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My wife Judy died a year ago this month–December 13, to be exact. Ever the detail person, she planned her funeral service and designed her grave marker well in advance. When the marker was set in place, she asked to see it. Despite the icy winter wind that whipped around her wheelchair that day, she flashed her smile of approval.

Ancient Jews had a custom of setting up a large stone or a pile of stones to memorialize important sites in their history–not just burial sites, but battle sites, worship sites, and the point where they crossed River Jordan to enter the Promised Land. These stones served as witnesses to what happened there, not only for themselves but for their future descendants.

So Judy had hers. I walk past it several times a month and remember the chilly day Judy sat there, anticipating her own crossing into the Promised Land. Someday I’ll join her and my date will be etched in the stone. (See? I’ll get the last word after all!)

Eventually, our descendants will forget where the stone is. Wind and rain will erase what we’ve written on it. Granite will dissolve into the earth to join our ashes beneath. Then who will remember us?

The One who made the stone. The One who also made us and the earth from which He formed us. The One who needs no landmark to prompt remembrance of us, for we always will be with Him.

 

I lost my bi-focals this morning, which prompted a half-hour search of the house. (Good thing I could find my old glasses, or I would’ve been hard-put to find the new ones!)

Along the way, I reflected on the fact that I seem to lose things frequently. Does this mean I’m becoming more forgetful, or just that retirement gives me fewer distractions from my forgetfulness? Probably the latter, because I admit that I spent many frustrating hours looking for misplaced necessities when I was a younger fellow. That’s cold comfort: I may not be losing my mind, but everything else is at risk!

I wondered as I rummaged through the heap of receipts and old keys on top of my bureau whether I should list my bi-focals among the valuables on my homeowner’s insurance policy. I bought them just a few weeks ago, so I know how costly they would be to replace. Suppose the insurance company would let me do that? And if they did, what else should I put on my list of declared vulnerables…I mean, valuables?

Computer equipment and software, of course. DVD’s and CD’s of home movies and conversations with Mom and Dad. Heirlooms? No, my heirlooms are so bulky and obtrusive that I couldn’t lose track of them. (How could I possibly lose track of an upright piano?) But cooking utensils are another story. They’re not large or expensive, but incredibly valuable when I lose them at a critical point in preparing a meal. This part of my valuables list could be quite long.

I concluded that trying to insure against all losses would be a hopeless cause, since I am the loser. So I began wondering (on my third paw-over of the desk) whether searching for lost necessities has any unexpected benefits.

I sometimes find other things that have gone missing. While digging through a garage storage cupboard for something last spring, I found a cable TV box that Comcast insisted I still had—and that I had just as adamantly insisted I never had. There it was in its original box, unopened. I probably saved a couple of hundred dollars by turning it in. (No, I don’t remember what I was looking for that day. Probably something far less valuable.)

Also, searching for lost things can make me aware of long-neglected cleaning and straightening chores, like that mound of stuff on top of my dresser. I’ve learned to promptly consign such housekeeping tasks to a neatly prioritized to-do list. And just as promptly, I lose it.

I guess I’m just a loser. My siblings and closest friends already know this, of course. But confession is good for the soul, and I certainly don’t want to lose that!

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My first paying job was at a county-seat weekly newspaper called the Herald & Tribune in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Founded in 1869, the H&T had survived many competitors across the years and dared to test its survival again by hiring a farm boy like me. After working part-time as cub reporter and delivery boy during my high-school years, I presented myself to the owner right after graduation and asked if he could use me full-time before I went off to college in Indiana that fall.

Bill Breeden exhaled a cloud of blue cigarette smoke and asked what I wanted to do. With dreams of journalistic fame percolating in my brain, I said, “Anything! I want to learn this business from the ground up!”

He led me downstairs to the employees’ rest room, where he pointed to the porcelain sink and commode, stained black by many years of printer’s ink. Bill took another long drag on his cigarette and said, “Make ’em gleam.”

After three days of back-breaking work and several cans of Comet cleanser, I made ’em gleam, so Bill hired me as their full-time printer’s devil. “Printer’s devil” is a term of art meaning the lowest, most servile employee of the press room–a minion who could be summoned to do any grimy, slimy job that no one else wanted to do.

The term “devil” seemed fitting in an old-time printing establishment, where electric pots of lead alloy simmered 24/7 on the Linotype machines and delivery doors swung open so frequently that no one bothered to install air conditioning. It was a purgatory of a place to learn the newspaper business.

Our pressman resigned after a particularly heated exchange with the foreman, so the task of running the newspaper press fell to me. Our press was a 50-year-old Goss Suburban flatbed that printed 8 pages at a time from a continuous stream (“web”) of paper. After putting new pages on press, it inevitably needed some coaxing and fine-tuning to print them with proper margins and cut-offs, so I was fiddling with that when the pressman stuck his head in the door to see how I was doing. “You need to tighten the tension on the web,” he yelled over the press. “Turn that handle clockwise.”

I gasped the control he indicated and gave it a full twist. The press seized up. A heavy steel idler bar flew out the back and slammed into the cinder-block wall. Paper spewed everywhere while I waited for the press to coast to a stop. The pressman grinned, shook his head, and disappeared.

The Herald & Tribune survived more than a century of devils like me, which is quite a tribute to the perseverance of its owners. It’s still there.

 

shutterstock_cocaine-2For several years, I transcribed police reports for the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department in West Michigan. A vivid memory from that period is the day a stranger asked me to arrest her.

It was a sunny spring day, so I was eating my sack lunch at a picnic table behind the sheriff’s office when a car pulled into the parking lot and a smartly dressed young woman got out. She approached me and asked, “Would you arrest me?”

I explained that I was a member of the clerical staff, not an officer, so I didn’t have the authority to arrest anyone. “Well, I need someone to arrest me because I’m on my way to a crack house,” she said.

I called my sergeant, who came outside to hear her story with me. She lived in a fashionable suburban home not far from our office. In fact, she was hosting a Tupperware party that morning, so a couple dozen ladies were in her living room at that moment. She had excused herself to buy refreshments at the local grocery, but the truth was that she wanted a “hit” of cocaine. She was en route to her dealer’s house in a seedy part of Grand Rapids with enough money in her purse to buy what she needed. “I can’t help myself,” she told us. “Please lock me up so I don’t do this.”

My sergeant asked a series of questions. Did she have any drugs or drug paraphernalia in her possession? No. Was she “high” on drugs at the moment? No. Was the money stolen? No. “Then I’m sorry, but I can’t arrest you,” he said. “I have no legal reason to detain you.”

She broke down and wept.

Sgt. Van Beek was my supervisor, but there was another reason I’d called him. He was studying for the pastoral ministry through a correspondence program of Moody Bible Institute, so together we could offer assistance of a different kind. We joined hands around the picnic table and prayed for her. Then the sergeant called a pastor friend to meet and counsel with her that afternoon.

I don’t know the rest of her story, though I certainly hope God enabled her to break out of the addiction that was destroying her life. But I will never forget the desperate look in the eyes of that attractive woman who asked, “Would you arrest me?”

 

shutterstock_238020544Friends and I who are now called “seniors” take two distinctly different approaches to risk. Some of us feel more willing than ever to try new things. Our motto might be, “What have I got to lose?” Others are so fearful of making foolish decisions that they live in a state of paralysis. If they ever dare to entertain the question, “What have I got to lose?” their immediate response is, “Everything!

These two views largely determine the outcome of our decisions, as well as the level of angst we experience when we make decisions.

I’ve seen some friends spend their “golden years” trying to save enough, insure enough, and hedge enough bets to reduce their risk to zero. By the time they cover every conceivable contingency, life has passed them by. I feel a deep sadness when I peer into their coffins.

We need to admit that risk a fact of life, even at the end of it. So let’s keep a few essential realities in mind when we make decisions now:

  • Physical death is a sure thing. Physical life is not.
  • Financial failure can be guaranteed. Financial success cannot.
  • Sorrow will come looking for you. Happiness will not.
  • Do nothing risky and you will receive the inevitable rewards of inaction.
  • But act with faith in the providence of God and–while you may lose things familiar and secure–the rewards can be far greater.

Worth remembering on this day when financial markets are in turmoil and the Dow Jones has fallen more than 600 points.

 

 

Sarcasm is corrosive, like acid rain falling downwind of a power plant that burns high-sulfur coal. It seems benign and gentle, as raindrops rolling off the marble statue of a revered hero in the city square, yet it sculpts the identity of its victim into a grotesque caricature whose character is no longer recognizable.

I have seen what sarcasm can do. I watched the marriages of two couples, close to my heart at the beginning, melt under the constant dripping of sarcasm. Eventually, I could recognize neither partner in these matches. Neither could they. So they went their separate ways, feeling deeply wronged and bitter.

American political discourse has become a simmering vat of sarcasm. Supporters align with the politician they feel has the sharpest wit or inflicts a more poisonous sting than her opponents. They vote for the candidate who handles himself most adroitly in the arena of character assassins. (I wonder, does this mean we will choose the most deadly character assassin as our next President?)

Whether it’s a deceptively gentle drip or a roiling vat of concentrated acid, sarcasm can destroy us all. We may be better prepared to deal with it if we recognize some common patterns of a sarcastic relationship:

  • The person who feels at the greatest disadvantage is often the first to use sarcasm in a relationship. This person hopes to take refuge behind its apparent humor. If the dominant individual strikes back, a sarcastic wit can say,”I was only kidding!”
  • At first, the other person is not likely to “fight fire with fire” but be perplexed or bemused by the sarcasm. The first response may be silence.
  • When the sarcasm cuts deeply enough into the victim’s self-esteem, a sarcastic response is often made. Then the tit-for-tat escalates until both individuals have a relationship of mutual disdain. Sniping becomes their normal way of communicating with one another.

If a person’s poor self-image precipitates sarcasm toward others, how might we stop this corrosive cycle after it has begun? How could God’s high esteem for an individual change this situation?

 

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Rain-Swept Pine Needles

THIS WEEK’S READING:  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, by Marcus Borg; “Pigeon Feathers,” short story by John Updike; “The Death of a Traveling Salesman,” short story by Eudora Welty.

THIS WEEK’S WRITING:  Short story, “The Sensible Thing”

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE: “Tomorrow is not promised, so I’d better do what I can today.”–Lin-Manuel Miranda (age 38), lyricist, composer, and lead performer of Pulitzer-winning Broadway musical, “Hamilton”

Sunday – First anniversary of Judy’s cancer diagnosis. Randy Spleth’s sermon on Ps. 23 ended with this illustration: A minister taught a dying boy to remember the Psalm’s emphasis on God’s personal love by having him grasp his fourth (ring) finger and repeating, “The Lord is MY…” Randy had us do the same. I’ll never forget it because of the anniversary.

Monday – Our outdoor temperature reached 80 degrees for the first time this year, so I treated GCC friend Shirley Wells and her grandson Michael to ice cream at Good’s Candy Shop. Michael’s an energetic, talkative little boy who loves blue sprinkles because they turn his tongue blue. Fun to see a candy store through the eyes of a 3-year-old!

Tuesday—Heard the farewell chapel sermon of Dr. John H. Aukerman, one of my college roommates who retires from teaching at the AU School of Theology this month. His theme was “Come Before Winter,” based on 2 Tim. 4. Before service / Joe: “This had better be good.” John: “It’ll be good enough for YOU.” And it was–exceptional.

Wednesday—Spent a couple of hours at GCC Mud Creek campus with Myrna Mullins, planning the Bible 101 series we begin co-teaching next Tuesday night. Talked in depth about how our own understandings of Bible myth and history have changed over the years. As usual, Myrna got me pumped for teaching!

Thursday— Started watching Dr. Andrew Newberg’s “Great Courses” lectures on “The Spiritual Brain,” on loan from Myrna. Mid-afternoon coffee at Panera’s with Cal Bloom, Judy’s cousin and my seminary roommate. Discussed life, death, parenting adult offspring, neuro-theology, and “When can we go fishing again?”

Friday—Arrived at 10:30 for a cardiologist’s consult, half an hour late. I’d written the right time in my calendar but misread it, so had to reschedule 2 weeks out. I often pray, “Lord, bless my mistakes today,” so I’ll trust this one turns out well.

Saturday—Heard Willie Nelson’s rendition of, “It’s a Wonderful World.” It reminded me that the natural world, which evokes gratitude in some people and prompts them to speak to God, simply evokes awe in others and prompts them to speak to…themselves! “I see skies of blue and clouds of white/Bright blessed day and dark sacred night/And I think to myself, What a wonderful world!”