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Friday, January 29, 2010

ANGELS UNAWARE

Let brotherly love continue.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13: 1 and 2



A few years ago my brother, Gary, died after a fairly short struggle with cancer. But my story starts several years before the onset of his illness.

About three years before Gary got sick, one of Gary's friends asked permission for his cousin to park his truck in Gary's driveway at night. "Jim's* ex-wife and daughter are living in his house," Billy* said, "so Jim doesn't have a place to stay." Jim was fighting alcohol addiction. It cost him his wife, child, home, and job. Eventually it also cost him his truck, which was repossessed.

Gary and his wife, Faye, then allowed Jim to clean out a shed in their back yard and move his possessions into it. They ran a long extension cord from their house out to the shed, so Jim had a working electric blanket and lamp. This was Jim's home. Although Atlanta enjoys mild weather most of the time, winter has quite a bite. We sometimes get snow and ice, freezing temperatures and occasional drops below zero degrees (F). Somehow Jim survived the winter in his shed, working when he could find employment and a ride to work.

After my brother told me of Jim's new home, I worried a bit about my sister-in-law, a pretty woman with blue eyes and waist-length blond hair. "Are you comfortable with that man living in the back yard?" I asked her. "You're not afraid of him, are you?"

"Oh, no," Faye answered. "He's as nice as can be."

And he was. Before long I was hearing about the tall, thin, dark-haired man carrying the heavy garbage cans to the curb for Gary and Faye. He began to mow their grass. A carpenter and handyman, he repaired anything around the house that didn't require much money, since none of them had very much. For her part, Faye always brought dinner for Jim on the nights she picked up hamburgers on the way home from work. When she cooked, she invited Jim to partake. Eventually, he was allowed to help himself to food in the kitchen. When he could, he gave Faye money toward the grocery bill and occasionally grilled food in the backyard for the three of them and any other friends who were there.

Billy, Jim's cousin, was also handy, and always willing to help repair things in the worn old house. He fixed plumbing, helped install a water heater, and used his car to take Gary and Jim around town.

Gary's contribution to these two men was emotional support. He was older and listened to their problems, helping when he could. Billy also suffered through a divorce during this period and poured out his frustration and the grief of missing his two young children to Gary.

My brother was always easy to talk to. Somehow he never seemed judgmental or shocked. When arthritis made his back so painful that he could no longer work as a motorcycle mechanic, he studied (of all things!) cosmetology. While he worked as a barber and hairdresser, I guess he did "hear it all." Somehow, people just opened up to him. I am sure he was a steadying and sympathetic listener to his friends. And, as they became more aware that Gary's health was deteriorating, his friends responded to his need.

Gary, who suffered from severe back pain despite earlier spinal surgery, called me one day. "I am feeling dizzy," he said. "I fell yesterday."

"Have you seen your doctor?" I asked.

"Yes. She said I have an inner ear infection," he told me. "And she gave me some more anti-inflammatory medicine for the pain in my neck and back."

As days passed, Gary became weaker and more unsteady on his feet. Jim checked in on Gary whenever he was not working, cooking for him and helping Gary walk around the house. Jim could easily lift Gary because Gary was a small man. Even before he became seriously ill, Gary, who was 5' 9", weighed only 125 pounds but he became emaciated due to food allergies and pain and had trouble maintaining even 100 pounds.

Faye was able to work during Gary's illness, because Jim was mostly unemployed. He sat with Gary, eventually having to carry him to the bathroom or his chair in the living room. When I called one Friday, Jim said that Gary wouldn't eat or even drink anything. "I fixed him some soup," Jim said sadly, "but he won't wake up enough to eat it."

Thoroughly frightened, I called Gary's doctor, who told us to take him to the emergency room. Jim and Billy carried him to Billy's car and drove him to the hospital. They stayed with him until Faye arrived. The news was bad -- Gary had cancer in his lungs, brain, liver, and bones. There was no hope of recovery; however, radiation on his head cleared Gary's mind.

He also tried chemotherapy, but to no avail. The chemo changed Gary's appearance. Gone were his brown hair, black eye lashes and eye brows, and grizzled beard. "You're all eyes and ears," Faye told him. It was true. His large, round, dark brown eyes and small but prominent ears seemed to be all that was left of Gary.

Once he was home from the hospital, Jim stayed with Gary every day while Faye worked. Eventually her company moved a computer into their home, so she could work at home and be with Gary. Then, Jim and Billy visited continually, sometimes several short visits each day. Jim, being young and strong, was helpful in Gary's care as he inevitably declined. These good friends even cleaned Gary and changed him when he could no longer care for himself.

Although there were several others who helped Gary and stayed close through his illness, I would like to mention one more -- John. Gary and John had been friends since Gary was 14 and John was nine years old. The cute little boy grew up tall and handsome -- and addicted to drugs. Both men had trying times and made mistakes -- grievous ones. Through the almost 40 years of their friendship, they helped support each other. During Gary's last illness, John stood by him. He visited often at the hospital before Gary went home to die. During the five months after that, John spent many evenings sitting with Gary, watching motorcycle races and boxing matches on TV and giving Faye help in Gary's care. He sat up with us all night when Gary lapsed into a coma. He read a prayer and spoke touchingly at Gary's memorial service.

I thank God for these three friends of Gary's. What would we have done without them? In the comic strip "Snuffy Smith" Loweezy often said, "You're gooder than airy angel!" Jim, Billy, and John were also gooder than airy angel. And who were they? Just three men down on their luck. Not people one would usually hold up as an example -- jobless, homeless, penniless at times. But not heartless -- no, they were big in heart, full of love, courageous to the end.

To Gary they were brothers. They "Let brotherly love continue," as exhorted in the verse quoted above. And Gary and Faye were blessed when they "entertained strangers" who returned their kindness as if they had indeed "entertained angels unawares."

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.
Philippians 1: 3


*Names have been changed.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A FEW DAYS IN THE LIFE OF A MOVIE EXTRA

I worked a four-day stint as an extra in the film “We Are Marshall”. The movie depicts the Marshall University football team which suffered a disastrous plane crash in 1970 as it returned to West Virginia after a game. The entire team, most of its coaches, some parents and supporters, as well as the crew, perished. The film shows the comeback of the team and the revival of the spirit of the college.

My daughter, Holly, and I saw an article in the “Peach Buzz” column in "The Atlanta Journal and Constitution." We signed up and were called to report to Jonesboro for the shoot. About a week before the shoot, we drove to “Wardrobe” in Decatur to be fitted with our 1970 ensembles.

Holly’s outfit was cute; a wrap-around A-line denim skirt and plaid long-sleeved shirt. She was 21 and slender and looeds good in anything. I, however, am ……not 21 and cannot claim to be slender any more. It is Holly’s fault that I am not svelt, even though most people think a woman should have recovered her pre-baby figure in fewer than 21 years.

I was “fitted” with a stretchy, tight three piece suit -- a straight skirt, sleeveless shell, and long-sleeved jacket. The jacket covered a multitude of sins (the gluttonous kind), which is why the pretty, thin young Wardrobe lady brought it to me. When I continuously lamented my middle-aged middle, she kindly said, “everyone has issues with their body”. But when I examined myself in the Wardrobe mirrors, I wondered, “Does everyone look like a walking link sausage?”

The information sheet told us to arrive at the set with our hair in curlers and our make-up applied. I had not rolled my hair in 30 years, so I bought some pink sponge curlers. The trip from Carrollton to Jonesboro took a little over an hour to drive. I stared straight ahead, afraid to make eye contact with any other drivers or passengers, embarrassed by the pink curlers in my hair. Only when we arrived in the large parking lot and most of the other women wore curlers, too, did I feel comfortable. The security people waved us in, knowing that we belonged there by our space creature appearance.

I had been told that working as an extra involved a lot of waiting. Now that I have experience in the field, I can tell you it involves a lot of waiting. A lot. Waiting in the heat and long lines to check in. Waiting to get your costume from Wardrobe. Waiting in Make-up lines. Waiting in Hair Dressing lines. Then waiting in Extras Holding, which was an un-air conditioned gym, crammed with hot, sweating people.

Each day I wiggled into my sausage casing, er 100% wool suit, and had my hair teased and sprayed and came out looking quite matronly. The first day my “do” made me resemble Edith Bunker. The second, I looked like Dear Abby – the photo of her that for years graced the head of her column, featuring the coif with WINGS. The last two days, I didn’t resemble anyone, but had big hair, which my daughter tried to press down a little. Holly does not like big hair. Hers is long and sleek and would not hold any curl, so she didn’t have to roll hers after the first day.

For our actual work, we filled a football stadium and were fans. Sometimes I was a Marshall fan and sometimes I was a Morehead (Ky.) fan. We sat on the aluminum seats of the concrete stadium and jumped up and cheered or, alternately, drooped in disappointment as our team of the moment succeeded or failed to score.

The stadium was also filled with dummies – not us but balloon people. Propped up on their bottoms, which is where their bodies ended, and dressed in a variety of costumes, they occasionally listed drunkenly or fell onto their faces. Many were truly scary, some were just ugly. Some actually looked like people we recognize. For instance, several looked just like John Travolta.

All during the shooting, we and the dummies were moved singly and en masse to different seats and across the field to the other side of the stadium. Our work lasted from around 4 p.m. until the next morning, 4 a.m., 5, a.m., 6 a.m., even 7 a.m. “Lunch” took an hour, and two nights we had to stay inside until a storm blew over. We did film in misting rain, but prudently stayed inside during lightening and a nearby small tornado. By our release time each morning, we appeared to be extras in a zombie movie -- red eyed, shuffling, and dazed.

Matthew McConaughey starred as the coach trying to help Marshall develop a winning football team. On the set daily, he made many female hearts to go pitty-pat. When the media reported McConaugheye’s break up with his girl friend, every delirious fan there felt sure that he would notice her and be stricken with love at first sight. As he walked through the stadium of smiling women, some of the swooning could be blamed on McConaughey, instead of the unbearable heat and humidity.

We filmed each scene DOZENS of times, and from MANY angles. At first it was exciting to see the football plays. I half forgot that the plays were choreographed and felt a little thrill at a well-executed pass. Eventually that began to pall, but by the last night, when a difficult pass, tip, and interception play took FOREVER to perfect, when the players finally succeeded, the crowds erupted -- screaming, jumping, waving their pompons. Even the people who should have been devastated forgot who they were cheering for in the excitement of being released to go home at a mere 4:00 a.m.

Many Marshall graduates and family members of the passengers of the downed plane worked as extras in the filming in Atlanta. They seemed pleased to tell us of their connection to the school and as one man said, “I had to be a part of this.”

The people we met added a great deal to the enjoyment of the experience. The young people who took care of the extras, i.e. herded us around and told us what to do, were friendly and kind. I especially appreciated their consideration of a woman of 74 years who, bless her heart, worked every single day, existing on four hours of sleep daily while taking care of her disabled sons. Meanwhile, I literally fell into my bed each morning, half-undressed, only to rise at the last minute to shower, dress, and run out the door, calling my good-byes to my family.

I was amazed that my new friend could continue to work, although by the last couple of nights, several of us noticed that, as she conversed with us in the stands, her eyes would occasionally roll up into her head. I also saw her drooping in her seat, eyes closed, and I tensed, ready to catch her if she toppled forward. But on cue, she continually sprang to her feet, cheering her team.

Being an extra is good, if exhausting, work. I had planned to read a lot during the waiting periods, but found that I enjoyed talking with my cohorts. Everyone has an interesting story, if you take the time to listen.

Friday, January 22, 2010

THE LEAST OF THESE

THE LEAST OF THESE

IN LEBANON

This is the last segment of the last three posts, which are below. I hope you have enjoyed it.

How do I reconcile the people we meet with radicals who hate us and terrorists who want to kill us? Before I came here, I thought the Hezbollah was a secret, criminal group. Here in Lebanon there is no secrecy about being Hezbollah. As days pass and we become more comfortable with each other, our escorts (even the Hajj) pose with us for photographs. The young men become friendly and playful. One proudly shows us his baby daughter, a dark-eyed, smiling beauty. And in this village, the Hezbollah is respected and loved -- the only group, as the villagers see it, which defended them during the attack on their home. “They are like America’s Minute Men,” remarks one of our team.

The genial young men keep a close watch over us, though. They NEVER leave any of us alone. In another village, the entire group, except for me, walks up a street and around a corner while I pay for my purchases. When I leave the shop, my escort drives the van slowly along beside me as I walk through the quiet village. I walk as quickly as I can, embarrassed and feeling like the First Lady of America being shadowed by the Secret Service. Still, the deserted street is a little scary and I appreciate the company.

I hear one of our translators replying to questions from one of our team, “America should help the weak nation against the strong one,” she states. “Israel is so strong and Lebanon so weak.” Asked about the flyers dropped by Israel warning the residents to leave the area before the attack started, she replies, “If you were told to leave your home and land and let someone else take it over, would you?”

We observe and ask questions, but we do not involve ourselves in politics. We can see the problems of the Lebanese people more from their point of view now, and commiserate with them in their suffering. Our mission is to demonstrate the gospel of Christ by helping others. We are here as Baptists, to succor the cold, hungry, and lonely for the love of Jesus, who said, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you do this for the least of these, you do it for me.”


END

Thursday, January 21, 2010

THE LEAST OF THESE

THE LEAST OF THESE

IN LEBANON

The is a continuation of the last two blogs, which are below. I plan to post the end of this story in two days.

We divide into two teams. Each group has a woman, three of our men, and one or two of Hajj’s men. The young men have lists of people who need the heaters, water tanks, and food. The water tanks are large plastic storage tanks, to be filled by water trucks as needed. The heaters are small black metal stoves, for heating or limited cooking, and burn diesel fuel. The Hajj goes with us to the homes.

I look up and see one of our men and Hajj carrying a heater together. This is astounding. Hajj’s position is not unlike that of the Don in “The Godfather” movies. Everywhere he goes, I notice men and women approach him, apparently to discuss their problems. He greets them all respectfully, and inclines his head to hear their requests. Of course, everyone in this village knows everyone else. Naturally, everyone knows Hajj. He crosses the streets with hardly a glance at traffic. Drivers know who he is and stop for him, politely tapping their horn in greeting or nodding if he looks their way. Hajj gets obvious respect.

I realize it is helpful to Hajj to be responsible for bringing our group here with our small gifts. The villagers will have reason to be grateful to him. If he cares for his people, as it seems he does, then he must be glad to have a little comfort brought to them. So he stands respectfully, if stoically, as we pray in the name of Jesus with his people. But I am surprised that he would accompany us most of the time and bemused to see him help us in such a basic way as carrying part of the burden up the steep hill.

We trudge uphill with a heater and a carton of canned tuna. This house, as almost all others we visit, has the door and the shutters open to admit light, even though a chilly wind blows. We enter a small room where a tiny lady sits propped up in her bed, which is under the window so she can look outside. To our dismay, this 100-year-old widow tries to rise from her bed to greet us. Hajj rushes to her side and convinces her that she should remain seated and gently covers her against the draft.

As we visit with our fragile new friend, my heart aches for her and the other villagers, especially the elderly ones. They are so helpless and lonely, grateful for any attention or gift. The gnarled hands clutch mine as we talk. She asks me to stay and be her daughter. At the end of our visit, we ask if we may pray together. The centenarian graciously allows the prayer. As one of our team members prays, the translator repeats the prayer, phrase by phrase in Arabic, and the lady also prays aloud in Arabic – repeatedly calling down heaven’s blessings on our team and our families. In counterpoint to the English and Arabic prayers weaving through each other in this room, I hear the Muslim “Call to Prayer” floating softly through the open windows.

As we leave, I see the Hajj embrace the feeble little lady. I glance at his face and am moved to see tears in his eyes. This powerful man, who endured torture, weeps for his confused and fragile relative.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

THE LEAST OF THESE

THE LEAST OF THESE

IN LEBANON

This is a continuation of the last blog, which is below. I plan to publish the next segment in two days, and the last segment two days after that. Hope you enjoy it.


We go into a little restaurant and wait for our first meeting with the Hajj. I feel a little apprehensive. I remind myself not to touch any men here. I am not to offer my hand first, as we do in the States, but to touch my chest with a little bow, unless a man offers his hand. The men respond to my salutation by touching their chests; the older men sometimes also touch their foreheads.

As we wait to meet Hajj, our guide begins to tell us about Hajj’s ordeals in prison. “He was tortured and now is bitter.” I am cringing, not wanting to hear the painful details, but Hajj enters and the subject is not mentioned again, which is a relief to me.

When he arrives, I see the Hajj is a slim middle-aged man, with a short, neat beard beginning to show a little gray. He greets everyone with courtesy but seems reserved, maybe a little uncomfortable. Even so, the Hajj inaugurates a level of hospitality which we experience throughout our visit to Lebanon. These villagers, no matter how poor, want to offer you SOMETHING – candy, tea, coffee – during your visit.

The coffee, presented hot in small glasses or cups, smells wonderful. Sugar is offered, but I learn to drink it unsweetened, although it tastes a little bitter. The hot tea, however, also served in tiny glasses, is deliciously sweet.

When we entered this area, I was surprised to see the yellow Hezbollah flags flying and a welcome sign proclaiming the area was liberated by Hezbollah. The Hajj, it seems, is the Hezbollah leader in the area. I sit in my chair, watching this soft-spoken, mild-mannered man talk to our guide. We, American Christians, are to work alongside Lebanese Hezbollah members. My world shifts and I feel like Alice in Wonderland.

Our guide tells us that Hajj is buying our lunch today and on the last day of our work. “Hajj wants to buy lunch for you every day, but I say no, it is too much.”

He continues to translate for Hajj, “He says he is embarrassed that he cannot invite you to his house today for a meal, but his wife is out of town and there is no woman to cook. He would like you to have a proper meal here today, not just sandwiches.”

As our guide talks, one of the Hajj’s men comes into the restaurant and hands Hajj several packs of cigarettes in different brands – American brands. I watch curiously as Hajj carefully opens a couple of the packs and taps the packs on his hand. I remember the gesture from my childhood, the art of presenting cigarettes to guests. I have not seen that in years. Hajj puts the cigarette packs, with the cigarettes now artfully protruding, onto the table along with lighters and ash trays. This is yet another symbol of the hospitality the Lebanese offer to their guests.

The next morning, we park in the square in front of a mosque, one of few buildings in this village that seem undamaged. I inspect the houses around me. Some are just piles of rubble, concrete chunks with steel rebar sticking out. Other buildings have a wall missing. Most of the walls are pocked with large bullet holes and many sustained holes the size of small cars.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

THE LEAST OF THESE


I traveled to Lebanon with Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief during a period of detente. This is the story told in 4 posts.

THE LEAST OF THESE

In Lebanon

The olive trees stand overgrown and abandoned in fields so rock-strewn it would seem nothing could grow here. However, in fields where the trees are pruned and fertilized, thousands of olives hide among the gray-green leaves. How ironic that the olive tree, precious for its oil, fruit and fuel, and its olive branch a very symbol of peace, is one of the victims of war.

Warning signs mark the fields of feral olives and pastures. Pictures of cluster bombs and land mines depict the danger to anyone walking there.

“The land is poisoned,” says our guide. “Because of the live bombs and mines, people cannot tend their olive and apple trees, or till their gardens in these areas.” It is another war-related loss in a land which has seldom known peace.

Cool days and cold nights herald the winter season in southern Lebanon. Six Americans, two women and four men, traveled here from Georgia to distribute food, heaters, and water tanks. We are an experienced group, having worked in disaster events ranging from the Twin Towers cleanup after 9/11 to tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, ice storms, floods, and the tragic tsunami in Southeast Asia.

I squeeze into a van with our driver, two young female translators, the other five team members, and a large young man. With all of us in the 7-person van, one of the translators must sit on the floor of the van and the young man sits on a plastic crate. The rest of us wedge ourselves tightly together, which is good, since the roads, worn and crumbling, also sustained huge bomb craters, producing such violent jouncing that we might fly up and strike the top of the van if we are not securely clamped together.

Even so, I enjoy the scenery. Snow-capped Mt. Herman dominates the eastern view. Nearer I see the olive and apple groves and a land beautiful in its stark emptiness.

The village, small and tight-knit, climbs up and down the rocky, hilly countryside. The main street meanders through the village, curving and undulating. The concrete houses crowd the narrow streets and cling precariously to the steep hills. Wherever you go here, you go either uphill or downhill. I think the residents must have strong legs.

It is a bit of a shock to hear our guide casually mention our “escorts”. I was not afraid to come here, believing that the most dangerous part of the trip is the drive to the Atlanta airport. But this is the Middle East, where trouble might brew for years or suddenly erupt like Mt. Vesuvius.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Graduation and the Two Different Shoes

When my daughter, Holly, and foster son, Misha, were graduating from high school, I dressed in a green dress, but couldn't decide which pair of shoes to wear with it. One was a black patent leather pump and the other was a tapestry-type shoe with a green wedge heel. So I put on one shoe of each pair and asked Misha which looked better.

"The black," Misha said.

Okay. Question asked, questioned answered, decision made. End of story. I finished getting ready and we left for the school. Since Holly had attended this small school from the age of 3, we knew everyone there and they all knew us. I was walking around, talking to my friends, trying to avoid weepiness at this commencement of a new life for Holly and Misha, when I noticed Sally, the accountant for the school, taking photos of my feet and laughing. What . . . .?

I looked down at my feet and actually shrieked! I still had on a shoe from each pair! Did Holly, Misha, or my husband, Ray, notice this when we took pictures in front of the house? No! Did Ray notice as we drove to the school? No! Did I notice? No! Incredible. Two totally different shoes and I didn't even feel an uneven heel height, nor did I notice one green shoe and one black one.

To make things worse, I couldn't even remain safely hidden among the audience once we were seated. Noooo! We were asked to come to the STAGE. As we walked the length of the gym (suddenly it was much bigger than previously), I felt sure EVERYONE noticed my mismatched shoes. I blushed, then thought, "Well, I've been involved with this school so much for so many years; everyone already knows I'm crazy." So I shrugged, laughed and pointed out my foot wear to Holly's best friends as I climbed the steps to the stage.


Take my hand, step off into the void with me and we'll explore together. I plan to write about things I know and things I have done; but also about things I would like to know and things I would like to do (or, maybe not, but would like to hear about).

In upcoming messages, I'll explore the dangers of anti-freeze/coolant to animals and small children and what we can do to minimize the problem. A man whose job is exploding bombs and mines has agreed to take us into his world. Work as a volunteer in disaster relief has taken me to many states and several nations and there are stories to be mined there. I'm lucky enough to bottle feed and tend orphaned birds, bunnies, ducks, squirrels, rats (yep, rats) and many other wildlife babies. When my two-year-old grandson, Kaden, visits, his opening remarks are: "Grandy! Bunny? Grass?" He likes to see my little wards and help me pick grass for the bunnies.

Many of my experiences are humorous (at least when I look back on them) and I'd like to share them with you. Since the funniest stories are often the most embarrassing, in the next blog I'll start with "Graduation and the Two Different Shoes."