Moochie and Sasa

For as long as I can remember, I have believed heaven looks a lot like 200 acres in West Tennessee.

My grandmother died in October. She was 86 and spent the last sixth of her life being almost exclusively in a doctor’s office or on her farm. It sprawls down a gravel driveway in Tipton County some 30 miles north of Memphis, sitting just off Bucksnort Road, a real name her 91-year-old husband says still gets a snicker at the DMV. He would know:  he’s still driving. Every morning to Burger King to drink coffee with his friends, every afternoon to a local pharmacy to play dominoes. The coffee comes in an old promotional mug promising free refills for the rest of the month. The good people at Burger King never stopped filling it up, giving that 5 AM crew what has to be thousands of dollars in free coffee by now. The dominoes are large print, and when he downplays how seriously he takes them he is trying to hustle you.

When she died six months after a stroke and 15 years after her health first started to turn, he came to my parents’ house in Knoxville for Christmas. It was the first time he’d been outside Tipton or Shelby County in 20 years. When the dominoes came out, he told my sister to call her bookie.

Moments like that make me smile because they remind me of a time when all of us were younger. My dad has no siblings and I’m the oldest of three; the firstborn of an only child creates a particularly potent relationship for both grandparent and grandchild.

Growing up I would spend weeks and later months on that farm in the summertime. When I was a kid, I thought it was heaven because it was a place where the word “no” didn’t seem to exist. Do you want to stay up late with your grandmother and watch Carson and Letterman even though you’re way, way too young to appreciate it? Do you want to get up a few hours later and fish with your grandfather? Do you want a burger and fries from Wendy’s but a Coke from McDonald’s because they have those Dream Team collectible cups and we’re only missing Stockton and Laettner?

My passion for sports flows from them through my dad and into my very blood. As West Tennessee Vol fans they hated Archie Manning almost as much as they loved his son. I think I might have always been a Celtics fan because that’s what tall, white, blonde-headed children of the 80’s gravitated towards if they played basketball. But my grandparents fed it with mail-ordered VHS highlight tapes from 1984-87. Even now during a particularly tense Boston playoff series I’ll hear the background music from those old videos floating around in my head.

And they both loved not just their favorite teams, but the sport itself. Going through her things after she died we found a $20 she won off my grandfather betting on Ty Detmer to win the Heisman in 1990.

994752_10104311722305825_8451868744090117980_nMy grandfather has been “Moochie” since his school days because he was so good at stealing bases people would say, in what I suppose is that 1930’s way, “He’s mooched another one!” And I just found that out four weeks ago, driving him back to Tipton County after Christmas. I never much thought to ask; growing up I just figured that was his name. When my grandmother (Sara; Sasa to her grandchildren) would get really upset with him sometimes she’d call him by his first name and I’d get really confused as to who Lawrence was.

She taught me to play gin rummy and when I beat her was the first person I ever heard use the cuss words you get in real trouble for. But I didn’t beat her much.

The farm was a place where it felt like Sasa and Moochie could make anything happen. But despite what seemed like limitless options, we fell into a steady routine:  driving into Memphis on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. We’d either eat lunch at Western Sizzlin before going to the Putt-Putt off Summer Avenue, or go to Hickory Ridge Mall and eat at Chick-fil-A back before you could find one outside a mall. On the way back we’d stop at Blockbuster Video so I could rent another Nintendo or Super Nintendo game. And then we’d go to Seessel’s on Austin Peay Highway, a Memphis grocery chain.

I was too young to tell you what made Seessel’s unique. But I definitely remember when it closed. Of all the fun we had at places much more exciting to a child than a grocery store, the memory of its absence stands out. I think it was the first time in my young life when something was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. The first time I understood that particular no.

As we get older and the no’s of our lives become much more unavoidable, so too did my eschatological view of the farm change. When it wasn’t so much heaven because I always got what I wanted, it was still a place I could go when I was getting even less of what I wanted in my real life back home. The property stretches out for what seems like forever; there are places you can go on that farm where there are no sights or sounds to prove anyone but you exists. At first I wasn’t allowed to go that far back from the house, and then I was more afraid than curious. But as a young adult and especially a young pastor, those big empty spaces became one of its best features. You can disappear and then reappear in a sense, where it’s just you and God and you can ask your questions loud enough without having to worry with them being heard by anyone other than the audience you hope is listening. You can scream and you can be thankful. You can question and plead and once or twice use some of the cuss words your grandmother taught you. You can be lost. And you can be found.

To this day when I find myself in a particularly difficult set of days or when the seasons of my life are changing, I will find my way to the back half of that farm. Her death won’t change that. But what it has done is teach me more about how unique each of those seasons are in our lives.

When my wife and I went to see her at a rehabilitation facility in July, I drove Alex down all those old roads in Memphis. The Western Sizzlin closed years ago. The Putt-Putt is still open; we stopped and played a round. The Blockbuster Video is now Discount Wigs 2; I’m unaware of the location of Discount Wigs 1. And where Seessel’s once stood is now just an empty parking lot, a sign of both what once was and what might be.

You can’t get them back, those days. And I think that’s okay and maybe even good. Their memory makes me far more grateful than their absence makes me sad. In some ways we carry them forward:  I work hard to keep the Western Sizzlin in Athens open, and we still find our way to some form of miniature golf on almost all our vacations. But if we’re looking for pure replication, we’ll always be disappointed. It’s never those days anymore.

But those days are good at teaching me to value this one. And today, when I think of heaven, I think of both a place where my grandmother is winning the rummy tournament, and a kingdom Jesus says in some mysterious ways is available to us here and now. It breaks through in places like the farm and, more than that, in the people we get to share those days with, especially the people close enough to transition from one season of our lives to the next with us. But it is available – at hand – on this day too. Teaching us to be thankful for what has been and to look forward to what’s ahead, but never at the expense of the present moment.

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I could go on.

Recently I’ve become re-enamored with Eugene Peterson’s The Message. His contemporary paraphrase of the Bible turns 15 this year; when it was completed in 2002 I was between a pair of stints working in Christian bookstores from 2000-05, which can be plenty good at making one jaded towards anything that sells, even the Bible itself. But I’ve found myself returning to it over and over again these last few months.

The Message is and isn’t the Bible itself. But I think it’s at its best when it helps us re-examine the scriptures in a way that makes them not just easier to read, but easier to relate to.

One of the best examples of this I’ve come across is in the well-known works of the flesh/fruit of the Spirit passage in Galatians 5. The first part reads in most Bibles like a to-don’t list:

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

Because the list starts with things that sound worse than what we would call our own sins (fornication!) and includes things we’re pretty sure we’re steering clear of (sorcery!), it becomes easier to dismiss the whole thing. Let’s be honest:  I don’t even know what licentiousness is. Google says it’s lacking legal or moral restraints, especially sexual restraints. I’m just trying to pronounce it correctly.

The things in here we’re more comfortable saying we struggle with – jealousy, anger, even drunkenness – come so late in the list, we can already convince ourselves the whole thing is for someone else. Someone worse. Sure, envy’s bad. We’ll work on it. But at least I’m no carouser, and things like these.

Peterson’s Message takes a list easily ignored and stabs me in the heart with it:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

Me too.

This is January 4, which means maybe you resolved some things at midnight and by now perhaps we’re wishing another midnight was available. Christmas and Easter may fill the pews, but we’re all a little religious on January 1. It’s grace on a calendar page, thin on theology but strong in the force.

Maybe Peterson’s list includes some things you resolved not to be, or at least be less of this year.

Now, the second part of this – the fruit of the Spirit – the traditional reading still sings. It ain’t broke:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is comfort in familiarity and, more importantly, hope that God has planted something within us. Something life-giving and good. Something to be tasted and seen. And, in the very nature of fruit, something with the seeds for reproduction within, so we might share it with our world.

I do love how Peterson finishes the passage in verses 25-26:

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.

In this new year, I hope we find the fruit-bearing grace of God ready and willing at all of our midnights. I hope we taste and see that the Lord is good. And I hope we have far more interesting things to do with our lives.