Was Your Life Changed By A Book?

Last week, a friend wrote on Facebook about a challenge from the New York Times. The Times is asking for entries to answer the query: Was your life changed by a book?  Readers are encouraged to submit an entry of 200 words or less about a book that has influenced your outlook.  I’ve been thinking about this question. What one book would I choose?

On my bookshelf there are many books that helped shape my way of thinking. I thought about Rich Thinking about the World’s Poor by Peter Meadows which helped shape my views on poverty and missions.  I considered a humorous book of short stories by Bailey White, Mama Makes Up Her Mind. Or, perhaps I would select a book from my childhood enticing me to enjoy novels. I particularly recall my delight at ten years old reading The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas.

My mind kept returning though to the obvious book: The Bible, the book of books. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the dramatic, inspirational, and practical dynamics of the sacred book of books. The Bible has inspired multitudes of persons in its uniqueness among books. But let’s keep it short.

My first true encounter with the Bible was almost absurd. I was probably eleven years old at the time that I read excerpts from another book, a bestseller at the time, The Exorcist. My oldest sister had a copy, and I glanced a bit too long at it.  I was scared, maybe even scarred,  by the story of the demonic possession of Regan, an eleven year old girl. I had trouble sleeping for fear that I would share the fate of Regan.

At this time, in the early 1970s, the movie was released, too. I felt like I even resembled the actress, Linda Blair, who portrayed the demon-possessed girl. I was doomed.

My sister assured me that it all was a story, make-believe if you will. However, I knew just a smidgeon about the Gospels mentioning demons. So, I looked up instances in the Gospels of demonic possessions.  Not only did they exist, but they had the power to possess the body and mind. I was terrified even more than before I read the Bible’s accounts.

Demons existed!

So my first forays into reading Biblical texts made me a believer, not of the love of God, but in the power of the devil. If the Bible had accounts of demonic possession, then I could not idly dismiss the existence of such evil personified. I felt terribly hopeless.

My heightened fear of potential demonic possession eased, but a general malaise stayed with me. I had no hope. All life seemed purposeless. It wasn’t just the specter of Linda Blair that frightened me. It was just life in general. What meaning did my life have?

Then, I heard something when I was around 12 years old.  I heard a man speak at my  church who seemed to have an unmistakable sense of the divine about him. It was as if he spoke from a different perspective, not his perspective but from God’s.

I was convinced that the man in the front of the church had something more powerful than words with him that night. He offered me Hope. And I, like John Wesley, felt my heart strangely warmed. I reached out and took hold of Hope.

After that day, the Bible was no longer a book that just offered evidence of the power of the demonic. It offered a story of the One who was more powerful than any demon. I read the Gospels with new clarity. How had I overlooked it before? You see, Jesus did indeed confront demons but he had power over them. People were liberated from the power of the devil.

Since then, I see the Bible in so many ways. It’s not a book to condemn but to set free. It’s about light, not darkness. It’s a book of hidden treasures, with new insights to be gained daily from its reading.

I am certain that the New York Times is not looking for essays on the efficacy of the Bible in influencing a preteen girl both towards fear, and later, freedom. We, in the United States, live in a post Christian world. That great and glorious best-seller, the Bible, has been relegated to a place where it’s influence can be explained as a history lesson, a cultural milestone of years gone by. Current Bible enthusiasts are regarded as oddities, stuck in cultural backwaters that is being swept away by the modern cynical age we live in.

I remain, though, convinced of my convictions. The book that has changed my outlook more than any book I’ve ever read is the Bible. No matter how trite or how inane it sounds, the Bible remains my bedrock and foundation as the most powerful book in my life.  It’s words are like my daily bread, new every morning.

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? 

Isaiah 43:19

If you want to submit your entry about a book that has shaped your life to the New York Times, you must do it now. Entries must be submtted  by 10:00 a.m on January 15. 

An Angel in the Room

I wrote another version of this story from my viewpoint in Spooked by An Angel earlier this year. I rewrote the story from the viewpoint of my mother who told me the story originally. I submitted this article to Guideposts Magazine. It’s been accepted for publication in one of their sister publications, Angels on Earth. 

Early one morning, my mother spoke. That statement doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. Mothers talk every morning, all over the world.

My ninety-three year old mother, Adele, hadn’t spoken in nearly three years. She had never been talkative, and as the years wore on, she spoke less and less. One day, she quit speaking completely. There wasn’t an obvious reason, like a stroke, to explain her silence. I think she just ran out of things to say as she got older.

Then, one morning, living quietly in a nursing home in Louisiana, my mother spoke. That morning her roommate had died. The nurse closed the curtain around the deceased woman. No one told my mother that her roommate had died.

My silent mother spoke.

“There’s an angel in the room,” she said to the nurse in the room.

In fact, every time another person entered the room, she repeated her words.

“There’s an angel in the room,” she said.

When I arrived later that morning to visit, my mother was still in bed, in her nightgown with long braids lying across her shoulders. I walked to the nurses’ station to ask why hadn’t anyone helped my mother that morning.

The nursing supervisor overheard me talking to the assistants at the front counter and walked out of the inner office.

“Mrs. Matherne,” she said, “we will attend to your mother shortly. Right now, I am having trouble finding a staff member who will go into her room. Let me explain to you what staff members are saying about your mother.”

During the morning, word had spread through the nursing home of the mute woman who had spoken of an angel. As I walked back towards my mother’s room, the daughter of the deceased woman met me in the hall.

“Did you hear about your mother?” she said. “I have been praying every morning for a sign that my mother would go to heaven. Your mother’s words were my sign.”

I didn’t know what to say. My mother was a spiritual person, but she had never spoken about angels or visions before. I thought about what I had heard. It seemed impossible to believe. Perhaps the story was just a result of overwork, lack of sleep, and excess emotion on the part of the staff, I reasoned to myself.

I questioned my mother hoping she would speak to me. She never said a word. Soon, two assistants came into the room to help change my mother into her dress and help her into her day chair. Still, my mother had nothing to say.

I stayed until lunch was served. As I helped her with the meal, I tried to engage my mother in conversation, asking her about her meal, the weather, and again, of the events of the previous night. She said nothing.

adele cropped
My Mother Years Before She Saw An Angel

I left the nursing home and drove home. As I drove, I thought about the morning’s events. I had studied the Bible throughout my life. I believed in God and angels. I had to admit that it was possible that the story of my mother speaking in the night of an angelic encounter was true.

For certain, I know two things. I know that the story brought comfort to a grieving daughter who saw the event as a sign from God. Secondly, I know that mother never spoke again after that morning. She died quietly at the age of ninety-seven.

December’s End in Louisiana

IMG_0190It’s December’s end at my place in Abita Springs, Louisiana. My family elected to not share gifts this year. That was fine with me. The presents that I received were a few small items from students and coworkers. I also helped myself to navel oranges from my mother’s tree that I picked on a ladder from the highest branches  It’s been a merry little Christmas.

Oh yes, another December gift was LSU clobbering Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl yesterday, 63-28. We’re on our way to a national championship. Our quarterback, Joe Burrow, won the Heisman trophy this year. The coach, Ed Orgeron, is also enjoying his time in the limelight. If you haven’t heard Coach O, as he is often called, you are missing a treat. He’s got the Cajun cadence of someone born and raised on the bayou. Here’s a clip of Orgeron speaking after a win earlier this year against the arch nemesis of LSU football, the reviled team from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Judge for yourself if the accent is out of the norm.

Coach Orgeron’s way of speaking is not odd to my ears. I’m a native of southeast Louisiana. Most all of my family speaks with a bit of Cajun in their voices, as well as a smattering of French words and phrases thrown in.

Coach O’s speech drew the curiosity of a Washington Post writer, Chuck Culpepper, He explained in fine detail the language peculiarities of Coach O’s diction. For a change, someone actually wrote an accurate and entertaining piece about our language and region. Culpepper writes better than I can:

Listen meticulously to the lionized voice of Ed Orgeron, and you might think you hear the gators sloshing, the mosquitoes buzzing, the oil-rig helicopters chuffing. You might picture the muskrats out swimming just before dawn, the Spanish moss hanging, the crawfish puffing through their gills, the shrimp trawlers’ outriggers above the bayou. You might even detect the French and the Southern in their singular dance.

This is December’s end for me in Louisiana: enjoying a few Christmas presents, some freshly picked citrus along with football. Coach O’s speech is lagniappe.

 

Christmas Eve In Jail

I have been thinking about helping women in jail as part of my church’s outreach. I have done it before, over twenty years ago. Here’s a story from a Christmas Eve visit to the local jail. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed being part of this experience.

The buzzer sounded. The doors opened. I stepped into the confines of a women’s jail. It was Christmas Eve. I might have been late, but here I was, about to encounter thirty women prisoners. I thought about the conversation I had a few hours ago.

“Laurie,” Tina said, “I’m not going to the jail tonight. My sister and her family surprised me with a visit. They came all the way from Pennsylvania. I’m sorry.”

I still remember my thoughts as I hung up the phone twenty-five years ago. I had never led the Bible study with the lady prisoners, and I had never gone into the jail alone. In the few short months that I had been accompanying Tina at the jail in Houma, Louisiana, Tina had been the one leading the lessons, praying for the ladies, and generally taking charge of everything. I went along mainly to learn and give support to Tina.

What good could I do alone? And, would anybody truly expect me to come on Christmas Eve? I sat down on the couch next to the telephone. Maybe I should call the jail and tell them I wasn’t coming. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and I had family gathering that night. With a sigh, I decided to go to the jail even though I didn’t have a lesson or a plan. I would undoubtedly just be there for emotional support for the lonely women in jail.

After entering the jail’s doors a few minutes late, I walked into the commons area of the women’s jail. I expected to see a few stragglers with notebooks and Bibles at the tables. Instead, I was greeted loudly by a group of eager women.

“You’re here!” someone shouted.

“Sit down!” another lady said.

Most of the women were talking excitedly among themselves. Others were pulling bedsheets off the bunks. The ladies started wrapping themselves in bedsheets.

What was going on? None of this made any sense until Jenny,* a tall, commanding dark woman, stepped forward to tell me the plan. They didn’t want a Bible study. They planned to put on a Christmas play they had produced among themselves. The one thing they lacked for the drama was an audience. With my arrival, the one hindrance was eliminated. Now, the show could go on.

Mary and Joseph were wrapped in white sheets. A pillow subbed for the baby Jesus. Women standing in for shepherds and wisemen draped sheets over their orange jumpsuits, too.

One lady stood to the side, Bible in her hand. As she read from portions of the Christmas story from the gospels, different actors did their parts. First, Mary and Joseph, along with pillow-turned-Jesus, made their way to the front of the room. They put Jesus on a chair as they gazed adoringly at him. Then, the shepherds came, guided by angels robed in more white sheets. Next, the Three Kings came and presented their gifts of ramen noodles and bottles of toiletries, which I understood to be stand-ins for the more traditional gifts of the Magi.

Interspersed throughout the presentation, the ladies sang Away in A Manger, Silent Night and We Three Kings. At the end of the presentation, the narrator invited everyone in the dorm to kneel before the baby Jesus. The participants of the play readily kneeled on cue. Other women were cajoled, and some were threatened with harm if they didn’t kneel before pillow-turned-Jesus. One way or another, all the women in the jail that night knelt before the solitary pillow representing Jesus.

After a short but blissful moment of silence, I applauded. It was a fabulous, heart-felt performance. After the drama, the ladies were eager to hear my reaction.

“Did you like the play?” one lady asked.

“How were the songs? Did we get the tune right?” another said.

They had spent the entire day rehearsing, and then, waiting for an audience for their re-enactment. No one wanted prayer or counsel that night. No one talked about loneliness,  sadness, or bitterness about missing Christmas with family and friends. That night, they were singular in their purpose to celebrate the birth of Jesus in their own way.

As I left the jail, I thought about how happy the women had been. I expected sadness and loneliness to be the theme of the evening. Instead, the night was defined by a sense of purpose. The ladies seemed content and happy.

What happened that night? I went with the idea that the women needed me to bring inspiration and hope. Instead, they inspired me, and most of all, themselves, in their re-enactment of the first Christmas. The power of the good news of the birth of Jesus was on display that night as the ancient story was retold.

I’ll always remember that Christmas play performed in shades of orange and white on Christmas Eve twenty-five year ago. I’m glad I decided to go to jail on Christmas Eve. Jesus’ birth may have occurred over 2,000 years ago, but in places great and small,  whether it be in palaces or small town jails, his birth and life still influences our world today

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Isaiah 9:6

* The name has been changed.

Signs of the Times

For your reading pleasure, I present the Signs of the Times of Abita Springs. As I have stated in other posts, I live in Abita Springs, Louisiana. We, the residents, are in the midst of a brouhaha.

Mayor Dan Curtis SignSign #1. It was posted at the entrance to a new housing development in Abita Springs. This sign is better known as The Original Sign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sign #2. Bad Ass for Abita Signage modified by unknown townsman (or woman). It’s better known as The Bad A** Sign. 

 

 

 

Scumbag developers

Sign #3.  The sign that expressed what Abita residents really thought the new housing development. It’s better known as The Scumbag Sign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abita Mudhole

Sign #4. This sign may or may not have been posted by the developers. Kenner is a working class suburb of New Orleans. This sign is also known as The Final Sign. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What prompted these signs? Let’s review the town’s history first. In the not so distant past, the town had a good sense of boundaries. It was bounded on three sides by piney woods and a fourth side was marked by the Abita Bayou.

The town came into its own near the beginning of the 20th century as a Gilded Age resort town for New Orleanians looking for a holiday or a health spa, seeking cures through the clean air and water. Then, the automobile made the boat and train ride from New Orleans less popular. A group of hippies found the dying town in the early 1970s, giving it a bohemian renaissance. Then, the citizens of New Orleans and the surrounding suburbs decided that the 30-mile or so commute to and from Abita was not a hindrance. They descended upon Abita as well as all the other small towns on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

Today, the town is stretching beyond its original boundaries. The outskirts and border areas near town are full of new housing and business developments. It’s harder and harder to judge where the town ends and begins even though the official population is about 2,500. With more people and buildings, there are more tensions.

In January 2019, a new mayor, Dan Curtis, took over Abita Springs City Hall. He inherited a boondoggle of a problem. The former mayor and council had approved a new housing development covering 162 acres that was zoned for 390 lots. Curtis ran and won as mayor on the platform of stopping the development, as the general consensus of the town was that the size of the new development would overwhelm the small town. The development is on hold as the two sides are waiting to go to court over the plan.

I don’t know what will happen now that The Final Sign has been posted.  Will the project begin with approval from the courts as the above cited project is now under court review? Will that mean The Apocalypse follows as hundreds of new residents descend upon our quaint town? Or, will the courts rule in favor of the town and the mayor. Will that make the town remain Paradise?

Only God knows.

 

 

A Mayor Named Omelette

mayor omeletteThis past Sunday, the mayor of Abita Springs, Dan Curtis, made an announcement at the weekly farmer’s market. At 11 a.m., as the market opened, Mayor Curtis introduced Omelette the hen as the honorary mayor for the day from the stage of the museum overlooking the market. Omelette is the local mascot for the Abita Cafe.

museumNormally, Omelette is a free range bird, who pecks for worms and scraps in the yard and near the outside tables of the cafe. However, for her honorary day as mayor, she appeared in a cage and was wheeled around the town’s center in a wagon. In addition to touring the market stalls of vegetables, prepared food and crafts, she viewed Rosie’s Tavern, Artigue’s Grocery and Deli, and the Abita Brew Pub.

I have never been inside Rosie’s Tavern, but I am a regular customer at Artigue’s Grocery and Deli, as well as the Abita Brew Pub. If you come by Abita, I recommend the plate lunches at Artigue’s Grocery. The Abita Brew Pub has great burgers.

Omelette’s political views are unknown. I have no idea where she stands on the local issues such as zoning or sewerage improvements. Heaven knows what she thinks about impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors. For one blessed Sunday, Omelette blessed us with her apolitical tenure as mayor. It was refreshing. brew pub

In the evening, after the market closed. the chicken returned to her home at the cafe. Dan Curtis resumed his mayoral duties. Such is the news of a small town on Sunday in Louisiana.

How Cool is Abita Springs, Louisiana?

How cool is Abita Springs, Louisiana? Well, let me tell you. Abita Springs, a town of about 2500 residents, made the list of 25 Top Coolest Towns in the US.* You can read the article yourself if you want their opinion. I won’t repeat the article here in this space.

However, I think this is a cool town. I live here, so I might be a bit biased. Let me give you my list on what makes Abita Springs a great place.

mapld bakery
The town bakery not only has great baked goods, but a great wrap-around porch and its own ghost.
  1. Abita Springs has quaint architecture. The town came into its own in the Gilded Age as a place to escape the Yellow Fever epidemics of nearby New Orleans.
  2. Abita Springs has the St Tammany Trace running through the center of town.  The Trace is a bike and pedestrian trail that replaced the train tracks in St. Tammany Parish.
  3. Abita Springs has two museums. One museum is devoted to the history of the town, and the other is a museum of oddities with things like a stuffed alligator and collections of glass shards.

    abita mystery house
    Entrance to UCM (You See ‘Um) Museum and Mystery House
  4. Abita Springs has the Push Mow Parade every Mardi Gras. I can’t add anything else to that – it’s just cool.
  5. Abita Springs has its own Opry. The Abita Springs Opry has six concerts a year in the town hall, dedicated to preserving bluegrass and country music.
  6. Abita Springs hosts an annual city-wide garage sale every spring. What can beat that? I don’t know, but maybe the beer. . . ?
  7. Abita Springs is home to Louisiana’s best craft beer.  The Abita Brewery sells thousands of barrels of beer and ale across the state and the nation.

    Abita Christmas Ale
    Christmas Ale from Abita Brewery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The Matador Network, a digital travel magazine.