Tag Archives: family

Unlucky Thirteen

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My wife enjoys telling the story of her missing thirteenth birthday.

As the story goes, as Jody began to open a gift at her twelfth birthday party, she exclaimed for some unknown reason, “If this is Charlie powder, I will just die.” (Stay with me boys and girls: “Charlie powder” was some sort of Revlon beauty product once upon a time.)  Jody doesn’t understand why she said such a thing, but she did, and the present turned out to be Charlie powder—a gift from her mother. Her mother was rather upset. Not insulted, but upset. As the story continues, her mother scolded her by saying, “What if that gift was from one of your guests?”

The punishment? No thirteenth birthday party. Oh, but that’s not all. In fact, no recognition of a thirteenth birth-DAY.  As the story concludes, that is exactly what happened one year later. No song, no cake, no balloons, no happy wishes—it was as if it never happened.

It became clear to me over time that at some point in the future Jody wanted a thirteenth birthday party. And hypothetically speaking, let’s imagine that my wife had a major life milestone birthday coming up sometime around, let’s say, now. Then hypothetically speaking (of course), as someone who tries really hard to be a good husband, one would think that such a time would be a perfect opportunity to celebrate the milestone birthday and the missing thirteenth birthday—all at once. Two parties in one, if you will. And while we are in Imaginary World, if our daughters would have flown in from across the country, that would have been a nice touch. And getting her friends and family together for a surprise party would have earned some major brownie points, too.

Darn you, COVID-19.

Well, we had a party anyway, just the two of us in person, and thanks to Google Hangouts, our daughters and many other family and friends popped in to surprise her and share sweet words from afar.

My wife is the most amazing person that I know and the love of my life. And after all these years there is one thing that I know now more than ever:

That unlucky thirteenth birthday surely is cursed.

Social Distancing as an Act of Love — A Sermon in Absentia

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PC: Lipscomb University (Kristi Jones)

I spent a significant number of years delivering Sunday morning sermons, but that is no longer part of my life. Even if it was, our local churches are canceling services due to the pandemic, so where would I deliver a sermon anyway? But a sermon came to me nonetheless, so I will just deliver it right here. I have titled it: Social Distancing as an Act of Love—A Sermon in Absentia.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14 (NRSV)

Good morning, and welcome to Virtual Church. Members and guests, please fill out an attendance card and place it in the comment box below.

The Incarnation serves as the foundation of the Gospel. God came and “lived among us”—or as Eugene Peterson put it, “moved into the neighborhood.” God’s love is such that God simply could not stand to be at a distance. God came near.

GOD with us. God WITH us.  God with US.

God did this in the humanity of Jesus, and in Jesus we see “the image of the invisible God.” We see what a walking-talking-breathing God looks like, and in Jesus we encounter one who notices the unnoticeable, one who touches the untouchable.

So we aren’t even surprised when we hear Jesus tell a story in Luke 15 about a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine safe sheep and goes traipsing all over the countryside to find the goofy one who wandered off. And how he is giddy with joy as he carries it home draped across his shoulders. Of course he does. That’s God. So we are even less surprised at the follow-up story about a woman who still has nine coins but turns the house upside down looking for the one that is MIA. And how she throws a party like she won the lottery when she found that crazy coin of hers. Of course she did. That’s God.

But Jesus can be a little hard to figure at times.

That same Jesus, the one who moved into the neighborhood, that God-image who chases after lost folks and embraces them in bear hugs says nutty stuff like, “It’s better for you that I leave.” Um, what? He was apparently serious. (If you don’t believe me, check out John 16:7, MSG.) And back in Luke 15, right after those stories that picture God on a search and rescue, Jesus offers a third story where God is a dad who loses a son—and just lets him walk away. Doesn’t even follow him down the driveway.

That’s what has me thinking today. Love typically seeks people out, brings people close with hugs and high fives and holy smooches. But maybe sometimes love allows for distance.

In this time of pandemic, we are advised that the way to love your neighbor is to keep them at a distance. That feels so counterintuitive because, well, it typically is. But maybe not always.

My wife and I live in Nashville, Tennessee. Our oldest daughter lives in Los Angeles. Our youngest daughter lives in San Antonio. Our family practices social distancing all the time now. How did we let all that happen? Every once in a while it dawns on me how wrong that seems, and every once in a while it really hits me hard how much better it would be to be in close proximity to both of our sweet daughters. But more often I remember that it isn’t always right or better simply to be in the same zip code.

Love might can be gauged, but I don’t recommend a tape measure. Sometimes love draws near. Sometime love stands at a distance.

The last official event before spring break at Lipscomb University as announcements were made about an extended break and online classes was the Welcome to Our World Fashion Show, hosted by our Office of Intercultural Development. It was as beautiful as I anticipated. In a time of global pandemic, it felt so appropriate to recognize that our world is bound together in important ways. The closing line of the show reminded us that there is UNITY in DIVERSITY. That there can be a oneness in our many-ness.

I guess what I am saying is that from time to time there can also be a knitting together of hearts in a period of social distancing, as strange as that may seem.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always ‘me first,’
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
 – 1st Corinthians 13: 4-7 (MSG)

Kindertransport

Blog Pic (Kindertransport)

I caught a bit of the Oscars last night and found myself wondering if I might see someone from the Lipscomb University Department of Theatre walk the Hollywood red carpet someday. I am a big fan of Lipscomb Theatre! On Saturday evening my wife and I went to campus to see Kindertransport, and although I expected to be impressed, I was not prepared for the show. When I first saw the name, Kindertransport, I envisioned a play about a school bus. Oh no. Kindertransport is an intense and powerful story.

The story is historical fiction. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, thousands of Jewish children refugees were hastily transported out of Germany to escape the coming savagery. As Dr. Jay Geller, Professor of Modern Jewish Culture at Vanderbilt University who served as theater consultant wrote in the program, “German Jewish parents and their children faced the terrible dilemma of choosing between a perilous staying together and a temporary—quite possibly permanent—separation as well as having to imagine the parent’s possible death and the child’s possible survival.”

Kindertransport is a vivid portrayal of how that might have played out for one family. The entire cast was amazing, and thanks to their masterful storytelling, I cannot stop thinking about it.

As a former history teacher, I am always stunned when I learn of moments in world history that I had never heard of before. I learned on Saturday evening that the United Kingdom welcomed 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children before Nazi Germany closed the borders prior to the outbreak of World War II but that the United States rejected legislation to do the same based on public opinion polls. The talk-back after the show shared that a large number of Jewish refugee children actually arrived at an American port but were sent back to Germany because of the policy. How many of those children were murdered as a result of that decision?

It was easy to connect the Kindertransport story line with our friend at Pepperdine, Hung Le, simply substituting a different place and a different war (Vietnam), and how his beautiful story came to bless so many lives (read it HERE). It made me wonder what stories are being crafted today?

That is the potential power of an incredible story like Kindertransport. Aching with that mother, making it up as she went along, hoping to save her child. Aching with that little girl, also making it up as she went along, trying to survive on her own far too soon. Aching with that good soul, also in uncharted waters, attempting to welcome a stranger in need.

How will that powerful story change me?

On This Veterans Day

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Dad (21 years old)

In 1975 nobody learned to read in kindergarten. Reading was a first-grade subject then, and kindergarten was for learning how to make friends and drink milk out of cardboard cartons. But somehow I could read before starting kindergarten. I remember sitting on my sister’s lap at age four and reading a Cookie Monster book from start to finish. Sandy tossed me off her lap and ran away yelling, “Mom! Al just read a book!” My earliest memory is being described as smart.

I was a hit in kindergarten. We would watch Sesame Street in the classroom, and when the part of the show arrived where a word would magically come together my classmates would sit breathlessly until I proclaimed it aloud as if royalty making a grand decree. “The word is…CHICKEN!” And the class would cheer. Heady stuff for a five-year-old kid.

My “smarts” had an obvious genetic component since both mom and dad were intelligent, although dad had some special Rainman-like quality when it came to mathematics, something I apparently inherited to a lesser but notable degree. Dad was also a high school dropout.

Dad studied Latin in high school in Missouri in the 1930s and hoped to be a physician. Without his knowledge, his principal worked to secure him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy sometime around 1937, but Dad turned it down since it was the Great Depression and he was the oldest child. He then dropped out of high school to work.

Pearl Harbor was bombed the day after Dad’s twenty-first birthday. He had heard horror stories of trench warfare from old men in the “Great War” and was enamored with the Navy anyway, so he chose to enlist. Dad took a train from Union Station in St. Louis to Chicago for processing and did so well on a particular test that the Navy wanted him in an electrician school that was starting right away in San Francisco, so he boarded another train and left for war. He was gone for four years, but thankfully for many of us, he was among those who did come home.

Dad served on a variety of battleships and carriers in the Pacific Theater, and I regret never recording which ones since I believe his records were among 16-18 million files destroyed in a tragic fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in July 1973 (although I haven’t given up hope yet). What I do remember is that he served in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific, and the subject of current feature film at the box office—a movie I obviously have to see.

Today is Veterans Day. And if you can’t tell, I am thinking about Dad. I suspect many of you have someone to think about, too.

What Goes Around…

blog picIn December of 1993, over a quarter century ago now, I was a young high school basketball coach in Arkansas trying to come to terms with what it meant to truly follow Jesus. My struggle pointed toward the margins of society and the conclusion that I should go love people in places that others might not. Specifically, I decided to move to a major city and teach in an inner-city school, and although I had never been further west than Dallas, I chose Los Angeles.

I then went to tell my mother. That was no fun. I told her that I planned to drive (yes, drive) to L.A. on spring break to look for an apartment and return to finish out the school year before moving that summer to begin a new life. She was heartbroken. I, as you can tell, was clueless.

This was pre-Internet, at least for me, so I had no idea how to pull this off. On New Year’s Eve, I mailed a typewritten cover letter and resume to the Los Angeles Unified School District in an envelope with no street address and a zip code I must have found in the reference section of the public library. I somehow expected it would get there—by divine courier if nothing else.

I never made the trip. Instead, while at a high school basketball tournament on New Year’s Day—the same day I had dated the cover letter—a beautiful young woman introduced herself and changed my life forever. That spring break, instead of driving to L.A., I proposed marriage. That summer, instead of moving away, we married.

At some point, my letter to the Los Angeles Unified School District was returned to sender—by divine courier, I suspect, but via the local postal carrier. It remains to this day one of my prized possessions.

Fast forward to last week, and our oldest daughter accepted a job teaching deaf and hard of hearing children at an elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Same day, our youngest daughter—around the age I was when I sent that letter—began her post-college life using her bilingual skills at a middle school in the San Antonio Independent School District.

I don’t know what to make of any of this. Still, after so many years, I remain clueless.

Clueless, yes, but also amused at the irony of life. And proud of those two young women that I have had the privilege to teach and to love.

Dark Clouds & Rays of Sunlight

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“Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.” – Henry David Thoreau

Rays of sunlight burst through the Friday evening clouds like glittering eyelashes as my car raced down the lonely highway approaching the Mississippi River Bridge and the Tennessee-Missouri border. The sun was setting, which struck me as profound given the family weekend itinerary. I would visit two uncles on Saturday, Jody’s in the morning and mine in the evening, both deeply loved, and both facing their own mortality. In between my sisters and I would host many of our cousins, all of us having now lost our parents. It promised to be a day filled with thoughts of setting suns.

It turned out to be both a light and heavy day filled with deep laughter and quiet thoughts, sweet memories and sad realities, thoughts of life and thoughts of death—of rays of light and dark clouds.

This is where I insert something profound—should such a thing ever occur to me. The weekend remains too fresh and raw and just about too much to process.

What sticks out now is sitting with Jody’s beloved Uncle Roger in his shop with the garage door open, staring out at the morning fields, watching as friends dropped by in their massive pickup trucks to share their love. One dropped by in his cowboy hat and boots and stayed for awhile, and I listened quietly as those two strong men swapped horse stories and of times when they had to put horses down. They shared how they had done such things a hundred times, but when it came to the horses they loved the most, they just couldn’t stand to do it themselves. It was just too much.

Yes, that is what sticks out to me right now about this weekend.

Time Keeps on Slipping

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PC: Kristi May

Time is a sneaky son of a gun.

I recently traveled to my hometown to pull off two reunions in a single day: eight first cousins for a mini-family reunion over an extra-long lunch followed by eight high school classmates for a thirty-year reunion over an extra-long dinner. It was a great day from start to finish.

I am the youngest of fourteen first cousins on my mother’s side of the family, so I missed out on the creation of many of the great memories that were shared over lunch. I do, however, remember assembling on a designated Sunday each summer in tiny towns in the hills of Arkansas for a family reunion that served to bind us together. Jeff brought an old DVD from the reunion the summer I graduated from college way back in 1992. My parents and grandparents were alive then, and the DVD brought them back from the grave and threw my heart for a loop.

I also happened to be the youngest of nineteen members of the Class of ’88 at Crowley’s Ridge Academy due to a late September birthday, but I was most definitely there for all the wonderful memories that we recalled with great laughter over dinner. In fact, I attended that tiny school for twelve years—it is as much a part of me as anything. Joe brought several yearbooks, and those old black-and-white photographs resurrected memories that did their own number on my heart.

It occurred to me at some point that some of the high school teachers we once considered ancient were younger then than we are now. I’m not exactly sure how to describe how that all settled in the old heart, but I wouldn’t use any version of the word comfort.

Steve Miller wrote and released the song Fly Like an Eagle (and immortalized the line that time keeps on slipping into the future) around the time I started making all those memories at home and school. The lyrics seem to say that Miller wanted to spend his time helping the poor and soar to a place of freedom for everyone—but time keeps on slipping away.

Yes, it does. Hashtag agreed and all that.

Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what I would tell myself thirty years ago, or forty, or whatever—and to be honest, I’m not particularly interested since that ship has apparently sailed. What I would rather determine is what I would tell myself right now. I gave that question quite a bit of thought after this little peek in the time capsule, and do you know what I concluded?

Me neither.

I am sure that I, too, want to help the poor and soar to a place of freedom for everyone. But time apparently has a habit of going viral.

The Fan

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THE FAN (a free verse poem by Al Sturgeon)

The memory arrived unprompted as a tender gift.

I had been sunburned yet again.

It was night as I lay in bed, miserable,

motionless, and cursing myself

for an apparent inability to learn a lesson.

 

I was a teenager, alone in that tiny bedroom,

alone with my restless imagination, naked

as a modest kid in a modest family could get

to ease the pain, limbs sprayed like a

hopeless summer attempt at a snow angel.

 

My mother had tried her best to provide

some lotion as a remedy but to no avail.

I would simply be miserable until I wasn’t;

there was nothing more to do but listen to

the silent sound of time passing.

 

But squeezed into the corner was an oscillating fan.

It stood watch through the night, keeping me company,

marking time with its fluttering whir, rhythmically sending

a breeze both soothing and not across my blistered skin—

a welcomed sensation in solitary confinement.

 

The rhythm led to a mindless world of nothingness.

No thought of the terrible fate of dressing in the morning.

No self-loathing. Just staring into dark eyelids with

my sweet parents next door; at peace, listening, awaiting

the consistent and predictable relief from the oscillating fan.

 

The memory arrived out of nowhere.

For a brief moment I was a kid again

with a mom and a dad who would answer

if I simply called their names. It was so real

that I could hear the whirring fan and feel the gentle breeze.

 

 

 

A Package Deal

23 and me

Like many other sane individuals, I paid a company $79 for the privilege of spitting in a tube to await an email with secrets about my heritage. Well, the results are in, and I was surprised to learn that I am, in fact, white.

Yet another sound financial decision on my part.

Well, it didn’t say that I was white, but the analysis did conclude that I am 99.4% European (and over 95% Northwestern European). Zero surprise there. My freckles and love for potatoes betrayed me years ago. But the mysterious remaining 0.6%, which isn’t much from a statistical perspective, was interesting in that 0.5% was identified as Native American and the remaining 0.1% West African. That surely hasn’t shown up in the mirror before.

The explanation shared that I most likely have a great (unknown number of great) grandparent born in the 18th century that was 100% Native American and another possibly even farther removed that was 100% West African. This explanation combined with a little reflection led me to suspect that such relationships may not have been consensual. Who knows, maybe theirs was a beautiful story of forbidden love, but the odds argue for something more sinister. This was not a happy thought.

I understand the basic logic behind the refusal to accept responsibility for the sordid history of one’s family, ethnicity, nation, gender, religion, or any other identity, but I simply cannot accept an arrangement where one can take pride in the past accomplishments of one’s particular heritage without owning the bad parts, too. It seems to me to be a package deal.

I didn’t have to pay good money to spit in a tube to be reminded that I think such a thing.  But I did. And I do.

 

Home Run

25010686_659397667781726_6878480645274730496_nWe crossed the Mississippi River bridge in Memphis in the rental car, ironically a Malibu, and remembered what the Arkansas Delta looks like in early winter. Many of the trees had long ago shed their leaves leaving cold bare branches that reach toward the sky, and those still holding leaves that had only recently been brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges had faded to the color of rust and stood clustered together for warmth next to the brown dirt of the silent farmland. The winter sun was setting, and it looked as if someone had plastic-wrapped the entire pastel sky. It isn’t your typical picture of natural beauty, but I now find it strangely wonderful.

It was good to spend time in my hometown. Seeing family and old friends was special as expected, but there was something special about just being there, too. I don’t miss temperatures in the upper twenties even a little bit, but it was even refreshing to remember what home felt like on my skin once upon a time. I went for a seven-mile run one morning that gave me a good long time to remember.

My wife and I went for a drive one afternoon to remember more. We drove by her first workplace and the places we lived together and even Joel and Alicia’s apartment where we spent many an evening in the early days of our relationship sitting on the couch and talking and falling in love.

And then we drove to the grave sites of my sweet parents. I used to make a point to do this alone on each visit home to talk to them; first, my dad, who died so long ago, and then more recently to both of them, sort of like I would go to their bedroom seeking comfort following a childhood nightmare in the middle of the night—comforting even when I couldn’t see their faces. But this time I went with my beautiful wife. We walked across the crunchy leaves under a cold sun and stood there as a couple — as my parents were a couple once upon a memory. There was nothing really to do other than stare at the flowers and the name plates and silently wonder where the years go and what to think about it. It was good to stand there together, like my parents who also made the choice in life to stand together. And who now Rest In Peace together.

I developed a strong sense that someone has pressed pretty hard on life’s accelerator and that the years are really starting to fly by now. It may sound a little spooky to say such a thing, but strangely enough I find it to be a most peaceful feeling. Life is quite the ride, and fear now seems like such a waste of precious time.

I think my parents are telling me this as I still stand by their bedside in the darkness.