Monday, February 23, 2015

Cripples All of Us

Sharing a few lines from Frederick Buechner's Brendan that touched me this morning. A good reminder.

Pushing down hard with his fists on the table-top he heaved himself up to where he was standing. For the first time we saw he wanted one leg. It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn't leapt forward and caught him.

"I'm as crippled as the dark world," Gildas said.

"If it comes to that, which one of us isn't, my dear?" Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg. Brendan sure he'd misspent his whole life entirely. Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths. We are cripples all of us. For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

"To lend each other a hand when we're falling," Brendan said. "Perhaps that's the only work that matters in the end."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 4

My final Big Brother reflection brings me to Jerry, the brother closest to me in age and in every other way, too.

First, a disclaimer. I know that some of you may come from civilized families where siblings were always kind to each other, disagreements were handled respectfully, fights never broke out, and everybody lived to adulthood. Perhaps you didn't grow up with lots of brothers and sisters, maybe no brothers at all, or perhaps you and your brother were widely separated by age. But odds are, if you had a brother close to you in age, you know that brothers don't always get along well, and the levels of conflict can range from verbal duels to "knock down drag outs."

We had a few brotherly fights at our house through the years. Jim and John would mix it up from time to time, usually fighting to some kind of uneasy truce, and then working together to repair the damage, like propping up the bent bed frame with concrete blocks.

Jerry and I usually fought our battles verbally, which if you know Jerry, you know that put me at a severe disadvantage. Jerry was born with a mean mouth and he always knew which words to choose to get to me.

One example should suffice. In our little town there was a developmentally disabled boy named, "Johnny." He was a nice kid, not mean or anything, but he was never going to be mainstreamed with the other kids, due to his mental limitations. So, Jerry decided to change my name to "Johnny," and for a period of several months, that was the only name he used for me, often pausing to remind me of the comparison. I would just be seething. I wanted to kill him.

I finally complained to Mom, so she told Jerry that he could never call me "Johnny" again. After Mom left the room, this was Jerry's response to me: "From now on, Drew, I'm not going to call you "Johnny" anymore. I'm going to call you "Tommy," but I want you to know that when I say, "Tommy," what I really mean is "Johnny." I should have killed him right then, but it took me a few more years to get big enough for the job.

My childhood buddy, Bruce Hadley, witnessed some of our brotherly brutality firsthand and when our parents returned, Bruce met them at the door with the words, "They're downstairs killing each other."

I'm not sure why Jerry and I didn't get along well as we were growing up. We "shared" a room until I was thirteen, with a line down the middle we got along about like North and South Korea. We certainly had different interests. I was all about sports and Jerry was in speech and debate. My older brothers played football, and Jerry was the team manager, but that didn't count to me. I dreamed of being a real player.

Honestly, I'm not sure we ever said a kind word to each other until we moved away, leaving Jerry in Windsor to finish his senior year. After that, just seeing each other every few weekends instead of all the time probably helped. And then of course, eventually we both grew up and wised up. Jerry studied for a year in England while I was still in high school, and when he returned something significant had changed. Suddenly, we could talk, really talk, and we enjoyed spending time together. Maybe being apart that long caused us both to think differently about our relationship.

Since that time, Jerry and I have been close, closer than a brother, my best friend. My first wedding was Jerry and Jan's, assisting my dad with the ceremony. Jerry was my best man when Suzanne and I got married. When I got my first ministry job as a summer youth minister in Topeka, it was Jerry who came out to check on me. Jerry and Jan never moved in those early years without my help, though once or twice I dropped furniture on Jerry from a second floor balcony. (He used to be a lot taller.)

Our wives will tell you that when Jerry and I are together, we revert back to junior high, but I know that's not true. Junior high was never as much fun as we have. When the Hill brothers (plus Clif) have taken our golf trips, Jerry and I easily have the most fun. While the others are stomping around, frustrated with themselves, and wrapped up in the competition, Jerry and I are playing our own game with our own rules, and the real fun is all ours.

One time we were all playing a tough course at the Lake of the Ozarks on a hot summer day. Jerry was playing horrible and decided that he and I should quit at the turn and not play the back nine. We had already paid $47 for eighteen holes, so I thought we should stay and play through. Jerry kept negotiating. "If you leave with me, we can go see a movie in Osage Beach." No. "If you go, I'll pay for the movie and the popcorn." No, besides we haven't had lunch. "Okay, if you go I will buy you lunch and pay for the movie." I don't think so. I paid $47 for this round. As we came up on the ninth green, Jerry made his final offer. "If you'll go with me, I'll buy you lunch, pay for the movie, and I'll give you back your $47." Sold! I was going with him all along, but I wanted to get his best offer. Who says a preacher can't stick it to a lawyer every now and then. After the movie, I wanted to say, "Thanks for everything, Johnny," but I didn't. I'm a bigger man than that.

Jerry has taught adult Bible study classes for many years in the churches they have attended. He's a fine teacher, "damn good" as Jerry tells it. Sometimes when he doesn't like the prescribed curriculum, he will call, give me a theme or a scripture reference, and say, "Look in your files and send me something and make sure it's good stuff." One Easter he didn't like the lesson's approach so I sent him my Easter message to adapt as his Sunday School lesson. After the class was over, one of the guys came up and said, "Great lesson, Jerry. I really liked that. You know, that could be a sermon." Jerry said, "Yeah, maybe so."

Jerry and Jan are wonderful parents, and Jerry has taught me much about being a good dad. The way things timed out, Jerry raised his two sons a little ahead of me and my two boys, and our daughter is a little ahead of Jerry and Jan's daughter, JoEllen. So it's been helpful to me to compare notes along the way.

Jerry and I made a deal a long time ago, some of it in words and the rest of it unspoken. Anything, anytime, anywhere, no matter what, just call. No questions, no excuses, no judgments. Just call. That's the kind of brother he is. That's the kind of brother I want to be. 

Writing these reflections on my big brothers has been enjoyable, but also kind of sobering. I have tried to imagine what my life would have been like without these four brothers in my life. I think about what I would have missed, especially with Dad passing away so early, when I was just 29 years old. Who would have stood in the gap for me? I've been blessed with a wonderful mother and three fine sisters and lots of friends and extended family. But nobody can take the place of a big brother. Take it from someone who should know. I went four for four.

 "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." - Proverbs 17:17

"A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." - Proverbs 18:24

Monday, February 16, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 3

It has been said by more than a few people who know our family well, even though there are three pastors among these five brothers, "John is the really nice one." And, I guess it's true. You will never meet a kinder man, a more selfless guy, than my big brother John. I like to think the rest of us must have done a really good job on John for him to turn out so well.

For me, John has always been the classic big brother, the one who did for me lots of things that big brothers are supposed to do for their little brothers coming along behind. I'll tell the stories and you be the judge. I think he did well.

Believe it or not, John was also my baseball coach for two years, after Pete and Jim. How lucky could I be? Three brothers in a row. No wonder I never made it to the big leagues. John used to make me pitch to him at practice just so he could hit the ball in the lake in deep right field at the old Little League field. He did splash a few in the water, but he also nearly took my head off with a few scorching line drives. I think I was considered expendable.

More than any of my brothers, John was my protector. More than once as I was growing up, it was John who put the fear of God into my tormenters. No bully wanted to mess with John.

On the other hand, John nearly killed me himself a few times, usually by drowning or hypothermia. At the pool I may have accidently splashed John and the girls he was trying to impress with an well-placed cannonball or can opener. And I may have been warned to stop or face the consequences, but what's a little brother to do when you get a chance embarrass your brother like that. So I gave him one more big cannonball and swam fast for the far ladder, but not fast enough. Just as I reached up for handrail, John's vice grip caught my ankle and I was instantly on the bottom of the pool, so suddenly that my mouth was still open from trying to yell. No air, no nothing.

Changing seasons, my buddy, David, and I were enjoying a winter afternoon of neighborhood snowball fights when John came home from work at Vincents. He was dressed for work, of course, and I thought this was a great chance to hit my brother with a big snowball when he couldn't come after me. This proved to be a gross miscalculation. Even after John's warning, I nailed him in the back of the head as he went in the door. David and I were still laughing about it when John came back out the door. Before I could get away, he had me by the ankle again. Holding me up with one hand, he yanked my coat off with the other, then my sweatshirt, and finally my t-shirt, before sticking me head first into the snow drift. I was beginning to understand why bullies didn't mess with John.

John was the only one of my brothers to ever talk to me about girls and sex. We laugh about those conversations now. We both decided it would be best not to share any details from those talks, but at least he tried to take care of his little brother.

John was the best athlete in the family, having done a great deal of weightlifting in high school, he became an outstanding football player. A few years back when Windsor High School announced their 50 year all-time team, I think John and his son, Andy, both made the team, the only father and son on the squad.

I guess due to all that weightlifting, John had trouble with pinched nerves in his neck and shoulders. This was back when football players were actually taught to use their helmet as a weapon, lead with their face mask, make contact head on. Several times, John would make a big hit in a game and literally knock himself out. He would be motionless on the ground, coaches would roll him over, bring him around, he would come out for a play or two and then right back in the game he would go. So much for safety. There was no stopping him. He was an intense competitor.

When I went out for football as a freshman at Windsor, John was off to college in Bolivar. A few weeks into the season I got discouraged and maybe a little lazy and decided to quit the team. I was at home the next day when John came home. He asked Mom what I was doing at home during practice time and she told him I had decided to quit football. John found me out in the yard and gave me the most intense, Lombardi-like speech I have ever heard. I can still see his face in my mind, the anger, the disappointment, and the fire in his eyes. "You don't have to play football forever, but once you go out, you don't just walk away. You don't quit! You don't let your team down. You tough it out. If you don't get to play much, work harder, get better, but you don't give up. My brother is not going to be a quitter!"

I was back at practice the next day, paid the price for missing practice, and never considered quitting again. A back injury and spinal condition ended my football career later on, but an important life lesson was learned from a big brother who wouldn't let me walk away.

Through the years we have always given John a hard time about being Mom's favorite. He denies it, of course, but always with that tilted head grin of his that makes us question his sincerity. Pete thought he would drive the point home with some snazzy t-shirts for all of the siblings except John. But wouldn't you know it, Mom took care of "Johnnie" with a t-shirt of his own. Can't blame Mom really. He is the nice one.

In his career, John is a great example of the old adage, "Bloom where you are planted," able to bounce back from some serious setbacks and career changes. He's had to deal with uncontrollable circumstances - being a loan officer during the farm crisis of the 1980s, working for a manufacturer that failed after 9/11 - tough situations that would defeat a lesser man, but John keeps bouncing back, moving on, making the best of it.

For the past ten years John has worked for Remax and he has done well in real estate, enjoying it more than any of his previous work. No surprise to me. John is just the combination people are looking for in a realtor - integrity and trust, savvy and service. I guess even in real estate, "John is the nice one."

None of my family will ever forget Monday evening, June 26, 2006, when we almost lost John in the tragic building collapse in Clinton. One man died and and ten were trapped in the rubble as rescuers worked to shore up the remaining walls and dig down to reach those who had been buried in the debris. John was the sixth man brought out about 2:30 the next morning. I remember standing over him in the emergency room, all scraped up and filthy with dust, his clothes ripped and shredded, but he looked pretty good to us, a little shaken but safe and sound. For John, and for the rest of us, that night was a stern reminder of how fragile life is and how suddenly it can come to an end.

So John has been closer to the edge than I have ever been and he is the wiser for the experience, more in touch with the things that matter and less bothered by the things that don't. That's something else very precious I can learn from my big brother John. I am very grateful.

"Really? John Hill is your brother?" 
"Yes, he is."
"Great guy. Do anything for you. I think the world of John."
"Me, too." 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 2

It's time to move on to my second big brother, Jim, actually the fifth child in our family after Pete and my three sisters. Jim was the oldest of what Mom often referred to as "the four little boys," the tail end of the line.

Before Jim was born, my mother, apparently unaware of what was coming down the road, asked God for a second son and promised to give him back to God as a minister. And so, when Jim came along, Mom and Dad named him "James Leslie," after two preachers that had been a great influence and blessing to them, James Hubbard and Leslie Fisher. Many years later, when Jim began to feel a sense of God's call on his life, Mom told him about the prayer she had prayed before his birth which God had honored and answered. Pretty cool, isn't it?

My earliest memories of Jim usually involved him losing his temper. It's hard to believe now, but Jim was a very volatile young man. He could flame up and go off in a heartbeat. So, the rest of us learned pretty quickly when to watch out and when to run for our lives. In fact, when Jim brought Bettie Jo home the first time or two, we all cringed and said, "My gosh, now there's two of them," because she had a little temper, too. But apparently, through the years Jim and Bettie Jo beat it out of each other, because no one who knows them now can imagine either one ever blowing up. I guess they tamed each other.

Like Pete before him, Jim was my Little League baseball coach for two years. Sometimes he and I would ride bikes to morning practices and sometimes Jim drove. Either way, we usually stopped by the donut shop on the way. I usually got a long john out of the deal. Then, when we got to the park, Jim would send everybody on a long lap around the tennis courts while he finished off the donuts in the dugout.

In high school, Jim played football, though he was not a big guy. He played several positions, both offense and defense, and one year he decided he also wanted to be the place kicker. Keep in mind I was just approaching junior high, dreaming of playing real football and always begging my older brothers to play with me. All of a sudden Jim began to say, "Okay, I'll play with you." I was thrilled.

We would go out in the yard and Jim would say, "Here, hold the ball for me so I can kick it." I would hold it, he would kick it as far as he could and then say, "Go get it." I'd bring it back and Jim would say, "Hold it again." He kicked it, I ran after it again. I'm embarrassed to admit how many times I fetched the ball for Jim. I just wanted to play so bad, sort of like Charlie Brown, I just kept coming back for more. By the way, Jim sucked as a kicker in spite of my best efforts.  

Some of you may recall that Jim was once a rock star, singing lead and playing guitar in a "Jesus" band in the 1970s. "Heaven Bound" then morphed into "Alpha and Omega," but they sounded pretty much the same- loud! They rewrote songs by groups like Credence Clearwater Revival and Three Dog Night, and cranked it up to full volume. Dad let them have a concert at the church in Windsor once. I still remember the dim lights, the puffy-sleeved shirts, the platform shoes, and most of all, the shocked expressions on lots of faces. But the band played on. 

When I was in high school and college and seminary, just getting started in ministry, Jim let me follow him around inviting me to come try to speak or preach. I spoke at the church Jim served in Iberia, one of my first ministry road trips. And when Jim started a new church in Blue Springs (Duncan Road Baptist Church), he and BJ were having church in their home, a two car garage converted into a sanctuary. I remember preaching with my back against the wall and about 70 people crowded into that garage for worship. It was then that I began to see what is truly remarkable about my big brother, Jim. He is an uncommon leader, visionary and determined, the kind of guy that people place their confidence in and want to follow.

Years later, I visited the new church that Jim started in St. Louis (South County Baptist Church) and I watched as his enthusiastic bunch of folks took over an elementary school, hauling in all the needed tables, chairs, and equipment to set up church every week. They even brought in two huge air conditioners on a flatbed trailer along with a generator and lots of flexible duct work and in a matter of minutes cooled down that stifling gym for summertime worship. Now, what kind of leadership inspires that kind of effort? Jim's kind.

Jim has also set an example of how a leader handles unjust criticism and unchristian behavior on the part of those who should know better. Trying to lead in Baptist life in these days of mistrust and polarization is generally a losing proposition. Jim was able to give his very best to Missouri Baptists and to walk away with his integrity intact and his conscience clear. And as you might expect, Jim continues to invest his life in a variety of ways, making a difference for the Kingdom.

As Larry Norman, another Jesus rocker from the 70s, put it, "I been knocked down, kicked around, but like a moth drawn to the flame, here I am, talking 'bout Jesus just the same."

Now, that's a big brother, isn't it, one who has taught me much along the way. I'll still hold the ball for you, Jim. Keep on kicking.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 1

There are not many subjects that I can write about with any real sense of expertise. But it occurs to me that I may be one of the leading authorities on one thing - big brothers. Having grown up with four older brothers (not to mention three older sisters) I feel pretty well-qualified to share my perspective. You see, I didn't just have any run of the mill, average Joe, kind of big brothers. I have been blessed with four stand out, stand up guys, all of which have made my life richer and my road a little smoother. I think I better take these one at a time.

The firstborn of our family is Pete or Melvin, Jr., or as I lovingly refer to him lately as "The Old Silver Back." (He is getting old and he does have a hairy back.) Pete was a hero to me as a kid. I remember watching him kiss his girlfriend through the glass when he didn't think we could see, an important life lesson. I will never forget when Pete was my little league coach, trying to help me quit being afraid of the ball and finally resorting to throwing the ball at me, until I cried and cussed and got so mad that I stood in there and hit the ball just to show him I could. I remember being at the old country club pool in Windsor and the lifeguard, Marcia Crow, blowing the whistle at Pete telling him to stop dunking everybody. Pete picked up Marcia in her chair right off her stand and threw her into the pool. Always a rowdy, my big brother, Pete.

Later on, when Pete and Susie were married, they let me come around in the summer time. Pete showed me how to refinish old furniture and he gave me a desk that we had worked on together. I used it for years. And later still, when I decided to become a preacher, it was Pete who let me come preach at his church in Smithville. I still have the letter that I found on his desk that day, words of encouragement that I have always treasured.

I learned other things from Pete as the years went by, ministry stuff. Like how to be tough and tender, when to be a prophet and when to be a shepherd. I have seen Pete stand up to those who would distort or misrepresent the Christian faith, unafraid of being labeled or condemned, and unwilling to back down. And yet, tough as he can be, Pete has a pastor's heart. He is a master in caring for hurting people, ministering in a crisis, helping to mend broken hearts. No one does it better.

And it never was just a job for Pete. It's who he is. Pete lives it all the time, as in the tender care he gave to Susie's parents in his own home, being a son, a nurse, and a pastor to Jeff and Maude until they passed away. I'm not sure I know anyone else who could, who would do what Pete has done for his family.

Now, that's a big brother. Not perfect, and still a big target for us who love him. Pete can be a little stubborn and insensitive at times and he knows it. But, where would I be without the Old Silver Back? God bless you, big brother. You are still a hero to me.