Sunday, June 12, 2011


I never learned to square dance but I suppose that I have spent my whole life simply trying to square dance with the church.  Something my visionary parents did naturally.

I suppose I have always known that my parents lived in two parallel worlds – One of communion and hymn singing and the other filled with twirling petticoats and circle driven dancing – held together by the common tradition of potluck dinners. So much so that when we celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in the fellowship hall of their church, the room was filled with as many square dancers as church members.
            Every Friday night, at the old YWCA, my younger brother and I would sit and watch my parent’s allemande left, circle up and Do-si-do with a group of people they called the “Dudes and Dolls.”  Then on Sunday morning, with the same regularity, we would gather with another group of people that seemed just as strange in that we sat in pews, used words like invocation and drank grape juice out of little cups.  I learned a few things about the church while watching my parents square dance and on occasion I believe that when the sunlight would stream through the stained-glass window just right my parents could be seen doing an Allemande left with a visitor or circling up in the kitchen to help make that Easter breakfast just perfect for visitors and members alike. 
            It was not as hokey as it sounds.  It was more like watching two people apply their faith as they interacted with their square dance friends and in turn, allowed their learning’s and experiences with those colorfully dressed square dancers to influence how they lived as members of Davis Street Christian Church.  My parents would never talk about themselves as prophets or visionaries but that is exactly what they were. I pray that the story I tell captures enough of those moments to help you see why!
            Sometimes when I was brave enough I would climb the steps to the suspended walking track above the gymnasium, dangle my legs over the edge and watch this group of people who called themselves the “Dudes and Dolls” move about the floor.  It was like watching a huge kaleidoscope as squares turned into circles and circles into stars and then back again.  The caller would shout out rhythmic commands that mostly corresponded to the beat of the music and in an imperfect unified expression the western dressed men and fluffy skirted women would move about the floor and create intricate patterns.  Even then these patterns, seen from above, seem to suggest a deeper meaning than the sounds of laughing and boot stomping would lead the average observer to comprehend.
            Though I can’t remember most of their names now, I still see them in my mind, circling up together and returning home, bowing to their corner then to their partner.  I can see them in their different sizes, shapes, personalities and occupations.  The group of people that came together every Friday night at the YWCA seemed to come from every social class and walk of life.  That would have been enough of a life lesson to see that mixture and interaction of teachers, electricians, farmers, doctors, barbers, and one guy I think was a rodeo clown. However, it wasn’t just that they were willing to come together in those unique outfits, it was the way they treated each other when they were together.
            My father has always been one of my greatest teachers but because of life’s circumstances and unwritten social expectations he never went beyond the 9th grade in his education.  My mother finally got her GED many years after learning to square dance.  In most places I was taught early the subtle and not so subtle markings of our families place on the social ladder of value.  But in all those Friday nights, watching and learning from my high perch of that walking track I never saw or heard my parents being talked to or ignored because of what they did or where they lived.  I don’t remember there being any written code or covenant that was signed by the members to force everyone to respect each other.  There was not an oath that they all swore to uphold that made them treat others as if each and every one of them had an invaluable piece of the puzzle or a voice that if lost would decrease the strength of the “Dudes and Dolls.”  I don’t know how they were in the regular world, I don’t know how each of them treated others at their work places or at their churches, I just know that while they were together as the “Dudes and Dolls” every voice mattered. 
            My parents would forever deny that they brought me to those square dances every Friday night to teach me a lesson that would affect the way I see the world and the way I see the church.  Actually they probably brought me along because they could not afford a babysitter.  Just the same, I tell you this story because the lesson stuck.
            The only other place I learned this lesson was sitting in pews listening to Rev. Cecil Simonton talk about how the church – the Body of Christ – is like an actual body in that every part, every voice, every person is needed and not one of us can say to the other, “I do not need you.”

            The thing about stories of life and particularly the stories I reassemble involving my parents is that though, as a storyteller, I often what there to be some easily understood point.  However, my parents’ life was more complex and messy than any simple story can capture in a few paragraphs.  I’m sure that if this short story became a novel there would be many other invaluable images and lessons that square dancers could share to make the church a little better and in the same way a few things the church might be able to share with those “Dudes and Dolls.”  I’m also just as confident that the square dancers I grew up watching were far from perfect people and my life in the church has allowed me to see the many flaws that exist with us church people.  And this really gets at what the real reason I have always believed my parents were prophets.
            In a world in which we are trained to find our group, bond with our people, and stick to our side of town my parents accidentally walked a different path.  During a time when dancing was not even allowed in the church, let alone have anything to say to contribute to church life, my parents naturally created a prophetic vision where “bowing to your partner and your corner” are words that Jesus himself might have spoken. 
This idea that farmers might have something to say to economists or youth might have wisdom to share with adults, or tax collectors might have a key lesson to share with some well educated Pharisees or even that a fluffy skirted square dancer might hold deep prophetic wisdom for the way a church should treat each other is becoming popular again.  I can’t say that my parents started the Internet, or Facebook or even that they were the first people to suggest that every person has a gift to be share for the benefit of the whole body.  However, what I can say is that my parent’s did live in two parallel worlds and at their 50th anniversary, sitting around tables in that church fellowship hall there were square dancers talking to church members.

I never learned to square dance but I suppose that I have spent my whole life simply trying to square dance with the church.  Something my visionary parents did naturally.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Neighborhood Memories

Memories are a wonderful thing because eventually those who helped make those memories will be gone. For me many who made up the framework of my childhood have already died but I still imagine myself standing on our deck surveying the area remembering them just as they were then in my childhood. This time, as I stand there, I remember a man named Paul. He was my childhood best friend’s father. He died recently of a heart attack while fishing and left me with this story to write.

Another piece of who I am is gone but I still remember. I see him working in his garage, trying to finish his son’s soapbox derby car. He moved so slowly, even then, but I guess what I remember most is that he did eventually finish. Good-bye Paul. . . . I will remember.

In my mind there is a time, no more like a place, where the memories of my childhood appear more real to me than events that I now experience. Sometimes, when I sit alone in my thoughts, my mind turns inward to that place of childhood memories where I find myself searching for a gentler time full of only two things, innocence and curiosity.
      When I revisit this time and place I always begin on the deck of our old house surveying the area like I did when I was young. As I stand there, I hear again the distant hum of cars crossing what we called the "Highway bridge." This bridge still lingers on the edge of my childhood imagination because it existed just beyond what I understood to be our neighborhood. I guess, that when I think about it I could always hear the hum of cars crossing that bridge, even when I played my hardest game of kickball. It was always there in the background calling me to see that there was more to the world than our little neighborhood and it still calls to me now.
However, now that hum calls to me from the deepest crevices of my mind to remember a place I know as my childhood neighborhood and at least for a moment I see that bridge through the eyes of a seven year old boy wondering where that bridge might lead.
I suppose if I am honest with my memory, I must admit that I never could see that bridge very well from our house for in between me and the bridge, with its branches outstretched, was a huge Fir tree. I miss that tree so much, not only for what it prevented me from seeing but for what it has never let me forget.
You see, as it swayed back and forth in the wind during the days of my youth it allowed me only glimpses of that bridge; a bridge that I would one day cross so many times that my curiosity for it quickly faded into common redundancy. Yet, at the same time it's ever green branches have continued to be one of the first images I see when I remember the people that helped make up my childhood.
This tree had roots in Mrs. Yoder's yard, but for me then, and even more now, it was a symbol of everything our neighborhood was supposed to be. Its branches reached out to all who could see it and only the length of its branches limited its care for those who might need comfort from the heat of the sun. I used to think that if I ever got lost I could always find my way home by simply looking upward and no matter where I was I would surely see the top of its branches waving at me; showing me how to find home again. It is the image of that tree waving its branches and the continuous hum of that bridge that calls to me once again, to come home to a place and people I knew a long time ago, even if it is only in a story.
Just to the left of that tree, and often hidden from my sight as well, was the McNaulty's house. The father of this household was a preacher of some sort and his children were either just older than me or several years younger. Consequently, I rarely spent time there. Though dad and I often hunted for night crawlers in their back yard, a memory for another story or two.
To the right of the tree was the only house in the neighborhood that does not have a family name attached to its memory. This was because it was empty most of my childhood. From time to time a new family would move in and then, within a few years they would move on to other places around the world, I suppose. Just the same, the yard of that house, was ideal for our daily kickball tournaments and so we played there often.
      The Harod's lived next to that house and behind them, yet another house hidden from my view. This house belonged to the Copeland's. During my youth I always had a crush on their youngest daughter whose name was Mary, though I could never bring myself to tell her so. There are many reasons why I never told her of my interest in her but one of the reasons lived in a doghouse just outside their back door. All my friends and I had seen its enormous fangs on the few occasions when we ventured too close.
This alone obviously prevented many of us from visiting very often. However, in a perfect neighborhood, I suppose I wouldn't have memories of these kinds of details but our neighborhood was not perfect and these memories of that house and Mary's family haunt me still to this day.
Now, all of these names are probably meaningless to everyone but myself and maybe others who lived in that neighborhood. Just the same, however, those names have been imprinted into the crevices of my mind like the Bortz's who always made sure I had a cool glass of lemonade while I mowed their yard; or George Gladson our token hermit who had old TV equipment stored in his dungeon-like basement. And dare I should forget the scariest couple on the block; the Basket's who were rumored to have had bloodstains all over their walls. It wasn't until after they moved out of the neighborhood later in my childhood, that I was to learn that the so-called blood was really just red paint splattered on one wall. Still, I never did learn why someone would splatter their wall with paint in that way.
But of all my neighbors the one name that I remember most vividly is that of my childhood best friend; Albert Songer. I cannot remember life before him. Although, now as the years move on, my memory of the things we did together grow vague and imprecise. Yet even these vague memories deserve to be preserved in a story like this one because he was not only my best friend then, but he was my first friend in this world.
In the beginning of our friendship there was just the two of us.
Our whole world was created by the things we did together. We even formed a club to save the world (or at least the neighborhood) from the evils we had seen embraced by our older siblings. We took turns being president and even held meetings to plan our strategy. But in our naiveté we never calculated for the only thing that could defeat us in our task; we grew up. Just the same, not all was lost with our maturity for I still remember the reason for that club and I still remember our friendship. In many ways, the things we did together so many years ago continue to influence the paths of life that we have each chosen.
I learned to ride a bike at about the same time he did. In fact, when we were very young there was very little that we did not do together. We played hide and seek, built igloos, and we often talked about life and what we would become together. We would play "cars" on the wall next to his house. We made lots of toy roads during those days. However, in that game of "cars" that we played, his house was never far from mine. But that was then and our lives continued on.
He was a year older than me and graduated to the Junior High a year prior to me. Things beyond what words can describe changed during that year. It was that year, I believe, when our childhood ended and with it our friendship based on childhood things.
I don't remember much about him after that except an occasional talk about how our neighborhood was changing. We never again considered each other our best friend.
We began to move down different roads of life and soon we had both graduated from high school. He married early but it did not work out and I heard he asked for a divorce a year later. The last I knew, he had entered the military and had returned home to our neighborhood long enough to marry again. This time to another neighbor of ours named Michelle.
I have since moved away from our neighborhood to go to college and then on to seminary. I live in Kentucky now and I learned recently that he lives in Virginia. The roads to our houses are not close like they were in our childhood game of "cars" or even in that neighborhood of ours. Yet, still, he will always be my childhood best friend. Only the loss of my memory can take that away.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Uncle Billy

( The Meaning of Wedding’s and Funeral’s)

Holding my niece during the few minutes we danced together at the conclusion of her wedding took my breath away only to return it fully mixed with images I thought were securely hidden in the past. In one deep breath of joy and tears this story surfaced as an incomplete way of remembering the many years that seem to come into complete focus during that dance intended for a father and a daughter on her wedding day.

Some experiences in life reach so far inside the fabric of who we are that they often entangle the present with the past so completely that decades of memories are relived in a single breath.


I don’t have very many memories of my brother Ray but the ones I do still persist in my mind as old black and white pictures. I see him folded over the hood of his car working on the engine of his 1965 impala. I only have one image of him doing that but I bend it from side to side in my imagination in an attempt to remember him in multiple episodes.

My understanding of my brother was based on those early pictures I took of him with the distracted mind of a kindergartner. My brother was a teenager during the first few years of my life and with that he found every reason to take his friends out for a drive. His understanding of the world was getting bigger and mine was still focused on playing cars with my neighborhood best friend. Sometimes when I look back at my life and think of things I would change I imagine finding a way to spend more time with him. However, those earlier years likely formed both us into the people we were to become and I cannot fault life’s hand for the choices we made.

I was only 6 when my oldest brother began traveling the world with the United States Navy. The world map on my grandmother’s wall had pins placed in every port of call we learned he had visited. Ray could have been a commercial for the Navy because one day he was working on his car in front of my six-year-old eyes and the very next moment he was serving as an airplane mechanic on board an Air Craft Carrier in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Ray’s best friend growing up was his older sister Pam. I have another series of pictures of him that begin with Pam teasing Ray, followed by a chaotic chase through the house and ending with Ray’s arm breaking the glass of our front door. On rare occasions they fought like that but they were brother and sister before the rest of us came along. They experienced life at the beginning of my parents trying to make it together in this world. They learned to rely on each other in a way that did not occur in the larger family I was to be raised in a decade later. They were the first two born in our family and because of it; they shared a bond that was unbreakable, even in death. They were not twins but their lives and destiny followed parallel paths until the very end.

I believe it was this bond that drove the two of them to make a bet and a promise with each other that whoever decided to get married first would have to pay the other $20. So when I was 10 my whole family packed up into the station wagon and drove to Key West, Florida to celebrate my brother’s wedding. My parents never said it directly but since we had never been out the county, not to mention leaving Iowa, this trip was embedded with great meaning for all of us.

Wedding’s can be pivotal markers in life’s greater story because they are almost always the conclusion of one story crashing into the beginning of another. As I turn the pages of the album, I see another picture of Ray as if I took it just after he and his new wife, Debbie, stuffed cake into each other’s mouths. The camera of my mind snaps again and I see a blurred picture of my brother handing my sister a twenty-dollar bill, making good on the bet and in many ways moving all of us into the next chapter of our lives.

It is amazing how moments that pass so quickly in everyday life can serve as undeniable monuments of change when we reflect on them years later. It seems so clear now 30 years since that first wedding that I should have known that we would not likely leave Iowa again unless it was for a wedding or a funeral. Even the birth of a child could not draw our family together as a whole again. When Ray and Debbie had their second child, a daughter named Jennifer we exchanged pictures by mail and a few phone calls but it was not an event that could draw all of us together.

However, Jennifer would grow and in time would celebrate a wedding herself.

The First Funeral

In the year that Jennifer turned six, I turned 25 and the family, now spread across the country, gathered in Florida for Ray’s military funeral. The planes flew in a missing-man formation and I spoke a few words about a brother I barely knew. I was newly ordained to ministry and though I did not know it then this role as family spokesperson at funerals would become too much of a habit.

Ray had been first again to cross one of life’s all-important bridges. However, his bond with his Sister seemed unfairly complete. Though they never did and never would have bet on who would be the first to die it seemed some cosmic force held them together. The foreshadowing was thick as Pam wrote her words and memories of her brother from the bed of a cancer hospital room on a cloudy day in Iowa. It was mostly her words that I spoke that day and in doing so became a surrogate for telling the stories of the whole family.

I have no pictures of Ray on that day at all and actually the pictures really stopped for me years earlier at his wedding. I remember standing in the pulpit of the church and looking around at all the people with whom my brother had touched in his life. It was painfully obvious to me that all I really knew about my brother was held in those few aging pictures in my mind.


Nearly two decades have past since that first funeral and life has erased most of the details from my memory. However what I cant seem to ever forget is catching a glimpse of Ray’s youngest child walking across the church fellowship hall. As she walked around as if she was looking for something or someone she carried the smile of 6 year-old but reflected the pain of all who gathered in that room to say goodbye. As I stared at her I hoped that someone would be able to find the time to care for her as she grew up.

Then I remember feeling someone grab my hand. She looked up at me and asked, “Are you my Uncle Billy?” Billy, that’s a name I had not heard since the time when I watched her father work on his car. What she knew of me came through the images her father had formed of me when I was about her age. Her simple words formed by her father’s memories of me helped make sense of unimaginably nonsensical moment of life.

When things like that are etched into your heart during such tragic circumstances they are rarely erased no matter how much time goes by. For Jennifer, it seemed that her picture of me was forever to be Uncle Billy. Who was I to tell her that I was no longer the Billy that her father knew.

I’m fairly sure that there are no words to describe the deep entanglement of one’s emotions that can happen with the touch of a nieces’ hand nor a phrase that can easily express the bond a simple question can create in a 25-year-old uncle. Beyond the cold folding chairs in the church fellowship hall, I don’t remember anything else about that day. At the time I thought she was reaching out for me but I think it is more likely that in that moment I was reaching out to her.


Two years later it was my turn to get married. The family once again drove half way across the country in both directions to gather again, this time in a small town in Kentucky called Glasgow. Jennifer had grown by two years but the innocence of her childhood had not fully worn off.

The moment I saw her through the crowd of wedding guests my mind, in only a few seconds, flashed back to that moment among cold folding chairs when she first reached out for my hand and called me Uncle Billy. I felt myself reaching toward her even as the crowds prevented us from really saying hello. I don’t remember what I said to her that day but I do remember her first words to me. She smiled and jumped up and down with the excitement only an 8 year old can bring to a wedding. Then as if to foreshadow what she would become, she spoke with the poise of a young woman, “Uncle Billy this is a very beautiful wedding.”

Though I did not know it then my sister’s cancer had returned and it was only two years later when the family came together for my sister’s funeral. Jennifer was 11 now and though it was a more subdued occasion she still greeted me with a smile and the words “Its good to see you Uncle Billy.” I remember being surprised to see Jennifer and her family that day. It’s a long and hard 2-day drive to get from their home in Florida to Iowa. Though I refused to cry that day I remember thinking deep within the grief that was building inside of me that their presence signified some sort of tragic cosmic ending to our family story. I was wrong but I would have to wait 7 years for the next chapter to be written!


For seven years our family experienced a few births and a few graduations but no funerals and no weddings so the complete family gatherings were put on hold. In those years I became a father myself, moved back to Iowa and tried to forget the tragedies that had become our family. Jennifer had become a teenager and neared her high school graduation. Without weddings or funerals the conversations stopped and the images of the past began to fade away.


As I was headed somewhere that seemed, in that moment, so important, and was attempting to answer 3 questions from people who just had to know the answer that very micro-second my cell phone rang. Now it was one of those moments that if I had recognized the number then the logic in my brain would have prevented me from answering it. However, the area code was not among my normal anticipation so I flipped it open and said, “Hello.” The voice on the other end asked with out any introduction, “What church did my father grow up in?” They say that every 7 years every cell that can regenerate does. As I listened to the voice on the other end and attempted to understand whom I was talking to my heart began to remember. It seems that the heart cells are not replaced so easily by time, well at least that part we use for remembering.

With a deep breath of relief I shouted, “Jennifer!” She replied, “Hi Uncle Billy.” Her voice had changed but her smile could still be seen through the phone. The place I was headed and decisions I was making seemed less important as a “Re-Membering” of our story began to happen. She had called two other people to get my phone number so she could ask her Uncle Billy about her father and reach for my hand one more time.


In time she asked me if I would walk her down the isle on her wedding day. So I flew on a plane, walked her around the edge of a pond and offered my blessing on her wedding day. Then, as the music played for the “Father and Daughter” dance I thanked her for letting me be her Uncle Billy.

Holding my niece during the few minutes we danced together took my breath away only to return it fully mixed with images I thought were securely hidden in the past. In one deep breath of joy and tears this story surfaced as an incomplete way of remembering the many years that seemed to come into complete focus during that dance intended for a father and a daughter on her wedding day.

I know its not a perfect circle and all the edges don’t line up but still I believe that Jennifer helped bring a sense of meaning and purpose to my family on her wedding day. Nothing was perfect in those moments as it was clear that human beings were still acting as they do when families gather together. Too often we are consumed by the details of life that rarely mean anything at all beyond the first sunset. However, for me, Uncle Billy, as the tears formed in my eyes and my heart shuttered with uncontrollable joy, I experienced the completion of this story!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Chuck E Cheese and humanity

We decided to go to Chuck E. Cheese today. It was a rainy Saturday and I had promised to take Tristan there for weeks so off we went. As expected the parking lot was full and although the sign said that they could hold 418 people in the building I seriously thought there might be more than that inside. We first stood in a line that started outside in the rain, then finally moved inside a small entrance area that seemed 20 degrees warmer than it should have been because of the extra bodies now crowed in that small area. The heat and close proximity (Propinquity) allow for a clear identification of each of our unique smells we humans are capable of producing. Following this experience we stood in line waiting for enough people to leave the building so we could enter. It was a very long time. Finally passing through the turnstyle and authority of the Teenager running the gate we recieved our invisable security stamps on the back of our hands. We were in!

Well ok then we stood in another line to order our pizza with a side of tokens and then sent to another line to wait on a table. Then we waited 20 more minutes for the pizza while we squeezed in and out of people and stood in other lines to play video games. I can assure you that this kind of experience would drive most people crazy and yet we chose this time together.

What I want to talk about in my blog tonight is what I observed in the behaviors of all the human beings crowded in Chuck E. Cheese. In short I noticed two basic kinds of people.

The first is best understood in the action of the woman who was just coming in as we were leaving. She acted all self important and shouted at the teenager calmly running the gate, "Go get someone else to help you so we can get in this *$*^*&#" place!" The teenager did her best to act professionally and not let it bother her but we all know those kinds of words and attitudes often pentrate deep into our souls. Even worse they often change who we are if those voices are the ones we hear over and over. Sadly I fear that many of the parents there that day may have already had their souls altered years ago and now are passing it on through their words of parenting madness.

However, there is goodnews in my story tonight. In the midst of that chaos and potential riot producing situation there existed the other kind of person who brings out the best in peoples souls. It started by a simple gesture of rearranging the way we were all stuffed into the entryway. By all of us shifting just a little we were able to let an additional family of 4 come in out of the rain. Then we said our polite hellos. Then out of the blue the mother offered us an extra coupon to save us some money. We smiled and said thank you! You know it does not take much to nurture the soul. However, what we learn we pass on to the next generation and in times like this, even on to the next person in line. I am glad to see that when I experience that much propinquity with human beings there are still people in this world who have the God I learned as a child from my parents deep in their soul. As for the rest, I guess thats why I do what I do. Perhaps I will not be able affect every person on earth but if I go to many more Chuch E Cheese's I will have good start at it. . .

Friday, February 6, 2009

Tears of Laughter

Somedays her memory will not let me go till I think of her and remember that she is the inspiration for the way I do ministry. So tonight her story must live on my blog for all to share in the memory of my sister.

Holding my newly born son, she looked up at me and whispered, “Promise me that when he is old enough to understand everything that has happened that you will tell him about me.” Then she reached out for my hand and pulled me closer and asked, “Do you think I have fought long enough? I had a dream about angels who were inviting me to follow them. Do you think it would be ok to go with them now?”

I don’t know for sure when my sister decided that she would become my second mother, but what I do remember is a brief memory of her as a teenager teasing my oldest brother Ray. Only a few glimpses of those days of my young childhood still exist and those that do rest delicately on the synapses of my mind. In fact, most of what I remember seems to come from deeper in my soul. Perhaps it is my heart, a less perfect thing for remembering, that preserves these memories for me? Wherever they are stored I write this story of my Sister with great thanksgiving that they do still rise to the surface now and then.

On that day, while I sat comfortably on the couch eating a butter and sugar sandwich and watching cartoons, my sister came flying through the living room with a blur, followed close behind by my brother Ray. Screaming all the way, my brother and sister headed for the front door of the house. My sister opened the inside door and then the outside storm door which was made almost totally of glass. My brother’s shouts of anger could be heard through out the house and I imagine across the neighborhood too. Then, as quickly as the shouts came, they stopped abruptly with the shattering sound of glass. As the door was being pulled closed by tightly stretched springs, my brother reached out to push it open and as life has often taught me since, when two strong forces come together something or someone is going to break..

My memory ends there. Its curious to me why we remember the things we do and don’t remember the things we don’t. I don’t remember seeing the blood running down my brother’s cut up arm though I know from the stories of others that it was there. I don’t remember what they did to heal his arm. I know that they went to the hospital but I have no real memory of that and for all I know I simply went back to eating my sandwich and watching “Popeye the Sailor Man.” As hard as I squint my eyes to remember, those moments are not there and part of me wishes they were.

Most of my memories of my sister are of her as an adult though I am sure she was not much more than 22 at the time. She was the first to go to Junior College and then on to the University of Northern Iowa and become a real college graduate. This may not sound like much but in my family that was a “Tears of great Joy” moment. She had made my parents extremely proud of their first-born child. This accomplishment was not lost on her little brother who would one day follow her in the pursuit of that dream and so many others.

Although she had dated enough to find a husband she had been so focused on graduating from college that she had passed up many opportunities to settle down and have children of her own. Secretly, she had always hoped to do both, have a family and be an independent woman ready to take on the world. However, she told me later in life that sometimes, you just have to compromise and take what you can get. I think perhaps it was then, with no real chance of having a family or child of her own for awhile that she decided that she would take care of me, her little brother.

I loved her so for those years when I would spend hours listening to her tell jokes and laugh at my completely absurd and obvious riddles. My insides are tied up in laughter even now as I reflect on those times.

Those joyous bits of time have inspired most of my life and still bring me comfort when life becomes too difficult or I loose my way in this world. She was like that for me for her whole life long. She was the person I would come to and ask the deep questions of life. We did not always agree on the answer but she was always there to make me laugh and listen to those things that lie deeper than questions – the part of us that is most visible in a 7-year-old child laughing with no understanding of the world’s problems.

Though when I allow the more complete memory to surface I remember moments when my childhood unfiltered-honesty must have caused her pain. In the midst of the tears of laughter, she would say, “You are as silly as a monkey.” I would then respond by crying out at the top of my voice, “You are as big as an elephant!” Her facial expression would drop and the whole world seemed to stop. However, before I could fully understand how devastating those words were to a young woman struggling with weight issues, my sister would regain her smile, reach out and tickle me and start the laughter up again.

I think this was the pattern of her life or at least the part of my sister that I would like to remember the most. Even as the unforgiving evil of Cancer had begun to chew up her insides for the second time in her short life she got on a plane to see me, her young and still naïve brother. She was there at my wedding, though I know now that the Cancer had returned yet again. So when I received a call from my mother telling me that Pam was not doing well at all, I dropped everything, got in my car and drove the 15 hours to her house. When I walked into her room and sat beside my sister’s now emaciated body I first thought deep in my mind with tears of laughter, “She is not an elephant any more!”

I could not hold back the tears for her as I looked into her eyes. She whispered, “Why did you come to see me?” I knew what she was really asking me for all people who are near death are wise enough to know that when relatives start showing up as I did from miles away it can only mean that death is near. I smiled and said, “Because you would have done the same for me.” She reached out, touched my hand lightly and simply said, “of course, of course.” Then like the sister I had known in my childhood she turned the discussion away from her and said, “I hear you are now a father. I hope you will bring your son to see me soon.”

My sister had defended her soul long and hard against the relentless destruction of cancer most of her life. Not once but three times it attacked her body and twice she fought it with drugs and love and a desire to get from life everything she had dreamed for herself when she was so young. In time, she met a man named Rick who loved her and chose to struggle with her in the pursuit of happiness. He stood by her each time the cells attacked her body and though part of him would be lost in that sacrifice he stayed the course. Together, during a rare remission of the cancer, they were able to have one child. His name was Brian and he was the completion of my sister’s dreams for her life.

On the last day of her life, my wife and I stepped into the elevator with our now 4-month-old son, Tristan Michael Spangler-Dunning. We smiled at each other as we looked at this life wrapped in swaddling clothes. I had fulfilled my sister’s request to bring him to see her soon. We walked into her room and she reached out in her weakened state, smiled and asked to hold him next to her body.

Holding my newly born son, she looked up at me and whispered, “Promise me that when he is old enough to understand everything that has happened that you will tell him about me.” Then she reached out for my hand and pulled me closer and asked, “Do you think I have fought long enough? I had a dream about angels who were inviting me to follow them. Do you think it would be ok to go with them now?”

My sister who had always been strong was asking me, (Me! Her not-so-little, not-so-naïve anymore, brother) for permission to say goodbye. Unable to speak or understand her request of me in that moment, my wife replied for me, “Yes, you can follow the angels.” I simply smiled and put my hand on my son, as he lay on top of my sister. We said our goodbyes and as we were leaving she said to me again, “Remember, tell him about his Aunt Pam.” “I will, I will,” I said as we slowly and reluctantly backed out of the room.

There is much more to tell about my sister but some memories I choose to keep to myself and never put them on the page. Perhaps that is selfish but in another way it is my way of honoring her life by never trying to fully explain whom my sister was to me or everyone else she met. We shared in many other arguments, discussions, and even laughter sessions but those are mine to contemplate now and then. I share this story so that my sister, Pamela May Dunning Bishop, will live beyond my memories in the hope that other’s who struggle against all the cancers of life, will seek in the midst of their tears a little laughter.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The first time I learned my baby brother could fly!

The first time I learned that my baby brother could fly was in the middle of the winter of 1976. He was four years old and all excited about going sledding with his two older brothers. Our mother had entrusted us with his life and in retrospect she either knew of his super powers or she was not aware that we were lacking in the super power of wisdom.

My brother and I were very familiar with the intensity and dangers of this particular hill. As we stood at the top we both would plan out our route. We would stand behind our sled and move like bowlers do moving our bodies side with each vitural turn. We imagined our trip down this old alley that we called our sledding mountain. The top section had been paved and built up over the years. It allowed for a straight and fast build up of speed in the first 100 yards. The last 200 yards of the hill began at the end of the pavement with sharp drop of 6ft to the old dirt surface. From there the hill made a slight banking left turn which was a blessing because just to right was the remains of an old house built into the hill. The wood part of the house had long since rotted away but the concrete back wall and basement structures were mostly still there. In the summer we used this area as a castle but in the winter it was a drop of 18 feet to the bottom. However, we were experts at sledding and besides the hill always gently pushed us to the left away from this drop off.

That year the plastic steering sled came out. Its was a plastic toboggan sled with two movable handles built into the sides. If you pulled on both of them it would act as a break or if you pulled on just one of them you could steer the sled in that direction. It was a technological advance beyond most sledding experts of our time.

It was probably this new sled that lead to our decision to allow our baby brother to attempt the full length of our sledding mountain. After all with this new sled, my older brother remarked with disappointment, "Our expert skills in sledding will no longer be needed. Even our baby brother Scott can go down the most difficult of hills and be safe."

So we placed our 4 year-old brother in the new steering sled and we both got behind him to push. When you remember back on memories like this one, it is easy to see the error of your ways. I mean he was 4 and at most 35 lbs and we were older, bigger and more aware of the power of gravity. Just the same we both pushed with every ounce of our strength. As Scott and the sled began to travel faster than we could run we both fell face first into the snow.

In that moment of time everything slowed down enough for us to rethink our actions. In those few seconds wisdom drifted into our pre-adolescent minds or maybe it was simply fear of what our mother would do to us if any harm came to our little brother.

Whichever one it was, we both jumped up, wiped the impacted snow from our eyes just in time to see the sled with my brother drop out of site as it went over the first drop off. We began to run as fast as or snow boots would allow screaming his name, thinking somehow that might distract him and he would fall off the sled and stop in the snow. Instead, Scott seemed to be fully relaxed and in control. He hovered over the snow, leaning into the turns as if he was a professional sledder. Then in a moment of amazement we watched as he tugged slightly on the right handle and began to head straight for the rise that lead to the 18 foot drop off into the old foundation.

My older brother and I stood there in awe as Scott and that sled seemed to hang in mid air for minutes. It seemed at first like he was flying but that was also the first time he began to believe in gravity too. In one blink of my eye lids he dropped out of sight and down into the that deep hole.
We ran as fast as we could, preparing ourselves for the worst and thinking of what mother was going to say. As we crested the hill and peered over the wall and down into the human made cavern we could see him. We could see him still sitting in his sled, laughing and bouncing up and down on the old bed springs that had both cushioned his fall and latched on to his sled.
Its a true story... and my baby brother did fly that day... He has since grown up and found new and different super powers. That's a story for another day!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Train Traveler and Disciple Reminder

She stood there with a book in her right hand and a carry-on bag in her left. As the train shuttered into motion again she looked down at the empty seat next to my wife, Amy. She noticed the book in Amy’s hand and said, “I’m a reader too so we will get along well. Ya, know some people you meet on the train just talk and talk… but not me.” She sat down and talked to Amy for the next hour only stopping because we were getting off at our destination.

The traveler sitting next to my wife started out with the easy non-controversial topics of politics and religion. After learning that Amy was a Democrat and minister and obviously a woman she replied, “I did not know that you could be a Christian and be a democrat.”

Exhausted and tired from the past 12 hours on the train, Amy calmly shared that indeed it was possible to be all three and that the church she belong to there were even Republicans, Democrats and even a few independents sitting in the same pews. Of course the traveler had never heard of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) but seemed excited to learn that one of our good friends was the minister at Central Christian Church in Denver, the travelers hometown.

The conversation ended in nearly the same way it started with the shuttering of the train only this time coming to a stop. The traveler said to Amy as we packed up to leave, “I’m going to have to think about my faith. I never knew that someone like yourself or a church like the one you go to existed. I’m going to have to check out the church in Denver!”

That’s the story, amazing as it is, it really happened and left me with this wonderful memory of what Disciples of Christ can offer the human community. At our best we are an amazing tapestry of people who do not always agree on all social issues or particular religious doctrines or even presidential candidates. And yet, the most powerful thing we do as Disciples is gather Together around a communion table and remember that with God’s help we are called to be one Body.

I think Disciples think too often that we are neutral in the way we live out church and our faith! Well to that traveler on the train, Disciples were to her like a breath of fresh, spirit air filling up her soul. And being reminded of this treasure by overhearing the conversation between my wife and the traveler was priceless! OR should I say proinquitous with the God I know!