shortbread

short, sweet, and to-the-point — by Keith Elder

One Old Camper’s Take on Camp Sumatanga

(The following relatively long reading—is an adaptation of a letter I shared with the devoted Trustees of Camp Sumatanga—the much-loved Conference Assembly Ground that has, since the 1950’s, served The North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. This is my limited perspective, as I did not grow-up going to Camp—I’ve just been involved since 1980. But once I got a taste of Camp, I honestly grieved the fact that I did not have the experience as a youth.)

As I understand it, the vision of Camp Sumatanga’s founding fathers and mothers was to provide a place set-apart for children and youth—for all who came—to experience God’s Creation and be introduced to God’s kingdom possibility for their lives. It has been driven by the best of Methodism—devoted laypersons and clergy, lovingly volunteering weeks and/or weekends of their time in hopes of creating life-changing experiences of Christ and Christian community. One of the first things Nina Reeves—long-time Conference Youth Coordinator—would make clear at the beginning of every camp was, “This week we are going to be living in Christian community….” And we did. And it changed us.

The camping program—whether held at the Lodge or at Pool Camp—has carried that mantle faithfully through the decades. Lives have been, and continue to be changed through Elementary, Jr. High, Sr. High, Special Needs, Day Camps, and others.

All Youth events–Mid and Sr. High Camps, Leadership Camps, International Peace Camps, and now dormant weekend events such as Spiritual Life Advance, Church-Related Vocations, Rec Lab, Social Justice weekends–have been conceived, planned and executed by a Youth-elected Youth Council under the guidance of highly committed, adult volunteer leadership. When we had a Conference Youth Coordinator, that person and a single summer assistant were the only paid staff.  The “Youth Team” gave their summers out of love for God, one another, and Sumatanga.

Thinking back, trying to reconstruct a typical day at Camp, I was reminded of the immense value, not only of what we do, but of how we do it.

A typical day in Pool Camp would begin with the playing of a wake-up song—sometimes thoughtful, sometimes playful (“Why do you build me up (build me up) Buttercup, baby just to let me down…”)–which led to a mad dash for the showers. Soon, there was the “first bell” which let us know the Dining Hall doors would be opening for breakfast in a few minutes–that is, with the ringing of the “second bell.”  We were out the cabin door and down the hill to get in line.  A lot of new friends were made in that line.  Some folks would get to the door only to be sent back to their cabins to get their name tags!… “Wear your name tags!… and don’t forget to bring your Bible for Morning Watch!”

Now, we’re in the high-energy, low-ceiling, Dining Hall, enjoying (some of us more than others) a noisy, but substantial breakfast. After everyone made it through the line, a team member would stand on a metal chair (by those heavy wood doors…and the plaques detailing who had won Folk Festival in past years). The leader raised a hand—a silent signal that meant, “Everybody raise your hand and close your mouth.” And we did. Then the ”chairperson” would speak into the little P.A. microphone with a not-quite-long-enough goose-neck. “This morning, for the blessing we will sing, “Johnny Appleseed”— “Oh, the Lord’s been good to me….” Everybody sings.

After everyone finishes eating and takes their trays back, the leader climbs on their chair again and proceeds to explain the logistics of “Morning Watch”—about it being “your time alone with God”…a new concept for many first-time campers. “When you go out, find a place and settle in for the duration, out of respect for those around you…” (a “Christian community” thing) “…Now, stand and slide your chairs under the table… (loud metal on concrete scraping!)….  Today, for our morning watch hymn, we will sing, “Spirit of the Living God.”… And we’d file out singing—being handed a Morning Watch sheet as we went to find our quiet spot away from anyone else.

The scene?… a hundred or more campers and counselors scattered all around the Chigger Bowl–that large grassy field surrounded by a circular dirt drive. Once people settled in, the only sounds were nature sounds… a hawk… a breeze…. It was amazingly quiet. Holy quiet. Everyone is reading the carefully penned Morning Watch sheets with scripture and poetry and quote-worthy quotes from great thinkers and theologians–and sometimes, little line drawings to complement the writing. Often, there would be a bothersome question or two that made us think about God and faith and who God might be calling us to be in this world. Then there was always a little prayer at the bottom….partly there to jumpstart our own personal prayers.

Fifteen minutes… then a carefully selected song washes over the camp—“Create in me…a clean heart, O God, let me be like you in all my ways….”  We’d been instructed, “Stay in your place till the song is over!” And we did, out of respect for those who still might be finishing up.  For some campers, there was no more meaningful element of Camp than Morning Watch. Some have those sheets from twenty or more years back.

P.A. Announcer: “O.K., Campers, it’s time for cabin clean-up… Cabin 1-left cleans up the breezeway…7-right has Assembly Hall…”  We all picked up any incidental trash we might see along the way.  It was “our” camp, you know–and like the sign said as you pulled in the gate, “Let no one say, and say to your shame, that this was a place of beauty, till you came.”  So much life-teaching at Camp….

After cabin clean-up time, we were called down to the Assembly Hall where high-energy songs drew us in for Morning Program.  “Grab a neighbor’s hand, grab a hand next to ya…”  “Now, take your Sumatanga Songbooks and turn to page….”  Kelly on the piano (with sticking keys)… Team members up front singing enthusiastically and adding motions to songs for greater involvement….

Great, sometimes hilarious skits promoted Free Time options such as a staff-camper softball game in the Chigger Bowl, or listening to music in the Book Store, or creating something in Craft Hut. There would always be a plug for Youth Service Fund—an avenue through which youth could make a difference in the world. Youth brought their nickels, dimes and dollars (from their own limited “spending money”) and gave toward weekly goals…which we always reached via various cabin challenges. Hundreds of dollars were raised at every camp—and every penny went toward changing the world.

After announcements, we were singing songs like “My God Tears Down Walls!” and “It’s a Long Road to Freedom,” and “You are the Salt of the Earth”–songs that went beyond a personal “Kum ba ya” moment, to a call–a call to be the hands and feet of Jesus out there in the real world. (p.s., nothing against “Kum ba ya.”)

There was always a theme song for the summer,… and a theme hymn. Now, being raised in church, I thought I knew every hymn in The UM Hymnal—but at camp, I heard and sang, for the first time, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” and “Hymn of Promise,” and one that I’ve quoted a hundred times since in sermons and messages: “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew… He moved my soul to seek Him…seeking me. It was not I that found, O Savior True. No,… I was found of Thee.” Wesleyan theology in a nutshell. A long-time songwriter, I have had the joy of being invited to write many of the theme songs for Youth summers and Peace Camps. “I Run to Christ” and “One” and “Rising on the wings of faith…over life’s storm-troubled seas. Carried along by a spirit of grace. Rising… we’re rising.”  Those songs would not exist were it not for Camp.

The special speaker of the week brought the Word each morning. Speakers were dynamic and engaging–“provoking” in the best sense of the word. Jordan Grooms and James King and Tex Samples and Leonard Sweet and Bishop Leontine Kelly and “Bro. Bert” Goodwin–just to name a few. It has been my great honor to be invited into that role a few times—and I will never speak to a more engaged audience. The hearts were primed…the clay was moist.

A word about theme. The Youth Council “Theme Committee,” consisting of youth, lay adults and clergy representatives, would gather annually for a time of study, prayer, and discussion about what was going on in the church and world. “What do we need to focus on this year?… What’s on kids’ hearts and minds?…Where is God moving?”  Then, and only then–after careful, prayerful deliberation–would the summer theme be selected. As a result, the theme was owned by the entire group and unique to that moment in history. Each team’s gifts made their camp a work of art—organic…unfolding naturally as we journeyed together through the week.

Being one of the go-to songwriters, I would receive the “theme sheet” at least six months–sometimes, a year in advance.  This simple sheet (’tis a gift to be simple,” you know) would include the overall theme, theme scripture, and theme hymn. Underneath the heading, there would be a neat list of the daily themes and scriptures. It was perfect.

The deliberative planning process was a snapshot of what we Methodists call “holy conferencing” at it’s best. Over time, it produced an ocean of loving, responsible, serious-minded, Big-picture-aware, disciples of Jesus Christ—people unafraid to speak their conscience but, at the same time, able to “listen to understand” and respect the perspectives of another. These camp and team alumni have become “salt of the earth, light of the world”—so many going on to full-time Christian service or positions out in the secular world that honor God and reflect the Kingdom values.  They won’t hesitate to tell you that Camp made an enormous difference. Through the speakers and programs and small groups, they heard the call of God in Micah 6:8—“What does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” No way they would think of putting a lid on the Christian mandate to address social issues.  Jesus’ inaugural address (Luke 4) provided a short list of what we, as followers of Christ have to do: “…to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

If we are going to be faithful to Jesus, we cannot NOT talk about social issues—particularly in these days in which we live.

Following Morning Program and Canteen (a snack hut), we made our way to small groups, which were held in the open-air classrooms lining both sides of the breezeway. Each group had 8-10 campers and 1-2 counselors. The counselors would facilitate discussions centered around the morning message and theme of the day. Spend several days with the same group, grappling with the issues, playing together and praying together, and before you know it, you’ve made new friends. It wasn’t unusual for a youth to stay after class to talk with an attentive counselor about something that was on their mind or heart. Because there were many adult counselors, there were many different personalities and life stories for the youth to relate to.

Then it was Free Time—playing softball in the Chigger Bowl, hanging out in the Book Store, playing ping pong or four-square—maybe just sitting on the breezeway ledge watching all the action.

In no time, the bell was clanging, announcing lunch. Lunch led into fun singing, sometimes using those little blue “Let Us Sing Together” songbooks… “Dewey was an admiral at Manilla Bay…” “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!…”  Over the week, we sang all of the Camp “greatest hits”—and we sounded good… in that low-ceiling, concrete-floored room!

All filled-up and sung-out, we’d file out to strains of “Go rest, go rest….” sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”—heading to our cabins for ”flat time”

“Flat time” is an hour of nap time, or at least quiet time. We needed it with the full schedule we kept. We grew to love “flat time.”

Then a song plays… and a voice echoes across the camp, “Time for Interest Groups!” Story-telling, games, songwriting, crafts, journaling, creative movement, wood-carving, poetry, choir, social issues—the list was as varied as the talented, volunteer leadership team on site for the week.

After Interest Groups, it was afternoon Free Time options—a group hike up the mountain to the open-air Chapel and the panoramic view; an ultimate Frisbee game on the Chigger Bowl; swimming at the pool; hanging out with new friends; or maybe helping prepare for the Evening Program.

Campers were enlisted to help with any number of tasks and programs throughout the week, 1) as we learned of their interests and talents, and 2) as they ventured out of their shells. The gifts and graces were drawn out as Christian community was lived out. And, it wasn’t just the kids that came out of hiding.

I remember one night, I was so inspired by the evening program–describing the darkness so evident in the world, and the desperate need for the light of Christ.  When we broke for Recreation, I slipped over to Bessemer Lodge where there was a piano and wrote the song, “Candle in the Night.” I almost ran back to the Assembly Hall, pulled that week’s program director (Reggie Holder) aside. He looked at it and without hesitation said, “It’s perfect! Let’s use it during closing tonight!” And we did, and it was magic. That’s Camp!

I digress—where were we?… Oh, “afternoon Free Time.” Now, the dinner bell’s ringing… then dinner…then more fun singing.  Then, “Stand up and slide your chairs under the table….” and we are heading out to Vespers.

Vespers really started with the walk—the wordless walk out of the Dining Hall…past the little Prayer Chapel… negotiating the roots and rocks… up…down…maybe getting a helping hand or two from the person in front of you. After three or four minutes, we emerged at “Vespers Point”—every person filing-in and finding a hard seat on the rock-tiered amphitheater. Thoughtful program… maybe a meditative song… always a scripture.  Maybe it’s read antiphonally—that is, with people chiming in on-cue from all across the crowd.  So striking—the changing voices.  Why can’t we do something like that back home in “Big Church”? Maybe we will, now. (There were so many things we learned at Camp that we could take back to our local churches and youth groups.)

Vespers was reverent—respectful of God, of Creation, of the speakers and actors and musicians. It was important–and we treated it like it was important.

After the speaking, there was always a moment of silence.  No sound except a breeze in the high branches…. Then, a voice from above–that is, from the big rocks behind us, at the top of the amphitheater…“May the Lord bless you and keep you….”   We stood and turned and followed the person in front of us, up the hill and out of the sacred space.

Evening Program was the culmination of the day. The creativity and integrity of those programs was unsurpassed–something I had never experienced anywhere else. An all-volunteer team, working with the theme of the day—bringing their A-game, using every available talent and technology at their disposal. Involving scores of campers as readers and singers and dancers and actors; transforming that rough-hewn Assembly Hall nightly into yet another unforgettable, multi-sensory, experiential, holy ground, encounter with God. There were forever-memorable visuals and backdrops that evolved over the course of the week (many by design of artist-friend, Danny Rountree).

The content was drawn from every conceivable source. If it was “truth,” it was fair game. Like John Wesley, the program directors and youth “plundered the Egyptians” and used whatever they had to in order to communicate the message.  It was glorious, really. These lovers of God and life and the Church and, yes, Camp Sumatanga, would, and often did, pay their own way and expenses just to be a part of such excellence. It was all filtered—consciously or unconsciously—through Philippians 4:8… “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” All of camp—but especially, Evening Program–was excellent.

Of course, following Evening Program, there was Recreation! “Everybody stack your chairs against the walls….”  Folk dancing!…so fun…beginning with Nina or Danny or Heath up front, “Right, together, right together, left together, left together…” and “Amos Moses,”… and “King Tut”… and the big circle dances where you constantly changed partners. The best part of Recreation?… EVERYBODY was included—red and yellow, black and white,… tall, short, large, lean, young, old, jock, nerd.… It was such a beautiful snapshot of the Kingdom. God had to love it.

Then it was time for everybody to move toward the stage and sit on the floor, facing the makeshift screen for song slides. As flashy and polished as modern graphics and media may be, they don’t hold a candle to what was experienced through these hand-drawn, colored song slides.  (I actually took a workshop to learn how to make them–at Camp, of course.)

We sang along with John Denver and Kermit the Frog and other then-contemporary artists.  “Love is everywhere!… and I feel it! You are all that you can be!… go out and be it! Life is perfect!… I believe it! Come and play the game with me!” and “We are a Rainbow…together we are a sign!…” and “Someday we’ll find it, The Rainbow Connection—the lovers, the dreamers, and me….doh-di-oh-doh-di-oh-doh….”  And, in those moments, we found it.

Then it’s Story Time with Nina and her storytelling stool. (Sometimes, there were guest storytellers, but usually, it was Nina—I mean, she was a world-renowned storyteller and Conference Youth Coordinator for nearly fifty years). It was an anchoring moment for us. If Nina was telling stories, “God was in God’s heaven and all was right with the world.”

An animated reading of “Whobody There” or “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day”…or “Split Dog” or the whistling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Or “Two Brothers”–you know, the one about the two brothers who were so close until a silly disagreement over a calf born on their adjoining property lines…and the Carpenter who came along and built a bridge instead of the high fence one brother had hired him to build. In my mind, I can still see those brothers, in tears–running to embrace each other at the center of that bridge. “I’m sorry!” “No, I’m sorry–you can have the calf….”

The stories entertained—but, more, they taught Kingdom lessons.

Story Time over, the lights come up a little and baskets are passed for Youth Service Fund donations. Someone starts an a cappella singing of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Everyone joins-in… in spontaneous, natural-as-breathing 3-part harmony.  We learned to sing in harmony at Camp…literally and figuratively.

Baskets collected, the room goes dark.  From the back of the Assembly Hall—someone begins reading a poem or a scripture… or someone sings a verse of an old hymn that now jumps off of the page for us because of what we have experienced throughout the day and evening.  It’s the perfect word for the moment…

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore… May the search for Thy salvation…be our watchword every more. Grant us wisdom! Grant us courage! for the facing of this hour! For the facing of this hour!…”

Then silence…

After a holy moment or two–out of the darkness, something begins to glow at the front of the room … a simple cross over center stage… faintly at first… then brighter,… and brighter,… till the light of Christ lights every face…and heart.

A pregnant pause… then a voice begins…

“May the Lord bless you and keep you…”  And all join in….
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

Perfect.

Then it’s Canteen… and a Team Meeting up in Suther Lodge with good snacks—freshly-popped popcorn or slices of ice-cold watermelon or ice-cream sandwiches—or, maybe, a birthday cake for that team member spending their birthday at their home away from home.  Then, Nina…“OK, everybody gather in…”

“Everybody”—that is, all these volunteers who have poured their heart and soul into the day and the campers and the program  All are leaning against door facings or piled onto the worn couches and chairs, or seated on the dusty floor of that old den, propped against the knees of a friend….

“Just just checking-in,… Is everyone alright?… Any problems with any of your kids?…” One of the female counsellors says, “I did have one I had to take to the Nurse’s cabin…chigger bites….”

“Anything else?…” 

Someone “glows” on the speaker’s message from the morning…and someone else says, “Could you believe that Evening Program!” Everybody nods or claps or, maybe, just smiles, “Yes!”  Those team meetings were like Heb.10:24, in the flesh: “…let us consider how to encourage one another to love and good deeds….” Nan Jones, chimes in, “Why, I believe this is THE BEST TEAM we’ve ever had.” (She said that about every team for thirty years or so—and, you know, she was right every time!)

Time’s up…. Gotta go round up the campers… “W.G.,” (or whoever happened to be in Nina’s line of vision…anyone in the room could and would gladly) “…pray us out…”  Sometimes we even prayed with our eyes wide open—looking around that room for the face of Christ in each other.

“Amen!”…and we’re outta there—headed down, or up to our cabins—Suther’s spring-loaded screen door banging behind us.

Counselors lead cabin prayer time on their respective sides of the cabin… teeth are brushed… “Lights Out” at 11:00….

Then, as we’re laying on our bunks—maybe thinking back over the day,… maybe beginning to doze off—a slightly scratchy recording of “The Lord’s Prayer” (The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as I recall) comes wafting through the trees….

“Our Father… which art in Heaven… hal-low-ed be… Thy name…” 

Our minds are a blur of all that has happened over the course of one day. Our hearts, a mixed bag of happiness and gratitude and nostalgia and hope… and shalom.

“…for Thine is the Kingdom!…and the power!… and the glo—ry!… FOREV- – ER!!!…Ah – – – – – men….”

The lighted cross at the top of Chandler Mountain watches over us as we sleep…and somewhere up in Heaven, a great cloud of witnesses—most wearing handcrafted “Deacon Jones” name tags—looks on and smiles.

 

Some might argue that the “Camp” in the above narrative is obsolete, outdated, a relic!—that it’s outlived its usefulness.  I would beg to differ.

I think we need Camp more now than ever. There’s nothing like it.

And now,…

“May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

–Keith Elder

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“Being Human Better”

being-human-better

It’s not a scientific study or Barna research, it’s just my take…my personal observation over time. The little chart above is not about race, or religion, or creed. It’s not about who we cheer for on Saturday afternoons or vote for in November. It’s about how we see people and treat people and live in God’s world.  They are four basic world views, and they inform every thing we do:

#1 “My Life Matters”
It’s safe to say that I came out of the womb thinking about my own personal comfort. Instinctively, I will do or say anything to have my wants and needs met, even if it means someone else will not have theirs met.  Nothing personal, I just have to take care of old #1. MY LIFE MATTERS.

#2 “OUR Life Matters”
At some point, as we become aware of people around us, we naturally gravitate toward those who look like us—or think or talk or believe like us. We find security and acceptance in families and teams, office pools and peer groups and political parties. At this stage we do anything, say anything, in the name of taking care of our own. Why? Because OUR LIFE MATTERS!

#3 “ALL LIVES Matter”
Hopefully, one day, we venture outside of the family/friend compound. At this stage, we recognize the humanity in all of humanity. Why, that man in the supermarket has feelings too!…and the lady behind the checkout counter has a story,…and the Syrian refugees on the evening news—they must be terrified!  Newfound compassion and mercy compel us to stand up for the little guy. Maybe it’s a random act of kindness; maybe it’s a career in social work; but we do it because ALL LIVES MATTER.

#4 “ALL LIFE Matters”
The final perspective—and I would say, the highest—moves beyond mere human concerns. “All Lives Matter” is noble, but there is a greater good: “ALL LIFE MATTERS.”  Not just homo sapians, but every living thing. The coral reef, the polar ice caps, the itsie-bitsy spider, the earth and moon and stars. God made it all and called it “good.  No doubt, ALL LIFE MATTERS!

So, which is your life line?…your soul mantra?  Not sure?  Just ask anyone who has known you for a week or more. But be prepared—sometimes the truth hurts.

Keith
10/6/2016

“The Toast–To Durwin and Carey Beth”

Version 3

I guess every father of the bride has his “Father of the Bride” (a.k.a., Steve Martin) moments when it comes to the big day—that surreal day when he gently, perhaps, reluctantly, places the hand of his beloved daughter into that of young man who is saying, in so many words, “I’ll take it from here, Pops.”

Ouch.

Maybe the day-of-wedding haze has something to do with all that has gone into the making of such a momentous occasion:

A thousand cross-country phone calls and texts and e-mails and Skype conversations. Prospective plans and adjusted plans and final plans. Dresses and rings and attendants and venues and invitations and logistics. All of these are dwarfed, of course, by that first meeting of “the one,” and the subsequent meeting of the family of “the one.”  (An aside—both meetings received an “A+”!)

Maybe, the father of the bride fog has more to do with getting acclimated to the idea that his baby girl, has grown up! We are talking major “rite of passage” here. She has finished college, found a real job on the Left Coast, found her way to a Pacific Ocean of friends, and most importantly, been introduced to this heart-and-soul mate whom she vows “…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer of for poor, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish…”

An added piece of my personal “Father of the Bride” moment may have been the fact that I was also the Officiant—that is, the minister charged with saying the magic words. “Who presents this woman to be married to this man…?”  (Awkward silence…) “Oh!… I guess that would be her mother and I.”

The ceremony went forward relatively unscathed with the exception of me saying that I had been married to my mother for thirty-eight years, (Correction: I have been married to Carey Beth’s mother for 38 years). Then there was the moment when Dave, the Best Man, almost had to disrobe to find the rings (kidding, Dave!).

It was a joyful joining. The knot was tied. The kiss, the hug, the kiss again (in case the photographer missed the first one). The couple turns to face a sea of smiling faces. “It is my honor to present to you Mr. and Mrs. Durwin Tsay….” Standing ovation.

We recessed to take photos and visit with friends while the ceremony venue was transformed into a stunning reception/dinner venue.

Guests are seated. The wedding party is introduced. Applause. The salad is served. The Maid of Honor is introduced to make a toast. The entree is served. The Best Man is introduced for his toast. Music. The Father of the Groom is introduced and offers a beautiful, humorous word and toast.

Immediately, the band leader introduces the bride and groom for the lead-off dance… followed by the Bride/Father-of-the-Bride dance… followed by the Groom/Mother-of-the-Groom dance. Applause.  At this point, the band leader invites all to join the happy couple on the dance floor and we dance the night away.  Joyful!…a celebration–as well it should be!

My “Father of the Bride” moment?… I failed to make a toast. Arghhhh!

To be fair, they did announce the other toasts—but still, I should have stood and said, “Wait!… Stop the music! I have something to say!… (I mean, something MORE to say—I did get to perform the ceremony, after all—including a few personal words.)

But THE TOAST is different! The toast is where I would have said:

“First of all, thank you, thank you! Thanks to all of you—friends, family, co-workers, and kickball enthusiasts—many of whom crossed the continent or even oceans to be here and add your seal of approval to this holy moment.

On this auspicious occasion, Jean and I could not love Carey Beth more or be more pleased that she and Durwin have been brought together—we believe, providentially.

We love Durwin. He is an amazing, thoughtful, gentle-spirited, joy-filled, friendship-rich, family-faithful, man who loves our daughter with all his heart. What father and mother of the bride would not be thrilled.

We cannot help but say, “Thank you,” Yuhgeng and Margaret, for raising such an exceptional son. (Actually, you raised two, but tonight, we are particularly thankful for this one!) Thank you for pouring your love and wisdom into your first-born, and giving him an example that, I am sure, he will follow as he begins to build his own household.

We are so proud to welcome Durwin into our family. We do so with open arms and cannot wait to see the future unfold for “Tsay Family—The Next Generation!”

Now, would everyone please raise a glass, and join me in toasting–and giving thanks to God for this wonderful affirmation of love and family and life.

To Durwin and Carey Beth!”

Sincerely,

The Father of the Bride

 

p.s., You pronounce “Tsay”—“t-sigh”… or “t-say”…or “sigh”… or “Dur & CB” 🙂

“Psalms…Up Close and Personal”

Psalms have always been special to me. Maybe because they came out of the gut of the writer—David for the most part. David and Psalms are a little like Billy Joel and “New York State of Mind” sung in Central Park, or Whitney Houston hitting the key change in, “I Will Always Love You.” Soul stuff.

Decades ago, I read that Billy Graham went through Psalms every month—all 150…five per day. That’s commitment—particularly when Psalm 119 rolls around. It may have been the original praise chorus as it goes on and on…and on. (Being a little ADD, I appreciate the short ones. 🙂 )

I tried the “five a day” approach for a while, but for me it was just too much goodness to savor at one sitting.  So I adjusted and have for many years now, read just one psalm a day—a sort of spiritual vitamin. But that one psalm a day has become the most meaningful reading I do. As my little quartz guitar tuner helps me tune my guitar to a standard “A=440” tuning, Psalms helps me tune my heart to God.

A couple of tips that, for me, have multiplied the power of Psalms.

1) Take it personally!  Read the verses as though you were the writer—not David or some ancient, at-a-safe-distance somebody else.  Yes, psalms were written about Jerusalem, or David vs. Goliath, or a monumental blunder with Bathsheba, or processing up Mount Zion to worship on holy days.  But for your devotional purposes, the psalm is all about you. Take it personally.

The second tip has to do with a sort of spiritual geography.

Assume “Jerusalem”–that all-important, center of the Hebrew universe, the Holy City–is your life, and  that “the Temple” is your heart..your soul.  “The wilderness” and “Babylon” would be those times and places you feel furthest from God–desperate times and lonely places.

And what about “the enemies”?  Well, for now, the enemies are not some invading army or an angry King Saul trying to destroy David.  For now, the enemies  are those real life forces that are out to do you in.  Fear… lust… loneliness… financial pressures… addiction… anger,… shame… grief… greed… pride… a physical malady.  The enemy may be real life attackers like terrorists or political adversaries, or perhaps, social ills such as racism or injustice.  

Has that devotional time been a little lacking of late?

Try reading Psalms “up close and personal” for thirty-days…or thirty years.  Just one-a-day. It might just be “the cure to what ails you.” 

Keith

4-11-2015

http://keithelder.com/

“No More Tangles…”

tangled_string

I was reading in God Calling this morning when a little phrase/image snagged my attention:

“It is not passionate appeal that gains the Divine Ear so much as the quiet placing of the difficulty and worry in the Divine Hands. So trust and be no more afraid than a child would be, who places its tangled skein of wool in the hands of a loving mother, and runs out to play,…” *

“…its tangled skein of wool….”

What’s your tangled skein? The moment I highlighted those words, your little spirit-elves took-off for the backroom of your brain, only to return a few moments later with your tangled skein (or skeins). The elves plopped the mangled mess on the counter, turned, and left you with…

…that troubled relationship—maybe new, maybe decades-old…

…an aging parent….

…health concerns….

…a child or teen struggling to find their place….

…a job that pays the bills but saps the soul…

…financial worries….

…bad choices from the past short-circuiting the present…

…self-doubt and fear sabotaging your possibilities….

Maybe I hit on one or more of your tangled skeins—maybe you have an unlisted skein. Either way, you have some challenge that won’t be untangled overnight.  There’s no easy way out, and there’s this nagging negative voice inside that says, “It will never get better.”

But it can.

To use the vernacular of a mid-high girl: “God is like,… the best untangler ever!!!”

The timetable varies, but the pattern goes something like this:

  1. Life gets tangled beyond our ability to untangle.
  2. In desperation, we cry-out for God’s help and wisdom
  3. We allow God free reign to untangle—when, where and how he will.
  4. We cooperate with his efforts and guidance.
  5. And before you know it—no more tangles.

It’s Ash Wednesday… the beginning of the Season of Lent. And whether you do the ashes or not, it might be a great 40-plus day period to have a skein or two untangled.

Keith Elder

2-18-2015

* The readings in God Calling are dated, so you can find the full reading at http://www.twolisteners.org/God%20Calling%20TOC.htm and click on the date, February 18.)

“Ms. Satterfield…Valentine’s…and 52 Names for Love”

Besides being an English teacher and life-friend, Gail Satterfield was and is a dream caster and seed planter. Of course, she had to teach us the what’s and why’s and how’s of words, but she took teaching to the next level.

For one, she always had a thoughtful quote waiting for us when we came in the room. The quotes were power points long before Powerpoint–written in perfect cursive on the big green chalkboard behind her desk. The quotes were John Donne or Robert Frost or Eleanor Roosevelt or Mark Twain. They were carpe diem! before “The Dead Poets Society” and they changed the way we saw the world.

For the record, Ms. Satterfield is still at it—still planting seed and casting dreams after all these years, only now her chalkboard is Facebook.  Two to three times a week she will post some plutonium-level, keeper of a saying, and knowing long before Twitter that 140 characters is ‘a plenty, her borrowed wisdom is always short, sweet, and to-the-point.

Today’s quote?…

“The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was so important to them; there ought to be as many for love.” (Margaret Atwood)

Forget Fifty Shades of Grey—let’s go with “Fifty-Two Names for Love!” I can do that!

  1. Jean… 2. Carey Beth… 3. Mom… 4. Dad… 5. Darryl… 6. Dwayne… 7. Celeste… 8. Grandmother… 9. Grandaddy… 10. Nanny… 11. Papa… 12. Roxy (the Maltese—you’ve got to love your dog).

I’m already at #12, and I haven’t even gotten out of the house.

“Fifty-two names for love”—I could get that many without going beyond our extended families. Some quiet. Some hilarious. Some wise. Some handshakers, some huggers and cheek-kissers, some note-writers.  Some, a little goofy—but all, “names for love,” due to things said or done, and the manner in which they were said or done.

Add schoolteachers and coaches and band directors who invested their lives into mine. They taught me to conjugate a sentence, to use a sliderule, to block and tackle, to swim and dive, to shoot a lay-up, to tie a square knot, to paint with oils, and to think for myself.

There were caring friends and neighbors who kept me on the straight and narrow (such as it was). They were pastors and Sunday School teachers and devoted youth leaders who taught me about God and prayer, and where to find Habakkuk in the Old Testament.

I could get into “names for love” like, guitar, pizza, camp, songwriting, speaking, travel, fishing, golf, sports, movies, ice cream, standing on the beach or at the top of a mountain, watching the game with friends, or just having a great conversation.

I could talk about God. God is love, you know.

You get the idea–fifty-two names for love.

Now, it’s your turn.  Piece of cake.

On you mark…get set…

Hey, wait a second—add “cake” to my list.

Keith Elder

2-14-2015

 

“Einstein’s Desk…Burns…and an Organizing Principle”

Einstein's face

My first job after college was that of “Youth Director” at Huffman United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. My supervisor was Director of Christian Education, Burns Nesbitt. Burns was a 50-something, retired Air Force chaplain with way too much life and knowledge to spend it golfing away the golden years, so, Burns took on the challenge of cultivating the educational ministries of a 1500-member congregation.

How to describe Burns?

Burns was a dreamer/planner/world-thinker/justice-seeker/teacher/trainer/ uproarious laugh-er/theologian/connoisseur of life’s simple gifts—not to mention, husband to Mary Alice (delightful, strong, and refreshingly honest), and father to Phil, Jaye, and Chris. All this said, Burns tried his best to bring it all together and live a life of integrity.

My first visit to Burns’ office was unsettling. How do I describe that 8’ x 12’ish space? Overstuffed bookshelves reaching floor-to-ceiling… institutional, gray-green metal desk…a couple of mismatched chairs—all upstaged by two-foot-high stacks of file folders, open reference books, periodicals, and do-dad keepsakes from people and places past. There were 2’ x 3’ sheets of white newsprint masking-taped around the walls with barely legible, color-coded, Magic Marker scribbles from recent meetings. There was a flip chart in the corner on a flimsey aluminum easel, and a fire hazard of a desktop strewn with loose papers, sticky notes and cheap pens. The words “tsunami” and “tetanus shot” come to mind. John Wesley, father of our Methodist OCD-ness would not have seen eye-to-eye with Burns—and not just because Burns was a foot taller. 

In time, I came to understand that Burns was perfectly comfortable in his little disaster area. The disorder was his order—and Burns could put his hand on anything he needed at a moment’s notice. He knew exactly where the red Magic Marker was, and the children’s Sunday School material, and the book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Question: Have you ever seen a photo of Einstein’s desk?…or Mark Twain’s?… or Steve Jobs? Take a look….

Desk-Einstein

Desk-Mark Twain

Desk-Steve Jobs

My point?   Different people have different ways of making sense of their world—that is, different organizing principles.  Maybe it’s do-lists, PDA’s, calendars, personal assistants, executive secretaries.  For some, it’s mentors, managers, coaches, or trainers.  Maybe it’s a favorite philosopher or theologian.

What’s important is that you find something that works for you—a simple truth or system that helps you figure out the specifics of your life…that helps you make sense of a discombobulated world, and make a little hay while your mortal sun shines.

Now, Burns was no Einstein—though he had his occasional bursts of brilliance—but Burns had found a system that worked for him….

Amazing that he could find it in that office!

Keith Elder

2-3-2015

http://keithelder.com/

“Scattered, Smothered, and Covered?”

Waffle House

I confess. I love Waffle House.

Call me a health foodie, but I love stopping at Waffle House for an occasional cheese steak omelet with extra grilled onions. Oh, I know—if I had a cholesterol meter on my arm, the little needle could double as a fan as I enjoy this unapologetically tasty treat. But life is short… carpe omeletum!

“Sides?…” the waitress asks.

“I’ll take hash browns.”

“Do you want anything on those hash browns?…onions?…cheese?…  Want them scattered, smothered and covered?”

“I just want them brown, but not burnt.” (It’s my Waffle House version of, “Shaken…not stirred.”) “Oh,…and I’ll have wheat toast with that.  I’m trying to cut back.”

“Scattered, smothered, and covered.” It’s the Cadillac of hash browns. I mean, if you are hash brown potatoes, it just doesn’t get any better this. It’s Hash Brown Harvard.

But, then, it’s also the story of my life!

Scattered… by a billion bits of data and day-to-day responsibility. And since, in truth, we can only focus on one thing at a time, “multi-tasking” means that everything suffers. Scattered!—it’s the story of my life.

Smothered… again, by the sheer deluge of stuff.  Like it or not, I am mortal…“on the clock.” So I get smothered as I try to handle this “more than I was ever meant to handle.”

And covered…. This takes the problem one dangerous step further. When I am covered, I disappear—like when I pull a blanket over my head. You can’t see me. The me that I was meant to be is lost in the noise and confusion.

All that said, I got a glimmer of hope this morning…Jeremiah 29:10-14.

The word came at a time when the Jews were in exile… far from home…separated from family and friends… under the thumb of foreign rule. Dare I say, they were “scattered, smothered and covered!” But out of the disorder and darkness, God spoke through the prophet:

“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. … I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you, and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

“Scattered, smothered and covered?”

There’s hope.

Gotta go… the waitress is here with my breakfast.

Keith Elder

1-31-2015

http://keithelder.com/

“Tony Stewart…and the verdict is…”

th

I confess that I’m not a NASCAR follower.  But I do know a few names and numbers–and  I do know there are days when people die on that oval altar of speed and big money.

Shift gears.

I have known two salt-of-the-earth people who endured the trauma of striking and killing another human being with their vehicles.  In both cases, the drivers were innocent of any wrongdoing.  The pedestrians just stepped in front of them on busy thoroughfares–both at night. The drivers were not speeding or texting or fiddling with the radio.  They were just driving.  But in a split second, a life ended, and their lives were changed forever.

Shift again.

Did you know that our eyes naturally adjust to the brightest object in our field of vision?  When we are driving at night, our pupils are constantly adjusting to dashboard lights and oncoming headlights, and  McDonald’s arches, and reflective road signs. Objects without lights aren’t as evident.

Clutch…shift again.

My parents taught us to stay out of the middle of the road…to walk on the left-hand side…and to look both ways before crossing.  They also insisted we wear brighter clothing when we walked or jogged in the evenings–so drivers could see us.

Now,… shifting down.

August 9, 2014, during a Sprint Cup race in upstate New York, veteran NASCAR driver, Tony Stewart struck and killed 20 year-old driver, Kevin Ward, Jr.  Ward had climbed out of his car after an accident allegedly caused by Stewart.  In the nighttime venue, under the glare of stadium lights, the young driver– dressed in a black jumpsuit and helmet, walking directly into speeding traffic like a crazed matador–was hit by Stewart’s car.  And it was all Tony’s fault?

No.

Investigations and hearings rightly found no wrongdoing in Stewart’s actions and gave him the go ahead to race again.  Of course, now, there is talk of a civil suit against Stewart.

So what’s my point?

Though it is tragic young Kevin died–it wasn’t Tony’s Stewart’s fault.  In a moment of anger and frustration, the young driver did what anyone would admit was a foolish act–and, sadly, it cost him his life.

We so want it to be–we need for it to be–someone else’s fault, don’t we?  When we mess up…when the deal goes south…when we hurt ourselves or someone else.

But sometimes it is our fault.  And if we can own it, we just might learn from it….

…and live to drive another day.

Keith Elder
10-1-2014
http://keithelder.com/

Derek Jeter vs. Keith Olbermann…by the numbers

Derek Jeter

Though I’m not a true baseball fan, the Yankees-Orioles game was on my calendar last Thursday.  The game had no bearing on the playoff picture—New York was already out, Baltimore was already in. But Thursday night wasn’t so much about baseball.

Thursday night was about #2…The Captain…Mr. November. On this long-anticipated evening, after 20 years in pinstripes, Derek Jeter would play his last game at Yankee Stadium.

“Rainout” was on Al Roker’s radar, but there would be no raining on this parade. The capacity crowd was on its feet every time #2 was announced, and early on, he gave them something to cheer about—a first inning hit…an RBI in the middle innings.

The Yankees were leading 5-2 as they took the field for the top of the ninth. New York manager, Joe Girardi, was probably trying to decide when to take Jeter out for one last ovation.  Apparently, Baltimore didn’t get the memo about the fat lady singing, and they proceeded to hit a home run, then a base hit, then another home run. Result?… TIE GAME.

For once, Yankees fans didn’t mind. Why?…because this meant they’d get to see Jeter one more time.  The Captain was slated to bat third.

I can play it all back in my head: the lead-off man gets a single. The next batter lays down a sacrifice bunt to advance the runner into scoring position.

All eyes–from the owners’ and celebrities’, to the Little Leaguers’ and their dads’, to the hot dog venders’–are trained on #2 as he walks to the plate.  He stands in the box… one pitch… one swing…. one crack of the bat.  The ball drops into shallow right field for a base hit.  It’s fielded as the runner rounds third… the throw…the play at home…….

”SAFE!” Yankees win! Yankees win!

…on Jeter’s final swing…and his first walk-off hit in seven years.

Of course, the haters will hate and the naysayers will nay.

After one player’s comment that Jeter was the greatest, Keith Olbermann, of ESPN, takes it upon himself to detail all the statistical reasons #2 is NOT #1.  (You will understand if I don’t share the link.)  I’m sure it was just oversight that K.O. failed to highlight post-season stats Jeter does lead.  I’m afraid that all he proves in his rant is that it’s possible to make A point while entirely missing THE point.

Thursday night wasn’t about stats–it was one last tip of the cap to Jeter’s integrity and dedication and leadership, and humility.  Sure, it was about hundreds of great plays and proud moments over time–but, more, it was about a great human being who also happened to be a great ballplayer.

“Who is the greatest” can never be determined by stats alone.

But five World Series rings, millions of forever fans, and one class act, should keep Derek Jeter in the conversation for years to come.

Keith Elder
9-27-2014

http://keithelder.com/

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