Glimpses of Beauty

Here’s a line from my list of To Do’s for today: Look for glimpses of beauty in the moment. Point out beauty spots to others who may have missed them.

So when I walked Buddy the Dog four blocks around the neighborhood, I consciously looked for glimpses of beauty. Here’s some of what I saw:

  • Glittering diamond-drops of water on the grass.
  • Glowing pearls of ice-drops on branches in the shade.
  • Flowers – lavender, purple, red, yellow, pink, more yellow.
  • New leaves glowing fluorescent green as the morning sun shone through.
  • Buddy the dog, high on sniffing a hundred morning smells.
  • Buddy pulling the leash and swaggering the way he does when he sees another dog.
  • Miniature elm leaves just forming on the branch.
  • Snow peaks ahead as I turned toward home – all white with only spots of black rock showing.
  • Lawns fresh-mowed with the cut pattern still sharp.
  • Fuzzy lawn, needing mowed (mine!)
  • Cold breeze blowing on my face when I walked east and at my back on the way home.
  • Fresh red bark dust next to weathered brown bark dust in a yard, smells great.

That’s what I saw this morning.  I just wanted you to know.

Memorial Day Thoughts

It’s Memorial Day. Memorial Day is supposed to signal the beginning of summer in my part of the world! This year we’re reduced to hoping it signals the approaching end of winter!

Anyhow, it’s a day to remember those who have served and sacrificed in the many wars of our lifetime. I suppose there are just wars and unjust wars. I know there are popular wars and unpopular wars. My war, the war in Vietnam, was an unpopular war.

When I came home after serving my tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967, only my family welcomed me home. I know there wasn’t any public welcome. I know my church didn’t make a big deal of welcoming me home.

Through the years, the memories of Vietnam kind of faded. I never talked about it. No one asked so I didn’t tell. In fact, it wasn’t until I returned back to the US in 1999 after nearly two decades of another kind of overseas service as a missionary that I remember anyone actually asking about where I served in Vietnam (Cu Chi), what branch of service (Army), what it was like (Life one day at a time).

It was at Westside Church that it happened. After I had preached one weekend at Westside and had made some reference to my Vietnam service, a man about my age approached me after the meeting, stuck out his hand, and said, “Welcome Home! Thanks for serving!”

Now it’s different. We’re two or three more popular wars along and the attitudes have changed. It’s now an honorable thing to have served in Vietnam. I’m glad.

Today I’m thinking about my cousin, James A. Stephens, who died in battle in WWII, the year I was born, and after whom I’m named. I’m thinking about the guys I knew in Cu Chi, Vietnam in 1967. I’m thinking how thankful I am for the 44 years of life and love I’ve enjoyed since I came home from Vietnam.

Today I’m so thankful!

Here’s the best Vietnam War song ever written or sung. Don McLean’s “1967”  And the best answer to the question, “Why did you go?” “Because they sent me!”

Who We Really Are

Princess Eve, the King’s oldest daughter, was kidnapped from the palace by an evil witch. The Kingdom was in an uproar as a fruitless search was made of every town and village, every farm, every forest camp. The princess was gone.

Nearly ten years later, Andrew, the King’s most trusted aide, was passing through a dismal town near the southern border of the Kingdom. As he watered his horse at the well in the town square, a raggedly-dressed girl came to the well for water. She was dirty and bruised and walked with her shoulders slumped and her head down, yet there was something, just a hint of dignity in her walk and her manner.

Andrew called her to him and asked her name and where she lived. She shyly replied, in the local accent, “My name is Sadie. I’m an orphan. I belong to the wealthy man who owns the bank in this town.” “Give me your hand, Sadie,” Andrew said. He took her hand and pushed back her sleeve and there on her forearm was the heart-shaped birthmark that confirmed to him she was really Princess Eve!

Andrew took her from the town and within two days she was back in the palace. It took weeks for Princess Eve to become healthy again. It took even longer for her to learn to trust, to smile, to realize she was safe now from the abuse she had suffered. But what a glorious day it was, when the King called a national holiday, a day of rejoicing, and brought Princess Eve out on the palace balcony for all the people to see! Then, at last, the story could be told, that Sadie the slave was really Eve the Princess and that she was home, safe at last!

18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. 19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. (Romans 8:18-19 NLT)

Biscuit Bank and The Nice Lady

The Nice Lady at the Biscuit Bank or How my faith in US Bank and the banking system was restored.

Driving from Bend, OR to Tacoma, WA we usually stop at Safeway in Gresham, OR.  It’s about half way, there’s food and restrooms at McDonalds or Safeway, and Jean has usually managed to get the Safeway gasoline discount up to 10 cents per gallon.

Recently we stopped and filled up at Safeway, then drove over to the Safeway store to get some lunch from the deli and use the restrooms.  On the way through the parking lot, Jean suggested we stop at the US Bank branch there and use the drive-up window to make a deposit she had ready.

As we drove up to the cashier’s window, Buddy stuck his head between the back of the driver’s seat and the door, as he does, and looked intently at the cashier through the window.  She remarked on his single-minded intensity and apologized that they were out of dog-treats.  The lady went away with our deposit and in a couple of minutes another cashier came to the window with our receipt, saw Buddy still hopefully looking out the window, and said, “Sorry, we’re all out of dog treats!”

We drove over and parked at the Safeway store and Jean went inside to get our lunch while I walked Buddy in the open field just behind the store.  As we finished our walk, Buddy having finished his important business, we were walking back toward the car across the parking lot.  I heard someone call out, “Oh, there you are!  You’re such a cutie!”  I was going to just keep walking, I get that all the time, you know, but the caller would not be ignored.

We got almost to the car and she came almost running up to us and said (to Buddy) “You looked so disappointed I just had to drop everything and come over to Safeway to get some dog treats.  I’m so glad I found you!”  Whereupon she gave Buddy not one but two dog treats and started back toward the bank.

Buddy and I both thanked her and I carried one of the dog biscuits and he the other as we went back to the car to wait for Jean.

Her thoughtfulness restored both Buddy’s and my faith and confidence in US Bank.  My regret is that I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask her name.  She is a really nice lady.

Editing Stuff I’ve Written

I’m compiling a year’s worth of my GraceNotes daily devotionals into a book. I’m working with the devotionals from 2009, when I was reading in the New Living Translation, using my usual through-the-Bible-in-a-year reading plan.

These devotionals became the first year of the daily GraceNotes by email series and I was beginning to work at making my writing a little tighter and limiting myself to a page of text for each devotional article.

Now that I’m putting them in a book, I’m learning a lot! For one thing, a book page doesn’t hold as many words as an 8.5 X 11” sheet of paper! So to fit each devotional on a page in the devotional book, I’ve got to trim some words from some of them.

I also discovered that my devotionals varied by as much as 35% in length. So it makes sense to work toward a more consistent length for each and all of them. This requires editing. That means cutting out some words that at one point I felt were necessary words – words that had to be present in order to say what I intended to say.

In this process (there are 365 devotional articles to read and adjust as required!) I’m learning a couple of other things as well. I just realized, after painfully going through the first 100 or so articles, that I am writing better now than I did two years ago and it’s worthwhile to make some changes that make it better for the folks who will read it!

Another thing I realized at about the same time is that these are my words and I am free to do what I want with them! I’m not obligated to leave a paragraph in if it makes the article too long and if I can get the message across without it. I can just cut it out and no one but me will even know it was there. And that it’s gone! Amazing!

Anyhow, this is a healthy process for me. It’s also plain old hard work! And that’s good for me as well.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress as we go along.

Seven Spanish Angels

I’m writing this at about one a.m. and that’s not the wisest time to write something that someone else may eventually read!  Oh well, let’s roll.

I woke up from about two hours’ fitful sleep and discovered I’d been dreaming some pretty weird dreams accompanied by the words and music of “Seven Spanish Angels” by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson.  I vowed never again to listen to that song on YouTube just before going to bed.

Seven Spanish Angels is probably not a song you want to base your theology on, at least not exclusively.  “There were seven Spanish angels, at the altar of the sun.  They were praying for the lovers, in the valley of the gun..”  It goes on…

YouTube is becoming a universe in itself.  A couple of years ago, when I’d search YouTube for an obscure song that only I and four other people on earth would even think of or remember, I’d be lucky to find even a jumpy, low-res video from a hand-held recorder in a low-light setting in someone’s basement.  Now I can search the same eclectic mental play-list and come up with dozens (well, three or four) versions shot professionally and recorded flawlessly.

Two other songs I thought of and listened to before heading off to bed a few hours ago are “The Late Night Benediction At The Y’All Come Back Saloon”  and “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”

If you’re reading this late at night, just before heading off to bed, I can only hope that you click on the link and have a listen.  Then good luck with getting it out of your brain!

Sweet Dreams!

Love’s Rose

The rose that lifts its lovely head
To smile at golden sunshine
And nod approval at the gay antics
Of a gentle summer breeze.

Has drawn life from a cold rain
That fell on a dreary stormy day
And has pushed its roots deeper in the dark earth
On a day when the wind blew harsh and bitter.

These years together, we’ve had our share of
Sunshine (warm) and breezes (gentle)
And there’ve been enough rains, cold winds
To drive our roots into the ground of faith.

So lift your head and smile
Not the smile of an orchid, wilting at a touch
Nor a daffodil bright and brief
But a rose blossoming over and over

Growing (then trimmed) and growing again
From spring to snow of winter, blossoming
With rich, fragrant flowers of caring
Petals of tenderness
Stem of strength
Perfume of joy.

Roses are my favorite, I suppose
And a rose lasts a long, long time.

Written for Jean Stephens on her birthday in about 1978

Passover Easter Egg Hunt

The whole Stephens–Smith–Blackett clan is gathered at the Smith residence for three days of Easter Celebration.  It’s been great so far!

Last night, Good Friday, we celebrated Passover with a Passover Seder designed by Jean and prepared and participated in by the whole family.  It was good and I think meaningful for us all to slow down and process through the ancient Passover meal with its rituals and rhythms.  The roast lamb shank, the charoses, the moror, the roast egg, the matzo, the chicken soup, and turkey!  The Israelites probably didn’t have turkey sandwiches on the way out of Egypt, but we took a bit of liberty with the tradition.

The explanations, the recitations, and the prayers were significant to the youngsters, even if they didn’t understand all the detail of it.  I’m not sure I understand all the detail myself!  We finished with communion and cake!

So this morning we took the grandkids on an Easter Egg Hunt.  Bethlehem Lutheran church, a sort of traditional mainline church in a very non-traditional Tacoma neighborhood hosted an “everyone’s invited” Easter Egg Hunt on the spacious church grounds.  The candy-filled plastic eggs were hidden in plain sight for the younger kids and on the fence, in the trees, and beside the “No loitering or trespassing” signs on the edge of the parking lot.

It was pretty clear that we were among the few “outsiders” and that most of the attendees were Bethlehem Lutheran regulars and their grandkids with a few neighborhood unchurched folks thrown in the mix.

The Easter Eggs, including a few Golden Eggs with prizes, were snatched up in no time and then we all gathered in the church basement for a post-hunt debriefing and to empty the plastic eggs so they can be used again next year.  Good stewardship!

One of the hunt organizers was making her way around from table to table welcoming the guests and reminding us all about the Easter Service tomorrow morning.  She said, “If you’re looking for a church, we’re looking for people!”  Makes sense to me!

Another lady approached Jean and asked if she’d had one of the cupcakes.  Jean said, “No thanks, I’ve had a cookie and some coffee.”  The lady said, “I baked them myself!” which in Bethlehem Lutheran is translated, “Eat a cupcake if you know what’s good for you!”  We shared a cupcake.  Bit dry, actually.

I think it was a good effort on the part of a group of mostly elderly, mostly introverted church people to reach out to the changing population of their changing neighborhood.  God bless them.  God bless Bethlehem Lutheran Church!

Remember Me

On the night before his death, Jesus took a cup of wine and a loaf of bread and shared it with his closest friends. He said, “After I’m gone, do this often to remember me.”

I think people want to be remembered after they’re gone.

Some people have done big things that affected lots of people and they are remembered by history, by a nation, or even by the world. Columbus discovered North America, Lincoln freed the slaves, Salk discovered a vaccine for polio, Mother Theresa defined compassion, Stalin murdered more people than Hitler.

Some people have done smaller but significant things that mean they will be remembered by a family, by friends, or by a special interest group of people. “He really established our family name.” “She was always first to respond when any of her friends needed help.” “He was a great fisherman, wasn’t he?”

Some people live their lives in near obscurity, interacting with only a few others, and perhaps never doing anything that real seems to make a mark. They never actually do the thing that causes people to say, “Oh yes, I remember him. He’s the one who…” or “You know what I remember most about her? She always…”

So how do we remember an ordinary person? We look at photos. We tell each other stories of our experiences and interactions with the person. If the latter years have been hard, we look back to happier times and choose memories from among the best we have.

If the best memories aren’t perfect, we sometimes mentally edit the memories and intentionally adjust the stories so that they make the memories good and pleasant and worth remembering. We’re free to do that.

Everyone wants to be remembered well.

If Only

Then Joshua cried out, “Sovereign Lord, why did you bring us across the Jordan River if you are going to let the Amorites kill us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side! (Joshua 7:7 NLT)

Israel had crossed the Jordan River by God’s power, conquered Jericho by God’s power, and now, in the battle for the little town of Ai, thirty-six Israeli soldiers died in a shocking defeat! We know it was because of Achan’s sin at the conquest of Jericho and we know there are some great life-lessons to be learned from this story. However, Joshua didn’t know all this yet and his immediate reaction was, “If only we had been content to stay in the wilderness!”

When things go badly, I tend to default to the “If only!” mode. I micro-examine everything and get tangled up in thinking, “If only I had..!” or “If only she hadn’t..!” The other thing I’ve especially got to watch out for is “What if!” Looking forward anxiously thinking, “What if that doesn’t work!” or “What if it all goes wrong?”

“If only’s” and “What if’s” will paralyze me. Looking back with hopeless regret and looking forward with fearful anxiety get me stuck. “If only’s” and “What if’s” render me ineffective as a leader or as a follower and keep me from taking steps of obedient faith.

Overcoming “If only’s” may require repentance and recalibration or forgiving and forgetting. Overcoming “What if’s” requires careful attention to what God has told me to do and what he has promised to do.

God is helping me to learn to live in the moment – to think, feel, pray, and act in the present moment where there are no regretful “If only’s” from the past, no anxious “What if’s” from the future. In the present moment I am free to ask “What now, Father?” Then I’m free to respond to his direction as Mary and then Jesus did, with a simple, faithful “Yes Father! May it be to me according to your will and your word!”


Father, Please forgive me for the sins that cause me to look back with regret and think “If only!” Free me from the anxiety that causes me to look forward and think “What if?” Please fill me with your good Spirit and remind me of your good promises so I can push past the “What if’s” and walk in hopeful, joyful, obedient faith. Amen!