shortbread

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

Archive for the category “Creativity”

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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“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/

“Short, Sweet, and to the Point”

I was doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Carraway Methodist Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama—part of my ordination requirements to become a United Methodist pastor.

Our regimen included chaplain rounds on assigned floors, 24-hour on-call assignments, and a weekly reflection seminar. At the seminar, one participant would share a word-for-word recollection of some pastoral experience in the hospital and we would then discuss it from every angle.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that the experience was not so much about us helping patients as it was about understanding ourselves. It was about getting in touch with our own stories and emotions. If we could do that, we had a snowball’s chance in Helsinki of being helpful.

At our final evaluations, we were required to share and receive constructive observations about one another. One of my peers began by describing me as “bright, witty, and articulate,…” I’m thinking, “right,…right,…right….” Then he continued, “but after a while, Keith’s words can be wearying.”

“Wearying!”  Ouch!  Talk about a gut-punch insight. Unbeknownst to me, I almost ALWAYS ran long—word-wise or content-wise, if not time-wise.  (I’ve been clocked at gusts of up to 450 words a minute!) I was the verbal equivalent of a meteor shower!

Maybe part of the reason people liked it when I sang a song was that—good or bad—it was over in three to four minutes.

Blogging, as I do in “Shortbread,” is a sort of occupational therapy for me. “Short, sweet, and to-the-point”…350 words or less–PERIOD. I have to get in, share a focused, hopeful word, and wind it up.

“Tweeting” is even better—140 characters–PERIOD.

You know, limits are a good thing. They remind us that we’re mortal…that we need to be clear about what we are trying to say, then pick and choose and craft and make every word count.

Some time ago, I had the thought: “Most sermons would be twice as good if they were half as long….”

People would be able to stay with the train of thought… they would retain more…

…and–most importantly–we would beat the Baptists to the restaurants!  🙂

Keith

6-3-14

“Wake up Leroy!”

Joe was a long-time, long-haul trucker. With several million miles in his log, he found himself having to apply for a new job with a new freight line.  On the oral exam, the interviewer lays out a scenario:

“You crest a mountain in your rig and begin easing down a long, steep grade.  As you try to shift to a lower gear, for whatever reason, it won’t engage, so you begin picking up speed.  After a minute or two, your brakes begin to fail. To your right is a guardrail, then a 400-foot drop. Ahead, you see two 18-wheelers coming toward you—one in your lane trying to pass the other. To their right is a sheer granite mountainside. What would you do?”

After a moment, Joe leans forward and responds, “Why, I think I’d wake up Leroy.”

The interviewer asks, “Leroy?  Who’s Leroy?”

Joe explains, “Why, Leroy’s my driving partner. And you see, if I’m driving, Leroy’s probably back in the sleeper catching a few winks.”

“I don’t understand,” said the interviewer. “Why, wake him up?”

“Well, you see, Leroy is a young fella—just 20 or so.  And he comes from a really small town, and I guarantee you, Leroy ain’t NEVER seen a wreck like the one that’s about to happen!”

“Wake up Leroy!”    It might make for a pretty great battle cry…

…for those who’ve been waiting on life to come to them.

…for those who’ve “let themselves go,” physically, morally, spiritually

…for those who’ve been shaming and blaming everyone else for their problems

…for those who have been in a self-imposed exile due to past failures

…for those who are waiting for all of the lights to turn green before they start whatever.

“Wake up Leroy!”…not to watch a big wreck, but to avoid it!  Joe might have been in an impossible situation, but you’re not—and I’m not.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” *

…and I can too,… if I will.  And you can too,… if you will.

Otherwise, you “ain’t never seen an accident like the one that’s about to happen.”

Keith

5-1-14

*  Philippians 4:13

http://keithelder.com/

“Xerox… Brother Dominick…and writing your own book”

xerox-monks-miracle

I’ve had many book ideas through the years.  An insight would hit me, and I would realize immediately, “This is going to take more than a three-minute song to unfold.”  So, with a great sense of urgency, I would grab pad and pen and begin scribbling an outline. After breaking the big idea into ten or so chapters; after bouncing the idea off of whoever would listen; I would begin writing the actual manuscript, only to freeze like a deer in the headlights.

What happened?  Why have I yet to finish my first book?

Fear, I think.  I’m afraid that people won’t like what I write, and that I’ll look foolish (or more foolish).  I’m afraid that the publishers won’t catch the vision, or that people who know me will say, “Who does he think he is, writing a book?”  The people looking for something profound to quote in their book or sermon will say it’s simplistic.  “He didn’t say anything that I didn’t already know.”

Any artist who’s too worried about what others think has ceased to be an artist.  They have become a toll painter. There’s nothing fresh.  Nothing original.

The same goes for writers.  If I’m just rearranging what’s already been written, I’m not an author, I’m a scribe—like Father Dominick in the old Xerox commercials—just copying someone else’s scrolls.

The student who gets a C+ on an essay stays after class to ask his professor why.

“Why did you receive a C+?” the professor responds. He leans forward in his chair and peers over his reading spectacles.  “Because you didn’t say anything.  True, your form was exceptional, the references were interesting, but you never said anything.  Use the source material as a springboard to tell me what you think and believe and feel.  Only then will you get an A in my class—or in life for that matter.”

Gotta run.  I have a book to finish.  If I don’t write it, it won’t get written—and it matters too much not to be written.  “The Stories of Our Lives”… very cool… a must read!

Keith

4-21-14

keithelder.com

“Facebook, Betty White, and The Debul!”

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I try to limit my facebook time. On break from other projects, I will open facebook, glance at the clock, and promise myself, “OK, you get fifteen minutes, then it’s back to work.”

An hour later, I will have checked messages, opened and scanned various articles and links to those articles, opened one person’s posted photo and been drawn into their other photos which, in turn, open other tagged people’s photos. Being a songwriter, I will have listened to numerous posted songs and been drawn into the Youtube related video column.

While I am browsing, someone will inevitably pop-in via the online chat feature, and I will have to at least acknowledge their e-presence. Depending upon the chat-er, the chatter can go on for a while.

By the intervening grace of God, I never got started playing the games.

Remember the scene from the Batman movie where The Riddler (Jim Carrey) created an insidious machine that sucked the intelligence out of people via their TV screen? Welcome to facebook.

Friends, if time is our greatest of all mortal resources, facebook can be—to quote “the Waterboy (Adam Sandler) and his swamp Momma (Kathy Bates)—THE DEBUL! (i.e., the Devil).

Asked if she was on facebook, 92 year-old Betty White replied, “No. I don’t really even know what it is—but it seems like a terrible waste of time!”

When you get to the age when you don’t even buy green bananas, time gets precious. But then, time has always been, precious.

Facebook can be a great connector. I wrote a blog entitled, “Zuckerberg for the Nobel Peace Prize” pointing to facebook’s value as a means of bringing people together. But fb can also be a terrible waste of time–time that would be better spent writing that book or painting that picture…or giving your employer an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

If you’d like to read my blog posts without going on facebook, just subscribe and new posts will go directly to your e-mail.

Wow… I just noticed that I haven’t posted since February….

Must have been on facebook.

Keith

4-3-14

keithelder.com

“The Dalai Lama..The Super Bowl…and Much ado about Something”

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It’s been an interesting week in the news—or, at least, on my news feed. 

Birmingham and Atlanta, paralyzed by winter storms…The State of the Union Address…American Idol auditions…The Phoenix Open…Richard Sherman re-rants… Peyton Manning… a trip to Rome, GA, to see “the fam”…a new song or two…almost getting the caramel cake icing right.

I didn’t say it was MSNBC.  It was just some of the headline news on my screen.  What did your news feed look like?  What were the lead stories?  What stories bumped other stories or interrupted regularly scheduled programming?  In a week or so, which ones will you still remember?

Scripture would suggest that God—even with unlimited memory—just lets go of a lot of what happens over time. It’s just not worth saving. Unfortunately, so much of what we do and say and buy, and labor over, and worry about, and invest in—time-wise and money-wise—probably won’t make The Editor-in-Chief’s “Remotely Important” list.

A Shakespearean title comes to mind: “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Rescuing people trapped on gridlocked interstates; taking care of children who can’t leave school; hosting total strangers in churches and homes?  Something.

Spending tens of thousands of people-hours and, billions of dollars on food and tickets and travel and security and pre-game and halftime rehearsals—for yet another non-competitive Super Disappointment?  Nothing.

With all the amazingly important options out there—most of which cost little or nothing in monetary terms—we human beings keep going back to the same old “Nothing” bin and trying to make something out of nothing.

Late breaking news… “Actor/Oscar winner, Philip Seymore Hoffman, found in NYC apartment, dead of apparent drug overdose at age 47.”  Amazing talent.  Hyper-successful. Respected by his peers.  Loved by a beautiful life partner and mother of his three great kids.  And heroin.  It’s just a shame—all that “something” lost to a “nothing.”

The Dalai Lama wrote, “The planet does not need more successful people.  The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”

I would paraphrase that wisdom: “WE do not need to be more successful people.  We desperately need to be peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”  

Yes, desperately.   The Nothing’s are killing us.

Keith

2/3/2014

keithelder.com

“Steve Seskin… and Feeding the Dream”

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I am not usually one to say, “I am stoked!”… but I am stoked!  In few minutes, I’ll be making the short drive from Franklin to Nashville and Douglas Corner Café to hear one of my songwriter heroes, Steve Seskin, in a 9:00 PM show.

Steve is behind such hits as “Life’s a Dance” (John Michael Montgomery) and “I Don’t Know Why They Say Grown Men Don’t Cry.” (Tim McGraw). For the most part Steve’s songs are pretty substantive and life-affirming (no mud flaps, sweet ice tea, cut off jeans, Jack Daniels). He lives in California, but travels to Nashville a few times a year to write.  He comes once a year—this weekend—to lead an intense songwriting workshop. Two very full days at the Bluebird Café, talking songwriting with participants and industry pros.

The workshop is not cheap. And a 9:00 PM show is late for me.  And Saturdays and Sundays are pretty precious time.   But we are talking about a dream here.

You see, somewhere deep down, I have this sense that I could be pretty good at this songwriting thing.  It’s a fire that won’t go out. May be a call of sorts—and I can’t help feeling like it’s my duty to work it out.

I have writing goals.

I write something everyday “to keep the pencil sharp for that day when the hit comes along.”  (Harlan Howard)

I finish at least one song a week.  (This week I’ve finished four and started several others—but then, I am stoked…J)

Besides playing weekends, I play in writers venue almost every week, and always perform at least one new song.

I listen to great songwriters, in live venues or via youtube—classics like James Taylor and Guy Clark.  Newer acts like Mumford and Son, The Lumineers, John Mayer.

I am a member of a songwriter association (NSAI) and go to local workshops on Thursday evenings or catch their pro teaching via archives or live streaming.  I read lots on the subject.

Why all the fuss?  Got to feed the dream.

What’s your dream?…  and what are you doing to feed it?  Most dreams die of starvation, you know.

Keith

1/24/2014

keithelder.com

“Mark Zuckerberg for the Nobel Peace Prize?”

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It’s not the first time the thought has occurred to me: the possibility that the committee has overlooked an obvious, worthy candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.  As millions have enjoyed yet another holiday season of reconnecting with friends and family from around the globe, without so much as walking out to their mailbox, I have found myself thinking again: “What other technology, teaching, scientific formula, fictional writing, piece of art, or political leader has done more to connect people in peaceable ways than Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

It may have started as a college kid’s idea to revolutionize the dating game, but it has morphed into a world-changing manner of staying in touch with people and groups and issues–in real time. Has it been misused at times?… preyed upon by malevolent spirits and hackers?  Absolutely…but then, what hasn’t?  Evil, all the way back to the Serpent in The Garden, has always found ways to distort the truth and taint even the best of life.  For the most part, though, Facebook has been a good thing.

Question: How many reading these words have enjoyed seeing pics, over the past week, of that faraway soldier-loved one in Iraq or Afghanistan?  How many have seen photos of holiday decorations and favorite dishes, and families opening gifts–pics that almost made you feel like you were there?  Has anyone seen video of folks sharing their renditions of “Frosty the Snowman or “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer”?  How about generational pics—baby and new mother and grandmother and great-grandmother? How about a baby experiencing their very first Christmas?

Talk about “peace on earth, good will toward men”.  I would venture a guess that ninety-eight percent of what I have experienced over the past week has been good news!  Bridge-building… “let’s be friends”… “miss you”… “wish you were here” material.  Exclude the Duck Dynasty—let’s call it “perspective sharing”—and you have a pretty cool, “We are family!” love fest going—complete with a candle-lit “Silent night…holy night” conclusion.

I’ve shared before that religion, in its purest form, was meant to bring people back together, back to God, back to our best selves. The goal?  Peace.  Shalom.  I, for one, am of the opinion that Facebook has helped to nudge the Earth ball in that direction.

For that reason, I vote, “Mark Zuckerberg for the Nobel Peace Prize in Technology.”

Now,…where do I send my ballot?

Keith

12/23/2013

“This is TV… This is Your Brain on TV…”

“Hello, My name is Keith and I’m a TV-holic.”  Well, maybe not quite–but I could be, and if I was, I would probably have plenty of company.

According to the Nielsen folks, the average American watches 34 hours of television per week.  A little statistical breakdown… (not a nerd dance):

“Children 2-11 watch an average of 24 hours of TV a week, or 31/2 hours a day.

That number dips to 22 hours for teens, ages 12-17, then goes back up to 25 for 18-24s.  After that it rises steadily until people over 65 average 48 hours a week, or nearly seven hours a day.” *

Let’s do a little math.  Say you watch even 20 hours of TV per week x 4 weeks per month = 80 hours of TV per month.  Eighty hours!  That is two full work weeks.  Waking hours.  Primetime hours for reading or writing the book, or painting or gardening or learning to play an instrument or getting in shape or going to the zoo with your kids.  You get my drift.  “But,” some say, “I do other things while I watch.”  Maybe…and maybe not.

I was in the fitness room at our local rec center.  There are seven screens across the front of the room and more on the other walls.  It occurred to me, one day, while trying to multi-screen, that it is literally impossible to focus on one screen while trying to keep up with what is happening on the others. We are wired to focus on one thing at a time.  Multiple “screens” fragment us.

Now, add one more screen to the conversation.  That would be the “screen” of your imagination. That place you dream dreams and hope hopes.  That place you see your potential works of art and solutions to problems.  That mental Etch-a-sketch where you conceive new ideas and plans to realize them.

But on other screens across the front of your room, you’re watching The Today Show or ESPN or CNN or “Duck Dynasty” (I know, I know—I just “stopped preaching and went to meddling!”).  Bottom line, the screen of your imagination—your seat of potential and greatness—gets trumped, short-circuited, upstaged by all of those lesser screens.

So, the average American watches 34 hours of television per week.  Might explain why most of us are just average when we could be great.   The great ones turn off the TV—or, at least, they don’t turn it on nearly so often.

–Keith   10-4-13

* If you are interested in more stats: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/americans-spend-34-hours-week-watching-tv-nielsen-numbers-article-1.1162285#ixzz2gkUHR100.

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