Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hymn Sing

Cheryl and I drove over to visit Mom for lunch.  We met Dad there too.

It was a sunny-but-cold day in Arkansas, so cold you could feel it in your hands and feet long after you came inside.

We were seeing Mom for the tenth time that week, our tenth visit since she’d moved into a full-time care facility.

The four of us sat down at the table together.  Without saying a word, we understood that this was a difficult stretch in the journey … for all of us.

Mom was in good spirits, though.  She seemed like her old self, even as her memory was clearly fading.  Many of the details from her life—from our lives—now eluded her.

As Mom finished the last bites of her lunch, I found myself getting fidgety.

I stood up and walked over to a piano in the corner of the room.  One of the ladies sitting nearby looked up at me and said, “Play us a tune!”  I smiled and reached for a book that was lying above the keyboard.  The title read SONGS OF THE CHURCH.

I stepped back over to the table, and started a conversation about songs.

“Cheryl, do you remember this one?”

“Dad, what’s your favorite?”

Pretty soon, our talking turned into actual singing.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …”

“Would you be free from the burden of sin?  There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood …”

“Standing on the promises of Christ my King …”

A woman name Lucille pulled her chair over to our table.  Another lady named Mary joined in from not too far away.  Others sat by and watched, and there was the sound of occasional clapping floating in from the room next door.

We were making a spectacle, but no one seemed to mind.

And singing best of all … in a beautiful soprano voice … was the woman across the table from me—Marilyn Jean Allen—who remembered every single line.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A visit to the nursing home
Mrs. Henry, from the 1978 Petit Jean
Another elementary school December, another trip to the nursing home to sing Christmas carols.

Dressing up, not in our Sunday clothes, but in nicer than our regular school clothes.  Knowing that green and red are especially good colors to wear.

Piling into cars in the school parking lot or into cars that are pulled up in front of the school and illegally parked for just a few minutes.  Cars that are driven by our teachers or room moms or other moms.

Driving the 5 miles over to Judsonia.  Riding down highways that we all know from previous trips to the nursing home or from fishing trips or from visiting relatives who live down these country lanes.

Giggling along with 4 or 5 other friends in the car.  Excited to be out of school, but a little bit nervous about visiting the old folks’ home.  Many of these folks will be rolling up to us in wheelchairs; we remember that from past years.

Pulling into the parking lot and walking carefully across it so as not to get hit by other cars that are pulling in.  Entering the nursing home through a glass door and practically bumping into a smiling worker who tells us how much the “residents” are looking forward to our concert.

Seeing the Christmas tree in the gathering area where all the old people come to sit.  Some of them are already waiting for us, their faces lighting up as they hear us approach.

Lining up in 2 or 3 rows next to the piano where our music teacher, Mrs. Henry, sits down to play.  She is amazing in these situations, speaking loudly and excitedly to the crowd, like we are performing for the Governor of Arkansas or something.

Sensing that the crowd, sitting quietly in a loose semicircle, is ready for our first big number.

Hearing the beginning chords of “Up on the Rooftop” and all of us knowing just when to come in.  Belting it out at the top of our lungs because we all love Christmas, young and old alike. 

Pausing for a scattering of applause at the end of each carol.  It's feeble clapping from the audience, but we understand; it’s the best that they can do.

Ending the final song with one more exclamation point and then scattering into groups of 2 or 3 or 4.  Walking around the lobby area and talking to the people and laughing a little bit at their jokes because some of them are actually quite funny.

Feeling the nudge of teachers and moms, gently coaxing us to move down the hallways so we can visit the folks who couldn’t make it down for the concert.

Passing from room to room and not even knocking on doors.  Most of the living quarters are wide open and we stroll right in, striking up conversations with these friendly souls who remind us of our grandparents or great-grandparents.

Moving in and out of doorways, always traveling along with other kids.  Noticing that the residents do the same, moving up and down passageways arm-in-arm with workers or family or friends.

Realizing it’s time to meet back up in the lobby for the trip back to school.  Most of us holding candy canes now, handed to us by one of the residents or a staff member.

Piling back into cars and saying goodbye to the nursing home until the next December.  Until we come back to sing and spread some joy all over again.

But knowing, somewhere deep down inside …

… that maybe we’re getting a little more out of this exchange than we’re actually giving.

Monday, January 5, 2015

More grace

For some reason, in my 30s, I was really into New Year’s resolutions.

I remember one Christmas vacation; our family was visiting Cheryl’s parents in Huntsville, Alabama.  I decided to go for a walk on a trail near their home.  I prayed some, and I sat down to write out my resolutions.  I don’t recall the exact number, but I think it was in the neighborhood of 28.

The next year was going to be the best year of my life!  I was going to fix everything!

I think I ran out of gas by January 5th.

Another year, I firmly resolved to get rid of 6 “unhealthy” foods from my diet.  I was going accomplish this by eliminating one bad-food every couple of months.

I must say it was a sad day when I said goodbye to bacon.  And then later on, French fries … I don’t even want to talk about that.

That was my 30s.  These days, I take a more mellow approach.  Less type-A.  More type-B … or even type-C.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to limit myself to a single resolution.  I don’t write it down, and I just go with it as long as it stays on my mind.

Which brings me to this New Year …

The only thing that’s popped into my mind so far, for some reason, is the word “grace.”  It is one of my favorite words, but how do I fashion grace into a resolution?

I’m not sure, but it might have something to do with this …

In his new book, Vanishing Grace, Philip Yancey writes about followers of Christ being “dispensers” of grace.  Maybe that’s the direction this is heading.  Maybe, in 2015, I can dispense a little grace into a world that seems to be filling up with anxiety and fear.  Maybe I can sprinkle my conversations with more grace.

Maybe I can post some extra grace right here.

Now that I think about it, maybe I'll allow myself 2 resolutions this year:
  1. More grace.
  2. Less bacon.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The meeting

The woman called me on Thursday.  She wanted to schedule a meeting for the next afternoon, the Friday before Christmas.

I was super-busy and didn’t really have the time to spare, but—in the spirit of the season—I said, “Sure, I can meet tomorrow at 2:00.”

The next day, the woman was running late.  She called me with updates, “Should be there in about 15 minutes.”

I didn’t want updates.  I wanted to meet, finish up some work, and get on home.

At 3:15, there was another update.  She’d made it to my building.

And then … she got lost … inside my building.  (Okay, it is a big building.)

She finally showed up at my office about 3:45 … almost 2 hours late!

I was annoyed.

I’m sure it showed on my face, but I said, “No problem,” and we settled in for the business at hand.

Our time together was short, and we sprinkled it with a little bit of small talk.  The woman had flown in from California to meet with several people in the area.  Her schedule, like mine, was fully-packed.

As we closed things out, I continued the small talk, not really thinking much about what I was saying.  “So are you going to make it back home in time for the holidays?”

She shook her head, “No, I’m working through the holidays, right here in DC.”  She added that she’d probably be writing reports on Christmas Day.

And right then, right at that very moment …

I didn’t feel annoyed anymore.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Losing my voice

When Cheryl and I lived in North Dakota, I lost my voice 2 or 3 times.  Completely.  I’d never experienced laryngitis before.

I’d wake up in the morning and feel like my vocal cords were wrapped up in a blanket, and then I’d walk around for a few days whispering to people or writing out messages on paper.

It was embarrassing, especially at work where I was still meeting new people.  Here I was trying to make a good first impression, and the only thing coming from my mouth was an empty speech bubble.

Flickr photo by Tim Morgan

I felt powerless.  There were all of these really important things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t.  I had to remain silent.

A few years later, when our family was living in West Texas, I was asked to lead an upcoming Air Force parade.

Let me rephrase that.

I was a student at a military training base, and I was ordered to lead an upcoming parade, a painful task unless one happens to be an extreme extrovert or an aspiring Shakespearean actor.  Safe to say, I saw the task of shouting out commands to a horde of airmen as daunting.

And, as you may have guessed, the “shouting” part of this caused me some problems.  After the first practice at the parade grounds, I began to lose my voice.

In order to help myself, I harkened back to my days of high school chorus and started doing vocal warm-ups sessions every morning in the shower.

I wasn’t quiet about it, and I got on Cheryl’s very last nerve, but I think it helped.

me me Me ME Me me me
la la La LA La la la

I was able to keep my voice and led the parade (and I only forgot a couple of my lines).

And in the end, I learned a valuable lesson from all of this …

I would rather have a voice than not have a voice.


Through the years, I have found myself in places—churches, jobs, communities—where I didn’t feel like I had much of a voice.  Have you ever experienced that?

And the deal is … I want to have a voice.  I want to have opportunities to speak up and be heard.  I want to be able to disagree—hopefully with some love and grace sprinkled in—and for people to say, “That’s okay.  You’re okay.  Keep talking.”

Isn’t that desire—to speak and be heard—within all of us? 
And I don’t want to just be a talker.  I want to listen as well.  I want to hear and to understand the words and thoughts and stories of a wide-range of others who are using voices …

… given to them by God.


“I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice …” – Psalm 116:1

Monday, November 10, 2014

Forgiving Kramer

If you know me well, you know I am a Jerry Seinfeld fan.

It all began back in the 90s.  Cheryl and I got into the routine of watching Seinfeld every Thursday night.  We looked forward to it.  We taped it on our VCR.

Then every Friday, while Cheryl was out teaching or doing something else, I’d drive home for lunch (hit rewind) and then watch it all over again.  I didn’t want to miss a single joke.  I wanted to be able to throw out funny quotes in the office or at church.

I know … it was kind of weird.

In 1998, Cheryl and I watched the show’s finale while we were living in Hawaii.  It was sad to see it go.  It wasn’t like losing an old friend, or anything close to that, but more like seeing a funny acquaintance move to another town.  We had enjoyed so many laughs together.

And then the Seinfeld DVDs started coming out.  Season 1.  Season 2.

We (or should I say “I”) started buying them and watching each episode all over again.  Hilarious!

Then something happened that sucked the joy right out of all things Seinfeld.  I didn’t think the jokes were funny anymore.  I didn’t want to see another minute of Jerry and the gang.  I stopped buying the DVDs.  I launched my own personal boycott of the show.

Because …

As you probably remember, in 2006 Michael Richards (the actor who played “Kramer”) lost his cool after being heckled in a comedy club.  He let loose a string of racially charged statements.  Really offensive stuff.  It’s all there on YouTube … over a million views.  In the days and weeks afterward, Richards made some public apologies, but I didn’t want to hear it.  What he had done was just too wrong.  Unforgivable.

I know.  It’s weird.  How can I be so angry at a guy I don’t even know?

How could I be so angry?

And now, 8 long years later, I find myself getting back into Jerry Seinfeld again.  I can’t help myself.

He’s started a web series called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  In the show, he meets comedians, takes them for a drive in a car, and they get coffee together.  Genius!

And it is funny.  To me, at least.  Cheryl laughs way less hard than I do.

And one of Jerry’s guests on the show … drum roll … Michael Richards.  And I had to think about it--I’m not kidding--did I really want to watch that episode?

And I did want to watch it.

And there he was, “Kramer,” still expressing remorse for what happened all those years ago during his stand-up routine.

And there was this tiny “click” inside my head.  If you’d been sitting next to me, you might have heard it.  I thought, “Okay, I forgive this guy.  I forgive him for what he said.”

It was time to let go … to give grace.


And it is time to begin forgiving …

The guy I know who had an affair.

The person who lied to me.  

And to extend some forgiveness to myself too.  I’ve got a good bit of Kramer in me.  I need some of that grace.

How about you?  Any Kramers in your life?


One more thought …

In my mind, forgiveness is a lot like grieving.  It takes time.

It doesn’t have to be immediate.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  We all process it differently.

Give it as much time as you need.