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A wage more valuable than money

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The October sun beat down on my head with a relentless anger that seemed out of character for that time of year.  As sweat beaded on my head and ran down my face in tiny streams, I continued to pull the rake back and forth across the ankle-deep leaves on that five-acre patch of land behind an old farmhouse.  I was a starving college student in Arkansas in my early 20s, and the $100 I was promised for this particular task seemed like a small fortune—until about four hours into the job.

The man who hired me was a ruddy farmer who almost exactly matched my preconceived mental image of his weekly attire with old, faded coveralls and a straw hat to match a face and forearms that throbbed in a hue of dark red that reminded me of an overripe apple.  I met him at a church I just started attending, and he seemed a genuinely nice sort who just wanted to help a youngster out with a temporary job.  I learned a lot about him the first day I was there.

He set a platter of sandwiches and a jar of lemonade on the splintered and weather beaten picnic table on the side of his house and gave a loud whistle for me to stop and grab a bite.  The whistle was quite unnecessary, as I was standing maybe 20 feet from that table.  As I dropped the rake and stripped off my work gloves, he clamped his hands to his wide hips and shook his head slowly as if the burden of the world had suddenly descended upon him.  His first words were jarring.

“Boy, you ain’t worth the skin God printed you on, you know that?” he said in his low, gravelly voice.  “If you was my son, I believe I’d drop you off at a bus station somewhere and wish the world luck with you.”

Gone was the sweet, smiling older gentleman who welcomed me to his church only a few weeks before.  His upper lip was curved in a sort of menacing grin that told me these next few days were going to be the longest of my new tenure in adulthood.  As I settled down at that old, rickety table to hush my stomach with the help of a few ham and cheese sandwiches, he continued to stare holes through me.

“Seriously.  What have you been doing all morning?“ he asked in a growl that dripped with disgust.  “You should be halfway through this job by now and you ain’t got 20 feet from this house!”

He paused his tongue lashing long enough to bless the food, and once he uttered “amen” (in Jesus’ name, of course) the verbal flogging resumed.  Each bite I took through that entire meal was punctuated with some new commentary on my work ethic, the way I gripped a rake, the size of the piles I made with the leaves in his yard.  I waited through the entire meal for some nugget of encouragement, but none came.

The verbal beat downs continued each and every day for the entire week I worked for him.  I went to bed each night with blistered hands, a throbbing back, and a wounded spirit.  By the time the week was over, his entire property had been raked, an old storage shed had been torn down (and the rubble hauled off), his house had been repainted, and that old picnic table had been fortified, sanded down, and repainted.

At the end of the last day, he called me over to get my check before I left.  My shoulders slumped as I trudged over to receive my remuneration—and probably one last commentary on how I represented the most worthless generation he ever witnessed.

I stopped in front of him and noticed immediately that the man I had been working for all week was gone.  In his place was the warm, smiling man I met recently at a country church.  As he handed me a folded check, he gripped my hand tightly and thanked me for all of my hard work.  As my face turned into a soupy mess of confusion, he patted me on the shoulder and gave me one last speech.

“Son, I believe in hard work.  Always have,” he said.  “You were doing okay from the start, but I knew I could get a lot more out of you with the proper motivation.  No matter what job you are given, you owe your best.  All you can give.  That will always be rewarded.”

As I climbed in my car to leave, his words continued to ring in my ears.  I started the engine, but before I shifted into gear, I took one peek at the folded check from that old farmer with a unique motivational approach.  He had doubled my promised pay, but I earned much more than a couple of hundred dollars that week.  I earned a life lesson on the importance of pouring my all into every responsibility I have.

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frankvaughn@gmail.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

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True heroes that last

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True visionaries certainly look ahead as they walk through life. They are always thinking of the steps in front of them that take them to their desired destination. The goal, of course, is in front of you, but I submit that looking back can be useful too. While your future is in front of you, the lessons you learned and the people who have shaped you are behind you. They must not be forgotten, as they are vital to the person you are now, as well as the person you strive to become.

I had a ton of heroes growing up, but they were mostly disposable. I greatly admired the football genius of Joe Montana, the fluid poetry of motion that was Ryne Sandberg on a baseball diamond, and the sheer hurricane of personality and brutal ring efficiency given to the world by Muhammad Ali. Those athletes captured my attention, but the one that captured my imagination was Larry Bird. He was all I ever wanted to be…until I grew up and realized that both he and the others I mentioned were limited quantities of contribution to the worlds they represented. In terms of how lasting their contributions to the life of a little boy in Arkansas were, they were indeed disposable.

I am now a man in his 40s with a family, a job, and bills to pay. Every hero I had growing up is either retired or dead now, and while I can still relive their former glory on the internet, they simply have nothing further to offer that is of any use to me. I came to a point in my life where I began seeking heroes with a more lasting influence, and I have been blessed to find them. Here are just a few:

Bishop Imad Al Banna was the acting archbishop of Basra Province, Iraq when I served there in 2009. Needless to say, it took a lot of courage to be a Christian of common stature in a province that borders Iran to the east. Al Banna was a very public figure there, as he was not only the priest for that area, but he also owned two pharmacies and a school that provided services to the entire population, which is 97% Muslim. The previous archbishop fled Iraq for fear of his life at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but Al Banna resolved to stay no matter what and provide the services and ministry to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. Though he endured much personal tragedy as a natural course of being who he was in the place he was in, he never lost his smile or his resolve to serve the people of Basra.

Pakistani Recycling Christians: I was tasked with doing a journalistic piece on the burgeoning recycling program in central Iraq, and I made the mistake of trying to conduct the interviews on a Friday, which is the Muslim day of rest. The day was not a complete loss, though, as I was able to meet with the director of the plant (an American). As we were talking, I noticed that there were four gentlemen who were clearly not American that were attending to the office that day. One approached me and, as he spoke absolutely no English, flashed me a 1000-watt smile and began making hand motions toward his mouth as though he were drinking something. The director grinned at the puzzled expression on my face and let me know that the gentleman was offering me a cup of hot Chai tea. He also warned me that it would be culturally rude for me to refuse, so I readily accepted. As he and the other three men were frantically bustling about, preparing my tea and cutting into a pound cake, the director told me their backstory.

“These four men are from Pakistan,” he said. “They were forced out of their country and found refuge—and a job—here.” I asked why they were exiled from Pakistan, and he said, “They were lucky. By all rights they should be dead right now for the ‘sin’ they were forced out for. That ‘sin,’ mind you, is Christianity.”

I was bewildered. I said, “I may be completely uneducated on this subject, but I was under the impression that there weren’t any Christians in Pakistan.”

“Well, there probably aren’t now,” he said. “Because these guys are here.”

They were not only living their faith in Iraq, of all places, but they were also working hard to improve the environment and enterprise of recycling programs of Iraq—and making American soldiers feel welcome in their area.

All of these men are heroes of mine. I have never seen them again since I left Iraq in 2009, but I will never forget the courage, resolve, and joy they all contributed to the world around them.

Athletes entertain us and amaze us with their physical gifts, but those perish over time and the people that had them fade into the collective memory of websites devoted to reliving the past. People like Bishop Al Banna and the Pakistani Recycling Christians, however, have given something to this world that can never perish: they have given inspiration.


Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frankvaughn@gmail.com
. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

A Soldier’s (Spouse’s) Life

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I have served in the U.S. Army for the past 22 years, and in that time I have deployed to Iraq twice and mobilized to Louisiana in support of relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I am used to saying goodbye to loved ones and getting on a plane to go do stuff for my country. I am saying goodbye again this week, only this time I’m not the one leaving.

We are still at war. We have soldiers deployed all over the world for various reasons, the most auspicious of which is the ongoing effort to defeat global terror. Our troops have been in Afghanistan for the last 15-plus years. We were in Iraq from 2003-11, but then left, only to return. There are many other places in this world our troops continue to serve in, including the place my wife is leaving for as you read this.

We attended a Yellow Ribbon Program event this past weekend, which provides soldiers and family members all the information needed to cope with difficulties of extended separation and deployment. The Army hosted the event at a hotel in our region, and all of the deploying soldiers wore their Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) while being accompanied by their spouses and children during the weekend of briefings. For the first time in my career, I was sitting in a room full of soldiers who were preparing to go do their thing in an operational environment, yet I was wearing khakis and a polo shirt.

I know the operational side of these things. You show up when you’re supposed to show up, you make sure you’re in the right uniform and that you have all of your gear ready to go, and you train for the environment and the mission that you are moving to. As a senior noncommissioned officer, I usually have the added responsibility of making sure the soldiers in my charge do all of the above and that they don’t get into trouble. I try to foster an environment that makes me accessible to them when they have emotional reactions to the separation from family and the fears about the job ahead. Yes, even the world’s most well-trained and battle-hardened warriors experience these emotions.

This time I could only sit helplessly and watch the range of emotions scroll across my wife’s face as each briefing passed this weekend and the seconds ticked away until she says goodbye to me and our children. I was sad, fearful and, honestly, a little mad even though I’ve done the same thing several times.

Mostly, though, I was proud of the strength and dignity that she has shown through this whole process. How hard she has worked to take care of her troops and get them prepared for what lies ahead. How they come to her with respect and depend on her to lead them.

When I returned home from the initial combat phase of Iraq in spring 2004, I was overwhelmed with expressions of gratitude for my service. My uncle gave me this huge speech about how he was treated when he returned from Vietnam and how he was actually grateful that we were being treated very differently.

I will admit that at times it got a little embarrassing, but after a while (and that stern speech from Uncle George) it became easier to appreciate the Thank Yous and Atta Boys that never seemed to stop.

Our troops certainly deserve our appreciation for all they do to serve our country and defend both it and our way of life. I have that perspective locked in firmly after all the trips I have had to take in this uniform.

However, this time I am gaining a whole new perspective on the sacrifice our nation calls on its citizens to make, because this time I am experiencing what this means to the families of the service members who have to go away to do their jobs.

If you make a point of thanking our troops for all that they do, please also remember the spouses and children who are sacrificing during that same time. If you see a service member out with his or her spouse, please remember to thank both of them for all they do.

It is easy to identify the heroes who wear combat boots. Please don’t forget the ones who don’t.

 

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

My view from the cheap seats

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I went to a concert recently that I had been dying to attend for years. When I found out they were coming here, I told my wife that we have to go. She wasn’t nearly as excited about this idea as I was, but I told her this really sad sob story about how I’ve been trying to catch them live for 25 years (which was absolutely true), but something always got in the way. Once I had permission to shop for tickets, I attacked the internet in search of the best seats I could find — for the price limit I was granted, that is.

I found what looked like the perfect seats. The website assured me that it was in the middle concourse, and a quick glance at the seating chart seemed to confirm that we were going to be in great shape. I couldn’t believe the deal I was getting for such a — well, such a sort of reasonable price. I bought those tickets, stuffed them in my Apple Wallet, and began wetting myself with excitement.

We arrived at the stadium on the night of the concert, and the place was packed. I hadn’t done my homework on this group’s history with where I live, but I figured there would be a decent turnout. Decent was a gross understatement. As we made our way to our seats, I noticed that we just kept climbing and climbing and … yeah. Turns out we were not in the middle of the arena. We weren’t exactly in the rafters, but I could hit them with a rock from where we were. I began complaining immediately when we reached our seats. My wife just rolled her eyes and went to sleep on my shoulder.

Funny thing about concerts: turns out you can hear them just as well from any seat in the arena. The concert was fantastic, and honestly, what made it even better was the fact that I could not only see the band from where we were sitting, I could see almost everyone in the arena. Seeing everyone having such a great time actually made the experience better.

My life has always been kind of like that. I didn’t grow up with much, which set me apart from most of the people I grew up and went to school with. It felt lonely much of the time, but looking back on it now, I realize that I had an advantage many of them don’t. Not being accepted actually afforded me the opportunity to take in the world from outside of it rather than having to figure it out from within.

I have always been in the cheap seats of life — mostly because that was all I could afford. Now I can do better, but I choose to take in the world from outside because honestly, the view is so much better up here.

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

Small gestures make a huge difference

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I’m going to ask you to do something that many people consider hard — sometimes even impossible. I’m going to ask you to take a look at the world that exists outside of the 3-foot radius around you.

We travel through this world with to-do lists rattling around in our brains. We have people to take care of that we call “family” and we have responsibilities such as paying bills, feeding the kids, showing up for work, gassing up the car. Life can get so busy that we sometimes forget that, besides our immediate families, there are also, like, 7 billion other people on this planet.

I went to the grocery store yesterday because my family needed to be taken care of. We already had a houseful of groceries, but what we did not have was liquid dish soap and laundry detergent. Since this was a quick trip for two items, the decision was made that I could be trusted with this task, so off I went. I hate going to the grocery store, especially when I only need a couple of things. I’m not sure if this is company policy or just the way things usually shake out, but the store around the corner from my house is usually packed wall-to-wall with shoppers all trying to negotiate two checkout stands with baskets full of …whatever they came to get. Sure enough, I walked in the door and the roiling sea of humanity in that place slightly nauseated me.

Because I am no good at shopping, it took me something like 10 minutes to find the aisle that contains the household items I came to buy. It took me another few minutes to wedge my way between the shopping carts randomly — yet impressively — arranged in the aisle in a crude herringbone formation as their operators jostled around each other to reach this thing or that. I made my selections and turned to go to the express checkout lane in the hope — futile, it turned out — that I could sail through there and out the door before the turn of midnight. That line was backed up from the front of the store to the dairy section in the back, so I guessed this was not going to be a good afternoon for me.

I almost did the typical guy thing, which is putting the items back and just telling my family they were out of luck on cleaning the kitchen for at least another day. This little voice (that sounded curiously like my wife’s) demanded that I continue this mission if I knew what was good for me. I chose a shorter line, albeit one in which the people had baskets overflowing with — I don’t know. Everything in the store? I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

As I stood there hating life, this lady in front of me with a full basket turned, saw me holding a bottle of liquid dish soap and a jug of laundry detergent, and frowned. I tensed up, thinking her facial expression was about to bring a world of pain between us. She moved a few inches to her right and motioned me to go in front of her. That move was so unexpected that I froze, not knowing what to do. I just stared at her, mouth slightly agape, and she motioned again for me to move in front of her. I looked behind me as though someone back there could tell me what I was supposed to do next. She sighed with the full weight of someone who is used to doing nice things for people and not being appreciated for it.

“Sir, you have two items and I have about 50. Please go in front of me.”

The sound of her voice restarted the feeling in my legs and they slowly began moving forward on their own. As I passed by her I mumbled a quick “thank you” that must have sounded like a smooth blend of confusion and shame.

Shame? As I trudged to the car after spending less than three minutes in a mile-long checkout line, I wondered why I felt that at all. Was I ashamed that I beat the system? No. I was ashamed that I did not take more opportunities to do for others what that lady did for me. She likely has no idea that her seemingly random act of kindness would appear in a weekly column the next day. I don’t know who she is or what has shaped her personal moral code, but I do know I have a lot to learn from her. I may never see her again, but I will never forget her.

My mission now is to make sure others benefit from her simple gesture in a grocery store checkout line. She did little more than expedite my afternoon and cure a simple bad mood. Someone else may need a kind word, smile, or simple assist that might make their lives a little easier — or perhaps save it.

The next time I have an opportunity to help someone in even the simplest way, I will remember this scene and pay her act forward. Will you join me in this effort?

 

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

Giving up: The only way to guarantee failure

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It was 28-3 midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl LI and the Falcons were feelin’ fine. For some reason, 28 points must have felt like enough to prevent Tom Brady from cashing in his fifth Super Bowl ring and making history. It wasn’t.

The Patriots, long accused of taking shortcuts and skirting rules on the way to success, had something that night that no one — myself included — thought they had. After looking flat and confused for 3½ quarters, they suddenly came alive and caught the Falcons flatfooted. Twenty-five points and the game’s first-ever overtime period later, the Patriots not only had a record fifth Super Bowl title for one quarterback and one coach, they also owned the largest comeback in Super Bowl history. How — why — did this happen?

Put simply, they refused to give up. They refused to roll over and accept the odds that were stacked against them. I read on a very well-reputed sports website that at 20 different points in the game, the Falcons had a 99 percent chance of winning. If my math is correct that means the Patriots had a 1 percent chance of turning that game around and rewriting history.

Sometimes, if you refuse to give up, you may only have a 1 percent chance of succeeding. That alone is enough to make most people give up before they even try. Let me hit you with another statistic though. If you do give up, you now have a 0 percent chance of succeeding. There is no guarantee of success in anything, but the best way to guarantee failure is to not even try. It is easier to put something down than to pick it up — gravity, you know — but sometimes it’s better to hold on to something rather than give up on it.

The Patriots also had the tools to win that game from the start. Whether it was a halftime speech that fired them up or in-game situations that gave them hope, they remembered that they were good enough to do it and they got to work.

There is an old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” They couldn’t score 25 points on one play, so they focused on getting a first down. Then another. Then a touchdown. Their defense focused on one tackle at a time, one play at a time, and the end result was Atlanta scoring no more points that night. As each play unfolded and New England slowly began to arise, the odds began moving in the right direction.

Is your house completely wrecked to the point it seems impossible to clean? Start with something small. Wash a dish. Do a load of laundry. Pick something up and put it where it belongs. Make even the smallest effort to get started and watch the successes add up — however slowly — over time. It may seem impossible, but once you start and you see even the slightest progress, the odds begin to slowly move in the right direction in your mind.

Maybe you are in a difficult relationship that seems impossible to fix. If it is safe to be in it and you know you love that person, then start with something small. Do something nice for them that they were not expecting. Talk to a minister — either together or alone. Go to one counseling session. Apologize if you know you were wrong. Do something to stop the cycle of hurt and disappointment and see if it creates any hope. If it does, then do another. A series of small successes over a period of time can eventually add up to a huge miracle.

Just remember this: 1 percent is something. As long as there is something, you have work to do. Giving up when there is work to be done is the easiest thing anyone can ever do, but it always leads to regret.

If you truly want to turn things around and enjoy the feeling of fulfillment and success, then do the work. Don’t let seemingly impossible odds talk you out of it. Don’t let fear of failure talk you out of it. Just do it. If you do fail, then figure out what you can learn from it, and use that to fight again the next time. Just don’t fail because you didn’t try.

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.

Feed your soul

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I served in various churches as a youth minister for a number of years before surrendering to full-time ministry in the military. I learned many lessons through that journey — probably more than I ever taught to the scores of teenagers who passed through my doors. Of all the lessons I learned, though, one of the most vital was eating.

I cut my teeth in youth ministry at a smallish church in my hometown. We had around 15 kids in the youth group when I arrived, but they were committed and came to church with their families. Because the church was so family-connected, they held monthly potluck meals after Sunday service. It wasn’t a ministry gimmick, either. These people really loved and desired each other’s company and this seemed like the best way to facilitate that. Also, the food was good. Just … SO good.

Because I was a staff minister there, I took the attitude that all of the members should eat first. I would alternate between working in the kitchen — whether preparing food or washing dishes — and helping to serve the food. When everyone was seated, I worked the room, greeting people, making sure they had everything they needed, sharing a joke or a smile. You know … ministry.

These potluck lunches would last for at least a couple of hours, as people would eat, laugh, socialize and just generally enjoy the experience together. The pastor would share a brief word of encouragement to make it an official church gathering, and the kids would play outside while the grownups sipped coffee with their desserts. Once the program wrapped up and all the food was eaten, the cleanup phase began.

Our church was in a tiny Quonset hut on the modest church property. The church broke ground on a new worship center adjacent to the hut shortly after I got there, but a year later the ground was still broken and no nails had been driven. Since it was one of only three structures our church owned back then—the other two being a parsonage that sat empty and an office space up the road — we had to both worship there and hold the potluck socials. We turned the worship center into a fellowship hall, ate an expansive meal, then turned it back into a worship center for the evening service before going home for a couple of hours to sleep off the meats, veggies and desserts.

One Sunday, after a very well-stocked potluck meal that took hours to set up, feast on and recover from, I stumbled in the front door of my house, which sat around the corner from the church. I fell into my recliner, looked up at the ceiling, and immediately heard a strange noise. This low rumble started inconspicuously, but very quickly grew to a loud roar in my ears. It wasn’t thunder outside — it was my stomach.

My wife walked in the room from somewhere in the back of the house and saw the look on my face and asked what was wrong. I sat up, cleared my throat and asked her what we had in the refrigerator to eat.

“You have to be kidding me,” she said. “Dude. We just came from the biggest potluck I have ever seen in my life. How is it even possible that you’re hungry right now?!”

I realized something that day that has impacted me ever since. I was so busy taking care of everyone’s needs and making sure everyone was enjoying themselves and each other that I just plain forgot to eat. At a potluck lunch. A very large potluck lunch, at that.

I learned that day that we can spend every ounce of energy we have taking care of other people, whether it be family, friends, co-workers, strangers, or whatever, but we must invest in ourselves too if we want to be effective.

I encourage you to think about what it is that gives you the drive to be successful in your life. Think about what gives you peace. Think about the things you can do for yourself that will give you the energy and the internal ability to impact the world around you. Do those things.

It is important to invest in those around us — feed them, if you will. Just remember that you must feed yourself as well.

 

 

Frank Vaughn, award-winning columnist and aspiring author, can be contacted at frank@fnvaughn.com. Follow/like Frank Vaughn on Facebook, @fnvaughn on Twitter and fnvaughn on Instagram.