shortbread

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

Archive for the category “Grace”

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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“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/

“An Open Letter to Jameis, Ray, Roger, etc.”

Dear Jameis, Ray, Roger, etc., etc.”

All we wanted was a nice, evening with friends and family. A little food and drink. A little friendly banter. A great game. But that’s not what we got. Our night was intercepted by play-by-play and commentary on the latest episode of “Athletes Behaving Badly.” Suspensions, arrests, abuse charges—then, of course, spin by publicists and coaches and league officials trying to save their… Butkus awards.

Now, I don’t know you guys personally. And no head coaches or commissioners have called to ask for my take on the matter—but here it comes.

You guys are ruining it for everybody. Taking away from a game that has given you everything. Where would you be today without this game? And, yet, you are ruining it—siphoning off the magic and the excitement of great rivalries and cool autumn afternoons and tailgate reunions.

FYI, Average Joe and Jane Public don’t to want hear another “athlete beats up anybody story.” (Add to that, doping, bird-flipping, shoplifting, racial slurs from penthouses, or disgusting language from atop cafeteria tables). There’s not a person out there who works a real job, who is not repulsed by your behavior. We commoners look to sports as a little break from realities of a tough economy and terrorist threats and killer viruses—and here you come, just turning it into more bad news. We are tired of having to explain you to our kids, “Oh, he’s not a bad person, he just did a bad thing.”

Or are you a bad person?  Lord knows, there are evil people out there in the world. Jesus said, “You’ll know a tree by its fruits.” Right now, Friends, your fruits don’t speak very highly of you. They’re saying you don’t respect the game…or the fans…or your family…or yourself.

As far as we are concerned you can go away and stay away, until you begin to get your orchard in order. But that won’t happen, really, without a change of heart…and that’s something you’ll need to discuss with God. Only God can change a heart.

Sincerely hoping your tree gets better soon.  Mine too.

Keith Elder

9-22-2014

http://keithelder.com/

“…a date which will live in infamy…”

 

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“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan….”

Of course, these are the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and plunged the U.S. into World War II.  But there are other dates that will “live in infamy”—some newly added.

April 27, 2014, in Mayflower, Arkansas.  April 28, 2014, in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Like December 7, 1941, some dates are national dates—October 29, 1929. November 22, 1963.  September 11, 2001.

But some dates belong to a particular region or state.  Some are etched in the collective memory of a community.  I had several specific dates and towns in this paragraph—but I have just deleted them out of reverence for those communities. The dates and events are private pain and holy ground.

Some dates “live in infamy” closer to home. Family dates.  The day Daddy died.  The day of the accident. The day the military chaplain showed up on our doorstep. The night the house burned.

We all have our dates that will “live in infamy.”  What strikes me, is how we live through them—how we survive.  For a while, it may be all we can do just to breath in and out, but then we begin to regroup and find our way back to life again.  True, it is a different life.  But new life comes—and with it, love and laughter and purpose and gratitude.

We are the Itsy bitsy spider that…

“…crawled up the water spout.  Down came the rain and washed the spider out.  Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, and the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the spout again.”

Storms have once again wreaked havoc across the Southeast. The aftermath is overwhelming, and some do not see how they can possibly recover.  But they will, and somehow, by the grace of God, they will find their way back up that waterspout.  And the rest of us will help—with our dollars and our work gloves and our friend-indeed-ship, and our prayers.

Keith

4-29-14

website: http://keithelder.com/

 

“THE World Religion…and Football”

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I like that.

“BUDDHA was not a BUDDHIST.  JESUS was not a CHRISTIAN.  MUHAMMAD was not a MUSLIM.  THEY were TEACHERS who taught LOVE.  LOVE was their RELIGION.”

Now, I realize that some folks will be offended to have Jesus lumped in with other world religious leaders and simply referred to as a teacher.  The Easter event did set him apart as being out (of the tomb) of the ordinary. However, whoever made the observation made a good one.  LOVE was the common prize in all three Cracker Jack boxes.  Love was the light at the end of their tunnels. Love was their “bottom line.”

Honestly, I haven’t studied Buddha or Muhammad (by the way, spell-check has three acceptable spellings for “M___”), but even if they didn’t claim to be God, I’m sure they meant well .  They were just trying, along with Jesus and John Lennon, to get people to understand that “All We Need is Love.”

Jesus tried to reboot the system of his hyper-religious forbearers who had gotten tangled up in six hundred and thirteen Old Testament laws and centuries of religio-politics.  We do that too, don’t we?  I mean, get tangled in what version of the Bible is best, and how much of the church budget should go to missions, and what kind of music to play in worship. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. …By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John—not to be confused with Lennon—13:34-ish)

A frustrated football coach walks into the locker room after yet another dismal performance, stands before his players and says, “Boys, I think it’s time we got back to the basics.” At this point, he holds up a brown leather oblong air-filled object with white stripes and seams. “This,” he says, “is a football.”  At which point, a big lineman, half-listening in the back of the room, raises his hand and says, “Hey, Coach, could you go a little slower?”

What’s your religion?  I’m thinking, “LOVE” would be a really good answer about now.

Keith

4-23-14

keithelder.com

“Slower Traffic Keep Right”

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We’ve been cruising along on the interstate, within the commonly understood “you won’t get a ticket if you only go nine miles over the posted” speed limit.  Then we see them—brake lights piling up in the not-too-distant distance. As we catch up and slow down, we see the problem.

It’s not an accident. We could get frustrated with an accident because it’s putting us behind schedule, but we feel badly getting angry because it could be us in the accident.  It could be us for whom the flashing lights and wailing sirens toll (apologies to John Donne and his bell).

It’s not roadwork.  There have been no large, fluorescent orange signs letting us know the speed is reduced for the next six miles, or that fines are doubled when workers are present.  Again, frustration, but not righteous indignation.  They are not repaving the roads to make us late for our soccer tournament.

It’s not a posted fog area, or someone in the median with car trouble, or someone pulled over by a State Trooper.  Interesting how, if someone else is pulled over, it’s oddly entertaining.  If we are pulled over, it’s a sickening injustice. But today, it’s not someone pulled over by the guys in the cool Smokey the Bear hats.

It’s a tractor trailer in the left lane trying to pass a tractor trailer in the right lane—and not quite having the zippidy-do-dah to get past.  Or maybe the driver is just doing it to make a statement: “I hate my life and I’m going to share it with the rest of you”—a sort of passive aggressive thing.

Maybe it’s just a car or SUV… cruising along at the exact posted speed limit sort of citizen’s arresting the rest of us would-be lawbreakers in the name of justice. Actually, police, “county mounties,” and state troopers can have this effect even in the right lane—going the speed limit and double-Deputy-Dog-daring us to pass.

Maybe it’s a ten-year old luxury car with 15,000 miles on the odometer and seemingly no driver.  Only as we finally pass the vehicle and glance over to give the requisite glare, do we realize it’s a little old fellow so short that he has to sit on a pillow to see under the steering wheel he’s vice-gripping as though he’s hanging on for dear life.

He’s “slower traffic,” but doesn’t mean to be.

Slower traffic.  The ones who hold us up.  The ones who may or may not be going anywhere.  May or may not have anything to look forward to.  They may or may not have places to go and people to see.  Mad?… sad?… scared?… jaded?… wounded?… bewildered?

Slower traffic.  They may be at work. Some folks just take longer to get it done—whatever “it” is.  Maybe they are in the grocery aisle trying to read a label, or at the checkout counter with coupons to make the paltry paycheck check stretch till the end of the month.

Some slowbies (I think I just made up a word) may be in the classroom.  They just don’t catch on as quickly as the other students.  Maybe it’s a medical thing. Maybe it’s a home life thing.  Maybe it’s a nutritional thing.  Maybe it’s a lack of discipline thing.  Maybe they are a science kid in an artsie class—i.e., a way-we-are-wired thing.

Whatever the specifics…

Slower Traffic, it never hurts to keep right.  It’s a courtesy.

And, Faster Traffic, it never hurts to think about why the other car might have trouble keeping up.

Keith

4-14-14

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“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

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“Ramblings on the Phil Robertson ‘Conversation’”

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I’ve read quite a bit over the past few days about certain comments made by Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame.  Outrage seems to be the one thing we can all agree on.   Outrage at Phil.  Outrage for Phil.  Outrage at secular media. Outrage at A&E.

Call me a wimp, but I’m not taking a side in this conversation—Phil’s for speaking his mind, or gays and lesbians who were offended, or the A&E Network for their decision to suspend Phil from the show.  I’ve just had this flurry of related thoughts and quotes running through the kitchen of my mind.

“I may not be a smart man, but I do know what love is.” –Forrest Gump

It’s amazing how expensive “free speech” can be.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” –Jesus

“Sayin’ it loud don’t make it right!” –Bill Cosby on, “The Cosby Show”

“A wise person makes knowledge acceptable.” –Proverbs 15:2

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”   –Mark Twain

Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder… Fuzzy Zoeller… Natalie Maines… Mel Gibson…

“With many words, transgression is unavoidable” –Proverbs 10:19

Overheard: “Since when does a secular media have to remind Christians to be kind. Whatever happened to ‘Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.’  I guess we all pick our one another’s.”

“Some people wield the love of God like a twenty-pound hammer. That ain’t Jesus.” –Unknown

Anyone who says, “I have no regrets,” will probably lie about other things too.

Ron White, on why he was standing before a judge: “The officer said, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ I just didn’t have the ability.”

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.”—Luke 2

Sometimes I’m thinking the Lord must be thinking, “What was I thinking?”

Oh well, at least we can all agree on what color Jesus and Santa are.

Keith

12/19/2013

Little Stevie Wonder… Father John Shea… and Thanksgiving

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I can’t remember where I read it, but I do remember the author, Father John Shea, and the exact quote: “Without reflection, there can be no gratitude.” Without stopping to think, to remember, to re-run those memories in our minds and hearts—there is no way we can muster a sincere thank you.

During my growing up years, there was a standing rule in our house that within a day or so of receiving a gift, we had to write thank-you notes to the givers—or we’d have to send the gifts back.  Talk about tough love.

Now, the notes didn’t have to be long, and we could write as large as we liked  (to fill up the card)—but we had to say “thanks for the gift”, and we had to mention something specific that we liked about the gift.  Some were easy: “Loved the new paint set!…or “The Slinky was great—it’s walking down the steps even as I write.”   Some notes were a little harder: Underwear, socks, new pajamas—favorite grandma gifts—always challenged our creative writing skills. “Cool jammies…100% cotton…the fabric of our lives.”  (Cotton later stole my cool idea.)

“Without reflection, there can be no gratitude.”

I remember Stevie Wonder, decades ago, accepting one of his many Grammy’s.  Wearing his signature shades, dreadlocks dangling, he thanked managers and producers and, of course, family, before the unexpected:  “…And I would also like to thank God…” (pause to collect himself) “…because it didn’t have to be this way.”  Being born blind and black in a culture that was in the throes of a civil rights battle, “Little Stevie Wonder” knew his story could have played out so differently.

“Without reflection, there can be no gratitude.”

So, reflect, folks!  Reflect on that loving family… and that beautiful home.  Think about that strong back and healthy mind so many do not have.  And the job!… and that college education.  Picture those beautiful kids and the joy they bring you.  Reflect on your faith and your church family.  And the list goes on.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving… and don’t forget to write your thank-you’s…

…or the gifts are going back.  🙂

Keith

11/26/13

 

“Characters Welcome?…”

The USA Network has a catchphrase that lets you know upfront what they are all about.  The catchphrase: “Characters welcome.”   So, USA Network is about stories and the people who make those stories stories.  

Without characters, the stories would be various words for boring—uninteresting, bland, blah, one-dimensional.  But with these characters, the stories become animated, engaging, unpredictable—they have layers.  The story lines are important, but we are drawn in because of characters (like us) with all of their baggage and backstories and imperfections—their foibles. (Love that word—maybe because I’ve got so many.)

The word, foible, comes from the world of swords.  The foible is the weakest part of the sword—that section from the middle of the blade to the tip.  Carry the meaning over to people and a foible becomes “…a minor flaw or shortcoming in character or behavior…a weakness….” (Merriam-Webster)

As much as we may dislike our foibles; as much as we try to hide or minimize them—they are probably a very important element in our story.  They may make us a little goofy or quirky or temperamental or put-offish, but they make us “us.”   And our foibles, I believe, are the windows God climbs through to do some of his best work.

Jesus’ parables always involved characters with foibles—people making good decisions…people making bad decisions.  Self-consumed people.  Desperate people. Grieving people. Angry people. Hypocrites. People who ought to know better.

His bottom line response: “Characters welcome.”   “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  To an adulterous woman, he said, “Is there no one left to condemn you?  Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more.”  He ate with IRS agents and sinners. He mentioned, to a middle-aged or older Nicodemus, the possibility of being born again–and dangling an impossibility before our eyes just isn’t Jesus’ way.

I’m thinking that The Jesus Network—if Jesus had a network–might use a catchphrase similar to that of The USA Network.  “Characters welcome”.

Until he gets his own network, I guess The Church will just have to suffice.

Characters welcome?….

Keith

11/11/13

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