March in Arkansas can go either way: still below freezing and snowing, or already 80 degrees and humid. Driving down the two lane highway on the edge of the Ouachita Forest that March day was exactly what it should be: 68 degrees and sunny. So I rolled the window down on the 2005 Ford Taurus I had inherited from my teenage son, and tried to remember the directions I had been given the day before on how to find the little yellow house.
His daughter had warned me that he was very frail, and that our conversation would be strained due to his lack of hearing and difficulty talking. But I wasn’t worried about that. When I pulled into the driveway that spring afternoon, I was so distracted by my own issues that I hadn’t had time to worry about his. I was going to have to come up with the money to put new tires on Lucas’ Jeep, my final paper was due in class that night and I hadn’t even started it, and I had been fighting a migraine all day.
At 94, Mr. Rockford was only a whisper of the strong man he had been. Years of smoking had caught up to him, and emphysema now ruled what was left of his life. He was tied to an oxygen tank, and depended on his daughter, Sue, for everything. When she opened the door, I saw him sitting behind her in his chair, and realized that she must have been nervous for her pastor to finally be meeting the father she so often talked about. As I stepped inside, I fought back another wave of nausea from the migraine, and attempted to smile.
Sue had wanted me to have a visit with her homebound father for the last year, but he had always said no. As he struggled to shake my hand, I wondered why today had been different. We opened with pleasantries, Sue often having to repeat what I had said loudly into his ear to help him communicate with me. He began telling stories from his youth, always translated through Sue to me, and as his stories progressed from his childhood to his teenage years, Sue interjected that several of the events he described were things she had never heard before, and I could tell she was getting a little nervous about where he might be going.
Mr. Rockford had lived a very active and interesting life. He had served in WWII, worked dozens of jobs which had taken him to many places, and he had been a bit of a rebel in his younger days. When he reached the point of his story where he had found Jesus one day as he helped a local pastor who had become lost while hiking in the woods, Sue was smiling and enjoying a story she had heard many times in her life, right up until he got to the part where he promised the pastor he would be baptized soon, and then 74 years later had still not done so. In the version of the story Sue knew, the pastor had baptized Mr. Rockford on the edge of the forest in a large water hole they had happened upon on their way out of the woods.
Sue sat quietly, a bit stunned. All her life she had believed that her father was baptized that day in the forest. He said he had put it off, and after a while it seemed easier to make up the baptism part of the story than it was to actually be baptized. Anyway, he was young, and had lots of time. Still struggling to fight back the migraine, I asked him if he was saying that he wanted us to plan his baptism, and he responded with a strong no. The fact was, he wanted me to baptize him right there and right then. When I glanced over at Sue, she was crying.
Life has a way of becoming real when it feels threatened, and life had become very real for him in the last few months. Even though he had made up his story of baptism all those years ago and everyone had always believed it, the illusion was no longer enough. As he stared down his own mortality, he needed a transformation, and he needed it to be real.
Five minutes later, I sat back down in front of him with an orange Tupperware bowl full of water, a small glass of sweet tea, and two leftover biscuits from breakfast. The elements were prepared, and I began to pray. Sue held his hand as I touched the holy water to his head, and from a plastic orange bowl the three of us were transformed. Mr. Rockford had not received communion in many years, so after blessing the biscuits and the little glass of tea, we shared communion over the wobbly gold TV tray sitting by Mr. Rockford’s chair.
The last few months have been hard for many of us. We wake up each day not knowing how the world we know will have changed since we fell asleep the night before. The amount of hatred and violence we see is almost surreal, and our government is in chaos. The Constitution which has always kept us from drifting too far from center is disregarded, and truth and facts are not required. Many of those perpetuating the lying, hatred, and chaos do so as proclaimed Christians, and many of us who proclaim to be Christians are fighting to keep our faith amidst it all.
Many have asked me how they can make a difference when the very threads of freedom, so long based on an unbiased press and the platform of free speech, seem to be unraveling in front of us. How do we continue to protest, work, educate, and pray, when there doesn’t seem to be anything which will slow down the growing sense of dread that truth, compassion, and intelligence are dying as respectable traits.
The answer is: I don’t know.
For now, the majority in Congress are allowing the Constitution to be ignored and bastardized. But where two or more are gathered, politicians can be voted out.
For now, it seems that people who embrace violence and hatred are growing in number and force. But where two or more are gathered, there can be kindness and bravery.
For now, it seems as though ignorance and lies dominate our media. But where two or more are gathered, we can still educate and open hearts and minds.
Our democratic way of life feels threatened by many of us right now, and events have become very real. The illusion of freedom, peace, and democracy are no longer enough. As we stare down the destruction of our sacred customs and institutions, we need a transformation, and we need it to be real.
So where ever you are, be brave, stand for justice, speak out, and work together. Very often the most amazing things happen outside of normal circumstances. Holy water is not often carried in orange Tupperware, and leftover canned biscuits are not often the bread of life. But in a moment when there seemed to be no other choice, I just did the only thing I could do with what was available and blessed the biscuits.
This is not the end. We are not finished. And where ever you are right now, look around; find the helpers, the kindness, the compassion, and the truth, and stand with them. No matter how difficult it seems, stand for what is just and good. And with whatever limited power you feel you have, just keep blessing the biscuits and transformation will come.
Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”