It occurred to me that the prodigal was not all cleaned up when he returned to his father. He was a filthy mess. He was tattered. He reeked. His intention was to ask his father to be treated like a hired hand. Yet, his father ran to greet him, embraced him, and kissed him. Then, the father had the best robe brought to him and sandals for his feet. And, a ring for his finger! How extravagant. And, then the fatted calf was ordered to be slaughtered to celebrate the return of the penitent son. More extravagance. The prodigal’s father, an example of our Lord. Oh, to be like the prodigal: ready to be penitent. Oh, to be like the prodigal’s father–accepting and embracing of the one who fed the pigs? “Oh no!” I fear I have been more like the non-prodigal. I pondered and then I composed the following. Pods for thought.

The prodigal, the father, and the non-prodigal.

He assuredly stunk, the prodigal.

He had fed the pigs and pined for the pods.

He had been foolish.

He had demanded his inheritance.

He had gone to a faraway land.

He had spent his inheritance on sensuous pursuits.

Then: money spent, famine came, dire desperation.

He found a “job” feeding swine.

The filth, the smell, the revolt.

Then, an “aha” moment.

He could go to his father and beg to become a hired hand.

“I will admit I sinned and am no longer a son.”

His father’s servants had food to spare.

“Yes, I will become like one hired.”

So, off he went toward home.

He was still far away when his father saw him.

His father ran to him.

Such an undignified response.

Such love and compassion.

Crazy love!

Reaching his son, the father embraced and kissed him.

The son: tainted, filthy, and reeking.

“Bring a robe, bring a ring, and kill the fatted calf!”

“My son was dead and now is alive!”

His father was elated and loved him.

“He called me his son.”

“He embraced me in my stench and filth.”

“Me, the demanding prodigal.”

“He put a robe on me.”

“A ring on my finger.”

“He said, ‘Kill the fatted calf!’”

“I am a filthy, degraded mess.”

“Yet, he called me his son.”

“The one who was lost is found.”

“The one who was dead and is now alive.”

“He rejoiced!?”

“What manner of love is this?!”

And there was celebration.

The older son heard the commotion.

“What is going on?!”

Then, the non-prodigal erupted with anger.

“This son of yours wasted himself with prostitutes and sensuality!”

“I will not go in!”

The non-prodigal had lost nothing.

And he resented the father and the prodigal.

Like Christians who shoot the wounded.

The non-prodigal unloaded his gun.

Electric Fences

Electric Fences

I have both vivid and vague memories of my paternal grandfather. Visiting him was interesting. He whittled and smoked cigarettes. He was a man of few words. He liked to tease, sometimes in a painful way. My most vivid memories involve him trying to get the grandkids to touch the electric fence. The fence provided a very convincing shock and was to be avoided: meaning “I fell for the suggestion at least once”.

During once visit he suggested I touch the fence. I chose not to. I had learned that it did not feel good. (No shock for any reader, I am sure). He asked me if wood conducted electricity. I replied with a confident “no”. He invited me to pick a stick from the ground and touch the fence in order to verify my scientific knowledge. I obliged. I grabbed the stick and touched the electric fence. I received a very memorable shock. What a shock: my scientific knowledge had failed me. The stick was wet from the morning dew and I had not noticed. But, grandpa had.

I am leery of electric fences. I do not like the experience of touching one. That was learned in early grade school. I had been fooled twice; both times out of ignorance. I was wise enough not to urinate on the fence as he reportedly had suggested to another cousin. I am glad that invitation was not my first to the electric fence. I do not have any desire to know how that must have felt.

I think about the electric fence on occasion. Usually, it is when I am talking to a person (client) who continues to engage in the same behavior and continues to get “shocked”. Interesting how a person can continue to repeat behaviors that result in pain. As the saying goes: “If you keep on doing what you are doing, you will keep on getting what you always got”. It is so easy to repeat behaviors that lead to painful consequences.

I challenge my clients (and myself) to stop grabbing hold of the electric fence. Watch that you are not tricked by a “wet stick” and certainly do not urinate onto one. It is advisable to learn one’s lesson and avoid the inevitable—and what should be a readily predictable—shock. But, alas, many keep grabbing the electric fences of life, to be shocked again and again. There must be a better way. What (or whom) are your electric fences?

Good people pass away…

Today marks the 18th anniversary of my son, Evan’s, death. He will soon be gone longer than he was alive.

He was a gem: a gentle soul, quick wit, worth listening to when he spoke, empathetic, affectionate, and deeply spiritual. My, what a loss. It is really easy to ask “why?” Soon after his death a friend suggested I look at the following verses from the Old Testament of the Bible.

“Good people pass away; the godly often die before their time. But no one seems to care or wonder why. No one seems to understand that God is protecting them from the evil to come. For those who follow godly paths will rest in peace when they die” (Isaiah 57:1-2, New Living Translation).

My grief was (and still is) potent, but I had some sense of peace after reading that verse. He had a gentle and tender soul. He would have been deeply impacted by many events that he was able to miss. He was spared from evil. Mixed feelings. I am grateful he was spared so much evil. I miss him and always will. That is grief. It is endless.

“Light touch. Don’t try to control.”

I am not much of a swimmer. Yet, I have learned an important life-saving lesson: relax and float when in trouble. One is in graver danger when struggling than if one relaxes. Rather counterintuitive.

During my college days I worked part-time as a janitor. One of my jobs was to run an industrial buffer and keep a hallway in top-notch condition. The head janitor explained: “Give it a light touch. Do not fight it. If you do, it will jerk you around”. He demonstrated the task. The buffer glided beautifully to one side of the hallway to the other. “Now, you try” he said. “But, remember: a light touch. Do not try to control it.”

It looked easy enough. I felt a fair bit of anxiety. I wanted to perform well. I reached out for the buffer, squeezed the levers and I was in for one wild ride. The buffer took off, careened from wall to wall and I was dumbstruck. It was a good thing the walls were constructed of concrete blocks! I released the levers and stepped back with disbelief, embarrassment, as well as amazement at the power of the buffer. The head custodian repeated, “Don’t fight it. Give it a light touch”. He demonstrated again and the buffer smoothly glided back and forth across the hallway. It was like watching poetry in motion. Then, it was my turn again.

I grabbed the handle, squeezed the levers, and I was in for another wild ride. I stopped the machine and looked back at the head custodian. “Light touch” and “Try again” were the only words I remember. I did “try again” only to repeat my first two experiences. I obviously had no idea of what a “light touch” meant. The buffer took off like a wild animal and I was certainly not in control. I stopped and looked back at the head custodian. “Keep trying. Light touch. Don’t try to control it”. Having said that, he walked away. I watched him until he rounded the corner before I attempted the “light touch” once more. The result? A careening, out-of-control monster which I had not tamed and of which I was obviously not in control.

Several more attempts with the same results. I stopped in exasperation and not much optimism that I could learn to operate the buffer. I turned and looked down the hallway. There he stood, the head custodian, laughing at me. I know, now, that he was laughing with a sense of recognition learned from his own experience. He winked and walked away.

“Light touch” he had said. I had to try again.

With determination not to control, but to give it a light touch, I reached out and lightly held the handle and touched the levers. The most amazing outcome: the buffer glided across the hallway like poetry in motion. A life-lesson learned. To attempt to control something with that much power was beyond my ability. It took a light touch and the buffer did what it was designed to do. “Do not try to control it. Give it a light touch.” Counterintuitive like floating. But remarkably effective.

I sometimes ‘forgot’ the “light touch” and I was jerked around like a wimp. Moral of the story. Trying to be in control does not work as well as a light touch. I have been jerked around by more than an industrial floor buffer. And, I do not wonder why. “Light touch” works rather well in so many areas of life.

Alphabet Soup

Life can be/is very hard. Confusion is common. Confusion does not feel pleasant. I was once told that confusion is good:  “It means you are working on a solution and haven’t arrived at it yet”. I found that explanation to be comforting. There could be an outcome, but it was not clear what the outcome would be or when the outcome would occur. That got me to thinking about alphabet soup.

I have had food poisoning twice in my life. What miserable experiences. I hate to vomit. Yet, when I was in the middle of the intestinal upset, I was wanting to vomit to alleviate my misery. Vomiting brought about the end of the suffering. It was a very intense, very messy, and very unpleasant experience. But, it brought about relief.

What if I ate a bowl of alphabet soup and it caused food poisoning? It would need to come out. It would not be pleasant, it would not be neat, and it would not be pretty. The letters would certainly not come out in alphabetical order. Some (maybe many) of the letters would be unrecognizable. The result would be a rather unpleasant mess. But, it would mark the beginning of recovering.

There is a parallel to food poisoning and emotional/stress poisoning. Both cause misery. Both require a type of vomiting. Neither allows for an orderly exit of that which needs to be addressed. As is true of the alphabet soup, what we need to “vomit” emotionally will not come out in “alphabetical” order. No words, no paragraphs, no chapters, no edited final product. But, in order to recover, vomit we must.

Emotional vomiting is unlike food poisoning. With food poisoning, all of that which comes out is cleaned up and flushed. Emotional vomiting allows for some salvaging of the vomited mess. One has the opportunity to make use of the vomited letters–to make some sense of the upset. Those letters can be used to create sensible meaning. Words, sentences, chapters, new narratives, and healing can take place.

I hate to vomit. But, vomiting can be my friend. That is true of both literal vomiting and emotional vomiting. Unrelieved, both perpetuate misery. Vomiting is not neat and orderly. It is messy, it can smell, yet it is necessary to alleviate the upset. Both are arduous. Both leave us worn out. Both require some time for recovering. Sometimes I am glad I can vomit.

Richard L. Brewer

“I talk to my cows.”

“I talk to my cows.”

Many years ago I had a couple of clients (wife and husband). I often think about them because of the outcome. It was one of those marvelous outcomes that teaches a life-lesson: Communication is vital. It does not have to be polished. But, it needs to occur. And, it needs to be honest and consistent. The gist of the experience follows below.

A lady in late middle-age told me she was going to divorce her husband. He was described as a good man, a good provider, as loyal and trustworthy, and as dependable as they come. Puzzling that she was contemplating divorce. What was her reasoning? “He does not talk to me.” She craved conversation. She wanted to feel like she was his “go-to”, an important part of their marriage. She had not felt that way for many years. She was weary of the neglect and had begun to contemplate a change in her relationship status.

“You need to tell him what you are considering” was my recommendation. I suggested she invite him to accompany her to a session so as to determine if the multi-decade marriage could be salvaged. “He won’t come in. He is a very proud and private man” she said. My reply to her was something to the effect of: “Perhaps he will if you tell him what you have told me.” She conceded that she owed him that.

He accompanied her the next appointment. He was not a happy man. He was angry and suspicious. He made it clear that his business was his business and nobody else’s. He did not come in willingly but out of desperation. He feared losing his wife. I acknowledged his dilemma, and his position that his business was his business and no one else’s. He was in a tough spot. I offered my assistance even though it was the last thing he wanted.

He was not one to talk about things. He was a doer. He was responsible. He was honest. He was self-sufficient. He was determined to take care of his wife. He just did not share things with her. When asked his rationale, he stated, “I don’t want to trouble her”. I suggested he might want to risk talking because she sounded determined to make good on her threat to file for divorce. That thought was terrifying to him. He acknowledged that he experienced pressures, concerns, and dilemmas. But, he kept them to himself so he would not be a burden to his wife. He truly believed he was acting lovingly by not sharing his concerns and burdens. He did not realize how much she needed him to share with her.

I asked him what he did when he was feeling stress, pressure, etc. “I talk to my cows.” I suggested he talk with his wife like he did to his cows. “I don’t want to burden or trouble her” was his reply. I reminded him that she was contemplating divorce and it would be worth a try because he was terrified of her ultimatum: “You will talk to me or I will leave you”. I conceded that he really had no choice, he had to do what he did not want to do.

The next appointment was remarkably different from previous sessions. Both came in with a sense of well-being I had not previously observed. He calmly volunteered, “I talked to her like I talk to my cows.”  He was amazed how well she responded. To think that it would be beneficial to talk with her like he was accustomed to talking to his cows. She responded so well that she no longer threatened divorce. Rather, she reported that she was getting what she so long pined for. He was sold on the value of sharing with his wife and not solely to his cows. His last words were “I have a lot of friends who could benefit from talking to you”. He had learned the value of talking to his wife like he did to his cows. It did not trouble or burden her. It helped her feel as though she was a valuable and loved part of a team.

There is also a spiritual application to this lesson. “Talk to God like you would talk to your cows”. He desires it. We will not trouble or burden Him. Remember, He is omniscient. We are the ones being cheated if we do not talk to Him. He desires for us to share openly, honestly, and about everything. Hebrews 4:16 states: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (ESV). We need to. He wants us to. And, we can be confident. The above verse is preceded by: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (vs, 14-15). He is safer than cows.

“Do all you can, with all you have, in the time you have, in the place you are”

I recently came across this quote. “Do all you can, with all you have, in the time you have, in the place you are”. (Nkosi Johnson S. African advocate for children with HIV: died age 12).

The quote got me to thinking about what I can do, about what I have to offer, about the time I have to invest, and about where I am at any given moment. It was a good challenge. I (we) have a great deal to offer, I (we) have the time to offer, and I (we) are in the places to offer it. It doesn’t really require much more than I (we) have already been investing except perhaps the awareness and the willingness to offer it—unless you consider love and empathy as requiring a lot. 

Nkosi’s message is profound. What an awareness for a 12 year-old. Should it be considered profound? Or, should it be normal? Oh that it would be more common! What would I (we) need to do to make it operative in my life? I think it would require some self-honesty, self-reflection, self-evaluation, and a commitment; especially a commitment to make love operative in my life. What am I capable of doing? What do I have to offer? What time do I have? In what place am I? How is my love for others?

What can I (we) do? Much more than might I (we) might initially consider. Each of has tremendous resources. What are we doing with those resources? Jesus, as recorded in scripture, talks about “giving a cup of water in my name” (Matthew 10:42 and Mark 9:41). We are told in Matthew 25: 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”. The exact opposite is also true. We read in Matthew 25: 45, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Whatever we have to give is important. To give, or not to give, has significant–even eternal–consequences: Not just to the one to whom we might give, but the ultimate Giver.

China Tea Set

What an incredible gift, a china tea set. One of her favorite Christmas presents. It was hers. She was delighted. She was only four, not turning five until the following May. It was “not” really a gift for someone so young. It was fragile. But, it was hers. And she played with the tea set with great delight, at least until that day when she came crying to her daddy. She had dropped the tea pot, it was in many pieces, and she was devastated.

Her daddy (that is me) went to recover the pieces of the tea pot. There were many pieces. He painstakingly looked for all the pieces and went for the super glue. He glued the pieces together with as much care as he could muster. The tea pot was obviously reconstructed. He presented the repaired tea pot to his daughter fearing she would be disappointed. Amazingly, she was elated. She beamed with joy and said, “Daddy fixed it!” Daddy was relieved. She was not only not disappointed, but thrilled to have the tea pot fixed.

She continued to play with the china tea set as she had before. One day she came to her daddy and rather calmly reported she had dropped and broken the tea pot again. She was not tearful. She looked at her daddy with a wide smile and without a hint of doubt, stated “Daddy fix it!” No pressure at all!! He went to the shag carpet, collected pieces and painstakingly repaired the tea pot once more. This time there were many more pieces and several small shards. Some could not be recovered. He sat down with the super glue and finished the repair. With not a little hesitation, he showed his daughter. He “knew” she would be disappointed because it did not look too good. But, she was as thrilled as the first time. “Daddy fixed it!”

She did not play with the tea pot again that I recall. But, she kept it. One day she told her daddy that she wanted to show him something. She was married and had her first child by then. She went to a closet, pulled out a plastic storage tub, and removed that china tea pot that daddy had fixed. It was a moving experience for her daddy. At one time, her daddy could fix things and be a hero. I was that daddy.

Thinking about things broken, I fondly recall the china tea pot. I remember the painstaking re-construction done out of love. She was thrilled. To think of the confidence she had in me then. Then I realize: I do not hold a candle to God, the ultimate fixer and supreme hero. “Daddy fix it!”

Solid Sterling Silver

I “decided” to return to college in 1976. It was not an easy “decision”. An individual I knew gave me a box of pens and pencils. He had cleared his desk drawer and gave them to me. “I thought you might be able to use them when you start college in the fall.” It was a very nice gesture. Yes, I could make use of them. Most of the pencils had previous use. But they were still good and most of them still had erasers. That was important! The pens: well, most of them were advertisement pens from various vendors who have given them to the man.

I rummaged through the instruments and noticed one that looked very different from the rest. It was blackened, but it had a golden arrow pocket clasp and clicker. On closer examination, I discovered it was a solid sterling silver Parker pen that had oxidized. I showed it to the man and asked him if he realized the pen was in the collection. He looked a bit shocked and I offered the pen back. He insisted I keep it because he had given it to me amongst the mix. He continued to insist even as I suggested it might have special value to him and he was very welcome to have it back.

I cleaned up the Parker pen and it was beautiful. It was valued at $100.00 in 1976. I put the pen in safe-keeping lest I lose it. A long time later, I re-discovered the pen, re-blackened with oxidation. I cleaned it again and decided to use it. Amazingly, it never re-oxidized while it was being used on a regular basis. Though I do not know why, I stopped using the pen. Yes, as you might imagine, it re-oxidized once again. The moral of the pen? Daily use keeps the beauty. Neglect leads to oxidization. What was once beauty became unattractive black.

I have referred to that pen numerous times through the years. I tell the story and ask the person listening how he/she might be like that solid sterling silver Parker pen. It resonates. Not recognizing their value, their “pen” is left unrecognized for its beauty and value and thus goes unused. I get the moral of the story on a very personal level. I once regarded myself in a similar way. Sadly, much is overlooked and lost as a result of missing one’s value and beauty. Whose solid-sterling Parker pen do we have oxidizing in a drawer or other hiding place? It is none other than God’s. Recognizing it can make all the difference in the world. Discovering who we were created to be and what it is we were created to do is critical. Otherwise, the valuable pen is overlooked and goes unused. What a tragic loss of potential.