Lesson From My Father-in-Law …

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My father-in-law, Floyd, passed away last week.  He was fighting lung cancer, but God graciously gave him a quiet and peaceful passing to heaven.

Floyd was not like the men I grew up with.  Freud would have called them “repressed.”  Emotions were for women and children.  “Don’t cry” was not a suggestion, but a command.  If a bull trampled you in the pens, you were expected to get up, dust yourself off, and say, “Bring the next one.”  If someone noticed you bleeding, you said, “I don’t feel a thing” or “Shoot, that ain’t nothing.”  A man was expected to be in control.

The same rules applied to positive emotions.  If you had a good crop and your neighbors congratulated you, you just shrugged your shoulders and said, “God’s been good.”  If your son got into Vet School, you told him “Good job.”  That was praise enough.  A wife of one of these men complained he never told her that he loved her.  His response?  “I told you I loved you when we married.  I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

This upbringing, I suppose, had its advantages.  There were not many complainers or whiners.  On the other hand, these men would start to boil up like a pressure cooker whistling off steam.  Something would break inside of them.  Then the steam would come shooting out.  A deacon would run off with one of the sopranos in the choir; a cowboy would lose his temper and fight somebody; or the quiet man who worked with his hands would turn into an alcoholic.  Taciturnity extracts a price.

Floyd was not like the men I grew up with.  He was the first man I ever meet who felt free to express his emotions.  If he was angry, you knew it.  If he loved you, you knew it.  If he was proud of you, everyone knew it.

It took a while for Floyd to warm up to me.  Facing the marriage of my own daughter, I understand this now.  No father believes any man is good enough for his precious girl.  Gina and I were married three years when he told me he loved me.  This was a significant leap from telling Gina he loved her; and was a step up from “I love you both.”  Now, it was personal.  I was 29 when he told me he loved me; he was one of the first men in my life to openly declare love.  He was not afraid to say it first and put his feelings out there.  He kept telling me he loved me for the next 30 years.

He would also tell you if he thought you were being stupid.  He once told me, “If you ever leave that church in Sumter, I’ll personally come down and whoop your (term referring to large section of muscles located below the back and above the legs).”  He did not believe in repressing his feelings.

Best of all, if he was proud of you, he would tell you and everyone else.  Granted he exaggerated.  In his hometown of Gaffney, he would tell people my church was largest in South Carolina (it isn’t) and we baptized thousands (we haven’t), and people were lined up at the doors of our church (the doors to the restrooms between Bible Study and Worship).  My mother-in-law once told me, “I know your father died when you were young and your step father was a quiet man, but I believe Floyd is proud enough of you to make up for them both.”  She was right.

Floyd was not afraid to admit he was afraid.  After his cancer diagnosis, we had several conversations about him fearing death.  He was sure of his relationship with God; he knew he had accepted Jesus and his grace.  He was simply afraid of the unknown and he wasn’t afraid to admit it.

Emotion run amuck is not a good thing.  I saw Floyd learn to temper his temper and control his passions.  But he kept telling us he loved us and was proud of us.

The lesson Floyd gave to me was to tell people the real you.  Tell people you are angry.  Tell them why.  Tell people you love them.  Tell them why.  Tell people you are proud of them.  Tell them why.  Tell people you are afraid. Tell them why.

We live so much of life pretending to be all put together.  How much healthier would we be if we learned to share what’s really going on?  How much healthier would our relationship with our Heavenly Father be if we were simply real and honest about what was really happening to us?

The lesson Floyd taught me? It’s okay to be real.  Thanks, Floyd.

What Mama Taught Me About Giving Thanks…

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God never meant for children to receive underwear for Christmas.  The Wise Men did not bring Jesus underwear as one of their gifts.  Christmas is for toys and joys.  Underwear falls into neither category.

Yet every year of childhood, one of my aunts seemed designated to give me underwear.  One year it might be Aunt Mildred; another year, Aunt Lola.  At least those years were better than Aunt Bill’s year; she would give hand me downs from her son Bob (and yes, I have an Aunt Bill.  Her name is Billie Jean.  It’s a Southern thing).  I never knew if this was orchestrated by my mother or not.

There was less money those days.  Mama knew I needed underwear more than toys.  I already knew enough Bible to know Adam and Eve didn’t wear underwear.  I told Mama I didn’t need any either, but she told me they sinned and God made them wear underwear.  Then she informed me I had sinned also, so I needed to wear underwear, too (“Let him who is without sin among you not wear underwear?”).

One Christmas, my underwear frustration reached its peak.  I think it was Aunt Iris’s turn to buy me underwear.  I opened the package and saw six pairs of white Fruit of the Looms.  In disgust, I threw down the box and exclaimed, “I hate getting underwear for Christmas!”

The crowded room of aunts, uncles, and cousins went quiet.  In a low lethal voice, my mother approached.  Hissing through clenched teeth, she told me to go outside with her.

My previous experience taught me going outside would be detrimental to my backside, since last year’s Christmas gift was not padded in that particular area.  I shook my head “no” whereupon my mother seized my ear, twisted it and lead me through the living room and the kitchen and onto the back porch. Parents were more direct then.

Once the door closed, my mother began to instruct me on the finer points of etiquette.  She told me Aunt Iris didn’t have to give me a present, underwear was something I needed, and it was kind of Aunt Iris to spend her hard-earned money on me.  Then to drive the lesson home, she applied her hand to my bottom and sent me back into the living room to tell Aunt Iris “Thank you.”

My face was flushed red as the entire family watched me approach Aunt Iris, head lowered, ready to mumble my “thank you.”  Before I could stammer out any words, Aunt Iris said in her no-nonsense voice, “Look me in the eye, son, when you talk to me.”  Apparently, she was in on me learning this lesson as well.

I lifted my head, looked at her steely eyes, and said, “Thank you Aunt Iris for the underwear.”  Then, she smiled, and said, “You are welcome.”  I thought I saw her throw a conspiratorial wink at my mother, but I’m not certain.

Mama and Aunt Iris taught me one of my most important life lessons that Christmas:  Give thanks to the giver, not thanks for the gift.

This Thanksgiving families will gather and express thanks for food, blessings, and each other.  That’s fine.  Just remember, it’s not about the gifts.  It is about who gave them to you.

Remember to look God in the eye and say, “Thank you.”  Still your soul long enough and you might hear, “You are welcome.”

Maybe you’ll catch God winking.

What I wish Mama Could See and Hear…

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It’s been almost five years since my mother died.  She really left us years before, as Alzheimer’s robbed her of her mind.  Sometimes her eyes would lock on you and you could almost feel the part of her brain that was clear of memory robbing plaque trying to communicate.

People ask me from time to time if people in heaven know what’s happening on earth.  The honest answer is “I don’t know.”  God didn’t make that clear.  I do know when people die and go to heaven, they are not converted into angels.  That’s folk theology that isn’t taught in the Bible.  Sometimes I pray and ask God to tell my mother some things I wish she could see and hear.

I wish Mama could see her grandchildren now.  They are all grown and very good looking (some too good looking for their own good).  When Sarah and my niece Katie graduate next year, all of her grandchildren will have graduated from college.  She would be thrilled.  A college education to her represented a real achievement.  She’d be even more amazed that three of the eleven have Master’s degrees.

I wish Mama could hear me say to her, “The older I get, the smarter I realize you were.”  Like every adolescent in the world, I was convinced I knew more than her.  Now I know she had a wisdom that let me try and fail; that spoke her mind when she thought I was making a mistake; and that supported me even when she wasn’t sure about the path I was taking.  I also know that she must had many conversations with my step-father I never knew about, pleading my cause: “Lawrence, don’t make him go fishing again.  That’s just not him.”

I wish Mama could hear me say, “I forgive you.”  When I hear people talk about their perfect mothers, my skepticism kicks in.  I don’t know any perfect mothers.  My Mom had a wounded soul from a father who fell short and from losing a husband far too soon.  She could lose her temper and be very judgmental.  But in many ways, I think she did the best could.  She was like the injured runner who persevered, and finished the race.  As I’ve gotten older and faced my own shortcomings as a parent, I want to apologize for being so judgmental toward her and tell her “I forgive you because I know you were doing the best you could.”

I wish Mama could hear me say “Thank you.”  I never said it enough.  Maybe you don’t realize how much you have to be thankful for until your mother isn’t there.  I want to thank her for reading stories to me, for pushing me to be all I could be, for taking me seriously when I said at four years old, “I want to be a preacher.”  I want to thank her for her imperfect love, the best she could offer.  I want to thank her for being courageous after my father died.  I want to thank her for letting me go explore, which was really the beginning of my passion for next steps.

I wish I could give Mama a Mother’s day gift one more time – like the coffee mug I made for her in 3rd grade that looked like a piece of mud with a handle.  She kept it all her life, ugly as it was, because I made it.

But for me, the window of time has closed.  I can only pray that God lets my mother know these things – and lets her know I still miss her.  I don’t know if God passes on messages, but I’d like to think he does.

And if God passes on messages, I hope he passes on one more.  There’s one more message I’d like Mama to hear:

I love you.  Happy Mother’s Day Mama.

Roland and Carolyn’s House Burns Down…

Skipper House

 

Roland Skipper, married to Carolyn, is my distant cousin who lives in my hometown of Wauchula (actually, everyone in Wauchula is my distant cousin).  His son James is my age and part of the gang of cousins I grew up with.

I went to the ranch last week to do take care of some things.  While there, my brother called with awful news: Roland and Carolyn’s house was on fire.

According to the fire marshal, the fire started in the dishwasher (!), spread up through the wall, and into the garage.  Roland was resting in his chair, recovering from a recent fall that busted his arm.  Carolyn was busy around the house.  Neither of them noticed the fire at first.

By the time they realized the house was on fire, they had just enough time to escape.  Roland made it out in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms.  Carolyn did what any country woman would do: she turned on the garden hose and tried to put the fire out.  Might as well tried to clean a house with spit.

Roland and Carolyn live out in the country, a long way from fire hydrants and fire departments.  By the time the fire department came, the fire had spread up into a dead space between the old roof and the new roof added when the house was remodeled. With no way to get at the fire, the only thing left was to watch the roof burn and collapse in on the house.

I went by the next day, just to let them know I cared.  The kids and grandkids were going through the remains of the house.  Odd what survived and what didn’t: two cars, burned to a crisp; one Stetson hat, intact; old flip phone – works.  The list went on and on.

I hugged Carolyn and she said, “I watched fifty years of memories go up in smoke.”  Roland sat there, looking at brick walls and wondering how an 87 year old man goes about building a new house.  My cousin Margaret, their daughter, told me, “It could have been a lot worse.  I could be planning two funerals today.”

The insurance adjustor came by.  He rolled out his standard condolence speech, then told everyone he would take pictures to assess the damage.  I told him I could save him some time:  it was a total loss.  He gave me a dirty look.

I could sense I was in the way and they needed to get about their work.  I asked if they would like me to pray with them, and they said, “Please.”

I’ve prayed for a lot of things in my life: for healings and strength; for people to come to know Jesus.  I’ve prayed for God to send resources for the doing of his work and for Jesus, the Lord of harvest, to send laborers.  I’ve even prayed for dogs that were sick and for cows to go the right direction.  But as we held hands, it dawned on me I didn’t know quite what to pray.

When you don’t know what to pray, sometimes God will give you the words you never thought of before.  The Spirit put these words in my mouth:

“Lord, thank you that Roland and Carolyn are all right.  As for the rest of this, God, it was just stuff.  I know it was important stuff, but its gone now.  Father, one day, we will all leave all our stuff behind.  You’ve reminded Roland and Carolyn what really matters – the life and the hope we have in Jesus…”

I prayed some more, but what stuck with me was the thought that one day, we will all leave behind our stuff.  Roland and Carolyn got a head start.  Yes it hurts and I’m sure there is grief because of memories lost.  But on that Thursday morning among the smoky ruins, Jesus was teaching me one more thing:

 

Who you love is more important than what you have.