Lord of the Flies

A highlight of the season when I served as a pastor in eastern Appalachia was our fall outing. When the leaves had reached their peak of brilliance, my little country church would hold an outdoor church service in the Breaks Interstate Park. The 4,600 acre park that straddled the state line between Kentucky and Virginia boasted a five-mile gorge that plunged over 1,650 feet. It was affectionately known as the “Grand Canyon of the South.”

What made the park unique was the hiking trails, scenic river, picturesque picnic areas and pavilions and a museum that showcased a real moonshine still. It was there at the still that while reading the information plaque, I felt a tug on my elbow. Turning expecting to see one of my children, I instead found myself looking at the friendliest little doe ever. This special deer had been hit by a car and was allowed to roam the park to convalesce. Now fully healed, it had no fear of park visitors and frequently would beg for a carrot or a favorite piece of an apple from strangers. Numerous times during our services or picnics, the friendly doe would show up to the delight of all the children.

We chose the autumn because the air was crisp in the morning, warm by afternoon and the pests (mosquitoes and flies) were minimal. We had always had perfect conditions until this day. As we gathered under the covered pavilion sitting at picnic tables, the unwelcome winged “guests” started harassing us. It seemed the problem was quickly getting out of hand. If the mosquitoes weren’t bad, the no-seeum gnats were, when that wasn’t enough, the sweat bees came out in force. It seemed as if their collective purpose on this day was to completely ruin our church service and picnic.

As a speaker you know when your audience is not listening. Everyone was now preoccupied with our mini-biblical plague of flies and I had to stop mid-service. I said, “God is Lord of All so lets ask Him to drive these pests away so we can enjoy our day!” This was a teaching moment that did not go unnoticed among the faithful. In attendance was an older church member who was experiencing a test of faith in her own life. Her granddaughter was dealing with some difficult personal struggles and it had been weighing heavily on her. As I made the announcement that we would ask God to drive these insects away, her heart harbored doubt. I was seeing first hand again like many things in life, that when trying circumstances befall us, it may not be an ah-ha moment for us, but the person watching us.

As I prayed for God’s intervention, she relayed to me later that she was doubting His ability to answer my simple prayer. After all, wasn’t a cloud of miserable insects an unimportant thing to God? As I said amen, the insects remained for only a matter of minutes. In fact within five minutes, the cloud dissipated and the area became free of harassing bugs. God had not only answered my prayer, but answered it quickly. The rest of the day was filled with praise, good food, laughter and an appearance by our friendly doe. God had found favor on our little country church.

Some weeks later, the church member sent me a note. She said her faith factor since our outing had jumped exponentially. When she returned home that day, she wrote a letter to her granddaughter with these hopeful words, “If God can answer a little prayer about insects, He can handle any struggles going on in your own life.” I find it comforting as a Pastor that I have seen firsthand that Jesus has many names; I have needed them all throughout my life. He has been known as Comforter, Advocate, Prince of Peace and many more. But on this day I added another to His impressive list of names; Lord of the Flies. He never ceases to amaze me!

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The Most Effective Alarm Clock Ever

I love innovation. I love to read catalogs or visit websites where someone has built a better mouse trap. I mean who came up with glow sticks? You know, the little plastic tubes you can wrap around your neck and have it glow in the dark. Things like this always fascinate me. Every time I fly, I can’t resist perusing the Sky Mall catalog and seeing a thousand silly contraptions I can’t live without, but could before I knew they existed. Apparently there must be scores like me who dream but don’t buy because the catalog declared bankruptcy this week. I expect to find that putting green for FiFi with the attached fire hydrant for apartment bound dogs soon at a Big Lots near me for a steal.

My present need right now however is to find the perfect alarm clock. Of all the appliances in the world, the alarm clock has to be the most reviled and despised. I know this because my clock is typical; it has only two settings. I can either have it blare an alarm that sounds like we’re going to Defcon Five on the national defense readiness scale, or I can be awoken by an irritating radio personality. It’s uncanny, no matter what station I tune it too, I wake up to the most obnoxious commercial known to man. Besides do I really want to be yelled at by a used car salesman at 5 am? Now I’ve known others to place an upside down thumb tack on the snooze alarm button so they will be forced to wake up, but isn’t that just a bit barbaric?

When I purchased my first alarm clock I started out as most people do; I had a clock with small numbers. Now that I’m older and have the eyesight of Mr. Magoo, my numbers have to be the size of a dairy barn for me to read them. When I get awoken at 3 am, I always seem to play the guessing game, “squint and eyelid curl your way to the correct time.”

Now I may have stumbled upon a new way to wake up effectively. Some years ago when our oldest son was six, he needed some encouragement to use proper manners. He was beside himself with excitement when he discovered he could belch on command. In fact it was a favorite past time of his to surprise me by telling me he had a secret. Only when I leaned in to hear it would he part my hair with glee with his sour burp.

One Saturday afternoon after a large meal, I decided to take a nap on the couch. My son was in rare form. He had eaten enough to stir up within him a cyclone of swamp gas and he couldn’t wait to surprise me. And surprise me he did! As he leaned over to force his belch, he got a little too enthusiastic and promptly threw up in my ear. The surprise on his face matched the one on mine as his stomach acid filled up my ear canal and burnt it’s way to the eardrum. Let me tell you, the sound of someone vomiting in your ear has to be the most effective alarm clock known to man; I never woke up faster. And his apologies? As I made a beeline to the bathroom to clean up, his little feet on the floor kept rythym with his apologies. I couldn’t have heard this many I’m sorry’s if I had been a kindergarten playground monitor.

I don’t think I’ll ever find an alarm clock with the sound of someone heaving up their bootstraps but that’s too bad. I’d have to drink ten cups of coffee to achieve a jolt that effective again.

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The Barber Did It

Growing up in in Maine, our little country town was unique in one regard. The town of only 2000 people boasted three barbers. One shop called Jerry’s was on Main Street. My mother and sister were at the five and dime store and since it was just down the street, my mother gave me money to have a long overdue haircut. Barbers were always a bit intimidating for me. Back then they wore outfits that resembled a large apron and they always were overtly friendly.

On this day, Jerry was clumsy. Being all of ten years of age I wasn’t able to discern that life has equations that help us detect when something could go horribly awry. In my case what I hadn’t learned was: slurred speech plus a disheveled appearance adds up to “find another barber.” As I got into the chair and was cranked up in it too his level, I was bowled over by his medicinal scent. His breath smelled like a bad mouthwash I’d never smelled before. If there was proof it was mouthwash it would probably be 120-proof.

As I sat in the chair and watched him go to work on my head I became alarmed. An upright Hoover with a wobbly belt would have done a better job on my hair. In fact when he finished and I looked in the mirror, I looked like I had been run over by a lawnmower with a warped blade. My head was short in places it had never been and left long in places it shouldn’t. I bolted out the door and down the street to the store my mother was shopping in. By this time I was holding back tears. I begged my mother to buy me a hat; any hat! I would have even worn Minnie Pearl’s hat if that was the only one available, it was that bad.

That episode in my life had long been forgotten until today. Waiting for my wife, I saw a hair school sign. The sign touted all haircuts were supervised by instructors. I placed my five dollars and hair line in the hands of a young tattooed student with silver teeth reminiscent of the character JAWS in the James Bond movies. When I first walked into the establishment and was asked to pay in advance that should have been my first clue. Brimming with faith as I entered the would be barber school, I quickly learned there is a fine line between faith and presumption.

As I nervously awaited the trimming, the instructor did one side then quickly handed his shears to his novice student. Six tuffs, two skinnings, and one bald patch later, I was done. You know it’s bad when before the session is even over, the instructor hands you a certificate good for another free haircut; which really happened.

The debacle of my second worst haircut has not discouraged me nor am I in therapy, it will grow back. But you may find it odd when I preach this weekend; I will be wearing a ball cap. It’s only appropriate that it’s a New England Patriots hat too because just like their footballs, my ego is also deflated.

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Always a Kid

It was my first trip back home to my parents farmhouse in quite some time. Living in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont thirty miles from the Canadian line, it seems my parents endure the kind of winters only polar bears would find tolerable. I affectionately call it the most wonderful place to be from. As I shivered in my bed in their upstairs bedroom I was fully dressed wearing my hoodie. As I lay awake I surmised I could probably eat a full ear of corn in 10 seconds with as fast as my teeth were chattering. I couldn’t believe I had ever liked snow and cold. The exterior of my parent’s house looked like a crystal cave replete with rows of stalactite icicles. The snow two feet deep crunched under foot as I loaded up the sled to bring in all my luggage from the car. I used a plastic sled so I could make it all in one trip. Only a penguin would welcome a return visit into these elements for a second load.

Those of us who now reside in the south may never know the “joys” Vermonters experience this time of year. Back home in Tennessee if we get a hint of frost on the grass; schools close, bread and milk vanish off store shelves faster than a cheese pizza at a Weight Watchers Convention, and fist fights break out over the last birth control products. Yet here I stood in single degree temperatures with a stiff northern wind and blowing snow and it was dark yet peaceful. Since I was staying but one night, I chose to leave the car running all night. I feared the expected -20 below temperatures, might keep me there till the 4th of July if the car never started. I couldn’t risk it. The eighth of a tank of gasoline I would use overnight was well worth the peace of mind. As I drove the frigid snow covered tundra the following morning I did it with a smile; my backside benefited from the long idle, it was toasty warm.

If you’ve never traveled with parents later in life, you have to do it at least twice. Once for the reality check and the second time to view what your own future holds. I did have moments where I reverted back to my own childhood. It’s not often at 53 years of age where you visit an establishment and the restaurant proclaims “kids eat free” and you get too! Driving the 2600 mile roundtrip twice picking them up and bringing them home, fostered humorous stories from my childhood. I was reminded vividly of the time I streaked through the large back yard sans clothes, or when I flushed four pickles down the toilet at the same time and flooded the bathroom, or when I slathered my twin and me with diaper ointment when we were two creating a bathing nightmare. We shared stories of living on our first farm in Maine and the surprise I got when I hugged my favorite horse goodbye; he bit my ear. I learned I didn’t miss him much after that. A lesson I still draw upon when people hurt me in life.

As our vehicle passed through Albany, NY, Hershey, PA, Pigeon Forge, TN, and a host of other towns, our nostalgic journey took us through inspirational venues like; Yankee Candle, Marshall’s, Goodwill, Dirt Cheap (yes there is a southern store chain by that name). At each stop the car interior got smaller. Our waistlines and bargain finds fought continually for every inch of available space. In one store my mother hit the jackpot when she purchased a 25 pound bag of road salt for only two dollars. That would last two winters in Tennessee, but only two days in Vermont.

As quick as the two week getaway started, it was over. I delivered them back just the way I left them. Blowing snow with single digit temperatures. Despite my father’s continual question of “Are we there yet?” Our role reversal left me undaunted, I’d do it again. One thing you learn after your 50th birthday is there may not be many more nostalgic trips one can take with parents. With a lump in my throat I drove the long journey home. I stopped at the top of their mountain to see the stunning winter sunrise one last time.

I am now at home, and this morning I looked in the mirror. I saw what I always see, plenty of gray in my hair. But you know it didn’t bother me as much as usual. I gained valuable wisdom on my trip. I learned all’s well as long as my parents are with me. Because as long as they live, it doesn’t matter what I look like, I’m still a kid.

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