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Monday, January 31, 2011

The Vanishing Generation - A Tribute

Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation.” They grew up in the Great Depression. They drove some of the first automobiles on the first paved highways in America. They went to work for the Works Progress Administration and built our nation’s infrastructure. They strung wires across our country and brought electricity and telephones to homes throughout America. They bought radios and invented the first television. They landed on the beaches at Normandy, raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima and defended our freedom in World War II. They were the first to enter space and chose to go to the moon. Today, their generation is vanishing from the earth. They once numbered more than twelve million but only 2.5 million survive. One thousand members of the WW II generation die every day.

This week, my mother joined that number.

Leola Harper was born on a farm near Hillsboro, Texas in 1921. When she was ten, she climbed behind the wheel of a Model A and, at her father’s instructions, drove her mother to town on gravel and asphalt roads. By the time she was a teenager she was working a team of mules. She rode to school on her horse, Prince, who had a will to run. When he raced away with her, stumbled and fell to his knees, she refused to let go until he regained his feet. In high school she won ribbons in track, played basketball and grew to love baseball.

The boys lined up to date her until my father won her over and they married in 1940. One year later, on a December afternoon that yielded to sunny skies and warm weather, she spread a blanket on the grass for a picnic with her husband and listened to the Tommy Dorsey band on the car radio. She sat stunned along with millions of her generation when the music stopped and President Roosevelt reported the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

After the war, they moved to Corsicana. Having given her life to Christ, she joined First Baptist Church along with my father and settled in to raise three sons. For more than thirty years she taught pre-school children at the church. After her husband died in 1976, she went to work as a teacher’s aid choosing to work with special needs kids. She taught them to read during the week. She rode the bus with them, hugged them and sat with them at church. After retiring, she worked for another nineteen years as a volunteer “Pink Lady” at the Corsicana hospital.

Last week, at the age of 89, still living in her home on Sycamore, she suffered a debilitating stroke and was care-flighted by helicopter to Tyler. Partially paralyzed, she was offered a feeding tube to extend her life. She declined and chose hospice care instead. She was transported home to Corsicana on Friday afternoon. Saturday evening she fought through pain and medication to spend an hour blessing her grandchildren who gathered around her bed. Twelve hours later, she departed her aging and broken body for a place prepared for her in heaven where, once again, she is young and strong and beautiful. (John 14:1-14).

This Monday, February 7, her family and friends will gather in Corsicana to say goodbye to Leola Marie Harper Tinsley and turn another page for the “greatest generation.”

Monday, January 24, 2011

What You Won't Do For Yourself

What I won’t do for myself I will do for my dog. Left to myself, I will sit around and vegetate. I know that other people don’t do this, but I do. But when I look across the room at my dog who follows me from room to room and is happy to be wherever I am, I know that he needs to walk. So, I get up, put on my walking shoes, find his leash and off we go. It is good for him and it is good for me.

This little act highlights an important point I have discovered. We all need to be motivated for someone or something outside ourselves. I have heard it said, “If you won’t do it for someone else, do it for yourself!” But I have discovered that doing it for myself is the lowest and weakest motivator in my life.

Some have assumed that our democratic system works because it is based on self-interest. If everyone looks out for himself, seeks to make the biggest profit and accumulate the most wealth, it all just seems to work out. But that isn’t true. Our democratic system works because people are willing to sacrifice their own self-interest in the interest of others. The key to American democracy is selfless altruism. Not greed.

Life is not like Monopoly. We don’t win by owning the largest number of properties, raising the rent and amassing stacks of money on our side of the board until we drive everyone else into bankruptcy. That might work for a board game, but even then the players seldom feel good about it. In life we win by giving ourselves away.

We are made in such a way that we must be called to something higher, something and someone outside ourselves. We will endure great pain, hardship, discipline and even death for people and causes that are greater.

When we live our lives and make our decisions based upon self-interest and self-gratification we are led into dead end tributaries, into a shallow existence that results in isolation and loneliness. When we choose to orient our lives around serving and helping others, we launch out into the deep where we discover meaning and fulfillment.

Howard Hughes, one of the wealthiest men of the twentieth century who spent lavishly to indulge his whims and idiosyncrasies, died a recluse, lonely, isolated and mentally deranged. The FBI had to resort to fingerprints in order to identify his body. Mother Teresa, who was penniless, spent her life caring for the poor, sick, orphaned and dying. When she died in 1997 the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded, had over one million co-workers serving the “poorest of the poor” in 123 countries. In 2010, the 100th anniversary of her birth, she was honored around the world.

This is why the Scripture urges us to put others first. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4). “Let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-3).

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Good and the Evil Among Us

The assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords reminds us of the evil that resides among us. We are so horrified by the massacre of innocent people in a Safeway parking lot that we want to point blame somewhere, to somehow eliminate it ever happening again. For the past week politicians have pointed fingers at one another trying to affix blame to their opponent. We have examined the killer’s trail hoping to find a clue that will enable us to eliminate the possibility of such a thing ever happening again. Such tragedy should rightly cause us to examine ourselves more closely and to search for means to correct whatever causes may have led to the assassination. But evil will not go away. It surfaces repeatedly to inflict pain, loss and grief as it did nine years ago on 9/11, in Oklahoma City in 1995, at the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the Fort Hood killings in 2009.

The good news is that for all the evil that exists in the world there is far more good. For every crazed psychopath who plots the murder of innocent people there are a hundred heroes. We were reminded of that last week in Tucson when twenty-year-old Daniel Hernandez rushed to Gabrielle Giffords and cradled her head applying pressure to stanch the bleeding and save her life. Anna Balis grabbed Rob Barber who fell next to Giffords and used her bare hands to keep him from bleeding to death. Retired Col. Bill Badger, himself wounded, was one of four who subdued the killer while Patricia Maisch, 61, wrestled a gun clip away from him and prevented him from reloading. One of the victims, nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, became a hero in her death. Her innocent face inspired us all to create a better world for our children and to “live up to her expectations” as our President reminded us. Christina’s organs were donated to save the life of another child in the Boston area.

The list of heroes is always far longer than the list of murderers and assassins. The number of men and women who rushed into the Twin Towers ten years ago is too long to list. While the killers at Columbine have been long forgotten, Rachel Scott’s legacy continues to grow. Rachel’s Challenge has gone global. The life of the young woman who was the first shot at Columbine has inspired hundreds of thousands to acts of kindness.

In fantasy and fiction heroes are usually endowed with super powers along with a perfect physique and beauty. But in reality, heroes are very average looking people. They appear in every shape and size, every age and every ethnicity. Unfortunately, the same is true for those who inflict evil on the innocent.

Jesus indicated that this was the reason that God patiently allows good and evil to co-exist in the world. He compared the world to a field where the owner has sowed good seed. But, as the good seed sprouts, he discovers his enemy has invaded the field and sowed weeds among the good seed. The farmer’s servants offered to enter the field and root out the weeds, but the owner refused. “While you are pulling the weeds you may uproot the wheat with them. Let them both grow together until harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” (Matthew 13:24-29).

We must focus on sowing the good seed in our own hearts, in our families and our communities. The evil will not go away and it cannot be completely eradicated in this world. But the good will prevail and the harvest will come.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fame Fortune and Family

The media has gone crazy about Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden voice discovered by a passing reporter in Columbus, Ohio. When the video was posted on the Columbus Dispatch web site and went viral, Ted Williams suddenly went from rags to riches. Last week he appeared with his mother on the CBS Early Show. He has been offered lucrative contracts to use his unique voice to market everything from Kraft products to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Williams’ sudden rise to fame in the You Tube world comes after a long record of disappointments. While Williams himself seems like a likeable and nice guy, his addictions to alchohol and drugs have left a wide wake of disappointment among those who have been closest to him. When reunited with his mother, she publicly warned him not to disappoint her again.

Most notable among those he has disappointed is his ex-wife, Patricia Kirtley, who is partially blind. According to the New York Daily News, Williams abandoned Patricia and their four girls twenty-three years ago. Patricia raised their four daughters as a disabled single mom. It was difficult. But, she persevered. She went to school and received a license as a blind vendor. She even took on Ted Williams’ child by another woman and raised the boy as her own son. In addition, two of her sisters and a cousin took in children Williams fathered by other women. She says she did not want to see the children sent to foster homes.

Throughout it all, it appears that Patricia avoided becoming bitter or resentful. If Ted showed up for Thanksgiving, she welcomed him, knowing he would not stay. Her oldest daughter, Julia, now 30, said, “Our mom was our sole provider. She is more than a phenomenal person. My father is a nice guy, but he fell victim to the streets. We prayed for him and we worried about him, but we became accustomed to the fact that he just wasn’t there.”

We have to hope that Ted Williams makes good use of the fortune that has unexpectedly fallen into his lap, that he remains sober and demonstrates responsibility toward his family. Williams is the latest example of our media driven world with its misplaced values. The list of gifted and talented people who earn millions for their athletic, dramatic and vocal talents while demonstrating irresponsible behavior toward others is a long one. Ted Williams and Patricia Kirtley’s story reminds us that the real heroes are often unsung, unrecognized and unrewarded by the world.

The media, of course, will move on. This week the media will turn its attention to other events and Ted Williams’ moment in the spotlight will fade. What remains to be seen is what he does with his opportunity and how he handles his responsibility to his family.

The Bible has some rather strong words to say regarding our responsibility to our families. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8). The true measure of our lives is never found in the extent of our fame or the size of our fortune. The true measure lies in the investment we make day in and day out to our families and others.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The New Year Looking Forward

Last week, as 2010 faded into memory, I wrote on Looking Back. This week, as the New Year and the new decade dawn, we will focus on Looking Forward. The past is written, and, although it will continue to be reinterpreted in our minds by selective memory, we know what it is. The future, however, is always difficult to predict.

Some things seem fairly predictable on the near horizon. The economy is improving. Financial experts predict a slowly strengthening economy with more jobs, better income and growing investments. The war in Afghanistan will continue. No one has come up with a clear way out of the conflict. Terrorism will continue. Al Qaida is not going away. People will marry and babies will be born. We will continue to educate our children and our youth. Innovations and changes in technology will continue. The iPhone, iPad and iWhatever will continue their march toward ubiquity.

The Bible teaches us two things about looking forward. First, take the long look. The future may be much longer than we ever imagined. The Bible says, “A day to the Lord is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.” And “He keeps his covenant to a thousand generations.” If a generation is 20 years, the average length of time between the birth of a generation and the birth of their children, then each century contains five generations. Based on that assumption, One hundred forty generations have lived since Isaiah wrote this prophecy and only 100 generations have lived since Jesus was born. A thousand generations would stretch human history to the year 20,000.

I am not proposing that we take the thousand generations literally or that we extrapolate the thousand years as one day to project the length of time the human race might survive, but I think it is fair to conclude that God’s view of history might be much longer than we ever imagined.

Secondly, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ return is always imminent. He will come in a day when we do not suspect. He can return to earth at any hour of any day. Jesus said, “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour that you do not expect him.”

As we look forward, we need to prepare and plan as if many generations will follow. We need to be stewards of the resources given us. We need to pass to the next generation a better planet and a better world, just as our forefathers have sought to pass to us a better planet and a better world. At the same time we need to live as if Christ will return today.

The interesting conclusion from all of this, it seems to me, is that if we live as if Christ might return today we will also live in such a way that we pass forward to the next generation a better world if he delays his coming.