Mother’s Day

In early 2020 BC (Before Covid) I began to work with the church deacons and worship committee to plan a Mother’s Day evening service for our community. It was to be a service of healing and wholeness for those for whom Mother’s Day is a complicated day.

For decades I have listened to various voices crying out how painful Mother’s Day is for them.   Some women knew they would never give birth due to infertility or circumstance.  Some grieved miscarriages. Some grieved the death of a child. Some grieved the death of their mother. Some said their relationship with their mother or their child had been complicated.

While these women and men encouraged the church to celebrate Mother’s Day in worship and honor and give thanks for all our mothers do for us, some chose to avoid their pain by not attending themselves. Therefore our church planned to provide a special evening service to gather together for worship with prayer stations, lament, song, Scripture readings, and meditation in order to receive the comfort and healing our faith provides. We wanted people to know they are not alone as they experience empathy during a difficult time. “Bear each other burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” – Galatians 6:2.

For all of us in 2020, Mother’s Day was complicated. We couldn’t physically gather together in community to worship in the morning or evening. Out of love we didn’t gather for a meal.  We worried about every mothers’ health, as we electronically honored and thanked mothers whose roles were changing in so many ways.

If I understand the text, Hosea 11:1–11 speaks of the motherhood of God. I invite you to read Hosea 11:1-11 and ask yourself what you need to hear during this week after Mother’s Day 2022. 

Who is one person with whom you could connect who had a complicated mother’s day?

Poor People’s Derby

Growing up in Louisville, the Derby Week Festival led up to the first Saturday in May. On Wednesday friends would picnic in the park beside the Ohio River to watch the steamboat race between the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen. Thursday was the Pegasus Parade in which I rode in a Chevy convertible with a Derby Princess. I didn’t know her. Dad had the insurance account for Jim Booher Chevrolet; he used the connection to be our driver. (We drove only Chevys for three decades.)

We didn’t have school on Friday when many families went to the Kentucky Oaks. The 100th Run for the Roses was the first Derby I attended. My parents had home parties on Derby Day because corporations bought most of the seats. At one party I met Penny Tweedy the year she raced Riva Ridge—a couple of years before her famed Secretariat.

In 2000 I started a tradition to fill the Tuesday of Derby Week which I called the poor person’s derby. During “Rotary Day at the Downs” dad would reserve an eight-top table for my friends on “Millionaire’s Row”. For $90 we had a buffet meal, access everywhere, and 8 races to watch. Four days later that same seat would cost $5000. We bet on the same jockeys, just very different horses. Our experience enhanced watching the Kentucky Derby on TV back in Moberly.

What traditions are associated with your hometown? How does a past experience transform an event today? Who are the eight with whom you’d want to share a table?

Chicken Soup – Too Funny

When I started reading “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books 25 years ago, it never occurred to me I’d have a story published in one. I only wrote sermons “weakly”. From April to December, 2020, when I couldn’t visit the members in person, I wrote brief reflections for First Presbyterian in Columbia. I was encouraged to write a book.

In 2021, I took several online writing classes hosted by Brian Allain on “Becoming a Spiritual Writer.” His “Writing for Your Life” presentations helped me visit with my top 5 authors along with helpful resources he makes available.

During one workshop I met the editor of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. Amy Newmark said she was accepting about a thousand submissions for a book with humorous stories and they’d publish 101 of those stories sometime next year. 

“Sometime next year” is today! The story I submitted last year is #51 in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL — TOO FUNNY. I avoided my first rejection letter by choosing the best story I told for years at breakfast at pastor’s conferences to watch them spit their milk.

I still enjoy certain songs from the 70s — Vehicle, Mississippi Queen, Spirit in the Sky, Montego Bay, Brandy, etc.—each is a one-hit wonder. Today I joined the one-hit-wonder club with “This Time in Latin”. We’ll see what might come next.

What is your dream for the coming years? Where can you go for resources and support to act on your hope? What might you do if your dream became a reality?

Table-Threat to Empire

We started Lent imagining with Diana Butler Bass that the Table is the central image of Holy Week. A community was celebrating deliverance from bondage to Pharaoh’s Empire at the joyful Jewish Passover meal. Their rabbi, Jesus, says, “Love one another as I have loved you” as he washes feet. The abundant life is expressed in a communal table where everyone, everyone, everyone is welcome to eat bread and drink wine in peace and mutuality with each other and God.

This Friday we see that table shattered. John Dominic Crossan taught me to ask, “Why would Rome waste the cost of a garrison, cross, and nails if Jesus were not a threat to the Empire?” If Jesus was just talking about an afterlife, they wouldn’t care. An alternative Kingdom of God on earth was a threat to the Kingdom of Caesar on earth; there’s only room for one king at the top of the pyramid. Public execution of the leader would settle it, and deter anyone else from trying.

Every Empire before and after relies on domination by one group over others, making “the other/outsider/alien” an enemy to be controlled, systems that result in the few having the most while the vast majority possess little, using ever-increasing violence to maintain power and domination. 

Proclaiming a table for all, “each under their own vine and fig tree where no one shall make them afraid”, disarms the violence and fear that maintains the empire’s myth of scarcity. I wonder why people who follow the way of Jesus wear crosses instead of tables? Jesus never took the disciples to the cross after he died. He met them back in their last supper upper room, the Emmaus road table, the seashore breakfast table. 

What powers of domination and violence do you see crushing the table today? What causes you to despair and grieve on this Friday? Where do find your source for hope and strength?

Chicken? Chow Mein

When I became Kitchen Steward for the Sigma Chi Fraternity at Emory in 1977, I was given many recipes that had been collected over the years to help me plan daily meals for 86 brothers. One dinner was Chicken Chow Mein.

C.C.M. was popular with past kitchen stewards because it was cheap when the budget got tight. Several #10 cans of chicken chow mein and more cans of fried noodles cost less than any meal in the repertoire. C.C.M. was popular with our beloved cooks, Ethel & Pearl. Open, pour, heat… one pot clean-up… home early.

C.C.M. was not popular with anyone who tried it. What little “chicken” there was among the soggy celery was questionable. The watery sauce was gray—the color of a mouse. We were actually relieved to find it had no flavor (spare us the imagined alternative). 

Each person could “sign off” one meal a week and almost everyone got in a long line to sign off the night chicken chow mein was up.

After my second experience of mass sign-off protest, I took our last #10 can of Chicken Chow Mein down to our chapter meeting and announced its official retirement. As I hung up the can as an iconic reminder of “never again”, I received my only kitchen steward standing ovation.

What is something you keep doing, that you could allow to cease? How did you start on that path in your family system or community system? What steps do you take to discern what to let go? How would your change affect those around you? What would it take for you to act?

Kitchen Steward

During my Junior year at Emory University I worked for our fraternity, Sigma Chi, as the Kitchen Steward. I wasn’t paid with money; the job was bartered with free meals that year. For 86 brothers plus our “little sisters” on our meal plan, I organized 3 meals a day (Mon-Fri), made contracts with food distributors, and kept our two beloved cooks, Ethel and Pearl, satisfied.

I worked harder than I was paid to keep people with a full spectrum of tastes happy with the choices. My clients were privileged post-pubescents who came from the unique cuisine of their family of origin. It was impossible to keep everyone happy. I worked within a limited budget. Most remained silently satisfied. Some shared their appreciation. The few obnoxious brothers seemed blaming and reactive in most areas of life. Some meals stood out as excellent; most nobody can remember; at the end of  the year we had been well fed.

What an incredible preparation for a calling to church ministry!!!!! I grew from being a Kitchen Steward to preaching parables about stewards.

I worked harder than I was paid to keep individuals as happy as possible. Each church member had a unique idea of what church “should be” based on their history— and/or their hopes. It was impossible to keep everyone happy. I worked within a limited budget. Many remained silently satisfied; many more showed appreciation. Reactive, obnoxious complainers revealed their hurts, as they remained beloved children of God. Some sermons and teachings stood out as excellent; most nobody can remember; in the end we were spiritually fed.

How do your experiences connect with mine? With your personality, how would you imagine being a caretaker for a frat house kitchen? If you are in a spiritual community, how do you seek unity rather than uniformity? How do you hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness in your life and in the world?

Second Mile

“…and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40) is an example by Jesus of non-violent active protest against unjust legal and economic systems then and now. You can read more about it in Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.

“….and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 5:41). I have seen this statement abused by church leaders who tell a person to go back for more abuse. How is that interpretation and advice even possible? How might we help someone suffering abuse to find the best way to resist an evildoer (fight, flight, a third way….)?

I have forced this phrase into a sermon on stewardship—Second Mile Giving: donate more. Not necessarily bad advice—just an inappropriate use of the metaphor. 

This is a great example for reading the Bible today through the lens of an ancient world. “If anyone forces you to go one mile…” would be abundantly clear to all hearers that day. ANYONE means any member of the Imperial Roman Army who could FORCE any resident to carry his 60 pound pack one mile. It was a privilege to the soldier; it was an humiliating abuse of power to the peasant. 

Roman law had a limitation: a soldier could only force someone to carry his pack one mile. You didn’t want to take up a field worker’s whole day—one mile on your back, one mile back, and back to work. There were severe consequences for forcing a carrier past a mile marker on a Roman road. 

To “go also the second mile” upsets the system of power in non-violent protest. By being more helpful, you force the soldier to chase you down the road, begging you to stop before he gets in trouble with his superiors. I now imagine those listening then laughing with joy at this image of transformation of power.

What is your experience of powerful humiliation? How have you been taught to interpret these words of Jesus?  Where are opportunities for your transformation now?

Turn the other cheek

Soon after a slap on the LEFT cheek, the Academy tweeted it “does not condone violence of any form.” I thought: “While our industry does not condone violence, we make billions portraying it.”

Two thousand years ago my teacher spoke of a slap to the RIGHT cheek: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:39). In 2003, Walter Wink (whose lamp glows on my bookshelf) wrote: Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.

Jesus’ word “resist” means “violently resist” (do thwart an evildoer, but with non-violent action). The “third way” to respond to injustice is (1) not passivity, (2) not violent opposition, but (3) creative non-violent resistance.

So why the RIGHT cheek? In that day, you couldn’t slap with your left palm—it was “unclean” (no toilet paper). You had to use the back of your right hand to slap the right cheek of the other. 

In the culture of Jesus, people in power could demean you and maintain control by giving you a back-handed slap: husbands over wives, masters over slaves, Roman soldiers over the conquered. By turning the other cheek, you were saying, “If you slap me again with your right palm, you will have to treat me as an equal human.”

To (1) passively take it continues the cycle of abuse. To (2) oppose violently would result in your death. To (3) create a non-violent protest leaves the abuser in a quandary—do I treat you as my equal or leave you alone? Jesus then gives two more illustrations on transforming systems of injustice, and inviting evildoers to become transformed themselves.

Mahatma Gandhi (a student of Jesus), the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a disciple of Jesus) and countess others have used a variety of creative, non-violent actions to resist evil, transform enemies with love, and change the world.

How have you been taught to interpret “turn the other cheek” in your life? What are the usual results of passivity or violent opposition? How have you been transformed by the actions of another person’s love? In what situations are you called to action to creatively,  non-violently resist an evildoer?

Tradition

We experienced the musical “Fidler on the Roof” at the University of Missouri this week. We were transported to a Jewish Russian village in 1905 when the Tsar used “Pogroms” to bury any dissent—even against those who weren’t part of the first revolution. “Pogram” is a Russian word meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.” 

As a familiar Bible story gives new meaning in various contexts of our experience, Kyiv’s place in that story had a new place in my heart. I felt for those who experienced unwarranted abuse in a play, an invasive war, and the senate that day.

The opening song “Tradition” transported me to a different place—my high school German class. Our teacher used the German version of “Fiddler on the Roof” as one way to learn German. While I remember the love and drinking songs better, I can still belt out some tradition in German—especially the fiddler intro that we heard a hundred times. 

Maybe that’s why I remember this quote from my 20s: “TRADITION IS THE LIVING FAITH OF DEAD PEOPLE; TRADITIONALISM IS THE DEAD FAITH OF LIVING PEOPLE.” I have sought to live out the traditions that bring us life, while questioning the traditionalisms that kill our spirit. 

Tevye wrestles with traditionalism views of marriage that threaten to destroy his family, while holding onto the life-giving traditions of his community. Each “on the other hand” spoken to God echoes the battle between traditionalism and tradition in equality, justice, marriage, politics, and the church.

When have the arts (a song, movie, play, painting….) given you new insights to your journey? How have traditionalisms drained you of the abundant life? How do traditions of the dead help you live more fully today?

The Table

If March’s full moon had been today instead of last Thursday, we would be in Holy Week. It wasn’t; we aren’t. Easter remains the first Sunday after the full moon after the March Equinox.

In this alternative reality, let me invite you to an alternative Holy Week. What if the table on Thursday is the metaphor, that precedes (dare I say supersedes?) the cross on Friday?

Last fall the church I served studied the book Grateful by Diana Butler Bass. We loved her video reflections and study guide from “The Work of the People”.  A transformative take-away for me was that the Lord’s Table (throughout scripture) means all are invited, there is more than enough for all, and together the world feasts around one table in gratitude for God’s abundant gifts. I invite you to feast on and proclaim the good news of this book.

Last week in “The Cottage” zoom event with Diana Butler Bass I was reminded that gathering equally at the Table is a direct threat to those who want to control the way we live and the resources we have (“from Pilate to Putin?” I thought).

The Roman Empire was not the first or last to seek to maintain control through violence, oppression, hoarding wealth, conquering peoples, and controlling the ways others live. I wonder if Crucifixion—Rome’s threat of terror to squash all resistance—has become the current control of crucifying civilian cities.

Table gatherings with the risen Lord behind locked doors, along the Emmaus road, and beside the open sea had and have the final vision for us to live into. God’s grace wins.

During this time before Holy Week, how can you proclaim the good news of the Lord’s Table? Which views of the table, the cross, and the resurrection is God transforming in your journey? How do you participate in the myth of scarcity and the illusion of control? In what ways are your seeking to live the abundant life?

Chicken Soup – Too Funny Reflections & Questions

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://law-and-gospel.com/2022/04/19/chicken-soup-too-funny/
  1. Chicken Soup – Too Funny
  2. Table-Threat to Empire
  3. Chicken Chow Mein
  4. Kitchen Steward
  5. Second Mile

But wait……

My mother’s mother made many memorable statements on life. “You can judge a person’s life by how many funny-looking people come to the funeral” was one.

In her teens (and the teens of the last century), she met my grandfather while they attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He became the newspaper editor in Pineville, KY and then for the Lexington Herald. In a state where basketball is a religion, they were faithful followers.

In her 70’s her husband and brother died in the same year. “The two men in the world who think I’m perfect are gone,” she said.

At 90 she worried about breaking a hip: “nobody will like me anymore.” Sure enough, she lived for a year in a nursing home, knowing she’d never live anywhere else—everyone still loved her. 

One dark night, she said to a nurse by her bed, “You know, I’ve lived a full and long life. My family is doing fine. I’m tired. I think it’s time to be with God and my husband.” She closed her eyes and rolled into the covers.

Soon enough, she rolled back toward the nurse, opened her eyes and proclaimed, “But wait…. Kentucky is playing basketball this Saturday!”

As her grandson, I’m disappointed Kentucky is not playing this Saturday. (Any pull with Saint Peter doesn’t help against Saint Peters.) And yet, I can smile as I wonder what’s coming next.

What brings you joy in life? Is the anticipation or the experience itself more meaningful to you? As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Chicken Soup – Too Funny Reflections & Questions

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://law-and-gospel.com/2022/04/19/chicken-soup-too-funny/
  1. Chicken Soup – Too Funny
  2. Table-Threat to Empire
  3. Chicken Chow Mein
  4. Kitchen Steward
  5. Second Mile

Pi Day 

A few days before 3.14.15 our son’s high school math teacher said, “Our class should have pizza pie to celebrate Pi Day. Any suggestions on how we could?” Our son raised his hand with an answer (maybe for the first time?). “My dad makes pizza!”

The afternoon before 3.14.15, our son invited us to deliver to school 9 large home-made pizzas at 10:42 a.m. While I was grateful he thought we made great pizza, I was sorry he didn’t fully comprehend the process (or he didn’t care). For our family of 3, pizzas on our Green Egg were fire-baked one at a time for 20 minutes. How were we to feed a classroom of hungry teenagers?

We had our own math problems to solve. We bought the ingredients for a variety of pizzas, cooked a ton of sauce, and set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. We prepped and cooked 3 ppph (pizza pies per hour). Ovens kept them warm until we wrapped them in towels for transportation through the school’s security at 10:42 a.m.

The appreciation of the students and teacher made it worth the effort. We learned a new math formula: X amount of teenagers divided by Y amount of pizza always equals zero (Xt/Yp=0). One friend proclaimed, “I want to eat at your house! Will you adopt me, too?”

Name the person in your life you would do anything for. Recall one thing you did for someone else that you won’t forget. How do you react to that memory? How do you give appreciation for the actions of others? What is a meaningful way for someone to show appreciation to you?

Chicken Soup – Too Funny Reflections & Questions

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://law-and-gospel.com/2022/04/19/chicken-soup-too-funny/
  1. Chicken Soup – Too Funny
  2. Table-Threat to Empire
  3. Chicken Chow Mein
  4. Kitchen Steward
  5. Second Mile

So It Goes

books and lamp on bedside table in hotel room

I sat beside the bedside of a dying friend this week. We were not alone; he was never alone.

Years ago, I sat beside his father’s deathbed. Years ago, this man’s welcoming smile and comforting demeanor lifted me from my lowest. What else could I say but, “Thank you, I love you, Goodbye” in return?

Each bedside during 8 years of hospice chaplaincy was significant and meaning-full to me, but friendship transformed this covenant into a sacrament. I prayed for his loving wife, his children, his family and many friends as I trusted in God’s love and compassion.

When a song lyric entered my mind, I didn’t dare speak it. Billy Joel’s song “And So It Goes” contains the line “and so it goes, and so it goes, and so will you, soon, I suppose.”  All too soon.

All too soon, I heard more horrific news of slaughter in Ukraine. I thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”…. “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Then I recalled that each mention of death precedes the phrase “so it goes”—how Tralfamadorians view life and death. So it goes.

One man’s death and the impact on family, friends, and me touch my heart in profound ways. I can’t emotionally survive feeling the same about each death caused by a vicious war in Ukraine. So much is beyond my control. Maybe I can have genuine compassion for some as I pray for God’s comfort and peace for every other broken heart.

How have you experienced being with a dying loved one? What do you find helpful in working through your grief? How are you dealing with the international suffering you observe?

Chicken Soup – Too Funny Reflections & Questions

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://law-and-gospel.com/2022/04/19/chicken-soup-too-funny/
  1. Chicken Soup – Too Funny
  2. Table-Threat to Empire
  3. Chicken Chow Mein
  4. Kitchen Steward
  5. Second Mile

The Happy Hypocrite (Colorado Kool-Aid Continued)

man sitting on steps posing

I told my psychology professor what had happened and that I was never going back. He said, “If you don’t go back, you won’t complete the assignment; you will get a D. If you complete the assignment; you’ll probably earn an A or B. You choose.”

“But what if that guy’s still there? How can I face him?” I whined. My teacher replied, “I hope he is there. Then you can apologize for the buckle and ask him for another chance.” 

I went. He was. I did. He invited me to sit and talk. He gave me another chance.

During the first 20 minutes of a 1000 worship services in my 20 years of living, I had been told I was forgiven. Sometimes I paid more attention than others. Here I was truly experiencing forgiveness in an unforgettable way.

That man became the first of many persons with alcohol use disorder whose story I’ve heard and whose path I’ve walked alongside. I have seen families, lives, and relationships ruined by severe problem drinking—some publicly, some privately. I have seen people find a way to live an abundant life one day at a time through the help of a community and a higher power.

As I grew older, I would learn that Jesus of Nazareth had a few things to say about hypocrites.  Many people tell me they don’t come to church because it’s full of hypocrites. I’m quick to quip: “There’s always room for one more.”  

That day, I became a happy hypocrite, because my clueless belt buckle led to forgiveness which led to trust. Today I join other happy hypocrites who share a vision of God’s Kingdom that we strive for and never complete. What we proclaim is always greater than what we accomplish. Somewhere between being a damned no-good do-gooder and fulfilling all God’s good will for the whole creation lies where you and I find ourselves along the path.

When have you been given a second chance? How have you been told you are forgiven by God? What’s your story of when you forgave another person? What is a hope, a vision, a dream you have that you can never fully fulfill?

Chicken Soup – Too Funny Reflections & Questions

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://law-and-gospel.com/2022/04/19/chicken-soup-too-funny/
  1. Chicken Soup – Too Funny
  2. Table-Threat to Empire
  3. Chicken Chow Mein
  4. Kitchen Steward
  5. Second Mile

Colorado Kool-Aid

Colorado Kool-aid

In 1977 I learned many lessons about “alcoholism” in a psychology class at Emory University. I learned more about myself. 

One assignment was to volunteer at an alcohol addiction treatment facility in Atlanta. My first visit was on a Saturday morning. I walked in and introduced myself to a man sitting at a table. “I’m a college volunteer today.  Would you like to visit some?” 

The man turned, looked me over, and barked back, “Go home kid. You’re just a damned no-good do-gooder and we don’t need you here.”

“Hey, man,” I thought, “I drove here to be helpful and caring. You should be grateful, not angry.” I had been nervous; now I was confused. I couldn’t speak.

The man stayed silent as he held out his finger and pointed at my gut.  I looked down at my daily college attire – yellow Oxford shirt, brown corduroy pants, and a “Coors” beer belt buckle.

Coors was cool in the East, because it was only distributed in the West. As the song “Desperado” put it, “you only want the ones that you can’t get.” Coors was cool, but I wasn’t. I was just a “damned no-good do-gooder” at an addiction treatment facility sporting a beer belt. I ran out in disgrace.

My inner desire to care did not match my outer appearance; the hypocrisy spoke volumes. Since then, I have sought to become more than a damned no-good do-gooder. I have sought God’s help to open my blind eyes. I have tried to pay attention and see how others might see the world, and respond to my actions.

When have your actions spoken louder than your values? How have you been blind to how others see? What steps do you take to bring your interior values and exterior actions into alignment?

Retirement

Today begins the first day of the next 3rd of my life – retirement. For the past six years I have been “not retired and not required” as I tried several forms of ministry – hospice chaplaincy, being a coach/mentor to four pastors, part-time service with First Presbyterian in Columbia and Mexico (two Missouri cities, not countries), and wandering preaching with wandering sermons to fill vacant pulpits.

At last Saturday’s meeting, Missouri Union Presbytery (where I was ordained 38 years ago) granted me Honorable Retirement Status. I retired before the “honorable” part ran out. While I can retire from being a pastor, I don’t retire from being a disciple of Jesus. One way I seek to follow the path I’m on is to write, and thus I’m trying this blog again.

I remind you that this is called “Reflections and Questions” – a place for sharing reflections from my journey and asking questions to help you on the path you are walking and making. I hope you’ll join me again or anew.

For decades our Presbytery has honored each retiree with words of appreciation. Like a funeral, it helps when two people are designated to speak. Two keeps it from going too long, and asking ahead spares the embarrassment of nobody speaking at all. Like a funeral, it’s better when words of appreciation are shared while people are alive when they can hear them. While I appreciated the support I received on Saturday, I also have appreciated encouraging words all along my journey. I have tried to live a life of gratitude in response.

Who needs to hear a word of appreciation from you today? If you know what you’d want to say at someone’s retirement or funeral, how can you find an opportunity to share with them ahead of either event? How do you receive praise or appreciation when people give heartfelt thanks to you?

Cotillion

Prior to Dancing with the Stars and Miss Manners, there was Mrs. Burke’s Cotillion of Louisville. After the Great Depression, Mrs. Burke had been a ballet dance student and instructor in New York City before coming home to teach ballroom dancing in the 40s. For four decades, she annually enrolled an equal number of boys and girls in Cotillion (her former assistants currently continue the tradition).

Unlike the legend, I was not put on the waiting list at birth, but I went to Cotillion from 5th-8th grade at the Louisville Country Club. Over a hundred of us would gather every other fall Friday. Chairs were lined up along the wall on each side of the ballroom’s polished wood floor. The girls sat on the left “with both feet on the floor” and their white-gloved hands in their laps. I took a seat on the right in my sport-coat and tie; suits were not required due to the financial strain of growth spurts.

We learned a lot about manners along with the waltz, fox-trot, and jitterbug. More than manners, she taught me about treating others like I’d want to be treated with more practical examples than my church’s golden rule. In the midst of my body’s and society’s changes from ’68-71 I was placed in a bubble of consistency for a few months a year.

My most comforting consistency was Ruth. Dancing began when the boys were all told to “walk” across the room to ask a girl to dance. While I dreaded the risk of taking the initiative, I was relieved I wasn’t a girl who was asked last. After a few sessions, I asked Ruth to dance. We became dance partners for four fall seasons, except for the one time a guy made the mistake of beating me across the floor to ask her.

Our familiarity enabled us to dance really well together; our pact assured us of a partner we liked. Her flowing red hair enabled me to easily find a seat directly across before my run for the roses. By the third fall, her newfound height made the twirls challenging but we carried on. I never saw Ruth outside of cotillion but I thought of her in college the night a tiny dancer and I took second at our bar’s disco contest.

How were you initiated into treating others with decency and respect? In choosing a partner for the dance, do you appreciate consistency or seek variety? Who teaches you to treat others like you’d want to be treated? How do you put those lessons into practice?

Unworthy

I’m a disciple of Jesus and a part my lifelong church community because I was raised that way.  If I were raised in a different faith, nation, or culture, I sense my faith, life, power, and perspectives would be different today.  Although I have helped others to do so, I never married into a different denomination or religion…… but I did date one briefly.

I recall sitting on a bus going to a Baptist revival with a girl I recently met.  I have no idea how I came to be with her on that bus, but I’m sure it had more to do with hormones than theology.  I do remember it was 1973 because we were laughing and singing “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel on WAKY radio.  Since then when I hear that song, I’m on that bus.

As we sorta dated and I had several conversations with her and her friends, I became convinced that I knew a lot about God, but I wasn’t sure I ever really felt God’s love.  They taught me that in order to feel God’s love in my heart, I would need to recite a certain list of scripture verses, say a particular prayer, and be baptized by immersion.  My study Bible still has the list of verses marked in red they recited as the one way to be saved.  Like an auto assembly line, I followed their rules, culminating in my putting on a white robe and being dunked in a Pentecostal church on a Friday night.

When I came up out of the water, I felt…. nothing.  Even after trying to fake my own speaking in tongues to show I had the Holy Spirit, I felt nothing different.  A few years before Morales sang it in “A Chorus Line”….  I felt nothing.  I was devastated and frightened.  After doing exactly what I was supposed to do, I was afraid I was unworthy of God’s love.  If I had no Holy Spirit emotional confirmation that I was saved by Jesus, then my teenage present through my after-life were in dire straits.

Rejected, confused, and frightened, I finally talked to my associate pastor, Bill Arnold.  When I told him my recent story, he told me my greater story.  “Wallis, you don’t feel any different after asking God to come into your life, because God was already there.  Since your birth, God’s love and acceptance have surrounded your life.  When you professed your faith and joined the church, confirming your infant baptism, you didn’t feel different, because you were raised in the faith by your parents and this church.  You will have times in your life when you feel closer to God, times you’ll feel distant from God, but you will never experience feeling God’s love for the first time; it’s always been with you.” 

I can’t promise you those were his exact words, and in a few years when he became my seminary professor he didn’t remember the conversation, but I’ll never forget what it meant for me.  That day I began my journey…. not my journey of faith, but my journey of dating only girls from 2nd Presbyterian Church youth group through the rest of high school.  Also, the answer to my prayer to feel God in my heart may have been delayed for four decades.

When have you known God’s love and acceptance in your life?  Were you raised in a faith community or did you come in from the outside?  What is your experience with people who believe differently than you?  Do you remember your first experience of God’s love or did it occur before you could remember?

Nicky Cruz

Each Sunday afternoon I would ride my bike or walk to youth group in Jr. High; church was about a mile away – shorter by cutting through friendly neighbors’ yards.  For two weeks we listened to two parts of a reel-to-reel tape of Nicky Cruz sharing his testimony.  Although I couldn’t see him I was drawn to the authenticity of his voice as I was fascinated by his story.

Nicky had been a Mau Mau gang leader in New York City.  He talked about his knife fights with other gangs, and the power he commanded from those who followed him or feared him.  Ten years before, twenty something Dave Wilkerson had personally told him he was loved by God; soon that preacher trusted him with the offering at a worship gathering for gangs.  It was the first time in his life he ever felt loved or trusted.  Nicky gave his life to Jesus that night; he gave up his knife, received the Holy Spirit, and would soon become a preacher.  The year I heard his story I saw Erik Estrada portray Nicky in the movie “The Cross and the Switchblade”.

While I never experienced this style of testimony from 2nd Presbyterians, I heard it at some community youth gatherings.  People would share stories of how messed up their lives were before they were saved by Jesus.  Nicky Cruz beat them all with his “before” stories, and unlike most of the others, he even spent time telling some “after” ones as well.

As a kid, I felt left out; how could I compete with the attention all those stories brought?  I didn’t have any horrible “before” stories to tell – I was always a privileged good kid going to church.  Would I have to go on some rampage so I’d have a testimony to preach?  Since I didn’t have an adolescent rebellion, maybe I’d have a mid-life crisis.

The Apostle Paul is often portrayed as a conversion that turned his life completely around to become a Christian.  As I spend a lifetime hearing testimonies from people who have only  “after” stories to share because they grew up in the church, I wonder if Paul had a transformation to more profoundly understand the faith of his fathers and mothers in which he was raised?  Maybe not either/or but both/and.

What examples of testifying to faith experiences have you been given by others?  What do you consider to be typical?  What unique testimony of your journey do you have to share? 

Simply Different

grayscale photo of couple walking on road

In 7th grade my new school’s classmates were at Louisville Country Day – an all-boys college-prep private school.  Some I had known before; many started together in kindergarten; a few became my close friends.  Like most adolescents I didn’t feel I fully fit in.  My Enneagram 2 personality had interesting reactions from the boys and my 3-wing competition for success was fierce.

People at church became my people as I grew closer to my youth group friends.  I led two different lives – school and church.  Church was where I was accepted, became a leader, and met the girls I’d date through high school.

Our youth group leaders were students at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.  One would later become my professor of New Testament Greek and preaching when I went to Union Seminary in Richmond.  Another kept me alive as he taught me about life.

When my parents traveled for two weeks, he and his wife stayed with me.  On a hike he kept me alive by seeing a resting copperhead snake in my path and throwing me over it just before I stepped on it.  They taught me about life by how they lived.  Their tiny seminary apartment, the food they cooked, and the way they lived was simply different than all the huge houses I’d visited, the feasts I’d eaten, and the country club life I’d experienced.

They introduced me to seminary debt for a career whose rewards are not financial.  Whether by circumstance or choice, they showed me how to live simply so others can simply live.  I’d overhear the gospel when friends dropped by from their caring community.  I caught a glimpse of being fully committed to something greater than myself.   As I was beginning to discover me, I lived with and learned from a couple making a path on a very different road than I’d known.

What is your experience of learning about differences in people, cultures, and ways of living?  Who showed you a road less traveled by?  When did you first learn that less is more?  How do you understand and appreciate differences in others?

Preaching to the Choir

Our children’s choir practiced and performed a Christmas Cantata with our adult choir at church.   I still can sing a song or two from “Lo! A Star” (1962) although I resisted the impulse to get the one copy on eBay this morning.  During weekly worship I would observe the choir as they sat and sang before us and behind the preachers.  Their expressions often changed but their faces remained steadfast.

In the decades to come pastors moved, the message was reformed, but the same faithful faces remained in the choir.  While some new singers took the place of a few, and while all of them aged over the decades, the constant choir was a reassuring testament to an enduring faith in God’s love, justice, and purpose for the creation in every church I served.  

When Lynn Turnage led 6000 Triennium youth in singing, moving, and miming the Nylon’s song “Face in the Crowd” I would internally sing a face in the “choir”.  

The Moberly choir was “a fellowship group that sings.”  That was a way of practicing hospitality to anyone who wanted to join us, but it had a deeper meaning.  Like other choirs, ours was a small, supportive, and sensitive community who were committed to the church and to each other in weekday rehearsal and Sunday worship.

In various churches I’ve felt the year-long grief of life-long choir members seeking new ways to worship and support each other from a distance after we learned that “singing is like a 5-minute cough.”  (And that was not just a critique of my singing).  As with all grieving, we “grieve with hope” for something better to come that is waiting to be born.

I’ve often heard the phrase, “she was just preaching to the choir” – a preacher who invites people to be faithful followers of God when the only listeners are already faithfully leading worship each Sunday.  It seems to me that a lot of media proclaims opinions by preaching to their own choir — reinforcing beliefs and biases already held on the full spectrum of points of view.  

If one purpose of the church is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” how are you supported by or challenged by those you watch and hear?  What refrains are being repeated to you?  Are they helpful or harmful?  How do you sing your songs of Zion in a strange land? (Psalm 137)

Tenderfoot Tenderego

bonfire near body of water

In seventh grade, I joined a Boy Scout Troop at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville where my great-grandfather had been the preacher.  After several months and lots of capture the flag, I achieved the lowest rank of Tenderfoot.  We went on a group camping trip about an hour from home.

As our campfire ignited near our lean-to huts, one of the older scouts sent me to the ranger office to get a smoke sifter to keep the smoke out of our eyes.  “Make it a left-handed smoke sifter,” he added as I marched off.  I found the office and spoke to the attendant, but he didn’t know what I was talking about.  He just shook his lowered head as he stifled a smile.  On the trek back I realized I’d been had and my pride was none too happy about it.  I declined the snipe hunt invitation. 

About 2 am I awakened to a very upset stomach.  I made it away from the huts just in time to hurl the orange kool-aid, burger, and beans on the ground.  Rather than return to my sleeping bag, I walked to the pay phone I’d seen while seeking a left-handed smoke sifter.  I called my dad, told him I was sick, and spent some time convincing him to come get me.  I walked up to my lean-to, grabbed my sleeping bag and walked down to the station to await my lift home.

Around 8 my father came to my bedroom and said, “I just got a phone call and I have one question.  Did you tell anybody at the camp-out you were leaving?”  I had never considered their panic while discovering my disappearance.  I just didn’t want to bother anyone in the middle of the night – other than my dad of course.  As Jack Crabb in “Little Big Man” would say, “That was the end of my boy scouting period.”

I never surpassed being a Tenderfoot.  While I’ve taken advantage of other passive-aggressive opportunities in my life, I’m not sure I ever surpassed that one, either.  I’m grateful that out of the hundreds of youth I’ve taken on church trips, camps, and conferences, no one came close to doing to me what I did to my leaders that morning.

Over the years, I’ve experienced many people disappearing from church without a word.  Some embarrassed, some feeling unwelcome, some regretful, some passive-aggressive, some spiritual but not religious, some harmed by the church with scars that don’t heal.  People tell them the door is open; come worship with us anytime — they don’t.  

Our year-long crisis has presented opportunities.  Those who wouldn’t go to church for a variety of reasons, now wouldn’t to protect the health of others.  Walled off whispers of community preachers for those who show are available online for those who watch.  The vision of God for justice, peace, and love along with the meaning of becoming a human being are being proclaimed outside a building for those with ears to hear.

How has your pride led to your leaving?  What voices are you listening to today?  How have you been touched by the divine because of this past year?

The Bible Speaks to You

When I joined the church at 12, my parents gave me a book that had just turned 14 – “The Bible Speaks to You” by Robert McAfee Brown.  The book traveled by my side unopened on several shelves through high school, college, and seminary.  The title alone seemed reminder enough of what I needed to keep in view.

In my second year as an associate pastor, I felt a nudge to really read the reference for the first time.  A second edition had just been published so I read it while keeping the gift on the shelf.  I hadn’t been ready for the lessons when I first unopened the book; I was still in my childlike faith.  Now my growth experience was put into words with insights to the variety of voices in the stories that shaped my life.   Learning about the Bible helped enrich my interpretation of the Bible.

Using the practical question and answer approach of Brown’s book, I transformed the tome into an adult class on an overview of the Bible.  That experience grew into teaching a class for 3 years at Synod School called “The Bible Speaks to You”.  Soon I was teaching workshops at Montreat and the national Youth Triennium called “The Bible Speaks to Youth”.  

Like the wisdom that reads “when the student is ready, a teacher will appear” it was not just the title, but the author that I needed to often see on my shelf.  Robert McAfee Brown inspired me to work for non-violent resistance to evil, civil rights, inclusion, and social justice because of my Biblical faith.  His books “Religion and Violence: a Primer for White Americans” (1973), “Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes” (1984), “Saying Yes and Saying No: Rendering to God and Caesar (1986) along with books on Reinhold Niebuhr and Elie Wiesel were added to my shelf and my journey.  My revelation today is that “Reflections Over the Long Haul: A Memoir” was published after his death; there’s room on the shelf for that, too.

What book sat on your shelf until you were ready to read it?  What authors speak to you along your journey of faith?  Describe a time when you were ready and a teacher appeared for you.  What questions do you have about how the Bible speaks to you?

Initiation

brown wooden arrow signed

In 6th grade I went through Communicants Class at Second Presbyterian in Louisville.  I recall having to get my beliefs correct before I could join the church and receive communion.  We used the Shorter Catechism from the Westminster Confession of Faith which was written in England in the mid-1600s; the shorter catechism was plenty long.

Our beliefs were taught through a series of questions and answers.  The first question was: “What is the chief end of man{sic}?”  The answer was: “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  I had a little catechism book that went on from there and would go over the questions/answers with mom and dad many evenings.

After several weeks, we were examined by the Session (the governing body of our church).  My father was one of the Elders on the Session which heightened my performance anxiety.  As was my custom, I performed well; I got to receive my first taste of the Lord’s Supper.

Years later I would come to believe that beliefs are important, but they aren’t the same as faith.  Faithfully following “the Way” behind Jesus’ lead would become more important than intellectual beliefs.  It even made more sense since that’s what Jesus talked about and the earliest followers were called people of the way (the Chineese word is Tao).

A few years later our denomination would change its mind — baptized children with instruction were welcomed to the Lord’s Table and the class name was changed from Communicants/Catechism to Confirmation — confirming for yourself the vows your parents had made at baptism, or receiving baptism when you publicly profess your own faith (if you hadn’t been baptized before).

For 30 years I used a variety of confirmation resources to help youth become adult members of the church.  When our son went through confirmation, his teacher used the New Study Catechism (1998) with questions and answers to teach the basics of what we believe and how we are called to live and love.  Everything old is new again I guess.

In what ways were you initiated as an adolescent?  What life lessons do you remember still?  How were you taught to do loving and faithful actions toward others?

Lowered and Lifted

person in the middle of a building

One of my earliest memories of Sunday School was gluing popsicle sticks together to make a walled home, a roof, and a stretcher.  We tied strings to the popsicle stick stretcher to lower it through a hole in the popsicle stick roof over the popsicle stick home.   It probably took a month of Sundays for the lesson to “stick”.  We were learning about the miracle from the gospel of Mark, chapter 2 — Jesus returning home and forgiving and healing a paralyzed person.  

Mark relates to us that because of the hometown crowds gathered in and around the house where Jesus was, four friends of a paralytic tie him to a stretcher, climb to the roof of the house, dig a hole, and lower the man down by ropes so Jesus could see, touch, and heal him. 

When Jesus tells the lowered man that his sins are forgiven, the scribes — basically the religious lawyers of that day — hold court about the legality of a human forgiving sins.  Jesus gives them an object lesson that a human can forgive sins plus even more amazingly say to a paralyzed man, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk home.”

In childhood Sunday School, I didn’t get all the religious legalese…. guess I still don’t.  I wondered what the man would do with the mat that he would carry that was no longer needed to carry him.  I fantasized he could hang it on the wall as a memory, use it as a hospitality mat, or donate it to another paralytic.  Mostly, due to the myriad of popsicle sticks and my role of lowering the stretcher we made through the roof we made, I identified with the four faithful friends who brought the one they knew into the loving and healing presence of Jesus.

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney published a poem “Miracle” in his final collection of poems.  He said he could only have written the poems in “The Human Chain” due to suffering a stroke in 2005.  He too focused on the friends who had known him all along and he brought to light the image of “paid out ropes” — which would come to fruition three years later when friends lowered the ropes of his coffin in faith and hope in the funeral tradition of Heaney’s Ireland.

As you support those who labor and remember those who “from their labors rest”, I  invite you to read Mark 2 and the poem “Miracle” by Seamus Heaney.

Unforeseen

illustration of moon showing during sunset

Paul had been my weekend best friend for several years.  His father worked for the local NBC affiliate WAVE-TV.  While I had three stations to choose from at home, only one was on at his during many Friday nights playing pool, watching Johnny Carson, and collapsing in exhaustion.  The Friday tradition was changed on one Sunday in July 1969.  While most would remember Walter Cronkite’s almost speechless “man on the moon… whew boy, oh boy”, I watched with Paul’s family Huntley, Brinkley, and McGee describe the unbelievable.

The next month, I started to attend Louisville Country Day School and lost touch with Paul — changing schools and friends.  I didn’t hear about Paul until I was in college, when mom called to say Paul had been working as a guard at a gated community when someone drove up and shot him to death.  When I came home I wanted to go see his parents, but I didn’t.  I hadn’t seen them in years, I feared feeling a tinge of survivor’s guilt around them, and I didn’t know what to say.  I regret that I didn’t offer some consolation and a few childhood memories to stand by those facing “the unimaginable”.

Years later, I helped out with Senior Night as an associate pastor.  Until Mexico built its own YMCA, we bussed that day’s graduates to the YMCA at Jefferson City or Hannibal for an all night alcohol-free party.  I helped at the roulette wheel as part of the mock casino.  The bus ride home was always quieter than the party.

One year, a graduate drove to the mall in Columbia the day he got off the Senior Party bus.  On the two-lane 54 highway home he fell asleep at the wheel and was killed in the crash.  I gathered with about 30 shocked and grieving grads, asking “Why?” and questioning a loving and powerful God when “theodicy” is no longer just a theory.  As with Paul’s parents, I didn’t know what to say, but this time I stayed, sat, listened, hugged, and wept with the others.

Even with the best of intentions, planning, and safety concerns, horrible things can happen.  The consequences we face can be harsher than our choices deserve.  The illegal or unjust actions of others can lead to suffering.  Maybe we can learn from the friends of Job in the Bible — being with others in their suffering does much more good than trying to explain it.

What areas of your life are touched by these stories?  What questions have you asked about the theodicy of God?  What answers have fallen short of God’s love you know revealed in Jesus?

Experimenting

retro tv on river shore near forest

For 5 years the Chenoweth Elementary auditorium was where we gathered many Saturday mornings to watch a Disney movie projected on a huge screen with a Slo-Pok to get us through. I now wonder if parents organized that. One Saturday I gathered there with dad and other sons and dads to watch a movie teaching us something about sex; I don’t know if the girls and moms got their Saturday.

During 6th grade science that auditorium became the lab for an experiment in education.  KET (Kentucky Educational TV) had begun broadcasting classes for Eastern Kentucky students in the Appalachian mountains.   We were the first of the state-wide classes KET would broadcast during the day.  Our entire grade of what now seems a hundred would gather in that large auditorium.  At the appointed time, our teacher would turn on 7 TV sets around the room and we’d watch science experiments from one state teacher.

After the broadcast our teacher would teach us for a short while.  She’d prepare, monitor, and grade our tests.  During TV delays or “technical difficulties” she’d keep us entertained.  She played “Feelin’ Groovy” (the 59th Street Bridge Song) so much we voted to adopt it as our class song.  She helped turn us from individuals into a community when she supervised our May Day festival.  It was our teacher, not the guy on TV that I remember because she cared about us.

I don’t know how the television broadcast classroom experiment turned out, but I don’t think it became the norm.  This past year Nancy and I’ve worshiped online with several churches each week.  The pandemic has allowed us to listen to friends from all over the country.  I’m glad for the variety of voices we get to hear and the communities each pastor personally cares for.  I don’t want to try an experiment with one state-wide or national preacher. 

What “experiments in education” have you participated in? What do you remember about your teachers…. the information they presented or the way they related to you? How do you find a variety of voices rather than one broadcast in your journey of faith?

Patrol Boy

people standing on road close up photography

At the end of 5th grade I was chosen to be a patrol boy.  I was told I would get to wear a belt across my waist and chest with a shiny silver badge that had AAA on it.  I thought it was super cool like A plus, plus; I would later learn about the American Automobile Association.  

The first week of June I was trained by the 6th grade patrol boys.  They told me about the power I would have.  Another patrol boy and I were in charge of making the other elementary kids line up at the stoplight at Brownsboro Road (KY State Hwy 42) which was a four-lane 45 suggested-speed major artery of Louisville’s east end.

When I felt like it, I could push the cross button to change the light and stop all the traffic.  I would tell the kids when to cross, escort them halfway and come back.  I loved the sense of control over others I would have and I loved the look of my patrol boy outfit.  I was honored to be chosen.  It was during my Thursday morning training that first week of June that I heard Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been shot; the news wouldn’t sink in for several years.

During sixth grade I learned that being chosen is not easy.  The few sunny June days became the many fall and winter days with some rain, sleet, or snow.  I had to get there early, stay late, and be responsible.  Some kids made fun of my AAA badge. The routine of pushing the button, walking halfway, coming back would lose its thrill but not its importance.  I think I maybe got some certificate at the end of the year after I fulfilled my responsibility of being chosen.  I trained the next two guys.

People of faith talk about being chosen or called to their journey of faith.  I learned from being a patrol boy that being chosen isn’t easy; it isn’t about the control, the power, the AAA badge, or the certificate at the end.  We are chosen to serve –  to do our part each day to make the crossings of others safer and better with our presence.  We are chosen not because we are better, but to be better.  We are not alone; others serve with us.

When have you experienced the honor of being chosen before learning how much responsibility you would have?  How have you helped others cross dangerous paths on their journeys?  What rewards do you receive in loving and serving others?

Getting It

Almost all of my childhood and almost every Tuesday, we had a black maid named Pauline clean our home.  Mom would trade days with Pauline’s Friday employer whenever mom prepared for a big cocktail party.  I remember Pauline’s laughter, her chess pie, her discipline, her love, but I don’t remember her crying…. except once.  The second Tuesday of April 1968, I was home from fifth grade watching a long funeral procession on our color TV.    It reminded me of watching a long funeral procession in first grade on our black and white.  Pauline sat with us, shedding so many quiet tears her apron was soaked.  I remember hugging her, but I really didn’t get it.

Twenty years later, the thickest book on my shelf was “A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Unlike too many books around it, I actually read this one — moved by poetic prophetic preaching.  During their annual meeting, the fourth week of April 1988, I was given the Mexico Missouri “NAACP Drum Major for Justice Award”.  Why me?  I didn’t deserve it and I wasn’t even a “C” (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).  When I pointed that out to the leader she said, “Honey, we’re ALL colored by God — there’s just a variety in the complexion.”  I still didn’t get it.

Four years later, the last week of April, my best friend leading youth events was my roomie at a training event at Montreat.  The fact that Keith was African American only mattered when we awoke to the news of riots after the Rodney King verdict and I experienced his reaction.  That night the Montreat community gathered to pray and watch a 16 mm projector film of a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. had given at Montreat.  Maybe I was beginning to get it.

The following December Keith and I were at a national training event in Kansas City for the new “God’s Gift of Human Sexuality” parent and youth curriculum.  After eating with a group at The Plaza, and on the way back to our hotel, I drove Keith to the Alameda Plaza, a ritzy hotel on a hill with an outstanding view of the Plaza Christmas Lights.  As we walked in I said, “We’ll just ride the elevators up to a top floor and look out at all the lights below and come back down.”  Keith said, “I don’t think we should, Wally.”  I said, “O come on, Keith.  It’s great.  Just look like you’re going to your room and catch the view.  I DO IT ALL THE TIME!”  With fear and frustration on his face and in his voice, Keith said, “Obviously you don’t do it in my skin!”  I think I got it.

What is your experience of my story?  Whatever “getting it” means to you, what has helped you or blocked you from “getting it.”

Meet the Beatles

Music has touched my life profoundly.  My infant baptism in 2nd Presbyterian church initiated my hearing the choir leading our community in singing each Sunday.  Mom rocked me to sleep singing Methodist hymns her mother had sung to her. At 7, I memorized the 100th Psalm about making “a joyful noise”, and I tried to do just that in our church’s children’s choir.

7 days after turning 7, the Beatles were to debut on Ed Sullivan (2/9/64).  My parents ruled that I couldn’t see them because 8-9 o’clock was past my bedtime.  I tearfully rocked myself to sleep in my upstairs bedroom.  

My 8-year-older brother tip-toed up and silently carried me down to our den TV so I wouldn’t miss the experience.  (It was right where I witnessed the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald ten weeks before).  Even though our TV had no color, Baylor never saw morality in merely black and white terms.  (Dying of cancer at 52 his tombstone would read “He Said YES to Life” partly because the experience often outweighed the rules for him.)

In 1965 Baylor would be shipped off to Darlington boarding school in Georgia, because there were other rules he broke.  During most of 1968 he would become lost in Haight Asbury in San Francisco, come to himself at Virginia Beach, and return home.  That November he triumphantly hoisted a copy of the Beatles’ “White Album” above my head.  He had camped outside the record store all night so he’d be the first person in Louisville to experience it.  I would hear him singing “Rocky Raccoon” with his guitar for years to come; I do still.

Who helped teach you to experience life?  How are you living an abundant life now?  When has the experience outweighed the rules for you?  How did that work out for you?  Which songs of the past kindle an indelible memory for you today?

Reach to Recovery

During my first grade in 1963, my mother had a “breast cancer radical mastectomy” surgery.  I had only heard the word “breast” spoken at dinner, “cancer” spoken in a whisper, “radical” later in the 60’s, and “mastectomy” was a mystery.  All I knew was my mom went into the hospital for many days, and her mother moved in to care for dad and 3 children.

Fortunately, the library volunteer at Chenoweth Elementary was a friend of mom’s so she could tell her this story I wouldn’t have remembered: “Wallis came into the library crying, ‘I don’t have my library book.  I don’t have the fine for my library book.  I don’t have my lunch money.  My mom’s in the hospital, my grandmother is taking care of us, and she just can’t cope!’”  Mom adored telling the “she just can’t cope” story the rest of her life.

I now know I was wrong; we did cope.  Everyone learned to cope with a radical removal in life.  Mom would initiate and lead the American Cancer Society’s “Reach to Recovery” chapter in Louisville.  Many days of my childhood mom would answer a phone call from a new breast cancer patient and I would hear her give information about diagnosis and treatment, shared grief from one who had also had surgery, donations of breast inserts for dresses and swimsuits, hope for the future, and telling the other woman she was not alone.  Mom would fully live another thirty-five years before dying of an unrelated cancer.

“Reach to Recovery” is just one example of survivors offering understanding, support and hope to others out of their own painful experiences.  In 1979 when I first read Henri Nouwen’s book “The Wounded Healer: In Our Own Woundedness We Can Become a Source of Life for Others”, I thought of mom turning her loss into a ministry.  I have been inspired by others who from their own life and faith experiences help others facing a similar addiction, crisis, illness, loss, or faith struggle.

How are you coping with the radical changes around us now?  Are you complaining, rebelling, surviving, isolated, smothered, or something else?  How does learning to cope in the past give you strength today?  How can you use your experience to help another person reach to their recovery?

First Impression

I wonder whether I was a child of the 60’s, but I know I was a child in the 60’s.  On a fall Friday in first grade, my principal Miss Lewis told my teacher Miss Goodwin to tell our class that our president was dead.  I didn’t fully comprehend the impact of the news — as if I could at any age. 

Two days later, as we arrived home from church, dad turned on the TV as we watched the assassin shot dead — live on TV in Texas.  It was a first for both of us.  I noticed the shooter wore a hat just like my dad had worn to church.  I remembered the day before on the same TV I watched the Lone Ranger shoot a bad guy in Texas, but that guy lived.  What really affected me was school was canceled on Monday.

My journey would soon include asking questions and hearing crazy conspiracies until each was quelled with information and experience.  In a decade I’d visit Dallas and remember the grassy knoll as much as I remembered attending the Cowboys-Dolphins Thanksgiving Day game.  I would work hard to control my life, as I realized that the actions of another could change everything in an instant.

Over the decades, as I have witnessed many other unreal events happen before my eyes, I’ve stopped to ask myself: “How are first graders seeing this?”  What impact will this have on their lives?  How will they see the world based on their first impression?  Recently, on the church’s Epiphany Day, I wondered how children will come to view our nation’s capital and what crazy conspiracies they’ll face in their futures.

I’ve heard it said: “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”  Maybe we get a lifetime of chances to grow beyond it.

Describe a first impression that impacted your life.  How old were you?  How were you affected?  What have you firmly held onto?  How have you grown and changed since then?

Maintain Control

If you’re getting tired of what I learned at Winter Park’s “Ski Improvement Center” in 1997, you can take solace in the fact that, like many sermons, my lesson ended on the third point….. I am not alone on the mountain so “maintain control”! Ignoring nature and people has painful consequences.

I can choose to speed straight down the mountain until a person, tree, rock, or cliff gets in my way, or I can seek to maintain control by skiing side to side across the hill. I learned I didn’t have to sit, flip my skis, and get up (like I did 22 years before). Each ski is designed with an inside edge for slowing and turning. I can practice using the ski’s design to benefit myself and others.

After the lesson, as we waited in line for a lift, we saw a girl lying in pain with the ski patrol helping her. Our teacher pointed to a boy who had just run into her. The hurt girl had been obediently standing in line. The boy, who did not maintain control, now guiltily stood over her, not knowing what to say or do.

My journey down the mountain has sought to follow the path of Jesus. His first lesson in Mark’s gospel was “turn” (metanoia in Greek). My journey includes a myriad of turns. It also includes falling, losing a ski, backtracking up the mountain to retrieve it, and continuing on. My journey toward a destination has sought to learn and use the design of nature for the benefit of myself and others.

What are some major turning points in your life? What painful consequence resulted from ignoring the inside edge design of your “skis”? When have you lost control? How have you sought to maintain control?