Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Friends and Hosts

Two or three weeks back, I did not write anything for Christ in Winter for a couple of days because I could not get my computer to work in the Ambassador Inn in Wisconsin Dells. That’s where we meet George and Ida Belle Paterson less frequently than we would like. It’s a convenient meeting spot, half-way between Iowa City, where they live, and Iron Mountain.

The Dells is a tourist spot—water parks and duckboats and all that. We don’t “do” anything there, though. We just talk and look at photos, get caught up on families and insights.

As we get deeper into winter, the friends of spring and summer become all the more important. They share our memories. They are chapters in our biographies.

There is a poignant episode of M*A*S*H where Col. Potter tells a reporter that he loves and respects the bright young surgeons and nurses with whom he works, but he is lonely. He is the only one of his generation. No one else in his unit shares his memories.

George and Ida Belle share our memories.

George spent most of his career in Iowa City, first as the Director of The Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the Univ. of Iowa, then as Chaplain of University Hospital, as a Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education, and as a professor in the School of Religion. Ida Belle raised their four children and worked in a doctor’s office. They befriended us when we lived in Iowa City while I did graduate work at the university.

After we moved back to Illinois, we didn’t see each other for around 20 years. But when we followed the grandchildren to Mason City, IA, we took up our friendship again. We had just gotten started when grandson Joe was diagnosed with liver cancer, at 15 months of age. He and Katie spent most of the next year at Children’s Hospital, part of University Hospital in Iowa City, while Patrick worked in Mason City and Helen and I took care of four-year-old Brigid there.

Without hesitation, George and Ida Belle became surrogate parents to Katie and Patrick and surrogate grandparents for Joe. They often kept me in their home when I was at the hospital, too. They helped us all through some very difficult times with the grace of hospitality and presence.

Little Joey knew immediately that these were his friends. One day early in his hospital year, when they came to support Patrick and Katie through the difficult days of diagnoses and treatment plans, he became quite agitated. He could barely talk, but he finally communicated to his mother that he wanted his pants. He was just in a diaper. His friends had come to visit. He knew he should wear pants for such an occasion.

I’ll say more about friendship in the years of winter later, if I can get online, but right now I’ll conclude with this: a good host wears pants.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sharing Wisdom

I prayed for all my preaching friends on Sunday morning, as I do each Sunday morning, wishing I had words of wisdom to share with them. They don’t need my words of wisdom, but I feel uneasy if I’m not sharing words of wisdom, since I seem to have so many, and younger preachers seem to have so few.

That’s not true, of course, on either count. I don’t have wisdom just because I am old, and younger people don’t lack it just because they are young. One of the frustrations of old age, though, is wanting to share what wisdom we do have and finding that no one wants it.

I recall an older man in one of my churches. I’ll call him “Harry.” He thought he was the elder statesman and that whenever he spoke, that was the end of the discussion. I sometimes did not think his word was adequate as the last word, and so I would keep the discussion going. This bothered Harry, enough that he began to give me those “distant” signals that church people give, meaning he would not talk with me about his dis-ease with me, but he told other people in the church, and each year he led a movement to deny me a salary raise.

At one of those “no raise” church conferences, Harry was especially distraught because one of the younger men in the church, in his 30s, had openly opposed him. The next morning Harry was in my living room, bemoaning the lack of respect that younger people had for their elders, and presumably betters.

One fascinating part of that scene was that he still thought of me as his pastor. Even though he disliked me and my unwillingness to acknowledge him as the only wise person in the church, and just the night before had tried to deny me a salary raise, when he wanted to complain about others who did not adequately respect his wisdom, he came to me, and expected me to understand. He wasn’t there to apologize, but to get my sympathy.

I did sympathize with him, of course, in part just because I was his pastor, but also because I could anticipate that time when I would be in his chair, in his years, wanting to share wisdom and not finding many takers.

The traditional way to become wise is by making mistakes. I recall my uncle, Johnny Pond, when he was building his hardware store next to the grocery store of his brother, my uncle Ted, complaining that Ted kept telling him that one thing or another he was doing was a mistake, and that Ted knew it was a mistake because he had done it himself. “Yes,” said Johnny, “but I want to learn the same thing by making the same mistake.”

Listening to the wisdom of others is probably a more efficient method to learn, but it’s not how we want to do it. So I sit and watch younger people make mistakes. I could tell them how to avoid them, but the best lesson is the one you learn on your own. I’m sure that’s true, because that’s the way I did it, and I’m old and wise.

I don’t expect younger people to admire my wisdom. I keep my mouth shut. If anyone asks me for advice, I’ll gladly give it. Otherwise, I’ll commiserate with them when they learn the hard way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Meaning & Music...Until Monday

Christ In Winter: Reflections on faith from the place of winter, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for people in their winter years…

I watched an interview with Michael Cunningham, who is Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. He wrote “The Hours,” a novel that he says is a “riff” on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” I have read neither Cunningham nor Woolf, but I have read several Iowa Writers Workshop authors, such as Marilynn Robinson [Gilead] and Abraham Verghese [My Own Country] and Flannery O’Connor [A Good Man Is Hard to Find], all of whom I recommend.

Cunningham says that words have music as well as meaning, that if you read a sentence or a paragraph to a visitor from outer space, or simply someone who doesn’t know the language, it should still communicate something, simply by its sound.

I sometimes ask people, “If you could be fluent in all the languages of the world, or be fluent in playing all the musical instruments in the world, which would you choose?” Younger people almost always choose the languages, older people the musical instruments.

I think that is because older people have spoken and heard a lot of words that carried no meaning, so we don’t trust words all that much anymore. We suspect that we can communicate better with others, and with ourselves, through music.

So as Thanksgiving Day approaches, I give thanks for the music, both of language and song.

[Now try to sing this entire meditation. I suggest the tune of “Bill Grogan’s Goat.”]

May you have much for which to give thanks, and I’ll try to write meaningfully, if not musically, when I post again on Monday.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Our Boys Will Shine

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on faith from a place of winter for those in their winter years…

In a recent edition of the church newsletter he edits, old high-school friend Don Survant commented on “ear-worms,” those songs that get into your head and just won’t get out. I knew that Don and I had bonded especially well when we were young, but I had no idea that 50 years later, we would both have “Hot Time in the Old Town” tonight worming into our ears at the same time.

Don noted that his old-age ear-worms are usually songs he hasn’t thought of for a long time. Before “Hot Time,” he’d been humming “Waltzing Matilda” for weeks.

The same thing happens to me. Out of nowhere this morning came this song we used to sing at pep rallies before football and basketball games: “Our boys will shine tonight, our boys will shine. Our boys will shine tonight, our boys will shine. Our boys will shine tonight, our boys will shine. When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, our boys will shine.’

As befits a pep rally, it’s a peppy tune, and really hard to get out of my ears. I don’t mind, though, because it brings back lots of good memories, memories of belonging. It was my school, my class. These were our boys. Sometimes I was even one of those boys, longing to shine, to make my friends proud. I belonged.

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, this life? Belonging to someone special. Belonging to a family. Belonging to a team, a school, a church, a nation. I have been blessed with all of those.

The problem is when we stop too soon, stop at family or nation, and don’t go on to the greater belonging, belonging to it all, in fullness, belonging to the world, belonging to God, when we settle for a just a touchdown when we could be part of the victory, settle for only a song when we could be a part of the music.

Some day we’ll no longer belong to that special someone, to the family, the team, the nation. It will be time to belong to God alone. Now is the time to get ready for belonging to God by being a contributor to the world’s team, not just a taker. Now is the time to shine.

May the peace of Christ be with you,

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Verdi & God

Christ in Winter: Reflections on faith from a place of winter for those in their years of winter…

I walked this morning to Verdi’s “Aida.” I don’t listen to opera much. I’m more of a folk music or ragtime kind of guy. Indeed, the next thing up after “Aida” was “Piano Honkey Tonk Favorites.” But I have a special fondness for triumphal marches, like “The Grand March” from “Aida.” I like Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” too.

When I imagine my death, I hear one of those triumphant marches playing as the theme.

I have especially enjoyed military marches during my working days. I was a part of “the church militant,” so when I ran or walked, I listened to Sousa or “The Col. Bogey March.” They got me ready for “Onward Christian Soldiers.” But when I transfer from “the church militant to the church triumphant,” I want to hear Elgar or Verdi.

If you had asked me as I walked this morning, “What are you listening to?” I could have told you, because I had chosen the music myself. I don’t always recognize Verdi’s music, though, or any other composer’s, if it comes at me unexpected.

Once I was sipping “Moose Drool” at my favorite coffee house, “Jitters,” in Mason City, IA, chatting with my favorite coffee shop owner, Scott Elsbury. Classical music was coming from the speakers. Scott and I tried to identify it. We couldn’t. The only other customer was a rough and surly looking biker type in the corner. Apparently he got tired of hearing us, because he shouted, in a disgusted voice, as one who must deal with idiots, “It’s Verdi!”

I was somewhat embarrassed. A rough and surly guy recognized Verdi, and I couldn’t.

In the past, if I heard a tune, I felt I should be able to identify the composer. If a line from a poem or a novel, I should be able to name the author. If an historical event, I should be able to state the date. If a person, like “the man who stood on the corner and waved all the time,” I should be able to name him.

A lot of old people are like that. Indeed, we’re sometimes worse, because we’re concerned about losing memory. Old couples will debate for an hour over whether it was Tuesday or Wednesday when the bird pooped on the deck. I knew a woman who had a panic attack because she couldn’t remember Dudley Moore’s name.

But it’s a blessing not to have to remember all that. I’m old. I don’t need the knowledge about a song or a poem, because I don’t have to use it. I can just accept it for what it is, without having knowledge about it.

Now that I am old, I’m satisfied just to hear the song or the line, enjoy the memory of an event, wave back at the man on the corner. I don’t need to have knowledge about something to enjoy it in itself. And I don’t have to be able to explain the Trinity in order to accept and enjoy the presence of God.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Advent Fish

Since Advent will be here soon…

When the folk music era began to give way to rock ‘n roll around 1970, The Chad Mitchell Trio, one of the most successful groups of the 1960s, disbanded. By that time, John Denver had replaced Chad, who had gone onto a solo career, and John went onto a remarkable solo career of his own. Mike Kobluk, the bass, became an arts administrator. Joe Frazier, the baritone, went to Yale Divinity School and became an Episcopal priest.

Even if you were once a famous singer [and are becoming one again, since the Trio reunites once in a while for special events], in Advent, Joe must do what every preacher must do—explain the Incarnation, Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Being a famous singer doesn’t help. Having an aquarium does.

For the kids’ time in worship, Father Frazier shows the children an aquarium.

“If you wanted to really be able to talk to the fish in there,” he says, “what would you do?”

The kids try a lot of things—speaking gobbledygook, hoping it might turn out to be fish language, or tapping on the glass in what they hope is a fish form of Morse code.

“I never help them; they always figure it out for themselves,” Joe says. “Sooner or later, one of them brightens up and says, ‘You’d become a fish,’ and they all say, ‘Sure, you’d become one of them.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Spam & Memory

Blogspot recently suggest that I, along with all other bloggers, I’m sure, should check my “spam comments” box once in a while.

Spam with an “S” is a food-like substance that comes in a can with a peel-off metal tab to open it. Spam with an “s” is an email-like substance that Blogspot peels off and puts where you can’t see it.

The box for spam comments contains those comments which the spam filter has taken out. I’m not sure what those would be. I looked into the appropriate box. I had no spam comments. So I’m still wondering.

We used to eat Spam. My little brother was especially fond of it. He likes salt and fat.

Now it’s a word for stuff you don’t want to deal with, that has to be put in a different place.

I just Googled Spam. It’s an Hormel product. I clicked on the link. I got the message, “Service unavailable.” Poor Spam. It’s become a bad word on the web, “unsolicited bulk emails,” that has to be put in a box where you can’t even see it, and now the web won’t even serve it.

We once tried to go to the Spam museum. It was in a small mall in Austin, MN, I think. We used to go through Austin on our way from Mason City, IA to Rochester, MN. It wasn’t open that day. [The Spam museum, not Austin.]

Old people think about memory a lot, especially the loss of it. But when I think about memory, I think about S/spam, because…

…memory is a lot like S/spam: It can mean a lot of different things. There are things in there you don’t want to know about. It tastes good because there’s lots of salt and fat. It has a lot of ingredients, some of them mysterious. There’s a museum about it somewhere, but you can’t quite remember where, and it’s probably closed.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Snow flakes fell today. More like drifted. The furnace came on without prompting, as though wanting to keep itself warm. Helen put flannel sheets on the bed. The UPS man wore long pants while making his daily delivery to our house. The geese are flying south. We can see them easily through the bare tree limbs.

Scouts of winter.

I couldn’t find my glasses; they were on my face. I knelt down to wipe up some spilled orange juice and couldn’t get up without pulling on the counter. I looked at photographs from 40 years ago but couldn’t see them because there were tears in my eyes. I passed the Mexican and Italian aisles in the grocery store and went to the oatmeal aisle instead. The cashier gave me a discount.

Scouts of the winter years.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When It's All Over

One of the times I like best is when it’s all over.

Not immediately. That’s when it’s mostly just a letdown. There’s the cleaning up still to do. My mother-in-law, Georgia Karr, used to look at the dirty dishes and the turkey carcass and the wads of ripped paper, the remains of two months of getting ready, and sigh, “There’s nothing as over as Christmas.”

But when the cleanup is over, or at least put off until “later,” there is that time of satisfaction—no more work, no more preparation… it’s over.

I felt that recently at the end of the Trick or Treat night of Halloween, as we played “Apples to Apples” with our daughters and grandchildren.

Grandson Joe had returned, in his “Grim Reaper” costume, from TT. Brigid is too old for T&T now, but just right for jumping up when the doorbell rings to go hand out treats to the little goblins and fairies who ring that bell. But then the designated TT period was over. The outside lights were turned off. We sat around the coffee table with leftover Milky Ways and tried to outguess one another in the A2A game. I’m proud to say that I won.

Halloween used to be “All Saints.” Most churches still celebrate “All Saints” in one way or another, remembering their members who died during the past year.

My name will be on that list one year. I think I’ll be satisfied—no more work, no more preparation—it’s over. I’ll be proud to say that I won.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Snow on Pines

Big snowflakes started down this morning. They didn’t stick. Helen was sad. Everyone else in the UP was happy, but not for the usual reasons. It’s because we won’t have to hear Helen pointing out to us that the pine trees are so pretty with the snow on them. EVERY pine tree! EVERY time we see it! A couple of years ago granddaughter Brigid finally said, “Grandma, you’ve seen pine trees with snow on them BEFORE!”

The snow-covered pines are especially pretty with sun on the snow. Just thinking about them made me remember Lloyd Stone’s great hymn, “This Is My Song,” usually sung to the “Finlandia” tune. Here is the second verse: “My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight, too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine. O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine.”

It is important, in the land and years of winter, to appreciate each and every spot of beauty, EVERY time. It is also important to remember that other people in other places have beauty to appreciate, and ours is not better than theirs, only different. And not even different, if it’s snow on pines!

And also with you,

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Accepting Memories

Winter is a time of forgetting.

I would be hard pressed to prove that I have a past. All the buildings through which I passed to get to winter, all the buildings of my spring and summer and fall, almost all of them are gone.

Mercy Hospital, where I learned to breathe. Lucretia Mott Public School # 3, where I learned to read. East Park Methodist Church, where I learned to pray. The Tacoma Theater, where I learned that good guys wear white hats and use six-shooters that never run out. Maple Crest, my mother’s name for our little farm, where I learned how and when to plant and harvest. The Storm and Ohio Theaters, where I learned that the words and the mouths don’t always match. The Departmental, my middle school, where I learned that I could set the curve. My high school, where I learned to appreciate curves. My college dormitory, Linden Hall, where I learned to think.

They exist now only in memory.

I used to imagine what would happen in the future. Now there is little future, and thus little to imagine. I have traded in imagination for memory. In imagination, anything can happen. In memory, one must deal with what actually did happen.

I read this recently: “Things started getting better when I stopped praying for a different past.”

Perhaps the forgetfulness of winter is a blessing. But if we can accept the memories, then they are a greater blessing than forgetfulness.

Winter is a time of accepting the forgotten.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Spring & Winter Wisdom

Both her parents were working that night, so I accompanied granddaughter Brigid to her freshman orientation.

We got her schedule and talked about her new teachers.

“Do you have information on which ones are nice?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter if they’re nice,” she said. “The best teachers are not those who are nice but those who help you learn.”

Throughout the evening, other students as well as parents and teachers went out of their way to say “hello” to her.

“You’re very popular,” I said, as we walked to my car at the end of the orientation.

“No,” she replied. “I’m not popular; I’m respected.”

I wish I had been that wise when I was in the springtime of my years. I wish I were that wise now.

But I am at least smart enough to know that she is right. Even at my age, the best teachers hold me accountable, help me learn. Even at my age, respect is better than popularity.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Living Your Own Life

To be happy, you must live your own life.

By living your own life, I don’t mean being selfish or self-centered. That’s what most people mean when they say “I’ve got to get away and have my own space.” That’s not living your own life; it’s running away from it. I’ve known men who walked out on a wife who had just been diagnosed with cancer by saying “I have a right to be happy.” That’s not living your own life; that’s destroying it.

I’m not quite sure what I DO mean, but I know when I’m living my own life and when I’m not.

I wrote on the first page of “Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole: Meditations on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Live Them,” that my granddaughter, Brigid, is “my mentor in all things bright and beautiful,” and that grandson Joe is “my hero.” One of the reasons Joe is my hero is that he lives his own life. One of the reasons Brigid is my mentor is that she lives her own life.

That’s a remarkable feat for a young person. It’s a remarkable feat for an old person, too.

The years of winter give me a chance to live my own life. Perhaps a better chance than I’ve ever had before. A unique chance. My final chance.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Unknown Gift

Jim Heathman tracked me down. “How many John Robert McFarlands can there be?” he asked. Too many, apparently, to make it easy to find me. I’m glad he persisted.

He is the grandson of Homer and Hazel Heathman, who lived up the gravel road from us in the Forsythe neighborhood, near Oakland City, IN, from when we moved there in 1947, until I went to college in 1955 and my parents and younger brother and sister moved to Ringwood, IL in 1962. I remember Jim well. Although he was closer to my sister’s age, 5 years younger than I, he and I rode horses together when he visited his grandparents, who were exceptionally proud of him.

The Heathmans and McFarlands were the only people who lived on our road. The road went all the way through from the Oak Hill Road to the Seed Tick Road, but the gravel stopped at our driveway. From there to the Seed Tick, it was just a pair of dirt tracks flanking a ridge of weeds. That was where Jim Heathman and I rode horses.[1]

The Heathmans were very important to us, in part because they were our only neighbors, in part because they were just good people. We didn’t have a car, but they did, always a Desoto, usually blue, and they were willing to take me and my older sister with them when they went places, especially to church. My mother never rode with them, because she never went anyplace; she was too ashamed of our poverty, which showed so clearly in her clothes. My father didn’t ride with them because he was too proud to accept any sort of help. I was ashamed of our poverty, and I was proud, but I wanted to go places. The Heathmans understood that. They made sure I got to go places.

Which is where Jim Heathman comes back into the story. He told me, in a way that perhaps only I could understand, that Mr. Heathman knew I wanted to go places.

Jim lives in NM now, and was reminded of me, even though we haven’t seen each other for around 60 years, because he had come across my book for cancer patients. [2] He was the executor for the estate of his maiden aunt, Hazel Fern. He’s still sorting through her things, and came across the copy of the book that I had given to her. He’s a survivor, so he read it.

That reminded him of something his grandfather once told him. At a time that Oakland City College, the General Baptist College, had been in dire financial straits, his grandfather, Homer, had given them money to help them through. In return, he was to receive free educations for his children. Only one of the three took advantage. He saved one for his grandson, since Jim threatened his parents with “I’ll go live with my grandparents and go to that Baptist college,” which apparently was a dire thought to them, and Mr. Heathman told Jim, “I want John Robert go have that last one.” He wanted the poor neighbor boy to be able to go to college.

I never knew this. I suspect that one day that I can’t remember, Mr. Heathman said to me, “John Robert, you ought to go to college,” and I said, “I’m going to, Mr. Heathman. I’m going to go to IU to the Ernie Pyle School of Journalism and be a great war correspondent, like Ernie was.”

Mr. Heathman never said a thing about that free education he was saving for me at OCC, because he wanted me to go to the places I wanted to go. That gift he didn’t give me, that I never even knew about, is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Thank you, Jim Heathman, for giving it to me again, now.

And also with you,

[1] The Seed Tick was one of the few roads in the county that actually had a name then. They all have numbers now, like 1100 S or 1900 W, so that my cousin, David Pond, the EMT, can find you when you get drunk and fall off of your ladder. In the 1940s and ‘50s, though, the roads got named any way anyone wanted to name them. Mostly they were called, “You know, the road where Benny Goodman lives,” or “The road the Linigers live on.” I may be the only one who says “Oak Hill Road” for the gravel road that ran from Oak Hill, a community of a store and a barber shop and a few houses strung out along “the hard road,” Indiana Highway 57, west to the gravel Forsythe Road, named for the open-country Methodist Church I attended. Baptists called the same road The Oak Grove Road, after the name of their church. The gravel Seed Tick ran between Highway 57 and the Forsythe/Oak Grove Road. It is now County Road 250 S, but the kart races on County Road 250 S are at “The Seed Tick RaceWay.”

2] “Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole: Reflections on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them.” AndrewsMcMeel. ISBN-13: 978-0-7407-6372-4. Jim’s copy is the first version, in hardback, because it was his aunt Hazel Fern’s, a gift from me to her.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Interesting People

In September Helen and I went on a cruise with the Chad Mitchell Trio. We’re not cruise people, but Joe Frazier, the baritone, and I are friends through our mutual strange calling. When the trio disbanded, Joe went to Yale Divinity School and became an Episcopal priest, a vocation he still practices as vicar of his church’s mission at Big Bear Lake, CA.

In part because I always feared being boring, even more than being bored, I am attracted to interesting people. Chad Mitchell [tenor] and Mike Kobluk [bass] and Paul Prestopino [banjo, guitar, and mandolin] and Bob Hefferan [guitar] and Ron Greenberg [bass] are fabulously interesting people. So are their spouses.

We know Joe best, so it was from him that we heard phrases like “One night when we were swimming in Tennessee Williams’ pool…” and “Just as I was about to go out on stage in Central Park, Abby Hoffman came up and…” and “When Harry Belafonte took us down to sing with Martin Luther King…”

It’s not quite the same as “One night when we were swimming in Hovey Hedges’ pool…” or “Just as I was about to go into the pulpit, Vic Stenger came up and…” “Then Andre’ Hammonds and I marched into Montgomery, Alabama…” Very few people recognize the names of Vic Stenger and Donna Miller Huff and Mike Dickey and Paula Eskew Nosset and Hazel Jones and Andre’ Hammonds…

…but the people in Hovey Hedges’ pool, Donna Huff and Mike Dickey and Paula Nosset among them, and those approaching me in church, like Vic Stenger and Hazel Jones and Mae Everett, and those who marched into Montgomery with me, like Andre’ Hammonds and Bob Mullins, are fabulously interesting people, too.

The only difference is the name recognition.

As I think back through the years, I am mightily grateful for all the interesting people in my life, even though no one else knows their names. They made sure I was never bored, and their inspiration, and stories, helped me be less boring myself.

I suspect that heaven is, by definition, full of interesting people. If it isn’t, I’m not sure I want to go there; it would be a downer after this interesting life.

And, a reminder because old people sometimes forget: wear clothes. Mark Twain pointed out that naked people hardly ever have any influence on history.*

And may the Christ who is never boring be with you,

*I am indebted to my interesting old friend, Don Survant, for this quote, in the church newsletter he edits. Helen points out that Lady Godiva is an exception, because her chocolates have changed the history of our waistlines.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mistakes & Healing

Being the tallest kid in the school at 6’4, and solid instead of skinny, Don Falls was the football and basketball star in my high school. Through the years, he and his wife, Sharon [Parke], have been the primary organizers of our class reunions. Helen and I had not planned to go to our 55 year reunion in June, because it’s a 1400 mile round trip, but Donna [Miller] Huff talked us into it. I’m glad she did.

Don was having back problems. He thought it was from helping a grandson lift a TV set. He was in pain unless he sat, so he sat as he and I chatted before dinner. Then he had to go back to his place at the table. The chair had no arms, and he couldn’t get up. Don is even more solid now than in high school, and I’m sure it must have been a surreal experience for the rest of our classmates to see the skinny newspaper editor [my high school persona] pulling the star athlete up out of his chair.

Don’s pain, though, wasn’t from lifting a TV; it is from cancer.

Cancer develops if the cells make a mistake when they divide. “…as cells divide and reproduce, they sometimes make mistakes that cripple the cells’ defenses against runaway growth.”[1]

Cancer is certainly not confined to old people, but old people get more cancers because their cells have made more divisions and thus have had more opportunities for mistakes.

It’s not just our cells, though, is it? Just by living long, we’ve had more opportunities for mistakes, mistakes that result in cancers of relationships and memory and hope. I don’t know about you, but I’ve made the most of those opportunities. The good news is that there is healing.

Not necessarily cure. As I pray for Don and other cancer patients during my 2 am prayer watch in the night, I know that his body will probably not survive. We don’t live forever. I see obits every day for people younger than Don and I. There may not be a cure for the mistakes our cells have made, but there is healing for the mistakes our brains and tongues and hands have made. It is called forgiveness. So for Don, and for me, I pray for healing.

And also for you,

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, “What the Dog Saw,” page 112.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Living With the Choices

My brother’s wife, Millie, is not only one of the best persons I know but one of the best teachers in the country. She has worked mostly in special education and reading, but she can teach anything at any level, and do it better than just about anyone else.

One of the reasons she is so effective is that she understands the place of discipline in education, and thus in life.

When a student transgresses, she says: “Because you chose to do what you did, this is the price you must pay for that choice.”

The kid almost always protests and says, “But I didn’t CHOOSE to do it.”

“How did it happen then?”

The answers are familiar: “She provoked me.” “He made me do it.” “It just happened.”

The bottom line is always the same: It was the result of something, anything, but my choice.

Millie’s answer is always the same: “No, it was your choice.”

In one way the kids are right. We don’t choose, in the sense that we don’t think it through. Millie is more right: If we do it, we have made the choice to do it, even if a thoughtless choice.

Sometimes we pay the price for a lifetime of thoughtless choices made when we are young. We choose to smoke, and we pay with lung cancer. We choose to drink or dope, and we pay with addiction. We choose to carouse, and we pay with pregnancy or disease.

In a democracy, voters get to choose their leaders. One of the difficult things about democracy is that everyone has to live with the results of the choices of the majority.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Nature of the Race

I’m not sure I ever saw Glenn Cunningham run, even on tape. In those days, the only possibility would have been MovieTone News at a theater, and I didn’t get to go to those very often. [1] However, when I was in junior high, what we called “Departmental” in Oakland City, I thrilled to Glenn’s exploits as he sought to break the four-minute mile barrier, even though he had been severely crippled as a child.

So, in high school, I ran track. I was too slow even for the mile, though, so I went out for the two-mile race. It wasn’t hard to make the team; nobody else wanted to run that far.

We didn’t really have coaches. We were expected to train on our own. Alva Cato, a childhood friend of my father, was an excellent basketball coach [2], and Delbert Disler was an excellent football coach. They were not much interested in track, though. They went with us to meets, but even then they didn’t really coach. Mostly they stood around and talked to each other.

I assumed that the two-mile run was so long and arduous all I had to do was jog along and everyone else would wear down. That didn’t turn out to be the case. Other runners went out fast and kept going at it. I fell farther and farther behind, waiting for them to falter and come back to me. Along about the sixth of eight laps, I was really way behind. As I approached the curve where Mr. Cato and Mr. Disler were standing and chatting, Mr. Disler took a step toward the track and called out, “You’d better run a little faster, Johney.”

I think that’s the only track coaching I ever had. It was good coaching, though. It told me exactly what I needed to know. The other runners weren’t going to come back to me. I was going to have to catch up to them. Mr. Disler explained in that one phrase that I had misunderstood the nature of the race.

Often we lose just because we don’t understand the nature of the race.

And also with you,

[1] Later, however, I did see Cunningham’s fellow-Kansan and KU runner Jim Ryun break the 880 record in Terre Haute while I was campus minister of The Wesley Foundation at Indiana State U and Rose Polytechnic, now Rose-Hulman. When a man with a stop-watch sat down beside me before the race started, I didn’t know it was Ryun’s coach. I found that out when he became quite excited, to say the least, when he clicked the stop-watch at the end of the race.

[2] Alva’s son, Gene, was in my sister’s class and was one of the few Indiana high school basketball players to lead two different counties in scoring for a season, having led Warrick County in his junior year, when Alva coached at Lynnville, and Gibson County in his senior year. He later became commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Assn. and presided over the break-up of Indiana’s famous “one size fits all” state high school basketball tourney [See “Hoosiers”!] into several “size” tourneys.