Thursday, November 2, 2017

Mrs. Maples

I wrote this article a couple of weeks ago for my church newsletter, but I think the message is more universal and thought I would share it with more of ya'll:  

During a spring storm earlier this year, a maple tree I had planted about 5 years ago bent and snapped in the middle. It had grown to about 12 feet tall so I was very disappointed. My wife and I tried to fashion a splint for “Mrs. Maples” but the severed part of the branch died. I eventually chopped that section off, but I did not cut the tree down.

Now it is fall and Mrs. Maples is beginning to show her colors. An interesting thing happened during the summer. Despite her trunk being split almost to the ground, she persisted. One of the side branches also slowly began to aim itself upward to where the tree is now almost as tall as it was before the storm. I hope she makes it through the winter and emerges even stronger.

Our church has weathered some storms of late. There have been times that I wondered if it would break us. But “By God” we are still here. I mean that in the sense that the Lord is the source of our life and strength. The church is a living thing, the Body of Christ. We may lose some here and there, but God can still give the growth. He will lift us up to perhaps even greater heights. All it takes is a little nurturing, time, faith and patience. Let’s show our true colors,too.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friends List

I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed the other night and ran across a particularly obnoxious and polarizing post from someone I scarcely know. This is a fairly regular occurrence, but the mood I was in had me thinking “enough is enough.” I resolved to not only un-friend this person, but I was also going to purge my whole friend’s list of people I might not like.

A funny thing happened as I began going over the long list of names. I was unexpectedly moved by all the people I saw there.  It ranged from very close friends I have known for decades down to some mild acquaintances.  While still not an exhaustive list, here were hundreds of names and faces of persons who have crossed my path at different times in my life. They may have been in one of the many churches I attended as a child or one of the many churches I have served as a minister. There were pals from elementary school in one town and high school in another. College classmates, co-workers and colleagues.

Our relationships ranged from intimate to casual, but we have been in each other’s lives on one level or another. The scope of seeing it all at once was what got to me I guess. I also saw people from periods of my life I thought I would never hear from again. We had grown apart, moved away or moved on. Yet, now here we are again “liking” each other’s photos and occasionally commenting on things in our respective lives.

I needed this encouragement because social media has become a divisive tool in some ways instead of one that brings people together. I saw among my male and female friends those who were young, old, conservative, liberal, Christian, Jewish, atheist, gay, straight, unsure, redneck, citified, soldiers, sailors and people of just about every shade of skin pigmentation under the sun. All these humans are my friends and it just made my heart swell a little. The sheer variety is a blessing and enriches my life.

When it came down to it, I found I did not want to “delete” anyone. This is partly because I also saw a lot of my friends on this list who have died and yet their pages remain active. It was a stark reminder that some of the schtuff we get all worked up about and let come between us will one day be less than a pile of ash. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Peace Of My Mind

Last week I called in a prescription for a medication refill. When I went to pick it up, I was told it had been delayed. I later got an email informing me my insurance company said it was too soon for a refill. I did not understand this because I was almost out. The pharmacy said they would fill it for retail price which was significantly higher than normal. I looked at my bottle and did the math. I was supposed to have had a 90 day supply and it was only at the 60 day mark. They had shorted me a month’s worth of medication.

So I stormed out of my house at 7:30 PM ready for battle. I was going to “launch an investigation” and “change my pharmacy immediately" for the “obvious incompetence if not fraud” that was clearly at play! When I got there, the young lady listened carefully to my questions and concerns and then apologized for their mistake and gave me the other month's worth. I was satisfied and that was the end of that. All was forgiven and grace abounded.

I am not saying I am perfect or never hold a grudge. But you probably know people for whom that would not have been the end of that. Once they get wound up, it does not matter what is said or done. They came for a fight and will not be satisfied until they have one. Then even after that, they may also continue to harbor ill will. This must be a hard way to live. I once had a lady misunderstand something I said from the pulpit. Even when I explained that I had actually said the opposite, she was never the same toward me. She literally went to her grave with hard feelings about something I did not even say. 

I have shared that I can have a quick temper, but I am usually quite ready to give up my anger. I do not like it. I certainly do not want to keep a pot simmering just ready to boil over all the time. There is a familiar quote that speaks truth to this: “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” We are all human and I understand how easy it is to carry resentment when you have been wronged, but Jesus knows how that can also eat away at our souls. At my church, we say it every week so we should live the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” All things considered, I would always rather have peace of mind than give someone a piece of my mind. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Cloudy Day

I am feeling down this morning. I cannot put my finger on why. It's nothing and it's everything. When you are blue, it colors the world and all that's in it. Instead of just one thing, it is probably cumulative. It is likely a combination of things happening in my life and in other's. I lament teenagers dying in car accidents, friends who are hurting, the oppressive heat, growing older and watching the news just to name a few. 

I am not worried, though, because I know I will bounce back. I am fortunate my feelings are not clinical depression. I am just in a funk. I am melancholy. I recognize it when it happens and it just has to run its course. I usually try to stay away from other people when a dark cloud descends and just wallow in it until it passes. I also do this to avoid admonitions to "cheer up."
While I do not suffer from depression, many do. We do not like to talk about it. There is still a stigma to it and people can act like depression is contagious. Yes, being around someone who is sad can affect your mood, too, but you are not going to contract actual depression from them.
The church can sometimes be the absolute worst place for those suffering from it. This is because Christians often try to heal depressed people with platitudes. “Snap out of it.” “Count your blessings.” “What do you have to be sad about?” “There are always others worse off than you.” The one that gets under my skin the most is “I am too blessed to be stressed/depressed.” That is a smug, dismissive and callous thing to say to someone with anxiety or depression. You would not say to a cancer patient, “I am too healthy to have a tumor.”
It is not your job or even within your power to heal them. In fact, just about anything you might think of to “fix” them will likely come across as critical or condescending.  We sure do not need to tell people they just “need Jesus” or should read the Bible as some kind of heal-all. The Word does contain some wisdom and support and hope, but not easy answers as such.

To imply someone with depression just needs more faith does more harm than good. Instead, you should practice the art of just being there. Truly listen instead of thinking of the next thing to say. Let them know they are not alone. Offer to take care of small tasks that may seem gargantuan to someone who is depressed. Encourage them to explore treatment and be sincerely supportive of this. These are blessings that will not make depression go away, but may help make the journey more bearable. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

One Particular Harbor

We have a print hanging in our home of a sailboat beached along an abandoned coast that is lined with palm trees leaning out over the water. It is a peaceful scene of muted earth tones in a neat textured frame. For years, I looked at it as just a serene nature landscape. Then one day, I saw there was a little man on the boat. I had just never noticed this tiny sailor before. Now whenever I look at it, my eyes are drawn to this guy who appears to be working with rigging or something.

Now I have questions. Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Did he just arrive at this beach or is he preparing to leave? Is he on an extended journey or is this just a day jaunt? Is he alone? Is it by choice? Is he living off the land and sea? Is he American?  Does he like Jimmy Buffett music?

What happened to my peaceful landscape? It was invaded by a bit of paint shaped like a man. I have an innate drive to find out this fellow’s story. In the vacuum of no narrative, I find myself constructing one for him. Things like: “This was his father’s boat who taught him to sail as a young boy. His dad is gone now, so when he gets to really missing him he takes out the old boat and feels closer to him again.”

This is what I enjoy most about art. Wordless stories. I can admire a beautiful landscape, but add a person or people and it triggers my imagination. I do not know art history or styles or anything that would make me an art snob, but I love art. I sincerely feel sorry for people who just do not have any kind of appreciation for it. It is the same way I feel when people tell me they never dream. Here’s hoping those kinds of people are not the ones who end up making decisions about funding, education or other opportunities that expose our young people to the wide open seas of imagination.

Friday, February 3, 2017

I Pity The Fool

Honestly, whenever I discover or witness acts of discrimination against any group, my first response is anger. I want to somehow take your mean-spirited comments, your racist remarks, your homophobic slurs, your sexist stereotypes, your body shaming or your ignorant judgmental attitude and cram it back down your throat. I had to fight such a compulsion this very day, but I have moved on from my first response to a slightly kinder one… I pity you.

When I pause and really think about it, I genuinely feel sorry for you and your twisted, bitter existence. It’s truly sad that you think it takes putting others down to make you feel better. Let me ask, though…how is that working out for you? Are you actually any happier from mocking someone you consider somehow "less" than you? I suspect this is not the case because that is not how self-loathing is resolved.

Whether you are a believer in Jesus Christ or not, perhaps you know he said to  "Love your neighbor as yourself." I am afraid you are doing exactly that. You actually love your neighbor as little as you love yourself. How else can I explain the hatred flowing from your miserable heart other than deep down you despise your own life on some level? Only a wretched soul could find amusement in the suffering or degradation of others.

It is a tragic situation indeed if you are surrounded only by people that look like you, act like you and think like you. People are naturally drawn to those with whom we have things in common, but there is great truth to the adage “variety is the spice of life.” Some of my fondest memories have come from learning about and experiencing different cultures. My life is enriched by people who are very different from me.

That said, I have also found as I traveled around the world that underneath the superficial and artificial barriers such as skin color, nationality, language and so on that we are all much more similar than not. For example, I had the unexpected delight to discover the African man who ran the camp where I stayed in the middle of the Kenyan savanna was a huge Dolly Parton fan. Who would have thought?

One of the most important things for nearly every human being I have ever met is to know love. Not just the romantic kind, but affection, appreciation and acceptance of who they are. Sometimes to know love, you must first show love. Yeah, it can hurt sometimes, but I’ll take that kind of misery any day over the other kind.  I believe you will find it is a much surer path to joy than the one you are on now.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Final Decision

My morning began early with having to drive my daughter to University of Tennessee campus because she is having car trouble. After dropping her off, I went to the downtown Knoxville church where we had left her vehicle overnight. Neither the fob nor the spare key will open the doors and I try every combination of button pushing and key twisting I can think of. I finally call Nissan and they are puzzled also. I concede momentary defeat and call AAA who responds promptly.

The tow truck driver is especially energetic and friendly and makes what could be an awkward encounter easy. He has to do some extra work because we cannot get into the car to release the emergency brake. We are both engaged in figuring out a way to get in through the trunk (which the fob does open by the way) when we are approached by a young man who looks to be in his 20’s. He is dressed nicely and appears clean and rested.

I presume we are targeted for being in a church parking lot because he leads with “I need ya’ll to pray for me.” I turn my attention to him when he says, “I am trying to make a final decision.” I immediately wonder if he means FINAL-final and brace myself for a pastoral intervention. He then explains he is trying to decide among the many different options and offers he has. So I am put at ease that he is likely talking about employment opportunities. I have noticed through the years that many panhandlers have “just got a job” and need gas money, etc. I begin to expect the extended hand at this point. This is where it gets kind of strange.

You know, it’s hard out here for an East Tennessee country boy with the way the world is now. Especially for a distant cousin of Heath Shular and you know what that means.” Um no, I really don’t get the relevance here. If you do not know, Heath was a popular quarterback for the UT football team back in the early 90’s. The fellow has lost me now and I wish him well with his decision and resume helping the tow truck driver. “Are you broken down?” he asks. Despite the fact that I am freezing my tail off and dealing with a frustrating situation before having my first cup of coffee, I still manage to refrain from responding, “Ya think?”

At this point he slowly wanders off to presumably try his pitch on some of the people heading into the Chocolate Festival at the convention center. The AAA guys laughs, “Well, he was pretty weird, wasn’t he?” He never openly asked for anything but the prayer, so that is what I have given him. He may be a little mentally unstable, so I will ask ya’ll to pray for Heath Shular’s long lost cousin, too.