A Kind of Hush …

I closed the door softly as I stepped onto the front porch. Nature had dialed down the volume across my little world and I didn’t want to be intrusive or irreverent. In the distance came the sound of someone scraping ice and snow from their windshield. further yet and also unseen, was the drone of a prop-plane struggling to gain altitude. The weather must have forced a change in flight patterns.

My brain somehow made the leap from a snowy January night in Ferguson to 1967 and the summer of love, when Herman’s Hermits released what was to be their final top 10 hit, “There’s a Kind of Hush All Over the World.”

The hush in front of me didn’t extend “All Over the World,” it was real … though not at all what Herman’s Hermits were crooning about. I gave my head a little shake to dislodge the potential earworm. Nothing against the song, but I didn’t want it running through my brain for the rest of the night.

I had the luxury of no longer having to drive or work in the snowstorm, I could take it all in from the security of my front porch. If I lived in Minnesota, I might not feel this way, but here in the heartland snowstorms are not so common as to not have a certain magical quality about them.

Slow down, God tells us, I have provided the perfect excuse to calm yourself, you couldn’t hurry if you wanted to. Listen as I quiet your world. Watch as I soften the light of the street lamps and headlights. Breath deep as my snow filters and cleanses the air around you.

It is a night for meditation. A night for turning off the TV and computer. A night for opening a book and curling your fingers around a mug of hot cocoa, or a mug of hot cocoa with a splash of brandy if you are so inclined.

In this part of the country the snow will be gone in a few days. Cars will once again race up and down the streets. The pace of life will pick up, we will once again become frantic over trivialities. The sounds of honking horns and sirens will once again pollute the airwaves, but for tonight … enjoy the hush.

Poppy

 

Two Funerals, a Cold Rain and the Great Ledger

I cranked the thermostat up a notch. It was not freezing, the temperature was in the lower 40’s, but after several days of persistent rain, an unwelcome guest, the dampness, was starting to creep in. Our 1890 house has many charms, but energy efficiency is not one of them.

Mimsy and I set out for our final stroll of the night. Neither of us pleased to be out in the weather, but it had to be done. We walked down the sidewalk as the cars traveling up and down Elizabeth Avenue created a spray and swooshing sound unique to tires on wet roads.

Mimsy had her mind on the scents contained within the piles of damp leaves along our route, my mind was on two funerals confronting us this week. We humans have a habit of attributing deaths that happen close to major holidays as somehow more tragic than those happening on a date with nothing more important than Fire Prevention Safety Week on the calendar. It’s not true, but hey, that’s what we humans do.

As Mimsy was busy sniffing, I thought of the two people recently deceased. One, a former co-worker, a woman only slightly older than myself. She had the gift of selfless giving and attending the needs of others before herself.  She will be missed. The other person … well, I feel sorry for the minister asked to give the eulogy.

Funerals seem to come often these days. It goes with the territory, I suppose. As Christians we have the head knowledge that we are not saved by our works or inner goodness, but as the tendrils of dampness find a way to sneak into my house, thoughts of doubt and insecurity sneak into my mind. What have I done?  Have I made a difference? Have I contributed to the great ledger? Will I, in some small fashion, leave the world a better place? Why am I even here?

It’s a safe bet you will never see my portrait on the cover of Time magazine as Man of the Year or read the announcement that Poppy has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor I would kill for. (sorry, couldn’t resist)

There will never be any fanfare over any action of mine, angels will not suddenly appear, singing a heavenly chorus above my head. (this is for the best as it would scare the crap out of Mimsy and myself)

I am as far from a celebrity or public figure as is possible. My sphere of influence is limited to my family, co-workers, neighbors, the check-out people at the grocery store ( because I’m there every other day). If I am to make any sort of difference, to contribute to the great ledger, it is with these people. Fortunately they are just as ordinary, just as flawed as I am.

I would love to be a veritable cornucopia of the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control … but I am not that guy. My best hope is to let a little of God’s grace show through, maybe just a touch of patience as the lady in front of me at the checkout line slowly and thoroughly searches through her purse to find the pennies needed to pay for her purchase with exact change.

Poppy

 

 

The Unrecorded Prayer and a Thankful Heart

At the time we didn’t know it would be Dad’s last Thanksgiving. We gathered around the dining room table, patiently waiting as Mom scurried back and forth from the kitchen, retrieving some item she thought we would need. Finally everyone settled and we bowed our heads. There was no question who would offer the grace. At 98, Dad was very much the patriarch and spiritual leader of the family. As he started his prayer, I realized too late that I should be recording the moment. I fumbled for my phone, but then stopped.

There are times I regret not capturing that fragment of time, but perhaps it is for the best. It was too sacred a moment to be sullied by technology.

I can’t recall any of the specific words, only the emotion.

Ray Agnew was unencumbered by any vanity. More than anyone I’ve known, he had a servant’s heart. Every deed, every action was done to further the kingdom of God, never to seek recognition for himself.

The words he spoke were plain. The meaning profound. Simple words. Words of love for everyone gathered at the table. Sincere words of appreciation for the food before us, spoken from one who had lived through times when food was not bountiful. And of course words of thanksgiving to his Savior, always ending the same way … “in Jesus name.”

Though I did not record the moment, it is clear in my mind. Dad sitting back as Mom fussed over the food, his shirt slightly crumpled, softened by a hundred washings. Hair thin, but not given over entirely to grey. A slight smile on his face as he viewed Lillie Bell unnecessarily worrying over some small detail.

When it comes to parents, I have an embarrassment of riches. This is our first Thanksgiving without Mom. Dad has been gone for several years. Technically I am the patriarch of our little family. If I’m totally honest, I feel like an imposter, but I am a thankful imposter none the less.

Donald Trump is a Jerk and Why I’m Voting Republican

I pray for forgiveness of sins done and undone and this is why I’m writing this post. I don’t know that I will change anyone’s mind, but I don’t want the regrets of not giving it my best shot.

Let’s get something out of the way right now, God is neither a Republican or Democrat, in fact he’s not even an American. I hope that doesn’t shock you too much ( I still hold to the hope that he prefers the Cardinals over the Cubs, but have not been able to find any evidence of that in Holy Scriptures). While God may be neither Republican or Democrat, I believe that he loves every human everywhere as his child and values the sanctity of the life he has given us all..

The political landscape is as divisive as I have ever seen. Civility is not just missing, a stake has been driven through her heart. The hot topics (generally) are not ones of foreign policy or financial philosophies  but social issues; immigration, gender identity, LGBT adoption rights, healthcare, religious freedom act, gun control, etc. These are all important and very emotional issues.

I find it ironic that we are living in an era where by most measures we are more sensitive than any other point in time. We agonize over using plastic straws for fear that they may end up in the ocean inserted into a sea turtle’s nostril. We debate safe spaces for students at universities where they can gather to avoid a speaker or event that may offend them. We have raised the level of awareness for animal rights but yet we are willing to stop the beating heart of an unborn human baby, to suck him or her from the safety of it’s mother’s womb or dismember it all under the name of “reproductive health.”

But … but … but that’s just one issue among many you say.

Yes, but it’s the only issue that at it’s core is a matter of life and death.

I am hesitant to mention Nazis because that is so overdone, but imagine a defense of the Nazi party based on the argument that extermination of the Jews was just one plank in their platform. Any reasonable person would find that argument repugnant and indefensible.

Every year in America the Democratic party salutes as over 300,000 babies are violently torn from their mother’s wombs. That’s harsh you say … but the Democratic Party has made abortion a major plank in their platform and chooses their judges and candidates accordingly.

I wish this were not true. Neither Republicans or Democrats hold a monopoly on good policy ideas, but I will not sell out my principles for legislation that will benefit me financially or provide some measure of convenience when there are matters of life and death at stake.

Imagine a country where we truly embraced the sanctity of life from the beginning  until death, across every social, economic, religious and racial strata. I believe this has to start with the most innocent and helpless among us.

Yes, Donald Trump can be a real jerk, offensive and abrasive, but I have no other choice than to vote Republican this Tuesday.

Addendum, 11-15-18:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” …Elie Wiesel

 

 

To Gavin, on the Occasion of Your 13th Birthday

Gavin,

When your mom asked me if I would be willing to contribute to the book she was creating for your 13th birthday, I jumped at the chance. There were 3 reasons why I accepted; the first being respect for your mother, and knowing her love for you, the second … it’s rare that someone wants to hear your opinions and advice (though you notice she was asking advice for you, not herself), and thirdly, I have a grandson a year and a half younger than you, I want him to hear the same ideas that I am passing on to you.

Where to begin? The transition from boyhood to becoming a man does not happen at a specific age or chronological point. It happens early for some and never for others. There is no guidebook or manual for this journey. Like most things in life it is often messy and confusing. It is a stew made from relationships, character, learning, self-awareness, kindness, patience, self-control, and perseverance among others. It is stirred with experiences, successes, failures and time. Done properly this topic would take volumes, following are just a few highlights, things that I am working on during my journey.

  1. Always be learning, always stay curious. Staying curious will be the closest thing you will find to the fountain of youth. It’s a big ol’ crazy world out there, packed with different people, cultures, ideas, music, food, literature, etc. Sample as much as you can and learn from everything … and not just once. At age 13 sushi may not appeal to you, at age 25 it might be your favorite. At 13 you might shake your head at be-bop jazz, at 30 you might be the drummer in a local group. You can’t possibly know or experience everything, but there is enough to keep you busy your entire life.
  2. Accept that life is not fair … never has been, never will be. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. You can’t control most things that happen to you, but you can control how you react to those events. When bad things happen (and they will) don’t give in to feeling sorry for yourself, and don’t take on a victim mentality (ever).
  3. Learn to be comfortable in your own skin. Develop the skill of self-awareness. As you grow and mature you will learn your strengths and your weaknesses. Think about the people you are most at ease with, chances are they are comfortable with themselves, They have learned that they are not perfect, neither are they losers. It’s likely that you also know people who feel the constant need to impress others, or pretend to be something they are not. Learn that being Gavin is a good thing, that God created you exactly as he wanted.
  4. Hard work beats luck every-time. Hard work is hard, and there is no substitute. Hard work can also bring joy and happiness. We don’t often think of hard work and happiness together but nothing will give you greater sense of satisfaction than setting a tough goal for yourself and achieving it.
  5. Just a few good friends. Aside from your family, your friends can be the biggest influence on the kind of man you will become. Choose wisely. Friendship like any relationship will take work (see point 4). A few solid friends are worth more than a hundred “friends” on any social media site.
  6. Walking among immortals. I can’t make this point half as well as C.S. Lewis, so I will just quote him,“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal … it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”
    This was eye-opening for me. I don’t always succeed, but I try to view everyone I see, first as a child of God, before I make any snap judgments based on their looks, dress, speech, etc. You will never meet anyone who is 100% good or 100% bad, but everyone will have a story to tell and something to teach you.
  7. Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. I purchased this t-shirt for my grandson a few weeks ago because I wanted him to remember this. There is a lot of wisdom to unpack in these 9 words. Though this comes from William Shakespeare and not Holy Scripture, we all could do a lot worse than trying to apply this to our lives.

Gavin, I look forward to seeing the grown man you will become. Godspeed.

Poppy

The Perpetual Flirtation: a play in one act

In this drama the role of the young maid is played by the sea.
The part of the mature gentleman is played by the land.

I stood at that magical demarcation, where the sea ends and the land begins, watching the never-ending flirtation between the two principal characters.

The sea gathers herself, curling and flexing, thrusting herself upon the land … stroking, teasing, then pulling back, laughing. The land gave of himself to the sea. She accepted the offering, rolling his essence in her waves, considering the gift before returning it to the shore.

The tempo and pace of this eternal flirtation is ever-changing, from the gentlest of caresses, to the violent and angry crashes of the most severe lovers quarrel. The lovers can never be truly joined or truly separate, living in an endless state of give and take, ebb and flow.

The sea is the ultimate seductress, her craft honed from the practice of thousands of years. Her siren’s call extends not only to the land, but all who live on the land. I am not immune. I stand at that junction where the lovers meet and feel her call just as sure as I feel the sand being pulled from beneath my feet by her force..

This is a drama that begs for audience participation and has no problem gathering volunteers of all ages.

Children run uninhibited along the shore and into the waves, their squeals and laughter mingle with the mews of the gulls, no grownups admonish them to be quiet. Young lovers stretch out on the sand letting the waves caress them as they have caressed each other, dreaming of the future and children of their own. Those of a mature age watch the children and young lovers, remembering, smiling, feeling the warmth of the sun and the massage of the water work wonders that no pills can deliver. Those with worries and stress walk along the line of magical demarcation and feel those cares melt and drift out to sea.

Tomorrow I leave this elemental flirtation and head far inland, God willing, I will return.

Poppy

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
by John Masefield

God’s to-do List

Disclaimer: I am not a super-spiritual person … ask any family member or anyone who knows me. But on occasion, I try to improve some aspect of my life. It occurred to me a few weeks ago that I could use my a.m. commute for something better than listening to morning DJ’s or the same songs I’ve heard hundreds of times.

That morning commute is 20 minutes of potential solitude, more if there’s an accident, inclement weather or construction. Why not use that time to talk to God?

I was ready. I had a long list of requests ready for God … a veritable heavenly honey-do list. There were any number of problems to be solved, ranging from financial to mechanical. There were also people who needed an attitude adjustment, I wasn’t having much success fixing them, but they seemed ripe for a God intervention.

Lest you think I’m totally selfish, I also offered up problems that my family, friends and co-workers needed help with, it was a very extensive list.

Of course God is not a cosmic vending machine, where you insert a few prayers and a solution dispensed into the tray at the bottom.

Public Service Announcement: Opening up you wallet to TV preachers does not improve your odds of getting prayers answered.

I soon tired of presenting my list of requests, it was becoming an obviously one-sided conversation. I remembered hearing or reading someones theory about the Lord’s Prayer, comparing it to a sandwich, with praise at the beginning, followed by requests (the meat), then topped with more praise. I guess that’s one interpretation, but it seemed like a weak attempt at bribery, with me on one end, offering up some praises, then slipping in a request, then jumping back to praises before the creator of the universe noticed what I had done. I wasn’t comfortable with that.

Perhaps my whole premise was wrong, maybe praying wasn’t about getting things fixed, solved or corrected.

Prayer is a conversation. Conversations at their core are about communication. Communication at its core is about understanding. If God is who I think he is, he already knows all there is to know about me. That just leaves me needing to understand more about God. For this guy who couldn’t tell you what he had for lunch two days ago, that’s a little daunting.

I started to change my approach to those morning conversations. At this moment I don’t have any serious problems and I am thankful for that, but I have friends and family who do. Rather than just ask God to fix all their problems, my morning conversations are more like this, “God, so-and-so, is dealing with some really tough things, I know you have the power to fix all that, but from experience, that’s not how you operate. But a little peace would do them a world of good, maybe just a little reminder that you understand what they are going through, let them know you haven’t forgotten about them and if I can help, please give me a little nudge.”

Of course, I could be totally wrong about my prayer theories. I’m not a super-spiritual guy, I know this because some mornings I mostly talk to God about the weather.

Poppy

Great Flocks of Robins

If this day had entered a beauty contest, she would not have won any of the competitions; not the evening gown, swimsuit or talent phases. At best she might have managed a consolation prize, just for being a spring day and not the winter version. It was not a pretty day!

It had rained off and on all day, the sun was AWOL, and the temperature hovered in the mid 40’s. Roiling banks of low hanging graphite colored clouds appeared almost as solid as the asphalt beneath my feet. There was no doubt this was a spring day though, the calendar proclaimed it and signs of its arrival were everywhere.

When Mimsy and I left the house for our late afternoon stroll, I took in a deep breath of damp air. Ahh, the bouquet of spring; the rich fertile scent of moist earth, poised to bring forth new growth, faint odors of last seasons fallen leaves that had escaped the clutching fingers of the rake, and the fragrance of new grass. If I detected this potpourri of spring scents, I could only imagine what Mimsy with her heightened olfactory nerves was enjoying.

There were no less than 4 or 5 robins in the front yard, busily disturbing the clumps of grass and weeds in search of insects and worms. At some prescribed day in early winter, all robins must receive an eviction notice, demanding an immediate relocation. Where do they go? I have never seen great flocks of robins flying south or returning north. A quick internet search would provide the answer, but I don’t mind a little mystery here and there. I am content to sit back and enjoy the miracle.

Once again, my weeds have successfully survived the winter. God must have a deep and abiding love for weeds and mosquitoes. He gave them the gift of survival, the ability to pop back every spring regardless of how frigid the temperatures drop during the previous season.

“You wouldn’t last two days,” I tell Mimsy, “Does that mean God loves mosquitos and weeds more than you?”

She looks up, chuffs, and continues walking.

That Mimsy does not posses the independent survival attributes of the weeds and mosquitoes, does not concern her. She is secure in the knowledge that she has people who love her. She knows her needs will be met, that she will be taken care of, no matter how cold the winters or how long they last. It’s a level of trust I’m still working on.

As we turn to go back home, I smash the first mosquito of the year against the back of my hand.

Poppy

Lillie Bell Goes Home

We walked with Lillie Bell as far as we could, but at the edge of the long gangplank she left us behind, walking toward the great ship alone.  I had hoped at some point she would turn and wave, but her gaze never varied and her step never faltered, she was resolute in her desire to reach the next destination.

The sun was breaking over the horizon. Brilliant shades of coral and gold defined the line between the sea and the sky. The darkness of the night fled before the piercing rays that announced a new day, a new beginning.

I shielded my eyes in an attempt to make out the details before me.  The crew that welcomed her aboard, back-lit by the rising sun, appeared to glow against the azure sky as if they had wings.

The morning breeze picked up as the sails began to unfurl. Even at this distance, I heard the snap as the canvas caught the wind, becoming taunt, straining to be on their way. The ship was ancient, but the workmanship was beyond compare. Each wood plank polished and tightly fitted against its brethren, The sails were as pure a white as I have seen. As the crew cast off the lines and the ship turned slowly toward the horizon, the stern swung around revealing the name, “ZION,” spelled out in letters of gold

Surrounded by family and friends, we exchanged hugs and smiles, unspoken was the sentiment … it was time. We watched as the ship grew smaller and smaller until it was just a white dot. When the vessel slipped over the horizon and out of our sight, we raised our hands triumphantly and cheered.

Lillie Bell’s journey had been long, her pilgrimage lasting 102 years. Through it all she had steadfastly followed her Savior. For 78 of those years she had walked alongside her other great love, Ray. She had never been without those who loved her, and she returned that love in even greater measure.

Though we could no longer see the ship, we knew it was headed for another port. There, a great multitude awaited her arrival, watching as the ship which had disappeared from our sight grew larger and larger in their field of vision.

The gangplank at the port Lillie Bell had embarked from was constructed of wood planks, rough and splintered with age, turned a weathered grey by the sun and salt spray. The gangplank the ship was turning into at this port was of white marble, gleaming under a cloudless sky. It led to a circular courtyard. In the center of the courtyard was an intricate design of three interlocked circles constructed of gem stones and defined on the outer edges by bands of gold.

On either side of the courtyard, halfway around it’s circumference, were a pair of sweeping stairs, also made of white marble. They lead to a balcony that overlooked the courtyard. Built into the wall behind the courtyard and below the balcony was an alcove containing a large marble statue of a lamb, its foreleg resting over a  slender gold cross  extending over its back.

A solitary figure stood on the balcony, his white robes gleaming under a light-source that had no definable origin. He rested his elbows on the balustrade, fingers locked together, faint scars visible on the back of each hand. Looking down at the assembled crowd on the courtyard  a smile crossed his face before he addressed his children. “Lillie Bell has fought a good fight, she has kept the faith. Today I called her home … it was time.”

Among the crowd were old friends and family. Saints who had toiled alongside Ray and Lillie Bell in the vineyard. The Morgans, the Chambers, the Boxes, the Wallaces, Roams and Yadons … too many to name, and of course members of the Boatman and Agnew families.

Standing slightly apart from the crowd was a tall man with dark wavy hair, a slight grin on his face. “It’s about time,” he said with a slow Texas drawl, “She was always running late for everything.” He laughed and started to walk toward the gangplank, “It’s about time.”

Poppy

Lillie Bell Agnew
December 25, 1915 – March 8, 2018

Brief Moments of Clarity

The windows in my kitchen face due east. I wish I could tell you that Poppy got up early enough every day to enjoy the sunrise with a leisurely cup of coffee and a well-balanced breakfast … but I don’t. I’m doing good to grab a quick mug of coffee for the morning commute. The afternoons are a different story. This is when Poppy engages in his cooking therapy. Putting on some good music, enjoying an adult beverage, creating a meal for people I love … this is when I unwind. Though my windows face east, I can always tell when the sun is setting. It’s never dramatic, a slight shift in coloration, a change in the quality of light, a feeling that has no description or definition. Sometimes I verify my instincts by walking to the front of the house, stepping out on the porch, scanning the western horizon. Yes, the sun is setting … sometimes accompanied by dramatic hues and glowing clouds, often the event is rendered in a more subdued pallette. I walk back to the kitchen, once again looking east, its vistas offering an understated beauty and a brief moment of clarity.

When you walk past the open door of a club or bar in any entertainment district and hear the sounds of music flow out into the street, without going in, you instinctively know whether that melody is live or recorded. It’s a matter of faint audible clues that no one can explain. It’s the difference  between the pure and the duplicated. A brief moment of clarity.

To say that life is complicated would be the ultimate understatement. No matter our station in life, rich or poor, black or white, young or old, we travel a road that is always uncharted. Each morning we step out on that journey, never knowing where it will take us. The history of humanity tells us that we will have good times and bad times, sometimes within the same day, sometimes stretching over weeks, months and even years. This I know to be true. But I believe along the way, God gifts us enough little moments of grace to get us through.

These moments of clarity can bring life into focus, offering an “Aha” event, reminding us that there may actually be a plan. There are little gems of faith and grace hidden in the messiness of life and they can take many forms. Sometimes it is in the form of a sunset or piece of music. Occasionally it’s a scripture, hymn or poem that comes to mind and carries us through the day. But it can also be an overheard loving exchange between a parent and child at the grocery store, an unexpected spontaneous smile from a stranger, or the unrestrained giggles of a child. Sometimes an encouraging text from an old friend will bring the day into focus.

These micro-events will not fill the full 24 hours of your day. They will be rare, precious, brief and fleeting. Train yourself to recognize them in the most unlikely places. Learn to drop your defenses, learn to make yourself vulnerable enough to receive these tiny gifts from God, because they will not announce themselves with the fanfare of trumpets or a loud voice over a public address system, but rather in the most subtle of ways … like a gentle whisper.

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out … (1 Kings 19)

Poppy