Stone of Help

As I mentioned in my most recent post, the last several months have been hard ones at our house. We’ve been under a fairly high amount of stress, and as a result, none of us has been our best selves as of late. No, that’s putting it too mildly. We’ve all been impatient with one another, unloving and prone to anger. Thankfully, the source of all that strife is in the rearview mirror (aside from a few little odds and ends that we’ll be dealing with for a few more months, but they’re totally manageable).

Now, we have a “mess” to clean up. We have to go back over the last year or so and really take a hard look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a family. To that end, I decided some time ago that we needed to have a kind of “reset,” something involving a spiritual application and a project we would all do together, something that we could point to and say, “This is when we made a decision to do, be, and live better.”

The idea for exactly what that something would be hit me when a co-worker shared Ephesians 4:2 from The Living Bible: “Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” If that ain’t a great verse for a family on the mend, I don’t know what is!

We did a pretty deep dive into the first sixteen verses of the chapter:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

We talked about growing in Christlikeness. We talked about the importance of love first. We talked about unity and how to get and maintain it, as well as why it is important in a family and in the body of Christ. And the way we maintain that unity is through four things (all mentioned in verse two): humility, gentleness, patience, and love. So that’s what we chose to focus on for our project.

First, I bought some supplies on Amazon—acrylic paint, paint pens, a sealant, and a bag of large basalt stones for painting. (You can enlarge any photo by clicking on it.)

I figured it would be a good idea to paint the rocks with the base coat before the event, so that’s what I did. Two coats of white acrylic paint were plenty to prepare our “canvasses.”

We sat down with the paint pens and some scratch paper. I told everyone to come up with a design that would help them remember what the word meant (per our discussion).

After about thirty minutes, we sealed them, and they were ready to display alongside a print of the verse I hired someone on Etsy to design. We chose to put everything in the foyer of our house because it’s a space we all walk through multiple times a day. We have to pass it often, and that keeps it on our minds. It’s a way to practice the commandment found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

The act of putting it on a wall also gave us a chance to discuss exactly what an Ebenezer or “stone of help” is (1 Samuel 7 and Joshua 4). We explained to the kids how Israel used them to memorialize what God had done for them, to keep from forgetting his kindness and deliverance. And that’s precisely what God did for our family—he protected us (both from the world and ourselves) and delivered us in our time of greatest need. Amen.

Here are close ups of the rocks we painted. (If you’re wondering, I’m “be gentle.”)

At the Risk of Robbing Tim O’Brien

There are things I carry. Cumbersome things like a satchel full of work that needs doing. Things to put away and up, out and down. Armfuls of things from this store or that.

And there are weightier things too. The grief that hangs over me at the thought of my grandfather’s death. The worry that comes from lingering too long over world news. The dull panic that only an adult can know, the kind that comes with the understanding that success and security are ephemeral—the line between them and their antonyms thinner than the logical edge of Occam’s razor.

I pick them up each day and place them on the shelves of my shoulders, bear their invisible weight like Sisyphus once did his stone. And even at rest, I never quite manage to put them down. Instead, I brace myself and pick up new burdens in an attempt to lessen those I already have. A freelance job to cover the cost of that new whiz-bang-gotta-have-thing that might make life easier, safer, better, or more pleasing. A relationship that should make me feel less vulnerable. And in these things I put my trust, though they’re as costly and as ineffectual as Maginot Lines. The peace I crave is not in them, and yet I soldier on, dragging them behind me, leaving ragged scars in the earth.

But I’m not the first to think such madness wise. The prophet Isaiah (46:1-4 ESV) says:

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
    their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
    as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
    they cannot save the burden,
    but themselves go into captivity.

Old gods of Babylon—deaf and dumb as the gold that bore their image—can do nothing for the men who made them or the flagging beasts who lug them to their hollow temples. But then there is the promise of the One who tells me His yoke is easy and His burden light.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
    carried from the womb;
 even to your old age I am he,
    and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
    I will carry and will save.

I was borne—carried, supported, held up—before the world began. Sustained eons before I took my first lungful of air. Borne before I was born. And until my hair turns gray and brittle as old paper, until the very moment I wheeze my last, He will bear me still. Why? Not because He owes me. Not because He needs the challenge. Four simple statements make the reason plain.

I have made, and I will bear. I will carry and will save.

No if you… conditions, no because you… stipulations. “You are mine,” He tells me. “Mine to carry from before birth and beyond death. And I do so because you are my treasure. I loved you before I knit you together in your mother’s womb. Before I gave you brown eyes and long fingers, a love of words and an ear for music. I carried the weight of you, light as an eyelash, in my righteous right hand.”

And so—for the moment, until I stubbornly and disobediently pick up my load again—I bask in that love. And it is so beautiful I can hardly bear it.

Shared Dish, Shared Life

Thanksgiving will be here before too much long . I know this not because of the falling leaves or cooling temperatures, but because the November issue of In Touch Magazine hit homes this week!

The second feature is a fun, five-part read called Memorable Meals. The goal for the piece was to feature—you guessed it—food. But not just lavish holiday feasts. We wanted our writers to tell us the stories in which food played a part, and we got a wide variety. Seriously, everything from roasted goat served in the Sahara to a nuked hamburger shared in a prison visiting center.

And if this special feature wasn’t special enough, we decided to kick it up a notch and add an audio component. Each piece was recorded in the In Touch audio suites, some by the authors themselves and others by members of the In Touch Ministries’ staff. The feature as a whole can be seen (and heard) here. And if you want to suffer through me reading the text below, feel free to click here.

Two things I learned through creating this short piece. Writing about food is always fun, and listening to a recording of yourself is pure torture. 🙂

However, I’d love to hear your stories. What’s your favorite memory involving food?

Also, after you take a listen to the stories on our website, I’d love to hear your feedback. Is this something we should do more of? Let me know!

The Man in Black’s a Razorback

There’s not much to be proud of when you’re from Arkansas, but we do have Johnny Cash. He would have been 81 years old today.

A record on the wall at Sun Studios.
A record on the wall at Sun Studios.

Born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, a little hole-in-the-wall town about four hours away from Paragould, a similar hole-in-the-wall town I once called home. He grew up during the Depression, worked in the fields with his family, and was raised with a Bible in one hand and a hymnal in the other. All of these things were essential to making him into the man he was, and they were an integral part of his music over a nearly fifty-year career. He might have varied the delivery and style, but everything he sang was uniquely his.

I could wax philosophic about Johnny Cash for hours, but I think it’s best to keep it short for the purposes of this blog. If you are interested in his life story, I highly suggest The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend by Steve Turner and Cash: The Autobiography by the man himself.

People who know me don’t understand why I dislike country music as a genre but adore one of its legends. I think it’s a combination of nostalgia and synonymity.

His music was the soundtrack for many of my happy childhood days. My grandfather owned a flooring store where both he and my father worked, and I spent untold hours running around and climbing over rolls of carpet and scaling piles of tile samples. Often, my grandmother worked a shift, and she always listened to a country and gospel station that played a hefty dose of Mr. Cash. Whenever I hear certain songs of his, it takes me back to a day when I had a permanent case of rug burn on my knees and the biggest problem I had was getting a B in math.

A photo taken of me during a tour of Sun Studios in Memphis. You should go. It's a piece of history!
A photo taken of me during a tour of Sun Studios in Memphis. You should go. It’s a piece of history!

I also admired him for more than just his music. It was the way he approached life, how his feelings permeated every word and chord of his music. He was a man of strong (if sometimes misguided) opinions and principles, and once he sunk his teeth into something, you would have a heck of a time wrestling it back from him. He lived passionately and loved fiercely—two traits that I admire. I think, like many people, I see a little of myself in Johnny Cash.

But I’d like to try to explain it using something more specific—five reasons and five songs.

1. “Get Rhythm”

This was the B-side on his first hit record, “I Walk the Line.” I think I love his optimism the most. The shoeshine boy he describes has been dealt a pretty tough hand, but he makes the best of it—a lot like Mr. Cash himself. I also enjoy this song because it demonstrates his ability to bend the rules. The Grand Ole Opry didn’t allow drums or horns to be played on stage, but Cash needed the percussive sound for his music to work. His trick? A dollar bill folded and wedged under his strings to mute the sound and create the “chicka, chicka, chicka” sound you hear in both recordings.

6010_109781066788_5807845_n
A table I saw outside a bar last time I was in Memphis…and a hand that I think belongs to my father.

2. “Jackson”

This is one of those songs he and June sang together often, and it never fails to entertain me. It’s obvious they’re crazy about one another, and he was always willing to show how vulnerable he truly was when the love of his life was around. She brought out a side of him you didn’t see otherwise–something lighter and more whimsical. He could make fun of himself and drop some of the “outlaw image” when he shared a stage with her. (I also remember watching him perform this one with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.)

3. “Folsom Prison Blues”

Though he never spent any time in prison himself (beyond a few nights in jail for drug-related offenses and for trespassing to pick flowers…no kidding), Cash could write music that perfectly captured what it felt like to be incarcerated. There was something in him that identified and empathized with the downtrodden, the maligned, and the marginalized.  He knew what it meant to live without hope, like you were scratching at the walls of a very deep hole you might never crawl out of. He understood the darkness and desperation that could claim a man’s soul, and he used it. He wrote songs about that place in the human heart, and both prisoners and free people could identify with it. That’s a tough thing to do once, but he did it in several songs ranging from this one to tracks like “San Quentin” and “I Hung My Head.”

4. “I Shall Not Be Moved”

This recording is from My Mother’s Hymn Book, which Cash said was his favorite album of the dozens he recorded over his career. He was a man of faith, though he walked away from God more than once, and his love for Christ and of gospel music permeated everything he did. This song is so simple, which is what makes it great. He uses it to make a bold statement about himself and the strong faith he gained over a lifetime of struggles and long walks through spiritual darkness. His gospel songs are all wonderful, but there’s something plain and proud about this version I admire. Like all believers, I want to sing this song and mean it….just like he did.

5. “Hurt”

Bono said, “Trent Reznor was born to write that song, but Johnny Cash was born to sing it, and Mark Romanek was born to film it.” I couldn’t agree with him more. This song, and the video that went with it, was the one that introduced Cash to younger music lovers who might never have heard of him. This single song created a passion for his music in another generation. But instead of the quiet, raging whisper of Trent Reznor, Cash sings it with a melancholy and bittersweet longing that makes it impossible to turn away from. This is a man who knows the end of his life is near and that everything he fought and bled for was worthless in the end. He sits at a feast table alone, surrounded by the hollow wreckage of fame, and tells us point blank, “You can have it all, my empire of dirt.” In his late 70s and with a voice fading and cracked with age, he still sings with an intensity that is inescapable. That’s the beauty of Johnny Cash; he got better with age. What made people love him in the 1950s still had the power to captivate; he was the real deal.

In everything from “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” to “Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash revealed a little piece of himself—whether it was the rebel, the lover, the champion of lost causes, the penitent, or the lost soul. He was a man who, though he wasn’t Native American himself, fought for the rights of that unique people group and who wore black, as he put it, “on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of ‘the prisoner who has long paid for his crime’, and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs.”

He once said, “With the Vietnam war as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans’, I wore it ‘in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.’… Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position… The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

Like an Old Testament prophet, this modern-day Elijah still speaks of faith, of fumbling around in the dark searching for the truth, and of freedom. And he’s the reason why I’m proud to be an Arkansian.

Happy birthday, sir. Rest in peace.

The Shuriken of Marital Success

My husband and I are now in the stage of life where we attend fewer weddings and more baby showers. And while the sum total of my baby knowledge could barely fill a G.I. Joe thermos, I happily admit that I am a connoisseur of connubial bliss.

Having been wed for nearly thirteen years as well as a witness to both successful unions and those whose endings made the Hindenburg look like a deflated hot air balloon, I can tell you there are certain things that are non-negotiable when it comes to a happy marriage.

I’m not talking about the trivial things like socks on the floor or who puts gas in whose car*. I’m talking about five most essential elements that must exist in total harmony—those things that make up what I call “The Shuriken of Marital Success.”

***

Image from billrichardsonblog.com

1. Politics–This and my second point are the obvious, the ones most people know to be true, but stick with me. If you’re young and in love (AKA “deliberatley stupid”), you think you’re little Snoogly Woogly’s political leanings aren’t as important as washboard abs or an esoteric  iTunes playlist. To you, those voting tendencies are something that can be left outside like a yowling cat. The trouble is that, over time, the cat slips in between someone’s legs and takes a proverbial crap in your shoes. If you’re conservative, I highly suggest you marry someone who’s as red as you are. If the thought of being red makes you blue, go out there and find the jackass of your dreams! 🙂 Other than Mary Matalin and James Carville, I’ve never known a couple comprised of political polar opposites who survived. If you’re not sure about your views, you might want to take care of those before you settle down “til death do us part” style.

2. Religion–This is the other given on my list, but even I (in my more naive days) believed it to be inconsequential. To me, it was one of those things my future hubby and I would just “figure out” as we grew old together. As a result, I dated a Mormon, two Catholics, a convert to Judaism, a Jehovah Witness, and (albeit briefly) a surprisingly Type-A Wiccan who faithfully observed all eight Sabbats and made the purchase of marijuana a part of his monthly budget. Thankfully, however, all of these little flings didn’t end in a legal union because, having caught up with quite a few of them via social media, I realize that living with them would be impossible now.

Granted, a Methodist and a Baptist can likely marry and have a perfectly happy life together because the basics are covered, but when you disagree on your choice in deity, you’ll soon find out you’re in for a world of hurt. After all, it’s much easier to put a bumper sticker on your car than it is to share a bathroom with a practitioner of a neighboring symbol. (Especially when he or she drinks the last of the milk or forgets to pay the cable bill on time.)

Image from http://clintwells.blogspot.com

3. Intelligence–I know this is going to make me sound like a terrible person, but you and your spouse need to have IQs that live in the same neighborhood if you want your marriage to have a long shelf life. Trust me on this. I’ve dated men much smarter than I and ended up feeling like a third-grader covered in paste and glitter at a Mensa meeting. I’ve also dated men who were just short of needing help cutting up their food, and that wasn’t pretty either.

I’d say anything within a ten point spread should be safe, but if you go beyond that green zone, be prepared for frustration. Your intellegences need not be identical however. For instance, I score higher on logic and verbal skills while Wayne rocks anything to do with mathematics. (But we both kick it like Beastie Boys when it comes to spatial reasoning.) I’d say we’re truly paronymous…but I know he’d think of us as being more equilateral.

Image from iqtestforfree.net

4. Socioeconomic StatusI know, I know, I know…despite the copious amount of fairy tale pablum being produced in Hollywood, most relationships that feature lovers from opposite sides of the tracks end up with getting someone cut in half…emotionally speaking at least. Pretty in Pink, The Notebook, Pretty Woman, Roman Holiday, and The Breakfast Club—they all give you a serious case of the warm fuzzies. I mean, seriously, if you possess two X chromosomes and don’t get a thrill when Bender takes Clarie’s diamond earring as his own, then go see a doctor… STAT.

However, real life is nothing like Saturday detention. Hookers (even those with hearts of gold) stand a better chance of being picked up by a serial killer than a kindly millionaire. The truth is that most cross-status relationships end of like that between Daniel-san and Ali (Remember the beginning of The Karate Kid, Part II?) or Jack and Rose (Like you didn’t know that tragic ending was coming!)

Image from thegoodlife-lindsay.blogspot.com

As with IQ, there is an acceptable range. Upper middle and lower middle can get together and get along with little fuss, so can lower and lower middle and even upper middle and upper. Any more degrees of separation than that, and you can expect family get-togethers to be awwwkkwwaarrddd! I warn you, if your idea of a fancy party involves cocktail weenies swimming in a Crock-Pot full of grape jelly and bar-b-q sauce, I’d advise you not to date someone who knows the difference between Beluga and Sterlet caviar. It won’t end well.

They serve caviar on mother of pearl spoons to avoid tainting the flavor. Seriously!? Who lives at that speed!? 

5. Hotness–And here’s where I’m going to sound like a total jerkette, and I’m okay with that. Why? Because, once again, I speak from a deep reservoir of personal experience on this. I dated a man in college who was so far out of my league when it came to appearance that people must have thought he was on a pity date (or was the best Wing Man of all time). If we were peppers and our hotness ranked on the Scoville Scale, I was barely a Jalapeno. He, on the other hand, was Trinidad Scorpion. Ironically, I ended up dumping him several months into the relationship because I felt so unbearably awkward when we were out together in public that I couldn’t enjoy myself. I also dated a man who was about four inches shorter than I, and I spent most of our evenings together sitting down to avoid feeling like Lurch. Granted, he was a pilot in the Air Force, but that didn’t make the dancing any less awkward.

If you’ve got a muffin top, a lazy eye, or webbed feet, I highly suggest finding someone with a similarly interesting imperfection and hugging, kissing, and squeezing that person for all he or she is worth. We all know that beauty is more than skin deep, but there’s also something to be said for being comfortable in yours at all times.

Image from zazzle.com

What about you? Do you have any “unbreakable rules” when it comes to choosing Mr. or Mrs. Right? I’d love to hear your thoughts and those stories that taught you the value of selectivity! Share them in the comments section below! 🙂

* It’s obvious that the husband is always responsible for pumping gas regardless of how independent and self-reliant a wife might be.

Love Letters

For those of you who read my previous post about storytelling and how my first attempt at it went, I thought I’d show you what I can do with a little more time and a keyboard in front of me. I submitted that blog entry for my creative non-fiction workshop class to get feedback, and now it’s time to re-submit the new and improved version, written for readers rather than listeners. I’d love to know what you think!

***

Love Letters

Image from bikeacrossamerica.org.

I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Unlike other states with sexy selling points like Broadway, Hollywood, or Disneyworld, we’re best known for cotton, catfish, and the only diamond producing mine in the United States. We also grow half of the rice consumed in this country each year. Wahoo, right? Granted, being able to lay claim to Johnny Cash, John Grisham, and Maya Angelou is a bit of terrific, but it doesn’t make it any less painful that our state’s unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Folks from “The Natural State,” we’re a little…different. One only need examine the teeming multitudes at a University of Arkansas Razorbacks football game to see why. It’s the only place in the South where grown men slap plastic Hog Hats on each Saturday and scream, “Woo pig sooie!” without thinking themselves the least bit odd. However, I can honestly say that none of those bleacher warriors can keep up with my great uncle Darrell when it comes to idiosyncrasies. My grandmother’s baby brother was the quintessential Qualls, even more so than his twin brother, Doug.

We Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in our presence, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my forty-year-old cousin, Lyndal, lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times for no other reason than to irritate my great grandmother. He only stopped when she flipped him the bird and he couldn’t catch his breath because he was laughing so hard.

Image from fourfoolsdriving.blogspot.com

Darrell was a Qualls through and through. Tall, lanky, and long armed, he always made me think of Ichabod Crane, and like his literary look-alike, he took his food seriously. So much so that he brought his own onion to cookouts just to make sure he’d have enough. Always optimistic, he refused to let anything—even losing a finger to diabetes—get him down. “I can’t give you high fives no more, Jamers,” he once told me. “How’s about a high four?”

Though he never enrolled in college, he was highly intelligent and creative, which is a lethal combination in a super villain, but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. For instance, I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.” Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply?—”Little Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.”

Like many men in the small town he called home, Darrell worked at the pulp mill. He was put on the night shift but wasn’t one of the men throwing wood chips into machines or hauling away the finished product. He sat up in the control tower watching lights blink and gauges move on a leviathan control panel. Unless there was a blockage somewhere in the machine, the water pressure got too high, or a possum got into the factory (which happened once), he had little to do. It was a job custom made for boredom, which was the last thing Darrell needed.

Image from (I’m not kidding) howtogetrideofpossom.blogspot.com

So he started writing letters to his first cousin, Leroy. Like many members of my family, Leroy was a veteran of a foreign war, but I couldn’t tell you exactly which one. It was likely Vietnam, but it could just have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives, including Darrell, have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and bumping around. That’s why I’m convinced he made the same deal as Dick Clark, that or there’s a painting somewhere in his attic that shows his true age. My right hand to Jesus, the man looks the same as he did when I was nine and had a crush on Prince.

Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing to me when I was a kid. I remember he always wore tattered ball caps, their logos made indecipherable by sun and sweat, and he had small eyes, a large nose, and an overbite, which made him look like a rabbit. He never married and isn’t comfortable around a lot of people, but he had an imaginary friend named Oliver who was always after him for something. He turns the television off during the commercials to save energy and is always on the lookout for pieces of Styrofoam to add to his collection. But one of the oddest things he does happens whenever he comes around to eat a meal with us. He loads up his plate, grabs a napkin and fork, and proceeds to stand in a doorway to eat it.

“Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asks, though we all know he’ll answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He comes back to refill his plate or glass and then returns to the doorway to continue chowing down. And he can put it away, perhaps because it can go straight down his leg.

One of Darrell’s chief delights was playing elaborate jokes on Leroy, some of which involved a bit of spontaneity. Once, he picked his unsuspecting cousin up at his house and said, “Let’s go for a ride.” Leroy assumed the jaunt might take them as far away as Memphis, less than two hours up the road. But when he saw the sign for Chattanooga, he knew he was doomed. They ended up driving all the way down to Florida to visit us.

Darrell repeated the gag years later and drove Leroy—who didn’t have more than ten bucks in his wallet or a change of underwear to his name—all the way to California. As they crossed the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts, Darrell got the bright idea to turn the on the car’s heater and laughed silently as Leroy tugged at his sweat drenched collar and repeatedly said, “I don’t recollect the desert being this hot.” When he told Doug about it, his brother could only ask, “Son, weren’t you a might bit hot, too?” Even Darrell’s answer was uniquely him—“Hammers, yes, I was hot!” I suppose, even for the prankster, great art is born of suffering, and Darrell was willing to do whatever it took in the practice of his craft.

A four-day practical joke is a fine thing, but Darrell was never one to settle. He once got this strange notion that he would pretend to be a salesman and write letters to Leroy to get him to purchase what he called “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each handwritten epistle, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles. He also told him where to leave the cash and when, using a different drop point each time. Sometimes, it was as simple as leaving the cash under a rock on the corner of the porch, and other times, it involved hiding the money between cans of yams at the corner store.

He made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. After all, his brain always needed something to do, especially at work, so he came up with titles like:

The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel

Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars

The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen

Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia

How to Grow Yellow Blueberries

and (my personal favorite)— How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity

Every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail, and he kept this up without fail for nearly seven years. Never once did Leroy order anything, and he never knew it was Darrell who was behind it all. Perhaps because it was harder to research a company without the Internet or Leroy wasn’t a naturally inquisitive person, but in all the years this went on, he asked very few questions about the letters. He just kept reading and tucking them away in drawers or throwing them away. Darrell also avoided the subject because he knew he’d burst out laughing if it came up—that and he knew he’d have to write any book Leroy ordered. And the secret sat undiscovered for years like the arrhythmia that would suddenly steal him from us in 2000.

Image from tasteofhome.com

At Darrell’s funeral, we were all sitting around the house after the graveside service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and wedged smiles on our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal, and bland—like a rental house with its white walls and tan carpet.

At the end of a frustratingly long day, the ladies from the church packed up the legion of casseroles, pies, and salads that invariably show up where death comes to visit. As I picked petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, we talked about how we’d rather just be chunked in a hole or cremated and scattered on the field at Busch Stadium. Finally, my aunt Nita asked, “What do you think Darrell would’ve said about all this?”

That question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about the dearly departed over a fresh pot of coffee and slabs of Mary Katherine Schug’s homemade, three-layer coconut cake, the one that involved an entire bottle of Wesson Oil and reduced those who ate it to shameless plate licking. You can guess which story eventually came up. Mind you that up until this moment, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Doug and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was behind them funny letters a way back yonder?”

When Doug (who, having lost a twin, was more heartbroken than he let on) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a joyful, full-bodied chortle replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of guffaw that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief.

It was just what we needed and what Darrell had been waiting for, but not because he would have felt he deserved anything special. There were actually two essential things to understand when it came to my great uncle—the sheer genius of his quirkiness and just how fiercely he loved. He could no more have left us brokenhearted than he could have turned down a plate full of fried catfish, and I think that was his reason for writing those letters all along.

The Dissolution of “Probably”

Living in Atlanta, one is asked to visually imbibe a greater variety of graffiti than folks living in smaller towns or rural communities. I’m not saying it’s not present OTP (“Outside the Perimeter” as we say here in the ATL), but the same quantity just isn’t present. Normally, it’s a word scrawled hastily on an exterior surface, one even I with my background in English education cannot decipher. (I firmly believe that reading teenagers’ scribblings for more than a decade left me prepared to translate Sanskrit, Elvish, and Klingon with equal ease. It’s like being one of the X-Men….but with an even lamer ability than Jubilee’s.)

Other times, the graffiti I see is an image involving chimerical creatures or abstract art, and sometimes it’s a whimsical creation like the one below…a pig (or a hippo) preparing to devour an ice cream cone. The juxtaposition of these two items makes absolutely no sense; there’s no symbolic meaning I can glean from it. At one time, when I lived in a world that wasn’t as hyper-decorated as my current home city, I might have poured over this image searching for some hidden truth or imbedded message. Now, eh, not so much. It’s just one more polychromatic embellishment that gives the place character.

Ben and Jerry should name a flavor after this.

I mentioned in a previous post that while I find graffiti interesting, I neither support it as an art form nor wish to outright ban it. If a building is abandoned, by all means, scribble on it you various types of ne’er-do-wells. One man’s crumbling brick wall is another man’s canvas and all that. However, if someone is living in it or attempting to run a business out of it, keep your Krylon to yourself, taggers!

However, just when I think I have my mind made up on a subject, I see new factors that compel me to reconsider my beliefs—even about something like graffiti. Driving home the other day, I saw this little gem on a wall behind a business that’s near railroad tracks. Take a look….

There are two interesting things to note. One, this scribble is one hundred percent legible. Points to the teacher or parent who was a stickler for proper penmanship. After all, there’s nothing worse than having something earth-shaking to say and no one being able to read it because you couldn’t be bothered to follow the rules of cursive. Two, this provocative declaration is without a single grammatical blemish. The correct homonym (There’s) has been selected, the apostrophe is in the right place, “probably” is spelled correctly, and there is even an appropriate use of an ellipsis (…). Granted, it’s in all caps, but one can hardly fault the seeker who penned the statement. Spray paint is dash hard to work with as a medium, and, truth be told, the statement he or she is making might merit the loud delivery.

Compare this message to some of the others I’ve found posted on the Internet…

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/cad0gan/ (Abigail Codogan)
Image from http://slog.thestranger.com

(Never mind the fact it should technically be “Woe is I.” I’m just happy someone took the time to fix the glaring error!)

Image from http://failblog.org

Judging by his or her peers, I firmly believe someone of passable intelligence wrote the message I captured on my camera phone. The handwriting and grammatical correctness tell me as much.

This person is not asking a question but rather is making a statement: “There’s probably no God…”

Not “There’s no God.” or “How can there be a God?” or even “Where is God?” No, this individual is stating that there is no God, but even in that assertion there is no certainty because of the choice to use “probably” as a modifier. Why waste both time and paint (not to mention risk getting arrested) to make a statement like this? Usually, they are quick posts made by a person who thinks he or she has answers to life’s questions (most of which involve a curse word for some reason). This person wanted to leave a half-finished thought behind for others to chew on, one that just happens to involve one of the most important and most hashed-over questions in the universe.

This is a statement that demands an answer from believers, and it is proof that evangelism is still vital in our world. This young person is prompting a discussion about the Lord’s presence with his artistic sojourn—this shrug of the shoulders made with obsidian paint. It’s almost like he’s daring us to retort, not because he wants to enter into a debate in an attempt to prove us wrong. This doesn’t strike me as the work of a hardened atheist whose heart is closed to the teachings of Jesus Christ and is unwilling to hear.

This person needs to be found, needs to be told about Christ and gently compelled by the Holy Spirit to take in the world around him in all its wondrous glory. A Christian needs to take this person and usher him into the very throne room of God as we have all been at times in our lives. After all, anyone who has ever witnessed God at work will tell you that it is impossible to deny His handiwork or His presence once you have been shown. You simply cannot “unsee” God. After experiencing His love and power, the word “probably” can never exist again in your vocabulary.

Now that I’m older, I’m coming to understand just how essential the Great Commission is and how working in the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to others and share the love of God is vital. Millions of people in my city alone are lost and hurting tonight, and all of it is needless. Someone who knows what Jesus Christ was willing to do to redeem us has no need for drugs or the empty promise of another’s body for comfort. Everything is different when He’s in the middle of it. That’s why we must “open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith” in Jesus Christ (Acts 26:18).

I think about the young man who wrote, “There’s probably no God…” and ache for him. Is his heart seeking answers as mine once did? How will he find them if I’m not willing to go and tell, to leave my own message to the world on that same wall, written in red, next to his….

“There certainly is a God, and He loves you.”