Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Don't look back . . look what happened to Lot's wife.

Something profound is called for on the last day of the year, isn't it? Should we not pause on the path we are on in this moment designed for reflection by the people who originally made calendars , turn around, and look back?

Crap no. No end of the year message from me. I've got a blindfold for the backward looking Janus (I mean his face is looking toward the past, not that he looks "backward." I don't know how sophisticated Janus was or was not). I want to forget this year if possible. I would even like to go ahead and skip the first six months of 2009 if that could be worked out. I can hear all those voices from my past and probably some of you saying, "You shouldn't be wishing your life away like that." Well tough toenails, which should only be cut out on the back porch, by the way. I am tired of keeping a stiff upper lip, putting on a happy face, trying to make lemonade out of rotten lemons, straining for the open window when a door closed was so perfectly open, unless it's to jump out.

So nothing deep today. Staying in the shallow end. Where it's safe.

I'm chronicling from O'henry's at this moment, one of my favorite places as I have previously posted. I had my latte in a real mug today, knowing I would be writing this timeless piece while I am here. So I'm feeling rather smug about the mug at this moment. Going green bigtime.

Speaking of going green, which reminds me of Cindy, my niece and friend, I am in the third day of feeding and medicating her cats. I must say, so far, Cindy's description of the orneriness of her sweet pets has not been borne out in their actions. So far they just seem glad to have me around, a very welcome response. And I am glad to see them.

I went to the wrong party again last night. Didn't really get as far into it as I did last May for one of Kate and Benjamin's pre-wedding parties (look it up if you want, posted in early may I think). But I did get in the door. Everybody was friendly.

I also learned that I am not particularly good at playing Apple to Apple. Not at the wrong party, but at the right one. But, the lesson learned sort of sums up the past year for me, at least in the sad mood I'm in today. You just gotta play with the cards that someone else gets to deal, which sometimes make no sense. There's no place for John Wayne in a satin and lace world.(you just have to know the game) And sometimes that means I don't get to keep the precious green card.

Be safe. After all, tomorrow is another year.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Thumbs up . . .

Vann and I went to the movie tonight. We wanted to see the Nixon Frost movie, but it isn't playing anywhere in Birmingham, so we moved on to our second choice, Seven Pounds. We both had seen reviews that were not sure what to say about it, but they didn't seem too enthusiastic. I have now seen it and now I don't know what to say about it. But I thought it was a good movie. Will Smith effectively conveyed complex emotion without blowing something up. If you are into the Men in Black genre, you will be disappointed. The emotion was also conveyed at times without the use of, or actually in contrast to, the words spoken. The first part was frustratingly slow and obtuse; necessary to telling the story well. But if you want your heart ripped out, then it's the movie for you. Personally I have been a bit down lately, so about 2/3 into the movie I had to make Vann take my shoe laces away from me. But I would still recommend it. Just load up on a good anti-depressant before you go. I will not share any of the details, because I don't want to deprive anyone of the discovery. I think that is why the reviewers had a difficult time with it. If they had said too much about it, they would have given it away. As I was standing at the urinal after the movie a young man who was in the same theater was standing next to me. He was quiet and then he said, I supose to me, "Whew, that was some movie. You could have heard a pin drop at the end. But I guess there wasn't much you could say." I didn't think a comforting hug would have been appropriate there at the urinal, so I just agreed with him in hushed understanding tones. Then outside, as we were walking to the car, a young woman was telling someone all about the movie, even the ending. I assume she didn't like that person. Anyway, it was painful, all of which arose of out of true love. So if you are already suffering from that kind of pain, you might as well go while you are already hurting.

Another movie I would recommend is Slumdog Millionaire. While it sounds like an Adam Sandler/Woody Harrelson/Cuba Gooding, Jr. kind of ensemble movie, it is not. It is an Indian movie. Embedded in the unique plot line is a quick education about modern day India, or at least a part of it. Again, I don't want to talk about the plot because it is so cool, the kind of thing any writer would have wanted to concoct, especially the way it was converted to screenplay. It is not a movie for children, or if you just want or need cinema lite. It also has the theme of pain borne of true love. Apparently that is a common movie theme. Guess I never noticed before.

Anyway, I don't normally do movie reviews and almost never recommend movies, especially now that they cost more than a trip to Six Flags. I also don't recommend tennis racquets, guitars, or clothes, but that's a different story. But, these movies are interesting, entertaining and encourage a bit of self-reflection. So maybe it's a bargain. Or maybe it was just what I needed to see.

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Sweet Caroline . . .

I've been amazed watching the news shows this morning. Caroline Kennedy is being raked over the coals for the number of times she has said "you know" in responding to reporters. The amazing part to me is not the number of times that Caroline Kennedy said "you know." I find it startling that the talking heads who are making the comments are oblivious to their own "uhs", "you knows" "wells" and other filler words and phrases that allow one's brain time to catch up with one's mouth. The ones that use cue cards and script do a bit better, but let them get off script and they become Carolinesque.

I suppose I'm a bit protective of Caroline Kennedy, since I had a crush on her in 1963, when her father was assassinated. Of course I was in Oneonta, Alabama, and she was in Washington, D.C. and Hyannis Port and who knows where else after that. But I remember wishing that she did not have to be so sad. So maybe the protective sentiment that arose from that unrequited love has risen from its dormancy.

Attorneys inevitably have the humbling experience of reading transcripts of their trials. What seemed like solid gold exposition, words that should be etched in marble on some wall somewhere, are somehow incomprehensible. No complete sentences. Subjects never stated. Antecedents lost somewhere three pages prior. And full of uhs, ohs, and you knows, if the court reporter is being truly accurate.

So cut my old sweetheart a little slack, you know?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cringeberry dressing . . .

What does it mean when you cringe when a particular passage from the Bible is read? Reluctantly I believe that it means something is hitting home that needs to be dealt with. It is not that unusual, then, for me to cringe during the reading of the gospel. I may give you a lift if you're going my way, but I haven't had much time to go the extra mile lately, and while I may pencil in a friend for a lunch appointment, laying down my whole life seems really impractical. And love those who don't love me? It's cringe time.

But Corinthians 13, the love chapter? That shouldn't bring a cringe. It is so beautiful, read at weddings and other joyful occasions. And it is pretty wonderful when you're the one being loved. But when you're the lover, it's a tough standard, worthy of many cringes.

God so loved the world, unconditionally. He calls us to do the same. To love without expectation. To love anyway. To love even our enemies and those who wish to do us harm. So be careful if you are one of those praying for the U.S.A. to become a Christian nation called to love the world unconditionally. We may have to make quite a few changes, radical changes. Hard changes.

But it's just as tough, maybe even tougher, to offer that kind of love in human relationship. To love without expectation. Without jealousy. Wanting only what is best for the one loved, even if that is contrary, wildly contrary, to my own desire. And not insisting on my own way. Who can love like that?

God can. And my cringing tells me that he wants me to try. But it is so hard.

But the good news comes at the end of all that "love is" stuff. Real love, the kind described in Corinthians 13, never ends. And that's what I'm counting on.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

The gospel of luke . . .

I was standing in the driveway of my parents' house yesterday greeting folks as they arrived at the Bentley family Christmas gathering. Luke V, Luke and Amy's son, who is four, I think, was walking up the driveway with his dad. I don't know what precipitated it, but he yelled out to me, "Do you remember me?" Luke V is pretty unforgettable, so I had no trouble remembering who he was, if not his exact age. I yelled back, "Of course I do, I could never forget somebody like you." He was wearing a cool shirt with a moose or a deer or reindeer head on the front. I told him that I wanted one just like it. He then showed me the back of it and said, "Yes, and it's got it's butt on the back." He turned to show me. He was right, it did. Even cooler.

"You look great in that shirt," I told him.
"And you look handsome today, too," he told right back at me.

I was reminded tonight by another friend that we each are like jeweled crowns in the hand of God, according to Isaiah. You know the one in the Bible.

But sometimes we need someone to speak it out loud. You're handsome. I could never forget someone like you. You are special. You've got a beautiful voice. You are the best, friend. You are so smart. You've got something special. You got a double portion of talent.

Make your own list and use it on whoever you meet.

We spend so much time trying to be better than we are. And that's not a bad thing. But we don't have to do anything to earn God's love, or the love of real friends.

But the world tells us not to believe it. It doesn't always take big things to change the world. Just something like, "You look handsome today." Help someone remember who they really are. Start right now. I know you can. You're so smart and know just what to say.

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News Digest . . .a/k/a Ndigestion

Israel has retaliated against Hamas in Gaza with air strikes killing over 140. Hamas had fired rocket bombs into Israel for over two weeks.

Pakistan is redeploying troops to its border with India. The tension between the two countries has been high since the terrorist attack in Mumbai last month. (On a stream of conciousness note, you need to go see Slumdog Millionaire. It is set in India, primarily in Bombay/Mumbai.)

Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.

In other not so good news you need to know, Ohio is out of money. Ohio annouced that yesterday, not realizing that about 30 states had already beat them to the punch. Bottom line, withdrawal of federal funds and sagging sales, income and property tax revenues have devestated states budgets. A buckeye is not what it used to be.

And if you live in the Birmingham Metro area, you'll be shocked to hear that Birmingham Water Works is raising its rates. Something to talk about around the water cooler. Just don't drink the water, you can't afford it.

In lighter news, Reuters News Service provided my favorite headline of the morning. There was really nothing more to say:

"What are you doing here?": man asks wife at brothel

In consumer news, if you purchased or were given a Hallmark jumbo snow globe, do not set it near a window. Apparently the jumbo snow globes act as large magnifying glasses, focusing sunlight into white hot beams capable of causing combustion in nearby materials. The
Christmas decoration is being removed from store shelves.
In other news, Hallmark announced today it is entering the booming alternative energy market.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Bentley family Christmas special

My scheduled Christmas activities wrapped up a couple of hours ago. Vann, Benjamin and Kate were here. Bentleys, Lowrys, Sparkmans, Darnalls, Bynums and a Webber gathered at L.D. and Rachel's house. Matt and Mary Ellen had some lame excuse about not being able to get here from Tanzania, but we missed them anyway. There was soup and chili and desserts. There was singing around the piano. Yes, we really do that. There were small children running laps from the living room to the dining room to the living room.

This year, we drew names again. But instead of gifts like we had given in the past, each person was to think about the name he or she had drawn and make a donation to a charity in honor of that person. We were supposed to do a creative presentation of the gift when we gathered in the living room. We broke up the presentations to the charities with the normal gifts to the children (we are not that crazy). It was all fun and the presentation of the charitable gifts to one another made for a different kind of Christmas conversation. Phillip made a contribution in my honor to the Hope Center, which he and Emily acted out in Charades. Made it twice as good. And it all ended with Scrabble, which also ended to my liking.

Wish you had been there.

News digest . . .(a/k/a Ndigestion)

The Washinton Post reported today that American CIA operatives have become creative in securing the cooperation of tribal leaders in Afghanistan. In the past many incentives have been used: money, medicine, surgery for family members, even school supplies. Now the secret weapon is Viagra. Should firm up relations. (Way too easy, I could go on and on, but then, so could the tribal leaders I suppose).

The Wall Street Journal says today that Israel has given Hamas an ultimatum. Hundreds of rocket bombs have been launched from Gaza into Israel in the past couple of weeks. Saying the bombing must stop and he will give no further warning, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert said simply, "We are stronger." Hamas officials were too busy ducking to respond.

I was reading a bit of Ann Lamott and Wendell Berry yesterday. They both suggest that to find the presence of the Creator it is necessary to surround yourself with Creation. In other words, sometimes we need to take a walk in the woods. Just not near the TVA Kingston Coal Power Plant in Harrimon, Tennessee {west of Knoxville, not far from Sunbright, for you ASP folk). A holding dam broke and spilt millions of gallons of ash sludge into the surrounding area, flooding over 400 acres and flowing into two streams which flow into the Tennessee River. The spill was six miles from the local water treatment plant. Officials say there is no danger to the drinking water from the plant, despite the fact that the sludge contains high concentrations of mercury, cadmium and other carcinogens. The dead fish floating in the streams did not raise confidence levels of the local population. If you met the Creator on a walk around there, I bet He was angry.

Many thanks to Kate, who volunteered to make soup for me today to take to the Bentley family Christmas. There is good news after all.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Road trip . . .

All those folks on the road to Bethlehem. Traveling together to the same place. Maybe some of them knew each other. Maybe some of them knew relatives of one another. Many were strangers. But they travelled along the same roads, together.

Today we reach Bethlehem together, again.

It's quiet at my house. The family Christmas will be tomorrow. I am supposed to take soup. But that's a different story that we don't know the ending to, even the beginning of, right now. I did retrieve, or more accurately they were thrust upon me, the five stock pots I had left in previous years at my sister's house after Thanksgiving dinner. It had become a tradition for me to go buy a new one early Thanksgiving morning when I couldn't find one. Apparently they were all at the Lowry's.

Yesterday was hectic with the visiting, the treasured last minute shopping trip, and two Christmas Eve services. But I like the quiet today. There is sadness for travellers missed this time around. But memories are a gift. Not an antidote for the sadness, but evidence of past blessings.

On this Christmas day I want to thank all of my fellow travellers who have shared the journey. It has not been a particularly easy one for me. Some of you knew that and tried to make me laugh, or smile. You fed me, entertained me, invited me, talked with me, sang with me, cried with me. Mostly you tolerated me.

But at the end of the journey, no matter what shape we are in, today we find again that God comes. Today we rest and give thanks in wonder. But soon, the journey together begins anew.

Have a wonder-filled Christmas Day.

.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Something completely different, part 5

Part five of a continuing story. Check prior posts for the first four parts.

The four lane road was now two lanes. The stream of tail lights had become one set of dim lights that disappeared from time to time in the bends of the highway ahead. “There must be a turn toward home somewhere along in here,” thought Michael. He turned the radio off, as if the noise were somehow keeping him from finding his way. The night had turned quiet, and the lights of the city were miles behind. The stars twinkled against the velvet blue sky.
“Which one is it?” Michael remembered the unexpected question. Joey was four. It had been a rough holiday season. Jan had some problems with her pregnancy with Kristen and had been ordered to stay in bed. Since that first Christmas in the little apartment Jan had taken care of Christmas at the Dennison house: the shopping, the decorating, the cooking, everything.. She loved to make it special for as many people as she could. But that year she could not. She was so sad. Joey and Michael struggled to get things done and wanted most of all to make Jan happy. But they did not know what they were doing. Michael wished he had paid more attention to his mother’s instructions on wrapping gifts. But they did have a couple of good sword fights. That made Jan smile. One night shortly before Christmas Michael was walking Joey home from pageant practice. Joey stopped and looked into the deep night sky. “Which one is it?” Michael did not know what to say, so he asked, “Which one is what?”
“You know, the star. The one that the smart guys followed to find Bedlamb. It must be magic. You know, like the one in Pinnochio. Maybe if we wish on the star of Bedlamb everything will be all right.” They stopped right there on the street. Michael was not sure whether they were wishing or praying, but they looked for the star. Joey was sure he spotted it. “I wish that mommy be okay, and that baby Kristen be okay, and that daddy be okay . . .”
Michael blinked and rubbed the tears from his eyes. He was straining to find a road that headed west.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dickens, darkness, and light . . .

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . ."
-Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

Contrast. Paradox. Charles Dickens' novels were set in England during the Industrial Revolution. A great economy was being built. Fortunes were amassed. But the increase in wealth was matched by an even greater growth in the number of the poor. Good and bad, light and dark, co-existing, often symbiotic. It has always been that way. The Light came into this dark world, and the darkness could not overcome it. But in this in-between time in which we live, the darkness has not yet been overcome either.

We focus on the Baby Jesus in the manger, or in Mary's arms, as Joseph looked on. But what of the world outside the stable?

Joseph and Mary had just completed a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Everyone was on the road at that time. The Roman government had ordered that everyone should go to their home city to be registered. Jesus' home country was occupied by the Roman Empire. For the Jews, it was not the best of times. They were oppressed. It could not be escaped. Jesus was not the first human to be crucified.

It was into that darkness that Jesus was born. In a tiny stable, some say more like a cave, in the town of Bethlehem. One tiny brilliant pinpoint of light in this gigantic, dark world.

Jesus said a strange thing once. Actually he said lots of things that seem strange. But the one I'm talking about now is when he told the disciples, and us, that we would do greater things than He did. Seems a bit daunting doesn't it? But then He gave us His light.

Darkness is not a thing. It has no energy. Darkness is merely the absence of light. My light may never be more than a pinpoint, or it may be as great as a light shining on a hill. But the light I have been given will never be enough. But my light and your light will be more. And the more of us who let the love of Christ shine through us, the less darkness there will be. For the darkness to be overcome we must step out into the darkness sometimes . . . with our light. If we stay where we are the darkness will never be overcome.

Many of us will attend Christmas Eve services tomorrow. In many of those services we will stand in pews or in a big circle. The light from the Christ candle will be burning. Candles will be lit from the Christ candle. That flame will be passed to others that will be passed to others until all of us will hold the light of the Christ candle in our hand.

One of the great things about playing guitar is that sometimes you get to stand in front of a crowd at Christmas Eve and lead "Silent Night" while the light of Christ is being passed from person to person. The room goes from grey to golden as faces are illuminated by the glow.

It is a beautiful thing. But it is also a sacrament. And a sermon.

"Go light My world . . ."

.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Something completely different, part 4

The fourth installment of a story of fiction. If you missed the first three and are happy about that, don't do anything. But if you would like to read the first three parts, or any combination thereof, look back a few blogs for parts one, two and three. The list of blogs is way down at the bottom of this page, just roll on down and click on what you want to read. Or you can just look for them as you scroll down. The name of the story is not "Something completely different,". Not sure what to call it yet.

The traffic became lighter and the driving was easier. There was no point in searching for different stations on the radio. “It’s Christmas Eve,” he thought. “All Christmas music, all the time.”
“You better watch out, you better not cry . . .” Michael found himself singing along. “You better not pout . . .” “ A cruel conspiracy by parents to control their children,”, Michael thought, laughing to himself. He was the youngest of three children, His brother, his sister, then Michael. David was four years older than he, his sister two years older.
“En guard,” and the fight would begin. No moment of life is wasted as a child. “Take up your sword and fight like a man.”
At the end of an evening of wrapping presents just so that mother could re-wrap them according to her specifications, an emotional outlet was needed. For what seemed like hours mother gave instructions on how to cut paper straight, line up the patterns, tuck the ends of the packages just so, hide the tape, don’t throw the scissors, and not waste ribbons. Fortunately, the means of release were found as a natural result of the cause of the stress. At the end of every roll of wrapping paper was the remedy, a cardboard tube about three feet long, the exact specifications of a musketeer’s sword.
Sister’s bedroom was the wrapping headquarters, her twin beds becoming wrapping tables for most of the days before Christmas. The beds were also the perfect staging area for swashbuckling sword fights. Usually Michael and his sister would team up against their older brother. Back and forth, thrusting, parrying, from floor to bed to floor again. Theatrical at first, almost a choreographed dance, but usually devolving into flailing the daylights out of each other immediately before knocking over a lamp. This could mean real trouble. Forgotten in the excitement of the moment was the admonition to watch out, a real dilemma during the days before Christmas. Knowing your behavior was putting your “good list” status in jeopardy was easily enough to make one cry, or pout. But that was not allowed at such a time as this. The evening usually ended in quiet, hoping that mother did not notice the damage, or the repressed pouting. So, the parents’ and Santa’s conspiracy was somewhat effective.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

No regular Joe . . .

Bible scholars tell us Joseph was necessary to establish the worldly lineage of David for the baby Jesus and to provide social cover for Mary, who was pregnant without an earthly husband. All obviously true.

But perhaps God had a better reason for the arrangement.

Maybe Mary could have gone through it all on her own. After all, she was blessed among women. I am sure God would have given her all the assistance she needed. In fact He did. A great part of that help was in the form of Joseph. Sometimes there is no substitute for living, breathing, flesh and blood with which to share life. Christmas itself is a celebration of the Word becoming flesh.

How could Mary have handled the secret alone? Not just the scandalous secret that the world might have assumed, but the secret of the gift of love God was delivering through her? What would her life have been without someone to share the unbelievable dreams, the angels, the incredible secret, the responsibility, the unspeakable joy and pain?

And then of course there were the more normal things: family, finances, children, church. All were probably made a bit more interesting with the Son of God as your son.

If you watch a bad movie by yourself, it's just a bad movie. But with the right person who knows you best, a bad movie can become hilarious. A long road trip alone can seem like it will never end. But with the right person it can be a vacation.

Life is like that. You know that old saying, meant to be an insult that starts out, "you think you are God's gift to . . ."

Well maybe you really are.

.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Something completely different, part 3

Continuing a story (completely fiction I remind some of you) from three posts back . . .

Apparently he was not the only one in a rush to get home. The expressway was a stream of red tail lights as far as he could see. Everyone in the world must be on the way back home. “Just keep moving,” Michael thought to himself. Tail-lights were fine. A long stream of brake lights was a totally different matter. “Fifty miles per hour. That’s not too bad if we just keep moving.” But as he topped a hill he saw the dreaded sight, brake lights, and tail lights, glowing red and white. When he was little he would have squinted his eyes almost shut and imagined a huge Christmas tree decorated with brilliant lights and ornaments, But now a sick feeling came over him as he thought of Jan and the kids going to the church without him. In desperation he jerked the steering wheel to the right, immediately hearing the thumping of the tires crossing the reflectors in the highway marking the lanes of an exit. It did not matter that it was an exit he had never taken, he just had to get off this road that was going nowhere fast.
Michael could feel Jan grab his forearm and scream,”you’re going to kill us,” just like she had done a hundred times before. But she was not here now.
“What if I die?” Michael thought. “If I die in this accident, they’ll tell her how it happened, that I jerked the wheel to take this exit. If I weren’t already dead, she would want to kill me. Then she would figure out that I was trying to get home for the Christmas pageant and for the kids and for conspiring. She would find her gift . . .”
Michael was amazed to find that time slowed down to allow him to have this one man conversation in his brain. “Then she would be horribly, horribly sad and she would cry.”
Jan with tears in her eyes had been the catalyst for some of Michael’s greatest moments, times when he became more than he ever thought he could. Now he would have to become a Nascar driver. He could not see much detail, everything was a blur as the car went into a spin. The orange and white stripes of the sign on the guardrail buttress whizzed by, then headlights and taillights. Then he saw them all again. All the while he was gripping the wheel, as if that made any difference. He braced himself for impact, but it never came. It was over as quickly as it began, and the car came to a rest.. Michael looked up, having no idea what to expect. What he saw amazed him. It was the yellow YIELD sign at the bottom of the ramp. He checked to see who had seen his ordeal, like we all do after an embarrassing moment. There were no cars behind him.
“Now I can get somewhere”, thought Michael, smiling as he remembered something his dad used to say. “I’m not sure where we’re going, but at least we’re making good time.” . The numbers and names on the road signs were not familiar, but the cars were moving. Turning right, which would have been south, Michael figured he could find the way home by looking to the west a little way down the road.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thin places . . .in Homewood

I think the Christmas season is a time when we are more likely to experience the "thin places," originally described in Celtic Christian tradition as places where curtain that separates the visible and invisible realm is lifted, or is so thin that the common becomes sacred and the sacred becomes common.

I believe it. And I think the reason is that there is an abundance of love floating around at this time of the year. I think when the light of love becomes bright enough, we get a glimpse of what lies beyond that curtain. Love is the Windex for the glass we look through darkly.

Today I spent most of the afternoon inside a jail. Fortunately I was just visiting, but it was still not a pleasant afternoon. This was not a prison ministry moment, but a time spent dealing with legal issues in a tragic situation. The afternoon went as well as it could, however, and as I was heading back through Birmingham I decided I deserved a break, so I stopped at my favorite coffee shop, O'Henry's in Homewood. I was on the phone with Benjamin at the time, and while I don't like talking on the cell inside businesses, he and Kate were driving across the frozen tundra of Kansas, and I really wanted to hear of their adventure. I like O'Henry's because they treat me like family. They treat everybody that way. So as I held up my hands about two feet apart and mouthed the word "latte," they had no problem interpreting my order. A large latte. That is all I ever get. While probably not truly a "thin place," I have often referred to coffee as "God's unmerited flavor " (copyright Bob Bentley 2002). Between the latte and the warm, friendly atmosphere of O'Henry's, I was feeling better. Then I walked onto the streets of Homewood, which looks like a city street should look at Christmas. The streets and stores are decorated with lights, and the sidewalks are full of shoppers or folks headed to the local eateries or watering holes. I was feeling even better. I dropped into a couple of stores, the kind of stores you don't find in the malls. The place was still not thin, but the curtain was at least transluscent.

Then I accidentally created a tradition. I don't have a real high standard for tradition. If I do something two years in a row, that's a tradition. I walked back through O'Henry's to my car, which was parked in the Soho parking lot. There is an art studio in Soho I visit occasionally, Jennifer Harwell's. In fact I was there about two weeks ago. Jennifer was creating some small paintings at the time, and I got to watch a bit of that, which is both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful because she just does a few strokes and something wonderful comes into existence. Okay, I know it's not that easy, she just makes it look that way. Frustrating because that talent is so foreign to me and I am so jealous of people who have it. Sometime when I feel stronger emotionally I'll tell about my first grade experience of coloring a picture of Santa Claus. I'm just not there yet.

Anyway, I walked into the studio. Like O'Henry's, the folks in the studio are good at making you feel at home. But as it turned out it was the night of open house. Wine, hors d'oeurves, friendly people, and beautiful art. Still not a thin place, but, not a bad place to be. And I realized I had been in this place last year for open house right before Christmas. So, I've got a new tradition. Cool.

Then as I was leaving with my small painting, I stopped and talked to a person who had been in the studio when I was there two weeks ago. Someone I had talked to maybe four times in my whole life for a total of about thirty minutes. We talked a moment about my painting, and then she told me she had been thinking of me since the last time I was there. She sensed that my soul was sad. That she would continue to have me in her thoughts.

Thin place.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Coolest Gift Ever

A shiny blue pedal propelled jeep with a navy insignia on the sides. Probably my most favorite Santa Claus gift of all time. I loved that thing. I think I was about four years old. The deep blue paint reflected the bubble lights of the cedar Christmas tree as I entered the furniture-less living room (truly a great room before they moved furniture in there) around 4:00 a.m., which was about as long as my brother and sisters and I could wait to check things out on Christmas morning. No Cadillac or Lexus advertisement could compare with the look of that jeep on the showroom floor of the Bentley living room.

And it was not one of those gifts that lost its luster. Actually it did lose its literal luster as I pedaled it around the carport, and then around the house in the next year or two. My friend Henry and I added an old torn up microphone from the radio station for critical communication needs. A modified cardboard box provided the perfect removable top for inclement weather.

Santa Claus really knew what he was doing when he got me that jeep. It was a perfect fit.

But, as it turned out, Santa Claus knew me intimately. And because of that knowledge, he could choose the perfect gift.

Good luck in your shopping. My wish for you is that you know someone's heart well enough to find that perfect blue pedal propelled jeep with naval insignia. They'll remember it forever.

Something completely different #2

Continuing the story from a two posts back . . .

At the office, where Michael usually felt the most comfortable, everyone was stressed over holiday spending and end of the year reports. The office party last week was nothing more than an excuse to have a few drinks on the company tab, not a bad thing at all, but it was more of an occasion designed to help one forget rather than to remember. And then there was home. Not that Michael was the most qualified to comment on the status of the holiday atmosphere at home. He too, had been caught up in the end of the year rush at work, trying to get things wrapped up so that he could enjoy Christmas day with the family. By the time he walked in the door every night after work, the house was quiet. Everyone was either in bed, watching TV, or in their rooms doing whatever kids do in their rooms these days. Jan was usually at the computer, searching the world wide web for whatever toy was in short supply. There apparently had been time for someone to put up the Christmas tree, he had noticed one late night as he tip-toed in quietly. But he had not yet seen it with the lights on this year. There would at least be time for that on Christmas Day.

Suddenly Christmas Day was tomorrow. Michael would have to hurry to make it home in time for the Christmas Eve Service. If he could not make that, he simply had to get home in time to say good night to the kids and help Jan with the Christmas Eve duties. And then maybe, if he were lucky, there would be time for Mr. and Mrs. Claus to conspire by the fire. But she was probably already worn out from working on the pageant at church and cooking for all the family coming for Christmas dinner. Michael‘s mind wandered for a few moments, remembering the first time he used that “conspire by the fire” line on Jan. There were no children then; just the two of them in that little apartment. And there was no fireplace. But when Michael came home that Christmas Eve, the small potted Norwegian Fir was sitting in the middle of the dining table, decorated with tiny ribbons and a few homemade construction paper ornaments. The room was full of candles, Christmas music was playing quietly, and the smell of spice tea and cookies filled the air. And there was Jan, sitting on the sofa in a crimson velvet gown, holding out a glass of wine. Nat King Cole crooned, “Later on, we’ll conspire, as we dream by the fire, we’ll face unafraid the plans that we made . . .” The wine disappeared, plans and dreams were shared, and then the wonderful conspiring . . . now that’s a tradition worth keeping.

copyright 2008 Bob Bentley

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

That's why I cry . . .

A few posts back I wrote about the Alabama Supreme Court's recent scheduling of several executions of residents of Alabama's Death Row during the first half of 2009. That announcement irritated an old nerve in me, brought back old pains, and the result was a rather terse, angry post. I explained the story behind that to a small group of people Sunday, and realized I have not shared that story as often as I thought. So I will explain it to you.
Apologies to those who have already endured the story.

A few years ago I participated in the Kairos prison ministry, which is based on the Cursillo/Emmaus model, for those of you who may be familiar with those ministries. In Kairos a team of street folk go into the institution for three days of fellowship, talks by preachers and non-preachers, good food, singing, laughing, discussion, prayer and worship. Following that weekend the team returns once a month for a "reunion," which usually lasts only a couple of hours.

Our group had the unprecedented opportunity to take the ministry into Death Row. We prepared as we would for a general population Kairos, but knew that there would be things we would not anticipate. The week-end came. The residents of Death Row participated seriously and fully, and we all were inspired and blessed. An element of the Kairos model is that before the three day event begins, each prison resident who is scheduled to attend is assigned to a member of the team. It is the team member's obligation to set the resident at ease, answer questions about the event, and help them get into what is going on, separate and apart from what is happening at their table groups. I was assigned to Billy Ray. But rather than me setting Billy Ray at ease, the roles were reversed. He recognized how foreign the Death Row environment was to me, and he immediately set me at ease. I quickly learned that Billy Ray was much farther down the disciple road than I. We became good friends.

The December reunion meeting was to be a Christmas celebration. Billy Ray had the devotion that day, which was beautiful. Billy Ray was confident in his faith, and spoke with power and love. At the close of the devotion he made a personal announcement. He had received his "date." That meant he had been told when he would die. That was on the third Saturday in December. His "date" was January 11.

That was one of those things we had not prepared for. We had become friends and brothers in Christ with people who would be told when they were going to die. Billy Ray seemed to be handling it pretty well. I was devestated.

As it turns out, the next day, Sunday, the band at Lester Memorial UMC, my church, was going to do its first performance of Graham Kendrick's "Rumors of Angel," a Christmas program found on a CD by our preacher, Gary Formby. We had no written music, so we all listened to the CD and Gary sang the songs for us, and eventually we figured out the chord progressions and arrangements. Each of us in the band were assigned solos or duets. I was assigned a song called "Thorns in the Straw". One of my gifts is the ability to commit things to short term memory, which came in handy for this program as we learned it quickly. The problem was, I had memorized the melody, became familiar with the words and chords, but did not take time to hear the message of the song. . . until I was singing it in front of the whole church on that Sunday after hearing Billy Ray's news the day before.

The program went well. Then it was my turn to sing alone. Everything was fine. But suddenly I was singing the last verse.

"Till against the darkening sky, the son she loved was lifted high,
And with His dying breath, she heard him say 'Father forgive,'
To the criminal beside, 'today with me in paradise,'
So bitter, yet so sweet . . ."

Along about the time I hit "to the criminal beside . . ." I realized what the song was saying. I choked up, crying, and couldn't get the rest of the words out. I will never forget Gary picking up where I had stopped, and finished the song that I could not sing.

The next three weeks were full of attempts to do something to stop Billy Ray's scheduled death. Meetings with the governor. Court filings. Nothing worked. The night before his execution Billy Ray called me. He comforted me. How absurd is that? He told me how much he loved our singing. He told me that he loved me. Then he told me not to worry, that when he sat down in that chair he would begin to sing Amazing Grace, and no matter where he was when he stood up, he would finish singing it.

We still sing "Rumors of Angels" at Lester. We'll do it this Sunday at 8:30 a.m. at Early Church. If I sing "Thorns in the Straw," I will not be able to get through it . . . still. And that's been more than ten years ago. But the tears are a ridiculous gift from God, reminding me of Billy Ray, reminding me of the grace we have not yet learned how to extend. I would not trade that gift for anything.

Anyway, that's what that's all about.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

And now for something completely different . . .again

Just for fun, and several of you have suggested out of concern that perhaps I should lighten up a bit from time to time, I am posting the beginning of a story I am writing. Not sure how it will end. I will post a more of it from time to time during these days before Christmas.

Michael stood self-consciously at the counter, trying to look like he knew what he was doing, running his fingers up and down the scarves hanging on the display rack. His eyes fell upon a memory. A glass globe sat in front of him. There was a tiny house with yellow lit windows, and carolers standing in the yard by a Christmas tree. It was not quite like he remembered. A slender hand picked up the globe, turned it upside down and shook it, then placed it back on the counter. “You have to turn it upside down and shake it up if you want to see how it’s supposed to be.” The snow swirled around the house, the tree, the carolers.
The voice and hand belonged to a woman behind the counter. Michael spent the greater part of the evening with the cheerful saleslady guiding him toward the perfect Christmas gift. One would have thought she was an older sister preparing her little brother for his first date. Her smile as she helped him spoke clearly, “Bless your heart, you are so clueless.” As he turned to leave, possessing the perfect gift, tastefully wrapped and carried in a bag with a store logo that said “I may not know much, but I’m not cheap,” Michael’s new retail sister affectionately called out, “I know she’ll just love it.” It sounded like she really meant it. Above the store’s holiday music came knowing chuckles from a few women standing close by. Another man entering the store looked jealously at Michael’s bag, then pitifully at Michael’s saleslady. Michael joined in the chuckling this time.
This was a Christmas tradition, enjoying the camaraderie of the last minute shoppers. There was a feeling of family among these procrastinators; the kind of intimate knowledge about one another that comes from shared experiences, shared weaknesses, struggles, and finally, hopefully, triumphs. Those who are not part of the family would not understand. So it was with a strange, sweet sadness that Michael left the store, smiling and nodding at his seasonal kin. The warmth of the experience spilled out onto the sidewalk as he passed the hard-core last minute shoppers who were only just arriving at the stores. Reaching into his wallet and tucking a ten in the Salvation Army bucket, he remembered doing that as a kid with the change his mother gave him. He missed the sound of the quarters clanging on the sides of the bucket. As Michael walked toward his car the air seemed colder. The chuckles and holiday music tracks were far behind him now. So far, the best feelings he had felt during this season of love were among strangers.

copyright 2008 Bob Bentley

Monday, December 15, 2008

You can make room in the inn . . .

A few blogs back I described a trip to Latvia for Thanksgiving. One of the best parts of the adventure was meeting Dan and Courtney Randall, a young couple who are each in ministry with the United Methodist Church in Latvia. We enjoyed their hospitality for thanksgiving.

One of the ministries that Courtney is significantly involved in is the Hope Center, which ministers to young, single pregnant women by providing them with housing, parenting training, employment training and support. Courtney has sent out a cry for help for the Hope Center in Latvia. If something does not change, the Hope Center will run out of money in January, jeopardizing the future and possibly existence of these young women and their babies.

I can think of no better gift for this season during which we remember the birth of Jesus to a young woman who was unmarried when she learned of her pregnancy and delivered the child in a stable. The gift of help,hope and life. The Hope Center is an advance of the United Methodist General Board of Global ministries. Because of that, one hundred percent of your donation will go directly to the ministry. For information about the Hope Center and how to donate, go to http://new.gbgm-umc.org/advance/projects/search/index.cfm The project number is 3019625.

From Courtney's email:

"The Hope Center is a place of hospitality and home. As I travel there once a week to spend time with these young mothers, I am blessed to know them. They have really taken me in and allowed me to share with them their lives and their children. They have welcomed this stranger and I now call them friend. God's love is so evident in this special place.
Please continue to pray for these young women and children. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me.
May the peace and love of this Advent Season bring about the newness of life through Jesus Christ,
Courtney RandallDirector of Youth and Children at LAMB courtneymrandall@gmail.com "

Courtney emailed a brochure which I will send if you give me your email address on the comment page, or you can contact Courtney at the above email address, or you can just go straight to the GBGM site link http://new.gbgm-umc.org/advance/projects/search/index.cfm and go ahead and donate. Project number 3019625.

Sometimes it is frustrating because we want so desperately to do something to help those in need far away, but the problem is too big, or we don't know what to do. This is easy. But just because it is easy, doesn't mean it is not important. Find room in your heart for these mothers and their babies this Christmas.

P.S. Emily, if you read this, and I am sure you will because you are such a good sister, this is the one to tell Phillip about.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

And there were in that same country shepherds, abiding . . .yeah right.

I need to be among the shepherds for awhile. You know, those guys that were minding their own business and their sheep when their ordinary lives were interrupted by a heavenly host praising God and saying Glory to God in the Highest, Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men.

I doubt the scene was like the Fontini collection. I sense something more like "O Brother Where Art Thou?" At first they probably stood in disbelief, but as the angels continued to sing, i imagine after the "Fear Not," part of the message sunk in, there was a lot of laughing, elbowing, and interesting commentary on what was going on. The conversation and the activities had to be cleaned up in a hurry. But apparently they got it. I bet it was quite the party as they headed toward the stable where they felt perfectly at home.

Lately I've been on that long journey with the wise men, desparately following the star, which their intellect told them held the hope of the world, but they weren't sure why or how. Serious business, this road trip from the East. No stops at Stuckey's for this group. Nothing to joke about. Gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for an infant. Prophecies of danger. Not a slinky or silly putty to be found in those fancy wrapped packages which probably seemed a bit out of place among the hay, the dung and the distinct smell of a barn.

I need silly putty, or a slinky, a wind up rubber band balsa airplane, silly string, or one of those bass that sings a song. I need dirty santa, trivial pursuit, a road trip to find the gaudiest lawn decorations. I don't really long for the whole barn atmosphere, but a pile of friends on a sofa, floor and chairs, eating salsa and chips, cheetohs and cookies, and drinking something to make them feel warm. Maybe watching "Elf" or "Christmas Vacation" or "A Christams Story". And sometimes almost barn like depending on which friends are around. You know who you are.

I like that about Jesus. I am sure He loves the wise men. But I know He loves the shepherds too, and all the culture they bring with them.

So, "Joy to the World", whether it be as interpreted by Handel, or by Three Dog Night.

Joy to you and me . . .

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The best laid plans . . .

I imagine things were pretty hectic for Joseph and Mary. You know how it is in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas. And expecting their first child. Add on top of that some pretty high expectations for the child from Mary's family. Then there was the travel. Maybe after a few children came along they could have an excuse to stay at home for the holidays. But for now they packed up, loaded the donkey, and joined the crowds along the road to Bethlehem, where they went from inn to inn looking for a place to stay. You wonder if Mary had something to say to Joseph about not making reservations ahead of time.

But maybe Mary and Joseph took comfort in having so much to do and relished the thought of getting out of town. They had a few things they were going to have to face up to when things slowed down. There was still a bit of gossip around the wells about Mary's pregnancy. And there were whispers about the crazy things that Mary's family had said about the child she was carrying. And worse than that, Mary and Joseph knew the truth, and it seemed far more preposterous than anything the best local gossips could come up with. So being busy was good.

But then Jesus arrived. He demanded their attention.

I overbooked this advent. I make no bones about it, I did it so I wouldn't have time to sit still. I need to just get the season over with, and the easiest way to do it as far as I was concerned was to schedule non stop things to do for the rest of the year.

But, sometimes Jesus just comes anyway.

I did a Christmas program for a group this morning. And it wasn't even on my calendar. My mother just asked me about it after she noticed in the newspaper that I was doing a program on Friday morning at 10:30 a.m.
If anybody ever asked me, I don't remember. But I finished my last case in court at about 10:15, so no problem. The program did not go exactly as I had planned, but it turned out okay I thought, and I was packing up the guitar and ready to head to the car. The morning was a success. Three more hours checked off.

Then I looked up. An old friend was standing in front of me, blocking my only route out. Actually he is the father of an old friend. One of my best friends in high school who died tragically in an automobile accident. When I looked into his face I could not look away. It was no longer his face, it was Johnny's. We stood there a few seconds, speechless, eyes locked. He finally broke the silence, "I love you Bob." With tears in his eyes he turned and walked away.

I sat down, the room empty by then. Except that it wasn't really empty. Jesus arrived. Once again.

A friend of mine . . .

A friend of mine died this week. He wasn't very old. A "young adult" who should have been just taking the world by the horns. But he was dealt a hand most would say should be folded. He played it out.

He was at once loyal and affirming, child-like and wise, aggravating and demanding. He sort of wedged his way into my life, which really had no place suitable for him. But he was satisfied with wherever I seated him, as long as I seated him. He was a better friend than I.

He was the kind of guy that interrupted a discussion at a Bible study, his hand raised, "Can I ask a question?" "Sure," the leader said. My friend asked, "What in the world are you talking about?"

Or he would go to the altar during a church service, not when the preacher said, but just whenever.

Or he would ask for a ride home, and then want to take a twenty mile detour, or to go to Wal-mart. He would ask for legal advice as we stood in line to receive communion.

But he loved me. He loved us.

I think he is the kind of guy that would have shown up at the stable in Bethlehem. Maybe with the shepherds, maybe with the wise men. He would not have hesitated. He would have jumped to the front of the line to see the new baby. And he probably would have stayed too long. But nobody would have gotten too mad. Because his wonder and his love were real. Not perfect, but real. And that's hard to come by, no matter what century you live in.

And now he has found peace. Or if he hasn't, he'll get somebody to take him there. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

This one's for Billy Ray . . .

The Alabama Supreme Court has set the dates for the State of Alabama to murder four people between January 14th and the end of April. It seems they do that at this time of year for some reason. Perhaps it is an unconcious recognition that the baby whose birth we celebrate in such loving ways around this time was destined to die at the hands of the state in the spring of the year.

If I recall, at least one of the members of the Alabama Supreme Court used "Amazing Grace" as the musical bed under her political advertisements when she ran. What hypocrisy.

And those of us who reside, vote, and pay taxes within the boundaries of this State are the State of Alabama. So, I suppose we are murderers too. Until we do something about it.

Kind of ironic. Our response to murder is to murder.

It is time to end this horrific, archaic, evil, expensive, socially destructive practice. It's time to call it what it is.

There is no justification for capital punishment. We lose nothing if it is abolished.

What is gained?

Perhaps a piece of our souls.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Emmanuel . . .

God chose to come and be with us. That is Christmas.

We celebrate Jesus' birth, which I love. I love it because He didn't take shortcuts and just arrange to be plopped down in the desert outside of town and walk in one day full grown and escape in a celestial pod when things got too hot. He signed on for the whole experience. For me Christmas is a celebration of that whole experience; not just the babe in the manger, but the boy at the temple, the young passionate rabbi who challenged the religious and political institutions of the day, the revolutionary teacher whose words changed the world, the gregarious friend who enjoyed crowds and a good party, and the loving, committed martyr who took the whole world on the shoulders of his outstretched arms.

It seems to me we talk a lot about Jesus in terms of the failures of humanity. A doomed experiment in need of a Savior. Fair discussion to be sure. But maybe it would be helpful if we celebrated Christmas as God's affirmation of how good humanity can be.

If there were no hope for us, I figure God would have chosen a different path. No bailouts for us. But God saw something in us that could be redeemed.

But, and this is just my own theology, I think He knew He could see it better only if he could be with us. Be one of us. Be like us. And so He came. He learned about us and we learned about Him because He came.

So in this advent, this waiting, look for the good. Look for Peace. Look for Justice. Look for Love. But to truly search, to truly know, we must go. We must be with.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What can I give . . .

It is Saturday morning again. I woke up starving. Then I realized I never really ate a meal after the oatmeal yesterday morning. So I jumped on up out of bed, threw on some clothes and headed down to Charlie B's for a custom omelet and several sides . . . and conversation over coffee.

An old friend came in about the same time as I, so we sat and talked as he waited on his group to come. We talked of many things, as Saturday morning breakfasts allow, but one topic stuck in my mind.

We are trapped. Trapped by an economic system that owns us. At some point we made a choice, or more likely years of small insidious choices, that have led us to this place. I am not talking about regulations or de-regulation that should have been or not by elected officials that should have been or not. I am talking about the giving over of our lives to the idea that the goodness of life depends on things, on stuff.

My friend put it very simply. He told me that he has too many clothes. It does nothing for him but make life harder. How many pairs of pants does one person need? He complained of how much time he wasted this morning deciding which of his many pairs of pants to wear today. He complained of the space it took in his closets and house to have so much stuff. He was smiling as he talked, but he was serious. His talk wasn't about pants. He said he wished Christmas was more about mornings like this one at Charlie B's, just taking time to sit and talk and enjoy friendship. He wished for less time stressing over shopping for more things.

Wendell Berry wrote, "Don't own so much clutter that you would be relieved to see your house catch fire." That's a thought you would probably deny, unless you've had to pack up for a move lately.

It is a spiritual problem. Jesus addressed it directly more than once, speaking of earthly treasures that rust destroys and moths consume, which pretty much describes a lot of the stuff in my closets, carport, storage room and rented storage unit.

I received an invitation from Alex Beaube to become a member of Advent Conspiracy. AC is an internet driven movement to replace the crush of consumerism with the compassion of Christ during the Advent season, and hopefully throughout the year. I have yet to accept. I started looking at the stories and the passion of the organizers, and I'm not sure I can do it. I want to, Lord, I want to. But in that plan , in a relationship all I have to give is myself. And that hasn't always been enough. Can't sweeten the pot with an ipod accessory, a cool book or a sweater. Kinda like that guy in the last verse of "In the Bleak MidWinter":

"What can I give Him, poor as I am, If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. But what I can, I give Him, give, give, my heart."

The problem is that when we approach relationship with heart in hand, as opposed to a well wrapped package, we are taking a huge risk. Will I still be loved when all else is stripped away?

I have never believed I am enough. I don't think I'm alone in this (not in the belief that I am not enough, but whether any of us believe we are enough). So I much prefer to hide my heart behind something more special, wrapped in the packaging of a store that says I care enough to spend a lot. Like the folks in Cincinnatti advised me a few weeks ago, it's hard not to like somebody with a box of fresh doughnuts in their hands.

I am not opposed to gift giving. I found a book last week that when I saw it I thought of a friend. So that book became a birthday gift. The story of the wise men gives approval to the bringing of gifts to Jesus. I believe that when Jesus would go to people's homes he would bring a gift, maybe wine, or fresh bread.

But it's not about the gift. It's about the relationship. The one who gives and the one who receives. Sometimes that may be in the form of a special physcial object, but always it must take the form of love.

Love between the giver and the receiver, the receiver and the giver. It can't be stored up. It only exists in the giving and receiving. Heart to heart. Unwrapped.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Birzai or bust . . .

We rented a VW toureg, a fine diesel vehicle, to get us from Riga, Latvia, to Birzai, Lithuania. After the extensive walking tour of Riga Friday afternoon (see last post), Lyn, Deb and I loaded into the the van, along with Courtney, to head to Birzai. Courtney had a short stop that she needed to make at the church before she left town. I realize that most of you readers may never meet Courtney, but I still think the story of her short visit to the church, which we had the unexpected joy of sharing, is a story that belongs to her. So maybe you'll meet her someday.


I had obtained an international drivers' license at AAA before I left Alabama. There is no test. There could be no test. The last time I was in Riga I was driving cautiously along the street, maybe even a bit slower than the other traffic. Suddenly a policeman stepped out in front of me waving a red paddle. I stopped. He said something I didn't understand. I showed him my international drivers license. I said something he didn't understand. He let me go on. I never knew what I did wrong. I have decided that I was driving too tentatively.
For some reason my tentativeness left me on this trip. Perhaps it was the inspiration of riding with Dan (see last post), or just my general attitude about my life these days, but I found myself doing things behind the wheel that shock me still. The real problem is that if you miss a turn in Riga, it can take thirty minutes to get back to where you need to be, if you can get back at all. Knowing that is a great incentive for cutting left across two lanes of oncoming traffic, jumping a curb, and turning around in the lawn of some business to go back to the turn you missed. If I had been by myself it wouldn't bother me so much. But Deb and Lyn were passengers. And its one thing to put your long-time friends at risk who at least should know what you are capable of, but I had Courtney in the van too. Bless her heart. But Courtney was actually sort of congratulatory about the whole episode. So I felt validated.
And so we were on our way to Birzai. After getting caught in the roundabout vortex leading out of Riga, we finally escaped and headed southeast. The google map was somewhat accurate. There was the one time that the paved road became a dirt road and then became a driveway. There was an elderly woman waiting for a ride in front of her house. She seemed afraid as we turned around in her driveway, but there was nothing we could do to make it better except to leave quickly. The trip was less than two action packed hours, and then we entered Birzai.


The church where our meeting was to be held has a great new building. Egle welcomed us and showed us where we would be sleeping and conducting our meetings. It was a great facility for what we needed to do, and for a Chrysalis that is coming up in March.
I don't know how you gauge the "success" of a meeting like this. We had come to do a training event for Chrysalis. But if the excitement, enthusiasm and commitment of the people in attendance are an indicator, then there was great success.


I know that I was blessed to teach songs to folks who loved singing and had such a desire to help others sing the songs. I was blessed by the fellowship, laughter and love shared around the meal table so carefully prepared and set for each meal that we were there. I was blessed by Egle's excited voice as she could barely speak quickly enough to get out all her ideas about which space in the new building could be used for a prayer chapel, a conference room, agape room, and all the rest. I was blessed to remember the previous times throughout the last four years that I had seen the same faces preparing to do this work, and how much commitment it must take to continue this work for Christ. I was blessed to take a hilarious walk through the unlit pathways of Birzai to the local castle. I was blessed to experience worship with beautiful friends as we finished our time together in Birzai.



And then we headed back to Riga. No problems driving back. Back at Courtney and Dan's we hovered around the computer and listened to the Alabama Auburn game. Kick off was at 10:30 p.m. local time. A great ending to a greater couple of days. After almost missing two flights on the way back, we made it home. A huge shout out to the Delta employees in Deusseldorf who broke all kinds of lines and ran us through security to make our flight. I am pretty sure they check my blog regularly.
So that's that. I don't know why God lets us have adventures like this, but, as long as He is handing them out, I'll be in line.

Monday, December 1, 2008















Like I said, I went to Latvia and Lithuania for the Thanksgiving holiday. As the day to leave approached, I began to have some doubts. Vann was home from Vannderbilt. Benjamin and Kate came from Denver. And I was leaving. It's not like I see them everyday, or every week, anymore. I mean, look at these guys. If everything else in my life turned bad, I would still have to be thankful for these two. And Kate, too, except that she didn't make it to the Original Pancake House for breakfast on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, where this photo was taken, again, after my sons begged for a snapshot to commemorate the occasion.



After a larger than usual breakfast loaded with enough sugar to induce a sudden, quick sleep in a short while, I drove to the airport, where I met Deb and Lyn, not for the first time, I just meant we arrived at the airport at approximately the same time. By the time we checked in and made it to our gate in time to wait awhile, I was looking forward to getting far out of town. Latvia and Lithuania generally fill that bill. A time away from work and my life had a lot of appeal. Even as my general attitude began to improve with that prospect, I saw two of my clients sitting a couple of rows over and went over to wish them a good Thanksgiving. Then I saw an attorney who had been on the other side of a case we finished this year and went to speak to him. All wonderful people, but meeting them in the airport reminded me of how much I needed to get away. And Deb and Lyn seemed ready as well.



Surprisingly, the Thanksgiving travel rush does not include a large flow of people from the U.S.A. to Latvia. It felt like we had chartered our own plane for the trip from Atlanta to Brussels for ourselves and a few friends. There was so much room that everyone on the plane could each stretch out on a row of seats to sleep. Now that's the kind of legroom I like. And with the large sugarload from earlier in the day helping me out, I drifted in and out of sleep, occasionally waking up to check our altitude, cruising speed, time at flight origin, time at flight destination, time elapsed, time to destination, head or tail wind velocity, and all in several languages. Fortunately the pilots seemed to have everything under control.

As an aside, I have become more and more appalled by the problem of the disparity in access to healthcare we have in this country based on ability to pay. But have you actually paid attention to those speeches the attendants give on airlines? If we were to crash over water, First Class passengers would have those nifty inflatable life preservers, whilc we commoners in coach would be clutching to our seat cushions. I understand the mixed drinks and the legroom and the general pampering. But whether you drown or not?
Anyway, we all would have had three seat cushions each, so I don't guess it would have been that big a deal. We would have all frozen in a matter of minutes, first class or not.

Originally we had a 50 minute layover in Brussels. That's not much time to make an international connection. Then a couple of days before we left it was reduced to 45 minutes. They said they couldn't guarantee connection or baggage with a time of less than 50 minutes. As it turned out, we had about 40 minutes. Apparently Interpol or some other black ops unit had put out the word that Lyn had a bottle of something in her carry on. So she was searched. I don't know what she did with that bottle. After a sprint through the beautiful Brussels airport, we arrived at the gate just in time. My bag and guitar did not, but it didn't really seem likely that they would have made it from plane to plane in such a short time. We bearly did. (yes I said bearly)

It was a short leg to Riga. After learning that my stuff had not made the connection, and receiving my two complimentary toiletry bags, which also contained t-shirts and socks, we headed to the exit where we met Dan Randall, who was waiting to take us to his home to spend the night. Dan drove our rental. It was inspirational. When he spotted a prized parking place come open, he didn't circle the block. He did a U-turn, simultaneously blocking traffic in both directions on Gertrudis, a downtown Riga street, and swiftly manuevered into the open place. "I wanta be like him," I thought.


Dan lead us to the flat where he lives with his wife Courtney. We went through a locked gate from the street to the alley/parking area for the building. Then through another locked entry way into the building. Then up two or three flights of dimly lit stairs. Honestly, it looked pretty bleak and run down, not unlike much of Riga. But then Dan lead us into the flat. It was great. Very, very cool. Very warm, light and comfortable. (Yes, I did say the flat was cool and then warm, but that's what I meant). And we met Courtney. She was even cooler than the flat. Also warm and comfortable. (Actually she appears to be rather light, in the kilogram sense of the word as well, though that will be changing slightly within the next few months). They showed us around and helped us feel at home. Then, as they prepared Thanksgiving Dinner for us (mostly Dan I think), we went out for a walk to get a little exercise and air after the long flight.


After a brisk walk up and down Gertrudis, a familiar route from previous Riga trips, we returned to the Randalls' home. Thanksgiving dinner had been prepared. Two tables were covered first with cloths, then with food, and put together along side "big brown" the incredibly comfortable sectional sofa. Joe and Nick, who work in Riga training youth ministers, and Kelly and Donna, who are also in ministry in Riga, arrived. We all sat at the table and shared a Thanksgiving meal of baked chicken, scalloped and whipped potatoes, cranberry sauce, bean casserole, carrots, apple crisp, probably some other things I am sure I ate, and wine. We talked and laughed and shared the evening as friends being thankful. Truly serendipitous.



"Big brown" was my bed. It was very handy to push back from the table and lie down. I tried to stay awake, but as Deb and Dan talked, their talk turned into the language of the teacher in the Charlie Brown movies, and I drifted off to sleep. I woke up as Dan was saying good night. But not for long. I slept hard.

So hard that when I woke up, everyone else was up, sitting in my bedroom, also known as the kitchen, dining room and den. They apparently had long since quit talking in whispers so as not to wake me up. The airport had called. My bag and guitar would be delivered by ten o'clock.


We sat with Courtney awhile and talked. Dan had gone to Liepaja. Courtney stayed at the flat and Deb and Lyn and I went to shop for a few things. We would walk to the store and then to Old Town. The day was grey and cold, in the upper thirties, low forties. Snow was still piled up along the curbs from last weeks heavy snow. It was nasty from a few days of traffic.


I love walking in these cities of Eastern Europe. They are so interesting. So authentic. The old buildings, brick streets, the people, the shops, the history. I always learn something important. Friday I learned two things. I wore my orange/brown pants, you know, that carhart color. I conducted a scientific survey from a sample of thousands of men in Riga that day. I was the only man wearing anything other than black or dark blue pants. OK, there was one other man wearing light grey, but he also seemed to be a little off, so I removed him from the survey sample. So the first thing I learned that if you wear color of any kind in winter in Riga, you stand out just a bit. Second, I learned that there are two streets whose names begin with Kristijana. So, when we took Kristijana Valdemara, I thought it would take us back to within a couple of blocks of the Randalls' home on Gertrudis. That would have happened if we had been on Kristijana Barona. Being the human GPS, I was greatly disturbed as we walked, knowing that something wasn't right. But we kept walking. And kept walking. Finally we turned and went back at an angle from the way we had come. We got home after exploring a large part of Riga. And my guitar and bag had arrived at two o'clock.


One other major surprise Friday. As we were roaming the shops of Old Town, from shop to Double Coffee to shop to Double Coffee, we were shocked to come upon a likeness of one of our old friends back in the states. We know that sometimes young pastors, especially those who have just got married, may have to find a little extra income some where, so . . .
Jack Hinnen, for Coca Cola in Latvia . . .

More to come. I gotta rest.
Thinking of that trek through Riga made me tired.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Baltic Thanksgiving . . .

Thanksgiving is a traditional holiday. When I think of Thanksgiving I think of getting together with family and friends around noon, in recent years at Terri and Tommy's house (sister and brother in law). Everybody brings food to add to what is already there, and we eat and visit all afternoon and into the evening. Then I would visit in the evening with other friends close by. It is a great tradition.

But this year the tradition was broken for me. So, after eating a Thanksgiving brunch with my sons, Benjamin and Vann, at the Original Pancake House at Five Points on Wednesday morning, I boarded a plane with Deb and Lyn, two friends of mine, headed for Riga, Latvia. We did not go to the Baltics to celebrate Thanksgiving.

But we did. We were blessed to be the guests of Dan and Courtney Randall, two United Methodist preachers in Riga, Latvia, in their flat in downtown Riga, right on Iela Gertrudis. Dan and Courtney opened their home to us as if we been long-time friends. They struck that wonderful balance of treating us as special guests and yet as you would treat a member of the family ("if you need anything, you know where it is"). And we were allowed to share in some precious moments, which would be better told by Courtney.

We sat around the table with Dan and Courtney and four more friends they had invited for Thanksgiving dinner. The table was full of food, but that was not all. It was full of laughter, of friendship, and of thanksgiving.

There were many other memorable things on this trip, which I may blog about later. But right now I am remembering and giving thanks that there are folks like Courtney and Dan out there, being Christ in Latvia, and wherever they go.

Dan's blog is http://randallsreflections.blogspot.com/ He posted a picture of the Thanksgiving table. Give him a comment and tell him to keep blogging so we can all know what's going on in Latvia, and with the Randalls.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Santa, Thanksgiving, football and Lithuania . . .

I went to the local CVS to get a couple of passport photos made today. Not for passports but for an international driver's license. As it so happened, Santa Claus was visiting the drug store today and having his photo made with the young folk. The clerk in the photo department offered to allow me to sit in Santa's lap for my photo, which I thought would actually be quite funny, although it would just be more fodder for gossip in a small town, another good reason to do it. Then I thought of the last time I drove across the border from Latvia into Lithuania late at night. I am sure those border agents were nice people at home, but, they really didn't have much of a sense of humor standing out in the cold in the middle of the night. I felt like Humphrey Bogart trying to get across the border in a black and white movie, with Lauren Bacall tucked away under my trench coat in the back seat. Okay, that's a different fantasy. But I don't think the border guys would think it was so funny. Especially if there was no Lauren Bacall. Lyn and Deb will be along, but I don't think they will hide under a trenchcoat.

Anyway, I have scored a trip to that hottest of Thanksgiving destinations, Riga, Latvia, and then Birzai, Lithuania. Actually it won't be hot at all. It is snowing today. And it looks like it will remain rather chilly throughout the week.

I'm hoping to find a sports bar to watch the big Alabama Auburn clash. They are eight hours ahead of Tuscaloosa time, so kickoff will be around 10:30 p.m. I bet there are some crazy Baltic parties planned for this one. But, I may be too tired to party, so perhaps I will just try to find it onlline, if I can find a line.

So Roll Tide in advance, just in case I can't blog the trip. And Happy Thanksgiving. For all you friends and family I have shared this Thanksgiving and football holiday with in past years, I will miss you all. But check the blog, and send me an email or a blog comment to let me know how things are going.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Now for a Christmas music moment . . .

One of my favorite Christmas songs is a haunting melody with words that are difficult to sing properly so that the audience understands. "I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . ." It is tough as a vocalist to distinguish between "wonder" and "wander" without getting your lips all contorted. At least that's been my experience.

I've liked the song for years. Unfortunately one of the main reasons I liked the song is based on a misunderstanding of the lyrics (other than that wonder/wander problem.) I always heard the lyric to continue "how Jesus my Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I . . ."

I like the idea of Jesus dying for ornery people. I have been kind of ornery lately. Don't like it much, but I just can't seem to shake it. So you might want to avoid me for a couple of months. It has been a great comfort that Jesus tolerates my orneriness. He hasn't avoided me, bless His heart.

As it turns out "ornery" is written in the lyrics as "or'nry". That's supposed to be an Appalachian dialect spelling of "ordinary". Actually that's pretty good too. Not as good as ornery, but also comforting to an ordinary, ornery guy.

For the history of that song check the Wickepedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Wonder_as_I_Wander

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Maintaining

I just finished up cleaning out my refrigerator. I remember cooking half of that asparagus awhile back, and I really meant to finish that piece of watermelon several weeks ago. I have a new appreciation for left over pizza, because when it gets old, it just gets dry and hard and rattles in the box. Those other things tend to ooze all over everything, dripping from shelf to shelf to crisper and then to the bottom of the box. But it is done. And I have already repeated the pledge that I made to myself the last time I cleaned out the refrigerator. I won't let that happen again.

But I will. Because that is just life. In my world there are a million things that demand my attention other than keeping a clean refrigerator, or a clean house for that matter. But there comes a time for scheduled maintenance, a time set aside to clean up those messes that accumulate while life is being lived, and that eventually, insidiously, make life less fun than it should be. Other than drinking coffee and doing nothing, that is what Saturdays are for. Raking leaves, changing oil, cleaning the refrigerator, doing laundry, changing filters for the heat pump. You know the list.

Something else happens during the Saturday scheduled maintenance. It is therapeutic. There are so many big messes that come my way in life that I am helpless to clean up, at least on a Saturday morning, as much as I may want to. But, if I can get this house in order, or at least the kitchen, or at least the refrigerator, then maybe there is hope for everything else.

I'm feeling inspired. On to the den. Tomorrow the world.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Un pour tous, tous pour un . . . the second thread, c'est dommage

Tbe second thread. It has to to with Jesus and the Three Musketeers. Not that they ever met in person as far as I know. (That would be way better than the daVinci Code)

I don't know if the Three Musketeers existed in any real form. But in the Classic Comics or the Disney movie or in Dumas' original "Les Trois Mousquetaires" young D'Artagnan learned and lived the motto, "All for one and one for all." Space prevents exploration of the nuance of that famous phrase, but I always thought it meant that if one musketeer was in trouble, the others would come to the rescue. And each musketeer swore his allegiance to the group. There was no room for cowboys. That was a different story altogether.

Jesus taught a similar lesson. He constantly presented the motto to his disciples, serve each other. Greater love has no person that he lay it down for friends. Who is your neighbor?

The thread is, are we in this thing, life, just for ourselves?

We all know the Sunday School answer. And the Three Musketeers motto.

But do we believe it? Millions of people cannot afford health care. See Benjamin Bentley's brilliant editorial at http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/nov/20/americans-without-health-insurance/

You might want to look at some of the comments to that editorial as well. The contrast demonstrates the point of this thread.

I have heard again this week that we are a Christian nation. At least a moral nation. If we are, then why do we have people who cannot get health care, and some who can have whatever they want? Why do we have some folks who can send their children to the best schools in the safest neighborhoods, while some live in fear that their children will not make it safely through the school day or the walk home? Why do some elderly citizens have to make the choice between food and prescription medicine? Why do some young mothers have to decide between child care and a job?

Self made man. Bootstraps. Nobody helped me. All for me and to hell with you.

The second thread. Are we in this just for ourselves? Are we cowboys or Les Mousquetaires?

Are we Christian?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Turn the handle, pop the top, gotta jump out, of your world-in-a-box . . .

Lately I have been thinking of common threads that run through the problems that we face in our world.

The first thread that I have pulled is "we all need to get out a little more."

I think of myself as open minded. Most of us do. But generally speaking my world is small. I wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, devote, go for a jog, and get dressed. All that is done within a 1500 sq. ft. space (except for the jog. I'm up to a slightly greater distance than that). I am the only one around. I either go to the office or to court, where I spend my day dealing with the same kind of issues I dealt with yesterday and the day before and the year before. After work I go home, eat dinner, and do the tasks required of living in society: laundry, housecleaning (no snickering from you folk who have been to my house), bill paying (no snickering from my creditors), and maybe writing a bit.
Sure, I travel to exotic locations like Birmingham, Gadsden, Cullman, Ashville, Double Springs, Tuscaloosa and many other diverse places. But even in those travels I am contained in my own world, my own car, my own work, only at the places that I must go. After doing this for over half my life, I find myself boxed in. I adopt the assumption that the whole world is like my world. The rules are the same. The concerns are the same. The joys and sorrows are the same. All life is the same as mine. But through some kind of grace occasionally I am forced into some situation that takes me out of my world and into another. What begins as uncomfortable ususally turns out to be exhilerating. I wonder why I don't choose to leave my world-in-a-box more often.

If you are thinking, "what are you talking about Bob?" then you are probably well situated in your own world-in-a-box. For instance, when was the last time you:

Spent time in a neighborhood that is completely different than yours. Not just driving through, but stopping at a gas station or a cafe or a yard and just talking to someone.

Ate a meal with someone of a different ethnicity

Spent significant time with a person with a disability, be it physical or mental.

Visited someone in jail or prison. Or the family of someone in jail or prison.

Talked at length with someone with a drug or alcohol addiction.

If you are a church goer, skipped Sunday services and went out into your community to see what non church goers were doing on Sunday morning.

If you are not a church goer, went to church on Sunday morning.

Visited and worshipped at a church significantly different in some way than the one you usually attend.

Had a discussion with a person of a different religion.

Had a discussion with an aetheist.

Had a discussion with a person of a different sexual orientation.

Sat down with someone of a different political persuasion and listened to his or her point of view without interrupting.

Spent time with a person of a distinctly different generation and had a long conversation.

Visited a Waffle House or Krystal after midnight.

Ate at Hardees before 7:00 a.m.

Talked with a farmer about farming.

Talked with a police officer about his or her job. (Doesn't count if you're just friendly during a traffic stop)

Talked to a soldier about his or her experiences.

Went to a museum, a ballet, a symphony concert.

Visited a national park

Went to a city council, county commission or school board meeting.

Visited another state, or country.

Did some kind of charitable work in your community? Beyond your community?

Obviously not an exhaustive list, although it was getting a bit exhausting. Sorry about that. But the point is, how often do you do any of these things? How many have you done? If you have not spent time with people of other races and ethnicities, how can you hope to understand their problems? If you have never heard and seen the challenges of persons of disability and the look of triumph or defeat on their faces, how can you understand how to help? I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Have you fallen into your world-in-a-box and got stuck?

And you and I are not the only ones with this problem. Why do the actions of our government leaders seem so ridiculous sometimes? The CEO's of mega corporations seem so out of touch? Their boxes may be a bit fancier, have a few more amenities, but they are still boxes. And when you live in a plush world-in-a-box with all the luxuries, you don't have much incentive to ever leave.

But we must leave if we are to improve, to learn, to understand. First thread. We gotta get out a little bit.
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