The future tree

April 23, 2015  

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There is an acorn on my son’s bedside table. Found by the two of us on a Sunday afternoon walk through the backyard.

That acorn is special to him. He now has inside knowledge that he formerly did not. He is privy to the acorn’s secret.

Which is this: There is a tree inside it.

Before, my son didn’t really know the true purpose of an acorn. He once saw a cat narrowly escape a falling acorn and surmised it was the tree’s method of self defense if something got too close for comfort–tree bullets. But then on another occasion he witnessed an acorn falling for no apparent reason at all. He didn’t know what to think then.

So. Seeing as how he had found another one and seeing as how I happened to be there with him at the time:

“Daddy, what do acorns do?”

Well. Acorns are seeds, I told him. And that in the Fall they drop from the trees to the ground. If all goes well and nothing bothers it much, the acorn will grow a root. When the warm weather comes back, a tree starts to grow.

“A tree?” he wondered.

“Yes. Inside the acorn is a tree.”

It was one of those times in my son’s life when validation comes for some of his more fantastical opinions. Are their dragons and fairies and pots of gold at the ends of rainbows? Yes. There had to be. If it’s true that a giant tree lives in a tiny acorn, then those things have to be true as well.


But: “What do you mean if all goes well and nothing bothers it?”

Without going into the whole biological process (which I really didn’t know), I told him in broad strokes that the acorn needs things in order to turn into a tree. Water, for one. And good soil. Sunshine, too. If it has all of those things, it will grow.

We looked around and found four more acorns scattered across the yard. Those, he said, should stay were they were. But he first one went into his pocket.

I understood. Sometimes we need small examples of larger truths.

Like that acorn, we all have something big inside us. And like that acorn, what lies there must be tended to and cared for in order to grow.

It won’t be easy. That acorn is small. We are, too. And both of us are stuck in a world where there are plenty of things determined to keep us that way.

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The game of life

April 20, 2015  

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Work at a college around a bunch of teens and twenty-somethings long enough, and you will begin to ask yourself some questions. “How can anyone wear flip-flops in December?” is one. “They actually call that music?” is another. And then there is the biggie:

“Was I really that stupid when I was their age?”

The answer, of course, is yes. Absolutely.

For instance. When I was twenty, I believed:

That life was simple.

That the future was set in stone.

That love was all I needed.

That there is good and there is bad and there is nothing else.

That faith would make everything better.

That the young had more to offer than the old.

That the new held more promise than the tried and true.

Twenty-two years have passed since then. Twenty-two very long, very frantic, and at times very painful years. Whichever of the above beliefs were not proven ill-conceived through marriage and children have certainly been proven so through experience. I know better now. Much, much better.

For instance.

I know that life is not simple. It is hard and scary and tiresome, but it is not simple. If you think it is, then you’re not really living it.

I know that the future may well be set in God’s eyes, but it certainly isn’t in mine. What happens tomorrow is most often a direct result of what I do today, which is most often a direct result of what I did yesterday. The choices I make this day, this second, reach further and deeper than I can possibly realize. Every moment is a defining moment. Every moment is a moment of truth.

I know that love is not all I need. I know that without such things as grace and forgiveness and effort love will crumble upon itself. Love is not the all-powerful cure that poets and dreamers have crafted it to be. It must be nurtured and fed and tended to. Love is not a firm rock that can withstand anything. It is a delicate rose that can wither without attention.

I know that there is good and bad. But I also know that there is more, and I need to look no further than my own heart for proof. For there resides the good man I could be, the flawed man that I am, and the man who must choose daily which he will become.

I know that faith alone is feeble, that only when it is polished with action does it truly shine. Too many times I have prayed for things to get better but did nothing to make them so. God may move mountains, but that’s because mountains can’t move themselves.

I know that the vigor and strength of youth may power society, but it’s experience that drives it. Life has rules, and unfortunately they are not given all at once, but bit by bit as we go. That’s why parents and grandparents are so important. They’ve been there. And because they have, they know a lot more than we do. Time changes. The times do not.

And lastly, I know the new may be exciting, may be revolutionary, may even be promising, but I also know they may not be that way for long. The very things that have sustained us in the past are the things that guarantee us a bright future, things like the importance of family and God, things like the virtues of kindness and loyalty and forgiveness. Such things are woven into us. They are the foundation of who we are and who we will become.

That’s what I know now. Will those beliefs change? Maybe. Check back in twenty years and I’ll let you know.

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Avoiding life’s sting

April 16, 2015  

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I see him by the steps as I pull up. Standing there, staring at the door. He’s still there when I park, still there as I climb out of my truck with shopping list in hand. Still there when I sidle up beside him.

“Hey Charlie,” I say.

He turns and looks at me. “Hey.”

“Whatcha doin’?”

“Oh,” he says, “just waitin’.”

“Uh-huh,” I answer.

I decide not to say anything else. I know what might happen if I do, and I know what might happen after that. Because Charlie is one of those people who can start a conversation in the real world and finish it somewhere in the Twilight Zone.

But then I figure what the heck, I have some time to kill.

“You know,” I say, “they’re not gonna bring your groceries out to you. You gotta go in and get them yourself.”

Charlie nods. “Yep,” he says. “I’ll be going in directly. Just gotta wait for it to leave.”

“Gotta wait for what to leave?”

Charlie points to the flying speck of something in front of the door and says, “That.”

I squint my eyes and stare ahead, trying to figure out what I’m looking at. After careful consideration, I decide it’s a bumblebee.

“You’re not going in because there’s a bee in your way?” I ask.

“Yep.” Then he says, “Nope,” just in case he got his words mixed up.

The door swooshes open then as an older woman rolls her grocery cart out, oblivious to the certain death that hovered over her. Charlie winces as she walks past, exhaling only after she was clear of the danger zone.

“You allergic to bees, Charlie?”


I nod, trying to find the right words to ask him what I need to ask him next. “You, um…you ain’t, you know…afraid of them, are you?”


I nod again. “Okay, well want me to go get your beer?”

I don’t know for sure that Charlie is here for his beer. He might be low on something else, maybe hamburger or peanut butter or ice cream, because Charlie loves his ice cream. But he loves his beer even more, and I have a feeling that his shaky right hand isn’t completely due to the bee.

“Nah,” he says. “I’ll go. I got the time to wait. Just don’t wanna get stung.”

It’s then that I realized Charlie really is afraid. I’m not convinced that is a bad thing, though. No one likes getting stung by a bee. It hurts. Everyone knows that.

More than that, I realize people do this sort of thing all the time. Myself included. We all eventually realize not just where we were, but also where we want to be. And we realize there is usually some sort of Bad blocking the way. It could be a rejection slip or an unreturned phone call. Could be nerves or insecurity. Could even be the prospect of success after years of failure.

Regardless of what it is, that’s what’s floating between you and it. Between where you are and where you want to go.
The size of what’s blocking your way doesn’t matter either, because the fact of the matter is this—there is risk involved in proceeding further. You could fall. You could fail. You could be disappointed.

You could get stung.

And that hurts. Everyone knows that.

The alternative, of course, is to stay where you are. With practice and dedication you may convince yourself that you’ve gotten this far, which is further than some and maybe even most. That might be good enough. And you might even begin to believe that holding onto the prospect of what you could have done will be good enough.

I could have been a writer. Or a teacher. Or a nurse. I could have gone to school. I could have had that job or that career. But there was this Bad between me and it and, well, things just didn’t work out.

But you know what? That never works.

I know from experience that Could Have is just the same as Never Did.

“I’m gonna go in, Charlie,” I say. Then I look at him. “You know that bee’s gonna fly right out of my way, right? Because I’m bigger than the bee.”


“Okay, then.”

I leave him there at the door and pick up the few things on my list. Charlie’s still standing there when I head back to my truck.

“Don’t want to get stung,” he says again.

“I know,” I answer.

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Playing by the rules

April 13, 2015  

scan0005[1]Once upon a time, I was a baseball player. And that’s putting it mildly.

It would be closer to the point to say I was a baseball fanatic. While most teenaged boys would have posters of scantily-clad women or music groups tacked to their bedroom walls, I had ballplayers. And while most would spend their free time perusing the latest issue of Rolling Stone, I would spend mine with Baseball Digest.

You get the idea.

Fortunately (and I can say that now–“fortunately”), God had other things in mind for my future. Baseball was my first true love, and our breakup was a tough one.

Five years ago:

Though the two of us have gone our separate ways, we still have opportunities now and then for a little flirtation. One of those opportunities came last week, care of my job.

College kids are cocky by design. They know much about the world and little about themselves, and the combination results in broad declarations and high claims. So when the girls fastpitch softball team challenged the faculty and staff to a game, the results were obvious. And not.

It began a few years ago with a simple conversation between one college softball player and one groundskeeper. I’m not sure who first said what. All I know is at some point one said something about being a much better ballplayer than the other, which was taken as an insult, which resulted in more insults, which resulted in the first ever softball game between the girls fast-pitch team and the staff.

The games are always interesting. There is an extraordinary amount of fanfare involved, all of which can be boiled down to one word—pride. That’s what fuels these games. It’s not just pros against Joes, it’s the experience of age versus the cockiness of youth. Both teams are out to prove something, whether it be that that a bunch of old men can still kick it up a notch when needed or that the gals can hit and throw and run just as good—better, even—than the guys.

So while there is plenty in the way of friendly trash talking, there is also an undeniable seriousness beneath. My team doesn’t want to be beaten by a bunch of girls. Their team doesn’t want to be beaten by a bunch of groundskeepers, a few office workers, and a mailman.

It was an informal affair at best—no uniforms, no signals, and no stolen bases. And no umpire. Balls and strikes were called by the catchers, one of whom our team borrowed from the other. Baserunners were called safe or out based on consensus.

What could go wrong?

As it turned out, not much. For a while.

Because despite the combination of weakened knees and livers and lungs, us old guys were holding our own. And the young gals were holding theirs, despite the fact they’d been up for days cramming for finals. We were locked in a 1-0 pitchers duel.

But then through a series of walks and hits, we rednecks managed to load the bases with two outs.

Things were suddenly serious, and very much so. The chatter and clapping began in our dugout, while in the field the ladies were pounding their gloves and getting restless. And nervous.

The count ran full, and I could see the sweat building on the pitcher’s face. The intensity was getting to her. It was a look I’d seen before. No way she’d throw a strike.

And she didn’t. The ball sailed about four inches outside.

I jogged to third as the carousel of baserunners moved up one base. The runner ahead of me stomped on home plate with authority. We had a tie game.

Yes! Wait. No.

Because then the pitcher decided her last pitch was a strike after all, which was immediately agreed upon by her teammates.

Team Redneck protested in a most vehement way, of course. But in the end, there wasn’t much we could do about it. We took the field and vowed revenge our next at bat. Which never came, because after they batted they decided the game was over.

I didn’t stick around for the cookout afterwards. I imagine it was a quiet meal.
Me, I didn’t care that much. It was a chance for me to play some ball. The score was irrelevant. And I guarantee you that thought was echoed by most of the people on my team who just enjoyed playing like kids again. It didn’t bother us that we lost. What bothered us was how we lost.

We played by the rules. They didn’t.

You could see this whole episode as something bad. Not me. In fact, I see much good in it.

It lets me know that regardless of how often we’re reminded of how bad both the world and the people in it are, we still expect folks to follow the rules. To play fair. Most do. A lot don’t, of course, and never will. But as long as there is someone somewhere willing to take offense when the rules are broken, I really think we’ll be okay.

All of this has gotten me thinking about the rules my Dad first taught me about baseball. The ones I’m teaching my son now:

Play hard.

Practice much.

Don’t be afraid to get dirty.

Have fun.

Cheer for your teammates.

Keep your head up.

Win well. Lose better.

Shake hands when you’re done.

I like those rules. They’re good for baseball.

Good for life, too.

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Lost and found

April 9, 2015  

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I have a friend who’s gotten lost so often and so bad that he thinks it’s his lot in life. Not just lost trying to get from point A to point B, either. Lost as in trying to do the right thing and be the right person but somehow ending up doing and being the opposite. He says God hates him for this. He’s damaged goods now.

Me, I think we sometimes underestimate just how easy it is to lose our way in life. And, like my friend, we lead ourselves to believe that only bad people get lost. So if we’re lost, we’re bad.

And if we’re bad, then God doesn’t want us. Can’t use us, either. So the best we can do if we ever wander off the path is to try and find out way back and then just stumble along, heads down, in defeat.

But I don’t think so.

The great thing about the Bible isn’t just that it’s the word of God, but that it gives an honest portrayal of the people in it. And a quick look at the giants of both the Old and New Testaments tells us that people got lost back then, too. Adam and Eve got lost. So did Moses. David was called a man after God’s own heart, and he still got lost. Paul was lost before finding the Damascus road. Peter and John? Lost, too.

It happens. To all of us. No one is exempt.

Unusable? To God there is no such thing as unusable. We can all be used by Him, regardless of what we’ve done or what we haven’t. David committed unspeakable acts. God still loved him. Paul murdered thousands of Christians, but God still used him as the voice to speak to us all.

And damaged goods? Hey, we’re all damaged goods. There isn’t anyone alive who lives to his or her truest potential, who says and thinks and does exactly what is right and nothing else. Even Paul, that murderer reformed who was touched by the hand of God, fought daily with himself over what he should do and what he does anyway.

Yes, we’ll all get lost. We’ll take many wrong turns and end up in many places we’re not supposed to be. And we will hurt and suffer because of it.

But know this: the love and power of God is such that He will use every one of our wrong turns to bring us to the right place.

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