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.

 

 

 

 

Evangelicals sell authority for a pot of stew and a photo op

On the night of my deepest misery eight weeks after I’d been conscripted as one of America’s last draftees, I walked through Fort Sam Houston to a bank of phones and called my dad, 1,300 miles away. I tried to relate to him how miserable I was – a conscientious objector in medic training with a whole platoon of men fresh out of basic, fired up and ready to go “kill some Charlie Cong.”

I related this as well as I could to dad, who never understood my stance against war, but nothing helped. I hung up the phone and started walking back toward another toss-and-turn night in the barracks, when I passed a post chapel. There was nothing special about the modest, white, steepled box, except on this night it was lit up and pulsing with happy sounds. Drawn by the light and the sound, I walked in.

On the platform was a group of bright, attractive young people presenting some kind of musical. I was enchanted. The music was good and the girls were pretty. Afterwards they invited us to church – Baptist Temple in San Antonio. They offered to come get us in a bus.

Several of us went. There, I heard probably my first “come to Jesus” sermon, outside of a televised Billy Graham crusade. It was convicting and I was almost persuaded. They served us lunch after church and I tasted my first iced tea. We drank milk in Wisconsin. They embraced us, welcomed us, served us. Made us feel at home.

That was my introduction to evangelicals.

I learned that “evangelical” referred to a Christian who felt strongly enough about Jesus declaring the kingdom of God was at hand, and that Jesus holds the key to that kingdom, that he or she felt compelled to tell others about it. You know, to “evangelize,” like the young people from Baptist Temple had done for me. An evangelical took Jesus’ example to heart, reached out and served “the least of these” through selfless acts.

An evangelical took seriously biblical truths as guidelines for living so that to an evangelical, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). By definition evangelicals loved their enemies, spoke truth to power, were slow to rush to judgement and willingly accepted slights rather than instigate fights…or war.

Evangelical was a theological term that described a body of Good News telling believers.

Today “evangelical” is a political term that describes a voting block who want government to legislate their spiritual worldview. And sadly, that worldview has somehow dropped over a horizon that does not reflect Jesus’ character.

Rather than loving the foreigner among us, “the other” is demonized, drawn as a caricature we then are to fear – or to deport.

Political evangelicals appear to love guns more than children; privilege for their own, more than opportunity for all; unborn children more than desperate mothers; their narrow perspective more than tolerance that facilitates a peaceful society.

Rather than an aura of love there seems to be a halo of hate in the way “evangelicals” rejoice in the dismantling of environmental protections; the rejection of science; deification of business; deportation of ethnics who have lived in this country for decades and who are parents and spouses of American citizens, and in how they resist the idea of health care access for all, as if someone has to earn the right to see a doctor.

These political evangelicals shout obscenities at news media covering public events. They succumb to manufactured displays of patriotism and denigrate others who don’t. Their leaders don formal dress for a state dinner at the White House, sacrificing their prophetic voice to rub shoulders with empire.

One of the earliest biblical stories explains that Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of red stew. (Genesis 25:33) It seemed logical at the time, Esau was desperately hungry and what good was his birthright if he starved to death?

Voting block evangelicals today sell their prophetic birthright to Caesar, for the tinsel and spice of the arm of empire draped over their shoulder in a photo op – a photo that cost $10,000 at a Charlotte fundraiser Aug. 30, by the way.

In Second Samuel in the Old Testament, the prophet Nathan set forth a scenario before King David to secure David’s ruling. In the scenario, a very rich man took the only lamb of his poor neighbor to feed a traveler. David “burned with anger” and told Nathan “the man who did this must die!”

“You are the man,” Nathan told David in no uncertain terms. Because of his courage, and because he did not keep house in the court of David, Nathan was positioned to speak truth to power, and power repented.

Evangelicals today have sold that position for a cot in the court, and a photo op.

 

Is your trust mechanism trustworthy?

Any call from the “fraud department” of anything will make your stomach clench.

When my credit card company said my account showed unusual charges, and went through them one by one, I knew immediately they were right.

I didn’t buy those things. And I never was at the place where someone else bought them…with my card. I also knew my card was in my wallet and not lost.

I’ve lost my card before, left it in a gas pump. Some trustworthy soul got it back to me. But I hadn’t lost it this time. It was never out of my sight. Or was it?

Dealing as a victim with credit card fraud helps me understand how much of our society functions on trust. And how much trust we’ve lost.

Sitting in a restaurant, we casually drop our credit card onto the little folio that contains our bill. The wait staff takes the card out of our sight, debits our account for the agreed upon amount, and returns the card to us. Right? With no shenanigans while it was out of our sight?

We trust that is so.

We trust a car zooming toward us at 60 miles per hour on a two-lane road, separated from us by only the width of a painted line, to stay in its lane.

As a cyclist, I trust cars and trucks zooming up from behind to see me and wait for an opening to pass without running me off the road.

We trust our produce in the grocery store – laying shiny and naked under bright lights and a misting spray – to be clean and pesticide residue free.

We trust the preacher to interpret the Word correctly when s/he admonishes us and encourages us righteous living. We trust that no one will burst into the service with a gun and kill us en masse.

We trust our spouse to be faithful to his/her vows; our children to tell us the truth; our boss to be fair; our car not to break down; our gauges to tell us how many miles we have left until empty; youth ministers not to molest teenagers; doctors to know what they’re talking about; the gas line into our house not to leak; our politicians not to lie. Oh, wait…

In 1992, we hosted some new Brazilian friends during a professional exchange relating to residential child care. These were worldly wise, educated people from a modern society so this country did not present for them some marvelous revelation of a splendiferous world to which they could only aspire.

But one thing really amazed them: self-serve gas stations. That would never work in Brazil, they said, because people would just drive off. Here, we trusted people to pump their gas, return the hose to its position, walk into the station and pay for the gas they just pumped into their vehicle.

This was before the ubiquitous use of credit cards to “pay at the pump.” We don’t trust people not to drive off anymore. If you’re not paying with a credit card, you have to pay before you pump.

While we lament the departure of trust in our society, we’ve earned its loss. Spouses aren’t faithful, corporations don’t care about their employees, ministers do shatter lives, unlocked cars are victimized, politicians remain politicians.

As trust erodes, we shrink. We stay inside, we hover, we watch and worry, we grow callous and cynical. When we can’t trust the world, we avoid it, rather than explore and embrace it.

And yet, think about how much we actually depend on trust for our society to continue to run smoothly.

We stay in our lanes, put letters into a mailbox, loan a neighbor a tool, send our kids to camp, swim in a community pool, proceed on a green light, flip on the switch, gather in crowds, eat food we didn’t prepare, purchase online, believe what we’re told.

We’re still naïve enough to be shattered when someone abuses our trust. Except, it’s becoming so common we’re getting hardened to it. We avoid disappointment by lowering our expectations. Rather than trusting them, when those persons who command the daily headlines declare – with aplomb and bombast – that they alone hold our best interests at heart, it’s time to lock your doors, hold onto your wallets, and huddle the children beneath your arms.

Trust me.

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.

Cold Enough for Ya?

With a surprise winter snow blanketing much of the south, including Winston-Salem, NC where I live, it’s time to share a comparison of conduct between hardy residents of the North and more fickle occupants of warmer climes. I claim no original thought here; the list below is just something that showed up on “the internets.”

But, having been raised in Wisconsin, which is next door to Minnesota (to the right, for all you who are geographically challenged) I can relate.

I’m reminded of the ubiquitous Ole and Leena who were informed by surveyors that their Minnesota farm, located virtually on the state’s eastern border, is actually in Wisconsin. “Thank goodness,” long suffering Lena told her faithful husband. “I don’t think I could take another Minnesota winter.”

On to the comparison:

When the temperature is:

60 above zero:
Floridians turn on the heat.
People in Minnesota plant gardens.

50 above zero:
Californians shiver uncontrollably.
People in Duluth sunbathe.

40 above zero:
Italian & English cars won’t start.
People in Minnesota drive with the windows down.

32 above zero:
Distilled water freezes.
The water in Bemidji gets thicker.

20 above zero:
Floridians don coats, thermal underwear, gloves, wool hats.
People in Minnesota throw on a flannel shirt.

15 above zero:
New York landlords finally turn up the heat.
People in Minnesota have the last cookout before it gets cold.

Zero:
People in Miami all die.
Minnesotans close the windows.

10 below zero:
Californians fly away to Mexico.
People in Minnesota get out their winter coats.

25 below zero:
Hollywood disintegrates.
The Girl Scouts in Minnesota are selling cookies door to door.

40 below zero:
Washington DC runs out of hot air.
People in Minnesota let the dogs sleep indoors.

100 below zero:
Santa Claus abandons the North Pole.
Minnesotans get upset because they can’t start the mini-van.

460 below zero:
All atomic motion stops (absolute zero on the Kelvin scale.)
People in Minnesota start saying, “Cold ’nuff fer ya?”

500 below zero:
Hell freezes over.
Minnesota public schools will open 2 hours late.

Here’s to a mild winter – by southern standards!

 

Anger, bad conduct mimic permission giver

stick

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.