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?