Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thoughts on the End of Life

Recently, my son asked me a question with respect to how I felt about dying. With so many of my colleagues passing away and so many others my age who have faced the finality of life, he wanted to know what my thoughts might be about the inevitable journey that all of us will take.

Although I read the accounts of the deaths of friends, family, colleagues, classmates and fellow church members, I must admit that I have not frequently or deeply contemplated my demise. I remember the joke frequently repeated in which the preacher in the tent revival asked, at the invitation time, if there was anyone who wanted to go to heaven. All raised their hands except for one elderly man seated on the third row. “I see, sir, that you are not raising your hand,” said the preacher. “Do you not wish to go to heaven?” “Oh, yes, I want to go to heaven,” replied the man, “but I thought you were getting together a group to go right now.” I suppose those are my sentiments at the present time.

Life is a gift for which we all should be grateful. How we handle that gift composes the verses of our lives. And then there is that inner being, perhaps our conscience or the object of our faith that comprises the chorus of this song of life.

I really dislike hearing the excuses so often verbalized today as a means of not accepting responsibility for actions. If a car accident, the person at fault might say someone else cut him off. When someone gets in trouble or is involved in a crime, it’s always that “I was abused when I was a child.” Or the excuse that one came from a poor family and didn’t have the opportunities provided by a financially secure family. Not very beautiful verses in the song of life, is it?

I, too, was the son of poor parents. I recently chatted with a friend who also was a child of poor parents, but he said, “I worked hard to get through school and worked at manual labor to get through college.” The verses of these lives are composed of enduring hard times, working hard and a determination that will not allow a “give up” attitude. After all, life is like a diamond. When extracted from the ground, a diamond is a dull, irregular stone. But in the hands of an expert cutter, it becomes a beautiful work of natural art. But in order for it to become that work of art, it must be cut, not once but many times. When we face the cutter’s tool, we can be formed into a beautiful work of art, or we can allow the pain of the cut to weaken us and cause us to break, much like the diamond might crumble at a weak point.

According to Psalm 90:10, I have already reached the number of days accorded mankind. My hope is that God will permit me to live a long, happy, faithful and prosperous life, but I live, not by my own desires but His. Am I afraid to die? The simple answer is a resounding “NO!” I am not afraid to die; I AM afraid of the process.

God has not promised endless days. My most fervent wish is to be ushered into the presence of God in a peaceful and dignified manner and finally to meet him face to face.

I end with the history and lyrics of one of my favorite songs: “Goin’ Home.”

The opening musical lines are from the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's famous "Largo" theme from his Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), Op. 95. His symphony was composed while he was in America and was first performed by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893.
It has been said that Dvorak's themes in his symphony were inspired by American folk melodies, especially Black American or American Indian. But his themes are just as similar to Bohemian folk music.

"Goin' Home"was actually written by one of Dvorak's pupils, William Arms Fisher (1861-1948), who adapted and arranged the Largo theme and added his own words. This is part of what Fisher wrote in the published sheet music of his song, "Goin' Home" (Oliver Ditson Company): The Largo, with its haunting English horn solo, is the outpouring of Dvorak's own home-longing, with something of the loneliness of far-off prairie horizons, the faint memory of the red-man's bygone days, and a sense of the tragedy of the black-man as it sings in his "spirituals." Deeper still it is a moving expression of that nostalgia of the soul all human beings feel. That the lyric opening theme of the Largo should spontaneously suggest the words 'Goin' home, goin' home' is natural enough, and that the lines that follow the melody should take the form of a negro spiritual accords with the genesis of the symphony.

Goin' home, goin' home, I'm a goin' home;
Quiet-like, some still day, I'm jes' goin' home.

It's not far, jes' close by,
Through an open door;
Work all done, care laid by,
Goin' to fear no more.

Mother's there 'spectin' me,
Father's waitin' too;
Lots o' folks gather'd there,
All the friends I knew,
All the friends I knew.
Home, I'm goin' home!

Monday, March 14, 2011

What I Learned from Wash Pots

Recently I drove with a friend to view a new piece of property he had purchased. On it he had situated a travel trailer. He had also built a stand-alone bathroom/storehouse. The place is an idyllic getaway for him and his wife. He loves to hunt, and it is in the middle of prime deer territory. Quiet, peaceful, all natural--a little piece of heaven on earth.

Both of them have taken pains to decorate around the site, making it livable, warm and friendly. Old fashioned dinner bells hang from several tree limbs. A couple of feeders hearken to the birds to come and enjoy a feast. It is simply a place where they can relax, get away from the pressure of a job and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.

As we walked around the site, I noticed two decorations that were among the many on the grounds. Curiously, I asked my friend if he knew what one of them might be. He ventured a guess that it was an old cast iron pot that was used outside to cook stew or prepare chitterlings. I told him, “No,” but these kinds of pots had been employed for those purposes as a secondary use. Then I had the chance to show my age.

I explained to him that it, indeed, was a cast iron pot, but its original purpose had been to wash clothes. I explained how a fire would be prepared under the pot so as to heat water into which a family’s clothes would be placed. There, they were boiled with a strong detergent like Oxydol, Duz or even a homemade detergent containing lye. After boiling the clothes, they would be placed in a galvanized tub of cold water to rinse the detergent from the fabric. After rinsing, they would be carefully and methodically hung on a clothesline where they would be dried by Mother Nature.

Then I told him how I knew about this process. I grew up in a rather poor family. I often tell people that I wore blue jeans and drove a pickup truck when neither was fashionable. My family could not afford a washing machine or dryer, so they resorted to the cast iron wash pot. I still have my family’s wash pot to this day as a reminder of my roots.

I vividly remember during my junior high school and early high school days, that one of my chores for the week was to go out in the morning before going to school and to chop wood for our maid to use for the wash pot fire. She was paid a fairly meager sum, certainly far less than it would have cost to purchase a washer and dryer in those days. I mean, after all, gasoline was $.10 or $11 per gallon, and the price did not fluctuate from day to day like it does in our time.

Sometimes, when I might have a washing day off from school, I’d watch our maid do our clothes. This allowed me to learn how she got such a wonderful, straight, and lasting crease in my blue jeans.

After rinsing my blue jeans, she would lower them into a tub of prepared starch. I don’t know what the ratio of starch was to water, but I can tell you that, when complete, the jeans could stand up on their legs. She would swirl the jeans in the starch, slip a wire frame through the legs of the jeans and open the spring that stretched the pants legs. The frame also put a stiff crease in the front and back. She would then hang them on the line with the remainder of the clothes and allow them to dry. No one else in my school had such highly creased blue jeans.

We’ve come a long way from wash pots to washing machines. For those who enjoyed the luxury of washing machines early in life, you are to be thankful. For those of us who did not, we learned a valuable lesson—convenience is not always a good thing. It often suppresses gratitude so that we become cynical, ultimately believing that we are owed such luxuries. For those of us who grew up in the post-war era, hard work and the absence of many luxuries in life have instilled in us an appreciation for all that we are and have.

Since those days, God has blessed me more than I could have ever imagined. Would I want to go back to those days—yes and no. No, in the sense that life was hard and often unforgiving. Yes, in the sense that life was simpler, less complicated, and thus could be lived out more honestly.

I hope you, too, can look back on your life and acknowledge that you have learned from all of your experiences, good and bad. For in it all, God is preparing you for something much greater.