Monday, May 29, 2017

The Snake in the Road

Yesterday morning, as I was returning from Home Depot and Walmart, travelling south on Qualla Road between Newby’s Bridge Road and Spring Run Road, I saw a black snake in the southbound lane of the two-lane road. That section of Qualla Road is heavily wooded on both sides, and at this time of year the trees provide a shaded canopy over the asphalt.

Since there was no traffic heading north I knew that I’d move over and pass the snake so as not to kill it. Even though it wouldn’t be likely to live long on the road I wasn’t going to be the instrument of its death.

As I approached the snake its head was elevated and turned toward my car, it was going to defend itself. Poor sad thing, I thought, it doesn’t know where it is or what it is dealing with – it doesn’t know that its only chance is to move and move quickly. Someone driving behind me will likely run over it and kill it, or if it tries to cross the northbound lane the same thing is likely to happen. It doesn’t know about cars and metal and tires and speed and weight – this is not the time for it to fight, it needs to take flight.

As the snake was dealing with forces it knew nothing about, humanity does not understand that it has unleashed a horde of demons and confusion upon itself as it has sought to redefine the image of God, and to determine good and evil. The velocity of life, of electronic informational cocaine, the exaltation of economics and promiscuity (in all its forms), and the baptismal waters of narcissism are more than we can understand and live with – and so we medicate, kill ourselves and others, and live lives of such frenzy that our humanity is stripped away layer by layer amid the trivial and mundane as we, to evoke Neil Postman, “amuse ourselves to death.” Life and government by Twitter says it all.

The snake was no fool, it just didn’t know what it was dealing with. It didn’t lay the asphalt, it didn’t design and manufacture cars, and it didn’t instill a fear of snakes in many drivers that would motivate them to kill it. The snake was no fool.

The same can’t be said of us.

“Professing themselves wise they became fools,” Romans 1:22.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

But I Don’t Want To Garden

The sun will be up soon and I plan to be out in the enclosed vegetable garden. Up until last weekend I wanted no part of it. People would ask me, “What are you putting in your garden this year?” and I’d say, “I don’t want a garden this year, I need a break. Since we may be moving I don’t want to make the investment of time and labor. Even if we’re not moving I need a break from the summer heat and humidity.” I really didn’t want a garden this year.

Another reason I didn’t want a garden is that last October a storm damaged our raised beds. It lifted some of the frames up and moved them every which way (the frames are made of 12 x 10 pressure-treated lumber – they ain’t light). The disarray was disheartening. I had originally constructed the frames when we lived on the Zuck Homestead. Then I dismantled the frames and moved them to our new home. Then I moved all the dirt from the Zuck Homestead (good soil is gold) to our new garden – the move took a number of weekends. I looked at the disarray for some months before I attempted to reset some of the frames. A couple of the frames were beyond repair. What had been nice and neat was a mess.

The storm had also washed away most of the mulch used in the pathways and had lifted much of the underlying landscape fabric – did I really want to invest time and energy in restoration?

But there was a small problem standing between me and my goal not to have a vegetable garden…or perhaps I should say there was a big problem standing behind me pushing me forward toward the garden…Vickie. She wanted a garden this year. Oh great…what am I going to do. I was hoping her talk was just talk. But then she came home with tomato and pepper plants, and then she told me that she’d be planting beans. And then she told me that she’d be out in the garden putting it back to together…and then she asked me for help. Oh great.

Since I couldn’t let her attempt to move the heavy frames I repositioned those I hadn’t yet touched around the soil a few weeks ago. Then last weekend I got out to the garden early in the morning, repaired the frames as best I could, weeded the beds, moved soil from bed to bed in order to have beds for the plants (much soil had washed away in the storm when the frames were lifted up and tossed about) Vickie purchased and for beans, began to tidy up the walkways…and as I was doing all of this it happened…the joy and pleasure of the soil and gardening returned…I could feel it under my fingernails.

There is nothing quite like soil under the fingernails, nothing quite like soil in the pours of fingers and hands, nothing quite like holding earth and working with it. While wearing gloves has its place…the joy of wearing gloves is taking them off and feeling the dirt.

Well…I need to go now and plant tomatoes and peppers.

Oh how I do want to garden.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What Is A Note?

What Is A Note?

What is a note, if not played with other notes?
What is a note, if only played solitarily?
What is a note, if not played in harmony with other notes?
What is a note, if it never knows the joy of melody?
What is a note, if it never dances counterpoint?
What is a life, if it knows but itself and lives only to itself?

We have bartered away symphony for cacophony.
Melodious harmony for noise.
Beauty for the hideous.
Uplifted hearts for baseness.
Intelligible speech for chaotic utterance.
Purity for debauchery.

We desecrate and are desecrated.
We tear down and are torn down.
We are ashamed of the modest and we exalt the coarse.
We offer our children to the gods of economics and hedonism.
We drink from polluted wells and streams.
Parasites live among us and within us – eating our souls.

Romans 1:22.

Robert L. Withers

Friday, May 19, 2017

May 6, 18, and 31

Yesterday, May 18, is the anniversary of the day Patrick went to be with Jesus. As I have written in previous years, the loss of Patrick was, and is, felt acutely. I cannot drive on the Zuck Homestead without feeling the void, nor without feeling the love and affection I have for Patrick.

May 6 is the anniversary of the day my dear and sweet brother-in-law Rod went to be with Jesus. Rod was a loving brother to Vickie, and a loving brother and friend to me. If I was facing a challenge that I didn’t think myself capable of overcoming, or a goal I didn’t think I could accomplish, Rod was the ultimate encourager. As I write this it occurs to me that no one has ever told me that he was proud of me the way Rod did. Rod was confident in the love that Jesus had for me and Vickie, and confident that God was in control. When Rod decided to stop dialysis he was peaceful about the decision, and he was confident about being received into his Master’s presence.

Rod and Patrick were both men without pretension; neither cared about impressing others. They both had an innocence that was refreshing to me and which often convicted me of my own ego and hypocrisy. They both had a foundational love for Jesus that seemed unaware of the religious games that many of us are prone to play. Love Jesus, love others, help others whenever you can, honor friendships, don’t worry about “things” – their lives continue to convict me of my unbelief and selfishness.

May 31, 2016, one year ago, is the day our grandson Austin died in a freak accident at home. You don’t expect your grandchildren to die before you do. I cannot write about this…for a few reasons. I look forward to seeing Austin in Narnia and I hope, between now and then, that Austin has connected with Patrick and Rod – I think the three of them will enjoy each other.

While death leaves its void, it also leaves its hope and reminds the follower of Jesus Christ that we live in a continuum, that we are pilgrims and strangers here and that we are seeking a city that has true and deep foundations, whose builder and maker is God. While the void is there, the longing and expectation for future relationship is also there, as is the remembrance of past joy and love and affection. The present, the future, and the past meld into an awareness that it is a thin veil that we pass through and that we ought to live as if this could be our day to take the step, to breathe our own last breath. For the person living in Jesus Christ, our last exhale on earth will lead to our first inhale of the sweetness of the presence of God and of friends who have gone before us in Christ. When we leave the shadowlands we will be overcome by the reality of the beauty of the Trinity, of the Lamb and those who follow and adore Him.

As an old Puritan prayer goes, “May I speak each word as if my last word, and walk each step as my final one; and should my life end today, let this be my best day.”

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

How Much Else Have I Missed?

Yesterday morning I headed out to mulch a section of our yard that has crepe myrtles. This was a project I really wanted to finish. I had worked on it Saturday and wanted to wrap it up Sunday. Between the two days I probably spent at least two hours in that area. My eyes were on the ground and the pickup truck; take a bag of mulch from the truck and spread it on the ground, take a bag from the truck and spread it on the ground…you get the idea. After completing the project I returned to the house for a break.

An hour or so later I returned to that area of the yard with Vickie. She wanted me to help her clean up a perennial bed. I provide the labor and she provides the direction. Well, not really. I provide the labor when we need to use heavy tools to prune or remove plants – she puts in a lot of “smart” labor in terms of cleaning around plants so that they aren’t damaged.

We had only been out in the area for a few minutes when she said, “Isn’t the rose bush pretty?” At first I didn’t hear her (what else is new), but then I looked up from my focus on the ground and saw the rose bush which grows over the entrance to our vegetable garden (photo below). Yes, it was indeed pretty. I was ashamed to tell her that I hadn’t noticed it, ashamed to think that I had been out there two days in a row but that I was so focused on the task at hand that I hadn’t seen the beauty of the roses.

Later in the day, as I pondered the rose bush, I wondered what else I miss when I get so focused on the task at hand, when my eyes are on the ground. It may be a cliché when someone says, “Stop and smell the roses,” but it is no joke.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

My Father Who Art In Heaven?

Yesterday morning on the way to work I tuned to the radio program of a nationally well-known and popular pastor. There are times when I’ve appreciated his messages, but then there are times when he overlays culture, pop-Christianity, and eschatological dramatic speculation over the Bible. I listened to less than one minute of his message yesterday. In essence this is what I heard:

“In the Old Testament God dealt with a people, the people of Israel. In the New Testament he deals with individuals. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught that we are to pray “Our Father”.

That was all I could take. How can someone extract individuality from the word “our”? Or, to continue with the Lord’s Prayer; “our bread”, our “trespasses/debts”, deliver “us” from evil. Plus, of course, a central theme of the New Testament is the church, the Body of Christ, the family of God, the priesthood of believers...I have no idea how many collective images of the people of God there are in the NT but they overwhelm the emphasis on the individual. We can rightly say that the individual finds his or her place, identity, and purpose in the context of the Church of Jesus Christ – this does not negate the individual, it affirms the image and calling of God in the individual member of the Body.

But we have become so self-centered and individualistic, and many of us have also bought into a mythological and fanciful storybook belief about eschatology, that we cannot see what is written in Scripture.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Hand I Had To Shake

Yesterday one of the apartment communities I manage had a “community day”; it included a yard sale, blood mobile, vendors, face painting, activities for kids, a fire truck, martial arts demonstrations, music, and food. Every year Vickie and I try to make sure we stop by and show our support to the staff.

Shortly after we arrived yesterday, Jennifer, the assistant manager, came over to me and handed me a business card which read, “Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., Howard Baugh Chapter, Howard L. Baugh, President.” She said, “I got Mr. Baugh to come here today, his father was a Tuskegee Airman.” She pointed to a distinguished-looking man in a red jacket (who looks very much like his father in the painting below). I said, “I’ve got to talk to him,” and I headed in his direction. I also wanted to shake his hand.

As I shook Mr. Baugh’s hand I told him that it was an honor to shake the hand of the son of a Tuskegee Airman, and that I admired their courage, not just in battle but in enduring and overcoming the racial harassment and barriers and hatred that they experienced in society and in the U.S. military. Theirs was a unit expected to fail, not to make it through flight training, and certainly not to make it through battle – it was thought that blacks couldn’t learn to fly and that blacks couldn’t stand up to battle, especially battle in the skies. This group of men, both the aviators and ground crew, proved the naysayers wrong with an exclamation point! Known as the Red Tails for their distinctive red markings on the tails of their fighter aircraft, they quickly gained the respect of the Luftwaffe and were in demand as escorts by U.S. bomber groups – white bomber groups wanted to trust their lives to the Tuskegee Airmen.

As Mr. Baugh pointed out to me, the Tuskegee Airmen were among the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement. The man whose hand I shook, after his own service in the U.S. Air Force, enjoyed a career as a pilot with one of the big U.S. carriers; sadly, when his father – who had defended our country – tried to obtain a pilot’s position with U.S. carriers he was rejected because of his skin color.

When white people say to me that they wish our country would return to “the way it used to be” in terms of prayer in schools and moral values and people going to church – I often ask them if they would say the same thing if they were African – American. I’m not denying that we are in a moral and spiritual mess today, so don’t misunderstand me. But isn’t it also a moral and spiritual mess when our fellow citizens are not treated not only as citizens, but as human beings made in the image of God?

Prayer in schools didn’t eliminate racial hatred – sadly the mix of religion and politics can make us self-righteous and we are all dangerous when we are self-righteous. What kind of morality did we really have when there was segregation and violence…including lynchings and fire bombings and bus burnings? It breaks my heart when I think of the way returning African - American airmen and soldiers and sailors were treated after they had defended our nation in WWII and seen many within their ranks die.

This is why I wanted to shake Mr. Baugh’s hand. It is the only time in my 67 years that I’ve wanted to shake a man’s hand the way I wanted to shake Mr. Baugh’s hand.

Here is a link to the Howard Baugh Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen