Do? More.


Don’t believe this. Not for a second.

From a very early age, we teach kids to identify themselves by what they can accomplish. When a baby can flip over from back to stomach, we ooh and aah; when she learns to sit up, we applaud; when she stands for the first time on wobbly, uncertain legs, we celebrate the triumph; and when she takes her first tentative steps, we announce that she’s becoming a “big girl.”

It continues throughout childhood – each physical or developmental marker brings another round of Facebook statuses, Tweets, videos and pictures. The first tooth lost. The first day of school. The first dance. The first game. Every achievement documented, celebrated, and cemented in the child’s head as the surest way to understand themselves.

I am what I do.

Naturally we don’t let that idea remain. We tell our children that they are more than their accomplishments. We try to instill in them that their value lies not only in what they can do, but also in who they are. We teach them that they are intrinsically valuable – even without doing a single thing, they are beloved and special and worhty. We say that, and then spend most of our time praising them only for things they do. It’s our default setting.

Heck, even Aristotle sad as much: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, it is a habit.” The connection between identity and productivity is dadgum hard to override, because we understand that there are bad things that happen when a person gets too caught up in what he or she can or can’t do. I mean, I’ve seen elementary school kids crushed because they didn’t get an A on a spelling test. I’ve seen high schoolers devastated because they didn’t get into the college of their parents’ choosing. I’ve seen adults completely adrift in life after losing a job they thought was their dream.

We are what we do.

Since we’re human, things are naturally complicated. We shouldn’t solely define ourselves by our actions, but our medium for expression as individuals is throughactions: thought, communication, creation. We cannot tell the world who we are unless we do something. But we go awry when we come to believe that what we do is all we are, and that when we can no longer do those things that make us us, then we are no longer someone who matters.

It’s what makes nursing homes so challenging. Same as hospitals. We hate being reminded we have limits; that the very thing that makes us feel alive – our physical/mental capabilities – will be stripped away. People struggle with aging because it’s a regression to the mean; it’s the universe’s way of telling us that we are finite, we are frail.

We are not gods in flesh.

When we come to the end of ourselves, we wrestle with the notion of value. Life becomes an existential cage match. If we cannot do, then what good are we? If we’re merely clogging up the planet, using up money and other resources better spent on those who can create, why should we linger? Why spend our last days as a museum piece that only teaches it’s hell getting old?

I’ve heard those questions from the lips of people who’ve gotten old, gotten beyond their prime years of production: why am I still here? What good am I?

My grandmothers both ask me that question when I go to visit. I look at them and I see life, my life, sitting there in front of me, and I wonder, how do you not know you’re valuable? I look at them, aged and beautiful, and all I can think of are things like sunshine and laughter and meals and hugs and wisdom and prayers and guilt trips and love. And I love them for ALL of it. Every bit. I don’t necessarily remember any one single act (though we do have a few stories to tell) but what I remember, more than the lifetime of doing, is the person who did it, and did it all, because she loved.

Maybe she can’t get her shoes on anymore. Maybe she doesn’t sleep well at night. Maybe she is reaching a point that she’ll require someone to watch over her the way all of us worried parents watched over our own children, someone who can encourage and celebrate each accomplishment, regardless of how small. Maybe all of that and more.

But there will come a day when neither one is here. When both will have gone the way of all people, when both will be a marker next to the marker for a good man who went before her. And when that day comes, I will wish not for her to do something for me, not for her to create or accomplish anything. I will simply wish like hell that she were still with me, that she still existed in a form I could hug or kiss or look at, simply because she’s who she is. My grandmother.

Funny, isn’t it? We spend so much time trying to do something, and not enough time enjoying who those somethings make us into. We think about that only in the end, only after it’s too late to truly appreciate the person for themselves. I think about friends and family today who would give anything to have just a little more time with a Pop, or a Nana, or a brother or sister or a child…

We are not merely what we do. We are more.

Love someone for that today.

Their Pain, Our Joy

melchizedek_abraham1The Gospel of Matthew begins with some of the most horrific words in all of Scripture: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham…”

Instantly you are thrown into one of those dreaded Bible lists, the kind that – if you’re reading in the King James Version – invariably contain the word “beget” more times than you’d care to know. Matthew, the writer of the Gospel, takes the reader from Abraham’s seed (Isaac) to the birth of King David.

But he continues, listing Solomon as David’s son and plowing on through until you get to little known player Jeconiah, just before Israel was sent packing into exile.

Then, you pick up with Jeconiah’s son, Shealtiel, and follow the generations until you arrive at these words: “and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. Thus there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.”

Three groups of fourteen generations, each one detailed in specific, just to connect the fulfillment of the covenant, Christ, with the father of the covenant, Abraham. For Matthew’s readers, this was an impressive display, an imperative bit of evidence that rooted the authenticity of the Messiah’s lineage in the history of the nation of Israel.

For us modern readers, though, it’s reason to yawn. And skip ahead. Let’s get on to the birth of Jesus part, shall we? Isn’t that what really matters? He’s here! Let’s boogie.

But we miss out on so much. Hundreds of years of pain, rooted in the family tree of Israel, etched into the faces of those whom Christ came to seek and save, shouldn’t just be prelude to our getting a fancy new soul. Yet that’s what we make this passage: a delay to our own gratification. Yes, congratulations, Jewish people, you’ve suffered much and now God has sent his son to make everything right. Bully for you. Now let’s get down to sharing the message with the Gentiles so I can watch internet porn and still go to heaven.

I’m being crass, I know. But be honest with yourself: don’t you skip the lineage stuff at the beginning of Matthew because you either find it boring, or, perhaps more accurately, find it pointless?

It’s not, though.

If you follow it carefully, you’ll see something that should make many of us modern-day Christians sit up and take note. From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob; from Boaz to Obed to Jesse; from David to Solomon to Rehoboam; from Amon to Josiah to Jeconiah; from Matthan to Jacob to Joseph – there is a history of faithful perseverance, a willingness to wait for the timing of the Lord and to see his handiwork fulfilled. Generations of men and women went to the grave not knowing what the true consummation of the covenant would be, and they went to the grave still believing. Still trusting.

Then Jesus. He who was very God made man, the one in whom the fullness of God dwelt so that those who saw him saw the Eternal Father. The Messiah, the one who fulfilled the covenant and revealed its depth and breadth in a way that took the world by storm and seemed to bring pain to the very people it was meant to bless. Jesus, who suffered in his body the penalty for our sins, who stepped out of the eternal into the microscopic measurements of time, living second by second, marching towards a destiny unlike any before or since. He went to the cross, aware of the pain, aware of the separation, aware of the death that awaited him. Still trusting.

So we come to our part in the story, the place to where we rush when we first crack open the Gospel. Thanks to the patient faith of the forefathers, thanks to the sinless faith of our Messiah, we now stand in line with those who came before us and bask in the love and glory of our Father God. Being blessed with a faith that is a gift of God’s very grace, we have become adopted heirs in the Kingdom, brothers and sisters to our Eternal King Jesus. What Abraham and David and others looked toward, we stand in the midst of, enjoying.

And how do we celebrate?

By skipping the parts of the story that don’t contain us. By not learning from our collective faith history. By assuming that instant gratification and immediate results are the hallmarks of sincere faith instead of a patient willingness to suffer for our Lord’s sake.

Shame on us.

Christmas is a time for reflection, a time to think deeply on the birth of Christ our Lord, and to consider what that really means to our lives. Let us not skip a word of the narrative, even if we’re so excited to get to the better known parts that inspire celebration. Because without centuries of faithful, patient suffering, with the fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to Jeconiah, and fourteen from Jeconiah to Jesus, there would be no celebration. It is through their pain that our greatest joy became known.

Take some time today and think about that.

30 Years of Obedience: A Profile of Rev. Tommy Jordan

“I thank God for the Unseen Hand, sometime urging me onward, sometimes holding me back; sometimes with a caress of approval, sometimes with a stroke of reproof; sometimes correcting, sometimes comforting. My times are in his hand.”
– Vance Havner

In 1981, I was five years old and obsessed with Star Wars. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, cassette tapes were still fairly new, Facebook was still something printed out on college campuses, and the city of Grayson was more of a town.

1981 was also the year that a skinny young preacher came to a little church in Grayson, a church called Chestnut Grove.

The preacher’s name?

Tommy Jordan.

Rev. Tommy Jordan, Senior Pastor - Chestnut Grove Baptist Church

Now, if that name sounds familiar to you, it should; if you were to drive down Rosebud Road today and look at the big blue sign out in front, you would see the name Tommy Jordan under the word Pastor. It’s been that way for 30 years.

Thirty years is a long time (roughly 90% of my life), and its an eternity when you’re talking about one preacher sticking with one church. When the average tenure for most pastors is 3.6 years (according to Thom Rainer), the idea of one man being in one place for three decades becomes staggering.

Think about it: most modern day marriages don’t last that long. And in a marriage, you only have to get along with one person.

Try getting along with 500. Yeah – it’s not easy.

And yet, for thirty consecutive years, Tommy Jordan has been able to navigate that challenge successfully. I sat down with him to discover his secret.

“How do you make it thirty years at one church?” I asked. “What’s your secret?”

“Well,” he says, in his familiar drawl, “if you love the people and minister to their needs, they’ll overlook a lot of your faults. At least, they have with me.”

He laughs. “I mean, when I first came here, there was a man who was just determined to give me fits. Even the pastor before me told me, ‘Tommy, I have to get away from that man, or he’s gonna be the death of me.’ But I decided I would just love on him, no matter what – just love on that man and his family.”

Tommy, who is still so thin he doesn’t cast a shadow, leans back in his chair.

“And you know what, in time I became his best friend. When he got sick and couldn’t come to church anymore, or when he was having a really bad day at the house, he’d tell his wife, ‘Call Tommy. Tell him, I need him to come pray for me.’ And I would go and just pray for him and love him. He completely changed his mind about me. That’s the power of love.”

Unintentional Huey Lewis quotes aside, the power of love is probably the best way to sum up the ministry of Tommy Jordan. It comes to the forefront in almost every story, every anecdote that he  shares with me, and it colors his philosophy of ministry more than any other theological distinctive. For Tommy, love is the beginning and end of pastoral ministry.

And while most pastors wouldn’t disagree with Tommy’s statement on its face, they might tell that the practical aspects of that philosophy are hard to live by. Not everyone can be loved into submission. It’s part of the challenge of being a pastor.

Of course, Tommy would never say anything like that. He’d rather be strung up by his toes than talk bad about a person. He sees the potential for good in everyone and goes out of his way to give them the chance to live up to that potential. And for thirty years, people have come to Chestnut Grove for the chance to have a pastor like him.

In fact, the church has grown tremendously under his guidance; when he came in 1981, the worship services were being held in the old white building, averaging around 100 people every Sunday. Now, the worship services are held in a much larger building, built in 2001, and the average Sunday attendance is around 375. And perhaps even better, the “new” sanctuary, which cost over $1 million, was paid off completely in 2009.

Seems like love, when freely given, can do a lot of things.


I ask Tommy what his favorite memory is in thirty years.

“I’d have to say…” He pauses to look at the ceiling. “I’d have to say Homecoming.”

“Which one?”

“All of them,” he says. “I just love seeing all the people each year.”

I point out that, technically, that’s not really a memory. He thinks a minute.

“Well, then I guess I’d have to say the amazing number of people in this church who have musical talent. I mean, not just singers, but great piano players, musicians. I would say we probably have more musical talent for a church our size than any other church out there.”

Again – not a memory. At least, not a specific one. I urge him to try again.

“I know – I’ve always had good deacons.” He stops and looks at me. “Well, not always, but for the most part, I’ve been privileged to serve with really good men who supported me and worked hard with me. And I’ve been blessed to have some great staff over the years.”

It takes a minute for me to realize that, for a man who’s whole life revolves around people – not things, not goals, but individual lives – his answers are pretty good. If you hang around Tommy long enough, you learn that he might forget some things, but he rarely forgets people. Now that’s not to say he won’t forget the occasional name, but for the most part, once he’s met you and spent time with you, you are entrenched in his mind.

He proves this over the course of our conversation; he recalls at least two or three names of people I’ve never heard of, people twenty to thirty years my senior, but to him, their faces and names and lives are as fresh as yesterday’s muffins. It’s remarkable, really; if you do the math (and I stink at math, so I’m just gonna guess) you have to figure he’s pastored over 600-700 people in his career at Chestnut Grove alone (he pastored two other churches before coming to the Grove in ’81). That’s a lot of faces, a lot of lives to keep track of – and yet, somehow, he does it.

And this focus on people, on loving people, is continually set before me. I ask him what his biggest challenge has been in his thirty years. He thinks for minute.

“Staying fresh, keeping myself enthusiastic for the ministry to the people. Too many pastors just get complacent, feel like they’ve done all they can do, and they kind of give up. I want to make sure that I’m giving my best to the people every day I’m here, because I want to leave the church better than I found it.”

In thirty years, his biggest challenge has been himself? That’s hard to believe. Especially in a Baptist church. Surely there was one deacon, one member, one situation that pushed him to his very limits as a man of God?

“Not really,” he says.

Either the man is a saint, or he has the most godly congregation in the known universe. I have a suspicion I know what he’d say.


Who brings Nair to a shaving cream fight with the pastor?

The photo attached to the left also happens to be the funniest moment in his tenure. I’ve heard the story numerous times, and it still blows my mind.

“Well, Tim Payne was our youth director at the time, and we had the kids down for retreat on the beach. It was Thursday night, and we were going to go home the next day, so we decided to let the kids have some fun.

“They got into a shaving cream war, just spraying it everywhere and rubbing it all over each other, and they got me involved. I had on shorts, and they just covered me good.

“After it was all over, I noticed that my legs was burning, so I went inside to take a shower, and the hair just come right off. It wasn’t too long after that that Tim showed up at my door and told me that two of the girls had used Nair on my legs instead of shaving cream.”

He laughs.

“In fact, there’s still places on my legs now that don’t have any hair.”

This story is pretty funny in and of itself, especially since Tommy didn’t hold a grudge against the two girls. He laughed it off then just as did sitting across from me. The man is just incapable of being mean.


“I did get one of the girls back though,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “I was doing her wedding, and when it came time to the vows, I got her almost all the way through before I said, ‘And I will not put Nair on the pastor’s legs.’

“She said, ‘I will not pu…now preacher!’”

He slaps his hairless legs and laughs. “She ended up laughing, and I told her, ‘I have the last word!’”

Of course, that’s not the only funny thing that’s happened to the man. In a world where so many people tend to think of the pastor as someone who can’t have a sense of humor, who must be sober as a judge and as humorless as a 401(k) statement, Tommy is a different breed. Granted, most of his comedic exploits came much earlier in his time at Chestnut Grove, but evidence remains.

There is the video footage of he and his brother-in-law, Don Barrett, doing their “Dumb & Dumber” routine. Tommy, dressed in a plaid button-up, driver’s cap, suspenders, short-shorts and knee high socks, sits on Don’s lap and pretends to be a ventriloquist’s dummy. The preacher is no slouch either; he completely sells the routine with stilted head turns, as well as hilarious near-pratfalls where he keeps his body as stiff as a board and trusts his brother-in-law to catch him. The routine lasts a good five to ten minutes, and has been reprised several times. It always gets a laugh.

There’s also the footage of Tommy, dressed in blue jeans and a black leather motorcycle jacket, riding a tricycle around while three teenagers lip sync the song, “The Leader of the Pack.” There is no finer physical comedy than seeing a man who is almost entirely arms and legs furiously pedal a toddler’s tricycle around on stage. It’s like watching a scarecrow do yoga.

There are other funny moments I could divulge, but they lose a little something, being translated to the page. You just have to see them to believe them.


It’s natural that a man like Tommy, one so loving, so un-self-conscious, will be a rather hard act to follow. He announced recently that he plans to retire at 67, which is less than three years away. Of course, his idea of retirement is a little different from most.

“I want to keep preaching,” he says. “I don’t think that being a pastor is something you can really retire from.”

I ask him if there’s a difference, for him, between vocation and calling.

“Definitely,” he says, “most definitely. Preaching, pastoring, is not a job like other jobs. I don’t understand how some preachers can retire from a church and just never do anything again. It would drive me crazy. I mean, I plan to, if nothing else, teach a Bible study or do some interim work at smaller churches once I’m retired.”

He leans back and crosses his legs.

“I mean, in all the years I’ve been pastoring, forty something years, I’ve only been without a church for two weeks.”

My eyes bug out of my head. “Do what?”

“Yeah, only two weeks in forty years have I not had a church. And I’ve never left a church either.”

He raises his hand, as if to stop me.

“Wait, that’s not right. What I mean is that I’ve never been asked to leave a church. Every time I’ve moved on, I had felt like God wanted me to. So there was that one time, He wanted me to move on from a church, even though I didn’t have another place to go, so I just stepped out on faith.

“I even went for a regular job interview, for a job that wasn’t with a church. I got in the car and just started crying, ‘God, I don’t want to do this. I want to be in a church!’ The next week, I got a phone call from a church to come and preach for them, and they hired me soon after that. So I was only ever without a church for two weeks.”

Tommy smiles. “So I can’t imagine not being in a church somewhere, even if I’m just teaching a Sunday school class and ministering to the older folks around here.”

Here he sort of looks to the side, as if a thought just came to him. He looks up and smiles again. “Of course, we’ll see what the Lord has in store.”

What the Lord has in store for Tommy is just as much a mystery as what He has in store for Chestnut Grove. One of the fundamental axioms of leadership, in any type of organization – Christian or not – is that you never want to be the guy that follows the guy. After thirty years of relationships, thirty years of being the center for hundreds of people, Tommy’s departure from the pastor’s role won’t exactly be a small thing.

“How do you plan on preparing the church for that transition?” I ask.

Tommy’s face gets solemn. “Well,” he says, “I would like to have someone on staff who can just take over when it’s my time. Whether it’s someone already on staff or someone we might bring in new, I’d like to have a person who can get to know the people and the church get to know him, and it just seem like a natural thing.”

“Do you think that will be enough?” I ask.

“No.” He leans forward and puts his hands on his knees. “When I’m gone, or not being the pastor anymore, I’m not gonna stay in the middle of things. If people were to call me asking me about the new pastor, or what they should do about something the new pastor wants to do, I’m just gonna tell them – you need to take that up with your pastor. I won’t be mean, but you know what I’m saying – when I’m gone, I want to be gone. I don’t want to make things hard by meddling where I don’t belong.”

Here he rattles off two churches he can remember that faced a similar transition – one that did remarkably well, and one that crashed and burned.

“The difference between them is that one pastor didn’t try to continue to run things and the other one did. The first one, the one that didn’t meddle, stayed on as pastor emeritus, and worked mostly with the older folks in the church. Whenever someone called him up to complain, he’d just say, ‘Go to talk to our pastor.’ That’s how I want to be.”

The question is just begging to be asked, so I toss it out there.

“Will you stay around Chestnut Grove once you’ve retired?”

“If that’s what God wants me to do, yes. I wouldn’t mind being Pastor Emeritus and working with the senior adults. I love our people.”


So we come full circle: love the people. The same principle that has guided his ministry from the beginning is the same principle that will guide his ending. Only for Tommy, there really won’t be an ending. He’ll continue to work within the church, whether Chestnut Grove or somewhere else, because that’s what God made him to do. It’s part of his DNA, as much as the color of his eyes or the leanness of his body.

It is this seriousness with which he takes his calling that makes him such a wonderful pastor. As I mentioned earlier, in a culture where pastors come and go like fashion trends, a man with the commitment and integrity to stay in one place and work according to his call is a spring of hope for weary parishioners. His longevity at Chestnut Grove is an indictment on that quick-change culture, but also an inspiration for those who want to see the culture changed. To look at Tommy Jordan and Chestnut Grove is to see that maybe the way forward is, in some ways, to go backward.

Here is where I give you full disclosure, because I can’t write what I want to write next without telling you that Tommy Jordan is not only my pastor, but also my boss. I work at Chestnut Grove as the youth pastor.

This is actually my second tour of duty as the youth guy; I was first called to the church in 2001, and loved it. I loved working with Tommy and for Tommy, and he did his best to encourage and stretch me as a person. It was only an unforeseen personal tragedy that caused me to leave in 2005, and even then, Tommy was a great mentor and counsellor as I tried to figure out what was next. I ended up pastoring a small church for three years, and Tommy was my unofficial sounding board and sponsor, as well as my model. He would cringe to hear that, but it’s true.

In 2008, I stepped away from the pastorate and went to work for an international Christian ministry as a writer and researcher. My wife and I came back to Chestnut Grove as members, and just basked in the love that Tommy and the church poured out on us. Twice Tommy asked me to step in as interim youth pastor, and I happily agreed. The second time, Tommy came to me in private.

“Would you consider coming back full-time?” he asked.

“Do you want me to?” I asked.

“Well, that’s between you and the Lord,” he said. “But we’d be happy to have your resume.”

I thought long and hard about those words. I’d been out of pastoral ministry for almost three years, and had told many people that I wouldn’t go back. But Tommy’s words resonated with me, and the more I thought about them and prayed about them – and the more God moved in other areas of my life – I realized that, much like Tommy, being a pastor is what I’m called to do.

And, perhaps more specifically, I’m called to minister to the people of Chestnut Grove.

When I interviewed, I told the search committee that the one thing that set me apart from the other candidates was the fact that I didn’t want the job.

“What I mean by that,” I said, “is that this isn’t just some next step for me. It’s not a launching platform or the opportunity for me to come in and show my philosophy of ministry off. I want to come back to Chestnut Grove, not for the job, but to help the church. I wouldn’t just come in and do what’s in the best interests of the youth, but what’s in the best interests of the church.”

I obviously got the job. And, as Yogi Berra said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” I am where God has called me to be, doing what God has called me to do. Just like my mentor, Tommy.

With that being said, this verse from Jeremiah seems most fitting as an end. The prophet, in the opening lines of the Old Testament book bearing his name, recounts the call of God on his life. In simple but direct prose, Jeremiah sums up a call that, like for Tommy, is undeniable.

“The word of the Lord came to me:
‘I chose you before I formed you in the womb;
I set you apart before you were born.
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
“But I protested, ‘Oh no, Lord, GOD! Look, I don’t know how to speak since I am only a youth.”
“Then the Lord said to me:
‘Do not say, “I am only a youth,”
for you will go to everyone I send you to
and speak whatever I tell you.
Do not be afraid of anyone,
for I will be with you to deliver you.’
“This is the Lord’s declaration.”

Jeremiah 1:4-8

The Myth of Independence

Lady Liberty may stand by herself, but she doesn't stand alone. None of us do.

No, that’s not just a “pee in someone’s Cheerios” blog title, cynically posted to stir up traffic on the most sacred of our secular American holidays. It’s a legitimate thought that I can and will back up in my post.

But – it certainly got your attention didn’t it?

Such is the power of the greatest of the American myths – the myth of independence. We have spent 235 years building this myth into an unquestioned ideal that the entire world not only knows but actively believes. Immigrants still flock to our shores in large part because they believe with all sincerity that in America, a person is free to live as they please. To live life on one’s own terms. To make something of oneself with hard work, grit and a little luck.

It’s a nice myth. Certainly better than what some other nations are putting out there (“Come to Afghanistan, where if you’re lucky, you won’t be killed by a deranged suicide bomber!”). It’s got a fair amount of truth to it, and there’s more than enough anecdotal evidence in the volumes of American history to provide support. Our past is littered with men and women and children who, because of the freedom and independence guaranteed by our nation, raised themselves up from unfortunate circumstances by determination and sheer force of will. These stories are placed before us as glorious reminders of the need for individual ethic and drive, the proof in the American pudding.

My family has many of these stories. My uncle, who opened his own tire and battery shop and has thrived as an independent businessman for over thirty years. My father, who turned an entry-level computer programming job into a 30 year career as an executive at a Fortune 500 bank. My father-in-law, who took his B.S. in chemistry to two different companies and cranked out over 42 U.S. patents.

But let’s not be sexist. I know a young woman who turned her passion for helping women and children in need into an international humanitarian agency that transforms thousands of lives annually. I know another young woman who turned her passion for singing into a career on Broadway and stages across the nation. And I know of other, quieter female heroes who realized that the role of mother was the best way to shape the future of the free world.

Each of these people were individuals who took their freedoms and independence as valuable gifts and made best use of them. Each of these people can be hailed as examples of the myth of independence.

And yet none of them truly are.

For all of their success, these people are not independent. Not a single one of them made their lives better on their own. Regardless of how hard they worked and how much of their own spirit they put into their efforts, each one was utterly dependent upon others to achieve all they did.

Because that’s the nature of humanity. We rely on one another. We’re not really independent creatures, free to do whatever we wish. Everything we do resonates within a larger context, a larger community. Whether its family, or neighbors, or friends, each one of us is who we are because of the people around us.

And this is not a bad thing. Dependence upon others is not a weakness, it’s not a blight on the soul. It’s a hallmark of maturity and wisdom. My son and I visited my grandfather today, and when we arrived my father was sitting, ever faithful by my grandfather’s side while my grandmother shelled beans she had just picked from her garden. There was nothing bombastic about the scene – I’ve probably seen something similar a thousand times before – but given my grandfather’s health, the interconnectedness of the moment made me realize just how much we are indebted to other people. And how much we should cherish that indebtedness.

I hope that my son grows up to be whomever he wishes to be (as long as it’s not a career in reality TV). I hope that my daughter goes on to be an icon of femininity in all of its fullness. Both will be free to be themselves as long as I’m their father. Yet both will owe profound debts to their mother, their grandparents, their cousins, their Sunday school teachers, their pastors, their public school teachers and countless other people for helping to shape and mold and drive them towards whatever they might become. Such is the nature of life, especially this American life.

Heck, even if my children decide at an early age to run away from civilization and live on the backside of some God-forsaken mountain in the New Mexico desert, they will still never escape their dependence upon other people. Because even if you go Tim McVeigh and live in a van down by the river, the freedom you have to be “independent” comes courtesy of some Marine or Sailor 0r Grunt or Airman or Coastie who took up arms to keep you free.

In a way, I suppose today is the ultimate irony: a nation of people stand together and celebrate their collective independence en masse. We’re all in this together. Thank a soldier, thank a cop, or just walk across the room and hug that person sitting on the couch, because it takes all of us to make this nation what it is. And maybe in doing so, we’ll reflect and think about one of the most powerful truths of our great nation:

The myth of independence belies the truth of community.

Or as some of our forebears so wisely put it: E pluribus unum.

God bless America, and God bless you my friend. Thank you for what you’ve contributed to my life.

From One End To The Other

In my life, I've found myself at both ends of the church: in the pew and on the platform. Both perspectives have taught me a lot.

From time to time you get to reflect on life, usually because your life brings you a moment – an event – that forces you to stop and really consider what’s before you. The calendar holds two annual times for this sort of reflection: the graduation/wedding season (May-June) and the Christmas holidays.

This past weekend, I went attended the wedding of a former student of mine. It was beautiful.

Of course, it’s not just those moments on the calendar that count; there are other, unscheduled moments that offer us the same opportunity. Things like births, or birthday parties, or family reunions, or class reunions.

Or funerals.

I went to a funeral Mass today for the grandfather of my childhood best friend. It was beautiful.

As a minister, I’ve done my fair share of both services – weddings and funerals – and while it is always an honor to be the official, the kind of reflection offered is limited. You have a sacred duty to discharge when you’re a minister, to offer both hope and comfort, to provide constancy and peace. As such, you spend a lot of time thinking about other people, how they relate, how they connect, how they help one another cope with the immensity of these two very different, yet similar occasions. You spend a lot of time, as it were, being a detached observer and caregiver.

But when you’re merely part of the gallery, when you’re there as a friend, it’s a whole different experience.

I stood beside two families over the past three days, two families that are markedly different in their customs and traditions, but remarkably the same in their love and devotion to one another. One family celebrated the joining of a husband and wife til death do them part, while the other grieved a husband and wife being parted. There was music at both – the balm of the human soul must be music, because we sing it in good times and sad – and also much laughter. There were tears at each, as well as knowing looks, emotional hugs, and the sharing of wisdom between friends.

Each ceremony had tables lined with food, and friends and family seated to reminisce and review the common experience we’d just shared. People were dressed their best out of respect for those being honored, and though the final partings were ultimately opposite in both tone and finality, they were no less filled with the longing that we all feel when we watch someone beloved begin a new journey, a new chapter, one that we cannot really comprehend.

I watched the Sosebee family and the Newman families these past few days, and saw the love they had for their respective moms and dads, sons and daughters, grandkids and cousins and assorted friends. I saw my former student kiss his wife and lovingly take her by the hand to lead her to the dance floor. I saw my childhood friend hold his infant daughter in his arms and kiss her tiny little head as he greeted people sorry for his loss.

I got to be a part of the moment instead of being a part of the service, and the perspective that it afforded me was this:

There are some people, no matter how far the miles or the years may take you, who will always be in your heart, good times and bad. You meet them and love them and keep on loving them until, as the saying goes, death separates you. While the circumstances of your relationship will inevitably change, while you may not be as close to them as you once were, you will still do whatever it takes to stand with them in these moments, to be there when they need only just a friendly face to help them gain perspective.

There are some people with whom you are bonded and you will go with them through life, from one end to the other. Such is the power and privilege of being human.