Long-Lost Friends

I woke up one morning to discover all my friends were dead. Okay, maybe not all my friends, but three of my very best. Granted, I haven’t seen them for decades, yet it still hit me like a bad phone call in the middle of the night; all three of my best childhood friends were dead. And it made me sad. None of them would ever be able to get together with me to share stories and reminisce. I could never reach them by phone or meet up for a drink after a class reunion, nor would any of them ever be available to friend on Facebook.

I had three best buddies growing up. My very first was Dennis Beiter.

Dennis and Me
Dennis and me, August 1966

Dennis and I became fast friends in 1964 when my family moved two doors up the road from him. I was five; son of a Baptist preacher and Dennis, one year my senior, was the son of a Catholic grocer.

My 50-year-old memories of Dennis picture him as a freckle-faced kid with big front teeth and sandy colored hair who typically wore nothing but a plain white t-shirt and blue jeans to play in; and he was always up for an adventure.

We spent most of our days riding our bikes up and down Heinz Road, seeing how far we could coast with no hands. Sometimes we made it for what seemed like miles. But one time I recall only making it to his driveway before I wiped out, planting my face into the fresh tar and gravel.

When we weren’t on our bikes, we were playing in the woods across the road. We enjoyed turning over rocks, looking for bugs and skipping stones in the pond. We were known to spend hours out there, until finally, one of us either wet our pants (usually me) or we thought we heard the mysterious bobcat our big brothers swore lived in those woods.

When the weather was bad, we were in his basement doing what all little boys did in the mid-sixties. We pretended to be the Beatles. (Okay, maybe that’s not typical). At the top of our lungs, we would belt out, “I wanna hold your hand,” while strumming air guitars atop an old kitchen table.

It was your typical 1960’s basement with concrete floor and walls furnished with boxes and worn-out furniture. I remember next to the table was an antiquated refrigerator that I couldn’t help but peak inside any time we were down there. Mainly because it contained things I’d never seen before; things, such as bottles of beer (one would never find that in a Baptist preacher’s fridge) or freshly skinned squirrel carcasses hanging there with their furry tails still intact.

It was in his basement where I had my most traumatic childhood experience. Dennis wanted to show me the giant battleship he’d received for Christmas. We ran downstairs to check it out, but it wasn’t long before we got tired of the battleship and turned our attention to the empty box it had come in. It was long and narrow, with both ends kicked out. My buddy was the first to try it on. He slipped it over his head with his arms out in front, flailing about like the robot from Lost in Space, “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”

It was my turn next. I squeezed into the box and began to shuffle around like a robot when suddenly; I lost my footing and began to fall forward. Because I was confined in that narrow box I was unable to put one foot forward to catch myself and instead began to tip over. That’s when I caught a glimpse of the window leaning up against the wall. As I fell towards it, I must have instinctively covered my face with my left arm and down I crashed, glass shattering all around me, piercing my forehead and slashing a deep gash into my left arm just above the elbow. I remember the blood. Lots and lots of blood. And Dennis’s dad rushing me to my house and my sister crying and my grandma wrapping my arm in a dish towel and then calling my dad to come home and take me to the hospital. It was all so very exciting.

It’s been fifty years since that day. And fifty years since I saw my best friend, Dennis. We moved shortly after that and I never saw him again. But I did call him one time in early 2003. I remember thinking how strange he sounded with his deep bass voice, instead of that six-year-old with whom I had shared so many adventures. We had a great visit over the phone, reminiscing about the old days and our childhood shenanigans and we promised to keep in touch, but of course life moved on and we never spoke again. I heard from his sister recently that he died from esophageal cancer on April 1, 2013.

Dennis was my first best friend. I don’t remember ever quarreling or competing with him. (Except when we argued over who got to be Paul and who had to be John). We both just simply enjoyed playing together and having a good time. Isn’t that what friends are for?

Dear Sally

This morning you awoke before dawn to get ready for the day. You have never been much of a morning person, but today, you were singing. It was a haunting little love song entitled “Happiness” from one of our favorite holiday movies, Scrooge, with Albert Finney.

They say happiness is a thing you can’t see

A thing you can’t touch

I disagree

Happiness is standing beside me

I can see him

He can see me

Happiness is whatever you want it to be.

I believe this song exemplifies our life together. Frankly, our relationship has defied all common sense. “They” said it would never work for two strong-willed, middle-children to get married. “They” said we needed to have more things in common. “They” said we both had too much baggage, too many skeletons, to be able to have a happy marriage, yet here we are, still standing beside one another after 32 years of marriage. We have made it, and we will continue to make it because happiness is whatever we want it to be, and Sally, you are my happiness.

After we watched this movie the other night, you observed that this song, along with many of the songs in the movie, was written in a minor key. How odd is it for a song entitled “Happiness” to be written in minor?  But if you think about it, it’s actually quite appropriate in real life.

Our life together has had many ups and downs, many twists and turns. There have been dark days followed by days of sunshine followed by days of storms. I suppose you could say, our marriage has been like Missouri weather. We’ve fought over money, wrestled with intimacy, tussled with jealousy, contended over control, rejoiced over babies, prayed over sick kids, endured having teenagers, struggled with resentments, wept over betrayals, survived and DEFEATED cancer (10 years!), grieved over lost parents, celebrated accomplishments, enjoyed world travels, danced at weddings, and rocked as grandparents. Yes, our happiness has been challenged with seasons of grief and heartbreak, but that’s what makes our lovesong so beautiful and enduring.

So, happy 32nd anniversary! There’s no one else I would rather dance with, than you, and no other song I’d rather dance to, than ours, a haunting little lovesong, sung in a minor key.

All my love forever,

Tom

What Our Rescue Dog Taught Me About Worship

Sally and I recently adopted a rescue dog, a little ragamuffin Benji-mutt named Trixie. She’s the perfect dog for us; low energy, already house broken, virtually shed-less, and great with grandkids. We couldn’t be happier. And because she’s been such a great dog so far, we’ve gone against all our dog-expert family members’ advise and allowed her free reign of our home. I realize we may pay for this later, but that’s okay, if she messes up in the future at least we’ll have stories to tell our friends.

One of the things I swore I would never do, NEVER EVER, was to let our dog on the couch. But when Trixie walked over to me and looked up at me with those fur-covered peepers, how could I resist? I know, I know, I’m weak and totally useless as an Alpha dog. I’ll leave that up to Sally.

Most evenings, Trixie sits at my feet and lets me pet her. While I pet her, she’ll reach up and lick my hand. I’ll turn and look at her and she’ll look up at me as if to say, “Thanks, master, for rescuing me from the death chamber. Thanks for giving me shelter and food. I love you.” Then she’ll lick my hand again and I’ll reach down and kiss her on her wet nose. It’s all very mushy and a bit undignified.

Did you know the Greek word for worship is Proskuneo, which literally means, “As a dog licking his master’s hand?” That’s right, Trixie worships me. She’s just a dog, but she totally gets it. She understands that I’m her master and she depends on me for everything. She realizes that if it weren’t for me, she could end up on death row with no hope. That’s proskuneo, that’s worship.

Would you be willing to act in such an undignified manner as to lick your Master’s hand? What would proskuneo look like for you?

Finding the Write Meaning

“Sometimes an event occurs in our lives through which we catch a glimpse of what our lives are all about and maybe even what life itself is all about and this glimpse of what “it’s all about” involves not just the present but the past and future too. Inhabitants of time that we are, we stand on such occasions with one foot in eternity.”                                 Frederick Buechner
Writing for me is about stopping the clock and putting one foot in eternity. It allows me to look at life, as it attempts to whiz past unnoticed, and absorb the beauty and meaning in it. Everything I write is, in reality, a thank you note to God. I am taking the time and the opportunity to appreciate the gift of the mundane and random things of life, like the way my wife nibbles on an m&m one at a time, or how my granddaughter sucks her thumb with her fingers open instead of making a fist. Writing takes me on a walk towards gratitude and humility, two things I desperately need in my life.

We are all in search of the meaning in life and it’s only when I write that I am able to focus long enough to discover it.

Big Grandma: Little Grandma

I suppose since both of my grandmothers have passed, I can now safely confess my nicknames for both of them. As a kid, I thought of them as “Big Grandma” and “Little Grandma.” I only told Little Grandma about my secret nicknames, since I figured she’d be okay with it. But I never got around to telling Big Grandma.

My Grandma Wideman was Big Grandma. She was soft and fluffy. I remember getting rocked by her as a small child. Why this stands out to me, is because it wasn’t in a rocking chair. Big Grandma could rock with the best of them, no rocker required. Snuggling up against her was like being enveloped in love. She loved through her hands, whether it was a caress or a swat, you knew it was all love. She ministered to her kids and grandbabies whenever there was a fever or upset stomach; Big Grandma always knew what to do.

Then came the time when Big Grandma was the one that got ill. Parkinson’s ravished her body as she slowly deteriorated through the last decade of her life. Big Grandma became tiny grandma, frail and dependent on those whom she had served and loved. Big Grandma showed Big Love to everyone she knew, no matter their size or stature.

Little Grandma was a farmer’s wife. She gardened, took care of the chickens, fed table scraps to stray animals, and had breakfast, lunch and dinner on the table everyday right on schedule, unless Grandpa had a hankerin’ for a burger in town. She would cook up a spread fit for her king and then dine like a pauper to keep her beauty queen figure. She was stylish with matching purse and heels every Sunday at church where she took her place at the organ. She taught all her children and grandkids to love music and play the piano. She ministered to her kids and grandbabies by taking pictures and filming home movies.

Little Grandma lived a long, healthy life, I suppose from eating all that organic food she grew on the farm. But then at the age of 91, she was ready to join her husband and family who had gone before her. She was dressed in her finest, her hair beautifully coiffed and she was happy to go Home.

 

 

Grandpa: Truck Driver

My truck-driving grandpa lived life the same way he smoked his Lucky Strikes, unfiltered.

He died a month before my fifth birthday. It was the first time I learned smoking could kill you. It seemed everyone was just discovering this in 1963.

Before the cancer, he was a husband, father and grandfather. Most everyone respected him, or should I say, they feared him. I was too young to really fear him as much as just awe him.

While I don’t remember any conversation I ever had with him, I do recall family times together. He would greet his grandkids with a smile and a tousle of the hair, that would last as long as we behaved. But as soon as we got too loud or out of control, the bad mood would start. As a small child I was able to recognize how the climate changed in the house whenever he was around.

He kept his teeth in a glass and smelled of Absorbine Jr. His ears stuck out like the opened doors of his 1949 Carryall-Suburban.

As I got older, my dad and his six siblings told stories about grandpa that made the hair stand at attention on the back of my neck. Stories of a different man than I ever knew.

While I didn’t know him well, this is what I do know about my grandpa, the truck driver. He was smart enough to marry Kate, who birthed him seven great kids and kept them clothed, fed and generally healthy during the Great Depression and WWII. He was blessed to have three sons become preachers and two more become deacons, in spite of the fact he never once took them to church. He had two beautiful daughters who grew up to be strong and loving wives and mothers who could spin great stories and make everyone feel loved and accepted.

Grandpa was a flawed man with very little to his name, yet he still recognized the importance and value of family. While it’s true we may pass on some of the sins of the father, let’s not forget, we can also pass on some of the blessings as well. That’s a lesson every grandpa needs to learn.

Grandpa: Farmer

My grandpa was part of the last generation of great American farmers, before they went all soft and high-tech. He and his wife, Gert reared four strong and handsome children on their family farm. A sanctuary of rolling hills and river bluffs in the Mississippi river bottom he and his brother cleared off with an axe, a saw and their four calloused hands. A six-room house built with hand-honed bricks made from the sand out of the creek running through their lower pasture. The red dairy barn covered in tin-roofing, flanked by a sentinel stone silo  and surrounded by a family of mismatched  stone and frame sheds and well-houses.

Through the eyes of his admiring grandson, I thought the farm was as much a part of him, as grandma was. They all went together. Their own sacred trinity.

Grandpa was a weathered old barn, always open to friends, as well as a variety of stray animals and hobos walking the tracks down by the river. He was a massive old silo that stood strong as he weathered floods and droughts through years of changing seasons. Grandpa was formed out of the same sandy soil that provided the home for his family; a fortress against the elements and evil of his day. He was honed and chiseled by Life, bearing the scars and marks that only served to make him stronger.

Grandpa also had his soft side as well. Whether it was his twanging out love songs to his sweetheart while driving into town for an ice cream, or letting his granddaughters give him a makeover and pedicure, he was always a gentle touch with his girls. He was a man of faith, who prayed for rain to fall and floodwaters to recede and taught the men’s Sunday School class for several decades at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church.

Today, as a grandpa myself, I see the old man looking back at me while I shave. I see his wrinkles and scars, his same thinning hair and expanding belly. I pray I will see the same godly qualities as well.

Responding to Tragedy

12 dead, 50 wounded, all shot in a movie theater. No, this isn’t somewhere in the Middle East, it’s here in America. Not that that should matter, but to be honest, I guess it does to me. I suppose I’ve found some way to emotionally disconnect myself from the tragedies that occur in places where I’ve never been. So when I hear the news stories about 12 dead or even 12-hundred dead in places like Syria, or Iran, I just divert my attention to something more pleasant like, say, a snack maybe, or a “King of Queens” rerun. Surely it’s on somewhere.

But this tragedy hits closer to home. Just two states over, in Aurora, Colorado. I’ve been there or at least I’ve driven through there on my way to somewhere else. The point is, this affects me more personally and therefore I’m more willing to connect emotionally and allow myself to even grieve a little.

I realize this makes me sound like a narcissistic jerk, but I’m just trying to process this honestly. And honestly, I am very narcissistic in how I live my life and view the world around me. It’s pretty much all about me. I know it’s not supposed to be, but it is. I have sought to change this in my life and I have made some pretty good strides in this area, but I suppose it will be a lifelong struggle for me.

Anyway, the point of this blog was not supposed to be all about me. (See how sneaky narcissism is). But I guess I’ll just go with it since I don’t want this to be a real long blog.

Tragedies like these tend to change our perspective on our current reality. They mess with our priorities. Thinking about the families of the dead and injured victims has stopped me from obsessing over my sore toe, at least for now. It’s caused me to think more about my family. I want to talk to them… to hug them.

Just before Sally left for work this morning, she remembered that she needed to deliver a message from someone at church who had a minor complaint. It bugged me and made me grunt under my breath. About an hour after she left, I realized I didn’t kiss her goodbye. Today, of all days, as our nation grieves over the senseless loss of life, this is the day to remember to cherish those we love.

I’m stopping here, because I need to head to Sally’s work and make things right.

 

 

Here’s to All the Human Dads

I feel I must include the word “human,” not as a way to differentiate from other members of the animal kingdom, but as a way to distance ourselves from our own narcissistic expectations of superheroism. All human dads are just that, human; imperfect, fallen, sinful, messed up.

Frankly, I think everyone is too hard on human dads. I guess it’s easy for me to say, since I am one. But really, nearly every time you turn on the TV all you see are dads being portrayed as the doofus, the villain or the butt of the joke.

But not only does our popular culture like to belittle dads, I see the church doing the same or worse. While the media likes to make fun of dads, the church seems to get off on shaming them. If you don’t believe me, go to church on Fathers day. Often you’ll hear shame-filled sermons masquerading as pep talks for dad’s to “step it up.”

Yes, I know dads all have room for improvement and it’s important for us to be challenged. But challenging us is not the same thing as shaming us. We are all human men who cannot live up to the high biblical standards 24/7. We are not perfect. We are forgiven.

We are men who struggle balancing our time between marriage, family, career and church. We get it wrong much of the time. We feel the pressure and tension of trying to provide for our family financially while also giving our time and our selves emotionally. We struggle with our friendships and our relationships. Most of us don’t really have close friendships. We feel isolated. That isolation can trigger temptations in our lives. We find ourselves tempted with lust, greed and power. We fall into temptations that bring us more shame and cause us to isolate ourselves even more.

So, if all we are going to get at church is a big heaping dose of shame, why bother? We’re good at shaming ourselves; we don’t need any assistance in that department.

So, here’s to all the human dads out there. I want you to know that God loves you just as you are. He sees your crap and loves you anyway. He knows you’re not perfect, but he thinks you’re priceless. He sent his Son to pay the price because he knew you couldn’t keep from breaking the law over and over again. My challenge for all human dads is that we reject the shame and embrace the grace, freely given by the only true Perfect Dad.

Happy Human Fathers Day!

The Pulpit and the Bobcat

As Sally and I started on our Saturday morning walk, we noticed a fox run across our street heading toward the creek behind our house. I think it’s pretty cool having wild critters running around our neighborhood. But as a little kid, that would have freaked me out. I still remember the recurring nightmares about wild animals under my bed.

When I was around six-years-old, we lived in the parsonage behind First Baptist Church of Oakville in South St. Louis County. Oakville was your typical post-World War II suburb that had been developed in the middle of farmland close to where the Meramec ran into the Mississippi river. Along with the acres upon acres of undeveloped woods, there were many other great places for a six-year-old to explore; including a goat farm, a privately owned dump and a ravine full of stuff thrown out of the original church building when we built our new sanctuary with the steeple.

Local legend, as reported by my older brother, was that a wild bobcat lived in the woods surrounding the ravine. My friend, Dennis and I loved to explore the ravine. We treated it like an ancient archeological site, but we also knew we needed to stay alert to the possible attack of “the bobcat.” Anytime we heard the rustle of a leaf or the screech of tires from the nearby traffic on Telegraph Road, we would stop what we were doing and look around for the mysterious cat.

In the middle of the ravine, filled with old Sunday school records and worn out and broken furniture, sat a humongous pulpit. This was not your ornate, high and mighty Catholic or even Presbyterian pulpit. This was an orangey-beige with speckles-painted particleboard, beat-up old Southern Baptist pulpit.  It sat cattywampus next to several boxes of old Life magazines that my dad often regretted having thrown away. It was so big, that my buddy and I would both crawl in it and hide whenever we felt the presence of “the bobcat.” We’d sit in there, sweating from the lack of air, browsing through old Life magazines until we thought the coast was clear.

As I pondered that memory this morning on our walk, I asked Sally what she thought could be the theological take-away from that story. Her only response was that it just sounded like a couple of stupid boys playing. (Maybe that’s why girls were never allowed in our pulpit-fort).

Yes, we were just a couple of “stupid boys playing,” but at least we had the sense to know where to go when we were afraid.

What would you say is the theological and/or spiritual lesson from this childhood story? Or do you have a childhood story/theological lesson that you want to share?