I’m peddling as fast as I can!

It was one of those days.  As I rolled out this morning (well, yesterday as I write this), I actually thought that it would be a great day.  A Superman day.  You know,  a tights-and-capes, leap-tall-buildings-with-a-single-bound, no-challenge-too-big-to-conquer kind of day.  I’m trying to comprehend what went wrong, but can’t really put my finger on any one event.  I think the beginning of the trouble must have been the running out of milk thing.  Oh, and no instant breakfast, even if there had been a drop of milk in the house.  Ah well, no matter…Onward and upward!  There are damsels in distress to kill and horrible giants to save.  Wait!  That didn’t come out right.  You see what happens when you don’t have a good breakfast?

I won’t bore you with the details of the day, but the best I can do is to say that the damsels didn’t want to be saved and the giants were notable in their absence.  Have you ever noticed that on the really bad days, it’s not usually anything earth-shaking that causes the most disturbance?  Big problems, I can tackle head-on and I know when the task is finished.  It’s the insignificant issues, those little things that wouldn’t merit a second glance if they came in their proper turn to annoy you, that make your carefully ordered world come crashing down when they arrive in droves, as they tend to do so frequently.

My schedule didn’t gel as it should have, must-do jobs were interrupted by trivial phone calls (probably not so to the caller),  my carefully guarded morning marred by  disturbances (deliveries, repairmen, etc.), and not one objective that I needed desperately to reach was completed on time.  A thirty-minute job stretched out to an hour and a half, with other deadlines looming.  One repair which had been assessed by my expert eye as a “snap”, turned out to be just that, literally, with no less than three parts breaking in the process of disassembling the instrument.  Indefatigable salesmen, of late a rare breed, came out of the woodwork today, undoubtedly having been apprised of the situation by Lex Luthor. Having missed my customary morning repast of milk and instant breakfast, it was entirely fitting that the full line-up of the day kept me from my lunch until almost 4:30 in the afternoon.  Needless to say, my PB&J sandwich was eaten standing up

On this day, the avalanche of customers, vendors, and inanimate objects (which seemed to be imbued with life), proved to be too much for this superman.  Not quite so bad as kryptonite, but more like someone standing on your cape all day long.  By the middle of the afternoon, I was beaten and whining like a dog in a thunderstorm, but I persevered, running in place until the lights were turned out and the door locked against the perpetrators.

Come to think of it, I still sound like I’m whining.  Any of you reading this have had equally bad days, marred by worse problems, and probably at a heavier velocity than mine.  We all have them.  Some of us hold up better than others, but we get through them.  Better times lie ahead and we know it.  This evening, the Lovely Lady agreed to a quiet meal at a local eatery and I found, as we sat and talked, enjoying each other’s company and the good food, the epic struggle of the day faded into non-importance.  We’ve seen worse days and come through in fine shape. 

I have to remember not to start believing my own hype.  I’m not Superman and can’t leap buildings in a single bound, but neither is there any kryptonite that can cripple me.  When I believe either the hype or the scare-tactics, I set myself up for an unnecessary fall.  What is true and not hype at all, is that God allows us to develop skills and He gifts us in various and unique ways.  All we have to do is to be faithful in using that which is given to us.  Bad days and good days are guaranteed, but in the long haul, what counts is our commitment to the goal.  Hang in there!

Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
(1 Corinthians 4:2 NIV)


Pay it forward.  Random act of kindness.  We have all heard the buzzwords and have an idea of what they are.  I wonder how many of us have been the beneficiary of such an act.  If you have, do you remember how it felt?  Did it change you, give you a different perception of the people around you?

While I know that I am the constant recipient of these acts in a small way, there was a period of time, several years ago, in which we not only benefited from a number of them, but actually were in dire need of them.  It was an uncomfortable time, to put it bluntly.  You might also say, an embarrassing span of time.  I use the word embarrassing because I remember, it was during this chapter of life that I first really became cognizant of the term “financially embarrassed”, and I’m certain that I was also aware of the meaning in a very personal way. It unquestionably had a direct application to our condition.

It was not too many years after we had purchased the music store from my in-laws.  Business wasn’t deplorable, but it wasn’t booming either.  We had enough to pay our bills and that was about it.  We had even been able to put back a couple of thousand dollars and were planning to replace the ancient old roof on our two-story Victorian home with it.   But I guess we needed to learn about giving and receiving, more than we needed to be self-sufficient.

A chain of events would make crystal clear how closely our lives were intertwined with our friends, family, and church.  We loaned our van (which was essential to our business) to a group of students going to Florida for a mission trip.  “It uses oil,”  I told the young man in charge.  “I guarantee you will need to add some, so just check it every time you fill up with gas.”  Receiving assurances that he would, the van left, loaded to capacity with kids and equipment and pulling a small trailer.  The following Saturday morning, the desperate call came; the motor had burned up and they were stranded in Mobile, Alabama.  It appears that, not being experienced in such matters, he had religiously checked the dipstick at every fill-up, just not the engine oil dipstick.  He had been checking the transmission fluid, which hadn’t moved a millimeter the whole trip!  Since no oil was added at all, the motor seized up and was scrap.

What a disaster!  Not only was the van dead, but they wanted us to come get them.  This is where the amazing giving from others started, although right at the time, it was difficult for us to appreciate.  One good friend and his wife offered to go with me and did so completely at their own expense, towing a trailer with which we could retrieve the van.  Another friend offered his van to bring the kids back in, which we did over the weekend.  After we returned with the crippled van on the trailer, a local mechanic offered to rebuild the motor at a greatly reduced price, but even so, our roof fund was depleted in the process.

Time after time, through the months to come, gifts were handed to us, or a little cash slipped into my hand, even some gift certificates for the local grocery store were left in the mailbox.  But the icing on the cake came when our friend Jim, who teaches building construction at the local university, called and told us that we were going to get that new roof put on the house.  We would need to buy the materials, but all the labor would be provided in the way of friends, most from our church, who had volunteered to spend whatever time it took to get it done.

What a week!  The two-story house had eaves which, in places were 20 feet off the ground, and the pitch of the roof was incredibly steep.  Scaffold was built, old shingles pulled off (with 85 year-old Mr. Hood picking most of it up off the ground), materials lifted up by crane (also provided at no expense to us), new decking installed and building felt and shingles laid down.  The description of the endeavor could never draw an adequate picture, but I will always remember Dr. B plunging through the rotten porch roof and catching himself before dropping to the floor below, as well as Ray sliding off the decking up at the twenty-foot level, only to catch himself on the railing of our make-shift scaffold, short of plunging to the ground before.  As we were building the railing, Jim had quipped, “It’s only for a visual.  It would never stop anybody from going over.”  How glad we were that he was wrong!  And what a great time of fellowship and fun together!

Words cannot describe the gratitude!  Even now, 20 years later, I get choked up as I think of the sacrifice of time, effort, and yes, even money these folks willingly gave to us.  There was no expectation of repayment, no feeling of obligation, just an offering freely imparted to friends.   And, while it was indeed a humbling experience for us to need the help, there was no sense of arrogance, no negative air of largesse in the benefactors.  These were friends, doing what friends do, simply because that is how friendship works.

I wish that I can say that I have proven myself worthy of the gift.  I would like to be able to point to the great deeds that I have done as a result of that wonderful period, but I cannot.  What I can tell you is that I do frequently find myself looking for the hidden things that need to be done for others.  I’m not great at it.  Some times, I hear about needs after they have been filled by others more gifted in seeing the disguised opportunities and wonder how I missed them.  But we can only live by the light that is given to us.  I’ve had opportunities and at times have come through with flying colors.

I’m going to keep working at it.  Hopefully, I’ll keep getting better at it.  But, if you see me slacking off and not helping out where I’m needed, a quick reminder of that time when I needed some random acts of kindness should be enough to get the fire lit under me.  I would hate to be the “Knave” in Mr. Franklin’s note below, who stops the progress of the gift.  I’m doing my best to keep paying it forward as long as I’m able.

I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money. ~Benjamin Franklin in a letter dated April 22, 1784

Give us this day our daily…Candy?

Every weekday afternoon, like clockwork, they arrive.  The walkers, those youngsters whose parents haven’t yet succumbed to the fear that our society has instilled in most.  We call the religious extremists from the east “terrorists”, yet the more subtle terror that has changed our whole lifestyle has come from inside our culture: the bullies, the child molesters, even the estranged spouses.  For fear of these constitutionally-protected terrorists, most parents don’t dare allow their children to even walk home from school anymore.   

Yet every school day, here they come.  Not as many as there used to be, but they push their way through the front door to cluster around the front counter.  What draws them?  No, they’re not interested in making music.  Well…except for banging on the drums a few times, or flicking their fingers across the strings on a cool, heavy-metal guitar that draws their eyes.  But that doesn’t hold their interest long on any given day.  They don’t even want to look at the neat toys that all guitarists crave, the multi-effects boxes, the digital tuners, or even the all-important guitar picks.  No, what brings them in every day is the container on the counter.  Free suckers.  Cheap candy, purchased from whichever store is offering the lowest price this week.  Dum-Dums, mostly…if the very name doesn’t invite a comment about the state of education today, nothing does, but I’ll rise above the temptation and move on.

We talk briefly, reminding them that the trash can is where we throw the wrappers, not in the parking lot.  Bored, slightly irritated faces look back at us.  They’ve heard it before, but most of them readily respond.  They want the ritual to continue, ad infinitum, simply because you can’t beat a free sucker everyday, so the easy compensation of compliance with our silly request is paid.  Then, with a “see you tomorrow,” they all rush out the door, to spend a few moments jumping the rock garden next door before they renew their trek for home or on to the Boy’s & Girl’s club down the street.

As the ruckus subsides, we smile and go about our regular work, sometimes answering the anticipated question, “Why do you give them candy?  They’re not going to buy anything.”  After being in business for 25 years, we’ve figured out that profit is only a small part of why we show up here everyday.  Even if we didn’t know that these are the same kids who will appear with their parents in a few years to buy the band instruments, the guitars and amplifiers, and even the banjos or mandolins, we’d still give them the candy.  We like kids!  Many of these youngsters don’t know any adults, except for the ones who tell them to stand up straight, stay in line, and get their pencils out for a test today.  We want to be a friendly face, just somebody who they enjoy seeing everyday.  Maybe they’ll even see us in the grocery store and point us out to their parents.  “Hey, those are the people who give me candy after school.”  Kids need to see that adults aren’t their enemies or people to be afraid of, but in the right circumstance, we can be friends.

I like to say that we’re doing what Jesus asked us to do, when he said to give “cups of cold water to the little ones”.  It’s not exactly the same as cold water on a hot, dusty day, but the idea is the same.  Kindness seems to be the exception, rather than the rule in our society, and this is an easy means for us to remedy that in a  small way.

The annual Beggar’s Night is coming up this week and I will freely admit that I’m not an enthusiast.  My general perception of the process follows:  Greedy children will coerce fearful homeowners to give them handfuls of sweets, with the threat of vandalism unless the treat is forthcoming.  That’s an oversimplification, but the result is the same.  Every years millions of dollars worth of candy are stuffed into bags and then into the children’s mouths, mostly to the benefit of the vendors of said candy.  We watch as children (whose parents could easily afford the candy themselves) are carted to various neighborhoods to ring the doorbells of strangers and beg over and over for something that they have absolutely no need for.

I really am not an angry old miser, but gifts should be bestowed because the benefactor has a desire to give freely, not because he or she is forced to it.  I love giving to children, but when they have the expectation, they’re far less likely to be truly grateful.  It’s kind of like Grace.  We are surprised by the magnanimous, undeserved and lavish gift that we can only thank God for.  No payment, no coercion on our part could ever have opened the floodgates of Heaven, yet freely, unstintingly the gift comes to us.  How could we be ungrateful?

I know there are many parents who enjoy the holiday to allow their children to dress up and go to a few, carefully selected friend’s homes, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  It seems that in a very real way, the night actually takes on the nature of its reputation in some locales as “devil’s night”.  So, I’m not a fan and may just find a way, later this week, to hang out where I can’t be found until the day (and night) is over.

But, on the subject of giving freely, one of our good friends has a habit of showing up where she’s needed without warning.  A loaf of bread, the components for a complete meal, or just some flowers, find their way into the place before you know what’s going on.  This is the way that lives are changed, and sagging spirits are inspired to soar again.  Over the years in our store, we’ve had the joy of serving kids who grew up to be parents and then grandparents.  Hopefully, we’ve had some small part in forming who they and their children have become.  You may not choose to give suckers, or bread, or flowers, but there are opportunities in every person’s life to do small deeds which reap large rewards in time.  I hope you’ll look for them and do something about it.

While we try to teach our children all about life,
Our children teach us what life is all about.

(Angela Schwindt, published in Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes 1997)

Fall turns over a new leaf

Fall isn’t my favorite season of the year.  I’m guessing that right about now, that’s tantamount to heresy around here, but I cannot live a falsehood.  For all its colorful beauty, Autumn is simply prelude to the dreary, depressing Winter that is invariably nipping at its heels, like a cold, vicious hound that can’t wait to see the backside of the warmth and comfort of the preceding seasons. 

When I was a naive young man, growing up in the tropics of south Texas, I believed that any winter which included a deep white blanket of snow that had fallen to cover the ugly brown earth, had to be better than those I experienced all those years.  Of course, “the grass is always greener”, as we all know, but I thought that experiencing four distinct seasons would have to be an improvement on the two we had there.  We always described the two seasons as Hot and Hotter

The Rio Grande Valley in far south Texas is a primary winter destination for thousands of retired northern folks, most of whom maintain a second home there or else bring one with them in the form of the popular RV (we just called them travel trailers).  The Chamber of Commerce wanted us to call these folks “Winter Texans”, as if coming to their little refugee camps made them citizens, but we just called them “snowbirds.”   We, as kids, couldn’t for the life of us understand why anyone would leave the glory of snow-covered lawns, houses, and roads to come to the dry, hot realm of eternal summer.  Besides that, they clogged the roads, slowing down constantly to look at orange groves and palm trees, to say nothing of the long lines at the cafeterias like Luby’s and Furr’s.

Ah, the foolishness of youth!  I look back now and understand those old geezers (boy, somebody should look in the mirror!) much better than ever.  If my business allowed it, I’d be packing an RV right now to head down Interstate 35 for a few months myself.  Every year, I look forward to winter with much less zeal than the year before, simply because I have found that the gray days that are coming will leave me in a blue mood for weeks at a time.  I’m confident that it’s not real depression, but I will certainly not be as jovial, nor lighthearted as I am during Spring and Summer.  There are an infinite number of suggestions that friends and family have to cure this blue mood, ranging from listening to upbeat music, to going to the tanning booths, to buying a “natural sunlight” reading lamp.  I’d do the last one, except for the fact that all the designs look like they came right out of a nursing home and I’m not quite ready for that yet.  But you get the point…I don’t think much of winter and therefore, don’t have much use for the preparatory season that we are in now.  The Fall just reminds me constantly that everything around us is going to sleep, so it doesn’t have to endure the cold, dark season that is bearing down on us inexorably.

Having said all that (and I’m sure I’ll get emails), I have to add that the Fall is beautiful in the Ozarks right now.  The Lovely Lady and I took the weekend just ended to drive through some of the prettiest woodland you have ever seen.  The road to Devil’s Den is glorious with color, as is the highway to and from Eureka Springs.  Even with the niggling thoughts of the approaching Winter that came unbidden as we gazed on the scenery, the amazing show that nature puts on each Fall is in a category all its own.  We stood on Inspiration Point, viewing the White River valley and each direction we turned brought a new and marvelous vista.  Even I, with my cynical point of view, can’t avoid the obvious truth; God’s Glory is exposed with each new season, and in this one, this Autumn, with all it’s implications for the future, no less than any other and possibly in some respects, more than the others.  What a show!

So, I will grudgingly acknowledge that there are aspects of Autumn that make it a not entirely dreadful season.  My vote is still for Spring and I believe that the writer of the Psalms agrees with me.  After all, he did write about the man who follows God with these words, “… he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters, which brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also does not wither…”  So, eternal Spring is the appointed order for things and we’ll enjoy that in heaven, I’m sure.  The reader is free to disagree, but I’m fairly confident that I’m right.  Until that day, make the best of it, tough it out, and get outside into the glorious colors with which God has painted the world.

Autumn wins you best by this, its mute
Appeal to sympathy for its decay.

(Robert Browning)

Doesn’t the bad guy wear the black hat?

“Eighty dollars for the guitar and twenty for the amplifier.  That sound all right to you?”  Once again, I’m bargaining with a young man for an instrument that I don’t really want, but he needs to sell.  He’s the third person in my store today with something to sell, not because they’ve decided to quit playing music, but because money is tight and they need to come up with the cash to take care of “living expenses”.  The mom with her toddler who was here earlier had a similar problem, but she also brought me a dilemma, along with the guitar case and guitar shaped object (GSO) she carried.  You see, I’ve promised never to put any of that brand of instruments on my rack again, simply because I don’t think they’re quality guitars.  Oh, a few of the specimens are okay, but overall, they seem to have a multitude of inadequacies, which I cannot overlook and will not foist off on my customers.  What to do?

As you might expect, a few dollars lighter in the bank account, the business now owns this cool looking guitar, which sports a facsimile of the semi-semi-noteworthy guitarist/pitchman in his flat black bolero hat, who hawks his inferior wares on your television set.  I’m not a fan.  He claims to play the guitars he sells, but if the secondhand examples which I have seen are any indication, my guess is that most mediocre guitarists wouldn’t keep one of them for long, much less a professional, such as he claims to be.  I’m not surprised to find that his claims to fame (e.g., student of one of the greatest classical guitarists in our time, Andres Segovia and endorsed by the same) are disputed by many  experts in the field.  I’m even appalled by the price people fork out for a barely adequate instrument, only to find that it has plunged in value from the moment it left the warehouse.

But, the absolute affront, in my consideration, is that the man’s real name (first and last) is actually the same as my given name, Stephen Paul.  I might be able to forgive the man for selling a cheap product for too much money, but to have the same name on top of that, well…Words fail me.

Having wandered far afield, I’ll make my way back toward my original subject and say that I’m faced almost daily with judgment calls like this one and many which are more confounding.  One gentleman came in with a similar dilemma (a guitar brand that was taboo) and then added to that by telling me that the tight spot he was in came because of a late night visit to the casino after imbibing a bit too much alcohol.  I’m still ruminating the wisdom of my decision as I also ponder how to market the other GSO that now sits in my back hallway.  If any of you readers have the solution to either problem, I’d love to be let in on the secret.

But, my real target tonight is integrity.  I mention the huckster to set the stage.  This play of life in which we are all acting often surprises me, sometimes in a wonderful, positive way, but often recently, with gloomy and unfortunate situations.  The gentleman I first mentioned who had the guitar and amplifier to sell, quickly agreed to my price.  One hundred dollars was fine with him.  As I prepared to pay him, I happened to think that the wholesale blue-book might show the amplifier to be worth a little more than my offer, so I suggested that I should check the value.  As I started my search, I heard, without it really registering, the muttered words, “Yeah, you wouldn’t want to pay too much.”  Then, I found the amp model in the list and noticed that it recommended paying thirty dollars for this particular unit.  I returned to the customer and told him that I would pay him ten dollars more than originally agreed upon and his reaction was one of complete surprise.  He had expected a reduction in my offer, not an increase.  After he received payment, he shook my hand vigorously, and thanked me profusely for being fair with him.

As he left, I was struck by the incongruity of his muttered statement as I searched for the price, with his effusive praise for my fairness in the transaction.  Why should he expect that I was going to back out of our agreement to his detriment?   Was it just a natural cynicism or was it a reaction programmed by experience?  Isn’t it true that in our society, we expect to be cheated and taken advantage of?  The huckster sitting center stage and strumming the inferior product, that is less in quality than it is touted to be, is the rule (or at least the perceived rule) and not the exception that it should be.

We are pleasantly taken aback by a business or individual who is honest and forthright, while acting almost dispassionate about chicanery.  This ought not to be.  Integrity should be the standard in our dealings with each other.  It’s about time that the players who are center stage in this play should be the heroes and not the villains.

I have a favorite car lot with which I try to do business whenever I’m looking for a vehicle.  The reason?  Several years ago, they sold my father-in-law a car.  No, not a car, a lemon!  For a full year, he paid for repair after repair and finally took the car back to trade in on a different one.  Upon hearing of his experience with the vehicle, the owner of the car lot gave him, in trade, not only the full price he had paid originally, but all of the additional amount he had spent on repairs in the intervening time.  Now that’s integrity!  And that’s the kind of business I want to trade with.

Ten dollars difference.  That’s all it took for me to act with integrity today.  Sometimes honesty costs dearly and other times, it’s as easy as just doing the right thing.  Both of them, the large and small choices, are what make up a life of integrity.  “Choose you this day whom you will serve…”

“No amount of ability is of the slightest avail without honor”
(Andrew Carnegie)

I finally found my keys….

We moved the piano in last week.  I would call it a “new” piano, but it was actually built in the nineteenth century, over one hundred and twenty years ago now.  It was a spur-of-the-moment purchase I made about nine years ago.  A small Steinway upright, it was bought for a song (pun intended), but the real investment began immediately.  A full day was spent traveling all the way up to just south of the Iowa state line and then back, with this unbelievably heavy piano-shaped-object  bringing up the rear in a trailer.  A small breakdown while flying through Kansas City, MO slowed us down and then we were home, tired and discouraged.  We could already see that a lot more investment was to come, both in cash and sweat; that much was guaranteed.

It wasn’t a pretty thing, although what little we could see of the burl walnut wood gave promise that it could be.  It didn’t sound nice at all, although its heritage reassured us that it had that potential also.  But when it arrived in our town, you would have had to be a starry-eyed dreamer to imagine that this mass of blackened wood and rusty metal could ever again be a musical instrument, worthy to be called a piano.

Within weeks, new strings and tuning pins were purchased, waiting for the day when it would be ready to be restrung.  The piano was completely disassembled, from the action all the way down to removal of all the case parts.  You really wouldn’t have looked at the heap of wood and known that there was a fine musical instrument lying there, and for several years, it wasn’t anything approaching that.  After the initial commotion of tearing down and stripping off old finish, our interest lagged, other projects called, and the Steinway languished in the old shop for a number of years. 

Then earlier this year, the piano called again.  I wasn’t up to answering the call (I thought it was really a wrong number), and was all for ditching the whole idea.  But my brother-in-law is a dreamer, and an old hand at seeing the potential in all sorts of hopeless, once-beautiful-but-no-more projects.  This visionary was anxious to make that pile of miscellaneous parts into a restored piece of art that could also make beautiful music again.  Little by little, the piano took shape.  Restringing, along with installing new tunings pins, was only the start.  Rebuilding the action, a real challenge because he was working with century-old technology, then led to the next procedure of staining and finishing.  Step by tedious step, the work progressed, until one day a few weeks ago, he called and said.  “I think we’ve got a piano.”

The piano is still a work-in-progress.  It needs a few more tunings before it will really stay in tune.  There might even be a few of the action repairs that will need to be tweaked a bit.  But this is a beautiful piece of century-old craftsmanship, now renewed and revitalized, and ready to play through the next century or two.  I’m not intending to be around to play it that long, but there might be a grandchild or two who takes a shine to piano playing before it’s all said and done.

What a joy!  To know that the sadly neglected and useless instrument is once again in it’s full glory, bringing forth beautiful music and inspiring the elation that comes unbidden from hearing the sweet melodies and beautiful chords, is nothing short of exhilarating.   If I wasn’t sure that I would severely try your patience, I would sermonize a bit about how much that resembles us in our sorry state and the result of the “touch of the master’s hand”, but I’m pretty sure you have already comprehended that parallel.

For tonight, I’ll just say that I’m grateful for craftsmen in this world who never quit dreaming, for a God in heaven who never quits extending His grace to sinners, and for music that allows us to have a little of heaven right here on earth.

“Pianos are such noble instruments – they’re either upright or grand.” 

Let your yay! be yay!

She meant it as a compliment, but twenty-some years later, I can still get a little annoyed when I think about it.  Why is that?  What is it about words that makes us carry them around in a niche at the back of our minds and take them out sporadically, only to founder in the bad feelings they evoke?  I’ve decided in my adult years that I disagree vehemently with the old children’s doggerel that we heckled each other with, years ago…”Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Since I know there are human beings in atrocious conditions that I could never comprehend, I don’t want to this to be too sweeping of a statement, but it seems to me that bones will heal. Conversely, I’m also convinced that the pain of hurtful words may linger for a lifetime.  If hers had actually been intended as hurtful, I might be writing this article from a completely different perspective.

When I tell you what she said, you’ll laugh at how thin-skinned I was.  I really never was angry at her, but it just irked me to hear it.  As I contemplate more, I think that the reason the comment comes back to me now is more about the truth (or potential for truth), than it is about the hurt. As I age, I find that I am examining the things I do more and more to be sure that I am leaving a legacy.  No, not the same kind of legacy that Presidents and public figures seem to be so obsessed with.  This is not about fame or public honor, but about the knowledge that I’ve fulfilled my purpose in life.  I really don’t want to get to a point where I look back and decide that I’ve wasted all the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with, especially after it’s too late to redeem the time.

What did she say?  Well, over the years, I have had the privilege of preaching at a number of services at my church. On the occasion I’m reminiscing about today, this elderly saint heard me preach for the first time.  I’m sure it was just that she hadn’t pictured me as a preacher, or even a public speaker, but as I greeted individuals at the end of the service, she gripped my hand, smiled sweetly, and blurted, “What are you doing wasting your time in that dinky little music store?”  I stuttered out a reply, which must have been satisfactory, since the dear lady remained my friend until she passed away some years later.

She meant it as a compliment!  She wanted me to know how excited she was to have heard me preach!  I think she was even saying that I had done a good job.  But all I heard was, “You’ve wasted your whole life doing something completely worthless!”  How do you deal with that? 

The Lord knew I needed an answer to that question because a short time later (a few weeks, maybe), I was speaking with my Dad on the telephone and he asked if we could pray before we said goodbye.  As he prayed, I heard the words, “…and bless Paul in the ministry you’ve given him there in the music store.” 

Wow!  How’s that for a contrast?  On the one hand, the thought that preaching would be so much more worthwhile than the profession I was in, and on the other hand, the statement that we are ministers wherever we find ourselves in life.  I’ve got to tell you, the light bulb went on!  I was put in this very spot for a purpose!  I don’t have to reproach myself for missed educational opportunities, or for my past lack of achievement in professional endeavors.  I can make a difference right here, right now.

My dad used to love this hokey little song that our choir sang many years ago.  I can’t remember the whole tune.  I don’t even have all the words at the tip of my tongue, but the main thought was, “Bloom, Bloom, Bloom where you’re planted!” (Told you it was hokey!)  And, that’s what I’m doing. You may think that I’m really just a bloomin’ idiot, but I’m pretty sure that the Good Lord wants us to buckle down and work right where we are.  He may move us somewhere else, but we do the same thing wherever we land…Settle in and bless those around us!

Oh!  And, let’s be careful how we compliment others.  A backdoor compliment isn’t how we bless them at all.  It’s more like the sting of nettles than the sweet aroma of a beautiful flower.  And it’s a sting that might be felt for a long, long time.

For he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters,
which brings forth fruit in its season,
and whose leaf also shall not wither.
Everything he does shall prosper.
(Psalm 1:3)

Keep your hands to yourself!

How well I remember the conversations from the back seat:  “He’s touching me!”  “You did it first.”  “Did not!”  “Did too!”  “Did not!”  “Did too!”  Another voice, this time from the front seat, injects itself into the back and forth of the argument.  “Both of you, get back on your side of the car and keep your hands to yourself!”   Immediately, all is quiet, until a few moments later when you hear a plaintive voice from the back seat again, “He’s looking at me!”

Any of you who grew up with brothers or sisters close to your age remember those days.  Someone was always getting into your private space; someone was always making you uncomfortable and breaking up the relative peacefulness of your life.  There was no telling when one or another of the siblings was going to push the boundaries, either real or imaginary, just to see if they could add a little piece to their territory, especially if they could tear it from your grasp.  I’m just amazed that we all grew up without hating each other, in fact, actually loving and respecting each other.  But adulthood also brings with it a different, and just as confusing, set of problems.  The thing is, they have a striking similarity to those of childhood…

One evening, close to 20 years ago, I got a call from an elderly friend, a widowed lady, whose middle-aged son was visiting for awhile.  His marriage was in trouble and he had left home for a little thinking time.    His mom asked me if I would “counsel” him.  I’m not sure why she picked me, but she must have been under the mistaken impression that I had some store of wisdom that could help his marriage.  I agreed to spend some time with him, but it would be so he could have someone to talk with, not as a marriage counselor.  In getting acquainted with him, he mentioned that he would like it if we could talk some about the Bible.  I knew a bit more about that subject than marriage counseling, so I agreed that we would do a Bible study and suggested that when we got together the next time, he should bring a passage that he had a question about.

As we sat down at the table, he hit me with it immediately.  Ephesians 5:22 was the verse.  In it, the writer says, “Wives be submissive to your husbands…”  No sooner had I read it out loud than he burst out,  “That’s my problem!  She won’t submit and let me be the head of our home!  That’s why we can’t get along! How can I make her do that?”  Well, that stumped me for a few seconds.  The obvious answer was that he couldn’t!  That’s why he was here in Arkansas and she was in California!  But, that’s not what he needed to hear.  So of course, the next thing I told him was, “Get back on your side of the car and keep your hands to yourself!”

Okay, what I really did was to ask him a question.  “Does that statement give instructions to someone specific?”  “Well, yes,” came the reluctant answer.  “It tells wives how to act.”  “Well, unless you’re a wife, it’s obviously of no interest to you.  Move on.”  So down we went to the verses below that.”  He read verse 25:  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church.  He even died for it…”  He looked at me as if I had punched him.  It wasn’t necessary to ask if he got the point.  It was pretty clear that he did! 

It seems that most things are like those letters I get with the directive printed on them, “To be opened by addressee only, under penalty of law.”  When the instructions are targeted at me, I should do my best to follow them, otherwise, I need to leave them alone.   I really can’t make anybody else live the way they’re supposed to, so it’s unproductive to try.  That’s not my job! And, it does more damage to relationships than any benefit that I’ll ever achieve.  I’ve also finally begun to realize that if I follow the instructions I’m given, somehow it becomes a whole lot easier for the people I’m with to do their own part, but as far as obedience goes, I’m only responsible for me. 

“Get back on your side of the car, and keep your hands to yourself!”  Turns out, Dad’s instruction for feuding siblings was also great advice for most relationships.  If we take care of ourselves, we won’t be getting  into spaces that aren’t ours.  I’m still not sure he ever figured out how to take care of the “He’s looking at me” problem.

“Child…I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”
(Aslan, in “The Horse & His Boy” by C.S. Lewis)

(common anagram used in text-messaging for “Mind your own business”)

Dinner is Served!

A gentle nudge is sometimes all it takes.  Other times, more drastic measures have to be resorted to, but we eventually get to the car to head home.  I can’t help it.  I’m a last minute conversation guy.  We’ve been at the church since before 9:00 AM, but now it’s noon and there are still people to talk with.  I’ll never understand the folks who dash out the door immediately after the last “Amen”.  I understand that not everybody is put together like I am (thank goodness!), but these visits with friends are some of the best moments of the week.  We catch up on children and jobs, even exchange a short joke or two, but we love spending time together.  However, the lovely lady is nudging again, so we say our last goodbye and head out.  Oh, one or two more conversations along the sidewalk crop up, but we have to keep moving.

What’s the hurry?  It’s just another Sunday afternoon, after all!  You say that and think you mean it, but you must not understand the meaning of Sunday Dinner.  We don’t eat “lunch” after church.  We have Dinner!  There are important people coming to share our table with us today and we have to get ready.  The list of dishes was made earlier this week before the visit to the grocery store yesterday.  Roast chicken and dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and spinach salad are on the menu today, among other things.  The lovely lady was up well before I was this morning, making the dessert and preparing the meat for the oven.  Important events like this take planning  and preparation!

We spend the last hour working feverishly.  I arrange the dining room and set the table, making sure that everything is just so for our VIPs.  She puts together the salad while making gravy, rolls, and the vegetables.  You understand that her role is much more difficult.  I do one thing at a time, while she multi-tasks, stirring this pot, cutting up that salad green, mixing a bowl of ingredients for another dish.  She knows better than to push me.  I’m hard pressed to remember which side of the plate the fork goes on, much less, not to forget the homemade peach jam. But, we get the work done; me, step by lumbering step; her, gracefully and efficiently.

As the last push comes to get dinner on the table, the important guests begin to arrive.  The lovely lady’s mother, accompanied by her brother, comes in first.  Great-Grandma lives at the local rehab/nursing center, but she is sharp as ever, noticing a different piano in the living room right away.  Brother-in-law plays a few chords on it for her and then, I’m back to the kitchen for some more last minute jobs. Then the doorbell rings again and in come the grandchildren, all calling out “Hi Grandma!  Hi Grandpa!”, with varying success in forming the words, but still entirely successful in letting us know they’ve arrived.  They are, not coincidentally, accompanied by our daughter and her husband.  Bringing up the end of the procession is our son, who also lives in town.  His arrival is met with cries of “Steben!” by the kids, who all adore him, although he pretends to be aloof. 

With much ado, and very little organization, the dinner commences.  Arguments about seating arrangements are par for the course, with the coveted position being the one adjacent to the lovely lady.  Those differences settled and drinks having been distributed, we ask the blessing, holding hands around the table.  When I was a child, the blessing was a prolonged affair, taking into account the leaders of the country, our missionaries, the heathen in darkest Africa, and various and sundry incidental requests, but, knowing the attention span of those in attendance, we keep ours confined to thanks for the food, and a quick request for showing love to each other.  Even with the abbreviated blessing, the next to the youngest manages to get a loud “Amen” out before I can finish, much to the amusement of all at the table.

Dinner is a boisterous affair, with conversations going on at all points of the compass, jokes told, and a few severe instructions issued (“Eat your green beans or no dessert!”, “No, you can’t get up.  You haven’t been excused yet!”).  Since Great-Grandma is a little hard of hearing, we have to speak up when addressing her and this doesn’t help the level of the din much.  Still, good food and good conversation are the order of the hour.  Most of this time is spent sharing the events of the week, both trivial and momentous.  We laugh, we cry, and the time speeds past.  After it’s all done, one by one, the groups of visitors head out, goodbyes and last-minute conversations finished as we stand at the door, with Uncle Steben leaving last after we’ve shared a bit of football time in front of the TV.  After some cleanup (not an insignificant task), peace reigns again.

That’s it?  That’s what your great Sunday Dinner was all about?  Your VIPs were just some family members getting together and eating food?   You bet!  When we can, we include other family members and friends from church.  This is a sacred time.  Oh, we don’t spend a lot of our time discussing theology (although that enters into most conversations), but the time spent with family, both old and young, is priceless.  Memories are being made.  Young minds are learning the respect that is due to those advanced in age by seeing it in practice and they are discovering how we interact with other people.  These are occasions that every single one of us will keep in our memories for years to come and treasure for all of our lives.  Some of my best memories from childhood are the times when we got together for meals with grandparents, with cousins and aunts and uncles.  They were more rare in my experience than they have been for my children and grandchildren, but that doesn’t make them any less cherished.

Family traditions don’t always just happen.  Some traditions you have to nourish and labor for.  We make this important, because we need this. Our parents, our children, and grandchildren need it.  Would it be easier to chuck it and go get dinner at KFC or some local restaurant?  You bet, much easier!  But, the time we spend nurturing each other and our memories will one day be the subject of the “remember whens?” and even some “when I was young” conversations for their children and grandchildren.  All the work (and even leaving church earlier than I want) is a small price to pay for the dividends all along the road.

Oh, and after the hub-bub and cacophony of dinner is finished, the lovely lady and I get to settle into the den for some “down time” (nap for me, stitching for her).  It seems that there are other family traditions besides Sunday Dinner that are just about as important.

“After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”
(Oscar Wilde~American poet)

Breathe In, Breathe Out!

Growing up wild in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I learned lessons as a youth (both good and bad) that still inform this soon-to-be senior adult of life’s truths.  When I say “growing up wild”, I don’t want you to infer that I was a carouser or a gang-banger.   I don’t even mean to imply that my parents didn’t have discipline, because they did have that.  We’re told, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” and let’s just say that I wasn’t spoiled!  However, we did have full run of the neighborhood, and by neighborhood, I mean anyplace within walking, and later on, biking distance.  During summer vacations and after school, we ranged far and wide and discovered all the hiding places, the best locations for dirt clod fights, and climbing trees that were to be found.  We got into a little trouble too, but we’ll leave that subject for another day.

In those days, when the city hadn’t spread out into the local farmland, there was wildlife galore.  Garter and bull snakes were common, and lizards beyond count.  My favorite was a strange-looking creature that in those days of innocence, we called a horny toad.  One day, I’ll rant about how our language has been hijacked by double entendres and gutter-discourse, but suffice it to say, the round, tubby lizard was called that because of the myriad of sharp horns all over its sand-paper rough body and for no other reason.  It’s real name is the Texas Horned Lizard, with some tongue-twister of a scientific title tacked on, but we called it simply a horny toad.  These placid creatures, for all of their ferocious appearance, wanted nothing else but to be left alone.  They had no real defenses; they weren’t lightning fast like those we called racers (Whiptails), nor could they change their body’s skin hue to match the ambient surroundings, like those we labeled chameleons (Green Anoles).  They were doomed to lumber along amongst the grass and rocks and rain-parched earth, eating the big, red ants that lived in abundance on the ground and keeping an eye out for the passing coyote, dog, or snake.

 They did however,  have a couple of defense mechanisms that made them undesirable to predators.  The first one I observed on any number of occasions, since to these little critters, I looked like a predator.  When approached by their enemies, they would first try to flee.  Failing that, since they just weren’t built for speed, they would stop and turn toward the dangerous party, pushing themselves up away from the earth and then, puffing themselves up with air, would expand to a much larger size than they were originally.  I don’t know all the data, but I’m guessing that more than one young bullsnake, when faced with this “giant” lizard, would give up and move to easier prey.  It probably wouldn’t seem appetizing to think about that sliding down one’s gullet.  So, the little so-ugly-it’s-cute varmint goes on its way again, with one less danger to worry about today.  The other defense mechanism?  Well, I never saw it happen, but the books tell us that when the ruse of “Big” horny toad doesn’t convince the attacker, he can actually shoot blood out of the corners of his eyes at them.  The blood has a chemical which is unsavory to its attacker and discourages further confrontation.

I’m thinking that there are multiple examples in the animal kingdom who make themselves bigger to defeat their attackers.  Any number of non-venomous snakes threaten attack by spreading out and raising their heads as if to strike.  The cute little puffer fish, which has the same spiny appearance as the horned lizard, is perhaps the most famous of these pretenders.  He is not in any way equipped for sustained speed and so, is the target of many predator fishes in the ocean.  But not many of them want to swallow that spiny balloon when he’s puffed up in his intimidating pose. 

So, what is the point of this nature lesson, you may ask?  I’ve been thinking about the comparison of these natural responses in animals to our own response to perceived “attacks” on ourselves.  Speaking purely for myself (you are free to draw your own conclusions),  I know that when threatened with exposure of my inadequacies, my immediate reaction is to “make myself bigger” and do my best to impress the would-be attacker with my abilities.  Rather than suffer the exhibition of my true incompetent self, I will build an awe-inspiring facade to head off the embarrassment.   My puffed-up, spiny exterior will often keep the assailant at bay.  The real dilemma of using this sham to protect yourself,  even occasionally, is that in order to sustain the perception, you have to stay “big” more and more frequently, until at last, you’re wearing this false persona anytime you’re around people.

There’s been lots of talk about bullying recently, especially in our news.  I’ve been bullied, as have most of you at one time or another in your lives.  I remember way back, while still in elementary school, one kid was shoving me around on the playground, as he did on a regular basis.  I finally had enough and shoved back, prompting him to challenge me, “I’ll meet you across the street after school!”  This was the well-known code for arranging a fight off school grounds and I wasn’t about to back down (in spite of the fact that I’d never been in a fistfight).  “I’ll be there!”  I snapped and stalked off, hands in pockets to demonstrate my machismo (failing miserably, I’m sure).   Evidently, the horny toad impression worked though, because 10 minutes later, he was back, mumbling, “I just remembered, I have to be someplace after school, so I won’t be there…”  So, no fight (whew), but a lesson learned, only to be used many, many times in my life, and not always for the right motives.  It’s a little discussed fact that many times bullies have been bullied themselves.  They’ve just learned how to make themselves big and they like the power it gives them over others.

I don’t have much advice on how to avoid this behavior, but sometimes, just recognizing what we’re doing that is wrong is the first step to recovery.  Additionally, I do remember reading a great little saying that Chuck Swindoll quoted in one of his books.  The sign was posted in a kid’s clubhouse for their house rules:

Nobody act big.
Nobody act small.
Everybody act medium.

Pretty good advice.  I’ve got one more piece of advice to add to it.


Let another praise you and not you yourself…
(Proverbs 27:2)