Saturday, September 10, 2005

Back in the saddle again

Several months ago I put my blog down. I feared I overstayed my welcome. I worried friends tired of my ramblings. With compassion, they allowed me to think what I had to say mattered.

In the interim, an occasional reader asked me what happened to my corner of the world. I often told them I did not have the time or energy to pour into this exercise of cerebral athletics. The time usually spent on submissions took several hours. These were hours I could have spent on my book, with my family or any of the other items that vie for my attention.

It is true that my time grew short. However, like so many who say, “When I make time…” or “When I finish this task…,” I made the time and finished the task but didn’t start on the book or any of the other well-meaning promises I made to myself.

I now find what we all know, you do what you want to do and you will find time to complete each task you want to complete.

I have decided to reestablish my blog. The goal is the same. These are my thoughts. They will not be profound. They will, however, be mine. They will seldom be original. I am sure someone, somewhere, has already coined a phrase I will use. I will struggle to write 900 words on a subject and then find another has written a book covering the same issue.

All this will be true. The difference will be these are my thoughts.

I now reengage in this effort of self-expression. No one has begged for my opinions. There is no publisher pounding on my door for my submissions. These are my thoughts and my words.

This is my corner of the world.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Her Chronometer Is Becoming Her Speedometer

With this post I am moving to a monthly submission. I appreciate the support so many give. I believe readership is high for such a narrow cast as this blog provides (Nearly 400 page views in the first month). The slightly slower tempo allows more time to sharpen my work. At the same time it will give me the opportunity to continue constructing "Sandy's Castle." I will email updates as they occur. Thank you.

May I send a tribute to our mom this Mother’s Day?

What an unusual person our mother is. I am proud to say her music-teaching career, which began during the post-war 40’s, continues until today. That is seven consecutive decades of Hanon exercises! (Not much Bartok, I’ll bet!)

In a recent email to her, I reminded her that some careers, like professional athletes, are over by 35. Other careers, while they aren't over at 60, determine their maximum impact long before then. Mom’s career, as well as her life, began picking up speed at 70.

A strong and independent woman, she lives her life in the face of great danger. She is in danger of confusing her age with the speed she wants to live her life. It appears her chronometer is becoming her speedometer.

I could recite the number of things mom did to support our family. They, however, are events. From the days before Solomon penned Proverbs 31, humankind knew a virtuous mother not by what she did, but by how she did them.

Time reveals virtue, the excellence of life in a woman. Bathed in the heat that creates the purest diamonds, it takes the patience of time to release the purest colors and the greatest brilliance.

When I say that mom has been long-suffering, please do not see a little, old woman wobbling down the sidewalk carrying a loaf of bread from the A & P. She isn’t the poor woman in jeopardy of charlatans and panhandlers. You have to understand. She puts up with the five of us.

There was the time one of my siblings gave her a phone that didn’t ring. It quacked! (Her childhood nickname was “Ducky”).

There was the time I teased her without mercy at a large restaurant in Kansas City. (Oh, wait, she got back by starting a food fight in the middle of the restaurant dining room.)

However, (dare I say it?) the longest running joke is the bird of destiny and the albatross of her fate she unleashed on herself. We never let her forget the feathered mascot that will forever be associated with her in our memory.

Our teasing is in good spirit. After all, we aren’t making fun of her. We are having a humorous interlude at her expense.

She has to be honest. She provides so much of the material for us.

In 1995 she opened her home to a foreign exchange student from Germany. You would expect her to get a girl, right? Nope, she got a 17-year-old boy! Here is this sharp dressing widow and her new male hunk of a houseguest. Talk about an opportunity for some humorous interludes. It got even better when he broke his arm and couldn’t dress himself!

She enjoyed the trips they took as she taught him about Texas. I suspect there is a young man in Germany that knows more about the Lone Star State than many redneck Bubbas raised on bar-b-que and frijoles.

Her testing isn’t always at the hand of humor. She watched as one by one, each of her children moved from our hometown to other cities and states to build their lives. Viki and I were the first. We took her grandchildren to Minnesota just a scant six months after dad died.

My brother lives north of Houston and makes noises about Alaska. My oldest sister lives so close to Mexico she carries a dual citizenship in case she rolls over in bed. Sister number two lives south of San Antonio in a town that thinks Wal-Mart is a shopping mall. Our baby sister just announced her plans to move to DC to help ol’ George out.

I am sure Mom would like to have her chicks around her, but parenting isn’t about tying children to your apron strings. It is more about fastening knots with your heartstrings.

Apron strings break. Heartstrings stretch. Apron strings drag children around. Heartstrings allow children to grow, explore and, at the end of the day, bring life lessons back to the whole family.

I started this to tell you about this unusual woman who travels the world when most others her age are looking for a retirement center. I planned to tell you about a career that is speeding up while others in her generation have long ago put aside their tools of the trade.

In fact, I am unable to describe this woman I have known for 55 years in 900 words. A talented and experienced musician? Absolutely. A skilled and accomplished teacher? Without question, unless you are an administrator in the Bay City school district who wouldn’t know a real educator if s/he walked up and slammed a McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader shut on their nose! A seasoned world traveler? In the past 20 years, she has regaled us with tales of her numerous trips to England and Scotland, as well as journeys to Spain, Thailand, and Egypt with a cruise down the “Blue Danube” thrown in. A fresh itinerary lists China as the next destination.

Instead, I want to give this tribute to my mom.

When the Lord called Dad home, she looked around and said there was too much life to live and a High School daughter to raise. She has done that and more since she began the widow’s journey.

Mom shares one constant with many women and men who become suddenly single due to the death of a mate. There may be days of loneliness, but they aren’t alone. Memories fill the quiet times. Common goals, once shared with a significant person, are still just as important. When under-girded by an abiding faith, their life doesn’t end. It changes.

Our parents are the first people we meet. It is only right they are the ones we admire and want to be like.

She is, and I do.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The New Stuff

The forty-two voice “Hallelujah! Kids Choir” presented their spring musical this evening. The production, “Who is like the Lord,” featured contemporary praise music and custom-crafted dialogue for our children and our church. The voices of youth and optimism filled the building as they sang and quoted scripture.

As usual, they made the leadership look stronger than we really are.

There were a few moments of adventure. Children made decisions to do things they never did during practice. It wasn’t possible to stop and correct. We just continued and enjoyed the creativity and responsiveness of those young hearts.

The music was difficult at times. Contemporary rhythms are hard for me to count and even harder for me to teach. For the most part, they grasped them immediately.

The parallel “Praise and Worship” format our church uses made our job easy. There was no disconnect between what we asked the children to do and what they hear on a regular basis in the worship services.

I know that some dismiss the contemporary praise and worship style as “7-11 music” (you sing the same seven words eleven times). I won’t deny that at first glance some of the music found in “P & W” services may come across as meager. After spending over 18 months as part of our church’s worship leadership team, I do not share the desire to dismiss the music as shallow and lacking in life-changing content.

However, I do reflect on my journey into this “new stuff.”

The church culture that nurtured me reflected the strong work ethic of the members who lived through two great defining events. The Great Depression shook the nation to its very core. A whole nation found itself having to work everyday just to get by. There was no guarantee about tomorrow. There was only today.

This prepared the nation for a complete commitment needed to win a war fought on a global battlefield. Every sector of national life rewrote its purpose to include doing what was necessary to defeat the enemy. Families sent loved ones off facing the fear the generation they birthed and nurtured would not return.

The church needed a hope to hold as well as a hope that held.

Our music gave promise. We sang of our hope in the hereafter. “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks,” and “Shall We Gather At the River” recently comforted me when I questioned how much journey was left in my life.

My childhood memories recall songs that exhorted us. “We’ll Work ‘Till Jesus Comes,” “Are Ye Able,” and “Toiling On” ingrained in our heart that free grace is but one side of God’s coin of the realm. The other side reminded us we had a responsibility to do our part in building the kingdom.

To be sure, we had our “Praise and Worship” music. “Holy, Holy, Holy” still reverberates in my soul as does “To God Be The Glory.” The music of my heritage often made great theological statements. Some were a whole systematic theology as in the marathon hymn “One Day.”

A few of the hymns made the transition. They are still part of our church’s musical literature. “Amazing Grace” is destined to live on through the ages. “It Is Well With My Soul” will comforts the heart of the grieving and discouraged for generations to come.

Whether we sang songs of testimony (“Whosoever Surely Meaneth Me”), songs of divine protection (“No, Never Alone”), or words intended to encourage a decision (“Only Trust Him”), these songs became a part of my spiritual heritage. Sometimes I miss them. They are “the stuff” of my religious heritage.

One of the biggest raps against the generation that leads the church today is that it is selfish. Some say we want it given to us and we believe the church ought to pay for it.

If that charge is true, then the accusatory voices should take great comfort in the “Praise and Worship” format. Every time we meet, our musicians remind us that community church worship isn’t about us. Whether we sing “What A Mighty God We Serve,” “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High,” “Awesome God,” “Holy Ground,” or “Majesty,” we are humbled in the presence of the Almighty.

I suspect that some Sundays I am not alone when I miss “my stuff.” I get nostalgic for the songs of my youth. However, when I am in the position of worship leader and I see the church energized by music designed to replace the issues of this world with eternal ones, I am loath to return to that more familiar worship format, as comfortable as it was.

My children’s choir stood before more than 200 worshippers last night and proclaimed, “This God, He is our God.” They sang, “He knows my name.” The children’s voices literally shouted “Nobody” when they asked, “Who is like the Lord.” A young man led the night off with a contemporary systematic theology of his own as he sang “I believe in a risen Savior.” A relationship with the divine was affirmed when they stated, “Jesus, you are my best friend.”

I may miss “my stuff,” but the “new stuff” I have in common with the children of my church is a reminder to me. Childhood biblical lessons, resting on scripture and set to music, still serve me well. That style of teaching works today, regardless whether the rhythm is accented with a trap set and a few bass guitar riffs

Monday, April 25, 2005

I Was Just Having A Ball

When our daughters were twelve and nine, my enthusiasm got the best of me. Our small community risked not fielding two girl’s softball teams. The coach for the teams would be at college all summer. No one wanted the job. I knew if someone didn’t do it, my daughters would miss out on a great summer of activity.

I stood up and said, “I’ll coach the teams.” How dumb was that?

I played little league baseball two years and never hit the ball. When it came to sports, I was the best trombone player in our High School. I didn’t even know how far it was from pitcher’s mound to home plate.

There is one great thing about small communities. They are more than willing to loan you all the shovels you need to dig a hole to fall in.

The first game, a specially arranged meeting for my older team with the community to our north, was traumatic. I went to home plate with the line up and realized I had never actually been on a ball diamond when I wasn’t a late game substitute. So this is what the chalk lines look like around home plate. I remember thinking, “I hope I don’t trip.”

The local umpire told me the dimensions of the field. He asked if they were OK. Being the likable fellow I am, I quickly agreed. Besides, I still didn’t know how far it was from home plate to the pitcher’s mound.

The game went well. We pulled ahead based on excellent ball playing and the coach staying out of the way.

I guess I have a hard time handling prosperity. I decided to pull the pitcher three quarters through the game. I can’t remember why. I replaced her with the shortstop, an excellent athlete but a better infielder than a pitcher. We were ahead going into the last inning. They hammered us.

I managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.

I looked around after the game. All the parents who previously pledged their undying loyalty were gone. No one came to me to say, “Good game, coach.” They were busy consoling their children (and probably telling them they would have won the game if that bonehead coach had left everything alone). My daughters consoled me.

Later that night I confronted myself with my own promise that I would not let this ball playing get to me. It was the girls’ game. I was, after all, just the coach. This was about giving the children a chance to enjoy life.

I can’t say the pep talk was particularly successful, but that afternoon game began seven years of great fun and personal satisfaction.

I learned how to coach a sport I couldn’t play. I found the coach isn’t the performer. He is the enabler. I found his goal is to create challenging opportunities for players to compete and discourage situations not suited for their skills and abilities. Some of the best management skills I ever developed I discovered leading those young girls.

Isn’t it interesting where we learn? It is said, “All the world is a stage.” It can also be said, “Each event in life is a classroom.”

Sometimes I remember those games. I wish I could be there again watching daughter number one play second base or daughter number two set her teeth as she stepped into the batter’s box.

I have images of one of our less athletic girls barreling into the catcher and scoring because her coach told her to steal home and she trusted him.

I remember watching daughter number one get her first hit, a hard line-drive over third base. I wasn’t the coach of that game. Even better, I was her dad. A later photo showed her eyes on the ball at impact and her arms at full extension.

I remember teaching the second and third grade girls the ball would not hurt them. My players never bailed out of the batter’s box on close pitches. Ever.

I remember coming up with a drill to teach a catcher how to throw to second base and catch the runner trying to steal. The look of satisfaction and pleasure on her face the first time the runner lost was pure poetry.

I remember my brother, an excellent ball player in his own right, relay to me a bit of Tommy Lasorda wisdom. The great Dodger skipper said 68% of the times you lose, your opponent scored more runs in one inning than you did in the whole game. I taught the girls to get the out, stop the rally and stay on task.

But more than anything, I just remember having a ball.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

You Can Win All the Battles and Still Lose the War

It began in the early 90’s. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There just wasn’t a sense of physical wholeness.

I pastored a church in northeastern Missouri at the time. Hospital visitation was a major part of my work. One stressful day, after climbing a set of stairs while making my hospital rounds, I had difficulty catching my breath.

My wife, ever the diligent one, encouraged me to see a physician. (I think it was more like, “If you don’t go on your own I will stick you in a burlap bag and drag you.”) After a series of tests, probing in places that had absolutely nothing to do with my breathing (except I inhaled quickly when they did it) and a round of diagnostic imaging, the cardiac specialist had these sage words of wisdom.

“So, you see a lot of sick people in your job. Stop seeing so many. You will feel better.” I could have gotten the same diagnosis at the local gossip shop for the price of a cup of coffee.

Several years later, after adjusting to being less resilient and suffering from a low tolerance of heat and high humidity, a new round of health issues surfaced. Again, conventional wisdom directed me to a cardiac specialist. Fast-forwarding through EKGs, MRIs, and the rest of the medical ABCs, I ended up at a sleep clinic.

Hey, people, the problem is not when I am asleep. It is when I am awake!

I dismissed a half-hearted medicinal approach by the cardiologist and decided to self-medicate myself through the administration of Bar-B-Que and Sonic Burgers. After all, homespun wisdom says, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It made as much sense as reaching my heart by going through the other end!

I didn’t feel any better. I did enjoy feeling worse.

One night I tried to play broomball. (It’s a game for hockey addicts played during the three weeks of Minnesota summer.) After just three or four minutes, I began to hurt. This, I knew, was no nagging problem. My chest felt like someone was sticking an ice pick into it. I couldn’t get my breath even after sitting down for ten minutes. However bad I felt, I was more afraid that when I went to the doctor he would tell me to do something like buy a size larger under-shorts. I just refused to go through the whole thing again.

I reinvented my life. I slowed down to almost a stop. I slept a lot. I downsized everything I could to put off the inevitable. In the end, I felt “old.”

One day in November, while calling on customers in Austin, MN, I began to hurt. I was two blocks from my car. It took me nearly two hours to get back to the car. The next evening, while sitting at my computer, the pains started again. As I promised my wife, I called Son-In-Law Number 2 and off to the hospital we went. This time the pros found the problems, fixed them and sent me off to mend.

I look back and realize it wasn’t the doctor’s fault an earlier opportunity to diagnose failed to find the developing problems. Timing, after all, is everything. I ended up in one of the premiere health facilities in the world being care for by my wife’s handpicked health-care colleagues.

We often see so much better in retrospect.

Some wars you won’t win, regardless how well you manage the battles. Preparation and prioritization will get you only so far. There comes a time when you have to stand up, face the challenge and ask for help. When you join with your allies to face your greatest enemies in the “Valley of Decision,” victory often goes to the one who marries the strength of commitment with the lack of viable options.

As a teenager, I attended a funeral service of a man who took his own life. Our pastor made a most remarkable statement. He said the deceased was his own worst enemy. He said it in public, during the service and in front of the family. An unfortunate person, this man saw his future replete with evidence of ever diminishing opportunities for victory.

The overwhelming sadness is that he never recognized his potential allies. He never saw there were others willing to stand with him. He went into the “Valley of Decision” thinking he was alone.

He thought he won the battle. How sad he lost the war.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

Thanks to Erica Vetsch, member of my writer's group that meets under the mentorship of Joy DeKok, for serving as my editor this week.
I love titles. In fact, I think I get as much enjoyment out of writing titles as I do writing the stuff that goes after them.

Take the title for this submission.

The play on words is obvious. The familiar platitude reminds us of two absent lovers’ hopes thriving while forced to separate for an anguishing, life-wrenching semester of college (or two weeks of family vacation). For some, absence worked. The heart yearned, burned and endured the separation only to celebrate the reuniting. For others, it merely made the inevitable demise possible.

Ah, but abstinence, that is a whole different story. It is not merely a platitude. It is a truth in multitude.

Think about it. Diets are all about abstaining. They are all about saying “No” to one thing and “Yes” to what tasted like the wrapper the last candy bar you ate came in. I remind myself, when tempted to indulge in a Tootsie Roll, that I am not sweating at the “Y’ just to create an opportunity to indulge.

How about sleep? Do you ever struggle, feel the strain, become overwhelmed with the danger of needing to sleep, all the while hurtling down I-35, 5 minutes from Albert Lea and within one hour of home? How the heart is so fond of sleep at just that minute.

Conditioned to abstain from time to time, we hear, “It is for your own good.” “It will make you stronger,” echoes through the halls. “You will be a better person” and “You will appreciate the sacrifice someday,” are submitted as encouragement. Just then you look up from your second bowl of salad and see your loved one get three more slices of thick crust pepperoni pizza with extra sauce and cheese.

Don’t think these familiar phrases describe a shell game played on us by friends and loved ones trying to acquaint us with pain. Abstinence - it actually works. It really has a purpose in our life. There are times we need to abstain. But what is it that reaches into our mind and dredges up dread when told we must forego something which, only 24 hours before, barely blipped on our radar?

We know if we are to abstain, it will depend on us. To be absent means someone left. You can’t do much about that. To abstain means to give up, go without, cease and desist. It means we initiate everything and ultimately have no one to blame but ourselves. It comes down to saying, “I put myself on the line. I have the discipline, the foresight and the wisdom to make a decision that wilts lesser mortals.

Abstinence can bring out the best in a person. Absence simply inconveniences us. Abstinence can define us, direct us and make us wholly true to our calling. Absence passes the time until “the next big thing.”

Abstinence is full of worth, filled with vision and packed with purpose. Absence is valueless. The very nature of morality is bound up in abstinence. There is no morality in absence.

Abstinence affirms that I am not simply a consumer. Ecological stewardship runs on the commitment to abstain. Financial development depends on abstinence. The blossoming of marital union requires you know the difference between fidelity and “tom-catting.”

Abstinence creates its own reward. It builds capacity and it heightens hope. It creates the opportunity for a clearer understanding and gives time to chart the future. In the end, it is more than just saying, “I won’t.”

It is about saying, “Because, I will.”

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Room Full of Student Teachers

Directing a children’s choir never made my short list. No one was more surprised when after talking to our Minister of Worship and Arts I found myself staring back at 25 pairs of eyes that first Sunday evening.

I struggled the first few weeks. My leadership was not good but the choir responded even when I did a bad job.

I began the year committed to working the children into my schedule. I made sure they had my attention when I was with them. I set goals at the beginning of the year and tried to stay focused on them.

At times I came to choir and didn’t have a clue what to do or where to start. That didn’t seem to bother the children. They just wanted to do something important and this was their opportunity.

I could see the end of the year and it looked like an eternity away. I was not optimistic about my chances to pull off two musicals and a couple of worship service performances. I knew my hope rested in the quality of support I would receive from parents, church staff and my own team. I depended on them. I am sure there were times when they looked at me and wondered why I took the job.

I did, too.

From the beginning I intended to keep the job one year. I was sure someone else would step up the next year. As for my legacy as a director, people might not remember that I was a good leader, but they would remember me as a person ready to cooperate and take on a job even if it wasn’t “a good fit.”

Everything in my life changed during November 2003.

It doesn’t take long to catch on to the seriousness of heart disease. Sober-faced doctors, committed nurses, task-oriented support-staff and clueless but well-meaning residents all build a community focused on the patient. After a while, however, even the most hard-boiled patient starts to realize a lot more is at stake than just whether you can make it past “the knife.”

As I watched the world parade past my bed, I began to see people differently. Maybe I began to see them for the first time. My church family took time out from busy personal schedules to pray with me. When my employer kept paychecks coming even though it was a hardship on the business, it touched me deeper than I was prepared. My beloved family put their lives on hold until they knew everything would be OK.

Nothing, however, reached me like the first Sunday evening after I was released from the hospital. I returned to the children’s choir to thank them for remembering me. Their response, when I walked into the room, overwhelmed me. It wasn’t the height of volume. It was the depth of joy. They knew I would be back and their prayers were a part of what made it happen.

I left the hospital a physically changed man. I left the choir room changed in a whole different way.

When I left the rehearsal room I saw the children and my time with them as precious. I still believed I would be the director but one year. Instead of being an eternity, however, the time was in danger of flying past me. I saw my limited ability in children’s leadership required more than just my previous “work around” mentality.

As I walked from the choir room that night I acquired a sense of urgency. Somehow I started seeing the difference between dreaming and having a vision. Somewhere in time children became the canvas rather than the resource. My leadership purpose changed and the choir became the paint. In the process the leader became the student and the student became the teacher.

When it is healthy, the symbiotic relationship of student and teacher makes for a dynamic that is difficult to measure. It is a relationship that works best when we let it happen naturally as each does their assigned tasks, fulfills their vision and follows their hopes and dreams. In the end we draw lessons from our time together that will weather the storms of life.

The following are some of the lessons I have drawn from my short time of service as the children’s choir director. I restrain from offering the actual stories and shared learning experiences behind these ideas.

Children know how to express joy.
You haven’t seen joy until you see it in the eyes of a child that knows what they are doing is important and they are doing a good job. This is different from having fun. Children teach you the difference between fun and joy. Jesus didn’t say, “I have come that you might have fun and have it more abundantly.” Children get it. Sometimes we don’t.

They know how to express joy with their whole being.
Getting children to do something loud is not hard. They do that so well. They are energy. The challenge is getting them to do it under control and on cue. When they do, you have something very unique. You have a person so focused and vibrant that the world lights up around them.

They know the right way to say, “Thank you.”
Children aren’t into gimmicks or cute things. They are into drawing, coloring, wrapping with uneven corners and poorly placed tape. But most importantly, children are into looking you in the eyes and saying something important to them. They know saying “thank you” is ultimately not about “me.” It is about “you.” They say “thank you” to tell you something about you. It is never about them.

They know the right time to say, “Thank you.”
A child doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. They just say, "Thank you." It is in that moment that everything you are measures up to their expectations. Relish in it because the moment moves on too soon.

They show me how easy it is to inflict pain.
Unfortunately, children are not perfect angels. They also give us a picture of selfishness. Being selfish is the heart of sin. I look back and realize the times I hurt others. A child finds out it is so easy to do. Paul addresses my inner child when he says, “I put away childish things.”

They show me that sometimes l like to hurt people.
The child is not a bad child. The child is simply looking for a way to be seen and acknowledged. There are times the darker side of my humanity leaks. My selfishness runs unabated. The childish things of life rear their head and I stumble. I am reminded there really isn’t that much distance between childhood and adulthood.

They teach me how to ask forgiveness, give forgiveness and go on living.
I watched as a child went to another and said, “I’m sorry.” It wasn’t one of those adult oriented, set-up apologies. The child found out he hurt someone and he apologized. Something wonderful happened. Forgiven, a transgression forgotten, they sat together and shared a piece of music. Forgiveness given and granted filled the whole room with music.

They remind me how good it feels to share a part of my life.
No man is an island, Children help me to open my life to others and ask from them. They help me be a cup to hold the elixir of vitality that only children can squeeze from life. They fill the cup and stand ready to fill it again each time I am empty.

They teach me to remember the purpose as l prepare for performance.
Children aren’t that focused on purpose. They enjoy the moment. They remind me how easy it is to get so lost in the celebration that I forget someone had to bake the cake. Working with children reminds me that someone has to keep “the main thing the main thing.” As long as the leader knows where they are going, the children will follow even onto a stage before 400 people to recite lines that only 24 hours before floated in a foggy mist. They do that because they trust. It is a heavy mantle to wear. Only keeping centered on the purpose will protect the leader.

They teach me that everything l do is a foundation for the next event in my life.
I watched as the first group of children left for youth groups. I had them for a year and the next group I will have but for two. I remember the leadership of my childhood. Mrs. Davidson rehearsed our Books of the Bible until they were a part of my Sunday fabric. Mr. Perry, Wiley Stuart and “Jinks” Middleton sat patiently as we read our Sunday lesson out loud. They did their best to fill our time with wisdom from the Bible. Our children’s choirs sang, our Vacation Bible School marched and our mission groups prayed. All taught me lessons long forgotten. What is not lost is that each set a stone. They squared it with life and prepared me to enter the world ready to bear the weight of adulthood.

There are many in our church more qualified than I to lead this group of musicians. There isn’t a single person I know who appreciates them and looks forward to the next time we meet more than I do.

Chas Schaal, 2005

Monday, March 28, 2005

Not All Pickles Are Gherkins

This, the second of my posts, initiates a regular posting schedule. I plan on publishing each Monday. If all goes well I will increase it to twice a week.

Thanks for all of the encouragement I received after my first effort. I hope those to follow will be worth the time it takes to write them.


The humorist Will Rogers said, “I have never met a man I didn’t like.” Well, I’ve never met a pickle I really cared for.

First off, they are green. For most of my childhood if it was on the table and green, I let the serving plate pass. I am not sure I cared too much for green "Jell-O" or green "Kool Aid." If it was green, I said, “No. thanks.” Pickles are green.

Secondly, they are sour. Why do I want to eat something that will warp my face into the visage of a grimacing old man with no teeth? I will look like one of those dried apple heads you see at the Ozark tourist traps hawking products pretending to be home-spun Americana.

I know stores sell pickles they call sweet, but I don’t believe them. If they were really sweet they would put them in a brown wrapper and call them "Snickers." And you can’t honestly tell me your great Aunt Sadie really makes sweet pickles every year.

That is the same woman who knitted your Christmas present when you were eight. You remember that chartreuse, teal and hot pink pull-over sock cap assembled from yarn scraps of the two baby blankets and fifteen potholders she made for the women’s mission society. Do you really think she knows what is sweet? That is how she said you looked just before your mom forced you to go outside and play with your friends.

Thirdly, pickles stink. One Christmas our family journeyed back to Texas. My wife, bless her heart, is a pickle lover. (I have considered taking this to the state to see if I can get one of those special blue parking cards for my car. It has to be a disability of some kind.) Just past Kansas City, a large jar of pickles slipped from her hands, tipped over and baptized our Impala with the pungent fragrance of dill, vinegar and other secret industrial toxic wastes.

Talk about aroma therapy. My nostrils flared, my lips puckered and my eyes watered. It was midnight on a rural Kansas interstate. There wasn’t anywhere to go to get relief. I just smiled, said I loved her and never uttered a complaining word the rest of the trip. After all, I am not a person to point out the misadventures of others, even when it causes me great discomfort. So, you see, I know pickles. They stink.

Now I find myself in a “pickle-ish” situation.

When I began my blog, my list of potential submissions numbered four. I was smug enough to think I was set for several weeks. Now as I review the available material, I am a bit uneasy.

A friend of mine recently encouraged me. She said I am transparent, alluding to my ability or my weakness if you happen to be my spouse or offspring, to recognize, dissect and over-analyze every little wrinkle in my psyche.

I suppose being transparent is not a bad thing. The problem in me over-analyzing every little bump and bruise in my make-up is I reveal my thoughts and feelings about what others do that I wouldn’t do if I were doing what they were doing. (Are you following me?)

So here I am, with this great article and I realize someone is going to miss my creative brilliance all because of a little off-handed comment that could be construed as saying they are clods, morons or Democrats. Their nostrils will flair, their lips will pucker and unfortunately they may not be as charitable or as disciplined as I am. We may find ourselves involved in a lively exchange of ideas and concepts.

So how am I to handle this pickle jar?

First off, I am going to make sure the lid of my jar is on tight. I mean, does this jar even need to be opened. After all, hamburgers are good without pickles and you don’t need pickles in your potato salad. I can just leave the article on my computer and chalk it up to a private venting that the world is just not ready for.

However, if I open that jar, I need to be careful. I don’t want to dump a mess in my lap. I may find I need to do some judicious rewriting. Maybe an illustration or two needs to be exorcised.

When I serve a pickle I need to do it as delicately as possible. You know, make wavy slices and try to pass off something that is sour as an item of delicate taste for the discriminating palate.

If that fails, maybe I can just say I was only joking, having a little fun and meant no harm. After all, no one wants to be known as a bad sport. People want to be known as good natured and understanding, don’t they?

How do I look in my new sock cap?

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Unfinished Business

My father’s workshop was never a neat and tidy place. It was not because he was untidy. He simply had more tools, supplies and resources than room to store them.

While it wasn’t a tidy place, it also wasn’t a graveyard of half-baked ideas, DIY kit-bash projects or one-off inventions. When my father began a repair job or started a task, he finished it. It also worked. Well.

He was great at creating what he needed. He designed and built a garden tiller for pennies on the dollar in the late 50s. In the 60’s he attached a vacuum cleaner to his radial arm saw and built a box in the saw’s table. It vacuumed the saw dust as he ran the machine so there never was a mess. He built a set of adjustable baby cribs in the 1970s, the like of which were not marketed until the early 90s. They were only just replaced at our home church.

If dad had a hand in it, it worked. If it was broken, he fixed it. If it was ill-suited, he morphed it.

After Viki and I married, our old black and white TV went on the fritz. In the early 70s you could still go to a convenience store and use their tube tester. When you found the offending tube, they had one to sell you. I earned my stripes as a providing husband when I fixed our TV.

I knew I couldn’t match my dad on many things but I had watched him do this job before. I did get the TV back on and my wife was proud. There is nothing like setting back and taking in the ambiance of a job well done.

I used to think the feeling of a job well-done is just in doing the job well. After a few opportunities to take in the ambiance, I think the sense of accomplishment comes not from doing the job well as much as it comes from doing it until it’s done. The difference may be lost on you. It isn’t on me. There is a special glory in persevering until the end is not just in sight but is behind you.

A wag once said, “When all is said and done, more is usually said than done.” Another childhood proverb says, “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” Of all the contests in the summer Olympics, the most cheered loser is the person who comes in last place in the marathon. A gut wrenching experience and a character builder if ever there is, the marathon runner is a person celebrated not because of winning but because of completion.

On the other hand, the landscape of a fruitless and discouraged life is one littered with unfinished projects, half-baked dreams and meaningless promises of future glory and achievements.

Unfinished business is life clutter. The scourge of clutter has become a hit TV show. The TV hosts come into a home, help that week’s dubious stars to trash, barter or justify every item that takes up space in their home. It is often a cathartic experience.

But life clutter is more insidious than half-finished scrapbooks and piles of unfolded clothes. It is a life that lacks direction and priority. The unfinished projects are but “Burma Shave” signs on a highway going nowhere. They are pieces of humor and cute proverbs that eventually serve only as a shill to sell one more excuse to procrastinate.

It is a source of life pollution. The acrid smell of rotten eggs, the wrenching creep of rotting flesh or the repulsive power of a skunk’s unwelcome greeting have no equal to a life polluted with unfinished business. Life pollution penalizes the vista of hope for years to come just for being an unwitting partner.

It hinders new projects by promoting creative inertia. Nothing succeeds like success. Nothing hinders progress like a life focused on the minutia of details put off to another more convenient time.

It conditions the acceptance of mediocrity. Instead of reaching for the last detail and painting the places no one will see, the cluttered, inert and moribund life learns to accept placebos of completion. “It’s good enough for government work.” This and others may be sincere expressions and at times worthy to be used. But they prepare the fruitless for a lifetime of “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.”

It camouflages lessons that are best learned rather than repeated. This is not the life of an “also ran.” This is the life of a “never finished.” It is the life of lost opportunities. It is a life of lessons postponed, not learned. The lessons are learned by looking back after finishing, not from the sidelines as others crossed the checkered line.

Is it time to sweep the table clean? Is it time to clear the shelves of trophies others earned? Is it time to unclutter a life, clean up an agenda, place excellence above acceptance, and resurrect opportunities? Is it time to deal with unfinished business?

What was that burning desire when you purchased the sewing machine you couldn’t afford? What caught your attention in the DIY magazine that convinced you the goal was not only attainable, it was absolutely necessary? What was said in a corporate meeting that drove you to enroll in the education program intended to make a difference in your life and your family? What woke you in the middle of the night and filled your commute with dreams?

Reclaim your passion. Reclaim your vision. Reclaim your life. Finish your business. Set one priority. Decide to clear the workbench of life. You are going to focus on cleaning this mess of a life up.

Identify that one project, that one vision, that one event that will make a difference right now because you tackled it and got it done. Find the one you are closest to completing and knock it out. If it can’t be knocked out in a day or a week, cut it up and knock out one piece.

Whatever you do, get that one doable project moved off the “Things I’m going to do when I get time” agenda. Don’t let any other project get in its way.

Start measuring your activity and not your progress. The marathon runner doesn’t worry where he is on the course. He pays attention to his pace, his tempo and his stride. He knows if he pays attention to these details, the end will come soon enough.

When that project is complete, don’t start another one. Don’t pick up another pattern, another magazine or another brochure. Sit back and enjoy the view. Accept the murmurs of accomplishment your heart beats out as cool breezes blow through the newly planted flower garden. It not only feels good to finish. The view is pretty good from up there, too.