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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?