Thursday, May 29, 2014

IT’S COMMIN’ UP A CLOUD


Thunderhead, Strong City, KS

On a hot and humid summer's day in central Kansas, the awesome manifestation of the plains Indians’ Great Sky Spirit looms ominously on the southern horizon. These are spectacular days with gusting southerly winds and bright sunshine, inevitably giving way to dark and threatening skies. Walking those vast plains, I came to be impressed by the magnificent beauty and fury of the churning, bucking bronco, building mounds of moisture laden thunderheads as they geared up for another grand performance.

Later in life, I experienced these towering clouds up close and personal in corporate and commercial jets as pilots cautiously wove around the intense turbulence contained within these marvels of the skies. Magnificent one-of-a-kind ethereal spirits rapidly take shape in the skies above at a moment’s notice out of seemingly nothing and they can billow up to thirteen miles in height.

The native Indians were wise to associate these summer storms with the growing season and the winds that could shake the tall corn stalks up towards the heavens. I’ve been fascinated by these natives all of my life because I believe they lived a harsh but harmonious life directly out in God’s creation every day of their lives. They were convinced of the existence of a Great Spirit and the sacredness of the earth. When we’re out in God’s creation and enjoying the experience of the life He has given to us, we can begin to feel His presence.

The world’s farmers also live close to the earth and sky. Nature’s ever changing moods leave them exposed to constant challenges to successfully bring in their crops. Consequently, I’ve never had a conversation with any of them that didn’t somehow involve the weather. The life-giving rains produced by the towering sky sculptures of an impending storm are critical. So they’re always alert to any change in the wind and skies, especially the formation of towering, moisture laden thunderheads. A friend here in the Carolina’s grew up on a farm and fondly noted that his father always had a favorite expression when the storms were forming; “Look out, it’s commin’ up a cloud”!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

TOASTING AN OLD FRIEND


Endless Summer, Reading, KS

I’m toasting an old high school friend tonight that I just learned on Facebook had passed away this past Memorial week. The phone rings and it’s another high school friend that is calling to see if I had heard the sad news. It was good to talk to another kindred spirit at the time and reminisce about those youthful days of summer prior to entering the adult world of work and sobering responsibility. We fondly talked about the summer nights riding the ridges on the outskirts of town and dragging the gut on Main Street in our small central Kansas town.

Remembering the good times of our late teens always brings a smile, perhaps mainly because that’s a time in America where life is about as uncomplicated as it gets. And our prospects for an eternal earthly life seemed at the time about as plausible as the ability to acquire underage beer. We didn’t have the muddy waters of the Chattahoochee but we did spend many hours fishing on the Cottonwood and Neosho rivers.

We’d gather in the evening at a drive-in after leaving our minimum wage jobs to discuss anything and everything. Then we’d pool our loose change to buy a few gallons of gas for one of our cars at less than half a dollar a gallon. We’d fire up a filtered Marlboro cigarette and find someone’s older brother or cousin to get us a cold six pack. The summer evening air wafted through the naturally air conditioned windows as Wolf Man Jack would spin 45 RPM records and howl at the moon with us. The local radio station didn’t play rock ‘n roll music but during the night we could tune in to the powerful stations down south at the Texas border and up north to the WLS radio station in the far away big city of Chicago. We’d loudly and passionately sing about Chunky Peanut Butter and La Bamba as our chopped and customized cars cruised under the flashing street lights.

I recently read that when you remember a past event, you are actually remembering the last time you remembered it, not the event itself. Perhaps that explains why the details of those summer nights, now so distant in the fading past, are becoming more translucent. But I still remember how we felt. We were immortal and we were as carefree as we would ever be in life. We shared a wonderful camaraderie and we were truly a band of brothers. We only briefly paused to ponder the future long enough to know that now was the time of complete freedom, this time was very limited and we could never return. So we read liberating books like On the Road by Jack Kerouac, smoked cigarettes and drove fast like James Dean, sang Elvis rock ‘n roll songs with the windows open, downed a few cool Coors on a sultry night and enjoyed each other’s company like family. And the wide world of the military, the Vietnam war, full time careers, marriage, children, home mortgages, retirement savings accounts, business travel, annual reviews, life-long education and training, job loss, divorce, accidents, serious health issues and yes, death, were all waiting beyond the long, hot, seemingly endless summer of the end of our innocence.

OPIATE FOR THE MASSES


Poppy Field, WWI Memorial, Kansas City, MO

The primary mission of Jesus was to clear a pathway to forgiveness and spiritual life for all mankind. He didn’t set out to establish a religion but was focused on modeling a right way of life. It’s been noted that throughout the ages, if mankind ever encountered something that he could not comprehend, there was generally one of two responses—either fear it or worship it. Consequently, there were a plethora of religious rituals practiced over time including human sacrifices in response to natural phenomena like erupting volcanos and even the rising sun.

One of the most recognizable quotes of Karl Marx states that “religion is the opium of the people”. Atheists seem to love this statement to justify their intellectual contempt for participating in religion and belief in a creator God. But the full text of Marx’s writing was that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. The main focus of the root cause of the masses’ pain and suffering as Marx saw it is oppressing economic and political structures. And although opiates can relieve physical pain, they do not get to the cause of the suffering. Today’s society would observe that the 99 percenters are becoming more uneasy with the one percenters at the top of the food chain—many of whom like the Roman elite demonstrate that power over the masses are their opiates.

Jesus’s message from the Sermon on the Mount taught the downtrodden masses how to be blessed. He contrasted the outward circumstances of worldly values which provide temporary happiness with internal kingdom values of eternal hope and joy. And although he didn’t build cathedrals, he did lay the foundation to build a church of believers that would become the heart and soul of a broken world that works to relieve its pain and suffering in the here and now.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

BEGINNING A CONVERSATION


Spirit Feather, Jamestown, NC

Memorial Weekend, 2014

This small feather slowly drifted in the morning sunlight recently as I sat on a bench in my backyard. It glided to a peaceful rest at my feet and I rather unconsciously picked it up. It certainly wasn’t a gaudy loud object demanding my attention, but nevertheless it did fully capture my imagination. I’ve kept it at my work station ever since as a gentle reminder of the spiritual presence that we coexist with every day. There are folks out there who say that God actually speaks to them at times. I wouldn’t dispute that, but I’m not certain that I’ve ever actually engaged in an active two way conversation myself. However, I am certain that there are many ways to commune with our God. The Psalmist instructs us to be still for openers. It’s difficult to converse with anyone in the midst of our busy and noisy world today. And it’s equally difficult to communicate with someone until you have their undivided attention.

I would venture that we’ve all been in a circumstance at some time where an enlightened sixth sense captured our complete attention. I’ve always been drawn to the opening scene of the Forrest Gump movie where a feather is lightly floating in the air around Forrest in a provocative way that gives it ethereal life. I suppose that’s easier to pull off in the movies with today’s animation, but I’ve witnessed it in real life too. It’s not common for us to see a white feather or a single crimson leaf lightly gliding along in the breeze and gently landing at our feet. Especially when it curiously seems to possess something more than you would expect from an inanimate object. And then there’s the butterfly in the middle of the day or a firefly at night landing on our arm while we’ve paused life in a park or our backyard. These are very animated and real creatures that again seem to possess some mysterious attribute that only our sixth sense can discern. People throughout the ages have considered these events as signs of loved ones letting us know that all is well on the other side. The flight of feathers, fireflies and butterflies personify spiritual beings. Since we can’t always be sure of the source, perhaps it is our Heavenly Father who is assuring us that He is ultimately in control on both sides of the thin veil.

There are other events that capture our attention as well such as a colorful rainbow after a storm, brilliant new creations of sunrise beginnings, peaceful sundown reminders of rest, a warm snow melt after a long winter, the sun’s diagonal rays breaking through scattered dark clouds, a refreshing morning shower in the midst of a drought, the wind gently moving and singing through pine needles, and of course, created new life revealed through children and grandchildren, puppies, foals, and flower blossoms.

These symbols of hope are signs of God’s presence and reminders that our Creator is beginning a conversation with us. And they prompt us to consciously pause life to begin relational communication that can sustain and nurture us as we continue our journey.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

PRICELESS FAMILY HEIRLOOM


Centennial Peony, Jamestown, NC

The image of this peony blooming in my backyard has quite a family history. It was brought to Salina, Kansas by my wife’s great grandparents at the turn of the twentieth century. When Karen’s grandmother died in her 90’s, we left the funeral services and stopped by her aging house to remove a small clump of the peonies. We then transplanted them to three different homes in the Kansas City area. When we transferred to North Carolina, I dug a small clump and moved it in the back seat of our car. This priceless family heirloom that’s over one hundred years old continues to unfailingly bloom every Memorial weekend as a beautiful reminder of souls gone before us.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

PRECIOUS JEWELS


Atlantic Jewels, Wrightsville Beach, NC

These shell fragments were deposited by the relentless waves of the Atlantic Ocean and remind me of the stones found in colorful Colorado creek beds that have been tumbled and polished by ancient glaciers and the relentless snow melt from the surrounding Rocky Mountains. The long rays of the morning sunrise reflect and penetrate the glistening translucent remnants of the long forgotten sea creatures that succumbed to the harsh environment on the ocean floor.

When faced with the daunting choices of the many shells deposited by the pounding waves, the first inclination is to go for the “perfect” ones and disregard those that are “broken and disfigured”. Close examination reveals that even the “perfect” shells that you have gathered are still somewhat imperfect in shape and color, but each one is still truly unique and beautiful in its own right. Once you have tired of collecting the “perfect” shells at your feet, you begin to notice the uniqueness and hidden beauty of the scattered and broken shells left behind by the bearer of the foot prints walking somewhere ahead of you.

Jesus recognized that we all live in a mortal broken world— broken lives, dreams, homes, relationships, bodies and minds. During the last supper he broke bread and instructed us to eat it as symbolic of his body “broken for you” and drink the wine as symbolic of his blood, “shed for you”. God sacrificed his temporary human and divine life so that we will have an eternal spiritual life. He taught us to help and comfort those precious spirits that have been broken by life’s crashing waves and storms and appreciate the beauty that resides in all of us.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Lovingly, Dad


Blowin' in the Wind, Jamestown, NC

A friend recently shared a seventy three year old letter from a Mississippi father to his son dated March 4,, 1941. The parents had recently signed over their permission for the seventeen year old son to join the marines. Of course, no one knew at the time that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor in Hawaii just nine months later and plunge the United States and her armies into a devastating world war.

Joseph Campbell’s classic study of the heroic journey in world mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, observes that the journey begins with the potential hero leaving home, the familiar comfort zone. The heroic journey has all of us as its symbolic subject and traces the hero-paths of our own journey, from potential to full actuality of our true self.

The young man’s father writes that “We miss you a great deal, but we are all reconciled to the fact you are in the army now, where we have nothing to say about your going out at night or using the car…No one living has the same interest in you, or your welfare, as your father and mother. So what I am going to say now is with the sole purpose in mind of trying to help you, rather than hinder you.” The father gives his son “not ten commandments but the advice of a father, who has seen a great deal of life, who has faced the same problems you will be confronted with; it is my hope and prayer that what I have said will help you”.

In short, the father’s advice was to:
• Be absolutely honest.
• Be your own counsel.
• Be obedient.
• Be neat and clean in body, mind and life.
• Be tolerant of good natured “kidding” and don’t be a rough-neck.
• Don’t be promiscuous and be mindful of STD’s in the big world.
• Don’t permit others to take advantage of you.
• Don’t be a tattle-tale or news bearer.
• Don’t boast.
• Your own conscience is your best guide.

This letter, among possibly hundreds of others, has been saved and passed down as a priceless family heirloom because of the loving wisdom and concern of a father who was experiencing the departure of his son as he left the comfort zone of home. We read the letter knowing that the young adventurous son was walking into the onset of the most horrific world war of our times. And we sense the ominous implications for everyone. But the father finished with optimism by writing “In our minds we have followed you across the country and I know you enjoyed the trip. You saw many interesting sights and some not so interesting. You will find life a whole lot like that trip in many respects. There will be spots like the desert, barren and uninviting. It is easy when everything is pretty. It takes a man to ride out the rough spots and come out the better for the experience…Lovingly, Dad”

Where have all the young men gone?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.

Monday, May 5, 2014

THE LAST ONE


Kansas Hay, Lake Kahola, KS

I spent many shirtless days in the wide-angle Kansas outdoors during the idyllic sunny days of my youth. A couple of those summers during high school were spent earning minimum wages bailing alfalfa and prairie grass bales of hay for winter cattle feed. It was sweaty, honest work and your head hit the pillow that night with a good kind of tired. I mostly worked for the fathers of a couple good friends at school who owned cattle and grain farms on the outskirts of the central Kansas town where I grew up. The hay would be cut, gathered into rows to be dried and finally baled out in the shimmering fields. We would drive a tractor pulling a flatbed trailer into the fields dotted with hay bales and methodically begin to pick them up and neatly stack them into interlocking cubes on the trailer. When the trailer was loaded to capacity, we’d drive to the nearest barn and unload them up into a hot and dusty hay loft.

We developed a ritual over time that became almost a spiritual experience. As we approached the final bales to be unloaded, someone always made the comment, “Well, we finally found the one we’ve been looking for”. Then we’d all ask in unison, “Which one is that”? And the jubilant answer was always, “The Last One”! One of the life lessons I learned during those sunny days was that we only have just so much time to be exchanging the limited hours we have in life for the money that pays the bills necessary to live. And the skill level and scarcity of the skills we’ve acquired has a lot to do with how much somebody is willing to pay for those hours. So the money I earned for tuition and living expenses those summer days was mostly saved to acquire skills for my personal tool kit. Skills that somebody would pay much more than minimum hourly wages in exchange for my future hours spent at work.

Our Christian Believer class that I’ve been team teaching will be completing our thirtieth weekly lesson tonight. It’s the one we’ve been seeking for almost a year—“The Last One”! But it’s been a great ride and all of us have grown in our spiritual journey. Our lives have been changed, especially since we all wake up every morning as a different person. Hopefully, we’ve changed for the better. We’ve invested over a hundred hours in study and discussion. We’ve traded a portion of the hours of our lives to invest in a timeless eternity. That sure beats minimum wage!

We learned that many Biblical words have special meanings like the word Immanuel which means “God is with us”. And Amen is “the last one” of the words of prayers and creeds. We learned that it means “so be it”! It’s not enough to believe, although that’s a good first step. Our response to God’s providence is to act upon our beliefs and be doers of the Word. So be it!

MONDAY MUSINGS


A New Day, Wrightsville Beach, NC

STOP WAITING FOR FRIDAY, FOR SUMMER,
FOR HAPPINESS, FOR LIFE.
LIVE IN THE MOMENT YOU HAVE NOW.