Going Home, Looking Forward

By Joe LaGuardia

Since moving to Florida over a year ago, I have been reflecting on some aspects of my past: high school, college, my calling, friends with whom I’ve lost contact, and other nostalgic reminiscing.  With each memory I seek to “take every thought captive for Christ,” assessing what role the memory plays in my life and how it might shape my life now.  I was in Georgia for almost two decades; I moved from Florida where I had lived since childhood.  Now I’m back.

Writing about the sacredness of places and upbringing, author and poet Natalie Goldberg notes,

We hear about people who go back to their roots.  That is good, but don’t get stuck in the root.  There is a branch, the leaf, the flower–all reaching toward the immense sky.  We are many things.

My return to Florida has been a return to my roots.  Many of these roots, however, have become dormant.  Some have died out altogether–time spent with cousins now divorced, going to car shows with the old ’84 Camaro.  My “home church” in Pompano Beach is still active but too far to visit when I’m not in the pulpit at First Baptist.

Yet there are branches and leaves and flowers, as Goldberg puts it, that reminds me that there is new growth and new frontiers.  The “immense sky” is open to so many new opportunities, but I can’t help but notice that my writing, preaching, and prayers have been caught in a time loop, almost paralyzed by the past in some ways.

I wonder whether this “time loop” is a result of nearing 40 years of age.  I have heard of mid-life crises, and though I have no inkling to purchase a Porsche or travel to Europe to find myself, I hear the bells that toll at the end of one’s life a little louder than before.  Aches and pains in my back beckon the belfry on the horizon.

I have a long way to go–my congregation would laugh at me if I spoke of age at this point in my life–but my move to Vero Beach has captured me in a time stasis, hanging between my past–what once was–and my future, what God has in store as I continue to plug away at working with a great church to build a great and vibrant ministry that will last, I hope, for centuries.

These reflections were held in bold relief when I awoke from a bizarre nightmare this morning.  It was not a normal “pastor’s nightmare,” like the ones in which you start to preach only to have people walk out on you or you show up at church only to realize that you’re in the wrong church.  There weren’t any ghosts or ghouls or monsters.

Rather, I was sitting in the home of a parishioner who scolded me for hiding for hours in my office, not doing anything useful.  “Every day,” she said, “You sit in your office for two hours, and I don’t know what you do–you just sit there and twiddle your thumbs.  Four days a week, eight hours total every week–a whole work day of doing nothing.”

I can’t explain why that particular dream struck me, although I have always taken pride in my vigorous work ethic, but I can tell you that it has to do with time.  If I pray and all I think of are memories of times past while failing to cast a vision for what God has in the future, then I am stuck for sure.

“Don’t get stuck,” Goldberg says, like angels who once told the disciples to move things along when the disciples got stuck eyeing the heavens when Jesus ascended (“As they strained to see him rising…” the NLT states in Acts 1:10).  Don’t get stuck, move it along, look for new opportunities, new growth, it is all around us and it speaks to God’s beauty and activity in our life today.

For years I have had a guilty pleasure of watching Michael Mann’s 2006 Miami Vice with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell.  I enjoyed watching it because it shows a slice of life in Florida, to which I wanted to return.  I realized yesterday, while sitting on the beach and watching my wife and duaghter search for shells and my son dodge waves, that I no longer wanted to watch the movie.  I do not crave Miami Vice anymore because I’m here, I’m home and the flowers are blooming.

Bearing witness to the life of Mary Lumus

aging-handIt is common for people to skip the book of Numbers when they read through the Bible.  After all, it seems that, chapter after chapter, the book gives a dry and droll account of the families, clans, and tribes of Israel.

What seems like a boring list to us, however, was very meaningful to the ancients.  Even the lists of ancestral names in the New Testament–like those found in the gospels recording Jesus’ ancestry–carried great meaning.

The truth is that the ancients believed that a person’s life was enshrined and honored by the memories that a family held so dear.  Families were obligated to bear witness to the lives of their relatives in order to bring honor to the deceased.

Still today, some of us, especially clergy, bear witness to the lives of folks who pass away.  We advocate on behalf of the deceased by speaking truth about a person’s life, and we encourage people to “never forget” even one precious child of God.

And, so, in this column, dear reader, I am obligated to bear witness to the life of a person not many people knew, a person who simply loved her dog, worked hard, and finished the race of her life peacefully in Room 100 of Westberry rehab here in Conyers.

I met Ms. Mary Lumus through one of our parishioners, Denise Criswell.  Denise, who helped care for Ms. Mary over the years, encouraged us to reach out to Ms. Mary when the permanent move to Westberry was inevitable.

Ms. Mary was a very solitary person.  She had no living children (her son, a police officer in Atlanta, died years ago, only to be followed by the death of her grandson a year later).  Her siblings are deceased.  She was thrice married, but all her husbands are deceased as well.  She didn’t have a church family.

Ms. Mary described herself as a “wild child” so she neither built lasting bridges over the years nor had many bridges to burn. Instead, she quietly worked as a secretary for the state of Georgia until her retirement, and she cared for her best friend: a German Shepherd named Joey Boy.

I met Ms. Mary a little over a month ago.  Upon realizing the magnitude of Ms. Mary’s solitude, my church and I immediately set up a web of support around her.  Matt Cook, youth pastor at Milstead Baptist Church (only a mile from Westberry), committed to meet with Ms. Mary at least once a week.  Other folks stepped in to visit and pray with her.

Our church’s children made Ms. Mary cards and colorful posters that Matt delivered to her–complete with flowers and balloons–during Holy Week.

She was only one month away from turning 95 when I received news that she had passed on Friday, April 5, 2013.  Before she passed, she told Denise that she didn’t want any visitation or funeral.  She didn’t give any specific instructions for a burial.

She did, however, have a savings account for Joey Boy so that someone would have the resources to take care of him.  She had specific instructions for his care and safety.  We are thankful that Joey Boy moved into another loving home right before Ms. Mary passed.

Matt and I still find it hard to comprehend not having a funeral for one of God’s children.  So, this article seems quite appropriate.  No one, not even Ms. Mary who kept to herself the second half of her life, should die without at least some acknowledgment of her memory and dignity.

Denise and I plan to light a candle for her at Trinity Baptist sometime in mid-May.  We will have flowers on the communion table for her too.  But when all is said and done, we few who ministered to Ms. Mary–including many wonderful nurses at Westberry–were all the more blessed for knowing her.  We will miss her, and we hope that this record–like those long lists in the Bible–will be a lasting testament to a life well-lived by a very unique and precious child of God.