Was I Really Wading in the Sea of Galilee?

65C2A285-F942-41EF-A1F8-DEE23FBB6DB7 2FA44E58-6BDE-4DF2-9F41-5E76BB117AF7This is the first of a three-part series describing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land taken with St. Philips Church, May 8 – 20, 2017.

by Pringle Franklin

ON THE SEA OF GALILEE— This morning, we took a leisurely cruise across the gentle lake where Jesus called his fishermen disciples. We had bathed here the previous night, and the water was slightly cold, with a muddy lake bottom. The waters were churning and I could not see where I was stepping, and at intervals I would encounter slippery rocks or, worse yet, something scaly that would move across my feet.

“These crabby things are getting me,” I yelped, feeling vulnerable.

“Don’t worry, it’s only fish,” someone from our church group said, laughing.

“It doesn’t feel like fish, it feels like crabs with claws,” I said. After the third close encounter, I decided to sit on the pebbled beach and drink a beer in safety.

Later that night, the mystery of the foot ticklers was uncovered. Our St. Philips group had gathered for wine, conversation, and moon bathing in the garden patio overlooking the “sea”. Without swimmers, the waters were clear now and despite the night sky above, we could see down into the water thanks to the full moon and spotlights from the hotel. Right where we had been bathing, sIx black catfish were circling around. Those fellows were huge; I could clearly see their shaggy whiskers.

“That’s what I was feeling on my feet!” I said, feeling both relieved and creeped out.

The catfish seemed fearless, and they were far longer than any I had ever seen; someone told us that the local Jews were forbidden from eating them, for religious reasons. Obviously those fish did not realize these swimmers were from South Carolina where fried catfish is considered a mighty fine meal!

Next time, they will have to be more careful.

****

Am I really in the fabled Holy Land?

The reaction of pilgrims to this sacred landscape varies: some feel overwhelmed by emotion and the proximity to the earthly life of Jesus. I have felt rather the opposite; it is hard to reconcile this actual physical place with the stories of the Bible. How could these placid wasters, where flat-roofed, seven-story hotels fill the lakefront slope of Tiberius, truly be the same spot that I have visited in my imagination countless times? One thing is clear: Jesus and his pilgrims have been spun into an enormous business.

IMG_3798

A view from the Sea of Galilee back toward Tiberius

On the Sea of Galilee, which our guide explained is a lake that a long-ago translator mistakenly called a sea, the tourist groups line up to board the quaint wooden party-style boats. One group gets off, another is queued up to embark. On board, our Palestinian Christian guide Hanni told us that 11 of the disciples called by Jesus were from Galilee. (Guess who the outlier was? Judas, but we won’t go down that rabbit hole.)

Let’s focus on a different disciple. As we glided across the lake, Hanni explained why Simon Peter had been fishing naked, as described in one of the gospel stories. That detail was always a subject of conjecture amongst modern Christians. “Peter was naked because he was the diver that day,” Hanni said.

These guys fished with wide nets. Often their drag nets would get caught on submerged rocks in the lake, and the fishermen might accidentally rip the woven nets if they tried to free them by vigorous pulling motions.

The solution was that one member of each group would serve as the diver, ready to jump into the lake and release the net as needed. Of course their robes were unsuitable for swimming, so the rescuer would have to jump in naked.

Suddenly Peter’s having been fishing in the nude made complete sense. Chalk that up as one mystery solved! So many little details that seem odd or confusing to the devoted Bible reader back home become clear when you are given the scenery and the context.

Another revelation came in Cana at the church that commemorates Jesus having turned water into wine at the wedding. It turns out the “cleaning vessels” that Jesus used for this transformation were almost the size of modest hot tubs. I had always pictured him converting water that was inside of a large earthen water vessel with two handles, not a semi-bathtub carved from stone, and he was generous enough to have the servants put water into six of these reservoirs to insure there would be an abundance of the best wine that Palestine had ever produced.

The rabbis had a saying: where there is wine, there is joy, according to our group leader, the Rev. Jeff Miller. Where there is no wine, no joy. Our pilgrims from Charleston heartily agreed with that.

Of course no Jewish wedding would be complete without dancing. We didn’t dance in Cana, but we did renew our wedding vows in a quickie ceremony in a side chapel. Sam and I enjoyed the unexpected opportunity, although one jokester husband said he’d prefer to renew his vows at the wailing wall. (Luckily his wife is feisty by nature.) The next day, the folk dancing broke out on the cruise over the Galilean waters.

To put us in the right spirit, one of the boatmen put on some traditional Israeli dance music and told us to clear away the plastic chairs lined up across the covered boat deck. We joined hands and formed two circles, a smaller one inside an outer circle, as our boatman called out the steps: right foot forward, left to follow. Right foot back, left foot follows. Kick forward right, left. Kick,kick. Then hands overhead, step forward with both feet and shout. In theory, while all this is happening, the circle moves toward the left. In reality, I was being pressed against the boat’s side railing and exit steps and had no space to execute the footwork. But nobody tripped over a neighbor’s feet or fell overboard. We finished our awkward but merry dance with smiles and laughter.dancing on galilee

Before I was ready for the cruise to end, we had almost reached our destination on the other side of the lake, where it was much less developed. Here the hills looked parched, lacking trees or grass but dotted with scattered boulders. The arid pastoral scene dredged up a very old memory. I remembered as a child reading my favorite picture book about a little boy who hiked out to a similarly remote hilltop to see and hear the man Jesus. The boy’s mother had lovingly packed him a lunch of five barley loaves and two fish. Such crowds turned up and, in the haste of their desire to find the rabbi, many had sojourned without packing adequate food. In looking at the inhospitable hill, lacking both nutrition or shelter, I got a clearer picture of the scale of the problem of caring for a hungry mob.

The first miracle was the spirit of trust and generosity which inspired the boy to share his meal with the Master.

*****

Across the lake, we popped in to see the remains of an actual fishing vessel from the time of Christ. The boat was more narrow than I had imagined, and looked like it might hold 3-4 men, along with the nets and sail rigging. It was so simple, made of rough-hewn boards and thick nails, and yet thanks to having been lost underwater in the muddy bottom, it had survived for 2,000 years. Now it was attracting visitors from around the globe.

In the museum gift shop, I spotted a display of scented oils. Frankincense, myrrh, rose of Sharon, lily of the valley. I picked up the sample bottles and inhaled the various aromas. Then I sniffed another aromatic oil called Spikenard; this was an unfamiliar name. The scent was not floral, nor citrus, but foreign and spiced, rather like pine. It tickled my nose, suggesting in a whispered tone a connection to ancient times, to the skin of scented women, perhaps dancing girls, whirling in a smoky palace with bright scarves floating like waves of color.

Yes, I found it alluring, even though the scent was not fashionable nor in the modern style. After leaving the gift shop, I waved the aromatic oil under the noses of several friends, who wrinkled their faces in distaste. What is that? they asked. I needed more clarity so I showed the box of Spikenard oil to our guide, Hanni. I told him that I was unfamiliar with this plant.

“Oh Spikenard, yes,” Hanni said. “That is the perfume used by Mary Magdalene when she anointed Jesus’ feet.”

IMG_3837My eyes grew wide; at first, I thought Hanni was teasing me but he assured me he was quite serious and then Jeff Miller confirmed the correlation between this mystery plant and Mary Magdalene. The tale of Mary’s redemption and generous love for Jesus has always moved me deeply. And here I was, an ignorant pilgrim holding a vial of the precious scent that she had poured out upon the feet of Jesus, a scent I had selected by hunch rather than head knowledge.

This served as a passageway opening into the past. At last, I was beginning to feel the link between the modern Israel with its tour buses and museums, its hotels and plentiful ice cream stands, its traffic congestion and its trinket shops, and the life and times of my Jesus.

****

The previous day at the museum with the interpretive Nazarene village, we saw an olive mill where they made oil. First the olives were crushed by a millstone, with the stone moving in a circle over the olives in a vat. A donkey would have been yoked to the rudder that controlled the millstone, providing the power.

Eventually the olives would be ground into a thick, moist paste. A person would scoop the paste into a shallow basket with a hole in the center. The weave of this basket was loose enough that oil could drip through it. The paste would be placed in perhaps 8 or 10 of these baskets. The baskets were stacked atop on another above a collection container. Next would follow a series of 3 pressings to extract the oil.

The first pressing, or Virgin pressing, was done by hand, using the weight of the stacked baskets. This produced the highest quality oil and these first fruits were given to the Temple priests as an offering. The second pressing used a lever with a weight, and this oil was still good enough for eating. The third pressing used more weights to squeeze the dregs of oil out of the pulverized olives, and this oil was not suitable for eating. This third pressing produced oil for household uses such as for oil lamps or for medicinal ointments.

All the Jews of Jesus’ day were familiar with this process. Our guide made the observation that when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that the cup of suffering might be passed from his lips, he was in the garden whose name meant “olive press”.

He was under extreme pressure and, like the olive paste, he went through three rounds of it, praying and eventually sweating blood while his three most beloved disciples — Peter, John, and James — slumbered instead of assisting him with their prayers. The visual of the olive press and its symmetry to the passion of Christ proved once again how God uses the simple things of this world to teach us how to see the deeper truths of his kingdom.

IMG_3788

At the Nazarene Village, a woman demonstrates spinning without a wheel

We also learned that Joseph and Jesus likely built houses from stone, rather than working as carpenters who fashioned furniture from wood. Our guide suggested this could explain why Jesus made so many references to stones in his teaching: the rock that the builders rejected, would be better to tie a millstone around someone’s neck, upon this rock I will build my church…..

Nazareth had its own small synagogue, which means meeting house. This would have been the place where local boys received education, as well as the place of worship and other community events. The Nazarene Village museum had built an example: the small rock, mud, and wood beam structure had a large door which, when kept open, proved airflow into the dark and cool space. IMG_3781It was a relief to get out of the sun and dust and sit on a wooden bench inside. This respite from the outside elements made the prospect of going into the synagogue much more appealing. In this desert climate, without air conditioning, the heat saps your energy, and I can’t fully comprehend how the ancients managed to do so much walking and physical labor in these conditions. Of course they started early and sought shelter as needed.

And they had no choice!

IMG_3783

A carpenter and his tools at the Nazarene Village

IMG_3747

Rosary beads from the hometown of Jesus — made of olive seeds

************************

IMG_3822MOUNT OF THE BEATITUDES—At the place where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, there stands a checkerboard stone church built of the ubiquitous white limestone and black volcanic rock. The small church overlooks the Galilean valley with its natural amphitheater where Jesus is said to have taught the Beatitudes such as “blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God”.

IMG_3827Many consider this the most famous speech ever given, and scholars are still arguing about what he meant. Our rector Jeff Miller spoke to us in the garden there and taught that when Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit,” he meant we should approach God from a position of humility in recognizing that we could do nothing on our own to deserve to be God’s beloved ones. We need a savior, and recognizing this about ourselves is the first step toward being happy.

Jeff spoke to us a large, blessedly well shaded garden on the church grounds. All of these sites are owned by various religious orders, such as the Franciscans, and many have guest houses for pilgrims on their grounds. They are set up to accommodate thousands of day trippers too. Individual worship sites have been set up throughout the Beatitudes garden, set apart like covered picnic tables in a park but with an altar and benches. Our guide Hanni would make reservations in advance for us to use these open air gathering spots. In a given day, we might visit five sacred places, and generally at two locations we would gather for worship or teaching from our priests Jeff and Andrew, as well as hymn singing.

Accomplishing all of this and herding 45 St. Philips pilgrims in and out of the bus and through sacred birth sites, burial places, baptism waters, ancient Hebrew villages, and Roman ruins meant we had to keep to a tight schedule, some days getting on the tour bus by 7:30 in the morning.

Today we visited Bethlehem and were on the go for nine solid hours in the dust and bright heat. We returned to our hotel exhausted but uplifted.

****

One highlight of our group worship came when we received Holy Communion by the Sea of Galilee. The backdrop of lake water was light turquoise, flat and smooth, and coming across the water, a warm breeze was blowing around us and caressing our skin. Jeff preached on Peter’s three-fold betrayal of Jesus and the subsequent three times the Risen Christ asked Peter if he loved him. Jesus was giving Peter a means to wipe away his denials in order to bring him back into true fellowship.

****

On Sunday Jeff Miller and Andrew O’Dell wore their black shirts and clerical collars rather than their usual golf shirts and khaki trousers. “In the Holy Land, people treat you differently when you are dressed as s priest,” Jeff told the group. “But is it better or is it worse?”

At many of the tourist stops, there are hundreds of pilgrims lined up to get inside the sacred place where the angels sang to the shepherds or Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law or Jesus and his disciples gathered in the Upper Room for the last Passover.

The biggest crowd and longest line is at the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Christ was born. The security guards in the grotto chapel would rush people past the highlighted spot on the floor where a star marked the spot of Mary’s having brought Baby Jesus into the world. You are allowed to pass by quickly, stoop down and touch the star but the guards keep everyone moving along, two by two. While wearing his collar, Jeff was not urged to move on past like the pilgrims but rather the guards said deferentially, “Father, take your time.”

In his Sunday attire, the Rev. Jeff Miller stops to pose with a lamb.

In his Sunday attire, the Rev. Jeff Miller stops to pose with a lamb.

****

We are surrounded by hordes of faithful pilgrims at every site, and it’s thrilling to see believers from so many nations, each wearing their own customary dress and speaking a hodgepodge of tongues. In Nazareth, we passed a Chinese pastor preaching to his flock in Mandarin. I was struck with the reality that he had more freedom to teach publicly about Jesus here than in his home country. I felt so happy for these Chinese pilgrims to be in the Holy Land. It must truly have been a feat for them to get here.

We all look and sound different but Christ is the common denominator. We’ve seen travelers wearing batik African robes and speaking French from the Ivory Coast; Spanish speaking Indians from the Andes Mountains, with women wearing those little bowler hats; Brits, Americans, South African pilgrims, and many sojourners from India.

Pilgrims from every nation wade into the famous lake where Jesus taught and lived

Pilgrims from every nation wade into the famous lake where Jesus taught and lived

Leaving the church of the Primacy of Peter, I saw a middle-aged woman in a sari with a plait down to the middle of her back. Her braid was not clasped and the ends were starting to come unwound. Her companion “sister” had a similar long braid fastened at the bottom by an overly large hair clip, the kind that we might use near the top of the head to pull back a bulk of hair.

These women did not seem to have any ponytail holders. Since I had been saved that morning from a saggy slip by safety pins from a fellow Charleston traveler, and that had got me thinking about how nice it is when people help one another and share, I immediately began searching my purse for a ponytail holder.

Sure enough I had one. I was walking past the group of Indian pilgrims to exit the church grounds so I simply stopped beside them and held out the brown elastic ring to the woman whose braid needed securing.

It was clear from the puzzled look on her round brown face that she did not know what I was offering. I motioned toward her braid and another Indian woman, also in a colorful sari, took the elastic band and nodded sagely but then started to slide to the wrong end of the plait.

So I waved my hand to stop her and pointed at the bottom of the braid. Both women and several more who had gathered to watch seemed amused and yet confused.

They allowed me to assume control and twist the band into place to cinch the braid in place.

When they saw what I was accomplishing with such a simple device, the women were giggling and whispering happily to one another in some Indian dialect. They reminded me of fluttery butterflies, so innocent and feminine. They were clearly surprised and pleased that this pale Anglo woman had taken an interest in them. We nodded and smiled at one another before I walked away to climb back on the tour bus.

The next day in Jerusalem, we were walking down from the Mt. of Olives on a steep, narrow road that was clogged with pilgrims. A large group of Indian pilgrims was headed our way and mixed in with us on the road. One man, about 35 years old, looked at me full in the face, beamed and exclaimed, “God bless you!”

He was full of the joy of the Lord.

“Thank you,” I said, feeling honored to be the recipient of his well wishes. He told me they were from the south of India. He went and fetched a lovely lady in a turquoise sari and proudly presented her to me. “This is my wife,” he said.

We exchanged warm smiles and happy greetings, all the while passing between very high walls that enclosed the ancient Jewish graveyards on either side.

We were making our way to the Garden of Gethsemane, and it was uplifting to share in this unexpected fellowship. Another woman in a burgundy sari spoke good English and wanted to talk to me. “The Lord has given me the opportunity to be baptized here in Jerusalem,” she said, bursting with happiness.

“How wonderful,” I replied.

“I am a new believer, and the Lord allowed me to be baptized and also to take my first communion here In Jerusalem,” she said.

Every pilgrim must eventually enter Jerusalem

Every pilgrim must eventually enter Jerusalem

We paused a moment to talk but my St. Philip’s group had just turned a corner and disappeared from view behind one of the walls. I needed to catch up or risk being lost in this crowd of pilgrims. While moving along, I managed to learn she and her family had been unbelievers who met Jesus when someone sent them a Bible.

I was shocked! Someone sends them a Bible and they find Christ? Obviously the timing of the Bible’s arrival had been at an opportune moment. Their hearts opened to this good news and now here they were, filled with Holy joy.

“Please pray for me and my husband, and for my son,” she shouted toward me as we parted. I assured her that I would. And I did, trusting that prayers lifted up on this sacred hilltop would rise straight to Heaven.IMG_3850

It Was Easter Sunday. I Was Mad.

 

Yorktown

The author with his parents

By Bruce Freshley

I’m way too driven and self absorbed to see all of the little things God’s doing around me constantly. No, He has to knock me over the head to get my attention. I am a stubborn, hardheaded man of faith. That faith had me often butting heads with my mother over the years when it came to my sometimes awkward but always passionately expressed love for Christ.

My mother, Jean Freshley, was not a religious person. She was a prove-it-to-me skeptic when it came to matters of faith. If she could not see it, touch it, or read about it in some “informed book”…she rejected it.

While my father never missed a Sunday at First Methodist Church in Athens, Georgia, singing in the choir for most of his 90-plus years, my mother rarely went, especially later in life. She simply could not buy into all that low brow, ignorant, literal interpretation of Christian faith stuff. You didn’t get preachy with Jean Freshley.

For Mom, education was everything. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from North Central College, earned her Master’s of Education, and was a teacher all her professional life. As an academic, she simply could not buy into the stories throughout the Bible and, worse still, all those sheep in the pews who lapped up whatever the preacher was serving on Sunday morning.

While my mother was not an active Christian, she acknowledged the existence of God and Christ. Yet I don’t recall her leading a single prayer at the dinner table; my father always did the blessing of the food. If Mom prayed at all, it was a private thing. My brand of faith was more traditional than my mom’s, and we had plenty of interesting conversations when I was in my “evangelical” youth.

NO SINGLE PATH VS. SAVED IN JESUS

In later years, we butted heads on faith again after Mom gravitated toward contemporary thinking within the Episcopal Church. In following the teachings of more liberal theologians such as Bishop John “Jack” Spong, my mother told me that she believed that the evangelicals (like me) have the Bible and Christ all wrong! God is simply love, and love is in all of us. There’s no single right way, no single path, there are many ways to be “one with the Creator”. There is no sin except hate, etc, etc, etc.

Try as I might, I could not get through to her the concept of a personal, intimate relationship with the living Christ. That God does not come into one’s life until you ask Him in. That this intimate relationship with each of us was the whole reason for Christ’s divine birth, life, death, and resurrection…and for our own very creation.

It bothered me that we could not find common ground. I was unable to convince her to see things my way, and eventually, the time began to run out for the opportunity.

Jean Freshley, July 2011

Jean Freshley, July 2011

In the Spring of 2014, my mom was fighting cancer. I talked with her often by phone and, when I visited from my home near Charleston, S.C., I tried to bring up faith in a soft way. I prayed with her, but we certainly did not debate theology. At this point, Mom was dying, and there was nothing I could do about it except to love her and pray with her.

Just two years before, my only sister Dina had died of cancer. Now Mom was now being slain by the same hellish beast that had claimed her daughter. Mom had fought the battle with and for Dina, day after day, month after month. There is a powerful bond between mother and daughter.

It was almost as if she took on Dina’s fight as her own.

Watching her beautiful, vivacious Dina shrink up, suffer, and die — practically in her arms — was simply too much for Mom to bear. I have no doubt that this stress led to her own cancer. And while Mom approached her cancer battle with fierce determination to beat it, I almost felt as though she was trying to bear the same cross Dina had, suffer what she had suffered, knowing the outcome would likely be the same.

Bruce with his mother, one week before she passed

Bruce with his mother, one week before she passed

MOMMA IS WITH DINA NOW

When Mom died on June 11th, 2014, I was not there. There was no gathering around the hospital bed to say final goodbyes, just a phone call from my older brother, Phil, and his cracked voice saying, “She’s gone Bruce, Momma is gone…no more pain…she’s with Dina now.”

The heartbreak and anguish welled up inside me; the the tears came flowing down. My knees buckled. I sat down and sobbed at the finality of it all. You try and prepare yourself for this moment because you know it’s inevitable, but you’re still angry because it seems so unfair. It’s all such a damn waste.

Why God? Why cancer? Why my mother? And then the most terrifying question of all as I thought, Is she with you, God? Is my mother in Heaven?

Given my mother’s untraditional approach to faith, I was unable to comfort myself with the certainty that she was with God. Even more terrifying, would I really want to go to a place called Heaven and find my mother not there? That would be hell wouldn’t it, to be torn from the mother you love for all eternity?

“God, please help me with this,” I pleaded in a silent prayer. “I know you love her. I know you love me…but I know the rules…or do I?”

I was done, emotionally and mentally drained. There was only one thing I could do now…rest in my faith in God and in the love of my dear savior, Jesus Christ. I leaned into this to get me through the next several days when we needed to have a fitting ceremony for Mom. I did not want to express my personal doubts and anguish about where my mother’s soul may or may not have gone.

Back in Athens, Mom’s memorial service was a grand affair with hundreds of friends and family, her fellow teachers and students. Even many from her old Adult Forum Sunday school class at First Methodist came, a class she had not actually attended in years. My brother and I both gave eulogies and that was huge for me, to be able to proclaim my mother as she was to us, not as the outside world may have seen her. I wanted them to know the depth of both her character and her heart…a heart many had not seen.

It was cathartic. My father, too, held up well, and it was so fortifying for him to see this outpouring of love for his beloved Jean. At the reception afterward, a lady from that Adult Forum class commented to me that she could always count on my mom to ask the tough questions in class, questions that sometimes went unanswered. That was my mom, always pushing for the truth.

Days and weeks passed, and little by little, the loss hurt less and less, but the tormenting questions still remained. I threw myself back into life, business, and family with my wife, Martha, raising our four teenagers, now mostly grown up.

The Freshley clan

The Freshley clan

EASTER AT MOM’S GRAVESIDE

But the pain of the loss resurfaced almost a year later as Easter rolled around in the spring of 2015; we still needed to make arrangements for the final placement of my mother’s ashes, and my brother and his wife invited all of us back to Athens to lay the ashes to rest and have a family graveside gathering, for one last formal goodbye.

Easter and its promise of eternal life seemed the perfect time, and yet, there was that doubt again, nagging at my heart. An Easter graveside memorial for Mom. On one hand it seemed perfect; on the other, it felt like a cruel joke. We agreed to the plan.

That afternoon, the spring sun was hot and bright. Rather than feeling warmed by it, I felt like it was a hot spotlight adding to our awkward discomfort in our formal Easter Sunday attire. We all gathered around the shiny new granite marker surrounded by freshly turned red Georgia clay. My mom hated that hard, red clay. Every spring, she would complain that you couldn’t grow anything in it.

In some ways, it still felt wrong that my mom’s life was over. I could hardly look at the grave stone…I don’t even remember what it says. I was just getting madder. I don’t remember who spoke. I think my brother Phil said a few words, then someone else…I knew that I could not trust myself to speak.

I was mad. Mad at Mom for dying, and mad at God for not answering my many passionate prayers. There were still just too many unanswered questions. I wanted so badly to cry out with just the right words, to anoint this moment with some soothing passage of scripture that would honor my mother’s amazing life, comfort my gathered family and glorify my Lord…and yet, there simply were none. Only questions.

IT’S EASTER…I WANT LAMB

After a few awkward moments, we all turned and walked like zombies back to our cars to follow my brother Phil and his wife, Marilee, to Easter dinner at a restaurant she had picked for this occasion. A couple of weeks before when Marilee and Martha had been on the phone planning the Easter activities, Martha had asked if I had any dining preferences, knowing that I would likely be the hardest to please.

I shouted from the sofa, “Yes, by God, it’s Easter…I want lamb!”

We always have lamb on Easter in our home, but I suddenly realized I was being my usual overbearing self and said, “Well, that would be awesome, if we could… but at least let’s go somewhere nice.”

I could hear Marilee chuckle on the other end of the line, knowing her brother-in-law all too well and saying, “Well…I’ll see what I can do.” And that was that.

Now I realized I was getting hungry as we drove in our caravan out of Athens and across Oconee County toward Watkinsville, No one talked much in the car, at least I don’t remember any conversation, only the one in my head… and my throbbing headache. I tried to turn my thoughts to a happier subject, such as the dinner ahead, but the fear, the anger, and the pain just kept pushing out everything else.

I remember telling myself, Damn it, just get ahold of yourself. You’re ruining this day, and it’s not about you!

I looked over at Martha, took her hand and tried to change my attitude, thinking of my father, our family, and the gathering ahead. Before long, we had arrived at the small bistro called Chops & Hops. As we walked in the front door, we saw a big chalkboard behind the hostess stand with this greeting: Today’s Special… Roast Lamb.

I smiled for the first time. Thank you Lord, I thought. I turned to Marilee, pointing to the sign and saying, “Did you know?”

She replied in amazement, “No…I had no idea. I just thought you would like this place!” I do love my sister-in-law.

SUDDENLY ALERT AND ALIVE

There were about eleven of us, and we all gathered around a big, long table in the middle of the restaurant. As we looked at the menus, I, having obviously already made up my dinner selection, looked around the place. There were very few people in there, maybe only five other tables. It was a quiet Easter Sunday in a quaint little town. We practically had the place to ourselves. That is when I started to feel suddenly alert and alive, inordinately aware of all around me and oddly — at peace.

Another one of the patrons, an older, distinguished gentleman, approached our table and walked up to my dad. He reached out his hand to my father and said, “Dwight, I’m so, so sorry about Jean. You know how fond of her we were.”

My father, delighted, grasped this gentleman’s hand with both of his and said, “Bob Reeves, by golly, my old friend… it’s so good to see you!”

As they bantered back and forth, chatting about old times,  I heard and understood very clearly a message in my soul: ”Bruce, listen carefully…watch what I am about to do.”

It wasn’t some booming God voice, but the unmistakable awareness that I was suddenly experiencing events around me from a perspective that could not be my own. I suddenly realized what was happening before me was not by chance. Dr. Reeves had been a fellow professor at the University of Georgia with Dad and, as he explained to those of us on Dad’s end of this long table, Mom had actually taught the Reeves’ two children when she was a teacher at Oconee Middle School.

Dr. Reeves turned to the entire table and said, “I don’t know if you kids realize what a truly special woman your mother was…I mean as a teacher. She taught both Alex and Kari in English and literature, and it was she who gave both of them a true love for reading and writing. She was that spark, your mom was, that great teacher who changes lives. Alex went on to graduate with honors and attend medical school and Kari…why, she has such a passion for writing she’s just published her own book!”

We were all a bit surprised. Much of Mom’s teaching years were later in life, after most of us had left the nest. Dr. Reeves then wished us all well and said, “I just had to come over and tell you all what your mom means to us…enjoy your Easter dinner.”

With that, he returned to his table on the other side of the restaurant, out of view. I settled back in my chair to take in what had just transpired.

“Wow,” I thought, I had no idea. I knew about the Reeves kids, though I had forgotten their names. Mom used to talk about them occasionally as a two of her favorite students, but I never paid much attention. And a book? Kari Reeves wrote a book? I knew for a fact that my mother never knew anything about that.

Dinner was served, and we all enjoyed a suddenly cheerful meal together;  Dr. Reeves’s kind, heartfelt words had been an unexpected tonic for all of our hearts. Oh, and the lamb was excellent, thank you.

But my thoughts soon went back to that book. As if on cue, a tall, beautiful young woman in her early thirties was soon approaching our table. She carried herself with poise and grace as she smiled warmly and headed straight over to Dad.

Time seemed to slow down;  I felt a hyper sense of awareness, and of God’s presence. My mind was as clear as a bell as I heard in my spirit: “Bruce…watch, son… listen…watch what I am about to do.”

As the young woman stopped at our table, both my father and I stood up to greet her. It was Kari Reeves. She reached out to shake my father’s hand.

Kari Reeves

Kari Reeves

”I just had to come over before you leave,” she said, “and tell you just how much Mrs. Freshley meant to me.” 

MOM’S SECRET LEGACY

As I listened intently, Kari told Dad how she had gone on to college and followed her passion, ballet, ending up at Juilliard as one of the nation’s premier ballerinas. That ballet career had ended with a leg injury, so she was now working in the arts in New York City, and she had just published a book.

“Dr. Freshley,” Kari explained softly, looking directly into his eyes, “the book has been life changing for me, and it never would have happened without Mrs. Freshley’s belief in my ability and her encouragement to be a writer all those years ago. Without her, I never would have written it.”

With that, they embraced; I could see Dad was deeply moved. She stepped aside as her father Dr. Reeves re-approached the table for one last goodbye. My head was spinning. I reached out and touched Kari’s arm.

“Kari,” I replied, after introducing myself, “tell me about your book.”  Somehow I knew full well that the next words were why I was here in this place, at this time, and I clearly wasn’t in charge of any of it.

“It’s called Canyon Road, and it’s a book of poetry,” she paused, then corrected herself. “More like prayers really. It’s a book of prayers, written in a longer, poetic form, almost like Psalms.”

Stunned I said, “You’re telling me you wrote a book of prayers?”cr-book-tall

“Yes,” she replied with a knowing smile. I could feel God’s presence surrounding us. I could feel His joy and delight. “I have a ministry now in New York, reaching out to the arts community in the city. From a poetry-literary approach, I find I’m able to reach people who would otherwise not be open to God’s word. It’s been the greatest joy in my life.”

She went on to explain that she was sponsored by a church in Mt. Pleasant — a church that is right in my own neighborhood. I was reeling and overwhelmed. I could feel God’s love pouring over me and heard His inner voice, “I am all around you, son…always.”

Before she left, I gave her a big hug and asked her to send me a copy of her book. When Kari left, I sat in my chair, stunned, silently talking to God: How was this possible? How was it that my mother’s passion for teaching English to this young lady more than a decade ago had somehow resulted in a book of prayer? My mother, the literalist, the skeptic, the religious wanderer, had inspired a book of praise for you, Almighty God? And now that book was being used as a backbone of a ministry to reach others!

His voice now was unmistakable: “Bruce, I waste nothing. I waste no one. I do all things to my glory.”

I was swimming in His words as they flooded through my head. Wisdom, joy, and love poured over my soul as everything suddenly became clear to me.

“My plan is too big for you to see, but my hand is in all things, and I do all things to my glory.”  There it was again…all things to my glory. This was always His plan. We are ALL part of His plan. Just because we don’t understand, just because we are hurt, angry, or frustrated with the cards we are dealt, does not mean we are not intimately a part of God’s glorious journey. Tears welled up in my eyes as I realized the stunning truth…

“Your mother is here, with me, Bruce; she is here in my arms, and you will be together again.”

Suddenly the anger and fear I had felt so strongly at Mom’s graveside washed away; it was like being born again. I could feel the love of my mom’s soul smiling down upon me from Heaven, basking in the love and presence of God, knowing that I now knew the truth. The same truth that she now knows. Once you give your life to Christ, wherever you may meander, you are still His forever.

We are all flawed. We are all literalists, skeptics, and religious wanderers. We are all stubborn and hardheaded people of faltering faith. Some of us try and deny our faith, but we’ll fail at that too. We are all human, born into sin. It is our birthright. But God has a plan for each of us, one grander and more magnificent then we can ever comprehend, and He is always working on it.

“I waste nothing. I waste no one. I do all things to my glory.”

imagesThat Easter Day 2015 lives with me always. I can never forget it. In that unbearably bright midday sun, standing in anguish there at my mother’s grave, I needed Him desperately…and He came.