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Father’s Day post: Building something that will last

June 22, 2020

I neglected yesterday to post the story of the Bus House, which is my annual Father’s Day tribute to my Dad. Here it is. (This first appeared here in 2012. I hope you enjoy it.  By the way, I still have that Charlie Brown lunchbox.)

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From our big picture window, the skinny white building at the end of the gravel road looked like a sentinel, standing at attention against the backdrop of a cold, gray Texas sky.

Bundled in my winter gear – the ski mask reminded me of Dr. X, one of the bad guys from the “Championship Wrestling” show on Friday night – I trudged the quarter-mile route carrying my metal, Charlie Brown lunchbox and perhaps a few worries over what the new school day would bring.

The path ended at the cattle guard, which lay between two handsome red brick pillars. Just this side of the last barrier between our farm and the road to town stood what we all called simply “the bus house.”

In my early school days, the closet-sized structure was built with precision by my carpenter father and seemingly popped up one morning next to the hay field. This was a curiosity for many in our area, who scratched their heads at the sight. It seems that some folks found the bus house an object of derision. Words escaped others, who only could behold it in what might be called silent reverence.

For me, this was a place of warm security where a young boy harbored dreams of places more exciting that Coleman Park Road and a world beyond the borders of Iowa Park, Texas.

The warmth was provided by a space heater plugged into an outlet in the corner of the tile floor. On subfreezing days, Dad stopped there before daylight to switch it on as he drove away to his civil service job at Sheppard Air Force Base.

By the time I stepped inside an hour later, the temperature was toasty. Just right for relaxing while waiting for the bus. Some days I almost fell to sleep. The furnishing was purely practical: a simple built-in bench. My radio had a place of prominence on the bench, along with a well-worn pencil.

I can’t remember ever sitting there without a pencil in my hand. By the time I had grown big enough to drive to school or catch a ride from friends, the inside walls were covered from ceiling to floor with sketches: Everything from tic tack toe boards to angry-faced soldiers blasting machine guns to muscled-up super heroes.

On the outside, I suppose it must have been rather comedic, like some kind of super-luxury outhouse. It was perhaps 6-feet-tall, had a shingled roof and a perfectly designed front door with a glass window to be certain I could see the bus coming. Dad, wearing his trademark overalls and straw cowboy hat, had applied two or three good coats of white paint.

Every school morning, big yellow Bus No. 2 would pull up slowly between the pillars, cross over the black, iron cattle guard and stop just in front of my door. Up and down the row of windows, widening eyes would examine the bus house, my sanctuary, and make their private judgments. Then the door would pop open, and I would appear, only having to make a few steps before climbing on board. Occasionally, there was a sneer. But most seemed to admire my little home-not-very-far-away-from home. Wild stories began to circulate about what type of fancy decor might be inside. A few wanted to know: Did I live in there?

Over the years, reaction to the unusual building generally divided my peers into two groups: One side was impressed that I had somehow gained such elaborate accommodations. Others were jealous, and I can’t really say I blame them. I did not have the sense to fully appreciate the love that my father’s work represented. I look back now and see that I probably behaved as if I somehow deserved my very own bus house. How maddening! As if I had more of a right to be warm than anyone else!

Or perhaps to my friends and neighbors, my beloved bus house looked like a guard house – a barrier between us and them — positioned strategically across the cattle guard, ready at any time to spit out a sentry who would challenge potential trespassers with a “Halt! Who goes there!?”

Such ideas never crossed my mind at the time.

It was only later that I learned hatred for the bus house had apparently boiled over one dark night. Or maybe it was just a prank. At any rate, someone snuck onto the farm and covered the outer walls with obscenities. I have always imagined that the secret artist was laughing while doing his dirty deed, thinking of the shocked faces of the children along the windows in Bus No. 2 or the startled driver, mouth agape.

If that was the intent, the plan was thwarted. The perpetrator never got to admire his handiwork in the light of day. I only learned later what happened.

I had been sleeping when my mother returned from the night classes she was taking in Wichita Falls. The headlights of her Buick crossing the cattle guard spotlighted the horrific scene: My special place covered with words that good Baptist boys only whispered and wouldn’t even write on their book covers. At least not with bold letters.

Never a man of many words, my father was spurred to quiet action, a trait I would recognize in him many other times in the years to come. He walked to his shop, found a can of Latex and a brush, and spent the night repainting the bus house – restoring it to its original, sinless hue. When the sun rose the next morning, the work of the night marauder(s) was nowhere to be seen. The bus came and went like it always did, and I was spared much embarrassment.

The bus house could serve other roles on the weekend, such as a fort or a hiding place in hide and go-seek. Later, I came to realize that it served practical purposes that went beyond my narrow elementary school world. “Just turn at the little white house” elicited knowing nods from those seeking their way to my parents’ domino parties or to buy bales of hay from Dad.

But eventually and inevitably, the bus house became troublesome for me. Entering my teen years, I shot up in height and had to stoop ever farther to enter and exit the door. Like a child who begins to shun the suddenly claustrophobic attention of parents, I was making my break from the bus house. When it was dragged off its concrete blocks and carried off to a spot behind the barn for the last time, I was well past wanting any association with it.

Today, the brick pillars are weathered and chipped, and they no longer appear noble. Tall grass obscures the spot where the bus house assumed its post on the way to our home. Even the old farm house is wasting away, racked by age and overseen by caretakers who admittedly lack my father’s skill and loving maintenance.

But, when I lay awake at night and think of these things, I begin to realize that Dad’s quiet, determined work has stood the test of time.

 

 

A time for monumental change

June 17, 2020

“As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.” – Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.

 

I am a Son of the South, steeped in Lost Cause mythology.

 

When William Faulkner wrote in his 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust that there is a point, at age 14, when every Southern boy imagines himself at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, with Pickett, about to make that charge … with the outcome hanging in the balance … well, that was me.

 

I’ve read books on every major battle and biographies of every Confederate leader, including Douglas Southall Freeman’s four volume R.E. Lee.

 

I’ve visited Monument Avenue in Richmond, the Confederate White House, Appomattox, and the Vicksburg and Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields, among others. I’ve stood next to Stonewall Jackson’s deathbed.

 

If the allegiances formed during childhood were wholly one-sided, my family history is more complex. My great-great-grandfather was a slaveholder. Another more prominent ancestor served as a Confederate congressman and in Wheeler’s cavalry. These are all on my father’s side. My mother’s side of the family came from East Tennessee, where Union sympathies were in opposition to the landed Southern gentry. My Fox ancestors supported the Union.

 

My uncle Acie remembered as a boy sitting quietly and listening to the old Civil War veterans reminiscing at a neighboring home. He told me he only wished he had listened more intently and remembered the things they said. Me, too.

 

As I grew older, I considered joining the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But I also became interested in civil rights, largely, I believe, because of the influence of my mother’s teaching and her Christian faith. And I began to read and hear other voices: The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the writings of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. touched my soul. So did my relationships with people who were not like me and had different experiences and backgrounds –  those, for example, who did not grow up in all-white town where “Dixie” was the high school fight song.

 

Perhaps I was only becoming more aware of my divided self – that like my family tree and the history of our country, there is a battle for the soul, and for a meaning that unites and endures. And like the chant being heard in protests now around the country, without justice, there is no peace. I don’t know if there was a particular moment when I changed, but there is a symbolic one – some years ago, when I took down a large battlefield painting of Gen. Lee from my home office, boxed it up and put it in storage, determined never to display it again.

 

Five years ago, I attended my first Black Lives Matter march. I wrote about it here. This summer, I have been to two more marches in the North Texas town where I now live. But I have been wondering, considering where we were as a society five years ago and where we are today, is anybody listening?

 

The most recent event I attended was the smallest, maybe 50 people or so, mostly African-American and organized by the local NAACP. The main speaker told a heartrending story: the lynching of her brother in another Texas city – in 1977. Others spoke of the need for more African-American police officers and for a movement for equality in our city, which largely remains segregated, separated by a railroad track dividing black and white.

 

One of the comments I have not been able to put out of my mind was a heartfelt request for the city to pave main thoroughfares on the east side of our community like they are in white areas. In 2020, in my North Texas city, legally sanctioned racism no longer remains, but justice is still denied to many of our citizens.

 

One other thing came up during this rally. Standing in the shadow of our historic courthouse, a few feet from a towering 1912 monument of a Confederate soldier, some said it was time for the statue to come down.

 

Out of all that was said that day, this may have been the only thing that many in our white community heard.

 

Today, I learned of a petition on change.org with close to 3,000 signatures of people who want to “save the monument,” saying it is part of “healing the wounds of the Civil War.” Some of the comments are outright racist, but most simply say that to remove the statue would be to obliterate history.

 

I would have been sympathetic with that point of view at one time in my life. No more. But if we are about saving history, we should at least know what history is being saved.

 

Like many other statues that glorify the Confederacy, this one was erected long after the war. It was placed in the center of town by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It stands to glorify slave-owning society and as a symbol to guard against African-Americans seeking too much freedom. Most all of these Confederate memorial statues were placed during the Jim Crow era and at the height of lynchings across Texas.

 

The history this soldier represents is found in the context of the times: Just a few years before, Isaac Bruce was confined just a block or two away in the basement of the jail after narrowly avoiding being lynched in nearby Hill County, where he was accused of raping a white girl. Evidence showed that Bruce did not commit the crime and that he was wrongly convicted. The governor acted as Bruce awaited his hanging in Hillsboro – but only to commute his sentence to life in prison instead of death. He was later pardoned and returned home to Waxahachie. Bruce’s life was in danger as long as he was held by authorities. Lynching was an accepted practice at the time, with at least 468 people lynched in Texas between 1885 and 1942.

 

Four years after the local Confederate monument was placed, and 70 miles to the south in Waco, 17-year-old farmhand Jesse Washington was dragged from the courthouse after being convicted in the rape and murder of the wife of his white employer. He was paraded through the streets while being stabbed and beaten, before being castrated. He was lynched in front of Waco’s city hall in front of 10,000 people, including city officials and police.

 

A 1929 editorial in my local newspaper– 17 years after the erection of the monument – lauds a lynching in Eastland County a day earlier. It defends the practice of lynching, saying that “Northern writers who hate the South likely will rise and give vitriolic denunciation to the lynching of Marshall Ratliff yesterday. They will froth at the mouth and score, censure, excoriate and pound out diatribes against us for taking the law in our own hands.”

 

When someone’s family is concerned, the newspaper said, “he cares not whether a lynching be anarchy or not. When one’s daughter or womanfolks are victims of a fiendish black or licentious white, he is afraid to risk the courts – he wants SPEEDY JUSTICE, right now, pronto!”

 

Confederate monuments, along with thousands of pages of Lost Cause mythology written after the Civil War, are not history but propaganda meant to justify white supremacy and falsely attribute noble causes to the rebellion. There is no one alive today who is mourning the loss of a Confederate ancestor. If there were mourning, it should be for the shameful cause that brought the South to arms – keeping black people in chains. These monuments were erected later to keep those chains on tight.

 

I’m not “PC.” I love history. I don’t want to ban movies or books. But if we want to “save history,” we should know what history we are saving. Confederate monuments are more a reflection of the times when they were erected than of the soldiers they allege to memorialize. And their presence in prominent public spaces has stood guard over injustice for generations. Put them in a museum with accurate historical interpretation.

 

For years, I have attended our community’s Fourth of July Parade. One year I began to look around and note the lack of black faces, even though our city has a significant African-American population.

I wonder if that is due to our celebrating, and lamenting, different histories.

 

Our souls are divided, and now the soul of the nation is at stake.

 

Generations of white Southerners like me have been heavily influenced by a romance for the War Between the States that has blinded us to suffering and injustice. Now is the time to listen to voices that have long been suppressed and to seek a unity with meaning that can bind all Americans.

 

Hire black police officers.

 

Reform police practices.

 

Seek equity for all.

 

Pave the roads.

 

Do something.

 

Our largest and loudest response as a community to the pain of black people and the message of the Black Lives Matter movement cannot be to protect our Confederate idols at all costs.

 

The monument needs to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank God for magnolias

May 6, 2020

I’ve started to venture out a little more.

 

Not a lot more, though.

 

As much as anyone else, I have “corona fatigue.” So I slip out sometimes, wearing a mask and avoiding anyplace where large groups might be congregating. I feel compelled to spend time looking for something that might bring a little joy to these days that all run together.

 

My favorite coffee shop is open only for pickup, but they have some picnic tables out front, spaced far apart from one another. So I have begun to grab a coffee and sit out at a table – usually there is no one else within 20 feet. Directly in front of my spot is a beautiful magnolia tree, one of a line of them alongside the parking lot.

 

Honestly, I might not have noticed it except for the flowers. They always get my attention. I love seeing magnolia trees bloomed out, for as long as it lasts. For some time now, I have tended to gawk at and take photos of the first magnolia blossoms of the season.

 

In the arid part of North Texas where I grew up, there were not a lot of magnolia trees, that I recall. There were no magnolias in our yard or on our farm. There were thousands of mesquites, with which my Dad did constant battle.

 

My earliest memory of taking note of a magnolia was at my Uncle Acie’s house near Sulphur, Okla. He had a big tree, a thing of awesome beauty to me that overlooked his garden.

 

In the early 1990s, my wife and I went on a Civil War-related driving tour to Virginia. The magnolias I saw there, towering over the highways, made my uncle’s tree look like a houseplant. I didn’t know they made ‘em that big! But the best memory from that time is the wafting sweet smell of the magnolia flower. We toured a plantation home in which the caretakers had placed freshly cut magnolias blossoms throughout the house. It was intoxicating.

 

We have a miniature magnolia tree in one of our front flowerbeds. The other day, my wife cut a flower and placed in on the island in our kitchen.

 

When my favorite time of year comes around – the warm weather months – I instinctively begin looking for the magnolia blooms.

 

I do not have a green thumb. I know very little about plants and trees – except that I enjoy them.

 

I don’t know why I love the magnolia so much.

There is something about the beauty and intricacy of that flower, dressed like a new bride.

 

Perhaps it reminds of me of former times that were special and seemed simpler.

 

Perhaps it is part of a connection to my Southern ancestral ties, like sweet tea and barbecue. You cannot get good barbecue just anywhere, and you won’t find magnolias everywhere either!

 

Maybe it makes me picture my Uncle Acie wandering through his vastly oversized garden under that tree, vowing that “next year, NEXT YEAR, I’ll do more fishing and less gardening!”

 

Perhaps it is having to wait for the blooms to appear, wondering if it will ever happen. Then, you wake up one morning, and they have exploded. Maybe, in this time of seemingly endless watching and waiting, the magnolia flower is a reminder that God, in God’s own time, is doing something new. And it is beautiful.

 

Theologians such as John Calvin held that there were many witnesses to God, including the creation. The biblical writers looked at the life of trees and wrote of faithfulness. One of my favorite passages is Psalm 1:1-3, which says that those who meditate and take joy in the Law of the Lord “are like a tree planted by streams of water.”

 

There are plenty of other trees that could symbolize faith, or the beauty and creativity of God – the tall pine or the sturdy oak, for example.

 

I turn to the magnolia.

 

I need a little joy these days.

 

I could use a little hopefulness.

 

Thank God, the blooms are out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confessions, unanswered questions, and a prayer

May 4, 2020

Sherry would come by the church office once or twice a week, sometimes on a beat-up bike, sometimes on foot.

 

For a long time, she would never come inside. She knocked on the door – the knock was distinctive and we always knew it was her – and then she would quickly retreat to the side of the building and wait until I came out to see her.

 

She usually asked for a few dollars and a prayer.

 

I always struggled with how best to help Sherry. I would try to explain to her that I could not give her much money because we had other people to help. But she always asked, anyway. Once we started offering food in our “Little Pantry” across the street, Sherry would come along and clean it out.

 

Sherry wasn’t homeless but was among a number of people who lived right on the margin, and who visited the church office regularly. We knew she had health needs and tried to connect her with agencies that might be able to provide care.

 

 

Over time, largely due to the compassion of my administrative assistant, Sherry began to trust us more. She accepted invitations to come into the office and sit awhile. On hot days, we would supply her with bottles of water and snacks and hygiene items that were donated by the church. She stopped emptying out the food pantry. (At least not all the time.) My assistant took steps to get Sherry’s bike repaired, and with the help of a local bike dealer, we eventually got her some new wheels.

But there were always more needs – more, I think, than she ever felt comfortable telling me about.

I began to pray with her more regularly, and our relationship changed. She shared a little more of her life with me. She often wanted me to pray for her health and safety. I did, and I always reminded her that God loved her very much. Though once reluctant to come inside the door, she started ending our visits with a hug. The first time surprised me! She even began to come to worship sometimes. I prayed about how best to help Sherry and others in similar situations who came to the church. But I never felt that I did all that Jesus required.

 

The truth is, we would sometimes become frustrated by Sherry. But it is also true that we grew to love her more. She changed us.

 

I have been gone from the church a few months now. I find it difficult to shelter in place, so I take afternoon drives around town, pick up a coffee or take a walk in the park. Twice, I have seen Sherry downtown. I hate saying it, but I kept driving. Something within me wanted to stop, but I knew I would want to give her a hug, and she would want to give me one, too, and that should not happen right now. And I was not sure she would understand.

That is what I told myself, anyway.

 

But was I simply acting out of fear instead of love?

 

Placing myself within a biblical story, I don’t come out too well: I was the priest and the Levite – not the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

 

I worry about the health risks associated with “opening up” our community and state too soon, especially when it is being pushed by politicians instead of medical professionals. I do not want to expose myself or others to illness. Yet I have to acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns being raised about those who face violence due to being “on lockdown” with abusers, for example.

This is troubling, and I do not know the answers.

 

And lately, I have been thinking about people like Sherry and others for whom sheltering in place and living more safely is not an option. Someone approached me the other day outside a convenience store and asked help. I usually try to listen carefully and be open minded and discern whether there is a way I can be of assistance. And my radar is on for fraud. In this case, though, I was not even willing to listen or have this stranger come within 6 feet. I wanted to remain safe from this dreaded disease.

 

I was not welcoming.

 

I do not have the answers. But I know that as many of us have been hurting, life must be especially hard right now for those who wander the streets, lack a home to shelter in, for we now hold them at greater distance than ever. At least I have. And yet, the Bible has not changed. These are still the ones for whom Jesus was anointed to bring the Good News (Luke 4:18).

The virus has not canceled the Gospel call to love and serve one another, especially the poor and the poor in spirit.

I want to find ways to do better.

 

Gracious God,

As we begin to turn our attention toward gradually reopening our cities,

we continue to be watchful and worry about our health and the health of our friends and loved ones.

Yet whether we are ready or not, businesses are beginning to reopen, as is your Church.

Grant, O God, that our hearts are reopened as well. Help us to bless the poor, remembering that you said the Kingdom of God is theirs. Help us to bring Good News to those who, already being outcasts from society, are in more need than ever. And let it begin with me.

God, give us wellness in body and in soul. Bless the first responders. Protect those who are afraid and who have been placed in dire circumstances by this pandemic.

Heal the sick.

Comfort those who mourn.

And help us to see the face of your Son in everyone we meet.

Transform us and renew us, Lord, make us to be people who love more generously than ever.

Amen.

 

 

Happy Birthday, Willie!

April 29, 2020

(In honor of the great man’s 87th birthday today, here’s a rerun of my Ode to Willie post from the summer of 2012. It is now going on 20 years since I first made his acquaintance, just before his 70th birthday. Time flies. Enjoy.)

I’ve interviewed Willie Nelson nine times.

I want that included in my obituary. It doesn’t have to be in the first sentence, but I’m convinced it should be in there somewhere.

I’m not famous. I’m not a celebrity. I’m not (normally) a name-dropper. I’m not even among the more talented writers to work at The Associated Press. But on several occasions — 9 if I have counted correctly — I have been given the opportunity to talk to a living legend about his amazing life and craft.

I am about to start a new life, moving into the ministry as a fulltime vocation. Looking back at the last 13 years, I have covered a lot of big news stories, but what I will remember most is my time with Willie Nelson, mostly just shootin’ the breeze. Those are my greatest hits.

Nobody got hurt in the writing of those stories. They were just fun. And they were Willie Nelson. And the two are synonymous.

Willie would phone me from his tour bus, his home in Austin and once on stage in Florida while he was tuning up to play a gig. I could hear the band getting ready. That was cool.

Here’s how this would all typically go: I would call Willie’s (outstanding) publicist Elaine Schock and let her know I was working on a story about Willie. She would track him down and usually let me know that he would call me the next day or the day after. Without fail, roughly 10 minutes later, Willie would phone our office. Our editorial assistant, Brian Ford, would start waving his arms up and down, signaling me wildly, mouthing the words, “It’s him! It’s Willie!!” This was a regular occurrence, and it never got old.

There are celebrities and politicians and important people. But even hardened journalists realize there is only one Willie.

Since nearly all my conversations with Willie were on the phone, I could only imagine that The Great One was also saving humanity in the Willie Way while we chatted about new albums or life on the road. Between my inane questions, was he scribbling out lyrics to a new song? Plotting out a new way to try to save the family farm or protect the environment? Is it just me or did Willie sometimes sound as if he might have been enjoying an adult beverage while we talked? Or two or three? Now, I don’t know that for a fact. But there were times when he did not exactly sound like himself, so I would let him talk for a while, and I would ask myself: “Is this really Willie?”

But then, he would laugh.

He always laughs.

Then you know it’s the Red Headed Stranger his own self.

All of our talks took place between 2003 and 2009. (That’s right, Willie and I haven’t spoken in a while. We are not, however, estranged. You might say he is always on my mind. Um, sorry. … What happened was, I went off to seminary to study for the ministry and spent a lot less time writing stories for publication. Willie stayed behind, still perfecting his craft after all these years — and presumably waiting on my calls. )

Eight of the nine interviews were over the phone, and only one was in person, at an appearance he made to promote his alternative fuel product. It was a brief handshake, a hello and goodbye, a chance for him to put my over-smiling face to the voice he sometimes heard on the phone. Our telephone conversations were longer, and usually somewhat colorful. In fact, most of the best stuff never got into the stories I wrote about him, mostly due to journalistic failure on my part. Perhaps some of what he said was just not appropriate for a family newspaper, but mostly the good stories he told got left out simply because I am not a good enough writer to figure out how to use the many jewels that he hands out.

Once, for example, I asked him how he felt about an announcement that he and his wife had just been honored with the naming of a professorship in stem cell research. “Stem cells!?” he shot back, in mock incredulity. “I thought they said leaves and stems!”

Willie’s greatest source of laughter is himself, poking fun at his well-documented legal troubles, which include financial issues and marijuana possession arrests.

If you talk to Willie a few times, you pick up pretty quickly that one of the man’s greatest joys is to make you laugh with him. His jokes carry a certain Willieness that is hard to describe. Here’s one of the clean ones: A skeleton walks into a bar and says, ‘Give me a beer and a mop.’”

That’s it.

That is vintage Willie Nelson humor right there.

Once I was talking to him about a little town in Oklahoma where he was en route to play. I asked him if he had been there before. He asked me to name a bar there and I said I believe the town is “dry.” “Well,” he said with dramatic pause, “then I’ve never been there.”

Willie can talk at length, but a lot of richness can be found in his brevity. The first time we spoke, I told him about having dropped in on his hometown, tiny Abbott, Texas, to learn more about him. After a moment of awkward silence, Willie said simply, “Why?”

I learned you cannot really understand Willie unless you know that he was and is a product of Abbott (population 300) and that he does not take kindly to any attention to the town that might make it something other than the gentle, nurturing place it has always been for him. In fact, someone once tried to place a big billboard on the highway proclaiming Abbott as Willie’s hometown, and he torched it. But that’s another story.

Of course, I wrote about Willie at the same time I was covering religion, which spawned a lot of jokes from my colleagues. They noted that, in Texas, keeping up with Willie is a religion unto itself. I interviewed him for the first time on the approach of his 70th birthday. In describing the story I was writing for my bosses in New York, one of my editors said in a very serious tone that, in Texas, Willie’s birthday is a state holiday. They believed it.

I never felt there was any incongruity between writing about religion and spirituality and covering Willie Nelson. They go together.

I once interviewed Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote “Georgia on a Fast Train” and “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday).” Billy Joe’s honesty and authenticity as a human being are almost overwhelming. With deep emotion, Billy Joe told me about the devastating blows he suffered in the early 2000’s: the death of his son Eddy from a heroin overdose, and a massive heart attack on stage at historic Gruene Hall in the Texas Hill Country. At his lowest, Billy Joe counted on his Christian faith and two men who stood by him until he found the strength to go on. One was Kinky Friedman. The other was Willie. Every time I think of that, I remember the biblical admonition to rejoice with those rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).

In 2007, I interviewed Willie’s sister and bandmate Bobbie, a sweetheart of a human being and a talented pianist who was putting out her first solo album at the age of 76. “We’re going to get her own bus and everything,” Willie told me at the time, “fix it up with her own hairdresser, makeup and everything — just like Jessica Simpson.”

Bobbie filled me in on the foundations of hers and Willie’s life: the music of the church. It is in their DNA. Their grandfather bought her a piano for $35 — and they were off to town, as we say in rural Texas.

Bobbie carries in her heart a clear, life-defining image of their grandmother singing the gospel standard “The Great Speckled Bird” while she and Willie played along.

“I don’t sing,” Bobbie said. “When I was very young, I used to harmonize with Willie when we would sing in church. His voice is so good, and I never had that quality of voice. He didn’t need me. I could get in his way. So I just played piano for him to sing. That’s what we still do.”

I don’t think it is possible to fully appreciate Willie unless you know his spiritual underpinnings. The Gospel is the lens through which to see all he has tried to do to lift others, whether it is through Farm Aid, alternative fuel, medical research, making somebody else laugh or encouraging a friend whose heart is broken. It comes from the nurturing bosom of Abbott, and the words of those old hymns sung by the piano and in the little Methodist Church down the street.

If you look for the divine image in good ole Willie, it’s easy to find.

By the way, that historic little church, like so many others with dwindling attendance, went up for sale in 2006. Willie stepped in and bought it, so that services might never end.

“Now, you’re all members of the Abbott Methodist Church, and you will be, forever and ever,” he told parishioners then.

The church’s Facebook page describes it s a “wonderful ole country church saved from destruction by Willie and Bobbie Nelson. God is alive and well at the Abbott Methodist Church!!!!!!” The worship schedule includes the notation that “you just never know who will be there for service.”

Sleeping through church

April 28, 2020

I fell asleep during church on Sunday.

 

Don’t judge me. At least I wasn’t preaching at the time.

 

My wife and I have started rotating between several online church services. We watched last Sunday from my back porch, looking out on a beautiful day that the Lord had made. I made it through the music, the liturgy, even the sermon. As the pastoral prayer began, I laid my head back on our comfy outdoor loveseat and nodded off. The next thing you know, I felt an elbow in my side.

 

“ARE YOU ASLEEP?”

 

Why yes. Yes, I was. But I awoke in time for the “Amen.” So I’ve got that going for me.

 

I have decided that, if I am going to have grace for others, then I must reserve some grace for myself, as well. And so I will own my worshipful slumber, with pride. I might even do it again next Sunday.

 

Sue me.

 

When I was a teen-ager, a group of us would sit toward the back of the sanctuary so we could get a good view of those who fell asleep during the sermon. If you are a church regular, you know that you can always pick out two or three regular snoozers, then engage in friendly wagers about who will zone out first.

 

In our church, it was no contest.

 

There was one man who slipped in on Sunday, as worship began, took a spot on the back row and was fast asleep before the opening hymn was done. He was a heavy sleeper, too, but he usually was able to return to the land of the living by the time the benediction rolled around. We, of course, thought this was all very funny.

 

One day, I made a joking remark about it to my parents. I figured that my mom and dad, who sat near the front, knew nothing about the behavior of the back pew sleeper. And being that they were very serious about church, I presumed they would be appalled by this man’s misconduct. I thought wrong.

 

They found his actions commendable. They knew him. They knew he had taken a job driving a truck all night but was so committed to being at church on Sunday mornings that he risked falling asleep – a gamble he usually lost. What they saw in him was not a lack of respect but a heart for God.

 

When I became a pastor, it was difficult not to notice those who dozed off during worship. With some, it is hard to tell, unless they start snoring loudly, or, like me, get an elbow from their spouse. They put their heads back, with their eyes closed, either in deep meditation, sleeping, or both. There was one man, however, who was a known sleeper in my last church. Whenever he was there, he slept. And he frequently told me afterward what a good sermon I preached. So I always wondered about what he heard – but I didn’t ask.

 

It was enough that he was there. You may be aware that a lot of people these days don’t believe they can find the grace of God in a church, so they do their sleeping at home.

 

Some beloved colleagues in ministry have taught me to not take it personally when someone sleeps through your sermon. It’s not about me. They point out – and this in line with the wisdom of my parents – that we do not know what people have been through before they arrive at church. If they feel they are in a place where they feel such a level of peace that they can rest, then let God be praised.

 

Have you ever been bone-achingly tired but you prayed anyway, and you tried to keep the words going, struggling to remember what you wanted to say to God, but you fell asleep? I have a bad habit of talking too much to God and not doing enough listening, so perhaps sleep is my way of listening. I have prayed for sermons as I was going to bed and had them there for me when I woke up. At other times, the words of my late-night prayers gradually drifted away, eventually bringing me to the solitude that my mind and body required.

 

The Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote in Reaching Out that prayer is loving intimacy with God, and “that we can be truly present to God, who is present to us and speaks to us in our solitude.”

 

As we deal with the challenges of a pandemic, lost lives and lost jobs, and the often depressing cycle of news, we have opportunities to find places of solitude that will connect us with the God who walks with us in Christ, and who will never leave us nor forsake us. I went on a silent retreat in East Texas earlier this year with a few ministry friends. It gave us the chance to meditate on the scriptures as we walked among tall pines. One of the best gifts of those days were long afternoon naps.

 

Whether it is in your backyard, during a walk in the park, or online church, I encourage you to look for those places that provide opportunities for solitude. Know that God is present with you, and don’t be afraid to surrender to the healing sleep that our bodies and souls need right now.

 

May restful worship be yours – and let God be praised.

 

 

 

 

 

Riding with Gilbert

April 24, 2020

I took my bike to the park this week for an 8-mile ride. I haven’t been doing that as often these days, due to my own pandemical laziness and the insistence of the dogs that I should walk them instead.

 

But every time I do it, I feel the presence of my old friend, Gilbert Ehler. Pastors are not supposed to have favorites in the congregation, but sometimes, deeper connections are made. That was the case with Gilbert, a short-time member of the last church I pastored who made a long-term impact.

 

Once I told Gilbert about my regular ride, he began to recite landmarks along the route, reminiscing about how he enjoyed biking the same trail in younger days. Sometimes, he would phone me out there, and I would pull over and talk, out of breath.

 

And so, I still feel his presence beneath the shade trees and along the creek. Sometimes he rides alongside me. Sometimes he is pushing me, his firm hands on my shoulders. His faith and optimism continue to push me in other ways and at other times, as well, strengthening me in my weakness, encouraging me to be strong. That is the legacy of the lives of the saints.

 

It is hard for me to believe, but I only knew Gilbert about four months. In that time we had many meaningful conversations, and I grew closer to him than with others I have known for years. He reminded me in many ways of a favorite uncle who was quite a character. Like him, Gilbert also carried with him a sense of mischief and fun. Like my uncle, he had experienced a hard life, but had developed a soft heart.

 

Despite his health problems and advancing age, Gilbert and I looked forward to more years together. One night, in a hospital room, he told me he expected to recover from his ailments because he did not believe that God would separate us just at a time we found each other. I felt the same way.

 

Not many days later, Gilbert died.

 

I gave this eulogy for him on July 28, 2018. A large group of tearful grandchildren, filled with love for Gilbert, surrounded me in the parking lot afterward to share their memories and ask me questions. Then I went to the park and rode 8 miles.

 

 

 

 

Gilbert Ehler walked into Central Presbyterian Church for worship on March 18 of this year.

He sat toward the back.

As I recall, I had finished shaking hands outside the front door when I was told that someone was still inside.

That was how I met Gilbert.

He did not feel well, he was having shortness of breath that day. He explained that he had had some medical issues recently. And so he remained in his pew. He insisted he would be fine, did not need to go to the hospital or anything like that. He just needed to rest a spell.

And so I prayed for Gilbert there that day and sat with him a few minutes.

I asked how he had found the church and he said, “Oh, I always knew you were here.”

So we sat a little longer, and finally I said, “How do you feel?”

He slowly raised his head, turned toward me and said, “With my fingers.”

I was like, WHAT?

That was my first encounter with what I have since come to call Gilbertisms, the corny jokes that could catch you a little off guard. Once I told Gilbert he could call me anytime, he said, “OK, I’ll call at 2 in the morning.” When I wore a Texas A&M cap one day, and explained it was a favorite because I had received it for Father’s Day, Gilbert said, “Can I have it?” He told the nurses in the hospital that he wanted to fall just one more time. This exasperated them. Why, Gilbert, would you want to fall one more time? “I want to fall in love just one more time,” he said.

His family can tell you about a kind of rock called a leverite, as in leave it right there. They can enlighten you about watching your step, which is of course, just stopping and staring at the curb.

Ask Patty or Kathy or Jose if you want to hear some more of these, I understand from them that he has been inflicting this humor on the defenseless public for many years. Gilbert made people smile. He made them feel better about themselves. He made them feel happy. And that made him happy – you could see the mischievous grin break out across his face. Come to think of it, that is not a bad way to live, is it? It is a very good way to live – joyfully, abundantly. And Gilbert managed to do that, even when he did not feel physically up to it.

That Sunday afternoon, when Gilbert felt better, some elders from our church took Gilbert home and let Jose know what had happened and that he was all right. By the next day, if not before, Gilbert had decided he would join the church. He had found a spiritual home. We often talked about what it meant to truly be part of a church family, loved and accepted. And I believe Gilbert knew he was loved and accepted.

 

That first worship service that he attended, we had recited our Brief Statement of Faith, which begins, “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”

And I remember Gilbert telling me that our saying together that our trust and worship and service was due to the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, was deeply meaningful to him. And I said, “Gilbert, you just might be a Presbyterian. Perhaps God has been leading you here all this time! And you made it home!”

Gilbert joined the church the following week, March 25, which was Palm Sunday. I did not want him to have to walk to the front, so I told him I would be glad to come down and introduce him to the congregation, and he could stay in his pew and would not need to stand. He was having none of that. He would stand before the Church. And so I went down and offered my hand and he grabbed it and held on – and I told the church how this man had come among us just a week before, and how he had been looking for a home and when he arrived among us he had found a home. I knew then that God sent Gilbert Ehler into my life, and into the life of our church.

 

And so, Gilbert came to church every time the doors were open. He found a Sunday school class, he came to my weekly Bible study and the fellowship meals beforehand. He came to worship. I think it was the first time or two that we sat down to eat that I realized how well this man knew his Bible. To be honest, that is a bit intimidating for a pastor. But I knew I could learn from Gilbert, whether we were eating together or in my class. Gilbert knew his Bible. But he did not just know it in here (head), he knew it in here! (Heart) Some of you remember those old EF Hutton television commercials, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” You wanted to listen closely when Gilbert was talking about the Bible because usually he was offering an insight or perspective on the grace of God.

He saw beauty all around him and often quoted Romans 1:20, that since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. Gilbert believed we are surrounded with the glory and majesty of God.

Gilbert believed that God has more love than we’ve got sin.

He believed in the mercy and forgiveness of God, and that it was for everyone – and that all means all.

He spoke of the difference God had made in his own life. He shared an experience of deepening faith in which he once felt the presence of God as hands resting on his shoulders supporting him. He asked if I believed it. You bet I do, and I believe with every fiber of my being that the arms of Jesus embraced him and welcomed him as a beloved child of God last Saturday night, for to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. And if anybody is, Gilbert Ehler is.

Gilbert grew up in Wisconsin. He was deeply thoughtful and loved good conversation. He was not a large man physically but he was strong. His handshake could hurt! He was a union pipefitter and a lifelong learner. He could make figures out of steel which he showed off to visitors at his home in Palmer. He created an elephant, a giraffe, a bear by a tree trunk and a man chopping up a tree trunk. He crafted these over many hours, through a process of welding and grinding and cutting to shape them. He went back to school. He was proud of certificates on the wall that testified to his biblical proficiency. He loved his family, and his late wife, and his walls were covered with pictures of them. He was not a big fan of our current president. He loved horses and had a cat named Lucky. He spoke with pride about his grandchildren and the things they were doing. His children tell me that when they were young, he was a strict disciplinarian. Hard for me to imagine. Like all of us, Gilbert had some difficulties in life. He told me once of an incident many years ago that involved losing his temper. He regretted it. I said Gilbert, you are not an angry man. What happened to all this anger? God took it away, he said.

Gilbert was hopeful and optimistic about the future, despite his health.

 

He really believed that the pacemaker he received recently would give him a new quality of life and some additional years. We prayed together that we would get to have many more conversations, and that he would have more time with his new church family.

He called me after the procedure and said, “I feel like a new man!” And we praised God.

When he was moved to rehab in DeSoto, I went out and visited and a physical therapist came in the room while I was there, and she was talking with him, getting him up to walk.

And, innocently, “How do you feel?”

And I looked over at him, and I may have said out loud, “uh oh.”

“With my fingers,” he said.

She gave him a look, and said, “You are a mess, aren’t you?” And she laughed.

And there was the Gilbert grin. Making people happy again.

No one knows what heaven is like but I will stand on this: It’s beautiful, and it will not contain the things that make life hard or painful or sad. When I think of Gilbert in his eternal home, I picture him wandering around with childlike glee, cracking jokes, making the saints laugh, testing his biblical knowledge against some of the apostles and the prophets.

I was with Gilbert just a few hours before he died. I can tell you that in his final days he was happy, he was filled with love for everyone. He trusted in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel – and today he truly is a new man, for all regrets, infirmities, difficulties, challenges are all behind him now.

Gilbert Ehler’s life was a gift from God.

I only knew him for four months, but have memories that will last a lifetime.

I am so thankful that God sent him my way. Like you, I just wish he could have stayed a little longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raising a glass in memory of Coogan’s

April 21, 2020

 

Our trip to New York City last month was marked by disappointment.

 

My runner daughter had been invited to compete in the New Balance Nationals, and we were consistently told that the race was on. So, although worried about increasing reports of the virus, we flew, with hopefulness, to New York. But, at the last minute, the event was (quite understandably ) scrapped.

 

As concern about the virus in New York began to heighten, we tried to enjoy the remaining days of our visit as best we could, happy for the opportunity to spend time with my sister-in-law and her family.

 

Among the bright spots along the way was dropping into a place called Coogan’s for lunch. We spotted it as we walked along after picking up some take-home gear from race headquarters at the nearby Armory.

 

The pub reminded me of a favorite spot from my college days called O’Phelan’s. We felt the warmth of the Coogan’s staff and management, who came and commiserated with my daughter over the cancellation of the race.

 

That was my first visit to Coogan’s, and apparently it was my last.

 

Reports are out today that the upper Manhattan Irish pub/restaurant has closed for the final time after 35 years. Turns out, I was one of the final customers, too, an honor I will proudly carry. We were there about a week before they closed on March 17. The owners shared the sad news today that they will not be able to reopen.

 

Jim Dwyer wrote a wonderful story about it in the New York Times, headlined, Coogan’s Is Closing. This Is the New York That We’re Losing. It is a beautiful tribute to Coogan’s, in which, Dwyer writes, “was the promise of New York incarnate: multiethnic, friendly, welcoming, smart. The premise of the business was the opposite of social distancing.”

 

I don’t normally remember much about restaurants I wander into while traveling. But I do recall lunch at Coogan’s, and I sensed in my short visit much of what made it so special. The bar carried the aura of authenticity. Real people. Real food.

 

The staff and management working there that day seemed genuinely disappointed that my daughter would be missing her race. We talked about how the loss of the event would affect the business. My daughter was asked about her favorite running events and how she was doing this season. The people, the menu, the place itself, seemed to proclaim, “All are welcome here.”

 

I recall that a side dish that my wife ordered with her lunch was not included. We mentioned it, the waitress profusely apologized and then brought a super-sized version of the side for free – and so we all got to enjoy it.

 

From what I understand, a lot of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences have enjoyed Coogan’s.

Add this Texan to the list.

On my first and sadly my last lunch there, I had the Dublin Style Fish n Chips, after strongly considering the Shepherd’s Pie.

 

I regret that I did not have a beer. Looked like a great place for it – the kind of place where everybody knows your name.

 

So today, I’m raising a glass in memory of Coogan’s.

 

Here’s to you!

 

 

The shelter-in-place reading list …

April 17, 2020

Here’s what I’ve been reading this year:

 

A friend gave me Jesus’ Plan for a New World, by Richard Rohr, one of his early books. The book examines the Sermon on the Mount – the blueprint for the Christian lifestyle – in the context of Jesus and his time. By doing this, Rohr brings fresh meaning into our times. “By digging into the work of understanding Jesus and his times, we find the New Testament to be a far richer source of spiritual life than we could ever have imagined,” Rohr writes. This book is easy to read, good for preachers and nonpreachers. I would love to teach a class on it.

 

I recently finished The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson. This is a great shelter-in-place book, as it provides a personal look at the life of those who tried to live as “normal” a life as possible while dealing with the daily terror of Nazi bombing raids. I came away with renewed respect for Winston Churchill and his leadership during perilous times. I wish we had another Churchill today! As only Larson can do it, he personalizes Churchill and his family and emphasizes their humanity in a way that previous biographers have not. The reader is rewarded by a richer experience. This was my fifth Larson book, and I have never been disappointed.

 

I could not put down Within These Walls: Memoirs of a Death House Chaplain, by the Rev. Carroll Pickett with Carlton Stowers. I picked this book up at the bookstore at Mo Ranch. Pickett details his journey from small town pastor to death house chaplain and his struggle with the morality of the death penalty at the same time he was part of the process. I remember writing about some of these death row cases when I was with The Associated Press. This is a story about the faith that led Pickett to keep to his conviction that no one, no matter what he has done, should die alone. This would be a good book for seminary students and those in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

 

Lisa Wingate’s book, Before We Were Yours, is one of the best books I have ever read. Wingate is a phenomenal writer and uses her gifts to write a novel that tells how the crimes of Georgia Tann impacted families for generations. Wingate uses facts from a real historical event to craft a heartbreaking tale of children taken ruthlessly from a loving family and put up for adoption. The book informed me about history that I was not aware of, and it shined a light on corruption and the plight of the poor in our country. I was also interested to learn about the history of “shanty boat people” who lived on the Mississippi River. This book made me want to learn more about the Georgia Tann adoption scandal, so I am now reading The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond, one of the books Wingate researched for her novel. I’m about halfway through and finding out a lot about the history of adoption and how one woman wielded such an enormous influence and was able to operate without repercussions for decades.

That’s my book report for today! So what have you been reading?

The example we all need right now

April 16, 2020

I left a lot of books on the shelf at the church office when I finished my last pastoral call. But I still brought many home – those that I thought would be most valuable to me in the future.

 

One of them, tucked inside a large cardboard box filled with bulky biblical commentaries and heavy theological opuses, is a small book called Another Season: A Coach’s Story of Raising an Exceptional Son, by Gene Stallings and Sally Cook. Stallings recently celebrated his 85th birthday. The autographs inside the book are a reminder of the priceless gift of a day spent being overwhelmed by humility, hospitality and grace.

 

If you tune into one of the daily presidential press conferences on the coronavirus or click on social media for just a few minutes, “humility, hospitality and grace” may not be the first words that come to mind. I worry that one of the legacies of the pandemic might be normalization of angry rhetoric and gracelessness that seem to be infecting all of us.

 

Unquestionably, damage is being done to our social and political conversations. Because politicians do it, angry statements and personal insults have become more acceptable to others – not just in political discussions. Ill will is spreading like a virus. Many pastors I have spoken to say they have experienced more surprise personal attacks from their parishioners than ever before. Gene Fowler has authored a new book called Church Abuse of Clergy: A Radical New Understanding. Fowler writes that “merely mentioning the topic can yield story after story.” What impact is this having on pastoral leadership?

 

Humility and grace are increasingly not seen as being attributes of a “strong leader.” I see Facebook friends who constantly diminish these qualities in favor of leadership that “gets things done.” However, if we look hard enough, we can still find those who lead with conviction while modeling selflessness. Are they being drowned out by the roar of the  crowd? At my last church, one of our young people turned in a card nearly every Sunday that said, “Please pray for all the angry people.”

 

In looking for successful people who actively practice humility, I go back to a day on former coach Gene Stallings’ Paris, Texas, ranch in late 2005. I came home that day with a new cap, the signed book, and an example of a strong leader who had his priorities in order.

 

Inside the cover of the book is a short handwritten inscription: “To Matt. We hope you enjoy this book. Gene Stallings.” Under the large cursive writing in very small print, which says, in all caps, “JOHN.” I remember Stallings saying as he handed it to me that I would own one of the few books signed by both him and Johnny, his son who was born with Down Syndrome and a birth defect.

 

As a reporter for The Associated Press, I drove to Stallings’ North Texas ranch to talk with the former Dallas Cowboys assistant about the upcoming Cotton Bowl game between Alabama and Texas A&M, the two schools with which he had a rich history.

 

My photographer and I entered his spacious ranch home through the kitchen, where he was cooking eggs on the stove and offered to serve us breakfast. He gave us a detailed tour of his home and showed us some of his favorite things. And Johnny was excited to show us his room, decked out in Alabama crimson.

 

Stallings, a tough guy to say the least, was one of the “Junction Boys” who survived Bear Bryant’s grueling A&M training camp. As he spoke, he reached over and stroked his son’s hair, joking that his life’s work did not get a lot of respect at home. “To Johnny, the most important person is the trainer,” Stallings said. “Anybody can coach, but the trainer gets to take care of the players.” Johnny, however, was clearly his Dad’s number one fan, and he could quickly rattle off all the places his father coached.

 

My story, published in advance of the 2006 Cotton Bowl, reflected the warmth I felt that day when I met a winning football coach whose compassion and hospitality would remain with me. I wrote this about Stallings then:

 

“He’s just as likely to tell visitors about the excitement of unearthing arrowheads across hundreds of tree-studded acres or accommodating a large church group for lunch. Though proud of his many football accomplishments, he glows over a newspaper once naming him Father of the Year.”

 

Johnny died in 2008 at the age of 46 after a full, rich life.

 

I’m not letting go of this valuable book, and from time to time I peak inside the cover to be reminded of a special day when the things that are really important became clearer: kindness, hospitality, relationships, compassion, and most of all: love.

 

The strongest leaders in our nation and our world are those who show empathy, love and compassion. They are hospitable to others. They do not consider love to be a sign of weakness, but rather their greatest strength. The way they live their lives challenges us to do the same, though it is difficult. Now more than ever, we need their example.