Apr 25, 2010

A Special Kind of Guy

You might think that it is cruel, but we like to make life interesting for our kids.

For instance, this year on Ben's 15th birthday, we decided to give him cash instead of gifts.  There is nothing a teenager appreciates more the ability to spend money.

Instead of a card with a check hidden away, my wife made the gift giving a challenge.  It was like a game show in our own kitchen.

She bought three candy bars.  With the help of an Xacto knife and super glue, I was given the charge of stashing the cash in various denominations and values.

So, after the dinner and birthday cake, Ben had to select between one of the three candy bars which would seal his monetary fate.  He could select from the Zero which could be filled with cash or might be a big Nada.  He could choose the Skore which might prove to be a good choice or a bust.  He might think that the Payday could equal a great payout or a pink slip.

Unfortunately for Ben, he started with the Zero which, of course, had zero.
The Skor had a better cash payout but still not the jackpot.
The Payday was the obvious choice and offered the best bundle of mula.

In the interest of full disclosure, we were going to give all three candy bars and their contents to the birthday boy.  But it was interesting to see the wheels turn as he tried to think through his options, afraid that his birthday joy could end with one wrong choice.  He was relieved to discover that he could keep all the money and the candy.  His birthday joy was saved.

Perhaps the most interesting point to this story is that Benjamin is a young man who has many wonderful character qualities, the most powerful character quality being a deep sense of fairness.  He has always ensured that his family and friends were treated fairly and evenly.  Everyone should have a similar opportunity.  The cards should never be stacked against anyone.  If anyone within his circle of influence suffers, then he isn't doing his level best to make the situation better.

This was never more evident than the Christmas when he was just a small boy.  The presents had all been distributed.  His sister had made Ben some sort of gift in her school class.  His older brother had invested a few dollars in a action figure that he was sure Ben would appreciate.  It was at that moment that my youngest realized that his siblings were going to be short-changed.  He hadn't gotten them a gift.  He hadn't made a card.  He hadn't thought that they would give him a gift.  He didn't anticipate the inequity of the situation.

Without a word, he disappeared to his bedroom and came down with a beloved stuffed toy.  He apologized to his sister for failing to provide a true gift and offered the panda, worn from years of love.  When she thanked him for his generosity but declined the gift, he tried to force it into her arms.  This back and forth continued until the tears burst forth as he declared his sorrow that she would be without a gift if she didn't take his most prized possession.

To this day, when I think about that moment, I am reminded of Ben's giving heart and his fair nature.  I am moved by his compassion.  I am touched by his desire to ensure that all who know him will be treated with love, generosity, and equality.

Of course, you and I know that life is more complex than stuffed panda bears on Christmas morning.  Despite the growing complexity of life, Ben is doing well to see the world in terms of right and wrong, black and white, fair and unfair. 

Homeless people want to work for food and Ben has a list of jobs for them. 
Gay friends are called names and he escorts them through the halls in an effort to protect them.
Disabled children try to move into the mainstream class and Ben is there to make their experience equal to the other children in the room.

Perhaps we weren't very fair to Ben during this most recent birthday, making him choose his gift but he dealt with it well and gave us a big hug of gratitude when the evening was over.  In the end, fairness prevailed and Ben was pleased.  I realize that our world does not need any more candy bars or stuffed pandas but there is a desperate need for more men of honor who will think of others more than themselves.  I'm so proud that my son is one of those men.

Thank God.

Apr 4, 2010

The Miracle of Flight

I am constantly amazed by the resiliency of birds.  I am especially enthralled with small birds that flourish in harsh conditions.  How can a body so small and frail withstand extreme cold, heat, winds, rain and snow?  How does one so fragile live in conditions that would cripple even the strongest man?

Of course, one obvious answer is the feather.  With this one simple adaptation, these prehistoric reptiles became great modern aviators.  The feather acts as a shield against the wind.  It serves as an insulator against the cold. Through the power of the wing, they avoid predators.  They find their food.  They mate, migrate and colonize.  What a wonderful gift.  This lightweight filament extension enables each aerial acrobat to live a life that appears effortless and free.

Sometimes people have this same wonderful gift.  For example, my friend, Galen has wings.  Not literal, flapping, feathered appendages.  But Galen sores.  Through some miracle, he has found new life in a place of harshest conditions.  Galen received a wonderful gift and as a result, he appears to live life the way God intended, effortless and free.

Last fall, my friend discovered he had prostate cancer.  This is not uncommon for a man of his advanced years, so he was not surprised when a few simple tests revealed that he suffered from the disease.  However, a series of additional tests exposed that there was more to the extensive nature of the growth.  The doctor came into the room and broke the news.  Every bone in Galen's body had the metastatic disease.  In so many words, the doctor informed him that he was "grounded".  They would do everything possible to make him comfortable but there was no good news in this diagnosis.

Just after he received the news, a mutual friend called to tell me the story.  I left the next day to see my friend and when I arrived, his wife, Alice greeted me at the door.  She led me to the living room where I met Galen.  We talked for nearly two hours.  The most moving words came early in our conversation.

Galen started the sentence with his customary, "Well.....," as if he were about to reveal the secret of the universe.  And I think he did.

"You know, I'm not afraid of dying.  I've had a good, long life and think I've made the most of it..."  Galen paused and tears came quickly to his eyes.  "But I just hate to leave Alice..."  His voice broke as he pointed his finger to his bride of decades, "...and my kids.  I just hate the thought of what I'm going to miss when I'm gone."  In my mind, I tried to think of the best pastoral response to this sad thought.  I decided there was nothing else to add and we sat in silence for several minutes as we allowed the words to settle in.

After a wonderful time of sharing, we prayed together.  We both had tears in our eyes as we said goodbye, knowing it could be the last time we would see one another until we were reunited in Heaven.

Since that visit, I've called Galen every few weeks to check on his status.  During one call, he reported that his back was beginning to bend and he could no longer stand straight. During another call, Galen shared his joy of a Christmas gathering with his family.  Another conversation brought the news that he was doing well, in very little pain, but cries easily due to the hormone therapy.

It was the last call that shocked me the most.  A repeat bone scan had been performed to evaluate the progress of the cancer.  His doctor had called with the results.

"Galen, I hope you are sitting down."  The doctor's voice had a sense of urgency.  "There isn't one spot of cancer on one bone in your body. I don't know how this happened but it did."

Through some miracle, through some blessed act of God, Galen had found healing.  He still has the prostate cancer and is still being treated for this primary source, but the metastatic disease is gone.

Of course, no one lives forever.  Everyone's time will come.  But Galen received wings on the day of the doctor's telephone call.  That call meant more days spent with Alice, more time with his children, grand and great-grand-children.  That call meant that Galen could sore above the harsh conditions of life a little while longer.  This body, so small and frail, will withstand the extreme illness, the devastating disease, the crippling diagnosis. 

What a wonderful gift.


Mar 28, 2010

The Power of One Word

Lilly Green was my second grade Sunday School teacher at the Selma United Methodist Church.  She taught dozens of children over the course of her career.

She taught students Old Testament stories of Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, and Jonah and the Whale.  She guided us through Jesus' encounters with the blind man, the woman at the well, and his disciples.

Lilly was a woman of many wise words, gentle touches, and Sunday morning snacks.  She loved her God, her church, and her students.  In return, she was loved by all.

So all were saddened when, in a sudden flash of pain, Lilly's life was dramatically changed by a devastating stroke.  The insult to her brain made it impossible for her to walk without assistance.  It drew her left hand into a lifeless jumble.  It also reduced her vocabulary to one, single word:  WELL.

With each visit to the Parker City Nursing Home, we would find Lilly sitting in her wheel chair, Bible in her lap.  She would greet us with a pleasant, lilting, "Wellllll..."  Her face would light up with enthusiasm and she would pat and rub her visitor's hands.  She would nod her head in excitement, smiling broadly.  In that moment, you knew, without a doubt, that she remembered you from Sunday morning's past and you were the most important child in the entire world.  One word declared her commitment and love, despite her location and limitation.

If you would ask what she was reading, she would respond with a thoughtful, repeating phrase and a nodding head, "Well...well - well - well..."  She would run her hands over the worn pages of the age-old Bible.  Her finger would rest on the passage and she would turn the book, urging her visitor to read it.  As you would read the passage out loud, her eyes would close and her face would relax.  As you would end the reading, she would slowly open her eyes and ask, "Well?" and wait for you to explain the meaning of the verse.  From the confines of that wheelchair, her lesson from years before would continue. Her brain may have failed but her God remained faithful.

If you asked about the food at the nursing home, she would form a quick scowl on her brow and issue an abrupt, "WELL!"  Her head would shake firmly to enhance the strong feelings.  This was always difficult for me.  I never fully understood if she was angry about a particular dish, disgusted by the bland offering, or reminded of her circumstance by the repeated presentation of beans, mashed potatoes, and jello.  But remaining true to her nature, she would allow a smile to cross her lips and she would flash an ornery wink.  With a distance in her voice, this one word would soften and she would quietly whisper, "well". 

As we prepared to leave the nursing home, Lilly would pull us close with her one good arm.  She would pat our heads and backs. With the most gentle touch imaginable, she would tell us she loved us.  "Well....well.....well...."  One "Well" for each stroke of her hand.  This one word extending affection and care.  When we drew back, there was always a tear in her eye.  She would nod her head, adjust herself in her seat to make herself as tall as possible, and place her hand back on her Bible.  My last memory of Lilly as we left her room was a hesitant wave and one, single word beckoning us to return another day, "Well - ".

Decades after her last Sunday School lesson at the church, Lilly Green continued to teach anyone who would listen.  The years she spent expressing herself with a single-syllable word taught me a valuable truth:  More words do not equate more wisdom.

You've heard the politicians speak for endless hours and say nothing.
You've suffered preachers who lost their salvation and the interest of their congregation.

You've listened to teachers who believe they know something about everything.
You've endured coworkers who ramble for hours.
You've found yourself cornered by your crazy cousin who has an opinion about politics and poverty.

All their words add nothing to humanity's collective knowledge.  Lilly taught a timeless truth.  The rest can have banality and platitudes.  I choose one well-placed word to make all the difference.


Mar 22, 2010

Dateline: Goodland, Kansas (February 15, 2006)

Small town news papers offer quite a bit to the reader. For instance, did you know that Esther P. celebrated her 90th birthday this past weekend? The notice, found on page 2A, asked well-wishers to send cards in honor of the big day. Big news from Goodland. Bigger news for Esther!

What I did not learn from the Goodland StarNews is the number of cards Esther received. So I gave her a call. We had a nice chat.

Esther points out that her memory isn't quite as sharp as when she celebrated her 70th birthday. She mentioned that her health isn't quite as solid as during her 80th birthday. But she is still going strong. After 90 years in the same small town, she still enjoys the simple things of life. For instance, she still looks forward to time spent with her daughter and her large brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As a matter of fact, when I was speaking with Esther tonight, her daughter was in the process of delivering supper. I could smell it from my own living room. There is nothing like country cookin'.

I pointed out that the paper listed she and Helen D., both of Goodland, were celebrating their 90th birthday on the same weekend. Esther admitted that she knows Helen and has even "run into her some over the years but we aren't what you'd call good friends."

Back to the card shower...Esther reports she received 50-60 cards for her big day. She said she was looking at "a whole pile of them" in her living room. There was a ring of pride and exhaustion in her voice. That's alot of cards.

I wondered out loud if Esther noticed any changes in her home town of Goodland over the past nine decades. She stopped to think for a minute and then pointed out that "Goodland has changed some. It might be a little bigger." I can understand her perspective, given that she moved from the family farm to the big city.

Esther was born on February 11, 1916, on the family farm in Ruralton, Kansas, about 10 miles west of Goodland. She left the farm for a short time to attend college but returned home when she married. Esther didn't want to talk much about her husband of 25 years but I got the feeling that her memory was being taxed. I thanked her for the time and hoped she had another happy year. She thanked me for her call and left the phone to eat her supper. Chicken and biscuits, I think.

Happy Birthday, Esther. And many, many more.

Mar 21, 2010


Beverly and Richard loved one another dearly.  It was a love that had grown over the years.  It was a love that had seen the couple through many difficult days.  But no one would have suspected the depth of commitment that would see them through the most difficult time of all.

Diagnosed with cancer, Richard had tried aggressive treatment but the disease was too powerful.  As his health declined and the realization that the cancer had advanced too far, Hospice was called to the home.  Richard was made comfortable with a bed, medication, and regular visits from his family.  The remaining time was precious to Bev and Dick who took full advantage of the waning days.

At one point, Dick declined rapidly and the family knew that he might not survive the night. He rallied slightly but slipped into a deep coma and no longer responded to Bev or the children.  For several days the family sat at his bedside, talking quietly to him and holding his hand but he remained unresponsive to their touch or words.

Several days later the family came together for another purpose.  It was their mother's birthday and they gathered to honor her special day.  Despite the sorrow of their father's disease, they believed it was important to celebrate the day of Bev's birth.  Steaks were grilled, a salad was tossed and and potatoes were baked.  The table was set and they were putting the finishing touches on the meal.  Bev sat at the beside of her unconscious husband, listening to the laughter and clatter coming from the kitchen, giving thanks for her children who had come and for the man who had made this family possible.

As she prepared to join her children, Bev realized that Dick would not be joining them at the table for the first time in their married life.  She took his hand, leaned close, and spoke softly to her love, "Dick, I'm going to go into eat with the kids and celebrate my birthday.  But before I go, I want you to know that this could be your birthday, too.  You don't have to stay here any more."

Moments later, Bev called to her children.  Before they could walk thirty feet from the kitchen to the bedside, their father had breathed his last.  In the quiet peace of this secluded home nestled along the sandy Mississinewa River bank, Dick left this party and went home to be with his Lord. 

It was quite a birthday celebration.

Mar 14, 2010

Keys to Success

Matthew and Coleman live just down the street.  They are bright, creative, and energetic and are constantly on the go. At times this can be wonderful to watch. Other times it can be quite scary.

Several years back, when they were six and eight years old, the boys were looking for a way to make some money. They wanted to do more than walk dogs and wash cars. They wanted to make big money.

They realized big money required a big plan. So they came up with a big idea. A brilliant idea. A fantastic idea. They would hold a CAR SHOW!

They collected all their toy cars, models, and hot wheels. They arranged them in nice, neat rows along the back porch. They found paper and they sharpened crayons. They scribbled signs, complete with direction arrows.  The signs proclaimed, “CAR SHOW!”  They posted these signs up and down the neighborhood and returned to their home to await the crowds. The final step of their grand scheme was to carefully mark a bowl, "Tips".

About an hour later there was a knock on the door. Their mother, completely unaware of their plan, rose to answer. She found a frail, well-tanned couple looking up at her from the front stoop. They announced that they were looking for the Car Show. Her blank expression begged for an explanation. The couple, sensing the need to clarify, continued. They lived in Florida and were visiting family in Indiana. While driving around the neighborhood, they spotted colorful signs that promised a Car Show. They followed the signs, hoping to find the big event. Here they were.

Their mother was shaken but had no doubt who was responsible. She called her two sons who ran past her and took the couple by the hands. They graciously led the southern guests to the back porch. They were beaming with pride at the arrival of these first customers! Their mother followed in complete disbelief.

Once on the porch, the aged couple understood the situation fully. Appreciating the humor, they made polite remarks about the condition of the cars, the paint jobs, and the presentation. They stayed the appropriate amount of time and dropped a dollar in the tip jar. Their laughter could be heard as they drove away.

Before any more car enthusiasts or white-haired snowbirds could arrive, the boys were ordered to take down all the signs in the neighborhood and put the cars away. They were disappointed that the show must be closed but thrilled that their plan paid off. They made some big money.

While the car show has ended, there are more money-making schemes on the boards.  I hear the boys have been hard at work with their dog, teaching him some tricks.  I want to get a front row seat for this show. The way these brothers think, they just might give Barnum and Bailey a run for their money. I hope they have their tip jar ready!