Christine

Christine is a well-known horror novel and movie written by Stephen King.  It is the story of a nerdy teen who purchases a vintage automobile, dubbed Christine by its previous owner.  The car is apparently supernatural and commits many evil deeds against the owner’s adversaries.  It’s a pretty interesting tale if you’re into that kind of thing.

A few years after Christine was released, I bought an older Toyota pickup truck.  I had always wanted a truck and was very proud of it.  It was painted State Road orange and was covered in so much rust that I was afraid the bed would fall off if I hauled anything heavy.  No matter what everyone else said, I thought it was beautiful.  My wife and children were completely embarrassed the entire time I owned it.  I, naturally, loved my little orange pickup truck!

The very first day I drove my truck to the office, my coworkers teased me all day about my “ugly” truck.  I took it all in stride, as I knew they were jealous of my awesome truck!  That same day, we had an auditor flying in.  She was an inexperienced traveler and was intimidated about renting a car and driving in unfamiliar turf, so we had told her we would take care of her transportation needs while she was in town.

Being her main contact at our office, I volunteered to pick her up at the airport.  As I was about to leave, one of my coworkers Jennifer said, “You can’t pick her up in that awful truck.  Take my car!”  Jennifer had a very nice Nissan Maxima, perhaps one year old.  Knowing she would not relent, I reluctantly accepted her keys.  As the auditor and I were attempting to leave the airport, I could not get Jennifer’s Maxima to go into gear and had to call for someone to pick us up.  Jennifer had her car towed to the dealership and was informed the transmission had gone out.  Fortunately, it was still under warranty.

At the end of that same day, my boss Ed and I were standing outside talking before we left to go home.  Ed looked at my truck and snickered, “Man, that is the ugliest piece of junk I’ve ever seen!”  I laughed and said, “Thanks!”  I have to admit I was enjoying all the attention I was getting because of my truck.  The next morning when I arrived at work, Ed said, “You’ll never guess what happened right after you left yesterday.  My car wouldn’t start and I had to get it towed to the shop!”  It was an almost new company car, I believe a Chevy Impala.

Jennifer and Ed figured out that both of their fancy new cars had broken down minutes after they dissed my rundown old truck, so someone decided to name “her” Christine in honor of the infamous Stephen King vehicle.  That name stuck the entire two years I owned Christine.  People were always joking about not upsetting me, lest Christine would exact revenge on them.  To this day, I am certain if you asked any of my children or former coworkers who Christine was, they would all answer, “Dad’s/Randy’s ugly orange truck!”

Of course, I was not offended by my friends’ good-natured ribbing, and certainly Jennifer and Ed’s car troubles were not related to their playful banter about my beloved truck, but I have used this humorous memory to illustrate an important point about our words.  We were all taught as children that “Sticks and may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” and to a certain extent that is true; however, the Bible warns about how our words can be hurtful.  As Christians, we need to be careful to choose words that are uplifting and encouraging, and especially that will not cause anyone to stumble in their Christian walk.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in Me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

Drowning

This is a story about how one should never underestimate any father’s ability to mortify his family, whether intentional or not.

On one of our family vacations many years ago, we visited a theme park that had a snorkeling attraction.  All seven of us decided swimming with the fish sounded like lots of fun.  Our older children were high school age and in the prime of their “Dad, please don’t embarrass us!” years.  As usual, they would be staying as far away from me as possible, so surely there was nothing I could do in a pool of fish that could humiliate them, right?

Wrong.

It started out innocuously enough.  I communicated to park personnel that I did not want to snorkel if it meant removing my eyeglasses, as what’s the point if you can’t see the fish?  They assured me the masks would seal over the sidepieces and that people snorkeled in glasses all the time (Ironically, I would soon be making a “spectacle” of myself!).

The tank was perhaps ten feet deep, well over my head.  I swam several feet from the edge before putting my face under the surface.  The instant I submerged, my mask filled with water and I coughed and gagged a little, but was totally okay and in complete control.  I started treading water with my feet as I attempted to adjust the mask to accommodate my glasses.  Suddenly, I was grabbed from both sides by two young lifeguards and “rescued” to the side of the aquarium.  The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the edge as they stood above me announcing to the entire building, “Sir, are you okay?”

Of course, all of my family--and almost everyone else in the facility--rushed over to make sure I was alright.  As they realized that once again, it was just Dad being Dad, their concern was quickly replaced by that old, familiar embarrassment.  I think I recall my teenagers actually covering their faces, but I could be mixing up this memory with a thousand others.  For once, I might have been more red-faced than they, but there was definitely enough to go around for everyone.

So for the rest of the day for all the patrons who were in the snorkeling attraction with us, I was the guy who almost drowned.  I actually saw a child point at me several hours later in a completely different area of the park.

There is not a person who has ever walked (or swum!) this planet, who would not have been drowning in their sin if not for the saving grace of Jesus.

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

FRENCH!!!

When my daughter Kara was about three, our family took a rare trip to a nice restaurant while we were visiting my sister in Florida.  Normally my wife, Amy, ordered for our young children from the kids’ menu, but when the waiter came around Kara told us she wanted to order “French.”  One of us said, “Do you mean French fries?”

“No, French!”

Everyone started to pipe in.  “Do you mean French toast?”

“No, French!!”

“French onion soup?”

"No, French!!!”

“French bread?”

“No, FRENCH!!!”  Kara was starting to get very frustrated that we couldn’t understand “plain” English.

“French vanilla ice cream?”

“Noooo!  FRENCH!!!”

“French dressing?” (We were running out of “French” foods to suggest).

“NO, FRENCH, FRENCH, FRENCH!!!!”

At my wit’s end, I blurted out, “French dip?”

With tears welling up in her eyes, Kara just looked at me like I was stupid (I got that look a lot raising five girls).

Finally, Amy had the brilliant idea of looking on the menu to find a food that sort of sounded like French.  At the same time I decided to check the children’s menu.  Something immediately caught my eye and I recalled ordering this before for Kara.  Triumphantly, I bellowed, “Fish sticks!”  Adorable little Kara, who by this time was crying and looking defeated, laid her head on the table and whimpered, “No, Daddy.”  My heart broke for my little angel but I knew it was time to just order something for her.

At this point, Amy offered up, “Shrimp?”  I thought, nice try, but that doesn’t even start with an “F.”

Kara raised her head and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  Still sniffling a little but also beaming from ear to ear, she wiped the tears from her face and replied, “Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying, French!”

Whew!

Although we really couldn’t afford to pay restaurant prices for shrimp at this point in our lives, after all that nobody had the heart to tell Kara she couldn’t get it!  I think Amy and I shared a sandwich.

Have you ever worried, or heard someone else worry, that you must be an eloquent speaker to pray to God?  A prayer does not have to be anything fancy; you are just talking to your Heavenly Father who loves you more than you can comprehend.  When you are so exasperated or confused that your speech comes out garbled, or if you are unable to even muster audible sounds, our all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present God always knows exactly what you mean.

“…for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).

“Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

Go West, Young Woman

Today we put the baby of our family, Bethany, on a plane as she moves clear across the country to embark on a new adventure in Montana.  One would think I would be used to this, as my daughter Miranda has lived all over the world and both Kara and Bethany left our area two years ago for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

Although I did not love it when she left, I always knew Miranda would explore the world because she talked about it her entire life.  And I have always prepared myself for the likelihood that my children would have to leave this area due to the lack of economic opportunities, so having Kara and Bethany move to larger cities in our region came as no big shock.  To be clear, I’m well aware that it could be worse, as thankfully, Amber and Ally have so far chosen to stay nearby and have managed to find careers they love.

I guess it’s the sheer distance of Montana, but this one is hitting me very hard.  Pittsburgh was bad enough, but I just never imagined that Bethany, our beautiful little 25 year-old surprise (or “accident” as her sisters lovingly call her), would ever move so far away.

While I’m not so sure about me, I know Bethany will be more than fine.  She thrived in Pittsburgh and there is no reason to suspect she won’t do the same in Montana.  I used to worry about her ability to make it in this world because we had raised her more like a grandchild compared to our other children.  Being the youngest by 11 years, she was literally carried around like a doll by her older sisters until she finally grew too heavy.  Plus, by the time she came around, our financial situation had changed drastically from the early, lean years that our older children experienced.  So you might say she had an easy life compared to her sisters.  But like all my children, she was born with this inner toughness that I honestly cannot take any credit for.

I recall a time when Bethany was about 12 and pitching for a Little League softball team.  She “pegged” the opposing batter who happened to be one of her best friends.  From my experience, when this occurs many female pitchers will stand there saying they are sorry and worrying the batter is hurt.  Not Bethany.  She just stood on the mound staring down her friend, who was lying on the ground sobbing and being attended to by adults.  Concerned that Bethany was upset for hurting her friend and having a weird stress reaction, I walked to the mound to make sure she was okay.  Without taking her eyes off her fallen friend, she paraphrased the movie A League of Their Own and said dryly, “There’s no crying in softball.”  I remember thinking, dang, this kid is tough, but I bet she goes far!  Don’t get me wrong, Bethany is actually a very lovable person, but her point was that sometimes you just have to suck it up!

Another time when Bethany was pitching in high school, she caught a come-backer line drive in her belly basically like a football, as she couldn’t react fast enough with her glove.  She didn’t flinch.  Again, she stood on the mound staring down the batter as she retreated to the dugout.  Later I asked her how in the world she had caught that ball without getting hurt and she lifted her shirt to reveal a nasty bruise.  You can’t teach that kind of stubborn grit.

You have probably figured out that I’m not the best empty nest guy.  I’m the one who told everyone that when Amber got married she “moved away” to Westmoreland.  When they asked me where is Westmoreland, I would say, “In West Huntington just past the Wayne County line, close to Camden Park!”  In case you’re wondering, that is about 15 miles from our house.  While she lived there, I called her “Amber Graves of Wayne” (think about it), but I digress.  I am excited to watch my children spread their wings and I love my life as a grandfather, but I would be lying if I said the period when all five of my children were still living at home was not the favorite time in my life.

So goodbye for now, my dear, sweet Bethany.  Pay attention to your phone, I’ll be calling it a lot.

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

Letter to Amber

Dear Amber:

Hey, “Bert!”  It’s me.  Just a quick note to try and sort out my thoughts after this whirlwind last couple of days.

First of all, I want to thank you for being the most trusting person of me I have ever known.  It is undoubtedly and easily my favorite trait in you.  I am so sorry there have been times I betrayed that childlike trust for the sake of a few laughs.  As you know, we have an oft-told story in our family that best illustrates the innocent faith you have always had in me.

It was your 14th birthday.  Our entire family was getting in the van to go somewhere and I handed you a bicycle helmet.

You: “What’s this for?”

Me: “You’re 14 now.”

You: “So?”

Me: “Well, in West Virginia, all children between the ages of 14 and 18 must wear a helmet while riding in a motor vehicle.  It’s a state law.”

You: “Oh, okay.”

I still remember watching in the rear-view mirror as you adjusted your chin strap, unaware that your sisters were all rolling their eyes and laughing because they knew it was your turn to be the butt of one of my many jokes.  Again, I am so sorry to have done that to you, but you have to admit, there was never a dull moment growing up in our family.

As my oldest child, you always had the enormous responsibility of being a trailblazer for your four younger sisters.  You were the first to chip away at the sometimes crazy, unrealistic and unreasonable expectations I originally envisioned for my children.  Looking back, I see that it was silly to expect you to wait until you were 18 to date (or even talk to!) boys.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a great idea, I am just admitting it was silly for me to expect you or any of your sisters to buy into it.

Now you find yourself once again paving the way for your sisters as all of you enter into that phase of your lives where you begin to suffer the effects of your earthly bodies growing older.  I cannot imagine the confusion, sadness and uncertainty you must be experiencing as you deal with the fact you recently had three unexplained strokes which caused possibly irreversible blindness in your right eye. As any parent, my heart breaks for you and I wish there were some way I could bear this burden on your behalf.

Despite the times I have taken advantage of your trust in me and the countless times I have let you down, I’m asking you to trust me one more time when I tell you this: Like you, I am unable to understand many of the bad things that happen in our earthly lives.  But I promise you that, unlike this imperfect father, your Father in Heaven will never, ever let you down and you can give Him your complete trust that He has a plan for your life and all will be okay in the end.  Please know that He is powerful enough to completely restore your sight and to keep you from having more strokes if that is His plan.  Please know that He loves you even more than I do, though it is hard for me to imagine.  Please know that while I am there holding your hand through this trial, He will be CARRYING you.  Trust me…

Still love you to the moon and back infinity times,

Dad

Kool-Aid Mom

Most of you have probably seen the long-running public service announcements on television where a local or national celebrity says some variation of, “It’s 10:00 PM.  Do you know where your children are and whom they are with?”  There was another commercial that ran many years ago that talked about being a “Kool-Aid mom.”  Its premise was that everyone wanted to hang out at the house that served Kool-Aid.

These totally unrelated ads remind me of a decision Amy and I made early on involving our children. Though we stumbled onto it inadvertently, it helped us follow the Biblical principles of hospitality.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not boasting or patting ourselves on the backs, as our motives at the time were mostly selfish.  You see, we figured out that if we welcomed our kids’ friends into our home, then we would have much better control over their whereabouts.  And to be clear, most of the burden for “our” hospitality fell on Amy, as I was not home as much as she, thus the title of this blog.

Another positive by-product was that we not only knew whom our children were with, but also got to know their friends.  And since we knew their friends, it made us less worried when our kids went places with them.  This initially self-serving decision has brought countless blessings into our lives, as literally hundreds of children have crossed our doorstep over the years.  Somewhere along the way we grew to love opening our home to others.

This was not without its pitfalls.  It can get expensive (and noisy!) providing snacks and drinks for an entire neighborhood of children, and forget about that spotless and perfect home we always dreamed of!  Seeing our yard makes me think of a story I once heard attributed to Harmon Killebrew, the famous baseball slugger who played primarily for the Minnesota Twins.  When he was a young boy, after a particularly rowdy day of fun with his dad and brother on their lawn, his mother exclaimed, “You boys are tearing up the grass!”  Harmon’s dad replied, “We’re not raising grass, we’re raising boys!”  These wise words help a little, but I must admit I sometimes covet my neighbor up the street who has AstroTurf-looking grass!

I recall a summer day in the late 1980’s when our two oldest daughters were about 8 and 7 years old.  There must have been 10 kids in our house and Amy sent them to the back yard and gave every one of them a chocolate fudge bar.  Their friend Eric was not licking fast enough to keep up with the sweltering temperature and was soon covered from fingers to elbows in melted ice cream.  As a typical little boy, he started using his tongue to clean up the mess, oblivious to the visible dirt on his skin.  Amy shrieked, “Eric, you’re swallowing every germ in the world!”  Without missing a lick (pardon the pun!), he looked up and in total innocence and with no sarcasm whatsoever said, “Even China germs?”  Classic.

If you want to know where your kids are and whom they are with, be a Kool-Aid mom (or dad).  Someday, you might even find yourself longing for those days after your children have grown up and moved away.  And you never know, you might just get a blessing or be a blessing.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

A Virtuous Woman

This week marks the one year anniversary of the sudden and unexpected death of my sister, Rita. I can think of few, if any, more dedicated servants of Christ.  I also struggle to think of anyone else I have known who lived her entire life as a practicing Christian, without any of the interruptions that we all seem to have, such as trying cigarettes as a teenager or dropping in and out of church attendance.  I always teased her that she never had her “hood” stage.  She truly was a “goody two shoes” her entire life, and I mean that as a sincere compliment!

My earliest memories of Rita are related to sharing a room with her for several years from the time I was a toddler.  Considering she was seven years my senior, this seems surreal by today’s standards, but that’s just the way it was in those days for a family with six kids.  Poor Rita.  Can you imagine being a teenaged girl and entertaining your friends in a room littered with balls, toy guns, Matchbox Cars and G.I. Joes?  She used to relate a story about me that I can’t really discuss in detail in a church blog.  Let’s just say it involved drinking lots of water, an occupied bathroom and our bedroom trash can.  It’s no wonder she graduated from high school a year early and went away to college at age 17!

Rita’s life revolved around her relationship with Christ.  Her undergraduate degree was a Bible degree attained from West Virginia Wesleyan College.  Remarkably, in her late 40’s after sending both of her children off to college, she picked up and moved hundreds of miles from her home in North Carolina to earn her master’s degree, also Bible-related, from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.  I mean, who does that?  In between, she was always highly involved in some type of church ministry.  For the last few years of her life, even though she had chronic medical conditions that made it difficult to get out of bed every morning, she faithfully volunteered many hours a week at Two Hearts in Ashland, Kentucky, a facility dedicated to caring for young, unwed mothers.

Rita loved her two children, Tom and Jennifer, unconditionally.  A single mother from the time they were about six and four, respectively, she did a wonderful job raising them in church and teaching them lasting Christian values.  Both are now amazing adults with amazing spouses and amazing children.

Rita and her husband, David, were so good together, and so much in love.  Married for the last 13 years of her life, they still acted like newlyweds.  We should all be that way toward our spouses!  I will never forget watching David’s utter heartbreak as Rita lay dying in her hospital bed.

But I believe I will remember Rita most as a doting grandmother.  Of course, we all love our grandkids, but “Gram,” as Nathan, Abbey, Owen and Corbin called her, was absolutely CRAZY about those babies.  She talked about them non-stop and was always trying to figure out a way to carve out some time to go visit them in their faraway cities.

I picture Rita in Heaven hanging out with her beloved savior Jesus in her new pain-free body, but still finding time for a nightly game of canasta with our mom and sister, Debbie, and our dad watching on.  What a glorious reunion that must have been when Rita earned her reward last August 2.  Until we meet again, Sis…

“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies” (Proverbs 31:10).

Looks Like We Made It

Amy and I recently celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary.  This big event has caused me to do lots of reminiscing about our years together.  When we met, we were little more than adolescents.  We have now gone through young adulthood and middle-age together and sit on the cusp of our golden years.  Hard to believe how fast it went.

As many young couples, we got off to a rocky start.  Looking back, I believe nothing short of a miracle of God kept us together through those early years.  Don’t get me wrong, we had mostly happy times, but had to go through all the growing pains that cause so many marriages to fail.  I’m talking about those things the experts tell you to work out before marriage but many of us are so anxious to tie the knot that we worry about them later, such as agreeing on how to raise the kids and manage the finances.  And it didn’t help that I worked long, unusual hours, both of us attended school, and we had young children.

Our start may have been rocky, but it was not without its comedic moments.  We got married in my bandmate Mike Murphy’s backyard.  Like virtually all American weddings, the plan was for Amy and her attendants to enter the ceremony to the Wedding March.  We had a vinyl copy of it on a phonograph that was set up outside (For you young people, this was an ancient method of listening to recorded music.  The version of this recording that had one song per side was called a single, AKA “45” which designated the correct RPM to set the turntable).  Keep in mind this was the afternoon of July 17 and the temperature was probably in the 90’s.  When it was about time for the procession to begin, Mike’s wife, Cathy, ran up to the groomsmen who were waiting at the front and in a panic exclaimed, “Mike, the record melted, what are we going to do!?”  Mike calmly replied, “It’s no big deal, just go in Misty’s (their daughter) room and get a love song out of her stack of 45’s.”  Unfortunately, Cathy was not all that well-versed on pop music and didn’t really know which songs were love songs.  She came across a Barry Manilow song and thought, this has to be a love song, after all, it’s Barry Manilow!  You older folks might remember phonographs were equipped with an arm that if left in the up position would cause the song to play over and over.  Cathy launched the Manilow tune and inadvertently left the arm up.  The song she chose was called Looks Like We Made It.  It is about a man and woman who used to be together but had split up, and now they are ostensibly doing okay.  I guess Amy was having a “wardrobe malfunction” or perhaps getting cold feet, but for whatever reason it took her forever to emerge from the house.  So our wedding song was a song about divorce and it played about six times while everyone awkwardly waited.

Amy and I seem to have weathered the storm and our marriage has been wonderful for many years.  It, well, looks like we made it!  But I have learned that one can never rest on his laurels.  In a recent blog, I recalled some happy memories with my parents and have generally good recollections of my childhood and their marriage.  Sadly, they eventually decided to call it quits after 34 years of marriage, so I know better than most that it can happen to anyone.

Wives and husbands, please don’t take each other for granted.  Marriage is not a finished product that can be placed on a shelf to gather dust, but rather a living work in progress that must be nurtured to survive.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

Never Say Can't

“Never say can’t!”  Ask anybody who played youth sports in our area from about 1992 to 2006 if they remember the coach who relentlessly instilled these three words into their heads.  I can almost guarantee you will hear a unanimous chorus: Brian Paul!

This was more than just a motto for Brian.  It was an entire way of life for him, both on and off the field.  Brian’s players learned very quickly they were absolutely not permitted to say “I can’t” around him.  Even as Brian battled the cancer that would eventually take him from us, he made it clear to the medical staff he would not tolerate use of the word “can’t” in his presence.

Brian was a very busy guy but always had time for others.  Every time I turned around, it seemed he was doing something for my family.  I recall the day our oldest daughter Amber was injured while totaling her car.  First, Brian helped us comfort Amber at the scene before he towed her car for us.  Then, while we continued attending to Amber, Brian picked up our youngest daughter Bethany who was sick at school and took her to his home for several hours, where he and his family nursed her until we showed up.

I have so many memories of Brian.  Man, he was strong as an ox!  I remember helping him lift the wooden dugout benches on and off his truck when we moved them from the old girls’ softball field at the former Barboursville Elementary to the new one at Barboursville Park.  I fancied myself fairly strong, but he made it look so effortless that I was sure he gave me the heavy end!  I jokingly told him I felt like saying, “I can’t do this,” but that I knew lifting this behemoth weight was much easier than hearing, yet again, his “Never say can’t” speech.  He laughed and said, “Well, I’m glad it’s finally sinking in!”

One day Brian, my wife Amy and I were at the park stocking the concession stand.  We were the only people at the fields that day.  Amy is extremely scared of bees.  One got under her shirt and she ran frantically from the building, stripping off her outer shirt and revealing a T-shirt underneath (Amy is always cold, even in the summer).  A couple days later, we ran into Brian.  He said, “Did you hear about Eustace having to go to the hospital?” (Eustace was an older gentleman who worked for the city and was frequently at the park mowing the fields or whatever else needed done).  We said, “No, what happened to him?”  Brian replied, tongue firmly in cheek, “You’re not going to believe this!  Eustace said he was at the park the other day and some woman came running out of the concession stand and tore her shirt off.  It was more than he could handle and he had a heart attack!”

But my most lasting memory is of a packed church, including three pews filled with weeping, heartbroken softball girls on the day of his funeral.  So many lives touched…

Even in death, Brian continues to touch lives.  He fought tirelessly to have the cable barrier installed locally on Interstate 64 to prevent crossover head-on collisions, which to this day bears his name.  Countless lives have been saved by his efforts.  I can only imagine the lectures Brian must have given at every step along the way whenever someone said something “can’t” be done.  A few years after Brian died, his widow Cathy was working at her job in a local hospital and was informed a lady was asking to speak with her.  The woman told Cathy she and her daughter had a wreck on I-64 that morning and had spent most of the day in the Emergency Room, where the doctors determined their lives were most likely saved by the cable barrier.  They told her one of their coworkers was the wife of the man who was instrumental in having it installed.  This eternally grateful woman just wanted to stop by to give Cathy a hug and let her know words could not express how much she appreciated what Brian had done for her family.

Just think if Brian had gotten tired of all the bureaucratic red tape and thrown up his hands and said, “I can’t.”  Thank you, Brian, for living what you preached!

As Christians, there are times we underestimate or doubt God’s power and surrender before giving Him a chance to work in our lives.  For our lives in general, but especially for our spiritual lives, we should adopt the mantra of Brian Paul: “Never say can’t!”

“For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).

What I Wouldn't Give

“Honor your father and your mother…” (Exodus 20:12).

When I think about my childhood, many of my memories involve my parents doing things that drove me crazy.

Come on, Mom, a bath EVERY WEEK just seemed excessive to me as an eight-year-old boy.  And what was your obsession with me keeping my room clean and making my bed?  And I really hated it when you used your spit to constantly clean off my face and behind my ears.  Gross!  And making me get my own switch from the front yard bush when you were religiously following Proverbs 13:24 (“Spare the rod…”)?  That was just plain cruel and unusual!  And what about your fixation on school and grades?  Like I would ever actually need all that reading, writing and arithmetic?  And you could never get enough hugs and kisses (Don’t tell anyone but I kind of liked that, even though I acted like I didn’t).

Dad, I don’t even know where to start with you.  I can remember lying in bed awake listening to you loudly using a spoon to scrape your bowl clean.  I always knew you had a big stash of ice cream in a secret freezer somewhere that was off limits to me.  And that incessant playing of the piano!  I mean, there’s only so much Sinatra a young boy can take!  Then there was the infamous pouring of rubbing alcohol on all exterior wounds, big and small.  Owwwwwwww!!!  I’m pretty sure (okay, I’m certain) you meant well, but it got to where I couldn’t tell you when I skinned my knee!  Like Mom, you always wanted to hug and kiss me.  When I was about 12, you reluctantly agreed to stop doing it in front of my friends and resorted to handshakes instead.  Thank you! (Many years later, my best friend—Clayboy, as you called him, and who would ultimately deliver a beautiful eulogy for you—confessed to me that all the neighborhood boys were jealous their fathers were not publicly affectionate like you.  Who knew?).

But the two of you together were just downright embarrassing.  You always made all six of your children say grace at the dinner table, no matter who was visiting.  Counting you, that was eight separate prayers, every evening!  Then we had to go through the same ritual when we went to bed, saying “Now I lay me down…” while one or both of you stood watch.  Mom, I remember you playfully telling Dad, “Thanks, Hanks!” whenever he did something nice.  Who talks like that, anyway?  And I can still hear the sound of your lips smacking when you kissed each other goodbye every morning.  How could something so small be so loud?

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I am one of the lucky ones whose parents lived long enough for me to mature to where I appreciated, and even missed, the very things that used to grate on my nerves.  I am so thankful I was eventually able to express my gratitude to both of them, not for being perfect parents, but for being my parents.  After all, they didn’t have to be, they chose to be.  Most of us have that special person or persons who at some point accepted responsibility for us and whom we consider our parent figures, even if not our biological ones.  These folks are our parents.  If you are still able, please take occasional opportunities to thank them.

I lost both of my parents seven months apart about four years ago.  Just like that, no more incessant piano, no more encouraging me to excel, no more hugs and kisses.  No more anything except memories.  Oh, how I miss them.

“What I wouldn’t give for only one night…” (Bruce Hornsby, from the song Every Little Kiss).

A Hard Act to Follow

With the approaching Fourth of July holiday in celebration of America’s Independence Day, I have recently been contemplating an American patriot who is dear to my heart.

Can you imagine being a crusty old Army veteran and your only child (and a daughter at that!) brings home a guy with longer hair than hers and she tells you he is a musician and she thinks he is THE ONE?  Then can you imagine being a skinny, wimpy musician and your girlfriend takes you to her house to meet her parents and her father is a crusty old Army veteran?  Such were the circumstances of me meeting my father-in-law, Ernie West.  Over 35 years later, I tell my friends I’m the only man in the world whose 84 year old father-in-law could still "whup' him, as he would call it!

Ernie is one of those men who could be described as larger than life.  He is a true American hero, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the highest US military decoration.  Probably more importantly to him, he remains to this day the biggest hero of my wife, Amy.  She tells me I am her biggest hero, but I know better and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  She is a Daddy’s girl through and through.

Ernie came about his gruffness honestly.  He was abandoned by his parents at age five and lived for a while under the Ironton-Russell Bridge in Kentucky, where he remembers eating raw eggs he retrieved from birds’ nests.  Eventually, neighbors began to notice him and he was sent to live in the Kentucky Methodist Children’s Home at Versailles.  He remained there for the duration of his childhood and received a great Bible upbringing.  Ernie does not wear his religion on his sleeve and seldom attends church services, but he has been one of the godliest examples of a man I have ever known.

If I were to pick the most outstanding trait of Ernie and his late wife, Jane, it would have to be their generosity.  For the first several years I knew them, I saw them give away so much that I just assumed they were rich.  They insisted on helping us financially for many years while I sought my college degree.  I also witnessed them aiding numerous nieces, nephews, siblings and friends, as well as various charitable organizations.  One day Ernie’s pickup truck caught fire and was badly burned, inside and out.  Ernie took the insurance check and instead of purchasing another vehicle or even getting his truck fixed good as new, he hired a friend to help him just get it drivable.  The car they had bought for me was now much nicer than the one Ernie was driving.  And that was when it suddenly dawned on me: they weren’t rich at all!  Their giving was truly sacrificial, the kind we read about in the Bible (e.g., Mark 12:41-44).

Ernie was and is a doting father to Amy.  I rarely see any baby pictures of Amy where he isn’t proudly holding her.  He and Jane had suffered through four miscarriages and were well into their 30’s by the time Amy was born.  I believe this and the fact Ernie had no parents contributed to the close relationship Amy always had with her parents, but especially her dad.

I have spent my entire married life trying to fill the shoes of the man who raised my wife.  There are times when I feel inadequate and that my efforts are fruitless, but I know Amy desires and deserves for me to never stop trying to be the best husband and father I can be.  Jesus came to Earth and lived a perfect, sinless life.  Talk about a hard act to follow!  But no matter how futile our attempts to emulate Him, He desires and deserves for us to never stop trying to be the best Christians we can be.

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

You Don't Match!

There was formerly a popular television reality show called What Not to Wear.  The premise of the show was that people who dressed terribly were nominated by their friends to get a wardrobe makeover.  One day I was sitting with some of my daughters watching an episode where the guest participant wore pleated Dockers, white socks with hushpuppy shoes and whatever shirt he pulled out of his closet, whether it matched his pants or not.  For the entire installment, my girls kept laughing over and over, “Oh my gosh, it’s Dad!”

I recall an incident when my youngest daughter Bethany was a tiny toddler and still learning to speak.  She kept looking at me and repeating, “Daddy, you uggy, Daddy, you uggy!”  I called the rest of the family in and asked, “Why is she calling me ugly?”  They unanimously replied that, as usual, my clothes did not match and it was pretty bad that a baby could tell but a grown man couldn’t.

I used to be in a Christian band called the Wallaces for about ten years.  The first time I sang with them was at our home church and I was extremely nervous because they had been around a long time and were very established in church circles.  We were scheduled to sing about ten minutes into the service.  I got to church early for a sound check, so my wife and five daughters traveled separately from me and none had seen me before I left the house.  When I entered the back of the auditorium for the start of worship, all six (okay, maybe it was just one or two but in my memory it was all six!) of my girls were sitting in the same pew and turned around at the same time and with mortified looks on their faces simultaneously mouthed, “YOU DON’T MATCH!”  I looked down at my clothes and thought, what are you talking about?  How can a green shirt not go with blue pants?  I have flannel shirts that have both green and blue in them, so the two colors obviously go together, right?  I was already ill at ease about performing and now on top of that I had to worry about what I looked like, all because of made-up rules about what matches and what doesn’t match!

Okay, I get it; I don’t have a clue about clothes matching.  I have gotten better over the years due to the aforementioned “coaching.” I no longer wear white socks with hushpuppies or green shirts with blue pants, but I still think they look good!  Although I have trouble relating to having to conform to rules about clothing (I mean, really, why do people care if I wear corduroy in the summer!?), I suppose making our outsides presentable in the eyes of the world is important, and part of this is that our clothes should match.  But it’s even more important that we are presentable in God’s eyes, that when we dress up our outsides to look as good as possible, our insides—our hearts—match our outsides.

Dear God, please help me to live my life in a way that is pleasing in your sight.

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment…Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).

Outnumbered

In observance of Father’s Day 2016, this week’s blog is dedicated to all the dads out there.

Many of you know I am blessed with a wife, five daughters and no sons.  In fact, for much of my life this has been my primary sense of identity: I am the guy with all the girls.  I mean that in the best way possible.  As most dads of daughters, all my girls have me wrapped around their little fingers and I wouldn’t trade any of them for a son, nor would I change any part of my life.

One would think that growing up with a mother and four sisters should have equipped me for the estrogen avalanche that would befall me in my adult years.  I don’t know if it’s because I had a brother and dad to share in the wealth, or if being a brother to girls is less of a focus than being a father to girls, but MAN, was I unprepared for five daughters!

I have had more cold showers than I could possibly count, and I don’t mean the kind you take on purpose.  There just isn’t a big enough water heater for six women in the same house and it seems I always got last dibs on the bathrooms.  I recall a former boss bragging on me that I had not called in sick to work in several years.  He wanted to know my secret to great health.  I told him, “I get sick all the time but I have to come to work to get in the bathroom!”  This is probably not as big of an exaggeration as you might be thinking.

WARNING!  If you are uncomfortable with the subject of undergarments, please skip the next paragraph.

For perhaps my first fifteen years of fatherhood, any time there was occasion to discuss my underwear, my girls called them panties.  “Daddy, Mommy said your panties are in the dryer.”  “Daddy, we have visitors so Mommy said don’t come downstairs in your panties.”  “Daddy, do you like the panties we got you for Christmas?”  Each instance I would emphatically answer, “THEY’RE NOT PANTIES!!!”  One day I was getting dressed and I yelled to my wife who was somewhere else in the house, “Amy, do I have any clean panties?”  I caught myself immediately and started to issue a correction, but then I got a sinking feeling of defeat and thought, what’s the point?  They had finally beaten me down.  And to beat all, due to my girls playing sports for Barboursville and Cabell Midland teams with red uniforms which faded on my stuff in the clothes washer, I was not only asking for clean panties, but for clean pink panties.  Sigh.

As Christians, we all have situations where we feel outnumbered by the worldly forces around us.  It isn’t easy being the only pro-life person among your coworkers or being called a bigot because you object to your teenaged daughter sharing a public restroom with grown men.  Take comfort, my friends.  There are numerous examples in our Bible of folks facing seemingly insurmountable circumstances and prevailing in the end, people such as Noah, Joseph, Moses, David, Jonah, Esther, the Apostle Paul, and of course, Jesus on the cross.  Remember, as long as we have God on our side we can never be outnumbered.

“…Don’t be afraid.  We have more forces on our side than they have on theirs” (2 Kings 6:16).

Flat-earther

This past Monday, June 6, my oldest daughter Amber gave birth to my newest grandchild.  Kayden McKay Furman, a strapping and beautiful boy, came into this world six weeks early due to a placental abruption.  I am so honored that his parents chose to make him my namesake (we share the same middle name), but even more honored that God blessed me with the privilege and tremendous responsibility of being Kayden’s grandfather.  To once again witness the miracle of new life has left me in awe of God’s unimaginable magnificence.

Not being the most medically inclined person, I asked my dear friend Julie, who is a midwife, to help me understand the meaning of placental abruption.  She explained how the placenta is attached to the inner wall of the uterus and that an abruption is the peeling away of the placenta from the uterine wall, which can lead to the baby not receiving enough oxygen and nutrients.

Even as Julie was still speaking about this truly miraculous network of vessels which enable a baby to survive in the womb, my mind wandered to the sheer enormity of God’s creation and the absolute impossibility of life being explained any other way.  I thought, how could anyone believe something as complex as feeding and oxygenating an unborn baby could have happened by trillions of instances of random selection?  How do they think babies survived for all the millions of millennia they believe it took for molecules to first form billions of living cells and then randomly align into a placenta?  It is utterly mind-boggling how “smart” one would have to be to buy into such impossible propaganda.

There are many very scholarly people who share my beliefs on God and His creation; however, there is a set of elitist individuals who believe anyone who questions their evolution dogma must be a Neanderthal.  I should know, since I used to be one of them (elitist, not Neanderthal, though my wife might sometimes disagree).  I harbor no illusions that many, if any, of these “superior” minds will be changed by my rant.  From my experience, these educated lemmings are hopelessly set in their ways.  Still, I try to love them no matter how intolerant they might be of my views.

These intelligentsia sometimes like to derogatorily refer to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their spoon-fed indoctrination as flat-earthers.  This is a reference to the people of centuries past who refused to acknowledge the earth was round, despite mounting and eventually indisputable evidence to the contrary.  It is ironic to me that any Christian would be compared to a flat-earther, as our Bible accurately depicted a round earth some two-thousand years before it became common knowledge (Isaiah 40:22).

Today I turn the tables on the people who resist opening their eyes to the truth of God and His creation.  From now on, I will call these folks flat-earthers for their inability to process the infinite amount of information that proves creation is a certainty while evolution is an impossibility.  So, with my sincerest apologies to Jeff Foxworthy and his “redneck” franchise, I present the first edition of “You might be a flat-earther if…”

  • You might be a flat-earther if you believe your eyes were formed by happenstance.  Not just one eye, but two to allow better depth perception, along with rods (120 million of them!) to enable adjusting to darkness and cones (6-7 million!) to differentiate colors and for spatial acuity.  And a lens to focus the light to project it onto the retina.  And an optic nerve to send this projected image to the brain, where it is processed as sight (Don’t even get me started on the brain!).

  • You might be a flat-earther if you believe the heart and lungs formed coincidentally, making it possible for blood to enrich the body with life-giving oxygen.  I wonder which one formed first?  I wonder what it did while it was waiting for the other to come along?

  • You might be a flat-earther if you believe plants happened to have evolved simultaneously with animals to be able to produce the aforementioned oxygen that is essential to animal life, keeping in mind that if plants evolved separately from animals, the plants would not have had the carbon dioxide produced by animals that is needed for plants to survive.

  • You might be a flat-earther if you believe animals were able to thrive for millions of millennia while they were waiting for their digestive and waste systems to evolve, with all the interconnecting and vital organs.  And what did they eat while they were waiting for other edible and sustainable life to evolve?  How many bald corn cobs had to sprout up randomly until one finally had the seeds to produce the next generation?

  • You might be a flat-earther if you believe life could have survived during the eons of time that you believe it took for the various reproductive systems to evolve.

  • You might be a flat-earther if you believe reproduction is something that would have happened even without our GOD-GIVEN libido which makes it not just a good idea to carry on a species’ survival, but a biological certainty.  Same with food and water, see next item…

  • You might be a flat-earther if you believe animals would have survived while they were waiting for their bodies to evolve to where food and water were not just tasty conveniences, but biological needs which are physically craved.  If you don’t get hungry or thirsty, you don’t eat or drink.  If you don’t eat or drink, you die.  It’s that simple.  I can just hear the caveman: “I haven’t evolved to experience hunger pangs yet, but my blood sugar feels a little low so maybe I’d better go hunt and gather me some grub!”

  • You might be a flat-earther if you can examine the fossil record and conclude any species became another species.  I get it, many species came and went, but so sorry to burst your bubble, a dog has always been a dog.

  • You might be a flat-earther if your best argument against creation is that even many Christians believe the earth is much older than the 8,000 or so years recorded in the Bible.  What does that have to do with whether or not the world was created?  And who cares how old it is anyway?  Time has no meaning to God (2 Peter 3:8).  Pick a number.  A bazillion years?  Infinity years to the infinity power?  Still not long enough for evolution.

  • If you can look at my precious grandson Kayden, still in the NICU fighting to go home to his adoring family, and if you believe he is a blob of cells that is here by chance…you, my friend, are most definitely a flat-earther.

(I’m having lots of fun and could probably do this for hours, but for the sake of time I will cut it off at an even ten bullet points).

I was a staunch supporter of evolutionist doctrine throughout my adolescence and into adulthood until I was about 25, at which point I finally came to the realization there were just too many unexplained holes.  I guess you could say the more I learned about it, the less I bought it.  I figure most people who believe in creation do so because they believe in God.  For me, it was the other way around: I started believing in God as a result of believing in creation, which itself was a result of becoming disillusioned with the whole idea of evolution.

I took one leap of faith to believe in a God who created the universe and all life.  A non-believer must take trillions upon trillions of leaps of faith to believe in all the things that would have had to come together to make evolution a reality.  Don’t get me wrong, leaping is fun and all, but no thanks!  I will try to go easy on these flat-earthers who do not believe in creation.  After all, what more can I expect from someone who descended from apes?

“For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” (Psalm 139:13-14).

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

Leave It All on the Field

When my children played softball, we had a saying that was pounded into their heads: Leave it all on the field.  I bet I have said it over a thousand times to my girls.  It means hold nothing back, play your heart out and give it all you have to win.  I believe it is good advice for sports and a great metaphor for life in general.

My daughter Bethany was born the same year her oldest sisters started playing softball and was usually at the field with us.  This means she literally heard this phrase her entire life, from the time she was born until she stopped playing competitive softball at age 18.  Bethany was the least tomboy of my girls, but was also the most driven to excel at sports, as she was almost obsessed to play to the level of her four older sisters.  She had an incredible softball work ethic.  Throughout her youth, she pushed herself to throw at least 200 pitches per day (that’s an astounding 70,000 per year!), hardly ever missing a day, including most Christmases!

Trust me, my poor body can attest to how much Bethany pitched, as I was her primary practice catcher throughout those years.  The problem was that every year she got way faster and I got way slower!  My knees were the first casualty, from all the crouching.  At some point I started sitting on a bucket to preserve them.  Unfortunately, this exposed my feet and on the very first day she broke one of my big toes with a drop ball, leading to several years of having to wear steel-toed shoes whenever I caught for her.  Though I wore catcher’s gear, I have still had my bell rung more times than I can count from all the times I got hit in the mask.  I have been pelted on every body part imaginable, several times, including (ouch!) my Adam’s apple.  But I digress…

By the time Bethany reached her senior year of high school, her body was beginning to show the signs of wear and tear from the physical stress it had been through.  By the end of the season, she had five bulging discs in her back and an injured hip.  She came home from the field many nights and soaked her body in ice in our bathtub, screaming out in agony.  I couldn’t stand to see the pain she was in and begged her to quit playing; however, due to player injuries and attrition, her team needed her to throw virtually every pitch that year, especially toward the end of the season.  She refused to let her teammates and coaches down, and willed herself to finish out her commitment.

At last, Bethany’s high school team lost in a heartbreaking game in the district championship, bringing her senior season and career to a merciful end.  Although college coaches had been recruiting her, playing beyond high school was now out of the question, as her body could not take any more.  She had left it all on the field.  I hated myself for ever uttering that expression.

There is no better example of leaving it all on the field than what Jesus did for the likes of me at Calvary.  He endured unspeakable, unimaginable torment for lowly, worthless me.  There is absolutely no possible burden I would ever bear that could even remotely come close to what He did that day.  I do try to think of Jesus’ anguish when I am going through my earthly trials, but I need to be much more mindful of what He went through for me.  Am I witnessing for Him at every possible opportunity?  When I die, will I have done everything in my power to further His kingdom?  Will I leave it all on the field?

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

A Flower for Cliff

My father grew up on a farm in Mason County, West Virginia.  He was born in 1929, just a few months before the stock market crash that helped trigger the Great Depression.  These were tough times, with scarce job opportunities for white folks such as my dad’s family, but especially more so for African-Americans in this pre-Civil Rights age.  Thus, many blacks were employed by white families in capacities such as maids, handy-men and day laborers.  My dad’s parents had such an arrangement with a World War I veteran by the name of Cliff Thompson.  He did odd jobs around the house and farm for a small salary and was invited to live in a little house on their property, where he remained until the day he died.  Not having a family of his own, he was essentially treated as a member of their family.

As a young boy, my dad loved to hear Cliff tell stories about his youth.  Cliff had led an interesting life.  He had a metal plate in his head, either from a war wound or from professional boxing in his younger days (Dad was not sure which, as Cliff had recounted both versions of this story).  In an era when it was almost unheard of for whites and blacks to associate beyond being casual acquaintances, Cliff was like a brother to my grandfather and loved my dad like a son.

When Cliff died in 1955, my father mourned as if he had lost his own parent.  Since Cliff had no known survivors to claim his body, Dad and some other community members made sure he received a proper burial and purchased a modest grave marker.  He was laid to rest in the same cemetery as my dad’s parents, both of whom had died in the late 1940’s.

Every year on Memorial Day from the time his father died in 1948 until his own death in 2011, my father made the trek to that little cemetery in Mason County.  For many years of my life, including the last ten years or so of Dad’s life, I was privileged to accompany him on his annual pilgrimage and fortunate to hear him retell stories about his childhood, including the one about Cliff which I related above.  We had the same ritual every year: We would stop at Kroger on the way to the cemetery and buy six single artificial flowers, all different colors.  My dad would poke holes in the ground with a screwdriver and insert one flower in front of each tombstone for his father, mother, two sisters, a favorite aunt and Cliff Thompson.  Dad made me promise I would continue this tradition and also pass it on to the next generation.  My youngest daughter Bethany has agreed to accept the torch, and this year will mark about the fifth straight year she has joined me on our Memorial Day expedition.

This coming Monday, Memorial Day 2016, Bethany and I, along with millions of others, will head out to various cemeteries to remember our loved ones who passed before us.  We will place flowers on the graves of my parents, both sets of grandparents, my sisters, and some aunts and uncles.  And of course, Cliff Thompson, who lived his life and died, probably believing he had left no lasting mark on this world.  Though he died before I was born and I never got to meet him, I marvel at the impression Cliff made on my young father’s formative years.  I can only hope to live my life in a way that I leave an imprint on someone such that he or she is inspired to pass on my memory to future generations.

Like Cliff Thompson, Jesus didn’t leave a legacy of money or property.  Instead, He left a legacy of loving God and us sacrificially and completely.  If you want to leave a lasting legacy on this earth, love someone sacrificially and completely.

“And He has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:21).

Someone's Always Watching

My daughter Ally started talking at a very early age.  We always joked that she came out of the womb, looked around the delivery room and said, “Wassup?”  Then she proceeded to talk pretty much nonstop until she was about 12.  Interestingly, she is now relatively reticent as an adult.

I recall a friend of mine asking Ally her name when she was very tiny and she replied (I’m fairly certain without taking any breaths), “Well, my name is Amy Allison Hogsett, but they don’t call me Amy because that’s my mommy’s name and they don’t call me Amy Allison, except for when I’m in trouble, because that’s my cousin Elizabeth’s Cabbage Patch doll’s name, who(m) by the way I am named after, so sometimes they call me Allison but usually it’s just Ally which is spelled like a famous movie star who was in The Breakfast Club…” and on and on and on.  I’m sure my friend was sorry he asked.

I posted a previous blog that alluded to being embarrassed by something one of my children said.  All parents can relate to this, especially when it involves toddlers, as they have not yet developed a verbal filter.  All my children were occasionally guilty of this, but Ally probably provided the most memorable bloopers, I suppose due to the sheer volume of words spoken.

Unfortunately for me, many of Ally’s classic quotes were at my expense.  Once in the middle of a church service, a very young Ally exclaimed in her finest drill sergeant voice, “Dad, wake up!”  I must have had at least 10 people walk up afterward and tease me about staying up late on Saturday night.  Around the same time, during the quiet portion of a communion service and while sitting on my lap, she announced, “I gotta (something ‘Everyone’ does, according to a popular children’s book)!” Thankfully she wasn’t talking about me this time, but I admit I was a little uncomfortable carrying her out to the nursery through the gauntlet of quiet snickers.  Another time, our entire family went to visit my mother when Ally was about two and she ran inside the house and broadcasted, “Daddy’s been yelling at Mommy!”

I couldn’t get away with anything around Ally.  One evening I walked in the front door from work and was greeted at the top of the steps by my glaring wife, Amy.

Me (meekly): “What?”

Amy: “Ally cursed again today.”

Me (slightly bolder): “What’s that got to do with me?”

Amy: “Nice try.”

Needless to say, I quickly learned to be on my best behavior whenever toddler Ally was around.  Heaven forbid she would snitch me out to my wife, or even worse, my mother!  But what about all the times when I wasn’t with this vociferous little cutie?  I have heard the definition of integrity is to do the right thing even when nobody is watching.  By extension, I believe the same could be said about Christianity.  But we, as Christians, know there is never a time nobody is watching, because our God is a living, omnipresent God.  Shouldn’t we always live our lives as if we are under the watchful, peering eyes of a chatty child?

“Out of the mouth of babes…” (Psalm 8:2).

He's Got the Whole World in His Hands

I am a born worrier.  As a child, I would obsess over even the most obscure possible outcomes in nearly every circumstance.  I can remember lying in bed awake fretting that my parents would die. This condition persisted through to adulthood, and got even worse once I started having children of my own.  Of course I loved my parents, but the love I felt for my children was immensely greater than I previously knew I had the capacity for, magnified by a sometimes overwhelming sense of responsibility for their well-being.  Talk about lying awake worrying!

By the time I reached my early thirties, my nearly constant apprehension had become almost unbearable.  Knowing my mother was also a worrier and one of the wisest people I knew, I decided to seek her advice so I could get some peace (and some sleep!).  I asked her how in the world she kept from going crazy with anxiety about her children; it must have been even worse for her, as all of her children were adults and most of the time she had no idea where they were.  At least at this point in my life I was still more or less in control of my children’s whereabouts.

Mom told me that many years prior her worrying had gotten so bad that she, like I was now doing, decided something had to change.  Through much prayer and counseling, she finally came to the realization there was simply too much she could not control and all she could do was place all of her cares, especially her family, into God’s hands.  She explained this requires accepting that God always knows what is best and has a plan for our lives, even when we do not understand and EVEN IF IT MEANS LOSING A CHILD.

This was over 25 years ago.  Now my children are adults and, like my mother before me, I rarely have any clue where they are.  It was not instantaneous for me, but I can say that I no longer lie awake at night (not every night, anyway!) worrying about things I cannot control.

I have had many opportunities to put my mother’s advice to practice, most notably with my daughter Miranda.  Miranda is our wanderlust child.  I’ve heard there is one in every family.  She is the one who likes to rock climb, bungee-jump, travel to exotic lands and I’m sure many other things I’m better off not knowing.  Miranda has lived abroad in four different countries—Kenya, Finland, Israel and South Korea—and plans an extended stay in Germany later this year.  I believe I would have literally lost my sanity had I not learned to release her into God’s huge hands.

One Christmas break a few years back, Miranda traveled to Europe for a cross-continent train trek.  Her adventure ended at Athens, Greece, where she spent a couple days before returning to the USA.  On her first day in Athens, she noticed she kept seeing stray dogs, dozens of them.  They seemed to be everywhere and appeared to be well-fed and tame.  She finally asked a restaurant waiter if he knew who owned these dogs.  He told her they belonged to the community and that everyone pitched in and took care of them.  She thought, how very cool and unusual.  Stuff like this is why she is so fascinated with other cultures.

The next night, Miranda had a flight out of Athens in the middle of the night, about 3:00 AM.  She was staying at a hotel roughly a mile from the nearest bus stop for the airport shuttle.  Being the minimalist that she is, she decided the most efficient use of her resources would be to walk to the bus stop.  So at about midnight, she departed her hotel for the 20-minute walk through what had seemed like a perfectly good neighborhood during daylight hours.  She immediately heard a blood-curdling scream coming from a female across the street.  There were sirens in the distance and other intimidating sounds of an urban night.  Just as Miranda was beginning to realize that perhaps this wasn’t her smartest decision ever, she saw a hooded figure cross the street and begin approaching her.  Filled with fear, she clutched her can of pepper spray and began to pray.  The instant the person was upon her, one of the cherished street dogs, a Saint Bernard no less (think about it), suddenly emerged from a dark doorway and got between the man and Miranda, going berserk on him, snarling and growling fiercely up in his face.  I guess you could say it was gnashing its teeth in the true Biblical sense.  The man mumbled something that was, well, Greek to Miranda, and he scurried away into the night.

This mutt, this surrogate from God, this man’s best friend, escorted my baby uneventfully all the way to the bus stop.  Meanwhile, over 5,000 miles away, oblivious to my daughter’s situation but safe in the knowledge that I would be slumbering in those same hands that were caressing her, I prepared to retire for a peaceful night’s sleep.

“Cast your cares on the LORD and He will sustain you…” (Psalm 55:22).

Every Day is Mother’s Day at Our House (If we know what’s good for us!)

Having only been blessed with daughters, I have been accused a time or two of raising my girls like stereotypical boys.  One only needs to look at my pet names for them--Bert, Klod, Buddy, Billy and Doogie--to see there may be some merit to these allegations.

My daughters have broken no less than three windows from the inside of our house.  They once destroyed the trim on our balcony banister by rappelling over it with a rope and broke off a porch light fixture throwing a football.  We have photos of my two oldest girls playing basketball in our driveway in their prom dresses while they were waiting for their dates to pick them up!  I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

I proudly recall another such instance of my “girls being boys.”  We were driving down the highway on a family trip when my wife, Amy, fell asleep.  Keep in mind that I think Amy looks cute no matter what, but on this particular day she was in rare if not unprecedented form.  She seemed to be totally knocked out and her mouth was completely agape.  Well, the girls thought this was hilarious and proceeded to fashion a huge stogie out of paper towels, gently placing it in their poor mother’s mouth so as to not awaken her.  Of course, they took snapshots and even flagged down passengers in passing cars to share in the moment.  Our sweet little girls were literally “lol” at the expense of their dear mother.  Upon finally being roused by the cacophony, a confused and (very briefly) angry Amy spat out the faux cigar and barked, “You’re all going to miss me when I’m gone!”

All I can say is no truer words were ever spoken.

The following could be said about Amy and many mothers: She is the glue that holds our family together.  She is the sun around which all of our worlds orbit.  She is the one who, when we are feeling lazy, tells us to get out of bed to go to church.  She is the one about whom we sometimes say, “We’d better tell Mom!”, and then other times say, “We’d better NOT tell Mom!”  She is the maker and keeper of all our family traditions, from the matching pajamas that all the girls look forward to receiving every Christmas, to the endless posing for pictures every Easter.  She is staunchly and equally proud of all her children, but still quick to give them those infamous “daggers” when they disappoint.  I pity the bear that gets between her and one of her cubs.

If you are not fortunate to have had a mother or wife in the mold of Proverbs 31:10-31, I am so sorry.  I am blessed beyond words to have had both.

Dear God, as we pause to honor mothers everywhere on this Mother’s Day 2016, thank you so much for godly mothers.

"I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also" (2 Timothy 1:5).

Six-Pack Abs?

I am a person who likes to interject comedy into conversations.  Of course, my family will tell you that all three of my jokes get old really fast (including that one!).  Unfortunately, there have been many instances where I didn’t think it through very well and my attempts at humor failed miserably.  I have been known to blurt out things while trying to get a laugh that came across as awkward or even offensive.  So I suppose I have no right to be upset when one of my children does this to me.

Back in the summer of 1990 or thereabouts when my daughter Kara was about nine, the Norway Avenue congregation had an outing at Beech Fork State Park to welcome our new preacher, Jeff Stevenson, and his family.  Having met Jeff that very day, I was on my best manners as I tried to impress him with how upstanding of a Christian husband and father I was.  I spent the day speaking my best “Christianese” as I paraded my perfect family in front of him and the rest of our church family.

At some point in the day, a big volleyball game broke out that involved many of the attendees, including Jeff, Kara and myself.  I was standing right between Jeff and Kara being my upright, godly self when Kara sashayed over, placed her hands on my midsection and announced (to the entire park, I assume, based on the decibel level), “Wow, Dad, that’s a nice beer belly you’ve got there!”

Imagine how mortified I was!  How could my daughter embarrass me like that?  A million thoughts raced through my head as I tried to think of a clever comeback that would preserve my facade.  Kara had never even seen me drink a beer, so where in the world would she come up with a comment like that?  But if I said anything to take up for myself, it would just sound like a lie anyway.  What to do, what to do?  Then I remembered that my belly actually did originally get fat from drinking beer; it was irrelevant that I had managed to not do it in front of my children.  And what about all the other terrible things I had done, both in my children’s presence and not?  So all I could do was shrug, sheepishly laugh, and wait for my face to return to its normal color.

There is a lesson in this.  We might think we are fooling people, and sometimes maybe we are.  But in the end, we will always be exposed for what we truly are, if not in this world then certainly in the next.  Let’s strive to not act like the Pharisee about whom Jesus speaks in Luke 18:11, who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers…”  Let’s strive to live our lives in such a way that we don’t feel the need to resort to acting or pretense.  Let’s strive to live our lives in a way that sets a good example for the world and is pleasing in God’s sight.  In short, let’s strive to be like Jesus.

"…Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst" (1 Timothy 1:15).

"And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with whom I am well pleased' ” (Matthew 3:17).