The Sears & Roebuck Catalog

My friend Cletus has a gift for plausible explanations. I guess that could come in handy at times, but I can’t say for sure. A few weeks after Christmas he stopped by to show me his lump of coal. Then he told me a story from childhood which may be true but seems a tad unlikely.      

Cletus was born in 1952, as was I, so we have some memories in common. We both fondly remember the thrill that came when the mailman delivered a new Sears & Roebuck catalog. From little boys wanting Roy Rogers outfits to grandmothers shopping for pressure cookers, the possibilities were as limitless as their dreams.   

For Christmas of 1959 seven-year-old Cletus surprised his mother with a gift from Sears & Roebuck. The 50-foot rubber water hose was jet black with light gray stripes and guaranteed never to kink. The high-end water hose was impressive enough that Cletus had little doubt it was the finest one in their community. He was, however, concerned his thinking was a sign of having too much pride and considered asking the preacher’s opinion. But Cletus remembered a sermon about being accountable for what we know, so he decided it might be safer to live with uncertainty.

The other water hoses his family had were cheap, old, and too stiff to loop into a tight circle. They were all the standard green color but generously accented with black electrical tape wrapped around pinholes. When a leak was too big to tape, his daddy would shorten the hose. He’d cut off a section right above each major trickle until what was left was not long enough to reach from the barn faucet to the cows’ water trough. 

At that point his father would save the little hose remnant on the back wall of the shelter by wedging it between the corrugated tin sides and the tall creosote poles. Cletus’ daddy often said, “As sure as you throw something away that’s when you’ll need it.” He didn’t know when or why they might have a use for those miniature hoses but figured It didn’t cost anything to keep a good supply on hand.

Cletus’ mother was tickled about her fine new water hose with the lifetime guarantee. She mentioned to Cletus it would last longer if it was protected from the weather, knowing he might think it odd she was putting it on the front porch. Cletus wondered if she placed it there so the neighbors would see it but thought it best to explore that matter discreetly.

“Do you think we’ll ever get a faucet in the front yard?” he casually asked. His mother didn’t answer but began beating the creamed potatoes more aggressively than usual. The clanging of the masher hitting the sides of a metal pot prompted him to leave the matter alone. The next day she moved the water hose to their backyard faucet.   

About a month before Christmas of the following year, Cletus was stretched out on the den floor in front of the TV watching Superman. He was flipping through a Sears & Roebuck catalog and paused where he had no business in the women’s lingerie section. He sensed a presence in the room which he thought might be the Holy Spirit. Then he wished it were. 

“Mama,” he said without looking up, “I had planned to order you something nice for Christmas, but it might be best for you pick it out.” He closed the catalog, stood up, and handed it to her. “You can have that ten-dollar bill y’all gave me for my birthday,” he said, knowing she wouldn’t spend over five.

“So how did things turn out?” I asked, after he paused as if the story was over.

“On Christmas morning Mama unwrapped what she’d ordered and acted totally surprised. She said, ‘Oh my goodness, Cletus, you shouldn’t have spent so much!’”

“All ten dollars?” I asked.

“Every penny,” he responded with a hint of lingering remorse.

“I’ll bet she ordered lingerie,” I said with a grin.  

“Nope,” said Cletus. “She got another top-of-the-line water hose plus a decorative metal hanger. It looked so good on the front porch that when Valentine’s Day came around Daddy gave her a faucet.”

Cletus’ story seems a bit improbable, but I’ll admit he has a gift for plausible explanations. I guess that could come in handy at times, but I can’t say for sure.                 

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Wish List 2021

The great thing about a wish list is it doesn’t have to be realistic. Maybe it’s better if the entries have some reasonable chance of occurring, but I placed no such restrictions for my 2021 submissions. These aren’t in any sort of special order.

I wish our country would more closely resemble the one I pledge allegiance to – “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” If we get the “under God” part right, the rest will take care of itself. A change in politics is far less important than a change in our hearts.   

I wish that COVID-19 would be eliminated, not just controlled or managed but totally destroyed so the only evidence remaining would be in the history books. The eradication would be so complete there’d be no need for vaccinations. Everyone would wonder what to do with their unused masks.

I wish the Class of 1970 would be able to have the 50-year reunion we had to postpone. My friend and classmate, Smitty, had everything ready to go in 2020 when the pandemic interfered. Reunions are not fulfilling if hugs aren’t allowed. Surely social distancing is almost over. 

 I wish that Operation Warp Speed, which resulted in effective coronavirus vaccines in an astonishingly short period, would be expanded to seek cures for cancer, Parkinson’s, ALS, Alzheimer’s, and other devastating conditions. We all have people dear to us who need a bold effort without delay.    

I wish that Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons would be on their way to the Super Bowl. Football is not something I have much interest in, but I admire Matt for not complaining even after games when he has set records for getting sacked. He keeps getting up off the ground and putting forth his best effort while not pointing fingers at others. He’s an honorable man with a lot of talent. It’d be nice for him to wear the ring of a champion.

I wish that reliable research in the medical field would establish solid evidence there’s no such thing as too much chocolate. It would be terrific to make similar discoveries regarding many other foods, such as my wife’s insanely delicious apple nut cake, but that might be expecting too much for a single wish.  

I wish Dude, the mongrel dog with the gentle heart who helped drive our son home from California, would be healthy again. He has a mass in his stomach and the prognosis is not good. If life eludes him as expected, my other wish is for a peaceful departure.  

I wish Miracle Grow would announce a hair product line. It already works remarkably well for plants so probably with a little tweaking would be effective for scalps. I realize, however, that growing crops on barren ground is challenging. Scattered footlong hairs won’t improve the look of the landscape.

I wish someone would discover a use for Bahai grass that would make it so valuable people would begin stealing it from yards and right-of ways.

I wish the armadillos that keep destroying our flower garden would move. Thanks to two traps and a long barrel 22 caliber pistol, dozens of them are no longer a nuisance. But I don’t enjoy shooting any kind of critter and would gladly leave them alone if they would do the same for me.

I wish for inspiration for future columns. My tank has been running on fumes lately. Hopefully, there’s a fueling station over the next hill. If you have an idea feel free to email me at gneiljoiner@gmail.com or send a letter to 64 Coley Crossing Road, Vienna, GA 31092. You can even share something from your wish list if you don’t mind it being passed along. I may not be talented enough to figure out how to use your comments in a column, but the analysis is absolutely free. 

Finally, my wish for each of you is that you experience a year filled with blessings too many to count, joy beyond measure, and peace that surpasses all understanding. My list isn’t in any sort of special order, but I saved this one for last because it’s both important and realistic.

The abundant life is ours for the asking. If you haven’t already asked, I wish that you would take care of that right away. That’s why I’m adding this wish to my prayer list as well.

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The Blessing of Light

December can be a troubling month if we let it. None of us, I think, are fully immune to the occasional toll of winter’s doldrums. In the year just passed it seemed more tempting than most to let overcast skies on cold days dampen my outlook. Optimism was harder to embrace than before.

I’m not dealing with any devastating struggles, the kind that make each day a challenge and warrant being on a prayer list. Yet even though I realize I’m blessed beyond measure, there were some days in December when I felt a bit out of sorts. Maybe part of that feeling is because of the disquieting events and atmosphere in the world around me.   

Political, racial, and societal divisions are uncommonly vicious and unsettling. COVID-19 continues to forge a path of devastation that will be felt for years. A plethora of problems without easy solutions dominate headlines across our country. And we don’t have to look far down the road to find a friend who is carrying a heavy load.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when the heavens are painted solid gray. But every now and then a moment in the sunshine reminds me the dreary clouds of winter are only temporary. They don’t diminish our blessings; they just make them a bit harder to see.

Several days in mid-December were cold and damp, unfit for doing much of anything outside. It’s not hard to fall into the trap of feeling like that’s the norm, of focusing on the clouds as if they were permanent fixtures. It’s easy to forget how good the sunshine will feel when it returns.

One morning at our farm I stood near the rusty tin walls of an old shelter. The day was cold and windy, but the sun was shining brightly. On the south side of the building the wind was completely blocked, and the radiant glow of the sun was perfect.

I leaned against the warm tin for a few minutes, remembering how much I enjoyed that place and others like it during my childhood. There were times in those long-gone years when I had briefly paused in such places while alone. The best memories, though, are of leisurely sitting on the grass with a canine friend beside me. There’s something wonderfully comforting in finding a cozy spot outside on a blustery day. Sharing that experience with a good dog makes it even better.

There were other days in December that were much the same, cold and windy but having the advantage of sunshine. More than once I took a break from doing something that had no urgency just to sit for a few minutes in my truck. It’s remarkable how the sun can warm a cab by shining through the glass. Sitting in my pickup didn’t change the weather, but it changed how I felt about it.

That’s not so different, I believe, than how God works in our lives. My tendency is to ask God to take away whatever may be bothering me, to calm the storm like Jesus did on the Sea of Galilee. (Matthew 8:23-27) There are without doubt occasions when God intervenes in a magnificent way. More often, however, I believe God leaves the circumstances as they are and changes us instead. Rather than calming the storm, He offers us the comfort of His shelter.

If every day brought sunny skies and gentle breezes, they would easily be taken for granted. Routine perfection might even become mundane. It’s the cold days of winter which help us better appreciate the warmth of sun and shelter, which cause us to look forward to the arrival of spring.

I’m trying to take a better approach in how I view things that concern me now, especially those matters which are beyond my control. Instead of dwelling on clouds that darken the day, I’m reminding myself that the One whose birth we just celebrated is The Light of the World. It’s comforting to know that He invites each of us to walk with Him in that Light.

On a wintry day in December, I leaned my back against the side of an old shelter, looking for a place to escape the cold. The sunshine warmed my body as I knew it would. And quite unexpectedly it soothed my soul as well. Blessings abound, I was reminded, if we look for them in The Light.

December can be a troubling month, but only if we let it.    

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A New Memory

Isn’t it wonderful when good news greets us unexpectedly? That’s what happened to me a few days after Thanksgiving.

The day began like many others with slices of fresh strawberries topping my Honey Bunches of Oats. Not long after breakfast a message popped up on my phone stating, “You have a new memory!” That was thrilling to learn as my old memory may be beyond repair.

It does, however, concern me that my phone has access to so much personal information. If my phone knows I need a new memory, it’s probably obvious to others who are just too polite to mention it. Several of my more senior friends have told me that Memory Depletion Syndrome doesn’t get any better. That was my thinking too until I read that delightful phone message.

A few years ago, I was in a small boat fishing for big bass with Groves Jeter and Ronnie Kitchens. We caught several lunkers, any one of which would have easily broken the longstanding Georgia record had they been weighed instead of fileted. I don’t recall why, but our jovial banter slowly drifted from fish tales to memory issues.

We discussed the frustration of being unable to call the name of someone familiar, or of struggling to find a word that’s needed to complete a sentence. Groves shared with us that he’d recently bought a bottle of Prevagen, the highly advertised jellyfish supplement which claims to boost mental health. I asked Groves if he thought Prevagen was helping him. “I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t remember to take it.”

An appendectomy, when I was almost eight, may have led to some of my memory issues. Dr. Baker in Hawkinsville removed my appendix just before the start of third grade. He sealed it in a bottle of alcohol which stayed under our farm shelter until the day we ran out of fish bait.       

Prominent medical experts maintain that the appendix serves no function. My opinion, however, is that its purpose is like that of a book appendix which provides additional information. Not every book has an appendix or needs one, but for complicated matters it can offer clarification. It seems quite unlikely that a dual use of the word appendix evolved by coincidence. Sound reason almost dictates we assume there is a connection.  

It’s comforting to know I’m not entirely alone in dealing with memory challenges. A decade or so back I was one of five pallbearers who kept watching the church doors for our sixth man. Our good friend had been distracted by something that day and had forgotten the funeral. I’ve admittedly had worse lapses but have been fortunate to escape unnoticed most times.

During my early days of banking I kept a small calendar in my back pocket and wrote down appointments and other notes. That crutch was paired with another one in the form of a giant monthly planner on my desk which was further enhanced by tons of scribbled notes on slips of yellow paper.

In the latter part of my career I sent a daily email to myself with a to do list that was updated late each afternoon. The most pressing matters were at the top with intermediate ones in the middle. Near the bottom were those which often died from negligence.

There aren’t many things which are critical that I keep up with since retiring and that’s a blessing. When I leave home in the mornings to head to the farm, I try to remember to take the four Ws – water, watch, wallet, and walkie talkie. The 4W system works terrific as a memory prompt except when I forget to review the list.  Or on those mornings when I can’t remember what all the Ws stand for.

I’m beginning to suspect the new memory I got so excited about isn’t coming. That same phone message has shown up several more times with no instructions, just pictures. Apparently, the new memory is created by looking at old pictures. I’m fine with that too as I love good memories both old and new.

At first it was a little disappointing to realize I’m not getting the new memory I expected, but a little time will no doubt take that off my mind. My memory may be less than stellar, but my forgetter is working better than ever. Isn’t it wonderful when good news greets us unexpectedly?   

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New Year’s Resolutions

I don’t recall ever making a list of New Year’s Resolutions. If I did, the goals were not memorable enough to stay with me. The year 2020, however, has left many of us wanting a fresh start.

COVID-19 has taken a great toll on families, friends, and people around the globe. It’s affected our neighbors across the street and those we’ll never meet. Political divides are severe and lacking civility, with the bridge to connect that widening chasm in great need of repair. And those are just two of many concerns that beleaguered the year to which we’re saying goodbye.

The problems looming before us are massive, numerous, and not easily solved, but dwelling on such difficulties can be debilitating, robbing us of our collective faith in a more promising future. So, for 2021 I’ve decided to focus on a few personal areas where change is both needed and possible.

My initial thought was to find easy targets such as eating more dark chocolate for its potential health benefits. There are days when I only have a couple of bite-sized square shaped Dove dark chocolates that come in the red wrapper with the upbeat quotes inside. But this didn’t seem like the right year to aim at low aspirations so I’m looking upward instead.

There are three resolutions on my current list which will require significant effort. I can’t say with confidence that I’ll follow through, but maybe writing them down will help me stay on track.

First, I resolve not to rush through my daily devotions. Sometimes I read without reflecting as my eyes race toward the bottom of a page or I hastily scroll down my computer screen. It’s easy to slip into a routine of going through the motions without absorbing the message, of being content to scan a formation of words rather than seek a transformation of heart.

Denison’s Forum sends a daily email devotional titled “First15” which is consistently worthwhile. The name suggests that we give God the first fifteen minutes of our day. That may not always be practical, and fifteen minutes isn’t a formula for the perfect amount of time, but the concept is solid. Morning, noon, or night will work if it’s a priority and not something we reluctantly squeeze into our schedules.

Secondly, I resolve to improve my prayer life by asking less of what I want from God and more of what God wants from me. And I’ll try to stop talking long enough to listen. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s hard to still my wandering mind.

Selling computers with Burroughs Corporation in Tallahassee, Florida, was my first job after college. Burroughs provided quality training, which admittedly I often ignored. One thing I recall being emphasized was how to close a sale. Their mantra was, “Ask for the order then shut up.”

When we ask for an order but get no response our tendency is to break the awkward silence by restarting the conversation. That’s also my tendency in prayer, jumping ahead with my own solutions rather than giving God the opportunity to answer. There’s no doubt I’ve interrupted His replies with my own suggestions. And there have been too many times when I asked for His input, but what I really wanted was His blessing on plans I’d already made.

Resolution number three is to do more for those who can’t pay me back. Mr. Heard George, son of United States Senator Walter F. George, was a member of Vienna First Baptist Church when Jane and I joined in 1976. Someone, I don’t remember who, told me that he regularly prayed, “God help me to help someone who can’t do anything for me.” That prayer captures the essence of what Jesus taught. He even said that when we help the least among us, it’s like we’re doing it for Him personally. (Matthew 25:31-46) When we think in those terms, serving others is not a burden but a privilege.   

My approach to accomplishing these resolutions has changed while I’ve been writing today’s column. I thought these were goals I could reach on my own but realize now I can’t do it alone. So, I’ll ask for some help, then try to be still until The Helper speaks. And occasionally, if my progress is substantial enough to warrant some reward, I may have an extra piece of chocolate.  

Happy New Year and God bless.            

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Biscuits

A week before Thanksgiving my pastor, Brian Leverett, sent a churchwide message about the approaching holiday. He invited us to text him a brief recording about things we are thankful for. The short clips were to be compiled into a video for further sharing.             

I promptly decided to procrastinate, a technique I’ve become adept at through years of practice. Thanksgiving is now in the rearview mirror and the radiant light of the Christmas Star is at its yearly peak. It won’t be long until 2020 is left behind as the midnight band plays Auld Lang Syne. The time has passed to submit the video Brian wanted, but it’s never too late to reflect on life’s blessings.

There are several reasons I didn’t get around to making a recording. One factor is that the camera on my phone causes my hair to look thin and gray. I’ve had this phone for a while, so hopefully the newer models have resolved whatever technology issue this may be. The uncanny thing is that Jane’s phone camera does the same thing. It’s baffling how a kid like me sometimes resembles a senior citizen. 

The main reason for my procrastination, however, was that I couldn’t decide on what to say that was more personal than generic. There’s much in the way of broad topics for which I am thankful. Faith, family, friends, health, and freedom come quickly to mind. But I wanted to say something more specific, so I delayed for a while and just now got around to starting a list. 

One thing I’m thankful for is that my mother, who recently turned 94, is still making biscuits. If someone tells you that frozen biscuits are just as good as homemade, don’t believe them. Those are the same people who claim yogurt tastes like ice cream and serve stuffing instead of dressing. They rave over seven bean salads and broccoli casseroles. Some have even experimented with tofu.

Special circumstances, I will acknowledge, may cause bought biscuits and those made from scratch somewhat challenging to differentiate. I learned that at a noontime get-together hosted by the late Murphy Head a couple of decades ago.

In addition to keeping a few cars on his lot, Murphy had a furniture store packed wall to wall with new and used items. About twice a year he’d invite eight or ten friends to join him for fried rabbit. I guess you could say there was a hare in our food. We’d sit around showroom tables and enjoy mounded plates of tender meat with grits, gravy, coleslaw, and biscuits.

Joe Smith, a part-time employee of Murphy’s, did the cooking and consistently served outstanding fare. It was at one of those dinners when Joe’s biscuits, always excellent, were even better than usual. I complimented him as we were eating and wondered aloud if he’d used a new recipe. He didn’t have much to say in response and seemed a bit grumpy, which struck me as odd.

As I was about to leave, Joe was cleaning up the small kitchen area. I told him again how much I enjoyed the meal. “Everything was delicious,” I said. “Those biscuits may have been the best you’ve ever made.”

Joe’s manner was rather subdued. He didn’t look up from the stovetop he was cleaning as he replied. “They were bought biscuits,” he mumbled.

That’s when I noticed a stack of Styrofoam trays. There was a sinking feeling in my gut for a split second. But then, perhaps by divine intervention, I found a glimmer of hope to escape an awkward situation.

“Well, Joe,” I said, “it must have been your special gravy that made the biscuits taste so good.” Joe nodded and offered a forgiving smile. And I left Murphy’s place that day with a story and a lesson.

I had planned to include several things for which I’m thankful in this column, but I took a detour on a one-lane road and decided to enjoy the scenery. Maybe I’ll expound on other blessings later. Meanwhile I’m thankful for the thousands of biscuits my mother has made. Lord willing, I’ll have two more tomorrow with melted butter and pear preserves.

Happy belated birthday Mama, and Merry Christmas too. I’m glad you’re enjoying your gift. Let me know when the supply gets low and I’ll bring another bag of White Lily self-rising flour.

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Pete’s Story

Pete Dail told a personal story at Brotherhood in November that I believe is worth passing along.  Brotherhood, in case you’re wondering, is what we call the monthly men’s breakfast at Vienna First Baptist Church. If you wake up hungry and don’t have plans, we meet on the second Sunday at 8 o’clock.

Several denominations are frequently represented and all others are welcome. If you’re in the undecided category that’s fine too. One of our renowned breakfast chefs is a dedicated Catholic. We enjoy fellowshipping with those wearing other labels and will put them to work if they’re willing.  

Our gatherings have changed a lot due to COVID-19. In November we had 13 in attendance, which is less than half of the pre-corona crowd. Paper bags of wrapped sausage and biscuits have temporarily replaced the delicious buffet we were accustomed to.

Social distancing has spread us out instead of allowing us to congregate around full tables. Handshakes have been replaced by waves, nods, and fist bumps, a wise but less fulfilling greeting. There’s no one in the group I particularly care to hug, but I miss shaking hands. I’d love to share more about Brotherhood, but if I don’t quit rambling there won’t be enough space to tell Pete’s story. 

Pete and his wife, Beverly, went to Cracker Barrel in Cordele with another couple. As they were eating, Pete noticed a young man staring at him. Pete discreetly glanced back several times, thinking it must be someone he should know. He and Beverly own a bed and breakfast, The Jewell of Vienna, so Pete thought the fellow may have been a guest at some point. The young man, however, didn’t seem at all familiar and his intense stare made Pete increasingly uncomfortable.

When the oddly behaving fellow finished his meal, he approached their table and politely explained. “I apologize for staring,” he said. “I realize this sounds peculiar, but you look almost identical to my late father.” Pete was surprised but quite relieved to hear his unexpected explanation.

“My father abandoned our family when I was three,” he continued. “I have no memory of him, but my mother kept an old picture of Dad in her Bible. She used to show it to me and tell me not to hold grudges, that he was still my father. I hope you’ll forgive me if I was rude, but seeing you reminded me of the man I never knew.”

With a heartrending smile the fellow then inquired, “Would it be asking too much to have someone take our picture together? I’d like a photo to show my mother.”

Pete agreed and the young man hailed a passing waitress to assist. “Thanks, Dad,” he said to Pete with a warm smile as the waitress returned his phone. He shook Pete’s hand firmly and walked away, struggling it seemed to hold back tears.

A few minutes later the waitress returned to their table. “Here you go, Dad,” she said while handing him a ticket. “Your sweet son said you insisted on paying. I’ll bet you’re a wonderful father.”

Pete hustled out the door and looked around the parking lot where he saw the young man hurriedly approaching his vehicle. As the car door closed Pete yanked it open and ordered him to get out. When he refused Pete grasped him by the arm. The young man jerked away then fell back across the seat and began kicking and shouting.

With a burst of adrenaline and a racing heart Pete grabbed one of the fellow’s legs and tried to pull him out of the car. “I don’t know what I was thinking by confronting that guy,” Pete shared with us in Brotherhood. “It was a very foolish thing to do. But I want you to understand that I pulled that young man’s leg as hard as I could, just like I’m pulling your legs now.”

After the scattered laughter of uncertainty subsided, Pete reminded our group that Jesus calls each of us to tell a different kind of story, one that’s true and important. Sharing the gospel story is often seen by Christians as optional or something best left to others. I wish I could claim to have learned that somewhere other than personal experience. The truth is I often look more for excuses than opportunities. I wait for the perfect time instead of using the time I have.

Witnessing about our faith can be intimidating. The fear of rejection is strong. But I was reminded at Brotherhood it’s not complicated. It doesn’t require a theology degree or holding an official position at church. All we need is our own personal experience of God’s grace and be willing to tell it. And that’s the reason I believe Pete’s story is worth passing along.

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To My Reader in China – Part 4

Today’s column will hopefully tie up some loose ends about China which have been dangling in my mind. I’m almost positive everything can be covered, but probably should disclose that loose ends may in my case be a permanent condition.  

One thing I’ve never understood is why the people of China use chopsticks instead of forks. When my wife and I first married we ate with chopsticks a few times, although I don’t remember what prompted us to do so. They worked okay for rice and bite-sized pieces of chicken, but not so well for creamed potatoes, pork chops, or banana pudding. Perhaps chopsticks are used in your country to teach patience?

Are chopsticks still made of wood or has plastic replaced them? Wood is more appealing than something made from petroleum, but it seems a lot of whittling and sanding would be needed to get rid of splinters. Chopsticks, however, are not the main reason for writing you today.

I may get in trouble for sharing this but feel obliged to tell you something. Your government might want to cut back on loaning our government so much money. It’s nice of you to help, but I don’t see how we can ever pay it back, especially when interest rates inevitably cycle upward.

Please understand my concern has nothing to do with our recent presidential election. Both of our major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, have long histories of spending money we don’t have. Occasionally there are prominent politicians who talk about reducing deficit spending, but no one has a credible plan for actually doing that. Spending borrowed money is much easier than making unpopular decisions. It’s a great way to get elected and stay in office for decades.  

Billy Powell, a newspaper columnist I enjoy reading, recently published a feature about America’s national debt. He explained it in a manner that got my attention. Billy said if the federal debt was divided among every man, woman, and child in America then each of us would owe about $80,000. I’ve had some restless nights since reading that column, wondering how to break such terrible news to our four grandchildren.    

I ran a small bank in a rural town for most of my adult life. We tried to help everyone, but there were times it wasn’t possible. When a person owes more than they can pay back another loan doesn’t solve the problem. It only postpones the urgency of the situation and makes the problem bigger.

That’s not just my personal opinion. I tested the premise of repayment necessity several times and can verify it won’t work. Our nation, though, is continually adding to a mountain of debt that’s already steep to climb.

Both political parties are adept at kicking the can down the road. America is borrowing money today that later generations will be paying back. None of us as individuals could in good conscience borrow money for our own use and ask our grandchildren to repay it. Our country, however, has grown comfortable doing that very thing.  

Many years ago, when I first heard that China was America’s biggest creditor, I thought someone was mistaken. It seems that America would be a lender instead of a borrower. And we’re not borrowing just for major purchases like space exploration or to buy land for national parks. We’re relying on borrowed funds to keep the lights on. We have what an old country song describes as, “too much month at the end of the money.”

Hopefully, you’re not in shock from reading this. Feel free to pass it on to whoever is in charge of making international loans. Maybe China could insist that America come up with a repayment plan. It’s a long shot but perhaps worth a try.

An idea I’ve been mulling over is to put the key leaders from both parties, Democrat and Republican, in a big windowless room. We’d seat them around a long table in straight chairs that have no cushions. The doors would be locked and no one allowed to leave until they reached a reasonable bipartisan solution to stop living beyond our means.

They’ll need some food of course. Since China has a vested interest in this matter, I hope that your country will consider providing the meal. Let’s keep it simple and serve nothing but egg drop soup. Don’t worry about the utensils. I’ll supply the chopsticks.   

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To My Reader in China – Part 3

My first two letters dealt with rather lighthearted matters. There is, however, something of a more serious nature which I hope you can shed some light on. I’ve been wondering if there are many Lottie Moon Christians in China today.

I don’t mean to suggest that a group of believers goes by that name, although I suppose it’s possible. My query is whether there are many Chinese Christians today who trace their faith back to Lottie Moon’s mission work in your country. Is her name widely known and revered or has time erased the memory of a diminutive lady with a giant heart? Are there Chinese Christians today whose grandparents knew Lottie Moon and passed along personal stories which are still being told?

Charlotte “Lottie” Moon was a Southern Baptist, the same Christian denomination I grew up in and remain active in today. We are, as history shows, a generally well-intentioned but highly imperfect bunch of sinners. Sometimes, however, despite our shortcomings, God’s grace allows something wonderful to happen, something like the loving example of Lottie Moon.

Born December 12, 1840, Lottie was part of an affluent Virginia family. She was smart and well educated and could, it seems, have enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Yet she followed God’s calling to a distant land filled with hardships and challenges.

A series of revival meetings in 1858 is reportedly where a teenage Lottie Moon began having a spiritual awakening that would forever change her life. It’s been said that the source of her inspiration for mission work came from a message based on John 4:35, “the fields are white unto harvest.”

One of her six siblings, a younger sister named Edmonia, accepted a call to go to North China in 1872 as a missionary for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board. Although Edmonia’s name is not widely known, her courageous decision influenced her older sister.

On July 7, 1873, 32-year-old Lottie Moon was appointed by Southern Baptists as a missionary to China. For twelve years she taught school, an assignment typical of what women were expected to do at that time. Evangelism was deemed more appropriate for men in that era, while ladies were considered best suited to be helpers. Lottie, however, along with the wives of other missionaries knew that women were better able to minister to other women. So, a persistent young single lady made numerous appeals to serve in an evangelistic role. She asked for that regularly through her letters and published writings.

In 1885, when she was 45 years old, Lottie’s request was finally honored. She discontinued her teaching responsibilities and began full time evangelizing. She moved to China’s interior near P’ingtu and Hwangshien where she is said to have led hundreds of people to Christ.

Lottie pleaded desperately for more missionaries to be sent, but there were never enough resources to meet the needs. Those unmet needs led her to encourage women in America to organize in support of mission work abroad. In 1888 the first Christmas offering for foreign missions collected $3,315, funds which were used to send three additional missionaries to China. What she began long ago has continued and has grown far beyond its small start. The 2020 goal for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $175 million dollars, 100% of which goes to support international missionaries in countries around the globe.              

Lottie Moon was four feet three inches tall. When she died December 24, 1912, at age 72, she weighed only 50 pounds. Lottie’s health was tragically failing due to her unselfish sharing of food. She was on her way back to America to try and recuperate but didn’t make it home. Because of her untimely death we are no doubt more inspired by her noble life. One who had little helped those who had less. And that small lady with a big heart still gently prods my conscience, reminding me that giving only from my abundance falls short of what God expects.         

It’s once again time for the annual mission offering which bears her name. That’s what caused me to wonder about Lottie Moon Christians in China today. I trust the seeds of faith she planted continue to produce fruit, and that her compassionate spirit will not be forgotten in your country nor in my own. May Lottie Moon’s sacrificial example inspire us to do more, for China and America have a great opportunity in common. Our fields are white unto harvest.

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To My Reader in China – Part 2

I’m writing another letter to you because I remembered a story which I thought you might enjoy. First though, I should note that my blog recently had two views from China in a single day. I’m thankful my readership in your country has doubled and hope some untapped potential remains. Thanks for any help you can offer. Here’s the story.

A cherished memory from long-ago took place at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. My wife and I were in California for a bank convention of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia. We visited Chinatown one night with our good friends, George and Kathy Leverett. We bought gifts to take home to our children and strolled by a cleverly named take-out restaurant, “TA KE OUT E.”

That amusing signage has stayed with me, but we wanted a sit-down dinner so kept walking down the busy street. We found a nice restaurant, the name of which has long escaped me, and had an amazing meal. The food was splendid and the hospitality exceptional.

An elderly Chinese gentleman, who I assumed was the owner, came to our table several times to check on us. He was a gracious host, as was the young lady who served us. As we were finishing our meal he asked if there was anything else we might want. I have an incurable addiction to sweets but had not seen anything listed on their extensive menu, so I asked if they offered any desserts.

“Lychee nut ice cream,” he responded with a smile. “Very good.”

“Lychee nut ice cream?” I asked, having never heard of it before.

“Yes,” he affirmed. “Lychee nut ice cream. Very good.”  

I am a devoted fan of butter pecan ice cream and would commit certain misdemeanor crimes for a pint of the highly elusive black walnut. I was introduced to home-churned peanut butter ice cream in 1975 by Mr. Shelton Colson in Valdosta, Georgia. A hand-crafted version of that unique flavor from Leaping Cow Ice Cream in Atlanta is one of my present-day favorites. My expectations for lychee nut ice cream were, therefore, heavily influenced by a history of marvelous nut-infused varieties.

Our bowls of creamy vanilla were topped with large almond-sized lychee nuts. The nuts, however, did not look firm and were not sliced into small bites as we expected. Their appearance suggested a kinship with albino grapes which had been peeled and left to shrivel on a hot sidewalk.

“You got us into this,” said a skeptical George. “You should go first.”

As I bit into the rubbery tissue of a lychee nut I was unsure if I could continue but even more determined my friend George should be subjected to the strange taste and texture. So, I lied as convincingly as possible for a nonpolitician and told him it was the most exhilarating burst of flavor I’d ever had. George may have been suspicious, but curiosity easily overcame caution.

I’ll never forget the look on his face as he contemplated whether to keep chewing or swallow it like a raw oyster. There was a moment of uncertainty as he placed his napkin over his mouth, but he finally managed to get it down. Then he spoke in his usual low-key manner.

“It’s hard to understand,” said a knowing George, “how your lychee nut could have been so delicious yet mine was barely edible. What do you think could have caused that difference?”

“I don’t understand that either,” I replied. “Yours must have come from an old lychee.”

We hid the remaining lychee nuts so our kind host would not see them, then enjoyed vanilla ice cream topped only with humor. We laughed late into the night and over many years as we retold that story. The most special moments, I’ve learned, are often unplanned.

My friend George died of cancer in the spring of 2010 at age 58. I don’t guess he reads my column, but just in case I want him to know I still think about him sometimes. I still miss him.

Lychee, I discovered later, is an Asian fruit that when dried is referred to as a nut. Although I can’t claim an affinity for their distinctive taste, I’m thankful for the sweet memory they helped create. And should I ever see lychee nut ice cream on a menu, I will warmly remember my good friend George. Then I will order the plain vanilla.

Thanks again for reading Joiner’s Corner in China. That goes for both of you.       

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