THOUGHTS FROM THE BATTLEFIELD

I hit pothole #69 almost a month ago and am headed full speed toward #70. I’m now traveling daily to Baltimore, in good company, to get zapped by radiation. The plan is to make cancer say “no mas” and shrivel on the vine.

My fractured finger and mangled hand are healing, as are my battered ribs. I come home to two aging felines who act like a kitty Santa Claus is “in the house.” They sleep close to me with one often wrapped around my head on the pillow. The purring is consistent, and comforting.

My schedule at Hopkins daily brings me in contact with the same fellow cancer fighters. We come from different locations, but we gather together to battle a common foe. There are husbands and wives, parents and children, and several loners like myself. I think we find some comfort in each others presence and commitment. When we are wearing our gowns, we all share a certain humility anyway.

Once this week I was corrected when I said there was no one who needed me. My friend, Bob, said “What? Don’t you think all those who respond to your FB posts with prayers and encouragement need you?” I don’t know about that, but I’m certainly grateful for them (YOU).

In the end, the success or failure of my conflict lies in the hands of the One who created me. Nothing I face can remove from my thoughts the promise below. It’s a promise that was also made to each of you. There is no ban in place or vetting required to accept grace as a gift. Friends, we are so lucky.

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.–John 14:2

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THE LONESOME END

Back in the time when “old” Howard was actually “young” Howard, the Army football team had a player they called “the lonesome end.”  He never came to the huddle and would get his signals by watching the quarterback’s footwork.  Personally, it’s been over 50 years since I invited Jesus into my huddle, but often during that time I’ve asked him to play “the lonesome end.”  That has always been a mistake because what worked for Army doesn’t work for me.

Once we invite Christ into our lives we MUST give him control.  The dynamics he brings to the huddle are unlike any other.  When I was a boy playing sandlot football, I was often one of the last chosen.  When I let Christ be my quarterback, he always looks me square in the heart and says, “You are valuable to this team; go deep” (football language).  If you took time to read this, please note, YOU are also amazingly valuable.  God has life plays designed for each of us.   Go deep, my friend and be blessed!

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.–Jeremiah 29-11

Christ In The Midst Of The Storm

When I was eleven, my stepfather took his own life. My mother was recovering from an operation and the grief she bore was impeding her healing. Thirteen days after my stepfather’s death was Christmas Day. I watched as my mother sat on a sofa in her gown, seemingly lost in her sorrow. I saw two of my uncles go to her and offer words of encouragement. She nodded as they talked to her, but returned to her somber demeanor after they moved away.

Christ knew what she needed and He sent me. I sat beside her and she looked down at me and tried to smile. Her eyes were haunted and filled with sadness. I looked up and said “Mom, you’ve got to be okay because I need you.” As she gazed at me through tears, I saw something new enter the dark brown eyes. It was resolve, and that was closely followed by determination. Afterward, she seemed to improve visibly each day. During her bereavement, Christ was there, and He saw exactly what she needed to facilitate her healing. What she needed was to be told how valuable and important she was to her worried child. It wasn’t long before she was her vigorous and feisty self again providing me with ample amounts of love and just the right amount of discipline (I can be feisty too).

Something else happened as well. A woman who believed, but had strayed from her commitment to God, returned to Him. And as I watched her carefully, it was through her faith and dedication that I believed. Where would my life have gone if not for her pain, recovery, and renewal of her faith? Where would I be if Christ had not whispered encouragement? Christ was there as He always will be during the tumultuous storms we face. If your life is in turmoil, call on Him, trust in Him, and let Him lead you out of the tempest. Those ever faithful nail-scarred hands are reaching.

Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. Romans 8:38

A REWARD FORTHCOMING (NOW RECEIVED*)

Miss Anna Mae was my mother’s best friend. They attended school together and were close during their entire adult lives. It was hard on Miss Anna Mae when my mother slipped into the grip of Alzheimer’s Disease. She had lost her own family and, as my mother drifted away, she lost her buddy as well.

For years she was the proprietor of the J. Stanley Adams Hardware Store which originally belonged to her father in Marion Station. She dedicated herself to that store and kept it open well into her eighties. I think she felt she was still honoring her father, but the store also gave her a chance to see and chat with people she knew. For much of her later years, I’m also sure she was often lonely.

Miss Anna Mae is now in the Genesis Center. She is 97 years-old. My mother spent seven years there before dying in 1995 and I vowed I would never set foot in the building again. A couple of weeks ago, I felt the need to break my vow and stopped to see how Miss Anna Mae was doing. I had not seen her in a few years. I find it difficult to visit Marion because of the “ghosts” that haunt me in my old home town.

My visit to Miss Anna Mae was a sad one. Her mind at this point seems trapped in the past. I tried to tell her who I was but, when I would mention my name, she would say, “I don’t know where he is now.” When I mentioned my mother’s name she said, “You know Agnes’ (my mother) mother died yesterday. Mary Howard (my grandmother)! It’s going to be hard on Agnes because she really loved her mother.” My grandmother died in 1975 and that seems to be the time period where Miss Anna Mae is residing now in her thoughts. However, when I started to get up from beside her chair, she immediately said, “Don’t go.” It made me realize that a small part of her was still here. When I did leave her room, I stood outside the door with tears creasing my cheeks.  In some ways the visit made old wounds fresh again.

If you’re saying “Howard, this is not only long, but it’s a downer,” here is the positive part. Miss Anna Mae was a life-long Christian. She is part of the rich fabric of the memories of my boyhood church. She faithfully played both the piano and organ for worship services. I’m sure she was playing “Only Trust Him” when I walked down the aisle on that most important Sunday. She followed Jesus as long as she could and I believe He is carrying her the rest of the way Home. I don’t know why she is still here despite her loss of memories, but I know it is God’s decision and not mine. When she does pass, I believe there is a little woman named Agnes that will be happy to see her in that far better place. I like to imagine they will walk down the golden streets and my mother will give her old friend a lesson on life eternal in God’s Kingdom. The world finally wore down Miss Anna Mae, but her faith has kept her soul intact. Her precious reward is forthcoming.

In honor of my very special mother, Mary Agnes Scott (1912-1995) and her very good friend, Anna Mae Pennewell. I learned about faith and friendship by watching how they lived their lives.

*Anna Mae (Adams) Pennewell passed away on Wednesday, March 2, 2016.  I smile knowing she and my mother are renewing their friendship again in God’s Kingdom.

But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.–1 Corinthians2:9 (KJV) 

THE MAN WHO LOVED CHRISTMAS

“It” happens every year at this time. The chaos of teaching restless students, coaching basketball, and last-minute shopping forms a prelude to a quiet Christmas Eve. I spend much of Christmas alone now. I am not sure I mind. Being alone lends time to think and remember. Recollections of a much simpler time stir and take shape as I travel back through the years to the Christmases of my youth.

In those days, enormous butterflies buffeted the walls of my stomach and time seemed to stand still as Christmas sluggishly approached. As a boy, my biggest worries were whether or not I would get all that I had asked for (usually much) and if there was even the remotest chance that it would snow.

One of my most joyous memories involves another person who shared my simple enthusiasm for the season. There was an individual in the household whose unbridled joy during that time of year made my own seem rather staid by comparison. The Yuletide enthusiast was not a brother, sister or even a young cousin. The Christmas fanatic was my grandfather.

My grandfather was not a big man in physical terms.  However, if a man is measured by the size of his heart or his character, then he was Goliath. I think what he most loved about Christmas was the promise of his family being gathered under the same roof; his roof.  Each year he seemed to want to buy a few more lights or ornaments to add to the many that would be taken out of storage.  Pine boughs were broken to be used as trim around the front door, hedges were draped with colorful lights, and electric candles filled every window. He would go out at least once every evening to admire the beauty of his effort. The tree inside the house was usually large and was filled with decorations that were both new and ancient alike.

For a child, the most amazing feature, however, was the dining room table. As Christmas approached, the table became more and more covered with gaily wrapped presents for each and every family member. Each member of the family had his or her own spot at the table and each spot was piled high with presents. Mine were always inventoried and inspected carefully.  Occasionally, I would sneak a present into another room and alternately shake and attempt to peer through the wrapping to guess the contents. I greatly feared my grandfather would catch me.

My grandfather was not an overly humorous man, but as Christmas neared he seemed to turn into an elf for the “jolly, old, fat man” himself.  He probably laughed aloud more in the month of December than in the rest of the year combined.  My usually loving grandmother sometimes seemed a “Grinch” when compared to her spouse, likely because she knew who had to do the cooking.

Christmas Eve brought high expectations for me as a child. I was cruelly placed in bed at some unbelievable hour and told to go to sleep because Santa Claus would not come if I was awake. Santa must have been cat-quick and quiet because, if I slept at all on those long Christmas nights, it was in fitful bursts. Time seemed to stand still and I was often convinced the clock next to my bed had stopped. I knew every child in the world, but me, was already playing with his or her toys while mine were sitting forlornly under the tree.

Later, in the dark of the room across the hall, I would hear my grandfather stirring and my grandmother telling him that it was too early to get up.  I loved my grandmother dearly, but I have to admit to evil feelings on certain rare occasions (mainly on Christmas Eve).

Finally, after what seemed to be light years, my grandfather would dress and go downstairs for the “Christmas morning ritual.” The “ritual” involved getting the downstairs to a comfortable temperature before other family members (including agonized children) were allowed to venture to the lower level. My grandfather had to light a fire in the wood stove and “shake down” the coal stove in order to break the winter chill in the three heated rooms. Eventually, he would call up from below that it was warm enough to come down.

My next task was huge. I was not allowed to open presents until my mother was there to watch. Getting her moving at 5:00 in the morning was something akin to playing “tickle” with a grizzly bear. It usually took much pleading, ranting, and raving before I could coax her to the bathroom and down the stairs.  The women were great at gift-wrapping, but my grandfather and I were equally adept at gift-wrap demolition. I would have paper on top of my head by the time I was done while my mother and grandmother would neatly save each bow to be used again.

Usually, not long after we had finished the gift frenzy (sometimes before), my aunt and her brood would arrive from nearby Crisfield with new presents and we would continue the fun.

After everyone had breakfast, there was a special time each Christmas I will never forget. About mid-morning the family would gather to watch my grandparents open the small presents they had bought for each other and placed in Christmas stockings.   Whether the gift was a comb or tiny bottle of aftershave, my grandfather would make it seem like the greatest gift he had ever received. He had a wry comment or joke to make about each item he opened and his excitement made each of us delighted to be there.

In the early afternoon, we would all sit down for one of my grandmother’s typically bountiful meals, which my grandfather presided over with obvious relish.  Seated at the head of the table he could look around and easily see each of his children and grandchildren in attendance.  He seemed to want to hold that vision of family-united in his mind for the 12 months until Christmas returned.

By late afternoon we would tire and my aunt’s family would leave for home. I remember seeing my grandfather sitting quietly in his chair after everyone was gone. I believe he had already begun planning how to make the next Christmas even better.  He seemed to do that each year until he left us in 1964.  Perhaps God needed someone to help decorate Heaven.

I didn’t put up a Christmas tree this year. There seemed so little time and so many obligations to meet. Maybe it really was because I was exhausted or that I didn’t want to soil my new carpet.  Excuses were given to family and friends who cared to listen.  But the fact remains, that for the first time in my 44 years, there are no lights, ornaments, or tinsel to herald a season that has long been my favorite. Have I become callous? I hope not! Although I am alone this Christmas Eve, I feel very fortunate. I have only to close my eyes, and as I do every year at this time, journey back through memories to the home of my youth; the warm and loving home of “the man who loved Christmas.”

In honor and loving memory of my grandfather,

Robert Paul Howard

THE GIFT OF RANSOM

I love the name of John and Stasi Eldredge’s ministry, “Ransomed Heart.” It tells us exactly what Jesus did for us. When our heart was held captive to sin and in the grip of the world, he paid our ransom. I picture God looking down and saying, “They can never do it alone.” So the Son of God became the Son of Man as well and purchased our freedom through his life, death, and resurrection.

He never promised us things would be easy. We all experience bad days, weeks, months, and sometimes, years. Due to the ransom Jesus paid, there is always light at the end of that proverbial tunnel.

When I left my mother’s death bed and returned home, the day was bright and sunny and the birds sang loudly from the trees. It reminded me she was no longer held hostage by a nursing home bed and was soaring in God’s kingdom. Her faith had saved her and she had long ago accepted the ransom. When I suffered a series of sudden hearing losses in the 80’s and 90’s, I was comforted by one particularly amazing sunset and reminded I still had my vision to view such marvels. I also felt the presence of my Benefactor throughout the remainder of my days in the classroom. Those are my stories and I know you have your own.

Sadly, unlike the kidnap victims we read and hear about, the ransom Jesus paid is not always accepted by the “victim.” Can you imagine someone being held hostage, but refusing to be released despite the ransom paid. There are many around us who do that every day. Instead of embracing the gift of a ransomed heart, they embrace doubt. Pray that those captive hearts may be moved, stirred, and changed. The reward is eternity with the One who bought our freedom.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.–I Thessalonians 5:23-2

WHEN GOD SPEAKS

I once had a job delivering newspapers along the coast from Rehoboth to Ocean City.  The job required me to rise in the wee small hours of the morning and, if things went well, I was delivering by 4:00 am.  One morning, my papers did not arrive on time and I went down to a local donut shop near the boardwalk to pick up a couple of fresh-made delicacies.  A young woman smiled at me and said, “Isn’t it beautiful.”  She was referring to the burgeoning sunrise over the Atlantic.  She GOT the message God was sending, but I was jaded.  I saw the sunrise every morning and, to me, it just meant I was running late.  I was too self-burdened to look and listen to the message God wanted each viewer to see and hear.

The situation was quite different on the morning of May 7, 1995.  I visited my mother’s bedside for the final time.  Her body was there, but her spirit was gone; lifted to that special place God promises to His children.  As I drove home in the early morning, God was determined I would not miss His message this time.  The sun was welcoming another glorious day.  The clouds were fleecy and the breeze offered a soft promise of the coming summer.  Everywhere I looked on the drive home I witnessed the beauty of God’s creatures; the very same ones He knows I love so well.  About a mile from my home, a large deer stood with its front hooves on the side of the road.  It didn’t turn to run or even appear afraid.  It simply watched my truck as I drove by; almost suggesting recognition. 

When I stepped from my truck to a chorus of bird song, I felt God was sending me two messages.  The first reminded me that I no longer had to worry about my Mom and her care.  “She is safe with me now,” God whispered.  The second message was more personal: “You are not alone, for I am with you and ever shall I be, even until the end of the world.”    I felt comforted and grateful at the same time and tried to imagine my mother’s bright smile as she heard the applause of angels. 

Max Lucado writes:  “God speaks to us.   He may use a sermon.  He may inspire a conversation.  He may speak through a song.  He may even speak through this brief message.  But, isn’t that just like Him?  Oh, the lengths to which God will go to get our attention and win our affection! Listen to Him.” 

“Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of god ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  (John 1:51)

FINISHING THE RACE

When I was in my teens I would jog toward the end of my lane to a big red barn. There, I would turn and sprint at full speed the 2/10 of a mile back to the turn into my driveway.

It was glorious. I would imagine I was an Olympic sprinter heading for the finish line. The wind was roaring in my ears, my legs were churning, my arms were pumping, and imaginary fans were standing and chanting my name. Perhaps, even my favorite girl of the month was in the crowd, watching and admiring my amazing accomplishments. I was the “Marion Flash” taking the world by storm.

Today, I am 100 pounds heavier, my right knee has no cartilage, and I can’t even run to the refrigerator. No one is amazed, and sometimes, it seems few know I exist. Age is the great humbler, but I have gained wisdom and am happy in the knowledge my Savior is still watching my race.

Even though I’m a shell of my former self in many ways, Jesus has not turned away. Perhaps to Him, the final portion of the race is most important. Although my sprint has turned into a stumbling marathon, each step I take brings me closer to the finish line and my face to face meeting with Him; the One who gave his life for my redemption.

He is watching YOUR race as well and is just as eager to meet YOU at the finish line. Whether you are sprinting or walking painfully, join me in planning a celebration there.  Those daydreams of old earthly glory will be long forgotten.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus . . . .”—Hebrews 12-1&2a

LOVING THE UNLOVABLE

For several years I was responsible for patrolling the outside lunch area at WiHi. One day I was watching a young man who seemed to delight in making my life miserable in one of my classes. Typically, he was being his usual unruly self. I hate to admit I was not having pleasant thoughts about him. Suddenly though, I remembered what Jesus would say: “I love him just as much as I love you.” I felt my eyes mist when I remembered that, indeed, Jesus loves each of us equally and without restraint.

My pastor once said, “You don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to love them.” Interesting thought, huh! Each person we encounter may not be someone we want to spend a lot of time with, but they have unique value in God’s eyes. If we love God, we must seek to love ALL of his children, no matter how unlovable they may sometimes seem.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8

SURVIVING PIRANHA HOUR

“Piranha Hour!”  Ah yes, I remember it well, having experienced it often during my 33 years in teaching.  Sometimes I felt devoured by students or players and other times by demanding administrators and, occasionally, even colleagues.  

Sometimes I felt I needed a twin.  Imagine that!  “Mr. Roberts, I’ve had my hand up for five minutes.”  “Howie, you haven’t given me your room inventory yet and  I need it now.”  “Howard, you promised me you’d refill the ink cartridge in my printer.”   “Mr. Roberts, have you got our tests graded yet?”  I heard all those “demands” and many more just as you have.  Those with spouses and children experience more “piranha hours” than I do.

You know what though, God got me through mine and He even taught me to enjoy those times when people needed me most.  Although we may sometimes feel we are about to be consumed, I personally have found it’s better than the opposite extreme; not feeling needed at all.  Since I’ve been retired, I’ve experienced those feelings too. 

God understands about “piranha hours” when millions of believers are beseeching him with their requests, and sometimes, demands.  Certainly, Jesus did. I’m certain God much prefers the commotion to the silence, when we don’t call on him and I know he understands my feelings. “God’s goodness is spurred by His nature—not by our worthiness.  He knows the value of people” (Max Lucado)! So, when the demands are heavy, chill for a minute and think how special it is when people need you, and perhaps make God feel needed by whispering a soft prayer of thanks.  Blessings!

“…but the crowds learned about [what Jesus was doing] and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.   Luke 9:11″