Dust to Dust

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” ~ Genesis 3:19

It’s the time of Lent in the Christian tradition. According to information on UMC.org, the United Methodist Church website:

“Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others.”

Increasingly, Lent has also become about adding to. In addition to things we all need to give up, there are often things we need to add to our lives. That can mean giving of our time working for the good of others. It can also mean, however, slowing down enough to really participate in Lent on a spiritual level beyond rote ceremony. Ceremony wholly by itself is rather meaningless. What makes it meaningful year after year is discovering what the ceremony means to each of us in our own spiritual path. As with Christmas, we can treat it as a day and then back to business as usual or we can celebrate Advent re-remembering the meaning it has for each of us.

Lent has gotten me thinking about ashes and dust – as in ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If we could all remember that we came from dust and will one day return to dust, perhaps we would all treat our dusty home considerably better. I’ve never been a big fan of the idea of reincarnation; much of the journey through this life has been rough enough so perhaps I don’t feel a particular need to try it again. Having said that, though, it occurs to me that this is very much a part of the meaning of the idea of dust to dust and so also Lent.

At some point, each of us will breathe our last breath and our dusty shell will gradually return to the earth. I’m a fan of recycling and it occurs to me that each of us is likely made up of a part of many, many ancestors from eons past. That means, naturally, this would include those pesky mosquitoes each of us has swatted down through the ages or the meat we have eaten.

I find it quite satisfying knowing that I will help a future generation of life by providing a small portion of the dust needed to put together that future generation. In that way, each of us will be reincarnated countless times until the end of time. The fact that a bit of my dust may end up as part of the body of a dung beetle makes no difference whatever.

My point is this: we are all connected to everything else on earth and in the universe. We are supposed to be here as stewards of the earth, not to have control over the earth. If we could do away with the idea that some of us deserve more than another – we don’t – we would find that peace would naturally follow and we’d stop the wanton destruction of our home.

Perhaps for Lent this year, we should make mud pies – if only to be able to watch them return to dust.

Fear Itself

Each year, Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas puts together a collection of meditations for Advent. Contributions come from current and past members and there’s a different meditation for each day of Advent. I’m proud to say this is my seventh year to contribute. This year’s theme is “And None Shall Be Afraid.” My contribution this year was to be for December 15.

The Advent theme takes its life from the angels’ announcement to the shepherds: “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. . . .’ ”

~ Benjamin Eakin, 12/13/15

In 1933, Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Some 2,000 years earlier, however, we’re told by the Gospel writer Luke that God’s angels appeared to shepherds guarding their sheep by night. Such an unexpected sight threw the shepherds into some major terror – rightly so, one might presume. According to the King James version, the angels said, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” In childhood, we read the Christmas stories each year as a family and were not, as I recall, afraid.

Life has a way of throwing a few curveballs your way over a lifetime and there were many times I found myself afraid. I was afraid of lots of things – some of them real, some likely only imagined. But fear is fear whether real or imagined. Once you’ve overcome your fear of the dark, you’re tempted to think you’re home free. Sadly, there are many forms of dark.

I had surgery a few years ago to stop the effects of vertigo. My doctor cautioned me this would be brain surgery but by then I was so continually sick, any danger seemed an acceptable risk. The night before going into the hospital, I stayed in Austin so Tom could return to Waco to bring my mother back for the surgery. Early the next morning, I walked across the street for check-in. As I crossed the street, I was struck by the fact I wasn’t afraid. I knew somehow everything would be okay. If I survived the surgery, all would be okay. If I died on the operating table, all would be okay. I found myself in tears, unable to remember ever having felt this at peace.

What had happened? Approximately fourteen months earlier I’d shown up at Lake Shore after decades away from church. My return was accompanied by a good deal of terror – rightly so, I thought. Still, I’d decided to walk through that fear and the people of Lake Shore proceeded to remind me that God hadn’t actually been taken away from me all those years earlier, rather had been there with me all along. I knew they were right and realized I had somehow always known.

Surgery was a success and I’ve since been able to celebrate the mystery of Advent and angels appearing year after year to proclaim, “Fear not: … For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

I find I’m surrounded by God’s reminders that fear is, after all, the only thing I have to fear.

A Mustache for a Methodist

I guess you could say, I’m just a typical Methodist kid at heart. ~ Hugh Hefner

An atheist is a man who watches a Notre Dame – Southern Methodist University game and doesn’t care who wins. ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

God grant that I may never live to be useless! ~ John Wesley

I suppose it was 2008 when I found myself being reintroduced to a 17-year-old I thought I’d finished off many, many years earlier. In the process of that introduction and the subsequent multiple reunions over a period of months brought about by a rather insistent (annoying?) therapist, I found myself being reconciled with that poor, beat-up kid. As it turns out, he’d traveled along on my rocky path through it all and, I realize now, helped keep me alive long enough to remember — and acknowledge — he had actually existed.

What, you’re likely asking yourself, does this have to do with mustaches and Methodists? Excellent question. Allow me to elaborate — eventually.

During the fall of 2008, I was working on reestablishing contact with the aforementioned 17-year-old after the realization I could never really be okay until we made peace. That December, a dear friend suggested that I read Wm. Paul Young’s book The Shack. I agreed because I respect this friend but still had serious doubts about a fiction that had Christian leanings. If you’ve visited this blog before, you’re probably aware that the church and I had parted ways, well, while I still remembered that 17-year-old clearly. Still, at this point in my life, the book pried something open again — wanted or not.

There I was — sitting with a young, admittedly angry guy who remembered an even younger boy who remembered a call. I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to be reminded of that call. Years of alcohol had done little to cover it over, however. Rather, it had only helped anger and disappointment grow. Sadly, as so often happens, the anger and disappointment was turned inward. I am particularly efficient at inflicting emotional pain on myself. I’m still so good at it that I often have no idea I’m doing it. Let’s just say I’m back working on that now.

So it was that I showed up at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco in February 2009. I didn’t mean to show up, it just sort of happened. And I stuck around (one of my favorite new beginnings stories here: Women in Ministry). Seems the people there saw someone in me I didn’t think actually existed. I was intrigued, though, and decided I must be a better actor than I’d thought. Still, I kinda liked the person others saw. I’m almost convinced at this point that he does exist.

Mustache, Ben? Oh, yes. So a couple of months ago I decided I’d regrow my mustache. Up until the fall of 2008, I’d sported a mustache for most of the previous twenty-five or so years. I arrived on the doorstep of Lake Shore clean shaven — due to meetings with that 17-year-old and the younger boy and wondering what they might have looked like. You know how hard it is to see an 8-year-old looking back at you when you’re a 56-year-old man with a mustache staring in a mirror? The mustache had to go.

A necessary move to the Dallas area a few years ago required a move in churches, also. For over three years, I made that new home Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas. Last year, though, I found myself looking for a new church home closer to where I live in Richardson. You see, having returned to church back in 2009, I’ve found not having a church home is no longer an option for me.

Enter Arapaho United Methodist Church, Richardson, Texas.

Wait, I hear you saying — Methodist? Weren’t we talking about Baptists? Well, yes, we were and how good of you to be paying attention. I was doing what any red-blooded American would do these days — I used Google to search for churches in my area. What I saw on the website for Arapaho UMC intrigued me. Hey, when you’ve been gone from church for forty years, you tend to find yourself a little more open to locating the right place regardless what is says on the sign outside. It’s what I found on the inside that invited me to stay. It was about finding the right fit.

Mustache, Ben? Oh, did I get sidetracked again? Yes, I imagine so. This entire conversation began because it occurred to me that the Baptists in my post-40-year trek had never seen me with a mustache. I like to think about stuff that occurs to me, you see. It also occurred to me that I’ve very much reconciled with that 17-year-old and that he and I sort of prefer me with a mustache.

On February 15, 2015 I became Arapaho UMC’s newest member — complete with mustache. I told some of the people at Arapaho I’d taken so long to join because I hate to rush into things and, besides, some of them looked a little shady to me. Thankfully, they already know me well enough after eleven months to laugh along with me.

Mustaches and Methodists. Does one actually have anything to do with the other except that they both start with an M? I believe they do. It has a lot to do with giving myself permission to find exactly the place that feels right to me. That has a lot to do with God’s grace, I believe. I’ve met some wonderful people in the past few years and I will be eternally grateful to them for helping me see in myself again a kid who heard a call many years ago and for helping me gradually believe he still exists and is here to remind me of that call.

John Wesley (a Methodist without a mustache) said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Yeah, that’s it. That was the call. That is the call.

Mustache or not, Methodist or not, I invite you to pick up Wesley’s call to do all the good you can as long as you ever can.

February People

February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March.
~ Dr. J. R. Stockton

Some people are wanderers. My sister, for instance, has traveled all over the globe – eager to see as much of the world as possible. I, on the other hand, am a wonderer. I wonder stuff. There’s less travel involved and zero lost luggage.

Some of my wondering takes me into dangerous territory, of course. Some of it lures me into thinking, rightly, I should be doing more than I am for others who can’t do for themselves. Some of it leaves me wondering where it all went so wrong. Some of it leaves me wondering if there’s a way back from the edge. That’s a lot of wondering without even leaving my chair. But, it’s part of what I do — apparently part of who I am.

Ever wonder why February has only twenty-eight days? I have. How is it, do you think, that February got shortchanged in such a shameless fashion? With 365 days to share, what could February possibly have done to deserve being neglected in this way? I mean, how difficult would it have been for one of the other months to share at least one day with its poorer neighbor? August, for instance. I feel certain where I live we’d all be willing to give up one hot summer day to keep February from feeling left out. You might choose a different month where you live, but I think we could make it work out in the end. Oh, sure, once every four years February is given an extra day for Leap Year but, really, is that adequate compensation for being slighted so grievously the other three?

So, February ends up as the homely step-child of our annual dance of days. And while I realize February is singled out in that Mother Goose rhyme used to remember the number of days in each month, that hardly seems to balance the books in February’s favor. “Excepting February alone . . .” Yes, February alone is thrown the scrap of an extra day once in a while. For the most part, however, we seem simply not to notice the missing day – the almost missing month. For a moment each year, we pay attention to February to find out from a groundhog whether winter will continue for a while or end early. Even Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem to rescue February from its diminished place in the count of our days on earth.

This puts me in mind of some of the other disaffected of the world. You saw that coming, right? If you didn’t, perhaps you’re not paying enough attention to my other writing. Seems I’m nothing if not transparent.

The world’s population now tops seven billion. That number alone is staggering, but even more staggering are its implications for us all – including those of us with plenty to eat and a dry place to sleep.

Have you eaten this week? How about today? If you have enough to eat – or likely more than you need – you are part of the earth’s privileged.

Consider this: a tall latte from Starbucks will set you back $2.50 or more depending on your location. Do that every day of the year and you’ve shelled out at least $912.50 for a year’s worth of coffee. Coffee! That’s a lot of buzz. Now, consider that over three billion people live on less than that same $2.50 (U.S.) a day. Is it just me or is something horribly wrong with this picture?

At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10.00 a day. Those scraping by at $2.50 are wrapped into this number. The poorest 40% of the world’s population accounts for only 5% of global income. The richest 20% account for three-quarters of world income. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.” Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons could have put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen. It still hasn’t happened thirteen years later. Imagine what could have been done to actually feed the hungry. So much for beating our swords into plowshares.

There are over two billion children in the world and every other one of those lives in poverty. Did your mother ever tell you to eat your vegetables because there are starving children in China? Mine did. That was in the 1950s. I never quite understood how eating my vegetables was going to help those starving children but it didn’t seem to make any difference as to whether I was supposed to eat them. I now realize her point was that we should not waste what we have no matter how much we think we have.

Lest we miss the point, think of some of the television programs that litter our airwaves and scream for attention as viewing opportunities. Million-Dollar Rooms, for instance. Someone spends at least a million dollars to build one room of their house and that qualifies them to be featured on this inane show. I think we’ve supposed to be impressed and/or envious. Living in an enormous, castle-like mansion has always had a certain appeal for me – being waited on hand and foot – until I remember that it’s not all about me today, never has been, and never will be. Without occasional reminders, I tend to forget that I share this planet with those seven billion-plus people and have no more or less right to survive. That same million dollars could feed 400,000 people for a day or 1,096 people for an entire year. Have we really become so jaded that platinum plumbing fixtures and bathrooms larger than many houses are more important than human life? In 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. Somehow, that comes as no surprise to me. The poorest fifth account for just 1.5%.

I wonder what might become of the world if our “me” societies decided to actually become “we” societies? Rural areas account for three in every four people living on less than $1 a day (U.S.) and a similar share of the world population suffering from malnutrition. However, urbanization is not synonymous with human progress. Urban slum growth is outpacing urban growth by a wide margin. As a “we” society, we might take less a “the dog ate my homework” approach to human concerns in our world and our failure to address those concerns, and more of a “I am, in fact, my brother’s/sister’s keeper” approach.

There are approximately 237,880,000 adults in the United States alone. If each of those adults gave one penny a day each, a total of $2,378,800.00 a day could be raised to help feed the hungry of the world. One penny. Over two million dollars. At that $2.50 a day, 951,520 could be fed. That works out to saving those 22,000 children and feeding another 929,520, as well. Too often, I believe, people end up doing very little or even nothing because the problem seems so enormous. And it is. It’s easier to look away than to look for realizable answers. It’s surprising, though, how easily the problem can be broken down into solvable pieces. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. should pick up the tab for feeding the world, just that compassion begins at home – community begins at home. With the cooperation of the so-called developed world, the solution is within grasp almost overnight. The frightening part of this is that we still haven’t done it and don’t appear to be planning to do it any time soon.

Obviously, it’s not as simple as money – though I believe it could be were it not for the multitude of people who callously stand in the way. Along with crooked politicians, both in this country and in every country on earth, there are the people who sincerely believe they deserve more than the next guy. The logistics of getting help into some countries is compounded or completely blocked by regimes who don’t want a well-fed populace. It’s yet another reason education is denied to so many. An informed, well-fed people are dangerous to politicians comfortable at the top and intent on staying there by any means necessary.

The problem will not go away just because we ignore it, though. In fact, officially ignoring it has already brought a great deal of misery our way. Hungry, oppressed people often become dangerous, angry, desperate people. They can also become easy marks for groups pretending to want to pull these people up out of their poverty – though only as long as it takes to grab power for their group.

Worse than that, however, are those who seem to feel that people are responsible for their own poverty. I work hard for what I have, they say. Why should I be expected to provide for those too lazy or too stupid to do for themselves? Many of America’s poor are viewed this way by politicians and the people who fight hard to get and keep them in office. It’s an us-against-them attitude that’s designed to lump every disadvantaged person into the same boat. Certainly, there are people who play the system, too lazy to work for themselves. That, however, is no excuse to see all disadvantaged people as playing the system. Why help people who could help themselves? Odd that people who play the stock market in big and dangerous ways turn around and expect to be bailed out when their greed puts them out on the street – usually more figuratively than literally. The rest of us are left holding the bag – more literally than figuratively.

One of the problems with charity is simply our perception of what the word means. The word seems to have a bad reputation – and a worse connotation. “I don’t want your charity” is heard often. Why? I believe that’s because what too many people call charity is merely a hook. People we don’t pay a living wage are supposed to be grateful that others give their cast-offs to help.

Almost as bad as those who work at blocking help for a starving world are those who feel it’s okay to attach conditions to their help. Let’s face it, grace with conditions is not grace at all – it’s a contract. Real grace, on the other hand, is a covenant.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I try to remember that I (and even the wealthiest of us) can become one of the February people in the blink of an eye. Rather than encouraging me to draw back in fear and horde even more of the little I have, I find myself increasingly wanting to give back.

What can you do? Put yourself in the position of those in need – literally, if that’s what it takes. A very little amount of imagination should succeed in allowing you to see how easily you could end up on the receiving end of next to nothing in the way of help when you suddenly find yourself out on the street.

Americans love to think of themselves as pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Rugged individualists, they’ll say. The simple fact is that, almost without exception, none of us do any of this on our own. The host of people who help us along the way is generally huge. The CEO who believes himself worthy of multi-million-dollar bonuses each year tends to forget that the success of the company relies on him almost not at all.

If we’re not even willing to feed each other as the human family that we are, how is it any of us is simplistic enough to think we can live in a safe world? It’s very unlikely we’ll be hurt by those we genuinely reach down to help up. That’s not what we usually do – at least as countries. Instead, we reach down to help ourselves. A pig wearing lipstick is still a pig. Somewhere, we have to find the courage to examine our motives. In far too many cases, even our well-intentioned motives are thinly veiled attempts at feeling better about ourselves rather than helping others.

Imagine what good you could do with that $2.50 you saved by not stopping each day at Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, or any of the hundreds of locations now willing to charge you a premium for what you could have easily and far more cheaply brewed for yourself?

What if you personally knew even one of the 22,000 children who will die today? Would that perhaps change your definition of family?

Food, as it were, for thought.

º º º

Want to know more? Here are some web links that may be of interest:

Poverty.com: http://www.poverty.com
Unicef USA: http://www.unicefusa.org
Action Against Hunger: http://www.actionagainsthunger.org
Hunger Notes: http://www.worldhunger.org

Please also check out my website, BaptistMan.com. I’m trying to get the site off the ground and also add my own bit of (admittedly warped) humor to this most serious of topics in an effort to keep sight of the fact that this is a solvable problem. www.BaptistMan.com

Fry Cooks or French Fry Styling Specialists?

The only thing most people do better than anyone else is read their own handwriting. ~ John Adams

Recently, I asked a friend to recommend a dentist. I was having some difficulty with a tooth and was being shuttled around from specialist to specialist, all of whom were out of network with my insurance. In the process of requesting that recommendation, I lamented the fact that it seemed you could no longer find a general dentist who did dentisty type things like pulling a tooth. That, apparently, is some other specialist’s purview.

My friend suggested that I was, perhaps, a little behind the times. She said the type of country dentist I was trying to find simply no longer existed – had, in fact, gone the way of the dinosaurs and phone booths. She then suggested that she felt certain I could/would probably write a blog about this situation. My impression was that she was inferring that she felt certain I could/would write about most anything in a blog whether it needed writing or not.

I was, naturally, stunned at the inference. I decided, of course, to write about this situation in order to prove her wrong – or right, whichever the case may be. The gauntlet had been thrown down, after all.

I’ll admit I haven’t paid a lot of attention over the years to the changes in dentistry – how specialists have taken over in such a big way. Not that I hadn’t been to the dentist over the years, just that I hadn’t noticed the subtle shift from the one-stop shopping of my dentists in the past and today’s “let me send you across the street for that” way of doing business.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissin’ nobody’s specialty. However, I couldn’t help sitting in the plush salle d’attente (it couldn’t possibly have just been a waiting room) at the endodontist’s office wondering how much less it might cost for a root canal if I were to wait on a folding chair in a lobby and if they didn’t provide Keurig K-Cup individual coffee selections for me to brew while I waited. I’m in pain, of course, so my thoughts about the injustice of bright, shiny anterior settings and the relationship to expense were not gelling adequately. That would come afterward, as you can see.

Years ago, I was in need of a dentist. I didn’t want to go to the dentist but a co-worker suggested hers and tried to calm my fears about dentists and pain. My last surviving wisdom tooth had come in – crooked – and was in need of removal. I was tempted to simply leave it there but for the fact that its angle of entry as it came through the gums meant I was consistently chewing on the side of my mouth. So, I called the dentist. To my dismay, they asked if I wanted to come in that day. I’d expected at least a two-week lead time but accepted the appointment just the same. It didn’t seem right to refuse the offer of a quick resolution to the problem – and I hadn’t yet learned that “no” is a complete sentence.

Anyway, the dentist turned out to be a great guy. He deadened the area after determining that, yes, we would need to pull that sucker. He’d leave the room for a bit to do something else, then return to check on whether I’d numbed sufficiently. It seemed that happened a number of times. Finally, he was talking as he checked the tooth and I felt a sudden pressure. He’d pulled the tooth while I was distracted. It was over. I’d survived. Chalk one up for the “country dentist” from Austin back in the seventies.

Dr. Martin H. Fischer said, “The specialist is a man who fears the other subjects.” Dr. Fischer was the author, in 1940, of Death and Dentistry, published by C.C. Thomas. I don’t think that one’s still in print and perhaps not a book you’d want to read before a visit to the dentist.

Of course, the good doctor also said, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired thinking.” There seems to be a lot of that going around these days.

The problem with our increasing focus on specialties? With each new subdivision of specialties, we seem to find less human interaction and more focus on each of us as merely a set of symptoms – a riddle to be solved. Just a pile of parts with very little relationship to each other. But I’ve learned in almost every situation I’ve ever encountered, the more I zeroed in on one small part of a problem, the less I was able to step back and see a larger picture.

Please don’t imagine I have it in for specialists. After all, it was a specialist who finally figured out why I’d had vertigo for seventeen years. The difference with this specialist, however, was that he was someone willing to listen. He knew the possible reasons for my dizziness and nausea were huge and that he’d have to ask the right questions and listen to the answers to those questions in order to find a solution.

I’m willing to bet, though, that most of us have already had run-ins with a specialist or two who can’t see the forest for the trees. We seem, in fact, to be a bit of a nuisance to them. Don’t we realize, after all, that they are busy trying to find the problem? I have a urologist – perhaps I should say had – who spent every visit with me staring at his Apple laptop. I’m hoping he was studying my chart intently and not playing Grand Theft Auto IV with the sound muted. I mean, who knows? He was certainly not talking to me about how things were going.

It seems our society is a bit obsessed with titles. It’s a pesky part of that need we’d rather not admit we all have to one degree or another – the need to feel better-than. I noticed today they’re looking for a Civile Engineer here in the Dallas area. Perhaps this is an opening for a female engineer as civile is French and the feminine form of civil. Personally, I’d rather not be a Mortgage Funder, regardless what that means. Sounds like a risky proposition that would involve a good deal of my own money. Many of us, I’m sure, have worked as Sandwich Technicians at some time in our past. Sadly, the job pays no better than simply being counter help at the local Subway. Then, you may find yourself excited to be a company’s Director of First Impressions until it’s explained that you will actually be the receptionist. Thankfully, the title doesn’t necessarily say those first impressions absolutely have to be positive.

It’s taken me a long time to understand that we all tend to take ourselves a tad too seriously. We forget that what we do is not who we are. That mistake in understanding creates enormous problems for the world in general and for us individually when the time inevitably comes that we no longer do what it is we think we are. That may be at retirement but it may also simply be one morning when you discover the company where you work at being your work decides they really don’t require your services any longer.

My father was afraid of the idea of retiring. “What would I do?” he’d ask. This was an immensely talented man we’re talking about here. There was a wealth of things he could do to occupy his time. Or, he’d say, “Sure, I can write that book once I retire.” Sadly, if we don’t take a step now toward doing the things we think we’d like to do, it’s unlikely we’ll ever actually do it. The excuse that there’s simply no time is usually just that – an excuse. We tell ourselves we’ll do it someday to make us feel better about ourselves.

Why do we do that? I believe we tell ourselves little lies for the same reason that we’re tempted to take the job as Director of First Impressions. It would look good embroidered on a shirt. We think it would alleviate a little of the guilt we’ve heaped on ourselves for not doing something we believe we ought to be doing. On ourselves is the operative term here. No one has a right to make us feel guilty. Why, then, do we do it to ourselves?

Specialists. Could we do without them? I personally believe the answer is yes. What I’ve found is that the specialists I’ve known who are truly excellent at their occupations are those who are specialists in the tiniest sense of the word. They can specialize only because they have left themselves open to the broadest knowledge possible.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place with a few more people who choose to specialize in being Director of What Needs to be Done Next?

Waiting in the Dark

Each year, Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas produces an Advent booklet of daily meditations by current and former members of the church — one for each day of Advent. I have had the honor of contributing for several years now. This year’s theme is Waiting for the Light. My meditation was placed to be read on December 12 this year, so I share it with you on that date.

A host of people help in the preparation of each year’s Advent meditation book. Sharlande Sledge spearheads the effort and Pam Allen designed this year’s beautiful cover. It is truly a labor of love by people who have been changed by their association with Lake Shore, myself among them.

The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. [Isaiah 9:2]

Waiting for the Light

Waiting for the Light

Waiting in the Dark

Years ago, I had to make a move to Roswell, New Mexico. It was a move I had not anticipated and had not wanted. At the end of a long, lonely drive down from Washington State, I topped a hill and saw the lights of Roswell stretching out before me in the valley below. “So, this is where I’ve come to die,” I said out loud to the empty seat next to me. Things were bleak in my life and I’d become accustomed to the idea that they were unlikely to get better. It was just before Christmas and darkness was everywhere I looked. I had never heard of Advent and wouldn’t for another thirteen years. If I knew I was waiting for the light, I’d long since forgotten it.

But, instead of being the place I’d come to die, my time there became the beginning of a rebirth. While my darkness initially deepened those first few years, one of a series of doors began to open for me in 2003. Very gradually the darkness began to dissipate. It was still to take another few years of crawling around in that darkness before I realized there was light in my life and that it had been there all along.

More recently, another move not of my choosing. The difference this time was that I’d already begun to see the light surrounding my life. A host of generous people became the mirrors of God’s light and love in my life, helping me see more clearly the light shining just around the edges of my long-familiar darkness. I finally understood the light exists wherever I move. Despite my fear, I found another host of mirrors in my new home – another source of strength where I feared there might be none.

Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the light of the world, knowing full well there would be darkness ahead for him. He understood darkness doesn’t have to consume us. He showed us there is light in all our lives and instructed us to share that light wherever we go. “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” [John 1:4-5]

Once I began to understand the light, I knew my wait was over. This Advent season, may God’s light shine into your darkness, giving strength to share the hope of Christ with others trapped in whatever darkness surrounds them. Sharing your light with another miraculously increases your own.

May this season be filled with waiting and wonder. Seize time during what has become an unnecessarily hectic season to take a deep breath and look beyond the hustle and bustle to remember that the greatest gift you can give another is the gift of yourself.

Him That Grow’d Up, Grow’d Old-er

60th sell-by date

Satchel Paige said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” I think that’s probably a trick question. It’s a little like that saying about a tree falling in the forest. If there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Yeah, like that. If there’s no one there to hear me moaning and creaking as I get out of bed fresh from turning sixty, have I really turned sixty? Have I already passed my best “sell by” date?

Here’s a little pome (this stuff hardly qualifies as a poem) in honor of my six decades — tongue-in-cheek, naturally, and dentures on a shelf.

Hint: the pome reads more easily if you use a sing-song rhythm — out loud — and forget pentameter. A Texas accent also helps. If you’re still confused by the pome, please refer to the previous fifty-five posts for background.

In looking back on years gone by
Despite the contrary things he’d know’d
Time marched on without his help
But them that watched saw how he grow’d

And things had happened on the way
But they were things he had not see’d
Though clear to others and plainly so
His anger became, you know, his creed

So long ago the lights went out
Ne’er again, he thought, would be his need
For things outside himself, you see
And with himself he much agreed

His counsel only he would keep
All others he ignored
When others thought to think him good
He thought them off their gourd

When at some point as years piled high
He found himself not quite so drunk’ed
A little light peeked through, it’s true
But life it mostly stunk’ed

His problem still, I’m here to tell you
All selfish and self-centered
No matter how he’d tried to change it
His life it still was splintered

To his surprise, things were a’changin’
These filled him full of dread
For over all those years of hiding
He’d expected, surely, to be dead

If there’s a moral to this story
We’d expect for it to lead
To something dark, foreboding
Surely not a life that’s freed

The boy that died so long ago
Or ‘least to him that’s how it seemed
Was found to still be breathing
Or was it only what he’d dreamed

He’d worried on and on and on
If him they really know’d
Would walk away and leave him there
Alone along the road

It took some time, sixty years, you know
From what he knew he’d sowed
His life was full of something, sure
That some would call a load

But things can change
Or so he’d been toad
They change no matter what you do
No matter you’ve said “vetoed!”

Things they’re changing still
And though some fear’s subsided
He’s trying to do better, true
But himself he’s still derided

Slowly, yes, ever so slowly
He found he remembered still
That one from long ago, so long
The one he’d tried to kill

So now they’re friends these two
Even have between’em a code
And with the help of each of them
On them some honors were bestowed

And you may think the two are one
With you they’ve disagreed
But gradual-like and none too fast
The merger will proceed

Good and bad they’re just one coin
On that he now agreed
You say he should have known ‘fore now
And ask if he’d accede?

The two were always one
If on that fact he’d been confused
But one forgot the other
The other not amused

Now they’ve met again
The two as one decreed
We’re in this thing together
They mutually agreed

But wait, you ask, again and louder
What’s next, how’ll it all conclude?
You look to him and wonder
Not to answer would surely be rude

Undeterred, it’s said, he turned his face
Into a wind that blow’d
And smiled, but only to himself
And ambled down the road.

Deacon Eek-in — Week One, Twice

So I was very close to ordination. I was delighted to be ordained a deacon, which is the last step between, before becoming a priest. But then it all fell apart. ~ Thomas Keneally

Unlike Mr. Keneally’s experience, in my case it all seems to have fallen together.

Sunday, October 21, 2012. I, along with five other ordinands, sat at the front of the sanctuary for the service of ordination as deacons of the church. Looking out over the congregation, I couldn’t help but wonder how this had happened. I couldn’t help but marvel at the amazing, sometimes frightening, sequence of events that brought me to this place and this time.

  • Ordination: the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is, set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies.
  • Ordinand: a candidate for ordination.
  • Benjamin Eakin: always considered a highly unlikely candidate for ordination.

I tend not to see myself in a very good light. Perhaps that’s been obvious at times. In fact, left to my own devices, I see myself as something less than worthy of notice. The roots for that go back a very long time and I won’t go into them again here. Suffice it to say I am not my biggest fan.

As I’ve said before, I stood before a congregation a few years ago to join my first church in forty years. Standing there, my thought had been, “I wish I could see myself the way these people seem to see me.” It had been only four months since first setting foot in church again and there I was joining that church. It was the beginning of a process toward changing my view of myself.

To give credit where credit is due, though, I have to admit the sequence of events began much farther back than those four years. In fact, odd as it sounds, I suppose the sequence had already begun by the time I walked away from church at age seventeen. What followed was a largely dark period of thirty-three years where much of what I might have recognized as me disappeared behind a blur of alcohol. Fighting my way back, though, finally began in earnest at age fifty with the struggle to get sober. I was to find that more of me survived than I might have suspected.

So, let’s just say the semi-conscious journey to those chairs down front began in 2003. With most things, I am nothing if not a slow learner and a fast forgetter. More than that, though, I had to fight my way through a lot of anger that was preventing me from even beginning to consider looking at what I’d come to believe about myself and the world over the years.

I’d always considered myself to be open and accepting of the world at large. It’s very uncomfortable to realize that’s not precisely the truth. I’m not saying there wasn’t a part of me that was open and accepting, I’m saying that part of me had been buried beneath a series of masks designed to protect me from the world. The problem with that approach is, once you circle the wagons, you find it affords very little protection. Instead, what you end up with is isolation. While that may seem safe at first, the result is a continually smaller world. Once the process starts, it becomes easier to continually tighten the circle. I ended up with my wagon mired in a tiny world where there was no feeling of protection at all.

I think what I saw when I first returned to church was something of a surprise to me. Without meaning to, I noticed there were loving, caring people there. These people weren’t at all the self-righteous, judging people I expected. Of course, I reserved the right at first to change my mind as soon as their true colors began to show. Usually, when I’m suspicious of something, I’m able to confirm my suspicions soon enough – even if that something isn’t really there. Self-fulfilling prophecies tend to work that way. Despite my tentative, suspicious view of the people I met at church, I found I was gradually accepting that my long-held stereotype of haughty, got-my-ticket-punched church folk was, at best, exaggerated.

Change is rarely ever pretty, almost always uncomfortable. Letting go of my negative feelings about church people has taken a while. It helps, though, when you are surrounded by people who seem to genuinely care about the world around them. The fact they are also human tends not to get in the way nearly so much. It’s largely a change of perspective. When I stop focusing on what I consider the negatives about people, I’m able to see that spark of the divine I believe exists in us all. If I’m ever able to forgive you for being human, I may find a way to forgive myself, also.

When I found out I was to be ordained as a deacon, I told an old friend I hoped to have a ring for him to kiss by the time he got back from vacation. He replied, “Ben, my father was a deacon in the Baptist Church for many years. There is no ring. I do, however, still remember the secret handshake.” Even deacons, I think, should surround themselves with smart-alecs. It keeps you humble – and laughing. My friend, Judy P., said Tom might want to start calling me “Your Eminence.” Tom thought perhaps not. Instead, he said he was afraid I was now forever going to be known as Deacon Eek-in. I’m pretty sure he’s right.

In case you’re not aware, my last name is pronounced “Akin” but spelled “Eakin.” The “E” is silent. Rather, I should say the “E” is supposed to be silent. I’ve spent a lifetime correcting people: “No, the E is silent.” I don’t much correct folks anymore. Somehow it’s just not particularly important these days.

So, Deacon Eek-in it is, I suppose. Either way you say it, God will know who you’re talking about. With help, I hope what he hears you say about me is good. At the very least, God will know whether or not you’re right.

When I was growing up, it seems I never walked from Sunday School to worship without looking over to see some of the deacons smoking in the alley. Despite some apprehension I had about that, I have been assured smoking is not actually a requirement for being a deacon. Somehow, that’s a comfort.

Back to ordination. Each of the six ordinands were to take part in the service in one way or another. I was to lead the invocation at the beginning of the service so walked out behind the pastor, music director, and two of the other ordinands. Up onto the dais we went. I and another of the ordinands sat down in the chairs on the left. Looking around, I realized everyone else up there was still standing. The music director wouldn’t motion everyone to sit until the entire choir was in place. Too late. It was going to look even more odd for me to stand again. I must point out, though, that I only sat down because the ordinand next to me sat down first. It was one of those monkey-see, monkey-do things. My very first faux pas as an almost deacon. Ah, well, it will surely not be the last.

I love to manufacture problems. Pretty early on in my new church career, I became aware of deacons again. Looking ahead, I knew there was at least a tiny chance someone might eventually ask me to serve. The plan I hatched in my head was that if I moved my church membership often enough, I could ensure a deaconship could never happen. By the time I was asked if I’d serve, I knew I didn’t want to go elsewhere. As I’ve said, things had changed. When a friend asked me at the end of August if I’d serve if she nominated me, I can’t express the honor I felt simply from being asked.

I had to fast-forward through the DVD of the ordination service to find out when the six of us actually became deacons. The service was largely a blur to me. But, there came that moment when it was declared from the pulpit that we were deacons. I don’t think I felt any different at that moment than I had the moment before. That would come shortly in the laying on of hands ceremony.

The six of us – new deacons – moved to the front of the sanctuary to sit in chairs facing the congregation. Slowly, the congregation became a sea of individuals moving past us. They leaned over to offer congratulations, perhaps a prayer. I don’t remember much of what was said. I mostly remember how I felt. The tears started immediately as the pastor leaned down to me first. The tears continued until the end. Viewing the DVD, I realized that, from the vantage point of the balcony, this ceremony was very much like watching grass grow.

From the perspective of one who sat in those chairs down front, however, it seemed the world had shifted just a bit on its axis. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting the ceremony made me feel special – if only for a little while. You see, time had passed since that thought of “I wish I could see myself a little the way these people seem to see me.” I now realized that I was beginning to see what they saw. Very gradually, I’ve begun to forgive myself for being human. I’ve begun to accept that there’s at least a small part of me that wants to serve others. Perhaps I’ve done that in some ways for a very long time. The difference now is that I see I may really have not had an ulterior motive behind every move I’ve made over the years. Part of that is simply who Ben is, no matter how I may have tried to deny it.

So, now the real work begins. In so many ways, I really have just fallen off the turnip truck. Thankfully, I have no idea yet what that work is to be. I’d hate to scare myself more than I do normally. Next Sunday will be my first deacon meeting. In my church, deacons serve three-year terms. As I understand it, I became a deacon on October 21. My term as an active deacon, however, didn’t start until November 1. So, in a way, each of the two preceding weeks could serve as week one for Deacon Eek-in.

What’s ahead I can only guess. I know the deacons go to camp together once a year. Oh, sure, they call is a retreat but I know that’s just a grown-up word for camp. I’ve already begun writing my name inside my underwear. There’s just so much to learn — so much preparation.

All jokes aside, I have been given a gift I never expected to receive. Two congregations have played a part in helping move me from that deer-in-the-headlights guy at the front of one church to that grateful-to-God guy at the front of another. Through the eyes of each one of those people, I believe, God looked out and smiled at me.

It’s amazing what a smile can do.

My Life as a Marlboro Man

As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain from smoking when awake. ~ Mark Twain

Technically speaking, I wasn’t really the Marlboro Man – at least not one of those three poor cowboys who ended up dying of lung cancer after appearing in Marlboro commercials over many years. Yep, they were real cowboys. Philip Morris & Company wanted some authenticity in the commercials. What they got was likely more authenticity than they’d bargained for.

Marlboro cigarettes can be traced back as far as 1847 in England, though I wasn’t smoking them then. The Marlboro Man campaign was started in 1955 in an effort to transition from what was first marketed in the U.S. in 1902 as a “woman’s” cigarette that was “Mild as May” to a “man’s” cigarette. Gone were the mild references to women. The new Marlboro smoker was a rugged man. It appears their efforts paid off handsomely. The original Marlboro men were models and Philip Morris decided they weren’t rugged enough. That’s when they went out and found some real cowboys.

I was three years old when the Marlboro Man advertising campaign began but I don’t believe I smoked my first cigarette before I was twelve. Apparently, I resisted the advertising as long as I could. It’s been downhill ever since.

I don’t recall smoking regularly until age seventeen. It may be that I just don’t remember well, but by seventeen smoking had become a pretty essential part of my everyday life. Unfortunately, I tend to have a fairly addictive personality. Booze and cigarettes seem to be made for each other. At least it seemed that way to me. In addition, cigarettes were more acceptable to other folks during working hours than a six-pack of Budweiser.

I was a hairburner for most of the years between age eighteen and twenty-five. For a variety of not particularly good reasons, I decided I would not go to college. Oh, sure, I was also a bank teller for part of that time but cutting hair provided the bulk of my meager income during those years. Cigarettes seemed an essential part of a job I mostly hated. I felt I had to be on-stage performing and talking all day long as I cut hair. Terribly shy, it was an effort to show up for work and become responsible for the hair (and lives, as so many of them seem to feel) of countless people. I mean, just how many Dorothy Hamill cuts did they expect me to do in one day?

There was also always Valium around to help take the edge off, but smoking seemed to relax me the most. During that period, in fact, I relaxed with up to three packs a day. And, long after the Valium had been put away, the cigarettes and booze remained as constant companions.

I’ve quit smoking a number of times over the years. I think I made it three months once or twice. But, like my drinking, I didn’t have a quitting problem, I had a starting problem. Seems there were always reasons why today just wasn’t a good day to quit, while it always felt like today would be a great day to start. The reasons varied but were mostly a variation on a theme.

For instance, I was absolutely going to quit smoking when cigarettes reached a dollar a pack. A pack cost around twenty-five cents when I started. So, prices would have to quadruple in order to trigger the financial incentive to quit. It was sometime around 1987 before a pack exceeded a dollar. By that time, I’d already been smoking for over twenty years and had managed to move the price point up a bit. In fact, each year found me moving the financial incentive even higher. The price of a pack of cigarettes today is at least twenty times what it was when I started. Obviously, the financial incentive was simply not going to work in my case.

In the 1980s, I was still smoking in my office at the book publishing company. Yes, the hair cutting career had come to end. My smoking had not. My father wasn’t all that thrilled but, you know, I had an ashtray in there and figured I should use it. We smokers eventually moved outside. We continued to smoke inside at home, though. Sometime in the nineties, however, we moved the smoking permanently outside – it was yellowing the paint. You might think smoking outside with a temperature below freezing or well above 100 would be a fine incentive to quit. Again, you’d be wrong. The weather incentive simply meant you smoked faster. It’s good to be adaptable when you’re a smoker.

The Surgeon General’s office first published warnings about the dangers of smoking in 1964. Coincidentally, that’s about the time I started smoking. As a very mature, I’m sure, twelve-year-old, I was not at all worried. After all, twelve-year-olds are invincible. Ask them. They’ll be happy to tell you.

I’m not entirely certain sixty-year-olds are quite so invincible.

I have been sick to death of smoking many times over the years, so have repeatedly decided to quit. The patch, Nicorette gum, hypnosis, acupuncture. Tried ’em all – learned to smoke with them all.

When I got sober almost ten years ago, my plan was to quit drinking, quit smoking, and go off my anti-depressants all at the same time. Frankly, the anti-depressants had to go because I could no longer afford them. A friend counseled me against trying to stop them all at the same time, so the smoking stayed. It was difficult to determine which of a variety of frightening withdrawal side-effects I was dealing with when I stopped drinking and weaned myself off anti-depressants at the same time. It was quite a roller-coaster ride – one I don’t recommend.

I think I may have finally run out of excuses to continue smoking – except one. I’ve spoken with many people who insist that giving up cigarettes is even more difficult than giving up drinking. I might feel the need to argue with them on that point but I will concede smoking is a strong addiction. After forty-three years of almost continuous smoking, the question has become what to do with all the time left over when not smoking.

Yes, not smoking. I started taking Chantix again a few weeks ago. I’ve decided it might be nice to give myself a birthday present of another broken addiction for my sixtieth.

Wondering why no blog in a while? Let’s blame it on Chantix. One of the ways Chantix works is by slowing the metabolism. So, I’ve been a little mellow yellow [Donovan, 1966] of late. Most times, I write when I’m at least slightly angry. How does that work? Well, I write furiously (or while I’m furious), then take out about half of what I’ve written – the really angry parts. Without smoking, I’m left without the creative break of stopping every so often to go to the garage for a smoke while allowing my brain to run through what I’m writing. Now I have to figure out how to write without that distraction. Maybe I should be angry about that. Why yes, that might even help.

Of course, I’ve been on Chantix before, though it’s been a few years ago. Chantix interferes with the receptors in your brain that give you that bang for your buck from a cigarette. Despite that, I just wouldn’t put them down and learned to smoke with Chantix, as well. Some people think I’m a little stubborn.

So, I’m not saying I’m a non-smoker – yet. There are still those forty-three years telling me it ain’t necessarily so.

Besides, there are downsides to quitting. For one, I’m beginning to taste food again. As I’ve long suspected, I’m still not particularly fond of the stuff. And, what to do with your hands? It took forever to figure out how to stand around without a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I finally learned to lean on one hip so as not to be too unbalanced while smoking. Now, without a cigarette, I seem to be tipping over into walls or scrubs – at least a little more than usual.

The benefits of not smoking are legion. My lungs would appreciate a break, my pocketbook would certainly appreciate a break, and there’s a certain part of my psyche that would appreciate being able to pretend that I control something in my life.

It’s a little late now to retire on what I spent on cigarettes for the last forty-three years. Instead of quitting today, I think I’ll try just not starting.

God’s Fine Print

Nothing in fine print is ever good news. ~ Andy Rooney

Ever notice how our lives seem to be filled with fine print? We’re confronted on a daily basis with offers too good to be true, often failing to notice the fine print beneath the offer. Upon reading the tiny type at the bottom of the offer, the end result is that we find, in fact, the offer was too good to be true. We’re a people who love to get something for nothing and are continually fooled into thinking something for nothing actually exists.

In very many ways, I was taught growing up all about God’s fine print. Sure, they may call it Good News but, as Andy Rooney says, it turns out nothing in fine print is ever good news.

God is love. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But, wait. Someone seems always ready to point out their own version of God’s fine print. You are loved – but only if you do x, y, and z while rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time. You are loved but if you’re not careful it can all turn on a dime and leave you in a world of hurt. We’re dealing with a finicky God here, you’re given to understand, full of contradictions and not a little vengeance.

I’m afraid I heard too much of what others believe compose the exceedingly long list of reservations contained in the recitation of caveats to God’s love. I’ve long had my doubts, however. It seems to me God’s love has to be either/and or either/but. Either God is love (and I am loved) or God is not (and I may be loved, but it depends). A long list of buts would simply prove that God is not love. That seems, for me, not to be an option.

Here, then, is the sum total of what I believe to be contained in God’s fine print:

”                                .”

It’s a rather quick read. As it turns out, there really is one thing we have that qualifies as getting something for nothing. While there appears to be nothing I can do in this life to earn God’s love, it is there nevertheless. While I can certainly treat my neighbor better than I’m accused of doing on occasion, I do not have it in my power to lessen God’s love for me when I don’t. I’m simply not that much in command of the world around me. Sure, it took me a long time to realize it, but I’m finally ready to admit the world does not revolve around me.

So, when you’re tempted to listen to those who place conditions on a love God refuses to place on himself, I might suggest that you say to those people, as Jesus said to Peter, “ ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ ” [Matthew 16:23]

But, you may ask, “Why should I do good things when there’s no threat of punishment?” I’ve always considered this to be a ridiculous question. The threat of punishment doesn’t encourage me to love God and my neighbor, it merely puts me in a position of resenting the need to love God and my neighbor. Rather, the freedom received in believing that I am loved by God is the only encouragement I believe actually works. It stops judgment on my part, reminding me that judgment is not my job. That belief allows me to see my neighbors as the flawed humans I know myself to be, and in turn to give them the same break I’d like for myself. God, after all, is in the redemption business — not the punishment business. Punishment is what we do to ourselves. Or, if we don’t, there are always plenty of others at the ready to do the punishing themselves — and that, thankfully, is not of God.

If there’s any fine print in God’s repertoire, I believe it is the same as the big print: God is love. And if God is love, you are loved.

Now, that’s good news.