Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Drop and Give Me Twenty

What’s wrong with me? I love to exercise—love to get my body in motion, love challenging myself to see what I can do, love running and jumping and lifting and pushing and pulling. Just love it. L-O-V-E it! For me, exercise is not a chore; it’s a vacation. It’s not work; it’s recess. So am I crazy? My wife thinks so. A friend of mine said that exercise is my crack-cocaine. Okay, maybe I do go a bit overboard. And I can’t say about my exercise what President Clinton said about his experiment with marijuana: “I didn’t inhale.” I inhale a lot. Most of the stuff I do can take your breath away. But I love it anyway. Always have. I took gym every year in high school. I have played sports my whole life long. I have had lengthy eras of running and weight-lifting. And in the last three years I discovered more fun stuff with names like Boot Camp and Pilates and Kick-boxing and Spin and P90X. I just ordered my next home workout to go along with everything I already do at the gym. It’s called … are you ready for this … Insanity. My wife says it fits.

I realize that puts me in the minority. Most people I know don’t much like exercise unless it’s working on their grip while holding a remote, walking to the kitchen to get some more chips, or working that tricep/bicep exercise of moving the fork from plate to mouth and back again. Some folks act as if exercise is a four-letter-word. They don’t like exercise because it makes the ice jump out of their glass. They say things like, “I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.” Another exercise-detractor made this point: “My grandmother started walking when she turned 60. She’s now 97 and we don’t know where the heck she is.” There are people, probably most people, who just don’t much like exercise. They like to remind us that the primary benefit of exercise is that you die healthier. And I'd be less than honest if I didn't tell you that I have sometimes wondered that if ever I was stricken with cancer, the doctor might say something like this to my family: "Poor guy, if he didn't have such a strong heart he wouldn't have to suffer for so long." Exercise or not—we're all going to die sometime. But, Lord willing, I'm going to go out in decent shape.

So what’s wrong with me? I suspect a psychologist could have a field day sorting out whatever’s going on inside my twisted little head that makes me an exercise junkie. Did I hate my parents? I had issues with them but I sure didn’t hate them. Do I feel the need to prove myself? Well, I have to admit, it’s kind of fun to be 53-years-old and work much younger people into the ground. Hmmm, sinful pride? Perhaps. As you can see, I’ve thought a lot about this.

Being a pastor, I could try to spiritualize my love of exercise. Paul did write that for a believer the body is “a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God” (1 Cor. 6:19). I just want to keep the body God gave me in good shape, want to treat the home of the Holy Spirit more like a temple than a tenement, more like a great cathedral than a garbage can. But then again, Paul also writes, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). So I better be sure in my passion for exercise that I don’t neglect passion for God and the care of my soul. I don’t neglect such things. Yet what I’ve discovered is that for me, exercise has become a sort of spiritual discipline—a practice in which I connect with God. You won’t find exercise listed in anything Richard Foster or Dallas Willard write about the spiritual disciplines, but it’s become a spiritual discipline for me. Olympic gold-medal winner and devoted Christian Eric Liddle of Chariots of Fire fame said this about his running: “When I run, I feel His pleasure.” Somehow, some way, and odd as it may sound, when someone says, “Drop and give me twenty,” I feel God’s pleasure too.

Now, if I could just feel God’s pleasure in saying no to chocolate chip cookies …. But that’s another blog.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Even Before Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m old enough to remember watching him on television news, old enough to remember hearing sound-bites of his speeches and being enthralled not so much by what he said as by how he said it. And I’m old enough to remember the night when the program I was watching was interrupted by a special news bulletin: “Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead. He was assassinated late today on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room. More to follow as information becomes available. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.” I was in seventh grade at the time, living in a community whose black population added up to the whopping total of 0—that's a big fat zero. Civil rights was no pressing issue in our town. Still, I remember feeling a sense of shock and a twinge of pain on that April night in ’68.

As I grew up and entered the world of preaching, I became fascinated with the preaching and speaking of Dr. King. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched and read his 1963 speech in Washington—you know, the “I have a dream” speech. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a speech or sermon that moved me more. It still moves me after all these years. From a content standpoint, has anyone ever said so much in so few words—articulating what could be and should be the true American dream? And as a preacher, has anyone said it better—the rhythm, the cadence, the images? That was soaring oratory at its finest! The fact that the speech is still seared into America’s consciousness after almost 47 years is testimony enough to its power.

So, as we remember and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, I reflected a bit on what I’d done to advance the cause of civil rights. And here’s the sum of it: not much. I have some black friends. I’ve swapped pulpits a few times with a couple of black pastors. But I’ve never marched, never paid a price, never done anything in this area worthy of note. Not one thing.

But my grandfather Samuel Tucker McCallum did—and he did it in deep Dixie before the phrase civil rights was even in our national vocabulary. Around 1910 or 1911 a tornado swept through Union Church, Mississippi, where my grandfather was managing his father’s farm. The twister damaged some of the farm buildings. And when the storm was over my grandfather went to check on the black families who lived on the place. When he arrived at one of the houses, a mother was dissolved in tears. “My baby’s gone! My baby’s gone! The storm blew my baby away,” she cried. Granddaddy did his best to comfort her. He tried to give her hope by telling her that he had heard stories of children who had survived such things, and that he would go make careful search for the child.

And sure enough, he found the baby about fifty yards from the house. He was under a small tree, laying on his back in a puddle of water, crying to beat the band, trembling and scared, but apparently unhurt. My grandpa scooped that baby up in his strong arms, carried him back to his mama as quickly as he could, and turned her tears into a smile so big it would have taken a wide-angle lens to get it all in the picture. And that boy’s mama was so thrilled and so grateful to get her baby back alive that she changed the baby’s name right there on the spot. She said, “From now on this baby’s name is Sam.” Get it? That's my grandfather's name. And from that time forward and until his death, that boy was known by all as ‘Cyclone Sam.’

Cyclone Sam grew up to be a farmer in the area. He lived to a ripe old age and used to bring vegetables to some of my grandfather’s cousins who lived in Jackson. He never forgot what my grandfather did for him and his family. Once he even made a trip to Jackson when he heard my Aunt Martha would be there so he could greet her and personally thank her for what her father, Sam McCallum, had done for him so many years ago. And when Cyclone Sam died, my Aunt Martha and Aunt Nettie were able to attend his funeral. When the ushers heard their names, they were seated with Cyclone Sam's family and enjoyed a wonderful visit with them after the service.

The event that spawned all this took place a hundred years ago. Things weren’t good for black people in the South in those days. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his vision would do a lot to make things much better a few decades later. But it’s amazing how a simple act of compassion and love opened up doors of relationship that transcended the color of one’s skin and proved that while laws are helpful, love is even better. Oh, and you know what else? I’m pretty sure that if Dr. King had heard this story, even while in jail for his work, it would have made him smile.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Score One More for Life

I first met Larry (not his real name) a few years ago. He had to be in the hospital for something or other. His mother, who is a part of our church family, asked me to go see him. So I went. And I left the hospital that day shaking my head and wondering why I bothered. Larry wasn’t exactly rude, but he certainly had no interest in visiting with the preacher from his mother’s church. And that was my last contact with Larry until this past month.

His mother called again. Larry was in the hospital again. This time it could be something very serious. Would you come see him? I got there on the heels of Brent, our Children’s Minister. He told me that Larry was not very open or welcoming to him. “Big surprise,” I thought to myself. And when I got there he wasn’t open with me either—though he did let me pray for him. That came at the insistence of a hospital transportation worker who was rolling him down to the second floor for some kind of test. It was a bit awkward, but he allowed the prayer. I think he did that more for his mother than for himself. So we prayed.

Turned out his mother was right. Tests revealed something very serious indeed. More tests were ordered. Surgery followed. The C-word was the problem. It was aggressive and relentless. It started taking up residence in various places in his body and throwing its ugly weight around. Doctors did their best. They even tried a second surgery. But it became like plugging a dike—patch one hole and two others spring a leak. It was a losing battle.

But a funny thing happened in this slow and painful journey toward death. Jesus started throwing His weight around too. As Larry became more and more aware of where all this was heading, he got to wondering about where he was heading when cancer finally had its way with him. A closed heart started to open and you could hear the creak of its rusty hinges all the way to Alaska. Suddenly, Larry had to know more about God, about death, about eternity. He asked his mother. She called Brent. Brent went to the hospital, introduced Larry to Jesus, and Larry was very glad to meet Him. Right there in that hospital bed, Larry repented of his sins and invited Jesus to be His Savior and Lord. A heart of stone became a heart of flesh. A heart dead in its trespasses and sins came to life. And Jesus smiled and mama cried and angels danced and heaven threw a party for Larry.

I saw his mother on Saturday. “Do you think Larry would like to be baptized?” I asked. “We can do it right there in the hospital.” She smiled and said, “I’ll ask him.” She called this morning with news: “Larry has been moved to hospice, and yes, he would like to be baptized.” We Baptists are pretty much sticklers for immersion, you know—that’s what the word means, that’s the way they did it in the New Testament—sticklers, I tell you. But when immersion is not a possibility we can go with the flow.

So Brent and I went to see Larry today. He is under contact isolation, so we put on our yellow gowns and little blue latex gloves. Larry couldn’t open his eyes, but he could hear us and respond with groans. I shared a Scripture or two, Larry groaned his agreement. Then I asked him, “Larry, do you believe Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead according to the Scriptures?” Groan. “Then I baptize you, my brother, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.” And as I applied water to his forehead by making the image of a cross, I declared, “Buried with Christ in baptism; raised to walk in a new life.” He groaned again—this time a groan of release and surrender and peace. Then Brent prayed and mama cried and dad stood by quietly taking it all in.

Before we left the room, I took another look at Larry. And that’s when I was struck by an image I’ll not soon forget. The sun was coming in the window at just the right angle to reveal the glistening of the baptism waters on his forehead. I’ve seen the sun piercing through the stained-glass in Nortre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I’ve seen the sun sparkling on a metal cross erected high in the Andes above the little village of Chavin, Peru. Both breathtaking in their own way. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything more profound and beautiful than those baptism waters glistening on the head of one who has been snatched from death to life eternal.

Take that, cancer! Take that, death! Take that, devil! Jesus has saved yet another from your clutches. Score one more for life.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Happy Birthday, Daddy

On January 5, 1914, a newborn's cry bounced around the walls of the home on Samuel McCallum’s little farm in Union Church, Mississippi. It was a boy! Sam and his wife decided to call their new little baby William Melville—although Billy is the name that stuck. That little baby was my father. Had he survived his second round of cancer and whatever other ills might have befallen him, he would be 96 today.

My daddy did not live a storybook life. Had Shakespeare written the script, most would call his life a tragedy. There were good moments, plenty of broad smiles and laughter along the way, but on balance his life was tragic in so many ways. There was a succession of losses around his fourteenth year: his father, his mother, and his boss, who had become like a father to him, all died. His dad was a local marshal in Lake Village, Arkansas, and was killed in the line of duty. His mother couldn’t take it, got sick, left her kids in Arkansas and went home to Mississippi where she died a few years later. And his boss died of a heart attack, I think. All significant people in his life, all people he needed, all people he depended on. Now, at his formative age of fourteen, all dead or missing. And as if that wasn’t enough grief and hurt to deal with, his first wife left him while he was dodging Japanese sniper fire on the Solomon Islands during World War II. My dad found this out when he opened a letter she had written him only to find she had put a letter to her new stateside lover in my dad’s envelope. There were good times in all those years, but the weight of loss took its toll on his soul.

And that wasn’t the end of it either. Thirteen years into his marriage with my mother, she felt the need to leave him too, and she took their three sons with her. My dad was in Arkansas. The rest of us were in Missouri. And he really had no visitation rights to speak of. From 1964 till his death in 1987, I bet I didn’t see him twenty times. He did pay for my first three years of college. And after I had kids of my own, I took them to see my father, and we struck up a relationship marked by occasional phone calls until his death.

My dad was a decent, honest man, a good citizen. He was a very hard worker and an exceptional civil engineer. But he was not very good at relationships. He was fine with work relationships and casual neighborly relationships, but when it came to the people closest to him, he was all thumbs. He hurt me a lot—like when he told me he was coming to my high school graduation and later to my wedding, but didn’t show at either one. Like when he said he was coming to spend a few days with my family and see my kids but called me the day I was to pick him up at the airport to say he wasn’t coming. He was no better with my two brothers than he was with me. Tragic.

I did talk to him the day cancer took his life. I told him I was coming to see him, but it would have to wait until after Christmas (a busy time for a pastor). He told me in our last conversation that he had always loved me. And in spite of so many things we needed to say to one another, that was the last time we ever talked. After his death we found every card and picture we had ever sent him scattered about his apartment. He cherished those things, and we never really knew if he cared at all. People who knew him told us how proud he was of us boys and how he talked about us often. It really looked like he was as hungry for a relationship with his sons as we were for a relationship with our father, and yet none of us really knew how to make that happen. Tragic.

As I’ve matured I’ve learned to better understand why my dad was the way he was. He had so much loss and what he must have felt was so much betrayal in his life that he just couldn’t or wouldn’t trust people. He wouldn’t let people in. He wouldn’t allow anyone to get very close. He was protecting himself—ironically, protecting himself from the very thing that could have saved him in so many ways. Tragic.

Having grown up with a father like him, I tried to do a better job with my kids. I think I did all in all. But like him (and my mother too—whose life was also marked by much tragedy) I’m very slow to let people into my life and I find it very hard to get too close with anyone. It would be easy to be bitter about these things. But I’m not bitter.

In fact, I’m grateful—scarred in many ways, but grateful. I’ve come to accept the fact that in light of the circumstances of my dad’s life and the demons with which he wrestled, he did the best he could. I am grateful for that. And I’m grateful that because my dad claimed Jesus as His Savior, one day we will see each other again. One day, we will truly get to know one another. And we will do that in the place where the tragedies of this world are swallowed up by a joy that lasts forever. So, Happy Birthday, Daddy. We will talk again.