Four Letter Words…

four letter words

There is nothing better than a tangerine.  When I grew up, down behind the barn, along the fence line of the lot, there were three big tangerine trees.  There is no telling how old those trees were.  When tangerines were in season, we’d take a break, pick a tangerine off the tree, peel back the rind, and eat each slice.  Refreshing.

Racoons like tangerines too.  Each year there was a struggle between the racoons and Pop, my step-father, over who got the most tangerines.  Pop rarely got mad, but he hated to see tangerines wasted as racoon food.  Finally, he’d had enough.  “Clay,” he said, “Come on.  We’re going to pick the rest of those tangerines before the racoons get them all.”

We propped a ladder against the tree, and I put my foot on the first rung.  Pop said, “No.  You stay on the ground and catch ‘em.  I’ll go up the tree and throw ‘em down.”  I protested that I was younger and lighter.  He was insistent.  So up the ladder he went.

Pop was pretty agile for a sixty-five-year-old man.  Before long, he stepped off the ladder and onto the branches of the tree.  He had been a baseball player in high school and could pitch tangerines to me on the ground with deadly accuracy.  I’m still not sure why he wanted to climb the tree himself.  He did believe if you wanted something done right, do it yourself.  Or maybe, he just wanted to feel young again and climb a tree.

We had picked a bushel of tangerines, but there were still some high in the tree, where the ladder wouldn’t reach.  You’ve heard of a “bridge too far?”  There is also such a thing as a “limb too far.”  Pop went one limb too far.

I heard a loud crack.  Then I saw Pop, all 180 pounds of him, falling toward me.  A good son would have caught his father, or at least broken his fall.  I was not a good son.  I ran.

There was an old metal gate under the tangerine tree.  The grass had overgrown it, so it wasn’t easy to see.  As Pop plummeted to earth, I waited for him to turn over and land on all fours, like a cat.  He was agile, but not that agile.  He landed flat on his back, on the metal gate, with the thud of metal resisting bone.

The fall didn’t knock him out.  Amazingly, he sprang right up off that metal gate and grabbed his head.

Pop was not the first person I’d seen get hurt on the ranch.  Cowboys have colorful, four-letter words to deploy whenever they are run over by a bull, or kicked by horse, or put a nail through their hand.  Those words were all appropriate for use when you fall out of a tangerine tree.

Pop was not a cussing man.  In fact, I had never heard him cuss.  Never.  As he sprung up from the ground, I thought the moment would finally come.  I would hear him swear.  I would hear four-letter words.

Pop said, “Kiss my foot.”

Not exactly the four-letter words I expected.

We all have four-letter words we use for emphasis.  I’m sure you have some in your vocabulary.  God uses four-letter words for emphasis too.  Whenever we fall out of life, God comes to us with four-letter words…Love. Hope. Rest. Heal. Calm. Gift.

God’s four-letter words are the words your soul longs to hear.  God’s four-letter words are a lot better than “Kiss my foot.”  Or some of the other four-letter words I’ve heard.

Cousin James…

James Skipper

When I heard the news, I sobbed.  I’m not ashamed.  When someone adds deeply to your life, you cry when they die.  My cousin, James Skipper, passed away last week at the age of 59.  Fifty-nine is a lot younger than it used to be.

How did James add to my life?  He rolled me around in a barrel.  When we were kids, the Durrance boys (Kelly and Steve), James, and me, would play with the fifty-five-gallon barrels they used for barrel racing at rodeos.  You haven’t known fun until you’ve crawled into a barrel and your cousins roll you fifty feet or so.  Rolling around in a barrel shakes loose thoughts you didn’t know you had.  It sure beat any video-game I’ve ever seen.

Some people chuckle; James exploded in laughter. His laugh was a high-pitched squeeze of the gut that made you laugh, just because he was laughing.  It was his gift to the world, because when James laughed, you could hear it all the way to the next county.

Never have I known a man who enjoyed life so much.  At his own wedding, he was thrown into the pool, and he came up laughing.  He was a connoisseur of steaks, good breakfasts, and Cuban sandwiches.  Some men who claim to be tough don’t have much use for little girls in pony tails.  Not James.  He taught a brood of nieces to be racoon hunters.  He’d take eleven little girls out at night to shine light into the trees of the swamp to find the racoons.  I’ll spare you the details, but every one of those little girls grew up to be beautiful women who loved their Uncle James.  James found joy in the joy of those little girls.

James was comfortable in his own skin.  Other men in town tried to be a cowboy by dressing the part: jeans, big belt buckle, cowboy hat.  I’ve seen James go out to work cows wearing baggy sweat pants and crocs.  If you laughed at him, he’d have a fast retort.  You undertook verbal-jousting with James at your own risk.

For years, James was a volunteer coach at the high school.  He took fatherless young men under his wing and tried to teach them about life, about work, about self-respect, and about faith.  Seventeen-year-old boys are not very aware or very appreciative.  But James altered the trajectory of some lives.  He never bragged about it or sought recognition.  He just showed up in their lives.  Sometimes showing up is the most important thing.

My brother Steve and James were best friends.  Every Saturday, James would call Steve, and say, “I’ll be by to pick you up in a minute.”  They might catch breakfast at the Pioneer Café (where the elite of Zolfo Springs meet to eat), or they might drive to Tampa.  They might pick up a part for a diesel pump engine, or go to a gun show in Fort Myers.

Occasionally, I got to go along for the Saturday adventures.  James would give me the rarest of gifts: he related to me as a person, not a pastor.  Most people can’t get past the “Reverend” in front of my name.  It never mattered to James.  “Pastor” was what I did, not who I was.

It was during one of those Saturday morning breakfast runs, Steve and James were talking about heaven.  I’m in the back seat, listening.  My brother Steve (who after all, does have a lot to repent of) said he was willing to sweep the streets of heaven, just as long he got in.  I was about to open my mouth to correct my brother’s theology, when James spoke up: “Steve, it’s not about having to work to get into heaven.  It’s about grace.  Jesus came to give us grace.”  Great theology from a man wearing shorts with a hole in them and a pair of crocs.

It seems so unreal that James is gone.  I know he’s in heaven.  I know he knew the grace of Jesus.  But, I will miss his laugh.  I will miss his joy.  I will miss him.

Somewhere in heaven, a new arrival in sweat pants and crocs is laughing with Jesus, laughing in grace.

Show and Tell…

football baseball

As best I remember, it began the day Mark brought his new football to Zolfo Springs Elementary.  Suddenly, he was the most popular boy in first grade.  I had previously held the title (at least, in my memory), but Mark usurped my position.  All the kids gathered around Mark at recess.  He was the new king of the playground.

I went home that afternoon and demanded my mother buy me a new football.  I wanted to reclaim my position and I was sure a new football would do it.  My mother was old school.  You could threaten to hold your breath until she gave into your demands, and she would briskly say, “Go right ahead.  I’m cooking fried chicken tonight and your brother will get both legs.”  Manipulating a kid with threats of fried chicken is cruel and unusual punishment, and I caved every time.

The agony of recess continued.  Mark was the king of the playground and I was a has been.  It was a long fall and winter.

Spring came, the orange trees were in bloom, and it was baseball season.  Mama in a spurt of generosity bought me a baseball.  I’m not sure why.  We lived a mile from the nearest neighbors, so there was no one to throw it to.  My dog Moe just ran off with it when I threw it to him.

Lying in bed that night, it hit me: I could bring my baseball to school!  Maybe my baseball was my chance to regain the recess throne.

It worked like a charm.  Mark’s football was forgotten, and we played baseball (or a first-grade version of it) all through recess.  Once again, I was the king.

Aren’t you glad we grow out of such childish thinking?  Aren’t you glad no adult is ever envious?  Aren’t you glad adults don’t compete with each other?  Aren’t you glad no one measures self-worth based possession comparison?

Reality is we compare the size of our houses, the newness of our cars, and achievements our children.   Adults haven’t come that far from recess.

Salvation, among many other things, means you no longer have to play the comparison game.  Jesus comes to teach us a different way to live.  It’s not wrong to want nice things or have nice things.  It is toxic to base your human value on what you own.

That’s why the Apostle Paul said to us, “I know both how to make do with little, and I know how make do with a lot.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of contentment – whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Your worth is not based on what you have, but who you have.  If you have Jesus, you have everything you need.

Is it time for you to get off the comparison treadmill and be content with Jesus?

My Favorite Christmas…

cow breathing

My favorite Christmas happened when I was twenty.  It wasn’t because of a gift I received, but a gift I gave.

That Christmas, I decided the best gift I could give my step-dad was to get up early and feed all the animals down at the barn.  Pop usually had to trudge off to do this chore in between opening gifts and cooking breakfast.  I wanted him to have a more relaxed morning.

I got up at 6:00 am, not early on most days, but early for Christmas morning.  I slipped into my jeans and boots and went down in the dark to the barn.  It was brisk for a Florida morning, cold enough to see my breath.  The horses were already up and eager to eat.  I measured out their feed, and threw in a little more because it was Christmas.  The barn cats slunk around my ankles, looking for their breakfast, which I delivered in abundance.  Christmas was the one day there would be a truce between myself and the cats.

Then I hoisted a 40 pound bag of feed on my shoulder and crossed the lot over to the log barn.  The log barn had been built by my great grandfather around 1861. Behind it, there was a pen where we kept the steers we were feeding out.  In that pen was an old feed trough that had been there all my life.  There was no electricity in that barn, so I had to be guided by the light of the full moon slowly slipping under the horizon.  The steers looked at me as I poured out their feed, their breath fogging the air, waiting for me to get out of their way.

That’s when God spoke to me.  A gentle whisper came to my soul: “It was here, in a place that smelled like this, with mud and muck that I came into the world.  I was laid into a feed trough like the one you just poured feed into.   Joseph had to keep the steers back from bothering the Savior of the world.  Clay, I did this for you and for the whole world.   That’s how much I want to be with you and save you.”

A chill ran down my spine.  I realized how wide and deep and high my Heavenly Father’s love is for me.

Making my way back to the house, the brightest star in the heavens, Sirius, seemed to wink at me, one more part of the Christmas story.

Why is this my favorite Christmas?  Because on this Christmas, I got to live the day, instead of just celebrate it.

This Christmas, use some holy imagination and live the day.  Let your mind conjure the smells.  See the breath of the cows.  Feel the squish of the mud.  See the wooden trough made smooth by a thousand licks.  Let your soul hear the good news, that unto you is born this day a Savior in the city of Bethlehem.  Tis Christ the Lord!

Lesson From My Father-in-Law …


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…


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…

Kong and Sissie

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.