Culture Wars Then

The loud voices from every side that are involved in the oft referred to culture wars give me pause, and I remember the experience of my mother.

My mother was a divorced woman of six children in Kannapolis, North Carolina during the 1940’, 1950’s, and 1960’s. She hemmed washcloths in Cannon Plant #1 and attended a local Baptist church. It is that Baptist church during the 1950’s and its treatment of my mother that caused me to remember. While I was only a boy of only eight or so, I was old enough to hear adult talk and old enough to sense something was wrong.

A devout Christian, my mother took her six children to church twice each Sunday and every Wednesday night. She Believed and worked to make sure that her children Believed. The church we then attended accepted our presence in Sunday School and “preaching” and Training Union, and all else. However, my mother was told by church deacons that she would not be allowed to teach children Sunday School because she was a divorced woman. And, as one deacon strongly pointed out, the Bible taught against divorce, and it did not matter that my father was an abusive alcoholic who had deserted his wife and children. She was divorced, so no teaching children for her.

A few years after this ugliness, we moved to an in-town mill-hill house and began attending a Baptist church a few blocks from our new home. My mother confessed that she felt uncomfortable in a woman’s Sunday School class because she was the only divorced woman in the class, and she was often reminded of that either directly or indirectly. However, before long the church announced that an adult was needed to teach the children’s Sunday School and my mother stepped up.  Perhaps she was the only adult who volunteered to teach the class, but no matter, she began teaching the class and for the next fifty years she taught “her children” the Bible. When she retired from teaching the class, the church named the Children’s Sunday School wing in honor of her—the divorced woman who at one time was considered “unfit” to teach in her Baptist church.

All of this occurred over sixty years ago, and now, a divorced man, I have been a deacon and Sunday School teacher in a Baptist church. Some Baptist churches even have pastors who are divorced. There has been a cosmic shift and our culture survives. The issue of “divorcement” is not the only cultural change in these years, but it is the one I am most familiar with, and it demonstrates that things do change, and our culture can and does change as well. And we are no worse off for the cultural change.

For instance, many church attendees are quick to point out the sins of homosexuals. These church goers, while admitting “we are all sinners”, seem to condemn homosexuals because, as I am often told by church goers, “They continue their sinning life style.” Yet, the same church goers will admit  that every church is “Full of sinners”. But perhaps those sinners have a different favored sin than the homosexual– if one’s sexuality is a sin. In fact, I suggest we all have a favored sin, a breaking of a Commandment that we seem to gravitate to. Me? I’ve never met a woman that I have not liked, and I work at controlling that part of me, even at the advanced age of almost 75.  I once saw a church sign that read: “Don’t judge the other person because they sin differently than you do.” Amen to that.

What I find wrong in my mother’s ordeal with her first church and what she initially experienced at her second one is not what the Bible teaches, but how some deacons and church members interrupted its teachings. The Bible is a complex book that teaches simple truths such as “Love one another as I have loved you.”

All of this noise surrounding CRT, LGBT, BLM, and more will pass, but it will take its toll just as the “good deacons” did with my mother. But my mother knew that the battle was not about her, but one within each of the church leaders who were searching for an external enemy instead of looking inward, where the  greater threat stirred. Their names do not appear anywhere honoring their service to either chuch. But the divorced woman’s does.

A Bush, Bumblebees, and a Butterfly

Next to one side of our screen porch is an abelia bush. Now in early August, it is covered with small, white nectar producing blossoms, so each morning the hum of bumblebee wings bathes the summer air as they move from bloom to bloom for the bush’s sweet juice of life. It is a morning music that I have come to anticipate during these past days; however, earlier this week a visitor graced the bush in its search for some of the same life-giving nectar: An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly with its full yellowed wings trimmed in black with a bit of blue, joined the bees in the nectar dance of the abelia. The splash of blue identifies this particular swallowtail as a female.

The swallowtail is a large butterfly and  a regular summer visitor to the Lake Norman area. Its bright yellow wings dazzle in the morning calm as it dances from bloom to bloom, and because of its size, the swallowtail appears too large to light on one of the delicate, white blossoms. But despite the size difference, the swallowtail perches over and over onto different blooms–in a ballet developed by a force stronger than any we know of, or any we can comprehend.

I read somewhere that a bumblebee, based on aerodynamics, cannot fly.  According to physics, it is too heavy and round in relation to its wing size to fly. As I watch and hear the flying bumblebees at the abelia bush, I wonder if the bumblebees know that they cannot fly.  But they have other things to consider each morning, and the rapid movement rate of their wings adds a soft hum to the morning.

The swallowtail, like the bumblebees, is an amazing animal. Its life cycle began just weeks before as a small, round egg on a leaf. Going through metamorphosis of four stages, this beautiful female swallowtail that I watch is the result of a process scientist do not yet fully understand. But I do not need to understand how the butterfly came to be any more than I need to understand the Milky Way in order to appreciate the beauty of both. In his poem, When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer, Walt Whitman tells of having attended a lecture where he saw all the charts and proofs and heard all the explanations, but upon leaving the lecture, he “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Explanations and proofs are of value and are even necessary at times. However, each morning watching the insects fluttering about the abelia bush, I am filled with amazement that such delicate animals and small, white blossoms serve such a vital role in the world. And here it is each morning, a free show if I slow down to see it–a dance of life that gives new life for the cycles of life on our “small blue dot.”

A Bit of Leaven

When former national security adviser Michael Flynn was presented with an AR-15 assault rifle, he responded, “Maybe I’ll find somebody in Washington, D.C.” The crowd laughed, whistled, and cheered. The presentation took place in the Church of Glad Tidings in Yuba City, California, which hosted Flynn on July 16. Dave Bryan, a pastor at the church, led the service.

On Sunday, July 25,  Gary Locke told his flock during his sermon in Global Vision Bible Church in Mount Juliet, Tennessee., about 20 miles east of downtown Nashville, that if “You start showing up [with] all these masks and all this nonsense, I will ask you to leave,”  His statement was followed by cheers and applause. “I am not playing these Democrat games up in this church,” he added.

 I thought of these two recent actions that took place during Sunday services as I was reading Samuel S. Hill, Jr,’s  seminal book, Southern Churches in Crisis.  Dr. Hill writes that “sect-type forms of Christianity are meant to be minority movements (his italics), both within the larger Christian realm and within human societies.”  As thought provoking as this quotation is, I think his note to this statement more powerful. Dr. Hill’s note quotes Pastor John O. Mellin: “More harm has been done to the church and the gospel by a majority approach to life than anything else. We are a minority, a mustard seed, a leaven, a saltiness which flavors the whole—not because we take over the city but because it takes over us.”

Now you may not agree with either Hill or Mellin, but I think they both raise a worthy question for all Christ followers: When are we most effective as Christ followers? As I ponder that question, I think of the 1st Century Christians and their struggles. Not only did they have the Romans to contend with, but they also had internal disputes, such as circumcision.  Their story and struggle can seem relatively easy as read from the comfort of 2021, but it was a chosen life rife with danger. But, as we know, their struggles and suffering led to our sanctification.

It is when I read accounts of such church actions as I mentioned above that I fear for some of us as having become too large and too worldly. It seems to me that such acts as presenting a convicted felon with an assault rifle (followed by cheers) or telling a congregation that anyone wearing a mask will  be asked to leave the church go directly against our Christian belief. Is our mission  such that we must become that immersed in our culture? Can we be effective Christ followers when we exhibit such behavior and speak such words?

Growth for any church is great, but if it grows too much it may have to face the danger of its own power. Bigger means more money and more people who agree with each other so deeply they will not hear the voice of a prophet. As Dr. Hill writes “Self-fixation can lead only to frustration, irrelevance, and disobedience.”  A church that has grown too much and is too big may take on non-Biblical challenges becoming frustrated with its lack of influence in its culture. A church like this will try harder to influence change, become so caught up in its non-Biblical charge that it is viewed as irrelevant by it surrounding culture and then becomes desperate and even disobedient to God’s will.  A church such as this will eventually die as its members suffer frustration with its lack of success, leaving one more empty church building to be sold.

We Christ followers are told by John and Paul “to be in the world but not of the world.” If we Christ followers heed those words and view ourselves as a bit of leaven for the large loaf, we will be more successful in our joyous task.

Last of the Nine

A road trip to the Sandhills of South Carolina is required. Unlike most requirements, this one is given freely because of the summer days I spent with Aunt Lynn and her husband Uncle Gene when I was a young boy.  

The year 1928 was not the best of times to be born, but Aunt Lynn’s parents and nine children managed through the Great Depression, even using it like a fire to temper their strength and resolve. She grew and married a local boy, Eugene Burch. They, too, farmed– cotton, corn, soy beans, corn, timber, wheat, and what ever else would bring them a profit. They also had chicken houses and that is how I experienced some wonderful summer days as their egg gatherer, cleaner, grader, and packer. But most of all, I remember those summer days as ones where I was given the responsible for me: The accountability of how I performed my egg duties, how I chopped my two rows of cotton as Uncle Gene chopped his four, and how I managed the other given tasks that, when done correctly, contributed to the farm’s success.

Aunt Lynn allowed me to grow during those hot summer days by giving me freedom that her older sister, my mother, could not. She shepherded me so that any decision I made seemingly was mine, but they were mostly hers. Her stern hand guided me as she fed me great meals that never seemed to lack anything a young boy wanted.

But every great summer day ended, and a ride for me with some local farmers who worked the 2nd shift in Plant 1, Cannon Mills, was found, and I returned home: A boy rich with memories of many achievements and adventures on a small, Sandhill farm.

What You Need to Know About Anything

This morning’s paper carried a “most read” article with the headline, “What You Need to Know About Watching the Olympics.”  I did not bother reading the article, and I have never read an “What You Need to Know” article. Nor will I.

I appreciate that a headline for an online newspaper is like a title to a book or poem or  essay. It is  there to stir a reader’s attention and/or to give a hint as to the subject of the article. However, it seems to me that news providers have gone astray in the use of what any reader needs to know. I have seen headlines that promise me what I need to know on: Supreme Court decisions, major sporting events such as the British Open, a ruling on abortion by a federal judge, the horrendous wildfires and floods affecting the world, any new revelation of the COVID plague and more. There is no lack of “What I Need to Know” or “How I Need to Watch.”

I admit that there is much that I need to learn. However, as an avid reader who strives to gain information from an array of daily news outlets, I am capable of determining what information I need to absorb. I am capable of determining what is important and/or useful to me. A headline editor who writes “What You Need to Know About” is of no use to me, but the newspaper he or she works for is.

I know and appreciate that our language evolves.  For instance, during the 1980’s I watched the verb “quote” begin its mutating into a noun, giving us this well-used usage, “ I want to read a quote.” The art of imitation has helped change our language and that is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I bristle when I read “What You Need to Know About (Whatever) or worse yet, “How to (anything).

This proliferation seems to be used mostly with newspapers in their on-line services. For instance, the Washington Post just posted (5pm on 7/22) this headline, “What You Need to Know About the Delta Variant.”ABC on-line news carries the same headline with five stories attached underneath. I found none in the on-line stories of Fox. But not to be outdone, NBC on-line news carries this worthy tip: “How to Watch the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games.”

In my third paragraph I admit that there is much I need to learn. A recent example is that this morning, after beginning this essay yesterday afternoon, a friend told me what I was wailing against is referred to as “Click bait.” What a telling phrase. What an offensive practice by news outlets. The news outlets must have learned from the advertisements that use scantily dressed folks to entice a reader in opening their page. And I appreciate that news outlets must, like their  advertisers, sell in order to survive. However, must they offend the common sense of their readers by such nonsense? Or, have news outlets discovered something about their readers?

News outlets have their place in our world as they satisfy our desire for instant reporting on occurring events. They even publish opinions on those events. But all that is is information, not knowledge. For instance, I read the local Charlotte Observer for information of local events and the Washington Post (on-line) for information of a national and international flavor. And I read a variety of columnist to gather other views of events. However, I form  my own library of “what/how I need to knows.”

To have information is useful, but to have knowledge is strength. To know that there is such a mutation as the Delta Variant is useful, but to know how to protect yourself and loved ones is strength. That can only come as a  result of knowledge about COVID and its variants. And that knowledge is best gained from reliable sources, not news peddlers.

My Riding Buddy

If you travel our lake front street early on most mornings, you may see two old men between a small building and the street. One is riding a stationary handcycle while the other sits in his chair and participates, not in the riding, but in the conversation—which covers a variety of topics.

 Ken is the riding buddy. I am the hand cycler. I knew him before I met him. I liked him then, more now.

Ken and his wife Cheryl were moving here from Rhode Island, and I first met her when she was here to check on the renovations of their new home which is across the street from ours.   I saw her checking for mail on a visit, and I introduced myself, and as we chatted she told me that her husband was a cancer survivor and organ recipient.

After our encounter, I kept thinking of the man I had never met. I kept thinking of the man who, like my friend Mike, was a transplant survivor. I kept thinking of a man and his wife who were moving to live near a daughter. I kept thinking of cancer and its horrors. I kept think of an organ transplant. I respected and admired him before I met him because of all that he had done, none of it witnessed by me.

The moving van arrived on a day of rain. The renovated house was becoming a home for the woman I had chatted with and the man I had never met. But one day while driving home I passed a man I thought was he. After parking my car in our driveway, I went to the street to talk with the walker. It was Ken. He stood on the side of our street, and we talked about everything but nothing. It all mattered but was mostly of little significance. Yet what is important is that the man I had admired from a distance was now present.

He walks across our street and sits in his chair as I ride. We talk and in that loose, relaxed chatter and banter is sharing. We have learned each other, and I wonder sometimes if we would have ever met in our previous lives. But I doubt that because we led different lives then, but not now. Now he and I are here, two retired men sharing life lived well.

I knew Ken before I met him, and when he walks across the street to sit with me, we share more and more of this life as it is reflected from our past lives with its scars.

The mystic William Blake wrote, “ The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Like the bird and spider of Blake, I have been gifted by the man I knew and admired before I met him. He’s my riding buddy.

The Man in the Song

On a recent evening, my wife and I were sitting on our screened porch watching another hot, summer day simmer to an end over Lake Norman. A CD of the number one songs by Johnny Cash helped our mood as the worn disc moved from favorite song to favorite song .  However, like many things we think we know, I was surprised by a line in one of the songs, a song I know the “history” of and have enjoyed. The line that I seemed to fully comprehend for the first time and that engendered my thinking is, “’Cause there’s something in a Sunday/ Makes a body feel alone…”

In his mournful song, Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, Kris Kristofferson writes of a  Sunday morning in which a man suffering a hangover tries to make sense of the world. Drinking two beers to help his hangover, he puts on his “cleanest dirty shirt” and goes outside to witnesses the world begin another Sunday—all with him as observer, not participant. Crossing an empty street he smells chicken being fried and laments, “And it took me back to somethin’/ That I’d lost somehow, somewhere along the way.” He continues on his journey to nowhere and with no one by his side.

 Perhaps the song is a memory of Merton College in Oxford where Kristofferson studied as a Rhodes Scholar; maybe it is a story of one of the long nights/mornings he spent as a struggling artist in Nashville during the late 1960’s; or it could be just an anecdote he heard. Whatever! the narrative captures the misery of a life ill spent in whole or parts, but still resulting in regret.

In Thoughts in Solitude Thomas Merton writes, “Violence is not completely fatal until it ceases to disturb us.” Now, we all know (or should) that violence comes in many packages, but no matter how it is wrapped, violence leaves wounds. And the fatal violence Merton writes of is often the result of uncontrolled anger, an addiction, or some other evil cause. Kristofferson is writing of alcoholism and when that violence in a bottle becomes the ordinary of a life it ceases to disturb because it is what has become normal. Then, often too late, the addict becomes like the narrator in the song who smells frying chicken and remembers something lost along the way. That “something” is likely a person or persons and on a Sunday morning all the narrator can do is to numb himself with alcohol and suffer through another day of regret.

On my desk sits a black and white photograph taken in the front yard of my paternal grandparents. The poplar trees in the background are bare, but I know it is Easter Sunday because two cousins knelling in front of the photograph hold their Easter baskets.  My younger brother and sister stand with me and an older sister. Behind my brother is our father who wears a suit jacket, opened-collared shirt, and is looking toward the camera, but his face is full of shadow. The photograph is important for me because our father seldom shared Sundays with us and my two older sisters who are not in the photograph. Years before he had deserted us and our mother, but he is present this day because his parents and siblings had gathered for Easter Sunday. And for whatever reason he posed for the photograph, a stranger standing with his children.

The father in the photograph would understand Kristofferson’s song because he was like the narrator—a man trying to make sense of the world as seen through the violent haze of alcohol. He would keenly understand how a familiar smell could trigger a memory of something that he had lost “somehow, somewhere along the way.” He would intimately know the loneliness of Sundays,  even a special one like this Easter Sunday. But I wonder if the shadow covering his face in the photograph is not a forewarning of the shadow he would feel later after his children had walked to their mother’s home, and he returned to “somewhere along the way.”

Burst Bubble

So often in education, which includes all school-sponsored activities such as baseball, if an adult makes a poor decision, the students or athletes suffer the consequences of that decision.

For instance, in the early 1990’s I was part of an administrative team working to merge a boys’ and girls’ independent schools. Responsible for activities that would help the students get to know each other better, I created events for the students.  On a regular schedule, pizza parties were held for the students from the same class. I established an account with a local pizza company, and all went well until for one gathering of about 150 teenagers, I ordered thin crust pizza. Bad move! If you do not know it, thin crust is not as filling as regular crust, so many students went away hungry.

This is a mundane example of how an administrator’s decision can affect students, but it serves as an example. We educators are responsible for so many parts of our  students’ lives, and we must, at times, walk a tightrope between too much or too little. As one of  my coaching mentors, Bob Moore, told me, “There is a six-inch difference between a pat on the back and a kick in the butt.”

All of this brings me to Coach Elliott Avent, the baseball coach of North Carolina State University. If you are not aware of the team’s phenomenal win streak against heavy odds, find it on Google. However, the wins of the team do not interest me here, but Coach Avent’s words following his team’s removal from the CWS by the NCAA because of COVID protocol does.

According to multiple news outlets, when Coach Avent was asked if he encouraged or required his players to be vaccinated, he answered, “My job is to teach them baseball, make sure they get an education and keep them on the right track forward, but I don’t try to indoctrinate my kids with my values or my opinions,” he said. “Obviously we talk about a lot of things, but these are young men that can make their own decisions and that’s what they did.”

Any educator worth his or her salt knows that we teach our students more than baseball or physics or Beowulf. That is one of the many beautiful and noble aspects of teaching. We teach our students how to analyze, to consider, to evaluate, then to come to an independent conclusion. A good teacher does not indoctrinate, but a good teacher does instruct and encourage students to be aware of his or her world. If Coach Avent believes that part of his job is to “make sure they [his players] get an education,” then he must view himself as an educator, or one who educates.

When asked if he was vaccinated, Coach Avent responded, ““I’m not going to talk about that,” Avent said. “If you want to talk baseball, we can talk baseball. If you want to talk politics or stuff like that, you can go talk to my head of sports medicine, Rob Murphy.”

It appears that Coach Avent has not been aware or accepting of the horrible epidemic the world and we have been struggling with. Apparently he has just been concerned with baseball for the past season, and to his credit, he has performed well as a coach. However, he has failed his players in the most important role: Mentor! He has failed his players by not being responsible for their welfare as it pertains to the wider world, which unfortunately entered his baseball bubble and burst it.

Shame on Coach Avent!

The Gift

According to a Google search I recently conducted, as many adults regularly play chess as are users of Facebook. That is a large number of the world’s population, and while I am not a user of  the latter, I play the former. My rating is about 725, which means that I am far from being a good player. But that is okay because my rating cannot gauge the satisfaction I receive from playing on-line chess: I have won a few more games than I have lost; I have had some draws; I have lost to women; I have lost to younger players; I have played players who live in a range of countries; I have been checkmated by a player waiting for a flight in an airport; I have learned about COVID in other countries through the message board; and I have been gifted by a player in India.

Recently I logged in and requested to play. The machinery spun and a player’s user name, national flag, and rating appeared on the screen. The player’s rating was about fifty points higher than mine, so I would be awarded ten points for a win, two points for a draw, and six points for a loss. I was excited because I would rather lose to a superior player than beat a lesser one; plus, sometimes I play poorer against lower rated players. So I moved my white pawn and waited for his response with a dark piece.

By my fourth or fifth move, his superior skill was causing me trouble. I could find no way to penetrate his wall of pawns, and he was beginning to advance his major pieces. I had a sinking feeling, but I continued looking for some way to gain some foothold. Yet it seemed the harder I tried, the more perilous my position was. My big blunder in losing my queen did not help my cause, and soon, mercifully, my doom was imminent. I had several pawns, one lonely king, and a rook to my opponent’s  array of powerful pieces. Then his queen captured my rook. Done! Kaput! Fried! But—wait. The result screen showed that my opponent had resigned, and I was awarded ten points for the win. I messaged him and asked why. He responded, “I am rated higher than you, and the game was not fair.” He had required me to play while not patronizing me by “letting” me win.

Fair? The game was more than fair; it was just. I was whopped by a superior player, and I wonder if he is not a superior person as well? I mean, would I resign a game I had clearly won because I was rated higher than my opponent? Do I have the character required to freely give away ten points of my rating?

He required me to play then he gave me the gift, and I do not mean the ten points. When he resigned he created a moment of kindness and gentleness. When he resigned, he demonstrated that chess on my level is more than points in a rating. When he resigned, he acted like the champion he is.

To Verb or To Noun

The word Father is used most often as a noun, as in Ralph is my father. It is also used in religious references. However, the word is most interesting to me when used as a verb, as in I will father my children. It also can be used in a participle,  as in “To father a child is a joy, but it requires commitment.  

On this Friday before the celebrated day of Father’s Day, I think of my experience as a father of five children, and, while I was active in the noun usage of the word, I missed much in the verb usage. As I examine my role all those years ago as a father, I see my presence, but not my participation. Yes, I performed all the standard tasks of fatherhood—I worked and provided the necessary material things for them. But I was more like a shadow in their lives. I could be seen, but I had little substance.

I will not delve into the reasons for how I fathered my children, but I ask each of them, who are now parents, to learn from my wrongs. Here are a few thoughts:  Share time with your children because it and love are what you can readily give them;  Keep external pressures away from your fathering;  Being an example is being the best guide; Find a safe escape away from your children for anger and frustration; Understand that your children may not remember your words, but will remember how they made them feel;  When they talk, listen as if everything depends on it; To guide is better than to push; Make their home a safe place.

Father as a verb, not a stale noun.