Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Pastor Chaffin

Pastor Chaffin with my brother Phil and two other boys
 about 40 years ago on a winter hike near Douglas, WY.
(I was behind the camera).
My high school years in the mid-1970’s were difficult for me.  I was an under-sized California teenager with long hair transplanted to a small Wyoming high school full of rancher’s kids.  This was before the oil and coal boom.  Outside of a single consistent friend at high school and a couple of teachers, one other man played a vital role in getting me through those years: Robert Chaffin.  Or, as I always called him, Pastor Chaffin.

It takes a special kind of man to be a pastor in a town the size of Douglas, Wyoming.  Pastor Chaffin worked in construction all week long, often out of town.  Yet, he still made time to visit the sick and elderly of our congregation, take the boys group camping, and preach a sermon both Sunday morning and Sunday night.  His sermons were simple and direct.  Pastor Chaffin was not one given to elaborate theology or dramatic speaking.  He let his well-worn Bible do most of the talking.

My brother and I were often the only boys our age in church during those years from 1973-1977.  Since it was just Mom looking after us, Pastor Chaffin took us under his wing.  In addition to the many camping activities (which also attracted a few other boys from town), he and his adult son Dan took us deer and antelope hunting.  Pastor Chaffin would put us to work doing chores around their place so we could earn a few dollars.  Not that he could have had much to spare.  In all the time I spent with him at church, at his home, out in the Wyoming wilderness, I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone.  And he had the opportunity.  Pastors see and hear a lot.  He bore it with magnificent patience.

Pastor Chaffin with one
 of 21 great-grandchildren
I lost track of Pastor Chaffin when I moved back to California.  For decades, I had nothing but those fond memories.  But, through the wonders of the internet and the postal service, I was able to reconnect with him a couple of years ago.  He was living in an assisted care home and volunteers from a local church would write out letters that he dictated.  I was able to send him some pictures and just say thanks.  His response was warm and generous and, as always, gave credit to the Savior he loves so much for any good that was done.

He was a gentle shepherd for the four years he was my pastor.  From the letter that came with this picture, it was true the other 70 or so years of his adult life.  Heaven has welcomed a good and faithful servant.  Reverend Robert Glenn Chaffin, February 7, 1921-November 23, 2015.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Matthew 14:31

“…let him ask in faith, with no doubting…” James 1:6

I belong to a club.  I have no idea how big it is, because in the circle of believers, we usually don’t poll for doubters.  Of the original 12 apostles, the most uninspiring — after the infamous Judas Iscariot — was most likely ‘doubting’ Thomas.

I want to be the one who asks in faith.  I want to know when I pray that it means something — you know, more than hopeful self-talk.  I want cause and effect.  When I eat, my gut is happy.  When I pray, I want my spiritual thirst to be quenched.

But, in my case, there is this barrier.  Whether real or only perceptual, I can’t say for sure.  It is doubt.

Thankfully, I have known those whose practice and presence are marked by confidence in prayer — more accurately -- by confidence in God to whom they pray.  The elusive ingredient they possess and I lack is faith.  It seems I am short of even that mustard seed grain of faith with mountain-moving potential.

“For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, 
and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 
to another faith by the same Spirit…”   1 Corinthians 12:8-9

My gift seems to be that of rationalizing both sides of an argument.  I can persuade myself both that a prayer was answered explicitly and that it was a mere coincidence.  At some point, I ceased looking for a way to correct this flaw in my spiritual development and simply accepted that in the passing out of spiritual goodies, I was not on the faith roster.  

What keeps me soldiering on is this truth:  Jesus didn’t kick Peter under the waves for doubting.  And the little book of Jude, likely written by the half-brother of Jesus, contains this encouragement for those in the doubter club:

“But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt…”  Jude 1:20-22

Jude was a doubter.  He was one of those family members that went to collect Jesus and bring Him home because ‘big brother’ had lost his mind.  But he, like Thomas, was shown mercy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Matters of Life and Death

Here in California, Governor Jerry Brown just signed into law a bill that gives people the ‘right to die’, ostensibly on their own terms.  But think about it.  The terms are that two doctors have agreed that you have less than six months to live and that the illness that is killing you will do so with extreme pain and suffering.  It is now legal in California to hasten that dying, to shorten the miserable end that is your prognosis.  So, rather than dying on your own terms, I would call this a fearful choice between two heartrending options: actually choosing to end your own life immediately or hoping that your last days will not be a harrowing journey of immense pain, limited function, and being a burden to loved ones.  I find the timing of this legislation fascinating since I just finished Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, in the past month.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In The End was published precisely a year ago today.  It is a surgeon’s account of coming to grips with the limits of his profession to make living better for people as they approach the end of their physical existence.  As he discovers in the lives of his own patients and in the life of his ailing father, over-treatment is often more harmful than under treatment in the terminally ill.  Caring families with their
‘safety first’ approach often hasten the physical, spiritual and mental demise of their loved ones by taking away what makes living worthwhile — autonomy and purpose.  Effective health ‘care’ at the end is more about making the moments that remain enjoyable or at least bearable through effective pain management in a setting of familiarity - home.

Too often, the last months of those with terminal illness are spent grasping at yet another round of treatment in the hopes that this will prolong life.  Sometimes it does.  But the weight of evidence is beginning to show that the death most of us will face in an advanced society — of slowly diminishing physical and mental capabilities as our bodies wear out — will come less slowly and with less suffering when treatment is focused on care rather than cure.  Because we all die in the end.

Though still in good health, I can see the encroaching effects of aging.  My children inadvertently remind me that the vibrancy of my youth is long past.  While I hope to have a number of productive working years yet, I can also sense the narrowing of opportunity that comes after investing decades in a particular skill set no longer as in demand as it once was.  Whether I have a less than a decade or multiple decades remaining, this book made me pause and ask: Have I invested my time wisely for the past many years?  Have I shown in word and deed to my wife and daughters what is vital and beautiful and good?  Or have I been deterred from the essentials of real living by the lure of financial security?  When my time comes to release this mortal frame, will I grasp at every possible life-extending option, regardless of how unlikely it is to succeed, or will I go gently and gratefully into the stream of eternity?  

Read Being Mortal for an encouraging prescription for how to prepare for the wearing out of the human body we inhabit.  It is a useful guide both for ourselves and those we love, in a system that knows much about treatment, but often not enough about real caring.  Consider reading it in close proximity with my favorite book in recent memory, Gilead, where author Marilynne Robinson reflects on the themes of aging and eternity in an entirely different way.

Perhaps most importantly, give grace to those whose suffering forces them to consider the awful choice of ending life early.  And live each day with your own mortality in mind, considering how you want to be remembered by those you will leave behind and those you will join on that mysterious other side.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

In The Moment

Well into my sixth decade, I have found it deceptively easy to let days slip by unremarked, to mistake similarity for sameness, to let time disappear not because it is moving faster, but because I am less attentive.

Oh, what did you do today?  Went to work, spent hours looking at a computer screen, solved a couple of problems, sat through a couple of meetings.  

What was your weekend like?  Oh, the usual.  Did some work around the house, went to church, had a lunch date with my wife.  Just another weekend.

And on and on and another year, another birthday, another Christmas and where did they all go?  The same as they did when I was five or twenty-five or forty-five.  So, this week, I decided to pay attention, to look, to see, to be aware that each day, no matter how routine, is a unique experience.  

I am at Barnes & Noble almost every weekend, doing my part to delay the death of the Last Great Bookseller.  But this was Thursday.  It was about 85 degrees outside that evening and nearly that warm inside our home.  We were wilting.  Aubrey, the girl who loves getting out the house no matter how much she has already been out and about on a given day, pleaded, “Please, can we pleeeeeeeeease go to Barnes and Noble?”  It was miserable in the house relative to the comfort of the air conditioning at B&N and I had taken the next day off.  So, what harm could there be in taking a couple of hours out of the evening in the familiar halls of the bookstore?  So, with the appropriate feigned reluctance, I said, “Yes”. 

Shortly after we arrived, the girls were in the kids section at the back of the store, absorbed.  I decided to go to the front to check on a book I was interested in.  In the background,  B&N had music playing from a CD on sale in their music section, as they always do.  Usually, it is just background noise.  In this case, the tune was familiar and caught my ear.  It was a vocal group singing, of all things, a hearty version of “Amazing Grace”.  (I found out later that the album was The Very Best of Celtic Thunder, which also includes such spiritual tunes as “Seven Drunken Nights” and “Galway Girl”).  Then, as I started to walk up the aisle towards the front, I heard someone singing along.  That is, a real, live person in the store.  Not loudly, but clear and noticeable.  I smiled at the thought of someone enjoying the old tune enough to sing along in such a public place.  Out of the next cross aisle, a young man appeared, probably in his late teens, at the most in his early twenties.  He crossed a few feet in front of me.  His hair-cut almost certainly identified him as a member of the Marine Corps.  He walked with a bounce in his stride, still singing.  Then, he caught my eye and saw my smile.  He stopped singing just long enough to return my smile, tip his head in my direction, say “Sir,” and go right back to singing.  I kept on smiling as I watched him go.  Two total strangers in the local bookstore sharing a moment of appreciation for an old song sung in a fresh way.

A day later.  The usual pattern for Friday evenings is that our eldest daughter, her husband, and their kids come over.  Grandkids on Friday.  Part of the routine.  Easy to become commonplace.  Hold me Grandpa.  Look at this Grandpa.  Push me on the swing, Grandpa.  Earlier, I had spent most of my day ‘off’ in a lot of physical activity:   cleaning the garage on the hottest day of the year.  I was spent.  So, when the grandkids arrived in the late afternoon, I was laying down trying to recharge.  They started playing in back along with our girls.  Their happy chatter drifting in our bedroom window roused me out of my lethargy, somewhat.  Grandpa doesn’t always have the stamina he did when his own girls were small.  I headed outside towards the play set and plopped into one of the swings, watching all the activity.  Then, my eldest grandson came over.
“Can I swing?” 
I thought at first he wanted me to push him and I started to get up.  Slowly.
“Can I swing with you, Grandpa?”
Now that is a different proposition altogether.  Not necessarily any easier for me, but not what he usually asks for.  I sat back down and he climbed onto my lap.
“Hold on tight.  I don’t want you to fall off.”  Standard instructions for grandchildren.  It is in the manual.  Page 36.  
And the instructions worked for a few swings as we gained altitude.  Then, he decided holding on tight was not so important and not nearly as much fun.  

Picture the upswing: laying back, arms straight, feet pointed towards the sky.  If I let go, disaster.  If he lets go, there is grandpa and centrifugal force keeping him safely in place.  So, there we are, grandson relaxing with his arms by his sides on the grandpa recliner.  Except we soon have a problem: we reach the apex and start the downswing, normally the signal to lean forward and kick your feet back.  But, I can’t do that or Charlie ends up in the gravel and I live with years of guilt.  So, I stayed mostly horizontal, my arms holding my weight and the additional weight of my grandson, kicking my feet just enough to keep our momentum from failing while not catching them on the ground.  It didn’t take long for my arms to start protesting at this unnatural swinging technique.  But I had to ignore my arms, because how often does a 4-year-old get to swing through the air, up-and-back, up-and-back, without holding on at all?  The only thing keeping him in place is gravity and his trust that Grandpa would never let him fall down.  And I wouldn’t.

While my arms ached, the blue sky and horizon of the fence and trees and the house next door moved up-and-down.  I tried to imagine my 4-year-old self so long ago and what kind of magic it would have been to have a Big Person right there supporting me while I flew through the air holding nothing.  Then, just soon enough, my grandson said to me, “Down.  I want Down.”  
“You’re all done swinging?”  I tried not to sound too hopeful.
“Uh-huh.  All done.”
So I let my feet drag in the gravel and we slowed to a stop and soon he was off to his next adventure, leaving me to wonder at the one he had just finished.

Two magic moments.  I wonder what it will be today?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lila and John

Marilynne Robinson is the one author alive today whose prose is, to my taste, a literary banquet, a choice and varied meal to be savored.  When her latest book, Lila: A Novel, came out late last year, I immediately bought it, not knowing when I would actually get to read it.  But, I finally did and it was as rewarding as I had anticipated.

Lila is the story of the woman first introduced in Gilead, Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.  It is the story of a middle-aged, nearly illiterate, vagrant woman, Lila Dahl, and an older, small-town minister, John Ames, both of whom share a weariness of being alone and a difficulty in trusting after years of self-reliance.  The gulf between their experiences is wide.  Lila has spent her life on the rough edge of survival in almost complete ignorance of the truths that John has dedicated his life to.  He has lived his adult life in the same home in Iowa.  She has never had a permanent home.

Yet, as the need for companionship causes each to take steps into the other’s world, a trusting companionship unfolds between these two unlikely lovers.  The story becomes a microcosm of what marriage can be, of what the gospel looks like when lived out in daily patience and acceptance of God’s grace, of how an undeserved love can make life meaningful again or perhaps for the first time.

Each volume I have of Robinson’s, both fiction and non-fiction, I have marred with underlines and asterisks and exclamation points, so I can go back to some phrase or paragraph that speaks in ways I only wish I could.  Language that is true to life, true to the yearnings of the human soul.

…she saw the Reverend walking up the road, Boughton beside him, the two of them talking together as they always did, and listening to each other, as if, so far into their lives, some new thing might still be said, something not to be missed.

“You’re right not to talk.  It’s a sort of higher honesty, I think.  Once you start talking, there’s no telling what you’ll say.”

She thought, What would I pray for, if I thought there was any point in it?  Well, I guess the first thing would have to be that there was some kind of point in it.

…one morning, standing at the sink washing the dishes, she said, “I guess there’s something the matter with me, old man.  I can’t love you as much as I love you.  I can’t feel as happy as I am.”
“I know,” he said.  “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.  I don’t worry about it, really.”
“I got so much life behind me.”
“I know.”
“It was nothing like this life.”
“I know.”
“I miss it sometimes.”
He nodded.  “We aren’t so different.  There are things I miss.”

Not everyone may appreciate the slow, rich cadence of Robinson’s story-telling.  The action is limited, characters are few, settings are simple.  I was many pages into Lila when I realized it had no chapter breaks, much like life itself.  But if you are willing to let the deep waters move you gently, the journey is worth your time.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

My Job Description

I don’t know much about the habits of other fathers, since I’m the only one I observe on a regular basis.  But one habit I have is using the refrain “It’s in my job description” when my delightful daughters question aberrant behavior I exhibit while performing my fatherly duties.  After several years, decades in fact, of getting away with this claim unquestioned, a younger daughter got wise to my ploy.  She wanted to know exactly where this job description was so she could review it.  


The best I could come up with was that it was all in my head, a notion which naturally did not fly well in the face of daughters taught to think logically and do research before asserting a particular viewpoint as authoritative.

“Well, Dad, you’re just going to have to write it down for us, or we won’t believe that you have one.”

I was stuck.  So for the last several, ahem, weeks (ouch), I have been promising to write down my job description.  Because my credibility was at stake.  You can’t simply say you have a job description and not be able to deliver it (although I have heard of employers who do just that).  After much deliberation about the full import of what it means to be a father, I came up with a list of duties that seems fairly representative.  Perhaps another father or two out there needs something similar.  I cannot say I fulfill all these duties absolutely without fail.  It may not work for all Dads, as it is skewed towards raising daughters and, more lately, the arrival of grandchildren.  But, then, it IS my very own.  And, like all job descriptions, it is subject to revision.
  1. Must tickle children regularly.
  2. Must laugh at silly jokes.  
  3. Corollary to #2: must be able to tell corny jokes that invoke extreme eye-rolling and exclamations of “Oh, Daaaaaaad!”
  4. Must be able to see invisible friends.
  5. Must be conversant in stuffed-animalese.
  6. Must be able to reach the top shelf.
  7. Must go on dates with daughters.
  8. Must have a certified contract with the tooth fairy for timely, discreet tooth redemption.
  9. Must be able to make bizarre facial contortions.
  10. Must watch childish cartoons with apparent interest.
  11. Must be appreciative of the subtle qualities of “stick figure” art.
  12. Must be able to fix anything.
  13. Must read to his children at night without falling asleep in the middle of the best parts.
  14. Must be adept at splinter removal.
  15. Absolutely must do all the icky jobs including, but not limited to, unclogging toilets and removing the remains of dead animals the cats deposit on the lawn.
  16. Must not take losing at games too seriously.
  17. Corollary to #16: Must not take winning at games too seriously.
  18. Must not excessively embarrass his children in public.
  19. Must be able to tutor all school subjects at all grade levels.
  20. Must perform the ‘Daddy Dumpster’ function: let no plate leave the dinner table with perfectly good food on it.
  21. Must patiently endure emotional episodes when he in all likelihood hasn’t the faintest clue what the cause may be.
  22. Must have arms that never tire of pushing children in swings.
  23. Must say a goodnight prayer.
  24. Must always keep his promises.
  25. Must give really good hugs.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why Dads Need To Take Their Sons To See Cinderella

Not just your mother's Cinderella

Given the way Disney and other movie producers have been revising fairy tales in recent years, I was unenthusiastic when I heard there was a new Cinderella movie.  It did have in its favor a PG rating, so excesses of passion or violence would be missing.  Then a reliable media critic that I know personally, my teenage daughter, went with a group of her friends to see it and came back with a glowing report.

Clearly, I needed to do my own evaluation.  So, I took our 12-year-old daughter for her date to see Cinderella.  As might be expected, there were a lot of moms and little girls when we arrived for the early matinee.  There may have been other dads there, but I didn’t see them.  I settled into the reclining theater chair, sure I would at a minimum enjoy my daughter’s reaction to the movie and my tub of popcorn.

Two hours later, I am not sure who was more enthralled.  Yes, it was the same story, yet fresh and grand.  Surprises were few and complimentary.  Most surprisingly, I realized that this is a Cinderella that fathers should take their sons to see.  Because this Cinderella captures the essentials of what it takes for a ‘happily ever after’, for a man and a woman to join in a lifetime partnership of doing and being together what they could never do or be on their own.  

Here are the father-son lessons from Cinderella:

Values Matter
A simple narrative thread was woven into the tale: have courage and be kind.  While some ardent feminists object that Cinderella was just a door-mat for her evil stepmother and stepsisters, Cinderella was actually embodying a counter-culture ethic in a time that idolizes power, especially "girl power" that looks like nothing so much as immature "boy power".  Cinderella instead chose this path:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” 
That takes an entirely different kind of courage than the "kick your enemy's butt" kind.

Not Just A Pretty Face
The prince and Cinderella first meet while she is riding in the woods.  At this chance encounter, he discovers a girl who is willing to confront him with her compassion for the stag the prince and his party were hunting, a girl who speaks the truth that just because something has always been done is no reason it should be done.  When his father the king accuses him of having his head turned by ‘a pretty girl’, he responds:
“She isn’t a pretty girl.  Well, she is pretty.  But she is more than that.”
When the prince eventually discovers that the mystery girl from the ball is truly a dirt-poor commoner with no parents and no dowry, he has a decision to make.  And he makes the right one.

Be Truthful, Especially About Yourself
The prince keeps his royal identity secret when he happens upon a simple country girl in the forest.  He introduces himself to Cinderella as ‘Kit’, an apprentice learning a trade from his father.  When she discovers his true position, he reiterates his claim that he is an apprentice.  He had the humility to recognize that in spite of advantages of position and wealth, he had much to learn about life and the responsibility of being a king.  

Honor Your Father  
While his growing regard for Cinderella brought tension into the royal court, the prince was always respectful of his father’s wisdom.  He would do what his father thought best for the kingdom, even to the point of accepting an undesired marriage if Cinderella could not be found.

The Right Person Is Worth Everything
The prince searched until he had found Cinderella.  At the end of the movie, he takes Cinderella by the hand and asks, “Are you ready?”  To which she replies, “For anything, as long as it is with you.”  Then they step out onto the balcony to join the celebration. That ending captured the essence of why our culture for so long has given each princess their fairy tale day called a wedding ceremony.  That day when for one shining moment, he is a prince, and she a princess and they are declaring to the world:
“We are ready for anything, as long as we are together.”
I have been with my princess for 34 years now, and cannot imagine facing the future without her.

To sum up the lessons fathers can teach their sons from Cinderella:
You start life as an apprentice.  Keep learning.
Listen to Dad.
Have courage, especially when faced with overwhelming obstacles.
Be kind, especially to those who have it harder than you.
Do what is right, not just what everyone is doing.
Inner beauty is far more important than outer beauty.
When you find the one who is willing to share a lifetime of uncertainty with you, never let her go.

I should mention that the prince agrees that boys should see the movie.  Oh, and one final reason dads need to take their daughters to Cinderella: I have daughters and need them to be raising the right kinds of sons.