Cool Springs Mall

The Tie that Binds

Walking this morning I happened onto a new person -- actually he happened onto me. I sensed someone approaching me from the backside so I turned around to greet him. We exchanged walkers’ predictable pleasantries as we passed a few storefronts when I introduced myself:

“My name is Mark.”

“Hi, I’m Don.”

“Are you a native Nashvillian?

“No, originally from Texas.”

“Where in Texas, I’m from Texas.”


“Oh, I have a cousin who lives on the Arkansas side of Texarkana who is a Presbyterian pastor.”

“What’s your last name?”


“Oh, I know you. In fact, I’m in the choir you used to direct. Downtown at First Baptist Church? We’re new members of the church and you led rehearsal one night a few weeks ago. I just didn’t recognize you out here.”

From there we had a wonderful conversation for about three laps. We know many of the same Baptist pastors and ministers of music.

Yesterday, Betty was almost finished with her lap as I arrived so I did a U-turn and joined her for her last 50 yards or so. She was rolling along at a pretty good clip pushing her basket/cart with weights in the bottom. She looked great -- white-white pants, bright coral-colored top, a bit of eye-shadow and, of course, lipstick and earrings to match.  Amazing for age 95 at 6:45 AM!

“Good morning, Betty! How are you?”

“Where have you been?” she lovingly barked back.

“I was here yesterday, had a doctor’s appointment Monday, and last week I was doing some manual labor at our office. We did some moving around so I got plenty of exercise doing that.”

“Are you doing okay?”

“I must be -- I’m still here!”

“Well, you look like the fresh breath of spring!”

“…or the last rose of summer,“ she quipped.

“Do you try to walk every day?”

“Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I ride the bike on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Oh that we all could be that active physically, mentally, and in spirit at 95! Thanks, Betty, for being a wonderful model and inspiration.

Bill (Gina’s dad) and I have run into one another more often recently and that’s always enjoyable. We seem to have a lot to talk about and we pick up where we left off last time. He’s helping with security again at Brentwood Baptist’s VBS next week and always looks forward to that -- a wonderful ministry for guys his and my age. I may give that a shot the first summer I’m retired.

Betty is active at Franklin’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, Carolyn is doing all manner of ministry through her Church of Christ, and Robert (the Boompa look-alike) goes to Revival Church near Nolensville.

I’ve been walking three mornings of most weeks in Cool Springs Mall for seven months and have met a lot of new and interesting people. I’ve told you about many of them. Looking forward to seeing any/all of them is part of what helps me maintain that early morning regimen. But I’ve noticed this -- people of Christian faith are easier for me to connect with those who don’t seem to be practicing theirs. Duh! I am able to carry on an interesting conversation with nearly any of them, but the flow seems more seamless among the faithful.  Though not at all ashamed of my faith, I’ve never been a loud-mouth button-holing pusher of it. In these walking encounters it’s pretty easy to gently “test the waters” and see who continues the train of thought. When someone does pick it up, fellowship among near strangers is almost immediate. Very cool!

I doubt Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf had ever walked a mall three hundred years ago when he wrote these words, but he, too, sensed the fellowship among believers:


Christian hearts in love united, seek alone in Jesus rest;
     has He not your love excited?  Then let love inspire each breast.
Members on the Head depending, lights reflecting Him, our Sun,
     Christians, His commands attending, we in Him, our Lord, are one.

Come, then, come, O flock of Jesus, covenant with Him anew;
     unto Him who conquered for us, pledge we love and service true;
     and should our love’s union holy firmly like no more remain,
     wait ye at His footstool lowly, till He draw it close again.

Grant, Lord, that with Thy direction, “Love each other,” we comply,
     aiming with unfeigned affection Thy love to exemplify;
     let our mutual love be glowing, so that all will plainly see
     that we, as on one stem growing, living branches are in Thee.

O that such may be our union as Thine with the Father is,
     and not one of our communion e’er forsake the path of bliss;
     may our light shine forth with brightness, from Thy light reflected, shine;
     thus the world will bear us witness, that we, Lord, are truly Thine.

Words – Nicolaus L. von Zinzendorf, 1725

Indeed, blest is the tie that binds Christian hearts in His love.

- Mark


ROMEO, Ron, and Russell

Even though the weather has moderated considerably, I’m still early-morning walking in Cool Springs Mall before going to the Celebrating Grace office nearby. A few of my buds there apparently walk in their respective neighborhoods now that the mornings are wonderful and spring is in full bloom. This morning I walked a spell with Wayne and Naif who bring to mind Laurel and Hardy. (That pretty well dates me.) Walking alone I tend to compete with myself and end up walking too fast; falling in step with L&H slows my pace some and that’s usually a good thing. Naif is the steady, easy going one of the duo whereas Wayne is always picking at someone about something along the way. (Wayne reminds me of my Uncle John -- likable, good-hearted and fun-loving, but -- as we would say in south Texas -- full of baloney.)

If I want to pick up my pace I walk with Ron who is long-legged so I have to work hard to keep up with him. He’s an interesting guy as are most of the others walkers. He is retired and his hobby is airplanes. He and a couple of others own a two-seater hangered at an airport in Lewisburg some forty miles south. He goes down there three or four times a week to mess with the plane, hang out with other flying friends, but primarily to get out of the house. He belongs to a group of guys unofficially called ROMEO. That name sort of conjures up images of dirty old men on the prowl for available Juliets. But he quickly explained that ROMEO is an acronym for


Apparently, ROMEO is a regional “club” whereby guys within a hundred or so- mile radius fly their planes over to some agreed-upon spot on the banks of the Tennessee River for catfish lunch, somewhere in Alabama for meat ‘n three, or Kentucky for a bait of hot brown, derby pie or some such. They set a time for lunch and everyone leaves their respective airports in time to make the lunch bell. Rural airports run a shuttle to and from the restaurant where the guys eat, tell lies, visit awhile, “see ya next week” and fly back home. “It’s not inexpensive, but we enjoy it and it gives us something fun to do.”

Arriving at the office this morning as usual and ahead of nearly everyone else at our complex, I noticed a gentleman taking his morning walk in our parking lot. I parked the car and walked toward our suite. By then, he was approaching me on the sidewalk and seeing me stick the key in our door he said:

“You’re just the person I’ve been looking for.”


Pointing to our wall sign, he said “I’ve walked by here a dozens of times wondering what ‘Celebrating Grace’ is. I even stepped inside one day and didn’t see anyone so I turned around and left. Grace is such an important word.”

I gave him the short version of our business then asked, “Is grace important because it is someone’s name or for some other reason?”

“It’s because of my faith. My name is Russell.”

We talked on a bit, swapping faith stories, etc.

“So you walk by here frequently?”

“Yeah, I live over here in the Alara Apartments. I’m from Covington (TN) but my wife died of cancer two years ago and I’ve married my high school sweetheart who lives down here.”

“Really! My wife died of cancer two years ago, but I haven’t remarried…nor is it on my radar.”

“We were married 47 years.”

“Honey and I were married nearly 45.”

We compared cancer stories and somehow the Notes From Susie book came up.

“That’s great!  I’ll go buy a copy next time I’m out.”

“Well, why don’t you just come in and I’ll give you one of my author copies.”

“Okay, maybe I can make a donation to Celebrating Grace.”

Russell followed me into my office and we continued to get acquainted. He told me about the Methodist church in Covington where his membership remains and about Epworth UMC they now attend. He mentioned the death of the female associate pastor at their Covington church and how that church and senior pastor are still grieving this well-loved associate’s death. It turns out that associate had been one of my friend Rusty’s favorite students at Lambuth College in the late 70’s and he had attended her memorial service earlier this year. Her name was Grace.

“I don’t believe in coincidences” he said. “I believe you and I were supposed to meet today.” 

I showed and gave him a copy of Notes From Susie and he handed me a check for $100 for Celebrating Grace.

“Russell, this is so nice of you.”

“I’m just glad to be able to. I better be on my way. She’ll be wondering where I am.”

“I hope our paths cross again. Maybe we can walk together some morning.”

Borrowing a phrase Honey used and a way of life she practiced and pretty much perfected -- “Today I am thankful for” -- opportunities I have, for new people I am meeting, for health to walk, for strength to do pretty much what I want, for wonderful churches of many stripes, for good friends nearby since family is afar, for the beauty and freshness of springtime…all of which calls to mind this bright and joyful hymn:

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,
     all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings,
     He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings.

The purple-headed mountain, the river running by,
     the sunset and the morning that brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter, the pleasant summer sun,
     the ripe fruit in the garden: He made them every one.

He gave us eyes to see them and lips that we might tell
     how great is God Almighty, who has made all things well.

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,
     all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.

Words – Cecil F. Alexander, 1848

- Mark

Days of Darkness

Last week began on the negative side of my mental ledger. Of late, several things in which I’m involved have not been going particularly well or as I had planned, so already by Tuesday morning clouds outside and within had blown in -- one of those “days of darkness” the hymnwriter talked about. During the second half of my life I’ve become a fairly positive person, but the early part of last week, I was just plain sad.

I have never forgotten one point our pastor Frank made in his sermon the Sunday after 9/11, the essence of which was “when things in life are dark, keep your routine, doing what you know to do, and look for a handle to grab onto…” His text was Psalm 25, what my Bible calls an “Acrostic Prayer for Instruction.” Each stanza of that psalm begins with the letter in order of the Hebrew alphabet. That day Frank surmised that the psalmist may have been in the midst of a dark day or perhaps a national crisis – as we were post 9/11 -- and grabbed a hold of any available handle on which to hang his personal routine.

Normally on Tuesday mornings my Belmont Bible study group meets but with several of our seven being out, we didn’t meet last week. Some of you know my recent routine has included walking a couple of miles inside Cool Springs Mall before heading to the office nearby. So, sans Bible study I decided to keep the morning walk ritual secretly hoping I might encounter one of my new mall friends or even make a new one.

Periodically, I had noticed and waved to a gentleman who always seemed to walk alone and whom I had not met. Monday (the previous day) I had seen him again, waved cordially across the divide when the thought crossed my mind that, for whatever reason, he may have never connected with any other mallers and perhaps our paths would naturally cross one of these days at which time I would break the ice.

Sure enough, the very next day -- dark Tuesday -- halfway around the perimeter of the food court on my first of four laps, through the outside door walked this gentleman whom I greeted and fell into lockstep never breaking stride. It couldn’t have been choreographed any more seamlessly…and I’m not making this up.

Meet Reece. He is retired from mostly the retail and wholesale hardware business so with my liking of hardware we had a lot to talk about. I enjoyed a short history of the hardware business in downtown nearby Franklin. In our early days in middle Tennessee the kids and I even bought a few things in his store and he may well have waited on us. He is a long-time member of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Franklin and knows my friends Jana and Tommy, both of whom are former music directors at his church. We both remembered fondly Jana’s daughter Laura, whom, apparently, Reece’s wife taught in preschool Sunday School and later as a real smart Vanderbilt student sang in the Sanctuary Choir at our church downtown after I retired. One morning during worship Laura sang a solo I’ll never forget -- not the song, but her authentic delivery of it. It was a simple, childlike song -- just right for her voice and spirit. I didn’t hear or need anything else that morning. After church she told me it was her first time to sing a solo in worship.

Leaving the mall, the clouds outside were still there but the ones inside had all but vanished. A new friend and remembering a couple of high moments in worship lifted my spirit noticeably -- a helping handle in my routine.

I’m pressing on the upward way,
     new heights I’m gaining every day;
     still praying as I onward bound,
     “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

My heart has no desire to stay
     where doubts arise and fears dismay;
     though some may dwell where these abound,
     my prayer, my aim is higher ground.

I want to live above the world
     though Satan’s darts at me are hurled;
     for faith has caught the joyful sound,
     the song of saints on higher ground.

I want to scale the utmost height
     and catch a gleam of glory bright;
     but still I’ll pray till heaven I’ve found,
     “Lord, lead me on to higher ground.”

(All together on the Chorus)

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
     by faith, on heaven’s table-land,
     a higher place than I have found;
     Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Words – Johnson Oatman, Jr. – 1892

Those are good words to sing and live into, for sure; but the fact remains that, in this life, not every day is higher and brighter and better. But in times of downness, darkness and danger, sometimes in keeping our routine earnestly pressing, praying and aiming for the upward way, the Lord somehow places our feet on higher ground. That day Reece and remembering Laura together was part of God’s lifting me up and helping me stand.

Thanks be to God!

- Mark

A People Parable

Following seminary, the first pastor with whom I worked was Dr. James Carter -- more than a prince of person and the absolute best pastor for a minister of music practicing his craft for the first time. He was not a musician at all, even struggled to sing, "Happy Birthday," but he knew the difference between cheesy church music and that which had depth; he preferred the latter. His weekly column in the church newsletter and the title of one of his several books was, People Parables. The man could spot a sermonette in a people experience better and quicker than anyone I've ever known. I happened on a people parable today. 

The best thing I've done this past month -- second only to having my kids, grandkids, and brother Randy at my house most of four days AND experiencing some wonderful Christmas music thanks to FBC Nashville and Brentwood UMC -- is beginning to walk Cool Springs Mall in the mornings before heading to the office. I don't give a hoot about the stores and shops, but walking indoors surely beats the winter weather. The very best thing about it, though, is the people -- the fellow walkers and mall caretakers. 

 Today I met one of the caretakers, the gentleman who sees to the indoor and outdoor plants in the place. I had seen and spoken to him in passing for a few weeks, but he seemed like the kind of person who might be fun to know better. 

 "I see you messing with all these plants around here. What all are you doing to them?"

"I get the paper and trash out that people put there. I water them on Thursday, and every three months I spray and wipe down the leaves with a mixture of water and oil to clean them and help them shine."

"Wow, that's a lot of work, but I can't help but notice how nice they all look. How many are there?"

"Inside there are 95, and outside there are 25, so 120 in all."

"I've watched you and it seems like you are pretty gentle handling each one."

"Yeah, they all look alike but they're not."

There was no doubt he was Italian, even before he told me his name -- Angelo. "I'm imported!," he proclaimed. Angelo has been in this country since he was 18, and said you can't really change "my voice" -- meaning his speech pattern and accent -- after about age 12. "But being here a long time, sometimes I can speak like you. I learned it on the street."

"Well, you speak my language much better than I speak yours. I admire you and anyone else who comes to our country and learns our language... since my wife died nearly two years ago, I have a hard time managing eight or ten plants scattered around the house. I think I water them too much."

"I'll be back over here in about twenty minutes. I'll show you how I water them."

We connected back again and now with his watering cart, he took great care showing me his routine and how to gauge a plant's moisture. 

We talked some more and then we both resumed our morning routine. But I'll be on the lookout for him and we may even become mall friends. 

Walking away reflecting on the encounter it occurred to me -- Angelo tends to each plant in his care just as God tends to all "120 of us," giving each of us exactly what we need -- individually. To any other god, we might all "look alike" as Angelo said; but not so to God -- He knows and calls us by name and "all we have needed [God's] hand hath provided." Thanks be to God!

In a few minutes, another delightful thought showed up. My mission at the mall is to walk, but it's hard to get one's walk done when one stops to visit with the people. That's WHAT HONEY DID all those years at the Tennessee Baptist Convention every Tuesday delivering the paper he office produced on Mondays. Lonnie, her boss and dear friend, jokingly (and lovingly) call it her "hall ministry," and that it was. It was her very favorite "task". 

 Here's the first stanza of what may have been Honey's favorite hymn in the God, the Sustainer section of the Celebrating Grace Hymnal.

Day by day and with each passing moment, strength I find to meet my trials here;

trusting in my Father's wise bestowment, I've no cause for worry or for fear. 

He whose heart is kind beyond all measure give unto each day what He deems best -

lovingly, it's part of pain and pleasure, mingling toil with peace and rest. 

Words - Caroline V. Sandell-Berg, 1866. 

May each of us encounter an "Angelo" soon. 

- Mark