When I lived in Pascagoula, MS, and served the First Presbyterian Church as their Pastor, I was privileged to get to know, and be friends with, a number of Navy officers who served on ships that were based at the Naval Station in Pascagoula. There is a shipyard in Pascagoula which builds ships for the Navy, and I suppose that is what justified the base that has since been closed.

          One of the remarkable joys of the privilege I had was getting to be close friends with several of the Captains for the ships based there, and as a result, having access and entrée to the ships. I even was asked to participate in a change of command ceremony one year.

          One day I was on the USS Ticonderoga, which happens to be the first Aegis-class ship that was built. I don’t recall the particulars of the visit, but I do remember that I was reading about leadership and change theory at the time. As I walked the ship that day, I asked the Captain how long it would take him to turn the ship around if he was moving at maximum speed.DN-ST-86-02427

          “Suppose you’re heading east under a full head of steam, and you get an order directing you to turn around and head west; how long would it take you to turn around?”

          “Thirty seconds,” came the immediate reply, with a smile.

          “What?!” I asked; “That fast?!”

          “Yeah,” he said. “I sound general alarm, and everyone grabs something and holds on, and we turn the ship around. It creates a real mess, and it takes a lot of time to clean up the mess, but we can do it in thirty seconds.”

          I thought about what I had been reading about leadership and change theory, and how to lead change in the life of a church and congregation. A lot of change, fast, creates a lot of mess, and it takes a long time to clean up and establish trust.

          Contrast that with another story about the Tico. My family had been invited to go on a “Friends and Family Cruise,” when the Navy allows the ship to leave port for a half day cruise with civilians on board. They let family and friends of the sailors see the ship, what it is like, what it takes to operate, etc. Fun and games are planned for the kids, everyone gets a meal on board, and it generally builds good will for everyone.

          This particular day there was a complication. There was a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico that was whipping the water up enough that the ship could not go out. We got a phone call advising us of this, but telling us that we should come on out, that everything was going to be done on board the ship, simply docked at the base.

          We showed up, the ship was positioned bow out, as if she were about to head to sea. We stepped across onto the ship on the starboard side, and enjoyed a fun day. (For the record, our daughter Kathryn won the basketball free-throw contest that day!)

          At the end of the day, we thanked the Captain and other officers, and were walking to leave. I turned to starboard to leave, and was advised by a sailor, “No, sir, it’s this way (pointing to port.)”

          Confused, I said, “No, its starboard.”

          “No, sir, port.”

          “How can that be?” I asked.

          And then I learned that while we were all on board the Tico, the ship had moved away from the dock, into the Mississippi Sound, turned around, and re-docked. And I never knew the ship had even moved.

          A complete and total change, and I never knew it.

 

          Mark Twain is alleged to have once said, “The only person who wants change is a wet baby.”

          I thought that was a great quote about human resistance to change, and I used it for several years until I added to it, “And the baby that wants change often cries through the entire process!”

          There are two things in life I have learned that are constant, always present. One is change—it’s always going to be a part of life.

          The other is Christ. As the writer of Hebrews puts it in the New Testament, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13.8)

          Sometimes the change that comes into my life is sudden, disruptive, and messy—like the unexpected news of my father’s death in 2003—and takes a long time to clean up.

          Sometimes the change is slow and unnoticed, like the pine tree in the corner of our yard that was just a few feet tall when we moved into our home in 2005, and now is tall and strong.

          Change is always going to be present. And so is Jesus.

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Use it or Lose it!

October 25, 2017

A thousand years ago (well, to be more precise, it was 35 or 36 years ago) I was in a conversation with a classmate in Seminary. We were in our second or third (of three) years, and while I can’t clearly recall what led into the conversation, I do have a very accurate recollection of a snippet of the dialogue.

John was a second-career student (that means that he had been out of school, and worked in the “real world” for a while, and was now in Seminary. I asked him what he had done before Seminary, and he shared that he worked for NASA. Curious if not fascinated, I asked him what he did, and he said that he studied the effects of weightlessness on muscle tissue.

At this stage of the game I was a mid-twenties young man, in fairly good shape (as I am today—I tell people that “round is a shape!”), active, fit, and exercising regularly, running quite a lot at the time. As such, I was very interested in what NASA had learned, so I asked him.

“Use it or lose it,” John said. “The minute you stop using a muscle, it begins to atrophy.”

That advice, if that’s what it was, has stuck with me for a long time.

I had arthroscopic knee surgery in 1993, and within a month of the surgery, I was back at the YMCA working out. A friend asked which knee I’d had surgery on, and when I said it was the left one, he said, “That’s what I thought; your left calf is smaller than the right one.” In other words, the calf muscles had atrophied, because they had not been used as much.

Fast-forward to earlier this year, when one of my knees was hurting a fair amount. I kept plugging away at normal activities, but it bugged me enough that I went to see my “knee guy.” (By the way, I am a walking orthopedic referral agency—if you need one, call me!)

Mark had some X-rays shot, then he came in and talked to me. OK, he asked a lot of questions and listened to me, then manipulated the knee some. He said he could feel some inflammation in it, then looked back at the X-rays.

“I don’t see any narrowing of the joint as I expected,” he said (Mark performed arthroscopic surgery on this knee in about 2009.) “And I don’t see any arthritis in it.” I asked if he wouldn’t need an MRI to see that, and learned then that arthritis shows up in an X-ray better than in an MRI.

“Chuck, I think this is abuse. If you want to do whatever you’re doing, keep doing it; because if you quit, you won’t be able to.”

In other words, “Use it or lose it.”

So I’m riding my bike, running some, going to a boot camp every week, and doing the best I can to ignore those nagging pains. When they get to be too much to ignore, I employ my “spit on it, rub some dirt in it, and keep on playing” philosophy. At 60, I’m not as strong as I used to be, I’m sure not as fast or as quick as I used to be, but—as I tell my F3 buddies (F3 is the boot camp—Google it)—“there’s no quit in me.”

 

You know, it’s not just my body that this applies to—or yours, for that matter. It is my soul, and yours, as well. This is why I get up at 4:30 five days a week, and darn early the other days of the week. I don’t want my soul to atrophy, either.

In his great book The Kingdom Within, author John Sanford shares this:

When I was a boy, we spent a month each summer in an old farmhouse in New Hampshire.  The house was 150 years old when it first came into our family’s hands and had never been modernized.  As my father was the minister of a modest-sized Episcopal church, we were always short of money, and so for a long time we lived in the house quite simply, without the benefit of modern plumbing or electricity.  Our water supply during these years was an old well that stood just outside the front door.  The water from this well was unusually cold and pure and a joy to drink, and the well was remarkable because it never ran dry.  Even in the severest summer droughts, when other families would be forced to resort to the lake for their drinking water, our old well faithfully yielded up its cool, clear water. old well

          Eventually the day came when the family fortunes improved, and it was decided to modernize the house.  Electricity now replaced the old kerosene lamps; an electric stove took over from the ancient kerosene burner; and modern plumbing and running water were installed.  This necessitated a modern well, and accordingly a deep artesian well was drilled a few hundred feet from the house.  No longer needed, the old well near the front door was sealed over to be kept in reserve should an occasion arise when for some reason the artesian well would not suffice.

          So things stood for several years until one day, moved by curiosity and old loyalties, I determined to uncover the old well to inspect its condition.  As I removed the cover, I fully expected to see the same dark, cool, moist depths I had known so well as a boy.  But I was due for a shock, for the well was bone dry.

          It took many inquiries on our part to understand what had happened.  A well of this kind is fed by hundreds of tiny underground rivulets along which seeps a constant supply of water.  As water is drawn from the well, more water moves into it along the rivulets, keeping these tiny apertures clear and open. But when such a well is not used and the water is not regularly drawn, the tiny rivulets close up.  Our well, which had run without failing for so many years, was dry not because there was no water but because it had not been used.

          The human soul is like this well.  What happened to the old well can also happen to our souls if the living water of God does not flow into us.

 

So step away from your tablet, get out from behind your desk, get off the sofa, and get some exercise. Then get on your knees, and exercise your soul.

Use it, or lose it, folks.

 

 

 

500 Down, 1700 to go.

October 18, 2017

Only about another 1700 miles to go

 It was several years ago—probably about six years ago—that Hazen Dempster (aka “Gadget”) commented to me that he wanted to hike all of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. That comment lodged in my brain, and bounced around for a while.

          As my 55th birthday approached, wanting some kind of a challenge to take on in light of that “milestone” (hey, I rode 100 miles on my bike on my 50th birthday, so I needed to do something around 55), I decided to try and thru-hike the Georgia section of the Trail. Look back to entries from 2012 to see how that turned out—not so good.

          I eventually was able to finish the Georgia section, and once that was done, thought, “Why not North Carolina?” I chewed off the first 20 or so miles on my own, invoking the wrath of Gadget, so we set a week to finish North Carolina—which we did in 2013.

          Succeeding states and sections fell beneath our feet—the Smokies in 2014 (where we picked up Fitz Wickham (“Sawmill”) and Chad Sartamalaccia (“Pippin”), then we jumped ahead to the Roan Highlands in 2015, walked from Tennessee into Virginia in 2016 (where James Norongolo, aka “Splash” became a part of what we were now calling the “Lost Mountain Boys.”) 

          For the record, we were neither lost, nor from the mountains, nor were or are we boys, but it seemed to fit.

          Along the way, I’d managed to nibble away about another 50 miles from a gap that we created when we jumped ahead in 2015. Yes, I felt the ire of the rest of the gang, so this year we decided to tackle the gap we had between the northern border of the Smokies and Indian Grave Gap outside Erwin, TN.

          It was a challenging itinerary, forcing us to take on average about 15 miles per day over some fairly challenging terrain. The first day called for a 19-mile day; we told ourselves we’d done days that far and long before, and since we’d arranged for the first eight miles to be essentially a day hike (carrying very little), we thought we could handle it.

          We were wrong.

          The climb out of Erwin Tennessee was more than a challenge; it was a killer. Add the heat of the time to the mix, and we were withering by lunchtime, spreading out along the trail. As evening started moving in, we realized we would not make out planned stop for the night—we pulled up about three miles short and camped.

          Telling ourselves we’d make the miles up the next day, we were later breaking camp than we wanted, and difficult climb followed by treacherous descent followed by tough climbs and equally hard descents wore us down. Sawmill strained a knee, and it became obvious we were not making the planned stop for the night. Fortunately, we’d met a brother and sister who offered to give us a ride into Hot Springs, NC if needed, and we took them up on it.

          We regrouped, taking a zero day in town, admitting that our planned itinerary was too ambitious given our (ahem) advanced ages and fitness levels, and the heat and dry conditions (water was really scarce at points) worked against us, as well. Sawmill got a rental car and drove home, the remainders were shuttled to where we’d pulled out on Sunday, and started hiking. When we reached the spot we’d planned to spend Sunday night, we realized we would have all made it in the dark, if we’d ever gotten there. AT vista 9.28.17

          We plodded on, meeting and chatting with South-bound through-hikers, and making the best time we could. It was hot, climbs were difficult, I won’t mention the times we walked off-trail or thought we had, but I will mention the fact that more and more people told us about the scarcity of water. We managed.

          Fifteen miles north of Hot Springs, NC, Pippin pulled out, to be able to get home to sick babies, and prepare for his grandfather’s funeral, and to try and let his ankle that he had rolled too many times to heal. He had covered the trail into Hot Springs before, so it was not a problem.

          The dregs of us pushed on, for the better part of that Thursday, camped near the top of Rich Mountain, and made our way into Hot Springs in time for lunch on Friday.

          Tired, sweaty, footsore, bedraggled, and no doubt smelly, I had closed a gap, and Gadget was about 35 miles away from having closed one. Chuck & Hazen 9.29.17

          As we sit outside Bluff Mountain Outfitters, we have hiked close to 510 miles of the AT together. Only another 1700 to go. At this stage of the game, we’ll be about 77 when we finish the Trail!

          You get to know a guy fairly well when you walk 500 miles with him. I can’t think of another hiking partner I could trust more!

How does one sum up thousands of years of history in a few paragraphs? After sleeping on the reality of Delphi and the concept of people traveling great distances to make sacrifices and offerings to ask the Oracle the ONE question you can ask, and to walk away with a vague answer, we rolled out the next morning for more history.
First we made a quick, unplanned, side trip to Thermopyle, the historic site of the real battle of the Spartan army against the power of the Persian Empire led by Xerxes. Of all the movies made in or about Greek history, 300 is the only one the Greek people appreciate and feel that tells the story with authenticity (in other words, forget Alexander and Troy). We viewed the site, took a few pictures, then moved on to the city of Kalambaka, where after lunch, we visited Meteora.
Meterora is this incredible geological formation, where there have been (at one time) twenty four different monasteries; today, there are six still functioning, but the monks and nuns who live in them and find their calling in them, are dwindling.IMG_2974 We visited two of them, the Church of St Barbara, named for a woman who was beheaded by her own (Roman) father when he learned that she had converted to Christianity—it is an ancient Orthodox Church that is maintained by a tiny group of nuns.
We drove past the Monastery of the holy Trinity, which was used in the filming of the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”

Used in James Bond movie "For Your Eyes Only"

Used in James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only”

(I have dim memory of it, and will have to check it out when back home), before stopping at the Monastery and Church of St Stephen—another Orthodox Church, this one maintained by monks. The Church itself is relatively new, having been rebuilt after bombings during World War Two.
Monday we drove a short way before getting on the Via Egnatia, the interstate highway that functionally follows the old Roman Via Egnatia, the road built through the Roman Empire. Rome either managed the road such that there were already established cities, or they created cities about every 45-60 kilometers, basically the distance a Roman Legion could travel in one day.
We stopped in Veria, which in the days of the Apostle Paul was called Berea (see Acts 17), and where there is a monument depicting Paul’s work in that city, with beautiful murals.mural of Paul preaching in Berea While there, our great guide Maria told us a long, rambling story about a Torah scroll dating to 200 BC, on which rabbis had kept historical notes about the community (there was a strong Jewish community in Berea.) In the marginal notes was information about Paul having come there and preaching. But the Torah was stolen by the Nazis in WWII, found in Auschwitz, then moved to Austria, then Hungary, and is now held by a private collector in Canada, who refuses access to it.
You can’t make this stuff up.
From there we made our way to Pella, the site of the birth of Alexander the Great, and visited a museum devoted to the ongoing archaeological excavations of this ancient city, which at one time was the capital of Macedonia, and was the spot from Which Alexander launched his campaign to expand the empire (which he did until his untimely death in Babylon at the ripe young age of 32!)bust of Alexander the Great
Thessaloniki, our final stop of the day, is a fun port city with lots of shopping and night life (none of which we have sampled), but sadly, completely overlooks the impact that the Apostle Paul had here so long ago (again, see Acts 17.)
Philippi tomorrow, where there are ruins of the old city, and sites surrounding Paul’s work there!

Well, after much travel, no real adventures, but a lot of territory covered and time killed, we arrived in Greece!
We left Atlanta around 9:15 Thursday night, bound for Paris. An 8.5 hour flight with quite a bit of turbulence allowed a little bit (and I mean LITTLE) of sleep; the couple in the seats behind us singing “O Tannenbaum” (yes, I’m serious) did not help. But a bit of sleep, and we landed in Paris around 11:00 am. For the record, the Paris airport is not the easiest to navigate, but our hardy gang managed to get through alright, and find our departure gate, where we proceeded to kill the next six hours. Our attempt to buy a one-day pass to the Delta/Air France lounge was not successful, so it was shared space with the mass of humanity.
We boarded our next flight, and landed in Athens around 11:00 pm this time, and since we had passed into the EU in Paris, and had our passport stamped, all we had to do was collect luggage and meet our wonderful hostess Caterina. She and Niko, our driver, got us to the delightful Royal Olympic Hotel, right next to the Temple of Zeus, and we crashed after 1:00 am.
Fortunately we slept in, ate a late breakfast, and met Maria, our guide for the Greek leg of our trip, and headed out midmorning. A lunch stop, followed by another stop for some majestic views and pictures, and we moved on to our stop for the night, Delphi.
Delphi is known to Greeks as the “center of the universe,” because this is where the Greek god Apollo chose for his temple. Fascinating archaeological ruins are here, that for years (centuries?) were buried under landslides and had homes built on top of them until they were discovered and unearthed. Interestingly, here (as in other locations around the country), people would come to ask a question of the oracle, a woman kept in a trance and under the spell of “vapors” (since discovered to be underground streams heated by volcanic heat, now dormant), who would usually give a vague, ambiguous answer to your question. But people, desperate for direction, would travel to see the oracle, make lavish gifts, and produce a sacrifice, in the hopes of hearing direction.
Tomorrow we will visit the monasteries at Meteora, where (I hope) clearer answers to the questions of life are found!
IMG_2951

LIFE IS NOT ALWAYS LEVEL

October 8, 2014

Last week I finished another section on the Appalachian Trail, this time walking the section from Fontana Dam, NC, all the way through Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Davenport Gap (and beyond.) One of the things I have learned about the Trail is that it is not always level; sometimes the terrain has you walking a mostly level trail, but more often than not, you are walking downhill (to valleys, which are called “gaps”), and sometimes you are walking uphill (to mountaintops, which are often called “views.”

The Trail, while being well marked with white blazes spaced about every quarter mile or so apart, is still very much in wilderness, remote areas. What that translates into is few signs, which are not necessarily precise in terms of mileage.

One would think that walking uphill, with a 30-35 pound pack on your back, is hard, And it is. Breathing gets labored, your heart rate accelerates (you hear it in your ears!), your skin begins to leak, and it just gets difficult—especially when the terrain grows steep (as in the section called “Jacob’s Ladder” in North Carolina.)

And it stands to reason that if walking uphill is hard, then walking downhill is easy. Au contraire, mon chere. Last Thursday, after walking about ten miles, we hit a downhill section that was dropping like a rock in a bottle. After two miles of steep downhill, a solid hour of pounding, my ankles, calves, and quads were screaming for relief. It is as if with each step, you’re hitting the brakes, and trust me, the brake pads were begging for relief. By the grace of God, we hit a relatively flat section, and amazingly after about 100 yards, I was already feeling some recovery.

But even when the trail is level, it’s not always easy. While sometimes it is—as here:23 a Good Trail

It isn’t always easy. It may be level, but the surface is fraught with potholes, ankle-biters, and traps; like this boulder field I crossed last year: 28 Boulder field trail

But it takes effort, whether up or down or level, to reach some spectacular views. And reaching some of those high points on a clear day, when it seems you can truly see forever, is worth the effort. You forget about the pain, and are often stopped dead in your tracks, in slack-jawed, forget-myself wonder at the beauty of creation the Lord made. 33 Cheoah Bald view 2

So the next time you are feeling down and low, like you’ve stumbled your way to the bottom of life; and/or are slogging your way up through problems and people, remember that the views are at the top—not along the way—and once you get there, it’s well worth a break to soak it all in.

OK, so this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination; but in light of the fact that I have been (blissfully) happily married to the former Lib Upchurch 31 years as of today, I thought a moment to enumerate a few lessons would be appropriate. For a brief second I thought about coming up with 31 lessons, but then figured it would tax my brain and bore people. So, in no particular order, here are the top five things that came to my mind today:

1. She polishes my rough edges. Let’s face reality; I had a great childhood and youth, a pretty good experience growing up and getting through college and grad school, even landed my first “grown up” job before we married. But good grief, Lib took this sow’s ear and has excelled in making a silk purse out of me. She has taught me the right fork to use, what tie to wear with what suit (and which one NOT to wear), not to leave the house wrinkled, and that at the end of the day, social etiquette really does matter. Social etiquette is simply a way of telling other people that they matter, that they are important. And for the record, No, she is not through polishing me. I still have (and continue to add!) plenty of rough edges!
2. I’m not worthy. I don’t think I was when I popped the question 31+ years ago (of course, then I thought I was!), and I don’t believe I am worthy of this amazing woman today. She is one of the hardest working, most devoted teachers (in the thankless world of public education) there is, and comes home to keep a house straight, make sure healthy dinners are planned, prepared, and served (and cleaned up!), and does it all with a smile on her face. Me, I’m a preacher; I only work one day a week, and that’s only in the morning! But Lib is unquestionably the consummate Southern Lady. Grace, charm, looks, a deep faith in Jesus, and a devotion to her husband and family that does not end.
3. We weren’t ready. We reflected on this some years ago, and I still believe it. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we got engaged, and when we got married. We did have a solid foundation, in that both of us had parents who were married to one another. My parents were married 58 years before they died, and hers celebrated their 59th anniversary this year. We were both 24 when we married, were young, naive, idealistic, broke, but very much in love with one another. And somehow, by the grace of God, we made it work.
4. Marriage is an adventure. In 31 years we have lived in 4 cities in three different states. In another week, we will have lived in the home we live in now longer than any other home we have owned. We’ve made mistakes (the Pontiac Sunbird comes to mind), had amazingly few fights, disagreed on few things, most of which were simple, silly, and petty, have had seasons when we had to live on hot dogs and generic chips, but have raised two incredible daughters, pursued three advanced degrees between the two of us (four if we add Anne’s Master’s in there!), loved three faithful dogs for 14+ years each, taught each other more that I at least will talk about here, and started and ended every day with the assurance of our love for each other—even when we were mad at each other for whatever silly reason.
5. Marriage is the hardest—and best—job I’ll ever have. When you make the move from living by yourself—and sleeping by yourself—to sharing space with another person, there are adjustments to be made. Holidays, those most sacred and sacrosanct of institutions in family life, are celebrated differently. When you get irritated with the other person, if you are committed to them and the institution of marriage, you can’t run away. Maybe never living in the same town as any family was a good thing; it forced us to look each other in the eye, face our differences, and work them out. Making the move from “yours” and “mine” to “ours” is not a simple thing—there are no neat, easy, simple steps, and the path is fraught with landmines. Fortunately for us, none of them blew up on us, and we have found that when we had hard things to deal with, it just made celebrating the accomplishments that much better.

The joy of going home at the end of the day to someone who loves me, wants the best for me, believes in me, and will accept nothing but the best for me, has made the last 31 years absolutely the best years of my life.
I’m a VERY lucky man.

Lib & Chuck on the Springer Mtn summit

Lib & Chuck on the Springer Mtn summit

The Cross I Wear

July 30, 2014

A number of people have been asking me about the cross I have been wearing in worship and at weddings, and my response has been, “It’s a long story.” I finally decided to put the story and explanation here so folks can understand it, and what it means to me.
There are a couple of starting points to the cross. One is August 1, 1995, when I started work as the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Pascagoula, MS. I decided that I would wear a large cross over my robe (or suit, if I was not robed) whenever I was involved in worship. I bought one, and used it for a few years, before purchasing a larger one, and wearing it for the remainder of my ministry there.
When we moved back to Atlanta and I returned to the Peachtree staff, for whatever reason, I did not wear the cross. The more time passed, the less I thought about it, and it sat in a box in my office.
The other starting point is July 24, 1945. Yes, that’s the correct date; it is the date that my parents were married, six weeks after Dad returned from ten months as a prisoner of the Germans (after being shot in France). Mom and Dad were engaged when he went overseas, and after his liberation Mom kicked plans into action. Like with many couples, they received a good bit of silver as wedding presents. Among those were some silver candlesticks.
Then in February, 1983, Mom and Dad’s home was broken into. The thieves got candlesticks, flatware, and some of Mom’s jewelry. Most all of it was retrieved by the Police, but there were two candlesticks that were in the process of being beaten down and broken up for melting and sale when the thieves were apprehended. Mom never had them repaired, but kept them in a pacific cloth sack.
In the summer of 2003, Dad died suddenly and unexpectedly, and Mom followed him ten weeks later. “She didn’t die of a broken heart,” their Pastor said, “She died of a full heart.” In the sifting, sorting, and selecting of their property, I chose to take the mangled candlesticks; I thought that one day I would have them made into a cross to wear.
So some time after we returned to Atlanta and Peachtree, I took them to H.G. Robertson Fine Silver, and talked with them about my idea. They said that they could do it, but that more silver would be needed. I was encouraged to browse flea markets and estate sales, looking for odd pieces of flatware. Flea markets and estate sales and I don’t see one another much. I left the candlesticks with them, and returned every so often (like every couple of years?) to talk with them about it. The shop even moved, but they kept track of them! “Look into silver” remained on my weekend to-do list for many years.
Segue to Friday, May 2, 2014, and Bald Head Island, NC, where Lib and I had gone so I could officiate at the wedding ceremony of our good friends Glenn Harvin and Kelly Johnson. AT the wedding rehearsal, Glenn said to me, “When we get back to the house, Kelly and I have something to give you.”
We got back to “party central” after the rehearsal, and at some point, someone told me that Glenn wanted me in the house. Lib and I walked in, and Glenn was standing there with Kelly, grinning from ear to ear, holding a white gift sack. As we approached, Glenn’s sister Laura and her boyfriend Grey Campbell started to walk away. Glenn stopped them, saying, “You guys had a role in this.” He handed me the bag.
I took it, thanked him, and lifted the tissue paper from the opening. I looked in, and realized what was in it. I said, “Oh, my word.” I recognized the black box that the cross I’d worn in Mississippi was stored in, and next to it was a white HG Robertson box.
Lifting the white box out, I opened it, and there was the cross that I’d always thought about, that I had dreamed of having made. Glenn asked, “Will you wear that tomorrow for the wedding?”
I replied, “Not only tomorrow, but from here on out, every Sunday.” And so I have—on Sundays, at weddings, and memorial services, and any other service.
It seems that Glenn and Kelly were out to dinner with Laura and Grey one evening, and the wedding came up, and somehow the fact that I was going to officiate surfaced. Grey, who used to be a member at Peachtree, and we’ve known one another for many years, and also does some work at HG Robertson’s, apparently said. “Let me tell you about a project Chuck has at the shop.”
And Glenn—incredible guy, generous soul, great friend that he is—said, “I want to finish that for him.” And so he did.
Shortly before his wedding, I handed it to Glenn, and asked him to place the cross on me. That was the first time it was used, but it’s been used frequently since then. And I intend it to be used for many years, and on many occasions, to come.
And that is the cross that I wear on Sundays. It is a reminder of my parents, a testimony to redemptive grace following tragedy, and the presence of good friends with me. It’s a gift that spans close to 70 years, and is quite likely the greatest gift I have ever received.

The Cross made from my parent's candlesticks

The Cross made from my parent’s candlesticks

Rethinking Greatness

May 14, 2014

“The greatness of a man is seen in the way he treats people he does not need.”

 

I was walking down the hallway of the church with John Croyle, who has to be one of the greatest men I have had the privilege to meet and be in the presence of. John played defensive end at Alabama under the legendary coach Bear Bryant, was an All-American, but after a summer of working at a camp for youths in Mississippi, discovered what he was convinced was his purpose in life—helping the children that no one else wants.

Over the last 40+ years, John and his wife Tee, and now their children (you may recall their son Brody who has his own pretty good football career at Bama and then in the pros) have become the guardians of thousands of children. First at Big Oak Ranch for boys, and now with a second one for girls, and their own Christian school, they have literally shaped the lives of these children.

John had spoken at our annual IRONMEN Big Breakfast, where he challenged the men there to be men, and to raise their sons and daughters to be responsible and contributing people. It was a challenge that we all (especially the teenagers in attendance) needed to hear in this age of entitlement.

As I listened to John speak that morning, and reflected on the dinner I’d had with him and a couple of other guys the night before, I found myself thinking that if I have one tenth the impact over the course of my life that I believe John has had, I can die thinking that I have lived a very effective life.

The breakfast was over, John had signed books (he has several out, and all are well worth reading), and I was navigating him through the labyrinthine hallways of our church to find his car.

As we were walking along, one of our newer sextons, an immigrant from Haiti was walking towards us, and I simply said, “Morning, Junior.” He responded (that is his name, for the record), and John and I continued. That’s when John looked at me and said, “The greatness of a man is seen in the way he treats people he does not need.”

I was speechless. I felt that I’d just been paid a compliment (I really believe that is what John was doing), but to receive praise from someone as great as this man made me squirm.

I reflected on this some more, and realized that John was simply affirming what my general modus operandi is. I learned a long time ago that simply acknowledging someone else is a gift to that person, and one never knows how far that impact may go. Now, it’s not always easy, especially for a card carrying introvert like me (trust me; I function outside my comfort zone about 80% of the time), but I’ve learned that simply making eye contact and a short “Mornin’” can lift the day of someone who is feeling down and unloved.

So later today, and/or tomorrow, look someone you don’t know in the eye, and greet them. Practice that until it becomes second nature. You’ll learn that the people you don’t need, need you. And you will be a gracious person of greatness. You may get to where you are going thirty seconds later—but ultimately, when you get to where you are going in the eternal sense, you will hear that longed for “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Master!”

 

I just counted up, and to date, after 30+ years of ministry in four cities, I have officiated at 343 wedding ceremonies. That’s a lot.

I have thoroughly enjoyed them all, and have more than a handful of stories to tell from them. One of these days I’m going to get all these (and funeral stories, as well as baptisms, routine Sundays, and all other kinds of experiences) written up, and use the title of this post as the title of a book. Here’s a sample of what can happen when you thought it was going to be an ordinary, routine, kind of service.

I was getting ready for the wedding ceremony on Saturday of a guy who was (is) a member of our church, who was marrying a lovely young woman who was not a member of the church. That is neither here nor there, but the fact that she was from Romania is a pertinent fact.

No, this was NOT a mail-order-bride kind of deal. She had won a Fulbright Scholarship and come to Georgia State to work on a Masters degree. along the way, she landed a job at the Centers for Disease Control here in Atlanta. Somehow she met this guy, they fell in love, and were getting married. We’d met for four premarital counseling sessions, planned the ceremony, and talked everything through. Her parents and siblings were coming from Romania for the wedding, and we had talked about her parents’ grasp of English, and what I needed to do in the ceremony to make it work well for them. They understood much more than they spoke, but we all felt comfortable with the way things were looking.

Friday afternoon we all met at the Church for the rehearsal. I talked everyone through what we were doing and going to do, then we got everyone in place as if the processional had just ended. The bride’s father was standing between the bride and groom (OK, an editorial comment here. That’s the way it is supposed to be. Some wedding directors [who can be third cousins to Satan, for the record] like to have the father on the bride’s left arm for choreography’s sake–they think it is a clearer shot to his seat without stepping on the bride’s train after he gives the bride away, but there is powerful symbolic value to having him between the couple until he gives her away. Here endeth the lesson.)

I talked us through the first part of the service, through the traditional questions of intent, then I turned and looked at this Romanian father and asked, “Who brings this woman to be married to this man?”

He looked at me and said, clearly and firmly, “Her mother and I.” Perfect. Spot on, just perfect. I talked him through taking her right hand and placing it in the groom’s left hand, then giving her a little kiss on her cheek, and then turning to his right, away from the bride and toward the groom, so he would not step on her dress and/or train.

As he turned, and rotated until he was face-to-face, eye-to-eye with the groom, he stopped, and looked the groom in the eye. He raised his right hand, index finger pointed straight up, as if to make a point. Then he made the slash motion across his throat, and the groom’s eyes bugged out, my jaw hit the floor, and everyone in the room held their breath . . . until the bride and her father started laughing out loud! The tension cut, we all realized this was a joke! The father went on to his seat, the groom heaved a great sigh of relief, and we all went on with the rehearsal. It went without a hitch.

And the next day, the wedding went without a hitch, as well-and the father did not repeat his action!

A couple of years  later, I was walking through one of the overflow spaces after one of our Christmas Eve services, when I saw this couple, and recognized her parents with them. My face lit up like a Christmas Tree, and theirs did, too. We moved to greet each other, and I smiled, looked at the father, and promptly made the slash motion across my throat. He erupted in laughter, as we all did, and we wished each other a Merry Christmas before parting.

A year or so after that, the couple had their first child, and I was honored to be asked to administer the baptism. It was a great reunion of the families, as her parents came over from Romania. Then a couple of years later, along came child number two. But grandparents could not swing the trip this time. I got an idea, and called the bride to ask if her parents would watch the worship service live on the internet (we webcast our services.) She said they would, so I asked her to teach me how to do the baptism in Romanian. She argued that it would be too hard, but I persisted, and she said it, slowly, so I could write it down phonetically. I ran it past her, she was surprised that I got it right, and said so.

All weekend I practiced it out loud, so it was firm in my mind. The moment came in  he service, and when I took the child in my arms, I asked if the bride’s parents were in fact watching on the internet in Romania. She said they were, so I said, “Well, I hope I get this right, but if I mess it up, the Lord knows what we are trying to do.” And I administered the baptism in Romanian, and handed the baby back to them.

Later that morning, between a couple of the services, I saw the couple. The bride said she talked to her mom on the phone, and when I said the first words in Romanian, her mom started to cry.

That may just be the greatest compliment I have ever been paid.