Easter Graces in Atlanta

Today was a busy, grace-filled day. Tonight, as darkness settles onto our neighborhood, I feel tired but satisfied. This was truly the Lord’s Day.

This past week was not all easy. We had some difficult conversations with our dear church teammates. Yes, it is possible to hurt people you deeply love. I have done so; have you? I am thankful that, as recipients of God’s grace, we can each give the grace that we each so desperately need. Then yesterday was a difficult day for me. Emotionally drained, I found my mind did not want to focus on the writing assignments before me. Let’s just say it was not my most productive day (though I did enjoy some good times at the piano).

But today.

Today was a day that was better than I deserve. (Aren’t all?) Tomorrow will be another battle. I will need fresh grace. But today was a day where the grace was heaped onto our plates, impossible to miss, sweet to the taste. Let me recount a few of the sweetest morsels.

Today was our turn to host church. The spring Georgia weather has been amazing lately, so we swept the freshly-fallen tree blossoms off the concrete pad just over the stream, and gathered for church in our backyard.

I would love to share a picture of the group that gathered with us today. But it is important to me to honor people’s privacy. So you’ll have to look at me and trust me that this was not just a solo piano session.

The gathering spot was delightful, with birds and stream blending with our voices and sunlight dappling the sanctuary. The blend of friends who gathered was also delightful—if a little raucous at times. Our family of five was there. So was the Smucker family of five. Then about another dozen joined us. Our international student friend was here. So were several adults from a house just down our street—some for the worship time and some for the meal. And so were a whole passel of children from two different houses on our street. (That was the raucous part. The fact that our “sanctuary” was just next to the “gymnasium”—a trampoline—didn’t help. The day’s bouncing started about an hour before our stated “start time,” which didn’t ease setup. But I reminded my wife that Rich Mullins would have been delighted.) At one point during our morning worship Zonya looked around and counted 10 white, 11 black, and one Asian present. Not exactly representative of ratios in our neighborhood, but so much better than if we had each gone our separate ways today.

We sang with piano, we prayed “popcorn praises” (great for children), we read from the Gospels the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we sang a cappella (revealing a lovely singing voice brought by a first-time visiting neighbor), Steve shocked the children by making the “body” of one of his sons “disappear” from a card-table “tomb,” we sang some more, and we marveled over the 1 Corinthians 15 promise of our own resurrection. One person present expressed how glad he was to be celebrating his first Easter. Others learned to answer “Jesus rose from the dead” rather than “we look for Easter eggs” when asked “What is Easter all about?” Some had their hearts strengthened as they identified all too well with Peter while singing “He’s Alive!” (with guitar this time) and then sharing in the Lord’s Table.

Okay, here’s one more, since the only face you can see is Steve’s. Why can’t you see anyone else’s face? Because they are looking for Jesus’ body. They can’t see that, either. That’s because “Jesus” slipped out from under the table and is hiding inside the fireplace. (Note the gymnasium in the upper left corner.)

Lunch was delicious (lovely ham, Dearest!), if a bit of a zoo, what with refilling several hundred cups of tea and lemonade and water—“No, I want tea and lemonade together, with ice”—for about a thousand demanding children who were fighting for turns on the trampoline (or ignoring turns completely) and riding bikes up and down the drive and along the street. But how lovely to include several neighbors whose children have often enjoyed our backyard, but who had not yet been inside our house!

Shortly after lunch several unfamiliar young men appeared out on the street (we were still in the backyard), calling something out to us and apparently looking for, or expecting, trouble. First they ran away, but the second time this happened several of us men wandered out front in their direction. We managed to calm some mutual fears, shake hands, exchange names, and send the hungry visitors off peacefully with plates of leftover lunch. More on this later.

As outdoor cleanup ended and various guests left, my international student friend and I stole off to the piano studio for a little, where we practiced our duet (Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 8) that we are preparing for my upcoming piano recital. He also shared pictures and videos of a “piano club” concert that happened in his home country yesterday—a special event that he helped plan months ago, but then ended up missing thanks to now being in school on the other side of the globe. I find it fascinating and delightful how an English literature major and a math major born poles apart can find such common ground in their shared enjoyment of music. I am already starting to dread the day when our friend will leave Atlanta for the next destination in his educational journey.

Then the house was quiet. Just our family. I settled onto the sofa to relax, and my two youngest girls settled with me—one on top and the other beside, reading us “a scary story—but not too scary” about Horton hearing a Who. (Because “a person’s a person, no matter how small,” including the little ones we help parent in our backyard while trying to share in the Lord’s Table, right?)

But we had not even finished the story when our oldest bounded in with news of an Easter egg hunt that the neighbor children were about to head off to. Well… Easter isn’t really about egg hunts, but we had already shared the real meaning of Easter with these children, so… And they had come to our house, and now if they seemed to be inviting us to join them in their fun…? So I took the girls to go see what was happening. Turns out our van was needed to help carry all the children (10 total) who wanted to go to a nearby park for the hunt. Time there brought more friendship-building conversation with adult neighbors while our children, like a bunch of Energizer Easter bunnies, expended yet more energy.

I’ll skip over the bit about helping my wife accomplish her project of building a birthday gift for one of our daughters to say that part way through that activity yet another neighbor called across the yards to invite our daughters to join her son with his bubble machine. Our oldest drove her bike through the bubbles a few times then headed in the opposite direction to spend more time with the older church-and-Easter-egg-hunt friends from earlier in the day. Our two youngest enjoyed the comparative quiet of chasing bubbles with only one young friend.

Meanwhile, Zonya and I headed a couple houses further down our street to visit yet another house. There was a big family party there, and one of the children from this morning’s church gathering had invited us to drop in there, since it was his house.

That was a strange moment for Zonya and me. It was only one year ago that Zonya and the girls first joined me in our new house. We had not even officially moved in yet, and we knew almost no neighbors. Now, one year later, we were leaving two of our daughters at one neighbor’s house, the other daughter was hanging out with other neighbor friends at another house, and we were walking childless to follow up on an invitation to a third house, all on our block.

Two parts of that little visit stand out. Two, our hostess neighbor insisted on loading our hands with delicious food from their party—chicken and ribs done on her backyard grill, baked beans, macaroni salad, and cake. Mmm. And one, several men mentioned that they had seen our interaction with the young “trouble-makers” on the street earlier that afternoon. It turns out the same young men had been called out to their party, too, prior to meeting us. I was roundly praised (“Are you a pastor?”) for not doing what one of them said he would have done if he hadn’t been wearing a cast, and for defusing the situation by sending them off with food. More on this later.

We returned to the bubble-bursting daughters and invited this neighbor and her son to accomplish the oft-mentioned goal of letting her son jump on our trampoline. This brought more neighbor conversation opportunities for my wife and a chance for me to do a little more trampoline-side Jesus-shaped child training and encouraging. Chances like this aren’t hard to find these days, for some reason.

As Zonya walked this neighbor home, they bumped into a neighbor who lives between us. (She grew up there and is truly a gracious person to have next door.) Turns out this neighbor, too, had witnessed the food giveaway that happened on the street in front of her house. Wow. And to think that it never once crossed my mind that anyone might be watching. What might have happened if I had blown it? God, help us to be faithful in the little opportunities to live like Jesus! (More on this later?)

By this time day was dying in the west, so we retreated into the house that God bought and enjoyed the supper provided by the grandma of one of our regular backyard bikers and jumpers.

If I’m counting correctly, we visited in the yards and/or houses of four households on our block today. People from two of those households showed up at our own place as we hosted church. Plus, we exchanged friendly greetings as we passed a couple more houses on our block. And gave food to several passers-by. Oh, and I forgot the lady biking past this morning who stopped in just as church was about to begin to see if I could fill her bike tire. Yet another opportunity to share names and invite a new friend to join us for church sometime.

If you’ve read this far, you may feel as tired as I do.

I thank God for all the dear people with whom we shared this day. We feel both welcome and useful among our neighbors. I thank God for placing us here in Atlanta, here in West Lake, and right here on this block. I thank God for a day full of opportunities to offer our voices and hands for Jesus. And I thank him for a day when his grace is as sweet as the strawberry shortcake my wife served us last week.

Please pray for us. Tomorrow will be another battle. I have battled discouragement from time to time and expect to face this giant again. My wife needs God’s grace in her heart and on her lips. Our whole church team needs your prayers. But Christ dealt Satan his deathblow on that first Easter weekend, right? Satan is a wounded lion, roaring in anger as he goes down. Christ has the upper hand. May his hand be strong in West Lake! And may every day be the Lord’s Day this week, in your heart and mine.

May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Thank you for listening. If you are a neighbor, or if you are a friend far away, feel free to leave a message in the comments below. We thank God for you.

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26 thoughts on “Easter Graces in Atlanta”

  1. Resurrection power displayed in the lives of God’s children! A call to prayer for ourselves and each other that this great power would be accessed and realized to God’s glory. Thanks for inspiring update.

    1. Yeah, Mom, I figured you would enjoy this all-too-rare report from our lives. 🙂 Thanks for your prayers—and the example that you and Dad have provided, which was an encouragement to me again during a challenging situation this past week. May the power that raised Jesus from the dead be realized in us!

  2. Thanks for sharing your Easter blessings with us, you are an encouragement and challenge to us to LIVE our lives with REAL purpose—for His sake and for the Kingdom. ~Blessings, ellen, for the two of us

  3. I feel ya, brother! Reading about your day, I get the exhilarating and exhausting and thrilling challenges of new connections, meaningful worship, surprising gifts of God’s faithfulness (like with the intruder guys). thanks for taking the time to write it down and share it with us. May the Grace and peace, wisdom and strength of Jesus be abounding with your family in this unfolding week.

  4. Joyce commented that it is good you are much younger than we are! I preached on 1 Corinthians 15 yesterday. Paul, as usual, follows up his doctrinal teaching with a challenge for our everyday life. The chapter ends (as you know): “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Praying for you to have enough “abounding” days–like yesterday–to encourage you that your labour is not in vain.

  5. Thanks for sharing this interesting glimpse into a day of your life. I hope every day isn’t that busy! 🙂 Blessings to your family as you minister to those within your realm of influence.

  6. “All praise and glory be unto Jesus, For he hath purchased a full salvation; Behold how wondrous the proclamation. ‘Whosoever will may come!'”
    May that proclamation continue and many more may come to your gatherings!

    It sounds like you applied that Biblical principal to your encounter with those young men: “A soft answer turneth away wrath…”

    1. A good song. Yes, pray that the word of invitation of the gospel will sound more clearly in our neighborhood!

      “A soft answer.” It was relatively easy to apply in this situation. But what a powerful and too often under-used tool in our daily lives.

  7. Dear Dwight and Zonya,
    I read this early this morning, sitting on our deck, and my heart rejoiced! How precious is your willing service, costly and tiring. It is the expression of hearts filled with the love of God, as He loves others through you. What an amazing evidence of God’s ability to open doors into relationships! May He use all for His glory! As I sat there, filled with wonder and praise, I was also filled with thankfulness that God allowed me to have a small part in the ministry He has called you to, and to continue to pray for you. Lastly, thank you for your honesty. Is there not a relationship between the struggles of the week and the victories of Easter Sunday? The Adversary of God attacks, but He cannot defeat, as you wrote, because we share in the victory of God’s Son. And as you look to God in those struggles, in humility and dependence (and sometimes repentance), God is enabled to mightily work. Thank you for writing this up, for us to read.

    1. Lois, thank you so much for your reflections here! Yes, God has indeed used you to play a “small part” in our service here. In truth, you have played a much larger part than anyone might have expected, thanks to your kind generosity and your continued prayers! Someday it will be very clear that none of our labor for the Lord has been in vain… Many blessings as you work and worship this week!

  8. I was blessed to read this Dwight! Your involvement in Kingdom work on your street yesterday is really what it’s all about. Blessings to you and yours.

    1. Gary, many thanks to you and Laura for your support and the many words of life you have sent our way as we seek to serve where we are planted. May you serve deli sandwiches and the Word of Life with joy this week!

  9. Following Jesus in Atlanta. Sounds like a really good day. One you can be glad you had, and the. God gives rest for the next day.

  10. Hello Dwight; Do NOT be discouraged…
    I think of you and your family thinking like Jesus as at Luke 15:4 and from that verses perspective your work is very challenging (and in 1% of the statistic extremely rewarding! HOWEVER when one meditates on the statistics revealed at Matthew 7:13 we have a very sobering and serious future to consider and preach to! In addition I also thought of John 6:44 where Jesus made it clear that NOBODY can come to Him, UNLESS God the Father “draws them”
    Keep on Preaching and just stick to The Truth and you will be FREE!
    Best Regards;
    Delmer B. Martin
    (Elmira Ontario CANADA)

    1. Thank you, Delmer! The encouragement is much appreciated. My hope these days has been to recall Jesus’s parable about how the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, starting small but growing to fill the earth.

  11. Hi Dwight,
    Thanks for an honest and transparent testimony. Kingdom work is hard and messy, and often, thankless. Praise God that God’s unfailing word promises that His strength is perfected in our weakness. You suited up and showed up with humility, and maybe a big dose of gratitude for the mending of relationships, and Jesus was revealed.

    I’m late to the conversation, but wanted to let you know how refreshing your story is to this fellow traveler.

    Life and Peace,

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