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.