Monday, June 25, 2012

The Flag Draped Coffin

     I work as a custodian at a medium sized church in a medium sized town.  When I heard that we would be holding the memorial service for Tyler Davis, a young man killed in Afghanistan, my first concern was that half the town might turn up.  My second concern was that we might get the group of people infamous for protesting soldier’s funerals.  I am not proud that my sorrow at the loss of this young man didn’t occupy the front of my mind.  
 I tried not to forget that as we prepared for the Friday service, but I stayed busy with other things. I set an overflow room and the church put the local police in charge of the parking.  The police were prepared to handle any protestors.  Their free speech and assembly would not be denied.  But they would not be allowed to pass onto the property.  Then the media, social and public, got wind of the rumor of protestors.  The nets came alive with incredulity and rage at the thought of this young man’s honor being disrespected in such a way. 
Friday came.  The service was scheduled for one p.m. and before 10 a.m. there were people.  I went up to have a look and there were people with lawn-chairs and American flags.  There was a police chaplain prepared to talk to any protestor.  News trucks from Los Angeles arrived.  One reporter managed to find our senior pastor and ask him some questions.  They had more to do with the potential protestors and less to do with the fallen soldier.  More people arrived.  I wondered how many were there to honor Tyler Davis and how many were hoping for fireworks.
The local police arrived before 10 and began to control traffic entering the parking lot.  I stayed with them to direct parents arriving to pick up kids from camp.  Shortly after that, the Patriot Guard arrived.  From the south, between 40 and 50 Harley Davidson Motorcycles ridden by several different clubs/gangs rumbled up, circled, and backed up to the sidewalk in front of the church. Cheers went up.  Motors roared.  The police looked a little nervous.  I found myself caught up in the circus show.  Then the hearse arrived.
I’ve seen several memorial services at my church.  This was the first time I had seen a coffin brought in.  While most people stayed out at the street, several veterans with flags stood lining the way from the curb to the church’s front doors.  The pastor asked me to open the double doors, and I never imagined there would be such honor in unlocking and blocking open two doors I clean every week.  I stood back.  It got very quiet. Moments later a call was given and the veterans lining the path raised their flags.  Young men in smart dress uniforms slowly walked through the line carrying a flag-draped coffin.
Very few of the huge crowd were there to see that.  But I saw it.  And at that moment, it was no longer about the circus, protestors, TV trucks or motorcycles.  I remembered what the day was about.  This was a day for a family that had lost a boy.
I don’t know how many people showed up at the church in order to counter-protest.  The word had gotten out that there would be protestors, but they never showed.  I kept wondering, how much of the town would have been there if there had never been the threat?  It may not have been a very positive thought.  I was just as guilty of forgetting what the day was about.  And yes, there was cheering outside the funeral for the show of American muscle.  But regardless of the reason, people were there.  And if they were there to show up protestors, they were still there in numbers, still waving flags as the procession left through town.  They were supporting their hometown hero, regardless of motives.  
And look at what the empty threat of the abhorrent protestors did.  This so-called church that I thought did nothing but evil managed to bring more people out in a show of encouragement.  
None of this, however, takes away from this simple fact:  A mother lost her son.  As much as I want to support our troops and my country, seeing the soldiers carry the flag draped coffin moved me like nothing ever has before.  I won’t go any further there.  Just this last point: thank you to all the soldiers.  I hope… I wish you can come home alive.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Lost and the Misled

     My church is having a memorial service for a fallen soldier.  He was from our town and only 20 years old.  The honor to have this at our church is humbling.  I wish we didn’t have to face the possibility of people coming to protest the funeral in the purported name of God.  Like terrorists, they make us worry about how to deal with them.  They know enough to demand their free speech and free assembly rights and I’ve heard they make a lot of money in litigation when those rights are denied. The irony of them invoking the constitution while horribly disrespecting those who are sworn to defend it is not lost on anyone.  In fact, so much about this seems wrong that I want to share a story.
     Imagine a meeting in the depths of hell where there are always meetings, subcommittees and portfolio facilitators. It goes like this:

      The mood in the meeting room was always the same.  Fear mixed with a lustful hate.  Desperation sounded in the voice of the speaker as the report was given.
      “We are gaining strength nearly everywhere,” the voice trembled.  “In the developed world, we have generations that are not loyal to… to the other.”
      There was a sound at the end of the table where light did not shine.  When the voice spoke from it, everyone in the room sank low.
      “As long as there are any loyal to Him,” came the hiss.  “We must assault them.” 
      “Popular culture makes loyalty to the other undesirable,” the first one spoke.
      “Popular culture is fleeting,” was the reply.  “There will always be those who resist its draw.  It has no real power.”
      There was silence for a time.  The fear rumbled softly like the ground quaking.
      A new, younger one slowly rose to speak. “So then master,” he said.  “We must have some real power.” 
      All eyes looked to the new one.
      “Yes,” said the master. “And what power do I have?”
      “Lies, master.”
      “Lies,” said the master. “More than lies.  Deception.  The truth, but with confusion and selfishness and things of the world distorting it.”
      “Yes, master,” came the reply. “So we should be like them.”
      There was a shudder from the others, but the master kept calm.
      “What would be the most damaging thing to the other side?” the new one continued.”  “For some to pose as their own followers to quote His Words.  But to do it in such a hateful way that the world looks upon all of them with a distorted viewpoint.  What a weapon we could have if the world believed them to be of Him, but all along they were doing your work?”
      The fear and hate in the room rose.
“Yes,” the master hissed.  “You will make this happen.  Go find some of His flock that is unsure, guilty, weak.  Begin to plant in them ideas of how they might serve their master.  Make them imagine themselves boldly doing His work and deserving great reward.  But give them ideas filled with fear and hate.  Have them invoke His Words so loudly that the unreached believe that is His way.  Many will stay away from him, yes.”
      The other sank down and bowed.  Pain and fear surrounded him as he departed. The master looked to the rest. One spoke up:
      “We will be victorious master,” he said.
      “No,” the master stated.  “In the end, we will lose.  All we can do is take as many of the flock away from Him.”
      The departing one found some with hearts that would hear.  When their work began, the effect was just what the master had desired.
      The effect didn’t last as long as though.  Some of those that truly belonged to Him prayed for the lost. And when the flock prayed, deception fell.  
     I won’t pretend to know what goes on in those meetings.  But what this group does seems so wrong that I think it was created there.  
     I want to remember that these protesters are God’s children also.  I wish that if they showed up, we could give them coffee and doughnuts or somehow minister to their closed hearts.  But they are in a cult.  What’s more, this isn’t their day.  This Friday, it’s about our hometown soldier and his family and loved ones.  There is nothing to do but pray for these lost people.



Monday, June 18, 2012

The Best in the World

     I sure saw a lot of best dads in the world praised on Facebook yesterday.  Maybe it’s a guy thing, or a perceived guy thing, but I don’t remember a lot of that kind of comparisons on Mother’s Day.  Maybe people didn’t want to offend other moms or maybe they knew that their mom was the best but didn’t feel the need to crow about it.  If seems like Father’s Day is when the comparatives and superlatives are flaunted. 
     I’ve never been that competitive.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I’m humble.  If I was I wouldn’t post this every week.  But I don’t usually feel the need to one-up others or compete for a winning status.  If could be self-esteem issues.  I don’t even like playing checkers, much less with my son because he beats me nearly every time.  But it could also be that I just grew up that way.
     When I was very young one evening I was having trouble sleeping.  When my dad checked on me I told him that the traffic in the street was making too much noise and to do something.  There comes a time in a young man’s life when he learns his dad can’t do everything.  That evening, my dad told me that he couldn’t go out in the road and make the cars be quiet.  It wasn’t until right then that I even considered that.  Of course he couldn’t.  I don’t think that was a particularly courageous statement admitting such a limitation.  I think that is what most dads would have said.  But it still stuck with me. 
     For most of my childhood, my dad served two churches.  He kept busy with meetings, visitations and church related things.  But I never felt neglected.  If he needed to drive to the hospital for visiting, he would oftentimes take me along.  He made himself available for Cub Scout projects.  
     Sometimes he had meetings off-island.  He even needed to fly to the U.S. Mainland at least once a year.  And he telephoned and wrote postcards.  I still remember talking on the phone with him one day.  He told me how they had had scrambled eggs every morning for breakfast.  Just before I handed the phone off he told me: “Hey, I’ve been bragging about you.”  I will never forget that.
     Today I’m a dad.  One of the things most important to me is spending time with my kids.  If I need to run errands I rarely go alone.  I do like my alone time and try to indulge myself there when I can.  But most times it just feels right to have one or more of my kids with me, even just for a quick trip to the store.  It just feels right, as if it was modeled to me and made into who I am today.  
     I think I understand a little of the “World’s Best Dad” attitude when I consider it enough.  In my world, there were other influences that could have shaped me.  But someone in my world instilled in me some solid values about loving one’s children and being there for them.  I did have, in my world, the world’s best dad.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Signaling a change and merging into life.

     The tired old adage says that change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.  Change has always been a difficult thing for me to come to grips with.  I suppose it was the same for the dinosaurs too.  They resisted it for millions of years and look where it got them.   They’re a hot commodity now, selling for over four dollars a gallon. 
     When I started college I stepped into a new environment where no-one knew me.  I could have completely re-invented myself.  Instead, I kept wearing the same imitation black leather vest and continued to chew toothpicks and act like American Muscle Cars and Bruce Springsteen could solve the world’s problems.  I started out with a pretty good GPA but by the end I was an irresponsible mook.  I did change, it just took four years and it wasn’t for the better.  
Back in those years I claimed to be a rock that wouldn’t change.  I did though.  After college I was a little more responsible once I got a job I liked.  But I was still pretty self-seeking and unmindful of the future.  I didn’t try to make any real conscious change in myself until I quit smoking.  A lot of things changed in my life right around then.  For the most part I became less selfish because I had a significant other person in my life. 
But 10 years after that there was some serious decay in my character.  While I didn’t make mindful changes in myself, I descended into a pit.  I didn’t start to get better until I did something that I had resisted most of my life.  I had to reach out for help.  But I got better.  On Friday, July 27th I will be giving my testimony at the group that helped me get better.  Okay, I’m better now.  Can I relax? 
In my life now, I get up early most mornings and am responsible for breakfast.  I don’t succumb to any addictions other than coffee and maybe too much food.  I love my job. While some days are better than others, I love being home with my family and we all love each other.  Everything seems to be cool.  
But that isn’t the happy ending of the story.  While I may feel like I’m done changing for the better and can now relax and sip coffee, I am getting more and more uncomfortable.  It’s been a nice break in the slow lane for a year or so.  But I am beginning to be worried that it is too comfortable.  What could be better than this humble life of a father, amateur writer and professional custodian?  Why can’t I just let it be?  Because those years I was resistant to change I went on changing anyway as my world changed around me. 
So I have gotten to my feet.  The break is over.  Last week I started a new Monday night step study.  I have given up one of the two nights off I have each week.  I gave up working with a kid’s group that met Mondays.  I have committed to a year of it and I am in leadership.  So now do I feel better?  Absolutely not.  Which probably means I’m doing the right thing.  
The first step study I went through pretty much brought me back from the spiritual dead.  This time there are more subtle character flaws that I may have been hanging onto even harder for even longer.  This could be a tougher slough to get through than the last one in some ways.  But I am hoping I will stop thinking of it as re-inventing myself.  I believe that we all have within us who God wants us to be.  I have that man inside of me that may be afraid to come up and out.  Over this next year the battle will be not battling the change.     


Monday, June 4, 2012

Allegorical Bootstraps

Pomp and Circumstance plays in the background

     Congratulations graduates of the class of 2012.  For better or worse, you have succeeded in getting your diploma.  Hopefully all you put into earning it has given you a glimpse of the fact that important things in life are not free and require time and effort.  Even this commencement address is part of the price you pay for graduation.  While you sit there in your cap and gown, thinking about after parties, graduation gifts, and goodness knows what else, I am going to consume some of that time.
     Hear me out.  You can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you always go around barefoot.  While some of you nod as if you understand, others blink in confusion. 
     What did he mean by that? You wonder.  I’ll tell you something else.  You may already be aware that in your lives today you are bombarded with witticisms from everywhere.  In my day they were mostly on bumper stickers and T-shirts.  Now, thanks to modern technology we see them in every social media.  Quotes from everyone, ancient philosophers to modern celebrities are pasted everywhere.  Put into whatever context is fitting we smile and agree, or like, or re-tweet. 
     Graduates, I hope that none of you think that on this day you are done learning.  You’ve just spent years having your minds filled with names and dates, facts and figures and all sorts of information and knowledge that you may or may not ever use in your life.  And on the last day of classes you may have relaxed a bit, thinking that’s all over now.  But even those of you not moving on to higher learning institutions are not done learning.  In fact the real learning begins now. 
     You are entering into a time of your life when you begin to learn about yourself.  You may be learning new job skills soon or learning what it takes to survive your first month in college.  The truth is that you are headed out into the real world soon.  I hope you can allow yourself to make mistakes, learn what works for you. 
     Soundbites and witticisms are no way to navigate yourself.  Having a single life motto isn’t enough.  There are too many things you might encounter.  As for me, I needed to keep learning how to face new situations with more than have a clever retort. 
     What do bootstraps have to do with it all?  Not a lot.  But I thought it sounded pretty wise.  It only took a moment of contemplation to realize it didn’t really make sense.  Graduates, do you think that you can look at the quotes and tweets and whatever new things are out there that this old man isn’t even aware of, and think about them for a moment or two before concluding that they are all that wise?
     Remember we all are still learning.  Even this old man is.  We have a need to know what is best for ourselves and loved ones.  And sometimes I need to take off my boots and feel around with my toes what the temperature of the water is, or how soft the grass is, or if the kitten is under the bed waiting to attack.
     And what if I am down and need to pull myself up and I’m barefoot at the time and have no bootstraps?  Well I think I have my own way.  But you graduates, all of you are different from me and each other.  That is the point I'm trying to make. It is up to you to learn what works for you. There is joy in discovery.  Now flip your liripoop, pull those boots off and take a few steps.