Back and Forth

“I’m a lover, not a fighter.  I kinda like it that way.”  I haven’t thought of the song for years, but tonight, I’m hearing the country twang of Skeeter Davis in my head, imagining her singing as she bounced along to the steel guitar, fiddle, and guitars.  You see, I picked a fight today.  No, not a fist fight.  But, actually, the way I feel tonight, it might just as well have been.

Earlier, I replied to a post by an acquaintance on one of the prominent social media.  He expressed a viewpoint with which I disagreed and, since it involves a pending referendum in my community, I thought he should know that not everyone agreed with him.  Now, after a number of hours, and a lot of words (most of them by yours truly), I’m wondering if there is a modified DeLorean automobile somewhere in the vicinity to which I might gain access.  I’d like to take a little spin with Marty McFly and turn back the clock on the last few hours of my life.  Can anybody help me with that?

Did I make any statements about which I am ashamed?  Not exactly.  Did I attack anyone personally?  Not at all.  It’s just that…how to say this?  I’m not the guy I used to be.  I guess that’s what I want to say.  I used to be the arguer.  I’ve told you that my mom suggested I would argue with a fence post and expected me to become a lawyer.  I even told you that my brothers called me a little motorboat, since every statement with which I disagreed was met with an instant, “But, but, but…”  I have sat on boards and argued, played in music groups and argued, even been in table conversation with my family and argued; all to the detriment of relationships and the general welfare of the forum in which I chose to be combative.  I’m not that person anymore.

Except that I am.  It’s been a little while since the motorboat was brought out for a spin, but given the right conditions, it sprung to life as if it had never been stowed away.  I can go through extended periods of time without standing next to a single fence post and gesticulating wildly while ranting.  But let someone push (or even brush) the right button and I am in full voice, brain racing ahead (barely) of my words, letting the unfortunate human have a large piece of my mind.  Most of you know all too well that I can ill afford to give away even a small part of my mind, much less a large piece.  I am an arguer.  Worse, I am frequently undisciplined in my control of my tongue.  In the New Testament, James talks about the tiny rudder that directs the huge ship, describing the tongue.   My problem isn’t the rudder of a huge ship, but just the little thing that guides that pesky motorboat.

Tonight, I repent.   REPENT verb (ri-`pent): To turn away from, as from sin; To feel regret for one’s actions.    I want to believe that I will not return to this activity again; I want to say that I am definitely NOT  an arguer.  I will never fire up the motorboat again; will never stand next to a fence post and talk until I am blue in the face.  I want all those things to be true and will attempt to make them so.

That said, I do, in reality, know what I am and who I am.  I know that I’m not man enough to tame this little piece of skin that’s right behind my teeth.  I’ve tried it on my own and failed miserably again and again.  For some reason, the picture in my mind right now is of some smokers I’ve known who tried to quit on their own many times, without success.  They can go for days, sometimes for weeks, without lighting up, but one day you meet them on the street and the little white stick filled with tobacco is smoking away between their lips again.  The Lovely Lady has a brother who was in that situation for many years, until he had a heart attack and the doctor told him that he was certainly going die if he didn’t quit.  Two things moved him from being a smoker to being an ex-smoker – the motivation of the potential death sentence, and the medication that the doctor prescribed, which took away the physical symptoms of his addiction.  His desire to continue the destructive habit was stilled.  With my problem, I’ve definitely got the motivation, but I need the medication.

I think I may have discovered the prescription.  I’m going to put the patch on my arm tonight.  I’ll let you know how it goes (or maybe you can let me know if it’s working).

What’s that?  The prescription?  Oh…James had it all along.  “…The wisdom that comes from Above…”  I thought it had to come from inside meGo figure!

“But the wisdom that comes from above is first of all pure.  It is also peace-loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others.  It is full of mercy and good deeds.  It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.”
(James 3:17~NLT)

“I am not arguing with you.  I am telling you.”
(James Whistler~American artist~1834-1903)

The One

Some days I almost think that I wouldn’t trade my job for anything!  That was the case a just over a month ago when I was able to acquire exactly the accordion that Leo needed, at a price he was happy with.  The “love my job” part isn’t about the money, but it’s about the nearly palpable joy Leo exuded as he headed out the door with his new toy.  Unfortunately, that joy was gone when he returned the instrument a couple of weeks ago, with a small problem.  I reassured him that we could take care of the issue easily, thinking that I was the one who would fix his problem and make his joy return.

Two weeks and a raft of phone calls later, some not returned, some completely unsatisfactory in their outcome, it is clear that I am not the one.  I thought that my “customer service” representative at the company that wholesaled the instrument to me might be the one.  It turns out that he doesn’t understand what his title means and I was passed on to the “customer service” rep at the manufacturer.  Are you starting to see a pattern here?

The manufacturer’s customer service representative failed completely in his promises and obviously wasn’t the one, so I turned back to my wholesaler’s district manager.  Perhaps, he was the one.  “Call the ‘real’ customer service rep”, was his reply.  Nope…not the one.  The “real” customer service rep (at the wholesale company), understood his title a little better, but he handed me back to the manufacturer again, so he’s clearly not the one, either.  When I called the manufacturer this time, the man who answered the phone was actually the fellow who determines the disposal of returned merchandise.  He, in fact, knew exactly what needed to be done.  “Wait a minute.  I’ll get you a return authorization.”  I was cautiously optimistic; hopeful that I had finally found the one!  Sure enough, in moments, I had the all-important authorization in hand for returning the product to them.  Better than that, he wanted to listen to what the instrument was doing over the phone, and he is positive that they can make the customer happy once more!  He is the one!  Some days, I almost think I wouldn’t trade my job for anything!

Somehow, we spend our lives looking for the one, that solitary individual who has the solution to our problem.  I remember a few years ago, when the Lovely Lady was suffering with acute pain in her shoulder.  Believing that the problem might be a functional issue that could be helped by physical manipulation, instead of being treated internally, she opted to go to a chiropractor.  That physician ignored her symptoms and signed her up for a year’s worth of back treatments, “…to get your spine correctly aligned again.  Then all your symptoms will be gone.”  I was reminded of the doctor who recommended a medication for treating a cold.  “You’ll be right as rain in seven days,” he promised.  “Well, what if I wait it out?”  the patient inquires.  “Oh,” comes the educated reply.  “Then it will take a whole week.”  The Lovely Lady cancelled her remaining appointments with the chiropractor (definitely not the one)and called a medical doctor (also not the one), who made an appointment with a specialist (once again, not the one).  Does this sound familiar?  Still looking for the one, the Lovely Lady was, at last, shuttled back to a sports physical therapist, who assigned her some simple exercises that focused on the calcium deposit in her shoulder.  In a week or two, the pain was gone and it was obvious that she had found the one.

Can you identify with these scenarios?  How many times in life have you waited for the one?  I cannot begin to count them.  Best friend, mechanic, pastor, team member, guitar teacher…the list goes on and on.  We are constantly on the lookout for that individual who is head and shoulders above all the others in the running.  Frequently, we think we have found him or her, only to be disappointed shortly.  We’ll not go into the argument about whether there is only one human in the world who is the one person we are intended to spend our lives with as our soul mate.  Whatever the final word is in that argument, we haven’t heard it yet.  Regardless, we look for the one and have varying amounts of success in the search.  I’ve told you before that I am pleased that I found the Lovely Lady (she says she found me), and am convinced that no one else would have put up with me  anyway.  She is, no doubt, the one for me, as is her similar claim for me.

I’m not going to spend a lot of words preaching to you tonight.  I’m betting that you are all reasonably intelligent individuals, who can connect the rest of the dots without all the numbers, who easily grasp the gist of the word pictures I’ve already sketched out here. Let me say it this way and then you’re on your own:  If you are looking for the one in a spiritual sense, there are an astounding number of wrong choices.  Every single one of them has a promise to make and every single one of them will disappoint utterly.  Every place you look, every credo you claim will leave you empty and searching, until you find The One.  And there is indeed, only One.

I think it’s time for me to stop for now.  You see, I’ve got an accordion to package up tomorrow.  Turns out, for that kind of work, I am the one.  It’s not my highest aspiration, but for today, I’ll accept the honor.  I can work my way up the ladder from there.

“Now to the King of ages, immortal, invisible, to the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.”
(I Timothy 1:17)

Morpheus:  “You are The One, Neo.  You see, you may have spent the last few years looking for me, but I have spent my entire life looking for you.”
(from “The Matrix” movie~1999)

Up From the Depths

It was a tragedy waiting to happen.  The boys were gathered around the concrete reservoir of the irrigation canal near the golf course.  What is it about water that attracts boys so?  They will wander for miles just to have a chance to dangle their feet in a tiny stream; will make stick boats to float in puddles that are more mud than puddle.  The bodies of water seem to call their name from miles away.  In that long ago time when the episode I’m thinking about tonight occurred, there weren’t so many restrictions placed on children.  They roamed their neighborhoods, building forts in groves one day and hiking across town the next.  Neighbors watched out for them; strangers corrected misbehavior.  It seemed, without doubt, a more innocent time.  There were dangers, nonetheless.

So, the boys played in the little reservoir, the place where that particular canal descended underground for at least two miles. As they dropped pieces of debris into the swirling water, every particle of the flotsam was drawn inexorably downward, to disappear under the road without a sign of return.  Even so, they had no fear.  The youngest boy was four, the oldest eight, and they were invincible.  The little vessels they floated into the water, however…they were doomed.  Suddenly though, in the midst of their revelry – disaster!  The four-year old got too close to the edge and into the swirling water he toppled.  He couldn’t swim; couldn’t even scream because of the water in his mouth.  The playground of water that moments ago had been swirling little bits of sticks and paper for his amusement, now had the youngster in its grip.  It sucked him down, deeper and deeper.  Within seconds, he was under water and in peril of being drawn underground to a certain death.  The oldest boy of the group thought quickly and jumped into the concrete canal, right before it descended into the reservoir, where he could stand without the water pulling him down too.  Reaching underwater as far as he could, he gripped the flailing arm of the little one.  There was no way he was letting go!  The water tugged hard, but he tugged harder, bringing the gasping small-fry to surface and almost flinging him onto the hard ground beside the canal.  The little fellow was half-drowned and bleeding from a cut on his foot, caused by broken glass at the bottom, five feet down…but he was alive!  The frightened little guy was soon delivered, dripping wet, to his horrified mother and peace reigned again.  Well, except for her ranting, and a few new edicts about appropriate play areas being issued…

It happened over fifty years ago.  I will never forget it.  Terror sticks in your memory.  So does gratitude.  But time also passes and circumstances change.  The older boy grew up, as did I, and he married young, going into the military immediately thereafter.  One might say that he jumped into the deep water of his own volition, but however you describe it, the current had him in its power.  One disappointment after another, with a volatile marriage, led him into deeper water.  He thought he saw something that would help.  The bottle was a false hope, but by the time he figured that out, he was caught in the tight grip of that whirlpool, too.  Alcoholism sucks everyone in the vicinity down to the bottom, inflicting wounds as it swirls them around.

I can’t count the number of times I have attempted to reach out and rescue my rescuer.  But, there was never a hand to catch onto; the man didn’t want to be rescued.  Then suddenly, after a number of years of disastrous living, aborted relationships, lost jobs, and court dates, he was at my door.  I felt his grip in mine.  Finally, I could rescue him!  It was a false hope.  Mere weeks later, he again succumbed to the siren song of the liquor and the draw of the dives, where most are also foundering, but still are able to convince their peers that it’s not really a bad situation at all; that no one is really drowning and all is well in their world.  Of course, every night, when he leaves the camaraderie of the drowning crowd, and stumbles into his own room, alone, the truth hits again and he is overcome.

He saved me.  Why can’t I save him?  I’ve struggled with that, lying awake in the dark for many nights.  I still haven’t found an answer with which I am satisfied.  I know that all of us have a free will, with which we make choices for our life path.  I know that until he chooses to accept the help offered, or makes his way out himself, he will suffer the consequences of the maelstrom.  I still live in hopes that someone will reach to him and find a hand ready to hold on for dear life.  I will keep praying.

Again and again, as I walk through this life, I have realized that many others agonize over the same issues.  We all have friends or family members who are lost in the maze of choices they’ve made.  If nothing else, I’ve come to recognize that I can’t fix life for any of them.  I am, by nature, a problem solver and allowing others to work through their issues is difficult, almost painful, for me.  I am learning patience.  I am also learning to have faith.  There is One who really can save, who actually knows man from the inside out.  His time-table isn’t always convenient for me; He doesn’t always seem to move in the same time zone in which I do.  Still, I think His hands reaching down into the chaos might have a better effect than my inept, clumsy efforts.

I’ll wait.  Maybe you can wait with me.

“He has made everything beautiful in His time.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:11)

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”
(Helen Keller~American author and educator~1880-1968)

Of Helicopters and Parachutes

I planted some dandelions today.  Oh, c’mon admit it.  You’ve done it too.  Who can resist the tantalizing wispy white head of a dandelion plant in springtime?  You hold the beautiful stem in your hand, gazing directly at the horde of delicate seeds gathered in a circle around the ovule at the top of the stem.  Their tenuous grip on their life source indicates their readiness to make the trip for which they were designed.  If you examine them closely, you’ll notice that each seed has a tiny, slender stem itself, the bottom of which is attached to the main plant.  At the top of that tiny stem is an umbrella, a parachute of sorts, specifically designed to carry the seed far enough away from its sire to multiply the species.

Careful not to inhale too close to the seed head, you take a deep breath and push it back out again, directing the stream of air right at the puffball.  The resulting explosion of little flying whirligigs is spectacular!  And, if you weren’t watching so carefully out of the corner of your eye to see if the neighbors were peering angrily from behind their curtains, you would laugh for joy to see God’s creation at work.  A common weed, we call it.  Ha!  More like a miracle in action, putting to shame all the complicated machines that our feeble minds can contrive to complete the tasks we deem important.  The simplicity, along with the amazing resilience, is so far beyond our imaginations that we can only marvel.  The process needs us not at all, as is evidenced by all the empty stems I see as I view the yard.  The strong storm winds have already spread the plant’s progeny to the four corners of my property (and maybe just a little beyond, truth be told).  The gentle rain that fell last week has already helped to press them into the soil, and even tonight, I imagine they are starting to germinate, putting down their stubborn tendrils into the damp earth, preparing for another bumper crop in a few weeks.

I hear the naysayers in my ear as I write this.  “Why would you allow this vicious weed to thrive in your yard?  Don’t you know it’s aggressive and ugly?  Aren’t you aware that it spreads to my perfect lawn?”  Of course I know that after I mow the lawn, they pop up and make it look as if I haven’t mowed at all.  I know that millions of dollars annually are spent trying to eradicate this “blight on the landscape”, but all in vain.  Ugly or not, I’m doing my part to protect the species, although they have no need of my protection.  I must admit, I have never dug a dandelion plant from my yard, never sprayed a drop of pesticide to control them.  They are, to me at least, one of Spring’s best gifts to the awakening world, with the wonderful maple helicopters running a close second.

The fantastic design of that maple seedpod is, without question, another source of wonderment for me.  This spring, the red maple in my backyard is covered with thousands of the odd winged vessels.  It is more properly called a “samara”, but I much prefer the descriptive name “helicoptor”.  Of course, the English have a fine name for it also; calling it a “spinning jenny”.  Every two years or so, the slender branches of the spreading tree almost sag beneath the weight of the seeds (as with this year), until the spring winds call to them, coaxing them off, first just a few at a time.  I like to think that the first ones are the adventurous type, not needing the company of the rest to know that this is what they were made for.  And then, before you know it, the slightest breeze fills the air with the spinning, gyrating seeds, headed by the hundreds of thousands to a resting place in the surrounding yards and ditches, awaiting their time to be pressed down into the soil and be watered; ready to spring up into saplings.  If we humans weren’t so intent on open spaces in which to do nothing, the hills would be covered with the beautiful trees.  Oh, I know…not all of the seeds would produce trees.  If they did, the forest would be so dense nothing could live.  But, as it is, I am particularly fond of the maple trees, with their large shade-providing leaves,  shaking and quivering in the storms, turning brilliant oranges and yellows before loosing their grip on the branches in the fall; only to be the earliest to burst forth again as the warm air triggers the life-cycle once more in the springtime.

I will grudgingly admit to the beauty of the autumn, and even the excitement of a beautiful snowfall in the dead of the winter, but spring is the season I love best.  I think it’s because my mind cannot fully contain the wonder of creation; cannot take in the fantastic design of the wonderful and diverse organisms surrounding us, from the flowering trees and bushes, to the pollinating hedges (covered with bees and flies to carry the pollen far away), to the amazing methods of regeneration afforded to all of the growing, thriving flora and fauna around us.  The intricate designs of a loving Creator overwhelm the intellect, as well as the senses, with each new bloom and every living thing that meets the eye.

It also might have something to do with the simple pleasures that spring affords.  I think that’s exactly the way our Creator intended it, too.  And, it doesn’t hurt that I love it when the children in my life are overjoyed as they plant dandelions along with this silly, aging man.  I can’t imagine a better way to spend a cool springtime evening!

“If dandelions were hard to grow, they would be most welcome on any lawn.”
(Andrew V Mason M.D.~American doctor and author) 

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”
(A.A. Milne~English author)

A repeat of one of my favorite posts, which appeared on April 12, 2011.  Sometimes you just figure you can’t improve on your first take. 

Gotta Serve

“You’re going to have to live with rules for the rest of your life, Jack.  You might as well get used to it now.”  I didn’t say the words in love.  They came without forethought from my mouth, as I responded to the accusing tone of the six-year old standing in front of me.  Little Jack was a neighbor boy, who came to visit my children once in awhile, when they were also young.  On this occasion, he stood there in my living room, staring at me, speechless.  For just a fraction of a second, I felt remorse at the words, suddenly harsh-sounding and almost callow.  That feeling quickly passed and I thought that perhaps the young man might actually learn something from them.

Jack’s parents weren’t quite the disciplinarians the Lovely Lady and I were.  Being more lenient, they allowed the child to set most of his own limits.  We were happy to allow them that freedom as parents; he was, after all, their son and not ours.  But when he came to our house, we had rules which the children followed.  Rule number one?  Knock at the door before entering the house.  The first few times he visited, he walked right in, without being admitted.  More rules followed…We say “please”, and “thank you”, and “excuse me” at appropriate times.  On this day, one of my children had ripped a toy from the hands of the other.  In this situation, the rule of saying “I’m sorry” was enforced, to the incredulity of the youngster.  He had had enough.  Drawing himself up to his full three feet and seven inches, he got it off his chest.  “You have a lot of rules, don’t you?”  From a young father’s perspective, it was the wrong time for the question to be asked, seeing that I was disciplining my child.  Without thinking, I retorted the words which you read earlier. 

Jack stared at me for twenty seconds without speaking.  His eyes screamed his skepticism.  Surely, this grownup couldn’t be correct!  Who tells him what to do?  Who makes him obey?  His mouth moved, but he never uttered a word.  Without breaking his silence, he spun on his heel and stalked out of the house, slamming the door as he went (Another rule: Close the door; we’re not in a barn).  I’ve often wondered about the conversation as he arrived home.  What a monster must they have thought I was!  I also will admit that I have shared the anecdote a few times myself, just to get a laugh.  Over the years though, the lesson of the episode has been reinforced again and again to me, not always in pleasant situations.  I can only speculate about whether the young man had to learn the lesson the hard way, or if he remembers any of the words I directed in his direction that day.

On so many planes, we live out the truth I shared rather heartlessly with the boy on that occasion.  We choose to live in situations that demand compliance with certain sets of rules.  Our employment, educational institutions, churches, and even owner’s associations, all have rules within which we agree to operate, simply because we wish to live at peace with others in those groups.  No one bullies us to obey; we do so because we have opted to accept the benefits of the body.  We also live in a society which has laws by which we abide.  They are enforced if we step outside the boundaries, but overall, we can choose to live unmolested by not challenging the norm.  I won’t discuss at any length the issues of civil disobedience, but suffice it to say that sometimes participants in society disagree about the set of rules and either change them by breaking them or are broken themselves by them.  Even after this process, rules exist, nonetheless.

Without getting into a doctrinal argument, I wish to make this last point…I love the freedom that Grace provides for all of its recipients.  Oh, it’s not a freedom from rules, it’s a freedom to enjoy, to exult in, The Rules.  A friend today remarked on this and his comment brought an old song-title to my mind.  My friend’s reminder was straight from the Savior’s words, “If you commit sin, you are a slave to that sin.”  The song it reminded me of was called, “Gotta Serve Somebody”.   I was also reminded in a strong way that Grace makes it a joy to serve, to practice The Rules.  How could it be otherwise?

All of life has rules.  As a child, at times I was dragged, kicking and screaming (literally), to obedience.  As a teenager, more than once, I walked away in defiance.  Truth, though, has a way of removing all barriers.  And now, as I observe the battle many others are still fighting, I sometimes wish I could authoritatively state the obvious, as I did to that boy so many years ago.  It doesn’t work that way, though.  Frequently, the truth can only be learned in the school of hard knocks.  The lessons learned there seem to carry more weight than those handed us in times of ease.

Of course, I’d like someday to actually graduate from the hard knock course, myself.  Evidently, there are still a few more lessons this hard-headed student has to learn.  I’ll keep studying…

“But, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
(Joshua 24:15)

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride,
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side,
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair,
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  

 (“Gotta Serve Somebody”~Bob Dylan~American songwriter/singer)

Walking Tall

I felt small today.  Twice.  The Tall Man called to tell me that he had the “perfect score” which he knew I would not be able to pass up.  As I began the phone conversation, the Lovely Lady heard me call him by name and she was immediately shaking her head and mouthing the word, “Don’t.”  I’m a sucker…an all-day one, it seems.  The Tall Man has been to visit me many times over the years; Every time he has the “perfect score”, it seems.  The only problem is that the man has a penchant for the cheap; for the bottom of the heap.  No.  That’s not absolutely true.  He loves nice things, but brings me the bottom of the heap things in anticipation that I will not recognize them for what they are.  He has visions of me opening the doors to my top merchandise and bidding him take anything he wants in trade for what he already owns.  It is not a likely scenario.

I suppose, I am the worst type of enabler.  I always believe that people can change.  I am always living in hopes that this time, their word is trustworthy; this time, they’ll come through.  So, when the Tall Man calls with news of a wonderful drum set, in “amazing condition”, which he wants to trade for “just one guitar”, I tell him I will take a look at it.  The address is given and found and he meets me at the door.  Once again, I am dwarfed by the physical size of the man; my hand is engulfed in his as he thrusts it at me to shake.  I am led to a bedroom, in which the “drum set” resides.  The disappointment is immediate, as he shows me a broken cymbal while apologizing, “I don’t want to mislead you.  This one isn’t any good.”  The other cymbals aren’t broken, but they’re no good either.  The top-brand set he promised is a Frankenstein’s creation, if ever there was one.  Only two of the five drums started out life together; mounts have been moved to avoid broken shells, and the “snare drum” is actually a timbale, intended for Latin-style music.  In short, this “perfect score” is a complete strike-out, with no value to me whatsoever.  As I patiently explain the reasons I cannot use the monstrosity, the Tall Man shifts uneasily before me.  He already knows every defect, every shortcoming.  He has put together this set from spare parts in the false hope that I will be ignorant of their lack of authenticity and offer him the valuable instrument he covets anyway.   My hopes for truthfulness and honesty in a man I know to be untruthful and manipulative are once more dashed.  I firmly demur, passing on the “perfect score” and head back for the music store.

As I drive, I turn on a radio news program to take my mind off the dismal failure my trip has been.  The reporter is discussing a well-known legal case which will be argued before the Supreme Court of the United States next week and is spotlighting one of the attorneys who will present the evidence for one side.  He casually mentions the man’s age and I realize, with a jolt, that the attorney is exactly the same age as I am.  This man–my peer–will be arguing what is possibly one of the most important cases to come before the Supreme Court in my lifetime!  Here I am, standing in bedrooms, explaining the demerits of drums to a man who will never tell me the truth, and this man is standing before some of the most powerful people in the nation, explaining the demerits of his opponent’s case.  The sense of disproportion is staggering!  Again, I feel small.

I’m not sure that the juxtaposition of these two events is an accident.  Sometimes, I believe that the sequence in which our lives unfold is part of the learning process.  I haven’t always connected the dots.  I still miss much of the topography, but this dichotomy is not lost on me today.  My mind jumps, as I write now, to the parable of the gifts that Jesus told to his disciples.  He told of a wealthy man who gave varying sums of gold to his servants and asked them to use it wisely.  Hearing the story as a child, my sense of fair-play, always overdeveloped, demanded to know why some got more than others.  I have come to realize that the significance is not the size of the gift, but it is in what is done with the gift.  That said, I still find myself time and again, focusing on the original gift.  I did that again today, as I coveted the gift of mighty influence, which the attorney in the news story has. 

Tolkien tells us that even a slow person can see through a brick wall, given time.  I stared at the brick wall in front of me today and I think that I am beginning to realize the truth.  I am not responsible to do more than what I have been gifted to do.  What is required of me is to work with the material I have in front of me.  I’m not a famous lawyer; I’m not the President of the United States; I’m not even the Mayor of my town.  That doesn’t make me a small man.  It means that I have been given different gifts.  My physical size has nothing to do with it, either.  The Tall Man, sadly, has chosen to exercise his gifts in a selfish way that tears down everyone with whom he interacts.  He’s put me in that frustrating position many times.  I want to employ my gifts so that lives are improved, so that the world I leave behind is a little better for my having walked through it.  There are days when I succeed in that goal. And, a few when I don’t.

Do you need a little encouragement today?  Here it is:  You are uniquely gifted to fill your place in this world!  How you use that gifting is up to you.  One of the characters in the parable I mentioned earlier hid his gift, thinking he was guaranteeing success.  He (and the world) lost because of his inaction and disengagement.  The gift you carry isn’t for you and you didn’t earn it, but it must be used to benefit those around you.  And, I’m not suggesting that you exercise a haughty pride as you walk, but you can walk tall as you follow the path marked out for you.  The gifts given to all of us actually obligate us and give us a task to fulfill.  No one is better than anyone else as they succeed in that function.  The gift isn’t the goal; its usefulness is.  

It’s a little gratifying to realize that our tasks in this life are neither more nor less important than are those that are carried out by people in the public eye.  There is no comparison to be made between us, except for this:  Did we use what we have in our hands to the end of our strength?  If not, will we make a new attempt tomorrow?  And the next day?  I love the idea of new beginnings and new chances daily.  I think that’s the reason that Grace draws us so.  The past is erased; the future awaits, clean and inviting. 

Morning approaches again.  I’m gratified that I don’t have to face it as a small man.  I’m no Paul Bunyan either, but I think I’ll settle for just plain Paul, working at walking tall.  There’s room here on the road for more than just one to walk.  You coming along?

“Now, it is required in a steward, that he be faithful.”
(I Corinthians 4:2)

“One must know, not just how to accept a gift, but with what grace to share it.”
(Maya Angelou~American poet)

Expert in Stupidity

The gorgeous, new guitar that had left the store was neither, when I saw it again a few weeks later.  My perfunctory look at the soft case gave the “Cliff’s Notes” version of the full narrative that would be told when the torn, useless zipper was pulled apart.  The black cloth was pock-marked with holes that had white tracks leading to and from them, indicating that moving rocks had played a part in the plot of this story.  As the case was opened, a glance at the owner’s forlorn visage steeled me for the horror to come.  The fragments tumbled out en masse, leaving only the battered remains of the neck and top in the case.  I have to admit, I had expected a damaged instrument, but I was not prepared for the shattered, splintered mound of debris that gave scant evidence of the once beautiful instrument which had left my shop only weeks before.

Almost tearfully, the story unfolded.  Ready to load the guitar in the car, but finding the trunk locked, the owner leaned the instrument carefully against the back bumper, moving to the front of the car to hit the trunk release.  An unexpected interruption came and the errand to pop the trunk was forgotten.  Scant minutes later, backing out and hearing a strange sound for several feet brought the horrified recollection of thought, but too late!  A careless moment and a phone call at the wrong time…these had contributed to the early demise of a guitar that normally would have an expected useful life of 20 or more years.  It was gone in the blink of an eye.  And, as sad as the experience is, I guarantee you, this guitar owner will one day find a way to laugh about the disaster.  Will they ever quit regretting it?  Probably not, but they’ll get over it.  It was a sad moment, but the guitar could be replaced and music would flow again, as well as some jokes and good-natured kidding to go along with it.

That is probably not so, for the owner of another guitar I was handed a number of years ago.  The man had decided to sell the instrument and was seeking a fair offer.   I looked at the beautiful, antique Gibson electric guitar and thought, “What a beauty!”  In top condition, it was worth about $3000 in today’s dollars.  I was excited that I would have a chance to purchase it and make a profit upon resale.  But, as I turned the guitar over to examine the reverse side, my heart sank.  The back of the guitar told a completely different story than did the front.  It was mutilated, with a large, square hole cut, not broken, in the center of the wood surface.  What (or who) could have done such a horrible thing to this superb work of art?

It’s not my vice, so I have no personal experience, but apparently, too much liquor makes you do stupid things.  The sad story was recounted to me by the now, very sober man.  He had been the guitarist for a local band which played every weekend in one of the nightclubs.  As happened frequently in those days, there was very little actual pay for musicians, so the bar owner compensated the band with free beers while they played.  Of course, as a result, the quality of the music suffered progressively through the evening, but the bar patrons didn’t take any notice, since most of them had also deteriorated in like manner.  On the night of the incident, the guitarist noticed an intermittent problem with the signal from the guitar to the amp and eventually it failed completely.  Access to the pickups was difficult without the right tools, and not having much time to effect repairs, he did the only thing his inebriated brain could conceive. He reached into his pocket, took out the greatest tool ever invented and…opened his jackknife and cut a small hole through the wood back.  It wasn’t enough room for his hand, so he cut it bigger.  Still not enough…well, you get the picture.  As the story unfolded, I stood with my mouth agape, listening in disbelief that, even in that mental state, anyone could be so witless.

I purchased the guitar, but for a price that was a fraction of what it should have brought.  I’m also sorry to say, that, like the appraisers on the Antiques Roadshow, I made a point of telling him what it would have brought prior to his senseless mutilation of a fine, vintage instrument.  My guess is there will never be a day when this gentleman laughs about his loss.  For some reason, stupidity doesn’t seem to become funny over time, it just seems more stupid.

We all get absent-minded once in awhile, sometimes with disastrous results.  That’s not the same thing as stupidity.   In the words of one wag, “Ignorance is curable, but stupidity is terminal.”

I’m still hoping for a cure for whichever one it is that I’ve got.  While there’s life, there’s hope…

“Life is tough.  It’s tougher when you’re stupid.”
John Wayne

“Stupid is as stupid does.”
(Forrest Gump)

Originally posted as “Mama Says, Stupid Is As Stupid Does” on October 7, 2010

The Lump Paradigm

“Don’t sweat the small stuff!”  I’ve said it a hundred times to people around me.  The layaway payment is a few days late?  “Don’t sweat it!”  The shipping address for that order doesn’t match the Post Office database?  “Don’t sweat it!”  The young man on the other side of the counter doesn’t have quite enough cash to pay for his purchase?  “Don’t sweat it!”  Again and again, I encourage folks to let it go and not worry.  There are more important things in the world to think about.  Frequently, the folks with whom I am dealing are reluctant to let it go, uncertain about allowing a stranger to foot the bill and suspicious that there will eventually be a price to be paid, somehow.

One of my favorite writers is Robert Fulghum.  I find that theologically, I am as far from him as anyone I read, but this man does understand life.  How else do you explain the title, “Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten”?  So when I read this quote a few years ago, it stuck in my head and made me think.  “Life is lumpy.”  Well, yeah.  But what does that mean?  I get that it’s not all smooth sailing, that there are ups and downs in life, but what does he mean, “lumpy”?  Thankfully, he finishes the thought…“A lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same kind of lump.  One needs to learn the difference.”  I wish I’d said that!  Admit it!  You’d think I was a brilliant philosopher if I had, wouldn’t you?  But, I didn’t.  That doesn’t make it any less to the point.

Why is it that we agonize over such minutiae as a misspelled word in the church bulletin, but turn our eyes away from the homeless person standing in the foyer as we leave the church?  Why do we become incensed about an overcooked steak and castigate our waitress mercilessly, never caring that she is worn out with concern for a wayward child who is in trouble with drugs?  It’s not always others that we aim our venom at, either.  Many of us internalize our anger and distress, blaming ourselves for sloppiness, for tardiness, for forgetfulness.  Before we know it, our worry and apprehension has gotten the better of us and all of life looks dark, with no hope of ever getting better.  Day by day, we tie ourselves up into knots over unimportant details, which have no lasting value of any kind. 

Mr. Fulghum recommends perspective to bring focus.  Sometimes, lifting our eyes from our immediate problem to view the big picture will bring clarity.  Sometimes, we just need a friend to give us a kick in the pants.  But always, we need to make the important issues important, and the minor issues minor.  Otherwise our mindset, our moods, our outlook on life will be skewed and we ourselves are the losers.

Today, it rained.  A lot.  I have a couple of black dogs that live in my backyard.  They have a shed to which they may retreat in inclement weather.  They’re not intelligent beings.  As they wandered out in the pouring rain, I fretted and got myself into a dark mood worrying about them.  I also knew, in a tiny spot in the back of my mind, that a friend of mine was going through some tests in the hospital to determine the cause of a heart arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat.  I wasn’t in a black mood about him, just about the dogs out in the rain (of their own volition).  Late this afternoon, an email came, reminding me that he will be having a procedure to make repairs to his heart tomorrow.  The light flashed in my brain!  Important things need to be made important.  Minor things should stay in their place.

I have one more comparison, if you’ll allow it.  I have complained repeatedly about needing a break from work.  The load has been significant.  I’m not as young as I once was.  And, I find that I’m getting better at griping about it than most.  As I talked with one of my regulars today about my perceived problem, I was in fine form, commenting about being trapped with no way of escape.  I don’t care if it is job security, I’d like a little less, thank you!  The customer finally shoehorned a few of his own words between those in my diatribe.  I started listening and discovered that he had to quit his part-time job because of the pain it brought on from a very real injury.  Now, a couple of years later, he is fighting to keep a pension which barely allows him a subsistence.  If he goes back to work, he not only risks injury again, but he will lose the pension altogether.  He is not sure he is even going to be allowed to keep the pittance he draws every month as it is.  Again, the moment of clarity comes.  Again, I am chagrined.

Life is indeed, lumpy.  I have my share of lumps to deal with.  Some of them have been significant; some have not.  I am continuing to learn that inconvenience is not the same as emergency; that nuisance is not the same as tragedy.  Now, if I can just keep my eyes open and focused.  Sometimes, like the reminder on the rear view mirror of the car which reads, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”, the things I can see with my eyes are neither exactly as big, nor as small as they may seem to be.  Perspective needs to be kept at all times.  The class is still in session.  I’ve failed a few of the preliminary tests.  I’m hoping that I’ll do better on the latter ones.

I’ll leave you with one more piece of wisdom from Mr. Fulghum’s book that I mentioned earlier:  “…remember the Dick and Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.” 

I’m keeping my eyes open.  You?

“You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.”
(Matthew 23:24 NIV)

“Clarity affords focus.”
(Thomas J Leonard~American life-coach and teacher~1955-2003)

Bubblegum for the Brain

The workday is done.  I again sit facing my computer monitor, but instead of answering emails and processing orders, on the screen before me is an array of playing cards.  You know what I’m looking at.  That ever popular “guilty pleasure” for thousands, the Solitaire game, has me in its grip.  I remember when, as a child, I first saw the game played.  I was at my Grandpa’s house, watching the little black and white television set, with its rabbit ear antennas providing the signal so we could view the old western playing on the tiny screen.  It was night time and the cowboys in the bunkhouse were sitting around swapping stories, but the cool tough-guy character sat by himself at a table, flipping the cards one after another and placing them on top of each other.  I don’t remember anything else about the show; I just recall marveling at that game, a game that one person could play by himself.  Now, nearly fifty years later, every computer has a version of the game readily accessible, without even the inconvenience of finding a deck of cards or shuffling between games.  I wonder how many hours have been wasted by folks in our country alone, playing the game over and over.  My own investment of time has certainly been significant.

I find myself playing the game almost nightly.  I would like to have a credible explanation so I could claim a higher ground.  Alas!  It is a merely a way of passing time, nothing more, nothing less.  You may now resort to feeling superior to me.  I wouldn’t even blame you if a quiet “tsk, tsk” escaped from your lips as you realize the depth of my indolence.  I already feel your corporate indignation and disgust being directed at me.  In my defense, I will tell you that the game-playing does, frequently, have a positive result.  One thing I have noticed as I digitally manipulate the black queen to lie atop the red king, with another red jack being sought to continue the sequence, is that while I play this game my brain is cleared of the chaff of the day.  The stress and the uncooperative customer is forgotten, as my brain seems to go into neutral and takes a much needed break from the burden of everyday life.

I actually view the solitaire game as a kind of “mental bubblegum”, a mindless activity for the mind, if you will.  And often, as I play, an idea for something to write about in that day’s blog will spring up.  As the eight of spades is laid atop the nine of diamonds, in preparation for the blushing card with seven hearts from the draw stack, the flesh of the idea is being applied to the skeleton of a thought that was discovered just moments before.  You see, I find it difficult to sit quietly, doing nothing at all, while I hatch brilliant (and not-so-brilliant) compositions to offer to you in these frequent posts.  I am a product of my upbringing, in which sitting and staring off into space was considered lazy and was just as good a way to have a broom (or shovel) thrust into your hand as any.  “Idle hands are the devil’s workplace.”  Even though I feel a little guilty about it, as least the cards flipping in front of my eyes don’t scream out my laziness nearly as much as just sitting and thinking.  I actually did learn something new, earlier tonight, as I played the time-wasting digital game.

The game I play keeps score by adding “money” to my imaginary bank as I win (or deducting it when I lose).  I had been winning a few games, with the bank showing almost seven hundred dollars.  With no goal in mind, I kept playing until I started losing.  Six hundred was left behind and then five hundred.  All of the sudden, I had a goal.  I would quit when I dropped down to two hundred dollars in that bank.  It is, by now, an all too familiar mindset and for awhile, I didn’t think any more about it.  But the nature of playing being what it is for me, my brain began to skitter around the goal I had set for myself.  The goal?  Since when is losing to a certain point a goal?  When I was winning, I had no goal.  I just kept playing.  Now that my fortunes had changed, I suddenly had a target to hit.  Lose until I reached the chosen threshold.  How is that an acceptable goal?

As the cards continued to fall, mostly into the discard pile, I remembered.  We humans set a lot more contingency plans than we do positive goals.  We plan for failure.  We expect to lose.  Again, it is a mindset which is ingrained in us.  Perhaps parents, or teachers, or friends unwittingly pawned off their sense of lowered expectations to us.  I know some of you had family members who did so blatantly, passing on the cruelty heaped on them by their upbringing.  My situation was the former, with more than one influential person in my life who expected poor results for themselves, guaranteeing that the young minds they influenced would adopt the same mindset.  A lifetime of fighting against those thought patterns has resulted in numerous battles won, but there is no ultimate victory yet.  The moment of clarity while playing the computer game tonight exposes the ground yet to be taken.

How about it?  Do you plan for what will happen when you succeed?  Or do you, like I, work hard to get your contingency plan in place, determining what you will do when defeat inevitably drags you down?  I will admit that I have always had a certain amount of antagonism toward the “think positive” crowd.  I am enough of a realist to understand that failure is a possibility and that it won’t be avoided by clearing my mind of any trace of negative thoughts.  Still, I remember the story I was taught in Sunday School, of the widow that the prophet Elisha helped.  Now there’s a man who planned for success!  When there seemed to be no hope, he instructed the good lady and her son to go to the neighbors and borrow all the pots they could get.  He had a single pot of oil and was going to pour it’s contents out into what they brought.  I’m confident they weren’t thinking positive thoughts.  But, grumbling and doubting, expecting failure, they still took the steps to succeed.  The story of the unfailing jar of oil has stuck in my head all these years.

So, I think I’m going to plan for success.  I will reach out to assist in hopeless causes.  I’ll keep buying merchandise to sell in my store; I’ll have shipping cartons on hand to send out the products which customers order.  I’m going to work on making my contingency plans for what happens when things go well, not the opposite.  I know there will be bumps along the way, maybe even a pit or two that we drop into, but I’m fairly confident that the road leads up, not down.  Time will tell.  How about you?  You coming?

It may seem like foolishness to you, since you now know that I fritter away my time playing computer games, but we may all be surprised.  Well…I’m going to play Solitaire for a few minutes more now.  Who knows what bright ideas may come next?

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm; plans to give you hope, and a future.”
(Jeremiah 29:11)

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”
(Herm Albright~German artist and philosopher~1876-1944)

Was Nat Right?

(Since I first wrote this and even published it for a few hours last week, I’ve talked with a few wise friends, so my compass is starting to point the way a little better, but I can certainly use your help, too.  I’d be grateful if you will put in your two cents’ worth, if you can spare it.)

“Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking. When there are clouds in the sky you’ll get by…”

This is not one of my normal narrative/moral-to-the-story posts tonight.  I have some questions.  If you’re expecting to read a ways down the page and then have the author spout some Solomonesque wisdom illuminating the correct path, you’ll be disappointed.  You’ll not read, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter.”  Because, I’ve got nothing on this one

The Lovely Lady and I sat this evening and in between the silences, we talked.  She learned something new about me.  “You mean, you don’t laugh at your own jokes?”  The question came almost incredulously.  I never thought about it before.  Most days, I seek out a pun or a word play joke and post it on my FaceBook page; amusing a few and probably annoying many more.  I have missed a day or two, not because I haven’t been in the mood, nor because I’m sad, but because I don’t always have time.  On those days when I am down, the days when I am saddened by either personal bad news or the troubles of someone near to me, I still post the jokes.  I’ve never really taken the time to analyze the merits or the integrity of doing such a thing.

The wise words, which did come from Solomon, have always caught my fancy:  “A merry heart does good, just like medicine.”  So, the jokes have become a part of my routine.  When I first started posting them, it was to offset the serious and sometimes argumentative posts that many of my friends share.  I just thought that we need to lighten up a bit and enjoy life…Let me rephrase that.  I just thought that you need to lighten up a bit and enjoy life.  Okay, so there may be a little hypocrisy in the “do as I say, not as I do” mindset.  I may need to work on that a bit. Or, a lot.

I have never made it a dogma, but I guess that I have always basically agreed with Nat King Cole, when he crooned the lines printed above, “Smile, though your heart is aching…”  I never intended to mislead, never meant to lie, but the jokes may have led you to believe that I am a lighthearted person, skipping through life as though the rough spots affect me not one iota.  That is certainly not the case.  In fact, recently, it seems to be just the opposite.  It’s even possible that I brood more than most over those spots.  Until I started this blog over a year and a half ago, I rarely shared my moods with anyone but the Lovely Lady.

So, now I need to know…is it dishonest to tell jokes when you’re feeling blue yourself?  Is it better to answer the question, “How are you today?” with, “I’m doing fine,” or with, “Not so good.  Let me tell you about it.”?  Should I “…light up my face with gladness, hide every trace of sadness.”; or do I unload what’s really in my heart?

I don’t want to burden you by asking you to answer all of those questions.  I do, however, desire your input, so if you would like to help me, you may use the comment box below, or make a comment under the posting for this blog on FaceBook.  Give me a one word answer or unload the whole wagon-load; I’ll love it either way.  If you want to just give a one-word answer, tell me “Smile” or “Unload” to indicate what you do when the sun’s not shining quite as brightly on you as you could wish.  If you can’t say it in one word (and I’m guessing there are more of you than I know), you may fill the spaces with verbosity, as I often do…or maybe you can give me the benefit of your wisdom in private sometime.

Boy!  I hope I haven’t disappointed you, haven’t destroyed your illusion of a guy who’s got it all together.  I do want to have all the answers, but this one still makes me scratch my head and wonder.  

So, now that that’s done…What’s the longest word in the English language?  Smiles!  Why?  Because, there’s a mile between the first and the last letters…

“Don’t Worry.  Be happy.”
(Bobby McFerrin~Singer/Songwriter)

“Do not lie to one another, since you have taken off your old self with its practices.”
(Colossians 3:9)