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.