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.