Leaving Salem

When my wife’s boss first moved to our small town it was more than a little culture shock. Raised on the slick windy streets ofChicago, he had mastered the ways of the urban jungle, but this experience had done little to prepare him for the Deep South. He had never eaten grits. He did not know what chicken and dumplings were. He had not the foggiest idea about pork rinds. He had never attended Cotillion classes as a child, been to a church homecoming, or attended the Sequoya Ball (our town’s largest and most elegant annual charity soiree).

This was all very foreign to him. As was the Southern hospitality dripping from the mouths and handshakes of his new neighbors. One evening shortly after moving, he and his wife were unpacking their boxes and beginning to settle into their new, alien surroundings. There was a knock at the door. Out on the stoop was the first of several neighbors he would meet in the days ahead.

She was the typical, sweet, small-town Southern lady, apple pie in hand. She gave the usual “welcome to our town” speech, drawling over every word, and finally ended with an invitation for them to join her in worship at First Baptist Church the next Sunday. Well, you can imagine this dear lady’s disbelief when she was immediately informed of my wife’s boss’ atheism. “No ma’am, I do not believe in God and will not be attending church with you. Not next week. Not ever.”

This poor woman looked at him, dumbstruck. To relieve the tension she turned to his wife: “What about you, dear? Would you join me for church next week?” Again, the answer was shattering. “No, I am afraid not. See, I am Jewish.” The charming saint from the First Baptist Church turned and left, taking her apple pie with her. She never tried to engage them again; no invitation to the neighborhood barbecue, no friendly exchange of garden tools, no further invitations to church on Sunday, and certainly no more apple pies.

It used to be that everyone we met was a bit like “us.” Not anymore. From religion and race, to politics and lifestyle, the diversity that now surrounds us is far greater than anything we could have imagined a generation ago. So, in shock, we exercise kindness toward those who are like us, and we keep our apple pies away from those we find different than we ourselves. We retreat into the sanctuary of our own homes or churches, keeping the unfamiliar at a distance. This is hardly “hospitality,” Southern or otherwise. In fact, it is hostility.

Jesus asked in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love only those who love you, what have you gained?” I don’t know what is gained, but I know what is lost: Community itself. Researchers now say that our polarization and cocooning can do more than make sparks fly during a political debate. When people fail to get to know others outside their religious and social circles, everyone grows precariously distrustful. Everything from public health and government effectiveness, to economic strength and crime rates suffer as a result of our failure to simply connect with those who share the space around us.

So share an apple pie (or a conversation or a cup of coffee). There just might be something to sharing these with our neighbors that will be good for the whole world.

There are things in our life that are very, very good. Money, family, jobs, church, possessions, friends: These are all good and in many cases irreplaceable, but you cannot build your life on these things and expect your life to sustain itself. These can all turn to sand. Money vanishes a lot quicker than we can make it. Consult the year-end statement from your broker if you do not believe me. Fortunes, retirement accounts, mutual funds all wash away these days. If your life is built on such things, you may not have much to live for.

Our families are one of God’s great gifts to us. But spouses can prove unfaithful, children ungrateful, and parents unmovable, leading to the worst frustrations. If you build your life on these things, your house can easily collapse in on top of itself. And your job? Forget it. Consult the unemployment numbers. Yes,  friends can forsake you. Possessions can be lost. Churches can rip your heart from your chest. Homes can be repossessed. Automobiles can be destroyed. Partners and lovers can disappoint. Your health can fail you. None of these things are worthy enough or substantial enough to hold your life together when the rains falls, the winds blow, and the waters rise.

The glue that holds life together in the hardest and stormiest of times is the way of Christ. Don’t trust your broker. Don’t trust your boss. Don’t trust your best friend. Don’t trust your pastor or priest. Trust Jesus. Cling to him, and even if everything else is lost, even your life, you will still be found standing – not because you are an expert builder – but because the bedrock of your life is certain and sure; it’s not sand.

The emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson Rivera few years ago was one of the most incredible things any of us have ever seen. Every time you get on an airplane, either by video or intercom a flight attendant tells you what to do “in the event of a water landing.” I always look at Sky Mall magazine during this portion of the program because my flights rarely take me across large bodies of water. I think I’ll pay closer attention next time. A few people on Flight 1549 were paying attention. All one hundred fifty-five people on the flight survived with only a few injuries.

Those survivors all have a similar tale to tell. Everything went from normal into the toilet, literally, in less than four minutes. And one of the reasons people remained so calm, not only because of the pilot’s training and the flight attendants’ leadership, was because of the speed of the entire event. And because of the nature of the crash, with rising water just outside the windows and in the tail of the plane, outside of a few panicked passengers, everyone got quickly out with no thought for what they were leaving behind. Some passengers stopped to grab their bags from the overhead bins, but they were quickly shooed away by those with clearer thinking.

Experts say that when a crash takes place and there are survivors on board, evacuation is often crippled because a passenger is reaching up to take a suitcase or laptop out of the overhead bin. Pay attention to that pre-flight speech and what you should do is very clear. Unfasten your seat belts. Proceed to an emergency exit. And do not take anything with you. That’s what those survivors did, and it made all the difference. Studies show everyone has approximately 90 seconds to get out of a crashed airplane. So what is more important? Your stuff, or your life?

You can build upon or cling to all these things – important things, yes – but things that will drown you if you cling to them once the plane has crashed. Get yourself to solid ground and let the rest go.

My children have returned to school; let the rejoicing begin. But I don’t know why they go to school. They know everything already, just like I did when I was their age. See, when I was a kid, I really thought my father was something. I looked up to him as if he was a superhero who could leap tall buildings with a single bound, could bend steel bars with his bare hands, and defeat all of his arch enemies.

With hands the size of pot roasts and the strength of an ox, I was amazed at how he could lift me above his head, how fast he could run, and how there was nothing he could not do. “My daddy can beat up your daddy,” was a routine phrase on my lips. And smart? Lord, yes, he was smart. He was a master problem-solver. He understood how things worked. He could do pre-algebra in his head and long division without picking up a pencil. He could read the hardest words. He might as well been a king.

But as I got older, as a teenager, I discovered my father was growing remarkably stupid. In just a couple of year’s time, somehow, he became a backward, bumbling simpleton with not a clue to how the world really worked. He offered inane advice on everything from money and education to automobiles and the opposite sex. He set ridiculous boundaries in regard to time, work, school, and my friends. A few times he even dared to critique or forbid my well-made decisions. What an idiot.

Then, in my twenties, my father must have returned to school or started taking smart pills. His counsel improved dramatically – almost overnight. His words were far sounder than I could ever remember. It was obvious an old dog could learn new tricks. I was so proud of him. And now, with growing children of my own, my father practically has a PhD. No, he’s not as big and strong as he once was, but he is absolutely brilliant, even smarter than before. His intellectual turnaround has been miraculous.

But what bothers me is the fact that I am my father’s son. See, I get more like him every day: The cadence of my voice, my mannerisms, the gray in my beard, my dietary habits, my elevated cholesterol. So I fear I too will have a mid-life plunge into idiocy. I don’t have a “chair” at home, but today my children look upon me with something akin to worship, as I looked upon my father. Tomorrow they will despise my advice, my words, and the limitations I place upon them because my IQ will have shrunk down to nothing as their own rises to near Einstein levels.

I know it is coming. I can feel it. Sometimes, just by the way my children look at me, or how they question my judgment, or when they angrily resist me, I can tell I’m getting dumber. I don’t understand. I don’t “get it.” I’m in the way of them having a good time. It is all sure to get worse before it gets better. But hopefully, after a decade or so on the dark side, my mental capacities will improve as my own father’s did. Maybe then I won’t be such a bonehead, and my children will find me worth listening to again.

It’s really too bad that we fathers take these short trips into stupidity when our children are at such vulnerable junctions in their lives. They sure could use a little help.