You’ll Always Be Here At Christmas

Christmas living room. 3d renderingI see you in your favorite seat with sleep in your eye and surprise on your face as children open their presents. The aroma of pies and dressing from your special recipe fill the air with flavor and my mind with memories. The stocking we hang with your scripted name holds no presents this year. I can still see you coming through the front door with frost on your breath, arms full of presents, and kisses all around. Though I haven’t seen you in so many years, you will always be here at Christmas because you will always be here in my heart.

Christmas was always special with you. Whether presents spilled out under the tree or gifts were few, there were laughs and love in abundance and blessings surrounding us all. I still hang the paper Santa you made in school when your hands were so small and writing was new. I hang the old ornament that grandpa bought grandma on their first Christmas tree. The picture of you screaming on scared Santa’s laugh always makes me smile. You grow up, move on, and pass on but you will always be here at Christmas because you will always be here in my heart.

On Christmas night in the peace and quiet with only the lights of the tree, I sip my hot chocolate and think of Christmas past and the joy of what used to be. Wrapped in the melancholy of warm memories, I am not sad but longing for a Christmas that used to be. But I enjoy this day and the ones I am with and celebrate another year. The friendly ghosts of Christmas past surround me and fill my heart with cheer.  I haven’t held your hand in years but you will always be here at Christmas because you will always be here in my heart.

Life Interrupted: Cleaning Out A Dead Man’s Desk

The job had to be done but no one wanted to do it. After Fred* died in a car wreck on the way home from work one stormy evening, we left his desk as it was when he left work for the last time. There are no rules for the “appropriate time” for cleaning out someone’s desk to prepare for his necessary replacement. You don’t want to give the new employee the job of cleaning out the desk of someone whose demise opened up their opportunity. But Fred’s widow forced our decision by announcing she would come by the office the next day to pick up his possessions. Whether it was my past preaching experience working with grieving families or my role as a business manager, my boss tasked me and I dutifully took a file folder box to his work area when his co-workers left for the day.

Man Sitting At GravesiteIt is obvious that when Fred left work  he expected to come back the next day. Around his computer monitor and keyboard were “to do” lists for tasks to do on a tomorrow that would never come; at least not for him. There were “Important” tasks that didn’t seem so important anymore. The company did not come to a crashing halt and someone performed the important tasks. He proved the truism that the cemetery is full of indispensable people. For all of our worth in the company, the company will go on without us whether we take another job or depart this world. I considered how so many “important” tasks that meet me each day pale in comparison to the truly important things I should be doing for my family and others.

Pictures of his wife, children, and friends decorated his work area. Everyone was smiling and having fun. Fred was a fun person and so their faces must have consoled him during the stressful times. His army helmet was in a large file drawer as was other life memorabilia and books he would read when time permitted. He loved good books. He recommended the book The Five Rings that I plan to read one day in honor of his passionate recommendation. I don’t know why he wanted the helmet at work and not home. He often donned it as a joke when things were getting rough and maybe that was it: his battle gear protected him from taking things to seriously off the battlefield. I placed the helmet upside down in the box, like a bowl, and filled it with his trinkets, pictures, and books. I scanned the drawers, desk, and work area to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. The only thing that was missing was Fred.

In the quiet of the post-workday office I reflected on our discussions. He and his wife had property in the country and he enjoyed its serenity. He planned to create a large pond to stock with fish. He hoped to drink coffee in the early morning as deer drank from the pond. He hoped to retire and consider the great things of life but death interrupted his plans. He never built the pond or lived this dream.

While reflecting on this interrupted life, and others I have witnessed since then, I have learned some important lessons:

  • The future is not guaranteed: don’t delay your life until retirement or some far future day. Even if you live a long life, your health may not allow you to enjoy the things you have postponed. Do them now with the ones you love.
  • Relationships cannot wait. Express you love today in words and actions. You may go, or they may go, at an unexpected time. Throw the football with your kids today. Take your wife or family on that bucket list trip before you retire. Make that trip with your buddies.
  • Don’t get so stressed about today’s problems. In times of stress my mom would often say, “this too shall pass,” and she was right. Things that caused me great stress in the past cause me no anxiety today. Do not be flippant; give everything its proper attention and face the challenges head on. If you feel very stressed try to step outside of yourself and view the situation with cold objectivity and realize that few negative consequences are insurmountable (if you doubt this, consider Timothy Ferriss’ “Practice Your Fears” approach).  You will probably leave a “to do” list when life is over; that’s ok.
  • Enjoy today. Enjoy the warm sun on your face. Enjoy the breeze. Enjoy the laughter of children, moments with a good book, and holding someone special. Enjoy your meal. Sleep well.
  • Prepare to leave this world. Always be ready to leave this earth. Have your affairs in order both physically and spiritually. Give your forgiveness today and make peace with those you can and let go of those who insist on being at odds with you. Teach your children the important lessons of life. Be at peace with your Maker. Say “I love you” even if they know it.

As the life of a flower, as a breath or a sigh,
So the years that we live as a dream hasten by;
True, today we are here, but tomorrow may see
Just a grave in the vale, and a memory of me.

As the life of a flower,
As a breath or a sigh,
So the years glide away,
And alas, we must die.

Laura Newell, “As the Life of a Flower” (Hymn)

*Not his real name.

The Last Bike Ride of Summer

Nature and childrenWhen I was growing up, school started on a normal schedule. School ended in May and didn’t resume until the Tuesday after Labor Day. Labor Day was the last day of summer. Now the scientist and weatherman will tell you that summer doesn’t end until late September, but when the school-bell rang that Tuesday morning, as a kid, you knew summer was over. It was always hard looking out the window that first week of school at the bright sun in the trees knowing that you should still be having adventures. During winter, when the leaves were off the trees, the sun hidden behind an endless gray sky, and bitter cold surrounding you, school could almost be a relief. But those first weeks of school extinguished freedom in the sun.

That last Monday, Labor Day, was the last day of freedom for a young man. The day before I entered high school was a particularly warm and humid day. Such days are not uncommon in the South when the heavy air seems to weigh you down in midday and the lazy song of the grasshoppers drone on your tired ears. My prize possession was an off-road bike. On its knobby wheels and spring shock absorbing frame, I would ride through the neighborhood and woods that surrounded it with my friends. We would make trails through the woods from road’s end that took nearly a summer to construct. My older sisters and their friends built the first trails that we took a duty to maintain, not out of tribute to them but for our own enjoyment.

I remember a particular bike ride.  I stopped to look around being hit with the knowledge that I had school tomorrow and this would be my last midday midweek ride for a long time. I felt as if something were being taken from me. Like a man who knows that he is about to be sent off to a far country for work or war and wants to savor the feeling and sense of the place. I wanted to remember the sun on my face and the smell of cut grass. I wanted to remember the freedom before I assumed my seat and read, wrote, and did what society deemed a young boy should do.

Although I could ride my bike on the weekend when chores were done and homework finished, it was more of a reward than the everyday pleasure of summer. Realizing this was the last day of summer I rode as if I was recording the feeling and sights around me. Leaving the pavement I descended into the woods on the trail leading to the old logging road. I didn’t fear wild animals, which mostly consisted of squirrels, rabbits, and rarely a snake. Although one time I was sure that I saw a black panther across the logging road as I came near the end of the trail one day. His eyes caught mine and he stopped in mid-stride. I froze in place as well. My mind was racing, Did panthers come this far north into Alabama? Were my eyes deceiving me? Could it be a dog. Yet it seemed like I heard a low purring growl like the tigers on the nature documentaries and at the zoo. It was a low guttural droning sound. But he must have been as alarmed and frightened by me as I was of him, because I turned to dart back down the trail hoping to outrun him, and he darted back down the way he came just as quickly. As time passed I considered it was an overactive imagination, bad vision, or truly a scared panther but it didn’t stop me from going into the woods. Though I did scan a little farther up the trail when I traveled in the future.

The woods surrounding our neighborhood were a youth explorers delight. A the edge of the neighborhood behind ours was an old dirt logging road carving through the woods to the power lines. From there you could go down a trail to the right and catch tiny fish in a small stream. The stream was narrow but deep and cut along the bottom of the hill. Walking down to the left you came to Five Mile Creek. It was a mostly shallow stream, several feet in most places, but there were a few places large enough to wade in on a hot summer day. There was one place, under a tree overhanging the creek where you could catch some small bream. One summer some of the boys and I were able to catch fish on bare hooks. As soon as they hit the water the small fish would bite the hook. Occasionally you would catch some worth eating but most of the fish were too small to fool with.

On this day I rode back to the edge of the woods and down to Five Mile Creek. There was a road along side of it, rarely used because it was blocked near the main road, though older kids going drinking in the woods or hunters would occasionally drive through. I rode along the road occasionally stopping a places that I spent during the summer. I climbed upon “Big Rock”, an imposing bolder that sat at the edge of the creek where we would climb and sit or lay in the sun talking about nothing.

I had to push or carry my bike up the walking trail that went from the back of our neighborhood to the creek. It came up behind someone’s house who didn’t know or care about the kids who would emerge from the woods to return to the neighborhood. We never were destructive so if they did see us, they knew we meant no harm. Having said the summer places good-bye, I rode leisurely through the neighborhood just enjoying the last hours of freedom before school the next day.

I didn’t know at the time that it was almost like a final tribute to the places of youth. When you start high school and begin to put off childish things, the bike rides and lazy summer days do not seem so important. We got cable so I was watching MTV and other programs that caught my interest. My friends were older too and cared little for games of our youth. The bike might come out occasionally but it was to get to a friend’s house quicker or to visit someone farther away. The bike became transportation, not a source of adventure. And when I got a car, the bike became a dust collector and was eventually given to some other kid or left by the donation box at the Goodwill or King’s Ranch.

I wonder if some sense of this drove me to explore my childhood haunts that day. Did my “self” from the future get a message to me to visit and savor these places? Did I get a message that I needed to say good-bye? Is that why I see myself sitting on my bike from outside, because I was able to reach across the past and tell him to seize the day?

I’ve sat in boring meetings in a conference room on summer days, my mind drifting. Looking out the window as the project manager and others droned on I saw the bright sun in the trees and wished to have a bicycle and ride across the neighborhood one more time. Not riding as a middle-aged man huffing and puffing up the hill but as fresh young man, ready to enter his teenage years, laughing with his friends and feeling the sun on his face.

Dusty Dolls in the Attic

The scene was reminiscent of a 1970’s disaster movie. Bodies in piles scattered everywhere; some partially clothed, most nude. Enthusiastic wild eyes stared at me with maniacal wild grins. “GIRLS,” I yelled, “Please come get this Barbie mob out of the bathtub!” I heard giggles from the hallway and gleeful cries of “Sorry daddy” as the girls whisked the dolls to the safety of their rooms.

We started with just a few dolls when the girls were little. A friend of my wife, with several daughters, asked if we wanted their dolls since her girls didn’t play with them. She brought a storage tub full of Barbie dolls, clothes, and other accessories. We made the girls give away many of the dolls and they still had enough to populate a small town. The girls played with them through the years. My wife and I were always cleaning up tiny shoes, clothes, and the occasional Barbie head from every room in the house. Many shoes and accessories were stored in the vacuum cleaner bag and I’m sure some were transported outside in dog poop.

As I guy I don’t understand the fun of playing with Barbie dolls. The girls would brush their hair, take them shopping, or they would stand around and talk. The Corvette was cool but pink.

You see, when I grew up I did have dolls. I had GI Joe and not the small guy with the plastic beard I had the tall GI Joe with the scratchy life-like beard, camouflage clothes (one set – no wardrobe needed), and weapons. I also had the Six Million Dollar Man doll with the telescopic eye and karate chop action. And, of course, Evel Knieval with the stunt cycle. These guys had adventures that usually meant putting an arm back in the socket. GI Joe would rappel down the deck or fly in a cool helicopter. Occasionally I’d borrow my sister’s Barbie as a victim to be rescued from an evil, and dainty, Ken being karate chopped by the Bionic Man. Dolls? Yes, but action and adventure instead of hairstyles and shopping.

Occasionally, when the doll mess was out of control, my wife would put the Barbie empire in a storage tub in the attic for a week until they promised to better control the mess. Eventually the girls put the Barbies in the attic themselves. They haven’t been down in a long time. Even the dog misses chewing on a Barbie foot or wayward plastic high heel.

Little Girl With Baby DollInstead of dressing up Barbie, they are dressing up themselves, combing their own hair, and painting their nails with mom. Gone is the high-pitched little voice, “Bar-be goin’ shop-en. Want to play wif dis one daddy?” My little girls became young ladies.

When I go to the attic storage for a suitcase or holiday decorations I sometimes see the tub of dolls, still smiling, most of them still naked. I would give one day of my life to be able to enjoy another day with all of my children when they were young. I remember eating frozen yogurt with the girls after a trip to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, watching them giggle and play with one another, and thinking, “I’m going to miss you when you grow up.” And I was right.

I Don’t Take Sunsets for Granted

nh-sunsetPerhaps my family humors me by marveling when I drag them outside to view the burnt orange clouds of a sunset sky. Then again, they will often draw me outside so I will not miss a particularly beautiful sunset. I do love a picturesque sunset. I’m not obsessive. I do not go out every evening nor do I search for images on the Internet. But I do count it a blessing to enjoy God’s evening show.

To writers, sunset symbolizes the end of life.  Preachers and hymnists use sunsets to poetically describe the transition from physical life to eternal life. “Beyond the sunset” after the “resurrection morning” is the eternal day. How blessed it would be to emulate the daily sun by departing this world in beauty and serenity.

Our ancestors marked the end of activity with the departure of the sun. We can continue working and playing under the hum of electric lights bathed in the soft glow of electronic devices. Despite these artificial extra innings, the sunset brings much of earth’s activity to a brief halt. The wise reflect on the accomplishments of the day and make plans for a productive tomorrow. The people of the night can emerge for revelry. The departing rays of the sun plant the the hope for tomorrow’s sunrise.

I do not take sunsets for granted. The beauty of the sun departing the sky tonight is the last sunset I will see. Perhaps it is the last sunset I will enjoy with good health and a happy family. I have often watched the sun depart knowing that a loved one I buried that day cannot enjoy it or any future sunset. Some life events are so transitional that I view the sunset knowing that my world will never be the same again. Sometimes the sun departing in beauty reminds me that I am one day closer to my last day and I reflect on what that means for me and those I love. We can take pictures and video but can never capture the immersive feeling of a beautiful sunset. It is this elusive, fleeting, sensory indulgence that draws me back to orange sky.

On a warm June evening, at the Gaylord National Harbor (Maryland) I took the picture in this post. There was a light breeze blowing from the water as the sun descended between the trees before me. The sky was overcast with an orange glow as I listened to Jimi Hendrix sing “The Wind Cries Mary” in my earbuds. In a coincidental but perfectly timed moment,  the last notes of the guitar faded as the last sliver of sun disappeared. Sunset synchronicity perfection. The blessing of another day.

Mourning Lost Dreams

The thought hit me hard one night as a I stared into the darkness of my bedroom: “I will never be a geologist.” When I was younger I knew that I could go back to school and get a degree and have time to develop this interest into a career. But a quick calculation made it evident that I could not get a degree, certainly not an advanced degree, and pay the dues to build a career in geology. I am an avid rock hound and obviously the desire was not a strong enough passion for me to sacrifice whatever it took to make this my career. I was thrown off this ambition when I was younger by some advice I should have ignored and information I should have questioned. In previous years I knew that I could pursue this dream if I wanted to; now I knew that this dream would never be realized.

The pain was not so much that I wouldn’t have this job I dreamed of us a child but that there was a dream of youth that was out of reach. What could-have-been at many points in my life became a would-never-be. Don’t misunderstand me. I am successful in my work and I have realized more than my fair share of dreams. I do not feel deprived nor am I ungrateful for what I have. I have gained much by what I have sacrificed, goals I have pursued, and by God’s good grace. I cannot be bitter because I am too blessed. But I am also mindful that the professional life I am living was not the dream of my youth.

For any reflective middle-aged man there comes a time when he knows some dreams of youth will never be fulfilled. He can point out the wrong turns that cost him precious wasted years and needless pain. With perfect hindsight he can see the missed opportunities that his younger self did not or could not take. He can count the wasted dollars and foolish pursuits that didn’t even yield worthwhile wisdom. In the face of such reflection a man must determine to be bitter about his past choices or learn what lessons he can and move on peacefully.

The Allman Brothers classic “Dreams I’ll Never See” (I prefer the Molly Hatchet version) eloquently describes the despair we feel when our unfulfilled dreams seem oppressive but also need to move on. Unfulfilled dreams must be met with a resolve to “Pull myself together, put on a new face, climb down from the hilltop, and get back into the race” carrying our dreams with us.  Even when we know those dreams will not be fulfilled, we can take them with us and enjoy the  youthful dreaming and what our dreams mean to us. It may be that in the dreaming itself, not the fulfillment of the vision, we remain open to the possibilities of the future and new dreams we can create.

baggageWe have a problem when we do not let go of what we should release. We hold onto the skeleton with an unreasonable hope that we can bring it back to life. Maturity demands we accept the passing of some opportunities and look for new doorways. We must accept that some dreams are no longer attainable and either cherish them for what they meant to us or let them go if they are holding us back. Because a youthful dream was not realized does not mean that we cannot still create rich and satisfying dreams today.

We cannot carry the baggage of the past through the door of the future. In order to be ready to see new possibilities, we must quit looking at the past–whether it was real or imagined–and embrace the dream of tomorrow.

Advice For An Isolated Christian Man

Some men can feel alone in the middle of a crowd. We love others and they love us yet we feel disconnected. We may ask if the problem is with the group or oneself. Christian men are not immune to this and may feel the pain acutely when they frequently assemble for worship services feeling a part but apart.

“Send Me One, Lord”

dockYou may have a believing wife and great relatives and be part of a loving church. Within any body of believers, I think we seek another soul with whom we can grow in the Lord and be a co-worker in the faith. We want a fellow laborer with whom we can enjoy the triumphs and trials of godly living. Though we may desire this person, we may be challenged to find them.

I am an introvert but not generally shy* so I can have spent times in my life surrounded by people but disconnected.  One can feel alone in a group of people no matter how much they love you: connected but yearning for a deeper bond with another Christian. When we find those Christians, we don’t feel as isolated.

Men typically have a hard time making that one connection. Richard Simmons III, who writes and speaks on men’s issues, said the average man has “less than one” close male friend (.1-.49 average). Our spouse or other family members cannot fill the position. Christian men need a Paul, Barnabas, Silas, or Timothy in our lives with whom we can work and worship, who is not dependent on us, who will keep us accountable, and sharpen us “as iron sharpens iron.” Seek that one among the believers and I believe your feeling of isolation will dissolve into the joy of acceptance and close brotherhood.

How Do You Find Him?

To find a man to strengthen you (or perhaps several men to build a band of brothers) would include the following:

  1. Pray for God to send you a fellow soldier. We pray to God for everything else we need and should pray for this. Jesus sent the disciples out two by two. It is important to have companions who lift one another up, work together, and protect each another (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12–Read it!). The Lord’s cause would benefit from many Paul-Barnabas relationships.
  2. Don’t send a woman to do a man’s job. You need a man to help navigate men’s issues of life, who can relate to you in a masculine way, and provide the unique camaraderie that exist among men working together as close friends. As good as your wife may be, and I have an incredible one, she cannot fulfill this need. She fulfills another important need in my life as companion, lover, helper, and friend. There is a different need men have that the woman is not equipped to meet. Do not put your wife in a position of failure by making her fill a role for which she should not have been cast. A wise wife will recognize this need in her man and support the relationships with other men without jealousy and a wise man will make sure his wife’s needs are not neglected in order to spend time with male friends.
  3. Look for what you can give, not what you will receive. Don’t look for someone upon whom you can become dependent and needy. There are difficult times when we rely more heavily on our brothers and sisters, but a person who is only a taker, who is always needy, becomes a cause, not a friend. Find someone who also needs you and your strengths and one with whom you can accomplish more through joint effort. If you are looking for someone to teach, guide, and instruct you, you are seeking a mentor or teacher (which is a good relationship to have). But you also need a fellow soldier, an equal, that you do not feel the need to lead or carry.
  4. Find someone trustworthy and strong in their faith. This friend and brother will be one with whom you will share struggles and ask perplexing questions. Can you trust this person with your doubts and emotions? Can you trust that what you share with them will not be broadcast to others? Can you be trusted with their secrets? You must find someone who will not use what you share against you but will help you find spiritual strength and solutions that are based on God’s word. You need someone you can pray with and who will hold you accountable to God’s will. You need someone who will love you in good and bad times and will fight to save your soul. This may greatly narrow the potential men to be such a friend but the one you find will be worth more than all you own.
  5. Make it a priority. I have not always done this and it has been to my detriment. This is an important need. You are not weak nor lacking something. We have a need that is fulfilled by our spouse and children and a need that is filled by having a godly man to work with in our Lord’s kingdom. The earlier you work on meeting this need the better prepared you will be to face the inevitable trials of life within your family, professional life, and as a Christian.

*My introversion: public speaking and talking with a group of people I know is no problem but it wearies me over time. I gain strength from quiet and periods of isolation and spend a lot of time “in my head.”