Not Too Bad for a Protestant by Virginia Hughes

Ann transferred from a local Catholic school into public school in seventh-grade just in time for Ash Wednesday. What I noticed first was her modest blouse, skirt length well below the knees, thick knee socks and sensible shoes. Was I looking in a mirror? No, just recognizing the plight of another girl from a strict upbringing. The darkly drawn cross emblazoned across her forehead set her apart. My church used such terms as “marked and set apart.” I was equally intrigued and relieved that my conservative, Protestant missionary parents knew naught that a girl could be marked with a cross on her forehead before skipping off to school in her modest dress ensemble handed down from two older sisters.

Outward appearances mattered a lot to my parents. We were to be a Christian example in dress and conduct. It was impossible to fit in when teen fads dictated zippy mini-skirts or blue jeans paired with plaid CPO jackets. These clothes I craved were deemed, “Uniforms of wanton women, hobos and thugs,” to quote Dad. I laugh uproariously now. It wasn’t humorous at the time. My parents thought sneakers were foolish as they wore out too quickly and couldn’t be repaired to be passed down. Foolishness and worldliness both translated to “No, you’re not wearing that.” Looking at Ann, sporting a cross of ashes, maybe I didn’t have such a difficult row to hoe after all.

It must be dreadfully embarrassing for her to be marked with a cross. Not at all. She wore her ashes and faith with confidence and asked what had I given up for Lent? Absolutely nothing because my church doesn’t do that. I was surprised to learn of yet another punitive measure we were spared. Ann retorted that I must not be a serious Christian and perhaps my faith was a sham. I had always suspected as much, but didn’t know enough to state how our denominations were legalistic twins, and who was she to say such a thing?

In defense, I launched a rocket of lists of what our family was always doing; and that was attending a church related event from sundown to sunset and all the blessed times in-between. Sunday school, church, neighborhood witnessing and handing out tracts, hospital and prison ministry, Sunday evening church, youth group, weekly midweek prayer meeting, choir practice. “So? So, what?” Ann asked, after each item. Oh, I had more: We go early to everything to turn on the lights because my dad preaches the sermons, we are always the last to leave. I have read most of the Bible commentaries and illustrated concordances in Dad’s study. She didn’t know what that meant so she listened for a minute. I expounded on how reading the Bible was a piece of cake compared to digesting a Bible commentary. She was interested that my family had lived overseas in lifestyles of the poor and not famous. My being born on the field had her momentarily stumped. I was a true alien and could list church events all day. We have two-week long evangelistic revivals at our church at least twice a year and not the wimpy one-week kind. We go to camp meeting in the hottest months of summer in a giant, sweltering tabernacle with no air conditioning.

Oh, we suffer. Yes, we suffer for Christ all right. Ann responded, “You didn’t say anything about how much you love God.” She quoted the verse about how man looks on the outside, but God looks on the heart. That was a real verse and I knew it. It was the first time in a lifetime of being deeply convicted of how wrong I usually am. I was impressed. “I didn’t know you knew real verses. Not bad for a Catholic.”

I knew my heart hated everything I was dragged into by my parents on Sundays and all week long at church. It was boring and interminable. I detested our outdated clothes, restrictions, rules, long-winded prayers, the emotional testimonies that got shut down just as they were getting interesting--some folks tended to overshare their guilty sins. One longed for Bernice to get worked up, wave her hankie and jump the pews. The blue-collar Christians at our church were more forlorn than victorious. The church work was unending as war veterans were now arriving by bus from the VA Hospital, shell shocked from Vietnam and nervously standing in line for the warm meal at the end of the long service.

I had a hard and embarrassed heart jaded and crusty beyond my years, but thankfully it didn’t stay that way. I stopped speed reading the Bible and began reading for understanding. Ann and I had great conversations throughout junior high and high school. Her knowledge of her own faith convicted me to love Jesus.

The prophet Joel advises us to rend our hearts and not our clothes. What might this look like?

I believe the beginning of my heart’s rending came from my friend Ann earnestly endeavoring to convince me how wrong Protestants are. Are we wrong? Read, read, read. Do I love Jesus? Pray, pray, pray. Dear heart of mine, melt heart melt and fall in love with Jesus. What is he saying? Keep seeking me. I am the vine and you are the branches. And Ann would say, “You’re not too bad . . . for a Protestant.”

Emergency Room Laughter by Wil Triggs

My grandfather spent a lot of time in the hospital. At least, that’s how I remember it.

I remember him as an old man who liked to smoke a pipe--a passion he shared with C. S. Lewis.

At Christmas I would buy him a pouch of tobacco or a new pipe. Giving tobacco as a gift seems like such a strange choice from where I sit now, but at the time, it was a treat for me to go to the Sav-On Drug Store, pick out a pipe or an exotic-looking pouch, wrap them up in candy-cane paper and give it to him. He seemed to really enjoy smoking his pipe and as a boy, I was fascinated to watch him light one of his wooden matched and draw the flame into the bowl of the pipe where he packed the right amount of tobacco. The smell of it seemed like a welcome and happy part of visiting my grandparents.

We visited them a lot. I would go over to their home and cut their grass with a rotary push mower. We would go grocery shopping for them. If they needed something moved from one room to the other, we would go and help. These were tasks I shared with others in the family; we took turns making sure the yard looked nice or getting food for them to eat. And the walls inside the house were adorned with paintings from artists in the family and photos of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Back to their yard, my grandmother seemed especially proud of the passion fruit vine that grew along their fence that faced the alleyway. One of my aunts told me about how the passion flower told the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. She explained it to me. The apostles, the crown of thorns, the nails that nailed him to the cross and more—all part of the flower. It was a little too complicated for me, but it was a pretty flower and I loved the juice once the flower gave way to fruit. Still, if either of them did any gardening, it was my grandmother or my aunts and uncles or mom and dad or me.

With all of those visits, and the big and little things we did for them, I never wondered why my grandfather didn’t mow his own lawn or do other about-the-house chores. All I remember was him sitting in his chair, smoking his pipe. This was just life. I thought of him as capable. It never occurred to me to wonder why he wasn’t more, well, active. It was all good from my boyhood’s perspective. And he was just great as he was.

Now, looking back, I realize that he was not well. He had heart problems.

This was before the surgeries and procedures and replacements that we have today. When the phone at our home rang at odd times of the night, I began to wonder, as others did, was this the call. If it wasn’t the heart, then there was the even more ominous shadow of a stroke that could leave him paralyzed or, as some of the grown-ups whispered, turn him into a vegetable. My young imagination started to have bad dreams.

As these episodes took place and multiplied, so did our night-time and weekend trips to the hospital.

I stated to feel comfortable at Memorial Hospital. I wasn’t usually allowed into his room, but I got to know the waiting room pretty well. I watched the nurses and the doctors. I read Highlights magazine—or rather, played the games and puzzles that were printed in the magazine. There was a television. And I got to watch the nurses and doctors make rounds, deliver food and medicine, and spend time with my aunts, uncles, cousins.

Usually the visits were in shifts so as not to overwhelm the waiting room or the room he shared with two other patients or the beloved patient himself. But one time, everyone thought that this was the end for him. He must have had a heart attack. Everyone came. The family took up about 70 percent of the waiting room.

Things looked so bad that they even allowed us children go in and see Grandpa. They didn’t exactly tell us, but it was to give us a chance to say good bye. Otherwise they wouldn’t have permitted us to go in. But since no one told us, none of us kids thought of it quite that way. He didn’t look that bad to me. I told him that I loved him, squeezed his hand (he squeezed back), and then it was time for me to step out.

We went back into the waiting room, which had become a makeshift family reunion, a couple of my aunts started to laugh. To appreciate this laughter, I need to explain. The women in my family have loud joyous laughs. My mom had it. Her sisters have it. My sisters have it. And, my wife does, too. So when I say that my mom and my aunts started to laugh in the emergency room, understand that theirs were full-throated, life-embracing and heartfelt laughs that couldn’t contain themselves.

It was contagious. Others joined in the laughter. Then everything anyone said became hilarious. And they couldn’t stop. We couldn’t stop.

The few people not in our family who were in the waiting room looked shocked. What’s wrong with them, their faces asked. They are in here for a person in much worse shape than ours, and they’re laughing.

Some of us felt embarrassed by this display. Afterwards a family member said it was just nerves—they weren’t crying, so they laughed. There was probably something to that, but I look back at that incident as emblematic of a feast in the joy of life…remembering it and hearing at the same time the laughter of my mom, her sisters, my sisters and my wife.

My Grandpa pulled through that crisis. I like to think that was partly because he heard his family’s joyous laughter. And if he heard, though silent, I think in his heart, he was laughing, too.

Proverbs 15:15

All the days of the afflicted are evil,
    but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.