Family Means Forgiving


Yesterday I delivered my first sermon. It was for the Class of 2017 baccalaureate ceremony at Western Heights High School, where I’m the English department chairman. Some Facebook friends asked for a copy of the speech, so here it is, pretty much just as delivered.

Family Means Forgiving

Hello. Thank you to my colleagues, the parents, and especially the Class of 2017 for asking me to be your speaker today. I know some of you are thinking I’m an odd choice to deliver your baccalaureate sermon, and honestly, I’m as surprised as you are. When I was a kid, my dad would blast Jimmy Swaggart on the turntable Sunday mornings while getting ready for church, and I would stay in bed as long as I could, pretending to be asleep, sick, lame, or dead in hopes I wouldn’t have to go. And now here I am.

I spent a lot of time trying to decide what I wanted to talk about today. Although I am a licensed minister, I’ve only used those credentials to marry people, and I couldn’t find anyone willing to get married today, so I had to sit down and write an actual sermon. I’ve written news stories about teenagers dying while huffing gasoline and novels exploring my own deepest fears, but this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. For my topic, I decided to talk about something I wish I’d been told some three decades ago when I was sitting in the audience at Enid High School’s baccalaureate.

Forgiveness is part of what I want to talk to you about today. Forgiveness, family, and avoiding regrets. But let’s start with the family part.

What is family? If you were a senior in my AP Literature class this year you probably expect to hear some John Steinbeck quotes about how there’s only one soul and each of us has a little piece of it and that makes us all family. Well, instead of a quote you got a paraphrase … and I expect you to know the difference.

Romans 12:10 has something to say about who we should consider to be family. “love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. ” First Peter, Chapter 4, verse 8, tells us, “Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins.”

My point here is that family extends beyond the mom or dad or grandparents sitting with our graduates today. Sure, we’re all made in the image of God and that makes us family. But beyond that, we share a kinship forged here in these hallways, in the stadium, in this auditorium and in the classrooms. We are a family of Jets.

One of the things that has always struck me about Western Heights is the diversity of our student body and how well we all usually get along with one another. Sure, there are some fights, especially at the beginning of the year, and there are cliques and best friends and bickering and such, but for the most part, despite our differences, everyone gets along with everyone else.

That’s not how it was for me in high school. Races didn’t mix. Economic groups didn’t associate with one another. And stoners didn’t talk to preppies. The Breakfast Club was real, man.

There were over 400 seniors in my graduating class. I didn’t personally associate with more than about 25 of them. I didn’t talk to guys who wore pink shirts or girls who wore bangles. Student Council kids were brown-nosing nerds. Our state champion football team was a bunch of thugs. My grades were average, so I couldn’t chill with the geeks. I didn’t use drugs, so I didn’t even hang out with the kids who shared my musical taste. High school wasn’t much fun, and now, looking back on it, I can see that it was mostly my fault I didn’t have any fun.

We’re human and have to deal with our human nature. We’re cliquish. We’re petty sometimes. We hold grudges. We push our brothers and sisters away from us. Some of you are about to graduate without really knowing your classmates, or maybe you’re holding on to old angers. She dated your ex-boyfriend, or he dented your car, or Sally blocked you on Snapchat and Miguel got that scholarship you thought you deserved.

Things happen.

Time passes.

When you come back for your 20-year high school reunion, do you want to still be holding on to your anger because Mackenzie changed senior quotes to senior thank-yous in the yearbook or because Nayelli ate your lunch or Lakota ran faster than you in track? Take it from someone who has a hard time forgiving, from someone who let prejudices and peer pressure decide who he associated with in high school, you don’t want to walk out of here for the last time with hard feelings or not knowing your family.

Colossians chapter 3 verses 11 to 13 say, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian,* slave, free; but Christ is all and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”

Matthew 6:14 tells us, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” And Luke adds to that in Chapter 6, Verse 37, with, “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”

I’m not one to turn down good advice from other sources. One of my favorite quotes comes from author Elbert Hubbard, who says, “The ineffable joy of forgiving and being forgiven forms an ecstasy that might well arouse the envy of the gods.”

Forgive your friend for not letting you copy that homework assignment. Forgive Mr. Zenati for not rounding that 89 up to a 90. Forgive the referee for his bad calls. Forgiving will bring you joy, even if the offending party never knows or cares that you’ve given it. Do it for yourself.

Some of you know I’m kind of a literature nerd. You’re not getting out of here without a few quotes from some of my favorite books. And if I’m going to quote an author, you know I’m going to start with John Steinbeck. No paraphrase here. America’s greatest author wrote this in his journal during the time he was working on his short novel Of Mice and Men. He said:

In every bit of honest writing in the world … there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

If somebody had told me this when I was your age, maybe I would have been smart enough to be open to the advice. Maybe not. If I had, when I went to my first high school reunion maybe I would have actually known the names of people who greeted me instead of simply remembering how she was a snob and he was a jock and that guy was always too stoned to matter.

My next message is for the parents and guardians. My daughter Sara graduated from Western Heights in 2013. When she came here as a freshman I had the highest hopes for her to work with Mrs. Wood and get a ton of scholarships and go to college for free and become the psychologist she’d talked about becoming. As time went on and we were constantly around each other at school, it got to where Sara liked me less and less and I approved of what she was doing with her life less and less until by her senior year we were hardly on speaking terms. Her path ended up being something different than I’d imagined. It was a few years after she graduated before I read Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha and found this advice given to the title character in regards to his son. Hesse writes:

Which father, which teacher had been able to protect [his son] from living his life for himself, from soiling himself with life, from burdening himself with guilt, from drinking the bitter drink for himself, from finding his path for himself? Would you think, my dear,
anybody might perhaps be spared from taking this path? That perhaps your little son would be spared, because you love him, because you would like to keep him from suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you would die ten times for him, you would not be able to take the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself.

And so my message for my fellow parents and guardians is this: Recognize that the young person sitting here today has made mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. They are going to live their own lives and it might not be what you envision. It might not be what they envision today. Be forgiving. Be supportive. Love them no matter how stupid you think they are sometimes. And trust me, there are days I’ll agree with you about that. They have to learn on their own, just like you did. Just like I did. Be ready to welcome home the prodigal once he or she has earned wisdom.

Finally, I’d like to mention Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, the only book most of my AP seniors liked. I’m taking this quote a little out of context, but she writes that some people “forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” Memory is like a fishing net, she says, with the mesh releasing things that aren’t needed and holding in the good stuff. Hurston closes her novel with the protagonist, Janie, sitting on the porch as an older woman with much experience. She writes, “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it in from the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes.”

As you leave today, I want you to think about your time at Western Heights High School as a fishing net. It’s time to draw in your net. Make sure it’s full of things worth remembering. Repair any relationships that need it. Forge new ones with people you avoided. Never forget that you are a member of the Jet family, and family sticks together.

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Summer and Youth


You are young, and want the moon to drink from as a cup of gold. Reaching and straining to catch the moon, you may catch a firefly. But if you grow up you will realise that you cannot have the moon, and would not want it if you could. And you will catch no fireflies.
— John Steinbeck, Cup of Gold

Summer is here. The other day I was lying in bed late in the morning and the wind was blowing outside. It was a sunny morning and the wind blowing the thick branches of the maple tree in our backyard was making a dancing, mottled pattern on the window blind. For an instant it took me way back to childhood, when I’d pitch my two-man canvass pup tent in the backyard and lie in there and read and watch the shadows of a long-gone mimosa move back and forth on the sides of the tent.

That seems like such a long time ago. About 35 years, I guess, and yet for that brief instant I was right back in the moment. I could almost feel the hard ground beneath me and smell the tent as it swelled with the bit of wind that made its way inside. There was the book, the churr of cicadas, the singing of birds, someone mowing in the distance, and the knowledge that Mom would be starting dinner in the house. There were no utility bills, no car payments, no unreasonable bosses, no job, no stress.

What does that have to do with the Steinbeck quote above? When I was that boy in the tent I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, which meant that everything was open to me. I could chase the moon, believing I could catch it. That’s something only a child can believe, of course. We grow up. Our circumstances dictate certain courses of action, and pretty soon we don’t even look up at the moon anymore because we’re too busy working to pay the bills, tending to our kids and spouses, doing the laundry, and all those other things we have to do just to make it through the day. There’s no time for the moon, and our hands are empty of fireflies.

As a writer, you always have to keep your hand stretched toward the moon. You have to believe you can catch it. You have to stay connected with that innocence of youth even when you’re writing about the experience of age. Writing is about translating your personal sense of wonder to other people, making them see what you see, believe what you believe, and experience what you feel. If you’ve reached a point where you’re no longer trying to catch the moon yourself, you probably won’t inspire your readers.

Go spend some time outside today. Don’t work in the garden or mow the lawn or paint the house or play music. Just sit and listen and watch and let your mind drift toward the moon. Then, if you want, come back and show us your fireflies in the comment section.

Vomit and Grapes


It’s been quite the week. My three youngest kids were home sick Monday and Tuesday, went to school Wednesday, then the youngest two started vomiting again Wednesday evening and one of them ended up staying home yesterday, causing me to use a sick day. They all seem fine now … but I think I’m coming down with another cold. Damn weather! It goes from 40 degrees one day to 80 the next, then back into the 30s. Someday I’ll find a way to turn snot into energy and my nose will end America’s dependence on Muslim oil.

Speaking of vomit (and yes, I was), going back to the late 1980s I had this perfect name for a metal band: Toxic Vomit. The other day I heard that name used on one of those horrible Disney Channel shows my kids watch. I remember back in the day when “The Wonderful World of Disney” was a Sunday evening staple and I would watch every second I could before my dad would force us all into the car to go to his Pentecostal church. Now the name Disney only conjures images of dumb blonde singer/actresses, inane cartoons and, worst of all, “The Suite Life of Zak and Cody.” Has there ever been a worse show than that one? You can smell the stale jokes coming minutes before they’re delivered and those kids’ acting abilities are only a hair better than little wooden Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker.

Grapes. Only a few of my AP students are where they should be in reading The Grapes of Wrath. They tell me I have no concept of what it means to have a life. They say this during the bountiful time I actually give them to read during class … time they do not use to read what I’ve assigned. I’ve given up trying to motivate them. Benchmarks are next week. This time I’m not pulling punches. They are getting a real AP multiple choice test, plus an essay where they can only succeed if they’ve finished Grapes and The Great Gatsby. When they fail I’ll have them removed from AP and they will not get to graduate with AP honors. I hate to do it because I really do like the kids, but this is supposed to be a college level class and it is nowhere near that right now.

It appears we’ll be moving from the block schedule to a seven-hour day next school year. This has caused controversy. First, because the district superintendent had already decided to do it before calling for a vote of the faculty. When the vote was split almost 50/50 a meeting was called so he could explain why the seven-period day is better. I really don’t care either way, but it stinks that the issue was already decided before we were asked to spend our time and energy in not one, but two bullshit polls. Made me wonder if we were going to adopt the hammer and sickle as the school flag.

One of our really good students interviewed me today for the Newsroom 101 program The Oklahoman newspaper does every year. Since I used to work for the paper, she thought I’d be a good candidate. I was honest with her in every question she asked. I’m sure the people at the paper won’t like what I had to say. It’s funny, though, to think back to the year 2000 and how, if the paper had agreed to pay me another $25 per week, for a meager total of about $26,000 per year, I’d have stayed on as the Enid bureau chief and a page 2 columnist and my life would be completely different now. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …”

While we were home yesterday I showed my youngest daughter (age eight) the movie Old Yeller. She’s a real animal lover and eats up animal movies. She loved this one, which made me very proud. And ol’ Bubba got some special treatment after the movie. While watching the movie I was struck by how much of the language of the story and the activities of Arliss were part of my own childhood, but aren’t any more. Old Yeller was one of those books I was lucky enough to own as a child and I read it over and over, along with Where the Red Fern Grows, Summer of the Monkeys and a few others. Life sure was simple back then.

Vomit and Grapes


It’s been quite the week. My three youngest kids were home sick Monday and Tuesday, went to school Wednesday, then the youngest two started vomiting again Wednesday evening and one of them ended up staying home yesterday, causing me to use a sick day. They all seem fine now … but I think I’m coming down with another cold. Damn weather! It goes from 40 degrees one day to 80 the next, then back into the 30s. Someday I’ll find a way to turn snot into energy and my nose will end America’s dependence on Muslim oil.

Speaking of vomit (and yes, I was), going back to the late 1980s I had this perfect name for a metal band: Toxic Vomit. The other day I heard that name used on one of those horrible Disney Channel shows my kids watch. I remember back in the day when "The Wonderful World of Disney" was a Sunday evening staple and I would watch every second I could before my dad would force us all into the car to go to his Pentecostal church. Now the name Disney only conjures images of dumb blonde singer/actresses, inane cartoons and, worst of all, "The Suite Life of Zak and Cody." Has there ever been a worse show than that one? You can smell the stale jokes coming minutes before they’re delivered and those kids’ acting abilities are only a hair better than little wooden Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker.

Grapes. Only a few of my AP students are where they should be in reading The Grapes of Wrath. They tell me I have no concept of what it means to have a life. They say this during the bountiful time I actually give them to read during class … time they do not use to read what I’ve assigned. I’ve given up trying to motivate them. Benchmarks are next week. This time I’m not pulling punches. They are getting a real AP multiple choice test, plus an essay where they can only succeed if they’ve finished Grapes and The Great Gatsby. When they fail I’ll have them removed from AP and they will not get to graduate with AP honors. I hate to do it because I really do like the kids, but this is supposed to be a college level class and it is nowhere near that right now.

It appears we’ll be moving from the block schedule to a seven-hour day next school year. This has caused controversy. First, because the district superintendent had already decided to do it before calling for a vote of the faculty. When the vote was split almost 50/50 a meeting was called so he could explain why the seven-period day is better. I really don’t care either way, but it stinks that the issue was already decided before we were asked to spend our time and energy in not one, but two bullshit polls. Made me wonder if we were going to adopt the hammer and sickle as the school flag.

One of our really good students interviewed me today for the Newsroom 101 program The Oklahoman newspaper does every year. Since I used to work for the paper, she thought I’d be a good candidate. I was honest with her in every question she asked. I’m sure the people at the paper won’t like what I had to say. It’s funny, though, to think back to the year 2000 and how, if the paper had agreed to pay me another $25 per week, for a meager total of about $26,000 per year, I’d have stayed on as the Enid bureau chief and a page 2 columnist and my life would be completely different now. "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …"

While we were home yesterday I showed my youngest daughter (age 8) the movie Old Yeller. She’s a real animal lover and eats up animal movies. She loved this one, which made me very proud. And ol’ Bubba got some special treatment after the movie. While watching the movie I was struck by how much of the language of the story and the activities of Arliss were part of my own childhood, but aren’t any more. Old Yeller was one of those books I was lucky enough to own as a child and I read it over and over, along with Where the Red Fern Grows, Summer of the Monkeys and a few others. Life sure was simple back then.