actually been inside the place) that it has opulence fit for a king. Oh, the last I heard it was up for sale. If you have a mere 30 million dollars burning a hole in your pocket, you can have your very own castle right smack dab in the middle of Kentucky horse country!

I digress! . . . But isn’t that what journeys down country byways are all about? Leaving the main road temporarily, getting sidetracked and wandering wherever the road takes you and taking time to enjoy the journey?

I drove on through the heart of historic Versailles, which has been an established point on the map since 1792, on to the quaint picturesque town of Midway, appropriately named because it was located at the midway point between Lexington and Frankfort on the railroad line when it was first incorporated as a town. A drive through Midway is like passing back to another era when two-story houses with flower boxes at the windows and big front porches were the norm. I was happy to see that most of those porches also had a porch swing. I could almost hear the rhythmic creak of the chains as I rolled by. Porch swings are for slowing down, taking time to smell the rosebushes that are hopefully growing somewhere nearby, and visiting with your family and neighbors. They’re for taking naps or reading a good book, or just for swinging—not the pump-up-as-high-as-you-can-go kind of swinging (that I confess my cousins and I sometimes tried to do on my Grandma Higgins’s little porch when we were kids)– but for the steady, rhythmic back-and-forth swinging that’s accomplished with a gentle toe tap. Somehow the steady creak of the chains and the gentle back-and-forth rhythm has a way of getting the body, mind, and soul in rhythm and quieting a restless spirit.

After a stop in Georgetown, I decided my wanderings had gone far enough for the day, and it was time to head back home. I could have taken the main highways and reached home much quicker, but I turned around and again wandered down the back roads. At one point in the journey, I noted once again the tiny little sign tucked by a mailbox on Highway 33—a sign that always whispers into my heart when I pass it. I wonder how often the owners ever think about the fact that the naming of their farm or the placement of that sign beside the highway can and does serve as a ministry to weary hearts as they pass by. “Grace Filled Farm” it reads. Who of us doesn’t need grace? The free, undeserved bestowal of kindness and favor. Perhaps that’s why we turn off of busy highways filled with impatient motorists in a hurry to get somewhere; with cars filled with angry, care-laden people who will flip off other drivers if they impede their journey in the slightest way. Instead, we look for a friendly wave, a shared appreciation for the beauty around us, a quieting of heart and soul. We go in search of grace—favor, kindness, benevolence—undeserved and unearned. May those back road wanderings lead us to the crossroads where we find the One whose grace has been freely given when He opened His arms wide upon a cross and proclaimed, “For God so loved . . . whosoever will.” Truly, there’s “none such” like it!

Grace and peace for your journey, my friends!


Christmas Decorating: True Confessions

by Rebecca D. Higgins

On November 30, I pulled the Christmas tree and decorations out with good intentions of creating a warm, cozy Christmas atmosphere in my apartment. But I have a confession to make! My tree didn’t get decorated until yesterday—December 22! Oh, I put the tree together earlier, but when I tried the lights, the same problem that seems to occur most years had happened once again. Seemingly half of the lights were dark. I really am beginning to think that to entertain themselves in the box after they have been put away each year they have “fight nights” until it literally is “lights out” for the losers!

Christmas tree lights

At the time of discovering this light problem, I was too busy and distracted by other things to be bothered with trying to track down the bulb that caused others to go out or to go to the store to buy replacements. I finally got around to trying to do the latter this week. Guess what?!! Stores are completely sold out of strands of white Christmas tree lights the week before Christmas. If you want icicle lights for the outside of your house, you can buy those. If you want strands of the large colored bulbs like we used to have when I was a kid, you can buy those, but nowhere—and I mean nowhere—could I find strands of the miniature white Christmas tree lights!

At this point I seriously considered taking my tree apart and putting it away, but the truth is I love Christmas decorations too much to do that. So yesterday, I found the strands of lights that had the least amount of burnt-out bulbs and figured a way to put them on my tree so that it wouldn’t be noticeable. I marked a section of one strand in which the bulbs were burnt out. That section got stuffed into the center of my tree in the back (since my tree stands in a corner and not in a front window). Once the lights were on in a way that looked okay, I proceeded with the rest of the ornaments. The ones that are my favorites were put on the front of the tree, and some that have become scratched and don’t look as nice joined the burnt-out lights on the backside of my tree.

I was reminded as I performed this Christmas subterfuge of just how much we behave this way in life. We hang the best of ourselves out where people can see just how wonderful we are—our list of do-good activities, our gifts, our amazing social media status updates– while stuffing the burned-out lights and broken ornaments in the back corners where we hope no one notices. Those are the parts of our lives that are an utter mess. (As I typed the previous sentence, my fingers accidentally typed “lies” instead of “lives.” Hmm, maybe my fingers have a point!)

So, why, you may ask, am I writing about this on Christmas Sunday? Couldn’t I have found a more Christmasy, cozy topic on which to focus my attention? The truth is, this IS about Christmas. As much as we try to hide our mess from others, it is into the mess that Christ came. Our beautiful crèches and Nativity scenes clean up and sanitize Christ’s birth, but He was not born into a barn that had been creatively converted by a makeover team into a beautifully, rustic living space. Next to the manger on which His young mother laid him, was the manure and urine of the animals that sheltered in the stable. The rough shepherds who were his first visitors didn’t scrub in and don sterile hospital gowns, gloves, and masks. Dirt from the Judean countryside was caked under their fingernails, and the ripe odors of the outdoors and animals clung to their soiled clothes.

That description of Jesus’ arrival is just one of the ways that God shows us that Jesus came into the mess of our world to make it right. He doesn’t want us to attempt to hide our mess and sin from Him. It’s a futile activity! Though we may on occasion have some success in hiding such from others, He sees and knows us–nothing is hidden from Him! The Christmas message is that into that filthy, unholy mess of our lives stepped a righteous and holy Savior—One who can take what is broken and make it whole, One who can take what is shameful and offer pardon and forgiveness, One who can take what is dark and make it light.

In Romans 8, Paul writes about this transformation. The Message paraphrase puts it this way:

“God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that. The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored. But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!” (Romans 8:3-11 MSG).

And, that, my friends, is really “Good News” this Christmas! So, from one “mess” to the rest of you messes out there, Merry Christmas! We have a Savior—Jesus Christ, the Lord!

Christmas Memories: Swauger’s Gift

by Rebecca D. Higgins

I was probably in the third or fourth grade when I had the revelation that I must be destined to be an artist! I just “knew” that I was going to do wonderful chalk drawings just like Mrs. Boggs, our school’s art teacher! Oh, the blissful ignorance of children!

As Christmas approached, I let my parents know that the deep desire of my heart was to develop this budding talent. Oh, if only I had the tools necessary to do so!

Colorful chalk pastels in box on color wooden background

In our little eastern Kentucky town of Jackson, there wasn’t much in the way of art supplies to be found anywhere in the sparse offerings of the five and dime store on Main Street or at the frequently visited Maloney’s, Jackson’s version of a Dollar Store at that time. Oh, you could find a box of Crayolas, but no art chalk or artist paper. Those could be found only in a larger city like Lexington.

Our family didn’t make very many trips to Lexington. Mom and Dad’s responsibilities at Mt. Carmel, the boarding school where they worked, weren’t conducive for getting away very often. However, there were people at Mt. Carmel who did make frequent business trips to Lexington on behalf of the school. Mr. Raymond Swauger was one of those people.

swaugerMr. Swauger, or just “Swauger” as we campus kids sometimes affectionately called him, had been an integral part of the history of Mt. Carmel from its very beginning. He was the architect who had designed and built the very first buildings on the campus back in the 1920s and he’d been there ever since. He and his wife had never had any of their own children; and when she passed away, that left Swauger alone. However, all of us adopted him and the feeling was mutual! Swauger was always jovial and kind with all of us campus kids and other students. We loved him, and he loved us!

Evidently my parents asked Swauger when he made a trip to Lexington to look for a box of pastel chalks and a large pad of artist paper and gave him the money to make the purchase.

As was our family’s custom, we were going away for Christmas that year to celebrate with relatives. We opened some presents before we left so that our car would not be as loaded down for the trip. While I loved the pastel chalks and art pad, my favorite present that Christmas was something else.

One day shortly before we were to leave for our Christmas trip, I looked up the gravel campus road that led to our house to see Swauger making his way to our door. Even now all these years removed I can picture his distinctive gait as he approached, carrying something I could hardly believe. He almost always gave some type of little gift to campus kids at Christmas—a box of chocolate-covered cherries or something. However, this year his gift for me was extra-special. In the shop in his basement where he made so many creative things over the years, he had made me a wooden easel. It was complete with adjustable legs, a tray to hold my chalk, and a board with clips to hold my art paper in place. In fact, he had clipped several pieces of art paper to the board. On the first page with a red marker he had scrawled the words “Merry Christmas!” I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was beyond excited!


An old, grainy photo I found in my mother’s boxes of the easel Swauger made for me that Christmas

I confess that as I type these memories, I get a bit teary. Perhaps at the time I thought Swauger’s special gift to me that Christmas was an easel. But what makes me remember it with great fondness after all of these years is something for which the easel was simply a tangible symbol. You see, Swauger’s real gift to me was NOT an easel. His real gift was that he had taken his personal time and had given of himself to believe in and affirm a little girl’s dream, and by so doing, had communicated something in actions that sometimes words alone fail to convey. His gift said to me, “You are loved, and you are valuable enough that you are worth my time.”

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, so often we get caught up in rushing here and there crossing things off of our to-do lists in an effort to make our parties and decorations the perfect Currier-and-Ives print or to find the perfect present to give everyone on our list. In the process we fail to realize that the best gift we can give to others is ourselves—our time, our love—not just in words but in actions. Sometimes what people want more than presents is PRESENCE. For those of us who have said goodbye to loved ones, when Christmas rolls around we don’t say, “I sure wish _____ was still around to give me a present this year.” No, what we really long for is their love and their presence.

When you really think about it, that’s the true message of Christmas: Immanuel—God WITH us. “So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:14 NLT). The Message puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish” (John 1:14 MSG).

May each of us learn to be a true reflection of that Christlike spirit of giving of ourselves in our interactions with others this Christmas season and throughout the year.

Worthy Is the Lamb!

by Rebecca D. Higgins

Not long ago while going through some old files from my Bible college days, I ran across a poem I wrote based on verses from the Book of Revelation. During this Passion Week as we focus on Christ’s death and resurrection, it’s fitting that we proclaim, “Worthy is the Lamb!”

Oh, come and gather ’round the throne,
You ransomed white-robed throng;
Come cast your crowns at Jesus’ feet
And sing redemption’s song.

Come, sing the song of Christ the Lamb
Who for our sins was slain,
Who bled and died on Calvary’s tree,
And yet who lives again.

He lives again–our glorious King–
And worthy is His name!
He is the First and yet the Last,
Forevermore the same.

So lift your hallelujahs high–
Forever let them ring–
For blessing, glory, pow’r, and strength
Belong unto the King.

Through washing in the Savior’s blood,
Your robes have been made white;
And now you stand before your Lord–
Your faith has turned to sight.

The battles now are over, and
The victor’s crown you’ve won;
Oh, praise your Savior, God, and King–
Redemption’s plan is done!

So praise the One upon the throne–
He is the great I AM–
Redemption’s song forever sing,
For worthy is the Lamb!


Dramatic Lighting on Christian Easter Cross As Storm Clouds Break

A Perfect Fit

by Rebecca D. Higgins

The other day I ran across an old photo of my niece when she was little trying on a pair of my dad’s shoes. It made me think of a poem I wrote a long time ago back in the fall of 1985 when I was a student in college.


Scan 08edit

A cobbler sat upon his bench,
And with the greatest care,
He fashioned shoes in all designs
His customers would wear.

Each day he labored at his craft
And worked with tireless zeal
To make each shoe a perfect fit
From tip of toe to heel.

One day a youth burst through the door
And jangled loud the bell;
He gazed about the cobbler’s shop
Then gave a hearty yell.

“Good sir,” he cried, “I want some shoes–
The largest in the land;
I want to be a leader strong
And many men command.

“I want to leave a mark in life–
A footprint all can see;
And then I’ll have a name renowned
And great prosperity.”

So saying, he tried on some shoes–
The biggest that were mates–
Those size fourteens engulfed his feet
That measured only eights!

“But, son, . . .” the cobbler interposed. . . .
But would he listen? –No!
He bought the shoes and put them on,
And then he turned to go.

And shuffling, though he tried to strut,
He left the cobbler’s place;
But e’er he went a block, he tripped–
Fell flat upon his face!

The cobbler’s bell rang once again–
A girl slipped through the door;
She tiptoed to the cobbler’s side
And watched him do his chore.

At last he saw her standing there
And in a gentle voice
Asked, “What, my dear, will be the shoes
That you will make your choice?”

“Oh, sir,” she whispered as she blushed
And painted red each cheek,
“I’m insignificant and shy
And really, oh, so weak.

“I want a tiny pair of shoes
As small as small can be–
For I would die if anyone
Should ever notice me.”

She searched until she found the pair
That suited what she’d said;
She squeezed and tugged and panted–
The cobbler shook his head.

At last the shoes were on–
She paid the cobbler’s fee;
The last I heard, she had gone lame
And lived in agony.

But finally to the cobbler’s shop
An old man made his way;
The shoes upon his tired feet
Had seen a better day.

He smiled as the cobbler’s bell
Jingled a merry note;
He paused before a wooden peg
To hang his hat and coat.

Then to the cobbler this he said,
“I’ve come today, good friend,
Because my poor old shoes have passed
Beyond all hopes to mend.

“Just make a pair for my two feet–
The style you may choose;
Just so they fit is all I ask
Of my much-needed shoes.”

The cobbler set to work at once–
In thought his brows were knit;
He measured, cut, and stitched and nailed–
He made a perfect fit.

The old man left and did his tasks,
And everyone could tell
He filled his shoes. –Within, he knew
The cobbler’d made them well.

O Cobbler mine, Your skill is great–
You’re gracious and You’re wise;
You are the One who made my feet–
You know their shape and size.

So make my shoes a perfect fit
According to Your plan,
And may I wear them faithfully
To serve my fellowman.

And may I never e’er forget
The lesson I’ve been shown,
That if I wear another’s shoes,
Then who will wear my own?

A Fourth of July Pledge: Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor

by Rebecca D. Higgins

DSC_0004 7409 Wilmore Color Guard resized

There’s something about a parade that brings out the kid in all of us. Perhaps it’s that festive atmosphere that comes with a big-party celebration. And the Fourth of July is exactly that–a party, a big birthday bash. Now, I have a confession to make. When I was a little kid, I somehow thought all of the hoopla surrounding the Fourth–the parades, the picnics, the fireworks–were all about me. It was MY birthday, after all. NO KIDDING!

But then my father, a high school American history teacher, made sure I understood the significance of its being a national holiday. I knew that it was on July 4, 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. I knew that those men who boldly affixed their signatures to that parchment did so with a tenacious resolve as they penned their concluding sentence: “And for the support of this Declaration with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Those were no mere idle words. Those American forefathers understood that the dream of freedom–freedom not only for themselves but also for their posterity–such a freedom came with a price tag. It meant that they would have to give of themselves. For some it would cost their very lives; for others, their fortunes. And yet for all, it was with a sense of sacred honor that they declared some truths to be self-evident–that all men are created equal.

The terms liberty and equality are woven into the fabric of our American lives. We use them a lot, but like other words in our vocabulary their meanings can change depending on the viewpoint of the one speaking. Those who have seen the passing of a few years, well recognize that ever-changing meanings of words and expressions can be confusing and block true communication. For instance, I’m not so sure that my over 80-year-old mother would understand American Idol judge Randy Jackson’s exuberant assessment of a performance: “That was the bomb, Dawg!” For her, “the bomb” is atomic in nature and very destructive, and a “dog” is that four-legged furry friend that greets you at the door. So while we still use the terms liberty, freedom, equality–do they mean the same thing in our generation as they did to our forefathers?

Some eight- to twelve-year-olds were asked to define what freedom meant to them. Eight-year-old Randi summed it up this way: “I don’t have to go to school, and I can watch the Cartoon Network when I like. Oh, and it also means that I can have as much ice cream as I want.”

We smile at the answers of children, and yet those of us who are a bit older are not so different. If we were honest, many of our definitions would reflect our own skewed understanding that freedom is somehow connected to an indulgence of our wants. In a book on American cultural history, David Hackett Fischer explores the various meanings of liberty and freedom from cultural perspectives. In his research Fischer discovered that even though we use the words “liberty” and “freedom” interchangeably, they come from different origins. “Liberty” came to us from a Latin word that implied separation and independence, but the root meaning of “freedom” had the connotation of attachment: the rights of belonging in a community of free people. And therein lies the source of conflict in our definitions. Too often today we use both words to describe our independence that is often a code word for self-indulgence. However, freedom by its very nature comes with responsibility–responsibility to work that others may also experience the blessings of freedom.

In a Fourth of July address at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1962, President John F. Kennedy remarked: “As apt and applicable as the Declaration of Independence is today, we would do well to honor that other historic document drafted in this hall–the Constitution of the United States. For it stressed not independence but interdependence–not the individual liberty of one but the indivisible liberty of all.”

The famous preamble that U. S. history or civics teachers frequently ask their students to memorize, does not begin with a singular pronoun. But it begins with a collective declaration: “We, the people.” And we, the people come from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds–a fact that too often seems to be forgotten.

“We, the people” included a young Scottish immigrant who, in 1927, stood on board a ship as it steamed into New York Harbor past that famous lady with a torch, on to Ellis Island. Ten years later that same man was invited to become the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Special guests in his congregation included Franklin Roosevelt and other Washington leaders. And in 1947, Peter Marshall became the chaplain of the US Senate. He was known for his memorable invocations before the start of Senate sessions. In one such prayer Marshall stated, “Teach us that liberty is not only to be loved but also to be lived. Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. It costs too much to be hoarded. Help us see that our liberty is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to please to do what is right.

Those words reflect a sense of sacred honor. They strike the same chord as that oft-repeated maxim that we know as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes we say those words with no thought for the context of their first utterance. You see, they were spoken as part of a body of teachings from none other than Jesus himself. The Bible records these words in the Gospel of Matthew in a section commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. For three chapters, Jesus fleshes out a Golden Way of Living. He talks about how we are to treat our brothers and even our enemies. He describes what it means to be people of integrity, who honor our word. He addresses the importance of helping the needy–not to receive accolades of others, but because it is right. Jesus describes what relationships within community require. To paraphrase it in the words of our founding fathers, there is a mutual self-giving of ourselves, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Betsy Ross

And so we come together as a community for this celebration of the Fourth with our hometown parades–a celebration that is in a very real sense in recognition of us all. It includes our veterans who have defended and protected the cause of freedom at great sacrifice. It honors our civil servants who hold public office, our emergency workers, our educators, our laborers, our businessmen and women, our students, our families. Unlike such professional parades as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Tournament of Roses Parade, hometown Fourth of July parades are not so much about being spectators. We ARE the parade! That’s our son marching in the Scout troop. That’s our daughter playing clarinet in the marching band. That’s our brother proudly driving his convertible with his whole family–including the dog–decked out in red, white, and blue. That’s our new friend who speaks with a different accent waving her flag in celebration.

As this parade passes by, some of you hoist your little ones onto your shoulders to give them a better vantage point. May each of us follow the example of those youngsters and clamber onto the shoulders of those who have gone before us. May we gain an understanding of where we’ve been as we honestly assess our history with its successes and its failures. May we gain a vision for the future that inspires us to battle humanity’s common enemies such as poverty, racism and the abuse of power. In the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, may we reach out our hands and our hearts past our private security fences to grasp the hands of our neighbors, until our reach stretches from sea to shining sea. But may it not stop there, for as President Kennedy reminded us in his inaugural address, we are not only members of the American community, but we are also citizens of the world. We join together to work for justice, equality, and freedom for all people wherever they are. As members of a vast community, recognizing our interdependence, may we here today mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

Happy Birthday, America. Be good to each other!

The Message of the Bells

by Rebecca D. Higgins

christmasbells1 (2)The gold-plated weighted stocking hangers on my mantle are letters that spell out the word J-0-Y. I’ll be honest–this past week “Joy to the World” hasn’t exactly been the song bursting from my lips! While Scripture talks about making a joyful noise to the Lord, I’m not sure that the noises that have been emitting from my mouth have sounded joyful at all. Can groans and moans be joyful?

The groaning has come not only in response to excruciating physical pain caused by a kidney stone, but also as I have heard reports this week from various places of pain inflicted on others by injustice and hasty judgments and as I contemplate the wars still impacting so many in our world. It hurts me to see others hurt.

I find myself identifying this Christmas season with the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a lifelong favorite, by the way). After the death of his beloved wife Fanny in a tragic fire that left the poet badly burned and scarred in 1861, Longfellow lost a bit of his ability to get into the Christmas spirit. In his 1861 journal, he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.” The following year still suffering from his personal loss and the ravages of the ongoing Civil War, his Christmas journal entry was stark: “A Merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” There was no journal entry the following Christmas, the year that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Union army, was severely injured in the war.

On Christmas Day in 1864, as Longfellow awoke to the sound of church bells, a joyous sound that seemed to be mocking him, all of the emotions of the past few years pressed in as he wrestled with faith in the midst of sorrow and injustice. He penned the words to a poem he titled “Christmas Bells.” His melancholy mood comes through in the words, “And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And I will admit that sometimes in weeks like this those words do seem to express reality.

However, as the bells continued to ring–their song of hope, of joy, of peace–Longfellow was reminded that the message of Christmas is that God in His love and mercy did not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to a groaning, moaning world filled with injustice and hate. Instead, He entered it as one of us. He came as the Prince of Peace but suffered through false accusations, a mock trial, an excruciating death, but a triumphant resurrection. In so doing, He became our Redeemer.

In listening to the song of the bells Longfellow was finally able to state with faith and certainty what he knew to be true no matter what things “seemed” to be–a fact that is still true for us today. “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth goodwill to men.” We may not see the right prevail exactly at the time we would choose, but one day all WILL be made right and PEACE will reign!

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV).

Insights on Death, Dying and Funerals from The Undertaking

by Rebecca D. Higgins

(In my final year of seminary I took a class called Preaching for Special Occasions. One of the occasions which we discussed was funerals. As part of our class requirement we were assigned to read Thomas Lynch’s book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Lynch offers important insights on death, dying, and funerals. The following is my reflection paper on the book.)

An ethereal, black-caped creature points menacingly into the darkness and a man falls trembling to the ground in terror as he reads the words “Ebenezer Scrooge” etched in the granite stone. Such is the movie rendition of Charles Dickens’s timeless tale depicting the inherent fear that the living have of that unknown quality we call death. And yet, as Thomas Lynch, professional undertaker and son of an undertaker, reminds us in his book The Undertaking, death is an inextricable part of living. “Where death means nothing, life is meaningless” (Lynch, p. 117). In order for us to make our lives meaningful, we, like Scrooge, need to be reminded of our mortality. We cannot be memorialized as a dead saint if we have not lived a life that matters.

Unfortunately, too often we have developed habits of pushing anything unpleasant from our consciousness. In our “progressive” society, we try to sanitize and hide the mess of life by over the years installing flush toilets inside our homes and moving our sick and dying outside—away to sterile environments to be cared for by professionals. In so doing, we have attempted silently to sweep away those things we view as “unpleasant.” They become embarrassments to be avoided.

Lynch, however, has another view—a reverent view toward death, dying, and memorializing. Death is the inevitable conclusion of living. Funerals, then, are not something the living should avoid or rush through unthinking, but rather something to embrace with solemnity and respect. “If the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and living are in for like treatment. McFunerals, McFamilies, McMarriage, McValues” (p. 25.)

In MemoryWhy do we bother with funerals and memorial services? The dead no longer care after all. Lynch poignantly observes that “we need our witnesses and archivists to say we lived, we died, we made this difference. . . .  We remember because we want to be remembered” (p. 117). As Lynch’s friend Milo phrased it, “One hand washes the other” (p. 11). We honor and remember the dead, burying them with the realization that one day we will join their number.

Through his observations and stories, Lynch invites us into the sacredness of his profession. While many would shudder at the thought of preparing a body for burial, Lynch and his compatriots view their undertaking not so much as a service to the dead but to the living, caring for the living by treating the bodies of their departed loved ones with dignity and honor. Lynch tells the heart-rending story of a girl raped and brutally murdered, whose body was further damaged by the autopsy. The mortician Wesley Rice could have urged the family to have a closed casket. Instead, he spent hours preparing the body tenderly so that the family could see and have closure. Through his kindness he had snatched the body of the girl back from the brutal clutches of the one who had killed her and returned it to the tender caresses of her loving, but broken-hearted family. Having that visual connection helps families say goodbye. This fact is underlined by the stories of many parents who have had a child become the victim of violence but whose body was never recovered. The agony of the unknown and the inability to lay the body of their child to rest make it difficult for the minds of those parents to be at rest and find closure.

After reading Lynch’s book, I have an even deeper appreciation for those who serve as undertakers. While all such workers demonstrate honor and respect for the bodies of the deceased and to their remaining loved ones, I have personally noted a marked difference between some Christian funeral directors who regard what they do as ministry for Christ and those for whom it is a business in the “service industry.” Such funeral directors provide Christian care in addition to that of the clergy.

With his lifetime of experience in directing funerals, Lynch has pertinent insight for ministers who conduct funeral and memorial services. While the overall programming tendency in some megachurches has been to “entertain rather than inspire, to wow rather than to worship” (p. 87), this should not be the atmosphere of a funeral service. Life and death are sacred and must be treated with proper solemnity and honor. Funerals nudge people to face the inevitable reality of their own death.  We all need to be reminded that our dying will only be as good as our living. Clergy members have a responsibility to include such reminders in the funeral service. They must be cognizant of the fact that just like those to whom they offer comfort in their time of sorrow and troubling questions, they too do not have all the answers. Ministers can, however, humbly offer the comfort and the grace of the One who knows all things. They can direct people’s attention and worship to God, the Giver of life. Lynch reminds us that the gospel message is for those who gather with heads bowed beside a grave. After all, “Easter was a body and blood thing” (p. 21). The comfort that ministers extend to the living is inherent in the gospel:  “for every death there’s some redemption; for every loss an Easter out there with our name on it, for every woe, a return to wooing” (p. 72). That comfort and hope is found in God himself.

There is a difference when conducting the funeral of someone who was old and that of an infant or a young person. “When we bury the old, we bury the known past. . . .  Memory is the overwhelming theme, the eventual comfort. But burying infants, we bury the future, unwieldy and unknown, full of promise and possibilities, outcomes punctuated by our rosy hopes. The grief has no borders, no limits. . . .  Some sadnesses are permanent. Dead babies do not give us memories. They give us dreams” (p. 51).

Ministers stand with the bereaved families as they say goodbye to their loved one, old or young. It is appropriate for members of the clergy to remember the deceased in their remarks. Any life lived has had value. Even if it may seem that the individual lying cold in the casket squandered the life given to him or her, words acknowledging their families and even the minutest of accomplishments are important.

Lynch urges people to think carefully about the type of music used at a funeral. It is for the living rather than the deceased and should reflect the sacredness and solemnity of the occasion. There is a difference, he says, “between a funeral with a few tunes and a concert with a corpse down front. Avoid, for your own sakes, anything you’ve heard in the dentist’s office or the roller rink” (p. 126).

As one who has participated in countless memorials, Lynch gives helpful advice—advice of which ministers need to be mindful. Rather than comforting people with empty platitudes and ignoring the very human emotions that rend their hearts in two, ministers must encourage people to feel whatever there is to feel, to find someone to whom they can entrust their questions, anger and tears.  “The only way around these things is through them” (p. 199). While some individuals wrongly urge people not to ask their questions, Scripture reveals that Christ himself understood the humanity of asking questions. Ministers can provide a pastoral presence of care to these vulnerable and hurting persons that will move them toward healing within the grace of God.

Lynch concludes his book with instructions about his own funeral, summarized with the words, “All I really wanted was a witness. To say I was. To say, daft as it still sounds, maybe I am” (p. 199). And there in the nuance between the past and present tense lies the sacredness of this business of life and death—a recognition that a person is so much more than flesh and blood that grows cold and subject to decay—a recognition that our souls stretch beyond the realm of this present time and space into eternity.

Lynch, Thomas (1997). The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. New York, NY:  Penguin Group.