Some Assembly Required

If there’s ever a contest to rate foreboding phrases, my entry would be “Some Assembly Required.” Those three words sometimes cause my blood pressure to rise. How high it goes depends on the number of parts.   

My latest trying experience was assembling a small gas grill, a bargain I miraculously discovered online for $97. Some folks spend untold hours and their children’s inheritance in pursuit of the perfect cooker. For me it only took minutes. I sorted a gazillion options by price, then clicked on the cheapest one before the sale ended. I’ll admit, however, being a tad suspicious of quality when the seller responded with a laughter emoji. 

FedEx delivered the grill on a Saturday. I thought the driver would need my help to unload it, but the box weighed less than a good birdhouse. Portability is a great product feature that wasn’t even mentioned in the ad.   

I’m not sure when I first became aware of the implications of Some Assembly Required. One of my earliest recollections is when Santa Claus brought our young triplets a playset with three swings, a slide, and a glider that could seat up to four kids. That was in the early part of the 1980s.

St. Nick waited until our children were asleep to toss gifts from his sleigh. Apparently, he was on a tight schedule as countless pieces were scattered across our back yard. Our neighbors, Mark Ingram and Chuck Coley, helped me put it together. We finished a little before the rooster crowed.

Our old gas grill, which is now on sabbatical, is also from that era. It was just a few years after the swing set when we brought our Patio Kitchen 8000 home. Erin, our firstborn, was not yet a teenager when she offered to take care of the assembly. I think we paid her five dollars. It’s wonderful when both parties feel good about a transaction.

That grill performed splendidly for decades. I’ve replaced the burners multiple times and may do so again one day. I love the glass viewing window and it’s body of real steel, but even with tender loving care she’s showing signs of heavy wear. The cooking grate has almost burned through in the middle, so I figured the old girl had earned a rest. She’s almost like family, so I’m not quite ready to say goodbye.   

Another adventure with Some Assembly Required came along a few years ago. I bought a piece of exercise equipment and spent about a month putting it together. It has weights and riggings for 99 musclebuilding routines thanks to 10 miles of crisscrossed cables. After two weeks of turning wrenches, I called the company for help just like the material suggested. That’s when I figured out why it had been sold as a non-returnable clearance item.

The nice lady who answered the phone couldn’t help me. She suggested I call back later, which I did several times on different days. She was always pleasant, spoke some English, and wanted to assist, but the man who might possibly be able to answer my question was never available.    

The company didn’t have any supplemental instructions, so I asked if a phone video could be made showing how to route the cables. She texted me exactly what I needed to solve the puzzle. Now the only thing lacking is someone to use it. It’s outside, too inconvenient for hanging clothes on. Plus, we already have a stationary bike in the bedroom for that.

Admittedly, my problems are often self-inflicted by not following directions. “Read all instructions before beginning assemblyis a common warning I consistently ignore. Directions also frequently suggest following the steps in order and identifying the parts. Some even recommend waiting to tighten the nuts after everything is in place. It’s hard to imagine anyone would go to that much trouble.

Assembly instructions for the new grill said it should take about 30 minutes. By doing it my way, however, I extended the completion time to two hours. The grill looks ready for a Friday night steak, but I’m wondering if the leftover parts are important. Putting things together can be frustrating.                   

Sometimes I wonder if God gets frustrated when I neglect to follow His instructions. Some Assembly Required might be appropriate on my forehead. But a line from a song helps remind me of something I’m thankful for: “How loving and patient He must be. He’s still working on me.”

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Weed Control

An August column, “The Weeds in My Garden,” compared weeds in the plant world to those which infest our spiritual gardens. A follow-up piece wasn’t planned, but I had a recurring thought that what I’d written was incomplete. It didn’t feel right to identify a problem without offering a solution.

On the Friday morning of posting that column, I read an article in Growing Georgia about advances in weed control based on genetic codes. Maybe the proximate timing of our stories was coincidental, but I wondered if it was something more. Either way, I decided to address how to deal with weeds in our spiritual gardens.

This isn’t meant to be all encompassing and may not be the best methods for spiritual weed control. I’m not offering a one-size-fits-all solution. These are mostly thought starters, something to help initiate the process if you feel the need.

The ideal approach to spiritual weed control is to not let them get started. Benjamin Franklin is credited for saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He was trying to encourage fire prevention strategies in Philadelphia, but his comment is applicable to countless situations. Rather than having to fight established weeds, our first step should be to keep them out. We do that by maintaining a healthy garden. By nurturing seeds of faith with good soil and stewardship, our gardens will have vigorous plants and produce abundant fruits.

If, however, we’re slack in our efforts to tend our gardens, the vacant spots will be filled otherwise. Weeds of the plant world are constantly looking for open spaces. Even a tiny crack in a city sidewalk will attract their attention. It’s the same in the spiritual realm. Spiritual weeds are thrilled with open fields, but they are also constantly searching for little crevices. The ideal plan includes a firm commitment to keep them out of our gardens. Exceptions always lead to trouble.   

But what should we do when a weed, or perhaps several, have taken hold? There are only three choices – embrace, ignore, or fight. Embracement is how they find their way in. It later allows them to flourish and sometimes spread far beyond where expected. When sin is embraced, there’s no cure but grace.  

Ignoring weeds is never a viable route. A friend of mine told me about sitting on a creek bank one day fishing. He was relaxed and having a wonderful time until he noticed a moccasin was resting beside him. After weighing his options, he decided to try a hasty escape. Getting up posed some risk by disturbing the snake but disregarding the moccasin would have been a more dangerous choice. Ignoring spiritual weeds is no different. They’re prone to bite rather than slither away.

Assuming we wisely choose to fight our spiritual weeds, a Barney Fife approach is worth considering. Mayberry’s beloved deputy had a memorable line he often employed about crime. No matter how insignificant the infraction, he would passionately plead with Sheriff Taylor, “Andy, we have to nip it in the bud. Nip it! Nip it! Nip it!”

Barney would project how something minor, like letting a kid ride a bicycle on a sidewalk, could lead to a life of crime. Granted, he got a bit carried away, but his tactic is perfect for battling spiritual weeds. We need to get rid of them before the roots take hold and the seeds are scattered.   

There’s another saying that seems appropriate: “Don’t ever take a knife to a gunfight.” I don’t know where I heard that, maybe from an old western. I thought about it when a high school classmate named Smitty posted a comment about my earlier column. He said he needed a tractor for his weeds, that a hoe wouldn’t do the job.

Smitty was kidding, but it caused me to think about the importance of the right equipment. No matter how good our intentions are, we can’t get rid of spiritual weeds unless we’re properly equipped. You can read more about that in Ephesians 6:11-18. It begins with, “Put on the whole armor of God.” We can’t successfully fight sin alone, but we don’t have to. God’s armor is ours for the asking.

The options for dealing with spiritual weeds are simple – embrace, ignore, or fight. Choosing isn’t complicated unless we allow it to be. It all depends on what we want to grow in our gardens.  

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I’m not a reliable source for giving advice on chainsaws. There is, however, one thing I can say with certainty: They cut much better if the chain is sharp. That’s common knowledge and probably not useful, unless you have the same bad habit I do. Sometimes I ignore what I know.  

Although I grew up on a farm, I rarely used a chainsaw until I was grown. Julius Bembry, who worked with my father for decades, took care of the occasional limbs or small trees that needed attention. He could handle a saw with such expertise it looked deceptively easy and rather enticing. Daddy, however, gave me a couple of reasons why he thought it best I leave the saw alone.

His main concern was the danger. He said even people who know what they are doing can get badly hurt. Flesh is no match for a spinning chain and trees don’t always fall where we aim. Even a limb can swat a man into Glory Land or send him in the opposite direction.   

The other reason Daddy preferred Julius have control of the chainsaw was the maintenance issue. Chainsaws can be downright ornery. Chuck Ellis, who taught a men’s Sunday School class in Vienna, shared a story years ago that’s stuck with me. Alone in the woods, Chuck was unable to crank his saw. After some frustrating pulls on the cord, he muttered a few harsh words at his nemesis. That’s when Chuck discovered he had company.

“Mr. Chuck,” said the grinning young child of a neighbor, “We’re not supposed to talk like that are we?” Chuck reminded the men in our class that we never know who’s watching, listening, and learning. We’re all teachers, whether we want to be or not. 

Julius was a skilled mechanic and machinist, while I was on the other end of the spectrum. If not for my classmate, Jimmy Summerville, I’d still be in Mr. Ottis Beard’s shop class at Unadilla High School trying to put my lawnmower engine back together. Daddy knew if I broke something Julius would be the one that would have to fix it. He thought that was asking too much and I agreed.

Thanks to Julius the saw was kept in good shape, but he would still check it over closely prior to each use. And before he pulled the crank rope, he’d feel the chain with his index finger. If the chain needed sharpening, he’d patiently put a fine edge on each tooth with a small round file.

About twenty years ago I was in our front yard sawing a felled pecan tree into pieces. I still had a long way to go when my friend, Ronnie Youngblood, pulled over to speak and see if I needed any help. I told him my saw was about to wear me out, that I might have to get Jane to take a turn. It only took him a second to diagnose the problem.

“Your chain needs sharpening,” he said as he headed to his truck to get a file. He probably spent twenty minutes getting every tooth factory sharp, plus making sure I knew how to do it right the next time. “Try it now,” he said with a knowing smile.

It was like slicing butter with a Ginsu knife. As the chain ripped through green pecan wood, satisfaction replaced futility. Sawing with a dull chain was foolish and I knew that. If Ronnie hadn’t stopped, however, I’d have kept pushing that saw instead of guiding it.

Hebrews 4:12 says the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword. It’s easy for me to look around and spot situations where God needs to cut deeply with both edges. For myself, however, I’m more receptive to His using a small paring knife for a light trimming where I suggest. Our attitude matters about such things as God prefers to work where He’s been invited. 

God’s word doesn’t need any sharpening, but He grants us free will which allows us to dull its effectiveness in our lives. A paring knife is less daunting than a razor-sharp sword, but the sword offers discernment that leads to eternal rewards. The best choice is clear but seldom easy.         

I’ve been using a chain saw lately with some regularity. More than once I’ve found myself bearing down harder than I should because the chain needed sharpening. That’s a foolish choice because I know a saw works best when the chain is sharp. But sometimes I ignore what I know.       

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Crepe Myrtles

I’ve been a fan of crepe myrtles since childhood. I’m sure there were a few of them scattered around our farming community back then, but the only ones I recall were at my grandmother’s house. Grandmama Hill had several in her back yard that were loaded each summer with colorful blooms.

There’s a lot to like about crepe myrtles. They’re not temperamental nor demanding of our attention. They even seem to thrive when completely ignored. Evidence of their self-sufficiency is found in hedge rows and along roadsides. On rare occasions we can still find them at old homesites, standing guard over an empty house or keeping company with a lonely chimney.

Crepe myrtles are sturdy too, one of the hardest woods there is. If you want to put a chain saw to a test, they are a worthy opponent. A few incisions and the chain will need sharpening or adding to the scrap iron pile. That’s firsthand information and not hearsay.

My guitar-picking buddy Gary Mixon says their wood was used to make ball bearings before metal became the standard. Whoever whittled those bearings probably went through a lot of knives, nicked fingers, and frustration. It wasn’t a good idea, I would think, to sneak up behind an intense carver trying to make quota and tap him on the shoulder.

A wide variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers reward us splendidly for our efforts, but crepe myrtles get my vote for the top spot. They offer exceptional beauty and expect almost nothing in return except space and a little pruning if one is so inclined.

On a July drive down US Highway 41 south of Vienna, I noticed two rows of crepe myrtles in full bloom lining the long driveway of some friends. I’ve driven by their home countless times over the years, but I don’t remember ever seeing such an impressive display of color.

What was especially captivating was the dark red hue of the flowers. I wondered if they were a hybrid variety or maybe a special fertilizer deserved some credit. I made a mental note to ask later but didn’t think about them again for a few days. While working in our yard one afternoon, a smile unexpectedly surfaced when I realized our crepe myrtles were adorned with the same red blossoms.

It reminded me of how easy it is to overlook the beauty and blessings which are already ours to enjoy. Sometimes we get so used to seeing what’s nearby that we take it for granted. Mickey Gilley had a hit song with a memorable line, “I overlooked an orchid while searching for a rose.” He was singing about love, but the same holds true for many things and probably always has.

Twenty or so years ago our son, Seth, was a freshman at Georgia Tech. A couple of his friends from Atlanta came with him to our part of Georgia for a weekend visit. They drove out to my parents’ home in the country late one night and were mesmerized by the quiet darkness. A black canvas sprinkled with a million twinkling stars was something I had unknowingly grown accustomed to. Familiarity had displaced my childhood awe. It took someone who lived under bright city lights to help me see what I had stopped looking for.  

Sometimes it’s tempting to think in terms of what’s lacking in our lives rather than counting the blessings we already have. The Apostle Paul said, “I have learned therefore to be content in whatsoever state I am.” Contentment begins with gratitude, I believe, or at least it’s an essential part.   

When I realized the gorgeous flowers down the road are the same as those growing in our yard, I found it quite amusing. I didn’t laugh out loud but came rather close. Now I will appreciate that beautiful scene even more each time I drive by. Those stunning red blooms are a lovely reminder not to overlook the blessings all around us. Some we can even reach out and touch.

There’s a lot to like about crepe myrtles, and that’s not something I recently decided. I’ve been a fan since childhood.             

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Routine Maintenance

It’s no secret that routine maintenance is important for almost everything we use. I’ve had multiple reminders lately, including one that’s a bit unusual. A pile of dirt is a rather unlikely thing to require attention, so I may be stretching the point a bit. Here’s what happened.

Several years ago, we needed some topsoil to fill in holes where we’d had a few trees removed. I ordered two dump-truck loads, one to use immediately and another to have when needed. We had it unloaded in a back corner of our yard where it would be out of the way. I’ve enjoyed the convenience of having my very own dirt pile. Lately, however, my shovel has begun to complain.

What was once a clean earthen mound is now covered in weeds, small trees, and vines. There’s also an impressive entryway made by a family of armadillos who built their dreamhouse in the hill.

None of that is a major challenge to deal with. I’ll use Roundup on whatever is growing and implement a relocation plan for the armadillos as soon as the zoo returns my phone calls. Those are just annoyances, but they reminded me that even dirt sometimes needs maintenance to remain useful.

A more typical example of the importance of maintenance was recently provided by my brother’s lawnmower. It was leaving a streak of uncut grass behind. That little sliver of green indicated the blades needed changing. Not all issues, however, are that easily diagnosed or resolved.

Jane and I had an expensive lesson years ago courtesy of a brown Chevrolet sedan. We had bought a 1978 Caprice from my parents when they got a new car. Our triplets were a few years old at the time, so Jane had her hands full at home. Between work, church, and community involvement I didn’t have much spare time either. Apparently, we were both too busy to check the oil.

My wife called me from Cordele one day to tell me the warning light had come on. She had immediately pulled off the road and turned the engine off. I don’t know about today’s vehicles, but back then when an oil light came on it served as an obituary notice for the motor. Our negligence was rewarded with seventeen hundred reminders of the importance of maintenance.

Checking the oil was something we understood was important, but somehow in the hectic pace of ordinary life it was overlooked. Rather than occasionally spending a few minutes taking care of the car, we had to sell our kids on the thrill of Santa bringing a new engine.

In April of 2020 I published a column titled “Cleaning Out Gutters.” It was about debris that had accumulated over a period of years in the gutters on the back of our home. The trash was out of sight, so I had a flimsy excuse. In early July of this year, we had a hard daytime rain. That same gutter was spilling water over the sides rather than through the drainpipe. The debris wasn’t as deep as before but it was bad enough to cause a problem.

Just about everything we use needs ongoing maintenance. Otherwise, it tends to become less functional and may reach the point where repairs are complicated and costly.

The same is true of faith. Our spiritual health is heavily influenced by our commitment to making it a priority. I don’t have any new ideas to share. It’s basic practices like Bible study, prayer, and being involved with a fellowship of believers. Plus being willing to serve God by serving others.   

There’s not a formula for how much time or effort should be devoted to such aspects, but I believe we know when we fall short. What’s most important is our approach. Attitude is critical when it comes to matters of faith. 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” That’s not just about money. It’s true for everything.       

When I write about faith, it’s often prompted from knowing there are areas in my life which need improvement. So, I put it on paper with hopes it will inspire me to do better. For others who share that feeling, I invite you to consider what spiritual matters in your life may warrant attention.

Evidence of neglect may be out of sight, like leaves in the gutter. Or it can be as obvious as a streak of uncut grass. The solution is the same. Faith needs routine maintenance, not just the kind measured by time but that which begins in our hearts. If a pile of dirt can lose its usefulness, so can we.

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The Joys of Mowing

In a recent column I explained how my wife became the proud owner-operator of our first riding mower. That was many years ago, but I still get emotional when I visualize her taking that little 30-inch Snapper on its debut outing. The morning sun illuminated a perfectly blue sky as she tenderly manicured our lawn, carefully trimming patches of grass and weeds to a precise height of 1.75 inches. It was a touching moment to know my days of walking behind a push mower had come to an end.   

Jane says she doesn’t mind mowing our lawn and I’m not about to question her sincerity. I think it bothers her less to cut the grass than to look at the shredded pinecones which are my trademark. Her commitment to picking up pinecones and sticks is much stronger than mine. My inclination is to mulch everything, even litter if it’s biodegradable and in the back yard. This approach is based on my commitment to the environmental benefits of mulching, something I am extremely passionate about.     

My wife has taken good care of our lawn for years and I’m grateful. Recently, however, I’ve discovered something she’s never mentioned and to which I’ve been oblivious. I was unexpectedly exposed to the joys of mowing. Jane had not told me how much fun it can be.  

Our Snapper was in a rehab program at Russ Bowden’s Home for Wayward Mowers, so I borrowed my brother’s John Deere. His knee was hurting from a fall, so I cut the grass at the farm before taking his mower to our house. I sheared about six acres in a single day, five more than my old record.

During those few hours of mowing, I found that zipping around on a zero-turn machine is more sport than work. It combines the thrills and skills of driving a go-cart with riding a horse in a barrel race. One minute I was flying down the straightaway with the wind in my face. The next moment I was spinning around a tree, seeing how close I could get without knocking my hat off.

The joys of mowing have been kept somewhat of a secret by my wife and many others. Their reasons may be valid, but it seems to me that everyone should be invited to the party. That’s why I’ve decided to organize the first ever Southeastern Lawnmower Rodeo. Lawnmower racing has been around for a while, but this takes it a step further where grass is cut in a supervised competition. Fortunately, we have a big yard so the event can be conveniently held right here on U.S. Highway 41 in Dooly County.

Rather than have hundreds of mowers show up the same day, I plan to conduct preliminary individual trials. The careful assessment of each entrant will determine eligibility for the post season clipoffs. A nominal processing fee of ten dollars is required but may be waived for hardship cases. An eight-hour period will be allowed to complete the mowing of our yard between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Judging will be based on overall lawn appearance, time expended, adherence to safety protocols, and other factors as may later be determined. There are no limitations as to how many trial runs an entrant may make. Each ten-dollar fee assures you that only your best score will be used in the rankings.

Trial runs will be limited to one per week during the summer, or two if the grass is growing especially fast. After they are concluded, we’ll narrow the field to the top 40 and schedule group competitions in four divisions of ten each with a wild card possibility.

Grand prize will be a free subscription to, 5000 points, and a tee-shirt that says, “I’M A WINNER!” All prizes for top ten finishers are guaranteed to be of inconsequential value.

It may take some time to work out the official rules of the competition. Meanwhile, unscored practice runs can be made through the end of September. No fee is required, and these won’t affect rankings in any way. Just let me know when you can mow.

Mowing can be great fun, but it took years for me to find that out. That’s why I’m dedicating my efforts and offering our yard toward promoting the rodeo. So, call now to reserve a practice time while choice slots are available. Our phone lines are open and the grass is growing. The joys of mowing await.

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The Weeds in My Garden

My father told me a story a long time ago about two farmers who lived in our community during his childhood. Daddy was born in 1923, so the setting would have been in the days when agriculture relied heavily on mules, hand tools, and hard work. I’ve forgotten the names of the men or where they lived, which is probably for the best. I’ll just call the main character Shade because that seems to fit.   

Shade had a stellar reputation for consistency in his lackadaisical approach to farming. The abundant weeds in his crops each year may have bothered him a tad, but not enough to overcome his aversion to sweat. One summer when his cotton was losing a wrestling match with nutgrass, a neighbor was passing by and saw him on his porch. He took a seat in the other rocking chair and made small talk, intrigued at how meticulously Shade was whittling a stick which would serve no purpose.  

The neighbor was hoping to say something inspirational, words of wisdom that might lead his friend to make a better effort in the fields. “Shade,” he finally said as politely as possible, “I’m not trying to tend to your business, but I believe that nutgrass is going to eat you up.”

After a thin shaving of curled cedar fell to the floor, Shade stopped rocking and laid his knife aside. He took his hat off and held it above his eyes as he squinted into the afternoon sun and gazed across his one-horse farm. “You just might be right about that,” he replied with an agreeable nod. “But it’ll have to come up here and get me.”

Whether that’s a true story or not I don’t know. It could have happened, or it may be one of those tales of unknown origin that were commonly shared at country stores. Besides offering groceries, hardware, kerosene, and S.S.S. Tonic, country stores were a primary incubator of homespun humor. Factual or fictional, either way it seems fitting to introduce today’s short primer on weeds.

There are two things about weeds that are troublesome. The first is they compete with what’s being grown. That works the same whether it’s a thousand acres of peanuts or a few tomatoes in the back yard. Weeds compete with desirable plants for everything – nutrients, water, sunshine, and even space. If they go unchecked, they’ll diminish the yield of whatever is being grown. A crop might still be made, but it won’t be what it could have been.

Another major problem with weeds is they go to seed. They love reproducing and some are more prolific than others. Palmer amaranth is the rabbit of the weed world. Pigweed, as it’s commonly known, reportedly produces up to 35,000 seeds per plant. That’s higher than even Jethro Bodine can cipher, so I won’t attempt to verify the data. If you take a close look at a mature pigweed, however, that seems about right.

Obviously, it’s critical to keep weeds out of fields and gardens in order to produce the best crop possible. But what about the weeds in our spiritual gardens? Although we understand they hinder us from producing the fruits of a vibrant faith, they are easily ignored. They compete with God for space in our hearts and lives, and like those in the plant world they spread if we don’t get rid of them. Spiritual weeds love company so much that one often opens the door for another. King David, for example, had a fling with Bathsheba then covered it up by having her husband, Uriah, killed. (2 Samuel 11)

Weeds in our spiritual gardens come in all shapes and sizes and a rainbow of colors. Some are on display for all to see while others are hidden, unknown we think, except to God. And sometimes we try to convince ourselves that He won’t take notice.

We all have some weeds to deal with, yet we tend to think the worst ones are those of someone else. The bar is set too low when we compare our gardens with those of friends or the norms of society. Those standards, however, are gaining momentum as biblical guidance loses favor.

Many times I’ve behaved like Shade and had a lack of concern about the weeds in my spiritual garden. I’ve settled for fruits which looked okay to the world perhaps, but didn’t reflect my best efforts. My prayer today is simply that I’ll do better. I’m not sure what the results will be, but here’s what I do know. It’s time to stop whittling and get off the porch.

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The Surfside Tragedy

One of the most heartrending disasters of late happened in Surfside, Florida, where a 12-story condominium collapsed on June 24th. The last information I saw reported that 98 deaths have been confirmed. What began as a rescue attempt was declared a recovery mission on July 7th.  

Every death from that horrific disaster is a tragedy, but the loss of children is always especially painful. A single casket with two sisters is not easily forgotten, nor should it be. The grief for Surfside is further compounded by a particularly agonizing factor. It could have been prevented.

There will be inquiries, investigations, accusations, and countless lawsuits for months or years. Hopefully, some of the measures taken will help prevent such catastrophes in the future. It’s too late, however, for the casualties of June 24th, and for those left to grieve.

Sometimes when death comes there’s no way it could have been avoided. That doesn’t diminish the pain of losing a loved one, but maybe it allows us to better accept it. The most troubling aspect of the Surfside tragedy is knowing it didn’t have to happen. A lack of structural integrity had been documented in 2018. The foundation was failing, but warnings were ignored.

I hope I’m wrong, but I believe as Americans we have a critical problem with our foundation. Instead of structural issues, ours is a lack of spiritual integrity. The tenets of our democracy have long reflected commonly held values of faith in a righteous God. Judeo-Christian principals were once widely embraced by most citizens and political leaders, even those not inclined toward organized religion.

That’s been changing for a while and seems destined to continue a treacherous downhill slide. The closer we get to the bottom the faster we travel and the harder it is to stop. We’ve swapped Holy Words for Hollywood as celebrities have gained idol-like status. The characters they play often promote hedonistic lifestyles and their offscreen examples are not much different. We are constantly enticed to choose temporary pleasures over eternal treasures. 

Sadly, such influence is not targeted only to adults or even to impressionable teenagers. Young children are now being swayed through innocent looking cartoon characters. Lucifer deserves to be listed in many of the production credits, but his best work is often done sublimely.   

I shouldn’t single out Hollywood, though. Entertainers of all sorts, from singers to professional athletes, offer a steady diet of coarse language, vulgarity, and live for the moment lifestyles. If someone is courageous enough to take a stand for biblical values, they’re likely to get shunned or sued or labeled a bigot. It’s become acceptable to advocate for almost anything except what’s written in God’s Word.

The entertainment industry doesn’t deserve all the credit for our shift from biblical values toward unrestrained licentiousness. Entertainers can’t lead us where we are unwilling to go. I mention them, however, because they are highly visible on the road toward low morality.  

Admittedly, our country has an imperfect past in many areas. But even during the lowest points in America’s history, there seemed to have been some threads of faith that helped bind us together. Those threads are wearing thin now and harder to find. The stitching in our collective fabric of basic decency is coming apart at the seams.

Dr. Jerry Pickard, a retired Baptist pastor and longtime friend, brought a July 4th message at Vienna First Baptist Church about the spiritual condition of America. He referenced Exodus 32:1-14 where the prayer of one man, Moses, resulted in God sparing the Israelite people despite their corruption and disobedience. If the prayer of one man caused God to spare a nation, imagine what the earnest prayers of many could do.

We can pray and walk boldly where God leads us, or we can travel the path of token efforts to avoid ruffling any feathers and subjecting ourselves to criticism. I’ve taken the easy route many times, but I’ve found some new inspiration in a sobering lesson from Surfside, Florida.

A foundation was crumbling yet warnings were ignored. And a million tears are now salted with the bitter regret of what we know. It could have been prevented.

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A Little Smoke

I went fishing with our grandson, Walt, and some other family members one afternoon in May. A bass that would have likely become the new state record broke my line and my heart. Even with the tragic loss of a trophy fish, it was a splendid outing until my wife called.

“Our side yard is on fire,” she said, more calmly than I would have expected. “I’ve been trying to wet it down, but there’s hardly any pressure. Water is pouring out from where a PVC pipe melted. I don’t think the fire will keep spreading, so you don’t have to come home.” Despite her assurances it was fine for me to keep fishing, my keen perception suggested that might not be a good idea. It was an easy decision because I knew that largemouth bass would have his lips sealed for a while.   

When I got home, Jane was in our side yard flower garden with a hose which was only yielding a trickle of water. The garden is about one third of an acre, a tree-shaded place where my wife has spent untold hours planting, pruning, and weeding. It’s full of azaleas, ferns, daylilies, and a variety of plants I can’t name. There are also some comfortable wrought iron chairs beneath an oak tree that make a great place for sipping lemonade and counting blessings.

The back half of the garden is still lovely. Looking at the scorched front though, it’s hard to believe such devastation came from what once had seemed nothing more than a little smoke.

Several days earlier, I’d gotten a burn permit. A massive sweetgum tree had toppled into the edge of the garden when Hurricane Michael came through in October of 2018. Rather than taking a conventional approach by sawing it into short pieces and hauling them off, I had an epiphany – The tree can be burned where it fell. We had added limbs, leaves, and other yard debris on top of it for two years. Most of the huge trunk lay outside the heavily strawed flower beds. It seemed like a solid plan. 

As the sun went down on the day of the burn, the fire was almost out and there wasn’t much remaining of the debris that had been piled. The sweetgum, however, still had a long way to go. There were no visible flames, only a little smoke from its smoldering underside. The source of the smoke was about eight feet from the pine straw, so I left it alone rather than drenching it with water.

Two more days went by as the sweetgum kept slowly sizzling. I watched it carefully, thinking I might add some fallen limbs and rekindle the fire. Jane and I checked it several times each day and nothing much changed. When I looked at the tree before going fishing, there were no obvious sparks or floating cinders, nothing except a hint of smoke.  

Jane went to Cordele for a couple of hours. When she returned, fire was spreading through her beloved garden. The worst loss was twenty years’ worth of plants and hard work. Incidentals included a melted water line, two hoses, and the tire on her favorite wheelbarrow.

On a personal note, if anyone has a good used tire, please get in touch with me as soon as possible. With nothing but steel to roll on, the wheelbarrow is hard to push. If Jane gets behind with her yardwork, I’m concerned it could adversely affect the kitchen.

Nothing has been lost that can’t be replaced. Another positive note is we now have excellent access to some pesky Smilax vines that were inextricably intertwined with flowers and shrubs. Hopefully, we can dig up the tubers and get rid of them.

We have a lot to be thankful for, but it makes me wince to see the burned shrubs and flowers and know I could have easily prevented it. Prevention is almost always preferable to fixing what’s broken. And some things when broken can’t be mended.  

That smoldering log became a problem because of my carelessness. Temptation often works the same way. It can evolve if ignored. Most temptations begin with a wisp of smoke that appears to be rather harmless and perhaps somewhat intriguing. We see no urgency in quenching a tiny spark.    

                The charred plants in our flower garden, however, remind me that unseen embers can subtly transition into fire. Something that was beautiful is now badly scarred. And the devastation came from what once had seemed nothing more than a little smoke.     

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That’s What She Said

I may have to finish this column later. Jane is working in what was left of her flower garden after the fire, a fiasco which yours truly was allegedly involved in. That’s a story for another day if I don’t forget. Fortunately, the toasted azalea leaves will help remind me. After the leaves drop, I’ll rely on the charred, barren limbs of about 20 bushes. 

My plant-loving wife is immersed in a salvage operation this morning, but apparently her breakfast ran out before our next major feeding period. She doesn’t usually eat much between meals. Today, however, for reasons unknown to me, she must be extremely hungry at 10 am. Her voice had a sense of urgency.

“Hurry! she said, “Snack! Bring the gum!” Then she hung up, although it’s perhaps incorrect to say “hung up” regarding a cell phone. Maybe I should say she ended the call or hit the red button. Either way, she stopped talking before telling me what kind of snack she wanted. If she doesn’t call back soon, I’ll probably take her a bowl of watermelon since it’s about to be too ripe.

 It’s unlike her to be impatient about anything, and she’s never that way about food. I’m a bit puzzled by her frantic request for a snack and even more so about the gum. I don’t even remember the last time she chewed gum, but that’s what she said. I’m absolutely positive that’s what she said.   

Sometimes, though, my hearing is not as reliable as it needs to be. At a recent worship service our youth minister mentioned the offerings from Vacation Bible School were going to Daybreak Pregnancy Care Center. It shocked me when he said if the goal of one thousand dollars was reached, he was getting high. When the congregation laughed, I wondered if I had misunderstood. It turned out he and our pastor had agreed to get “pied” to save lives.   

Many in the Joiner lineage have some gradual hearing loss that begins around age 50. Our standard practice is to deny it’s a problem for a couple of decades. When hearing aids are eventually purchased, they are put beneath our wills in a safety deposit box in case we need them later.

One day I mentioned to a friend about the aggravation of living with poor hearing, but that the idea of wearing hearing aids was not appealing. “It seems very inconvenient,” I mused.

He told me he had needed hearing aids for fifteen years but hadn’t bought any. “I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t complain about wearing them,” he said, “so I decided to just act stupid.” I’ve been testing his system for several months and it’s working splendidly. That’s probably because I was already acting that way long before having any hearing loss. Preparation is an essential part of success.

Occasionally what I’m hearing is not what the other person is saying. That can be problematic in places such as hospitals. They say a man in California went in for an appendectomy and came out wearing lipstick. That’s not likely to happen in rural Georgia but in critical situations it’s best to have someone with you who has a good set of ears.

Most of the time I’ve found it’s not too risky to smile and nod if the other person is smiling. Or sometimes I just respond to what I think has been said. It’s like when my Cousin Joyce asked her husband, Ben, about the barn swallows who were building mud nests on their porch. He was standing at their kitchen counter when she walked by and noticed the annoying birds flying around. They had been there for weeks and were making an awful mess.    

“Do you think those birds are ever going to leave our porch?” she asked.

Ben held up a dinner knife. “I’ve already put mayonnaise on my bread,” he replied.

I may have told that story before but I’m not certain. My memory isn’t as sharp as my hearing.

Jane just called again and sounded exasperated. “If you don’t come now, it will be too late!” Her volume was above average so she must be starving. I’m concerned about her odd behavior and hope to figure out what’s causing such strange requests.

Maybe she’ll feel better when she sees this nice bowl of cold watermelon and two sticks of Juicy Fruit gum. I don’t understand how a snack and some gum can be so urgent, but that’s what she said. I’m almost pretty sure that’s what she said.   

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