God Is Not A Coke Machine


I begin each morning with prayer and then have little talks with God all throughout the day until I end with a kind of good night affirmation of gratitude. My prayer life is rather ordinary and flawed. I know people who are inspiringly spiritual whose devotionals are profound, but mine are more akin to the kind that people utter from the bottom of foxholes as bullets are flying over their heads. I say a few thank you phrases acknowledging the Lord’s presence in my life, but all too often follow up with requests for this person or that. Of late my list of those in need has grown to the point that I sometimes can’t quite recall all of the names and causes. I simply suggest that God must indeed remember all of the situations and I ask that He care for each of them. I try to include some praises of His glory, but admittedly I often sound like a child begging a parent for goodies as I reel off my hopes and dreams in a rush of impatience. I sadly all too often grow anxious that the answers I seek are taking too long to materialize. I know, and so does God, that I still have a long way to go in my prayer life.

I’ve often laughed at how we humans pray. I’ve seen students silently pleading for a good grade as I am walking through the classroom returning the results of tests. Of course, by then it is a bit late to change the scores. The real intersessions should have come earlier and might have centered around guidance during the studying phase. By the time that the marks are being returned only an impossible miracle is going to change the number that I have already made on each person’s paper.

I suppose that many of us use prayer in ways that don’t make a great deal of sense. Instead of asking for strength to deal with the human challenges that we must all face, we all too often ask God to for very specific outcomes that would force Him to choose one person over another. We beg for a win in an athletic endeavor as if the Lord is wearing the same jersey as ours. We have a tendency to place time limits on our requests and wobble in our faith when the answers that we seek are slow in coming.

The best prayer warriors that I know have a completely different style of communicating with God that is based on trust. They do not presume to question the challenges that they face, but rather seek the courage and peace that they need to deal with realities. Instead of entreating a higher power to grant them favors they ask instead for the kind of character that they will need to withstand the buffeting winds of life’s difficult moments. They focus on becoming an instrument of peace, justice and love. They ask what they must do rather than imploring for gifts. It is definitely a better way, and the sign of a deep and abiding understanding of God.

Of course there are also those who think that the very idea of some all powerful force watching over us and guiding our way is absurd. To them prayer is a wasted effort that might better be served with action and effort. They cannot imagine that otherwise sensible people believe in some nebulous and unproven concept like God, or miracles. They see religion as a kind of fantastical crutch that we humans use to explain away our own frailties.

I have several friends who meditate daily. They read the Bible or find comfort in the writings of those who have somehow found wonderful ways of explaining how best to form a meaningful relationship with God. They emphasize the need for patience as our individual purposes unfold. They urge us to quiet our minds so that we might actually begin to understand what we must do to find contentment. Theirs is a beautiful spirituality that is elevated from the kind of babble that I seem to utter in my own haste to get on with the duties of the day. I suspect that I am not unlike many of my fellow humans in that that regard.

I was humbled during the recent floods in my city by a comment from a friend whose home had been inundated. She noted all of the people who were thanking God for not sending those waters into their own houses. She suggested that comments speaking of God’s goodness in saving them implied that those whose abodes were devastated were somehow not chosen for blessings as though they may not have had enough faith or goodness to deserve salvation. She suggested instead that those who were high and dry simply be thankful that they were lucky.

A priest once explained to me that God is not like a coke machine. We can’t just insert a coin of prayer and expect a certain outcome. He insisted that the object of prayer should be to praise the Lord and seek His guidance in navigating the arduous journey that is life. We become disappointed when our only goal is to achieve very specific outcomes. “He doesn’t work like that.” When we focus on wanting rather than asking what we must do we run the risk of losing faith and questioning the very existence of God if things don’t work out the way we had hoped. If we do it properly prayer can be a very beautiful thing with the power to bring us comfort. It helps us to find answers to the questions that concern us.

My mother lead a prayerful life. She never questioned the hardships that came her way. Instead she thanked God for living inside her heart and keeping her optimism alive. She saw the dawn of a new day as a great gift from her God. At the time of her death she almost appeared to wear a halo around her head as her eyes shone brightly with the confidence that she was heaven bound. There was no doubt in her mind that she was about to receive the only reward that really mattered. She had been a faithful servant her entire life. She had always understood how to pray.

I try to improve. I watch people like my mom and others whom I greatly admire. They teach me what I must do and tell me that it is okay to have feet of clay. I just have to keep trying to get it right. God knows that I try. 


The Car


The stories on the television series This Is Us are so heartwarming and real that rarely a week goes by that I do not identify with some aspect of an episode. They have a universal appeal that reaches into the heart and soul of who we are as members of a family. I have duly noted the kinship that I have with the characters depicted on the show. As with my own situation there are three siblings, a girl and two boys, who continue to struggle with the impact of their beloved father’s death. I have known the pain of their loss of their father all too well, and like them I have never quite come to grips with the reality of the situation even years later. The writers of the series are certainly gifted to make each of us feel as though they have somehow tapped into our own personal memories. The title itself hints that we are all part of a great big family of mankind that endures the same types of struggles. The characters are us. Their history is ours.

A recent episode of This Is Us was titled The Car, a brilliant look at how an inanimate object becomes a symbol for a father’s love and all that is good about a family. The storyline was particularly touching for me because it was one car that devastated my family and another that brought us a new day of hope.

My father was a Pontiac man. He loved the sporty nature of that brand and insisted on getting a new one almost as soon as the last payment was made on the one he was driving. He had proudly purchased a brand new Pontiac with all of the bells and whistles for our move from Houston, Texas to San Jose California. It was an automobile boasting the kind of luxury that earned second glances as we drove down the road. It carried us in grand style and comfort thousands of miles to our new home. When things didn’t work out there it brought us back to Houston and the promise of a fresh start in familiar surroundings. We used it to visit friends and family whom we had missed while we were gone. We drove it to inspect houses that we might purchase to set up a household. We were planning to take it to the beach on Memorial Day to launch a summer on the Gulf Coast. We loved that car and the sight of our daddy sitting so happily behind the wheel. How could we have known that it would become the instrument of his death?

He died in that car on a lonely stretch of road when he accidentally drove into a deep ditch that was unmarked and laying in wait on a dark night. It had no seatbelt to protect him, no collapsable steering wheel, no exterior designed to take the brunt of the crash. Instead the car built as it was became a weapon that crushed his chest and stopped his heart. It would change our lives and create questions in our minds that haunt us even to this day.

We would later find evidence of our father’s loving nature in the gifts that he had already purchased in anticipation of his wedding anniversary and my mother’s birthday. A card would arrive in the mail from him with a postmark from the day before he died. He had used his car to plan for a future that would never come for him. He was dead and the car had become a heap of scrap.

My mother had to pull herself together somehow. She began the process of building a new kind of life for us, and for that she needed a car. The one that she purchased became the auto that would carry us through our youth and into our adulthood. It was a homely thing, almost ugly, but it was reliable. It was painted in a two tone pattern of white and a strange beige color. It had ordinary cloth seats and rubber mats on the floorboard. It was as basic as a car might be, not even possessing an automatic transmission or an air conditioner. It was so unlike anything our father might have purchased, but my mother was able to pay for it with the insurance money that she received from his accident. It was so stripped down that there was very little that might break, and best of all she owned it. It was a good car in spite of its appearance and it became the vehicle that drove us into our future.

Once we managed to move beyond our grief that car became a source of great fun. We used it to visit our grandparents in Arkansas, and piled inside on Friday nights to meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins. We sat inside it at drive-in movie theaters enjoying grand epics on the big screen even as we batted the mosquitoes that buzzed about. We ran our weekend errands and drove to church in our ever faithful auto. We motored to Dallas and San Antonio for vacations, and went to Corpus Christi to enjoy the ocean that our dad had so loved. When we were sick we sat safely inside the car as we traveled to see the doctor. The car took us to ballgames and bowling alleys, pancake breakfasts and excursions at the mall.

From time to time one of our mechanically inclined uncles would change the oil, rotate the tires, or install a new battery. Year after year passed and it was that ugly old car that took us to the places where we celebrated the milestones of our youth. It was ever dependable, always waiting to help us enjoy a new adventure. It helped us to heal and to move on from the tragedy that had so changed us. It served us as well as anything might have, requiring little attention to keep faithfully working.

About the time that I was close to graduating from high school my mother decided that it was time to replace the car which was nearing its eighth or ninth year of service to our family. One of my cousins purchased it from her and our next car was a great deal fancier, but somehow not as comforting as the old one had been. I found myself missing our friend even as we toured the city in grander style more akin to the kind that our father had always enjoyed. We had carpet on the floorboards and air conditioning to keep us cool, but somehow it would never feel as secure as “The Car” had been. In fact, I have few memories attached to the new model. It would always be that ugly old stripped down Ford that I would remember with so much fondness.

It’s funny how a car can become such a vivid part of life, representing all of the things that are good about its owners. That’s the way it was with ours. The car was one of us and we loved it.

Finding The Godliness Inside

screen-shot-2016-02-09-at-3-31-32-pmThe calendar can be quirky at times and this year is especially so. We found ourselves celebrating Valentine’s Day and ushering in the Lenten season on the same Wednesday this week. When Easter rolls around we will celebrate that holiest of religious feasts right alongside April Fools Day. Sometimes the heavens enjoy a bit of humor or perhaps just a bit of irony.

I’ve long believed that donning a hair shirt and beating my chest on the first of the forty days before Easter is a rather fruitless task. In fact I generally dislike the idea of the inwardness of artificial sacrifices such as giving up sweets or eschewing joyful celebrations during Lent. For that reason I find it particularly appropriate that Valentine’s Day reminded us to show our love on the very day that Lent began. In fact it served as a hint of what the season should be all about.

I’m not suggesting that we shower loved ones with gifts and cards and boxes of chocolate, but rather that we imbue our forty days of reflection with daily doses of efforts to love even the seemingly unloveable. Perhaps the most productive thing that we might do as we prepare for the joy of Easter is to emulate the life of Jesus, who over and over again in His teaching emphasized the best of our human attributes like compassion, forgiveness and love. Even a nonbeliever must admit that His philosophy was punctuated with a kindness and understanding that is all too often missing even among His most faithful followers. Self proclaimed Christians all too often ignore His message even as they pronounce their self righteousness. Our human tendency to hypocrisy becomes especially noticeable whenever we cloak ourselves in indignation and anger.

It’s fine to prepare for Easter by denying ourselves certain luxuries that we do not need as long as we couple those sacrifices with loving gestures. Now is the season to forgive and to choose to understand. Perhaps through self reflection we might consider the possibility of learning more about people with whom we disagree. This is a time to begin to openly dialogue with people that we have hurt or even those who have hurt us. This is when we should begin reaching out to those who are suffering, and they are many. We should be conscious of our prejudices and close mindedness and work to be less judgmental. Doing such things is always difficult and definitely more meaningful that denying ourselves a piece of cake.

Humanity is suffering all around the world and there are good people working hard to help them. If each of us chose to do something small but remarkable not just everyday during Lent, but all throughout the year think of how much things might improve. Surely we see opportunities for doing good everywhere that we go. Letting a car move in front of us in a traffic jam may literally make someone’s day. Telling the cashier at a crowded store how much you appreciate his/her courtesy may be all that they need to feel less harried. Helping a neighbor with a task or even just shouting a greeting will lift spirits. Responding to anger with love may calm a precarious situation. Attempting to really see a differing point of view will enlighten. Stopping to take a breath and just smile even on a difficult day will make you feel so much better and it will bring a bit of joy to those around you. These are the kinds of things that will make Lent more meaningful and all persons of good will might begin to focus more on acts of kindness than solitary denial.

I suspect that I would want to live like Jesus even if I did not believe in God. Every aspect of His story was an act of love. He was a kind of rebel who was willing to lose His very life in pursuit of what was right. He embraced lepers and sinners and outcasts of every sort while pointing to the artifices of self righteousness that were more centered on ridiculous rules than the needs of people. I have always believed that if He were to return to earth today He would patiently demonstrate one more time the simplicity of His message of love. He would teach us how we must be more aware of those among us who are suffering, and show us how to minister to their needs.

It’s comforting and easy to link ourselves only with those with whom we agree. What is far harder is also loving those whose ideas we abhor. We demean ourselves and lose our credibility when we crawl into the gutter with them and spew the same brand of hatefulness that is their stock and trade. We need not allow them to bully or harm us or those around us, but we also do far better when we fight them with reason rather than engaging in wars of ugly words and insults. Even as they spit in our faces, we must stand honorably and without rancor, never willing to simply run away from defense of the least among us.

Look around and you will find beautiful examples of individuals who carry the spirit of love in their hearts wherever they go. Learn from such beautiful souls. Practice being like them and remember to be kind to yourself if you fail. Each day is another opportunity to try again to overcome the frailties that plague us and to reach outside of ourselves. The true spirit of Lent is found in our efforts to be more and more like the godly natures that live inside our souls.


Living With Passion

27751901_10214050313705370_7567982830482257335_nI suppose that it is a natural human trait to want to be someone who makes a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes that just means being an exceptional friend, or parent or co-worker. Most of us leave a small but nonetheless meaningful footprint on the earth. Some of us achieve a wider reach. Joann Stringer was a woman who impacted a multitude of lives in an exceptional way.   

I did not know Joann Stringer personally other than through contacts at parent/teacher meeting, and yet I loved her and even modeled my own teaching style after hers. She was a biology teacher at South Houston High School for twenty six years and both of my daughters as well as scores of my former students spent time in her classroom. She had a gift for making what might have been a difficult subject not only understandable, but also fun and exciting. Both of my girls came home from school filled with gleeful stories about the topics that she had introduced to them. They felt that she had opened a whole new and interesting world that had hitherto been unknown to them. Best of all she did so in a gentle and loving way that took into account the needs of each of her students. They never felt stressed or unworthy in Ms. Stringer’s care. There was no time in which they believed that she had been unfair or had not tried hard enough to teach difficult concepts. As a parent I appreciated their anecdotes about a truly caring and passionate teacher. As an educator I quietly filed alway those stories to use in my own classroom, knowing that I was learning from a giant in the profession. 

Even after my own children had left Ms. Stringer’s classroom I continued to hear about her magical abilities. Former students would tell me of how her inspiration had literally changed the courses of their lives. So many of her pupils realized possibilities that they might otherwise have never considered with her encouragement. They became doctors, nurses, researchers and even teachers. They fondly told and retold stories about this incredible woman who had so influenced the trajectories of their lives. I understood what they were telling me because one of my daughters who is presently launching a career as a science teacher often mentions how much she hopes that she will be able to teach as effectively as Ms. Stringer.

Joann Stringer truly dedicated her life to the thousands of students who came to her as freshmen, uncertain about what high school life would be. She reassured them and helped them to find their best selves. She made Biology seem almost easy with her artful explanations and exciting activities. They remember skinning rats, dissecting cats and even being reminded of how to be more mannerly. Ms. Stringer took them on field trips and mentored them as they followed pathways to careers in science. She kept in touch with them, attending their weddings and congratulating them as they reached so many adult milestones. She was in every way an exemplary teacher, the kind that we wish for all of our young people.

Joann Stringer retired in 2011. She pushed herself to keep going long after she might have taken the opportunity to rest. I suspect that she was so devoted to her calling that she was reluctant to leave even as she grew more weary. She suffered from a number of illnesses in her final years but still managed to reach out to her students via Facebook. She always seemed ready and willing to continue to assist them. Last week she died, leaving so many bereft, but also grateful for the imprint that she had made on their lives.

I watched as my Facebook feed filled with one tribute after another for this incredible woman. She indeed lived her life so fully that we would all do well to emulate the best of her qualities. I doubt that she grew rich in a material way, but her spiritual and emotional rewards were surely beyond our ability to count. As we walk through this life each of us has a vocation, a reason to be. Joann Stringer found hers and ran with it like a champion.

I suppose that Joann Stringer is still teaching those of us who knew of her in her own unique way. Her life is a lesson in itself. She showed us that our goal should always be to discover whatever we were meant to do, and then execute our talents unselfishly and with passion. Each of us has something to share, and Ms. Stringer taught us how to do that well. Perhaps it was her ability to help mold young people into happy and productive adults that was after all her greatest contribution to this world. Thousands of her students are paying forward the gifts that she helped them to develop. Her work was of the greatest importance for the future of our society and her impact will be felt for years to come.

I truly hope that Joann Stringer knew how loved and appreciated she was. I will always remember meeting her as a parent and feeling so reassured by her gentle words and her sincere smile. Now she will rest with the angels and we will hopefully carry on her work wherever we may happen to be.


What We Are Asked To Do Is Love

life-is-just-love-17101942I recently found this post on the Facebook wall of one of my friends from high school,

Here’s one of my favorite Merton quotes…“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” ~Thomas Merton.

It seems as though we are failing to do much of that lately as a society. Too many people are judging, getting their feelings hurt, and becoming angry. It is easier said than done to follow Thomas Merton’s dictum to love unconditionally. It is very much the fashion these days to require people to think alike or write them off as unworthy of good will. If someone dislikes Donald Trump he/she all too often extends that disgust to anyone who defends Trump or his actions. If a person thinks that illegal immigrants should all be sent back to wherever they originated that individual may become belligerent with anyone who suggests that we treat such people with a bit more humanity. There’s enough ill will going around to keep us bickering from now until the end of time. Many among us are resolved to disdain differences of any kind.

When I was growing up there was a boy my age who lived two doors down from my house. His mother and mine were very good friends, but he and I never really got to know one another. I was too busy playing with my girlfriends, and he was out with the boys. Even as we advanced through high school we never clicked in spite of our mothers’ friendship. Nonetheless I always viewed him as a very nice young man so it seemed only natural for me to request that he become a Facebook friend when I found that he had an account. He appears to be a sweet and incredibly happy grandfather with a brood of grandchildren who adore him. He’s also got a bushel load of opinions about almost every subject imaginable.

To my surprise I appear to be a source of great anger for him. He apparently dislikes the way that I think. While I don’t have an issue with that, I find it interesting that his feelings become so explosive whenever I mention something that is contrary to his way of considering. I would never have imagined him to harbor such strong feelings, but I hear echoes of societal chants that have become so commonplace. I suspect that he was riled up long before I came along, but I have become a trigger for him even though that is never my intention. He’s accused be of be ignorant and a traitor. I never know when I am going to push one of his hot buttons and set him off.

I try to simply ignore his rants because we share a common childhood and I truly loved his mother. I actually feel badly that he is so worried about certain things that he cannot even control his distasteful remarks. It tells me that he genuinely believes some of the propaganda to which we are all subjected on a daily basis. It is all designed to split us apart so that someone else might retain power. It flies in the face of ideas like loving someone just because he or she should be automatically worthy of our understanding and acceptance as a human being.

I understand that he views me as someone who is naive and who lacks comprehension of the real world and how it works. Of course I am realistic enough to know there are some people and situations that are so broken that they are dangerously evil. We have institutions to judge whether or not they should be allowed to exist among us. For the sake of safety we do indeed have to sometimes make hard choices and punishments. Still, there are remarkable souls who are so generous of spirit that they are able to forgive and to love in spite of transgressions. I suppose that such is a kind of perfection to which we might all aspire.

We are all human and as such our love is sometimes imperfect, at least when it comes to giving it to someone whose beliefs seem so contrary to our own. Perhaps the best we can do is to simply accept them and attempt to understand that it is impossible for all of us to agree on so many fundamental questions. Instead of becoming irritable or judgmental I think that what Thomas Merton is suggesting is that we set aside our differences and enjoy one another just as we are. After all, who among us is so perfect as to have all of the answers? We have all been wrong at one time or another. We have all failed at something. We have all said or done things that we later regretted.

I think that our neighborhoods, our cities, our nations and our world would greatly benefit once in awhile we were reminded that what we are asked to do is love.