Everyday Heroes

They are all around us, and we see them every day, even if we don’t always recognize them for who they are.

Everyday Heroes.

Surely you have seen these people. You might even be one yourself. If so, thank you. Who are they?

They are the firefighters who run INTO burning buildings, when everyone else is running out. They are the police officers who run TOWARDS the sound of gunfire. They are the nurses who help patients with unpleasant symptoms, especially when those patients can’t help themselves.

They are the teachers who buy school supplies out of their own pockets and offer encouraging words to struggling students. They are the pastors who quietly sit with families that have gotten bad news. They are the linemen who climb utility poles in the cold and wet, so the rest of us can stay warm and dry.

They often go unsung, unnoticed and unappreciated. They watch as our society cheers athletes, rock stars, actors – people most of us will never interact with or personally know. But our everyday heroes hear no cheering crowds, and nobody is paying them much attention. And yet, every day, day after day, they quietly go about their business of helping other people, being a friend, making a difference.

They are Mr. Holland. They are George Bailey.

Surely you have known such people. A Sunday School teacher. A little league coach. A Scout leader. They are the folks who get involved in other people’s lives in a positive way and make a difference. They’re not flashy, and they’re not celebrated. But they’re remembered as the people who care.

And here’s the good news: we can all be in that category, if we’re willing to take a moment, to offer a kind word or a shoulder, or a sympathetic ear. I was a pastor for a long time, and I’m convinced that when tragedy strikes, people don’t remember very many of the things that other people say. But they remember who was there.

You can be a hero today. Somewhere around you right now, a kid needs a mentor. A neighbor needs a friend. A co-worker needs someone to talk to. The Experienced Citizens Center could use some more drivers to deliver meals. You can do that. We all can – the question is, will we? Jesus said that if all we do is offer a cup of cold water in His name, we would certainly be rewarded in His Kingdom.

It’s not too late to put this on your list of things to do for 2021. Be a more caring person. Give a damn. Get involved. Make a difference.

Now, more than ever, we need all the heroes we can get.

What’s Cooking?

Sometimes, if you stay open to trying new things, you’ll discover something about yourself that you never knew before.

Case in point: I’ve discovered that I love to cook.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve always loved to grill. I think most guys do – there’s just something about an open fire, and being outside, and sizzling meat cooking on a hot steel grill that appeals to a lot of men. But I’m talking about more than that.

Several years ago, my family and I moved into a neighborhood ministry called “The Friendship House,” on Abilene’s north side near Hendrick Hospital. Part of my job was to host regular block parties and other get-togethers where we would eat and visit and get to know one another – and that meant I had to fix a main course, and the neighbors would bring the side dishes.

So I learned to cook. And in the process, I also learned how much I enjoy planning and preparing the meals, trying out new recipes, and experimenting with different ingredients and techniques. (I’ve also discovered that sometimes, even failures can still taste pretty good!)

Then a few years later, when I resigned from that job and moved back to Southeast Texas to be my elderly dad’s caregiver, I was able to fix his favorite meals and make his closing days a little more enjoyable. It was a real treat for me, to share those dinners with him.

Enjoying a meal with family and friends has a number of genuine benefits. For one thing, food creates community. I’ve seen it more than once – people arrive as strangers and leave as friends. There’s something about the act of eating a meal together that helps people tear down the walls they’ve built and get to know others in a way that few other activities can.

It should come as no surprise that, in the Bible, one of the most common images God uses to describe heaven is a fabulous feast. For example, in Isaiah 25:6, we read, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines.” The prophet goes on to say that in that day, God will “swallow up death forever,” and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

And speaking of creating community: in Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.”

Here’s another reason I enjoy it: cooking links generations together. My mom has been gone for over ten years, but when I drag out one of her recipes, in her own handwriting, and make that special item, it’s like she is right there with me. And when my kids eat it, they know that at some level, it’s with love from Maw-Maw. The same with that Roast Venison recipe from Grandpa Garison, or Aunt Bib’s Christmas Divinity. We tell the family stories about those loved ones, and it’s like they are with us again, in a very special way.

I have an Hispanic friend who told me about growing up in a home where they always fixed tamales for Christmas, and how multiple generations would be working together in the kitchen. Everyone had a specific job to do, she said, and one of the ways you knew you were getting older was that you were given a more important job to do in helping make the tamales. And as she talked about working with her beloved “Abuela” (grandmother) and her precious “Tía” (aunt), both long since deceased, it was obvious that this was more than just something good to eat.

My wife and I were talking the other day about what a significant part food has played in so many of our family gatherings. Everyone has a favorite dish, and so as we fix that item, a little extra love goes into it while we think about that family member. Sharing together in a good meal makes for very special memories that can span generations, and even lifetimes.

One final blessing: food connects us with our Creator. When we are cooking a meal from scratch, we know that there is more to it than just opening a can or removing the plastic and sticking something in the microwave. When we have handled those raw veggies, just the way they came from a green plant – whether we picked them out at the grocery store, or the farmer’s market, or our own garden – when we have peeled it and put love and time into preparing it, then we are reminded of God’s gracious bounty. When we have cut and cooked that meat, or scrambled those eggs, or whatever we’re doing, it’s an opportunity to be connected more closely with the “Giver of every good and perfect gift.” It’s also a good time to be thankful to the farmers, the ranchers, the grocers and others who were God’s partners in helping to grow and provide that food for us.

The holidays are coming, and even in this season of a terrible pandemic, even when we can’t be together, we can still be thankful for the blessings of food, family and friends.

A Small Group of Citizens

This will come as no surprise to regular readers of these ramblings, but for as long as I can remember, I have loved trains. I enjoy watching them, riding on them, and reading about them. I also enjoy building and operating miniature trains through the hobby of model railroading. And so I am a member of a model train club here in Abilene.

It’s a good club, and we have about 30 members. Some of us are skilled at building and maintaining well-running train cars and locomotives. Others are good at scenery – fashioning mountains and lakes or modeling city streets and industries that our little trains can serve. Some are good at carpentry, others understand electronics, and still others enjoy researching a particular railroad, so that they can duplicate its practices in miniature.

Put all these various skills and interests together with members who are willing to share what they know, and it makes our club really special. No matter what aspect of the hobby I’m working on, there is someone in our club who is good at it, and who is willing to help me with my project.

It is this willingness to share what you know and help others that elevates our club into a community. In fact, many organizations thrive on this same sort of camaraderie – mutual respect for others, sharing of valuable skills, the willingness to help, and the humility to ask for assistance when needed. Ideally, we should find the same principles at work closer to home, even in our own neighborhoods.

Last week, CCC sponsored a dinner in the College Heights neighborhood, with more than two dozen neighbors coming together. We ate and got to know each other a little better. We talked about our dreams for the neighborhood and how each of us can contribute to those dreams. Neighbors were asked to write down one thing they were good at. The answers were surprising – and encouraging.

Just within that small group of neighbors, we found people who know how to restore old furniture, and others who can speak Chinese. Some said they were good at providing child care, others understand how to use social media and technology, and others enjoy baking. We have some who sew and some who sing. And we won’t go hungry – one neighbor said she can cook Spanish rice, and another offered to make Maryland Crab Soup!

CCC believes strongly in the principles of Asset Based Community Development. In other words, instead of focusing all our attention on the problems we are facing, let’s focus on the assets we have to make our neighborhoods better. And without fail, our strongest assets are our neighbors themselves.

Now that we have identified these strengths, we will be looking for ways that these neighbors can use their various skills and interests to serve the entire neighborhood. We believe that doing this will inspire others to step up and do the same, and in the process, our neighborhoods will be improved for everyone.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It’s true for model train clubs. It’s also true for neighborhoods.

Remembering Dr. King

MLKDr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a personal hero of mine. I think there was so much to admire about him. He consistently stood for justice, for peace, and for non-violence. He believed in the Kingdom of God, and he believed that Christians, regardless of color, ought to do all they can to create outposts and colonies of God’s Kingdom here on earth – to create what he called “beloved community.”

When I was in grad school, I did a project on Dr. King’s rhetorical skills, looking at the way he was able to take traditional black preaching styles – with its use of storytelling, rhythmic phrasing, and uplifting hopefulness – and combine that with the logic and power of traditional white sermon styles. (And thanks to my lifetime friend from college, Kurt Stallings, for giving me the idea!) In the process, I read just about everything that Dr. King ever said or wrote. I was absolutely blown away by the body of his thoughts.

Many of us are familiar only with his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, and obviously, that’s wonderful. But there is much more, so on this day set aside to honor him, I will let him speak for himself.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’

 

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.

 

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

 

The time is always right to do what is right.

 

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

 

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

 

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.

 

The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.

 

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus and extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

 

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

 

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

 

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey Gad rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment… By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club.

 

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

Good Neighbors in Bad Times

Brad Carter, CCC’s former director, used to say that people can be in a neighborhood for years without ever knowing who’s doing the living and dying next door, across the street, and down the block. He was right.

Nobody likes to think about death, or dying, or any of the activities associated with that, but obviously, it happens. You’ve been meaning to get over to a particular neighbor’s house and introduce yourself, but you just haven’t done it yet. But one day, to your sadness, you notice a wreath on the door, and lots of people you haven’t seen before are going in and out of the house, with lots of cars up and down the street. What should you do? And if you go, what should you say?

Here’s a little secret – almost nobody knows what to say. But we should go anyway. And while I am certainly no expert, in the spirit of “neighborliness,” let me offer a few thoughts about some ways we can be a good neighbor at such times.

  • DO go visit them. When we lose someone we love, often we just need to know that others have noticed. A simple, brief visit is enough to convey that sentiment.
  • DO take some food. People often say they’re too upset to eat, but what they really mean is, they’re too upset to worry about preparing something to eat. And it doesn’t have to be fancy, or even homemade. A bag of chips, sandwich stuff, maybe a pan of brownies – these will be deeply appreciated.
  • DO make a memorial donation to their family’s favorite charity or local church. It doesn’t have to be a large amount – this is a case where it really is the thought that counts. A gift of even $10 or $20 in the deceased’s name is always deeply appreciated.

And on the other hand,

  • DON’T worry about what to say. All the eloquence in the world is not as important as simply being there. Just introduce yourself, mention that you are a neighbor, and say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” If they want to talk, by all means, engage in the conversation with them, but don’t feel like you have to keep on making small talk.
  • DON’T say, “I know how you feel.” This is not about you. Later, if you and your neighbor become friends, there will be plenty of time for sharing feelings. And it’s probably best not to ask a lot of questions. Again, if they want to talk, they will.
  • DON’T feel like you have to stay a long time. Five minutes is better than 30. This is not a social call, and the idea is simply to share a kind word and acknowledge their loss.

Losing a loved one is never easy. But just knowing that people around us notice and care can mean so much. So please, don’t be afraid to reach out – you may never know the difference you will make to someone who is hurting.

Called Into Community

According to Genesis 1, as God was creating the universe, He would pause from time to time, examine his work and pronounce that it was “good.” After God created our first parents, he surveyed them, along with everything else he had made and pronounced that it was all “very good.”

Then we come to Genesis 2, and for the first time, God said something was “not good.” When he saw the man alone, God said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.”

It seems we are hard-wired for relationships. God created us to live in community.

That shouldn’t come as a galloping surprise to anyone. God himself exists within a perfect community, a union we understand as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but one, living in perfect community within themselves.

In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let US make humans in our existence” – a reference, I believe, to that Divine Community. Later, when God would give Israel the “Shema” prayer – “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4) – the word translated “one” is the Hebrew word, “echad.” It’s the same word that describes the “one flesh” of husband and wife. One as a union.

When God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), it’s important to note that the first commandment begins with, “I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt; you will have no other gods besides me.” The foundation of the entire law was the covenant relationship between God and his people.

God described himself to Moses by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He was defining who he was, at least in part, by the relationships he had. Throughout the days of the prophets, God was constantly calling his people and inviting them into a closer relationship. Sending Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s desire to be in community with his people.

According to Luke 4, when Jesus was beginning his public ministry, he read the scripture from Isaiah 61 about proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, setting captives free, and rebuilding the ancient ruins – all dealing with restoring broken relationships.

In Mark 12, when he was asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The fact is, God has made us so that we need each other. In Romans 14:7, the Apostle Paul says, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” We are called to live in community. Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that God has “committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.”

That community sometimes looks different. We are called the “bear one another’s burdens,” (Gal. 6:2), to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” (Rom. 12:15), and to “live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18).

In Revelation 21:2, heaven is described as “The New Jerusalem.” A city. Not a suburb. Not a farm. A city. And city implies neighbors close by, and relationships all around us.

Genuine community is risky. Relationships take a lot of work, and can sometimes be messy. But God has reached out to us, and desires to be in relationship with us, and that is precisely the way we are called to reach out to one another.