Checkmate

I’m not sure about the year, but I still feel the humiliation; the over/under would be 5th grade.  I was in the finals of our class chess tournament; the championship game was in front of our entire class.  My time in the spotlight ended in four moves.  Before it barely began, it was over — checkmate.  

While my classmates were spared boredom, I was publicly and utterly defeated. A friend whispered to me: “Don’t feel so bad, Wallis. He beat everyone else like that, too. He learned it from the Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s called ‘Fool’s Mate’.” After years of enjoying playing chess, I suffered the agony of defeat at the hands of a kid who merely looked up “chess” in an encyclopedia — making a fool out of me.

It wouldn’t have helped for Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” to let me know it’s not called fool’s mate, but “Scholar’s Mate”; I still would have felt foolish.  Furthermore, I felt frustration that no one had warned me.  Why didn’t my friends inform me about how he’d won?  Was anyone really my friend?  Why hadn’t I studied chess instead of just playing it?  Why couldn’t I have privately lost earlier instead of so publicly now?

Maybe that’s one reason I would feel called to a profession where I am in the 5%.  In my version of “Scholar’s Mate”, I study the Bible, commentaries, and the teachings of spiritual leaders more than many.  I spend a lot of my time warning my friends.  I am sensitive to listening for pride and humiliation from others as I share God’s forgiveness, grace, and love.  I guess I learned some life lessons from the consequences of losing at childhood chess; thankfully the cost of those lessons was relatively low.

God offers us choices and consequences in our lives.  We are given the choice to learn lessons from our experience, or to ignore them.  I sense God allowing us to learn from the consequences of our actions, because “we not punished for our sin as much as we are punished by our sin.”  Some lessons are learned when the cost of our choice is low; some lessons are delayed until the cost is greater.  Sometimes we suffer the consequences of the choices of others.

How have your past life lessons impacted your present?  What are the consequences of your choices and actions teaching you today?  How do you open your heart, mind, and body to how God is trying to warn you before the consequence of your personal checkmate?

The Belle of Louisville

The Belle of Louisville

Have you ever heard: “I don’t know how those children come from the same family”?   Bill Oglesby taught me in seminary, “A second child doesn’t come from ‘the same family’, because there was only one child at first.”  

One of the many differences with my older brother (besides eight years) was that while I would grow to love dancing, my brother would revel in it.  In 2001, Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer” was chosen by him as the final words and music of his funeral service.  In 1964, when a fifteen year old Baylor Landrum, III was invited to a senior dance on the Belle of Louisville, he couldn’t resist it even though Baylor Landrum, Jr. forbid him to go.

When my baby sitter called dad at a cocktail party to say, “Baylor just snuck into a car with several kids,” mom joined him to fetch Baylor at the Belle.   She stayed in the car at the downtown dock, while dad told the riverboat’s gatekeeper, “I’m going on board to get my son; I’ll be right back; you can’t leave until we return.”  Turns out dad had as little control over the Belle as my brother.  The boat left with both Baylors aboard.

During the paddle wheel steamboat’s two hour cruise, my father endured loud music from an obnoxious wannabe rock band, my brother received lightning bolt stares daring him to have a good time dancing, and my mother was abandoned in a sweltering summer car “down by the river.”  I would not hear that story until 20 years later, because none of the parties involved could even talk about it until the emotional statute of limitations ran out.

While that’s not really my story, I just can’t resist telling it, and it sets the stage for things to come.  I do think it has something to say about families that is part of all our stories.  The first lesson in “Parenting the Love and Logic Way” is: “There are no guarantees in parenting.”

This story also has a lot to say about control when many of us feel so out of control these days.  As Suzanne Stabile teaches in the wisdom of the Enneagram, “control is an illusion fueled by emotion.”  I can’t control circumstances, I can’t control someone else, I can’t control how I see the world, but I can learn to be more responsive than reactive to what I can begin to control — myself.

What stories rise up for you today?  How have you been frustrated by a lack of control?  How have you sought to share control?  What are you learning about yourself and your relationship with God and other people?

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?

Hide and Seek

I was taught the goal of hide and seek was to hide and not be found.  However, winning the game wasn’t fun for me.  When I was 5, I was invited to Peter’s birthday party.  We were excited to see a big truck and trailer in the driveway with a pony we could ride.

While we played hide and seek outside, I crouched behind a huge tire under the trailer.  As kids were found, I heard them enjoying the fun of seeking together.  I became the only one left — all alone in my dark hiding place.  Before my friends went in to get cake, Peter called out “Wallis, where are you?  Come out – the game’s over.”  

I jumped up to yell, “Here I am.  I won!  I won!”  But before I yelled, and as I leapt up, I hit my head on the metal guard over the wheel.  I never yelled “I won” because I was ashamed I hit my head.

As I emerged from behind the truck, everyone’s eyes focused on me as their mouths dropped open.  The truck’s metal had gashed the top of my head and blood was running down my side.  While it wasn’t anything like the movie “Carrie” I was bleeding like a head gash does.  I was covered in towels and taken for several stitches.  I was sorry I won; I never got any cake.

I wish I had learned at 5 that I only hurt myself when I’m so competitive, but that painful lesson continues.  I did learn that I have a lot more fun being found than staying hidden.  Years later (maybe due to my early lesson), I’d play over a hundred games of “seek and hide” with my church youth groups.  One kid would go hide and the rest would seek; when you found the kid you hid with him or her.  The game ended when the last one followed the sound of stifled laughter to open a door on 20 youth in a closet.  Being found was a lot more fun than hiding, and we all won together.

In the beginning of my formation story of Genesis, the first question God asks is “Where are you?” The man says, “I was hiding.” When competition led to murder, God asks Cain, “Where is your brother?” One might summarize the rest of the Bible as asking, “Where are you in relation to God?” and “Where are you in relation to your brother/sister/neighbor?”

What are your examples of hiding from the Divine?  When have you hidden from other people?  How do you respond to being found?  In what ways have you joined others in the search for a path to follow?

Authenticity

My brother Baylor is 8 years older than I.  I watched him play Daniel Boone in his elementary school play.  I got his coon-skin cap as a hand-me-down.  When our uncle Wallis emerged from the production he told my family, “Well… I’ve paid more and I’ve seen worse.”  That line was often repeated over the years, including by some who may read this blog – I’ve paid more and I’ve seen worse.

Years later, I was excited to get the lead in my elementary school play.  I told my mom, “Our school is doing ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and I get to play the Emperor!”  “O no you’re not,” she retorted, “I know that story.”  

Thanks to thoughtful teachers and mom’s prodding, the clothes made by the royal tailors weren’t completely invisible.  I wore a pair of black boxer shorts with white polka dots as I paraded through town before a child pointed out what everyone silently knew – that I had no clothes.  I still hear the laughter, and I still don’t know if they were laughing with me, at me, or near me.

My stage career ended in high school.  Our drama teacher cast me in the musical “Lil’ Abner” to play the role of Senator Jack S. Phogbound.  I was a little jealous that my best friend had the larger role of Marryin’ Sam, but I got even by playing his part over a hundred times in years to come in my ministry.  Sen. Phogbound asks the cornpone crowd, “I guess you’ve been wondering what I’ve been doing in Washington these past 18 years…”  Mamie heckles back, “We didn’t care what you was doin’ Jack S. as long as you was there and we was here.”

I guess the two roles I played affected how important authenticity is to me.  In the Enneagram, those who have a four personality value authenticity so much they don’t even see you if you are inauthentic.  I want to learn from them.  I hear Jesus having a lot to say about being authentic with our words and actions since God knows our true self already.  I want to learn from him, too.

I invite you to take some time today to consider the masks you wear and the roles you play in life.  What roles have you been assigned in your family, work, faith community, and other social systems?  How do you discover your true self beneath the parts you play?  What are methods you use to remind you to seek to be authentic?

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?

Ski at your own Level

For years I would often describe my first ski trip with these words: “I couldn’t ski when I got there; I couldn’t ski when I left; I had a lot of fun in-between.” During my first winter of college, I was at our favorite watering hole called “Moe’s and Joe’s”. Georgia Tech owned the tavern on weekends, but we had the deed on Tuesday nights. In 1975 the state drinking age was 18, Emory had no classes on Wednesdays, freshmen could not have a car, and I accepted a ride from any Sigma Chi who would invite me.

On a wintry Tuesday, around 10, somebody said, “Let’s go skiing.” “When?” “Now!” Between Moe’s and campus, I was instructed to borrow a coat and change clothes. Seven squeezed in for a 5-hour drive to Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Rather than knock on the dorm door of our leader’s friend at 4 am, we napped on the hall floor before eating breakfast in a campus cafeteria.

At Beech Mountain Ski Resort, I spent most of “Wonderful Wednesday” on the bunny slopes trying first to survive and then to stay up one minute. We all met for lunch and the other six invited me to the top for a group picture. The view from above was great, but I didn’t get that view in the photo. What I did get was abandonment on the “Upper White Lightning Trail”. The usual 10-minute run lasted almost 2 hours. I would wait for an opening at the side, ski across flailing arms & poles, fall down on the other side, work to flip my skis over, get up, and repeat. It became my last run of the day and the decade.

22 years later at Winter Park, Colorado I was taking my first lesson at the “ski improvement center” (they don’t call it ski school). I was taught to “ski at your own level”. There are many trails marked for your level of skiing and instructors to help you understand and experience your level before they guide you to move on to the next. The goal is to not get too far beyond your abilities AND the goal is to improve to move to more meaningful trails.

When have you experienced a community of hospitality that accepts you for where you are? Who have been your instructors and guides from the “spiritual improvement center”? Where can you go for assistance in experiencing your next significant trail?

Starting a Journey

Although I can’t believe we did it (and I couldn’t imagine trying it now), this week in 1997 our church took 16 youth and 7 adults on a ski trip from Moberly, Missouri to Winter Park, Colorado. We rented a 15-passenger van (back when it was allowed). We borrowed a second van from a church an hour away.

“Come Saturday Morning” at 3:45 am the first stood outside awaiting the last. Our Christian Education Director yelled a suggestion: “Hey Wally, don’t you want to start the vans to let them warm up?” It was minus five degrees, 4 am, and I had a lot to learn. I could not get the borrowed van to start. Several attempts sounded close, but it wouldn’t get going and neither could we. Jumper cables, and 7 adult attempts did not help. At 4:30 we awoke the 24-hour tow-trucker; he arrived at 4:45 with a powerful jumper that failed.

At 5 am we changed tactics thanks to the suggestion of those who had gone inside to let their brains warm up. We took the back seats out of my family’s van for luggage; our CE Director confiscated her van for 7 people; the two replaced the one we left behind. 23 worked as one team to remove seats, transfer luggage, and slide off at 5:30.

13 hours later we were in our double house with 2 kitchens and 4 baths. I pitched my planned devotion and we talked about life — life is not easy and life does not always go smoothly. In fact the true test of how successfully you face life is not how you do when things are easy, but how you face and overcome the challenges and obstacles in your way — like losing your means of transportation as you start a journey.

As I’ve tried to inaugurate a blog on an inauguration day, I’ve learned a lot by overcoming lots of set-backs. This “van” has started, but it desperately needs a tune up already, and a tire could blow out anytime. I thank you for setting off with me. We’ll see where our journey takes us.

When have you started something new in your life? What did you hope for? What did you fear? What obstacles did you overcome? What lessons did you learn?