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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Have you ‘settled?’

Because Abraham figures prominently in the origins of the world’s three major religions most of the world knows the story of how he responded without protest to God telling him to “leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1, NIV)

His unquestioning action – while he was yet named Abram – is held up as an example of how we should respond to God’s calling: immediately, unquestioningly, without reservation. Much is made of the implication that he did not know his destination when he started his journey. “Go to the land I will show you,” says the verse.

We know from further reading that the target land was Canaan.

As God is laying out the challenge, God promises to make childless Abram, age 75, “into a great nation,” and to make him a blessing for “all peoples on earth.” Chapter 12, verse 4 says, “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him.”

One reason Christians argue so much about points made in the Bible is that such points and quotations are read out of context. Reading Abram’s story a little further back, into chapter 11, we see that as a younger man, he had set out for Canaan with his father, Terah, but when the clan got to Haran, the Bible says in Gen. 11:31, “they settled there.” (NIV)

Haran is coincidently a region with the same name as Abram’s deceased brother.

How often have you started on a journey, toward a goal, but you got part way down the road, found good grass and water, and you “settled,” far short of your goal? Maybe you looked back to what you were leaving and halfway was so much better that you were content to plop right there.

Are you living a “settled” life?

If Abram had stayed in Haran, only part way to Canaan, we wouldn’t even know his name today. It’s easy to lose sight of the dream destination. Haran was close enough, good enough, until God said, “Go.”

Going meant leaving behind familiarity, comfort and security. Going meant forging ahead to the unknown. It also indicated belief in God’s ridiculous promise that a childless 75-year-old man would become father to a great nation, and be a blessing to all nations.

Haran was good. “Go” was far better than he ever could have guessed. Haran was three square meals and a warm bed every night. “Go,” was nomadic and uncertain.

Haran was settled. “Go,” was claiming a ridiculous promise, the outcome of which was unknown. Haran was safe. “Go” was fraught with danger, hardship, moral dilemmas and previous occupants in the land Abram was promised.

I don’t know why Abram’s father Terah settled in Haran, without continuing on to Canaan. I suspect he found good grass and water. But a settled life – when God has bigger plans for you – will never bring you deep satisfaction.

Possess the New Year

How are things going for you so far in this new year?

Lots of bad things are going on in the world. No need to enumerate them. You have your own definition and awareness of those things that makes you feel threatened.

And yet: the economy is showing slow, steady growth, unemployment is at its lowest rate in many years, the stock market is near record highs, building cranes mark the skylines of many cities, the U.S. is making a peaceful transition of leadership and optimism seems on the increase.

So if things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem, why do they seem so bad?

Uncertainty and insecurity are the biggest wet towels draped over our plans for 2017. It is tough to act in the face of uncertainty.

My sister was a nurse in a major veterans hospital and she says when most cancer patients in remission suffer a reoccurrence of their disease they are not frightened, but are almost “relieved” because they expected it to come back eventually. They dreaded it of course, worried about, feared it…but now they don’t have to worry about it showing up any more. It’s here, and they can deal with it.

Doing a story in Houston once, I met a former New York actress who fled an abusive relationship. She huddled each night in the closet with her baby, listening to her boyfriend’s footsteps up the stairs, knowing that if he doesn’t beat her tonight, he will eventually. Still, she told me that the certain knowledge of a beating was better than running out the door with her baby in her arms into an uncertain future.

In the second year after the ancient Hebrews fled centuries of slavery in Egypt they arrived at the land God promised them. The barrier, of course, is that the land wasn’t gift wrapped. Other tribes occupied it, and the Hebrews would have to deal with those tribes before they could possess the land.

Moses wanted to know what his people were up against, so he assigned 12 men to scout the land, including Caleb and Joshua.

For 40 days the 12 explored, skulking around the desert, checking out crops, cities and people. They found a land flowing with milk and honey, rich in fruit and cropland. The grape cluster they brought back as evidence of the land’s bounty had to be carried on a pole between two men!

But they also saw those people who occupied the land, and it was scary. To the scouts, according to the story in the book of Numbers, chapter 13, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

Yikes. How often is your self-image determined by comparison to others? As someone said long ago, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

The scouts saw the occupants as giants compared to themselves. Their fear was not misplaced. Those guys were big. Taking that land would be tough sledding. Ten scouts thought it would be too tall of a task and they recommended slinking away.

This is what happens when we compare our situation to someone else’s without taking into account the promises of God.

Human nature dreads an uncertain future. We dread it even more than we hate a horrible past. We’d rather live in a paralyzed present.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, considered the promise and said, “Let us certainly go up – and we have possessed it; for we are thoroughly able for it.” (From Young’s Literal Translation) As far as they were concerned, the job was as good as accomplished.

It is only when we see ourselves as God sees us that we are empowered, encouraged, and enabled.

Three things to remember from this story as you race toward December:

  1. To gain a more accurate view of yourself and of your possibilities, raise your eyes. Don’t compare yourself to your friends or colleagues or neighbors. Don’t hold your successes up to theirs and find yours to be less. See in yourself the giant God sees.
  2. The past you cling to wasn’t all that great.

The 10 fearful scouts tried to persuade the people to go back to Egypt, where a king “who knew not Joseph” had enslaved the Hebrews, cut their food rations, increased their quota for brick making and ordered midwives to kill any male child at birth.

  1. Don’t paralyze your present by preferring the past.

In Caleb’s mind the land was already theirs. It sat like a great, unopened present under the Christmas tree.

The new year stretches before you. I know it’s just a quirk of a calendar page, but Januarys give us a chance to reset our emotional clock; to clear our desk, empty our inbox and embrace possibilities.

What has God promised you? “What?” God told Moses, “Are my arms too short to do what I promised?”

Can we say with Caleb at the start of this year, “Let us go up and possess the land?”

Soon

(From 1987 to 1999 I wrote a monthly column in the publication of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where I was director of communications, called In a Word. This piece is reprinted from a 1997 column, written while my oldest son was getting ready to leave for college)

Shuffling down the hallway in the early morning, the glistening blue of Nathan’s freshly polished truck in the driveway arrested my sight through the window.

The little truck represents a promise I made to the kids that if they ever earned a full college scholarship, I would get them a vehicle to drive to school. Nathan did his part, and will be playing basketball for UNC Greensboro this fall.

I stood with my arms across my chest, watching the rising sun lay dappled ribbons of light across the pickup, and I pondered sadly the thin week that stood between that moment and Nathan’s departure to write a new chapter in our family’s life.

That evening my wife and I visited a young couple who were still doey-eyed and dopey over their eight-day-old baby. We toured their new house, admired the baby’s room, and talked of the tremendous emotional highs and lows that lay ahead of them through their daughter’s growing years.

It’s a brief journey, I said, from the hospital to college. Nathan’s leaving has taught me the shortest measurable unit of time is the moment between the delivery room cry, and the dorm room good-bye.

Why didn’t someone warn me about that when Nathan constantly wanted me to throw a ball, ride bike, shoot baskets, play with Legos, and read, read, read to him? Or when he fussed with his siblings on long drives? Or when he consumed the month’s grocery allowance in a week?

I confess to lunacy, actually having hoped some trying moments would pass quickly. I thought “how long?” when I cringed with him in the bathroom, trying to peel a gauze pad from the back of his 7-year-old thigh. He’d hit a bump, got tossed from his seat and his knobby bike tire rubbed off a 4-inch diameter of skin, two layers deep.

Like a fool, I put gauze over the open, oozing circle. Two days later we had to soak him in the shower to peel off the pad. I still hear his screams.

“When will you have it, dad?”

“Soon,” I said.

When he entered the Optimist oratorical contest I promised to help him edit his speech. Caught up in other work, he pestered me about when I could help him.

“Soon,” I said.

As he grew, and the family grew and my job grew, but the hours of my day stayed forever stuck on 24, “soon” seemed a reasonable answer to his requests. When could I help him memorize his play lines? When could I show him how to change the oil in the car? When could I take him practice driving? When could I talk to his teacher about math? When could I teach him a hook shot? When could I help him paint a 3-point line around his basket in the driveway?

Soon.

I don’t worry as much as their mom when the kids are out with friends. But now, watching the blue hue lighten with the rising sun, I remember once waiting through the interminable minutes for the clock to lift its heavy arms to curfew hour. With a shudder I feel the terror that grips a parent when the appointed hour arrives, but the child does not. Tingling ears measure the speed of every passing car, listening for one to slow, hoping the next one is his.

Yawning and stretching, my wife came out of our room, looked at the clock, and asked when I expected Nathan to be home from his early workout.

Soon.

Today she looks at his empty place at the table, walks past his room devoid of trophies, pictures and inspirational posters, marvels as the pantry shelves stay full like the widow’s oil lamp after Elijah’s promise, and pats the washing machine at rest. She cries, and asks when I think Nathan might come home for a visit.

I put my arm around her, look out the window where his truck used to sit, and say, “Soon.”

 

Building for the past

During our 40th wedding anniversary trip to Europe this spring, my wife and I visited the underground bunker being restored by enthusiasts at Schoenenbourg, France.  This impressive fortification is one element in the defensive Maginot Line built after World War I to keep Germany from invading France ever again.

Named for French Minister of Defense Andre Maginot, the line was a 450-mile long series of bunkers, barriers, artillery casemates and passive impediments along the border between the two nations. The Schoenenbourg bunker is one of the few remaining vestiges of the earnest effort.

It housed more than 600 soldiers who lived 100 feet underground in a virtual city equipped to support them for months. Food, supplies and munitions moved through the mile long system on a rail network. Telephone communications connected outside spotters to inside decision makers. Redundant air pumps and filters kept the atmosphere belowground inhabitable.

There were 45 such bunkers in the line to provide live resistance to a potential invasion, along with 352 casemates and more passive barriers such as angled concrete pillars.

The Maginot Line represented a massive commitment by France even as it struggled to recover from devastating WWI. But the perceived threat of a restive Germany and centuries of cross border infiltrations and alliances merited the investment.

The problem was, the Maginot Line was built to defend against a past threat. It was built to stop infantry, open-air troop carriers and thin-skinned battle tanks of WWI experience.

When Germany invaded France in May 1940, they flew over the Maginot Line, rolled around the end of the line through Belgium and through a break in the line through the Ardennes, which Maginot deemed too impenetrable to require fortification. Germans blew past passive defenses with their fast and powerful Panzer tanks. In seven weeks they were in Paris and the French government had surrendered.

French intentions were right. Their execution was good. But they built to defend against issues and fears of the past without accounting for future threats that would be significantly different.

This is not an uncommon situation.

In current times, the music industry built a line against pirated CDs while online music distribution flew over the defense.

American automakers defended themselves against each other’s paltry products, while higher quality cars invaded from overseas.

Furniture factory owners in North Carolina defended themselves against unions and lower profits by clinging to antiquated production methods, while Chinese manufacturers built efficient new factories from scratch.

Are you crouching behind a Maginot Line at work, clinging to former processes, staffing and equipment, while competitors punch through your product line with better tools and innovation?

Is your church trying to defend itself from the perceived threat of its surrounding culture while young people who easily learn to navigate the culture are finding your bunker increasingly irrelevant?

Those who build to defend against a past threat will be overwhelmed easily by the real challenges of the future.

Don’t Blink

At the doctor’s office this morning I looked down to fill in the remaining blanks on the form at the receptionist’s desk. It was my first visit so, of course, they wanted to confirm my willingness to sacrifice my first born if necessary to pay their bill.

The office computer had auto-filled some of the information and I just needed to fill in the rest. Staring up at me in simple black text over the white paper form were the identifying factors that would enable them to track me down should I limp out of there with their charges unredressed.

One simple number struck and confused me: 63. I thought at first it was “Question No. 63,” but it was on the first page and the form wasn’t that long. Then I thought it might be a part of my address, or something to do with the third of June. Of course, all of that flashed through my mind in a second before I realized the number represented my calendar age – the number of years since I emerged large and in charge from my mother’s womb.

I would have shaken my head except it’s still wobbly atop my neck from my bike accident, the reason I was at the doctor’s for a follow-up.

Seeing that number reminded me of when I was being transferred from one emergency room to a more capable trauma center three weeks earlier. The medic riding in the back of the ambulance with me called ahead to the trauma center, alerting them that he was about to arrive with a “63 year-old-male, with head injuries.”

“Poor sucker,” I thought. As best I could, since I was strapped to a neck board, I craned my eyes to look round the ambulance because I thought I was the only one riding to Winston-Salem. Turns out I was alone. Then I realized he was talking about me.

Sixty-three? When did I get to be sixty-three? Except for the momentary and exceptional fact of a fractured skull and several vertebrae, I felt 40. Sixty-three was my dad. Sixty-three was grandpa when I was a kid. Sixty-three was plaid pants and knee socks in gray walking shoes, and dinner at 4:30 for the discount.

Sixty-three was not me.

During the first third of my life, I always looked younger than my actual age, and it bugged me to no end. When I was 25 I was married, living in the second house that I’d owned and a college girl came to my door to look at some furniture we were selling.

I opened the door and she said, “Is your mother home?” It took my wife three weeks to re-inflate my pride.

Twenty years later I stood at the register to order a coffee and cinnamon role at Bojangles and the server repeated into the microphone, “One senior coffee and a cinnamon role.” I tried not to cry because my associate who was with me was too busy laughing.

In twenty years I went from “Is your mother home?” to being offered a senior discount.

And now the paper says I’m 63. The mirror agrees. My body nods affirmatively. My mind shouts vehement denial. Goodness, I’m embarking on new ventures infused with still developing hopes, dreams and plans. To quote Buzz Lightyear, I’m setting sail, “to infinity, and beyond!”

I turn to my wife, a wrinkle of concern still lining her forehead as we await the doctor, and ask her to verify the identify of the patient on this form.

That’s me? Age 63? How did we get here?

Don’t blink.