My colleagues and I awoke Nov. 29 in Nashville, Tenn., to startling news and video of fire ravaging homes and resort structures toward the east in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in the Great Smoky Mountains.
When messengers to the Tennessee Baptist Convention held their annual meeting Nov. 13-17 at the Sevierville (Tenn.) Convention Center in this area, they could see and smell the smoke that hovered over the region. But they could not have anticipated what transpired two weeks later when flames attacked the two resort communities and the surrounding area.
Firefighters had focused their efforts on about 40 fires in the area. Severe drought had created conditions conducive to the fires, and winds fanned the flames and crippled firefighting efforts.
But excessively high winds — some approaching 90 mph — spewed embers into the resort towns, destroying well over 100 homes and torching resort buildings, including a 17-story hotel and many others. Dolly Parton’s Pigeon Forge theme park Dollywood was spared but 12 of its Smoky Mountain Cabins were destroyed or damaged.
In all, some 80,000 acres of land were ravaged by fire. A half-inch of rain helped the situation but did not fully dampen the fames and devastation. Early reports indicated fire was responsible for three deaths with more likely to be discovered.
Thousands of residents were evacuated as fiery embers blew across broad areas.
Midwesterners are used to seeing such fiery devastation in news clips from places like California, where forest fires routinely seem to get out of hand. Even the most extensive efforts seem to fail to control rampant fires.
For us, it is shocking to learn of resort structures and homes by the hundreds being destroyed by runaway flames in well-known places not so far from where we live and perhaps where we have had occasion to visit frequently.
The Great Smokies are not out of the woods yet as far as the fires are concerned. Disaster relief specialists have begun planning their response to those affected. Clergy and other citizens are appealing for prayer on behalf of victims.
Resort operators wait anxiously — many of them praying, too — to see if more predicted rainfall will help turn the tide and halt runaway flames and their devastation.
Having enjoyed the scenery and the setting myself over the years, I join others in praying for all affected by devastation to this garden spot that runs down the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina.
One can hardly gaze across this mountain range without realizing the beauty of God’s creation. I lament the loss that is being experienced there as I write.
On a recent weekend, my wife, son and I were readying what will be our retirement home in our native state of Illinois. We have not lived in the southern part of the state since traveling off to seminary 39 years ago.
We’ll live closer to our three grandchildren, within comfortable driving distance, but our home will be in the same community as one of my wife’s siblings and one of mine. My mother, frail after 19 years of Parkinson’s Disease and advancing age, and my brother live about 40 miles away in our hometown. And the younger of my two sisters lives three hours away, give or take.
We were prepping our newly acquired home that weekend, downsized from the one we have occupied for the past 18-plus years, by anticipating the crew that will be moving the big and fragile stuff soon, painting and last-minute cleaning.
A mid-afternoon call from my brother was an invitation for the four siblings to get together for dinner that Saturday evening in our new town. The others and their spouses had signed off on it. My youngest sister was in the area so the rare chance for a get-together of all four of us and our spouses presented itself.
We scurried about, straightened up the living room, even though it had almost no furniture then, and cleaned up ourselves. Almost as soon as they arrived, we headed for a local restaurant and were seated at a large table in a quiet area of the eatery.
We carried on the same kind of exchange that had been a signature part of our growing up, including reports of how Mother has been faring with a lot of physical and emotional adjustments. But we also kidded each other and gave each other updates on our families and ourselves.
Except for our own frailties and the wrinkles on the faces of the men-folk and their gray hair, this was like things were 40-50 years ago for the family of Bob and Vera Webb. Our father died suddenly 28 years ago and mother is unable to travel outside the nursing facility where she lives these days. We were reminded of their absence.
It dawned on me that this warm fellowship with my immediate family growing up was something I had particularly missed in our nearly 40 years of not living nearby.
We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner outing together. Then we returned to our home, sitting together and visiting some more. We had pulled in a few folding chairs and a couple of patio chairs from our deck and added them to the circle.
We lingered there in this sparse room and then again at the door as it became time for our guests to return to their homes. Then we walked them to their cars and visited a little more. Obviously, we were reluctant for the evening with siblings — significant members of our family — to end. Finally it did.
The consensus is that these times must now become more frequent, and they can as we find ourselves in greater proximity to each other. We’ll not only be looking out for Mother but for each other in the days and years ahead. (I have discovered that my kin back in southern Illinois have been aging at about the same rate as I over the past 40 years.)
We’re all different in our own ways from two generations ago, but we’re still family and therefore no less important to each other than before. The love is still there.
Wells Fargo, banking and investment giant, is on the hot seat, to say the least. News-watchers are inclined to think that if they looked up ethics violations in the dictionary, they would see the company’s logo.
After all, the Wells Fargo employees created millions of phony accounts, fake bankcard PIN numbers and fictitious email accounts over the past few years — to name a few transgressions.
Wells Fargo claims to have ferreted out 5,300 employees and fired them over the egregious business practices. But employees claim supervisors — and maybe upper echelon Wells Fargo leadership — created a climate where front-line salespeople faced tremendous pressure to create the phony accounts or lose their jobs. The idea was that customers’ records would show them not owning just a single Wells Fargo financial product but as many as 10, bolstering sales records.
Company CEO John Stumpf denies the strategy came from the top. Whether it did or not is almost becoming moot. The wrongdoing has been pervasive.
Now some Wells Fargo whistleblowers lost their jobs, they say, because they reported unethical sales behavior at various levels inside the company after daring to come forward.
Wells Fargo has a whistleblower hotline and on paper encourages employees to come forward when they are aware of illegal and/or unethical behavior there. But some of these whistleblowers have discovered they are expendable, often within days of complaining about behavior of others that is suspect.
Some whistleblowers charge the company immediately begins to monitor them to find some reason — however minor — to terminate them. One says the reason for his termination within days of whistleblowing was tardiness.
If more and more of these allegedly penalized whistleblowers step up and tell credible stories about Wells Fargo covering up unethical activities in part by ignoring complaints of company “snitches” and instead getting rid of complainers, it could well be that the whistleblowers will, in fact, have affected corporate culture in what the company finds is damaging to the bottom line.
Companies mammoth and tiny across the world have instituted policies to protect whistleblowers from the kind of retribution from which they had no protection a couple of generations ago.
Such policies encourage corporations and other organizations to do the right thing and thus ultimately place companies in a more favorable light and protect employees and customers alike.
If a giant company like Wells Fargo is found to be, well, a giant violator, then regulators and courts should come down hard. If so, they will send a message heard loud and clear in boardrooms and human resources office across the nation and beyond.
People who dare to do the right thing deserve the protections whistleblower policies are designed to offer. There should be no risk in stepping up to expose unseemly personal and corporate behavior. And illegal — criminal — behavior deserves prosecution.
Since I was a youngster, I have watched television coverage of the Olympics, both summer and winter versions. I do not follow many sports competitions regularly, but I enjoy following some of the story lines in various individual and team competitions on this world stage.
I do not watch as a nationalist fan; human stories play out across the spectrum of worldwide athletics.
As I write, Rio de Janiero, Brazil, is hosting the international games. And the media is giving it a lot of coverage. This event is a ratings bonanza. Many of the most compelling stories are about individuals and teams and who they are apart from the international sports stage.
While my attention to the current games has been limited, one of the people I have tried to observe is swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever with 21 gold medals to his credit — three of them earned during the early days of the 2016 Olympics.
Phelps strikes a lot of people as a little brash — sometimes a lot — and always competitive. He is outspoken. And like a lot of athletes, he can carry a competitive grudge against his most significant competitors.
Phelps had retired after the previous Olympics four years ago, and he made some poor choices. He earned his second driving-while-intoxicated arrest in 10 years in 2014 and was photographed smoking drugs. He became a tarnished hero.
Looking back, “I was a train wreck,” he told ESPN. “I was like a time bomb waiting to go off.” The man who already owned 18 Olympic gold medals admitted: “I had no self-esteem, no self worth. There were times when I didn’t want to be here. It was not good. I felt lost.”
Phelps’ parents had divorced when he was 9 and he had become estranged from his father, Fred, a Maryland state trooper. Their relationship represented unfinished business.
His erratic behavior disillusioned those closest to him. In retirement, the athlete gained 30 pounds. “I probably had too much fun,” he admitted. “Whatever I wanted to do, I did. I was a little twerp.” He isolated himself and struggled with thoughts of suicide. He called it “the week of implosion.”
That’s when his friend and strong Christian Ray Lewis, longtime NFL star, called to check on him. Lewis immediately sensed the depth of despair in Phelps’ life.
Lewis told Phelps about dark times in his own life. Then he referred the swimmer to a behavioral rehab center. Phelps responded. “When you find your lowest point in your life, you’re open to a lot of things to try and change that, to get back on the right path,” he said. “I was just surrendering.”
Phelps carried a book given him by Lewis when he entered rehab — The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. As Phelps read the book, he called Lewis with questions. The message was sinking in.
The swimmer re-connected with his father, inviting him to a “family week” with his son. The son was surprised when his father accepted his invitation. “I was shocked; I didn’t think he would come.”
Phelps craved what he had missed as a kid without his father in his life.
He un-retired for this Olympics and rushes into the stands after each finals competition, embracing not only his longtime No. 1 fan — his mother — but his wife and newborn son, smothering all three with kisses.
An athlete who has been a model for many other athletes and fans through the years but may not have lived to see the 2016 Olympics is a story of a life turnaround. It is an example that others can follow.
The re-ordering of his life is a story that is ultimately more significant than the one playing out on TV keeping track of Phelps’ growing medals count. It appears Michael Phelps is discovering what is most important in life, and it isn’t swimming or being an Olympics hero, despite his achievements.
A visit with a Social Security staffer a few weeks ago turned out to be instructive for me as I gathered information to make informed decisions in anticipation of formal retirement in a few months.
The staffer was both very well informed on the ins-and-outs of the nation’s supplemental retirement plan, very thorough in gathering information from my wife and me about our family specifics and very pleasant as we talked.
One of the things that strikes a person making such a visit on the eve of completing a work career is that quite a few years have passed up to this point in life. Oh, I’m always aware of my age. But the Social Security Administration has maintained an annual record of my “Taxed Social Security Earnings,” as SSA calls it, for as far back as I have been earning them.
This is true of every other person who has contributed to Social Security. Anyone can go online to ssa.gov and register to gain access to her own earnings record as well as personalized SS earnings projections that vary depending upon when the person decides to begin receiving them. A person does not have to be of retirement age to gain access to this data. In fact, it makes sense to begin this research years ahead of actually applying for and receiving benefits.
I was not surprised at the actual earnings projection because I had checked out that information online in advance, but I certainly was mildly shocked to be reminded that I am in my 49th consecutive year of Social Security earnings. Forty-nine years!
I had earned spending money as a youngster by mowing lawns for neighbors, and mowing grass and trimming a flower garden for a business near my home. But I began to contribute to Social Security — modestly — in 1968, the same year I was graduated from high school and began college studies.
Seeing that string of years and income has prompted me to take a quick trip down memory lane — at least as far back as my memory will still take me!
For a brief time, I sold hamburgers at a stand-alone drive-in in my hometown then took advantage of a friend’s offer to drive a specially equipped scooter around town each summer and selling snow cones. During my early college years, I was a summer reporter and photographer at my local newspaper office. I also helped cover high school athletics, usually on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Late in my high school career and in my college years, I served a small church as a youth minister and “song leader” and later did the same at my home church. In college, I also held a part-time position in the university library.
After earning a journalism degree, I returned to work full days at my hometown newspaper as reporter, page designer and photographer among other things, a stint that lasted a little better than five years before my wife, our two young sons and I embarked for seminary.
My part-time employment there included 20-plus hours a week as a Baptist newspaper intern for Kentucky’s Western Recorder and a few 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shifts each week at Parr’s Rest to make sure the home for elderly ladies remained secure at night. The first allowed me to work between classes during the day, and the second was strictly a night job, enabling me to work at both during the same time period and keep up with seminary studies.
Midway during my seminary time, I followed a fellow student and worked full time on a third shift (night) in a plant that produced food items for fast-food restaurants. I was a quality control specialist. When the company phased out its night shift, I became a late afternoon/evening billing clerk for a motor freight company and worked three-quarter time in its Louisville, Ky., terminal.
After seminary, I worked three-plus years at the Southern Baptist Foreign (now International) Mission Board, followed by 11-plus years as editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper and manager of the state convention’s print shop and mailing department.
My employment will conclude later this year when I retire after 20-plus years as editor of Word & Way.
Sometimes it is easy to forget experiences that not only helped us make a living but also offered meaningful life experiences. Hopefully, such experiences also have made a difference to others, too.
I’m a little bit exhausted just thinking about it.
Recent deaths of black men at the hands of authorities — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in a St. Paul, Minn., suburb — and the murders of Officers Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith and Michael Krol by a lone sniper in downtown Dallas have drawn a myriad of reactions.
Some protestors and others anxious to do something have focused primary support on those grieving the deaths of the African Americans at the hands of police, including many who embrace the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
In communities all across the land, churches and other groups are focusing their efforts primarily on expressing care and support for law enforcement in their own communities. In some, restaurants have provided meals to police stations, churches have offered special prayer services for officers grieving the deaths of five of their own and mounting personal encouragement card campaigns to personalize response to local police and other responders.
More deaths of young black men at the hands of officers and the massive sniper assault on Dallas officers have prompted others to grieve every death. More and more people have taken up the mantra that “all lives matter.” Surely more and more agree that this cycle of escalating discord and related violence must be reined in.
In these three separate incidents there must be a concern that justice is served. Increasingly, constructive efforts to address the racial divide in America simply must be addressed. It is encouraging to see video clips showing protestors and police officers crossing the street toward each other and embracing. But the resultant steps must be more than isolated anecdotal actions, as heartwarming as they may be.
Churches have an opportunity to take concrete, personal steps to bridge this disgraceful gap in many ways. The nation is right to grieve over every death, not to make charged determinations about who deserves sympathy and who does not. That would be business as usual.
And business as usual in this national crisis solves nothing.
At this time of year, when various weather conditions exist at seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, homes, businesses and residents in some parts of the U.S. deal with contrasting natural disasters.
News from the western edge of American right now focuses on wildfires — literally wild and almost uncontrollable — sweeping across dry land, often stoked by high winds.
Out east and south, the culprit is the kind of rain that could help extinguish western fires but has instead been relentlessly attacking communities and regions, resulting not only in escalating property damage but high deal tolls.
One part of the population would relish a respite from ultra-dry conditions and rampant fires that defy control by any means. The photographs and video images that show the inferno and what appear to be death-defying firefighters dug in to stop the flames, both by land and by air. We wince every time we hear a news report of a trapped rescuer that has lost his or her life in such settings, sometimes simply because the winds shifted.
In several states along the east coast and across the southern belt of the nation — horrendous stories of rushing water and record rainfall include death tolls that seem to rise with the water levels. As with fires in California, Oregon and Washington (among other states), the danger in places like West Virginia and Texas at the moment presents itself with little warning on busy streets and roads and in neighborhoods where in many cases families have never been threatened by water as some are now.
In flooded areas, disaster relief volunteers and public service professions conduct rescue and recovery missions, battling the clock and rising water. Both in eastern and western locations, many displaced residents find them selves in temporary emergency shelter and taking meals produced by disaster teams.
Atmospheric conditions contribute to produce calamity at ground level, and the onslaughts are indiscriminant. Affected are people from all walks of life, from the impoverished to the wealthy.
A person cannot help but pray while watching news accounts of both fire and flood. After all, victims are seeing their lives and their circumstances change dramatically right before our eyes. We pray for the safety of rescuers, too, knowing some of them may experience injury or death in the service of others.
Reputable ministries can use monetary support that can be translated into aid for the hurting and fearful in such dramatic circumstances. The power of immediate communications via even portable technology brings viewers to the scene of danger, face-to-face with menacing fire and water. Seeing it all up close, we can easily be moved to do whatever we can to extend the life-saving efforts of people on location.
The story announced that Bretagne was euthanized June 6. The veteran search dog was 16 years old. Old age had slowed her down, and at least one news source indicated chronic kidney issues had troubled her.
To honor the canine, firefighters at the Cy-Fair Fire Department in Harris County, Texas, lined the walkway up to Fairfield Animal Hospital as her owner, Denise Corliss, walked her inside to be put to sleep.
Many of those rescue workers had tears streaming down their faces as Bretagne’s body, draped in an American flag, was carried out.
Corliss and Bretagne joined hundreds of teams from around the world to help search for survivors in 2001 at the site of the World Trade Center attacks. Bretagne was just a young pup at the time, a fresh graduate of disaster training.
Trainer and dog worked 12 hours a day searching for survivors at the scene for two weeks — only to find none.
News accounts shared Corliss’ story that rescuers and firefighters would come over and pet the dog and soon begin sharing their personal stories with the owner, describing missing friends, loved ones and colleagues for whom they were searching. Bretagne became a therapy dog there.
The dog’s service included deployments in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and other storms through the years.
Heroes can be people, animals, companies and churches intent on helping others in their need. This account is a good reminder to give bona fide heroes their due.
The best heroes do not seek “hero sainthood,” they just do what they are training to do in most cases and whatever they can do to meet a need in others.
Most of us would do well to become hero material, that is willing and able to be responsive when our assistance is needed, whether in life-saving situations are something less dramatic, whether recognition comes or not.
Quite often, such efforts will not escape attention.
A 7-year-old named Vinny Desautel had indeed let his red hair grow long — shoulder-length — with the blessing of his parents. His hair would benefit cancer survivors. That’s pretty compassionate for a 7-year-old.
Earlier this year, the California youngster began developing medical symptoms himself. His right eye became swollen. When he began complaining about an aching knee, his parents noticed his hip was swollen.
At first, Vinny’s parents assumed the eye problem was allergy-related and tried prescription eye drops and allergy meds. But when they noticed his swollen hip, it was off to the local emergency room for an X-ray that showed a significant growth on his right hip.
His pediatrician sent the family to another hospital with a hand-written note. Blood tests, MRIs and a CT scan revealed tumors on his hip and in the bone around his eye. At the time the story was published, the family was awaiting final confirmation from physicians that Vinny is dealing with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of tumor that forms in bone or soft tissue.
The second-grader was scheduled to begin treatment right away, starting with a bone marrow biopsy and chemotherapy, according to his father Jason. “We know it’s cancer, stage 4, because it spread in two different locations and it’s aggressive,” he told a reporter.
Understandably, the story has touched people from all across the country, especially after they learned about Vinny growing his hair for two years to benefit cancer survivors.
Vinny’s grandparents initiated an online fund-raising campaign for their grandson, and it raised $50,000 in a single week. “We’re very thankful but I don’t want to lie to people,” his dad explained. “The circumstances are terrible; I’d rather have a healthy kid.”
No one knows exactly how this story will end for Vinny, but there is little doubt that many people are not only lending financial support to help the family manage treatment and related expenses, but praying for him, too.
Cancer survivors are benefitting from the hair he grew and donated. His example likely has encouraged others to consider doing the same. Others have been moved to practice renewed benevolence to benefit others, probably in dozens of ways.
Vinny’s simple act of kindness — like most such acts when they become known — is having a ripple effect.
Personally, I am moved to pray for this young man’s recovery from cancer. And I pray that stories like his will not go unnoticed but will take root in the hearts of others and play out in live-changing ways as the ripple gains steam and continues.
The news just days ago that a massive earthquake had left nearly 500 people dead and even more than that still missing caught my attention.
Catastrophes happen regularly all across the globe and most of us barely notice such news alerts. Some are manmade calamities — like wars — and others are more what we might refer to as “natural” disasters, whether events or tremors from below ground. Often, the victims are counted not in hundreds but in thousands – sometimes thousands and thousands and thousands.
I am interested in Ecuador because more than 30 years ago I visited the small nation as a journalist sent to develop news and feature coverage of missionary efforts and diverse Baptist ministries. My visit and contact with people there gives me a vested interest.
Ecuador is located in western South America, just south of Columbia and north and west of Peru. On Ecuador’s western side, it borders the Pacific Ocean.
Ecuador dates back to pre-Incan times, and its people represent various Indian tribal backgrounds. The Galapagos Islands are the nation’s most identifiable tourist site.
Among Baptists, more than a few missionaries have been spread across the nation through the years, especially in the three largest cities: the capital of Quito, the largest city Guayaquil and Cuenca.
Guayaquil was a memorable place to visit. Being a coastal city, it 30 years ago featured communities of homes on stilts high above the water. They were connected by high wooden “sidewalks” and looked more rickety than they felt when we walked out on the elevated boardwalk to visit homes scatted over the water, many of them connected for stability.
Residents accessed their dwellings either by boat — usually fishing vessels — or by traversing the boardwalks from dry land. The lifestyle was very different from anything with which I was familiar.
I heard a recent report that Guayaquil was among the communities affected by the earthquake, and I could only imagine how those stilted homes must have shook. I would guess that many of those supports gave way and that homes were lost and, perhaps, people were either injured or lost.
As I write, the death toll is indeed approaching 500, and more than a thousand people are still missing and unaccounted for. Loved ones are search and praying. Teams from various other nations have initiated rescue and recovery efforts. For many of these victims, time has run out or soon will if they are to be found alive.
Ecuador is not the only country experiencing calamity and death right now. Japan also has experienced earthquakes and others are experiencing flooding from massive storms.
It was easy for me to pray for Ecuador and its people as soon as I read of the earthquake there. That’s because I had met missionaries serving there as well as indigenous Baptist leaders, church members and others. The same could be said for members of mission teams that have ever served there or anywhere else where the day’s news suggests people are in danger.
I know of people some have called “prayer warriors” who because of age and/or infirmity are no longer as mobile as they once were. What they have discovered is that the television news picks up on catastrophes from across the land and from the far corners of the world. These prayer warriors keep track of such events and their victims and pray fervently for their safety and other needs, often as they are listening and watching such news accounts.
Most of these places they will never have visited, but they are moved to pray because of their faith and the concern for others that streams from it. This is a powerful way to live a life of active faith.