The Long Goodbye

They say that Alzheimer’s is the long goodbye.  It is the multi-year process of watching a loved one slowly disappear as they succumb to the effects of dementia or other brain disease.  My wife is going through that now as she sees her mother, in an otherwise healthy body, lose her personality, lose her character, and literally lose her mind.

But there is another goodbye that is every bit as heartbreaking and that takes even longer.  It is the process of watching a child that you love so very dearly turn into a young adult.  You raise them to leave, and one day they do.  Nothing prepares you for that feeling.

 

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God’s Whisper

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end

These great words were first penned in 1752, in German.  They were not translated into English until 1855.  Since then, the verse has been sung by countless Christian congregations, particularly Lutheran, to the melody of Finlandia, a Finnish national song.

The words are a reminder that God is in control.  They are words of comfort and reassurance.   They remind us that God is a great God who calls us to an eternal perspective.  Which leads me to ask: What happened?  How could our great Western civilization that wrote such words and authored great Germanic theological treatises and crafted great works of art and composed Handel’s Messiah . . . forget God?  How can one generation sing:

Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.

and the next generations turn the churches into museums and cafes?

I wonder if the reason can be summed up in the idea of prosperity.  Who needs God when you have a great health care system?  Who needs God when your borders are secure?  Who needs God when you have jobs and pensions?   Who needs God when you have endless streams of information and entertainment coming through micro-processors and transceivers  that run quietly and fit neatly into your coat pocket or your purse?  Who needs God when all the food you can eat is sitting at any of four grocery stores that are within a five minute drive or train ride away?  Who needs God when your closets are full of clothes and your bank accounts are backed by the government?

But God is there.  Whispering.

C.S. Lewis once wrote: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Would a bit of pain help, or are we too far gone for even that?

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Holiday Lawn Boy

I mowed the grass on Christmas Eve
The lawn was green and topped with leaves
And underneath the soil was warm
For winter had not yet been born

The grass is growing Christmas Week
For it is warm in Tennessee
The rain and fertilizer and little grass seeds
Have caused my yard to think it spring

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
But wait, what’s that?  An engine goes
A lawnmower runs; Peter mows

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor doubt He sleeps
The wrong shall fail the right prevail
With peace on earth goodwill to men

 

 

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Jeg Heter Peer

I have a friend from Texas.  Well, she really isn’t from Texas though she tries awfully hard to be a Texan, right down to the boots and the law degree from the University of Texas.  She is from Pennsylvania, but I met her in upstate New York and then she moved to Dripping Springs, Texas.  And now she tells me she is moving to Uganda.  Or praying about it. Uganda?

This is what happens when the spirit, the Holy Spirit, catches you.  C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’  To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.”  People who have found God, really found God, are those who have been cornered by God and rendered helpless.  They can do no other but pray in wonder and live in awe of the Lion of Judah.

Uganda is not on my radar.  The holy cat has not chased me in that direction.  But Norway is another matter.  I pray for the people there — the most unchurched nation in Europe.  I pray for the churches and I communicate with missionaries, er, church planters.  I learn the language and eagerly look forward to the day when conversation freely flows in Norsk.  I listen to Norwegian radio!

I wish that I could go to Norge.  It is my heart’s desire.  My “ticket” would be my degree in petroleum engineering — a greatly prized possession in a land full of offshore production platforms.  But alas, the price of oil has plummeted and jobs are evaporating.  It is a cyclical industry and we are near a bottom of the latest cycle.  And there are other obstacles as well.  “Det er umulig.”

But nothing is “umulig” with God, and so I wait.  And learn.  Jeg forstar litt Norsk; Herre send meg.

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The Gap

There is a national park not too far from where I live in East Tennessee. No, I’m not referring to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; I am referring to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. This Park sits at the intersection of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. It offers scenic trails, a museum, a gift shop and for those interested in making the hike, a view from the top of a mountain down 2,000 feet into a narrow valley, or “gap.”

Cumberland Gap is not just a beautiful place; it is also a historical place. During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, many thousands of settlers walked and/or rode through the gap en route to the fertile rolling hills of Kentucky and Tennessee. Many were led by seasoned guides such as Daniel Boone.  They frequently came through the gap in the winter in hopes of being able to plant crops somewhere in the early spring. They were looking for land, for freedom and a sense of belonging.

My grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather (Benjamin Brewer) made that journey. He left Rowan County, North Carolina in the 1800’s and went to Lexington, Kentucky. There, he had a son named William Thomas Brewer. William Thomas moved to Tennessee and presumably fought in the Civil War.

William Thomas had a son named William Houston who was born in beautiful Wilson County, Tennessee. I drive through Wilson County every time I travel to Nashville and I think about the family — what life would have been like 100 hundred years ago when there was no indoor plumbing or telephones or electrical lighting. William Houston moved to Texas at some point in his life, and died in Clarksville — not far from Texarkana. I suspect he walked or road a horse across West Tennessee, somehow went across the Mississippi River, and walked across Arkansas until he found a farm.  He may have been a share cropper.  This was no Downton Abbey.

I never met William Houston; he died before I was born. To my knowledge, I never met his son either — Walter Scott Brewer — though he was my father’s grandfather. But when I visit Cumberland Gap I feel a sense of connection to all of them. It is an overwhelming feeling of “I have been here before.” It is a reminder that life is a journey, and that the steps I take will be carried on by those whom I leave behind. It will be in their DNA, as Benjamin is in mine.

So let me run the race with endurance, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, for there is a great cloud of witnesses watching, some of whom are my grandfathers.

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Birds In The Sky

He was a shy, 14 year old boy. Despite his shyness he approached me at the tennis club one evening and introduced himself. He had ruffled black hair, steely blue eyes, and a boyish look that never went away. He asked if I would hit with him sometime.

What he really wanted was someone that would help him become a better tennis player. He had outgrown his father as boys tend to do in their early teens. The father was a kind and patient man, but couldn’t keep the ball in court with a son who was now playing competitive junior tournaments.

I was happy to help. For me, hitting with young men is something of a ministry. I teach them about tennis, but I also teach them about life. They eventually have questions about tournament selection and college tennis and even majors. I can help with all of these things, which are just as important as strokes and shot selection.

And so it began. Connor and I hit at least once a month for the next three years. He grew and became stronger. He never reached what I would call a high Southerns ranking, but he played line 1 for his high school, he got good enough to play competitively in the adult leagues in town, and he graduated near the top of his class. I was proud of him.

As graduation neared we talked about options for college. He ultimately accepted a commission into the Air Force Academy. Shortly before leaving for Colorado Springs he texted me. He wanted to hit again; he wanted to practice in hopes of walking onto the tennis team at the Academy.

Connor and I warmed up and then we drilled as we had a hundred times before. And then we began playing a set. I played too well that day. I was winning most of the points and I felt a little bad. Late in the set Connor looked up into the sky and saw an airplane. It was coming into the local airport, and seemed a bit low. Everything stopped for a moment; we both realized that this was it — a last hit before he left — to fly his own plane and to become a soldier.

When we were done he thanked me. I knew that our practice was not about tennis at all that day — it was his way of saying good bye, and thank you for all of our time together. I had the same rush of sadness that I had when my own son graduated from college, packed his car, and drove away. But that is the circle of life. We raise them to go off on their own.

My last words to Connor were to be confident. “You are smart; don’t be afraid to give a command.” Tennis lessons turn into life lessons.

Connor

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Ice Cream

I have a lot of work to do
New projects fall at the back of the queue
I’ll get to them in a day or two
For now, I’ll have some ice cream

I hope that it will snow today
The temperature is chilly and the skies are gray
But if not, it will be okay
I’ll just have some ice cream

I have a little cold I think
My body aches, I’m on the brink
Never mind that hot drink
I have ice cream

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A Gift For All Mankind

Christmas 2012 is wrapping up. It has been an unusual December for me. Usually, this is a slower time of year. The phone stops ringing at work and deadlines are put on hold until January. It is nice. But not this year. Deadlines held fast and the telephone kept ringing.

But it is still Christmas, and we must stop to ponder the child lying in a manger. Who doesn’t love the child? All is calm. All is bright. Tender and mild. Sleeping in heavenly peace. Right?

But consider the Christmas carol, We Three Kings. The magi travel across fields and mountains, following a star, to bring gifts.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.

Nice.

But what of the next verses — verses that are sometimes sung but never contemplated?

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Gold — a gift for a king. The king of kings.

Frankincense — a gift for a priest. The priest of priests.

Myrhh — a gift for a sacrifice. A saviour for all mankind.

The manger looks a bit different now. Arise, king. Flee, priest. Your time has not yet come, saviour. Off to Egypt before Herod’s soldiers find you, lying in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Your day will come. Yes, your day will come.

Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice.
Alleluia, alleluia!
Sounds through the earth and skies.

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Someone to Love

I have a small flower bed in front of my house.  It is one of the few places inside or outside of my home where artistic expression seems to take root — in this case, literally.  I add plants and cultivate them for different seasons.

Two Saturdays ago I came home from playing tennis and running errands.  I had a bag of potting soil in the car that was purchased for the purpose of supporting some suddenly very tall lillies.  The lillies had become top heavy and were drooping.  I unpacked the car and set the bag of soil on the sidewalk.

At that moment something caught my eye — something out of place.  It was a small gray cat.  It laid there and didn’t move.  Most curious.  I haven’t had a pet in over 20 years and wasn’t looking for one, but suddenly I was responsible for a six-week old kitten who couldn’t walk.  The animal cried because its leg was hurt.  I carried it inside.  My heart melted in an instant.

I loved the kitten.  I took it to the vet’s office on Monday and made sure it was de-wormed and had no broken bones.  I brought it home and nursed it back to health.  The vet’s office was great.  A week later I had a healthy, happy, playful kitten.  And the kitten loved me.

I gave the kitten to a couple who can care for it better than I can — a couple that isn’t gone every other weekend.  I was sad for 24 hours, but then I knew that I had done a very good thing.  Equally important, my heart was transformed into something far less stoic and self-centered.

I do not know how the kitten came to my house, but I like to think that God reached down and put us together because we needed each other.  The helpless kitten needed a cool, quiet house and some food and medical attention.  I needed a new heart.

        

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Let Creation Sing

I was in Texas over the weekend.  It may be late September, but it was 93 degrees there.  The idea of fall being around the corner is unfathomable in that state.

Today I am in my office in Knoxville, Tennessee.  It is 69 degrees and raining outside.  More importantly, the trees on the hills around the neighborhood have the faint hint of yellow that says fall is on its way.

The turning leaves remind me more than anything else that God is in control.  We do not live in a completely random world, but one that has order and beauty.  The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a short drive from here.  9 million visitors visit the Park every year.  They come to see the leaves changing and to hear water pouring down from a thousand creeks and waterfalls.

The prophet Isaiah spoke long ago about the almond tree budding — a reminder to Israel that God was turning winter into spring.  I hope that these visitors to Tennessee see more than just leaves, but see a creator who is a God of love and beauty.  I hope they hear more than water — I hope they hear the voice of the one who was, and who is, and who is to come.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.  The mountains and the hills will burst into song before you.  And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

Isaiah 55       (photos taken in October of 2009)

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