It makes even a stoic cry

I handle bad news relatively well. My exuberance over good things isn’t excessive – unless of course, you’re talking about the winning shot hit by my child or grandchild. Those who know me might call me stoic.

But, sometimes, I find belly laugh humor in the simplest things like word play and irony. And then, out of the blue, an item will reach out from a page or conversation, or television commercial with such poignancy it strikes every raw nerve in me and makes me blubber like a baby denied its lolly. Such as, a McDonald’s commercial around Olympics time, showing a dad teaching a little girl to swim, then showing that same dad cheering on his grown daughter in the Olympic pool.

The tear trigger probably depends on an aggregation of what I’ve been doing and reading and experiencing and all the right elements coalesce to strike an emotional nerve. It happened today at lunch.

Reading in the September Reader’s Digest about teachers who changed lives, I came upon a story reprinted from 1991 about a sweet natured, but very talkative boy named Mark Eklund and his teacher who was struggling to get across a tough math concept to her junior high class. When students wouldn’t settle down, she had them write on a sheet of paper every class member’s name. Then, they were to write the nicest thing they could think of about that student – for every student – and pass the list back to her.

On Monday, she distributed their classmates’ comments to each student and heard them murmuring as they read what others said about them: “I didn’t know others liked me so much,” or “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone.”

The boy grew up, as boys do, and one day the teacher’s father said, “The Eklunds called last night.” She immediately recalled the talkative bright, polite boy and asked how he is.

“Mark was killed in Vietnam,” the father said. “The funeral is tomorrow and his parents would like it if you could attend.”

At this point, I had to pause reading because all the pain, disgust, frustration and rage I generally keep tamped down relating to America’s gross, blind, selfish, lying, cruel relationship with Vietnam burbled to the top and leaked out my eyes.

Resuming the story, teacher Helen Mrosla stood at the coffin when a pallbearer asked her if she was Mark’s math teacher. When she nodded, he said, “Mark talked about you a lot.”

After the funeral Mark’s mother pulled a piece of paper out of the wallet that was on Mark when he was killed. “I knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him,” Mrosla wrote.

One by one, each of Mark’s classmates from that year showed their former and favorite teacher the paper she had returned to them, folded and creased from many readings. When she finally sat down and cried, it was both in appreciation for finally knowing what that little gesture had meant to so many so long ago, and in frustration and anguish over Mark’s totally unnecessary death.

And I cried reading it, for the utterly wasted life of Mark Eklund and the other 58,208 American soldiers who died there, and the 2 million others on both sides. Youcan say these “lives”weren’t wastedbecause these men and women accomplished other things with their lives, made babies,influenced siblings and friends, bought carsto keep the wheels of American industry turning. But their lives were wasted because the war was a hopeless exercise in political overreach that never had a chance to achieve its stated purpose.

And what made my tears well up and wash down my faceand my guts clenchwasrememberingthat the politicians who prolonged the war KNEW it. They knew it for years. President Johnson couldn’t withdraw troops or he’d lose the election in 1964; Nixon sabotaged peace talks in 1968 so he could beat Hubert Humphrey.

According to a story by Bob Fitrakis in Common Dreams, Henry Kissinger, then Johnson’s adviser on Vietnam peace talks, secretly alerted Nixon’s staff that a truce was imminent.

Nixon calculated that peace in Vietnam just prior to the election would put Johnson’s VP Humphrey in the White House, instead of him. Revelations from President Nixon’s papers showed that he dispatched Anna Chennault, his liaison to the South Vietnam government, to convince the South Vietnamese to back away from the peace talks, promising a better deal when he was elected president.

Chennault was successful. South Vietnamese’s corrupt leadership backed away from the peace talks and we spent another 20,000-plus American lives and 100,000 wounded in the next five years. And in 1973, Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the same settlement he helped sabotage in 1968.

And I weep.

I weep to think of the promises, shenanigans, falsehoods and power of the military industrial complex that keeps America engaged in conflicts around the world. We are the most war mongering nation on earth. In the 243 years of our history, we’ve only been at peace for 21 years. We’ve been at war for 93 percent of our history.

It’s so common we don’t even think about it, unless you’re a parent, child or spouse of a soldier deployed.

When dealing with other nations who we perceive to be acting in a way contrary to our best interests, we rattle our sabers and say “every option is on the table,” meaning that we’re not above or beyond engaging our belts of military might to spank you into submission.

Depending on which source you quote, the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 7-12 nations combined. Yes, that includes Russia and China.

In the incredibly illuminating HBO special Chernobyl, radiation was so high that no machinery could operate to clear debris.Radiation killed operating systems within moments. So, the Russians used “bio-bots” and shovels. Yes, bio-bots – humans who were not told of the danger into which they were thrusting themselves.

Despite all the pseudo patriotic jibberish slobbering from elected officials, they see our soldiers as bio-bots. Don’t like Saddam Hussein? Make up a justification to send our bio-bots to Iraq and take him out. But don’t touch Saudi Arabia, the hot house from which 9/11 was hatched, because they buy billions of dollars in weapons.

We know that no matter when we leave Afghanistan, things will return to the tribal antagonisms and violence that have been a way of life there for centuries. The “peace” our bio-bots enforce is temporary and fragile and will never be permanent. The administration knows it but hey, there’s always another election around the corner.

We treat the sale of weapons as if they were tractors, or computers or cars. Just another manufacturing product, when in fact, weapons produced in the U.S. supply antagonists in conflicts raging around the world. Our bio-bots are being shot at by guns made in the good old U.S. of A.

“Quite frankly,” says Danny Sjursen, US Army strategist and historian, in a story in The Big Think, “Selling arms is one of the last American industries that’s left. It’s one of the last things the United States does well, that we’re still No. 1 at — No. 1 at dealing arms in the world.”

Military gets big increases in the budget while education and innovation get slashed. The biggest “welfare queens” are corporations that make billions and pay no taxes. We’re lobotomized by daily news’ fascination with sexploits, celebrity and kittens. And somehow a prominent pastor in Dallas says the president would have biblical backing to launch a nuclear war.

Dear God, on what planet am I living? Hand me a handkerchief.

To Be Continued…

The local church of which I’m a member – I dare not call it “my” church since it certainly doesn’t belong to me – called a new pastor today. Our previous pastor left suddenly 17 months ago and our congregation is strong enough to carry on with interim leadership and a good staff. But today, after an excellent send up by the search committee, Tyler Tankersly stood behind the pulpit and claimed the hearts and minds of a pretty sophisticated group of Christians.

He’s 33 years old and this church is of a stature that more typically requires its new pastor to have acquired a few gray hairs of age, wisdom and experience. Tyler demonstrated those qualities without the adornment of any gray.

We’ve grown past the traditional Baptist “trial sermon” process of selecting a pastor based on his sugar stick sermon. But we’re still Baptist enough to appreciate good preaching. And we received a message based on origins – the origin of Batman, the origin of Marvel comic book characters and the origins of the Church and the practices of early Christians.

Like the best sermons, this one engaged us, enlightened and informed us, made us laugh and want more. He turned the mirror of scripture toward us so we could see ourselves reflected among the first Christians who studied together, prayed, worshiped, shared everything until genuine koinonia flourished. While translated “fellowship,”koinonia in this case was achieved, as Tyler said, “when friends become family.”

When we looked at our watches, it wasn’t to see if we could still beat the Methodists to the restaurant, it was to wonder, “Is he done already?”

Stepping out from behind the pulpit he said three implied words hung over both the early Christians’ experience and our unfinished story. Those words are, “to be continued,” he said, and then closed in prayer.

To explain a bit how this is done, Tyler and his wife, Jess, left the sanctuary to wait, while the church was called into business meeting. The chairman of the search committee moved that Tyler Tankersly be elected as our next pastor. A chorus of “seconds” resounded, and deacons distributed ballots.

Probably 500 members mingled and visited while music played and the ballots were counted. Although there was no doubt that Tyler would be “called,” we needed to go through the motions, follow the bylaws and hang around to give him and Jess a resounding, standing round of applause when they were ushered, humbled, back into the room with Tyler as “our new pastor.”

The vote total wasn’t announced. I knew it would be positive, and I also knew it wouldn’t be unanimous. We have enough members for our tribe to include at least one who would feel it his duty to make sure it wasn’t unanimous, just out of principle. I’m not sure what principle that is, but some feel unanimity has no part in holiness. I learned later that we have three such folks.

As endearing as he seems, and as seasoned as is his preaching, two things stand out from the day.

First, on Tyler’s first secret visit to our church, the search committee chair gave him a tour of the splendid facilities in which we function and worship. Our sanctuary truly is striking and when the chair turned on the lights, Tyler walked halfway down the center aisle and paused, absorbing the imagery of the stained glass and magnificent modern architecture.

The committee chair invited Tyler to stand behind the pulpit, to get a feel of it, to look out over the large room and imagine himself preaching to a full house.

“It’s not the right time,” Tyler told. On a second visit, this time with his wife, he was again invited to stand behind the pulpit and again he demurred, saying “It’s not the right moment.”

This morning, when the chairman introduced Tyler, he told that story, wrapped his arm around Tyler’s shoulder, pointed to the pulpit and said, “Now is the time!”

Second, when the vote had been counted, the invitation extended and Tyler and Jess welcomed to our church, he said the past months had been bathed in prayer and he asked for prayer for his family’s transition. Then he choked up a bit, and asked that his new church pray for the church he is leaving because he truly loves those people and he knows his leaving will hurt.

That’s when I saw his heart laid bare and when I thanked Holy Spirit for leading him to Ardmore Baptist Church. And that’s when I knew we could say the positive contribution of this church and its people in its community is “to be continued.”

Mother’s Day 2019

HS graduation

Mom, left, at my high school graduation. Sisters Denise, and Linda, and Dad.

I know special remembrance holidays are fabrications woven to sell cards, flowers and candy. But this Mother’s Day is Sunday and something today about the beautiful weather and lunch with the mother of my children made me pause and remember my own mother, Barbara, who died at age 64 in 1996.

She was a lovely woman and a wonderful hostess, always ready for company no matter how late or how unexpected. I realize now we didn’t talk a lot, but she was always ready if I wanted to open up, not that she ever did. I never knew how ill she was until 19 days before she died.

Our night time ritual was for me to give her a kiss when I headed upstairs to bed. She was usually reading on the sofa and had a toothpick between her lips. She’d somehow make it disappear into her mouth while we exchanged a quick peck on the lips and then it would reappear.

I can still remember the night – and the look on her face – when I decided I was too old for that ritual. I had thought about it for a while and I agonized all day. Somehow, I knew what it meant. When I headed toward her, I saw her pop the toothpick into her mouth.

But, then I turned to go upstairs. Surprised, she said, “No kiss?”

“Ummm, no,” I said. She never mentioned it again but I think dad caught her eye and nodded, acknowledging silently that I’d climbed another rung on the ladder toward adulthood.

Mom was very prudish, embarrassed if anyone talked about body parts and she certainly didn’t tolerate her kids walking around in any state of dress that would not be considered “fully clothed.” On the day of my wedding she took me aside and confessed she probably ought to tell me about the birds and bees, “but you probably know more about it than I do, anyway.”

That, in its entirety, was her version of, “the talk.”

So, it was quite surprising when eight months later I brought my new bride home from Oklahoma to Wisconsin to meet the extended family. On the first night in my childhood home as a married man I found an apple on the bedside table. I picked it up, looked it over, shrugged, and put it back.

The next morning, I asked mom why she’d put an apple by the bed.

“It’s a contraceptive,” she said.

I laughed. “Was I supposed to eat it before…or after?”

“You were supposed to eat it instead,” she said.

I told that story in her eulogy. At the Lutheran Church in Rio, WI where we all grew up, population 788. My dad told me the population stayed at 788 because “every time a young lady has a baby, an older man leaves town.”

I delivered dad’s eulogy in the same room, 21 years later. It was the room where I preached the youth sermon – from the wrong pulpit, I learned later. In our divided chancel, only an ordained minister got to preach from the big, ornate pulpit that was high and lifted up. I could use that one legitimately now, if I ever get invited to preach there.

It’s the same room where I acted in Christmas plays – vying to be a speaking star, or an announcing angel and not just a silent, costumed figure filling out the scriptural cast. It was the room where I wore the costumes mom made, and later the coat and tie she picked out.

It was the room where she sat as the bride’s mom when my sister married, and as a grieving daughter-in-law when my grandparents were buried.

When I was a high school junior, I came home from a dance after the football game and woke my parents up to tell them, “I’ve committed the ultimate sin.”

They shot straight up out of bed and took a second to compose themselves before mom – who gave birth to my sister before age 18 – asked me tentatively, “Um, and what was that?”

“I asked a freshman to the homecoming dance,” I said, not understanding until later their audible expulsion of relief.

I know special holidays like Mother’s Day are made up. But, at least it’s a reminder to do or say something special to your mom at least once a year. Take advantage of it.

By the way, kids, Father’s Day is June 16.

Caught from behind

Basketball shot

We trailed the Fall River Pirates by 14 points with just six minutes left in the fourth quarter of a high school basketball game. Everybody beats this team, and we had too, earlier in the season.

Yet, we were getting creamed. Their fans were rocking. Ours were bewildered. My team finally put together a little rally to unveil a glimmer of hope. I was a starter, but not a star. I could shoot the ball, but as my coach told me, “You may not be tall, but you’re slow.”

The ball bounced off the opponent’s rim and I had a clear path to the rebound. I took it on the run and dribbled as hard and fast as I could the length of the floor toward our basket. Somehow a defender was there, between me and the basket. I should have slowed, faked left and gone right to the rim for a layup.

But, I didn’t dare slow down to make a move, because I was terrified of being caught from behind.

Our senior point guard could catch people from behind and knock the ball out of their hands and I always thought the guy who lost the ball must have been totally humiliated. Caught from behind. How awful. How embarrassing.

Instead, I dribbled right at the defender, and elevated to the apex of my 4-inch vertical, and shot the ball in his face. As any athlete can tell you, certain moments burn themselves into memory like a hot poker writing script on your belly, and you can recall them as if they happened after breakfast this morning.

I remember that shot because when I went up, the only thing I saw was a floating rim: no backboard, no bleachers, no lights, no ceiling, no defender. Just a big rim floating independently above me. I released the ball and fell down. I didn’t even know if I’d made the shot.

That moment returned to me last weekend during a mandatory quiet period at a four-day men’s retreat. The overall theme of the retreat – a “basic” event through Ransomed Heart ministries – was recovering a man’s masculine heart.

Speakers assumed every man carries with him at some level a wound inflicted by his father, a wound we must identify and forgive before we can be whole. After another thoughtful presentation, we were sent out to find a quiet spot at our expansive, wooded conference center to contemplate several questions relating to both our earthly and heavenly fathers, and our own willingness to grow into sons.

We were to consider the questions, “Where do you feel unfathered?” and “Where and how is your Father inviting you to become a son?”

“Since we are the sons of God, we must become the sons of God,” according to George McDonald.

I don’t know how those questions prompted the spirit of God to impress upon me the 48 year-old-memory of that rebound, race and shot moment, but the ultimate revelation for me is that I’ve lived my life afraid of being caught from behind.

It’s why I worked so hard, so long, at so many tasks, in so many places. It’s why I bit my tongue and choked down insights, information or contradictions I should have offered, rather than risking the opprobrium of my bosses, or peers.

It’s why I actually told W.C. Fields, my first and best boss in denominational life, that I was too busy to accept his invitation to ride with him in his glide plane on a beautiful spring afternoon. Dumb. One of my few regrets.

I had not learned to live into my position as a son of God, bold and free with a warrior spirit.

John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart and the amazing Beautiful Outlaw, says a man’s greatest need is validation. I was too afraid someone was going to catch me from behind and expose me as insufficient, not enough, inadequate. If so, from where would come my validation?

Of course, the point is that all the validation a man or woman needs is to recognize we are children of God. No one can catch me from behind when the Father is reaching for my hand to pull me over the finish line.

I made that shot by the way. And we went on to win in double overtime.

Sometimes you hit a wall

beach tideWhen the ocean is warm, I like to wade toward the waves from the shallow edge of the beach, my feet scratching a hold into the sandy bottom, feeling the water slide around my ankles, then shins, then knees. About the point when it gets really sensitive, I have to decide whether to keep walking toward London, or jump in headfirst and get soaked all at once.

If I dive in, I come up sputtering and shaking the water from my eyes. If I decide to keep walking, I lift my shoulders as if I can tiptoe past the sensitive and somehow get soaked without getting wet.

When I’ve reached water about waist depth, I can pause and enjoy, feeling the ebb and flow of the ocean, rolling to the beach to fill the little sand castle moats built by kids with red plastic shovels, and then drag them flat. When I turn to do a little body surfing, or at least to challenge the waves a little further out, I fight the water’s resistance, plodding resolutely forward where the surf breaks.

That is where the short walls of water curl up, spitting little white caps, and burst over me, whacking me backward and I have to retrace a couple steps just to get back to where I was.

In a windy spring season like this one, cycling sometimes feels like those days in the waves. Invisible walls of wind roll out from the horizon and buffet me. Side winds are most dangerous as they can make me wobble and lean the wrong direction at a most inopportune time.

Leaning over the handlebars, trying to carve a lane through the curtain of steady wind, a sudden burst hits me with every bit the force of a wave of water. It doesn’t knock me backward, but it feels like my wheels suddenly rolled into a vat of mush and I have to grind on the pedals to regain momentum.

Sometimes my daily news feed hits me like that.

Learning this week about the suicides of two young people who had survived the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February 2018 hit me like that blast of wind. In the same day, I learned the father of a child who had been slaughtered at Newtown had taken his own life after six years of dealing with his awful pain. Combine that with news of a dear friend whose life is suddenly upside down and my typically stoic countenance flipped onto its back, as well.

How much can we feel? How wide an opening should we tear in our hearts to absorb the world’s pain, in the vain belief that by doing so, we can somehow soothe it?

Much, if not most, of the information that hurts, enrages, mystifies, baffles and saddens would have passed unknown to us a half generation ago. But now, we know. With how much of what we know, can we engage? I don’t have the capacity to empathize with all the sadness of which I’m aware.

Yet, I want to share the pain of those I love because sharing is a salve that hurries the healing of open wounds. I want my ears to absorb their sorrows and my shoulders to offer pillows of comfort.

But, a hurting world is too much. Its pain is a flood. If I allow each swell of sorrow to whack me like a wave of wind or water, I’ll never move forward.

Each of us has capacity to care. None of us can carry the burdens of the world. Nor should we feel we must.

Because social media and news outlets pour into our senses a steady stream of pain, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, says too many pastors –those called to care –are “a quivering mass of availability.”

What to do? I’ll not cloak myself in a curtain of despair because I know that God loves His creation – so much so that He took on the form of man to help us understand the depth of that love.

Rather than be paralyzed by any tide of tears, I will try to let myself be moved only by those things about which I can do something.

And then, I will do something.

 

 

 

 

Play the music, not the notes

classical-music-1838390_960_720 (2)We enjoyed an orchestra at church Sunday, to accompany our choir and lift our spirits with the resounding crescendo that instruments provide. I noticed that orchestra members get involved with the music at different levels.

The first chair violinist sat on the edge of his seat, one foot behind him, leaning toward the music stand. Every stroke of his bow pulled his body left and right. His head moved up and down, his mouth close to the instrument as if whispering, coaxing it to produce glory like a jockey leaning over a horse’s neck, urging it to go faster, harder.

Fingers on his left hand pressed the strings in various combinations against the instrument’s neck and his hand shimmied to draw forth a plaintive vibrato.

Two rows behind him another violinist played, a young man not yet as accomplished, not yet as sure. He sat stiffly in his chair, leaning toward the music stand as if he couldn’t quite make out the notes. The bow was more an implement in his hand, rather than an extension of his own fingers. Nothing moved as he played except his arm and the bow.

He was just playing the notes. The first violinist played the music.

When I played baritone in the high school band I practiced hard for the annual competition at which a judge would listen, grade us and grant an appropriately colored ribbon – blue for A, red for B, white for C. White was kind of a “thanks for coming” award.

Eager and ready when my time came to play, I pressed the mouthpiece to my lips and ran through those notes perfectly. Didn’t skip or misplay a single note. Hit them all in tune and on time. And got a white ribbon for the effort.

Shocked, I looked at the judge, my face begging a reason. “Anyone who practices can play the notes,” she said. “I’m looking for someone to interpret the music.”

I just played the notes. I missed the music.

An old story tells of a curious lad coming to the site of an enormous construction project in his medieval village. He wandered from workman to workman, each busy with his various tasks, and asked them what they were doing.

The first wiped his brow, grunted impatiently and said, “I’m sawing timbers for cross beams.”

The second didn’t pause from his work pouring mud into forms, scraping off the excess and lifting heavy weights onto a trailer. “I’m making bricks,” he said with a scowl.

The third, when asked, paused, looked over the construction site with exposed beams and holes for windows and the nascent beginnings of a spire reaching into the sky and told the boy, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Our Bible study class was in Romans 7. There, the Apostle Paul encourages the new church in Rome to realize the law is no longer their standard for living. They have died to the law, as Jesus died to free them from it. Instead, they are to live in freedom, under grace.

That is our charge, to live under grace. To live in freedom. Ours is not a check box religion: Don’t smoke. Check. Don’t lust. Check. Don’t cheat on your taxes. Check. And on and on and on, each box a note, each check mark a note played.

The goal of Christian living is not to check the boxes, to just play the notes.

To live under grace is to play the music.

 

 

 

 

Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.