Today is my friend Twilla’s birthday, though I cannot celebrate with her. She parties on heavenly beaches right now. I wonder if she’s encountered my friend Mike. Or Dr. Willhite.
My calendar reminds me of a standing appointment I have with a friend of mine, only our lives and calendars haven’t allowed for weekly meetings—more like quarterly. Carla is a beautiful woman, widowed several years ago. She struggles. She works hard. Her life is full of pain. But she maintains her soul and loves me in such a beautiful, humbling way.
Her husband was Jesus to me. We’d moved from East Texas to a Dallas suburb while my husband attended seminary. Always been akin to small churches in our hometown of Seattle, we tried another on for size in our town. While there were many great things about it, it just didn’t fit. Which is what took us to the place I thought I’d never be. I’d made funny little internal vows about church based on my biases. I would never attend a mega church, and certainly not a Southern Baptist church. But God, in His cosmic sense of humor, took my words, chuckled to Himself, and sent us to the church that would end up loving us well for over a decade.
At first we balked at its size. Thousands of people streamed through the packed hallways, dropping off kids, finding Sunday School rooms, teeming into the vacuous sanctuary. We felt absorbed by the church, but not relationally. The size overwhelmed us. After one Sunday service, we stopped in the hospitality center and shook hands with a man named Dennis, who is possibly the most gregarious extrovert I’ve ever met. When he found out Patrick was in seminary, he said, “I teach an Adult Bible Fellowship (Sunday School class) of new Christians and church burned folks. It’s raw and real, and it’s a lot of work. I could really use your help.”
So we followed him to the group, fell in love with those amazing people, and started connecting in this mega-mega church. A few weeks later, he called Patrick and said, “Hey, look, I am moving on. Can you take this class for me?” He meant for us to lead the class ad infinitum in his now-permanent absence.
And that’s when we met Mike, Carla’s husband.
He was sick. He’d endured extreme medical intervention, saw Jesus in a vision during his death-row hospital stay, and met Him powerfully. Still weakened by his condition, he did the best he could to help people. Honestly, when I looked in Mike’s eyes, I saw Jesus staring back at me. He’d had a hard, sin-infused life prior to his conversion, but now, oh now, he loved.
The greatest memory I have of Mike is when our friends Keith and Denise Willhite were facing the greatest fight of their lives, alongside their children Katie and David. Keith had brain cancer. He’d been Patrick’s preaching professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, and from time to time Patrick would drive him into work. They forged a friendship then. Eventually Keith neared death, the cancer roaring its angry grip. We’d learned that one thing the family needed was yard work (it had been the last thing on their minds, of course). Their front yard needed weeded, cleaned up. So our Adult Bible Fellowship volunteered to help.
Mike, still sick, showed up. He worked hard. I watched as he bent near the front part of their sidewalk, near the door, digging little holes for spring bulbs. In his weakness, he planted beauty.
Keith never saw those bulbs burst into flowers. He died soon after.
And a few months later, Mike entered transplant surgery. I called the hospital the next day to get his room number, but they said he wasn’t there. My heart sunk. I figured the transplant hadn’t been a match after all. I called his home number and heard Carla, who I’d never met, say, “He didn’t make it. Mike’s dead.”
Mike had written a book called The Secret. He’d self published it, and handed me a copy when he found out I was a writer too. The book was the story of his life before and after Jesus, and though rough, it was beautiful. So much so that when God whispered, “When you write, remember Mike,” I knew exactly what He meant. Stay humble. Stay close to Jesus. Stay serving.
We did the memorial service for Mike, and his family got grafted into ours. Which is why Carla and I are friends. The flowers he planted must’ve bloomed the following Spring, but Mike saw them from heaven, not earth.
I write all this because of the tickler on my calendar, and another memory.
A year or so after Keith Willhite passed from this world, Denise, Katie and David had us over for dinner so we could share our desire to move overseas to plant a church. We’d had several meetings like this as we raised support, so we came with a photo album, a video, and lots of zeal. They listened, asked questions, then asked if we’d like to have dessert. We sat in their dining room, and Denise brought in a cake brilliantly ablaze with candles. “Today would’ve been Keith’s birthday,” she said. We sang Happy Birthday to Keith, hoping he strained his ears from the soil of eternity to hear our earthly song. And after we ate cake, she pushed an envelope across the table to us.
“This is what we would’ve spent on a present for Keith on his birthday,” she said. “I know he would’ve wanted you to have it.”
Like staring into Mike’s Jesus eyes, the envelope felt like a gift given directly from Jesus to us. It stunned me to silence. And endeared me eternally to the Willhite family.
A year ago Easter, we attended a Seder meal, a tradition we’ve done with the Fontenot family for four years now. Fifty or so people come. They set up big round tables in the back yard, grilled chicken, and everyone brought parts of the meal. During the festivities, Patrick led the hodgepodge group of folks through a Passover Seder, highlighting how beautifully Jesus fulfilled its meaning. Sitting at our table were the Willhites. Katie was engaged (and is now married).
David attends college with Sophie and provided her ride home so she could celebrate the Seder and Easter with us. And Denise will be remarried this year. We broke matzo together, drank wine from four glasses, shared stories. But so much of what was beautiful about last night was a shared story—of loss, of sacrifice, of endurance, of moving on beyond pain.
Choosing people is really about stories, isn’t it?
About men like Mike digging holes for bulbs.
About a birthday cake for a dead man and money for missions.
About a lamb shank on a Passover plate shared with friends, reminding us of the broken Lamb who took on all our pain at the cross. He bore death. He bore ridicule. He bore obscurity. He bore loss. And when He died, then resurrected, He inaugurated His big, beautiful, messy church
I am richer because of Mike and Carla, Keith and Denise. I wouldn’t trade those relationships for fame or glory or money or beauty. They are interwoven into me, bright and dark spots of the cloth of my life.
At the Seder in 2013 Patrick also did something different. Usually we wash each other’s feet as we have our Seder meal. This time he said, “Tonight, I want to honor one person. Twilla Fontenot. She has blessed us all with so much.” His words laced with meaning because most of us knew Twilla was battling a very rigorous form of cancer.
We’d first met Twilla in France when she and her family visited us—truly one of the most beautiful visits we’d had with then-strangers. (When you’re missionaries to Southern France and you come from a big church, all sorts of folks you don’t know come to visit you. I have a feeling that wouldn’t have been the case had we ministered in Iran.) Anyway, they brought sunshine to our home during one of the hardest two years of our lives.
When we moved back to Texas, the Fontenots continued to love us, asking Patrick to please lead another Sunday School class (now called a Life Group). They pestered enough that we ended up saying yes. And now we lead one just as we had when we first attended our church and met Mike. A few years ago, Twilla was diagnosed with cancer, underwent surgery and all the other treatments that make you tired and sick. They got it all, but last year the cancer returned with a vengeance. She died on March 4th, 2014.
You’d never really know how much she struggled when you looked at Twilla. And I’m pretty sure when Patrick talked of washing Twilla’s feet that our friends the Willhites didn’t know her story or why person after person lined up to wash her feet, cry, and say words. I can’t attest to what others said, but I hugged my dear, dear friend and said, “You have taught me the meaning of joy.”
She kissed my cheek, held my face in her hands, and said, “Oh dear Mary, you are joyful. You are joy.” Her words are my beautiful hangover today, reminders of heaven’s words, too breathtaking to take all in, but lingering like a cottage rose.
I love how God weaves people and stories together. And I can’t help but think we’d never know such awe and acute love if we hadn’t first made the choice to choose people years ago. That’s the beauty of relationships on this earth. They circle back, weave in and out, touching stories, linking others.