Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I am Thankful for a Visit with Karisa and Johnmark

Yesterday was Karisa and Johnmark’s third wedding anniversary. Today is Cheryl’s fifty-seventh birthday. I am not certain which is the hardest to grasp; my baby has been married three years or my bride is well into her fifth decade. I am certain the joys of life are cumulative and integrated. It is impossible to think of one of the people I love without thinking of the others. The joy of anniversaries taps into the joy of births and birthdays, past and future.

There are those moments when we are overcome with the sheer pleasure of being alive. A glorious sunrise or sunset triggers a sense of wholeness and union with God and the universe. A sudden insight taps into the carefree inner child. But the overwhelming majority of the joys of life are the joys of shared experiences, the joys of knowing others in the joys of their lives. I am blessed and thankful to be a witness/participant in the pleasures of others whom I love. Those joys are even sweeter on the palate of life mingled with shared victories over trials and tribulations. I am thankful for anniversaries and birthdays, hopes, dreams, and memories.  Who knows what  the next year will bring?

Wheaton, Illinois
June 30, 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

I am Thankful for My Blueberries

It is blueberry time at the Johns’ household. Shortly after we moved to our current house my father gave me six or eight off-shoots of his blueberry bushes. There are two varieties. (“Son, you need two different kinds for them to bear good.” That may be an old farmer’s myth, but who can argue with success?) One is an old fashioned variety common to southern Georgia. It originated at my Grandpa O’Quinn’s home place. The berries are small, very dark when ripe, sweet and flavorful. The other is a more commercial variety. The berries are larger and more blue. Their flavor varies greatly from branch to branch and they can be tart or sweet. The more they are allowed to ripen on the bush the better.

Cheryl made several batches of blueberry jam yesterday and today. I have put several quarts in the freezer for cobblers throughout the year. We just love blueberries. As long as we can we keep a bowl of fresh berries in the kitchen to munch on throughout the day. (Can you say "antioxidants?"  How about "Roughage?" )  Sometimes we enjoy them with whipped cream. I make a delicious fresh syrup for our Saturday morning pancakes.

My bushes are now ten to twelve feet tall; that’s a bit of a problem. It’s a grievous thing to leave clusters of plump berries hanging way up there in mid-air. But even with a ladder they are out of reach.  The bushes are also about six to eight feet in diameter, just thick enough you can’t reach the ones in the middle. Those are the best ones; I know because you can hear them taunting you. “Nah, Nah, Neh, Nah, Nah. We’re here. We’re sweet, but you will never eat …us. Come on in sucker. You’ll break all the branches on your way in.” Did I mention you can get sun stroke picking blueberries?

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 28, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010

I am Thankful for Happy News

My life centers around people. I love being a pastor, walking with people through the ins and outs of life. I enjoy teaching at a seminary, at least the aspects of instruction and guidance. In short, my life is full of people, ideas and challenges. It’s great, but overwhelming at times. Consequently, I hesitate when new communication is thrust upon me; the mail, or a phone call, or email are likely to bring more responsibilities, one more ball to juggle.

I cherish my privacy. I like being alone. I retreat into manual labor. In this I find renewal, strength for the next challenge.

From time to time the electronic interruption of life brings happy news: a prayer has been answered, a baby has been born, a dream assignment has been offered. This week a dear friend and former student called to tell us he and his wife are expecting their first child. Good news makes the soul happy.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 27, 2010

Saturday, June 26, 2010

I am Thankful for Friendship

Earlier this year I preached a sermon based on Jonathan and David and their friendship (I Samuel 18:1 ff.). One of my points was that we live in an age that is hostile to friendship. In particular, there is constant pressure to view others as objects for personal gratification. Humanity is over sexualized. It is as if we wear a lens that first sees people as sexual objects. This makes it difficult to have any physical contact that is not viewed as sexual in nature. Personal presence has degenerated into sexual opportunity.

This objectification of others results in fearful isolation which forces us to build emotional, psychological, and spatial walls around ourselves. While it has been common in many parts of the world for women to walk together holding each other’s hands with no hint of homosexuality and the same for men, in the west we have so sexualized our existence that it is inconceivable to have extended physical contact that is not sexual in nature.

One consequence is that we crave friendship while barricading ourselves from the possibility. I am not suggesting that you must have extended physical contact (hand-holding) to establish and maintain true friendship. I am merely suggesting our culture’s over emphasis on sex is an obstacle to our getting close to people. In spite of what we see on television, friendship is hard to attain.

As a pastor I have additional obstacles to friendship. Friendship is all about intimacy, sharing hopes, dreams, and fears. It requires mutual respect and vulnerability. Ministry is saturated with shared hopes, dreams and concerns. Mutual respect is an essential aspect of Christian service. But vulnerability is a luxury for those responsible for the care of souls. To be vulnerable is to expose one’s weaknesses. Ministers have plenty of those but revealing them is a two-edged sword. One danger is that of becoming a stumbling block for those you are charged to disciple. New converts and others can be discouraged if their spiritual leaders are struggling with issues regardless of the nature of the struggle. Self revelation must be done with great care and for the pastor it must always be aimed toward the spiritual wellbeing of others.

The second danger is that ministers are held to a higher standard than most people and a confession of weakness might lead to a loss of ministry. Just the suspicion of impropriety can destroy a minister. And the confession of a struggle is often viewed as a confession of a failure. “Where there is smoke there is fire.”

If vulnerability is an essential ingredient for friendship, ministers are socially and psychologically handicapped.

On the other hand, I would argue that friendship is essential to discipleship. If we are going to disciple others we must become their friend, therefore we must be vulnerable. I seek to model vulnerability. I am open with the fact that I often struggle to actualize my faith. I readily admit that I sometimes have deep, unanswered questions. I have publicly confessed to extended dark nights of the soul. I hurt and I have not always handled that hurt well. In short, I want my church family to know that I have not arrived; I am tempted, tested and tried; I know what it is like to be in their shoes. By grace I have not fallen into besetting sins. I have no secret transgressions. But, I have struggled. I also want my church family to know I am pressing forward. I am by faith an overcomer. And, I am their friend.

The results are that I have a host of friends. There are dozens of people I could call on for help if I needed it. I am truly blessed with wonderful friends and I am thankful.

P.S. - I have one friend who knows everything and she chooses to still love me.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 26, 2010

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I am Thankful for the Hope of Renewal

The General Assembly of the Church of God is rapidly approaching. Several items of significance are on the agenda. I am hopeful we will finally free women to serve in any office to which they might be called. I am slightly anxious about the restructuring of the ministries of the general church that will be reported. I oppose the proposal that we move from convening the Assembly every two years to every four years, but I am not losing sleep over it. These are significant items that will affect the mission of the church. Our current leaders are challenging us to think missionally about all of these decisions; that is refreshing.

The business of the General Assembly has not always been focused on mission. Many times I have attended the business sessions and grieved over our debates about tertiary items. I was especially disillusioned at a session in the late eighties or early nineties. I recall sitting on one side of the great room and moaning my complaint to God, “Is there any hope for the Church of God? Father, have we gone too far down the path of institutional blight to be renewed?”

To my surprise, God responded with a question, “Do you see that man wearing the yellow shirt?”

I looked across the arena and focused on the one man wearing a bright yellow “missionary” shirt, sitting in a sea of dark suits. He was too far away for me to recognize, but that was apparently irrelevant. “Yes, I see him.”

“Do you think I can revive him?” God continued His query.

“Yes, Lord; I believe you can,” I replied with naivetĂ©.

“Do you believe I could revive every one of those men sitting in that section with him?”

“Yes Lord, I know you can.”

“What about that whole side of the room?”

“Okay, Lord. I get it; If you can breathe life into dry bones you can breathe life into all of us, into the entire Church of God.”

I am a Wesleyan Pentecostal. Therefore I am an Armenian; I believe free will is God’s design and gift to humanity. God has acted and is acting for our redemption and deliverance. He will not force His grace on us. He waits for us to repent, believe, and act. Whosoever-will can turn and be saved. Whosoever-will can be revived. But sometimes I function more like one waiting on the providence of God than one rushing full speed into His promises.

Perhaps the greatest insult Cheryl ever hurled into my spirit had to do with this passivism. Our discussion about my refusal to “get ahead of God” was rather intense. She blurted out with passion, “You’re not waiting on God; you’re just a closet Calvinist.” Oooh, that hurt. I guess I was predestined to face my functioning limited atonement that day.

I wish I could say my doubt about the future of the Church of God vanished at that Assembly never to rise again. But that would be a “word of faith” denial of the truth. I often grieve about lost opportunities and forsaken landmarks. I have wondered out loud if we were not the Titanic soon to vanish in the dark waters of post-modernity. I have great respect for our current leaders, but I wonder if it is not too late.

It is too late. Great leaders cannot save us. Streamlined organization and more effective programming cannot deliver us from ourselves and our times. Not yet dead, but neither fully alive we lack the needed drive for revival, and that may be our salvation. We cannot save ourselves, but then again, we never could.

Our hope is that we do not belong to ourselves. We belong to Christ who gave Himself for us. We are His to do with as He pleases. And He has made it plain that He pleases to sanctify and empower His church. He will clothe us in righteousness and glorify us in His glory.

I have great hope in the renewal of the church. God can and God will if we but choose to give ourselves fully unto Him. I sense a great wind beginning to blow and it will not cease until the chaff is gone and the dross is removed and the parched is flooded. This move is not dependent on me or you, but neither will it be without us. From God and unto God be all glory and honor and power.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 24, 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I am Thankful for Camp Meeting

We went to camp meeting tonight. It was a wonderful service. The closest thing to an old fashion Church of God Camp Meeting I’ve been to in many years, only it was air conditioned and we had padded pews. The music was very good but not showy (much). The sermon was outstanding, all three of them (one sermon, many parts). It truly was a blessing for me to be there, a hopeful experience.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 22, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010

I am Thankful for the Church of God

My Grandmother’s testimony was that she was “saved, sanctified, filled with the Holy Ghost and a member of the great Church of God.” Her conversion was around 1928 when she was thirty years old or thereabouts. She raised her daughters in the church and her sons at the church, that is, the boys weren’t forced to go inside. They got to get into mischief on the outside.

My mother didn’t give her heart to the Lord until after she got married. Her first salvation experience was when Jimmy was a baby. Without my Dad’s support she found it hard to remain faithful. The second time she got saved was when I was about six months old. That time she was determined and she got plugged into the Springfield Church of God in Jacksonville, Florida where she was nurtured, mentored, and discipled in a caring community. That’s the church where I was baptized at six years of age and later joined the Church of God.

Joining the Church was a major event back then. Whenever the pastor received members into the church he would call them down in front of the congregation. Then he would read the Teachings of the Church of God for all to hear. The list included doctrines such as justification by faith, regeneration, sanctification, and the Baptism in the Holy Ghost. Then there were behavioral prohibitions such as against members wearing jewelry for decoration or ornamentation, against alcohol, and against the use of tobacco. Some of the teachings were quite ambiguous, i.e., New Testament use of meats and drinks. The form of the teachings was short pithy statements using King James words and phrases followed by Scripture references where the bases of the teachings could be found. The ceremony included a covenant to abide by the teachings and support the church.

In short, the Church of God was a holiness church and it had a certain, if not totally clear, set of standards for its members to live by. Everybody knew what the Church of God stood for.  My Dad who had only set foot inside the church a few times in his life knew what it expected of its members. That became crystal clear to me the day my brother joined the church.

I was maybe five or six years old making Jimmy ten or eleven. When we drove up to our house after that morning service, my Dad’s car was there. Mom’s last words to Jimmy before the car came to a stop were, “Jimmy, you’re going to have to tell your Dad you joined the church today.” I could see the anxiety settle on his face. He got out of the car, threw his young shoulders back and strode into the house, down the hall, and into Mom and Dad’s bedroom where Dad was lying, reading the paper. I was right on his heels. I wasn’t certain what was happening but I knew it was big and exciting.

Jimmy walked right up to the foot of the bed and grabbed the foot railing. His courage dipped and his voice wavered just a bit as he blurted out, “Dad, I need to tell you something. I joined the church today.”

Dad’s response burned into my heart and created a sense of sacredness to the event that abides deep within me. “Son, all I’ve got to say is, you joined it, you live it.” “Yes, sir.” It would be a few years before I would take the step of membership, but when I did it was Dad’s words to Jimmy I heard echoing in my ears. When I made that covenant I meant it with all my heart. I joined the Church of God and I vowed to love it, for better or for worse, and for me that was a life-long commitment.

I was still a kid when I made those vows. I surely had no idea what would be involved beyond doing what I had already been doing my whole life. As I grew and became a serious student of the Bible I had to evaluate my youthful pledge in light of expanding knowledge. In my late teens I wrestled with whether the Church of God was where God wanted me. In Alabama there was a lot of eccentricity in the church. I prayed and felt God ask me a question, “who do you trust to walk with you into my Kingdom?” I knew many of the people I worshipped with were not the most mature or intelligent, but I also knew they loved God and me (mostly) and I knew they were on their way to heaven. There was no doubt in my mind who I trusted as traveling companions to help me into the presence of God. Driving in my little red Ford Pinto on a Monday morning in Birmingham, Alabama I renewed my vows before God and made this commitment, “Father I’ll be a faithful member of the Church of God until you make it plain you want me to go somewhere else.”

Be careful what you promise God. There have been a few times I would have otherwise found it easy to graze in greener pastures. After I transferred to Lee College and got caught up in the denominational gossip on the campus, I became disillusioned. I took my complaint to God and He spoke very specifically, “The Church of God isn’t Ray Hughes. It’s Aunt Jennie Williams.” I knew he wasn’t saying anything to me about Ray Hughes the person; He was referring to Ray Hughes the General Overseer and all of the politics that swirled around him. Aunt Jennie was the Godly Sister of the Church who mentored my mother and helped her get grounded in the faith. The Church of God is all those saints who love God with all their heart and have covenanted to be God’s church, not the organizational system with offices at Keith and 25th Streets.

Dr. Mike Chapman, a long-time friend and prominent Church of God pastor, has recently stated that the three distinctives of our church are (1) anointed preaching, (2) dynamic singing, and (3) heartfelt fellowship. (The adjectives are mine.) Those are three things I have cherished about my heritage in the Church. There are others.

I first began attending the General Assembly in the 1970’s. It was a rancorous time of arguments about the behavioral (or “practical”) teachings of the church. After a very heated vote, Dr. Charles W. Conn was granted the opportunity to make a “Privileged Statement” to the body (An inappropriate use of the Parliamentary procedure). He spoke of a conversation with Dr. Walter Hollenweger, the first and foremost scholar on Pentecostalism. Hollenweger had interviewed Conn for his doctoral dissertation. During the interview Conn reversed the roles and asked the European scholar what he considered to be the distinctive trait of the Church of God. Conn stated his surprise at the response, “You are like family; you fight like family and you makeup like family.” The speech was a healing balm; grown men wept and hugged their opponent’s necks. It was a glorious moment in our history and I was there.  We are more than an association of like-minded individuals; we are family!

Our doctrines, our commitments to live by the Scriptures, our passion for the lost and the hurting, and our experiences with the Holy Spirit resonating those of the first century believers, these are part of our DNA. It is the gestalt of it all that defines the Church of God. And at the heart of this living system is a passion to be the Church of God, a faith claim that people can by grace covenant together and give tangible expression to what it means to be the body of Christ. Whatever the Bible says it means to be the church, we can be it, if we desire, and believe, and dedicate ourselves to that end. Without that passion to be together God’s people, we cease to be a movement worthy of the name “Church of God.”  It wasn't aragance or pride that led them to make the claim they were the church of God.  It was not a claim of exclusive ownership of the title (at least not for most).  It was a statement of faithful obedience, of surrender to God's call for a covenant people.

I am thankful for all the saints who gave birth to and nurtured this vision. I pray we find the grace to fan into flame that passion once again.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 21, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

I am Thankful for my Father

I have written a lot about my father, but on this Father’s Day I want to go on record saying he was the best man I have ever known. He was strong and honest, firm but gentle, exacting but patient. His failure was that his son did not grow up to be a better father than he was. He once said to me, “Son, if a man’s children don’t grow up to be better than he is then he has failed as a father. He has everything he learned growing up and everything he learned from his own mistakes to teach his kids so they can be better than him.”

I’m not certain it works that way, but I have tried to live up to the high standard he set. Every time I put on my work jeans I wear his belt and when I buckle it I wonder how well I’m doing building on his foundation. It’s a high bar to reach for, but a joy to try.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 20, 2010

Saturday, June 19, 2010

I am Thankful for Alethea, Camdyn, & Charlie’s Visit

It is always great to have Alethea, Camdyn and Charlie visit. They fill our lives with joy and excitement. Grandchildren create memories and they tap into memories of parenting their parents. It’s a win-win situation if you have the energy to keep up. 

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 19, 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

I am Thankful - A Summary

I have been writing this series on being thankful for almost six months. I have discovered a few things about myself and thankfulness. First, being thankful is easier than being creative. Second, being thankful is sometimes spontaneous and sometimes hard work. Third, expressing thankfulness is a window to one’s soul. Some of the things I am most thankful for are too personal to share. All of the things I share expose my inner self. Fourth (a corollary to the previous), expressing thanks is an exercise in humility. This may seem obvious, but this public discipline has made me aware that the more deep my thankfulness the more conscious I am of my weakness. True thankfulness often is an acknowledgement of our own insufficiency. Fifth, thankfulness may be married to the whole spectrum of emotions: joy, grief, fear, hope. Sixth, expressed thankfulness is sometimes a diversion from deeper, more self-disclosing, thankfulness. Seventh, thankfulness is sometimes more difficult to express than to feel. Expressed thankfulness is a statement about the person/object of thankfulness. It is an effort to honor and therefore requires careful wording lest the other person be dishonored. Ungracious grace can disgrace.

I am uncertain where this series is taking me. When I began, one of my objectives was to develop my writing skills and discipline. I have recently begun working on some other writing projects. I have enjoyed this series and plan to finish it but probably with shorter more direct statements. Then again I might get inspired from time to time. Besides, I have never been accused of brevity.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 18, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I am Thankful for Children and Simple Pleasures

It is wonderful to watch your grandchildren play. We have a basement full of toys but they both prefer to be outside. They are mesmerized by the simple things of life, horses, cows, chickens, and butterflies. One of their favorite things to do is to play in the top of the barn. It’s a giant play house for them. There are a couple of problems, wasps and access. Wasps make nests all over and have to be cleared out. There are no stairs to the upper level, just a wall ladder in one of the stalls. The consequence is they don’t get up there often.

Today we took them to the Blue Hole on the Ocoee River. They were so happy swimming and jumping off the rocks. Cheryl and Alethea were most directly engaged with them. Since it was a river with some currents and a lot of slippery rocks I tried to keep an eye on them. The longer we were there the more relaxed I got. The kids were like ducks. This allowed me to look at them, to see the pure joy on their faces. And Camdyn and Charlie were just as happy.

I have long argued that one of the greatest gifts we can give to children is a safe secure environment in which to engage in free play. As I watched a mother and grandmother swim with their progeny today I was struck with how important it is for adults to enter into that world with them. Children can lead us back into the simple pleasures of life if we will let them. We must protect them. It is good to find pleasure in their happiness. But it is something all together more wonderful to enter into their enchanted world and relish the excitement of simple pleasures with them. It is the difference between being awestruck by that which we witness, and being infused with that which enthralls.

Except we become like little children we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Perhaps children most clearly point the way to God by the manner they actively engage their environment with gusto and pleasure. I suspect that is how our Heavenly Father desires for us to encounter Him. And it just might be that we need to embrace that which excites children if we desire to be embraced by our Creator, we need to dance with the fireflies if we hope to dance with the Light of the world.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 17, 2010

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I am Thankful to be Home

There is no place like home. Home is the center of the universe. Place is important because place and people are connected. The center of the universe is that place where the people dearest to our heart are connected. They may have lived with us there or been frequent quests or even been present only in our hearts, but they belong with us in that place.

We have shared life in all of its textures in this place and we call it “home.” Most of us are blessed to have two homes, the home of our parents and the home of our adult life. As long as my father lived I drew comfort in knowing I could go home. I was always welcome; I always belonged. Home is so much more than a house; it is a place of memory and hope, responsibility and privilege, and despair and tranquility. There is no place like home.

I have a third home where everything and evereybody I most cherish connect.  I have never been there but I know I belong.  I know this because having never been there, I am there.  My redeener lives and He is enthroned there.  He is with me here and I am with Him there.  I have not gazed upon its skyline or polished its golden streets or heard its angelic choirs, but I am, in Christ, already there.  By grace I belong.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 16, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I am Thankful to be Headed Home

New York is a great place to visit, but there’s no place like home.

Haymarket, VA
June 15, 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Vacation in New York

Cheryl and I travel a lot, she more than I. Our travels are always work related. But we have been blessed to make many trips together. However, we have never spent much time relaxing or touring -- fly in, fly out. A few years ago we promised ourselves we were going to add some time to each trip just for the purpose of seeing the sights. Other than the Society for Pentecostal Studies conference in Oregon in 2009, we have not kept that promise. If you don’t count or honeymoon or a three-day cruise to celebrate our twentieth anniversary, this is the first time in 35 and ½ years of marriage we have gone to a city to see the sights.

We use to joke about writing a series of travel guides with titles like “The Hurried Traveler: Volume One, Venice in a Morning,” or “The Hurried Traveler: Volume Two, London in a Day.” We’ve been there and done that. On our first trip to Italy together we spent two hours in Verona where we saw the supposed house of Romeo and Juliet fame and we toured an ancient coliseum where Christians were martyred. We also had lunch while there. On that trip we squeezed out four hours to see Venice. If you map your visit carefully and walk rapidly, you can see a lot in four hours. Plan your trip around Saint Mark’s Square with the Campanile (tower), easily the most recognized scene in Venice. Take the time to tour the Basilica; you will find yourself planning a return trip just to gaze at the artistry. On a side note, if you go in the summer you will sweat a lot and dehydrate rapidly. If you order a Coke, you must request ice. This is Europe after all and if you request “extra ice” that is exactly what you will get, a second, small cube. Be sure to take a credit card with a large line of credit; you will need it for the coke.

“London in a Day” is not for the faint of heart or weak of frame. Again you must plan the trip carefully. We spent the nights before and after in a Bed and Breakfast close to the train line and near the air port. We were able to tour the Tower of London where we saw the crown jewels. We went by Westminster Abbey but were unable to go in because a wedding was taking place there. We went into the crypt of another old Cathedral where we did a wax rubbing of a very old tomb stone. [Because we were rushing to make a connection it was not well done. Our dear friend Larry McQueen found the exact same one a few years later, did an excellent rubbing and had it framed for us. Thanks, Larry.]

Our rush on the rubbing was to get to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. That is a “must see” if you are in London. We then took time for shopping at Harrods of London. Boy is that place big and they have everything you would ever want. We bought a lot of gifts there, but the only thing I remember is a pitcher and bowl we got for my mother. Now that she and Dad are gone I cherish it. On the way back to the B&B we stopped by to see the Queen at Windsor Palace but she canceled on us at the last minute. If I recall correctly, there had been a major fire at the palace and they were not allowing tours. Thus, we were locked outside of the gate, along with a few thousand others.

Our anniversary cruise was a lot like these trips. We spent a day on Cozumel. While there we spent the morning taking scuba-diving lessons. We dove down to a WWII plane wreck thirty-five feet below the surface. WOW, that was beautiful! After lunch, we rented a car and drove around the island, and I do mean around the entire circumference of the island. On the western side where the island is open to the Gulf of Mexico, we caught the tide just right to see a most phenomenal sight. As the waves crashed into the coral shore line they vanished into the rocks and then erupted some distance from the edge, straight upward twenty to thirty feet like a geyser. If you go, don’t miss this sight.

On the driving loop we stopped for a walking tour of the Maya archeological site of San Gervasio. These ruins are fascinating and deserve a full day of exploration. Because we rushed through the tour I felt like I missed too much. On the other hand, because we stopped to see them we have the pleasant memory of running as fast as we could down the long peer to catch our ship just before it embarked.

New York has been so relaxing. In five days all we have done is (1) walk through Central Park six times, (2) spend several hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (3) visit our friends, Danny and Rachel Alvarez, on Staten Island, (4) visit our friends Lamar Vest and Debbie Davis at the American Bible Society offices, (5) see a Broadway play, (6) attend a worship service, (7) tour the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, (8) shop and (9) walk about 25 to 30 miles. Life in the slow lane isn’t bad.

New York, NY
June 14, 2010

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I am Thankful for Worship at a Presbyterian Church

Cheryl and I worshipped at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church this morning. It is the church that has hosted her for her stay here in New York. There were many things to appreciate about the service, but I missed being at New Covenant. I am more at home in Pentecostal worship. It seems appropriate however to honor our hosts by highlighting the strengths I saw in their worship.

First, Scripture was highlighted. As with most mainline and liturgical churches, there were readings from the Old Testament (I Kings 21: 1-21a, Psalm 5), the Epistles (Galatians 2: 15-21), and the Gospels (Luke 7: 36 – 8:3). It should be noted that each of the readings represented an entire periscope. That is, enough text was read to provide the full context and meaning. I was impressed with the reverence and feeling each reader brought to the various passages. They were not theatric in style but rather reverential and expressive, giving the impression the Scriptures are both sacred and accessible.

Second, sound doctrine was sung and expressed. Four hymns were sung in their entirety. Each was instructive in sound theology (at least from a Presbyterian perspective). Although there was a choir, the congregation sang these hymns and thereby expressed their faith. The liturgy also included a “Summary of the Law” or pastoral recitation of Jesus’ statement concerning the two greatest commandments; my impression is that this is a regular part of their worship. The Nicene Creed was recited (also done weekly) as was the Lord’s Prayer (“debts” reading not “transgressions”).

Third, the service was peppered with prayer. Different members of the clergy led in a variety of prayers: Confession of Sin, Prayer for Illumination (before the Scripture readings), Prayer of Dedication (tithes and offerings), Communion Prayer, Intercessions, Prayer of Consecration, The Lord’s Prayer, and Closing Prayer. The congregation also sang a few responsive refrains of prayer interspersed throughout the service.

Fourth, there was shared leadership of the service. Granted, it was dominated by the clergy and soon-to-be clergy, but there was a real sense of shared oversight (very Presbyterian of them). This was seen in a smooth flow from one pastoral staff member to another and their working together in the prayers of intercession and the Eucharistic prayers. The laity assisted with the distribution of the elements.

Finally, although the Lord ’s Table was a little too much like a Catholic Mass for me, I appreciated the reverence and breadth of the ceremony. I also appreciated that it was woven into the larger service. Some of the choral responses and the prayers of intercession were included in this portion of the service which was labeled “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.” This section actually comprised about one half of the entire service.

In sum, the Gospel was preached, Christ was honored, doctrine was emphasized, the church was instructed and edified, and the death, resurrection and return of Christ were remembered. It is good and pleasing that all God’s people gather weekly for these purposes.

New York, NY
June 13, 2010

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I am Thankful for my Feet

Have I mentioned I have flat feet? Okay, how many times have I mentioned I have flat feet? My feet are the most annoying part of my body. I’m not referring to appearances. They don’t look that ugly to me. I didn’t say they are attractive; I’ve just seen a lot worse. How vain do you have to be to think your feet are attractive? Perhaps that’s a straight male question.

My feet are so flat that when I walk on tile with wet feet you can see the full imprint of my feet. The annoying aspect of this gift is that I have to be extremely careful when I buy shoes. The slightest arch support can cripple me in a day. When I was working on my doctorate, and quite poor, I bought a pair of shoes that were on sale and looked decent. I took me thirty minutes every morning before I could walk upright and another thirty minutes before I had the courage to put on my tormenters. The wrong pair of shoes can cause me pain from the soles of my feet all the way up to my shoulder blades.

Thanks to Tarzan I have another problem with my feet. Under the preadolescent influence of Johnny Weissmuller I developed a nice tree-swing routine. I would climb up the latter to the top of the garage, jump to the pecan tree griping a limb with my hands and swinging. With perfect timing I landed on Dad’s 55 gallon drum and bounced to the tubular swing set frame and using my hands to swing retained the momentum to fly through the air and land upright ten feet away. I envisioned developing a mid-air flip and landing upright. That was never to be.

Every day I increased the distance from the tree to the drum and the drum to the swing. I moved the drum and swing too far. One day I landed on the drum but at such an angle it wobbled forward. My leap to the swing was off balance and I missed my grip. Down I went with the full force on my right foot snapping it backward. I felt something snap and it hurt like Cheetah the Chimp had just bitten down on it. But when I rolled over everything moved so I knew it was not broken. It swelled to double its normal size but with the aid of an ace bandage I was able to hobble around until it healed. But to this day I have a minor pain on the top of my ankle when I walk for any distance.

Stay with me; I am peripatetic for a purpose.

A few months later I had a major accident. I was mowing the grass and ran over a wire clothes hanger. It was my fault. I had been instructed to bury some old metal hangers under Dad’s pecan tree because a co-worker had told him iron would make a pecan tree bear better. I was a little lazy and didn’t bury them very deep; neither did I pack the ground well. When I stepped on the spot I apparently pivoted one up through the soil. I was pulling the mower at the moment and it grabbed the wire firing it out and through my foot. I wasn’t wearing shoes. And I seem so intelligent. Oh, confession is so good for the soul; I have never told anyone I didn’t bury the hangers deep enough.

The two inch long projectile entered my right foot on the inside, halfway between the ball and the place where normal people have an arch. It wove its way through the bones of my foot (according to the Emergency Room doctor who removed it) and stopped just short of exiting on the other side. It was poking the skin out creating a nipple effect. The ER doctor barely touched it with a scalpel and there it was, at least there was the first half inch. He took a regular pair of pliers and pulled it out. It felt like he was pulling all of my insides, all the way up to the roots of my hair, out through my foot. He said it was a miracle I had no broken bones or damaged nerves in the process. I have retained a scar where it entered, one that hurts when I bump it, and sometimes when I walk I have a pain in the joints of the bones on the side where it came out.

Let me complain a little more. The consequence of these two accidents is that I favor my right ankle and forefoot resulting in a subconscious act of walking with greater impact on the outside of my right heel. Apparently, I developed a pattern of countering this slight imbalance by placing greater pressure on the left front quadrant of my left foot. In short, I walk like a car out of alignment. By the time I was forty I had a major problem developing. The improper alignment of my left foot was causing the bones to squeeze the nerves that run between them into the toes. A protective callous-like tissue formed around the nerves. Unfortunately, that made the space smaller and I had debilitating pain with every step.

My podiatrist said I would eventually need to have the nerves clipped and that day would come when over the counter pain relievers were not enough. He prescribed heavy doses of vitamin B-12 and B-complex and said I might be able to put off the surgery for two or three years. That was fifteen years ago. I am a big believer in vitamin B in its various forms. I am also very careful to buy shoes that support my feet without putting them in a bind. When I go for long walks the soreness is present but never debilitating as in the past. If you have endured this pity party, you have a picture of my podiatal challenges.

Yet, I am so very thankful for my feet. I cannot run but I can walk anywhere I wish to go. I am free to travel, to see places, to meet people without the challenges of impaired mobility. These minor difficulties keep me ever conscious of how important my feet are to me. They hurt because in the carelessness of my youth I neglected them; I failed to realize how desperately I need them.

My feet are also a constant reminder of the importance of every member of a body, especially the body of Christ. Our feet may have little strength but they carry the whole load. They may have little beauty but they bear all the beauty of our lives. They may form the periphery of our existence but they balance and align the frame of our being. I suspect it is those persons whom society chooses to walk upon, the young, the old, the impaired, the ones that carry the greatest burdens of our shared existence, that offer the greatest gifts of stability and progress if we only will protect them and recognize their great worth.

For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, "Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, "Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. 1 Corinthians 12:14-27
New York, NY
June 12, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

I am Thankful for My Trip to New York

I'm exhausted (see my other blog).  I'll be thankful tomorrow.
June 11, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I am Thankful for Safe Travels

I have been blessed to travel hundreds of thousands of miles. My favorite form of transportation is the most deadly of common modes, the automobile. I have loved to drive for almost as long as I can remember. Dad would sit me in his lap and let me steer the car when we were on the back roads of southern Georgia, something he did with Shirley and Darlene as well and I would assume Jimmy before us. He would also let us shift the gears of the “three in the floor” English Ford. As soon as my feet could reach the pedals he let me actually drive. I had to sit on the edge of the seat and look through the steering wheel.

“How fast can I go, Dad?”

“As fast as you can and keep it on the road.”

Dad was a patient teacher. He would let me drive even when he was late getting back for work. “You’ve got to drive faster son, I’m late for work.”

“How fast?”

“As fast as you can. Just keep two wheels on the road and you’ll be alright.” I was ten or eleven years old.

Driving was not just a privilege for him. It was a responsibility and a metaphor for life. Driving developed hand-eye coordination, reasoning skills, and a sense of responsibility. He never put these concepts into words. He never said anything about driving, other than “Do you want to drive?” If he had to articulate his thoughts I suspect it would simply be “It’s good for him; It’ll make a man out of him.”

Dad loved to teach through these driving experiences. In spite of the surface appearance of irresponsibility in his encouragement to drive fast, he was actually concerned about safety. Driving fast was a means of learning how to control the large piece of machinery.

He would frequently ask questions about the process. Once we were on a dirt road when he asked, “What would you do son if a deer was to run out in front of you from the right side?”

“I would hit the brakes and turn the wheels hard to the left. That way I would slide so that the front moved with and away from him.”

“That sounds good, son, but the truth is you don’t know what you would do until it happens. Think while you drive and hope you do the right thing when the time comes.” I am not sure what he was trying to teach me, but I’ve never forgotten the lesson. I took it to mean ‘be cautious, be prepared.”

Once I got my learner’s permit I was the designated driver. Typically, Dad would hand me the keys and ask, “here, do you want to drive?”

“Unless you do.”

“No, I drive enough. I’d just as soon you did.”

His teaching continued. For me it became a game. Slow to offer suggestions, he seldom gave criticism or directives. He preferred to ask questions or state “If it was me I would have ….” He rode in the front passenger’s seat with his left arm up on the back of the seat. When I did something below his expectations I could see the index finger of his left hand begin to twitch up and down. He was formulating a question. I kicked my brain into high gear trying to Alex Trebek him before he got his question out of his mouth, “I should have…”

When he did offer suggestions they came out of his experience as a truck driver. “If you watch the red lights closely you can pace your speed so you don’t have to stop or even slow down. That saves gas.”

I have on occasion not followed my own rules of driving: citizenship, concentration, courtesy, caution, and common sense. [Common Sense: Never drive faster than the conditions warrant.] When I was 18 I was driving on a wet, slippery back road outside of Birmingham. A pack of dogs ran out in front of me. I hit my brakes and slid all over the road. By the time I straightened my pinto out on the road I had made an existential discovery; no dog is worth a human life, especially not mine.

A few months later I was driving up I-59 from Birmingham toward Cleveland to pick Shirley up and drive her home to Jacksonville for spring break. I was cruising along at 90 mph in my luxury Ford Pinto when a thunderstorm broke loose. I slowed down to 75 but a Lincoln Town Car followed by a Caddy zoomed past me. I caught up and we strolled to Chattanooga at 90 mph. As I drove I kept saying to myself, “Jake, you’re and idiot.” I promised myself I would never drive that fast in the rain again. I have kept that promise. [Citizenship: obey the laws.]

When Cheryl and I got married I felt a sense of responsibility. I slowed down an average of 5 mph, 90 to 85 on Interstate highways. When Alethea was born I slowed down another 5 mph. And then there was that fateful February day in 1978 in North Dakota. There had been an ice storm the previous November. In North Dakota whatever falls from heaven in November will probably still be on the ground in May. We were driving north from Butte to Minot. The roads were clear except when I went over a hill the northern side was shaded and the November ice was still there. As I topped the hill I hit a big chunk of ice that had fallen off an earlier vehicle, tapped my breaks and began a wild fishtail all over the road. Alethea was in Cheryl’s arms nursing (remember this was BCS time – Before Child Seats) and Cheryl skillfully held on to her. Alethea never stopped nursing. To that date I had never been so scared. When we got home 45 minutes later I stepped out of the car and my knees buckled. That’s how shaken I was. I slowed down another 5 mph.

I have done a few other unwise things traveling. When we moved from Minot to Cleveland in 1979 I drove the U-haul by myself. Cheryl and Alethea flew down. I drove non-stop from 10 AM Sunday morning until 2:30 Tuesday afternoon except for one thirty minute nap in a weigh station outside of Cincinnati. Okay, I admit it, this was just plain stupid, but I stopped at three or four motels along the way and they were all filled. For the thirty years since I have been pretty conscientious.

By the grace of God I have never been in a serious accident. A teenager made an illegal lane change and clipped my rear fender in Louisville (the $600 in insurance money kept us afloat for a couple of months), and I was rear-ended making a left turn in Cleveland. In spite of my youthful flirtation with speed (physics not metaphysics), I am very serious about driving. I have not gotten a ticket for a moving violation in over thirty five years. I enjoy driving but I understand the risks, both to me and others. When I am behind the wheel I am always looking out of the corner of my eye for Dad’s twitching finger.

New York, New York
June 10, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I am Thankful for Modern Communication Technology

As I write and post this piece I am riding on a comfortable bus (cramped for my frame but otherwise comfortable) traveling north from Washington DC to New York. I have had one phone conversation with Cheryl since I got on the bus. I could Skype her right now but that would annoy my fellow travelers. The point is that the people I love can travel anywhere in the world and I can talk to them at any time I choose. Or should I say anytime we choose; they do not always answer my calls, especially my favorite-youngest daughter. On the other hand, I am the one who often leaves my phone in the truck. And thanks to skype we can talk for “free.”

When Cheryl and I first married in 1974 we could not afford a phone. We went every Friday evening to a local convenience store and called our parents collect. When we did get a phone months later, Cheryl’s mother got even; she called us collect for years. Collect calls were quite expensive so we would accept the call, talk a minute, hang up and call them back direct, saving a little money. The only problem was that Thelma didn’t want to go with the plan.

In 1988 I made my first trip to India. In order to make arrangements with my host I had to call the neighborhood post office and arrange for a runner to go to my friend’s house to tell him the time I planned to call back so that he could be at the post office. Only the extremely wealthy could afford phones in their homes. When I returned in 2008 everyone appeared to be talking on a cell phone just like here in the States.

We have multiple mediums of communication available twenty four hours a day at very little if any extra cost. I find this very comforting. I am never far from the voice and face of the people I love. For this I am very thankful. I hope they are working on leg room for travelers next.

Somewhere on US 301 in Maryland (I Think)
June 9, 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Brief Thanks

I drove to Alethea's house today.  I got here just in time to attend Camdyn's soccer awards dinner.  The kids were so cute.  I am thankful for this time with Alethea, Justin, Camdyn and Charlie.  We had some fun before Camdyn and Charlie went to bed.
Tomorrow I travel to New York.
Hay Market, VA
June 8, 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

I am Thankful for a Long Day of Manual Labor

I was suppose to have traveled to Virginia today to spend the night with Alethea and her family before traveling on to New York to spend a few days with Cheryl. However, the hay I ordered wasn’t delivered on time and I had to delay my trip. I made the best use of my time.

Early in the day I replace a drive belt on my lawn mower. It was quite a job. As I have written, I love my zero turn mower but it wasn’t designed for easy repairs. Later I went out and purchased a thousand pounds of fertilizer. After changing the implements on the tractor I loaded the fertilizer and distributed it over my pasture. The hay arrived and I changed the implements back, put hay out for the cows and put the remainder in the barn. Finally, I mowed the grass. I finished my outside chores a little after nine, came in and showered.

There are few things I enjoy more than a productive day like today. I had good exercise (lifting a half ton of fertilizer in 50 pound bags was a small part of this). I explored new territories in the vast region of machinery. I solved several problems. I finished some tasks that needed to be done. Surprise of surprises, I didn’t injure myself in any way. It was a glorious day and I am thankful.

Tomorrow will be better. I will get to spend some time with Alethea, Justin, Camdyn, and Charlie.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 7, 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I am Thankful for Four Blessings

Today was a day of four special blessings. I shall enumerate them in the order they occurred. First, I awoke this morning feeling rested. The significance of this blessing is that I have battled a virus for the past month or so. Cheryl brought it home from Sweden. The symptoms are identical to mono: a recurring sore throat, sore glands and muscles, and fatigue. The symptoms may surface at any time but are most prominent after stress or physical exertion. Cheryl’s physician did blood work that indicated it is not mono, just some virus. The blessing was highlighted by the fact that I worked outside most of yesterday and I didn’t get fatigued. I am thankful.

Second, God blessed us at church this morning. I preached on the gifts of the Spirit as a sign of the resurrection or why we should strive after the gifts. The blessing was the altar service afterwards. Several prayed fervently for an extended period. God is at work. I am thankful.

Third, Cheryl arrived safely in New York from her trip to Scotland. I will go to New York this week to be with her and bring her home. [I guess I am not completely Wesleyan. Wesley’s wife abandoned him. He was encouraged to send for her and responded, “I did send her away and neither shall I recall her.”] I am thankful.

Finally, I performed a wedding at the Cumberland Mountain State Park this evening. It was a beautiful lakeside setting. I opened with “We are blessed to gather in this beautiful setting of God’s creation to solemnize a marriage. I remind us all that God is sovereign over and in all of His creation. Wherever we gather for the purpose that His will be known and done we assemble in a sanctuary of His creation.” I love performing weddings. They are for me a sign of the hope of our salvation. A man and a woman can enter into a covenant with God and each other to live together in a manner that fulfills God’s purpose for His creation. I am thankful

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 6, 2010

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I am Thankful for Air Conditioning

I’ve been working outside today. It is hot and humid. The sweat has been pouring. It is so great to come into an air conditioned house just to cool off. We didn’t have air conditioning when I was a kid, not in the car and not in the house.

On the hot, humid northern Florida nights we slept with the windows up. There was a box fan in one widow pulling cooler outside air in and through the house. During the hot afternoons we found a shade outside. When I was very young, especially if there was a baby in the house, Mom would take a quilt and make a pallet in a shade and we would take a nap. Before drifting off to sleep we would look for animals in the clouds. On other days I liked to play under the house; it was the coolest place I could find. Unfortunately, playing there always led to a bath.

In the mid-sixties Mom and Dad bought a small, one-room window air conditioner for Dad to use when he had to sleep in the hot afternoons. He just used it a few weeks and carried it to the dining room. He said he didn’t feel right staying cool while we were burning up in the front of the house. How cool is that?

As the sixties progressed air conditioning in a car transitioned from a luxury for the elite to a status symbol for the middle class. Whenever the subject arose (“Dad why don’t we have air conditioning?”), he had a stock response, “We have air conditioning. It’s Armstrong. Use your arm and roll the window down.”

I was a little surprised one hot Saturday evening. Someone suggested we stop at the 7-Eleven and get an I-Cee frozen soft drink. The first surprise was that Dad agreed. I was hopeful; after all, Darlene, the baby, was in the car and had chimed in with her approval of the idea.  But I was surprised, none-the-less.

The second surprise came when a middle aged couple parked next to us in a brand new sedan. Jimmy and Shirley were in the store getting our treats. Our windows were down. Their windows were up. He got out of their car to go into the store and left the engine running.

Dad looked across the front seat at Mom and said the most romantic thing I think I ever heard him say. “Honey, one day I’m going to buy you a car with air conditioning. And I’ll leave the engine running just so you can stay cool.” A man can’t love a woman more than that.

In 1968 he did buy her an Oldsmobile 98 with air conditioning. From time to time he kept the rest of that promise. When they retired in 1986 (87?), they built a house on the farm and for the first time in their lives they lived in a house with central heat and air conditioning.

As for me, I can live without central heat. We heated this house with our fireplace one entire winter rather than go into debt to replace the heat pump. We finally replaced the compressor the next spring when we could pay cash. Two years ago the entire unit went out in early summer. It was replaced that week and we only have eight years left to pay on it. I am thankful for air conditioning. 

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 5, 2010

Friday, June 4, 2010

I am Thankful for my Childhood Family Vacations

My parents didn’t know a lot about vacations. They were children of the Great Depression. Their parents were subsistence farmers in southern Georgia. Recreation was limited to occasional trips to the swimming hole, community cane grinding, Friday night square dances, and church. Dad was a truck driver and that provided a decent living. I would describe our socio-economic standing as bifurcated. Dad’s income placed us in the upper middle class; his occupation placed in the very low middle class. In my mind we were middle-middle class.

[When we moved to Birmingham one of Dad’s co-workers purchased a house in a nice neighborhood. He had a lawyer on one side and a doctor on the other. Shortly after moving in the lawyer asked across the hedges how he could afford to live in their neighborhood. He responded, “The same way as you. I work for a living. The only difference is my wife doesn’t have to work like yours to help me make the payments.” I don’t think he was ever invited to the block parties.]

As a Teamster, Dad also had a good benefits package with full medical and dental insurance, paid holidays, and several weeks of vacation each year (two when I was very young, three by the time I entered school, four by the time I finished elementary school and six by the time I graduated from high school). Dad wanted to use all that time working around the house and on the farm. Mom decided one week each year should be given to a family vacation. I always felt like Dad enjoyed them even if they weren’t his idea.

Let me define vacation. A vacation is a family ritual of temporary translocation consisting of (1) driving hundreds of miles cramped in an un-air-conditioned car that is over packed with six people, clothing, a large canvas tent, a Coleman camping stove, an ax (for fire wood), two ice chests full of the necessities for cooking out for a week, and miscellaneous other camping items, (2) arriving at a campground after dark so as to make the process of setting up camp a puzzle for the blind, (3) repacking everything after breakfast the next morning so you can drive to another scenic site, and (4) stopping somewhere between campgrounds to see some cheesy tourist attraction, hopefully next door to a hamburger joint. This process may be amended by spending two nights at any given site provided this wanton laziness occurs only once each vacation.

I loved these vacations. More often than not we went to the mountains, i.e., the Smoky Mountains and surrounding areas. I was in awe of God-made things that were taller than a pine tree and I was captivated by the rushing mountain streams. Driving through the mountains with my mother in the front seat was pure entertainment. In rapid fire, “Oh, look at that. Ellis can you see…? No, don’t you dare look. Children, can you see? Ain’t it beautiful?” Squeals of excitement interspersed. “Ellis you had better slow down, You’re too close to the edge. You’re too close. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, if you get me down from here I’ll never come back. Help us Lord! Oh, have you ever seen anything like that? It’s glorious. Pull over Ellis and let’s look a while.” That meant she was car sick.

Once we were driving in the mountains of northern Georgia well after dark when a sudden thunder storm erupted. Dad reached to turn on the windshield wipers in the 61 Chevrolet Impala. It was Mom’s car and he wasn’t use to driving it. In reaching to pull the knob to turn on the wipers he bumped the knob for the headlights turning them off just as we were entering a curve. With no wipers and no lights, he hit the brakes; we slipped and slid and came to a complete stop on the shoulder of the road. When he finally found the switches for the head lights and wipers we were looking out at the dark crevasse of what must have been a deep valley below.

A couple of times we went to southern Florida where we learned the art of inhaling and exhaling sand gnats. There is something peaceful about sleeping right next to the ocean, listening to the waves for a few minutes every time you wake up because the blood quit flowing to your buttocks or shoulders when the air leaked out of your air mattress. There is nothing like sleeping in a tent to bring a family together, “get off of me!” “Momma, his foot was in my mouth.” “Make him be still.”

The mountains were better than southern Florida if for no other reason than the air was cooler. Remember, it was an un-air-conditioned car.

The highlight of these excursions was eating out. As a family we never ate at restaurants at home. My mother cooked, especially if my dad was home. On a busy day of errands we might stop for a hamburger, or pick up a sack of Krystals to take home, but we didn’t eat in restaurants. The exception was on vacations when we got to eat in a restaurant once near the end of the week. Usually, that was breakfast. I fell in love with pancakes. They became my annual treat.

Mom often made something she called pancakes, but they were not anything like the golden, fluffy delicacies restaurants produce. Mom’s were very flat and cooked to a dark brown. Her batter was amber with eggs. Her pan was deep with Crisco. The best thing about them was looking for images in the patterns of the dark ridges on either side. I once ate an angel. Don’t get me wrong; my mother was a phenomenal cook. But biscuits and pancakes were not her gift.

I have a lot of wonderful memories from these annual blue collar extravaganzas of tourism. But it’s the gestalt that had the greatest impact on me. As a family we went exploring, looking for something new and different to see. We had no plans, just a general direction with no predetermined destinations. We just went and looked and laughed and fought about different things. We were a family and for one week a year we were special. We were blessed to do something our grandparents never imagined. We went on vacation.

By the time I graduate from high school I was a man of the world. I had seen everything worth seeing all the way from Key West to Pigeon Forge. My sights were set; my ambitions were great. I was going to be a world traveler. Someday I would cross the Mississippi and go at least as far as Texas. And I would travel north and see the nation’s capitol, Richmond, Virginia. [Did I ever mention they taught history and social studies a little different in Alabama?] I owe my wanderlust to those family vacations and besides, Cheryl needs somebody to carry her bags.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 4, 2010

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I am Thankful for Life

Perhaps our most overlooked blessing is life itself. As I have written this series on being thankful I have discovered a few things about myself. There are days when my topic is obvious to me. There has been an experience or memory that taps into the deep streams of thankfulness within my soul. Some days I struggle to identify a blessing for which I am thankful. Dozens of ideas float through my mind, each something for which I am thankful or for which I know I should be thankful, but I don’t feel it. And when I don’t feel it writing about it is hard work. Often the process of writing taps into those deep streams and ideas begin to flow. Sometimes no matter what I do the feelings never come; I strive to speak the truth in faith that I’ll feel thankful another time.

One of the things I have discovered is that feeling thankful and being thankful are two separate realities. I can feel thankful when all that I am is happy. Happiness is not thankfulness. Happiness centers on me and the good I possess (or think I possess). Thankfulness centers on the provider of my blessing, the One to whom I am indebted. These two conditions of the soul are connected. When I am happy it is natural to want to share the joy with my benefactor which often triggers genuine thankfulness. The inverse is also true; intentional focus on giving thanks usually transitions into feeling thankful which then triggers joyfulness.

I have also learned that I am inclined to be thankful for the particulars of life; I am thankful for this and I am thankful for that. This predisposition to focus on a specific time or place or possession may in fact reduce my attitude of gratitude. It is easy to trigger thoughts and feelings in response to objective realities, things I can quantify and categorize. It is a greater challenge to offer thanks for realities that are beyond my abilities to comprehend.

I cannot comprehend that I am. I know that I am. I possess knowledge of my biological origins and nature. I think, therefore I am. But what am I? Years ago I had a profound encounter with myself. God gave me a vision of who I am (see an earlier post). When I arrived at the core of my being I discovered I am nothing. I have nothing I can claim as my own; I am nothing on my own. I do not exist except by and in God in whom we all live and move and have our being. My existence, my being, are the product of God’s active will that I be.

I am not an accident even though my parents thought me so. I am not the product of chance even if my gnome can be described as such. I am the object of Divine choice. I am a person existing in the image of God. I am because He gives me life. For this I am thankful even if I am not always conscious of this gift. When I am most fully aware of this cornerstone of being, I am filled with awe that is energized with love, joy and peace. For when I know that I am, that I am alive, I know it is He who sustains me and in His presence I am whole. In those moments my very being sings an unprompted song of adoration and thanksgiving.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 3, 2010

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I am Thankful for Yogurt

I don’t remember when I first ate yogurt. It was long after I got married. I don’t remember why I tried it. Perhaps it was the commercials about Russians and Scandinavians who lived to very old ages eating yogurt. Nah, I didn’t start until long after those. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed when I first tried it. I did enjoy diving into the fruit at the bottom. Fruit is a favorite food of mine.

I do remember why I started eating yogurt on a regular basis. My sister Shirley, ever the scientist, informed me that the good bacteria in yogurt would neutralize the bad bacteria that produced the foul odor of intestinal gas. From that revelation forward I have seldom been far from yogurt. What a gift, a food that when properly flavored tastes good, is good for you, and makes you more socially acceptable or at least less repulsive.

I have learned to really like eating yogurt. It’s a cross between health food and dessert. In recent years I have begun experimenting with it. I have made my own. It’s really quite easy but not that cost effective. In the process of researching how to make yogurt I discovered it can be used as a mild leaven when baking. I first began using it in my cobblers. It creates a smooth texture and adds a mild flavor. I often add it to my pancake mix and other desserts. Recently I have gone to using it as a topping in place of ice cream. I have also blended it into sour cream when making stroganoff.

Yogurt is so versatile and it is my favorite instrument of culinary experimentation. Join me in my cause. Help America breath better. Eat yogurt and eat it often. [Note: cooking yogurt destroys it digestive benefits.]

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 2, 2010

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I am Thankful for my Wedding Day

Well a man shall leave his mother, and a woman leave her home
And they shall travel on their way, the two shall be as one
As it was in the beginning is now until the end
Woman draws her life from man and gives it back again
And there’s love, there is love

And what’s to be the reason for becoming man and wife
Is it love that brings you here or love that gives you life
For if loving is the answer then who’s the giving for
Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before
Oh there’s love, there is love.

[From “Wedding Song,” which was not sung at our wedding.]

Everybody should have one nice, memorable wedding. Our wedding was wonderful, a nice combination of family, worship, confusion and mishap. It was one of those days that fuses life with time and space and alters the essence of our being forever.

We were considered radical for our time. We wanted a hymn and communion in the service, and we wrote our own vows. No one involved on either side had ever heard of such nonsense.

The Friday evening wedding rehearsal was a disaster. The convoy of participants driving from Cleveland, Tennessee to Powdersville, South Carolina got lost and arrived well over an hour late. A couple of our relatives, who shall go unnamed, felt free to assume the unsolicited role of wedding director. It was a tense tug of war for a while. They questioned everything we were doing. It led up to a conflict over the formation for the wedding party. One of them questioned, “why are you doing it this way? I’ve never seen it done this way.”

I snapped back, “Because we want it this way, and it’s our wedding. That’s why.” There were no other interruptions.

I took Cheryl back to her parent’s house where we processed the evening. We were the last one’s up and enjoyed the privacy. We were just talking, I promise. We were sitting at the kitchen island talking softly to keep from waking anyone. Before I left Cheryl sat on my knee and we continued our conversation (and that’s all I’ll confess). Nothing could have happened even if we were so inclined; Cheryl’s mother came in moments later, finger pointed, shaking her hand down and speaking through her teeth “Cheryl, you get up from there. Get up, I said.”

Cheryl got up and said “good night.” I went to my motel room.

The next morning I had breakfast with my family, at least I think I did. I drove to the mall and bought Cheryl’s wedding ring. We were not exchanging rings in the ceremony. Influenced by the legalism of the Church of God in Alabama, I had struggled with whether it was appropriate to wear them. I had concluded there was nothing wrong with wedding rings but resisted the pressure being put on me (not by Cheryl) to include them in the ceremony. Ah the slippery slope of liberalism. Say yes to rings and before you know it your fiancĂ© is sitting in your lap the night before the wedding.

The rest of the day is a blur. I remember getting dressed in a classroom in the church basement and pacing nervously through the basement, up the stairs, down the hall behind the choir loft, back down the stairs and starting all over again. I busied my mind working on my wedding vows. I had thought a lot about them for months, but I didn’t have a single sentence formed. And then the time came.

I stood at the side, front entry to the sanctuary with Cheryl’s uncle, Simpson Merritt and Ken Andrews. Word came back to us the soloist, a friend of Cheryl’s from Emmanuel College who was supposed to play acoustic guitar and sing “Wedding Song,” had not arrived so that we had a different schedule for the ceremony. The two ministers were robed and ready to officiate the ceremony. We cracked the door open and looked in as the candles were lit, waiting for our cue to enter and take our places. Just before time to enter Uncle Simpson asked, “Do you have your vows with you?”

I responded, “No, I haven’t written them down.”

“You just have them memorized?”

“No, actually I haven’t finalized them yet. I’ll figure out what I’m going to say before she gets down front.” I was enjoying this, even if it was mostly true. Both ministers were about to faint.

“Here son, I’ve got my manual. You can just repeat after me.”

“It will be just fine Uncle Simpson. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, and I think it’s time for us to go in.” We entered and as I stood before the congregation, waiting, thinking, and praying, my brain raced. I finalized my vows and I prayed, “Well Father, I’ve come here by faith. If this isn’t Your will You will stop it. Either, you will speak to me or to Cheryl. If she walks down that isle this marriage is your will for the rest of my life.” Seriously, that’s what I prayed.

The bridal party entered through the front sanctuary doors and processed to their places. As the last were entering I got a glimpse of a long-haired, youthful guy come busting into the entryway carrying a guitar case. “I guess our soloist is here,” I thought. Through the door windows I could pick out Cheryl explaining to him it was too late.

And then the doors opened wide. Cheryl stood next to her father. She was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Her long velvet white gown was perfect. The veil and skull cap were the perfect complement and her face radiated. She was angelic. I was thrilled.

As she and her father walked down the isle of the McNeely Memorial Pentecostal Holiness Church, Chuck Coppler, a groomsman, kept his promise and sang a verse and the chorus of “The Church of God is right, Hallelujah to the Lamb” just loud enough for the bridal party to hear.

I had no idea what Cheryl’s vows would be. Frankly, I was surprised to hear the quote from Ruth, “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:” But “shock” better describes my state when I heard the “o” word. “Did she just promise before God and these witnesses to obey me?” Yes she did. I knew it was for the show and had little meaning for my life, but it was a nice to entertain a momentary delusion.

My vows flowed from a very full heart.

“Cheryl, I vow unto you in essence one vow;

I shall love you as God intends for a man to love his wife.

For just as Jesus Christ is even now searching the world to find those persons without spot or blemish who shall comprise his bride, so have I searched and found in you the qualities I desire for my wife.

I will cherish you more than silver or gold or any earthly possession.

I will provide for your earthly needs to the best of my abilities even as God gives me strength.

I will protect you from all harm even with the laying down of my life if need be.

Cheryl, this is my vow to you; I will love you as God intends for a man to love his wife.”

With those words I believe God sealed my bond with Cheryl. He is witness, participant, and guarantor of our covenant. I recount my vows often and examine myself by them. I will give an account for how I have kept them. It’s the “as God intends” that convicts me. I keep learning new things about what God intends. The list is a whole lot bigger than affection, provision, and protection (Can you tell I’ve been preaching a while?). In sum, He requires perfection in devotion through all the seasons and challenges of life. I have not yet attained to perfection of any kind, but I am working on it.

Cleveland, Tennessee
June 1, 2010