Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Old Man Can't" Just Died

I have been reading a book which I gave to my father for his 80th birthday, Clarence Thomas’ “My Grandfather’s Son.” My father liked it so much that he mailed it back to me to read so we could talk about it. Thomas was nominated and confirmed as an associate justice to the Supreme Court in 1991, the culmination of an extraordinary journey from hard-scrabble roots in rural Georgia. His father left the family when he was two, and his mother gave him and his brother to her father to raise when he was seven. Thomas’ grandfather, Myers Anderson, whom Thomas lovingly and respectfully refers to as “Daddy,” was a tough, proud, self-reliant, no-nonsense, hard-working black man with a 3rd grade education who ran his own fuel oil business and did other work on the side to provide for his family and live as independently as possible during the racist Jim Crow era of the Deep South.

Thomas tells how, upon moving in with Daddy, he and his brother were told “the party is over.” Thomas couldn’t figure out which party Daddy was referring to, since he had been living in poverty and virtual squalor with his mother. But Daddy was referring to the kind of aimless living that included skipping school, wandering the neighborhood, and playing in the dirt streets. The new routine would include rising before dawn, helping deliver fuel oil, doing chores, going to school, doing more chores after school, playing a little outside, and then working on homework until bedtime. “Never let the sun catch you in bed,” Daddy said. And never give excuses. “ ‘Old Man Can’t’ just died, and I killed him,” Daddy would say. Don’t tell me why you can’t do something; figure out a way to do it. This is a great country. Never think of yourself as a victim. Stand up for your values. Daddy sent Thomas to private religious schools to give him the best education possible in that area. Later, when Thomas helped his grandparents with some tax accounting, he couldn’t believe they never made more than $7,000 a year and still managed to fund his private education.

As you might imagine, Thomas eventually rebelled against this kind of upbringing. He went off to college, “broadened his mind” and determined that Daddy was hopelessly naïve about the state of the world. They butted heads continuously. When he had moved in, Daddy told him, “The door swings both ways.” Eventually the door swung outwards when Daddy kicked him out. But over the course of the next twenty years Thomas came to a renewed appreciation and respect for his grandfather’s character and convictions, and the Supreme Court justice whose circles include the Best, Brightest and Most Accomplished People in the world will tell you that Daddy was the greatest man he has ever known.

Labor Day was created as a tribute to the contributions workers have made to the prosperity and well-being of our country. Thomas’ tribute to his grandfather is, among other things, a grateful tribute to the work ethic Daddy modeled and instilled in him and to the salutary effects of good, honest hard work. Work is biblical: God created us to “till and keep” the garden and to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 2:15).

As we rest from our labor this weekend may we appreciate anew the blessing of work. Sun up or sun down.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Magnetic Moments

Last Sunday was a bonanza day for me as a sports fan. On Sunday afternoon I watched the final round of the PGA, one of the four “Majors” in professional golf. Padraig Harrington (Ireland), Sergio Garcia (Spain) and Ben Curtis (United States) battled through the final nine holes in the equivalent of a three-horse stretch run. It was captivating to watch hole after hole and wonder who would falter and who would reach deep down and find that extra bit of brilliance to make the great shot and surge ahead. Garcia faltered, Curtis stayed steady but couldn’t surge, and Harrington, the unassuming but steely-eyed Irishman with the blue-collar work ethic, made one clutch shot after another to win by a length. It was inspiring on a number of levels, not least of which was because he won the last major, the British Open, and one couldn’t help but wonder if here is finally the man to step up and challenge Tiger Woods. Every great player needs a rival to bring out his true best: Nicklaus had Palmer, Borg had McEnroe, Affirmed had Alydar, the city of Houston has Dallas. Tiger needs someone to stay with him down the stretch.

One particularly intriguing thing about the competition was not knowing who would find that extra something that sets apart the great from the good. On Sunday evening that person was Jason Lezak, the 32-year old, third-time-Olympian anchor of the U.S. Men’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay team. The French team was favored and had talked of how they would “smash” the Americans. Oh, please. But even Rowdy Gaines, the American swimming commentator and former Olympian, said before the race, “I’ve put this down on paper a million times and I just can’t see how the Americans win it.”

The race proceeded according to predictions until the final leg, when the French world record holder for the distance, Alain Bernard, hit the pool almost a body length ahead and held the lead through the first turn. Even with only 25 meters to go he had a relatively significant edge of several feet. But somehow, showing incredible grit and tenacity, Lezak caught him and won by an inch (8/100 of a second). Afterward, Lezak recalled thinking when he dove in, “This guy is pretty far ahead, almost a body length. I’m not going to give up. This is doable.” The swimming venue exploded at the race’s finish; no one could believe what had just happened. It was truly one of the most dramatic sporting events anyone had seen. Lezak had swum the fastest relay leg in history, and the American team had, ahem, smashed the world record as well as the French team’s psyche, who to their credit, once the shock wore off, were gracious in defeat.

I had to cheer quietly because my lovely bride was asleep beside me; we watched the tape the next morning. Later that day West Houston’s staff watched it on You Tube. It was simply one of those magnetic moments that makes you feel the exhilaration of witnessing surpassing excellence, courage and commitment.

“I’m not going to give up. This is doable.” Do you have a dream that requires that kind of determination and grit? We all need challenges to bring out our best.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Knowing Papa

A few months ago, after I finished teaching a Wednesday night class at West Houston and turned to chat with some folks, someone slipped a copy of William P. Young’s surprising best-seller novel, “The Shack,” on my lectern and walked away unrecognized. This was a sweet and thoughtful gesture and I want to thank whoever did it!

Young wrote “The Shack” for his six children as a Christmas present. No publisher was interested, so two friends helped him self-publish it and established a promotional budget of $300. The rest is history: “The Shack” recently sold its millionth copy, has been on numerous best-seller lists, and is the basis for a planned movie.

The story is indeed captivating. A man named Mackenzie (“Mack”) Phillips experiences a terrible tragedy in his family and begins a period of his life in which “the great sadness” envelops him. Married and with children, he yet lives in a blanket of spiritual and emotional numbnesss. One day he receives a note from God (“Papa”) inviting him to return to the remote shack in eastern Oregon where the tragedy took place. He spends a weekend there in conversation with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each manifested in surprisingly human ways.

Young refers to his story as a “parable,” and has said that the book’s title is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain.” His character, Mack, is “basically autobiographical.” Indeed, he wrote the book at his wife’s prodding to explain to their six children his decade long journey of healing with God. Young spent the first six years of his life in New Guinea among the Dani, a technologically stone-age people to whom his parents were missionaries. By the time he was sent off to boarding school at age six, he was in most respects a white Dani. His parents returned to the West a few years later and he spent his childhood moving around Canada as his father ministered in small churches. Young never identifies (in his interviews, to my knowledge) the source of his own wounds but clearly the church played a significant negative role.

I was not mesmerized by “The Shack” as many others have been, but I found it to be a tender and thoughtful story of visiting and talking with a God (in three persons -- Father, Son, Spirit) who loves his children, feels their pain, and walks with them through their tragedies even as he (often) allows these tragedies to happen. This novel reminded me in a refreshing, inspiring and powerful way that the Christian faith is based in a RELATIONSHIP, and if we lose our experience of that relationship, the Christian life can be dry and routine. And while it certainly is not a theological treatise, the Shack gives some pretty good “answers” from “Papa” to Mack about why he allows the world to stumble along as it does, so filled with pain and pathos.

I am reminded of an old story in which an old and a young minister preach sermons on the Shepherd’s Psalm (Psalm 23) on successive Sundays at the same congregation. Afterwards, a wise older member sums up the difference: the young preacher knows the psalm, the old preacher knows the Shepherd. Reading the Shack will make you want to better know the Shepherd, the one whom Jesus calls “Abba,” or “Papa.” And that’s always a good thing.