Blog Archives

Lessons From the Waiting Room

This morning, I pulled on my clothes at 5:30 am and headed to the hospital to be with a member going into surgery. It took me back to August of 2001 when my “baby” sis had breast cancer. I wasn’t pastor that day. I drove to Atlanta, took the day off, and went to be with my family as she fought the toughest fight of her (maybe any of our family). She is 12 years my junior, and I left home for college when Amy was only 5. I adored her more like a doting uncle than a brother, although as adults I have loved her as a peer. She is smart, lovely, and, it turned out, a fighter. She went through it, survived, and is going strong. Still, I went back to that day, years ago, when I sat, helpless, in a waiting room, unsure what the coming hours would bring. It taught me some lessons.

Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  Last week, though, Vickie and I spent the day where so many of our members find themselves at one time or another—in the waiting room.  As we awaited my sister’s surgery, I found myself in the unusual position of being the recipient of visits.

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

As a family we had gone through all the decisions, phone calls, prayers and anxiety that patient families do.  Now the day had come and we had to—wait.  Here are some of the lessons I learned for just one day.

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom. You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day. Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect it.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort. You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people I hadn’t met from her church came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her older brother from out of town.” No tie.
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse. I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit. (Editor’s note: this is better now)
  • Time is timeless in a hospital. That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations. Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, you’re Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world. People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped. God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.
  • 2017 update: In the waiting room, you are all the same. Democrat, Republican, affluent suburbanite, poor rural family, educated and street smart, old and tired and toddlers rambunctious. We are one in our waiting. Too bad we can’t keep that in us when we go home. The man next to me is worried about his wife, the lady over there and her friend are laughing, someone else praying. If we all hang in there, we’ll get through the day. Wait. Pray. Hope.  

Read the rest of this entry

A Prayer for Parents and Children

Yesterday I listened to an NPR story on the radio in my car about Noel Anaya. According to the piece on their website Anaya

was just a year old, he and his five brothers and sisters were placed in the California foster care system. He has spent nearly all of his life in that system and has just turned 21. In California, that’s the age when people in foster care “age out” of the system and lose the benefits the system provides. That process becomes official at a final court hearing. Anaya, along with Youth Radio, got rare permission to record the proceeding, where he read a letter he wrote about his experience in the foster care system. (to listen to his letter, go to NPR

While the news is filled with hearings and floods, refugees and wars, this touched me. This young man now launches, out on his own, still searching for a family to love him. Today, I was reflecting on families in pain, intact and broken, and penned this prayer.

God of night and day, dark and light, Lord over joy and pain,

Holder of nations and blesser of babies, witness of Creation and the fall of a single sparrow,

This day, we are comforted that you see the brokenness of your children,

And the brokenness of our children.

In this moment where the road is uncertain, the way unclear

The fog seems to never end, and the light fades ahead,

The path littered with human pain and the wreckage of sorrow,

Help us to look up from our stumbling,

Into the face of Christ,

Who alone knelt in the night of the Garden and remained awake

Who knows what we suffer, for he himself has suffered,

Who was betrayed by his own, hauled away by conspirators of hate and fear,

Tried by those who loved only their own places of entitlement and safety

And condemned by the ignorant and the powerful alike

To die alone with the burdens of the whole world on Him,

And in that face to hear those blessed words,

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

But he also looked into the face of his anguished mother

And his beloved disciple and made them into family.

“Mother, behold your Son.”

“Son, behold your mother.”

Give us ears attuned to the cries of the ignored,

Eyes to see the invisible ones,

Hearts to understand and welcome the lonely.

Show us the way,

Hold our hands,

Sturdy our resolve,

Settle our doubts,

And empower us to trust that we can keep walking forward

In our own Gethsemanes and Calvaries of the soul.

Amen.

“Sixty is Just Alright”

It’s a good time to polish up friendships, love family, forgive, thank and bless.

So I turned sixty, and for some reason the people around me celebrated for a week.  I know with Ebola, the Ukraine, ISIS  and Israel causing the end-of-the-worlders to crank out their book my firthday isn’t a big deal globally, but it has been to me.

Sixty

Sixty is alright for sure.

Over the last five years I have laid to rest a close friend, a father-in-law (who was a second father to me) and a mentor and colleague I have known for 21 years and was my predecessor.  The Shadow has been around lately.  I have grandchildren.  There is likely more life behind than before me years-wise.  You know—morbidity hangs around.  Joints ache a little more.

You’ve poured a lot of concrete by sixty.  Decisions, patterns, character, and events harden into tracks out of which it’s hard to escape.  On the other hand, those same tracks give a certain comfort and stability to life.  It’s hard to break them up.

The upside has surprised me, though.  A certain amount of “I just don’t care about that anymore.”  I don’t care very much at all what others think about what I think.  I don’t need to correct them all Read the rest of this entry

Daniel Murphy, Sports and Babies

“J——, this is your pastor.  Now having heard your

confession on the air, will you stop by to receive

penance instructions about being a better father and husband?”

It’s just too easy to weigh in on the comments of Mike Francesca and Boomer Esiason about Daniel Murphy’s decision to take two days to be present for his baby’s birth.

Daniel Murphy, new Dad, plays second base for the New York Mets.

Daniel Murphy, new Dad, plays second base for the New York Mets.

Of course, we live in a time of sportainment.  More and more, as politics becomes hopelessly unresponsive and global problems impinge on every part fo life, sportainment is the way we escape–from real life.  Except that ultimately isn’t an option.

One day I listened in on sports radio–I admit, it’s a guilty pleasure on the way to the hospital or a meeting, in part because I will always laugh at something pretentious, silly or absurd.  And much of what is discussed is fun to consider.  A husband caller complained to Paul Finebaum about a player’s tweet after Alabama lost its bowl game that “it’s only a game.”  His argument was that it isn’t.  He went on, passionately, to say that though he was a member of a church and loved his family, that during the football season he spends more time and money on the sport than on his wife and kids or his church.

My jaw dropped since I am a minister, but why should it?  I like to imagine that I might follow up crazy calls.  What would I say?  Disguised voice: “This is Dr. Hapner Wogwillow.  I am a marriage therapist.  I treat his wife for depression and recognized him in the call.  He needs to go home.  She just left for good with the kids.  I will tell him their names if he’ll call me.  BR-549.”  My other idea was to, “J——, this is your pastor.  Now having heard your confession, will you stop by to receive penance instructions about being a better father and husband?” Read the rest of this entry

Asking Good Questions: A Sermon for a Young Parent

 I’d want them to know my love was so strong that no matter how bad it gets,

how far down they go, who leaves them and abandons them, I won’t. 

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.    

Looking at a newborn is a pretty overwhelming reality.  It is the age we are in.  Vickie and I were sitting outside in the

waiting room, getting more anxious by the moment for our daughter and her husband and a little one.  Being born is

from cdc.gov site

from cdc.gov site

dangerous, not guaranteed, and full of anxiety, no matter what reassurances we are given.  In fact, the greatest advice from the OB to our daughter the last two months was, “Don’t Google.”

We don’t know how to know what to do with all the information.  In the old days, they took the mother, the father paced outside, and  the baby arrived.  It was the first inkling of what you had—boy or girl.  No paint colors until you knew.

Now, you have more knowledge about this infant than the NSA has of your cell phone.  But what to make of it?  Truth is, there is still a place where we cannot intrude with knowledge, and it is the miracle of life itself.

But don’t get me wrong.  It’s great to know.  And here’s how we got the word.  We’re sitting there, grandparents, waiting, worrying, praying.  Getting texts from our kids and friends—praying for you, hoping, let us know, that sort of thing.  And we occupy ourselves by answering these as we wait.  Naturally, we are watching the other occupants of the room.  A waiting room is pure democracy.  Rich, poor, well-dressed and barely dressed, country and city, every Read the rest of this entry

Standing Next to Death

I have not posted here in a month.  I took the month of January off in a period of “lying fallow,” if someone with as many hats as I wear can ever really “lie fallow.”  Truth is, though, I ;have been learning to stop now and then, reassess and see how we’re all doing.

gravesideMostly in this month I’ve been working hard.  The church where I am Pastor had six deaths in about three weeks.  All were  friends (and that is becoming the most common description of who I funeralize now, since my 20th anniversary is approaching) and two near my age were among that group.  One, Steve Blackwelder, was an ex-Marine.  I mean a REAL Marine, a tunnel rat in Viet Nam who saw death up close and personal.  Yet in ;the life after that, while he suffered and struggled in many ways, he lived out kindness and care for others in every way that he could.  He collected Beatles ties, and all the pallbearers and my associate Pastor wore one of Steve’s to the service.  The next Sunday, I told the church about Steve coming over when I moved in in 1993 to fix some plumbing issues and then setting my backyard on fire by accident when he flicked a finished—but not extinguished—cigarette through the fence.  We put it out, and now it was a laugh for us.

Then there was Bob Daily.  He was a former deacon, Sunday School teacher, you name it volunteer, the guy who went to welcome anyone to the church with a cold call.  He was my insurance agent and I ate breakfast with him weekly for 20 years, so pardon me for feeling a little vulnerable at the moment.  Read the rest of this entry

Keeping Children Safe in a Dangerous World

Last weekend, our family gathered in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.  I must hasten to add, my folks are still relatively young—they married right out of high school, had me by age twenty, and the avalanche of four kids and their spouses, twelve grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, along with spouses, dogs, cats, and horses.  We spent the weekend sharing a Holiday Inn Express breakfast area and their home—telling stories, laughing late into the night, and torrid games of Uno at the hotel with three of our aunts who came to help and their spouses.

I was humbled as I listened to my elders tell stories about us, realizing how large the protective covering of love was for us.  My Dad was one of nine, my mother one of eight, and one who died at birth.  A large family is chaotic sometime, but as my Aunt Johnnie philosophically puts it, “Oh, we argue and fuss and get mad but we always keep getting together.”

We have known our share of heartbreaks, losses, tragedies and struggles, all of us.  But we keep getting together.  There is something astounding about families, something enduring, durable, that transcends politics and economics.  Dirt poor was always not as poor as the people down the road, and besides, “we always had each other and enough to eat.  So we didn’t think we were poor.”  That despite clothes made out of anything mothers could find and food they grew themselves. Read the rest of this entry

Dogs, Giraffes and Why Barney Had It Right

The national outpouring of gratitude and mourning over the death of Andy Griffith goes on.  It has spawned a jillion tribute video clips on YouTube and endless comments below each one about the comfort and familiarity each one brings.  So here’s one of my favorites.

What are we going to do with all these dogs?

I have been plowing through James Davison Hunter’s book, To Save the World, which isn’t about Andy Griffith, but about culture and faith.  It is nearly 400 pages, and reads like a scholar summing up his work to me.  Mostly it is about the misguided foray of the church into politics over the past few generations—but also a recognition of the reduction of everything in our culture right now to national politics.  Davison laments this, for cultures hold together by so much more than elections and news cycles.

He argues that we misunderstand the deepest work before us—to move the culture toward the divine vision of a kingdom that comes not through weapons, kings and coercion but through the power of persuasive love in human lives, ethos and story.  It is a vision large enough, rightly conceived, to make a place for those who disagree with us without the need to punish, coerce and control them.  This life we talk about begins with a man named Jesus and the character and depth that resonates out of stories and teachings that keep stirring up our thinking 20 centuries later.

Those stories in the Bible, like all stories worth reading, and like good acting, convey something that leaps from the core of the speaker and connects to us, resonates deep inside and keeps speaking long after we read it or see it.  There is nothing like a life lived with its energies concentrated to something good and meaningful.

One of the tenets of Christianity is that we gain life by resignation from the egocentric self.  In other words, while an “ego” is a normal part of human life, an egocentric life, obsessed with its own security, safety and control, can be quite destructive to the person and the people around them.  This lives out large in the Stalins and Hitlers of history, but also in everyday life.

Hunter, To Change the World

David Mace, the found of marriage enrichment, said at the end of his life that after all those years of talking about communication, money and sex with couples that success in marriage came down to one key—the ability to deal creatively and redemptively with one’s own anger.  After 33 years as a professional minister, counseling, listening to troubled people, and coaching young newlyweds-to-be I believe he was right.

There is one key about the anger we have—the capacity to step back away from ourselves and take ourselves with less than ultimate seriousness.  “Getting my way” is second to “getting it right,” don’t you think?  But the egocentric self says, “It has to be my way or all is lost!”  And you know what comes next.

I am watching “Andy Griffith” reruns with my wife in the evenings.  Since they are recorded you can watch one n about 18 minutes when you take out the commercials.  So when the news looks repetitive (as in EVERY night) or so dreary, or when we just don’t want to watch one of our history or biography programs, we pull up an Andy Griffith from the DVR and soothe ourselves.

This week, we watched one of our favorite episodes, “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs.”  It was written by Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who wrote many of the great “Mash” episodes and for many great comedy shows (a great blog about them here by Ken Levine CLICK

Opie finds a stray little dog, who disappears and comes back with some doggie friends.  Andy and Barney are expecting an inspector from the state, so they have to get the dogs out of sight.  They try sending them home with Otis Campbell, the town drunk, but they come back with more.  Finally Barney drives them out into the country and dumps the dogs in a field to run and play.  Opie becomes anxious when a thunderstorm begins, worried about their safety.  Barney tries to explain that they will be okay, and in the course of his explanation hits of my favorite lines of all time.  Dogs are not like giraffes, Barney says. They take care of their own, and they are low to the ground.  Not giraffes.   “Boy, giraffes are selfish.  Just running around, looking out for #1 and getting struck by lightning.”

A marriage, a neighborhood, a church or synagogue, a club or a nation can only abide a certain quota of giraffes.  Now dogs?  More the merrier.  I’d say Barney was exactly right.

Memories of Dad

There were times as a young man when I complained to myself

A memory of Dad…where do you start?  I have pictures in my mind.  First, of looking up at this tall, silent man.  Looking up in fear sometimes, in awe most of the time as he went about life.  He was strong, good, quiet, rarely angry with us.  I looked up when I read his scrapbooks, hook shots flying through the air, frozen forever as the ideal athlete.  Playing catch in the backyard or playing basketball while he watched, always the same.  You were the mount Everest of my childhood.

I have pictures of you with tools, hammering, sawing, sweating, up on ladders, on the roof, in the garage, in the yard.  You weren’t still very much.  I wanted to be like you. When I got married and got desperate enough, I got a job pulling nails and then driving them.  You gave me my first hammer.  I still have it, by the way.  I barely knew which end was which, but I always watched you as a boy, so I tried to draw on that and learned enough to do for myself and become a certified carpenter, which convinced me that preaching and air-conditioning was a pretty good way to go.  But still, you showed me how to use my hands.

Pictures of you at the store, day in, day out, working long days, all day, nearly every day, and never really griping about it.  How tired you must have been!  But, come the next day, up you got, out the door and on about your business.  It was a mystery until we all did our time on the McCrory’s Christmas chain-gang in the toy department. Then we wanted it to be a mystery again.  But I would watch you, handling things, helping people find what they wanted, setting up displays, really enjoying it, to tell you the truth.

I have pictures in my mind of you at my wedding, at my ordination, reading my charge, coming to see us.  You stood around at the edge of all the noise and stories and excitement and grinned, taking it in, feeling no need to say much, but delight shining from your eyes.  My girls adore you for your sweetness and gentle spirit.

Oh, and what would I do without those images of you sitting in the bedroom in the evening, by yourself, plucking that black Sears Silvertone electric guitar, singing, “I Want to Go Home” and Hank Williams.  You gave me bluegrass and my first guitar and the love of music.  Mother gave me method and lessons, but I have you to thank for playing by ear and the instinct for improvising.  The joy of your retirement years has been sharing music together, rediscovering the music you knew as a young man.  How I wish Uncle Paul were still here when I could really enjoy it!

Hear Gary’s song, “Daddy Never Said” from his permanent world of pretend album [clilck here to listen] 

And I remember some pretty short but wise proverbs you gave me.  “We’ll be there when we get there.”  “People do what they have to do.”  Lots of stories.  And as far as jokes, some of the worst groaners I’ve ever heard.  Corny, but we told them to our kids anyway.

There were times as a young man when I complained to myself that you were so busy and I wished I could have had more time with you.  But now I look back and see that my life is full of images you gave me.  Work, family, music, faith.  Plenty of good things for life.  And I realize what a big, cool shadow you cast over my life in the heat of growing up.  You were always there to provide for us, show us, and delight in us.  I am grateful and I love you.

A Mother Is a Miracle

A mother is a miracle, certainly why any of us were born,

and the main reason most of us have survived to tell about it.

A mother is a miracle, certainly why any of us were born, and the main reason most of us have survived to tell about it.  We are among the weakest of all creatures when you think how long it takes us to live on our own.  We have to have nurture and protection long after being  (spoiler alert) hatched/delivered.  Each mom devotes nine months to getting us safely here, nine months  of her life, bodily resources, and emotional stability.   They eat for us, drink for us, and carry us.

My mother, holding brother Greg and me by the hand, 1957

When we arrive we become the center of their life energy for years to come and a source of worry and anxiety for our happiness until the day they die or lose their faculties for good.  There are bad mothers, mean mothers, damaged goods mothers and mentally ill mothers, but the adjectives merely beg the case.  “Mother” without a descriptor automatically assumes what we know—that God endowed nature to give us one who would delight forever in our mere being and be there for us in our stumbles.  They are the first and most lasting transmitters of human culture and spiritual values.

There are those whose loss of motherhood before it began will be their deepest source of sadness and loss.  Today is a hard, hard day for them, for there is in their heart and mind the longing that has left such crushing disappointment.  So the task of life is to redirect this most powerful and radiant energy to other acts of love—toward nephews and nieces, neighbors and orphans, teaching and doting upon the children of the world.  The world needs mothering.  It doesn’t have to be one on one.

I have been born once on this earth and was fortunate to have a mother who always wanted the best for her children, celebrated our victories and took our side with utter and unrelenting bias in every conflict.  Today in America many whose mothers have died will shed a tear and smile more than once to remember someone who was forever their home base when “it” came to get them.  When Mom passed away, the shelter over their head was gone forever and they took her place.

Join me in gratitude for mothers, each and every one, those who birthed and raised us, those who helped fill the void by loving us if a mother didn’t or couldn’t.  Mothering is pure grace.  A good mother loved you from the first stirrings inside.  She recognized you the moment your eyes met.  And if, per chance, your mother did no more than give you life, celebrate that and look around.  If you’re still standing, some Mother Life somehow got to you—by a Mom who chose you, a family member who took care of you, a teacher or a neighbor who took you under wing and helped.

To the women in our lives whose obsession is to take care of all of us and teach us how to take care of ourselves and each other, thank you.