THE LAST PRAYER

To say I didn’t like church service as a kid would be a drastic understatement, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like the pastor. When the preacher would finally call on a “Brother” followed by his last name to say the last prayer my soul and body would jump for joy on the inside.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that it wasn’t a miracle how Pastor Young magically appeared at the front door of our little church to shake hands with every person as they made their way out.

Even though it was illegal, not to mention flirting with a trip straight to hell, with all the good

image courtesy of all posters.com

image courtesy of all posters.com

God-fearing folks praying with their eyes closed, I peeked. Usually, I’d just peek with one eye, that way it seemed like only half a sin I’d have to answer for on judgment day.

While Pastor Young spoke of judgment with authority and the right Biblical perspective, not all the flock took note. Some of them took to judging like a duck does to water.

I watched our beloved preacher stride silently in those long black wing tips with his head bent in reverence. Being a seasoned veteran of church services, and an expert in the sport of church exiting, I always tried to snag a pew closest to the door.

Pastor Young was always there waiting to shake my hand as well as the other boys my age that had the same species of ants in our pants. Our preacher knew all of us regulars by name and knew us well enough to always ask how we were doing with whatever sport or hobby we were into at the time.

Back in the seventies, there was no shortage of people still caught in the sixties with clothes and hairstyles to prove it. It didn’t matter to Tom Young what they looked or smelled like, he’d give each person a hearty handshake and a sincere welcome.

Unfortunately, like our small town church, our mega church today still has some of those folks that believe they have the mind and right to judge another’s heart using their eyes.

“Before you’re seated, please take a minute to greet those standing around you,” the preacher urged. It’s never my favorite part of the service, but I obliged and turned to shake the hands of the folks behind us.

There were two men, probably in their mid to late sixties. I smiled and stretched my open hand toward the man directly behind me. He held his arm at his side and turned his head away. I offered my hand to the man next to him and he accepted looking a bit embarrassed. Then the man who had refused to shake my hand shook everyone else’s.

I’m not exactly sure how or why I offended the man. It could have been a number of things; from my untucked shirt, designer jeans my wife got for me or my shoulder length hair that he couldn’t know used to be half way down my back.

What shocked me the most about the incident was my response. There was a time when I would have misquoted scripture to justify my anger and reprisal… but how can I know the paths that led that man to where he stood behind me?

Maybe that man kept his eyes closed in church during the last prayer… and didn’t have a man like Tom Young to show him the heart of God.

COLLECTORS ITEMS

I admire collectors. It takes a lot of desire, determination, passion, and perseverance to search out and keep collectors items. Some are better than others…

When I was a kid I’d collect aluminum can tabs. That was back in the day when the tab would lift and peel all the way off of the can. We’d use the end opposite the ring, the end that looked like an aluminum tongue, and wrap it around the ring of another top. In time, we’d have an aluminum semi-flexible chain as long as our driveway.

I was also like a slew of other all-American kids that played Little League baseball and chewing bubble gum came with the territory. While Bazooka Joe was the preferred bubble gum of choice, not

image courtesy of comicsbeat.com

image courtesy of comicsbeat.com

in any small part due to the cartoon strips folded up inside each block of bubble gum, but we connoisseurs would sacrifice the good stuff for the brick thin sticks of bubble gum with the baseball cards stacked next to them in the wrapper like a deck of cards.

With time, my passion waned for those stacks of baseball cards, which included Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron long before he broke the Babe’s home run record. I either gave them away or lined the bottom of a trash can with them when I was retiring my youth and everything that was remotely associated with it.

Like most of us, I’ve had a few hobbies and or collections as an adult. I’ve bought and sold a herd of pinball machines and some muscle cars. Lost my passion again… and always usually right before the market ran the prices up that would have given me braggin’ rights.

I resigned myself over time to the fact that I’m just not the collectors item type-uh-hoss. It never dawned on me that I have more than my fair share of books, some printed in the 1800’s. Maybe we’re more of the collector’s items kinda folks than we realize?

I organize my home office three or four times a year. It takes more than a wee-bit-uh-time to sort through business documents as well as the personal papers, not to mention the thousands of papers with my notes and scribbles associated with writing.

After about an hour of sorting and shuffling, my office looking more like something from that hoarder show on TV, I stumbled upon a certain stack of papers I’d temporarily forgotten about. I’m not fixated with this growing stack of papers like I once was, but I’m not about to toss them out with the rest of the trash either.

Sitting at my desk I skimmed through my collectors items. I read details I’d forgotten, but remembered them exactly and the feeling I had the day I collected each piece and added to my growing collection.

Collecting items for the right reasons and with a proper perspective isn’t a bad thing, as long as our collections don’t define us and become idols and or obsessions.

I smiled at my collectors items, tapped the page edges on two sides against my desk to align all the papers neatly. Then I stacked my rejection letters from literary agents gently and neatly back into my desk drawer.

THE EYEBALL TEST

A person can learn a lot by watching, but with enough time we figure out that the eyeball test can’t get past skin. I recall as a kid watching the offering plate getting passed along the rows of church going folks; some would push the plate on down the row like it was a hot potato. You begin to assume things if you’re only source of judgment is the eyeball test.

I don’t take my Bible to church anymore, not to the service anyway. When the preacher man says, “If you’ve brought your Bibles today, please turn to…” he then calls out a Book, chapter, and verse. I glance around ever so slightly to watch the good folks flip back and forth and rattle pages.

When the pastor calls out a more obscure book and verse it’s telling to watch. If he throws out an “Obadiah” or a “Nahum”, pretty much any of the last three-quarters of the Old Testament, less experienced Bible students get stumped.

Some fellow church goers give me the legalistic eyeball test as I sit and wait for the preacher to put the verses up on the big screen. We legalists know that glance of disdain in a judgmental eyeball test all too well…

a good place to park pride

a good place to park pride

As a kid in Sunday school racing to places in God’s word as a competition followed me like a shadow all the way to adulthood and every church service where I’d race to beat everyone else in the service after the preacher man would call the Book, chapter, and verse.

There’s nothing quite as disgusting in being prideful of a legalistic talent… These days I leave my pride pinned under my worn Bible at home.

When I see folks look to the table of contents in their Bible I see humility. I see the true heart of our Father.

When I see the legalistic eyeball test I see a person that might memorize scripture, but doesn’t begin to grasp the heart of our Father.

MY NEIGHBORHOOD

When you grow old with a neighborhood it’s hard to see it objectively. The days of the bright new convenience store that I’d patronize for my morning cup of coffee long ago before the first twinkle of sunlight are long past. My neighborhood was fairly new back then and I settled into the community that I’d call home for decades and still do.

I pulled up to the faded gas pumps with the white needle on my gas gauge swimming in the Red Sea. The once proud concrete is cracked and saturated with oil stains. It’s darker than the surrounding surface which on that occasion would be a misleading title of “black top”.

I really didn’t notice how the elements and time had worn my neighborhood as well as myself until I’d spotted the strolling man make his way across the four-lane street that I’d once used for a shortcut back when it was just a dirt road.

The closely shaved headed man with whiskers to match looked to be around my age. Our eyes locked for a second until he glanced away. The man caught my eye a few moments later when he bent over to pick up something in the parking lot.

Just outside the double glass doors of the convenience store, he hit a gold mine. He picked up a few more small items and slipped one into his mouth, fetched a lighter out of his oversized pants and lit up a partially used cigarette.

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

image courtesy of photo bucket.com

I took a closer look at the frugal man who was not remotely germ-o-phobic. His clothes must have cost him about as much as his cigarettes. His jeans were much too wide and were cinched around his modest hips in clumps. The blue jeans were fat cuffed at the bottom from too many rolls. His brownish green sweater would have most certainly won him first prize at any ugly Christmas sweater contest.

There wasn’t anything like him around these parts thirty years ago. But then it dawned on me that I’m not anything like I was thirty years ago either. I have cracks and lines like the old streets and sidewalks. And despite all the maintenance, all things wear out. It is the design and process in this fallen world.

I clicked the pump handle over and over until it landed on an even number with no cents behind it, glanced around for the cigarette scrounger, slipped the tired gas pump back into its cradle and headed south.

I spotted the bum looking for more used smokes behind the store.

We’re all wearing out and in search of things to comfort us. Comfort and satisfaction in this flesh are fleeting. We can get rest, not so different than filling up a gas tank, but one day rest or fuel just won’t be enough.

My guess is that the cigarette bum might check out a little earlier, but we all checkout. It’s not a matter of if, but when… yet, more importantly, is Where.

I’ll keep my eye out for the used cigarette chain smoker. He’s not in my neighborhood by chance.

LITTLE THINGS

Folks ’round these parts get pretty happy this time of year. Maybe a better word to sum up their emotions during this season would be relieved. After all, little things mean a lot.

God tilts the earth this time of year to give the earth dwellers on this side of the globe a vacation from the punishing sun. And with it comes the recounting of the changing seasons in our past.

A lot of sights and sounds from childhood that used to carry me back like a time machine have grown old, some memories forgotten. The one constant recounting I cherish is the one that I feel and smell then ride back in time like a space ship happens this time of year.

The desert feels like mild mountain air this time of year. It gets cold enough for the older homes to burn wood in their fireplaces. That coupled with the brisk dusk air find a young version of myself strolling home with my football uniform slung over my shoulder like a knapsack, drinking a soda.

The once-skinny kid always seemed to scrounge enough change for the cheap off brand grape soda from the vending machine just outside the locker room that smelled like perpetual sweat.

I sauntered, barefooted, relishing the still lukewarm sidewalk contrasting the crisp dusk breeze. I inhaled the cool air that was laced with the scent of burning firewood… the same one that still transports me back in time.

Only that younger version of my ears could have heard that puny little sound over the roar of the traffic speeding by on the street I’d just crossed. The same major thoroughfare I crossed at least twice a day under the shadow of the traffic sign that told us specifically not to cross there.

I stopped and listened. After a few seconds, I heard it again. I sunk to a deep squat, arms resting comfortably on my knees, peering under the bushes of a side street just off the intersection. If it would have been much darker I’d have missed the black little furball that was desperately screaming for help.

I don’t recall who taught me to make that quick kissing sound to call animals, but it still works like a

image courtesy of photobucket.com

image courtesy of photobucket.com

champ. The long haired, jet black kitten with the vibrant green eyes warily made his way over to me. I scratched behind his ears for a minute or so then pressed on toward home.

The black kitten followed me like my dog Pee-Wee used to a few short years before that. I picked the little guy up and noticed he didn’t have a collar and knew at his age living next to a main street he wouldn’t last but a day or two.

I’d long since grown up, left home, had my own pets and “Little Kitty” was still keeping my mom and dad company.

As the years pass, so do our pets, the seasons, and our loved ones. Each one is a gift. I’m reminded of that fact often… and every Fall and Spring when I smell the logs burning in the cool desert air… I remember the little things that point to big ones… I listen for that faint sound… and smile.