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

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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.

Written with Indelible Ink

I ruined my favorite shirt by failing to secure the cap on a pen I stuck in the pocket, and the ink stain was indelible. It wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t soap it, bleach it, scrub it, cut it or cover it.

Memories are like that. And the funny thing is, often it’s not the significant, dramatic, big events that wedge their way into the dendrites and axon terminals of your neurons, but little things that might have come and gone without comment or impact at the time.

My friend Tim Fields talks about that in his memoir “Indelible Ink: Adventures of a Baby Boomer.” You would like it. If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll like it a lot. He shares 16 events written in indelible ink in his memory, each of which shaped his life.

What makes a memory stick?

“Sometimes a simple comment from a parent to a child or from a teacher to a pupil can have a profound effect on someone’s life,” he writes in the foreword. “Even a smile, a frown, a wink or a raised eyebrow can dispense indelible ink. A congratulatory pat on the back or a punitive slap on the cheek can remain in a person’s psyche for life.”

I want to reemphasize the power of the right word. Little comments, angry words, insults, incautious words spoken at the wrong moment or secrets spilled worm into our memories in ways and with permanence we cannot explain or anticipate. Heartfelt, sincere positive words can just as actively attach themselves to our memories and have a much more beneficial effect.

I can point to a dozen memories, good and bad, that stick in my psyche half a century after they occurred, which at the moment seemed of no consequence. Some were throwaway comments by adults, directed toward me, or toward another adult that I overheard.

As a high school basketball player, I wasn’t tall, but I was slow. Because I could shoot the ball, I was on the starting five as a senior, but sixth man Sid was making a strong play for my spot. In the era before a shot clock, our strategy for the upcoming game against the league’s top team was to slow it down, just keep dribbling and passing out front, trying to keep the score close so a break at the end might fall in our favor.

Coach told me Sid was going to start in my place for that game because we needed his ball handling. That’s all he said. My interpretation of what he said was, “Norman, you’re a lousy ball handler.”

Consequently, when I did play in the game I was terrified of getting the ball and played poorly. Until then, as the team’s best shooter, I was all about having it in my hands.

I remember hearing my dad brag about my hard work when I split all the firewood piled in the backyard that would heat our house that winter. And my mom telling a friend that she didn’t really expect me to stick with the dreadful job of cleaning out cow stalls in the heat of summer after they had been unused and neglected for years. But I did.

I also remember Dad admonishing me for not wiping down the shower door in our one bathroom after he’d asked me to do it. When I told him I HAD done it, he pointed out a wet streak. I pointed out the rest of the shower, all dry, and said, “I wiped it down. I just missed a spot.”

When peach fuzz appeared on my cheeks, I used dad’s razor to scrape it off. After several months, he asked me if I was using his razor, because he’d noticed it not staying sharp as long. When I said, “Yes,” he asked, “Why? You don’t need to shave.”

“How would you know?” I asked him in one of the very few times I ever talked back to Dad. “I broke my glasses and held them together with white medical tape and it was two weeks before you noticed they were broken.” I saw hurt flit across his face.

I shot at some birds sitting on a telephone wire, not understanding the possible consequences of buckshot meeting wire. My grandpa Julius worked for the telephone company and it fell to him to come fix the line because the phones up and down the road weren’t working.

When he finished hours later, he came up to me and said it looked like someone shooting at birds had hit the wire. He paused, my heart hit my boots. Then he half-smiled, nodded, and went into the house to get a drink.

Of course, zillions of memories lurk in the crevices and canyons of my mind. Some can be called up instantly, others require the sharp impact like a boot to the brain when my ears snare some comment zipping randomly through time.

Whether we recall them clearly or not, the cumulative impact of comments positive and negative has a great deal of significance in shaping who we are. Remember that the next time your first reaction to a child’s silliness or clumsiness is to yell or say something hurtful.

It’s just words, but like an arrow they pierce. And like feathers from a busted pillow, you can never call them back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Too late to make old friends

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Loren, right, and me zip lining in Colorado in September.

Three of my oldest friends attended my youngest son’s wedding Nov. 4 in Nashville, Tenn.  Army buddy Steve  came from Omaha. College roomie and brother-in-law Loren came from Colorado to officiate the wedding and college friend and professional colleague David is now a North Carolina neighbor. I’ve known them since 1972, 1973 and 1974.

At the end of a long day as festivities wound down and the men hung around outside talking bold and large my oldest son noted the attendance of these three men and wondered aloud if he had a current friend who would feel close enough to him and his family to go to inconvenient lengths to attend his son’s wedding in 10 years or 20.

Bonds forged in common experience lay the groundwork for strong relationships, but they will wither without attention.

Steve and I were draftees into the Army in 1972. He had graduated from University of Iowa. I had just finished one year at Luther College. President Nixon, wisely, had eliminated the college deferment.

Steve being a bit older was great because at age 21 he could rent a car and drive us to Corpus Christi, Texas where I saw salt water for the first time. We camped on the beach and wore our Army issue boxers as swim trunks looking for all the world like gaunt porcelain survivors of shipwreck on a sunless island.

And thinking we looked like quite the macho dudes.

It was the denouement of the horrible war in Viet Nam. As draftees, Steve and I had no say in where we would be stationed after our training as medics. With other Christian friends, we debated long and hard about whether we would go to Viet Nam if so ordered. Those are conversations that tear off any veneers that keep deep friendships from forming.

Later we were in each other’s weddings, and connected when we could during his tours as a missionary. I did a story on him and Oh Be Joyful Chapel, a church he started in Crested Butte, CO. In the past decade, we rode RAGBRAI together with my son, Austin, whose wedding we were celebrating.

Loren has been my friend since Steve and I were stationed at Fort Carson, CO. We met in church and when I decided I wasn’t going to return to Luther after the army, he said, “Come to Oklahoma Baptist with me. We can room together.”

Loren instantly became a popular figure on campus, launched by expert participation in The Dating Game which was a part of freshman orientation. But in reality, his dating options were pretty limited because he had fallen for a girl back home — my future wife’s sister.

Consequently, Loren and I have been a part of the same family for four decades. But we were friends first, sharing a love for the Lord, a heart for family, appreciation for the outdoors and for relentless pursuit of laughter.

David was my hero at OBU as the all-star journalism student. We did a radio show together, and dangled our feet in the lake on a sunny spring day contemplating futures and prospects that seemed as limitless as the Oklahoma horizon.

Our career paths intersected many times in Baptist world. We both endured the machinations of denominational politicians who cloaked their motives in the Bible and we helped each other when we could. We visited in each other’s homes in various states, worked together at meetings and oversaw our kids carving pumpkins together for several years.

I was in or attended the weddings of each man, weddings that each have endured 40 years or more.

And now, here they were at my son’s wedding. And my sons not only appreciated them, but their presence gave my boys pause to consider if they have been nurturing friendships that will endure through decades.

Common experiences start friendships. Continued shared events nurture them.

Is there a buddy’s face you’d like to see; a laugh you long to hear, an experience you’d like to relive? Don’t wait for him to call.

It’s too late to make old friends.

 

Anger, bad conduct mimic permission giver

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Our president waved the permission stick over his crowds, freeing them to replicate his insults.

In the wake of angry, racist boils bursting on the face of our public persona, those charged with keeping social order urge restraint in response.

“This is not America,” they say, implying that if we will just calm down and come to our senses, we can again paint a veneer of societal peace over our burbling disruptions and return to our true national sensitive nature.

It’s hard for me to admit the ugly truth, but this IS America. We are a nation in which racial, ethnic and class tensions have bubbled beneath the surface of our society for generations – maybe since our first days when dreamers who couldn’t afford the price of passage traded several years of their lives as indentured servants in exchange for a lottery ticket on a ship to the New World.

But our diverse human hive found ways to co-exist by mutually agreeing to a set of unwritten standards of conduct. Among the many learned behaviors that govern our daily lives, we agreed that racial identity should neither hinder nor promote opportunity; that personal space should not be infringed without permission; that insults do not promote peaceful co-existence; that those who enforce the law are not above the law; that private conduct between consenting adults be kept private; that you don’t stiff the waiter.

Within these basic, mutual agreements we generally live day to day in harmony. Outbreaks against these societal mores make news precisely because they grate against the norm. Highlighting them says, in effect, “this is NOT acceptable conduct and our fragile social construct will break down if it continues.” Perpetrators of the most egregious insults are judged verboten and spend time isolated from the rest of us behind steel bars.

This “acceptable conduct” is ingrained in us through the sometimes exasperating efforts of instructive parents, teachers, bosses, friends, colleagues and strangers and instills in us subconsciously the behaviors that keep our society humming with minimal disruption.

Although basketball pro Charles Barkley declared he “is not a role model,” the conduct of high profile public figures often affirms or dissolves commitment to these behaviors.

My wife is still mad at Bill Clinton for interjecting “oral sex” into the common vernacular of our kids. On the other hand, “born again Christian” didn’t become a commonly understood term until Jimmy Carter spoke it in an interview and people scrambled to figure out what he meant.

Now the fabric seems torn. The fragile cloth of our peace frays like the edges of a flag flapping for too many miles on a car antenna.

Agitated people who for years have tamped down their personal rage in reluctant agreement to abide by social expectations suddenly feel free to vent, scream and insult and claim privilege earned by their race, age, education, position or size of their truck.

What sharp knife sliced the fabric? Apparently those who have felt left behind, even abandoned, in a world of shrinking opportunity needed only a permission giver to release their frustrations, someone to say it’s OK to act out in public the rage and prejudices they’ve kept bottled. It seems that our permission giver walked into the national consciousness with a grandiose ride down an escalator to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.

As a candidate Donald Trump employed crass language to invoke brazen images of the “little guy” prevailing, riding their airboats through “the swamp” in Washington DC, shooting alligators from the gun whale. He applauded harsh treatment of protestors, mimicked disability, bragged about his peccadilloes, scape goated immigrants, denigrated leaders of the international order and encouraged caustic behavior.

He waved the permission stick over his rallies and gave the crowds freedom to act out their rage. Of course, everyone is personally responsible for his or her own conduct. But in a society where rage, fear and prejudice have been building pressure like air in a balloon, a single prick in the surface brings an explosive result.

My friend Jim was a high school principal and school superintendent for many years. He told me he would not hire our current president for any position in any school he supervised – from teacher to janitor – because most of the problems he dealt with among students and their parents had to do with breaks in the common social contract that Mr. Trump so easily disregards.

In the course of a single day a friend of mine had a friend called a “faggot,” another’s son was told to go back to “where he came from” and another friend was called a “nigger” by someone hollering out the window as he drove past his house.

Did that kind of thing happen before? Yes, but not with the freedom and frequency it’s happened since our president has cast “the other” as the source of our nation’s ills. The incidents of hate crimes, hazings, defacements and ostracizing are rampant since people feel they’ve been given permission to talk and act this way – since the president has drawn moral equivalence between Nazis and those who oppose them.

We each are responsible for our own behavior. But when someone in authority – whether a parent, teacher, school crossing guard or president – says by word and deed that it’s OK to treat “the other” with disrespect, our social fabric will quickly unravel.

 

 

 

Smoke, Flame and Memories

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Relatives in one of the many photo albums stored in dad’s office.

Dad’s sudden death in March left a home office crammed to the brim with files of records, boxes of old photo albums, crates of special event greeting cards and birthday wishes he’s received over decades.

My siblings and I sorted through cassettes of his favorite polka bands, remembering polka tunes like “Fortunes of War” by Ray Budzilek, “Red Wing” by Marv Herzog or “She’s Too Fat” by Frank Yankovic. Video cassettes of movies, and promotional pieces I’d done for clients through the years filled boxes but would never be seen again because no one has a video cassette player.

We found thick newspaper files of cousins’ high school graduation notices, boys going off to war and anniversary announcements. He saved confirmation programs and programs from funerals. Dad was executor for the estates of several relatives who died decades earlier and all their paperwork was still there in the cabinets.

Over every dusty file we shook our heads and asked dad why in the world he saved all this stuff. I never knew he was such a collector of this memorabilia.

We went through everything because we dared not miss clues we needed to settle eventually his affairs. Of course, we saved not one percent of the items, which included old National Geographics and lovely calendars from the last century.

Because my sister who is estate executor didn’t want anything taken to the dump that had on it people’s names or personal information, she insisted we burn them. After an aborted attempt to incinerate the goods in the cornfield on the old home place – an attempt that quickly attracted an audience that for some reason arrived on fire trucks – we scaled down the conflagration to a pleasant, hand warming experience in the backyard barbecue pit of my cousin Bobby, who coincidentally is the local fire chief.

As I’m feeding the pit with decades of detritus I voice my frustration with dad’s having saved all this stuff – a practice over decades that now requires my attention to dispose it.

“Our parents save this stuff because they think it will mean something to us someday,” Bobby said. We acknowledged the simple reality – with a healthy dose of reverential head nodding – that it doesn’t. At least it doesn’t register meaning to us at the level our parents probably thought it would.

I later expressed that thought to my wise and insightful niece Stacy who said we were doing exactly what dad expected us to do. He knew we wouldn’t save all of those items, but he knew we wouldn’t just haul a truck up to the door and start pitching drawers and files into it, either.

Stacy reminded me that we went through every file and photo page by page, each page a memory. Some we flipped through, some made us pause and share and talk about it, laughing or crying as we recalled that moment, friend, or relative.

We were kids again, each sharing incidents the others didn’t recall, expanding our memory banks with new deposits. When finally we made our way through the last of them, determining which to save, and with which to feed the fire, we were able to close a chapter, like the slap of a leather cover against the last page of the last album that we saved.

Thanks for the memories dad, and thanks mom, for putting all those photo books together years ago.

Our children will enjoy going through them.