June 2009

[A]nd the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25a).

Not so very long ago, Susan and I transplanted a “volunteer” crepe myrtle from an ornamental bed along our side fence to a flower bed outside our bedroom window. We made sure to preserve plenty of the little tree’s roots, bury and water them, and generally treat it with care. We’ve enjoyed our other crepe myrtles, including another volunteer that is now flourishing outside our laundry room, and we wanted this one to prosper as well.

We gave the tree awhile to get acclimated to its new home, then started looking for growth on it. Nothing. Every day we checked, and still it looked like a dead stick with branches. We were about to give up when suddenly we noticed green shoots on it. Now it’s leafing out very nicely, and we believe it’s going to make it, becoming the beauty we hoped for next to our patio.

I doubt very much that it’s coincidence that right about the time we saw growth on the crepe myrtle, we received two pieces of bad news. One concerned a young (31) member of my extended family who died after a horrific fight with cancer, leaving a wife and two young sons. The other was from a dear friend of my wife’s, who reported to Susan that her cancer had returned and there was nothing more to be done.

No, it wasn’t coincidence. It was providence. God in his mercy showed us a sign of hope when we could have despaired, having heard such news of death and sickness. A tree that seemed dead was now filled with green leaves, promising beautiful blossoms in due season. And that reminded us, and reminds us still, that even when death seems to have the upper hand, God has something else in mind. The ultimate power in the universe is not death, but life; the final reality not the grave, but resurrection.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham



The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage” (Psalm 16:6, KJV).

Recently Robin Meade from HLN went skydiving with former President George H.W. Bush on the occasion of his 85th birthday. She also interviewed Mr. Bush, asking him about the “L” word. I was puzzled. “Liberal?” “Lesbian?” That’s what that letter usually stands for when used in such a manner. But Ms. Meade meant “legacy,” and Mr. Bush seemed to understand that. I guess I’m behind on my interview alphabet vocabulary.

In response, Mr. Bush said, as I recall, that historians would have to judge what he did well and what he did poorly. Pretty standard answer, but nonetheless true.

Indeed, for all of us, history—the outcome of our stories, however large or small they may be—must be the judge of the sort of legacy each of us leaves. When we depart this world (or end our active career, as in Mr. Bush’s case), will it be a better place for our having been in it? Did we pass along something of value to sons and daughters, friends and community, that will endure and help them in turn to make a positive contribution to their world?  

I don’t believe my wife’s late dad ever worried about a legacy, but he most certainly left a positive one. This is the first Fathers’ Day since Neal joined the Church Triumphant, and I want to honor him. As I said, Neal didn’t fret about a legacy. He simply lived his life faithfully, honorably, gratefully, peaceably, honestly, fruitfully, and lovingly, and trusted “the good Lord” for the outcome. He and Elaine wanted to raise their children to be responsible adults, and I can testify that they indeed succeeded. The values they imparted continue to stand Warren, Susan, and Jeff in good stead. Neal’s example and wisdom, I am confident, will shape, inform, and inspire generations of Smiths for years to come.

Neal lived to see the birth of his great-granddaughter Norabeth and hold her in his arms. Thanks to what he taught Norabeth’s grandfather Jeff, and Jeff passed along to his son Brett, the little girl’s dad, Norabeth will grow up saying “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.”

Thanks be to God for Neal Smith.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham


On a recent trip to see our niece graduate from high school, Susan and I stayed with my parents, as always when we go to Georgia. At breakfast one morning, I noticed my dad shaking the milk vigorously. I thought this was odd behavior, given that it was unnecessary for the 1% product they’ve started drinking. But I understood why Daddy did it. He grew up in a day when the cream rose to the top of the whole milk, delivered to your door right from the dairy in glass quart bottles with little paper caps. (Well, truth be told, so did I.) Shaking milk was necessary to mix the cream with the milk and get that rich flavor everybody loved.

I was having Sunday lunch recently with some friends, Herbert and Joanie, from a church I have occasionally supplied, and for some reason I told the story about Daddy and his milk. “I do that, too,” said both Herbert and his mother, who was also sharing the meal. “And for the same reason. It’s a habit.” Reminiscing about shaking milk was an entertaining bit of nostalgia and a connection among us all.

There’s no harm at all in shaking the milk jug, even if the practice is now only a habit and unnecessary. Indeed, as I’ve said, the shared memory of the bygone day when the separated parts of milk had to be combined can add warmth to new and old relationships.

But seeing Daddy shake the milk reminded me of what happens so often in the church and other organizations. There was a practice that arose out of necessity, the need for efficiency, lack of resources or for some other good reason. So it showed the wisdom and practicality of the founders or parents or elders. The necessity passed when conditions changed, but the way things had been done still persisted as tradition now spoken of in hushed tones as “the Practice.” Somehow not to preserve the Practice  dishonored the heritage of the congregation or the organization. Anyone who asked about it was automatically branded a trouble-maker and radical and excluded from the inner circle. The Practice had become institutionalized, and some folk made it their mission to preserve it. Never mind that there was a better way or that no one needed anymore to take the time or make the effort metaphorically to shake the milk. “We have always done it that way.”

There’s a reason those are called the “Seven Last Words of the Church.” They are one evidence of a “closed myth,” which shuts out the stranger (like visitors and even a new pastor). They betray the central ethos of the congregation as one that shuns innovation and new ideas, even when the same old thing is not producing good results. So eventually they become an epitaph when the doors finally close and the lights are turned out for the last time.

Some traditions and old practices are great, lovely, and add to the character and appeal of a congregation. But tradition for the sake of tradition, like change for the sake of change, is not a good idea. Everything, no matter how old and supposedly sacrosanct, needs to be judged by whether it shows the love of Jesus and brings people to him, including them in the big circle that is the community of faith.

Now doing that would shake things up!

© 2009 Tom Cheatham


O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:8).

I’ve been an amateur guitarist for about 40 years now. I started playing at sixteen, primarily learning by teaching myself from books. Over the years, I’ve discovered a great many fascinating things about the guitar that I had no inkling of when I started out.

One of those discoveries has come only in this decade. It’s the concept of alternate tunings. In an earlier blog, entitled “DADGAD” (October 9, 2008), I talked about the lesson changing and playing one of my guitars in that tuning taught me. In this post, I want to share a couple more insights I gained while talking with some folks about leadership at a conference last month.

In our small group, we were discussing various ways of leading, specifically making changes in our approaches as necessary for a situation. I said that reminded me of the capability of a guitar to be tuned different ways depending on the preference of the musician and the piece being played. Standard tuning (EADGBE, low to high) is fine for strumming chords or leading singing. DADGAD is great for “fingerstyle” as played, for example, by Pierre Bensusan. “Drop D,” in which the lowest string is tuned down from E to D is useful in rock, while open tunings (like tuning the guitar to play an E or G chord on open strings) are great for slide and blues.

All that on the same instrument. Of course, a standard guitar can’t produce the resonant tones of a bass or the mellow sounds of a baritone (tuned a fifth lower than standard). But it’s still incredibly versatile.

My point here is that all of us have our standard tuning, as it were. That’s our typical way of responding to a situation, the default setting that we go back to in a crisis. Anyone who has ever taken the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory has discovered his or her standard approach to the world around. Sometimes our normal way is helpful and appropriate. We are served well in our work by being a “commander,” for example. Or our family has appreciated our intuitive grasp of others’ feelings and needs.

At other times, though, we will need to adapt, to tune ourselves (or allow ourselves to be tuned) differently, if only for a time. The introvert has to draw on his or her opposite pole, the extrovert, in order to relate well to someone else, even though the effort is emotionally, even physically, draining. The commander will need to discover how to collaborate when part of a team, contributing ideas, but not pronouncing final judgment on them.

The good news is that we can in fact adapt. We each have it within ourselves to change a little bit (“drop D”), moderately (“DADGAD”) or even a great deal (open tunings). The key factor is what we most care about. Do we value above all our comfort with what’s familiar, whether our usual approach works or not? Or do we care most about effectively carrying out God’s call to us, even when it’s clear we must adapt by, say, giving up control or deciding to listen seriously to someone else’s viewpoint?

The Chief Musician wants to play beautiful music through us. And he will if we are simply open to his creativity in our lives.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham