Monday, December 23, 2013

Guess Who is Working on Christmas?

911 dispatchers have been putting up with me for 24 years now.  They call me at 4:00 in the afternoon and they call at 4:00 in the morning too.  I am currently serving as chaplain with and for an exceptionally good group of dispatchers that are employed by the Hood County Sheriff's Office. They are great.  "My" dispatchers recently received the "Agency of the Year" Award  from the North Central Council of Governments regional 911 program.  They could not have awarded a finer group.  One of the deputies they serve with everyday composed a tribute to them.  I will not divulge this person's identity, but I will say that it sure is nice to have a guest blogger that expresses my sentiments better than I can.  

A Tribute to 911 Dispatchers

It takes a special someone to do the job you do.
To answer hundreds of calls a year with "911, where is your emergency?"
To ask all the right questions in order to get the needed help to someone in distress
to patiently extract information from the kindergartner who calls and tearfully whispers, "My mommy won't wake up"
To carry on three different conversations, on the phone, on the radio, and in person and keep them all straight.
To deal with the drunk at the drive-thru who call 911 because they put too much ketchup on his hamburger.
To take control, give directions and calm down the hysterical woman who accidentally shot her loving husband.
To take control, give directions and calm down the hysterical woman who intentionally shot her abusive husband.
To run DL #, LP #, warrant check, all systems check, without pulling out all of your hair in the process.
To work under enough pressure and stress that a CEO in the private sector under the same would earn a million dollar bonus.
To comfort, support and encourage each other when one of your own is killed in the line of duty. 
You are that special someone! 
You are my dispatchers and I thank God for you!
If it should happen that I leave this life before you, I will stand face to face with God and thank Him for making people like you. 
I will then go stand by the golden gates and I will wait for you!
THANK YOU ALL! signed (A Deputy)

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Bookmark for 2013 is Really Needed Thank You

I love to read.  My reading interests are wide and varied. But even when I am engrossed in a particularly good book, I still find the need to stop after a series of chapters and take a few moments to absorb the material.  Bookmarks are a good thing.

2013 is nearly over.  Quite frankly I am ready for the year to come to an end. I would like to close the chapter entitled "2013" and after a very brief bookmarking open a new chapter. This year has been a challenge. There has been a lot of sadness.

Early this year I watched friends face life threatening illnesses.  In March, one of my mentors died. And then May rolled around. I had no idea how much a tornado could change life in a community. The tornado shaped our very understanding of community.  During the immediate aftermath of the storm some friends from a nearby city lost their infant son. Officiating at a funeral for a baby is an indescribable responsibility.

We hoped for a better month when June arrived. But at the end of that month, Sgt. Lance McLean with The Hood County Sheriffs Office was shot and killed as he answered a call for help. Officer Chad Davis with The Granbury Police Department continues to recuperate from  injuries he sustained in a related incident with the same perpetrator.  After almost 24 years of service as a law enforcement chaplain, I officiated at my first line of duty death funeral. I am not sure how to describe the weight of responsibility I felt.

2013 is nearly over. I am fully aware a new year will bring a different set of challenges. I am just ready for a new chapter. But I need to take a few moments to absorb the events of the chapter that is about to close. But before I place the bookmark, I need to reflect on what else has occurred.

I made new friends this year.  This has been a year of new friendship actually.  Casual acquaintances are becoming really good friends.  I have gotten to spend time with some great people that I have grown to value. Shared tragedies have brought us together.  After a brief bookmarking, I hope the new chapter is characterized by depth. I am looking forward to new friendships growing as we embark on new challenges together. But all of us need to recognize for now that bookmarks are a good thing. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tools of the Trade: A Tribute to a Childhood Friend

On April 25th, 2012 my childhood friend Ray Christenson passed from this life after a battle with cancer that was fought courage, faith, and tenacity.  Growing up Ray was not a conforming child that sat at the front of the classroom with a shiny halo above his head.  When we reconnected in January of 2012, I was reminded that the Lord has a good sense of humor.  He found a calling in ministry just like me. When we were kids, we had no clue where we would both someday day spend our Sundays!  The truth is my halo was also noticeably missing too during our formative years.

I had a long discussion with Ray in a snow covered parking lot after hearing him preach what would end up being one of his final sermons in January of 2012.  We talked extensively about our families.  And we talked “shop” about ministry.  He listened humbly and graciously. I learned that Ray actually earned his living working in a body shop restoring cars that had been damaged and mangled in crashes.  I was actually a little envious, because my hands on skills are lacking to say to the least.  Ray didn’t sit in a plush office preparing weekly sermons.  He had little time to pursue continuing education or attend conferences.  There was not time for long lunches to talk church business. He didn’t serve a church that was constructed in a part of the city where stylish homes are cropping up everywhere.  The church he served meets in a converted warehouse in an inner city area.  Most of the people that comprise that church are not highly educated or affluent.  And the church is refreshingly diverse racially.

This week I noticed that Ray’s son, Ray Jr, is selling the tools he used in his job at the body shop.  The picture of those tools broke my heart.  It was a reality check that Ray Sr. never use them again. My first inclination was to tell his son to set them in a prominent place as a symbol of his father’s restorative work.  But I Ray Jr. knows that his father would want someone to get some good use out of them. And then I realized that Ray Sr. used another set of tools for restorative purposes. Those particular tools can never be sold or taken away….

Ray Sr. used the tools that I could not possibly name to restore bent up and mangled cars to their original beauty. They will be sold.  But he also used the tools of compassion, kindness, and humility as a means of restoring bent up and mangled lives. I have met the people whose hearts he touched. I know such divine tools were used well.  Those tools will never be removed. He has passed them on to those of us who knew and loved him.  Now it is our turn to make good use of them.

To my knowledge Ray Sr. was never honored at a seminary or Christian University. He was not a prominent church leader that everyone scrambled to listen his sermons on i-tunes every week.  He did not preach for a prominent church that everyone looked to for the latest and greatest ministry initiative. Ray spent his life using all kind of tools to restore things and people, so I count him among those I consider to be great.  And I am grateful that he allowed me to inherit some of his tools simply by investing in my life.  My message to Ray Jr. this week is this: no one will ever take the important tools from you. Be of good courage. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Falling Down the Slippery Slope: Opening a New Chapter in Life

I have officially jumped off the deep end. My close friends would be of a mind that I did that a long time ago. For the past several years I have wanted to enhance my pastoral care skills. I have had an interest in crisis ministry and related disciplines for over 20 years now. But I am seeing more everyday that my skill set needs to be expanded in that area.  How would I go about securing  in depth training? I was repulsed by the idea of going back to school. Nobody goes back to school at age 51!  Little did I know that hanging out with the wrong people was about was about to alleviate that repulsion.

Last fall I started having some casual dialogue with longtime friends and educators at Lubbock Christian University regarding online graduate level degree programs.  Having those kinds of conversations is never a good idea. Hanging out with educators period is never a good idea. I quickly fell down the proverbial slippery slope and applied for admission for the Master's Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.  Even at that point I still had a footing. The slope was slippery, but I was hanging on for dear life.

Of course LCU assigned a program director to me who pulled me even further down the slope. Annie is both competent and encouraging. She persuaded me to continue in my downward spiral without ever coming across like a used car sales representative.  Her professional competency took me even further down the slope.

I received my official acceptance notification just prior to Thanksgiving.  As I ordered textbooks for the first course, I realized I had reached reached the bottom of the slippery slope. I will be reading and composing research papers for the first time since 2003. I am really going back to school.

In all seriousness, I am reminded that my own unique story is driving me toward educational pursuits at age 51. There is a need for qualified professionals to provide counseling services for ministers and their families. I have seen too many colleagues struggle personally over the years with no one to turn to that actually grasps the challenges of their calling.  Furthermore the events of this year in my role as a law enforcement chaplain taught me one thing. The needs of police officers, firefighters, and medics are very unique. I have a heart to serve them well, but my skill set must be broadened in a substantive way.

I will continue in my present ministry. All of my schoolwork will be done in early morning hours before the work day begins. I have done that before and  I can do it again! The leaders at church have been overwhelmingly supportive.  My close friends that I consulted with prior to jumping off the deep end have been more than encouraging. I do believe that these educational pursuits will enhance every aspect of my ministry. It is an exciting time. The first course begins January 6th. No doubt I will be the old guy in the class, but perhaps my life experience will be of some value to my classmates. Maybe I can warn them about slippery slopes...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Gladys Kravitz and The Dueling Banjos

Several years ago I was riding with a state trooper to deliver an emergency message to a Family.   We were in the sticks. I mean we were well off the beaten path.  In fact it was a little eerie late at night.  I made the following comment to my 20 something trooper: "I can hear the dueling banjos in the background."  He just gave me a quizzical look...I told him to forget it. But I was clearly reminded that every generation shares its own experiences in the realm of pop culture. 

A few months ago I was assisting several young police officers at a location where an unexpected death had occurred.  We were attempting to be as discreet as possible in order to preserve the deceased persons dignity.  But as usual there were nosy onlookers. One neighbor in particular stood on the sidewalk two doors down and stared. I told the officers that I should pull away and go speak with Gladys Kravitz regarding her invasive neighborliness.  Their response:  "Oh, you know her?" I told them to forget it. And I was reminded once again that every generation shares its own experiences in the realm of pop culture. 

I think people of all ages can work well together. I think we can play and laugh together too. I even think we can worship together.  But it takes some effort. There is plenty of room for communication breakdowns.  Life experiences during the formative years is very different for each generation.  I want to learn about the life experiences from people significantly older and younger than me. I want to have good friends from every adult generation. 

Should I encourage my young trooper to watch Deliverance? Hmm...maybe not.  Should I describe the beloved Bewitched character known as Gladys Kravitz to them? Maybe so... Whatever I choose it will be a cross pop cultural experience. 
And furthermore there will no references to The Brady Bunch in subsequent conversations with 20 something's. I did not watch that show at 7:00 every Friday night. And I most certainly did not have a love interest in Marcia Brady.  Those experiences with pop culture can remain in 1972 as far as I am concerned.. I

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Storage Shed of Regret

Occasionally I will hear someone state that they have no regrets. I have even heard people facing death convey with conviction that have no regrets.  I have no doubts regarding their sincerity.  But I always walk away from those encounters scratching my head. I wonder what is wrong with me.

I do have regrets. When I was younger, arrogance coupled with a sharp tongue hurt people. It has only been in recent years that I have learned what it means to value relationships with family and friends alike. I would like to go back and raise my children again. I made quite an array of mistakes as a father. I am pretty eager to apologize to them at this stage in parenting. As I get older, my awareness of the accumulation of bad judgment calls grows.

I do have regrets. Why don't others?  The truth is: they had regrets too....How did their regrets get placed in the past tense? Something must have changed. Here is what happened.... Their disappointments in themselves were put in their proper place. They took their accumulation of bad judgment calls and locked it up in a storage shed of forgiveness. The shed can be likened to The Hotel California. The said accumulation can check in, but can never check out. Why do most of us fail to dump the junk from our past in that shed?

I do have regrets.  What is holding up my trip to the shed? I actually know what has happened. I have erroneously concluded on my dark days that forgiveness is for everyone but me. That is faulty thinking. It is scary. It is crippling.  And it does not help me to serve fellow travelers on their journey to release what has accumulated in their heart.

I do have regrets. But I am making regular trips to the shed these days. I affirm that those excursions are not made alone.  I believe an all powerful Creator and Sustainer continues to provide forgiveness. He locks the shed up and blocks access once we dump our junk.

One day I will tell someone that I have no regrets.  And they may very well scratch their head. They may wonder why they are dragging so much accumulated baggage. I will speak of The Hotel California...And they will look at me like I am crazy. I will still be as crazy as always, but I will have no regrets.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Sticker Says it All: Thank You Texas EMS

You are our chaplain. You serve our agency exclusively. In my early years as a law enforcement chaplain, that thought was never verbalized. But it was always an unspoken rule. I am so thankful I serve a community now where that mindset has never been implied. 

I officially serve the Granbury Police Department and The Texas Department of Public Safety. But over the years countless opportunities have arisen to serve The Hood County Sheriffs Office and The lake rangers affiliated with The Brazos River Authority.  Another interesting development has occurred during the course of the past couple of years. 

Several opportunities to partner serve medics with Texas EMS have arisen. I am learning about a new world. The challenges they face are unique to their particular calling. I had no clue what all was involved in their field. I have taken back by the mounds of paperwork they are required to maintain. 

New and exciting opportunities to serve open every day because there is a mentality of cooperation in the community I serve. It is not that we are not capable of being territorial. We can be in a heartbeat. And there is not an absence of conflict or huge egos. We struggle with both.  But nevertheless there all of the agencies play well together. 

Key leaders affiliated with the agencies I serve have set a tone of mutual respect and teamwork. I am grateful for each of them. This week that attitude was symbolized in a manner that will touch hearts for a long time. A sticker that was created as a visual memorial to Sgt. Lance McClean was placed on the back of every ambulance in use by Texas EMS.  When I saw the new decals placed on these vehicles, one thought came to mind. The sticker says it all...The placement of them on these emergency vehicles symbolizes the respect and love that all first responders in our county have for each other. 

You serve all agencies in this county...That has never been verbalized to me. But it has always been implied. I hope to learn more from my medics during the upcoming year. I continue to learn from those that play well together. As I spend more time with them, I will be reminded that the sticker says it all...

Monday, November 11, 2013

I Actually Went to Church...

Believe it or not I actually went to church yesterday. I should explain. I don't serve a hipster church. We have too many gray heads sitting out there on Sunday. And I don't serve a retiree church either. We have too many kids running around. We have representatives from all five adult generations.

I have police officers and convicted felons worshipping under one roof. Yesterday a young couple that recently married were sitting close to a man who recently lost his wife of 63 years. Our racial composition is diverse. We have people with such varied life stories...

Quite frankly our diversity can be messy at times. The expectations and needs of a 70 year old are different from that of a 25 year old. The worldview of a 60 year is not the same as a 20 year old college student. My older folks love traditional hymns and my 45 year olds would prefer something they heard on a contemporary Christian radio station. And the 20 something's might prefer a chant that a  monk wrote in the 4th century. There are days I would like to retreat to a monastery and hang out with some 21st century monks.

But yesterday was a notable exception. Yesterday we honored our veterans. All of our veterans... We asked them to stand, so we could acknowledge their service. I looked around and saw men that served in the jungles of Vietnam. And I saw others that predated the Vietnam era.  But there were two people in particular that caught my attention.

Larry is a World War II vet who rescued downed pilots out of the Pacific Ocean. His story is compelling. Sitting in the same section down from Larry was a young lady that just completed basic training in the United States Marine Corps. She is about 18 years old. She came to services in uniform yesterday.  She is scheduled to begin combat training in the next few days. Yesterday we were able to honor both of them, because we are diverse generationally.

I don't serve a hipster church. Larry uses a cane now. And somehow we are figuring out a way to serve young marines too.  It will continue to be messy at times. But I felt like I actually went to church yesterday, because church is supposed to be diverse. That is why I was actually able to go to church. It was the real thing.  As long as they keep a  bearded, graying guy around, I think I will keep coming to church.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Watch Off His Own Wrist...

Captain Jerry East is officially retired. Jerry had served The Hood County Sheriffs Office since 1989.  His retirement marks the end of an era in law enforcement. Jerry was what is often called "old school."  His knowledge of people in the county gave him the ability to defuse tense situations in a way no one else could.  He faced precarious encounters in a way that resembled life in the old west. Jerry's actions with criminals will be the making of a legend to be passed on to future generations of law enforcement officers.

As the chaplain, I saw another side to Jerry. I saw him give his coat to a drowning victims daughter one blistering cold night as he and others searched for the body of that ladies father. I saw him express compassion to the wife of a man that deputies were forced to shoot and kill one night. He was always kind to families that had a loved one take their own life.  I have quite a storehouse of memories of this kind.

Today at his retirement reception I heard a new story told by DPS Trooper Dub Gillum. Several years ago Dub was shot in the face during a traffic stop.   Dubs eyesight was permanently affected. Years after that event Dub and Jerry went to see a fellow officer who was dealing with a terminal illness. Dub noticed that Jerry was wearing a watch with huge numbers on the face of it. Dub was excited to see a watch that he could read easily even with a vision impairment. Jerry proceeded to take the watch off and give it to Dub right there on the spot. Jerry is just the kind of guy to give you the watch off his own wrist.

Deputies starting their career this year will do so with all kinds of sophisticated technology. The person that Jerry could get to comply with his old west charm may get pepper sprayed or shot with a taser by this younger generation of officers. Professionally trained negotiators and tactical officers will deal with high risk offenders differently than Jerry did in 1989. It is a changing world.

But the need for a man that will give you his coat in the middle of January or the watch off his own wrist will never go away. Compassion is a trait that technology will never replace.
Jerry has left an example in that area for the rest of us to follow.  I will pack an extra coat in my truck this winter just in case, because the man that would give you the coat off his own back is officially retired.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mind Games: You Can't be Beat a Manipulator

I do not like to be manipulated.  Overt manipulation irritates me.  Subtle attempts at manipulation are even more offensive. We have all been there. Someone says: “You just don’t care about me.”  Or it is stated:  “I just experienced ______ and you never reached out to me.”  In many cases, there was no knowledge of what that person was experiencing.

How do we deal with those that are inclined to manipulate others?  I have a few ideas that I have unashamedly stolen from friends that make my life better.  Here we go:

  • Direct communication in a spirit of kindness:  I don’t let people get by with implying that I failed them when it is simply not true. In particular, I think it is important to communicate that we are not mind readers.  If you don’t tell me that you are going through a difficult period in life, I can’t figure it out all by myself.  I communicate directly and kindly that I expect the same from them the same kind of candor from them.

  • Emotional Ownership: It is generally not wise to tell someone: “You make feel like ________.”  That is responding to manipulation with more manipulation!  It is better to own our feelings.  “I feel _____.” I feel angry. I feel hurt, etc.

  • Non Anxious Presence: My mentor, Dr. Charles Siburt, taught me the importance of remaining non-anxious during times of interpersonal conflict.  That principle holds especially true when encountering a person that is inclined to manipulate.  Such individuals can have a tendency to lure us into losing our cool. We then proceed to say things that we regret later.

  • The Kickoff: Manipulators are masters at playing mind games.  If you show up for the kickoff and enter the game, you are bound to lose. Most skilled manipulators experience undefeated seasons in the mind game arena. Refuse to play.  Don’t even show up for practice. 

Not too long ago a friend told me that he was going through a particularly difficult time. He asked me if I would be willing to check in with him over a period of days.  He was honest and straightforward. And he was humble too. I in turn tried to respond as helpfully as possible. His candidness is the opposite of manipulation.  In essence, he was saying:  “I feel discouraged.” Or  “I feel the need for your friendship right now.”  He owned his emotions, so  the consequences were good.  When we factor manipulative tactics out of relationships, good things can’t help but occur.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Symbols are Imperative During the Grief Journey: A Story About a Putter

Today we hosted The First Annual Sgt. Lance McClean Memorial Golf Tournament. It was a great event. Sgt. McClean was murdered in the line of duty after confronting an accused sex offender that was threatening the person he allegedly victimized. The proceeds from the tournament will go to Lance’s family.

When I got home this afternoon, I went to my closet to make sure my trench coat was hanging in its place. I realize that sounds like an odd thing to do on a warm afternoon in September. But whoever said I was normal?  It just seemed like the thing to do.

During the live auction following tournament play people paid premium price for golfing getaways and other appealing items. As the auction reached it climax, Sgt. McClean’s personal putter was put out there for bidding. One of his closest friends and law enforcement colleagues, Lieutenant Steve Smith, made it clear that he would love to have that putter.  The bidding began.  It soon became apparent that there were two individuals that were determined to purchase that putter. (Neither of them was close to Lance.) By the time the final bid was settled, the putter sold for $2,000.00.  The man that purchased the prized item promptly gave it to Steve. And the woman who bid against him had the same plan in mind.

I have seen people bid against each other at auctions before. In fact, I have seen items purchased for far more than they are worth following such bidding wars. Those scenarios are generated by greed and huge egos. Today's bidding battle was prompted by generosity and compassion.

Steve played golf with Lance on a regular basis. Just days before Lance was shot and killed they were on the course together. Lance made his final putt in this life that day. He put his clubs in his truck. And I am sure he told Steve that he would beat him the next time they played.  Within days Steve knew that round would turn out to be the final one with his friend, Lance.

Steve went home with Lances putter today. And I am glad. I am glad because I know in the grief journey that symbols are important. That putter is a tangible reminder of friendship, mutual respect, and love among brothers. Steve needs something he can hold and look at and putt a golf ball with, if he chooses.  And he needs to be able to think about a bidding war that happened on an afternoon in September that led the putter to landing in his possession. That war between two generous souls stands in stark contrast to the total disregard for human life that led to Lance’s death. Symbols are imperative during the grief journey.

When I got home this afternoon, I went to my closet to make that my trench coat was hanging in its place.  That trench coat belonged to my father. He wore it on the commuter train in Chicago in the 1960s. When I was a little boy, I tried to pick him out from a large group of men get off the training wearing black trench coats. I rarely wear that coat, but it remains an important symbol as I think about my deceased father. I hope the putter that was put on the auction block today will be as meaningful to Steve as the coat has been to me. I am confident that Steve is about to learn that symbols are important components of healing as the journey of grief continues. After all symbols are imperative during the grief journey.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Day I Did a Con Job on My Mother...

Almost exactly 22 years ago we moved into a new rental house that would give us the opportunity to buy our very own refrigerator.  At the time, we had an active 2-year-old running around who needed a place to keep the milk in his sippy cup cold.  But, of course, we were living on a shoestring budget.  My little conniving mind formulated a plan in short order.

I called my mother and said, “Can we have the 1970s gold refrigerator that is storing cokes in your laundry room?”  It seemed like an inexpensive solution to our immediate need.  But here is where I feel compelled to confess….I knew that my mother would view that classic 1970s gold appliance in her laundry room as an inferior solution.  Her grandson needed something that was new and dependable.  I will take my confession even one more step.  I knew that she would most likely offer to buy a refrigerator for us as we prepared to move to a nicer home. My hunch proved to correct.  She said, “Now suga (that is southern for ‘sugar’ by the way.) you go down and buy a quality refrigerator (she was big on buying quality). 

I evidently found a quality refrigerator because it worked great until this week. My mother passed away about three months after sending me a check for that refrigerator in 1991.  At the time of that conversation, I had no idea she was even sick.  I don’t think I need to be at home this week when they haul off the 1991 model refrigerator and replace it with one that has yet to prove whether it too is quality or not.

Here is the question: Did my mother know that I was pulling a con job on her when I asked about the gold symbol of the 1970s in her laundry room? Of course she knew…She was nobody’s fool.  But sweet southern belles don’t always point out that they are being conned.  Besides, there was no time to confront me. Her 2-year-old grandson needed a place to keep his food safe and edible.

In honor of my mother’s generosity so many years ago, I contacted that same grandson of hers and offered to buy him a planet ticket from Los Angeles to Dallas for Christmas this year.  She would be pleased. My mother was a very generous lady.  When the old refrigerator is loaded up to be taken to the appliance graveyard this week, I need to consider changing my conniving ways and become a generous parent like her.  Perhaps it will even spare me from being conned in the future….I feel better now. I have confessed to conning my sweet southern mother. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Becoming Dad: It Happens to the Best of Us

My youngest son informed his brother recently that he was: “becoming dad.”  Mitchell had taken note of the fact that Daniel was consuming his coffee black. In fact, I think he was drinking Folgers Classic. Mitchell was appalled that his brother was “becoming dad.”  The truth is: Daniel’s accuser and younger brother is also “becoming dad” more than he wants to admit.

We moved to Granbury just before Mitchell started his third grade year. Monday he will begin his senior year.  Last night he spent some time with friends at a back to school party. These are the same friends he made in the third grade. They have remained close through elementary school, middle school, and now high school.  But there is something that Mitchell does not know right now…

Some of those same people will become lifelong friends. He will look up one day and realize that he has known these comrades for 40 years. They will experience things together that are difficult to comprehend today. The friendships will deepen with the passing of each year.

I am speaking from experience.  I have friends today that I met in the second grade. Unfortunately several of us lost contact for a number of years, but thanks to technology we ultimately reconnected. The bond that we enjoy is marked by depth, and unwavering loyalty.  I have officiated at funerals for my friends’ parents. I have done a few weddings.  The concern we will feel for each others children is unquestioned.  In fact, we just really care about one another.

Mitchell is unknowingly “becoming dad.” The consistency he has experienced in relationships during his 17 years will likely continue through the duration of his life. He is just like his old man. He appreciates the blessing of friendship. I must say that it thrills me to see him begin his senior year hanging out with friends that he met at Acton Elementary School in 2004.  It will be fun to see where life takes this group of seniors.  One thing seems certain: they will go together. And I have a sneaking suspicion Mitchell will be drinking his coffee black soon.  Folgers Classic at that…Becoming happens to the best of us.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Jungle of Grief: I am NOT Going Back!

I spent several years of my life in ministry training.  It was a rich experience on many levels, but I was absent on the day the magic wands were passed out. I really do want a magic wand these days.  People that are near and dear to me are hurting in unimaginable ways.  They are facing the reality of unexpected death. They are grieving.  As I strive to serve them, I reach for my magic wand. I want to wave the pain away, but the wand remains elusive.  Is there anything I can do to alleviate the pain?

Engaging the journey of grief is like being unexpectedly dropped into a jungle. I have never had any desire to live in a jungle.  Lions and tigers live there. In the jungle of grief, such wild animals appear out of nowhere and create fear in our hearts. Fear prowls around in the density of such a jungle looking for someone to devour.

I prefer to know where I am and where I am heading.  I like being in control. In the jungle, even Siri is rendered helpless. The journey through the jungle of grief is characterized by unexpected twists and turns. The pathway is seldom clear.  We creep through the thick foliage not knowing what lies ahead.  About the time we think we are on a good path, something unexpected happens. We subsequently feel as lost and scared as ever.

The only way to survive in a jungle infested with predators of all kinds is to have a really good guide.  As we walk through the jungle of grief, seeking out people who have endured a similar experience is a pretty good idea. They have a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in the journey.  They have experienced the same kind of vulnerabilities.  A good guide will take our hands and walk us through like a protective father.

As I think about the need for a good guide, it reminds me of an important life principle. If I have successfully negotiated the most harrowing parts of the grief jungle in my own life experience, then I have a responsibility to go back in there. Who wants to go back?  That sounds crazy!  It is not crazy at all.  It is imperative.
I have friends right now who have been dropped into this crazy place. I have no magic wand to wave them out to the other side, so that means I have to go back in.  Going back in the jungle to walk with my friends is one thing I can do to help alleviate the pain.  My encouragement to all of us is this: stop searching for non existent magic wands.  Spray on lots of insect repellent and enter the jungle. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Hit Your Critic Head On!

Not long after moving to Granbury in 2004, the church I serve decided to conduct a survey of the members in an effort to be collaborative regarding some key decisions.  The wording of one of the questions sounded something like this:  “If I could change anything about this church, what would you change?”

One individual responded in the following manner: “I would appreciate better overall content and delivery of sermons.”  Of course I was the person that delivered those weekly sermons that needed better content and delivery!  If I thought this individual was just mean spirited, I would have dismissed the comment.  But I actually viewed this person as being credible.  How do we deal with criticism when it comes from a trustworthy person?

Those of us that speak to hundreds of people nearly every week during the course of a year have been hit with all kinds of criticism.  It comes with the territory. I am not an expert in dealing with critical comments, but I am very aware of the mistakes I have made over the past 26 years.

  • Hitting the critic head on is generally a mistake.  I have responded to negative commentary in a manner that is blunt and overly direct at times. Such a response almost always comes from a place of personal hurt. There are rare occasions when this form of communication is the only thing that a person understands.  But as a rule, head on collisions rarely have a good outcome.

  • Conflict Avoidance resolves nothing.  When I was told that my sermon content and delivery was not up to speed in 2004, I chose to avoid my critic.  I pulled back relationally from that person.  In fact, my preaching content and style became cold and forced.  Nothing good came out of conflict avoidance in that situation.

When I am thinking somewhat rationally, here are some constructive ways that I try to respond to critics:

  • Meeting the critic head on is generally a good idea.  Approaching the person that has offered negative commentary in a kind spirit for the expressed purpose of addressing the issue at hand is almost always the right thing to do.  The person that viewed my preaching in a negative light has since moved on.  I deeply regret not addressing the issue at that time. I should have gone to her and said: “I read your survey.  Would you be willing to offer suggestions for better sermon content and delivery?”  If had approached her with a gentle spirit, I think she would have responded in kind.  Attitude is everything in such encounters.

  • Conflict Management has potential.  We can approach a critic in a very kind manner, but a positive response is not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination.  The critic may very well be unrelenting.  That person may choose that opportunity to launch interpersonal grenades.  But choosing to address the issue instead of avoiding it always has potential!  When we are hurt by someone’s disapproval, it is hard to meet them head on. Avoidance just feels better at the time!  In the long run, overtures at conflict management are better. 
I am fairly certain that my preaching content and delivery has improved over the past 9 years.  More importantly I try much harder to engage those that are openly dissatisfied. The emotional dimensions of such experiences make for another blog on another day! 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Juggling Priceless China: A Season of Personal Grief

In 2011, a high school classmate of mine lost one of his close friends to cancer.  I really felt for him.  His pain was obvious.  I wondered at the time what it would be like to lose a peer. I was 49 years old and had never lost a friend that was my age.  Little did I know I was about to find out…A season of grief was on the horizon.

In April of 2012, my childhood friend Ray passed away after battling cancer with tremendous faith and dignity.  In June of the same year, another childhood friend died in a nursing home after dealing with a brain tumor for several years. Thirty days later my longtime mentor and professor Charles Siburt also died of cancer. And then in March of 2013, I traveled back to Lubbock to attend the funeral of Bill Groux.  Bill kept me out of jail when I was an impulsive college student looking for trouble. He was my employer, but more importantly he treated me like a son.

In June of this year, I responded to the first line of duty death of a law enforcement officer from one of my own agencies. During 23 years as a law enforcement chaplain I have assisted a number of other agencies during such circumstances, but it has never been one of my officers.  In June of this year, Sgt. Lance McLean was killed in the line of duty as he protected a family from a ruthless murderer. I am not ready yet to express what it feels like. I know helpful insights will come someday.

It is tempting to withdraw.  It is equally tempting to be angry and bitter. Fear has made an appearance more than once over the past 14 months. Tears have been frequent, but private.  Grieving over the loss of 5 people simultaneously feels like juggling priceless china.  It can be tricky at times.

I have learned a few things since the inception of this “season of grief” began in April of 2012.

  • God is faithful.  Oh that sounds like a cliché to end all clichés. But it is true. God has put the people in my life that I have needed when I needed them. I have not dropped any pieces of china yet…

  • Loyalty Carries the Day.  I will never be able to write about all of the expressions of loyalty I have observed in the past 14 months during this season of grief. Watching those I care about be on the receiving end of generosity and compassion has been a constant source of inspiration. Loyalty truly carries the day.

  • Life is too short to be petty.  I have been exposed to the routine expressions of pettiness during this season of grief.  I feel sorry for people that have yet to figure out how precious relationships are.  Life is too short to act like a fool. 

  •  I know who my friends are now. It has been a rough 14 months. In addition to the deaths of friends, I have served tornado victims and officiated at several very difficult funerals. We have had more than our share of suicides in our community as well.  Some of my friends have come out of the woodwork to serve and encourage me.  And they have done it well.  Others seem to be oblivious.  Uncaring? I doubt it.  But for whatever reason they chose not to express their concern. They are busy with their own commitments. But I know who I can count on now. 

  • I will never be the same.  It is quite possible that I could be called in to assist another law enforcement agency with a line of duty death. My approach won’t be the same, if that happens.  I will be more empathetic. I will be kinder.  I am determined to pay much closer attention to members of my extended family and my close friends as they experience the journey of grief. I want to be counted among those that cared.

The season of grief is no longer on the horizon. It is here.  It is here to stay for an undetermined amount of time.  I will choose to embrace it.  I will choose to love deeper and with greater sensitivity to the needs of others living in the same season. After all loyalty carries the day. And I will express gratitude to a faithful God that never leaves us.  And I think I may need to speak with my classmate who lost a close friend in 2011.  I view his journey much differently today. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Granbury Tornado Chronicles Part II: The Day the Kringle Arrived

On May 15th, a tornado destroyed an entire housing development in our community. Six people lost their lives.  There were numerous injuries that evening too.  Needless to say life in our community has not been the same since 8:00 p.m. on the 15th.  All of us have been working extra hours to make sure the immediate needs of victims are met.  I have learned so much in the past ten days!  If the truth be known, I have learned a few things about human nature…

If you asked me what you can do for people that are deeply involved in a relief effort, I think I could generate a decent list. But my friends from Racine, Wisconsin did something for me that I would have never thought of in a million years!  O&H Bakery in Racine is known for its famed Danish pastry known as “Kringle.” The bakery ships these delicacies nationwide everyday.  Yesterday when I arrived home there was a box of three Kringles.  (Cherry, Cinnamon Roll, and Turtle flavors). A card accompanied the box signed by my fellow class of 1980 friends.

I can now add another thing to my list of what to do for people serving others during an extended crisis.  Do something that is a little bit frivolous. (Kringle is a once a year treat around our house at Christmas.) And do something that symbolizes your relationship with that person.  Kringle is a unique delicacy to the city of Racine, where I went to school through the 7th grade. Receiving something that symbolized our common city was really special. 

My lesson about human nature today is: People are generous, but people are also creative in such gestures.  Such creativity is intensely personal and reflective of the beauty of friendship.  Today I feel refreshed and fortified.  And I maybe bouncing off the walls from the sugar in the Kringle before the day is out….

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Granbury Tornado Chronicles Part I: Would You Like to See My House?

I have had several friends that have built new homes over the years.  As the construction proceeded, they proudly showed me pictures of the progress. When the house was finally completed, they eagerly shared photos of the finished project. It is a natural thing to share the joy of a new home with friends.

Today we served hundreds of people who lost their homes in Granbury’s tornado Wednesday evening.  They patiently waited in line for hours to secure a permit from Hood County Emergency Management personnel.  And then they signed up to receive assistance from the Red Cross.  Other non profit agencies were on hand to serve as well.  There were several things that happened today worth noting. One in particular stands out to me this evening.

I helped a lady carry some supplies to her car that we were giving away at the church.  As we loaded her vehicle, this is what she said:  Would you like to see my house?  The tone of her voice sounded like someone that had just finished building a new home.  I said: Sure… She showed me pictures of their devastated house. The only thing left intact was the colorful kitchen cabinets painted in a shade of red. 

As I walked back to the building, I was initially confused. Why would she display such enthusiasm about a house that was in shambles? And then the lights came on in my head.  People need to share their losses in as much as they need to share what they have gained.  She needed me to see that picture. And she also needed me to lament over the status of their destroyed home with the same degree of energy that I would rave over a newly completed house. I think I get her enthusiasm now. Her energetic demeanor was a cry for help in a different sort of way.  It encouraged me to remain energetic in expressing compassion. 

I am tired tonight. It has been a long three days since the storm Wednesday.  But I learned a lot from the people I served today. Their spirit encouraged me to get up and try again tomorrow. There are people with pictures to share...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pizza Should Never Be Eaten Alone: Thursdays with Ira Part III

Last Thursday I enjoyed my weekly breakfast tradition with Ira.  His youngest daughter is my age, so he could be my father. Our weekly discussions over The Firehouse Breakfast Special give me material to think about for weeks.  His depth of character and understanding of Scripture stretches me intellectually and spiritually.

Last week he told me that since his wife’s death he has become very attuned to people around him in a restaurant eating alone.  A couple of weeks ago he was eating lunch at a pizza establishment when he noticed a young woman also eating alone a few tables away. After the lady received her check, Ira noticed her digging through her purse trying to put enough money together to pay out. Ira chose to make her day a little better. He walked over and asked her if she would allow him to pay her bill.  She of course was hesitant and was quick to tell him that she had enough money to take care of it.  Ira said: just look at me as a grandfather type.  She smiled and conceded.

Perhaps the best part of this story is that the young woman took a few moments to visit with a lonely gentleman who had eaten his pizza alone. She shared a little of her story and he did the same with her.  She enjoyed an unexpected free lunch that day, but more importantly she touched the heart of a man who is eating way too much pizza alone these days.

Ira reminded me Thursday of the importance of being observant.  When I am in a restaurant I need to pay closer attention to those eating solo. And it never hurts to pay someone’s bill anonymously.  That is actually a lot of fun.  You make someone’s day and they have no clue who did that for them!  Pizza should never be eaten alone, but just in case it happens don’t hesitate to pick up the check and make a friend in the process. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Police Dispatcher Appreciation Week

I was not the chaplain on call that cool night in March of 1994.  But as chaplain commander that particular year, I was on call in the event of a major event that required more than one person to respond.  When my pager went off at 1:30 in the morning, I knew it was not good news. 

Back in the pre-cell phone days, we had to call our dispatcher in order to receive details about the needs of the moment. That morning my dispatcher told me a 10 year old girl had perished in a house fire. The on call chaplain was with the family, but they wanted someone to be with the firefighters and police officers that had responded to a fully involved fire shortly after midnight.

I went back to the fire station and drank coffee with the firefighters until the shift changed. It was an opportunity to do ministry of presence. When I finished there, I felt led to go check on my dispatchers. I knew all of them well.  They knew the names of my two little boys, who were ages 5 and 2 at the time. We had been through a lot together.  When I arrived at the communications center, I was reminded of some important facts.

The dispatchers that take our 911 calls and in turn make sure that all necessary first responders get to where they are supposed to go are the first ones to hear about a tragedy unfolding. In this case, frantic neighbors called 911 because a small wooden frame house was engulfed in flames.  Dispatch had firefighters on scene in less than 5 minutes that night. That was my first reminder. 

It is a job that requires multi-tasking. In the case of that fire, they had to dispatch fire units from two stations, an ambulance, and police officers to block off the street and provide security.  They have to calm to crisis stricken people, so they can secure basic information.  (No easy task)  During this particular call a medical examiner and a chaplain had to be paged…That was my second reminder. 

There is no time to become emotional. There is no time to process what is going on. And when the call is over, they have no clue what really happened. They were behind a computer screen for the duration of the event.  When I arrived at the communications center that morning, all of the dispatchers were yearning for information about the fire. How was the family doing? How were the first responders coping? I learned something very valuable that morning. Dispatchers are the first to hear the bad news and the last ones to find out what the final outcome of an incident.  A strange place to be in emergency services in my estimation…That was the third one...

Dispatchers really care about those they serve. I told them I was waiting for the office at an elementary school to open, so I could notify the victim’s teacher that she had died in the fire. One of the dispatchers that had worked all night volunteered to go with me to talk to the teacher. She thought I could use the help. When we arrived, we found a teacher that was 7 or 8 months pregnant. I was so thankful to have another person with me to help that morning.  I was grateful that the dispatcher was willing to expand on her role as a multi-tasking person. And I was equally thankful that for perhaps the first time in her career she was able to serve someone away from the computer screen. My fourth and final reminder..

This is Police Dispatcher Appreciation Week.  I am writing in memory of Judy Graf, who always took care of her “boys” on the streets. She was a veteran dispatcher. I really miss her and think of her often. And I am also writing in honor of those that I am privileged to serve with today.   You are a blessing to many. Thank you for caring about me.  That is a truth I don't need to be reminded of. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Turn off the Charm and Turn on the Authenticity!

I love the character of Eddie Haskell on the classic show, Leave it to Beaver. Eddie’s syrupy if not disgusting compliments directed to June Cleaver make me laugh. His obvious duplicity is equally amusing.  Eddie can tell Mrs. Cleaver how nice she looks in one moment and totally ridicule poor Beaver as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  But in real life, the Eddie Haskell’s among us are just not amusing.

People need authentic compliments. Our friends need genuine affirmation and words of truth. I have always thought it was a good idea to direct my compliments toward specific things my family or friends have done. That is a good report card! I really like that dress that picked out. I am proud of your accomplishments at work. That was a great golf shot.  The possibilities are limitless. But I have changed my mind recently about such compliments.

People need to hear compliments that affirm their inherent value as a human being. Here are a few examples:

  • I think you are so bright. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.
  • You are inspiring to me. Your attitude helps me immensely.
  • You are gifted. What would I do without you?
  • You are insightful.  I learn something from you every time I am around you.
  • You are valuable. I think you are a priceless gift.
  • You are worthy.  I respect you for the person you are.

I am discovering more and more that people have a very low opinion of themselves. We all tend to dwell on our own faults.  It is crippling. I am not advocating arrogance.  I just think that people should hear that they are inherently valuable.  The term “workmanship” is used in Scripture to describe God's created beings.  The word actually means “masterpiece.”  We are God’s masterpiece. But most of us don’t recognize that reality. 

I don’t recall Eddie Haskell ever affirming June Cleaver’s inherent value!  His empty charm is enough to make even the toughest among us sick!  Let’s turn off the charm and turn on the authenticity. There are too many people out there who have a low view of themselves.  If the truth be known, authenticity can’t be turned of and on.  It is an expression of our character. It is the masterpiece part of us. So…dust off the masterpiece and let it shine!  Those closest to us need our authentic selves. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Thursdays with Ira: Part II

Thursdays with Ira have become an important tradition. I think I could write a book about the conversations that we have had over the past several months and it would be well worth the read.  Ira is 81 years old.  He has been a widower for less than a year.  His insights on life take me days to process after we depart from our Thursday morning breakfast meetings.  Today’s topic of discussion was rather unique.

Ira decided on a whim last week to drive over 200 miles to the small east Texas community where he lived until age 14.  He wanted to step back into time and seek out his roots. He stopped at a local café and asked about the school where he attended. And he also inquired about the little country church where his family worshipped. And of course he wanted to go back to the home where he grew up.  The locals were friendly, and eagerly provided detailed directions to all three locations.

There was not much left of the old school, but he was still able to get out and take some pictures of the shell of a building that remains. The roof on the now abandoned church was caved in.  And when found the location of his old home, he discovered that it has been demolished. The gas refinery that students met in front of to catch the school bus is marked only by a cyclone fence that is barely intact.

Despite the obvious impact of time on such important markers in his life he was still able to tell me about events that took place at home and at school. He remembers his mother calling the kids from their play area in the pine trees behind the house.  And he recalls his baptism at the little country church that now stands empty every Sunday.  His trip down memory lane seemed to be satisfying to him.

As I listened to Ira’s story, I sat up in my chair. I felt humbled and grateful. I made the same trip back in time to my old home and elementary school.  I was 47 at the time. My old house is still standing.  And I was able to tour my elementary school with dear friends that I attended classes with back in the early ‘70’s. I am thankful that we toured the school when we did.  It is scheduled for closure at the conclusion of this school year.

My walk back in time led to all kinds of reunions and the formation of new friendships.  Today I have wondered why I am so fortunate. I am sure at this stage in life that a lot of Ira’s childhood friends are deceased. I have been able to reap all of the benefits of walking into the past and also bring that era into this stage of my life.

Did Ira wait to late?  I don’t believe that to be true. When he was 47 years old, there were no social media outlets to reconnect old friends. But I would say this: don’t put off reconnecting.  If you feel compelled to go back to your roots, go now. If there is a need to forgive people from your past in the process, don’t put that off either. Life is a mist. One day we are out on the playground and the next day we are returning to a shell that was once a school or a home. I am glad Ira made that road trip and I am equally thankful that he shared the outcome with me. I am more grateful than ever for those special people that I can’t imagine being without now.  I realize now that I could have waited too long and the outcome would have been much different. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

You Will ALWAYS be My Daughter....

I have edited key details and names in this story to protect the privacy of everyone involved. 

What place does a 15 year old girl have in a Dallas bar that attracts more than its share of unsavory characters?   But that is where 15 year old Morgan found herself on most weeknights.  In fact, she had to find a place to lay her head, and get some rest.  Her mother’s shift as a bartender did not end until 2:00 a.m. Morgan in turn would have to get up and be at basketball practice bright and early before the beginning of the normal school day.  Exhaustion and fluid boundaries were a way of life until a fellow team players family entered the picture.

Luke and Ruth had a 15 year old daughter playing on the same basketball team. When they discovered Morgan’s living circumstance, they asked her mother if she could move in with them.  She readily agreed. Stretching out to nap in a bar each night was over for Morgan.  She was given a warm bed to sleep in and three square meals to share with a great  people. She joined her adoptive family for vacations and extended family gatherings. There was no shortage of love and security for a young lady that had never known either. 

Her sophomore year in high school came and went.  After about a year, her mother picked her up.  Her time with Luke and Ruth’s family came to a screeching halt.  A couple of years passed.  Luke saw Morgan from a distance at an event, but she avoided him… They heard through the grapevine that Morgan had a baby.  The baby drowned in a swimming pool before his second birthday.

Morgan was a sophomore in high school 12 years ago.  Luke and Ruth have not heard a peep out of her all of this time. At least that was the case until yesterday…Morgan contacted Luke and told him that was she was engaged. She needed his advice regarding some important personal concerns. During the course of the conversation she apologized for being out of touch for such a long period of time.  Luke responded with this statement: “Morgan: when you lived with us, I told you everyday that you would always be my daughter.”  She broke down in tears… And she told him: “I have never forgotten that!”

What kind of message are we giving our own children?  Are we casting them off to sleep in a corner somewhere?  Are we telling them that they will always be our children?  What about our children’s friends that lack a stable family environment? What kind of message are they getting from us?? There is no shortage of opportunity to adopt older children that just need some attention, love, and structure in their lives.  Such adoptive practices can take on multiple forms.  I can promise you that the love they are given in such adoptive situations will never ever be forgotten. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Invisible Homeless Among Us

I am not an expert when it comes to serving our homeless population. But I am very aware of some of the hurdles that we face as we strive to actively express compassion to such individuals. Drug addiction and severe mental illness are among the list of difficulties. In recent months, it has become very clear to me that there is another kind of homeless population. There are the invisible homeless.

It seems like a day does not go by that I do not encounter someone who feels abandoned, lonely, or cast away. As far as I know, all of these individuals have a bed to crawl into at the end of a long day. Some of them  even live in beautiful homes. But nevertheless they feel homeless. 

I refer to them as the invisible homeless, because it is nearly impossible to recognize such people simply by observing their outward demeanor. They are gainfully employed. They have cars to drive and nice clothes to wear. But inwardly they are struggling.  Their family has rejected them.  They have made really poor life choices. Relationships have unraveled. In other cases, they have lost loved ones. Deep regrets are an integral part of their daily existence.

How do we serve this segment of the homeless population?  How do we touch the hearts of the invisible homeless?  I know there are hurdles to be jumped over in serving them too. But I only have one idea for now. Perhaps more will be forthcoming. But for now I only have one…

If we are interested loving the invisible homeless, then we have to start by acknowledging their existence in the first place. When I am walking in downtown Chicago or in parts of Austin, I know it is really tempting to just ignore that guy who is obviously homeless.  It is far less complicated if I just keep on walking. And the same is true in regard to the invisible homeless. 

If the invisibility is going to disappear, then we have to be willing to get in the relational trenches with people.  We have to be willing to be quick to listen and slow to speak.  In fact, we need to listen long enough and carefully enough to hear the real story. And when the story starts to surface, we can’t run for the hills. That is when the privilege of loving the invisible homeless begins.

 My one idea therefore is all about acknowledging.  We are able to recognize that a person is among the invisible homeless, because we choose to care enough to listen. Could it be that such a person could actually move out of that state of invisible homelessness a result?  I realize such situations are complicated, but I do believe that is a start… What homeless person will you touch this week?

Friday, March 29, 2013

You Blew It!! I am Going to Slice and Dice You...

Yesterday I judged at a UIL Lincoln Douglas Debate Competition in rural Brock, Texas. I thought my debate coaching and judging days were over after Daniel graduated from high school, but that is not to be the case apparently.  Yesterday there were several matches where an experienced high school debater was paired with a student that possessed little or no experience in a tournament setting. It could have been the equivalent of me going up against Tiger Woods in match play competition on the golf course. But that is not what unfolded yesterday.

I judged two rounds where highly competent high school debaters chose to reach out to their opponent in the mindset of a peer mentor. They still argued their case. They accomplished all of the objectives that are necessary for winning the round. But in the process, they chose to reach out to their struggling opponent instead of plowing over that person.

In terms of the rules of engagement in UIL Lincoln Douglas Debate, they could have shredded their rival intellectually by harping on every single dropped argument and by spending the remainder of their speaking time reinforcing their debate case from every possible angle.  There are a lot of ways they could have sliced and diced their challenger, and still have been well within the rules of the contest.  But in the case of two debaters I heard, that did not occur. They covered the necessary bases and then spent the remainder of their speaking time extending a helping hand.

What about us? What can we learn from these bright high school students? We are exposed to people on a pretty consistent basis that find themselves in a position of vulnerability. They have blown it. They are not prepared. They are the new kids on the block so to speak. They have a lot to learn.  In some situations, they have brought trouble on themselves by doing really thoughtless things.

What are we going to do?  I suppose we are well within the “rules” of life to point out their flaws. We can all too eagerly show them their failures. And we can launch into lengthy diatribes regarding the “right” way to do it. We can tell them what “sinners” they are. The possibilities really are limitless. But I think I saw a better way yesterday.  Highly skilled high school debaters from rural Texas schools reminded me of an important life lesson.

The expression of true compassion occurs when we are well within the “rules” to point out someone else’s flaws to them. But we choose instead to reach out. We commit to kindness and empathy. We choose to mentor instead of steam rolling someone. We don’t abuse the positional authority that has given to us for a brief moment.  And somewhere in the process, a vulnerable person is not plowed over. I believe that is a good thing.  Go easy on me Tiger. I could use some coaching on the golf course. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What? You Too! I Thought I was the Only One!

When each of our boys started sleeping all the way through the night, it was a big deal.  Feedings in the wee hours of the morning soon ceased. Walking the floor with a baby suffering from colic lasted only a matter of weeks even though it seemed like months at the time!  Time marched on and they soon reached a point of seemingly staying up all night and sleeping during the day during school breaks.

It never occurred to me that a grown man could go decades without sleeping all the way through the night.  Last week as I visited with a lady who was married to a Vietnam veteran I learned otherwise.  During the course of our conversation she shared a significant event that took place in her husband’s life prior to his death.

Her husband came home from Vietnam damaged emotionally. I have no idea what kind of attention that he received as he readjusted to civilian life. Awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is no doubt greater today than it was in 1973. She told me that he suffered from intrusive memories and painful nightmares on a very regular basis. She watched him suffer in the wee hours of the morning for years.

But in 2003, something of great significance took place. Her husband traveled to another state to reunite with fellow Vietnam Veterans that he served beside during his overseas service. The sense of community they experienced with each other was beyond words according to his wife. They shared openly about their pains and difficulties. It was profoundly healing. 

She also became acquainted with the spouses of the veterans that reunited. As the spouses continued to correspond with each other after the event, she discovered that some of the men slept all the way through the night for the first time in 40 years. The reunion with their fellow soldiers was that healing.

I visit with people every single day that are damaged emotionally in one form or another. I also interact with people that have been exposed to trauma. I hope that whatever contact I have with them is healing. I realize that emotional difficulties are infinitely complex, but positive interaction with other people can soothe damaged emotions. 

But I am also reminded that bringing people together that have had similar life difficulties is also imperative. C.S. Lewis was correct when he said: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! you too? I thought I was the only one.” Obviously the renewed friendships that took place at the reunion of Vietnam veterans were characterized by such revelations!  May your life be blessed with such moments of friendship.  Friendship heals. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Six Year Old's Do NOT Get Married...or Do They?

I received a message from a bride to be this week.  She asked me if I would officiate at her wedding.  My immediate reaction was to laugh.  In my mind, this precious little girl is still in the first grade at Dillman Elementary School. She needs to go and play on the swing set adjacent to the church building instead of sending messages about weddings. It is ridiculous. Six year old's don’t get married.

Fortunately I was jarred out of my walk down memory lane before I replied to her message. This beautiful young lady is 24 years old. She will soon graduate from Texas Tech School of Law.  My reply to her request sounded ever so professional.  But underneath the veneer of professionalism in my reply, I shed a tear or maybe two.  All of us mature men are sensitive old coots.  I had to smile to myself though…

Ministry has its perks. I don’t mean country club memberships or expense accounts.  Ministry has priceless perks.  One of those benefits is the privilege of officiating at weddings for girls that you have known since the first grade, or in some cases their entire life. I can’t describe what a privilege it is to watch a young lady and her father walk down the wedding aisle.  It is beyond words.

When I look back on my career someday, there will be significant events that I will forget. There will be regrets.  I am sure there will be issues that I had wished I had handled better.  And there could be days that I wished I had done something in ministry other than serving a local church.  But if had abandoned local congregational ministry, I would have missed out on the perks that go with it.

On July 5th, Kate’s dad will give her away.  I am glad it is him and not me. I am thankful that I raised a house full of boys. But I will be there to enjoy one of the perks of congregational ministry. The wedding guests will see a beautiful bride that day, but I will see a six year old girl. I just can’t help it. After all I am an old coot.

Good Intentions Can be Cruel

This week I heard the story of a man who attended the same university that I did for my undergraduate degree work. He was just a few years ahead of me, so he is in his early 50’s. His life however has taken an unexpected direction.  I don’t know the details, but I was made aware this week that he has lived alone in a nursing home for quite some time. Thankfully several alums from our alma mater have made a point to reach out to him.

One of those kind souls who have touched his life made a comment that I cannot get out of my mind.  She said:  We can’t just go see someone like him one time.  That would be cruel.  I found that to be profound. She of course is right. When we go see a younger person living in a nursing home, we get their hopes up. They think that person really cares.  And so naturally they anticipate further contact from the visitor.  It would be cruel to leave them sitting there all alone after one visit…

It occurs to me that we pat ourselves on the back for going to feed the homeless one time.  Or we help needy children during the Christmas season. It is a one day event.  We take teens from our church youth group to clean an elderly person’s yard for one day. We do so many things “one time.”  I sometimes wonder if we spend more time patting ourselves on the back then we do in actual service to others.

Today I am thinking about a friend of mine that visits a young man with Down’s syndrome in a nursing home every single Friday. They go to lunch or get out for a soft drink. I am thinking of friends that volunteer for hospice. One of my friends sits with hospice patients at nursing home facilities for hours at a time several days a week. When the patient dies, she grieves with them.  And I am thinking about a lady I read about recently who meets military personnel returning from overseas assignments at the airport. She calls herself the “hugging lady.”  She hugs every single soldier as they arrive. She has provided this service for years now.  I also appreciate a friend of mine who was recently widowed. He often spends his days visiting people in assisted living facilities. And I think of my friend Laverne.  I officiated at Laverne’s funeral recently.  Prior to her death she and a group of ladies did what they referred to as “calling and caring.”  Every week they called and sent cards to elderly people that were home-bound.

What about this young man who lives in a nursing home? We can’t just visit him one time. That would be cruel….She is right. And so I am reminded that commitment to serving others is characterized by consistency. And I am thinking that serving a few people really well is better than spreading ourselves too thin.  And I am convicted by the fact that I have gone to see way too many people only one time.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Lessons Learned on the Burn Unit at Parkland Hospital

I am not one apt to complain.  At least that is the perception I have of myself. There is a distinct possibility that such self understanding is way off base. I am capable of whining about anything and everything.  I realized I have nothing to grumble about, because I spent today spent visiting friends at Parkland Hospital’s Burn Unit in Dallas.

I have a friend whom I privileged to serve at the Granbury Police Department that has been with her husband in the hospital since January 10th.  The “septic” infection in his body caused burns that led to admission to the ICU Unit at Parkland on the burn floor after being previously hospitalized in Ft. Worth. His ongoing recovery is nothing short of a miracle. His tenacity and courage is beyond description. As I visited with Doug and Sharon today, I learned a few things.

I discovered that there are a lot of really decent people in the world.  The two men that drive the shuttle bus from the hotel to the hospital have asked Sharon every single day about Doug’s progress. One of the gentlemen told her that he and his wife pray for Doug every evening at their home. Other hotel employees have extended similar kindnesses.  Several days ago an elderly couple encountered Sharon and her sister in a small “family room” on the burn floor.  After exchanging very brief pleasantries, these total strangers shed genuine tears as they listened to Doug’s story. They led a moving prayer for Doug and went about their way. Sharon asked her sister if they had just encountered two angels…No doubt they did.

My faith in health care professionals has been renewed.  The physician who took care of Doug in the emergency room at Harris Hospital in downtown Ft. Worth on January 10th took the time to call Sharon recently just to check on Doug’s progress.  Nurses from the first ICU unit Doug was admitted to at Harris Hospital have made similar gestures. I marveled at the compassionate and competent care that he received today at Parkland

As I visited with them at the acute burn unit, I heard about the 7 year old patient across the hall from Doug’s room. The little boy's pain has been awful. I stopped to visit with a lady that I had seen in hallway through the course of the day.  Her 22 year old son was burned in a house fire last Sunday morning.  I heard about patients literally screaming out in pain during wound care procedures.

One of Sharon’s co-workers from the police department joined me in my trek to Parkland today. Her concern reflects a recurring theme I have seen at the police department starting with the chief and moving through the ranks of officers and civilian employees. They care. I mean they really care.  I watched an officer “stand guard” over Sharon the very first night that Doug was admitted, so she could rest securely in the ICU waiting room. They have been generous with their time and their money.

I am supposed to be the police chaplain. I am supposed to be one providing spiritual care. But I am finding that they are teaching me how to serve.  And I found today that being in a burn unit at a large hospital taught me that I have nothing to complain about and everything to be thankful for. I will still be the chaplain tomorrow, but I think I will serve with a much better outlook.