Monday, December 31, 2012

I Spend My Money on Custom Made Golf Clubs...

One of the young police officers that I am privileged to serve made the comment last night that he used some extra money he had made to purchase a new washer and dryer. He and his wife are expecting a baby, so that is a wise move on his part.  But I popped off my mouth and said:  “I am not buying a washer and dryer. My extra funds are going toward custom made golf clubs.”  Of course that is pure nonsense. But then it hit me today, I made a similar purchase almost exactly 23 years ago…

Our firstborn was 6 months old.  We needed a decent washer and dryer to keep up with the non ending piles of laundry.  I jumped off and bought our first brand new washer and dryer. I was so proud of that purchase. I could not afford to purchase them at the same time, but was able to secure the pair within a few months of each other.

As I pondered my flippant comment about his purchase, a couple of more things occurred to me. The officer is the same age as my oldest son.  They graduated from high school together. And I was reminded that the washer machine I purchased 23 years ago finally gave it up last summer. I sent it away for a decent burial and secured a new one that probably won’t last as long as the 1989 model.

How soon we forget. Life marches on and we forget what it was like to be in an earlier stage in the journey. I have to admit today that I am not a young pup with babies in my house.  I am not buying my first washer and dryer this year. Nor am I buying custom made golf clubs, because those babies are driving, getting a higher education, and moving toward independence. Anything extra that I make is going in that direction.

I realize as a new year begins one of my primary roles is to support young men that ARE buying washer and dryers as they anticipate the arrival of a new baby.That time of life has it own set of challenges. Hopefully my gray hair and life experience will bring something positive and encouraging to their journey. I really should be more cautious about the custom made golf club comments too. I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture of what parenthood holds for them! 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Monterey High School Class of 1980: Most Inspiring Person

I graduated one quarter early from high school. That meant in February of 1980 I was a free man.  That sounds like I was brighter than the average student that waited until the final class was completed at the end of the school year. That was not the case at all. If the truth be known, I made that choice because I had been kicked off the debate team due to disciplinary reasons.  Needless to say as the school year winded down for the Monterey Class of 1980 I was not voted most likely to succeed.  I don’t even recall who received that honor.  And quite frankly I am not overly concerned about researching that information.  But what I do know is far more important.

The MHS class of 1980 will soon mark the 33 year marker since our graduation. Who is the most successful among us?  I have no clue.  But what I do know is that Kerri  _______ has rightfully earned the right to be referred to as “Most Inspiring Classmate.”  In 1980, we made frivolous predictions about our classmates. In 2013, we can now make firm assertions that are based in reality.  Kerri has inspired all of her classmates.

Several years ago Kerri was diagnosed with cancer. She was young. She still had children at home. She was in the middle of a successful career.  But cancer is no respecter of persons.  She embraced her new reality and pressed on in faith.  There were other significant changes in her family that led to her being single again. And that also led to a career change.  A lot of change for Kerri…A lot of stress too…

When I showed up at our 30 class reunion in the summer of 2010, Kerri was not present.  Her health situation would not allow it.  We all signed a huge get well card. And I suspect a lot of us embraced her in prayer from that day forward. 

Soon after that I “friended” Kerri on facebook.  Over and over again on facebook I have seen her display an attitude characterized by gratitude and joy. She has made her faith real to her friends. She appreciates her family and her friends alike.  She is appreciative for life. If she has whined, I just missed reading those posts. I suspect such posts don’t exist!  My opinion is:  Kerri should be voted as “Most Inspiring.”  She has inspired me and countless others from our class. As a new year looms, I pray that we can learn from her example and strive to be an encouragement to others. And as for those of us that had discipline issues…If we have not grown up by now, we are probably not going to!  

An Inventory of Blessings

The year should not end without a thorough inventory. New Year’s Resolutions should not be entertained until such a process can be completed.  I am referring to an inventory of blessing.  How have you been blessed this year? How has your life been enriched and fortified? Have you taken careful inventory?

This year has not been easy by any stretch of the imagination for me. I watched two of my friends from childhood suffer from cancer and ultimately pass from this life in April and June.  They were both 49 years old.  But I was blessed to spend time with both of them prior to their deaths even though they live almost 1,000 miles from my home. Those brief moments were rich and unforgettable.

And then in July, my longtime mentor, professor, and friend also passed from this life after dealing with cancer.  I recall sitting in his office exactly one year ago. It was then that he told me that he was “not going to get better.”  It was hard. But I got to lecture to the students enrolled in the final class he taught in a short course format in May.  What a blessing. It was an unforgettable week.

Despite all of the sadness this year I have been incredibly fortunate.  Opportunities to spend time with longtime friends abounded this year.  Over and over I was given the privilege of deepening relationships with people that I have known most of my life. But I was also fortunate enough to get to know friends that I have known for a relatively short period of time much better.  In terms of friendship it has been an unforgettable year.

My boys have grown and matured this year. Randall is an independent adult making his way in the world in such an exemplary manner. Daniel continues to pursue his undergraduate degree.  And Mitchell got his learner’s permit to drive this year. They are all growing.  Watching my boys experience such significant life milestones is truly unforgettable.

This summer Jan traveled with me to the city where I went to elementary school and one year of junior high.  It was where I called home as a child. It was where I met and formed friendships with the above mentioned childhood friends.  She was able to see the old stomping grounds for the first time. She saw Ray’s house and Steve’s house. There was something profoundly sacred about that experience.  It was an unforgettable vacation.

Has it been a painful year?  Oh yes…no doubt.  But have I been blessed on the journey with incredibly great people? No doubt.  I have been so fortunate that it is taking several days to complete an inventory of gratitude.  I am willing to invest in that inventory, because I don’t want to forget the people and the moments that made life rich and rewarding this year.  They should be unforgettable.  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Being Mentally Challenged Does Not Mean that You Cannot Challenge...

I miss Kenny. He was one of my biggest supporters at church. Kenny was 68 years old.  Kenny provided weekly commentary on my sermons.  If he thought the sermon was on target, he shared that sentiment.  And if he thought it was not quite up to par, he shared that too.  At first I was tempted not to take him seriously. You see Kenny was mentally challenged.

As time went on, I learned that being mentally challenged does not mean that you cannot provide some mental challenge to others. Kenny was a sharp guy in many ways.  He was perceptive about people.  He was in tune with what we were trying to accomplish at church at a much greater level than the average member, because he paid careful attention to what was going on around him.  I received regular commentary on ministry programs or on other efforts we were trying to promote. Kenny made me think.

It is unfortunate that we think mentally challenged adults have little to offer the organizations of society that we are all a part of.  We make tasteless jokes about “riding the short bus” to school. We call each other “retards” when we want to be derogatory. But the very people that we are inclined to ridicule could teach us a lot, if we are willing to pay attention.

Kenny was a kind man.  I never ever heard him make a disparaging comment about another person. Not ever.  I can’t say about myself. Kenny modeled good behavior to me.

Every week at church there is a fresh flower arrangement positioned in front of the podium that I use to put my sermon notes on. I don’t know a tulip from a rose. But Kenny did.  He made a point to take in the beauty of the arrangement every week and in turn make comments about the kind of flowers that were included.  Kenny taught me something about appreciating the finer things in life.

His funeral service is Friday.  There will be no shortage of good things to say about his life.  Yes he was mentally challenged.  But he also never ceased to challenge me on a mental level. Don’t make premature assumptions about people based on your perceptions about their mental capacity.  You might be wrong. And you might fail to learn some valuable life lessons.

I hope the flowers at Kenny’s funeral are beautiful.  And I plan to take special note of the arrangements.  I think he would be pleased…I miss Kenny. He was one of my biggest supporters at church.

Friday, December 14, 2012

There is No Time to Feel Helpless

When I saw the faces of those traumatized following the shooting in Connecticut today I felt helpless.  I felt a deep-seated longing to serve those who were hurting.  But I quickly concluded that praying for victims and first- responders alike was my exclusive responsibility. And then I realized that I had reached a premature conclusion.

I can show respect for the traumatized in Connecticut by serving those who are hurting in my own community.  The circumstances are obviously much different. But nevertheless there are victims of heinous crimes in our own communities. And there are people in deep grief in our own sphere of influence.  They are in need of ongoing compassion and care.  How can I express such concern in specific ways?  

I am determined to stop every time I think about those precious children and educators who lost their lives today. I am going to stop and think about my teacher friends who are committed to loving the children entrusted to them every single day. And I am going to think about all of the sweet kids that I know. How can I better love on both groups?

And then there are first responders.  Police officers, firefighters, and medics….I am partial to them, and I have been for years. I can only pray for those that responded to the tragedy today.  But I can do a lot more for those that serve agencies entrusted to my care.  But what does it mean to be entrusted with the spiritual care of such individuals?

I am not feeling quite as helpless. In fact I don’t have that luxury.  I don’t have time to be helpless. There is too much needed work to be done.  But what does it look like to serve those who are truly hurting?  I am willing to ask that question, because it is the only action outside of prayer that I can take on behalf of those whose lives were turned inside out today. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

You are Competent...BUT Do You Like the People?

My Texas Tech Red Raiders just hired Kliff Kingsbury as their head football coach.  Just last week Kingsbury was the offensive coordinator for The Texas A&M program, where freshman quarterback “Johnny Football” received the Heisman Trophy.  A few eyes were raised regarding Kingsbury’s age. Serving as Tech’s head coach at age 33 will indeed be a challenge.

A quote from Coach Kingsbury in today’s edition of Lubbock’s Avalanche Journal caught my attention: “I love the people of West Texas. I’ve lived in a bunch of different cities, and some of the finest people I’ve ever met in my life are out here, and some of the best relationships that I still have today were formed out here, so I’m thrilled to be back.”  I know precisely what he means about the people of West Texas. But there is an even deeper meaning lingering in his words…

A university can hire the most competent football coach that exists, but if he does not like the people that he is called to serve the relationship will not be successful for the long term. The likeability factor goes both ways.  A coach must endear himself to players, coaching staff, and fans. But I think of even greater importance the people he serves need to sense that he truly likes them. West Texas is a unique place. It has its own culture. It is not for everyone. But based on Kingsbury’s comments he has a deep appreciation for the good people that live on the South Plains.

I needed to read those comments today. It reminded me that it is important for me as a minister to like the people I serve. I need to like living in Granbury, because I am called to serve the  community.  If I am unwilling to embrace the entire community in a spirit of love and concern, I will ultimately be ineffective. People can sense it when a minister is using them for a stepping stone to something bigger and better. They can also sense it when that same minister would rather be living in Oregon than in Granbury. I too serve fine people.  I have created great memories right where I am planted.  I wish Kliff Kingsbury the very best in his new venture, but in particular I am grateful that he values the people where I spent a good part of my formative years. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Premature New Years' Resolutions

I wonder how many people will make New Year’s Resolutions to lose a few pounds this year.  And furthermore I wonder how many people will resolve to eat healthier after a holiday season of parties, goodies, and ongoing overeating.  Resolutions are a good thing.  I presume that good will ultimately develop from such commitments.  I realized this fall that I could not wait until January 1st of next year to get on a healthier track. 

A good friend here in Granbury recommended myfitnesspal as an online weight loss and fitness resource.  I must say that is an excellent tool.  And it is free!
My progress has been excruciatingly slow. But I have indeed lost weight.  And I am still losing.  Three important things have surfaced in this process.

I have learned a lot about myself.  For example I figured out that my eating habits were awful.  I mean bad!  I was eating out more than I thought I was. And I was eating a lot more junk than I wanted to admit. And of course I was pretty clueless about portion control too. 

Secondly I have learned that this is going to be a long journey.  I seriously doubt that I will meet my goal weight objective before the end of 2013.  I fully anticipate the loss process taking another year.  In previous attempts to lose weight, I had this idea that the weight would just fall off in a matter of months.  At age 50, that is not too realistic or healthy.

Finally I have been inspired by friends on a similar journey.  “Suzy” (not her real name) has lost 101 pounds.  Amazing right?  She went from being obese to running in 5K events.  This past week she started seeking employment at gyms in the city where she lives. She formulated a list of such facilities and began the adventure of applying.  She did something I thought was especially exciting.  She brought “before” and “after” pictures with her as she sought an application to go to work.  Long story short…the first gym where she applied hired her on the spot.

I am so glad “Suzy” chose not to wait until January 1, 2013 to begin her journey toward healthier living. She has encouraged me not to give up and throw in the towel prematurely.  New Years resolutions are great, but I am thankful today for people that are making commitments amidst the heaviest eating time of the year. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Serving those Without Socks and Shoes...For Some It Happens Daily

NYPD officer Lawrence Deprimo is quite the celebrity right now.  A lady visiting New York from Phoenix caught him on camera putting a pair of socks and new water proof boots on a homeless man, who had no shoes in this late November weather.  As it turns out, the photographer grew up in a law enforcement family.  Her dad was a 32 year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department.  There are several things that stand out to me about this event that has gone viral thanks to facebook and other social media outlets.

First of all Deprimo is 25 years old.  Enough said.  I am impressed. Secondly I am impressed that he would dish out $75.00 of his own money to buy the man in need a pair of really nice boots.  But most importantly this event has triggered my memory.  I have been a law enforcement chaplain almost 23 years.  I have forgotten so many things that have happened, but events like this jar the memory bank.  Expressing compassion to people in need is an everyday event for the officers I have served for over 2 decades.  Deprimo’s actions are causing my mind to wonder back to the past…

I am thinking about the state trooper that called me to the scene of a fatality crash where a man had driven up on the scene.  His wife was killed in the crash. The trooper called me specifically, so I could take the man home safely and in turn assist in notifying his son of his mother’s death.  The trooper truly cared about that man’s well being in such an awful situation.

And I think about the officer that was called to investigate a suspicious individual.  As it turns out, the person in question was a homeless man coming through Granbury on a freezing cold day.  After going through the protocol of checking the man to make sure he was not wanted criminally, the officer asked him when he had eaten last. It had been over 24 hours… Once again I was called to assist, because an officer cared. (And the owner of my favorite café to dine for breakfast would not let me pay for that man’s meal that cold morning.)

And then there was the man who had his tent slashed by a group of intoxicated men at a campground on Thanksgiving night 4 years ago. That tent was his only source of shelter from the elements as he traveled cross country on a bike.  He too was called in by a member of the public as a “suspicious subject.” After interviewing him, the officers called me out to see if we could purchase a tent for the guy.  They did it because they cared.

I suppose my favorite call out in recent years involved an encounter with two elderly brothers that were panhandling in the Walmart parking lot.  Some good citizen called the police, so a young female officer was dispatched to investigate. She found two older men who were very limited physically.  It was very hot that day and they were desperate need.  I used church funds to fill their car with gas and buy lunch at Wendy’s.  But the officer I was working with felt that was not sufficient. I joined her at Walmart in buying food supplies for them that they could take on the road. We got some odd stares from other customers. I figured another good citizen would call the chief to complain that an officer was doing her personal grocery shopping with a man old enough to be her father in Walmart while on duty!  She too used personal funds to make sure those men were fed well past the day that we helped them.

So….thanks Officer Deprimo. You have jogged my memory.  And my memory needed to be exercised today.  I needed to be reminded that I serve with a group of officers that truly are compassionate.  And I for that I am grateful.  I serve with those that reach out to people without shoes and socks everyday...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sitting at the Feet of an 81 Year Old Man...

Last week I was asked out to breakfast by a friend of mine who is in deep grief.  His wife of over 62 years passed away in September.  Naturally I accepted his invitation.  He is lost right now.  Just lost… I was on a mission last week. I went to breakfast that morning with the intent of listening carefully and expressing compassion.  Something very odd happened that morning.

I left the little café where a lot of us enjoy breakfast in the morning feeling like I got a whole lot more out of the encounter than he did. I was the one on a mission that morning.  Our roles were seemingly shuffled before the eggs and bacon was consumed.  What happened that morning?

He shared his heart and I listened.  He talked about his deceased wife like she was the most honored woman that ever walked on the face of the earth. I found those reflections especially meaningful, because I know how he treated her before her death.  I learned some things about marriage that I needed to learn that morning. He gave me enough to think about on that subject about for weeks. I started asking myself: what will happen to me if I get to hang out with this man more often?

I was with him at a meeting Tuesday night.  I asked him if he might be available for breakfast Thursday morning. I will readily admit that I was not on a mission this time. My motives were mixed.  I wanted to reach out and encourage him. But I also yearned for conversation with a man that has substance and depth along with lots of life experience.  We got together this morning.  His deceased wife still held a prominent place in the conversation.  But we also discussed ancient church history and various theological models. Intellectually he can keep up with the big boys and girls.

Before we left this morning he apologized for dominating the conversation. And he told me next week he wanted to hear about my struggles and concerns.  It sounds like if there are plans for a meeting next week that we are going to make this a regular gathering.  I could not be more thrilled. Now I am asking: what will happen to me over the long haul if I continue to hang out with him?  And the answer is: there is no telling!  But it is certain to be good. Isn’t interesting that our “missions” in life often get reversed?   

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Before Black Friday Arrives: Stomp Out the Demons!

American materialism will be at its finest later this week on what is has been rightfully dubbed “Black Friday.” People will get up at 4:00 in the morning on an otherwise peaceful post Thanksgiving weekend day to take advantage of the latest and greatest deals on some electronic gadgetry.  My boys will sleep in that morning, because they overcame the materialistic demons known as the “I Wants” years ago.  A little history might be in order…

When the boys were small, we would pull up in front of Walmart or even Toys R Us and go through a ritual in the parking lot.  The said ritual involved physically stomping out the unseen demons known as the “I Wants.”  Once we got in the store we looked at everything, but I never heard: “I want ____” from any of them. I can honestly say that the boys were never a problem in any store.

They are grown now. It is no longer necessary to stomp out the dreaded “I Wants.”  We shop together in perfect harmony.  If we are looking for clothes, they are not hesitant to tell me what would look creepy on their 50 year old father. But I must confess the demonic forces have taken on a new role in my life.

I discovered this morning at the store that I was buying things that each boy likes in anticipation of the holiday weekend. They don’t like the cheaper HEB potato chips, so I bought Lay’s chips. I thought about all of their favorites as I negotiated through the store with half of the residents in Hood County this morning. I suppose I should have stomped out those pesky “I Wants” before I went in the store…But I didn’t.  And I feel no shame.  Buying my boys what I think they might want is one of the perks of having older kids.  They turned out to be really good young men.  Perhaps someday they will need to take me through the stomping out ritual on Black Friday.  Life after all comes full circle. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Everybody Needs a "Tony"

Serving as a physician in the emergency department of a busy hospital is hard work.  It is as simple as that. And the experience is nothing like what is portrayed on television.  There are intoxicated people that curse at you, and other patients that are angry because they had to wait to long in the waiting room. There are others that are admitted because they are hearing voices. “ER docs” as we call them here in Texas treat sick babies and elderly people that have broken hips. And they have the grim duty of sitting down with families to tell them that their loved one’s self-inflicted gunshot was fatal.

 As a law enforcement chaplain, I have spent some time with several ER docs. I have the utmost respect for their ability to treat complete strangers. They are truly lifesavers. But today I was reminded that doctors don’t cease to care when their shift is over in the emergency room.

I have a friend that traveled to her hometown from overseas this past week to care for her mother that is suffering from a very serious illness. Immediately she was bombarded with important decisions to make regarding her mother’s care.  What kind of home health care is the best option?  Should her mother be in a health care facility?  What to do? There are no simple solutions. I have been there. I vividly remember how painful it is to make those decisions.

During a particularly difficult time in caring for her mother at home, Tony showed up.  Now Tony is a strapping guy.  He was able to complete some physically challenging tasks as my friend cared for her mother at her home. In fact, he was able to assist in a very competent manner. You see Tony is an “ER Doc.”  He is charged with saving lives in his work at the emergency room. And like all docs in his field, he gets cursed at and rebuked for long waits and on and on…But that has not stopped him being a lifesaver.

Today he was a lifesaver for a mutual friend that has traveled overseas to care for her mother. She found herself in need of a friend as she carried out that important task.  And she especially needed a friend with some medical expertise. Tony stepped in and got the job done.

I helped care my own mother for three months prior to her death. That has been 21 years ago, but I have never forgotten the people that stepped in to serve when my sister and I felt especially desperate. As I read the account of Tony’s capable assistance, two thoughts came to mind. Doctors are lifesavers in more than one way.  Sometimes they are lifesavers for the caregiver. And the second thought keeps popping up in my head is this: everybody needs a “Tony.”

We all need people in our lives that are willing to use their training and experience to serve us. Tomorrow I will be more alert to those that are calling out for help...even if such calls are very subtle. I will be on alert, because I was reminded today that everybody needs “Tony.” And next time I am called to the ER to assist with a family I won’t fail to tell my ER doc thank you... It would not hurt any of us to tell the doctors that serve us thank you every once in a while. After all everybody needs a “Tony.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Travel Back to 7th Grade? Never!


Stories of people traveling back to an earlier time in their life makes for a decent movie plot.  But it is not reality.  If for some extraordinary reason that opportunity presented itself, I do not think returning to 7th grade would top my list. In fact, I seriously doubt it would make the top 10 on anyone’s list.  Despite such automatic hesitancy I came as close as I ever will to returning to that formative time period in life last night.

A group of us that all entered 7th grade together at Jerstad Agerholm Junior High School in the fall of 1974 met for dinner last night a few miles from where we sat in class together nearly 40 years ago. We discussed mutual friends. We were saddened by the stark reminder that some of our classmates are deceased. We talked about our children. Many of them are well past that 7th grade milestone in their own lives. It was a great evening filled with laughter. But there were two topics of discussion of a more somber nature that stand out to me today.

It stood out to me that we all remember the special needs children that began 7th grade with us at Jerstad in 1974.  Someone mentioned Bobby _________’s name.  I have forgotten more names than I remember from junior high, but I remember his name.  And I remember him as well.  He struggled with some disabilities that caused him to stand out.  I think there was a collective cringe among our group last night as we remembered the ridicule he suffered at the hands of cruel junior high kids.  I found it compelling that every single person remembered him vividly. I was pleased to discover that all of us have grown in our capacity to feel compassion.  And it occurred to me that one of the most important tasks of parenting is to impress the importance of empathy on our own children. If am the given the opportunity to speak to a group of middle school students in the near future, the title of my lesson will be: “Remembering Bobby.”

Secondly it stood out to me that all of us are either caring for aging parents or grieving the loss of our parents. We are truly a part of the sandwich generation. We still have children at home, and we also have parents to care for as well in many cases.  I tried to listen attentively and kindly to a friend whose mother will soon be cared for by hospice in all likelihood.  And I perked up as another friend fondly remembered the wise words her mother spoke at a birthday party years ago. Her mother has been deceased for several years. But I don’t think a day goes by that she does not miss her.

It is a good thing that we have grown in our capacity to feel and express compassion since 1974. Our children need us to imprint those lessons on their impressionable minds. And our aging parents need an extra dose of patience. Those of us that have already lost our parents view the grief of others in a much different light. We are better equipped to serve others. 

Last night was a real treat. It is tempting to say that I felt like I had traveled back to 7th grade, but that is not true.  The wonderful friends I spent time with last night are kind, engaging, and a lot of fun to be around!  I don’t recall any of us possessing the first two of those qualities in 1974! (at least not to the degree that we do today)

 The timing could not have been better either. My mother passed away on October 30th, 1991.  Spending time with such wonderful friends that are sharing similar experiences made a day that is traditionally painful really good. We are there for each other. And I am confident that if Bobby ________ had been there last night he too would have been embraced and welcomed in the same spirit. Those are the two themes from last night that stand out. How could I be blessed with better friends?  Now do I want to travel back to 7th grade? Never! 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stripped Down and Void of Beauty...

I took advantage of a beautiful day in Chicago this afternoon, and went on a walk around the lake that surrounds the retreat center where I am participating in a quarterly retreat that is a part of a two year residency.  The air was crisp, but the thankfully it was a sunny day.  Last summer the trees that border the lake were green and breathtaking. It was obvious this afternoon that I arrived in Chicago about two weeks too late to enjoy the beauty of the fall leaves.

The barren trees I observed this afternoon were such a contrast to the lushness of last July. It was almost like the trees were telling me that winter is imminent. Be prepared. Snow is on the way. I shivered just thinking about what is coming soon, but then I was suddenly surprised.

There was a lone tree along the path that still has its golden leaves intact. It was the only tree among a literal forest that had not been stripped down to its bare branches. You could not miss it. Its leaves shaded a tiny portion of the path.

I enjoyed that little surprise during my walk this afternoon.  Almost immediately that lone tree reminded me of an important life principle. There will be times in life when I will be the only one “still in bloom” among those closest to me. There will be those moments when members of my immediate family and those that comprise my circle of good friends will all feel stripped and barren. They are caring for aging parents. Their children are going through a particularly challenging time. Or perhaps they are facing their own health concerns.  And for some reason “my leaves” are still intact. I have a responsibility to provide some beauty to them as a season of “winter” approaches in their life. 

There will also be times when I will feel stripped down, barren, and void of any “beauty” to provide to those that normally lean on me. Winter will arrive in my life too. But I am confident that God will provide a lone “tree” in the forest of relationships I am fortunate to be engaged in to meet my needs.

I am thankful for a brisk walk this afternoon. But in particular I am thankful for a lone tree that exposed me to beauty on several levels. Its presence reminded me of the relational obligation I have to those in my forest.  And that is a good thing…

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Noticeable Absence of Cold Stares...

I am a self proclaimed anti-social human being on Monday’s.  Sundays are typically 15 hour people intensive days for me. By the time Monday morning around, I am feeling somewhat reclusive.  Consequently I enjoy playing a round of golf by myself on Monday after enjoying a Taco Villa burrito in a similar state of solitude. But today was destined to be different.

A couple in front of me on the front 9 holes at the golf course asked me to join them after we made the turn and prepared to attack the back 9.  It was late in the afternoon, so my social awareness was starting to return to a large degree. Both of them are excellent golfers. (No ladies tees for her either. She teed off with the men today!)  I enjoyed their company immensely.  However as we started getting in the groove of the back 9 holes, my mind drifted back to 1980…

I was a freshman at Texas Tech 32 years ago.  I went to work not long before school started that year at an old fashioned Texaco full service station. We hand washed and waxed cars everyday in addition to actually pumping people’s gas, checking their oil and cleaning their windshields. It was a great job for that period in my life.  I worked with a man a few years my senior who actually managed the station for the owner.  Johnny provided non-stop entertainment.  He was skilled mechanically and a lot of fun to banter with all through the day. As I look back on the four years that I worked with him, one recurring event stands out.

When we eat together at Furr’s Cafeteria, I frequently received cold stares from elderly patrons dining in the long established Lubbock restaurant. I must confess that I thoroughly enjoyed staring back at them.  Occasionally older adults that knew my parents would avoid speaking to me in there when I was with Johnny.  I was only 18 years old, but I was not a complete imbecile. They did not like seeing a white college student having lunch with a black man who was obviously older than me. It steamed me then and it continues to anger me today. What a shame they could not eat with Johnny. It was their loss.  I have such great memories of our lunches together.  We talked about everything imaginable. I was a kid with decent book sense and he was a man with good life sense.

I thought about Johnny this afternoon on the golf course, because the folks I played golf with were a mixed race couple. I had so much fun with them.  And I learned a few things about golf from him too. He is a scratch golfer who chipped in three balls from off the green today.  Apparently he taught his wife to play golf without having a marital meltdown.

As we parted ways, I thought about the small minded racists who stared at me in Furr’s Cafeteria 32 years ago.  They are most likely gone from this world by now. And I also thought to myself how I would react it one of my boys wanted to see or marry a woman of a different race.  I could not help but smile to myself. If she can put up with one of them, more power to her!  I am interested in the boys meeting someone of good character.  And last time I checked people of good character come in all colors and from multiple nationalities. The boys can bring girls from all races home.  There will be a noticeable absence of cold stares. S

Saturday, October 20, 2012

There is Never an Excuse for Being Rude

I have never been a minority.  I don’t really think that I have ever been discriminated against either. (Although I have encountered people that simply don’t like ministers. No matter whom you are or what you have done.) Yesterday I got a tiny glimpse into what life is like for a person that others have determined to be inferior.

I am one of the hosts for a wonderful friend from Chihuahua City in Northern Mexico this weekend. In fact, he is a guest speaker at church tomorrow. Yesterday two of us took him out to breakfast at our favorite mom and pop eating establishment to experience a little Granbury culture. He experienced some local culture all right…

When I arrived, we warmly greeted each other in Spanish. Our discussion continued briefly in Spanish before we sat down at one of the tables. A man probably in his 60’s sitting next to us asked for my attention.  He informed that we were in America and that in America English should be spoken.  He felt that if Javier could not communicate in English that he had no business being in our country. How do you respond to someone who certainly appears to be racist, unenlightened, and socially inept?

I had to think quickly.  And I immediately noticed that all eyes in the busy café were on me. (Many of the patrons in there are regulars and know me.)  I was tempted to tell the guy that we would promptly change to English when we wanted to talk about him, but I refrained.  I simply told him that Javier was my honored guest from another country, and that we would continue to converse in Spanish.  I was additionally prepared to change the tone of my dialogue without reflection if it became necessary. It appeared that I got my point across during my initial response, because I did not hear another peep out of him.  The lady at another nearby table gave me an approving non-verbal message by the very look on her face.

The whole encounter disturbed me.  Javier’s English is actually pretty good. He understood everything the guy said. It bothered me that a guest from another country would be treated with obvious contempt.  My Southern mother would have said that man needs to learn some manners (pronounced “mannas.”) Perhaps I should open a finishing school for old men that lack fundamental social skills.

The attitudes implied by his brief comments troubled me as well.  The unwillingness to embrace people that speak a different language is appalling. And I suspect there are some extreme views toward immigration lingering under the surface too.  I laughed to myself I as I recalled that my “Knox” relatives came as immigrants to this country over 150 years ago.

 I suppose the truth is that it is all too easy to gravitate toward being ethnocentric and thoughtless. I have been guilty myself at times. After my blood pressure returned to normal yesterday, I reached a couple of conclusions.  First I am more determined than ever to befriend people from different countries, cultures, and life backgrounds.  Failure to do so leads to ethnocentricity. And secondly my tolerance level toward those that are just plain rude and inconsiderate of the feelings of others has declined substantially. I readily acknowledge that the blend of my sharp tongue and quick wit could potentially shred a verbal offender. And then I would find myself on the same level as the man I encountered who lacks “mannas.”  I will watch myself in the future. And I honestly believe that I will view those that do find themselves in the minority quite differently… 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Teacher: Where Did You Dig Up That Fossil?

In less than two years, we will be empty nesters. I hear tales of children coming home when they are well into their adult years, but that is highly unlikely in our family.  Our boys have always been really independent in a positive way.  In recent months, I find myself thinking a lot like people in that stage of life. My days of teaching teenagers in a Sunday school context at church are nearly over. Coaching debaters at the high school is a chapter about to be closed. Helping as a dorm dad in the summer will soon be a thing of the past.

This week a couple of middle school librarians totally torpedoed my pleasant daydreams of life as an empty nester. They invited me once again to read aloud to 6th and 7th graders during an annual event held at both middle schools in Granbury.  I enjoy the kids so much. The classrooms are equipped with all sorts of technology that my 7th grade teachers would have never envisioned in 1974.  As we discussed books that we liked, it came to the surface that most of them were born in 1998 or 1999.  I felt like a fossil that their teacher dug up for a class visual aid.  

After reading at both schools, I was reminded that advanced technology is great for educational institutions. But technology will never be a substitute for people who really love kids. As I walked down the hallways of both middle schools, my mind traveled back to the 7th grade. The awkwardness and uncertainty of being 12 years old has remained unchanged. Kids need adults that care about them during such a time in their lives.

My daydreams are completely destroyed. There is no doubt it.  My own children are going to pursue their independence, and enjoy it immensely. But my obligation to kids will remain in place. When I am asked to teach a youth class at church, I will cave in quickly.  Coach debate?  I think that is a distinct possibility as well. Despite advanced technology teachers around Granbury can still count on going on an archeological dig and finding an old fossil like me for a visual aid that will engage in the kids in discussions that smart board simply cannot generate. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Friends Grieve Too...

I was sitting on a plane at the Milwaukee airport getting ready for takeoff last April when I received word via text message that a childhood friend had passed away a few moments earlier. And then on a Saturday in June as I was putting the finishing touches on a sermon, I received a similar message about another friend from my formative years. He lost his battle with brain cancer that morning. Both of those guys lived on the same street where I grew up. They lived within short walking distance of my home. And then during an early morning breakfast meeting in July I got the same message a third time regarding my longtime professor and mentor. He too lost a battle with cancer.
eHed

In my mind, I felt like the world should come to a screeching halt at least long enough for a few moments of respectful silence. But the plane took off on time that Wednesday afternoon in Milwaukee.  My sermon had to be preached the next morning on schedule in June. I chose not to tell anyone about Steve’s passing. After all they never knew him.  And I fulfilled a guest speaking obligation the very day that my mentor passed away. Interestingly enough I spoke at his church that evening. There was an announcement about his death just before I got up to speak.  People seemed sad, but the evening plans went on as scheduled. I know they needed to go on with their scheduled plans, but in my heart I resented it.  It seemed wrong…

I know from firsthand experience that life in a family is changed permanently following the death of one of its members. Members of a family feel the original tremor in an overwhelming manner. But planes still take off on time… And life goes on for everyone around them.  Families feel weighty grief for months and years to come. But in short order most people go back to their normal routines. After all they have to catch a plane that is most definitely going to leave on time…

This year I have learned that friends grieve too. The experience is rather unique. You feel the pain of loss and the desire to share just one more thing with the person that has died.  You spend time reflecting on events and encounters from the past. But the grief journey is unique, because your desire is to reach out to your friend’s family. You are serving as well as needing to work through your own sorrow. The grief a friend experiences can therefore be a somewhat private journey.

A grieving friend however assumes an irreplaceable position in the lives of family members that have lost one of their own.  The reason is relatively simple. The friend of their loved thinks that a plane should cease to take off before there is a moment of silence. And a real friend feels like his normal activities should cease while he takes a moment to reflect.  And true friends are unable to strictly feel a brief flash of sadness before they go about their normal routines; because true friends grieve too…
Last time I checked there are planes taking off today right on schedule all over the country, but I am confident there is someone that has just gotten a text message flying today who deeply resents that fact.  I am for that person, because I know that friends grieve too. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

You Will Never Break the Code!

By the time Friday rolls around, I find myself exhausted and ready for a very short break before the day that ministers actually work…Sunday. For someone that only works one day a week I sure am tired on Friday afternoons. In recent weeks, I have found that Friday rolls around and I have experienced a certain degree of grouchiness to accompany the fatigue. I decided today to put an end to it.

During my daily walk this afternoon I started taking a quick inventory of the week. I started with Sunday. What happened on Sunday that was good? How was my day enriched by other people? Where did I observe God’s presence? I formulated a pretty good list, so I did the same thing for Monday.  The list for Monday was equally substantial, so I continued. I ended up spending the duration of my walk running through a daily list of things for which I was grateful. I went home today less fatigued and with a noticeable absence of grouchiness.

This latest little adventure in solitude complements what I had already undertaken in my journal.  Everyday I jot down in my journal the initials of the friends that I interacted with that day. I don’t write down names, because some of those discussions represent some level of pastoral confidentiality. In fact, I actually don’t use real initials. I write them in code to insure that I protect appropriate confidences. I find that it is important to look over that list at the end of the day. It gives me an opportunity to express gratitude for those whom I value so much.  I have a circle of friends that is truly remarkable. I appreciate them. Consequently it is important for me to take a few moments at the end of the day to express gratitude for the particular encounter we had that day.

It is Friday. I am looking forward to quick breather tomorrow morning. When the afternoon rolls around, I am in Sunday mode. Another week in the life of a minister begins. I will begin that experience with a deep appreciation for the people that I am privileged to serve and interact with everyday of the week! Oh..and by the way. If you happen upon my written journal, don't try to break the code.  You will never figure it out! 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

I Have Seen the Light: So Sorry that YOU Remain in the Darkness

Enlightened people can very difficult to be around… Over the years I have interacted with individuals that have experienced a time of spiritual enlightenment or renewal in their life. I have known others that have had a similar life occurrence in the academic realm. It would be nice to think that the spiritually enlightened among us are now closer to God, and thus able to make a significant difference in the world we live in as a result. The same would be true of the academically enriched.  Their new found intellectual prowess would lead them to search for a cure for cancer, or write a book that would be enriching to its readers. My experience tells me otherwise.

My experience tells me that enlightened people can be exceedingly difficult to be around. Their new found spiritual commitment leads to a form of arrogance that I find particularly repulsive. The same principle hold true in the scholastic realm. There is a complete lack of tolerance for the rest of us that remain unenlightened.  In the process of becoming enlightened, the virtue of patience was dropped off at a street corner and became hopelessly lost. Those of us that remain in the dark are perceived very negatively. In some cases, we are just like boxes in a messy garage that need to be shoved aside. In extreme cases, we find ourselves having fingers pointing at us.  The mantra being shouted to us is: Don’t you get it? What is wrong with you?

I have a solution to such pompous behavior. But first I must confess… My sweet little bride of 28 years reminds me periodically that I too have a streak of arrogance. When I was completing my doctoral degree 10 years ago, she gently rebuked behavior that I displayed with my cohorts that she appropriately dubbed “academic arrogance.”  I laughed it off at the time, but now I realize there is nothing funny about it.

I shall therefore rephrase!  I don’t have a solution for such displays of evil pride, but I do have a few ideas for all of us…Real growth in any realm of life does not occur until we can be patient with the person who has not had that experience. Arrogance nullifies growth. This is especially true in the spiritual and theological realm. If you are prideful in your new found knowledge or spiritual experience, that is not from God. Such conceit is chalked full of iniquity.

One last thought:  Truly enlightened people don’t impose themselves on anyone. They use their newly found knowledge or experience to make a difference in the lives of others. They serve all people across the board in a spirit of humility and kindness. If given a forum to share their ideas, they do so in a spirit of unequivocal compassion. The needs of others are first and foremost on their mind. Divinely authored enlightenment eradicates pride and fuels humility. In fact, truly enlightened people are a real joy to be around. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

You are Talking When You Should be Listening!

When I was a kid, my father shared this phrase with me on repeated occasions: You are talking when you should be listening.  His timing was always perfect. He only chose to tell me that when I was spewing off my opinions prematurely or expressing inaccurate information. Choosing to listen instead of talking is not a bad idea in many situations. But there are notable exceptions to that rule.

Proper discretion should be used when listening.  We should we be careful who we are listening to. Whose advice are we taking?  Is that person credible? Should we really pay attention to their counsel, or take their pronouncements with a huge grain of salt?

Yesterday I shared a story with the church that I am not sure I have ever spoken about before. When I was in the 7th grade at Jerstad Junior High School, my English teacher required her students to deliver a speech before the class. It was one of those rare moments in my academic career that I actually did sufficient advance preparation.  After delivering my first ever public speech, the teacher implied verbally that I was not much of a speaker. Her written critique confirmed her thoughts and I walked away with a “C” on my speech. I listened to her. In fact, I believed her. I knew that I was not much of speaker as early as the 7th grade!

And then 9th grade rolled around 2 years later. I enrolled in speech as an elective thinking that it would be a blow off class.  We delivered several speeches during the course of the first semester. We even did some debates in class. I got really good feedback on my speeches from other classmates. And my teacher kept telling me: You have a gift… I never told her about the 7th grade experience, because I was afraid she might changer her mind! At the end of the year, I received the “speech student of the year award.” That boost of confidence led me to enroll in debate as a high school student.  I ended up traveling with the debate team.  And then interestingly enough I completed a BA degree in Speech Communications.

I listened to the 7th grade English teacher. When she told me that I was not much of a speaker, I believed her. But that was a mistake.  Could it be that she was talking when she should have been listening? 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Aren't You a Little Old to be Adopted?

Age 26 seems to be an unlikely time in life to be adopted.  And age 50 is an even more improbable life stage to experience adoption. But it happens. I have observed such an adoptive experience twice this year.

The first one occurred in July.  A dear friend boldly fought cancer for several years, but the final 9 or 10 months of his life were especially difficult. His administrative assistant stepped in and did his job for all practical purposes for a number of months in a highly challenging academic setting. She also acted as stand in consultant for dozens of leaders that leaned on him for counsel. But most importantly she served with a heart of compassion and love.

When the man she was privileged to serve passed from this life, his family adopted her. She was asked to eat at the family meal prior to his funeral and sit with them during the service. She has been given permanent honorary status in that family.

The second such adoption occurred this week. A friend of mine who postponed her successful nursing career for two decades to raise her three boys recently re-entered the health care arena as a volunteer for a hospice in her community. After completing the training that hospice provides, she patiently waited to be assigned a patient.  It did not take long.  She soon found herself caring for an elderly gentleman dying of cancer in a nursing home.  He had family in that community, but they chose not to spend time with him during his final weeks on this earth. 

Hospice calls it “volunteering.”  Kelly took her care for that man somewhere beyond just “volunteering.” I am not sure that there is an adequate word to describe what she provided for a man that would have likely died all alone. For several consecutive days she held that man’s hand and watched re-runs of Bonanza and The Andy Griffith show. She showered him with love and gifts on his birthday last week. He quietly passed away in his sleep earlier this week.

His out of state family asked her to join them at the meal before his funeral, and to sit with them during the service…. It occurred to me that I heard that before. And not too many months ago...And then it occurred to me that compassion precedes adoption. Or maybe that is incorrect. Perhaps the adoption takes place on the day that the person serving chooses to commit their lives to taking care of someone in desperate need. And then at a later date the adoptive ceremony occurs…Perhaps it is not at all unusual for a 26 year old and a 50 year old to experience adoption. It is an event they chose to instigate in a spirit of unconditional love.

 I know I have said it before. I get so tired of hearing people talk about “community.” But I find people that know how to love others in a spirit of true compassion to be a source of inspiration. I am thankful for their late life adoptive experience, but more importantly I am grateful to call them my friends. They prompt me to be a better person. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

John: YOU Talk to the Police!

Fall is in the air.  Yesterday I saw fallen yellow leaves gathered in the bed of truck for the first time this year. As I watched my youngest son leave for school with one of his friends early this morning, my mind traveled back to the fall of 1978. I was his age in September of that year.  And I picked up a neighborhood friend for school on most weekdays. She put her makeup on in the car as we made our way to the donut shop in Monterey Center.

For some strange reason today my mind gravitated to another fall day in 1978. We were competing in a two day debate tournament at Odessa High School out in West Texas. Our coach left us in our motel rooms on that Friday night operating under the false assumption that we were in for the night. I will never reveal whose idea it was… One of us decided to play “toga football” out in the parking lot of the motel late that evening. We stripped the sheets off the beds, wrapped ourselves in togas and proceeded to call the plays. It was great fun until someone called the police…

Several officers converged on the parking lot prepared to deal with a riot. To this day I don’t know why this happened, but for some odd reason I was tapped out to be the spokesman for our group to the Odessa Police. “John, you talk to the police!”  Why me? Apparently they had received a call that there was a fight in progress. I very politely explained that we were simply playing “toga football.”  I made sure that I said “yes sir” and “no sir.” As I look back on it, I am sure those officers were doing everything they could to keep from cracking up.

It has been 34 years since that eventful night in Odessa. Little did I know in 1978 that I would spend many weekends assisting debate coaches to supervise little darlings that would be inclined to have toga parties on overnight debate trips? Bless their hearts they had no clue that their sponsor known to them as “Dr. Knox” was the most mischievous debater Monterey High School’s team has ever known. They would not possibly think of something that I had not done. 

And little did I know in 1978 that I would spend a big part of my career talking to the police…. Fortunately I have been privileged to talk to the police in the front seat of a patrol car and not the back seat. I will soon celebrate 23 years of service a law enforcement chaplain. Nearly every week I receive a call from an officer or a police supervisor asking me: “Will you talk to one of my officers?” And my response is always: Of course I will. After all I have been doing it since 1978.

Parents let this little narrative be a source of encouragement.  Mischievous kids grow up.  Every experience shapes what they become. The future is unpredictable in one sense, but perhaps very predictable in another way! If I get a call from a police supervisor today, my mind will travel back to 1978. “John, you talk to the police!”

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Love Story Worth Reading

I am not into chick flicks.  I think they are overdramatic and characteristically predictable. I would much prefer to go to a movie where something explodes. But I do appreciate a real love story.  I want to read a love story worth reading. Tomorrow I am going to tell one to an audience that I predict will be fairly large. It goes like this…

Ira Lee met Joanne in 1945 in Dennison, Texas. I do believe it was love at first sight for the 14 year old boy. But they did not start officially “dating” until the summer of 1946, after both of them had turned 15. Ira worked at the local theater, so the lovebirds managed to have the balcony all alone during the featured movie. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that!  1948 soon rolled around which brought high school graduation for the couple in love.

Joanne started to college at what is now The University of North Texas in Denton.  Ira went out of state to a private school in Tennessee. But he soon got wind that there were other suitors calling on Joanne in Denton.  He made a quick trip back to Denton to check on that situation during his freshman year. And likewise Joanne found out about certain Southern girls from Tennessee that were showing interest in Ira Lee, so she made a cross country trip to the college where he was attending.  By the time their sophomore year in college had been completed, they decided to end such nonsense. They married in June of 1950.

An adventure in marriage began that June day that was destined to last over 62 years. They had children together. They were later blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They experienced all of the ups and downs of life. and I can testify from firsthand experience that they were still very much in love the day that Joanne left this world two weeks ago. 

Tomorrow I will speak at the memorial service honoring her 81 years on this earth. As I visited with Ira this morning, I could tell in his eyes that his body was sitting in my office, but his heart had traveled back to the summer of 1946. The manner in which he spoke of his beloved wife would have touched even the most hard hearted among us. His devotion to her was unquestioned. Joanne was his first love. 

How does a man function without someone whom he has loved since he was 15 years old?  I don’t have an answer. If you are interested in a real love story, you might be looking in the wrong place. What I do know is if you want to hear a true love story it might be a good idea to speak with an 81 year old man. You might learn something. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Man and Woman in Bed at Church?

I am a busy guy on Sundays. I preach for two services in the morning to a combined group of about 600 people.  Being fresh and having something to meaningful to say 45 Sundays in a year is quite a challenge.  I frequently hear people say they want to be “moved” when they come to a Sunday morning service. That is legitimate.  I want to be “moved” too. But perhaps it would be good for all of us to “get moving.”

Most of Jan’s extended family live on farms either in West Texas just southeast of Lubbock or in the Panhandle west of Amarillo. Her second cousin, Butch Fairchild and his wife, Paula have farmed in Adrian, Texas since 1974. Adrian is about 50 miles west of Amarillo on Interstate 40 not too far from the New Mexico state line. The Fairchild family worship at a small church in rural Adrian comprised of about 30 members.

On Sunday, September 9th, Butch was unable to be at church. He was living out his final days at the hospice facility with his family at his side. The good folks at his church in Adrian decided that they would get moving on that Sunday morning.  There were no services at their church building on the 9th, because the entire congregation made the 50 mile trek to Amarillo to have church with Butch and his family at the hospice facility.  All but two of their members were able to make it that morning.

The hospice employees wheeled his bed outside to the patio adjacent to his room. His son, Jeff, shares this report about the experience:

"He led the closing prayer with everyone around the bed," Jeff said. "My mother sat beside him. I told a few people that this is the first time I know that it was OK for a man and woman to be in bed in church."

When I heard the story about the church service at the Hospice unit, it occurred to me that if we want to be “moved” that perhaps we need to “get moving.”  If we would spend less time thinking about our own needs and consider instead what others are facing it would actually enhance our worship experience on Sunday. And…I think we would find that our actions would be “moving” to someone else.
Butch and Paula were no doubt “moved” on Sunday, September 9th. Their lives were touched profoundly, because their entire church chose to be “on the move.”

A few days after that service Butch passed from this life. His funeral was held at the Adrian School Gymnasium last Saturday. I heard the gym was packed. I hope the little church in Adrian stays on the move.  They have certainly “moved” me. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Why was I Not Born with Down's Syndrome?

Kyle (not his real name) is 50 years old.  We were born within a few days of each other. But Kyle did not have the same experiences I did in elementary school.  He didn’t attend any junior high dances.  And he never graduated from high school.  Nor has Kyle married or had children. In 1962, Kyle was born with Down’s syndrome.

Several years ago Kyle was the victim of a predator. He was forced to endure heinous sexual assaults. The perpetrator committing the crimes threatened Kyle and other individuals in similar life situations. As a law enforcement chaplain, I work with crime victims on a regular basis. A mentally challenged adult becoming a victim in such a manner is particularly atrocious.

Last week I attended a meeting where Kyle’s family and others who care about him were striving to speak as advocates on his behalf regarding issues pertinent to his medical care and overall well being.  The longer I listened the more unsettled I became.  Kyle is very social.  He makes friends easily.  He is well liked. But he can’t bathe himself without constant supervision.  His ability to communicate verbally is limited. He has his fair share of healthy problems. I kept asking myself: why? 

Why did Kyle end up being an easy target for a sexual predator? Why was he born with Down’s syndrome?  Why was I able to go to college, get married, have children, and enjoy my career? I got pretty worked up over the whole thing until a conclusion finally came…

I have given the opportunities that I have because my responsibility is to serve Kyle and others like him.  If we have been given much, it is so that we can take care of the most vulnerable among us. And in the process I have discovered that he teaches me more than I teach him….His influence in my life is far more drastic than mine is in his life. Sometimes individuals like Kyle are referred to as being “special.”  They are special indeed.  They make a difference in our lives that is desperately needed. Why me?  Why have I been given the opportunities I have been given? To serve others in love…

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Rocked by a Sudden Tragedy

I must admit that I am very fortunate. I have friends of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds.  Some of my dearest friends consider themselves to be liberal politically and others are quite conservative. I have friends who are deeply religious and others that are not.  Last night I visited a very special friend in an ICU unit at a Fort Worth hospital who is nearing age ____ (Well I should not tell her age.)  Today I interacted with several friends who could be her grandchildren.

In recent years, I have learned to appreciate the value of being in community with people of all ages and from varying walks of life. “Being in community” is common vernacular to my Generation X and Millennial Generation friends. They will refer to their circle of friends as “their community.”  My younger friends will also say that they are going to “engage in community.”  And I suppose that too is a legitimate way of expressing their desire to socialize and meet new people. I sometimes sense that my younger friends don’t realize that the old fogies among them also engage in community, even if they don’t use that phraseology. 

Several weeks ago I went with a law enforcement officer to deliver a death notification to an individual who would definitely be characterized as being elderly. Her son was killed in an unexpected tragedy. As soon as we broke the news to her, we immediately start searching for neighbors that could provide some initial support for her until family could arrive.  The officer I was with walked across the street and next door while I stayed to comfort the devastated lady.  Within minutes members of her “community” were in her living room. They cried with her and called relatives for her. They took down important information that we needed to leave with them regarding details surrounding her son’s death. And later that evening they started bringing in enough food to feed an army.

All of the people we interacted with on that call out were retired. I did not hear any of them say anything about “engaging in community.” When I thanked them before we left that evening, they simply said: this is what neighbors do…. I think they are right.  And I think we can learn some good things from retired people who love their neighbors.

I am thankful for my younger friends, but I feel compelled to say a few things to them regarding this whole matter of “engaging in community”

  • Broaden your horizons.  Your community should include people of all ages and from varying backgrounds.  If you only hang out with your peers, you will fall into a pit of group think. It is simply not healthy.

  • Serve your own. My first obligation is to the Granbury community. I love doing medical mission trips in Mexico, but my primary service should be to members of my own city.  There are dozens of ways to serve your local community. Get involved.

  • Don’t ignore those in close proximity.  I have made an effort to meet my neighbors where I live and I have also tried to be a good neighbor to those with businesses near the church where I serve.  It is called being neighborly and it is an important dimension of engaging in community.

  • You need friends that don’t think like you. My life is enriched by friends that don’t think like me.  I am friends with ministers whose theological views are far more conservative than mine.  A temptation exists not to extend a hand of friendship to those who are to the “right” or to the “left” of us theologically or politically. We live in such a polarized culture. Once again this is not healthy.

I have more to say to say on this topic, but the church is full of middle school and high school students right now.  It might be good for me to go and “engage them in community.” I might learn something…

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Don't Make me Hang out With Old People

Mr. Suttle passed away last night.  There won’t be a lot of fanfare about his death. He was a very private man who spent his career driving a greyhound bus after serving as a G.I. during World War II.  After retiring, he was able to spend several years in New Mexico painting.  He was an accomplished artist who spent his career driving up and down Route 66.  As I think about attending his funeral service next week, I am reminded that there will come a day soon when all of the members of his generation will be gone.  For some reason that reality takes me back to 1987…

In 1987, I was a young buck straight out of a master’s degree program in biblical studies at Abilene Christian University.  At age 25, I was ready to tackle the world of ministry head on.  Or so I thought…. I was hired by the most patient and loving church on the face of planet earth. (I wonder what that says about me.)  I think I know…I needed to be employed by the most patient church on the planet. I had so much to learn.

I was immediately assigned to teach the “Auditorium Sunday School Class”. You have to be kidding; I thought…The median age of that class was 77.3. (Ok maybe that is a slight exaggeration.)  I wanted to hang out with my peers, or teach college students. Don't make hang out with old people.  Now I realize how fortunate I was to interact with members of The Greatest Generation. They were kind to me. And yes they were patient. 

Over the past 25 years I have officiated or attended at countless funeral services for members of that generation.  I have eulogized men that served in the Battle of the Bulge, and others that flew bombers during the same time period. I have reflected on the lives of ladies that met and married men that were returning from military service immediately following the end of World War II. And the stories I have heard have been inspiring to say the least.  It has been one of the real privileges of my career.

I realize now that I was assigned to teach some true American heroes in 1987. I wish I knew then what I know now.  I know now that I was among greatness as I “taught” members of the Auditorium Sunday School Class.  Here are some things I have learned from that generation that I will take with me for the rest of my life:

  • They are firm in their convictions. In a world filled with constant change that is helpful.
  • They manage money well.  Enough said…
  • They understand what it means to sacrifice.  We are into instant gratification.
  • They are loyal. Things may get rough, but they are not going anywhere.
  • They have adapted to change. I don’t suppose any other generation has seen greater change in the history of this country. 
  • We are indebted to them.  Life as we know it today would not be possible without the sacrifices men and women of the Greatest Generation made for us.

The church I am now serving does not have an auditorium class.  And if it did, there would only be a handful of World War II veterans.  I believe we have no more than 5 or 6 veterans of that generation still with us.  The ladies of that era are far fewer in number as well.  You won’t hear me complaining anymore.  I know that men of Mr. Suttle’s generation will not be with us forever. I will show them utmost respect in every way that I can. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

You Don't Suppose That Could be the Firefighter That Rescued Me?

It is noontime on a Monday of all days at a busy hospital in the Midwest.  The surgical technicians are already tired. They have already had two surgeries before taking a quick break for lunch. The physician preparing to administer anesthesia is fully engaged in his role, but he is looking forward to a late afternoon tennis game. The ham sandwich from the hospital cafeteria was mediocre at best, so the nurse pitches the Styrofoam box in the trash.  She begins to scrub for case #3, an elderly man in desperate need of back surgery that is intended to relieve pain and increase mobility.

And that is precisely where this narrative needs to come to a screeching halt. All individuals involved in this upcoming surgery will freeze where they are. Yes, that even includes the tennis playing anesthesiologist.  This patient is not case #3. He has a name. He has a family. And he has a story. 

Case #3 is a gentleman that you should refer to as “sir.”  He may very well be old enough to be your grandfather. You see when you were opening Christmas gifts as a child he was down at the firehouse ready to jump in a red truck to save a stranger’s life at a moment’s notice.  You watched him race by your house while you were out playing on a hot summer day. He was on his way to fight flames that had engulfed someone’s home.  When someone in your community was involved in a life threatening car crash, he was often the first one to make scene.

Case #3 has seen and experienced more than his share of traumatic events during the course of his career as a firefighter.  In all likelihood he has never shared those stories with anyone. He and his colleagues are old school. He served his community faithfully.  He placed himself in harm’s way for shift after shift after shift.  And while his family ate dinner at home; he sat down at table with a bunch of other guys just like him down at the firehouse.

Case #3 is about to get underway.  All individuals involved in that procedure can be unfrozen now. They are free to do their job and do it well.  But the lesson for the day is as follows: Behind every case is a real person. Case #3 may just appear to be an elderly man to you, but he has a significant history. He is worthy of your respect. Treat him well as you interact with him. And speak respectfully about him while he is sleeping during surgery. Talk to his family in the same way that you would want medical professionals to speak with your loved ones.

And one final thought…do you think anyone in that surgery suite could have been on the receiving end of this man’s service during his long career as a firefighter?  Is it possible that one of the nurses handing the surgeon instruments could have been a scared child that the man undergoing surgery comforted as she watched her home go up in flames?  Do you suppose one of the doctors may have been cut out of a mangled car by the man entrusted to their care today?  I know firefighters.  They would never refer to someone they are serving as “Call #3” for the day.  They learn people’s names that they serve. It is one of the first things a firefighter will do when he arrives on a scene. What is your name?  I guess I am old school too, because I think medical professionals should do the same.

I have tremendous respect for doctors and nurses of all specialties. In my job, I get so see them in action every single week. They are great. But they are human.  And like the rest of us they need to be reminded every now and then that every person deserves kindness, respect, and compassion. The same way they were treated in the past by other public servants…like firefighters. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Angry with a 4 Month Old Infant? You Have to be Kidding!

When I go in for a dental appointment, my dentist very graciously gives me drugs that numb the areas where she is going to drill, poke, prod, or otherwise invade. She told me during a procedure one time that she does not want to hit a nerve as she works in my mouth. I don’t want her to either. I would prefer to remain seated in the dental chair, and not be hurled through the roof and into orbit. Last Sunday I preached a sermon on the relationship between bitterness and forgiveness.  It has become obvious to me this week that I hit a nerve. No one shot through the ceiling, but there were tears of anguish shed. And I have received a fair amount of heartfelt feedback as well.

During the course of the sermon I shared the following story written by Karisa Smith to illustrate the fact that anger is commonly driven by significant hurt that has never been resolved:

My 4-month-old daughter and I took a trip to the library. She babbled softly as I browsed through the books. As we walked, I heard an older man say gruffly, "Tell that kid to shut up, or I will." Angrily, I responded, "I am very sorry for whatever in your life caused you to be so disturbed by a happy baby, but I will not tell my baby to shut up, and I will not let you do so either."

I braced myself, expecting an outburst from him. Instead, he looked down, took a deep breath, and said softly, "I apologize." He looked up at me with tears in his eyes, and we remained silent. Finally, he looked at my daughter. She smiled at him and happily kicked her arms and legs. He wiped his eyes and said slowly, "My son died when he was 2-months-old."

I moved to sit in the chair next to him. He went on to explain that his son died from SIDS over 50 years ago. He described how his anger grew, leading to a failed marriage and isolation. I asked him to tell me about his son. As he did so, he smiled back and forth with my daughter. Eventually, he asked to hold her. As he held her, his shoulders relaxed, and he briefly laid his cheek on her head. He returned her to me with a heartfelt "Thank you." I thanked him for sharing his story, and he quickly departed.

Her experience convicted me on several levels. If the 4 month old child had been mine, I might have sent him hurling through the bookshelves at the library. Her firm, but thoughtful response made a difference. The very presence of a tiny baby hit a nerve in that man’s life.  Why can’t we recognize the hurt that more often than not drives angry outbursts?

In the future, I am going to strive to be more careful. When someone lashes out, I am going to try to do my very best to look beyond the behavior of the moment. Something is driving that anger. I need to see a hurting person instead of an angry person. There is untold story lurking under the surface. And it seems to me that a gentle spirit might just bring that narrative to light.

I don’t have any drugs to administer before sermons.  Nor do I have any quick acting meds to give when I meet people as I am doing pastoral care at the hospital, or at the scene of a horrific crime.  But I am confident that I will hit nerves.  In moments of crisis, anger is a common emotion. I am going to try to be gentle and allow the real story to come out as needed. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Age 90 and Going Strong!

A good friend of mine recently threw a party for her father’s birthday. And this particular birthday was a big one…Her dad turned 90 this year.  He is very fortunate in that he is still very active physically.  Actually that is a major understatement. Over the past ten years he has climbed to the top of Diamond Head in Hawaii; taken a gondola from peak to peak in Whistler and gone whitewater rafting, both in British Columbia, Canada; gone snorkeling through the cenotes of Xcaret in Mexico; walked miles of historical trails in Italy, Spain and France; done cannonballs off the pier in Green Lake; and ridden some of the best roller coasters in the United States.

How does a person live to be 90 and still maintain a spirit of adventure and a true zest for life?  I realize there are all kinds of health related limitations that impede people from doing the things they would like to do, but Sandy’s dad has made some life choices that I think we could all stand to emulate. Here they are:

He seized the opportunities given him: Growing up during The Great Depression he developed some important competencies. His father taught him how to grow vegetables, and his mother taught him the skills of making pasta, bread, and sauce. He employed those talents to own and operate a very successful and popular Italian restaurant in his hometown.  I am convinced that a lot of people spend their lives bemoaning the absence of talents they don’t possess. Some live their lives adopting a “if only” mentality.  Others become perpetual victims. Neither mindset leads to a long and fulfilling life.

He made lifelong friends. Sandy’s father looks back at service with the US Coast Guard during the World War II era with fond memories. He states that he made some of his “closest lifelong friendships” during that time period in his life.
That comment stands out to me, because I often run across people I have known through the years that are seriously scarred from a string of broken relationships. There are no lifelong friends…That phrase is never uttered from their mouth. They go through life always searching for deep and long lasting friendship, but it remains an ever elusive venture. Damaged people don’t become happy and fulfilled 90 year olds that do cannonballs off piers.

Family Remained a Priority This particular gentleman grew up in a very close knit traditional family.  His parents were immigrants from Sicily. They raised 8 children in their new found home.  The family values he gleaned from those formative years shape his priorities today.  I can’t help but contrast his family of origin with the all too common brokenness and outright neglect that is endemic
in families today. Lifelong family commitments foster good health and well being.
Sandy’s father is a living testimony to that fact.

I can’t promise that the above mentioned principles will lead to a great life at age 90. But I can promise that ignoring such ideals will lead to a lot of misery and stress that will not lead to a great life at any age. A good attitude about what we have been given coupled with a commitment to the important relationships in life is not such a bad plan!