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.