KOH2RVA: Day 76

It’s Black Friday.

Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? Especially after a day we call “Thanksgiving”? Apparently we call it Black Friday because it’s the day all the retailers go back “into the black.” The shoppers get out there and spend and spend and spend until their pockets are empty and the cash registers are full. I hope they do it happily, with hearts still spilling over with gratitude from the day before, and that they think about those people they know and love and search for the perfect gift for each one.

I, for one, will not be joining them. I’ll be driving back to Richmond after a delicious Thanksgiving Day celebration in New York City. For the first part of that journey I will be savoring the memories of the holiday, but somewhere around Baltimore I will start thinking about Richmond, and about the work that waits for me there.

And here’s the good news: I love my work.

I appreciated all the comments on Wednesday about whether we’re supposed to bring heaven to earth or get people to heaven. I think that in the end we concluded that both of those things are important, and essential to the work God has for us to do here. At our best, we can’t keep from telling people about Jesus and helping them enter into a life-giving and life-changing relationship with him, but he himself would probably tell them to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. It is joyful work, and you can see that in Louis and Linda Watts’ letter from yesterday. Taking that pumpkin bread to Glen Lea Elementary School blessed them as much as it blessed the teachers, and I believe it’s the kind of thing that would make Jesus smile.

I’ll be smiling on the way back to Richmond today, thinking about that, and thinking about all the ways the people of First Baptist have entered into the spirit of this year-long, every-member mission trip. Some of them may be out there today, on Black Friday, spending money in a way that blesses the lives of others.

God bless them every one.

Thanksgiving in New York

My daughter Ellie invited the family to join her for Thanksgiving in New York, and she promised to cook the turkey.  So we went, piling into the car at 4:30 on Wednesday morning in an effort to beat the morning rush hour(s) in DC.  We made it, and without further traffic worries we zoomed up I-95 and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, skipped the Lincoln Tunnel option into New York, sailed over the Hudson River on the George Washington bridge, and eased down Broadway to 137th Street, arriving at approximately 11:30 a.m.  There was Ellie, just coming up from the subway station, and walking down the sidewalk to greet us.

Ellie lives in Spanish Harlem, which has a very family-friendly feel to it.  Parents walk down the sidewalks holding their children’s hands, friendly shopkeepers call out greetings to their regular customers, a woman at the top of the subway stairs sells “Tamales!  Tamales!” and the village “elders” congregate on the park benches on the island in the middle of Broadway.  It always reminds me of Sesame Street, except that I hardly ever run into any of the Muppets.

We went upstairs to Ellie’s sixth-floor apartment and spent the rest of the afternoon cooking some of the dishes for the next day’s Thanksgiving feast.  Around five o’ clock we went downtown to watch them inflate the giant helium balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  There was a huge crowd of people there, but somehow we got funneled into the line that went past Shrek, Sponge Bob Square Pants, the Kool Aid guy, Kermit the Frog, Snoopy, Kung Fu Panda, Spiderman, Horton the Elephant, Buzz Lightyear, the Energizer Bunny, and the biggest Smurf I have ever seen, all of them lying face down on the pavement with nets thrown over them to keep them from floating away.  For those of us who have been watching the Macy’s parade for years, it was like seeing celebrities close up.  I took pictures and tried to get some autographs (no luck).

In order to accommodate everyone’s schedule we decided to have a Thanksgiving brunch around 10:30 the next morning, which forced Ellie to get up at 5:00 to put the turkey in the oven.  But she didn’t complain, not even when she got up again at 6:00 and then again at 7:00 to baste the bird.  By eight o’clock she was in full gear, cooking side dishes on the stove top and filling the apartment with delicious smells. 

My brother Billy made the trip over from Brooklyn, arriving just in time to watch Ellie’s friend Nick, a chef from Australia, sharpen his knife and make short work of the turkey.  By 10:30 we were sitting around a makeshift table, covered with a designer tablecloth, and thanking God for the abundance of food on the table, and the friends and family all around it (and the turkey was outstanding!).

Somehow, along with all the family stories, we ended up sharing our favorite You Tube videos for a good part of the afternoon (have you seen “Unicorn after Wisdom Teeth”?  Hi-larious).   We feasted on leftovers, laughed at almost everything, and eventually went out on the town to see a movie at Lincoln Center.  We left New York at 2:00 on Friday after a leisurely lunch at a neighborhood restaurant.  Everybody must have been shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, because there was virtually no traffic on the highways.  We were at home in Richmond by 8:30 that night, a scant six-and-a-half hours later (and, of all the things I was thankful for, safe and traffic-free travel was near the top of the list).

I don’t know where I will spend Thanksgiving next year, but I do know this: God is good wherever you are, and wherever you are God is good.

Happy Thanksgiving

I love this picture—“Girls Laughing, Uganda”—the photo of the day from National Geographic.  It seems like an illustration of the Thanksgiving psalm I’ve included below: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.”  Surely if these girls from Uganda can find something to laugh about, we can, too.

My prayer for you this day is that it would be a day filled with “gladness” and “joyful songs,” with much to be grateful for, and if you need some words to get you started, here they are:

Psalm 100

A psalm. For giving thanks.

 1 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

 2 Worship the LORD with gladness;
       come before him with joyful songs.

 3 Know that the LORD is God.
       It is he who made us, and we are his;
       we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

 4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
       and his courts with praise;
       give thanks to him and praise his name.

 5 For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
       his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Thanksgiving Dinner at Dorothy’s House

Editor’s Note: I shared this story as part of the sermon at last night’s Thanksgiving service.  Several people have suggested that I post it here so others could enjoy it.  So, here it is, with every good wish for a happy Thanksgiving.  –Jim



shackI lived in Wise County, Virginia, from 1961 to 1966.  I was just a kid at the time.  My dad was a Presbyterian minister, the pastor of Gladeville Presbyterian Church in Wise.  But then he accepted a call to a special ministry among the poor in Boone County, West Virginia—one of the poorest counties in the country—and took what amounted to a vow of poverty to do it.  I don’t remember him ever asking my permission.  If he had I probably would have said no.  But that’s how I ended up in Boone County, West Virginia and that’s where this story takes place.


My family was living in Bloomingrose, one of the most inappropriately named towns in America.  There was nothing about it that suggested a rose in bloom.  I was enrolled at Comfort Elementary School a few miles down the river—one of the most inappropriately named schools in America.  There was nothing about it to suggest comfort.  I was in the fourth grade, trying to adapt to the culture of a new school.  Very quickly I learned that one of the worst things anybody could say about you was to say that you were “a Dotson.” 


The Dotson clan lived a couple of miles up Joe’s Creek from where the elementary school stood.  Howard Dotson, the patriarch, was one generation removed from living under a rock cliff.  With a lot of hard work and perseverance he had been able to move into a tumbledown shack near the creek where he and his wife Susan had brought five or six children into the world.  All of these children shared the same characteristic:  a head full of stiff, blonde hair that stuck out in every direction.  Howard Junior, Ricky, Stoney, Vicky, Dorothy (there might have been one or two more), all had this same, wild hair.  I don’t think it would have stayed down if they had tried to comb it, but I’m not sure they ever had. 


Dorothy was in my class at school.  I used to glance at her in the next row over, clutching a pencil in her grubby fist and trying to write in her notebook.  I saw that her knuckles were skinned up, probably from hitting boys, and probably the boys she hit deserved it.  Because the worst thing you could say to anybody at Comfort Elementary School is to say that they liked Dorothy.  You would hear it on the playground from time to time: some boy pointing at another boy and jeering, “You like Dor-thy!”  To which the only appropriate response was categorical denial, and maybe a punch in the nose.


So you can imagine how excited I was when my dad told us that we were going to be having Thanksgiving dinner at the Dotson’s house.  It seems the ladies at the Methodist church had given them a huge turkey and they wanted to share it with us.  I tried to talk Dad out of it, tried to explain to him that if I went to Dorothy Dotson’s house for Thanksgiving I could never show my face at Comfort Elementary School again.  But Dad said we had to go, that it would be rude not to, and although I didn’t say so I was thinking being rude to the Dotsons wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.  Going to their house for Thanksgiving might be.


But we went anyway.  We pulled into that wide spot by the road where they parked and then went down the creek bank, across a rickety, homemade bridge, and up the other side into their front yard, which was mostly dirt.  They had a wide front porch on their house, with a ratty-looking sofa and a recliner on it.  A washing machine.  Off to one side of the house were three old cars in various states of repair.  One of them had a tripod over it where Junior was pulling out a bad engine.  Another had a small tree growing up through the place where the engine used to be.  There were black, plastic garbage bags full of trash in the back yard, some that had been ripped open by dogs.  I took a deep breath before going inside.


But inside the house smelled wonderful.  Susan was putting the finishing touches on the turkey and I saw that she had borrowed some chairs to put around the table.  When we all sat down we were shoulder to shoulder and my shoulder was right next to…Dorothy’s.  She had dressed up for the occasion, put on a pale blue dress and some shockingly red lipstick.  It looked like she had even tried to comb her hair down, although without much success.  It was her mother who put her there beside me, thinking that since we were in the same class we would have a lot to talk about.  We didn’t.  I dug into my dinner and tried to finish as quickly as possible so I could excuse myself and go outside.


We had turkey, canned green beans, slices of white bread, and RC Cola.  That was it.  And when I was finished I pushed my chair back and asked if I could be excused.  That’s when Dorothy asked me if I wanted to play horseshoes and, because I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, I said yes.  She put on a coat and some rubber boots and we went out to the front yard where they had a horseshoe pit.  She looked kind of funny, wearing that old coat over her pale blue dress, with those shocking red lips and that wild blonde hair, but when it came to pitching horseshoes she was all business.  She beat me three games in a row and then I think she let me win one out of pity.  We played most of the rest of the afternoon and even talked a little bit.


On the way home I sat in the back seat of the station wagon, reflecting on the experience.  At some point I caught my dad looking at me in the rearview mirror.  He had that look on his face, you know?  The one that says, “See?  That wasn’t so bad.”  It really wasn’t, but it left me wondering what I would say if anyone at Comfort Elementary School ever accused me of liking Dorothy.  In a way I did like her.  She wasn’t so bad…


…for a girl.