Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

The Grunting Phase of Life

November 26, 2022

It’s become as much a part of me as my greying hair and expanding waistline. I grunt. Sounds from the deep. Utterances from the gut.

I didn’t use to be this way, but drop something on the floor and listen to me as I bend to pick it up, and then listen to me again as I stand back up. It’s like a double-header…er, a double-grunter. If I was trying to scare one of the grandkids and it required me rising from a crouched position, I’d be toast. Having two licks of common sense, I have figured out that grandkid-scaring must happen from a stationary position with an ending jump. By then, the grunt becomes a part of the terrorizing.

Why do I grunt? I asked Google and was taken back by all the results that came up. It caused me to grunt in wonderment.

Grunting in our old age comes as a result of losing muscle strength, accompanied by the reduction of lubricating fluids inside our joints that happens over time. Older people, like yours truly, have poor balance, at least compared to their younger selves, and grunting provides some much-needed trunk stability. There you go. I almost feel better about my grunting. Evidently, it keeps me from falling over…except when I fall over.

I don’t remember my dad grunting. Maybe he did and I just didn’t notice. Mom, however, would grunt and say something like, “Lord, have mercy!”, as she rose from her recliner. “Lord, have mercy!” was her go-to grunt. It was followed by a couple of pain-filled grunting sounds to express the stiffness of her joints. She was entitled to moan, groan, and grunt, since she had been struck by a car when she was young girl and spent a few months in the hospital. I have no excuse. I simply grunt as my body unfolds.

When I was younger, I grunted as an expression of my physical efforts, like when I was lifting weights. A grunt was an indication of a conquest taking place. It drew the attention of those nearby who would stop and admire the brute strength on display. I don’t know if those grunts were natural or learned from watching Olympic weightlifters get psyched up as they hoisted the bar that bent under the heavy amount of weight anchored to it. In high school I grunted with masculinity as I bench-pressed one-and-a-half times my weight. I should make note of the fact that I didn’t weigh that much in high school, but still…150% is still 150% and my high-pitched grunt drew the attention of those around me who, now that I think about it, may have been concerned for my safety.

Nowadays I grunt not because I’m bench-pressing one-and-a-half times my body weight, but rather because my body weight is one-and-a-half times what it was back in the day. I need a “Grunt-om-a-ter” to count the number of times I let one out each day. Kind of a different way to keep track of how much I move. After all, my wristwatch keeps track of the numb er of steps I take. In fact, when I’m too stationary, it vibrates on my wrist and when i look down the message on the watch face says, “Let’s Move!” A grunt-om-a-ter could remind me “Time for a Grunt, Old Man!”

That makes me huff a little bit. Now I’m wondering if huffing and puffing, like the Big Bad Wolf, also qualifies as grunting?

Don’t Drag Jesus Into It!

November 22, 2022

The last time I put together a resume I put the names of three people that could be called as my references. In other words, they would vouch for my trustworthiness, integrity, and character. I assumed they would be positive in their approval of me as a person who knew what he was doing and was competent in his words and actions.

In our heated political environment, it seems that Jesus gets added to the viewpoint resumes of more and more people. That is, no matter the political lean of the person, Jesus becomes one of their references. That smells of personal arrogance. It’s putting the cart before the horse– not that Jesus is a pull horse, but sometimes He seems to get dragged into things.

A couple of decades ago, an organization, that promoted itself as Christian and upholding the moral standards of scripture, marched into a U.S. Senator’s office and introduced themselves by saying, “Good afternoon, Senator! We are the Christians!” He replied, “Well, good to meet you, Christians! I’m a Christian, too!” To which they replied, “No, Senator. We are the Christians!” At that point, he knew there may be some differences between them and him.

Jesus had a heart for the hurting, the defenseless, kids, and the elderly. He also got ticked off at people who tried to use their religion to support their causes or express their hatred. Moneychangers and dove sellers in the temple drew His ire. Those who had labeled certain parts of the population as unclean, unworthy, or unwelcome brought out His emotion of anger.

He was not swayed by public opinion. When he was criticized for eating with “sinners”, He said He hadn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. In other words, those who the religious had turned their backs on were the very ones He was called to spend time with.

When we try to box Jesus into our neatly-defined package, we miss the essence of who He was and is. He taught in parables that had the spice of mystery mixed in with them. He quoted from the Torah, the Psalms, and the prophets in ways that caused those who thought they had a corner on the truth to cringe because He had caught them in a different kind of corner.

So, when Jesus gets pulled into a conversation that has political overtones, it causes me to say a prayer asking for deaf ears to listen but, more than that, for people to see each other with equal regard and loved. And I pray for forgiveness for my own tendency in certain moments and on certain issues to put noise-canceling headphones on so I don’t have to listen to a different opinion.

Jesus dragged a cross halfway to Calvary, loaded down with our sins past and present. He doesn’t now need to be dragged into our personal agendas and biases. I’m just thankful that He will come willingly, no dragging necessary, and stand beside me when I receive the final verdict of my life.

Oyster Dressing

November 21, 2022

We are re-creations of those who have raised us. Sometimes we don’t want to admit it, because we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve evolved to a higher form of social sophistication and coolness, but it’s true. After all, Uncle Millard wore black socks in the summer that, coupled with his, Hush Puppies, Bermuda shorts and white legs, made you wonder how you could be from the same lineage? And now, decades later, you find yourself displaying the same kind of pitiful-looking white legs rising out from a pair of black socks. The Bermuda shorts have disappeared simply because you can’t find a pair in your size at Kohl’s.

Re-creations, yes we are!

When I was growing up, my mom made oyster dressing every Thanksgiving. It was a part of our family meal, served Thanksgiving afternoon soon after the Macy’s Parade had ended. I thought oyster dressing was as much a part of everyone’s Thanksgiving meal as sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and the turkey. It was one of the signs of how blessed we were, the only time during the whole year when we had oysters in any kind of dish.

So now when I mention the possibility of oyster dressing to my family, I’m astonished at their looks of indifference and dismay, as if I’ve just appeared in the dining room in my Uncle Millard’s dress attire. They don’t understand my fascination with oyster dressing, the connection it holds to my Eastern Kentucky Helton family roots.

A few days ago I was at the grocery store to get hot dog buns and check on the price of bottled A&W Root Beer. I decided to take a wide turn by the seafood counter, wondering if oysters might be an available item. After all, I live in Colorado, not New Orleans. Oysters don’t grow on trees, don’t you know! My eyes danced past the sardines, over-priced smoked salmon, and shrimp until they landed on a six-ounce tin of oysters. The price was only $8.99, and there must have been at least five, maybe six, of the slimy captives in there. I could hear my mom’s voice saying to my dad as he was about to climb into our ’66 Chrysler Newport and embark on a trip to Big Bear Supermarket in Marietta, Ohio, “Laurence, don’t forget the oysters.” It was, as if, she was talking to me, beckoning me to reconnect with the ways of the past, the customs of our clan.

I picked up the tin. It was actually plastic, which didn’t seem right. The Thanksgiving oysters of the 60s were always in a tin. The plastic balanced itself in my hand, extremely light, I thought, for nine bucks. Should I or shouldn’t I? Relive what was or be sensible about what is? I turned the container to the side and peered through. Like a goldfish in an aquarium, I swear an oyster’s eye stared back at me. Do oysters even have eyes? This one did! Kinda creeped me out, that’s what it did!

And then I remembered…our freezer, which would have to be the residence for this container for a couple of days, was jam-packed with other necessities of life, like a frozen chocolate cream pie, a gallon of Blue Bell ice cream, chicken breasts, and egg rolls. There would be no place to put the Helton Clan oysters. As the eye kept staring at me, I gently placed the container back in the case and lamented the loss of a tradition.

Although they aren’t nearly as exciting and I hold no infatuation about them, hot dog buns don’t stare at you. So I headed to the bread aisle. I felt like everyone was looking at me, disappointment in their expressions, and shaking their heads at my betrayal . I looked down just to make sure I wasn’t wearing Hush Puppies, black socks, and blinding people with the ghost-like whiteness of my legs, as I picked up a package of buns for $1.19.

We’re re-creations of who raised us, yes we are, but sometimes it’s best to cherish the memories and just move on to the bread aisle.

Fasting From Ungratefulness

November 20, 2022

It’s the beginning of Thanksgiving Week, one of the most unusual time periods of the year. Unusual because we talk about how thankful we are, but tend to focus on the troubling details of life. For example, instead of the fact that most of us will sit down at a table that is covered with an abundance of food, the news feature we’ve seen has been about the high price of turkey.

In other words, our culture seems to be drawn toward the negativity of life instead of the gratefulness of what is. So I’ve decided to do a fast from ungratefulness. It will probably be a challenge. When I get those grumbling sounds in my tummy as I experience the road construction on Woodmen Road in Colorado Springs, my first reaction may very well lean toward the over-population of the city, or the inconvenience of the situation, or the fact that I didn’t plan ahead. I’ll have to look at myself in the mirror and tell me to knock it off.

So, when I flip the light switch and the bulb gives one last dying flicker, I’ll be thankful for the fact that it had provided light for me to read by for the past two to three years instead of focusing on the inopportune moment it had lived out its purpose.

When the cashier at the grocery store gives me a sneer when I ask for a price check on the one pound block of ground beef, I’ll say a flash prayer that the rest of her day will find her receiving compliments and a multitude of ‘Thank you’s’!

When the conspiracy theorists invade the TV screen, I’ll look for a “Captain Kangaroo” rerun and smile at Mr. Greenjeans.

When my stool at Starbucks is already occupied, I’ll focus on the other open seats that will give me new opportunities to view Pike’s Peak with my Pike Place from a different perspective.

And, instead of focusing on the fact that I’m paying $3.08 for my cup of coffee, I’ll be grateful for the fact that I get free refills.

When the eighth-grader comes strolling down the hallway, hoodie up and AirPods inserted, I’ll focus on his being in school instead of his strained appearances at looking cool.

When one of my classes is getting me annoyed, I’ll recall a time when I was sitting in Ms. Carisle’s U.S. History class and trying to hide behind Betsy Wolfe in our classroom that featured desks in militarily-precision rows and students sitting in alphabetical order. At that moment, maybe I’ll realize the students in front of me are simply mini-me’s fifty-five years removed.

When Carol says we are going to have pasta and broccoli for dinner, even though I’ve had a lunch of lifeless salad, I’ll focus on the nutritional value of the vegetable instead of my longing for a hamburger. And I’ll be grateful that she is willing to fix dinner for the two of us. The Arby’s down the street would be a lot easier.

When I feel the urge to complain about the cold temperatures that descended on us this week, I’ll be thankful that we aren’t in Buffalo. If I was in Buffalo, I guess I would be thankful for my shovel!

When a go out to my car and see bird droppings on the windshield, I’ll be thankful that there’s wiper fluid that I can use to squiggly it off with.

And when the 5th and 6th grade boys basketball team that I’m volunteer coaching for is getting blitzed 22-0 by a team that boys have to tryout for, I’ll focus on the positive. That they are learning the ineffectiveness of dribbling into two defenders and some of the other hard lessons of basketball life. But mostly, I’ll focus on the fact that it will be over soon.

Happy Gratitude Day!

WORDS FROM W.W.

November 14, 2022

(November 13, 2022)

“The Love In Loss”

Janet Smith was a dear friend. She was so dear, in fact, she was our kids’s babysitter. Since she had no kids of her own, she appointed our kids to be her kids. On her deathbed, when asked who she would like to preside over her funeral, she replied, “Bill.” When her close friend, Becky Murthum, asked the next question, “What if Bill isn’t available? Who is your second option?”, she said, I’m assuming with a determined look on her face, “There is no second option.”

Thus, Carol and I boarded a direct from Denver to Detroit, drove a rattling, rental Nissan up to the Lansing area, and fulfilled the request of an old friend who passed too quickly. She had been out to see us in Colorado Springs this past summer, spending a week seeing her “kids” who now had their now kids, and delighting me with stories about teaching three-foot-tall creations of God’s handiwork. 

Going back to Mason, Michigan, brought with it a storm of tears and the serenading of laughter. Janet’s passing was the pathway to seeing people we had experienced community with for fifteen wonderful years. Mason First Baptist (now Mason Community Church) was my first experience as a senior pastor. Janet had been on the search committee that called me to be their pastor. Now we were heading back to the place that has held a special place in our hearts, our version of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. 

Loss sometimes leads us back to the forgotten love and appreciation for what we once took for granted. It acts as that Bic Lighter that would cause the end of your thumb to be sore as you flicked on the flame to light the candles on the birthday cake. Janet’s loss created a sore spot in our souls, but it also brought us back to the people and place that we have missed and treasured. 

As I stood behind the pulpit and spoke of the lady who had drawn us back, my emotions schemed to break me down. It wasn’t just Janet who I was thinking about, but also the dear folk who were staring back at me. I had married them, buried some of their family, counseled and taught them, eaten Oliveburgers at the A&W with them, coached their kids and blew the whistle at their Buddy Basketball games. Almost a quarter of my life had been lived with them. 

The loss of our friend brought us back to the people that we will always treasure. As Becky Murthum so appropriately put it, our homecoming was because of her home-going.

A Nervous Coach/Teacher

November 10, 2022

I have high expectations for the players and teams I coach, the execution of the fundamentals that we try to teach them and the intangibles of the game (hustle, intensity, encouragement, teamwork). Thus, my nervousness when I’m not there.

This time my absence is due to to the urgency for Carol and me to get back to Michigan for the funeral of our dear friend, Janet Smith. But it also means entrusting my rambunctious group of 57 eighth-graders to my friend, Ron McKinney. Ron has 35 years of experience behind him, so there isn’t much he hasn’t already seen or dealt with. Still, I get nervous. It’s like a parent hoping for encouragement in regards to their child as they sit down at parent-teacher conferences. We fear that we will hear things like: “Except for that unfortunate firecracker in the urinal incident, Johnny has been not made any more decisions that required the summoning of law enforcement.”

I tell my students that I expect exemplary behavior and a vast majority of them are awesome and on-task, but there always seems to be a couple of problem children who cause me to grind my teeth when I AM there, and make me worry about what they might be doing when I’m not there.

Call me a “helicopter teacher”, except my students DO make blunders and take trips to the land of the ludicrous and looney! Speaking of helicopters, I’m writing this as we await our flight to Detroit, a delayed flight which gives me more time to imagine scenes from Kindergarten Cop happening in my classroom, paper airplanes sailing past Ron McKinney’s head and someone grabbing another student’s laptop and running away with it.

Lord, help me to believe that the classroom will still be there on Monday…and Ron will still be my friend! Amen!

Middle School Cell Phones

November 6, 2022

Our middle school has seen some significant changes in the last few years. Of course, that’s not surprising, with Covid-19, students bouncing back and forth from in-person learning to remote like a heated pickle ball match. Getting them readjusted to a classroom environment has been resembling of potty-training toddlers. “I have to now sit on that!”

In the coming weeks, another rude awakening is going to cause their mouths to drop open, aghast at the news that is coming. For many, it will be their first experience in recent memory that they have been separated from their BFF, their cell phone. In my classroom, cell phones are to be placed in the “Cell Phone Day Care” basket or kept in their backpacks. Obliging students are rewarded with a piece of candy at the end of class. Kind of a delayed prize for surviving an hour without the “friend” they like to chum up with.

The forewarning of the coming change resembled the fear that many people in 1999 had toward the arrival of a new millennium. As the clock ticked toward midnight on December 31, 1999, there were doomsday prophecies, people stocking up on bottled water and other supplies, and fear and trepidation flowed through the minds of anxious, nail-biting adults. A cellphone-less school day is the Y2K equivalent for adolescents.

My language arts class is just beginning a section on writing an argumentative essay. Students will choose a position on a controversial issue such as gun control, whether marijuana should be federally legalized, should prison inmates be allowed to vote, should vaccinations be mandatory, should gas-powered cars be replaced by electric vehicles, and a number of other choices they can write an essay about. When the hint of the cell phone restrictions caught their attention several of them wanted to write their essay on the topic. I agreed to it, as long as they looked at the counter-argument of why they should not be available during the school day.

I remember when Coca-Cola changed their soft drink, eliminating Classic Coke, and the uproar as a result of that decision. That was just a tiny tremor compared to the tsunami of cell phones being washed away from the palms of middle school students. A couple of the students said they would change schools, or switch to the online academy. Another student, reminding me of Thomas Jefferson giving an impassioned oratory in the midst of the Constitutional Convention, charged that the school was becoming a dictatorship and it would lead to anarchy and other signs of the demise of modern civilization.

Most of them were not ready to hear that our school was really late arriving at the party or, in their opinion, the execution. Other schools have gone to the cell phone ban and seen the rediscovery of the wonders of education that have arrived once again, after a period of mourning. Academic performance has improved substantially and students have discovered that if one of their parents needs to contact them, just like in the old days, a phone call can be made to the school office and a message relayed.

There was a relevant comeback from one student. He said, “What about teachers? Will they need to have their cell phones in their backpacks?” Good point! I’ll have to restrict my playing of Wordle until when I’m sitting on our couch in the evening and watching an episode of The Andy Griffith Show.

Thursday Classroom Fast

October 29, 2022

In this unexpected year of teaching 8th-graders about essay construction and American History, I’ve also been doing some non-textbook instruction on how to be responsible, what it means to be a decent human being, and being a person who is willing to give.

A couple of weeks ago there were three broken pencils on my classroom floor at the end of the day. Someone, or someones, had purposely broken them. Perhaps it was meant to be a show of strength, a moment of impressive brute-ness that would shock the knee-high socks off the young lady sitting at the next desk. Or maybe it was a contest between two entitled thirteen-year-olds who believe the world should come behind them and clean up their chaos.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t happening for me! I did a mini-rant the next day to indicate my confusion about the purpose of such an act and to make the point that it was not to happen again. If it did, there would be consequences.

But you know how eighth-graders are. Some have short memories. Some of them like to test the currents, sticking their finger into a light socket and then doing it again two weeks later to see if the result is the same, kinda like a bad science experiment. So…on Wednesday morning, what did I find on the floor? A pencil broken into three parts. Someone hadn’t gotten the memo, or had buried the memory underneath their pile of meaningless meanderings.

“Tomorrow,” I announced in my most judicious voice, “we will have a Thursday fast. No food will be consumed in the classroom for the whole school day.” I held up the broken pencil pieces. “Someone left this in the back of the classroom this morning. A pencil. A broken pencil. A broken pencil that never did anything but be there to help you put your thoughts on paper. A pencil willing to have its head ground to a sharp point so you can be clear on the point you are making. A pencil whose bottom has always been there for you to erase the mistakes you’ve made. So tomorrow we will fast to signify that it is a day of classroom mourning for the loss of something that was taken from us at such a young age, barely out of the pencil box, just beginning to realize its purpose. So sad and so unnecessary.”

Some were on the verge of tears. I could not, however, discern whether the possible moistening of the eyes was about the pencil or the realization that they would not be able to consume their Ding-Dongs and beef jerky the next day. A few eyes rolled to express their displeasure in the group penalty because of the sin of one. What were they to do with all those Jolly Ranchers weighing their backpacks down? One student, half-jokingly, said I should be charged with war crimes.

But I wasn’t done making my point. The class is in the midst of analyzing and writing argumentative essays. Why not make it a teachable moment that, back in our day, used to make us cringe. Why not give them an assignment in which they could make their argument for the reason food should be allowed in the classroom? Why not have them do an “argument organizer” work sheet to help them clearly plan their flow of thought?

Some pounded their keyboards, attacking the letters to form expressive words and unpunctuated sentences. Others stared in disbelief that a broken pencil was coming back to haunt them, as if it was a bad sequel to a Halloween movie. But for some students, the best writing comes as a result of being outraged. A moratorium on Airheads has the potential to bring increased intellectual functioning.

P.S. Each day in my classroom I put a question on one of the whiteboards for students to freely comment on. Friday’s question was “If in Mr. Wolfe’s high school class he was voted “Most Likely To…”, how would you complete the statement?”

One anonymous student’s reply caused me to chuckle: “Most likely to get mad over a pencil!”

Passing It On in Passing On

October 23, 2022

Our dear friend, Janet Smith, passed away a few weeks ago. We had a long history with us, going back to when she served on the Search Committee of the First Baptist Church in Mason, Michigan, who called me to be their pastor. My “rookie pastorship” went for 15 years, 1984-1999. It was a time of learning, being extended grace and patience, and blossoming into a minister of the gospel.

Janet guided me until I was able to be a guide for her. She and another seasoned saint, Lorraine Demorest, were my first Worship Design Team. We’d meet once a month to plan out the coming Sunday services, a time of thought-provoking dialogue, punctuated with fits of laughter.

Janet, an elementary school teacher, had been mentored by others in the First Baptist family. Marie Lyons, another elementary teacher from the generation of Janet’s parents, had been that calm, wise voice who had been a guiding and shaping influence long before the age of social influencers. Marie was an authentic and real influencer. The last time I saw Marie was at an ice cream shop in Mason, and Janet was there also. The three of us enjoyed some late-night dessert together and talked about the blessings of life. Marie’s celebrated her 3rd heavenly birthday this past week.

More times than not, we are the result, the effect of the ripples on our life. That’s what resonates with me about Janet, who was who she was as result of Marie and others. A number of others, including myself, can see the handprint of Janet upon us. In her passing on she has passed on her impact.

This past summer we were blessed to have her come and stay with us here in Colorado Springs for a week. My adventures in teaching these past few years were blended in with her experiences and we laughed innumerable times about what students had said and done, failed attempts at trying to educate our students on certain subject matters, and the moments that we experienced breakthroughs. We talked about the past and the present as we took day trips to ride the Royal Gorge Train and visit Fossil Beds National Park. She shared conversations as we sipped on coffee at Starbucks and razzed each other as we played cards in the winding down hours of the evening.

And I’m sure there had been similar conversations years before that Janet had shared with Marie Lyons.

Carol and I will be flying back to Michigan for her funeral next month. In Janet’s final hours, I was able to talk with her on the phone as she neared her entrance in Glory. Her chuckle, slurred some by the pain medication, was still distinctly hers. Although I did not know it at the time, she requested that I conduct her final service of remembrance and celebration. As her longtime friend, Becky Murthum told me, “Janet, what if Bill can’t do it? Who is your second option?”, and Janet replied, “There is no second option.”

I’m honored to do it. She’s an important part of my journey. She was our kid’s babysitter when we moved to Mason. She led me as I led her. She loved Jesus, was loved by Him, and was loved by others. In her passing on she has passed on what I hope I can pass on.

Encouraging Parents About Their Discouraging Kids

October 22, 2022

Parent-Teacher Conferences are revealing times. As the familiar Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, reminds us, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”, so it is with the parents who gather for progress reports on the kids.

For some it resembles the announcing of NCAA Basketball Tournament selections. There are the shoo-ins, the ones who know the report is going to be a thumbs-up; the ones who are borderline, could be positive or could be a disappointment; and the ones who already know it’s going to cause them to develop migraines.

As the teachers of their kids, we try to soothe the wounds in the midst of the misery and offer words of encouragement that little Johnny may not be a future president, but he also isn’t destined for Prisoner #123456.

After all, little Johnny may not understand Exponents in Math, but he does Excel in Kindness. He may rarely remember to capitalize “i”, but he understands the world doesn’t revolve around Him. The parents who are wringing their hands over his lack of academic performance are suddenly lifted out of the dark abyss of uncertainty by the story of how their emerging adolescent helped a classmate handle an incident of devastating defeat.

After all, in a few years these sons and daughters will transition from school hallways and assigned desks to a world that is depending on their character, reliability, and ability to adapt. Whereas knowing the differences between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches is important, being a good citizen is essential. The worry lines forming in parents’ faces smooth out when they hear that their kids are going to be okay. They may be challenging in some ways, but they’ll figure life out.

And then they receive the encouraging words. Their kids will be okay because they have parents who care, parents who have not given up hope that the struggles and mediocrity of the present will get refined to success and awesomeness.

It’s the students with the absentee parents or parents who don’t give a rip…those are the kids I develop worry lines over. Years later, they’re the kids that teachers, school counselors, and administrators think about and hope, in the midst of fears, that they’re okay.