Tuesday, May 24, 2011


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


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


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


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.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


All I remember is that it was early, maybe 5:30-6 a.m. I was alone on the beach in Dana Point, California. The rocks of the promontory on my left, stretching in tide pools into the great Pacific which, that morning it seemed, was pretty excited. The waves came rolling in around 10 to 12 feet.

It was one of those strange, uncomfortable passages in life. Bonnie and I were housed temporarily with my nephew Bob. Bob had been successful in business, and at the time, unmarried. He invited us to stay with him in his lovely home overlooking the Pacific until things got better for us; an act of kindness for which I shall ever be grateful.

I had recently served as the Executive Vice-President and Academic Dean of a small Christian college in Pennsylvania. The titles sound far more pretentious than they were. The college had about forty students, most of them ex-drug addicts from the streets of New York. I resigned under painful circumstances. I suppose I won’t know until the Final Analysis, whether I did the right thing. In any case, we loaded all our belongings in the truck, put our second car on a trailer behind, and headed back to California, where I had spent most of my adult life.

It is my habit to get up early in the morning. It is, hands down, the best part of my day. On this day I decided to take a walk. It became a long walk and in time, I found myself standing alone on the beach, transfixed by the crashing of these enormous waves. I positioned myself as close as I could get to them without getting soaked. The mist from the foam wet my skin, my gray hair and filled my mouth with the taste of salt.

I sing a little bit. Perhaps enough to hold my own in a choir. But I haven’t sung in a choir since my 20’s. I can’t read music, and I never thought my voice really worth listening to. But that morning, something happened.

The song, “How Great Thou Art” welled up in my chest and could not be held back. I began to sing. Softly at first, but then it gradually built into full voice, becoming especially forceful at the lyric, “Then sings my soul, my Savior, God to Thee . . .” No one could possibly hear me over the roar of the waves, even if there had been someone around. So I sang to the waves, and to God, until tears rolled down my cheeks.

It is a memory I deeply cherish. You can imagine then, how moved I was when I witnessed this the other night, on TV . . .

“How Great Thou Art “ – Carrie Underwood.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Step into the Garden
Man does not live on bread alone. Bread is necessary, but in order to sustain true life, mankind must live on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

They sit at the bar
And put bread in my jar
And say, “Man what are you doing here?”

The lyrics occur in Billy Joel’s ballad about a man who plays the piano in a piano bar. In this song, Joel sings of sadness, loneliness and broken dreams of being a star. Apparently the patrons think he should be.

Listen to “The Piano Man”

The “jar” of which he sings, is a jar sitting on the piano, put there on purpose to collect tips. The patrons who like the piano man’s music, drop bills, or “bread” in the jar. It is from this “bread,” and the small stipend the bar provides, that pays his bills.

Then there is the bread that we eat. It is from this bread that the piano man’s money derives its name. Of course, bread is necessary. In this life. In life on earth. We couldn’t live if we didn’t eat. And if Jesus was hungry after his resurrection, (which we may safely assume that he was), maybe we will need a little bread in eternity as well.

But this hardly the point. Jesus was concerned about true life here. Absolute life. Life that cannot be diminished. Not by broken dreams. Not by hunger. Not by death. Not by anything.

That kind of life comes only from the Word of God. Note the capitalization. The “Word of God,” is not only the Bible; in fact it is not even primarily the Bible. The Word of God is Jesus, himself. He, and he alone has shown us the Father. He, and he alone, gives true life.

Feast your heart on Jesus, and true life, absolute, irreducible, eternal life – is yours.

Bread in your jar.