Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Are We Building? Walls or Bridges?

     I have heard it said that there really are no new thoughts. Maybe that's true, because as I thought about my weekly blog installment, I thought maybe I had a pretty original, clever analogy to share with you. A curious Google search quickly proved that many others have been moved to write about the same thing. So be it. I still want to present my thoughts on the subject of walls and bridges. The basic premise is easy enough to grasp. Bridges unite; walls divide and separate. Its true in the original meaning of the word, and it is true in the allegorical sense as it applies to people. So here are a few things I want to think about. (Yes, I'm preaching mostly to myself here.)

     Which is more common, walls or bridges? Which is easier to construct, walls or bridges? Maybe it's different for you, but for me it's more common and easier to construct walls than bridges. Not that I want it to be that way, but it seems to me to be the way we humans are inclined to be. We build most walls to hide aspects of ourselves from other people. To some extent that is a good thing, because it keeps us civilized. Imagine if we just allowed some of our primal instincts to be exposed, uninhibited. We all have unsettling thoughts and temptations creep in on us often enough. We should be grateful for the walls that keep these things at bay. They are the good walls, and we should keep them erected, and strong. But what about the kind of walls we put up to keep others away from us? I suppose it could be argued that some of those walls are needed as well, but that is not my focus. I want to make myself think about the walls we build that limit or even damage our relationships with other people. Let's take a look at some wall building methods and materials.

     If you examine the walls in our lives, I think we can see some interesting features. One of the most common types of walls is made from the bricks and mortar of misjudgment.  A very frustrating thing I deal with on both a personal and professional basis, is the fact that we are quick to jump to conclusions. We have a need to have a complete picture of things in our minds. When we don't truly have all the necessary information, we tend to make up the missing details. Let me give a simple, but fairly common example. Let's say I'm at church (could be school, work, etc.) and I pass someone and they don't speak to me. Here we go. My mind will start making up the missing parts of the story, just as if I knew it was the gospel truth. I think they must be angry with me. Or maybe I think they don't like me, or that they're a snob. It must be something like that, right? So I start putting the first bricks up in my new wall. But the truth is, we are often wrong. Maybe that person had a problem they were thinking about and wasn't even focused on what was going on around them. Or maybe they didn't feel well and weren't acting like themselves. My point is that there are alternate explanations many times we don't even consider. Why do we always go to the worst case scenario first? We think we have a complete lock down on why others act they way they do. The fact is, we don't, and we build walls that don't need to be built.

     There are other walls that go up in similar fashion and with the same basic materials of assumption. How many times do we fall victim to the evil effects of gossip? This usually comes in the guise of someone coming "as a friend" to inform us of something we need to know. We accept what they say as absolute truth and work double time to get our wall started. Its often impossible to track down the origins of a rumor, but what  can usually be seen is that as the story develops, its gets enhanced for better consumption and greater impact. The originators and spreaders of these wall building bricks rarely get their facts right and cause unimaginable damage to relationships around them. I wonder how many walls I have built in my lifetime based on at least partially false information. Think about it. You may have a few of your own.

     By no means is this an exhaustive list of methods and materials. For example, we didn't consider the green walls built because of pride and jealousy. For the next few days, I am going to try and be aware of the walls in my life. Maybe you will do the same. Let's evaluate why we built them and whether or not we really need them. Maybe we can start tearing some of them down, brick by brick if we have to. Building walls comes easily and naturally for most of us. Tearing them down, is difficult. But next time, I hope to have a few thoughts developed on the hardest challenge of all, but the challenge that if met produces the greatest rewards and satisfaction, You guessed it- building bridges.

     Until next time......Steve ( )


Sunday, December 23, 2012

The $5.00 Christmas Tree

     Two men sat in a small metal building on the parking lot of a supermarket. An electric heater glowed orange and at least took some of the chill out of the December air. They were both members of a local civic organization and they had drawn the short straw to man the annual Christmas tree lot on this Saturday night. Their club raised money each year from the sales of Christmas trees. Business had been steady enough, but the main rush had been the weekend before, so the men had time to sit and talk. They only had about an hour to go, before closing the lot for the evening. For about the first forty-five minutes of that hour, no one had pulled up, and they actually thought about just closing fifteen minutes early, but just before they did, a car slowly pulled up and stopped just outside the door of their make-shift shack.  

      As they watched, an elderly woman opened the car door. The first thing they saw was a walking cane came protruding from the car. The old lady carefully positioned the cane for safety and finally stepped out.
She was bundled up so much, that they wondered how long it had taken her to get ready to get out and brave the cold. She was dressed for the Christmas season, with a bright red scarf topping everything off. Under the scarf they could see her snow white hair. One of the men told the other one, "why don't you finish up in here, and I'll wait on this lady." He stepped out into the cold and cheerfully greeted the old matron with a loud, "Merry Christmas! May I help you?"

     "I hope you can help me find a nice Christmas tree," she replied.

     "I'll sure try," he said. He pointed out which section had which type and sizes of trees, secretly hoping she wasn't going to be overly picky.

     "I just love Christmas time and always enjoy my live trees. I guess it's okay for some folks, but I just don't like the artificial trees. I know I have to be careful with my money now that I'm a widow, but I think the Lord will forgive me this once a year extravagance."

     "I'm sure He will," answered the man.

      As they walked around the lot, his hopes of doing this quickly began to die. However, as they walked and talked, the Christmas tree man learned more about her. He learned that her husband of over sixty years had recently passed away and left large medical bills for her to deal with on a tight and fixed income. He also found out about her own health concerns, She told him about her kids and grand kids and what she was going to have for Christmas dinner. She explained that her family all lived a distance away and that she didn't get to see them often, and how she wanted to host them at her modest little house in a nice, festive atmosphere. The way she told him these things weren't done in a complaining way, nor in a way to make people feel sorry for her. She genuinely expressed joy for the season.

     Before he realized it, they had drifted into the section where the more expensive trees stood. She came across one of these and got very excited. "Look at this one," she said. "Its branches are perfect and it's the perfect size. And it's only five dollars!" In her excitement, she had misread the price tag. The tree was marked as costing fifty dollars. 

     Realizing the mistake the old lady had made, the man just said, "yes, it's a great tree for five dollars. I'll load it in the back of your car for you." 

     The tree now loaded, they stepped into the shack to complete the transaction. He told her, "that will be five dollars, please." He quickly glanced at his partner to indicate he shouldn't say anything.

     The lady took four one dollar bills and four quarters out of her purse and paid for the tree. After exchanging "Merry Christmas" with each other, she made her way slowly back to her car and finally drove off. As she was doing this, the man took two twenty dollar bills and a five and put in the cash box. His partner asked, "you just bought that lady's Christmas tree, didn't you?"

     "I was hoping you hadn't noticed, but yes I did. She misread the price tag and I didn't have the heart to correct her, so I just let her have it for five dollars."

     Matthew 6:3 says, "But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," The generous man never told me this story, his partner did. One of the men was my very own brother. You can decide which one it was.

    Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fred's Important Lesson For Me

Fred's Important Lesson For Me

When I was a boy, I lived near Fred and Lucille. They were old. Very old. When I got big enough to push a lawnmower, Fred hired me to be his "yard man." I would go once a week and mow his grass, trim, and generally clean his yard. Being that this occurred during the summer, and I grew up in Texas, it was plenty hot. Fred would always have me take a break and invite me to sit on the porch to cool off and have some refreshments. It was during those breaks that Fred would regale me with stories. I delighted in hearing about his adventures in France as a World War I dough-boy. I felt that I was in the presence of some mystical greatness, because Fred had actually met and shook hands with General Black Jack Pershing. And so it was that during these sessions, I began to see Fred as an adopted grandfather. 

My relationship with Fred was strong enough, that even after I was in college and no longer his yard man, I was a frequent visitor. I guess I was just too hooked on those old stories to give them up. As I was visiting once, about this time of the year, I noticed Fred hadn't put up a Christmas tree. When I asked him why, he replied simply, "oh, that's for when you have kids around." Sensing that there was more to it than that, I went into action. I got with several of my friends, and my girlfriend, (who is now my wife.) We all pitched in a couple of dollars and bought a Christmas tree, decorations, and refreshments. The next Saturday night, we showed up at Fred and Lucille's house and had a surprise Christmas party. As suspected, Fred and Lucille were thrilled. We told them to just enjoy the tree and we would come back after Christmas and clean everything up for them. As we were leaving that night, Fred stopped me as I was walking out the door. He had a tear rolling down his cheek as he said, "boy, I ought to whip you." That was Fred's distinctive way of saying, "thank you." I left feeling good because I had done something for someone else- from the heart. But that wasn't the end. Fred was still going to teach me something.

A few days later, I got word that Fred wanted to see me. Dutifully, I went when called. I walked in and asked what he wanted with me. Fred slowly made his way over to his writing desk and took out his checkbook. He signed a blank check and gave me his instructions. "Since I can't go do this myself, I want you to go to the store and pick out a nice turkey and all the trimmings. I want to treat you and your family to Christmas dinner." I started to protest that he shouldn't do this, but then I saw something in his ninety-four year old eyes that said without words, "I still can give too, and I need to do this for you." As graciously as I could, I accepted his offer. This time, it was me leaving with a tear running down my cheek.

That was the best Christmas dinner I ever had. Not because the food was any better,but because it came with the last lesson Fred ever had a chance to teach me. That is this: no matter how old we get, we still have a need to be needed by others, and that includes being able to give sometimes. Thank you, Fred.