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?

There’s a Light Beyond These Woods

acoustic guitar on brown brick wall

Thirty-five years ago my brother and I fell in love with the same woman.  She was between our ages, closer to mine, but he had seen her first.  My wife didn’t mind because I loved her “From a Distance” – as I first heard Nanci Griffith introduce Julie Gold’s song to the world.  

The songs Nanci wrote and those from other artists that she brought to our experience are the perfection of graceful simplicity.  As my wife Nancy & I shuffle through our ITunes library, any of Nanci’s songs are forbidden to be skipped.

Nanci died last Friday.  Twenty years ago, I inherited from my brother 4 VHS tapes of Nanci’s concerts or specials.  Wonder if I can dust off an old player as I grieve those who dance a little closer to me tonight.

……..I was a child in the sixties
Dreams could be held through TV
With Disney, and Cronkite, and Martin Luther
Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed
Now, I am the backseat driver from America
I am not at the wheel of control
I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil
Lord, and I can’t drive on the left side of the road

It’s a hard life 
It’s a hard life 
It’s a very hard life 
It’s a hard life wherever you go 
If we poison our children with hatred 
Then, the hard life is all that they’ll know……

“It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” by Nanci Griffith, 1989 

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?