Thursday, June 23, 2011

Point B is the Little Extras

When the man with two canes had fallen over and was lying on the sidewalk leading up from the parking garage to H building at Towson University, I took a step to rush to his aid; but I caught myself and walked away, looking over my shoulder at him as he struggled to regain himself.  I would have helped him, but I didn’t want to offend him.  I didn’t want him to think that because he was handicapped, his feet permanently turned inward and legs barely being able to bend as he walked, I thought he couldn’t take care of himself. 

It was 1994, the height of “political correctness,” with which, as a society in whole, we were being inundated.  So many of us were so self-examining that we questioned every word we uttered and every action we made so as not to offend any of our fellow men, and women, and, therefore seem insensitive.  I was nowhere near the political correctness ring leader, but when suddenly confronted with the man sprawling on the ground, I hesitated, sadly.  As I stepped away, a passing professor hurried to the man’s side, helped him to his feet, brushed him off, and handed him his strewn canes.  In the midst of her care, she looked to down to me and spouted, sealing my shame, “What’s wrong with you!”

In one of Paul’s letters to the Philippians, Paul exclaims, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  In simplest terms, be considerate.  Think of the needs of others.  But as a native of the “me” generation, considering others is easier said than done. 

To consider others.

To consciously think of the needs of our fellow human beings and act accordingly.  As I have grown up, and am still in the progress of growing up at age 43, it has taken moments like that man struggling on the ground to guide me away from me in order to consider others.  But what guides me just as much are the considerations of my father.

Generations before my generation, my father was born into what Tom Brokaw coined as “The Greatest Generation.”  It struggled through the depression, conquered in WWII, and rebuilt this nation to be better than it ever was, asking nothing in return and seeking no praise.  My father never had much money, but when he did have a few extra bucks his first thoughts were never of what he could do for himself, always for others.

My dad loved Baltimore, his city.  He would often drive to a part of town, park his car, and just walk and delight in whatever he encountered in his city.  While he often had a point A, he rarely had a point B.  The journey itself was his point B.  Many times I accompanied my dad on these little busman’s holidays, two day trippers embarking on warrens unknown.  I remember it was on one of those jaunts a few days before Christmas we parked the old Impala on Charles Street and began to walk south.

It wasn’t too long before we were approached by a man asking for money.  He was unshaven, soft spoken, and he was dressed in many layers.  My father reached into the inner pocket of his thick down coat and handed the man a white envelope before wishing him a Merry Christmas. 

Over the next couple of hours, this exchange was repeated a few more times.  Some didn’t open the envelopes right away, and with some we had disappeared around a corner right afterward.  I was used to seeing him give what he had in his pockets to others, so I figured there was money in the envelopes.  Eventually, I just asked, “What’s in the envelopes?”
“A card and ten bucks.”
“How many cards are you giving?”
“I can afford five cards.  Whoever asks, he gets a card.”
“Why don’t you just give them money?  Why the card?  I mean, you don’t know them.”
Without breaking his long strides, he answered, “Those people will get money, but isn’t it nice to get a little something extra?  Isn’t it nice to get something that shows someone thought enough of you to do a little something more?”  And on we walked.

With only 50 extra dollars, my dad did exactly what Paul was instructing, considered the interests of others before he considered his own.  But not just that, these were strangers.  And it wasn’t just some money, it was that little extra.  Because that’s what people most often need—that little extra.  That little something extra that says someone is thinking of us, that we matter.  It can often fulfill us and rejuvenate us far better than money.

The pastoral advice given in Hebrews 13 reads, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have…”  My father shared what he could when he could, and even when he didn’t have much, he was able to give more because of the way that he gave, with a little thought. 

When I was 12, Miles, who was in my Biology class, and I became quick best friends.  By Christmas, we were inseparable.  Miles’ father was at sea six months out of the year, and Miles’ mother was fighting her own demons.  By the time he was 14, he was driving himself to the store for groceries.  Miles was a middle-schooler left to raise himself.  We became fixtures at each other’s homes.  I liked his freedom, and he liked being among a family.  He especially liked being around my dad.  When at our house, Miles took part in the family fun, and he had to abide by the same structure that I did.  Miles craved structure, and he craved being a part of a family who took notice of him and cared about him.

Once Miles’ dad missed his birthday, and to make up for it, he said he would buy Miles a vacuum cleaner.  He thought his father was joking.  But, out to Sears we went one night and his dad bought him a beautiful new vacuum cleaner, complete with attachments.  He wasn’t joking.  Miles never got a birthday gift.  Miles tried to make the best of it; he reversed the suction flow and turned the vacuum cleaner into a mini rocket launcher.  We took turns spitting out wads of paper and those little army men with the plastic parachutes tied to them.  And we laughed.  Miles could be very brave like that.

But that was why Miles liked my dad so much; he gave him something his own dad didn’t.  During that Christmas in seventh grade, Miles was over for dinner, my dad’s version of a goulash.  And after dinner, my father disappeared for a moment and then came back into the room, his hand extending a wrapped present to Miles.  He smiled genuinely.  Miles read the tag aloud, "To: Miles/ Merry Christmas.”  He tore away the green and silver striped paper and held a pair of wool lined leather gloves, perfect for the cold that had already set in that season.  Miles’ head was bent as he only said, “Thank you.”  But I knew him well enough by then; he was thrilled. 

It wasn’t the gloves.  Miles had gloves.  Someone, my father, was thinking of him.  And that was just what he needed.

I didn’t know my dad had gotten him a gift.  But what he told me was that he had bought several little gifts and had pre-wrapped and pre-tagged them for when a visitor came over.  He just needed to quickly write his name on the tag.  Again he explained, “They love it.  Just a little something extra to make ‘em feel good.  That’s what it’s all about.” 
Over the next few days, Miles stirred conversations back to those gloves and how nice that was of my dad.  My father did good.  He shared what he had.  He considered others.  And sometimes, more often than not, that’s all it takes, a couple of bucks, a card, a pair of gloves, a little something extra that says you are valued.  You are remembered.  My father understood that in abundance. 

Not too long ago, I was driving home from Home Depot, when up ahead an older black gentleman had slipped off the curb and had fallen onto the sidewalk.  Without hesitation, I pulled to the curb and rushed to help the man over to his porch.  He caught his breath, and he said he was okay.  He said he had a few drinks and that he really didn’t feel a thing.  I asked him if there was anything else I could do for him.  He rubbed his head a little and just said, “Thanks, you did enough.”

I am still haunted by that man with the two canes whom I had abandoned just after he smacked the sidewalk.  The image of him, stunned on the ground, shoots into my mind every so often, and I’m disgusted, and so I force the memory back down deep and far away. 

But sometimes, because I remember the little extras, I get it right.       

Anticipation: Lessons From My Father's Playbook

When my daughter, Grace, was one year old, I recall someone asking me, “So, how do you like parenthood?”  I said, “To be honest, I don’t really feel like a parent.  All I really do is help my wife to keep this little creature alive.”  And as time passed, I found that a good deal of my parenting was mostly anticipating…Anticipating where my daughter, and now too with my son, is about to hit their head and place my hand between their skull and the floor, the counter, the chair, and so on.   I have to know their limits, how many chocolate kisses they can eat before an ensuing tummy ache.  And now that my daughter can ride a bike, I badger her with warnings about stopping before driveways and not racing out of my sight, and anything else I can predict as she rapidly pulls ahead of me down the sidewalk.  And I have to anticipate how to comfort them when I say, “No,” and it makes them cry.  I must admit, I never feel as though I remember everything. 
       Many parents say that there is no playbook for parenting, perhaps relying on only being guided by this instinct to protect and survive.  But if we really look for it, there is a “playbook.”  God has given us the plays to learn and model.  That’s what a good parent does: loves, cares, teaches, and models. 
       My own father was a good parent; I don’t feel I could have done better.  And now as a parent myself, I can better see how he was often modeling what God had given him, which was passed onto me. 
       Paul tells us in Corinthians, “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with your testing He will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it."   Now over time that promise has become abbreviated to what my father used to tell me…often…which was, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, and,” he added,  “neither do I.”    
       An example of that is a story I like to tell from time to time: I remember that when I was a boy, I had the opportunity to go to a week-long sports camp one summer, at Towson State.  We lived in Harford County at the time.  Our family only had one car, and my parents shared it for work.  So in order for my being able to attend this camp, I would have to take the bus each day from Bel Air to Towson and then back.  After long discussions as to whether I could handle it or not, my father allowed that I could go.  Having grown up taking busses in the city, my father delighted, I think, in the knowing that I would learn this most useful of skills, using public transportation. 
       A couple of days before the camp begun, my father and I made a practice run on the bus.  Coming and going, I had to make a transfer at Bel Air Road and Northern Parkway.  As my dad was a big landmark guy, he pointed out three landmarks at the bus stop so I wouldn’t miss my transfer, especially when coming home.  First, there was a little carry-out that sold steamed crabs, so look for the sign with the crab on it.  Second, there was a drug store with a big blue bell for a sign…look for the big blue bell.  And when coming home, it would be easier because the bus dead-ends on Bel Air Road.  Look for the dead end.  Can’t miss.  I got it.
       On the first day of camp, I made it to the college without a snag.  However, coming home the bus was traveling up Northern Parkway.  Exhausted from the drills of the day, I could only remember one landmark, that crab sign.  At the crab sign, I got off the bus.  I looked up and noticed that there was no big blue bell.  And a moment later, I suddenly remembered perhaps the most important landmark, Northern Parkway dead-ends.  I was on Harford Road, coincidentally standing under another crab sign.  As my bus increased its speed, continuing up Northern Parkway, panic set in.  My transfer was the only bus heading home, and there were only a few minutes between transfers.  I started sprinting, the distance between Harford Road and Bel Air Road growing seemingly longer as I ran.
       Coming over the last precipice of the road, my stop in sight, I still must have had a quarter-mile or so to go.  And as my eyes focused down onto Bel Air Road, there was my transfer bus, too far to catch.  I had missed it.  With my hands on my knees, I bent over, sucking in hot air.  In the days before cell phones, there was no way to contact my dad, and I knew he’d be pretty mad when he got all the way home to have to drive all the way to pick up his idiot son. 
       I stood to watch my bus pull away.  As the bus maneuvered back into traffic, it revealed a figure pacing back and forth, under a big crab.  It was my dad, who had obviously anticipated what lay ahead.  In spite of rush hour traffic, in spite of the distance, and in spite of his actual deafness, I’m sure he could hear my relieved yell: “Daaaaad!”
       When I reached him, panting and cheering, celebrating his dad-ness, he only asked, “Do you know where your mistake was?”  After I answered yes, he said, “Good, because I won’t be waiting here tomorrow.”
       I must admit that I didn’t believe him.  And for good reason.  Since my father’s passing, my sister and I sometimes compare notes and find that so many times when we were exercising our independence for the first time, our father was with us, but in the shadows, at the movies, at the mall, in the skating rink, and so on, watching from the wings…but not waiting to judge, just there to catch us if we fell.
       In Deuteronomy, it is written that “It is the Lord who goes before [us]. He will be with [us]; He will not fail [us] [n]or forsake [us].”
       One of the ways the Lord has gone before me is the example my father has set.  And one of the ways God is with me is the lessons I learned from my father, visions and words that appear in my head when I am in dire need of parenting advice, which I now try to use to model and guide my  children.
       And you know what?  It’s hard!  I mean, it is really hard!   Which I know is no great revelation to any parent.  But, I am comforted.  I am comforted that there is a playbook.  I am comforted that someone has gone before me, and is with me still.  In the shadows.  Watching from the wings.  Anticipating.

Monday, June 20, 2011

An Inconvenient Honesty

I love the new scanning guns at my local supermarket.  I tap my club card number onto the screen, wait for the flashing beep, and pull the gun from its hard plastic holster.  From there, I can shop and scan my all my items, my tomatoes and Cheetos and scrapple, etc.   And when I’m ready to check out, I aim the gun, press the trigger, scan a barcode, and all my groceries are listed on the screen before me.  All I have to do is swipe my debit card, and then I’m out the door.  Convenience!

However, from time to time I am inconvenienced by my bad aim.  Unwittingly, I miss the barcode on an item and walk out of the store without paying for it.  But that’s not the inconvenient part.   What’s inconvenient is when I realize my mistake and I have to drive back to the store, with kids in tow.  Now I know there are those few people out there who, when looking at their receipts and realizing that their juice pouches had been missed, would be tempted to say, “You know what, they won’t miss that $1.95.  As a matter of fact, with all the money I pour into that place, they owe me $1.95!”  This would justify just enough to forget the whole thing.  That’s exactly what I think every time—at first. 

But then a memory springs into my head, as though I had just stepped on the upended head of a rake.

A twelve year old, I walk into the kitchen one evening to find my dad sitting at the end of the table, hunched over and writing.   He is diligently filling in graphed compartments of a ledger splayed before him.  And beyond that are small stacks of checks and twenties and tens and fives and one dollar bills.   At the time, my father was a music teacher, teaching guitar and piano in people’s homes.  He was usually paid in cash for each lesson.   And when I ask him what he is doing, he tells me that he is recording his business transactions of the day.
“Why?” I pursue. 
“So I can keep track of how much I make so I know how much taxes I owe,” he
answered, still recording numbers.
“Do you put every dollar in there?”
“Of course.”
“But if you didn’t,” I reasoned, “no one would know.”

My dad laid his pen on the table and finally looked up at me.  “I’ll know,” he said, and then he picked his pen up and continued to log his data.

I’ll know.  It took a bit for the meaning of those words to register.   What I did know was that they meant being truthful because, by definition, every word out of his mouth was the truth.  But what he was trying to get me to see in those two words was that it was not about what others may think; it was about he would think of himself.  It was about living with his own conscience, which was forged from a moral code, set for him by his own mother, and rooted in his deep, unwavering faith in God.      

In Luke Jesus says, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” 
After my father passed, the one most common comment made about him from family, friends, and even some strangers was that Dad was “honest.”   

But his honesty wasn’t something he exhibited exclusively for the world, which maybe when it is the easiest to do so; it was when he was sitting there alone at the kitchen table with no one around to examine him where is honesty was tested most, where all of our honesty is tested most, over something “very little,” as Jesus describes, like not registering a dollar or two here or there.  My father could be trusted with “very little,” and, therefore, could be trusted with “much.”

As the years pass, my older sister enjoys recounting the story, with more and more affection, about her “senior hook day,” a day just before graduation when high school seniors take it upon themselves to all take the same day off.  During which, they meet at friends’ houses and barbecue and lounge by pools and revel in how they, at least for one day, stick it to “the man,” skipping school while teachers have to open their classrooms and sit there all day before empty desks.

However, my sister tells how all those desks were not empty. 

In my sister’s graduating class, there were 500 seniors.  On senior hook day, 497 seniors were absent.  Pulling off such a coordinated effort required a great deal of parental cooperation.  Notes must be written explaining the sudden rash of stomach aches and fevers and near deaths in the families.  In plain language, parents had to lie for their kids so they could enjoy senior hook day with the rest and not suffer the consequences.

For my sister, it is in this need for parental prevarication that lay the rub.  There was absolutely no way that my father would write a letter to the school, asking the administration to excuse his daughter because of some made-up malady. 

My sister fumed, “You mean you can’t write one note so I’m not the only person sitting there all day alone?”
“That’s right,” my fathered answered.
“All the other parents are.”
“Then aren’t you lucky to have me as a dad, because I’m not.  One day, I hope you’ll see why.”

In Corinthians, Paul explains that “we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.”

In raising my sister and me, my father, like all parents, made a commitment to take the pains to try to do what is right at all times in order for us to learn what is right, not just sometimes, or when it is convenient, but all times, and not just, for God to see, but, as Paul explains, for all to see.  And that meant the school administration, and that especially meant my sister, who at the time was mortified to be excluded on such a technicality.  

Yet, on her senior hook day in 1982, my sister and two other seniors, whose parents were as honest as my dad, sat alone in class on one of the longest days of her high school career.

As my father hoped, it is a moment like this that is what my sister loves most about him, because it is his honesty, his truth that my sister and I reflect on with a sense of gratitude to have even been able to witness and always rely upon, not just as examples to follow, but more.  I am building a family on that bedrock of honesty.  When my daughter and son pile back in the car with me to head back to the supermarket to pay for pilfered juice pouches, yes, they can see that I think it’s a pain; but, hopefully, they’ll see that it’s the right thing to do.  And in 11 years when my daughter wants me to write her a note to school so she can skip for senior hook day, I hope I’ll have the fortitude to not write it, and I hope one day she’ll understand why.

In May of 1986, most of my fellow classmates enjoyed a beautiful Spring “senior hook day.”  I endured a long day at school, enjoying some one-on-one time with my disgruntled teachers.  The night before, when all my friends were sweet-talking their parents into writing excuses for them, I didn’t waste my breath.   

Friday, June 10, 2011

Unfailing Arms

While all the grownups were enjoying the party at my grandmother’s townhouse, I followed an impulse to slip away down the sidewalk.  Perhaps I was escaping the noise, or perhaps I was taking advantage of the fact that I was going unnoticed under all of the clinking glasses and the gossip and the old stories.  I knew that I shouldn’t have left.  I wasn’t even old enough to cross the street alone.  Yet, I embarked on a solo adventure, a pre-k explorer turning right whenever I came to a road.  At least I wasn’t crossing the street.  At first, I was confident that I would find my way back and rejoin the party as easily as I left. And after a few turns, I felt I had satiated my wanderlust and turned to retrace my steps. 

At the house where I specifically remembered as my grandmother’s, there was an old black man kneeling on the ground, tending his garden.  I asked him, “Do you know where my grandmother is?”  “I don’t know your grandmother,” was all he replied.  I stepped back to look down the long lines of townhouses.  They all looked alike.  Somewhere I had made a mistake, but I could figure out what it was.  What I did know was that I was lost.  I ran back down the sidewalk to start again where I had ended to retrace my steps again, but I couldn’t find anything familiar.  To make up for time, I started to cut between houses and across backyards.  But the more I searched for home, the farther away I felt.                   

Somehow I had ended up at the edge of a narrow stream.  And there I froze.  And then I remembered what my father had told me again and again, “If you ever get lost, stop where you are, and I will find you.”  And so I stopped.  And a peace came over me.  And I sat down and waited, picking up a nearby twig and aimlessly poked it into the ground, never not believing for a moment that my father wouldn’t find me.  And after some time, I scanned a tall figure rounding the corner of a house in the distance.  He saw me and made a straight line for me as I raced to him.  My father scooped all three feet of me up into his six-foot-two frame and carried me back home where I belonged, where I was safe once again.

My father didn’t scold me, for he knew that I knew what I had done was wrong and dangerous, but instead he just kissed me and hugged me tight in an embrace that I knew as the safest place in the world.  He was as happy as I was.

In Jesus’ parable of “The Lost and Found Sheep,” Jesus illustrates God’s attitude toward a repentant sinner with this question and action: "Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it?  When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” 

As God rejoices at our return, my father found me and rejoiced.  He rejoiced that I had been found.  And, he rejoiced in knowing that I would not be wandering off again anytime soon.   This was, in fact, all that I needed, to be found and to feel loved.  With my arms around his neck, I discovered how happy I was because I was missed.  I thought I had left unnoticed.  But soon after I disappeared my father began looking for me, as, unknown to me, I was never far from his thoughts, even in the melee of a crowded celebration.  My absence palpable to him.  And so he immediately searched for his lost son, with only one thought—to hold him close again.

It is those ready, outstretched arms in which he gathered me up that are now to what my thoughts often drift back. 

In Corinthians, Love is defined by what it does and what it does not.  In one of the simplest expressions, it is written, “Love never fails.”  In other words, if the love is true, it will be constant, dependable, insurmountable, and without conditions.  And of course, this is God’s love for us.  And this was my father’s love for me.

I had begun taking French horn lessons in the third grade.  I hated the French horn, but I wanted to be in the school band, and there were already far too many trumpeters.  The band director talked me into the French horn; he really sold me on it.  And so my dad bought one “on time” from a music dealer he knew.  It was an expensive instrument in those days, at $239.  But the case was this, what I imagined to be, solid wood, bulging affair.  Three days a week I had to lug it to and from the school bus stop on the other side of the apartment complex.  To this day I’m sure it’s why my left arm can easily drop out of socket. 

When summer arrived, I propped the instrument in the corner of my bedroom and began covering it little by little with laundry.  Sometime in August, as I neared the beginning of another new school year, my dad asked, “Did you practice at all this summer?”
“Really,” he followed, his big eyebrows raised.
“No, really.”  I knew he’d be mad if I hadn’t, especially because the instrument was so costly.  It was just my instinct to avoid a scolding.  And, there was absolutely no way I could tell him how much I hated the French horn, in spite of the aptitude he felt I possessed.  “I played a few times,” I added.
“I believe you.”

He believed me!  What he was really saying was that he was going to go along with me, but he knew full well that I was lying.  Lying to him was about unconscionable.  Everyone knew my dad as a man who lived his life with Abe Lincoln honesty.  I knew it, too.  And there I was lying to this man.  It didn’t take me long to crack.  I decided to take my punishment, which I had made worse by lying.

As he was leaving the room, he spun around when I said, “Dad, I didn’t practice at all.”  And my eyes  began to well up.  And then something quite unexpected happened.  He didn’t yell at me or punish me.  Instead, he reached out for me and again swallowed me up in his arms, lifting me high and pressing me close to him.
“It’s okay,” he said, and he repeated, “It’s okay.”

He wasn’t even mad.  Again, he was rejoicing having me back where I belonged.  He was receiving me as God receives us back into his arms, no matter how we’ve lost our way.  He finds us, as my father always found me, ready to scoop me up and hold me close and tight again in safe, unfailing arms.  Not to scold.  Not to punish.  But to love.