God, bless America… please.

Our family spent last week at Pensacola Beach, part of the so-called Emerald Coast. The name comes from the gorgeous water that kisses this 100 mile stretch of sand – a glimmering, translucent shade of green. Pensacola Beach claims to have the whitest beaches in the world. IMG_6743 editTechnically speaking, the sugar sand of Pensacola Beach is very fine Appalachian quartz, eroded from the mountains and deposited at the Gulf Coast over the ages. It’s a stunningly beautiful place. For me, it’s a also a spiritual place, an annual respite from hectic summers of ministry.

Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. Founded in 1946 and piloted by Navy and Marine aviators, the six F/A-18 Hornets of the Blue Angels  perform for approximately 11 million spectators a year. blue angels 2014On most Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the Blue Angels can be seen practicing in the skies over Pensacola. If you’ve never seen them perform, they are awe-inspiring. Their sheer force, matched with the incomparable precision, is truly something to behold. It is not uncommon for beachgoers to witness a flyover.

On Tuesday morning my eight-year-old daughter and I were sitting on the beach together when we heard that familiar, distant roar. We looked up to see the Angels flying east, about 500 yards off shore. It gets me every time. Chills ran down my spine and I got a lump in my throat at the display of American power.

There had been a good deal of nuclear saber rattling during the previous week, as the American president and the North Korean leader traded jabs and threats. There was something very reassuring about sitting on a sunny, beautiful beach with my daughter as the massive force of the U.S. military roared overhead. God Bless ‘Merica.

On Thursday morning I was reading by the pool when the familiar roar returned. But this time it was different. Judging by the relative height of the buildings, the six Blue Angels jets were no more than 75 feet off the beach. They flew right at the water’s edge, no more than 100 yards out from where I was sitting. The F/A-18’s were close enough for me to see the individual helmets of the pilots. Being that close to a fighter jet is not just something you see – it’s something you feel. It never gets old. I messaged several friends with the simple caption, “God Bless America!” That was Thursday.

On Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists from across America gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally.

NYT charlottesville pic

Credit: New York Times

They were protesting that city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, standing incongruously in the recently renamed Emancipation Park. For the past 100 years, the park had been named for the Confederate general around whose statue they gathered. They chanted anti-Semitic and white nationalist ideology. On Friday night the protestors carried tiki torches.  On Saturday they carried Confederate and Nazi flags.

Having gulfed hard all week, I was driving our family back home on Saturday. We followed a well-worn path that thousands of Arkansans travel each summer when returning from the Emerald Coast: west on I-10 through Florida, north on Highway 98 through Mississippi, then West on I-20 through Louisiana. Around 2 p.m. the news broke: someone drove a car into a crowd of people who were protesting the white nationalists. Dozens were injured. Heather Heyer, 32, from Charlottesville, was killed. It was hard to explain it all to my daughters.

Blood and news flowed in Charlottesville. The president struggled to respond. My reaction to Charlottesville was similar to my reaction to the Blue Angels just two days before. The words may have been the same, but the feeling was different. God Bless America.

On Thursday, I had tasted the acrid residue of American fighter jet exhaust while sitting in a beautiful courtyard overlooking one of the most picturesque beaches in America. The beauty, the might, the freedom, a lump in my throat. God Bless America!

On Saturday, Charlottesville (and America) tasted the acrid residue of centuries of sinful oppression. Heather Heyer is the latest causality in the age-old battle between human beings… all one race, all created in the image of God, yet divided by hate. The ugliness, the division, a lump in my throat. Where do we go from here?

God, bless America… please.



The Merciful Manager

It was the summer of 1993. I was 16 years old and had found gainful employment at Wal-Mart store #279 in my hometown of De Queen, Arkansas. That building now houses a Tractor Supply Company, but I digress and we’ve got work to do here.

When the store was exceptionally busy I would work as a checker, but my usual task was stocking the shelves of the household chemicals department. I would spend hours going from the stockroom to the sales floor, carting cases of bleach, laundry detergent, and awful assortments of potpourri sprays.

A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) had the same responsibilities for the adjacent department, so our paths naturally crossed. We had a lot of fun that summer. And sometimes, a lot of fun went right on over into too much fun, as you’re about to see.

If you’re unfamiliar with candied orange slices, they are hard to describe. The texture is orange slicessomething like a cross between a gummi bear and that paste that your dentist uses to make molds of your teeth. The flavor is too sickly sweet to be a fruit, but not nearly good enough to be called candy. So when my coworker and I discovered a bag of them unceremoniously busted on the stockroom floor, we immediately knew what to do.

We divided the bag between us and retreated to our respective sections of the stockroom. While generally unfit for human consumption, candied orange slices are perfectly designed for throwing. The size and shape are particularly suited for both distance and accuracy.  They are slightly curved, as well as angled toward their center, giving them an exceptional aerodynamic profile.

I hastily constructed my fort with cases of bleach and detergent while my coworker did the same with items from his department. Moments later, the shelling commenced. When he was in the open, a high-velocity, flat-trajectory sniper throw was in order. But when he ducked behind his fortifications, the situation called for an artillery-like arch. My goal was to lob a candied orange high and down into his cardboard foxhole.

My throw was perfect. Seriously, it was a thing of beauty. The high ceiling allowed for the perfect arc. I couldn’t have judged the height and distance better if I had a summoned all my geometry skills and used a protractor. I released the orange slice, and then stepped into the aisle of the stockroom to watch the beautiful flight, on a direct line to rain a sugary shelling on my buddy.

And then the unthinkable happened. My department manager was never at the store at that time of night. What was she doing here now?

The stockroom doors flung open as my orange slice reached its apex. In no-man’s land strolled my department manager, blissfully unaware of the unfolding carnage. My buddy’s head popped up and his eyes met mine. We both stood there, frozen. Between us stood my department manager. Unbeknownst to her, a candied orange was already beginning its descent. And her head was directly in the flight path.

Just as she turned to look in my direction, the orange slice smacked her right in the forehead. My buddy’s eyes were huge. I was utterly defenseless and without excuse. I froze, already framing my apology.

I don’t recall ever seeing an employee handbook, but I assume that shelling one’s department manager with subpar orange candy was a fireable offense.

To my great surprise (and relief), she simply said: “There’s some boys back here that need to stop playing and get back to work.” And with that, she turned around and walked right back to the sales floor. We cleaned up and went back to work. And that was it. No write-up, no warning, no scolding from the store manager.

Mrs. Frances was 44 then, just three years older than I am right now. She died on Tuesday after a very brief battle with cancer. I didn’t know she had been sick. I learned of her death during prayer requests last night at church. Her passing came as a shock to me, and I managed to hold back most of the tears until I could be alone after church. My personal surprise and sense of loss can in no way compare to that of her family, close friends, or church family. Or her coworkers from Wal-Mart #279 in De Queen, where she worked for thirty years.

My career with Wal-Mart only lasted six months (but not because of the candied orange situation). I moved on, but I never forgot Mrs. Frances and her mercy to me. I was impulsive and irresponsible; she was patient and full of grace.

In the years that followed, she and I never spoke of the incident, though we saw one another often. She and Mr. Don were the closest neighbors just up the gravel road from some property I look after for a friend. Our paths would cross on that gravel road every few weeks. She was always smiling.

Some lessons are hard to fully learn in the moment. In that moment, I was just glad to not face the full consequences of my irresponsibility. That was the short-term benefit. She corrected me, made her point, and that was the end of it.

The long arc of her reaction that day taught me how to show mercy, not just how to receive it.

I trust that the next time I cross paths with Mrs. Frances, the streets will be made of gold, not gravel.

Rest in peace, from the kid who threw the orange.

frances smith.jpg