Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Requiem of Words for Matt Lyles

I suppose this account has been taking form in my head for over a month now since I saw him alive for the last time in the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, in Little Rock, Arkansas. My thoughts and feelings have undoubtedly been trying to cast themselves into words and phrases. These fragments of words and phrases turning over and over, trying to find expression in unified thought. The feelings and the attempts at expressing these feelings woefully overwhelming and escaping me as I have tried to go about my normal life as a wife and mom of three children and all the expected last-days-of-summer sacraments. I have thought of, prayed for, and meditated upon the gift of my friend Matt Lyles from the driver seat of a minivan with the low rumble of children’s squabbling ruminating from the back, from the tops of roller coasters on scorching hot afternoons, while folding piles laundry, picking out produce at the grocery store, and in rare quiet moments. It has finally caught up with me. I returned a little under 48 hours ago from honoring my friend by attending his requiem mass, and today is the day I have finally bowed to the need to work through, with words and tears, the depth of my sorrow of the loss and the magnitude of my gratitude at having had the privilege of calling Jarrell Matthews Lyles my friend. I will do so in a requiem of words, for my voice is one no longer made of notes and melodies, but one of words on pages.

Even now, as I sit to officially reflect and record, the dryer is dinging at me, demanding I do yet another thing to distract me from the sadness. But I will make a different choice, and redeem a few precious hours in an empty house to honor and remember my friend.

I remember first seeing Matthew Lyles tapping across the campus of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas one sultry August afternoon just before our classes began in 1995. I was a freshman, and had chosen to go to a school seven hours away from the home I had always known, leaving behind the faces and places that had been a part of my life for all 18 years. I wanted a fresh start, and when I walked on campus not knowing a single soul, the depth of my loneliness was nearly suffocating, or perhaps that was just the humidity. Either way, I found it difficult to breathe as I exited the doors of the music building headed my dorm. As I started down the oddly hobbit-spaced steps, up tapped this small hobbit-sized (and quite furry) man. I took a double take, not sure if he was a professor or student, and what caught my total and complete 18-year old fancy was the way this small man moved, with and air of complete and total confidence while very obviously blind. He had a little black bag slung over one shoulder and a white cane extended in front of him and was moving with great speed aided by his untiring rhythmic tapping. It was nothing short of amazing, and since he obviously couldn’t see me, I allowed myself the rude pleasure of staring, marveling at how he moved, totally independent, quite fearless, and with absolute dignity. My aching loneliness was temporarily displaced by intense curiosity and before I even realized it, I was praying. “Lord, I would really like to meet that guy. I think I’d like him to be my friend.” Well, I’d never had a blind friend, and the opportunity to understand what his world might be like was a fascinating possibility, one I couldn’t quite shake.

Two days later, I headed towards the Jones Preforming Arts Center for the weekly required chapel service.  I checked and rechecked my seat assignment as I ascended the carpeted steps to the balcony, the place where all freshman were assigned chapel spots and moved our way down and forward as the years went on. Lo, and behold! There he was! The small blind hobbit man, sitting primly with his black bag on his lap, a strange electronic device atop it, and his cane folded neatly beside him. I did a double, and even triple take at my seat assingment and again allowed myself a wide-eyed stare at this very interesting person before me, quite probably suppressing a giggle, because he was in the seat right next to mine. Well, there ya go, it would appear that God does hear and answer prayers – no matter how seemingly random or petty, but as I look back on that flung out prayer rooted mostly in selfish curiosity about his blindness, I see the merciful hand of a God who really does care for me: for he gave me the gift of having Matt Lyles as a friend.

It began with simple introductions and by my unbridled delight upon discovering that we were BOTH freshmen music majors. I don’t remember many of the details of that conversation but I am left with the sure memory that meeting Matt Lyles eased a good deal of my loneliness. We compared schedules and before I knew it, we were often having breakfast together, headed to classes together (he simply would ask, “May I walk along?” and I’d gladly offer my arm, because then we could talk as we walked to our shared destination) and laying down tiny stones of shared experiences in a path of true friendship.  More often than not, it was easy to be at ease with Matt, until he inevitably asked some burning and pointed question to which I didn’t want to honestly respond. One of which was an incredulous, “Are you for REAL?” doubting my then quite Pollyanna disposition. One I didn’t want to answer, because under the happy, bubbly, sunny exterior, there was a depth of hurt and denial I didn’t yet have the strength or tools to face. In true Matt fashion, he saw things most people didn’t, and wasn’t afraid to press deep, ask the hard questions, make keenly astute observations, and share his own journey, if anyone had the inclination to really listen.

About half way through that first semester I scored a sweet work-study gig as a theory tutor (I find this actually quite hilarious now) and the real perk of this new job was getting to be Matt’s scribe for his theory homework. I sat in his little organ practice room for a couple of hours each week and he would dictate his chorales to me as I wrote them out, note by note, measure by measure, line by line. He would never have known, but I kept the lights off, choosing to work solely by the light from the hallway seeping in by the tiny square window of the brown metal door. He had every bit of it worked out in his brilliant mind, every jot and tittle, already perfected according to the assignment in his mind. All I had to do was patiently wait for him to sit and settle upon the wooden bench and he would begin unfurling his mental masterpieces, playing them on the keyboard and meting them out part by part to my waiting pencil and staff paper. I was always guaranteed some interesting conversation and a genuine inquiry as to how I was doing. He always asked, and really meant it. He often shared with me a favorite hymn, telling me the story and setting of the poet or preacher who had written the text, where it was first sung, why he found it meaningful. His liturgical knowledge was remarkable and reverent.

As the years went on, Matt was often in on our wild college adventures, stories I have for years told my children whenever I recount tales of adventures in higher education.

There was the time we went roller skating. Oh yeah. Notice I said THE time. In retrospect even as a 20 year old, it probably wasn’t our best idea. The handful of us that lived far away from home and didn’t escape campus on the weekends had to invent our own fun, for gas was expensive, Hot Springs was sometimes too far, owned movies too often watched. The weekends cried out for a little mischief, levity, and good old-fashioned fun. One Friday someone, probably David, had a stroke of crazy brilliance to try out the local skating rink. In Arkadelphia, Arkansas, on Friday night. A place were few locals over the age of 12 ever frequented. Well, there we went, Matt on one of our arms, and decided to storm the joint. As we wriggled our feet into musty brown rented skates a little boy cautiously sidled up to Matt, giving him a very suspicious side glance once-over. Matt of course had no idea, and I tried not to laugh as the boy grudgingly appraised him. Finally he got the nerve to ask in deep southern drawl, “What’s that stick fer? Are you, like, a dog catcher or somethin’?” eyeing Matt’s folded cane next to us on the bench. Delighted to engage with the preteen natives, he very kindly and openly replied “Why no, young man, I am blind. That is my stick that helps me find my way around so I don’t fall.” As he pulled on a pair of skates. That rolled. And left his cane behind.

As we repetitively rounded the loops of the rink, Matt wedged between Andria and me, we couldn’t help but throw back our heads and laugh.  I liked the sound of Matt’s laugh – it was sudden and hearty, and often sounded almost as if it caught him by surprise that he should find something to laugh at. We heard it a lot that night, that laugh of his. I had only one moment of grown-up concern, as we rounded the loop a little too fast and he slipped and nearly fell. We scrambled to keep him upright, and it was then that he said, an impish grin barely suppressed at the corners of his mouth, “You know, if I fell and hurt my arm, my mother would be quite put out.” I had forgotten about his left arm, yet another causality of his battles with cancer.  The cancer that took his eyes by the time he was five had reappeared as a rare form in his teens and had nearly cost him his left arm.  The surgery to remove the cancer from most of the soft tissue and bone in his upper left arm didn’t leave much to work with when an amazing surgeon fitted it back on with steel parts and by some miracle was able to spare his nerves. The fact that he even had an arm, much less, play the organ like a boss, was nothing short of a miracle. A miracle that I very much did not want to blow on the floor of the Skate World in Arkadelphia.  We slowed down after that, but it was so worth hearing his startling laughter, full of life, stemming from surprise at the sheer joy of it all, as we circled the rink and tried not to give Tenna fair reason to murder us in our sleep.

One fine Arkansas spring we decided it was time to put to rest the dreaded PE requirement in our degree plans and were very delighted to see that our prestigious school had decided to buy archery equipment.  Oh yeah, several of us signed up for archery with Matt in tow.  The moment I walked in with Matt on my arm is one I like to replay in my mind for the sheer glee of it. We trounced into the gym, a pack of goofy Fine Arts freaks and saw Coach Murders at the front (she actually often said with relish: “If you don’t take this serious I’m gonna kill you” so thus, perfectly named) and a dozen or so students already in the bleachers giddy for medieval weaponry. As we entered, I swear there was an audile gasp and I caught a glimpse of a few students take a quick, nervous look down at their schedules.  Oh yes, I delighted in thought: muwhahahahahahaha, we brought the blind dude, and he is going to own this.  Just watch and learn, people, watch and learn. And, in true Matt fashion, he tackled the class and the sport with a determined dignity, and honestly was a better shot than I was. It, of course, probably helped when Andria or I would wrap our arms around him from behind, help him aim and pull back the bow and then tell him to let it fly. For some strange reason only the chicks in our gaggle of friends seemed amicable to helping him in that manner. It was quite possibly the only time I saw him blush.

And then there was the playing of Sardines. I am fully aware that I am about to incriminate myself, but the story of Late Night Music Building Sardines playing must be told. I refuse to say whom, but it was passed on to me by good authority that my key, which allowed my access into the Choral Library, would also allow passage into the main doors of the music building. So, the games began. I can accurately say IT WASN’T MY IDEA, but it turned out to be so much fun, I wish it had been. We began playing Sardines in the music building after hours, long after hours.

What is Sardines, you may ask? Well instead of hide-and-seek, it is seek-and-hide in the dark, with one or two individuals going to hide, while the rest of us counted to a decent and fair number and then went off in pairs or small groups to seek in the dark. When the original hiders were found, you simply hid along with them in the dark, thus the name Sardines, because depending on the chosen hiding spot you could be quite packed in, you know, like a can of sardines, by the time the last stragglers discovered the covey of sweating, trying-not-to-pee-our-pants, giggle-snorting college students. It was great fun. But every time Matt Lyles played, he brought an advantage that was more than unfair. Allow me to paint a mental picture.

Imagine this: you take off to hide with a couple of best girlfriends, or very occasionally your flavor-of-the-semester boyfriend, and try to quickly locate a spot you think no one will ever think to look. There are many possibilities: countless practice rooms, nooks and crannies of the recital hall, closets and storage spots of all kinds, the only rule being it must be in the actual confines of the music building. That left four floors and nearly endless choices. You sequester yourselves away in the dark, and settle in for the long haul trying not to laugh or sweat too much because in the next half hour, the likelihood of being stuck in there with 15 of your friends is a certain reality. You feel quite smug and think this spot is air tight, man, and then you hear it. The Tapping.

It’s like something right out of a horror movie, and I know he knew it. The Horrifying Effect of the Tapping.  It honestly seemed like he was trying to make it sound…ominous.  In the dark, I swear Matt’s cane tapping was borderline sinister. There it would be, drawing ever closer, seemingly following your scent or even your very frenzied thoughts, like a missile honing in on your sheer dread that he knew right where you were hiding. He was coming for you, and The Tapping only apocalyptically heralded it and prolonged your agonized suspense.  Matt Lyles was a Sardines playing machine. The virtual Terminator of Sardines. It seemed impossible to hide from him, we were playing on his turf, trying to find our way stumbling around in the dark, a place where he was right at home.

These are stories I have told and retold, memories that have made my kids and family laugh and delight at our slightly reckless shenanigans, but today I did a very hard thing and dug a little deeper. I knew they were there, these letters now spread out on the table before me. I knew they were tucked carefully away. In my file of Very Important Things, hanging somewhere between “Kids Shot Records” and my “Official Transcripts” is a folder I have labeled “Encouragement”. In this blue folder are some of the most treasured things I have, thoughts from friends, hand written or typed, all carefully preserved. I rarely visit this file, but I did today because I knew it held actual words thoughtfully typed, printed, folded and sealed by my friend, Matt Lyles, whom I will not see again on this side of eternity. I am so glad I did.

The Kristin Maddox who met and began a friendship with Matt Lyles in 1995 was a very different person than the gal typing this right now. In fact, he captured it well in one of his epistles: “I’ve always known that beneath that cheery, charming image is a hard frame of steel. Occasionally you show that…” As Matt and I got to know each other his uncanny insightfulness began whittling away at my carefully constructed demeanor. We shared most meals together in the school cafeteria, and Matt was impossible to fool when I was upset in any way. This was unnerving to me. I had grown up in a family situation that unfortunately provided really good training in the art of social deception. I had a knack for keeping things quite tidy and gleeful on the surface, even when things were not at all that way beneath. I was a master at spin and glow, neither of which Matt was fooled by, ever.

I didn’t remember this until I sat on the tile floor of our basement storm shelter and read some of these notes. You see, at first I couldn’t just dive right into the Matt letters, my heart failed me. I found myself reaching for little cards from other friends. Many of them are notes James and I have received from friends with whom we have had the privilege of being in what our churches over the years have called “small groups”, “growth groups”, “community groups”. Call them whatever is in vogue at the time, but the purpose of these intentional gatherings with a committed group of people has always been the same: to share life, openly, honestly, and with great vulnerability for the encouragement and growth of us all. In all our years of marriage, James and I have found some of the deepest and dearest friendships around kitchen tables and living rooms in these very purposeful meetings.

All in all, I marveled at a common theme in most of them written to me. Phrases like “open, honest, and vulnerable” cropped up again and again. Friends confessing that they felt safe and accepted by me, never afraid to really say what they thought or how they were feeling, no matter how ugly, raw, or broken that might be. I love these words, they the highest compliment anyone could ever offer me. I have lived many chapters of broken, ugly and raw, and someone entrusting their own brokenness to me is the most valuable gift they could ever give. Fortified by these words of love and acceptance, I turned my face towards the gift and difficult task of more fully remembering and mourning my friend, Matt, through his words and missives to me, now so long ago.

I am at a loss to fully explain what I found. God used Matt, his years of friendship, his modeling of honest self-awareness and frank, yet gentle, truth-telling to teach, mold, and invite me to be a safe person for others. Each letter, clearly and gently, called me to more honest self-appraisal and more open dialogue than I ever thought I would be capable of. Already in his 18, 19, 20 years of life he had endured, survived and thrived despite great hardship. He had suffered physically in ways I can’t imagine. Cancer had cost him his eyesight when has was just a small child and then nearly cost him his arm as a teenager. He had spent months, probably totaling years, in and out of hospitals and clinics, undergoing dreadful treatments to rid his body of the vicious disease that he, according to his mom, had very likely been born with. He had learned to live with a “disability” that he never once in my recollection allowed to slow him down or keep him from trying anything. (Case in point: archery.) He was always up for whatever adventure we had in mind, delighted at having been invited to anything, anywhere. He did not reek of bitterness in any way, and embraced my friendship, inviting me, even pushing me gently, to this previously unknown place of true authenticity I now dwell.

There were things in those letters I did not recall, like his confession at being disgruntled and apologizing for being angry at not having been invited on a spur-of-the-moment Spring Break adventure to Corpus Christi our Junior year (why had I not thought to ask him??). He shared with great self-awareness the reason for his behavior from his personal journey, “God has actually done a great work in my heart since I came to Ouachita! I was so cynical and hardened! But people like you and others have made me fell welcome time after time with nothing to gain from it.” And even welcoming me into the process of him learning from this misunderstanding, “I want you to do something. Next time you know I’m reverting to childish mode, I want you to confront me and say so. That’s the best possible thing you could do, because you’d be entirely right.” And he lamented in another letter, “If only we Christians were more open and honest with each other, we could draw strength from our Christian brothers and sisters. That’s how it should be, but it’s very rare. We miss so much by remaining behind our protective walls – which are actually our prisons.”

This kind of transparent living was new and overwhelming to me at the time! Tell another my weaknesses? No way, man! Confess character flaws and ask for accountability? Terrifying proposition! Ask another how they are doing and really want and even press for an honest answer? Incredulous! Who was this insightful, unabashed, blind Hobbit-man and what was he doing all up in my stuff? But he even pressed further. Shared deeper. He endlessly encouraged and challenged me over four years of shared meals, transcribed chorales, bible studies at favorite professors’ homes, all manner of classes, walks to and from chapel, and in letters. Letters I can still hold and reread and laugh and weep over. And today I marvel, with better clarity than ever before: Matt Lyles taught me how to live in authentic community long before there were trendy names and t-shirts printed for such gatherings. Long before it was the IT that churches were into. Long before there were books and bible studies aimed at making it happen. Matt welcomed me, and many, to live transparently and humbly. Matt Lyles was my friend.

As I said before, I have often recounted to my children and friends the wild fun and adventures we shared, but after revisiting his letters and thinking long on the deeper story they tell, perhaps those crazy exploits with my friend and the delightful memories they hold aren’t the most sacred gift he gave me, all those years ago. He spoke words of deepest challenge, richest grace, and mighty hope over very hurt and covered up places in my heart, sharing openly and freely from his own hurt and pain. Matt Lyles was used by our good and great God to turn up in my heart some very hard soil and invite me to bend low, dig deep, and plant things that had much more lasting value. He modeled for me virtues that I did not at the time posses, but beautiful qualities that over time, have taken root and grown my heart and our home into a safe place for the gathering of many people, broken ones especially.

Matt never stopped welcoming me into his life. Over the years we pursued our separate adventures. James and I married and moved a few places. I laughed heartily through snot bubbles when I reread the letter he wrote detailing why all the other boys I had dated had been so very wrong and finally giving a very detailed blessing as to why landing on James Cheng was such a good idea. (He could be such a bossy-cow, sheesh.) Matt went on to study theology at Yale Divinity School (yes, Matt, go big or go home. Ivy League, brother) and I am sure spent the next decade and a half challenging and inviting any he encountered to the same place of authentic relationship. I’ve read many such Facebook accounts that testify to this. He visited us once when we were living in Rochester. James was in grad school and I was enormously pregnant with our second baby. He was up for anything: playing on the floor with our 16 month old, Kate, who was enthralled with his cane, touring the George Eastman House, riding the ridiculously loud turn of the century Carousel at Charlotte beach on the shores of Lake Ontario, and meeting our friends. He even endured and ended up laughing that hearty, surprised laugh at my invitation to feel the baby in my womb do his evening workout of rolling and kicking. “How do you endure such travail?” he asked between the baby’s kicks and his incredulous laughter, “That’s nothing, Matt, just wait until I gotta push him out.” Perhaps that was the second time I ever saw him blush.

I was aware that Matt had another recurrence of cancer when we were 34, but sadly, I did not reach out. And this most recent diagnosis, the one that ended in his death, I watched with very little interaction, save for a few notes back and forth on Facebook. I was not surprised when every one of his updates and posts invited others to join him in prayer for his healing and come to services for their own healing and freedom. In the face of sickness and struggle, he was always urging all to come to spaces and places of greater freedom. Yes, he used every bit of attention this illness brought to point straight to the cross of Christ.

On August 1, a mutual friend wrote a very hard message to many he knew to be close to Matt. I am so grateful he did. I had been praying all summer that God would let me know when it was time, time to go say goodbye to my friend. To thank him and honor him. This was my answer. I called his mother and ensured it was ok to visit him in this most recent hospitalization in Little Rock, and left the next day.

I met three other friends at his beside. We gathered together and what those hours held was no less than sacred. It is hard for me to describe how an experience can be so painful yet so beautiful, well, not unlike birth. Yes, that afternoon birthed something fresh and sweet in all of us. Throughout the afternoon, I fought grief, thick and hot, at the base of my throat, and prayed that it would not find its expression until later. Yet we laughed, hearty and deep, at shared memories, marveled together at similar life lessons learned throughout the years we’d lived apart, and caught up on all the people and happenings we had in common. And sang, yes, we sang songs at his request at his bedside. A requiem. To remember together ancient words of hope and promise that seemed hard to believe, but very necessary to cling to.

Matt had received that morning the news that he was not able to handle any more chemotherapy. He was faced with the choice, which really was no choice, to go home with Hospice. His mother had told me before I arrived, and asked that I not say anything about the treatment plan, or prognosis. Unspoken between us was an understanding. Our job was to go and touch and love and be with and remember. It was a gift. I think that together, we savored one of his best remaining afternoons. What a gift.

Matt allowed me the privilege of helping him with his dinner, and I tried my best to stuff his frail body with as much nourishment as I could as Ben, Misha, and Whitney filled him in on all things Ouachita, old and new. At his request, Ben and Misha began to sing hymns, and silent tears slid down my cheeks at the holy beauty of their mingled voices. It had been such a long time since I had really tried to sing, a very long time. Misha began the song “Be Thou My Vision”, and found I could no longer keep quiet. I joined in, low and hoarse, trying my best at the bedside of my friend, wanting so to be in on the offering. It was then that the surface cracked, and while our reunion had been sincere and meaningful before, it was then that he broke open, ushering us into the holy hurt of his heart.

He told us that that hymn had always been a favorite of his. The words had always held such deep comfort, and that today more than ever, he needed the comfort they provided. He confessed that he had been given a very hard choice, to discontinue aggressive treatment and resign himself to comfort care. He voice broke over these words, as did all our countenances, and together we wept, silently struggling with our friend as he wrangled with the truth that, barring a miracle – which he had experienced many times before – this would be the illness that would be the end his earthly life and birth him into life eternal. Being with him there in that moment was nothing short of holy. I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Those hours spilled out like Holy Communion. The bread broken was the very flesh of our own crushed hearts, the wine spilled was our hot, agonized tears slipping down our cheeks, dripping from our chins. We shared openly, laughing and crying together, and all of it was an offering. He allowed me to rub his swollen feet, to feed his frail body, and to hold his shaking hand. All too soon he tired, and we made him comfortable and left together, finally giving full expression to our grief in the elevator and parking garage. Oh, the tears shed in hospital elevators and parking garages.

The next morning, I went back to stay a little longer before beginning the long journey back to my family. I was again given the honor of helping him eat, his mom Tenna helping me fix his pancakes just the way he liked them. She slipped out to arrange an appointment and left me for a few moments alone with him. It was then that he asked me for forgiveness, for a burden he had long carried.

You see, just after our senior year, I was in a terrible accident.  Along with nearly thirty other Ouachita students and professors, I was in a plane crash. I was traveling with a choir from our school. We were returning from a choral tour, a mission trip of sorts, when our plane crashed in Little Rock while trying to land in a terrible thunderstorm. We lost two from our group, a dear friend and peer, and our director’s daughter whom we all loved like a little sister. Many of Matt and my closest friends were rendered completely traumatized. I was so badly injured I couldn’t return to campus the next fall and they retuned to campus as nearly walking dead, injured in very real ways both visible and invisible to the eyes. But none of it was invisible to Matt.

I had sustained extensive injuries, injuries requiring a nearly two month hospitalization, complete with a brief stay in ICU on a ventilator, two skin grafts and all the resulting trauma you could expect from such an ordeal. The lasting damage though, the thing that scarred not my body but my soul, was the loss of my singing voice. The thing for which I thought I had been created. Although my body would eventually heal and my lungs would decently recover, my vocal chords bore terrible scars from smoke inhalation and intubation from which they would never heal. Over a year later, I prepared for trial against the airline and my attorneys asked me for a list of my closest friends. They contacted these friends to use as witnesses.

They, of course, contacted Matt. They wanted Matt to describe in detail the person I had been, compared to the ghost of a person I had become because of the trauma and loss. They wanted him to recall the beauty of the voice I had once possessed and lament the cruel loss of it. They wanted him to paint a picture for a jury of my peers of all the fun we had shared and the happy, talented, vivacious person I had been and then point to the broken, scarred, bitter, hollowed out shell of a person I was then.

He had refused.

That morning, as I tried to stuff him with hospital issued pancakes, he confessed all this to me. He, sitting there shrouded in a thin white hospital gown and riddled with terminal cancer and me, trying not to loose it. He had carried this burden in his heart over 15 years, and asked me to forgive him for not agreeing to testify. He said he had felt like he had abandoned me in my hour of greatest need, and had not stood by me when I most needed a friend. But the reason for the seemingly betrayal is one I will never get over.

“Kristin, I simply couldn’t testify to these things because I refused to believe it. I refused to believe that you would never get better, that God wouldn’t miraculously heal your beautiful voice, that he wouldn’t deliver you to sing again with unbridled passion.” And he asked for me to forgive him.

He asked for my forgiveness. Forgiveness for hanging on to the sacred hope that one day, I would be made completely whole.

Thirteen days later, my friend Matt Lyles died.

I can honestly tell you God used my friend Matt Lyles to heal me in many ways. As I sit and reflect, carefully recording our adventures, looking over his letters, and recounting the precious gift of being at his bedside, I can’t help but be amazed. Amazed. Tracing the thread of his life intertwined with mine has been exquisitely painful and exquisitely beautiful. Matt invited me to transparent living, lived before me an example of a gracious life free of bitterness in spite of physical pain and brokenness, welcomed me to the bedside of his own last suffering and lastly, held out absolute hope that I would be made completely whole and asked me to forgive him for not testifying to the contrary.

I’ll close with a line from one of his letters. It is the only fitting way to end, with real words from the heart and mind of my friend. In this particular letter, he had just confessed he was definitely called to single living, after telling me he was quite relieved a certain relationship of mine hadn’t worked out (and that he really had seen it coming and a few very insightfully detailed reasons as to why). Now I read these words as if he is speaking them to me over his recent home going, knowing that he waits for me in glory. I cannot wait to see his beautiful face, an impish grin twitching at the corners of his mouth, and maybe hear one of those deep, hearty, surprised-sounding laughs when I tackle him in gleeful greeting. In fact, I’m counting on it.

“I hope you won’t fret over this; God’s plans are mysterious but always good. As for me, I’m grateful to God to know you and call you a friend.”

I couldn’t agree more, Matt.

Matt Lyles is my friend, and I will see him again.

There are many medical bills remaining from his battle with cancer, click here to consider helping lift the burden from his family:

And, nothing short of magnificent, here is his obituary. He wrote it himself.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Remembering James Harrison

On June 1 1999, I was in a plane crash with 28 dear friends.  We were our way home from a music mission trip, when our last flight home into Little Rock, Arkansas crashed upon landing in a severe thunderstorm.  We still mourn the loss of two precious lives from our group.  James Harrison, a friend and peer survived the crash but died trying to escape the wreckage and Rachel Fuller, the second born daughter of our directors died as a result of her severe injuries after being hospitalized.  

I was with both of them in the burning wreckage.  Much of it I cannot remember and it still haunts me that I have no better answers for loved ones left behind.  It has been a long process of healing, now fourteen years and three days of the journey behind me.  I praise God that the horrors of that night, the deep depression of the the days and months after, and the losses incurred no longer define (constrict, suffocate, consume) my days.  Indeed, I go days, even months, without remembering despite what might seem to be the near constant reminder of grafted skin and a chronic cough from smoke inhalation.  By my God's amazing grace, the life event that once threatened to forever rule my every waking moment is now just another chapter of the entire story of my life.  Some carry scars on the inside, and some of the outside, but if true healing is earnestly sought after and fiercely fought for, I have found that true survivors are not the sum total of the ills and crimes done to us, but the beautiful synergy that comes from entrusting the worthless pile of pain into the scarred hands of the only One who can trade it for things priceless.

A wise woman once told me "In God's economy, pain is never wasted.  EVER."

But it is good to remember.  The past few days I have been thinking of our friend, James Harrison who died June 1, 1999.  He saved my life.  A little over five years ago I entered into another season of digging deeper into my pain and sorrow to finally try and break free of it.  I spent nearly every Monday during the fall and winter of 2007 writing about my memories and then meeting with a wise counselor to try and unpack deeply entrenched sorrow and gripping grief in which I was still drowning.  The following entry I wrote one chilly, grey day in Sibley Music Library in downtown Rochester about my friend, our friend, James Harrison.  I needed to remember, because I found myself in the process of forgetting.  The horror and grief and loss and pain may (must?) be embraced, honored, and left behind, but the memories of the people must not.

So today, I post this in honor of my friend, James Arvin Harrison, who truly exemplified with his life this verse:  
"Greater love hath no man than this,  that a man lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13 (KJV)

And he did.  For me.

This begins what I wrote in the fall of 2007:

James Arvin Harrison was my friend. 

            I am not sure where to place this chapter, but his story must be told.  I have wanted to tell this story for a long time, for I fear that he is being forgotten.  While it is it something that may well be inevitable, for we are all on our way to being forgotten, I want to do everything I can to tell you about this young man, my friend.

            “James, listen.  I don’t know how else to say it – but I DON’T want to go out with you.” I said gently in a rare moment of complete frankness.  James Harrison and I had entered Ouachita the same year, fall of 1995 and were both music majors.  Entering freshman in the music department ended up knowing each other quite well, for we had a block of basic classes that served to weed out those who truly desired to work to pursue music as a discipline from those who merely liked to sing or play.  James was in many of my classes and we were in Singers together.  Singers was a 30 - 40 member choral group that traveled together several times a semester as well as toured internationally about every other summer.  James sang bass.  It fit him.  He was tall and big with dark bushy hair and thick glasses.  His appearance would have been much more imposing had he not had a slight birth defect that left one shoulder stooped beneath the other one.  He carried himself with an air of almost apology.  Almost like he was sorry for taking up too much space, and always seemed to be trying to make himself small or unnoticed. 

            Since my freshman year, I could tell that every once in a while, James would get the notion that he was sweet on me.  Honestly, I think I was in a rotation of three or four gals he had his eye on.  James was a dear young man, generous, compassionate, a servant through and through – but nothing in our encounters left me with a desire to be pursued romantically by him.  There was just nothing there.  It all came to a head my junior year, when he asked me out, yet again, and was most insistent.  I was not too keen on the idea of making him angry or feeling rejected, but I would not yield, “James, I am not just saying this, I want to be your friend.  Nothing more.  But I truly value your friendship, please don’t make that awkward.”  As I feared, the next time I saw him I met an icy glance and things remained chilly between us for a while. 

            Our senior year, the silence began to melt.  James got a new church gig with a tiny country congregation not too far from Arkadelphia.  I wish I could remember the name of the church and town, but it escapes me.  For the first time, perhaps ever, he found a place to belong completely.  A group of people who welcomed him and accepted him and appreciated every gift he could offer.  I watched him blossom as he began to more fully discover God’s calling upon his life.  There was even rumor that a young woman in the congregation had set her cap for him.  I know it felt nice to be pursued. 

            I am not too sure how it got started, but we began to meet for lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays the spring of our senior years.  We went early, as soon as the cafeteria opened around 11:00.  We would sit and eat together, talking about all the exciting things going on in our worlds.  I even got on to him a little bit about things such as how he handled his finances and being behind in so many classes.  We truly became friends.  I think in some ways, it felt almost sibling like, so great was the comfort and camaraderie between us.  Even when James Cheng and I started being interested in each other, it was much later in the spring before even he intruded into James Harrison and my sacred lunchtime conversations and accountability. 

            Because of my work-study job, I had a key to the music building.  Whenever I got the inkling on a random Friday or Saturday night when the music building was guaranteed to be deserted, I would sneak over long after my normal practice hours and creep into the dark recital hall.  I had long discovered that my key worked on those doors as well.  With my arms full of scores and books, I would flip on the minimum number of lights and enjoy an hour or so of practice, if you could call it that.  I thought of it as a private time of worship.  I may be practicing a Puccini aria, but as the silvery sound of my unaccompanied voice filled the empty room, I would often fall to my knees in praise, singing solely to my Maker.  I so enjoyed the closeness of the emptiness, the privacy of the stillness, the strange intimacy of a place normally so public.  I would linger over difficult passages, or just sing whatever came to mind and heart.  On more than one occasion, I would sometimes feel as if I was being watched, and on more than one occasion, I caught James Harrison creeping down the back steps from the recording booth high above.  Sheepishly he would make some excuse for needing to find this or that recording for his work-study job.  At 10:00, on a Friday night.

            He always carried peppermints in his pockets.  He loved handing them out to anyone who was around, and often you would see peers or professors hitting him up for one.  He discovered years before that I liked the green kind, and not surprisingly, he always handed me a green one without asking.  He told me over one of our lunches that at his new church job the kids lovingly called him “The Candy Man” and would flock to him before and after services.  I knew most of his story, the parts that he shared openly.  He was jokingly referred to as “Puck” growing up.  It was an acronym for Pop-Up-Camper-Kid.  His parents had retired and moved closer to family in Arkansas and resided in a camper while their house was being built.  It was then, in that pop-up camper in the autumn of their lives when their other children were long grown and gone that James Harrison was conceived.  He often jested about how other kids got to play fetch with their dads when they were little – but he had to “fetch” everything for his aging father.  I remember meeting Mr. Harrison, a slightly stooped gray-headed soft-spoken man and his fiery, delightfully outspokenly country, younger wife Reba on Singers trips to northern Arkansas churches.  They beamed their pleasure when they saw James decked out in his black tuxedo with the choir.

            James filmed my senior recital for me on April 29, 1999.  Late that night, after my recital I was unable to go back to my room and admit the day was actually over, so I slipped by the computer lab and checked email on my way home to my dorm room.  There was an email from him, my friend James Harrison.  I don’t know why I did it at the time, but I printed it.  I wanted to keep it forever.  I am so glad I did. 

            From:                          “Arv”
            Organization:              Ouachita Baptist University
            To:                              DELTA/MAD30236
            Date sent:                    Thu, 29 April 1999 23:04:13 CST
            Subject:                     Recital

Your recital was magnificent.  Thank you so much for all of your hard work that you have done to prepare it for us.  Please know that the videotape was recorded in a dumb machine operated by a feeble human.  Even if it were done by a pro, there is no way it could have captured your angelic beauty—both in appearance, and in sound.  Thank you for sharing your God-given talents with us, but most of all, thank you for the privilege of calling you friend.

James Harrison
OBU Box 4342
Arkadelphia, AR 71998

            James Arvin Harrison was my friend. 

This ends what I wrote over five years ago.
In a story I have yet to tell completely in prose, James Harrison saved my life.  I live today because he called for me on the floor of a burning aircraft when I was 22 years old and had lain down to die.  Today I woke up and touched the hand of James Cheng, my husband of 13 years and rolled over to wrap myself in his warmth and faithful love.  I look up from my laptop to gather in a tear-filled glimpse the beautiful faces of the three children I get the honor of mothering.  And today I will again revisit the campus where I first met James Arvin Harrison, the grounds we walked, the music building in which we learned, and I remember him.  I hope this has given you opportunity to honor his memory if you knew him, and admire his beautiful life if you did not.

            In a testimony on the music mission trip that ended in a plane crash he told us that the verse his parents used to pick his name was simply this:

“James, a servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ,” James 1:1 (NIV)

            And he was.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Daily Bread

So we have now been in Honduras for two weeks.  Two weeks of learning to slow.  Two weeks of every meal at this same table.  Two weeks of no “let’s just go out for dinner” option, and once-a-week trips to the grocery store.

You see, The La Rancho Ebenezer is over an hour away from the city.  And it is not just any hour drive.  A large portion of it is a steep climb over gravel roads that are unlike anything I have ever traveled upon.  It is the kind of bumpy ride that makes you very wary of sitting next to the window in the van, because if you are not compensating for the potholes and unexpected swerves, your head will smack the glass.  I know this from experience.  I feel like a bobble head all the way down the insanely washed out road.  My kids throw up their hands like they are on a roller coaster and cry “weeeee – weeeee – weeeee” all the way home.  And last week, Ellie threw up at the bottom.  She was just all shook up.  Mmmm –mmm – mmm – mmm – mmm - yeah – eh – eh.

And here’s the really tricky thing for me.  We only go to town once a week.  Oh, yeah.  I did not realize the implications of this on every day living.  Simple questions like “Can we have milk?” results in me whipping open the fridge door and suspiciously eyeing the level of the opaque white gallon container, mentally counting the days until the next wagon ride down the Hon-D’Oregon trail, and trying to figure out if we are going to make it, as if our very survival depends on milk.  But let’s just say there have been multiple meals in which I stand over the pot stirring or over the dough kneading and praying God will stretch it to feed our expanded family of 8 (or more, as we have welcomed many to our table), because the pantry is nearly empty and I am running out of tricks up my sleeve to MacGyver into meals.

Add to this the very exciting element of undependable power lines and the now very familiar black outs of varying lengths.  Oh yeah, baby.  I miss OG&E (Oklahoma Gas and Electric) and the beauty of a well-constructed infrastructure.  Those guys are like my new super heroes and next time they drive up in their loud beeping yellow light blinking bucket truck to the breaker outside my house I will go inside immediately and bake them cookies with real butter and the expensive chocolate chips, providing they can fix the juice so my oven will bake.  See, at home, when the power occasionally goes out due to a fallen limb, electric storm, or the occasional insane four-day ice storm or freezing rain that encapsulates everything in sparkly death, those guys don hard hats and arm themselves with chain saws.  They work around the clock to set things right in the grid and bring the Force back into balance.  I think I will now carry a secret flame in my heart for those scrappy pole climbers.  They deserve a parade.

Here, electricity is a privilege, not a right.  Even writing that out shames me, as I consider the way I know most of the world lives.  But how many times have I felt more than a bit miffed that I can’t download very important things fast enough, like the latest Autotune of the news from YouTube (I love those guys!!), or that my show gets interrupted because there is a tornado in the next county and the weather man just has to give us an excruciating blow by blow (it’s an Oklahoma thing), or heaven forbid – the picture is fuzzy

The time we are spending up on this jungle-y mild weathered mountain is killing something ugly in me.  It is not just the power outages that are chipping away at some deeply entrenched pride and self-sufficiency, but also things like, oh - the resulting loss of the some of the precious food reserves I already am worried will not last us the whole week, the feeling like we will not have enough, and the blasted inconvenience of the power fizzling out one hour before I have to feed eight very hungry people when I am tired and only want to get through dinner so I can plop all the grouchy folks, including me, in front of a feature film and zone out from my caged misery for at least two good hours, then tuck everyone in bed before my hair self-ignites and I outwardly morph into the angry freak of nature I have brewing inside.

Among other things.

But yes, Friday evening rolled around and I found myself staring into a nearly empty fridge and counting the meals to make and mouths to feed until the after-church Sunday shopping trip.  My options were quite limited.  As I struggled with a nagging fear of starving to death (As if! I could live off the reserves in my thighs for a good four weeks), I struggled with the greater sin of ingratitude.  Of looking into my pantry and my life at the moment and accusing my precious Father that this, whatever it was before me, was not good enough. 

Last year my precious mentor, Diane, and I read the book, “One Thousand Gifts” by Ann Voskamp.  If one reads it with a heart open and a desire to embrace the heady truths it poetically weaves, it is a game changer indeed.  But Friday, I found myself in front of the open cabinets, rummaging through my sub-par stores and grumbling in my heart.  All I wanted to do was pick up my sweet little iPhone, punch the single magic button that offers a world of ease and information at just one little touch and sweetly command it through gritted teeth, “Call Pizza Shuttle” and pick up a hot dinner in less than 20 minutes.  But this was not an option, not in the least.  So, I was forced to deal with my ugly heart.

I stood there and pulled down flour, yeast, and oil.  My only option.  Bread.  Yes, we can live on bread.  A stale plan formed in my mind: some sort of fusion focaccia trio (not at all able to be mistaken for pizza for there was very little cheese) one with leftover chicken bits and lots of spices to cover over its barrenness, one sprinkled with a handful of slightly slimy lunch meat and the remaining cheddar scraps, and one with cinnamon, butter and brown sugar to try and end well to redeem the poverty of my offering.  Done.

But my heart was still angry. Still accusing.  Still not still.  I kneaded that triple batch of dough with gritted teeth, wondering if we would have enough, and feeling more than a little trapped on The La Ranch.  The sounds of a wild game of futball wafted into my kitchen from the campo just above our Casa Shalom.  But my heart would not reach for the joy the moment held. 

Halfway through my very aggressive dough making, the Spirit (Friend, Helper, Teacher) whispered to my heart, “Kristin, what is in your hands?”  I looked down, my scarred hands covered in white flour, submerged in warm, soft, heavy dough, and plenty of it.  Daily bread.  Manna.  Just enough for today, but more than enough really.  My bowl was full of it, my hands immersed in it, up to my elbows in it.  My heart softened and turned to the Bread of Life.  And I picked up again the training of my heart towards eucharisteo, taking whatever is given and giving thanks for it, no matter what.  For you see God is always good and I am always loved.  Always. 

The bread transformed into a mound of promise, a bowl full of joy.  Warm, fragrant and delightful, it held the nutrients and everything my expanded table of 8 needed for today.  I held what was given to me, the option I had, and I gave thanks.  I thought of the widow in the bible whom Elijah was sent to, who originally had only a little flour and oil, just enough to make one last meal to feed she and her son, and then slowly starve, and suddenly my meager meal turned into a feast of provision.  If given to the Lord, it would be enough, just enough each day to sustain us.  It wasn’t about bread anyways, it was about gratitude and trust, both of which I had less of than pantry stores.  I patted our dinner now with gentle gratitude, covered it with a clean towel in an oiled bowl, and set it on the oven to rise.  And right as I was reaching out to preheat the oven to aide the rising of our dinner and the moment’s redemption of my deflated heart, the power zipped off.

Oh yeah.  Bleep.  Nothing.  Zip.  Nada.

Crickets, baby.

My left eyebrow shot up, and my lips puckered.  Ah-ha.  I turned inward and I swear the Helper had a little holy smirk upon his ethereal visage.  “Very funny, God.  I appreciate the humor of your timing, but seriously now, bring it back on.  I gotta bake this holy manna you have given.”  And his very smarty pants response?  “Ah, Kristin, but man does not live by bread alone…”

Very funny, oh Master of all the Universe.  Very funny.

I waited, no dice.  I went out onto the campo to watch the late afternoon futball frolicking.  I just knew that the power would zip on right when I really needed it.  God was just having a little fun with me.  He’s funny like that, you know.

But an hour later, when I really needed it to heat my oven, the electricity remained off.  The clock was ticking, the seven pairs of shoes were 30 minutes away from being kicked off outside and the little people they carried inside would be hovering in my personal space in the not-so-big kitchen asking the inevitable “What’s for dinner?” line every mother loooooooves to hear when the plan is not working out as, well, planned. 

I needed some serious help.  I assessed the situation and went to the front closet to rummage through my options.  I needed a stovetop idea, for we have a gas range.  I came up with one dusty can of diced tomatoes, one tube of tomato paste, and two sleeves of pasta – one spaghetti and one linguini.  Voila!  It’s I-talian night, people.  I found an emergency loaf of white bread in the deep freeze and toasted it on the tortilla flat iron as the pasta boiled and I tried to conjure red sauce out of my random tomato products. 

As evening fell the darkness encroached quickly with no lights to be flicked on at the touch of a finger.  Everyone came in hungry and tired, washed hands and sat down to my thrown together meager offering.  The first option I originally begrudgingly formed out of flour and oil now lovely and moundy and risen looked like the Promised Land, all flowing with milk and honey.  My watery red sauce and sticky pasta seemed a pitiful plan B, indeed. 

Kensi, one of the 10-year-old girls we are caring for, rummaged under the kitchen sink (I always pray against roaches when I open those mysterious doors beneath the sink) and produced a random assortment of candles.  We lit the motley crew of wax with wicks and the table transformed into a child’s delight.  Kate, my eldest, nearly began to quiver with elfin glee, “ooooooooh mom, plain pasta with salt – my favorite!  And by candle light…!  I hope the power goes out every night!”  And the frustration of the situation crystallized into unexpected beauty.  We bowed our heads to pray and I truly gave thanks for all of it; the near empty fridge, remaining bag of flour, risen dough punched down and stuck in the slowly thawing freezer, the pan of weepy red sauce, white toast, and sticky spaghe-uini.  When seen through the eyes of a child, this dinner was not some mishappened afterthought – it was a candlelit feast to be treasured and remembered!

I settled into my chair, my heart quiet and my bowl full.  This was enough.  In fact, this was good, very good, for it came from the hands and heart of a very humorous, unimaginably loving God who is dying to show me that to truly die to self is to live the fullest life in him.  The richest life.  The not-as-you-planned-or-expected-it-to-be-but-not-in-the-least-disappointing life.  The moment by moment indwelling of the Teacher who will show me the most excellent way, if I stop to ask and always hold up whatever I find in my hands as an offering of thanksgiving and pass it around to share.  And last Friday night, we supped by candlelight atop a mountain somewhere in Central America on a coffee-roasting, blackberry-growing, child-rearing ranch and found our hearts crying out, “Best!  Dinner!  Ever!”  Can we do this again, Papa?

And I would have missed it all if Pizza Shuttle had been within the realm of possibility.

PS - It took me nearly half an hour to get this thing posted with these two pictures.