Saturday, December 30, 2017

Let's Keep Christmas All Year!

Think Christmas is over?  I hope not.  

        We landed in Athens, Greece one year on January 6.  We had heard stories of traffic gridlock in Athens, but on this day the streets were almost empty.  What was going on?  It was Christmas!  Greece and most of the Eastern Orthodox countries don’t observe Christmas on December 25, but January 6 or 7.   

        The birth of Jesus was not even observed in the early church.  The focus was on his death and resurrection and with good reason.  The gospel writers devoted approximately one-third of their writings to the final week in the life of Jesus.  The cross and resurrection are at the very heart of our understanding of the Christian faith.  Two of the four gospels say nothing at all about the Nativity.  Since the crucifixion occurred during Passover, the church knew when to observe it each year.   No one knows when Jesus was actually born, but it wasn’t on December 25 or January 6.  No good shepherd would have his flocks abiding in the fields on a cold winter night. 

        When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, the date of December 25 was selected to celebrate the birth of the savior.  The Romans already had a big celebration named Saturnalia (for the Roman God Saturn) that was held to celebrate the Winter Solstice that they thought was December 25.   It became a natural time to celebrate the birth of God’s only son.

        When the Gregorian calendar was developed, Orthodox churches refused to change from the old Julian calendar.  December 25 on the old Julian calendar is January 6 or 7 on the Gregorian calendar, which is why Christmas is celebrated later in Greece and other Eastern countries.  Hence we have the 12 days of Christmas with a partridge in a pear tree.

        Why stop with 12 days of Christmas?  What if we kept the Christmas spirit of love, kindness, and giving all year?  One of the greatest preachers of the 20th Century, Dr. Peter Marshall, suggested keeping Christmas in a 1950 sermon that we would say today, “went viral.”

        Dr. Marshall with his spell-bounding Scottish brogue proclaimed:  “I thank God for Christmas.  Would that it lasted all year!  For I have observed that at Christmas all the world is a better place, and men and women are move loveable.  Love itself seeps into every heart, and miracles happen.” 

        In this epic sermon Peter Marshall addresses the “sophistication” that says Christmas belongs only to children.  He says, “The older you get, the more it means, if you know what it means.  Christmas, though forever young, grows old along with us.” 

        He concluded his powerful sermon with the challenge to keep Christmas all year.  “So we will not “spend” Christmas or “observe” Christmas.   We will “keep” Christmas in our hearts that we may be kept in its hope.”

        That may be the best New Year’s resolution of all, to keep Christmas all year.  Keep the spirit of generous giving, keep the spirit of kindness, keep the spirit of peace and reconciliation.  My prayer for 2018 is that the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of Christ, will fill us with faith, hope, and love.   Let’s keep Christmas all year!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Called To Preach: Forty Years and Counting

        Forty years ago this month I listened to the words from the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you to be a prophet.”  From the time I was sixteen years old I never had any doubt that God was calling me to be a preacher.  People have asked me how I could know, how could I be certain.  Did I hear a voice? 

        No, I never heard a voice.  It was much louder than that.  It was in my DNA, it is who I am. 

        This calling became official in December of 1977 when my first church ordained me to the Gospel ministry.  Rev. Donald Myers, the retired longtime pastor of the Reidsville First Baptist Church who had been instrumental in my calling to the Pollocksville Baptist Church, delivered a heartfelt sermon in which he told the congregation not to expect me to hit a homerun every Sunday!

        I asked my father to deliver the “charge to the candidate.”  I can’t remember anything he said, but the fact my father was there was all I need to remember.  The church presented me with a Bible and congratulated me on my ordination.  I was a now a bona fide, certified, card carrying, genuine preacher!

        Four decades later with over 2,000 sermons and 500 funerals, plus hundreds of baptisms, weddings, baby dedications, hospital visits, invocations, Bible studies and blessings—I’m still going. 

        As a preacher there are a lot of things I do, and to be honest, a lot of things I could do without.  As in any job or profession there are tedious tasks that come with the territory.  I could do without a lot of the administrative work, meetings, scheduling, and especially listening to complaints.  But I cannot do without preaching.  It is who I am. 

        A lot of people, my family included, told me I should not preach the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  They were concerned with good reason because I had just had gall bladder surgery three days before.  But I told them I could not miss Thanksgiving Sunday.  I had even more reason to be thankful and I wanted to deliver a sermon on gratitude, and that is exactly what I did.  I wasn’t trying to prove a point or be heroic—take my gall bladder out but don’t take away my preaching!   That is who I am!

        I find complete fulfillment in sharing good news.  The word “Gospel” means, “good news.”  When I was in college I had a kindly religion professor, Dr. Mabry Lunceford, who constantly reminded us that “preaching is good news!”  We have the greatest possible news to share:  hope in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness, and even life in the midst of death.   “Why should you be negative,” Dr. Lunceford would ask, “when the Gospel is good news?” 

        In most denominations there is an ordination council that determines whether one can be ordained or not.  There was one member of my ordination council who voted against me.   This old Baptist preacher was an advocate of closed communion.  He believed in an exclusive Gospel and asked me if I thought Baptists should share communion with other denominations.  The question seems tame today, but it was a highly charged issue for him 40 years ago. 

        My answer was that it is the Lord ’s table, not mine, and I would be honored to share communion with whoever the Lord invites to his table.  Well, he didn’t like it and pitched a hissy fit right there in front of God, me, the entire council and the heavenly host.  They finally asked me to leave the room so they could calm him down.  He voted against me, but the rest of the council voted in the affirmative.

        That is one negative vote I am proud to have earned.  If I want to be remembered for anything it is that I preached an inclusive Gospel of love, forgiveness, acceptance and grace.  The Gospel is good news!  For everyone!   I’ve only had forty years to share it—I hope to have many more, because I was called to be a preacher!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Taking Care of Momma

      On a hot summer morning an old, green pickup truck pulled into the parking lot of the funeral home in LA (lower Alabama).  Larry looked out the window and said, “Well, I declare.  There’s old Chess.  I haven’t seen him in ages.”

        Chess was a tall, lanky farmer dressed in overalls.   He slowly got out of the pickup and made his way to the front door where Larry greeted him.

        “It’s a sad day, Larry,” he said.  “Momma died last night.”

        “I’m sorry Chess.  She’s been sick for a while, hasn’t she?”

        “Long time, Larry.  Long time.  It’s a blessing.  She’s not suffering anymore.” 

        Larry had known Chess for years and his compassion was genuine.  He waited as Chess pulled a red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes.  After a moment Larry said, “Chess, tell me where Momma is and we will go pick her up.”

        “I didn’t want to bother you with that,” Chess said.  “You know how far out the farm is.  I brought Momma in.  She’s in the truck.” 

        Larry and I rolled the stretcher out to the pickup and sure enough, there was Momma.  She still had her nightclothes on and Chess have carefully wrapped her in a sheet.  We gently picked her up and rolled her into the funeral home as Chess watched.

        Chess had been taking care of Momma for years as her health declined.  When she died, driving Momma to the funeral home seemed like the natural thing to do for this old, country farmer.  He took care of Momma all the way to the end. 

        Taking care of Momma is something a lot of us have been doing.  As we get older we need to be thinking about the day when our children may be taking care of us.  There are several things we can do to make this easier.

        The most important thing is to talk about these issues.  If I am incapacitated and not capable of making decisions on my own, what do I want as I approach the end of life?  Do I want to be kept alive by every possible means?  Would I want a feeding tube?  What if my heart stops?  Do I want the doctors to attempt to resuscitate me?   Do I want to donate my organs?  What would I like for my funeral?

        As my mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, my brother and I have talked about these issues.  We have been to the funeral home and planned her funeral.  We have DNR orders (Do Not Resuscitate), and my brother is the healthcare power of attorney. 

        One of the greatest gifts you can give to your children is to make end of life decisions while you can.   These include Advance Directives, Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney, Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment (MOST), DNR orders, organ donation, and funeral plans. 

        Many attorneys specialize in Advance Directives, but these forms are also available online.  Your doctor and our healthcare systems all are willing to talk with you about these decisions.  Our funeral homes are always ready to work with you on final arrangements.  And as a minister, I have always appreciated those who have shared their final wishes with me. 

        The Bible says there is a time to be born and a time to die.  Sadly, I see many people who are living past their time to die.  They are not really living, but their bodies are still functioning through artificial means.  I don’t think anyone wants to exist this way.  In most of these cases Advance Directives were not made and the family was left making the difficult and heart-wrenching decision of what to do with Momma. 

        Chess took care of Momma to the end.  It was the natural thing for him to do.  We can take care of Momma and take care of our children by planning ahead.  It’s the natural thing to do! 



Thursday, November 2, 2017

Holy Wisdom Under the Tuscan Sky

The view was stunning: the entire experience surreal.  In a moment that will be forever frozen in time, I heard words of wisdom that will last a lifetime.
        In the beautiful, rolling Tuscan hills south of Florence in Italy, there is a little town on the top a hill that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale.  The Medieval City of San Gimignano was once one of the most powerful and wealthy cities in Italy.  The walled city can be seen from miles in every direction, as all medieval cities were elevated for defensive purposes.  It rests on an ancient Etruscan road, later a Roman Road, used by Peter and Paul, and then it became one of the most important pilgrims’ roads that led all the way from Canterbury, England to Rome, the Via Francigena.
        In medieval times rich families would build towers to display their wealth, the more money you had, the taller the tower.  At one point there were 72 towers in San Gimignano, including two identical twin towers that the architects of the Twin Towers in New York City studied.  Today there are 14 towers remaining.  From a distance, the towers rising from the walled city give the appearance of a fairy tale castle. One of those towers belongs to a friend of ours, a charismatic, charming man by the name of Pierluigi Giachi. 
        A number of years ago a large group of folks from Lexington traveled to Italy.  We covered that exotic country from the gorgeous lake country in the north to the ruins of Pompeii in the south.  The trip had many amazing highlights, but no one will ever forget visiting a lovely Tuscan winery and meeting Pierluigi.  He charmed the ladies, he entertained the men, and we left feeling like family.  Joyce and I found Pierluigi when we returned to Italy in 2010 and he welcomed us like long lost friends.
        Last month with a small group of friends we reconnected with Pierluigi.  This time he invited us into his home which resides in a 1400 year old tower in San Gimignano.  After socializing on a gorgeous terrace overlooking the valley below, he invited us to climb to the top of the tower. 
        Someone has said, “Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”  This was one of those moments.  As I stood on top of the tower, surrounded by indescribable beauty, listening as my magnanimous friend regaled us with his story, I recalled the happy experience, the laughter and delight we enjoyed the first time we met this consummate Italian.  And then I remembered three dear friends who shared that experience with us years ago:  Bob and Marge Team and Bill Delapp. 
        I told Pierluigi how special moments like this were and shared with him that three of our close friends who were with us on the first trip had passed away.  He paused for a moment as he processed my words.  What happened next can only be described as “Hagia Sophia” (Holy Wisdom).
        Looking at me with tears in his eyes he said, “Ray, we all live under the sky.  Every day is a gift.  We must “Carpe Diem” –Seize the Day!” 
        Wow!  His profound words are still reverberating through my mind and heart.  I will never forget what he said and I hope I will incarnate his words into my life each day.  I can seize the day by living a life of gratitude, generosity, and service.  I can be positive when others are negative.  I can be redemptive when others are judgmental.  I can be kind when others are cruel. 

        We are all children of God, we all live under the sky.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Like Stepping Back In Time

It’s like stepping back in time.  Back to a simpler way of life, before computers, before smart phones, before ipads and ipods and even before television.   It is stepping back into the real world with cows and horses, chickens and rabbits, tomatoes and pumpkins, pies and cakes, quilts and cross stitch, woodworking and painting.  It’s blue ribbons, drawing for bicycles, and listening to local bands.  It’s fireworks and the dazzling lights of the midway.  It’s Polish sausage with peppers and onions, country ham, candied apples, ice cream, and cotton candy.  It’s the 72nd annual edition of the Davidson County Agricultural Fair and it starts on September 18. 

        I love the fair.  Beyond the sights and sounds, beyond the enticing aromas and exciting events such as Senior Citizen Thursday, the Davidson County Beauty Pageant, the livestock shows, and the Diaper Derby, it is just the experience of returning to a simpler way of life where you greet your neighbors face to face rather than on Facebook.  It’s all about having some good, old-fashioned fun and indulging in a tempting slice of authentic Americana. 

        There is another reason, a deeper reason that I love the fair.  It’s about helping other people.  The Lexington Kiwanis Club sponsors the fair to provide the revenue to help children in Davidson County. 

        Each summer approximately 180 deserving children who have been selected by the Department of Social Services experience a week of summer camp that costs their family nothing.  All of these children will have a great week of activity and fun, but the camp means even more to some.  Kamp Kiwanis is a safe haven, a reprieve from the hard life that many of these children live each day.  These children are fed, loved, encouraged and protected at camp.  For many it is the highlight of their year.

        Kamp Kiwanis started almost 90 years ago, back in 1928.  From the beginning it was an expensive endeavor.  In 1945 the club was granted permission to sponsor the annual agricultural fair to generate the funds needed to run the camp.  Seventy-two years later we are still sponsoring the fair to provide the needed revenue for Kamp Kiwanis.

        When the members of the Kiwanis Club visit the camp in the summer, the children are eager to thank us and tell us what they love the most.  I will never forget one little boy with the biggest smile whose face was smeared with icing asking me, “Are you a Kiwanzian?”  I thought about it for just a moment before quickly responding, “Yes.  Yes I am a Kiwanzian!”  The little fellow looked at me with the most sincere expression and said, “I sure do thank you for all this good stuff.”

        One little girl told me she loved Kamp Kiwanis more than Christmas, because “I don’t get anything at Christmas.”  Another girl said “they give a lot of hugs,” (hugs she did not get at home) and another said, “I think about it all the time.  When is this day going to come?”

        But the most poignant reminders of the importance of our camp are the children who come to camp hungry.   One little boy ate three plates of food the first night at camp as he shared he had not eaten in two days.  This is why you will see the dedicated members of the Kiwanis Club parking cars and selling gate tickets at the fair.  This is why we love the fair.  

        When you visit the Davidson County Fair, step into the fair office and see a picture that was drawn by a little girl.  It is a simple drawing of a dinner plate.  She wrote, “The thing I like the best about Kamp Kiwanis is that I get three meals a day.”  Kamp Kiwanis provides food, shelter, love and encouragement to children who need it the most—It’s like stepping back in time.

        The Davidson County Fair is September 18 – 23 and I will be working the gate or I will be on the PA.  I hope to see you at the Fair!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Slipping Away Into a Foreign World That We Cannot Enter

        I’ve put this column off long enough.  I started to write it on Mother’s Day, but I couldn’t do it.  Maybe I’m in denial.  Perhaps if I don’t write about it things will improve. But I know that is not true.  Things are not improving, they are getting worse.  My mother has Alzheimer’s disease.  I can’t say this with 100% certainty, neither can a doctor.  It is only after death that Alzheimer’s can irrefutably be diagnosed.  But it really doesn’t matter what you call it---my mother is slipping away. 

When I moved to North Carolina to attend seminary 41 years ago, I became a permanent Tar Heel.  My Alabama home is a ten hour drive away.  With the exception of occasional visits, our primary contact has been the phone.  I would faithfully call my mother every Sunday afternoon.  She would update me on family news and tell me who had died in the community.  We would compare notes about our church services.  (She doesn’t like the new music they sing in her church.)  She would tell me about a television show she enjoyed watching.   And we would talk again the next Sunday.

        It was just a few years ago that my mother retired from the furniture business.  When I first moved to Lexington she was still coming to the Furniture Market once a year.  Her health finally prevented her from coming to the market and then she started having problems at her store.  There were times she couldn’t remember how to transfer a call.  She was forgetting things and she was tired all the time.  We finally convinced her to retire but she wasn’t happy about it. 

        I started to call her more often.  She was having issues walking and fell more than once.  Her mind was playing tricks on her.  One night she kept calling my brother, who lived about 30 miles away, to tell him she couldn’t get the children who were playing in the yard to come in and it was raining.  She was so persistent he finally drove to the house.  There were no children.  But Mother had been standing in the rain calling for them to come in.

        After she fell one night and spent all night on the floor, we knew we needed to do something.   We found her a very nice assisted living center.  She adjusted fairly well and because she was getting three meals a day and taking her medications as prescribed, she improved physically and mentally.  I would now call her 3 or 4 times a week.  She seemed satisfied and we would sometimes talk for 15 or 20 minutes.  We were planning to have a family reunion this summer, but it would not happen.

        My mother is in a nursing home now.   She can’t walk; she can’t even get up out of the bed by herself.  She has to have assistance eating.  She doesn’t know how to answer the phone anymore.  She is slipping away into a foreign world that we cannot enter. 

        Over 20 years ago I told a narrative story one Sunday of a lady who had Alzheimer’s.  The story was fictitious, but it was much more powerful than I anticipated.  It affected a few people so deeply that they had to leave the sanctuary.  These were family members who had a loved one with Alzheimer’s. 

        Even though I have had many church members and friends who have been down this painful path, I could only sympathize with them until now.  Now I am walking with them and the pain is much greater than I imagined. 

        In my story the woman with Alzheimer’s was slipping away to a happy place in her past.  She was surrounded by family and friends, sitting on the front porch of her childhood home.   She was comforted by their presence. 

        My mother was an orphan.  She didn’t have a happy childhood.   But as she slips away from us I hope she is going to a place of joy and comfort where she is surrounded by love.  That is our hope, is it not?  Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us in the Father’s house where there are many rooms.   The greatest promise is:  “Where I am, there you will be also.”  Wherever this foreign world of Alzheimer’s is, my prayer is that my mother will not be alone and that she will be comforted.  I have to believe that this promise is true.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Son of the South Speaks of the Confederate Flag

        I’m a true Son of the South.  I was actually born in Dixieland early on one frosty morn in the old Southern state of Alabama where “Heart of Dixie” was proclaimed on each license plate, Jefferson Davis pie was a staple on the dessert plate, and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was never sung in church because it was a Yankee song.  My brother and I both had little Confederate uniforms to wear and one Christmas I received a Civil War solider set with 100s of blue and gray toy soldiers.  In Alabama it was never “The Civil War” but “The War of Northern Aggression,” “The Lost Cause,” or “The Glorious Cause.”  Robert E. Lee’s birthday was an official state holiday but not Memorial Day because it was Yankee holiday. 

        My great-great grandfather was Captain  John Karns McBride of the 9th Alabama Infantry.  He lost an arm at Gettysburg and was captured by the Yankees.  He was so thin and ragged by the time he returned home his wife did not recognize him.  Yet, his war heroics followed him into a political career and became legendary.  The local chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy still bears his name and I understand there is a statue of Captain McBride in Lawrence County Alabama although I have never seen it. 

        Fighting General Joe Wheeler is also one of my family ancestors.  My mother grew up an orphan and General Wheeler’s daughter, Miss Annie, was always kind to my mother and her brother, passing down clothes including one of the General’s military winter coats for my uncle to wear.  I’m such a true southern boy that when I moved to North Carolina some thought I had betrayed my heritage by moving to a state that had the word “North” attached to it.

        While I am proud of my southern heritage and the courage and valor of my Confederate ancestors, I am not proud of the cause for which they fought.  We were taught it was about economics and states’ rights and Northern interference and aggression.  Very little was said about slavery which was the foundational cause of the war.  I realize that most of the Southern soldiers were not fighting for lofty moral or philosophical reasons.  I doubt if my ancestors who fought in the war owned slaves and I have no clue how they felt about slavery.  They were fighting out of obligation, loyalty, and for the defense of their home state.  But they were on the wrong side of history.  This war was anything but glorious.

        I have stated my Southern credentials to say this:  there is no place in civil society for symbols of hatred and violence and the Confederate flag is one of the most reprehensible symbols of hatred today.  Those who claim it represents their Southern heritage are simply delusional.  It doesn’t represent my heritage.  It’s not the flag that Alabama or North Carolina soldiers fought under.  It was the battle flag of Northern Virginia that was only used at the very end of the war.  This flag should have been retired when the war ended, but it was high-jacked by the Klu Klux Klan and later became the ugly symbol of those who were opposed the civil rights movement.  Now it represents White Supremacy.  The flag belongs in a museum, not in the public arena. 

        I shudder to think what would have happened if the south had actually won the war.  How long would the inhumane and ungodly practice of slavery have continued?  I am thankful that it was a “lost cause.”   Government of the people, by the people, and for the people did not perish from the face of the earth—thanks be to God.  It took several generations for healing to take place, but today we are all thankful we are a United States of America, that we are “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

        When Robert E. Lee died at his request there were no Confederate flags at his funeral.  He wrote, “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war.”  Over 150 years later there are those who continue to keep open the sores of war and hatred.  It is time, past time, to remove the Confederate flags once and for all.  The Apostle John wrote, “He who does not love his brother cannot love God.” (1 John 4: 20)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Still Pondering One of Life's Unanswered Questions

It was the first day of 5th grade and the venerable Miss Thompson, bless her dear heart, had us all excited. “This will be a year of discovery!” she announced with great fanfare.  “If you take a pound of nails and a pound of feathers and drop them out of this window, which will hit the ground first?”

Immediately we said, “The nails!”  But then, “Wait, she said a pound of feathers.  A pound of feathers will be a lot bigger than a pound of nails.  Maybe they will hit the ground at same time, maybe not.”

As the class enthusiastically debated the question, Miss Thompson called for quiet.  “As I said, this will be a year of discovery and that will be just one of the many exciting experiments we will conduct this year.” 

It was a great first day of school.   We couldn’t wait to run home and tell our parents about all of the amazing truths we would discover in the 5th grade.  The problem was, it never happened.  We never learned about those feathers and nails.  We didn’t conduct any exciting experiments.  The 5th grade proved to be tedious, laborious, and boring.  Some of the parents were saying Miss Thompson was too old to be teaching.  It was time for her to step down.  And that is exactly what she did, well sort of. . .

The day after school ended in May, the aged Miss Thompson, bless her dear heart, graduated to that great classroom in the sky.  Then we all felt terrible about all of those things we had said about her.  Those same parents who said she was too old were now full of sympathy.  “It’s no wonder she couldn’t do much,” they said.  “She was sick, very sick.  We just didn’t know.”  

The 6th grade was a lot better and as the school year came to a close, we prepared for our 6th grade graduation, which was a really big deal in our little town.  We practiced for weeks, marching into the storied old auditorium with its sloping floor and old wooden seats with the decorative metal frames.  Our graduation song was Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Climb Every Mountain.” 

On graduation day with the hot auditorium packed with parents dressed in their Sunday finest and little brothers and sisters anxious for it to end, we marched in our caps and gowns and sang our theme song with gusto.  Then Mr. Gilbert, our crotchety old principal who had apparently appointed himself to be the keynote speaker, stood before the packed assembly with his best suit, narrow tie and wingtip shoes, while everyone used their programs to fan for air.

It had been old Mr. Gilbert who had marched us into that same auditorium in the 2nd grade to soberly tell us that John Glenn was about to burn up in space (he didn’t) and in the 4th grade to somberly announce that President Kennedy had been shot and killed (he had).  But on this day he arduously invoked the memory of Miss Thompson, our dearly departed 5th grade teacher, bless her dear heart.  He dramatically intoned that we were her last class, the final students to hear her voice.  Directing his attention to the fanning parents he caustically stated that she had many more years of teaching left undone.  There were many more lessons she should have taught and many more students she should have guided.  But the terrible stress she was under (he paused to let that sink in) certainly hastened her celestial commencement. 

Having thoroughly scolded the parents, he then directed his harangue at us—the 6th grade graduates.  Thinking he was Abraham Lincoln he intoned, “You must be dedicated to that great task remaining before you.  You must give increased devotion to that cause for which she gave her last full measure of devotion.  You must climb every mountain and ford every stream, follow every rainbow until you find your dream.  Miss Thompson’s legacy is dependent on you!”  We rose to our feet in animated applause, grateful that the jeremiad was finally over. 

I have heard many graduation speeches since then, most of the words long forgotten.  But I often think about Mr. Gilbert’s brusque graduation address and have wondered how in the world I could climb every mountain if Miss Thompson never answered the question, “If you took a pound of nails and a pound of feathers . . .” Bless her dear heart!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Old Man Clemmons

Old Man Clemmons was feared by every child in town. The stories of his screeching screams and bizarre behavior were scarier than ghost stories, because we all knew they were true.

I was one of the few children who had actually encountered Mr. Clemmons, who lived next door to my grandmother. One afternoon we were playing baseball in her back yard when the ball landed in Mr. Clemmons’ flower bed. I was elected to go and retrieve the ball. I should have been concerned when all of the other children took cover in the shrubbery beside my grandmother’s house. I had just stepped into the flower bed when I heard the high-pitched scream. “Get out of my yard!”

He was standing on the front porch, his face red with anger, his words dripping with venomous rage. He was a short man with a square face and wire-framed glasses. Forgetting about the baseball, I ran away as fast as I could. Mr. Clemmons must have seen the other children hiding in the shrubbery because the last thing I heard behind me was a wailing scream, “All of you kids! Leave me alone!”

Out of breath and grateful that we had all survived, the neighborhood children regrouped at my house. It was then that one of the Chunn boys revealed the deep, dark secret that none of us wanted to hear. “You’re lucky,” he told me. “That old guy is a madman. At least he screamed and ran you off, because he has been known to capture kids and hold them prisoner.”

We were all terrified at this revelation. Finally, someone had the courage to ask the question that we feared would be answered, “What does he do with them?”

“He has a laboratory in his cellar,” the Chunn boy told us. “We think he runs experiments on kids. One thing I do know is that whenever a kid has been captured, you never hear from him again.”

A few weeks later I was at my grandmother’s house when, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a siren and the rotating red light that was flashing through the room. I looked out the window and saw an ambulance and a police car at Mr. Clemmons’ house. I raised the window and heard a terrifying scream. I found my grandmother on the front porch talking to some neighbors who had gathered in the yard. I heard someone say they were giving him morphine to calm him down. “You know he has a steel plate in his head,” somebody said.

I kept my distance from the Clemmons’ house. But one day when I was older, my grandmother asked me to do the unthinkable. “Mr. Clemmons needs somebody to mow his yard,” she said. He would not allow a power mower. I had to use a rusty old push mower, and it took me half a day to complete the job. When I was finished he walked out of the house and, not saying a word, took a wallet out of his pocket that was covered with rubber bands. With trembling hands he pulled out three, $1 bills. Not a thank you or job well done — just three, measly dollars for a half-day of hard labor.

I mowed his yard for a few years and then found a decent job when I started high school. As graduation neared, everyone was talking about Vietnam. Some of our classmates had been killed, others injured. One day a visitor came to school and talked to us about what it means to risk your life in the service of your country. He told us about a man who lived in our town, a decorated war veteran, he said. “This man was gassed and critically injured by shrapnel in the First World War. A steel plate was placed in his head, but not a day goes by that he does not suffer. He is often in intense pain. He can’t stand any noise, not even the sound of a power mower. He will suffer for the rest of his life because of his injuries. But you and I are free because of him. He is a genuine hero. We should all be grateful for his sacrifice.” I looked for the Chunn boy but couldn’t find him. Then I looked at myself and felt ashamed.

Thank you Mr. Clemmons for the great sacrifice you gave for our country. As we approach Memorial Day, let us not only remember those who died, but those whose lives were traumatically and irrevocably changed because of war. We will be forever grateful.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

You Don't Need A SmartPhone To Connect With God

      The Apostle Paul knew how to connect with people.  He would go where the people were to share the good news and in the first century, this was most often the town square.  Town squares were the marketplaces and the social gathering places in times past.  This is where conversations happened, ideas were exchanged and debated, and networking took place.  For Paul who was “called to be an Apostle and set apart for good news” (Romans 1: 1) the town square became his favorite forum, perhaps most famously the Areopagas in Athens. 

        Town squares are no longer the center of social discourse and debate.  Social media is where people are gathering, debating, discussing ideas and connecting with others.  If you want to be relevant in today’s world you need to be connected through social media. 

Social media is no longer a fad; it is established in our culture.  We are learning that social media is the best way to share news about our church family.  The new “front door” to the church is through social media and the web.  The Apostle Paul would be all over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  He wrote: “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9: 22)  Used effectively, social media can be a positive and powerful channel for sharing the good news of Jesus.  But, there is a downside.

For many, social media is not social at all.  In fact, studies are revealing that the more time people spend on social media, the more isolated, lonely, and depressed they tend to be.  It’s not difficult to see why this is true.  Just look around the next time you are in a restaurant or a public place and see how many people are completely absorbed in their smartphones.  I have observed families who are eating together, but no one is talking to each other; mother, father, teenagers, even small children are lost in their own worlds glued to their phones. 

I will be the first to confess that I am addicted to my phone.  The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check for messages and emails.  Then I read the news on several different sites including The Dispatch, look at the weather, check the baseball scores, and occasionally I will open Facebook to see what everyone else is doing.  I can also use my phone to listen to music and audio books, make hotel and air reservations, monitor how far I walked during the day, check the exchange rate between the dollar and the Euro, and in one of my favorite apps, check to see if the moon is waxing or waning!  And, oh yes I almost forgot—I can actually make phone calls!  Smartphones have changed the way we live, but we must be careful that they do not control us or isolate us, and that is what is happening with too many people.  

When God created the heavens and the earth he rested on the seventh day.  He also established a Sabbath day because he knew that a day of rest, a time to reconnect with God, to step back and reflect, meditate and worship was essential to the well being of humankind.   But by Jesus’ day the Sabbath had become a day of duty and obligation.  It was controlling and demanding rather than renewing and liberating.   Jesus brought it all into focus when he said, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.”  (Mark 2: 27 CEB)

Back when the internet was first created (Al Gore, right?); it was designed to be a powerful tool to serve humanity.  This has proven to be true many times over and the advent of social media has only magnified its power.  But when social media becomes addictive and controlling, when families don’t talk to each other because they are lost in their Facebook worlds, when social skills are diminished because of social media, and when we don’t have time to thank God because we are too busy thanking others for “liking” our posts, it is time for a Sabbath. 

You don’t need a smartphone to be connected with God.  In fact, you can connect much better with God without your device.  He knows what you are thinking without you even having to post it.  Try it.  You will be surprised what you have been missing.