Tag Archives: faith

Far Away

Every now and again I have a moment.

You know, a moment. A moment when I’m not sure. A moment where I hope all we believed we were meant to do is what we were truly meant to do and not some hideous, horrendous mistake. A moment where I find myself struggling with all we left behind. A moment where I feel displaced instead of where I belong. Lost instead of found. Empty instead of full. Absent instead of there.

Far away.

And I chide myself for it, these moments. My mind knows better than to indulge them because I know the pitfalls of backward looking. Sometimes you just can’t second-guess going in the direction God takes you. It smacks of looking back to Egypt and might land you wandering in the desert for 40 years. Better to seek Him further, pray for direction, find your way, and be content.

But I can’t. Not today.

In these last few weeks, I’ve struggled. In our absence, our former town has been earthquaked and hurricaned.  An old friend from Lititz, newly back from Afghanistan, lost his home to the raging fires in Texas. Our church lost one of its youngest members to cancer, a courageous little warrior named Conner, gone home to be with Jesus and just five years old. And tonight, at his memorial service, the entire county has been flooded like it hasn’t been since 1972.

And here in Nebraska it was a beautiful 72 degrees and sunny. It just doesn’t seem right.

Funny,  I thought the simple missing of my friends and work and house and life would be the tempter to send me looking backward. But instead all the calamity and loss has taken me there . I’m far away from my friends and they are hurting. And even though there probably isn’t a single thing I can do for any of them to make it better, my heart longs to be there. If only to stand there. If only to pray with them.

And so from here I pray. I can’t be there but He can be. So know, dear friends, that I’m praying for you all tonight. For your safety, for your sadness, for your broken hearts. I’m praying that the clouds will part, the sun will shine, and that God will keep you close.

And in that, maybe I’m not so far away after all.







The Storm–The Trip, Part Two

We arrived at Dawn’s house in northwest Ohio at about 2:30am on Saturday, June 24. I don’t think Orlando or I had ever been more tired.

We knew the moment we stopped that we would not be getting up early to leave. We decided instead to take a day off. We decided to spend the entire day at Dawn’s house, lay low all of Saturday and leave early on Sunday morning. And that is exactly what we did. Sunday morning at 6:30 our vans departed again. Our goal: make it to the farm by sundown. The only chink in my armor—my left headlight was blown out. No problem. It doesn’t get dark in Nebraska until well after 9pm.

Refreshed from the day of rest, I was absolutely ready to be on the way. We breezed through Indiana, didn’t slow a bit in Chicago—a minor miracle if you’ve ever driven that way—and rolled through the hills of Iowa with only the minor slow downs that come with the regular construction zones that occur on those roads. Crossing through that way, the unusual sights were all the water standing in the fields, the rivers that were running over their banks, and the small bridges that had been washed out. The effects of sudden storms so full of water that even the dry, Midwestern earth couldn’t contain it. I wondered, as I crossed what seemed to be just minor waterways, what kind of rainfall has to occur to get little runs like these so high they knock out a bridge?

It didn’t take me long to find out.

As we hit the familiar territory of the Omaha area and crossed the Missouri River, ominous clouds were gathering in the west. “Look at those cumulonimbus!” the budding weather geeks in the back seats declared. The sky grew dark, glowing strangely as we circled Omaha and headed toward Lincoln. My weather meters were pegged—this could be very bad. And then I remembered that my headlight was out.

The rain hit us halfway to Lincoln. The sky just opened up and poured. I could barely see right in front of me. Growing up in Florida, I’m used to these kinds of deluges so it wasn’t a big deal at first beyond worrying that I was going to get pulled over for that headlight. But then the lightening started to bang, and the rain began to mix with hail, hammering the car topper above us and the windshield in front of me. And my weather self was well aware that I should be looking for tornadoes in these parts. As my van started to shimmy on the swamped roads, I noted that cars were pulling off the road all over the place. The underpasses were now parking lots on either side. But we needed to get there before dark because my headlight was out. And it was so dark already. I couldn’t see Orlando’s van any longer.

I would have been okay if it had gone on for five minutes like these storms do in Florida, but instead it just went on and on. Fifteen minutes of rain and hail. Now twenty minutes of feeling the van lose grip on the road. Not only couldn’t I see the road, but I couldn’t see the familiar sights of Lincoln either. The skyline. The capitol building with the Sower welcoming us to The Good Life. And it was at that point that I began to be terrified.

Orlando called me on the On-star phone. “I can’t drive in this anymore!” I declared, my terror evident in my voice. “I can’t see! The van is shimmying across the road!”

“Calm down,” he said. “The sky is getting lighter in the west. It’s almost over.”

Generally speaking, I try to remain calm in such situations so that my children remain calm. But this time, I knew they were as afraid as I was. So I decided the best course of action for all of us was to recruit the members in the back seat for more than weather watching. “Boys!” I said to them. “Pray for us! Pray that mom can drive through this and we all get there safely!”

“I’m already praying, Mom.” said Anthony. “Me, too, Mom.” said Benjamin. “We’ll pray!” said Nicholas and Dominick.

Orlando pulled us over the side of the road under the last overpass around Lincoln and let me calm down. He held my hand. He pointed out that the sky was bright ahead, that the storm was about over, and that we were almost home. And knowing I had an army of little warriors behind me, a godly man ahead of me, and a great God to protect me, I found the courage to continue.

And sure enough, as we headed out on the road again, the clouds broke apart and the beautiful, Nebraska sunset came into view. The furious storm, now to the east of us, was slowly floating away. And suddenly, we were exiting the interstate, bounding over country roads, and pulling into the lane.

We made it. We were home.

The farm lane

You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me!

It’s June–finally. The month the Lincoln Public School District promised to call Orlando for an interview. So of course he’s been staring at the phone. Wondering, waiting, holding his breath.

On Tuesday, he tried to log on to their website to see if they had posted any jobs, but the website was down. This worried him a bit. He tried to get on many times in the next few days but to no avail. Should he call, he wondered?  Should he wait it out? And then tonight, not ten minutes ago, he finally got onto the website. The site was still down, but there was a message. “We’re still trying to recover from the fire of May 31. Please log onto our Twitter or Facebook account.”

I’m sorry. FIRE?

And so we quickly logged onto the local media page and saw a tremendous video of the entire district office burning to the ground. The office that employed 250 people–one of whom is supposed to call this week and hire my husband this month. They are working on finding places for these people to return to work. They are working on recovering their data which, thankfully, was backed up off site. But their computers are gone, bulldozed under. And if Orlando had a paper file anywhere in that building, if they jotted down a note on a sticky reminding themselves to call him,  it’s toast. Literally.

I must admit, my first reaction to hearing all this was to laugh. It’s a funny thing sometimes, this faith business. Our lives are in His hands, but how easy is it for us to trust in things other than Him. Things like numbers and odds, computers, sticky notes, and even people. Sometimes it takes a fire to remind us who’s in charge. Sometimes it takes a “You’ve got to be kidding me!” moment to bring us back to a place of trust in the right One.

So here we go. Trusting in the fiery furnace.

Not Shards…Seeds.

On Sunday evening Orlando and I attended the memorial service for our dear friend Julie. It was lovely and touching and profound and anointed just like I knew it would be. She was so well loved, and is already so incredibly missed. Even so,  her service was joyous and full of the hope that comes when one moves past the veil and into glory.

And still, with so much to see and hear about the hope to come, I was struck by something completely different yet equally meaningful in the room. For the first time in years, I was in the presence of many, many old friends all at the same time. Friends who knew Julie and Gary well. Friends that had been part of my church family for years and years. Since Orlando and I joined Petra over five years ago, I had seen most of them but never all together in the same place as I did on Sunday. Lititz Christian Church, the church we attended together, had undergone some changes and many of those faithful saints had moved on to other church bodies as we had. But it wasn’t without a significant tearing for those of us who had called each other family for so long. In some ways, it was like leaving a piece of ourselves behind.

Our church move to Petra had been a healthy one, but when I encountered many of my friends from LCC in the grocery store or in the park, it always seemed to me that I was randomly running into a soul mate. Someone with whom I had shared many years of deep fellowship and communion. It didn’t really matter which person I ran into, because after so many years I had come to know almost everybody on a close and meaningful level. But somehow despite the closeness I felt with these dear saints, I could always sense the brokenness that the church “scattering” had caused. Almost as if a mirror had been shattered and we were the shards. Worrying that perhaps we would not reflect as much of Jesus separately as we did together. That we were not smooth pieces that fit in perfectly, but a sharp edges of a break that remained jagged.

I quickly learned at Petra that a lover of Jesus always has a place amongst His people. I learned that there is deep fellowship, anointed teaching, devoted friends in the house of God, wherever it may be.  Even so,  I missed my old LCC friends. And like I said, I had never seen them all together in the same place again until this past Sunday. And for the brief time we were together I could sense the presence of God with them as I have done many times before. The pastor who was leading the service told us that we were a “New Testament” crowd, and I knew exactly what he meant when he said that, but his words also triggered a hint of some understanding in my head. There were several instances when those from the “New Testament” or “early” church were scattered (often as a result of persecution.) Some went this way and some went that way. Some north and some south. Some to Rome, some to Greece, some to Jerusalem. And wherever they went, the gospel went with them and the church as a whole was strengthened and grew.

After the service as I chatted with the LCC crowd, I realized that so many of them had gone out from that place and had much to give. They’d grown and changed. They are living and thriving. They’d taken the gospel with them, into every church and town they went, and the Kingdom is richer for their efforts. And it occurred to me that when the members of the early church ran into each other years later, in whatever country they were in, they must have felt like they were running into soul mates, too. They had so much background together. So many stories to share. So many lessons they learned in the presence of each other. Trees of righteousness with common roots, but now spread out and growing just about everywhere. And it wouldn’t have happened if they had never scattered.

So we’re not really shards at all; we’re just seeds. His seeds.  Scattered, planted, growing, bearing fruit.

Atop the Nebraska State Capitol building is a beautiful statue called “The Sower.” I have always found its presence there incredibly comforting, although up to this point I would not have been able to tell you why. But as our family takes on the wind and travels to a new land, I am not afraid, but know I will forever miss all my old and new friends. But I also know that the hand that is planting us in Nebraska is the same hand that is planting each of them. Making homes for the homeless. Giving hope to the hopeless. Breathing life to the lifeless. He is the greatest Giver. He is the greatest Healer. He is the greatest Sower.

And that’s a reality I know I can live with. For myself. For all of us.

The Sower overlooks Lincoln. Photo from the Nebraska State Historical Society

A Preview of Coming Attractions

After a brief hiatus, I return with to the Big Red Blog with apologies for my unexpected absence.

I must admit, I thought the start of my first week as an ex-pastor would begin on a far different note from the one it began on. Benjamin fell prey to the stomach flu on Saturday and took the rest of us down with him in the next couple of days. Each of the boys, of course,  bounced back within twenty four hours. I, on the other hand, took days and days to recover. I am definitely too old to be throwing up, and that’s about all I have to say about it. You should certainly be glad I chose NOT to write about it.

On a happier note, dear Milton and Wilma, my in-laws, landed at our house on Friday. They came for “Grandparent Day” at the boys’ school, as well as to help us with the arduous and seemingly endless task of sorting and packing. Because of the plague at our house, they were delayed in coming and we actually saw them for the first time at the school for the Grandparent Day festivities. Dominick and I crept into the school gym during the breakfast part of that event to see if we could catch of peek of them.. And when we found the two of them in the crowd, you should have seen the sudden light come on in that little boy’s eyes. Instantly the hugest grin came over his face and he gave out this awestruck “It’s Grandma and Grandpa!” exclamation. Almost as if he couldn’t believe they were actually here in the flesh. Truthfully I have never seen a happier child.

But Dominick wasn’t the only one.  Each boy, in turn, had the opportunity to show their grandparents around their classroom and do little projects with them. They were so proud to have them in their little worlds. And for me, it was sweet to watch. With their grandparents living so far away, I know they’ve missed this kind of thing in their lives to this point. They’ve lived through several Grandparent Days before now, but either I’ve ended up playing Grandma or we artfully maneuvered our schedule in such a way as to miss the event entirely. But with Milt and Wilma here, the day took a whole new turn for them. Just like Dominick, they all lit up in their presence. They were honored to show them off to their teachers and friends.   These are our grandparents, our family. We go together. 

And for me it was simply more assurance. More confirmation that this move will be such a good thing for our boys and for us as a family. There’s something to this mixing of the generations that simply goes beyond words. I love watching Milt and Wilma’s godly influence on our children and seeing the boys watch their “faith in action” way of walking through life. I guess that’s why the Bible teaches so strongly that we are to pass down our faith from generation to generation. There’s something profound in it.

And of course now that Grandma and Grandpa are here, Orlando and I have been demoted to the position of chopped liver. We have to have the boys systematically take turns at the table sitting by them, in the car driving with them. I found Grandma in the backyard playing wiffle ball, dodging balls that Nicholas and Benjamin  “smashed.”I caught Grandpa climbing up into a pirate ship play set at the request of Anthony. And Dominick, well, he just keeps following them around with that great big grin on his face, taking every opportunity to sit on an empty lap and giggle. Just too thrilled to stop smiling. When I say, “Do you want to go with me?” the first question I get is “Are Grandma and Grandpa going?”

A preview of coming attractions, all coming soon to a farm in Nebraska. And wow, does it make me smile!

Barnstormers and Other Acts of God

Just call me Dorothy.

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, with her house lifted by the twister and spinning in circles, clinging to her bed while watching people fly by her windows. Some don’t seem to notice the storm. They tip their hats and rock in their chairs. Some, who don’t seem to care where they are going as long as they go, turn from nasty neighbors to wicked witches in a moment’s watching. All the while Dorothy sits and watches her spinning world out her window. Until the big bump when she lands in Oz.

This is the best I can do to describe the emotions of the last week. Several momentous, life-altering events took place, but I don’t feel like I’ve had a solid chance to absorb any of them as the spinning continues. The week began with the loss of a dear friend Julie, followed closely by my last day at my job. The very next day my sister flew in from Florida. My in-laws will be coming on Tuesday, here to help us prepare for the move that is coming.  My son Benjamin became sick in the middle of a baseball game yesterday and threw up half of last night. But still I needed to drag myself out of bed this morning so that Orlando and I could say a formal goodbye to the dear congregation at Petra. It was a pathetic excuse for a goodbye I gave. (See the previous post about my propensity for squeaking.) But they prayed for us and blessed us which was an awesome time. But immediately upon completion of this in the second service, we ran out the doors.

Why? So we could attend the All Pro Dad event at the Barnstormers game. (For those of you who don’t know, the Barnstormers are a local minor league team). Orlando is the All Pro Dad Team Captain at his school and they were throwing this event, so we felt we really needed to go if we could. But Benjamin wanted to go and said he felt well enough, and since he got a pass for the trip from his Aunt Maryann the nurse, we went and watched the game. It was a fun time–although the game didn’t end until the bottom of the 12th inning. It was, however, the most fascinating weather event I’ve witnessed in along time. It started out cloudy and cool. The steady rain of the morning gave way to just a blanket of clouds. But then the clouds started to dance and move and the sun began to shine through the holes. And the sun was uncommonly  intense. I could feel it burning my face whenever it was out for longer than a couple of minutes. But it kept diving behind the clouds, just in time to give relief from the heat. But then the wind kicked up. And then suddenly, we are being pelted with big drops of rain. Huge drops. At first I thought someone had turned on a hose. We stood up and ran for cover, but it was over literally five minutes later and the sun came out again, dancing in and out of the clouds that were zooming by overhead. Eventually the sun just won the war and stayed out the last hour or so. One look in the mirror confirmed that I had been scorched. Same with Orlando and the boys.

But I will admit, sitting at that game I began to feel weary from the week’s events. And the weather just seem to confirm the roller coaster of emotions that I have felt during it. So sad to lose my friend. So glad to see old friends and my sister who came to mourn her. So sad to give up my job. So excited to see what’s next. So sad to leave my Petra friends.  So happy to have the opportunity to focus on my family. So happy to see my in-laws coming, and yet so concerned that I have so much yet to do. So sorry for my poor son struggling with being sick, and yet sorrier still for those we love who are struggling with illness beyond my imagining.

And just like for Dorothy, the fickle, swirling weather seems to emulate life. It’s all I can do to just cling to the bed and not fall off, waiting for the whole thing to land. And maybe when it does I’ll get to squish a few witches, meet a few munchkins, and experience the world in a whole new level of technicolor.

Or maybe I’ll just take a nap, sit and cry, and take a deep breath before the next storm.

My All Pro Dad and our boys at the Barnstormers game

Dancing Shadows: A Farewell to Julie

Yesterday we lost a dear, old friend. Just like that, she left this earth. A sudden, stunning exit.

I met Julie Loyd Benner when I was 16 years old, standing in front of the Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I liked her immediately because she was straightforward and came with no pretenses. She was who she was. She was smart, brilliant. A computer wizard and a self-described geek with an eye for detail and artistry. She was an enthusiastic people person, but when I met her that day in 1982, she was unsure of herself in this. She worried that she would overstep her bounds with people; laugh too loudly, speak too intensely, say too much, or say the wrong thing. We were alike in this. It was years later when we had the conversation where she told me she had learned that having a gentle and quiet spirit had nothing to do with how loud you were. And she was musical, a worshipper. And that day when I was 16 she came over and introduced herself to me specifically to talk about worshipful things. Another dear friend of mine had played her this little ditty of a tune I had written, and she came to tell me it inspired her, that she heard God’s Spirit in it and wanted to encourage me to write more. At the time, I really appreciated her words but was too insecure to believe her. I find it ironic that she told me the same thing recently about the writing she’d read in this blog, and again, I was hard-pressed to believe her. I guess some battles are fought over a lifetime. I think Julie understood that.

A few years later, Julie and I found ourselves in the same town, the same church, the same circles. She was my sister’s roommate and would visit me in at my dorm in college. I remember coming home to my room and finding her written notes of encouragement on the whiteboard on my door. “Hey Toni, I saw your pink and green neon shirt with matching sunglasses on Sunday and thought it was a great look for you..” What can I say, it was the 80’s. Her townhouse became something of the home in town for the single church ladies. I spent a lot of time there, alternating between having fun party times and serious Bible studies and faith discussions. Later, we were teammates and partners on a missions trip to Trinidad. I recall being amazed by her ability to strike up a conversation wherever she went. She could make people feel comfortable just by smiling at them. Was interested in anything you had to say, especially if you had something to teach her. She would ask you a hundred questions, and cock her head to one side, listening intently to your explanation. She might even take notes. She never seemed to tire of listening and learning from people. Even in a foreign country, she shined like that. My brother took to walking around with her and going up to people on the street saying “Have you ever heard a laugh like this?” and every single time he said it, it still struck her funny and she would laugh on cue. Her amazing laugh, a tremendous, resounding sound reminiscent of so many clarinets and so many wind chimes heaving in rhythm . I remember sitting at the dinner table at some home in Trinidad while the people served us this truly yucky stuff–I forget what it was called–but it looked like slimy seaweed. She chatted it up and ate the stuff, valiantly. It was all I could do to swallow, much less speak. Wow, did I admire her grace then!

Then came the day when we were walking around the Polo Field in Rothsville and she was telling me about this man she met. How she was sure he was “the one.” And he was. It was so easy to see how Gary and Julie were meant for each other. Two truly delightful, joyful, vigorous souls. Together they could make you practically bust a gut laughing. But they could also turn around and share deep things of faith with tremendous intensity. Julie was a person of profound feeling and emotion. And whatever she was ruminating was right on her face, heart on her sleeve, just out there with it. On a perfect spring day, I sang in their wedding, the most music-filled ceremony I have ever, ever, ever attended in my life. I still remember the song I sang, “Father God, and I always think of her when it comes up on my iPod. I’m probably the only person on earth with that song as a permanent fixture on shuffle.

When Orlando came into my life, we became “couple friends” and did so many things together. Restaurants and festivals and concerts and movies. Julie and Gary were foodies with refined palates. Orlando and I were, and still are, much less discriminating. I can still hear the uproarious noise we made when we saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” at the Allen Theater. But my favorite memory was a trip the four of us took to Newport, Rhode Island, to see the mansions. Such a dichotomy, we were. Orlando and I went through the museums looking at the treasures, learning bits about the Vanderbilts, commenting on the china patterns and the furniture. Gary and Julie rented the tour headsets. I still have a picture in my mind of Julie examining an exhibit, listening to every possible piece of information on that thing and inspecting every single artifact. It literally took her hours longer to tour those homes than it took us, not that we cared. We had a grand time.

It wasn’t too long after that when our twins joined our family. I’ve never seen two people more excited to hear of a pregnancy as Gary and Julie were for us. Gary, being a twin himself, had and still has, a special place in his heart for our boys. Eventually Orlando and I were called to a different church and our times with Gary and Julie became infrequent. We reconnected on Facebook several years ago now, but other than running into them occasionally, we didn’t get to see them as much as we wanted to. But even through a thin medium like Facebook, Julie’s precious heart still shone through. Encouraging comments, kind words, fun pictures and posts. Orlando and Gary just ran into each other this weekend and we were going to finally make a date. Time just ran out on us. At least for now it did.

Julie became sick this weekend and left us yesterday for the perfection of heaven. And her departure makes me sadder than sad for Gary and for all those saints who loved her deeply. But I have been able, in this mournful day, to see a glimmer of joy. Just a glint. A flash. A voice in the wind. I see her laughing and dancing and rejoicing. I see her listening intently, with her head cocked to one side–finally, as my sister would say, getting the answers to all the questions she has asked after so many years. All of this with Jesus, the One whose presence she had longed for so intensely through her days on this earth. Getting to see Him face to face, no longer through a glass, darkly. Her joy is complete. Her race finished. Her “Well done, good and faithful servant” given and received.

And in the shadow of that, I hear her laughing.

We love you, Julie. See you soon.

Cliffwalk, Newport, RI

Impressive desserts