Sunday, February 26, 2012

What Matters Most

The way you treat the person you love the least is the way you love God the most.”
--Glenn Kaiser on “Glenn's Rap”, the last track of the excellent 1984 Live Bootleg album from Resurrection Band

The Gift. Sometimes, going through the motions of living our lives, with all its demands, distractions, pressures, obligations, pleasures, it is easy to forget the things that matter most. I find this is especially true in my own life, being alone and on the road most of the time. It's easy for my perspective to narrow, turn inward, and think everything revolves around me if I'm not paying attention (and sometimes even if I am).

Charles Hummell, in a book he wrote called Tyrany of the Urgent, observed that a great danger of modern life was letting the noisy cry of the urgent take our focus away from what was important.

Sometimes, for me, it takes a radical change to regain my perspective, rearrange my priorities, become centered once again in what matters most. Such an experience came about for me last December.

I had just returned to Topeka after being on the road and everything seemed as it should in most ways. I went to the doctor about some pain in one of my legs that wasn't going away. Several hours later, I was in the hospital. Diagnosis: blood clot.

At such a time, I felt more alone, more disconnected from everything and everyone important to me than I had in a long time. Here I was in Kansas, and everyone I loved was mostly in Georgia, Texas, or California. I felt stranded.

It helped immensely to have the presence and kindness of my great friend Terry Roberts, and his wife, Shannon. When Shannon visited me in the hospital, and later, when I was home, brought home-cooked food by, I was riveted by the fact that in these small acts of compassion and friendship was a reminder to me of what really matters most.

Later on, faced with the prospect of not being able to work for a month, being alone in my apartment, with no income, I could feel myself sliding to the edge of despondency.

Then, my Daddy called. Aware of my situation, he asked me what I would think of the idea of him using his frequent flier miles to fly me down to Florida so that I could be there for Christmas. As he put it, “If you are gonna be out of work and home anyway, it would be better if you could be around people who love you.”

I became like a little kid opening his Christmas presents. Not only did I get to fly to Florida, but we were able to drive up to Georgia, and I was able to spend the holidays with my family there. What a precious gift!

And through the help and support of my Daddy, Mama, and friends, I made it through that month out of work without being late on one bill and without starving (I know, I know, it would take a while – you hecklers in the back there, feel free to move on to the blog down the street).

And, perhaps most important of all, I was reconnected to what matters most.

One Little Boy. Another thing that helps me stay connected to what matters most is the relationship I have with a 10 year old boy and his family here in Topeka through Big Brothers Big Sisters (an awesome organization that does wonderful work across the country). His name is Jon.

Every week when I come off the road, Jon and I hang out for a couple of hours, doing fun stuff, working on homework, watching movies (one of the favorite things for both of us), eating out, playing at the park. It's not so important what we do as that we spend that time together. And every week, when I drive up to the house, and Jon runs out the front door screaming, “Allan's here! Woohoo!”, I am reminded that what I'm doing isn't just spending time with one little boy. I'm involved in what matters most, making an investment in eternity.

Amy Carmichael. When I was in college and just beginning my work in the ministry, I came across the writings and life of missionary Amy Carmichael, who established an orphanage in India. She quickly became one of my heroines in faith and ministry.

One of the first biographies I ever read of her, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur, by Frank Houghton, recounts a story in Amy's own words of an experience she had as a young girl. The book is in storage in Georgia, so I can't quote it directly, or I would. My paraphrase will perhaps serve the purpose.

When she was young and living in Belfast, Ireland, her family had just come out of church on a rainy, blustery Sunday, and were walking home. Into the crowd of church-goers walking along, coming from the opposite direction, was a poor woman bundled up in rags trying to carry a load that was quickly becoming too much for her.

Amy and her younger brother ran over to the lady to help her with the bags, much to the consternation of the more well-to-do and fashionable church-goers, for whom such an act was scandalous, to be seen with or around one of the town's poor. As people looked and gaped, Amy and her brother helped the woman along the rain-soaked streets of Belfast. They passed a fountain, and from behind, Amy heard a voice as clearly as any she had ever heard: “Wood, hay, stubble; gold, silver, precious stones.”

She turned around to see who had spoken, and there was no one. But what was said shook her, and she was never the same again. “From that moment,” she wrote, “I knew that the only things that would matter were the eternal.”

What matters most.

Warren Buffett. I recently finished an excellent biography of Warren Buffett, The Snowball. One of the most interesting anecdotes in the book occurs toward the end, as Warren Buffett, in his 80's, is looking back over the span of his life. One of the most successful men in history in many ways, the way many reckon success, he said something that riveted my attention and resonated deeply with me.

He said that the measure of his success as a man wasn't how much money he made, how much money he gave away, what happened to all the successes and failures of businesses with which he was associated. He said, instead, that the measure of how successful his life had been at the end would be how many people there were in the world who loved him, and whom he loved in return.

What matters most.

What matters most: a personal story. To conclude this meditation on what matters most, I offer this illustration that serves to remind me over and over again what that means.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting some people very dear to me, whose family I have been connected with for almost 30 years, and who are as dear to me as my own flesh and blood. As I was hugging people and telling them good-bye (I was on my way to move to Topeka), there was present a young lady in her mid-teens who is part of this extended family, and who grew up knowing who I was to them, but had not been around me much herself.

This young lady, at such a young age, has been through much pain in her life. She has family who love her, but the people who should be there for her the most have effectively abandoned her, orphaned her in a practical sense. There is no risk factor I am aware of that she is not touched by in some fashion, and many in society would write her off, say her situation is bleak, even hopeless.

Passing through the house where I was on my way out the door, this young lady happened to be walking toward me, and for a moment there was no one else around. As I saw her, our eyes met, and I stopped. She stopped.

Not even knowing why I did it at the time, but feeling like it was something I should do, I looked at her and said, addressing her by name, “I know you have been through a lot for someone so young. I know you feel like no one cares and you have no one in this world sometimes. But I want you to know that God loves you and is here for you, and I love you and I am here for you. I am in your corner, I am for you, never against you, and will believe in you no matter what. There is nothing you can do or not do, nothing that can happen to you, that will change how God feels about you or how I feel about you. I want you to always remember that.”

She started crying, she hugged me, and she said, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Months later, I am in Topeka, that incident largely forgotten. My phone rings and I answer. It is this young lady. She was in a horrible situation, scared, lonely, and didn't know what to do. So she called me and talked to me because she believed the words I had said to her that night.

I listened, encouraged, and prayed for her as best I could.

She is through that crisis, is doing well, and I am very proud of the way she has dealt with the challenges she has faced at such a young age, when, by all that's right, she shouldn't be facing them at all.

But every so often, every few months, she will call me or text me, just to say hello and let me know how she's doing or just to talk. All because of a few words spoken about what matters most.

The end of the matter. As I've pondered these things over the past few weeks, thinking about what matters most, my hope in writing this is to prompt you to think about these things as well. What is there in our lives that will remain after we are gone? It's the love we share with those we are connected to and the influence we leave in the lives of others. It makes everything else, all the daily struggles and challenges not matter so much when we consider what matters most.

You can't give away what you don't have, as they say. If you are someone who is trapped in the tyranny and futility of a performance-based religion, and you don't have a relationship with a God who loves like I've alluded to, I would encourage you to find out about such a God.

One of the best things I'm aware of that talks about how much God loves us and, more than anything else, wants relationship with us, is the book The Shack. I commend it to you.

My prayer is that we will all become more aware of and focus on what matters most.

Be well until next time . . . blessings and peace to you.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Three Years After "Four Years Later"

Note: this was originally written in 2009 as part of an entry in my old blog, Lonesome Dove Xpress-ions. Like the Valentine's Day entry from yesterday, this post over the years has gotten more response than almost anything else. There are some new comments at the end. – Allan

Four Years Later. It was four years ago today that she and I, with many tears and much travail, walked into the Lake County Courthouse and ended our marriage of ten years.

For a long time, thinking of this day only brought pain and regret. Now, it prompts other thoughts. And, when such thoughts come, I must write. So, now, I write.

It is perhaps fitting that, having begun as friends, our friendship is what remains after all. I treasured that friendship in the beginning, and treasure it now.

I am glad that four years later, we have both moved past the hurt and pain of our parting, and I think that in very important ways both of us are better, stronger, more whole as people than we were four years ago. We have both found some level of happiness and contentment, and for that I am thankful.

As I think about this day, I think not so much about our separation and the ending of our marriage as about the ten years we had together. And I think about it with joy.

She was my love of a lifetime, and in our ten years, I loved for a lifetime. I seek no other, can imagine no other love.

Thoughts of that time bring small remembrances from the treasure house of my heart where such things are stored.

I remember her laughter, and how it brought joy to my heart to hear it. I remember making her coffee every morning so she could wake up slowly while watching HGTV. I remember our Thursday nights watching “Friends” and “ER”.

I remember our Friday night date nights, especially those that found us over at Mom and Dad's playing gin rummy.

I remember cooking breakfast on Saturday mornings.

I remember her thrill at finding a treasure at the thrift store, a yard sale, or the flea market.

I remember her touch, her smile, her kiss, her love. I remember the way she felt in my arms. I remember how right the world was lying next to her, snuggling on those rare cold nights in Florida.

I remember, and am glad.

The end of the matter is this:

Four years later, I still miss her.

Four years later, I still love her.

Four years later, I remain, and ever shall be, though time itself should cease and fail to mark the span since we parted, truly hers.

Three Years After “Four Years Later”: 2012. Though I didn't realize it when I wrote it in 2009, this blog entry represented a real turning point in my heart and my journey toward healing and wholeness. After years of regret and hurt, remembering what I had lost, I found in writing this that I was now able to remember the good, treasure the joy of what I had in my marriage to Charlotte.

In the time since I originally wrote this, Charlotte found love again and is now married to a good man from all accounts I have. That was an answer to a prayer we had both prayed for a long time.

Three years after “Four Years Later”, I don't mark my calendar by the date this anniversary rolls around so much, and if I note it, it is with the joy of gratitude for what we had during those years we were together and not with the pain and regret of what was lost. Today, I am more prone to look ahead to the future than behind at what is past. I am hopeful, grateful, and content. A man cannot ask for much more than that.

Three years after “Four Years Later”, I am a better man, in part because of what I had with Charlotte. For that, I will always be thankful.

Three years after “Four Years Later”, all is well.

I pray it is so with you.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day: A Personal History (Revisited)

Note: this entry was originally part of an entry published February 14, 2008, on my old blog, Lonesome Dove Xpress-ions. That post is one of my favorites, and over the years has received more comments from folks via e-mail and phone than almost anything I've ever written. I have edited it somewhat and written some new thoughts at the end. I hope you enjoy reading it. – Allan

Valentine's Day.  First of all, if you have someone in your life with whom you celebrate this special day, I hope you enjoy it and are able to renew commitments to all that this day represents. I don't technically fall into that category, but while I was driving today and listening to all the talk on the radio about this day, my mind wandered to thoughts of my own Ghosts of Valentines Past.

And, as sometimes happens in this blog when something is on my mind, I thought to write about it somewhat. Feel free to peer over my shoulder as I do so.

M. H. 1971. Trenton, Georgia. I was in kindergarten at the First United Methodist Church. I had several friends, but the one I remember most from that time is M. She was a little younger than me, a few months, maybe, and she was small of frame, a head shorter than I was (not saying much at five years old). She had brown hair, short, not even shoulder length; brown eyes that swallowed the world.

She was the first girl I ever kissed and to whom I uttered those three magic words: “I Love You”.

We were friends into first and second grade. I used to walk to her house to play regularly. She had an older brother (who was in third grade or so at the time) who used to tease us unmercifully. We usually played board games. I have a flash memory of her mom serving cookies and milk to us out in a room that had been converted from a garage.

The only other image from those days is this: one day, maybe when we were in first grade, we were, for some strange reason, standing in the front of my house (had she come to my house that to play? I have no memory of it. Just this moment that is still magic to recall.). We face each other. I look down into those brown eyes (do you still have those lovely brown eyes somewhere in this world, M.H?), and said, from my heart, though I had no idea what it portended: “M.H., I love you.”

And, six years old, I planted as passionate a kiss on those upturned lips as I could muster, and drew her close into my encircled arms.

From there, memory fails. What happened next? What did she say? I only know that we were not in the same class for second grade – and we sort of lost what connection we had. And after second grade, I moved away.

Oh yes – I do remember one thing about that first, and innocent, but faithful, kiss: my best friend, who lived across the street from me, Charles, happened to be in his front yard when the Kiss That Shook The World occurred. I had not noticed. Indeed, how could I? My world was those brown eyes.

“ I'm gonna tell.”

“ I don't care!” My arm around M's shoulders in protective defiance. Us against the world.

Screen fades to black.

K.W. 1973. Fairmount, Georgia. Third grade. A teacher (who was very pretty in her own right), Ms. Gamble. Not Miss Gamble. Ms. Gamble. Why do I remember that?

I remember even less about this time, but I do remember K.W. Us playing on the playground, chasing each other. Liking each other. Different than M. and me – no declarations of love, no kisses of devotion.

I mostly remember another boy, and our vying for her attentions: Timmy. I remember one day at recess in the spring chasing him down, angry at him for some imagined offense I can't remember, tackling him, and holding his arms down on the ground. The only time I remember doing anything like that.

And K. standing nearby, half hidden by the oak tree she was peering around.

And her heart-rending verdict: “ Allan, you're nothing but a bully.”

Far from the declamation of the hero status I sought from her.

The only other thing I remember is that we moved after third grade, and I remember feeling awful that I wouldn't be able to tell K. good-bye, wouldn't see her the next school year. Thinking about how I wish I could go out to a local camp, where her father was the manager and where she lived, to see her before we left.

Happy Valentine's Day, K.W., wherever you are.

(She is probably married to Timmy.)

Zoe [not even close to her real name, but I wanted to protect her privacy, so I picked this because I like it.]. Fast-forward to the summer of 1980. Rome, Georgia. I'm 15. Between 9th and 10th grades. Church youth camp, somewhere in Alabama (my first). The previous summer, I'd had an awakening of faith that was to chart the course of my life for most of the next 25 years. I was very active in my church and its youth group.

That summer, I met several friends who were to form the core of my associations all the way through high school, and beyond. Among them was Zoe.

She was younger than me by a little less than two years. I don't remember how we met or started our friendship (though, by then I had started journaling copiously, so I know those memories are written down in journals I have), but by the end of that week of camp, I was smitten.

My favorite memory from that first youth camp is on Thursday night, the last night of camp, standing around a campfire, singing. Zoe is to my left. My eyes are closed in the reverence of the moment. I feel a hand reach for mine, and that became all the world I knew. Zoe's hand in mine.

But, alas, Zoe's affections were directed towards someone else: a boy named R.

But, over the next few years, we became best friends. We'd go out, but never on “dates” -- well, we did double-date several times, but we both had others for dates.

But the flame that was sparked at that campfire never went away for me.
I feared, though, that if I ever pursued it, the magic of our special friendship, a treasure to us both, would evaporate, a casualty of a thing God had not intended, to my grief.

One of my favorite memories of those days was when I was a senior in high school. Zoe was in 10 thgrade, and we were both active in the Drama Club together. Our production that year was a musical, “ Sock Hop”. I got to play a guy named Spud. Zoe played my old girlfriend. So, for a moment, on the stage, I got to pretend.

I was planning to go into the ministry, and so, when I graduated from high school, I moved away to Dallas, Texas, to go to school. But Zoe and I wrote to each other often, and our friendship remained strong.

Christmas 1983. I went to Georgia for the holidays.  One of the people I saw was Zoe. We went to lunch one day. And we started talking, as we always did, about anything and everything. At one point, I joked about asking Zoe out for a date. I don't remember why (but the memory is preserved in my journals somewhere from that time), but at one point, I confessed to her that I had always secretly liked her, but didn't want to spoil our wonderful friendship.

She had felt the same way, she said.

What? Was I really hearing this? Something I had dreamed about so often for the four years I'd known her?

The rest of that Christmas may well be the most magical time of my life.
Then, life interrupted. I had to go back to school in Dallas.

But, we stayed in touch, our friendship still a rich treasure, made even more beautiful by our accidentally discovered affections.

Zoe was the first girl I can say that I was in love with in a way that was more than just a childhood crush. I fully expected and intended to marry her at the right time. It was all I wanted.

The spring of one year – not too long after that magic Christmas, but I can't remember exactly how long – probably 1985 – I called Zoe.

“ Hello.”

“ Hello.” (Something sounds different. What?)

“ Allan, I've got something to tell you.”

“ Okay.”

“ I'm engaged.”

My heart's world fell into a million pieces, and nothing but an empty void remained.

My response: “ Praise God! I'm happy for you.”

“ What?”

“ Well, I want what God wants [no I didn't], and if that's his plan for you, I'm happy for you [but I wasn't, not at that moment, not until much later].”

“ That's not the reaction I expected.”

Our conversation ended. And, as well, the special friendship – the most special I've ever had with a girl/woman besides my wife Charlotte -- but her story comes next.

It took a long, long time to heal that broken heart. And, I think the capacity of my heart was diminished for a long time. Of course, it took much longer because I cloaked my feelings in the guise of submission to God's perfect will.

Charlotte M. 1993. We were both living and working in the intentional Christian community of JPUSA in Uptown, Chicago. We had met early in 1992 when we both shared the overnight shift at the homeless shelter JPUSA operated.

I had a huge crush on her after that, but she ended up getting engaged to someone else in the ministry, and, as before, I figured that was God's perfect will, so who was I to question it? (I've made up for all that lack of questioning in the last few years, though. Ha ha)

Anyway, Charlotte's engagement eventually ended, and we happened to be working in the same office at that time, not 10 feet from one another. We became best friends (though casual friendships were not encouraged at JPUSA), and eventually, started “happening” (JPUSA parlance for dating).

We became engaged, and in March of 1995, got married in Florida, where we had moved.

I had found the true love of my life. Charlotte was the woman I had been waiting my whole life for.

We enjoyed, from the standpoint of anyone who could observe us, a wonderful and happy marriage.

But there were underlying problems, old wounds, silent and unsung, that began to cripple our union after several years. And when, in 2001, I became ill, violently, suddenly, many of those things that were lurking beneath the surface of my own heart, and our marriage, were let loose in tornadic force.

Our marriage, sweet and precious to us both, was a casualty of that turbulent time.

Tomorrow, the day after Valentine's Day, will mark three years since our divorce was final.

We are still friends, have always been friendly, and we, each in our own way, still love each other. We don't talk often, but when we do, it's enjoyable for us both.
I have not believed in the notion of there being just one right person for another in a long time, but if there were such a thing, Charlotte was truly that for me. The love of a lifetime.

I still miss her some days. Including today.

Happy Valentine's Day, Charlotte. Always.

I include below a poem I wrote for Charlotte on Valentine's Day several years ago, before the bad things got so bad. It is my favorite poem of all that I've ever written.

"Knowing You"

Sometimes when I look at you,
when you turn just so,
I know that I knew you
before we were us.

Memory fails to recall
where I have seen your face,
now more familiar than all
I have known before.

Then, past memory's
bounds, in night's visions
glorious, my eye sees
you, whom I have known,

And I know that I have loved
you in my dreams,
while waiting for my beloved:
you, my chosen one.

Update: Valentine's Day 2012. I was certain when I originally wrote this personal history of Valentine's Day in 2008 that the final chapter for me had been written. And maybe it has. I am content in any case. But a little more than a year ago, one person unwittingly opened my heart to the possibility of being able to fall in love again. And another showed me that I could actually love again. For those two things, I am thankful.

I am not seeking it, but if it finds me, I think I can write that next chapter. It's a good place to be in.

It is possible that some may read this who also believe the final chapter of their own Valentine's Day History has been written, and perhaps Valentine's Day holds pain and regret for you. I want to encourage you to believe that the final chapter has not necessarily been penned, and that there is possibility and hope as long as you are here on this earth. My prayer is that you will find it so.

Happy Valentine's Day to you all!