The thread that binds our character goes much deeper than what we wear. Common Thread is a collection of thoughts submitted by men, for men. But the common thread of these words are always written to help tailor us, quite simply, into better men. After all, it’s a basic truth. A man’s character is the best made-to-measure wardrobe.
Reading Poetry to My Father
This is my first Father’s day without my father. He passed away this past April at the age of 89. I was there, and it was just the two of us as he breathed his last breath. I closed his eyes and held his hand and kissed him and once again told him how much I loved him. For several hours before, I read him poetry, in particularly John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Barefoot Boy.” This was his favorite poem. He knew it by heart and always quoted verses at appropriate times to my brothers and me, especially during times when my brothers and I were complaining or grumbling about the circumstances of our youth. The poem speaks to the joys of youth and the blessings of youth and the reminder that it passes ever so quickly. And so my father always reminded us of this truth. Life is precious. Every day. And life with fathers is precious. Oh so precious. It was certainly precious with my father. He taught us to try to never lose the youthfulness and innocence of our spirit. Like Whittier even says in his poem, the world will try to drain them both from life. My father always encouraged us not to let it. But he also said it would be hard. And in fact, at times it has been. My father didn’t lecture me on how to live my life. He just lived his in an audaciously sublime way and let me watch. Perhaps that is the responsibility of fathers. Our life lived is the legacy we leave our children. And so my father lived his life full of love and wonder and joy and adventure and giving and even youthfulness. I learned some of the lessons his life taught me, and I have failed at many. But as a father, he lived a life that showed me the way. Even now in my sixties, I can do that for my children and grandchildren. I can live a life worthy to be imitated. The choice is mine. From an eternal perspective, I am still a boy. I am still the innocent, barefoot boy on the hillside in John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem. My life is still ahead of me. One day? One year? 10 Years? More? “Cheerily, then, my little man. Live and laugh, as boyhood can!” My last moments with my father were precious like the many moments we spent together throughout our lives. But in these last moments, I recited “The Barefoot Boy” to him. He was not conscious really, but I read anyway. I can’t help but believe he heard my words. I prayed he felt my love. His favorite verse was the last verse in Whittier’s poem. As I read it to my father for the last time, I seemed to hear him speaking to me again and reminding me again of the way life should be lived. “Ah! That thou couldst know thy joy. Ere it passes, barefoot boy.”
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Will see you soon.
(Photo: My father and older brother and me. 1955)
I once hired a young man to work in my shop, that, looking back, I probably shouldn’t have hired. He needed a job and I needed some help, and I knew some of his extended family from my church. They did not shop with me and I secretly hoped that if I hired their nephew that they would think me kind and generous, and choose to support my effort. They didn’t.
And their nephew didn’t work out either.
He was hopelessly lost in the setting that is a men’s clothing shop. He had some skills to be sure, they just did not apply in this work setting, and I doubted seriously that they could be cultivated even though I tried.
One day, I grew slightly frustrated with this young man as I watched him struggle to simply hang a pair of pants on a plain pant hanger, the wire kind with the cardboard across the bottom. He simply could not hang them straight, and the harder he tried, the messier they became. These trousers had been bought by a customer and were to be hung on a hanger so they could be handed to the tailor for hemming.
With apparent frustration in my tone, I attempted to show him again how to master this simple task, and why it was important, and therefore why he should care, when I blurted out, “son, it occurs to me that I am asking you to pay attention to things to which you have never paid attention before.”. And then I explained that all those wrinkles he was creating in the poorly hung trousers would have to be pressed out by the tailor, and that therefore he was creating additional, unnecessary work for someone else.
There is a life lesson here, it seems to me, one for which I am thankful.I remember this exchange often, and it always provokes me to consider to what or to whom in my life I am failing to pay attention. And, what additional work or mess am I creating for someone else. And, if I’m honest, I realize that my failure to pay attention to very basic things is a function of laziness, and that laziness is selfish, and that it’s disrespectful of the one who is left to go behind me to clean up my mess.
That young man left my employ a few months later. He knew full well he was not a good fit for the job. But I sincerely doubt he knows what a memorable lesson this exchange with him taught me.
The Bleak Midwinter
“And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the angel of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid…’” Luke 2:8,9
We have just experienced the winter solstice. Midwinter. It is a time when the earth’s axis positions the northern hemisphere at the northernmost distance from the sun. In essence, it is the longest night of the year. The darkest night of the year. The bleak midwinter. How beautiful and how poignant and how significant it is that God chose to bring us the Christ child at this time of year. God brings us his boundless love at this darkest time.
And so it was 2000 years ago. On a dark hillside 2000 years ago some shepherds were just doing their job. They were doing their thankless job, their dirty job, their lonely, cold, low-paying job. Their future seemed as dark as the night before them. Perhaps they talked to one another in the dark night. Perhaps they thought to themselves even more. Perhaps they thought about their disappointment in the government, or the state of the economy, or about how to provide for their family, or about the safety of their children in barbaric times. Perhaps on a hillside 2000 years ago, they indeed were cold and lonely and overworked and underpaid. But with certainty, they were afraid. Fearful nights, like midwinter nights, are the longest nights. But in a moment, life would change. Like the winter’s solstice. It happens in an instant, and the tilt, the angle changes, and the darkness begins the process of receding. On a cold, barren, dark night 2000 years ago, the angle changed.
The Christmas carol, In The Bleak Midwinter, was based on a poem written by Christina Rossetti in 1859. Christina Rossetti suffered periods of severe depression brought upon by health and family setbacks. Her nights were long and fearful.
Her words perhaps reflected her heart.
“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind may blow.
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”
2000 years ago, in 1859, and today we all stand on the cold, barren, hard hillside in the long, dark, fearful night. Things happen, and we just don’t understand why, and it makes us sad, and it makes us afraid. But 2000 years ago, the world changed. In an instant the darkness was overcome by light, and the fear was overcome by joy. And so it is today.
And so it will be forevermore.
Perhaps Christina Rossetti found the way out of her own bleak midwinter in the last lines of her poem.
“What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.
What yet can I give Him: give my heart.
Perhaps, this is our own way out. No, most assuredly, this is our only way out. It is the giving of our heart.
Sowing Seeds of Thankfulness
More times than not, we tend to forget how much joy comes from a true spirit of thankfulness. It is like sowing seeds in rich soil that bear such life-sustaining fruit. But being thankful can become perfunctory. Or shallow. Like seeds tossed upon barren soil. It is expected. It’s the way we are supposed to feel, so therefore we say, “I’m thankful.” True thankfulness, a total surrender to the emotions of overwhelming gratefulness, is something different. It takes more time. And practice. And toil. And perseverance. And patience. But when experienced, authentic thankfulness indeed is like a seed, dying in a way, yet coming alive and digging its root deep into fertile soil. The fruit…joy? Yes. But also peace and contentment. True, authentic thankfulness throughout every day, truly feeling the blessings of life, is like a silo or a grain bin filled to the brim. It indeed does sustain life in the barren seasons. This joy, this peace. The barren seasons do come. The droughts of our life, the famines, the storms that want to rob us of that joy. Rob us of that peace. Sometimes life is picking fruit, and sometimes life is plowing in the hot sun. But true thankfulness sustains us. Thankfulness is God’s gift to us. We just have to plant the seed. Nurture the seed. Then God enables us to bask in the beautiful autumn sun and enjoy the fruit. His joy.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
Keeping Life’s Course in Line
At the head of the desk in my home is a vintage plumb bob. I look at it every morning, every night, and sometimes throughout the day. I think it is beautiful. It is worn and old and obviously, it has seen many days of useful service. But to me, it is something of significant beauty. Upon seeing it for the first time, most people ask me what it is. I go into my usual, yet simple explanation. The plumb bob is a tool that has been used since ancient Egypt. Its purpose is to establish a vertical reference point when constructing a wall, in most cases a brick or stone wall. Basically, the weighted plumb bob is suspended from a string, centered over a datum mark. This establishes the vertical axis through the center of gravity. If a course of bricks, set upon a solid foundation, is always in line with the vertical string, then the wall will be straight. If it veers away from the string, the wall will lean and over time, will surely topple.
The reason I have the plumb bob on my desk is to remind me of a simple, undeniable truth. If I do not align my life at all times with the right centered reference, the course of my life will veer away from that vertical axis, and I will become off balance. If it goes on too long, I will surely topple.
I need that reminder. Truth be known, I should wear that plumb bob around my neck all day long. I am prone to align the daily course of my life with the prevailing pull of the world. My God clearly, vividly, poignantly, lovingly tells me to do otherwise. At the beginning of each day and at the end of each day, the plumb bob reminds me of something that is paramount. It reminds me that without God, I will fail. Sure, I may think that I have the course of my life seemingly straight and aligned. But over time, left unchecked, it will lean, and it will come falling down. It has before, and left unchecked, it will again.
I remember building a home in a foreign country for an impoverished family. It was years ago, and it was the first of several homes I would be fortunate enough to help build. On this first home, I was in charge of the construction team. We were given a simple, primitive plumb bob and were told to align every course of concrete block against the string. If not, we would have a crooked wall. Very shortly, I saw that aligning every course took extra time, and I wanted to get the job done. I felt I had a good eye and could see if things were straight, so I began to build without the encumbrance of the plumb line. Everything looked fine as we went along. It was not until we were just about to the topmost course that I saw how badly our wall was leaning. Everything had seemed to be fine along the way. But in the end, the reality was glaring and far from fine.
My life is like that wall. If I do not take the time every day to closely examine if I am on course with God’s plumb line, then I will lean, perhaps without even noticing it. Until it is too late. But take time it does. A lot of time. In prayer and scripture and meditation. The plumb bob reminds me, as Brother Lawrence said hundreds of years ago, to practice the presence of God. Daily, hourly, moment by moment, if possible. Life can be like a wall. It can be built on a solid foundation, but if you don’t examine every course, every move and align with God’s purpose, then life can quickly start to lean in the wrong direction.
I have seen what aligning with the prevailing pull of the world will do to the course of my life. My plumb bob reminds me to do otherwise.
When I was a boy, an old man told me a story that I’ve always loved in spite of the fact that it was almost certainly a lie. He said he was walking across a long railroad trestle one dark, dark night when he heard a train coming. He had come far enough that he knew he couldn’t turn around and outrun the train to the far end of the trestle. He considered running toward the train in hopes of beating it to the near end, but without knowing how far he was from solid ground, that was awfully risky. He decided his best bet was to crawl over the edge of the trestle and hang there until the train passed by.So there he hung by his fingertips as the train rumbled past—the engines, then the freight containers, then the coal cars. Coal car after coal car after coal car clattered over the trestle, mere inches above his head, while he grunted and strained and sweated, praying that his now-numb fingers could keep their purchase long enough for the train to pass.
When the caboose finally clackety-clacked by, the man discovered that he lacked the strength to pull himself up. It was all he could do just to hang there, arms extended and straining against their sockets, and not plummet to the ground below. His lantern was long gone, having vibrated off the trestle about the time the engine thundered past. So he dangled there in the dark, waiting for daylight to come. It was a miserable night, filled with terrors both real and imagined.
But he held on until dawn, when he was disgusted to discover that he was hanging only a few yards from the end of the trestle. His feet dangled only two or three feet from the ground.
The old boy played the story for laughs. But the ironic twist at the end doesn’t change the fact of the genuine terror of hanging there in the dark and the silence, unsure if you’ve got the strength to make it through to morning—and unsure of what will happen even if you do make it that far.
The real reason I love that story is that, in spite of all appearances, the outcome never hinged on the man’s success or failure at “hanging in there.” The outcome came from the solid truth that terra firma was right there, ready to receive him. We devise all sorts of strategies for hanging in, holding on, but even the best and truest of those strategies aren’t nearly so true as the fact that God is holding on to us. We grunt and sweat and struggle in the dark—and there’s always the possibility that we will lose our grip and fall—but we don’t dangle more than a foot or two from the palm of God’s hand.
For more Jonathan Rogers, visit http://jonathan-rogers.com/
The Path of Life
“You will make known to me the path of life…” Psalm 16:11
In this passage, David is telling us there is a path of life that leads to our well being. Unfortunately, many of us never find it. In so much of our decision making, we lean hard on our intentions and aspirations, but ultimately pay precious little attention to the path we choose to get there.
The July 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review contained an article written by Clayton Christiansen that addresses this point. Christiansen, a Rhodes Scholar and professor at the Harvard Business School says, “Over the years I have watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold. I have seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would be estranged from them. Yet they went down a path that led to this consequence.”
We all have hopes, dreams, and aspirations for our lives, but rarely do we ask the question- What is the path that will take me there? At the end of the day, it is the path we go down, not good intentions, that will determine our ultimate destination in life.
Richard Simmons, III
One of my fondest memories from seminary happened on an early spring afternoon in front of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC. I was sitting on a bench and taking in the warm sunshine when a busload of children pulled up in front of the great church.
They were Southern children, and I knew this both from the bus itself and from the accents of the little ones as they piled out of the bus and onto the front law. I remember that they were excited, really excited by something in the grass and they all gathered around, pointing and shouting.
Then I saw. It was a little patch of snow, left over from the week before and by now looking sort of gray and nasty. But the children didn’t mind; this snow was unfamiliar and magic.
One little boy made an ice ball; another ventured a taste. What struck me amid all the laughing and pointing is that no one looked up at the great church that took a century to build; rather, they were thrilled with a patch of snow that would be gone that afternoon.
Jesus said time and again that the Kingdom of God is right under our noses, and while theologians have written volumes and debated the meaning of the phrase, I like to think He was just telling us to look around.
Far too often we Christians assume that faith or church or anything like that is only worthwhile as it gets us to heaven when we die. And while that is true, we are selling God a little short when we fail to see that heaven begins now, or at least it can if we pay attention.
I’m fond of pointing out that in the Gospel of Luke, the very first word spoken by Jesus that is not a quotation of scripture is the word, “today.” Look it up: Luke 4:21. This means we don’t have to wait; this means we can catch glimpses of God in the everyday. We can see Him in the eyes of our children; we can see Him in a sunset. We can see Him in a thank you note, or a kiss by the hospital bedside. We can see Him at work and at home; we can see Him, today. Look around.