Monday, December 14, 2015

Dear Dad

All the merry-hearted sigh…
Isaiah 24:7 (excerpt)
Dear Dad,
It’s been 41 years.  Hard to fathom.
December 14, 1974 wrecked my world when your faith suddenly became sight.  After your funeral, I walked away from the Christian faith.  At least I tried to; thankfully, God wouldn’t let me leave.  Despite a very challenging 10 or so years in the wilderness, He kept wooing me back with situations & with people (one of whom put this ring on my finger 31 ½ years ago).  So here I am, a walking, talking Christian who takes our shared faith very seriously, albeit one who’s still flawed & imperfect in so many ways.  Amazing grace indeed!
I’ve served our church in a few ways these past 26 years.  I even teach in our College Bible Fellowship now!  (You’d have called that “Sunday School”)  Unlike you, nursery work didn’t fit me.  But I LOVE teaching college students about the Gospel on Sunday mornings.
Dad, my life is great, despite myself.  I’ve blown it so many times in so many ways, but as you know better than I, God’s grace & presence are incredible.  I can’t wait to experience that fully there with you.
I’ve been missing you HARD for 41 years now, Dad.  As a guy wrote in a song some years ago, “I would give anything I own just to have you back again.”  But as true as that is, I’m equally certain you wouldn’t come back given the choice.  And looking through a glass darkly (as Paul wrote), I see that requesting your return would be NOT the best for you, just because of how indescribably awesome Heaven is.  Your arrival there didn’t improve Heaven nor make it sweeter.  But your departure sure made this world less so. 
Today—and every day—I’ll just be thankful for you & the life you lived & the faith you demonstrated before me for 15 ½ years of my life.  
Thanks, Dad, for giving me more “Daddying” in 15 ½ years than most get in a lifetime. 
Thanks for showing me how to love one woman & cherish her & honor her.  Thanks for working hard for your customers and for your family.  Thanks for having so much fun, and for bringing your family along for the ride.  Thanks for the ping-pong matches & pool games & basketball coaching & tennis matches & games of catch in the yard & card games & board games.  (I’ve never been able to switch hands & hit a tennis ball left-handed like you did, which is unfortunate since you may recall that my backhand was not great in my playing days.)  Thanks for being a good friend to the Hays & Huddleston families.  Thanks for the fishing trips to the pier on Okaloosa Island and the hunting trips to Central Alabama and the water-skiing lessons and the times sailing in the Bay behind the house.  Thanks for buying me my first-ever album—Peter, Paul, & Mary’s In the Wind—thereby launching me on a deep & abiding love of listening to a lot of types of music.  My two children inherited that love of music by the way. I still have that album by the way; it’s framed & in my home office.  Thanks for buying me a saxophone and getting Charles to give me lessons.  Thanks for being a “band parent” on all those Friday nights at Choctawhatchee HS.  (& Thursday nights at Meigs Jr. High too)  Thanks for all the travel, both the long trips like our Europe & Alaska trips—I’m still in awe that you drove us around Europe and that we drove all the way from FWB to Alaska & back!—and the weekend and nearby summer camping trips to Rocky Bayou & over to Pensacola.  Thanks for spanking me when you did; I definitely deserved more of them.  Thanks that it hurt you every time you had to give me one.  Thanks for tearing up when Jim or I would threaten to run away from home like knuckleheaded little boys sometimes do.  Thanks for laughing with us.  Thanks for letting us see you cry on occasion.  Thanks for teaching me to cherish family heritage and to thoroughly enjoy time with extended family.  Thanks for showing me how to honor your Mother; I’m working on honoring mine like you did yours.  Thanks for working in the three-year-old nursery all those years; I’m still astounded by that.  Thanks for honoring your pastor and church, & thereby showing me how to honor mine.  Thanks for being well ahead of the curve in terms of race relations.  Thanks for modeling excellence in business and grace toward customers and suppliers.  And everyone else, for that matter.  Thanks for giving me my first job with an actual paycheck.  Thanks for making us come help with inventory at the store.  Thanks for playing with Jim & me when you’d come home after work.  I still can’t decide whether that was more for Mom’s sanity or simply because you enjoyed time with your boys; I’m pretty sure it was both.  Thanks for the fact that your coworker Gabe would instantly cry when Mom, Jim, or I walked into the office supply store even 15-20 years after your passing.  That speaks volumes about what kind of boss you were.  Thanks that my family name is well-respected in northwest FL 41 years later not because of me, but because of you. 
Thanks for printing the poem “The Little Chap Who Follows Me” on the back of every business card you ever gave out for Madaris Printing & Office Supplies.  41 years later, I still get chill bumps—and a few tears—pulling your business card out of my drawer & reading it again (which I just did).  “A careful man I have to be…a little fellow follows me…”  Jim & I still follow, Dad.  I hope—I really hope—you’d be happy of how the last part of that poem looks in our lives: “I’m building for the years to be, the little chap who follows me.”
I love you, Dad, and miss you very hard.  Especially tonight, looking at the lights on the Christmas tree the night before the 41st anniversary of your homegoing.  I’ll be fine, Dad; really I will..but not today.
The Gospel that you believed & lived is the same Gospel Jim and I believe & live.  Jim & I speak often of the hope of Heaven; for you it’s no longer hope.  It’s reality!  As another song says, I can only imagine.  But one day, I won’t have to imagine it any more.  And I won’t have to long for another chat with you, for we can sit by the waves on that heavenly shore & talk.
I can’t wait!
Thanks again, Dad.  See you soon!
p.s. – There’s a new guy there named Jimmy.  He’s just been there a couple of months by our time.  Would you please thank him for filling in some of the gap in my soul left when your faith became sight?  I called him Papa, and I am missing him pretty hard this Christmas season too.  He raised your younger daughter-in-law Lisa, and he had a HUGE impact on me & on his other son-in-law these past 35 years.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces…
Isaiah 25:8a

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

To An Absent Friend On World AIDS Day

 (Update of a post from a few years back)

He was a tall, strapping, muscular guy who had worked in the offshore oil business.

He had a very nice high tenor singing voice, and loved to use it.

He loved to talk. And to laugh. He & Lisa & I did both rather frequently.

And he had HIV. Which became full-blown AIDS. Which took his life far too soon.

The means by which he contracted HIV is utterly irrelevant here. HIV can be transmitted/contracted in multiple ways, some sexual--homosexual and heterosexual--and some not.

It's World AIDS Day. Which always causes me to remember my friend, and to miss his company.

I met him at the church I attend. His was a faith that greatly. He confessed that he had not been faithful to live according to his faith. I assured him that I have my own batch of sins, which I submit is a much larger batch than his was. I 'spect you have your own batch too...we all do.

He taught me oh-so-much about love and grace. He gave both freely.

In one of our chats, he told me that he felt like a man without a country.

1. He said many in Christian circles who knew of his illness kept their distance from him because of his illness.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
Luke 7:39

Shame on us!!

Then turning toward the woman he [Jesus] said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Luke 7:44-50

2. My friend also said that when he went to the AIDS Support Group meetings, they kept their distance because of his Christian faith. Ironic, isn't it? One of the more marginalized groups in our society would further marginalize one of their own because of his religious beliefs.

"I left the church because I found so little grace there...I came back because I found none anywhere else."
Philip Yancey

So what will you do with World AIDS day?

Will you ignore it completely?

Will you wag your finger & speak of HIV/AIDS as God's curse on a lifestyle?

(If so, you need to ponder how you'd respond to the heart-broken parents of an infant in, say, Africa, who has been diagnosed with AIDS & explain to them God's curse on their tiny baby's lifestyle...)

Will you wag your finger at the church and at Christians for the above finger wagging?


Will you honor the memories of those you know who have suffered and died from this horrible disease by how you live your life?

Will you pray for and love and serve those who have the illness now?

(BTW, what's your stereotype of an HIV sufferer? I ask, because I have a HS acquaintance who is HIV positive. And a fitness machine. A lawyer who rides his bicycle all over the place competitively & who does triathlons & such. He regularly does stuff like high-speed 100-mile bike rides. A few summers ago, he was the first openly gay, HIV-positive person to do Race Across the West where he competed with the world's greatest endurance athletes. The race is from Ocean Side CA to Durango CO. That's 860 miles in 3 days! It's billed as the toughest part of the toughest race in the world ["Ride Across America"]. Jim, too has helped crash my own stereotypes...)

Will you pray for and give toward those who are spending their lives to eradicate this illness?

God have mercy on us. All of us. Those with HIV and those without it. Help us be thankful for the days and the health you give us, and help us love redemptively and NOT judge pre-emptively. And above all, I ask You to magnify Yourself today on World AIDS day through Your church and Your people. May we reflect Your grace and demonstrate it far and wide. Today, and always. In the name of Your Son Jesus, Who was tortured and killed unjustly, Whose death offers redemption and life, Amen.

Thanks, Cecil, for all that you taught me. See you later. Can't wait for that next hug, bro!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Long Stare

I saw it recently in the eyes of a young boy.
The long stare.
Every single one of us guys wants to be noticed and recognized by older guys.  I contend that a significant part of growing up is being seen as a man by other men.  At some point, we want to be welcomed into manhood by other men.
Ideally, this comes from our Dads, but sometimes that’s not possible.  In such situations, it falls to other men we look up to.  (Aside: I’d love to say that by age 56, this innate desire is gone…but in at least one 56-year-old guy’s case, that would not be true. )  In those settings, there is a huge, pressing need for men to recognize this desire in younger men.  And don’t miss the reality that we will find it somewhere.  Sports, bullying, gang membership, the local bar,…somewhere.  Again, us guys WILL keep looking until we find that validation & welcome.  Personally, I’m SO VERY thankful for older men along the way who filled this need in me after age 15 when my Dad died suddenly.
One guy in particular did this for me in a very big way.  But that’s getting ahead of our story.  Back to the young boy...
He came from a VERY bad family situation.  No Dad present at all, and a Mom who had her own troubles prior to being killed in a car wreck.  This boy was adopted by a couple in his extended family.  He came to live in a small town in southwest Alabama.  The adoptive family are great folks; hard-working country folks, very connected to all of their children, including the new adopted son.  They are faithful to their Lord and thus to their local church.
Shortly after moving to his new home, this boy met a retired teacher & a semi-retired farmer.  (Does one ever really “retire” from farming?  I have my doubts.)  They smiled at him & talked to him.  The semi-retired farmer would smile at him, talk to him, and give him a piece of peppermint or some other sort of candy.
I’m told the boy would get out of the car on Sunday mornings looking around for “Mr. Jimmy & Mrs. Mona.”  Can’t you see it?  I can.  A young boy who was abandoned & cast aside for the first few years of his life…who has been adopted into a great home…befriending a couple who were 60+ years older than he…and coming to REALLY enjoy his chats with Mr. Jimmy.
That welcome to manhood mentioned above?  He found it.  In the smile of a 70+ year old man of not many words.
Which brings us back to the long stare.
Just a few weeks ago, the faith the preacher speaks of in the boy’s church became sight for Mr. Jimmy.  It had become sight for Mrs. Mona a couple of years earlier.
So there we were, standing awkwardly around the chapel in the funeral home chatting about all sorts of random topics, which is what we do at funeral homes.  Death is MUCH too vivid for us to ponder, let alone talk about.  After all, the death of someone we know & love reminds us all of our own mortality.
The boy walked in with his adoptive Dad.  He walked straight to the open casket bearing the earthly remains of Mr. Jimmy.  And he stood there, staring.  He leaned on the casket much like guys lean on a fence when discussing the weather or college football or politics.
And he stared.
For a long time, he just stood there, leaning on his elderly friend’s casket and just stared.  No bogus theological musings as happen at such times & places, no deep questions for his Dad, no idle chatter.  Just the stare.
Only God knows the boy’s thoughts.  But I can imagine some of them.
“So this is what death looks like”
“This is why the preacher & my parents always talk about faith & Heaven”
“Wonder if anyone in this room desires Mr. Jimmy to smile one more time as much as I do, even though he doesn’t have a piece of candy right now”
And perhaps even something like this: “Now who’s going to talk to boys like me & welcome me and give me the manly legitimacy we all desire?”
His folks chatted with the rest of us a bit.  After some time went by, the boy walked over & leaned again as if chatting with a friendly neighbor and just stared again for another long while.
If I could’ve pulled it off without making people look away awkwardly, I’d have done the same thing.  One other guy in the room that night would’ve also.  Mr. Jimmy welcomed us & gave us manly legitimacy over the past three & a half decades.  He was always “Mr. Jimmy” to most, and “Daddy” to his two beloved daughters, and “Papa” to his treasured grandchildren…But to us two, he was our father-in-law whom we both love & adore.  As the boy was chasing his memories, I was chasing mine.
Guys, what younger man—or not-so younger man, for that matter!—is looking to you for validation as a guy?  If you’re a boy’s Dad, I’ll answer the question for you decisively: your son!  If, like me, your son is grown & out of the house, that may still actually be the answer.  If you’re not a boy’s Dad—or even if you are—look around.  We have an enormous crisis in America right now that cuts across racial & economic boundaries, in that we Dads are either asleep at the switch  or are not present in our sons’ lives.  Who do you have regular contact with who needs your acknowledgement?  Who needs you to notice them & talk to them?
And who will fix the long stare when you pass into eternity?
Thanks, Papa, for loving on William & me and for welcoming us into your family.  Thanks for showing us how to be men, for we both have needed that for years now for different reasons.  Thanks for the smiles & laughs & memories & stories.  Thanks for raising your baby girls the way you did, for they are now the wives William & I have loved for 30+ years now.  Thanks for growing in your faith such that you hit the finish line running.  Thanks for loving us.  See you soon!  By the way, say “Hello” to my Dad, will you?  In a BIG way, you helped fill the giant crater in my life created by his own faith becoming sight.  The boy?  I can nearly guarantee that decades from now he’ll still recall you & your impact on his life.  I like to imagine him as a grown man seeking out younger men of whatever age and building into and encouraging them just like you did for him.  On behalf of all us lost boys, thanks for that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Behind the parades & fireworks...

(adapted & updated from an earlier entry from a few years back)
6/25/1950 - North Korea invades South Korea.  A small conflict in a rather remote corner of the world...
Meanwhile, at a junior college in MS, this handsome young man with blue eyes & a great smile was arriving from Choctaw County in SW Alabama to go to school, and to play football on a pretty good JC team.
I believe it was the following summer that the entire football team--that's the entire team!—were activated into the military.  (They were all in the Reserves; full scholarships didn’t really happen back then).  They volunteered their services to go take a stand in South Korea because their country thought that was worth doing.
The details of that conflict & the countries who participated's motivations are murky.  Which is OK, as this is not a geo-political analysis of that war.  Or any war.  Today, 60+ years later, the Korean war has never officially ended.  There's a line of demarcation that's guarded on both sides, and official hostilities have been at a cease-fire for some decades now.
Back to the point of this entry: The young man from Choctaw County & his teammates scattered to various branches of the service & various training centers.  He trained to be a combat medic.  His training would unfortunately come in quite handy in the months to come in the combat-laden frozen wasteland that was much of the Korean peninsula, ca. the early 1950s.
He survived, thankfully.  (I say "thankfully" for reasons that will become clear shortly)  To his dying day, he was still a tough guy physically & emotionally.  Mentally, his mind began slipping gears during the last couple of years of his life.  Courage beyond what I can imagine, both during wartime and after coming home.  Worked building airplanes in Mobile, AL, before a hearing problem ended that job for him.  Married.  Had a couple of children.  When the hearing problem kicked into high gear, he moved his family back to Choctaw County.  He built the house they lived in on a pretty spot of land that he cleared off to raise cows & have a few horses for fun.  His youngest child "helped" him build, since she wasn't in school yet.  Ever met a softie who's worked with cows & horses for much of his life?  Me neither; they don’t exist.  I recall going to feed the cows with him some 25 years ago.  I was in my 20s, he was in his 50s...he tossed a big 100-lb sack of feed over each shoulder & away he went.  I tried to toss one over one shoulder; it didn't go well, & I was actively lifting weights at the time.  As I say, he was a tough guy.
I knew him pretty well for the last 35 or so years of his life; 31 of those as his son-in-law, who married the younger daughter who helped him build the house.
She has the same gorgeous blue eyes as her Daddy, plus the same hard work ethic.  She loves the land like he does.  She is as close to a Daddy's girl as a tough cattleman/soldier will ever have.  This particular cattleman/soldier was just crazy about his grandchildren, who added a dimension of tenderness to him during his last 30 or so years.  They, in turn, dearly loved their "Papa."
All of that said to say this: it's Memorial Day, a day on which we honor our military, as we should on a daily basis in my opinion.  But my challenge to each of us is to take the time to ask questions along the lines of "so, what was it like?" and then shut up & listen.  Or perhaps a step back from that emotional brink would be just to say "thank you" to them. 
A while back, I listened to some tell their stories on the radio while I was driving home; at times, it was rather hard to see.  (Must've been rain or fog or something...or something...)  One of the radio stories was another guy who was in Korea & as squadron commander ordered his best friend from back home to go do some recon; several months later, the guy found his friend about to die in a Chinese P.O.W. camp.  He buried his friend (& fellow P.O.W.) just minutes later on a hillside there in North Korea.  Another guy was just back from Iraq a few years back, where he was at the proverbial end of the spear, doing necessary-but-regrettable things outside the wire at night with his unit.  Some jackass HS acquaintance said to him shortly after he returned, "So, you're like a certified baby-killer now, huh?  What's that like?"  (If "jackass" is offensive & not the right word, there are others that are more offensive and perhaps more appropriate...)
Papa's Korea stories unfolded over several decades now, in small bits & pieces.  It seems that once he had a grandson, they unfolded a bit more rapidly & freely.  They were buried deeply within his memory, locked away until that glorious day when the swords are hammered into plowshares & spears into pruning hooks, at which point the stories will no longer be needed.  But they did spill out every now & then.  Mostly around Christmas.  Especially if Christmas is a cold one.  "I remember that Christmas we spent in the field in Korea..."  Usually a quick, short piece of a story, occasionally adorned with a picture or the worship bulletin from the Christmas Day service there.  Just little glimpses into the unspeakable horrors that we all (understandably) blow past on holidays like Veterans Day.  "I remember going around from sleeping bag to sleeping bag in the morning & checking to see who was still alive & who had either frozen to death or suffocated when the snow covered their face"..."See this little guy from the Phillipines in the picture?  I've seen him stack up North Koreans like rats using just his bayonet & knife"..."I remember seeing Chinese troops line up across the valley from us & just walk toward our lines, getting mowed down by our fire.  They figured we'd run out of bullets before they ran out of soldiers”…“I remember our unit’s machine gun barrel starting to bend due to excessive heat caused by shooting boxes of shells non-stop…”
I love the parades & the pageantry of Veterans Day.  I'm descended from a long line of patriotic types, in the best sense of the word.  And I married into that too.  As we shake hands with those who came back & have a moment of silence for those who didn't & as we celebrate victories they won...PLEASE take time to try to listen to them if they'll talk about it.  (I know others who won't; I certainly am not going to insist that they go back in their memories to the darkest days of their young lives!)  Try to fathom what seeing & experienced things like this small-town boy from Choctaw County AL experienced when he was in Korea does to one's soul & psyche.
I close with this.  A pastor I know in small-town north MS told me that when the movie "Saving Private Ryan" came out, he had several of his salt-of-the-earth tough guy farmers with families & homes & such come to his office, & sit just weep about memories they had locked away, never sharing them with anyone.  Not even their brides of 50+ years.  Seeing "Saving Private Ryan" triggered those memories & brought them to the surface.  My pastor friend said, through his & my shared tears, one guy who's a deacon @ his church & a very quiet, gentle, hard-working farmer shared that every Christmas, every birthday, & every family gathering of any kind brought clearly to mind the faces of German soldiers he killed in Europe in late 1944 & early 1945.   The guy said it always bothered him greatly that those young Germans would never experience marriage or family or owning a home or children or grandchildren...
That, ladies & gents, is so very often what's behind the sober salutes & pinning on of the medals & attendance at the squadron reunions & the faraway stares today.
>>Take 3 & 1/2 minutes<< & be humbled, blessed, & broken as today's soldiers honor their predecessors with a LONG overdue welcome home.
Thank you, Father, that you raise up men & women who put on a uniform & take an oath & undergo tough training in order to be willing to ship out to places like Normandy...North Africa...Saipan...Iwo Jima...Korea...Viet Nam...Afghanistan...Iraq...
Thank you for the freedoms we have, which have NEVER been free. 
Thank you especially that you've promised that day...that GLORIOUS, AMAZING day...when they will all hammer their swords into plowshares & their spears into pruning hooks & they shall remember war no more.  Until then, may we as a nation honor them and be as thankful for them collectively & individually as I am for Jimmy Mixon, "Papa" to me & my children.  Grant them all peace today, Father.
Gratefully & humbly,