Friday, November 22, 2013

Never Young Again

'I’ll never forget the moment when I heard the news.

It was November of 1963; I was a five-year-old boy two months into my educational sojourn at Miss Sylvia’s kindergarten.

I was a little boy sitting in the floor of our little den in our little house in front of our little black and white television when our telephone rang. My mother went to the built-in phone cranny in the hall; I heard her say “Hello” and “I’ll be right there.” The next thing I knew she was snatching me up and throwing a jacket over my Dr. Dentons and saying “We have to go see about your Daddy.”

She put me in the car and quickly drove up Memorial Drive to Gordon Road, turned left and then hung a right into the parking lot of the Lamar County Health Department building, which was the closest thing we had to a hospital. The trip couldn’t have taken more than two minutes.

There were lots of cars in the parking lot.

That was because a lot of men had come there to be with my father. They had all been at the Midway Baptist Church on City Pond Road four miles outside of Barnesville that night, working together to build the church’s first ever indoor baptismal pool. My father had been in the attic, trimming the opening in the ceiling where the light would go, when he lost his balance and fell to the concrete floor below, landing on his head.

When Mama and I walked into the room, all of those men were lined up around the walls while Dr. Crawford leaned over the figure lying on the gurney, using a needle and thread to repair what damage he could. I heard someone tell Mama, “They’re going to move him to the Griffin hospital as soon as Dr. Crawford gets him sewn up.” She released my hand and walked over to the gurney; she leaned over for a few seconds, then straightened up, walked back to me and said, “Go kiss your Daddy goodbye, Son.”

“For how long?” I wondered. “Is he ever coming back?” I wondered.

But I didn’t ask. I just walked over and kissed him on the lips, partly because that was what we always did and partly because it was the only clean place on his face. He smiled at me. I have a vague recollection of the blood and the stitches but I remember that smile so clearly. He told me that he loved me and I told him that I loved him and the next thing I knew I was at Uncle Sandy and Aunt Dot’s house, totally confused and, even though I was with my cousins Denise and Rhonda, very much alone.

I stayed with them while Daddy was in the hospital being treated for two fractured neck vertebrae since Mama spent most of her time with him; I imagine it was just a few days but it felt like months. I would wake up in the middle of the night crying, not knowing where I was—in both the immediate and existential sense.

It was the time in my life that I realized how vulnerable I am—how vulnerable we all are—and just how quickly things can change and change forever. Everything had been fine up until then; I had been full of nothing but innocence and hope and potential but suddenly I found myself filling up with fear and doubt and limitation.

It was my forbidden fruit moment but I had not partaken voluntarily; it had been shoved down my throat.

While I am not positive about the sequence, I think that Daddy was still in the hospital on November 22. I was at my friend Dee’s house when their housekeeper Martha told us, “They’ve shot the President!” I can still hear the agitation and anxiety in her voice.

Perhaps the nation’s experience when President Kennedy was shot was somewhat akin to the one I had when my father smashed into that concrete floor. The young charismatic President had instilled hope in the up and coming Baby Boomer generation with his “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” challenges. The new generation was excited about exploring the “new frontier”; there was no telling what we might do.

And we did a lot of it. We have done a lot of it. We are still doing a lot of it.

But we have done it with the burden of frailty and angst that you bear after the reality of a dangerous and cruel world comes crashing down on you. It’s a lesson that every generation and every person has to learn.

Having my father take a header into a concrete floor when I was five years old is what dumped that reality on me.

Having our President struck down by an assassin’s bullets (and to have his brother Bobby and Dr. King suffer the same fate five years later) is what dumped that reality on my generation. Following President Kennedy’s death, the columnist Mary McGrory told Daniel Patrick Moynihan (then Assistant Secretary of Labor and later United States Senator from New York) that we would never laugh again. Moynihan replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

November of 1963 was a mighty early date for me and my generation to wake up and know that we’d never be young again. It’s been tough to live with the knowledge of how quickly it can all change for the worse while at the same time trying to give our lives over to the effort to change things for the better.

But you know, you can’t stay young and innocent and live in the real world and do what has to be done. It’s best to live with our eyes, our hearts, our hands, and our lives wide open. It’s best to give ourselves away in service, believing that it will do some good no matter what it costs us.

President Kennedy was a young man when he died serving our nation.

My father was a young man when he almost died serving our church.

President Kennedy said, “Let us begin.” After his death, President Johnson said, “Let us continue.”

I say, “Let us look this hard world and dangerous life squarely in the eye and say, ‘We are not children living sheltered and unknowing lives; we are grown men and women who know the score. We will do the best we can to make things better. You will try to stop us. So be it. Come at us with all you have. We will never stop trying …'”

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I have greatly enjoyed my alma mater’s return to the gridiron this year. Going into this Saturday’s Homecoming game against the Stetson Hatters, my Mercer Bears are 9-2 and Head Coach Bobby Lamb is a finalist for FCS national Coach of the Year. It’s been fun.

Did you know that Mercer was one of the teams that met in the first college football game played in the state of Georgia? It was in January of 1892 and their opponent was some school in Athens that has over the years admittedly been more identified with football than has Mercer. Mercer’s first football victory came in the fall of that same year when they defeated Georgia Tech 12-6, a feat we hope to repeat when Mercer opens at Tech in 2016.

The Bears held the Florida Gators scoreless each of the first five times they played; the Bears won the first four games by scores of 12-0, 6-0, 24-0, 13-0, with the squads playing to a scoreless tie in the fifth game. Granted, all of those games occurred before World War I, but Mercer still shut out Florida in five consecutive games. I'm pretty sure Steve Spurrier was the Gators' quarterback back then.

Mercer fielded a football team until 1941; the program was discontinued due to World War II and was revived to great anticipation and with much success this year.

Mercer football has had two advents—it arrived in 1892 and departed in 1941; it arrived again in 2013—and hopefully will never leave again. Of course, lots of important things went on at and through Mercer between 1941 and 2013; we didn’t sit around waiting for football to return—we kept busy doing what we were supposed to do to be a vital university. Perhaps there was always a lingering hope that football would return but once the decision to resurrect the program was made in 2010 preparations began in earnest. Mercer people did not sit around daydreaming about football’s return; they got to work making things ready for its return.

We of the Church are approaching our annual observance of Advent. During Advent we celebrate the first Advent of Jesus that occurred two millennia ago. We also anticipate his Second Advent that is yet to occur. But we also think about and recommit ourselves to living in ways that will reflect what he taught us in his first coming and that will prepare the way for his second coming.

The parallels I am drawing are inexact. When Mercer football was gone, it was gone, except for the memory of it. When Jesus ascended back to his Father, the Holy Spirit came to us and through the Spirit Jesus has remained present with us. Also, while some always hoped for a return of Mercer football, there was no guarantee that it would ever happen, but we have the sure hope that Jesus will return. And because we know that Jesus came, that Jesus continues with us, and that Jesus will come again, we want to take with joyful seriousness the opportunity we have to live in light of all of his Advents.

That, Charlie Brown, is what Advent is all about!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

150 Years Ago Today. At Gettysburg ...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

--President Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Breaking Things

I am not terribly clumsy and yet I have a way of breaking things. Now, I am not the artist that my cousin Stan was. When we were boys, I dreaded seeing Stan, who was a few years younger than I, come to our house because he would want to play with my toys and any toy that Stan touched broke. Notice I did not say that Stan broke it because that would be neither true nor fair; it was more like magic—if he touched it, it broke. He just had the gift.

I don’t break a lot of things but when I do break something, it usually belongs to someone I love. I don’t always hurt the ones I love, but I tend to break things that belong to the ones I love.

Tuesday night I broke a pilgrim. My good wife has two Pilgrim figurines, one male and one female—Mr. & Mrs. Pilgrim, I guess—that she sets out every year at this time, these being the days leading up to Thanksgiving. So the other day she placed them on the counter behind the kitchen sink; our sink is located on a bar so there is open air behind it that leads directly to the floor. I was putting a glass in the sink and, rather than walk the four extra steps required to get to the front of the sink, I reached over the counter from behind the sink and—without incident, I might add—placed the glass in the sink.

Something happened, though, when I drew my arm back. I got distracted or careless and my sleeve caught the top of the pilgrim’s hat—if he had been wearing a baseball cap this never would have happened—and before I knew it, Mr. Pilgrim was lying, like James Taylor’s “sweet dreams and Flying Machines,” “in pieces on the ground.” My good wife heard the crash and asked, “What happened?” “I broke a Pilgrim,” I answered—I wonder if I am the first person since Pocahontas to speak those words—then she smiled at me and said, “I can’t have anything nice!”

I knew where she was coming from. Her sister Jean has a bunch of old stuff and sometimes she gives Debra some of it; if it’s a nice old platter or something else fragile I’m very likely to break it, so I try to avoid them.

In this case she was kidding because those Pilgrim figurines are not valuable in any sense of the word—they didn’t cost a lot of money and they don’t have any sentimental value (she doesn’t even remember where she got them, much less how much they cost), and it wasn’t a major award. I mean, it’s not like I broke one of her precious Precious Moments figurines—I never go anywhere near the curio cabinet they’re in. I picked up the pieces of the shattered Pilgrim and she looked at them and said, “It’s ok. It’s just a thing. And I can glue it back together.”

And my mind flashed back, as my mind is prone to do. My father had bought a brand new used black four-door 1964 Mercury Comet; it couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. I was maybe ten. That car had two things on it that I had never seen before on a car: air conditioning and a little lever on the driver’s door with which you could adjust the side view mirror without rolling down the window. One afternoon I got to messing with the mirror adjustor and the next thing I knew, part of it was in my hand and the rest of it was down inside the door. Now, I could have just walked away and let Daddy wonder how it happened, but I wasn’t that kind of kid. So I found him and told him what had happened, handing him the piece that had come off in my hand.

He looked like he was going to cry. “I guess I can’t have anything,” he muttered, and he turned and walked away. Now, Daddy wasn’t usually like that about things; obviously something else—probably lots of something else—was going on that I didn’t know about. The breaking of the mirror adjusting thing felt to him that day for some reason like the last straw; I suppose it was symbolic of other losses he was experiencing or dreading. He was able to get it fixed and after he did he told me that it was no big deal—but it sure did seem like it at the time, although I did not, and still do not, understand why.

The fact, though, is that in relationships things get broken. The further fact is that it is in our closest relationships that the most meaningful things get broken. The risk of brokenness is one of the prices we pay for our close sharing of life with each other. The still further fact is that what we do with the things that get broken matters.

John Claypool told a story about a five-year-old boy who at his kindergarten made, with his teacher’s help, a clay ashtray as a Christmas gift for his pipe-smoking father. They molded the clay into a shape approximating an ashtray, painted it his father’s favorite color, and fired it in a kiln. After the kindergarten’s Christmas program, the boy ran to get the gift-wrapped ashtray for his father and, running down the hall, dropped it. It hit the floor, shattering within the wrapping paper. The boy sobbed inconsolably. His father told him not to cry; “It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. But his mother knew better. She held her son in her arms and cried with him. Then she said, “Let’s pick up the pieces and take them home and see what we can make of what is left.”

It is, like everything else, finally all about grace. Things get broken. We pick up the pieces, take them home, and see what we can make of what is left. And because of grace, what can be made of the pieces can be more worth having than what had previously seemed “perfect.”

“I guess I can’t have anything.” Sure you can. It’s just that after it gets broken you have to fix it and then you have to live with the cracks in it.

What my good wife said of the broken Mr. Pilgrim applies to us and of our relationships, too: “The cracks will give him character …”

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I’ve Been Thinking #1

[Note: this is the first of an occasional series called I’ve Been Thinking; these posts will share some thoughts about what I’ve been—well, thinking about …]

I’ve been thinking about the ways that Christians do and don’t think about other people.

Sometimes I wonder whether we really think all that much about other people. And if we do, do we only get around to thinking about them after we’ve burned up most of our energy thinking about me and mine?

For example, take the ways that we use our time, our energy, and our money. Whether it’s an individual, a family, or a church, how many of us when we’re planning our life or our budget ask as our first question, “How can I/we use these resources to love God with all I am and to love my neighbor as myself?” (two realities that can’t be separated in the Christian life).

Over at my Prayer 365 blog, where I publish a daily prayer, I have over the last two days written a prayer about our first thought—“God, in all things let my first thought be of you” and our second thought—“God, in all things let my second thought be of others.” But how does that show itself in our attitudes and in our actions?

I am fascinated by the ways that we Christians think about and debate public policy. There are, of course, many varieties of Christians with all kinds of backgrounds and experiences so differences of opinion are to be expected. And there are legitimate debates to be had about what kinds of public policies do the most good for the people who are in the greatest need.

Still, I struggle with Christians whose first thought seems to be of self and of “my kind” rather than their first thought being of God with their second thought (and a close second at that—Jesus did say, after all, that “a second is like it”) being of other people, especially of people who are poor, sick, hungry, and marginalized. Those are the people for whom God seems to have an especially tender heart.

God (and everybody who knows me) knows that I’m deeply, deeply flawed and that I practice my share of hypocrisy. But it would never occur to me not to want my tax dollars to go to help families with children buy food for those children or to try to provide health coverage for families in need. I’d much rather have my money go toward such efforts than toward lots of other things it goes toward. Other people do much, much more than I do to try to help in such situations, but, for the life of me, I just don’t get Christians whose first thought on such matters is “I don’t want my money going to help those people”—or some more or less polite version of that thought.

I know—there are deadbeats. I know—there have to be better ways. But I’m not thinking about the details. Again, there are policy debates that need to be had and hard decisions that need to be made.

And I know that in a free society the church’s ideals cannot be the only thing to inform public policy, but such concern for people is held in common by people of all faiths and by people of no faith.

What I’ve been thinking about, though, is the gut-level, heart-felt initial reaction of us Christians toward issues relating to the poor and needy.

What does it say about the character of our heart and the nature of our faith if our first reaction toward helping folks is “No, not with what belongs to me”? rather than “Yes, they need help. What can we do?”

Monday, November 4, 2013

Like Mike

I was a Monkees fan. In fact, I was a member of the official Monkees fan club. The Monkees, for the sadly uninformed and inexperienced, were a “made for television” rock band; the four members (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork), were individually cast and put together as a band. While the Beatles were hailed as the Fab Four; the Monkees were derided as the Pre-Fab Four. The television show was modeled after the Beatles’ films “Help” and “A Hard Day’s Night” and so consisted of madcap adventures interspersed with musical numbers.

The Monkees’ music was actually quite good. They recorded songs written by such outstanding songwriters as Carole King & Gerry Coffin, Neil Diamond, and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart. On their first couple of albums, which were rather creatively titled “The Monkees” and “More of the Monkees,” the band members sang the songs but 99% of the instrumental contribution was by session musicians. Eventually the Monkees, led by Michael Nesmith (an excellent guitarist and songwriter who had already penned “Different Drum,” Linda Ronstadt’s first hit), revolted against the restrictions that had been placed on them and gained creative control of their recordings.

Nesmith was my favorite Monkee because we had several things in common. For one thing, we shared a name. For another, he was tall and skinny. For another, he sometimes wore glasses (I wore them all the time). For yet another, he had dark wavy hair (which mine turned out to me when I finally grew it long). He was also charming, intelligent, clever, and talented … and I had high hopes.

The Monkees continued to record for several years after the television show ended, but eventually they went their separate ways, although they have toured occasionally over the years, usually without Nesmith, who had found lots of other things in the music and video worlds to do, including making a couple of records with The First National Band and recording many solo projects. Earlier this year, though, Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith toured together following Jones’ sudden death last year.

Michael Nesmith is now seventy years old. This fall he has undertaken a solo tour in which he is playing many of the songs that he has written and recorded over the course of his fifty-year music career. My good wife and I, along with about 125 other people, had the privilege of seeing him last week in a cozy venue in Birmingham. It was great fun to see him having such a good time performing many songs from his body of work, including “Joanne,” “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care),” “Silver Moon,” “Yellow Butterfly,” “Rays,” and “Grand Ennui.” He ended the show with his sole performance of a song from the Monkees era, “Listen to the Band.”

The show was a great trip through a life of music; we and others who are hearing Nesmith on this tour are privileged that he is sharing that life with us.

We are all building a body of work; we are all making a life. I hope and pray that we—and I surely include myself—can look back on our body of work and know that we have accomplished something that helped folks out a little bit. I hope and pray that we will continue to want to share our lives with others and especially to share those parts of our lives that, for whatever reason, created and continue to create a mutual experience of joy.

How cool it must be to still be willing and able, after seventy years of life and fifty years of work, to keep doing your thing and to share your love and joy with others.

Michael Nesmith was once who I wanted to be when I grew up.

All these years later, he still is …