Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in Romans 8

(This finishes a one year journey for me in Romans 8. Thanks for walking it with me. To look back check out

Here’s a Christmas verse you don’t hear everyday. “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait with eager anticipation for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23) It doesn’t just jump out at you…Christmas! Hark the Herald! Joy to the World! But take my word for it, it is a Christmas verse.

For one thing it is right there in a conversation about the pangs of childbirth and groaning and certainly brings to mind the young Mary with sweat on her brow and nervous Joseph holding her hand too hard, not sure what to do. That part of the verse always paints a picture for me of blood on the straw and a crying newborn shivering in the cool early morning air of Bethlehem. I can easily see in the candlelight of my imagination the animals watching with some distress as their feed box is commandeered by this unseemly little family, this baby in a manger.

But the Romans passage doesn’t call me to Christmas because of the new birth reference nearly as much as it does with it words of anticipation, eagerness, hope, waiting. The next verse says, “In this hope we were saved.” What hope? The hope that the meaning of this new birth is far deeper, far more profound than meets the eye.

Right now Doris and I are eagerly waiting in our home for Jon-Mical and Jakson to come over on this Christmas morning. (Sorry, Josh, Jennifer, and Jacob…we are waiting for you too.) The presents are wrapped under the tree. The Christmas brunch is in the oven. The battery is charged on the camera and we are ready for their coming. And we wait with eager anticipation, not just because we will be the coolest grandparents in the world when they see their gifts, (Well, okay, that’s part of it.) but because the coming of these children means something deeper.

Our grandkids walk through the door and it means there is hope. We have a chance to love them and influence them and speak into another generation. Someday Jon-Mical will be waiting for his grandson to come over, long after I am gone, and hopefully he will be trying to teach some of the same things that he learned from his PoppyC, and from his dad. That God is good. That the only life worth living is one dedicated to the Creator and all of His creation. That no matter the economical or ecological situation, we know that all things work together for good. That the Baby in the Manger is the King on the Throne and He is large and in charge. That this is not all there is and even these feeble, fragile bodies of ours will be redeemed one day because of the coming of the Messiah.

Well that is a Christmas message with punch. Do they get all of that when they unwrap a Hot Wheels and a laughing Elmo? I doubt it. But there is a spark of that. There is the beginning of understanding about waiting, and eagerness, and hope. There is the message that hope (in PoppyC or in the King of Kings) does not disappoint us.

Now here’s the deal. Paul says that “we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit”have also this hope. God has planted deep down inside us somewhere, when we first started singing Away In A Manger or Silent Night, the growing anticipation of something bigger and better that a Nativity Scene once a year and a few carols for three Sundays in December. Even Jon-Mical and Jakson have, I believe, a God given sense that this thing is bigger than what they see. It is at least about love and joy and family. And that will grow to, well, to Peace On Earth and Good Will To Men. They are beginning to understand what I am beginning to understand, what all of creation is groaning for, the fulfillment of that hope that was born on that Christmas morning. My prayer for you and for us is that this Christmas season and in fact, this entire New Year, we will know the power of being the adopted sons and daughters of God and the joy of our redemption. We have that hope and that beats Hot Wheels any day.

(I was in the middle of writing this when I was called to the ER because Josh cut his hands putting together a toy for Jon-Mical. It's a little disjointed but I didn't want to wait until next Christmas to finish it. Merry Christmas and keep waiting for the redemption that is ours.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Let me give you some dates. September 19, 1964, November 11, 1965, July 3, 1976, August 16, 1977, May 15, 1978, October 29, 1984, May 18, 2007. Can you tell me the significance of all of those dates? Thad could. One of the most remarkable things about him was his ability to remember and catalog hundreds of dates. We became used to asking him when certain things happened and never questioning his response. When did Papa die? What year did we move to Sumter? What’s Moody’s birthday? What day did Danny Leviner graduate from high school? (Did Danny Leviner graduate from high school?) When were Jerry and Ann in Germany? How long has it been since Bobby Richardson played for the Yankees?
 Thad was obviously challenged intellectually as most kids are not. But he knew stuff. He just knew stuff. Like how many movies Elvis made, how to make a gourmet meal out of tomato soup and hot dogs, which Speer family album “The King Is Coming” was on, and every birthday and anniversary of pretty much everyone we had ever known.

 He knew other stuff too that was not so specific. He knew how to tell the truth about the most obvious things in a way that just made sense. When my parents lived in Georgetown, SC Aunt Ruth took him to visit a school there for children that were mentally handicapped. He came home and we asked him how he liked it and he said fine. But when we asked him if he wanted to go back he said, “Well, no, everyone of those kids are just like me.”

 He knew how to turn a hair brush into a microphone and do the Elvis shimmy in front of 10,000 imaginary, adoring fans without even a blush. (video)

 He knew how to be discrete when talking about people from the past where the conversation might be painful. Instead of saying their name he would spell it, TYE.

 He knew how to work the crowd like a pro. At Aunt Ruth’s funeral we were in this very sanctuary. Thad was sitting right down front here between Mary Ruth and Jerry. Mary Ruth told me that at one point in the funeral she and Jerry both looked at Thad at the same time. He saw them looking and he put his face in his hands and his shoulders shook with apparent sobbing. Then he peeked back at both of them and grinned real big, before burying his face in his hands again.

 Thad had an unbelievable sense of humor and he knew how to have a good time, even when it backfired on him.   When Aunt Ruth lived in Smyrna Mary Ruth came to visit one time. They all went to a Dairy Queen and as they were walking out Thad decided to sneak around the corner and scare Mary “Roof.” What he didn’t know is that Mary Ruth held the door open for a lady behind her that had her hands filled with two milk shakes. The lady turned the corner and Thad jumped out and yelled at her. The lady screamed, Thad screamed, the milk shakes went up in the air. Randy said the woman’s husband was sitting in the car watching all of this unfold and he was doubled up in the front seat laughing. Thad kept saying, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”

 For all of his challenges Thad knew a lot of stuff and we loved him for it. But what I really want to remember today are the things he did not know. For example, he did not know how to be unforgiving or hold a grudge. In that short frame God apparently saw fit to place a massive heart. Thad expected the best from everyone and he usually got it. He saw people not as we did but as God did, always seeing the good, overlooking the not so good, and when he was hurt, being willing to forgive.

Like any family we have had out share of black sheep, ex’s, and outlaws. There were those that had wounded us in ways real or imagined. But Thad never gave up on them. He would always ask about them, pray for them, and not let us stay down on them. Maybe that was in part because of his own willingness to ask forgiveness. Oh, Thad could get upset with you. I can’t tell you how many times when we were little I heard him yelling at Kimmy, the mean little kid that lived down the sand street in Sumter. He’d come in and tell me to go down and beat Kimmy up which I would dutifully do. (Mainly because Kimmy was smaller than me and I could.) But it wouldn’t be long before Thad was heading out to say “I’m sorry Kimmy,” to forgive him, and go back to playing. We heard 100’s of times “sorry Sis, sorry Mom, sorry Almeda.” Thad did not know how to keep anger in, to stay bitter, to be unforgiving. He was blessed with the innocence of a child and what a blessing that was. Jesus said in Matthew 18:3 “Except you become like a little child you won’t enter heaven.” I think probably this is what that means as much as anything else, you just can’t hold on to stuff. You have to be able to let it go. Thad taught us that. He did not know how to be unforgiving.

 Another thing he didn’t know, he did not know how to doubt. Faith was not a problem for Thad. He lived with an absolute confidence in the things of God without the slightest hint of disbelief. For all the sorrow that Thad endured, physical shortcomings and pain, the death of two fathers and a mother, the loss of friends and heroes, I just don’t think Thad had the ability in him to doubt God. He was so sure that the promises of God were true that, well, it made me envious. He was sure about other things too. That bread was nasty. That every pretty girl loved him. And that sometimes you needed to take matters you’re your own hands.

 Mary Ruth said I could tell this. Thad started to really get serious about losing weight a couple of years before Aunt Ruth died. She and he would go to the YMCA in Dickson and Thad would walk. He really cut back on what he was eating. And he lost a remarkable amount of weight. One time he was visiting Mary Ruth and she said, “Thad I am so proud of you for losing weight.  I have tried and tried. Would you pray with me that I would be able to do what you have done?” And Thad pointed his short finger at her and said, “Mary Roof, you need to leave God out of this and get yourself on a diet.”  

            That was one of the few times Thad left God out of it. He was so sure of the ever present working of God in everything. He would talk of Uncle Harry and Pop being in heaven together with such clarity and confidence that you knew doubt was not possible for him. He was so positive my sisters were singing together in a heavenly choir that I could picture it myself. And one I struggled with a little, I confess, Thad saw Elvis walking with Jesus on streets of gold, no doubt about it.

            I was thinking how in the Beatitudes Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” Maybe that’s not some future promise. Maybe that means that when your heart is pure enough, like Thad’s you really do see God, at work, in the present, here and now. And when you do there is no place for doubt. Thad certainly did not know how to not believe.

 And that leads me to the last thing I want to remember, he did not know what it was like to not be loved. The amazing capacity of Thad was not his ability to love others, though that is mind boggling. The amazing capacity of Thad was his ability to bring love out of others, especially for him.  Listen I will freely admit this now, every date I had on the SC campground was because I was Thad’s cousin. The pretty girls just swarmed all over him. And me and Johnny Webb and Johnny Wallace would just hang around for the leftovers. He had such an undeniable “lovingness” about him that I just don’t think he ever imagined not being loved. He was the poster child of Sumter First Church. He was the Teen of the Year on the SC district. He was the King of the Campus at Trevecca Nazarene College. He was the Pastor’s Assistant at this church. It is just nearly unfathomable how Thad was loved by everyone, everywhere he went. District superintendents, college presidents, missionaries, seminary professors, and general superintendents all counted Thad as their genuine friend. Churches, youth groups, whole towns, recognized and loved Thad. Isn’t that incredible?

But I tell you where that was most evident, in the love and care that his family gave him. I had the joy of growing up with Thad. He was in and out of my life for almost 58 years. But he was not always there. Aunt Ruth cared for Thad 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, everyday of his life until she passed away. I preached a message about her one time. The text was “whatever you have done for the least of these,” and I said I believe for all she accomplished, song evangelist, pastor’s wife, district missionary president, the most significant thing she ever did in God’s eyes was taking care of Thad everyday. And when you live with that kind of care, how could you possibly know the feeling of not being loved?

And it continued. After Aunt Ruth died Jerry and Ann, and Mary Ruth and Randy have been absolutely incredible in taking care of Thad. Doris and I would come out and visit and watch as Jerry cut up his food for him, lifted him up to take him to the bathroom, and tucked him in bed at night. Not every once in awhile but everyday, night after night. Jerry and Ann, Mary Ruth and Randy, you are my heroes. Because of you Thad did not know what it was like to not be loved. Thank you.

John wrote in I John 1:3, “Behold what manner of love the Father has for us that He allows us to be called His little children.” Thad knew that, without question he knew that and he did not know how to know otherwise.

 There is so much we can learn from remembering all the things that Thad knew but on this day I am pretty sure that his greatest gifts to us were the things he did not know. God, help me to not know like that.

 And oh, by the way, those dates were the dates that people Thad loved went to be with Jesus. Uncle Harry, Gene Kennington, Charlotta, Elvis, Cheralyn, Pop, and Aunt Ruth.

 And let me give you one more date, December 2, 2011. On that day Thad and Elvis sang “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog” in front of Jesus and all those people I just listed. And I believe on that day Thad knew what it was like to get a standing ovation.


 (For those of you who do not know, Thad was my cousin. Born with Down’s Syndrome and not expected to live past 20, Thad passed away on Friday, nearly 58 years old. He was absolutely adored by thousands of people across the country. This is the message I gave at his funeral today.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why Can't We Just Get Along?

(This is the presentation I made today for the Mental Health Association of Middle Tennessee.)


 My grandson is almost 4. His name is Jon-Mical. He lives next door to his best friend Cameron who is 5. They play together all the time. They ride bikes in the driveway, toss the ball in the backyard, and sneak out off to the park next door to their house. They get along great, except when they don’t. The other day Jon-Mical came in and said, “Cameron is stupid. I am never playing with him again.” His mom and dad would have no part of that. They marched him over to Cameron’s house and sat down until they patched things up. His parents sought reconciliation for Jon-Mical because it is good, it is right and they believe it is healthy. 

 Most of us are old enough to remember the Rodney King incident and the Los Angeles police in March of l991.  The videotaped beating of Rodney King by three policemen because an overnight world must-see.   The subsequent trial and acquittal of those policemen sparked a maelstrom of demonstrations and riots that divided not only LA but the nation.  Whatever side of that debate you were on, most of us resonated with Rodney King’s plaintive call in an interview that followed his arrest.  “Why can’t we all just get along?”  He pleaded.

 With the unbelievable effect on our world of the internet and instant access to almost every event on the planet, we are clearly in the most polarized and divided global culture that has ever existed.  We have always had differences but the accelerated awareness of those differences has driven us to an emotional frenzy as a society that is unprecedented.  The more we learn from psychological endeavors and neuro-science, the more we understand that we as human beings are emotional not rational beings. 

 The problems of most of modern history we have tried to resolve with rational thinking.  Descarte, the rationalist philosopher who opened the door to the Enlightenment period, led us to believe in the power of the rational, thinking mind. I think, therefore I am.

From his philosophy came the weight that we now give to Empiricism and scientific study.  This has deeply influenced English and American law, foreign policy, and economic theory.  Our whole approach to life is based on the assumption that we are rational people dealing with issues in a rational way.  To be irrational is to be something less than human.

 The truth is that we are coming to understand we are about 98% emotional and 2% rational.  When I sit in my office with a husband and wife deeply divided I always want to say “Now let’s just think this through.  What would be the rational thing to do right now?”  I never say it because I have learned both clients would punch me in the nose.

My guess is that all of us in this room understand that the preponderance of feelings and emotions in almost every situation demands that we work to resolution from an emotional perspective rather than a rational one. If that is true on a micro scale in our offices, I believe it is true on a macro level in our society.  And I believe it places even more onus on the mental health professionals to be agents of reconciliation in a divided society.

 Reconciliation is an admittedly Judeo-Christian term; Latin, meaning literally “to bring together again.”   In my mind it describes a state of willingness to co-exist and remain engaged in conversation with those that appear to be diametrically opposed to what I think, believe, or feel.  Reconciliation is just sitting at the table with the hope that some point of agreement will present itself.  It is not unity. It is not compromise. It is not even cooperation.  Reconciliation in the context of this discussion would be Islamic leaders and Christian leaders saying, “Our survival dictates that we engage one another as a means of emotional healing.”

 From this perspective, I suggest four objectives for the divided community.

1.       An assessment of value.

Douglas Noll is a peacemaker and mediator for the University of Oregon.  He writes this:

To understand how our brain deals with conflict, consider a simple emotional model. In this model, conflict starts with some problem. The problem is serious enough to cause anxiety, reflected in a feeling of insecurity. When anxiety or insecurity is first experienced, we have a choice between reactivity and reflection. If we do not make a choice, our default mode is to be reactive.

By being reactive, we might reject the problem, give up, or feel inadequate to deal with the problem. If the problem is persistent, we might struggle or exit. As the conflict develops, we perceive it as a threat, and we may blame, attack or withdraw. These behaviors constitute our fear reaction system. I like to call it our self-protective system. The brain systems associated with fear reaction are very, very old, dating back to the earliest vertebrae animals. Although highly adaptive in the uncertain and dangerous environment of 20,000 years ago, the system is largely maladaptive in our modern, complex culture.

If the choice for reflection is made, we have learned to reflect, relate, and relax. The insecurity arising from a conflict situation is recognized as pointing to a pathway of growth towards greater peace and self-realization. We are led by our curiosity to discover something new, find what is lost, or complete unfinished business. Success leads us to wholeness, authenticity, power and wisdom.

In other words, part of what we offer as Mental Health professionals is the idea that there is value in engaging and we as people will benefit more from coming together than pulling apart.  

2.      The second objective is establishing hope.

 Because we are emotional and not rational, we respond to the anxiety and insecurity that Noll cited, particularly on a global scale, by retreating into overwhelm.  We lose hope.  Our dreams of a civil society, a utopian society have died and we say with Peggy Lee “Is that All There Is?” A revolutionary Punjabi poet, Avtar Singh Sandhu wrote.

“Being robbed of our wages is not the most dangerous.
Being beaten by police is not the most dangerous.
The most dangerous is to have our dreams die.”  

I often tell my clients, “I will hold the hope for you.”  As a society, perhaps in the counseling profession, we do just that.

 3. The third objective is to provide coping skills. 

 While it is true that we are emotional creatures, we do have within us as individuals, and as a society the ability to make choices.  One blogger wrote:

Training, habituation and commitment are an important part of our makeup. How did so many very ordinary black people during the 1950-60s Civil Rights movement in the South manage to practice nonviolence? All were threatened, some were beaten, some killed. No doubt they were mortally afraid--and sometimes very angry. But they practiced nonviolence--together. Genetically we're social beings and we draw strength from healthy relationships--for thousands of years these were the foundation of human survival. We CAN choose--and in our era choosing behavior that keeps us emotionally and physically alive together is a crucial element of our future. 

To use a football analogy, I see myself as an offensive coordinator standing on the sideline calling out plays.  Those whom I influence have the responsibility to access strengths, read defenses, judge their own fatigue and make the appropriate audible.  But I still want to supply a list of possible plays that I believe can work. 

4.      Finally, we recognize worth.

 The emotion of the battle, the passion of the cause, the fire of the fight too often produces myopia in us so that through a dark tunnel I only see worth in one point of view.   As counselors, spiritual leaders, mentors, and clinicians our role is to recognize the worth in all human beings and diverse societal perspectives.  Without that, we are reduced to stomping on an opposing player’s head or burning down a mosque.  My objective, as a reconciliator, is to say there is some measure of intrinsic worth in every person that I come in contact with.  Understanding that, I have no choice but to engage.

We face complicated, convoluted, critical issues in our villages and in our universe.  Far better minds than mine have come to an empass time and again when seeking resolution.

I do not begin to imagine that I have the answers in me.  In addition, the issues are burning with the bonfires of emotion, anger, fear, insecurity, and hurt.   Frankly, I don’t know what to do.  But I do believe that to do nothing is not an option, that I have a moral responsibility as a healer and a human to continue to work for reconciliation and engagement. 

I know that this little ditty is far too simplistic on a geo-political level.  But, it just seems to ring true for us today.  It just feels right.
Most of what I really need to know about how to live, and what to do, and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand box at nursery school.
These are the things I learned. Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are food for you. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw some and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday.
Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out in the world, watch for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the plastic cup? The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why. We are like that.
And then remember that book about Dick and Jane and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: LOOK! Everything you need to know is there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation, ecology, and politics and the sane living.
Think of what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about 3 o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankets for a nap. Or we had a basic policy in our nation and other nations to always put thing back where we found them and clean up our own messes. And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together. 
Dr. Mike Courtney


Douglas Noll

“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy

Gerald Corey

Brooks/Cole Publishing

“All I Ever Really Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”

Robert Fulghum