Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Thoughts on Dad

 Comments shared at Dad's funeral service, 1/22/2021:

Thinking About Dad

One of the common themes we have heard from so many is how deeply appreciated our Dad was for his love of the Lord, his devotion to the Word of God, his Bible teaching, and his preaching that touched so many with the Gospel from the 1960’s to just last year.

Some of my dearest memories are from times when I was just old enough to ride shotgun with Dad on the front pew in the assembly, as he waited his turn to either preach or lead the singing. This was a privilege that required self-discipline, as I was on my own once he stepped up onto the stage. I realized years later that our Dad was modeling public speaking and spiritual service and making these things normal for us to picture ourselves doing someday.

In the late 70s and early 80s, our Dad often served as a pinch hitter for congregations around Southern and Central California who were without a preacher. I remember long drives to unfamiliar towns, such as Hemet and Modesto, but in those towns finding people who loved the Lord and welcomed us. These experiences made it normal to go out of the way, even a good distance out of the way, to meet a need when you have the ability and the opportunity.

While our Dad grew up in the city, he was touched early in his life by the wonder of the natural world. His teenage visits to Camp Tanda in Big Bear, CA, led to a lifelong love of the forest. Dad and Mom made travel a priority, taking us boys to camp out in Sequoia National Park. I remember the first time I ever set foot outside the state of California, the summer I turned ten years old, when we went on a road trip around the state of Arizona, seeing the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert. These experiences made it normal to be in awe of creation, to rejoice in God’s handiwork, and to desire a closer connection to it.

 This yearning for a simpler connection to creation was a factor in Dad’s willingness to leave his native Southern California and launch out with his family for a new life in Portland, Oregon, where he became something of a warning prophet, pleading with native Oregonians not to rush headlong into the kind of unchecked development and suburban sprawl that made his native Los Angeles a concrete city. This three-year sojourn for our family in Oregon made it normal to be willing to leave what is familiar and go somewhere new.

It was the pursuit of continuing Bible education that brought Dad to Abilene, a move that made it normal to pursue learning, even if the journey is far, the destination unfamiliar, and the path difficult.

I am reminded today of a poignant moment in my life, which took place on Wednesday, October 28, 1981, in Buena Park, CA, around 8:30 pm, Pacific Time. I was 8 years old, and our beloved Dodgers were in the World Series against the New York Yankees. The Dodgers had gotten the upper hand in the series and were hoping to finish it off that night in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium. We attended Wednesday evening Bible class that night, and afterward piled into the car, still parked in the church parking lot, turning on the radio to hear Vin Scully’s broadcast of the game, which was drawing to its close by that time.

I distinctly remember sitting in the middle of the back seat of our 1978 Chevette, Mom in the front passenger seat, Daniel and Samuel on either side of me in the back, as Vin called the final out of the game, a fly ball caught by Dodgers’ center fielder Ken Landreaux. The Dodgers were the champs! In my elation, I looked out the windshield of the car and saw Dad, standing there in the parking lot, stuck talking to someone after Bible class, having missed the entire moment. I felt so bad for him. But there I was, loving something he had taught me to love, holding it down for him in his absence, so eager to tell him all about it when he finally joined us in that awesome little car.

That’s how I feel today, Dad.

We are here, loving the things you taught us to love, making life decisions that seem normal to us because you made them normal, honoring things that are important to us because they were first important to you.

We won’t be able to share these moments with you for awhile, but we know you’re not far away, and that you will be as eager to hear our stories when we see you again, as we will be to tell you all about it.

We love you, Dad, we thank you for how you and Mom showed us the way, and we will see you there someday.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

To Breathe

I've been thinking about the process of breathing more than I normally do.

It's winter, and when my wife and I go on walks together and see leafless trees all around, I look up at the intricate network of branches reaching out into the air, and I see the inside of a human lung.

Like countless others around the world, I eagerly await any update on the condition of a loved one whose lungs have been ravaged by COVID. My Dad cannot breathe, and would already be gone if not for the tireless work of his ICU team, and the machine that has been doing the breathing for him for the last month.

We still don't know if he will survive this, and if he does, what his condition will be. We pray it is still "him" in there, but we honestly don't even know that, and don't know when we might know.

I'm not accustomed to thinking about breathing, but this year has been, well...you know.

Lord, as You did in the Garden, breathe into us Your breath of life. Train us to draw You into ourselves, and convert this entering presence into whatever it is that allows us to think and speak like You do, love like You do, suffer, as You do, with anyone who cannot freely and fully and deeply breathe. 

We're made in Your image, so we instinctively rush to help someone who is stuck underwater, or who cannot get air into their lungs, but Lord, there's more. You became one of us and lived among us, experiencing firsthand our rejection, our oppression, our suffocating stubbornness and disbelief. 

In Your dying moments, You strained for every breath.

Continue to form us, breathe into us more and more. Let us strain for You the way you strained for air on the cross. When it's all too much for us, when our lungs don't seem to work, Lord, do the breathing for us, and surround us with saints committed to carrying us until we can breathe You in again.

And not just for ourselves do we ask this.

Breathe into us a selfless concern for all who cannot breathe, for all who strain against illness, against poverty, against hopelessness, against loneliness, against hatred, against a knee pressing down on their neck, against shame, fear, and judgment, against denial of humanity, denial of acceptance, denial of justice, denial of opportunity, denial of empathy, denial of love.

Give us the breath to share with Your children who are struggling to breathe.

May it never be only about us and ourselves.

I pray for my Dad's physical breath to return to him, and that he may somehow know You are present with him right now, as the rest of the world somehow keeps on moving while he cannot.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Repenting of Ridicule

 I still feel ashamed when I remember it.

I was 14.

That moment in a church camp dorm, talking with two other teenage boys, about another boy who was not present. There is no nice way to put it: I was making fun of him. I was regaling the other two with a tale of something this other boy had said in a separate conversation. I would like to say I don't even remember what it was, but I do. I remember exactly what it was, and my ridicule was just mean. My story climaxed with a quotation, delivered in mimicry of the absent victim of my ridicule.

Yes, the other two boys were laughing, but this was all me.

And just as I delivered the hilarious rendition of our fellow camper's voice and words, we heard the sound of a toilet flushing, then the sound of water running in a sink, and then footsteps, bringing out the very boy I had just been impersonating, who walked past us without a word, without looking at us, down the length of the dorm room, and out the door.

I am 47 years old, and my head still drops when I remember this moment.

I still hope against hope that somehow this boy didn't hear what I said, or that maybe, from inside the bathroom, he heard voices, but didn't understand that he was the butt of the joke, and that maybe his silent walk out of the dorm was just awkward, but not connected to what I had done. 

But I know that's a long shot.

Chances are, he heard it all, and understood.

I never brought this up to the boy, never apologized, avoided him the rest of that week at camp, moved on to other things, and had minimal contact with him thereafter.

I was a coward, and left him to nurse this wound on his own.

I hope somehow he has forgotten this moment, but I still remember it, so...

*****************************

People often say that one of the main reasons to tell the truth is so that you don't have to keep track of what you have said to whom. A liar has to keep a lot of bases covered.

I see a similar truth in play with the practice of ridicule.

For a long time, I lamented the fact that I had failed to make sure the coast was clear before entering into my impression of this boy. If I had only thought to delay gratification for just a moment to make sure no one would overhear! 

But even when we take a moment to glance over our shoulders to make sure no one is eavesdropping on our salacious conversations, haven't we all experienced our words coming home to roost after being repeated by one of our appreciative audience members? Just as telling the truth is the only sure protection against being caught in a lie, the only way to ensure our ridicule remains harmless is never to deliver it in the first place.

For many years, ridicule made up the bulk of my sense of humor.

Whenever I was in a position to be socially secure in comparison to another person, I was quick to find laughs at their expense. Of course, I kept a low profile, because I never wanted to pay a price for offending anyone. 

But still. Ridicule was my game. I really shouldn't say "was". The instinct is still as sharp as ever. I can make fun of others just as well now as I ever could, maybe even better. 

Yes, many friendships include mutual ridicule among equals who love each other and safely keep each other's egos in check, and there is also a place for gentle social correction delivered openly to a person behaving awkwardly, given the encounter is safe and the person's acceptance is still affirmed, even with shared laughter.

What I'm addressing is laughing at the expense of another, without the knowledge or participation of that person, without the kind of relationship that would give you a right to comment on that person's faults, and without an opportunity for that person to respond or maintain their dignity. Laughing at someone in a way you would be ashamed for them to overhear or find out about, treading where you have no business treading.

That was indeed my game, for many years.

But something is different now, and it's more than just the difference between adulthood and adolescence. Maybe an awareness that I am just as ridiculous as anyone else? An awareness of how badly it hurts a parent to see their child hurting? A conviction of the hypocrisy of scoring social points by saying things I wouldn't say in front of certain people? Finally understanding the truth that every person is created in God's image, and that God might have something to say about how I speak of His creation?

Certainly all of the above, but also something else:

Right now, at this moment, it is clear that a great many Americans feel there is a gulf between "us" and "them". We are speaking freely about "blue" and "red" without contemplating the days when "blue" and "gray" were deadly distinctions. We have fallen into the temptation of thinking we can speak hatred of each other, view each other as enemies, consider each other worthless, and fantasize about living without each other, without the body we seem to take for granted suffering any mortal compromise in the process. We are laughing scornfully at and about one another, making fun of one another, rolling our eyes about one another, openly attacking one another, and considering one another worthy of painful ridicule. Often what we are laughing at and scorning is not a real person, but a caricature, a composite of assumptions, memes, memories, flags, tweets and tropes.

Surely we are not really as far apart as we think we are.

No, we are not in a moment where everyone is going to get what they want.

But we are in a moment where the way we celebrate victory, and the way we nurse the wounds of defeat, the way we view those celebrating while we hurt, and those hurting while we celebrate, is going to make a generational difference in the health of the body we seem to take for granted.

Toxins taken into the body and allowed to flourish there eventually take their toll.

And ridicule toward our neighbors, toward strangers, toward co-workers, toward our loved ones, toward our political opponents, and toward those we think are so delusional they are dangerous, is one of the most potent toxins of all.

Ridicule takes a human being, created in the image of God, and turns that person into a thing, a target for our aim, something we need not lose sleep over, something we can tear up and cast aside as we walk away laughing and rolling our eyes.

If we were to walk up on a stranger who was bleeding, we wouldn't let a political slogan on their shirt or hat slow us down in rendering aid. Their humanity would be all we could see.

People are bleeding right now, we all are, and we need more than anything to be seen as human, made in God's image, in need of patience and grace, and more similar to than different from everyone around us.

I am repenting of ridicule, and I pray for God's help in changing this habit.

Oh, I will still think of ways that people around me could be made fun of. I probably always will. But, I understand now that making fun of other people, laughing derisively at their expense, actually costs something...of them, and of me.

And I think I've run that credit card up high enough for more than one person's lifetime. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Faith, Hope, & Love...and the '88 Pennant Race

If you're a fan of a Major League Baseball team, you are likely a person of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

You may have a pessimistic streak born of self-preservation, learning over bitter years not to get your hopes up, knowing that if any team could blow a lead, walk in the winning run, leave the bases loaded, throw a one-hitter but score no runs, it would be your team. That the heat of a pennant race will always prove too much, no matter how promising the early days of the season might seem.

Not everyone knows the special, unbearable pain of being just "one out away" from a series win, or worse yet, "one strike away", only to give up a big hit and see it all unravel. Not everyone knows what it's like to live for decades under a curse, but every MLB fan knows their dreams of a pennant are more likely crushed than realized.

Every MLB fan knows what it feels like to "wait till next year".

Oh, but there was that year...

The summer of '88, when somehow the Dodgers were good again, and somehow it just seemed...possible. It couldn't really happen, I knew, but...there was just...something...

I left for church camp with the Dodgers in first place by 3 games, the kind of lead that seems insurmountable when you're behind, but feels flimsy when you're ahead. I knew I would be away from the standings for a week, clueless as to how the Dodgers were doing in that crucial stretch of summer, in those archaic but blissful days before constant contact with everything, when you could go a week in the woods without hearing or seeing any current events at all.

Church camp was more than great, and I was mostly able to put the NL West pennant race out of my mind for the time being. It was the kind of week that changes a lot of things for a fourteen year-old, in that exciting, time-squeezed, sped-up evolution that makes a kid feel like a chapter has been finished and left behind, and a new one begun, in the way an adult might feel after the passing of several years.

Near the end of the week, as I walked through the dining hall, I spotted a newspaper that someone had left on a table. The paper was out of place, and served as a reminder that I would soon be home and back to normal life. But more than this, the paper meant an opportunity for an update on the thing I had been forced to ignore all week.

I couldn't bear to look, but I had to look.

Without a doubt, the Dodgers had faltered; there was no way their lead was still healthy. In fact, they had probably dropped out of first place altogether, said the inner voice of the grizzled, fourteen year-old cynic. I prepared myself as well as I could for the disappointment the standings would surely deliver, but as hard as I thought I was, I wasn't prepared for 8.

8 games.

The Dodgers were in first place in the NL West by 8 games!

The Boys in Blue had run the table while I had been away, and now held a lead that truly would require a dramatic change of course for any other team to overcome. I'm not sure I had ever seen my team in such a commanding position before. There was no way around it. They really were good, and this was actually happening. The postseason was very likely.

I shouted for joy, right there in the dining hall, and some 30 years later, my eyes still well up.

Yes, the Dodgers went on to win the World Series that year, and yes, it was that World Series when Kirk Gibson hit that home run in Game 1, pumping his fist while limping around second base.

But it was that moment in the dining hall, the kind of moment when faith, hope, and love each play a role, and the greatest of these is love. 

Faith can falter, hope can fade, but love...

Love sustains it all, doesn't it?

Oh, God, help us savor rare moments like this, when our faith, hope, and love actually do line up with the events around us, even with events we cannot control, and even when those events are not of eternal consequence.

And give us strength to hold on when our faith, or our hope, or our love grow weak.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Sometimes You Have to Move to Muleshoe

What did you say?!?

Where is that?!?

If you've ever lived in Muleshoe, Texas, you've heard these two questions from someone who asked where you are from.

Oh, they don't mean any offense; they just weren't ready to hear something that sounded so strange.

If you're still having trouble getting your mind around the name of this town, just think "horseshoe". Now, take that horseshoe, make it a little smaller, a little more rounded in shape, and you have a muleshoe! Yes, a mule is a different animal from a horse, and wears a different shoe, and that shoe has a town in the Texas panhandle named after it!

I'm proud to have lived in Muleshoe, Texas, from 2003-2007.

Kristi and I will always feel that our marriage truly got its start in this town. Both of our boys were born while we lived there, and we made lifelong friends during those four years. But if you had suggested to me earlier in my life that my path might take me through Muleshoe, I would have thought you were crazy, and how wrong I would have been!

Why did we move to Muleshoe?

For a job.

But what did Muleshoe end up meaning to us?

Far more than that.

It was our first experience living hundreds of miles from our parents, living in a place where no one from either of our families had ever lived, and where neither of us had any ties or history. This move was truly a plunge into the unknown.

Some people never do this. It's certainly not always the right thing to do, but I really believe that sometimes this is exactly what we need to do.

Sometimes the next chapter needs to be unfamiliar, distant, disconnected, disorienting, even...uncomfortable for a time. Sometimes the next opportunity needs to stretch us more than we want to be stretched. That feeling of displacement, and the time it takes to develop a new sense of home, will probably end up being the most important element of the entire experience, above and beyond whatever the original reason was for the move or the change.

What if you're not moving anytime soon?

No job change on the horizon?

That doesn't necessarily mean you don't need to move to Muleshoe.

What needs shaking up? Where are you so comfortable you can't imagine anything different? Who might be able to share a new perspective with you? Where have you never been before? How might you stretch yourself in the areas where things are familiar? Why not stretch?

A common misconception is that it's mainly people from places like Muleshoe who most need to get out and see the rest of the world. And sure, there can be truth to that; if all you've ever known is one small town, then yes, go see something different, stretch yourself by experiencing life in a bigger place with more moving parts and more to take in.

But this doesn't go just one way.

I would say, even if you've lived all your life someplace you consider to be cosmopolitan, the very nerve center of the world, if that is truly all you have ever known, then it may be high time you picked yourself up and moved to Muleshoe.

Even the supposed pinnacle of civilization can be a limiting perspective on life, if it's the only perspective you've ever had.

When it's time for the next opportunity, never assume it can't come in an unfamiliar package, that it has to come right there where you already are. Sometimes the very best opportunities lie in places you never thought you would go, in towns you never dreamed you might call home.

Muleshoe...check it out for yourself!

Friday, October 30, 2020

Thank Goodness for Politics

I'm so thankful I've lived long enough to see it.

I've lived my entire life in a country with two major political parties, growing up to believe one was good and the other was bad. And now, I've seen each of them, at different times, twist up into knots and sell their souls in defense of a reprobate. Neither of these parties has proven itself to be above the shame of forfeiting credibility for the sake of power.

A cynic will scoff and ask what I ever expected. Don't you know this is what politics is?

But no, we can and should expect better.

What would be better?

I always considered beliefs to be the non-negotiables, and just assumed good character was a constant for my side. I assumed it was the other side that accommodated bad character, and that this must have said something about the quality of their beliefs. But it's clear now where we have arrived:  Beliefs, or sometimes mere opionions, are rigid, and character is negotiable, at least when we need to overlook the bad character of the person we think will advance our beliefs.

But now, character is what I want, in whatever package it comes.

Let me be led by a person of character who is honest, humble, wise, and peaceable, and we can find common ground no matter how far apart we think we are in our beliefs. I'll take this person over a like-minded weasel any day, though I didn't always think that way.

Let me be that person of character, a welcome and trustworthy teammate to anyone, especially when common ground is hard to find.

Let me also let go of the fantasy of the perfect leader, the complete package, all the boxes checked on beliefs, and character above question. Who wouldn't think that was nice? But really, how often does this happen? Most of the time, we end up compromising one or the other, either our list of important beliefs, or the character of the leader we think will advance them.

It took most of my life, but politics finally taught me not to place my hopes in a party.

It took most of my life, but I have learned to cherish chapters of history notable for the quiet absence of leadership scandal more than glorious recountings of partisan battles won at the expense of the other side.

It took most of my life, but politics finally taught me a leader of character matters more than getting all of my boxes checked.

It took most of my life, but I have learned to reject a reprobate, simply for being a reprobate.

There's no excuse for excusing one, no matter how many of your boxes the reprobate checks.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

I Know We Didn't Squander It

One day several months ago, to our surpise, our then-twelve year-old dug out our old video camera and found ancient footage from when he and his brother were babies.

What else can you do but melt, and wonder where the time went?

I don't know about you, but when I start wondering where the time went, it's only a short step to the guilt of convincing myself that I must have squandered the time that seems to have vanished.

But that isn't true.

I know we didn't squander it.

No, we don't remember all of these moments captured on video, and yes, many of our "memories" from those years are probably composite sketches manufactured from feelings and distant glimpses, but I know we made the most we could have made out of those moments as they came and went. We were often distracted, usually juggling, sometimes pining for the future, occasionally frustrated, but we knew the moments were special, and I believe we infused them with the best of ourselves, at least the best we had to offer in those moments.

What gives me the confidence to claim this?

The fact that our son brought the videos to us to see and celebrate. The fact that our sons are interested in our stories of past events they can't remember. The fact that our boys still smile when we make eye contact. The nature of our relationship now, as they enter adolescence, is the reassurance I need that I haven't wasted this time.

No, I'm not saying, like Job's friends might say, that parents who experience conflict with their teens or grown kids must have squandered the time. That's not what I mean at all, and I can't possibly know what all goes into the parent-child dynamic from the earliest days to the empty nest. I'm sure there are many parents who did the very best they knew how to do, and for reasons they'll never understand, feel rejected or left behind by their sons or daughters.

I pray for comfort for everyone who suffers in this way. I can't begin to pretend to know how this feels, or what words would help. Probably none.

But I do know this: With all the prayer I can muster, I will resist the temptation to feel guilty about letting time slip away without appreciating it, and accept the fact that, no matter how much you do appreciate it, the time still slips away, slow and fast at the same time, but "away" all the same, leaving you wondering how you possibly got here from there.

Look into your loved ones' eyes today, and know that you're not squandering this moment.

Look at an old picture of a loved one, and cherish the moment anew.

You didn't squander it.