Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hinton, Day 3: Explosion of Epic Proportions!

This caption references not disaster, but the joy of being in close quarters with teenagers for a week. They, mostly, like each other, and I completely love them. We are all working quite well together. They are developing their own language for this trip, and, for the most part I get it (or pretend to).

This week has given me the chance to work on a theory that teenagers actually make *one another* moody and disinterested in their parents. I base this theory completely on my own children, who have suddenly turned into folks who are so over me and my whole way of being. I am a tremendous embarrassment to them and they kind of want me to wander off into the wilderness, until, that is they fall down and scrape their knee. Then, I become relevant and useful again as a dispenser of band aids and hugs. It's a little window into the future, and I'm praying that they revert back to semidependent little boys, if only for a little while.

We had another good day. The snag came with the plumbing, but we made great progress on other projects. Tori and Perry got the dressers sanded and painted, and we did a little more demo and clearing of space to make room for new things. Keeping an existing structure is definitely more cost efficient, but it dratically increases the amount of labor. Thank goodness for willing hands!

Wednesdays are lovley, as we are all given the night off. Since it's happened twice, it's fair to call it tradition now: our second annual trip to Asiano (yes. You're reading that correctly.) was tonight. Asiano is a sushi/Chinese buffet/Mongolian/hibachi/Thai restaurant just on the other side of the state line. With that ambitious of a menu, you would think that they might want to simplify. But, it's delicious and we had a great time. As a bonus, we passed a sign advertising: "Epic Laser Touchless Carwash!" i don't think I've ever seen four words that have less to do with one another on the same sign, and we took pictures to document the absurdity.

As the sun set, a four-piece band (including melodica) joined together on the front porch and we muddled tentatively through some songs we knew and harmonies we invented. Some played frisbee, and we all stopped for a bit to do something we love.

Until tomorrow, we remain
The team of Epic Humpback Whales

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hinton, Day 2: a day like any other

On my second year in attendance, I'm starting to get a sense of the macrorhythm of life at Hinton. Monday is a bit slow, as we all get a feel for one another, the family and our work. Tuesday comes with energy and vigor. The team is ready and arrive on site with a plan and direction. Wednesday, we hit a snag of some sort and start being less patient and more snarky. Thursday is one big scramble to overcome the snag and an astonishing amount of work gets done. Morale is high. Joy is renewed.

This was, then, a typical Tuesday. We arrived, and at Jackson's behest, we did a lot of construction before lunch. We dove into our jobs and got some things done. Benjamin and I had the goal of leveling the joists for the floor, which required prying a support beam off and, 7 nails and two hours later, nailing it back on. (But, let me assure you, that joist was LEVEL when we left.)

Jacob and Margaret dug a trench for the tubing protecting he wiring, which is among the most miserable sorts of jobs. They were outside in the hot sun, digging a 6 inch wide trench to lay wires under the house and another wire. At very least, it didn't have to be that deep.

Joseph, Ben and Jacob later took down the ceiling (hilarty ensued!), and Margaret made yet another drawing of the exterior windows. It certainly helps to have the progeny of two architects around.

All the while, Tori and Perry were outside with the youngest member of the Day family, who has hardly missed a moment of work. They scraped paint off two pieces of furniture, which are set to be transformed tomorrow.

Tonight, the youth are braving some interaction with the rest of the groups, leaving the boys and I with some time for a peaceful bedtime. We'll gather for ice cream and some music at 10:00 and prepare to see what will come our way tomorrow.

Peace and blessings...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hinton, Day One: Inside Jokes start here.

Today was our first day at the site. It was an especially expectant day, since we have the blessing of knowing the family with whom we are working. After rain woke us, spacing itself through the sun that rose on Lake Chatuge, we had breakfast and got the tools ready and loaded for our drive into Murphy, NC. As we pulled into the Day family property, Annie and W.L. greeted us with smiles and open arms. They welcomed us into their home, which went through significant improvements last summer. The last time our group saw it, Annie and W.L. were without a bathtub, walls, power, and water. They were also just moments away from giving up on all hope when we met them.

But, this summer, it was as if the light couldn’t keep from shining from them. They were happy, familiar, and warm. The tentativeness felt more like the first few moments at your grandmother’s house, rather than entering into a stranger’s home. We had literally seen them at their worst – their lives were in shambles, their health was shaky, their family was broken, and their home was ripped apart. Today, we enjoyed time with them in a clean, orderly space that was cool and pleasant. Annie praised the improvements, saying that her home was warm in the winter and cold in the summer. Their granddaughters were there, looking disinterested and bored until a van full of youth showed up and suddenly, there was laughter and welcome. They showed us their rooms, and even better, their new kittens, just born in early May. Like most things for the Day family, even the kittens were going to have a lifetime struggle. The three we met were small, scrappy and one of them (Lucky) was missing its back feet. Another (Trouble), however, had 7 toes on each of its back feet. The third (Feisty) was adored by all the girls and she might wind up in our van on the way home. We figured that the litter got the proper amount of toes, they just didn’t get distributed evenly. Another of God’s strange little jokes.

We spent the first hour reconnecting with this family and hearing about their year. When we headed to their son’s home, we were all ready to dive in and get to work. Jackson led the delegation to the worksite to do some construction, and proceeded to serve as principal tool-fetcher and flashlight holder. He asked good questions and was a tremendous help and source of energy. Joseph and Ben got to work on measuring and prepping plywood for floors, Margaret and Jacob took measurements and drew a floorplan of the front of the house, and Tori and Perry became best friends with the Day’s granddaughters as they scraped paint of a dresser and talked about school and boys and the things that girls tend to like. Cooper served as entertainment. It was a good day.

We spent another lovely evening on the front porch, recounting our day and discovering all the things that we like to laugh and sing about. This meant a lot of inside jokes, mainly about llamas. We had to come up with a group name (“Epic Humpback Whales”), which, when announced, was welcomed with an Awkward Silence (which I argued would make a GREAT group name. But I digress…). We also invented a game, which involved light-up Frisbees and simultaneous text messaging. You know, that’s what the kids are into these days.

It was a good day, and really, any day that ends with ice cream and rockers overlooking a lake with good friends can’t be so bad.

Tomorrow… Who knows? Our theme is about ending poverty one nail at a time, so hopefully, we can put one more nail into this epidemic.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Van of Liberal Youth encounter Florida Boy Scouts at area Wendy’s; only looks exchanged

This morning, six youth from Saint Mark United Methodist Church, two children under 5 and one female chaperone attended the 8:45 a.m. service for commissioning and blessing. They loaded into a van, and headed north towards the mountains, and, making great time, headed into a Wendy’s near Ellijay at 11:23. Smugly exiting the van, sure that the lunch rush would be avoided, the chaperone brought the youth into the restaurant only to be greeted by four vans full of boy scouts, all clamoring for frosties and affordable cheeseburgers. Dressed to suit their particular interests, the two groups inhaled sharply and ordered their food, sitting to eat at neighboring tables. No one was injured by sticks, stones, or words in the incident.

--story reported by Mandy Flemming, staff reporter

So, we arrived today, early. For those of you who know me, you know this is nothing short of a miracle. I’ve never been early for anything in my life. We were greeted by our dear friend, Julia, who welcomed each of us by name and pointed us to our accommodations. To preface, last year, we stayed in individual rooms in the lodge, which was fine. Lovely. Accommodating.

This year?

Julia housed us in the McCall House, which is about 50 yards from the lake. It has a front porch with four pillars and three rocking chairs. We have a kitchen, living room (did I mention porch??), four bedrooms, and two bathrooms. I don’t even know what to do with myself, and I nearly wept when I discovered the washer and dryer. We’ve settled in on the porch, in our best imitation of a retirement community. In theory, we’re here to do some great work with a lovely family, but in practice, it feels a lot like vacation right now.

It’s been a great first day. Our fridge is stocked with mainly bad-for-us foods and some ice cream. We’re ready to see the Day family tomorrow, and anxious to get our hands on some hammers to put in a new floor for them.

More soon – and look for some guest bloggers this week, especially since Julia asked me to preach on Thursday evening (!). So, I’m hoping that the youth will put in a post for us.

Until tomorrow…

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon: In Humility... (A Tribute to the Day Family)

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Mission Sunday
June 15, 2008

In Humility…

Philippians 2:1-13
2If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Let us Pray: Holy and Gracious God, we give you thanks for calling us into being and into service. Help us to respond to your call with glad and willing hearts. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

Sisters and Brothers, I have just returned from my first mission trip in many, many years. If it seems odd to you that a minister in the early years of her service to Christ Jesus and the church hasn’t been on an actual mission trip since her own college days, well, you’re right. I have held fast to the notion that I have been serving in my own local mission context each day as I wake up with two young children who are beautifully demanding from morning until night, and into the night. But, I know in my heart of hearts, that nothing can shake us out of our spiritual doldrums like the opportunity to get away from our daily routine and enter into a world that is unlike ours. As Eugene Peterson once observed: “The Christian faith needs continuous maintenance; it requires attending to.” This week, I got my chance as my husband, two children, and five of our youth piled into a 15 passenger van and headed to the Hinton Rural Life center in Hayesville, NC.
This past week, I have witnessed some absurdities. It seemed somewhat absurd that my entire family, my own mission field, if you will, would be attending this trip. What on earth would I do with my 1 year old and my 3 year old?! How would the youth respond? And once we arrived, the absurdities continued. The church van from my home church in Knoxville, TN sat in the parking lot, dirty and faded from years of hard labor. It had been donated to the Hinton center several years ago, but it was in this very van that I took on all of my mission trips as a youth. As I went to visit Margaret and Tori in their room, I noticed that Rev. Jim and Virginia Hankins had sponsored it; Rev. Hankins baptized me at my home church. Absurd!
When we finally arrived on site at a little home in Murphy, NC, tucked away in the mountains, we became overwhelmed with absurdities. After all, when was the last time you saw a house whose water was brought in from a pipe, run from a well? A wood burning stove? A couple in their 70s who were still working so that they could pay their medical bills? A house that had been built room-by-room with found lumber and materials? A diamondback rattler on the guest room dresser? Okay- I didn’t actually see that last one, but it happened a few days before we arrived at the home of W.L. and Annie Day.
To give the full picture of W.L and Annie Day’s life would take longer than I have this morning, but I can tell you that W.L. was diagnosed with brain cancer two years ago, and has since had a tumor the size of his fist removed from his skull. He is left with a strong spirit, but a fragile body. His wife, Annie, has bones that are aging faster than she is, but she still goes to work at a nursing home at 5:30 every morning. They have two sons, and 5 grandchildren. Both of their sons live in decaying trailers on their property, off the gravel road that leads to their piecemeal house. Their oldest son, Dennis, has 4 girls, one of whom was taken in when she was 3. His oldest daughter, who turns 17 next month, is engaged to be married in December. W.L. and Annie’s youngest son, Michael, died last September 12. After his wife ran off with their infant son, the darkness overwhelmed the light and he turned to drugs. On that morning in the fall, they found him, alone.
As the stories began unfolding during our week with the Day family, it was clear that there was more work to be done than we could accomplish in 4 6-hour work days. If Paul exhorts for us to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” it was clear that we could do nothing more than begin some good work here, but we wouldn’t come close to attaining our goal. But, we dove in and began to take down trim from ceilings, as pollen and dust showered upon us. Margaret and I were nearly paralyzed as our fear of snakes overwhelmed us. Joseph unhooked rickety plumbing, and Jacob removed a bathtub, while Ben took down rotten sheetrock and decaying floors to find more decay and brokenness. Because the house had literally been built room-by-room, nothing was square, level, or proper. This was the model of a home that was on the verge of collapse – physically, emotionally and spiritually. The Day family had seen just about all it could handle for one lifetime.
Paul writes to the Philippians, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete.” In discussing the passage this week, Margaret astutely pointed out the absurdity of Paul’s phrasing. Why would he say “If … then?” Shouldn’t he be a little more bold? Why phrase this as a question when it seems clear that we should assume that there is encouragement in Christ, compassion and sympathy. Perhaps Paul knew that for folks like the Days, encouragement and sharing in the Spirit were becoming luxuries beyond their ability.
We noticed without platitude our ability to come home and wash off the decay and rot, while we left the Day family with no running water or place to shower. Jacob, Matt and Joseph and Ben removed their bathtub, which was cracked before its installation in 2004, on Tuesday, and a new one won’t arrive until this week. We had to turn off the plumbing to the house. This meant that Annie and W.L. had to trudge up the hill to the trailer that had belonged to Michael. W.L. had been their every day over the winter to keep a fire going. Annie hadn’t set foot there since his death.
On Wednesday, Annie didn’t go to work. She, her daughter-in-law, Maria, and their two youngest daughters went to Michael’s to begin cleaning. They kept vigil there all morning while we worked on W.L.’s house. I have no idea what they were working on, but I do know that it smelled overwhelmingly of bleach when I visited after lunchtime. With Cooper sleeping on my back, I took W.L.’s suggestion to go visit Annie and the other women. Their youngest granddaughter, Hannah, gave me a tour of Michael’s home, pointing out his love of stockcar racing and Dale Jr. In the corner of the living room was a television the size of a SmartCar; it was the last thing he bought before he died, as a lease-purchase from ColorTyme. Down the hall was his son’s room, filled with stuffed animals and some new-looking baby toys. There were family photos and drinks in the fridge. Maria and her team were straightforward in their labor, but they asked me to pray with them.
On a hot Wednesday afternoon, in the valley of the Appalachian Mountains, I prayed with these women. I prayed for their strength, their love, healing, patience. I prayed fervently for hope and continued faith in Christ. They invited me to pray for them by name, offering me nuggets of insight into their most desperate longing. Truly these were people who were desperate for hope; their faith was beginning to waver, as the events of the last few years had been nearly too much for them. The words of Paul in Philippians came to mind as I prayed with them, and we thanked God for Jesus, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Wendell Debner writes that, “Jesus abandoned all claims to the form of God in the choice of nothingness or emptiness. The rich one became poor for our sakes. Here is Christ under all conditions of human life.” Here is Christ, indeed. In a broken-down trailer of a broken-down family with a broken-down spirit. Here is Christ. In the midst of abject poverty and desolation. The son of God, covered in dirt, filth and sadness, joined in our circle of prayer.
There was a shift that day. The Day family, who was on the verge of giving into the darkness, saw new light. Our work on the site crawled to a slow and painful halt as we encountered setback upon setback. But, Tori – our family coordinator – laid a foundation for us to spend some quality time with this family. They helped us carry out scraps of wood, pile up lumber, store away insulation. They participated in the life and work that we had been called to do for them. John Baillie writes that “Humility is the obverse side of confidence in God, whereas pride is the obverse side of confidence in self.” This week, we witnessed humility, as none regarded any other as better than themselves. Our week of mission ended on Thursday night as we feasted in fellowship with the Day family. They joined us for dinner, and we, one of the smallest groups at Hinton, had one of the largest tables of folks. We ate, enjoyed dessert, and sat on the porch overlooking Lake Chatuge drinking coffee and hot chocolate, enjoying the beauty of God’s creation that is for us all.
Paul writes that we are to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” How are you doing this in your own life? Are you caring for a partner, friend, parent, loved one? Have you donated your time and effort to those in need? Do you serve with the breakfast or supper club? If so, remember that you are doing all of this for God and God’s call in you, in humility. Brothers and sisters, I witnessed this week some absurdities, but what a blessing these were. It led all of us to understand that truly “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Amen and amen.