Friday, August 23, 2013

A Georgia Cotton Field World

A few years ago at a Dixie Melody Boys concert, a great Southern Gospel quartet for many years, Ed O'Neill, the bass singer, said that today in concerts, after having been in Gospel music for sixty years, is like walking into a Georgia cotton field with all the white hair.  That was a funny comment but one that resided in me. Let me explain!
A ministry that has opened to my quartet, The Pathway Quartet, and to me when all of us cannot make schedules work and I fill as a soloist, is doing concerts in regional assisted living facilities.  I realize I have never invested much time in large groups of elderly and somewhat infirmed people but have found that investment via the concerts to be simply amazing. As an aside, having sung in many concerts in the last several years, a reality of my personality is that I want to go and sing and depart. That internal drive in me has caused me to miss the real reason for singing Gospel music too many times with many people.
Here is one thing I have learned and learned well which, therefore, has caused me to force myself to disconnect from that drive in me to go, do and leave now to being early, do your best and stay after to really get to know those folks God has put before me to sing to. Thus the point most learned is that in performing with your heart the music of the Gospel, you touch people in a much deeper place and especially if they are older.  Many of them have no family to spend time with, many are literally put into those places and pretty much forgotten. It is what I have come to call a "lost population." Many of the songs they have heard through their lives and I love to watch them strive to sing along with us or me.  Singing Gospel music touches people is a most intimate way I have learned so investing time with these sweet people after the music is done is vital to the whole experience. Those that do not take this time are missing the real love.  That is so very sad.
Just last night as I sang to a group of about twenty-five elderly folks at an Assisted Living facility, I got to meet some really sweet, precious people, to hear their stories, to give a hug when they asked one, to be part of their lives for an hour. Who got the blessing? Well, I certainly did and with each of these events I realize in my own heart how blessed I am to get to do that ministry for that is exactly what it is; a ministry!
My vault of memories grows with each concert event.  Last night there was a new deposit of memories. One I will share ... this precious lady was just to my left sitting as I sang. Her eyes never left me the entire time and she had this sweet, magnetic smile and spoke volumes with those deep blue eyes. She had really dressed up for the concert with a white sweater with red birds on the front. During one of the songs I reached down and gently shook her hands and she teared up. I realized she was holding a little stuffed dog all tucked in her hands.  She held it up to me as I shook her soft hand.  When the concert was over I returned to her and she held "Pet" up to me with a broad smile on her face asking if I wanted to hold "Pet." I held the little brown stuff animal, dog, and I could tell it thrilled her to death that I would take that ten seconds to do that. In that moment I knew all over again why a ministry like I get to be part of is so important and I was recharged!
We all have had or will have aging parents or grand parents in that same situation unless they are taken home via death as will each of us.  Will we be forgotten or dumped on some paid facility to care for them? I think that a worthy question for each of us will face this same life reality.  I will take this opportunity to thank my sister-in-law and her wonderful husband for the care they showed so wonderfully in caring for my wife's father to keep him at home. As well I want to tell both my sisters just how much I love them for caring for our mother to keep her at home. Home is so very important to these people I realize more and more. So anything I can do to make these many I am now getting to meet feel a piece of "home" it is certainly worth the time, effort and energy of our Quartet's part to deliver for I see so clearly how much these folks appreciate the effort and the caring.
This whole ministry has been simply amazing in its rewards coming from just taking a few minutes to share, to listen, to smile with them.  Each of these people have rich histories and are pocked with many highs and some terrible lows.  Many have various physical encumbrances but when we come together in the concert venue, there is a common denomination of enjoyment, warmth and togetherness; sort of like a small taste of Heaven and we get to be part of that taste!
A special insight for me is in seeing family members or spouses sitting next to their parents or spouse housed in these locations. You can see the angst, the love, the disbelief, the joy of just getting to be with them one more time. I watched a beautiful daughter last night, about fifty, push her mom in a wheelchair to the concert. The entire time I was singing I watched the daughter rubbing her mom's hair and shoulders and when she would look up at me her eyes would be heavy with tears but with a smile of appreciation.  That is worth more than any money to me in seeing such love before me not ten feet away. I loved that daughter for she loved her mother and the mother was pretty much oblivious as to what was going on which made the whole experience even more precious to me.
My challenge to each of you ... if you have time, find time to spend with these wonderful people in these homes.  You will be welcomed and greeted with smiles, stories and joy; those three are what I could call a currency of bliss!  You will smile, you will laugh, you will cry, you will rejoice at what you will find and it is all worth it. I also want to recognize the in-house caregivers which too often are unsung and taken for granted. I am seeing some really wonderful caregivers in these concerts showing love and respect for these precious people.
Again, who gets the blessing? You will, I promise. Give someone in your world a little bit of you today, please.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Loving Living

Good morning as I listen to the chirp of many birds flitting around in the cool, beautiful air of this late Summer.  I have a few minutes before several activities trigger for the afternoon plus the house is actually empty so my mind went into reflection of a concert I was in last night and the reinforcement of the joy of living I am getting to experience on a grand scale.
As you have read in my previous blogs or comments on FB, because I was in the military and have a deep love and respect for the institution, the structure and the purpose of our military, when I see one of those familiar Veteran baseball caps, I immediately approach that man, come to attention rendering a formal hand salute and then into a strong handshake in thanking him for his service.  I especially enjoy watching their wives as this  transpires as they break into a beaming smile of pride for their Veteran.  It is one of the joys of my life in getting to do this when you realize we are losing one thousand WWII veterans each day now.
Last evening after a wonderful experience in doing a concert with The Pathway Quartet at a local assisted living facility that was well attended, the blessing we all received was lifting in so many ways.  Sitting in the back row was a distinguished, tall, striking African American gentleman with one of the baseball caps on.  Just before we started the concert I made my way through the rows of people to salute him and thank him and telling him when the concert was over that I would very much love to hear his WWII story. He was thrilled!
When the concert was concluded and I was drenched with sweat from the hour concert and being greeted by many of those that attended the concert, I continue to watch the Soldier calmly sitting in his seat and I knew he was waiting on me to get back there to him.  I was finally able to make it him when he stood up tall and straight and we began to talk; I was very tired. I realized as the conversation began that he was having problems staying on topic and when I would ask a question about this WWII experience in Europe, he would struggle to tell me something but then it would leave him and you could see the frustration in that reality. I hurt for him for I had witnessed that exact behavior with my father-in-law not long before he passed. To ease his frustration, I told Mr. Waite, he liked that I remembered his name, that I would be back to the facility in a few days and I would sit with him and we could just talk about his life and his WWII experience.  He had the most striking deep blue eyes I had ever seen and I saw tears begin to well up in showing joy that I would take the time to do that for him. We hugged and I moved on to exit the building but not the experience and drying my own tears from the sweet experience!
In that few minutes, I was reminded once more of the joy of life and the love of living. With my wife and some other friends sitting in the concert among the dozens of elderly people that came, I was warmed at realizing how much I do love getting to do the things I get to do. 
Of course as my wife aptly pointed out as she saw a printed schedule of my schedule by month for the rest of the year with scheduled singing including the jail ministry, she reminded as only a wife can that I have overloaded myself again. GUILTY I plead but in that plea I will not forget that the joy of getting to do the things I get to do is worth every moment of planning, preparation and execution for it is not for nor about me but for those people God puts in front of me for it so from they and their reaction and response that my joy and blessing is derived.
I was especially joyed in watching the three guys I sing with, Bob Park, Dave Richards and Norm Farley, all tired from a long day and it was very warm inside the facility singing their hearts out for these wonderful people. THAT is why we do what we do to give them our very best for each of them regardless of their status and state in life is worthy of our very best every time we sing.  I cannot thank those three guys enough nor can I begin to let them know how much I love and respect them for committing to this journey with The Pathway Quartet! What a blessing!!
On this August day, I feel each of you reading this should take a few minutes to fully reflect on what it means to love living!  Through the pains of aging, the frustrations of mental deterioration, the pangs of concern about family members, the ever present concerns of our world, we can find solace and release in the joy of this life if we look for it. I know things are not good for everyone all the time but I know that even through the clouds of worry and concern, God reigns supreme.  That, my friends, will preach so can I get a witness?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dealing with the Clouds of Life

As I occupy my strategic position for my Saturday morning blog write in my recliner so I can see the birds and squirrels square off for the bird feeder on our back porch, I thus reflect on another week God has given my family.  We have had some significant storms with heavy rains this week with moments of majestic sunshine roll through Canton; I love the sheen of sunshine after a heavy rain for the greens are greener and life just seems, well, even better.
This week I was reminded yet again that those clouds that roll in, dump their load of wetness on Earth and then roll on is very much a metaphor for life.  I realize we all have different sizes, types and categories of  "clouds" that change the course of our day and thus our lives.  This week has been certainly a week of rolling clouds in my life with an array of unique, challenging, concerning, uplifting, encouraging, enlightening clouds that aggregate at the heart. At that aggregation point I am further reminded that as mere humans without a knowledge of our Creator, we can lull around in frustration, anger, worry and other negatives that will sap the joy of life right out from under us. I choose not to allow that to happen and for those of you that know me you know I am the perpetual optimist so I choose optimism in the reticules of some possible concerns that reside on the horizon.
As I was mentally preparing my thoughts for today's blog, I clicked on a icon that opened up comments to previous blogs I had not seen before by many people some of which I know and many of which I do not know. I read the comments of thanking me, telling me how a certain blog touched their lives, how some were challenged to take the next step, etc were words that led me to the context of my blog this morning. As an aside, for those of you that took the time to comment on many of my previous blogs, you honor me and thank you so much! I do believe that feedback is the breakfast of champions ts I encourage you to give me feedback, testimonials for each lifts me to a renewed belief that this journey of blogging does have value for many that read them. I still cannot believe I ever initiated blogging so, now nearly two years hence, I am so glad I have and apparently others are as well. Thank you!
Back to the clouds ... as humans we are all frail creatures for that is the natural course of the human existence and the more years we are granted that existence, the toll of aging increases.  For me, at sixty-five years old, yes I have certainly pains where I never did, perhaps cannot jump like I once did but I know I have never been happier with my life in its entire spectrum of characters and events.  Every thing I do I GET TO DO. One of the great blessings of my life is in getting to sing God's praises that lifts so many people.
This week with some clouds that rolled in within the family and external to the family, the purity of joy of life itself as a gift from God became again oh so real to me.  When there is concern that can, and will, naturally cause worry and consternation comes to take you in their grip, stepping back, looking up and focusing on what is really important, my God, always chase those demons away. How many times can I testify to that reality!
My heart blog this morning is really simple ... never lose faith even when everything in your world may be driving you to do just that.  A quick story which was one of those events of uplift for me, and I had quite a few this week, was that I received a letter from a young man I met in a chapel service in the Stark County Jail just a week ago.  Big, strong, African-American young man comes into the church service at the Jail in the orange jumpsuit. As he enters the door I hand him a Bible and pull him to me and hug him to encourage that  downtrodden young man. I did not know who he was nor what he had done to bring our paths to cross in a jail but I knew that was a special moment. As the church service began and I spoke and sang in preparation for the sermon, I could not take my eyes nor my mind off that young man with nearly fifty others in the chapel. There was something special about him for I have done this work long enough now to have a sense of people in that situation!
As the service ended and before the deputies took the inmates away, I had but a couple of minutes with this young man.  Through tears, he began to share his life as a prominent high school athlete, how he knew he had ruined his life and destroyed his family; so many, many times have I watched and listened to stories just like that and I pray I never grow cold or indifferent to them.  As he departed for his cell awaiting his hearing with the grand jury and no doubt prison time, I told him I would stay in touch with him through his journey for I knew that God has a plan for him.  As I do often, when I got home that night I wrote him a letter of encouragement.  Yesterday I had a hand delivered two page letter brought to my home by the Chaplain from this young man.  I asked my wife to read it to me and I felt my heart so turned and touched by the precious words of testimony of God's blessing on his life, regret for bad decisions and how much our time together that night at the jail meant to him; that is why I do this work!
In other words, for that young man, God allowed me to be a means to roll back his clouds for a little while.  As my family faces some concerns as all families face, I lift my family to God for His divine touch for the journey ahead and for the unbounded, immeasurable blessings He has bestowed on my family in so many ways.  We have had our five grandchildren with us again this week on Monday and Tuesday and I am always wowed, warmed and worn by the time the return to their parents but the joy of those precious lives and knowing my wife and I are blessed to make memories with these young minds that hopefully they will remember as their lives unfold is a joy beyond measure.  Each of the five are so uniquely different yet they love each other collectively so much; such a blessing to be part of watching them grow and to be part of that phase of their lives. They make me so much better with each visit.  This has been a Monopoly marathon week with the objective being to "beat Poppy" at all cost. I love it!
As is usually the case, a song will come to my mind that captures the place of my heart this morning as I conclude this edition.  Read the words of this great song and let the lyrics roll your clouds away:

I Know Who Holds Tomorrow
Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand

I don't know about tomorrow
I just live from day to day
I don't borrow from its sunshine
'Cause the skies might turn to gray
I don't worry over the future
'Cause I know what Jesus said
For today I'll walk beside Him
'Cause He knows what lies ahead


Many things about tomorrow
I don't seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand

I don’t know about tomorrow

It may bring me poverty

But the One who feeds the sparrow

Is the One who stands by me

And the path that be my portion

May be through the flame or flood

But His presence goes before me

And I’m covered with His blood

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lee and Life

For those of you that know me you know the Civil War, especially Gettysburg, carries great weight and interest for me.   Having blood relatives on that field in 1863 is probably the main ignition point for my incessant interest via my great grandfather and his two brothers. They were in the 47th Alabama that attacked Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.  With the 150th anniversary of the great battle just completed, I recorded several hours of authors and historians speaking on CSPAN and watched each of them seeking to find more nuggets of understanding of that battle.  Since that one month ago, I have read KILLER ANGELS, watched the movie, Gettysburg, read another book, Storming Little Round Top, and have begun a rereading of a phenomenal book entitled, The Gettysburg Campaign, written by a Mr Coddington.  The Coddington book has the best maps I have seen showing clearly the movements of Lee's army out of Virginia and Hooker's Union Army tracking them in a northwesterly direction toward the Blue Ridge Mountians and ultimately the South Mountain that allowed Lee to stay screened leading to the Gettysburg battlefield.  Now I am sure that is much more than you wished to know today but as studying the movement maps, this powerful reality of the maps of the movements formed a tremendous metaphor for our lives in my mind.
I believe I am like many that have grown up with a hunger for history for I believe anything can be better understood if the economics, history and geography of the issue can be brought to confluence leading to wisdom on the matter.  Moving an Army of over 100,000 men, horses, supply trains, headquarters, ammunition, staff a distance of over 150 miles on back roads, mountain passes, numerous fording crossings with very rudimentary communication systems is staggering to my mind as viewed through today's GPS-world of technology.  But the Armies of Lee and Hooker poked, parried, jabbed, hid, ran from, dodged their way from Virginia  north to what turned out to be Gettysburg.  Then Lee, not wanting to fight the battle that had to be fought thus the invasion of the North for many strategic reasons, at Gettysburg, had to then turn two full corps of marching troops with horses, artillery and supplies south quickly to reach the small town of Gettysburg to engage the Federal army where they were. He did not want to but knew he must and the had to wrestle with all the naysayers in his command, readjust logistics on a grand scale, scout the noe battle positions, issueed hundreds of orders via couriers to far flung commanders across a thirty mile gaggle of troop concentrations, etc. etc. Absolutely amazing to me!
But then, the power of the metaphor of our lives hit me like a cannon shot for what I described above exactly parallels our lives does it not?  We know we are headed some where for some reason. We do not know the obstacles, the enemy positions or capabilities, we do not want to minimize our own strengths and capabilities but we maintain a clear sense of destination for we MUST get there.  Each of us has a different "there" but getting "there" is vital.  See the power of the metaphor now?
In working these maps and movements and great volumes of letters, dispatches and telegrams from 150 years into a mosaic that not only shows a story but tells a clear story of strategic direction, clarity of mission, understanding of the pathways to the vision, the destination, called strategies, are vital to each of us regardless of who we are and what we do I am learning all over again via this research.  True, my wife thinks I am nuts for investing so much time in this but I find myself starving to feel the flow of the battles for there is another reality I have learned.
Many, for example, hear or think about the Battle of Gettysburg or the Normandy Invasion or the Battle of the Bulge.  Most of us think that really not much happened until July, 1863 or June, 1944 or December, 1944; stuff just all of a sudden went into hyper drive.  Ah, NOPE! So here is my second metaphor that has hit me hard ... the Battle of Gettysburg did not begin July 1, 1863 but actually began June 1, 1863.  For the next thirty days as two armies moved northward, there were myriad skirmishes, cavalry charges, artillery duels and smaller unit battles such as at Brandy Station, Virginia.  My point is that the huge battle culminating as the Battle of Gettysburg was the final peg in a dart board of movements, changes, rights and wrongs, ups and downs, miscues, accidents, in-fighting, politics, etc, etc.  In other words, things do not just happen for things that do happen are a culmination of many smaller, seemingly less important events that come to confluence in one's life, right?
So in closing, I think my assessment and recommendation for each of you reading this is to realize my words have nothing to do with battles or war but has everything to do with the battles and scars of life that lead to a point of major contention.  That contention can come in many forms such as death, suicide, divorce, graduations, career advancements, etc, etc. I think the greater point is that each of us have direct control over the battles, regardless of size and regardless of degree of importance.  However, keeping ever in mind that these ebbs and flows, river crossings, miscues, positives and negatives all have a cumulative Cause and Effect reality, let my words sink in for I believe some of you reading this really have a need in your life this very moment to wash the brain and the heart toward making right decisions in your life as the river of life meanders ever forward. 
Can I get a witness?