Mission Trip 2012 – Finale or Just the Beginning?

The mark of a great church is not its seating capacity, but its sending capacity. ~ Mike Stachura

It was with a great deal of trepidation I hopped into the SUV belonging to a church friend and headed to San Antonio on Sunday, July 15. Our Royal Lane mission trip for 2012 had begun. I had little idea what to expect and wasn’t certain I was actually ready to find out.

Be that as it may, I knew that as soon as our caravan pulled out of the church parking lot, it would be too late to change my mind. I was glad, however, to be in a vehicle with only two other people. I wasn’t certain I was up for the noise level in a 12-passenger van just yet. The next challenge was trying to keep a bunch of impatient Baptists all in a neat little row on the highway. Sure, we had our walkie talkies in each vehicle but they seemed only to add to the general confusion.

There’d be a squawk indicating that someone was planning to speak, then came some ear-piercing garble no one seemed to understand. There was one exception. For some unknown (probably profoundly spiritual) reason, Garland, our fearless leader, came across loud and clear. So, when someone needed to pull in closer to the rest of the group, Garland said so. When it was time for a potty break, Garland said so – complete with exit numbers and possible stopping places.

One of the final emails from Garland before the mission trip included this little gem: “Please limit your fluid intake on Sunday morning so we don’t have to stop any more than necessary.” Time management, after all, is very important on mission trip, as we were all soon to find out.

We made pretty good time until just after our first stop in Temple. Back on the road, we first drove into a traffic jam that saw us crawling along the highway for many miles. By the time we finally made it to the toll road around Austin, we’d driven into rain. The 80 mile per hour speed limit on the toll road did us little good in a pounding thunderstorm.

Somehow, we made it to San Antonio – all present and accounted for. We were only one hour late for the dinner awaiting us on the campus of Baptist University of the Americas. By the time we got to the campus apartments in which we’d stay the week, everyone was exhausted, perhaps a little cranky. Mission trip had begun in earnest.

We were divided into five mission teams. Six, actually. Two of our members were tasked with taking care of laundry and keeping us fed for breakfast and lunch throughout the week – a very important job, it seemed to me. The mission teams were the BUA team, Rosemont Apartments VBS team, San Antonio Food Bank team, Christian Assistance Ministry team, and Alpha Home team. I worked on the food bank team, though asked to work one day with the BUA team building a prayer garden labyrinth for the university. Labyrinth’s are very important to my faith journey, after all.

Alpha Home is a non-profit treatment center providing specialized services to chemically dependent women. There’s a storage building behind the home that was in drastic need of some restoration and the team took care of repainting and restoring the structure.

BUA team laid out a beautiful labyrinth across the street from the campus apartments to be used as a prayer garden. The university will be building their new campus on the surrounding land. A lot of heavy work went into its creation.

Christian Assistance Ministry assists homeless and low-income families with food, clothing, financial services, and counseling. Our team helped prepare meals, provided hygiene kits, and assisted in any way possible with that ministry.

Rosemont Apartments VBS team provided a vacation Bible school for the children in that low-income complex. They provided fun activities during the week culminating in a little fair on the last day.

San Antonio Food Bank team showed up each morning to do whatever was asked of us. We helped assemble meals for Kid’s Cafe, cleaned out big ice chests when they returned from meal delivery, helped wash dishes, and sorted canned and dry goods donated by individuals.

In the evenings, we all gathered back on the BUA campus for dinner. This provided a chance to share stories about our day and get progress reports from each team. There was also a worship time in which each of us took part in one way or another during the week. The university was our gracious host for the week.

I know this isn’t a terribly detailed account of what went on during the week. I’m not sure it needs to be, though. What was most important, it seems to me, was that the week provided a time for a bunch of like-minded people to get together and try to be of some assistance to others less fortunate than ourselves. Did we have some fun? You bet. Was that the purpose of the trip? No. Still, no one said helping others needs to be a somber task. In fact, getting too serious about how much good we were doing would simply prove to point out our own perceived self-importance.

Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” These past few years have shown me the truth of that statement. The problem, I think, is our capacity as humans to forget what it is we can and cannot keep. One of the things I will keep for the rest of my life is the sight of the smiles on the faces of the children at the vacation Bible school on Friday morning. It’s one of those things worth keeping. I shed a few tears for the memory of what might have been. I also shed a few happy tears at the sight of what might be for those children.

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of a week on mission trip was to remind us we are surrounded by need — and that we have it in our power to do something about that. I discovered that sometimes being Christ to others requires a hair net, latex gloves, and a lot of sweat. Now, that will tend to knock you down a peg or three when you’re tempted to feel smug about yourself! I’ve found, however, that it can be quite useful to occasionally allow yourself to look vulnerable — even ridiculous when necessary. After all, how do you put a price on providing a smile and a helping hand to someone else?

All in all, it was a wonderful week. I believe every member of our teams worked hard to make the week a success. Were there a few problems? Sure. After all, it’s difficult to throw thirty-five or so people together in close quarters for a week without someone getting on someone else’s nerves. But I believe everyone remembered in the end we weren’t there for us. We were there to serve others. And that notion becomes a great leveler.

The first planning meeting for next year’s mission trip is scheduled for October. I think I’ll plan on being there. Robert Speer said, “Prepare for the worst, expect the best, and take what comes.” Good words to remember whether on a mission trip or simply living your life.

What, I wonder, is your next mission?

Packin’ Attitude to Spare

Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude. ~ Ralph Marston

In a matter of a few hours, I’ll board one of three 12-seater vans headed for San Antonio. My first mission trip will have begun. Once in the van, no amount of doubt, worry, fear, or thoughts of bolting will matter. The deed will be done. I know at least one or two people along for the trip who would physically hold me back were I to try to jump out of a moving van. Hey, I’ve done it before. Of course, I don’t think I was quite as breakable back then. Better, I suppose, to just accept the inevitable. Probably less painful, as well.

So what, you may wonder, am I doing writing this little ditty when time is running out to figure out how not to go? Sure, the suitcase is packed but that has never really stopped me before. Perhaps I’m just distracting myself so I won’t even attempt to find a somewhat acceptable last-minute excuse to bow out.

Truth be told, I’m looking forward to this trip. I can’t completely explain my reservations about going – partly because they would seem silly. Ever hesitate to begin something because you’re pretty sure you’ll discover there’s even more you will need to do once you’ve started? Yeah, something like that.

Alan Watts said, “But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.” Whatever it turns out to be is what this trip will be. I know I have only one thing to do and that’s be there, ready to do whatever needs to be done. What needs to be done? Ah, therein lies the adventure, I think. For one who has spent a lifetime attempting to control everything around me in a futile attempt to protect me, this is one more step in letting go. This is one more step in letting God.

So, stay tuned. There will be more about how it all turns out at the end of this week.

Attitude? Oh, yeah, I’ve got that to spare. Let the next chapter begin.

Mission Trip 2012 — San Antone or Bust!

Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t. ~ Richard Bach

I don’t like that quote of Richard Bach’s. I mean, what does he know? What if I want my mission here on Earth to be finished? What if I went contentedly along for most of my life secure in the fact that there was no mission in it for me at all? Yeah, what about that, Mr. Bach?

I will be leaving at the end of the week on my very first mission trip with my church. I was supposed to go last year but ended up with a severe infection and had to cancel at, literally, the last moment. This year’s trip has been hanging in the balance for at least the last couple of months. Circumstances at work in the form of a new software system left my approval for time off in question until late this past week. My own health issues over the past year seemed still not to be resolved. In fact, I’d already informed the lead of the mission trip that I was not going to be able to go again this year.

Suddenly, I received permission to take the time off. My reaction? Panic. How could my boss have done this to me? Here I had the perfect excuse to allow me to bow out again and she’d just blown that right out of the water. My next reaction? Guilt. Okay, there’s really nothing particularly unusual about me and guilt. In fact, it ranks right up there in my top five most likely reactions to, well, everything. Truth be told, it’s probably number one. I am extremely adept at manipulating guilt in either direction. Either I feel guilty for doing something or I feel guilty for not doing something. It’s a very versatile emotion. I believe it’s referred to as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” For me, I just called it Being Ben.

Next reaction? Depression. I was going to be letting someone down either way I went. Those at work, after all, would be hard-pressed to survive a week with me gone. Delusional, you say? Certainly. Still, run with me on this one, okay? I asked my boss if she was going to have to drink heavily while I was gone and she said yes. I felt instantly better. Those going on the mission trip? They would not be hard-pressed to survive the week without me, but I would be left to wonder, once again, what I’d missed by not going.

Versatile, you see? Put me in a boxing ring by myself and we’re guaranteed a knock-out blow. It matters little which side delivers the winning blow, I still end up the loser in all cases. It’s sort of the nature of guilt and depression, though, isn’t it?

So, why is there more fear associated with the mission trip side of the argument over staying and making sure my department at work stays afloat that week? Change, pure and simple. There have been so many changes in my life these past few years. You’d think I might be used to it by now. You’d be wrong. I’m left wondering all the time whether or not I can survive any more change – good or bad.

What could change, you ask? And, how do you know there will be change? And how can you be sure what change and, after all, why should that be frightening in advance?

There will be change, that much I know. How? The change is already there. It’s walked with me all my life, generally ignored. The change is waiting there, just out in the wings, ready to try to take center stage unless I can stave it off once again. And I’m afraid I may not have the strength to fight it off any longer. Surrender, as it turns out, is a process rather than an event. Nothing happens if nothing happens, but nothing huge ever really happens all at once. Oh, sure, the change may be there waiting to be acknowledged but it takes some action on my part to allow it to take full effect. You might call that my saving grace. Well, it had been in the past. But, it takes massive amounts of energy to hold off who you know, deep down, you really are. It’s been a waiting game, I suppose. God’s infinite patience, it appears, may win out in the end. It probably always does, acknowledged or not.

So, what’s a mission trip? Frankly, I don’t know. Oh, I sort of know the particulars of this trip but that doesn’t mean I really know what it means. I think that’s been my fear. I think if I go I’ll find out and there won’t be any turning back. I have been told, in fact, that once I go I’ll want to go again. What? I mean, who’s got the time?

Here’s what I like about the missions I’ve seen now in two different churches. With each, the focus is on helping others. That’s it. No requirement that you listen endlessly to some church’s agenda for your soul, no coercion, no “you’d better turn to the Lord now before it’s too late” message. Showing up with open arms is all that’s required. The rest will come as it does. That’s what I like. I am convinced that I will be on a trip with a group of people who none of them believes exactly the same thing. What’s even greater about that is the fact they’re willing to admit it. It makes it a lot more difficult to try to drag someone else over to your side when you know your side is your own personal, deeply-held belief system – loosely in agreement with others on the same journey with you.

But why spend money going somewhere else to help others when there are so many in need right in your own neighborhood? Excellent question. You’re a bright group! I’m sure I must have said it before, but it bears repeating. I admit that question has troubled me a little, also. Wouldn’t the money spent be more useful given directly to aid local folks in need? Perhaps. On the other hand, here’s how it shakes out for me. Caution: this opinion may change in a couple of weeks after I’ve returned from the trip.

Going on a trip together, whether vacation or otherwise, pushes people in closer proximity to each other than is likely to happen on a daily basis. Often, that even holds true if the people on the trip happen to be a spouse or other family members living in the same house with you. One of two things, even both, are likely to happen. Either you find out that you were right about how much those people annoy you or you discover things about them that gives you a deeper respect for them. Either way, you’ve learned something and I believe that’s always useful. Win-win.

Couldn’t you do that getting together right where you are? Well, yes, to a degree. I have a feeling, though, that it’s simply easier to see (and acknowledge) people in need when you’re in a place unfamiliar to you. It may feel safer to reach out when you know you’ll be going home in a few days. I mean, if you discover you really suck at helping others, at least you will have learned that hundreds of miles from home.

On a more positive note, you may discover that, whether you suck at it or not, help is help no matter how well or poorly you believe you do it. And, that knowledge may help you return to your everyday life a little richer, a little more open, a little more caring. It may be that you discover the part of mission Bach was talking about is simply opening your heart a little more each day to the needs of others. It may be that you return home with a new urgency to reach out a hand to others right where you live. And if that’s so, it sounds like it should be well worth the money.

Garland, our fearless leader for the mission trip, says the three most important things to remember about a mission trip are: focus, flexibility, and faith. There’s a need to focus on the tasks at hand to do the best we can at any given moment. Flexibility is key because nothing ever goes exactly the way you plan it. And faith. Faith plays an enormous role here. It’s important to have faith that it will all work out the way it does and, somehow, that will be enough.

So, frightened though I may be about the potential result, I’m packing my sunscreen, a hat (hate them), two sets of work clothes, toiletries (no need to stink up the place), medications (a whole separate bag, in my case), work gloves, reusable water bottle, a swimsuit (yeah, like I intend to let anyone see me in that), and bug spray. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Either those with me will discover I’m not as patient, spiritual, and serene as I occasionally appear or I may discover that I’m actually more patient, spiritual, and serene than I believe myself to be.

Years ago, I had an intense fear of asking someone to dance. Only a small part of that had to do with the fact that I’m an awful dancer. When I sobered up, I came to realize asking someone to dance never once killed me. Not once. Can you believe it? I suppose a fear of reaching out a hand to someone else is the same. No matter how much I fear simply breaking down in tears at the mere gesture of offering help, it’s likely that also won’t kill me. Not even once.

Perhaps Richard Bach is right, after all. I’m not dead, yet. That said, the mission must not be over.

Imagine Yourself Beloved

Imagination is the voice of daring. If there is anything Godlike about God it is that. He dared to imagine everything. ~ Henry Miller

Imagine a world where you grew up knowing you were one of the beloved. I mean really knew it. Oh, you grew up that way? Wonderful. I’m happy for you. No, really, I am. But if that’s the case, please imagine along with me and some others in the world (many, many others, actually) that you hadn’t grown up knowing that — sometimes, perhaps, despite the best efforts of others around you. Our minds are interesting places. Outward impressions don’t always reflect inward perspectives. We may appear to understand being loved while never quite believing it for ourselves.

Imagine that it took many years, much pain, great resistance even to the idea itself before you could consider the possibility for yourself. I’m not talking about imagination as in the not-really-real. I’m talking about being able to conceive of the truly real even when there’s no tangible proof in front of you. Can’t quite picture it? I’ve been told I have imagination to spare. Allow me, then, to imagine a bit of it for you, okay?

Beloved of who, you ask? Or you may still prefer beloved of whom? Of what? Why, beloved of God, naturally. Don’t believe in God? That’s okay. It’s not really required for this exercise. Know that I believe and do me the small favor of listening to how I now imagine God in an ofttimes cruel and insensitive world. You see, I can’t personally imagine anything more lonely than an inability to believe in anything greater than yourself. I’m not saying you have to call this power God, just that you may find yourself wanting to do so at some point. And I think you shouldn’t feel you can’t call that power God just because there are others who disagree with you about who God is. I spent many years deliberately trying to keep myself in that place. I’d rather never return there.

Sometimes, when there are dark things happening in your life – things you don’t understand and may never fully understand – you find yourself living in a world of imagination. As a very small child, I imagined myself in lots of places besides where I was. I imagined myself as lots of different people – people, in fact, who were not me. Anyone but me. And I remember those things from as far back as my mind will allow me to remember – as far back as I’m willing to allow my mind to take me. Imagining can be a gift when it’s too confusing, too painful to be where you are. But imagination can ultimately also allow you to see clearly things that are otherwise shielded from your view.

Let’s imagine some incredible, far-fetched, seemingly impossible things together, shall we? Some things that would be true now if we all believed in a truly loving God. I’d suggest you close your eyes as we travel into this impossible world except that, well, then you wouldn’t be able to read along and that just won’t work unless there’s someone handy to read this out loud to you. So, let’s just pretend we’re able to close our eyes and get started. A couple of deep breaths might be in order. Impossibility can be exhilarating. It can also be uncomfortable and downright infuriating. That said, let’s begin, shall we?

Imagine a world where every child was born into a world that cherished that child. Imagine we all worked together to insure the child was wanted and cared for despite the circumstances of birth, even if the parents seemed not to want the child. Imagine we desperately wanted to welcome all children into a village where they were protected and allowed to grow without fear of molestation of any kind instead of blaming them, along with their parents, for being born. Remember, now, I said we were venturing into the realm of the far-fetched. Take another deep breath — it gets worse.

Imagine a world where there were no religions in which some told you God loves you in one breath and that God will send you to hell in the very next breath. What is it, I wonder, some don’t understand about the word beloved? They must surely not believe they are themselves beloved. Punishment is about power and control, not love. Beloved is not conditional.

Imagine a world where people understand that their concept of God is not God. It’s, well, their concept of God. Imagine how small we make God when we think we can imagine even the tiniest part of God. Imagine what it would be like to imagine the biggest God you can find it in your power to imagine, then accept that you have failed even to begin to imagine God. Imagine being grateful for knowing that.

Imagine a world where people recognized that saying you should hate the sin but love the sinner proves they have already failed at being loving and that they need to take a closer look at themselves and their desire for judgment.

Imagine a world where people weren’t blamed for being poor, weren’t suspected of wanting to live their lives on a handout. Imagine a world that, instead, granted each individual the respect that comes from knowing they want better for themselves and for their families. And, even if there are some out there who work hard at not working, that we all have some responsibility in that, given we pride ourselves in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, never willing to admit that no one does any of this alone — suspecting, however, that others should. Imagine knowing deep in your soul that you are no better than anyone else, then realizing you are indebted to many and always will be.

Imagine the end of the concept of charity and the return of the concept of the helping hand. Imagine an end to the false pride that pushes away a helping hand because we finally know we won’t be judged for needing help — knowing we all need help at one time or another and more often than we’re willing to admit.

Imagine a world where it would never have been necessary for Ghandi to have said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” Imagine yourself helping change the world — whether Christian or not — so no one feels the need to say it again.

Imagine a world where each of us realizes we are damaged, fragile beings and are beloved nonetheless. Imagine that you found it absolutely impossible to believe you are beloved and, at the same time, that others are not – even those with whom you disagree. Imagine realizing it’s not necessary to get good before being beloved, that being beloved is all the encouragement we need to begin the process of getting good — then acting like it.

But imagine, also, a world where you walked away from your beliefs — your imagining — because you became convinced that others had told you and continued to tell you that you were not one of the beloved – would never actually be. Imagine a place where people wouldn’t say, “We never meant for it to sound that way,” while continuing to do the things (or failing to try to stop the things) that insured the idea would continue to be spread. Imagine yourself wandering for forty years through anger and pain. Imagine, though, that after all those years you found people who told you the others were wrong. Imagine you slowly began to believe these people were right. Imagine you realized they saw a God it appeared so many others had long ago discarded as, well, too namby-pamby. I mean, what’s up with that “thou shalt not kill” nonsense? Imagine a world where people didn’t feel the need to insert their own fine print in order to justify their petty wants or needs.

Imagine a world where people were not harmed or ridiculed for believing in their concept of God, a world that realized we’re all talking about the same God. Imagine, even, that no one was harmed or ridiculed because they chose not to believe in God. Imagine that in each concept there are places where our encounters with God point to something far greater than we’ve understood over the millennia. Where we realize our mistaken translations of many of those encounters over the years while we’ve convinced ourselves that we are the chosen. Imagine a world where being right was unimportant, where being good was, instead, our guiding light. Imagine being gracious because we actually believe in a gracious God.

Imagine a world where we took care of each other – where we fed each other. A world where we realized there’s enough to go around simply because there really is enough. A world that wasn’t so self-centered we’re content to let others starve to death rather than share. Imagine a world where we wouldn’t have to be ashamed of our own selfish behavior, or desperately pretend we’re not, because the selfishness simply wouldn’t exist.

Imagine a world where exclusionary concepts are rejected as never in the nature of God, but always from the nature of man. Imagine flying out into the universe, then looking back down at humankind. How small we are, floating in a vast universe clinging precariously to a blue-green ball. Then imagine looking around from your vantage point above the earth. How big God would appear in a universe in which we’re still unable to find an end, even after years of searching.

Imagine a world where it is unnecessary to try to be bigger than God. Imagine how much better we’d treat each other when there was no longer a need for a cosmic pissing contest among those claiming to know the mind of God. Imagine if your Dad really wasn’t bigger than my Dad — just part of the bigger body of humanity.

Imagine a world where the definition of profanity encompassed anything that included hurting one another. A place where words weren’t considered nearly as filthy as actions of violence against our neighbors, even against ourselves. Imagine a world where violence wasn’t glorified.

From Mitch Albom’s Have a Little Faith1,

  • “But so many people wage wars in God’s name.
  • ‘Mitch,’ the Reb said, ‘God does not want such killing to go on.’
  • Then why hasn’t it stopped?
  • He lifted his eyebrows.
  • ‘Because man does.’ ”

Imagine a world where this wasn’t true.

Imagine, too, a world where God wasn’t blamed for the worst man can offer by people claiming to be God’s voice here on earth. All the while, these same people continue claiming to have God on their side, excusing any and every atrocity imaginable. Imagine refusing to believe these people know anything of the God of mercy, turning your back on their message of hate – presented, they say, in the name of love. Imagine yourself beloved in the face of overwhelming messages to the contrary.

Imagine that the greatest gifts you can receive come from giving rather than by receiving. That in the giving, you receive more than you need.

Imagine a world where we all knew the difference between needs and wants. Imagine that we could pass that on to our children instead of the belief that our individual rights trump everything else. Imagine a world where we respected our neighbors enough they didn’t feel the need to arm themselves against us. A world where their difference didn’t make them wrong – merely different. Imagine a world where we embraced rather than feared the differences.

Imagine a world where God is God and we understand we are not.

Imagine yourself beloved.

1 Have a Little Faith: A True Story, © 2009, Mitch Albom, Hyperion Books

Choking Hazard

If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up! Not me! ~ J.M. Barrie

I wonder how J.M. Barrie’s creation, Peter Pan, would fare if he lived today rather than around 1902, his first appearance in The Little White Bird. Peter was never going to grow up, didn’t trust adults, still (according to Barrie) had all his baby teeth, and, oh, he could fly. Sadly, today’s version would likely wear a helmet and be trussed in a harness designed to ensure he would not be able to fall and hurt himself. There would be knee pads, elbow pads, wrist-braces, butt-pads, padded gloves, and an athletic cup. That is, he would surely have those things if ever he were allowed to fly. There would be the requisite legal forms to be filled out and signed, of course, and a team of lawyers standing by to sue the makers of any piece of equipment that happened to fail during said flight. Even now, I can visualize the ads on TV that would begin, “Have you or a loved one been injured or killed while trying to fly? We at Midas and Litigious can help with your lawsuit no matter how frivolous or inane (lawyers not certified by the State Board of Legal Specialization).”

Peter would probably be cautioned it had been discovered in California that fairy dust contained ingredients found to cause cancer in rats. He’d return to his home in a tree to discover that the walls had been covered and the floors raised by thick, cushioned foam to prevent him from scraping himself against the sides or fracturing a hip after a sudden happy thought lifted him off the ground. He’d be encouraged to hang one of those little bottles of antibacterial soap around his neck just in case he happened to touch anything. Can’t be too careful, now can we?

Discouraged, Pan would likely throw in the towel (hypoallergenic, naturally) and decide it was time to grow up and leave Neverland. On top of everything else, someone who probably tell him that a boy in tights hanging around with a bunch of other scantily-clad boys and a fairy called Tinker Bell looks pretty gay. I’m picturing the suicide hotline in Neverland swamped with calls when taunts against the Lost Boys by members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas (the people behind godhatesfags.com) became unbearable.

How in the world did we get here? I am fast on the heels of sixty and have yet to break a bone (knock wood). That despite the fact that I was fond of climbing tall trees (when I could find one in North Texas), racing bikes in shorts with no helmet or padding, swinging high and leaping out of the seat as it swung forward and high, using the top of the swing set to practice my high-wire act, swinging on a rope that was haphazardly tied to a big limb on a tree, swam nekkid in the Pease River only to have some of the other boys run off with my clothes (they thought that was pretty funny), and survived a near-drowning in a pool after a cousin pushed me into the deep end before I knew how to swim and was caught without a pair of water wings (heavens to Betsy!). The near-drowning was due to the fact that my father was busy scolding my cousin for pushing me into the deep end while I watched them from under the water. I’m pretty sure I was under there for thirty minutes or so before he finally reached down into the water and pulled me out, all the while still scolding my cousin. Well, maybe it only felt like thirty minutes. But I’m still convinced it was a near-drowning.

And yet I survived. Like other kids, I had my share of bumps and bruises. I was also a bookworm who often had to be convinced to go outside to play. I took plenty of taunts that likely helped me grow up into a frightened, depressed adult. But, I wouldn’t trade any of the physical bumps and bruises for the world. They were temporary hurts received in the course of being a kid. They were, in fact, a part of being a kid. I can still picture miscalculating my speed in a race around a 45-degree turn, falling over with my bike, and skidding along the sidewalk to a stop. My left arm and leg took the brunt of the fall and were skinned pretty badly. I’m willing to bet I cried in front of my friend Jimmy Meeks, but that was still fairly acceptable when you’re six or seven.

On a trip home recently, I stopped at a convenience store to get some coffee and realized I hadn’t had lunch. I surveyed the racks filled with Hershey bars, 3 Musketeers, Junior Mints, and a dizzying array of other candies, then decided on a package of cashews. I got back in the car and headed out again, forgetting, once again, to rip open the package before driving away. Many of these products are sealed in packaging that requires either superhuman strength or a pair of scissors to get to the goodies inside. I flipped the package over and found this on the back: CHOKING WARNING: Do not give nuts to children under 6 years old. I had to think about it for a moment, then decided it was probably okay for me to eat them, reasoning that 59 is greater than six.

Did you know the most common choking hazards for children are hot dogs, peanuts, carrots, boned chicken, candy, meat, popcorn, fish with bones, sunflower seeds, and apples? Yep, I read about it. And yet, I ate all those things as a child and survived – somewhat. According to the story I was reading, after one woman’s child choked on a kernel of popcorn, she remarked, “Neither one of us knew that popcorn was unsafe.” What?

Over the years, I’ve wondered more and more about this problem we seem to have with common sense. Why? Well, it seems to be in very short supply in this country. Back in the 1700s, Voltaire said, “Common sense is not so common.” I believe he’d find it even less so today. Until just over a century ago, the child mortality rate in the U.S. was a staggering 20%. Many couples were still having large families because they knew they were likely to lose one or more of their children to disease or some injury before the child could reach the age of ten. And yet, millions of people managed to grow up and thrive in a world devoid of warning labels and child restraints.

Don’t get me wrong. It makes perfect sense to me to strap a child securely into a car seat before pulling out of the driveway. I likely wouldn’t have fallen out of a moving car as a small child had the car come with child locks in the back seat to prevent me from opening the door. And while that incident may explain a little about how I turned out, I maintain I survived it. Many warnings and laws have come out of tragedies that might have been averted. The problem, in my opinion, comes when warning labels and litigation take the place of people thinking for themselves. How is it that someone doesn’t know there exists the possibility of swallowing or inhaling a kernel of corn, thereby choking on it? I have choked on popcorn more than once in adulthood. It follows that a child might also have a problem with it, especially since their airways are considerably smaller. Did that kid’s parents never eat popcorn as children? Never eat popcorn, period?

It seems we’ve become a nation of frightened people struggling to strap an athletic cup around children (and ourselves) in an effort to believe we can control, even prevent, all danger – and should be able to do so. The simple fact is that this kind of protection is impossible. And it’s not like we all don’t know that on some level. My question has to do with what we’re doing to children who are now forced to live in this protective bubble. What we’ve ended up with, it appears to me, is a culture that seems to say to children that it’s possible to survive anything as long as we’re careful enough — while not requiring children to take any responsibility for themselves. Of course, there’s not as much to survive after we taken care to protect kids from every sharp edge in their worlds.

In addition, we are promoting an almost complete absence of common sense. Already we have a generation who believe they are entitled to whatever it is they want, whenever it is they want it. Already we have a generation who increasingly worries about the germs that surround them, to the point of being afraid to touch anything unless they can immediately whip out the bottle of antibacterial soap. Already we have a generation whose first thoughts are not of taking personal responsibility for their own safety and conduct but instead wondering if there’s already a class-action suit they can join against anyone who may have inconvenienced them.

Is it any surprise that children should be afraid of strangers? We’re afraid of allowing anyone near them who has not first undergone a criminal background check and probably a credit check, as well. Again, it’s someone else’s responsibility to certify it’s safe to move about the world at all.

The problem I see in all this is very simple. None of us is getting out of this world alive. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we may return to allowing for the possibility that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. Is it good to be cautious? Certainly. The problem comes in relying on others to provide safety instead of taking charge of active involvement in our children’s lives – even in our own lives. We’ve all become so busy it’s tempting to allow technology to parent the kids. The result appears to be that the children are parenting each other, with sometimes tragic results. As we watch learning skills diminish, is it all that difficult to see why? In a world where the only thing that matters is what my kid gets, to the exclusion of anyone else’s, is it any wonder teachers have increasing difficulty teaching anything at all? What? You’re going to fail my little Johnny? We’ll just see about that! Once again, personal responsibility takes a backseat (strapped in, of course) as long as I can make it someone else’s fault. Whatever little Johnny needs, he should get – regardless what it is or the cost to the other children in the same classroom. And when the classroom is filled with children whose parents all worry only about what their children should have at any cost, most everything grinds to a halt. In the process, all the children pay the price.

Is it any wonder that a sense of community is rapidly disappearing? Is it any wonder that so many are growing up with no sense of caring for anyone but themselves? How could they not? Having everything handed to them along with no sense that at least some of their own care is up to them, we’ve taught kids to look away from anything that may inconvenience them. Is this different from the world in which I grew up? Yes, I think so. Did the same dangers exist when I was growing up? Yes, I think so. Living in a small community where it appeared everyone knew everything about everyone else didn’t prevent my abuse. Was some of that due to a more naïve time? Probably. Is the answer to the dangers different from those when I was growing up? I don’t think so, with the exception of being more open, more honest than seemed to be allowed when I was growing up. I don’t think we have to instill a distrust of everyone in order to protect ourselves or our children. Children need to understand that their bodies are their own. Knowing how to respect their own bodies is half the battle in making certain no one else can abuse that body.

Is all this a little harsh? I don’t happen to think so. Does it apply to everyone? No, I’m sure not. It has become prevalent enough, however, to be an increasing problem for us all. Ever checked out at a fast food restaurant and watched a teenager who obviously doesn’t know how to count? Ever watched some teenagers try to read, only to discover they are practically illiterate? Ever checked out the spelling on Facebook? It appears it’s a little too easy to blame a teacher when, too often, the kid never had a parent interested enough to see to it the child opened a book growing up – required that some responsibility for learning fall on the child. Teachers have a seemingly impossible task these days when any kind of control is taken from them.

One of the most dreaded questions asked of me at the dinner table growing up was, “How’s school?” On the other hand, my mother took an active part in making sure I did the homework I was assigned. My father wasn’t around all that much, but it was clear he believed I needed to do the best I could do. The responsibility, you see, was mine. Help was available always, but it was up to me to do the learning.

The answer to all this involves more attention. It involves trying to regain a sense of community where there’s the realization that what helps the kid down the street or across town ultimately helps my kid, also. Protecting my own at the expense of everyone else ends up protecting no one in the long run. The sense of isolation increases. The sense of fear of, well, everything and everyone else increases.

Common: Occurring, found, or done often; prevalent. Sense: To know through firsthand experience. Common sense. Got some? Share it. Don’t got some? Ask someone who has it to share it with you. The result will undoubtedly be an improvement for us all. That, after all, is what community is all about.

And those choking hazards? Perhaps the worship bulletin at church when I showed up after so many years should have included a cautionary note. “Warning: portions of this service may create a lump in your throat resulting in a choking hazard as you begin to remember what it’s like to be a part of a community. Please attend with caution unless you are already accustomed to being surrounded by loving people who are willing to believe that you are also loved and loveable because we can not be held responsible for any damage to your self-centered image of yourself.”

I choked. I survived. And now I fly.

But Enough About Me, What Do You Think About Me?

In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention. ~ Jay Dratler

Years ago, I sat down to a late lunch with someone very dear to me. Let’s just call her she-who-shall-remain-unnamed. I’ll call her Swsru for short. Swsru wanted to talk to me, wanted to ask me an important question. She asked if I minded if she had some wine with lunch and I told her I would not mind. Lunch was ordered. I had my glass of water, she her wine. After a bit, the important question came out. I was pretty certain I already knew what was going to be asked but didn’t want to spoil her surprise.

“Do you think I’m an alcoholic?” she asked as she took another sip of her wine.

After a bit of a pause, I said, “You know, I’ve been taught it’s not up to me to decide for you whether you are or are not an alcoholic. That’s a realization you have to come to on your own.”

So far, so good, right? I, in fact, have no right and it’s not my place to decide for someone else the reality of their life. Despite that, however, I continued.

“On the other hand, you asked me, so I’ll tell you. Yes, I believe you’re an alcoholic. I see all the same traits I see in myself, I see the same attempt to escape a past you’d rather not acknowledge, and I see a present that appears to be falling apart at a breakneck pace.”

Having said that, I went on to talk about me for the next couple of hours. Oh, and I answered questions put to me about me.

“Ben,” you will probably ask, “how is this different from any other encounter we might have with you? In general, it seems your favorite topic of conversation is you.”

Well, yes, I’d have to agree with you on that one. I do so love talking about myself, though I’m also rather open, on occasion, to having you talk to me about me. From my perspective, it’s sort of a win-win situation. I can only assume you have the same impression I do when it comes to talking about me – that talking about me is a rewarding, fascinating experience.

Still, let’s take a look at an interesting phenomena. Why is it, do you think, that so many people over the years have found themselves talking to me — confiding things they may not tell others? Is it because it’s obvious to them I have it all together? No, likely not. I think a part of it is a certain naïveté (that’s French, I believe, for clueless) on my part. Over the years I somehow retained that quality despite things that happened which should have turned me into a total cynic. While I came close to all-encompassing cynicism, my perceptions instead remained a little like a total eclipse of the sun. I was still able to see the tiniest bit of light peeking around the edges even after my world had been plunged into darkness. Looking back, I realize that, despite it all, I managed to hang on to a kind of innocence that probably made no rational sense at all.

More than anything, it may also be that others perceived an openness in me that promised I’d not be pronouncing judgment on them for what they told me in confidence. Like it or not, it seems there’s a level of vulnerability in me I’ve never been able to completely hide. At times it was as though I had a sign around my neck, like the one hanging over Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip which read “The Doctor is In – Psychiatric Help 5¢.” What some may not have realized was that I was the one most likely in need of psychiatric help. Be that as it may, the confiding continued.

Allow me a small illustration that should make you wonder how I lived this long. Seems this type of thing happened all to often. Years ago, I was in San Francisco. It was evening and I was downtown and alone. It was already dark outside and I believe I was waiting for a bus or streetcar to take me back home. I saw a guy standing perhaps a hundred feet away from me. I likely nodded to him as I am wont to do as my way of acknowledging his presence. He said something to me but I couldn’t understand it. Instead of ignoring this total stranger (as many would have done), I moved a little closer.

“Sorry,” I said in a loud voice, “I didn’t understand you.”

Again there came a garbled response. I still had no clue what the guy said. So, instead of ignoring him (as many would have done), I moved a little closer. This went on a couple more times until I was standing next to the guy. I suppose my hearing wasn’t all that great even back then but I’m certain I wouldn’t have admitted to it.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I still couldn’t understand what you said.”

Again, the other guy repeated himself. This time he came in loud and clear since I was only a few feet away from him at this point. “I was just wondering if you wanted to buy some weed.”

This, I understood. Always the polite one, I thanked him for the offer but declined. My bus arrived and I motored away. For someone who was afraid most of the time of his own shadow, I often seemed fearless in situations which probably should have scared me. Tom tells me this wasn’t fearlessness, it was stupidity. Still, it pointed out that some part of me retained what was perhaps an insane belief in the innate goodness of people.

Now back to Swsru. One of the reasons our talk was effective was that I didn’t presume to describe her life to her. I had no way of knowing all the particulars of her life. Instead, I described my life – my years of drinking – to her. I knew her drinking didn’t take her to exactly the same awful places it took me. And that really didn’t matter. Her drinking took her to her own awful places. The circumstances weren’t the same, the pain, however, was likely very much the same. In this case, the solution would need to be the same for her as it had been for me. When getting sober I was told the only way to get sober would be, at some point, to stop drinking. While that may sound logical to “normal” drinkers, it was a terrorist bomb set off in my head. My solution for so many years had ceased to be a solution. Still, the real solution sounded far scarier than simply drinking myself to death.

While alcoholism may seem an extreme example of self-will gone riot, it’s really only a matter of degree. Most everyone has pain in their lives. Was mine more severe than yours? Perhaps so, perhaps not. But pain is pain. Much depends on how well you’re able to handle it. I often wondered where I was when they handed out the handbook of life. So many people seemed to have a copy (which they didn’t share with me) and appeared to handle their lives so much more easily than I.

Looking back, though, I realize many people don’t handle their problems much better than I did. Sure, the addiction may have been different. They may have been addicted to eating, to control, to sex, to violence – any number of things used in an attempt to avoid seeing ourselves for what we think we are. There are so many things people use as comfort — even though those things may appear very un-comforting to others. Many of those things are as harmful to them or others as alcohol was for me. The problem is, we as a society don’t acknowledge many of those things as addiction. The problem is, many things don’t get better as long as we can fool ourselves into thinking our problem isn’t nearly as bad as someone else’s.

And so. There are a lot of hurting people in this world. There are too many who suffer in silence because they don’t have a clue how to ask for help. Or, they are too afraid to ask for help for fear of being judged. But, they may find themselves sitting with someone like me, someone they believe intuitively will listen to them tell a story they need to tell and not walk away. I didn’t tell people my story for years because I was afraid they’d walk away. Walking away comes in many forms. If I believe you will think less of me for confiding in you, that’s a form of walking away to me. How could I risk it?

How can you be one of those listening people to someone else? Be honest with yourself. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have regrets. When I finally took a long look at myself, I realized there was no way I could continue to hang on to all that anger. If I’d like to be forgiven for some of the things I’ve done (and I do), it’s incumbent on me to forgive others. When I accept that other people are hurting too, it becomes more difficult for me to condemn. Hurting people hurt people. Help take away some of the hurt and you help that person stop hurting others and, hopefully, themselves.

Don’t think anyone’s asked you for help lately? Perhaps you simply aren’t listening hard enough. At times it’s necessary to hear between the lines – to hear what someone isn’t saying to you out loud. If we’re willing to listen, however, it’s amazing what we can hear. Simply being there for someone else is often all the listening you need to do. Many times, it won’t be necessary for you to say a single word. If you do, though, be sure to talk about yourself. Share a bit of yourself. Show you’re willing to take on a little of the risk yourself. Show you’re at least willing to try to believe in the goodness in everyone even when that can be very difficult to do.

At my baptism, my friend Judy P. delivered a prayer. One of the things she said in that prayer was, “But even more, I pray that he will see himself as you see him. He is your beloved child, and you have always seen the hidden wholeness within him because you placed it there.” I was fifty-seven years old and don’t think I had ever considered myself whole. What I discovered, however, was that there were other people who saw that wholeness hidden within me. Someone had listened just enough to see what I had refused to see. It began a journey of trying to see that wholeness in myself and that allowed me to look back and see the wholeness in others — hidden or otherwise.

So, while I love to pat myself on the back on occasion, I’ve found I much prefer knowing I can share myself with others. I suppose I’ve always done that but I know now I don’t have to be more than, I don’t have to be less than. It’s enough to simply be. The world looks a lot brighter when I remember it’s not my place to judge you, change you, or control you. It’s a lot brighter when I remind myself to see the good in you no matter how faintly that light may be shining within you.

But, enough about me.

On Not Being Van Cliburn

An artist can be truly evaluated only after he is dead. At the very 11th hour, he might do something that will eclipse everything else. ~ Van Cliburn

I knew pretty early on in life that I was not Van Cliburn. Despite the fact that he and I are both Baptists, the resemblance appears to have stopped there. This may seem like pretty straightforward logic now but I’m not certain it was when I was a kid with a dream.

Van Cliburn gained international fame in 1958 at the age of twenty-three, just about the time I was turning five and a half years old. Looking at pictures from that year, it may be a little hard to believe that he was a sensation around the world at the time. Hey, he even appeared on The Steve Allen Show. I believe we were actually allowed to watch that show, though we might only just be getting home from Sunday night church services.

So, anyway, Van Cliburn was hot stuff back when I was five and a half and even into my teen years. I wasn’t terribly impressed with that young, upstart rock-and-roller, Elvis. For one thing, all that staccato pelvis-swaying looked a little painful. Besides, he made me nervous. No, Cliburn was more my speed. His recording of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album ever to go platinum, remaining the number one classical album in the world for over a decade.

Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn in 1960.

I don’t remember exactly now what age I began piano lessons, but I know they continued for seven years. I’ve mentioned before that the piano lessons were a safe place for me during those years. My piano teacher was Ada Preston. I loved that woman. I believe she also played the organ at church, at least some of the time. She tried to teach me to play the organ but I’m not sure her nerves were up to it. I was a dreamer, though. I could see myself at Carnegie Hall playing for my many adoring fans. Man, it sounded great in my head. My piano playing, however, didn’t quite live up to the concert playing in my head. Of course, there’s a full orchestra in residence in my head at all times, just waiting for me to step up to the podium.

I suppose I probably should have learned to read time at some point during those seven years. And perhaps I did and simply no longer remember. It didn’t seem terribly important to me at the time. I can tell you I now don’t much know the difference between a half note and a whole note – I mean beyond the fact that one is colored-in and the other has a hole in it. Technically, though, that does not qualify as knowing how to read musical time.

But I remember those as wonderful times, those hours with Ada. She seemed to know instinctively that there was something not altogether okay for me. She smiled and laughed and talked with me and, on occasion, she tried to teach me how to play the piano. I felt like I could just be Ben when I was with her, whatever that meant. But whatever it may have meant at the time, it meant a great deal to me.

Do you have an aversion to cutting your fingernails? I do. I’d love to know why, but it takes a Herculean effort on my part to finally break down and clip the darn things. I wonder where those little quirks start? I’m not certain, but I think I may not have started cutting my own fingernails until I moved away from home. Of course, that may be part of the reason I’m so reluctant to keep my nails trimmed. My mother used manicure scissors to cut my nails. You know how much it hurts when you cut into the quick, right? Yes, I can see you wincing at the mere mention of it. When that happens on a regular basis, you try to avoid putting yourself through the pain. I seem to remember having to be more or less held down in order to get my nails trimmed.

“Ben,” you ask, “what in the name of Bugs Bunny does nail clipping have to do with any of this?” I’m glad you asked. One of the things I remember about piano lessons was the annoyance Ada Preston seemed to have about my long nails clicking on the piano keys. It was perhaps the one thing about me that drove her crazy. “Ben, I need you to trim your nails before you come back next time, okay?” she’d say. “Yes, Mrs. Preston,” I’d reply, knowing full well someone was going to have to catch me first. Catching me wasn’t all that easy, either. I had a bicycle, after all, and I knew how to use it.

I wonder if Van Cliburn hated cutting his nails as much as I do? Probably not – at least not after he’d played at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia and won. Russians may put up with nails clicking on the piano keys during a solo of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, but Americans are probably a little more twitchy about that sort of thing. Besides, Cliburn was probably able to afford having someone else do his nails from early on. It occurs to me that if you file your nails frequently enough, you can probably forego the trimming part altogether. I think I’ll add emery boards to my shopping list.

My career as a pianist pretty much ended in my teens. I have no idea how many recitals I’d endured by then, how many times others had endured my recitals. I don’t remember the last recital, but I do remember what may have been the last. I was to take part in one of those six-piano duets. You know, twelve people all playing the same duet together. Each person had their part of the duet to play. I don’t recall whether I was treble (right side of the bench) or bass (left side of the bench) clef. It was mayhem, I tell you. I don’t remember well what triggered it, but I ended up storming off the stage in a huff during rehearsal. I didn’t much like the woman who was acting as director to begin with. She was a teacher at school and something of a taskmaster. For all I know, she may have insisted that I trim my fingernails.

For whatever reason, I got up and stormed off – exit, stage right, as I recall. I didn’t return, either. I was already a pretty confused kid, so I’m sure it hadn’t taken much to get me to walk off in a huff. It wasn’t the last time in my life that I’d walk off in a huff, but it was probably the last time I could do it by literally storming offstage. Van Cliburn may never have walked offstage in a huff but then he probably wasn’t the prima donna I had become. Prima donna is perhaps too harsh a term. My dreams were in the process of dying off almost faster than I could replace them by that time. Sadly, walking off in a huff became one of the signature traits of my life.

I think it’s as important in life to know who you are not as it is to know who you are. That’s the lesson I’ve taken from years of walking off in a huff. You see, I was angry as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore. The problem was that I was, indeed, angry but I was still taking it. I was taking all the pain right along with me and you were not allowed to take that from me. When you feel you’ve lost all control over your life and your circumstances, you hold on for dear life to the few things you believe you have left. Increasingly, I didn’t know who I was.

And then the drinking began. The more I drank, the less me there seemed to be. My saving grace came in finally taking a long look at who I was not. I may not have known who I was, but I was gradually backing my way into accepting wh0 I was not. I was not, for instance, Van Cliburn.

In many subtle ways, I was told early on who I was. Some of it was good, lots of it not so good. The not-so-good won out — at least in my head. Though I was often told I could be anything I aspired to be, I was learning fast that damaged kids needn’t apply. I’m still trying to understand how that process works. But once you learn what you’re expected to be, as well as what you’re expect not to be, it doesn’t take long to learn how to limit yourself without anyone else’s help.

It would not surprise me one little bit if this is how split personalities begin. In order to protect myself, I had some wonderful stories about me that I tried to believe. Unfortunately, there were even more bad stories I’d already come to believe about me. I’m living testimony that you can never really drown those things in alcohol. Try as you might, they continue to float to the top. They are truly gifted swimmers. Not only that, they were very adept at holding the good under water for years.

What I later learned, however, is that the good is almost impossible to drown. There was an eight-year-old boy inside who had amazing breath control. Every once in a while, he managed to fight his way to the surface for a little air. He did that doggedly for forty years.

A little over three years ago, I stumbled upon a group of people who apparently saw the eight-year-old struggling just below the surface. I thought I had him hidden well enough to avoid detection but these people saw him anyway. I found those people in a church. No, really! You could have tipped me over with a feather. No, literally! My vertigo was getting so bad it took no particular effort to tip me over.

I’m not sure what happened but these people were in the right place at the right time to be able to begin the process of convincing me what a whole host of people had been trying to tell me for all my life. No, I wasn’t Van Cliburn. No, I wasn’t Tarzan or Superman (though I like to think I’m a little of both). I wasn’t even my father. I had overlooked one little thing for all those years. I am human. And as such, I carry with me some of the bad, some of the good. I have choices in life. No, I can’t choose to not have been abused. No, I can’t choose to undrink that ocean of booze. No, I can’t choose to unharm the people I’ve harmed.

I can, however, choose to be someone new today. Perhaps I can even choose to be the person that eight-year-old thought I was. It’s probably worth a shot. Perhaps I can even choose to be what God already believes I am – one of his beloved children. And, you know, that puts a completely different perspective on my life. Not just different today, but allows me to look backward and see a world I didn’t see while my life was happening.

You know, hindsight really isn’t 20/20. It’s not 20/20 because we can’t choose to do things differently now than we have already done. That’s a fool’s game designed to keep you forever in darkness. Regret merely allows you to wallow in self-pity. Resolve is what’s needed, I think. Resolve to at least try each and every day to be something new, something better. Will you succeed every day? Probably not. But regret simply allows us to use our innate imperfection as an excuse not to even try.

I think today I’ll aspire to be Ben – the Ben who aspires to encompass a little Van Cliburn, a little Tarzan and Superman, even a little of my father. I think that’s the Ben I was probably intended to be from the very beginning. I know that’s the Ben I’d like to be.

Who are you not today? Answer that question and you may well be on the way to being the are that your not will never be.

Life’s Lost and Found

If you don’t get lost, there’s a chance you may never be found. ~ Unknown

Much of the time, I seem to stumble blindly through life, never really noticing much around me. A perfect example presented itself to me this week. Perhaps your life works like this, also.

My good friend David and I have not seen each other for a number of years now. Despite the fact that he and his wife moved to the Dallas area a year ago, we have yet to see each other in the flesh. Lots of things have conspired to prevent a meeting. This past week, however, we finally made plans to get together for lunch.

Where to meet? My work is north of Dallas, his south. Somewhere in the middle seemed like a good idea. Being only a so-so fan of eating, I left it to my friend to choose the place. David suggested Kona Grill at NorthPark Center. Yes, okay, that’s about eight miles south of me down I-75. Exit 5a on to Northwest Highway, first right turn into what appears to be a city of its own. Ah, there’s a parking space not too far from an entrance.

Did I say somewhere in the middle? Well, not exactly. I had eight miles to drive, David had twenty. He was willing, however, and I felt pressed for time.

I pulled into my convenient parking spot just after deciding not to go through a stop sign and continuing on to what appeared might have wrapped me around to the back of NorthPark City. It was a few minutes before noon, so I hustled into the first entrance that presented itself to me. Where, I wonder, is Kona Grill? Ah, there’s one of those You Are Here signs. I studied the thing with my head cocked just-so as I searched for the little rectangle marked Kona. Having found it, I realized it was on the back side of this monstrosity. Having no idea how large the place was, I headed blithely out in the direction I thought would take me to my destination.

Luckily for me, I have a very good sense of direction. Not as in “taking direction” so much as in sensing direction. When I found myself in front of Neiman Marcus, I knew I’d overshot my desired destination in some way. I backtracked a bit and found another You Are Here sign. Hmm, I think I see the problem. I should have zigged where I zagged. Looks like I can get there by walking through CenterPark, an entirely enclosed green place in the middle of the complex. It’s good to have greenbelts in the midst of a city, don’t you think? I’m pretty sure it was a beautiful green area, though I raced through it without giving myself the time to take much notice.

Another You Are Here sign and I perceived Kona Grill was finally in my immediate vicinity. Yes, there’s the Swatch store. I must be getting close. Finally spotting the grill entrance, I boldly marched up to the woman behind the counter. Had she seen David, I ventured? We are to have lunch together here. No? Okay, I’ll just wait out in the walkway. Kona is located just inside the main entrance at the back of NorthPark. I figure it was no more than twenty miles from where I’d parked my car. From my vantage point in the four-lane walkway, I could see everyone coming and going from both directions whether they approached from the interior of the beast or were moving in from the outside.

I noticed NorthPark has valet parking just out at the curb. I thought to myself, “How lazy can you get?” while at the same time understanding why it might be worth it, considering the hike I’d taken to get this far.

For thirty minutes I paced from one side of the walkway to the other. I got a different view of traffic depending where I stood. Was that him? No, not old enough. Him? No, too much hair. Him? No, entirely too young. Him? No, pretty sure David doesn’t have tattoos and almost certain he wouldn’t wear a tank top on a work day.

I began to wonder why I’d left my cell phone in the car. What if he was trying to call? Or, I could have tried to call him. Now, however, it was too late to go back to the car to get it. By the time I could retrieve it, he might have had his lunch and be heading back south. No, I’d just have to wait and watch.

By 12:30, it was clear something was amiss. I had no choice but to head back to my car, then back to work. I just couldn’t stay away for an indeterminate length of time. It was clear something had come up or that he was also lost somewhere in NorthPark City – perhaps waiting for a bus to shuttle him to our meeting. Reluctantly, I made the decision to make my way back to my car. This is where that sense of direction came in handy. I headed back with no wrong turns. I took the shortest, straightest winding path possible.

I checked my cell phone when I got back to the car. Nope, no calls. Trying to call, I got no answer — no voicemail. I started the car and headed back to work. Once there, I sent an email apologizing for not being able to wait. David’s reply was that he’d left fifteen minutes late, then got caught in traffic behind an accident, but had left me several messages explaining what was going on. Once he’d finally made it to NorthPark, he also found himself at a loss to find Kona for a time.

Ever feel lost even after you’ve found what you’re looking for? This was one of those times. We both knew where we were going, sort of, just didn’t know how to find it once we arrived. A lot of my life feels exactly like that.

You see, there was a flaw in our plans. Okay, truthfully there were multiple flaws in our plan. First, neither of us had zoomed our Google view of NorthPark down to the store level. We knew Kona Grill was at NorthPark – how hard could that be? Neither of us had ever been to NorthPark, so probably should have done our homework a little better. Second, I’d left my phone in the car. Gee, how’d we ever do this before cell phones? Turns out, though, having my phone with me wouldn’t have done either of us any good. We discovered later that we each had the other’s old phone number. David said that at least whomever had my old number would probably be entertained by his play-by-play traffic reports.

Seems to me that we all start out life without a map. Even in these days of Google, iPhones, and GPS, we’re left largely on our own to find our way through life. It’s obvious to me that some do this better than others. Some of us may just be slow learners, though. I believe that’s my category. It’s not exactly that I didn’t know where I wanted to end up, just that I had no idea how to get there or even where to start. Gradually, even my idea of where I wanted to end up became lost. Gradually, those ideas appeared to have died from neglect.

In the movie, Mahogany (1975), Diana Ross sings, “Do you know where you’re going to? / Do you like the things that life is showing you? / Where are you going to? do you know?” I was twenty-two or twenty-three when I first heard those words. At the time, I’m not certain I knew why the song depressed me. If I knew, I chose to ignore it. But, I had no idea where I was going and didn’t particularly like the things life was showing me. Like too many of us (men, in particular), I refused to ask directions. I probably should have asked. Even if the directions turned out to be a little less than accurate, it might have started me back on a path to somewhere I’d want to end up.

David and I are planning to try again this next week. He said, “Now that we’re experts at knowing how to find Kona Grill, we should plan to meet there.” I agreed. We could meet again at the same place — for the first time. God forbid we should choose a different spot we’ve neither of us seen before. Baby steps. If we can manage to find each other now at a place we’ve each found separately, there’s a chance we could find another new place in the future.

Sometimes the path less traveled leads you nowhere in particular. The important thing, I think, is to take a lesson away from each wrong turn. David and I now know where we plan to meet next week. We also have each other’s new cell numbers. I’ve learned it’s not a good idea to leave my phone in the car and also to question whether that convenient-looking parking spot is, indeed, convenient. As I said, baby steps.

The hymn, Amazing Grace, says “I once was lost, but now am found.” It may have taken me forty years, but I believe I am finally found. And to think I was right here all along! All I had to do was surrender to my lostness and grab hold of the hands held out to help. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about the value of getting lost in order to truly find yourself. And to think I’d already done that before I even got to that part of the book! I feel like I’m destined for the head of the class.

In a slightly less spiritual sense, Auntie Mame said, “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

So, my friends, welcome to the banquet. It may sometimes be difficult to find and you may often feel lost, but it’s worth the effort — even if you can’t find Kona Grill on your very first try. The detour may find you discovering more than you ever expected was possible. And you may just find the person you thought you’d lost forever. I did.

Eleven Little Words to a Complete Life

I don’t believe in dying. It’s been done. I’m working on a new exit. Besides, I can’t die now – I’m booked. ~ George Burns

George Burns was a funny, funny man who was already in his late fifties when I was born. He died in 1996 at the age of 100 when I was a mere child of forty-three. Trust me, at 59 and 1/3rd-plus years of age, forty-three seems a long time ago. Sadly, his joke about dying, though humorous, is a little too close to the way many of us live our lives today. We try desperately to ignore the inevitability of our own deaths, seeming to believe we simply can’t die if we can just stay busy enough. Or, perhaps, we just think we won’t notice if we don’t ever slow down. Dying well isn’t even on our radar. We seem to have no idea as a society what that means. We are far more concerned with not dying. Dying just doesn’t seem to fit into our go-go-go philosophy of life. I mean, who’s got the time?

“He died well.” These are words we’re likely not willing to hear. Why? Well, the statement presumes you’re dead, for one thing. But what does that really mean – dying well?

My dear and wise friend, Judy P., emailed a link to me recently dealing with palliative care. Judy is a hospice chaplain, so has a vested interest in this particular topic. Because Judy became my mother’s hospice chaplain at the end of her life, I also have a vested interest in this topic. The point of the story she referenced in her web link and the point of my story is that we all have a vested interest in the topic of dying well, though we may not yet realize it.

Dr. Ira Byock is a leading figure in palliative care in this country. Palliative care focuses on relieving and preventing the suffering of patients, including end-of-life issues. Byock sat down with Krista Tippett, host of On Being on American Public Media, in March 2012 to talk about dying well. Byock wrote a book on the subject, published by Free Press in 2004, called The Four Things That Matter Most. Here’s the link if you’re interested in listening to the whole interview: Click here. It’s worth the time.

The doctor’s thoughts on the subject of end of life can be summed up in eleven words – four little sentences. While the sentences are short, they are some of the more difficult things for many of us to say out loud. They are:

  • I forgive you.

  • Please forgive me.

  • I love you.

  • Thank you.

My eyes welled with tears as I heard him repeat these words. They brought back memories of the time I was blessed to have with my mother in the final few months of her life. It was a confusing time. On the one hand, I was tasked with being mother’s executor. This role was a great help to me as it allowed me the luxury of staying a little above the emotional part of the me who was losing his mother. The disadvantage of that role was that it allowed me the luxury of staying a little above the emotional part of the me who was losing his mother.

The four sentences Byock outlined can be some of the most difficult words we need to say. Even at the end, my experiences growing up left me struggling to say these words out loud to my mother. Why? The simple fact for me is that I would have completely broken down in the attempt to say them. Would there have been something wrong with breaking down under those circumstances? No. But, the words betray a depth of feeling I’d been guarding against all my life. Thankfully, my mother understood this about me and made it easier for me to say them in different ways.

How will you die? Don’t know? That’s certainly not unusual. We none of us really know when the end will come – and that’s the point, isn’t it. The end for my father came quickly one morning with a massive heart attack. He was dead within minutes – likely moments. I’d seen him shortly before and there were plenty of things we’d left unsaid. More to the point, there were plenty of things I’d left unsaid. I knew he wasn’t looking particularly healthy but you just never think today will be the day someone close to you will die. Still, there were things I hadn’t been able to let go. Time, however, doesn’t always wait for us to be ready — and that is the point of those eleven words.

John Greenleaf Whittier said, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’ ” A lifetime of hurts and resentments have a way of trapping us in a place where forgiveness seems impossible. It was quite some time after my father’s death before I came to understand that I also had things about which to ask forgiveness. Life is a messy affair, never cut-and-dried – never one-sided. I’ve gradually come to the realization that I have a lot for which to thank my parents. Did they do everything right? No. Did they do the best they knew how to do at the time? I believe the answer is yes. My gift was that I was able to recognize many things in time to say all those four sentences in various ways before my mother died. As for my father, I’ve said these things out loud. I believe it helps to release those things out into the universe. It certainly helps me.

I recall the last time I saw my maternal grandmother. She was in an assisted-living facility at the time suffering from the beginning stages of Alz­heimer’s. Mother called to ask if I could come for grandmother’s birthday. I told her I really didn’t see how I could get away. I was living in New Mexico at the time and it was a ten-hour drive to Temple, Texas. The plain truth of the matter is that I was still drinking too much at the time and simply didn’t want to make the drive. But, I began thinking about it and realized I wasn’t going to have a lot more birthdays with grandmother. After all, this was to be her ninety-fourth. I decided I needed to make the trip, called my mother back, and asked if she thought there’d still be enough cake for me if I showed up. She said she was pretty certain there’d be plenty.

The little birthday celebration went well. I believe it was just me, mother, my step-father, Buddy, and grandmother. We surprised her with cake when we arrived. She was already in the dining room. Grandmother could get very excited about things. This was one of them. It seems I’m also pretty easily entertained. I believe I got this from my grandmother, along with always being the last to finish a meal. She was almost like a little girl that day. I was glad I’d made the effort to be there, for my sake as well as hers.

The next day, I left mother’s house in Calvert to head home to Roswell. The trip took me back through Temple, so I dropped by the place where grandmother was living. I found her again in the dining room. She was surprised and pleased to see me. I sat with her until she finished her meal, then walked with her back to her room. Grandmother never quite got the hang of her walker. She’d lift it, walk a little, then put it back down. Then, she’d lift it again and walk a few more steps before putting it down. Lift, walk, put it down, repeat. Well, whatever works. We got to her room and said our goodbyes. I was going to help her into her room, but she said, “No, I want to stand here and watch you walk down the road.” That’s how I remember my grandmother that last time I saw her. The hall in an assisted-living facility had suddenly become a road and I ambled down that road as grandmother watched me recede into the distance. She died a few weeks later. I believe she just sort of ambled down a different road.

Byock’s point in his book is partly that dying is another, final developmental stage in our lives. My experience with my mother seems to bear that out. For certain, it was a sad time. On the other hand, mother had the time to say what she wanted to say. My friend Judy asked me near the end if there was anything left I needed to say to my mother. I said I didn’t think there was anything. She then asked if there was anything I needed my mother to say to me. It took very little thought to answer that I didn’t believe there was anything left I needed to hear. Mother and I disagreed on a number of things, had had our share of problems over the years. But, as I looked back over the years, I realized she had already said what I needed to hear in so many different ways.

I had major surgery a couple of years ago – my first. I had to sign the obligatory forms outlining the possibility of death, however remote, and the various ways I might die during or after the surgery. I spent the night before the surgery alone in Austin. Tom drove mother from Waco to be there the morning of the surgery. That morning before walking into the hospital, I realized I wasn’t worried about the surgery. I realized I was okay. Yes, me — okay! Regardless of the outcome, I was going to be okay and I knew everyone else would be okay. If you know me and have been following the story, you probably also know that I rarely feel okay. I can be pretty rough on myself. But that morning helped prepare me for the coming few months after my mother’s cancer diagnosis. I finally knew it was possible to feel okay, whether everything was really okay or not.

Like you, I presume, I have no idea how the end will come for me – I’ve even stopped planning it. I do know, however, that I am more prepared than ever for the end to come. Thankfully, I no longer wish for it to come soon. I think too many of us are afraid if we put our affairs in order – if we prepare for our inevitable deaths – we somehow tempt fate. We fear we may even hasten our own deaths. When you think about it, it’s a very odd way of looking at life. One of the most loving things we can do for the people we love is to make our leaving as easy as possible. It’s not a matter of if, but when. As I said, life is a messy affair. There are so many loose ends we can leave for someone else to handle. I realize now, though, that some of those loose ends can have devastating effects on the ones left behind.

Things left unsaid are loose ends. A year after my father’s death, I was still arguing with him — no matter how one-sided the arguments may have been. Sadly, I was also still losing the arguments. I’d left far too much unsaid. A year and a half after my mother’s death, I’m still sad. The difference is that my sadness comes from her absence, not from a sense that I should have said something I was still refusing to say or even acknowledge.

I forgive you, please forgive me, I love you, thank you. Four little sentences containing only eleven words. But what powerful sentences they are. Contained within them are the keys to healing relationships and ensuring that we make certain those we love know how we feel. Through all the hurts, there were many times I couldn’t see how I could possibly need to ask for forgiveness. In some cases, I couldn’t see how I could possible forgive. As I stepped back to observe the larger picture of my life, I began to see how both of those things were possible. Despite the hurts, I love you showed me why the first two were necessary. Once I understood that, the thank-you’s began to appear.

I’ve lost a lot of people over my lifetime. And, that’s the way I saw it for most of my life. In fact, I spent considerable time trying to keep people at a distance so I wouldn’t have to feel so much pain after they were gone. That was a mistake. That never prevented the pain and usually actually intensified it. I understand now that I never lost any of them. They’re still right here with me as long as I remember them and I have no intention of forgetting.

I have begun to try consciously to make sure I ask for forgiveness when needed. No matter how difficult it may seem, I work at being forgiving. If I love you is the appropriate thing to say, I’m trying to say it – out loud. The same goes for thank you. All these words have made me realize just how many things there are for which I have to be thankful.

Eleven words. Contained within them are entire relationships. It’s time to slow down enough to realize there’s really no reason to allow any of the important things to be left unsaid. Whether we like it or not, we need each other. Our ideas of being self-sufficient are merely illusions. Without the love and care of others around us, life can indeed be dim. It’s said it takes nothing away from the light of your candle to light that of another. These eleven words allow our lives to burn all the brighter. Sharing, in the long run, brings abundance.

So, I forgive you for wondering if this piece would ever end; please forgive me for, well, things likely too numerous to count; I love you all just for being here; and thank you – my life would surely be incomplete without you.

When I Grow Up

You know your children are growing up when they stop asking you where they came from and refuse to tell you where they’re going.
~ P. J. O’Rourke

Douglas Horton said, “Growing old is not growing up.” I think I’ve proven that to myself many times over the years. I continue to grow older but the growing up part appears to have eluded me almost completely.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Personally, I think I’d like to be someone who helps people. Yeah, I think that’s what I want most. In the meantime, however, I’ve had a pretty long list of things I wanted to be when I grow up.

A partial list in childhood included Superman, Tarzan, Roy Rogers, a missionary, a circus clown, a high-wire artist, and Perry Mason. All of these were people helping people in one way or another, even if only by entertaining them, right? As a child of abuse, however, I also found myself wanting to be one of Fred MacMurray’s sons (My Three Sons, a sixties TV sitcom), Tarzan’s son, Boy, or Timmy from Lassie. Two were protected from harm by loving fathers – adopted or otherwise, the third by parents and a faithful dog. Superman (George Reeves, not any of those other also-rans to come later) was probably most important. Not only would I be able to protect myself from some not particularly pleasant things, I could also defend others who might find themselves in similar positions. I could see the bullets of taunts and bullying bouncing off my chest, no harm done. The appeal of Tarzan was that of the freedom of swinging through the trees half naked, though still able to protect myself from almost constant danger. Feeling your body is under your own control is important, don’t you think?

I’m afraid it’s lost forever but for many years I had in my possession a short 8mm film clip of me winging my way around our den in my cape – or, more accurately, a big towel tied around my neck. My sister, Judith, was the cinematographer. As a child, I was pretty certain I could fly. That probably explains my jumping off the roof of the house on more than one occasion. I never did master the art of flying, though my imagination would hold on to the idea for years to come. In one way or another, the dream of flying probably helped get me through a lot of unpleasant things. I suppose I could restage the event for posterity but it might not have the same endearing quality nearing age sixty as it did when I was eight.

In my late twenties, I learned to fly in a slightly different way. Friends made fun of me because my little “trips” left me sitting in a corner with my eyes closed as I watched all the pretty shapes and colors sweeping across the backs of my eyelids. I had to give up those drug-induced methods of travel, however, when I realized they often become one-way trips. I couldn’t imagine finding myself trapped inside my own mind, unable to get out. In so many ways, I was already trapped there and that was bad enough.

By adolescence, my list of things to be when I grew up included writer, singer, songwriter, actor, minister, accomplished pianist – in general, someone who commanded attention and, naturally, adulation of one sort or another. The singer/songwriter in me was going to change his name to Davy Starr. It may seem odd I’d choose a name that would require explanation in order to make sure people spelled and pronounced it correctly. After all, I’d already been spelling and pronouncing my last name for others for years. I’ve never figured it out. Either people pronounce my name Ekin (long Ē) or, if they realize the E is silent, add an S to the end – Eakins (long ā). Be that as it may, I was growing up in the era of Davy Jones of the Monkeys and Ringo Starr of the Beatles. Besides, Davy Starr looked good on paper – to me. I remember practicing writing my new name many times. It had to be right since I would soon be signing lots of autographs.

I’m not sure I remember what my name was to be if I’d ended up as a minister. I don’t think many ministers need to practice signing their names for autographs. Mostly they need to stand shaking hands with a long line of people at the end of a service. They’d probably call him Mr. Ekin. “Lovely service, Mr. Ekin,” they’d say. You certainly have a way with words.” “Quite a sermon, Mr. Ekin. Are you sure you should have used those words in that way?” “Uh, I just need to ask you one question, Mr. Ekin. Are you sure you’re Baptist?” “Listen, Mr. Ekin,” a deacon would say, “I’ve called an emergency meeting of the entire diaconate. You may want to show up for it.” You get the idea. Your services as minister might not be required for enough time to bother practicing your autograph.

By the age of seventeen, I stopped considering what I wanted to be when I grew up because I no longer wanted to grow up. And that’s sad. I believe I may still have felt I had a lot to give but no longer thought anyone wanted it. While I realize now that was a bit of an underestimation on my part, for a long time I contented myself with being that guy who regularly showed up for work, then disappeared from sight until time for the next shift. The race was on to see if I could stay invisible enough often enough to stay out of jail. On the flip side of that, there were those times when I made certain no one was ever able to forget me. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, unless you’re determined to be memorable no matter whether that’s in a good or a bad way. If you can’t be famous, I suppose there’s always a job opening for infamous.

A few years ago, I began to dare to start wondering again what I might want to be when I grow up. It’s a frightening thing, you know. When you’re a kid dreaming about becoming ruler of the world, flying though the sky faster than a speeding bullet, or writing the great American novel, you have the advantage of not having a clue those dreams might be difficult to achieve. When the dreams die before you’ve had the chance even to try because they’ve come to seem impossible, the world takes on a different look altogether.

But, when you’ve come through the fog, cynical, broken, and a little worse the wear, dreams have a different look and feel. I think that’s because you’re cynical, broken, and a little worse the wear. In other words, you’re more practical. You’re more aware that anything worth doing is going to challenge you to step out of whatever comfort zone you’ve created over the years. Sometimes that comfort zone isn’t even comfortable – it’s just what you know. It’s just what you’ve accepted as your lot in life. Cynicism has no expiration date. It does, however, have the chemical makeup to transform into something new.

When dreams die, so does our ability to fly. But I’m discovering that dreams never actually die, they merely go into hibernation. They can be awakened, though we need to be careful about making any sudden moves until they’ve had the time to wipe the sleep from their eyes, perhaps have a cup of coffee. Dreams can be kind of grumpy first thing in the morning. You see, those dreams have gotten a little older along with you. They are also not certain they recognize themselves when they look in the mirror.

But, unlike us, they don’t see their father’s dreams, their mother’s dreams, in the mirror. Sure, there may be hints of both of them somewhere in the reflection but they are otherwise almost completely our own. My dreams still have blond hair. There’s a touch of gray, but that’s because they’ve grown up a little along with me.

So, fasten your seat belts. It may be a bumpy ride, but we’re still taking to the air. We may be flying a little lower now but we’ll be doing it fully clothed this time. God taught me how to fly before I was even born. He’s allowing me to remember how to do that again. Thanks be to God.