Category: Life

Couches are better than recliners for dads

Young dads, I thought of something this morning that made me think of you.
 
When I was a kid, my dad was almost always on the move — working in the yard, working in the garage, working at work, fishing, or hunting. He sat still for two reasons — to eat and to read the newspaper in the evening.
 
This morning it hit me, the closest I came to dad physically was as he read the newspaper. He sat at the end of the couch by the lamp. I sat right beside him, against him.
 
Dad had is place on the couch just as surely as Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang. Dad plopped down there, and if I was in the house I plopped down beside him, up against him, doing whatever I was doing.
 
That was the most Dad and I ever touched.
 
I don’t think I did that for my kids. I suspect I had a recliner or armchair. They would climb up in my lap, and I surely loved that. But bigger kids will not usually climb into your lap, but they may sit beside you, against you.
 
When your dad is 92 and you are 64, it’s interesting the things you remember and treasure. I love that he sat still, read the paper, and let me be as close as I wanted. One of the smartest things he ever did, and he was a very smart guy.

Take a trip to Ideas

A vacation for me is having time to travel, not to places but to ideas. I go there by means of books.

The books grabbing my attention now sit on the flat arms of my recliner in the study and on the top of my nearby desk.

This morning, I started with The Thickness of Glory by John Killinger; it’s in my lap.

The New American Standard New Testament rests to my right. It will be next.

On the left is T.S. Eliot’s For Lancelot Andrewes and Denise Shekerjian’s Uncommon Genius.

In the middle of my desk is Will Durant’s The Age of Faith. And on top of it is A Game of Thrones, which is how I ended Tuesday and probably will end today.

I’m not sure why I thought to share this; maybe because it is a way of enjoying a day that seems so foreign to this time. For many of us, the best traveling occurs in our minds.

Last night I started watching a movie that included an airport scene. I found myself getting stressed just watching it. Exit. This is vacation from stress time.

I do like seeing interesting places; I just hate the getting there if it involves airports and airplanes. I do like a good road trip because there is plenty of time to think. One of the best trips of my life was driving from Texas to Vancouver with Cameron. There and back again, to quote a hobbit. Thousands of beautiful miles and precious company.

With books and ideas I like both the trip and the arriving at the end.

My perfect vacation day continues.

Learning the art of listening

It struck me today how fortunate I was to have been a journalist.
 
Real journalists ask questions, lots of questions, and most of their time is spent listening to the answers — getting the responses right but also thinking about the responses. Is it a real answer to the question? What new questions does the answer raise? Thought upon thought, all while listening and trying to understand.
 
Then, after all the asking and listening is done, you try to make sense of what you learned, fitting it in with what you’ve learned from others and also letting it stand on its on.
 
Usually by the time I got to a keyboard, I had shaped in my head what I thought was most important in what had been said and how I could convey it. A one-source story is simple, but it gets more complex as you layer in sources trying to get at broader truth, not just one person’s perspective on what is true.
There are good and bad journalists just as surely as their are good and bad ministers, politicians, cops, plumbers, housewives, etc.
A bad journalist doesn’t really listen. He or she is more interested in finding what he or she wants or expects to hear or even “making” a person say what the writer wants. It happens.
A good journalist listens and shapes the story to the emerging understanding of reality, wherever it might take the reporter. And a resulting story is never the last word; it is part of the word, often the first word, which one hopes will lead to more understanding.
My thoughts surfaced as I read the introduction to Denise Shekerjian’s book, Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born. She wrote about the process of interviewing 40 recipients of the MacArthur Prize. Here’s some of her words about the process:
“In the end, the common themes linking these creative people separated and floated to the surface like cream. . . .
“But some of what I learned was a surprise. . . .
“With these conclusions in hand, the problem then was to devise an artful structure for telling the story. . . .
“Somehow, I had to allow for the untidiness and inconsistencies of it all. And, too, there were the subtleties of reducing an interview to the written page: people should sound the way they really talk. A casual statement, isolated from the whole, shouldn’t be made to stand for an entire formal dogma.”
She reminded me of what it’s like to listen, to really listen, to listen for understanding, to listen for honest sharing. That’s what good journalists do; that’s what all of us could benefit by doing.

Holding hands is for more than romance

I remember the excitement of holding the hands of girlfriends in youth.

I remember the connection when holding the hand of the woman I came to love. Not like the others, she remained from day to day.

I remember the tenderness of holding the hands of our babies; small and soft, they grasped your finger.

I thought of hand-holding this morning when listening to a song by David Kauffman — “A Hand to Hold.”

It reminded me of another hand-holding song first heard when I was 8 in 1963 — “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” by The Beatles. The excitement of that song thrilled and laid the foundation for the excitement that would come a few years later when I held the hands of girlfriends.

But, excitement is only part of life. Kauffman’s “A Hand to Hold” points to something deeper.

“Someone asked me what I want, the question sent me spinning off in circles. I could not see. Seems like so much of my time is spent chasing what my mind invents, that my heart lost its way.

“It took stripping away every plan in me to understand the simple things I need, a hand to hold, a heart that knows, a soul that welcomes and makes a whole, a smile that warms what’s grown cold ’til I’ve become a hand to hold.”

To hold a hand is one of the great joys of life. Yes, it can be exciting, but more joyously it can become a true connection with genuine tenderness, and it’s not just about romance. To rephrase Kauffman’s words:

We all need hands to hold.

We all need hearts that know us.

We all need souls that welcome and make us whole.

We all need smiles that warm us when we’ve grown cold.

We need real love, the Jesus kind of love. The love that touches our hearts, warms our souls, makes us whole, and smiles upon our lives.

We can receive these spiritually, directly from our Creator and Sustainer, but we also need to receive these from the people God brings into our life path.

God may touch our spirits, but God knows that flesh is important and needs to be touched, as well. Jesus became flesh so he could actually touch people. What might it have been like to walk a path in Palestine holding the hand of the one who loved perfectly and would one day give that hand to be assaulted in crucifixion?

And, as Kauffman’s song says, when we have been touched and changed, we will “become a hand to hold.” We need others to hold our hands, and others need us — the power of touch.

(David Kauffman has been one of my favorite Christian songwriters for years. “A Hand to Hold” is on his album by that same name.)

 

Oh, the friends you will make

When first told I had cancer, my initial thoughts were these: This could kill me. This will cost me. This is going to disrupt the lives of my family and me. I did not think of how God would bless me through the process.

One of the blessings is that I have gotten to know a bunch of great people — competent and caring. They’ve brightened my life.

Today marked the 31st day of my 38-day radiation treatment. I get to see the folks at Urology Austin’s radiation center every morning at 7 a.m. to get zapped.

Dr. Garza is the ring leader, but there’s also Isabel, Kristianne, Angela, Erick, Katherine, Que, and others. They rotate. They’ve become my friends. In the brief moments before and after they leave the room we get to share tidbits of our lives.

They know their stuff, which is critical, but they also show they care, and that is just as important for me. I’m going to miss them when this is over.

I would have preferred to forego the cancer, but I am surely thankful for the people — the blessings — I have encountered through the journey.

Trustworthiness is tied to truth & actions

Trustworthiness is so important. Understanding it can help us understand why lying and deceit are so damaging.

I want to simplify a sentence from Christopher Hall, quoting Robert Wilken:

Authority sometimes refers to power, but it can refer also to trustworthiness. One way we establish trustworthiness is through “teaching with truthfulness,” which resides “in a person who by actions as well as words invites trust and confidence.” A person’s “trust is won not simply by words but also by actions, by the kind of person the teacher is—in short, by character.”

Hall and Wilken were referring to the pursuit of truth and trustworthiness in the Christian tradition. It is, I think, something that can be applied to all of life. We win the trust of others not merely by our words but also by our actions — by being a person of high character, by being trustworthy.

The paraphrase and quote come from Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (p. 28). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Making sense of a personal past

Reading about others can help you see yourself better.

I was reading this morning about the differences that emerged during American slavery between house slaves and field slaves. I cannot begin to compare my heritage to the black experience, but I as I read knowing my own heritage I realized that in many ways I’m from the white field hand tradition.

One of my grandfathers was a sharecropper. Both of my grandfathers were eventually land-owning farmers (thanks, in part, to the women they married). I still see the field hand in myself. I’m not comfortable in the world of fancy; I like to dress more simply and behave more casually.

But I went and got a bunch of education, so I don’t really fit in with the field hand world either. I would rather talk about ideas than the weather.

So now I see a little better why I sometimes feel alone. I’m not alone regarding people; I’m a bit alone within myself — connected, yet disconnected from my past and in my present.

That may sound like a sad thought. It’s not, because I know there are lots of people who are like me in feeling disconnected from something old and yet connected to something new.

Introducing a hero — Mary Scott Skinker

Mary Scott Skinker helped change our world, but most of us have never heard of her. She started by changing Rachel Carson’s world, who then rocked the whole world. And most of us do not know of Carson today either.
 
Mary Scott Skinker died sometime in the 20th century; I’m not sure when. She does not have an entry in Wikipedia, but she does have a phrase. “At the urging of her [Carson’s] undergraduate biology mentor Mary Scott Skinker, she settled for a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. . . .”
 
Rachel Carson, who does have an entry in Wikipedia. Read this three-paragraph intro, especially the third one:
 
“Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) was an American marine biologist, author, and conservationist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement.
 
“Carson began her career as an aquatic biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. Her widely praised 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us won her a U.S. National Book Award. . . Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, and the reissued version of her first book, Under the Sea Wind, were also bestsellers. This sea trilogy explores the whole of ocean life from the shores to the depths.
 
“Late in the 1950s, Carson turned her attention to conservation, especially some problems that she believed were caused by synthetic pesticides. The result was the book Silent Spring (1962), which brought environmental concerns to an unprecedented share of the American people. Although Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. It also inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter.”
 
Mary Scott Skinker leads to Rachel Carson, who leads to a world concerned about the environment, and rightfully so.
 
I think most of us feel pretty “small” much of the time. We will never have an entry in Wikipedia or any other pedia. But we can be a Mary Scott Skinker to someone. We can encourage, educate, help, promote, and encourage some more.
 
We may be lifting up the next Rachel Carson or the next Mary Scott Skinker. We need each other. And the ones who leave big marks on history need the “little” ones of us to help them.
 
I once wanted to be a Rachel Carson. Now, I would settle for being another Mary Scott Skinker.

Edith Hamilton keeps deep truth alive

In her 1948 book, Witness to the Truth, Edith Hamilton wrote in the Introduction that when times are bad and “storm-driven,” there is a “strong tendency to emphasize men’s baseness or their impotent insignificance.” This happens in both philosophy and art.

Seventy years later, there is still this tendency to bemoan the nature of humanity. Speaking from our not-to-distant past, Hamilton (1867-1963), a scholar of ancient Greece, has insight that may help us today, which is generally what one finds from the great Greeks and those who “know” them.

Philosophy and art have not always been as they are now, and this already was the case in Hamilton’s time.

“A great change has taken place in the intellectual and artistic atmosphere. Plato’s influence through all the centuries up to our own [the mid-20th century] was immensely strong; Platonic philosophy aimed at turning mankind away from baseness, ‘to lift up the wing of the soul,’ Plato wrote, ‘which is renewed and strengthened by the love of the good, the true, the beautiful.'”

Stop and let those words wash over you — ”lift up the wing of the soul” and “love of the good, the true, the beautiful.” There is spiritual uplift in the words. In our time of so much bad behavior, dishonesty, and ugliness of human character it is good to remember to focus on their opposites — the good, the true, the beautiful.

One can say the ugliness has always been with us, dating back to the plucking of that fruit in the first garden. But still, there have been times when humanity reached hard for the good, true, and beautiful.

“‘All things,’ he [Plato] said, ‘poverty or sickness or any other misfortune will work together for good to him who desires to be like God as far as the nature of man allows.’ That voice is not heard now in philosophy. Plato’s solution was to become like God; the solution of modern philosophy is to die.”

The Christian tradition says it a little differently, but it is essentially the same. We Christ followers seek to be more and more like Jesus — God come to earth. We die to self, yes, but it is in order to truly live in God. We do not fly to death; we fly to life.

One more quote from Hamilton, at last for this day:

“In all the great periods of art the artist looked at the world as its Creator did, and found it good. His aim was to make others share in that vision, to clarify for them the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth. When he had painted his picture or written his poem, people would see truth and beauty where they had not before.”

The best of artists do help clarify for us “the truth of beauty and beauty of truth.” They are, however, not alone in the world of the creative. There are some artists of amazing creativity who lift up the ugly, who seem to relish it, to swim in it, not to expose it but to be part of it.

As for me, I seek the artists of beauty and truth. I love bright and lively colors in painting. I like inspiring and encouraging music. And I fall in love with writers who can help me see the good. All great artists are aware of and touch the ugliness, but they do not stay there.

I heard someone say the other day that Buddhism does away with hope. I’m not sure if that is true, but how can one live without hope? I want the hope that comes from the truth and beauty that the best of artists capture.

In this storm-driven day, may we hold on to the good, the true, and the beautiful. And may we exemplify them by seeking to be more like the loving and forgiving Divine.

Leave the cave; stay in the fray

Elijah “was afraid; he got up and fled for his life. . .” (1 Kings 19:3a, NRSV).

People who are trying to be faithful to God can empathize with Elijah — there can be a temptation to run away from it all. They confront evil and injustice as best they can, but still they sometimes want to slink away and hide. It is no fun being attacked and criticized even when you are right.

Faithfulness can be especially hard for those who seek to confront phony religion. Take Elijah. Take Jesus. Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day pulled it off.

The story of Elijah’s run is in 1 Kings 19:1-18.

. . . he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”

This guy had just been God’s servant in doing some major religious clean-up work. Miraculous stuff. He goes from big-time faith to no faith in days.

I have known some godly people who can confront evil all day long and be ready for another day of the same — the late James Dunn comes to mind. (Though sometimes I thought he was tilting at windmills.)

Elijah and James Dunn stand out as confronters of bad religion, but a lot of people are trying to do their parts. Still, they may feel inadequate for the tasks. We need Elijah’s angel — a patient angel.

Then he [Elijah] lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.

Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.

The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

Sometimes we want to lie down under a tree — a live oak, possibly. But then it’s like we hear: “Nope. You can’t lie down town. Take nourishment and get ready for another journey.” We hit the snooze button on such angelic encouragement and go back to sleep, but we all know that a snooze button doesn’t turn off an alarm.

Back to Elijah.

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

When we are in the pits we can overstate our situation, and that’s because we misunderstand it and ourselves and our God.

He [God] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

That would get your attention. You would be like a kid in the old days if someone said a parade was coming to town. Gotta see it!

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind;

and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;

and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;

and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Wind, earthquake, fire — but not God. Attention riveted. No God around. Then, silence. And Scripture says at odd thing — Elijah “hears” the silence.

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Summoned by silence is almost an oxymoron. Silence does not summon — or does it? Has a parent ever suddenly realized his or her children had grown silent and proceeded to investigate.

Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Why is a prophet in a cave in the wilderness? Prophets are needed in the cities, in the middle of culture, out in the open where evil can be challenged.

He [Elijah] answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah is continuing his earlier riff. God speaks.

Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return. . . .”

So many faithful believers feel like Elijah. They have been trying so hard for so long to be faithful, but no one seems to be listening. And this can happen even in the midst of praise and encouragement.

In the silence, however, we can be encouraged. We can gain a renewed sense of God’s presence. We can get new orders. “Go, return” to the fray, because God is up to something.

And we now have distinct advantages over Elijah. We have the example and teachings of Jesus, and the truth of this Man can change an individual and a world of individuals and their communities. And we have the Spirit of the Creator recreating within each of us the life spark that animated Jesus.

Ah, yes! Leave the cave!

So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Galatians 6:9-10).

(All quotations from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)