Sunday, May 3, 2015

The classroom at the end of the hall

45 minutes before the funeral, I decided to go for a walk

Down the first-floor hallway, past bulletin boards and classrooms and turning left to see an old familiar stairway

With gray steps

And a solid railing

Something good to hold on to on a day like today

And making my way up two half-flights

And realizing I used to be quicker than this, much quicker

And coming out into another hallway that felt as familiar as any room in my childhood home

A place frozen in time from all those Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights of long ago

And knowing now why my feet had taken this path …

Moving toward the last classroom at the end of the hall

Except it wasn’t a classroom anymore

It was a storage area for AV equipment

And pausing at the doorway before going in, before placing a hand on the TV stand at the front of the room

In this hallowed space

In this space where Mom had stood and talked about Noah and the Judges and the 12 Apostles

And of Jesus

And I, and who knows how many other kids, had sat right there

Learning about God, learning to love Him

And here I was again, feeling like I was back in third grade


Because my teacher was gone, and I missed her

And for just a few minutes, holding tightly to the memories before heading back down to the place where everybody was waiting

Feeling sad, very sad

But also grateful for the woman, and the church, who raised me.

Marilyn Jean McCluggage Allen

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The good list

One of my favorite phrases is … “We remember things for a reason.”  I have stolen this from someone, but I’m not sure who.  If it’s you … well, thank you.


Cheryl and I were talking one morning about good things we remembered from church throughout the years.  We only had a few minutes, because Cheryl was getting ready to meet our daughter Kate for brunch, and I was getting ready to work on our taxes.

If you ever need an example of how life is not fair … well, there you have it.

Here’s our quick-list of good things, in no particular order.  It could be longer, we just need more time.  Maybe we’ll work on it some more, after the taxes are done.

“Life is a marathon.”  A friend of mine, Eddie, shared this with me at just the right time.  Cheryl and I were feeling a little burned out—spiritually.  We’d been sprinting for a year or two.  We were fully living the philosophy of “It’s better to burn out than rust out.”  Eddie took me aside one day and said, “Hey, Mike, life is a marathon.  Take care of yourself and your family.  Pace yourself.  It’s a long journey.”  Amen, brother.

“God thinks you rock!”  Yes, with an exclamation point!  Repeat after me.  GOD THINKS YOU ROCK!  Our preacher mentioned this a while back, and I must say, I’d never thought about such a thing.  Not only did God love me … but He also really liked me.  W-o-w.

Everybody’s got something big going on.  Everybody.  Me.  You.  They.  Even if we don’t share it.  Even if we don’t act like it.  There’s usually something big brewing … an addiction … a family issue … a loss.  We all need understanding and grace.

“We love you.  We need you.  We can’t live without you.”  A staple line in prayers by our friend Mark.  This line cuts two ways … expressing our love and need for God and also for other people in our lives—community.  We can’t live without it.

“Take up your corner of the mat.”  From a recent sermon about the four Bible guys who tore a hole in a roof and lowered their friend—a paralyzed man—down into a house for Jesus to heal.  I’ve probably heard this story a hundred times (a conservative estimate) … and have even seen it on a flannel graph board a time or two, but had never thought about it this way … that I could serve by just taking a corner of the mat. By just doing a small thing.  I don’t have to lower a man by myself or build a charity from the ground up.  I just need to grab a corner and serve.  I can do that.

How about you?  What makes your list of “good” things?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Watch

Photo from
Photo from

Sitting in the back of a darkened school auditorium

Film projector whirring off to the right

Surrounded by friends, mostly boys

None of us paying a lick of attention to the movie

because of Eric

and his brand new watch

which we are passing around

and taking turns pushing a button

to see the time appear in bright red numbers

1 45

We have never seen anything like this before

and then pushing the same button to see the date

11 19

Are you kidding me?

And then holding down the button to see the seconds tick off

37   38   39

The exact seconds, mind you

It’s like something from The Six Million Dollar Man

We could sit here all afternoon, just pressing the button

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hymn Sing

Cheryl and I drove over to visit Mom for lunch.  We met Dad there too.

It was a sunny-but-cold day in Arkansas, so cold you could feel it in your hands and feet long after you came inside.

We were seeing Mom for the tenth time that week, our tenth visit since she’d moved into a full-time care facility.

The four of us sat down at the table together.  Without saying a word, we understood that this was a difficult stretch in the journey … for all of us.

Mom was in good spirits, though.  She seemed like her old self, even as her memory was clearly fading.  Many of the details from her life—from our lives—now eluded her.

As Mom finished the last bites of her lunch, I found myself getting fidgety.

I stood up and walked over to a piano in the corner of the room.  One of the ladies sitting nearby looked up at me and said, “Play us a tune!”  I smiled and reached for a book that was lying above the keyboard.  The title read SONGS OF THE CHURCH.

I stepped back over to the table, and started a conversation about songs.

“Cheryl, do you remember this one?”

“Dad, what’s your favorite?”

Pretty soon, our talking turned into actual singing.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …”

“Would you be free from the burden of sin?  There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood …”

“Standing on the promises of Christ my King …”

A woman name Lucille pulled her chair over to our table.  Another lady named Mary joined in from not too far away.  Others sat by and watched, and there was the sound of occasional clapping floating in from the room next door.

We were making a spectacle, but no one seemed to mind.

And singing best of all … in a beautiful soprano voice … was the woman across the table from me—Marilyn Jean Allen—who remembered every single line.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A visit to the nursing home
Mrs. Henry, from the 1978 Petit Jean
Another elementary school December, another trip to the nursing home to sing Christmas carols.

Dressing up, not in our Sunday clothes, but in nicer than our regular school clothes.  Knowing that green and red are especially good colors to wear.

Piling into cars in the school parking lot or into cars that are pulled up in front of the school and illegally parked for just a few minutes.  Cars that are driven by our teachers or room moms or other moms.

Driving the 5 miles over to Judsonia.  Riding down highways that we all know from previous trips to the nursing home or from fishing trips or from visiting relatives who live down these country lanes.

Giggling along with 4 or 5 other friends in the car.  Excited to be out of school, but a little bit nervous about visiting the old folks’ home.  Many of these folks will be rolling up to us in wheelchairs; we remember that from past years.

Pulling into the parking lot and walking carefully across it so as not to get hit by other cars that are pulling in.  Entering the nursing home through a glass door and practically bumping into a smiling worker who tells us how much the “residents” are looking forward to our concert.

Seeing the Christmas tree in the gathering area where all the old people come to sit.  Some of them are already waiting for us, their faces lighting up as they hear us approach.

Lining up in 2 or 3 rows next to the piano where our music teacher, Mrs. Henry, sits down to play.  She is amazing in these situations, speaking loudly and excitedly to the crowd, like we are performing for the Governor of Arkansas or something.

Sensing that the crowd, sitting quietly in a loose semicircle, is ready for our first big number.

Hearing the beginning chords of “Up on the Rooftop” and all of us knowing just when to come in.  Belting it out at the top of our lungs because we all love Christmas, young and old alike. 

Pausing for a scattering of applause at the end of each carol.  It's feeble clapping from the audience, but we understand; it’s the best that they can do.

Ending the final song with one more exclamation point and then scattering into groups of 2 or 3 or 4.  Walking around the lobby area and talking to the people and laughing a little bit at their jokes because some of them are actually quite funny.

Feeling the nudge of teachers and moms, gently coaxing us to move down the hallways so we can visit the folks who couldn’t make it down for the concert.

Passing from room to room and not even knocking on doors.  Most of the living quarters are wide open and we stroll right in, striking up conversations with these friendly souls who remind us of our grandparents or great-grandparents.

Moving in and out of doorways, always traveling along with other kids.  Noticing that the residents do the same, moving up and down passageways arm-in-arm with workers or family or friends.

Realizing it’s time to meet back up in the lobby for the trip back to school.  Most of us holding candy canes now, handed to us by one of the residents or a staff member.

Piling back into cars and saying goodbye to the nursing home until the next December.  Until we come back to sing and spread some joy all over again.

But knowing, somewhere deep down inside …

… that maybe we’re getting a little more out of this exchange than we’re actually giving.

Monday, January 5, 2015

More grace

For some reason, in my 30s, I was really into New Year’s resolutions.

I remember one Christmas vacation; our family was visiting Cheryl’s parents in Huntsville, Alabama.  I decided to go for a walk on a trail near their home.  I prayed some, and I sat down to write out my resolutions.  I don’t recall the exact number, but I think it was in the neighborhood of 28.

The next year was going to be the best year of my life!  I was going to fix everything!

I think I ran out of gas by January 5th.

Another year, I firmly resolved to get rid of 6 “unhealthy” foods from my diet.  I was going accomplish this by eliminating one bad-food every couple of months.

I must say it was a sad day when I said goodbye to bacon.  And then later on, French fries … I don’t even want to talk about that.

That was my 30s.  These days, I take a more mellow approach.  Less type-A.  More type-B … or even type-C.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to limit myself to a single resolution.  I don’t write it down, and I just go with it as long as it stays on my mind.

Which brings me to this New Year …

The only thing that’s popped into my mind so far, for some reason, is the word “grace.”  It is one of my favorite words, but how do I fashion grace into a resolution?

I’m not sure, but it might have something to do with this …

In his new book, Vanishing Grace, Philip Yancey writes about followers of Christ being “dispensers” of grace.  Maybe that’s the direction this is heading.  Maybe, in 2015, I can dispense a little grace into a world that seems to be filling up with anxiety and fear.  Maybe I can sprinkle my conversations with more grace.

Maybe I can post some extra grace right here.

Now that I think about it, maybe I'll allow myself 2 resolutions this year:
  1. More grace.
  2. Less bacon.