Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Romance in the Red Cross Tent...

One of the perks of being a Baby Boomer minister is the distinct privilege I have had for 24 years now to serve members of the Greatest Generation, as they are so called. I wish now that I had records of every funeral service I have done over the years for WWII veterans, and their spouses. I have officiated at quite a few. In more recent years, I have been honored to officiate at internment services at the Dallas National Cemetery. There is nothing quite like an burial service with full military honors. It is never fails to be move me to the core of my being.  Just visiting with individuals from that time period  is fascinating!

I had some interchange today with a couple from that era. Unfortunately it was under very sad circumstances. They lost their son in an unexpected motorcycle crash over the holiday weekend. As I visited with them in their home, they shared their story with me.  He grew up on a farm in the Panhandle of Texas during the Dustbowl years of the Great Depression. And then in March of 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. His wartime military commitment took him to England, where he encountered a young, petite 17 year old girl in a Red Cross Canteen. She didn’t seem to be responsive to his flirtatious efforts, so he confided in the lady that in charge. The older lady encouraged him not to give up. Little did he know that he was speaking to the mother of the young woman he was interested in!

When the young man received orders to return to the United States, he promised his English sweetheart that he would return for her. Before he was discharged from the Army, he was involved in a serious on duty accident that killed a fellow soldier. Two years later he returned for her, even though he had to travel to England via ship on crutches.

The young lovers have been married well over 60 years now. Their health is failing and now they are facing the loss of one of their sons. This afternoon she shared with me stories of retreating to bomb shelters as a young teenager living on the coast of England during the war. She talked of losing friends and family… And she showed me a wall in their living room adorned with military memorabilia and vintage photographs. He told me about going to the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. with their children and grandchildren for their 60th wedding anniversary. I could not help but think of the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, which depicts an elderly veteran returning to Normandy with his children and grandchildren.

I was blessed today to be in the presence of people that made great sacrifices for my generation. Serving members of the Greatest Generation is one of perks of the job I no longer take for granted. My mission this afternoon was to try to comfort an older couple who had lost their son. I feel like I gained far more than I gave!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Nobody is Looking.....

I will call him Roy. He is loud. He usually invades my personal space when he talks to me. His behavior occasionally disrupts my sermons. He has been known to dominate my time in public settings. He bombards with a constant stream of questions every time I see him. He is not a 5 year old. Roy is a mentally challenged man in his early 30’s.

After early service was over yesterday, I was particularly tired for some reason. Preaching requires a huge amount of adrenalin. I was looking forward to a short break before the second go around. All that I could think about was that nice warm cup of coffee that was waiting for me in the Fellowship Center. I had not even gotten close to the coffee pot when I heard Roy , and not the coffee pot, calling out my name. I was at least one cup of java shy of dealing with him that early in the morning.

In one of my rare moments of true kindness, I greeted Roy warmly. He asked me: “What are you doing?” “I am headed to the coffee pot Roy.” (I left out the part about wanting to be left alone.) Then I asked him: “What are you doing?” His reply was not what I expected... He said: “I have just been waiting here, so I could say hi to you.”

Why are there never any deep holes handy when you need one to crawl into? He caught me speechless. I felt like a pompous fool. I regained my composure quickly, and the conversation continued. I joked around with Roy. I asked him the questions instead of putting him in the position of doing that with me. Isn’t that what we always do with people that we are genuinely interested in getting to know?

Being engaged in conversation with Roy yesterday was good for me. I had to practice a principle that I firmly believe. The principle is as follows: How do you treat the truly vulnerable among us when you think nobody is looking? How do treat the little elderly lady that holds up traffic with her snail’s pace? How do you interact with the social misfits at school or at work? And how do you communicate with the mentally challenged person who wants to be your friend? How do you treat such individuals when you assume that nobody is paying attention to your actions? In my estimation, this is a true test of a person’s character… Roy reminded me of my own life principle that I firmly believe in. And I am grateful for him today.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ships Passing in the Night?

My sweet little bride is a Barry Manilow fan. Of course this causes her boys to cringe. That is just beyond their comprehension. I must confess that I join the banter when they tell her that Manilow’s song entitled “Mandy” was written about his dog. Actually if the truth be known I planted that seed in their young minds quite a number of years ago. And as far as I know such a conclusion is based on some urban legend generated by a Barry Manilow hater. But nevertheless we continue to impress that thought on Jan, as if it were true.

I hate to admit this at all, but there is one particular Manilow song that actually causes me to pause and think every time I hear it. Here is a portion of the lyrics:

We walked to the sea
Just my father and me
And the dogs played around on the sand
Winter cold cut the air
Hangin' still everywhere
Dressed in gray, did he say
Hold my hand
I said, love's easier when it's far away
We sat and watched a distant light
We're two ships that pass in the night
We both smile and we say it's alright
We're still here
It's just that we're out of sight
Like those ships that pass in the night
There's a boat on the line
Where the sea meets the sky
There's another that rides far behind
And it seems you and I are like strangers
A wide ways apart as we drift on through time
He said, it's harder now, we're far away
We only read you when you write
We're two ships that pass in the night
And we smile when we say it's alright

The passing ships are a symbol of a young man’s relationship with his father. There does not appear to be open animosity, but they feel like strangers to each other. In fact, their relationship reflects a cordial appearance of sorts. “We both smile and say it’s alright…” But it is not alright. A father and son’s relationship being characterized as two ships passing in the night is not acceptable.

As a parent of a soon to be 22 year old, and even sooner to be 15 year old along with a third one who just turned 19 I yearn for the days when I told them exciting bed time stories that I made up as they were being told. I am nostalgic about the days of bunk beds, camping trips and lunches at school. But those days are long gone.

I am fearful that we will become like ships passing in the night. That is not alright in my estimation. Today marks the first day of a significant summer for me. In all likelihood, this will be the last summer that all three boys will live under my roof at the same time. Randall will graduate from college in December. Daniel may or not come back home for the summer months from this point forward. Even Mitchell’s summers at home are numbered.

I hope to make the best of it. And I would encourage my friends with children the same age as mine to do likewise. College kids returning home after being independent is not the always the best scenario. But it is a final opportunity to be in the same ship together. And that is of course is a good thing .

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Living in Community

I was not introduced to the phrase “living in community” until recent years. I knew I grew up in “a” community, but I did not realize I lived “in” community minus the article “a.” until that phrase became a 21st Century buzzword. My parents’ generation lived in community too, but it was such a natural part of life I suppose they felt no need to give it an official name.

My mother was a native Southerner who found herself transplanted first in Chicago and then in Racine, Wisconsin. My father was an executive for two large farm equipment corporations during my early formative years. The lady with a degree in French from Florida Sate University adapted to life in the mid-sized Wisconsin city quite well.

She took up tennis and played with her friends at a club with indoor courts. She volunteered at Wind Point Elementary School, where I attended. (Much to my chagrin) She held dinner parties for visiting corporate leaders. There was a joke floating around the Case Corporation that you wanted to attend a meeting Mr. Knox was hosting in Racine, because his wife would have you over for a gourmet meal after the work day.

All of those dinner parties coupled with feeding three kids led to consistent trips to “Willie’s Sentry.” Sentry was the grocery store over on Douglas Avenue that all of the ladies in our neighborhood frequented. It was not just any “Sentry” brand store. It was “Willie’s Sentry.” I seem to recall my mother uttering that phrase only in the most reverent of tones.

Willie as I recall was the general manager of the store. As an 8 year old kid, I didn’t realize that he was the master of public relations. Stay at home moms like mine drove their cars to the curb in front of the store and Willie carefully loaded their groceries for them. There were no high school kids working during the day sacking groceries that I recall. And Willie was not glued to a computer working on some spreadsheet. (There were no computers to be found in 1972 in Willie’s Sentry.) He learned his customer’s names and took time to talk with all of them. My mother felt as if she was being unfaithful if she picked up a gallon at milk at the A&P in The Shorecrest Shopping Center. She of course belonged to Willie.

I drove by Willie’s Sentry last year. The building over on Douglas is empty. It seems shockingly small to me today. As I watch the construction of a huge HEB store going up near our home, I can’t help but think of Willie. Interacting with Willie and others like him defined our sense of community. I think making friends like him helped my mother over time to feel at home in a place where she had no roots.

There were heel marks when my father chose to take his career in the equipment business in a different direction in 1975. My mother was not ready to leave Racine. She had grown to love the city and the people. She had made friends. And she knew what my father’s colleagues preferred to eat as well, and would not think of them going to a restaurant. She was living in community.

How do we discover a sense of community in a Post-Willie world? Life is faster and more complex. Most moms are working outside the home now to keep the family afloat.

I for one have found part of my life in community by reconnecting with friends who were tow with their mom’s one aisle over from me at Willie’s Sentry. And I could not be more thankful. Where do you find a sense of community?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Everybody Needs a Hideout...

This week at a school banquet I heard parents of high school students lamenting their lack of solitude and down time in general.  Several of them were parents of younger teens that have not quite reached the driving age.   They are in the taxi cab stage of parenting for at least another year.   I am sympathetic. I have been there.

As I thought about all of our constant busyness, a rather sobering thought occurred to me.  We tend to make our worst decisions during times in life when there is little or no time for personal reflection.  I am fully aware that I have made my worst judgment calls during times when I was stressed and facing an overwhelming schedule.  Even the most basic decisions necessitate some quiet deliberation.

Several months ago I was juggling three or four major events that were facing me both professionally and personally.  I recall driving down the interstate and thinking:  “I need some time to process everything that is going on right now.”  That thought turned out to profound.  I have since started a habit of stopping in my tracks when life is especially intense and saying: “It is time to process.”

 I have actually formed several new habits in light of this revelation.  I thought I would share them here in hopes that they might be useful to someone else.

  • I journal every morning.  I simply jot down what is going on that day or perhaps what took place the previous day.  I often write down some brief reflections regarding those events.  For some reason this simple practice has turned out to be an important dimension of processing all of the chaos going on around me.
  • I walk most days during my lunch hour.  The exercise of course is beneficial, but the time to process what is going on in my life at the time at a much deeper level is even more important.
  • I have several hideouts.  I retreat to my hideouts when I need time to clear my head.  It is usually entails something as simple as getting a vanilla coke and driving around for a bit.  I am convinced that the time spent at my hideouts calms me sufficiently to prevent rash statements, foolish decisions, and other expressions of impulsivity that would be destructive.

Processing is an ongoing need.  The need for such a discipline never ceases.  It clears the mind, so that the spiritual disciplines like prayer and mediation can be more meaningful.   I am fully aware that an unexamined life paves the way for poor decisions that lead to train wrecks.  I honestly hope that my parental colleagues are able to carve out some time for processing.  It is imperative. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There are Chapters in YOUR Story that Have Not Been Written...

I prefer to play golf by myself on my precious Mondays.  I generally put in about 12 intense hours on Sunday, so by the time Monday rolls around I am usually downright anti-social.   But this past Monday I happened to pick up and play golf with a very interesting man. He “retired” to Granbury from the Chicago area in 1980.  That is a long time to be retired!   As I heard his story this afternoon, I soon figured out that his so called retirement could be characterized more as a mid-life shift in careers.  He also shared with me that he had just recently taken up the game of golf at age 70___.

As I left the golf course, I thought: what can I learn from this guy?  For some reason the recurring thought that kept coming back was: there are chapters to my story that have not been written yet.  I am sure my golfing partner never imagined changing careers and moving to the Lone Star State from Chicago.
But he did.  And he seems to be very content with the choices he has made in life.

I have been known to be pessimistic about the uncertainty of the future.  (Faith is certainly factored out of the equation when such uncertainty surfaces.)  There is also an exciting and invigorating aspect to the uncertainty of tomorrow.  I never imagined that I would be doing the things I am doing today when I was 18 years old.  And I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the experiences in life that I have had thus far.

I am thankful that I was forced out of my typical Monday reclusive mode this week.  My senior golfing friend’s positive attitude about his life experiences was a source of inspiration to me.  Who knows what opportunities will develop tomorrow?  There are chapters in the story that have not been written yet.

Are you frustrated today with your situation today?  Tomorrow may bring open doors that you never imagined before.  You may get to do things that you have never even dreamed about.   One thing is for certain:  Life is not going to remain stagnate!  There are chapters in YOUR story that have not been written...

Monday, May 16, 2011

Wanted: A Financial Mentor!

He never embezzled any funds.   He did not take advantage of people in business deals.  He treated all of his customers with the same level of fairness and dignity.  In fact, he dealt with the young adult just getting started in life in the same manner as he would an individual who already possessed significant assets.

The man’s name is Tommy Wallace.  He retired a few weeks ago after 64 years in the banking business.  A lot has changed in banking during 6 decades.  The idea of a global economy as we understand it today was unheard of when Mr. Wallace first started his career.  But there are some things should remain unchanged.

Honesty and good business ethics are timeless qualities.  Refusing to loan someone money in some cases is the best thing for the borrower!   Lending institutions have been known to extend credit to individuals whom they knew had limited resources to manage the subsequent payments.  Mr. Wallace tried to do what he felt was right for everyone involved.

In 1980, I fell in love with a 1979 Chevy Silverado that was on the used car lot at the local dealership in Lubbock.   I am sure that dealership had a finance manager that could have potentially preyed on my youthful enthusiasm.   But my mother advised me to go to Plains National Bank and talk to Mr. Wallace.

At age 18, I never listened to my mother. Why would I heed her advice on my first car deal? I think it had something to do with a little matter bankers called “co-signing” back then.  She told me to clean up and put on nice clothes before I went to the bank.   I made a quick trip to Plains National Bank, because I was convinced there was a line of people just waiting to purchase that truck!

Mr. Wallace was the president of the bank.  He also knew that I ran around with his daughter, Sheryl.  I was no angel in those days, so I did not see that as a factor that would work in my favor.  I thought to myself: if I had a daughter would I want her to run around with me?  It did not take long to reach a verdict on that question.

After a cordial conversation, he reached in his desk drawer and pulled out a loan agreement. (No computers in a banker’s office in 1980!)  He simply asked me how much I needed.  I signed the document and took the pink copy with me that day. There was no co-signer.  I had no credit to check at age 18.   I walked out of the bank agreeing to make payments of $112.00 a month for three years. I ending up paying it off in two years.

I am thankful that Mr. Wallace’s career has come to an end, so he can enjoy his children and grandchildren.  But I am also sad and nostalgic.  My children will not have a similar experience as they get started in life.  Banking is more complicated today.  But most of all I am just overwhelmed with gratitude for a financial mentor.  Congratulations on retirement Mr. Wallace. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Real Texas Rangers

You have no doubt seen the show:  Walker: Texas Ranger.   Chuck Norris fit the role ideally.  He of course was portrayed as a cult hero of sorts.  One article describes the show as being appealing because of its improbable combination of martial arts and modern Western genres, and its wildly unrealistic depiction of police work. That is pretty accurate.  Most recently Texas Governor Rick Perry honored Norris by making him an “Honorary Texas Ranger” at the Garland office of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

I am fortunate to be a part of the corps of volunteer chaplains with the Texas Department of Public Safety.  One of the privileges of that role is to serve with and for the Texas Rangers.  Today a double homicide trial concluded in Granbury with a guilty verdict.   I assisted with the death notifications and one of the funeral services for the victims in that heinous crime that took place June 27, 2008.  I wore the double hat of being chaplain for both DPS and Granbury Police Department.

As far as I know there were not any martial arts involved in solving this difficult case.  But I do know that everyone involved in the investigation put a lot of overtime in for weeks upon weeks.  Four capable investigators with the Granbury Police Dept. were assisted by  four Texas Rangers from various counties. 

As the trial finally reached the climatic point where a verdict was about to be read, I happened to look up to the front row in the courtroom.   Ranger Danny Briley was seated next to the 16 year old  son of one of the victims. He had his arm positioned on the back of the pew in a protective sort of manner.  It is difficult for me to describe how I felt about what I was witnessing. I suppose you just had to be there.

I immediately started thinking about “Walker: Texas Ranger.”  The fantasy of it all was just sort of amusing to me. It is not reality.  It occurred to me that reality is:  “Briley: Texas Ranger.”  The real men and women of law enforcement are sworn to protect and serve.  Danny Briley made it quite obvious that he was there today to provide an extremely vulnerable teenager some emotional protection. 

I am fairly certain that the very presence of that young man, and his younger sister and the other victim’s little 8 year old girl and two other children were motivating factors to these men to put in the kind of hours they did in this difficult investigation.  

Almost three years ago I saw that same boy sitting directly in front of me, as I eulogized his mother at her memorial service. He and his sister were of course surrounded by members of their good family that afternoon.  Briley: Texas Ranger was not present at the service.  And I just happen to recall where he and the Granbury Police dept. investigators were that very afternoon.  They were out interviewing people associated with the crime, because they knew their God give call is to protect and serve.  I am fortunate to serve with and for people of that caliber.  

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I Still Miss My Mother...

I actually wrote this post on Mother's Day in 2009.  I find myself feeling precisely the same two years later...

My boys will soon receive the annual Mother’s Day Lecture. It is a lesson that is never forgone around the Knox household. It generally includes the same key points: wear nice clothes to church, sit with your mother in the worship assembly, be home for lunch, no crude discussion at the table, and above all….be on your best behavior for the day. They always take it well, and generally go above the call of duty to honor their mother.

This year the boys will join me in putting on a roast and all of the trimmings for the annual Mother’s Day meal. Jan will be banished from the kitchen, and we will even do the clean up job. After the counter is finally wiped down, the boys will go outside to play basketball, and I will sit down for just a few moments of quiet reflection regarding my own mother.

My mother was a very traditional Southern lady. I am convinced she wrote the book on proper etiquette. She was very aware of the social graces, and was quick to point it out when others violated such rules. I nearly cried when I saw Driving Miss Daisy. My mother tracked one generation behind the memorable character that Jessica Tandy so effectively portrayed, but there are some striking similarities in personality and attitude.

My mother’s name was Louise. I found out as an adult that her real name was Emma. She thought the name Emma was hopelessly out of date, so she went by her middle name. She would be shocked today to see so many 4 year old and 10 year old Emma’s running around everywhere. My friends fondly referred to her as “Weezy.” 

I remember growing up with strict rules that accompanied the call to Southern etiquette. When I was in trouble at school, she always sided with the teacher, much my chagrin. She fried homemade chicken strips for my friends and me long before Chicken Express hit the scene. I have tried to replicate her recipe on an occasion or two, but have long since given up. She opened our home to all of my friends and treated them like they were her own. As recently as this year, several of my friends from high school have commented on her obvious love for them.

I watched my mother grieve when my father died in 1978. She was a widow at age 50. She was never the same after that pivotal event in the life of our family.
She continued to play tennis several times a week, even after she turned 60. She adored her grandchildren. But life was never the same for her… She was a very traditional lady, whose world revolved around her husband and children.

My mother was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer when I was 29 years old. Our oldest son was two at the time. Jan found out that she was expecting our second son weeks before she died. She lived for 90 days after the diagnosis. One day before her 64th birthday, she passed from this life with all of us at her side. That was October 30th, 1991.

My mother has been gone for almost 18 years now, but I will still sit in quiet reflection on this Mother’s Day, because I still miss my mother.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Confessing Prematurely is Not A Good Idea

I went by the office to surprise Jan by taking her out to lunch.  What I failed to tell her is that I left my wallet at the house this morning, and she would have to pick up the check.  We went to the Firehouse Café to dine on the lunch special of the day.  The Firehouse is one of those places where everybody knows your name.
We not only enjoyed our meal, but we also got to visit with friends that also frequent this mom and pop café at noon.

The waitress filled my tea glass one last time.  I knew the check would arrive soon.  Confession time had officially arrived.  I could put it off no longer. I flashed a little toothy grin and explained that my wallet was sitting on the dresser at home.  Now my little bride is nobody’s fool. She immediately suggested that my romantic overture of lunch for two was merely a sinister ploy to have someone buy my lunch.  I quickly replaced the toothy grin with the hurt puppy dog look and cocked my head to the side.  She rolled her eyes and handed me her master card. Little did I know that I had confessed prematurely?

I went up to the cash register to pay out and our waitress informed me that someone who wished to remain anonymous had paid our bill.  I have strong suspicions in regard to the identity of our generous benefactor. But I want them to enjoy the benefits of their quiet gesture of kindness.  I will therefore keep my hunches to myself.

Someone thinking of us in that way really made our day.  Sometimes the simplest acts of generosity can make a real difference in another person’s life.  The recipient feels valued and affirmed.  It occurred to me as I left the Firehouse Café today that the best reaction to today’s events is to allow that kindness to have a chain reaction effect.

Next time I see a friend in a restaurant it will be my turn to quietly pick up their check.  I often see Emergency Medical technicians and paramedics eating in The Firehouse.  I have had good intentions of picking up their tab on several occasions, but I have never followed through.  I was convicted today.  Chain reactions of kindness are a good thing. 

And next time I am going to wait until I get up to the counter to pay out before I make any forgotten wallet confessions.  After all there is no reason to confess prematurely!