November 2008


Four years ago today Susan’s dad Neal came to live with us. It was an interesting, uplifting, and at times challenging journey for all.

 

Neal joined the Church Triumphant on October 11. It is my privilege to bear testimony to his faith and invite my readers to join me in following his example.

 

“…[G]ive thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you…” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

 

“The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4: 5b,6).

 

One of the qualities I admired most about Susan’s late father Neal was his thankfulness. Even in his time of decline, when some days he barely said a word, he was always grateful. And for the smallest things. A glass of milk. Fresh figs from our backyard tree. Help with some personal task he could no longer do for himself.

 

You don’t just wake up one morning and become a person who lives with gratitude. Neal’s whole life was like that. He wasn’t greedy. He wasn’t fancy. His needs and wants were simple. And whatever he had and got was always a gift from “the good Lord,” as he consistently called God.

 

What if every day you and I gave thanks for the “little” things? Hot buttered grits, salted just right. Licks on the nose from a loyal dog. That first taste of morning coffee. Cute chickadees and barking wrens. Multi-tools. Warm woolen socks. A page-turner book that excites the imagination. Playful teasing and banter with spouse, family or friends. A smile, a hug, a twinkle in the eye from a loved one when the day hasn’t turned out very well. If we were to reflect a bit, all these are really the essence of life.

 

Imitate Neal. Be grateful every day. Let that be our commitment this Thanksgiving.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

“The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.”—Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

 

“For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray.”—Jesus

 

“You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!”—2 Timothy 3:1-5

 

I’m used to serving trays made of plastic that look at first glance as if they are sterling silver or at least shiny aluminum. We have some, and they come in handy. But until about a month ago I had never seen forks and spoons designed to fool the eye in the same way.

 

Susan and I were browsing through a chain drug store, having found the item we came in for, but on the lookout for something else we couldn’t do without. I happened to look to my left at the end of an aisle, and there with the usual white plastic utensils were others colored silver, with fluted handles. If you or I saw those on a dinner table, we wouldn’t know they were fake until we picked them up and felt the lack the heft or tried to handle a thick steak, only to have the utensil shatter in our hand.

 

In other words, if something is such a good fake that we can’t tell right away, we must judge its authenticity by experience. With plastic place settings, it doesn’t take much. But figuring out whether a colleague, a family member or a politician is on the level is sometimes very difficult. Some folks are so practiced at hypocrisy and lying that they can pull one over on just about everybody.

 

There’s the business executive that puts Bible verses on his email signature line, but is a pathological liar, spinning every bad situation and failure as someone else’s fault. Otherwise savvy businesspeople fall for his excuses and will not heed the pleas of a few to check out the facts. Or consider the teenage boy who charms not only his girlfriend, but her parents and grandparents, and seems the nicest kid in the world. But he is secretly involved in a relationship with another young woman of low morals. The young man manages this act for sometime, so skilled is he at deception.

 

If there’s any one quality that separates the fakes from the genuine articles, I believe, once again, it’s heft. You can tell a plastic knife from a sterling silver one by the weight of the real thing; what it’s made of it gives it substance. Just so, it is the weightiness of someone’s life that reveals what he or she is really made of—the strength of his character, the vulnerability of her spirit, the lengths they will go to help others and do the right thing. Quoting Bible verses or exuding charm, flashing a broad smile or beguiling others with a winning personality can be the manipulative tactics of the demonic. We have to look at what people do when they think no one is watching, what they say when they are unaware a microphone is on, whom they befriend and what causes win their hearts. That’s what reveals a genuinely good person, who when refined like silver, will stand the test.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

 

 

“Getting old isn’t for sissies.”—Neal Smith

 

“That same night [Jacob] got up…and crossed the ford of the Jabbok…. [He] was left alone…” (Genesis 32:22,24).

 

The other night as we were sitting down to watch “Young Frankenstein” again, thanks to repeated showings on cable, I happened to notice that TV Guide listed the film as having been made in 1974. “That can’t be,” I said to Susan. “It seems like it just came out not long ago.” But I checked, and indeed, it was made 30 years ago. I had a similar feeling of surprise when I noted that “Blade Runner,” one of my favorite flicks, was released (in its original version) in 1982. 

 

Where did the time go? How is it that a film made when I was 22 still feels so current? The answer may be simple. I didn’t see it in 1974, but much, much later on TV. But I suspect that the number of pages I’ve turned on the calendar has something to do with my perception as well.

 

It’s truly an odd feeling to be fifty-something. At times I’m quite aware of my age, like when my knee creaks as I squat or when I put on my progressive lenses, then take them off and hold a page closer in an effort to see tiny print. But those common signs of maturity remind me that “this ain’t my first rodeo,” as they say, so I make decisions with confidence. Other days, I’m bewildered, like a little kid, as I confront new realities that come with age and with which I have little first-hand experience, like preparing eventually for my parents’ passing and knowing that, with my sister gone, I will be the one solely responsible for their care and the settling of their estate.

 

Way back in ‘82, I preached a sermon around the time of my birthday. It was entitled “On the Boundary” and was essentially a riff on one of Paul Tillich’s themes as well as an episode of the Jacob story. I had reached a major mile marker on my life journey—my 30th birthday—and it seemed appropriate to introduce the sermon with some of my reflections on getting older. For evidence that I had crossed the boundary into true adulthood, I reminded the congregation that I had bought a station wagon and had traded in my sporty car!

 

Those big decade markers are indeed liminal times writ large. But the truth is, every moment is a boundary. Between what was and what will be. Between the now and the not yet. Between what we cannot change and what still lies within our power to alter. We are constantly presented with a choice. We can live life looking backwards, wondering what happened to rob us of youth and relevance, fearful perhaps of tomorrow. Or we can go forward with courage, confident in the care of God and his promise “I am with you.”

 

Even when we cross the ultimate boundary.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

“That’s above my pay grade.”—common retort to a difficult question

 

“I live a small but valuable life.”—movie line

 

“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul….”—Psalm 131:1, 2a

 

On a recent vacation to the Gulf, Susan and I walked the beach every day looking for shells. They were abundant, and we came home with plenty of beautiful souvenirs.

 

I noticed something as we strolled the shoreline. With a few exceptions, it was the bigger shells that were smashed and broken or had a gaping hole near the hinge. The little ones, which were much more numerous, were more likely to be intact even after being pounded by the relentless waves. Small was more sustainable than large.

 

Had nature commented on our current economic mess and given a lesson on life in general? Aren’t arrogance and its sibling greed the roots of our malaise, a lack of humility and accountability to others the ultimate source of our crisis? Isn’t it when we think too highly of ourselves that we are likely to be brought down low?

 

Better to live below the radar, not seek too much for ourselves, live within our means, and admit that we do not know everything. Jesus spent time talking about such things rather than the hot-button issues that seem to define “Christian” for the culture today. He warned about the snares of power and money, invited his disciples to take the lowest place at a feast and to be meek and poor in spirit. He told us that the last would be first and the first, last.

 

It occurs to me he spent a good bit of time walking along a seashore. Maybe he also noticed the lessons from the shells.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham