Tuesday, November 21, 2017

GIVING THANKS THIS THANKSGIVING

Sale Sign, Jamestown, NC

Returning from a brief shopping trip, I once again had to drive around the mall parking lot to find a space, search in vain to find someone who could assist me, listen to old familiar holiday tunes on the ubiquitous speaker systems that followed me on my quest, pass innumerable sale signs announcing the season, stand in line just to give the retailer my money, drive home in four times the normal passage of time as the traffic dodged all around me, and finally I arrived home only to discover that I forgot to stop at the service station to refill my gas tank. All of these familiar signs of the season including the markedly colder temperatures were subliminally and not so subtly heralding the arrival of Thanksgiving Day! Retailers continued to jostle for any leg up on their competition which lately has included who will be open on Thanksgiving Day and how soon they will unlock their doors. It seems they’ve outdone themselves in the rush to capture our consumer-driven culture’s almighty dollar by stretching the revered Black Friday sales day well beyond the space-time continuum for multiple days this year. Hopefully, no one will be crushed to death once the doors are opened as has happened in years past.

In spite of all the hustle and bustle, this is a good time to pause life and focus on giving thanks. I’ve always liked a short story with an O. Henry twist like his famous Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi, about a young couple and sacrificial giving out of unconditional love. Our senior pastor recently relayed a story about perfection and thanks giving. Long ago there was a king with a devoted and very positive advisor. Whenever any situation arose, the advisor always remarked that “It was for good and worthy of thanks giving”. One day the king suffered a painful accident that severed his thumb. When his devoted advisor again said “It was for good and worthy of thanks giving”, the enraged king had him thrown into prison. Months later, the king was with a hunting party deep within the kingdom when they were captured by savages. As the natives began boiling water and preparing their captives for a slow death, they noticed the king’s missing thumb. Since they worshiped their perception of perfection and were suspicious of imperfection, they released him. Whereupon he returned to his castle and immediately released his old advisor. He fervently asked for forgiveness in treating his friend so grievously, but the advisor once again stated “It was all for good and worthy of thanks giving”. When the king incredulously asked “How this could be?” the old sage replied “If I hadn’t been in prison, I would have been with you”.

I became acquainted with Francois-Marie Arouet who wrote under the pen name of Voltaire when I took a philosophy class years ago in college. One of Voltaire’s more famous quotes that caught my attention is that “Perfect is the enemy of good”. As one who was schooled in engineering and spent my entire professional career in operations, I learned early on about the law of diminishing returns. Folks can spend an inordinate amount of time and effort striving along that final stretch to perfection when “good” will get things off dead center and actually accomplish something in short order. Someone obsessed with perfection may never accomplish anything. A college professor related the story of a mathematician and an engineer who were both vying for the hand of a beautiful young woman. Since she couldn’t choose between them, she proposed a challenge that each should stand apart from her and then begin moving in successive steps half way towards her. The first to reach her would get her hand. The mathematician immediately threw up his hands and forfeited, complaining that it couldn’t be done as there would always be a minute distance to travel. The engineer immediately started walking, stating that he knew he would never arrive, but he would get close enough for all practical purposes! Should we constantly seek perfection in life or will “good enough” see us through? I’d argue that perfection is a nice goal, as long as we understand that falling short will be the norm and only one person ever walked this planet in perfection. Accepting imperfection as long as we can attain a level of “good” can immensely improve our productivity and peace of mind for the good life. Don't lose the joy of life waiting on perfection. Life is neither perfect nor fair, but life is good.

As we journey through life, we can serenely look back on a good life well lived and say “It was all for good and worthy of thanks giving”. And besides, there are times when elusive perfection might get us into hot water!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

LAST OF THE GINKGO'S





Ginkgo Biloba, Jamestown, NC

The popular urban street tree we know and recognize as Ginkgo Biloba is the sole survivor of a long lineage of seeded plants and may even be the oldest existing tree that dates back 200 million years to the Jurassic period.  It has no living relatives.  No doubt dinosaurs dined on its fan shaped leaves which are now unique to these colorful yellow fall trees.  The leaf shape has inspired the Japanese to call the tree “I-cho” meaning “tree that looks like a duck’s foot”.  The tree was considered extinct at one time, but the species Ginkgo Biloba was found surviving in a few isolated mountain areas of China south of the Yangtze River.

I was first attracted to these trees on a weekend trip to Atlanta, Georgia.  Ginkgo’s make wonderful street trees around the world for a variety of reasons including their presence makes the passage feel narrower and causes drivers to slow down.  We turned through an intersection in the inner city on a brisk fall afternoon resplendent with sunshine and stared directly into a stand of Ginkgo trees in full splendor lining an urban center.  That beautiful sight remains in my mind’s eye even today.  I was landscaping our yard at the time and the next weekend after many phone calls I was able to locate one male tree for sale.  I immediately planted it in the backyard and it has thrived there ever since.

I’ve always found it interesting to walk out to the backyard in the late fall and find that practically all of the intense yellow leaves had fallen overnight and blanketed the ground around the base of the tree.  Since then I have learned of people around the world who make a ritual of gathering around the trees where they try to catch the leaves as they spiral downward in the breeze.  One college has even proposed the appointment of a Grand Lorax to sound the alarm when the leaves begin to fall, as you’ve got to be quick! 

Because of the Ginkgo’s long history and the fact that they can live over 2,500 years, a lot of magic and medicinal properties are ascribed to the tree.  Interestingly, the East has focused on the seeds while the West focuses on extracts of the leaves.  People have also noticed that the leaf shape resembles one half of the human brain which has resulted in products for memory and aging.  One legend proposes that if a girl sits under a male Ginkgo tree on a moonlit night and combs her hair, her wish will come true.  I have the male tree in my yard, but a lack of hair could be problematic!     

The Ginkgo Biloba may be the last of the Ginkgo’s, but it’s a survivor!  And perhaps it has survived to this very day as a beautiful reminder to all of us that we’ve been given stewardship of this blue orb, but once we lose that last species our very own existence will be in jeopardy.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

SHIPS IN THE NIGHT


Overcast Fall Morning, Jamestown, NC
Outreach Center, Jamestown, NC

As we turn the calendar over to November, or swipe our touch screens, there is now a chill in the air as scarlet and yellow leaves gently glide down in slow death spirals around us.  The changing seasons are always a good time of renewal and preparation for new beginnings.  It’s a great time to go through the clothes closet and weed out those items that you haven’t worn this past season or probably for the past year or two.  And a thrift center is the perfect place to take them so that someone else can benefit from the bargain prices.

I burned some quality closet time this morning and filled a large plastic bag with polos and t-shirts.  Then I dropped it off at our local church thrift store.  All of this rather mundane activity left me with a warm feeling of giving back to help total strangers in their life struggles.

As I exited the thrift center to my car, I passed a man very close to my age and appearance walking out to his weathered truck with a small bag of clothing.  It was a scene from the perspective of a casual observer of two similar ships passing in the night.  One was giving and the other was receiving.  If that observer had caught us in the middle of the parking lot, only the shopping bag might have revealed the receiver and from all appearances, both strangers could have been brothers. 

Of course, we are brothers in the broader sense and hopefully the experience was equally satisfying to both of us.   

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

AN AUTUMN BLESSING

Fall Leaves, Blue Ridge Mtns, North Carolina

May God's peace flow into you 
as sunshine flows into the trees and 
cares drop off like the falling autumn leaves.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

THE TELEPHONE BOOTH

British Red Box, Internet Domain 

Every now and then I run across an article or experience something or hear a message that resonates with me.  I frequently listen to NPR radio in the morning as it wakes me from a night’s slumber.  I consider this such a better way to start the day versus the jarring alarm I used in the past.  I recently awoke to one of their reporters that had come across a story from the area in Japan that experienced the devastating tsunami five years ago.

The narrator told of a man who longed for the conversations he had experienced with a close cousin that had been lost in the tragedy.  Later the man had the idea to place an antique telephone booth at the edge of his property near the sea to seclude himself in quiet conversation with his cousin.  The telephone booth provided protection from the coastal winds and the disconnected receiver became a familiar invitation to talk candidly.

Once word spread that this sanctuary had such a cathartic effect on the man, others who had lost loved ones in the tsunami approached the booth when it was not occupied.  Another family had lost their loved one who was a husband, father and friend that had been driving his truck near the tsunami’s landfall when it struck with such tremendous force.  His body was never recovered and there was no closure for those who knew him.  They entered the booth and finally resolved their repressed feelings after a long five years in silent mourning. There is no communication line connected to the booth but these people were connected nonetheless.

That coastal phone booth is a wonderful metaphor to consider when we read Psalm 46:10 where God implores us to “be still and know that I am God.”  Our creator communes with us provided we come to him and are in a quiet, open frame of mind to listen.  He speaks in a variety of ways including on those ocean breezes and the never-ending heartbeat of the waves.  And we have been assured that he is always with us to hear our conversations.

“Listen to the wind, it talks.
Listen to the silence, it speaks.
Listen to your heart, it knows.”

--Native American Proverb

Sunday, September 10, 2017

LAST FLIGHT HAIKU


                                          Beached, Kiawah Island, SC
An anomaly,
walking the beach at sunrise,
colors in the sun.

A lifeless shadow,
washed up by retreating tides,
covered in time's sand.

The butterfly's life,
is one of resurrection,
and spiritual flight.

Reaching the shoreline,
at long last the journey's end,
hearing "Job well done".

Saturday, August 26, 2017

YOU BET YOUR LIFE




Coin Toss, No Country for Old Men
Call It, No Country for Old Men
Heads or Tails, Jamestown, NC


A lonesome windmill wobbles in deliberate circles as its tail interminably forces it to always face into the relentless west Texas winds. The elevated Texaco sign on the horizon is the only other landmark the dark stranger sees as the pale rider deliberately moves across the desolate land. The red and white porcelain sign sharply contrasts against the stark background and quietly sighs in the wind above the isolated weather worn country store.

The dark stranger enters the aging store as unsettled dust devils whirl in the distance amidst the rising afternoon heat. He confronts the apathetic clerk at the register who probably hasn’t seen a customer all day today and would appear to be satisfied with calling it a day while turning over the dog eared “closed” sign at the front door.

The clerk hardly looks up to ask “Will there be anything else”? He hasn’t taken notice that death is at his doorstep.
The foreboding stranger replies “I don’t know, will there”?
The clerk now senses that the atmosphere in the dusty store has become tense and threatening as he sheepishly asks “Is something wrong”? He then begins the most high stakes conversation of his life.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about do you? What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss”?
“I don’t know. I couldn’t say”.
The dark stranger flips a quarter onto the counter and covers it with his fingers. “Call it” he sternly demands.
“Well, we need to know what we’re callin’ it for here….I didn’t put nothin’ up”.
“Yes, you did. You’ve been putting it up your whole life…..You just didn’t know it. You know what date is on this coin? 1958. it’s been traveling twenty two years to get here and now its here and it’s either heads or tails and you have to call it.”
“I need to know what I stand to win”.
“Everything. You stand to win everything. Call it”.

The reticent clerk finally wakes up to the reality that the stakes are high, very high. The stakes are his very life that is now squarely in the hands of this dark stranger that has suddenly invaded his boring existence for all time. He looks the hit man in the eyes and with all the conviction of a man who is looking deep into his executioner’s twisted soul reluctantly says “Alright, heads then”.
The two men remain transfixed as the high stakes coin toss has suddenly transformed a boring every day afternoon into a heart pounding, nerve tingling, jaw setting, life bursting moment. They both stare at the dusty counter as George Washington’s profile slowly appears from under the stranger’s fingers and reprieves the clerk’s life.
“Well done” intones the dark stranger. “It’s now your lucky coin. Don’t put it in your pocket and mix it with the other coins so that it becomes just another coin, which it is.”

That bit of riveting dialogue from the movie No Country for Old Men is one of my all time favorite scenes. The environment is stark, the dialogue is measured, and the casting is perfection. The country store clerk has just had his life jolted into overdrive and it slowly begins to soak into his mind that he has just bet his very life on a coin toss. Yet it was just his temporary mortal life. How many of us don’t give much more effort into deciding how we will gamble on the fate of our immortal spiritual life? Some believe God’s son when he tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life everlasting. Some believe otherwise. If they’re right, neither party will ever know. If they’re wrong, they’ve sadly lost a restored and eternal life in the loving presence of their creator. And it’s worth more effort than a coin toss.