Monday, January 23, 2012

On Comfort Zones.

My family and I walked in the front door, after a long conversation in the car with the kids about being on their best behavior. We walked down a long hallway to a central counter. Off to the right, a TV was on, with a couple of people in wheelchairs watching it. I looked around, and EVERYONE was in a wheelchair. The only people walking were in white scrubs…and us. Someone noticed us standing at the counter and said, “Can we help you?” I looked around and almost said no, almost left right then. I was in over my head. What was I thinking bringing my family here? But I replied, “Yeah, we’re here from FBC Muskogee. We’re here to help with the church service. Where is that?” The nurse told us and pointed down another long hallway, where more people in wheelchairs were busily rolling along. I took a deep breath, filled with doubt, but I took that first step, my family followed, and we walked into the room…
This whole thing started several months ago when my brother Brad and I were at lunch with a friend of ours who used to be our Youth Minister and who is now the head pastor at a church in Muskogee. His name is Donnie, and to this day he is one of the people I look to when I need spiritual help.
(Real quick, as an aside, for those of you who don’t want to stick around to read a “Church Post,” I would consider at least reading the italicized parts. This won’t be as churchy as you might think, it’s really more about stepping outside of your comfort zones).
So we were eating with Donnie, and he asks, “How are you guys liking your new church?” Of course, Brad and I had all kinds of answers for that, ranging from “We love it,” to “It’s so great, our Sunday School class is the best!” Donnie takes all that in stride, then cuts to the heart with a simple question. “How are you serving?”
“God, you can’t have meant for us to do this. There isn’t a single person in the room who looks under ninety. They all look so close to death. My children won’t understand this place. These aren’t the friendly elderly people who pinch cheeks and give out candy. These people are dying. They aren’t enjoying these years, this place, their lives. I’m going to call Clint and tell him I can’t do this. If you want me to do this, I need a sign. Tell me I’m supposed to be doing this.” Those were the words in my head as we walked over to the folks that were leading the service this morning and introduced ourselves. They were much older than us, probably by twenty years. It was their first Sunday too, and unlike us, they weren’t given the benefit of seeing someone do a trial run. They were in head first…but they hadn’t brought their kids…
Brad and I both kind of stammered and hem-hawed around with a reply to Donnie’s question, so we moved on to another topic and had a wonderful time avoiding the piercing question. It wasn’t too long after that when the opportunity came for me. I was informed of a “Nursing Home Ministry” that needed people to do a Bible lesson once a month for folks that couldn’t make it to church. I thought about it for a while, prayed about it a bit longer, and finally decided this was going to be the perfect area for me and my family to serve our church. I get along GREAT with older people. Always have. I have this sort of relationship with them that brings out the old school polite and respectful Travis that old people love.
But I had forgotten about those folks in nursing homes.
The gentleman leading the service started out kind of shaky. He introduced themselves, and turns out he’s an ex-Army guy. Meanwhile, when The Missus had taken a seat with the kids, she’d neglected to take my Bible with her. So it’s clear on the other side of the room, and there are at least ten wheelchairs that I have to walk through to get to it. With a very self-conscious attitude, I start that journey. I get back to my seat, which is wicker by the way (the old comedy bit about people who utilize wicker furniture also hate fat people is running through my head) and sit down to listen to the rest of the introduction. About halfway through, a man sitting next to Aven starts to wheel out the door. As he’s leaving, he looks at an orderly and says, “I CAN’T HEAR A WORD HE’S SAYING!” I have never been more embarrassed for a human being than I was at that moment…
So we got it all set up, and I decided that it would be a great idea to take the kids with us on this trip. We’d only be going once a month on the second Sunday of each month, and the service was just forty-five minutes long, so why couldn’t they come? They can sit still that long. Also, don’t old people love kids? Don’t they want them to sit on their laps and tell them stories about how lucky they are because when they were six they had to sign up for the draft and plant gardens for the war effort? This is the attitude I have going into it. That’s my brilliant scientific mind in action. The kids are coming. That is my executive decision. To her credit, if The Missus thought better of it, she didn’t say a word, she just allowed things to happen.
Before we even started the first song, I had made up my mind that we weren’t going to do this. I couldn’t handle the pressure. I was nervous, and I wasn’t even the one up talking this week. All these things weren’t signs for me to do it…all these things were signs that I shouldn’t. 
Last Sunday night, a very good friend of mine was ordained as a deacon in our church. We went to the service that night to support him in his ordination. The kids and I got there a little early, and so Akeeli spent a good portion of her time going through the Baptist Hymnal, which is almost as outdated as the BlackBerry. These days they have the PowerPoint displays and all the songs are choruses, and rarely does an old-school hymn make the cut. But as she was looking through it, I told her, “Turn to number 426. The name of the song should be ‘Victory in Jesus.’ That’s my absolute favorite hymn in the whole world, and when I was kid your age, I used to request it all the time.” She turned to 426, and boom, there it was.
The gentleman finally wrapped up his introduction, and told us we were opening in song. “If you have a hymnal, turn to page 426. We’re going to sing ‘Victory in Jesus.’” What? Could this be? Is this my sign? “But God, I don’t WANT to do this. This is too far outside of my comfort zone. These people are not what I thought of when I agreed to try this. I want out.” But there was no ignoring it. This was what I needed to do. I NEEDED to be out of my comfort zone. I spend too long in my comfort zones, and I learned a long time ago that you can get awful stagnant sitting in a nice house on Comfort Zone Avenue. The Missus was out of her comfort zone, I could tell. The kids were WAY outside of it. But this was right. Somehow…this was where we needed to be. 
About halfway through the service, someone started snoring, and then someone told a story about how she heard the voice of God one day while she was hanging laundry, and she thought it was the Chinese coming to cut her head off. At one point I looked over at The Missus, and she was crying. Later, when Aven asked her why, she explained that those folks “sang like her grandma.” In the end, we wound up helping wheel some of the folks into the lunchroom. My kids met an older lady who tried to talk Aven into staying with her, then proceeded to tell my wife that her dog had gotten stolen last night. She doesn’t have a dog. There were missteps, miscues, and misdirections. But we’ll be back. On the second Sunday of each month for at least the next year, we’ll be back. I can do anything twelve times. It might be outside our comfort zone, but I’m absolutely sure God will show us something through this. 
In my dad’s Bible, and now in the front of mine, there is a quote that simply says, “God does not call the qualified, God qualifies them he calls. A-MEN” I don’t think my dad had the best of grammar, or the best spelling, but when he heard that quote he copied it down in his words, and to me it proves the point. I’m not qualified to be teaching a Sunday School lesson to senior adults in a nursing home. But I have been called. That’s all the assurance I need.
How are you going to step outside your comfort zone this week, this month, or this year? You don’t have to be a baptist, or even a Christian. All you have to be is human. Step outside your zone. Do something new. Don’t stagnate. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Matriarch

 



The dictionary defines matriarch as the female head of a family or tribal line. My definition isn’t that simple. To me, a matriarch is a woman who lived 84 years, watched her parents, a brother, a sister, her husband, and three of her children die, and still kept enough faith so that on her death bed she could tell Jesus to “hurry up.”
For me, a matriarch is my Memaw Evelyn.
I’ve been saying it for the last four years. “Memaw, I’m going to come over with a tape recorder one day and not leave until I get your stories on tape for a book.” I never did do that, and regrets are becoming a cliche, so I’ve tried to not dwell on it. Oh, what a marvelous book it would make though. Stories that would make you cry, laugh a little, and then cry a bit more. Stories that would have caused you to garner unwelcome sympathy, as she didn’t want to dwell in the past, opting instead to live for this moment, the here and now, where it counted.
She was a firecracker even in her eighties, and I loved to give her a hard time when I saw her, more than once eliciting an outburst of air then a stern “Travis Gene!” as she voiced her disapproval of my ideas or actions. Every time I left her house, I’d ask her if my aunts were taking care of her, and she’d tell me stories of her supposed “mistreatment” and I’d tell her she could come live with me anytime she wanted.
I’ll never forget the time I got a phone call telling me she’d been hospitalized mere hours after I had talked to her on the phone. You see, I called her up to tell her I was going to be preaching in church on that particular Sunday, and asked her if she’d like to come. Apparently, in her excitement to get back in her house to tell others about this event, she tripped and fell and wound up breaking something or other. It was a completely new way for me to feel guilt, even though I’m absolutely positive she felt just as guilty about making me feel that way.
She was empathetic, nurturing, and strong-willed, as I’m sure my aunts and cousins who lived closest to her would tell you. She did not have an easy life. She survived the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the tragic loss of many people closest to her.
Bruce Sloat was only nine years old when he was struck in the head with a baseball and killed.
Donald Sloat was a war hero in Vietnam, only twenty years old when he died. He is still the subject of much research in my family, most of which was headed up by my Memaw, who desperately wanted him to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor, which is an ongoing process even now.
Brian Sloat was thirty nine years old when cancer took him from his mother, his wife, and his four sons, of which I am the eldest.
Through all of this loss (and so much more) my Memaw Evelyn persevered. She stood strong in the knowledge of her faith, trusting God in his absolute omniscience to provide a way through the personal tragedies. She was as resolute in her trust as perhaps Job was, as the pastor mentioned at her funeral. I thought it a not too unlikely comparison, having read or heard of the things Job went through, and then the way they both seemed to just give it up, hand it over to God, and ask him for strength.
She died on Christmas Eve, surrounded by her family, and with a clear mind she demanded that the doctors remove her from the machines keeping her alive. She yelled at God, telling him to “hurry up,” which brought chills to the surface of my skin, because those are almost the exact same words my dad spoke as he lay dying. I can only imagine her entrance into heaven, possibly pushing past others, a sudden understanding coursing through her, knowing why all those things happened to her, and in my mind I like to see her meeting her sons, who are in heaven simply because of a belief she instilled in them as children.
As I sat through the funeral service last Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think about playing at her house when I was younger, about the foods she used to make, remembering her yelling in the stands of my high school basketball games.
It was the first funeral in which I’d ever been a pallbearer.
Six of us Sloat boys wheeled her out of the church, into and out of the hearse, and placed her on the machine that would lower her into her final resting place. She was laid to rest next to Donald, who fought valiantly for our freedom and who she fought valiantly for towards the end of her life.
But take heart, dear reader. There were no tears shed during this post. Sure they came with the news of her death, as often our selfish minds confuse this earth for being a better residence than Heaven. But they quickly dried, and I took two things away from the experience that I hope to make me…and maybe you…a better person.
The first is that bad things are going to happen in our lives. Some more so than others. There are really two ways you can deal with them. You can either curl up in a tight little ball and let life box you around the ears until your spirit is broken; or you can take those problems to God, lay them on his lap, and give him the opportunity to minister to you.
The second is that I hope – for me, for you, for everyone – that I can lay on my death bed and demand that Jesus hurry up, that I can barge into heaven in much the same way a small child barges into their parents bedroom after a bad dream. Rushing into the arms of God, and hearing him tell me all the things I never knew. My goal in life is to acquire that faith, that strength, and that honor.
Here’s to you, Memaw Evelyn. I miss you, your family misses you, but I couldn’t be happier, and Heaven couldn’t be more deserving. You were, are, and always will be…our Matriarch.