Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Winter Solstice

It is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. I spent the longest day of the year in Fairbanks, Alaska, exactly six months ago, standing outside at midnight with the sun still visible. As I sit in the front porch swing and write, the December full moon rises in front of me, big as a Texas orange. It will eventually become gleaming white, bathing the field before me with enough light for even my ancient eyes to read by.

I came to the farm alone today, ostensibly to paint. The walls of the old house need it. I doubt they’ve felt the bristles of a paintbrush since they were built in the early 80’s. But the work is just an excuse. It always is. “I really have to go mow the place.” “Those trees need trimming.” I sometimes suspect that I come here not because I have to, but because I must. It is more of an internal need than an external one.

I did not choose this place. It is not my favorite part of Texas. I love the rocky Hill Country and the rolling farmland of central Texas. I think this place chose me. My grand-parents and great-grand parents lie beneath its soil -- the Creeches, Cryers, Cockes, Rossers, and Martins some two miles southwest in Floresville and the Culpeppers a dozen miles northeast in Stockdale. They all came here a hundred and fifty years ago when Texas had been a state for only a couple of decades. I probably made my first trip to this spot fifty-seven years ago next weekend. I say that, not because I remember, but because we always came out here at Christmas to be with my grandparents. I’m sure we did my first year.

Now, almost sixty years later, I still come. I come with my family and I come alone. The ritual of arrival has become rather fixed for me. Before I enter the house I walk around the property. I notice the fresh mounds of soil excavated by our resident gophers. At times the feral hogs have also left portions plowed up as result of their visit. Mesquite branches that failed to endure a recent windy south Texas day lie scattered on the ground. I walk out on the berm that twists, serpent-like, through the field behind the house. Today I see that Herb has done his planting and small green blades of winter wheat are just now poking their heads up through the red soil. By March they’ll carpet the place with a blue green beauty that will turn golden by May. The two bird feeders are empty and dangling askew in the mesquite tree in front of the house. I replenish them with seed and fill the bird bath with clean water. In no time a pair of cardinals take advantage of my provisions.

I have a trip to make into town to get my own provisions. Tonight I will eat fresh squash, onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers layered with cheese and marinara sauce and baked until they are bubbly and melty. That will be lunch as well. Tomorrow night I will enjoy borracho beans, rice, and tortillas. That is part of the ritual as well. While in town I paid my taxes, thinking of Luke’s Christmas story, KJV – everyone returning to the land of their ancestors to be taxed.

Winter means the place is dead. Nature is not fighting back. The grasses and weeds about the house lie dormant. Spiders and grasshoppers no longer challenge me as I approach. I don’t have to do violence to them and their habitat with the old riding mower. Instead, I will work indoors. Today I have cleaned, moved furniture, and prepared for the mindless work of painting tomorrow. I put Christmas music on the stereo, turned it up loud, and dragged heavy Lazyboy sleeper sofas from one room to another (My grandmother left three such pieces along with at least five Lazyboy recliners. I wonder how the company has stayed in business since her passing.) I washed linens, made beds, and cleaned out the refrigerator.

I have thought of my grandmother, Lillie, often as I worked today. She is still so much a part of this place. I washed a casserole dish accidently left in the refrigerator since Thanksgiving. In black marker her initials were scrawled on the top – “L.V.C.,” signifying those days when the dish had borne her contribution to assuage the grief of a neighbor. I thought about the place where her garden grew as I walked through the back yard. I saw the evidence of her handiwork in a piece of crochet. The house still smells a bit like her perfume.

We have so much we want to do here, but progress is slow. Just twenty feet in front of me grows a pecan tree my dad planted who knows how many years ago. Now it reaches thirty or more feet into the air, rising above the house. Creation’s time moves so much slower than ours. I want things in minutes, hours, or days, and the Creation lives its life in terms of decades, centuries, millennia, and eons. Trees don’t seem to be hurried.

Orion’s Belt lines up its three bright stars directly in front of me. The moon rises higher now, and an owl calls from the trees on the fence line several hundred yards to my left. An insect buzz rises from the thicket to my right by the old stock tank. Herb’s livestock protest his driving the tractor through the field across the road in the dark. It is all so familiar.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Plenty to Be Thankful For

Thanksgiving week was full and rich. Early Monday morning I drove to the farm alone, being the early arriver to get things ready. I took care of the usual chores – purchasing enough groceries to get us going, mowing around the house, clearing the dead limbs fallen from the mesquites, and turning the water heater from Vacation to High. Murray, our ancient lawn tractor, had apparently picked up a thorn in his left front foot during our last outing and could not join me, so I walked behind the small lawnmower, taking twice the time.

I worked outdoors most of Monday, until it was dark. Then, returning the tools and equipment to the garage, I entered the house, groping for the light switch. I found it and turned it on to get the overhead light in the garage. No response. Bulb’s probably out. So I found the switch for the utility room. Nothing. The guys installing the furnace a couple of weeks ago must have turned off the breaker. So I felt my way into the dark house and discovered that none of the lights were working. I walked to the front door and gazed across the road. No lights on at any of the neighbors’ homes either. I called Janie who lives at the top of the hill and caught her shopping at HEB. She called home and checked and called me back. Power was off all down the road.

So, sweaty, gritty, and hungry, I sat on the front porch in the dark for a while. Shower and supper would have to wait. It was not long before lights flickered on and I went inside. I turned on the shower and let it run. When I came back a few minutes later, the water was still ice cold. Furnace guys had turned off the gas for the install and had not relit the pilot on the water heater, I guessed. This time I was right. So I found some matches, lit the pilot, and proceeded to dinner, still sweaty and gritty.

Tuesday morning I went rock hunting. The goal was to build a campfire ring in the backyard out of local stones. I took the wheelbarrow and a hand pick and walked through rows of tall sorghum sudan grass that remained in the field, looking for pieces of sandstone or flint at least as large as my fist. I took my quest down the road to the far end of the field for a while, and then down the county road to an outcropping of eroding sandstone where large pieces were falling off onto the roadside. Eventually I had managed to gather enough to construct a ring five or six feet in diameter. I found enough dead limbs around to erect a campfire-sized stack that would turn the marshmallows, Hershey bars, and Graham crackers I’d picked up at the HEB in to ‘smores for my grand-daughter when she arrived.

Tuesday evening Alan and Kat arrived with their kids and and their dogs. I had a now traditional farm meal waiting: borracho beans, a pot of rice, and pan of cornbread. Melinda and Jenna showed up a bit later, and we had a full house. Wednesday was spent exploring with grandkids, planning a Thanksgiving meal, and battling the other last minute grocery shoppers. The campfire was a big success and an encore was requested for Thanksgiving evening. Thursday morning was all about cooking. When it was time to eat, we spread a feast on the picnic tables and enjoyed the creative work that Kat, Jenna, and Melinda had invested in all morning. Then naps.

The weather remained unseasonably warm, in the 80s, through Thanksgiving afternoon. Then, near sundown, we were sitting at the picnic tables. I'd been gathering some more dead mesquite limbs for another round with the 'smores and campfire. Suddenly -- really suddenly -- the still, warm air was replaced with a stiff, icy wind from the north. It was exactly like someone had turned on a massive air conditioner. We all offered an "ooooohh!" at the same time. By morning we were looking at 36 on the rusty front porch thermometer.

Friday the kids went into San Antonio to a museum. Jenna took a car and headed to Houston to visit friends home from college. And Melinda and I had the place to ourselves for a while. She worked on papers and I spent the day reading and walking and resting.

Saturday we all returned to San Antonio for a day at the zoo – riding the train around Brackenridge Park, gawking at animals, and laughing at grandchildren. We had dinner at La Gloria Icehouse, a restaurant near the old Pearl Brewery on the San Antonio River featuring Mexican street food. Five stars. Definitely try the molcajetes.

Sunday morning included a picnic at the Pecan Park in Floresville. The kids and grandkids headed home. Jenna returned from Houston and she and Melinda loaded a car and made the trip to Austin to drop Jenna off and then on to Waco. I hung around to finish the clean up and followed a couple of hours later.

Melinda and I returned to Waco just in time for the first Sunday of Advent service at UBC. We saw our friends, sang Christmas carols with the David Crowder Band (a first for us), and went home exhausted from several hours of driving, a week of grand children, and a good bit of work. But it was that kind of tired that is good. Very good.

I could have asked for more -- having Taylor, Amber, Ava, and Jonas with us from El Paso would have been good, although we'd seen them a couple of weeks earlier. I have much to be thankful for these days.

Kat has documented all this in photographs quite well on her blog.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jonas is Here!

One of the features of the farm house is that has no heater. Actually it does have a propane furnace, but two winters ago when I attempted to light the pilot and could not, I called the Smith Propane Co. in Floresville to send a guy out to help. He took a look at it and attached a red tag (not a good thing) and said that as corroded as it is, it would be unsafe to light. I would need to replace it. We’ve not been at the house much in the winter, so it was easy to let that slide and just wear warmer clothes. But since we’re planning to be here with family at Thanksgiving and small children are involved, we made the decision to replace the furnace.

When class was over this morning I drove to the farm (in 2:59, a record time) to meet with William, a "comfort specialist" representing Jon Wayne Heating and Air, for an estimate. He was thorough, checking airflow with a cool hood device, measuring square footage, examining the attic and ductwork, calling in information to headquarters, before finalizing a proposed figure. I was impressed. I’ve got to drive back to Waco early tomorrow for a 10:00 meeting. This was a short trip but I’m always glad to get to the farm. So is Willie.

But the highlight of my day was not a visit with a comfort specialist. The best part of my day was a text message I received from El Paso: “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. And his name shall be called Jonas Matthew Creech. 9 lbs. 10. oz. 21.25 inches. 2:13 PM. Everything is perfect.”

We’ve been anticipating Jonas’ arrival for some time. He showed up a bit late (as his size attests). I started exchanging texts messages with his dad early this morning, keeping up with the news and passing on what I received to others in the family and friends. I can’t wait to meet him (which I hope to do next weekend!). Pictures are available, if you'd like to see the boy. Click here.

If I could not be there in person for his arrival, which would have been First Prize, I feel good about receiving the news of my expanded grandfathering kingdom here at the farm where my grandfather, Irvin, lived. His birthday was this week, November 7. My dad’s birthday is next week, Nov 15. I heard the story several times from my grandmother, Lillie, of how Irvin abandoned her here on this farm in August 1954 to make the trip to Houston for my sister’s birth. Lillie had to remain behind because they were raising turkeys that year (Irvin’s idea). The birds had contracted some kind of disease and had to be medicated (how do you do that?) daily. Lillie got that job so that Irvin could meet his granddaughter.

It has been a privilege to be on hand for the arrival of three grandchildren. When Ava,Jonas’ sister, arrived, we drove from Houston to Corpus Christi and made it in time for her debut.

I’d just landed at Hobby Airport, returning from a trip to Ohio, when I got the news that Madison was about to show up, a mere two weeks after Ava, and drove from the airport to the hospital for that event.

Austin, Madison’s little brother, came along just over a year ago, and conveniently did so on a Friday night when I was coming back to Houston from Waco. These have been spectacular moments, waiting with family and then seeing my own offspring holding children (not an easy emotion to describe).

So, welcome to the world, Jonas. We have a host of Creeches waiting to meet you. I can’t wait to see you face to face. I will include you in my grandfathering covenant.*

*I made a pact with my friend Richard one day while out in a jon boat catching bass. We were lamenting the limited degree to which our fathers had opporuntity to be involved in our children’s lives. My sons and daughter did not see my dad often. We made a pact to live in such a way that when we die, our grandchildren will be weeping over our graves, saying, “What are we going to do without Papa!?!” I’m working on that. It involves serious amounts of aggravation and ice cream, among other things.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Blocking Out the Scenery, Breaking My Mind

I pay attention to signs about me, particularly to church signs. I don't mean church marquees. I have never really been a fan of church marquees. Either they are used to put up cheesy expressions ("You think it's hot here?" during a Houston summer heat wave, for example) or they have dated information on them about the special event two weeks earlier. Marquees apparently provided practice for churches who would later fail to maintain their webpages. These signs seldom catch my attention. But others do.

I find the names of churches interesting, because these are not thoughtless. I imagine that behind these signs are committee meetings, probably several long ones, in which devout people considered what they would name the baby they were about to give birth to. What will we call our church? How do we communicate our identity? What will tell people who we really are?

"First Baptist" says something important. We are the pioneers who settled this area. We got here first and we are still here. Likely we'll still be here when you are gone. Do you want stability? Are you looking for tradition? This is the place to find it.

"Second Baptist" often says to me, "We are the folks who didn't really like First Baptist." It's not that we arrived later, its that when we got here we didn't really like what we found, so we started over. "Calvary Baptist" is reserved for the folks who left First and Second over an issue. Anyway, that's how I often read those signs. I'm probably wrong.

But really those are not such creative names. Neither are the names that identify with a given subdivision or geographical area. They are good names and it is well for them to say, "We belong here and we serve the people of this community." I belong to University Baptist in Waco myself. Early on it identified with a ministry to university students. That's solid. I served University Baptist in Houston, whose founders named it for the proximity to the University of Houston, Clear Lake. However, as history unfolded, I suppose we should have been called NASA Baptist, because our constituency was far more drawn from the aerospace industry than from the nearby campus. Those are well chosen, meaningful names. But not so creative.

I'm interested in those signs that say, "You should have been in the meeting where we chose our name!" For example, driving though Alabama several years ago we passed a church whose name demanded that I stop and get out my camera. "Perfect Alternative Baptist Church." Now that's a name with a story behind it. It tells a story of its founders' vision while saying some interesting things about the other churches in town. I wish I knew the other names offered before this one made it to the floor for discussion and received a majority approval.

Sometimes those signs present a name chosen to define the congregation as clearly as possible: "Pre-millenial, Calvinistic, Fundamentalist, KJV Only Baptist Church. Everyone Welcome!" While I have not seen a church with that particular name, I have noticed church signs with most of those designators on them. They do say something about the gospel preached there. It causes me to wonder about the meeting where the sign was designed and when it was decided that there were a sufficient number of adjectives. (BTW, the first Baptist congregation in Texas settled near Palestine as The Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptist Church.)

Last week I received a text from a friend telling me she'd noticed an interesting church sign in East Texas. She promised to photograph it and send it to me on her return trip. She did. "Little Hope Baptist Church." I cannot decide on the story behind the name. Was this a group of people who, in the midst of a hopeless time, founded a congregation to offer to their world a "little hope"? Or were they a cynical, despairing group, hardly able to see the future, who had "little hope" themselves. If so, judging from the age of the sign, they survived longer than they expected. Was there a "Big Hope" or "Lotta Hope" church they broke off from? I cannot be sure. But the name lacks a bit in confidence.

Another friend of mine was making a motorcycle trip across the West and found a sign irresistible. He photographed it and sent it to me. I find intriguing. Certainly there must a nearby town called "Dinosaur." But the name of church offers such narrative possibilities. "Well, if we keep doing what we've been doing, it's pretty certain that we'll go out of business. We have no intentions of adapting to all these changes about us. It's just a matter of time before we no longer speak a language our culture can understand. We're on the way to extinction. I suggest we own that reality and call ourselves, 'Dinosaur Baptist Church.' All in favor?" This sign would be a more honest reflection of where many congregations find themselves these days.

It makes me wonder, when did the church find it necessary to erect signs to declare our identity. When did it cease to be enough to be identified as followers of Jesus, the people of God, the body of Christ, to be known by our love for him?

Back in October I was walking on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin and encountered a sign that required a camera. "Notice," it said, "Signs Have Changed." I was not certain what to do with this information. Its message was ambiguous. I did not know what the signs had previously said, so if I were expected to compare the new signs with the old ones, I was at a disadvantage. Did this message include this sign itself? Had it also changed? Had it previously said, "Notice, Signs are the Same," or "Some Signs have Changed." It was confusing.

I have finally opted for an interpretation that sees it as a philosophical/theological statement. The signs that designate God's people have changed. Like Adam in the Garden, we have taken on the prerogative of naming things about us, including the church. The names we have chosen have been helpful to point people to the location where we gather. The names differentiate us from others. The names clarify our commitments and focus so that when outsiders read our signs they have a sense of who we are. The names we have chosen, however, may miss the point. "By this," Jesus said, "shall all know that you are my disciples -- if you love one another as I have loved you." That seems to me to be the sign that has changed. I want to work at being a better sign to others along the way, pointing to God, God's love, God's Son, and God's people -- the church.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Getting to Know the Place

Wendell Berry urges us to know the land. He means by that a particular piece of property. What has Nature been doing here? What does Nature permit here? In what will Nature assist here? What would violate Nature in this place? I have been getting to know this particular place for more than fifty years. I walked these fields as a child, played in the sand, chunked the red sandstone rocks at prickly pear cacti, avoided rattlesnakes, scorpions, and tarantulas, and shot .22 rounds at tin cans on fence posts. In the last three or so I have focused my efforts at knowing the place around the soil, the weather, and the wildlife.

Sunday morning began like Saturday – dark and cool (though warmer and damper than the day before). I was a bit stiff from the work on Saturday. Melinda prepared scrambled eggs and toast to go with our coffee. Lance and Andi were sleeping in. After breakfast we retired to our separate corners to read. I opened the Book of Common Prayer to the Daily Office Lectionary and identified the readings for the day – Psalm 8, 24, 29, 84, 1 Corinthians 12, and Matthew 18. When I’m at the farm I read from a New Revised Standard Version Bible I keep there alongside my BCP. At home, I read from the New English Bible these days. This was part of my worship this Reformation Sunday morning.

Lance and Andi were stirring and Melinda was back with Hopkins, so I put on some walking shoes and went out into the beauty of another Fall morning. I cleaned up some loose branches I’d neglected to pick up the day before, took a rake to some gopher mounds in the yard and leveled them out, and then walked into the mesquite woods next to our property to look at what used to be a stock pond (in Texas that’s called a “tank.”) It is dry now and belongs to my neighbor. Although it once held water, it would take some major bull dozier work to remove the trees that fill it now and restore it. I walked the perimeter of the field beside our house, first parallel to the road along the fence covered with Muscadine grapevines, then left along the fence line that separates our property from the Jung’s place, then left again along the back fence line until I came to the snake-like berm that winds through the fields, directing the flow of rainwater to the old tank. Then I walked atop the berm, covered with thick Bermuda grass, back to the house.

Along the way I stepped through the cleared circles, six feet or so in diameter, created by the hard working red harvester ants. These insects were around here when I was a child, but the imported fire ants practically eliminated them. I was glad to see them back. Since the red harvester ants were a primary food source for the Texas Horned Lizard (horned toad, or for you TCU people, horned frog), that critter has declined in about 30% of its native habitat. We don’t see them around here any more.

After lunch we four spent a bit of time identifying various butterflies, spiders, moths, and birds around the place. We saw a yellow garden spider, one of the few left this season. They were prolific all summer. A little hairy, green-eyed jumping spider walked across the ceiling of the front porch. A Black Widow protected her egg sac under the eave in the back of the house. We saw butterflies: a Monarch, a yellow Clouded Sulphur, an Alfalfa butterfly, a Goat Weed, a Spicebush Swallowtail, and a Giant Swallowtail. We think we identified one of the many black hairy caterpillars on the place as that of a Giant Tiger Moth or a Giant Leopard Moth. Not really sure about that. Our resident Texas Rat Snake had left his three and a half foot shed skin hanging on the lower branch of the oak tree in the back yard. Mexican Eagles, Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, and an American Kestrel patrolled the fields from above.

In an effort to know this place, I have acquired a stack of field guides. I want to know, as best I can, the name of every species of mammal, spider, scorpion, insect, bird, tree, and grass on the place. I want to know the names of the six or eight different soil types that make up the land. I want to recognize constellations in the clear, dark South Texas sky. That’s a goal of mine I am working on. Being married to a curious amateur naturalist helps a lot.

Sharon came over from across the road. She’s Herb’s mother. I suspect she may get lonely living out here. Whenever she sees our vehicles at the house she comes over for a visit. Sometime she brings vegetables or homemade tamales. This time she just brought the lens cap to a camera one of our friends had lost up here this spring. Sharon stood for an hour on the front porch, refusing to take the chair we offered, and talked of gardening, pests, rain, drought, and plans for the future. This is part of getting to know the place as well. Sharon, with her Germanic-Texas accent, describing her efforts at growing tomatoes is part of this place as well.

I suspect that my full acquaintance with these 88 acres may take a while. There is much to know.

An Ordinary Day

I hadn’t been to the farm since Labor Day Weekend. Melinda and I drove up on Friday night, stopping in Austin for dinner with Jenna and two of her friends at Kerby Lane. By 9:30 we were pulling into the long drive that leads up to the house. I could tell that Herb, the young man from across the road who leases the land to farm, had recently mowed most of the yard and raked it for hay. Earlier this summer he had taken 83 square bales out of our “front yard.” The fields, however, still contained the crop of sorghum sudan grass he had planted for a hay crop in the spring. He’d already taken two cuts off the fields, but the grass was back up to six feet or more and still covered most of the field. But around the house I could see that I would have tall grass to cut on Saturday morning.

I made a quick run to town for some groceries while Melinda unpacked. Lance and Andi were coming up the next day to spend the weekend with us. I performed their wedding seven years ago today. When I returned I put a pound of pinto beans in a pan to soak overnight and before long, we turned in for the night.

Saturday morning Melinda and I sat on the front porch in the 38 degree morning air, sipped coffee, and watched the lazy sun rise in front of us. He’s sleeping in until 7:30 most days now. In another week, however, he’ll be required to rise at a respectable hour. After a bowl of oatmeal and raspberries, we went to work. For Melinda that meant secluding herself in the back room with a stack of books and her iBook to crank out a paper on Gerard Manley Hopkins. For me, that meant cranking up the lawnmower and making the place presentable. I paused midmorning to add the ingredients to the pot of borracho beans I was conjuring up, and then went back to work.

By noon most of the mowing was done, and about the time we took a lunch break, Lance and Andi drove up. We shared a lunch at the wooden tables under the mesquite grove in front of the house in absolutely perfect fall weather. After some catching up, Melinda went back to the books, Andi put her walking shoes on and headed down County Road 401 for an explore, and Lance and I trimmed pecan trees, filling the back of Willie before driving to the county dump.

The pecans have been a disappointment this year. The first year we had the place we gathered bucket loads from our four trees. Then the drought hit and they produced nothing. This year we were ready. We’ve had a good, wet winter, spring, and summer and were anticipating a great crop of pecans. However, we were not anticipating the great crop of grasshoppers, which we also had. They devoured pecan leaves and blossoms and left us with enough nuts for perhaps one pie. Maybe next year.

At the end of the day the yard was clean, the beans and rice were ready for dinner, and Baylor was about to beat UT in Austin. We sat outside and drank coffee for a while, and then took a hike around the perimeter of the fields, exploring the wildlife and vegetation on the place until near dark. When we got back to the house, we settled in for dinner and the ball game (we had to listen on the radio, since we only have broadcast tv access). After the ball game was over, we went to bed.

What I have described is an absolutely, spectacularly ordinary day. It was comprised of a quiet sunrise, good coffee, the presence of someone I love, conversation with friends, hard work, simple food, being present in Creation, and laughter. I love ordinary days.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ok, I Did It

At 10:48 PM CDT on Halloween 2010 I deactivated my Facebook account. I read all the tearful good byes from friends. Thanks. I’m glad my posts occasionally brightened up your day. Even Facebook put up some photos of me and Melinda and Jenna and my friend Jimmy and told me that if I deactivated my account Melinda would miss me and Jenna would miss me and Jimmy would miss me and would I like to reconsider and just receive fewer emails from Facebook. Melinda isn’t going to miss me – I’m married to her. Jenna isn’t going to miss me – she’s my daughter and needs her tuition money. Jimmy isn’t going to miss me. We are going camping together next weekend.

Here’s the deal – I want to work on one-to-one relationships with the people in my life as much as possible. Relating to people en masse lacks something important to me and leads to an online persona. I had to do enough of that as a pastor. It is not where I want to live. So, if you are one of my former Facebook “friends,” take my invitation seriously.

Email me and tell me what is going on with you and I’ll do the same. Ask for my cell number if you don’t have it and give me a call or text sometime or send me yours and I’ll do the same. Or download Skype and text me that you want to meet there and we can talk face to face or chat over a cup of coffee. Or, First Prize, let’s actually find a time to visit.

And I’ll continue writing this blog once or twice a week, reflecting on life and sharing that with whomever might be interested. But in this case, I’m mostly writing for me. I’ll write it whether anyone reads it or not. (You can “follow” my blog and have an email sent to you that tells you there’s been a update, if that helps.)

Thanks for the time on Facebook. I look forward to the Journey continuing.

BTW, I just got home from the farm about an hour ago. I'll write about that tomorrow, hopefully.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Dear FB,

This is difficult to say, but over the past few weeks I have come to finally admit that our relationship just isn’t working out. I have tried, but the feelings are gone and I don’t think they are coming back.

I remember when we first met – the hours spent sitting with you on the couch, telling you things about myself, showing you photos. I told you about my favorite books and movies, my favorite music and pastimes. I told you where I’d travelled and what I’d done. I would check in with you several times a day, letting you know what I was thinking, what I was doing. You sat with me in airport terminals and coffee shops. You always had some gossip or trivia about our mutual friends. Then when I got my iPhone, it was like you were with me all the time.

We have had some difficult moments – times when I thought what I shared with you was private, only to discover you’d shared it with the world and I had to tell you not to do that anymore. And sometimes you’d suddenly change with no warning and I’d have to get accustomed to the new you. Recently I felt you have become too possessive, wanting to know exactly where I am at all times. And I refused to play your games or start a farm with you. But we made it though those seasons.

I will treasure some things about our relationship. Before I met you, I was virtually friendless. Then you came along and brought the party with you. Suddenly, I had more friends than I thought possible. They poked me and gave me gifts. They wrote on my wall and sent me messages. We chatted. You reconnected me with at least a dozen people I had not contacted in years, and now I hear from them regularly – or at least I see their status. I want you to know that I honestly appreciate that. That would not have happened without you.

Now I have exactly 1120 friends, so many I can’t really keep up with them all. In fact, I can’t really keep up with any of them. Our relationships have grown shallow and superficial. We share trivia, jests, and pointless observations. Is this all there is to a relationship? I have the sense that I’m staying in touch with people, but really I’m not.

Don’t take this personally, FB. It is not about you, really, it’s about me. I just cannot feel committed to our relationship any more. Maybe my expectations are unrealistic, but I want something more real, something deeper, and I just can’t find it with you, in spite of all the time we spend together. I’m not blaming you or any of your more than 500 million active users who spend more than 700 billion minutes per month with you. And I’m not judging you or them, either. It’s not about that.

In a good relationship, one hopes to become a better person. I’m not sure it has worked that way for us. Honestly, I think you have helped me become a bit more narcissistic. That’s not your fault – it’s mine. Although you told me that more than a thousand people needed to know tiny details about my life and thinking, I believed you. Admittedly, I often wrote status updates or posted photos, not to inform, but to impress. (And, ironically, I’m breaking up with you in a blogpost for all the world to see. Clearly I have a way to go in recovering from our years together.)

So I’m going to break this off. I’m returning all the photos, the flair, and the notes I wrote you. You can keep them. And if it is alright with you, I’ll continue relating to some of my friends in other ways, although I’m not sure how. Being with you so much has gotten me out of the habit. Perhaps if they want to know what is going on in my life without actually talking to me, they could read the blog that I have neglected since you and I have been seeing each other ( At least there I try to reveal myself a bit more authentically. Or perhaps I could go back to emailing people rather than sending and receiving FB messages, which just show up as an email anyway ( Perhaps they could call me or I could call them and we could have a conversation (cell phone number available by email request). Or we could sit with my friend Skype and hear each other and see each other. Or, possibly, we might even sit down, face to face, and talk. I don’t know how I will get along without you right now, but I know I must.

So this is goodbye. I promise not to talk bad about you to others. Please, don’t call and beg me to reconsider. But I do hope we can still be “friends.”

Virtually gone,


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Leaders are Readers

I received notice this week that on November 11, Leadership Network is hosting a live, online event on the topic of Leaders & Readers. Six authors will share their thoughts on the role that reading has played in their leadership experiences, drawing content from their latest books. On that day, the audience will be able to participate in the conversation through live Q&A.

Leadership Network invited me to share my thoughts on the following three questions…

1. How would you complete this sentence: “I believe that reading is valuable to leadership because…”?

2. Do leaders read differently than non-leaders? How?

3. What are 3 books that have most influenced your leadership and why?

So I have decided to take them up on it. From the time that I first began to make sense of words on a page as a pre-K, I have been fascinated with reading. The public libraries in my city and the libraries at every school I have ever attended have been among my favorite haunts (and they still are). The evolutionary process after that was powerful: I discovered bookstores, then bookstores discovered coffee, and then showed up and I could browse the bookstores without leaving my desk! My office walls are lined with books. Our study at home is lined with books. My laptop contains a couple of thousand volumes. I have pretty much been obsessed with reading most of my life. What difference has that made for me? What is the connection between my reading and the fact that I have been involved in leadership most of my life as well?

I believe that reading is valuable to leadership because a reader is often a person whose mind is working. Assuming I am reading books that challenge my thinking, that present ideas I sometimes take issue with, that introduce me to new ways of thinking, then reading is an act of mental growth. In a world that changes as rapidly as ours, leaders cannot afford to be people whose minds are stuck in a former paradigm. Leaders are people who must be able to learn their way through the changes in order to thrive. A supple, working, thinking brain is a leader’s greatest asset. The act of reading helps keep that asset sharp.

Do leaders read differently than non-leaders? That is difficult to say, since I’m not so familiar with the reading habits of non-leaders. Leaders do not so much read for entertainment, I think. The leaders with whom I associate do read voraciously. They love books and they love ideas. They read fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, theology and economics, classics and contemporary. They read to stay up and they read to stay grounded. Reading keeps leaders connected not only with the leaders of the present, but also with the leaders of the past. It is a common “complaint” heard among my peers that our conversations are too expensive – they send us to Amazon for another order as we share what we have been reading.

Which three books have most influenced my leadership (excluding the Bible, which is the easy answer)? Murray Bowen’s Family Therapy in Clinical Practice is a collection of Bowen’s essays and lectures over a couple of decades, exposing the development of his thinking about how natural systems work. This thinking, and that of many of his disciples such as Roberta Gilbert, Ron Richardson, Edwin Friedman, and Michael Kerr has informed my thinking about what it means to lead with an understanding of natural systems. Early on as a pastoral leader, I recall reading Tom Peter’s In Search of Excellence and being challenged to think about what excellence should look like in congregational life and leadership. A third influence has been the works of Wendell Berry (pick one – how about his collection of essays, The Art of the Commonplace?) I was introduced to Berry by Eugene Peterson’s comment in his Under the Unpredictable Plant, in which he encouraged pastors to read Berry and substitute the word “congregation” wherever the farmer/writer/poet Wendell Berry used the words “land,” ”soil,” or “farm.” Then, Peterson said, we’d understand something about what pastoral leadership is about. That advice has been fruitful for me. That also illustrates the way that books lead to other books and writers introduce their favorites to the reader like good friends.

When I had my head buried under the covers as a preteen, reading by flashlight so my mother would not know I’d not yet gone to bed, I never expected to be a writer myself. But a few years ago I joined two friends and colleagues in a project that led to our writing The Leader’s Journey: A Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation. There have been other pieces as well. And currently I am working on a couple of projects. I do hope that my writing has the effect of helping readers become leaders and of introducing leaders to ideas that will shape their work.

Be sure to join us on November 11 for Leaders & Readers, you can register free at

Friday, July 02, 2010

Alaska Day 12: Sailing and Grazing

We're sailing through the waters of the Johnstone Strait with Vancouver Island a half-mile off to starboard, visible from our balcony window. Melinda is perched on the balcony scanning the waters for the black finger-like protrusion of the dorsal fin of an orca. Sandra, the ship's naturalist, says there's about a 33% chance of seeing some in this area. She is on the bridge watching for wildlife and occasionally comes on the ship's loudspeaker to call attention to something she has spotted. In our stateroom we can tune the television to channel 34 and hear her narration as we sit on the balcony.

The orcas in this area are called "residential orcas" because they stay in the area year-round and eat fish. The "transient orcas" further north devour warm-blooded mammals like seals and the calves of other whale species. They vacation off the northern Alaskan coasts when the humpbacks and others return in the summer.

In this narrow strait through which we are traveling at the moment the orcas will find schools of salmon, herring, and other fish to feed on. It is a sort of whale buffet. Speaking of buffets, we have had a day of feeding as well.

Following a light breakfast in the International Dining Room we went to the theater where Amedeo Scarin, the Executive Chef who oversees the preparation of 17,000 meals a day on board the Diamond Princess and Jacques Ghennai, the Maitre d'Hotel who oversees the staff of servers and stewards, presented an entertaining culinary demonstration. Following their presentation we joined several hundred other curious cruisers on a parade through the ship's main galley to see where this work was done.

The entire ship operation is fascinating to me. It is a floating city and the logistics are overwhelming. Yet everything from navigation to communication to hotel services to food services to travel services to entertainment to shopping services to engineering are managed with such amazing coordination.

Take food for example. Each day chefs use 205 kg of flour each day, 210 kg cheese, and 152 kg rice. During the seven days of the cruise they will use 920 kg of shrimp, 6691 kg of beef, 700 kg of King Crab legs, 600 kg of pasta, 6526 kg of chicken, 7710 kg of fish, and 548 kg of lobster. (For those who have forgotten, multiply by 2.2 to get pounds.) Passengers will guzzle 4,340 bottles of wine and 8,400 bottles of beer. In addition there are fresh fruits and vegetables galore. All of that has to be purchased, stored, prepared, and served.

Not long after our tour of the galley we visited the pastry buffet for a sampling. Then the won-ton soup buffet. After a brief retirement to our stateroom we went down to the Explorer Bar for an authentic English pub lunch. We chose the fish and chips. A while later it was time for Afternoon Tea in the Pacific Moon Dining Room. We'd not availed ourselves of that experience all week, so we gave it a shot. After visiting with one of our fellow travelers on the stern of the ship, we returned to our room for blogging and whale watching.

Tonight we pack our luggage, go to dinner, watch a magic show in the theater, and then spend our final night aboard ship. Sometime around 7:00 AM we will dock in Vancouver and by noon we'll be at the airport awaiting a flight to Seattle.

Alaska Day 11: Ketchikan

Ketchikan receives around 200 inches of rain a year, around 16 feet. Today it was partly cloudy and dry. We sat high in the stern of the Diamond Princess in an observation area that by night is the Skywalker Bar and watched the captain gently dock this floating city next to the pier. By 9:45 AM we were off the boat on Alaskan soil for the final time.Our plan was to take the public transportation from a bus stop just across the road from our pier ($1) to the Totem Bight, a state park a dozen miles south of town. Sandra, our ship's naturalist, told us about the place. We would be there at low tide, which allowed us to climb over the volcanic rocks in the tidal flat looking for some of God's creatures stranded by the ebbing waters.

My previous experience with catching the right bus had not gone so well in Oaxaca, Mexico. But we had our instructions -- catch the Blue Line South. While we waited for our ride two bald eagles flew overhead. The bus was almost half an hour off schedule, but we managed to get on and join a capacity crowd for the trip to Totem Bight.

The park is called Totem Biight for two reasons. First, it is a bight, or a place along the coast where the a chunk of land is missing. Second, it is the location of a collection of totem poles created by indigenous people. The totem pole is not an object of worship, but, like the stained glass windows in our cathedrals, a means of telling a story to preliterate people.

We joined a handful of others combing the tidal flat. The footing was a bit treacherous, but the rocks and tidal pools held plenty of treasures. We found an octopus, three bright orange starfish, a dozen or so purple starfish, limpets, crabs, and sea anemones. We visited the clan house and totem poles and waited for our bus ride back. By 3:00 we were let off beside our ship, went aboard for a quick lunch, and then returned to walk the streets of Ketchikan.

The walk took us to a bridge where six or eight young people were fishing for salmon. The bridge crosses the mouth of Ketchikan Creek and chum salmon are beginning to appear, staging for their final migration up the creek in the next few weeks. We saw several leaping from the water at the mouth of the creek.

Crossing the bridge we turned left onto Creek Street, which is actually a board walk that took us alongside the creek and through a canyon of shops attempting to lure tourists inside. At the end of Creek Street we walked on Married Man Trail and then on to the Totem Heritage Center, Bald Eagle Rehabilitation Center, and Salmon Hatchery run by one of the local tribes. By 4:00 PM we were on the return route, and were back aboard ship by 5:00. From our balcony we watched nine bald eagles fishing in the bay behind our ship. At 6:15 the Diamond Princess was pulling away from the pier and heading south for the final 500 miles of our 1500 mile voyage. We will be at sea all day on Friday, arriving at Vancouver, BC early on Saturday morning.

Melinda and I had only a few goals as we planned this trip. We were interested in encountering as much of the Creation as possible. The shopping and touristy excursions were not on our list. We wanted to see glaciers, whales, bears, caribou, moose, eagles, and wolves. We wanted to look out on snow covered mountains and to walk in rain forests. We wanted to see the majestic Denali. (I wanted to ride a train.) We checked these items off one by one. When we stood today and saw salmon leaping from the creek, I turned to Melinda and asked, "Is there anything else you want to see?" It was as if we'd marked through the final item on the list. The weather was unusually good by all accounts of those who have made this trip before. Denali showed itself to us on three successive days. We saw more whales than our ship's naturalist had seen on one trip. Glacier Bay was incapable of description.

We are on our way home now. Texas heat and humidity. Shopping and cooking for ourselves. No maid service. No buffet. Responsibilities. Lawns to mow. Gardens to tend. We will learn to adjust.

Thanks again, UBC, for a generous and much appreciated gift.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Alaska Day Ten: Juneau

I'm sitting in front of my balcony window as we cruise rather rapidly through the Frederick Sound, an area that John Muir described as "countless forest-clad islands." He described sailing through these waters well:
"The ordinary discomforts of a sea-voyage are not felt, for nearly all the whole way long is on inland waters that are about as waveless as rivers and lakes. So numerous are the islands that they seem to be sown broadcast: long tapering views between the largest of them open in every direction."

We left Juneau about three hours ago, so following our naturalist's advice, we are looking for humpback whales in this area, which sometimes show up off the starboard side, where our balcony is conveniently located. So we are watching for the tell-tale sign of a puff of "steam" erupting from the water as the whales surface for air. So far, nothing.

In another hour we will participate in the highly cultured feeding frenzy of homo sapiens as they gather in the dining room for our second "formal night" on board. Tonight we shall dine on lobster, I understand.

We've been back on the boat since about 1:30 PM, following a morning of walking throughout Alaska's capital. We docked around 6:00 AM, just as we were waking. It was 52 degrees and raining. That did not stop us from going ashore for the day. It did affect our plans. We determined to stay in town and not take the shuttle out to the Mendenhall Glacier. For several hours we walked about town, dropping into art galleries, museums, and several visitors' centers. At the center located inside the Centennial Hall we inquired about walking trails accessible from the city. We received some excellent advice about a path that had not appeared in any of our literature -- The Flume Trail.

We climbed up the hill leading out of town and walked about three-quarters of a mile to the trailhead for the Mount Roberts trail. Across the road was the beginning of the Flume Trail, and mile and a half of boardwalk built in the rainforest on the side of a mountain overlooking a loud, white, rushing stream. Looking to the left, down the mountain, it was as if we were walking in the canopy of the forest. The upper third of the tall spruces and alders were at our eye level. To our right we were eye-to-eye with the roots and trunks of those growing higher on the mountain. The light rain continued to fall as we walked.

The trail emptied out in the Evergreen Cemetery, where the town founders now reside. We then wandered back through town to the docks and boarded our ship just in time to be seated for the luncheon served in the International Dining Room where we take our evening meals. We were seated with a man and his wife, Canadians from Vancouver. We began the usual chit-chat and learned that he was an artist and a nature photographer who had made thirty-two cruises up and down this coast while working for a cruise line. His wife simply announced, "I'm a shaman." I'd never had lunch with a shaman before. I had a thousand questions, none of which would have been appropriately polite in this cultured setting. She offered that she wrote poetry inspired by her shamanic "journeys." It was all so matter-of-fact.

Melinda looks lovely, dressed for the formal dinner tonight, wielding binoculars, scouting for sea mammals. I need to prepare for the same.

We will arrive in Ketchikan at 9:15 in the morning. We hope to see some salmon making their way from the sea to the rivers and to watch some native Alaskans demonstrating their way of life in a Tlinget village.

News item: Taylor and Amber emailed us to inform us that our grandchild, expected in November, is going to be another boy. Wow! Two of each!

Alaska Day 9: Skagway

Tuesday morning we woke up, opened our curtains to see that we were staring at a stone wall. Sometime during the early morning hours we docked at Skagway. We ate a quick breakfast and then walked across the gangway to a waiting train. The WP&Y (White Pass & Yukon) Railway train was departing at 8:10 to take us the twenty miles from sea level to the summit of White Pass at nearly 2900 feet. The ascent was breathtaking, as the narrow gauge train wound its way around mountain precipices, across wooden trestles, through two tunnels, alongside the Skagway River, and past tumbling waterfalls.

At the end of the line the engine disconnected from the train, passed us by on a sidetrack, and reconnected on the other end. Inside we passengers stood, folded our seat backs over so that they now faced the opposite direction, and exchanged places with the people across the aisle so that we would have a view of the scenery on the other side as we returned.

This railroad was built in two years (1898 and 1899) to take people and supplies north to make the journey into the Yukon following the Klondike Gold Rush. It has been selected as one of the civil engineering marvels of the world alongside such structures as the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Panama Canal. The bridges and trestles span enormous gorges and masses of solid granite had to be removed to make way for the rails.

The train had us back to our ship by lunch time. We went back on board, ate lunch, and rested a while. Then we left again to find the Dewey Lake trail system just outside Skagway, and spent the afternoon hiking alongside loud mountain streams and deep green spruce forests. The climb was a bit strenuous, but it was worth it.

The trail eventually emptied us out on the streets of Skagway. We found the local Starbucks and visited the museum sponsored by the National Parks Service commemorating the Klondike Gold Rush. They had a film describing the event and then a park ranger delivered a lecture with photographs and quotations from letters written by a man from Detroit who participated in the insanity.

A short walk brought us back to the Diamond Princess and we changed clothes and joined our dining partners in the International Dining Room for "Italian night."

The interaction with creation that this cruise affords makes it worth the investment. Naturalist John Muir said that Nature has lit the fire and spread the table, inviting us to warm ourselves and feast. That is what the Alaskan wilderness offers so lavishly.

We have now set sail from Skagway and are cruising toward Juneau. We shall arrive early tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Alaska Day 8: Glacier Bay National Park

I grazed like a moose today. First breakfast was a continental one delivered to our stateroom. Then we went up to the forward deck for whale watching. At 8:00 AM we were entering the Icy Straits on our way into Glacier Bay National Park. Today was the reason I have wanted to come to Alaska. It was everything I had hoped it would be. The weather was so beautiful that the guides, park rangers, and our ship’s naturalist kept going on about it. We saw dozens of humpback whales, some just off the port side of our ship. We saw bears, sea otters, steller sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, puffin, and a dozen other kind of water fowl. By 10:00 it was time for second breakfast, so we got a plate of Belgian waffles and cups of coffee that were being served on the deck.

We’d been standing in a cold wind for a couple of hours and enjoyed the opportunity to sit for a while. At 10:00 a team of National Park Rangers joined our ship for the day. One of them, Laurie, offered an lecture about Glacier Bay National Park at 11:00, so we took advantage of that. She was outstanding.

The voyage into the park took us past more wildlife and several active glaciers. The scenery was magnificent. (I need more adjectives.) The bay was formed by glaciers and was filled with one as recently as two hundred years ago. These glaciers began a rapid retreat over the past two centuries and the valley they had created is now filled with a deep turquoise water. The shoreline is made up of cliffs and mountains, still covered in snow. Waterfall descend hundreds of feet delivering melted snow to the bay. The end of the trip was the Margerie Glacier, an enormous tide water glacier that extends more than sixty miles back into the ice fields around Mt. Fairweather. Our ship sat in the bay for an hour or so, allowing us to watch the calving of the glacier. A loud crack like the sound of shotgun would be announce portions of the glacier breaking off and falling hundreds of feet into the water. Then a sound like thunder would follow. The ranger estimated that one of the pieces we saw fall was 250 feet high.

During the journey into the park, most of the action was on the port side of the ship, so we remained on the deck. But for the trip out, we returned to our starboard side state room and sat on the balcony as we watched the sights roll by once more. (It was now 2:00 and time for another trip to buffet. We brought pizza and a salad back to our room.) The captain took us up the Johns Hopkins Inlet (named for the university) to see the Johns Hopkins Glacier. This sight was perhaps the most awe-inspiring vistas so far. The huge glacier wound back into the mountains. Two large, jagged, snow-covered peaks loomed behind it. The water in front of it was the deep aqua blue. Once more the captain allowed the ship to sit at rest while we took it in.

At 5:30, we hit the buffet line again for a light snack and then joined the park rangers on the forward deck for wildlife viewing again. The rangers left the boat at 7:15 and our ship’s naturalist took over again. The whales were plentiful again. She claimed this was the best day of whale sightings she has had.

By 8:15 it was time to (guess what?) eat again. We changed into appropriate attire and joined our British friends and another Pennsylvanian couple for dinner. I had only a soup and salad. For some reason I was not all that hungry.

Melinda asked our head waiter (Luis, from Mexico) half-jokingly when we were going to have Mexican food on the menu. He told her that was not scheduled, but that he would take care of that for her. So Thursday night she is having vegetarian fajitas.

So now it is 11:30 and we have an early train to catch. More tomorrow.

Alaska Day 6: Talkeetna to the Diamond Princess

While we’re on the ship our postings will be limited to descriptions. At seventy-five cents a minute, the Internet connection will be as brief as possible. I’ll edit these posts and add photos later.

We stayed up late last night to watch the sun set behind Mt. McKinley around 11:15 PM. The majestic mountain revealed itself to us for the third straight day, which all the locals found amazing. The best view of the day was near sunset, when the entire mountain range was clearly in sight, but at the very moment of sunset a cloud moved between us and Denali and obscured its peaks.

This morning was cold and heavily overcast, so after breakfast we just hung out in our room and in the lodge waiting for our 11:30 AM coach to take us to Talkeetna to catch the Alaska Railway train to Whittier.

The “train station” from Talkeetna was simply a gravel parking lot with some logs for benches. Our coach arrived a few minutes before the train. Before long five hundred people were boarded and headed toward Whittier for the Diamond Princess.

The rail journey took us through some beautiful wilderness areas. But it was the final stretch between Anchorage and Whittier that was the most amazing. Our path followed alongside the Turnagain Arm, an inlet with tide variance that is second only to the Bay of Fundi. The difference between high and low tide may differ as much as 35 feet, and it all comes in at once in a huge wave called a bore tide that surfers sometimes ride into the bay. The water fills the miles and miles of the bay. When the tide is out the mud flats are exposed. The mud is made up of a fine flour-like dust from glaciers, deposited over thousands of years. The mud is several thousand feet deep, and to attempt to walk on it is to guarantee death. You cannot be extracted from it. Signs along the way issue the warning.

As we passed by the bore tide was coming in and the bay was quickly filling with water. Snow-covered mountains surrounded the huge bay and waterfalls of snow melt rushed down to meet the incoming sea water. A bald eagle flew over the clear dome of our railcar. Dall sheep clung to the steep rock cliff that rose up on our left.

The last bit of the journey was through solid rock. The train passed through two miles of tunnel that brought us out into the fjord where the Diamond Princess was moored. No other ship was present. In minutes we were passing through security and boarding the vessel that would be our home for the next week.

We found our room, found some food, walked about the ship for a while to get our bearings, and then retired for the night.