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.