Some Things Grow on You

Four summers of my life, my mother helped me pack a footlocker procured from the Army Surplus Store and I was loaded on to a bus with old friends and those who would become new friends for a couple of weeks at Camp Blue Haven. I loved those camp experiences for many reasons. And, to be honest, I detested some of those experiences.

I distinctly remember the bathroom facilities. Those weren’t on my “things I love about camp” list. Very little hot water for showers — probably because someone had figured out that hot water stunted the growth of whatever it was growing in the cracks in the shower floor. But the scarcity of hot water wasn’t the big thing. No, the big thing on my “things I hate about camp” list had to be the lack of stalls for the toilet. That’s a common practice in many pseudo-military encampments — even though Camp Blue Haven was far-removed from anything military. But to this day, I just don’t approve of “open seating.”

Now there was something in the bathroom I dearly loved. There was a small sign posted just above the urinal. I read it and laughed each time I stood there. It was such a great play on words — and utilitarian at the same time. Each word and each punctuation mark so cleverly placed.

We aim to please, so you aim, too, please!

Words to live by. I still think of them each time I . . . well, you know. I do try to suppress my laughter now since, in the absence of the sign, other patrons of public bathrooms wonder.

Well, very little of what I’ve written thus far is what prompted my thoughts of camp and my two great lists. Instead, it was a song I heard this morning.

The Christian camps of my youth were before the advent of what we would later call “Jesus songs.” We sang mostly the old hymns and we sang them a cappella. I loved those old hymns. So you might understand my concern when a new song appeared — literally pasted into the front cover of the old blue hymnal.

“O Lord My God” was “new” to me. In fact it had been copyrighted almost ten years earlier. But in my tribe of shape-note singers, it was new. And I didn’t like it. The range of notes was hard for me, I didn’t know the words by heart, and, irritatingly, those camp leaders thought we should sing it every time we gathered for . . . anything!

Indeed, this set of inspirational words set to an old Swedish folk melody, was on my “things I hate about camp” list. And you can imagine my horror when, on my return to civilization, I learned that all church people, everywhere, had been infected by the insatiable desire to sing this song. For years to come, I was in agony whenever the pitch pipe blew and our leader would launch into this tribute to “awesome wonder.”

But I realized today that, at some moment in my past, all changed. The shift probably occurred some years ago. I saw it today.

As I dressed for church this morning, I was listening to streaming music. I reached down to turn off the Pandora app and head out the door when the introductory notes of “O Lord My God” filtered through the speaker. I couldn’t turn it off. A rush of memories streamed through along with the song and I had this feeling of fulfillment and momentary communion with both God and the many blessings I’ve experienced through my life. And I let it play. And I let the experience sink deep within.

All of this from a song I once detested. All of this from words I didn’t fully understand. All of this because of the truth that we are works in progress and our thoughts and feelings are like clay in the hands of a gifted potter.

If you run up against something — or someone — you don’t really care for today, be patient. Some things might just grow on you. And you’ll be a better person for it.

Dealing With Difficult People

The hotel clerk simply lied to me. As I watched his face when I confronted him with his lie, I saw his eyes narrow and his chin become set. And thus began another real-life opportunity for me in an area I wish I didn’t have to endure — dealing with difficult people.

I had asked for a simple form. “We don’t provide that form,” he asserted.

“You know,” I said, “I’m a frequent guest with this hotel chain — in fact, I have a fancy membership card. I’ve even stayed here at this hotel before. On many occasions, I have asked for the form and received it.”

“Well, my manager told me that we don’t provide that form,” he asserted. “So we don’t.”

“Let me get your full name so that when I talk with your manager, there won’t be any confusion,” I replied.

He shifted his name badge my direction but it had only his first name. “That’s all you need to know,” he said. “And if you want that form you can download it and print it.”

I did just that. When I handed it to him a few minutes later, I could see what he was thinking, “OH! That form!” He slid my keycard across the counter and said nothing.

“Thanks!” I said. “You know, an apology and acknowledgment now would be nice.”

He said nothing. I picked up the key and headed to my room. Within fifteen minutes, I had written and saved the text I would paste into the survey I always get from this hotel chain after a stay. Here’s what it said:

“Your desk clerk, Tim (not his real name), was having a very bad day when I arrived. I hope that you’ll encourage him. Tell him that I understand his difficult position and sometimes he just needs to pause and breathe. Often, the right thing to do is easy to choose when you simply pause and breathe.”

That, of course, wasn’t the first thing I’d written. It was what came to me after I paused and did a little breathing.

 

 

Friends . . . Actually

Years ago, my decisions about who my friends were or were not were more simply made. I simply avoided you if you said or did things that I found disturbing.

You would think that the same principle would be involved in social media. I fully understand that it can be. I see posts all the time where people “unfriend” others and, if pushed hard enough, completely leave FaceBook or whatever their platform of choice is.

I’ve “unfriended” a few people in the past. To date, my standard has been to unfriend anyone who exhibits hate and discrimination in their personal posts. Oh, and anyone who has a fascination with the “F” bomb or taking God’s name in vain. (“OMG! Addicts,” you’re nearing the edge.)  I am “friends” with a wide array of individuals — many of them sensitive to such rubbish. Others are young and losing their innocence to what our greater society has begun to find acceptable. Enlightenment never looked so dark. I don’t choose for my internet spaces to be the place where they get further exposure to such things.

I am close to “unfriending” some others of you. You’re pushing the line by reposting things that you haven’t checked out and that are largely false or misleading. Just writing the word “Truth” by those posts doesn’t make them true. Others of you are posting things that do have truth at their base. However, by watching what you post day after day, I have to wonder if you choose to feature only stories that will escalate violence and hatred. If I unfriend you, it won’t be because of your view of what is right and wrong, but only because of the way your actions are perpetuating bad sentiment and behavior among others.

Because of my life experience, I have been honored to form friendships among diverse groups of people. Politically, racially, ethnically, spiritually. I have been stretched by that diversity and I am grateful. But lest you think that you are on the “right” side of my friend set and that you’re safe from the point I’m trying to make, I want to be clear that I’ve found people on both sides of the dividing line. The desire to incite negative outcomes seems to be an equal opportunity malady. I am not immune either.

I strongly believe that unfriending any of you (except for those who violate my standards about the personal bile and profanity) is not the best answer. No, I’m not keeping you on as friends because I think I can change you. I need my perspective to be broad. I need to have as friends those who think differently, see differently, and choose differently than I do. You make me uncomfortable sometimes. But that’s the point. I see goodness in you. And I hope you can look past my multitude of failings. Friends do that.

In fact, some of the discomfort you’ve blessed me with has caused me to pause and reconsider my position on some things. I’ve changed as a result. Thank you. Other things I don’t agree with have convinced me that I need to find ways to better understand you, because the ideas you are posting aren’t doing it.

My plea to you, my friend, is to be responsible. No matter how badly you see and know an injustice to be, remember that we, as God’s children, as peacemakers, are to be a peculiar people. Don’t escalate violence. Talk. Talk loudly if you must, but respectfully. March peacefully. Help bring change to this broken world. But please help stop this vicious cycle of retaliation and justification of the unholy — from both sides.

I say this as one friend to another.

‘Tis the Season to Forget

Most of us can remember a Christmas or a Thanksgiving or a Hanukkah or even a 4th of July long ago that is forever anchored in our mind as the best holiday ever. The right people were there. The conditions were perfect. The right gifts and foods and words were shared.

Those are the memories that bring us to a warm and happy place as we anticipate the holidays ahead.

Unfortunately, for many people, those happy thoughts are violently derailed by intervening events that fracture our anticipation and instill dread in place of joy. The death of a loved one. The serious illness of a friend. Divorce. Financial reversals. Relocation to a new city. Conflict between and among family and friends.

Tragically, for those who face these challenges, the blessed memories stand no chance against the fear we have that we will never be able to recapture the same warmth and happiness. As a result, we try to forget. And worse, we become resolved not to attempt to make new, happy memories. After all, those sacred moments might suffer the fate of the earlier ones. There is simply too much heartbreak at stake to try again.

What we must do this season is forget.

Not the good times, of course. Nor even the bad times, necessarily. Instead we must forget — even if it’s just for a moment — ourselves. For when we really analyze those old, wonderful memories, they are bound tightly to those people who surrounded us and who made them so good.

More importantly, we must remember that it is our presence — our smiles, our laughter, and sometimes even our tears — that make warm memories for others. And in doing that, we celebrate these holidays, these holy days, as honored guests of our King and our Creator.

May you enjoy wonderful holiday memories — both old and new!

Day 9 – Reset

With our landscape rapidly shifting behind us from Rwanda to Kenya, our team began the traveler’s necessary task of reorienting and redirecting. I found a great deal of comfort in walking to the Octagon multi-purpose building on the Made In The Streets Ministry outside of Nairobi, the meeting place of the Kamulu Church of Christ. Where better to reorient and redirect than in worship and Bible study? I could also sense a great anticipation from all of the team, as we approached this time to reset our priorities and meet new friends in a place so far from our homes.

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Our Sunday morning adventure didn’t disappoint. For the first time, we were able to gather with nearly 100 children who had been invited to leave the tough streets of Nairobi to enter the world of Made In The Streets and a future marked with hope.

We were overwhelmed by this opportunity. The worship was different from our experience in Kigali just seven days before. But although this sanctuary didn’t feature giant sound systems, multiple choirs, and a huge crowd, the spirit and the enthusiasm was there. Seems like you can always see that when God is in a place.

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Much of the singing was in Swahili. You haven’t experienced worship until you sing in Swahili — made all the better when you have Malcolm McGuire and Betty Gilmore joining in at your side. We were surrounded by Kenyans and moved by their desire to welcome us into this holy place. Holy place? Not just the church service. The holy place that emerges whenever people come together to do good.

Our gang of peacemakers and travelers were, just moments before, weary and somewhat leery of what was to come. Our shift in training was from adults to children. And, these children. Could we connect with kids who have been through what these have? Living on the streets of Nairobi. Many involved with drugs and crime. Plucked out of a desperate place and dropped here. Here. Right in the lap of people who loved God and, thus, loved them.

Our trial session came that afternoon. Malcolm and Aaron took the lead. For two hours they stood before the recent graduates of Made In The Streets. These 18 and 19 year olds were about to be sent out to jobs they had been trained for and into a world that was waiting for them. And, thanks to Malcolm and Aaron, with some conflict resolution skills that would serve them well.

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As the sun went down in Kamulu, we knew that we had been given this day to reset our outlook and our priorities. In the words of a song we would sing with the children in the next couple of days, “this was the day that the Lord had made” . . . for us.