Wednesday, December 14, 2011

THE CHRISTMAS DRIFTER

He ran with all his might. Snow had turned to slush and footing was treacherous. Several times his feet skewed wildly, sending him crashing. Soft light from streetlight globes, yellow with age, illuminate the misty winter night. Mrs. Liebenstein barely missed being turned upside down by this seven-year-old, legs churning furiously.

"Watch wher' yer' goin'!" she raged.

She wasn't heard. Cold soaked through wet soles numbing toes. His body thudded once again into the slush. He blinked his eyes to two big black rubber boots standing inches from his nose.

"Well, what have we here?" It was officer Morganthal Maroney. "Now what's the big rush, young Tommie!"

"Oh, mister Morgy," Tommie wheezed, "don't stop me now . . . the train!" Everyone called him that. The kids usually adding the "Mr."

"The train?"

"Yep. It's comin'! It's comin' right now!"

"And what of it?"

"Gerry Stevens sez' Santa's on it this year," leaving the policeman in the snowflakes.

Morganthal smiled after him. "Gerry Stevens, eh? What's that rascal up to this time? 'Be careful, son,'" muttering to himself.

It was Christmas Eve.

. . . Read the rest of the Story

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

THE LION'S ROAR

Step into the Garden

My eyes fail, looking for your promise; I say, "When will you comfort me?"

I do not believe that there is a greater enigma of human thought than waiting for God to do whatever he is going to do next. Years ago, as I lived on Catalina Island off the shores of Southern California, I wrote these words . . .

Here I sit on the outside
Throwing pebbles in the ocean,
Hoping one will cause a tidal wave
And wash me out to sea.

Here I sit on the outside
Wondering what to do next
Wondering how to get someone
Or even God
To notice me . . .

And my gifts
Which I will gladly give
For the price of bread
For me and mine.

Here I sit on the outside
Wondering what part of the Body of Christ
I am.
A little toe? An eye? An ear?
I feel most like the buttocks.

Something for the rest of the church
To sit on,
And wipe.

Here I sit on the outside;
On the shelf
Gathering dust,
Waiting to be opened and read.

Helping to hold up the other
Forgotten books.
Perhaps someday the shelf will be
Cleaned;
And there shall be a book burning.

That shouldn’t be so bad.
Even the smoke flies upward.


I am not the only one to process such feelings. Perhaps somewhere in the dark, lonely reaches of your heart, you have felt similarly. Felt the pain of abandonment. Felt the need for comfort. Just the soft, almost silent whisper of his presence, just a small taste of his love; something, anything to be reassured that God is there and that he cares.

All of the scripture in the world cannot provide this. All of the talk, all of the sympathy or affirmation in the cosmos cannot heal the pain, the longing, the thirst. The saddest, most painful word in the scripture above is, “When?” It stands there, solitary and alone, waiting for an answer, a response.

The answer will assuredly come. And when it does you will know it. You may lie in your bed at night, listening to the sounds of the jungle, wondering if it is the roar of a lion you hear. But when the lion finally roars, you know damn well that it is a lion.1

God’s touch is like that. Delicious and definitive.

--------------
1. Vanauken, Sheldon, A Severe Mercy, Phoenix Press, Walker & Company, New York. 1977, p.40.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

LAUGHING AT SHADOWS

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .

Christmas, 1964, somewhere on the Interstate between Albuquerque and Santa Rosa, New Mexico. A sudden, blinding snowstorm. Visibility cut from several hundred yards to less than 50 feet, almost instantly. The rear end of the car in front of me looms into view. I can’t stop in time. There is a shuddering crash.

We were driving a Plymouth station wagon. There were seatbelts in those days, but nobody took them seriously. No one actually wore them, nuisance that they were. The seats in the back of the station wagon were down, creating a level “floor” all the way back to the tailgate. Perpendicular to the front seat I had secured a “baby carrier,” in which my 18 month old daughter stood holding onto the front end . The best way to describe it would be as the bed of a baby carriage lifted out of its frame. I looked back and our luggage had slammed against it crushing it like an accordion. My daughter was inside. I jumped out of the driver’s seat and opened the rear door. Forcing my hands between the edges of the closed carrier I pulled it open. There was my daughter, eyes closed, quiet and still.

My head and torso were inside the car, yet I still stood on the ground, the lower half of my body exposed to traffic. Another crash. The right front fender of the car behind me slammed into the left rear end of the car I had been driving. If it had been a mere five inches to the left, the second car would have torn me in half.

We were taken to the hospital in Santa Rosa, where my daughter awakened without a scratch, no apparent memory of what had just happened. My wife and I had bruises, but were fine.

September, 1965. I had just purchased a brand new Chevrolet Impala. We had owned it for two weeks. Passing through an intersection on 7th street in Long Beach, California, a group of young men ran a red light crashing into my left rear quarter panel, spinning us into a concrete light standard. It smashed into the car just inches behind where my now pregnant wife was holding the very same daughter. We all walked away, unharmed.

Fast forward forty years to 2004. The surgeon had performed a sigmoidectomy, removing a significant portion of my colon. The sutures ruptured causing peritonitis and emergency surgery. I felt the shadows of the valley of death creep over me. I have never been so sick and weak in my life. Almost three weeks in the hospital. A few months later, I felt tightness in my chest and an inability to breathe. I thought it was asthma, a problem I’ve had all my life. My wife rushed me to the ER. I was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism infarct, meaning a blood clot had emerged from a Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) in my leg, passed through my heart and into my lungs destroying half my left lung. I was advised that 80% of those to whom this happened were diagnosed on the autopsy table.

At length we come to Wednesday night, October 26, 2011. Something was wrong with the television. I got up to fix it, bent at the waist to reach the power plug on the floor when suddenly I thought I was going to pass out. I began to sweat, chest pain, difficulty in breathing. I sat down, hyperventilating. I thought I was having a heart attack and told my wife to dial 911.

The ER doctors determined that it was not a heart attack. I had had another pulmonary embolism. Another DVT blood clot had passed through the heart and into the lungs. Another week in the hospital. This time, thank God, there was no infarct, no death or damage to lung tissue.

I suppose all of this is not that unusual. I suppose many of us have had close calls when there was nothing but a hair breadth between life and death. Inevitably, when these things happen to people for whom spirituality and faith are the most compelling realities, someone says, or someone believes that God’s purpose for the one so affected is not yet accomplished, that one had been kept alive for a specific purpose. How many times have I heard, have I believed, “God is not finished with you yet.”

And then I think of the holocaust. Over six million lives. I think of the tsunamis in the South Pacific and Japan and the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who were swept away. I think of the hurricanes and tornadoes, wars, and the thousands of people that are killed each year by drunk drivers. I think of the millions of aborted babies and I ask, “What of their purpose? Was God finished with them?”

Do not look to me to provide satisfactory answers to such questions. Do not look to me to pontificate as to why some are taken by death and others slap it in the face; why some walk unharmed and laughing in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and others never make it through. It would appear that in the lives of many that the purpose of God is truncated. So it would seem . . .

I can only say, and speaking for myself, it is no small comfort to know that “I need not fear, for . . .Thou art with me! Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me!” No small comfort.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

CHECK YOUR AURA

Step into the Garden

May those who love you rejoice when they see me.

One day I stepped through the doors of my counseling offices in Fairfax, Virginia, my mind busy with thoughts long forgotten. But what I will never forget was the following scene:

I was met by one of our therapists, coming down the hall. On seeing me, her hand went to her mouth, her eyes widened and the notepad she was carrying dropped to the floor. She exclaimed “Oh!” as if she had seen a ghost, and stepped back as if she had been slapped; wobbling slightly, as if she might faint.

“Sue!” I cried. “Are you ok?” I was very concerned.

Her hand still at her mouth in shock, she said, “Can you see yourself?” She must have seen the total puzzlement on my face; “Paul, you are clothed with an aura!” My wife, Bonnie, stepped from the administrative office and took Sue’s arm. She looked at me, equally puzzled. This had to be a joke. Sue had to be playing a joke. I smiled. Bonnie laughed her usual delightful laugh – a little nervously, perhaps.

I walked quickly down the hall, out the office complex doors to the restroom across the hallway. I looked in the mirror. No “aura.”

Sue could never explain what she saw, but she was emphatic and determined. “I’m not crazy!” said she. “I know what I saw. It was an aura, a beautiful multi-colored aura.”

As for me? Well, I have never seen such an aura. I have never felt aura-rized. As long as I have lived, no one else has ever said anything about it. Some of my male professional friends kidded me for weeks afterward. I don’t know what my esteemed colleague saw, except what she said she saw, but I have opinions.

* * *

Such an experience might provoke one to ask, “How might others truly feel when they see me, or hear from me?”

The reason this is a good question is that its answer probably reflects the impact we have on others. It may well reflect how another sees the Lord Jesus in our lives; indeed, in our very presence.

It is also a good thing to dip the stick of our effectiveness for Christ into the oil of our spirituality and ask ourselves plainly, “Do people see Jesus in me? Or do they see . . . something else?”

Never mind the aura.

Let me suggest how others most certainly will see Jesus in you. Let me suggest how, when others see you, they will rejoice as the scrap of Scripture above implies.

If when they see you, or me, they say to themselves, “This person loves me. This person makes me feel loved, accepted and affirmed.” Because that is exactly how Jesus makes them feel.

That is what I want others to feel when they see me. I want them to feel loved. But you know something? -- They will never see God’s love for them where I am concerned, unless they first see -- that I love them.

Someday, after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energy of love; and for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. -- Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

WORTHLESS THINGS

Step into the Garden

Turn my eyes away from worthless things

I once heard a man say, “For the Christian, all ground is holy ground; every bush a burning bush.”

The apostle Paul told his young disciple, Timothy, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving.”

How then, can anything be construed as worthless?

Here is the key: Indeed all things may be received with thanksgiving, except – that which turns my heart away from God. No matter how benign something may be intrinsically, if it interferes in my relationship with Jesus, it is worthless. It is worse than worthless.

Or, if it interferes in the relationships others have with Jesus. This is a little trickier. I speak not here of offending another’s weird hang-ups. There are anomalies in everyone’s life. I do not speak of issues for which others may have abundant and virulent criticisms. I speak here of things we say and do which impact the lives of others and cause them to turn away from intimacy with the Savior. Things which interrupt and diminish that relationship. In order to accomplish this, one must have some level of influence with the other person -- enough to make one’s adverse impact coercive.

Worthless things can be anything. They can be everything. The issue is how they are approached by the heart, not the things in themselves.

Now, let us get real. There are things specifically designed by the Enemy, or by evil people, or even by ourselves, uniquely intended to turn our hearts away from God. It is impossible to receive such things with thanksgiving from the hand of God, because God himself rejects them as destructive.

You would never find them in his hand in the first place.

It is wise for us to see such things for what they are, and not delude ourselves into thinking that because “we are grateful to God for them,” they are acceptable.

For David, whom we credit for the 119th Psalm, that would have been his lust for Bathsheba, and the murder of her husband -- as well as for several other less dramatic indiscretions. For you and me, it may not be murder and lust, but if it succeeds in supplanting God in our hearts, it is beyond worthless.

I know a man who offends just about everyone he knows. Interestingly enough, he feels “called of God” to do so. He has grown a beard that falls to his chest, along with a bushy mustache, and long, unkempt hair. He lives in the corner of a warehouse along with his dog, who is about the only one who admires him. His wife and his children have abandoned him to his misguided enormities.

His behavior is bizarre in the extreme and his statements are abrasive, insulting and inflammatory. No doubt, he sees himself as a modern-day Elijah or Elisha. In order to speak to the contemporary mind one must accommodate that level, as the prophets did to theirs and as Jesus did to the world. In order to speak for God, one must speak with God’s credibility. This man’s eccentricities destroy any and all credibility he has. They obfuscate the credibility of the message he preaches, and in so doing, diminish it.

He demonstrates no credibility from God or otherwise. As a result, his message is worthless to those who would hear him.

All of that said, we must give this man his due. He professes Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. We must accept that and look upon him as a brother. All believers are imperfect, and from the perspective of God who loves us all, how are we much different than he? God can turn his deprecatory methods into effectiveness and good; as he did with David, the adulterer, fornicator and murderer -- and, who also was called the “friend of God.” It is of interest to note that Bathsheba ended up being named in the ancestral lineage of Jesus, and became the mother of Solomon. Not too shabby. God often has a way of turning our worthless things into good.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

CINDERS TO HEAVEN

Step into the Garden

I am a stranger on earth; I belong in your house.

I was 10 months old, when my father, preaching from the pulpit of Journeycake Memorial Church in Ponca City, Oklahoma, collapsed, and a few days later, died of pancreatic cancer.

He left behind five children and his wife, our mother. The eldest child was my sister at eighteen, and I, the youngest, a babe in arms.

According to my brother, our dad was delivering his sermon as he had done a thousand times before, when he clutched his side, crumbled in a heap on the dais, and was gone.

My sister recounts the train ride from Oklahoma to Atlanta, where my mother’s family awaited our arrival. Several trains actually. From Ponca City to Kansas City; from Kansas City to Birmingham, and from Birmingham to Atlanta. It was 1937, and August hot, she said; and with no air-conditioning, the train windows were down. Cinders from the smoke, burned her eyes. She remembers the cinders.

Can you count the times when you have felt like an alien on earth? Times when you seem disconnected to the human experience? Times when you so long to be in heaven where you belong instead of where you are now? You remember that you are a citizen of eternity, and a “foreigner” to planet earth, to the society in which you live.

It would not be a stretch to say that all who take their Christian faith seriously, those who desire intimacy with God, would, at times, acknowledge such feelings. It is sometimes surprising to find yourself thinking like this – earnestly looking forward, anticipating the denouement of your redemption.

But, when you think about it, it is as natural as the nose on your face. It is as natural as childbirth; as natural as a waterfall. It is deliciously concomitant to the person in whose body, soul and spirit, resides the presence of the Holy Spirit.

This beautiful, sweet Spirit, you see, is not encased in a casket in the baggage car of the train. It is as if he were sitting next to you, looking up from his newspaper, and peering over his spectacles, he says to you, “We’ll be there soon.”

It is a happy thought. A wondrous, happy thought. Especially as we continue to brush the cinders from our eyes.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

CHARLIE BEATTY

Step into the Garden

How does a young man keep his way right? By conducting his life according to your word. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.

“Charlie” Beatty was a medium to small man. Wiry. Bronzed skin. His face handsome, serious and wrinkled. Steel-gray hair with streams of silver on each side of his head. He spoke deliberately, with precision.

When Charlie prayed, it was always on his knees. Sometimes stretched out, on his face. He never prayed silently. Always out loud, even when he was alone. If you were in earshot, you could hear him plainly.

As “Minister of Evangelism,” Charlie had an office in our church. A large, old, beautiful church that, a few years later, burned to the ground from an arsonist’s torch. I happened to walk by his office early one morning. I heard Charlie praying in his office, through closed door and frosted glass. I could hear him plainly. He was praying for me. No doubt, he knew I needed such prayer.

His memory holds a special, honored place in my heart.

I was twenty years old – a mere child. Yet Charlie sought me out when I was but a few days old in the faith. He invited me to meet with him regularly. I needed to be “discipled,” he said. So every Saturday morning at 7:00 a.m., we met – for never less than an hour, and often for as much as two.

During these times we talked of my life and experiences as a new Christian, mostly. He showed interest in me. He asked non-threatening, but penetrating questions. Non-threatening? Seems a foolish notion. Charlie didn’t have a threatening bone in his body. He made me feel like I actually mattered. A new experience for me.

And then, Charlie would have me memorize Scripture. Not randomly, but with design and purpose. Each Saturday morning, he would have me quote, with the Scripture references front and back, the verses I had learned that week. Then we would review the verses I had learned before. Every Saturday it went like this. Week after week, after week, for more than a year.

After we talked for about an hour, Charlie would get up from behind his desk, come around to the two chairs sitting in front of it, and get down on his knees. That was the signal for me to do the same. Charlie would pray first, most of the time. Then me. Together, we prayed maybe thirty, forty minutes.

Then we went to “The Park Pantry,” a local restaurant for breakfast; the Word of God, safely locked in my heart.

That was fifty-five years ago.

I look at where I have been in life since then. I look at my life now and I ask, what did those times with Charlie Beatty mean? How did they help mold and shape me into what I am now?

Honestly, I am not sure.

All I can tell you is, it’s still going on. Each day the word of God speaks to me. Each day I enjoy “coffee with God.” Sometimes I think I am less of a Christian, less of a disciple today than I was then. So much life has happened.

Charlie is a young man again now. He is like I was then, only infinitely wiser. He is in a place now where the disintegration of years have no effect. He is up there with Dawson Trotman, the man who started “The Navigators;” a man Charlie greatly admired. He is young, just beginning his life in eternity. I am old in earth years. My bones ache and I weigh too much. Still, I wonder if there are places in heaven where Charlie can get down on his knees and pray? If there is, I wonder if he still prays for me? Lord knows, I need it now as much, perhaps more than I needed it then.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

ARE YOU TALKIN' TO ME?

Step into the Garden

You can go on and on about your beliefs, but if they have little or no influence on what you do in your life, they can hardly be called "beliefs." They are meaningless.

Whoa!!!?

Are you talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me?

Ever wonder why some sayings and phrases become cliché’s? Shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. They always contain some element of hard-nosed truth, some bedrock, common-sense verity, and the way some deal with that truth, to keep from being blinded, or perhaps seared by the light of that truth, is to relegate it to the smallness of a cliché. That’s a good thing. Isn’t it? We can deal with what we think small and irrelevant.

The picture of Robert DeNiro looking into a mirror talking to himself and pointing a gun at his image is magnificently ridiculous. But that is how you and I look when we get arrogant with misguided and unfortunate notions, or even with the truth. Arrogance is a deceptive contagion.

Are you talkin’ to me?

For DiNiro’s character in Taxi Driver, this was no cliché. He used that gun to murder several people. The final scene, his head shaved except for a Mohawk strip careening over its nakedness, pistols discharging, women screaming, Travis Bickle sits down on a sofa and dies, a smile on his lips. He has embraced and is comforted in his own evil.

Are you talkin’ to me?

* * *

Emotional feelings follow in the train of our patterns of thinking. If we think about something long enough, intensely enough, our hearts will soon follow. And then, conversely, our reason is impacted and influenced by our feelings. It becomes a dark, vicious, category five psychological vortex. Psychological debris whirling through our minds. Reason and emotion bounce off one another, shaping and massaging one another, and in the process, shaping and massaging who we are, and what we become. Behavior is dramatically coerced. Annoyance engenders hatred and hatred becomes madness.

What I think and believe in my heart of hearts is going to come out. It is going to evidence itself in how I experience life. It is going to shape my world view. I cannot hide it from others, I can’t even hide it from myself, and I certainly can’t hide it from God -- who I am, what I believe, what I become. The mirror reveals all.

So what we believe, what we think about is ultimately going to be as evident as the color of our eyes, the gait of our walk, what we wear, or how we comb our hair. You can see it. You can see it for yourself. All you have to do is look in the mirror.

Are you talkin’ to me?

A voice somewhere in the epochal, almost undiscernible reaches of our soul returns an answer, “Yes,” it responds, “I am talking to you. Go ahead look at yourself in that mirror; see yourself for the absurdity that you are. What you are looking at, once you realize how ridiculous it is, becomes the gateway to your redemption. The path to wholeness lies beyond. Think about it. Let your emotions react to it. When your cheeks are wet, and the vortex subsides, lay down your pistol and come to the God whose feelings can be touched; moved – even for your absurdity.”

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

DEMON OF THE SORE BACK

Step into the Garden

So, array yourself with the full armor of God, so that when evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground no matter what comes.

Evil can be staggering.

You can call it “Satan,” if you like, or “the enemy,” or the “devil,” and thus personify it. It makes no difference; evil is still evil.

There are three sources of evil as I see it: Satan and his emissaries, then there is you. You can be evil. I don’t need to remind you of that . . . my apologies. Finally, and by no means least, there is me. I can be as evil as you. Sort of like choosing up sides and smelling armpits.

It is an interesting observation, perhaps even a compelling observation, that we all have the need to blame Satan, or others for evil deeds. It is painful to look inside ourselves, but that is where we find the greatest evil of all.

It is this third source of evil with which we have the most trouble.

The survival instinct – so called, may have a legitimate function, but it can also be, and often is, our worst enemy. It is impressive, the lengths to which we will go to give ourselves comfort. Our consumerism, our secular ethic, our need to entertain ourselves, our seeking out of palliatives to assuage discomfort; these things often spring from less than pristine motivations.

In a word, it is the evil within ourselves against which we most need to armor ourselves.

There was a time in my life when I did seminars. A lot of them. The seminars were week-long affairs where I would speak no less than four times a day for 45-60 minutes per session. In between the lectures, I conducted hour-long small-group sessions. At the end of the day, I was tired. By the end of the week, I was exhausted.

One time, at the close of one of these days, I made the mistake of complaining of the soreness in my lower back. People responded by gathering around me, laying hands on me, praying with the view toward asking God to cast “the demon of the sore back” from my body.

It worked.

I went back to my lodging, got a good night’s rest, and behold, the next morning, the demon of the sore back was gone!. Unfortunately, at the end of the next day’s sessions, it had returned with a vengeance. This time, however, I managed not to complain. A very sensible part of the “armor of God,” is the common sense of eating right, exercising and getting enough rest. Still, even common sense has its vulnerabilities.

So, what did I take away from that little episode?

First, lest your amusement misguide you, I learned to appreciate the love, care and concern others had for me. These were kind, good people who meant well.

Second, I learned – at least partially -- how to engage and manage evil. It forced me to find a place where I didn’t have to protect myself from evil. A place of rest and renewal.

Many years ago, I enjoyed jogging. Through the mountains, hills and valleys, and along the pebbled beaches of Catalina Island in California. Tore up my knees – a painful annoyance for which I pay dearly today. Do you suppose this is what Paul meant when he said, “bodily exercise profiteth little?” I wonder if he liked to jog? Clearly, there are downsides to everything.

You can tear up your knees jogging, get an ear infection swimming, strain a muscle lifting, or sprain an ankle playing tennis, but I have never heard of anyone hurting themselves while seeking God’s presence, or enjoying the warmth of his love.

There are those who do mean-spirited, brutal, evil things to others, all in the name of God. Jim Jones comes to mind, David Koresh, Osama bin Laden and those who disrupt the graveside services of fallen soldiers. Isn’t it amazing how manic and fanatical human wickedness can become when one does it, ostensibly, in the name of God!? You can certify yourself. Those who do such things have not sought God, and have no part with him. They are an embarrassment to God, and an embarrassment to his people. What they do is a massive contradiction to his nature.

So, the psalmist speaks. He speaks of dwelling “in the secret place of the most High,” and “abiding under the shadow of the Almighty.” It is a place, if you can wrap your mind around that, a place where God “covers you with his feathers.” It is a place -- a place “under his wings.” Jesus employed this same imagery when he cried out to Jerusalem. The writer of Hebrews used it when he spoke of “entering God’s rest.”

What a place is this! A place of complete security, and comfort, refuge and safety. A place defended by the wings of the Almighty! A place where his truth is my shield. A place of absolute trust and rest from attack.

In such a place, what need is there of armor? His wings are my armor. In such a place, I need not fear even myself.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

THEN COMES THE KILN

Step into the Garden

Your hands made me and formed me;

Michelangelo’s painting of God and Adam in the Sistene Chapel has always intrigued me. I like it because it depicts the creation of the first man, from the finger of God.

In terms of what actually happened, I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it doesn’t matter. The point is that man was created by God in his image.

I love this truth, that I am created in the Image of God. Image denotes properties of visualization. I look like him. God made me to look like him. I find this exciting.

Now I read that “his hands made me and formed me.” How exquisite the intimacy this implies! It is as though God is the Holy Artisan, and I am the clay. He begins with a misshapen lump and goes to work. The lump begins to take on a form. It begins to resemble the Artisan. God is making me to look like him! With each turn of the Potter’s wheel, I look better and better. Soon, I emerge a finished piece, perfect in every way.

Then comes the kiln. There is a curious reality about kilns. No matter the heat, or the trial by fire, God is still the Master Artisan doing the work, making me to look like him. He knows exactly how long to leave me in there and just where to set the temperature. And the wonder of it all is that I emerge a thousand times more beautiful than when I entered.

But this isn’t about the kiln. This isn’t about the heat and the flames of life. It is about the fact of his hands, and how with meticulous care and artistry, they formed me, and made me to look like him.

Now about that picture on the right . . . ok, so maybe God needs to try again.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

POWER

Step into the Garden

Stay in this city until you have been clothed with power.

Most of us want to be respected. So much so that we are not above voicing the cliché, “I don’t care if they like (love) me, I just want them to respect me.” People who believe this, who say this, are almost always in some authoritarian position. Speaking of those who report to him, the boss says, “They don’t have to love me, but you better believe they are going to respect me.” Yeah!

Power.

Regrettably, this is human power, its coerciveness driven by sanction. The policeman with the badge, with the gun, with the bullets, with the threat to incarcerate; the boss with the authority to terminate your services – whoever, with the power to punish. This is the power to control, manipulate and coerce. Because of the human predilection for darkness, it is sometimes appropriate. Still, owing to this same predilection, it is all too easy for it to become the power of arrogance, and power for the sake of power.

Is this what Jesus meant? I don’t think so. For centuries, students of the Bible interpret these words of Jesus as meaning the power of the Holy Spirit. Through these same centuries, Religion has interpreted this as the power to convert; the power to heal; the power to coerce repentence; the power to excommunicate. The sanction of organized religion -- excommunication -- is a sanction of fantasy. No man on earth has the power to keep another from eternal life, or eternal death.

But since God is Love, and since the Spirit is God; does it not follow that these two Persons being equal to each other; the power of which Jesus speaks, is the power of Love?

Is there a greater power?

Of all the garments hanging in my spiritual closet, the one with which I most seek to clothe myself, is the power of Love. Love is the most coercive energy in human experience, far more powerful than the authority of sanction, and far deeper than mere respect.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

INTENTIONS? BETTER THAN A HALLELUJAH!

Step into the Garden

He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.

Honoring Jesus isn’t so much a matter of good behavior as it is a matter of the heart. It can be said that good behavior reflects the content of the heart, for as Jesus himself said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” But words of the mouth, what our hands find to do, or what we set before our eyes, is not what demands our attention here. Every single human being on earth, and all that have come before us, and all who will come after, have said things, done things, sought things that dishonor the Son.

What is found in our hearts is the focus point of God. He alone among all that have life can see into our hearts. Indeed, he is life itself.

A popular saying is, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Yet Jesus has made it abundantly clear that it is the intent of the heart that interests God. It is the intent of the heart that God evaluates.

There is an interesting word that I picked up somewhere along the path I have walked. It is the word, “proclivity.”

pro•cliv•i•ty   [proh-kliv-i-tee]

-- noun, natural or habitual inclination or tendency; propensity; predisposition

My question then, is, ‘What then, is the proclivity of my heart?’

Like all others, I fail to honor the Son in my life and behavior. These failures are habitual and while I can’t seem to turn it around, I can also tell you this: There is nothing so natural, so elemental, so sincere, so deep within me as the desire to honor the Lord. This, too, is a proclivity. And this desire, this intent of the heart is seen by God, and despite the considerable hiccups in my life, brings honor to the Son.

Search me, O God, and know my heart.
Examine me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Sometimes, it seems, the intentions of our hearts, what we want and desire, are better than a Hallelujah!
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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

AM I BLESSED, OR WHAT?!

It has been fun, but exhausting.

My last post occurred on July 20, 2011 and it is now August 17. After a period of weekly postings, maybe some of you may have wondered why the lapse? What happened . . . and why am I so tired?

We moved. As in moving all of our belongings, furniture, stuff, dishes, memories, writings, pictures, library and more stuff -- from northern California to our newly purchased home in Marietta, Georgia. Over 2,700 miles!

Let me give you a short, but detailed account: It began with a flight from Atlanta Hartsfield, to Sacramento. Me and Violet, my seven month old puppy. She rode beneath the seat in front of me and didn’t like it very much; softly whining and sleeping when she wasn’t whining.

Bonnie had been visiting our grandchildren in San Diego, and met me in Sacramento where we rented a car and drove to Santa Rosa. Spent the night with our nephew and next morning, rented the biggest truck we could find. Mark (nephew) and friend packed the truck. Next day Violet and I climbed into the cab, kicked the diesel into life, and pointed our big yellow dragon’s nose toward Marietta, via Reno, et. al.

After a night in a Utah motel, I pulled into a service station. A worn Chevy pick-up pulled up close. Big man with a red nose rolled down his window and shouted, “Boy, (I’m 74 years old) you better take a look at your muffler. Hit’s about to fall off!” I bent down and looked and sure enough, the tailpipe hung about five inches above the ground.

Called the truck rental company who sent out a mechanic who fixed it. Just like that. Clean, efficient, no problemo! I drove off with the muffler secure -- with coat-hangar wire!

As I approached the on-ramp to I-80 in Somewhereville, UT, my cellphone rang. I proceeded up the on-ramp. “PULL OVER!” the voice on the phone cried. “YOU’RE LOSING OIL!!!” I pulled over a few feet shy of where the on-ramp meets the highway. I checked the mirror for oncoming traffic, opened the door, tried to calm Violet who was whining again, and got out of the truck. What I saw made me feel . . . well, I guess a mule-kick right square in the stomach might describe it. There was a puddle of oil the size of the Pacific on the ground beneath the engine, increasing in size every second as the engine idled. I quickly reached for the ignition, and shut it off. At that moment the mechanic pulled up behind me.

The oil filter had ruptured. Ever heard of an oil filter rupturing? I have lived 74 years on this planet, driven dozens of cars and trucks, and this was an all-time first. Five hours of sitting on the side of the road with my dog in not too unpleasant surroundings, and I was on my way again. This could have happened somewhere in the desert, with triple digit heat. I was grateful.

Arrived in Marietta six days later with no additional mule-kicks, hired two Mexican businessmen who did a superb job of unpacking the truck, and now here I am, still amongst the few remaining unpacked boxes, walls with unfinished painting, and almost completely remodeled kitchen, and tired. Yes tired.

I guess I’ve driven across this country in cars and trucks more than a dozen times in my lifetime. Maybe two dozen. Who’s counting?

But this time was different. I was kept company by a beautiful little Maltese named Violet, who licked my cheek as I drove, who barked at passersby while I was fueling the truck, who slept with me every night, and who played happily in the grass every time we visited a rest stop.

And we were both kept company by the presence of Someone else.

Yes I’m tired. Indeed. But we now have our own home. After three and a half years of storing our stuff, opening boxes has been like Christmas. Twenty-eight years of priceless memories. My wife is joyously happy. Violet has rejoined her sister and mom, and now we are only a few days away from having all the pictures hung.

Am I blessed, or what?!

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

YOUR SECRET PLACE

Step into the Garden

He who sees what is done in secret will reward you intimately

I once worked with a man in Christian ministry.

He was the titular “head” of this ministry, meaning its chief administrator, CEO and fundraiser. In his language and in his attitude, he made great display of his Christian piety, his commitment to the work, etc.

During my time with that ministry, he arranged a fund-raising dinner, in which he invited several marquee Christian personalities to speak, or to provide music and inspiration. It was a fine occasion, enjoyed by all.

Then came the time when an appeal would be made to all invited to the dinner, to give of their financial resources to help support this ministry. I remember receiving this instruction from this man to the entire staff:

“When the appeal to give is made, take out your checkbooks and pretend you are writing a check. Make it obvious, so that all can see. In this way, you will influence others to take out their checkbooks, and contribute as well.”

I didn’t work with this man for much longer after that.



Mother Teresa came to be known world-wide. But I would like to know, how many children, how many broken people benefitted from her ministrations, with no one except God, knowing about it at all?

It is said, indeed such sentiments occurred in her writings, that Mother Teresa had doubts about her faith, that she had felt abandoned by God. Whether or not she is ever canonized for Roman Catholic sainthood, this is the most believable thing about her; her doubts, her human vulnerability. This is not to be confused with what she has done. What she has done is empirical. What she has done is evidence.

Now, I think, her doubts are gone. She has received her “reward of intimacy” with her Savior and Lord.

How much suffering had she relieved, unheralded!? How many can point to her as the greatest expression of God’s love they had ever known?

Today, the angels sing of her triumphs over suffering and disease. If not always triumphs of healing, triumphs of love and comfort. She is the most recent model of one who does wondrous service in secret, and who now, has received her reward.

May you and I, so serve the Lord that we draw attention not to ourselves, or to our cause, or to our mission, near so much as our lives draw attention to his love.
He who dwells in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
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This is the true SECRET PLACE.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

PRAISE, OR A HEALTHY BELCH?

Step into the Garden

Praise the LORD.

My son lives in New Jersey. I live in Atlanta. Last night, he flew into the huge Atlanta airport for several days’ business in the city. My wife and I met him at the airport. [Note: we parked the car and went in and met him as he was coming through the “Arrivals Lobby.” We didn’t just get on our cell phones and make arrangements to pick him up in the car at the white curb, “used for passenger loading and unloading only,” to make it more convenient for us.] We do that because even the few minutes walking through the airport together are treasured. People don’t do that, or think like that much anymore.

We drove to my brother’s home, where we all sat around a table and had Kentucky Fried Chicken, cole slaw, fake potatoes and gravy, corn and one of those chocolate chip cakes for dessert. Family time. Deliciously talking about nothing in the living room for several hours before my son, my wife and I left to take him to the hotel where he would be staying. Just listening to the voices we love.

As we pulled into the hotel my son asked me, “Dad, how much of a drive is it from here to where you live?”

“About forty, forty-five minutes,” I replied.

“Gee, Dad,” he said, “That’s a long drive. Thanks for coming down here and bustling me about.”

“My pleasure, son. Absolutely no problem at all.”

And it wasn’t. But when I got back, I was tired. It was a good tired. I had had a few hours with my son. Quiet joy warmed my heart.

He will understand someday, if he doesn’t already, when his two girls, now teenagers, become adults, marry, have children of their own, and maybe (although for their parent’s sake, I hope not) live far away, how priceless time with someone you love really is.

When I talk to others about my son, as well as my two daughters, I always speak in glowing terms. The same goes for my three step-children. Ok, so I know they are human. They are very much aware that I am, too. None of that matters in the slightest. My heart swells with joy and pride at how blessed, at how fortunate I am.

That, my friend, is praise. One may think that praising God, is singing hymns of praise, or holding your hands high in the air and swaying back and forth. That may be, but if we think that is all there is to it, or even that it is the best and most appropriate way to praise God, then we have reduced praise to a religious discipline, an exercise in piety, like the phylacteries on the heads and arms of the Pharisees, of which Jesus spoke. We have put praise on a par with a good, healthy belch, and seriously missed the point.

Provided one is not trying to impress someone with how spiritual one is, the phrases, “Praise God,” or “Lord, I praise you,” have their place only if they truly reflect the joy of his presence.

Is this a bit of an insight on “Praise,” here? Is praise given because God needs it; or requires it, or even that he is necessarily pleased by it? I doubt that God finds much satisfaction in our praise, in and of itself. And, I suspect it doesn’t contribute much to helping him feel good about himself.

Praise, true praise, may be a bit like a different dimension of forgiveness. It benefits the one doing the praising more than the one praised. Praising God does not enrich him near so much as it enriches me.

Praise is the result of time spent with God. Praise is an expression of gratitude that you and He are spiritually related and engaged with one another.

Plain and simple.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

WILD THING! YOU MAKE MY HEART SING!

Step into the Garden

May my heart sing to you and not be silent

“Wild thing! You make my heart sing!” (from the film, “Major League,” 1989)

WARNING: Clip contains some rough language. If you don’t want to deal with that, skip the clip.

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Why, you ask, do I put a clip like that in a Christian devotional piece? Well, this may surprise you, but the “colorful” language is not the point. What is the point? You ask again, and why are you offending me? You ask.

Well, let’s see . . . tell you what, let’s drop back a few years, maybe 2,000 of them and ask ourselves a question: Did Jesus ever hear language like this? And if he did, what was his response?

Take a look at the fans in the crowd. Listen to what they say to each other. Definitely not a scene from any church I know. Yet it was from people like this that Jesus chose his apostles!

We are not told too much about the language of the disciples, but we are told that they were fishermen. Ever been around commercial fishermen? You getting the point yet? It is no accident that Peter fell to cursing and swearing when he denied Jesus. He was -- no doubt about it -- comfortable with such language.

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes when I stand to sing in church, I wet my cheeks with tears. Through this, I try to sing, but I choke, my voice squeaks, and I quickly shut my trembling lips so that others may not wonder.

What do I think others might wonder? Perhaps I am embarrassed that they might see a grown man cry over the words and melody of a powerful hymn. Perhaps they might think me spiritual – that would be embarrassing. No one can possibly imagine how hopelessly unspiritual I feel.

But whatever others think, (if they notice at all), I doubt that they think I am singing to them. I am not that good of a singer that anyone would want to listen.

But there is One who wants to listen, and who does listen. Am I too bold and arrogant to think that he understands the tears? There is One who knows why I sing, and to whom. But then, maybe I should amp up the guitar and get the drums thudding.

“Wild thing! You make my heart sing.”

Wait a minute! Listen! This is no longer me singing. It is a sound that comes from the heavens. It is God looking at me and saying, ”Wild thing! I love you. The anthem that is you, the symphony that is your life, puts stimulating, provoking, pounding, drum-thumping, joyous melody in my heart.”

May God help you understand who and what you are. May God show you that you and I are no different from the character standing on the mound in Major League. And those fans in the bleachers are the “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of in the Bible. Ok, maybe not, but you have to remember Abraham, Moses and Elijah were all of them, disciples with feet of clay. They were people, just like us. Their lives were anything but pristine. And the guy standing at the plate with the big bat is whoever and whatever it is that keeps you from being all God meant you to be.

So let your light shine! Show them your stuff. Let’s see that fastball! You need corrective lenses? Then let your faith, your connectedness with God, sharpen your vision and narrow your focus on the strike zone! Find them horn-rimmed glasses and put’em on. You know what you want, now go get it. Let your stomach growl with hunger for “Parkman.” Put him on the tracks and crank up the train.

Wild Thing! You make God’s heart sing!

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

GOD AND THE DOW-JONES

Step into the Garden

What gain is there in my destruction?
What joy is there in my going down to the pit?
Will the dust worship you?
Will the dust proclaim your faithfulness?

When I am feeling discouraged, disappointed and disillusioned with myself, and in my faith, it is almost always when I also feel alienated from God. And that makes me resort to self-condemnation, because, I reason, how could a holy, righteous God be wrong?

Which is quite precisely the point, albeit with a different meaning than that produced by self-condemnation. The point of this question is . . . are you ready for this? The point is . . . Since God cannot be wrong, how could he have been wrong about me? Or you? How is it that he has made a mistake, a bad investment where you and I are concerned? You may consider yourself a failure, but God does not. You may, because of your indiscretions, or outright evil, think that you do not deserve, that you are not worthy of God’s favor, yet he thinks otherwise, yet he favors you – regardless of what you think about it, regardless of your human logic and moralizing or anti-moralizing about yourself. I’m pretty good at that stuff. After all, I’ve been to seminary! I mean, like Adam, I’ve gorged myself with the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I know about this stuff! Don’t you? I suspect you might know a little bit.

Now to this self-deprecating notion of, “I am not worthy . . .” both you and I need to take a look at what God has paid! Let your mind envision his Son crucified on a Roman cross. That is what God thought you are worth. How then can you say, “I am not worthy?”

I know, I know, I’m bouncing back and forth between first and second persons. But I’m doing that for a reason. Writers have that dubious priviledge. We can ignore the rules of formal grammar to make a point. And the point is, we, both of us, you and I, him and her; cousins, aunts and uncles; all of us deal with this junk. Everyday.

For many reasons, you and I may feel unworthy, and we may rationally conclude that we actually are unworthy. I mean look at the facts; e.g., our screwed-up lives. But there is another set of facts that say something entirely different. Here is an irreducible, immutable factoid: God paid a terrible and costly price for you, and you can’t escape the raw reality that -- that is how much you are worth to God.

You may think, “Yeah, but Jesus died for the whole world. Not just for me.” Ok. But think about it. Suppose it was “just for you?” Suppose you were the only person alive at the time, do you think Jesus would have died only for you? Go ahead, deal with that for a second.

The answer is irresistible, and it is “YES!” He would have died just for you. And that, my friend, is the measure of God’s love for you and the value he places on you. I use instruments of measure all the time: Ohmmeters, meat thermometers, 1-foot rulers, yards, centimeters, meters, etc. When we say how much we love our kids, we throw our arms open wide and say, “th-i-i-i-s much!” Well, the cross is an instrument of measure, too.

The psalmist asks the question, “What gain is there in your being marginalized?” Good question. For God, there is zero profit in such a thing. You can be sure that God knows exactly where to invest his resources. He has chosen you, and offered the death of his Son as collateral. Do you think he is going to dump you when your spiritual, rational or emotional “Dow-Jones” plunges, or takes a dip? Hardly.

So loosen up, and with the psalmist say with joy, “Oh Lord you really do like me.” Sometimes like is better than love. You can love someone you don’t like, but you rarely like someone you don’t love at some level. But God likes as much as he loves. He makes the mountain of your life to stand strong. A mountain. Not dust!

Yeah!

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

STONEWALL JACKSON AND THE MEANING OF LIFE

Step into the Garden

I brought you glory on earth by completing this work you gave me to do.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet their strength . . . is soon cut off, and we fly away. – Ps 90:10

Life expectancy for men in the United States for the year 1900, was 47.9 years. By 1997, it had reached 73.6, and in 2009, 78.7 years. With the increase in medical knowledge and expertise, life expectancy continues to increase. Where will it end, or when will it reach its zenith?

It is of interest to note that researchers from MIT have found an enzyme that extends the life span of yeast. When activated, this enzyme causes age-related chromosomes to be silenced, causing an extension in the life of yeast. Didn’t know yeast had life? Neither did I. This research carries broad implications for the human aging process, since this same enzyme has been discovered in humans.

News Flash: The Fountain of Youth is not in Florida. It lurks in a test tube!?

However spectacular these things may appear, they are in the learned hands of science. Scripture teaches that the days we spend here on earth are numbered by God. Some note that this is why Stonewall Jackson, of Civil War fame, was so brave. He was impervious to the mini-balls, cannon balls and grapeshot that flew about him, because he believed he could not die until God said it was ok. Regardless of general Jackson’s bravery, or something less than that, there is divine rationale, there is reason and purpose behind our days on earth, however long or short they may be.

Jesus lived 33 or perhaps 34 years. He died a young man, his life truncated by execution. Yet in the time he had on this earth, he brought glory and honor to God. More than any human who has ever lived, his life had meaning. From the manger in Bethlehem, to Golgotha, the life and death of Jesus resonated with the purpose of God. He completed the work his Father had given him to do. Today, his life has impacted almost 2 billion people now alive, not to speak of those who have gone before.

Like Jesus, and no less than he, each of us has a task, a purpose, a reason, or perhaps several reasons that compel our existence on earth. The Psalmist gives us threescore years and ten (more or less) to get this thing done. As the video below shows us, many do not realize their life on earth has such rationale. Some even think that’s cool. It is not. In such cases, the purpose of one’s life may never be appreciated or enjoyed.

Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Judge

The Meaning of Life

Don’t spend your life getting ready to live. The rationale behind your life can be broken down to smaller pieces; into days, hours and minutes.

"Learn from the past, set vivid, detailed goals for the
future, and live in the only moment of time over which you
have any control: NOW." -- Denis Waitley
http:

Each instant has as much rationale as the whole. In fact, the whole cannot happen if the instant did not exist. Don’t waste your time, don’t waste your life with non-redemptive stuff. Even moments of relaxation and fun can have purpose. Perhaps especially so. Find out why you are alive and then pursue it with every breath, with every beat of your heart. Every thought. Every dream. Nothing can be more liberating. More satisfying.

Stonewall, Kyle and Jason, you guys are . . . well, centered. You rock! And the game ain’t over, Mr. Engineer. Not now. Not ever!

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THE CARPENTER TRILOGY, by Paul Morris

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

CHICKENS AFTER A GRUB

Step into the Garden

Why do you scramble for the most prestigious seats like chickens after a grub?

At the core of the desire for prestige is a misguided and exaggerated sense of amour propre. Such thoughts, feelings; such pathological urges and impulses are enormously counter-productive and worse, self-destructive.

Often, these impulses lead precisely to the opposing place than you thought they would take you. Thus, instead of placing you at the apex of position, they cause you to compare yourself with another; the ‘other’ usually winning out. Hence, one incurs the pain of self-imposed inferiority.

A group of chickens chasing after a grub is an apt metaphor. I have seen it. While growing up, I lived next door to a family that raised chickens. I discovered that if one purposes to spend time in observance of a pen of chickens, one must first-off realize that it isn’t going to be pretty.

A chicken pen is not a particularly hospitable place. Once I was charged with the formidable task of cleaning out Sister Hamby’s chicken coop. Sister Hamby was no nun. She was, in a word, a delightful elderly lady. Well, perhaps I am trying to be kind. A more apt description is one who gave the appearance of a white-haired old crone, who smoked like a chimney. She was short, wore thick glasses, and I couldn’t help but wonder how often she bathed. Still, I liked her because she baked me cookies.

As I addressed Sister Hamby’s chicken coop, I allowed the door to swing open, creaking on rusting hinges. There, inside, racked up against the wall, stood a chicken roost. It was daytime, morning actually, so the chickens were out in the yard, chasing grubs, or bugs, or each other. Who knows the complex priorities caroming off the walls of chicken skulls? Often, they peck at each other’s head, leaving the unfortunate with a head more resembling a turkey buzzard, than a chicken. And there, beneath the chicken roost, was a four-foot thick pile of chicken manure. The odor smelled a mixture of chicken feathers, lice, an odd white, gray and brown admixture of chicken bowel movements, and . . . ammonia.

If you know anything at all about a four-foot-high pile of chicken manure, the moment I mention the smell of ammonia, you know I am telling the truth.

Also, if you are a professional chicken pooper-scooper, you know you need the right tools for the job. The tool of choice here was a long-handled garden “fork.” An instrument about four feet long with pointed v-shaped tines on the working end, that with a little force, could tear into the earth seeking to cultivate and dismember huge clods of clay. Only in my case here, it was not clay, but chicken excrement, moist with said ammonia.

I started to work. Before long I was sweating. The smell of ammonia grew stronger and stronger. So strong, in fact, that it became hard to breathe; its molecules mixing with the molecules of my sweat, distilling itself through my eyebrows and causing my eyes to sting with acid.

The poop clung like honey to the tines of the garden fork, making it easier to carry it from the coop itself, to the waiting wheelbarrow. Only it wasn’t honey. It was well digested, chicken feed, assorted bugs, worms, and fat, yellow grubs. You know, the kind that looks like an obese caterpillar, brown head, maybe a third of an inch thick and an inch long. Grubby little things! Chickens will kill for them. One chicken grabs a grub, all of the other chickens converge upon it, until the hapless grub is torn to pieces by a wild, frenzied mob of feathers and beaks.

We upright humans, who also convey ourselves about on two scrawny legs, (in some cases, not unlike those of chickens) can be grub-chasers, too. We digest ours in the entrails of our pride and our sense of self-importance. Our grubs are influence, power, position, control, money and things -- to consume. Enevitably, our abandon to consumption produces an inordinate stench, not too dissimilar from ammonia, which, mixed with the sweat of expended energy, does far more damage than irritate our eyes; and the pile left on the floor beneath the roost is our character, our spirit, the very best of our souls.

I guess it labors the obvious to say that the marketplace and the media has shaped our culture. Glitz, glitter and glamour are prized. We love the TV commercials that tell us how much we “deserve” the products being hawked.

Humility – true humility, as opposed to feigned – is seen as weakness.

As for a servant of God, (we often wear this term as a title, pretentious in its paradox), one might prefer to be perceived as weak, than perceived as one chasing after a grub with the rest of the chickens.

But true humility is not weakness. It bears the regal stamp of strength too great for the imagination – especially the imaginations of chickens.

I wonder if God has ever created a chicken, who, instead of grub-chasing, quietly and humbly clucking, found its way to the nest, and did something truly productive?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

FORGIVING THE FORGIVER

Step into the Garden

I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your promises.

Ever felt like a lost sheep? Alone, all tangled up in the morass of your mistakes and wrongheaded decisions? Feeling really, really stupid and small?

Well? . . . maybe you are! A lost sheep, that is. Maybe the eraser on the end of your pencil is so worn down that you feel and hear its metal encasement scrape against the paper of life. You’re mistake prone, stupid, small and alone. Aren’t you?

Depends on who’s looking.

Suppose it’s you? Suppose you are the one looking. How hard is it to amp up self-condemnation? Not very. You say, you are your own worst critic; a cliché designed to mollify the huge negative, emotional impact of thinking of yourself as nothing more than a dipstick for a used-up camel. Somewhere along the freeway, you just up and stepped out of the car, and life went on, leaving you spinning on the pavement.

Suppose it’s someone else? Someone has rejected you, provided input that makes you feel small, like personal criticism, fired you from a job, etc. I can’t think of anyone who looks upon mean-spirited, hate or ridicule-driven accusation and criticism, as something to be coveted. The ancient ditty about “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” is 180 out – to put it timidly. All of us know people whose lives have been utterly destroyed by destructive, harm-intended words.

Suppose it’s God? Now. This is the all-consuming knife that really cuts. If you think that God has rejected you, if you believe that God loves others, but not you; somewhere in this storm called human existence, you surely must have committed the big ‘U,’ (the ‘unpardonable’ sin.) These thoughts will destroy not only one’s life, they can destroy one’s soul. You are lying on life’s path wounded and bleeding, and unlike the good Samaritan, and more like a self-righteous priest, God looks upon you with disgust, turns away, and crosses the street, just to pass you by.

You are a lost sheep indeed. Caught, lost and alone in the thorns of self-loathing, accused and condemned by others, so much so that even God forsakes you.

Touched a nerve, yet?

Struggle, if you must, with your agony, with your pain. But if you can disengage just for a moment, and come to stillness, you may hear, you just might hear -- footsteps coming in your direction. You just might feel the nearness of his love. You just might feel the thorns and brambles being removed from around your body, from around your head. You just might feel the oil of the Spirit being poured into your wounds. You just might feel yourself lifted, caressed, comforted, forgiven.

The pain is gone.

You have been found.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

POP AND HIS PLOW

Step into the Garden

Remember how fleeting life is. What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?

I suppose the more one advances in age, the more thoughts of one’s own mortality assault the mind. You look in the mirror and an elderly person looks back at you. “My feet hurt. Knees wracked with arthritis. Diabetes. How much longer,” you ask, “will this old body keep creaking?” Funny, you don’t necessarily feel elderly, except when the arthritis flares up, or you get “tired” taking a shower. You know that others with a body as old, or maybe even younger than yours, have suffered strokes, heart attacks, etc.; one day they are here and truckin’ along, next day they are gone.

Uncle Seb died of colon cancer. These days, colon cancer is one of the easiest cancers to treat, discovered in time. It wasn’t so easy 60 years ago. He died suffering and in great pain. These days, terminal cancer patients are kept comfortable, and all but free of pain. I visited Pop at his bedside, just a few days before he passed away. He knew, as we all knew, that he only had a few hours, or perhaps days left. I was privileged to visit and see him, as I lived out of state and the time.

All of the kids, even his own adult children called him, “Pop.”

Morbid stuff? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on your perspective. “Mortality is just as much a part of life as being born,” one might think. You hear your heart beat and it sounds far away. You know one day it will stop.

The psalmist speaks languidly of the ‘power of the grave.’ At the moment he wrote this, perhaps he was not aware that for those who believe, the grave has no ‘power.’ For them the heart doesn’t stop, it just skips a beat. It comes to its last and final beat in the throes of death, and takes its next beat in the joy of eternal life.

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
neither has it entered into the heart of man,
the things that God has prepared
for those that love him.”
--1 Cor. 2:9


Pop lay groaning in his bed. I knew it would be the last time I would see him alive in this life. I remembered the many times he was a part of my life, from a small boy to a young man in college. Pop was fond of giving all us kids nicknames. Mine was “Red Willy” – owing to my red hair as a child. Pop could be gruff at times, but even then, his gruffness was painted with love.

I remember sitting at the breakfast table over a platter of Aunt Cue’s biscuits. If I reached for one of these delectable confections without asking, “May I have a biscuit please?” Pop’s hand shot out like a rattlesnake and popped me on the back of my knuckles with the handle of a tableknife.

“Boy,” he would say to me, “Nex’ time you want a biscuit, you ask for it, and you always say ‘please.’”

Pop loved gospel music, especially when it was sung by a quartet. I remember listening on the Philco radio, the melodies of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” Pop would lift his voice in sweet notes and sing along. I can still hear his soft, musical voice as I write this.

He was a captain in the United States Army. Shot off his finger while demonstrating how to shoot a .45 automatic.

He was a Sunday School teacher at his church for years.

He kept a couple of hogs named Ike and Mike. I loved slopping those 300 lb. monsters. They’d get up in the trough with their front feet and I would pour the slop over their heads. They loved it. I thought it was funny. One day I was surprised by a couple of slabs of Ike and Mike on my plate at the breakfast table, along with Aunt Cue’s biscuits, and big, fresh eggs cooked sunny side up, with their fringes crisp and brown.

Pop built himself a motorized plow. Put a Briggs and Stratton engine on a pair of wheels with tractor-like tires and attached a plow to it. Blue exhaust from the Briggs and Stratton mixed with my sweat causing my eyes to sting. He let me plow a couple of times. He walked behind me, one might say, encouraging me, with a few expletives thrown in, to plow a straight furrow.

When I was maybe nine years old, he let me drive his truck on the dirt road leading up to his house. I promptly put the truck in the ditch. You should have heard Pop cuss. “Hell-toot, Red Willy,” he would fume, squinting and scowling around his big nose, “That ain’t no way to drive this hoss.”

It was a quiet moment as Pop lay dying on his bed. Aunt Cue stood next to me as I leaned over and said, “Pop, you’re going to be with Jesus, soon.”

“I hope so,” he groaned back, his voice terribly stressed by pain.

“I know so, Pop!”

I hope Pop’s plow makes to heaven. It prob'ly won't smoke so much, and I won't sweat so much, and my eyes won't sting, and maybe I’ll have time to learn how to plow a straight furrow. We’ll plant honeydew melons, okra, maybe a potato or two, corn, and . . .

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

MEMORIAL DAY: MY BROTHER BILLY

Two blue stars displayed on white satin background, surrounded by a wide border of glowing red. Gold fringe at the bottom. At the top a pine dowel attached to gold cord that hung on a nail driven into the wooden frame of our front-door window.

Our house was a duplex. Aunt Annie, Carolyn, Jeanne, Billy and Phil and me, we all lived on one side. Uncle Gerald Christian, Aunt Ina, and my cousin Gerry lived on the other. It was this way all during the war.

Gerry and Billy were in the Navy in the Pacific. Gerry on a destroyer, Billy on a liberty ship. Billy served in the Solomon islands, and Guadacanal. No idea where Gerry served. I was a small boy, four to nine years old during the terrible conflict in Europe and with Japan in the Pacific.

The house was empty and lonely without them. I often touched the flag hanging in our front-door window, caressing it with my fingers wondering where in this world of war, Billy and Gerry were. I was very proud of them, and I missed them, especially Billy because he was my brother.

Jewitt Christian, Gerry’s first cousin on his Dad’s side, had a younger brother, Bobby. They lived three-and-a-half blocks away. Not much of a walk. Billy, Phil and Gerry often walked to their house to horse around and hang out. They came to our house just as often.

Bobby was a powerful man, physically. Somewhat of a kitchen gymnast, he could swing himself completely around the workout bar that he and my brothers built in our back yard. Bobby’s muscles bulged when he lifted the barbell that they all made out of two 2 ½ gallon cardboard ice cream containers, concrete, railroad spikes and a length of 1.5 inch galvanized pipe. Bobby had red hair and freckles. Jewitt’s hair was cold black, brown eyes for both men.

I call them men, here. They were maybe 17, 18, 19 years old. Jewitt was a cartoonist. He could draw the funniest pictures I ever saw. He later became an architect. To a very small boy, maybe four-years-old, these guys were men – real men!

You could take the alley path behind our house between Professor Weaver’s victory garden and ours, walk down behind the Smith’s and Davis’s house, dog-leg to the right, and come out on second avenue next to Mr. Perdue’s grocery store. Down second avenue to Boulevard Drive, and on down Boulevard to First avenue and they lived three houses down in the big, dark brown house with the white trim. It’s seventy years later now, but I can walk the whole way in my mind, and tell you every delicious detail, June bugs and all, but . . . well, that’s another story.

We traveled back and forth to Jewitt and Bobby’s house, walking. Problem was, the sidewalk wasn’t all that great. It had browned with age and roots from the trees had lifted whole sections of it above the Georgia red clay. It was hard walking for a four-year-old. Not only that, my brother Billy took what was for me great big strides. Great big strides. (Why do I feel the tears rise in my eyes?)

As I said, it was hard on my little legs. Sometimes, Billy would let me ride on his shoulders, but mostly I walked alongside, trying to keep up. I held on to Billy’s fingers for dear life. When the sidewalk was uneven, I tried to keep from tripping. Often, I did not not succeed and I could feel the instant when my grip on Billy’s finger slipped. I was headed for skinned knees for sure.

That’s when it happened.

That’s when Billy’s hand would instantly grab mine; and it held, lest I fall. His big hand with big fingers, always held. It all happened quicker than you can wink. No matter how broken and uneven the sidewalk, no matter my clumsy four-year-old legs, I wasn’t going to fall. Walking with Billy, I just wasn’t going to fall.

Later, I would come to understand that this is the way I walk with God. I try hard to hold on to him so I don’t trip and fall, but all the time, he is actually holding on to me. I may stumble on the broken pavement of life, but he is not going to let me fall.

* * *

VJ Day came and went. Japan had surrendered (watch video) to General Douglas MacArthur on the battleship Missouri. Billy and Gerry were coming home. By this time I was nine and in the fourth grade at East Lake grammar school.

I was terribly excited. We knew that Billy was on his way home but had no real idea of when that would be. Everything, all military information, was secret. Letters from Billy were always censored, with words, sometimes whole sentences, blacked out. But I watched for him every day, anticipating, hoping. Our house was situated on a small rise and the streetcar tracks were downslope two blocks away.

One day as I arrived home from school, I saw a sailor making his way up the street from the streetcar tracks. I knew it was a sailor because he was dressed in navy blue with a white hat and a white seabag slung over his shoulder Was it Billy? Was it Billy? My heart was in my throat. I ran inside and stood behind the flag of two blue stars hanging in the window of our front door. It seemed I stood there forever, never taking my eyes away from the street out front.

The sailor walked slowly into my view from where I stood behind the flag. He turned into our yard. It WAS Billy! I opened the door with a slam, cleared the four steps up to the porch in one leap, ran with all my might. He barely had time to put down his seabag before I leaped into his arms under the big magnolia.

Billy was home! He had defeated Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, or whoever it was. I was nine years old, I didn’t know or care.

Billy was home.

WATCH VIDEO: (Mouseover space below. Click on arrow.)






Tuesday, May 17, 2011

THE SECOND SON

Step into the Garden

Follow me, and in doing so, you will see the heavens open, and you will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

It needs to be said that Jesus is not merely an historical figure, someone we read about in the Bible and decide to believe in. There is that Jesus. The historical Jesus. He actually did live and breathe, walked among us, taught us many wonderful things, and did many signs and wonders. One cannot truly believe and doubt this.

The nub, however, is whether or not we believe that this same historical Jesus is still very much alive, more than 2000 years later. If he is, as his followers believe, alive and well, and that he is tangible and real as opposed to some preternatural ghost, then we must consider as to how he is to be engaged, if indeed, we can engage him.

Charles Sailor published The Second Son, in January of 1979. Not sure how I acquired the book; perhaps picked it up for something to pass the time while traveling. It is a novel about a young construction worker, Joseph Turner, who falls 25 stories from steel girders, and survives – or perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he just came back to life. The author’s characterization of Joseph’s gentle heart and his unusual gifts, despite his “ordinariness,” make him sound incredibly like Jesus might sound, were he walking among us, and living among us like the guy next door. I have read the book several times. It’s that kind of book.

The Scriptures give us a very different picture of the return of Jesus to the earth, but suppose he simply appeared in our lives as one of our friends? The point of such a bizarre supposition, is that Jesus is just as human now as he was when he appeared in the upper room after his resurrection, or along the Emmaus road, or preparing breakfast for the disciples on the shores of Galilee. His human body may have very non-human properties (at least insofar we know the human body to be), but his body still is, and will always be, human!

That simple reality speaks to why we were made in the Imago Dei, and to why we have dignity and purpose, and to that which gives our lives the magnificence of meaning!

He will remain human, and he will remain alive for eternity. He still lives and eats and breathes. Were he on the earth in his human form, and were he to step on the scales, the scales would register his weight in pounds and ounces – or stone, should the scales be in the United Kingdom.

We encounter the historicity of Jesus in the Bible, but that is a mere pathway to engaging the real, living, God-human Jesus now.

I cannot deny that Jesus may speak audibly to certain believers, nor can I deny that he may physically appear to anyone he chooses. But how the living Jesus comes to us is not an issue. The tangibility of his vitality, motivating and mobilizing us is the issue -- the relevant issue of paramount significance.

The fact that we personally engage the living Christ in our everyday lives is critical. It is, indeed, a personal, life-giving experience. And in that experience, I say experience, we can see the angels, we actually see him, and know him who is invisible.

Monday, May 9, 2011

ALEX

Step into the Garden

You find it only when you yourself connect with God.

His name was Alex. I think that was his name. I forget. He had sandy, well-groomed hair, penetrating blue eyes, sharp features, a generous smile, but more than anything else, he actually seemed to care about us boys. Not like the regular preacher, who was no doubt a good man, too. But the preacher always preached with his Bible in one hand and a white, flowing handkerchief in the other, to wipe the sweat off his face. He was pretty short, but big. You see what I’m say’in?

Alex had come as the new “Youth Pastor,” at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. The building was later used as a prop in the movie, “Driving Miss Daisy.” Alex was going to a school somewhere, learning how to be a preacher, too. I remember thinking, Alex don’t need no school to learn how to preach. He didn’t need a handkerchief, and he didn’t hold his Bible in the air while he preached, making a show of it. He just stood there behind the pulpit sharing himself, and his faith in God.

Me and Howard McClung, G.C. Bradshaw, and Gene Smith always sat in the back pew, as far away from the pulpit as we could get. We had important business to discuss in whispers, and notes written on offering envelopes, passed back and forth. Talk had to do with cars mostly, and girls.

But when Alex preached, as the preacher sometimes let him do, especially on Sunday nights, we always sat on the second or third row back on the right hand side. Alex would lead the singing, too. He had a great voice. Like Perry Como’s. When he led the congregation in singing, “Revive us Again,” our young voices followed lustily. We all liked Alex. When he was leading the songs, we sang right out, like we were good Christians and all.

And if Alex preached, and gave the invitation, we always went forward on about the fourteenth or fifteenth verse (waiting for that last hand) of “Just as I Am.” We’d stand there in front of everybody, our heads hanging low, repentant and humble. Alex would come down from behind the pulpit, put his hands on our shoulders and pray for our souls. And we’d say, “Yes, I accept Jesus Christ and my personal Lord and Savior.” We did it all, just like you’re supposed to do.

Come Monday, we would start smoking cigarettes again. Once, Howard, G.C., and me snuck into the church when there was nobody there, squeezed into the baptistry, sat in the bottom of the tub and smoked almost a whole pack of Luckies. We’d start cussing again. We could cuss pretty good, too. We knew all the really bad words and we’d use them whenever we could, when there were no adults around. We’d go to the Saturday night dances and sit on the side to watch the girls dance with one another, waiting for them to twirl their dresses, hoping for a glimpse of pink nylon. I guess we weren’t good Christians after all.

Life went pretty much along like that. I graduated high-school, volunteered to be drafted, spent two years in the U.S. Army, got out, tried to go to college, lasted two weeks, drove to California, got a job . . . by this time I was twenty years old, and smoking three packs of Chesterfields a day.

I had forgotten all about Alex, going forward, hanging my head and all. Fact is, I believed myself to be an atheist. I remember standing on the missile launcher doors (they were closed), in the rain. And while lightning painted the dark sky, and thunder shook the earth, I screamed at God, “If you’re up there, then strike me dead!” He could have done it, you know. There was plenty of lightning around. He didn’t, so seeing as how I had given him such a great opportunity to get shed of me, and he just acted as if I didn’t exist, I concluded that he didn’t either.

A few months after my discharge from military service, lying in my bed around midnight, staring at the ceiling of my sister’s house, I figured my luck had just about run out. I was making $40 a week holding down a copy-boy’s job at the local newspaper. I guess I was pretty depressed. I got up, lit up a Chesterfield and walked out onto the front porch. The moon was full and high in the sky. This time, when I spoke to God, I was a little more respectful. I said, “If you’re up there, I need help. I don’t know who I am or where my life is going. I need help.” I went back inside, knelt down beside my bed and cried like a baby. Never done something like that in my whole life.

The very next day, one of my four bosses came out to my desk and happened to say something about God. I don’t remember what he said. He said something about God. And I said, “I’d be obliged to talk to you about that, sometime, that is, if you don’t mind.” And he invited me to come to his house for dinner.

I came. I came as nervous as a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. I came. I was met at the door by their fifteen-year-old daughter, as pretty as a lily on a frog pond. One might say that day, that my boss, John, and his dear wife, Eva, “led me to Christ.” I can’t argue with that. But, after fifty-four years of loving Jesus, and following him, looking back and all, I think some spadework had probably been done by a man forgotten all except for his face, his sandy hair and his blue, penetrating eyes.

How is it that people enter our lives through a very small window, brush against us their love, impact us wondrously, and leave us to breathe the fragrance of that brush for the rest of our lives? Someday, maybe I'll tell you about Lizzie Mae, or Mrs. Gardner, or Tony King, or John Wesley Smith's mother. Sometimes people happen along the shores of our lives, throw a pebble in the water, and we feel the wash of the ripples for years past counting.

So thank you John. Thank you Eva. Thank you Leemay, and . . . thank you Alex, for helping me to “find it” at last, and connect with God. I'm still working on that "good Christian" thing. I seem to recollect that Jesus said being "good" was a pretty exclusive club.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

SWING THE BAT ANYWAY

Step into the Garden

. . . those you choose

You have not chosen me. I have chosen you. -- Jesus

“I have chosen you.”

Recess. East Lake Grammar School. That’s what they called it then. They call it “Elementary School” now. Same thing. I think I like “grammar” better. Sounds more like school. In any case, it’s a place where you learn to read and write and do arithmetic, and make friends. But the best part of it all . . . is Recess!

Fifth grade recess. Softball in the recess yard. Each day we chose up sides. Somebody would say, “Ok, Charlie, you be the captain. You and Jimmy choose between the rest of us.” And so it would go until all of us were chosen, and we had two teams who played against each other. In my whole life at East Lake Grammar School, I can’t remember a single time when I was chosen first. It was always last, or near the “last.” I guess I was not a really good baseball player.

Not like Bobby Hightower, who always pitched. Or Jimmy Fisher who always played first base. Or Charlie McLendon, who always played second base.

As usual, I was the last to bat. Or near the last. I couldn’t hit a ball very well either. Now don’t get the wrong idea. I wasn’t a total klutz. I could play football. And I could fight. I could beat up every boy in my class except Melvin Sorrow and Charlie McClendon. So nobody messed with me much. But baseball intimidated me. The ball intimidated me. I think I was afraid of it – even a softball. So on that day, when Bobby Hightower pitched the ball, I ducked.

Strike one.

Jimmy Dalton was the ump. He made a good ump. Big fish eyes with heavy jowls for cheeks. He could see everything. The ball was over the plate, or in our case a large rock, which served as home plate. Everybody expected it. I was an easy out. That’s why I was always chosen last. Or near the last.

Bobby Hightower grinned. Or smiled. He thought it was funny. The ball arced from his hand again and I swung with all my might.

Strike two.

“Let’s go, let’s go! Easy out! Easy out!” Charlie McLendon screamed from second base.

My teammates sighed. I heard George Walker mumble, “Morris would be the batter on the third out! Sheesh! We’ll lose.” It was hard to hold back the tears. Damn, I hated this game!

Bobby wound up the third time and the ball came sailing toward me.

I closed my eyes.

The bat swung for the last time, again will all my might. Miraculously, there was a loud “pop,” as the ball hit the bat. When you’re ten years old, the ball “pops,” it never “cracks,” like in the big leagues. I opened my eyes to see it sailing over Bobby Hightower’s head, and then over Charlie McLendon’s head at second base. It hit the ground behind second base and in front of Carlton Wilder, the centerfielder. Carlton wasn’t that good of a player either. That’s why he was an outfielder. So by the time Charlie ran to pick up the ball and throw it to Jimmy Fisher, I had already arrived at the rock we used for first base.

Jimmy caught Charlie’s peg in his Wilson glove and turned to tag me out. Too late. I had already tagged the rock and was on my way to the second base rock, hot, angry tears streaming down my cheeks. Jimmy threw the ball to Charlie which sailed wide. Charlie had to run for it. I had run past second base and was on my way to the third base rock. I was NOT going to stop!

Charlie threw the ball to Bobby Hightower who stood between third base and home, holding the ball in his right hand and grinning his stupid grin. Bobby liked to dye his hair with peroxide. Piss ant! I lowered my shoulder and plowed into him.

Bobby went flying. And so did the ball. They separated. Bobby went one way. The ball went the other. I stumbled across the home plate (rock) to the cheers of my teammates. Home run! Even Melvin Sorrow was cheering. (Melvin was the kid whose mother always put a marichino cherry inside his apple each day.)

Back slapping, pile-on, yelling and screaming. Recess bell rang. You could hear it for two blocks. Game over. The Home run had won the game! Tears had turned from anger to joy.

And therein is the story of my life. I’ve never been able to hit life’s ball that well. But I’ve learned that no matter how late you are chosen, or how many strikes against you, close your eyes and swing the bat anyway. You may hit a Home Run.

I was never chosen last again.