Friday, November 27, 2009

The Time Being

Is it our culture or our nature that we live with such a constant awareness of time? Every devise I carry for some other purpose, such as my phone and iPod, also contains a clock and a calendar. Every vehicle holds a digital clock on the dashboard reminding me of the exact moment in which I am driving. Every classroom contains a gigantic, sweep second-hand, analogue device to make certain that I start and stop on time. The upper-right hand corner of my MacBook Pro reads “Thu 10:28 AM.”

We are time beings. As far as I can tell, other species have a concept of time only in the broadest sense of seasons for migration, reproduction, preparation for survival. Wild geese measure winters. Oaks measure centuries. We are occupied with 40 hour work weeks, 30 minute meals, and one minute management.

Time, for us in the West at least, is tied closely to tasks. The books on time management (and I have read my share) are really about task management, occupied with the question, “How do we get the most important things done most efficiently?” Our clocks and calendars are about work, really. Seldom are they about leisure.

In other parts of the world, it is different. Time is for people and relationships. Tasks come in second. Meetings start late because of an untimed conversation at the market. People take precedence.

In 1987 Ray Stevens wrote one of his profound lyrical pieces – “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?” I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t. But then, I suspect he wouldn’t wear a Timex. He seemed to operate much more in the present, with an awareness that “the night comes when no one works.”

William Martin , in The Art of Pastoring: Contemplative Reflections, observes that only two questions are important for the living of our lives: “Where am I?” and “What time is it?”. The only correct answer to the first question, he says, is, “I am here.” And the only correct answer to the second is, “It is now.” How often we expend effort with a concern for another place and another time, as if there were a place more important than here and a time more significant than now.

I don’t need a watch or a GPS device to be aware of the here and now. This is the time and place in which I draw breath and have an opportunity to love, to experience God, to be alive.

What Time Is It?

My dad retired from Armco Steel Corporation in 1977. He worked there for twenty-eight consecutive years. He actually worked there a bit longer, but a steel strike interrupted his tenure and he drove a cab for a while. All my life, he wore a hard hat and worked the graveyard shift (midnight until eight in morning) in the mill on the Houston Ship Channel.

He dressed for work each night around ten, just as we were preparing for bed. He donned his khaki pants and shirt, laced up his steel-toed work boots, and grabbed his white hard hat, which marked him as a foreman. Then he’d give me a hug and tell me goodnight. He smelled like Old Spice.

Dad came home each morning around nine, which meant that my sister and I were already at school. He ate a meal and then went to bed. When we got home, he was always asleep. Around six my mom would send us to wake him up and call him to join us for supper. It seemed a strange circadian rhythm that had one sleeping in the day, working at night, and eating spaghetti and meatballs for breakfast.

Imported Japanese steel brought a change to the industry and Dad took early retirement in 1977, at age 58, only a year older than I am now. He and Mom soon sold their home and moved to the suburbs of Houston. He bought a bicycle shop in Humble, Texas and ran that business for several years, giving away more merchandise than he sold and repairing too many kid's bikes for free.

Somewhere along the way, I don't recall when, he gave me his retirement watch. It is a silver Bouleva Accutron, once billed as the most accurate watch in the world. It has an Armco logo on the face and an inscription on the back: “To Joseph R. Creech, 28 years, 1950-1977, Armco Steel Corp., “ and the signature of William Verity, CEO.

Despite its claim, this watch never functioned perfectly. I used to wear it, but out of frustration and failed repair attempts, eventually set it aside. For some reason, earlier this year, I spontaneously took it out of the jewelry box and turned it over to a local jeweler for repair. I have been wearing it since July, and it is once more keeping time. It is analogue. It tells me how long until and how long since, not just the precise moment. I like that.

I don’t know what prompted me to leave my digital Casio Fishing Watch, with all its cool features, in my top drawer and wear the silver Accutron. I didn’t realize until some weeks after I’d been wearing it that my dad first put it on when he was my age, leaving work he’d done for twenty-eight years to relocate and take on a new task.

It was the watch that got me thinking about time and its passing. My dad lived another 18 years after he retired, even with his smoking and emphysema. The second hand on the Accutron swept across the face nine and a half million times. Fifteen years ago next month, he died.

I suspect it is our consciousness of mortality that makes us wear watches and glance at them throughout the day. We are, as Martin Heidegger reminded us, Beings-Unto-Death – not the only creatures who die, but the only ones who live with an awareness of life’s brevity. This is ultimately what we have to make sense of in order to live with meaning. The watch is a reminder of a gift my dad gave me – not a watch, but a life of hard work supporting his family, a life of character and love. It has also reminds me of the gift my Heavenly Father has promised, eternal life through Jesus Christ my Lord, a transcending of this mortal, time-limited existence, the hope of which allows me to live with meaning now.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Winding Down

I’m at the place in the academic calendar that exists in no other profession I know. I can look at a calendar and a syllabus and know exactly what remains to be done to complete this semester’s work. I can put a date and a deadline to it. In a matter of exactly 35 days I will turn in final grades and close the books on four months of work and I will have three weeks to get ready for the next round. Then, in early January, I’ll walk into the classroom to new faces and start all over. It won’t be a Groundhog Day experience either. The new faces will bring new questions, new responses, and new experiences. And then, sixteen weeks later, I will close the books again.

It is that sense of closure that is unique. It all starts at one time and it all comes to a appropriate end at one time. It is done. Completed. Finished. If it went well, a sense of satisfaction envelopes it all. If a class did not go so well, then do-overs are just a couple of weeks away.

And the calendar comes with a pause built in, something that most of life does not. Just before the final burst of energy required to produce the papers and study for the exams that will close the semester (or to mark those papers and grade those exams), a Thanksgiving or Spring Break shows up. When that last effort is expended, a pause is there prior to starting again.

I did not appreciate this rhythm so much when I was a student, because it was the only experience I’d ever known from age five to twenty-five. Then, fresh out of graduate school in my first pastorate, I did not so much notice it was gone. I entered into the seasonless cycle of ministry in which sermons were due every week, crises arose unexpectedly, Christmas and Easter meant more sermons, meetings continued unabated throughout the year, and any pauses had to be intentionally inserted into the busyness. None were really natural. When the pause was complete, you did not start over. You picked up where you left off. Nothing ever came to an end. It was energizing, exciting, and enjoyable.

When I took a full-time teaching job in 1982 I became aware of the academic rhythm. I stepped out of the endless demands of the pastorate and back into the sanity of working, pausing, and working again. I lived there for five years. Then I returned to the work that never ends. This time I noticed the difference. I found I had to make the effort to insert the pauses that are necessary. I needed to relish the tasks that I completed, even if others, yet unfulfilled, overlapped them. I needed days off, days of prayer, retreat, and sabbatical to study, to stay rested and fresh. If I did not take them, they did not come.

Now I am once again hearing the rhythm of the scholar's calendar. It is familiar and inviting. The work this semester has been intense. Teaching three classes I have never taught before and preaching on weekends has been like preparing and delivering seven sermons a week. The emotional stress of meeting hundreds of new people and wading into a completely unfamiliar work system has made its demands on my naturally introverted self. Being away from home during the week has deprived me of my most dependable support. The semester has been challenging, enjoyable, and demanding. And now it is winding down. Next week, a pause. Then three weeks of the final stretch. Then a pause. I like it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How's It Going?

Since August I have answered the question, “So how do you like Baylor?” or some other version of the inquiry about a thousand times. “How’s Waco?” “How’s the new job?" (Or the puzzling version of that: “How do you like retirement?” Retirement? Turns out being full-time on the faculty of a seminary at a major university is a job.) I’m glad to have been asked those questions, because having friends who are interested in the changes in your life is a good thing.

I love being at Baylor. It is an intellectually and culturally rich environment. In the thirteen weeks I’ve been here, visiting scholars and musicians have paraded across the campus regularly. Tonight, for example, the NPR series, “From the Top!” will be recorded from the Jones Concert Hall in the McCrary Music Building. A few weeks ago I met David Crowder just outside my classroom. Dr. Haddon Robinson, one of the most influential preachers and teachers of preaching spent a couple of days with us at Truett, as did Dr. Lamin Sanneh, an expert on world Christianity and missions from Yale. I have enjoyed the collegiality with faculty from other schools at the university that those teaching in stand-alone seminaries do not experience. Two professors in the Hankamer School of Business gladly brought their thinking on leadership to my classroom and enriched the learning of a couple of dozen seminary students. Within five minutes of my office I have access to Starbucks, Big 12 baseball and basketball, and a top-notch fitness center. The Moody Library is only two blocks away, but when I need a book or journal article, I simply go on line and order it and it is delivered to my office or inbox in a day or so.

I love teaching at Truett. The colleagues I work with are amazing thinkers, prolific writers, and devout followers of Jesus. Besides daily lunches with several of them at Penland Food Court, I enjoy hallway conversations, the exchanging of ideas about theology or teaching, and even faculty meetings.

The students are young, bright, passionate about life and ministry, and far more sophisticated about the world and the mission of God than I was as a student. The sense of partnership and collegiality that develops between professors and students is remarkable. I travelled to Abilene with a half-dozen of them last weekend and learned at least as much as they did from the two informal three and a half hour seminars held in my Hyundai.

The facilities at Truett are lovely. The Truett building is new, LEED Certified, and conducive to community life. The technology we have to work with is amazing. A program called Elluminate Live! allows me to have guest lecturers in my classes from anywhere in the world via an Internet connection, or to meet my class when I am not on campus. (Haven't tried that last feature yet.) Most scholarly journals and many books are now electronic and available to me on my laptop wherever I might be. When I was last full-time in a classroom, blackboard was literally a blackboard. I went home each evening with chalk dust on my clothes. Now Blackboard is the means of connecting with students and sharing all kinds of resources.

Every Tuesday the community of Truett gathers for worship in the beautiful Powell Chapel. The worship is student-led and the preaching is done by faculty or visiting speakers. The faculty has been preaching a series on “Texts That Have Shaped Us.” I get my shot at that on January 19. It is a bit intimidating to think about preaching to a group that includes Drs. Joel Gregory and Hulitt Gloer, professors of preaching, and a list of biblical scholars and theologians the sandals of whose feet . . .. And their students.

On Thursday mornings students gather in Covenant Groups for spiritual formation practices. This is required of them. The faculty voluntarily gathers in two such groups. We sit in silence for a while, read Scripture, and share our reflections about it. Then we pray together.

The semester is nearly over and I’m beginning to feel less awkward in the classroom, gradually discovering the ethos and culture of this place. I’m making adjustments to the way I will teach my classes next semester. Students have been fairly patient with my first semester awkwardness.

I like Waco. It is small, uncrowded, and friendly. I have not yet missed anything about the City of Houston itself. I drive to work in ten minutes through a rural setting. I can get used to that eventually. I have been blessed with a place to stay. Jerry and Judy Wilson, Kyle’s parents, have graciously opened their home and permitted me to stay in the “grandma room” on the back of their home. I walk out to my car each morning and see the longhorn steer across the fence in the 150 acre pasture. The drive back and forth to Waco over these past thirteen weeks has not been bad. The first hour of it coming to Waco and the last hour returning to Houston is through the big city and its traffic. The remainder of the drive on Hwy 6 is, for me at least, relaxing and pleasant.

I miss my family. I am eager beyond words to be back to living in the same house with Melinda and Jenna. Phone calls, Skype, email, and crowded weekends do not make up for the daily, face-to-face time with them. I truly sympathize with those who make their living by travelling all week long or who for various reasons live and work at a great distance from their families. That doesn’t work so well for me. I’m looking forward to the closing of the parentheses. We have located a home in Waco we think we would like, but ours has to go first. Selling a house takes time, and I easily grow impatient.

I miss my church. I miss friends and coworkers. Serving at UBC is one of the great privileges and shaping experiences of my life. Continuing to preach there on weekends has helped some with this, but the number of Sundays remaining in that role is dwindling rapidly, and I do miss the interaction with people during the week.

So, how’s it going? As with most of my 57 years so far, I’m blessed well beyond anything I deserve and am living in a kind of slack-jawed amazement most of the time. I'm confident that the remainder of the transition of home and family will take place in God's time. It is going well.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


By definition, “cousins” are people who share a common set of grandparents. But the cousins in my life have shared much more than that.

I grew up across the street from four of my cousins – Joy, Raina, Kathie, and Kip, offspring of my dad’s sister, Loraine. Joy was older than us all – a high school student, and not so directly involved with us then. Raina was just older than me, and Kathie, just younger. My sister was just younger than Kathie, and Kip, just younger than her. The five of us were for about ten years a troop of friends who enjoyed just about everything together, until they moved across town. Even then, Raina and I talked on the phone often and we would spend a week at each others houses in the summer. We shared books and adventures and long conversations. After forty-five years, we can easily pick up where we left off.

Mike, David, and Gary lived in Angleton. They were sons of my dad’s younger brother, Richard. Mike and David were just older than me and Gary just younger. Their house was on the way to the beach at Freeport, and when we visited them it usually mean a day at Surfside.

The other cousins on the Creech side were not so accessible, but sharing common grandparents meant that usually on Easter, Father’s Day, Grandad’s birthday, and at Christmas we would all be together. In addition, we regularly shared a week (sometimes two) staying with my grandparents on the farm while our parents enjoyed some time to themselves.

That meant that in addition to the nine cousins above, Donna and Leslie and Royce and Dean would join the mix. They were all part of the group around my age. We had some older cousins, too. Richard Earl, who was much older, and off doing exotic things with the U.S. embassies in Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, and Paris. Occasionally he and his family would join us. Kay Loraine and Johnnie Ruth were the older sisters of Donna and Leslie. Like Joy, they were more people we looked up to, but did not grow up with. Altogether, there were sixteen of us on the Creech side of things.

My cousins on my mother’s side were fewer and all of them older than I. Sylvia, Mary Katherine, Bill, and Connie Rae. Connie Rae was like an older sister to me. Ten years or so my senior, she was at our house often and helped get me started in life, I think. Mary Katherine and Bill both died a couple of years ago. I speak with Connie Rae and Sylvia by phone every so often. And Connie is one of my Facebook friends.

Today I attended Kay Loraine’s funeral. She fought with brain cancer for the past four years. She was the epitome of kindness and grace and her family loved her so much. Kay was 67. In 1981 we buried Kip, who was only 25. Fourteen of us Creech cousins survive. And ten of us were there to say goodbye to Kay. One came from Colorado. One brought his wife from Kansas. Five drove three hours across Texas. It is clear that we share more than grandparents.

Last Sunday Melinda and I hosted our sons, their wives, and the three Creech cousins of their generation. Although Austin is still too small to get engaged in the play, Ava and Madison seem to me to share more than a couple of grandparents. I hope that remains their experience as long as they live.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Back in June I spent my first night in a hospital since 1952, when I was born in downtown Houston at the Baptist Memorial Hospital. That humble facility stood where One Shell Plaza now towers over City Hall and the public library. Dr. J. Norris Tucker presided over the momentous occasion on the day after Christmas.

This time I was at the North Central Baptist Hospital in San Antonio as a result of a brief experience of aphasia that made both Melinda and me more than a bit nervous. For a few minutes I simply could not make the right words come out of my mouth, even with effort. We had just pulled into the parking lot of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio to visit their facilities. The sign over one of the buildings read “Oblate Ministry Center.” Offhandedly, I read the sign aloud. But those words would not come out of my mouth. I could not pronounce them. I stumbled a couple of times attempting to do so. Melinda worriedly asked me, “What’s wrong?”

I brushed it off. “Nothing,” I said. Another sign identified a building as a gift shop. “Let’s go to the gift shop,” I suggested. But those were not the words that came out. I tried again. Once more the wrong words came out. I could hear them, but I could not fix them. A third try and the same results. Now I was worried. Melinda’s eyes looked like saucers.

“I think we should go to a hospital and get this checked out,” I managed. Those words came out correctly, as did all that followed. But we were concerned about the possibility of a stroke. Melinda drove and I directed her to the North Central Baptist Hospital where I had only a few days before visited a friend’s dad who had experienced a heart attack.

In a short time I was examined by an ER physician, had X-rays and a CT Scan, and we were left to wait for results. The doctor finally came in with his findings. He said the CT indicated that I had experienced a small stroke and that earned me an overnight stay with them for observation and more tests. Before long I was admitted and the additional tests were scheduled.

I’d had no supper and food service hours were past, but the nurse brought me a turkey and cheese sandwich -- still frozen. Melinda drove back to the farm house in Floresville and picked up some stuff we would need, including some books and my laptop. We settled in to the experience.

The next day I had an MRI, an MRA, an echocardiogram, an ultrasound of my carotid arteries, and enough blood work to leave me pale. Then once more, we waited for results.

I felt completely normal. Life was good. The hospital proudly served Starbuck’s coffee in the lobby and they had wireless internet services in the room. Melinda brought me a cup of Pike Place and I opened my MacBook. I was lying in bed on a Saturday afternoon being attended to by the nursing staff. Melinda sat by my bedside reading. Tests had already concluded that I had both a brain and a heart, but those findings were about to be called into question.

The phone rang. It was our friend David, whose dad had had the heart attack earlier in the week, and who was still in the same hospital as I. David had heard I was there and was going to stop by when he came to visit his dad. “Do you need anything?” he kindly asked.

I surveyed my situation. “No,” I said. “I don’t need anything. I’ve got everything I need. I’ve got my Starbuck’s, my laptop, my WiFi . . .”

“Your WiFi!” Melinda erupted. “I thought you were going to say ‘my WIFE’!”

“Oh, no!” I tried feebly. “Call the nurse! It’s happening again! The wrong words are coming out of my mouth!”

She didn’t buy it. Instead, I’ve had to pay for it.

I was eventually diagnosed with a TIA (transient ischemic attack). The tiny spots that showed up on the CT were from some earlier incidents, apparently. A cardiologist in Houston later ran his share of tests, eliminating risk factors for future incidents. I’m doing fine in that regard.

I was also diagnosed with an advanced case of SHS (stupid husband syndrome). I sometimes manage to keep it in remission for days at a time before symptoms erupt again. I can only hope it does not prove fatal.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Snake Handling at the Farm

Like most people I meet, I’m not a big fan of serpents. But I have come to value them. After reading Barbara Kinsolver’s Prodigal Summer, I gained a new appreciation for predators of all sorts – coyotes, wolves, yellow-jackets, scorpions, spiders, and even snakes. The things these predators devour, such as rabbits, rats, mice, and ants, reproduce in great numbers. When the predators are eliminated, who reproduce in much smaller numbers, the prey multiplies. I’ve had more problems from rats and mice destroying property than I’ve ever had from snakes. And snakes eat rats.

As an urban dweller, these have not often been my concerns. But with the journey in to country living, I have had to think this through. So when I find the occasional scorpion on the floor I no longer squash it. (Scorpions, I have learned, have an unusually long life span – 7 to 15 years). I sweep it into a dustpan and toss it out the door. I do not indiscriminately destroy yellow-jacket nests – only when they are in a place where we are likely to alarm them, like over our doors. And, I have determined, that as much as possible, I will resist the post-Eden response of humans to kill snakes on sight and ask questions later.

That decision has been tested. In 2008 our family evacuated to the farm in Floresville at the approach of Hurricane Ike. As soon as the three of us arrived we each headed for one of the three bathrooms in the house. From the back of the house I heard my daughter’s voice.

“Daaaaaad, come here.”

“What’s the problem?”

“There’s a snake in here.”

“Ok, I’m coming.” (Thinking a little grass snake was on the floor of the back bathroom.)

I made it to the back bathroom and looked around.

“Where is it?”

“In the toilet.”

“Ok.” (Thinking a little grass snake swimming around.)

I opened the lid to see a large (three foot or more) black snake coiled in the toilet bowl. He and I were about equally surprised. He quickly backed himself back into the plumbing system and out of sight.

My daughter got in the car and drove to the McDonald’s in town. We practiced “Flush. Look. Flush. Use. Look. Use. Flush.” all weekend with the nine of us assembled for the evacuation experience.

From September 2008 through June 2009 the practice continued. Protocol when you arrived at the farm house was to turn on the AC, turn on the hot water heater, and then to check the three toilets. We’d go into the bathroom like SWAT agents, opening the toilet lid and shouting “clear!” We never saw the snake again for nine months.

Then in June, Melinda and I were staying at the house with four of our friends while attending a conference in San Antonio. I arrived at the house first, on Father’s Day. I followed protocol. AC. Water heater. Toilet in the back bathroom. Clear. Toilet in the hall bathroom. Clear. Toilet in the master bathroom. Not so clear. There he was. The big black snake coiled up. And I was alone.

I got a good look at him. He wasn’t a poisonous snake. But, still, he was in my toilet bowl. I determined I needed to get him out before guests arrived. I really didn’t want him just slithering back into the pipes. I told him to wait there.

I had not thought this through ahead of time. What would I actually do if I found him? I scrounged around in the garage for some snake handling equipment. I decided on a work glove on my left hand (why not both hands? I don’t remember), a metal rod about three feet long, and a canvas book bag. I don’t really know what my plan was. I suppose I intended somehow to pick him up with the rod and put him in the canvas bag.

When I returned to the master bath, he was still there. I took the rod and began to try to get him out. It was like trying to pick up one piece of spaghetti with a single chopstick. As I was poking around, he was trying to get organized to make his escape back down the pipe. I manage to flop his tail out of the toilet bowl and then reached down with my gloved hand and grabbed him. Meanwhile he got his head down into the pipes and somehow hooked himself on the fixture. I could not pull him out. I was standing in the bathroom with a taut three to four foot black snake stuck in a toilet, trying to pull him out. I was afraid I’d pull him in half. Eventually, he won the match. He pulled out of my hand and took off down the drain.

“Clearly,” I thought, “I cannot tell our guests about this.” I did inform them about the snake sighting nine months earlier and encouraged them to practice the “Flush-Look-Use-Flush-Use-Flush” procedures just to be safe.

On Tuesday I saw him in the back yard, his shiny black skin reflecting in the sun, and I was able to study him more carefully. A Texas Rat Snake (see photo). A good snake when not in your toilet. They eat rats, mice, and other snakes. They can climb straight up a wall. My guess is that he climbed the oak next to the house, slithered across the roof (I’d actually seen a large snake skin on the roof once) and, seeking water and cooler temps in the 100 degree plus days of the South Texas drought, made his way down the vents into the toilet. Twenty-eight days of the month he had that cool porcelain bowl all to himself, his own little spa.

When I was at the farm last week, we found the bowls to be serpent-free. So Melinda and I climbed on the roof and put wire mesh in all the vent pipes to prevent further intrusions. If my vent-pipe theory is correct, this should do it.

In addition, Melinda discovered a two-foot rattlesnake while we were doing yard work. This time I had equipment and a plan. Resisting the temptation to chop it into pieces, I snared it with a device made of PVC and weed-eater line and carried it to the woods and released it. My “support your local predator” philosophy will be seriously challenged when the rattler is six feet long and as big around as my arm. But I haven’t seen that snake yet.

Ties that Bind

In January 1992 we began a seventeen-year long experiment at UBC. We started a Saturday night contemporary worship service. It was supposed to be a more casual atmosphere. I had to ease into that. I was used to wearing a suit and tie when I preached. At first I took a sport-coat-and-slacks-with-a-tie approach to more casual. Then, with some urging, I left off the coat. Finally, one Saturday evening I did not wear a tie. I felt naked. Vulnerable. It was like that dream where you show up at church in your underwear. I felt the urge to put my hands over my chest to hide the fact that I had not donned a necktie. I could hear my mother’s voice, expressing her embarrassment at my indecent preaching attire.

After the service I stood at the back of the worship center greeting people as they left. I struck up a conversation with Joe, one of our senior adults who’d endured more changes in church than most people would put up with. Joe’s the guy whose picture appears in the Wikipedia article on “curmudgeon.” He’d tell you that. His favorite TV show was Alf. Joe had voiced his share of complaints about many of those changes but had managed to stay engaged. Here he was at a Saturday night contemporary service. While we were talking, someone walked by and commented positively on my tie-free attire. I acknowledged how uncomfortable I’d felt without it. Joe muttered, “Change is hard, ain’t it, Preacher?”

Change is hard. It is stressful for everyone. Perhaps that accounts in part for the six- month gap in my posting to this blog. The past six months have been nothing but change. I accepted a new position at Truett Seminary and began the process of transitioning out of the role of senior pastor at University Baptist Church, which I have filled for twenty-two years. In June I spent two nights in a San Antonio hospital following what was likely a TIA. That was followed by intensive tests and checkups with a Houston cardiologist who finally pronounced me heart-healthy. But now I’m one of those old men taking three pills a day.

My son returned from his deployment in Afghanistan in July. I became a grandfather for the third time in August. August also marked the official change in career. I began weekly commutes from Houston to Waco on Mondays and return trips on Fridays. Melinda began the work of preparing our home for sale and Jenna started her senior year of high school. For eight weeks I’ve been teaching three courses I have never taught before (Life & Work of the Pastor, Strategic Planning for Churches and Ministries, and Leadership for Christian Ministry). This turns out to be much like preparing six sermons a week. I have met a couple of hundred new people and have begun learning my way about an entirely new social and work system. Now it looks as if our home might sell soon and we will be moving to a new one in Waco. The prospect of moving away from Houston means leaving behind many friendships and increasing geographical distance from two of our grandchildren (as well as their parents). Next spring Melinda will finish her master’s degree from UHCL. Change, even positive change, can be difficult.

Transitions can also be exciting. And this one is. I have stories to tell about it all. The wilderness experience of no-longer-Egypt and not-yet-Canaan is one of those times when you learn to trust God to provide and in which God proves himself to be faithful. I’m going to make an effort to return to the blog and to document some of what the past several weeks have been like as the journey continues.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Making Changes

In 1987 my family and I made a huge change in our lives. It shaped us for the next two decades. I left my role as assistant professor at Houston Baptist University and accepted the call to serve as pastor of the University Baptist Church. For twenty-two years, that has been our life. Melinda and I have raised our children here and it is here that they were spiritually formed, educated, and launched into the world. It has been home.

Four months ago, that began to change. I received an email from a friend of mine who teaches on the faculty of Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He told me of a position at Truett that was open and urged me to consider applying. I went on-line to read about the position. It was Professor of Christian Ministry and Director of Pastoral Ministries. The requirements outlined on the position description matched my own resume pretty closely. Melinda and I talked about it, and for the first time in twenty-two years I took a step that could lead to my leaving UBC. I put an application packet together and submitted it to Truett.

The next four months involved several interviews, conversations with trusted friends who served both as advisors and prayer-partners, and discussions at home with Melinda and Jenna. I talked to Alan and wrote to Taylor. As long as the door remained open, it seemed right to move toward it.

Finally, two weeks ago, the letter of appointment to the faculty arrived by FedEx. I signed it and returned it. Life is now in the transition mode.

In some ways, the decision to accept Truett’s offer was a no-brainer. I love teaching. I have a passion for theological education. UBC has been kind and generous to allow me to scratch that itch by teaching M.Div. classes for two seminaries. I have directed eight Doctor of Ministry projects for four seminaries. I have managed to continue writing a bit. And Truett is very fine school, with an outstanding faculty, and I’m a Baylor alum. It just all fits so well.

On the other hand, it was one of the most difficult emotional decisions I have ever had to make. I have so many valuable friendships among the congregation at UBC. These people trusted me to serve as their pastor when I was 34 years old. I knew a bit about biblical studies back then, but practically nothing about serving as a pastor. They have affirmed my gifts, encouraged me, humored my whims, forgiven my mistakes, challenged my thinking, and trusted my leadership. We have been partners in ministry for a long time. What I do know about Christian ministry and pastoral leadership I have learned from these dear followers of Christ. I have had the privilege of working alongside staff members who have been, not only co-workers, but my best friends. Deciding to leave this was difficult.

When I arrived at UBC I had some ideas about church and mission. I had some theories about leadership and ministry. I needed a laboratory, a field in which to put to the test these things I deeply believed. Now it is time to return to the classroom with all that. I look forward to the opportunity to engage the next generation of pastors and leaders who are preparing to enter the field.

The journey continues . . .

Friday, April 03, 2009

A Good Day Fishing

I went fishing with a friend on Wednesday for the first time since last May. I didn’t even have a valid license, so I had to go to Academy and get legal. I picked up some new line to load on my reels and some purple and chartreuse plastics that I heard were working well.

Last week I consulted with three fishing gurus in our congregation, explaining that we would be going in kayaks and wading. Their eyes lit up as they described their favorite place. They explained how to get there and even sketched a map for me (see photo). I was afraid that they might decide to shoot me after telling me. They told me stories about all the fish they’d caught there. I could already feel the taut line and taste the fresh seafood dinner. I was set.

We arrived at the boat ramp just after dawn and launched the kayaks. We compared the hand-drawn treasure map to our charts and GPS map and were certain we were on the way to a great day of fishing. The wind had picked up something awful and we paddled into it about a half-mile to the spot we thought we’d been directed to. The area looked perfect. We got out of the kayaks and waded the area for two hours, testing every likely looking spot. But the wind was fierce and we had no response from the millions of fish holding up in the area. No signs at all. No bait. No birds. Nothing.

We consulted the charts again and decided to move to another promising area a little further east. We headed into the wind again and after some effort arrived at a place I’m sure redfish hope they go to when they die. It was beautiful. Egrets and herons erupted from the tall grass as we paddled our way through. Once more we got out and waded for a couple of hours with no response from the billions of fish in the area.

Finally we decided it was best to head back home. The wind had shifted about ninety-degrees, so now we paddled back in a strong cross wind, struggling to keep the kayaks pointed in the right direction. I’ve never been more tired at the end of a day of fishing. And no fish.

That night at church someone asked me how it went. I explained that it had been windy and that it was physically tiring, but it was a good day. I told them, “I have never in my life said, ‘I wish I hadn’t gone fishing today.’”

That provoked a discussion from some who knew a few of my fishing experiences.

“What about that time your Suburban wouldn’t start and you had to abandon it on the tidal flat with the tide coming in, and had to hike back home in the dark?”

“Yeah, that was kind of hard. But it was a good day fishing.”

“What about the time you went out with the guide and the wind came up and you had to ride 20 miles back to the marina, full-speed into the wind and got drenched and your cell phone was destroyed?”

“Yea, that was a tough ride. But it was a good day fishing?”

Then I remembered on my own the trip to Colorado Bend State Park to catch white bass, when the deluge hit and Cherokee Creek flooded and we couldn’t cross at the low water crossing for a full day and were stranded. The river was the color of chocolate milk and the fishing was non-existent. Finally, just at dark I ventured across the river (idiot) in the Suburban with my wife, son, and daughter in the car. Other pickups had made it. Water was sloshing up over the hood of the Suburban. Just as we started out on the far side of the creek, the engine died. I prayed. I turned the key. It started right up and we drove out and found a motel and a dry bed.

It was a good day fishing.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Neither Rain Nor Hail

When I’m in Floresville I do business with the local mom and pop operations in town as much as possible. We have a Wal-Mart there and an H.E.B. But we also have vegetable stands like Bush’s in Stockdale and a farmers’ market on Saturday mornings in Floresville. The Wilson County Hardware & Lumber store downtown on 3rd Street is one of my favorite places to trade.

The hardware store is one of those requiring the aid of the clerk at the front desk for you to actually find something you are looking for. Items are arranged helter-skelter on crowded dusty shelves in infinite variety, vintage, and volume. If you ask, the elderly proprietor walks directly to the item and pulls it down, hands it to you, rings it up, and puts it in a brown paper bag. On the other hand, if you are not specifically looking for a rattrap or a toilet intake valve, you might find some pleasure in walking the narrow aisles and browsing.

Last spring I was in the store for rattraps. A family of field mice had determined that living in our house while we were gone was convenient. They chose the clothes dryer as their mansion and chewed the wires to the starting mechanism and I needed to evict them. With the assistance of the man up front, I found the traps and proceeded to check out.

The gentleman held my debit card at arm's length and squinted at it. “Creech,” he said. “Any relation to Lillie Creech?”

“She was my grandmother. I’m taking care of her place now.” I guessed the man was old enough to be my dad, probably near eighty.

“I knew your grandfather, Irvin. He delivered mail to our house when I was a kid,” he told me. “He was regular as clock work. I would go out to the road to wait for him every morning. Sure enough, his Model A would show up on time.”

“When the oil fields started going in the big trucks would tear up those county roads something awful. ‘specially when it rained. Sometimes it would be days before he could get his car back down our way.”

“My mother always mail-ordered chicks to raise in the spring. One time the chicks came in and the road was too big a mess for Mr. Creech to get there. He went to the feed store and bought a starter kit and cared for those chicks for a couple of weeks until he could deliver them.”

I’d never heard that story before. You don’t hear tales like that in Wal-Mart.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

A Dry Spell

Last weekend I made my first trip back to the farm since December. The early signs of spring were emerging. The young peach tree growing crookedly by the tool shed is covered with pink blossoms attracting a half dozen black butterflies. The red oak on the side of the shed is putting out its buds on every branch. I walked under its branches and heard a buzz like flowing electricity. I looked around for the source of the sound and noticed that every bud had its own honeybee. They were everywhere. It was the last day of February and it was 96 degrees by the afternoon. It is spring in South Texas.

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time the fields were green with the emergence of our wheat crop. But we were on the leading edge of a drought that would profoundly affect much of the state over the following year. We are in the middle of it now and there is no end in sight.

September 2007-May 2008 (the period during which we had wheat in the ground) was the driest on record (25% drier than the previous record). Last June was the second driest in history. The rest of the summer, fall, and winter did nothing to improve conditions. Forecasts are for things to continue or worsen at least through May. As you can see on the map, Wilson County is right in the middle of the most extreme drought conditions in the state.

Jesus said that God causes rain to fall on both the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). That would be nice.

I don’t know what role drought plays in the ecology of the land, but I do know that dry periods in the spiritual life are seasons of preparation for something new. The desert serves as the setting for important events in the lives of God’s people. Moses, Israel, Elijah, David, Jesus, and Paul all spent time in these dry places. It is the case in the lives of God’s people that the dry periods prepare us for more.

I’m eager for the rain to fall in Floresville. I look forward to the wildness of the land when its thirst is fully quenched. Meanwhile, we plant nothing and wait on the only one who can provide rain.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Check Out the Library

Reading has been one of my favorite things since I became literate, which I don’t actually remember becoming. During the summers of my elementary school years I spent the hot and humid Houston afternoons before the invention of air conditioning reading whatever I could get my hands on. My cousin, Raina, and I traded Hardy Boy novels and volumes in the Brains Benton mystery series. I also became a fan of Freddy the Detective novels, stories of a pig who also solved crimes. I enjoyed the science fiction of Robert Heinlein, especially the ones that dealt with time travel.

One of my favorite excursions during those summers was accompanying my mom on her weekly shopping trip to Weingarten’s supermarket on 43rd street. She would drop me off at the Oak Forest Library so I could turn in one armload of books and gather another. It was air conditioned in that building and I could browse between the stacks for an hour or so.

Were time travel possible back then, and could I have ventured forty-five years into the future, I would have been astounded. I would find my son Alan living around the corner from that very library, down the street from my high school, married and raising my granddaughter. I would have seen my wife taking that little girl to visit the very same library, checking out her own armload of reading material.

Then I would have observed something even more amazing. Alan is an architect. And there he is remodeling my library!

I haven’t been inside that building for more than forty years now. But the next time I do it will be completely renewed. I have seen the virtual version as I have wandered through the 3-D rendering on Alan’s computer screen.

My children constantly astound me. Must be their mother’s genes.

Added 3/25/11 -- Two years later the project is complete and wins an AIA Design Award!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Last Day in Jerusalem

Today was our last one in Jerusalem, and was a beautiful one. The weather was crisp, but not windy and perfect for all the walking we had to do.

We walked into the Old City through the Jaffa Gate and made our way through the Christian Quarter following the Via Dolorosa. Because of the political tension we could not enter through the Lions Gate near the Temple Mount and follow the path in order, so we did it out of order. Nevertheless we visited all the stations of the cross. We stood on pavement from the Fortress of Antonia, where Jesus was scourged. We walked through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which covers the site of Golgotha and the Empty Tomb. We visited the excavations of the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the lame man (John 5). We sang in the Church of St. Anne there, a building erected in the 12th century.

After lunch we drove to the Yad Va Shem, Jerusalem's holocaust museum, and were reminded again of what human beings are capable of, both in terms of sheer evil and cruelty and in terms of endurance. We returned to the Old City, entering through the Zion Gate, into the Jewish Quarter where we walked to the Western Wall. Then on to one more church, St. Peter Gallicantu, built over the traditional site of Caiaphas' house where Jesus was interrogated and where Peter denied knowing him.

We are back at our hotel to pack up, enjoy the last supper, and head for Tel Aviv. It is 5:00 PM here, 9:00 AM back in Houston. We'll be home in about twenty-four hours.

This group of pilgrims has been a delightful one to travel with and we have learned and experienced things that will continue to shape our lives and friendships.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year's Day in Jerusalem

We did the life of Jesus in reverse today. We began at the Mt. of Ascension and ended at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Sort of like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After the place of Ascension I walked with my friends down the road that Jesus walked into Jerusalem – down the Mount of Olives, past Gethsemane, toward the eastern entrance into Jerusalem.

We stopped at Gethsemane and read the story of Jesus’ praying and his arrest there. I was reminded there of his struggle to go ahead and do what he already knew the will of God to be for him. His “thy will be done” was not a prayerful “whatever.” It was a prayerful “yes” to his Father. What God wanted took precedence over what he wanted. We walked among the olive trees and remembered what went on there.

We entered the garden area around Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb. Although I have my doubts about the authenticity of the site, I was reminded again of the authenticity of the deed of God it represented – Jesus drank the cup. He took it and drank it to the dregs at Calvary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate. He died. He was buried. We read the story and drank the cup and ate bread and sang and prayed.

We rode past the huge grey wall surrounding the Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, plastered with tourism posters on the outside and covered with painful graffiti on the inside. It was like crossing the Rio Grande into a Mexican border town. An ironic sadness hovers over the City of David, the Christmas town, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, where angels announced to shepherds the coming of “peace on earth and goodwill to men.” Black flags fly over the Church of the Nativity, expressing a grief over the conditions in Gaza, as bombs continued to fall today.

We joined pilgrims from around the world crowding into the most ancient church in Israel to breathe the kerosene aroma from centuries of lamps that have illuminated its dark interior. We filed through a narrow passage, down worn stone steps, into the grotto tradition has identified as the place where Jesus took his first sip of the cup, where the Word became Flesh and began his dwelling among us.

We did other things as well today. We studied a huge scale model of Jerusalem in the first century. We gazed on the ancient Hebrew scrolls found at the Dead Sea. We ate falafel sandwiches and shopped in Bethlehem. We talked and laughed and worshiped.