Where I was / where I am

There are times in our life when we remember exactly where we were when something happened:

November 22, 1963 – I was only two months old, but from my mom’s stories, I grew up knowing where my mom was when she heard Kennedy was shot. She was in the kitchen cooking and I was there with her when she got the call.

January 28, 1986 – When the Challenger exploded, I was driving to Broadmoor Middle School in Shreveport, Louisiana, where I was student-teaching 6th grade science. When I arrived and heard the news, I remember audibly hearing the breath leave my body and walking into a classroom of crying 6th grade science students who looked to me, all of 22 years old to bring comfort. They needed me to be their solace and consolation during the time…. we had been following the science teacher Christie McAuliffe who was on that mission as we were going to follow her lessons plans from space.

January 17, 1991 – I remember being in the car headed home from the Collin Creek mall in Plano, Texas….when I heard over the radio that we had begun bombing Iraq and that the Iraq invasion had begun.

April 19, 1993 – I was eating pizza at Pizzeria Uno in Addison, Texas glued to the TV with Ron and one of our college friend’s John, when the Branch Davidian compound burned in Waco TX. I sang two months later at the UM Children’s home in Waco, where several of the children who survived that day had been sent.

August 31, 1997 – Ron and I were leading a family retreat for Foundry UMC in Washington, DC the weekend princess Diana died. After watching coverage on television from our rooms, we visited the spontaneous memorial in front of the British Embassy in DC.

August 29, 2005 – I watched the Hurricane Katrina coverage from a hotel room in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thad was out with me playing the guitar and we kept yelling back and forth at each other down the hall between our rooms.

September 11, 2001 was a different experience because I was a mom and because I felt like anything could have happened that day . Less than a year prior, we had bought a home just outside of Franklin, Tennessee. I was sitting in the den rocking Max…. pregnant with Zach, only a month from delivering him. Our friend Ashley was there helping us with office work and with Max. I sat, like so many of you, and cried as I watched our day crumble right in front of us on every channel. An hour faded into the several hours. I became a news junkie. I wanted to do something. I called a friend within the hour and I remember her saying the name, “Osama bin Laden,” as if I knew who that was. I did not have a clue what kind of world we were all entering into — an age of terrorism and the fear of terrorism. As I watched President Bush speak from Barksdale Air Force Base only a few miles from our former home in Louisiana, I thought to myself, “anything could happen today.” And it wasn’t a hopeful thought. It was like the sky was the limit, but any bad thing, any crazy thing, any unthinkable thing could happen that day. And it did for so many.

One night while watching Diane Sawyer interview family members of a firm whose members were lost when the towers collapsed, she spoke with a mom and teen daughter. The teen was holding up a picture of her dad and looking straight at the camera and saying, “if anyone knows where my dad is, please contact us. We love him and we want him home. We want him where he belongs. Maybe he left the building and someone knows something. We want him back. Please call us.” I remember wanting to write the number down and to call just to say how sorry I was. I broke down and just wept for her, for her mom, for NY, for our country and for me, really for all of us. There are times when we want things back. We want something fixed. We want someone to call and say it is all gonna work out. I know. I feel it, too.

At some point, I had to turn off the television and start living. I picked up the phone and called Danny, a youth director in Ohio, whose group I had just been with the weekend prior to that Tuesday. One of the best memories from that weekend was their Saturday night tradition. The new seniors shared their wisdom, hopes, dreams and fears with everyone. Those words guided me in the days and weeks following and continue to guide me today. We laughed that evening. We cried. We hugged. We promised to be there for each other. We were reminded that we are not alone and we were reminded that the sky is the limit (of good things). Anything can happen. The unthinkable can come true and all for good! And when the unthinkable happens, when darkness washes over each of us like a violent storm; we will get through it. The sun will rise again.

Maybe as important as 9-11, were and are the days following tragedies. The days when we wake to the sun rising again and we rise to take our first steps forward – we hug our children a little closer, we are a little more patient and we realize how precious each moment is.

September 6, 2011 – I made a phone call and sang over the phone for my friend Marti, a pastor friend who I have had the joy to know for several years. She was in her last days of cancer, being cared for by her loving husband,Mac… family and a wonderful hospice group. I was flooded with all of the wonderful memories I had shared with her in ministry. She was all about …justice… and mercy. She reminded all of us that we each can make a difference. Her daughters have followed in her footsteps finding careers that bring healing and hope. Her love, her smile, her laugh, her presence — she was very real and a presence of goodness during our ministry together. I called to sing to her over the phone — “How Great Thou Art” and “Wonderful World.” I sang “Wonderful World” specifically because even though what’s immediately around us might at times cast a shadow on all the wonderful, we can choose to find the wonder. We can choose to dwell on the wonder filled world we live in — a world that so desperately needs us, needs our laughs, needs our hope, needs our us! Mack said she kissed the phone when I finished. Marti died on Sunday morning, September 11, 2011 at 4:30 am. I smiled thinking, “here she goes again reminding us to remember” — remember the life, not the death, remember the goodness not the bad and to be about forgiveness. The best way to respond to hate is simply to love; which is simple to write in a devotion, but not so simple to follow through on. I get locked up daily with all that weighs me down in life. And yet on some days I get a small reminder of what could be and about the difference I am making. A few days later, I spoke with Marti’s husband who called to say thank you. Thank you for the songs, thank you for taking the time. Thank you for calling when you did (I told him I almost didn’t, because I didn’t want to bug them.) Thank you for your love — it made a difference and it was enough. I kept thinking, I could do more. I should have done more. I can still do more.

September 18, 2011 – I had the chance to sing for someone else receiving hospice care. I had not met Mercy Elizabeth Whitfield who was born days earlier on 9/8/11 with Trisomy 13. She was sent home with her loving parents Rodney and Allison, and her siblings Grace and Justice. She has been surrounded by family, friends and church members, all loving that sweet baby during her limited days here on earth. As my guitarist friend Austin, and I entered their home, we were greeted by my friend Allyson George, the children’s director at Rodney’s church First UMC Richardson where he serves as an associate pastor. As I sang, Mercy was held by those who loved her and sometimes I could hear them singing along with me, like on “Jesus loves me” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Grace and Justice were put to sleep after rocking with their parents. Then the adults all just sat and listened to instrumental music of the guitar fill the room. As I prepared to leave, I took Mercy’s hand and leaned close and whispered, “I love you.” Her mom Allison was holding her and said to me, “you can kiss her” and I placed a soft kiss on her forehead and said, “you sleep sweet baby.” I got the news this morning that Mercy died around 2 am this morning. I believe that she is still held by loving arms. I am a witness to Mercy–love going the extra mile. Those parents and caregivers being in the moment, every second, knowing what they had was the right now. I loved that my friend, Marti paved the way for me to share with Mercy… and in Marti’s ministry… she loved mercy.

I am reminded that our time is precious. I am thankful I used my voice, as tired as it was and as uncertain as to how I was going to be able to sing for my friends. I gave what I had in that moment and it was enough.

I love you all and pray that today you know that YOU are the gift. You use your voice and live with the assurance that you too are surrounded by loving arms.

I’ll always know where I was on September 18, 2011, the day I saw the face of Mercy, in a living room filled with love in Dallas, Texas. I hope I never forget the impact it made on me.

Celia Anne

You can offer your prayers for Marti’s family here: Marti
and for Mercy Elizabeth Whitfield’s family here: Mercy

My Jesus is upside down.

My Jesus is upside down. There is something that is just wrong about that. I should have known that something was up when I only saw him right-side up in two places: Camp Bridgeport in Texas and the Disney resort we visited in December. I know what you might be thinking, “upside-down Jesus! What in the world?” I have two of them, one that was given to me years ago as a gift and one that I bought during my travels. They are, without a doubt, my favorite nightlights. The only way my Jesus nightlights will plug into the electric sockets in my home is upside down. Trust me I have tried to find an upside-down socket in my home, where he can stand upright and shine his light, but it is a no go.

When I’ve seen him upside down, I can’t help but reflect on the metaphor a little — OK… a lot. The “Christ of faith” that I believe in, the Jesus I have heard about my whole life; the Jesus I have given my heart to, is not always right-side up. There have been times when I have asked questions like those posed on a bracelet a few years ago, “what would Jesus do?” Or how would Jesus react? Or what would Jesus say? January 20th marks fifty years since President JFK gave his famous inaugural speech, where he posed a simple challenge, “Ask not… ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country.” Maybe the message is not, “What would Jesus do?” But “ask not what Jesus can do for me, but what can I do for Jesus.” It’s a simple twist, but I know it will be a lifetime of each day finding ways to live that answer daily.

At the very least there was something very unconventional, maybe even upside down, about His perspective and position on things-the way He lived, loved and spoke about the kingdom of God and about how we are to love each other. Sometimes He seems to fit in a way that nothing else fits around Him. All the questions that I have been coming up with when I walk past my upside down Jesus in my bathroom and am reminded about that the way he works, remind me that he doesn’t work like anything else. In fact, he may be the only thing that’s right side up and the rest of the world is upside down.

I have had the joy of hearing and seeing the song “Live Christ”, that I wrote a few years ago find its way into the voices and hearts of several churches, camps, synods, conferences and events across the country. And I have been fortunate to share it in person with many. One of my favorite experiences related to the song was at a regional youth weekend retreat this past fall when I suggested I might end my talk with “Live Christ.” A college student in attendance had volunteered at the camp the previous summer, where the song had been sung each week. She responded, “cool, you know that song, too?” I chuckled and said, “yea, I do, and on a few occasions I live it.” Sometimes I do it. Sometimes I live Christ. Sometimes I live peace. Sometimes I live hope. Sometimes I live love. Many times it takes my seeing a situation upside down; having new eyes; stretching past what feels comfortable to what seems to others very awkward in order to really get a glimpse of what is right in front of me. I thought this week about that song. Maybe I should make it a prayer instead of an imperative statement… something like, “God I pray that I will, with all I am, live Christ; love Christ; share Christ; be Christ.” If I keep doing what I’ve always done, then change in me won’t come. If I continue to look at others, my circumstances, my shortcomings, even my successes, the way I always have looked at them, I can’t reach my goal of “What can I do for Jesus today?” I’m stuck on myself, on what I gain out of life. And that is no way to live a Christ-centered life… I’ll do great if I’m going for a self-centered life! If I’m not willing to be upside down, then change in my life won’t come.

True change comes only when I fully let go. I must let go of my seemingly right-side up self; my right-side up life; my right-side up faith and I must be willing to run the risk of appearing foolish or upside down. I must be willing to examine myself thoroughly, to embrace my beloved-ness, to embrace my true self in Christ so that I can embrace that in others so that I can see others as beloved as they really are — broken like me. I must be open to shining my light in a new way at this turn of the calendar. The thought of it makes me dizzy.

Recently, in another new song I co-wrote, we wrote the line “it’s free, but it costs everything.” That is really how I feel about grace. I guess it’s why I love singing Sweet Little Jesus Boy. When I was a child I didn’t think it was a very good Christmas song. My dad used to sing it every Christmas. It talks about Christ’s birth and about sharing Christ. It talks about His death in the second verse–what kind of upside-down Christmas song does that? I guess one that I should keep singing each year. Christ birth without the rest of the story is meaningless to you and me. Our lives simply singing or speaking of Christ is as equally shallow. If I am not willing to share Christ; to risk compassion, love, empathy, comfort to others no matter how uncomfortable I may feel; then what’s the point of faith-a real faith anyway. If I live my life and faith only right-side up, I may never know the pure joy of Jesus’ upside-down purpose. I may miss an opportunity to see the world and to be willing to love what I see. I’ll be honest, I often get caught up in trying to change the world, when maybe I’m called to love it in its current state and to let God be in charge of what is right-side up and what needs to change. Maybe I’m scared that I might be the one changed. I might be challenged with the realization that I’m the one who is upside-down.

All of those thoughts from one little yellow plastic Jesus nightlight. Thanks Ally for getting it for me years ago, but more than that small gift, thanks for being one of those friends who loves with a love that is upside-down. You have always seen me, all of me, and loved what you see. To all of you who love each of us with upside-down love; who have helped us grow by loving us, crying with us, laughing with us, and by challenging and stretching us; you have whispered to us of a Jesus who is like none other. Tonight when I see my nightlight, I’ll say thanks to God for the gift of today and also for those who live the faith. Thanks for helping me let go of what a perfect Christian looks like and to be willing each day, to be an authentic follower of Jesus, as upside down as that may seem at times. As messy as this life can be, it’s the only thing that feels right-side up.

Happy Upside Down 2011!

A Life Well Lived


I put together a house concert for a friend on Friday, November 28th (the day after Thanksgiving). I could tell you the whole story, but one of the songwriters who sang said it so well that I thought I’d pass his words along. I’ll add more at the end of his note.

(A note from Pete Sallis, Tuesday, 12/2/08 @ 10:09 PM)

A life well lived…

The day after Thanksgiving, I was asked along with Nicole Witt, Brian White, and Billy Montana, to fly down to Dallas. Celia Whitler asked us to come down to play our songs to celebrate Celia’s friend Kathleen Baskin-Ball. Kathleen has been bravely battling cancer for a couple years now to find out that it had spread. So, what did Kathleen decide to do with her 10 or so days she was told she had left? Celebrate!! One of the many things she loved was music, so she wanted to spend last Friday night with family, friends, and music. We arrived to find the street lined with cars that any valet service would be jealous of, a lawn filled with white paper bags lit up with candles inside and inspirational messages written on the outside, and a sweet quaint house right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We were greeted by a smiling Kathleen in the front yard, so gracious that we would fly down and take the time out to come and play for her. Just one look at her and you felt like you’d known her your whole life. Her eyes were bright and her spirit was on fire – soaking up every moment like a flower savors the rain.

Walt Wilkins drove a couple hours from Austin to be a part of the evening because he’d heard how much of a fan Kathleen was of his. In all, we ended up playing a couple hours of songs that were funny, reverent, emotional, and uplifting. Throughout the night, I couldn’t help but notice how tears would suddenly hit different people, and how unique laughter looked when mixed with the fresh remnants of tears. It was a surreal experience to say the least. We ended the night listening to Nicole singing a stirring acapella “Oh Holy Night”, and divine it truly was. As we packed up our guitars, Kathleen asked me what my favorite food was and I said lasagna is in my top 5 – to which I thought she was going to wrap up some of the leftovers from the kitchen – and she said “..I’ll make sure its ready and warm when you get to heaven…” It was hard to keep it together, but how can you break down when the one who has every right to lose it is smiling with a blessed assurance that all is well.

I can only pray that I would have an ounce of the dignity that Kathleen showed us all that night. We all have a terminal disease called “life” that none of us will escape. Some might even think its a blessing to know when you’re gonna go so that you could live like you’re dying. Well, everyday is a gift and every day we have a choice to unwrap it or leave it under the tree. So I pray for all of us to make the most of what God has given us and cherish what really matters. It ain’t “the next song we write” or what “artist is cutting” or “the best gig or songwriting deal”, like Kathleen knew, its family, friends, and the quality of experience we soak in that make up this short but colorful fabric called life.

So we all came back a little different and changed for the better, moved by Kathleen’s faith, and nudged a little bit to try and be more like her. It is with a solemn heart to say I found out today that she left this earth to go be with God. My prayers are for her husband Bill, her 4-year-old son Skyler, her family, and the multitude of friends whose lives were brushed with the presence of an angel’s wings.

(* This is Celia again)…. The house concert was incredibly rich. It was about life, not about loss.

I have been fortunate to journey with Kathleen for the last two decades of our lives. I am thankful to her husband, Bill, her son Skyler and their families who have been so gracious to let me be a part of Kathleen’s courageous battle with cancer. It has been filled with laughter, tears, grace, faithfulness, sadness and hope. I was humbled to be with her for her last breath and also to celebrate her life at her memorial service.

During these last two years, I have prayed for a miracle and know in my heart a true miracle happened. Those of us who were touched by Kathleen’s life and faith, who believe as she did that “light will have the last word” know that she was the miracle … the way she lived… the way she loved…the way she shared her faith and spoke of the love and truth of Christ she bore witness to daily…the way she believed in the wonder of God’s unrelenting grace. She once wrote to me, “I thank God that our paths crossed and then in awesome unity moved straight toward all that is holy.” I feel the same way about her.

Thank you to Pete, Nicole, Billy, Brian, Walt and Ron for more than a wonderful night… for being a part of a journey that changed us all.

LINKS: I brought six songwriters’ to the concert. Here are links in case you want to sample a little of the flavor that we shared that Friday night in the living room.

Billy Montana
Pete Sallis
Brian White
Walt Wilkins
Nicole Witt

Four other singers and/or songwriters joined us that night: Doug and Jill Bryan (from Greenland Hills UMC, a former church Kathleen had served) and Katlyn Baskin and Jessica Newport (two of Kathleen’s nieces).

Here’s a link to a collection of information about Kathleen’s life and ministry, including several items from the Dallas Morning News.


A couple of weeks ago I was tucking Max and Zach in bed. The normal routine is as follows. We talk about our day and answer the questions, “what was the best part and what was the not-so-best part of the day?” I loved the days when the boys answer, “there was no not-so-best part.” My next question is, “who do we want to remember in our prayers tonight?” Many of you are mentioned: friends, family members, classmates, pets, etc. As a Christian Education major at Centenary College, I remember one of the first prayers Dr. Don Emler stressed to the class to teach young children is the Lord’s Prayer. We say the Lord’s prayer. Max has added his own hand motions similar to Power Ranger’s moves when we get to the kingdom, power and the glory portion of the prayer. By the time we have had baths, read books, gone through the not-so-best part and best part of the day, and we have mentioned friends and family and said the prayer ending with the Lord’s prayer and the final closing, hug and a kiss; I am crying tired.

One night when I asked who we should remember, Max answered, “Anyone who’s bleeding” At first thought, I was taken aback– ugh. What a yuck kind of thought. Then Zach chimed in and said, “yea ‘cause they’re hurting.” So we said, “anyone who is bleeding.” If you were in that list, that night; I hope you felt God’s presence. It’s funny to think about the specifics of that–anyone who is bleeding is visibly hurt. We have scrapes and cuts around our house daily. Blood means someone needs attention. How many times have we all had a hurt that is not visible to others but it still is just as real? Depression… addictions, estranged relationships, and past wounds–I can think of several. My prayer is that I have eyes to see those hurts of others, that are visible and those not so well seen. God sees them all and fulfills every need.

Last week, we were at the beach with a youth group from Texas (shout out to First UMC Richardson). During worship on the beach it was shared, “as many as the sands on the beach and as much water as we can see and as far as the horizon is–God knows and loves us more.” As I am sitting in my church this coming Sunday, sometimes beside folks who know my seen and unseen wounds and have been there to bring healing, my prayer is that I will and that you will be agents of God’s love and presence in each others’ lives. As Max and Zach stumble through the Lord’s prayer and make ninja gestures toward the end of it, may I too be reminded of God’s love and presence in my life.