Fully Present

I try. I really do. I try to be fully present in conversations.

I try to lock on to the person talking. I try to listen to each word. I try to respect my conversation partner. I try to deeply listen.

I try, and often I do.

But there was this conversation I was in a couple of weeks ago when, try as I might, I was not fully present. And all of a sudden I had this startling realization that I was in the middle of a conversation and I was not focused.

Have you ever had that feeling?

I was disappointed in myself. I felt as though I had disrespected my conversation partner.

It has been a couple of weeks and I still remember. I don’t want to forget the feeling.

I am going to keep trying. I’m not going to give up on myself.

What did you say?

I was reading in the living room when I heard my wife from the kitchen excitedly saying, “The whisk is one of my favorite kitchen tools.”

I put my book down and asked her to repeat what she had said, just to make sure I heard her correctly.


So now I am sitting there, book in my lap, pondering, “People have favorite kitchen tools?”

And after a minute or so I am thinking, “My wife has a favorite kitchen tool, and it’s the whisk?”

And finally, “It took me nearly 40 years of sharing life with this woman to learn this about her?”

This weekend we celebrate 40 years of marriage and I gotta tell you, I love it everytime I learn something new about her.

A time for silence

About six weeks ago I found myself in a conversation that drifted into a topic that made me a bit uncomfortable.

I listened carefully and at one point thought I was going to have to respond, or more accurately, push back. But just as I was preparing to make my case, I had a strong gut feeling that I should remain quiet.

And that is what I did.

One day last week it became clear that staying quiet was exactly what I needed to do.

There is a time to speak out, no doubt; but there is also a time for silence.

I’m thankful I got it right, at least this time.

Let Them Fly!

Have you ever had someone say an encouraging word to you at just the right moment? Chances are, that person had no idea how timely their word of encouragement was going to be. They just spoke it when they had opportunity and you were blessed. So don’t wait around for the perfect time to speak words of encouragement. Whenever you have a chance, just let them fly!

Love in the Details

Lourene and I settled into a booth at a Denver restaurant eager to relax, converse, and check out yet another find from Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. By the way, if you are looking for a good restaurant to try, take a look at the places Fieri’s show has been. But enough of that, let’s get back to the booth.

I have learned that I am easily distracted when at a restaurant. I love people-watching, so if I want to be fully present with my wife it is helpful if I sit where I will have the fewest people in my line of sight. I also enjoy sports-highlight watching, so I try to sit where the television is least likely to distract me.

From past experience it seemed I had chosen a perfect seat to allow me to be focused on my sweet wife. I carefully chose a seat where my back was to the television. In front of me was a perfect view of a wall, the whole wall, and nothing but the wall. Hey, I even left my smart phone in the car to eliminate distractions.

So I slid into the booth that night pretty confident that I was going to get the attentive husband award. But even before the server had brought us our water, I became distracted by the conversation coming from the booth behind me. Yes, I heard them talking. Yes, I was listening.

Now let me try to make myself look a little better by saying that I did not intend to listen. It just happened. The two men in the booth behind me were having a very animated discussion about baseball. In fact, I would dare say this was the most detailed conversation about a baseball game I have ever heard. One of the guys was getting more excited and louder with every pitch he described. When I say, “every pitch,” I mean he was going pitch by pitch through inning after inning in his recollections of this ballgame.

For a minute I got pretty excited about who this mystery baseball commentator might be. Was it some baseball play-by-play announcer or color-commentator? Was it an active or retired major league player recalling a memorable playoff game or maybe even a game from the World Series? The conversation went on and on. Strike two. Ball four. Line-drive. Pop-up. Stolen base. Double play. Wicked curveball. Pitch in the dirt. Tagged out at the plate. Pick-off attempt. Ground-rule double. Balk. Terrible call by the umpire. Questionable strategy by the manager. Pinch hitter. Relief pitcher. Extra innings. Walk-off single. Mobbed at the plate.

Just when I was trying to figure out how I was going to get the autograph of the baseball star sitting behind me his words revealed that the entire conversation was about a little league game that his son had played. Then I realized the entire conversation had been from the perspective of a father sitting in bleachers behind the backstop to watch his son’s game.

The conversation had come alive with details because that father had been fully present at his son’s game. He wasn’t people watching or checking messages on his phone. He was glued to the game — every single pitch of the game — because it meant so much to his son.

And that’s when I looked across the table into the forgiving eyes of my wife.

Tojo, Starbucks, and Global Communication

If you have ever been to Starbucks with me, you know that my “Starbucks name” is “Tojo.”

First you might ask, what in the world is a “Starbucks name?” Well, whenever the person at the Starbucks register who takes my order asks for my name, I respond, “Tojo.” Thus, Tojo is my “Starbucks name,” although I have been known to also use “Tojo” at restaurants and other places where they put your name on a list.

Second, you may ask, why do you do this? Is it because you have some Orwellian paranoia about Big Brother having your name on a list? No. I just do it for fun. After all, it is easier to listen for a hostess to call out “Tojo” (usually with a touch of laughter in her voice) than to listen for “Clark” which actually sounds similar to several other names.

Third, if you are still reading at this point, you might ask, why did you choose “Tojo” for your “Starbucks name?” No, I am not someone who is especially intrigued by Japanese history. I chose Tojo because, as I have already said, it’s a fun name, and two, it’s in honor of my favorite wrestler (or “rassler”) of all time, Tojo Yamamoto.

Growing up I was always fascinated by the wrestling subculture that existed in Memphis. I had a friend with connections who could get us in free to the old auditorium downtown where we could sit on the front row and watch the bouts. We were so close to the action. I remember one night hearing the wrestlers whispering to each other about the next move they had choreographed, “Watch the 45 degree angle!”

I saw Jackie Fargo and his crazy brother, Roughhouse — they were always fun. I always hated when the so-called “scientific wrestlers” came to town — they were always boring. I loved sitting down front with the toothless elderly women who could scream and dip snuff at the same time. I loved chairs being thrown, managers interfering, pepper and other foreign objects being pulled from the bad guy’s trunks, and I loved Tojo Yamamoto.

Tojo was famous for delivering a vicious “chop” to his opponent in the ring (or to a opposing manager who strayed into the ring). More than a time or two Tojo took his wooden shoes and applied them to the head of his opponent. Tojo was a bad guy for a while and later became a good guy. Tojo was a no nonsense wrestler who always had his bout-face on.

But a funny thing happened with Tojo. He disappeared for a while and after a couple of weeks fans were told that he was hospitalized with, as I recall, a broken back. Concern was great as to whether Tojo would ever return to the ring. Seems like they even did an interview with him from his hospital bed. About that time I flew out to Los Angeles to spend some time with my grandparents. One morning I turned on the Los Angeles wrestling and to my amazement, there was Tojo — alive and well with no signs of a broken back. The fans in Memphis were totally unaware they were being duped. Tojo was not injured at all, he apparently just had a contract to work on the west coast for a few months.

They would never get away with a stunt like this in today’s world of instant global communication. But back 35 or 40 years ago, they could do it without fear of discovery. Who would ever find out? In today’s world Tojo’s injury hoax and west coast trip would be disclosed immediately by a blogger or on You Tube. The world has changed so much.

Tojo was a nice guy. Back in the day, I guess around 1974 I worked after school and on weekends at an Exxon Service Station on Summer Avenue in Memphis. One day I walked up to the driver’s window of a big red Cadillac (this was in the days of the now nearly extinct full-service gas station attendant). My mouth fell open as I realized that Tojo was sitting there behind the wheel. I filled his tank, washed his windshield, checked his oil and his tire pressure, too. Tojo was a really nice man who as I recall gave me a dollar tip for all the attention I gave to him and his car.

And now to the sad ending. Later I found out that Tojo was just the stage name of a Hawaiian native named Harry Watanabe. After years of suffering from numerous health problems, Watanabe died in 1992 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 65.

I pay tribute to him every time I sip a decaf mocha.

Looking Okay

My friend was overwhelmed by a tragedy in his life some time ago. He looks good; you know, like he is coping well and learning to adjust to living in the wake of his heartbreak. So much so, I had kind of moved on from his pain. I stopped asking “How are you doing?”

I assumed things were better and he was, like me, moving beyond the sorrow.

I was wrong.

We had a chance to sit and talk the other day and for the first time in a long time I asked, “How are you doing?”

And I got an honest answer.

“It’s easier to look okay than to be okay. And if you look okay it sometimes keeps people from asking if you are okay.”

While I am still processing this conversation, God has already taught me a lot through this exchange. He rebuked me for my selfishness in so quickly moving beyond someone else’s pain. He reminded me how important living in community is. He demonstrated to me the lengths to which all of us will go to protect ourselves. And He taught me once again the danger of slipping into surface relationships.

Psalm 20:1-5
In times of trouble, may the Lord respond to your cry.
May the God of Israel keep you safe from all harm.
2May he send you help from his sanctuary
and strengthen you from Jerusalem.
3May he remember all your gifts
and look favorably on your burnt offerings.


4May he grant your heart’s desire
and fulfill all your plans.
5May we shout for joy when we hear of your victory,
flying banners to honor our God.
May the Lord answer all your prayers.

Where are the Words?

A famous country music star (with whom I shared a Nashville to Los Angeles flight a few years ago) was asked recently about the painful breakup with his actress-wife that ended in annulment. He responded with words that he might one day try using to make another country music hit.

The breakup, he said, was “like opening the door to your house and having someone come in and take your big-screen TV off the wall during the big game, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Say what?

Your marriage to a beautiful, famous, and talented woman has ended and you compare it to losing a big screen television?

Maybe he was trying to be creative or cute. Or maybe he was just telling the truth in the best way he knew how. Perhaps he just couldn’t find the right words to adequately express the pain he was feeling in the depths of his heart.

Who among us has never tried to paint a verbal picture only to realize that it didn’t work? And who among us has never been at a loss for words to describe the joys of the best experiences of life or the pain of our darkest days? There have been days when I needed to buy more than just a vowel; I needed to buy a whole string of words.

There is good news for Christians. When we can’t find the words, God can still understand. God’s Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts allows us to communicate with God even when we can’t find the words.

“And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will” (Romans 8:26-27 NLT).

Thank You, God, for the work of Your Holy Spirit in our lives.