Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Bad

I do not consider myself immune to stupidity. Not in the least. Nevertheless I have the ability to surprise even myself at times. Like the recent OrangeShark incident.

I was sitting on my couch Sunday evening, checking email, adjusting my Facebook status, and listening to the news. An email popped up, ostensibly from an elderly woman in our congregation that I interact with regularly. It purported to be a challenge to beat her score in some on-line game. It seemed plausible to me at that hour. So I clicked to the site.

I was asked to register an account on OrangeShark.com to play the game and take the challenge. One of the items on the registration included my Yahoo! account and password. And I gave it to them! I cannot believe I did that! What was I not thinking?

In a matter of moments an email went out to all six hundred plus people on my contact list telling them I had challenged them to beat my score in this stupid game. In no time I was getting email back from friends checking to see whether I had really sent it. It didn’t sound like me. (Thankfully.)

Others, depending on my relationship with them, took the challenge seriously, logged on and tried to beat my score. Most ignored it because they had the good sense to see what it was. But I think they continued to get the emails for a couple of days.

Since I myself have five different email addresses that show up in my contact list, I was getting challenges from myself to beat the score. I was getting email from friends telling me that some idiot was sending out mail in my name. I had to respond to each of those. I got a couple of phone calls to that effect as well.

I changed my Yahoo! password. I contacted OrangeShark and told them I wanted my account cancelled and the emails associated with it removed.

Today I sent out an email to all on my list apologizing. That turned out to be an interesting action. Many wrote back – laughing cyberly, forgiving, checking in, telling me they had clicked on the link to my blog and were catching up with my life. The postmaster function on my mail server kicked back two dozen addresses allowing me to clean up my address book.

I have regained some sanity, even if my ego has been bruised. I don’t think I’ll even give Yahoo! my Yahoo! password next time they ask for it.

Beware of OrangeShark!

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Mrs. Weeks, my senior English teacher at Waltrip High School used to say, “Sometimes I think ‘Well…’ and then again I don’t know.” I know the feeling.

Understanding all that is going on in one’s life is not so easy to do. I try. I really try. I get all the pieces out and lay them on the table and move them around and try to make sense of them. Like assembling a 1000 piece jig saw puzzle (which, by the way, is near the top of things I really do not like doing), I look for corner pieces, straight edges, colors that seem to go together, anything to begin making sense of the disarray scattered before me. One of my disadvantages is that I don’t have the puzzle box with the picture on it. I'm not even sure what it is this thing is supposed to look like when I'm done.

So the best I can do is make stuff up. I fictionalize. I rationalize. I assign meaning to events and episodes whether there is meaning there or not. I ascribe motives to people that will make their behaviors make sense in my plot. (At the same time they are making up motives for me so that their plot will cohere.) Or to return to my puzzle metaphor, I use an Exacto knife to trim up pieces that don’t fit and I force them into place. I must do this. I am a human being. We human beings are a meaning-driven people. We are confident that somehow it all makes sense and that it does so in a way that we can know and understand. Sometimes I think, “Well…”

Occasionally I can see patterns, connections, mysterious sequences, and synchronicities in the puzzle-piece events of my life that give me reason to hope that I might soon grasp the big picture. Sometimes it is like those pictures that you stare at until they become 3-D and you see a picture of a sailing vessel or a dinosaur and then you blink and lose it. But just a glimpse is enough to keep me fooling with the pieces. I pray and I hope that God will give me enough clues to let me figure it out.

And then again, I don’t know. At times I think stuff just happens. Like today. I planned to mow the farm property. I prepared to do that. It was a beautiful morning for it. I just got the shift lever on the 1998 Murray lawn tractor repaired and it was working perfectly. I filled it with gas. I checked the oil. I donned my work gloves and turned the key. It started right up. Then, one lap into the section of the lawn I was working on, the engine experienced catastrophic failure. It belched lots of white smoke for about 30 seconds and then stopped, never to restart.

OK, I knew that was coming someday. I just didn’t want it to be today. So I decided that I was not prepared to replace it today – need to do some research before I do that. Instead I would go into town and rent a riding mower and take care of the place before it reverted to the jungle it was last year. I pushed the mower into the garage, closed the door and walked over to Willie. That’s when I saw that his left rear tire was flat. All the way flat. He must have stepped on something while we were working in the field yesterday.

So I located the jack and tire tools, opened the manual to page 579 and did my best to decipher the instructions on getting to the spare and operating the jack. In fifteen minutes he had a new tire on and we headed into town for repairs. I found a rental, but they wanted $135 for the day, and knowing that I would need to replace the mower, I didn’t really want to spend that much for a rental, so I passed on that. When I got back to the farm I sharpened my hoe and went after the paper leaf mulberry trees who once ruled the backyard and who were already plotting a takeover. I removed about a bazillion of them with a hoe and lots of sweat by noon.

So what does all this mean? Weeds grow. Things break. Tires get punctured. Sometimes life is a series of unfortunate events, not just one. I don’t think they really mean anything. These are minor inconveniences, as are most of the things we complain about. They are problems to be solved, which most of life is. Sometimes I think, “Well…”

Meanwhile the puzzle pieces I ponder are something else. A van wreck in Arizona with seven of our church members on mission to the Navajo. I learned of this while in the middle of my hoeing. A war in Afghanistan and Iraq that has occupied seven years, cost more money than I can imagine, and that has taken thousands of lives --and now touches my life. A world with plenty of food where people starve. A world with more wealth and more poverty than can be imagined. Babies that die and the elderly that suffer. The list goes on. And then again, I don’t know.

I believe (which is itself a way of knowing) that there is a big picture. It involves the Kingdom of God, God putting the world upright again through his rule and reign. I believe that Kingdom is already present among us, like yeast in the dough, permeating and transforming. I believe that I can choose to side with that Kingdom Among Us and contribute to its effect. But it is still early morning. Only the first rays of dawn are appearing, driving away some of the darkness. Eventually it will be noon. All the darkness will be gone. Not even the shadows will survive that light. I believe that the Kingdom of God will come and God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I am not always able to grasp how the events of my life fit in to all that. I’m not sure I’m supposed to grasp that. My assignment ultimately is pretty simple: Love God and Love People. Change the tire. Chop the weeds. Pray. Don’t be afraid. Risk. Hope. Sometimes I think, “Well…”

Friday, July 11, 2008

Meet Willie

Wille has been with me for almost a year now. Last April my grandmother left me her 2000 Ford Taurus (14,000 miles), which I’d intended my daughter to drive when she turned sixteen the following January. After several months of practice driving with the Taurus, however, she decided she’d really rather drive the 2001 Accord. It became clear when I started working on clearing the property at the farm that I would not be able to do that with a sedan, so I sold the Taurus and bought a pickup. Jenna called it “Willie.”

Willie is a half –ton Silverado, who is rather plain and who has developed the personality of a not-too-bright-but-eager large dog. I wanted as simple a version of a truck as possible, and that turned out to be a challenge. Texans apparently want their trucks to be equipped like a Lexus. I wanted simple. What I wanted, I learned, was a “work truck.”

His paint job is called “silver birch.” It is the common color of about half the pickups of any brand on the highway, and doesn’t show dirt so much. He has an AM-FM radio, but no CD player. He has a rubber floor, not carpet. He has only one row of seats. He has a trailer hitch and a spray-on bed liner that is amazing. You have to roll up the windows and manage the door locks manually. He is really tall. Melinda says he looks arrogant. She doesn’t really like him very much. I have discovered that he has a taste for some varieties of country western music, although he listens to NPR on occasion as well. He wants a gun rack and some step bars on the side, but so far I have denied his requests.

Willie isn’t much for ornamentation. For a while he had a small, metal Texas flag on his tailgate to provide a splash of color and to help me identify him more quickly in a parking lot. But the adhesive gave out after about nine months. Now he sports a magnet decal for the 1-26 Infantry, the Blue Spaders, Taylor’s unit, under his gold Chevy emblem.

The manual crank-up windows have their advantage, though. For one, they provide exercise at every drive through establishment I frequent. Also, you can roll them up or down as fast as you want. I once drove our old 1989 Suburban through a gas station car wash and absent-mindedly forgot to roll up my window after punching in my secret car wash code. When I saw the pulsing water moving inexorably toward me, spewing high-pressure hot water, I pushed the up button on the electric windows. No matter how hard I pushed, the window rose at the same slow pace. Before it was half way up, I was being pelted in the face by hot car wash water. As soon as the window was up I looked around to be certain no one else had seen that. I’d never want anyone to know I was that, uh, absent-minded. I was wishing for the old fashioned crank up windows. Now I have them.

But absent-mindedness works the other way as well. Sometimes it makes you wish you had the electronic features. Take the door locks, for example. Other than the remarkable stretching exercise they provide when you reach across the truck to unlock the passenger door, which is just out of reach really, they have some real disadvantages.

Each time I visited the farm last year I took photos to show Melinda when I got back. This kept her up to speed about the place and proved I was actually working. In December I’d taken a photo of the field near the house, freshly tilled and planted. In January I returned and the wheat was beginning to arise from the red earth. As soon as I came to the field I hopped out of the cab with my camera, left the engine running, ran to the back of the truck in the cold wind without my jacket, snapped a couple of photos and ran back to the cab. It was locked.

One of Willie’s not-so-simple features is OnStar, which comes free for a year. I love those commercials where the OnStar representatives save the day for people. The phone number was on a decal right there on my window. I retrieved my phone from my blue jeans pocket and called OnStar. I explained my situation, gave them my name and password, and they assured me they’d have me in my vehicle in no time.

Me: Great. Thanks.
OnStar: There. That should do it. Is your vehicle unlocked now?
Me: No.
OnStar: Ok, Mr. Creech, let me try again. How about now?
Me: No. I think there’s a problem. I don’t have electronic locks.
OnStar: Oh. Then I can’t unlock it. I’ll dispatch roadside assistance.

So I spent the next hour standing outside my truck in the January wind waiting for someone to drive the 35 miles from San Antonio to unlock the truck. I was 150 yards from the house, with no key (it was in the truck with my jacket). Eventually the guy pulled up, took out his Slim Jim and opened my door in less than 30 seconds. That’s encouraging. Good thing I lock it up when I leave it.

Willie is strong, works hard, and likes to help. We have hauled equipment, like the Outback Billy Goat and the scary Vermeer wood chipper, taken the lawn tractor to the John Deere dealer for several repairs, made multiple runs to the Wilson County dump, and carried dozens of loads of brush to the burn pile in the field back of the house. We have transported two hundred cement blocks to my backyard in Houston to build a raised garden bed. My son is borrowing him today to bring home material to build a fence.

Willie prefers Hwy. 90 to I-10, gets nervous if he goes faster than 70 (likes 60 better), and enjoys the rural Texas practice of "throwing your hand" at other pickup truck drivers on back roads (rather than the urban practice of acknowledging other drivers with one's digits.)

Willie does have a drinking problem. He consumes more than I’d like and his habit is rather expensive these days. I try to keep him off the road as much as possible. He has not been to the farm since May, but I have promised him a trip next week. He’s looking forward to it.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Holy Stories

I have enjoyed the brief journey into anonymity that my monthly farm trips have provided. Not the nobody-knows-me-here-so- I-can-do-what-I-want anonymity, but more the I-can-be-just-Robert- here-without-always-being- the-pastor kind of anonymity. I visit with neighbors. I go into town to eat Mexican food at Olivia’s or Angelica’s, browse the disorganized aisles of the Wilson County Hardware store, or wander through the H.E.B. to stock up for my stay. And the entire time, I’m just Robert. Don't misunderstand. I do enjoy my work as a pastor. Sometimes, however, it is a relief to lay the clerical collar aside (metaphorically speaking, since I am a Baptist) and just be me.

To disclose to a stranger that I am a pastor often changes the entire nature of the conversation. Things become superficial and stilted. They choose their words and topics more carefully. Suddenly questions of election or eschatology become important to them. Or they feel compelled to tell me how much they enjoy Joel Osteen. But they stop talking to “me” and start talking to “a preacher.” I suppose they assume that the trivial subjects of life wouldn’t interest me and my high calling or that the significant subjects of the world are things I probably wouldn’t understand.

Sometimes, however, they hear in the word “pastor” a connotation that I’m glad is still there. They hear, “This is someone who will listen to my story.” People want to tell their stories and they want someone to listen. That need offers one of the holy privileges of pastoral ministry. People sometimes talk to us openly and frankly. You never know which of these two responses full vocational disclosure is likely to produce.

I have discovered that the opportunity for pastoral listening is mine whether or not I’m wearing “the collar.”

Back in April I made the trip to Floresville, with only twenty-four hours to spend there before heading to Killeen to visit with my son and his family. I had work to do. I had to pick up the lawn tractor from Tractor City where it had been repaired. The lawn needed to be mowed to keep it under control. The clothes dryer needed the attention of a repairman. (A family of field mice had made a home in it during the winter and had chewed the wires to the start switch, shorting it out, and causing the premature death of one of them inside the dryer. Welcome to country living.)

I had picked up the mower and was unloading it from my truck. J. from down the road saw me working and stopped by to see if I needed help. We spent twenty minutes talking about what was going on in her life. When she drove off, I cranked up the old Murray lawn tractor and began mowing.

I was a hundred and fifty yards from the house, near the county road, when a red pickup pulled up to my drive. I turned off the mower, wiped my brow on my sleeve, and walked toward the gate. The truck driver was a woman in her 40s, I’d guess, who appeared to have lived a hard life. She was wearing a ball cap with a logo from some trail riders association. She was looking for her quarter horse, which she suspected her husband had stolen from a farm down the road when he ran off with another woman. (This is not a C&W song, but it has potential.) I listened as this total stranger poured out her life story in great detail.

I looked very un-pastoral. I was wearing old, dirty jeans, work boots, a filthy white tee shirt and a camouflaged ball cap that said “Tractor Supply Company.” After a while I told her I live in Houston and only visit the place a few days a month and I’d seen neither her horse nor her husband. That’s when she asked the question that Jonah-type pastors hate to hear: “Oh, what do you do in Houston?”

Fearing Response #1, the temptation is to lie. Or at least to obfuscate. (Like, “I lead a large, non-profit volunteer organization.”) But I told the truth: “I’m a pastor.”

“Really?” she asked. Then she told me that she’d been reading from Psalm 31 that morning. She explained the comfort a couple of particular verses had brought her. I offered to pray with her and after we’d prayed I looked up to see her wiping tears from her eyes. She said, “I believe the Lord sent me by here today.” She thanked me for listening and praying and she got back in her Ford 250, which had been running the entire time, and headed down the dirt road.

I had resumed mowing for almost twenty minutes when Mr. L. arrived. He had come to repair my dryer. I showed him the utility room, helped him remove the drum and left him to his work while I returned to mine. After about half an hour he came out of the garage and I rode the mower up to the house. He explained what he had done and what the charge would be and took out his receipt book. I was his last call for the day, so for the next hour he wrote down one word on the receipt about every five minutes. He filled in the remainder of the time pouring out his story: five children, divorce, grandchildren. I leaned on his pickup and listened.

Less than fifteen minutes after Mr. L. left, S.. drove up from down the road. She’d seen me mowing the ditch and came over to tell me her son would be glad to take care of that for me with his tractor and shredder. She told me of the new home they were building on their own. You could see the frame arising on the hill across the road. She told me of her husband’s death at age 43, of rearing three sons on her own. I listened.

Not long after S. left, A. drove up. A. had been a great friend to my grandmother over the past few years and had cared for her well. We usually get a few minutes to visit when I’m at the farm. I listened to her stories of recent work and of some of the dreams she and her husband have for the years just ahead.

By the time the day was over I’d talked with and listened to more people than I usually talk to in a week in my own neighborhood at home.

The pace of life is different there than in Houston. Conversations take precedence over tasks. You don’t call ahead for visits – dropping in is preferable. Being a neighbor matters. So you stop what you are doing and lean on a pickup truck and talk. And listen.

The issues of life are not much different, however. People struggle with families, with health, with jobs, with finances. And people have dreams.

Sure, I’d like to leave the clerical collar in Houston. But apart from any professional role or title, I will still listen to those stories. I’d like to return to the city with some of the rural pace of life, remembering to take time to listen to the holy stories of God at work in the lives of the people around me.