Monday, May 31, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Military Veterans

It is Memorial Day in the USA, a day to honor members of the millitary who died in service to their country. In recent decades, these men and women all chose to enter military service. In times past a high percentage of the soldiers who died were in fact conscripted through a draft. All too often they were from the lower socio-economic strata of society and ethnic minorities. Yet, they served, many proving themselves heroic in battle, each making the ultimate sacrifice for American ideals.

My Dad served on an escort aircraft carrier in the Pacific during WWII, the USS Kadashan Bay.  A Kamikaze nearly split the ship in half.  Cheryl's Dad was a medic in the norh African campaign. He was injured and classified 98% disabled due to back injuries and the loss of use of both hands.  Their's truly was a great generation.

As we honor those who died we also honor those who served alongside them in harm’s way. This is good and proper. In honoring them we honor that for which they dedicated their lives. It is an oft overlooked fact that in our country the oath taken by political and military leaders is to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. That distinction represents an American contribution to modern civilization. We are a nation governed by laws not human sovereigns; Our laws have as their foundation a constitution that expresses a commitment to justice, domestic tranquility, a common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. These are the core values for which our soldiers die, the chief of which are justice and liberty.

The emblem of our nation is the American flag to which we pledge our fidelity. "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Without criticism of the intent, I would suggest this pledge stops short of its purpose. Our allegiance to the flag and to the republic has lasting value only because of the constitution that defines the republic. Like our officials, we should pledge our allegiance to the Constitution and the values/beliefs upon which it is based. The pursuit of liberty and justice and the defense of the same constitute the core of our civilization and must forever remain the driving force of our self preservation. Anything less dishonors our founders, our nation, our flag and all who fought for their preservation.

In brief, I am not committed to liberty and justice because they are American ideals, but rather I am committed to America because it stands for liberty and justice. Therefore, I honor our veterans not because I supported the wars in which they fought and died. I honor them because of the ideals to which they dedicated their lives. For me, there is no conflict in my opposition to war and honoring our citizen warriors. [As Dr. Bob Crick who survived numerous battles in Viet Nam where he served as a paratrooper chaplain once told me, "Anyone who has ever survived the battlefield and knows the horrors of war opposes any war that is not absolutely necessary.]  Finally, I cherish our flag recognizing it as a sign that points to a nation greater than ourselves, a nation founded on the core belief that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 31, 2001

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I am Thankful for My Summer Plans

I’m a homebody. I like piddling around our place. I have more projects to complete than I have time. Typically, I don’t like to be away for more than a couple of nights. But I am looking forward to my travels this summer.

Next Monday I’ll drive to Virginia and spend the night with Alethea and her family. On Tuesday I’ll travel to New York and spend six days there with Cheryl. Although I’m not crazy about the “Big City,” I am looking forward to being there with Cheryl and doing some things I have never done before. Coming home will be great because Alethea, Camdyn, and Charlie are coming with us.

For the fourth of July we are going to Wheaton to spend a few days with Karisa and Johnmark. We already have ticket for “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and plans to see Garrison Keillor. Later in July we are going for a vacation to St. George Island, Florida which is our favorite place to relax. Plans are for the whole family to be there.

I don’t usually travel this much, but it will be great. I am thankful for the anticipation.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 30, 2010

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I am Thankful for Church Laughter

I suspect congregations in all denominations have their embarrassing moments. Surely a priest has fainted during a wedding, a Lutheran usher has stumbled in the isle somewhere, sometime, and a Presbyterian minister has misread his own sermon. But these are churches of order, beauty and dignity. They are churches of careful planning and control. In my limited experience even their laughter is carefully controlled.

Several sociologists of religion (Walter Hollenweger, Harvey Cox) have pointed out that Pentecostals are characterized by chaos. The mainline churches work hard to keep chaos out. Pentecostals bring the chaos of their lives into the presence of God who has the power to tame it. Historically this finds expression in exuberant worship and occasional wild gesticulation. Sometimes the chaos creates the absence of social restraint and bubbles over into hilarity.

Some of the humor arises out of the physical environment of churches financed by the poor. When we moved to Alabama we joined the Eastlake Church of God. It was the one closest to our house. Eastlake worshipped in an old storefront. When it rained the roof leaked and we put out pots to catch the dripping water. One Sunday we had a downpour. As the service progressed more leaks sprouted. The pastor’s wife would go get another pot until she finally ran out. I counted seventeen old pots of all shapes and sizes and leaks kept springing. It reminded me of the woman in the Bible who was instructed by the prophet to borrow pots to fill with oil, when she ran out of pots the oil stopped. In the abundance of God’s provisions that day the water kept flowing long after we ran out of pots and the pots were full.

The restrooms of our cathedral were up front. The men’s room was on the right and the women’s room was on the left. Well when you've got to go you've got to go. More than once someone took care of necessities right in the middle of the sermon. It was not too distracting to see them walk up front or return to their seat. It was the flushing of the commode that commanded my attention. Of course a good Pentecostal preacher can out preach any distraction.  It was during this season of life I learned to practice the spiritual discipline of bladder control.

One Sunday an official from the state office was our guest preacher. (I will leave him un-named although he went on to some prominence in the denomination.)  During the service, shortly before time for the sermon, he went to the men’s room. (There’s no need to be uncomfortable when you’re preaching.) Unfortunately, the light bulb was out in the room and he had to leave the door slightly ajar in order to find the toilet, but it must have still been very dark. You could hear him feeling his way around in the darkness. Suddenly there was a commotion and a little boy hurried out of the men’s room and ran straight for his mother seated on the second row.  He franticly tried to tell her something. When the dignitary stepped out of the dark, wiping his washed hands on his pants, the little boy jumped up, pointed and yelled out, “That’s him Momma; that’s the man that peed on me.”

Now I cannot imagine there has ever been an Episcopalian, Lutheran, or Catholic anywhere in the USA that has heard a testimony like that in church.

I don’t want to go back to worshipping in a rundown storefront, but I am thankful I have worshipped and laughed there and I could do both again.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 29, 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

I am Thankful for Church Training Courses

Yesterday we inducted Dr. Donald Altman into the Hall of the Prophets at our seminary. The Hall exists to honor faithful ministers of the church and to build our scholarship endowment; the recipient must be worthy and family and friends must contribute a minimum of $25,000.00 to the endowment. Dr. Aultman has a distinguished career in the COG, having served in many different capacities. He is retiring this summer at the age of eighty. He is currently Chancellor of Education. I have become acquainted with him personally within the past fifteen years. About forty-two years ago he had a proleptic influence on my life.

One of God’s great gifts to me has been the Church of God Church Training Course series. This series began in the 1950’s as the “Worker Training Course.” I believe the original plan was to create a curriculum of study for Sunday school workers. The early books were practical helps for lay leaders –how to organize a Sunday school, how to keep records, etc. The program was so successful it was expanded to offer courses that provided a survey of the Bible, courses on doctrine, courses on teaching methods, and courses on other ministries of the church. Unfortunately, the original vision of a set curriculum for training lay leaders was lost in the success of the program and it became a series of loosely related texts.  Many, if not most, of the current books in the series are not even written by Chursh of God authors.

When I was young my mother was a pre-school Sunday school teacher at the Springfield Church of God. The training courses were required of all teachers and officers. Harold Newman was Sunday School Superintendant and he taught the courses as annual or semi-annual five week series on Sunday evenings before worship. Back then children were not as closely supervised as they are today. I wasn’t all together pleased with Mom’s childcare plan, “Shirley, keep your brother with you and Jimmy, you keep an eye on both of them.”

Jimmy vanished into the great mist of adolescent pursuits, boys talking about girls I suspect, leaving me with Shirley and her girl friends. It wasn’t long before I asked to go with Mom and sit in her class. She reluctantly agreed after gaining my promises to be good, be quiet, not squirm and accept the restriction that I had to stay with her through the entire two-hour session, no trips in and out. Thus, I began attending church training courses before I entered the first grade. Once I could read, Mom let me help her study for the exams which had to be passed before a certificate of completion could be issued from the denominational state offices.

The courses on the Bible enthralled me, being published when I was developmentally ready for sequences and narratives. This awakened in me a desire for Bible knowledge. The courses on basic doctrine precipitously began coming out when I was developmentally prepared for abstract thought and this fueled a hunger to understand truth. Through these courses I gained a basic knowledge of Bible content and doctrine. Around the age of twelve or thirteen I decided I wanted to get credit for taking the classes. At first I was turned down, but around age fourteen my pastor, Bud Braddock, petitioned the state administrative offices for permission for me to take the exam and get a certificate of completion.

The course for which I received my first worker training certificate was “Contemporary Christian Education” by Donald Aultman. I still have the book. It introduced me to the concept of “Christian Education” as something more than Sunday school. Little did I know then that God would later speak to me as a freshman at Samford University, “Transfer to Lee College and major in Christian education.” Donald Aultman had planted a seed; Ken Andrews would later water that seed (another story); God protected and nourished it until the appropriate time four years later (1972).

I am thankful for the CTC series. It laid the foundation for a life-long pursuit of Biblical knowledge, theological understanding, and ministerial excellence. I said pursuit, not attainment.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 28, 2010

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I am Thankful for a Night Off

I am taking the night off from writing. The hay is out.  The troughs are filled.  The eggs are collected.  I am sleepy.  Sometimes memory is opaque, humor is just beyond reach, and creativity is stale. Today is one of those days. Right now I am thankful I can go to bed early tonight.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 27, 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I am Thankful for Hot Tea

I had my first cup of hot tea on Saturday, January 4, 1975 at a restaurant on Interstate 65 in northern Indiana. It was unplanned. Cheryl and I had been married two weeks that day and we were moving to Wheaton, Illinois for graduate school. Everything we owned was packed into our Ford Pinto and the 4X6 U-Haul trailer we were pulling. We stopped for lunch and when the server asked what I wanted to drink I said “tea.” Where I was from there was no need to say “sweet-tea” (one word, one and 1/2 syllables) and no need to say “iced tea.” Real tea had the consistency of syrup and enough ice to make the glass sweat.

I drank that cup of tea, partly out of curiosity and partly because I had too much pride to admit my mistake. I wasn’t impressed. I was a coffee drinker, always had been and always would be. I had drunk coffee all my life, literally. My aunt Gladys would give it to me in a baby bottle. Her concoction was mostly milk with coffee added as a curative for colic and other ailments. I remember Mom letting me have coffee when I was four or five. I would add so much sugar it couldn’t dissolve and enough milk to turn it tan. Within a couple of years I was down to a modicum of milk and two spoons of sugar and then one. My mother took one spoon of sugar and three drops of milk (she wouldn’t drink milk) in her coffee. My goal was to drink it black, no sugar, just like my Dad. By the time I was in Junior High School I had eliminated the sugar but not the milk.

Now when I say “coffee,” I mean instant coffee, Maxwell House or whatever was on sale. Mom and Dad preferred it that way. After they retired we bought them a drip coffee maker, but they wouldn’t use it except when we were there. Cheryl kept good coffee in their freezer for whoever was visiting. Sometimes, even when we had a pot made, I would catch Mom boiling water for her own.

When Cheryl and I got married she couldn’t stand coffee, not even the smell of it. At Wheaton I worked as a security guard at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. My usual shift was from 8:00 P.M. until 6:00 A.M. I drank a lot of coffee. On the mornings I worked Cheryl had to unlock the door to let me in and always greeted me, “Good morning. Shew, Go brush your teeth if you want me to kiss you.” Which I did. I continued to drink coffee for breakfast enduring Cheryl’s condescending culinary critique of that “disgusting stuff.” I also brushed my teeth a lot. Who knew that love would fight cavities.

We were a divided couple until we entered our doctoral programs. We had one electric typewriter that had to serve us both. For several weeks each semester, during crush times, there would be days on end the typewriter was never turned off. We would type our papers in shifts, around the clock. Cheryl learned to drink coffee and even to like it. Before long she was addicted. Once or twice she has attempted to break the habit. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I’ve considered intervention but no one should have to witness the horror of her withdrawals. Over the years she has become quite well known as a connoisseur in our circles. Friends bring her coffee from all over the world, expensive coffee.

I still love a good cup of coffee but I can live without it. A few years ago I shifted to tea as my preferred hot drink. I can drink all the hot tea I want without any side effects. Too much coffee can give me indigestion, especially old coffee. It seems the coffee pot in our office suite is either empty or half-full of old, very old, coffee when I check it out. Hot tea is always fresh and each blend is consistently the same. I enjoy the varieties available, but green tea is my usual. And they say it’s good for you.

As for coffee, if you make it, I’ll drink it. Otherwise, would you mind heating some water?

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 26, 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I am Thankful for the End of This Semester

The spring semester culminates with our annual graduation exercises. It’s a time of celebration and honor. I love wearing my regalia especially when Cheryl and I are together. Our uniforms are identical. The colors are symbolic. The hood includes colors to represent The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where we earned our highest degrees and colors for our field of study, Christian Education. The three chevrons on each sleeve are royal blue to indicate our highest degree is a Doctor of Philosophy. We had two strands of piping sewn around the chevrons, crimson indicates divinity or theological studies and light blue symbolizes education. I designed the double piping so it is unique. No one wears regalia just like ours.

However, the joy of commencement is the excitement the graduates bring. They have worked hard on graduate degree programs that are a minimum of two years in length. Most have worked full time while going to school so that it has taken them longer than the minimum. Always, we have gotten especially close to a few of them. There are always several international graduates who have enriched our lives. Many of the students are already in full-time ministry. All are headed in that direction. Some will be pastors or associate pastors, others hospital or military chaplains, and others will be counselors. These are adults of all ages who share a call to full-time ministry and years of advanced preparation for ministry. I can only imagine the lives that are going to be touched by them. Souls will be saved and God will be glorified.

To be candid, the end of the semester is also satisfying because it signals the successful completion of an academic year. I always feel good when a project is completed. It doesn’t matter what the project was. If it consumed part of my life, I have a sense of satisfaction when it comes to completion. This is true even if it was something I felt coerced into doing. It is especially true when I can delude myself into believing it was a job well done. The nice thing about an academic year is there are multiple projects from which to choose. If one course went poorly there should be another one that went better and “better” is always something to celebrate.

This is a special semester. I have completed four years of directing our school’s efforts toward reaffirmation of accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). The SACS project was completed last spring and the Commission on Accreditation renewed our regional accreditation for ten years, the maximum. The ATS project ended this spring with a recommendation that we be renewed for ten years as well; their Commission will make it official next month.

I am thankful God has blessed the Seminary with accreditation. I am thankful for the successful completion of my role. I am not the reason we were reaffirmed; I hope I contributed. The outcome makes me look more effective than I am. So this semester triggers a change in my role at the seminary. For the first time I will not carry an administrative work load at our school other than that routinely assigned to faculty, i.e., committee leadership. I have been working toward this for fifteen years and I am thankful it appears to be coming to fruition. I may finally be able to complete some writing projects and just the thought of it feels good.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 25, 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

I am Thankful for the Day of Karisa’s Birth

Karisa was born eight years, two months, and one day after Alethea. It was a glorious day. The pregnancy had been uneventful. We had been through it all before. That doesn’t mean we were free of concern. Eight years of life and ministry had exposed us to things that can go wrong and there are lots of things that can go wrong.

In addition to the normal concerns Cheryl and I shared a concern about Karisa growing up in Alethea’s shadow. Alethea was truly an exceptional child. She weaned herself at 12 months and potty trained herself at about the same time. She was charming, pretty and intellectually gifted. When the topic came up we agreed we would treat Karisa as an individual and never make comparisons. I always added, “I’ll be happy if she is healthy, has ten toes and ten fingers, and her hair isn’t red.” Secretly, I struggled with another fear. How could I love her as much as I loved Alethea? That seemed and impossibility.

During the pregnancy I was Minister of Education at the Westmore Church of God, Cheryl began teaching part time at Lee College, and we both were working on our doctoral dissertations.

When I came home for lunch on Thursday, July 11, 1985 Cheryl mentioned she was having mild contractions but she didn’t think she was entering labor. She promised to call if things changed. She didn’t. When I got home from work around five o’clock she informed me she was in full labor with contractions about five minutes apart. I took a quick shower and got dressed for what I believed would be a long night. Cheryl completed packing for herself and getting Alethea ready to stay with Shirley and Mike who lived in Cleveland at the time. Shirley came by to pick her up.

As we prepared to walk out the door I remembered that I had put on some cologne which you are not supposed to do because it might make a woman in delivery nauseous. I asked Cheryl if she thought we had time for me to take another quick shower. She said “yes, the contractions are four minutes apart.” I showered, dressed and we raced for the hospital. Except Cheryl decided she needed to stop at the store for something. I think it was Wal-Mart. She was having contractions every three minutes and she went shopping. I stopped feeling guilty about my shower.  [Actually, she had gone "shopping" that afternoon.  I recall a quick stop for one item on the way to the hospital.  She denies this happened.  I might be confused on this. Since her water had already broken, surely we were not so foolish.  Or were we?]

We were already pre-admitted to Bradley Memorial Hospital and went through the rear entry straight to labor and delivery. They placed us in “birthing room.” It looked more like a nice motel room than a hospital facility. It had wall paper and soft lighting. Most of the instruments were hidden inside wood cabinets. Things had really changed in eight years.

The labor progressed very rapidly. I was again standing behind Cheryl’s head. I didn’t even try to coach her in breathing. I tried to message her shoulders and she slapped my hands away, “What do you think you’re doing?” I explained my intent and she snapped, “Well don’t do it. It’s irritating me!” I was reduced to keeping her wash cloth wet and letting her rub the back of my head during the contractions. For some reason reaching up over her head and rubbing her fingers in circles around the back of my head was comforting for her. She rubbed until my hair was thin and my skin was gone. It hurt for days.

I prayed. I fervently prayed. I prayed for Cheryl. I prayed Karisa would be born healthy. And I prayed I would be able to act as if I loved her as much as I loved Alethea. I sincerely wanted God’s help so that she would never feel loved less. When she was born, just out of the womb, umbilical cord still attached, the doctor holding her with both hands, she peed on him as if to say “Ah, I’ve been holding that a long time.” Looking at her there in his hands my heart was filled with love, a love different from my love for Alethea and yet the same. The two loves danced together through every fiber of my being and I suddenly felt overwhelmed with the love of God.

The cord was clamped and cut, salve was placed on her eyes, and a nurse placed her, naked, under a lamp in a clear plastic basinet across the room. Everyone was busy scurrying around. The doctor was working with Cheryl and the nurses were busy assisting. I walked over to look at my new baby girl. I exaggerate not. She raise her head and scanned the room as if pausing to inspect the quality of each person’s work. I knew right then that if I was going to have a problem it was going to be loving her too much.

A few minutes later she was bundled tightly in a blanket, wearing a little cap. We held her for the first time. The nurse came and for some reason needed to remove her cap. She grabbed hold of it and wouldn’t let go. They had a real tug of war. A few minutes later Cheryl was in a regular room and Karisa was being examined in the nursery. I told Cheryl, “We don’t have to worry about her. If she lacks anything in terms of ability she will more than make up for it with determination. We don’t have to worry about her being overshadowed by Alethea.”

Time would reveal her to be equally gifted and determined. She turned sixteen on the Amazon river doing short-term missions, eighteen doing the same in Bolivia, and twenty one in the slums of Mumbai, India.

She had a high bilirubin count and we had to leave her in the hospital for a couple of days. It was torture the first time Cheryl and I drove off without her. We brought her home but we had to take her back every day for a while to have her blood tested. They would prick her heal and take a couple of drops. I usually held her for the procedure. People have a hard time believing this, but she knew where she was every time we stepped through the automatic doors into the hospital; she began crying. She cried until shortly after the prick and whimpered until we stepped back out those same doors.

Outside of my personal encounters with God, the births of Alethea and Karisa were the most transforming events of my life. My love for Cheryl was and is the truth toward which I always live. My covenant with her is woven into my covenant with God. He is an active witness and participant in our marriage. Thus, my wedding was a glorious day, a day of love, joy, promise and hope. But, their births embraced and extended all of that. They were our co-creation with God, the tangible yet everlasting fruit of our marriage. They were not our possession but they did belong to us and us to them. From the moment of their conception they have enriched us. With Cheryl they constitute God’s greatest gifts to me outside side of His grace and presence. I am blessed; I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 24, 2010

Sunday, May 23, 2010

I am Thankful for the day Alethea was Born: Part 2

[Scroll down to yesterday’s entry for Part 1 of this entry.]

If the labor room was time suspended, the delivery room was time in warped speed, pulsing forward with fits and stops. When I arrived Cheryl was already on “the table” with two nurses scurrying around preparing for the doctor’s arrival. As Dr. McDonald arrived and greeted us Cheryl was requesting an additional pillow. One of the ladies in white begrudgingly exited and returned with the extra pillow. I was standing behind Cheryl’s head and between contractions attempting to help her get situated with the two pillows. She decided she needed a third and requested it. The nurse staired with a look of frustration and proceeded to ignore the request. Cheryl repeated her request and as the nurse turned to respond Dr. McDonald spoke up, “Well Nurse, you heard her. Get the lady a pillow.” She huffed and exited to retrieve the contraband.

I was impressed and thankful; things were about to get more interesting. With the pillows in place Cheryl turned her attention to the stirrups. Sitting up as much as possible she grabbed the one at her right calf and said, “I don’t want these.” The nurse, clearly not accustomed to taking directions from anyone but a doctor, responded, “Now honey you have to leave those alone. We can adjust them up or down, but we an't remove them; they are staying there.”

I wish you could have seen the nurse's face as Cheryl pulled the stirrup out of its socket, “No, I don’t want them. Take them away.”

Just as a tug of war was ensuing, the voice of authority drifted across the room, “You heard her nurse. Remove the stirrups. Haven’t you ever seen a baby delivered without them? Back in Scotland I delivered babies on the kitchen table.” With that settled, Alethea agreed it was time for her entry.

“She’s at 10 and fully effaced.”

“OK, young lady, now push. Push. Push hard ... One more time. Push hard, hard, harder. You’re almost there. Give me one more good push. That’s it. Now stop. Stop. OK, one more hard push.”

Moments later, there was Alethea. Naked, umbilical cord clamped and cut, covered in a waxy film, squinting, crying, and red around her eyes. Heaven and earth stood still. All things were new. Once she was cleaned up and wrapped in a blanket I held her for the first time as the doctor completed working with Cheryl. I had held dozens of babies but I had never felt anything like that, exuberance, awe, exhaustion, and terror all woven together. A few minutes later she was resting in Cheryl’s arms as they wheeled the two of them toward Cheryl’s room.

At one point in the hallway they stopped and took Alethea so she could be examined in the nursery. The world stopped. We had worked so hard to get her out and into our arms and suddenly they were taking her away. As they rolled Cheryl to her room I walked down the hallway to tell Mom and Darlene the good news. The waiting room at the end of the long hall was well lit giving the feel of walking into the light. Mom and Darlene were excitedly standing as I approached. Looking at them, my chest was full of pride and although I could feel my feet moving, it was as if I was floating in mid air. I am certain that walk was the closest to the streets of gold I will experience this side of heaven.

The day was not over. I made a quick trip home and returned for the evening. I was there when Cheryl tried to nurse for the first time. I don’t know how piglets, calves, puppies, and kittens make their first effort look so easy. Human babies seem a little slower at latching on and triggering the sucking reflex, or so I have been told. Sometime around ten or eleven a nurse entered the room with a bottle of clear liquid which she promptly handed to me with instructions to feed my hungry baby.

In my youth I had heated many bottles and fed them to my cousins. Thus, I was not prepared for the terror about to ensue. I had never tried to feed a newborn. I struggled to get her to stop crying and wrap her mouth around the nipple. I drew circles on her lips with the nipple. I pushed it in and out. I massaged the roof of her mouth with it. Nothing worked. It became clear she did not have the aptitude for it. “Oh, no, my baby is retarded. She doesn’t even know how to suck. The umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck and cut off the flow of oxygen to her brain. How am I going to tell Cheryl?” When the nurse returned I inquired, with less drama, about Alethea’s difficulties and she ensured me it was normal; she would catch on soon enough. “Liar,” I thought. I must have prayed the prayer of faith that night; a fervent effectual prayer turns the mentally challenged into pediatricians.

Before we left the hospital with her a couple of days later, she had the nursing thing down pat. It was Cheryl who was discovering that fulfillment sometimes comes with a painful price tag. I was not overly traumatized as we drove away from St. Joseph’s. My mother was with us for a few more days. Everything would be all right. On the other hand, I was fully aware of how little I knew about caring for a baby. Traumatized? No. Fearful? Oh, yes. Where’s that owner’s manual?

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 23, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I am Thankful for the Day Alethea was Born

[Warning. This is a long one and so I have decided to divide it into two parts creating two days of entries.]

There are days that cannot be forgotten: happy days, sorrowful days, fearful days, glorious days. Those days that pivot around a life changing event: our wedding, the death of a parent, a brush with our own death, an encounter with God. Those events are burned into our memories and merge together to form the texture of our existence. And then there are those days that are flooded with the full spectrum of our human existence. The day and the event are one, we are face to face with death and life, our mortality and immortality; everything is in full color and life moves one frame at a time. These are the days we not only experience life, we witness ourselves enveloped in the fullness of life. Such was the day of Alethea’s birth.

Before the day arrived we had done our best to prepare. After all, it was 1977 and we were educated and informed first time parents to be. Cheryl’s readings had led her to commit to a “natural” child birth, i.e., no pain relievers, so that she could fully embrace the experience and not pass any drugs into our baby. I was committed to be with her during the birth, something for which I had to get special permission from the doctor and the hospital. We had taken the obligatory Lamaze training. These classes were all the rage and provided quite an experience for us “sensitive” but clueless husbands. I never mastered the breathing exercises, “hee, hee, hee … whoosh.” I was destined to fail as a labor coach.

I must admit it was a great social experiment. Imagine yourself sitting on the floor behind your wife who is in a circle with seven or eight very pregnant young women who have their husbands serving as their backrests. Where do your eyes go while the estrogen enhanced progenitors cross their ankles and practice their kegel exercises. You can’t stair at the men; they’re all too busy trying to blend into the carpet. Besides, they have a backlog of testosterone and might just smack you. And you can only count the cracks in the ceiling so many times (15 cracks, I believe). I focused on scanning for facial expressions.  Every woman had the intense look of an Olympic weightlifter just before the snatch, most with their eyes closed as if to visualize their expanding and contracting pee musle.

The momentous “day” began on a Friday afternoon and extended to midnight the next Tuesday and beyond. Cheryl was almost two weeks past due to deliver and she was going every couple of days to see her obstetrician. She had toxemia and was swollen and had a bad rash. In spite of her insistence to the contrary and the fact it was early May in North Dakota with patches of snow still on the ground, he diagnosed her as having gotten into poison ivy and sent her home. On Monday she went in for another visit. By the grace of God her doctor was on vacation and Cheryl saw his associate, Dr. McDonald, who had recently arrived from England. He took one look at her and said, “You have toxemia and you’re going to the hospital, today.” I wasn’t there for the visit. Mom and Darlene had gone with her.

We lived in a house trailer on the campus of Northwest Bible College in Minot, North Dakota. I was working and when she got on campus she filled me in on what the doctor had said. She seemed so calm. Her doctor had given her the option of going straight to the hospital or checking herself in at 5 P.M. and she chose to go home and pack a suitcase. I drove her to the hospital that Monday evening. She remained calm until we got to the room. The woman in the room with her was in labor and she was moaning and groaning with intensity. I stayed with Cheryl until they drove me out around 11 P.M. We were both pretty frazzled by then. I went home for the night and returned by six the next morning when they were scheduled to start the drip. Cheryl was moved to a labor room. The IV was attached and they began inducing labor. The contractions began immediately. They were ten minutes apart at first but quickly moved to five and then three all within the first hour. The labor seemed strong to us and the constant three minute cycle indicated the birth would be soon, or so I thought. That was what the books said; three minutes signaled the end was approaching. The books didn’t include chapters on induced labor.

The longest twelve hours of my life had begun to unfold. I stayed by Cheryl’s side the full twelve hours of intense labor. Only once or twice did I go down the hall to tell Mom and Darlene what was going on. For the first couple of hours I stood and held her hand. Then a nurse got me a chair. For a couple of minutes I would sit and then contractions would hit. I would then stand, holding her hand. They wouldn’t let her have anything to drink but they did give her a few ice chips occasionally. They also wet a wash cloth for her to moisten her lips. She began biting down on the rolled up cloth when the contractions were severe. She also squeezed my hand, hard. You cannot imagine the strength of a woman in labor. On one contraction she confused my hand with the cloth. She squeezed the rag bone dry and bit my hand just short of drawing blood. It was perhaps the most chivalrous moment of my life; I just let her keep biting until her pain subsided and she figured out what she was doing. Her teeth marks remained for days. They could have poured plaster into them and used that to make her a set of dental retainers.

Every few minutes they would come in to examine her. We were looking for the big numbers, eight or nine centimeters in anticipation for the magical 10.. What we got was three. I thought we would never get to five. The nurse would look at me with a frown and shake her head “no,” whispering “no progress,” or “3 ½.” Everything within me wanted to yell, “stick your head back under that sheet and measure again.” At the same time I wanted to break down and cry, but I couldn’t. I had to be strong for Cheryl. Sometimes I could tell the nurse was reporting more progress than actually existed. We were probably the most pitiful looking twenty three-year-olds they had ever seen.

After a couple of hours they placed a belt around Cheryl’s waist that included sensors for monitoring and recording the strength and duration of the contractions and also to monitor the baby’s heart rate. All day long I watched the meter scroll out the graph paper with markings measuring the biological earthquakes and I listened to the swishing of Alethea’s heartbeat. It seemed so loud and so fast. With each set of contractions the rhythm raced. The graph gave me a visual impression of the intensity of Cheryl’s pain.

The nurses came in frequently to adjust the belt. By mid-afternoon their facial expressions of sympathy shifted to frowns of concern with little eye contact. When pressed they finally told us there was a problem with the baby’s heart beat which indicated the cord might be wrapped around her neck. They inserted a probe that attached to Alethea’s head for more accurate readings. The swooshing and beeping became a foreign language screaming messages of life and death; only they could not be interpreted. Is that normal; is it too fast, or too slow?

Cheryl was exhausted and began dozing between contractions. I was depleted; my legs were led from all the up and down … sit, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand. Around five o’clock things began to happen. “She’s at 7.” “We have 8.” “She’s at 9.” At some point they began to refer to “effacing.” And then it was time to move from the “labor room” to the “delivery room.” The former looked like a typical hospital room of the time; the latter resembled more a cold, sterile room for surgery. As they rolled Cheryl into delivery I was directed to another room where I hurriedly put on scrubs including the little booties to cover my shoes.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 22, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

I am Thankful for Online Shopping

This morning I went online and purchased a memory foam mattress topper to replace our old one. We have had the old one for over ten years and it has recently disintegrated on my side. Cheryl’s side is still like new. My friends will not offer alternative interpretations of this certain design flaw.

I have done most of my shopping online for years: computers, cameras, small appliances, other electronics, my lawn mower, gifts of all kinds, etc.. The reviews and customer ratings are helpful if you take the time to carefully review them. The price comparisons provide confidence I’m getting a good deal and often there are no taxes. All together I saved $600 on my mower even after paying for shipping.

Of course the best thing about online shopping is I can do it in my recliner. There is no driving from store to store, no hunting for a parking place, and no crowds. And the coup de grace, there are no sales people.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 21, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I am Thankful for an Impossible Challenge

Last Friday I accepted a challenge, an impossible challenge. I knew I would fail but I thought the journey into defeat would be worth the effort. My sister Shirley asked when I was going to embarrass Mike, her husband, on my blog. He piped in, “He won’t embarrass me. I can’t be embarrassed, and he knows it.”

“I’ll take that as a challenge,” I responded. But I knew even then he was right. It sounds better to say he was right than to admit I was wrong. Then again, I wasn’t wrong because I knew I would fail. If you are a Johns it is much better to be a failure than to be wrong. Simple deductive reasoning proves Mike’s superiority. Premise 1 -- a Johns is never wrong. Premise 2 -- a Johns married Mike. Therefore, Mike is right even when he is wrong. Thus, we have Mike’s first endearing quality. By mere association he must be exceptional; A Johns chose to marry him and a Johns is never wrong.

Let me describe him. Michael Landers is of average height and slim build. He has thinning, salt and pepper hair. He has the appearance of being in good physical condition; he does workout faithfully. He has two Master’s degrees, one in special education and the other in educational administration. He also has achieved the Educational Specialist degree which is roughly equivalent to a doctorate in education. He has been an elementary school teacher, both public and private, for about thirty years. He spent a few of those years in administration as an assistant principal and principal. Out of those experiences he became a widely used consultant on crises management.

But who is Mike Landers, really? Should you be blessed to meet him your first impression would be of his gregarious personality. The proverbial, “he never met a stranger” is simply inadequate to describe him. Mike approaches everybody as if they were his hometown next door neighbor. He doesn’t introduce himself to anyone; he jumps into the middle of a conversation that didn’t exist before he got there. It’s really uncanny; out of nowhere he is dialoging with this total stranger about something that is thoroughly trivial but obviously meaningful. Then, poof, like a humming bird he darts off to the next long lost friend.

The second thing you would notice about Mike is that he is hyperactive. In an earlier day they would have called it fidgety or restless. Now we have this whole class of people called psychologists who make lots of money making up big descriptive terms and then labeling people with them. Mike is in a brand new category, ADHHD. The HH is for Hyper Hyperactive.

We Johns like to sit and talk. We can stay in the same room for hours with very little movement. Think, cows chewing their cud. When Mike first came into the family we played a guessing game, “How long will it take Mike to sit in every seat in the room?” When anyone got up for a bathroom break or to get a snack, Mike immediately moved to their seat. We could manipulate the outcome by the timing of our own movements. It was like watching a tennis ball in slow motion. However, Cheryl was also hyper and served as the wild card of every session. A variation of the game was “How many times will Mike go in and out of the room before anyone else exits or enters.”

Mike’s hyperactivity is not just entertaining, it also serves utilitarian purposes. He is always the first to volunteer for errands. Need someone to get a gallon of milk; Mike will go for it and be happy about it. It is as if our inactivity saps all of his energy and a short trip to reconnect with a long-lost buddy is fuel for his soul.

Seriously, Mike is a gift to my life. He challenges me to be more outgoing and to be more ready to help. He is generous and thoughtful. He is apparently an excellent teacher – whenever we go out to eat near his house some former student approaches to say high and thank him. His friends cannot stop talking about how wonderful he is. Perhaps his greatest gift to me is that he is engaging and fun. It is simply good to be with him. He is my brother and I would trust him with my life.

In closing, I know I haven’t embarrassed him. He wouldn’t sit still long enough to read this.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 20, 2010

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I am Thankful for My Parent’s Compassion

In 1968 we moved from Jacksonville, Florida to Birmingham, Alabama. My parents were uncertain about how long we would be gone and so they kept and rented out our house on Harrison Avenue. The house was let (don’t you love old English) to a young couple who were friends of one of our neighbors. They were good tenants. The husband was a butcher and during the first year he severely cut his hand requiring weeks without work. Never-the-less, by the end of that year they offered to purchase the house.

Mom and Dad agreed to sell for $8,500. Now I was not yet 16 years old but I was aware the house was valued at closer to $12,000. “We” had paid $5,700 for it in 1957. When I approached Dad with my financial acumen his response was to the point, “Son, I would rather someone take advantage of me than for me to take advantage of someone. I think it is a fair price and they need the help more than I do.”

As every child knows, if you don’t get the right answer from Dad, go to Mom. This was my inheritance or college tuition we were talking about. “Son, they’re a young couple. He’s been injured and laid-off from work. It just wouldn’t be right to ask more money than they can afford to pay. We’re not going to lose money on the deal. God will take care of us if we help take care of others.”

The agreement was to sign all the papers when my parents came down on vacation a few weeks later. The week before the trip the couple split up and moved out. With less than a sanctified heart, I privately thanked God for divorce. I was 15 years old. What do you expect? Somebody’s got to look out for foolish aging parents. After all, they were in their late thirties and early forties, facing retirement and the nursing home.

My parents were full of compassion. They were frugal but never stingy. They “lent” thousands of dollars to family members and others knowing they probably would never get it back. (I say “they” because Dad was fully aware of most of it. OK, some of it.) My guess is that 10 cent of every dollar was returned. I never heard them complain about it, except when one of my cousins got a boob job instead of repaying her debt. Even in heaven I suspect my mother wants her money back; it’s the principle of the thing, don’t you know.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 19, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I am Thankful for My Mother’s (Situational) Openness

One of the great lessons I learned from my mother was that we don’t have to understand it all; we don’t have to agree with it all. We can even be wrong about non-essentials and still be right with God if our hearts are pure and our faith is strong. For example, Mama knew God created all things; she just respectfully disagreed when it came to roaches. She knew the Scriptures reveal, and the Church of God teaches, Jesus is coming back and the saints will be resurrected; it’s just that after decades of physical suffering she was convinced she would be the blessed exception. “I don’t want this body back no matter how perfect He makes it and He won’t make me take it either. I just want to be in His presence.”

Sometimes her openness to alternative thought was challenging and even transforming for me. For example, she was dead set against going to movies. We often heard the story of her first conversion and the moment of backsliding; She followed Dad into a movie theater. (They were shopping; the theater was air conditioned, Jimmy was a baby and the day was extremely hot.) “I walked in one door and Jesus walked out the other.”

On the other hand, she paid for and insisted that Jimmy get dancing lessons. When I asked her about it some years later her response was simple, “Son, I don’t see anything wrong with dancing. As long as you’re not a member of the church I don’t see anything wrong with it. I thought it would help your brother learn how to talk with girls.” It seems that was my Grandmother’s opinion as well. I had always thought that as a teenager Mom slipped off to the dances, but Grandma had sent her. Oh, the irony; it was at a dance to which Grandma had sent Mom that Mom met Dad.

My mother’s response to the news that one of the young women of our church was pregnant and not married was a transforming lesson for me. I must admit that in my youth I was somewhat hard in my concepts of righteousness: sin is sin and sex outside of marriage is a grave sin. I had known this young woman all of my life and thought of her as family. I was therefore especially attentive in eavesdropping as Shirley and Mom discussed the situation. Mom’s response was filled with grace, uncertainty and self-identification. “I just don’t understand why God made a young woman most likely to get pregnant at the time she is least likely to say ‘no’.”

There was no condemnation, just compassion and a willingness to enter the struggle. I couldn’t put it all together theologically, but I knew Mom’s questioning and acceptance was a Christ-like response. “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” I learned in that moment that the purity of the church depended more on our willingness to embrace the sinner than on our vigilance for discipline. Love is our most powerful weapon against unrighteousness. Correction that does not flow out of love perverts the Gospel.

I also learned something about women and biology; I just wasn’t sure what I had learned.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 18, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

I am Thankful for my Parent’s Marriage

Yesterday was the 63rd anniversary of my parent’s marriage. It was a marriage worthy of emulation, but one few today would predict could survive. Dad was 22 and Mom was 16 when they got married. The correct word is “eloped,” but you only got to use that word once in front of Mom. “We did not elope; bad girls eloped.” Let’s see, her mother sent her to town to meet the boy she wanted her to marry. My dad saw her in town, arranged a private meeting (working with her aunt), gave the ultimatum “today or never,” she met the other guy and brushed him off, Dad got the license and they met that afternoon at the Justice of the Peace’s house. What would you call it?

All she had were the clothes on her back. She couldn’t go home. Her mother hated my Dad. He had a reputation for drinking, fighting, and womanizing. Now, my Grandmother was Church of God, but she was also a Harris by birth, and a woman of a certain age by nature and nature was in its full fury. Somehow “the change” seems an innocuous euphemism for menopause. I suggest something with a war theme, perhaps “blitzkrieg” or "proto-Armageddon." 

A few weeks earlier Grandma had heard a rumor Mom and Dad were going to meet in the woods and run off together. She sent my mother off with one of my uncles so that she couldn’t meet Dad. The story, well known in the community, continued with my Grandmother taking my Grandfather’s rifle and hiding out waiting on my father’s arrival to shoot him. When he arrived at the designated rendezvous point one of my mother’s female cousins was with him. Grandma didn’t realize she was there to serve as witness at the wedding and assumed she and Dad were there for amorous reasons.

Although she was just a kid, Mom was an equal match for Dad. They lived in a culture all too familiar with violence, especially domestic violence. One of Dad’s brothers and his wife would party too hard and get physically confrontational with each other. After witnessing this, Mom let Dad know she would not tolerate it. “If you ever get drunk and lay a hand on me you will go to sleep. And I will sew you up in the sheets, take a broom handle and beat you within an inch of your life. And you know I will do it.” I doubt Mom’s threat restrained him, but he knew she meant it and he never touched her in anger.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 17, 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I am Thankful for Daily Blessings

I haven’t posted for a couple of days. On Friday we went to Shirley’s and Mike’s where we spent the night. On Saturday we got up early (5 A.M.), had a light breakfast, and I drove Cheryl to the airport. Saturday afternoon I worked on my pasture and battled the virus from hell, the one Cheryl brought back from Sweden. Today was church and a long nap and a couple of farm chores – ox in the ditch kind of thing. In short, I haven’t had a lot of time to write. Today I offer a list of thankful thoughts I had in the past three days.

I am thankful:

1. I was not the reason we left behind schedule. To be fair, I wasn’t packing for a six-week trip.

2. On the drive down, traffic, although heavy, moved at a rapid pace. I love people who drive 85 miles per hour.

3. The Baptist church with the copper steeple remains the same. It sits right next to I-75. Before the interstate was completed the drive to Atlanta took me directly past this church. I always loved its neat appearance and copper steeple. From the interstate all you see is the steeple. The small-town church is now part of suburbia, but seeing the steeple takes me back to my college days. For some reason I am always thankful when I drive by it. Analyze that Sigmund.

4. Mike, my brother-in-law, paid for dinner, and gave me the challenge to embarrass him on my blog. Look for a lot of Mike stories. You’re going to love them. I probably will fail but the challenge is exciting. Actually, I don’t have a lot of stories.

5. It is always good to be with my family. I am blessed with wonderful siblings and their families. Mike, Shirley, Ryan and Andrea are a joy for me.

6. On the drive to the airport and back to our house traffic was light and fast.

7. Cheryl made it safely to New York.

8. We had rain yesterday and today and possibly tonight. My pasture desperately needed it.

9. Ibuprophen works on my aches and pains. I have had a bad headache the past couple of days, a symptom of the virus which Cheryl says signals the final phase. I had thought I was well.

10. This morning I trapped the skunk that has been eating our chicken eggs. I have confidence the appetite suppressant I inoculated him with this evening will be effective.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 16, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I am Thankful for Rebecca Brannon

Tonight we went to the High School graduation of Rebecca Brannon. Rebecca has been part of our church for twelve years, grades one through twelve for her. It has been a great joy to watch her grow into the lovely young woman that she is. I was blessed to baptize her several years ago. She is a faithful church member, present “every time the doors are open.” She works in the nursery and Vacation Bible School. The children love her as do we all.

We are extremely blessed with wonderful young people at our church. I have never been more pleased as a pastor than I am presently, especially with our children and youth. It is exciting to watch them grow in all aspects of life and to see them active in worship and Christian service. I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 13, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I am Thankful for Cheryl’s Guardian Angels

I have inferred from my studies of the Scriptures that there is no such thing as “guardian angels.” The Bible portrays angels primarily as messengers (the meaning of the name) and warriors, but never as babysitters scurrying around to protect us from ourselves. Never-the-less, I am convinced they exist; I am married to Cheryl. There is no way she could have survived this long without heavenly watch care. A legion of angels willing to accept hazardous duty must be assigned to her.

My wife is a brilliant woman. She has a Ph.D.. She is in demand as a speaker at universities and colleges the world over. She is a published scholar often quoted as an expert in her field. Yet, she doesn’t have a lick of common sense. She missed the bus the day they taught that lesson. She has absolutely zero ability to discern a dangerous situation. Her existence in and of itself is proof guardian angels exist.

Anybody can be caught up in an auto accident. I have been hit twice myself. Cheryl is the poster girl for single car crash survival. The first one was minor; she banged the garage (hard) while backing out. The second time she hit a guard rail, slicing open the car from bumper to bumper. It looked like someone had taken an old fashioned can opener and ratcheted a straight gouge all the way down the driver’s side of the car. The third time she hydroplaned and spun like a top in the median. Those are the ones I know about.

The angels are on overtime pay when she meets a criminal. Our church sits in a wooded area adjacent to the interstate. When we bought the property the Executive Director of the non-profit from which we bought it warned us the site was a known location for drug exchanges, major drug exchanges. It seems our property was conveniently located between Atlanta and Knoxville. The lead investigator for the regional federal prosecutor was a friend of ours and he confirmed the story.

Late one Saturday night we were cleaning for Sunday morning as usual and Cheryl departed first as I finished straightening up the chairs. I suddenly heard a commotion outside. When I got out the front door I found Cheryl standing with her front car door open. The car was facing across the pond where there were a couple of cars parked side by side with their lights on. Cheryl was alternating between flashing her bright lights on and off and blowing her horn while she yelled “This is God’s property. Get out of here and take your sinful business somewhere else.”

My response was less than gentile, “Are you crazy? If those are drug dealers, they carry guns and they aren’t afraid to use them. Honestly, you don’t have the sense you were born with.” (I apologized later.)

Her response was a calm understatement, “Oh, yeh. I didn’t think about that.”

Then there was the General Assembly of 1986. Cheryl was mugged while standing alone at the elevator in our hotel. The mugger banged her head into the wall, grabbed her purse and took off running down the adjacent stairwell. Cheryl chased him down several flights of stairs before it dawned on her she was alone in a stairwell with a man who had already slammed her head into the wall. She discovered the doors were locked and her only option was to continue downward toward the voices of some workers.

Finally, there was the event that changed my life and our relationship forever. Three years ago I bought a zero turn lawn mower, one of the greatest inventions of all time. These modern marvels are able to turn on a dime because they are steered by the rotation of the rear wheels. A hydrostatic transmission on each allows them rotate at varying speeds independently. Each can also effortlessly move into reverse rotation allowing an instant top-like spin. The challenge is to adjust to the different process for steering. Instead of a traditional steering wheel there are two handlebars, one for each wheel. Speed and direction are determined by pushing and pulling the handlebars. It takes some getting use to and is at first counter intuitive. I cut down a few things I had intended to mow around.

After a couple of weeks Cheryl wanted to use the mower, “It looks like fun.”

I gave her instructions and directed her to an open space near the house. She did fine. When I came to take over and mow the section near the road, where the deep ditch is, she asked to continue while I did a favor for her. I agreed provided, “You must promise me you will not get near the ditch. Just a few weeks ago a woman right here in Bradley County killed herself by turning one of these over in a ditch.”

“I won’t go near the ditch.”

“No, look at me. I need you to promise you will not go anywhere near the ditch and by “near” I mean within six feet. Will you promise?”

“Yes, I promise I will not go within six feet of the ditch.”

I was in the garage when I heard her screams. I ran to find her dangling over the ditch being held in place by the telephone pole. She had been mowing about six inches from the crevasse. She was scared; I was more so. And I was angry. I yelled. She had broken her promise and almost killed herself.

“I kept my promise. I was a long way from the ditch.”

“Cheryl, if you were a long way from the ditch one wheel wouldn’t be dangling in thin air.”

I didn’t speak to her for three days. And then I had an epiphany. I am not her guardian angel. If she wants to chase muggers or kill herself on a lawnmower, that’s between her and God. On our wedding day I made a vow to protect her with my own life if need be. I suddenly felt released from the responsibility of protecting her from herself. That’s a job for angels and apparently she has a good team of them. As for me, I am free.

As for the other exploits of Cheryl Bridges Johns – body surfing down whitewater rapids, taking shortcuts through strange international cities, etc. – are they not written in the Chronicles of the Protected Ones.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 12, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I am Thankful for my Gazelle

Exercise is not my favorite thing to do. I have flat feet making running a problem. I have never understood how getting exhausted is supposed to give you energy. It doesn’t work for me. All I get out of it is a desire for an afternoon nap. There is suppose to be a magical wall you can press through to a good feeling while you suffer. I have never pressed through it. OK, I’ve never even seen it and don’t care to.

Yet, a few years ago I realized I had reached the place in life where things just weren’t working the way God designed them. I was too young for depends but my kagels didn’t know that. That was the first indicator it was time to fulfill a longstanding promise to myself. As a young man I had promised myself I would exercise when I was old and needed it. A friend who was into weight lifting admonished me I would not do it. “If you don’t exercise when you’re young you won’t do it when you get old.” I haven’t seen that friend in thirty years but I wonder what kind of shape he is in.

The second and determinative indicator it was time was backaches. They came on rather suddenly. Can you spell sciatica? Can you imagine muscle spasms? Have you ever had to roll out of bed? Do you routinely take Advil so you can sleep through the night? Then you might be over fifty.

I don’t exercise for my self-image. I don’t do it to delude myself into thinking I am young. I do it for two reasons. First, I don’t want to wear depends. Second, I am allergic to pain. If I don’t exercise regularly I hurt throughout the night and it takes me an hour just to work the kinks out. I am old and I exercise. It is a discipline of wisdom and not vanity.

My favorite piece of equipment is my Gazelle, you know, Tony Little, the guy with the pony tail. I have a regular routine. It includes upper body pushes and pulls, forward walking, side scissors, reverse kicks, etc. It is low impact, aerobic exercise without exhaustion. I can watch the news or listen to Scripture on CD while I work my way through the routine. Most importantly, it is all done in the convenience of my own home. All I have to do is stumble down two flights of stairs before I am good and awake. Sleepiness helps to fight the temptation to stop on the way down for coffee which of course requires something sweet to accompany it. “Oh, why did I do that? Now I can’t exercise; it might upset my stomach.” Believe me it’s best if I make it to the Gazelle before my last dream ends.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 11, 2010

Monday, May 10, 2010

I am Thankful for My Parent’s Model for Compromise

Dad and I were standing in the checkout line at King’s Department Store. I was about ten years old. I don’t recall what we were getting, probably motor oil or brake fluid; Dad didn’t shop for anything that didn’t blend well with testosterone. A man got in the line behind us who had at one time been a neighbor of Mom’s and Dad’s.

Dad asked about his wife only to be told they had divorced. He asked about Mom and how many children they had. Dad said Mom was doing well and added, “We had four kids … before we figured out what was causing it.”

The man laughed and asked how they kept their marriage together so long. Dad recounted the story of their success. “When Ernestine and I got married we agreed that I would make all of the big decisions and she would make the little ones. It wasn’t long before we had to make a decision and it dawned on us that someone had to decide whether something was a little or a big decision. We talked about it and Ernestine said ‘That’s easy. Those are little decisions; I’ll make them.’ You know we haven’t had a big decision yet and we haven’t any problems.”

I don’t know exactly how they made their decisions. I know we had a lot of family conferences to talk about the big decisions. They asked for our input about cars and farm projects and other big items. But they then talked alone and made the decision. I am thankful they involved us and seemed to want to know what we thought. I am also thankful they never seemed divided once the decision was made.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 10, 2010

Sunday, May 9, 2010

I am Thankful for Cheryl’s Sermon Today

Cheryl preached today. Her topic was God’s judgment. Her texts were Psalm 51 and Romans 2. She challenged our modern perceptions of God which suggest He will not judge. She surveyed the texts as revealing other obstacles to our recognition of God’s judgment: preference to judge others and deny our own transgressions, etc. Finally, she spoke of her own recent experience with God’s convicting confrontation. [I would be happy to email an mp3 copy to anyone who wants it.]

It was a very good sermon and I am thankful for it in its own merit, but I am most thankful because the teenage girls in our church were impacted in multiple ways. They told me this evening how it spoke to their lives. It was clear they were also impacted by her delivery and her presence as a female preacher. One of them suggested, “She should be President.” [My response was, “I would vote for her to be General Overseer of the Church of God but not for President. I like her theology, but not her politics.”]

When I think about these sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds I am encouraged. They love God and they are not afraid to talk of that love. I can see the challenges that are before them and I have confidence they will be more than over comers. I have that confidence in part because they have Cheryl and other women in our church as models for overcoming faith.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 9, 2010

Saturday, May 8, 2010

I am Thankful for a Safe Trip Home

Cheryl came home from Sweden with the symptoms of mono. Her doctor did blood work and said she had some other viral infection. I caught whatever it is from her. The symptoms are a recurring sore throat, muscle aches, sore glands, headaches and fatigue. All of these come and go. Most of the time I feel quite well, but when the fatigue hits I struggle to stay awake.

This morning I awoke with allergies gone wild (send $19.95 for the video) and with the symptoms of the virus. By the time the AMERC Board meeting ended at noon I was exhausted. Traffic was horrible and I was sleepy until I took a nap at a rest area. That’s a first for me. OK, the second time I have taken a nap at a rest stop. The first time I was driving a U-haul from Minot, North Dakota to Cleveland. I had driven about 45 hours straight when I took that nap.

I am thankful for God’s constant watch care and a safe arrival home.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 8, 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010

I am Thankful for AMERC

I am in Louisville, Kentucky for the Board of Directors meeting for the Appalachian Educational Resources Center (AMERC). Our offices are in Berea, Kentucky which is where we usually meet, but this time we moved to Louisville for the convenience and expense of members who must fly. I have been on the Board for the past twelve years, having previously served for a couple of years in the mid 1990’s.

AMERC exists primarily to help prepare persons for ministry in Appalachia. Principally we do this by providing grants to seminaries to offer courses that introduce students to the region through “immersion” experiences, typically travel seminars. We have had hundreds if not thousands of students from every conceivable denomination take these courses.

I am thankful for the ecumenical character of AMERC. The courses are offered at seminaries from differing denominations and are open to students from any of our member schools. Students are introduced in non-judgmental ways to the churches and peoples of the region.

AMERC courses may focus on a specific topic or issue (healthcare, environment, etc.), but are always holistic, placing the issue in social, economic, ecological context. Ministry is about more than professional activities; it is about people and the influences on their lives.

My pleasure in serving on the Board revolves around the friendships I have made. I especially mention four friends. The late Mary Lee Daugherty (a Presbyterian Minister and grand-daughter of a snake-handling Pentecostal minister) was the founder. Ben Poage was the Executive Director for several years and Lon Oliver is our current Executive Director. I am now one of the senior Board members and I serve as Vice-chairman of the Board. Lee Carroll of Columbia Theological Seminary is longest serving member; he is a true Christian gentleman and insightful leader. Bill Leonard who is Dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forrest University is another long term member; he was a professor of mine at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who has taught extensively on Appalachia.

There are Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Disciples, Presbyterians, and Catholics. I have enjoyed working with each of them. We share a love for Christ, a compassion for people and creation, and a burden for this abused and neglected region. It has been a true gift from God to work in this ministry.

Louisville, Kentucky
May 7, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I am Thankful for the Wilderness

When I was young I would go fishing with my grandfather in the “river swamp.” This was an area of creeks, small lakes, Cyprus trees, dangling moss, palmetto bushes and muck. I loved it and I feared it. In the midst of the vegetation lurked alligators, rattlesnakes, moccasins, and huge spiders. With ever step through the thick vegetation I scanned the ground for the gators and snakes. In all the years of trekking through the swamp I saw one alligator and three or four snakes. While looking for them I must have walked dozens upon dozens of times right into huge spider webs with non-venomous, hand-sized, rainbow colored spiders staring me right in the face. I learned to hate those spiders.

During World War I my grandfather served the war effort by harvesting Cyprus railroad crossties in the Okefenokee Swamp. The process required building a railroad into the swamp. A train carrying the workers would back into the swamp each day loaded landfill and steel rails to extend the track deeper into the swamp. It would exit at the end of the day loaded down with crossties.

When my grandfather told me this story I asked if he was ever afraid of getting lost in the big swamp. He quickly replied, “no.” I asked how he could not be afraid and he responded, “I never let the train get out of my sight.”

Journeys through wild lands are frightening. There are dangers there, and fear of those dangers can paralyze us. Spiritual and emotional wildernesses are also lonely. To be there is to be alone. The temptation is to find a “safe place” and linger until help arrives; that is what we a taught to do. But God has other plans for leading us into those lonely, desperate places. He is not content with our mere survival.

The wilderness is a place where we can learn to live life to the fullest. Yes, there are dangers requiring vigilance, but there is also an abundance of the nutrients of life, everything we need to abound. More importantly the wilderness is the best place to look inward for the grace of God already imparted, to discover our abilities and strengths. And most importantly the wilderness is the place where God reveals Himself as our provider and protector, if we let him. Abundant life in the wilderness requires vigilance and trust. Know the signs of the enemy, learn your strengths, and never take your eyes off of the Savior.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 6, 2010

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I am Thankful for my Riding Lawn Mower

When we moved to our house thirteen years ago my biggest challenge was mowing the grass. I owned a Murray riding mower with a thirty-six inch deck. When all went well I could mow the yard in three to four hours and complete the trimming in another two. The mower was already well used and worn. During the second spring I threw a rod in the engine and had to replace the entire motor. During the third summer the deck had hit so many hidden stumps I had to begin a series of welded reinforcements. The next year the axel casing disintegrated beyond my abilities to repair.

I was a little over extended, so we agreed to hire someone to mow for a couple of years. Five years ago I proposed that we purchase a tractor with a finishing mower for the yard and I could also use it with some farm implements. The money we had been paying for lawn care would off-set much of the cost of tractor payments. It was part of a grand scheme that worked, justification = yard, purpose = farm. But the tractor was just too cumbersome to maneuver and didn’t save much time. Three years ago I purchased our current mower, a zero turn model with a sixty inch deck. It is a dream to operate once you get use to it (there’s another story here). Our mowing time has been cut in half. And Cheryl enjoys mowing.

Whenever I mow the grass I almost always think about my Dad. In my childhood one of my chores was to mow the yard. Dad gave me the assignment when the handlebars on the push mower were chest high on my boney frame. It took all my energy to keep the noisy machine moving forward. Twice I ran over wires that became projectiles. One was about an inch long and shot upward into my left knee where it settled about ¾ of an inch deep. The second was about one and one half inches of a coat hanger that went through my right foot from left to right and stopped just short of breaking through the skin.

Sometime after the second trip to the emergency room I got the bright idea that a riding lawnmower would solve all of my problems. Keep in mind this was in the mid 1960’s. I knew there wasn’t a chance in a universe governed by gravity, inertia, and my father’s work ethic that he would buy me a riding lawnmower, but miracles do happen.

I built up the courage and made the request. Dad’s response was typically Dad. “Son, I ride up and down the road and see these men in their tee-shirts and colored underwear running, you’ve seen them. I think they call it jogging. I suspect most of those men are doctors and lawyers who have big houses and big yards. And I bet you every one of them pays someone else to mow their grass. The way I figure it they would be better off putting on some clothes and getting their exercise pushing a mower in their own yards.”

That was the last time I made that request. Surrender all hope of ease everyone who enters that universe governed by my Dad’s work ethic and his home-spun wisdom.

P.S. Did I mention that the first thing Dad bought when he retired and moved to the farm was a riding lawn mower for his yard?

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 5, 2010

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I am Thankful for Fall Creek Falls

I am currently on a faculty retreat at Fall Creek Falls State Park. I first visited Fall Creek Falls over twenty years ago. It is a beautiful park. The falls are beautiful and the lake is serene. In recent years we have had several faculty retreats here. The inn is comfortable but not lavish. The food is high calorie, southern style buffet. When you come save room for the banana pudding; it is the best I have had in a restaurant. There are some nice hiking trails and horseback riding is available. But the best thing about the park is that it is quiet. Cell phones don’t work here. This is a place to do nothing.

It is a good place for a retreat. With all of the beauty of God’s creation sculpted in all directions, we spend most of our time in windowless rooms working. I have always wondered why we call these endeavors retreats. “Retreat” seems to imply rest and relaxation. We work. To be fair, in recent years our Dean has worked into the schedule a few hours of down time; he’s an avid golfer.

This morning I had an epiphany. “Retreat” is the appropriate name for these forced work camps. In times of war armies retreat in an effort to avoid defeat and surrender. A retreat is in essence an admission of failure and surrender to circumstances in an effort to buy time, avoid disaster, and strategize for survival. Armies retreat in an effort to appear prudent in the face of certain destruction. In other words, retreats are punishment for making the generals look bad. Anytime an army fails to make its generals look successful it deserves the shame of retreat.

I surrender. I will do better next semester. I promise. Sir, yes sir!

Can you tell I’m here without Cheryl?

Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee
May 4, 2010

Monday, May 3, 2010

I am Thankful for a Mother’s Love (of Fishing)

Given a few seconds to think about it and my mother would jump in front of a train to save one of her children, any child for that matter. But there is a limit to even a saint’s ability to overcome deep seated fears. Mom had two such fears, roaches and snakes. Of the former she might say, “I know the Bible says God made everything, but I don’t believe He made a roach; Those things were hatched in Hell.” When she saw one in our house she could not and would not sleep until she killed it. I’m talking about north Florida, the Garden of Eden for roaches: pine needles, moisture, heat and humidity.

She kept bottles of “Black Flag” in every room, or so it seemed. When a roach was spotted she would go to no end to flush it out of its hiding place so she could drown it in poison and the squish it for good measure. Many a night we were stirred from slumber by the sound of her high pitched squeal. We would come running as if called to the Battle of Armageddon. Wherever she last saw the demonic bug became the front lines of offence. Remove the covers from the bed, no problem. Remove the mattress and box springs, just a minor challenge. Empty the dresser drawer of each item, one at a time, inspecting each for shadowy figures, we can do that. All the while we hoped and prayed for a sighting. Just one roach was all we needed, any roach would do just as long as Mom could be convinced it was the one she had spotted. More than once we moved every piece of furniture in her room, emptied ever drawer, and removed every item in the closest while creating the Mount of Everest in the middle of the room. Those pesky little creatures sure know how to hide. Once the dirty deed was done we could drift off to sleep listening to mother singing “Victory in Jesus” as she cleared a place to lie down on her bed.

I have never doubted my mother’s love for me except for that one Saturday afternoon at our favorite fishing hole at “Dead River” on the Little Satilla River. “Dead River” was a little half-moon lake formed when a flood cut a more direct channel in the river leaving the lake attached on both ends. Our favorite spot was the gator hole, a deep, black pool that opened to the little lake. It was a great spot for catfish and perch. You could always catch a mess there.

On this particular day Shirley and Darlene were less than sympathetic with our passion for bobbing corks. They stood behind us on the bank, arms folded in defiance. When Mom and I approached the black waters I noticed a moccasin sunning itself on the opposite side of the pond at least twenty feet from us. I gave it little thought. “If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.” On our side Mom and I stood on a large log lying half way down the bank, a perfect platform about two feet above the water and eighteen to twenty inches below the bank.

We were not catching any fish. I noticed the snake move away from the water’s edge and hoped the fish would return. I got a nibble and was closely watching my cork when I heard a strange sound over my shoulder, “snay, snay, snay.” I glanced at the source and saw Shirley franticly pointing toward my feet. Darlene was silently pointing and bouncing. I looked down to my right and saw the fanged descendent of Lucifer less than a foot from my foot; in the same instant both girls screamed, “SNAKE!, Moma, there’s a snake!”

I one smooth move I twirled and jumped up the bank toward safety. Not knowing where the scaly beast was, Mom grabbed my shirt tail to pull herself up the bank. She went up and I came down. I knew where the snake was. I grabbed her arm and pulled myself up and she came back down. Up, down, up, down, up, down. Each of us was clinging to the other in hopes of salvation. Each of us succeeded in pulling the other down on top of the confused serpent.

We finally made it to safety and watched the reptile slither down into the water. I know he must have told this story to his children and his children’s children. “Kids, did I ever tell you about the time I had fun with a couple of humans?”

Whenever the story came up in our family, Mom never let me forget I didn’t try to save my own mother from a poisonous snake. I never failed to question her so called motherly instincts. Neither Shirley or Darlene ever developed a love for fishing (at least as far as I know), but sure do enjoy reliving that day.

Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee
May 2, 2010

Saturday, May 1, 2010

I am Thankful for Rain

I have always enjoyed rain. I like everything from drizzle to thunder storms. I find rain comforting. In 1964 Hurricane Dora went through Jacksonville with 110 mph winds; I spent as much time as I could on our enclosed front porch/Florida room where I had a 270 degree view. The rains blew horizontal and the huge pine trees in our yard swayed like saplings. I watched as one reached the point of no return and gently laid itself down.

Perhaps my love of rain began when as a toddler my mother gathered Shirley and me close during thunderstorms like a hen protecting her chicks. Add to that those glorious afternoon summer showers when she would let us run and play in the refreshing drops from heaven. I suspect I have prayed for rain more than a sub-Saharan witch doctor. Only a thunderstorm could ensure a lengthy respite from a scorching day in the fields. There is no way to describe the shear delight of sitting under the tin roof of my grand-parents front porch, sharing in happy conversation as sheets of rain fall, thunder claps, and the cool wind blows.

Rain is the nectar of the heavens. It is God’s method of distribution for life’s most essential nutrient. Lifted, shaped, and dispersed by the spirit brooding over the earth, rain is always accompanied by the life-sustaining Spirit of God. And like the Spirit it is a force not only to renew but also to destroy. The Spirit that creates judges; the rains that renew and cleanse devour. Yet, judgment is always toward redemption. Rain is always a promise of hope.

Cleveland, Tennessee
May 1, 2010