Smothered? Try up.

On the morning of Sunday, October 27, our 18 month old grandson was up early. Even for an early riser like me, Hudson was up way too early. Try 4:45, I fear he has his grandfather’s internal alarm clock.

His patient mother tumbled downstairs with him, and his father wasn’t too far behind. We all just kind of looked at Hudson with puzzled, bewildered expressions. I wondered out loud to his parents—“Probably when he is a teenager, you will not be able to pry him out of bed.”

Hudson wanted to go outside. It was raining. Sunrise was nowhere to be found. He was persistent. But, we found a temporary distraction —Dora The Explorer.

One of Hudson’s favorite words is up. Dora didn’t disappoint. In one of the scenes, we heard her command in Spanish “arriba, arriba.” 

During this October weekend, I had the opportunity to comply with Hudson’s “up” command countless times. Made me wonder about people and all the things up can mean for us.

Are you going up the ladder?  Can you keep up with the pace?

How do you keep up with your schedule? Are things looking up for you? Can you pick your toys up? What are you up to? Look up at that sky.

I’m guessing at times all of us struggle a bit to keep our spirits up. We all have challenges along the way. Sometimes, those challenges wear us down.

During the spring semester of my senior year of college, I did my student teaching at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. That was 44 years ago! My cooperating teacher, Wallace Pegram, told me early on some pedagogical wisdom—“there is a lot of psychology in teaching.”

He was correct. Not only was there a lot of psychology in teaching, there is a lot of psychology in life.

Relationships involve lots of psychology too.

Relationships will experience ups and downs, good days, lousy days. 

There will be days when a person in a relationship might feel smothered, trapped. Days when separation is needed. Days when space is needed.

A bit of separation and space in a smothering relationship might have some benefits.

It gives the person who is feeling smothered, overwhelmed, and with a touch of uncertainty a chance to think, reflect, assess, and evaluate.

Clearly,  I am no psychologist. But, I wonder in assessing a relationship if it might be a help if we consider the following:

Sometimes we must walk backward to learn how to move forward.

What might be gained by looking back? 

When we take an extended view in that rear view mirror is it possible that we might rediscover key turning points that were overlooked or totally ignored? Might those missed details form a solution or a path for moving forward?

Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if figuring out a relationship was as simple and innocent as Hudson’s request—“up.”

Hudson’s tiny request really comes down to listening.

Can that person who feels smothered in a relationship, who needs a bit of separation and space find a set of non-judgmental ears to hear them out?

The short answer is probably yes. But finding that person who can listen without judging is all about timing. 

We move so fast today that we might fail to take the split second to really, really hear the ask from that smothered person.

Way up there in that blue yonder are a couple of guys whose ears never tire. I lean on them everyday. 

The answer to my prayers might not be delivered in a split second, but I sense those ears in that blue yonder hear my itty-bitty voice. Even in all the chaos down on earth.

Those same ears can hear the person who feels smothered.

At some point in his life, our early riser, Hudson, might feel smothered.

I hope he remembers— “up.”

That Box of Chocolates

Forrest Gump had it right when he quoted his momma:  “Life is like a box of chocolates you never know what you are going to get.”

Perhaps that quote is a very accurate view about life. Try as we might to see into our futures— we never really know what life will bring us.

In 1975, six young men graduated from college. As different as they were from their Maryland, North Carolina, and Florida upbringings something clicked.

 Somehow, during the last 44 years, they have maintained and nurtured their friendships.

 Weddings, births of children, divorces, coming out, passing of parents, successful careers, arrival of grandchildren, and talking about  all of their ups and downs have always been shared. Shared at an annual gathering when calendars match and a location is secured for a weekend.

At this stage in my life, if I was hanging by my last pinkie, I know one of my pals would be there for me. And, I would do the same for them.

Recently, one of my college pals and his wife experienced the tragedy no parent wants. And frankly, the experience that no parent deserves—the loss of a child.

In this case, their youngest son was gunned down. This occurred after spending a delightful boat outing on a quiet lake in Arizona with his wife who is expecting their first child. 

We may never know why an employee at the marina pulled the trigger.  But, I know this, his decision was reckless—senseless, and not required.

In those fast moving seconds, lives were forever altered.

It took days for courage to nudge my heart in reaching out to my pal and his wife. 

What do you say? 

In this uncharted territory, maybe it isn’t what I say as a friend, but how I listen to my devastated pal.

Late in the summer, a memorial service was held for their son. 

In my careers, I’ve attended a lot of funeral services. But, I don’t think I have ever witnessed such an outpouring of love in the celebration of a person’s life as was shown for my pal’s son. It was incredible.

But the courage of that afternoon came from my pal’s wife. 

At the appropriate time in the service, she spoke as only a mother can. Her words were exactly what they should have been—laughter, tears, honesty, and her love.

From a distance, I knew about the ups and downs of their son’s life. He struggled. You name it—the struggles confronted him.

Yet, somehow, someway, he beat those struggles. It was a transformation. A transformation like none I have ever witnessed.

The changing of his life created an opportunity for him to transform other lives. His life’s passion, his drive, energy, and determination became transforming the lives of parents and their children.

He was very, very, very good at this. He made a lasting impact on the families. He transformed not only their lives, but the lives of people around him as well.

And that might be the real question for me in the aftermath of this horrible, horrible tragedy. 

How might this senseless loss be used to transform me?

How might I use me to change this thinking in our society—  pulling the trigger of a firearm should not always be the solution to a problem.

Our annual gathering this fall was at Smith Mountain Lake in what I consider the best month of the year—October.

We talked. We laughed. We cried. We shared. We remembered. We hugged. We loved.

And deep inside each of us, “why” was pinging and ricocheting—why, why, why? Why did such a horrible, awful tragedy occur?

That piece of chocolate in the box that brings lives to an abrupt end due to the gun violence in our country needs to be forever tossed out.

Our country desperately needs to experience a transformation for the good.

That struggle for transformation will depend upon our capacity to reshape our hearts. Not only our hearts, but also the hearts we encounter on a daily basis.

This will require building relationships in an emotional territory.

That will not be easy. 

But, our hearts can’t afford not to try.

Life, Where Is My Faith?

Read Luke 8:22-25

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

1 Peter 5:7

Thought For The Day

Worries and anxieties can be less stressful with faith and trust.

Since August 8, 2010, I silently read the following words every morning—“In your strength, enable us to drop our burdens and set aside our anxiety about life.” 

Those sixteen words were a part of the opening prayer printed in our Sunday morning worship bulletin at my church. I carried the bulletin home. I placed it with my prayer lists in my Bible. 

I consider myself to be a natural born worrier. The words in the prayer spoke to me. And despite my devotion in reading that sentence every morning, I still worry. I have failed to drop my burdens and set aside life’s anxiety.

Why is this?

For me, the answer is grounded in trust. Do I trust God and Jesus to guide me through my life’s worries? Despite citing numerous examples where their strength supported me, my complete trust is absent.

Recently, I helped a friend load a grill on to his truck. What I thought would be a brief task, turned into a long conversation about his worries. I listened. His concerns touched every part of his life. They were significant. But, I heard in his words of worry this affirmation—my friend’s complete trust in God.

I am much like the disciples in the storm tossed boat when Jesus asked them—“Where is your faith?”

I need to answer that question.

Prayer:  Father of us all, to drop our burdens and anxieties, help us to find our faith and trust in you. Amen

Prayer Focus: Family, friends, neighbors and strangers who are weighted with worry.

#79 “words flowing”

In England on October 9, 1940, Winston Churchill was elected as the leader of the Conservative Party. Adolf Hitler was creating problems for Jews in the occupied Netherlands.  And in Liverpool, England John Winston Lennon was born. 

At the age of 24, John and his bandmates Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr would have their own invasion and revolution when they landed in America on February 7,1964. 

The band, named the Beatles, had already created chaos and hysteria in their homeland with their music. Now, it would be America’s time to experience that same bedlam and mania.

For the next sixteen years, John Lennon would experience all of the ups and downs of becoming a rock star, a public figure who could create friction with his views and activism. Whether, you were a fan of the music or not, we all know that John’s life ended much to soon at the age of 40. 

In 1964, I was in the fifth grade at Hillcrest Elementary School in Burlington, North Carolina. I too became caught up in the frenzy of Beatlemania. Something about their sound resonated with me. I became a dedicated fan.

I’m not sure that I had a favorite Beatle, but as they evolved, the lyrics to some of their songs stuck to me. While song writing credits were printed on the orange and yellow Capitol Records label as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, I could sense when a song had been birthed by John.

“I’m A Loser” from the Beatles’ 65 album was one of the first to make me think a bit. A simple song about a boy losing his best girl. I love the lines from the chorus—“I’m a loser, I’m a loser, and I’m not what I appear to be.” I wonder how many times in my growing up and even as an adult I felt like a “loser.” 

Today, we know that mental health is a significant issue in our country. How many people walking around us each day might be captured by these words from “I’m A Loser”:  “Although I laugh and I act like a clown, beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.”

The title song to their second movie—Help! caught my attention too. I could easily quote the entire song. To get through life, we all need help. Think about this insightful observation:

      And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

      My independence seems to vanish in the haze

      But every now and then I feel so insecure

      I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before

I’m 66 years old. I think about how my life changes everyday. Where is my independence? Will I continue to lose more of it as I age? When do I feel insecure? Who is going to guide me through the haze of my future insecurities? I wonder what was churning through young Mr. Lennon’s mind at the time.

With the release of the Rubber Soul album, the Beatles were laying the groundwork for their recording future. The album contains many nuggets, but “In My Life” is a real heart tugger. Here is the last stanza:

Though I know I’ll never lose affection

For people and things that went before

I know I’ll often stop and think about them

In my life I love you more

I remember the lyrics for “In My Life” appearing in my high school yearbook in 1971.  That was the year I somehow managed to eek out of high school. But, the song makes me reflect. How often is my daily routine politely interrupted by a name, a face, a memory? Do I pause and think about those people? Have I lost affection for their molding and shaping my life?

But, it was another song written during the Rubber Soul time frame that really caught my attention—“Nowhere Man.” 

A long time ago, a friend told me that a pastor played this song as a part of a sermon for his congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina. I wonder what ran through the minds of the congregation. Maybe, the older members thought their pastor was losing his marbles, but the youth in attendance were probably pleasantly surprised.

“Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to, isn’t he a bit like you and me?” We all have points of view about life. And, it is difficult at times to maybe know where we are headed with our views and ambitions. But, the question he asks really is the kicker. How similar are we at times to “nowhere man”?

Two more lines naw at me—“He’s as blind as he can be, just sees what he wants to see.” How many times has that been me? Just seeing what I want to see as it pertains to me, and ignoring an opportunity to help out a “nowhere man?”

John Lennon took us on whimsical word journeys too. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Hey Bulldog,” and “Mean Mr. Mustard” come to mind.

He could be raw with the emotional “Yer Blues” or “Don’t Let Me Down” and also as gentle as a breeze with “Julia”—“Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile, calls me, so I sing a song of love for Julia”.

Religion from time to time created an uneasy tension between Lennon and the public. In 1966, he made the comment about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus. That set off a fire storm. In protest, Beatles records were burned, and radio station dropped them from playlist rotations. 

Three years later, the single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” created a stir with these lines—“Christ you know it’s not easy, you know how hard it can be, the way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.” 

Yet, despite these agitations, Lennon still wrote songs with a grounding in “love”.

Gradually, the undertow of personality conflicts, management quarrels, and an assortment of challenges, wore the Beatles down. The smiles for publicity photos were gone, and the breakup occurred. 

For a period of time, I eagerly followed their solo careers. Lennon’s lyrics continued to resonate with me. Songs like “Love,” “Crippled Inside,” and “Watching The Wheels” had lines that made me ponder my own outlook.

By now, you might be thinking to yourself, Bill, how could you not reference “All You Need Is Love” or “Revolution” or “Imagine” or, or, or? 

Well, I let you grapple with selecting your own personal John Lennon playlist. The depth of his catalog is impressive. For this piece, I attempted to focus on a few songs that for good or bad stuck to me.

And, as I work to bring this piece to closure, I’ll reference the song “Across The Universe”. This song appeared on the Let It Be album. Originally, it was on a compilation album of assorted artist for the benefit of the World Wildlife Fund.

John had a very interesting observation about “Across The Universe” in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone

Lennon referred to the song as perhaps the best, most poetic lyric he ever wrote: “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written. In fact, it could be the best. It’s good poetry, or whatever you call it, without chewing it. See, the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody. They don’t have to have any melody, like a poem, you can read them.”[5]

I agree with his assessment. Here is a sample from the opening verse:

“Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup. They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe. Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind, possessing and caressing me.”

Today, Wednesday, October 9, 2019 would have been year 79 for John Lennon.

Sadly, an assailant’s mental health and a firearm ended John’s life. Perhaps, even more heartbreaking is 39 years after his death, in America every day mental health and firearms are still robbing people of life. 

Like all of us, John Lennon, had his imperfections. 

Yet despite these challenges, John found a way to put words on paper. Words that captured his feelings, his emotions, and his experiences. His lyrics did “ flow out to us like endless rain into a paper cup”.

I’m thankful that paper cup full of lyrics was shared.

“Oh, you’re the church with the pumpkins.”

Right on time, on the morning of Saturday, September 28, the long tractor trailer pulled into the front drive of Trinity United Methodist Church. Our youth leader, Bryce Miller, directed the driver to park the rig parallel to Forest Avenue. 

Soon, a flurry of human activity would swarm the truck to unload a shipment of pumpkins and seasonal gourds from New Mexico.

The driver, Tony, from neighboring Hanover County, shared the route that had taken him west across America. He made a few delivery stops before heading to an Indian reservation in New Mexico to pickup our annual order of pumpkins.

Tony explained in admiring detail how he drives his truck into a field. A conveyor belt is properly placed inside the trailer. Exactly 24 men from the tribal council carefully load the pumpkins on a bed of straw layered on the floor of the trailer. Tony said it took about two hours to load.

Interestingly, it took our multiple generational group of volunteers a little over two hours to unload the truck too. These volunteers were a human conveyor belt.

 They were aided only by a forklift. This mechanical Hercules was used to unload several large crates of smaller pumpkins. Staged on tough wooden pallets, the forklift operator in a matter of minutes had the crates off the truck and positioned on our front lawn. Supplied by Trinity member, Mike Hildebrand, the forklift was a real back saver.

Unloading the pumpkins is tough work. The process is a good workout. Clearly, it is a satisfying feeling when the last pumpkin is carried out. But the last chore of the unloading—cleaning out the straw from the trailer is no fun.

Occasionally, I am asked where I attend church. I state our church’s name, its location, and then the person who asked makes the following association—“Oh, you’re the church with the pumpkins.” And, I reply, “Yes, we are the church with the pumpkins.”

“Oh, you’re the church with the pumpkins,” forms many questions in my mind. Does that association mean we are a one dimensional church?  I hope not.

Selling the pumpkins every fall has two dimensions. The proceeds from the sale benefit our middle and high school students on spring and summer mission trips. Additionally, our agreement with the Indian council in New Mexico is an economic booster for their community.

Churches always have been interesting places. Whether they can continue to survive in what appears to be an unfavorable climate for growth lies in the layers of their dimensions.

The world has changed around churches. Try as we might to recognize this, I’m not sure if we realize how much the world has changed.

For example, the truck driver who delivered our pumpkins uses an app on his phone to find pickup and delivery jobs that meet his criteria and rate of compensation. In a similar manner, people search for churches today by checking out apps and websites.

I have a friend who has his private pilot’s license. He is also a certified trainer for the type of plane he flies. 

One training exercise for beginning pilots involves working through an emergency while flying. My friend trains prospective pilots to aviate, navigate, and communicate. 

Fly the plane, know your location and assess your options, and communicate immediately what you are experiencing to air traffic controllers or the nearest control tower. In other words that pilot must rapidly adapt to the emergency conditions. Failure to do so could mean a tragedy.

Without question, the future for churches hinges on their capacity to adapt. Adapting can mean lots of things. But at the very least, this means asking lots of difficult questions. 

Ultimately, the answer to those questions will be grounded in another question— are churches willing to change?

Change can be both simple and difficult. 

I suspect the most difficult part for a church contemplating significant changes will be managing the civility of its leadership and its congregation toward each other as they work through the process.

In this process, churches must keep in front of them—Romans 12:10: “love one another with mutual affection.” 

As the church figures out if it can adapt, will loving and respecting each other be easy—no.

But, if churches don’t, they won’t be hanging around by their fingernails any longer.

And, “Oh, you’re the church with the pumpkins,” will be gone in a slow, painful, agonizing blink.