Focus on the Lilies

Sunday Morning: We’re at a little church that we’ve visited several times lately. It’s really just a big country church. They’re a friendly bunch and just good people.

Nothing fake here.

There is one problem, however. And I hate to bring it up.

But …

There are several pieces of artwork on either side of the front wall, on both sides of the pulpit. It’s some kind of metal ironwork with curves and circles.

Actually, it’s a common symbol found in churches. The symbol is a fleur de lis, which is a fancy word for a lily. You’ll recognize it as the symbol that the New Orleans Saints NFL football team uses.

Geaux Saints!

Sometimes churches use the fleur de lis to refer to the Virgin Mary, or to the Holy Spirit, or as a symbol of the Trinity.

But the lily, per se, isn’t the problem.

The difficulty here is worthy of a Sunday-afternoon-long congregational meeting to discuss. Naps would be missed, football games unseen, and meals uneaten.

So, here it is – the big problem:

When I try to focus my eyes, from our pews in the back of the auditorium, the lilies are all just a blur.

I’ve tried to focus, but my eyes get tired and I lose track of the sermon.

I mean, we love the people here and everything. They do lots of awesome stuff – sending medical help to mission fields in Central America.

I just wish they could get the lilies to focus.

I suppose if I believed, as did Augustine, that there were hidden meanings (allegories) behind every chair, tree, or lily, I might think there’s a message here.

I’d thought about asking around in the congregation to see if there was an optometrist who might be able to explain this unfortunate discrepancy with the obviously ill-conceived artwork, but never got around to it.

It’s really distracting!

The preacher is really good and actually elicits thoughts and questions. But just 8 feet on either side of him are out of focus lilies crying out for clarity.


Maybe it’s just my aging eyes.

I’ve been known to see things that weren’t there before and to completely misunderstand the meaning of things.

And sometimes life changing events can overwhelm me and make me unable to see clearly.

And it can be painful.

Sometimes these out of focus events come to me in an early Sunday morning phone call from a very upset brother yelling that our mom has just gone.

And I can’t see clearly.

Or late-night call from a distraught sister that that same brother is suddenly gone.

And I can’t see clearly.

Or a frantic call from a daughter that she was just in a wreck, but she’s okay, but that she’s gotta go because the ambulance is here.

And I can’t see clearly.

I need clarity.

So, today at church, we sit a little closer to the front.

Trust me, it was only because we were late. This would never happen on a normal day when there were perfectly reasonable empty seats in the back of the auditorium.

And there it is again.

Staring at me indignantly and out of focus.

The Artwork.

The fleur de lis.

The Lily.

But, because I’m closer, I see the Lily better.

It’s casting a thin shadow on the wall behind.

Which, from a distance, makes all of them out of focus.

No optometrist needed.

But, at this distance…

At this closer distance…

I can make out the shadows behind each curve.

And it all makes sense to me now.

And I see clearly the metal lily apart from the shadows it casts upon the wall.

It’s a good thing that I don’t really believe in hidden meanings and such.

But the view from here absolutely makes the Lily a little easier to see.

And sometimes the pain gets more bearable.

I’ve never really paid much attention to lilies.

But, today they clearly look beautiful.


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Matches from Mother Russia

Not long after we got married, my bride started to light a candle. She had a little book of American made matches, which she didn’t know how to operate.

To be fair, she had never seen a book of paper matches in her life. She got a little discombobulated and began yelling at me in Russian.

“AMERICAN! What are these things?”

Or something like that.

“Where are the matches?” she demanded. “This is garbage. Is this some kind of joke?”

Or words to that effect.

Her face was soviet red.

I paused and measured my words carefully.

“Let me see what you doing sweetheart.”

I took the book of matches, tore one out of the book, folded the book over the match, lit the match, and then the candle.

“See, honey. It’s simple. “Prosta!”

I imitate a guy on a Sprint cellphone commercial that I’d recently seen that played on the Russian word for simple.


“You’re probably used to the wooden match…”

She stormed off mumbling something about her grandmother being right about the poor Americans who lived under bridges.

I remind her that we are most certainly not living under a bridge.

Sure, the house had horribly green carpet, but we had a roof and such.

She continues her stomping and such.

Two years later…

Eventually, her parents made their way to the land-without-wooden-matches.

As her mother unpacked her suitcase, she unloaded approximately 10,800 boxes of Russian made wooden matchsticks.

Which, is a lot of matches.

My bride had convinced her mother that the poor Americans – in addition to having no taste in carpet – couldn’t produce a simple matchstick. Russians apparently did not use the lowly and prosta paper matches.

I’m not bragging or anything, but I’ll just add right here that we did beat the Soviets to the moon.

And we do make wooden matches, thank you.

We also make the paper kind in a little book. But, I’ll never experience the joys of using them again because I have about 10,799 boxes of Russian fire-starters left to go through.



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It’s a long way to Miami

I am driving into the main front gate at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

On a rare occasion, when the lines are backed up to St Louis, they’ll open additional lines to allow the peasants into work.

They’re considerate like that.

But sometimes I take a back route into the east gate, just to avoid the joy and excitement of waiting in lines.

The downside is that the east route is basically a twisting pig trail designed by a sadistic civil engineer with a love of roller coasters with a little asphalt for fun.

Crazy dangerous.

So, going to work is a choice between risking my life on a Deliverance themed highway or waiting in line until lunchtime.

Hard choice.

So, yesterday afternoon I am driving back into Post when I see a car stopped in the exit lane.

Three guys are standing nearby.

Which is dangerous.

So, I am curious. Why in the Sam Hill are three guys stopped in the exit lane from Fort Leonard Wood?

They all have cameras in their hands taking a photo of something on the ground.

I look closer.

There is an armadillo on the road lying in the position that all armadillos naturally assume.

They were taking a picture of a dead armadillo.

Let me say that again: they’re taking a picture of a dead armadillo.

I don’t know why.

Maybe they’d never seen such an interesting creature before.

Maybe they’re from Manhattan.

I only wish I’d turned around and asked. But really, who wants to add to the excitement of taking a picture of a dead armadillo?

There could be riots.

Last week, on the way back home for the weekend through southern Missouri, I met up with a bobcat.

For some reason, he decided to charge my diminutive Prius while I was doing nothing more than listening to my iPhone play a little Allman Brothers.

Who knew that Bobcats hated Toyotas.

Or the Allman Brothers.

Maybe he thought the Prius was a natural enemy encroaching on his territory and he could eliminate the threat in one fell swoop.

His swoop failed and quickly became soul brothers with the armadillo.

Unfortunately, in the process of taking out the enemy Prius, he caused a considerable amount of damage to the vehicle.

Which isn’t particularly hard to do with disposable cars.

Which leads me to my third point about roadkill.

When we were getting married, I drove to Miami to pick up my bride, who was flying in from Moscow.

When her dad bought the tickets for her, I am guessing that he had no geographical awareness of the United States.

And he surely didn’t realize that they put Miami at the bottom of Florida.

Or, maybe he did…

Anyway, I should have told her to fly into Atlanta.

On the way back to Mobile, we drove through the lovely retirement state. She couldn’t help but notice the incredible number of dead creatures littering the roadside.

Florida, you really need to get some buzzards or something.

Anyway, after a few weeks of diving back to Mobile, she spoke up abruptly after hours of spying the roadside:

“Pumpkin. That one was alive.”

Cute that she noticed that.

I assured her that it wouldn’t be for long.

As I pulled into my neighborhood today, I see the remnants of one of God’s creatures in a pancake position.

Never once considered taking a photo.



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Pool frogs and the joys of dislocated discs

Searcy Athletic Club: I am sitting on the couch in the lobby.

Normally, I’d be upstairs working out – in the very limited manner that I do.

My Bride is upstairs in the exercise (i.e., torture) class.

Disgustingly healthy people are passing by me with their fru fru water on the way to the weight room, racquet ball, or one of the classes (i.e., torture room).

They look at me smugly as they sashay by.

Maybe I remind them of a mangled car wreck.

It sure looks that way by their looks.

Meanwhile, one of my lower back disks is continuing to press upon the sciatic nerve going down my left leg like, well, like they do when they aren’t content to stay in place.

And it all happened this time because of a frog.

And I don’t even like them.

These little green guys love to swim in our pool. Problem is that when they are finished swimming, they can’t find their way out. And eventually, they are pushed over to the skimmer where they drown.

Along with the other thousands of insects.

Seems strange for a frog to drown.

Sometimes I find rats in the skimmer.

I don’t want to see the frogs die.

I don’t mind rats dying.

Sometimes I find the frogs before they drown.

It’s always a nice surprise to look into your skimmer and find frogs still croaking.

So, on this unfortunate occasion I checked the skimmer and there he was. A goodly sized bullfrog who still had a few breaths in him.

I’ll call him Mr. Green.

“Give me at outta here,” gasped Mr. Green.

I obliged and lifted the skimmer. Water poured out revealing a plethora of deceased insects. If only we had had the pool when my daughters were collecting bugs for their eighth-grade science class. But I digress.

I empty the contents of the skimmer onto the grass as I normally do and Mr. Green falls to the grass. He was bloated with pool water of course, but he was still alive.

He hadn’t croaked.

Well, he couldn’t really croak with all that water inside him.

Here’s the fun part; I squatted down and inspected Mr. Green.

He seemed okay.

Well, besides being 12 times his normal size because of the water.

Then I abruptly turned to my right, while still in the squatting position, and felt and heard the sound of crunching cellophane crumpling.

That was my spine.

About .02 seconds later the pain arrived.

I could not walk, or do much of anything else. Except for writhing in pain.

Because I had my cell phone with me I called my daughter who was merely a few feet away inside the house.

She rushed outside to see me in an unfortunate state of agony. Since then: lots of pain, physical therapy, and a few surgical consults.

So, until I get better, I’ll stick to the lobby couch while the bride works out in the torture chamber upstairs.

No word on the whereabouts of the waterlogged Mr. Green but I have a contract out on his family.



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Hershey the Wonder Dachshund

In a few seconds, she’ll be asleep.

She’s lying in my lap all snuggly and warm. Wait – there she goes – fast asleep.

Hershey, our newest addition, is a full-blooded mini Dachshund.

And by full-blooded, I mean temperamental, lazy, and loves to snuggle.

And is ALWAYS hungry.

Oh, and she’s pretty smart too.

She takes several naps every day and has no apparent plans to cut back.

I drove to Georgia to get her.

My oldest daughter scoured the Internet for months to find the perfect mini dachshund.

And apparently, the perfect Dachshund was 600 miles away in south-central Georgia.

On the way there, I drove through Plains, Georgia. I figured I would never get a chance to do that again so why not?

Who knew there weren’t perfectly acceptable Dachshunds in Arkansas?

On the way there, I drove through Plains, Georgia. I figured I would never get a chance to do that again so why not?

It’s certainly not on my usually traveled path.

Americus, Georgia was nearby. I’ve always liked that name for a town.

For as long as we have been married, we’ve had a dog – 24 glorious years. That’s a lot of dog years.

First, there was Snoopy. Snoopy was a girl. I explained that Snoopy was a boy, but my Russian bride was set on the name Snoopy. So it was Snoopy.

I acquired Snoopy I (yes, there were subsequent Snoopies in our family) from a guy in Theodore, way out in the hinterlands of Mobile County actually. But I had to go through Theodore to get there. She made the move to Arkansas with us but then she was stolen. We were sick about this for months.

Snoopy made the move to Arkansas with us, but then she was stolen – twice actually.

We were sick about this for months.

I (kind of) remember the first dog my dad brought home. He was a Chihuahua and he was in my dad’s front shirt pocket. At least that’s what I remember. Because we lived on a busy road, one that’s even busier these days, not many pets lived long at the Swann house.

I’ve witnessed my share of dogs getting run over on Celeste Road. And now my sister tells me that they’re turning it into a 5 lane mega road. I can imagine the number of dogs that it’ll claim in the future.

I’m hoping Hershey will never have to deal with that kind of danger. She does stay outside some, but we live in a quiet subdivision.

The real dangers are hawks and owls.

Plus most of the time she’s lying next to me or another of the Swanns fast asleep, probably dreaming about her next meal.

I’m glad you’re here Hershey.


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The Assumption of Ignorance

The Letter from James chapter 3 paints a dramatic picture of the tongue.

It is a little guy, but it is some kind of powerful. You’ve probably heard lots of lessons from this chapter. Watch your tongue – watch what you say.  Etc. It reminds me of the last verse of a well-known children’s song:

O be careful little mouth what you say O be careful little mouth what you say There’s a Father up above And He’s looking down in love So, be careful little mouth what you say

I have personally been blessed with opportunities in my life to demonstrate my maturity and keep my mouth shut in many circumstances.

And I’ve failed miserably every time.

I’d like to share a stellar example of the lack of control over this little tongue of mine.

Dr. Constantine is the director of the International Bible Society in St. Petersburg. Well, he was in 1992 anyway.

As you can imagine they have lots of Bibles at the IBC. In 1992, Christianity was being reborn (sort of) in Russia. I was a part of a group of missionaries in northern Russia.

One of our challenges, like all missionary efforts, is to provide Bibles.

Inna, my Russian translator (at the time), and I traveled to St. Petersburg to acquire Bibles and then have them shipped back to her hometown. We couldn’t just order them from Amazon and have them delivered. There was no kind of system in place for that at the time. At least not in Russia anyway. They would eventually arrive by train many weeks later.

We found the office of the International Bible Society in St. Petersburg, went inside, and found Dr. Constantine. He was a very distinguished looking gentleman.

Because we were in Russia, I assumed he didn’t speak English.

Was that smart?

No. No, it wasn’t.

We met and began the discussions for the Bibles. I would say something, and Inna would translate.

This is important: Sometimes, I’d mutter something to her softly, not really meant for translation.

This went on for 30 minutes or more. I wish I could remember everything I said. We managed to negotiate a price of approximately $0.80 per bible.

Following our discussions about the bibles, we sat at a table inside the room stacked full of bibles. Inna continued to translate whatever I was droning on about.

I asked her to get the director’s name and contact information. He pulled out a card, wrote on it, and handed it to me. His information was written in plain English.

Let me say that again.

It was written in PLAIN ENGLISH!

I searched my mind quickly to see if I’d insulted him or said anything else that would not be representative of Jesus. I could think of nothing then nor now – years later.

I stopped everything and looked at him for a long second.

“How long have you been speaking English?” I asked softly.

“Ah, years. I don’t know exactly,” was his approximate reply.

He was content to allow me to go on rambling and having Inna translate for me all the while understanding everything I said in my shaky Alabamian English.

It all made sense to me in an instant. This man is a scholar. He speaks and writes and reads Russian, Greek, and Hebrew. So, why not English too?

I stopped making assumptions about the language abilities of people after that.

And found a bigger appreciation of simple little songs.

So, be careful little mouth what you say.


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War Storm – A Short Fiction Tale

The winds picked up outside of the barracks at Fort Louis.

Captain Roger Greenwood, a Tennessee Army Guardsman, reclined on a worn leather sofa in the day room in the dilapidated Vietnam Era barracks.

His soldiers sat around; some on the phone with their girlfriends or mothers.

Most of the men played games on their smartphones. They’d just returned from a deployment assignment in Afghanistan and were happy to be almost home.

Roger looked up for a moment as the wind whistled through the eaves of the barracks. For a few minutes he dreamed he was back home in Tennessee; the East Tennessee mountains– at his daughter’s school…

As he dozed, he found himself glaring through the dirty truck window of his 2001 Chevy Silverado trying to recognize the flags in front of his daughter’s school. His truck radio blared something about a tornado warning. But he was in a hurry and usually ignored what he called “panic warnings.”
Man, I hope the guys are all OK in this mess, he thought.
He was at school to have lunch with his 10-year-old daughter, Rochelle. The snap of the flags was louder, and he turned to stare and shook his head at the insane world he left behind in Kabul.
The school flags waved as the wind picked up more.
The crooked smile of Ms. Wrangler, the school secretary, met him as he entered the front office. He wondered how such a sour person had landed a job working with children.
“Here to see Rochelle for lunch.”
She ignored him and went back to bidding on a cherry-red Chevy Tahoe on eBay.
 Roger scribbled his name on a puke-green visitor’s tag and stuck it to his shirt pocket. He started down the hall. It should have taken less than two minutes. He felt dizzy and slammed into the wall next to a Crayon rendition of George Washington, steadying himself until he could walk straight.
“Good grief, Roger! Are you drunk?” he whispered to himself.
There was only silence where instead a cacophony of children’s voices should have drowned out his footsteps.
Where is everyone? Roger wondered.
The only sound was that of Moonlight Sonata being played over a boom box in the lunchroom.
He walked back toward the front office. But Ms. Wrangler was gone. And where was Rochelle?
Roger headed for the exit. The sunlight steadied his confusion. He sat on a concrete bench just outside the front door. As he looked over the lawn, he saw the school flag waving in the still air.
A moment later, the sound of automatic gunfire rattled him. A live round grazed his head as he retreated to the closest piece of earth he could find. Thoughts of his daughter’s elementary school faded. It was the Afghanistan he had left weeks earlier.
Yards away, the earth exploded, sending a horizontal shower of crystallized molten metal and dirt. Roger prayed that the shrapnel wouldn’t find its way to his legs. His prayer wasn’t answered favorable.
He saw a cinder-block building to the north, checked for more approaching fire, mentally calculated the distance, and he sprinted to the closest building and dove through an open window.
The floor was carpeted with shattered glass. Blood seeped from his wounds. When the shelling stopped, he heard cries. He searched for a radio to call for a medic.
He heard another whispered whimper. A moan. And a sharp cry of pain.
Atop the pole, the flag stopped moving.
And then there was silence. He combed his right hand through his hair, bent over, and rested his head in his hands. He wanted to go back to the school’s front door. But no one was there. The screams reminded him of a train engine. Pain shot through his legs, and he inched closer to the cries.
He awoke as a large tornado ripped through the base.
In the day room, all of his soldiers were relaxed, sprayed out on the floor, and dying to get out of Fort Louis and back home.
The intensity of the storm picked up outside the remodeled Vietnam-era barrack. The holes in the walls whistled. And then the winds stopped; the flag clung to the side of the pole, lifeless. The TV was silent and in several pieces.
A Fort Louis fireman reached the Captain first. His body was a bloody mess.
“Over here,” he shouted.
Two more first responders crawled over splintered couches and assorted furniture.
The broken bodies of most of the soldiers were scattered to the four corners of the post.
Three were never found.
“Hold tight, Captain. We’re gonna get you out of here.”
Before retreating back into the gray Mississippi sky that spring afternoon, the twister plowed through most of the adjacent counties leaving a scene reminiscent of a distant and brutal war.
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