Christmas, 2016…

The idea occurred to me on a hot Florida day in July as I sweated my way through a long line of appointments doing pest control. Finally, after wiping my face for what seemed like the thousandth time, I said to no one in particular:

“I want to be somewhere cold…not cool…COLD!”

That thought began to stir within me a longing to return home, at least for a little while.

For me, Home is in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. My family moved there when I was 16, between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I have come to believe, that there is perfection in this life. Perfect in terms of time and place and how they combine in life to provide experiences filled with joy, fun, challenge, and growth. Longmont, Colorado was just that for a span of two years. The opportunities I had in Longmont High School through music and football were foundations upon which I built a life filled with love for both. Although I had previous experiences in music and football, my two years at LHS were filled with positive relationships that welcomed me as a new student as if I had been with them our whole lives. The students, choral director, teachers, and coaches recognized talents of which I was somewhat insecure, and then nourished and challenged me to develop them. The school introduced me to a level of community that was open, positive, and affirming with each other. I have yet to find another community like it.

Similarly, the mountains were always a haven for me. I would often take our Irish Setter, Sammy, into the mountains when I went fishing. Rather than fishing in one of the mountain lakes close by, I preferred to fish in the streams that cut their way from the high country through the rocky foothills that then spread out across the flat landscape at the base of the mountains. Longmont is about 10 miles from the beginning of the foothills, and is surrounded by farms and ranches which take advantage of the rich soil deposited by these same streams, and also by ancient glaciers as they eventually melted. At some point following WWII, Japanese farmers came to the St. Vrain valley (named for the river in which I fished), and began to raise vegetables which they trucked to farmers’ markets either in Longmont, or just outside of town. These farms were incrementally sold through the years prior to my family moving there, and yet there remained a couple farms still raising and trucking vegetables when I lived there.

The presence of these farms also felt like home to me when I first moved there. We previously lived in the Hi Plains region of Southwestern Kansas, and I had worked on a ranch. I especially enjoyed working with horses and cattle on the ranch, so the ranches and farms surrounding Longmont were pleasantly familiar to me.

I left Longmont, Colorado and my beloved Rocky Mountains immediately following high school graduation ceremonies and moved to Indiana, where my parents had moved early in my senior year, allowing me to live with family friends and finish high school at LHS. Sadly, I seldom returned after leaving. But I never lost the feeling that, in some way, my identity had been both shaped and discovered in this place. However, I don’t think I was able to articulate that feeling until later in life, after I had lived in other communities and geographical regions.

I now realize that this place will always be Home for me!

It is with this historical context that I decided in the heat of July, that I would rent a place in Estes Park, Colorado and invite my adult children to join me in celebration and pilgrimage to the Rockies at Christmas.

The cabin I settled on is cozy and part of a cluster of similar cabins a few miles outside of Estes Park on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Estes Park is an old-school tourist community surrounded by peaks of the Continental Divide. Since it is further north of the myriad of skiing resorts that are busy during winter, Estes Park is less crowded and less expensive during Christmas time. That makes it perfect for an intimate retreat for my kids and I. I have always wanted to do this, but never realized it: un-rushed time together.

Time to just Be Family…

Fully in the present…

Open to serendipity…

Surrounded by the beauty of the Natural World…

Our reservation began on Saturday, Christmas Eve, and we couldn’t check in until 4 P.M. Baird and Ryann drove in from Kansas City a couple days early to spend a day skiing and stay one night in Boulder, Colorado. I flew in from Florida late Friday night and spent the night at the airport before getting my rental car early Saturday morning. Hannah flew in from Huntington Beach, California on Saturday morning, and I picked her up. Hannah and I met Baird and Ryann in downtown Denver for lunch and to wander around talking and taking pictures…OK…it was mainly me taking pictures.

Since we had decided earlier on to exchange gifts with each other, we decided…OK…they asked me to decide…when we would open our gifts. When I was older, my family traditionally opened gifts on Christmas Eve. I always liked that, because…well… we didn’t have to wait until Christmas Day! Decision made…

We left Denver and began the drive to Estes Park via a drive through downtown Longmont and a stop at Longmont High School. Once again, I took pictures at LHS, and we walked partly around the school, while I told them stories about my time there. We then took a quick detour past the house in which I lived at that time, and the church of which my father was pastor.

Finally…

The drive through the farmland and into the mountains!

After a quick stop at the grocery store (where they didn’t have Egg Nog!), we drove through town to our cabin. Upon arriving and unloading our luggage, I started a fire while Ryann put up the small Christmas tree, and Hannah began cutting cheese and Summer sausage to go on Ritz crackers, which is one of the family traditions we do. The gifts came next, and then…

White Christmas… a movie we all love, and traditionally watch together…

…and a beautiful epiphany for  me in the midst of the movie…

…in a cozy cabin in the middle of the mountains…

…with my daughter’s head resting on my leg…

…my son and daughter-in-law lying on the floor…

…a fire burning, lights off, candles lit, and lights on the tree twinkling…

…as Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sing the following words:

“When I’m worried, and I can’t sleep

I count my blessings instead of sheep

And I fall asleep, counting my blessings

When my bank roll is gettin’ small

I think of when I had none at all

And I fall asleep, counting my blessings!”

Blessings…

A lump grew in my throat, and my eyes became moist.

I am Home…

…and it’s Christmas…

Later, I went outside into the quietness of the night where millions of stars met me with a symphony of silent light…

Somewhere in the distance, an owl called into the night…

I realized just how connected I am to this place and these people…

It seems to me, that the point of Christmas is just that! A child is born into the world surrounded by people, and animals, and stars, and shepherds, and searchers…

The birth is an affirmation of humanity’s connection to time and place and each other and the larger world and universe. A celebration, really, and in that moment, my heart was full of joy. It felt…

Perfect.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

It is now February 17, 2018. I wrote most of the above in the days following my Perfect Christmas. The world feels very different than it did in that cabin in the mountains, whipped by a cold wind bearing show, surrounded by my children. I don’t really need to explain the state of the world currently to you, Reader. You know.

My memory returns there every so often. I am reminded of the joy we shared that Christmas. Honestly, the world was pretty chaotic then, too. We were just able to pull in tight, together, and keep warm in the cold mountain winter nights. We were present fully with and to each other in that place. We were able to take in the beauty surrounding us, because we were open to it. It’s called “being present in the present.”

I have to admit, I spent most of my life preoccupied with what MIGHT happen in the future, or what DID happen in the past. Both practices robbed me of the beauty I could have experienced in the present, and were mostly tied in some way to fear and self-criticism. Pretty self absorbed, actually. To be fair to myself, I need to explain what I’m NOT talking about:

I’m not talking about planning for the future…

I’m not talking about learning from the past…

Both of those activities take place in the present…

And they mean I am in the process of living fully, and honestly in the present…

I guess what I DO mean is living daily with a mindset to choose gratitude rather than fear, anger, and suspicion. I am still learning how to do that. I believe it is important to feel what I feel, and examine the feelings, yet remain optimistic that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it so eloquently. Mourning is part of gratitude. Activism towards change through confronting injustice, is also part of gratitude. Living with gratitude does not mean living in denial, nor does it mean being unaware of the needs of other people. In fact living with an attitude of gratitude in the present means that I am more aware of both my own pain, and that of those I come across daily.

The birth and life of Jesus, the Christmas Child, calls me to live that way. He gives me hope that I can be that person with each new day.

 

 

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Peace in the Present…

One morning this past week, as I was beginning my morning routine before heading off to work; I was sitting outside on the back patio drinking a first cup of coffee. I woke up a little early, so my mind was active for some reason. In recent years, my mind is slower to get running in the morning, and slower to shut down at night. On this particular morning, however, my thoughts seemed to be reaching out for….something.

There is a cat that usually meets me on the back patio. My neighbors told me the cat was part of a herd of cats fed by the woman who lived in my house previously. Some of them were feral cats that she fed in a little workshop which borders the patio on the left. She cut a hole in the door to install a cat door, and left food inside for them to eat. Although this seems nice at first glance, once she moved, she left them without the food source they had come to depend on. The last time I saw the woman, she asked if I wanted to continue the practice. I responded, “No. Although I love animals, my life style doesn’t allow me to be a good pet owner.” So she put a piece of plastic in the door, to obstruct entrance to the space.

(Eventually, I found another reason not to keep feeding those cats. I bargained with the property manager to allow me to clean, and re-paint the interior of the house as long as I could choose the colors. I had help with both the cleaning and painting. My sister and brother worked with me to get the house ready for me to move. One task that I accomplished on my own was removing the carpet… It was a heavy Berber carpet, and it STUNK from cat urine! The lower parts of the walls bore the stains of male cats spraying their territory. By the time we were finished cleaning, I was CERTAIN I made the correct decision about feral cats outside!)

The cat that meets me when I go out on the patio, is interesting. Reportedly, it was born in my house. That is easy for me to believe, because the manner in which it first approached me was as an offended owner of the house. All the other feral cats eventually left the yard (someone else in the neighborhood started feeding them), but THIS cat walked into the yard, and immediately began to yell at me! I had to respect that, so…..I eventually began putting cat food on the patio in the morning.

Yeah…

I know…

I’m a sucker for anything showing pluck!

Now, part of my morning routine encompasses putting food out for the cat…which also becomes food for birds….and the occasional opossum and raccoon at night. On this particular morning, as I was drinking my coffee, a dove flew down and lighted on the roof of the house no more than ten feet away from me.

Four years ago, shortly after I moved into the house, I noticed the yard seemed to be a haven for doves. At the time, I was attending an online master’s degree program in Spiritual Formation from George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and my vision for using the degree, was to become a Spiritual Director and develop a program for Spiritual Formation specifically for the pastoral staffs of churches. The presence of the doves in my yard spoke to me about the house being a place of peace for others as we learned together how to experience and pursue Shalom. One day, when my brother was there the doves returned. I said to my brother,

“I want this house to be a place of peace for other people.”

My brother responded simply, “I am hoping it will be a place of peace for YOU!”

In the succeeding years, I have found this statement to be both insightful, and prophetic.

Prophetic, not in the sense of telling the future, but in the biblical sense of confronting people with Truth which is dissonant with their current perceptions, actions, and life.

Ok…

Back to the dove on the roof…

I began to talk to the dove, telling it that it was safe, and that I wouldn’t hurt it…

…and eventually, a second dove lit on the roof next to the first. The two moved impatiently upon the roof while looking at the patio and the grass next to it, as if seeing all the insects in it…..food. Finally, the late-comer lept softly down onto the patio, and began feeding on the grass seed, or insects, on the concrete. At this point, the dove was within five feet of me, and about six feet from the cat which was facing away from the bird and feeding on what I had put out.

Quietly, I spoke to the dove…

“You better be careful… you’re awfully close to this cat!”

When the cat moved, the dove on the patio softly flew upward to a limb of a tree beside the patio and patiently watched me, the cat, and probably the cat food.

At this point, my attention was distracted by a bird sitting on an electric line about 30 feet away.

I thought, “That looks like a dove, but it looks different, too.”

While I fixated on the bird in the distance with features like a dove but also not like a dove…

…the doves closest to me flew away…

Disappointed, I realized how the experience felt like a metaphor for my life to this point.

I have often become so…

distracted…

fixated…

obsessed…

by a shadowy future, that I miss out on the beauty closest to me.

I often ignore and neglect the gifts of the moment in my pursuit of a fantasy built by an unhelpful definition of perfection, and the comfort I believe will be…

…in the future…

I don’t like this habit…

I am robbed of the present by this habit…

Now…to be fair…

Dreams and visions are not bad.

They help us imagine how the world could be.

That can be a VERY good, and generative, perspective…

But…

Dreams occur when we are asleep…

and visions occur when we are transported out of the present…

So, in some ways, dreams and visions are a criticism of the reality of the present, and when we are transfixed by them, our mindfulness of the present can be distracted so that we are blind and deaf to the ways God comes to us in THIS moment!

So…

What can I do differently?

What can WE do differently?

We can:

Observe our peace…

It would be easy to say that violence is the opposite of peace, but that’s too easy. As I have thought about it, I have come to believe that being numb is the opposite of peacefulness. Peace does NOT mean the absence of conflict. Peacefulness is a process which involves a recognition of conflict, and a determination to look for generative and sustainable resolutions to conflict. Living peacefully is a way of seeing and living life in a way that acknowledges all the tragedy in the world surrounding us, chooses to embrace the uncomfortable emotions we feel in response, and learns to find God in the midst of it all. Often, our best way through conflict, or tragedy, is to wait…

Stop…

A good practice is to allow the emotions and thoughts to wash over us without trying to deny, numb, or ignore them. I realize that some people during crisis events must act immediately in order to protect others or themselves, but eventually there needs to be a time we acknowledge how these events have affected us personally. We need to carve out space to “feel what you feel.” I’m not saying that life will stop to wait on us, but we must realize that what we feel is a biological part of being human, and denying them will NOT stop them from being expressed in a physiological way. Acknowledging our own emotions is a step of trust, in ourselves, and in God.

When I am conscious about my life, I notice how often I try to run from my feelings by numbing them rather than acknowledging them, feeling them, and soothing, resolving, or expressing them. If I numb them, they don’t go away. Often, they sneak out when I least expect them, which can be embarrassing, given the circumstances. Peace invites me to let down my guard, become honest about and identify what I feel, and in vulnerability, express them.

Look… 

Its amazing how often I miss seeing things that are right in front of me. I have always used the metaphor of a bulletin board when I talk about becoming more observant of our life. A bulletin board is a tool used to communicate something visually to people. However, it is my experience that a bulletin board, because it is so “normal” becomes part of the wall. Often, I view it as part of the visual blah, blah, blah of an external space, such as in a break room at a jobsite. So, that which is meant to communicate important information is ignored, because I am pre-occupied with something else. If I am not careful, I can become so pre-occupied with the visual cues in the world…

the media…

an angry driver…

the sameness of my physical surroundings…

that I miss entirely the beauty and significance of the gifts I have been given:

health…

a job…

a home…

family…

friends…

the world around me…

To guard against this, I have to find ways to slow down my constantly shifting gaze. Photography is one way I do this. When I have a camera in my hands, I slow down and take in the world around me, not just to absorb and enjoy it personally, but also to capture an image of what I see in order to share it with others, as well as with myself at a later time. When I view one of the images I have captured with my camera, I am reminded of the experience of that moment, and I am thankful…again. This tool has helped me recognize the beauty when my hands are empty, too. I see everything with new eyes and in greater depth, so that I feel part of the world around me. I realize that I am in the picture.

Listen…

I have found that in order for me to hear another person, I need to attend to them…I need to give them my attention. In fact, I have instructed my sister…who I also works with…to wait until she can look me in the eyes before she tells me something.

…and then text it to me…

There is noise all around me. And much of it becomes “white noise” that I tune out. There is also noise in my head…my thoughts…which can compete with what I hear from other people. Peace invites me to listen both to my life, and to the natural world, because in so doing I often find the presence of God. One practice which can help me develop the skill of listening is engaging music, either in the hearing, or in the doing of it. I often put on headphones and lose myself in music. I become part of it, and it becomes part of me. My emotions eventually find a resonance with the style to which I am listening.  It is similar when I venture into the natural world, and listen…really listen. It is in those moments that I hear the music of God, which speaks to me on the level of my soul, and it is renewed with peace.

Protect our peace…

Boundaries…Honestly, I haven’t been very good throughout my life at either identifying what boundaries are or what I need them to be in my life. In the past 5 years or so, I have begun to understand the concept of boundaries in relationships. I now realize that boundaries are different than obstacles. When we construct obstacles in our relationships, we are essentially running away from intimacy and trust while running to isolation and distrust. Constructive boundaries in our lives actually allow us to be more available in the present to people, tasks, and activities we care about. A personal boundary is something we set and acknowledge which communicates how we choose to live. They are choices that communicate self-respect, and ways we want to be treated by others. For me, setting boundaries is difficult not because I am unwilling to defend them, but because it is hard for me to identify the need for one, and where it needs to be placed.

I am a preacher’s kid, and in my family, other people always came first. ALWAYS! The theological perspective within which I was raised pretty much sanctified the concept, even though Jesus set clear boundaries in his own life and ministry. As an adult, I often said “yes” to something that I really didn’t want to do, then felt aggravated at the person to whom I said “yes”! This was true in my personal life, as well as career. Eventually, I learned how to say “no” in my career, as well as to stand up for myself when I felt something was unfair. In my personal life…especially my marriage…I never really did. This could have been one of the reasons it was so unsatisfying to both of us, and ended in divorce.

Protecting our Peace means not choosing to place ourselves into circumstances in which we are treated with disrespect, nor to associate with people who treat us with disrespect. Although we may have to be associated with those types of circumstances or people for short periods of time or in events which occur outside of our control, the choices we make on a regular basis protect our peace when we live treating others and ourselves with respect.

Embrace peace in the present…

Sometimes I fight myself, and my expectations of myself. For instance, it is Saturday as I write this. This morning, I wanted to do several things:

Go to the gym– I have a sore shoulder, and I need to do some strength training with it.

Clean the house-I have found that I feel calmer in an orderly personal space, so when I have put off cleaning the house for awhile, I realize I am running from something, so am punishing myself by letting my space become disorderly.

Do yard work– I enjoy this, for the most part, but especially enjoy the way it looks afterward and the feel of my body with dirt under my fingernails.

Budget– I hate money…..

So…what did I do this morning? I came to Starbucks and began writing. It’s now 4:40 in the afternoon, and my day is almost over. I am feeling a mixture of emotions, and not much peace! What I am trying to do right now, is embrace the process of writing with the hope that, once I publish it, other people might find something in my experience they recognize, or that it stirs their thinking in ways that promote growth and living in healthier ways.

And…

Quite honestly….

I mostly hope someone likes it….

I also realize that once I am through with a piece of written work, I feel very peaceful about having written. Right now…that peace is what I will embrace as a gift from God. I also will embrace it because I will remind myself that it takes courage to tell pieces of your story, as well as your thoughts about it. Embracing one’s own voice is a way of embracing peace, and when I neglect to write, I am instead embracing the fear that the value of my life experience and what I am learning has no value. Because embracing peace also means embracing growth and sharing that growth with other people.

Release our peace into the world…

Peace isn’t a commodity we buy and then horde. Peace is shared. When we embrace a life of peace, we release it in the process of embracing it. Whether we realize it or not, the people around us know if we are at peace or not. Sometimes even better than do we! As I wrote previously, peace doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, and it also doesn’t mean there will be no struggle. Peace and struggle co-exist…personally and collectively. Peace means that we will fight. Personally, my most common combatant is myself. I often fight with fear, and shame, and isolation, and pride, and ignorance, and anger, and impatience, and body image, and addiction, and….numbing…

Yet what I keep coming back to, are the words of Jesus:

“In this world you will have many problems, but take heart! I have overcome the world!”

Perhaps that is why he has been called the Prince of Peace!

January 10, 1988…

We left our little duplex a little late in the evening. I may have left work early that evening. It was a Saturday and I was working second shift, 3 pm to 1am, in a juvenile detention in Olathe, Kansas. The duplex we were renting was also in Olathe, and although it was just a five to ten minute drive from work, when you are a young couple expecting your first child close to the expected delivery date, you don’t want to take chances. The HMO we were on from my work, only would allow us to deliver in a hospital they prescribed, and that was Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri, a 30 minute drive from Olathe. When she started to feel pretty uncomfortable, she called the HMO nurse-line, to see what we should do. They suggested we go ahead to the hospital.

I remember it being a clear, bitterly cold night, which isn’t surprising, because that is the rule in Kansas City in January. As we drove through the night, there was a calm coziness between the two of us. This should have been our first hint that the baby wasn’t ready to be born yet. Calm and labor do not generally hold hands as we were doing as we drove. Labor kicks calm aside and demands urgency. It shouts its intentions, and gives orders like a Marine drill sergeant, with pointed direction and not a little cursing. Upon arrival at the hospital, Greta’s pains were growing, and we approached the emergency room arrival desk not in a state of panic, but of annoyance about the usual bureaucracy. We should have known by our relative patience that we would eventually be sent back home to wait for sharper labor pains. Hospital staff must know the signs of real labor by how loudly the parents yell at them.

Even though we didn’t show the signs of real labor, she was admitted, and taken to an examining room. When the attending physician checked her cervix, he reported that although her body was getting ready, she still had a long way to go. The physician suggested that she start walking around the hospital corridors to try and encourage the process. So we began to walk…and walk…and walk… When they check her again, they suggested that she be released to go home and get some rest. “The pains will wake you up!” A nurse told us. Well…actually, the pain wouldn’t let her GO to sleep… although the fact that we had a water bed with the lack of support couldn’t have helped…let alone the effort it took a VERY pregnant woman AND her young husband to get her out of the bed exacerbated her discomfort, as well…we eventually found what should have been a comforting panic. We were persuading the nurse-line staff, too. Our repeated calls signified that our suburban politeness was cracking, and we were entering the primal evolutionary state of reproducing, social-skill Neanderthals, that all first-time parents devolve into with their first child. We were eventually “invited” back to the hospital.

The second trip was much less calm, and exponentially quicker. However, once she was examined, we learned that her cervix had only dilated to a 3. We needed to get to 10.

Crap….

It was as if her body didn’t want to expel this new person she’d been protecting for nine months into the world. Her body became schizophrenic, with one set of natural urges providing a courageous push, while another set providing a protective pull. So we waited for the push-urge to win out…and I did what any new husband and father does: whatever she says. I remember massaging her back as she turned on her side, with the regular amount of assorted cords attached to her body. My hands and arms began to ache from the kneading of her muscles. Wisely, I decided to keep this discomfort a secret… I think most fathers know to keep their mouths shut in such an occasion, while watching the physical travail of the mother of their child. The idiots who do not, deserve whatever they receive…

Several other pictures are captured within the recesses of my mind:

Her family standing in the hallway of the hospital…

The pushing…

The crowning of the baby’s head…

The late arrival of the HMO physician, who almost had to dive to catch the kid…

Her mother, who we agreed could watch the birth because she had never seen one, who had to quickly sit down because she got light-headed due to the excitement…

Holding the baby boy for the first time…

Excitedly calling my family with the news…

The sight in the hallway of Greta’s best friend and her husband with his stupid sunglasses perched on top of his head…

The naming: Baird Conrad Williams. The first name chosen in honor of my childhood friend, and best man in our wedding; and the second taken from my paternal grandfather: Eli Conrad Williams.

Eventually taking the baby home snuggled in his yellow, arctic onesie covered by layers of blankets in the HMO, borrowed car seat…

…and the melancholy reminder that my father would never know this child and this child would never know his wonderful grandfather. I would be his only tie to his heritage from my side of his family. Although I couldn’t have known it then, we would have only a hand-full of opportunities for him to be in contact with my side of the family over the next twenty-five years. At the time, I mourned a loss that he would never fully understand: the loss of his knowing the patient, gentle presence of my father. At the time, I was unsettled as to my own ability to model this important relationship to him.

As to the other concerns over raising a child, neither of us felt burdened with the expectation that we had to be perfect parents. We realized, probably for the first time, that all parents will screw up, and the next generation will have to find their way through the maze of these faults. What did concern me, was the capability to financially provide for this child. And to live out my values in such a way as to invite him into them.

While he might have missed the opportunity to experience my family, he was granted a wonderful opportunity to develop the traditions of his mother’s side of the family. Many of these traditions and values were shared by both sides:

Learning that continues throughout a lifetime…

Loving each other during hard times…

Caring about issues, and acting in ways to support the community…

Courage to take risks…

The love of music…

The adrenaline-rich joy of performance…

As I have watched him grow, I have seen these values play themselves out in his life. But I have also seen wisdom grow within him that is his own. He shares with me, and the men of my family, a propensity to be quiet about difficulty, and to just take on the responsibility himself to figure things out, then take action. As I think about it, I see the same quality in Loy, his maternal grandfather, and Scott, his step-father. Maybe this is a quality that is especially embraced by masculine culture:

The masculine demand to keep your mouth shut when it hurts, and don’t ask for help…

Oh…

wait…

that probably is the dysfunctional side of self-reliance, against which every man must guard, lest he become isolated in the toxic mix of shame and pride. The more positive side is: don’t shrink from, nor side-step necessary pain, but take responsibility for your actions, ask for help when needed, and give it to others when asked. Although these are not JUST masculine values, they are certainly ones that I have seen in the men surrounding Baird as he grew up, and notice a lack of in many men of younger generations.

My son has become a man…a good man.

A loving husband.

A gifted scholar and musician.

A trustworthy employee.

A wise steward of his finances.

An astute judge of priorities.

Not only am I proud of him, I am impressed by him.

Happy birthday, Baird Conrad Williams!

2014: The Cookie Jar…

At the end of each year, nostalgia seems to run rampant.  News organizations, magazines, newspapers, blogs… All these publish their lists of best and worst. The terrific, the tragic, the memorable, the melancholy… It all gets laid out to be mulled over and mummified for posterity.

I will try my hand at it.

Here are a few thoughts about the Cookie Jar moments of 2014:

THE KANSAS CITY ROYALS!

Since I moved to Florida three years ago, I have had to keep up with my favorite baseball team through the internet. While this lacked the immediacy of listening on 810 WHB to the games and all the related discussion of the minutiae of every managerial decision, player move, and hang-nail injury; it did allow me to see the season from a larger perspective.

For me, the theme of the 2014 Kansas City Royals was:

They Just. Keep. Playing!

Optimism:

As a team, these guys showed an audacious tendency to keep grinding even when things looked bleak. They kept an optimistic attitude, with the belief that someone would come through right when they needed to. And they were right! It didn’t need to be a huge thing, but all the little things compounded to be big things. There seemed to be a level of expectancy in the dugout that, even when an opportunity was missed and a guy didn’t get the job done, somebody else would have his back and pick him up. It worked! Especially in the playoffs. Although they ended up just 90 feet short of scoring the tying run and forcing extra innings in game 7, which was disappointing, the attitude of the organization…top to bottom…is that these group of guys have graduated to a new level of expectancy which will propel them to the playoffs again.

When you look at winning sports teams, regardless of the sport, you find a core of individuals…leaders…that have an optimistic belief that they can and will win. Usually this begins with a head coach, in football, or a manager, in baseball; but you need these kinds of players, too. A handful of player-leaders that are optimistic in the way they work when the spotlight isn’t on, whether it is watching film, studying scouting reports, in the weight room, or in team meetings; pull the other members of the team along. Sometimes that also means confronting individual teammates that aren’t buying in to the concept.

Several years ago when I was a youth pastor in Delaware, I invited a former professional football player to speak at a fifth-quarter youth event after the high school football game. Since I was also an assistant coach with the team, he also spoke to the players before the game, and he told a story about when he was a rookie on the New York Giants when they won the Super Bowl under Bill Parcels. The player…sorry…I forget his name… was leading the league in kick-off returns heading into the Super Bowl, but was being replaced by another player in the game plan leading up to the final game. When he found out during a meeting early in the week that he wouldn’t be starting, he got up and walked out of the meeting in disgust. A veteran player noticed him leave, followed him into the hallway, and confronted him about his leaving the meeting. After patiently hearing what the rookie had to say about the unfairness of the coaching decision, the veteran got into his face and said:

“Listen kid, I have been in this game for a long time, and I have never won a championship! You are NOT going to ruin my chance. You are better than this! You play football because of love. Love of the game and love for your teammates. Love isn’t selfish, so get back in that meeting!”

Love is the definition of optimism. You could tell that the 2014 Royals loved each other and loved the game by the way they stayed together and kept playing to the final out.

Playful:

Salvador Perez is a big, little kid. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to his Instagram account: instagram.com/salvadorp13/

Salvie was relentless in taking videos of Larenzo Cain, Royals’ center-fielder. But Cain isn’t the only player splashed on Salvie’s page. His cell phone records the players being themselves. You see the playfulness of the team in unguarded moments. Like when he catches a player singing and/or dancing to the music in the locker room. You can hear Perez whisper to the video’s audience as he documents the player and the performance. Once they know they have been caught, the players turn red, and often chase after Perez in feigned anger. So much fun to watch! You can tell they enjoy each other.

Then there are Ned Yost’s press conferences. Yost frequently uses humor to explain either the decision making process, or to answer a pointed question which seems tailored to get either a pointed reply, or for the reporter to be the straight-man to Yost’s comic. When asked if he felt any pressure preceding Game 7 of the World Series, Yost responded: “Pressure? I don’t think there is any pressure…Isn’t this a fun series? This is why you play the game.” He went on to describe the amazing play of his own players, as well as the excellent performances of the San Francisco Giants players. Yost had been on teams before that had reached the series, as a position coach, so he had a little perspective of just how precious the moments were. His aim as manager was to win, yet he wanted his players to enjoy the experience. It seems to me, that good performance and enjoying the magnitude of the event are related. Joy walks arm in arm with performing to the best of one’s ability, because you love what you are doing. Yost’s attitude and those of the players connect playfulness with another important quality:

Humble Confidence:

Two players that especially exhibited this quality were Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. These were the players that had lived through the bad years of Royals baseball. They had been there when the Royals were habitually penciled in at the bottom of the division…during Spring Training! Gordon learned humility by being the first player drafted as a third baseman in college for the University of Nebraska. Gordon spent his early years with Royals by being moved back and forth between third base and the outfield. Although known as a potentially great hitter, he struggled at the plate to fulfill the potential. Through the years of struggle, Gordon has become a 4-time Gold Glove recipient in left field. He also has become an above-average hitter, with power to all fields. Gordon’s humility and confidence were formed in the fire of struggle.

Billy Butler has been known for his bat rather than his fielding. Butler spent much of his career as a sub-par first baseman, with a consistent bat and decent power numbers. When Eric Hosmer, an excellent fielder at first base, was called up from the minors and installed at first, Butler had to learn how to be a designated hitter. Butler was honest about his preference to play in the field, rather then being relegated to DH, and his hitting seemed to suffer without the regular activity of playing in the field. But he kept working, and adapted. Butler’s numbers fell off in 2014, but he continued to hit intelligently and contribute in the clutch. He seemed to especially be elated when he got a hit late in the game, when he knew he would be replaced by either the mercurial Terrance Gore, or Jerrod Dyson. Both players are base stealing phenoms, and place tremendous pressure on the other team. Butler isn’t known for his speed, and yet was so inspired by the exploits of Dyson and Gore, that he stole second on his own in a playoff game. That is humble confidence.

Gratitude:

A tip of the cap… this is the symbol of these Royals. I’m not sure when it began, but throughout the playoffs, Royals’ pitchers would tip their cap to a defensive play that got them out of a jam. Sometimes it came after a pitch that was a mistake and the opposing team’s hitter made solid contact. Other times, the pitch was good, but the hitter was better and the ball flew through the air looking for a hole in the defense upon which to fall. However, a flash of Royal blue would suddenly appear, and the ball would fall harmlessly into a well-worn mit. Damage dodged… Upon replay, it was fun to watch the pitcher’s response. The smack of the bat, and the head on the mound would snap around, with eyes wide in apprehension. Only to get larger in hope that his teammate, streaking towards the ball in flight would get there before it either hit the ground or escaped over the wall. Once the play was made, you saw the mouth open in a scream of “YES!”, the fist raised in triumph, and then the baseball signal of gratitude: the tip of the hat. In the field, the defensive player, with a look of confidence in his eyes, might smile slightly, and return the salute.

This public gesture became a point of connection for the team, I think. They knew they could count on each other to not only perform, but to lift each other up through their effort and selfless play. It also became a point of connection for the fans. As the regular season ran down, and it became apparent the Royals would fall short of the division title, the fans continued to flash signs which said: “We Believe!” They packed Kaufman stadium supplying boundless energy and noise, off which the players fed. The players realized how hungry the city was for a winning baseball team, and they played with a hunger of their own, which matched that of the fans. The two, fans and team, were a sort of larger team, too. And after every game, won or lost, hundreds of fans stayed around, hoping to further communicate their gratitude for this magical group of men. Eventually, players, manager, and coaches, would trudge up the stairs from the locker room, wave to the cheering fans, tip their hats, and clap their hands for the fans, in appreciation for their support and patience.

It happened in the community, too…

  • Eric Hosmer and a few of his teammates, went to a bar after a game one evening, and bought the entire house a drink to say “Thank you” for their support.
  • After the American Championship win, several Royals players went to The Power and Light District in downtown KC, where the games were being telecast on a giant screen, watched by hundreds of fans. They each took the mike and voiced their gratitude for the support of these fans, which either couldn’t get a ticket because they were sold out, or couldn’t afford a ticket.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs organization took out ads and posted on their website congratulations as well as encouragement to keep the streak going.
  • Royals players even showed up at a Chiefs home game at Arrowhead stadium which is right across the parking lot from Kaufman, dressed in red and gold Chiefs jerseys. The national media picked up on it, and interviewed James Shields with his teammates gathered around him.
  • A fan in Nebraska emailed several Royals’ team staff and players, explaining how badly he wanted to attend a playoff game, but he couldn’t afford the tickets. A role player responded to the fan’s request, by giving him two free tickets.
  • A South Korean fan watched the regular season games on the internet and became part of a growing Royals Twitter community. He took his vacation in August to attend a weekend series in Kansas City. The media in KC followed him around, and became tour guides in the city. The story became a city and internet sensation, so when the Royals made the playoffs, Royals fans everywhere asked Sung Woo Lee if he would be able to attend one of the playoff games, and he responded “Only if my bosses will let me off work…” So the Royals interceded with his company, paid for him to fly to KC, and gave him a ticket to the game. On Lee’s original trip, Billy Butler invited him for barbecue at local Zarda barbecue. (I prefer Gates, myself!)

During the playoff run, there was an understanding that something special was happening. A new storybook was being opened. With each pitch, a feeling of anticipation grew within the team, the city, the nation, and even the world. It quickly became a feel-good sensation, with even players and managers from other teams enjoying the run.

Gratitude changes people…

Hustle:

During the Royals heyday of the 1970’s and 1980’s, one of the hallmarks of their winning formula was hustle. George Brett, Hal McCrae, Willie Wilson, Frank White, even Bo Jackson played with an aggressive style that put the opposing team on notice that the Royals were unwilling to offer a gimme on any play. They slid hard into second base trying to break up a double play, they hustled to first base on a routine grounder, they rounded first base quickly and often stretched a single into a double, or a double into a triple. They stole bases, their pitchers threw high and inside. When an opposing team came to Kansas City, they knew they were in for a fight.

While these Royals don’t have the same blue-collar, street fighter demeanor of those Royals; they certainly have the same aggressiveness on the field and in the base paths. Gordon crashing into walls to make a catch, Cain flying above the fence to pull a potential home run back into the park, Moustakas diving into the stands after a foul ball, Hosmer diving to tag first base to get the out, or Perez firing the ball to first or third while still kneeling behind the plate to pick off an inattentive runner.

Then there is the aggressive base running by Gore, Dyson, Escobar, or any of the speedier players. Being aggressive on the base paths puts pressure on the pitcher, catcher, and the rest of the defense. The opposing team knows it must be perfect, and this knowledge in itself often creates defensive mistakes. The Royals were superb when on base. Even the softest hit ball could produce a run. A wild pitch might even score a guy from second!

Royals’ pitchers were at their best when they were pitching aggressively. The starters knew they could go hard for 6 innings, and then turn it over to the “Lights Out Three” as I like to call them: Herrera, Davis, and Holland.

Finally…

Probably my favorite Royals’ story of 2014 happened after the Series was over. Royals’ young starting phenom pitcher, Yordano Ventura was driving through a small bedroom community of Kansas City when he saw a softball complex with the lights on. Pulling into the parking lot, Ventura got out of his car and walked over to a field where a co-ed softball game was being played. Ventura walked up to the fence and said, “Can I play?” The players and small crowd that had gathered to watch the game, crowded around the 23 year-old, smiling young man and the game was put on hold temporarily. After brief conversations filled with “thank you’s” and “way to go’s”, the game was resumed….with Yordano Ventura, World Series star…

…in Centerfield…

Put him in, Coach!

Only Love Matters…

Every other Sunday evening, I take my mother to church. Connie, my sister, and I take turns. The service we attend is called: Country Church. Most of the folks that attend are older, and the music is kind of down-home with more than a hint of Southern gospel. They have a background set that looks like an old country store. The band and worship ensemble wear western boots and an occasional western hat. The service begins with the worship leader…or maybe that should be trail boss… greeting the congregation with “HowDEEE!”
Really….
Pure kitsch…
But… I sometimes kind of like it. (When my eyes aren’t rolling…) Mainly because many of the songs they sing are ones from my childhood. It reminds me from where I came, and my heritage, or at least some of it. Mom really enjoys it, especially the preaching. That part I sometimes find hard to sit through. It is a Southern Baptist church, and the conservative slant can really grate on my moderate nerves.
Mom is 89-years-old. She has increasing, age-related dementia, exacerbated, I think, by the fact that she has bi-polar disorder. We never knew that as we were growing up, but noticed that about every 7 years, she would have a depressive break. Looking back, and talking to my brother and sister, I think that each break changed her. She is on medication now, but my sister bore the brunt of her last break, and it was really difficult for her and Butch, my brother-in-law. Moving here has been an opportunity for me to take on some of the load of dealing with Mom.

As I considered moving, that was one of the issues that worried me. How would I respond to Mom? Our relationship, or maybe it is more accurate to say my relationship with her, has been difficult. Yet I am not sure I realized that, until the last 10-15 years. It especially became apparent to me after my divorce, and I began to take some classes in seminary that led me to explore issues with my family of origin. Especially issues with my mother. I had to take an honest look at this most intimate, and fundamental female relationship.
We each begin existence encased in the body of another person. When we are born, the mother-child relationship is extremely important, because in it we find our most basic needs are met, or they aren’t. We learn a lot about the world, or rather what we expect from the world in terms of safety and comfort and provision in this one relationship. Even though a father can come alongside to care and help a mother meet the needs of an infant, the child’s attachment to its mother contributes to what it feels about life and the world… and themselves.
I won’t go into it here, but Mom’s illness affected me in those earliest days of my infancy. I have needed to look back, be honest about the lack of stability in our relationship, but also other parts of my life as a growing child. I needed to grieve it, which included anger at the way I felt I was perceived by my mother. I felt like I was expected to be a heathen, and many times as an adolescent, I fulfilled the expectation nicely. I know that she and my father loved me, but I couldn’t gloss over how some of their decisions, manner of living, and approach to life; which included Mom’s illness; affected me. I am NOT trying to figure out where to place blame. Blame is a form of denial, not truth-finding. I needed to understand why I felt the way I did for much of my life, so I could begin to heal, grow and change.

When I first moved to Florida, near my mother, and siblings; I was still angry with her. I now understand the anger was both natural… I needed to feel it… but it was tied to my own unfulfilled expectations of her, and how I wished she would have interacted with me. This was a necessary step in my healing. When she called…I didn’t answer. I seldom spent time with her. I was afraid that her tendency to live in guilt would affect my thinking and feelings about myself. It had my whole life, and I was just being freed from it due to personal growth, and God’s grace. She felt the absence, too, and kept trying to get me to draw nearer to her. By using guilt… so it was a vicious circle.
Then I became involved in a relationship with a woman that eventually didn’t work out. When we broke up, I began to explore my part in the break-up. I did a similar, much more extensive process when my marriage of 23 years ended. In both circumstances, I tried to examine what I did well, and what I didn’t do so well.
One day, as I was thinking about the most recent break-up, I believe God spoke to me, and helped me realize that in order for me to go forward into another relationship with a woman; I needed to seek reconciliation with my mother. Or, more honestly, reconciliation with my feelings about Mom. I needed to see her as she is, was, and what she was capable of being, rather than what I wished and expected her to be. She needed to be a flesh-and-blood person, with great strengths and great failings. I needed to see… her… not a caricature of my own making. I was beginning to believe I could see her as a sister-in-Christ…as the Beloved of God. Maybe, if I could see her in that light, I could love her as she is and was, and maybe even…myself. God began to show me that, as she continues to grow older, and more child-like, I would sort of father my mother. This began to give me some hope, because I enjoy many aspects of being a father. Age has softened me, too, so I am more patient, and am able to find humor instead of frustration…

Mostly…
Every quarter, Country Church has a service with only music. They call it: The Grand Old Gospel Opry…
Of course they do…
The Grand Old Gospel Opry is quite popular especially with the crowd that usually attends Country Church, which are generally senior adults. Mom, however, usually doesn’t attend because she likes to hear the pastor preach. This past Sunday evening was one of those nights and there were “Special Guests” to go along with the regular bunkhouse gang. (Actually, the worship team and band is quite talented…) On this night there was a bluegrass band and a men’s quartet, a man and wife who travel as evangelists, and other groupings of people that attend the church.
We began with congregational singing. I enjoyed the songs, because they were ones we would sing while my family was in evangelism. A noticeable theme began to evolve with each song: Heaven.
“That makes sense…” I thought. “Play to your crowd.”
The evangelists got up next and began to sing together. I was reminded of sooo many couples I have seen and known through the years. People that travelled from church to church, singing and preaching the gospel. People like my family. This was before four-dollar-gas and one-hundred-dollar-a-night motels; when singers used pre-recorded-sound-tracks that weren’t considered karaoke, and there were only three or four channels on TV, so there weren’t as many entertainment opportunities to compete with the drama of revivals. My first thoughts in response to the couple were pretty negative:

“C’mon brother… don’t you know that your time has passed? That style of doing church is dead and ineffective.”
However, it occurs to me just how much I needed to see them. They were like characters emanating from my heritage of faith. People who put aside a safe, and consumptive lifestyle in order to tell other people about the Christ of new beginnings, of new life, of resurrection… I need to embrace that heritage. It was hard and disruptive… for me, but also for my mother. Mom raised three kids on the road, from one conglomeration of church services to another, all the while having to keep the kids occupied and quiet every evening for a couple hours of church, while sitting IN FRONT of scores of people that could be VERY critical of the preacher’s wife and kids! It was keeping the kids entertained in the car through endless miles of travel. It was keeping the family fed while in poverty, and in clean clothes washed either in borrowed washers and dryers, in a laundromat, or in the sink of a travel trailer and then hung to dry on a makeshift clothesline. It was using cold starch on my father’s white shirts, so they would be… just….so……. It was being the kids’ first (and only at least for a period of time) teacher. It was singing in front of people though she felt intimidated by her self-perceived lack of musical talent.
A tough life…
A committed life…
The service wound along until a trio of women began to sing. Mom said that one of the women was…

“…the daughter of the song leader. She just finished college and is really pretty. I wish I knew somebody that knows her, so I could introduce you to her.”
“Um…. Mom….she is the same age as my daughter…”
“Oh…”
Right now, to my mother at times, I am still about 27. A young man. I think it is because I am single, and we weren’t around each other for so many years. For my first birthday after I moved here, she gave me a book entitled: “God’s Little Instruction Book for Graduates”.
Well… I have been in grad-school for the past three years…
And I confess that in my OWN mind, I still feel like I am 27… at least until I wake up in the morning… then my body says: “Helloooo 52…”
The most beautiful part of the Opry was several songs into the set of the men’s quartet. I had been enjoying the quartet, and remembered how often we would drive many miles to hear quartets when I was young. My dad loved men’s quartets. While he was in college and grad-school at small religious schools, Dad travelled with other young men in a quartet doing public relations for the school. In fact, that was how my mom and dad first met. Dad’s quartet held a concert at the church my mother attended, and they first noticed each other. Eventually, Mom enrolled in the same school.
Pretty effective public relations, I would say…
My father was the first tenor in that quartet, and as Mom and I listened to the first tenor of the Opry quartet singing lead; she leaned in to me and said with quivering voice, “That makes me think of your dad.”

I gently put my arm around my mother, and pulled her tightly against me. She began to quietly cry freely.
For just a moment, my imagination took me to a little church in West Virginia, and I saw a young woman, with striking auburn hair and expressive brown eyes, about 17 or 18-years-old sitting in a hot, crowded sanctuary listening attentively to a group of young men sing. One young man especially held her attention… the good looking first tenor with the crisply starched, white shirt beneath the trimly cut black suit. His hair was dark, and slicked back, and she noticed that as his gaze travelled across the crowd, it would linger with increasing frequency in her direction. With each repeated gaze, both their hearts would beat a little faster. After the concert was over, she would go to the table with information about the college he represented, and ask for a brochure… just to, you know, learn about the academic programs. He would shyly approach her, and their eyes would once again meet. He would hand her the brochure… their hands would touch ever-so slightly… Sparks!
As she cried, my heart cried with her.
For her loss of her Love…
For the loneliness in her life now…
For her desire to be near him again…
Somewhere inside me, I began to see my mother for the first time. The past disappointments and frustrations I felt through the years didn’t really matter. Love began to vibrate for this woman that bore me and introduced me so imperfectly to the world. I saw, instead, God’s beloved daughter. My natural fatherly instincts began to take over. As the song ended, and before we began to applaud, I kissed her on the forehead, as I would my own daughter.

Before I moved to Florida, I wrote four blogs in which I suggested the need for me to be redeemed to my heritage, and my heritage redeemed to me.
God is doing just that…

Sometimes….. FM

Sometimes…

Life opens up in a wonderful way…

Nothing complicated…

Just the simplicity of being fully in one pleasant place.

Like today…

I finished a job in a condo on the beach, overlooking the Gulf…

Driving in my pick-up…

Windows down…

Shirt soaked with sweat…

Cool breeze from the Gulf sweeping through…

Listening to Steely Dan…

Bright sun…

The smell of newly cut grass seducing my senses…

Alive…

Thankful…

Living in Eden…

Using my body to make a living…

Allowing my mind to search…

Think…

Question…

Remember…

The promise of my son and his girlfriend visiting Saturday…

Middle-aged men riding their bikes in colorful lycra….

Hmmm…….

Beautiful women driving their convertibles…

Couples walking their dogs…

“No static at all….”