Archive for June 2022

Weirdly Connected Branches

June 28, 2022

My next-door neighbor has a mature aspen tree in his backyard that is beautiful, except for one branch. All the other branches up and down the tree seem to be synchronized in their posture and purpose, except this one. It hangs low over raised their deck, even causing a couple of taller family members to bend to the side if they have to go by it.

I’m not sure why my neighbor, a pastor just like me, doesn’t cut it back, but then I look at the apple tree in my own backyard that has a shape that resembles the hairstyle of The Three Stooges’ member, Larry. Both of them have weird branches that seem to be trying to make a run for it.

But, all of the branches, normal and abnormal, are connected to the same tree trunks. Once in a while, a strong wind, or like the 18 inches of heavy snow we received on May 18, comes along and breaks one of the branches. Curiously, it’s always one of the normal-looking branches that breaks off. The weird ones hang around like the neighbor kid who seems to always be practicing his squeaky saxophone.

In a time when people’s opinions are more heated than an Arizona sidewalk in July, it’s good to remember that followers of Jesus don’t need to look alike. They can even stand out and make people avoid them. They can even cause others to wonder why he, or why she, is a part of that church. He doesn’t vote like those other people there, and she doesn’t hold the same opinion about the possession of marijuana as the normal church folk does.

Jesus’ own disciples didn’t always agree on things. In fact, a couple of them were kinda odd. Come to think about it, most of them were about half-a-bubble off-center. But they were all connected to the trunk. A few years down the line, that trunk got sawed and shaped into the main part of a cross. Not many of the disciples were on board with that direction either.

We’ve come to a point in our world where people think they have to agree with everything, and if you don’t agree with me, or me with you, we need to part company and post about “the stupid people” on social media.

Two of my best friends in ministry, Tom Bayes and Chuck Moore, didn’t agree on a number of issues and, in like manner, didn’t agree with me. We were three American Baptist pastors leading three different ABC churches in Michigan, each of us at different points on the theological spectrum. We met for lunch every other Wednesday for 7 years at Finley’s restaurant on the south side of Lansing. We came alongside one another in the difficult times of pastoring, giving advice on how to deal with whiney, irritating people who may very well have given Jesus a migraine. We laughed with one another about the comedy of being clergy. I’ll never forget the story shared about a dog that jumped up on the couch during a pastoral visit, started humping one of our arms, and the owners sitting across the living room and smiling.

We never felt like we had to agree with one another on a variety of theological issues. However, we always were committed to respecting one another. Even today, maybe even more so, the three of us see differently on certain issues that other people separate over. At one time or another, each one of us has been that weird branch that looks like it’s heading to the beer tent instead of the sanctuary.

And you know something? I miss my two brothers. One’s down in North Carolina and the other is on his way back to Chicago after a nine-month interim pastorate in Foxboro, Massachusetts. There is a void in my spirit because of our separation by distance. Every time I see my backyard Larry tree, I think about them.

Growing Up In Backyards

June 24, 2022

In my formative years– that as, about the time I realized a pair of clean underwear in the morning was a good decision, not one of several options– I discovered the value of having kids in the neighborhood that I could play outdoor games with. In our Wliiamstown, West Virginia backyards, Mark Dobbins, Jeff Pyles, and I would play 1-on-2 tackle football, grass-staining our blue jeans and white t-shirts. We didn’t know how to tackle. Mostly, it was a grab-and-fall brand of tackle. Ripped t-shirts were common. Hiding them from our moms was next to impossible. We tried to emulate running back Jim Brown, the best of all-time and the hero of the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, we fumbled the ball more in one afternoon than Brown did in his whole career.

Whiffle Ball was our other go-to. We’d play until someone hit a bomb onto the roof. As it went whistling into orbit, we’d begin to pray. It would hit the roof and begin a slow, descending trickle back down the shingles. Our prayers were asking for the miracle of a bump, a hop, and a fall back to earth. However, miracles rarely happened in our backyards. Instead, the plastic ball would come to the edge of the shingles cliff and tumble over into the eavestrough, staying there in the mud and sediment until the next heavy rainstorm. That translated into our form of a rain delay. “Game called because of gutter”, would be groaned by whoever had not been the batter, as our whiffle ball supply was thin to begin with: One! A home run trot would be toned down by the insults and anger of the others. A right field single was more valued than a 90-foot-blast onto the Green Roof Monster. Right field was our neighbor’s backyard in a era when there were no fences.

Our exploits took place in our backyards, where reputations were made and we became legends in our own minds. Jeff, Mark, and I rarely went together inside one of our homes. If we did, it was usually because we needed to hydrate at halftime. As kids, we played outside in sun or snow. Rain might mean we’d scuttle into one of our home carports, maybe not. Tackle football in the snow was a treat, the snow acting like a soft blanket to fall upon. After football, even though we were soaked to the bone (No snowsuits for us!), we’d build snow forts and go to war. Mark Dobbins had an arm, Jeff Pyles not so much. Me? I was erratic and unpredictable.

Backyards were where it was at. Our front yard was small and un-masculine, landscaped with our moms’ flower beds and puny-looking bushes. Backyards were our stadiums and we were our own cheerleaders.

Those were the golden years of our youthful innocence.

Detouring Around The Detour

June 20, 2022

A few miles outside of Colorado Springs, there is a sign to indicate that if you want to travel on Elbert Road you’ll need to follow the detour signs. Since I was heading to speak at the Colorado Cowboy Camp Meeting (which is another story in itself), I needed to go through Elbert, which, in case you’re wondering, is where Elbert Road in Elbert County leads to, and then on to the Camp Meeting grounds another 30 miles or so past that.

I followed the detour signs on down the road for a few miles until I reached Peyton, turned left as the sign instructed me to do, and proceeded this way and that way until I met up with Elbert Road again. So far so good until…

As I approached the intersection that brought me back to the continuation of Elbert Road, the detour sign pointed to the left, except I knew Elbert was to the right. What to do? Follow my instincts and turn right? Assume that the county highway workers getting close to the end of the work week were weary, a little lacking in detail, and not reading the signs (Bad pun!)? Did they forget what was their right and what was their left, or had run out of detour signs pointing to the right, and made the directional mistake?

Or should I continue to follow the signs, even when I knew this one was wrong?

I turned right.

After I made the turn, in my rearview mirror I could see flashing lights. I pulled over to see what the lighted sign said underneath the flashing. It said, “Road Closed Ahead,” which was now behind me.

Most of the time, following the signs is the way to go. Once in a while, however, there is a person, leader, group, or organization who decides on the direction and has no clue as to what he, she, or they are doing. Suddenly, theres’s an abrupt closure up ahead.

It might be a county roads worker who is short on sleep, hot, and sweaty and, as a result, brings a temporary uncomfortableness to those trusting in what the signs say, but sometimes it’s a simply movement or a whacked idea that leads to the edge of a cliff. The side of a cliff is fine in a Far Side cartoon or Roadrunner cartoons, and even for a herd of demon-possessed pigs that are running away from Jesus, but when the cliff is ending and a shred of misguided people are approaching it at full speed someone needs to get on a bullhorn and say the sign was pointing in the wrong direction.

I can recall a whole volume of times my decisions lacked common sense and my life was heading in the wrong direction, but most of the time I’ve been able to figure out what seems to be a bad idea, what leads to misery, and what is just plain stupid. I mean, there is a reason why they titled the one TV show “Jackass” instead of “Genius

When I headed toward the cliff there were consequences connected to the nonsense. In our culture today, bad decisions with cliff-teetering results seem to get blamed on someone or something else. As someone sprints towards destruction, it seems that he rationalizes that there will be someone who will throw him a rope as he’s losing his balance.

Sometimes we need to be perceptive enough to detour around the detour. That, however, may be asking a bit too much of some folk.

In Honor of Dad’s 94th!

June 18, 2022

Today, June 18, would have been my dad’s 94th birthday. I’m wearing his blue University of Kentucky polo in honor of him. Laurence Hubert Wolfe passed away on February 15, 2018. He was a man of God, wise, respected, and dependable.

I could write the facts about him, like how many kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids he had, where he worked… stuff like that , but that doesn’t tell you who my dad was.

My dad was a caring person. That seems kinda descriptively non-descriptive. But you see it entails a multitude of stories. He and my mom were married for 65 years before her passing. Her name was Virginia Helton, youngest daughter of Dewey and Nettie Helton, and a bit strong-willed and determined. Add her married name to her first name and she became Virginia Wolfe. As we would say in our teenage years, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” We would raise our hands. Not that my mom was mean or dictatorial, she just liked things done her way, like expecting all the dinner food to be consumed by us so the dishwater didn’t get dirty. There were more than a few times where I had another serving of mashed potatoes plopped on my plate in consideration of what it would do to the dishwater. The whole scenario was confusing to me, but now I rarely take a plate to the sink with food on it that I haven’t consumed. Wasting food was something you didn’t do, even if it was canned carrots (which I believed were from the devil).

Dad cared for my mom, honored her, sometimes let her talk to the point that she made no sense, before offering her his thoughts which always followed the trail of common sense. In her final years, struggling with Parkinson’s that gradually caused her to lose the functioning of her arms and legs, my dad and my sister (who lived down the street from them) became Mom’s caregivers. That required taking care of he diapering, feeding, keeping her hydrated, and listening to her conspiracy theories about things she had become confused about. The one that we’ll always remember is that Mom believed Dad was having an affair with Rachael Ray. She could see the TV personality reflected on the mirror in her bedroom off of the TV positioned a few feet away from her bed. It greatly upset her, so Dad, kind and considerate, solved the problem by draping towels over the mirror. He had to find a different mirror to stand in front of to comb his hair.

When the Parkinson’s also took Mom’s ability to speak, Dad became her conversationalist, talking to her about the kids and grandkids, what she’d like for dinner…even though she couldn’t tell him, and the latest news stories. He honored her in his caring, as he had committed on their August 13, 1947 wedding day, “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” That’s who he was, how he was, and what he was about. His father, my grandfather, had been killed in a mining accident when Dad was still a kid. Perhaps not having him around, and the severity of the times in the late 1930s, caused him to help his mom and his two siblings keep the family together. He never really talked about those days very much, which tells me they were a difficult time, yet also a foundational time for him. They solidified many of his virtues and values.

He loved a good story. The front porch of the Helton farm home, outside of Paintsville, Kentucky, was a gathering place for stories listened to and told by Dad, my uncles, and my PaPaw Helton. I swear I heard some of those stories more times than God Himself, but they never became tiresome, and each telling prompted rebuttals and revisions from some of the listeners.

“Now, Milliard, that’s not how it happened. It was a Tuesday and he was driving a Ford pickup with one of the taillights hanging down from its frame like it was trying to get away.”

In his later years, with the front porch gang all gone on to Glory, Dad would pass on stories to us…again and again, always slapping himself on the leg as he came to the uproarious, humorous ending. My brother would offer his perspective as a result of 28 years with the Associated Press and several years as the speechwriter for the Kentucky governor, and my sister and I would sit there taking it all in, laughing at just the right moment to encourage the spinning of Dad’s tale.

And Dad was wise. Might I add, patiently wise. He’d hear my mom out: her struggles at her bookkeeping job at J. C. Penney’s that day, who said what to whom, should she go ahead and buy some Towncraft underwear for the boys for Christmas since it was on sale that week, and what did he think about how quickly her new shoes had started to wear out? Dad would listen and, not too soon, offer his thoughts and advice on the topic at hand. When I came home from college for my Christmas break with my hair grown out and parted in the middle, my mom’s reaction was “Lord, have mercy!” Dad’s reaction was to hug me since he hadn’t seen me for almost 5 months. I do recall him escorting me down to Morris’s Barbershop the next Monday morning, but the importance of having my hair trimmed and looking more like a Baptist was on a different page from letting me know how glad he was to see me.

So today would be his 94th birthday. I trimmed around the lawn today in honor of him. He liked a freshly-mowed and well-trimmed yard even more than a trimmed-up son. Maybe I’ll ask my oldest daughter to bring her hair clippers over tonight as a tribute to Mom. It would make her happy, which, in turn would make Dad happy.

Happy birthday, Pops!

The Reservoir of Hope

June 13, 2022

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

I live in Colorado, where we’ve had drought conditions for the past few years. Each year our local officials, in collaboration with the public utility departments, decide if there needs to be watering restrictions put into place. For example, this year we’re restricted to watering our lawn three days a week. As another deterrent to using too much water, the price for each gallon has been used, as well as higher prices during certain times of the day.

The reservoirs around the state are low. The snowfall, that is so necessary to keep the water level up, was minimal this past winter. The ripple effect of that can be seen in the dried-up patches of grass in our backyard. The dry Colorado climate often causes me to feel parched and wanting.

That picture of depletion could be used to characterize the search that many people have these days for hope. Hopelessness has dehydrated our passion for life and purpose for living. It has sapped our energy and scorched our optimism.

When a person or a culture is in the midst of a hope drought, the despondency causes people to look for people and systems to blame it on. Whose fault is it that there is no hope in sight? In sports the coach, manager, players, or even the fan-base get blamed. In financially-stressed times the rising costs of products and services become the focus. In relational tensions, the focus can shift to perceived injustices, the inability to communicate, and structures that cause division and unrest.

Looking for someone to blame, however, never leads to hope. It just leads to hopelessness being reshaped. It does nothing to quench the thirst for hope. It distorts the thirst for hope into being a thirst for justice or a thirst for vindication. There is a mentality that runs through our culture that seems to believe that the absence of hope can be rectified by the presence of equity and fair treatment. There is nothing wrong with such things, but they are artificial sweeteners for the sweetness of hope.

In Scripture, where the word hope appears, it usually is in conjunction with the Lord God Almighty, Jesus, and/or the Holy Spirit. Psalm 42 begins with the phrase, “As the deer pants for the water, my soul thirsts for you, O Lord.” And then a few verses later, the psalmist writes, “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:5)

The Apostle Paul, after he had been taken to Rome to face Caesar and, ultimately, his execution, met with some of the Jewish leaders in Rome and said to them, “For this reason I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” (Romans 28:20) The hope of Israel, Jesus.

In a day and age of anxiety and unrest, a time of spiritual and personal drought, the answer for our lack of fulfillment and despair is the hope that we are offered in Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus described Himself as “The Living Water”.

The Difference of Friends

June 10, 2022

When I was moving into eighth grade…we were moving! My family had been living in Williamstown, West Virginia for several years, but my dad, who worked for the Social Security Administration, received a promotion and we made a move to Zanesville, Ohio.

The middle school years are awkward enough, but when you are the new kid at a school (South Zanesville Junior High) where almost everyone already knows one another it makes it even more uncomfortable. Add to that the fact that I was the shortest kid (4 feet 8 inches) in the whole eighth grade, and maybe even in seventh grade, I felt invisible one moment and thought everyone was staring at the new kid in the next.

I went out for football and looked like someone’s little brother who had wandered onto the field. I remember one practice where Randy McDaniels, our 6’1″ running back took a pitch and was running to the outside. I tried to tackle him and I bounced off of him like he was a windshield and I was the bug.

Terry Kopchak was a lineman on that team and he took me under his massive wing. He was kind and smart. Although he’d never brag about it, Terry was a straight ‘A’ student, one of those kids who worked hard and always seemed to do what was right. He ended up being a teacher, a principal, and then a school superintendent. Instead of seeing me as someone who got obliterated by Randy McDaniels, he saw me as someone who needed a friend.

The eighth and ninth grade years are hard enough. In fact, as I look back on those days I view them as years of personal insignificance. They were a time where I felt I had no value, I didn’t ‘t matter.

Terry Kopchak and another classmate named Mike Bowman told me I mattered. After a football season where my stat sheet registered zero tackles, zero receptions, and, as I look back on it, I think my uniform number was zero, basketball season came. The three of us were teammates on the school team, and the main player was the same guy who had trampled me during football season. Mike, Terry, and I were players who had support roles. We supported one another on the bench and encouraged each other in the minutes of playing time we’d receive. (By the way, Mike Bowman was also a straight ‘A’ student! If I ever received an ‘A’, it was in physical education.)

When I look back on it, now 55 years in the rearview mirror, I am increasingly thankful for these two friends who mad such an impact. After my ninth grade year, my dad received another promotion and we moved from Zanesville to the river town of Ironton, where two other guys (Dave Hughes and Mike Fairchild) took up where terry and Mike left off. I wonder where I would have been without those guys. Their handprints were upon my life.

In recent days, Terry has had some health struggles. He’s had to go through dialysis and physical therapy, battled through Covid illness even though he had received the first three vaccinations, and has gone through a long recovery. One of the results of friendship is a heart swell of empathy, compassion, and love for an old buddy, even though we haven’t crossed paths for decades.

A ripple effect of having friends like Terry and Mike can be seen in the first three books of my RED HOT novel series. One of the main characters, a short bespectacled kid named Ethan Thomas, needed a friend, just like I did. A new boy named Randy moved across the street from him and became that friend who believed in him.

You see, everyone needs a friend…or two, because a friend can let you know that you matter even when you’re filled with doubts that you do.

Thanks, Terry…Mike…Mike…and Dave!

Riding a Bicycle Again For the First Time

June 7, 2022

In preparation for the middle school cross country season that begins in two months, I bought a bicycle at a garage sale for twenty bucks. It’s in great shape, as opposed to the guy who climbed on it and started pedaling. My quad muscles were yelling at me after pedaling on a slight uphill slant for like…a quarter-mile!

They say once you learn to ride a bike you’ll never forget. As I stood there looking at my new-used bike, I asked Carol questions like “How do you change gears?” and “Is this how you brake?” The seat was set for someone about six inches taller than me. It felt like I was rock climbing the first time I stepped onto it.

Now I’ve got to get a bike helmet, something we never had when I was growing up. We were reckless and dumb, running out the side door of the house, picking up the battered Schwinn that laid on its side in the yard, and jumping on like The Lone Ranger as he took a running start and jumped onto Silver. Our moment of alarmed concern was seeing that one of the baseball cards was missing, that had been clipped to the wheel frame. It made this cool flapping sound as you rode down the street. However, I cringe when I think back and ponder whether I had Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron being slapped by the spokes of my wheel. The closest thing we had to a bike helmet was our baseball cap, the bill of which we pulled down low to act as a wind shield. I’m guessing that I’ll end up spending more on a bike helmet than the bike, which, I guess I can easily say, will not be hard to do.

With the gas prices going up faster than I can pedal, I’ve got to get used to my new eco-friendly form of service.

The twenty-dollar bike I bought belonged to a young man, who I used to coach in basketball. He’s a college student now, but evidently there had been a number of bicycles stolen this past year from the campus. He had a clever idea. He put stickers all over the bike frame. It reminds me of one of those old RV’s from the 1970’s that would have stickers plastered all over the back to let people know about all the places they’d visited…and how many uncomfortable nights of sleep they had endured as they bedded down on their skinny cots. This bike is like that to the max. There are picture stickers of cast members from The Office, daisies, random pieces of tape, witty quotes, Winnie the Pooh, Lassie, and gold stars. In fact, just to disguise its awesomeness even more, the seat of the bike has black duct tape covering it.

In talking to my school athletic director, we thought that we’d get some more stickers, name a “runner of the day” after each cross country practice, and let the chosen student put another sticker somewhere on the bike. That would be our scaled-down version of “Employee of the Day” plaque that you see hanging on the wall of a fast-food restaurant to the side of the menu. Maybe our sticker could have the updated price of a gallon of gas. The font would need to be small, however, so the numbers would fit on the sticker.

Once you learn to ride a bike you never forget, but you do suddenly remember why it is you haven’t had a two-wheeler for years. My quads are like barking dogs today!

A dog, something else I haven’t had for the past four decades!

A Run And A Walk Up and Down The Court

June 4, 2022

The pandemic caused an enormous number of changes in our world. We discovered masks, and then masks with designs and short, witty sayings. Curbside became a thing that was offered at more places than Sonic. Now I can go put a book on hold, go to the public library, and pick it up curbside. Students didn’t even have to change out of their pajamas to attend school that had now been brought right into their bedroom, family room, or wherever they plopped their laptop down in the house. Teachers could teach from their own kitchen and have the family cat cuddle up next to the screen.

Covid made us do some things and kept us from doing others, like being with family. For me, it caused me to start doing more long walks, where I discovered these things called podcasts. I got to know Andy Stanley and, on really long walks, T. D. Jakes. I listened to my friend, Chuck Moore, give a few sermons from his office at First Baptist Church of Champaign/Savoy and discovered new songs by J. J. Heller and Crowder.

But the pandemic also caused me to put the brakes on playing pickup basketball games at the YMCA at 6:00 in the morning. The Y is located less than a mile from our house, but Covid became the impenetrable defense that stopped any shot attempt. Before it swept in, we’d have 20 people showing up to play that early in the morning. And then there was no one!

A few months ago, the restrictions were lifted and the hoop action began again, but I had gotten out of the habit. On most mornings I was teaching and unavailable, and if I wasn’t teaching I was sitting on my stool at Starbucks (“Last stool on the right, facing out toward Pike’s Peak”).

Until Friday! One of the guys who I used to play with had come into Starbucks a couple of weeks ago and had urged me come back…so I did.

The court seems to have gotten longer since I was there last. Two or three times up-and-down the court had me huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf. I’m sure that at least one of the younger generation I was playing with looked around to find where the nearest AED machine was located.

However, after the first few old-man sprints, I reconnected with the cardio-base that I had built up in all the years of long-distance running. It became easier, although I wasn’t winning any speed contests getting from one end of the court to the other.

In all my years of coaching basketball, I’ve integrated the idea of teamwork into how I play. Moving without the ball, setting screens, getting to open space, knowing where my teammates are and knowing when to help on defense are now all embedded in how I play. So when I finally took my first shot and swished it, the big guy on my team yelled “I love you!” When I took my second shot, a wide-open three-pointer, and swished it, he yelled, “I really love you!” When I set a screen down-low that sprung him open for a shot that he made, he screamed, “I want to marry you!”

I had to let him know that I was already taken…almost 43 years now! Another couple of shots that found the bottom of the net and I thought he was going to hug me to death.

And now, 24 hours after that run up-and-down the court, I’m rediscovering the awful truths of being 68. My back is telling me to stop doing stupid things, my knees are cracking every step I take coming down the stairs, and the right side of my neck is pinching me to see if I’m for real!

Two days from now I’ll either do stupid and do the same thing again, or head to the safe zone of my Starbucks stool. I’m actually sitting on it right now and, as I look around, I don’t see any AED device anywhere!