Be a spark or get tossed

Sometimes we get into a cleaning, sorting, trashing, unloading kind of frenzy when we’re feeling burdened by stuff and stuff’s attraction, demands, care and maintenance. 

When Sue Ellen hits full frenzy fury, I chain myself to a post to make sure I’m not tossed into a box subconsciously labeled “of no further use,” or as an item that “no longer sparks joy,” in Marie Kondo’s terminology. 

Some few things have outlasted every purge in our 44 years together. Thankfully, I’m one of them. 

But this week Oskar died. 

Oskar was a small food chopper and came as a wedding gift in 1975. It endured several super glue fixes in recent years before finally throwing up its blades and sighing, “Please no more nuts, carrots, celery for salads, or styrofoam bars to make snowflakes for kids’ plays.”

When we think of “things” that have lasted the duration of our lives together, now that Oskar is gone, we can name three. 

First is a sleeping bag I bought when I got out of the Army. Mine was to be a wild and free life after the olive drab constraints Uncle Sam put upon me. That sleeping bag, and a tent that turned out to be a portable rain forest, so impermeable it turned my moist breath into morning showers, along with a 1964 International Scout that had a mind of its own, were my tickets to adventure. 

I still use the bag. 

We married while I was still finishing my degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. Summers were stifling and neither our apartment nor our car had air conditioning, so we bought a Gott cooler and a bigger tent and spent many weekends at the lake. 

We still use the cooler

It often carries goodies as we travel to see our children, none of whom were conceived at the lake. Every time we pack it up, I marvel that it has been with us for so long. Yet, it still regulates the temperature of the items it contains, like the thermos I once gave a secretary. When I saw her using it the next day she told me she appreciated its capacity to keep hot things hot and cold things cold. 

I asked her what she had in it today. “Coffee and a popsicle,” she said. 

Sue Ellen was just 20 when we married. She worked at a bank and had her own apartment after moving out from a home with six siblings, and had neither time nor money to accumulate much of a trousseau. But she had started her dish collection of the then popular Yorktowne pattern from Pfaltzgraff. 

For 21 years, these were our “good” dishes, pulled out to impress company and only after the kids were old enough to know dishes were not suitable as heavy Frisbees. When my mom died we inherited her china, which became our company dishes, and the Pfaltzgraff became our everyday dishes. 

Funny how the exceptional loses its aura when pressed into common use. 

The Pfaltzgraff is heavy, and hard to spell. We can always peg the length of a friends’ marriage within a year or two if they feed us on Yorktown pattern Pfaltzgraff. 

Sometimes we look at new dishes, brightly colored, modern patterns, disposable. They might brighten up the kitchen table and provide a fresh perspective. But, they wouldn’t hold our food any better.

I confess I hold this feeling much more closely than does my wife, but there is something endearing and enduring about the consistency of an everyday implement that has been part of our lives together – every day. Not temporary, not disposable. Just consistent. Present. Available. Useful. Non-demanding. 

There is a fourth thing that we brought to our marriage, but it is more intangible. We each brought a part, insufficient of itself, but required for the whole – like the final spark plug required to make a dead engine roar to life. 

That, of course, is love. Our love for each other, a love we thought fuller and richer in the first blush of our infatuation than ever known by previous humans. Yet, it has grown with time into intimacy, interdependence, tolerance, forgiveness, adoration and the mystery of oneness into a force to overcome many an onslaught. 

When my mother died in 1996, my dad stood in the window as the hearse pulled away, kissed his hand and put it to the glass. I know our birth canal opens toward death, but dad’s slide toward the inevitable started in earnest that day. Losing mom wasn’t just grief for dad. It was an amputation. 

They had been married 47 years. I’m older than dad was at mom’s death and when I survey my environment, the accumulation of things around me and consider those few things that have been with Sue Ellen and me our entire lives together, it’s easy to dismiss the sleeping bag, the cooler and the dishes. 

The one constant that matters for 44 years has been my partner, my heart, my life. We’re closer now to the end than to the beginning, but every day still dawns a treasure. 

Happy anniversary, Sue Ellen. 

The wisdom of Bill

I was facing a big life decision recently so I went again to talk with my friend Bill. He’s the strong, silent type and a great listener but when he speaks, his voice always slices like a knife of insight through the goop clouding my thinking.

Bill’s place is very comfortable; shady with a great view of nature from where he rests – woodlands, pastures and now a large stand of loblolly pines that one day will be harvested. I laugh with him to think that when those trees are cut, people that have been driving by them for a generation are going to gripe and complain that the forest was cut down in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

They won’t remember the trees were planted 20 years earlier specifically as a cash crop to benefit the work of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where Bill grew up, and lived and worked most of his career.

I can hear him chuckling and shaking his big ol’ head, rubbing the bald pate once forested with hair. The more time I’ve spent with Bill the more I realize he’s always understood people at a level much deeper than his easy-going nature typically revealed. He’s not snowed by the self-important preening of others who gathered around his table, even when it looks on the surface like he takes their words at face value.

I tell Bill how much I appreciate him, how he and his wife, Louise, took us in and showed us the ropes when I started working where he worked. I was a generation younger, in a higher “position” on the organizational chart and from another part of the country. None of that mattered, only that we respected each other, each worked hard and we all loved our children.

Bill doesn’t say much, but I know he cares. But, I digress.

I told Bill about the decision I faced. Comfort is cool; change is hard. His expression was stone cold, waiting for me to continue. The more I told him, the more I heard myself talking it through, the more it became clear which direction I should take.

I just chuckled. He’s always like that now, waiting for me to talk it through between us, without saying anything, knowing that eventually I’ll make the right decision.

With that out of the way, I tell him I know that he and Louise are enjoying their time back together again after several years apart, due to circumstances beyond their control. I catch him up on the kids, and sense his pride in them, as he’s proud of every kid who grew up at Baptist Children’s Homes, also due to circumstances beyond their control.

Bill acts as if he has all the time in the world, and I’m reluctant to leave him, but…life goes on. I thank Bill for his time and wisdom, rise to my feet, brush the fallen oak leaves from his headstone, and close the gate to God’s Acre behind me.

Thanks again, Bill. You’re always there for me.

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.

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.

To catch a hero

glove

It’s just a glove, but when you’re having a catch with a child, it’s a dreamcatcher.

I spotted my first baseball glove in the old Gambles store in downtown Rio, WI (population 788) when I was a kid. You could get anything in that store, from baseball gloves to washing machines to a nut and bolt to hold the wing onto the airplane you were building to fly off the barn roof.

If they didn’t have it, you didn’t need it.

The glove listed for $4.75 and in my imagination it promised to make me field the ball like Willie Mays, hit like Harmon Killebrew or pitch like Sandy Koufax. That’s the promise I saw in that copper colored, slotted slab of leather.

I actually dreamed about that glove between the time I saw it and when I finally got it. I dreamed about flagging down impossibly distant fly balls; of tossing the glove into the air to knock down a potential home run ball before it cleared the fence; of stretching at first base to snag an errant throw and save the inning.

That glove was going to make me a hero.

When I had saved enough I grabbed the bills and all the coins off my dresser and went to town with mom. I marched into Gambles to claim my dream – I mean, my glove.

I carefully laid it onto the counter and when the proprietor rang up $4.88, my heart sank. I hadn’t accounted for the tax man in my saving. My stomach tense, heart pounding, I dug deep and when I put every single penny I had on the counter, it totaled $4.88.

Dreams come true.

I slid that glove onto my hand with the excited reverence of a woman pushing her finger into an engagement ring for the first time. Its exotic leather aroma conjured up dugouts, strikeouts, shutouts and the hero headlines sure to come my way. I couldn’t wait to find someone with whom to have a catch.

Of course, that glove and a successor found a way to get lost in the ensuing years. But I’ve got grandsons now – and a granddaughter – who always want to have a catch. On Memorial Day weekend Grayson wanted to show me how hard he could throw. No problem, I thought. He’s only 8. I don’t have a glove, but I’ll wear my leather yard gloves and catch a few.

I’m writing this with a severely bruised hand. I also own a new glove.

After the last “ouch” I could tolerate, I hauled Grayson to the sporting goods store. One minute into the store I thought I would not be getting a glove that day. The least expensive glove on the wall was $350. They went up from there.

Then Grayson found the rack for mortals and I scanned the price tags to the bottom where they stopped at $50. Ahh, I thought. “That’s the glove for me.” Its other attributes were irrelevant.

Grayson and I headed back home and had a catch. He didn’t have to hold back for fear of hurting my hands and the snap, pop and sizzle of the ball smacking the pocket was an ear worm of joy.

Fifty dollars is still a lot to pay for a baseball glove. And I’m going to take care of this glove for the precious tool it is. Because I have 17 years of having a catch with grandchildren before the current youngest is out of high school.

And I want to be their hero.

Norman and glove

My cousin Sandy saw this post and found my glove on video! Given the event, I was about in fourth grade. That’s Sandy, trying to wrest it from me…

I don’t care what you want for Christmas

Don’t tell me what you want for Christmas. I don’t care.

I’m not a vending machine, and you’re not a quarter.

If you are on my Christmas list my goal is to gift you with something I consider meaningful that I hope becomes special to you.

I know. If you’re in charge of the gifting you worry that your recipient will be disappointed. And, selfishly, you want to be the cause of that squealing, split faced “this is the best thing that ever happened to me” moment under the Christmas tree. But isn’t “surprise” always an element of the biggest squeals?

The truth is your little gift getters and bed wetters won’t remember the next day who gave them what. And it’s unlikely that whatever you gave them will still operate the next week.

And what are the odds that their “must have” request only made their wish list because they were seduced by massive advertising, trend manipulation and herd mentality. Cabbage Patch, pet rock, beanie babies anyone?

I know, it’s easier to work from a list provided to you; easier still to give a gift card so they can “get what they want.” Honestly though, you can do that anytime.

If Christmas gift giving is our joyful response to the great gift that God bestowed upon us in the person of Jesus the Christ, let’s consider God’s rationale. Did God ask His chosen people what they wanted? They probably would have said, “Freedom from Rome,” “rain,” “food security” or a “cure for leprosy.”

Instead, God sent the gift He wanted us to have, a gift with special meaning to God. We still remember who sent it. And we still remember what it cost.

If you lament the commercialization of Christmas, do not participate. Give a gift that brings joy because your thoughtfulness made it special.