Saturday, November 22, 2014

Things Change

My favorite coffee shop no longer exists.  I was a regular visitor at lunch.  I would order a large coffee and maybe something light to eat, sit at one of the many tables and write or read for 45 minutes before returning to the office.  The coffee shop was my retreat from the problems and issues of my day; a place I could go to find a moment of quiet and rest. 

It closed with no warning or advance notification.  As I parked my car and walked to the door, I noticed a typed message taped to the window.  "Thank you for the many years..."  And that was it.  I still drive by sometimes at lunch, hoping someone else has opened a coffee shop in that spot.  But it has not yet happened.

It is funny, but I never thought of that coffee shop in terms of it being a temporary thing- there for a few years then gone.  I just thought that it would always be there.  I don't know why I thought of it that way.  Certainly in my experience I know that nothing lasts forever.  But I never imagined that one day I would walk up to its doors and they would be locked and it would be dark inside. 

This is how it is with us and our lives and the lives of those around us.  We know intellectually that no one stays young forever yet we refuse to consider life without them.  When my youngest child left home for college, the first night he was gone the house seemed oddly quiet and empty.  He normally went to bed later than my wife and I did, and I would lie in bed listening to him typing something to his late night friends or hear the TV show he was watching.  Sometimes I would hear him laugh at something. 

When those sounds were gone, I felt an emptiness inside I had never felt.  For all those years that he was home, I had taken those sounds for granted.  And now, sitting up in bed, propped against my pillow, I felt the heavy darkness surrounding me.  I would have given anything to hear those sounds for just one more night.  I had never considered life without the sound of children in the house.  I woke my wife from her sleep to try to explain how I was feeling but I could not put it into words.  I could only ask, "Is this how it is going to be now?"

The fact that something changes- and changes forever- changes you forever. And you are never the same.  And life is different.

I am now sitting in a poor substitute coffee shop with tile floors, yearning for the old chairs, the wooden creaking floors, the smell of coffee filling every aspect of it.  Maybe one day I will find something that will fill the void.  But I doubt it.



Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Never Ending Love

I am sitting in a waiting room of a large hospital in the Oncology Radiation Department while my wife receives a treatment for an acoustic neuroma; a benign tumor that is growing on the acoustic nerve between her ear and her brain.  This tumor threatens her hearing in her left ear and could cause trouble with the nerves on the left side of her face.  Doctors are treating the tumor with a procedure called  the gamma knife, in which they will focus a highly concentrated beam of gamma radiation onto the tumor in hopes that it's growth will be arrested.  In order to do this, doctors have to attach a metal contraption called a halo to Mealnie's head, using screws and screw drivers.

All this is going on now, while I sit here and type this.  They will not let me be with her.  They told me that she is in good hands; that she will be well cared for.  But no one will be with her who loves her and who knows her; no one who can comfort her the way that I can.  

Last night, in our hotel room near the hospital, Melanie and I watched a movie called "the Notebook".        It is a movie about a never ending love between two people; a love that overcame and survived all obstacles that the world put in its path; a love whose light shone just as bright at the end of their lives as in the beginning.

And that is why two people who love each other and have spent almost 38 years together; who have shared over half of their lives together; the good and the bad; the easy and the hard; should not be separated during a time like this.  I feel as if I have deserted her.  I am supposed to be with her and I am not.

There is a moment in the past that keeps running through my head as I sit here.  I was in Melanie's dorm room to pick her up to go out.  She grabbed her hair brush and stood in front of her mirror brushing her waist length black hair.  She took my breath away in that moment, and I stared at her trying to memorize every detail of her so I would never forget her as she was that night.  

But, as it turned out, I did not need to do that.  There have been many more moments in which she has taken my breath away.  And this morning, as I watched her walk down that hallway with the nurse, was one of them. 




Friday, September 19, 2014

Older Than Salad

I once knew a man who, when asked how old he was, would reply, "Older than salad."  When I asked him what he meant, he said he could remember the days when a person could sit down at a restaurant and not be able to order a salad.  "There was no such thing as a salad."

I have no way of knowing if this is true, since salad has always been available to me wherever I have eaten, and it is hard to imagine that something as simple as a salad was once not available to restaurant customers.  But, then again, it is hard to imagine a day that once existed in which people did not have cell phones or desk top computers; a day when people did not have DVD players or VCR's;  a day when people actually had to get off the couch to change the channel on the television; a day when there were only three television stations; a day when people had to climb onto their roof tops to adjust their television antenna; a day when people did not have television!

My grandmother was almost 102 when she died.  When she was born, there were no commercial airplanes, and cars were scarce. Radio was still in its infancy.  Think of it.  All of the things that we take for granted and even think of as old fashioned did not exist just two generations removed from my birth.

We live in an age when things seem to have a very short life span.  Not long ago, the powers that be decided that Winkler Dorm at Appalachian State University was too expensive to renovate and should be torn down. I was a student at ASU when Winkler Dorm was built in 1974.  I can now say that I have outlived a dorm.

The computer that I am using to write this is five years old.  In computer years, it is a dinosaur.  Smart phones change and evolve at an ever quickening pace as do Ipads and Ipods.  It is now possible to go to the beach and carry a thousand books and a thousand albums with you in a bag no larger than a shaving kit.  We have information about almost any subject at our fingertips without having to leave our chair.  I can correspond with someone who lives across the world from me instantly.

Children being born today will one day look upon this age in which I am now living as the ancient of days.  And when one of those children asks me what it was like, I will tell them, "It was wonderful.  It was a time of great discoveries; a time of great challenge.  A time of unusual things."  I will tell them that "I once knew a man who said he was older than salad."

And they will ask, "What was salad?" 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

And the Boys Stayed Home

Years ago, when our children were children, my wife Melanie was a Girl Scout leader for my daughter's Girl Scout troop when they were planning to go to Savannah, the Mecca for all Girl Scouts.  Needless to say, my daughter, Erin, and my wife, Melanie, were excited.  They were leaving on a Saturday and not returning until the following Tuesday evening.  During this time they were going to visit the Juliette Low House, take a haunted carriage ride, and tour the riverfront.

I was taking Monday off from work so I could stay home with my son, Jeremy.   For some reason, Jeremy did not find this as exciting as a trip to Savannah and was pleading to be taken along.  I began to feel a little useless, so I decided to fight back.

"You don't want to go with them," I told him.  But he slowly shook his head up and down as he looked at me with sad, rejected 5 year old eyes filled with tears.

"No" I said.  "If you go, you will miss out on the big plans that I made for us."

"What plans?" he asked.

"Well, on Saturday I thought we would go to a movie and order pizza, have some root beer, some chips and dip, and make some popcorn."

His eyes lit up.  His mother frowned.

But I continued.  "Then, we will set up the tent in the backyard and camp out on Sunday night.  We will build a campfire, and we'll cook supper over the fire."

"What's for supper?" he asked.

"Hamburgers."

"With cheese on them?"

"Yes, with cheese on them." I answered.

"What about Monday?"

"Well, I have some yard work to do..."

Jeremy's face fell.

"But after that we are going to go swimming and go to the park."

"The Mint Hill park?"

"Yes, the Mint Hill park."

"And Tuesday?"

"Tuesday is the best day of all.  We are going to get up at 5:30 in the morning and go out for breakfast, then we are going to go to my office and do some office work."

He looked skeptical.  "Can I sit at your desk?"

"Sure, and while I am in a meeting you are going to get to sit at a table in Robin's office and she will have all kinds of things for you to do.  She will probably let you staple some papers."

"And use some markers?"

"Yes, especially the markers."

"But, I still want to go to Savannah!"

I felt the heat of frustration building.  I had given it my best shot.

"Well, you are not going." I said.

"Why?"

"Because you are not a Girl Scout."

"Oh," he said, the light coming into his eyes.  "O.K.  I will stay with you."

He ran to Erin's room and shouted, "On Saturday we are going to have chips and dip and pizza and watch a movie and have popcorn and you're not!"

Melanie looked at me with one of those looks.

I turned and walked down the stairs.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Love Never Fails

I presided over a wedding this past weekend.  I saw tears, and laughter and celebration.  I saw love and joy and happiness.  My heart always goes out to the couple who are getting married, who are beginning their lives together.  And my heart goes out to their parents who see a wedding not only as a beginning, but as an end; an end that had its beginning at their own wedding; an end that had its beginning in the birth of their son or daughter; an end that began when they brought their newborn child home to live and be raised by them.

The wedding day is also the end of a year of planning and sleepless nights full of checklists and phone calls, hoping that something important has not been forgotten.  Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding in the town of Cana in response to an important detail being neglected- the wine ran short.  At the request of his mother, Jesus turned 6 pots of water into 160 gallons of fine wine.

Unfortunately, such miracles are not a regular occurrence at most weddings.  So, weddings require courage, patience, fortitude and plenty of planning.  But weddings also require faith; faith that the weather will be good; faith that the flowers will arrive; faith that the slide presentation at the rehearsal dinner will work; faith that everyone at the rehearsal after-party will be at the wedding; faith that the wedding planner really knows what she is doing and can bring all the details together at the appointed time; faith that the minister can remember the small changes made to the ceremony at the rehearsal.

But, beyond and higher than faith, at every wedding there must be love.  In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that love never fails.  In a wedding, if love runs as the common thread through all of the details, neither the weather, nor the flowers, nor any of the other problems that may arise will matter much.


This past weekend, I was a witness to such love- the love between two people that transcended all of the details and problems that any wedding presents.  And when the ceremony was over and the couple kissed, I knew we were seeing something eternal; a beginning and an end united by love.
















Wednesday, July 30, 2014

One Spring Morning

The sun was beginning to rise over the trees.  The birds were singing.  Flowers were blooming.  And I was on my way to work.  The car radio was playing and it seemed like the perfect beginning of a spring day in 1990.

Driving on Bartlett Road, I saw in the distance, a car coming toward me; a white car with tinted windows.  The approaching car slowly began to inch its way into my lane.

"What are you doing?" I asked the invisible driver.

The car came closer and inched ever farther into my lane.

"What is he doing?" I asked myself.  I pressed the steering wheel, and honked my car horn.  It was then that I knew we were going to hit.

But then, an odd thing began to happen.  As my mind began to race, the outer world slowed down.  Inwardly I was running on fast forward, but outwardly it was as if someone had hit the slow motion button.

As I watched the car approach, I remember thinking what a beautiful day it was and what a terrible thing to have happen on such a day.  I remember how the sun reflected on the trees, the color of the sky, the fence beside the road, the greenness of the pasture and the mailbox with the line of ducks on the side.

My mind was noticing the smallest details of everything as my instincts, acting on these millions of data points, took over.  I was now watching the scene and acting in it at the same time.

I watched as my hands, gripping the steering wheel with a strength I didn't know I had, cut sharply to the right toward the pasture.  The car jerked as it left the asphalt.  Data continued to pour in.  There were no cows in the pasture.  There was a ditch with a culvert just inches from my right tire.  Bushes- red tips- scratched the side of my car.  A brick mailbox was directly in my path.  The white car was now directly beside me.  I thought of my family at home.  I could see the shadow of the driver through his tinted windows. I was seeing and thinking in all directions at once.

"The timing has to be perfect," I thought, as I turned the steering wheel sharply to the left toward the road to avoid the mailbox and the white car.  My car spun wildly as I missed them both by inches.  I steered the car in the direction of the spin and at the same time looked down the road for other cars in each direction.

I came out of the spin and my car came to a stop on the opposite side of the road, facing the direction from which I had come.  In front of me, the white car drove away, never stopping or even slowing, as if nothing of any consequence had happened.

I rested my head on the steering wheel.  A strange quiet and calm filled me and surrounded me.  I rolled down my window.  The air rushed in and I took a deep breath.  The sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky as I turned the car around and drove to my office.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Revival in the Rain

During my seminary years, I re-united with a friend after he and I had taken some time off from classes for about a year.  "Were you able to rest?" I asked him?  I knew that he was a student Pastor from Tennessee and that he commuted every weekend to Charlotte, North Carolina to attend classes.

"Not really," he said, "but I did meet a person that changed the way I was living my life.  My spiritual life was stale.  I was living in the valley of dry bones, so to speak.  I was praying every day.  I was reading scripture.  But I did not hear God's voice and I wondered if he heard mine. My sermons lacked something, and my relationship with the congregation of my church was suffering.  I thought God had deserted me.  So I increased my efforts.  I worked harder and longer, but the results were the same.

One cold, rainy morning I decided to take some time for myself and go to a local coffee shop; order myself some coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit; and sit near the window, read my newspaper and watch the rain fall.  But, before I could take a bite of my biscuit I had this feeling I was being watched.  I looked around, but there were only two others besides the woman behind the counter.  I looked out the window.  Standing across the street in the cold rain was a man with an untrimmed beard, wild hair, dirty clothes, staring at me as I attempted to eat.  He looked as if he had been living in the streets for quite a while.  I could not read or eat or drink my coffee because each time I looked up, his eyes burned a hole through me.

I was about to change seats, but then I heard God speaking to me.  After all of those months of silence, I heard God's voice again.  And he said, "Go to him."  Here I was, in a warm, dry coffee shop, with food, and a newspaper to read and the last thing I wanted to do was go out into the cold rain with no umbrella.  But, God is persistent.  "Go to him."  Finally, I went outside and walked up to the man and stood in front of him.  "OK, now what?" I asked silently.  "Put your arms around him," said God.  The man was wet, and dirty and I wanted no part of him.  "Put your arms around him."  So I did.

And God spoke again.  "Tell him that I love him."  "God loves you," I said.  The man did not move or acknowledge what I had said.

"Feed this man." said God.

"But God, I don't have any more money.  I spent it on the sausage and egg biscuit and coffee."

"Feed this man."

So I took the man inside, out of the rain, sat him at my table, and gave him my biscuit and coffee.  The waitress behind the counter had been watching me through the window and when we came in she brought us some towels to dry off.  She also brought me some coffee and another biscuit.

"Who are you?" she asked.

I told her I was a student and a pastor.  "What church do you preach at?" she asked.  I told her.  "I don't go to church." she said.  "But lately I have been wanting to go.  But for some reason I have been waiting.  And now I know why.  I want to go to your church.  I want to know God the way you know God."

After that, things were different for me.  I didn't worry so much about feeling in control, or feeling God's presence.  I know now, deep down, that God is always in control and is always present, no matter how I feel or how hard I strive.  I have quit trying to meet God on my own terms and in my own strength.  I know God is with me.  All I have to do is sit quietly and listen and then obey where he leads.  You can never go wrong being where God wants you to be."






Monday, May 19, 2014

The Dogwood Tree


I planted a Chinese dogwood tree last Sunday with the help of my family and some friends.  We planted it in memory of my daughter’s dog, Heffner, who died of lymphoma on the first day of May, 2014.  After Sunday lunch, we walked into the front yard and found a good spot.  I dug the hole and sat the tree in it.  Erin, my daughter, took Heffner’s ashes from a box the Vet had given her, and carefully scooped a few of his remains into the hole and then we covered the hole with dirt.  And then I prayed that we would be given the strength to move forward and to celebrate and cherish his memory.
Erin and Heffner had been together for almost eight years.  He was just two months or so old when he went to live with her.  Through the years, he had been her constant companion, greeting her each morning when the alarm clock rang, seeing her off to work, and meeting her at the door when she came home.  They watched Lifetime movies on the couch at night, played a version of hide and seek, ate meals together, laughed together, and cried together.  She shared her secrets with him and he never told anyone.  He was a good friend.  He never let her down.
Heffner loved water.  Most dogs don’t like to be bathed but to Heffner a bath was a treat.  Erin once took Heffner to a pond that she and a few of her friends rented for an hour.  Heffner was the first dog into the pond and the last dog out of the pond. 
At the dog park, Heffner ignored the other dogs in favor of the doggie swimming pool or any water source.  He would gather or steal all loose tennis balls and sit with them in the pool of water or mud.
On my desk, I have the tennis balls that Heffner and I played with the last time he was at our house.  He was sick and taking chemo treatments and losing his hair, but he still ran after those tennis balls for all he was worth.  I suppose those tennis balls will be somewhere on my desk for as long as I have my desk. 
Heffner loved to eat and I loved watching him eat.  Erin thought that I over fed him and I suppose that I did (he gained weight each time he stayed with us).  One Christmas he took his eating too far.  We were attending the Christmas Eve service at Church, and Heffner used that opportunity to raid the trash can.  He found a large ham bone, carried it upstairs to the master bedroom, placed the ham bone on our bed, found a favorite toy, took it to our bedroom, climbed up on our bed and feasted on his ham bone for several hours.  This story is told and retold every Christmas and is now part of family legend.
There are a thousand stories that we could all tell about Heffner.  He touched all of our lives, in a good way.  And now we have his ashes and the dogwood tree to remind us of his life and the spirit with which he lived his life.
We will all miss him. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wildroot Days

In the late 50's and early 60's the hairstyle that men and boys preferred was a combed, slicked back, wet look.  To achieve this look, we used various hair oils (yes oils), or hair tonics as we called them.  There were tonics in bottles.  There were tonics in tubes.  And later there were tonics in spray bottles.  Some of the many brands available were Vitalis, Wildroot, VO5 and Brylcreem (a little dab will do you).  Many tonics were scented and made your hair smell like a flower garden.

Some hair tonic companies also made shampoo- such as VO5.  My sister once confused my VO5 hair tonic with her VO5 shampoo.  By the time she figured out why her shampoo would not lather she had used half a tube of my hair oil.  Her hair was flat and oily for days.

My friends Joel and Van and I discovered that if we leaned back in our chairs in Sunday School Class and balanced our heads against the sheetrock wall, an oily smudge appeared behind us.  Soon this developed into a contest to see who could make the biggest oil spot.  To win this contest, I selected the oiliest hair tonic I could fined in the house, which I thought was Wildroot.  I slathered it into my hair each Sunday morning.  Joel and Van found their favorite and did the same.  Soon there were 3 large grease spots on the walls of our Sunday School Class.

The years went by and Joel, Van and I grew up and left home. One summer, on a whim, I visited my old Sunday School Class.  The room was the same as I remembered except for a fresh coat of paint.  But, through the paint- very faintly, I could see three oil spots.  "They keep bleeding through." said the custodian. "We don't know where they come from."  So I told him.  "Man, those hair tonics must be some powerful stuff." he said.

But when I looked at those spots on the wall, it was not the hair tonic that I saw.  It was three friends whose lives had intersected for a brief moment in time.  Three friends who were trying to leave their mark in this world; to prove that they existed.  And there on the wall was the persistent proof of our existence; bleeding through the paint, struggling to be seen; their source forgotten by the passing of time.

Yes.  Some powerful stuff.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Forgetting My Brother

I did not own a car while I was living at home.  On the rare occasions that I drove, I drove one of the two family cars- a Rambler or a Buick Le Sabre.  Most of the time I walked to school, but sometimes I was allowed to drive.

One morning, my Dad asked me to drive to school and to take my little brother, Mitch, to his elementary school.  Since Mitch's school let out earlier than my high school, I parked the Rambler in a spot that was midway between the two schools.  Mitch was to walk to the car and lock himself in until I arrived 30 minutes later. Today that plan would be considered insane by all normal people and we would have been arrested for neglect by the Department of Social Services.  But it was a different time in which we lived.

The day passed slowly by as all of my high school days did.  When the final bell rang, I went to my locker, grabbed the books I needed for the night and walked straight home.  Arriving home, I turned on the T.V. and watched some of my favorite Westerns (Cheyenne, Sugar Foot, Maverick) while Mom prepared dinner for the family.

At 5:15 my Dad arrived from work and Mom called us all to the table.  I noticed Mom staring at us, looking at us one by one.  She looked at me; she looked at my sister, Wanda; she looked at my brothers Phillip and Keith.  She looked at my Dad, then back at me and asked the question that I will always remember, "Where is your brother, Mitch?"

I looked at the empty chair beside Dad and slowly it began to dawn on me what I had done.  I had forgotten that I had driven to school.  I had forgotten my brother was to meet me in the car after school.  I had been home for nearly two hours, watching T.V. while eight year old Mitch was who knows where.

I said nothing.  I simply stood up and walked to the door, then ran, like the track athlete I was, the fastest half mile in the history of the world; flying past slow moving cars and neighbors; running by the high school to the street where I parked the car.  I ran up to the car and looked inside.  And there was Mitch- sitting in the driver's seat with both hands on the steering wheel, pretending to be driving.  I unlocked the door, Mitch scooted over, and I drove him home.  Mitch ran into the house, sat down in his chair at the table while I, under the steady gaze of my Mom and Dad, tried not to laugh with my brothers and sister.

This is funny even to this day.  But this story also reminds me that our lives can become so routine, and we can become so focused on the immediate task at hand, that nothing else exists outside our narrow vision of the world.  And when this happens, we forget our brothers and sisters.  But they are there, waiting for us to remember that they exist; that they are people with lives; with hopes and dreams, just like you and me.

Monday, March 3, 2014

In Pursuit of God

Everyone wants to be happy.  Our Declaration of Independence states that one of our inalienable rights is the pursuit of happiness.  So, as Americans, we have a right (given by God) to pursue happiness.  Are we happy?  Maybe. Maybe not.  The World Happiness Report ranks America as the 17th happiest country in the world.  Granted, this is a subjective report, based on how people rate their overall happiness.  But, according to this report, as other nations' happiness rankings are rising, ours is falling.  We currently rank behind Canada, Costa Rica, and Mexico.  Only 33% of our population regard themselves as very happy, down from 35% in 2008 and 2009.  Despite our standard of living and our material wealth we are less happy.  Why is our happiness quotient falling?  The report sites greater instances of depression and anxiety as contributors to our unhappiness.  Age plays a role, with younger people being less happy than older people.

In addition, a very high percentage of people regard themselves as either religious and or spiritual (maybe as high as 90% of our population).  Should these people not be happy?  If a person truly believes in God, a God who is a God of love, a God of mercy and grace, a God who forgives and gives second chances, should this person not be ecstatically joyous?  Should spiritual people (even those who are not religious) not know peace in the midst of chaos?  Should this not be cause for great happiness?

If so, why are we not 90% happy?  Because we have been pursuing our religion and our spirituality as if they are material things.  And in this pursuit, if we are not careful, we may lose our faith in a God of love while pursuing tangible, material proof of God's love through our vision and mission statements; our goals and objectives; our budgets and expense reports; our building renovations; our progress dashboards (with green lights, yellow lights, and red lights); our committees and structures and our systems. God's presence cannot be reduced to the slogan, "if we are not growing we are dying".

It is my belief, that God wants us to be happy.  After all, we were created to be in relationship with God. The fact that we are not happy has more to do with our own failure to take God's hand and walk as a child of God.  Buddha once said, "Your work is to discover your work and then with all of your heart give yourself to it,"  We must discover ourselves as children of God, then with all of our hearts give ourselves to living as children of God.  This is the path to true happiness.

Friday, February 14, 2014

2721 S. Church Street

We have come to expect change as normal.  "Things change" we say.

 And then, we stumble across a place that time does not seem to touch.  And we are changed.

2721 S. Church Street was the address I memorized when I was four years old.  It was the address I gave my first grade teacher when she asked me where I lived.  Occasionally I will revisit it when I visit my hometown and I am always amazed that the house and the yard and the neighborhood look the same as the day we drove away.

The road beside the house is still unpaved. The old detached garage with the dirt floors and weathered sideboards still stand in the back yard.  The cement picnic table on which my brother, Keith, and our friend Alan Ray, and I climbed and jumped off trying to fly, sat like a monument to those days.  The brick barbecue still stood beside the table, with its chimney reaching upward. The house with the wooden screened in back porch, where our toy box sat that dad nailed together and painted and mom put decals on, is essentially the same.

The house across the road where Alan Ray lived has also been untouched by time.  As I stand in the backyard I see the shed where we used to play.  To my right is the back porch under which their dog Stumpy used to sleep.  Stumpy was born with stumps for legs and he was blind in one eye.  He had a mean disposition and would slither along the ground like a snake trying to bite me.  Luckily he was not too difficult to outrun. But, he was scary.  I would always approach that back porch on tip-toe, looking underneath, dreading the sight I would always see; Stumpy with his yellow teeth bared and his good eye looking hatefully back at me.

Our house sat in front of the train tracks where there was some sort of station that caused the trains to slow down and even come to a stop.  There was a steel structure called a "catwalk" that stretched out over the tracks.  It had a ladder that my sister and I used to climb to the top of it, and we would sit, dangling our feet as the trains passed underneath us.  At night I would hear their whistles blow deep into the night and I wanted to ride the trains, to go where they were going, and to see the things that they would see.

Because the trains had to slow down near this station, the hobos riding the train would take that opportunity to jump off the train and would walk up the road to our home.  Some would stop and ask for food.  Mom would give them what she had.

One night a box car exploded.  The night sky was lit up like day and all the fire engines and firemen in Rocky Mount were there fighting the fire.  We later learned that it was some sort of chemical that had exploded.  All of the adults were concerned, but for the children who lived there it was an adventure like no other.

My parents built a new home and we moved away from 2721 S. Church Street when I was nine. But if you stand by the road today, you can still see the house and the yard as I saw them.  If you stand by the tracks, you can still see the slowing trains coming in.  The rusting catwalk still stands nearby.  And the train whistles will still take you away with them.



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Not the End but the Journey

A professional football player was recently quoted as saying “Not winning the Super Bowl makes you wish you never played in it.” 

Everyone wants to win.  If you play a sport, the goal is to win.  If you play cards, the goal is to win.  No one consciously wants to lose.  The problem is that no one wants to exert the effort if they cannot win.  People who try their best and come in second place are regarded as losers. 

The Buffalo Bills went to the Super Bowl four years in a row.  No other team has accomplished this feat.  This means that they were the American Football Conference champions for four consecutive years.  They owned the AFC.  But, because they lost four consecutive Super Bowls, they are regarded as losers, not as the winners that they certainly were.  Jim Kelly, the only quarterback to ever start four consecutive Super Bowls, has never watched those games, because the memories of losing them are so painful.  After the fourth Super Bowl loss, people in Buffalo were actually calling radio stations and pleading with the team members being interviewed not to take them back to the Super Bowl.  Apparently it was not worth the effort if they could not win.

There is a quote that is attributed to Henry Grantland Rice in the early 1900’s that ends, “It is not that you won or lost, it is how you played the game.”  Martina Navratilova, a tennis champion of the 70’s and 80’s, after hearing this quote, said “Whoever said that probably lost.” 

Winning, then, is the only thing that matters.  Not how you play the game.  Not how you conduct yourself during or after the game.  Not how you handle defeat.  Winning is the only worthy goal, and it overshadows sportsmanship, and courage, and honesty, and fellowship- everything.  This is why people cheat, or play dirty, or lie.  To win at all costs. Even at the cost of our souls.

In the 1925, Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur golfer (and some would say the greatest golfer), who ever played, was winning the US Open when he accidentally touched his ball with his club while setting up for a shot.  The ball moved slightly.  No one else saw it.  But Jones assessed himself with a penalty shot.  This penalty shot cost him the title.  When he was praised for his honesty, Jones said “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”  To Jones, not giving himself a penalty shot was the equivalent to stealing, and he could not do it.  He would rather finish in second place than destroy his character.

If we are to be a people of substance; if we are to keep our souls, winning at any cost cannot be the way we play the game. Winning, in fact, will be secondary to the process of playing the game; a process in which we will find that it is not the end but the journey that matters most.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Black Swan

We left our camp and walked down the trail.  We didn't know where we were going or what we would find.  We were just glad to be in the woods.  Or so I thought.

It was October.  Jeremy, my five year old son, and I were camping with the Girl Scouts at Camp Tarheelia.  They took us along for security since no other scout troop would be in camp that weekend.  Jeremy and I stayed in a tent in the woods and the girls and their leaders (including my wife) stayed in the cabin up the path.  While the girls were busy with troop activities, Jeremy and I went hiking in the woods.

We walked for 30 minutes when the woods opened up before us into a field of tall grasses.  In the middle was a pond.
"Come on, Jeremy."
"Where are we going", he asked.
"To the pond."
"How do we get there?"
"Through the grass."

Jeremy's eyes grew large and he shook his head.  I looked at the grass and realized it would be over his head.
"Follow right behind me," I said.  "I'll mash the grass down as I go."
I walked ahead.  A few feet into the grass I looked back.  Jeremy had not followed.
"Daddy, let's go back to camp."
"No, don't you want to see the pond.  There might be some ducks on it."

He walked a little way into the path I had made, looking to his left, then to his right, his eyes wide.  We walked like that for about 100 yards and finally made our way to the pond.  Below us, at the edge of the water, were wild cattails.
"See the cattails, Jeremy?"
"Are there wildcats in there?"
"No, cattails are plants that grow in the water of a pond.  Here, I'll show you."

I climbed down to the water's edge and reached for a cattail.  Jeremy lost sight of me.  "Daddy!" he screamed.
"I'm down here, Jeremy."
"Where, I can't see you.  Hurry, I hear noises."

I listened.  There was a strange noise coming from the pond.  I parted the cattails and looked out onto the water.  In the distance was a large, solid black swan with a brilliant red beak.  I stood mesmerized by its beauty.  It looked at me and hissed.
"What was that noise?" asked Jeremy. "Let's go back to camp."
"It's a swan, Jeremy".  I cut a cattail, then went back to Jeremy.
"What's a swan?"
"I'll show you."

We walked around the pond to the opposite side of a field overgrown with wildflowers of all colors.  Jeremy saw barn in the distance.
"Does this land belong to a farmer?" he asked.
"Yes."
"Let's go back to camp.  In Peter Rabbit, a farmer chased him with a hoe for coming into his garden."
"This is a nice farmer and we aren't rabbits."

We walked to a clearing to watch the swan.  After a few minutes, Jeremy asked, "When are we going back to camp?"
"Let's go."

Jeremy led the way, running ahead of me through the field, through the grass and up the trail to our tent.  That night, all the Girl Scouts, the leaders and Jeremy and I sat around the campfire that Jeremy helped me build.
Jeremy showed the girls his cattail.
"What's that?" they asked.  "Where did you get it?'  "We want one."
"Me and Daddy, we found it at the pond."
"A pond!  Where's the pond?"
"Only Daddy and me know how to get there.  And there's a black swan on it with a red mouth."
"A black swan!" they screamed.  "You've got to take us there tomorrow and show us.  Will you, Jeremy?'
"Yeah.  But you have to be careful because you have to walk in the farmer's field."
"We'll be careful.  Will you show us where the cattails are?"
"Yes, but you can only have just one."

The girls went up the path to the cabin and left Jeremy and me by the fire.  The fire crackled and sputtered and the firelight reflected in Jeremy's eyes.
"Do you think the black swan will be there tomorrow when we go back?" he asked.
"Yes, he lives there."
"I'll show them where he lives and how to walk through the grass.  And then I will help you cut some cattails for them." said Jeremy.

The fire began to die down.  "Daddy, I can't wait for tomorrow."
In the dim light, Jeremy looked suddenly older.  And I threw more wood on the fire, wishing the night would last forever.