Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Little Blue Birds Fly"

Audra (“don’t call me Audrey”) McDonald is blessed with a voice that can melt butter or shake the rafters.  Ms. McDonald, whom I heard in concert, performed a concert of Broadway show tunes. And while the music was wonderful, the stories were the thing that caught my ear.

Like the time she wanted to give a gift to her cast in a show in which she was acting.  (Ms. McDonald holds the record for the most Tony Awards received by any one person). She went to a place called Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth, to deliver a check as a donation in honor of her cast.  While there she encountered a street youth, with all his worldly possessions contained in a garbage bag, and she saw how he was welcomed into the house. She witnessed hospitality like it is meant to be. She saw this young man receiving the words that could change his life, “It’s all right. We’ve got you now. You are going to be fine.”  So, she not only left a check; she joined the international board of directors and tells people around the country the story of Covenant House during her concerts. 

Or like the story of how she, an African-American woman, came to be on stage in front of a mostly white audience.  She reminded us of something that is so easy to forget.  She told us that she doesn’t ever forget that if it wasn’t for the people before her who fought all of the bloody battles for equality among the races in the United State that she would not be able to eat in the same restaurants with us; she wouldn’t be able to drink from the same drinking fountains; she wouldn’t be able to sit in the same seats on public transportation as the white people do; why, she probably would not have even been welcome on the very stage on which we now witnessed her singing.  So it is that she advocates for marriage equality, a cause which she equates with the battle for racial equality.

I have been wondering why Ms. McDonald sprinkles these stories among her songs. And I thought about a line from her last song, “Over the Rainbow”. You know the line: “If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow/ why, o why can’t I?”  Life gave her the chance to fly high, and as she soars, she encourages all the other little birds.  I don’t know what stage God has given you. Maybe it is the kitchen floor and your kids are your audience.  They are little birds who want to fly.  Give them wings.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Did I Do With The Years?

It was a typical Friday afternoon for me, trying to get ready for Sunday worship and finding instead that there are ten other things demanding my attention. Then a vendor called about a project he was doing for us, and he began by apologizing for the delay in getting back to me. I told him, “No problem. I know the feeling. Frankly, I wouldn’t have gotten to this until next week anyway. But I do need to get this done by Easter.”  My vendor/friend then reminded me, “Easter’s going to be here before you know it.” Which led to a discussion of how it seems like it was just the beginning of the year and already it is time to stress about Easter. “I don’t know if this is good or bad, being so busy that you lose track of time,” I said. To which he said, “It’s bad.  You can’t get to the things that matter.”  “Yeah, you don’t want to get to the end of your life and say ‘What did I do with all those years?’’, I heard myself say.  And then there was an awkward pause.

It was one of those unintended “light bulb” moments for me.  My friend responded, “There are two things you will remember when you get to that point: places you went and things you did with your family.  Travel and family.”  And we talked about that a few minutes and agreed that next week we will try to get our project done.  As I drove home I put on a little “smooth jazz” music, my typical Friday commute music, in an effort to transition my mind into “weekend mode.”  Listening to the melodies and soft beats I wondered, what two things will I say, at the end, made all the running around in life worthwhile.  For my friend it was travel and family. But what would I say?

I hope I will be able to give three answers to that question. One: “I served God as best I was able in the ways he called me.”  Which leaves me answers two and three. For me, being able to have my wife and children and grandchildren, and even grand-dogs, to enjoy my “post-work” years is a definite second answer.  What am I going to do now to make sure I can give that answer when the years are nearly over?  I don’t know what number three is.  That may seem strange, but what is it I hope I can say about what I did with all those years that will give meaning to my existence, other than answers one and two? I worked. A lot. So what? Do I want answer three to be that I worked a lot?

How about you? What are you doing with all of your remaining years? What two or three things do you believe will give meaning to what you did with all those years?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Can You Identify With Brian Williams?

Brian Williams seemed to have it made. A 55-year old, handsome, well-spoken, easy-going man at the top of his profession.  He is (or was) a classic success story as well.  A good Irish-Catholic boy who started his work life as a busboy.  He started but didn’t finish college.  Instead, he found a career path in journalism and walked that path all the way to the top.  In ten years Mr. Williams made his network’s evening news broadcast the leader among all rivals. 

But.  It seems Mr. Williams had a problem: he allegedly made up facts to make tragic events even more tragic. He “conflated” facts, as he puts it; he “mis-remembered” events that for the rest of humanity would be burned in our memory. Who could “mis-remember” whether you got shot down in a helicopter?

And now it is time to own up to reality.  A long time ago Sir Walter Scott wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.”  The web Mr. Williams is now caught up in resulted in his suspension from his job, and much more social disdain than one could ever imagine would be put upon a celebrity of the stature of Mr. Williams.

So, the easy commentary is to join the crowd which is bashing him.  Still, I wonder what separates me; what separates you from Mr. Williams.  His errors are certainly much more public than any errors I make or that you make in your life. But  I don’t want to go down that path either, really. I like the fact that, at least this time, the trait of honesty is getting some good air time.  Isn’t it comforting to know that we still value honesty above celebrity?  I wonder if that is a lesson we all can take to heart.

The temptation we all face in our work, even in our relationships, is to cut corners; put a favorable spin on the facts; dress up the truth a little.  The good news is that speaking the truth in love and with grace is still fashionable.  There is always a need to speak with discretion, of course. But if there is a lesson to take from Mr. Williams it is this: the truth will prevail. Do not start down the path of deception thinking that it is anything other than a dead-end.  “Thou shalt not lie” is still fashionable. Thank God.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Does My Face Look Old?

I was visiting family when my niece’s daughter, who is only 4, arrived. She came stood at the entrance to the room where I was seated and, well, stared at me.  Her mother explained, “On the way here Charlotte wanted to know how old you and Jill (my wife) are. I explained that you were as old as my parents. But she persisted, ‘No, Mommy, are they old? Like, do they have old hands and faces, like all wrinkly and stuff.”  By this time the pretty little girl had worked her way to within a few feet of my chair. So, through our laughter, I asked her, “Well, what do you think?”,  as I gave her a close-up of my face and hands? She, already knowing social graces, declined to answer, and went right into Mommy’s waiting arms for refuge from the bearded man.

So, now I will never know if in Charlotte’s definition of “old face” my face is an old one.  I wondered why she asked the question, and what I come up with is this:  when we are meeting someone we don’t know or cannot remember, we ask anyone who might know, “What does she look like?”  We remember people by their faces. The face is more than a collection of body parts; it is our “identity.” How often, when we meet someone we know, do we say “What’s wrong?” just from the look on their face. Or we say, “You look so happy!”, or words to that effect. Strangers identify us from our faces; friends and family know so much about our hearts from our faces.

All of which makes me wonder why God couldn’t let people see his “face” and live. Exodus 33:20 says that you cannot see the face of God and live.  Which makes the “face” of God so much more mysterious.  But then Jesus happened.  So now we are promised, in I Corinthians 13:12, that we will see the face of God and live. We can think a long time about how Jesus changed the dynamic, but the good news is, we will see God’s face and live. So now we can ask, what do you think God’s face looks like? Is it an “old face”? Is it a face that when we see it we will say, “What’s wrong?” Or, will it have such a look that we will know God is very happy to see us? 

I want to know the face of God. I wonder what it will look like.  But I know that as God invites me to look more closely God’s eyes will say “I love you.”  I hope that until that day children, like Charlotte, will look into my eyes and see the same message.  Maybe that is a face we all could put on. Even those of us with “old faces”.