shortbread

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

Archive for the category “Personal Vision / Purpose”

“Twenty Years Ago”…

I hope you’ll read the story before you click on the link. It’s a pretty neat story.

Recorded and released by Kenny Rogers in 1987, “Twenty Years Ago” was a hit for me from the first listen.

So many vivid word pictures. I know it could have been about any “Small Town U.S.A.,” but it took me back to N. Wall Street (in Calhoun, GA, not NYC),…and the Martin Theatre where I once saw Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in person one 1960-ish Saturday morning. A couple of doors down, there was Mason & Owens Drug Co. with all the sights and smells and friendly vibes of a mom & pop establishment. It had a bonafide soda fountain with twirly stools at the counter and slaw dogs (with buns sliced the right way), and the option of regular Coke or cherry Coke (“cherry” by way of a squirt or two of real cherry syrup). Diet Coke had yet to be invented.

The song brought back all manner of good, “simpler time” memories, but there’s another reason the song hit home for me today.

A dozen years after the song came out, while serving as a pastor in Decatur, Alabama, I somehow stumbled across the North Alabama Chapter of The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). As I recall, the coordinators were Donny Grace and Jim Parker–both great songwriters, but also great encouragers of my songwriting efforts. They were gracious—but honest. They gave me “attaboys”—but also helped me understand what worked about a song and what didn’t.

Besides being a successful realtor and having a few hit songs to his credit, Jim also birthed the now-acclaimed “Jim Parker Songwriter Series.” Every month, Jim brings some of the finest songwriters in the country to The Playhouse at Huntsville’s Von Braun Civic Center where they share their songs and the stories behind the songs.

I actually got to be the opener for that event one time and it was such an off-the-charts, top-of-the line, gig. Beautiful theatre, state-of-the-art sound system, a sound engineer who “knew his stuff”—oh, and a packed house! I got a thirty-minute time slot…five or six songs! (I remember thinking, “Take me now, Lord—I’ve got nowhere to go but down after this!”)

A few years before moving to the VBCC, Jim hosted his event at “Sister Gooch,” an upscale restaurant in the Madison area. One night after NSAI, he asked if I’d like to sit in on one of his monthly events as the “up-and-coming local writer.” He said, “We can’t pay much, but we’ll feed you dinner.”
All I heard was, “…we’ll feed you dinner” and I was in. (I was younger and hungrier back then.)

So, now we’re sitting on the stools behind our guitars and microphones—Jim, me, and some guy by the name of “Wood Something-or-other.” I didn’t know the soft-spoken, mild-manner fellow, but at one point in the rotation–remember, it’s a songwriter event, so all songs are originals–he plays a familiar intro on his guitar and begins to sing…

“It’s been a long time since I walked
through this old town,
but oh how the memories start to flow.
And there’s the old movie house—
they finally closed it down.
You could find me there every Friday night
Twenty years ago.”

I was a little awestruck, but as he moved into the second verse, I couldn’t help myself and began playing along. I didn’t need a chord chart and I never missed a beat. You see, I knew this song. I’d heard it a hundred times on the radio. I’d performed it for years—one of Kenny Rogers’ greatest hits. When we came to the chorus, I gently folded-in a darn-near perfect high harmony….

“All my memories from those days come gather round me
What I’d give if they could take me back in time
It almost seems like yesterday
Where do the good times go?
Life was so much easier twenty years ago.”

I had no idea, but I was sitting next to one of Nashville’s most successful and prolific songwriters, Wood Newton. After the song, he looked at me and smiled as if to say, “Not bad–not bad at all.”

Following the show, during which he heard several of my songs, he gave me one of those compliments that sticks with you…a word that keeps you in the game.

“Now what’s your name again? ‘Keith, what?’…”
“Keith Elder,” I replied.
“I think if you were up in Nashville, I would’ve heard of you.”
Very cool.We shook hands (that was back when people could still shake hands) and said our good-byes.

End of story….
…at least, until today.

You see, that night would have been a couple of years before 9-11-2001…that September day when—as Alan Jackson put it—“the world stopped spinning.”

I can’t help thinking…

…as I read of the death of Kenny Rogers… as we experience a global pandemic that could well make 9-11 look like small change… as I recall a great night at “Sister Gooch” with Jim Parker and Wood “Something or other”…

I can’t help thinking…

“Life was so much easier… twenty years ago.”

Wood, thanks for the gift that just keeps on giving….

And Kenny,…

R.I.P.

“My Covenant of Salt”

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The lectionary passage was Matthew 5:13ff, and it began with Jesus’ words, “You are the salt of the earth….”  In the course of the sermon, I referenced a biblical tradition of a “covenant of salt”–that is, an everlasting covenant between God and God’s people.

There were just a few recorded examples, but to give you an idea—-one was establishing what portion of the offering the Levites were to receive.  Another was establishing King David’s household for perpetuity.

As a part of the sermon, I wrote my own little “covenant of salt” and found it to be a most helpful, “holy ground” exercise.

For what it’s worth….

“My Covenant of Salt”

Lord, I am an imperfect soul.

As much as I long to be right and do right, over time, I am going to err.

But my prayer is this—that when I do err, let me err on the side of kindness, never cruelty…on the side of courage, never cowardice.

When I misstep, let me err on the side of mercy and compassion, not care-less-ness or callousness.

Let me err on the side of humility, never arrogance; on the side of grace, never vengeance—assured that there will come a day when You even the score—repaying evil for evil, and rewarding goodness with good.

Lord, when I err, let me err on the side of excellence—always giving more than expected, never “just getting by” or following the path of least resistance. Let my measure be Philippians 4:8—“Whatsoever things are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious…If there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise,” let my mind dwell on these things.”

God of all, who sees all and knows all, let me ready to suffer the heartbreak of losing a hard-fought, fair race–before stooping to “win” by cheating, After all, “what does it profit a man—or a team, or a party or a nation—to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul.

Lord, when I err, let me err on the side of “real”–acknowledging my foibles and faults, owning my brokenness and mistakes, so that I might actually grow from them, and mine them for some redemptive value. May I never again be caught shaming and blaming and passing the buck.

However,…whenever I fall short of the glory, let me err on the side of soul-level faithfulness—even when my faithful response might appear foolish in the eyes of the world, or be labeled “disingenuous“ by critics and doubters. May I never again err on the side “political expediency” and “what’s in it for me?”—to the neglect of my one, God-ordained conscience.

Lord, when I err, let it be on the side of doing more than my share—never less. And may I never play the fool, building bigger barns to store my excess, while my neighbor suffers need.

Remind me every day, that my soul is required of me–every day.

Lord, I am an imperfect soul.

As much as I long to be right and do right, from time to time, I am going to err.

But when I do, let me err on the side of truth and goodness and love.

That would be…

Your side.

“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/

“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/

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/

“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

“Smokey the Bear and Catherine of Sienna?”

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Besides being bears, what do Smokey the Bear and Winnie the Pooh have in common?

Wait for it…  Hold that thought…  I’ll tell you in a sec….

It was just another facebook poster:

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” – Saint Catherine of Sienna  (shared on meetville.com).

The irony—and I didn’t know this till I did a little research—Saint Catherine was/is the Catholic Church’s Patron Saint of Fire Prevention.

I’ve known a few “saints of fire-prevention” along the way.  Self-designated dowsers throwing water on anything vaguely resembling innovation. If it was not in the rule book…if it meant going off the beaten path or over the beaten budget…if it threatened to crack the glass ceiling of “the way we’ve always done it”—the saints of fire prevention just said, “No.”  In church. In business. In society.

Unfortunately, the only way we find the new-and-wonderful is to let go of at least some of the old-and-not-as-wonderful-as-it-once-was.  Nicodemus did it in John 3.  It’s the story where Jesus said, “you must be born again.” It’s a new wineskins for new wine thing.

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Though Catherine received no formal education, and though she only lived to the age of 33, she was recognized as one of the most intelligent theological and philosophical minds in the Catholic world.  Don’t you know the old cardinals loved having this young, female voice swaying the Pope’s decisions?  But she didn’t care. True truth-tellers aren’t bent by winds of popular opinion. She was a mover and a shaker. And despite her later designation as Patron Saint of Fire Prevention, she was anything but in her life on earth.  She was a fire starter, bringing light and hope and joy and new life to a struggling Church.

Her secret?…

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”  She was, and she did.

Oh… I almost forgot….

Besides being bears, what do Smokey the Bear and Winnie the Pooh have in common?

…………..same middle name.

It’s a dumb joke, I know.  But becoming who God meant you to be and, setting the world on fire is not.

Keith

5-21-14

http://keithelder.com/

https://twitter.com/keitheldermusic

“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/

“The Best Time to Plant a Tree…”

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It was just one of the little facebook quotes you see while scrolling down the news feed—not too many words. Light, but substantive:

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty-five years ago.  The second best time is TODAY.”

Maybe you have heard Paul Harvey’s “rest of the story” of Arthur and Walter.  Walter was trying to convince Arthur to invest in a vision—a family-friendly setting away from the big city. A place where people would come and spend their whole vacations in the name of reclaiming the joy of life.  But as the two men stood looking across the large tract of undeveloped land, Arthur just couldn’t see it. 

Now, do you think Art Linkletter ever regretted not buying into Walt Disney’s little theme park, the original Disneyland?

People get wind of the latest direct marketing program.  Notice, I did not say “scheme” because companies such as Amway and Shaklee, based upon people knowing a few people who know a few people, would never get off the ground without a quality product or service at a fair price. There is a load of wealth to be made. But listening to the presentation you’re thinking, “If only I had gotten into this on the ground floor!”

Regret has got to be one of the all-time greatest robbers of life. Why? Because it is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually impossible to look backwards and forwards at the same time.

“The best time to plant a tree—to start a business, to go to school, to get in shape, to learn to play an instrument, to apply what you know, to be a better parent, or spouse, or neighbor—is twenty-five years ago.”  But, friends, you can never go back.  Hindsight may be 20-20—but it is also a debilitating waste of another day!  Spend enough days looking in the rearview mirror and you wind up at the end of life with a big ol’ handful of sand.

THEREFORE…considering our options….

“The best time to plant a tree is…TODAY.”

Now, go plant a Sequoia.

Keith

p.s., Another fb poster read, “Beware: not everything you read on facebook is accurate. –Abraham Lincoln.”

4-26-14

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“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

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