Tuesday, October 27, 2009

People who fill the air with their opinions can become nauseating

A great lesson life has taught me is that people are blessed more by our caring than by our opinions. Yet many people seem oblivious to this truth.

If we are at all teachable most of us learn this basic truth in a hundred different ways. We learn it early as children. Wise parents do not insist that their children agree with them in all things; they recognize that people are different and even encourage individuality in their children.

Some children, for example, will not like spinach but may enjoy green beans. What is important is that children eat green vegetables, not that they are forced to eat spinach. Since green beans will do the trick, there is no need to blow a gasket because a child refuses to eat spinach.

The use of such wisdom by loving parents helps us to grasp this truth: Love is essential even though opinions may be different. So what matters is that a child feel loved, not that the child shares all the opinions of the parents.

My parents had strong feelings about many things. When I was growing up, they refused to work on Sundays unless the ox was in the ditch. They would not allow me or my siblings to go to a movie on Sunday. These and other principles they instilled in us when we were young. But they did not disown us when, as adults, we began to disagree with some of their opinions.

What I finally realized after many years as an adult is that my parents modeled this truth in our home for their children – caring is vastly more important than opinions. Opinions are really a dime a dozen. Love, however, is a fundamental need of the human spirit. Without genuine caring, all the opinions in the world are worthless.

I learned this concept also as a pastor. People are not sitting in their homes waiting for the pastor to come by and share his opinions about everything under the sun. Actually this is so true that nobody really gives a hoot about what the pastor thinks – until they know his heart, and that he truly cares about people.

This has given birth to the dictum that most pastors have embraced: people do not care what you know until they know that you care. Some pastors have learned the hard way that people will not even listen to their opinions, much less really hear them, until they know deep down that their pastor cares about them.

As a brash young pastor I had opinions about everything – from the evil of drinking alcohol to the healing services of television evangelist Oral Roberts. I learned fairly quickly that people were not waiting with baited breath to hear what I thought; they were watching and wondering if I had any compassion to share with them.

The real bore for me today is the person who pretends to know something about every subject and chomps at the bit to spray the air with his inflexible views. You can never have a decent conversation with the person; all you can do is listen or walk away in disgust.

Everywhere you turn in our culture you are bombarded with opinions – about health care, Iraq, Afghanistan, abortion, the President, illegal immigrants, medicine, fraud, crime, global warming, and a thousand other things. There are so many opinions you hardly know whose you can trust.

The bottom line for me is simply this: Opinions become useful only within the context of love, and nobody wants to know what you think until they know you care about them. Are we not all fed up with opinions – but still hungry for love?

Care about me and I may listen to your opinions but please, keep them to yourself until I ask you what you think. And do remember to shut up now and then – so you can hear what I think.

There is a good chance we may disagree, but that will be alright as long as I know you care about me and you know that I care about you. @

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Reflections on Zambia and some of the people we met

Adam was lonely so God made Eve for him. Walter was lonely and God made Dean for me. Together we have traveled to five of the world’s continents. We have met wonderful people everywhere we have visited, but none more charming than the gracious people of Zambia.
Dean has a vivid imagination. She sees things other people miss. She expresses her feelings well in poetry and prose. I hope you will enjoy reading a few of her observations about our recent journey to the African nation of Zambia. Here are her reflections:
It would be redundant to repeat what has already been said about Zambia. Yes, it is halfway around the world; it is a poor country. AIDS is a very serious disease that is killing more and more people every day. Dust and wind choke your breathing passages to the limit, but all these facts fade away when I think of some of the people who made an impact on my life while in Zambia.
Catherine is Alfred Kalembo’s sister. I was made aware of her existence a few years ago when Alfred shared a little about her life with me. She is a single mom with one daughter, Linda. I didn’t ask a lot of questions about why she was single, but I felt a strong desire to help her. Several times I sent her boxes of clothes and later I sent her some money through Alfred.
When our team arrived at Alfred’s home on the outskirts of Lusaka, the first person who greeted me was Catherine. We both held each other for a long time. There were no words because she does not speak English. Over the nine days I was in Zambia Catherine became more precious to me. Linda is a shy seven year old whose education is limited. She cannot read and is not on a par with Alfred’s seven year old twin girls.
Why was my heart so touched by Catherine’s plight? I discovered that she had birthed seven babies over seven years. Yes, she had a husband, but when she could not produce a child that lived, he deserted her and got a divorce.
She was left to care for herself as best she could. With no education there was little she could do. Alfred helped her open a little restaurant in Lusaka. Soon it was clear that she was in deep depression and someone had taken advantage of her. She was pregnant with Linda.
When she gave birth to Linda she needed to be with Alfred and Muumbe. He and Muumbe took her into their home, where she has been since that time. She needs a home of her own and she may soon have one thanks to the Frazer Sunday School Class at Saint James. The class has sent her a little money for several months. With that money she bought a small lot and has built a concrete foundation for what will be her first home other than a village hut.
I stood on this foundation with Catherine, Alfred, and one of her friends and prayed over this land. I had a vision of this house being completed. A well was dug by hand and it furnishes water to the people around Catherine’s lot. Where water gushes from the rock, I believe God is there.
Catherine held on to me for as long as she could. When it was time for us to go to the airport, she got into Alfred’s car and sat beside me. She walked as far as she could with me and when I looked back she was wiping tears from her eyes and so was I. I will not forget Catherine. I plan to continue helping her until I know that she has a home.
Alfred’s life began in a rural village named Siansowa. His mother, Maria, and sister, Catherine, gave up everything for Alfred to get an education. It is no wonder that he is trying to help them in every way he can. Maria does not speak English so I had someone say to her that whenever Alfred is in America I treat him like a son. Like Catherine, Maria bonded with me instantly.
She loved our son Matt when he came to her village five years ago. There were those times when Maria and I could say nothing but love each other with our eyes. There was a knowing look that was like looking into eternity. We stood side by side when the well was dedicated. The overflowing well that we prayed would never run dry is a great blessing to this village. The well was installed with funds donated this spring by the Frazer Class.
When we got on the bus to depart, Maria got on board to hug me once again. We both knew that we would never see each other again on this side of heaven, but Maria is a survivor and I know she will be all right even in that impoverished village.
Who would ever think that you would meet a boy named Anxious? We met him at the school where he is in the 11th grade. Walter gave him a new name -- Perfect Peace. Anxious is one of the orphans being supported by the Frazer Class. AIDS robbed him of both his parents. We were delighted to see him and learn that he is very bright. He has dreams of being an engineer and I have no doubt that he can achieve what wants to do. His teachers gave us a good report on him. I plan to stay in touch with this young man and encourage him in every way I can.
Hannah became my interpreter during the time I shared with the women in a three-day conference. She had such wit and wisdom. It was a great blessing to meet a lady who lives among the poorest of the poor and still continues to give her time and energy to the church. She was the pastor’s aide.
She copied my poem, “I’ve Done my Share,” for all the women and made me feel very special. On Tuesday night when we had our last service, she gave me a gift – a piece of crochet. The note read, “Whenever you look at this crochet, please remember me.” That will be an easy task, for Hannah,
like several others, will be in my heart as long as I live. @
Sharing a fire with a good friend on a cold winter day

My wife and I enjoy her fireplace. We have two in our home. Mine has gas logs. She lets me fire them up sometimes. Most of the time we just build a nice log fire in her fireplace.
When we remodeled our cabin, now our retirement home, I insisted that we put gas logs in the original fireplace. I insisted but she prevailed. “Absolutely not,” she declared; “Gas logs are nice, but I prefer building my own fire in an open fireplace.”
As I always do, I yielded to her wish, provided she would bring the firewood into the house. I had to cut and bring in wood when I was a boy. Now I am too old to bring in firewood. “If you want a fireplace, you will have to bring in the wood,” I said. Without flinching, she readily agreed. She would bring in the wood.
(I should have cut a deal also about the kindling but I forgot. Now it is my job to cut kindling and haul it in so she can get a fire started. I could buy some, but I am too stingy to waste money on a bundle of kindling no bigger than a handful of peppermint candy.)
When we added a great room, the focal point had to be a mantle, a hearth, and yes, gas logs. They should last 50 years since we use them so seldom. The gas logs are little more than our backup heating source. If we run out of wood, and the heat pump fails, we can turn on the gas logs to stay warm.
My wife has kept her word. She brings in the wood and never complains about it. And being the sweet soul that I am, I even help her now and then. I hold the door open for her when she brings in an armful. After all, I remind myself, we are “one flesh.”
The little woman can build a mean fire. Then we relax and watch all that heat going up the chimney. I like it so much I will even throw on a fresh log when needed. A small log, that is. I leave the big ones for her. That keeps her strong and healthy. Exercise is good for the body and the soul.
Watching a good fire on a cold day is mesmerizing, like a rubdown for the mind. We solve a few of the world’s problems, relax, and sometimes drop off to sleep. I would not want her to know how much I enjoy her fires. She might want me to start bringing in the logs. For the time being, kindling is enough for me. I do not want to get down in the back. My back got out of sorts thirty years ago, and I do not want to risk re-injuring it.
Last Thursday we shared our fire with a good friend, Grady Rowell. He drives down from the lake for a visit occasionally. I pretend there is something wrong with my computer so he will have an excuse to come see us. He gives my computer an adjustment; then we sit and talk a spell.
We go back a long way. We were in high school with Grady. After we grew up and went off to college, we went our separate ways. After retirement, we came home to Elmore County, God’s country. We renewed our friendship and it is stronger now than ever.
Around the fireplace we talk about life. That means we talk about suffering, dying, love, forgiveness, and lesser subjects. As we talk, I am participating in the conversation but also pondering it, musing over it almost as though I am observing the scene. In a strange way, it seems like an “out of body” experience.
We bounce from serious themes to frivolous ones. One minute we are talking about love being the key to authentic living; the next about how sick we were last week with a stomach virus.
Then, for no rhyme or reason, the conversation shifts to a time when my wife’s mother was cleaning her oven. “My sister walked into the kitchen just in time to see Mother passing out,” my wife said. Frantic for the moment, she would soon be laughing about why her mother had fainted.
She had mixed Clorox and Pine Oil together and was using it to remove grease from the oven. On her knees, she stuck her head into the oven while scrubbing. Quickly overcome by the fumes, she passed out and fell to the floor. She recovered and lived to the ripe old age of 99.
What relevance did that story have to our fireside chat? I do not have the slightest idea. That is not important. What matters, when friends are enjoying a fire together, is that life is being shared, and enriched by the sharing.
Grady is a good fireside companion. He likes to talk. He likes to listen, and even more important, he likes to laugh. He will even bring in firewood. We keep it by the front door so our friends can share the fun of bringing in another log.
Sharing a fire with a good friend on a winter day makes one glad to be alive. Saves gas too, and that’s good.@

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The preacher’s chest waders and 150 gallons of hot water

I will never forget the day I baptized Mike and Anna. They came to Christ, fell in love, and decided to get married. But before the wedding they wanted to be baptized. They were serious about having a Christian home.

There was only one small problem. They wanted to be baptized by immersion and most Methodist churches do not have a baptistry.

Methodists believe in baptism by immersion; we just don’t believe in it enough to install a baptistry in our churches.

We do, however, allow candidates for baptism to choose one of the three historic modes of baptism: sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. While I have baptized hundreds of people, I have never baptized anyone by pouring. Methodists prefer sprinkling or immersion.

Many Methodists agree with our Baptist friends that baptism should be done by immersion. They believe that you are not baptized until you have been “all the way under.” Frankly, I have never felt that the amount of water had a whole lot to do with it so I don’t quibble about the mode.

Lacking a baptistry in my own church, I have immersed people in swimming pools, lakes, ponds, the ocean, and rivers. In Pensacola I had one strange baptism on the sound side of the bay. The water was so shallow that the candidate and I had to wade out a hundred yards before the water was deep enough for an immersion. The family on the shore could not even hear my prayer.

For Mike and Anna a nearby Baptist church was chosen. The pastor was a good friend and always willing for me to use his baptistry on a Saturday without any charge. I had too much pride to tell him I had never baptized anyone in a baptistry before and that was a mistake I would pay for dearly.

When the pastor offered to let me use his chest waders I thought that would be neat. He told me he would be out of town attending a football game but the custodian would have everything ready for me.

What he failed to tell me was that the custodian was new on the job. He had never prepared the baptistry before and heated the water twice as long as necessary. Not only that, he had also put too much water in the baptistry.

As I slipped into the chest waders that Saturday morning, I felt alone and uncomfortable. I was uncertain about my underwear but assumed I should leave it on. I did. Pulling a white robe over me, I walked uneasily out to the baptistry.

I had noticed the water was steaming but thought nothing about it. If you cannot trust a Baptist, whom can you trust? But as I walked to the center of the baptistry, I suddenly realized the water was not only warm, it was hot. And it was only three or four inches below the top of the waders.

I invited Anna to come in first. Barely five feet tall, she frowned as she realized how hot the water was. The water was up to her shoulders. Quickly I offered a prayer and leaned her head backward and under the water. Immediately I lost her; she had lifted her feet off the bottom and was sliding to my left, at least a foot under the water.

No one had told me to tell Anna to plant her feet firmly on the bottom and bend her knees as I put her head under the water!

Instantly I realized the only way to retrieve Anna was to bend my knees and get my hands under her back so I could raise her up before she drowned. When I came up, I had Anna back under control but I also had about 150 gallons of that hot water inside those chest waders.

Mike was much taller than Anna and much easier to immerse. In record time I baptized him, offered a quick benediction, and somehow managed to stagger to the dressing room with all that water still in my waders.

I soon learned that it is not easy to get out of chest waders when they are filled with water. Exhausted I sat in a chair looking at my wet underwear and thinking how dumb I had been not to bring an extra pair of shorts. I could not even find a plastic bag to use to take my wet stuff home.

Mike and Anna may one day forget their “hot water” baptism and the green horn Methodist preacher who immersed them. But I am pretty sure I never will. It was the last time I ever used chest waders. @
Ambrose makes journey of Lewis and Clark come alive

Strange it is the discoveries we make as we grow older. In my 70th year by chance I picked up a book by Stephen Ambrose. The book was titled To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, published ironically the year Ambrose died, 2002.

I was immediately attracted to the man and his writing. The more I read, the more embarrassed I felt for having been ignorant of his books for the past 35 years. The reason for my ignorance was no mystery. As a pastor my reading had focused almost entirely on theology. Now I am the poorer for my tunnel vision.

I never met Stephen Ambrose but I wish I had. He made history come alive for me like no other writer. For that I am in his debt.

Last week I finished Ambrose’s excellent account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage. Since I am not a fast reader, I was on the journey with Lewis and Clark for many weeks. My ritual was to read a few pages every night.

Earlier I had enjoyed reading Wild Blue: The B24s Over Germany, 1944-45. I had hoped Ambrose might have mentioned my Uncle Luke Johnson who served as a B-24 pilot, but his was not among the names included. Still the book is a fascinating account of those unsung American heroes.

Ambrose is best known for his histories of World War II, especially

Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. He wrote several volumes on Eisenhower and Nixon that were well received. I plan to read them after I finish my next selection: Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869.
Another title that interests me is Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. That has to be a good one.

Every American owes it to himself to read about the courageous journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It is truly a remarkable story that tells of the expansion of the United States from “sea to shining sea.”

The author gives us a fresh appreciation for Thomas Jefferson, the man responsible for the Louisiana Purchase. Ambrose says this was “surely the best thing Jefferson ever did as president.”

If I were a younger man I would try to follow the trail of Lewis and Clark, sit by some campfires in Montana and Oregon, and read again the account of their adventures.

Lewis and Clark enjoyed a marvelous friendship and an undying respect for each other. They complimented each other and worked as one in every major decision. Clark, however, never managed to share Lewis’ love of barbecued dog. Lewis admitted liking dog more than venison.

Through the eyes of the two men we see the west as it was only 200 years ago when it was the home of thousands of Indians, buffaloes, beavers, deer, and elk. Startling for me was learning how many different tribes of Indians possessed the land until they were pushed aside by the frontiersmen.

Lewis was the greatest of all American explorers, a splendid company commander, and a truly gifted leader of men. He was gifted at identifying and describing plants, trees, and animals. Both he and Clark were good at mapping the rivers and streams.

Unfortunately, Lewis was done at 33. He failed as a politician, unable to handle the honor Jefferson gave him of serving as governor of the Territory of Louisiana. Heavy drinking may have influenced his decision to end his life by his own hand.

Only once in the story is God mentioned. If Lewis and Clark loved God, they forgot to speak of it. The only reference to God in 484 pages comes at the end when Lewis commits suicide. A woman hears him cry out, “O Lord!” after shooting himself in the head.

Undaunted Courage is a book every American should read. We have a great heritage and we owe a lot to Lewis, Clark, and Jefferson. @

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Mysterious strangers shows up in some of our old color slides

Somebody has been messing with our old color slides. Mysteriously, two strangers appear in some of them. One is a lovely brunette with a slim waistline and a winsome smile. The other is a young man with Elvis-like sideburns, long and dark.
I puzzled over the identity of these two people during a slide-show on a bedroom wall the other night. We have ignored these slides for 40 years. The pace of our lives allowed no time for viewing old slides. That changed recently when the CEO of our family decided to buy a slide projector and go through several boxes of slides.
For several days I walked by quietly “on the other side,” like the Priest and the Levite passing by the wounded man, as my wife watched one picture after another. I was thankful that she ignored me. The slide project was her pet project and I was glad. I should have guessed that judgment day was coming.
“Would you like to sit down and look at these slides with me?” she asked sweetly. By “sweetly” I mean that she invited me, graciously, to watch the slides. However, after 52 years of marriage, I know how to tell when there is a hidden meaning in her invitations. I knew she really meant, “If you have half a gnat’s brain, you will sit down right now and watch these slides.”
So I took a seat.
She had arranged many of the slides based on trips we had taken. First, she said, “These are pictures from your trip to Alaska.” Right off, she had me hooked. I saw pictures of majestic snow-capped mountains, Eskimos in Nome where I preached for 10 days, and the dog sled I rode on a moonlit night. There were a few shots of unforgettable scenery I had taken when a local pilot flew me over a nearby mountain range called the Saw Tooth Mountains.
Al and Shirley Krinke were my hosts in Nome. Al was a school administrator there. I had met the Krinkes when they lived in Minnesota. After teaching and serving as a principal for years, Al and Shirley had answered the call of the wild and moved to Alaska. They loved it and stayed on even after Al retired. Our hearts still ache from sharing Al’s loss of his dear Shirley who slipped away to the Father’s House last year.
Next we looked at the pictures taken when we traveled in India and Nepal during the sixties. Despite their age, the slides remain remarkably good, depicting memorable scenes of Hindu temples, untouchable children begging for coins, and people bathing in the Ganges River.
We saw dead bodies on the sidewalks in Calcutta. Everywhere there were poor people whose only possessions could be carried in a sack. Everywhere there was poverty unlike anything we had ever seen in the United States. Yet in every place we met beautiful people whose faith had made them strong and caring. Our journey there was so long ago that we sat wondering, “Were we really there?”
Then the big surprise. The boss showed me some slides of small boys. Handsome devils they were. There was one of our son Tim (now 48) taking his first step at the age of nine months. What startled me was the stranger who was holding his hands, helping him to walk. She was a slender brunette with a sweet smile. Suddenly she was no longer a stranger but the beautiful young woman I had fallen in love with so many years ago. I said nothing but silently asked myself, “How was I so lucky?”
Finally there was an even bigger surprise. Yep, there was another stranger – a young man with black hair and those long Elvis-like sideburns. I laughed out loud as I realized, “That is me!” Was I ever that slim, that young, and that bright-eyed? Wow! How the old boy has changed!
If you have some old, fading, color slides around the house, let me offer some sage advice. Get them out at your own risk. The shock may be quite a test for your aging heart. It surely was for mine. @
Forgive an old man for cherishing memories of boyhood days on the farm

Younger folks can skip this column today. I don’t want to bore the young with talk of my childhood. But maybe the older generation will understand why it is important to look back now and then. Yes, I know, we must not live in the past. We need to look to the future. But there are some things about the good old days that we must not forget.

Family reunions were always fun. My mother was the oldest child of the Seth Johnson clan and I was the oldest grandchild. By the time I was eight or nine, there was quite a crowd at the annual gathering. The occasion was usually the Saturday nearest the fourth of July.

The old home place was a beautiful country home just off the Atlanta Highway west of Montgomery. To the great sorrow of many in the family, the stately home was torn down years ago to make way for what is now the Carol Villa subdivision.

Few families can afford to maintain a home big enough to raise 13 children. The house served its purpose and was gone in less than a hundred years. Life goes on. Change takes its toll.

His friends may have called him Seth, but the only name I ever heard my grandfather called was “Papa.” He and my grandmother, for whom my sister Neva was named, raised 13 children on their farm, along with cotton, corn, and cattle. My mother, who was born in 1902, had seven brothers and five sisters.

The pump house was one of my favorite spots. It was in the back yard, not far from the steps leading up to the kitchen. I loved to go inside the pump house and listen to the old water pump wheezing, coughing, and sputtering as it struggled to pull cold water out of a deep well. I believe the old pump was powered by a gasoline engine. .

My cousins and I shared many adventures during those daylong reunions. One of our favorite sports was to find a yellow jacket nest, disturb those stinging devils, and run for our lives. The slowest ones sometimes got stung. I remember being stung a time or two.

Our uncles would lecture us about messing with wasps and yellow jackets, then treat our stings with wet tobacco from a cigarette. We were proud of those stings. They were our badges of courage. I guess we thought our bravery impressed the girls.

No reunion passed was complete a good time playing in the hay barn. It gave us boys a good place to hide and smoke rabbit tobacco. That was exciting for a few years, but we gave that adventure up after burning down one of the barns.

None of us ever owned up to being the guilty party. I guess the truth is we were all guilty. Our parents must have thought so because we all got a whipping, one of the worst ones my rear end ever suffered. My dad said I was more responsible than anyone because I was the oldest. Makes sense I guess.

One aspect of growing up in a big family was the teasing we endured from our uncles. To survive we had to learn how to deal with friendly ridicule and sarcasm. They taught us many lessons, often through the art of embarrassment. If we were too loud, or impolite, or unwilling to wait our turn, we were sure to get a stern reprimand. No sin was left unnoticed.

In my late teens I brought my girl friend to the reunions. Having been raised in a small, quiet family with no boys, Dean was shocked by my boisterous family. She blushed with embarrassment when one of my uncles said, “Walter Junior, is that your girl friend? She’s cute. Where did a country boy like you find her? Has she let you kiss her yet, Walter Junior?” Both of us wanted to die.

My grandmother saved the day. She liked Dean and made her feel welcome in her home. The two of them developed a special relationship that lasted until grandmother died of cancer in the early fifties. Dean admired the inner strength and strong faith of this courageous woman who faced her impending death without whimpering. As much as anyone we have ever known she showed us how to face the harshness of life without losing faith in the love of God.

At each reunion every family brought loads of food. The only tables I have ever seen to compare with those meals were dinners on the grounds at country churches. Sumptuous meals they were.

Desserts were as plentiful as meats and vegetables. There were chocolate cakes and apple pies and banana pudding and always a juicy German chocolate cake. But the main dessert was freshly frozen, homemade ice cream.

When my cousins and I were old enough, it was our job to turn the cranks on the ice cream freezers. It was hard work but our uncles saw to it that we turned those cranks as long as we could. Then one of them would take over and give the crank a few more turns to show us how weak we were.

Those were the good old days. I would not want to go back to the way things were then, but looking back is good for the soul. Nostalgia has its value. We just need to be careful not to reminisce too much and neglect the greater value of looking ahead. @