WHERE THE FLOWERS HAVE GONE

Much is written of honor and loss on this perennial marking of Veteran’s Day. For me, not just a casual observance.

The victorious soldier conquers not only the enemy, but the bundled tumult of bubbling fear, homesickness, escape, submission to authority and the impending bedlam. I know nothing of this, the battlefield and it’s realtime reality. I was spared from it. Internally I wished not to be in that situation, but was willing to go, yet ultimately my military service ended up stateside. I did not live for war… few did…but these brave ones whether inspired, resigned or reticent…marched on. Today, I celebrate those who did.

I also cannot forget the residual familial wreckage of the battlefield…and the avalanche of death and bewilderment in the aftermath. Today, I celebrate those who live or have lived through it.

I have lost dear friends to this disease of war. ..and today, still wonder where all the flowers have gone.

MY SWEET BABUSHKAu

I was watching traffic as I sat at a bus stop in Zelenograd, Russia, and the late October air felt crisp and chilly. All of a sudden I felt these little hands rubbing against my shirt. I turned my head, and there she was, a beautiful 90 -year old babushka (grandmother) smiling at me. “Where is your coat?” My dear friend, Marla translated her question for me. “You are going to get very cold,” she went on. She rubbed my arms and smiled. It took me no time to put my arm around her and she cuddled right up next to me. I joked, “Mother didn’t catch me before I got out of my apartment.” She chuckled as she heard my translated reply. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my yearly trip to Russia.

I cannot begin to tell you about all the precious people I met in my short 11-day stay. Musicians from all over Russia and beyond journeyed from Norilsk, Omsk, Siberia, Atyrau, Kazakhstan, Astana, Kazakhstan, Chisinau, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Yaroslavl, Russia to name just a few. Some flew for three hours or drove for a day and a half to participate in the RussiaWorship Conference. The event was hosted by the founders of RussiaWorship, Gerry and Marla Schroeder.

The Russians are a hearty people, and in the urban centers have grown up with buses, trains and a whole lot of walking. I know this first hand, because the first day I visited the city center of Moscow and literally walked for 5 hours with additional bus and train rides. I could see the influence of the World Cup being held there, because most every major site and public transport were in both English and Russian. This was not so in previous years when I visited.

We hear so much about Russia in negative terms, but there is a major difference between political action and the actual citizenry. The welcoming spirit and kindness shown to me was persistently overwhelming. I think of my sweet friends, Kristina and Dima, who took Bob Clark and me to their home. We had the most restful and delightful time in their beautiful apartment. We talked of their life there, of family, of dreams we had for the future and our mutual love of God. I don’t know how it could have been a better day spent for me. At the conference, there was so much love shown to me as I spent time listening and exchanging ideas with the unbelievably gifted creatives.

It was the little things that meant so much, like the bar of chocolates from Tatiana. Tatiana is a wonderful musician, marathoner, translator, and pastor now living in Minsk. I have known her for years and she and her family have become so dear to me. She came to me and said, “Would you give this bar of chocolates to Pam., do you think she would enjoy it?” without hesitation I replied…”Does it get dark at night?” I gave her a most thankful hug. It’s these moments that being me back. These eager young writers, musicians and artists are so willing to listen and become more proficient. However, they don’t realize it is the US team who are the beneficiaries of their input as well. A glorious give and take to be sure. And how could I forget my brilliant interpreter, Marsha (Mahsha) Vikhrova. I can’t thank her enough for all she did for me.

I am never the same person I was upon my arrival, as I am when I leave. Looking out the window of the airplane on my way back home, I knew this. I need no language skills to love these kindly hearts…. and oh, my sweet “babushka…. Dasvidaniya.

A BEAUTIFUL PLACE

What a beautiful evening it was!!!! “For King And Country” was playing at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and My daughter, Sarah and her husband Damian and all three of their daughters came with me to hear this truly gifted group. Luke and Joel Smallbone with a great supporting band and brother, Daniel’s awesome light-show were indeed a tour de force. The experience was a feast of great songs , percussive, power and a light show that continually transported you to fascinating emotional images smartly serving the storyline. It was an evening of theatrical contrast and messages of relevant spiritual import. I watched my daughter and her children, the row of young girls in front of us, probably in college, all transfixed on that stage.

I was so graciously given six tickets from the group’s father, David Smallbone. Our families have a history that extends back to when they first arrived here from Australia. We have really not seen each other a great deal since the early days , but have continued to love them from a distance. This familial entourage has become one of the most influential voices for young Christians…. but it didn’t start out that way.

David was offered a music industry job in America and the whole family (now seven children) packed up to move with him. Unfortunately, the job soon fell through. With no money to return to Australia, the family began to do odd jobs together such as cleaning houses. Through the next two years, they lived on prayer and not much else. Someone gave them keys to a van and another person paid the bills for the youngest Smallbone child, Libby, to be born in a hospital. It was during this time of duress that our families intersected with each other.

This clan, like the Phoenix, literally has risen from the ashes through perseverance, hard work and listening to the voice of the Lord. One of my bible study buddies, Rod Huff worked with them on the film, “Priceless.” He told me he has never encountered more hard working people in his life. This film on human trafficking was greatly funded by the Smallbones and they acted in the production as well.

The oldest Smallbone sister, Rebecca St. James was the first of the family to rise to national attention in the Contemporary Christian genre. Both Rebecca and For King and Country have been awarded all manner of Grammy, Dove, gold and platinum status. However, it has never been an award that drives them…it is their belief in the message of faith they bring.

In their concert they uphold the dignity of women, challenge the men to respect women, and are extremely vulnerable as they talk about issues of addiction and redemption. I couldn’t wish for my granddaughters to hear anything more important in this stage of their lives than what was spoken at this concert. We sat there, three generations of us, absolutely engaged by the presentation. That in and of itself speaks volumes to why this group remains so successful.

Their story of trials and accomplishment reminds me of a Wayne Watson lyric I love so well.

(From “A Beautiful Place”)

And the unspoiled beauty of the wisdom of God

Lies in the wilderness

Up there beyond the easy reach

Where the journey takes a little more faith I guess

Mistakes and misfortunes will come and go

But to try and to fail, it’s no disgrace

Sometimes a rough and a rocky road

Can take you to a beautiful place.

I’M NOT TELLIN’

A “tell” in poker is a change in a player’s behavior or demeanor that is claimed by some to give clues to that player’s assessment of their hand. A player gains an advantage if they observe and understand the meaning of another player’s tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable. Pam has a “tell.”

“Honey, I wanna talk to you about something.” That’s the phrase she uses on me. I’m talking about when there is something not good about to happen. That phrase is, “the tell…for me. It’s more scary to me than an ending of a Stephen King novel, and it always happens about the same way too. She comes over to me and sits right next to me with stuff in her hand. The evidentiary nails for my coffin. Today it was an envelope, some papers and a credit card.

“Honey” (She always uses the word “honey” to help soften the blow…or possibly to set me up for greater impact… like the moment the bullfighter lifts his “espada” to deliver the “coup de grâce.”)

“Honey, you remember that we had to get new credit cards made because businesses couldn’t read the magnetic strip on your card and had to type them in. “Uh huh.” “Well,” she continued, “I called the credit card company, had those cards re-issued and I asked you to sign yours? “Uh huh.” So far so good..I’d signed the card like she asked. “Yah, I took care of all of that.” Pam spoke quietly as she continued.

“Yes, you did. Greg. You took care of it all right,” her voice mounting in volume. “Unfortunately you signed your name on the magnetic strip….and not the strip you were supposed to sign. I tried the card and it’s ruined, Greg. And what did you do with the attachment with the number to activate the card?” Telling her that throwing it in the garbage might have been a little hasty oversight on my part certainly didn’t quell the storm whatsoever.

Greg, why is it SO difficult for you to complete a simple household task. What’s worse, you keep making excuses for all of it. Like the time you told me you had something wonderful to show me, and tried to convince me you were trying to redesign the two new blouses I had just purchased as nouveau “tie dye” designs because you had mistakenly poured bleach into the washer instead of soap. Then you had the audacity to say, “Well, everybody makes a little mistake now and then.” “Exasperated, she went on ”Well that may be true for some, but for you its never just a little mistake and never “now and then”…IT’S CONTINUAL, GREG!!!!!

Two weeks ago, you didn’t put any soap in the washer and tried to talk your way out of it by saying it was an unfortunate error…well it was unfortunate 2 more times after that. When I was laid up in the chair with my broken ankle, all my flowers that you were supposed to water… died…and you started singing “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” to try and make me feel better. I didn’t feel better…I just wanted to tear my hair out and curl up in a fetal position.”

She always knows when something’s up….she has this “Greg’s done something” radar thing going, and I can’t get anything by her. It’s like living with Perry Mason and a psychic all in one body.

I do have to say, that she always comes to me and says, “You know I love you, right? It’s just that some days are harder than others.” Then she gives me a kiss. I love that part. It is a very necessary moment for me. Somehow, one of the pots Pam is using for a garage sale this Saturday has kind of a little bitty crack in it…….. I’m not tellin”.

MORE THAN THIS LIFETIME

Last weekend, Bob Farrell and I traveled to New York City for the Carnegie Hall performance celebrating the 25th Anniversary of “Saviour.”it was lovely.

As we drove into Manhattan from the LaGuardia Airport, I asked our Nepali Uber driver what his country was like. He told me that Nepal was a much quieter and simple life. He went on to say that there was a strong Nepali component in the Jackson Heights, Queens section of New York. Many Nepalese fled to Queens between the mid-1990s and 2006 amid the bloody, decade-long Maoist insurgency that led to the abolition of the country’s monarchy. Most of the people who fled seeking political asylum were young and came without their families. Buddiss, our driver was one of those who fled. Is amazing what you learn in a short ride to your hotel.

I loved the meld of culture you experience in an urban environment. It is a very beautiful sight. You are immediately overwhelmed by the explosion of extraordinary accomplishment, historically, artistically and industrially. Wow!!!

In the teeming drift of faces I saw all manner of expressions and intensity. The New Yorkers do have the edge you hear about, but even in the brash continuum I met some very kind and loving people in delis, shops and among hotel staff. Oh sure, there is the dark side. I know that all too well. I was stationed in the Army at Ft. Hamilton in Brooklyn. Once, in the middle of the day, on a busy sidewalk, in front of God and everybody, I got mugged by a 12 or 13 year old boy who pressed a knife right up into my shoulder blade and told me he would cut me if I didn’t give him my billfold. He was just a little guy, but as he held the knife in his very nervous hand… he had a streetwise voice and sense about him, so I gladly, and most hurriedly relinquished it to him. He simply scampered off. Not a happy experience.

I saw a myriad of cameras in the hands of tourists taking pictures of famous buildings and famous landmarks. It got me to thinking. How enamored people are with famous and important people. I know I like taking my picture with people I admire. Ray Charles has a great quote that has made me take a step back from my instant t to saddle up for a picture with fame. He said, “I never wanted to be famous…just great.” Great at what he did without fame driving him.

One of the most profound milestone events in my life was hearing Father Brennan Manning, the author of “Ragamuffin Gospel” at a private conclave for some high visibility artists and producers in the late 90’s. As he addressed the attendees, he said something that I would not understand until later. He spoke of a universal problem we all had. “I feel sorry for you.” He paused and then continued. “Most of you have three cancers. One is money, two is power and three is significance. “You may not understand now, but by your mid fifties you will”. He told us that we were the recipients of so much attention and marketed as a commodity with tremendous access to comfort, that we were unable to see the discomfort of others. And even if we could get a glimpse it, we were too busy being successful to do much about it.

My head was spinning and I was confused. I thought I was doing a good thing writing and producing the message of Christ and His kingdom. It was as Manning predicted, not until I was in my fifties, did it become clear to me how little I fully understood what I was writing. It was in this season of my life I began to truly understand that nothing I have is mine. Nothing I have done is about me. It is God’ and God’s alone. Oh I could say that…I sure did…but I really didn’t get it.

I began to realize how powerful my secretive love of significance was. I would stand in front of people and tell them I wanted to give all glory to Jesus, and I was really sincere about it in that moment..…but three days later, if my name was not given credit for something I thought I deserved….the Strong Man rose up in me and demanded his pound of flesh. I discreetly kept silent…but I wanted credit. You can never know what is in the heart of people. God does.

I don’t want to make it sound like I got everything figured out just then either…my life is a mess in so many other areas that’s it’s going to take more than this lifetime to sort it all out.

I FEEL MUCH BETTER NOW

“Well just don’t do anything then” was Pam’s advice to me the other day when I hit a dead end on a blog I was writing. The bulk of the thought was complete but I couldn’t close it. “You don’t HAVE to be doing something all of the time.” (Really…REALLY!!! …..well just tell that to my DNA/ADHD advisory board)

I told her I was writing a blog post and was having trouble completing it. It was like my brain just “shut down for vacation” and decided not to let me finish. I was in a twit, and Pam knows when that happens, I get restless. “Just calm down and it will come to you.” I knew she was right…but it gets a little annoying for me…I mean that part where she’s always right part. I was reminded that Hemmingway rewrote the last page of “Farewell To Arms” 39 times. Well I’m not remotely in the same universe as that great author, and I was well past 39 times. It is so frustrating to write even a simple email, much less a post for me. Some people are really prolific, quick witted and brainy…. I just plod along like a scatty turtle.

It’s next to impossible for me to slow down. I love discovering things, meeting people, listening to music, podcasts and creating stuff. I can’t write about anything I’m not absolutely passionate about. I use the speech function on my computer to read back to me what I’ve written, and if I get bored listening…. It’s rewrite, tweak, rewrite, tweak and rewrite again.

Well….I took Pam’s advice and went up to my writing room and played a couple games of Madden Football on the “Rookie” (easiest) setting. I picked the best team to play the weakest team and let a little steam out by beating the poo-poo out of that poor crummy team. It’s so cathartic and fulfilling in such a beautifully hostile way. All that to say, that didn’t last very long so I started talking to myself and saying, “Okay Greg just sit here for a moment and be calm like Pam does it…. restful quiet and reserved. I really started to get the hang of it …for about 20 seconds, give or take a few and immediately rediscovered something I‘ve always known.

IT DOES NOT WORK…THAT DOES NOT WORK AT ALL FOR ME!!! I AM NOT PAM!!! I WILL NEVER BE PAM!!!!! PAM IS NORMAL!!!! GREG IS NUTS!!!!! (Deep breath)

I feel much better now that I let that out. Cheers!!!!

WHAT LOVE CAN DO

I love my friends. ….friends from every corner of life perspectives and persuasion. Each person gives me great joy, and I could not live without them. They are God given gifts to me…. even if they don’t believe there is a Gift Giver. Precious all….each wonderfully made.

I post this poem in an effort to make sense of all of the “noise“in the world fracas. There is no guile in any word of it. Please don’t take this as an invitation to share political beliefs. That is not the purpose of this post.

I would like to qualify the word “love” to which I refer in the following poem.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

WHAT LOVE CAN DO

In the fields of civic rabble

War has broken friendship ties

Truth, whose truth, the whipping question

Battles rage for cause and rights

Individuation mounting

Hating clouds form hanging rope

Mortal wisdom, helpless midwife

Birthing yet more stillborn hope

Children mimic spurious notions

Faulty syllogistic ruse

Change becomes a weakened whimper

Now let’s see what Love can do

Souls from towers, backwood hollers

Many poised to swing the sword

Some use angry poet’s skill with

Wounding demonizing words

Tightly holding to perfection

Ancient bane to what is good

Will we ever come together

Know respect that’s understood

See how tribalist increasing

Separate us more and more

How does one restore a oneness

Never truly one before

Eloquence and worlds of insight

Cannot change the resolute

Attitudes the only locksmith

Now let’s see what Love can do

Now let’s see what Love can do

A poem by Greg Nelson

Poppie’s Hallel