Friday, December 26, 2008


It never seems quite like Christmas unless I see “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 James Stewart Americana classic, at least once. Though I first saw it over two decades ago, I’m still caught off guard by the power of the closing scene, the classic image of someone awakening to the life that had been happening to them while they were making other plans.

George Bailey had lived virtually his entire adult life wishing he’d found a way of getting out of Bedford Falls. He just knew he’d lost out on the life that could have been, the life to which he felt entitled. Instead, he’d been stuck in his Podunk hometown, taking care of the Building and Loan he inherited, while his younger brother, Harry, went out and saw the world, making a big name for himself at the same time. All along, while he thought life was happening somewhere else, George was busy taking care of the poor and disadvantaged, making more friends than money. In the end, he realized that a man with friends is truly the richest man in town.

The movie came on the other night, just about the time of the closing scene. So did the tears, but, this time, for a different reason. For perhaps the first time ever the movie had the impact its original author may have intended six decades ago.

As I watched all of George’s friends come to him at the time of his greatest need, I realized that the approaching New Year brings to a close my own “wonderful life” moment. A moment that stretches all the way back to July 7, 2007, when Nancy rushed me to the emergency room and I nearly died from a liver infection. A moment that stretched, like a bad dream that wouldn’t end, over the next 18 months. At the same time as Nancy walked with me through a long, hard recovery, we also suffered the loss of our church home of ten years. It was truly a bad dream from which, in many ways, I feel that I’m just now awakening.

This year, perhaps more than ever in my life, I’ve grown to realize how I must be one of the richest people in the world. In our time of greatest need, Nancy and I discovered like never before what it means to have friends. Friends who will come from hundreds of miles just to stand by you. Friends who stand faithfully by, even while you are not, literally, conscious enough to know of their presence. Friends who call and write and come by unannounced bearing gifts of food and wine. Friends who will listen to your story again and again, not because they haven’t already memorized its every detail but because they know how badly you need to tell it. How do you measure the value of friends like that?

Yesterday, I felt little two-year-old Adeline’s fingers grasp my left index finger as we said grace over the Christmas feast of glazed ham, medium-rare beef tenderloin, sweet potato casserole, black olives and home-pickled okra, broccoli and rice, hot rolls and iced tea, all spread out before us. It was nothing less than a parable of the sea of blessing this year has brought. I felt like a Pilgrim, without the hat.

Last night, as we said goodbye to family in the driveway, I looked up into the sky. Venus burned like a laser through the South Texas night sky, its ancient stones from the beginning of time reflecting the white light of tomorrow morning’s sun. The light that has come unbidden into my world, along with the blessing of being able to see it.

As this morning dawned, the day after Christmas, I took out the trash. No need in holding onto yesterday’s rubbish. Time to kick it to the curb and move on. New gifts wait to be given, and received. I turned back toward the house and looked up. Wispy-gray clouds of the new morning were sailing by in the warm breeze, carried by winds they neither created nor controlled. I felt something warm inside, too. What was that? What is it a new day dawning, a new light coming into the world, into my heart?

The deer came for the morning corn, just outside our bedroom window, too many to count. Sam and Beau pressed their rubber-black noses to the cold glass, wondering who these new friends might be in their world. Yellow-bellied Finches were feeding just above the deer’s heads, feasting on the seeds we gave them just for the privilege of watching them eat.

As these miracles of nature paraded in front of me, mocking all the times I’ve worried about how I’d pay the bills, I wondered how it was that I could have ended up in this house, in this place, on this day. Just one year ago I fretted myself sleepless as the long winter days stretched out unendingly in front of us, wondering where we’d land when all the dust settled.

Now, aside from Venus, Sam and Beau, the deer, the birds of the air, the little-girl-two-year-old fingers wrapped around mine and four generations of one family sitting around the same table filled to overflow, we have a new, first-generation church family to serve and to love. Nancy has a new, invigorating job, something to stretch her personally and professionally. I have Nancy and she has me. The boys are coming in just two days. I have them all to myself, for a whole week! All of that, not to mention the friends we have, from coast to coast. People who don’t measure us in terms of anything but the inestimable value of the laughter and tears we’ve shared together, and know we’ll share again.

Will I have all of this one year from now? Who knows? What I do know is what and who I have in this moment, right now. Is this me, standing in my world, with more blessings than I can count? Is God determined to love me, to bless me, no matter what?

Life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans, or while we’re regretting a past we can’t change or fretting a future we can’t control. Life-giving gratitude replaces soul-killing fear in the moment we stop to see the smiles in the faces of those who are genuinely glad to see us when we show up, those willing to hold our hands and share the feast. People God gave us, in this moment, just to be our friends. Nancy and I turned to each other last night just before we slipped off for a night’s rest. We said thanks to Eternal God, ever-present. Then, to each other, we said, “We are blessed.”

Friday, December 12, 2008


That’s virtually all I know about my maternal grandfather, his nickname, Red. His given name was Harold Eugene Lockwood. I’m guessing that he got the nickname from the color of his hair, although I’ve only ever seen two pictures of him and they were both in black and white, from sometime just before World War II. In one, he’s wearing his oil field khaki shirt and pants and he’s fairly unkempt.

Freeze-framed, he’s standing all alone in some long forgotten oil field where he made his living. The squint in his eyes speaks of a sunny, probably blistering hot and muggy, Gulf Coast summer day. When I let my eyebrows grow unchecked for not too long, they are bushy and slightly reddish, just like I’m told Red’s were. Even though I never met him, there is solid physical and even emotional evidence in my life that the man did exist.

When I was a little boy, my dad took me with him from time to time to the oil fields of his career so often that I can almost smell the picture where Red made his living, too. Now and then, when I pump gas into my car, I literally smell my family history.

Red died of an intestinal blockage after a botched appendectomy when my mother was only eight or nine, the same malady that later claimed my mother’s life when she was only 54. Her dad, Red, is buried in Jennings, Louisiana, in a family plot. The sadness of his premature death cast a dark shadow over my mother’s life, some of which she passed along to my siblings and me. All of which has made me more sensitive to the fact that it’s not just the lives of those who went before us that made our lives what they are. Their deaths, too, though unknown to our personal experience, also shaped our character in ways we cannot ever know.

Three of the gospel writers, Mark, Luke and John, tell of us Jesus’ birth only in the starkest, minimalist kind of ways. I like John’s best, “the word became flesh” version. It’s mystical and even mysterious, the way I know God best, more in terms of questions that demand faith than in terms of absolute answers that require nothing but the presumption of human intelligence. It’s Matthew alone who goes into great detail about Jesus’ family tree. It’s pretty boring reading, unless a person looks deeper at what Matthew is giving us other than
a list of names we’ll never pronounce correctly.

Matthew is telling us about where Jesus came from in the physical, biological sense. He’s telling us that, though Jesus may have been born of a virgin, he wasn’t born in a biological vacuum. Jesus had roots in the same human family we do. Which is at least part of the point Matthew must have been trying to make. In Jesus, Eternal God grafted himself into the human family tree, the very fallen one he created, so that he might graft his eternal life into ours. Go figure!

All of which means that, somewhere back in our human lineage, our genes make connection with Jesus’. The blood Jesus shed on the cross was red, just like ours. Matthew’s not just giving us a list of weird names to pole vault on the way to the exciting stuff that happened in a manger. Matthew is telling us that we have a human family history, even with God.

It’s really sad that some of us know more about the donkey Mary rode into Bethlehem than we know of the history she was carrying in her womb. We weren’t born in a vacuum. Just like his birth, Jesus’ suffering on the darkest levels of human existence and his very excruciating human death played one of the most profoundly formative roles in the shaping of our lives even before they began, whether we believe it or accept it or not.

Here’s a mystery worth exploring. We all have a history with God! The only question is whether we’ll take the time to know it and the possibilities that our history with God opens for our eternal futures. Christmas is one of the best chances we have each year to rethink the mystery of our very human family tree, and the color red in it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Truth, In Blue Eyes

If you were to ask me why I love my wife, Nancy, as much as I do there are many answers I could give. I love her eyes. Gentle, ocean blue that invite you in. They see right through you like lasers and love you all the way through at the same time. I can’t count the times her eyes changed my view of the world, of myself and of my place in this world, all at the same time.

I love her laugh. She has more than one. I love them all. I love the one that comes from deep within, especially when we’ve both seen something that makes us both laugh in sync.

I love her body. OK, this is getting personal. But, my wife’s body is a daily reminder that God finds joy in giving us good pleasure. The first time I saw her she was walking away from me and I’ve been in love ever since. What a body! Interesting how age has only made it better. How someone looks to you has everything to do with how you feel about them. I’ve known people that, on face value, would be measured pure ugly, until they smiled or opened their mouth. The smile melted the ugly and, like hot wax in a potter’s hand, reshaping their figure into the most fetching, intriguing physique.

It happens the other way, too. I know people who, on the outside, are reasonably if not spectacularly beautifully, like Sports-Illustrated- SwimSuit edition beautiful, until they open their mouths and expose their inner character.

My wife is beautiful, because of what I see and what only my heart sees – and hears. Tonight she told me the truth about something I was doing wrong. She nailed me about how I was spending too much time worrying about lost opportunities of the past instead of giving myself away to the opportunities that were lying at my very feet. Dang! I got angry and defensive. She didn’t give an inch. She kept pressing the issue.

Down inside, I knew she was right, long before I admitted it. But, she didn’t give up and what little integrity I have when I’m stripped down to my bones was begging for relief. About four hours later, I told her that she was right. I told her again how much I love her. Because she tells me the truth.

I went on to say that, because she tells me the truth when I’m wrong, it makes it possible for me to believe her when she says she loves me, too, or, that I preached a great sermon, or wrote a great piece, or, that she loves me just because, go and freaking figure, just because. Go figure!

All I know is, when I’m with my wife, in a crowd or all alone under the sheets, I’m with truth in the flesh. Truth, in blue eyes. I can live with that – for the rest of my life and then some!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mashed Potatoes

Cameron called from L.A. this past Saturday afternoon asking for my recipe for mashed potatoes. He wanted to make dinner for his girlfriend. It never occurred to me in all the years I thought I was just making dinner that someone was paying attention. Maybe that’s the way parenting happens.

We think we’re just doing the laundry, or paying the bills, or mowing the lawn, or arguing with our wife (or husband, as it may be), or complaining about how things went at the office when we think the kids can’t hear, or, if we are fortunate, reading the Bible and saying our prayers at day’s end no matter how crappy the day. All the while, we’re showing the best students we’ll ever have the recipes for managing life, taking care of business, maneuvering the mundane, dealing with success and failure as well as the give-and-take disappointments of daily life, not to mention how to handle conflict and respond to impossible people.

Most often, our kids just go on down the road, concocting the family recipes for all of the above from blind memory. It’s not until they get married and start having their own children that we begin to recognize the recipes on the plates they set before us at family gatherings. Only rarely do they ever call, from 2,000 miles and two time zones away, to ask us the exact recipe.

Of course, part of me is honored. I make dang good mashed potatoes if I say so. The trick, aside from proper proportions of salt, pepper and butter and from not cooking the potatoes too long so that they become mush instead of mash, is found in warming the butter before the mashing starts. Putting cold butter on hot potatoes cools them off too much before you serve them. Salt and butter to taste all you want, just don’t serve mashed potatoes cold. Hot mashed anything tastes better than cold potatoes. (I won’t even mention the unpardonable sin of instant potatoes.)

What honors me, humbles and scares me all at the same time is in knowing that, deep in his soul, Cameron has other recipes. Most of those he’ll make from memory, without even thinking, much less calling for directions.

That’s where faith comes in. Train up a child in the way he should go . . . we are promised (Proverbs 22:6), and in the long run, the recipe will pay off. I trust that word. That, though some of my life is a recipe for disaster, there was a bigger part of it that had something to do with calling on Jesus when I didn’t know how to handle the mix of ingredients life handed me. Cameron saw me pray, heard me pray, even heard me cry as I prayed and saw me cry, too, when the music touched me deep in my soul and heard and saw me laugh at life’s stupidities. He also saw me sing in church, stay awake during the sermon and even heard me brag when George Mason knocked one out of the park, which he did virtually every single time I heard him preach. How in the heck does he do that? What’s the recipe?

Anyway, Cam called. He wanted to make dinner in his cramped apartment for the girl that is the center of his world right now. I guess you could say that I was the unseen guest at the table. Isn’t the One who knows the best recipes always the uninvited guest, no matter what the recipe?

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Occasionally, someone responds to my blog on the blog site itself. Most of the responses I get come to my email address from people who want to say something but don’t want it for public consumption with their name on it.

Here are some of the responses I’ve already gotten to “Crunch Time,” yesterday’s blog. They are anonymous, of course. But, I hope they reach even deeper into someone’s heart.
One minister writes: "As I’ve thought about your experience over the months, I have been reminded of the many times when I did not receive the respect or authority that I thought I deserved. Sometimes I suffered “quietly,” and other times I spoke my “mind.” Sometimes I wouldn’t/couldn’t forgive myself for what I said or did. Other times I couldn’t/wouldn’t forgive others for their injustice or pain inflicted on me. I still bear the wounds and scars from some experiences, even some from my years (serving as a minister). I ask my self occasionally, what value is there in holding on to these memories? What need does “rehashing” the memories meet in me? I have been ordained 50yrs, and I still wrestle with some of my dragons. But God is gracious, and slowly with the help of my therapist and others, the healing continues. Whatever growth or healing has come, it has come with the help of others."

A man who rarely ever attends church anymore, a very sincere and gentle soul writes: “I’m writing you with tears running down my face as your words from “Crunch Time” are seared in my heart. I’m just beginning to realize the depth of pain and hurt that you have experienced recently and it hurts me too. I know what you mean…it’s so bewildering at times how hateful, how cruel and how un-Godly some of God’s people can be. What’s that all about? Those confrontations and conversations that keep coming back to haunt us are so dangerous. With God’s grace they will fade away soon, and replacing those thoughts with “anything worthy of praise” will bring us God’s peace. You said it all in your writing… “Blessings for me to enjoy over and over, every time I choose to think of them”. Yes, it’s our choice. And don’t you know God smiles with love every time we make the right choice?”

Just thought some of you might find encouragement in their words. I know they touched me deeply. In my experience, the institutional church has done as much to wound as it has done to heal. By the grace of God, I will to be a part of a healing community.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Crunch Time

A week ago Sunday, November 23, I preached from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things . . . and the God of peace shall be with you (4:8-9). Suddenly, even as I was preaching, Jesus and I started having our own private moment. I heard myself talking. What was going on inside of my head was so much louder.

The apostle Paul was in prison when he wrote those words. He was facing imminent death. He was facing all of that specifically because he’d been faithful to what he believed to be the call of God on his life. I thought I was being faithful, too, when I served Cliff Temple. What some of those people did and said to me is, in my opinion, simply unconscionable, not to mention un-Christian. Their words still haunt me. Oddly enough, I think some of them would take pleasure in knowing that their words still cause me misery.

Now and then, those words come back to mind. I find myself going back over the conversations word for word, arguing in my mind with these people, telling them off, saying the things I wish I’d thought to say then. As though, even if I could out-argue them, it would have changed them or the outcome!

The other day I was walking my dogs when we came upon a twelve-point buck. He was a phenomenal animal, beautiful, excellent in every way, just pure beauty on the hoof. Just thinking about him brings a smile to my face. The next morning, Nancy called across the house to tell me that we had deer in our new backyard, some twenty, all told. I went outside to put out some corn. It’s been a long hard drought for these animals; they’re starving.

One of the deer, a spectacularly beautiful Axis doe, came right up to me and ate the corn out of my hand, even let me pet her on the smooth of her neck. I could hear the crunch of the corn in her mouth. I stood there transfixed.

Crunch time, even as the deer slobber wet my open palm, was also when the words of scripture came back to me. “Whatsoever things are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely . . . if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” The man who first wrote those words had a choice. In his deplorable state, he could have had those mental arguments all over again with those who had treated him so unjustly. Or, he could think the good thoughts. The only real power he had was to choose his thoughts. The only thing that hung in the balance was his peace of mind, if not his sanity.

Walking along with my dogs, just after we passed the buck, when I started having that same old argument that I’ll never win in my head, I looked up. Across the way, the leaves were exploding in reds and yellows and oranges, all framed in the beauty of the low-hanging gray fall sky. Then, even as the deer crunched the corn from my hand, I thought of all the blessings that are mine from the hand of the Father. Blessings he’d given me when it was crunch time. Blessings for me to enjoy over and over, every time I choose to think of them, instead of the little, petty, painful thoughts that others would choose for me.

It worked. With each passing moment, as I think the pure thoughts, there is less time to think the painful ones. Less room in my brain or in my memory for the sewage others flushed onto me, for reasons that are their own. With each passing moment, as I think the pure thoughts, well, the God of peace comes to abide with me, and heal my mind and my heart.

Just thought I’d share this with you, in case it’s crunch time in your life, too. Look around at all the excellence and purity and beauty God has put in your world. Let me know if it makes the same difference for you it did for me.