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Transcript - Get Your Spirit in Shape: Life lessons from a 95-year-old United Methodist

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Joe Iovino: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

I am so pleased to bring you a conversation I had the privilege of having with a very wise woman in her 90s who has tremendous faith and an amazing relationship with Jesus Christ. I first became aware of Shirley Bachelder in early 2015, when one of my colleagues interviewed her for a bucket list story for UMC.org. We learned that she had taken a hot air balloon ride at 93, just because she wanted to, that she wears flowers in her hair every day, and that she has a tremendous love for God.

When she came to lead chapel in our offices this summer, she talked about the billboards she was able to put up all over Nashville with a simple message she received from the Lord.

And a couple of weeks ago, I got to go to church with Shirley and interview her later that day.

In this conversation, we talk about the billboards, the flowers in her hair, friendship and her deep relationship with Jesus Christ. It was an honor to talk to her, and I think you are going to enjoy what you hear from her.

Shirley Bachelder chatted with Get Your Spirit in Shape host Joe Iovino after chapel at United Methodist Communications.

Shirley Bachelder chatted with Get Your Spirit in Shape host Joe Iovino after chapel at United Methodist Communications. Photo by Fran Walsh, United Methodist Communications.

Shirley Bachelder: I’m Shirley Bachelder, and I am a member of the Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin Tennessee.

Joe: This is not something I would normally ask people, but can I ask you how old you are?

Shirley: O certainly. I’m 95, and a half. It will be a half the 3rd of October.

Joe: People noticed you because of some billboards that went up around Nashville area. Can you tell me a little bit about that story? 

Shirley: It was the Lord’s ad. And he wanted it to be a black background, white letters…

Joe: And they just have your picture and three words.

Shirley: My granddaughter took the picture, and the three words, and my name.

Joe: What are the three words?

Shirley: The three words were “Love One Another.”  

Joe: Why do you think that’s such an important message?

Shirley: Well, I think that people don’t really appreciate that. They want to know what love is. See? And they’re not sure. They have got so many ideas of love from their background that they don’t trust it, number one. And then if they trust it, maybe they’ve had a difficult time with it. Well, as one person told me, “You just can’t look at somebody and say, ‘I love you,’ because you don’t know that person well enough. That’s too much to expect.” 

Shirley Bachelder’s “love one another” billboard.

Shirley Bachelder requested one billboard to display her message of love. The company put up 21! Photo by Christopher Fenoglio, United Methodist Communications.

But if you try to understand that person and you overlook all their little foibles, you will find things to love about them. That’s where the love come in. Love one another. You’ll always find something to love.

Well, when Lamar saw it they said, “We will put 21 billboards up. And so it was quite an exciting moment for me. And that went viral, all over the world. And I began getting letters, bouquets, gifts, things on Facebook, things in the mail…

So, it got to be quite a...quite a thing. And that’s how it all started.

Joe: I met you when you at chapel at United Methodist Communications several months ago not. And you talked about moving from New England .... Did you live in Maine or Massachusetts ?

Shirley: No. Massachusetts. I was born and brought up in Massachusetts. And then we went on a camping trip cross country, landed in California and decided it was nice. And we went back the second year and decided we’d really do it.

And we bought a truck and put all of the furniture in the truck. And we went. And we stayed there about...almost 50 years.

Joe: I remember you saying that you left behind a friend, a very dear friend. That was one of the hardest parts of leaving, right?

Shirley: Her name was ah Marion Theesfelt. And she was a dear friend. And we used to go places together and do things together. And she was a very unusual girl. And she had a very wonderful attitude toward life. She was always ready to do anything.

And some of things she would get into a situation where it was very difficult. But she’d get out of it. And I would say, “Well, that’s the Lord helping you. Yup, I think it must be.”

And so going across country I said, “Lord, you’ve got to find me somebody like that, somebody.” And he said, “Okay.”

Well, I got there and my mother was sick. So it was a whole year before I was...she died, and I regained my equilibrium. And I was singing in the choir and on a sermon...the sermon was about “You’ve got to ask if you want anything.”

So I said, “Well, Lord, it’s time for me to have a friend.” And he said, “She’s standing beside you.”

So I looked, and she was not anyone that I would have picked for a friend.

So anyway, I thought, Well, he said that’s who she was. So all right.

The next week I said, “Would you like to be my friend?” After telling her about Marion. “No. No,” she said.

I said, “Did you hear that, Lord? She said, No. Find me somebody else.”

So the week went by and there wasn’t anybody else that he was putting in her place. So I said to her , “Why don’t you want to be my friend?” And she said, “Well, you’re too smart for me.”

Well, never mind what I thought. I said, “What difference does that make? Does that make a big difference to you?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says, “You’re just too smart. Well, anyway, what would we do?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m new to California, and you were born and brought up here and know all the things about it. We’d take one day a week and go see something together.”

From there I found out she had gone to college on a scholarship. She had music in her that was unusual. She played the violin. She played a beautiful, beautiful violin. And her music was just gorgeous.

Then she began helping me with all the projects that I had, and I had plenty in the...in the.... I was teaching Sunday school, and I was in the choir. They had had a choir, sweetheart banquet every February. And somebody dropped it and I picked it up. And for 7 years I was in charge. And she helped me. And that was wonderful.

Then we started in bringing clothes to Mexico. We would go down and come back to San Diego and stay overnight and come home. We’d go to a movie. And we really had a good time.

And the Lord was with us, because we would say, “Where will we sleep tonight?” And he might say, “You just drive on and I’ll tell you when.” And some of the nicest things happened, that we slept on a pier one night, a beautiful.... out over the ocean. Can you imagine? With the waves coming in, and finally I said, “You know, we’d better go to bed.” She says, “We’ll never get a chance like this again in our lives.” And that was a wonderful time. And we would just ask the Lord, “Where will we sleep tonight?”

Joe: Friendship is very, very important to you.

Shirley: It is. It is.

Joe: Why is that? Why do you think friends such an important part of your life? 

Shirley: Well, I’ll tell you. I was an only child to begin with. And I always .... I always thought it would be wonderful to have had a brother. But my parents had me when they were old. My mother was 35...36. She got married at 35 and had me at 36.

Now I didn’t.... I didn’t have a lot of friends. I had the girl across the street. And every so often she’d say, “I’m not gonna play with you anymore.” And I would say, “Why?” “Well, I’m not telling you.” And I’d say, “Well, all right.”

But I enjoyed playing with her because she had a big backyard and a swing and her mother would let her have a tea party. But then we wouldn’t be friends for a long time, pretty soon she’d say, “The priest told me that we’d better be friends again.” So we’d be friends for a while. And all of a sudden...

I never knew what I did, but that was it. Her name was Kathy. And she said, “I’ve always wanted to Kay.  If you start calling me Kay, everybody will.” And I did. So she’s now Kay Colson.

Joe: And then later you had this friend in Massachusetts. And then a best friend in California.

Shirley: Yes.

Joe: How did you make friends when you moved to Tennessee?

Shirley: I walked through the door. People knew ahead of time that I was an artist and would teach them. And everybody was very interested in that. And when I got through I was introduced to everybody. And the flowers in my hair were a big asset. Everybody could identify where I was and talk to me, and found out that I was easy to talk to and not very judgmental. So I had a lot of people who were eager to be my friend. And I discovered that I could treat  them, like I had at home. And they were very happy with that.

Joe: You mentioned flowers in your hair. You wear those every day, right?

Shirley: Yes.

Joe:  Why is that?

Shirley: Well, on my 80th birthday my kids were giving me a birthday party. And I had a purple dress.

I had a wreath, a purple wreath sitting on the table. And I was kind of nostalgic and thinking about all the wonderful things that God had given me. The three beautiful children, the wonderful husband, the nice house, the garden, 2 wonderful cats, and you know, all my friends and all the church and I was going on and on and on.

And all of the sudden it dawned on me, “Well, what is it for him? Why is it so wonderful for him to have me for that?” And I thought, I should do something every day as a thank you. What can I do?

And I looked down and I saw the flowers. And I said, I will put flowers in my hair. And in the morning when I put ‘em on I will say, “Thank you, Lord, for all the good things that you have supplied me with. Thank you.”

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Joe: And so, they’re a reminder to you....

Shirley: They’re a reminder and it’s a.... And I hope that he can celebrate with me, too. I think he has because he’s given me so many nice things. Like....

Joe: Like?

Shirley: Like this.

Joe: Like getting to do this. Right! And when you are on the billboard with ‘love one another,’ your flowers are very prevalent in the picture. We can see the ways that you give thanks to God in that way.

One of the things that really fascinates me about you is the way you talk to God. You have this on-going conversation with God. Is that fair to say?

Shirley: I think that that is available to anybody. But I think that they don’t take advantage of it.

Joe: One of the things that so many people today are longing for, is to hear from God. Right? And you get very specific instructions from God? How are you able to hear them when so many of us don’t?

Shirley: I was... I was a child and I had measles. And I had just gotten back to school when I had scarlet fever. And then I had just gotten back to school when I had rheumatic fever. One whole spring was nothing but sick.

I was so sick that I was dying. And my grandmother was taking care of me. My father was on the sea. He was a captain. And my mother worked. And she was taking care of me, and I was just dying in pain. And all of a sudden.... I was on 2 chairs. And I lifted off the chairs. I went up 13 steps and around the newel post and into my mother’s room. Under her very large window she had a...a, ah, blanket chest. They call it what kind of chest? Maple....ah....

Joe: Cedar chest?

Shirley: I was going in this direction. I wasn’t floating or swimming. And I went right up and stood on the blanket chest. The window was wide open. And there were 3 angels. I actually saw them. One had a beautiful pink dress on. And one was orange and one was yellow.

And they.... I looked out and I saw in the distance a white staircase, a long, long white staircase. And I saw those beautiful angels. And they put their hands out to me. And I was going, but I wound up on the chair down below.

I was so upset. I was so mad. The doctor said, “This child’s heart is really bad, and she shouldn’t get up and do any walking around or anything.” And my grandmother said, “Did you hear that?” I said, “Yeah. Yeah.”

So they had hardly hit the floor downstairs when I was up, ready to go! It was such a beautiful, beautiful thing to happen to me that day.

I think that I was really sure that the Lord was with me. And I think that he was...he’s always been sure. I haven’t had a life of ease by any means. I’ve had a lot of operations and miscarriages, and family upsets and all kinds of things. But there’s always been the Lord that’s taken care of me. And I think that it was because of my feelings that he became closer and closer to me.

Joe: So your advice...if somebody said to you, “How can I know what God wants in my life?”

Shirley: You know, you really need to give the Lord a chance to refresh you and to renew you and that’s what the Sabbath is for.

Go in the backyard or in your garage when nobody’s there and say, “Lord, what have you got for me next?”

And I would say, And wait for 15 minutes. Just stand there and wait. And open your brain and think him  coming in.

Joe: I just think that’s something people today need to hear.

Shirley: I think that people are so nervous about that that they don’t either wait or they don’t think it’s gonna happen. I think it’s gonna happen. Of course, there were times when I said, Lord, I would like this or I would like that. And nothing. Nothing.

So I conclude that if ... if I get a nothing, then that’s a ‘no.’ And I’m gonna be all right with that.

I was gonna have a third baby and I thought, This kid isn’t gonna have anybody with her. And I better.... Why don’t I ask God for twins? Now that’s good. I will ask him for twins. And I asked and I asked and I asked. No.

So she got to be 10 years old and they said, This little girl next door is moving in and she’s exactly the same age. Well, I was shocked. She was exactly like my daughter.

Her mother worked in a bakery and her father was gone. Her grandmother was trying to make food for her and she couldn’t. So the next thing you know she was mine. And it dawned on me, these kids...this is my twin. I finally got my twin.

Well, what am I gonna do about it? So I went to her mother and I said, “Would you mind if I dressed Kathy like my daughter?” She said, “Oh, that would be wonderful.” And the girls loved it. They loved it.

If I bought shoes, I bought shoes, two pair. If I bought her a dress I bought two pair. I bought her a guitar, two guitars. Took ‘em to Girl Scouting. Bought two uniforms. Took ‘em to church. They sang in the choir. She had a beautiful voice. And the grandmother was so relieved. She didn’t have any problems with it. And the mother was very relieved, too.

And I had Kathy for 3 years. And they moved away. I really missed her when she moved away. And my husband said, “Anytime you miss her, you get in the car and go see her.” So I did that several times. And it was.... it dawned on me that I had had my twins.

I had had ‘em at a good time. They were both...they were both happy with each other. They played together. And there wasn’t any screaming or hollering or any problems with the girls. And one day my daughter came to me and she said, “Kathy and I are not feeling good about each other.”

So I said, “Well, let’s sit down and talk about it.”  And I started in, you know, how it was a God-given thing that they were friends and all this. And all of a sudden the two girls just loved each other and were hugging each other and crying. I thought that was the most amazing thing. And they were really good. And we took her camping with us and everything.

Joe: One of the things I hear you say is that you expect God to show up.

Shirley: I expect him to.

Joe: When you ask God a question, you expect an answer.

Shirley: I do. Now, if I don’t get an answer, well I just feel as if God has something else in mind or I am to wait.

Joe: Like you had to wait 10 years for the twin?

Shirley: I waited 10 years for the twins.

Joe: But, the other thing I hear you say often is God’s right right here with us. You don’t think that you have to go to a special place to talk to God necessarily.

Shirley: No. I don’t have to do anything special. No.

And a couple of times he’s asked me about Christmas presents.

Joe: What are some of the things you’ve asked God to give you for Christmas?

Shirley: Last year I said, “Lord, I’d like a little wisdom about art—something that’s different and something that’s very good.” And he said, “All right.”

Well, I’m sitting there and I was thinking about him. In my hand picked up the pencil. And the next thing you know I drew a rosebud. That was my Christmas present. I was so delighted with that. I’m going to be using that for the children down in the retreat.

Joe: You have a lot of wisdom that God has given you over the years. He’s taught you a lot of things.

Shirley: Yes, he has.

Joe: What has God taught you about the importance of having friend in your life?

Shirley: Well, he...she used to say.... I’d say, “Where will we go for breakfast?” And she says, “I don’t know. We’ve been everywhere.”

We used to go someplace different every time. She said, “Why don’t you ask the Lord for a good place.” I said, “Okay.” And I heard the Lord say, “What do you like about a restaurant.” And out loud I said, “Good food.” She said, “You’re talking to him now?” I said, yes.

“What else?” “Nice and airy. Some place that’s really pretty, and hanging baskets. I like hanging baskets.”

So we go riding along and all of a sudden I hear, “turn right; turn left.” And we went up a hill like this. We were over by the water. And I went up a hill like this and he says, “Turn into this driveway.”

Now, I’m not kidding. We went into that restaurant. It had glass all around it. It had hanging baskets and the food was delicious.

I like to think that.... That’s why I said, Is there anything I can do for you, Lord? So one of these days I’m gonna say, “What do you want me to do for you, Lord?”  Then I’ll find out something else. But I haven’t really caught up with what I’m doing with this one.

Joe: Well I think we’re doing something right now.

One of the other that I hear you say, too, is that you don’t wait to just ask God about the big things. You talk to God about everything.

Shirley: Oh, yes! Yes.

Joe: You’re talking to God about where to go for breakfast in addition to moving to California from Massachusetts. I mean, those are two vastly different kinds of decisions. But you have a conversation with God about both of ‘em.

Shirley: Yes.  He’s interested in everything.

Childhood’s lonely…

My uncle, who was in his 90s, drove a Model T car. And he came up on the hill and picked my grandmother and me up and we went over to this church. So one day he came up and my grandma says, “I don’t feel like going.” And I said.... He said to me, “Do you want to go?” And I thought, “He would come all the way up on the hill to bring me home.” I said, “Yes, I would.” I was thinking of that ride in that car.

It was raining and we got on the car tracks and I don’t know whether you know about those little...little wheels on the Ford car. We hit one of those car tracks and we went right around like this.

And he’s sitting very calmly holding onto the steering wheel and saying, “Lord, just bring me around, just bring me around.”  

So, I looked at him. I was scared to death. We’re swinging around, you know, and we landed just facing the back. He said, “Thank you, so much, Lord. I appreciate that, and I hope it hasn’t scared my little grandniece here.” I thought, “Boy, have you ever scared me!”

But I said, “It must be wonderful to have a friend like that.” He said, “It is. It is. It’s wonderful. I have had him all my life. And I knew we were gonna be all right.”

So he left me all alone in the back of the church. And pretty soon they were all talking about being close to the Lord. And he said to me...he came up, walked up the aisle and he looked at me and he said, “Would you like to be the Lord’s? Would you like to belong to the Lord?” And I said, “Could I have him as a friend like you’ve got him?” And he said, “Absolutely.” So I said, “Okay, what do I do?” “Get up.”

I remember the coat I was wearing and the hat I was wearing. I was thinking, “Boy, this is a big thing.” And I went up and knelt down and they all prayed for me. I always felt that that was the first...first big jolt.

On the way home he said, “Now, you understand, if your friends. You’ve got to do something, too.”  I said, “Well, okay, what?” “Well, you’ve gotta talk to your friends about having him as their best friend.” 

Joe: We’ve talked a long time, and I think this is a good place to stop, because I really like your idea of Jesus being your friend. If we’re gonna talk about friendship, that’s the friendship we need. And I think this is a wonderful place to just kind of....

Shirley: I think that that is the most important thing because he is my number one friend.

Joe: And I can’t say how much I long to have that friendship that you have acquired with Jesus. And I am so grateful for you teaching me about that today. Thank you.

Joe in the studio: I loved that conversation. I learned so much from her.

You know, I forgot to ask Shirley directly about a spiritual exercise she would recommend, but she mentioned something in the conversation that I think we all need to try. She talked about getting quiet before God—going out in the backyard or in the garage, as she said—and giving God some time to talk to us.

I’ve been trying to have those moments since talking to Shirley and I hope you’re inspired to do the same. Let me know how it goes for you.

If you go over to UMC.org/podcasts you will find a link to this episode of the Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast. There’s a place there for comments, where I would love to you to share how your practice of getting quiet is going. Or, if you prefer, there’s a link there to email me.

There are other links on the page as well, including some that will take you to stories about Shirley.

Be sure to subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape, because in the coming months we have episodes planned about the spiritual practice of generosity, and another on thinking about Christmas through hymns.

Please also remember to review us on iTunes or the Google Play store. Those reviews help make us more visible and help others find us and join this conversation.

Thanks for listening. We’ll be back soon. Peace.