Mississippi: A Love Letter

Happy 200th Birthday, Mississippi! On this date in 1817, you became the 20th state to be admitted to the Union. It has been a long trip to get to where we are today, hasn’t it? We all got together and bought you a couple of presents; you can find a couple of gleaming new museums in downtown Jackson.

You are a special place to me. You’ve wrapped your tendrils around my heart like the fast-growing kudzu, and have become as much a part of me as I am a part of you. I wasn’t born here, but you welcomed me as a child and you’ve been my home ever since. Five decades of living as one of your children has taught me to love you.

I love your natural beauty, from the rocky hills of the northeast to the hardwood thickets of the southwest, from the sandy beaches of the southeast to the deep, rich soil of the Delta. I love your tall pines and your stately oaks, your deep rivers and creeks, and your web of natural life, tenacious and strong. Driving your meandering country roads is like passing through a green, arboreal tunnel; paddling down one of your wild rivers feels like stepping back in time.

And how I love your people! They come in every hue, from every corner of the world, and are of an endless variety. Some of them have known you a lot longer than I; the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez lived off your bounty long before our forefathers dreamed of coming here. Some of us descend from people brought here against their will as slaves or indentured servants, while others came here looking for a new start, to carve a life out of your abundance.

My daddy and generations before him plowed your rich reddish-brown earth, and you gave them a sustaining abundance as a reward of cotton, of corn, of potatoes and every vegetable. My mother, and generations of women before, learned to provide for their families and carry on strong family traditions. My ancestors recognized God as the provider of everything, and they passed on that same sustaining faith to future generations.

Your people are special and unique. I admire their grit and determination, their faith, their hospitality, courage, deep feelings and willingness to help a neighbor.

You also gave your people something else: a creative spark or abilities passed on from the Creator himself. Perhaps you passed it to them through the whisper of the pines or delivered it on the mournful wind as they drove through a lonely, flat Delta landscape. Possibly it was in embedded in the song of a mockingbird or carried on the sweet whiff of a magnolia blossom or Cape Jessamine. Or maybe it was when their lips touched the clear, cool waters of a spring, bubbling out of the sandy ground. It seems you’re very generous with that gift of creativity. Your people have carried footballs and typewriters, platinum records, Nobels, gold medals, Emmys and Oscars. They’ve helped the world know you a little better, and maybe learn a little about themselves, too.

I’d like to be able to look back and say the past 200 years have been easy, but they haven’t. In battlefields large and small, the blood and bones of thousands are mixed with the soil, spilled as armies marched and cities burned. Though the cannons lie silent today, we can still hear their booming, nightmarish echoes if we listen on the hallowed battlefield, mingled with the haunting screams of the wounded and dying. Although 15 decades have passed, it’s something we just can’t forget. The cruelty of that war and its torturous aftermath still reverberate through the field and forest, bearing witness to unimaginable crimes and murderous injustices. Many of those are now forgotten by everyone except you; you remember it all.

We’re trying, but sometimes we don’t get it right or do right by each other. Sometimes, we own the bad press we get. For many of your children just a generation ago, it was a constant battle just to be heard, to be treated fairly, to put food on the table, to vote, to be free. The sad legacy still haunts us today, as it does our brothers and sisters across this nation. Perhaps that’s the most painful sting of all. I hope we have learned from that past, though, and many of us are trying put it behind us.

The world seems to misunderstand you, maybe even hate you and us. I defend you often, and sometimes I get a little too sensitive. Sometimes, on a plane or around a table, when people find out where I’m from, I see the looks, the furtive glances. I know they don’t mean anything by it, but sometimes, it upsets me. I get my back up when I hear people try to tear you down or repeat ignorant labels learned through movies made by people who don’t know you very well. I guess I want to defend you because I am one of yours. I think I’m not alone in that; we instinctively defend those we love.

I still believe, though, that once people get here and see you, and taste your food, hear your music and get to know your people, they will come to love you for the same reasons I do.

Maybe they’ll stroll around a picturesque town square, or walk through the fort at Ship Island, or catch a football game on a crisp October afternoon. Perhaps they’ll sit on a grassy bluff at Vicksburg and watch a string of barges ply the meandering Ole’ Muddy, or have dinner on the ground at an old country church. Perhaps they’ll weep as they visit the museums and hear about Emmett Till or Medgar Evers, or learn about the Choctaw Trail of Tears. Maybe they’ll follow in Elvis’ footsteps, or stay in a Delta shack for the night, after getting full at Doe’s. Maybe they’ll bag a turkey, or catch a big bass in the Res. Maybe they’ll find their tension relieved as they wind down the tranquil Natchez Trace, and learn a little about the history of this amazing place. In the middle of all that, maybe they’ll reconsider an opinion they had before, or think about how great a place this would be to raise a family.

I know what you’re thinking; that makes me a bit of a romantic or a little naïve. I don’t know, you may be right. But there is something about you that makes people want to stay, and raise their kids here. You feel like home. Those who really get to know you, are the ones who love you. Many have come here just to visit and found themselves wanting to stay…forever.

I don’t know what the future will be like for you and for us. But I do believe that God made something special when he brought us all together here, on the bank of the river that gave you its name.

So, Mississippi, relish your 200th birthday! We who love you, give our thanks to God for making us Mississippians; for you are a special place.

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Fever delirium

 

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For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. — Colossians 1:13-14

When my kids were little, our family caught a flu-like bug just before Christmas. I remember it clearly; we were in line, taking our kids to get a picture with Santa at Northpark Mall. I think it was the “rope” they put up to keep the crowd in line (at least, I blame it on that). For the past several days, each member of our family had been getting the “bug”. The kids rebounded fast, of course, and my wife had gone through a hard couple of days. By Christmas Eve, I was the only one who hadn’t shown symptoms. But as we gathered at my parents’ house that night, I started feeling it.

By Christmas morning, I was in full-scale reaction, and could hardly get out of the guest bed at my Mom and Dad’s house. My mom swooped in heroically with the whole “chicken-soup” treatment, daubing my face with wet bath cloths as my body tried to fight the illness, and supplying me with various types of remedies.

For that entire day, I lay in bed. I had some horrible nightmares. At one point, I imagined the devil himself was attacking me with all his demons. My wife says I said some strange things that day, but I remember very little of my waking hours. When my fever finally broke, it was late Christmas night. I was exhausted but finally free of the worst of the infection.

Fever is really a remarkable thing; it’s the body’s way of trying to destroy invading foreign bodies. Science has shown that fever can stimulate production of white blood cells and help move iron to the liver so it can’t be used by invading bacteria. But if you’ve had a fever, it’s like a nightmare. It leaves you exhausted. During worst of it, people often have strange thoughts and dreams, and say unintelligible things. That’s why it’s called a fever delirium.

In a way, we live our lives in a sort of fever delirium, but without its healing potential. It’s our default state. As we writhe in agony, desperately trying to fight the unseen enemy that snarls at us beyond the circle of light, we lash out in panic and fear. Hearing the rising clamor as the enemy advances upon us, we desperately flail in the darkness against the razor-sharp teeth. We can feel the putrid breath of the invisible enemy, his claws scratching on the floor as he advances toward us. The darkness is terrifying because we know that real threats await us in the void.

But through the impenetrable gloom, we begin to perceive something different: a light, piercing the darkness. Brighter than any supernova, more potent than any laser, more illuminating than any torch, it grows steadily. As its rays push back the gloom, its warmth envelops us with a sense of purpose, love and reassurance. The darkness flees as the brightness advances, and we can hear the retreating wails of the unseen enemy as he runs away in terror. He cannot abide in the presence of pure love.

And as the light illuminates the space around us, we can at long last see one another. We thought we were alone in our fight against the terrible darkness, but in the growing dawn, we see that we are the same — millions of us share the same desires, hopes, fears and challenges. And we begin to understand that our Creator’s love for us is limitless and satisfies every need.

Ephesians 5:8 – For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.

The fever delirium is real. Billions of our fellow human beings ramble aimlessly in the dark, searching for some glimmer of hope. We have been commissioned to tell others the good news of our Savior’s life, death, burial and glorious resurrection. But sometimes, even we Christians, who should be united in our quest to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, fail to break the walls that we’ve put up to make ourselves feel safe. During our long fever delirium and even afterwards, we have lashed with our weapons of fear: hatred, mistrust, prejudice, suspicion. All such weapons are useless and powerless against the real enemy, but we have, in our desperation, turned them on one another. And they hurt.

We divide ourselves by race, by culture, by social status, by political affiliation, by doctrinal disagreements, by a thousand other things. Caught up in echo chambers of our own design, we lash out in fear at the darkness. Our words come back to us, modified and energized by anger, and they make us angrier. Our voices rise in tandem with our emotions, and we see only the worst in each other. All the while, millions perish.

But as our Creator reaches out his hand to us, we are warmed by the love he radiates, and in moments like the one we are now experiencing, he reminds us that the war has already been won. He reminds us that we are saved from the enemy only through great sacrifice. His own son, the Christ, fought the battle in our stead. The war is not over yet, but one day, he promises, our Savior will take his victory and vanquish the enemy forever. On that day, we will all stand together before our King, and people from every tribe and tongue will see one another as we truly are: children of the One True King, joint heirs in our Savior’s kingdom.

Perhaps it’s fitting, as we prepare to commemorate the coming of God’s precious and unique gift of grace on that night two millennia ago, that we recall the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:1-2, and verse 6): “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The path before us is clear; we must have the resolve to take it.

John 17:22-23 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

So, in this season of light, let us resolve to take that path. Let us throw down our swords, our hurtful words, our distrust and suspicion. Let us resolve to live up individually to the promise we made to Jesus when we accepted him into our hearts and put him on the throne. As we do, we will begin to radiate the light Christ has placed in us, taking that light to the far corners of the world which still linger in the darkness of sin and fear. In so doing, we will prepare for the day of his coming. The armies of darkness will flee, and the world will know the Prince of Peace.

On that day, the fever will finally break.

Devotion written for and delivered to the Mission Mississippi prayer breakfast, Nov. 22, 2016, Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss.

Return to Manufacturer

AdobeStock_76996362.jpegOne of the best purchases we ever made was a sleeping bag. Several years ago, Daniel needed a new sleeping bag as he was beginning his adventures as a Boy Scout. His old bag was a little embarrassing, as it was a “kiddie” sleeping bag, in bright colors. That was fine for a backyard family adventure, but not so good for tenting with the guys. So, for his birthday one year, we trekked down to Bass Pro Shops and found a mummy bag. It was a little on the expensive side, but I figured it would be worth it, because the brand had a good reputation.

The decision turned out to be a wise one. For several years, Daniel lugged that bag to campout after campout. One day, though, he came to me and complained that there was a problem with the zipper. “It won’t close,” he explained, and as I looked at it, I saw why. A couple of the teeth had been broken, so the zipper couldn’t engage to close.

We considered replacing the bag; after all, it had been four or five years. But I had heard that this particular company had a lifetime warranty, so I visited their website. Sure enough, I found that that they repair or replace the zipper, free of charge. All I had to do was send it back to the manufacturer in my own packaging. I was skeptical at first; I thought they might refuse to do the repair because it wasn’t a manufacturer’s defect; it was due to rough use, and they would certainly have been justified in saying “no”. But they assured me that they understood that the problem wasn’t any fault of theirs, but their brand was important to them, and this is why their program existed.

I filled out the forms, found a suitable box, and mailed it. A few weeks later, the very same box was sitting by the door. The manufacturer had replaced the zipper, cleaned the bag and it was as good as new.

I love companies will stand behind their brand. Some companies are famous for this. Of course, there are limitations, but if the problem results from normal use – and in some cases, minor misuse – they’ll usually take care of it. But they can’t fix it unless the customer makes the first step. You have to find the manufacturer and ask for help. It has to be costly for the company to do this; they would, of course, like to sell you a new product, but the price is acceptable to them because it’s part of their reputation for excellence.

Recently, it occurred to me that we are a lot like that sleeping bag; we’re broken from misuse. When God created us, we (and the world in which we lived) were perfect. God gave us the world and told us to have dominion over it. Imagine how perfect it was at first; fresh, shiny and new from its Creator. God, the flawless Creator of the Universe, gave it to us that way. Every creature, rock and blade of grass had its purpose in the Divine plan; it was a beautiful tapestry, resplendent in form and function.

He made us perfect, as well. Creating us in His image, he placed in us a Divine Spark of life, and walked with Adam and Eve (and, by extension, us) in the Garden. We could have lived like this forever in perfect peace and harmony. He gave us just one rule: “don’t eat the fruit from that tree.” But you know what happened next: tempted by the lying serpent, the First Couple took the fruit and ate, plunging everything into chaos.

Suddenly, everything changed because of this one willful act. Sin had entered the world, with its putrid corruption of what once was perfect. Ever since, things have been broken. The Earth suffers because of our brokenness, like an infection that spreads to others. Isaiah noted this in Isaiah 24: The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.

If you think about it, nothing works like it should because we have voided the warranty. It’s not a manufacturer’s defect; we know that all of Creation was pronounced “Good” by its Creator, and thus perfect. It would have continued to work perfectly until the end of time, had we not failed. But, remember, he gave us dominion and control over creation; what happens to it is up to us. And, let’s face it; we have done a pretty poor job. Things down here are a mess.

But (much more so than a sleeping bag company which takes the time to carefully craft a product and believes in it so much that it has a “lifetime warranty”) our Creator believes in his creation. God can – and will – restore us to original “mint” condition; we, too have a (true) lifetime warranty. But there is a price to pay: we’ve got to realize our brokenness, seek out the Manufacturer, and return ourselves to Him with a repair ticket. In the process, we must agree to change our self-destructive behavior and return ourselves to him.

If we do so, He will repair us, allowing us the right to become heirs in the ultimate family-owned company. He does this through the most generous return policy in the history of the universe; the Director of Refurbishment happens to be the Son of the Creator; he’s the only one who could handle the immense responsibility. His name is Jesus.

The price for this universal return program is immense; it cost the Son his royal throne as he came to live among us, lived a perfect life, and finally endured suffering on a cruel cross, rejected by the very people he came to save. All that sin and wrongdoing – yours and mine – were heaped on his shoulders as he died. But that wasn’t the end of the story! God raised him back to life, he walked the Earth for a while, then went home, where he is now preparing for our arrival. When his plans are completed, he will restore everything to its original factory condition, and will “make all things new” again. Even now, he still bears the scars as a reminder to us of what he did for us. Because of that incredible, undeserved, selfless act, we can be restored if we chose to accept the undeserved gift of grace.

If you recognize that there is something not right about your life, if you’re being tossed by the waves of happenstance and nothing seems to work out like it should, you are on the verge of uncovering the greatest truth in history. Your Creator made you, loves you, has never stopped pursuing you, and wants you back! But he also gave you the will to choose; you can continue to try to run things your own way, and take your chances that you can get everything right on your own.

Aren’t you tired from running around trying to control everything? Perhaps it’s time for you to send yourself back to the Manufacturer. When you return from that process, you will be different. Sure, you’ll still have to endure life; no one promised it would be easy. You’ll need to make some changes. But your life will have new purpose and direction; as a new creature, you will look at the world with fresh vision, and become a better human being as you carry out your Creator’s work. And one day, when this short existence is over, you can be sure you will be forever with him, as you embark on the adventures of the glorious infinity ahead.

If you are interested in finding out more about this wonderful, free universal return program, a good place to start is to click here, or just ask me or seek out someone at a local church. Whatever you do, I hope you will find the happiness and abundant life that can only come from the one who made you, loves you, plans for you and wants you back.

What is your Moriah?

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 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” – Genesis 22

When Abraham received this message from God, we don’t know what emotions he may have had. As a father, I can certainly imagine what my reaction would be: disbelief, fear, even anger. Perhaps I would have asked him to repeat himself, because I must have misunderstood. The writer of Genesis doesn’t indicate any of that, however; only that Abraham got up the next morning, gathered some supplies, summoned Isaac and a couple of servants, and set off to climb Mt. Moriah. The trip took him three days. During that time, as the four made their way to the mountain, it’s likely that Isaac and the young men were curious about the trip.

Abraham had waited a long time for Isaac to be born; he was a miracle child, born to Sarah who was not only infertile, she was more than 90 years old. By all accounts, Isaac was a good son, who made his father proud. I can imagine him helping his dad in the fields, learning all the big and small lessons that fathers and sons share. He probably knew about his half-brother Ishmael, who had been sent away with his mom Hagar.

When Abraham reached the appointed spot for the sacrifice, he was likely all business, building the altar. Then, looking at Isaac, Abraham likely would have commanded him to get on top of the altar, then allow himself to be covered with firewood. This unusual behavior would likely be starting to concern young Isaac, as he had never been told to get on the altar before. After all, that spot was reserved for the sacrifice – animals which had been ritually slaughtered. He even asked Abraham, “um, Dad, I don’t see a sacrificial animal around.” Nevertheless, Isaac obeyed. The next thing we hear, Abraham has taken his knife and has raised it to plunge it into Isaac’s heart. I have often asked myself how he could have done this. How could any father? But there is a lesson here; Abraham was so full of faith and trust in God that he knew he would get him through it somehow.

You know the rest of the story; just as Abraham was about to land the death blow on his son, an angel called from heaven and commanded him to stop. Abraham must have been filled with relief. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” the angel said. Immediately, Abraham noticed a ram, caught in a nearby bush by its horns. God had sent the ram to be the substitutionary sacrifice.

You see, sin demands a sacrifice. In the cosmic scheme of how things work, for the balance to be restored, there must be a sacrifice. When man first sinned, the connection between him and his Creator was broken. Ever since, we must have some help to make things right again. God was foreshadowing the substitutionary sacrifice of his only son, which would come thousands of years later.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of a son in the ancient world. A son was a man’s pride and joy, for he could carry on the family name and the genetic legacy. I remember the first time I looked at both of my boys, fresh from birth and taking their first ragged breaths in the big, cold world. I remember how it felt to hold them for the first time, and to know that I held the future and my legacy in my hands. And for Abraham, knowing that God had promised to make him the father of a great nation through Isaac, it must have been wrenching to have to make that choice. It was, in many ways, like committing suicide. His promised legacy was to be snuffed out before it had a chance to blossom. But, as a man of faith, he did God’s will anyway.

As I read that story, I got to thinking: what is my Mt. Moriah? What is God calling me to give up? Honestly, I have often wondered whether I would pass the test Abraham had to face. “Anything but that, God!” my answer would likely be. But if you think about it, the “anything but that” answer is the reason the question is asked in the first place.

We say we’re Christians; once, we asked Christ into our hearts and fundamentally change us. If genuine, that decision is irrevocable. Christ paid our debt on the cross, buying our redemption. The decision to follow Christ is the most important thing we will ever do. But what if doing so meant death? Ask that question of Christians in Syria these days, or elsewhere in the Muslim-dominated Middle East. Just recently, CNN confirmed a report that 12 Christians were thrown off a refugee ship, just for being Christians. If you could go back in time and ask the early Christians what sacrifice means, they’d tell you that it meant the possibility of being released in the Colosseum with hungry lions, while the crowds roared their approval at the spectacle, or being sawed into, or boiled alive. In a number of mass shootings in recent years, disturbed people, consumed by evil, have asked the question from behind a gun: Are you a Christian? If you knew that answering “yes” would mean your death, could you do that?

In truth, God calls us to lay everything down at Mt. Moriah. Whatever we value in our lives, anything that could possibly stand between us and Him, is what we are called to lay on the altar. Careers. Money. Status. Pride. Possessions. Relationships. Self-Worth. The older I get, the more I realize that all of the things we think are important in this world are simply not. God doesn’t care about any of that; his measure of value is vastly different than ours. He’s a lot more interested in souls than he is any mere object.

So, what is the one thing that you would be afraid to give up more than anything else? Your child? Your possessions? Your family? Your comfort? Your self-worth? Your life? As you think about the answer to that question, remember that God’s people have been commanded to lay these things and more on the altar. If we call ourselves Christians, it’s not for the faint-hearted. But if you have tasted the Living Water Jesus spoke about, you may have caught a glimpse of this profound truth: anything you could possibly give up in this short life is a small price to pay for the endless riches that await you in eternity. The greatness of Abraham on Mt. Moriah was not that he was a better human being than you or I; it was that he obeyed, even when given an unthinkable task. We are called to do no less. 

Caring for the Caregivers

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Jane Goff remembers when she noticed the first subtle signs that her mother was affected by Alzheimer’s. Her mom was suddenly forgetting the little things, like the details of cooking dinner. “Mama was a good cook, but she wasn’t quite together with everything in the kitchen; I noticed little things like that,” she recalls.

That was several years before Jane’s mom got her “official” diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. A progressive disease, Alzheimer’s cruelly attacks a person’s foundational dignity by causing forgetfulness, changes in thinking, behavior and, eventually, death. As her condition worsened, Jane’s mom would even fail to even recognize her own child. She passed away peacefully in 2007; more than 16 years after her family began to notice symptoms.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org), Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Researchers are struggling to understand the disease, its causes and possible cure, with current research focusing on a buildup of microscopic proteins – plaque — in brain cells, which sever connections between cells and lead to shrinkage of brain tissue.

But perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of Alzheimer’s is the toll it takes on caregivers, as they try to provide support for a loved one who is gradually losing his or her grasp on reality. Often, the patient and caregivers try to deny the disease or its effects and hide it from others. “She was real good at covering it up,” Jane notes about her mom. “For years, only her really close friends really knew what was going on. I realized Daddy didn’t understand the disease and I tried to get some information for him.”

Seeking some answers to help her father, Jane and her husband Bob (whose own mother was also being affected by Alzheimer’s), reached out to Broadmoor’s staff for advice. Looking around Broadmoor, they began to notice fellow members needing support as well. “I thought maybe we need to do something in our church that people wouldn’t go somewhere else for,” she recalls. So, in September 2004, they organized the first meeting of an Alzheimer’s support group. It was a tentative start, but soon the group began to gain traction. Working with local advocates and the Alzheimer’s Association of Mississippi, people began to come.

“The Lord would just kind of throw a speaker at us and it was always just what we needed,” she explains. “We would have a topic and I needed that information the next day. For example, one time we had a Christian attorney that worked with elder law. If my Daddy hadn’t heard him, he probably wouldn’t have had the paperwork required for me to provide for his healthcare, finances, and eventually his and his mother’s death.”

There are many such stories to come out of this ministry, with Jane reporting that many people have found God’s providing resources well in advance of when they are needed. One caregiver wrote Jane a poignant email, describing his experience with a group-sponsored program to educate caregivers about the disease. Caring for his wife through her challenges with Alzheimer’s was so challenging that he was at the end of his proverbial rope. “I can’t put my finger on when or what actually clicked in my noggin, but I see [wife’s name] in a totally different way. I had been giving her too much credit for what I thought she should know.”

“Thanks for being there and doing what you do,” the note continued. “She is going downhill faster than I wish to admit and I’m stretched and stressed into territory I didn’t know existed…as you know, it is tough to stand by and watch the world’s slowest fatal train wreck happen before your eyes.”

Jane keeps the email printout as a reminder of the daily toll Alzheimer’s takes on its victims, but also on their loved ones. Often, family members just don’t understand what’s going on and denial is common. Well-meaning loved ones will often “swoop in”, give advice and “swoop out”, sometimes leaving the caregiver in worse shape than before.

The risk for caregivers is very real. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that, in 2013, Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers had $9.3 billion in additional health care costs of their own. Almost a third reported experiencing depression.

It’s clear that the help they’re receiving at the monthly meetings is critical to their own physical, mental and spiritual health. More than 350 caregivers have attended the Alzheimer’s support group during the past 10 years, often coming from outside the Broadmoor family. Always, they find a warm welcome. “Sometimes people will come in and they’ll cry,” Bob notes. “The next month, they’re putting their arms around somebody else who needs it.”

One cruel aspect of Alzheimer’s is that the disease is progressive and will not get better. But the progression is often unpredictable, with patients often experiencing periods of lucidity, followed by a return of severe symptoms. “They need to understand what they’re dealing with,” notes Jane. “They’ve got to know what’s coming and to understand this will not get better.”

“Someone in the family is always in denial,” adds Bob, “like it’s going to go away. And sometimes the spouse will try to cover up for the other spouse. The children really don’t know what’s going on.”

Caregivers find it a welcome respite from their stressful jobs and often are trying to balance work with their caregiver responsibilities. But despite the pressure of dealing with their loved one’s decline, group sessions aren’t always gloom-and-doom. There is hope and even laughter. “You’ve got to find something funny, or you’ll cry,” Bob notes.

“I personally can’t stress how important it is for us to have a caring church that provides a location, staff to send our postcards, information included in our publications, and assistance with some electronic media. We couldn’t do it without all of their help,” Jane notes.

The group meets on the first Monday of each month at 6:00 p.m. (except December). For more information, call the church office at (601) 898-2345.

Students find surrogate parents at Mike and Missy’s

Medical School is hard — really hard. The long hours, lack of sleep, constant studying, patient care and pressure create a crucible for which few are prepared. Students in medical professions have been shown to have a higher rate of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and suicide than people in other professions.

On the other side of that process, though, is one of the world’s most noble and respected professions – healer. If they’re going to get through it all, they’ll need lots of support, love and encouragement, and the best ones to give it are those who have been through it.

It’s a warm summer evening in the Ridgeland home of Mike and Missy McMullan. One by one, young adults file in to the McMullans’ kitchen, where a buffet sits ready. This night, Missy has prepared a nice Louisiana gumbo. Hungry medical students grab their plates and sit down.

The house buzzes with conversation. A casual listener would be confused at the jargon and topics – lots of words ending with –ectomy and –itis waft through the air. You can hear snippets of stories about fellow students, problematic professors and difficult cases, mixed in with the standard millennial talk about vacations, families and music.

Tired from having been up since 2:00 a.m. seeing patients and performing procedures (he will be getting up in the wee hours tomorrow to do it all again), Mike would be forgiven for putting his feet up and relaxing. But you wouldn’t know he was exhausted; he engages cheerfully in conversation, asking about the med students’ weeks, and sharing jokes and stories.

After a while, the crowd begins to disappear into the McMullans’ activity room. Students sit on chairs and sofas as Mike reads a Scripture passage and gives students some things to think about. Members of the group raise their hands to share. Some talk about family crises or problems friends are having; others share about their own trials during the day. Some don’t elaborate, but ask for prayers as they struggle with common and uncommon issues. It doesn’t take an observer long to realize that this is, in many ways, a family.

The McMullans know a thing or two about the medical profession, making them uniquely qualified to serve in their roles as surrogate parents to this group. Mike is a cardiologist who serves as director of the Congenital Heart Program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, while Missy took a break from her career as a nurse a few years ago. The McMullans are empty-nesters, having raised their own two kids of their own, but they’re more than happy to keep the nest open to help provide a safe haven for Mike’s students and others in health-related professions.

Allison Pace Rogers of Madison is one of those. A native of Madison who grew up in Broadmoor and who is just about to begin her residency in Birmingham, Allison  and her husband Jake (a banker) had been trying to figure out just where to fit in. A medical student’s schedule just didn’t seem to mesh well with traditional small-groups. “On Sunday mornings, they wanted to go to lunch and meet for two hours after that, but when you’re in med school, you just don’t have time, so you just don’t go,” she noted. “At that point, it’s all or none.”

Frustrated at her and Jake’s inability to find a place to plug in, she talked to “Dr. Mike” (one of her instructors at UMMC.)

“It was a God thing, of course,” she explains. “We were frustrated because we hadn’t found anything we could really plug into. He was saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about getting back into leading a small group.’ We thought this could be a really cool thing if we did it on a weeknight, and we could come, there’s low pressure. That’s one of the good things about it. If you don’t come for a few weeks, nobody’s like, ‘where have you been?’ because we’re all in the medical field.”

So, Allison and Jake and a few others formed the nucleus of what would become a large group, with about 50 students on the list. Students come hungry, and often in need of encouragement.

“Sometimes we’ve had hard weeks at the hospital, or something like that, and it’s nice to be in a group of people who understand what that’s like,” Allison explains. “They’re very supportive,” she explains of Mike and Missy. “The first couple of years, it’s all school-related, and you need support. After that, it’s patients.”

Allison notes that a particularly hard challenge to overcome is the inevitable fact faced by nearly every physician — the death of a patient. Losing a patient brings on a set of emotions that have to be dealt with, often quickly. Due to the workload, needs of other patients and the expectation of professionalism, many experts believe that medical students don’t inadequately deal with grief. Not dealing with grief can have severe implications later if not adequately addressed.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of the effects of grief among oncologists, one commenter compared the grief experienced by doctors after the death of a patient to smoke:

“Like smoke, this grief was intangible and invisible. Nonetheless, it was pervasive, sticking to the physicians’ clothes when they went home after work and slipping under the doors between patient rooms. Of greatest significance to our health care system is that some of the oncologists’ reactions to grief reported in our study (e.g., altered treatment decisions, mental distraction, emotional and physical withdrawal from patients) suggest that the failure of oncologists to deal appropriately with grief from patient loss may negatively affect not only oncologists personally but also patients and their families.”

“The first time you have a patient die, the hard stuff like that, it’s tough,” Allison explained. “But it’s encouraging to have somebody who’s been through it, to support you through it, and to show you the Lord through it.”

It’s now 8:30 p.m., and the students are saying their good-byes. Much of the conversation centers on the group’s upcoming medical mission trip to Haiti. Finally getting to relax a bit, Mike reflects on the day and how the group formed. Originally, the idea for the group began to coalesce when he was in his cardiology practice. Cognizant of the fact that Sundays wouldn’t be a good time to have the group because many of the students did their rounds on Sunday morning, Mike tried for Wednesdays. “Wednesday was my day off at Jackson Heart, because I always wanted to be at choir practice, so I know I’d never be on call that night,” he explains.

”We wanted to provide food, so they’d have a chance to unwind and sit back,” he elaborates. “We have food for a few minutes, Bible study for an hour, and then they can get back and study. Because we are all medical people, we know everybody has crazy schedules, so they don’t feel guilty if they can’t come. We say, “Come when you can, and when you can’t, we understand.”

Mike adds that a key reason for the group is to help support marriages. Drawing upon their own experiences as a married medical couple, Mike and Missy understand how hard it can be to keep a marriage together – whether both are in medicine, or not. “In my medical school class, of all the women who were married when they started, they were all divorced when we left — except one,” he explains. “We tried to make sure we included medical or non-medical spouses; we really focused on trying to keep marriages strong. And that’s why Missy and I do it together. I want [non-medical spouses] to see what their spouses go through so that they can appreciate it and each group can understand each other.”

Secondly, medical students – especially Christian ones — need mentors. Older students are encouraged to develop mentor relationships with students just coming in to the program. “You’ve got somebody in the class ahead of you who’s a Christian, somebody you can get to know, that you can sort of model and have a mentor,” he notes.

Often, though, students just need familiar surroundings. Since many students’ parents and families are from outside the area, they need some place where they can feel at home. And the McMullans are only too happy to oblige. “They’re like our children,” Mike explains. “We’re like their parents away from their parents for the ones from out of state, so it’s nice for them to have somewhere to go our somebody to call if they’ve got a flat tire, or need somebody to pray for them, somebody to pick them up or things like that. It’s just a fun group of kids.”

Doc

A visit Dr. Jim Futral’s Jackson office is like a trip to an eagles’ nest. Eagles are everywhere, in stone, wood, pottery and glass, in flight or at rest. Most have been given to him by friends and well-wishers, composing a collection that is likely to be unrivalled anywhere in Mississippi. From his window in the Baptist Building, Dr. Futral (many just call him “Doc”) can look out on the Mississippi State Capitol. On this idyllic spring day, high schoolers are making their way around the Capitol Grounds, azaleas dotting the landscape.

Jim is seated with his hands steepled as he reminisces about the first time he heard he was being considered for Pastor of Broadmoor Baptist Church back in 1985. After making three quiet visits to hear Jim preach in Fort Worth, Texas, Broadmoor’s Pastoral Search Committee called him to express their interest. “They said, ‘We feel led to talk to you.’” he remembers. “I said, ‘I’m not looking to leave; have you narrowed this down or do you feel like I’m the one you’re supposed to talk to?’ and they said, ‘We’ve got two others we want to visit.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You just go visit the other two and if you feel led to them, you don’t owe me a call or anything, you just go ahead and do what God tells you to do. But after you follow through with them, if you still feel like I’m the one you’re supposed to talk to, contact me and I’ll see what I’ll do.” It was to be the beginning of a journey. “The rest,” he notes with a broad smile, “is history.”

Born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Jim is the son of the late Guy Futral, a respected pastor, and Mary Sue Futral.  At the age of nine, Jim gave his life to Christ at Pheba Baptist Church in Clay County. That decision set his life on a course that would take him far beyond anything he could have then imagined. Surrendering to the ministry at 18, the young Jim was licensed to preach in 1962 in Starkville (where he had finished high school, much to the amusement of those who today know his deep love for Ole Miss). Jim found his first pastorate at Whittentown Baptist Church in Ripley in 1964, after being ordained at Hickory Flat Baptist Church in Benton County. Around the same time, he made what many regard as his second-wisest decision, asking a young lady by the name of Shirley Moore to be his wife. Jim and Shirley will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, three children and eight grandchildren richer. Their three children, Melodi, Rob and Mysti and their families all attend Broadmoor, where Rob is Pastor.

Jim really didn’t plan on leaving North Fort Worth Baptist Church and hauling his growing family back to Mississippi. Having just led that church through a move process, he wasn’t ready for a new challenge – or so he thought. But God had other plans. “As this began to unfold, I began to realize that this is what God had made me for, that this is the kind of church, this is the kind of people and the kind of place that I would love to serve,” he recalls.

Having pastored in Mississippi for many years before moving to Texas, Jim was familiar with Broadmoor’s reputation and was a great admirer of its long-time pastor, Dr. David Grant. Dr. Grant had retired two years before and the church had been in a long search process ever since.

When he first got to Broadmoor, Jim was certain the church would be staying put on its property in north Jackson. “I was pretty much convinced that if I came there, I would never have to lead this church in relocation because of the beautiful setting, beautiful facility and all the pieces,” he remembers. “But it wasn’t too long before I realized, ‘what are we going to do for space?’”

When Broadmoor had first located to the corner of Northside and Manhattan three decades before, the neighborhood was just developing and there was plenty of room. Now, the neighborhood had encircled the church property, limiting space for possible expansion.

Over the next few years, Broadmoor went through several possible scenarios: expand current facilities or replace them. Votes were held and plans were laid. But Jim began to get more and more uncomfortable with the idea of staying. “It was not going to work. The further we went, the more I realized, ‘this is wrong; this is not the right direction for this church.’ Eventually, I preached a sermon that a lot of the older people called THE Sermon. I said, ‘We are going in the wrong direction; we cannot stay here and build this facility. If we do, it will stand here on Northside Drive as a monument to our shortsightedness and our spiritual stupidity.’”

Although the prospect of a move had “overwhelming” support from Broadmoor’s membership, nothing happened for a year. Jim reports that he had no peace about a particular direction; only a sense that the church needed to wait. “It was an interesting year of uncertainty,” he remembers. “For six months, I made it the priority of my life to pray for God to tell me what he wanted me to do as the Pastor of Broadmoor Baptist Church.”

At the end of that season of prayer, Jim called together some former deacon chairs and some of the staff. He hadn’t discussed his plans with any of them, but needed to sound out his direction. “I told them, ‘I believe in you, so much so that if you think I am doing the wrong thing, you’ll tell me,’ he remembers. ‘If you don’t think this is right, you tell me, because I believe in you.’ Around that table, I laid this out, that we are not going to build here and we are going to move in a different direction and build and Broadmoor Baptist Church is going to be greater than it has ever been. When I got through telling them, I asked for their reaction. Every one of them said, ‘We have been waiting for you to tell us this.’”

By that point, his direction was clear. “I had an affirmation in my heart that I knew. One of the deacons came to me when we were voting on the property and asked, ‘what if when we vote today, everybody here votes against this except you? What will you think?’ I said, ‘I will think they’re all wrong, because I know this is right.’ I wasn’t being arrogant; I just knew.”

A new piece of property was located and purchased, ideally situated in the fast-growing Madison area and over the next several years, the population of Madison would explode.

Rob believes that God has had His hand on Broadmoor and its leaders all throughout its history, as part of a larger story. “God wanted Broadmoor to have another opportunity. We’ve had another chance to impact multiple generations in a new location, just as at the former location. Broadmoor has always been a progressive church, innovative, I think effective,” he notes, “really desiring to make a difference in people’s lives, to help carry out the mission of the church that Jesus gave us.”

The new facility was taking shape when Dr. Futral got a call from another search committee; this time, they were looking for someone to lead the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board. He had previously served as president of the Convention and on the executive committee.

“I had no intention of coming here,” he says of the Convention Board. “This is not who I am – I’m not an executive of something – I’m a pastor of a Baptist Church. When the committee interviewed me, I said, ’If you want me to come here and try to be the pastor of Mississippi Baptists, I’ll do that, but I’m not going to come here and sit and just be a CEO of a denomination.’ They said, ‘That’s what we want you to do.’ Sixteen years I’ve been here, but I’m still just a pastor at heart, it’s what God made me to be. That’s what I want, that’s what I do and that’s what I’ll die doing. Just embrace the state and love the people of the state and love people coming to know the Lord.”

464173122_1280x720 (1)In his work as Executive Secretary/Treasurer of the Convention Board, Jim has preached in all 82 counties and 92 county seats (he points out that some counties actually have two county seats.) His work has taken him around the nation and world and he’s grateful to serve because he realizes he’s part of something important. “You realize what a heritage you are handed, a heritage of my dad and my mom, what they gave me and enabled me to experience,” he says. “For me to have the privileges and blessings and responsibilities that God has given me, I am just absolutely amazed.”

His education includes degrees from Clarke College, Blue Mountain College and Bachelor’s and Doctoral degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s also received two honorary doctorates, from his alma mater Blue Mountain College and from William Carey University. At the time of this writing, he’s slated to get a third, from Mississippi College.

Looking back over the years, Jim is amazed at the plan that was at work, but confesses that he was never concerned about the long-term outcome of the work. “I never worried about my place in the equation and I don’t to this day,” he explains. “I don’t know how many times somebody has asked me, ‘I know you must be so proud to see how God has validated what you did.’ I never think about that, I never really cared about that; it’s about Him.”

Jim’s fatherly pride is evident when you mention Rob. Jim and Shirley’s membership is at Broadmoor, but Jim is often away, taking the pulpit in churches around the state. Interestingly, father and son have switched roles, as Rob is now Jim and Shirley’s pastor. Jim makes it clear that he has always tried to stay out of the way as Rob has come into his own as a pastor and gives pastor-to-pastor advice only when asked to do so. “He’s my son, but he’s God’s man. I pray that God will use him,” he explains.

Rob is equivocal in his admiration of his dad. “It’s such a unique thing for a son to pastor a church where his dad was pastor,” he explains. “We’re getting to do ministry today and we’re moving toward the future ministry of Broadmoor and building on the foundation of faithfulness. When one of those past leaders is your own dad, it’s special.”

As for the future, Jim smiles and notes that we are all just “walking through the fog,” requiring that we “trust God with that next step. I will keep doing that until God calls me home and I’ll trust him with that step, too.”

October: the month for …everything

via Moak: Oct. is the month for everything, clarionledger.com, 10/26/2015

Did you know Oct. 19 was National Seafood Bisque Day? That’s right; on this solemn occasion, we paid well-deserved homage to this amazing soup, and its contributions to Western Civilization. Seafood bisque fanciers were encouraged to go out, order a bowl of seafood bisque, and think of the shrimp, crabs, lobsters and other assorted crustaceans who gave their all so we could savor the creamy goodness of a well-prepared bisque.

Now, before all you seafood chefs, restaurateurs and soup aficionados send me nasty emails (worse yet, recipes…), please let me get to my point: For just about every cause known to man, there is a month, or week, or day to celebrate it. And there is no month that is more chock-full of observances than October. The site nationaldaycalendar.com lists no fewer than 111 known designations for the month of October. And that’s just the month; there an additional 60 designations for various weeks during October, and each day of the month has at least one — some have as many as 10 — designated events.

Of course, we all know the biggest of the October observances is Breast Cancer Awareness month. (For anybody who’s been living under a rock the past few weeks, that explains why everything from the White House to the shoes of NFL linemen is suddenly Pepto-pink.) But of course, Breast Cancer Awareness— as serious a topic as it is — doesn’t hold exclusive reign on the month of October. Many (AIDS, Down Syndrome, Domestic Violence, to name a few) are serious; others are a little tongue-in-cheek. There is Feral Hog Month, International Starman month (yes, apparently in honor of the 1984 movie and subsequent TV series); National Cookie Month (love that one); and — strangely enough — both Positive Attitude Month and National Sarcastic Awareness Month.

October’s commemorative days and weeks are many, although some are a little difficult to verify. There is “Chucky the Notorious Killer Doll Day” on Oct. 25; National Fluffernutter Day (Oct. 8; named in honor of a marshmallow dessert); National Brandied Fruit Day (Oct. 20); and — not to be outdone by the hogs — National Feral Cat Day on Oct. 16.

So, since apparently anyone can create a day, week or month to observe anything (and since there is not currently a National Mississippi-is-Awesome Day), let’s spend a few minutes coming up with some just for us denizens of the state we lovingly call home. Here are a few ideas:

  • Confuse a condescending Yankee Month: This observance would codify a long and proud tradition of Mississippians who travel anywhere outside the South. You are sitting at a restaurant or hotel lobby with a group of people from around the nation, and when they hear your Southern accent or find out you’re from Mississippi, they either ask you to talk for them, or give that quick “I am going to look to see if you’re wearing shoes” look. (You know that look; they can’t help themselves.) This month would allow Mississippians to suspend our normal, kindly “Bless your heart” forbearance our mamas taught us and encourage us to comically exaggerate our Southern accent, or to look at them blankly and say in our deepest, most nasal twang, “Dang it; I wish somebody had told me about this ‘shoe’ thing before now!” Then, sit back and observe the ensuing chaos with a bemused expression.
  • Turn Signal Awareness Week: Either Mississippi’s educational system has utterly failed to educate drivers about how to use that little lever on the left side of the steering column, or the devices disappear from the observable universe once the driver closes the door. Whatever the cause of what I’ll call “turn-signal blindness,” it’s obviously reached epidemic proportions and needs immediate remedy and awareness. (A sister malady called “turn signal deafness” is manifest when you’re going down I-55 in the left lane and the left-turn signal is flashing determinedly, signifying your intention to go around the world to the left.) It could be that both of these illnesses are incurable, but we at least have to try.
  • Make-Your-Own-Music-Trail Week: It should be obvious by now that every highway, street and honky-tonk in Mississippi merits inclusion on some “trail” or other. We have the Blues Trail, the Country Music Trail, etc., and I have it on good authority that more are planned. Since German tourists are just itching to see where Robert Johnson once trimmed his fingernails as he sat on his guitar case, gazing at the desolate Delta landscape, or where Tammy Wynette got her wisdom teeth out while she fumed at George, let’s keep it rolling. During this special week, Mississippians would be urged to look around and mark the places of special musical significance. For example, the church where their granddaddy learned to sing from a shape-note hymnal, the local honky-tonk that mysteriously burned one Saturday night, or the place where Elvis had a flat tire. Once you’ve identified at least two sites, you can create signs for the Bogue Chitto Country/Gospel/Blues/Hip-hop Trail (for example), then sit back and watch the Dutch tourists roll in.
  • Hug-a-Traffic-Barrel Day: Those ubiquitous orange-and-white barrels have become such a part of the landscape here in Mississippi that they have taken on something of a personality. Our love-hate relationship with these harbingers of danger has become the stuff of legend, but it’s obvious these little reflective guys don’t get enough love. So many are scraped, dented and battered, having to sit all day in the hot Mississippi sun. On this special day, drivers would be urged to find a traffic barrel (away from a construction site, of course; don’t be stupid) and give it a big bear hug to show that we really appreciate them in all their gaudy, plastic glory, and if we happen to catch one with our bumper, we’re sorry.
  • Let-the-Landmass-Go Week: Back in 2012, as The Weather Channel was discussing the impending arrival of Hurricane Isaac, many people said they heard Mississippi referred to as the “landmass” between New Orleans and Mobile. Many of us subsequently became offended at this obvious dis from the folks who should know better; after all, they can tell us (with pinpoint accuracy) that the tornado is going to hit the west side of Main Street, not the east. The event exploded on local social media outlets, even spawning a Facebook page and goading Mississippi native Shepard Smith of Fox News into chastising The Weather Channel on the air. Since then, some have argued they saw and heard the event; other say it never happened. Regardless, maybe it’s time to let bygones be bygones. This week would allow Mississippians to finally forgive the Weather Channel (remembering the brave-yet-foolhardy Jim Cantore standing in storm surge during Katrina).  As Mark Twain observed, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Could it be time to let it go?

These are just a few suggestions; I’d bet you have more. And, for the record, I love a good seafood bisque.

Remembering Monty

IMG_2862(Originally published on Facebook, 9/10/2015)

Today would have been this young man’s 56th birthday. Randall Montgomery “Monty” Moak left us way too soon; in a couple of weeks, it will be 39 years since he crossed the bridge.

I remember how my big brother would pick on me and drive me crazy with his antics; I suppose I got on his nerves too. But I also remember how he would fight for me; a shy, scrawny kid could have no better bodyguard than Monty. I think about what he might have become, with his quick wit, gregarious nature and love of tinkering around with engines.

Monty’s loss changed us all in profound ways; it took years for me even to realize just how deeply it had changed me. It’s said that time heals all wounds, and in a way, that’s true; the sharp edges of the pain can be worn away by the years. Sometimes, though, the memories can come in a flood, triggered by some sight or smell.

In those moments, the years are suddenly erased, and, for a moment, I’m back at that crisp yet terrible autumn day in 1976. Other times, we’re kids, saying our prayers around the breakfast table, or going to the swimhole in that green Volkswagen, or listening to Bad Company on the way to school. There are a thousand pictures in the album of my memories of him, some becoming faded around the edges.

But while the pounding waves of time flail mercilessly against the memories, they crash ineffectively against the impervious tendrils of love and connection, forged in our shared experience of family. We may forget details as the years press on, but the heart never really forgets; the soul knows this life is just the rail platform we must cross before we board the train towards our true home.

Because I believe in the risen Christ, and I know you did too, my brother, I know we will see each other once again. But until that day, I’ll press on, missing you all the while.

(I wrote an extensive post some years ago about the day we lost Monty. See Darkest Day.)

Mississippi’s Complicated

The past is never dead; it’s not even past. – William Faulkner, in Requiem for a Nun

The flag debate of the past few days has stirred the proverbial pot in ways few others could. A healthy, honest debate is always good, but can quickly get nasty if people make assumptions about each other’s motives.

Mississippi is a complicated place, and anyone who was raised here knows that issues around race relations go much deeper than they seem. Nearly every family with Mississippi roots has stories which hint at shared history with the family of a different color just over the hill. Some are positive, some not so much.

In my family, one particular story is that my great-grandfather (who fought for the Confederacy) stood up to the Klan to protect a family of black sharecroppers. Other stories tell of white families owing their very lives to the help provided by black neighbors, of families sharing their produce to help them survive brutal winters, of black and white children growing up together, etc. You don’t hear much about these things in the popular media, but the stories persist in Mississippi – and I suspect in the larger South as well. And I suspect that at least some of them are true.

There is one inescapable truth that must be faced: the past bore its share of injustices, the legacies of which are being felt to this day.

The last few days have seen a lot of people trying to point out why the Civil War was fought in the first place. It’s as if the war is still being fought. Battle lines are drawn; positions established and fortified; aggressors muster to march and take the heavily-defended hill; casualties mount. It seems to matter little that 15 decades have passed since that fateful meeting at the Appomattox Courthouse which brought the war to an end (April 9 marked the sesquicentennial). That day marked the beginning of Reconstruction, in which the once-proud South was humbled in an era of soul-sucking poverty.

The dreams of black parents for their children to have a brighter future had been sown, but those dreams crashed headlong into the bleak reality of the place and time. Most Southerners — regardless of their color — could only look forward to decades of poverty and hopelessness. Some white Southerners turned their anger and resentment on the former slaves and on the government; most just tried the best they could to feed their families. But through it all, life went on. Babies were born; hope for a brighter future was renewed with each newborn cry. And the complex relationships that grew out of that period of shared pain are still evident today.

But here we are in 2015, and the war still rages while the rest of the world rolls its collective eyes. It’s happened before, and will again. But this time, something was different; what ripped open the old wound this time were the shocking actions of a deranged kid in whose heart the seeds of hate were planted, and then which blossomed into a spasm of indescribable atrocity against people in the house of God.

Any issue which pokes the bear of Mississippi race relations is bound to get a visceral reaction from the people who live here (regardless of their skin color). In the past couple of days, I’ve seen a lot of social-media nastiness, and ascription of motives that may or may not exist. Some of those who advocate for changing the flag accuse those who want to keep the flag (or consider the issue settled) of racial motives, backward thinking or even outright hatred. Some of those who want to keep the current flag accuse those advocating for change of trying to commit cultural genocide, caving to political pressures of the day, or even being part of some Machiavellian plot to destroy Western Civilization. Logic suggests the truth may be somewhere between.

Because I love Mississippi and have deep roots in her red soil, these events bring me pain. The rest of the world shows its ignorance of the real Mississippi I know and love every time they bring out those worn-out Hollywood clichés, but those of us who actually live here know how shallow they are. Every time I see one of these, I laugh a little inside because the joke’s on them, but I cry a little inside because it hurts a place I love and maybe it stings because it contains a kernel of truth.

Back in 2010, I sensed that the flag issue would one day come up again, and it got me thinking. If the flag did change, would we want it to be decided by outsiders, or even the politicians we’ve elected? And if so, what would be the result? Would it be a flag that bore no ties the past which is at once vilified and glorified (in both cases, often justifiably)?  Would it be a symbol devoid of meaning, so steeped in inoffensive content that no one cares? Looking back in Mississippi history, I found an option: The Magnolia Flag. (Google it.) Just maybe, I thought, instead of crashing the plane in a spasm of change-for-the-sake-of-change (which in the end benefits no one), what if we were able to control the descent, so what we ended up with was something that all Mississippians could embrace? If the flag is to change, shouldn’t it be to something we can stand behind? Perhaps we could take the Magnolia Flag, with its white background and “Bonnie Blue” star, and add something else, to represent our future? What if we got our kids to make the decision? That’s how Alaska got its beautiful “Big-Dipper” flag, after a 1926 contest in what was then the Alaska Territory.

So, my fellow Mississippians, what say you? Could we back up a little and think before we ascribe motives?  If you support changing the flag, before you dig your heels in and assume that people don’t want the flag changed because of racism, could you consider that perhaps people are acting out of an ancient independent streak, don’t like being told what to do and see this as part of a continuing attack on — and erosion of — personal freedom and culture? If you support keeping the flag, before you dig your heels in and pour cement around your feet, could you stop and think about how the main thing that makes Mississippi such a special place is the way we care about and for each other? Could you give your fellow Mississippians the benefit of the doubt and consider that they may be trying to help our state grow and prosper?

The Mississippi I know is more than a “landmass” between Alabama and Louisiana; more than a series of past events; more than others believe us to be. We’re three million people sharing 48,434 square miles of land, each with our hopes, fears and dreams for our children. Our ancestral roots may be in Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, or right here in North America. (It’s likely that most us are a combination of those.) In a way, we bear the heart and soul of America. (It’s no coincidence that Mississippi is the “Birthplace of America’s Music”.) That’s a special legacy. But in the days to come, if we’re not careful, we could lose something we can’t afford to lose. That would be a tragedy indeed.