Saturday, August 25, 2012

Judge Judy and the "B" Word

Judge Judy has long been my guilty pleasure.

I set the DVR to record both 30 minute shows, every time there is a new one.  Then, when the family goes to bed, I watch.  I enjoy her direct questioning, her snap judgments, her ability to get the proper outcome more often than not.

It always seemed to me that the US Supreme Court might be much more interesting and certainly more accurate in its rulings with her "don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining" attitude.  She doesn't put up with punks who try to put one over on her.

Which brings me to the "B" word.

My wife, Teresa, had a small disagreement with several of the young teenagers in our neighborhood.  They wanted to take some of our stuff to the community pool and our son (also a young teen and friends of the other boys) asked her not to allow them to do so.  She made it clear the items were not to leave our yard.

The boys were not happy.  The gathered themselves up and went into the front of the house, huddling with each other in the street, just beyond our sidewalk.

A little while later, our son and his friends decided to go to the community pool where they played - in good spirits for an hour or so.

Because I am the wonderful husband that I am, I let Teresa spend some time mowing the yard (the temperature was only 90 degrees today).  She got much of it done and so (as a wonderful husband does) I came out of the air conditioned house and offered take over.

That is when I saw it.  The "B" word.

At the exact spot where the group of 5 boys had gathered to commiserate about Teresa's refusal to let them take our stuff to the pool was, in big letters, B * * * H.  An arrow pointed directly at our house in case, I suppose, anyone had a question about where the slur was being hurled.  It was marked into the concrete with pecans which had recently fallen from the trees in our back yard.

As soon as I saw the word, I began calling the parents of the boys.  We gathered around the word and asked who wrote it.  To a person, they denied any knowledge of it.  No one knew how it got there.  No one had any idea when it was put there.  Only that it was there and it was bad that someone had written it (since we were trying to make a much bigger point, I did not point out that the person had spelled the word wrong).

For more than 90 minutes we stood around the word, in the street, trying to find a way to get these young men to understand the hatefulness and disrespect of the thought.  To a person, they all denied any knowledge.

It got me thinking about one of Judge Judy's more interesting thoughts:  If a teenager's lips are moving, they are lying to you.

Now, it is possible that I live in a fantasy world.  I fully accept that possibility.  But I do not believe that our 19 year old daughter has ever lied to us.  She has been a great young woman who has endured even greater struggles than most adults will ever experience.  Our son has a good heart, probably tries to mislead us about things like homework but when it comes to matters of real life, I don't believe he has lied to us either.  One day they may confess that they fooled their parents all these years.

Standing around the "B" word we were being lied to by a gang of young men who we have had in our house since they were in the first grade.  Our house has been the neighborhood gathering place - a distinction we take great joy in - for all of these boys.  They drink the drinks we put in the garage refrigerator.  They eat the snacks we have in the pantry.  We even have had them stay for dinner when morning play turned to afternoon, shifted into evening and then past dinner time.  We have been thrilled that they found our house to be a comfortable home-away-from-home for basketball, AirSoft gun fights, bike riding and jumping and video games.

Now, their lips were moving and we could not trust a single word that came from their mouths.  Judge Judy was proven right.

As all of the parents eventually came to our house, we got to the bottom of it.  We know which one wrote the offending word.  We also know that all of them would have been willing to allow an innocent friend to be blamed (which is not a good sign of friendship we pointed out).

The one who has been identified by all of the others as the author of this misspelled slur even came to our door a little later.  He rang the doorbell and just said that he wanted us to be sure we knew he had nothing to do with it (his lips were moving, therefore he was lying).

All of the parents reacted with the appropriate anger.  They wanted to get to the bottom of it and to apply the proper lesson:  we will respect women, we will respect our friend's mother, we will tell the truth even when it is not easy.

But for more than 90 minutes, Judge Judy was front and center:  if something doesn't make sense, it's a lie; if a teenager's lips are moving, they are lying; if two completely opposite statements are made, someone is lying.  All of those came into play in the street in front of our house.

We want these young men to learn about how to become real men.  To respect women - not slander them with vile-intentioned names.  To stand up for a friend when their mother or sister (or other family member) is attacked in some way.  To appreciate that truth means everything in the development of their character and type of men they will be.

One of the dads sent his son home to get a bucket and a scrub brush to wash away the offending word even before determining what role, if any, his son had in the writing.  So the "B" word has gone into the gutter where it belongs.  Now if we can just wash away the memory of the boys looking us in the eyes - parent after parent - and telling us they had no hand in the writing of the word in front of our house.

They need to know that they fooled no one.  We know the truth.  The truth was seen years ago on Judge Judy.

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Grandma Introduced Me to Pink Floyd

Not many people can say that about their Grandmothers. 

When I was a kid, my grandma, Mildred Wilguess, worked for Columbia Records in Terre Haute, Indiana.  Part of her job, as I recall, was listening to the "master" record.  It was kind of like a photography negative - the "master" was used to make all vinyl records (for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about - records were the CDs of the old days). 

We were living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, then, as my Dad was finishing his doctorate at the University of Arkansas.  Grandma would usually bring records for me from her work.  It wasn't unusual for her to arrive with a bag of interesting 45s (the smaller records with a big hole in the middle) and, occasionally the bigger albums.  She once brought me a special "Bat Out of Hell" album by Meatloaf, which had the album cover image printed into the vinyl itself.

But the one that I remember, and appreciate, the most was Pink Floyd's "The Wall." 

I would sit in my bedroom for hours, listening again and again to the story that was told through that album.  This was at a time (I know this is weird) that I would sit and read newspapers aloud - in hopes that I would one day be a radio reporter (which I then did!).   "The Wall" moved my thinking about music into an entirely different realm and I came to understand a sophistication I had not heard before.  I suppose it helped to more finely tune my ears for an appreciation of the connectedness of the mood of an entire album as one story - rather than separate songs made for mass consumption. 

And it happened because of my Grandma.

She died today.

My parents sought a different life for our part of the family many years ago - Dad, pursuing higher education and, eventually, a very successful teaching career at Oklahoma State University.  Mom worked to help make that possible and then found success and satisfaction in real estate.  So we moved in 1976 away from Terre Haute. 

We made many visits over the years - every Thanksgiving and then Christmas - finishing classes, loading up a cooler with ham sandwiches and sodas and hitting the long road to Indiana.  Sometimes in snow and ice, sometimes with sleepy drivers.  Always with the intent, by my parents, to help us know who our family was and where we came from.

But, as happens, our lives become our own lives.  Jobs, marriage, kids, illness, school - all of those caused me to turn my time in other directions.  The trips to Indiana became more infrequent.  Then, non-existent.  My parents would decide to go and ask if one of us wanted to go with them.  I would always say "no" just too busy.

Except for funerals.  To say goodbye a final time.  And then, somehow, we make the time to drive the 14 hours to go. 

Grandma had a stroke on Wednesday afternoon.  I learned about its devastating effect on her the next day.  I began saying my "goodbyes" in my mind all day yesterday.  Remembering some of the things that that I associate with her and have made me the man I am today:
  • incredible hand-made noodles
  • the first time they had a shower/bath put in their house
  • running in their backyard and the smell of frying bacon coming through the screens on the kitchen windows (there was no air conditioning at all)
  • the shiny Christmas tree with a spotlight and rotating color wheel that made it green, red and maybe yellow
  • the weird sound the clock on the living room made and seemed to be really loud on nights when I slept over
  • the records of all kinds that she would bring me - many that I still have in a box that my wife is always ready to get rid of but that I insist on hanging on to.  My wife makes a great point about those records:  we don't have anything to play them on.  No ability to listen to them on any of the devices on which we listen to music. 
So I keep the good memories of her knitting, teaching me to play Solitaire (with actual cards - these were the old days, after all), the food, her great smile in my heart.  The records, I keep put away in a box.

And this weekend, I will begin the long drive to Indiana to say goodbye.  To thank her for the part she played in helping me become the man I am today.

Our greatest legacy should be found in our children and grandchildren.  They provide a window into what was important for a family.  From Grandma Wilguess that legacy is rich in noodles, records and expanding my thinking by introducing me to Pink Floyd.

Monday, July 30, 2012

It's Time for A Rest

There are many times in our lives that it seems our day would be much better if we could only pull the covers back over our head, snuggle in a little more and rest a while longer. 

Lately, there seem to be more of those days.

From an attack on young Israelis to the shooting at the midnight showing of the latest Batman movie to unrelenting violence in US cities there are many days when it does not seem that it is worth it for us to get out of bed.

Why would we?

The world is a terrible place. I fear for my life.  I fear for my children.  I fear for my friends.  I fear that I fear too much.

Facebook is full of comments, from friends of mine of all stripes, that rage against - what?  Most of what is highlighted is made up, fake arguments that come from that reliable source of information, the world wide web.  Clearly, if it is on the internet, then it must be true, right?  It must be put onto Facebook, it needs to be Twitted.  Or is that Tweeted? 

I have gay friends and female friends who are convinced that the GOP is coming to burst into their bedrooms and forcefully stop them from . . . whatever.  The list seems to go on and on.  I have conservative friends who truly believe that government troops are positioned just across the border (maybe somewhere in Kansas) to burst into their homes and take their. . . whatever.

Right now, our nation seems to be getting into a white hot rage of anger over the direction we are headed.  We have lost the sense that, as Americans, we are all in this together.  That we live in a place that is unique among nations and is a place we should be able to agree is remarkable.  That others have long harbored a desire to become American.  About what other part of the world do people actually dream about living in a country, besides the US?  But within our own people the anger grows.

This has really started me thinking. 

It seems to me now would be a good time for many of us to take a little rest.  Slow down from our instantaneous forwarding of emails and Facebook posts.  Spend some time reading more than a couple of headlines and jumping to conclusions - irrational or otherwise. 

Instead, unplug yourself for a time and read a novel.  Pick up a biography of someone worth admiring and understand that they led, oftentimes, difficult lives.  What is amazing, when one reads biography and historical books, is how much the problems sound like ones we have today. 

We can take comfort in that fact.  One of the great problems with each generation, often noted, is that it believes the history of the world started on the day they were born.  Shortsighted?  Of course.  Which is why others of us must call each other out and remind ourselves that problems have always existed. 

Politicians have always lied.
Taxes have always been too high.
There is always some outside threat to our safety.
Jobs are always in jeopardy.
Children are always getting into trouble.
Parents always are afraid they are a burden to their children.
Government always intrudes.
Businesses always just want to make another buck.

You'll find that in our history and it puts me at ease to realize that we will find an answer to the problems we have in this country. 

We will find it by reaching out and directly helping someone else.  Through our churches, through our volunteer efforts, through our schools or with our neighbors. 

We will find it by getting off of the all caps "warnings" of our friends that THE (FILL-IN-THE-BLANK) are trying to take away these rights.  By reading that this has always been a belief and our nation always comes through stronger. 

It happens because we put our beliefs in God and our churches, in non-profits and our neighbors to heal our towns, ours schools, our children, our families.  As we do that, we also bring about healing for our nation. 

Today, won't you take a moment and NOT react?  Stop forwarding, passing along, forcing upon your "friends" the latest phony disaster that is about to move like a tsunami over our nation. 

Take a moment to reach out to help someone else.  Remove their suffering.  Give them hope and encouragement.  As THAT sweeps across the nation, we will see our nation rebound.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

It's Time to Have THE Talk

What better time to sit down among family and friends and have THE talk? 

You know the one.  It's difficult and rather uncomfortable because you don't know just how much the people you are speaking with know. 

Certainly you don't want THE look that comes with it.  You know - rolling eyes, stifled yawn.  Everyone looking to get out of the room.  Uh oh!  We're NOT going to talk about that, are we?!

Actually, yes.  It's time to sit down for a very personal conversation about our family and our lives.

It's not THAT conversation.

This is the one about who we are as a nation.  About what we believe, stand for, dream about, aspire to.  Do we even do those things anymore?  Or have we come to believe, as some politicians claim, that the "best days of our nation are behind us?" 

I refuse to fall under that thought.  When I am ever so tempted to think that maybe the naysayers of the US have a point, I find my strength by going back to the history of this nation.  It is in the words, ideas and deeds of those who fought against taking a supposedly easier way that I know we are made of stronger stuff. 
The President's Chair from the
Constitutional Convention
"Whilst the last members were signing [the Constitution], Doctor Franklin, looking towards the Presidents chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art, a rising, from a setting, sun. I have, said he, often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising, and not a setting sun."  Source: BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, debates in the Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 17, 1787.James Madison, Journal of the Federal Convention
Throughout the fight to establish this nation: first in the Declaration of Independence, through the Revolutionary War and into the approval of the Constitution, it would have been much easier to give in to those who wanted to appease the British.  Usually unknown to most students today, there was not unanimous support to fight the British.  There was a large part of the population who thought things were fine just the way they were.  Those who believed our country should remain with the British felt that there was too much risk in attempting to become an independent and free country.  They were alright with being taken care by the King and his rules.  
The Liberty Bell with
Independence Hall
in the background
Yet, there was an equally large group of men and women, who today we call Patriots, who believed there was a better way.  They argued that freedom and liberty were worth fighting for.  They demonstrated that risks for a free society, which could determine its own course was far better than living under the thumb of an oppressive government that did what it wanted - with a King who enforced the laws he wanted and ignored the rules of law that were established.  

So they fought.  There was no assurance of victory.  In fact, there was a greater chance they would fail and be killed.  

They argued in ideas and ideals.  They took up arms and, in the end, defeated the British because the ideals of freedom of opportunity and self determination are great driving forces in the spirit of man.  

But do we still believe that these ideals drive the American spirit?  Has this vision for our citizens run its course?

No, it has not.  It may be tired, we may have become complacent and, perhaps, even bought into the idea that we as a people are not up to the challenges of our present time.  

Yet even this is not in any way a new idea.  Lately we have heard from those who say the Constitution is out-of-date.  Ezra Klein, commentator for MSNBC and the Washington Post has infamously said:  "The issue with the Constitution is not that people don’t read the text and think they’re following it. The issue with the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than a hundred years ago."  

Well, he is right about one thing - it was written more than a hundred years ago.  It was also ratified more than a hundred years ago.  That happened in 1789.  In Mr. Klein's world that's a long, long time ago, too!

This phony rationalization has come around before.  Read an excerpt of this 1964 speech:
"Senator Fullbright (from Arkansas) has said at Stanford University that the Constitution is outmoded. He referred to the president as our moral teacher and our leader, and he said he is hobbled in his task by the restrictions in power imposed on him by this antiquated document. He must be freed so that he can do for us what he knows is  best. And Senator Clark of Pennsylvania, another articulate spokesman, defines liberalism as "meeting the material needs of the masses through the full power of centralized government." Well, I for one resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me--the free man and woman of this country--as "the masses." This is a term we haven't applied to ourselves in America. But beyond that, "the full power of centralized government"--this was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize. They knew that governments don't control things. A government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy."
A Time for Choosing: Oct. 27, 1964
In this speech by Ronald Reagan called "A Time For Choosing," the as-yet never elected, future President set out a standard which rings true for us now.  His clarity of thought about individual responsibility vs. government control of our lives is as important this very day as it was nearly 50 years ago.   His blueprint for America gives us a confident background for having this family discussion about whether our nation is headed up or down.

Nothing has changed.  Liberals still want the government to have more control over the lives of the citizens so that they can "assure" outcomes.  Conservatives still believe that the individual is preeminent and not a small group of elites who decide for us what is best. 

In fact, if we took out the names of 1960s politicians in his speech and replaced it with today's liberals - no one, at least no one who has failed to study history, would believe that this was not written for this time.

His words echo across the generations because it is grounded in the same truth as our founding documents. 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." 

There is no assurance of any outcomes - just the opportunity to try.

Take that vision of America - idealized as it is - and view it against the prism of a story Reagan included in his 1964 speech:
"Not too long ago two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, "We don't know how lucky we are." And the Cuban stopped and said, "How lucky you are! I had someplace to escape to." In that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there is no place to escape to. This is the last stand on Earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man. This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."
This is what THE talk should focus on as we gather around with our friends and family.  Looking to the skies to enjoy fireworks we should be reminded of the battles which occurred to give us freedom and liberty.  We should teach our children about that sacrifice as the explosions go off above our heads.  They need to know that men and women we will never know gave their very lives because they believed in an America where the individual could mean something. 

Do we still believe the individual has power in America?  Was their sacrifice worth it? 

Or was it just too long ago?  Are they people that we should forget because they are far away from us in time?

There should always be a fight in our nation about the role of the individual and that of government.  Conservatives believe in the power of the individual - liberals believe in the power and righteousness of the government.  It keeps us focused on those founding documents.  They are hard to read, they are difficult to decipher yet they are based on eternal truths. 

As President, Reagan has been greatly credited with restoring a sense of hope and optimism in our nation and our ability to overcome grave challenges.  In his 1986 State of the Union Address, he gave us the drive we need today:
"Government growing beyond our consent had become a lumbering giant, slamming shut the gates of opportunity, threatening to crush the very roots of our freedom. What brought America back? The American people brought us back -- with quiet courage and common sense; with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours, for the future belongs to the free."
No matter the challenge - we have maintained our nation as a land of hope, freedom and opportunity.  In our family talk, let us challenge each other to restore that freedom, build the hope of better days and assure ourselves that opportunities are made by individuals and not the government. 

This will assure that America continues to face a rising and not a setting sun on the future of our people.  We have met every threat.  Overcome every adversity.  Only our own self deception of our personal strength, courage and ability will cause us to fail.

May God richly bless the United States of America.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Making Fire in the Darkness

My son, Landon, with Masai tribe members learning to make fire with two sticks, elephant dung and brush (who knew?).

For the past week my son and I have been traveling in Kenya.  The first couple of days we were able to go to the Tsavo East Game Reserve for a photo safari.  We were able to be up close and personal with elephants, giraffes, antelope of all kinds, 3 prides of lions (with cubs), cheetah and all kinds of other animals.  It was a great experience for him to be that close to real nature and a thrill for me, as his dad, to be there alongside him as we explored this part of Kenya.  On our way back to the major city of Mombasa, we passed into a Masai village.  The Masai tribe wears very colorful clothes, is very protective of its land and animals and was very willing to share some insights into their way of life with the two of us (although it is a rather challenging conversation to talk with your 14 year old about the men marrying up to 9 women at a time!).  

On the lookout for wild life on the Tsavo Savannah.

We have seen more stars in the sky of the southern hemisphere than we could believe existed.  There was no artificial light on the Savannah.  Just moonless nights.  The calls of elephants in the distance throughout the night.  The stars that look so different from those at home in Oklahoma.  Bright, clear stars that sent a powerful impression into each of us.  Very seldom are we able to experience night without lights, without the intrusion of humans, in the way our ancestors did.  Being at Tsavo East took us back, literally, hundreds of years.  To a time when man had to rely on their own ability to bring heat and fire and light.

At the Masai village, the tribal members showed Landon how to make his own fire.  They said that the wood they used to start the fire came from more than an hour walk away.  That only three men in the family were given to making fire and they went from hut to hut bringing the fire so that each small family unit had fire during the day.

That got me to thinking.

In our world today, we think very much that we are very independent.  In many of our minds, we are the "Marlboro Man" riding the range, strong, no need for anyone else.  But if it came down to it, could we even do something as simple as make a fire without all the convenient tools we have at our disposal?
These Masai tribe members would be looked down upon in our society because they don't have anything.  Literally, they have the clothes on their back, cattle that they raise and keep in their mud huts with them to protect them from lions, and the mud huts themselves.  That's it.

Yet, every morning, they have the ability to start their day from scratch and make a way for their families because they can do basic things - start a fire, collect water, gather food - for themselves.

If it came down to it, in many ways, the Masai are more secure than you or I.  If the power goes out - we sit by and wait for someone at the power company to reconnect us and turn the lights on.  We assume we will always have fresh water piped to our homes - but what happens if the pumping station goes off line?

We are not a bit independent anymore - we are more interconnected than ever before and rely on outsiders, faceless and nameless, to assure that we can live a comfortable, peaceful life.  The Masai know they can rely on each other and see themselves as an interconnected family.  Because they are.  The chief is the father, literally.  He marries up to 9 or 10 wives.  Each new wife and subsequent children occupy a new hut in the circle of the village.  Three men are responsible to all the others to bring the fire.  The women are responsible for finding the water and preparing the food for all.  Everyone knows their role - some care for the grazing cattle, some tend the goats, others prepare to defend the village against aggressive animals for the coming night.  Everyone has something to do to make the tribe function.

It seems to me that because we have managed to make our lives in the United States so comfortable, there is often no need for many people to do anything.  Nothing at all.  No one notices if they do nothing.  No one cares if they do nothing.  What a terrible shame.  In a sense, these people have far, far less than the Masai.

They have no purpose.

I believe we have an obligation to do more.  As I have had the privilege to work with churches, church leaders and non-governmental agencies in Mombasa, Kenya, I am convinced that we are doing some things very wrong in the United States.  We have made life so simple and easy that we encourage people to do nothing and they end up with meaningless lives.  These churches fight every day to help their members survive spiritually and physically.  They are in actual battles with terrorist cells as churches and church gatherings are hit with hand grenades to kill and frighten off church members (I'll write more about that later).  It is the church, and the hope that it brings, that brightens the lives of these men, women and children.  Educating, teaching vocations, offering job assistance, teaching new agriculture techniques.  Giving them a spiritual grounding that let's them know that they have not been forgotten by God.  They do so much with so little.  In America, we see far too many people who do so little with so much.
Landon after the Masai warrior dance.

Today, will you think about the fire that you bring?

Can you make a fire that brings light to the darkness of someone around you?  To aid someone who may be at the end of their rope?  To accept the reality of the abundance of our life in the United States and do more with it!

Tonight, think about making a fire in the darkness and whether you use what you have to make a difference in this world.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Listening for the Elephant in the Trees

Cheetah in the Masai Mara Region of Kenya/Tanzania

I am in the preparation stages of a trip to Kenya on behalf of the church I attend.  We will have the privilege of working with nearly two dozen churches in the Mombasa area, on the Indian Ocean. 

Several years ago, my wife Teresa, and I, on a similar trip, were able to go on a safari in the Masai Mara region of Kenya.

She is an amazing photographer who, led by a great safari guide, was able to get close-up, unforgettable pictures of life in the wild.  It is rather intimidating to get this close to lions fighting over a recent kill (sorry, life in that area is pretty graphic) - the sounds of the flesh tearing, the smells of a day old kill in the heat (this was definitely NOT a Disney experience) and the realization that we were only feet from "real" wildlife.  The only protection we had was the experience and wisdom of our guide.  He took some risks to get us very close and as real an experience as possible.

Four female lions working on a wildebeast.
Our guide's name was Cyrus.  He owned (and still does today) his own safari company, with vehicles, that take tourists into as realistic an encounter with Kenyan wildlife as possible.  There seemed to be such incredible joy for him as he led us on a discovery of the life of Kenya.  In fact, the photo below, of the family of elephants, pleased him immensely. 

He slowed the safari vehicle to a crawl and pointed into the trees about 25 yards away.  His whispered question was:  do you hear them?  We thought he was joking.  We didn't hear anything except the incredible presence of silence. 

"No," he said.  "Really listen and watch." 

Within a minute or so, nearly 20 elephants came from out of the trees.  Neither my wife nor I saw trees moving, felt shaking, heard sounds - until they appeared en mass.  We saw adult, teen and baby elephants walking along, doing elephant things.  When they saw us, the teens moved to protect the babies and the adults surrounded them all and they kept moving.  It was an awe inspiring experience to balance the silence of their movements and the size of their bodies.

And yet, they were not silent.

An elephant family emerged from a cover of trees only feet from our vehicle.

Cyrus knew they were there.  Cyrus heard the noise they made.  Noticed the motion of the trees caused by 20 or more massive bodies moving toward our position.  He put us in the exact right place to get photos that would capture that moment in time - bringing us years of joy as we recollect that day and, hopefully, giving you a peek into the wildlife of Kenya by seeing the handiwork of Teresa and Cyrus.

Giraffe seemed to race the safari vehicle to cross the road first.
That day got me thinking.

How much do we miss in our lives just because we are too busy, too loud, too harried to notice the elephants walking near us?

There is so much that goes on around us.  Too much in fact.  Much of our day is focused on shutting out unwanted sights, sounds, smells.  And people.  That is a shame because in our fight to preserve "our space" we miss getting to experience some of the blessings that can come our way from other things that inhabit the same place.

Had Teresa and I been alone on the safari, we would have sped past the stand of trees holding the elephants.  We would have been in a hurry to "see" the next big thing we needed to see.  To race to finish that part of the safari like the giraffes in the picture above.

And we would have missed the biggest family of animals we had ever been around.  Missed it entirely.

In the old days (otherwise known as the 1980s), there actually was time for silence.  Cell phones didn't exist.  Radio stations only carried so far.  It was not unusual to travel for miles and miles in silence.  Thinking, listening to the quiet.  Or, in that quiet you could hear the small, still voice of God.  Prodding, encouraging, prompting us to action. 

With all of the noise that surrounds our every waking hour, we shut out the opportunity to hear God's voice in any part of our life.  We often pray that God will guide us, direct us.  What if He is whispering His word in our ears?  But they are plugged by earbuds for our music.  Clogged by the cell phone extending from our head.  Overloaded by satellite radio and tv.

But on the plains of the Masai Mara - we heard - silence.  Big silence.  So quiet that it almost hurt your ears.  I found that, after a couple of days, I could hear the sound of hippos thumping the water from miles away.  I could hear the hyenas circling the wildebeast kill to scavenge after the lions finished.  I could hear the wings of the vultures beating above us, looking for "leftovers."

The time of silence caused my ears to become sensitive to all sounds around me.  I was amazed at how quickly Scripture or spiritual songs came to my mind as an explanation for what I was seeing and hearing.  The words, stories and songs came so naturally to me in that setting of wildlife that I felt like it had been bottled up for a long, long time.  Just waiting for a chance to come out - when the silence could be filled by the words of God.  The words were always there but it was too loud to be heard.  Until the silence filled my ears.

The contrast between the big silence and the big wildlife was astounding.  Inspiring.  Necessary. 

Now, I try to take that kind of time.  Shut out some of the noise.  Listen for the elephant in the trees.
Do you?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Picking Up Strangers After Dark

What do you do?  Seriously.  What do you do? 

I had just finished a marathon meeting at our church - talking about mission work.  Talking, literally, for hours, about how to help reach those in need around the world.  Hours.  Of talk. 

It's very dark.  It's 11:30 at night (our meeting talking about helping people started at 6:00 p.m.).  As I approach a very poorly lit intersection in a heavily wooded area, I see a young man waving his arms - clearly needing help.  Car hood is lifted.  Car windows are broken out and covered with plastic sheeting.  Car has been used hard and beaten up. 

What would you do?  Let me tell you, the conversations running through my head were really going crazy!
"If you stop, he might have a gun"
"If you don't stop, aren't you forgetting the lesson of the Good Samaritan?"
"I have a family at home, what about the gun he (must have) tucked into his pants?  He'll make me drive to the house and will hold us hostage."
"Didn't you just spend hours talking about the theory of helping people?  What if this is God's way of reminding you there are people to be helped just around the corner?"
"Man up!  Stop and see if you can help - just don't roll the window down very far (as if a partially opened window will stop a bullet (from the gun that must be hidden in his waistband!)."
Then, the clearest conversation of all came into my mind:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. ”  Matthew 25:31-46

So I stopped.  I rolled down the window - all the way.  Got out of my car. 

What happened?

He needed help.  Car broken down.  Dark part of the road.  He said he was scared because you never know what kind of a person might stop at that time of night.  He is African-American, from Detroit, with felony convictions.  One person had stopped and promised to return but had not.  Most people sped away from him. 

As we talked, it was clear he had a troubled past.  Said that Oklahoma actually was offering him hope for a future.  He is a cook at an area golf course and so he moved into a drab motel along the interstate, close to work because he could walk if he needed to (this wasn't the first time his car had broken down). 

A couple of things he said really hit home hard.

Really got me thinking.

He said it is really hard to be in his situation.  His housing cost $205 per week.  He makes about $500 per week if he works every day.  He is falling farther behind every day.  How many of the people around us are "working poor?"  Here is a guy that is not lacking in desire to work - even moving closer to his workplace to walk if he had to be able keep his job.  He is not lazy, he is not slacking.  Yet, it seems he keeps taking some "hits to the head."  He, in the few minutes I was with him, seemed to epitomize the "hand-up not hand-out" idealism.  He wants to work, change his life, become a self-sustaining person and yet the differential between his earning ability (right now) and the basic cost of living is a very fine margin.  For him, there is no room for any more mistakes. 

What a terrifying way to live.  And he told me of many of the others who live in the same place with similar stories.

Then, he asked what made me stop to help.

What made me stop?  The voice that came through most clearly was that of Jesus asking what I did for someone in need.  So I told him.

I told him that he looked like a young man who needed some care.  That I had just finished a meeting at my church - and he asked another question:  "can you tell me about your church? I'm new here and I know I need a church to help keep me walking the right path."

So I did.

We talked about how he got into trouble (drugs/women - not necessarily in that order), what he was doing to trying to stay out of trouble and how, with his history and current circumstances - trouble seems easy to get into.  It's a very tough life for a young may trying to come back from bad decisions.

In the meeting at church that I was coming from, we talked about how to help introduce people around the world to the loving word of God, to the saving grace of Jesus Christ and to a life of hope.  How much would we spend in this part of the world or that?  How many people would go here or there.

God opened the door for me to all of those things by picking up a stranger after dark.  It cost nothing and could provide him with everything. 

Sometimes, to make an impact, we have to roll our windows all the way down and make the offer to help. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Changing of the Guard

It seems like much of our lives we spend time trying to keep things calm.  Change makes many us of very nervous - we really don't like the uncertainty which comes from stepping into a new job, visiting a new place, even meeting new people can often bring about great stress.
Tonight, though, the phrase "Changing of the Guard" was greeted with great excitement and joy in our town, Oklahoma City.  Tonight, our Oklahoma City Thunder took on the reining NBA Champs the Dallas Mavericks and put them away early in the 2nd half.  The Mavs, long admired now look very tired.  The Thunder, on the other hand, have the enthusiasm and vigor of youth.  The enduring legs to fight through tough stretches.  An ability to take a punch and go on.  Oklahoma City now looks like a team that will win championships many times over - it is a new age in the NBA, it is a passing of the torch.  It is a change that could not have been more evident and clear.  
I'm just thinking.  We can look at the need for change in some areas of our life and live in fear that it will happen.  In others (like our embrace of the Thunder's victory), we see change and we revel in it, spread it to all who will listen and give others a piece of the thrill that happens when we realize we are living change.

"All your life, no one will be able to hold out against you.  In the same way I was with Moses, I'll be with you.  I won't give up on you; I won't leave you.  Strength!  Courage! You are going to lead this people to inherit the land that I promised to give their ancestors.  Give it everything you have, hear and soul.  . . . Don't get off track, either left or right, so as to make sure you get where you're going.  And don't for a minute let this Book of the Revelation be out of mind.  Ponder and meditate on it day and night . . ..  Haven't I commanded you?  Strength!  Courage!  Don't be timid; don't get discouraged.  God, your God is with you every step you take."  -  Joshua 1:5-9 (Message)

What part of life isn't really about change?  That means we have to take the message above seriously - be courageous in the face of change.  Have courage to embrace the change and adapt our ways, realizing that our God is walking alongside us.  As we move into new lands, new phases of life, we can rely on God's faithfulness that he will deliver us into the land that he has promised us.

Today, recognize the change around you.  Take it on as a step of faith.  Know that no stress is too great for God to help us through.  

The OKC Thunder stand on a brink of sports greatness.  Imagine how foolish they would look if they stepped back, afraid to move into that next level.  What would we think of ourselves if we flinched at the time of our greatest opportunity to transform our own life?