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 cafĂ© 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.

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?