Friday, December 23, 2016

The Hope of Christmas

I love the Christmas story.  It is a story about two ordinary people who are caught up in a most extraordinary, cosmic event that will change the world forever.

A young girl, who has never been intimate with a man who chooses to be intimate with God.  "Let it be so," she told the angel, Gabriel.

A man, who discovers that his fiancĂ© is pregnant and chooses (against all custom) to continue to love her and to love the child that she will bear.

It is a story about a hard journey to a distant city where relatives reside; of registering for the census; of being counted as taxpayers for the Roman tax.

It is a story about God's love for humanity entering the world in the form of a human child; a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and held close in his mothers arms; a baby born in a manger, the long awaited Messiah, surrounded by farm animals.

It is a story about God first revealing the incarnation through angels joyfully singing to shepherds; lowly keepers of sheep; servants of the fields, who leave their flocks and enter the manger to behold the godchild.

It is a story of prophecies foretold, divine promises kept; it is a story of faith and of acting on that faith; it is a story of God's intervention in the course of human events.

Whenever I think that this world is spiraling out of control, that there is no hope left, I remember the Christmas story, when love and hope were born in an ordinary way, in an ordinary place, to ordinary people.  And I have comfort.  And I have joy.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Last Day

I do not know the last time I ran without pain.  I wish I could remember.  I wish I could think back to that day and remember what it was like.  Was it a sunny day or a rainy day.  I used to love to run in the rain, even on the cold days.  And on the cloudless days filled with sunlight I would be filled with energy and felt as if I could run forever.

But then came that day; the day that I do not remember; when running was no longer about making the distance in a decent time; but about overcoming the pain in one joint or another.

If only I could remember that day, that last day that I ran without pain; that last day that I could float uphill without a thought; that last day that I felt I could run forever. If I could remember it I would think of it often and replay it in my head over and over again.  But I cannot remember it.  I just know that there was such a day.

What would life be like if we had a sense of the ending of things?  If we had a keen awareness of the last day; the last day that things would be the same; the  last day that we had to spend with a person we loved; the last chance that we had to say I love you?

When I arrived at our home in Rocky Mount, N.C. prior to my father's death, I could already sense that something irrevocable had occurred.  Something had changed that could never be changed back. The house in which I had grown up was never to be the same.  Dad's last day came two weeks later, but was still a surprise, and I was still unprepared.  It was the finality of it all; knowing that I would never see him again; that he would never again walk down the hallways of my childhood home.

In the 19th century when people left the eastern United States to travel west to Oregon or California seeking their fortune, they left behind people they loved.  And there was the very good likelihood that they would never see them again.

What must it have been like for them to ride away knowing that?  What must it have been like for the people who were left behind, to know that their son or their daughter was leaving, never to be seen by them again?

What would it be like for us to treat each absence away from a loved one as the last time we would ever see them.  Would we ever again leave each other angry?  Would we ever again storm away?

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor, has been credited with saying, "Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense."

The lesson we learn in living is that life is fleeting and impermanent and many of its changes can be painful.  The challenge of life is to rise above this pain and to live fully in each moment.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Remembering the Past

This time of year the air sometimes takes on a certain smell that takes me back to high school and football; or camping trips and sleeping in pine forests; or cooking out over an open fire.

Sometimes a song will remind me of a certain time and a certain person.  For instance, the song "Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy" by the Tams was the first song that Melanie and I heard after our wedding and it always reminds me of our honeymoon and of long ago when we were young and foolish and happy.

I can hear theme songs of TV shows that I used to watch and be carried back to those simpler times.  The theme from "Leave It To Beaver" is playing in my head as I write this.

The theme song to "The Lone Ranger"(which is really the William Tell Overture by Rossini) always reminds me of my father.  As a child, when I heard the hearty "Hi Ho Silver!" I would climb into my father's lap and we would watch Clayton Moore and Jay Silverhills tame the wild west.

What I remember more than that TV show is feeling the warmth of my father as he held me; the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed; the veins bulging in his hands and the hair on his arms.  Most of all, I remember feeling loved.

But the past is not always pleasant to remember.  The very same thing that causes me to remember the love of my father may cause another person to remember a time of great pain.

Michael Meeropol remembers the "Lone Ranger" in this context:  One summer day, July 17, 1950 to be exact, while his father, Julius Rosenburg, was shaving in the bathroom in the back, Michael was listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio.  Suddenly the door burst open and his father was taken away by the FBI.  A month later his mother, Ethel was arrested.  

Both Ethel and Julius were accused and convicted of being spies for the Soviet Union.  They were  executed on June 19, 1953.  Michael and his brother, Robert, were placed in an orphanage after their family members shunned them. Several years later they were adopted by the Meeropol family.

Remembering the "Lone Ranger" has to be very painful for Michael Meeropol; a time of great fear and chaos.

I know a person whose military experience was not at all pleasant and he never likes to remember it.  He dislikes being recognized and made to stand in public, especially in church, where he goes to find peace and to feel the presence of God.   So, on the military holidays, he does not go to church.  He finds his peace at home.

The past is a funny thing.






Monday, September 12, 2016

The Good Bad Things

I recently read a biography of the Wright Brothers by David McCullough.  I have  admired Orville and Wilbur since reading and reporting about their lives when I was in the fifth grade.  Over the years I have visited the famous site of their first flight at Kill Devil Hills, the Wright museum, and seen their airplane sitting in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. .  


People who look at the details of the lives of these two men have often stated that it was their destiny to discover the secrets of flight; that that they were born at the right time, in the right place for this to happen.  In fact, Orville was once asked the secret of his success and he responded that the secret was to be born into  a loving family in Dayton, Ohio (paraphrase).  

But, if you look closely, you will discover that it was more than an accident of birth or the convergence of the right things at the right time.

Wilbur was a bright and curious child who excelled in school. His had a very outgoing personality  and he had plans to attend Yale after he graduated from high school. In the winter of 1885-86, an  accident happened that changed the course of Wilbur's life. He was severely injured in an ice hockey game, when another player's stick struck him in the face.  

Most of his injuries healed, but the the process of healing plunged Wilbur into a depression so severe that he did not receive his high school diploma, and he canceled his plans to attend Yale. He sought seclusion in his family’s home where he spent much of his time over the next three years reading books in his family’s library, and caring for his ailing mother, Susan, who died in 1889 of tuberculosis.

If Wilbur had attended Yale, would he have returned to Dayton, Ohio to work with his brother, Orville, in the bicycle shop, where they first developed an interest in becoming the first people to solve the problem of flight?  And if he had not returned, would Orville have remained in the bicycle shop the rest of his life?

It seems that the hockey stick accident changed the course not only of Wilbur and Orville's lives, but the course of history and the lives of countless thousands of people along the way.  Who could have predicted such an outcome?  

Sometimes the things we think are bad, when viewed through the lens of time, are actually gifts from the very hand of God.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Riderless Horse

It is a common trick used in many Westerns.  Two outlaws are being chased by a posse.  The bad guys are desperate to throw them off their trail.  So, one of the two outlaws dismounts from his horse and jumps onto the horse of his partner in crime.

They swat the riderless horse on the rump and it gallops off down the trail that leads south.  The two outlaws, riding on the same horse, ride north.

The posse, coming upon the tracks leading north and south, have to make a decision. In most Westerns, the posse rides south, following the riderless horse for miles before realizing they have been duped.  They discover (too late) that the riderless horse's hoof prints are shallow.  The hoof prints of the horse with the riders are deeper.

In real life, we follow the riderless horse when we chase after things that have no eternal value; when we work late, night after night, at the expense of our families; when we think more highly of the car that we drive than the neighbor next door; when we judge success by the zeroes in our bank accounts, the neighborhood we live in, or the number and expense of material things we own.

And later in life, we realize we have been duped, or that we have been selfish or stupid and that we didn't even know it at the time.

I was 43 years old when my father died.  It wasn't until then that I clearly and thoroughly realized that life essentially boils down to love; those you love and those that love you.  The only people who will remember you are those who love you and who carry your love in their hearts.

After my father's death, the world did not make sense to me; it had been turned upside down.  Because of the insight about love, I turned to the spiritual for more answers and explored the world's religions for common truths.

Love and charity; mercy and forgiveness; sacrifice, selflessness and service are eternal threads that run through all of the major religions.  These, according to their teachings, are what make life worth living.  These are the things that will change you and will change the world for the better.

Christ once asked, "For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?" (Mark 8:36).  This is a question we all need to consider before we set out to follow the shallow path of the riderless horse.




Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Funeral Home Couch

Years ago my wife and I decided that we needed a new couch.  My father-in-law knew a man who owned a furniture store who would give us a discount so we paid him a visit.  We looked at his showroom couches but we didn't like any of them.

"Well," he said,  I could let you pick out the frame, and the fabric (color and design), and we could order it special made from the factory.  I could sell it to you at cost plus shipping."  We liked the idea, so we picked out the frame and the fabric and put in our order. We even ordered a chair in the same fabric.

A few weeks later our new couch and chair arrived.  And we loved them.  As we placed the couch  against the wall and the chair beside the couch, we felt we had something unique, something special belonging only to us.

What were the chances that somebody else had chosen that exact frame from all of the frames we had looked at, and that exact fabric from all of the available fabrics?  No, this was a couch and chair that belonged only to us.

And they were comfortable and the couch lent itself well to Sunday afternoon naps.

We were proud.

 Shortly after the arrival of our furniture, my wife's uncle died and we traveled to his funeral in the nearby town of Lexington, NC.  As we walked into the funeral home during the visitation the first thing we saw was an exact copy of our couch and chair sitting in the lobby.  They were the same as ours down to the last detail.

We sat on them and they were comfortable.  And we were no longer proud.

After all, we had chosen the same furniture for our home as a funeral home had chosen for their lobby.  We had the same taste in furniture as a funeral home interior decorator.

At home, after the funeral, our couch and chair did not look quite the same.  They were still comfortable and I still occasionally took a nap on the couch.

But every time I closed my eyes, I could hear a voice in my head say, "Look at him. Doesn't he look natural?"

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Birth of an Artist



The world defines an artist as someone who practices the creative arts.  But an artist is more than simply a practitioner. An artist is a person whose art lives deep inside them, whose soul is their art; and everything in their life, everything they see and do and everyone they know is affected by their art, which is their very life.  An artist may work in an ordinary job, as a salesperson, a cashier, or as an engineer or as an architect, or as a designer, but, he or she will always see things through an artist's eyes; seeing things not as they are but what they can become.

When my son was born and I held him for the first time, I wondered who he was and who he would become.  Watching him as he grew those questions grew inside me as he learned to crawl, then walk and talk.  I wondered where life would lead him.  Where would he go?  What would he do?  Who would he be with?

And the answers did not come gradually, but they came when I least expected them, taking me by surprise, showing me the future in quick bursts.

When he was three or four I was setting up the pool pump, in the process of getting the pool ready for spring; connecting the pool to the pump, the pump to the filter, and the filter to the pool.  Jeremy was with me, watching everything I did with intent interest.  After I finished, Jeremy said, "I know how this works." And he described the water being pulled from the pool into the pump, pushed into the filter and back into the pool.  He watched as I cleaned the pool and told me how the pool vacuum worked.

And I asked myself, who is he?  What would he become?

My wife and I bought him a Lego building kit when he was five or six. He immediately opened the box and began building the most complicated structure in the kit.  He worked for hours non-stop, not even taking a break for dinner.  And when he was finished we were amazed.  A structure about 4 feet tall stood in our den in front of the fire place.  "What is it?" I asked.  So, Jeremy began to turn a handle and four balls began to rise from the bottom of the structure to the top, and when they reached the top they began a zig zag descent to the bottom.

And those same questions nagged at me.

Years passed.  Jeremy and I were putting in a new kitchen floor.  I took a break, but Jeremy continued to work.  And as I stood watching him, the answers to my questions seemed clear to me.  Jeremy was not a carpenter, or a handy man , or a mechanic or an engineer or an architect.  He was something more.  It was the way he approached a project with such vision; able to see it in its completed form before beginning it. It was the intensity with which he worked; not wanting to.. or even able to.. stop before he saw his vision realized.  It was the way he worked, with such passion, as if the work had taken possession of his soul.

And so I knew.  Jeremy was an artist, able to look past the present into the future; to see beauty in the ugly; able to create order from chaos; and willing to sacrifice himself for his art and his vision of what things can become.








Friday, July 1, 2016

The Peaceful Place

Everyone needs a peaceful place; a spot for reflection and retreat.  Although we are social animals, we also have the need to be alone; to escape the demands that society makes on us and to be wholly with ourselves, alone.  Henry David Thoreau wrote, "You think that I am impoverishing myself withdrawing from men, but in may solitude I...shall ere long burst forth a more perfect creature, fitted for a higher society (Journal, 8 February 1857).

My peaceful place is the backyard.  It is in the backyard that I spend my free time tending to my summer garden (tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, beans, peppers, etc.,); caring for the soil, pulling weeds, giving them water and nutrients, nurturing them and helping them grow into the plants they are supposed to be (eventually providing me with vegetables for my table).  Sometimes this is hot, hard work.  But at the end of the day, although I am sweaty, dirty and tired, I look over the garden and I hear the voice of God; not an audible voice, but an inward voice; not a voice of words, but a voice of assurance.  And the silent voice of God fills me.  And the peace of God overwhelms me.

When I need rest from my labors or just a quiet place to reflect, I retreat to my patio, a place that my wife and I have filled with flowering plants (roses, mandevillas, gladiollas, dahlias) ferns, and green shrubs.  We have hung hummingbird feeders on the pergola and bird feeders among the plants and on a window of our house.  My son built a fountain that bubbles not far away.  I can sit at a table there and prepare my sermon notes or reflect on things I have read, or just sit and watch the birds feeding.

Psychologists have long recognized that humans need solitude.  Solitude gives us the chance to shut down, to reconnect ourselves with that silent voice, to focus our thoughts or to clear our minds, to rediscover our own voice that has been lost among the many voices, and to recharge our batteries.

You can find your peaceful place in your backyard, or by simply getting up early and going into a room and shutting the door.  And when you do, don't turn on the T.V.  Don't listen to music.  Listen to the silence.  Listen to the silent voice, the whisper of God.

And if you do, you will "burst forth a more perfect creature."






Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Rules of the Park

I was running in the park near my home several years ago when I heard a father yelling at his son.  The father was across the park and apparently wanted to leave, and leave now.

"Get over here and let's go!" he yelled.

The son began to run around the track to get to his father, but he father yelled, "cut across the fields," meaning the two soccer fields between him and his son.

"But, Dad, the signs say the fields are closed," cried the son.

"Cut across the fields," demanded the father.

"The fields are closed, Dad,"

"I said cut across the fields and I mean now!" yelled the father.

The boy reluctantly cut across the soccer fields which had been closed for reseeding and maintenance.

I could not get this interaction between this father and his son out of my head for the rest of my run. I obviously still haven't.  As I ran around the soccer fields on the track, I counted the signs that had been posted saying "Field closed.  Stay off the grass."  There were 8 of them.  None of them said, " Stay off the grass, unless you are the father in the gray shirt in a hurry to get home, then it is OK."

This man was forcing his son to disobey the rules of the park.  What was he teaching his son?  How had this affected his son?  How would this affect his son in the years ahead?  I am sure none of these questions entered the father's head.  He was in a hurry.  The rules did not matter to him.  The means justified the end.

And we might say that this one child, running across the grass, did not harm the grass.  And this may be true.  But what if every father who visited the park with his children made them run across the newly sown grass.  The grass would never grow.  The soccer fields would be nothing but weeds.  Soon, there would be no more soccer or soccer teams visiting the park.

The same can be said of the lady that roams the park with a small shovel and a bag.  She digs up interesting plants that she sees and loads them in her car.  I assume that she is taking them to her home where she plants them in her plant beds.  What if everyone who came to the park brought their shovel and a bag and dug up all of the plants they were interested in and transplanted them to their home garden?  The park would soon be devoid of plants.

There is a book that I read years ago entitled, "All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum.  In it he tells how Kindergarten taught him how to get along with other people and how he still applies these rules to his life today; simple rules like don't yell, don't hit other people,  respect the property of others, keep off the grass.  But, I guess some people never went to Kindergarten.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Thinking With the Mind of God

I took a long walk this morning for the first time since my foot surgery.  Along the way I saw a male and a female bluebird sitting on a tree limb.  Suddenly a mockingbird flew in and hovered above them, chasing them away.  The mocking bird settled on the same limb.  Then, the male blue bird swooped down and chased the mocking bird away and the blue birds perched again on the limb. This war for perching rights on the limb continued for several minutes until I lost interest and walked on.

Further up the street two cats walked cautiously around each other, making strange cat noises, warning each other not to get too close because an attack was imminent.  Two houses up, dogs behind fences barked at the cats.

As I walked I remembered one morning last summer sitting on my patio as humming birds put on a  master class of acrobatic flying while attacking one another for the feeding rights at the feeders in my backyard.

Then I thought of the huge, two inch black and yellow female cicada killer wasp that I had seen in my yard dragging a paralyzed cicada down into its underground lair, where the female would lay eggs inside the cicada.  When the eggs hatched, the larva would use the cicada for food.

A red-tailed hawk hunts its prey frequently in my neighborhood, gliding silently high overhead, then with its powerful eyesight that is eight times sharper than the sharpest human eye, it spots a mouse or a bird or a squirrel or a kitten and swoops down, diving at speeds that can reach 120 miles per hour.

These animal and insect wars go on each day, every day, unseen or unnoticed by us.

And much like the rest of the animal kingdom, we humans have our wars too.  But unlike the birds, the dogs, the cats, or the wasps in my neighborhood, we humans have no excuses.  And this makes our wars much more terrible, and much more senseless.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam teach that God gave human beings dominion over God's creation; the world and everything in it.  Can we honestly look at the world and say that we are managing it the way God would manage it?

I have to believe that God gave humans dominion over creation because God made us in such a way that we have the ability to rise above our pride, our greed, our lust, our envy, our anger, our laziness, and our gluttony.

The question that we are all asking, is when will we rise above?  When will we stop chasing other birds from the limbs of trees over and over again?  When will we stop barking at cats?  When will we start thinking with the mind of God?




Monday, February 8, 2016

The Unfamiliar Drive

Over the last two years, my wife and I have noticed a brown car driving through our neighborhood several times a day.  A man drives the car slowly, ever so slowly, through the entire length and width of the neighborhood, looking at houses, stopping occasionally, then continuing his casual drive.

Of course, my first thought was that the driver was casing the neighborhood and I considered calling the police.  But before I could do so my wife, Melanie, told me she knew the identity of the mystery driver.

"He used to live in the neighborhood," she said.  "His wife left him, remember."

I remembered.  He had lived just up the street for a short time after his divorce, then moved away.  I wondered why he would drive so regularly through a place that had given him so much pain.

Several weeks later, I knew the answer.  Melanie was walking through the neighborhood, saw the brown car and waved at the driver.  He stopped and they talked.

She told me that he did not remember her and when she asked about his mother, he pulled a sticky note from the dashboard and told her that his mother had died.  "I'm not able to remember things any more,"he said with a smile.

So, now when I see him driving through our neighborhood, or driving through the streets of our small town,  I see him in a different light.

He is not a thief.  He is the victim of a thief; a disease that is robbing him of his memories.  His endless driving is an attempt to look for places that are familiar; to reclaim the people and the places and events that were once his but are now slowly fading away.

One day, maybe one day soon, we will not see him any more. He will have forgotten his old neighborhood.   The brown car will be forever parked.  The robbery will be complete and he will stare blankly at the people in front of him and he will not remember to look at his sticky notes.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Desk and the Key

Years ago, I was wandering through an antique store in an old house on Central Avenue in Charlotte, NC.    I had been searching for an antique desk for my bedroom for a long time and had never quite found the one that was in my mind.  I walked from room to room, browsing and as I entered a new room, I saw the very desk that I had been searching for for so long.

It was delivered to my home that same night.  But there was a slight problem.  My bedroom is upstairs.  The desk is solid oak and heavy.  The two people who delivered it stood staring at the desk and at the stairs.  I never thought the stairs would be an issue. But the deliverers told me they were usually informed about stairs.  So I offered to help them. 

And so, the three of us pushed and shoved and lifted the desk to the top of the stairs.  As we approached the top, I heard one of the delivery men groan.  I thought he had hurt his back, but as we sat the desk down he motioned to me.  "We will never be able to get this desk into your bedroom.  The turn from this hallway into your bedroom is too sharp.  The desk is too large."

Looking at the desk, I had to agree.  I had always imagined the desk in my bedroom and now I was faced with the prospect of having to put it in another place.  But there was not another place in my home that I wanted that particular desk.  It had to go into my bedroom.  So I looked closer at the desk and found that the top could be removed.  By removing the top, we were able to slide the frame (without the drawers) into my bedroom.

As we stood the frame of the desk in place, I noticed something attached to the underside.  It was a magnet.  And on the magnet was a key.  I assumed that the key was used to lock and unlock the drawers.

We reattached the top of the desk to the frame, and I promptly forgot about the hidden key, until several years later, when I was running my hand underneath the frame, and I rediscovered it.  I put the key in the lock in the way it seemed to fit and turned it; first one way then the other.  But the lock did not move.  So I put the key in the lock the way it did not seem to fit.  I turned it the way most locks turn, and the lock did not move. I turned the key in the opposite direction and the lock did not move.  So I put the key back on its magnet and assumed it was a key for another purpose that the former owner had hidden on his desk.

A few more years went by and I rediscovered the key again.  I tried it again, with the same result.  I put the key back in its place and there it stayed until a few weeks ago when I found it again.

I decided to give it one more try.  And I found that if I put the key in the lock in the way it does not seem to fit, pull it out just a hair before turning it, and turn it anti-clockwise, the key locks the drawer.

All this time, I thought of this key as a secret key; or that the key held some secret.  But the secret that I discovered was that I had stopped trying before I had exhausted all methods of inserting and turning the key.

In the middle of my desk sits a rock with an quote inscribed on it.  It says, "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."  The quote is from Albert Einstein.  He is saying that the key to life is to continue our search; to continue our struggle; to be willing to think beyond our boundaries; and to never give up.  Because just around the corner is a most marvelous discovery.




Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The New Journey

I recently saw the movie, "The 100 Foot Journey,". It is a story about two restaurant owners and staff who are located across the street from one another (100 feet) in very different restaurants (one French, the other Indian).   In the beginning the competition was fierce resulting in hard feelings on each side.  But when the characters learn that all they have to do to end the ever worsening feud is cross the road, the competition ends, friendships blossom and some very positive things begin to happen.

Many times we have to take a step back from our old habits and our old ways of doing things in order to realize that there are other ways, better ways of accomplishing our objectives besides our own tried and true ways.  This point has been driven home to me because of the movie and because I had surgery on my foot this past Thursday.  I am on crutches and unable to put any weight on my left foot.  Thanks to the weather, my wife has been able to be with me for the previous 5 days. She has been a very good nurse, remembering every detail of the post op instructions.  And I am sure my foot will heal properly because of these first five days.

But she had to return to work today. The snow has melted.  And this is my first day alone.  Every journey I take is a new journey; going across the room presents itself with obstacles I had not noticed before; sitting down in a chair requires planning and positioning that I had never considered; bathing in the sink requires new stances and movements that I have never made; Preparing meals while standing on one leg makes the food seem like it was earned; going up and down the stairs...well...it is an entirely new experience, one I find exciting and fun (it is also a very good total body workout).

Sometimes we have to take a new journey to appreciate where we have come from.  The new journey  is built from the stones of the old. And from the old and the new something beautiful blooms.