When I lived in Pascagoula, MS, and served the First Presbyterian Church as their Pastor, I was privileged to get to know, and be friends with, a number of Navy officers who served on ships that were based at the Naval Station in Pascagoula. There is a shipyard in Pascagoula which builds ships for the Navy, and I suppose that is what justified the base that has since been closed.

          One of the remarkable joys of the privilege I had was getting to be close friends with several of the Captains for the ships based there, and as a result, having access and entrée to the ships. I even was asked to participate in a change of command ceremony one year.

          One day I was on the USS Ticonderoga, which happens to be the first Aegis-class ship that was built. I don’t recall the particulars of the visit, but I do remember that I was reading about leadership and change theory at the time. As I walked the ship that day, I asked the Captain how long it would take him to turn the ship around if he was moving at maximum speed.DN-ST-86-02427

          “Suppose you’re heading east under a full head of steam, and you get an order directing you to turn around and head west; how long would it take you to turn around?”

          “Thirty seconds,” came the immediate reply, with a smile.

          “What?!” I asked; “That fast?!”

          “Yeah,” he said. “I sound general alarm, and everyone grabs something and holds on, and we turn the ship around. It creates a real mess, and it takes a lot of time to clean up the mess, but we can do it in thirty seconds.”

          I thought about what I had been reading about leadership and change theory, and how to lead change in the life of a church and congregation. A lot of change, fast, creates a lot of mess, and it takes a long time to clean up and establish trust.

          Contrast that with another story about the Tico. My family had been invited to go on a “Friends and Family Cruise,” when the Navy allows the ship to leave port for a half day cruise with civilians on board. They let family and friends of the sailors see the ship, what it is like, what it takes to operate, etc. Fun and games are planned for the kids, everyone gets a meal on board, and it generally builds good will for everyone.

          This particular day there was a complication. There was a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico that was whipping the water up enough that the ship could not go out. We got a phone call advising us of this, but telling us that we should come on out, that everything was going to be done on board the ship, simply docked at the base.

          We showed up, the ship was positioned bow out, as if she were about to head to sea. We stepped across onto the ship on the starboard side, and enjoyed a fun day. (For the record, our daughter Kathryn won the basketball free-throw contest that day!)

          At the end of the day, we thanked the Captain and other officers, and were walking to leave. I turned to starboard to leave, and was advised by a sailor, “No, sir, it’s this way (pointing to port.)”

          Confused, I said, “No, its starboard.”

          “No, sir, port.”

          “How can that be?” I asked.

          And then I learned that while we were all on board the Tico, the ship had moved away from the dock, into the Mississippi Sound, turned around, and re-docked. And I never knew the ship had even moved.

          A complete and total change, and I never knew it.

 

          Mark Twain is alleged to have once said, “The only person who wants change is a wet baby.”

          I thought that was a great quote about human resistance to change, and I used it for several years until I added to it, “And the baby that wants change often cries through the entire process!”

          There are two things in life I have learned that are constant, always present. One is change—it’s always going to be a part of life.

          The other is Christ. As the writer of Hebrews puts it in the New Testament, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13.8)

          Sometimes the change that comes into my life is sudden, disruptive, and messy—like the unexpected news of my father’s death in 2003—and takes a long time to clean up.

          Sometimes the change is slow and unnoticed, like the pine tree in the corner of our yard that was just a few feet tall when we moved into our home in 2005, and now is tall and strong.

          Change is always going to be present. And so is Jesus.

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Ash Wednesday.

Yeah, I know it was a week ago, in fact a week ago today (at the time of this writing), but a story from an Ash Wednesday about 16 years ago has been rattling around in my soul since last week.

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I have no memory—zero, nada, zippo, zilch—of going to an Ash Wednesday service. Our church may have had them, but I don’t recall ever going. We were pretty darn regular at worship, even went to Sunday School, but the only midweek service I have a definite memory of attending was the Maundy Thursday service when I received my first Communion. (Times have changed in the Presbyterian Church since then, but that will be a matter for another day.)

So when I landed in Seminary, and Ash Wednesday was a significant deal, and everyone started talking about “giving something up” for Lent (like liver and onions, maybe?), my learning curve was pretty steep. But I’m a quick study, and I caught on pretty quickly.

Then I graduated from Seminary, and was turned loose on the church. That first year, the church I was serving had an Ash Wednesday service, as did every church I served. Until I moved to the thriving metropolis of Pascagoula, MS, and started serving the First Presbyterian Church there (more in a moment).

These Ash Wednesday services in Protestant churches were powerful, meaningful, and liberating. In each of them, at some point, there would be a large urn in the front of the chancel, and at some point in the service, people would come forward, and place a small piece of paper in the urn, on which they had drawn a symbol, or written a word, and the paper was dropped in the urn as a symbolic act of releasing whatever was written on the paper. More often than not, this was a kinesthetic act or turning loose, and what was drawn or written reflected what was holding the person back from giving themselves fully to God, or some habitual sin that they could not walk away from.

The act was powerful, made even more so by the burning of the pieces of paper, symbolically burning what held one back from God. After that, the sign of the cross would be placed on everyone’s forehead, to remind them that they have been sealed by God’s grace.

So it came as a surprise to me that when my family moved to Pascagoula, this coastal community in a largely Roman Catholic-influenced culture, there was no Ash Wednesday service. Maybe it was a reaction against the prevailing culture, or something else, but I was surprised to find there was not tradition.

So I started one.

The first year, the service was well attended, and we followed the practice of writing something on paper, dropping it in an urn, and burning it. But I made a critical error. I used blank index cards. They took forever to burn, and filled the Sanctuary with this noxious smoke that choked people, and left a lingering (unpleasant) scent for several days. Before that service was over, I knew what we needed to do.

“Theatrical flash paper,” I said to the chair of the Worship Committee. “That’s what we’ll use next year.”

And so we did. I located a source, bought some (it’s not cheap, and I was trying to do this inexpensively (because I’m a tight-fisted Scot Presbyterian), and practiced burning a small piece a few times to make sure it would work. Flash paper burns fast, leaving nothing—NOTHING—behind, It’s gone in a flash!

SO Ash Wednesday came around that year, and we had over a hundred people attend as I recall. We reached that point in the service when people were invited to bring their small pieces of paper forward and drop them in the urn. The lights of the Sanctuary were dimmed about 90%, leaving only a very little bit of light for folks to see and move around by.

I should add at this point that the urn we were using was really a brass flower container, maybe 18 inches tall, about five or so inches wide at the top, sloping down in a conical shape to a point at the bottom.

All of the lights in the church were out now, and I struck a match, and as I looked at the flame, right before I dropped it in the urn—with 100+ pieces of flash paper, remember—I thought, “You know, I’ve not done this with so much flash paper before; I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And I leaned back slightly, then dropped the match into the urn. I watched as for about two-tenths of a second, the paper started to burn away, when suddenly, kaWHOOSH!, there was this explosion of light as an intensely bright, incredibly hot ball of flame shot up out of that urn, into the air before it dissipated!

I kid you not; women screamed, children started crying, and I was shocked, blinded by the bright light in eyes that had adjusted to the darkness. I could not see anything.

And the heat; it was so intense, I wondered if my face had been scalded or scorched, if the hair on the front of my head had been burned off, if I’d lost my eyebrows.

But I knew I could not say or do anything to attract attention to myself (I learned later that our daughter Anne asked, “Mom, is Dad OK?”); I knew that I needed to root my comments in such  a way that the congregation was directed to what God was doing in their lives.

But I was wigging out. One side of my brain was talking to the congregation, saying things like, “It’s all gone. Whatever was holding you back from God is gone. The Lord has taken it away. It’s all gone.” While the other part of my brain was thinking, “Oh, no; what do I look like? Is my face burned? Is it black from soot? Do I have hair?” then I had the thought as I was talking that I could reach up and adjust my glasses, and as I did so, I could feel to see if I still had eyebrows. By now my eyes had readjusted to the light, and I was searching the faces of those up close to me to see if they were reacting in any way. I felt and knew that I still had eyebrows, so all was OK.

The lights came back up for us to sing the closing hymn, and when I saw one guy looking at me and laughing, I wondered what in the world I looked like—but it turned out I was not burned or scarred in any way, he was simply laughing at the same thing I have been laughing about for the last 16 or so years. It was just plain funny!

The next year, we used a different, MUCH shallower, and wider, urn. And we never again sent a fireball into the Sanctuary!

REMEMBERING BESSIE HAM

March 6, 2013

By the time my family and I moved to Pascagoula in 1995, Bessie Ham was homebound. A legend to several generations in the community, Bessie taught English at “PJ” (Pascagoula Junior High, since renamed Trent Lott Middle School) to hundreds, yea, verily, thousands of students who all carried the highest regard and utmost respect for this lady.

Bessie could not get out, and made only a few excursions from time to time for Doctor visits and the like. Her Women’s Circle (what Presbyterians sometimes call a Bible Study) would meet in her home on rare occasions, as I recall, simply so she could be included.

Bessie’s husband had died years earlier, and she lived in this simple little, concrete-block “Navy house” (so called because when the community grew fast during World War II thanks to the ships needed and built for the Navy) with her son Robert.

Robert can be the subject of a number of other postings in the future, for the record. A great guy, but with some seeming developmental challenges. But Lord, his mind could hold information. OK, another day.

I would stop by and see Bessie from time to time, always calling in advance to make sure it was a good time or day, and always found her mentally alert, in full command of her faculties, but trapped in a body that was worn out and breaking down.

Bessie had been in the hospital for a few days, and been released, but not to her home, to an assisted living facility across the street from the hospital. I learned this as I tried to visit her, so after I left the hospital, I went across the street, found out which room she was in, and headed in that direction.

As I approached her room, I could hear a conversation that was going on in there, recognizing her voice, and easily hearing that of the person who was addressing her. Bessie was a little hard of hearing, you see, so one had to raise one’s voice. . .

As I turned and eased through the door—of the two-bed room, nodding a greeting to the person in the other bed as I moved toward Bessie in the “bed by the window,” I grasped what was going on. The Occupational Terrorists (ah, ‘scuse me, “Therapists”) were working with Bessie. Apparently Robert had been feeding her, and they were working to get her to feed herself. As I saw Bessie, she was in the hospital bed with one rail up, and the tray in front of her, lunch on it. She was slumped over, listing to starboard (the right), with a fork dangling weakly from her right hand, a small bit of creamed spinach about to fall off it. Her eyes were half open.

The conversation I heard went something like this:

Therapist: “Would you like some dessert? I believe we have some sherbet.”

Bessie: “Yes, some sherbet would be nice.”

“What flavor would you like?” The young man listed several flavors, and Bessie made a choice. I don’t recall what she chose, it really does not matter. I stepped up alongside the Therapist as he said, “OK, I’ll go find it, I don’t know where it’s at.”

I cringed and winced.

Bessie, in her early 90’s (she died soon after this at 92), suddenly shook off about 35 years of aging! She sat straight up, her eyes opened wide, and with a strong, firm, and Teacher’s voice, looked at this poor therapist  and said, “Young man, you never, but NEVER, end a sentence with a preposition!”

The guy turned and looked at me, and I simply raised my hands, palms out, and shrugged my shoulders. I saw it coming the minute he said it.

“Yes ma’am,” he said, as he slunk away to find some sherbet.

Bessie stabbed the spinach into her mouth, chewed and swallowed it, and looked at me.

“You know, Chuck, there ARE times when it IS proper to end a sentence with a preposition; ‘What were you thinking OF?’”

“Yes ma’am,” I said, laughing to myself, thinking that this was going to preach one day at her funeral.

And it did. At the graveside, after we’d left the Church with a long string of cars creeping into the cemetery for the interment, the Funeral Director told me that after Bessie’s most famous student, Trent Lott, was elected to the United States Senate, he sent her a speech he had delivered on the floor of the Senate chambers.

Bessie marked it up with a red pencil, and sent it back to him.

What a great lady