Training for the Season of Lent

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I love the Olympics. In terms of pure sports, I believe the Olympic games offer the most compelling drama on so many different fronts. Take the opening ceremony, for instance. The hand-off of the Olympic Flame to two young, female hockey players—one from South Korea and one from North Korea—was awesome. Will that simple gesture reverse 70 years of hostility? By itself, no. But could that simple gesture change the trajectory of those two nations? We should all hope so.

I’m also struck by the “moment” that occurs in these games. That “moment” happens in every venue and it happens hundreds—even thousands—of times. A tiny, imperceptible slip on the ice—a slip that no one who is not a professional would even notice—is the difference between winning a medal and not. The difference in one one-hundredth of one point.

A downhill skier like Lindsay Vonn catapults down a mountain at 70 miles per hour. Her total run may take a minute and a half, but the difference between her winning run and the last place finisher may be less than 2 seconds. Imagine that. You have trained your whole life for that “moment” and you miss by fractions of a second. It seems almost unfair.

Except for the fact that real life often works this way, too. You and I face any number of “moments”—instances when we have to make a decision and we don’t have time to go think it over. The situation presents itself and we have to decide—right then. If you are like me then you also know that we sometimes come up a fraction of a second slow. Our decision is not “medal worthy”.

I am reminded that the Greek word for “sin” in the Bible is “omartia” which simply means “missing the mark”. Most of us tend to think of sin as missing the mark by a country mile—and maybe sometimes it is. But you can miss the mark by considerably less than a country mile and still miss the mark—like one one-hundredth of a point?

Do you think we Christians ought to consider training ourselves as diligently as Olympic athletes do? We are entering the season of Lent. It begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts through Easter. During this season Christians everywhere are encouraged to practice the “disciplines” of the church—prayer, fasting, study, worship, acts of mercy and justice. These are our training grounds.

I am of the opinion that the better we train in our disciplines, the more ready we will be when our “moments” occur.



Words Matter

Tari and I like to try and watch as many of the Oscar nominated movies as we can each season. This year we’ve seen most of them. One of those is called “The Darkest Hour” that tells the story of Winston Churchill’s rise to power and his amazing leadership of Great Britain during World War II. Gary Oldman plays the role of Churchill and is remarkable—my pick to win best actor.

One of you recently sent me a series of quotes from Churchill.  I share a few of those with you today for your edification and enjoyment:

“You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.”

“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”

“A nation that forgets its past has no future.”

“There is nothing government can give you that it hasn’t already taken from you in the first place.”

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

“One person with conviction will overwhelm a hundred who have only opinions.”

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.”

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity.  An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

And my personal favorite:

“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to Hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

Churchill’s genius was his ability to use words. Words matter. Words can change the world—for good or evil.



Our Neighborhood Mission Field

Yet another school shooting. This time closer to home. Marshall County, Kentucky is only about 100 miles from here. Several victims were brought here to Vanderbilt’s trauma center. We don’t yet know any motives for why a 15-year-old would open fire against his classmates. I’m doubtful that uncovering a “motive” will be all that helpful. Did somebody make fun of him? Bullied him? His girlfriend dumped him?

How is it that taking a human life has become so “casual”? And in this and other cases like it, human “lives”—plural. It must be as troubling to you as it is to me. Yes, of course, guns play a role. Yes, of course, guns are too easy to obtain. But what is happening to our society when too many of these shootings serve to remind us in a shocking manner that we have created the “stew” in which such shootings are even thinkable?

Some have long been warning us that our love of violence in movies and television is partly to blame. High tech video games now allow the “players” to kill with abandon. Are those voices right? If so, is there any way to roll back the clock?

There are lots of professional opinions about this crisis—mental health professionals, law enforcement professionals, sociologists and others. I am only qualified to speak to the spiritual dimension—or lack of it. Do we really believe there is no correlation between the decline of religious belief in this country and such violent acts?

I would suggest that there has never been a time when our witness to the life-affirming ethic of Jesus is more needed. We need missionaries and we need them in our own neighborhoods.  And we most definitely need to stop saying, “O, woe is us” and “Ain’t it awful” and start making a difference.  

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Our church is getting ready to launch a partnership through our Missions Council with H.G. Hill Middle School. There will be opportunities for mentoring and reading with students and assisting teachers and serving as field trip chaperones and other services. This is a mission field right across the street from our church. We have the ability and opportunity to transform a school. All it takes is our willingness to share the life-affirming ethic of Jesus. Are you ready to step up?

Stay tuned for announcements about our plan very soon and start praying now about how you can join in. We may not be able to change the entire world, but we absolutely CAN change our little corner of it.



Why 2017 May Have Been The Best Year In History

A couple of weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote an article in the New York Times titled, “Why 2017 Was The Best Year In History”.  The title alone was enough to make me want to read his article because if you listen to our nightly news you might not agree with Kristof about how good a year it’s been.  One of the characteristics we must guard against in our day and age of the non-stop, 24-hour news cycle is the loss of perspective.  We too easily can’t see the forest because of the trees.  We tend to lose sight of the bigger picture—the view from 30,000 feet.

For us, the war of words with North Korea, paralysis in Congress, and the never-ending tweets from our current President lead many of us to feel like things have never been worse.  Kristof would have us consider other facts.  For instance, a smaller share of the world’s people are hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time in history.  A smaller percentage of children died than ever before.

Every day the number of people in the world living in extreme poverty goes down—according to Kristof by over 200,000 a day!  Every day, over 300,000 people gain access to electricity.  Another 300,000 gain access to clean water—every day!

As recently as the late 1960s, a majority of the human beings on this planet were illiterate and lived in abject poverty.  Today, fewer than 15% are illiterate and fewer than 10% are living in dire poverty.  In another 15 years, both illiteracy and life-threatening poverty might be eradicated.

Just since 1990, 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations.

It’s hard for most of us to get our heads around such “good news”.  We are so bombarded by “the sky is falling” type of news, that we become numb to the realities that our efforts around the world are working. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said the test of a first rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time.  The world we live in is experiencing amazing progress, but our world also faces mortal threats.  The first belief should empower us to act on the second.

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Kristof tells of a young Afghan girl named Sultana.  She had been forced to drop out of elementary school.  But her home had access to internet, so she taught herself English, then algebra and calculus.  Without ever leaving her house, she moved on to Physics and string theory.  Long story short, Sultana is now a student at Arizona State University.  She is a living example of the aphorism, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”

Yes, there are parts of the world that are a mess—maybe even close to home.  But we must not lose sight of the gains being made in medicine, education, and human welfare around the world.  Every so often we would be wise to turn off our T.V.s and ponder all that is going right.



Time's Up

"Time's Up!" By now you have no doubt heard about the powerful address given by Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes Awards Celebration. She was speaking about the recent "me, too" movement in which women from the entertainment, political, and corporate worlds-women actually from every corner-who are now standing up to predatory men that sit in seats of power and influence. Sparked by the courage of one woman, hundreds of others have now joined in to say, "me, too" - I was also harassed, assaulted, or discriminated against because I am a woman.

Oprah's speech that night took this movement to the next level. "me, too" has now evolved into ''Time's Up!" Their way of saying that those in positions of influence who have abused that influence,­ your time is up and we won't sit quietly and take it any longer. The list of powerful men who have now been called out grows daily.

It seems to me the church of Jesus Christ ought to be the banner carrier for this movement. After all, in our Book - at the very beginning - we are told in no uncertain terms that "God created them, male and female He created them... " All biblical scholars agree that the Hebrew term "adam" did not refer to a man named "Adam". The word simply means "humankind". So that in the beginning, God created all of humankind as equal. This is the foundation of our understanding of one another.

And yet women are to this day still not receiving their due respect within the walls of the church. I have been privileged to serve along side women in five different congregations. I have found them all to be highly intelligent, creative, competent and hard-working colleagues. And in every one of those congregations I have heard congregation members say things like, "you sure are the prettiest preacher we've ever had" or "how does your husband feel about you doing this work?", or worst of all, "no thanks, I'll just wait to talk to Jim."

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In our society, it is way past time for us to recognize the full place that women should hold in our world. They are not "decoration." They are not merely "helpers." Woman are leaders and they have been called by God into the church and into the classroom and into the boardrooms of this nation. 

If you are not moved by the power of the ''Time's Up!" movement, I wonder if that's because you don't have a daughter? Would it be OK with you to know that your own daughter was being harassed by someone who thought he could get away with it because he was "in charge?" Have you asked your spouse if this had ever happened to her? I have four daughters and it is not OK with me.

Maybe one thing we can all do is begin now to teach our boys what it is to respect girls. I fear that if we wait until they are young men, it may be too late. But if we start early, we can change the narrative. I'm pretty sure God would approve. 



Benevolence Ministry

I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that one of the hardest jobs of a pastor is having to decide who to help and who NOT to help. It should come as no surprise to you that we get a pretty steady stream of people who call or come by the church seeking financial help. It ranges from help with rent and utilities to help with food and medicine and gas. Often times it is for a place to stay at night. If you are involved with this sort of “rubber meets the road” ministry, you also know that it gets complicated.

Take utilities, for instance. If someone calls us or comes by asking for help with utilities because NES has threatened to cancel their service, that almost always means they are one or two months behind, already. And that usually means needing several hundred dollars just to get caught up so they can keep their electricity running. And if it happens to be 25 degrees outside like it has been lately, then you can imagine the fear of having no heat in your home.

To complicate matters even further, we have a limited amount of funds available at any given time. Our “benevolence fund” is supported solely by communion offerings dedicated for that fund and most of you know that we don’t designate every communion offering toward that fund—in fact, we probably dedicate only half of those 12 communion offerings a year to the benevolent fund. If you make a decision to help one person with a three-months-in-arrears electric bill, you could easily spend 10 to 25% of your available funds on one person.

Another stark reality is that we get calls from folks from all over Nashville. Some of these are “professional beggars”, but it’s very hard to determine that over the phone.

One more thing—sometimes the people who come to the church in person can become angry or belligerent if you tell them you can’t assist them. This has put church staff and church members in occasionally awkward—and even potentially dangerous—situations.

So, we have established a policy for dealing with those who need help. Given the limited amount of resources we have available, we have decided that only the pastoral staff may determine to whom and how much aid can be given. The pastoral staff has the most experience dealing with folks who have this need. This policy includes letting everyone know (church staff and members) that if you are confronted by someone at the church or in the parking lot after worship, we are asking you to gently let these folks know that only a pastor is authorized to offer aid. If it so happens neither Sam or I are available at that moment, we ask that you let them know they will need to wait until they can see one of us—even if that means asking them to come back the next day.

Our policy also includes a stipulation that we are going to try to help those in our immediate neighborhood, first. This is simply a matter of conservation of energy and resources. If we get a call from someone who lives in Madison, we encourage them to try getting assistance from the many churches in their immediate area. This doesn’t mean we don’t think they need help—they probably do. But we feel more responsibility for those who live in the three zip codes that are closest to our church.

We truly do feel a need to help anyone who comes by or calls the church. The list of genuine needs around us are many. We will do the best we can and ask that you keep us in prayer as we try our best to represent the Church of Jesus Christ in the world—as well as the believers of Belle Meade UMC.

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Starting Fresh in 2018

Happy New Year!! We turn the page on our calendars to 2018. The years just seem to fly by, don’t they? It would be easy for us to wax on with nostalgia over things in our past—to talk about “the good old days” or whatever we think those were.

But the bigger truth is that we get to look forward and ponder what changes we might make to improve our lives, the lives around us, and the greater community in which we live. These are commonly called “New Year’s Resolutions”—an occasion to reset the clock and to try and do better some things we may have done poorly, before.

For some of us, it will be trying to get on top of an annoying or even harmful habit. Some of us will try to lose weight (me included), some will try to quit smoking or drinking or whatever other ways we tend to harm ourselves.

Some of us will make a pact that we will be kinder and gentler in the new year. Maybe we’ve all had enough of partisan politics that we will resolve to spend more time listening to the hopes and dreams of each other rather than simply talking over them.

Some of us will seek to renew our connection to God this 2018. I hope that if you have been feeling disconnected from God lately that you will take this moment to start fresh. If you’d like, the pastoral staff can help you with that and there’s nothing we’d like better. Give one of us a call and we’ll sit down over a cup of coffee/tea.

starting fresh in 2018

The Christian Church has long understood the need to start fresh. We have used phrases like “born again” to speak of resetting our clocks in a particular way. For us, it starts with confession and then forgiveness. Once those two moments have occurred, all that’s left is the “NOW WHAT?”

Let me suggest that 2018 could be a wonderful year of “NOW WHAT?” all of us. Who have I been? Who do I seek to be? How can I be a better friend, spouse, citizen?

It’s good to have a chance to start fresh. So Happy New Year!! Here’s to our best year, yet!




Random Acts of Christmas Kindness

More God sightings in Advent.

Sunday a week ago I was finishing up the Sunday morning routine. Both worship services were completed and I had just finished the fourth “impromptu” meeting in the narthex. I made it to my office to put all things away and head home. When I got to the outside door of the office hallway, I could already see it on my car—a flyer. Somebody had taken the liberty to place flyers on all of our cars while we were worshipping.


This had happened to me before in other settings. A neighborhood church in the town where I served took it upon themselves to place flyers of THEIR worship service times on OUR cars. I thought that was a pretty tacky thing to do. I was expecting that when I got to my car and I don’t mind telling you that I was all ready to explode. 

Then I saw the actual flyer—“YOU’VE BEEN RACK’d” it said—“Random Acts of Christmas Kindness” courtesy of our 2nd and 3rd grade Sunday School class. I was all ready to unleash my anger on someone and now I felt guilty for having such thoughts. That little message stayed with me all day—I’ve Been Rack’d”!! God works in mysterious ways, no?? (P.S.—my message came complete with a small candy cane attached☺)

Just heard today that The Last Minute Toy Store served over 5,400 children. These were children that were NOT being served by any other agency in town. That’s more children than ever before and we United Methodists should all feel gratified that together, we were able to serve our community in such a profound way. So many of you gave gifts and gift cards for the store—thousands of dollars worth of gifts and cards were given.

Please accept our deep gratitude for all you did. A special word of thanks to Anne and Wayne Underhill who were coordinating not just OUR church’s donations, but also the donations of all the other UMC’s in our area. That was a big job and we are especially thankful to them.

You can see God at work all around you if you are willing to look. I promise you will have some God sightings this Sunday, Christmas Eve. In addition to our combined morning worship service at 10:30 (no Sunday School), we will then have our children and family-friendly Christmas Eve service at 3:00. Then at 7:00 and 11:00 we will celebrate with candlelight communion and amazing music from our Chancel Choir and special guests.

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I hope you will make a special effort to attend one of these services and if there was ever a time you would want to invite a guest, a neighbor, a friend or a family member, Christmas Eve is the perfect occasion.




“God-sightings” in Advent

Does the name Jose Andres mean anything to you?? You are forgiven if it doesn’t. You’d have to be a die-hard “foodie” to recognize his name. Jose is a Michelin-starred chef who is widely credited with bringing the concept of “small plate” dining to America. He owns well-known restaurants in nearly ten cities across the country. He also chairs the advisory board for “L.A. Kitchen”, a social enterprise in Los Angeles aimed at reducing food waste, job training, and nutritious eating.


He would be a person much to be admired just for that. But the most important meals he is serving today are free. You see after Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico—so many of whom still have no power coming up on three months now—Jose set up portable kitchens—20 of them--and began cooking stews and paella for the storm-torn region.

To date, he has served over 3 million hot meals—more than any other relief agency. One person, one passion, one heart to serve people in need. That’s truly all it takes.

How about something more local? I give you “The Real Mamas of Mt. Juliet”. Catchy name, isn’t it? Four women—four mothers—who recognized an issue that no one was addressing and decided to engage. These aren’t “activists” looking for a fight. These are real moms who noticed that many students in their local, public school were being singled out and ridiculed over the federal lunch program. 

Each student was expected to pay a portion of their meal program funded through the federal government. Many of these students couldn’t make a payment and the connection between hunger and poor performance in school is well-documented. So when these students couldn’t make the payment, they were then sent to the principal who provided for them “an alternative snack”. Until these students could pay off their “debt”, they would remain in the “alternative” program and forbidden to eat with the other students.

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So what did these moms do? They decided that feeding every hungry student in their local school might be more than they could manage, but they COULD find ways to pay off the debts of those students who had debts. They made decorative sweatshirts and began selling them. Now, other local businesses are selling those sweatshirts on their behalf.

Four mothers seeing a need not being addressed and being moved with compassion. That’s all it takes to change the world.

As we enter the third week of Advent, can you find some God-sightings to share?




Advent Surprises

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Advent/Christmas surprises are among my favorite things. The giving and receiving of gifts, though capable of getting stressful and out-of-hand, can be a time of great joy among families and friends. Over the course of the last several years the trend has been for us adults/parents/relatives to give gift cards to our teenagers and older children. I’ll admit that I don’t like to do that. I much prefer to think about what I’m giving to someone and put in the effort. On the other hand, I have also failed miserably at times to choose a great gift—a fact that is immediately recognized by the look on the face of the victim—I mean, recipient. So the gift card route guarantees success on the part of the receiver, which should bring a good feeling to the giver.

More recently, my family has taken to less and less actual gifts given and more choosing of a worthy agency to which to make a donation. That brings joy, too.

My season this year is already off to a great start. Something pretty amazing happened here at the church last week. I imagine most of you are aware that we get a lot of calls and drop ins of folks who need all manner of assistance. Most of them are genuinely in need. Some of them are “professional beggars”. It isn’t easy having to make choices about whom to help with the available resources at our disposal. We can’t help them all. And many of them will gratefully receive our help with a promise to pay us back when they get on their feet. That happens about as frequently as a Halley’s Comet sighting.

Last week a woman came in. She was slight of build and a bit ruffled in her appearance—in other words she looked like someone in need of help. She asked to see a pastor and the staff told me we had someone in the lobby in need of help. I walked out to see her. She spoke with a thick eastern-European accent. I asked, “How can I help you?”

She handed me an envelope with a card inside. She explained that three years earlier she and her family had been in trouble, had come to the church to ask for help, and were given $500. The card inside the envelope contained $200 dollars that she wanted to give us. To pay back our kindness—or to pay it forward.

She gave me a firm hug and went her way.

That’s the kind of Advent/Christmas surprise that can make your season special.



Welcome to Advent

Advent Season at Belle Meade UMC

And so it begins—the preparation for Christmas is upon us. For many merchants, this preparation was very evident weeks ago. Many of our merchants depend heavily on a good Christmas season in order to salvage their year so I won’t we shouldn’t forget that when we sometimes gripe about how commercialized Christmas has become.

Having said that, the Christian Church recognized very early on the need to set aside a time for fasting and preparation for the actual Christmas celebration—the birth of the Christ child. It may have begun as early as the 5th century, but the observance of Advent ebbed and flowed over the centuries. No one, even now, pushes the idea of fasting during the Advent season anymore—small wonder with the number of holiday parties we all typically attend.

And so this coming Sunday will mark the beginning of the Advent season. Four Sundays prior to Christmas that allow us to try and focus our attention on what new thing God is trying to do in our midst. It marks the Christian New Year—starting all over telling the story of Jesus. I wonder why we Christians don’t take this Sunday to make our own, unique New Year’s Resolutions? Is it because we have capitulated to the secular culture that surrounds us? Are we afraid our friends and neighbors might snicker at us if they heard we were making New Year’s Resolutions in December? Why? Because then we’d have to explain why our faith causes us to view the world differently?

And there it is—the Advent Season is precisely a sign that we followers of Jesus really DO see the world differently. Or at least we are supposed to. Advent gives us a chance to imagine a different kind of Christmas. When we sing “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to ALL people” that is a statement to the world around us that we believe life is best lived that way. When we make it a point to encourage our members to support The Last Minute Toy Store that is a statement to the world that exchanging gifts just among ourselves is thoughtless and cruel and tone deaf to the misery and needs that surround us.

Advent is an opportunity for the church to make a WITNESS to the world—one of our 5 membership vows. There was a time not all that long ago that no matter where you tried to eat out on a Friday, you could be certain that there would be at least one fish option. Why? Because the Roman Catholic Church “fasted” from eating meat on Fridays and pretty much everybody knew it. You might be hard-pressed to find that emphasis today. Not that long ago our nation observed what were called “Blue Laws”—pretty much everything closed on Sundays so families could attend church and spend the day together. It was our way of observing Sabbath. The culture around us has swallowed such quaint notions whole.

And even though we won’t be turning the clock back on these traditions, I suggest that we CAN still observe Advent as a way of giving witness to the culture around us that there is another way to live. God’s way is a way of peace, of hope, of love. God’s way focuses on a quiet manger where we might meet and be met by God. God’s way involves giving much more than swapping “reasonably priced gifts”.

Welcome to Advent. “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”



A Season of Fellowship

This is an important week in the life of our congregation. This Sunday, we will celebrate Commitment Sunday during worship. For those of us who have not yet turned in our Estimate of Giving cards, we will have baskets available during the worship service for you to do so. I can’t stress enough how important it is for every regular participant in our congregation offer this Estimate of Giving—regardless of the amount. That card is a “vow” of sorts that says “This is my church and it needs my support and I am going to do what I can.” These Estimates of Giving will be the determining factor for our 2018 budget.

I also would like to catch you up on our apportionment giving. As of October 1st, we are one half of one month behind on paying 100% of our conference apportionments. We haven’t been this close to fulfilling that mission in decades. Now we are really close. I want to ask you that if you are behind on your giving for 2017 would you please do all you can do catch up. I hear many people speak with great hope that we can fulfill that 100% this year. Together, we can.

This Sunday is also PUMPKINFEST. This is one of our best fellowship events. There will be a chili cook-off. Make your own special, secret recipe pot of chili and come early to build your “booth” (if you wish). There will be a “celebrity judge” to determine the winner. It’s all in great fun. In addition, there will be a Halloween costume contest. This is a great highlight of the afternoon, so don your best costume and join us from 4 till 6.

We are also entering a season of special, sacred days. The first Sunday of November is All Saints Sunday. On this day, we remember the lives of those in our church family who have died since this time last year. It is a very special worship service.

On November 19th we will celebrate Thanksgiving together as a church family with a potluck dinner at 5:00 p.m. The church will provide the turkey and dressing and drinks and the rest of us will bring side dishes to share. Let me suggest that we all bring two sides or one large side so there will be plenty of food to go around. We will create a sign-up with Sunday School classes asking them to bring a vegetable or a dessert in order to be sure we have a good variety.

Then we enter the season of Advent on December 3rd for four Sundays leading up to Christmas Eve which we all know is pretty amazing here at Belle Meade.

I hope you will come and support all of these special services and occasions. Being together as a church family is one of the true benefits of the faith. Don’t miss it.



Tidbits of Wisdom

One of you recently sent me a list of tidbits of wisdom to help manage the stress we are all under. I thought I’d share a few of those today. Enjoy.

Accept the fact that some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue.

Always keep your words soft and sweet just in case you have to eat them later. 

Drive carefully—It’s not only cars that can be recalled by their Maker.

Nobody cares if you can’t dance—get up and dance, anyway.

The second mouse usually gets the cheese.

When everything is coming your way, you are probably in the wrong lane.

A truly happy person is the one who can enjoy the scenery even on a detour.

Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.

If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.

Since it’s the early worm that gets eaten by the bird, sleep late.

And this is my personal favorite:  We could learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty and some are dull.  Some have weird names and all are different colors, but they all have to live in the same box.