I’ve told many stories and written many posts about my Dad. Folks who know me – particularly my family – have heard these stories many, many times.
I’ve rarely written or told stories about my Mom.
And that is just the way I think my Mom would like it.
Many people write about their Moms and Dads in saintly terms. But for those who were fortunate enough to know my Mom, few would argue that Joyce Johnson, daughter of Ola and Clarence, big sister to Dale and Beth, wife of “J. E.” Johnson, and mother of Steve, Janet, Jim and Jerry, was as close to the model of true Christian living as this world has ever seen.
My mother taught me many, many things. All were taught by example. She gave few lectures. When around her you watched, you marveled, and you began to understand what words “character”, “virtue”, and “love” meant.
Among other things, Mom showed me the way of:
Extreme humility. My mother’s humility was breathtaking. It was so vast and deep it is even now hard for me to capture into words. In every thing, in every aspect of daily life, she put herself last. The most horrifying thought for her was that she might be an inconvenience to others. For Mom, it was never about her. She always focused on “the other” whether that be family (most often) or anyone else that might be within her tender reach.
Constant service. My mother was constantly serving. The only time she sat down completely for a meal was at a restaurant. Whether at her home or someone else’s house, she’d sit long enough to be polite but soon slip quietly away to fill a glass, replenish a plate, wash a dish, prepare for the next course. There was a fascinating calmness to it all. Even in daily life, Mom’s movements were measured, efficient, and meaningful. She was constantly in motion, working in a simple, methodical and purposeful way.
Quiet resolve. Before there was “no drama Obama” there was my Mom. Underneath her generous, quiet and humble attitude was a rock-hard steeliness and resolve that defined indomitable. Once set, her direction never veered. She epitomized “endurance.” Nothing caused her to waver – neither the burden of physical pain nor the lure of physical comfort. Whether it was past the well-meaning entreaties of her children and family, or the challenges posed by new places and new faces, Mom’s course never faltered.
Understated bravery. Mom was brave. Not in the way that Hollywood likes to define it. But in its truest sense. She dared to do things that frightened, intimidated and outright scared her. From crossing the Pacific on a rusty military boat, alone with three children, two of whom were in diapers to moving to a new state, and a new community, alone, after losing her beloved husband of forty plus years. She faced things she feared without fanfare, fuss, or complaining.
Universal kindness. In my fifty-eight years of living, I cannot remember or recall my Mom saying an unkind word about anyone. Ever. It is an incredible claim but amazingly true. To be sure, there were things people did that she disapproved of (and I know there were times when I fell into that category!). And occasionally she would let you know that. But even then, her words were so tempered, her manner so understanding, her objections so qualified and understated you had to search and be attentive just to realize that she felt something amiss.
Unshakable faith. Mom’s faith in Jesus was simple, direct and unshakable. It is said that there are five Christian gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the life of the Christian. People rarely read the first four. I was blessed with the fifth gospel. The Gospel of Mom. With Mom there was no need for complicated systematic theology. We are all equal, all created in God’s image. We are called “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” And the reconciliation of justice and mercy lie in the person of Jesus Christ. A life of grace, forgiveness and sacrifice.
Unfathomable love. You can wrap all of the above up in a single word. Love. Never have I seen or experienced human love that rivaled that of my Mom. This was particularly true of the love between her and my Dad. Mom’s love was the perfect mixture of adoration, passion, respect, kindness and devotion.
Thousands of years ago God reached out and gave of himself to redeem humanity. In the form of Jesus, God gave us a real living breathing reflection of God’s true nature. So I believe it only appropriate and a fitting interpretation of God’s will, that Mom was called Home at the same time we celebrate God’s ultimate gift.
Mom left us yesterday, Christmas Eve 2014.
I spoke with her briefly that morning. Amidst all the pain and difficulty of her final hours, Mom’s last words to me were “Merry Christmas!”
That said it all. Uplifting humility. Abiding faith. Enduring love.
“Merry Christmas,” Mom.
You were God’s greatest gift to so many of us.
We will miss you.
“How are you?”
It is perhaps the most asked question in life. It is a question asked between everyone from common strangers to intimate family members.
Think about it. How many times a day are you asked “how are you?” Now count the number of times a day you ask that of others. “How are you?”
In some rare cases we actually want to know the answer! But most times not. It is just a thing we say. And nine times out of ten we get the standard response.
Occasionally we’ll get a “great” or “awful” which often is very problematic because we then feel obliged to follow up as to “why” and are now committed to having a real conversation which we never intended to have because we really didn’t care how they were doing we were just using as a placeholder for hello.
“How are you?”
I recently started an experiment. When asked “how are you?” I started to respond with a phrase I often heard my father say and it went like this, “Well, I’m doing better than I deserve.”
This really throws people off. It is not the ordinary “fine” and has the effect of causing people to think and react. Typically, reactions fall into one or two camps.
There’s the group that will challenge the “better than I deserve” response. Sometimes quite forcefully.
Now I’m sure most of those who object to the unusual “better than I deserve” response to the standard “how ya doing?” question are well meaning, well intentioned and wanting to be helpful and supportive. They see (or hear!) the “better than I deserve” phrase as one of despondency. I sense they interpret it as someone who questions their own self worth and so is in need of a bit of affirmation. Their response seems to be …
“Oh that’s not true. I don’t know you but you seem like a nice enough guy. I’m sure you’re deserving of a lot of good things. I know that I am. Everybody is deserving of good things. So cheer up! Take a little credit for yourself! Run a victory lap and be proud of all the good things that are happening to you.”
Then there are those that “get it.” At least get it in the sense of what my Dad originally meant.
For him the “better than I deserve” response was an expression of gratitude. We have so much, even when we have little. We are so blessed, even when things are pretty crappy. Just the joy of “being” and experiencing life is an undeserved privilege.And then there are all the stupid, silly and sometimes downright mean and awful things that we’ve done that we have somehow gotten away with! If we were all accountable for everything we did and got what we “deserved” for the completely dumb things we do I doubt many of us would survive past our teens!
I know that is true for me.
I remember complaining to my Dad once that “life isn’t fair!” I will always remember his response. “You better be glad, son, that life isn’t fair. Because if we all got what we deserved we’d be in big trouble!”
Months ago, my daughter wrote down the toast she made at her little sister’s wedding. It has been by far the most popular and widely read thing on the Juicebar. Ever. It was about expectations and the joy of not having any (expectations, that is). Seeing everything, good, bad, and indifferent, as a blessing.
So if you ask “how are you?” and if I respond “better than I deserve,” know that I believe this to be a very, very good thing.
I am not a screen (although as I write this, I am looking at a screen). You are not a screen (but you’re reading this on a screen, right?).
Today is Thanksgiving.
Thank you! But most of all, thanks for all those not-so-great things in my life and the people who love me in spite of them all.
I am reminded of how Jesus’ taught how NOT to give thanks. Actually, he was teaching people how not to pray but I put praying and “giving thanks” in the same general category.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells the story of how this one guy in church “gives thanks.” It went sorta like this …
“Thanks, God, for making me such a great person. It is not so much that you’ve made me handsome, smart, and wealthy, which you did (thanks for that!) but you’ve also made so good and kind and wonderful. And you know what? I am! I love my family. I give to charity. I do good works. So thanks, God. Great job!”
Jesus wasn’t a fan. He did, however, like an other guy’s “give thanks” prayer which went a bit like this …
“God, I’m a miserable, wretched, no good schmuck. Every now and then I do something right but it is more luck or someone else’s grace than anything I can claim. Thanks for giving me all the things I never deserved. Thanks for being nice and kind, even when I was a jerk (which, I am sorta all the time because, well, I’m human). So thanks, God. I’m grateful for all the good things you give because it isn’t what I really deserve.”
So here’s to being thankful for all things I don’t deserve. For all the people who did nice to me despite myself.
For all those folks at work, at worship and at play who put up with my insecurities, pettiness and biases. People who should go screaming out of the door during lectures, rants and a host of poor decisions on my part. But who stay, work incredibly hard, and make good things happen despite all I do to make it otherwise.
Thanks to my children, their husbands and my children’s children for loving and caring for me even through those times when I was distant and unavailable. Perhaps even more, thanks for being loving, kind and tolerant when I get preachy and judgmental. And thanks for loving and caring for each other far above and beyond anything that I could have been responsible for.
And thanks most of all to my wife. Who continually overlooks my many, many faults –my bad habits, my stubbornness, my moodiness. Who is there for me throughout the many business trips and late nights working at home. Who – like my work colleagues – has daily moments where she would legitimately merit running out of the door screaming. Who I am convinced loves me in spite of who I am and all the stupid things I do.
This is what, I believe, God gives to us. The ability to give, forgive and love beyond measure, beyond merit, beyond reason.
But as importantly, it is the ability to recognize that we are blessed and are to be thankful not because of ourselves, but rather in spite of ourselves.
So thanks to all of you out there.
And thanks be to God who sacrifices of himself for all of us.
Justice. It is a good thing, right? But what exactly is it? How does justice happen? And how do you pursue “justice” in a way that gives some opening for that other great thing we call “mercy?” (I am convinced that if justice is simply defined as “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” then we’d all be blind and toothless.)
Recently Pope Francis called for the end of the death penalty and lifetime imprisonment. He called these acts “penal populism”. He said they “promise to solve society’s problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice.”
What is the difference between “punishing the crime” and “pursuing social justice?” I found out a couple of days ago from a young man named Fritz Howard while spending a week at Tubal, a Christian vocational school just outside of Belize City.
Mr. Howard is the man kneeling in the photo. You really shouldn’t mess with him. An imposing but approachable man, he has dedicated his life to working with young men who are “at risk”. Before his current job, he ran vocational programs and ministry at one of Belize’s largest prisons. Now he is the full-time construction teacher at Tubal, a school for young men and women .
Mr. Howard was a wonderful teacher and mentor. It was clear that these young boys held him in high respect. For them, Mr. Howard was simply: “sir.”
A group of us worked side-by-side with Mr. Howard and several young men building a house for a woman in need. Every day we’d head over to the work site early in the morning, come back to the school facility for lunch, then back to the site for several hours in the afternoon. All in 90 degree heat and humidity.
Now the students at Tubal are wonderful young men and women. Respectful. Hard working. Considerate and caring for each other. They were a joy to work with. But kids are kids and sometimes they do stupid things. And one day, a while we were at lunch, someone – almost certainly a student – carved into the leather seat of Mr. Howard’s motorcycle something, well, stupid.
Mr. Howard walked over to the bike which was parked underneath the canteen where the kids hung out. There was a quick conclave with students. As much of the dialogue was in creole, I didn’t catch a lot of it. But I could tell by the tone that it was, well, intense! The group dispersed and soon there was a bit of buzz about a boy identified as the (extremely) likely suspect.
A few of us jumped into the van heading back to the work site. I talked to Mr. Howard about the incident. He was understandably very upset. But what I found fascinating was I didn’t sense he was wasn’t “mad” or “angry”. He was wounded, hurt, concerned, troubled. But not angry.
He took a call from someone. I don’t know exactly who it was. Likely someone from the school. Tubal has a “zero tolerance” policy – a “one strike and you’re out” type of place. And I could only guess what was what was being proposed on the call was to expel the student. But Mr. Howard had a different perspective. What I heard him say on that phone call went something like this:
“I don’t want to kick him out of school. If we do that he’ll learn nothing. He will only end up being bitter about himself, bitter about the school and get in trouble with his relatives and bitter about that as well. No. We’ve got too much of that bitterness already with these kids.
And I don’t want a written apology. Written apologies don’t accomplish anything. It is just a piece of paper. It means nothing to me and it won’t mean anything to the young man.
No, I want this boy to stand in front of the class, admit what he did, apologize, and explain to me why he did what he did. I want him to do this in front of everyone. Every student from the school.
We need to show this young man that he always has the option of acknowledging his wrong-doings and taking responsibility for them. He needs to be able to learn to do that – learn to humble himself – yes, even humiliate himself – stand up and admit to everyone what he has done. And the other boys need to be able to see this young man do it. He needs to confront this, apologize and explain this to me and to everyone. That is all I want. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Have him do that. I will accept his apology. We will shake hands. Then we will put this behind us, and he and I will go from there. Then we can build things back up. Then I can help him and teach him. He can stay, learn, and make something of himself.
If he’s not willing to do that then I agree he’ll have to go. But we need to give him a choice and give everyone a chance to confess, seek forgiveness and following that, know they can have acceptance.”
It was perhaps one of the most brave, constructive and genuine attempts at “justice” I had ever seen. Mr. Howard insisted on “pursuing social justice” over “punishing the crime.”
I think Pope Francis would have been proud.
Now here is a fun topic! Sacrifice.
Eww! It conjures up all sorts of horrible imagery. Not something you’d raise your hand and volunteer for, right? Except but of course we do. Sacrifice is as fundamental to life as air and water, breath and blood.
We sacrifice things every day. We just don’t realize it.
What prompts a post on sacrifice? Well, it has something to do with the Dutch.
When you hear the word “sacrifice”, Holland may not be the first country that comes to mind. But yesterday I read an article in the New York Times on the Dutch pension plans. It seems that unlike U.S. pension plans (a) Dutch pension plans still exist; and (b) they are not only solvent, but financially rock solid.
Why? In a word: sacrifice.
Seems that following the financial crisis of ’08 the Dutch looked at the financials of their retirement programs and determined that the only real way of making things work moving forward was to have people contribute more and have plans pay out less. Oh, and they refused to do any of that funny accounting stuff and base assets on what they “might” be in the future. People made sacrifices (including my in-laws who are currently on Dutch retirement programs). It wasn’t easy. People complained. It was controversial. Some of the sacrifices hurt. But they made them. And the result is that the retirement plans for the next generation are preserved.
Yesterday I spent time with my daughter (who is half-Dutch!), her husband and their three boys. My daughter told me of some of the sacrifices they are having to make in order to raise their family as they want to. Some budget cuts. Some lifestyle changes. But things you give up for a much greater good.
You may not realize it but you make sacrifices every day. They can be “good” ones or they can be “bad” ones. They can be sacrifices that cut corners, skip steps, and achieve “quick wins.” Or they can be sacrifices that enable you, over time, to achieve a higher goal.
Too often we make stupid sacrifices. For example, we sacrifice our health by consuming yummy but unhealthy foods. Or we sacrifice the opportunity to help others by focusing just on taking care of ourselves. Or we sacrifice relationships by spending all our time working and making money.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be smart about our sacrifices. We sacrifice our own ideological rigidity for the cause of getting along with others. We can sacrifice a bit of low priced carbon for the sake of the environment. We can sacrifice time in front of a screen, to spend time with someone who could use a listening ear and a word of encouragement.
So let’s embrace sacrifice! In doing so we are more aware, more conscious and more in tune with ourselves and each other. And when the consequences of our sacrifices become manifest, we won’t be surprised, only hopeful that those sacrifices were worth it all.
This past weekend my youngest daughter was married. It was a wonderful ceremony for a very special couple.
As with many marriage ceremonies there were the typical highlights. I got to walk my little girl down the aisle. I gave her to her new husband. I watched them take their vows. I saw them introduced as one.
But another highlight was watching my oldest daughter, Sarah, give what I thought was the most tender, loving and insightful toast to her little sister. I was so moved, I asked her to write it down (being the actor that she is, she operated without a script).
Here’s what she said:
When I googled How to give a Wedding Speech I was told I was supposed to introduce myself.
So, I’m Sarah, sister to Michelle and Jesse, daughter of Jerry and Sanderijn, wife of Jeffrey and mother to three sons. And now, I am Elan’s sister-in-law, too.
Actually, in the past 10 years I’ve been the one introducing people into our family either by marriage or birth so I would like to take a moment to thank Michelle for helping me out on that. I can only have so many kids.
Michelle and Elan, as this is your wedding, you will hear a lot of advice about marriage. Last night at the rehearsal dinner we talked a little bit about marriage advice, and I said I was saving mine for today:
I will start with a quote from Barry Schwartz: “The key to happiness is low expectations”
Well, I’m not going to go that far. But I think the key to a happy marriage is actually no expectations.
You see, marriage isn’t what you expect it to be.
Marriage, is fluid, it changes. Just like you are fluid, and you change. You may find yourself waking up one morning thinking that marriage isn’t what you thought it would be… but that is okay, that’s good. Marriage has stages just like you do, and if you let it, it becomes what it needs to be at that time.
When you set your expectations on your marriage and each other, you limit each other, you don’t allow each other to grow, you don’t allow your marriage to grow, and you don’t allow each other to change together.
So, love each other without expectation, be kind to each other without expectation and care for each other without expectation, and then you can see how wonderful marriage can be.
Because it is when you have no expectations, that your life together and marriage will exceed even your wildest expectations.
As I listened to my daughter’s sage advice, only one word came to mind.
A story about my father on Father’s Day.
I was seventeen and wanted to buy a Fender Rhodes electric piano. One problem. I didn’t have the cash to buy it outright. And since I wasn’t eighteen I’d need Dad to sign the papers so I could finance the purchase.
Know this. I was a hard worker. The day I turned 15 I started working as a stock boy in the linen department of the Maison Blanche just up the road from East Jefferson High School. I took other jobs too. Worked at a health club out at the lake front. Worked as a greenskeeper at City Park Golf couse. I was no slouch. I was a hard worker. At least I felt I was.
I remember making my case. I forget whether it was at home or in the car. That was where my Dad and I had a lot of our best conversations – either in the den of our house with Dad on the LazyBoy and me on the rattan couch or the two of us sitting (unbuckled) on the felt bench seat of a Ford Fairlane.
I laid it all out. I had nearly one hundred dollars, good for well over twenty percent of the purchase price. How I’d save money over the coming months and make the monthly payment. How I’d finance the ongoing expenses. How I’d save for this and spend for that.
I was thorough. I was confident. I had it all figured out.
I could tell Dad was genuinely interested in what I was saying. He wasn’t much interested in the substance of it all but seemed fascinated in what I was trying to accomplish, and how I thought I could make it work. But Dad, being Dad, couldn’t help but probe and test in a number of different areas.
Did I really think that spending all this for an electric piano was the best thing I could do with the money? Were there any other alternatives? Would I actually follow up and dedicate time to playing the piano and making it all pay off? Did I really think there was any future or benefit in playing in a band? Would I devote time and energy to make it successful? And if I thought I could, how was I going to do that and still work, be a member of umpteen social organizations, stay on the high school golf team and meet the other obligations that I already was having a hard time meeting?
As usual, Dad was cutting to the heart of issues I was ill prepared for.
And the more Dad pushed, prodded and probed the more testy I became. Finally, there seemed to be nothing left of the logic or practicality of my plan. My beloved Fender Rhodes was quickly becoming an empty, silly, foolish exercise. So I blurted out:
“Look, Dad, I’m paying for all this. It is my money and it is what I want to do. I’m paying for it. I’m working for it. I’m not asking you for a handout. Besides, it is not going to cost you anything.”
Dad smiled. Dad smiled a grin that at the same time expressed both admiration and pity.
I could tell that he was delighted by my drive and independence. But I also knew from his face that he was disappointed that I was missing something very fundamental. There was something I wasn’t getting. Something very basic that Dad had hoped I would understand, but I didn’t.
Dad went quiet.
Then he smiled at me and said in a very deliberate but kind and loving tone.
“Son, let me explain something to you. It is all my money.
I’m not saying that to make you feel bad, or to make me feel good. It is just the way it is.
You may think that you’d be paying for this. That’s not quite right. Whatever you spend, your Mom and I have to make up for somewhere else. Whatever you spend on this is money that you don’t spend on something else … car insurance, school expenses, clothes … the list can get pretty long.
Now I want to help. I admire that you want to work and earn and save money to make it happen. But don’t ever think that when you spend money on something like this it isn’t costing other people money. It is. It always does.
One of the biggest mistakes is to think you are independent, that what you do doesn’t affect someone else. It does. Especially when it comes to family, time and money. Because what you spend in one place, is something that you don’t spend in another place. It’s all one.
Of course Dad was right. I wasn’t close to being self-sufficient. And our family wasn’t wealthy. I was a young, dependent child with the fantasy of making one transaction “independent” of everything else. It doesn’t work that way.
My Dad’s line – it is ALL my money – taught me a lot about life. It was a recognition that things are always more linked and related than people think. People imagine being able to isolate or compartmentalize themselves and their actions. Being “ownable” only to themselves. It doesn’t work that way. One action almost always impacts or influences something else.
Dad had the same view about family and faith.
Family is recognizing that everything you do affects the family members around you. Everything.
And faith means that every day is a gift not a right; every action, a blessing not an achievement.
Yesterday I came home and went for a walk with my one-year-old grandson, Marlowe.
In the next 90 minutes Marlowe reacquainted me with something we all had once and have, to our detriment, lost.
It took us about fifteen minutes to navigate the stoop down to the sidewalk. Marlowe’s better at going up stairs than down them. But it wasn’t that it. There was an iron handrail that he had to grab. He stopped and tugged on it a bit. Slid his hand down the cool metal. Gave it a big whack a couple of times. Then he turned to look at me with a big toothy grin.
I’d never seen anyone appreciate and marvel at a simple metal hand rail like that.
We ambled down the sidewalk. We stopped at a patch of grass and I showed Marlow how you can pluck a blade and roll it between your fingers. And for the next fifteen minutes that is exactly what we did. For Marlowe, each tug, each blade, each twist between his chubby fingers was an absolute joy.
He spotted some bird fiddling with the leaves and debris in a neighbor’s gutter. His hand shot out and he pointed to the birds. “BAH!” he said. “Birds,” I replied. “BAH!” “BAH!” “BAH!” he squealed. Each was said with utter astonishment. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time he saw a bird, but it sure seemed like it! And so we sat for God knows how long, just looking at the birds punctuated occasionally by Marlowe’s “BAH!” after which he would turn to me with an expression that read, “Wow, Grandpa, did you see that? Whoa!”
There were plenty of other adventures. A branch became a broom and Marlowe intently and joyously learned how to knock things off the sidewalk with it. Ants were this astounding phenomenon that we followed with glee and delight.
And every time he would look at me and his whole countenance could be captured in one word: Amazing!
One of Louis C.K.’s more famous skits is called “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.”
I think why that skit became so popular is because it is true, and we know it to be true, and we’re somehow sad that we’ve lost that sense of simple wonder and delight that is the world around us. We analyze and quantify and qualify everything until we have squeezed to death and blinded ourselves to the essential amazement that lies in just about everything.
In a recent lament, writer Anne Lamott said about our data-driven lives, “What this stuff steals is our aliveness,” … “Grids, spreadsheets and algorithms take away the sensory connection to our lives, where our feet are, what we’re seeing, all the raw materials of life, which by their very nature are disorganized.”
The world around us is truly amazing. It is only when we approach it with curiosity and wonder that we really see it, and begin to relearn what it is to be human.
So thanks, Marlowe. You’re truly amazing! And so is everything else.