Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rocket Dodging

Ok, I SAID we were going to Beersheba today, but plans changed. After our visit to the site of Tel Arad in the Negev, we drove into the modern city of Arad and sipped cappucino (which turns out to be a Hebrew word, according to Yosse, our guide). Then back on the bus for a visit to a Bedouin camp where we rode camels for twenty minutes (2 riders per camel -- I rode behind Matt), learned a bit about the Bedouin culture, and then shared a meal under a tent.

As we were boarding the bus to go on to Beersheba, Yosse informed us that our plans were going to change. Seems that Hamas had managed to toss several Chinese made rockets into the city of Beersheba that morning, injuring no one, but closing down some schools, businesses, and the national park that was on our itenerary.

So we took a different route, stopping to visit the Bell Caves at Beit Guvrin, which were created by two hundred years of mining the chalky soil to use for cement and mortar. Jim Brown, one of our group, treated us to a Latin chant deep under the earth that echoed around long after he'd finished singing.

We also made a stop in the Valley of Elah where David once faced off with Goliath. Yosse demonstrated David's slingshot technique with a woven sling of his own. His first shot went arwy and almost took out a passing vehicle, missing only by inches.

We paused at a West Bank checkpoint near Bethlehem and enjoyed a spirited, lengthy, and loud argument in Hebrew between Yosse, our bus driver, and the soldier working the station. A few minutes later we were in Jerusalem and at our hotel.

Tomorrow, we visit Bethlehem and other sites in the Jerusalem area. I'll check in again tomorrow evening. Shalom.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Morning at the Dead Sea

Yesterday was a full day of travel, driving from Tiberius in the north, through the Jordan River Valley to the southern end of the Dead Sea. It was also a full day of touring, visiting three of the most spectacular archeological sites we will see: Bet Shean, Qumran, and Masada. I had seen each of these four times now, but I would gladly return to any of them tomorrow.

Today will hold some new experiences, however. We will visit Beersheba and Arad on our way to Jerusalem. This is as far south as we will travel and the closest we will be to the unrest in Gaza, about 30 miles. Our guide assures us that this is not a problem and the president of our travel agency is actually accompanying us on the trip with her husband and 13 year old grandson. She has been coming here several times a year since the 1960s and is quite familiar with the situation. So as long as she's ok with taking her grandson along, our group feels a level of comfort. Obviously we are a bunch of protective grandparents ourselves.

In Beersheba we will ride camels and have lunch with a family of Bedouins. (I have promised my grand-daughter a photo of Papa on a camel.) Then we will make the final leg of the journey to Bethlehem. For the next three days we will visit sites in and around the city. At the end of the day on Friday, we will head back to Tel Aviv to catch our flight home.

I'll report in from Jerusalem tomorrow. D.V.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Visiting Galilee

We hit the ground at full speed yesterday. By 7:30 AM we were on our tour bus with Yosse, our guide, headed for the ruins of the Roman city of Caesarea. This is one of my top five sites to visit in Israel, simply because of the multiple connections it has with the ministries of Philip, Peter, Paul, and Luke. See this month’s National Geographic for some great photos and drawings. We visited the Roman theater, the hippodrome, the ruins of Herod’s palace, and got back on the bus.

Continuing north on the ancient Via Maris, a road travelled over the centuries by traders and warriors from Egypt and Mesopotamia, we came to the excavations at Megiddo. This city was built and destroyed twenty-four times before being abandoned. We walked among the stables built by Solomon a thousand years before Jesus’ birth. From the top of Megiddo we took in the panorama of the mountains of Samaria, Mt, Gilboa, Mt. Tabor, the city of Nazareth, the valley of Jezreel, and Mt. Carmel.

Our next stop was for lunch in a Druse village. A traditional vegetarian meal of Mediterranean dishes was spread like a buffet on our tables. The waitress just kept bringing out more and more things.

After lunch we drove to the top of Mt. Carmel, where Elijah once faced off with the prophets of Baal. Then we pointed our bus toward Nazareth. There is not much to be seen there from the days of Jesus. We visited the Baptist church and school in Nazareth. We were routed around Cana because of a political protest taking place there. Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Tiberius.

I spent a miserable night with some kind of food poisoning. I’ll spare the details. But I was beat when we began this day, and it was a packed one.

Leaving the hotel at 7:45, we stopped at the Mt. of Beatitudes, the traditional site of Jesus’ teaching the Sermon on the Mount. We talked about the life Jesus calls us to, sang some hymns and prayed.

Our next stop was far to the north at Caesarea Philippi. Along the way our guide provided an overview of modern Israeli history. Again at Caesarea Philippi we had the opportunity to open the Bible and think about the meaning of discipleship at the spot where Jesus first began teaching us about the kind of cross-bearing disciples he was looking for.

We then retraced our steps all they way back to the Sea of Galilee and began circling it clockwise. We pulled over to read the story of Jesus’ casting the demons out of the Gadarene demoniac. Eventually we made our way to a kibbutz that provides means of St. Peter’s fish and a boat ride on the lake itself.

We visited Tabgha, the traditional site where Jesus fed the multitudes.
We continued our way around the lake, stopping to see a baptismal site used by Christians from all over the world who wish to be immersed in the Jordan River. Then on around to Capernaum, the city of Peter and Andrew, and the one Jesus adopted as his home. We read from John 6 the words Jesus once spoke there about the bread of life.

Finally, we stopped at a museum that displays a boat dating back to the time of Jesus. There I ran into a friend who teaches at Mary Hardin Baylor and Hannah, one of our guides from our trip back in 2005.

This is how the day is spent on a typical Matt Marsh led trip. You keep moving and cover a lot of ground. Now I’m back in my hotel room. It is almost 7 and time for dinner. I should have no difficulty sleeping tonight.

Perhaps I can think clearly enough tomorrow to offer a more reflective piece. Perhaps not.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Safe and Sound in Herzliya

Our entire group from UBC arrived safely at our hotel last night. Some traveled through New York, some through London, and some through Atlanta. By 9:00 PM local time (1:00 PM CST) we were all assembled, enjoying the hotel buffet.

I know some of you may be concerned by the current headlines. Know that we will not be going within 100 miles of all that activity. The president of our tour agency is actually with us and has her husband and grandson along. You can be sure we will stick to the safe spots. But pray for the people here. There is much suffering as a consequence of the violence.

It is 4:30 AM here and I have been awake since 2:30 due to jet lag. I'm about to make my first pot of coffee. I brought my own and a french press on this trip. I recall from last time that Israel doesn't do coffee shops.

Today we'll be heading for Caesarea, Mt. Carmel, Megiddo, and Tiberius. These are great sites and I'm looking forward to sharing them with our pilgrims. I'll post a report tonight.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Older Friends

Monday morning Melinda and I joined Matt Marsh, and thirty of my oldest friends (literally) for a trip to San Antonio via the farm in Floresville. Three bright, white rental vans took my favorite route – Hwy 90A through East Bernard, Eagle Lake, Halletsville, Shiner, and Gonzales – avoiding I-10 completely. The three hour and twenty minute trip took a bit longer, since we had to stop at Buc-ees in both Eagle Lake and Gonzales. Outside of Stockdale we left TX 97 to take Wilson County Road 401 for about ten miles. Ordinarily we’d have kept to the highway that would have taken us within a half mile of the farm. But the county road experience gives a first-time visitor the sense they have wandered far off into rural Texas. By the time they arrive at the farm they think they are in the middle of nowhere. In reality, Wal-Mart is only two miles away. I told them I did this so they couldn't find me when I am off at the farm.

Texas weather is predictably unpredictable, especially in December. For example, we had snow in Houston last Wednesday. Then it was eighty degrees on the weekend. We were watching the forecasts carefully and anticipating a “high in the upper 50s” day on Monday. Turned out to be a “high in the lower 40s” with a stiff wind. So we huddled in the back room of the farmhouse and ate our sandwiches.

After lunch we took off for San Antonio for a tour of the missions built by Francisans and their hunter-gatherer native converts in the 18th century. We’d done a preview personal tour of these spots during our Thanksgiving week visit. That day had been clear and sunny. Monday afternoon was cold, windy, and overcast. But the group was persistent. We visited Espada, San Juan, and San Jose. We sang carols under the dome at Concepcion, the chapel that still stands pretty much as it did two hundred fifty years ago. The docent there said that listening to us was the high point of his year.

Finally we arrived at our hotel, got a cup of coffee, and reassembled for a walk to the Rio Rio Cantina on the San Antonio Riverwalk. The wind chill factor was now twenty-six degrees. The Tex-Mex warmed us, though.

The next morning we had breakfast at the Guenther House, former home of Carl H. Guenther, founder of the Pioneer Flour Mills. Then we enjoyed a couple of hours touring the amazing McNay Art Museum. By noon we were back in the vans pointed toward Houston. One Buc-ee stop later and we were on I-10.

This was my first trip with our senior adults, and I hope it will not be my last. We had a great time, learned much, ate well, and laughed a lot. This will be one of the highlights of my 2008 Christmas.

I have known some of these friends for twenty-five years. They were my age now when I first met them. Many of them have worked hard teaching me what it means to be a pastor, straightening me out on an issue or two along the way. Most of them have been cheerleaders, supporters, and prayer-warriors on my behalf. They have provided the leadership and financial support of their church. And they are just plain fun people.

Thank God for older friends.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Starting Over

Melinda, Jenna, and I went to the farm for the Thanksgiving holidays. Alan, Kat, Madison and the grand-dogs joined us. It was an odd sort of Thanksgiving, really. Instead of the usual turkey and dressing we did Mexican. Not Tex-Mex, but Mex-Mex. Melinda and Kat put together a delicious dinner of Chiles en Nogada and Calabasita, with salsa, guacamole, chips, and tortillas. Kat made a Key Lime pie and a few hours after dinner we put that together with some Costa Rican coffee and enjoyed dessert. We spent a leisurely day. I played with Madison, walked in the field, and watched the latest and dumbest Indiana Jones movie ever.

On Friday we picnicked at the Pecan Park in Floresville and then drove to San Antonio for a quick tour of the Spanish missions. Melinda needed photos for a class project, plus she and I are headed back there in a couple of weeks with a senior adult group from our church. After visiting five missions, we needed a place for dinner. Something unusual. I recalled an episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives in which Guy ate at a place in San Antonio where they served really good pies. Pies were high on our (Kat & me) list. A bit of Googling on Alan’s iPhone and we found the name of the spot – De Wese’s Tip-Top Café. Turns out it was only about seven miles away and so we headed over.

It was stepping back in time. We dined on comfort food: chicken & dumplings, gigantic onion rings, roast pork & gravy, grilled tilapia, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, carrots, and baby lima beans. Then we narrowed our pie choices down to two: icebox banana and lemon meringue. The six of us split a piece of each. We saved the chocolate icebox pie for our next visit. It was the second time I’d tried out one of Guy’s spots in the San Antonio area.

Next it was on to the Riverwalk. Kat had connections so we had a riverside table reserved at the Hard Rock Café to watch the lighting of the river and the Christmas boat parade. I have to admit the boat parade left a bit to be desired. A lot, actually. But it was a festive event. Thousands of people lined both sides of the San Antonio River, filling the restaurants and bars.

This morning we returned to Houston and the rush of Exmas. Today is the final day of the Christian calendar. Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, marking the beginning of another cycle of holy days, festivals, and remembering the stories of God and his world. The first Sunday of Advent begins with the theme of hope. I like that. That's a really good place to start.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Boiled Frogs

You know the parable of the frog in the kettle. Supposedly, a frog dropped into a kettle of very hot water will make strenuous efforts to escape. However, it is claimed, a frog in a kettle of lukewarm water will permit the water to be raised to a boil without protest. I have not actually attempted this experiment with any frogs, toads, or other of God’s amphibious creatures, so I cannot verify this phenomenon. It is supposed to illustrate the way in which we adapt to incremental change in our environment almost without awareness. Eventually we find ourselves in a radically different place and we do not remember the journey. We simply take it all for granted.

That hit me yesterday. Around 7:15 PM I closed my MacBook Pro. For 45 minutes I’d been sitting with Willie in the parking lot of the Floresville McDonald’s watching a live television feed of the liftoff of the Space Shuttle Endeavour with the crew of STS-126. One of the guys on board is a friend of mine – one of a dozen or so men and women I have come to know who have flown in space. Before driving the couple of miles into town I wanted to be relatively certain the launch was going to happen. So I sent a text message from my Treo to another astronaut whom I knew was in Florida working the launch. In minutes he sent me a text message affirming that everything was looking good. And it was good. A beautiful night launch. I wish I could have been there.

This is where the frog in the kettle thing comes into play. All that I just described is business as usual stuff for me in 2008. Astronauts who have flown in space? Instant text messages across the country? Live television feed of a space shuttle launch being viewed over a wireless connection in the parking lot of a McDonald’s in a town of 5000 people? That morning I had received an email from my son in Afghanistan, half way around the world. And that is a short list. I have previously received both email and cell phone calls from the International Space Station orbiting 150 miles or so above the earth at 17,500 mph.

So now I’m sitting at the farm, writing this blog, which I’ll post at the McDonald’s before heading home this afternoon. I’ve included a photo, which is a screen shot of my computer watching a video replay of the launch. If I check my Sitemeter icon on my blog I’ll see that people from all over the U.S. as well as from Ireland, Uganda, Kuwait, Singapore, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, London, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Germany, and France have viewed my blog. Some did so intentionally. Some found it using Google while looking for something else that caused this page to pop up. I can tell all that from looking at the Sitemeter.

When did all this become normal? When did I stop being amazed? If I’d been dropped into this environment from 1970, I would be walking around slack-jawed every day. But it has all come so gradually.

And what else has changed about me, or good or ill, with such slow, evolutionary, incremental speed that I have remained unaware? When did my hair turn grey and when did my joints become so stiff? The list of those changes is probably long. The water’s been boiling for a while and I haven’t even noticed it.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Joy of Walking (Part 2)

Taking a walk is relaxing. Walking around my neighborhood as fast as I can for an hour is not. It is boring. After about a half mile I’m thinking, “How much longer?” So my iPod accompanies me. Sometimes I listen to Nanci Griffith, Billy Joel, or Willie Nelson. Sometimes it is Andrew Peterson, Derek Webb, or Robbie Seay. Sometimes it is a playlist of favorites. Early on I listened to the marching cadence of the Army Rangers, while Taylor was off at Ranger School. I have listened to several audio books (I just finished David McCollough’s 1776 and am now listening to his biography of John Adams.) I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone podcast each week and Dave Ramsey’s podcast when I remember to download it. All that helps with the boredom.

I have treated the walking through my neighborhood as a prayer walk on occasion. Sometimes I have left the iPod at home to walk and think or to burn off anger and frustration.

For now walking is part of my life. I still don’t like it. It is boring and time consuming. Yes, I feel better physically and emotionally. The walking helps. I have lost about fifteen pounds and my endurance is improved. Along with more careful eating, the walking helped me drop 50 points off my cholesterol. I like the clean, fresh feeling that I sense in my lungs about three miles into the routine. But I still don’t like the exercise. So I have to talk myself into staying the course.

Here are a few of my self-talk, motivational thoughts to keep my practice in place:
  • I think of my son in Afghanistan, the rigors of his training and the demands of his days and determine that the discipline of walking four miles is nothing compared to that. And I walk.
  • I think of the farm and my desire to be strong enough and healthy enough to do all I want to do there, and I walk.
  • I think of my granddaughters and my longing to be actively involved in their lives, and I walk.
  • I think of preaching three times each Sunday morning and the endurance I need for that. And I walk.
  • I think of friends I have who for physical reasons cannot walk. I remember my blessings, and I walk.
  • I think of growing old with my wife and wanting to be around as long as possible to enjoy that. And I walk.
Walking, despite my disdain for the necessity of having to do it, has produced a kind of gratitude in me. I’m grateful for health and legs and feet and lungs and eyes and ears. I’m grateful for the safety of my neighborhood where I walk. I am grateful for the sacrifice of soldiers, like Taylor, and am reminded of that as I pass house after house flying American flags. I’m grateful for children and grandchildren. I’m grateful for my wife and the almost 35 years we’ve shared. I’m grateful for the ministry I’m allowed to share.

Excuse me, I need to go walk.

The Joy of Walking (Part 1)

I’ve never met an aerobic exercise I liked. I have tried swimming, jogging, biking, stationary biking, and stair climbing. Despite my disdain for such activities in all their forms, I have never argued that I didn’t need such things. I purchased a book back in the ‘70s written by Dr. Ken Cooper, the father of aerobic exercise, called The New Aerobics. It has step-by-step programs with age-graded charts, incremental goals, and lots of information. My copy is worn, marked, and tired, like me.

Every few years some issue has moved me to pull it off the shelf, select a program, grit my teeth, and start over. Only a couple of times have I sustained my effort to the end of the program, where I would be earning 30 points a week, Cooper's standard for being in sound aerobic health. (I suspect that in the thirty years that have passed since publishing that book, he has probably changed his mind about some things, but I’m not buying another book on a subject I don’t like.)

A year ago my most strenuous exercise was carrying my laptop from my car to my office. Then I began working on the farm. I noticed how quickly I was out of breath. I looked at the photos of my two preschool grand-daughters and thought about how my dad’s emphysema kept him from actively enjoying my boys when they were small and prevented him from ever knowing my daughter. I had worked my way back up over 200 pounds from 185 about 6 years ago. I decided I needed to find my book again and do something about all this.

I started in January. It was not a New Year’s resolution, but a decision. I simply followed Cooper’s charts. It was a little depressing to find that I’m now in the old people charts. I began a walking program that would require sixteen weeks to get from where I was to the desired 30 points a week. But I just took it at that rate.

I didn’t try to rush it – I’ve done that before and all I got for the extra effort was sore muscles and discouragement. I took it slowly. At first it could hardly have been called exercise. But it was discipline. I had to get up, lace up my walking shoes, and get out the door.

Since sometime last May I have been earning my thirty points. That consists of walking four miles, three times a week, in under 57 minutes. I have missed that goal only three weeks (two of those were around Ike).

I know myself, and how easily a developed practice can fall by the wayside. Huge effort is required for me to engage and sustain a discipline and a mere feather can often knock me over. For ten months, I have stayed with it. I estimate I have logged about 400 miles. Check with me in six months. I hope I’ll still be walking.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Stupid Tax

I hate it when I have to eat my words. I despise the fact that sometimes I am too proud to hear something I ought to hear because of my prejudices against the source. But sometimes that happens to me. Imagine that.

Years ago I had friends who talked to me about the issue of debt in the church and in the lives of Christians. They were coming at that issue through the perspective of a prominent teacher who traveled around the country teaching people about what the Bible said about a wide variety of subjects. He taught about marriage though he had never been married. He taught about parenting, though he had no children. He taught about being a pastor and leading a church though he had never done neither. He employed a practice of proof-texting that was just awful. And his teachings were legalistic to the core. I once went to listen to him myself and had to leave the room because of the critical attitude that overwhelmed me regarding just about everything he said. He and I could not have been more polar opposites in our thinking about biblical interpretation. I have not changed my opinion about that.

Well, it turns out that this fellow also took a strong stand on living debt free. And rather than think that through and investigate it, I rejected that baby along with its bathwater. I accepted a cultural perspective on debt and credit that saw it as justified, even necessary, in our world, both for churches and individuals. I bought into an open attitude toward debt.

Along the way I encountered other more tolerable voices on the subject that I found I could listen to -- Ron Blue and Larry Burkett, for example. They made sense to me and I even took some of the things they said to heart. I never became radical about it and I never pushed the view on others that debt was wrong. Too much obviously was not wise, but if you were making your payments, then where’s the harm really? We had auto loans, a home mortgage, and paid off our credit card each month.

Over the past six months or so, I have been listening to and reading Dave Ramsey. He just makes too much sense. He is clear, principled, smart, and sound. And he has practiced all he preaches. He speaks honestly and does not mince words. He is mildly to strongly sarcastic at times and he is funny. He seems to prefer the word “stupid” to “sinful” when it comes to poor financial decisions like debt. He offers clear paths to help people out of the credit mess. He is compassionate but straight with people who call in to his show. And his way of handling the Bible makes sense to me.

So this week I have been in Nashville for a conference Ramsey’s group sponsored for church leaders. I walked through his headquarters, met his people, and watched him conduct his radio show for a while through thick glass outside the studio. I listened to those who have worked with him for years talk about his character. Today he came into our conference and spent some time with those of us there to receive training to help our congregations.

That sealed the deal for me. He was transparent and authentic. I have been most impressed with this guy and the organization he has built in such a principled manner. And, I am embarrassed to say, I believe he is just so right. I’m embarrassed that I could not see more light in that twenty-years ago. My pride would not let me. I could have done then what I am working on doing now in my own life and I could have led differently as a pastor. Now I have ground to make up. Dave calls that “stupid tax,” the price of making bad decisions. I have paid mine once more.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Serenity Prayer

Puzzling how two weeks of your life can fly by in such a crazy-quilt pattern of events. I have evacuated my home, taking only the barest of possessions, and awaited news of whether my entire community survived the onslaughts of a massive storm. I have returned to find life livable, home intact, and the community not harmed nearly as much as I had feared. I have received news of the death of two long time friends and officiated their memorial services.

I have preached good news to my congregation and sat in on meetings coordinating the relief efforts necessary for responding to a disaster of Ike’s scope. Volunteers from across the state (soon from around the country) spread their cots and air mattresses in our church chapel. They have come with trailers, mobile shower and laundry units, chainsaws and expertise in mud out work in flooded homes.

Our parking lot is home to a Red Cross POD handing out water, cleaning supplies, and food. Our playground is now Camp Ike as volunteers from UBC are providing a quickly organized day camp for more than a hundred kids a day who are still out of school while their parents are returning to work.

Tonight I visited with my college roommate, who is one of the BOI (Born on the Island) people from Galveston. He pastors a congregation in Jamaica Beach on the west end of the island. Their church building still stands, but the community around it is decimated. One home was destroyed when a barge hit it. His own home, not far from 61st Street, had more than six feet of water in it. He and his wife will go back to see it for the first time tomorrow. Then they’ll have to figure out what to do next.

I have helped unload Red Cross supplies off a truck in the parking lot of FBC, Seabrook, whose building flooded from the storm surge. I spoke to people driving through the POD line for food and water and heard them express their confidence that they would make it through all this. Afterwards I drove through the streets of the surrounding neighborhood where I saw every home emptied of its surge soaked possessions.

Meanwhile the world goes on. Our president and his advisors are trying to stave off an economic meltdown with $700 billion of our money. Wall Street swings back and forth like a traffic signal in a hurricane wind. Political candidates attempt to persuade us that our country would be better off if they were in leadership. I’m not persuaded.

The storm winds are not all physical. After the measurable gusts have past, others still blow through our lives. These are times when life really is a day at a time kind of thing. It unfolds. I suspect it will have this quality for some months to come.

The “Serenity Prayer” has long been a friend of mine. I like the longer, full version of it, that goes a bit beyond the one often quoted:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference

Living one day at a time
Enjoying one moment at a time
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it

Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to his will
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy in the next. AMEN

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ike Fatigue

This week has been at least 12 days long and I am really tired, like everyone else around me. Even a little grouchy. I have seen so much good being done by so many people, and so much need.

I don’t even know how to describe it all. Here are some twitters of what I have experienced. Trees filling my yard and the yards of those all around me. Large trees penetrating roofs. Power lines lying loose on the street like snakes. Long lines of cars making their way into the few gas stations open. Empty parking lots at nearly every shopping center around. Dark streets after dusk with black street lights. Sounds of chainsaws buzzing like giant cicadas. Piles of brush barricades lining every street in the city.

Eager volunteers with work gloves and tools heading out to take care of their neighbors and friends. People with cell phones glued to their ears. Unbelievable photographs and videos of catastrophic destruction on every screen. Long lines forming at every point of distribution.

Exhausted workers returning from a day of mucking out flooded homes. Frightened faces of homeless people wondering about their future. Relieved faces of those returning to find things still intact. Neighbors actually visiting, talking, telling their stories to each other.

I have sat in hours of meetings to organize hundreds of people to meet the needs of thousands. I have said good bye to two dear friends whose did not live to see the aftermath of the hurricane. I will officiate their funerals this week.

I have no idea what next week holds except more of the same. I know the time will come when the acute need of our community gives way to the chronic problems that will require many months to resolve. But for now the task is to stop the bleeding and stabilize the patient.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ike vs. Houston

We left our home under a mandatory evacuation early on Thursday morning and drove to our farm in three vehicles and all that we held dear (which was not much) without incident.  Alan, Kat, and Madison joined us later that day. On Friday Kat's parents and brother showed up. We did what we could to follow the progress of the enormous storm approaching our city. We had an Internet connection and watched live video feed from Houston tv stations. And we waited. 

Weather authorities predicted a 20-25 foot storm surge that would have brought sea water into my neighborhood  and would have completely inundated the homes of many of my friends who live closer to the bay. As it turned out, the surge reached only 11 feet, which did plenty of damage on Galveston Island and along the upper Texas coast, but spared my neighborhood.

A friend who rode the storm out at home checked our home and reported that we still had electric power. So we returned home on Sunday. I found my house intact. The debris in my yard was overwhelming, but no windows were broken and my new roof was still there. And the A/C was still on. Only a block away houses were still dark and hot. We were among the one percent of four million people who were enjoying power. As of today, twenty-five percent of our city have their power restored.

We spent the morning cleaning up our yard and those of our neighbors with the help of some hardworking friends. After lunch we drove to another neighborhood to work on five more yards. We saw boats in a marina tossed about like toys, stacked on top of each other. We saw huge trees penetrating roofs and blocking roads.

This afternoon power returned to our church building. Tonight I met with our pastors to think through ways of connecting resources and needs in our congregation. We will revise our plans daily.

I know again the experience of guilty gratitude. We faced once more the real possibility of having neither home nor community to return to when the storm passed. The aftermath was not nearly that bad, but for some hours I had to entertain that scenario. And I have to remind myself that the Gulf hurricane season continues for another six weeks.

Thanks for the prayers and concerns from friends around the country. Please remember the victims of this storm along the Texas coast and be generous in sharing in relief efforts.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Cone of Uncertainty

Other than "hunker down," I don't know of another term newscasters and meteorologist have used during the hurricane season that I appreciate more than "the cone of uncertainty." It sounds like some kind of sci-fi device with lots of wires and flashing lights that you would wear over your head while strapped to a chair with steel bands -- something designed by theological liberals to remove your fundamentalist thinking, perhaps. Basically, it is a term to describe the future. The further we attempt to look into the future, the less we are certain about. Duh. It means, "we don't really know, but we are venturing a guess."

It was just three years ago that I sat in a Lazyboy rocker at my grandmother’s farm as an evacuee, watching a San Antonio weather crew do their best to report on the approach of Hurricane Rita. I recall being both nervous and calm at the same time, if that is possible. The nervousness resulted from watching the approach of a Cat 5 storm, bearing down on I-45, heading for my neighborhood. Ironically, the calmness came from the realization that this was potentially so catastrophic that I could do absolutely nothing about it and that one way or another we would be ok.

I was born in downtown Houston and have spent all but four of my nearly fifty-six years here. Hurricane season comes around like the baseball, football, and ragweed seasons. In 1961, as a nine year old, I rode out Hurricane Carla with my parents, an aunt, and a cousin in our home six miles north of downtown. Carla made landfall on September 11 as a Category 4 storm and did $2 billion worth of damage (2005 dollars). School had just started and I was playing sandlot football down the street from my house on Friday afternoon. The discussion among my friends was about evacuation. Mike Schaeffer and his family were headed for Arkansas. I didn’t even know a storm was coming.

The family hunkered down for the blast. My dad spread some sleeping bags on the living room floor for him and me, so that my aunt and cousin could have a bed. Sam, our temperamental Siamese cat, choose my dad’s bag to use as a litter box. My dad was not a cat person. (That’s like saying Carla was a storm.) I recall Sam flying out the front door, wide-eyed, screaming, legs askew, into the elements and hearing my dad, who was not prone to profanity, say, “Damn, Sam.” Sam survived the storm, finding a better place to hunker.

In 1980 Hurricane Allen filled the Gulf, a Category 5 storm that at one time had winds of 190 mph. Galveston Island was evacuated. I drove down to the Exxon station to fill up our car in case we had to leave. Cars extended bumper-to-bumper on I-45 as far as I could see in either direction. We were living in the Heights, not far from where I had experienced Carla years before. As it turned out, Allen calmed down to a Category 3 before landfall and graciously chose to come ashore at a less populated area in south Texas.

Three years later, Hurricane Alicia, a low Category 3, visited us. We were still living in the Heights area and had two young sons. Melinda and I stayed up through the night monitoring the storm on television as long as we had power, and then on the radio. I watched through our front window as the huge pecan tree across the street bowed low and resurrected in the wind over and over, until one time it failed to rise to face the storm again. Damage was pretty severe in our neighborhood, fifty-five miles away from the coast. We rescued a baby squirrel the next morning, named him Squeaky, and sweated out a humid Houston August without power for a week following.

Now the season is here again. I watch the storms line up in the North Atlantic like Southwest Airline flights approaching Hobby and listen to Dr. Neil call the roll. We are now only twenty-nine miles from the Galveston coast and seven miles from Galveston Bay, so I pay attention during the season. We’re up to Ike, storm number nine.

Who knows where he will go? But today the center of the cone of uncertainty is pretty close to Galveston, Texas. He’s expected to be another Category 3 (Alicia or better). He’ll be in the Gulf of Mexico by 2:00 PM on Wednesday and off our coast by 2:00 PM on Friday. Unless he decides to go elsewhere. Hence the cone of uncertainty.

Monday, September 01, 2008


The sin of sloth is essentially the sin of neglect. I don’t think of sloth as primarily about laziness, as much as skewed priorities. Sloth shows up when I give myself to the less important things and allow the more important ones to slide. God designed the universe in such a way that the consequences of neglecting important things are graciously delayed. I think that is so that we have a chance to catch up and make it right.

The consequences of neglect are guaranteed nevertheless. The Law of Entropy kicks in whenever we leave the important things to themselves. Any system left to itself begins to deteriorate. Left untended our bodies, our minds, our marriages, our bank accounts, and our garages will eventually fall apart. Clutter will expand to fill the space available. Activities (valuable or not) will expand to fill our calendars. The garden will fill with weeds.

The book of Proverbs calls attention to the behavior of a character called “the sluggard,” who is sloth personified. The sluggard has his priorities so inverted that comfort and pleasure always trump discipline, work, or effort. One of the proverbial descriptions of the sluggard practically defines sloth for me:

I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins. I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw: A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest--and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (Proverbs 24:30-34)

I was reminded of this passage when I visited the farm last weekend. September 2007- May 2008 had been the driest six-month period on record in Wilson County – a mere half dozen inches of rain in half a year. The drought occurred during the very period when we had our first wheat crop in the ground. When I was there in June I mowed the three acres or so around the house with the old Murray lawn tractor, but there was not much growth to mow.

I returned in July, and attempted to mow again, but the Murray belched a cloud of white smoke and gave up the ghost. I decided against renting a mower and doing the job, consoling myself that the drought would keep the growth down for another month.

More than three inches of rain mercifully fell around Floresville over the next six weeks. And the powerful fecundity woven into the DNA of an army of weeds, grasses, and wildflowers responded in obedience to an ancient commandment. When we arrived last weekend, we stood and stared at the attempted insurrection all of nature had orchestrated in a little more than a month. I had forgotten just how wild the place really is. The area we’d worked so hard to clear last year was on the verge of a complete reoccupation by opposition forces. Renting a lawn mower to deal with this would have been futile. Grasses, ragweed, and paper leaf mulberry were growing as high as my chest.

We drove into San Antonio, pausing at the Texas Pride BBQ in Adkins for lunch. (We learned about this place on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives program.) I rented an Outback Billy Goat, a walk-behind brush cutter, to attempt to stem the tide of the revolution. I spent three hours on Friday and another three on Saturday walking through enemy territory with this weapon of grass destruction. The Billy Goat can cut through small trees of 3” diameter and leave them lying on the ground. It leaves a pretty rough cut on the grass, but it did the job. Melinda set about restoring a flowerbed area around the oak tree and the house in the back yard, which she had attempted to establish in July as well. After two days of labor, we could sit in the swing out back and enjoy the view.

On Saturday afternoon I loaded the broken lawn tractor into Willie and hauled it back to Houston for repair. As soon as Murray is feeling better, he and Willie and I will return to tend the property again.

(We stopped at my son’s house to pick up their two dogs for a few days while he and his family were out of town. The Creeches drove through Houston on Saturday night looking like the Clampitts, with three people and two dogs in the pickup, hauling a big lawn tractor in the bed.)

I thought about sloth as I walked behind the Billy Goat for hours. Neglect of important things, even when not the product of laziness, nevertheless has its consequences. Being too busy, not too lazy, is not a better reason. Lawns and fields and children and spouses and bodies and minds and spirit do not care what the cause of the neglect is. They respond the same way. They grow the stuff you do not want. But grace remains. Permanent effects are usually not immediate. It may take extra effort, but the opportunity remains open for a while to make things right. Left untended, however, the weeds will eventually win. That’s why the sin of sloth is considered one of the seven deadly ones, I suppose.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Rest of the Story

I spent the last day of my sabbatical in July 2005 doing stuff I did not plan to do. I got up early to take a friend of mine to the airport to catch her flight home to Kansas City. Turning out of a parking lot, the rear passenger side wheel of my Honda Accord struck the curb. I drove only a bit before the unmistakable feel of a flat tire got my attention. I’d never had a flat in this car.

I pulled into a parking lot near Bay Area and I-45 and went through the first flat tire ritual of locating all the parts to the jack, retrieving the mini-spare Honda provided, loosening the lug nuts on the flat, raising the car, and removing the useless, deflated tire.

When I attempted the put the spare on I discovered that the holes did not align with the studs on the car. No matter how I turned it, it just didn’t fit. Honda, I concluded, had made a mistake and provided me a spare that just didn’t match.

I called someone to take my friend to catch her flight and then I called the local Honda dealer. They quickly dispatched a tow truck. The driver got out and listened to my explanation. Then, apparently thinking I was not bright enough to align holes and studs, attempted to put the spare on anyway. “I doesn’t fit,” he concluded. “I know. That’s why I called you,” I said, without resorting to a sarcastic tone.

He took my Accord and me to the nearest dealership, where I experienced the worst customer service I have ever had at any business anywhere. No one seemed interested in helping me. They wanted to charge me $75 for the tow. They wanted over $200 to replace the tire. They didn’t have a spare to fit my car. Since they had not sold me the car they refused to take any responsibility for the spare that wouldn’t fit. I was there all morning and most of the afternoon attempting to solve the problem. With only three tires I couldn't go anywhere. Eventually they put on an old tire they had in the back, which allowed me to drive to the Goodyear dealer where I had a road hazard policy on the tire and where I would have been already had the spare fit.

I could write a lot more about that experience, but I won’t. (Actually, I did write more in a blog post a few days later, but it was written with such an angry tone that I soon removed it.) I wrote a detailed letter to the owner of the dealership and copied the president of Honda America, neither of whom replied or even acknowledged the letter. Although I had used that dealership for service on this and a previous Honda, I have not returned to them for three years. The dealership where I'd originally purchased the car eventually took responsibility for the towing charge and provided a replacement spare. Now they do my service as well.

Now for the rest of the story.

A few weeks ago, I stepped outside and noticed a tire was flat on the Honda, which my daughter now drives. I changed the tire and in the process scratched my knuckles badly on the concrete. A day or so later I was having lunch with my friend Mike and his family. He noticed my scarred fingers and inquired.
Mike: “How’d you do that?”
Me: “Changing a flat on the Honda.”
Mike: “Hope the spare fit.”
Me: (Thinking he was referring to the event above.) “It did this time.”
Mike: (puzzled) “This time? What do you mean?”
Me: (puzzled – Why would he say that when he obviously knew about the other time, having alluded to it?) “What do you mean?”

Mike then proceeded to remind me of an event that had taken place sometime prior to the July 2005 flat tire, rotten customer service experience. His son had gotten not one, but two flats on their Accord across town late one night. Mike and I drove my car over to help him. I let him use the spare from my car along with his own to get him home.

A few days later, Mike’s son had stopped by to return “my spare.” Mike told me that his son had wanted me to have an unused one, so he'd picked one up at at junk yard. Mike had always wondered if he'd gotten the correct one. I thought he'd put my spare back in the trunk. I had completely and thoroughly forgotten about this entire episode.

Consequently, the case of the non-fitting spare in July 2005 was not Honda’s fault after all (although I tell you there was no effort at taking care of a customer’s problem). They had not supplied a defective spare. They were not responsible. I had formed an opinion and an attitude on far too little information.

And I never would have known that, except for the remarkable confluence of another flat, skinned knuckles, and lunch with a friend and his family. Here’s what I wonder. Where else have I formed judgments with T.L.I. (too little information)? Where have others formed such judgments of me?

Seems to me I have no business judging much of anything. T.L. I.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Green Bus

Rod Johnson carefully explained how to ride the bus from his neighborhood to the central area of Oaxaca City, near the zocalo. We took notes. It was simple. We would catch the bus two blocks from his house. It would make one right turn onto a main road. Later it would make one left turn by the Goodyear store. Then it would go straight to the zocolo. He told us where to get off the bus and he told us how to catch the bus back to his house.

“Go to Crespo street near the big church. The bus will have an all green front and will say 'P. Jardin,' which stands for 'Panteon Jardin.' Take that bus and it will bring you right back where you started. It is the only bus that comes here. No problem. You will need to be back here by seven for dinner.”
He showed us all this on a map to be sure we understood. He gave us a cell phone to take with us in case we needed help.

Eight of us successfully rode the bus to the zocalo to meet the rest of our team for lunch. They have been staying downtown at a bed and breakfast. We got off one stop later than we planned, but that was no problem. It only added a couple of blocks to our walk to the restaurant.

After lunch the group divided up to do a variety of touristy kinds of things. Melinda, Jenna, and I were off on our own to find a cup of coffee, take in a couple of art museums, and shop a bit.

In a couple of hours, our mission was successfully accomplished, so we headed for the bus stop at about 5:45. Just as we got there a green bus pulled up. On the front it said, “Jardin.” I got on the bus and asked the driver in my fluent Spanish whether this bus were going to Jardin. He nodded and took my money. We settled down into the gray plastic seats and prepared for our journey back to the Johnson’s house.

A sign on the bus facing us gave us great assurance. Jesus is on the cross saying in Spanish: “No one loves you like I do.”

Jenna noted that she’d ridden the bus twice before and that this bus did not look like any of the other two. I assured her and Melinda that it said “Jardin” on the front and that the driver had confirmed our destination. Just to be sure, I tapped the gentleman in front of me on the shoulder and asked him in my fluent Spanish whether this bus were going to Jardin. “Si, Jardin.” I was confident that we were on our way to dinner. Melinda, not so much.

When the bus got to the main street heading back to the house, it made a right turn, just as it was supposed to. The next turn would be left, a good way down the road. But the left turn came sooner than expected. We found ourselves following a circuitous route through unfamiliar neighborhoods, but still generally moving in the right direction.

After about twenty minutes we passed a landmark I recognized from the night before when we had gone to eat at “El Gran Taco” not too far from the Johnson’s place. It was an unmistakable veterinarian’s office painted bright blue and called “El Gato Nerd” (The Cat Nerd). I was sure we were close to home. Melinda, not so much.

Soon the bus came to a stop at an intersection none of us recognized. The driver told us this was the end of the route. We got out and surveyed our surroundings. Nothing looked familiar. We were standing directly in front of a pharmacy that was closing up for the day. We spoke to the proprietor in our fluent Spanish. (We later learned she is a dentist and her husband a physician. Her name was Maribel.)

Turns out we were not in Panteon Jardin. We were in Colonia Jardin. These are two different places, both served by green buses. But we had the cell phone. We called Connie. We could not tell her exactly where we were. We put Dr. Maribel on the phone to speak with our Dr. Christy Tharenos, who speaks better Spanish than anyone else available. But still they could not communicate where we were since this was her first trip to Oaxaca.

So Dr. Maribel told us she’d take us home. We climbed the back seat of her Toyota and I sat on what must have been one of her children’s electronic games. It began to play Ode to Joy in computer tones and I could not turn it off. Accompanied by Beethoven, we made our way through dirt streets. In only a matter of minutes we passed a familiar sight – the church building where we had worshiped this morning. We knew our way from there.

I regretted my impulsive decision that put us on the wrong green bus going to the wrong Jardin. But all’s well that ends well. That’s what I think. Melinda, not so much.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

OrangeShark Responds

Got this email from my buddies at OrangeShark on Thursday:

Thanks for contacting OrangeShark support. Thanks for your patience. As per your request we have deleted your entire contact list. Those addresses will not receive any of our OrangeShark emails. We maintain our user's privacy, we will not sell or share to any other person or do business.

I will believe it later.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Oaxaca, Mexico – A chapulina is a fried grasshopper. The saying in Oaxaca is that if you eat one, you will return to Oaxaca. I have eaten at least three that I recall. I don’t recommend them, really. Even if you don’t think about what you are doing, they still don’t taste that great. And you can get the little legs stuck between your teeth. But I have eaten some, and so I have returned to Oaxaca.

This is my first journey back to Oaxaca since 2005 (see posts from May 2005). Melinda, Jenna, and fifteen others, most of whom are part of the UBC congregation, arrived on Wednesday, 6 August, as a medical mission team working with local missionaries and friends, Rod and Connie Johnson. Part of our group is staying downtown at La Casa de Mis Recuerdos B&B and the rest are staying with Rod and Connie, who are great hosts. We will conduct a total of four medical clinics, worship with Rod and Connie at their church, and enjoy the beauty of Oaxaca, its people, history, and scenery.

On Thursday, we conducted a clinic in San Andreas, a village Melinda, Jenna, and I visited in 2005. There is no evangelical witness in the village and the team of Christians bringing health care and compassion to the people of the area goes a long way toward preparing the soil for Rod and others to return to with a gospel witness. We saw about 75 patients that day. I was assigned the work of counting pills in the pharmacy, which I was able to master eventually.

Yesterday we drove only twenty-five miles, but it took us more than an hour. We made our way through winding mountain roads, with sheer drops on the side. We traveled along dirt roads pocked with deep holes. Melinda and I rode in the Ford 150 with Fernando, hauling the medical supplies. We also had plenty of time to practice our Spanish.

The village of San Pedro is located on the top of a mountain and has a population of only about 150.. They have a spring to meet their water needs, so people have lived in this location for more than 3,000 years. The ancient Catholic church in the village was built in the 1500’s by the Spanish. The Zapotec Indian village it originally served contained pyramids, temples, and tombs that have since been covered over. According to one local legend, some of Montezuma’s relatives lived at the site when the Spaniards were pursuing the Aztecs. The church building contains stones with ancient hieroglyphics still showing, stones the Spanish borrowed from Indian ruins to construct their house of worship. An American archeological team is making preparations for an excavation of the site.

No evangelical Christians are in the village of San Pedro, but they were very open to our being there. We saw perhaps a third of the population. At mid-day the women of the village served us a meal you could not buy in Houston for less than twenty dollars, I suspect. They brought out mountain trout stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and a sauce, wrapped in a leaf of hoja santa, baked in foil over coals, black beans, rice with vegetables, a squash casserole, and a cactus salad. We had blue corn tortillas for bread and horchata (rice milk) with small pieces of cantaloupe and honeydew melon floating in it.

Our meals at night have been incredible as well. Asuncion, Fernando’s wife, has been cooking for us. Last night’s dinner was pozole, a chicken soup made with hominy.

Today we have taken off for some shopping, sightseeing and errands. I seldom make a journey without some added challenge. This time it was luggage. Everyone else’s bags arrived with our plane. Mine arrived three days later. Melinda and I went with Rod to the airport to reclaim my luggage after dropping everyone else off at the market. Our rental van broke down near the airport on the way. A guy from Alamo picked us up and took us on to the airport. After we retrieved my bag we took a taxi back to Rod’s house. Meanwhile, the rest of the group enjoyed some shopping at the downtown market and a few took a taxi to see Monte Alban, the ancient Indian ruins just outside of Oaxaca.

Tomorrow we will worship and visit more in the city. On Monday we travel to another village for a clinic and then on Tuesday we will provide a clinic for a local orphanage and its neighborhood. On Wednesday we return to Houston.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware of OrangeShark!

Saturday, July 19, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 11, 2008

Meet Willie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 04, 2008

Holy Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Taste of Wilson County

Last Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, Lil’s grandchildren gathered at the farm as we have many times in the past. This particular gathering has come to be known as “The Cousins Reunion.” In the old days, when Grandad was still alive, his sons and daughters gathered at Easter, Father’s Day, and Christmas regularly. After he died in 1971, family issues that had been buried out of respect for him resurfaced and the gatherings ceased. Several years ago, after nearly all Lil’s step-children had died, one of my cousins stepped up and said, “ Whatever issues our parents had with Lil or each other, we liked the getting together. Let’s do it.” So we did. And we do.

Geography and gas prices are taking their toll. One family lives in Colorado. Another in Kansas. Most are in the San Antonio or Houston area. (There are also a couple in South Carolina and Florida who have not shown up, but we are still hoping to pull them in someday.) So this year Colorado and Kansas did not make it. And one of the Houston cousins took a fall and shattered her elbow a couple of weeks before the event. Nevertheless, about 30 folks representing at least four generations arrived in the ninety-eight degree Texas heat on Saturday.

Now that the farm is our responsibility, Debbie, Terry, Melinda and I took on the role of hosting the gathering. In the past we just showed up with our covered dish like everyone else. But we wanted to do something different this year.

So the four of us spent all day Friday traveling through Wilson County (crossing over to Atascosa and Bexar Counties briefly) visiting farmers markets and small farms to gather locally grown fresh produce for the meal.

In Pleasanton, Texas the South Texas Farmers Market Association sells produce on Fridays, so that was our first stop. There we met a friendly woman selling vegetables from the back of her pickup under a tree off one of that main highways passing through the town. That was the farmers market. We bought squash and tomatoes and got directions to the Verstuyft Farm in Von Ormy, Texas, another half hour away.

The drive to Von Ormy took us through Poteet, the Strawberry Capital of Texas. But the strawberries had come in a couple of months ago. The Verstuyft Farm was wonderful. We entered down the long drive through the fields yielding tomatoes and corn and beans and a dozen other wonders. Under the covered market area we bought onions, cream peas, corn, beets, green beans, and new potatoes. Then we headed back toward Stockdale.

After lunch in Stockdale at Mollie’s Café we drove just out of town on Hwy. 123 to Bush’s farm stand. (A sign on the wall says, “This is not H.E.B.”) We bought more tomatoes (salmonella free) and four big, juicy, sweet Stockdale watermelons. Stockdale is the Watermelon Capital of Texas and next weekend is the Watermelon Jubilee, celebrated since 1937. Just down the road was another stand selling organically produced garden fare, and we added to our squash stash.

From Stockdale we drove to La Vernia to get our Texas bred meat at Baumann’s Supermarket. Mike Baumann married my grandmother’s sister, Christine. They had a store in Floresville when I was a kid. It is closed now. I assume this is still part of the family business. When we walked in the store my sister and I both noticed the aroma. It smelled just like the Baumann’s store in Floresville had – just like most general stores in small towns. I’m not sure how to describe the fragrance – like cardboard boxes, fresh vegetables, and open freezers or something. We bought a brisket, two broilers, and some sausage made there in the store.

One more stop – Rhew’s Orchard. Frank and Ann Rhew live about four miles down the county road from our place. They grow peaches and pecans. We visited with Ann for a while. She’d been one of my grandmother’s friends. We bought a box of peaches and she threw in a small bag of some white peaches they were harvesting for the first time this year.

We spent the evening working in the yard and house getting ready for the next day’s event. The brisket cooked all night. Early Saturday morning we made a quick run into Floresville for breakfast at Olivia’s and a visit to the farmer’s market being operated in the Wal-Mart parking lot by the Local Harvest organization and a small stand in the parking lot of the donut shop. Then the kitchen went into high gear. It was as hot in there as it was outside. But it was worth it.

By the time the spread was laid out we had green beans cooked with new potatoes and onions, fried corn, corn-on-the-cob, cream peas, beets and beet greens cooked in balsamic vinegar, sliced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, a squash & onion medley, peach cobbler, pecan pie (from pecans off our own trees), brisket, rosemary garlic baked chicken, sausage, and hot rolls. Cousins arrived with their salads and more desserts. Two watermelons were iced down for later. What we ate on Saturday had been raised within about 30 miles of the farm and most of it had been connected to the soil in the past few days. It was delicious. Melinda and Debbie did a great job cooking. One of the cousins said, “Lil would have been proud.”

Our goal is one day to serve such a meal all of which has been grown within about 200 yards of the house.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Farmer or Not?

I have been to a few conferences in my time. As a university professor I used to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. That was usually interesting. Plenary sessions always had some big name scholar delivering an intellectually stimulating lecture. Break out sessions were organized around common interests: Hebrew Prophets, Pauline Literature, Synoptics, etc. Once (1985) I presented a paper at the national convention in Anaheim. It was for the Johannine Literature Section. The title was “Conflict and Christology in the EGO Sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse.” That was not even a weird title for those presentations. We stayed in really nice hotels and had a big banquet with rubber chicken and green beans for dinner.

For the past twenty-one years as a pastor the conferences have been frequent: The Church in the 21st Century Conference (2x), Southern Baptist Conventions, Annual Meetings of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the list goes on. Each of these had their own share of nice hotels and banquets serving rubber chicken and green beans for dinner.

In January, I went to a different kind of conference. Melinda and I attended a convention for people operating small sustainable farms: The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Work Group Conference in Louisville (LOO uh vull), KY. About 1000 farmers showed up. We stayed in the Galt House Hotel, walked the streets of downtown Louisville in well below freezing temperatures, ate a Hot Brown at the Brown Hotel, and attended three solid days of breakout conferences followed by a closing plenary session on Saturday evening.

I was surprised by the diversity of the people attending: people in their 20s and those in their 70s; about an equal number of men and women; a good mix of both black and white farmers. Some had on overalls and some wore Dockers and sweaters. (This prompted me to teach Melinda to play “Farmer or Not?,” a version of “Preacher or Not?” that Rick Carpenter and I used to play while attending Baptist conventions.) One of the unusual participants was a 20-something young man from Amber, Oklahoma who is part time on staff of a Methodist church and who has his own farm operation that is part of an organic co-op in Oklahoma City. He was interested in church planting and reads Donald Miller.

Breakout sessions were often simply people telling their stories. They showed PowerPoint slide shows of their farms and talked about what they’d learned, what had worked and what had not. They talked about marketing and economics and about dealing with weeds and insects. I heard a university professor from Alabama talk about building devices to harvest rainwater and another take me back into college chemistry discussing soil analysis. All this, not just the chemistry, raised the question for me as to whether I’m smart enough to be a farmer. These people were impressive.

One evening participants from each state were encouraged to gather and the eight or nine of us from Texas became acquainted. We met a couple running an organic farming operation for inner city kids in Lubbock and a good ole boy who works for A&M’s county extension service (now known as Texas AgriLIFE Extension).

The meeting contained two big highlights for me. On Thursday evening we joined about 500 other early arrivals in a hotel ballroom to hear Wendell Berry (photo above). He has long been one of my favorite writers and has been on my list of people I’d like to meet someday. Mr. Berry is 74. He is a poet and a novelist. He is an essayist and philosopher. And he is a farmer in Kentucky. And a Christian. His philosophy is sometimes called agrarianism. He stood up and announced that since he’d already heard about everything he has to say, the thought he’d read a poem and then we’d just talk. So he read a beautiful poem about hope and then talked with the crowd for the next hour and a half. Then he sat out in the foyer and signed books for another hour. What generosity!

The second highlight was the closing banquet, the Taste of Kentucky Dinner. It was unlike any conference dinner I have ever had. No rubber chicken. No canned green beans. Everything was produced locally and was seasonal (and this was for 1000 people in January in Kentucky). Rather than a menu on the table, there was a list of the foods and the names of the growers who produced them. The meal was delicious, exceeding expectations. At the end of the meal the hotel chef and all who assisted him and those who served the dinner were brought out and applauded. Then those in the crowd who grew any of the food we ate were recognized and applauded. It was a great reminder that food does not really come from Krogers.

Melinda and I sat at a table with six people from Ohio. One couple raised grass-fed buffalo. The other two couples were German Baptist Brethren. The men wore plaid shirts and jeans and shaved only their moustache. The women wore long calico dresses and small bonnets. They smiled a lot. They had a lot of children. And they farmed organically.

The speaker for the evening was Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virgnia. Joel is a guy about my age. He is an inventive farmer, a shrewd business man, and a politically informed thinker. He has published several books, has recently testified before Congress, and contributes regularly to Acres Magazine, to which I subscribe. He calls himself a “Christian-libertarian-lunatic farmer.” He is also an entertaining speaker. His topic was “Healing America One Plate at a Time.” He spoke like an evangelist and several suggested he run for President.

The week in Louisville impressed upon me the reality that we are all dependent on the soil. We are made from the dust of the ground and we will return to it (Genesis 2:7; 3:19 ). Meanwhile every ounce of nutrition we receive, every meal we enjoy, has its origins in the soil (and that includes seafood). We are literally earthy creatures. That truth is easy to forget in the middle of our concrete existence.

I was also reminded of the way that, despite our dependence on them, we have made rural people out to be “hicks.” These people were anything but hicks. They were bright, clever, educated, hardworking, committed, and principled people. They ought to be deeply respected for who they are and what they do.

Next year SSAWG meets in Chattanooga, TN. Never been there. Hope to go.