Four funerals and a wedding

march 5Reaching the 57th floor of my existence hasn’t been the smoothest elevator ride. Sure, there have been plenty of floors that have passed without a worry. Then, there are those rides where I’ve ascended too fast, dropped a few floors, stalled, rumbled, rattled, and limped toward my destination. On recent rides, one particular date seems to bring a either a dramatic rise, or a heart stopping fall.

March 5th.

On March 5, 2011, my father passed away after a lengthy fight with prostate cancer.

March 5, 2016, is the day my middle child married the man of her dreams.

Now comes March 5, 2017. Another ear piercing drop.

Gary Rothwell and I became best buddies when we were 5-years-old. My father accepted a new job at the University of Florida midway through the school year, so I was a late arrival at P.Y. Yonge, a rather eye opening and tolerant institution just a pebble’s throw from the famous graffiti covered wall on Highway 441 in Gainesville, Florida. On my first day of kindergarten, the teacher introduced me to the class.

“Children, this is Jerry.”

Gary Rothwell was one of the first to greet me.

“Hey,” exclaimed one of our classmates. “Jerry and Gary. That rhymes.”

After that, Gary and I were inseparable. I say that, but there were plenty of teachers over the years who did their best to separate us. I was a rambunctious child, and Gary was my go-to partner in mischief. We were constantly scheming to keep the school entertained, or at the very least, keep ourselves entertained. We were class clowns, the self-appointed merry pranksters. We never broke the law, but I imagine we caused more than a few teachers to regret their career choice.

It’s a friendship that has transcended graduation and adulthood. So, when March 5, 2011, arrived, Gary went out of his way to attend my father’s funeral. Likewise, when Gary’s mother passed away on March 5, 2017, I planned a trip back home to my beloved Gainesville, Florida.

To make the journey, I would need a day off of work. We, meaning WXIA-TV, were already shorthanded,  so I would need to labor beyond my normal hours to accommodate my absence. No one gave me that directive. I came up with it all on my own. I mentioned something to that effect to Gary, who clearly noticed my hurried, anxious tone. He responded with a statement as wise as King Solomon.

“Do what you need to do,” Gary quipped. “But it’s not like they can’t do without you.”

There are moments when I am actually arrogant enough to think the world of television news just can’t possibly survive a moment without me. My priorities run amuck, leading to long days and long absences from home that end with my brain still pounding with the call of unfinished tasks. My loved ones patiently wait their turn as I’m consumed with the self-imposed demands of a world that only cares for me when I give mile after extra mile.

Gary’s message was clear. He wanted and needed my company and my comfort. There’s no way to measure the accomplishment of simply being at his side for a few hours in his time of mourning. No one waiting on my “to do” list was upset when I informed them why their issue would have to wait until the following week. It’s not like Atlanta isn’t filled with capable news reporters ready and willing to fill my void, and quite adequately. No one’s television screen went dark during my absence. No one yearned for my increasingly gray locks. No one complained that their morning passed without the sound of my familiar yet mediocre voice.

Also waiting for me in my hometown was my mother. The loss of my father six years ago has left quite a void on NW 24th Way. She recently endured hip replacement surgery, and isn’t getting around quite as easily as she once did. I can’t fill the hole left by the departure of my well accomplished dad, but two days spent by my mom’s side, reminiscing, watching basketball, treating each other to dinner and a movie, are more valuable than any breaking news coverage, more treasured than twenty Emmy awards.

It’s a lesson I need to remember every single day. My hand can do more good holding  my wife in prayer than it can writing a million news stories. My voice is more valuable telling my children, “I love you,” than it is reminding Atlanta of its most serious traffic issues.

It’s not that my job is unimportant. I don’t plan to stop giving my all at work. I’m far too obsessive. But as funerals and weddings (I got an invitation to another today, the daughter of a friend) appear at the elevator door more frequently, I need to be more aware of the value of my attention. No tweeting when my wife wants to talk. No sneaking around to text when I’m supposed to be helping her with her Bible study. No drifting off to plan the rest of my week when friends, loved ones, or neighbors need my ear.

You never know when it might be someone else’s March 5th.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to take this call from my daughter. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, it’s because I’m on the phone with my mom.

Forgive me.

The elevator is rising toward the 58th floor.

I’d love it to be a smooth ride, but it’s not likely. So, may the doors open to ways I can make that ride a little easier for someone else.

 

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The heart of darkness

Twitter is giving 2016 a harsh goodbye. Facebook, too. Everywhere I look, the brokenhearted are eager to rip December out of their virtual calendar and start anew.

I understand2017. This will not go down as one of my favorite years. 2016 is the multi-car pile up that ruins a trip to the beach. I survived with a badly damaged hood, scrapes along the front panel, dragging my back bumper toward 2017. At least I have insurance that come in the form of loving friends and family. I’m going to have to change four flat tires and rebuild my engine before I can finish that trip to the beach, but I’ll make it. There is sunlight at the edge of darkness.

It’s not really 2016’s fault. The year itself didn’t participate in vitriolic political debates, didn’t end the life of a single celebrity, nor did it take part in any of the mass shootings around the world. 2016 arrived like a fresh set of downs for a struggling offense. It offered optimism, hope, another chance. It’s crazy to think an altered number on our daily planner will erase our problems, but there’s a feeling that comes with the segue from December to January. It’s almost like the champagne and fireworks are delivered with a reset button. Push it, and life is good again.

I had that kind of optimism when 2016 awoke.

The first part of the year was pure bliss. My daughter was married in March. I danced on clouds, breathing thin air, as lightheaded as a circus balloon. Unfortunately, when the clouds began to dissipate, I didn’t have the legs to provide a solid landing.

Heartbreak came in waves.

There was the car wreck that ended a young life, a member of our church youth group, a friend of our daughter, the child of my own friends.

There is the tragedy and confusion that descended on other dear friends as harmful influences imbedded its toxic fangs in their son.

The brother of a young girl I’d mentored at church died in a motorcycle accident.

More recently, we received news that my sister’s latest cancer treatment has failed, dragging her back to the cruelty of chemotherapy as the tumors on her liver spread.

With all of that hanging over me, I wasn’t prepared for the sucker punch, delivered beneath my appendix scar, that sparked a series of confusing events that are too personal and painful to detail here. It sent me spiraling into the depths of uncertainty and depression. For days, I walked around in an Alaska winter, with moments of light covered by immense darkness.

I’m doing my best to focus on that light.

It would be foolish of me to sit in a dark corner and sulk. That would mean ignoring all of the bright, beautiful blessings that rained down upon me in 2016. It would mean turning my back on a God who is always there, holding a lantern to guide me away from gloom and misery. It would mean licking my wounds while friends and family who have faced far greater challenges over the past year stand strong. For my sister Nancy, 2016 was the pitbull that grabbed her in its powerful jaws and shook her like a stuffed toy. The cancer marches through her body, leaving painful footprints. The treatments leave her weak and disappointed. And yet, she finds the strength to smile. The harder cancer works to extinguish her light, the more Nancy shines.

How can I let my stupid little pitiful problems drag me down when I see perseverance like that?

Nothing grows well in darkness except anger and resentment. With the help of God’s light, I can see my way toward forgiveness. If I can’t heal and forgive, then I can’t expect others to forgive me for my indiscretions.

If I can’t move on from my own petty problems, I can’t be there for the people who need my love and support through their more significant struggles.

Rather than looking upon the negatives of 2016, perhaps I should be thankful for the opportunities to love, comfort, forgive, to mature and grow closer to a God who dearly wants me strong and happy.

2016, you are forgiven.

In fact, thank you. Thank you for shining a bright light on the many blessings that trump any of my difficulties, for encouraging me to tend to the needs of others, and for forcing me to realize God must come first, ahead of my own selfish desires. I can’t thank you for the difficulties you imposed on my friends and family, for they continue to struggle. But I can thank you for opening my eyes to the absolute need to focus on them, not me.

The calendar isn’t all that needs to change.

I need to change, too.

 

The Don of a new day

screenshot-2016-11-10-at-6-00-39-pmTen times, I’ve entered a voting booth with the hopes of sending the candidate of my choice to the White House. More often than not, the candidate I picked was not elected. The following day, the sun arrived in the east. My family still loved me. The earth failed to crack open and swallow our nation whole.

Life goes on.

Our nation has survived a political season like none I’ve ever seen. I say we’ve survived, and yet there are some people who behave as if Thomas Jefferson just ran over their puppy. Following a presidential race that resembled a reality show, I suppose it should come as no surprise that:

College students are walking out of class in protest, too distraught and disillusioned to focus on their studies.

Protesters have taken to the streets in anger, as if Donald Trump might find out and decide he doesn’t want to be president after all.

High school students have been the targets of threats and insults because, well, because the bullies feel the election results give them the right to do so.

I’m 57-years-old. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I understand why a certain portion of our voting population didn’t want Donald Trump to be president. President-elect Trump has a way of stirring emotions like no one I’ve ever witnessed. Those who like him really, really like him. Those who find him distasteful really, really don’t like him. Sometimes, he’s like the sandspur that catches you right on your bare arch. (For those of you who don’t know what a sandspur is, I grew up in Florida where they are abundant. They’re painful little suckers, in the same category as the mosquito and horsefly.) There are Americans who find his frank talk endearing. There are others who want to remove his oddly colored hairpiece and jam it down his throat.

What? That’s not a hairpiece?

Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump the candidate, let’s face it. That ship (or in Trump’s case, that yacht), has sailed. He won. From this day forward, we should base our views of Trump on his actions as president.

And he hasn’t served a single day yet.

Jimmy Carter, man of peace, after months of blasting Trump for his “lack of moral and ethical principals,” said our nation’s 45th president needs America’s “support and prayers as he prepares to take office.”

Hillary Clinton, who Trump called “Corrupt Hillary” during the campaign, offered to work with Trump.

“Donald Trump is going to be our president,” she said during her concession speech. “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”

And listen to this.

“I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans.”

Remember when Barack Obama was elected president back in 2008, and the conservative pundits who wanted him to fail? I remember it. I remember it distinctly. I also remember thinking that no matter your political slant, you should never wish for our country’s leader to fail. Failure inside the White House risks the collapse of the entire country.

I pray that Donald Trump, as I pray that anyone who is elected to the presidency, will remember that he was elected to serve this country. I pray that he will serve us honorably, and that he will succeed in hearing our voices and doing what’s best for all of America.

Trump himself said, “It’s time for us to come together as one united people.”

Put aside your resentment. Forget that you didn’t get your way. Hillary Clinton managed to do it. Don’t wish ill upon this man. He’s our country’s leader. He needs us. He works for us. If he doesn’t listen, he’ll have to answer to us in four years.

I have faith. Remember, Donald Trump belittled my profession. He chided reporters who dared challenge his words and his views, often with great vitriol.  He’s threatened to make it easier to sue members of the fourth estate. I have faith in America. I have faith in our system, in our Constitution, and in the checks and balances that have survived more than 200 years.

Most of all, I have faith in God, who teaches us love, patience, tolerance, and acceptance of all people. I have faith in Jesus, who came to this earth to teach us to look beyond political leaders, to a power much, much higher.

Ultimately, God is still in charge.

As I write this, there is a Bald Eagle stuck in a storm drain in Orlando, Florida. As rescuers work to save him, another Bald Eagle is there, protecting his feathered brother.

The emblems of America.

Never leaving one another.

Protecting one another.

This is America. We’re different. We disagree.

But we stay together.

Roadside assistance

heard county deputyOn a rural Georgia road, covered by nightfall, comes a powerful beam of light that cuts through the darkness of hatred and misunderstanding.

A Heard County Sheriff’s Deputy was doing his job when he observed a young man ignoring a stop sign. In law enforcement, there’s no such thing as routine. An innocuous traffic violation performed by the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, can cause a situation to go south in a real hurry. The deputy in this situation didn’t know if the driver he stopped was an innocent teenager who wasn’t paying attention, or an escaped convict with a taste for blood. The deputy stepped forward with his hand on his service pistol, completely unaware that he was moving toward an encounter that just might change his life forever.

Consider, for a moment, the current state of affairs for anyone wearing a badge. Officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are dead because of the anger over shootings that had nothing to do with them. Some people, not all, but some have indicted an entire profession because of the actions of a few. It’s not fair. It’s like destroying an entire orchard because of the worms found in two apples. It is but another example of hatred run amok. Nothing good comes of hate.

That Heard County Deputy had no way of knowing if he would be the next target.

Then it happened. Another car arrived. Two people got out and walked toward the deputy. He tensed.

“I immediately start running situations through my head, and praying for the best,” the deputy wrote on his Facebook page. “I’m nervous, and praying to God that nothing is going to happen.”

One of the people approaching the deputy identified himself of the father the young man the deputy had stopped. Papa Bear had arrived to protect Baby Bear, always a potentially volatile situation.

“That’s my boy,” he told the deputy. “I just want to make sure everything’s okay.”

The deputy calmly informed the man that his son was going to get a warning for running the stop sign. What happened next came straight from all that is pure and good.

“God bless you,” the man told the deputy. “I just appreciate everything you do.”

The man went on to tell the deputy that he was on his way to the hospital to visit his father, who had just suffered a stroke. Then he reached for the deputy’s hand.

“Do you have a minute? I’d just like to say a word of prayer.”

Right there, on the side of that dark Heard County road, a man whose father had just suffered a stroke stopped to offer compassion to a complete stranger, to a deputy who’d just interrupted his trip to visit a loved one.

“Lord, keep this man and his fellow officers safe as they’re out here trying to keep us safe,” the man prayed, all of it captured on the deputy’s dashboard camera.

The prayer ended with a hug.

“As he prayed for me and my brothers in blue, my eyes filled with tears,” the deputy wrote. “This man, with all he had going on, stopped to pray for me. As I walked away, I was in total shock.”

Think of that. The deputy was in shock that someone would pause to express appreciation for his commitment to protecting others.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers leave their homes for a day’s work, unsure if they’ll make it back to their families. They’re sassed, disrespected, and cussed for doing their job. They’re not perfect. None of us are. There are a few who have allowed the power of the badge go to their heads, resulting in horrible decisions. But the overwhelming majority of officers I’ve known are good people with a genuine heart for protecting the rest of us. Still, it’s a job where they’re more likely to hear a threat than a thank you.

This doesn’t have to be about law enforcement officers. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about prayer. It’s about bringing peace to a troubled world. It’s about lifting your neighbor when they’re down.

Imagine you work for a business that’s struggling. You’ve said goodbye to co-workers forced out by layoffs. You have no idea if the next pink slip is bound for your in-box. You’re on a sales call, stressed over the added pressure, when a customer, a total stranger, offers you comfort and understanding. It might not erase all of your woes, but the pressure might not seem as overwhelming. Your outlook might not appear quite so dark.

Despite all of the marches, the protests, the pain, and the doubt, that officer in Heard County now knows at least one man cares.

On a rural road covered by darkness, there is light.

 

I believe

Screenshot 2016-06-16 at 4.30.11 PMI know it’s there.

Like the warm good-bye hug from a child when they leave for camp. You can still feel it even when they’re gone. You know the love is still there. It’s a part of you, even as it moves miles and miles from home.

Unity. Compassion. It’s there. I can feel it, even when it’s hidden behind a cloud of anger and blame.

Remember 911, when we were all New Yorkers? Sandy Hook? Boston strong? Do you remember how our hearts broke for Paris, and just like that, we were one with France?

I remember.

Now, in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, there has been enough finger pointing that it seems our country could use one giant manicure. Political debate has, too often, pushed caring and unity into the backseat.

And then, as mourners gathered in Atlanta to honor the victims in Orlando, I heard them sing:

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining,

I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.

I believe in this country, even when we’re divided. So often, I’ve seen us come together, united in our hurt, in our resolve, in our purpose. When others lash out at us, we put party affiliations and petty differences aside to bond. I’ve seen it happen.

I believe.

We are the United States of America, not the Fractured States of America.

Giving up would cost me everything

So, I’ll stand in the pain and silence

And I’ll speak to the dark night.

I remember when it was my city under attack by a crazy man who marred what was an otherwise magical Olympic games. It was Atlanta’s time in the world spotlight, and Eric Rudolph brought his darkness. I remember taking it personally. It hurt, deep down, every time he placed one of his bombs in a different spot around our town. In those days, we weren’t subject to the long-time listeners, first-time callers with opinions of who failed to do what to prevent the madness. The world stood with us, denouncing the terror, urging Atlanta to heal.

It’s only logical that we want to understand the motivations behind these savage acts of terrorism. But comprehending the act means unraveling a tightly twisted mind. I was close enough to one of Eric Rudolph’s bombs that the FBI regarded me as a victim. I sat just an arm’s length from him inside a Birmingham courtroom. So close, and yet a billion miles away. I read the letters from his fictional Army of God. He justified his actions to the court by speaking of the British crown, the Pharisaical sect, by calling the Olympics a celebration of global socialism, and revealing that his goal was to “drag this monstrosity of a government down into the dust.” Read it all a thousand times. It will make sense to Eric Rudolph, and Eric Rudolph alone. Given the opportunity to question the Orlando killer, I suspect the explanation would be equally baffling. We won’t get that chance. He’s answering to a higher power.

No dark can consume light,

No death greater than this life,

We are not forgotten.

I believe in the compassion of this country, even as it waits its turn behind the heat of a political season. There is a time and place to discuss the difficult issues swirling around the latest act of incomprehensible violence. We can have those talks remembering that WE are not the enemy. We are the UNITED States of America. Together we stand. Divided, we fall to those who wish to harm us.

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining,

I believe in love even when I don’t feel it,

And I believe in God even when He is silent.

Maybe it’s time we are silent for a moment, silent as a country, so that God can speak. Let’s be silent for a moment and breathe, giving the families and friends of the lost room to cry. Perhaps if our hands weren’t shaped around our opinions like bullhorns, it would free us to wrap our arms around one another, and unite.

Though I can’t see my stories ending,

That doesn’t mean the dark night has no end.

It’s only here that I find faith,

And learn to trust the one who writes my days.

Screenshot 2016-06-15 at 4.49.48 PM

 

The shadow of death

psalm 23There’s a saying that claims bad news comes in threes.

It’s baloney. Bad news comes in threes, or nines, or nineteens, or fifty-sixes. It comes whenever and however it wants. It can be unrelenting. It can be overwhelming. It can cover you in a dark shadow surrounded by fear.

This was supposed to be a year of celebration for my family. A wedding in March, a high school graduation in May. Two of my children are writing new chapters, and I know I should focus on these wonderful blessings. But 2016 has decided to sprinkle my ice cream sundae with broken glass. It’s been delicious and painful. One day is soothing and sweet. The next day, I’m bleeding inside.

Life’s toxic temptations have spilled into my inner-circle. It has taken a relative I love dearly to the brink of death. It’s been going on quite a while, and I thought she was getting better. I was fooling myself. Instead, she’s found a new rock bottom. A major downturn happened the night of my daughter’s wedding, right under my nose, with me blissfully unaware. The peaks and valleys were blending together.

So my heart was already heavy when we lost Halle Scott, a member of my church youth group whose parents worship in my Sunday school class. It was jolting and tragic. Her loss had nothing to do with those toxic temptations, but was instead the result of an innocent adventure. It reminded us all that we do not know what will happen tomorrow. Love your children. Hug your wife. Love your neighbors. Put pettiness aside. Don’t put it off.

It would not be 2016’s last jolt to my church, to our youth group, to our Sunday school class. Far from it.

Those toxic temptations I spoke about have buried their teeth in the child of dear friends, also members of our Sunday school class. It has sent them spiraling into heartbreak, and when they hurt, I hurt. These people are like family to me. I consider their children to be my own. Their son is smart, talented, and full of potential. His future is now in serious jeopardy. His parents have raised him much they way I’ve raised my kids. The struggle they face could just as easily take place under my roof.

“Enough,” I told my wife and friends over dinner this past Saturday. “This year has been difficult enough. No more.”

Eight hours later, I would wake to another low blow.

While I slept, a young man I had not seen in two or three years took his last breath. I’d joined him and his sister on youth mission trips, but he’d stopped coming to church. His sister confided that he’d chosen a dangerous path, and I came to understand that those toxic temptations lured him there. On Saturday night, he was on the back of a motorcycle when a car veered in front of him. He was 17-years-old.

I hurt immensely for this family. The departure of this teenager leaves a mom who is legally blind, and a 19-year-old sister who has faced more challenges than some people do in a lifetime. She lost her father just five years ago, and I clearly remember her tearful struggle. It’s encouraging to see how much she’s grown since then. She’s handling the loss of her brother with incredible strength that is emboldened by the friends and church family that has surrounded her. She is not alone, and she knows it.

So much darkness in such a short period of time.

This past Sunday, as we gathered in that Sunday school class that’s been rocked by 2016, we looked to a Bible verse that speaks of darkness:

 

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. — Psalms 23

 

There is light in every situation. Somewhere. I’m trying to find it. I’m working hard not to miss those opportunities to comfort, support, and love. I’m afraid there have been opportunities that I’ve missed in the past. I’m more awake to them now.

I’m committed to taking every opportunity to provide appreciation, acknowledgement, compassion, and care.

Tomorrow, I could wake up to more bad news.

I don’t want it to arrive with regret.

The loudest whisper

Whisper-of-GodI know the sound of God’s voice.

He sounds like a car engine struggling to start.

I begin every morning letting God hear my voice. It’s 2 a.m., dark and quiet, no distractions. Most of the time, I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the court. I’ve spent too much time in anger, or resentment, or not enough time serving others. Many a morning, I end my prayer with a request.

On gritty Pleasantdale Road, one wish was granted.

It was a situation that could have easily guided me into a pothole of anger. I was supposed to meet a man to discuss his unpleasant ride on Pleasantdale. He was a no show. No phone call. No apology. Just me, my camera, and sweat rolling down my back as big rigs rambled by my toes.

Right in front of me, God cleared his throat.

My prayer request was for an opportunity to serve someone in need. That opportunity came in the form of a woman, her two children, and a car that decided it wanted nothing more to do with Atlanta traffic. She was from Gambia. Her English was as broken as the engine of her Honda. I had a difficult time understanding where she was from, and I never understood where she was trying to go. It was clear that her children, one of them an infant, were miserable and needed to get away from the sun. Her car blocked the I-85 ramp to Pleasantdale that filled with prickly commuters and their horns.

Part of my brain was occupied by the man who’d summoned me to Pleasantdale Road only to waste my time. After a failed effort to push the stubborn Honda off of the ramp, I tried to reach the man by phone to find out if perhaps I’d misunderstood the time of our meeting. No answer. No return call. There was no misunderstanding, only a gaping hole in my work load that I would have to scramble to fill. There was a moment of mild panic. My job was to produce news stories, and one had just slipped away.

Then I realized my time was not wasted at all. It simply had another purpose. After all, I’d asked for this.

The Bible says that God communicates not with an earthquake, or a fire, but with a gentle whisper. Just last week, the whisper came as I loitered beside my locked news vehicle with the keys in the ignition. That’s right. I locked the keys in the car, along with my phone. In an area of town teeming with homelessness and despair, all I could do was sit on my bumper and wait for a co-worker to arrive with a spare key. God’s whisper arrived first.

A young man with a backpack and distant eyes approached with a story about the neighborhood violence that had taken his sister. It seemed he just wanted to vent, and I let him. It was an opportunity to offer compassion to a stranger, one placed in my path because of keys dangling behind a locked door. After a few minutes, my new friend made a request.

“Hey, can I have a dollar?”

He specifically requested one dollar. Not two. Not five. One. It just so happened that the previous Sunday, our pastor had passed out crisp new one dollar bills to the entire congregation. We were sent forth with a mission of generosity, to find a way to use that dollar in an act of generosity.

Here was my opportunity.

I handed that young man the dollar and the story of it’s purpose. I told him God was watching over him. He accepted the gift with grace, but seemed doubtful that I’d given him anything more than just an ordinary piece of currency. God’s whisper told me something more.

On Pleasantdale Road, I struggled to help the family stranded by a faulty automobile. I summoned a police officer to help me push the woman’s car out of the road. I bought bottled water to keep the family cool, but my phone calls failed to summon the help they really needed. Eventually, the mom left to negotiate with a tow truck driver at a nearby gas station. I returned to my work day convinced I’d done all I could, but nagged by the feeling that it wasn’t enough.

Twice, my plans were disrupted. Twice, God whispered that something better was afoot.

God might whisper. He might growl like a failing car engine, or ding like the alarm of a car with the keys locked inside.

All you have to do is listen.

The shrapnel of grief

uga sadIt’s not supposed to happen this way.

In my line of work, it’s inevitable that you will confront tragedy. Grieving strangers suddenly aren’t strangers anymore. They pour out their hearts. You offer compassion and a sympathetic ear. Often, when I’m present, the interview ends with a hug. Some may see that as inappropriate, a violation of some journalistic canon. I don’t care. When I see suffering, I hug.

It’s not easy to walk away. You carry some of that second-hand grief home.

That’s the way it goes. Most of the time.

It’s not supposed to go like this.

At 2 a.m., as I was rising for another day of chasing news, a police officer was knocking at the front door of a friend’s house just a couple of miles away. A car crash was sending waves of sadness across my community, into my church, and deep into my heart. I didn’t learn for another five hours that I knew one of the victims. Word reached me as I was standing on the side of an Atlanta street, reporting on a series of car crashes impacting people I’d just met.

Halle Scott was 19-years-old. Her parents are in my Sunday school class. We’ve socialized together, worshiped together, prayed together. Hundreds of times, we’ve joined each other in prayer over others encountering hardship. It was only a few months ago that Halle attended a Sunday school class I helped teach for students home from college. My mind won’t let go of her peaceful face as I did my best to impart what little spiritual wisdom I possess.

After learning details of the crash, I tried to keep reporter Jerry separate from grieving Jerry. For a few hours, I struggled to focus on the remaining tasks of the day. Thankfully, my assignments did not involve coverage of the wreck that took Halle and three other University of Georgia students. That would have forced reporter Jerry and grieving Jerry to collide.

It’s not supposed to happen that way.

At noon, I was done with reporter Jerry. I broke away from work and headed to church. There, I found an entire room injured by the widespread shrapnel of grief. The entire building wept. I bowed. I asked God to bestow peace upon a family in desperate need of strength. I held my daughter’s hand and watched her weep. She and Halle were on the high school cheerleading squad together. Rachel was supposed to visit Halle in Athens on Saturday.

It’s my job to confront grief, not my daughter’s.

It’s not supposed to happen like this.

Life isn’t fair. Halle was a wonderful child of powerful faith. In the name of the Lord, she traveled to faraway places to worship and serve others less fortunate. She was bold in her faith, unafraid to let you know her devotion to God. Her parents are equally strong in their convictions, and I’m comforted in knowing they can lean on Christ. They have a Sunday school class, a church, an entire community for support. They have me, if they need me.

So many times, I’ve reported on tragic losses that just aren’t fair.

It’s never involved anyone I know.

The car wreck that has impacted an entire college campus and well beyond will be in the news for awhile. I can’t bring myself to watch the coverage. I’m a newsman who can’t watch the news. When I see pictures of Halle, I think of her mom, her dad, and her brother, and I have the same thoughts as parents across the entire state. That could have my my child. The next time, that police officer might not be two miles away. Is my faith strong enough?

As a news reporter, there really is no exit strategy when it comes to tragic events. At some point, you need to detach from the grief, but you can’t. It lingers, even when it isn’t yours. After a few years, it gets pretty weighty.

It isn’t reporter Jerry who comes to the Scott family, ready to carry as much weight as they need. This is Jerry, a brother in Christ, a friend ready to listen, cry, celebrate, mourn, fetch, hug, and hug again. I can pray. I can ask God to wrap sweet Halle in his loving arms. I can ask Him to fill the hearts of all who are hurting with the assurance that Halle is in an amazing place. I can pray that it brings her family comfort.

Perhaps, in the face of incredible tragedy, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

 

See you on the late news, alligator

me and the gatorI’m fascinated with alligators.

Gators don’t worry. They take what the swamp gives them with slow confidence. They don’t bother you unless you mess with them, and why would you mess with a prehistoric creature wearing fangs? They don’t complain.

They have a thick skin.

While I lack the chops of an alligator, I find a thick skin comes in handy. It seems there are a great many people who have lost respect for my line of work, and aren’t afraid to tell you. Emphatically.

For example.

This past winter, I was stationed on an icy Cobb Parkway preparing to warn unknowing motorist of the slick hazards. A truck in bad need of a new muffler rolled by, driven by a man who was even louder than his faulty exhaust.

“Leave us alone you #@*% liberal commie.”

It’s not the first time I have been the target of drive-by insults, and it won’t be the last. Assumptions about my character based on my job confuses me a bit. It always has. I’d rather someone get to know me before deciding to dislike me.

There was actually a time when my profession wasn’t lumped together with carjackers and telemarketers. I remember the days when people viewed me as somewhat of an authority figure. It was a little weird. They felt an obligation to grant an interview, even when circumstance should have told them to steer clear. Now, it’s more likely I’ll find a lawyer, a pitbull, or a locked door standing between me and my quarry.

There are many who see journalists as biased. We have an agenda. Some of my own neighbors, even some members of my Sunday school class, believe journalists to be Godless, manipulative liars. Never referring to me specifically, they proclaim their displeasure with members of the dreaded media.

No one in my business is perfect. Some of us are hard to like. Many of us have inflated egos. Most are really good people trying to earn a living under circumstances that are often quite difficult and quite often downright depressing. That’s not a complaint or an excuse. That’s my job. I have seen death, grief, celebration, inspiration, confusion, anger, hatred, love, compassion…just about everything. It has molded me. It has helped make me who I am.

I’m willing to give you a glimpse into who I am so the next time you see me on television, you can render judgement based on my actual character rather something perceived.

I am a Christian. That means it is most important for me to love God and love others. All others. I often fail to do that. It doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it makes me human. I need forgiveness for the times I fail, so it is imperative that I extend grace to others. If I don’t forgive, that does make me a hypocrite.

I am a husband. I married my best friend, and I cherish my life with her. We were practically kids when we met. We’ve grown and changed a lot since then. She has put up with my weird hours and the second hand stress from my job. She deserves a Nobel Prize for tolerance. The longer we’re married, the more I appreciate her.

I am a father. I have three amazing children. My wife and I have tried very hard to let our children know how much we love them. Cady gave up her career to stay home and nurture them. I give her all the credit for raising three smart, compassionate children. We are very, very lucky.

I am a son. I lost my father to cancer, and the grief is still with me. He taught me the value of working hard and giving your best, and that stays with me, too. My mother taught me that adversity and pain can make you stronger and better. She’s faced challenges that would have toppled most people, and yet she’s 80-years-old and standing tall. My parents are a blessing to me.

I talk too much. I got in a lot of trouble during my formative years for opening my mouth when I should have kept it closed. Too often, I was loud and disruptive. There were teachers who tried, without much success, to stifle me. There were a few who channeled my verbal energy into something productive. From that, a career was born. I have grown to know the value of curbing your tongue, and I do struggle at times to control myself. I’m a work in progress. At the age of 57. Go figure.

Let me touch on the issue of bias. Journalists are biased. Of course we are. We are human beings. We are not automatons who lack feeling and emotion. We are shaped by our upbringing and experiences, just like you. Our job is to keep our bias from influencing our reporting. This can be tough. Take, for example, the issue of cancer. I’m a survivor. I lost my father to cancer. Now, ask me to report on the amount of money going toward cancer research, or the need for exams that might detect cancer. Clearly, I’m going to have a bias. Not everyone is going to view the issue the way I see it. My job, however, is to remain open minded. Hear all sides. Present all sides impartially. You try it. Try leaving your deep seeded emotions out of a conversation. That’s my job, and I take it quite seriously.

Here’s a little more insight into this particular journalist. I’m not going to try to claim I do everything just right. I can always do a better job. Always. I am open to hearing your critiques, criticisms, opinions, and recommendations. I may not share your opinion of my work, but I’d be foolish not to listen. You can even drive by and yell at me when I’m knee deep in snow. That’s fine. I prefer that you keep it clean, but that’s up to you. Whatever you say, I’ve likely heard it before.

This old alligator has been around a long time.

If it loves, it leads

barista prayerIf it bleeds, it leads.

This may or may not be an actual quote from an anonymous newsman from an undetermined era working in an unknown newsroom. It doesn’t matter if these words were actually spoken or not. It is generally accepted as the defining attitude of journalists everywhere.

We are callused.

We are insensitive.

We are jaded.

We lack compassion.

We love the taste of blood. Someone else’s blood. Anyone else.

Some of the characterizations are deserved. To borrow from a Jimmy Buffett song, in my line of work, I seem to see a lot more than most. Witness enough tragedy, carry home enough second-hand grief, and you get heavy. Jaded happens. Weary from the work, some journalists do, indeed, forget about compassion and sensitivity. Others can’t lean on that excuse. Let’s face it, some people are just jerks. Reporters are people. There are a few who will salivate and high five over a plane crash. I have no explanation for that.

If it bleeds, it leads.

Boy, have I got a lead for you. This one will stem the bleeding.

News operations across the country have been telling the story of Pierce Dunn and Evan Freeman. They’re baristas in Vancouver, Washington, coffee mixologists working a cramped drive-thru during the morning rush. One morning, they encountered a woman who needed more than a triple mocha latte.

Barbara Danner was having a bad day. She broke down in the  Dutch Bros Coffee drive-thru, right in front of our friends Pierce and Evan. Not broke down as in her Volvo overheated, I mean broke down like emotional bankruptcy. She’d lost her husband the night before. She couldn’t move. At most drive-thrus, that would earn you an earful of horn and an offensive finger, maybe a free decaf.

Not at Dutch Bros.

“I was like, there’s nothing more you need to say,” said Pierce Dunn. “We got this. We’re going to do what we do every time we get someone who’s in pain or hurt. We’re going to give them our love.”

One of the drivers behind Danner snapped a picture of Pierce, Evan, and another employee with their heads bowed, their eyes closed, their hands comforting an overwhelmed widow. The coffee orders were put on hold while the group prayed. The baristas whipped up a Grande cup of peace and assurance.

The image of the caffeine-free group hug has gone viral. So have Pierce and Evan.

“If every single person did an act of kindness or just had a smile on their face, the world would be a completely different place,” said Dunn.

Who knew there was a coffee shop that served high octane moral guidance?

I don’t know what was going on the night reporters from Seattle and Portland covered this story. And they did cover it. It’s likely the 11 o’clock news kicked off with a scandal, a smash and grab, or a sizzling investigation. The drive-thru prayer probably played toward the end of the show. News producers like to leave you on a high note.

What if the producers put it at the top of the newscast? What if, for one night, compassion trumped car chases, decency outdid disaster, kindness was more important than a random killing?

What if?

“If every single person did an act of kindness, the world would be a completely different place.”

A different place.

I’ve worked with producers bold enough to start the news with a story like this. Realistically, you can’t do it on a night when there’s breaking disaster, or high drama in the courts, or shenanigans in the legislature. But there are days when the lead story is basically a repeat of what we’ve seen a million times before, and something like this…

A different place.

I would love to see it happen more often, a newscast where the lead story has sweat and tears.

But no blood.