Good Fathers are the Ultimate Safety Net.

This is my latest column in the Greenville News, published Father’s Day. Dads, we’re relevant at every point in our lives as fathers!  And even beyond…

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/06/16/good-fathers-ultimate-safety-net/381733001/

This Father’s Day is a good time to remember that we fathers sometimes drive you kids crazy. We hover. We give unsolicited advice and undesired help. We say things like, ‘nothing good happens after midnight,’ or ‘please be careful out there!’ We view your love interests with suspicion, even if we greet them kindly.
Sometimes, we load your car with stuff you don’t want. A box of tools we think you might need or food you used to love (even if you don’t anymore). We keep your things for the sake of nostalgia, long after you have forgotten them.
We try to intervene when you’re in trouble; by calling your teacher or posting your bail. We would stand in front of you if you were being attacked by a bear or insulted by a stranger.
We are hard-wired to teach and protect you. We want you to succeed and be independent. But this desire lives in dynamic tension with our deep, aching hope that you will still need us all your lives.
For all of this and more, you should love and honor your father today. He has worried about you, hoped or prayed for you and provided for you for years. The slightest hug and kiss, the minimal ‘thank you’ note, the kind word of genuine appreciation, these are our paternal treasures.
But dear fathers, let me now reassure you that you are always relevant to your young. This is obvious when they are small, and bring you cards scribbled in crayon, clamber onto your lap for comfort in a storm, or hug you to ‘pop your head off.’ When they cling to your hand in crowds, ask you to read puzzle books for hours, or say ‘I love you big more.’
Over time it’s harder to know. The children become busy shedding their old selves, and some of their old emotional displays, so that leaving is easier. But you are always in their hearts.
You see, brothers, even when the toys are packed away, the videos taken, the photos saved, the tassels moved, the rings exchanged, the cars packed for leaving, the apartments and colleges and careers and deployments accomplished, you fathers, all of us fathers, still have things to do.
We can model love by showing them that our love for them is not contingent on their presence, their gifts, their cards; even their acknowledgment. This is love, that persists and simmers even when it is ignored, and is ever ready to rise up like a hot fire in times of need.
We can stay with their mothers. We can show them that marriage is about raising children, but also more than that. That the love that made them is the love that remains. That as long as we live, we are a unit; mom and dad, deeply in love with one another and with our progeny.
We can show them the power of purpose. That whether in work or retirement, life has meaning and joy, especially in service. That age need not be empty or dull. We can work, and volunteer, and give ourselves for the good of others so that they learn the lesson by watching, and one day emulate us.
We can give them, in our words and actions, the powers of a personal faith so that they can deal with loss, struggle, mistakes and suffering long after we exit stage left. And so they know that in a great, wide universe that there is meaning, forgiveness and redemption.
Finally, as regards our inevitable exits, we can show our children what it means to grow weak, and sick, and then to die, with grace and honor. This is the last lesson we can model for them, but one of the most vital. We can teach them, if we believe it, that there is reason for hope beyond this life, and reason to live this life well to the end. Others, who do not believe, can teach them that to look back on the good of their lives, and to know that their love and memory will live on in the lives of others they have touched.
In so doing, we not only teach them, we protect them from terror and despair when life’s final darkness passes over.
Children, love the old man and remind him of his importance. But dear old men, dear fathers, never for a second think that you no longer matter. You matter to the end and beyond.

Graduation, When we Shoot Arrows at The Enemy

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/05/25/its-time-launch-our-arrows/343820001/

We have a quiver full of arrows in the house. Over and over again, the kids and I have used the target arrows it holds. Many of the arrows are worn and dinged, and some fletchings have come loose. (I have no idea how many rest beneath the grass or are stuck into trees in the woods.) The remaining arrows are sentimental to me, but still see use now and then as the mood strikes us.
Since yet another of my children prepares to graduate high school, I found myself thinking of Psalm 123: that says ‘like arrows in the had of a warrior are children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them.’ Jan and I are about to launch another ‘arrow.’ But not at a target. Our son Elijah is being launched into the great battle of life. And as I heard a preacher once say regarding that passage, ‘what do you do with an arrow? You shoot it at your enemy.’
I am unapologetic about the martial metaphor. We live in a time of conflict, contention and danger. And no matter what one’s political, cultural or spiritual alignments, the fact remains that our children go forth into difficult times.
There are physical dangers, of course. The cowardly murders in Manchester, England remind us that violence lurks in the world and no amount of lovely colored buildings or candlelit, hug-filled marches will impede those who find its use expedient.
Cruelty is timeless and knows no borders. Slavery is still widespread, in the world at large and even in the US in the form of sexual and financial exploitation. Women of every race and creed are treated horribly in many lands. Globally, children die of starvation, dehydration and assorted diseases that we can easily manage in even the lowliest American hospital.
War continues to raise its endless Hydra-head. Gang violence robs necessary, beloved young people of their potential and their lives. Domestic violence and child abuse are rampant; especially in SC, sadly enough. Addiction is an entire war in itself, demanding aggressive action to save lives and families.
There are also political dangers. On both sides of the political aisle, there is fear that the glorious traditions and safeguards of the Republic may be imperiled. Each thinks the other is wrong. But each is concerned about something; each side has a sense of unease.
There are many battles to fight. Some compassionately advocate for equality of groups marginalized by race, gender or sexual orientation. Others battle for preservation of freedom of conscience, for the precious right to believe and act based on faith and tradition rather than cultural trend.

There are battles for abortion and against abortion, for open borders and for more regulated immigration. Climate change pits economic interests against environmental, both making important arguments for the future. Behind each lies the war of objective truth versus the cheap manipulation of spin and emotion.
Hardly a pep-talk for graduation, is it? But that’s the lay of the land. Graduation is beautiful and thrilling and all of us try to stifle our tears and cracking voices as we applaud our young people and give them hope.
But I want to give all of them, my own incredible son included, more than pretty images and vapid platitudes about ‘following your dreams.’ I want to say this: ‘It’s tough out here; we’re ready for reinforcements so get with it. Welcome to the team. Keep your heads down.’
I find that a more useful and thrilling thing than what graduates are all too often told. I want to see them launched at the problems of the world, in the full knowledge that it isn’t safe, that it isn’t easy, that they have a purpose in all the struggles and that they are needed. We need their courage, their insight, their creativity. We need their brilliance, their success, their strong backs, their loving hearts.
We live in a culture of increasing self-interest. Young and old spend too much time reflecting on their own wounds, victimization and identity politics. These things pull us apart rather than uniting us in the fray.
Dear graduates, look up and look around! Show us how to rise above ourselves and live well, how to glory in the struggle, how to win (or lose) with compassion and love, and also with ferocity and risk when necessary.
We loose you, dear arrows at the various enemies we face.
Strike true.
And congratulations, Elijah and all.

 

A Wedding is the Portal to the Mystery of Marriage

Congratulations Meg and Tyler!

This past weekend we celebrated the wedding of our dear friends Tyler Jordan and Meg McCall.  It was an event filled with the the grace of  God, expressed in a truly perfect Spring evening, in the love of parents, friends and the blessed couple.  It was conducted in all the glorious, meticulous yet casual elegance of the South Carolina coast.  All of our children were in the wedding party (along with many other wonderful folks). I was privileged to be able to deliver this short reflection at the wedding.  Thanks to Meg and Tyler for including me!

A wedding is a beautiful thing. It is a celebration, and in life’s troubles we celebrate too little. At a wedding we smile, and cry. We laugh and dance, we eat and drink and send a new couple on their way into life. A wedding is an event where others witness and affirm our vows, in order that others may help hold us to our promises. Wedding ceremonies are much valued in our time, and we spend great amounts of time and treasure to make weddings beautiful and memorable, to make wedding dreams come true.

However, despite its beauty and wonder, the wedding is not an end in itself. It is a gateway which serves to fuse two into one. When a man and woman walk through that gateway, through that portal, they enter into a beautiful mystery.

Beyond the vows, the veil, the ring and the kiss lies previously unseen, unknown garden of their common life together. That life is a new creation waiting to be unveiled and explored, shaped and molded hour by hour, day by day, year by year over a lifetime. In so doing they are living in the spirit and tradition of Adam and Eve all over again.

St. Paul says that this is a great mystery. In Ephesians 5:31-32 he says, after a profound explanation of the relationship of husband and wife, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.’ We’ll circle back to that last bit in a moment.

Here Paul uses the Greek word Musterion, which means ‘a mystery that can be revealed or discovered through God’s revelation.’

The mystery of marriage is not ineffable, because God who created it is constantly teaching us through it. It is not beyond comprehension. It does, however, require that we be committed in order that we understand its riches and metaphor. It cannot be approached tentatively, with one foot in to test the water, but all in, with all our hearts.

To comprehend the mystery of marriage we can only cross the portal, and in faith and hope and love leap headfirst into the unknown. And it is an unknown.

Dating and courting and all the time we spend together before the vows are exchanged are critical. They help us to learn who it is that we can indeed spend a lifetime loving. But something different and mystical happens when we take the plunge of matrimony. Suddenly, the world takes on a different light in the power and energy of the fusion of two into one.

Through the mystery of marriage, through the great unknown garden of life together, we learn small things. That our beloved is beautiful to us first thing in the morning and last thing at night. That our beloved is a human with frailties, failings and annoying habits, but that they are no worse than our own. We wonder, at times, why they stay with us; at others why we stay with them. And then we all laugh at the fact that we both ask the same questions.

We learn that the one we committed ourselves to is cherished and precious like nothing we ever grasped or imagined.

We learn to be humble and thankful in times of joy and gracious and hopeful in times of suffering. We learn the mystery that those words, so often spoken about richer or poor, sickness and health, take on very real meaning in the hot forging fires of life.

We learn that whatever else may fall apart, whatever else may evaporate before our eyes, whatever trials life visits upon us, if we are together we can endure.

Marriage is the first place where we perhaps truly understand what it means to love someone so much we would rather see ourselves suffer or die than have it happen to our partner.

It is hard to impress upon the young, but in a marriage properly tended, in our own small Garden of Eden, love only grows deeper and wider with every passing year, every financial struggle, every wrinkle, every illness, every success and every day, or night, spent together.

Ultimately we find that looks and wealth come and go, but as we are made more and more into one, the greatest gift is their hand in ours, their warm body sleeping next to our own. This is an ageless, timeless blessing.

This is part of the mystery. The discovery that love is not contingent. That it is not contingent on youth or beauty, success or power. That it simply grows; possibly deepest in trouble, despite how we all hate to pass through it.

Over the years and decades, we become mysteriously intertwined. We are made one by our vows, but we are transformed into one by time, by shared stories, by shared goals and struggles, by neurochemistry… for all we know by genetics as each physiology impacts the other.

If you doubt me, ask those people you know who have loved long and well. It is hard to put into words, but in marriage, in time, the things we thought valuable and desirable fade away, and we desire our beloved above nearly all.

So much so that we cannot fathom, especially in youth, the phrase ‘tell death do we part.’

But that’s where the mystery delves deeper and more wonderful. What we are learning in the mystery of marriage, as wonder after wonder reveal themselves, is that our marriage is a microcosm of the love of Christ for the church.

It teaches us to love unconditionally as he does. It teaches us to love without fail, with no term limits or expiration date. It teaches us to love when we are wounded and when we are hopeful. It teaches us to forgive and love more and more. And it teaches us that all of this is an end, THE end, in itself. We do not love for meals or laundry, for support or company. We love because in love we reach God.

And there is one more thing. This love of Christ for the church will carry us beyond. The painful mystery of separation in this life is not in our power to overcome. But it is in his power. And that is the promise.

Our love for our spouse will be interrupted one day. But it will go on for all eternity in the Kingdom of God as every tear is dried and every sorrow comforted. And in that place we will see the kind of love for all that we in our mortality took a lifetime to learn for only one.

A mystery indeed.

And today, we are witnesses as the story of wonder and mystery begins once again in these two young lives about to become one..

So let there be joy and laughter in all our hearts as we witness things far beyond our comprehension and realize that mystery is all around us today.

Mothers are People First

Mothers are People First

This was my Mother’s Day column in the Greenville News.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/05/12/mothers-day/101521348/

I have been graced by a long line of mothers. I had two grandmothers who loved me dearly, and who (though they have passed from this life) remain dear to my memory. My own mother Sharon was, and remains, a wonderful woman who raised me gently and with endless help and encouragement. My mother-in-law Carma has ever been kind to me, and treats me like a son.

My wife Jan is an incredible mother, who has dedicated her life to our children, going so far as to homeschool them for many years. She is indulgent and patient with them and they are always in her thoughts and fervent prayers. She is a Godly mother like all of the mothers in my life.
Having praised these women, let me say something shocking that we forget all too often on Mother’s Day. Although we seem to have a ‘cult of mama’ here in the South, mothers are just people like all the rest of us. They are capable of love and hatred, they can be supportive and destructive. They may lift their children up or tear them down. (Both the stuff of various books and movies.) They have good and bad days, and decades. Mothers were once mere girls, then they were lovers or wives. Along the way they accumulated hopes, dreams, stories, successes, failures and wounds of their own.
Because they were not born mothers, but become mothers, they bring all of these things with them when they bear, or adopt, children. So into the wonder and chaos of motherhood they bring their humanity. And humans, mother or other, are imperfect.
These imperfect people we call mothers are often subject to some nasty treatment. Sometimes, we confine them to their maternal roles. As if all they are capable of is producing and raising kids for the future. Jobs? Degrees? Achievements? Passions? Irrelevant, as some women are subordinated to motherhood by their families, and are not encouraged to attain the full glory of the various reasons for which God put them on the earth.
On the other hand, modern society often says to moms, ‘sure, you can choose to be a full-time mother, but what a disappointment you’ll be to all of the women of the world! Career and education are so much more useful and interesting than caring for mere children! What a waste of your potential!’ As if raising human beings, loving and caring for them, were no more exciting or important than having fish in an aquarium. While ‘choice’ is a powerful mantra, the choice some women make to focus on motherhood is sometimes unfairly viewed as failure.
The third option is perhaps cruelest of all. It tells mothers to be everything. Raise perfect children, and feed them lovely, healthy meals, engage them in all activities and make them super students. Simultaneously, rise meteoric through the corporate world! Never say no to a new project, a new goal, a better job! Stay thin and beautiful and do all things as they appear in glossy magazines. ‘Bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan,’ or else be a pathetic loser.
Mothers, meanwhile, struggle with just being people. Like everyone else they have fears and anxieties, sorrows and addictions, illnesses mental and physical. Some mothers are close to ideal, others will wound the ones they bore. Some, overwhelmed by their own troubles, simply cannot raise children, while others make it look effortless. There are those mothers who are stars in business, government, professions, athletics or other fields. And yet, all too many never have good jobs or educations. Some mothers land in jail.
The thing is, mothers are are neither gods nor angels. And it is cruel of us to expect them to be either. They will not always accomplish everything they dream of and sometimes their children will be less than they had hoped despite their best efforts. Sometimes children will be disappointed with their mothers, fairly or not. This is reality. This is life in a fallen world.
In the end, we should celebrate the many gifts and sacrifices of all mothers. Simultaneously we must remember that mothers deserve, as do their children, to be loved for who they are. And given grace despite who they are.
So love your mom this Mother’s Day! But along with dinner, flowers or the assorted gift offerings you bring, give her the freedom to be perfectly imperfect. Just like you and just like me.
Happy Mother’s Day moms!

Grandmothers as an ER Preventative Measure

This is my column in the latest edition of the Daily Yonder.  Enjoy and share as you see fit. Link followed by text.

Life & Limb: Grandmothers — An Ounce of Prevention for a Pound of ‘Freak Out’

 
I have a theory that engaged, wise grandmothers could save families a lot of money by helping avoid hospital visits. Personally, my grandmothers were very important to my well-being as a child. Not only did they feed and dote on me, they kept me healthy and safe. I remember the time I made a spear out of a sharpened stick. (OK, one of the times.) I was running with it, and as I drew back my arm to fling it across the field I must have stumbled. It ended up going through the top of my shoe and between two toes, scraping them on the way to the ground.
I limped to the big white house under the maples where Grandma Leap helped me take off my blood-soaked shoe, cleaned the wound, probably applied Merthiolate (didn’t we all spend our summers painted orange?), and said ‘don’t tell your grandpa, he worries!’ Maybe she knew he’d take my now cool, blood-stained spear away. I was none the worse for the wear.
I have seen injuries like this time and time again in the emergency room. Relatively minor affairs; scrapes, bumps, bruises, stings, nevertheless brought to the hospital by anxious mothers and fathers, new to parenthood or simply far more worried than necessary.
I also remember the smell of Vicks Vaporub, slathered across my coughing, wheezing chest. I remember cool cloths applied during fevers. My grandmothers had those simple skills down pat. Honestly, I don’t ever remember coming to the hospital for a fever as a child. And yet, fever is one of the most common complaints for which parents bring kids to the hospital.

‘He started having a fever an hour ago, so we rushed him to the hospital!’
‘Did you give him anything for the fever?’
‘Nope, we just came straight away. We freaked out and decided it was better safe than sorry!’

I hear that a lot. There was a bruise. ‘I freaked out.’ There was a tick, ‘I freaked out.’ There was a rash. ‘I freaked out.’ The baby’s nose was congested. ‘I freaked out.’ Freaking out never helps anything. And from what I can remember, it was simply something my grandmothers never did. Their job was to draw on centuries of collected cultural and family wisdom, apply personal experience, mix it all with loving attention (and food), and bring calm to all situations. Or bring switches as the situation required.
I’m not suggesting that a family member is all that’s necessary in times of medical need. And admittedly, there are plenty of grandmothers who are as ‘freaked out’ as everyone else. (I’ve met them.) Furthermore, lots of grandmothers and grandfathers are already doing this job as primary caregivers of their children’s children. God bless them.
However, it seems to me that we have an unholy confluence of problems that make people seek healthcare for things our ancestors wouldn’t, or couldn’t have. First of all, families are separated for various reasons from wise older relatives; or don’t have any. Second, people have 24/7 access to online health information that often only increases fear. Third, we have enormous numbers of young individuals and parents who never learned much about their bodies. Add that to the general increase in anxiety that mental health workers report across the land, and families are completely overwhelmed by the sorts of ailments that have afflicted mankind since well before modern medicine existed.
It seems to me that with our long history of self-sufficiency, and our deep-rooted connections to place and family, rural America should be one of those places where grandmothers could make a real difference in an era of limited medical access, coupled with enormous medical anxiety.
Maybe, in the mountains, valleys, bayous and plains that make up rural America we can be health pioneers! What we need to do first is educate young people about how to give simple medical care to themselves and others. First-responder and First-Aid/CPR courses are a great place to start. Second, those of use who are more experienced can reach out to young people and young families; neighbors, church-members, strangers at the food-bank, and offer to be there to teach them how to manage life situations. And how not to ‘freak out.’
Finally, those of us in medicine, whether nurse, physician, medic or other, can spend time educating the people we see so that they know when, and most important when not, to worry. And never to freak out.
A thing that grandmothers, in times past, taught us oh so well.

 

A Happy Family and God’s Beautiful, Abominable Creatures

Call me Dr. Doolittle…

Once upon a time, a loving couple moved from the cold, bleak land of Indiana to South Carolina and bought a house in the woods. It was a lovely first home, and they enjoyed all their time in the house. While they were there, they learned about the beauty of nature; the birds, the raccoons, the deer; the ice storms that shattered trees, the flash floods, the brush fires, the stray dogs trapped in the creek, the giant hornets nests in the woods. It was beautiful all around. Nature is awesome!

Then, after they had brought four amazing children into the world, they said to one another: ‘What the heck! Let’s move further into the wilderness!’ And they had someone build them a house of logs, high on a hill near the state forest. While it was being built, they discovered rattlesnakes. Which are natures wonderful creatures. And soon after it was built and they moved in, they learned about wild hogs. Just one more amazing thing in the yard.

In time, the family learned all about the veritable Noah’s Ark that their home had become. Having grown up without scorpions (how poor life was!), the family learned to shake out shoes and watch where they stepped. Inside the house as well as outside. Gradually, centipedes stopped in. ‘Hello human family, we’re God’s creatures too! And we sting like everything else! Welcome!’ By now the family was not only amazed but mildly annoyed. They learned the centipedes are much harder to kill than scorpions. They felt sad doing it. The first time.

A charming family of giant rats lived under the porch. Such a cute family! And they set the dogs on them, who went to work with canine glee. The dogs later made peace with most of the forest creatures and started to completely ignore them.

One magnificent, exciting year, the family saw a cute little lady-bug (or what they thought was a lady-bug) in the kitchen. And the next day they woke to find, oh, about ten-bajillion of them hanging out all around the house and in the house and in their food and bathroom and on the windows and drapes. Some in the family, it turns out, were allergic to them and wheezed and developed rashes. But oh they were so cute. The family sprayed a chemical around the doors and windows that, years later, still seems to kill the creatures and probably cause cancer.

The house in summer was all abuzz with wonderful things. Carpenter bees slowly, with great dedication, began to bore holes all over the wooden beams of the big log house. The children made great sport of swatting carpenter bees with badminton rackets. It didn’t really help, but a dead bug is, well, you know. Eventually it is believed that the house, like a great building of brittle Swiss cheese, will collapse and kill everyone. Except the bugs, that is! Isn’t that wonderful? Nature…who knew?

Later, various wasps began to engineer amazing nests on the log house; which then developed into entire wasp civilizations. The wasps loved the house, and the family, so much that sometimes they went to bed with them and took showers with them! Stinging is like hugging to wasps. Except it really isn’t. The people engaged in campaigns to kill all the wasps, and enrich pesticide companies. The wasps are silly and always come back. The wasps live in the attic above the bedrooms too. We’re all a family.

Then stink-bugs came, and what a joy! They sing their happy, buzzing sounds all day and night, inside and out, and land in cooking food and brewing tea and onto the hair of unhappy females in the house. And when smushed, they smell terrible! What fascinating little nightmares. The family was told that stinkbugs prey on ladybugs. Isn’t that just a kick in the pants?

Lately, above the bedrooms, there have been noises. Adorable, furry bats have appeared in the big log house on the hill. Flying around inside the house, dropping onto the table. What incredible creatures! They are, apparently, rooming with flying squirrels. Will either of them eat the stink bugs?

The family still loves nature. Maybe, part of loving God’s critters is being in a constant struggle with them. At least then you learn about them in person, not from some sterile display or chapter in a book.

Maybe, just maybe, an apartment in the city would be nice sometimes. Because the creatures, so far, are winning.

The Christmas Gift we All Desire

My Christmas column from Christmas Day, 2016

Merry Belated Christmas!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/12/25/commentary-christmas-gift-we-all-desire/95788966/

The Christmas Gift We All Desire
It’s here at last! What seemed to take forever for children arrives and passes like a shooting star for adults. But joy of joys, it’s Christmas morning! And a special morning since it’s Sunday. Families who attend worship services will, based on personal experience with small children, be up at zero dark thirty, as kids rush to the presents and the chaos begins.
Photos will be staged. (My parents made us stay in the hallway while they prepared the camera…Jan and I have since done the same, forcing children to stay on the stairs while we took our time tormenting them, they like horses headed to the barn for oats.) Families will have systems, as gifts are handed out in a manner devised to avoid wholesale riots.
Food will be prepared; in our home Christmas breakfast is bacon and cinnamon rolls. Cats will be watched carefully to avoid the climbing, and tipping, of trees. Mostly they will busy themselves with wrapping paper,licking and pretending not to be as excited as the kids. The dogs (at least our dogs) will look in through the glass of the door in puzzlement, and wait for partially eaten anything (and any chance at cat food).
Gifts will be opened, as parents and partners hope that they have given joy to those they love with this gift or that. There will be joy and squeals, hugs and kisses. Hours will be spent enjoying new items or searching through wrapping paper for batteries or lost instructions.
Those off to church will have to pry the kids away from their recently obtained treasures, or take some along. Older children will wear new clothes. Parents will fall asleep in chairs, as they were up until the wee hours wrapping, assembling items or simply enjoying the sweet wonder, the special silence of Christmas Eve. That stillness, in a dark house with tree lights, is every drop as precious as the big day itself. Personally I find a much greater connection to the whole nativity story on Christmas Eve, as if I were watching the tale unfold in a starlit lens to antiquity.
And yet. There are those families where the above is as fantastical as Santa and his reindeer. For some, for those in poverty, those with family members separated by prison sentences, those whose homes are the slave-quarters for addiction, Christmas will not look this way. Nor for those with loved ones far away in school, in work, in war. For many the separation from loved ones is the great gulf of death, and even sweet memories are painful reminders of what is no more. Still others find the day hard because of recent illness, injury, surgery, diagnosis of cancer. Our family walked through some of that too. However beautiful the wrapping paper and lights, however delightful the gifts, a pall hangs in the air and the thoughts turn to what was, or what might be, ‘if only.’
But that is, ultimately, the purpose of this day. It is not, it turns out, a day especially made for the joy of the now, nor for pets to get new sweaters, or adolescents to stock up on electronics. The joys and wonders of Christmas, from Santa to gifts, from feasts to surprise visits, are magnificent side-effects of the joy and purpose of the day. The day we remember the one born to set all things right.
The passage that I have come to most associate with Christmas (having lived life a bit) is not found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ nativity. It is found, oddly enough, at the end of the Bible, in Revelations, chapter 21. Dear old St. John reports:
‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” And the One seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”’
That’s Jesus telling us that one day, things will be more grand than we can ever imagine; even better than our best dream of Christmas. He will meet our deepest needs and desires and banish suffering. Forever.
Now that’s a Christmas gift I can’t wait to open. Merry Christmas!

Rare Gems in the Rolling Seasons of Life

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/10000/Life_in_Emergistan__Rare_Gems_in_the_Rolling.15.aspx

My column from the October edition of Emergency Medicine News

It’s August. I’m looking out the windows of our log house and across the immense variety of green leaves, on oak and birch, mountain laurel and sycamore, magnolia and honeysuckle. It’s a rain forest here. Indeed, after a long dry spell, we’ve had days and days of soaking rain, with breaks in the clouds so that the sun can raise steam from the earth like water coming up in the garden of Eden.

Figure. No caption a...
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Figure. No caption a...
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But the greens have hints of yellow. And the clouds are not just summer thunderheads but low, fast, and broken. The dogs are lazier than normal, as their crusted red-clay coats begin to flake off to reveal the fur underneath. Even the cats seem less mobile, if that were possible. The evenings, despite the blast furnace of August, cool more than in July.

All in all, the signs are there for those who watch. I grew up watching the weather, watching leaves flipped before storms, listening to the sound of winter winds, smelling storms on the air. I know Autumn is hiding across the Blue Ridge Mountains, a child peeking over and shaping the weather, teasing us, reminding us that summer will soon go on its own vacation and the wind will chill us and drive down the leaves, their red, orange, and yellow as varied as summer green.

But for all my love of Autumn, for all my desire for cool air and the smell of wood smoke, Autumn hurts me. It is the end of summer and the beginning of fall that takes my children from me and forces them back to school and schedules. It’s difficult enough to leave them for work, more so to know that my schedule and theirs conspire to separate something so vital, so elemental, as the time families spend in communion with one another.

Even as I write, my daughter Elysa, a high school sophomore, is finalizing her summer reading. Her brother Elijah, a high school senior, is spending his last days with his girlfriend Tori, who leaves for the University of South Carolina all too soon. My oldest boys, Sam and Seth, will return to Clemson in a few days, closer and closer to independence. The leaves change, the sky is darker, the children are growing up and moving on, with the imperatives and requirements of their own lives, their own passions, their own needs and desires, their own loves.

As difficult as this can be, I recognize that I did the same, as did my wife Jan. And our parents and theirs. This is the cycle, the natural history of the world. We raise and guard our precious children and launch them forth to do the same. And we hope that the chords that tie us remain intact; that the circle remains unbroken.

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Time is Fleeting

What has any of this to do with our work? Our physician lives? The lesson is this: Time is fleeting; life and love are precious. Wives and husbands and children are rare gems in the rolling seasons of life. So waste not, want not, as it were.

The seasons will turn. The clouds race, the school buses arrive, and the graduations loom. In the midst of this, we must never delude ourselves that our money, our directorships, even our retirement accounts will ever be sufficient solace if we look back and feel that we did not use our time wisely with the ones who mattered most of all.

Our work, our patients, our skills all matter to the extent that they help others to live long and well, that they help those parents and children to enjoy the passing years together. Beyond that, they are important but less so than our own people, the ones we are committed to, bound to by vows and rings, by birth and blood, by adoption and choice.

So as the year turns and new opportunities and shifts arise, be honored. But be circumspect. Keep before you the fact that everything changes, but with attention and love, all of our connections can remain intact despite years and geography. If only we value them more than we do our certificates, degrees, incomes and positions.

The clouds will roll and the leaves will fall, my friends, and we might as well watch them pass with joy, not regret.

Copyright © 2016 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.

We All Have to Face Evil

Dear reader, 

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  I wasn’t sure if it was the right column for this week, but I’d been thinking about it for a while.  Ironically, I really lost track of the date and wasn’t thinking about the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.  But maybe it was appropriate as we consider what evils were inflicted that day.  Anyway, here it is.  May God deliver you and yours from temptation and evil.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/readers/2016/09/11/commentary-we-all-have-face-evil/90004264/

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ So goes the last sentence of the Lord’s Prayer. (Well, unless you count the later addition, ‘For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, forever and ever, amen.’)
The more I think about it as I get older, the more important the ideas of temptation and evil seem. As a husband, as a father, as a physician, I am fully convinced of the moral and spiritual dangers of this world. And yet, those words,’temptation’ and ‘evil’ fall on skeptical ears in a modern, scientific world. Do we believe in such a thing as temptation? Do we believe in evil? And how do we learn about these things in a time when virtue itself seems all too relative? And are they really relative as we search everywhere for virtuous leaders?
The word ‘temptation’ is dismissed as laughable. Rather than seeing it as a thing to be resisted, an assault on our character, a fork in the road of life, (or worst of all, the actions of Temptation should be embraced, as it invariably leads to fun and to liberty.
And ‘evil’ is even worse. Evil is only evil in the eye of those condemning it. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s campaign contribution is another man’s bribe. Evil is passe’. It’s a yawn, a hoax passed down from an irrelevant church through silly preachers and uptight believers. Evil isn’t a thing for modern, educated people. Right?
Personally, I hold with the stark reality of temptation and evil. Reflecting on my own life I realize that I have experienced any number of temptations. Some of which I regrettably embraced.
Media and popular culture, being the principal moral guide-posts of generations, teach us that it’s funny to laugh about temptation, especially when it occurs in youth, and relates to sex, drugs and alcohol. But it quickly turns serious when we realize that temptation also eads people to use ever more powerful, ever more addictive and lethal drugs. Temptation leads men and women to cheat on their spouses, abuse children, embezzle, lie, engage in shady business deals, abuse public office, commit acts of terror, oppress, torment, rape or murder. It causes coups and wars, genocides and crushing poverty, loneliness, broken homes, broken hearts.
It’s common to suggest that such activities are merely the result of mental illness or caused by the frustrations of poverty or oppression. While sometimes true, the news doesn’t bear that out. Many very sane, very capable, very educated and financially sound people fall prey to temptation, a thing which ruins their own lives and those of others.Temptation, then, is the trail-head down evil paths. Evil, that old church bugaboo, that joke perpetuated on children, by ignorant religious folks, in order to manipulate them! But we all, every man, woman and child, believe fully in evil. We just have different words for it. We may disagree about the source. Is it something spiritual? Is it mental, financial or social? But without doubt, we know that there are dangerous forces and wrong things in the world.
Even the most convinced and brilliant atheist (and there are many) will reasonably condemn certain actions and applaud others. We use words like ‘unfair.’ We say we ‘ought to’ or ‘ought not to’ do certain things. We believe ‘that’s just wrong’ about a host of behaviors. Slavery? Bad. Murder? Bad. Greed? Bad. Human trafficking? Bad. Environmental destruction? Bad. Intolerance? Oppression? Tyranny? Hatred? Abuse of political power? Bad, bad, bad. And, to those of us with a more theistic inclination, evil.
And yet we live out a strange duality, in which we reject the idea of temptation’s perils and the reality of evil, even as we want to see virtue blossom. We find ourselves surrounded by crime, war, racism and sexism. We rail against big business, misleading ministers and lying politicians. We desire that our leaders be ‘good’ and ‘just’ even as we vacillate over virtue for ourselves, and can’t help laughing at things like ‘temptation’ and ‘evil.’
We may have to find different words to speak a common language here. But suffice it to say, I still pray that God will lead me not into temptation, and will deliver me from evil. And all those I love. For in a dangerous world, temptation and evil are real. And I’m just too weak to face it alone.

Back to School Blues for a Former Homeschool Family

Lately I’ve seen a lot of photos on the Internet of parents cheering and jumping for joy as their kids were packed off to start a new school year. Mom is giddy and the kids sour-faced as summer comes to an abrupt, but long-expected, halt.  Sure, they’re staged but the message comes through.

http://www.today.com/parents/moms-celebratory-back-school-dance-goes-viral-8C11041602

http://www.fox13news.com/trending/187237945-story

I used to hear parents say the same.  ‘Man, I can’t wait for school to start!  I have to get these kids out of the house and get things back to normal!’  I found it interesting.  I mean, I get it.  Kids, all kids, are loud and messy; grumpy and dirty, sometimes sick, always eating or sleeping.  But then again, they’re kids.  They can be equally funny, happy, joyous, entertaining, sweet, kind and helpful.  On the balance the good far outweighs the bad.

The way I see it, we signed on for it.  OK, maybe it was a romantic date and a glass of wine, but one way or the other, we brought them into this world and they are delights.  Not only so, they are the future.  The future of our families, our very DNA.  And they are certainly the future of our nation, our civilization, our various faiths or ideologies.

Perhaps I’m coming from a different perspective.  By way of full disclosure, we spent a lot of years home-schooling.    Some years, school was all year long, even if in lower doses. (Latin or geography in the pool, etc.)  But one reason we did it was that we knew our time with the children was ultimately short, and we wanted to make the most of all of it.  And we did, whether having class at home or visiting National Parks, every bit was a delight.

Fast forward.  One went to college, then another. And our youngest two are in public high school, a sophomore and a senior.  Mornings are no longer times of lavish breakfasts and learning/laughter around the table.  The clock is ticking, the bells waiting to ring.  The school year is not open for our exploration and delight; it is determined by the state and woe-betide anyone who runs afoul of the sanctum sanctorum of the 180 days of learning!  (Even if the last twenty or so are often spent doing remarkably little.)  Our lives belong to the state, in a sense.  Our trips can only happen when others take trips because everyone is on break together; on the approved break.

Our dining room, formerly known as class-room, is lined and packed with books and notebooks.  With old science kits and well-worn texts, as well as novels highlighted and annotated.  There are files with test papers kept for records or nostalgia.  The desktop computer once shared by four kids is sleeping; as it has for probably a full year or more.  The kids have moved on to their personal lap-tops. Perhaps the desktop dreams of those days gone by.

There are living remnants.  Our youngest still do homework under the bright lights of the dining room.  They still work on that expansive table which once housed our own kids and visiting co-op homeschool students, who were taught Latin by my well-organized and gentle bride.  (The same worn table where many holiday meals have been shared.)

Backpacks still lie about, and the two who remain at home still laugh when they aren’t stressed over AP exams or some other crisis.  We still go through food; and the older two visit and leave their mess, their empty soda cans, their laundry.

It’s still sweet.  But it changes every year.  As it should, I suppose.  But having watched the transitions, having seen our school house population shift and dwindle, I can tell you that every year when the kids go to school I am anything but joyous. I am broken and sad.  My playmates leave; as if I were the pre-school sibling, wishing I could go along, nose pressed to the window, counting the hours until their return.

 

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I walk around the yard, looking for them; for echoes, foot-prints, fleeting memories of summer delights.  In the house I sometimes walk past empty rooms; but seldom look inside at first.  It makes me miss them more.

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Every year I reflect; did I do it right?  Have we prepared them?  Did we miss something?  How could I have used the time better?

Yes, I know. It’s probably pathological.  But my point is merely that when the kids leave, Jan and I don’t celebrate.  Oh, we celebrate their growth and learning.  But we mourn just a bit every time.

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Sure, most of the photos and videos are just jokes.  Everybody, I think, misses their kids at least a little when school starts back.  But I wonder if any parent, jumping for joy as the bus pulls away, considers the chiral image of the scenario.  Will there be a day when you visit the adult kids, and as you leave they cheer? They post photos:  ‘mom and dad finally left!  We’re all so happy to get things back to normal!’  Maybe.  Kids remember.  And they know when they’re wanted, and when they aren’t.

Enjoy every minute. Celebrate the good times, the successes and joys.  Remember the hard ones.  But maybe, just maybe, it’s best not to cheer when the kids go away.  Because they’ll really go away, and go their separate ways, before you can play ‘Celebrate’ and dance your heart out.

And I suspect that if they feel welcome, it’s more likely they’ll come back to visit in years to come.