Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Swimsuit that Embellishes...

I don’t normally find myself wondering around stores in the women’s swimsuit section. But I could not help but notice a sign placed near the main aisle of one of my favorite retailers advertising swimwear that extols the perceived advantage of “embellishment.” At first glance I laughed to myself. I was thinking: Women can’t just buy any swimsuit. They need one that embellishes certain parts of their anatomy. But I soon quit laughing, because I understand the term “embellish” all too well.

I do a lot of public speaking for a variety of audiences in a number of different settings. I preach every Sunday, give after dinner speeches, lecture to students at universities, and lead training events for law enforcement chaplains. Embellishing as an instructor of speaker is usually associated with stretching the truth, making the story grander, or the numbers larger. It is not a virtue. Embellishing a story or a set of figures is a fast way to completely destroy a public speaker’s credibility. Exaggerating any aspect of a presentation is not going to be received positively by participants.

I am aware that the term embellish can also mean to decorate, adorn, or otherwise beatify. Maybe that is what that store is trying to convey in their swimsuit marketing strategy. But based on other advertising commentary promoting the same swimwear I don’t think that is the case…

I think a good message to send to men and women alike is: Forget the embellishment and be your self. And by the way, don’t be ashamed of any aspect of the way God created you. I am no expert by any stretch of the imagination on eating disorders all too common to younger women, but I do know that body image issues fuel such problems.

Last week I interacted with dozens of high school kids at camp. This week I will do the same with middle school students. I know for a fact that a lot of those kiddos sure need a boost in the self image area. My message to them: Be yourself. Don’t try to be something you are not. Discover who you are and who you are meant to be. There is no need for embellishment…

Friday, June 24, 2011

I Thought We were All Your Sons!

This morning I completed my 5th year as the Head Men’s Counselor and Dorm Dad for Camp Zenith. Zenith is geared for 9th-12th grade students. Every year I come to camp with a desire to learn something from the kids I am serving that is meaningful. I have never been disappointed.

Most of the lessons I glean are not new. They are just not so subtle reminders of what teens really need from adults. Every year there are students that bring stories of brokenness with them. This year I bumped into a camper who lost his mother when he was 5 years old. I told him late one night when I was checking dorms that I was present at his mother’s funeral 9 years ago. And I reassured him that she was indeed a really good person. Kids who have lost a parent just need to know that.  And that is especially true for a young man who barely remembers his mother.

Another camper I dealt with was referred to me by his college age counselor. At camp I function like the assistant principal who handles discipline at school. This particular young man had been blatantly disrespectful. I spoke to him in terms where very little was left to the imagination. I described my expectations in very clear terms. My tone was direct. And then when I finished, I told him that I knew he had the ability to be the informal leader of his group. I perceived him to be a natural leader. I just gave him the kind of lecture that Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry or any other old school coach would give a player who is not using his full potential. I was not prepared for his response. A kid who towers my 6’ frame had tears in his eyes. His youth minister later told me the next day that no one had ever conveyed such a message to him. And when I heard that, I had tears in my eyes…

I also watched a young man from my home church just blossom during the week at camp. He is one of kids that just showed up on the doorstep at the church building, because we host an after school program on Wednesdays. That kind of program is very labor intensive. Some of the kids we get are very troubled. And they are not always respectful! We have been so tempted to shut that effort down at times. This week I was reminded what a huge mistake that would be for our church.  In a few weeks, this particlar young man will be engaged in basic training for active duty military service.  And to think that could have ended a program that really touched his life. 

Sunday night at camp I held a meeting with all of the boys in my dorm to go over the rules. It happened to be Father’s Day, so I told the boys: I am your dad for the week, and don’t forget today is Father’s Day! We enjoyed a good laugh, but I did not expect what followed. During the course of the entire week those boys called me “dad.” During one conversation I referred to something my son was going to do, and one of the campers said: I thought we were all your sons! I turned around and told him: you are…And I was reminded again that I have a lot to learn about teens.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Helping Friends During Times of Acute Crisis

It was a terribly hot Friday afternoon in July of 1992. I suppose all Friday afternoons in Wichita Falls, Texas are terribly hot in July…I was enjoying a glass of tea along with some chips and salsa with some friends when I was paged to the ER at was then Wichita General Hospital. A lady in her late 20’s rode on the ambulance as paramedics strived to revive her husband, who had collapsed at their home in a few moments earlier. By the time I arrived, she was in the tiny “family room” adjacent to the ER curled up in the fetal position sobbing uncontrollably. And what I remember to this day is: she did not have any shoes on… She was sitting there in her socks. Minutes earlier the nursing supervisor and ER doctor informed her that her husband had been pronounced dead.

People often ask me: what do you do in such circumstances? What do say? How do you handle it? Here is the first and perhaps the most important thing to do when a friend or stranger is experiencing acute crisis. Identify their support system and then do what you can to assemble it.

So that is what I did that hot Friday afternoon in July. I asked this young, terrified woman who I could call for her. Do you have family? Do you have a minister? Do you have neighbors or close friends? She answered no to all of the above along with a few more creative ideas I generated for potential support systems. Now what do I do? They didn’t tell us in training what do in such situations. As it turned out, I ended up sitting with her until her family from out of state arrived.

What do well intentioned people do when a friend, neighbor, or co-worker is in the middle of a major crisis, and that person simply does not have a support system? Obviously you don’t want to leave them high and dry. And depending on the situation, their list of needs could be extensive.

I think there are several creative choices that can be made regarding the formation of a potential support network for your struggling friend, but there is a very important prerequisite that must be fulfilled first. As a concerned friend, you have to realize that one person does not comprise a system. The word system generally suggests the presence of a plurality of people. And it takes a system to help successfully.

If you ignore that principle, it is tempting to get in rescue mode. You are going to be the knight in shining armor that saves the day and keeps your friend from imminent peril. That is a lot of nonsense. It almost always ends up being a discouraging endeavor that can even end friendships. In times of crisis, the key word is system. Think systemically. I am trying hard these days to think systematically, because I know there are more hot days in July looming in the very near future….

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are You Sure You are Ready to Lose Your Charm?

Father’s Day is over. Yesterday there was a table in the restaurant next to us with a group of adults lavishing gifts on dad. It appeared that they value the gentleman who was on the receiving end of their generosity. I received some pretty strong response to my blog about Father’s Day. It came from friends whose dads bailed ship during their formative years.

When I was in elementary school, I don’t recall very many of my friends at Wind Point School coming from single parent homes. Statistically it was around 10% of the kids in my class during any given year. Of course I realize that a good number of my friends had parents who split up a few years later. Today the number of elementary school age kids living in single parents homes is staggering. I don’t want to belittle single moms or dads. In fact, I admire the tenacity of those doing the parenting thing solo. But I do have a few things to say to dads who actually think that the grass is greener…

I have been in ministry for 24 years. I have been a volunteer law enforcement chaplain for over 21 years. I have thus been exposed to family problems of every imaginable kind. In many cases, I have been on the front row as they unfolded.  Dad goes to to jail for family violence and cute kids stand there in bewilderement. I have taken some good mental notes over that two decade period. Here is one of them: Dads that choose to bail out of their marriage and leave mom with the kids’ impact the lives of those children permanently. I know that is blunt, but it is true.

In looking back on all of the men that have left their wives over the years that I have been aware of, the reasons are of course varied. But I must admit that most of those men left, because they found another woman, or in some cases left their spouse for a man. I wish now I had kept better records, but I am confident that this is the prevailing reason for divorces initiated by men I have known.

Why do I share such information right after Father’s Day? I just think it is fitting to encourage men to think twice before jumping ship. The grass is most likely not nearly as green as you think it is on the other side of the septic tank. Your present wife knows the real you! George Strait says in his song: You Know Me Better Than That….
You know the me that gets lazy and fat.
How moody I can be, all my insecurities.
You've seen me lose all my charm, you know I was raised on a farm.
Oh, she tells her friends I'm perfect
And that I love her cat, but you know me better than that.
The little sweet thing that you want to leave your wife for will eventually figure out that you lose your charm and don’t love her cat.

Allow me to impress on your heart that you will indeed affect your children for the rest of their life. You may still feel compelled to end a marriage that cannot be saved. There may be legitimate reasons to make that choice. Are you taking off, because you met some sweet, young thing? Think twice men. Little Ms. Perfect may not lead you to the Promised Land you think she is going to lead you to. Oh and by the way...she is fully capable of losing her charm!

I am speaking from years of working with adults who are still wrestling with the choices that dad made decades earlier. The stories in many cases are heart wrenching. I am just saying it is a good idea to give your marriage everything you have before you pull the plug and jump overboard. Little Ms. Perfect may just drown you in a sea of selfishness. And there maybe some tears shed on Father’s Day. Because when you leave your wife for another woman, you lose your credibility as well as your charm.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Father's Day: An Insignificant Nuisance?

Father’s Day is day after tomorrow. It has been a day of mixed blessings for me for a long time now. My own father has been deceased since 1978. That really is a long time… But I have been a father since 1989. And that too is a long time.  Mixed blessing is thus a descriptive phrase.
This year is going to be different. I have formulated a list of things that must or must not be done on this annual holiday. Here is the list:

No whining allowed… I must confess. I am a grown man and I have chosen to feel sorry for myself on Father’s Day of past years. I even resented other adult men who seemed to view the holiday as an insignificant nuisance. But I will not do that this year. Last November I assisted with a line of duty death involving one of my Texas Highway Patrol Troopers. He was assigned to Garza County, which is not too far from where I spent my formative years. Trooper McDonald left a dedicated wife and a precious young daughter behind. His little girl recently celebrated her first birthday. Whining will be replaced with empathy this year. I have a thin blue line wrist band that I wear in memory of Jonathan McDonald. When I am tempted to feel sorry myself this Sunday, I will simply look at my wrist band…Enough said.

Gratitude is in order… I have all three of my boy’s home this summer. Based on where they are in life that will most likely never happen again. Earlier this week Randall gave me a very unique book as a Father’s Day present. It instantly became one of my most treasured possessions. Most of all it has just been a pleasure to have all of them home for the summer.

Harry Chapin is banned… I heard Harry Chapin’s 1974 hit: Cats and the Cradle on the radio going to work earlier this week. That song is officially banned for old men like me. I can’t listen to it right now. boys are moving rapidly toward complete independence, and I find myself having visions of going down the toy aisle with them at Walmart in Lubbock years ago.

List Making might be a good idea… I hate lists. I lose the grocery list before I get to the store. (perhaps on purpose…don’t tell!) I will make a better list on Sunday. I think I will formulate a listing of every man who has served as a surrogate father to me since I lost my dad when I was 15. Now that is a good idea…

I hope everyone has a great Father’s Day. Don’t view it as a nuisance. That will be a mistake you will grow to regret. Think in terms of someone missing their dad this weekend, and be a blessing to them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What Did Your Father Do for You?

Father's day is next weekend. Be sure and take care of your father next weekend, and if he's no longer with you, take a moment to reflect on all the things he did for you. One of my friends posted that thought in their facebook status a week or so ago, so I saved it. I saved it because it occurred to me that I have never taken the time to express in specific terms all of the things he did for me. Here is my list.

My father taught me how to work. That is the first thought that came to mind. My father maintained an impeccable work ethic and he in turn expected his kids to follow his cues. Consequently I learned to work hard at a fairly young age. I spent part of the summer after my 8th grade year painting the trim on the house with very little guidance.

My father was not a racist. My dad was born in the South in 1925. Many people of his generation were very racist. (Including my mother!) I have never been inclined toward being prejudiced, and I attribute that to the example that my father set.

My father was fair with people. My dad really felt that everyone should get a fair shake. As an employer, he tried to treat everyone the same. He had very high expectations, but his supervision and leadership were delivered in a spirit of fairness. I don’t know if I have inherited that quality or not. But I know I was not short on example in that department.

My father encouraged me to develop my talents. When I was entering the 9th grade, I had no clue what to take for elective courses. My dad urged me to take speech and debate. He told me I was naturally talented toward such endeavors. And I so I did….In fact, my bachelor’s degree is in Speech Communications.

My father had a good reputation as a businessman. Unfortunately I rarely encounter people who knew my dad anymore. But when I do I am so thankful that their comments are very complimentary regarding his sense of business ethics. He was honest and he treated people with integrity.

My father was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Some of his poor choices in terms of taking care of his health led to a premature death at age 52. I was 15 years old at the time. Over the years I think I have focused too much on the negative attributes of the home I grew up in. I realize now how much grace I need as a father! I am very aware of my own imperfections. I am thankful for a friend prompting all of us to take a few moments to reflect on the things our fathers did for us. What about you? What did your dad do for you?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Kids Who Feel Like they are Trash...

Jeff was training for the Olympics. He was on the verge of becoming an Olympian runner when unforeseen circumstances derailed his dream. An unexpected injury permanently dashed any hopes of Olympic competition. He was still able to run, but he was not in a position to compete at that level.   I cannot imagine the disappointment he felt.

His life plans shifted in an entirely different direction. He decided to go into law enforcement. I don’t know how many agencies he applied with, but I do know that a record was broken during the physical agility test when he went through the application process with the Granbury Police Department. Training officers are accustomed to administering various kinds of physical fitness tests to applicants that are in excellent condition, but I think even they were surprised when Jeff took to the track for the running part of the exam.  
Last night I had an opportunity to ride with Jeff as he patrolled on the evening shift. If I am going to ride out with Jeff, I have to catch him during the summer months. During the school year he is the department’s DARE officer. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) You can find him teaching in a classroom full of 5th graders, or in the school cafeteria mentoring impressionable kids.  Being in DARE is Jeff's choice.  He is an excellent street cop as well.

Jeff has actually gone way beyond the call of duty as a DARE officer. He spends his afternoons at the high school volunteering as a track coach. And yes he gets out and runs with the kids! On Friday nights the students who have had him in DARE have an opportunity to interact with him at the skating rink. He has committed his Friday nights to pre-teens and teens in that setting.

Something Jeff said to me last night caught my attention. He informed me that you don’t have to be special in order to be effective with kids that have a troubled home life. He told me that you simply have to make them feel that really are special, because at home they feel like they are “trash.” They feel like they are “in the way.” Of course my response is: It does not hurt to be a trained runner! Kids are drawn to Jeff like a magnet, because of his background. Or maybe they are drawn to him because they can sense that he really cares…Whatever the case I am so grateful that he is there. One of these nights in a few years I will ride out with a young officer, and that person will tell me that they chose to get into law enforcement because of a man they met at their school named Jeff Hastings. And I will grin and remember a conversation I had late one night with Jeff about trash and kids who are in the way….

Friday, June 10, 2011

Parents of College Students: Their Sanity Hangs in the Balance

I was a complete and total angel when I was a college student. And of course I would stretch the truth about other things as well. The truth is that I completely washed one semester at Texas Tech as I pursued my undergraduate degree. That event was not set in motion by angelic behavior.

This week a long time friend had to endure his daughter making some choices both educationally and relationally that are probably not going to enhance her future. She is a bright girl with a good future. During the 2010-2011 academic year she attended a highly specialized school that is not easy to gain admission to. But this past week she announced to her parents that she is not going to go back in August. She is going to move several states away, so she can be with a boyfriend she met in high school. Needless to say mom and dad are thrilled.

How can you help a friend when they find themselves in a parental predicament of this nature? As I heard the story unfold, I really worked at engaging my listening skills. I readily admit that I didn’t have any simple answers to offer. But I did know from experience that there are a few things that my friend and fellow parent did not need to hear this week. And he really should not hear these things next week either!

• He does not to hear about my perfect children. You know the type… They are making a 4.0 grade point average, working in an internship that will lead to a successful career, and dining at the White House this summer at a “Most Likely to Succeed Banquet” held by The President and First Lady. I occasionally hear such stories. They are generally shared when or more of my boys are struggling in some facet of their life. And quite frankly I just don’t find it be helpful. If you want to elevate your kids to sainthood, do it out of the presence of a struggling parent.

• He does not to hear that It is all going to work out. Is it now? Do you know that for a fact? I would advise against making such sweeping statements, because things may get worse before they get better. Sometimes it takes years for life lessons to be learned. Your friend’s child is unique. He may bounce back quickly from a string of poor choices. But that is not always the case. Don’t make promises in areas that you have no control.

• He needs to know that you are loyal. Your friend needs to know that you are going to walk with him when he is ready to eradicate all boyfriends from the face of the earth. He needs a sounding board and an encourager.

He needs to know that you love his child. How I appreciate people who have loved my kids from the time they were very small. And they still love them today. Expressing unconditional love for the children of those you love is one of the best gifts of friendship.

Summertime is here. It is a time of transition for college kids everywhere. Some will go to summer school. (I have one taking Spanish all summer.) Others will work at a variety of part-time jobs. And still others will make foolish choices that will impede their education. Hang in there with the parents of those kids. They need you, because their sanity is hanging in the balance!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Do you Want Your Preacher to Be Real?

I preach somewhere between 40 to 45 Sundays during the course of a calendar year. I am one of those fortunate ministers that get to deliver the same sermon twice on Sunday. There are times when I think that the first go around was just a good warm up for second service. And there are other times when I feel like I gave so much of myself in first service that there is not enough left in me for the second go around! Before the morning is over I have addressed somewhere between 600 and 670 people.

What is like to address that many people at least 40 times a year? I can assure you that people very free to react however they choose. Discretion is often checked at the door. Good manners are sidelined. Over the years I have had people walk out in the middle of my sermon. Every Sunday I observe individuals that appear to be bored or disinterested. Some people feel compelled to provide an immediate and sometimes detailed critique in the foyer after the service. Others just choose to share sermon reviews with their friends, and so I end up getting it third hand.

The varying responses to sermons keep my job interesting to say the least. I value constructive critiques, and appreciate stimulating conversations prompted by disagreement. I also quickly dismiss objections that lack any kind of substantive evidence. Hateful comments made directly or indirectly say more about the person initiating them than it does about me.

I do what I do at least 40 times a year because I feel called to make a difference. I want to say something that I hope will impact another person’s life. I realize in order to do that I must be real with people. When you choose to be real, it entails sharing what is in heart as well as what is in your head. Putting your heart out there for anyone and everyone to stomp on at will is a challenge to say the least.

One of the reasons I can continue to share my heart as well as my head is that I am surrounded by people who are blessed with the gift of encouragement. Periodically I receive emails with priceless content. Sometimes people tell me in the foyer with tears in their eyes: “I needed to hear THAT message today.” Others express their encouragement nonverbally as the sermon is being delivered. This week I received a message on facebook that was so encouraging I feel compelled to reprint it here. Here is a tiny excerpt of a larger message: You have been on my heart this week and I didn't want another day to go by without telling you how much I appreciated your sermon last Sunday. It was so refreshing and REAL...something we all need. I always know when you are passionate about something because it is written all over your face!

Do you want your preacher to be real?  If you expect him to share his heart, then choose to share yours.  It makes a difference.  Genuine behaivor on your part will fuel the same on his part. When we choose to encourage, there is no telling what might hapen ! I actually think I can put my heart out there again one more Sunday…. And there is no telling what might be written on my face this week!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Help: My Dreams are Moving On Without Me!

On a particularly frustrating day recently it occurred to me that the sum total of my present commitments and the dreams that I formulated many years ago did not appear to be a close match. On the surface my ideals and what I am actually doing everyday did not seem to be living in the same neighborhood!

What do you do when you think that your dreams got up and left in a moving van with the name “Cold Reality” painted on the side? It is a question worth answering, because I suspect a number of my friends facing the reality of mid-life are having similar experiences.

I don’t have the final answers on such matters. But I have given a lot of thought to the perceived disparity between dreams and reality. I have really tried to be honest and rooted in faith in my consideration of such concerns. Here are my very preliminary conclusions:

• Stress causes us to see our present situation in a skewed manner. I admit I am the king of blowing things way out of proportion. I openly confess that I often view the glass as half empty instead of half full. When I feel particularly discouraged, I force myself to list all of the things I am thankful on that particular day. I have always found this to be an effective attitude adjustment tool. It tends to work pretty quickly too! There is nothing quite humble gratitude.  I soon determine through that listing that dreams really are intact!

I refuse to allow circumstances to squash my dreams. When I feel like my dreams and desires are being shipped off, I use the journal once again. This time I write down all of the things I am pursuing that are important to me right now. And I am usually reminded that things are not nearly as bad as I think.

• I try not to let temporary setbacks discourage me. I will most likely finish all 5 levels of Rosetta Stone Spanish software before the end of 2011. (If all goes as planned) A few days ago I was told that it takes up to 7 years to truly know a new language well. That was a little deflating, but I bounced back quickly with a renewed attitude to learn.

• I try to listen to the right people. Years ago we had two ladies at the church where I preached with the same first name. One of those ladies is the ultimate encourager. She was consistently positive. The other person with the same name was caustic, negative, and generally unhappy with life. She spread her poison around equally. Jan always reminded me: Listen to the right “Gertrude.” (Not their real name!) I try to heed that advice everyday. I dwell on the positive Gertrude’s among us.

I try to communicate with friends every single day. I am incredibly fortunate to have friends that go all the way back to my days of playing in the sandbox under the Willow tree at Colleen and Maureen Burke’s house. I think it is important to connect with friends in some shape or fashion everyday. They remind me that my dreams are alive and well!

The good news is that I have realized the disparity between my dreams and cold hard reality is not nearly as great as I once perceived. I am still excited about what I am doing and why I am doing it. And that is a blessing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My Mother was Never 16 Years Old...

My mother graduated from high school in 1945 in Jacksonville, FL. She watched classmates that were a few years ahead of her be drafted and quickly head of for overseas military duty during WWII. Many of those young men did not come home… I wish now that I had pressed her for more details regarding her high school experiences, but the one story did share still stands out.

She told me about a cousin, who was a few years older than her, coming home on military leave. She was 16 years old at the time. It was the late spring of 1944. I have no clue how he managed to secure a stateside leave at such a crucial time in the war, but he did… Apparently he knew that the invasion of Europe was imminent and that he would be a part of the forces that would complete that historical effort.

My mother told me that she knew that there her beloved cousin was going to be in harm’s way upon his return to Europe. She was correct. He was killed during the D-Day invasion that was carried out 67 years ago today. Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in a surprise attack during a period of awful weather that day.

I wish now that I had pressed my mother for additional details. At the time she told me this story, it was beyond my comprehension to think of my mother as ever being 16 years old! It never occurred to me to ask her what that was like for her. What was it like to be 16 years old and lose an older cousin, whom she was so enamored by? I do know that it made enough of an impression for her to share the experience with me when I was a college student taking American History.

Today we remember those that served in the D-Day Invasion on June 6th, 1944. And perhaps we are reminded to press our loved ones for more details about their life stories. If we fail to do that we maybe missing out on historical information that could transform the way that we view our loved ones.