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.

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.

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.

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.

A Summer Vacation — Almost

A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking. ~ Earl Wilson

I seem to have taken a little hiatus from writing of late. It’s almost like I’ve taken a summer vacation. Almost. Sadly, I’m not good at taking vacations and have almost never done it. I’m one of those people who has always needed to take someone else along who was better than I at deciding how to have fun, how to decide what it is we need to do next. Well, decide what it is I need to do next. I may not have realized it then, but I’d already handed over the living of my life to other people – people whom I felt knew better how my life should be lived. Up the that point, I was pretty sure I’d already failed miserably at that task.

I had a great time at Six Flags once. I was probably nineteen and already had no idea how to fun. Fun, loosely defined, meant taking a risk and I was already pretty much done with risk by that point in my life. Not a dangerous physical risk, you understand. The risk was in looking stupid, looking childish. It meant trying not to offer myself up to ridicule by looking silly in the pursuit of enjoying a moment too openly. My friend would say, “Let’s ride the roller coaster.” I didn’t want to do that. Roller coasters are scary. They’re controlled danger, designed to raise the adrenaline level while, at the same time, keeping you strapped safely in place. I rode the roller coaster anyway and had fun.

See, there’s an equally disturbing second part to having fun. Not wanting to stand out, I agreed to do something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do in order not to look frightened or to appear to be too much of a stick-in-the-mud. Of course, I knew I was both. Life’s complicated, isn’t it? I knew I might actually have fun if I got on the roller coaster but couldn’t take that first step of my own accord. I needed some help to step outside my comfort zone and gamble there might be a reward in doing so. By comparison to the continent of the Americas, my comfort zone had already shrunk to the size of Rhode Island.

Years later, I took what was to be essentially my last vacation. I was still in my thirties. Here’s how it went:

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, whatever you want to do.”

Now, imagine a week of that. Rule number one for taking a vacation when you’re uncertain how to do it? Make sure you’re going with someone who isn’t equally afraid of making a decision about what might be fun. Either of us could have been wrong, you see, and neither of us wanted that to happen.

As I recall, every other trip that might have been called a vacation could also be called a working vacation. Those were a little easier. Those were the type of vacations my family took when I was growing up. Too often, I suppose, we tend to do what’s familiar. We continue because it’s easier than taking a risk. Working vacations mean there’s less actual free time for which you have to take responsibility. Mary Crosby said, “I can enjoy a vacation as well as the next person, as long as I know it’s a vacation and not a premature retirement.” I suppose that’s always been another of my worries. I’m afraid to go away because someone might discover I’m not indispensable.

So, as apprehensive as I may have been about going on a mission trip with my church, I went. I suppose it could also have been seen as a working vacation. We had jobs to do when we arrived and there would be some off time to do as we would. I could choose to spend that time with others in the group or spend some of it for my own quiet time. I did a little of both. What I’d already learned by then was that how that trip went depended entirely on me. Entirely. I could open myself to new experiences and grow or I could spend a week in fear and do as little as I could get away with. Hopefully, I chose the former. But I knew how I perceived the week was dependent on remembering that I don’t and can’t control the actions of others. As long as I remembered to take care of my own little piece of Rhode Island (me), I could allow others the same courtesy without (too much) judgment.

I hadn’t taken a hat along with me for the mission trip because I was supposed to be working indoors. Besides, I hate hats. Well, hate may be a little strong. What I really hate is how I think I look in a hat. There, that’s a little more honest. And yet, I ended up one day working on the labyrinth one of the teams was building. I spent a lot of the day shoveling crushed concrete in the full sun.

It finally dawned on me that I should probably at least put on a little sunscreen. Later, I realized I hadn’t put any sunscreen on the back of my neck. I always seem to burn there worse than anywhere else. So, I finally decided to run back across the street to grab another one of my t-shirts. I put the neck of the shirt on my forehead and allowed the rest of it to drape over the top of my head and down my back. Some of the missioners thought I looked a little Egyptian that way. Rosa, another friend, said she was thinking more along the lines of Mary.

Bottom line? I didn’t care. I could laugh at Rosa’s comment because I knew there was no malice in what she said. In the past, I would have assumed malice and taken offense. I’ve found, however, life’s so much easier when I don’t do all the thinking for others. Oh, sure, I still do part of it for them, but not so much as I did in the past. And besides, Rosa’s comment was funny. Why wouldn’t I laugh? It’s a part of what having friends is all about.

But, I’ve been occupied with some real-life issues since returning from that trip. What is it, I wonder, that makes them real-life issues? I mean, as opposed to what? Unreal-life issues? It’s interesting sometimes to wonder where some of our expressions come from. It’s a little like reality TV, I think. If reality TV shows are what we believe are actual reality, no wonder we’re in deep trouble. They seem more designed to make us feel better – dare I say superior – to others. We can sit back with our beverage of choice and laugh at the antics of the characters. At the characters, not with. Another reason I don’t watch reality TV.

It’s not good, however, to look too closely at the things at which we are laughing. If we were to take a good, honest look at ourselves, we’d too often find our laughter is like the little boy whistling in the dark. He’s trying to distract himself so he won’t be as afraid. Can it be we’ve become a nation of people who need to look down on others in an effort to elevate ourselves?

Anyway, back to those real-life issues. Mission trip helped me see that I can move forward. I can keep fear in its place. Fear is a good thing in small doses. It helps us protect ourselves from real danger. Taken in too big a dose, however, it tends to freeze us in place. We can’t move forward for fear of what we may find a little way up the path. I’m finding that taking a little bit of fear out of the equation allows me to step forward a little bit and peer into the future. Unfortunately, perhaps, that means also peering into the past.

As long as I remain unwilling to look a little forward and a little back, it’s likely my present will look today just like it did yesterday. If I continue to be afraid of the answers, I will never ask the questions. And not just safe questions. At least in my case, I’ve found the only way to determine what I need to do next is by asking the dangerous questions. The but-what-about-that-scary-stuff questions that have frozen me in time for many years.

So, it’s time to ask questions, then really listen for the answers. If I ask the right questions – and those are simply the ones whose answers can frighten me the most – I can begin to see what I need to do in order to move out of a place of fear to a place of faith. It’s not like I haven’t done it several times in the past few years. It’s that more questions are revealed once I’ve acted on the answers I’ve received to the previous questions. It seems each new set of questions triggers yet another round of fear on my part. The difference, I hope, is that I’m beginning to learn that not asking the questions is more detrimental to me than asking them.

So, vacation’s over. It’s time to sharpen my Number 2 pencils and drag out my Big Chief notebook. There will be a test, of course. There always is, don’t you know? Fortunately, it’s not the grade I get that matters. What matters is that I came, I saw, and I surrendered. Conquering has always been a useless enterprise for me because the reality is that we never really conquer. The result is always that we discover we’ll need to conquer something else, then another something else, ad infinitum. Surrendering means never having to say “I’m sorry” to yourself. It opens my eyes to what’s real and allows me to take a step forward where others too frightened are still trying to conquer.

I’m finding there’s no need to apologize to myself as long as I know I’ve done the best I can do at any given moment. God asks nothing more of me. And I should never think less of myself for having tried. As long as I do what I can, I’ve not failed. If I wake up in the morning, I have another chance to find out who it is I’m supposed to be. That takes questions, answers, and the willingness to act on the answers to the questions I didn’t want to ask.

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

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.