Sunday, February 26, 2012

Joe's Proposal

The deacons’ flower fund was often referred to as the "widows’ flower fund," due to the fact that the majority of expenditures went for flowers sent to funerals of male members of the church. It was a rather large church, with a quite populous senior membership. The eighteen men serving as deacons reflected this disproportion. In fact, I was the only deacon under the age of forty, or fifty for that matter. Sadly, the "widow’s flower fund" was not a dormant account, by any means.

Every month I gave a report of how much money was in the account, what flowers had been sent out for what funeral, and so forth. It was a fairly routine part of the monthly deacons’ meetings. Oh, there was sometimes a comment here or there concerning the report, but generally the men sat quietly while I talked, sipping their early morning coffee.

Joe wasn’t one of the prominent members of the deacon body. He didn’t live in an affluent neighborhood or drive nearly as nice a car as most of the rest of the older heads that served as deacon. His dress wasn’t as sharp and he had a difficult time hearing a lot of what was being said at the meetings, despite the hearing aids he wore in both ears. His glasses were seemingly an inch thick and Joe rarely spoke up at meetings, generally sitting off to the side by himself.

But there was a servant’s heart the size of Mount Rushmore beating inside Joe. He was the first to help out anyone in a time of need. He probably did more unseen, unheard of deeds for others in the church than the rest of us deacons combined. He was a deacon’s deacon.

As I rambled through my flower fund report one particular month, I felt an air of opposition to an expenditure that had been made. A somewhat regular attender of our church had passed away and the deacon officers had instructed me to make the normal purchase of a spray of flowers to be delivered to the funeral home, which I had done.

"Am I to understand that we now are sending flowers to the funerals of non-members of the church?"

The question pierced the air of meeting room, and several sets of bushy eyebrows raised in sudden curiosity. Before I could respond, the chairman of the deacons responded that the order was authorized by the officers, and that the deceased was well known throughout the church.

"But he wasn’t a member, was he?"

And with that, the discussion was on. This group opposed the purchase, while that group saw nothing wrong with it. As disagreements tend to do, the issue soon expanded and got rather heated. After a few minutes motions were flying that would define procurement procedures and guidelines for how, when, and who would receive these grand gestures of kindness on our behalf.

The volume and intensity were about at a fever pitch when suddenly from his isolated seat, Joe rose from his chair and barked, "Stop this nonsense, right now!"

A dead silence fell over the room as Joe stood at the table, as red in the face as I’d ever seen him.

"First of all, it was a $35.00 expense." Joe reached in his back pocket and pulled out an old brown leather wallet. Tossing out a twenty, a ten, and a five he said, "There, covered." What he said next has stayed with me to this day.

"Now, I have a proposal of my own to make. Instead of worrying so gall dern much about sending flowers for the dead, why don’t we start thinking about ways to show love towards folk whilst they’re still alive! I know people in this church that aren’t doing too well, need their house worked on and cain’t afford it, could use help paying for food and bills. I got an idea: let’s take that money for a six month trial period and go out and find people that we can truly help. I guarantee you, the results from that little test will be a lot more satisfyin’ than what’s gone on in here this morning!"

The discussion ended as an air of conviction fell over the group. Joe started back for his corner seat. But then he turned and said one more lasting comment.

"Oh, by the way, send me my flowers whilst I’m still alive."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Whitney Houston...

Like most of you, I watched with some interest the coverage of Whitney Houston’s passing. In case you’ve just crawled out from under a rock, one of the defining pop voices of our time died last week in, probably, what we’ll eventually learn was a substance abuse oriented demise. She had a vocal talent that transcended race, age group, or musical taste. In other words, who didn’t like Whitney Houston's beautiful voice? Her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl in 1991, as our nation was engaged in the first Gulf War, is still considered the standard by which all national anthem performances are judged. I’ve posted a linked to it below. If you’re American and don’t get a little goosepimply watching it, better check your pulse.

Yes, as a performer, Houston was in a class of her own. But my interest in the coverage of her death was from a spiritual standpoint. And once again, the world took a popular figure and decided that the gates of heaven swung wide open due to her enormous contribution to society. One eulogizer at her funeral stated, "Everyone in heaven, including God, is waiting. And I just know you're going to raise the roof like no one else has done before "

Really? God is waiting to hear a Whitney Houston concert in heaven? I bet He has good seats. Maybe Amy Winehouse opens for her, and Michael Jackson will make a special cameo appearance...

I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead. That isn’t my point at all. There were other eulogies given at Houston’s funeral, but one delivered by movie maker and actor Tyler Perry caught my ear the most. Perry said:

"Grace is what carried her. Grace is what kept on carrying her all the way through. She was not even supposed to speak because of a childhood incident. However, she went on to sing to the top of the charts; singing before presidents. That same grace carried her home."

Grace. Perry was referring to Ephesians 2:8 which states,

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God"

Whitney Houston sang her way into our hearts, but she was a sinner, like the rest of us...saved only through the Grace of Almighty God by sending Jesus to die on Calvary’s Cross for payment of her sin...and mine...and yours.

Tyler Perry said he was reminded of a scripture by Paul in Romans:

"For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come. Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)

While I’m of the belief that this scripture, along with others, tells me our salvation can never be lost, I realize that some hold different viewpoints. Respectful of that, we can all agree that we can not move ourselves one inch closer to heaven through our good deeds...or our wonderful talents.

I do look forward to hearing Whitney Houston sing in a heavenly choir one day. Maybe, we’ll all join her as we look to Jesus and sing, "I Will Always Love You."

Whitney Houston’s Star Spangled Banner performance:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

10:00 - BELLE!!

In the lobby of a local nursing home, there is a dry erase board resting on an easel that lists the activities of the day. Singing groups, crafts workshops, and Bible studies are some of the many events that the board announces on a daily basis. Many of the residents plan their days around that simple dry erase board. 

Every other Wednesday, there is a special appointment written on the board that sends a surge of excitement throughout the facility. The announcement simply reads, "10:00 - BELLE!!" That’s when Belle the therapy dog makes her appointed rounds.

Belle is our nine year old Great Dane. We’ve always called her a petite Great Dane, because she’s significantly smaller than the breed standard. She was a stray when we took her in over eight years ago, dumped from where she was born, probably because she was the runt of the litter. Living in Louisiana at the time, my wife said she was a pretty Southern belle. The name stuck and Belle has been a part of our family since.

Belle became a certified therapy dog about a year ago, and has visited mostly nursing homes. She’s always had a loving disposition, wanting to please whomever she’s in contact with. During her regular Wednesday appointments, as Belle perfected the art of pet therapy, I’ve witnessed some special moments.

On Belle’s initial Wednesday visit, we were escorted by the activities director through the halls, day rooms, and into the residents’ individual rooms. I had a great deal of anxiety about how Belle would do. We’d been through all the training, passed our certification exams, but now we were actually going to be visiting real, live people. I imagined all kinds of calamities occurring.

Belle breezed through the first dozen or so visits and performed marvelously. I was beginning to relax, realizing that she was going to be just fine. Then, the activities director led us into a room where an elderly lady was laying on her bed, on her side, unable to speak. I asked her if she’d like to meet my dog and, while her eyes lit up when she saw Belle, it was obvious she was unable to move herself to a position where she could pet her. I noticed her frail, weak hand, reaching out the best she could in an attempt to pet Belle, who was sitting beside her bed, but far from her reach. I wasn’t sure what to do, but Belle instinctively provided the answer.

In the gentlest manner, Belle raised herself up and placed her front two paws on the woman’s bed. She began leaning toward the woman, moving ever so slowly and carefully. Then, she stretched out her long neck, putting her head under the woman’s outstretched hand. The instant her nose nuzzled beneath the lady’s frail fingers, the woman smiled a beautiful, warm smile. She slowly, lovingly stroked Belle’s head. Both the activity director and I stood in stunned silence at the moment. Finally, she asked me, "How did you train her to do that?"

All I could say through the lump in my throat was, "I didn’t. Somehow she just knew."

Another woman Belle visits has no one to talk to her. Not because the staff and other residents have shunned her, but because Vita only speaks Italian. She sits in silence most of her days, unable to communicate with those around her. Whenever Belle makes her appointed rounds though, a private moment of love is shared between the two. Sitting in her wheelchair, Vita wraps her arms around Belle’s neck and begins an outpouring of affection and lets loose a dialog of bottled-up conversation that only she and perhaps Belle understand. The staff have informed me that it is the only time they see Vita smile, when she’s "conversing" with Belle.

2Corinthians 1:3-4 says our Heavenly Father is the "...the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God." (NIV)

Perhaps like me, you’ve always read that passage and never thought in terms of that comfort and compassion coming from a dog. Belle’s appointed rounds will make you stop and realize that God’s love can come from a variety of sources.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Taxicabs and Locomotives

He had served his country well during a period when evil threatened to take over all corners of the world. Serving in Guam, the Philippines, and in post-war Japan, John had come home from World War II with honor. Standing a gangly six feet, two inches tall, the home folk had even more reason to look up to him than his height. He returned to driving a cab as he’d done before the war and began to date a dark haired girl some five years his junior by the name of Juanita. They were quickly becoming an item and, one thing leading to another, John got up his nerve to ask a question one night while driving Juanita around town in the taxi.

"I don’t supposed you’d consider marrying me, would you?" He often spoke in a quizzical tone, making those around him chuckle.

"I suppose I would," Juanita replied, mocking her husband-to-be’s tone..and that was that. Juanita was thrilled inside, but trying her best to match John’s nonchalance. Her mother, on the other hand, was not thrilled in the least bit at the aspect of John becoming her son-in-law. She had a dim view of men in general, having been abandoned by Juanita’s father during the depression to raise the infant Juanita and her five older brothers on her own.

John quickly knew that his job driving the taxi would not support himself and new wife, despite her extra income working part time at the local five-and-dime. He sought gainful employment here and there, but with an influx of men coming home from the war, jobs were scarce. The newleyweds struggled to make ends meet.  Meanwhile the mother-in-law’s opinion of John wasn’t improving.

Then, a friend of a friend mentioned the railroad was taking on trainees and war veterans were being given special consideration. John quickly went down to the local depot and was granted an interview on the spot. He made the most of the situation. By the end of the meeting, he was selected for one of the new positions. After he’d completed a three week period of trainee trips, he would be hired full-time as a brakeman. His elation quickly faded when the railroad official told him, "You do realize that there is no pay for the trainee period..." No pay, for three weeks.

John went home, somewhat perplexed by his situation. He knew the railroad position was too good to pass up, but three weeks seemed like an eternity to a couple that were living virtually day to day. He and his new bride calculated how much money they needed to survive the three weeks. Fifty dollars would get them through, fifty dollars. He went to the bank, where he was met by a man that had known him since he was a young boy.

"There’s the war hero," the banker said, thrusting out his hand to shake John’s. "What can I do for you?"

John explained his situation. The banker listened carefully, nodding his head understandingly.

"Sure, John, we can help you out. All we need is two co-signers, and the money’s yours."

Two co-signers?? For fifty dollars? John felt a prideful indignation beginning to tighten his jaw. "You mean I can risk my life for this country for the past four years and I’m not worth fifty dollars?" He got up and left the bank.

Job 40:12 tells us "Look at every proud man and humble him..." Yet pride can be the toughest, most bitter pill to swallow. But John knew what he had to do. There was only one other source where he might be able to obtain the money. He drove himself out to a farm a few miles from town. Reluctantly knocking on the front door, he was met by a woman with a suspicious scowl creasing her weather-worn face.

He looked her in the eye and said, "Ma’am, I need to borrow fifty dollars so I can get a job on the railroad and provide your daughter with a better life." He felt his jaw muscles tighten as his clenched his teeth after the last word had left his mouth.

My grandmother looked at my father with a little more respect that day, nodded, and went to get the money. His career on the railroad lasted the next 37 years, and his family wanted for nothing.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Cheeky Moment

We had face painted at the county fair for the past several years, supporting one of the other couples in our church whose ministry was working with children. My wife and I admired their work and manning the face painting booth for a few hours each year was our way of showing appreciation and support for the fine service they performed.

While my wife possesses some artistic gifts, I can’t really say I have any. We were taught to paint simple figures like a flower or a grassy hillside with the sun shining down upon it. After all, it wasn’t the painting itself, but rather, the story you told as you painted on the child’s cheek. Even with my lack of talent, the drawings eventually became easier. Child after child stepped up, plopped down in the chair in front of us, picked out the figure they wanted painted on their little cheek and sat in silence while we painted.

We used four or five different colors in our face painting ministry. Black represented the sin in our life. Red-the blood of Jesus, shed for the payment of that sin. White-the complete washing of our sins, and so forth. As we used each color, we explained in the simplest of terms the Gospel of Christ. Most sat staring forward, just waiting for the moment we held up a mirror for them to see their masterpieces. But not every job went that way.

Angie was a pretty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl of about eleven years. By the time Angie got to my chair, my back was aching a bit from the constant bending position I’d been in for a hour or so. My enthusiasm for the work was really waning.

She sat down and said she wanted flowers, "Three of them, please." I sort of sighed and started yet another drawing. Like the rest of the kids, Angie just sat staring forward while I painted and talked. Truthfully, I was looking forward to taking a much needed break with a cold drink as soon as I finished with her flowers.

Finishing up the drawing and story, I asked Angie the same question I’d asked dozens before her, expecting the same non-response that I’d always received. As I finished her face painting, I asked, "Now, Angie, have you ever given your heart to Jesus and made Him the Lord of your life?" I began dunking my paint brush down into a cup of water and looked to see if there was any other child waiting in line.

Angie’s face whirled around quickly, her bright blue eyes lighting up as she blurted out, "No, but I’ve wanted to for a long time!" I nearly knocked the water cup off the table.

"You have?"

"Yes! I keep trying to get my mom to take me to church so I can tell someone, but she hasn’t taken me yet."

"Where’s your mom, now?"

"Over there."

"Can you go get her for me?"

My mind raced as Angie ran over, got her mother, and returned to my booth. I told her of my conversation with Angie. The woman’s chin quivered as I relayed to her Angie’s desire to turn her life over to Christ. She sat down in stunned silence, tears running down her cheeks.

"I feel awful"...she looked at Angie and promised that tomorrow, being Sunday, they would go to church.

"We’ve just been so busy..." Her voice trailed off. I had gathered my wits somewhat from what had occurred and asked if I could pray with her and her daughter. She nodded and we bowed in prayer...

In Matthew 19:14, Jesus tells his disciples, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."  His disciples had perhaps seen the children trying to get to Jesus as nuisances to Him, not worthy of His time. Unfortunately, Angie’s mom had regarded going to church in a similar fashion, when in reality, the most important moment in her daughter’s life was being repressed. So often as parents, we allow the world around us to blur our focus.

...Angie changed my life that afternoon in the face painting booth. And, as she prayed to receive Christ as her Savior with me that day, He changed her life...forever.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Scouting out a Real Lesson

I was a boy of about nine years old and there was a Saturday afternoon Cub Scout activity at the large Presbyterian church my family attended. There were about 20 of us boys busy with our scouting activities, all under the watchful eyes of several volunteer parents. I don’t recall what the activities were, but I do remember seeing another activity that left a lasting impression. As I took a break and went into one of the restrooms off the fellowship hall of the church, I found another young boy, about a year or two older than me, cleaning the sinks. He looked up at me as I entered the restroom and quickly looked back down, as if he were a little embarrassed I’d found him cleaning the restroom. I’d seen the boy at school before, but I didn’t really know him. I wondered if he had gotten into some sort of trouble, or something. 
As I left the restroom, I went out into the hallway to get a drink and found the boy’s parents mopping the floor and dusting some bookshelves. I had to wait to get a drink because the boy’s little sister was wiping off the stainless steel of the water fountain. The whole family was cleaning the church building on a Saturday afternoon. I wondered what on earth was going on.

I went back into the fellowship hall, puzzled by what I’d witnessed. My nine year old curiosity got the best of me and I went up to one of the fathers helping supervise our activity. He was also one of the lay leaders of the church.

"Why are the Smiths cleaning up the church building? Are they our janitors?" I asked the man. He just smiled and shook his head...

Sometimes when Christians bring up the subject of giving, people get a little uncomfortable. There’s a reason that roughly 25% of all Jesus’s teachings regard money. That reason wasn’t that He was after our money. No, Jesus was, is, and always will be after our hearts. He knew that our relationship with money and material things would be a major hurdle for many to have a true spiritual relationship. In one instance, Jesus tells a rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and THEN he could follow Him. He encountered many other wealthy individuals, but there’s never another instance of Jesus telling someone to do this. He saw into the man’s heart. Matthew 6:21 says "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Each one of us has to ask, where is my heart, what do I treasure more than the relationship I have with the Father?

...In a compassionate voice, the man explained to me that the family didn’t feel like they had enough money to give to the church like they’d like to give, so once a month they worked in the church building to make up for it. Normally, no one would be here on Saturday, so they do it then...That idea was intriguing to my young mind. Here was someone who thought they didn’t give enough, in terms of money, so they were willing to give their own time in order to be able to give more. In that short, but powerful lesson I learned a lot about true giving.