Friday, December 30, 2011

A Painful Past Follows us into the New Year...

Another year is about to end.  Most of us search for some sense of closure at the close of the year.  It is a time for new beginnings.  And it might even be a moment to declare a few resolutions.  But the pains of the past continue to keep company with us by stealthily sliding under the entrance to the New Year. 

Baggage from the past barricades the entrance to the new beginnings that January 1st symbolically brings for everyone.  Is there hope for change? Or are we destined to remain trapped in the hurts and disappointments of life?  I read some ideas on this subject this week by Helen Cepero in her excellent work entitled: Journaling as a Spiritual Practice: Encountering God Through Attentive Writing.

Cepero urges us to name our wounds and grieve them.  She is even of a mind that a painful past can bless us and others.  She shares the following examples in her book:

A wife whose husband died of AIDS finds herself returning to the AIDS clinic to provide comfort.  A breast cancer survivor listens and responds on her blog to those in chemotherapy.  Someone who attempted suicide works the midnight shift on the suicide prevention hotline.  A recovering addict speaks words of tough love as a sponsor of another addict who is struggling to stop using.  Each of them is letting a painful past bless themselves and others.

The pains of life are going to follow us like a lost puppy into the New Year. That is reality.  And reality is our friend.  The shift in the calendar from 2011 to 2012 really does not mean much.  Or does it? 

Perhaps we can begin 2012 with a resolve to use our painful experiences as a launching pad to bless others. As a noteworthy example, I am totally convinced that the process of grieving the loss of someone close to us is not complete until we have used that experience to compassionately touch another person’s life.  I am resolved to begin a New Year by asking some important questions.

How can I use the painful experiences I have dealt with to help others?  Who is in my immediate sphere of influence that is struggling today?  Am I going to whine or consider the needs of others above my own?

 There is no point in obstructing the entrance to the New Year.  The pains and disappointments from the past will blow right past any fortification I attempt to construct.  But that is really fine.  I will just allow such unrelenting company join me on an important mission to the touch the lives of those around me. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

He is 11 Years Old: Will He Become a Career Criminal?

Getting in the trouble with the juvenile authorities is never a good thing. And that is especially true if you are only eleven years old.  It is not a good way to be voted must likely to succeed a few years down the road by your classmates.  But Jimmy (Not his real name) found himself in trouble at age 11.  But things were about to turn around.

A gentleman who held an important supervisory position at the FBI signed up to be a volunteer with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in the state they lived in at the time. Jimmy’s big brother invested two or three hours of his time with him every single week for about three years.  Of course Jimmy was enthralled with the idea of hanging out with a man that worked for the FBI!  But his big brother quickly pointed out to him that a career in law enforcement would not be an option if there were any additional infractions on his record.  Criminal offenses as an adult in particular would totally exclude him from consideration for a job in law enforcement. 

Jimmy and his big brother went their separate ways.  His big brother retired after a long and successful career with the FBI.  After retirement, he relocated to Texas.  He never heard anymore from Jimmy.  That is he did not hear anymore until a Christmas card came in the mail last week.

Jimmy’s mother tracked her son’s former “big brother” down and told her son’s story in the Christmas card.  Jimmy did not get in any more trouble. In fact, he enlisted in The Marine Corps. After completing active duty military service, Jimmy found a good job with a lot of promise for the future.  He went to work for the FBI.  As a matter of record, he went to work for the FBI in the same unit where his big brother served as a supervisor prior to retirement.

I wonder if someone working with Jimmy when he was eleven years old worried that he would become a career criminal. I wonder if there was an alert juvenile probation officer that tried to get him some help. He had gotten in trouble at a young age.  His father was abusive. There were several factors that pointed to him becoming another statistic.  But there was a man working for the FBI willing to sacrifice 3 hours of his time every week to mentor and encourage a vulnerable young man. And that is how troubled kids keep from becoming career criminals. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

They were NOT Home for Christmas...

I was off for several days last week, so I spent a good deal of time reading assigned material for an upcoming retreat that is part of a two year residency that has spiritual formation as its focus.  In other words, when this two year experience is over I should be a better person!  (Actually there is a lot more to it than that…)  By Friday afternoon, I was tired of reading about being a spiritual person.  I was ready to get out in the field and practice what I was reading about.

I changed clothes and headed to the police department for a Friday night ride out on the late shift.  I never fail to learn valuable lessons and have ample opportunity to serve people in my chaplaincy role.  And that is especially true when I riding out on a busy shift.

Bear in mind this is the Friday before Christmas.  In a very short period of time, I met three people that would not be home for Christmas.  The first one person was a man from Mexico that was involved in a minor accident.  His English was marginal, so I used my equally marginal Spanish to assist the officers in gathering necessary information for an accident report.  He is here working in an effort to better support his family back in Mexico.  His family will remain in Mexico while he works here.  It occurred to me…he won’t be home for Christmas.

We then made a call that involved an individual that was having some emotional problems.  I will not divulge any details to protect that person’s privacy.  I will simply say that the person was showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I am not qualified to diagnose such serious disorders, but the symptoms were present.  As we left the location where we interviewed this person, it occurred to me that another neighbor’s Christmas would be anything but normal. It is likely that he won't be home for Christmas.

And then there was still another call that involved a citizen struggling with serious mental issues. This situation involved someone that is not a permanent resident of our city.  The problems at hand were complex. There were multiple layers. And there was very little we could do on the Friday night before Christmas for a person that was fundamentally homeless and without a support system.  Another person that would not be home for Christmas…. And I wondered if someone in a distant state would miss this family member at the Christmas dinner table. 

I went home late that night.  I walked into a living room with a well lit Christmas tree. My boys of course were still up lounging around on the couch with their computers.  The sweet aroma of home cooking was lingering in the air. And I thought about three people that would not be home for Christmas.... Reading good books about spiritual formation is a good thing.  But getting out in the field is an equally useful exercise if we are to grow in such graces as humility, thanksgiving, and compassion…I think I will be returning to the night shift soon. There is no shortage of work to be done...And I fully realize I have a lot to learn about humility, grace, and compassion. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Trapped in My OWN Car Listening to Something They Call "Music"

In August of 2007, we packed up all our firstborn’s belongs and prepared to make the two hour trek west to Abilene.  I deferred to his mother and allowed her the privilege of riding in his car with him on his first trip to college.   I drove the family van loaded down with all the necessities for life in a college dormitory.  The conversation she had with our then 18 year old son that afternoon is not one she will soon forget.  They listened to his music and reflected on significant milestones of his formative years. (He had her trapped. She had to listen to his music.)

He completed his final semester of college in Los Angeles in a special program at the Los Angeles Film Institute.  In fact, he left his car in Los Angeles.  He plans to make California his home state for awhile.  Since he was without a vehicle I had the privilege of taking him to Abilene for the last trip to college Wednesday of this week.

Once again we listened to his music. (I was trapped this time.)  But his approach was different.  He assembled a mix of tunes that he thought I would like.  I will never admit this to him, but our tastes in music are not too far off…We stopped at McDonalds in Eastland for lunch.  (He wanted Dairy Queen since it is a Texas staple, but I could not handle that!)  I was given a lecture on how to eat frugally by ordering exclusively off the dollar menu.  Obviously there are some of his mother’s genes lurking in his brain somewhere.

I quickly determined that I was not dealing with an 18 year old reflecting on his growing up years. I was in the presence of an ambitious soon to be college graduate.  His work ethic has grown.  His understanding of people has matured. And his spirit is far more gracious. 

I have heard countless stories of parents shedding tears after drooping off their little darling at the dorm for the first time, as college life begins.  We didn’t shed many tears.  In August of 2007, Randall was ready to independent.  And we were ready for him to make that step as well!  But in making the trek back home Wednesday afternoon all alone… Now that is a different story.  My counsel to young parents: You had better cherish every second, because one of these days they will trap you in the car to listen to their music. You might just find that being trapped is not so bad... 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Who Says Cops Don't Cry?

Who Says Cops don’t cry…. I would like to say that the title to this piece is original, but it is not.  Curtis Harrelson was the first police chief I served under.  He composed an article by the same title for a professional journal over twenty years ago. It was excellent.  Of course I can’t find the article anywhere!  I officiated at Chief Harrelson’s funeral almost three years ago. I can’t pretend to replicate his thoughts, but the title fits what I feel compelled to share.

Last week marked an important milestone in my 22 year tenure as a law enforcement chaplain.  Granbury Police Department recently hired two new officers that just completed the police academy.  They hit the streets with their field training officers last week. One of those young men graduated from high school in my son’s class.

 My first reaction was: what???!!  I am getting too old. Maybe a younger person could relate more effectively. And then I thought about Joe Corn… Joe was a chaplain I served with years ago who was in his 80’s when I met him. He would ride out on the midnight shift on a regular basis.  The younger officers loved him, and regularly took him home with them to meet their families.

I am not in my 80’s quite yet, but I am opening a new chapter in my perspective on chaplaincy.  I used to think my primary role was to serve members of the community with police officers during times of crisis.  And so for years I have accompanied officers to deliver death notifications, respond to suicide and homicide scenes. I have assisted at drowning incidents and fatality fires. If there is a tragedy that involves police service, I often find myself right beside them at their request.

I will continue to do all of the above to the best of my ability.  But at this point in my career, I am going to drop the word “with” from my chaplaincy vocabulary.  My primary focus from this point on is to serve the servant.  I am not going to serve with police officers.  I am going to serve period… That includes serving them, because after all of these years I know firsthand what they see and experience.

The 22 year old officer that we just hired is yet to see and experience an array of traumatic events. His day is coming. He will witness horrific things that people do to children.  He will see a mother cry for her baby when a child dies unexpectedly. He will serve victims of aggravated robberies and sexual assaults. And he will see kids make really poor choices that impact the rest of their lives. He will document all of these events in carefully composed police reports. But he will also shed a private tear at some point in his career. And I hope to serve that young man as all of this unfolds.  Who says that cops don’t cry? 

Traditions are About People

Thanksgiving 2011 has come and gone.  At The Knox Manor, we paid proper respect to time honored traditions. There was turkey on the table, we watched the Dallas Cowboys play later in the afternoon, and we at least thought about getting the Christmas decorations out of the garage.  Everything appeared to be in proper order.  On the surface, it was a normal Thanksgiving.   But that was
definitely not the case.

We knew that Randall would not be with us for Thanksgiving this year.  You just don’t pop in from Los Angeles for the weekend. We actually knew well in advance that we would not see him until December.  On the surface everyone in the family took his absence really well.  But when the boys asked their mother to prepare her traditional pumpkin dump cake for the Thursday feast, she graciously declined. She told them she would wait and make it for Christmas dinner when Randall was home.  All three of the boys join me for an annual vicious, cutthroat, no holes barred game of Monopoly over the Thanksgiving Holiday. There was a casual reference to playing this year, but it just never happened.  The boys also go shopping with me during that weekend sometime.  It is a good time to buy mom a Christmas present or two. But no one seemed interested in that annual event either.

I have had a few weeks to process our reaction to the absence of one of our own at an important time in the year. Several things occur to me.  I have thought to myself more than once: This is what we get for encouraging independence.  Our children have always been very independent.  When we took them to church camp in the summer, they never looked back.  Randall was not inclined to burn out the highway driving home when he was in college. There were people to meet and things to do!

Most importantly though I have realized that traditions are about people.  Monopoly is fun for sure.  But it is fun, because of the people sitting around the table. Jan’s pumpkin dump cake is to die for, but she makes it for the boys.  It is a gesture of love. Christmas shopping is not my favorite past time, but I enjoy hanging out with my boys.  Tradition is about the people we love.

I learned a hard lesson this year. I learned to value the most important people in my life like I never have before.  And I figured out what drives tradition.  That conclusion could prove to be a significant insight as well.  Words of wisdom as Christmas rapidly approaches this year:  Value tradition.  Enjoy it.  Take lots of pictures. Don’t forgo any of your annual family practices.

Randall flies home Monday.  Late Monday night another tradition will ensue.  We will go out to eat in Dallas and I will pay the bill.  For some reason I think the time honored tradition of me picking up the tab will not end soon…I will just tell myself: it is about the person! And that would be true. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Fathers....

I heard a tale of two fathers last night at a Christmas party. Perhaps I should say that I heard a tale of two kinds of  fathers!  The first installment in the story unfolded as we sat around enjoying some traditional Mexican food.  One the attendees at the party grew up in a home where both of his parents were educators in the public school system.  I might add that they were employed by schools in a somewhat rural community.  Brian told us that his mother was a teacher in the elementary school.  During his formative years as a student mom was always right down the hall.  I can’t imagine what that must have been like.  It was bad enough that my mother always sided with the teacher, even when said instructor was clearly misguided in her analysis of my behavior.  But Brian somehow survived and moved on to middle school.

By the time he became a high school student, his dad was serving as the principal on that campus.  That must have made his mother being in the same school building look like paradise.  I asked him if he ever got sent the principal’s office. I never got a straight answer on that one, but he did say that his father was waiting for him on the steps of the school on a morning when he was tardy. His father handed him the standard tardy slip and informed him in a way that only a dad can that he would never be late to school again.

The second installment in this tale of two fathers took place a little later at the same party.  I casually asked a high school teacher how her year was going. I was not prepared for the response I received.  She shared some of the difficulties of teaching in a public school in today’s world.  Behavior issues are rampant. One evening after school she decided to go on a mission.  She had four boys in one particular class that were especially destructive and disrespectful.  Her mission:  Call all of their fathers that evening and seek their assistance.  Unfortunately I knew the outcome of this installment of the tale before she finished.  There were no fathers in which to speak.  They were in jail or they had abandoned the family.  Some of the kids had virtually no guidance at the place they called home.

The final chapter in this tale has only been partially completed.  Brian graduated from high school with only one tardy on his record to my knowledge.  He is presently a supervisor with a very prestigious law enforcement agency.  The four boys that struggle with their conduct in and probably out of the classroom are juniors in high school this year.  So much of their story has not been written yet. I know for a fact that if they don’t encounter a mentor soon their future is bleak at best.

Last night’s tale of two fathers changed my perspective.  I used to think that we need excellent teachers that are outstanding role models to remain in public education.  I still firmly believe that to be true. But I am now persuaded that they cannot do it alone.  Public schools must adopt a model similar to the concept of Community Policing that many law enforcement agencies have embraced.  Public schools struggling for sufficient funding must aggressively recruit, welcome, and encourage adult volunteers to be a personal part of the educational process in the classroom. 

The teacher I spoke with last night is imminently qualified in her field.  But the presence of a strong male role model in her classroom would make quite a difference in my estimation. Of course I think men and women are needed for such a task.  I am just thinking about the four fatherless boys… I know several retired police officers that are trained in a concept called Command Presence. Those kids need a good blend of Command Presence and genuine love.  I am not convinced that school administrators across the board are buying into this concept.  If we are going to retain the best educators and prepare this generation for life in the real world there had better be some buy in!

As I reflected on the tale I heard last night, I realized that I as my nest empties in the next couple of years; I may need to build a new one in a classroom.  After all I know how to communicate with kids in ways that only a father can.  And I want to be like Brian's father.  I want to be a real man that loves kids enough to have  some real expectations. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Honoring Tradition is a Thing of the Past

Thanksgiving at Grandma’s… There is nothing quite like it.  In our early married life, we made the trek to Grannie Obrian’s house situated on a half section of land 10 miles north of Lazbuddie and 20 miles east of Bovina.  Grannie was a hard working lady.   She knew how to put together a Thanksgiving feast.

 It never occurred to Grannie Obrian that you could buy pre-made pie shells in the frozen food section at the grocery store. At Grannie’s house, gravy did not originate from a package. And Grannie Obrian was equally oblvious to the existence of Cool Whip. She whipped her own cream to put on top of one of her wonderful pies.  As the men passed around the bowl of the freshly whipped delicacy, they joked that it would just ruin that pie.

You know we always went to Grannies knowing exactly what to expect. There were no variations.  Time held holiday traditions remained fundamentally unchanged for decades at the farmhouse they called home.

I firmly believe that there is something inherently good about going to safe places with safe people, where we know exactly what to expect. It gives us a remarkable feeling of security. In a world that is changing at a rapid fire pace everyday, we find ourselves drawn to safe places.  I can’t help but be sad as well as nostalgic when I think about Grannie O’Brian now.  She died very unexpectedly when we had only been married about 3 years.  My children never got to experience Thanksgiving at her home.  Her husband lived well into his 90’s.  But Papo is gone now too.

Now it is my turn to create a safe place for my children.  A home where traditions will be honored and family members affirmed.  I am probably going to buy some Cool Whip occasionally, but we still expect Jan to make homemade pie crusts and stir up some cream gravy from scratch.  The boys expect her to make pumpkin dump cake and a few other specialties.  But we don’t mind.  We want home to be a place for our sons where they know what to expect.

Some would say that kids these days don’t value tradition. Some would say that honoring tradition is a thing of the past.  Some of my peers would argue that I am wasting my time trying to uphold family traditions.  But that is not true.  Not at all… I found that to be the case this past weekend when two of our three boys were home.  Something very interesting took place.  I will share  that incident in Part II tomorrow. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

There is Nothing Quite Like a Good Memory...

My short term memory is well beyond repair. Searching for my keys is a daily ritual. Coffee mugs have been found all over our office suite. My coffee mugs that is… I have been called an airhead and worse… But I can tell you that my first grade teacher drove a baby blue 1966 Mustang.

I learned a number of years ago that poor memories are actually not beyond repair. When people approach me and share stories about one of my parents, it is fortifies my soul. My father has been deceased since 1978 and mother since 1991. A number of their peers are gone as well. But on rare occasions, I encounter someone who remembers them! And they tell stories that I so appreciate hearing. It makes me grateful for good memories… I am so thankful that there are people that store personal encounters back in the recesses of their brain and bring those narratives up at an opportune moment.

One year ago tomorrow a young trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety was killed in an on-duty car crash near Post, Texas on a stretch of US 84 that I have traveled an untold number of times. His name was Jonathan McDonald. In my role as a volunteer chaplain for the DPS, I assisted in serving his family in the immediate hours following the tragedy. My heart was broken for his parents and his young wife and baby girl.

The next day the tragedy became even more personal. My sister told me that Trooper McDonald had hired my nephew at a grocery store in Lubbock. (The young trooper was a manager at United Grocery Store prior to entering DPS recruit school.) Kim was so impressed with the kindness that Jonathan McDonald showed to her son. She too was heartbroken for his family.

Tomorrow is going to a tough day for Jonathan’s wife, Laura. His parents and the rest of his family are in for a long day too. But people with good memories will make it bearable. Stories need to be told. Significant events must be relived. That is my prayer for all of Jonathan’s family. I pray that they will be surrounded by people with good memories. His family needs to be embraced by those that are willing to recount his qualities and tell the tall tales in unedited fashion. Stories must be told tomorrow and 30 years from now too.

There is nothing quite like a good memory. I am going to try to make sure that my capacity to remember encounters with people remains in good repair. I hope you will do likewise. Someone will need a good word on a significant day…

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Giving People a Second Chance Takes on Many Forms

She is a pretty girl. And she is young. I would guess that she is in early 20s’. She came to the free eye clinic we offered in one of the small communities near Mission, Texas last week. The poverty in several Texas counties bordering Mexico is overwhelming. I know there are politicians that have all of the answers regarding immigration and the issues that surround it. But the reality is that there are very poor people struggling to subsist on both sides of the International Bridges that connect us to Mexico.

This particular young lady came to the eye clinic already wearing a pair of glasses. That is actually pretty unusual. We normally see people that can’t read or should not be driving! They have no access to proper optical care. This young lady was wearing a pair of large glasses with thick black rims. They looked like the eyeglasses my dad wore in the 1960’s when we lived outside of Chicago.

She told our optometrist at the free clinic that her glasses were government-issue. At first he did not know what she meant. But he figured it out. She received her glasses in prison. There were several tell tale signs that she had been incarcerated. The girl showed up so she could get some glasses that looked like something a 20 something would wear.

We took some before and after pictures. I will not publish them for privacy purposes. But I will say that the change was dramatic. I hope that this young lady is able to view herself in a different light. I hope that her life script from this point on will be different. Will a pair of glasses make a difference? If you saw her that day, you might actually think so! I think a pair of glasses given by loving people that really care is a good thing.

I think we sometimes think that people have to reach a certain standard before we can help them. Or they have to be “trying” in ways that we perceive to be important. It is almost as if we are checking “spiritual id’s” at the door before we allow admission.  I am sure there are individuals that would think we were wasting time fitting that girl in donated eyeglasses that look approriate.

I learn something new every time I go on a medical mission trip. (And I have been on a bunch of them!) This year I relearned the importance of accepting people where they are. I was reminded once again that we are called to serve people period. And that includes very young adults that have been convicted of felonies.

Are people going to take advantage of our good nature? Yes. Are we going to get burned? Yes. Is that a good excuse to stay home and do nothing? No…  Giving people a second chance takes on many forms.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I Have Never Called Anyone Mom

I have never called anyone mom before.  Those are the words of a 13 year old boy who was a resident at Casa De La Esperanza in Northern Mexico prior to being reunited with his biological mother.  Casa is a children's home that provides residential care for about 50 children.  There are infants and there are teenagers in that group. The median age is 7.  31% of the children have no clue as to the identity of either one of their parents.  78% have no regular visitors.

The 13 year boy that have never called anyone mom is rare.  As a resutlt of several extraordinary events, his mother was able be to reunited with him.  But that is a rare story.  Last summer the Home took in two very small children that were found abandoned in a city park.  The kids could not even provide their names or their birthdates.

Last Sunday was hosted Gil Sanchez as a guest speaker at church.   Gil and his wife Becky have directed Casa De La Esperanza since 1998.   The improvements made to the facilities are beyond description.   The love and nurture the Sanchez family and numerous others have provided is to be commended.

As I listened to Gil, I was truly convicted.  In recent years, I have struggled with the array of mistakes I have made as a father.  I have agonized over  poor choices and misplaced priorities.   Gil's comments about the chilren they serve reminded me of two important principles that apply to a lot of us that have been fathers for a few years.

As long as I am breathing, I can improve as a father.   Two of my children are grown and out of the house.  But I am still their father.  I can still employ my paternal skills
I am surrounded byildren who have never called anyone dad.  I feel called to reach out to those kids.  Over 22 years of being a father should count for something!

Who do you know that has never had anyone to call "mom" or "dad?"

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Anger Just Keeps on Coming!

When you hear a West Texas farmer tell you that his irrigation well is pumping sand, it is never good news. The well is no longer deep enough to pump life giving water that keep crops alive and vibrant. And unfortunately wells can go out at the most inopportune times. A crop can burn up in the August sun without sufficient water. Consequently a wise farmer acts decisively by having the pumped pulled and the well drilled even deeper.

Ruth Haley Barton in her book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence makes reference to pockets of anger about past pains and present injustices that cover deep wells of sadness. The presence of anger is just like an irrigation well pumping sand. Relationships are destroyed as the poisonous anger sand is sprayed everywhere. It takes a lot of courage to uncover that same well and dig through the muck. But it must be done.

We must be willing to uncover our own wells of sadness and keep drilling until we are able to deal with past pains and present injustices. What drilling company shall we call? Can we call the same guy that pulls irrigation pumps on farm wells? That would be nice, but it won’t work.

Drilling down a well of sadness is not for the faint hearted, but it looks something like this: We must choose to push the cover back, and dig the well deeper by entering into a place of solitude. In the context of solitude, we can allow God invade the areas of our lives where the pain is particularly excruciating. It is not much fun. It is going to hurt, but in the long run it helps.

Solitude forces us to quit hiding from the pain. The noise of life can no longer drown it out. We experience a greater degree of spiritual depth by entering into times of solitude for the expressed purpose of allowing God enter the most painful corners our existence. And once the well is dug deeper, we can emerge with a new capacity to work through pain and injustices constructively. We look up one day and realize that we are no longer pumping up anger sand.  And of course we tend to pump up anger sand at the most inopportune times.  After all, when a well consistently pumps anger sand, it is never good news.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Friend is Grieving: WHAT can I Say?

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore is affiliated with the Center for Loss and Trauma. She directs the MISS Foundation, which is a, volunteer based organization committed to providing crisis support and long term aid to families after the death of a child from any cause. I find her reflections on grief to be insightful. Dr. Cacciatore’s most recent quote is as follows: No answer could ever be good enough for a parent's grieving heart. Well said Dr. Cacciatore!

I recently spoke at a training event for hospital chaplain volunteers. I of course emphasized the importance of being quick to listen and slow to speak. I tried to explain the concept of “ministry of presence.” And I also said that attempting to answer the questions that grieving individuals are posing is generally not a useful pursuit. But I did not go far enough. I should have said precisely what Dr. Cacciatore shares with a slight edit. I would go as far to say that no answer is ever good enough for a grieving person’s heart period.

Tomorrow I am officiating at a funeral for a 53 year old man, who leaves a wife and two young teenage boys. Later this week I will attend the funeral for a man whose daughter was murdered in 2008. I was involved in serving her family in my role as a law enforcement chaplain. He wanted to live long enough to see her killer convicted, which he did. Every individual that was close to these people have questions. But even the best answers I could conjure up in my mind would never be good enough.

Here is the good news: the pressure is off. We can serve those who are grieving deeply without feeling compelled to provide answers. We don’t have to wonder what to say. We can zip our lips with confidence and give all of energies to listening.

When I train new law enforcement chaplains, I always encourage them to practice the three H’s. They are as follows:

Hurry-Get over your jitters about serving someone in crisis and hustle to their side.

Hug-Be generous with your affection as it is fitting and appropriate.

Hush-You might as well hush, because no answer you can provide will good enough for that grieving person’s heart…

Thanks Dr. Cacciatore! When it comes to serving people in crisis, there is something new to learn everyday. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Dark Shade of Self Pity: Is it Covering Your Heart?

I am very good at feeling sorry for myself. In fact I think I could consider myself an expert. I can work myself up into a tizzy of self pity with very little effort. In a matter of minutes, I can pull a dark shade down over my heart that blocks out the light of rational thoughts. But the divine light of reality somehow pierces through that shade and illuminates my heart.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death. (October 30th to be precise.) For some crazy reason the 20 year milestone has been a difficult one.  Perhaps it is because my children are all reaching important milestones in their lives. I have one that will graduate from college in December! My mother would have been extremely proud of him. He was the only child of mine she ever knew. I was pressing on with the normal responsibilities of life on the inner side of that dark shade until an important event took place this week.

One of my good friends, who reside in Mexico, shared with me her concerns about a family friend who is dealing with colon cancer. This is a gentleman that has been very loyal to her family over the years. She went on to tell me that the man is unable to purchase some medical supplies he needs. (Colostomy bags to be specific.) In this country, that is a common item that insurance or Medicare covers. The man is extremely poor. In a millisecond, the dark shade that had been covering my heart was yanked away.

I got busy and started figuring out ways to provide some short term financial assistance for this man; so that he could purchase needed medical supplies. Getting funds into Mexico securely takes a little effort, so I solicited the assistance of capable people that know how to do all of that. The initial part of the mission has already been accomplished. The dark shade has been cast aside. I don’t have time for self-pity.

My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in August of 1991. It was in a well advanced stage by the time physicians determined what was going on. She was a very dignified lady, but she had to live with the reality of dealing with a colostomy bag during the final months of her life. Insurance of course covered the cost of those supplies. When I heard the story of the man in Mexico suffering from the same disease, I felt compelled to do something. My mother would have been ashamed of me if I let such an opportunity to assist go by. In an odd sort of way, I feel that I have honored her memory this week. I think it would be wise not to attempt to pull a dark shade of self pity over my heart again. There is no telling what kind of events may develop to forcefully pull it right off the window of my heart. 

The dark shade of self-pity...Is it covering your heart today?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Statements Victims of Domestic Violence Would Rather Not Hear

Domestic violence is far more prevalent than what you would ever think. As a law enforcement chaplain, I can say that most of the homicides I have assisted with over a 22 year period have been the result of some form of domestic violence. Several years ago I was with an officer the night he raced to a woman’s home, because an offender pulled the phone out of the wall, as she frantically gave the 911 dispatcher needed information. It transcends race, religious affiliation, and socioeconomic factors. At some point you may find that you have someone close to you impacted by verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Tomorrow I am conducting a training session for some great people that have committed to volunteering at a center that will reach out to victims of this heinous crime. (Yes it is a crime…) In assimilating some training notes, I put together a list that might prove helpful in serving a friend in need someday. Here it is…

Statements Victims of Domestic Violence Would Rather Not Hear
 Everything will be all right.

 What did you do to provoke him?

 He will never see daylight again. (The implication that the offender will remain incarcerated forever.)

 Nice girls don’t end up in relationships with guys like that. (abusers)

 He is an upstanding citizen. He would never do anything like that.

 It is God’s will for you to remain with him.

 He has never acted like this before.

 If you file criminal charges, he won’t be able to earn a living.

 Why didn’t you fight back?

 I know how you feel.

 Your children need their father.

 He can’t help it…(He has issues.)

I suppose the moral of this little listing is: think before you speak! The key in serving crime victims is to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Think carefully before you draw erroneous conclusions. And most of all don’t hesitate to extend compassion to those that have been victims.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Some Gifts are Truly Priceless

Every Sunday I have the privilege of speaking to approximately 600 people. Having something meaningful to say over 40 times a year is a challenge. As a speaker, I have learned not to be distracted by what is taking place in the audience. But there are times you can tell people are bored. And other times you can sense that someone is very moved by what is being shared.

Last Sunday there was a participant sitting out there in the worship service drawing, as I was delivering my sermon. All that she had at her immediate disposal was a pencil and the back of a registration document. As I tried to motivate and encourage in the pulpit, she was using the time to develop her artistic abilities. You might think she was not showing proper respect or that she was not listening. But that was the not the case at all.

The benedictory prayer was said and services were dismissed. I am always bombarded with people to greet after the second service. This past Sunday was no exception. There were several out of town visitors I was attempting to make a concerted effort to welcome. But I could sense that someone was trying to get my attention… It was none other than sweet little Caitlyn. She handed me a folded piece of paper and told me it was a gift. I thanked her and hugged her. But that was not sufficient. Caitlyn wanted me to examine her gift at that very moment, so I did. As I was preaching my heart out, she was drawing something just for me. It even included a phrase I had used in my sermon. The phrase was “people of faith.” She was obviously listening!

I hugged her a second time and thanked her again too. I told her that I would place her drawing on my desk right beside my computer, so I could see it all of the time. That sweet child melted my heart. I am sure there were people that walked by that failed to get greeted, but that is perfectly ok. Caitlyn deserved my total and undivided attention.

The next time I have an especially discouraging Sunday I am going to march right back to my office and place my attention on the pencil drawing given to me by a special little girl. I am sure I will need to be reminded on such days that I have friends among that Sunday crowd who are listening as well as drawing. And I am not sure what I would do without them.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Party Was Planned... but NOBODY Showed Up

It is always nice to be invited… It feels good to be included. But sometimes we take invitations for granted. There is no telling how many 80th birthday parties and 50th wedding anniversary events I have attended over the years. On many of those occasions I dutifully changed out of my Saturday attire, shaved, and cleaned up so I could go and support that individual. I never really thought much about it. I just thought it was the right choice to make. I ended up officiating at funerals at a later date for a number of those individuals. Even though I was a little grouchy about cleaning up on a Saturday afternoon I was always glad I went.

What if everyone took an invitation lightly? What if all of the guests decided that it was too much trouble to attend the function to which they had been invited? What would the consequences be if every invitee chose to be elsewhere? Does that sound a little far fetched? Maybe not…

Last week I received an email that was sent to a group of people from a distraught mother. It seems that a party was planned to celebrate her daughter’s 10th birthday. This girl is precious. She is as sweet as they come. But on the day of the party the unthinkable occurred. Nobody showed up. No one that was invited made the party that day. The little girl was heartbroken to say the least. Her mother relayed that her daughter cried herself to sleep on the night of her birthday.

There are days that I would prefer to be hard hearted. Life would be much simpler. The day I read that email was one of them. I know this girl. I have watched her grow up. I can’t handle stories like that.  Events like that go with kids for a long time...

I have had a few days to process the circumstances surrounding her failed party. Several thoughts seem to stand out. An invitation is an honor. It is an honor to celebrate a milestone with a friend. The least we can do is let them know if we can’t show up. I am also reminded that people are important. It is never a good idea to let our selfish pursuits take precedence over relationships. And finally…we are living in a culture that does not seem to value good manners. Sometimes it is just good manners to show up when invited.  And of course there is that matter of "do onto others..."

Monday, September 26, 2011

Some Gifts are Priceless...

Dr. Michael McCoy is my guest blogger today.  Dr. McCoy has joined us on several medical mission trips to various locations in Northern Mexico in the state of Chihuahua.  Today's blog represents his thoughts on a trip that we took in October of 2009 to Chihuahua City, Chihuahua.

She walked in with her head down. She barely made eye contact as I said good morning in my best broken Spanish. She mumbled something as she took a seat in the dental chair, never looking up. This didn’t surprise me too much, as most people would rather eat raw liver than go to the dentist. Through an interpreter, I found out that her name was Elena, and that she was fourteen years old. As the questions continued, she answered, never smiling, no matter how hard I tried to “kid” with her. I assumed that she was in some type of discomfort from a severely mangled molar ravaged by years of neglect. After all, I had seen a steady progression of neglected teeth for the last day and a half of the medical mission trip, why would this be any different. When asked if she was in pain, she shyly said that she was not. In fact, Elena had no pain at all. By this time I was getting a bit impatient, after all we had a line of people waiting outside with rotten teeth and periodontal disease that needed attention. I didn’t have time for this. Through the interpreter I asked Elena what it was about her teeth that bothered her. She hesitantly replied after a few minutes of coaxing from my interpreter Javier….whom I by now had decided was a direct descendent of Job…. that she was embarrassed about her teeth. She told us that her friends made fun of her because they were brown. At this point she opened her mouth to reveal her front teeth that were not only brown but a number of other colors as well. There was even a little spot that I would swear resembled a burnt orange Texas longhorn. Through a few tears that by now had appeared on Elena’s cheek, she asked if I could “make them pretty”. OK… I have always been a sucker for the “tear” thing, and besides, the Longhorn, I decided, had to be a sign from God himself. I explained to Elena that I couldn’t do it today because we didn’t have time ,but that if she would come back first thing in the morning I would do my best to make her pretty. I half expected that I wouldn’t see her again. The next morning however, when we arrived at our make shift clinic, there was Elena, first in line. She was ushered back and we began. For two and a half tedious hours I took out unnatural colors, replacing them with a more normal color. I even reluctantly removed the little Longhorn although it saddened me greatly and I can only assume God as well. When I finished, Elena was handed a hand mirror and she hesitantly looked at the result. The smile that ensued, I feared, would undoubtedly sprain facial muscles she had never used before. What a total change in this young girl’s demeanor. It was a life changing moment for her.

That night I was sitting with Chris Frizzell as we ate pizza at a Mexican pizza restaurant….go figure!! I was recanting the day’s events and reflected on Elena. I mentioned to Chris with what I’m sure had to be a bit of smugness, that that little girl had no idea what kind of gift had been laid at her feet. If you take all the volunteers, the cost of the equipment, the travel expenses, educational time and expenses, time away from work and family that it takes to make something like that possible. She literally has no clue how much of a sacrifice was made for her and likely never will. I guess I expected Chris to agree with my profound assessment of the event. Instead, Chris hit me with a verbal two by four right between the eyes that I never saw coming. “You know,” Chris said, “that is very much like God’s gift to us”. WOW…. What a revelation. I guess if ever there was a moment in my life where I finally “Got it”; I have to say that was it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son….. A gift and a sacrifice we cannot possibly fathom and likely never will. I never saw Elena again but now and then when I reflect back on that event, I realize now that I wasn’t ministering to her at all as I had thought. God had in reality, sent this little fourteen year old child into my life to lay an unfathomable gift at my feet. ------Michael McCoy

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Can YOU Get Along with All Kinds of Folks?

If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird

I think I need to go for a walk. And I don’t mean just any kind of walk. I need to climb inside someone’s skin and walk around in it. I would like to think that racism and other forms of human degradation have vanished from existence in the post-modern world in which we find ourselves. But that is not true. I know that our fallen human nature causes us to gravitate toward an attitude of disdain for anyone that seems different. And that is why I need to take a walk.

Yesterday I saw the classic book To Kill a Mockingbird written by Harper Lee in 1960 presented on stage at Ft. Worth’s Casa Manana Theater. The characters are memorable and the message is timeless. The story of course revolves around racism in the 1930’s. But I found my own heart convicted as I listened to the compelling dialogue on stage yesterday. I too make assumptions about people without sufficient evidence. I too can be intolerant and judgmental.

I am taking the advice that Atticus doled out for Scout’s benefit seriously. In a purposed way, I am striving to consider things from someone else’s point of view.  That takes a conscious effort. It is no easy process. I tend to see things one way: my way! And that does very little to help me to get along better with all kinds of folks that I am privileged to encounter.

I am going to take regular walks from this point forward. I plan to crawl inside the skin of people whose life experiences may very well be completely different from mine. I wonder what I will observe during such walks. There is no telling what I may learn. Some of these walks may even have some treacherous paths. But I am still committed to completing the journey, because I know the consequences of inactivity. Failure to take such walks leads to bigotry and foolish assumptions.

And I really want to get along better with all kinds of folks…

Monday, September 19, 2011

How Could Anyone Be SO Rude?

Fred (not his real name) is one of the few World War II veterans that are still a part of our church family. When I moved to Granbury just over 7 years ago, there were more of them. But I have officiated at a lot of funerals since 2004…I have done several burial services for veterans at the National Cemetery in Dallas. Needless to say I am very grateful for Fred and other members of his generation.

Last Sunday on September 11th, 2001 we did several things during the worship service to commemorate the historical events of 10 years ago. We carefully chose a very moving, but kid friendly video that effectively reflected on the events of that fateful day. The video did not portray the awful images that are already embedded in our minds, but instead used phrases and words to capture the emotions all of us felt. It was well done and moving.

Fred was in the service that day. He too would have appreciated the content of the video like the rest of us. But Fred can’t see well anymore. He suffers from a chronic condition that dramatically impacts his eyesight. While the rest of us were watching the video that morning we heard someone talking. How could anyone be so rude? This is a serious time! But everyone soon realized that Fred’s wife was reading the words and phrases to him verbally as the video was being played. He would not be able to benefit from the message otherwise. (I don’t think either one of them hear well, so you can imagine what the volume was like!)

It was a touching scene on an emotional day. They are a wonderful older couple who represent patriotism in ways I will probably never be able to replicate in my life. And don’t be fooled. Fred and his wife are still very cool people! I am so glad that his disability did not hinder him from hearing the message of the video on September 11th this year, because you see Fred is also a retired commercial airline pilot. I am just grateful that he is a part of of our lives.  His wife's "rudeness" that day no doubt generated a few tears...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th, 2001: A Day of Contrasts

I wrote this blog about a year ago.  It still seems relevant today for the 10 year anniversary of the events described.  

When I was growing up, I recall my mother reflecting on where she was and what she was doing when she heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963. My older sisters were in school. I was told that I was in my playpen in the living room at home. I was 18 months old. My generation has another date etched in our minds. September 11th, 2001.

I do recall where I was at 9:00 that morning. I was checking out of a hotel in Oklahoma City as reports of the first jet hitting the trade center were being relayed on the news. That morning I was on my way to be with a family whose 21 year son was critically injured in a car crash the previous Friday. He died the next day.

I found myself in the waiting room of an Intensive Care Unit at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City watching the news regarding all three of the planes. I was with people who all had family members in that hospital unit whose lives were hanging in the balance. A couple hours after the initial news from New York broke a 14 year old gunshot victim was transferred from the Trauma Center on the first floor to the ICU unit where a group of strangers were trying to support one another.

What was I thinking that day? Honestly I don’t remember. I was on information and emotional overload. In looking back on that morning, it occurs to me that I was with a group of people who understood the value of human life at a level that the average person would not comprehend in normal circumstances. Each of them had loved ones who had suffered some kind of major trauma. Their sons had been in car crashes. Their brother was a gunshot victim. The list was pretty lengthy, because the unit was very full that day. There was no shortage of opportunity to minister to friends and strangers alike.

In total contrast, there were people on the other side of the country who had no concern whatsoever for human life. They were willing to board commercial airliners and set off a chain of events that would ultimately kill thousands of people. I still have difficulty grasping that level of evil intent 9 years later.

I would not realize until the next day that the contrasts were not over yet. First responders with the Fire Department of New York and several law enforcement agencies gave the ultimate sacrifice, because they too valued human life. They gave their lives for strangers, as they fulfilled their duties that day.

As I pray today for the families of those heroes and for countless others impacted by the horrific events of September 11th, 2001, I hope that I value other people to the extent that I should. I hope that I display a basic respect for human life in everything that I do.

I am grateful for my calling to serve those who protect and serve. On the anniversary of this event, I am made aware once again of the gravity of my duties. The men and women who put on badges have committed their lives to protect and serve. Basic respect for human life characterizes so much of what they do. Perhaps it would serve me well to remember where I was 9 years ago today. While the men and women were risking their lives on the East Coast to protect and serve, there were servants in Oklahoma City doing the same for those who were in that ICU unit that fateful day…May God bless our public servants today.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lessons Learned From Intensive Care: September 11th, 2001 Commemoration Part II

This is the second of three blogs I am re-posting in commemoration of September 11th, 2001.  I remember it like yesterday...

I just thought I had problems. When I woke up early on September 11th, 2001, I could not bend over to tie my shoes. A ruptured disc on my back stemming from an injury in 1988 was destroying any hint of flexibility. I thought I was going to have to ask one of the hotel maids to assist me. I had stayed overnight in Oklahoma City to be with some dear friends in the Trauma Intensive Care Unit at OU Medical Center. Their 21 year old son had been critically injured a few days earlier in a car crash. I checked out of the hotel a few minutes later. While the clerk printed my receipt, I watched the World Trade Center go up in flames.

By the time I reached the hospital, there was a lot of nervous chatter among strangers on the elevator leading up to ICU. I ended up spending the day in a hospital waiting room with people who had loved ones in a trauma intensive care unit. All of their relatives were in very serious condition. It is hard to describe what it is like to experience a national tragedy with those who are no strangers to crisis. Natural bonds among people tend to be forged in setting like that. They look out for each other, inquire about the status of each other’s loved ones, and share goodies that friends bring. The added stress of a national threat in Oklahoma City of all places made the bond grow even deeper.

My friends lost their son. He died the next day on September 12th, 2001. I officiated at his funeral a few days later. He was a fine Christian gentleman who had been raised by the most wonderful parents imaginable. A nation was asking the “why” question a lot that week. A small gathering of family and close friends were doing the same thing in the trauma intensive care unit at OU Medical Center.

A number of my colleagues in law enforcement chaplaincy packed their bags and made the trip to New York. Some of them ministered to police officers and emergency workers at Ground Zero. Others were assigned to the morgue, and were asked to assist with death notifications. Their presence was needed. They made a huge difference, and their lives were changed forever.

I stayed home and served one family. I had no desire to be anywhere else. My capacity to feel for people in crisis increased substantially on September 11th, 2001. I spent the day with people who changed my life. I can tie my shoes again, for which I am grateful. I am thankful

Friday, September 9, 2011

May We Never Forget the Real Heroes Among Us:

I am reprinting three blogs this weekend that I have writtten over the past few years.  Each of them focus on on the events of September 11th, 2001.

I do believe last night’s after dinner speech was the most inspiring presentation of that nature that I have ever heard. Retired Lt .Col. Brian Birdwell was the guest speaker at a Granbury Police Dept. banquet. I was privileged to sit next to him at the head table last night since part of my role was to lead the invocation. Col. Birdwell survived the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001.

During the course of his speech he shared with us the events of that fateful morning as they unfolded in his section of the Pentagon. One moment he was interacting in a light hearted way with two co-workers. A few moments later he left the office where they were talking, and started making his way to the men’s room. The rest is now history.

The two co-workers he was visiting with were killed instantly, when the plane struck the Pentagon. Down the hall from the office where had been standing minutes before the attack he suffered third degree burns over 60% of his body. Four valiant colleagues from another section of the Pentagon constructed a makeshift human stretcher to carry him to a  triage area that was hastily put together in the Pentagon itself. During his speech Col. Birdwell described in detail what those early moments after the attack were like for him.

I am not very familiar with procedures for treating people who have suffered severe burns. After last night’s experience, I am now aware of more than I care to know. Col Birdwell experienced excruciating pain for months after his initial injuries were incurred. The treatment strategy for such extensive and damaging burns is very complicated and drawn out. He described being encased in a mummy type bandaging set up and trying to communicate with his family while in the ICU unit at the burn center. There were times he wanted to give up, and his loyal wife reminded him that he had hang in there for the benefit of their son. It was quite a story. Needless to say he had our undivided attention.

I was impressed with heroism. His story of perseverance was inspiring. Memories of that dark day flooded through my head. There was one particular element of his lecture that I will never forget. He expressed forgiveness toward those who instigated the attacks that day. He called on all of us to have forgiving spirits. You could almost hear the wheels turning in people’s heads, as he shared the emotional and spiritual aspects of his journey toward healing.

Col. Birdwell commended members of our military as well as those serving in police and fire services. He readily acknowledged that each of these groups face the reality of death, as they carry out their duties. He mentioned the fact that the military, police, and fire services all have chaplains on call, because of the inherent dangers of the job. As he addressed us, I never felt more affirmed in the area of service to which I have been called. I felt so fortunate to serve as a law enforcement chaplain. I recommend Col. Birdwell’s book entitled: Refined by Fire: A Family’s Triumph of Love and Faith. We all left last night inspired to serve more diligently.

Thank you, Col. Birdwell! We are thankful you are a part of the Granbury community.

May we never forget the real heroes among us.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Where Will This Crazy World Take Us?

Even though we've changed and we're all finding our own place in the world, we all know that when the tears fall or the smile spreads across our face, we'll come to each other because no matter where this crazy world takes us, nothing will ever change so much to the point where we're not all still friends. -unknown author

I saw this quote this morning and it fired off my own story. In 1985, I was eager to see Lubbock, Texas in my rear view mirror. I only moved a couple of hours down the road, but it felt like I was moving a couple of thousand miles away. And at the time, that was a good thing! I wanted to be anywhere but Lubbock. I had no desire to maintain relationships with classmates from high school. And I did not anticipate having much contact with college friends.

This crazy world has taken me to several places to live since I packed up my little rental truck in April of 1985 to depart Lubbock. My mother’s death six years later brought me back to Lubbock once again for extended visits. This crazy world has taken me on the roller coaster ride of life. Accidents, illnesses, miscarriage, deaths, and all of the pains associated with raising children have contributed to the craziness. I have had my share of mistakes and perhaps someone else’s share too. But I would characterize myself as being pretty independent through all of those experiences. And that is not a good thing.

Over the past two years have had the blessing of coming to each other. I have reconnected with old friends from school. And I have formed unbelievably great friendships with those that I knew only casually. I have even met and befriended people that were in the same school building, but we had never met each other.

Have we changed? I think most of us have changed for the better! Are we still trying to find our place in this world? I believe that to be true. I also believe at this point that nothing will change so much to the point that we will not all still be friends.

I have lost a good deal of that independence that characterized earlier decades of my adult life. And that is a good thing. I realize now that when the tears fall or a smile comes across my face I will eagerly seek out my friends. Life is to be shared. Life is to be lived in community.

The bond all of us that grew up together share is hard to describe. The commonality we share is pervasive. I am thankful to be both connected and reconnected. I am thankful that no matter crazy world takes us, nothing will ever change so much to the point where we're not all still friends.
And that is a good thing...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Do You Want to be a Social Elitist or a Friend?

I foolishly thought that social elitism and accompanying popularity contests officially ended during high school commencement ceremonies. What a foolish judge I am of human nature! Even seemingly well adjusted and responsible adults sift people through their social screens to determine who is in and who is out. I even see it in church settings, which makes such an activity particularly repulsive. But occasionally I hear a story about courageous people with hearts overflowing with love that dare to abandon the social sifting process. I heard such a narrative this past week during a funeral dinnner.

I don’t know what prompted her actions, but a very attractive and popular young lady that was a senior at her high school decided to invite a sophomore girl to lunch one day. (This particular school allowed students to leave campus for lunch) This was not a common social practice during that time period. A senior inviting a sophomore to lunch was simply not done. Sophomores were on the bottom of the social food chain. But the this particular young lady obviously did not care.  She and her younger friend arrived at the local eating establishment to join the older girl’s friends for lunch.

The immediate response from the group that was already seated went something like this: “What is she doing with you?” The popular senior girls were of course referring to the sophomore that had been invited to be a part of the daily lunch ritual. The older girl that had extended the invitation did not flinch. She told her younger friend: “I guess we will have to find another table….” And she proceeded to leave her peers to bask in their social elitist behavior.

That event took place nearly 29 years ago. The popular senior girl and her sophomore date for lunch are still friends today…Very good friends I might add!  One simple overture of kindness led to a lifelong friendship. The choice to defy the social customs that are so characteristic of high schools everywhere had significant consequences.

The older girl chose friendship over social elitism. As a result of her choice, she has received untold benefits from having a friendship with a wonderful person. That little sophomore girl grew up to be a great adult and a committed friend. In the back of my mind, I wonder how many other people the older girl in this story has blessed over the years, because she values people over ridiculous social norms.

I have to ask myself: Do I really value friendship over social elitism? If I don’t, then I know I am missing out on relationships that could be a mutual blessing.  I am convinced that it is very difficult to assume both roles. Which will it be for you?  Don't elitism and accompanying popularity contests did not end at high school commencement ceremonies...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Someone Near You is About to Crash and Burn...

It is far from easy to keep living where God is. Therefore, God gives you people who help to hold you in that place, and call you back to it every time you wander off. Your spiritual guides keep reminding you of where your deepest desire is being fulfilled. –Henri Nouwen

It was 1996. Jan was expecting our third child. We both felt a little anxious about that pregnancy following a miscarriage that occurred in January of the previous year. And sure enough complications developed early on in the pregnancy. My mother had died 5 years earlier in Lubbock. I think it took that long for the reality of that event to sink into the recesses of my heart. Grief coupled with anxiety regarding the pregnancy placed me on the fast track to crash and burn.

I was serving a church in a rural community during that time period. It was comprised of very sweet and nurturing people. They were  patient with me as I learned to fly solo as a minister for the first time. (I had been an associate with a large church prior that experience.) But I hesitated to share my personal issues with those that I was called to serve. Where could I turn?

Someone suggested that I contact Hospice of Lubbock. They provided unbelievably good service to my family during the illness and subsequent death of my mother in 1991. They even had chaplains on their staff to provide pastoral aftercare for their clients. I felt a little awkward seeking the services a chaplain. I had been a volunteer law enforcement chaplain at that point in my career for 7 years. Why would I need a chaplain?

I drove into Lubbock one morning and visited with Elizabeth. She listened intently. She asked good questions. She seemed to have a good understanding of our family situation, so she must have pulled a file and done some advance homework. I told her I was not sure how I could go on serving others in grief when I could not deal successfully with my own. She ended our interchange by exhorting me not to watch “dark movies.” It just doesn’t help your frame of mind, she stated. I was not sure if that advice was going to be helpful at the time, but I can tell you that I have not watched many dark movies since 1996! And I have encouraged countless others in people helping professions to follow suit.

Elizabeth gave me a gift that morning. It was the gift of pastoral care. She called me back to where God lives simply by listening and being a compassionate presence. I have been privileged to serve hundreds of people in times of serious illness and death since 1996. I am a terrible record keeper, but I think I have officiated at well over 100 funerals since that time.  It is a privilege to serve. It is one I don’t take lightly. But sometimes those of us that are called to serve need someone to bring us back to God lives.

Did I thank Elizabeth appropriately in 1996? I hope I did. (My etiquette conscious mother would have had a fit if I failed to do so!) Sometimes we are given a second chance….Yesterday I assisted at a  funeral for a high school classmate’s husband in Lubbock. I shared officiating responsibilities with a very competent Hospice Chaplain. Her name is Elizabeth…And I made sure this time that I thanked her for what she did for me in 1996. Who knows? If she had not served the server, I might have crashed and burned. And I would not have been in Lubbock yesterday doing what I think God has called me to do. It is far from easy to keep living where God is… Who is near you that is about to crash and burn?  Can you be a compassionate presence for them?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Bully Masquerading as a Nice Guy

Does the name Scut Farkus ring a bell? Scut was the resident bully on the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story. He played the part quite well. He was the stereotypical bully that has been a part of school since the inception of public education. I saw a quote today about the concept of school bullying that was personally convicting. It reminded me that bullying goes well beyond the realm of mean kids like Scut Farkus that threaten to beat up anyone that crosses into their marked out territory.

When I was in school, I shunned the guy on our high school debate team who was not inclined to be well groomed, or wear clothes like the rest of us wore at that time. I poked fun of another friend that I worked with because he was extremely anal retentive. The poking moved beyond what would be considered playful jabbing. It was hurtful. It affected the way he perceived me in later years.

My own debate partner one year was a very serious minded and religious individual. He was younger and much smaller than me, so I made him sleep on the floor on debate trips. I took the hotel room bed for myself. He was excluded from extracurricular social activities that some of us put together after debate tournaments, because we did not perceive him to be cool.

Perhaps what concerns me more is what I failed to do during those formative high school years. I failed to be alert to those that were struggling. I paid no attention whatsoever to students that had physical disabilities. The concept of trying to include someone that was on the outside socially was not at the top of my priority list. All I was concerned about was my own place on the Monterey High School social food chain. I was a bully masquerading as a nice guy.

I think my kids’ generation will do better. They are more tuned into the diversity of our world. They have a greater awareness of those that have disabilities. They certainly are not inclined toward racism.

Regardless of our age or background we can all do better about reaching out those that are in need of a little encouragement. Here is my list. It is not exhaustive. There are many things that need to be added.

Think inclusive. You have some social plans. Who needs to be included? Who would benefit from an invitation? There is nothing quite like being invited. I remember some cool seniors taking me to lunch the Monday after my partner and me won at a debate tournament. I still remember where we ate that day! I felt included. I felt accepted. Think inclusive.

• Be Friendly How hard is it to speak to someone in the hallway? It could make a huge difference to someone that feels excluded. You never know who that person might be!

• Be complimentary When I was a junior in high school, a big group of us went to the mall. I bought some new clothes with money I had earned at my first job! Kim, who I thought was gorgeous, complimented me on my new threads. That has been 33 years ago now. I still remember what store we were in and what was said after all of these years. Words are powerful.

• Be Intolerant Don’t tolerate bullying. Don’t put up with it. Step up and speak up for those that can’t defend themselves. There is nothing like positive peer pressure. I recall my friend Doug doing this in the 6th grade. I have never forgotten it. He prompted me to do better.

• Stop the Naval Staring Get your mind off of yourself long enough to consider the needs and concerns of others around you. There are things more important than our position on the social food chain.

I hope this is a great school year. But I know it can be a better one if we choose to be inclusive instead of being a bully masquerading as a nice guy. Who knows what difference you could make in someone’ life? 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I Know the "Dirt" on My Friends!

I have known people over the years who really wanted to know the dirt on everyone in town. And I do mean they really wanted to be in the know about such things! I have even known individuals that were inclined to pump their friends for information in order to be on the receiving end of the latest gossip. Human beings will always be flawed, so there will never be a shortage of said dirt.

I must confess. I have a method of dealing with such dirt hunters. When I am being pumped for information, I make up wild, but harmless tales about people. I am actually pretty proud of my fictitious yarns. My dirt hunting acquaintances listen intently. They savor every detail until it finally occurs to them that I am totally and completely full of nonsense. It is great fun.

Purposely seeking an awareness of another person’s shortcomings is not always a negative thing. Someone recently pointed out to me that dirt hunting can also be one of the greatest overtures of friendship. At first I was taken aback by such a seemingly unusual declaration. But I found myself agreeing quickly.

A real friend wants to know the dirt on those whom they love the most. Their purpose in possessing such knowledge however is very different! Our friends want to know our stories. They desire to know the whole story. They even want to have an awareness of the sordid details of our lives that we secretly wish to keep buried at sea. The struggles we have experienced, the poor choices we have made, and the tragedies we have endured are a part of who we are. Our loyal friends know that they can better serve us if they are clued in on the darker side of our lives.

I am not inclined to tell my close friends wild tales about myself or anyone else for that matter. I actually count it a privilege to have people that I can entrust details about my life that are fundamentally private. It is an extraordinary blessing to be able to divulge information that is not for public consumption to someone who is trustworthy. Friends actively seek out such stories for all of the right reasons.

So…here is the challenge of the day. Why do YOU want to know the dirt on another person? Why would you seek out such information? Are you are a chronic dirt hunter, who relishes in the missteps of others? Or are you a true friend that wants to know the true story, so you can serve that person from a pure heart? It is a very important question that requires some serious self-examination.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When the Worst Happens...

As I get older, I am becoming increasingly aware of my limitations as I strive to serve others in need. You would think that age and experience would bring a greater degree of confidence and ability to get the job done. At one level, that is true. But I also believe that substantial field experience causes you to realize how much you depend on competent team workers.

I have been involved in doing critical incident debriefings with police officers, firefighters, paramedics, nurses, and other first responders for many years now. Structured debriefings that are done according to the standard rules of training in the field of Critical Incident Stress Management are the equivalent of emotional first aid. Emergency responders that have worked an especially difficult call benefit in immeasurable ways through the group or individual debriefing process.

I am thrilled to be a part of one of three Critical Incident Response Teams that have been formed here in Hood County. Our Fire Marshal is responsible for putting together these three teams. Kudos to Brian Fine! All team members have gone through the basic CISM training course, and we are up and running!

My team consists of a Hood County Sheriff’s Deputy, a paramedic from Texas EMS, a paramedic from Pecan Plantation EMS, a Pecan Plantation Volunteer Firefighter, and an employee from The Hood County Fire Marshal’s Office. They are all very competent professionals in their respective fields. Other teams also include  two school counselors from Granbury Independent School District. Their professional expertise in counseling will be priceless.

Needles to say this is a dream come true for me. I have longed for the day when we would have a multi-discipline CISM Team in place to serve both the city and the county. The school system will  be positively impacted too in the case of a major incident involving a student or a staff member.  Every fire department and law enforcement agency along with the emergency medical services personnel  our county will reap untold benefits.

A few years ago I was ready to blaze in and be the crisis guy. Just call me. I will handle it. I have learned a lot since then. I am learning everyday to abandon “The Messiah Complex” as it is sometimes called. I have learned the value of inter-agency collaboration along with the importance of working with people from different disciplines. I have a feeling our team will become a close knit group of professionals that really learn to depend on each other as we serve the citizens of Hood County along with our own colleagues.  When the worst happens, we will be there.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Can I PLEASE Be 27 Years Old Again??

I was young, green, and broke. I was 26 or 27 years old, and had been out of graduate school for less than two years. I was serving as a campus minister for a group of college students, and teaching as an adjunct instructor for the university.  But there were other complexities involved in the ministry to which I had been assigned. I had to do public relations work with a fairly large pool of churches and individuals that supported the ministry financially. I had no training or experience in fund raising or public relations for non-profit organizations.  It was a stretch to say the least.

Naturally I was very appreciative for church leaders and others that were very patient me as I learned the ropes. One man in particular stands out to me. Dr. Davis was a successful and highly esteemed pediatric dentist. He was among the church leaders that I had to “sell” on the idea of funding the ministry we provided to university students. I recall meeting him and two or three others for lunch in downtown Wichita Falls on a couple of occasions. Dr. Davis talked to me as if I was really competent. He even asked my opinion on important issues!

He was kind, but not condescending.  He asked good questions and listened intently. This soft spoken gentleman unknowingly instilled confidence in me. When I finished having lunch with him (that he always paid for by the way), I walked out of the restaurant standing just a little taller.  Maybe I can do this after all is what I was thinking!

Dr. Davis has been deceased for several years now, but I still think about him. Young ministers, who lack encouragers like him, have a greater propensity to crash and burn in those early years. It is just easy to be overwhelmed with the complexity of the vocation. There is never any shortage of people that take advantage of a young person’s lack of experience.  And I had the added duty of public relations! 

Today I had the privilege of being on the other side of the table. I had lunch with a young professional, who about 27 years old....  She is in the same boat I was in over 22 years ago. She is attempting to get established in her profession and assemble a good network in the process. My background in law enforcement afforded me the opportunity to connect to her to other competent people that can help her in the process of becoming established. Today we met with one of those professionals in Dallas. I seriously doubt I will ever play in the same league of kindness and competency that Dr. Davis played in, but it was very gratifying to do what he did for me for another person.

In fact, it was actually more than gratifying. I discovered during our meal today that the young lady I was able to reach out to is none other than Dr. Davis’ granddaughter. It really is a small world. And today it really is a good world. It has been over 22 years since I had those lunches with Dr. Davis, but as I left the restaurant parking lot I made it a point to thank God for him today. It seemed like the right thing to do.  I was very thankful to reverse roles after all of these years.  It was pretty neat to see a refllection of such a fine man in his granddaughter.  I do believe she has his genes!  Do I want to be 27 years old again?  No...I don't think so.  I have a new mission in life now!