“A Box of Crayons Changed Everything”

I know the answer to the question, “Where were you on the day JFK was shot?” I was getting ready to leave my fourth grade classroom with Mrs. Hoffman and my classmates at Jackson Elementary School in Ohio to head home from a day of student toil. The announcement came from the principal over the brown, wooden, high gloss varnished loud speaker box that hung above the chalkboard in every classroom. That speaker was there for daily announcements that all little kids needed to know (like what’s for lunch), and for sharing important announcements (like parent teacher conferences) or the siren that occasionally blared ‘telling’ us to hurry to the bomb shelters to practice our nuclear holocaust drills.

I grew up in a sea of change in the United States from 1954 to my high school graduation in 1973. I didn’t know how turbulent the times where. It is only in retrospect that we learn the lessons of our lives and the power of those days unfolding around us.

These years carried many national events that changed this country and the world. In 1960, American advisers were sent to South Vietnam and would be followed by US troops in 1965. In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to orbit Earth in a spacecraft and the race was on toward the heavens. Kennedy was shot in 1963. The first men landed on the moon in 1969 (I was in Washington DC that night at my mom’s relative Joyce’s house while we were on family vacation; the landing beaming at us from the Black and White TV set), and Woodstock drew 400,000 people to experience flower power and love. In 1970, Ohio National Guard soldiers fired on (and killed) Kent State University students protesting against the US invasion of Cambodia (just a stone’s throw from my home and where my mother graduated from college) and Vietnam ended for the US in 1973 (and I was thankful as a high school senior since my selective service draft number was in the top ten to go to Southeast Asia to serve in an unpopular war).

But there was a part of my life I didn’t know anything about growing up in an all white world. I didn’t really understand the civil rights movement. It was happening around me, but I was not paying attention to it because of school, football, girls, and well, girls. There were society altering events going on like the Jobs and Freedom March on Washington in 1963, the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968. Except for Kennedy’s death, the social plight of my fellow Americans went undetected by me as I tried to make sense of a white teenager’s life.

I sit now, at another point in my life….where the world has converged and I have chosen to know that history of the civil rights and the freedoms sought and fought for by my African American brothers and sisters. It was sparked by my now 18 year old biracial African American daughter when she was only 5 years old. We were coloring a picture one day after a preschool lesson on MLK when she said, “Martin Luther King was a great man.” “Yes,” I replied…”a very great man,” figuring this had been the subject of some preschool celebration. “I am glad he worked hard,” she continued. “Yes,” I replied as we filled in the lines of the picture. “I am glad he lived so I could not be afraid and be free.” That statement from my brown skinned African American daughter startled me. At five, she had connected with a time in history I knew nothing about because she already, somehow, identified with the skin tone of MLK and what he preached 30 years before her birth. Tears began softly rolling down my cheeks. “Yes,” I said…”you don’t have to be afraid and you are free.” That exchange over a box of Crayola Crayons changed my life and brought me fully into the time I had overlooked as a young man growing up in a world I did not really understand.

I have chosen these last 13 years to honor MLK day, not just on that day alone, but by reading books written by African Americans, and trying to understand this time in the history of our nation (and world). I try to understand this world from the perspective of my African American son-in-law for the sake of him and for my biracial grandsons. And I choose to consider this for my 18 year old daughter who is “free and does not need to be afraid.” I need to protect that for her and others intentionally….not simply by chance.

So on this day, I invite you to begin by watching the “I Have a Dream” speech of MLK from August 1963 in Washington DC. These 17 minutes are an important place to start. The speech of Martin Luther King Jr., is essential for us all. As he says in it “our destinies and freedom are intertwined.” It is a truth I missed long ago, which I will not miss again.

Blessings to you for this day. Grace and peace as you more fully come to understand the fullest meaning of our Declaration of Independence when our fore bearers wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” July 4, 1776

David Neidert

A Model for Reconciliation

My mother passed away on November 7, 2010.  She was a wonderful woman, as witnessed by hundreds who came to her funeral.  As my brother, sister, and I reflected on her life during her funeral, I penned the following.  I give it to those interested as a means for reflecting on your own life.  Blessings as you read this tribute.

A Tribute to Mom (from a son, David Lynn)

At the funeral of V. Patricia Neidert 

            Each of us, as grown children, experienced mom in different ways.  Mine was as a student of the Bible, which I have studied for the past thirty years of my life.  Mom loved to talk about the Bible.  It was important to her.  You could often find us perched on the bar stools in the homestead family room talking about it or engaging each other over the telephone about its place in our lives and faith.

            Living out her faith was like breathing for mom.  She may not have understood all the intricate nuances of the Bible or theology, but one element she understood instinctively was reconciliation; repairing broken things.

            Mom often worked behind the scenes to fix broken relationships. She didn’t always have it right, but she wanted friends and family to work together to repair what might be broken in the world or in their personal lives.

            Her whole life she tried to reconcile a broken place in her own experience by finding her birth family, which she never achieved.  It was an ongoing desire that never was quenched.  It was in that struggle, I think, that she somehow found in her daily life the connection for modeling and pursuing avenues for restoring broken relationships to wholeness wherever she encountered them.  Brokenness was something she personally knew.

            Restoration is sometimes hard, painful, and not easy, but mom knew it was worth the work and effort.  Because she loved the teaching of the Bible, she knew that in Christ we can be restored to wholeness.  That is the message of all scripture and one that mom understood well.

            While mom may not have understood theology, she knew sometimes we have to stand and fight for right, justice, and restoration; and challenged friends and family to do the same.

            The text of 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21 is about the ministry of reconciliation; to be ambassadors of Christ.  While she may not have known it, this scripture is central to us as believers.  It reads:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[a] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (TNIV)

            Mom sometimes simply shared about her faith and reconciliation, but always taught it and lived it out by example.  She wasn’t perfect (the only perfect things were her three children; if you spent any time with her, she would tell you that.  In the hospital, she introduced me again and again to nurses and aids.  She did the same with my brother and sister).  But mom tried to fix brokenness in family, friends, the RISK program at Green Local Schools (a program for teens) and in the church.  She knew the emotion in her own life of brokenness; somehow it may have helped her understand why it is important for all of us as human beings to be restored.

            We will honor her life in the days to come if we enter the primary relationship of all; the one we are invited to accept with Christ, who restored all humanity and the universe to God.

            That is what mom would have wanted all of us to know today.  We can be restored to God through Christ and become part of a ministry she modeled and held dear.  Brokenness fixed; wholeness coming to life.

            Her body in the end was broken; now it is whole.  That is the ultimate gift of God through Christ.  A hope she knew that would be reality as she experienced Christ face to face.

            Mom would have wanted one final prayer and blessing for you all on this day.  It comes from Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians 13:14:

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (TNIV)

One by One, Count Them All

“It seems kind of surreal,” my wife remarked laying on the couch absorbed in her iPhone apps.  We were talking about a friend of mine who died a few days earlier of cancer.  I had commented to my wife that I was glad I went to visit him in the hospital only a few days before he passed away.  I’m not sure he was 70 years old yet; the loss of an energetic community leader.

                My wife’s statement was about my own cancer surgery in 2008.  While my wife thought it all felt surreal from the vantage of the beige couch, I responded, “I think about it almost every day.”

                Now, I don’t think about cancer in the gloom and doom kind of way.  That episode did not paralyze my life or destroy my attitude about the future.  Quite the opposite happened, really.  I think about cancer almost every day and it reminds me of how blessed I am; how thankful I am for the moments I get to experience and savor.

                I do feel blessed.  There is gratitude for my family.  They bring joy and enjoyment.  The telephone calls with my daughters and son add to each day.  Seeing my wife reminds me of commitments and that two people, so connected to each other, can weather much.  I also enjoy a good hug from my eldest grandson or just playing gently with the brown, curled locks of my youngest’s hair as he masters yet another video game (he is three by the way).

                My work—my life calling—brings intellectual, spiritual and emotional satisfaction Monday through Friday (and a number of evenings).  What I do in those 8 to 10 hours isn’t really work—like labor one would dread.  It is a path to legacy and service to others.  I give my best to this vocation because I am reminded that the service given to another through my efforts is a high calling for life and what one owes another human being.  Blessings come in unexpected ways daily because I am looking for them with those I encounter; but they also just appear from the most unexpected moments of bumping into another’s life story.

                If there is a downside to this gratefulness it would be twofold: I am less patient with people who don’t count their daily blessings (because they are bountiful in this country) and I have a more even temperament about a lot of things that riled me before my cancer diagnosis and surgery.  I do get angry and frustrated about issues and stuff (I am human) but I have started to see that most things “will be okay.”  That may be taken as non emotional, a lack of engagement, or not caring about items which make up our everyday existence; but that would be a false assumption.  I do care, I am engaged, but in the end “it will be okay.”

                And the impatience?  Well, many people (in my opinion) make the trivial so life important or earth shattering.  I have little patience for this kind of response these days because people have lost perspective by deceiving themselves into believing they will live forever.  A reality check everyone—you and I are going to die.  My advice: keep all things in their proper perspective and place of importance in your life.

                “Count your blessings, name them one by one,” is a song I learned early in attending church.  I count them every morning and throughout the day.  The ten-inch long scar I see every morning when I look at my naked torso in the mirror reminds me how blessed I am for good healthcare, family, friends, faith and all I experience in 24 hours.

                Take a moment right now—or at least sometime today—to reflect on your life and its blessings.  Put it all in its proper perspective.  Count your blessings one by one.  That simple act will keep you centered on what matters in the world and in your life, whatever amount of it you get to enjoy.

Blessings, grace and peace.

David Neidert