Thursday, December 17, 2015

No Room In the Inn

"And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2: 7)

I slept in the manger last night.  I was with 12 of Charlotte's outcasts; the people we see but try not to see; the people in parks that we hurry away from; the people who lie in storefronts on cold nights under blankets, newspapers and plastic bags to stay warm while we walk by on the way home from a restaurant pretending we do not notice.

The sounds in the manger were not animal sounds (although many would say they were), but were the sounds of people coughing and sneezing from untreated illnesses; moaning from pains we cannot understand; crying out in their sleep from some nightmare that haunts them.

No one followed a star to come see them to give them gifts.  Angels did not announce their arrival.  Shepherds did not leave their flocks.

They were not dressed lovingly by their mothers in swaddling clothes, but wore clothes that were picked up here and there; clothes that were worn more for the weather and for availability and convenience than for style.

They did not smell of frankincense and myrrh, but of the street from which they came and to which they would return.

Their presence was not marked by a light in the sky for all to see.  Very few people knew they were at our church that night.  

We fed them.
We prayed with them.
We spoke with them.
We offered them showers.
And finally we gave them a mattress, some sheets, a pillow for their heads, a blanket for the  night, and a one way light rail ticket back into the city for the next day.  

As I watched them get on the light rail this morning, I wondered what would become of them.  Would any of them be able to overcome their circumstances?  Would any of them be able to defeat their illnesses?  Would one of them walk out of his or her wilderness and begin preaching the Kingdom of God?  I do not know.  I have my doubts.  But it was into such a doubting, troubled world that the Son of Man was born.

So until that day, the people of the manger will be taken to another church, and after that another church, and the night after that and the night after that and on and on.





Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Lunch Hour Walk


About two years ago, I was walking during my lunch hour on the UNC Charlotte campus.  It was a nice fall day and as I was walking a young male student suddenly started running in front of me as hard as he could run straight toward a brick wall.  Just before he reached the wall he put his foot out, pushed off and jumped straight up, catching hold of a ledge about 12 feet up.  He hung there by his fingers for a few moments then dropped back down to the sidewalk and resumed walking, as if his acrobatic display was a common ordinary thing that anyone would do on such a day, at such a time, at such a place.

My walk took me to the other side of campus, onto the greenway trail, below the athletic fields.  Two young female students ran past me, dashed off the paved trail, ran up the bank, crossed over to the soccer field, and without rest or missing the slightest beat began kicking a soccer ball, yelling and shrieking and running.

And I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could approach every obstacle or problem with enthusiasm instead of dread and see them as opportunities to grow and sharpen my skills and my strengths?  Wouldn't it be wonderful to joyfully run to work and to shriek and laugh and have fun while I was there?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if I had no fear of trying new things because I had no fear of failure?

Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying, "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm."  If this is true, and I think it is, we should do everything we can do to help young people entering the workforce to stay positive, to approach their work with passion, to have fun, and remain creative.  It should be a great tragedy when someone in the workforce loses their enthusiasm.

Walking back on the main campus near the library I overheard two students talking.  One student said, "My father just got laid off from his job.  He said it was OK, though, because he hated his job and especially the people he worked with."  The other student said, "Yeah.  I really dread getting into the job market."




Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Importance of Place

We all need a place; somewhere we can call our own; somewhere we can call our home.  My wife and I recently traveled from our home in North Carolina to 5 western states; South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah. As a child I had dreamed of traveling to the places that Lewis and Clark had actually stood, or walking on the Custer Battlefield trying to envision the battle; standing on the Oregon Trail where over a half million people either found or lost their dreams; seeing Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument; being close to a buffalo herd in Yellowstone and standing beside Old Faithful as it erupted right on time; seeing the Grand Teton Mountains.  I got to see and do all of these things this summer.

But the entire time I was traveling I never reset my watch to reflect the two hour time difference.  I wanted to be able to look at my wrist and know what time it was in my home state, the place I am from, where the people who know me and love me live. When we met new people on our tour, the first thing we would ask was "Where are you from?"  And they would tell us.  And then we would tell them where we are from.

Everyone needs a place.  A place provides a person with a sense of belonging and a connection with people. It reminds us of a way of life; who we are.

When I travel from my home in Charlotte to my hometown of Rocky Mount, several hours across the state of North Carolina, I return, not to a small town in Eastern NC, but to my childhood where everything has changed but remains familiar.

Over there is a Nursing Home that used to be a vacant lot where we played all-day sandlot football games.  And over there, in the building used to store furniture, is where I went to first grade.  In that field over there is where Rocky Mount Municipal Stadium stood and I would go at night to watch the single A baseball team play.  At one game, the announcer called my name for the wining ticket of 20 dollars worth of free dry cleaning.  But I was only 10 years old at the time, so it was quite a let down.  They tore down the stadium about 20 years ago and replaced it with a practice field for the high school team.

Across the way is the town Library where I checked out my first book. I still remember the smell of the books, and the excitement I felt when I opened the drawers of the card catalogue to find a book. This library is now closed and not far from it is the new, high tech library with computers and an on-line catalogue.

Near the Tar River was the best barbecue restaurant that ever existed.  It not only had a sit down restaurant but it had a drive up where you could sit in your car and eat your pork barbecue sandwich while you heard the sound of pigs being killed in the slaughterhouse.  It was a magical experience. This fine restaurant washed away in the flood of 1999.

But, the best part of going home is actually going home- to the street I lived on growing up and to the house where I was raised.  My mom still lives there and when she sees me drive up, she does not see me as a 62 year old man, but she sees me as her child; still drooling as he gets out of the car.   I am a child once more.

I get to see my brothers while I am there and we talk and we laugh about our days at home.  All of us are story tellers and we accuse the others of embellishing the truth, which we do, and the tales grow taller as the night grows longer.

So, while traveling this summer, when someone asked me where I was from, I wanted to say, "I am from a place that is strange but familiar, a place where people remember me and know me, really know me, who love me and accept me, a place where once I sat on my bicycle as the day ended and the sun began to set over the top of the pines on the first day of summer and felt the thrill of being young and alive."



Monday, August 10, 2015

Let Me Tell You About My Sister



Wanda Lanier Higson died on July 24, 2015.  Her life will never be defined by her death, but by the way she lived.

So, let me tell you about my sister.

Wanda was my older sister, although she would deny being older.  Nothing made her happier than to be mistaken for the younger child.  And in many ways she was younger.  Her positive attitude toward life and her desire to squeeze all the fun into every smidgen of life that she could get were the traits of a much younger person.

Wanda and I grew up together.  I remember when she was given her first Tiny Tears Doll; a doll that cried real tears and wet its diaper.  And  I could not understand why anyone would want one.  

I remember when Wanda won the grand prize in a coloring contest when she was in the third or fourth grade.  She won a small roll top desk that is still in her home today.  

I was there when she was given her first turn table record player and her first records.  From that day forward music poured forth from her room in one continuous stream until she left home; from her record player, from the radio or from the ukulele and guitar that she taught herself to play.

I watched as she left through the front door on her first date.  I watched as her first prom date gave her a corsage. 

Most of what I remember of Wanda during those years was how free she seemed to be.  Her life was filled with music and laughter and friends; dancing and parties.  She did not seem to be afraid to step out and try new things.

I was not like her, but I wanted to be.  She tried to encourage me to do things like dance and go out but I never had the self confidence that she had. 

I remember driving her to work at Belk’s and noticed her looking at me with a disgusted look.  I asked her what was wrong.  She said, “You drive like an old man.  Step on the gas.”  Throughout our young lives together she was constantly trying to get me to step on the gas. 

In fact, I never would have gone on my first date had it not been for Wanda arranging a double date with her and her boyfriend and me and a girl that I knew.  At the end of the date, when I was getting out of the car to walk the girl to her front door, I could see Wanda mouthing the words, “Kiss her.  Kiss her.”

Wanda was a wife and mother.  I was there when a guy who had just returned from Vietnam with a dark tan wearing a white suit showed up at our door.  She had met Bill Higson at the Pizza Inn.  Bill said that he knew the first time he saw her in the Pizza Inn that he was going to marry her. In fact he told one of his friends who was with him this very thing.

Several months later, I was in the car with Wanda and we were listening to her favorite radio station, when the song “Make It With You” by Bread was played, requested, the DJ said, by Bill Higson and dedicated to Wanda Lanier.  There are a couple of lines in the song that say, “Life can be short or long, and love can be right or wrong. And if I chose the one to help me through, I’d like to make it with you.   Dreams… they are for those who sleep.  And Life is for us to keep.  If I chose the one to help me through, I’d like to make it with you.”

Not long after that Wanda and Bill were engaged.  I was a groomsman at her wedding and watched her as she and Bill drove away to begin a new life.

The product of this new life include three children, one, named Chad, whose life was cut too short, and two who are with us today, Ashley and Brandon.

Wanda was a good mother, gentle in bearing but fiercely protective of her children.  “Don’t mess with my kids,” is what she used to say.  She encouraged her children to be themselves and to step forward with their ideas and opinions (to step on the gas, so to speak).

She was always her children’s biggest supporter and encourager in everything they did in life, supporting them in their educational and their spiritual endeavors.  Wanda was the person her children turned to for advice and wisdom, the first person who was by their side when they needed anything, and their best friend.

Wanda and Bill’s life also included a house near the Rocky Mount reservoir; a house that they planned and built together, a house where they lived for 37 years and raised their children, a house that they cherished. Wanda said she felt peace and love when she first saw the lot they were to build on and knew that was the place that would build their home. And at that home Wanda loved being outside and working with her flowers and plants in her beautiful yard.  Whenever I think of  Wanda, I   think of her bright, happy home.

Wanda was a friend to many people.  And, if Wanda was your friend, she was, more than likely, your friend for life.  She had 4 special friends who, with Wanda, called themselves the Ya Ya’s, after a movie entitled “The Divine Order of the Ya Ya Sisterhood”, although I do not think this group was divine.

The Ya Ya's traveled together, laughed together, raised their children together, cried together, and shared crazy moments together.  Like the time they called the fire department when they thought they saw a fire.  As it turned out, it wasn't a fire; just a streetlight that looked like a fire.  "Well, at least we got to see some good looking firemen," said one of the Ya Ya's.

Wanda was a positive, cheerful, funny person who loved to laugh.  And her laughter was contagious.  She did not like to be around negative people, and when she was she did her best to brighten the atmosphere.  “Life is too short,” she would tell me, “to be negative.”  And she was right.

Wanda was a survivor.  Her struggle with cancer spanned over a 15 year period.  She went through many ups and downs, many courses of treatment.  She was knocked down repeatedly but each time she got up, to face another blow.  And through all of this she remained an example of an unbroken spirit, and an example of compassion and unconditional love.

Wanda told me after one of her many visits to the doctor, “I am not going to die with cancer.  I am going to live with cancer.”  That was her mindset.  That was her courage and that was her strength.

But such struggles have to come to an end.  

Wanda’s struggle is over.  And she is in a peaceful place.  I know this because this is what I believe. 
Wanda is in a place where there is no more pain.  No more tears. No more suffering.  No more disease.  No more tests.  No more chemo.  No more radiation.

I will miss Wanda.  We all will miss Wanda.  
This will be a different world without Wanda.  
But, I am a better person because of Wanda's life and what she meant to me.
Wanda's spirit will always live, with me and all who were close to her.   

(The above is an abbreviated, slightly altered version of Wanda's eulogy)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Smooth Places

My wife and I traveled to Alaska about 4 years ago in July/August.  If I had to describe Alaska I  would include the words big and wild, and wide and beautiful.  We saw some fantastic sights while we were there; an ocean full of ice; calving glaciers; a mother grizzly and her cubs; moose; caribou; spouting whales; and mountains so tall that they make the Blue Ridge look like a bump in the road.

The people who live in Alaska year round are different from the people who go to Alaska on vacation.  In my opinion, they are the remnants of the American pioneers who left the East and traveled hundreds of miles to the West and settled in places where there were no support systems.  They had to rely on themselves and their own skills.  And where they lacked knowledge and skill, they had to be creative and invent new ways of doing things.  Or, they had to do without.

When I asked year round residents if they liked living there, without fail, all of them told me they loved it.  Even though roads are not plentiful; even though many people's homes are off the power grid; even though 32 feet of snow may pile up in their yard and on the roofs of their homes; even though many of them cannot just call the plumber when a pipe ruptures; even though neighbors are many miles away and visitors are scarce; they love it.

And I started thinking, why do all the people who live there love it?  And I think it is because all of the people who went there who did not love it have left.  The Alaskan life is not for everyone.  You may go there and wish you could live there, but when you try it, you find that you are not up to the challenge.  Alaska is beautiful, but behind that beauty lies all of the terrible forces that have shaped that land into what it is.  But most people cannot see these things.

One of my earliest memories of my father is of him standing in front of his bedroom mirror shirtless, swinging a baseball bat over and over, watching every nuance of his swing.  People used to talk of his beautiful, natural swing, but none of them ever saw him work in front of the mirror.  They never saw the forces in his life that shaped his love for baseball; the loss of his mother at age 10, a father who could not care for his children.  The baseball diamond was where he found love and friendship.  It became his father and his mother.

Sometimes we see a person who has a great spirituality and we want what they have.  But behind that spirituality often lies a great price; a life of suffering and hardship.  I am reminded of Matthew 20 in which Jesus tells James and John that they do not know what they are asking for when they ask to sit at his right hand in his kingdom.  He asks them if they are prepared to go through the same things that he will have to go through and they answer, yes.  We are able.  And Jesus tells them that he cannot grant this, but such places are granted to those that God has prepared.

Our tour guide told us a story about the moose in Alaska.  They are attracted to the paved roads because they are smooth and warm.  They like to lay down on them and sleep and are soon covered by snow.  Cars, traveling along the roads, especially at night, cannot see these huge animals.  Many cars have been wrecked and people injured and killed because they were not prepared for what lay ahead.

We are all in search of God, whether we realize it or not.  We may look for God in places of comfort, places of great beauty, or places of peace.  Warm spots in the road.  But maybe God can be found in the simple things of our everyday lives; like watering the garden, or mowing the grass.  Maybe the peace and the beauty we are looking for are right here in front of us.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Quiet Desperation

On Thursday, May 4, 1970 (45 years ago today), I was a Junior in high school sitting in a boring English class, looking out the window when I heard the the teacher ask us if we had heard the news of the Kent State shootings.  For the first time, she had my undivided attention.

The image that first ran through my mind was of  a lone, crazy gunman shooting at young people.  But then Ms. Brown said something incredible.  National Guardsmen had fired 67 shots in less than 15 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine more. They were shot protesting the Cambodian bombing.   Our own military had fired on and killed our own young people.

I had recently purchased a paperback copy of Henry David Thoreau's book Walden, which also contained his "Essay on Civil Disobedience".  It is this essay that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  The book lay on my dresser unread until that day.

After school, I picked the book up and read it from cover to cover.  I still have that book on my shelf and it is still an inspiration to me.

In his book, Walden, Thoreau says that the majority of people live a life of quiet desperation.  In other words, people want more than they are able to get out of life; they yearn for a higher life.  Thoreau believed that inside each person is something greater waiting to escape, but we suppress those inner desires for the heavier expectations that everyday life puts on us.  We are afraid to do what it takes to actually make the world a better place.  In fact, most people want the world to be better, but they believe that their efforts would not make a difference.

And so, they do nothing, but they still yearn for something more.

In his "Essay on Civil Disobedience", written in 1849, Thoreau wrote about "the majority of one".  Here is what he said:  "I know this well, that if one thousand; if one hundred; if ten men whom I could name- if ten honest men only- aye, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.  For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done for ever."

Since that time, I have thought often of that day in English class.  It changed me but I wonder how it changed me.  And I wonder what I have done to make the world a better place.  And I am filled with sense of quiet desperation.

Friday, April 17, 2015

One Hot Summer Day

One hot summer day my father was attempting to teach me the basics of hitting a baseball.  I was nine years old and I was frustrated.  After missing the next pitch I yelled "I can't do it!" and I threw the bat to the ground.

Dad walked up to me, squatted in front of me and held me by the shoulders.  He said, "if you want to be a ball player, you have to want to be one in here." and he pointed to my heart.

Then he told me a story that I have never forgotten, one that I remember at the beginning of each baseball season; a story that I think of whenever I am feeling sorry for myself.

When my dad was in the ninth grade he wanted to play for the high school baseball team.  The coach told him that he didn't really need any more players and they didn't have any more room on the team bus.  But dad persisted and made a deal with the coach.  The coach, wanting to get rid of dad, told him that if he could be at the next game in Goldsboro, N. C., he would consider putting dad on the team.  The coach didn't really expect dad to show up in Goldsboro (about 47 miles away from Rocky Mount).

But what the coach did not know was that he had made a deal with a ninth grade boy who loved baseball more than life itself.  Dad skipped school the day of the game and thumbed to Goldsboro.  It rained the last part of the trip, but he made it to the stadium a few minutes ahead of the team bus.

When the bus pulled into the parking lot, there was my father, soaking wet and ready to play, waiting for the coach.

The coach put him on the team.

That hot summer day, as my father squatted in front of me, I received a gift much more precious than baseball.  He gave me a part of himself that I will always have.  I never really learned to hit a baseball well.  I was decent but not the hitter my father was.  But I hung in there.  I kept trying.  And each time the team took the field, there I was, ready to play.


Friday, January 9, 2015

Buddha Never Drove a Car

After meditating for weeks under a bodhi tree, the Buddha taught that

     1.  Life means suffering
     2.  The origin of suffering is attachment
     3.  The cessation of suffering is attainable
     4.  The path to the cessation of suffering is the eightfold path 

 I agree that the origin of much of our suffering is attachment.  But I am not sure that the cessation of suffering is attainable, especially if you are one of the 1+billion people who drive a car.

I once owned an olive green 1970 American Motors Hornet.  It was my first car.  I bought it after my senior year at Appalachian State for $800 using college graduation money my parents gave me and a loan.  I drove it to and from the mountains during graduate school.  It was the car that Melanie (my wife) and I drove away from the church on our wedding day and during our first year of marriage.

But, I never loved that car.  I was never attached to it.  Yet, I suffered.

It had windshield wipers that wiped the windshield based on the speed of the car.  So, in a drenching downpour or a blizzard, I would have to drive 55 miles per hour in order for the wipers to keep pace with the storm.

It had an alternator that constantly lost its connection to the battery and to this day I have nightmares of a red alternator light glowing in the dark on a lone deserted road.

It did not have air conditioning and it was designed in such a way that the heat from the engine would blow directly into the car if the windows were rolled down.   So, in the summer, you were actually better off with the windows rolled up.

The defroster had a mind of its own and would decide to work only after I had driven up interstate 77 with my head hanging out of the window on those cold, frosty winter mornings of January 1977 (the coldest winter in 100 years) on my way to work.

When I sold that car to a wheeling, dealing, car dealer (famous for his "We're Dealing!" slogan) for $200, I felt that I had received the better deal.  And I never turned to look back at it on my way home.

So, in a way the Buddha was right.  Unattaching myself from that car ended a lot of suffering.

Since that time, I have owned other cars.

A Chevette that suddenly lost all power (especially on interstate highways) and no mechanic on earth could find the reason.

A Cutlass whose paint slowly started developing spots that grew larger and larger.  The week after I had it repainted, it was wrecked beyond repair.

A Buick whose check engine light glowed and glowed and glowed; aggravating me nearly to insanity.  Then, the horn began to blow on its own, for no reason, especially in rush hour traffic, making the check engine light seem like a minor problem.

And the list goes on.

If the Buddha had driven a car, maybe he would not have had to meditate so long under the bodhi tree to discover the origin of suffering.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Doll

I am 61 years old, and it never ceases to amaze me when I learn something new about my parents; something I had never heard before.  And this past Christmas my mother shared a new story with me.

My wife and I were standing in her bedroom talking to her when I noticed a doll on a stand on a table near her dresser.  I could tell it was an older doll with long braided hair and a "Gone with the Wind" look about the way it was dressed. 

"That doll looks like Scarlet O'Hara." I said.
"You've seen her before," said my mother, "haven't you?
I could not remember seeing this doll.
"This is my doll." she said.  "She didn't always look like this.  I have had to replace her hair and her dress."
"How old were you when you got her?"
"Oh, I've told you all this before, haven't I?"
"No." I said. 

So, she told me this story:

Mom was raised on a farm during the depression, where work was long and times were hard and there was always a baby in the cradle.  The women worked in the kitchen and the house all day while the men were in the fields from sunrise to sundown. Money was tight, so clothes and gifts were almost always hand-me-downs and homemade.  Her mother and father cut corners wherever possible.  A lot of hard choices had to be made.

She was nine years old when her father came to her and said, "Mavis, your mother tells me that you don't believe in Santa Clause any more.  Is that right?"
She stood, not knowing what to say.

"Well," said her father, "I guess that is my answer."  You know that when you stop believing in Santa, Santa stops coming to see you.  So, don't expect anything this Christmas."

"But Daddy," she cried after him as he walked away, "I'll believe.  Let me have just one more Christmas." Her father kept walking as she ran after him, "I'll believe, I'll believe".  Suddenly he turned and looked down at her.

"Ok", he said.  "I'll give you some money and you and Virginia (her older sister) can walk to town and buy your own gift.  But this is your last Santa Clause".

The next morning was cold and gray as mom and Virginia walked the 3 miles to downtown and peered in the store windows, looking for her last gift from Santa.  They looked and they looked and finally they came to a store window filled with dolls. 

"All of the dolls were so beautiful." said my mother.  "But there was one doll that had fallen over onto her face.  She was laying there, like she was crying while all the other dolls looked out of the window smiling.  And it felt like this doll was feeling what I was feeling.  And even though I could not see her face, I knew I had to have that doll."

She went into the store and pointed the doll out to the person behind the counter.  The money her father had given her was almost exactly the cost of the doll. 

And as she and Virginia walked home that day, my mother held that doll close to her; a child holding on tight to the magic of Christmas. And the cold of the day seemed to disappear.