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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

My not good, very bad, horrible day

Last week I had a not good, very bad, horrible day.

Driving on my way to see a donor, from whom I was expecting a significant commitment, I phoned a pastor friend to catch up. We exchanged the usual professional and family information that makes men feel they are staying in rhythm with the heartbeat of their buddies. And I learned that his wife had left him. I’ve not been so shocked in a long time. They seemed to be thriving.

Fortunately, he handled the situation immediately and professionally with his church, and they demonstrated the love and commitment that he has earned there. The leadership unanimously wants him to stay.

Later, while waiting in the lobby of my donor friend, I received a phone call from the son-in-law of my high school buddy from Wisconsin who for the past several years has lived within 80 miles of me. I knew Don’s cancer was back, and he likely wouldn’t make it through the summer.

In fact, I had just checked the map to learn where his house was in relation to my meeting to see if I could run over there that day. I was still wavering between going that day, or waiting until next week when the son-in-law called. Next week would be too late, Chris said. In fact, that afternoon might be too late, as Don was leaving us today, he said in a broken voice. Could I come?

I promised him I would come as soon as I finished my meeting.

Over lunch with my donor prospect I learned his business was off by 35 percent and he would not be able to do for the foundation for which I work what he had hoped and planned to do. He’s a fine man, supportive, and encouraged me to stay in touch.

Pulling away, I called Chris from my car and said I’d be there to see Don in an hour. “Don has passed,” Chris said through his tears. I went anyway to be with the family. We shared hugs, tears, coffee and cookies and some laughs and memories.

The body that once held Don remained in the recliner, dogs in his lap. It would remain there until his son in California and daughter from Seattle arrived and said their farewells.

No matter how much time you have to prepare for a loved one’s passing, you’re never ready when that final breath rattles through the pipes and then falls silent. Don’s illness was terminal and this moment was inevitable. Just, as always, too soon.

That night my friend Steve in Omaha texted that he’d lost control when his bike hit a bump, and he’d broken six ribs and partially deflated a lung.

It was overwhelming really, this day of bad news, and I felt like a patch of dry grass in the path of the lava flowing down from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano.

I was overwhelmed and yet strangely detached. Is it because these tragedies happened to someone else and I remained untouched? Or is it because I’m basically a stoic and consider these events – as painful as they were to those to dear to me – as merely ebbs and flows of the human experience?

Stuff happens. Nobody promised us a rose garden, yadda yadda.

I’d hate to think that absorbing the stings and arrows of those who sought my undoing in past days hardened my heart to such an extent that I had no soft spot left from which to squeeze a tear.

Or is it because the faith in God’s providence to which I cling truly is sufficient? I’ve often said during difficult periods, “These are not the times that try our faith. These are the times that prove our faith.”

Unfortunately, the opportunity for proving presents itself in trial.

Fortunately, faith is sufficient and trials prove it.

At my best, I’m muslim

When I’m at my best, I’m muslim.

Now, before you write First Baptist Church, High Point, and demand they rescind my ordination as a Baptist minister, take a deep breath and hear me out.

I helped to organize a “Stranger to Neighbor” event held Feb. 11, at Anoor Islamic Center in Clemmons, NC. Its sole purpose was to break barriers and to make friends.

About 50 Christians from at least four area churches gathered in the education building behind the mosque willing to put themselves into a new, likely uncomfortable situation to show their neighbors that at least some Christians do not consider them “the other.”

I wanted friends who seldom experience a situation in which they are not the privileged white majority to get a taste of what it might be like to stick out from the crowd. I wanted our Muslim neighbors to know that they have friends in the wider community.

Funny things is, apart from the hijab worn by the ladies, this could have been a Sunday night fellowship dinner at your local church, or lunch at your Rotary Club.

I arrived early to help set up the folding tables, and arrange 10 plastic chairs around each in a loud room with tile floors and cement block walls. We passed out waters and napkins and plastic forks, made sure the sound system worked from the podium, greeted each other, slapped on name tags with table assignments, ordered the pizza and wondered who would show up.

Wide eyed and smiling, my friends old and new came through the door and mosque members greeted them with handshakes and similar smiles. There really was no ice to break. Kids were on their smart phones, adults were asking teens to help with the computer, a teen in an hijab wrote names on adhesive strips and made table assignments.

Aladin Ebraheem opened the conversation and unknowingly provided my opening statement above. “Muslim,” he explained, is an Arabic word that means “fully submitted to the will of God.” So, at my best, I’m muslim. God knows, I’m not muslim enough.

How is it those who follow Islam have become such a target of hate in this country? It is to the advantage of those with a vested profit interest in the machinery of war to keep us on edge, to make us wary of “the other.” The “other du jour” is “Islamic terrorists,” two words stated so easily and frequently together that “Islamic” has become the generic adjective describing “terrorist.” Like Kleenex has become the generic name for a soft paper nose wipe.

The effect is for us to see any practitioner of Islam as a terrorist. That mindset is wrong, misguided, impractical and ignorant. It taints and stains our reactions when we see someone who obviously is Muslim. They know it. How nerve wracking must it be to feel your eyes on them, and to hear the muttering directive to “go home to your own country.”

Since the last national election, our new friends said, a lot of people “have been emboldened” to let their prejudiced, hateful feelings bubble to the surface. The result is hate crimes against innocents.

An armed, uniformed police officer parks at the entrance to Anoor Islamic Center for each service.

So, modeled on a “Stranger to Neighbor” event held by area Methodist churches to get their Anglo and Hispanic congregations talking with each other, I approached the Anoor Islamic center to see if we could have a friend making event. They were immediately open to it, and suggested that they host it, to really push the envelope of comfort.

“We’re cousins,” Ebraheem told the Muslims and Christians in the crowded room, noting that both look to Abraham as a patriarch of their faith. One line descended from Abraham’s son, Isaac; the other line from Abraham’s son Ishmael.

We all bear the nature of Adam, the first man. The weather and the economy affect us equally.

Islam respects Jesus as “a mighty prophet” but does not recognize Jesus as God incarnate, God con carne, God with meat. We worship the same God, but understand and relate to God differently.

There was a question about how and why Christianity is divided into Catholic and Protestant camps. They learned about the universal church, Martin Luther and “faith alone.”

We asked them about Sunni and Shia sects and learned their worship is the same, their divisions are political.

Terrorism? Speaker Dr. Handy Radwan came to the U.S. from Egypt. On each of his first five days as a physical therapist in a Washington D.C. hospital, it was locked down because of an active shooter. His family at home was terrified for him.

This event worked for me. I confess, going to meet mosque leaders for the first time, just as prayers were finishing and I was swimming upstream against a flood of Muslims coming from the mosque, I was intimidated. I was obviously not one of them, and given their logical nervousness over previous threats from people who looked like me, I felt their stares.

All of that lasted only as long as the first handshake. The first shared smile. The first laugh that shredded the curtain of separation.

From a stranger, to a neighbor. It just takes an extended hand.

 

I hate shopping, except for tires and mortgage

I hate buying new shoes.

My feet slip comfortably into the indentations they’ve formed in my old shoes like a nice hug. My old shoes form comfortably to my feet. Unfortunately, they also form to the ground and the ground and my toes are starting to kiss when I’m not looking.

My old shoes are comfortable, but the leather is so worn they won’t hold a shine anymore. The seams are popping, the heels are peeling and the soles have holes.

But I hate to buy new shoes because I never know about the fit. They’re stiff, but will they loosen eventually and conform to my feet? Although they’re the right size by the chart, they feel tight. Will they loosen up or do I need to go up a size?

I don’t like to buy new shirts, either. I can’t just get a “medium” because the sleeves are too short. I can get fitted shirts with a sleeve length that works, but I don’t wear “dress” shirts much anymore.

I hate to grocery shop because I don’t know where anything is. I could spend two hours in the grocery picking up half a basket full of food I need – and filling the rest with food that triggers my visual and olfactory nerves.

My wife is so efficient with her list she could make the same trip, minus the bad things I tend to toss into the cart, in 15 minutes.

The simple truth is I hate shopping period. I don’t want the fridge to empty, or my underwear to get holes in them. I don’t want to stand in front of the Red Box and try to pick out a movie that will satisfy everyone.

I don’t want to have to pick out the roses for Valentine’s Day.

But there are two things I don’t mind paying for: my mortgage, and tires.

There is something satisfying about providing my family’s cave of safety, the abode alamode, the harbor of peace and haven of labor. In many modes and varieties, it’s where we raised the kids, where we come home each night.

I help in an overflow homeless shelter and the women who sleep there wake in the morning not always certain where they’re going to spend that night…or if they’re going to have a safe, dry, warm place to lay their heads.

My home anchors me in the world. I have a place, an address. I belong. When the snow falls outside, I can watch it through the window while sipping hot chocolate. I don’t have to wade through it to find a spot under a bridge, over a grate or in a doorway for shelter.

When the kids come to see us, when the grandkids come to Nana and Papa’s house…this is where they come. When they think of us, their visual is this house, these bricks, the backyard where we throw the ball, the garden boxes at the side, the deck where Papa grills the burgers. I keep my bike in the garage here.

I slide under the covers in a bed in this place, and God willing, I’ll do the same thing tomorrow and every tomorrow I have.

This is my home and I’m glad to pay the mortgage on it.

Tires aren’t quite so romantic, but I get a warm glow when I think of how they keep me from danger. Think of it. You’re racing 70-80 miles an hour down a highway littered with debris and broken asphalt, massive trucks close enough to touch, crazy drivers weaving in an out, curves that test your grip, wet weather, even snow. What is the thin black line keeping you from careening into a ditch, wrapping yourself around a tree or flipping end over end like a stunt car driver in a Marvel flick?

Your tires.

Years ago we made an extended trip from Nashville, to Wisconsin to drop the kids off and on to Pennsylvania for a meeting. Hours on the road, high speeds, mountains and summer heat.

I pulled the car into the driveway, glad to be safely home. Unloading it, I looked at the tires…so bald the steel belts were showing. That morning I drove the car 70 miles an hour down the interstate. That afternoon I was afraid to drive it 25 miles an hour to the tire store.

Ever since that day, I’ve been very conscious of my tires, maybe even replacing them sooner than required. But the peace of mind knowing they can roll over a stone in the road, or a piece of glass or handle a rain slick curve is worth the nominal price.

Someone told me once don’t be afraid to spend money for a good bed and a good pair of shoes because you spend your whole life in one or the other.

I’m saying don’t feel bad about your house payment or rent, and keeping good “shoes” on your car. They’re good investments.