Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Letter....

It is a hazard of the job. If you choose a people helping profession, you are going to be criticized, even if you have the best of intentions. . I have made some serious mistakes on numerous occasions. I have used poor judgment more than once! I know for a fact that I have preached sermons that just missed the target completely. All of those things are professional hazards. Humanity seems to get in the way at the most inopportune times. Sometimes criticism just naturally follows. It too is a hazard!

I have been very fortunate throughout my career as a minister. I have served with colleagues and volunteers alike who have been so gracious. Even when I made grievous mistakes, they were kind. But last fall was an exception. I felt like I could not do anything right. I started hearing about caustic comments that were being made about me. My professional capabilities were called into question. Of course very little of this information was communicated directly to me. I heard about it second and even third hand.

The frosting on the cake of criticism came in the form of an anonymous letter. The author’s venom was directed at all church leaders. Of course I threw it away and shared the contents with very few people. It was especially disheartening, because it came during a time period when I was feeling pretty low. A few weeks later another letter with no return address arrived. I was not inclined to induce anymore poison from a cowardly, unnamed source, so I started throw this second piece of mail away! I am glad I chose to open it now. Here are the contents of the second letter that was dated January 29th, 2009.

Dear John,

Today I heard a fine message to inspire us to grow stronger in faith and service. I was encouraged by your sermon, and felt privileged to be a Christian. I thought if there was a heart present, that felt the need to make a change for the next year, it could not refuse the initiative from God through his servant to turn to Him. Thanks for a good year of spiritual food for all of us. May God grant you and yours a great 2010.

When a 91 year old lady takes the time to write a letter to me, I take it pretty seriously. And this particular 91 year old was especially credible. She quit driving several years ago, so she was somewhat limited in her activities. That did not stop her! She chose to spend her time doing what she could do! She wrote letters. I mean she wrote lots of letters to all kinds of people. In an age of electronic correspondence, her handwritten words of encouragement were eagerly welcomed.

She also spent a lot of time cooking. Thankfully she had seemed to miss the fact that there are cake mixes and instant potatoes available at the store. She would call the church office about four to six weeks and convey the same message. I will have lunch ready for the entire staff on Tuesday. Come over and pick it up! We indulged in homemade chicken and dumplings, pinto beans, pecan pie, and cornbread. The list could go on…

Two weeks ago my 91 year old encourager celebrated her birthday. We decided it was our turn. We invited her to join us for lunch. None of us can cook as well as her, but we gave it our very best. A person does not turn 92 everyday! We did our best to be perfect hosts.

I enjoyed that lunch so much. She told great stories of the old days. She had kind things to say to all of us. She shared things about her son that he probably would not want repeated, but it sure was funny! It was a rare treat for each of us.

I am so thankful I opened that letter. And I am equally grateful that we planned a birthday lunch two weeks ago. My friend and constant encourager, Pauline Martin, died peacefully in her sleep last night. The police officer who responded to the home to handle her unattended death is a good friend of mine. I told him that Pauline was one of the “real prizes” of the Granbury Church of Christ. If she had known him, he too would have a letter to share today. As we prepared to leave the neat little apartment she had called home in recent years, her son picked up a get well card she had prepared for a man who has been in the hospital this week. It was sitting on her table to be mailed on Monday. I doubt it has a return address on it, but I suspect he will read it and treasure it for a long time to come. I know I treasure my letter today more than I did the day I received it. I am so grateful I knew Pauline Martin. It is one of the perks of the job…

Saturday, February 27, 2010

KIds in Prison

I got up bright and early this morning to make the weekly trek to Walmart.  I really did not mind at all.  The alternative was not a good one.  Go to Walmart or stay home to clean house.  It was a no brainer.   I looked down the empty hallway, as I grabbed my coat. My mind started playing tricks on me.  I saw two litlte boys building a fort in the linen closet.  I heard Jan say: Don't be so loud! You are going to wake up the baby!  I found myself opening the back door of my truck to strap one of them in a car seat before I left.  And then I suddenly realized that I was alone... Very alone...

I got to Walmart and saw several parents wrestling with small children, as they attempted to buy groceries.  There seemed to be more frustrated parents of young children than usual today. I overheard one mother tell her daughter to stop pouting.  And then my mind start playing more tricks on me.

I was holding a baby and watching two little boys in tow.  My memory was drawn back to the time in our life when we had to drive 70 miles to Walmart.  People thought I was crazy to take three little guys with me by myself to shop and mess around for the day.   The boys were always very well behaved.  We went through our little ritual of stomping out the devilish "I want's" in the parking lot, before entering the store.  I was stunned back into reality, as I purchased a Walmart gift card for my college student, so he can purchase his own groceries.  I was yearning for the days when I had to watch him, so he would not wonder off while I checked out.

Our oldest is about to complete his junior year in college.  Our middle son will graduate from high school this year.  The baby I held in Walmart a few years ago will enter high school in the fall.  In a very short time my babies will  be gone, and the hallway will be all too quiet.   I miss my babies more than I can say.

As I drove home from Walmart this morning, my mind stopped playing tricks on me.  Cold hard reality hit me like a ton of bricks.  I could not stop thinking about another boy.   He is not one of mine.   He is a 15 year old I met recently.  He is a 15 year old who has been convicted of 6 felonies.   When he first told me about his convictions, I questioned him....  6 felonies?  He listed them off and proceeded to describe his offenses in detail.  I felt sick inside.   He then told me that his biological father is deceased and his step-dad is serving a 20 year prison sentence.  I cannot get him off of my mind this week.

I have learned a lot from fathering three sons over the past 20 plus years.   My children have taught me a lot.
It has been a great experience.   As the empty nest time in life approaches, I know that my parenting responsibities will by no means cease.  In fact, that time of life may bring on additional duties.  Paternal instincts are pretty strong.  I think it is just impossible to stop being a father...

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Day I Drenched Myself in Women's Perfume....

 I had never been out with a college coed, but that was about to change. It was September of 1980. I was a freshman at Texas Tech. There was a girl in my biology class that I was determined to get to know better. The first Tech home game was on the horizon. I could hear my fifth grade teacher’s voice ringing in my head. I could hear her fist pounding on the chalkboard. Opportunity only knocks once! I asked this young freshman from Amarillo to accompany me to the Tech football game that weekend, and she agreed!

Fate was not on my side from that point forward…. Things started downhill when my car ended up in the body shop. Of course they provided me a loaner car… The loaner was a beat up Chevy Chevette that smelled like it had spent one too many days in an auto body shop. The carpet was a blackened maroon; the seats were adorned in early ‘70’s stain. The knobs for the radio had obviously been pilfered by some upstanding body shop customer. Things continued downhill after I picked up my impressive set of wheels.

On my way to the Big Date, I stopped at Eckerd’s Drug Store to pick up my favorite cologne. It was Saturday night and I had just been paid. I finally had sufficient resources to purchase some much needed cologne. Now at that time Pierre Cardin was my brand. (You can still buy it today, but I was informed by one of Randall’s friends a couple of years ago that it smelled like her grandpa.) I saw a bottle of Pierre Cardin Toilette on the shelf. I am actually a little foggy on the details of this important purchase. As I recall, I think I failed to notice the toilette part of the label. I proceeded to spray that stuff fairly generously. (You remember the car did not smell so pleasant to start with.) As I proceeded down Indiana Avenue toward the Tech Campus, I started getting a distinct whiff of what I had sprayed. It couldn’t be… It was impossible… The car smelled like women’s perfume! And then I looked at the label. I had purchased perfume! I rolled the windows down. I waved my arms around in the air, as if I was going to chase the smell out like an unwanted housefly. It was too late. I smelled like…Well I had better not say what I smelled like. My date commented on my aroma before we even got out the car. Oh you have not heard? Men are wearing women’s perfume these days. It is the latest trend among college students…

I drove a few blocks from Knapp Hall to Jones Stadium. The crowd was into the game. The school spirit was evident. It looked like I might redeem the night yet. But I was soon reminded that fate was not on my side that night. Selling alcohol at Tech games was prohibited in 1980, so a lot of students smuggled in flasks in their cowboy boots. The drunken college students sitting behind us managed to spill their flask of whiskey all over my date. She was thrilled. She had already smelled the sweet aroma of my loaner Chevette, Pierre Cardin Toilette, and now she could not escape the scent of the whiskey she was drenched in. The short trip back to Knapp Hall seemed to take hours. She changed clothes and we actually ended up having a pretty nice time that night. Most importantly I learned a few things that fateful fall evening in 1980.

I learned a lesson in authenticity. If a girl wants to be with you, she will ride in your stinky loaner car. There is no need to stop at Eckerd’s to buy the latest in men’s fragrances. She will be pretty forgiving of circumstances that are beyond your control. There is just no need to try to impress.

I say that I learned such lessons that night. I am not sure that I did. I think I had to have a few more similar experiences before such lessons began to be impressed on my heart. Some of those experiences were far more painful…I proceeded to have some relationships that extended much longer than one night out to a football game that were not based on being real with each other.

The day that we wake up and realize that all we need to do is to be our self is a good day. Relationships thrive in an environment of mutual authenticity. The person we are in a relationship with chooses to love us for who we are, and not an image that we have created in their mind. In fact, we may have even created a false image of ourselves in our own mind!

As I have gotten older, I have made the conscious choice to be authentic. I am so fortunate to have wonderful friends who are committed to the same pursuit of reality. My sweet bride of almost 26 years is as real as the day is long. What you see is what you get with her. She won’t mind if I pick up the wrong king of cologne at Walgreens. (Eckerd’s is long gone!) I pray that all of my important relationships will thrive in an environment of mutual authenticity.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tolerating the Imperfect...

My friend Kevin buys albums. I don’t mean photo albums. He is not into creative memories, as far as I know… He buys music albums. I think the last one I purchased was Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that came out in October of 1973.  Naturally I was thrilled when eight tracks came out! I wore out my  first Boston eight track completely somewhere around 1977. When I purchased my first car, I abandoned the eight tracks and moved up to a cassette player. I listened to Billy Joel’s Stranger LP on cassette in the car until the player finally ate it up one day. My extensive collection of albums felt pangs of loneliness, as they collected dust in my room.  They had been abandoned in favor of the seemingly superior cassette tapes.

One of Kevin’s latest editions to his album collection is a Kansas LP that was released in 1975. Now that is a classic album! He is quick to point out that the music quality on the albums of that era is definitely inferior to what is being produced today. Today’s computer driven digital recording technology is truly amazing. But... he also noted that recording artists of a previous generation did not have the luxury of laying multiple tracks down in digital fashion. In other words, they had to play it right! As they recorded, the pressure to perform it well must have been unbelievable! Kansas actually released two albums in 1975. At that time, members of the group could not have possibly fathomed the complexities that twenty first century technology has given the recording industry.

As I listened to Kevin describe advanced recording methods used in the music industry today, a life lesson occurred to me. As we interact with people everyday, we don’t have the luxury of recording relational tracks separately and then assembling them into one harmonious life experience. We are forced to get it right as we go. In most cases, we only get one opportunity to “record.” We have to make the best of every encounter with each individual. Normally the opportunity to go back and record again is not availed to us.

What are the implications of that fact? We live in a world where technology allows us to tweak all kinds of things, so that raises our expectations of what life offers! But humanity is still real. We make mistakes. Relational harmony is sometimes lacking. We play the wrong notes. We say the wrong things. We fail to be where we should be when we should be there.  The end product of our interactions with each other does not always look or sound good!

I am reminded today of the importance of being patient with one another, because thus far there are no computer programs to control what people do and say. Our interpersonal flaws will always be quite evident. Patience coupled with a forgiving spirit continues to be a virtue.

Kevin was quick to point out that the Kansas album recorded in a studio in 1975 really sounded pretty good. It is far from perfect. The sound is no doubt inferior to what can be done today. But it is authentic…It seems to me that authenticity forgives a multitude of imperfections… I sold my dust laden albums at a garage sale many years ago. But I may need to pick up one or two in the near future, because they represent the imperfect, but good people I deal with everyday.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mushy Cards

I have never had a good sense of timing and probably never well. On Valentine’s Day last week, I shared the thoughts from Trey Morgan’s guest blogger with Jan. I thought they very were amusing. The blog included a list of gifts not to give him, and a similar off limits gift list for her. One of the things on the off limits list for a male gift was: mushy cards. In fact this is exactly what guest blogger Amanda Sanders had to say:

Mushy Cards- I am sorry to disappoint you ladies (and you Hallmark Gold Crown stores across America). Guys in general, are not fans of cards. Nor do they stash away Valentine’s Day cards to reread in the wee hours of the night, after watching a movie marathon of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. So save your three to six dollars and hour long lunch break for something else!

I found this particular part of her list to be especially funny, and told Jan that too! As I said, I have never had a good sense of timing. A few hours later I received a very nice card with this note inserted in it:

Dear John,

Well, here is the mushy card I’m not supposed to be giving you for Valentine’s Day. I considered just throwing it away and pretending I never even thought of doing such a thing as give a card, but you know I could not waste a perfectly good card that I had spent good money on. Besides, I couldn’t very well save it and give it someone else who might appreciate it more. So here it is-the mushy Valentine’s Card.

Hopefully, the food accompanying the card, along with the manly meal of roast and potatoes tomorrow, will make up for my denseness. I f not, then I’ll resort to begging for an extra dose of patience and a second chance to do better next year.
So I hope you will accept this card for what it was intended to be-a gesture of my life and commitment to you. Happy Valentine’s Day!

My first reaction to her card and accompanying note was: I am the King of Poor Timing! But I had to be honest with her. I actually like mushy cards. As you can imagine, I liked her note better than the card! I was reminded that I married someone who has a good sense of humor. And she can express it well too! As we approach 26 years of marriage, I will continue to be the King of Poor Timing.

And she will continue to be the patient and good spirited woman I married so many years ago. If only all men could be as fortunate as I am!

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Tribute to Police and Fire Dispatchers

I recently heard an audio recording of a little 5 year old girl who called 911, because her father was experiencing shortness of breath and other tell-tale signs of a heart attack. The conversation the dispatcher had with the little girl is priceless. She was very responsible and did everything the dispatcher asked her to do. She was also a prim and proper little girl who was quite concerned that she would still be in her pajamas when the firefighters showed up at her home to help her dad!

I have been working with police and fire communications personnel for over 20 years now. As one of them put it some years back: They enjoy telling us where to go… Most days they are not dealing with cute and responsible 5 year olds.

I was with an officer one night when a man ripped the phone out of the wall, as his wife was on the line with a dispatcher; screaming for help. Another dispatcher fought back tears, as she sent me to a home where a 4 year old boy had reportedly drowned in a pool. When people come home and discover that a loved one is deceased, the communications operator is often the first person to hear the news. I could tell countless stories. It is a stressful job.

In my role as a chaplain, I see how events begin and come to an end as well. There is some form of immediate closure, because I am in the field dealing with the situation at hand. Communications personnel hang up the phone or dispatch units to provide assistance, and they are often left hanging emotionally. The units eventually clear the scene, but what happened? How are the people doing? There are a so many questions….

Several years ago I worked with a dispatcher who sent two officers on a call that led to their death. She felt personally responsible for their untimely deaths.  Of course that conclusion is not at all based in reality, but that is how she felt!  The stress was unbelievable.

I communicated this week with a dispatcher I served with in the 1990’s. She has since moved on to another line of work. She is a very special person. A number of years ago the show Rescue 911 did a segment on a critical situation that involved her 4 year old son. Thankfully it had a happy ending! Talking to her this week reminded me that I am fortunate to have excellent dispatchers to serve with. They are special people that have a unique calling. Ok…so they do enjoy telling me where to go…I am on call and ready to respond to wherever they want to send me. I am also here to serve them as well in a spirit of mutual respect.

A Dispatcher's Prayer

Dear Lord, help me keep safe those who depend on me.

Give me healthy ears, for they are my link with those who need me.

Keep my mind sharp and alert, my fingers quick and nimble.

Grant that I never forget how to do ten things at once,

and do them all equally well.

Bless me with patience Lord.

Patience to deal with the public, with the officers, with the boss,

and with everyone else who makes me want to grip my teeth and yell.

Give me nerves of steel, that I may listen to a mother screaming

for her child to live, the man with a gun,

or an officer yelling for backup, and not give way to panic.

Grant me empathy, that I may help the battered wife, the rape victim,

the abused child, and not cause them more pain then they already have.

God, give me the ability to learn what I need, to remember it quickly,

and give me the wisdom to use the knowledge properly.

Bless my family Lord, for they will have to make sacrifices to shift work,

overtime, canceled plans and times when I just can't take on one more thing.

Help them understand the missed ball games, school programs and dinners for two.

Lord, give me courage, courage to persevere when I feel undervalued,

unappreciated, overworked and unrecognized.

Courage to keep trying when I feel in my heart it's hopeless.

Last of all Lord, help me to never forget,

why I chose this job in the first place,

to never lose sight of what is important in the midst of the stress.

Help me to remember that I make a difference,

however small it may seem some days, and that I matter.

I am a dispatcher, Lord, grant me peace.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

No Matter Where We Go.....

We all take different paths in life, but no matter where we go, we take a little of each other everywhere…

It takes years to reach that conclusion. When my high school held its ten year reunion, I just had no desire to go back. Getting kicked off the debate team for disciplinary reasons was still somewhat fresh on my mind. As a new father at the time of that first reunion, I had the image of my friends still seeing me as a senior in high school ordering kegs for parties at the Cotton Club. I wrote the required biography for the book that organizers were assembling that included the part about me being a minister. I sent it off to Lubbock to be distributed at the reunion. I could almost hear my friends laughing that weekend, even though I was not there. I figured they thought I wrote that as a joke. The John they knew could not possibly pursue such a profession!

By the time the 25 year reunion rolled around, my attitude had changed. I was just beginning to realize that no matter where I went, I took a little of my friends with me. Our shared experiences were continuing to shape who I was becoming. The memories of my interactions with important people were beginning to come into better focus. I was teaching as an adjunct professor at the time, so I laughed to myself, as I noticed the ways I emulated favorite teachers in the style of my lectures. I found myself quoting sayings to my children that I had picked up from friends along the way. I also found that I was thinking more about the crew of people I grew up with. I wondered what had become of them. I knew we had all taken different paths, but I yearned for our respective journeys to find a point of intersection.

In 2003, the movie Antwone Fisher proved to be a life changing experience for me. The plot revolves around a young Navy sailor who is totally disengaged from all of his family. He is a very insecure and angry man. The Navy Psychologist played by Denzel Washington prompts him to go on a journey to find his family. It is a true story. There really is an Antwone Fisher. That made it even more compelling. As he rediscovers his family, he realizes that he is carrying a part of them with him in his own journey of life.

As I pondered the plot of the movie, I realized that I had not had any contact whatsoever with my father’s side of my family for 25 years. So the journey that continues today began in 2003. I made trips to Florida and North Carolina to visit my aging and aunt and my cousins. I made a trip to the mountains of Kentucky to see where my grandmother taught in a mission boarding school for very poor children. I searched for other cousins and contacted them via email. It continues to be an amazing experience. During each step of the experience I have realized more and more that I am quite literally carrying a part of them with me.

A similar relational excursion has taken place with childhood friends. That has led me to seek people out, make a few day trips, and of course attend the 25 year high school reunion. More recently it entailed a trip back to Wisconsin to reengage with friends from elementary school and junior high. During that trip I realized once again that each of them had shaped my life in such meaningful ways.

There are two more reunions on the horizon. This weekend I will see some of those same childhood friends in Round Rock. Our 30 year high school reunion will take place in Lubbock in July. Some of my friends are very reluctant to attend the 30 year reunion. Not me. In fact, my attitude has changed even since we reunited 5 years ago.

I am so grateful for each of the individuals that I grew up with. Why? Because….We all take different paths in life, but no matter where we go, we take a little of each other everywhere… I will carry a spirit of gratitude with me to Round Rock this weekend. I will carry the same mindset to Lubbock in July.

What a joy to celebrate the journey with such great people...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Traveling Back to Evans Junior High School

I don’t normally insert excerpts from sermons on my blog. I don’t view this forum as a place to do a dry run on a sermon idea, nor is it a place for instant replay from the previous Sunday! But I had an experience last night that caused me to make one notable exception today. Here is a brief selection from a sermon I delivered in Granbury on May 3rd of last year.

Do you remember growing up and being in school? When you had a question, you would go up to the teacher’s desk, and tell her, excuse me, but I am confused…I have always been a terrible mathematician…But I did have one school year, where there was a flash of temporary brilliance. In the 9th grade, I had Ms. Jackson for algebra. Ms. Jackson was a first year teacher, if I am not mistaken. She was young and very pretty. My best friend and I found ourselves confused on a pretty regular basis, so we could approach Ms. Jackson’s desk, and get the help we needed. I am sure Ms. Jackson knew both of us needed help all right. He and I overcame our math anxiety that year and made straight A’s in Algebra.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life itself was conducted in a classroom, where a smiling teacher is waiting behind a desk to guide us through all of the confusion and disorder that life brings? It does not happen that way, at all... There are often times when I just want to raise my hand and say: Excuse Me, but I am Confused!

I had Ms. Jackson as a teacher during the 1976-1977 school years at Evans Junior High School in Lubbock, Texas. She taught an entire group of us, who were experiencing adolescent confusion at the time. I seriously doubt that she realized the significance of her investment in each of our lives. Teachers are trying to get their students to excel in their class. They are probably not thinking too much about the long term future.

Their love for kids, their capacity to instill confidence, and their ability to be exceptional role models are all things that students carry with them for the rest of their life. Unfortunately there have not been any teacher’s desks to approach for a long time now. But I find that the confusion that life brings is easier to cope with because of those took the time give me a solid foundation. Ms. Jackson of course is among that group.

I often wondered what happened to Ms. Jackson. I thought about her when I had math teachers in high school who were not so young and not so pretty either. And I thought about her again when I had to present a photo id to take a math test in a huge class at Texas Tech. The professor never knew any of our names. I took the GRE exam before entering a doctoral program about ten years ago. I made an attempt to work through math concepts that I had not seen for nearly 20 years. Visions of Ms. Jackson sitting behind her desk with a pleasant smile must have carried me through that portion of the exam.

I never dreamed that I would actually communicate with her again. Modern technology and social networking websites really is a good thing. Ms. Jackson and her husband of 35 years don’t live too far away from here. She has successfully raised three children. No doubt she has more wisdom than ever to share. I think all of the alums of her Algebra class should pitch in and purchase a traditional Oak teachers’ desk, because I suspect most of us still find ourselves to be confused on a pretty regular basis! Thank you Ms. Jackson. Your influence lives on in each of our lives.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Listening With Sincerity...

 I recently shared the following quote with my friends: Friends are those rare people who ask how we are and then wait to hear the answer. I received two insightful responses regarding this quality of friendship. The first one: and to add to that statement, they listen to the response with sincerity. That is so true!

The second response…Friends also want to hear the honest answer of how you are doing also. I concur. If they are real friends, that is a true statement. So….they listen to the response with sincerity? How does that happen?

The process of learning to listen originates in the heart. You can go to a seminar and acquire a variety of excellent communication skills. You will add new phrases to your vocabulary like: paraphrase, perception check, story check, behavior description, and productive questions. All of those skills are helpful tools, but learning to listen originates in the heart.

I love the opening scene in the movie, What About Bob? A clinical psychologist portrayed by Richard Dreyfus is doing an intake interview with a new client named Bob, played by Billy Murray. Dreyfus’ character has all of the listening techniques down pat. He uses paraphrase. He asks Bob good open questions.

But it is quite obvious that he is not really listening, and that he really does not care! His obvious disdain for Murray’s troubled character comes across loud and clear via a of variety nonverbal cues. It is funny in the movie, because it sets the stage for hilarious events that are about to take place in the arrogant psychologist’s life. But in real life, such encounters are not amusing. Learning to listen originates in a pure heart.

My mother-in-law has never had any training as a professional counselor. In fact, she never went to college. But her extended family and friends have flocked to her for decades with all of their problems. Why are they drawn to her? The explanation is actually pretty simple. She understands that good listening skills originate in the heart. She is too humble to say that… But she understands the concept all too well!

Barbara listens with her ears and her heart. She seldom offers advice, but always communicates compassion and empathy both verbally and non-vebally. And she has a memory that exceeds the latest and greatest of any computer hard drive on the market. There have been times that I have shared with her that someone she had never met was facing some kind of serious illness. In each case, she would always ask relevant and important questions about the situation at hand. Months later she would ask me about that person. She would recall every minute detail that I had shared at a much earlier date, including the person’s name. She recalls that information, because she genuinely cares. She has a heart for people. And that is where good listening originates. It originates in a pure heart that has a huge capacity to love people.

I recommend training in listening skills. It is very useful. But it is not a substitute for a caring and considerate heart. I know a few colleagues that would benefit from a trip to a farm in West Texas. A day with my mother-in-law would provide some insight that could never be replicated in a seminar. And she would listen to THEIR problems with a kind and loving heart… Come to think of it…maybe I need a day on the farm…

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Uncle Buck Lives On...

  I am going to be banned from uncle-hood from my own my sweet wife. She has determined that I am probably not the best influence on her two nephews and her niece as well, who range in age from 3 to 8. I don’t put limits on their cookie consumption. I nearly let them watch a movie that had, as the five year old said: shooting and fighting. And then when the little precious three year old came in the kitchen to inform us that her brother hit her, it nearly came out of my mouth…Hit him back! Maybe I should be banned from uncle-hood…

How can I not look in that living room without seeing my own three kids a few years back? I miss those days. If they didn’t have toy guns in their belt, they made guns out of whatever object they could find. They dressed up in all kinds of garb to become cowboys, bad guys, and heroes. They made forts in the linen closet with blankets, or asked me to build one with quilts strewn out over dining room table chairs. We played with cars and trucks on the brick adjacent to the fireplace. The list goes on….Those days are officially over.

It would be wise for me to try a little harder doing this uncle thing with Jan’s nephews and niece. I really don’t want to be banned. My niece and nephew are now 28 and 21. They fondly referred to me as “Uncle Buck” back when they were little. The truth is…they still call me Uncle Buck. There is not much doubt that I corrupted their young minds. I probably told Cody that he could hit Kerri. There is no doubt that I fed them ice cream when I should not have. I can’t believe that my sister did not ban me from uncle-hood back then. Those days are over too.

My niece and nephew are grown. I even have a great-niece who is already 8 years old. My three children are nearly all grown. Jan’s three that are with us this weekend is the last of the nieces and nephews. I better treasure this time. They too will grow up all too fast. When the three year old points an air pump at me, and threatens to “shoot” me with it, it would serve me well to put my hands in the air.

Their childlike innocence reminds me to capture the day and be thankful for what it brings, because time will move on. Children grow up and life changes. Their innocence reminds me that of what is good in the world. I see a lot of darkness everyday. A sprinkling of innocence is a god thing. I am grateful for what today brings. It brings uncle-hood. I really don’t want to be banned from that privilege, so I am on my best behavior….(Fingers crossed behind my back.)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pick on Someone Your Own Size!

  Pick on someone your own size. That is precisely what I want to tell people who wield their criticism toward the most vulnerable among us: the youngest, the one with the least experience or in some cases the person with a truly tender heart. I recently took note of a facebook status in which a longtime friend stated this:

I hate that "constructive" criticism shakes my confidence so much. It's hard to face your shortcomings when you put so much heart into it.

The person composing this status is just getting started in his career. He has already experienced noteworthy success, but he is still young. There is a huge learning curve ahead. I was in his position in life almost 20 years ago. I empathize with his frustration and discouragement.

People are never going to pick on someone on their size. Criticism generally comes when we are in a vulnerable state. That state of vulnerability maybe inherent in age or lack of experience. But even those of us with years of experience go through seasons of life when we are particularly weak. Life circumstances or poor choices cause us not to operate at peak performance.

Or in some cases the best laid plans just don’t come together well. There are so many factors out of our control, but the critic is on a mission to blame someone. It is almost as if our detractors can smell blood. They intuitively pick up on our weakness. They swoop down on us like a fighter jet and offer “constructive criticism.”

Ironically I had someone ask me recently how I “take” criticism. I am in a profession where I put myself out there for nearly 700 people to say whatever they want to say whenever they want to say it every single week. They feel pretty free to do just that. For the most part people are more kind that what I deserve! But like my friend I too have had my confidence plowed under at times when my whole heart was put into an effort to benefit others.

What can I say to my friend that would be helpful? I don’t think I will say anything. He needs his real friends to listen to his frustration and offer little if any commentary. His emotional state right now conveyed by the status update causes me to think about my own critics. I am thinking about the ones I had when I was his age. I am also thinking about the critics I still have to face every week. Telling them to pick on someone on their own size won’t cut it. I am bigger and older than many of my detractors. Here are a few things for all of us to think about when it comes to criticism.

(RE)Constructive Criticism Principles
1. Consider the Source: There are credible people and there are those who are not. Many of us have to deal with people who are not stable emotionally. Kindness is the order for the day in interacting with such individuals. When they are the source of criticism, weigh the source carefully before evaluating the content. The opposite is true as well. When negative commentary comes from a good source, we need to consider what was said very carefully.

2. Work through the Emotions: I am a sensitive soul. I don’t always like that personality trait. It often gets in the way of sensible objectivity. I am learning to work though the painful emotions caused by disparaging comments. It is important to admit to ourselves that we are hurt and not stuff those negative feelings.

3. A Grain of Truth: I have learned over the years that there is generally a grain of truth in all criticism. I don’t like to admit that fact. Even the mean spirited among us have the ability to convey some degree of truth. After I have worked through the emotions, I attempt to step back and evaluate what was said as objectively and honestly as possible.

4. Seek out Encouragers: It is hard to see the good things we are accomplishing when we are besieged by those who are negative and even hateful. I have found that even one conversation with a real encourager makes a huge difference. Such individuals offer insight and words of life.

5. Avoid Bridges: We all have the ability to be impulsive when our feelings are hurt. When we are damaged emotionally, we have the potential to do and say things that are erratic and destructive. I have to remind myself to avoid jumping off any emotional bridges as the wounds caused by caustic and hurtful comments heal.

6. Get Back on the Horse: There are Sundays that it takes everything I have to face a group of people, and preach another sermon. But I try to get back on the horse that threw me. And I try to do it with enthusiasm.

7. Be Grateful: It takes a long time to get to this final stage. I think we can finally reach a point when we can be thankful for all of our critics. We can even be grateful for the bullies among us, who pick on us when we are in a vulnerable state. Such individuals force us to do self-evaluation. Such evaluations confirm in our minds that we are either on the right track or that we need a change in direction.

My friend’s status update is convicting me today. It is convicting me to be an encourager. I know there are people around me who are damaged by careless words masquerading under the guise of constructive criticism. I also know that I am surrounded by people in various states of vulnerability. Perhaps God can use my stature and age to ward off those who need to pick on someone their own size!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Do You Need a 5 Year Old To Raise YOUR Hand?

rr   Those of us who preach nearly fifty sermons a year sometimes wonder if anyone out there is listening. In fact, there are times that I want to say: Are any of you tuned into the sermon channel at this moment? Something of great significance happened last Sunday that provided some positive confirmation.
Last Sunday I preached a sermon entitled: The Taming Process that Never Ends. Scripture confirms that the tongue can never be tamed. It is very difficult for us to consistently watch our words. I even quoted from one of my favorite movies that references wolverines making good house pets. In the same way that a wolverine cannot be tamed, neither can our tongues!

I asked the church during the sermon if they thought they could go 24 hours without saying anything unkind to or about another person. The question was posed to every single individual present… How many of you could actually complete that 24 hour challenge? I saw a few smirks out there… Others had thoughtful expressions on their faces. One man told Jan after services that he felt like I had hit him with a bus, and then backed up and run over him again! It was a real heartfelt response though. Something else was going out there in listener land that I did not find out about until nearly a week later.

Little 5 year old Avery was sitting next to her grandma coloring a picture while I preached away. But when I asked the church who could go 24 hours without saying anything unkind to or about another person, she boldly raised her hand. And then she grabbed her grandma’s arm and raised it too. She turned to her grandma and said: I can do that, and you can too!

So…there are people out there listening. There are five year olds who possess tender hearts and a persuasive manner that is hard to resist. I wish the whole church could have witnessed the brief, but profound interchange between Avery and her grandma.

I have preached 6 Sunday morning sermons thus far this year. After hearing about a 5 year olds eager response, it motivated me to work a little harder on the 40 plus that are still to come this year. In fact, on those Sundays when I am wondering which channel the church is tuned into, I think I will just scan the audience for Avery. Just seeing her out there will help me not to get discouraged. There is no substitute for the innocence of a child…

How about that 24 hour challenge? Do you need a five year old to raise YOUR  hand?

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Tribute to Willard Tate

It is time to think about being in Mexico tomorrow, but my mind is on Willard Tate. In fact, as I think about the lectures that I will deliver on the subject of personal ethics for ministers to a group at a seminar in Mexico this week, my mind is drawn back to all those who were role models for me when I was much younger. Internships for ministry students in graduate school were not as common or as structured as they are today 25 years ago. I was just fortunate.

I interned with at a small, country church in the community of Hamby. The only things in Hamby at that time were a mom and pop store, an elementary school, the volunteer fire department and three churches. It was a friendly farming and ranching community. The church that I served eagerly reached out to the college students who would drive out in the country to attend a church that felt like home.

Students from rural backgrounds were especially drawn to Hamby. My friends at school called it “The Church of the Holy Belt Buckle.” Cowboy hats were spread all over the shelves in the church foyer.
I was hired as an intern to teach a Sunday school class comprised of kids ranging from 6th to 12th grade! I was charged with formulating activities for the college students. And I was given the privilege of preaching when the minister was traveling on Sunday. Willard Tate served the Hamby church on a part time basis for many years. After a successful career as a NCAA Division II basketball coach, he taught university level speech communication courses, traveled the country as a motivational speaker, and of course preached for the little congregation at Hamby.

Willard was a great mentor. He was kind and patient. And he had a wonderful sense of humor. In terms of speaking style as a preacher, he was ahead of his time in many ways. I was of course a graduate student, and graduate students know everything. They have all of the answers. I knew more than Willard at the time. And he was so patient…

I was known to do impersonations of Willard as a public speaker. We loved to poke fun of him when he was off doing one of his motivational speaking seminars. And then he got wind of it… He asked me to do my impersonation for the entire church at our going away party in 1987. When the church at Hamby knew that I had officially accepted my first full time ministry role after graduation, they threw us a great party. They were wonderful.

Tomorrow I will travel to Torreon, Mexico to lecture to ministers about ethics.  I am going to be delving into some very sensitive areas. I am not sure that I have earned the right to say the things that really need to be said. I will do the best I know how. I am so thankful that Willard helped to get off on the right foot professionally. Many ministers are not so fortunate.

Willard is on my mind tonight. I was told several days ago that hospice is saying he is most likely in his final week on this earth. He has been battling cancer for quite some time now. I am grateful that I had a long phone conversation with him while I was driving home from Austin last year. I think we both knew that it was going to be our final time to interact in depth. He could not believe I had been in full time ministry for well over 20 years. He told me how proud he was of me. I told him how much I appreciated all he had done for me over the years. He has always given me excellent references to prospective employers. He told me he loved me and I of course reciprocated.

I started to forgo the Torreon Trip this year, because he could very well pass this week while I am gone. But Jan encouraged me to go. She told me that Willard would be so proud to know that I am lecturing to ministers this week. I am not so sure. I think he would shake his head and say: “Those poor ministers in Mexico have no ideal what they are getting themselves into!” May God bless Willard with peace this week… I will be forever indebted to him.  It is time to think about being in Mexico tomorrow, but my mind is on Willard Tate.

Two Little Lost Boys...

 I don’t ever remember getting lost in Sears when I was a little boy. We did not have Walmart back in the day, but my mother did frequent Sears and Woolworths. I was also coerced into shopping for clothes for my sisters several times a year at the mall. I tried my best to be a royal thorn in their flesh, so I would not be invited back. It never worked. My mother continued to load me in our Plymouth station wagon and haul me along. She used to mumble things under her breath about me burning the house down if I was left alone. I think being hauled through Casual Corner and other girly stores as a young boy damaged me permanently.

It never occurred to me that wondering off and getting lost could have been a good strategy for being excluded from their shopping excursions. I was obviously not a very bright kid. I just accepted my sentencing to the “junior’s section” at J.C. Penney’s, and never attempted an escape. All that time I could have easily walked away and become “lost.” I did not enjoy the attention that being lost brings until I was an adult.
In 1999, I participated in my first medical mission to Mexico. It was a memorable trip in many ways. That initial excursion prompted ten more just like it since that time. Albert Garcia and I became good friends that week we were down there. He has assisted me in hosting numerous medical clinics down there since that first campaign. The ultimate memory of that trip was getting lost in downtown Ciuadad Victoria.

One of the volunteers in the medical clinic who will remain unmanned to protect his guilt asked me if I wanted to walk from the hotel back to the church, where the clinics were being held. I asked him if he knew the way. Well of course he did! (If you ask him, he would likely reverse the role of the two characters in this story. In other words, I was the one who initiated our trek from the hotel to the church.) At any rate, we got lost. It was getting dark and we were wondering farther and farther from our original destination.

My walking partner did not know how to say hello in Spanish and my language skills at that time were pretty limited. We asked several people about the location of the church we were searching for, but only got quizzical looks in return. They were actually very kind, but the language barrier created a complete breakdown in communication.

We finally flagged down a taxi. Wow! That was a memorable ride. I think that man took us to every church in that city except the one where we belonged! My genius brains finally kicked in .Why not go back to the hotel and ask the clerk at the front desk for directions? He knew about the clinic we were hosting. Our taxi driver understood enough of our broken Spanish to get us back to the hotel and ultimately to the church. Our entire group was breaking up into a posse to go search for us, as we drove up. He charged us a whopping $8.00 for our tour of the city.

I learned a few things while we were “lost” that night. I learned that there are decent and kind people everywhere. I learned to feel deeper empathy for people in my own county who cannot communicate in English. And I learned that my friends would actually search for me if I became lost.

I missed the boat when I was a little boy. Surely if I had wondered out of Casual Corner and down the corridor of the mall my mother would have never hauled me along on another trip to shop for clothes for my sisters! She would be too fearful that I would get “lost.” Actually it is not that simple. I have been on eleven medical mission trips in Mexico since 1998. They keep inviting me back despite the fact that I wondered off. I think my mother would have done the same thing…

I am heading to Torreon, Mexico today to lecture to a group of Mexican ministers from all over Northern Mexico. Several of them have become wonderful friends. They will be gathering this week in Torreon for an annual seminar. I am going to try really hard on this trip not to get lost, because these guys know me really well now. They might just decide that the posse can be disbanded this time!

Friday, February 5, 2010

He Never Played Basketball...

I have been asked to speak to a group of middle school kids tomorrow at a local church. What does an old man like me say to middle school students? I actually have a 1996 male model of one of those at home, but I am still at a loss. The speaking context is a basketball tournament, so that put me on a sports track... Do I tell them about my friend who played on the National Championship University of Florida football team? I even have a picture of Tate Casey and me to show off. Tate makes me look like an overgrown 3 year old when he standing next to me. He is a big guy. I think I will pass on that one. I decided to venture off in a different direction.

 Late this afternoon I started thinking about people I know who have never participated in sports...
Kids playing basketball automatically think that everyone can play that or any other sport. But that is not true. My friend Mark never played basketball or football or tennis. Mark was confined to a wheelchair for the vast majority of his life.

I met Mark when I was a sophomore in college. We went to church together. He was several years older than me and far more mature! In those days, there was no such thing as the American Disabilities Act. Our university church group met in a second floor room. It took four of us to carry Mark up and down the stairs in his battery operated wheelchair. The combination of the two was quite heavy. However we were always eager to accommodate Mark's needs.

When the spring semester in 1982 was about to come to a close, Mark asked me if my schedule would allow me to drive him to his summer school classes at Texas Tech that year. He had a van that was equipped for a wheelchair, but he was not able to drive himself. I was also going to summer school, so I told Mark to put me down!

Truthfully I agreed to chauffer Mark that summer because I felt sorry for him. He could not come and go at will like I did. I felt badly for him. Little did I know that I was about to learn a major lesson in life.
Mark was not one to seek people’s pity. I enjoyed his company immensely during our school runs that summer session. He was positive and interesting. And he had a great sense of humor. Driving Mark around in his old 1972 orange van was a high point of my college years. I will never forget the events of that summer school session in 1982.

One morning on the way to school Mark inquired about a girl that both of us knew. He asked me if thought she was nice looking. I told him I thought she was very attractive. I was thinking in the back of my head that she must have asked him about me. (How is that for being egocentric?) He informed that he was going to ask her out. What? You are going to ask her out? Yes…he told me. He then proceeded to ask me if I would drive them on their date, if she did not feel comfortable driving the van. What? I quickly got my wits about me and told Mark that I would gladly serve as his driver .He then had the nerve to give me a lesson on proper conduct for chauffeurs on dates. I shook my head, but inside I was amazed at his can do attitude.
I continued to join three other guys in carrying Mark up and down the stairs. And I enjoyed our summer school excursions. I learned so much from him about life and about having a positive attitude. We enjoyed a great friendship.

He graduated with his degree in electrical engineering from Texas Tech and went to work in Dallas. We actually graduated the same year from college even though he was about 6 years old then me. Chronic health problems caused his education to drag out much longer. He would lose entire semesters being in the hospital, but that did stop him. Mark never gave up.

Ironically my brother in law ended up working with him at that company for a period of time in the same field. Mark’s health began to fail not too many years after graduation. He passed away when he was in his early thirties. He never married. He never had children. But he made quite an impression on everyone who knew him. Even the ICU nurses who took care of him in his final days were touched by his faith and his loving spirit.

I am going to speak to some middle school kids tomorrow who will be right in the middle of a basketball tournament. I am going to tell them about someone who never played basketball. I am going to tell them about Mark.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Forgiveness is a Journey and Not An Event: Part II

 Am I willing to even entertain the thought, as fleeting as it might be? Am I actually open to even thinking about forgiving someone who has hurt me deeply?  That is the first stage on the forgiveness journey that I identified in the Joseph narrative threaded in the final chapters of Genesis. The second stage involves taking some initiative.

Am I Willing to Initiate Forgiveness and Reconciliation?

Someone has to take the first step. Someone must call a truce or end the silence. Shouldn’t it be the person who is the primary offender who offers apologies and gets things moving in the right direction? I would argue that in many cases there is not a primary offender. In most conflicts, there are plenty of faults to go around. Frequently there are no innocent parties. The Joseph story is a pretty compelling example.
Joseph was severely wronged by his brothers when he was a young man. They sold him into slavery! But there were also actions on his part that ignited the conflict in the first place. Still he is the one who initiates forgiveness and reconciliation. In their particular situation, he held all of the power. But that is the choice he made. He choice to reach out to them in a spirit of reconciliatio
What hinders us from extending the olive branch and offering heartfelt forgiveness? It is tempting to say that anger is the holdup. That is not the answer. Anger is a secondary emotion. Something is driving the anger.
Pride must be the reason! Our hearts are so full of foolish pride that we cannot bring ourselves to forgive. That must be the holdback. I don’t believe that to be true either. It is a factor for sure. But it is not the primary issue impeding forgiveness.

If we are going to push back all of the hindrances to forgiveness and initiate reconciliation, we must dig deeper. Why am I so angry? Why do I feel the need to protect my pride? How did this person’s actions affect me? In other words, we have to identify the emotional wounds. We have to name them.
In the past, I have been wounded because someone made me feel worthless. Believe it or not it took me a long time to figure that out! I just knew I was angry or hurt. It took forever to figure out that I felt that their actions made me feel worthless. Once I reached that conclusion, the journey to forgiveness was easier. Joseph had years to think about the personal impact of his brothers’ infractions.
We will never entertain the idea of forgiving as long as we remain stymied in anger, or caught in a web of foolish pride. We will certainly not have the emotional energy to initiate forgiveness and ultimately reconciliation. Once we can identify what has been taken from us or done to us, we are at least on the road to offering heartfelt forgiveness.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Forgiveness is a Journey and not an Event: Part I

 I know I need to forgive him, but I just can’t… I will never forgive her for the things she has done. How many times have I heard such phases? Or more importantly, how many times have I muttered such things to myself? There are a few topics that I deal with in sermons that always seem to be relevant and near to people’s hearts. Forgiveness falls in that category. Relational brokenness unfortunately appears to be the rule instead of the exception.
I spent two Sunday evening time slots preaching through the life of Joseph in the Old Testament. You know which Joseph I am talking about… The one with the cool, multi-colored coat… Oh, the trouble that coat ultimately caused him! In the second week, I identified 5 stages of forgiveness that are based on Joseph’s experience with his brothers. That family knew brokenness. I will let you read the Genesis narrative yourself, but I will devote some time this week to the 5 stages of forgiveness.
Stage 1 – Am I Willing to Forgive?

Emotional injury can cut deeply. Emotional lacerations are not easily stitched. Cuts caused by an emotional injury can cause us to bleed out and crater. I read a story today about a lady who overheard some vicious gossip that focused on her! The gossipers and fellow co-workers were in a public restroom. They had no idea that the focus of their unkind commentary was in a nearby stall. The recipient of the hateful words ended up quitting her job and cutting off all further communication with her co-workers. Those hurtful words did permanent damage. Is there any hope for relationships that have experienced the trauma of a major breakdown.
Someone has to take a bold and scary step. Someone must be vulnerable. Someone has to take the first step and at least entertain the idea of forgiving the offending party. I am not saying that they are ready to kiss and make up. I am simply stating that one of the parties must be willing start thinking about forgiveness. That is stage 1. I am asking myself the question: Am I willing to forgive?
In particularly thorny situations, this first stage could last awhile. Healing emotionally takes time and involves several phases. Somewhere during that journey, such a question can be posed. Can I really forgive this person who has hurt me so deeply? I actually think it is a mistake to forcefully tell someone: You must forgive right now! If the person is not ready, it may shut the door to the healing process permanently.
I was hospitalized in 1988 following an accident with a broken pelvis. The physical therapist came around the second day I was in the hospital and informed me that I was going to get up and walk. I wanted to tell her *&%#@. But I refrained. I just kindly declined. In an equally kind demeanor, she informed me that I would walk that day! She just took me to the nurse’s station and back to the security of my hospital bed. It was probably about a 60-foot walk there and back. She had some kind of belt tied around me, so I would not fall.

Maybe we can offer a similar service to those who are emotionally broken. We can gently encourage them to begin the process of forgiveness. We can offer to walk with them, as they take those first tentative steps. I eventually walked down the entire hallway with assistance, but it just took some time. Forgiveness takes time, too. It too comes in stages…

Monday, February 1, 2010

An Uncultured Movie Critique

  I confess. I am uncultured. It is true. I just watched Gone with the Wind for the first time last week. That reveals the truth. I am just uncultured.

I am in change mode this year in that regard. We are going to watch as many of the movies that were awarded with the Best Picture Oscar as we can this year. Gone with the Wind won the Best Picture award in 1939.  I was so impressed with the characterizations in the movie. Wow! The characters are so distinct. There were distinct protagonists, and there are antagonists as well. Scarlett’s character is the one that stands out to me.

Scarlett is portrayed as a narcissistic, spoiled manipulator. Even Rhett Butler gives her credit for being conniving and self-serving. Scarlett is always looking out for herself. I must admit that I admire the tenacity that helped her and members of her family survive in the aftermath of the Civil War. But Scarlett’s life is a tragic one in many ways.

She is a chronic manipulator. Always scheming, always working something for her personal advantage… She seems to have no regard for the impact her behavior could have on others. She uses her charm and natural charisma to get people to do what she wants. Her manipulative activities finally catch up with her.  Death and tragedy seem to have a genuine impact on Scarlett toward the end of the movie. She seems to soften. But it is too late. Her husband will no longer tolerate her. She appears to have a real change of heart, but he still leaves her. Her credibility bank has been emptied.

The movie is a tragedy in that sense. The change in attitude was too late to save her marriage. You leave the movie feeling some degree of hope for Scarlett, however. The final lines indicate that she is ready for another beginning. You hope that a new beginning for her will be one shaped by humility and unselfishness. I learned a few things from watching Scarlett.

I was reminded of the importance of using things and loving people. Scarlett told several people during the course of the movie that she loved them, but it appears she only knew how to use people.

I was convicted of the need to change before it is too late. All of us have a lot at stake…

And finally I was touched by the harshness of that time period and the universality of human nature. We think our society is decadent. Think again. Watch Gone with the Wind again.

Perhaps by the end of the year I will not be so uncultured.. The Sting is up next in our random watching process. It won Best Picture in 1973.