Christmas Surprise

March 8, 2017

Not too sure how long it has been since I actually sat down and put fingers to keys and felt as if I had something to add to the global blogosphere; but I decided it was time. This little tale begins on Christmas Eve 2016 (with a glance back to August 2015), and jumps into 2017 pretty quickly.

First the glance to August 2015; I can’t believe it, looking back, and discovering that I did not blog this, but on August 22, 2015, our daughter Anne became Mrs. Ryan Brody. Anne and Ryan repeated their vows at Church in the Pines on the shore of Lake Martin, AL–the place where I have been privileged to preach for about 20 years, and only 3 miles from the family Lake House. It was a glorious day, the day every family dreams of, and every detail was absolutely perfect. I delighted in the privilege of walking my daughter down the aisle, and the service was begun by Dan McCall, my first boss out of Seminary, and the pastor who baptized Anne. After I “gave her away,” I stepped around and officiated the remainder of the ceremony.

While the outdoor service (Alabama in August?!) was a bit steamy, the reception was indoors where the AC was set to blizzard. We danced, dined, and partied until the newlyweds departed for Atlanta and then their honeymoon. We returned to the Lake House, where a bunch (BUNCH) of friends were coming to hang out, have a beer, and catch up.

On returning to the house, I was a bit distressed to not be able to locate Gumbo, our almost-15 year old black lab. Long story short, I found him a bit later; he had “expired,” and gone to that place where there are no fences, no cats, and the rabbits are all fat and slow. We buried him there, and took solace in our daughter’s joy in marriage.

We pretty well decided that our dog days were behind us. Lib was tired of sweeping up hair, and I didn’t think I had another dog burial in me. So life moved on.

Until Christmas Eve 2016.

I arrived home a bit before 10:00 PM, having been in or observed what felt like 100 worship services (in actuality it was only eight); I was exhausted, and as I pulled in the driveway I watched Lib run through the kitchen, and wondered, “What’s that all about?” I parked in the garage, walked in, and did not see her. I made it to the den, calling her name, and nothing. I walked upstairs, tossed my suit coat on the bed, and turned to see her step into the opening to the sunroom off our bedroom, as a puppy trotted out of our bathroom into the sun room.

Lib smiled and said, “Merry Christmas,” as I gawked and asked, “Have you lost your mind?!”

She is a pure bred English Lab, and we named her “Scout” (as in Jean Louise in To Kill a Mockingbird). Here she is at about 4.5 months: Scout

This little wiggle worm (see her tail moving too fast to be photographed?!) has brought so much joy into our lives, “It takes two to tell it” (as my mother in law would say.) We have spoiled her rotten, trained her pretty well (she’s easily the smartest dog I have ever had), and she has spoiled us.

And she has taught me about the love of God.

In the mornings, I get up at an unthinkable hour (4:30) to have my quiet time and exercise before the day begins. I let Scout out to “do her business,” then she goes to my office where I have my devotions. I’ve put a bed down there, and she has a couple of toys, and a chew or two. But what she wants is to be in my lap (even at 35 pounds now!), licking my face, begging for attention.

And I find myself wondering, “Why do I not hunger for God’s attention the way this little girl hungers for mine?!” She has inspired me, and taught me that simple affection-pure, unbridled joy-is what God wants from us, as much as Scout gives it to me. She is unquestionable an instrument of sanctification in my life.

And wow, do I (we!) love her!!!

I just counted up, and to date, after 30+ years of ministry in four cities, I have officiated at 343 wedding ceremonies. That’s a lot.

I have thoroughly enjoyed them all, and have more than a handful of stories to tell from them. One of these days I’m going to get all these (and funeral stories, as well as baptisms, routine Sundays, and all other kinds of experiences) written up, and use the title of this post as the title of a book. Here’s a sample of what can happen when you thought it was going to be an ordinary, routine, kind of service.

I was getting ready for the wedding ceremony on Saturday of a guy who was (is) a member of our church, who was marrying a lovely young woman who was not a member of the church. That is neither here nor there, but the fact that she was from Romania is a pertinent fact.

No, this was NOT a mail-order-bride kind of deal. She had won a Fulbright Scholarship and come to Georgia State to work on a Masters degree. along the way, she landed a job at the Centers for Disease Control here in Atlanta. Somehow she met this guy, they fell in love, and were getting married. We’d met for four premarital counseling sessions, planned the ceremony, and talked everything through. Her parents and siblings were coming from Romania for the wedding, and we had talked about her parents’ grasp of English, and what I needed to do in the ceremony to make it work well for them. They understood much more than they spoke, but we all felt comfortable with the way things were looking.

Friday afternoon we all met at the Church for the rehearsal. I talked everyone through what we were doing and going to do, then we got everyone in place as if the processional had just ended. The bride’s father was standing between the bride and groom (OK, an editorial comment here. That’s the way it is supposed to be. Some wedding directors [who can be third cousins to Satan, for the record] like to have the father on the bride’s left arm for choreography’s sake–they think it is a clearer shot to his seat without stepping on the bride’s train after he gives the bride away, but there is powerful symbolic value to having him between the couple until he gives her away. Here endeth the lesson.)

I talked us through the first part of the service, through the traditional questions of intent, then I turned and looked at this Romanian father and asked, “Who brings this woman to be married to this man?”

He looked at me and said, clearly and firmly, “Her mother and I.” Perfect. Spot on, just perfect. I talked him through taking her right hand and placing it in the groom’s left hand, then giving her a little kiss on her cheek, and then turning to his right, away from the bride and toward the groom, so he would not step on her dress and/or train.

As he turned, and rotated until he was face-to-face, eye-to-eye with the groom, he stopped, and looked the groom in the eye. He raised his right hand, index finger pointed straight up, as if to make a point. Then he made the slash motion across his throat, and the groom’s eyes bugged out, my jaw hit the floor, and everyone in the room held their breath . . . until the bride and her father started laughing out loud! The tension cut, we all realized this was a joke! The father went on to his seat, the groom heaved a great sigh of relief, and we all went on with the rehearsal. It went without a hitch.

And the next day, the wedding went without a hitch, as well-and the father did not repeat his action!

A couple of years  later, I was walking through one of the overflow spaces after one of our Christmas Eve services, when I saw this couple, and recognized her parents with them. My face lit up like a Christmas Tree, and theirs did, too. We moved to greet each other, and I smiled, looked at the father, and promptly made the slash motion across my throat. He erupted in laughter, as we all did, and we wished each other a Merry Christmas before parting.

A year or so after that, the couple had their first child, and I was honored to be asked to administer the baptism. It was a great reunion of the families, as her parents came over from Romania. Then a couple of years later, along came child number two. But grandparents could not swing the trip this time. I got an idea, and called the bride to ask if her parents would watch the worship service live on the internet (we webcast our services.) She said they would, so I asked her to teach me how to do the baptism in Romanian. She argued that it would be too hard, but I persisted, and she said it, slowly, so I could write it down phonetically. I ran it past her, she was surprised that I got it right, and said so.

All weekend I practiced it out loud, so it was firm in my mind. The moment came in  he service, and when I took the child in my arms, I asked if the bride’s parents were in fact watching on the internet in Romania. She said they were, so I said, “Well, I hope I get this right, but if I mess it up, the Lord knows what we are trying to do.” And I administered the baptism in Romanian, and handed the baby back to them.

Later that morning, between a couple of the services, I saw the couple. The bride said she talked to her mom on the phone, and when I said the first words in Romanian, her mom started to cry.

That may just be the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.

I was married at high noon in Montgomery Alabama, at First United Methodist Church, to Anne Elizabeth Upchurch (thank goodness in our culture the bride takes the groom’s name; can you imagine the Reverend Dr. Chuck Upchurch?!)  on August 27, 1983. We have just celebrated our 30th anniversary; I think we’ll make it.

It was explained to me at the time that a noon wedding is as “high” a wedding as an eight o’clock PM wedding, so the men all wore white dinner jackets, and thank you very much, we looked pretty darn good.

The wedding was the third one in Lib’s family in three years, so they pretty well had the wedding thing down. While I’d been “schooled” in weddings, this was the first one I’d been in, so I just did what I was told. I was told what time to arrive at the church, dressed, and where to go, so I cooled my heels as best I could.

On your wedding day, you wake up earlier than you want to. This was the case with me, as I recall, so once I was up and moving, my brother and I went for about a four-mile run so I could deal with some of my jitters. I arrived back at the motel, and Hunter went on for another mile or so. I chatted with a friend by the pool, but was starting to get excited/nervous, so I asked my Dad to bring me a biscuit from the restaurant, and went to my room. I did not have much of an appetite, but knew I needed to eat something.

After showering and dressing, the next thing I knew I was at the Church, and after a flurry of pictures, it was “time.” I have vague recollections of the ceremony, I know I was there, because I’ve seen the pictures, but it was a blur. We walked down the center aisle, out of the church into a limo, and straight to the Country Club. The rest of the wedding party and our families did the same, we shot a few pictures, and the party began.

It, too, was a blur. I have some faint memories of seeing a few particular people, but for the most part, it was a lot of smiling and nodding. Then someone told us it was time to leave, so we headed upstairs to change clothes.

Why can men change in three minutes, but it takes women a good half hour?

Anyway, Lib came out, all the bridesmaids massed downstairs, Lib threw the bouquet, we ran through a shower of rose petals to a car, and my brother-in-law Sam Campbell drove us to where we’d stashed a car.

We got into Lib’s Honda, and headed for Atlanta, where we were to spend the night before flying out Sunday morning for our honeymoon in Jamaica.

About halfway to Atlanta, I told Lib I was hungry; she reached into the back seat and got one of the box lunches that the Club had given us, and opened it. There was a scoop of chicken salad in there. Not a sandwich, a scoop. No fork, no spoon, I don’t think there was a cracker in there. Inedible while driving a stick shift on the Interstate.

We arrived at the Ramada Renaissance (I think it’s Westin now), and we were taken to the Honeymoon Suite on the Concierge Level. We walked into our spacious room, with flowers, candles, champagne, and the Concierge left.

Lib opened her suitcase, and there was a note there from her brother (who’s been married a year) telling her how wonderful marriage is, and how happy he was for her. She got a little misty, but then turned and looked at me with a “come hither” look and said, “Well; what do you want to do?”

I said, “Let’s go get something to eat.”

Lib said, “WHAT?!” And this other head grew out of her neck. It sprouted horns, and had long fangs, and breathed fire. “WHAT?!” It said.

“Look, Lib,” I said, “I’m hungry. I really did not get breakfast to speak of. I did not get anything to eat at our reception. And I’m smart enough to know that if I don’t eat something now, I’m not going to get anything else to eat tonight.”

She begrudgingly agreed that I may have a point there. If I’d had half a brain, I would have called room service; but no, we went downstairs and ate in the restaurant.

Do you know what is on the top of the list of things that brides do not want their groom to eat on their wedding night? A Reuben Sandwich. I mean, who wants sauerkraut breath in their face on their wedding night? But guess what I had that night? Yep, you guessed it. It’s a great sandwich, but not the wisest choice I’ve ever made.

So we ate dinner, then went upstairs, and the rest is now 30 years of history.

If you’re reading this and planning a wedding, make sure you think through eating after the ceremony. And leave Reubens off the menu.

That was just plain stupid.

Wedding ceremonies happen at all times of the day and night. That said, I think the earliest ceremony at which I have ever officiated was a 10:00 AM ceremony, and I don’t think I have done one any later than 8:00 PM. My preference, frankly, is noon.

That’s probably because my own wedding ceremony was at noon. But I have learned through the years that there are some advantages to that time.

For one, Emily Post says that a noon ceremony is as “high” a wedding as an eight PM ceremony. We wore Dinner Jackets at my wedding. Two, the couple will wake up on the day of their wedding earliuer than they want to, and the first thought that crosses their mind before their feet hit the floor is, “Today’s the day!” The longer they have to wait for the actual ceremony, the greater the buildup of anticipatory stress, and the higher the likelihood that they will murder someone in a snap of rage. Having the ceremony at noon has them getting on with things.

A noon ceremony also allows them to enjoy the reception, to hang around for a good while and enjoy the party and the people before making their getaway. It’s actually possible to travel some on the wedding day with a noon wedding, or at least not to feel rushed about things post-ceremony before leaving the next day for the honeymoon.

I recall one noon wedding in particular. It was not a large ceremony, in fact it was in the Wilson Chapel at Peachtree Presbyterian Church (which seats a little over 100 people). It must have been summer, because as we were starting the ceremony, a frog-choker of a rainstorm, with accompanying thunder and lightning, broke over us. (Thank goodness it was not an outdoor ceremony, which are often dicey with weather. I always tell people when they plan an outdoor ceremony that “I’m in sales, not management,” pointing out that I can’t control the weather.)

At any rate, the ceremony had begun. I’d welcomed the congregation, and made the appropriate statements about marriage. I’d delivered the “Charge to the Couple,” in which we essentially acknowledge that if the couple will do certain things, then God will do certain things.

In the ceremony that I use, next comes the “Questions of Intent.” This is that historical question that lays it all out, asking the couple–each in turn, first the groom, then the bride–if they REALLY want to do this.

So this particular Saturday, as a storm moved in around us, I looked at the groom and asked, “John, will you have this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together in the holy estate of matrimony? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in healt, and forsaking all others, will you keep yourself only unto Jane, as long as you both shall live?”

No sooner were the words out of my mouth, than a terrific clap of thunder BOOMED on top of us, shaking the Chapel and startling everyone in it. The groom himself darn near jumped out of his shoes, and as the thunder echoed off into the distance, and everyone settled back into the ceremony, I simply looked at the groom, cocked my head to the side gently, and raised both my eyebrows as if to suggest that God was listening in, ever-so-expectantly, for his answer. The bride and groom both, as well as everyone in the Chapel, caught the humor in the moment, and lauged, as the groom said, with more enthusiasm than he would have used had the thunder not hit at the moment, “I WILL!!!”

It’s never a bad thing to laugh in a wedding.

The very first wedding over which I officiated took place at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, GA. I was the Associate Minister of the church, and I’d been there about six months, coming right out of Seminary, fresh, naive, wet behind the ears, innocent, and simply dumb as dirt. For gosh sakes, I grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, graduated from Arkansas State University, that great academic powerhouse (NOT!), and managed to get INTO Seminary on academic probation (from which I was released after one semester, for the record.)

I’d arrived in Augusta single but engaged, was ordained on a Sunday in August (when it was 108 degrees–that’s another story) and then married the following Saturday in Montgomery. Yeah, a pretty low-key week.

So the Senior Pastor, Dan McCall, bounced this wedding to me, and I’d managed to meet with the couple about four times, doing my best to offer premarital counseling, wanting to die when I spoke with them about sex, but we’d gotten through it all, planned the ceremony, and the big evening was upon us.

I recall that it was about a week before Christmas; 12/17/83 to be precise, having just checked my record book. The church was resplendently decorated with poinsettias, making flowers for the family easy. And nonexistent.

The time came for us all to enter, and I came in with the groom and Best Man, we took our places and I watched as the doors in the back opened, and I saw the first Bridesmaid.

She was wearing solid, basic black. Now, today, that’s “chic,” or so I am told, but in 1983, it was more than cutting edge. I recall thinking, “Wait a minute; is this a wedding or a funeral!” To top it off, that first Bridesmaid was about 8 months pregnant. The ladies, instead of carrying flowers, were carrying Christmas wreaths (cute), but with this lady, the wreath was resting horizontally on her belly, rather than hanging vertically like all the others.

Anyway, I recovered, I hope that my face did not give away the shock, and everyone else came in, took their places, and we proceeded through the service.

We reached the point in the ceremony when the couple have repeated their vows, rings have been exchanged, and I had pronounced them “husband and wife.” It was time to pray for the couple, and it was their desire to kneel for the prayer. I said, “Let us pray,” and nodded to the groom to hold the bride’s arm as she knelt. He did so, she proceeded to kneel, and I thought, “Oh, sweet Jesus. She’s wearing a hooped skirt!”

Now, think about that. What a lady will do in a case such as that is to pull the front of the hooped skirt forward, and kneel under it. This bride did not do that, she simply knelt, ending up on the front of the hoops, which had the result of popping the bottom of her dress back, so that there was a clear view of . . . well, whatever there was to view.

I have no idea what I prayed or how I prayed it, because all I was thinking was that Hollywood had just lit up, and everyone had a free view. Before I said “Amen,” I whispered to the groom to stand the bride up, NOW, hoping that all the while “every head had been bowed and every eye had been closed.”

We finished the ceremony, took pictures, and I wandered to our Fellowship Hall where the reception was. One pass let me know that I would not be lingering, and I went home soon thereafter, grateful to have survived my first wedding.

I have well over 300 weddings under my belt now, with plenty more stories to share. Stay tuned, my friends.