"Which one of you is the pastor?" Without looking up I said, "It's me, I am." After a period of examining me, she went on and said, "I need an answer to this. I need to know if I'll right, or if I'm wrong. It's really important to me and I need to know. Since you're a pastor, I'm going to get my answer."
Sure, "I said," ok.
"Well, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. When I pray, I write my prayers down and cram them into a box. When that box is full, I dig a big hole, dump the all into the hole, and then I bury them. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. They came from God and so I return them to Him. Is that right? Am I right? Is that right, or is that wrong? I need to know."
I turned my head, looked her in the eye and said, "I don't know." Her response was incredulous, "You don't know? You say you don't know? I don't believe it. You're a pastor and you don't know." She put her head in her hands and wailed as I took a deep breath and continued to sit beside her.
As I sat there quietly, she continued to talk with exasperation, questioning the other members of our relief team her in Houston, Texas, arguing with each of their attempts to answer. She cried out about her recent battle with cancer, a home that was destroyed by the hurricane, two parents that had died, the father of her best friend who died two days ago, her estranged son, and a family member who brought nothing but pain and chaos to her life.
"You say you're a pastor, but you just sit there ignoring every word I say." I muttered, "No I'm not, I'm listening to every word as I contemplate your life." She laughed and said, "Right, you're ignoring me completely." I looked up and caught her gaze I repeated her struggles. She said, "Well, you are listening."
"Yes Ma'am, I am."
She said, "Oh, I hate when someone calls me 'Ma'am,' that just means, 'I wish you'd go away.'" I told her, "No, I say 'Yes Ma'am' because my Momma taught me to say 'Yes Ma'am,' and 'Yes Sir,' and you probably should not say mean things about my Momma.'"
For the first time, her face brightened and while laughing, she said, "Ok, you got me there."
Johnathan began playing his guitar while Dan, Roger, Terry, and Malachi sat around the fire-pit with me and Susan. She looked up and said, "Sing some Johnny Cash. He had this song he sang about God walking with me and talking with me."
I was stunned. My great-grandma and great-grandpa used to sing that song at their upright grand piano on Baltimore Street in Middletown, Ohio... over 1100 miles and 30 years ago. I was transported in a moment to an undefined space that defied time and distance.
We sat around that fire-light and joined our voices with the words of In the Garden, written by C. Austin Miles in 1913, taught to me as a boy in 1984, and now shared with the unlikeliest of people, gathered by a hurricane in 2017.
Powerful words, spanning over a century were binding us in a shared experience and healing hearts.
Earlier, while I was listening to her talk she remarked, "A lot of people have bad things that happen in their lives and they say, 'Oh God!' I don't say, 'Oh God!' I say, 'Yes God!'"
There it was... the thing I needed to hear. All the news of the day, the evil that stalks our societies and our enemy that steals and kills and destroys... well, my focus shouldn't be on all that.
My focus needs to be on God. He is good. He is great. Let this be my declaration, the evil one can destroy the body, but not the soul. To live is Christ, to die is GAIN.
1. I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses,
and the voice I hear falling on my ear
the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
and he tells me I am his own;
and the joy we share as we tarry there,
none other has ever known.
2. He speaks, and the sound of his voice,
is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
and the melody that he gave to me
within my heart is ringing. (Refrain)
3. I’d stay in the garden with him
though the night around me be falling,
but he bids me go; thru the voice of woe
his voice to me is calling. (Refrain)